Queen of Hearts
"Gotta go." He leaned down and licked across one cheekbone, tasting the flavors of light musk, lavender water, and spice. A thin slit of green eye opened. Buck smiled and rubbed his mustache against the short straight nose that nearly qualified as snub. The other eye blinked lazily and then both opened a bit wider. "Sleepyhead."
Ezra closed his eyes again briefly, then opened them and studied the large man hanging over him. Those dark blue eyes were like a velvet night, he could so easily get lost in them. Buck was the most exquisite lover that he'd ever had. The man's giving nature made their time in bed together pleasure beyond his wildest dreams. He reached up both arms and encircled the strong neck of the lanky surveillance expert. "I will miss you."
"Me too." Buck slipped his own arms under the compliant body of his lover and gathered the man up closer, nuzzling Ezra's neck as he felt the smaller man hug him tightly. "You be on time today, baby, Chris is gonna get mean if you keep showing up so late."
"Alright, alright. I shall endeavor to arrive timely today." Ezra flopped back on to the mattress as Buck released him and sat up. "I shall not, however, make it a habit."
"Just once in a while, like when you know Chris has a bee in his bonnet."
"Yep. That Curren case left a bad taste in everyone's mouth." Buck rolled to the side and propped himself up on one elbow, to better watch his Ezra wake up the rest of the way.
Both men were disappointed in the outcome of that case, as were the rest of Team 7. The gunrunner had managed to avoid jail time with a plea bargain. It hadn't been pretty in court yesterday. Chris Larabee had been there to testify along with Ezra, who had given a closed-chamber deposition in respect for his undercover status. Neither had expected the DA and judge to release County Curren on his own recognizance after the bargain was set. The whole team had been in shock when Larabee and Standish returned and reported what had happened. The rest of the day was shot as the men grimly finished reports and closed the case, the feeling of betrayal by the justice system leaving a bitter taste in all their mouths.
Buck lay back to stare up at the ceiling, arms behind his head. "Just be on time this morning, Ezra."
"I will." The southerner's quiet, serious response confirmed his own understanding of just what their team leader was going through now.
Then Buck shook his head to rid it of such grim thoughts. "How about we stay home tonight?" He crossed his far arm over his chest to toy with one of Ezra's nipples. The small brown nub rose immediately in response. Buck leaned in and licked it, feeling Ezra's tremor at the special attention. He grinned and blew across the dampened flesh, feeling the tremor turn into a shiver.
Suddenly Ezra was surging up, pushing Buck over and down on his back, straddling the older man with a cocky grin. Thoroughly awake now, he suggested, "How about we stay home all day?"
Buck wriggled beneath his captor. He tried to bend his neck so that he could raise his head and shoulders up to re-attack that sensitive nipple. Ezra simply chastised, "Uh, uh!" and pressed down on the wide shoulders with his hands firmly. "Is that a yes?"
Buck sighed and reluctantly shook his head in the negative. "Sorry, babe, gotta go."
Sitting at his desk, staring at the screen of his computer as he tried to pull together a report on recent street activities and rumors that he had collected from contacts, Ezra gradually lost focus. Buck's long, strong form lounged at the edge of his vision and distracted him. He blinked and tried to concentrate but it was difficult. All his mind wanted to do, apparently, was relive that simple morning scene. Here at work, the hidden nature of their steady relationship was getting harder to maintain for the southerner. He worked hard at keeping his feelings for Buck Wilmington suppressed but, as time passed and it became clearer to him that he wanted more than just a lover, he wanted a commitment, it also became harder to keep his love from shining through when he saw the man who'd captured his heart and mind.
That Buck didn't seem to have that same trouble depressed Ezra. Buck swung both ways and still managed to date the occasional young woman, boasting about it freely in the break room later. On the nights they spent together, he'd always assure Ezra that these short liaisons were only to cover their own long-term affair. Ezra cringed at that word. Affair. He'd been reluctant to take Buck's overtures seriously at first, just after his arrival at Denver, but Wilmington had been persistent and worn him down. Their early times together had been basically sexually driven encounters. But, Buck was such a gifted and tender partner that slowly Ezra had begun to wish for more. The first time that Buck finally chose to spend the entire night with Ezra, the southerner had been deliriously and secretly happy. Hiding his love from his lover was almost as much of a challenge as hiding their new relationship from the rest of the team. Buck had assured Ezra that Chris knew about his friend's double-dipping and had no problems with it, as long as it was discreet. Ezra wasn't so sure.
Ezra lifted up several sheets of printouts and buried his head a bit deeper, blocking his view of where Buck was teasing JD Dunne, their computer expert, unmercifully. Regaling him with advice in dealing with 'the fairer sex.' Ezra's mouth pinched into a painfully straight line. A line of whiteness began to form around it. Vin Tanner, their sharpshooter, who shared a facing desk with Standish looked up at that moment and became concerned. Ezra looked pale and haggard. Damn that Curren case, Vin decided, it's got us all running around biting our own tails. We need a new case, get everyone up and working again.
Just then Chris Larabee strode through the bullpen area of the Team 7 offices. The expression on his face was enough to still the weak joking and feeble attempts at humor that were slowly mellowing the team members. The dark clad team leader slammed the door to his office shut. Josiah Sanchez, the team profiler, leaned back in his seat and began a silent count holding up fingers one at a time. When his sixth finger went up, Larabee's door smashed back open and Chris stuck out his head.
Nathan Jackson, their team medic, who was sitting across from Josiah, aimed his index finger like a gun at Standish.
"Ezra, get in here," Chris barked before ducking back inside his private domain.
JD reached across the aisle and handed Josiah a dollar bill, saying, "I really thought it would be at least seven seconds."
Nathan Jackson leaned across to pluck the bill from Sanchez's hands and stuff it into his own pocket. "Told you." He smiled. "Had to be Ezra. Always is."
Buck looked up from where he was scooping several crumpled paper 'basketballs' off the floor. "What you going on about, Nate?"
Jackson shrugged as Josiah folded his arms and leaned back in his swivel chair. "You know Chris, Buck. When he gets mad, he always has to blow off steam. Ezra's always an easy target. Man's forever breaking the rules."
"Yeah, well, we all do that." Buck wondered why he was suddenly becoming defensive for his friend, that is, more so than usual. He eyed the back of the small southerner as the man rose silently and walked stiffly through Larabee's office door. Buck wondered if Ezra had noticed the side bets. Yep. He notices everything. He sat down in his chair slowly, for some reason finding himself worrying that Ezra might have taken those jests to heart. He's a big boy, can take care of himself. Ezra is like the original Teflon man, Chris will just bounce off him. But, Buck sat serreptiously watching the now closed doors. Waiting.
"You have got to be joking."
"Mr. Larabee, I must protest. I simply will not be comfortable in this assignment."
"Not a choice here, Ezra. Travis wants Herve Jardain to go and you are the best suited to do the job. And, what's more, you know it." Chris Larabee, leader of Team 7 of the ATF Denver office leaned back in his desk chair and folded his arms across his chest. He was not surprised at Standish's reaction. It had been his own only an hour earlier up in DA Travis' office when the Jardain case was dumped in his lap.
Ezra's green eyes flashed impatiently. "I know nothing of the sort!" He stood up from the chair he'd been sitting in and paced the length of the small office and back to stand in front of his boss. Running a hand roughly through his chestnut hair, he frowned and glared at Larabee.
Chris had to suppress a grin. Ezra's glare was damn near as good as his own. He dropped his arms onto his desktop and placed his hands there flat as he met the glinting, angry eyes of his undercover agent, one of the best, if not the best, in the business. "Ezra, there is no one else in the Denver office who could pull this off and that's a fact. None of the other team's agents even has the physique no less the talent."
"Physique!" Ezra nearly squeaked in outrage. He'd started to pace again but now came to a quivering halt at the front of Larabee's desk, leaning down on his knuckles. "The answer remains the same. NO." Heart pounding, he cringed inside at the way his life seemed to be on a collision course with disaster, just when he was becoming comfortable with his new team mates. And he was not sure what Buck would say to this, something rather acerbic no doubt. Would he even let Ezra do it? Not that he could prevent Ezra from doing his job. Would he care? Ezra's very system curdled at the thought of his private and professional lives colliding.
"Chris, I'll resign first." Ezra swallowed hard and sank back into the chair behind his knees. Despair welled up from within, another debacle. Just like his entire life.
Larabee paused. Ok, this wasn't just Ezra's normal prima donna act. Nope. This was much more serious. "Ezra? What is it?"
Standish dropped his head and began to wring his hands together, an action so totally alien to his normal savoir-faire that Chris began to feel the stirrings of alarm. He tried again. "Tell me." The words came out with uncharacteristic gentleness, causing the smaller agent to raise his head slowly, eyes open for once, showing fear and hesitation. Fear? His undercover agent never showed fear. What was going on here? Chris found himself speaking more quietly, calmly now, impatience dissolving in the face of his agent's behavior. "Please, Ez, what's wrong? You have a history with this guy?"
"No, nothing like that." The southerner spoke in a soft voice now, barely above a whisper. "It's the job itself. Going in like that."
"In drag, damn it!" Ezra's eyes flashed for a moment with his usual fire, then the fire flickered out uncertainly and he began to look anywhere except into his boss' perceptive eyes. This is it. Another career bites the dust.
"Ezra, it's just a dress."
"Chris, I can't, I just can't." He shook his head vigorously, nervously tugging at the knot of his tie that suddenly felt much too tight. How did a day that had started out with sunshine and promise turn into such a nightmare? His worst dream was about to come true.
Chris waited, silently. Watchful, he saw all the signs of panic rising. With a sudden grunt, he was up and circling around his desk to come to a stop at the side of his unhappy agent. Squatting, he put his hands on top of Ezra's where they had fluttered down to fiddle with his trouser creases. Pressing down, he held the fidgeting hands in place and peered up at the southerner. "Calm down. Ezra, it's just us in here. You trust me, don't you? So tell me, what's wrong here?"
The smaller man raised his chin abruptly though he didn't break eye contact. "Chris, my private life is just that. But this might change that." He swallowed and then drove home the dagger to his life with Team 7. "I'm a homosexual."
Chris blinked. "You're gay?"
Ezra nodded, unflinching now that he'd said it. It was as if a great weight had fallen off his shoulders, leaving him calm and centered. The rest was not his to confess.
"Gay." The ruminating tone was not disparaging. Chris tightened his grips on Ezra's hands. We can deal with this. "And this has what to do with the Jardain case?"
"Oh, god, Chris, don't play dumb!" Ezra actually laughed, finding himself nearly hysterical with the irony of the situation. "You want me to go in as a drag queen!"
"If anything, sounds like this makes it simpler?" Chris wasn't sure what the problem was, now more so than ever.
Angry, Ezra sat up abruptly, then drew his hands from beneath Larabee's and stood, stepping away from the other man. "I said I was a homosexual, not that I dressed in women's clothing. For god's sake, Chris, this is like rubbing my face in cliches."
Larabee pushed himself off the floor and stood facing his agent at a distance of mere inches. "Ezra. No one has to know your personal preferences. This is just a job. A job. You are the best at what you do. You impersonate personality types and adjust to the situation. And, damn it, you're good looking." Chris grabbed the man's shoulders and shook him lightly. "Hell, you must beat the fellers off with a damn stick!"
Standish froze for a moment, and then the weirdness of the situation and the double entendres in Chris' last statement caught up to him. He gave a sound somewhere between a cough and a chuckle. Then another. His eyes began to sparkle and his dimples appeared. The next chuckle rippled out into a snorting laugh and by now Chris was smiling too. Then they were laughing together, collapsing into the two visitors' armchairs. Between gasps, Ezra asked, "Then you -- have no problem -- with my proclivities?"
Chris wiped his eyes with the fingers of one hand, the other waving off the question negligently. "Damn, Ezra, you should know me better'n that by now. You're my agent but also my friend. Neither of those things changes just because you like boys more than girls."
As abruptly as his world ended, it began again. It would be alright. Chris knew and didn't care. I still have a job, a place with the team. Emboldened with relief, Ezra flopped back in his seat and let his legs stretch out so that they rested on the heels of his expensive Italian loafers. "A dress." This time it was said with pensiveness. "And I have to sing, too?"
"You've got a good voice." Chris was relaxed now, comfortable with this hidden, seldom seen side of Ezra.
"Yes, but hardly that of a woman, or even of the impersonation of a woman." Ezra was rubbing at his lower lip with one knuckle now thoughtfully. "I shall have to experiment. As to the dress," here he looked over at the man sitting beside him, "I shall have to see what I can acquire."
"Remember it has to be purple."
Ezra grimaced. "Not exactly the best color for my complexion."
"It's Herves favorite."
"Yes, yes, I know. So it shall be purple." He spoke distastefully. After a few moments of quiet introspection, he raised his eyes to Larabee's again. With daring, he asked the question that might result in this being the last day he worked for the ATF. "As for my private life--"
Chris didn't let him finish. "It remains just that, private." He put a hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed. "I mean that. As far as I'm concerned, we never had this conversation. Unless," here he paused, watching green eyes fill with momentary fear again, "unless you tell me differently." The fear left to be replaced by gratitude.
"You're welcome." Chris dropped his hand to his side and stood up facing Ezra, offering the hand to him. When Standish accepted it, he pulled the man to his feet and then did something that Ezra had only seen Larabee ever do with Vin Tanner, their sharpshooter. He shifted his grip, reaching up Ezra's arm to clasp it just below the elbow, offering his own in return. Ezra emulated the movements, grasping Chris' arm in a show of brotherly affection, a warrior's clasp.
Now all Ezra had to do was face Buck tonight and tell him. Just lead up to it slowly, tell him about the target first, then the undercover assignment. It would be alright, he thought hopefully. Surely, if he handled it right, Buck would understand. Then Chris was leaning past his shoulder, facing out into the bullpen again. "Time for a meeting, boys. We got a new case." Ezra froze. Aw hell.
The briefing went on in absolute silence. After an initial look of surprise and speculation, Buck had not looked directly at Ezra again. Ezra knew this because he kept his eyes on Wilmington the entire time, wondering why his lover wasn't protesting. Maybe he wants to wait until we're alone. He must know I didn't have a choice in this, mustn't he? Ezra had to work to keep from gnawing at a knuckle in worry and frustration.
He'd left the offices of the ATF shortly after the meeting, to go lay the groundwork for his part in the operation. Which meant dressing the part and locating a safe house that would double as his 'home' within his cover.
Although he kept his cell phone on and with him all day, there was no word. No word at all from Buck.
The jazz club was exclusive and catered to a specific taste that wasn't for everyone, though upper class tourists often found their ways here. Locals tended to be rich, famous, and incognito, or a distinct and unusual segment of the population. Vin Tanner sucked in his breath and scooted close to Buck Wilmington's side. Both men were attractive and knew it, but Vin normally didn't think of that in relation to other men. His gruff manner and fighter's stance kept those who might think differently at a distance, normally. Only tonight wasn't normal. Tonight Ezra was going under big time, and Vin and Buck were there as back up if needed. Problem was that they were going in as a couple. Vin was not at all happy about this. He'd seen the looks some of the bigger men cast his way. He could take any one of them down but that would blow the case. So, he tried to seem an attentive date, only Buck, damn him, was too busy enjoying all the views and Vin was feeling very, very exposed. Gonna kill Chris.
Buck breathed deeply, stretching up his impressive frame above most of the crowd that milled at the door to the club. So, this is where his Ezra was. It had taken him all day to adjust to the thought that he'd have to share the man with some lowlife. He couldn't bring himself to see Ezra or talk with him. For some reason, he still had trouble seeing Ezra as the rest of his life. This might be the perfect testing time, he decided. See exactly what the little guy means to me. If how he felt right now was anything to go on, then he was in serious trouble. He blanked out the anxious thoughts that crowded at the back of his mind and redirected his focus on the here and now.
Buck twisted to see around where he and Vin stood, with passes, waiting to be admitted. He hadn't questioned how DA Travis had gotten the thin wafers of embossed parchment and ink. He could see several rather interesting looking specimens looking his way with hungry eyes. Animal magnetism. He smirked into the collar of his open shirt, the stiff white combed cotton button down seemed to glow in the neon lights. With his experience on the prowl other nights and other places, he knew that simple and stark was the best way to go for a man of his height and build. He noticed Vin's nervous movements, small and jerky. Not at all like their normally placid and laid back sharpshooter. He decided it was time to mind the roost and dropped an arm securely around his 'date.' The boy was acting like he had ants in his pretty little pants. Buck grinned down at Tanner. "Easy does it, Junior. You're pretty as a picture."
Vin shot a look of pure venom up at the merry blues eyes of his partner.
Entrance in the exclusive club required membership, special passes or patience to wait until the door manager saw fit to admit another few of the anxious would-be clientele. Their target, Herve Jardain, was a long time member of the club. He liked boys and men and often went 'shopping' there, picking up someone from among the customers or from among the performers. Ezra was there to entice Jardain, hopefully making a connection with the man who supplied guns to half the criminal element of the Rocky Mountain basin.
Earlier that afternoon, Ezra had ponced into the stage area for an audition for open talent night at the mike. Wearing generously pleated trousers and a tight fitting white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he'd felt like the Great Gatsby as he strolled in. His clocked socks fit into brown and white saddle shoes with taps in the tips and heels. Not that he was planning on dancing but he liked the clicking noise and knew it would draw attention to him. His slim figure, accented by the wasp waist of the trousers and clinging shirt and by the derriere boldly molded by the design of the back seat of the pants, was attracting second glances even before he hummed then sang softly into the microphone.
Without accompaniment he made love to that mike, half-whispering the words from 'Evergreen,' awarding hard-ons to a number of those in attendance at the rehearsal and auditions. The stage director licked his lips, he knew a good thing when he saw it and hired Ezra on the spot. He'd have to perform three times that very night. Standish hadn't quite expected to move that quickly and had to contact Larabee from a mobile phone as he headed back to the borrowed flat in the pink light district. A friend of a friend had made it available as the perfect flop for a gay cross-dresser. Explaining that he'd be going under that very night, he listened to Chris curse and then congratulate him.
"Ok, we need to cover your ass." Ezra could almost hear the wheels turning as he waited out the short silence. "I'll send in Vin and Buck as backup. They'll go in as guests."
"Chris, you do know what kind of place this is?"
"Yeah, yeah. Buck won't have any trouble. Vin might, but he'll do it." There was, Ezra could swear, amusement in Larabee's voice. Oh, my, I think Mr. Tanner is going to have words with you later, Mr. Larabee.
Buck had stayed away. No visit, no call, nothing. Ezra felt the separation and the silence deeply. It hurt. He'd hoped they had something real. Now it looked like Buck just didn't care. Ezra immersed himself in his plans and work, unable to deal with the emotional turmoil that was tearing him apart just below the surface.
Returning with costume and makeup later that evening, it hadn't taken Ezra long to dress for his performance. Yancy Darling, a real drag queen who loved 'her' work, shared the minute dressing room with the new singer. "Sweetie, you're just the cream on the cake! That milky complexion, that devilishly auburn hair, and, oh, sweet cakes, those wicked green eyes!" Yancy patted 'her' lavishly stuffed bodice theatrically. The middle-aged man, currently dressed in an elaborately sequined cowgirl outfit, complete with blonde Dolly Parton wig and bosom, was applying thick red lipstick to puckered lips, rolling 'her' heavily caked and lined eyes at Ezra with drollery. "Honey, you just watch out for some of the men out there. You're a prime piece. We got some regulars who like to be rough with the 'ladies' and I sure would hate for your first night out to be a bad one." Batting those long black lashes in the mirror to check for evenness, Yancy grinned. "You are fresh meat and, baby, fresh meat to those wolves can be real dangerous so you just stick by this old lady and you'll be fine."
Ezra, who'd come into the room hesitantly, was now shimmying into his panty hose, and mentally listing all the illustrative terms he intended to use to describe Larabee and Travis at the next team picnic. Listening to Yancy, he began to smile, finally seeing some humor in his situation. Darling was easy on the eyes and a gentle soul, he could see. 'She' was friendly and generous in sharing makeup tools and mirror space. Obviously used to competition, Darling was a regular who knew 'her' place in the scheme of life and seemed content. Ezra was envious.
"Thank you, Yancy, I'll do that." Ezra leaned into the mirror to apply his own stage makeup, adding just a dusting of glitter to highlight cheekbones and a few other select spots. He didn't attempt to manufacture a glitzy look such as Darling created, just a sleek, sophisticated lady-like glow such as might have been seen in Bourbon Street jazz clubs in the fifties or sixties. The dark purple silk dress was almost black until the light hit it, then the deep color washed across the raw material in waves. Subtle, it suited the style he was trying for. He knew he'd contrast sharply with the almost honky-tonk looks of most of the stage performers tonight, but that would help him attract attention from their target. He ignored the flurry of butterfly wings beating at the insides of his stomach walls. Oh, god, I can not believe I'm actually going to do this. And Buck is going to be out there watching. A look of sheer panic followed by pained despair colored his green eyes darker and muddied their hue.
Yancy, who'd been watching as Ezra completed his costume and makeup, saw the change come over the younger man. The long time performer wondered who that look was for. This fella is hurting bad. "Honey, you'll be fine. I heard you this afternoon," Darling nodded into the mirror as startled eyes met 'hers,' "and you are very good. It's a different look for the club but different gets attention."
Ezra sighed and nodded without speaking, painting his lips now a deep blue-ish magenta.
Yancy patted the creamy, bare shoulder nearest 'her.' "He real important, hon?"
"He -- who?" Ezra was flustered by the unexpected question.
"Oh, baby doll, I've seen that look before. Someone special has your name on his heart, hum?"
Ezra hung his head for a moment, before drawing a deep breath and suddenly feeling like confessing everything to the chatty performer. "Special, yes, but I don't think his heart is engaged."
"Oh, sweetie! How bad! How sad!" Yancy leaned over and delicately hugged 'her' dressingroom-mate. "You treat him like a hot potato, sweetie, you just drop him! You were made to be loved, if he isn't doing it right, then he don't deserve you."
Ezra actually felt himself blushing. Suffused with color, he raised huge damp eyes at Yancy and smiled. "Don't get me started, Ms. Darling, I'll never get on that stage tonight if you do."
"Sorry, honey. 'Ezra,' isn't it?" Yancy cocked 'her' head to the side. "Nice name, kinda biblical, huh?" 'She' smiled provocatively, clearly trying to change the subject and the mood. "You get to 'know' many guys, in the biblical sense, Ezra-doll?"
Ezra turned back to look at his saucy inquisitor. "Yancy. You are a true piece of work, you know that?" He let the gentle admiration he was feeling for this person color his words.
Now it was Yancy's turn to blush, even the caked makeup not hiding it completely. "Aw, sweetie, you know how to turn a girl's head!"
"YANCY! You're on!" came a knock at the door and a loud shout from the stage manager's assistant.
"Oh, I gotta go. You be good - I know you will!" With a quick brushing of cheeks, the female impersonator trotted out with swaying padded hips and spike heels of ruby sequins, and a swirl of petticoats that foamed around 'her' knees.
Ezra sagged on his stool, the room suddenly dingy and empty without Yancy's larger than life presence. He'd be going on soon, there'd be a short band-only number between Yancy's set and his. He drew a finger across the image of himself in the mirror. "Sweet cakes, you're not going to come out of this in one piece," he told his image. His image simply looked sad and tired as it stared back at him.
"Strangers in the night
What were the chances
It would turn out right?"
Ezra's throaty contralto husked into the microphone, rising to a clearer sound at the high notes. He crossed his legs, the fine silk stockings catching and reflecting the colors of the dimmed spotlights on his shapely limbs, the illusion created of lots of long, long leg showing. His dark purple satin covered high heels gave his supporting leg an arch and curve to the calf muscles. He had absolutely refused to wear a wig, his own hair brushed softly forward into curling waves of bangs, the simple gold clip earrings glittering as he turned and arched his slender neck. That had been a definite advantage, he thought, as he let one curve of white shoulder rise with the bow of his neck. Although he normally didn't use them, he knew all the moves a female on the hunt or flirt makes. He studied people for a living, among other things.
Seated on the high stool, next to the pianist, he arched his back as he raised the mike and sang the next verse, then leaned back with one elbow on the piano, the draped flow of the silky, shimmering dark purple bodice suggested a well-built 'upper story' without actually revealing anything. The audience was silent, enthralled with the chanteuse, listening to the jazz riffs the trumpet player ran at the interval. One member of the audience in particular was seated down front, center. Herve Jardain sat moodily drinking gin and tonics and staring at Ezra. Bingo. The man had sat through the first two of Ezra's sets, showing no sign of boredom or restlessness. Neither did he appear all that happy, though. He remained there, alone, studying this new performer.
Ezra let his free hand drop to his lap, then finger the slit in the short, tight skirt, a slit that ran along his thigh, exposing it nearly up to his hip. As the brass man finished, he brought the microphone back to his darkly glossed lips and hummed the first part of the chorus, ending with another breathy, "Strangers--" he paused as the man on bass plucked a few notes, then Ezra warbled, "in the night." The pianist ran the keys up and down and Ezra stood to nod to the audience. He lowered his lashes and looked through them at Herve. He knew that his eye shadow enhanced the green of his eyes, giving it the appearance of a deeper, clearer hue.
Applause, general and enthusiastic, greeted the end of his third set of the night. He'd do one or two encores in a minute, since this was his last set of the night. He plucked his smoldering cigarette from the ashtray discretely placed at his side on the piano's lid and waved it once in the air as acknowledgement of the praise. Normally not a smoker, Ezra could show as a chain smoker if the role called for it. For this act, he'd decided a nervous mannerism that gave him some scope for enhanced body language would be a good idea.
So he cupped the half-consumed cigarette in the concavity of his hand, pinched between thumb and forefinger as he pulled smoke into his lungs deeply, cheeks hollowing, then lifted his head to blow out a long stream of smoke through puckered lips. The grayish spun cloud rose into the stage lights, adding to the already smoky interior of the exclusive little music club, where all the main performers were men in drag. The musicians were not part of that little quirk in the playbill. The talent had to be just that, dressing in women's clothing was not enough, you still had to have an act and show a professional reach or you never made it to the program at the Soiled Dove.
Standing in the shadows, by the bar, Buck Wilmington shook his head in admiration. Ezra sure made a sweet little bundle up there under the lights. He shifted his position slightly. Easing the tightness of his dress pants. Damn, his body was reacting too. He was supposed to be here to observe only but he was beginning to wonder if he'd be able to stay away. Licking his lips, he put his thumbs into his belt. Hands off, I gotta remember that. Except, well, damn, except Ez sure was an eyeful. Buck twitched his mustached upper lip and pursed his lips in thought. He looked over at Vin Tanner who sat perched on a bar stool beside him. Vin sure cleans up pretty, he thought, but without any special feelings of attraction for the very handsome young sharpshooter.
Currently, Vin was fingering his French boat collar and feeling thoroughly uncomfortable in the dress jeans and tight dark styled tee shirt that he was wearing under protest. The Texan's long golden brown hair was drawn back in a ponytail and he was sipping a beer, keeping a weather eye on both Ezra and Buck. Ezra because that was the job and Ez was his friend. Buck, because he was also a friend, but also because he'd come in with Wilmington and considered the man his 'escort' or to be quite blunt, his protection. Buck had already growled away two would be hitters who'd each laid hands on Vin, on his thigh, on his neck. At the feel of still another groping hand, he gave a sudden shiver and was half off the stool, just to get closer to Buck's personal space and the safety it provided. He knew that Buck was comfortable in this place, but it just wasn't Vin's style. I'm gonna get Chris for this. He set me up, just to give Buck a chance with Ez. I shoulda just told him that they're already together. Only, they don't know that I figured it out. Vin edged still nearer to Buck.
Buck decided to take things a bit closer to the action, he'd recognized Jardain in the front row and did not like the way the man stared so intently at Ezra during each of the agent's performances. He slung his arm over Vin's shoulders, pulling the younger man off the stool completely. "Let's go. There's a table near Ezra opening up."
Vin was so relieved to move away from the bar that he willingly allowed Buck to steer him towards the table in the front. There, in the front row, at the very next table, sat a thick, dark man. The swarthy shape was hunched over a drink, eyes glued to the stage and the singer in the tight, purple dress. The mini-skirted sheath left very little to the imagination, just enough to blur the edges of perception. Herve Jardain was well and truly hooked. Ezra had done it again. Vin stared up at his friend in amazement. Ezra Standish was barely recognizable in the costumed performer who was husking out old standards to ripples of jazz piano and band accompaniments. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that he was watching a very sexy female up there. A beautiful woman. He stared, not noticing the way Buck Wilmington had taken to glaring at the man at the next table, not even hiding his reaction of disgust and anger.
Fuckin' shit is looking at Ezra like Ez's gonna be the man's next meal. Wilmington no longer saw any fun in this assignment.
Nathan and JD were playing a game of pool in the back as Josiah Sanchez returned to their table where Chris sat staring morosely at his beer. "It's only the first day of the case, Chris."
Larabee looked up at the big profiler and nodded slowly. "Just got a feelin' is all." He looked away and shrugged, pushing the sweating beer mug around the slick tabletop. "Ezra really didn't want to do this."
"He does have a stubborn streak," Josiah said with admiration as he lowered himself into one of the seats that edged the table at the back of Inez's saloon. Scratching at his chin, and taking a swallow of his own beer, he added, "Part of what makes him so successful, I'd imagine."
Chris grunted, his mind already on other things. Or, to be more precise, men. He was wondering how Buck and Vin were doing in that setting. He hoped that Buck would finally take a good look at their undercover agent. Knowing that Buck could go either way when it came to affections, he'd begun to notice how Ezra's gaze lingered on the tall ex-Seal on occasion. Would do them both good to settle down in a stable relationship and they were both his friends. Who'd ever have thought that Chris Larabee might be a matchmaker?
He sighed and lifted his mug to take a sip, then choked on it as a sudden picture of Vin, all slickered up and sitting in that club came to him. Sanchez patted his back with concern at the action. Larabee sat back, waving the other man off. "I'm alright, Josiah, just got to thinking what Vin must be going through right now."
Sanchez face bloomed into a wide grin. "Mighty uncomfortable, I reckon."
Chris chuckled hoarsely, "Yep, reckon he is."
Ezra hummed the final bit of his second encore, the breathy notes registering in the mike held mere centimeters from his lips. His sultry gaze was fixed now on Herve who was returning the look with interest. Ezra sat back as he finished, resting easily against the piano at his back, retrieving his cigarette for a final drag as he watched through his extra long mascara coated lashes. Jardain had summoned a waiter who materialized at his side. He wrote briefly on a napkin and handed it to the waiter, nodding toward the stage.
Buck fumed, watching the exchange and beginning to regret he'd said nothing earlier in the day at the damn meeting when Chris sprung this assignment on them. He'd kept quiet, decided to wait and see. Now he wondered how he could have been such a fool, and how he could have left Ezra to his own devices all day without a word. Shit, I am a fool. He sat forward in his seat as he saw the waiter slip the folded napkin into Ezra's hand by stepping across the low footlights and up the two steps to the stage level.
Ezra took the offering from the young waiter who looked worried. I fear this isn't the first time this has been done, he thought as he unfolded the cocktail napkin in his lap. //Sit with me.// Hm, well this was the entree they'd been hoping for. He raised his eyes, opening them wide and nodding silently at Jardain who smirked and sat back, folding his arms on his chest.
Ezra murmured his thanks to the pianist and gave a nod back at the rest of the jazz band members who all looked at him with appreciation. The pianist, Mark, reached forward to catch Ezra's wrist for a moment. "Ezra, be careful. You're very good, we'd like to be able to work with you again." He released his hold and began to play again, a soft roll of melody that the rest of the musicians picked up and began to play around. Mark, who was a slender, wistful looking black man with a balding head and close cut curls, looked away from Ezra now as his fingers ran the keys.
Ezra gnawed for a moment on his lower lip before chastising himself for disturbing his makeup with the uncharacteristic action. He totally ignored Buck and Vin at the table beside Jardain. They were awfully close, unprofessionally so. He didn't have time to speculate on why they'd moved in but it did create an added tension that he resented. Snubbing out the stub that was all that was left of his cigarette, Ezra rose gracefully to his feet, balancing on the high heels as if born to it. He gave a small wave to the second round of applause that greeted his departure, smiling slightly. Subdued elegance, some style, nothing too risque - that was the way he'd decided to play it and it was paying off.
Jardain rose to his feet as Ezra approached, stepping down off the stage. "Come sit here, Ezra." The man boldly pulled back the chair beside his own, one large meaty hand wrapping around Ezra's nearest wrist firmly.
Standish felt a ripple of repulsion travel across his skin at the touch of the damp, big hand. So unlike his Buck. He refused to look over there. That would be professional suicide. So he allowed his target to guide him to the seat and seat him. Jardain instantly returned to his own seat but dragged it even closer so that they sat with thighs brushing. Jardain had released Ezra's wrist and now slid his hand up the southerner's arm over the cap sleeve and on across the milky white shoulders to wrap it there. He tugged until Ezra sank slightly against him. "Haven't seen you here before, Ezra. In fact, haven't seen you anywhere on the scene."
The undercover operative was ready for this. "Just got into town. Decided that the Deep South was just too humid -- and hot." He let the inferences grow in the silence, as he stretched his neck, finding Herves lips nibbling and tasting at the tendons there. "Eager, aren't you?"
"When I see something I want, Ezra, I take it." Jardain's other hand came to rest on Ezra's thigh, then slipped up under the hem of the short skirt and fumbled between his thighs, finding the bulge that was between them. Muddy brown eyes looked up from where Herve was staring down at Ezra's body. Locked with large green ones. "I want you." He said the last on a breath into Ezra's ear.
Buck watched the way Jardain drew Ezra down into the chair and then close. He started to rise to his feet, intent on breaking the two men apart.
Vin Tanner panicked. Holy crap! Buck's gonna blow this case! In desperation, the smaller sharpshooter flung himself at Wilmington as the surveillance expert shoved his chair back. Vin refused to think about what he was doing, just did it. Plunking himself down on top of Wilmington's lap and wrapping his arms around the big man's neck.
"What the hell do you think you're doin,' Vin?" Buck growled, arms automatically encircling the lithe smaller man's form as he teetered on Buck's thighs.
"Saving you and Ezra from a whole heap of grief," Vin hissed into Buck's ear. "You stay put, cause if you go after him now, you'll only screw up the whole case."
Buck lowered his head until his forehead rested against Vin's. He took in a huge lungful of air and sighed it out in a gust. "Yeah." He raised his eyes to look over one of Vin's bony shoulders at Ezra who was now half buried under the bulk of Herve Jardain. Unconsciously, he gripped Tanner tighter still, eliciting a pained grunt, as he stared slantwise at the men at the next table. "He's touchin' Ez."
Vin ran soothing hands over Buck's back, resting his head on the wide shoulder. "Ezra can handle himself. He'll be alright, honest, Buck. You gotta get hold of yourself." Wilmington's fingers were hooked and burying themselves into Tanner's flesh. He wriggled on Buck's lap, trying to pull the man back from the brink. "Buck, look away, for chrissake! This's not the way to help Ez!"
Finally, reluctantly, Buck turned his head from the view of Jardain rising to his feet and drawing Ezra up with him. Buck closed his eyes and waited, carefully easing his hold on the friend in his lap. Geeze, Vin's really worried if he'd do something like this. That knowledge finally drew Wilmington back from the edge of truly insane action. Ez would never forgive me. He relaxed, feeling the tension leave Tanner as well in response. Together, cheeks rubbing, they watched as Jardain offered his arm to Ezra. Standish didn't hesitate, slipping one well-manicured hand under and around the arm as he stood up beside the bigger man.
While neither Tanner nor Wilmington ordinarily thought of Ezra Standish as feminine, at that moment, the petite shape of their friend against the hulking form of the gangster, the clothing and makeup and mannerisms, all conspired to create a very lady-like image. Ezra didn't look their way, tipping his head back slightly to listen to something his new escort was saying. He nodded once, lashes forming fans on his lightly rouged cheeks as he lowered his eyes again. Together the gangster and the agent sauntered slowly toward the exit, weaving their way through the tables, leaving several sets of worried eyes in their wake. The musicians on stage continued to play but all their eyes swung toward their band leader, Mark, who ran another riff on the keyboard and shrugged sadly, shaking his head in the negative once.
The young waiter, Juan, stood against one wall with two others, watching the couple's progress and sighing. It was sad. The 'lady' Ezra had been a good singer, very refined, he hardly knew 'her' but had liked what he'd seen and heard. Likely last time they'd see 'her' looking so nice. He lowered his head and scuffed at the floor. Nothing to be done.
Vin slipped off Buck's lap and stood, waiting while the bigger man stood also, dropping some bills on the table before putting a hand on Vin's shoulder and pushing him toward the exit. None of them had expected things to move so fast and they didn't have any other back up, no surveillance van outside, nothing. Just Vin and Buck.
Moving quietly out of the club, the agents reached the sidewalk just in time to see a long limo pull away from the curb, no sign of Ezra or Herve Jardain. Tanner memorized the limo plates. Buck spit on the cement and cursed under his breath before grabbing Tanner's arm and half dragging him over to the rental car they'd used that evening. "Come on! We got to follow 'em."
Tanner began to run, Buck right behind him. They slammed into the car and Buck had it reversed and out of the side street space in seconds, dropping into a rough three point turn and squealing the tires as he spun the wheel and headed out in the direction that the limo had taken.
"Something to drink?" Herve pulled open the wet bar from behind the limo driver's seat. Ezra, sunk deeply into the luxurious seat cushions, nodded languidly.
Jardain poured out two glasses of white wine and offered one to Ezra.
"Ezra, you can call me Herve.'"
"Thank you, Herve.'"
"Here's to us. I want tonight to be the beginning of something lasting." The graceful words fell from the grotesque's face in nauseating contrast.
Ezra felt his stomach churn uncomfortably. He managed to keep the faint smile on his lips. It was going to be a long night, he just hoped the man wasn't into anything too kinky. Beyond favoring transvestites, that is.
"We lost 'em." Vin sat quietly beside Buck, listening to the despair in the big man's voice.
"Call in the plates. We'll see what turns up." Tanner turned sideways in the passenger seat and studied Buck. The big man was gripping the wheel tightly, knuckles white. He was slumped forward, staring out the front windshield, a blank look on his face.
"Ezra." The lost sound of Buck's voice worried Tanner, but he couldn't think of anything to do or say so he sat in supportive silence beside his friend.
"We lost them two blocks from the club." Buck's bald statement into the cell phone sent a cold shiver down Larabee's spine.
"You get anything?"
"Vin got the plate."
"Alright, give it to me and I'll sic JD on it. Then get back to the office, we'll all meet there."
Buck nodded, then answered as he realized he was still on the phone. "Yeah, sure."
After giving the plate number, he clicked the flip phone closed and looked over at Vin who was now driving. "Head for the office, Chris said we'll all meet there."
Tanner shot an evaluative look over at Wilmington. "We'll find him, Buck."
Buck turned to stare out the front windshield, whispering more to himself than to Vin, "Just hope it won't be too late."
"We're here." Jardain leaned across Ezra to open the limo door for him, then nudged him out with a thump of hip. Standish turned and dropped his legs out of the open door, hearing a wolf whistle from someone standing outside. Ignoring the uncouth acclaim, he set his high-heeled feet on the curbside pavement and found a hand under his arm, helping him rise and step out of the low-slung car. Before he could get his balance, he was pulled forward only to feel Jardain come up close behind him.
He shook his arm to free it, glancing up in irritation at the tall oriental man with a shaven head who stood impassively looking down at him before glancing back at Jardain. Ezra turned to face the other man, finding him uncomfortably close. "Herve?"
"Alex, back off. Ezra is a real 'lady.' Show some respect." Jardain was looking peeved as he slung his arm back around Ezra's waist and guided the smaller man forward, past the now obvious bodyguard. "Come on in. I just have a little business to conduct, then we'll have lots of time to get to know each other." He nuzzled Ezra's neck again, leaving a wet, sloppy kiss behind.
The southerner clamped down on his body's reactions, suppressing a shudder at the feel of Jardain's tongue on his exposed skin. He focused on the other man's words. 'Business' could mean the transaction that Travis had reported was due to go down any time now. During Larabee's team briefing, he'd said that their AD had sources that knew of this latest deal and only needed someone in close enough to be a witness. They hadn't found a way 'in' until Travis' brainstorm of using Ezra in a dress to act as a magnet for the sick man's perversities. I wonder if they ever thought about how far it might have gone? Do they really think I'm that good, that I could keep this pig at bay?
Ezra's anger seeped away as his escort led him deeper into a complex maze of empty rooms, a small warehouse divided into partitioned storage areas. Finally, they entered a large room at the back, a number of bodyguards or henchmen at their heels. There in the greater room, waited other men, obviously Jardain's, with folding tables set up with a credible display of armament. Only thing missing is a "for sale" sign, Ezra thought as he wondered that Jardain would haul his 'date' along. With a sinking feeling, Ezra remembered the warnings he'd gotten from first Yancy, then Mark, and even, silently, from young Juan the waiter. He had a feeling that Jardain did not intend for him to see tomorrow. How droll. A disposable 'date.'
Ezra grit his back teeth, his spine straightening as he was pulled tighter against Herves side. With a leer, the other man grabbed a hold of Ezra's hair and yanked back, exposing Ezra's throat and face. "Herve? What are you doing?" He tried to play his part though it was quickly becoming clear that game time was over.
"Just having some fun, sweet little Ezra, just some fun." Then Herve captured Ezra's mouth in a bruising kiss, biting at his lips, teeth clashing as he gripped the smaller man's jaw and forced his mouth open with a thumb pressed into the jaw joint. Helpless in the face of the man's surrounding henchmen, Ezra clawed at Herves suit jacket as the largest tongue he'd ever felt entered his mouth, filling it and punching against his inner cheeks and trapping his own tongue down and back against his throat. Gagging and choking, unable to breathe, furious and disgusted, Ezra struggled to free himself. In desperation, he finally jerked up one knee into Jardain's crotch.
The big man coughed and withdrew his tongue, licking messily at Ezra's mouth on the way out. He laughed then, letting go of Ezra's head and wiping his own mouth with the back of one hand. Ezra stepped away shakily, arms across his chest, hands clasping his upper arms in an instinctively protective gesture. "More later, honey." With a dismissive jerk of his head, two men moved purposefully forward to grab Ezra's arms and drag him back toward a wall.
"Just be quiet, little 'lady,' and you'll be okay." The first one smiled down at Ezra.
"For now," the other added with a chuckle.
The rear wall of the room began to move and Ezra realized that the 'wall' was a pair of sliding loading bay doors. On the other side of the now open space stood the buyers. A motley looking crew from Ezra's limited estimation, crowded back as he was. Alright, do your job, memorize faces, any names you hear, any conversations, actions, get it all down. He regretted not having a wire, or his team with JD's technological arsenal to back him up on this. He briefly wondered if Buck and Vin were near. But he and Jardain had left so quickly, he very much feared that his compatriots never had a chance to follow. Likely I'm on my own here.
Ignored by the rest of the men, at least at first, Ezra stood unmoving between his two current guards. The demonstration and sale went smoothly and a handshake deal with money and sample weapons exchanging hands in front of the ATF agent went down without interruption. Ezra grimly told himself that he was now a valuable witness and as such needed to protect himself, and get away. His job was done. Only, he looked up at the big men bracketing him, it wasn't going to be easy. He licked at the blood on his lips. Herve had bit deeply, tearing his mouth.
When Ezra moved, his face left the shadows momentarily, exposing his face in blanched hot lights, the makeup fading into his basic bone structure, to the buyers. The lighting and the move were enough to make him identifiable, despite his current apparel and cosmetics. One of the buyer's men cried out, "Standish!" Guns appeared, flourished in hands among both groups as the man who'd shouted, added, "That means the ATF is here!" Instantly, everyone ducked low and began scurrying back out of the room.
Ezra was thrown to the floor and kicked by both men, the unexpectedness of it catching him off guard and flinging him, limply, against the nearest wall. He felt the pain of bruised, not broken he hoped, ribs as he curled up protectively.
Then Herve Jardain was standing over him, raving madly, waving the largest handgun Ezra had ever seen in his face. "You fuck! An ATF agent! Shit, I'll show you what I do to shitting feds!" And he fired, the shot punching Ezra back in stunned disbelief that it could all go so wrong so fast. The bullet entered his side as he rolled on the floor and tried to twist away from the madman looming over him. Then Jardain was bending over him, straddling him as he lay gasping in pain, blood pumping from the wound. In the background, Ezra could hear other guns being fired and dimly, shouts of "ATF! ATF!" but here, only the heavy breathing of the man who stood over him could get his attention away from the pain that racked him.
Jardain reached down and yanked hard at the elegant dark purple skirt, tearing open a seam in the rear. Shoving the wounded man onto his stomach, he hooked his fingers under the waistband of dark silk panties and panty hose, ripping both free of Ezra's buttocks. "I'll give you what you want, Ezra!" He was panting now, dropping to his knees still straddling the smaller man, effectively trapping Ezra's legs between his knees. "Oh, yes, little Ezra, you are going to get fucked like you never been fucked in your life. No one toys with me!"
And then Ezra felt a pain of enormous proportions in his hips and anus. Unable to suppress it, he screamed. And screamed again. And kept screaming, his hands clawing bloodily at the rough cement floor as it felt like a cold, hard THING invaded his body, scraping, cutting, and tearing as it went deeper and deeper inside.
"Like that?" The voice sneering into his ear finally silenced his cries. Then he heard the unbelievable sound of a gun cocking -- down there. Oh, god. He shoved that gun barrel up my ass. And now he's going to -- Ezra closed his eyes and stopped thinking, stopped breathing, simply stopped.
"You're gonna feel --" Then Jardain's words were cut off and he coughed hollowly, and fell heavily on top of the frozen AFT agent.
Ezra waited in a no man's land of semi-consciousness as the body of his attacker was pulled from on top of him. Then men were calling out, in horror, for help. For medics. And everything went dim, and then black.
Working frantically, JD had nailed the plates of the limo and was now tracing ownership records through hacked government files. The other men were all manning the phones, trying to force a lead from their informants.
Chris had just stalked back into the bullpen when AD Travis appeared at the doors, looking shocked and pale. Everyone stopped and looked at him. "Well?" Larabee was in no mood. One of his men was missing, this case had been a screw up from the word go.
"It's Standish." Travis swallowed and wiped at his face with a worn, sad look. "The bust went down."
"WHAT?" multiple throats cried out as Larabee stormed up into Travis' space, grabbing the AD by the lapels and snarling a repeated, "WHAT BUST?"
"You know that Team 6 was on the case from the other end. Following the ones we suspected were the buyers." Travis didn't try to free himself from Larabee's hold, simply spoke slowly and clearly. "Jenner of 6 called. No one expected it to happen tonight, but it did."
"Ezra. What happened to him? Is he alright?" Buck was pushing through his teammates, shoving an arm between Chris and Travis and then elbowing his boss back so he could directly confront the AD himself.
Travis met Wilmington's eyes. "He's being taken to Mercy General now." He looked over Buck's shoulder at Larabee and continued. "I'm sorry. It wasn't supposed to go down like this."
Chris was already moving past the older man, grabbing Buck by an arm as he swept by. "I'll be talking with you later, 'sir,'" he spat out with angry disgust. The rest of the team flowed past, no one speaking to the director who still stood stiffly in the doorway.
He wiped his face again, smearing tears. Tears for Standish and his friends. They didn't know yet what he'd found out from the horrified leader of Team 6 when he'd called in. Sick at heart and sick to his stomach, he knew he'd be there with them shortly, in the waiting room, waiting to find out if Ezra Standish would live. And whether he'd still be an agent after this.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. No one had realized just how mentally unbalanced Herve Jardain really was. Until now. When it was much too late. Travis slowly walked out of the now empty office, closing the doors gently and with finality. After this, there was no telling if he'd even have a Team 7 anymore.
Ezra woke up in the ambulance, Terry Jenner, leader of Team 6, knelt beside him. He stared at the man, unable to formulate any words. Jenner stared back at him, face pale and fearful, blue eyes wide. "Take it easy, Ezra. The medics have you stabilized. You're gonna be alright."
Carefully, Jenner reached out to touch a shoulder for comfort and reassurance.
Ezra's empty green eyes switched from the face of the ATF agent to the disconnected hand that was coming towards him. Strapped down to the gurney, helpless, he choked back another scream, his throat was still raw from his earlier cries. Scrabbling madly, he tried to get back and away from the hand.
Jenner froze, then withdrew his hand and sat back, continuing his murmured words of calmness, telling the scared man that he'd be alright. Ezra's panicked green eyes rolled up in his head and he dropped back to the pallet, unconscious again. Oh, Ezra, I'm so sorry, Jenner sighed, wiping at the sweating brow and brushing back the soft chestnut colored hair.
When he'd seen the big guy on top of someone, ignoring the firefight in progress around them and doing something, 'what' wasn't clear, he'd run over, still shouting out his ATF identity. He'd rabbit punched the bastard in the kidneys, causing him to topple over his victim. Dragging the half-conscious man clear, he'd gotten a look at the man beneath. With a shudder that had nothing to do with cold, at least not cold temperatures, Terry Jenner wished to recall those moments so he wouldn't forever remember the sight of that gun shoved up inside of Standish, cocked and ready to fire.
Kevin Hennessey, his second in command, was by his side by then, seeing the same thing and cursing. Jenner removed his coat and flung it over Standish while Hennessey cuffed and manhandled their captive, who they now recognized as Herve Jardain. He shoved him off to a teammate who hustled Jardain's wobbling figure after the other suspects that had been captured and arrested. Got 'em, but at what price?
One hand applying pressure to the still bleeding flesh wound in Standish's side, Jenner had decided that no matter what additional injury it might cause, he was taking that gun out. Hunched down on the large warehouse floor, the freckled redhead pulled the weapon carefully free, having reset the safety. With a breath of relief, he set the weapon down and then with one hand, he wiped it clean of the blood smeared on the barrel. That's why it came free like it did. No one else is gonna know about this, except Larabee and the doctors -- and they're gonna know it's going no where else, he decided. Glancing at Kevin he nudged the man where he stood over them, guarding them from intrusion while they waited impatiently for the medics they'd shouted for. "Kev, no one sees this. No one hears about it."
Hennessey, a tall black Irishman, nodded in silence, his shocked brown eyes carrying clearly his agreement. He dropped a hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke quietly. "Terry, Ezra is going to need a lot. You want, we can do that." He bent over slightly to make sure their conversation remained private. "We owe him a lot for helping us get together."
Jenner looked up into his lover's eyes and sighed. "That'll be up to Ezra. For now, we keep this between us. I'll tell Larabee only. Not even Travis hears the details."
Kevin's fingers tightened. "Not even Travis." He looked up. "Medics are here."
They stepped back, quietly secreting the ugly weapon under Hennessey's jacket. Jenner pulled out his cell phone and made a call, Travis had to know that the bust went down unexpectedly. And, that Ezra Standish, Team 7 undercover agent had been at the scene, also unexpectedly, and was down.
Travis took a taxi to the hospital, sure that he'd never make it there safely if he drove himself. How had this happened? He lay his head back against the rear passenger seat and rolled it from side to side. Larabee, Jenner and he were supposed to meet tomorrow to go over coordination plans for the case. Both knew that they were going to work the two ends, but Standish was the key. Jenner's undercover hadn't had a chance to get inside, despite repeated efforts.
Who was at fault in this mess? Standish had gone under almost immediately. He'd only briefed Chris this morning. Jenner's team had been on the buyers now for some time but they'd shown no sign of a buy tonight. IA was going to be hip deep in the shit on this one, but Travis already knew that there really wasn't any blame, just things going wrong, very badly wrong. No one expected Standish to get outfitted, auditioned, hired, and on the bill at the club, The Soiled Dove, in one day. The man set new records all the time. Perhaps they should have guessed he was that good. Chris had sent in two men to watch out for him. Even that wasn't required in the early stages of an undercover, just Larabee being over protective. Not that it had helped. No one had expected Jardain to show tonight. No one expected him to take Standish on at first sight, but Standish was just that damn good. Tanner and Wilmington were going to be kicking themselves over losing that limo for the rest of their lives, he knew. Chris would never forgive himself for not setting up more surveillance. But Standish usually went in alone, without even a solitary watcher, no less two. And they, only at Larabee's insistence. Standish was usually under for days, weeks, even months alone. It NEVER happened this fast!
Moodily, Orrin Travis sat up and leaned his forehead against the glass of the door at his side, feeling the vibration as the cab hit a pothole. Jenner said it was bad. Also said there'd been no sign of a buy until his team actually tailed the buyer's to the warehouse. Even then, they might have settled in to just try to observe from the vans and cars; only, frantic members of the buyer's gang had suddenly emerged like ants from a disturbed anthill, hollering "ATF is here!" to their brethren. Jenner had felt he had no choice except to go in, with his team.
Damn good thing they did. A second call, from Hennessey of Team 6, just as Travis waved down the cab, had been to say that preliminary questioning of the suspects yielded a witness. The young thug claimed his friend had recognized one ATF agent named Ezra Standish from a prior bust despite his appearance. Well, that did happen sometimes. And, Standish had been in heavy disguise, Orrin shook his head, the gods were not in their favor tonight. Or, as Ezra would say, the cards had been stacked against them.
When the cab came to a jerking halt by the ER entrance, Travis moved like the old man he felt himself to be tonight, pulling out bills to pay the driver before trudging into the maw of the hospital.
Buck ran into the elevator with Chris, the rest of the team crowding in quickly behind. No one said a word, faces set in lines of worry. The feelings of helplessness and resentment were building in all six men. When the doors slid open at the garage level, the men spread out to several of their vehicles. Vin ran after Buck, sliding into the passenger seat of the tall man's truck. Larabee, Sanchez and Jackson climbed into Chris' black Ram. JD slung his helmet from his handlebars and on to his head, mounting his bike and kicking the motor to life in a few swift moves. He'd get there first, able to weave through the traffic with the racing motorbike.
Buck was shaking so badly that he had to try twice to pull his keys out of his pants pocket. Then he couldn't get the key in the damn ignition. Kept fumbling with the point, trying to force it in. He began to curse blackly, suddenly pounding on the center of the column with both fists. The loud horn shocked him back in his seat and had Vin turning and shoving him nearly out the door.
"OUT! Let me do it!" Vin spoke sharply, his hard, tight voice penetrating Wilmington's panic. "Go around and get in the passenger side, Buck!"
Realizing he was in no shape to drive, he quickly obeyed. Thank god for Vin, he thought as he ran around the tail gate of the truck, seeing that JD was already gone and the Ram was flashing past, fishtailing out the exit at high speed. Vin was gunning the old truck's motor and they were off. Please god, let him be okay. Please god, keep him safe for me. Buck's mantra continued silently as the two agents roared through the night traffic of downtown Denver.
Ezra slowly began to come to. The incredible pain that was his last memory had subsided to dull aches. His back hurt. A burning sensation in his side reminded him that he'd been shot. Herve! Oh, dear lord, the gun. Ezra clenched his buttocks tightly, feeling the soreness there. Never had anything like that ever happened to him before. He listened to the sounds of the mechanical monsters that hospitals used to monitor and assist their victims, um, patients. Beyond the sounds of the machinery, he could hear the sounds of voices. His teammates were here with him. As his senses became more alert, he realized that someone was holding his hand. A darkness of despair and self-disgust swept through him as he relived those final moments during the unexpected action at the warehouse. He tried to yank his hand free but whoever was holding it tightened their grip.
"It's okay, Ezra, everything's gonna be okay." Buck.
Oh, Buck! Inside, Ezra was wailing in absolute terror at the thought of Buck knowing what had happened, how he'd been dirtied. He knows, he has to know. Ezra sank back into the thin pillows and let his hand go limp. Go away. "Go away." The dry sound of the whisper had all of the team on their feet and rushing to the bedside of their injured friend. Only Larabee, still silently shocked at what Jenner had privately confided to him in the ER waiting room, hesitated. Buck was clinging to Ezra's hand but the undercover agent was not opening his eyes, despite plenty of signs that he was now awake.
Ezra turned his head away from Buck's direction and hoarsely repeated, "Go away."
The men were still now, surrounding the bed, their friend on it, wondering. Ezra could be abrupt and impolite when he was hospitalized, but he'd never outright demanded that they leave before. "Ezra?" Buck wasn't even sure what to ask, only knowing that he didn't want to part from the small southerner, not now, not ever. The incredible fear that had nearly closed down his own system at the news that Ezra had gone down in that bust had been overwhelming and, had answered his earlier doubts. Yes, he wanted the man. Not for now and then, but for always. Only, now Ezra didn't seem to want him. Buck nervously added his second hand to his first to cup the single hand of Ezra's that he still held trapped with his.
"Go away." Ezra began to cough. Nathan, coming up on the other side, offered him a drink by touching his lips delicately with a straw.
"Just water, Ezra, you need to drink some."
Letting the straw in, Ezra drank enough to ease the dryness of his mouth and throat. He pushed the straw back out with his tongue, his lips and mouth clumsy with stitches from where they'd been bitten. He shuddered at the memory. The pain and the recollections were dissolving his self-control. "Get Buck away from me! NOW!" the last nearly a scream. The other men quickly grabbed Wilmington and pulled him back, not sure what the problem was but eager to do whatever Ezra needed.
Jackson dared approach closer on his side, not touching, he spoke slowly. "Ezra, do you want the doctor?"
Rolling his head back and forth on his pillow, Standish felt like crying. He refused to open his eyes, only to see the accusing eyes of his teammates, filled with loathing and disgust. And Buck, he'd be so angry, so repulsed at the sight of Ezra -- how could he touch me? Why? Tears began to drip slowly down Ezra's cheeks. He raised one arm and covered his face with his hand. "Please, just everyone go away. I'm not worth it."
"Okay, that's enough." Larabee had to stop this now. He was no psychologist but he knew his men. "Everyone out. I'll talk with Ezra alone." He glared around the room at the bewildered and hurt expressions on the others faces. "Out now."
Buck, who'd somehow managed to capture Ezra's hand again, reluctantly released it, kissing it tenderly. "Later, Ez, we'll have a lifetime to figure this out."
His whisper was like acid on Ezra's skin. Why is the man taunting me like this?
Josiah opened the door and held it as the others filed past. Jackson stopped beside Chris briefly. "He's still in shock, Chris, be careful what you say or do." Larabee nodded.
JD followed Vin to the door, Jackson behind them. Buck turned away from his lover and slowly trailed after them. As Buck stepped into the hall, Sanchez did the same, pulling the door shut.
The room was silent. Chris studied the quiet form in the bed. He walked over and purposefully picked up the hand that Buck had been holding. "It's me."
Ezra turned his head toward Larabee and asked, "Is everyone else gone?"
"Yes." Larabee waited.
Slowly, two dull green eyes blinked open and settled on the blonde.
"Terry Jenner told me how he found you, Ezra. He also told me that only he and Kevin Hennessey saw you before they covered you. Terry removed Jardain's gun." Chris kept his voice steady and even, no hint of condemnation or anger.
"Oh, oh -- oh." Ezra wished it had been a nightmare. Anything except the reality that was now his forever. His small moans dropped away as did his eyes.
"It was not your fault. Ezra, you are still the same man you were before. Don't let this change that because it won't change anything for me or for Terry and Kevin." He paused. "They even came out of the closet tonight to me, just for you."
Green eyes flashed back at him. "They did?"
"Yes, they did." Chris slowly, carefully reached up and stroked the bangs back from Ezra's forehead. "They care about you. Just like we do." He closed his own eyes for a moment, dropping his chin to his chest, before opening them again and looking back up at Standish. "I don't want to lose you over this, Ezra. None of us do." He held the hand in his even tighter. "Don't run, please."
Green eyes bored into his. Belief growing. "But Buck won't--"
"Ezra, Buck has been glued to your side since they let us in." He looked thoughtfully at his friend and agent. "Vin told me that you two have been together for a while now."
"How did he?"
"Know?" Chris allowed a small smile. "Didn't. Guessed, but I can see he guessed right."
"Not really. Mr. Wilmington and I have been having an affair, but I don't think you can say we are 'together.'" The regret and sadness in those words answered a lot of questions for Chris.
"Think that might have changed, Ez. Give him a chance. He's a good man."
Ezra stared into Larabee's guileless face. He believes what he is saying. But if Buck ever finds out what really happened, then it will be over. And no secret is ever really secret. Ezra shook his head. "No more chances." The tears that had dried up began to fall again and Ezra didn't even pretend to try to stop them. "Go away, Chris." He turned his head to one side and closed his eyes.
Chris sighed and released the hand he'd held. Stubborn son of a bitch. Well, this whole team is that way. This is far from over. He settled himself more comfortably into the seat he'd taken over. Hell, I can out-stubborn this crazy southern bastard 'til the cows come home. "No."
Jenner and Hennessey both leaned on the long counter at the nearest nurse's station, silently observing as five of the members of Team 7 filed out of Standish's private room. That means Chris is still in there with him, Terry Jenner thought as he watched the others. JD Dunne and Vin Tanner both moved slowly, faces still and sad, as they turned and slumped against the far wall of the station's lobby area. This wasn't a normal waiting room and there were no chairs. Just overloaded carts and weird medical paraphernalia that hung or stuck out of the carts. No one looked too closely at those threatening looking vehicles.
Terry nudged Kevin Hennessey with his shoulder, leaning into him ever so briefly, as if garnering strength from his partner. "Looks like Ezra must have come to." Kevin nodded but didn't speak. They were still undecided about what to do or say to the rest of the team. Larabee had agreed to keep their news a secret for the moment, at least until he spoke with Ezra, which he was probably doing now. As they straightened away from the counter, Nathan Jackson plodded by, acknowledging them with a frown. Both Jenner and Hennessey, like the rest of Denver's ATF, knew how territorial and protective Team 7 was of its own. Jackson was on a course for the nearest supervising nurse. That meant he'd be asking questions.
Terry sighed. Despite their best intentions, he wasn't sure how quiet they'd be able to keep Ezra's injury, his forced rape with the damn gun. They'd turned the weapon over to the head surgeon in a private, fast conference. He'd been just a shocked as they'd been earlier and had assured them that since they were law enforcement that he'd consider the matter duly reported already and would make sure it went no further. The lab would have to check the gun barrel to make sure there were no dangerous properties on it that might cause additional grief for the victim. Terry had flinched at the term, but nodded.
He looked over to where Orrin Travis, ATF DA, sat in a wheel chair that one of the nurses had magicked out of thin air when the older man looked to be ready to faint. I did that to him, Jenner thought with regret. Well, not me, just my news. In the end, he'd decided that he had to tell Travis about Ezra's condition. Not sure how he's gonna handle Jardain on this one, Jenner was more worried about how Ezra was going to handle life than he was about the perp. That's his problem. Ezra's mine. Ours, he corrected himself as he watched the remaining two members of Team 7 emerge from the room. Buck Wilmington looked devastated. He was shaking bodily. Josiah Sanchez, the same sad look as Dunne and Tanner on his face, closed the door softly and then laid a comforting hand on the tall surveillance agent's shoulder, guiding him over to where their teammates leaned against the opposite wall, waiting.
"What do you mean you can't tell me?" Nathan's voice rose in anger behind the men from Team 6. "He's a teammate."
The low murmured reply of the nurse that Jackson had captured was unintelligible. The EMT swung around, eyes seeking out another avenue of information, lighting on Jenner and Hennessey. He walked over to them, more energy in his step now as he fought back against non-cooperative bureaucracy. "Jenner, Hennessey." He stopped in front of the two men. This had to be a first. No one from another team ever stayed around the hospitals for his friends before. "You found Ezra, didn't you?"
Terry made a noncommittal sound.
Jackson's eyes narrowed and his stance took on a confrontational aspect. The others, alerted by the sharp words and Nathan's actions, became attentive, moving forward. Jenner began to think this must be what it was like for a victim when a group of sharks began to circle closer. Kevin moved in behind him slightly, one hand fitting flat against the small of his back, offering support and solidarity.
Nathan noted the determined look in Jenner's vivid blue eyes, saw the way Hennessey moved to back up his team leader. Something going on here. They know something. He shifted, sensing his own teammates now surrounding him silently. Go slow. These aren't the bad guys. Whatever's going down, might be a good idea if it didn't go down public. "There's a doctors' conference room just down this hall," he said, knowing the floor layout from multiple previous visits, "Maybe we should take this in there?"
A new, gruff voice interrupted. "That might be wisest." Orrin Travis had recovered some of his balance and was on his feet, to head off the obvious confrontation brewing between Teams 6 and 7.
Buck felt Vin edge closer to him, slipping an arm around his waist casually, supporting him as he trembled in fear for what was not yet said. Deep in his bones, he knew that it would be bad, very bad. What the hell had happened? His eyes flicked to the closed door of Ezra's room. Take care of him for me, Chris. Buck shifted subtly, freeing himself from Vin's touch before any eyebrows could be raised. He appreciated the gesture, but Junior didn't need any of this sticking to him, too. Whatever it was. He managed a faint smile for Tanner as they turned to walk with the rest of the men, following Jackson's lead to the private room.
Ezra squinted down his length. Lord, he hated hospital beds, garb, and accoutrements. With a grimace at the IV attached to his arm, he lifted the hand that Larabee had released and studied the gauze wrapped fingertips. All five of them. He remembered those frantic moments, scrabbling on the cement floor of the warehouse, trying to escape Jardain's evil. He wriggled experimentally, feeling the sharp pain of the gunshot wound in his side, the ache of bruised ribs and the muted pain of his abused lower region. How very crude it had been. He sucked in his breath in sudden emotional agony. Breathless with it, he gagged.
Instantly, Larabee was on his feet and leaning over the bed, ignoring wires and tubes in favor of sliding his arms under and around the pained man in the bed. He sat carefully, not dislodging anything as he pulled Ezra up into his arms and against his chest, holding him there firmly. "It's alright, Ezra. You're safe, you're with me. I'll keep you safe now, I promise." He touched the soft brown hair with one hand as he guided the man's head to his shoulder. "I'm so sorry about all this. So sorry."
"No." Ezra didn't think he could do this. He swallowed, pressing his forehead into Chris' comforting shoulder. "No reason to be sorry. Not your fault, Chris."
Larabee had to smile at the informal address until he realized that Ezra never did that unless things were really bad. The smile disappeared to be replaced by sorrow and worry. Anger would come later, for others, but never for this man, his hurting friend. "Maybe not directly, Ezra, but we all let you down on this one. Right up the line to Travis." He smoothed the rumpled hair and let his fingers rest among the strands, pressing lightly.
Ezra sighed, then sniffed, the crying from earlier having filled his nasal passages uncomfortably. Chris noticed the choked snort and reached out a long arm for some tissues at the bedside rolling tray. "Here, Agent Standish, blow your nose," he offered, leaning back slightly and tucking a few of the flimsy tissues into one curled hand.
Feeling the thin bits of tissue, Ezra sat up a bit and brought them up, blowing deeply into them, clearing his nose with a honking sound. A flash of humor lit two sets of eyes, green and hazel meeting, hazel ones full of understanding and compassion. "Okay, that was good," Larabee encouraged, removing the wad and pressing down again on the back of Ezra's head. "Now settle down again. You've got some listening to do."
Ezra allowed himself to be held closely, taking comfort from it. Feeling the care in Chris' arms. No disgust, no loathing. He began to hope that all might not be lost after all. He'd listen.
Kevin Hennessey was trying very hard not to be angry with DA Travis as the man revealed the full truth about Standish's injuries. That was supposed to be a secret. He felt Terry's hand on his knee just as he began to surge forward. The movement stopped by his lover. If Terry wanted him to wait, he would. I don't like it, but I'll wait. He sat back in his chair and flung one arm along the back of Jenner's chair.
The movements weren't lost on the members of Team 7 that sat in shocked silence. Vin had leapt to his feet as soon as he'd absorbed the information, charging over to where Buck sat as still as a statue, hands clenched together on the smooth mahogany surface of the long table in front of them. Tanner put comforting hands on Wilmington's shoulders and looked pointedly at Josiah Sanchez.
The big profiler got the message. "DA Travis, thank you for telling us. You know that it won't go any further. But now, we'd like some time alone please?"
Orrin stood up jerkily, nodding. "Yes. Of course." He moved stiffly toward the door, again feeling the weight of his years and this incredible guilt. He didn't look back as he left, closing the door behind him silently.
Sanchez turned to face Jenner and Hennessey of Team 6. "Gentlemen. We could use that time alone now."
"Not yet," Terry Jenner spoke firmly. He stood up. "Travis only knows that Agent Standish was violated. He doesn't know how."
This was greeted with silence. Then Jackson spoke. "Do the doctors?"
"Yes. That's why you couldn't get anything out of that nurse. This one is going down in a black box, boys."
"What happened?" Buck Wilmington's hoarse voice was full of pain.
Jenner eyed the other man. This was interesting. He raised an eyebrow at Kevin beside him. Kevin looked thoughtfully at Wilmington, then gave a single nod to his lover. In here, they weren't teammates, this wasn't about work. Both men knew instinctively that the members of Team 7 were here as family as well.
"Buck," Jenner began, ignoring the rest of the men who were all leaning forward, concentrating on the Team 6 leader, "Kevin and I are a committed couple, thanks to Ezra Standish's interventions and assistance. We owe him."
Eyes opened wide around the room. Still no one else spoke. Like punching bags, these men were absorbing shock after shock, no longer reacting to individual strikes.
"Ezra and I," Buck's graveled tones were strained, "we're on our way to that, too."
"Figured." Jenner nodded, wondering if any of the rest of the team had known. Likely Tanner, from the way he's acting. Maybe Larabee too. He spared a glance around at the others. Dunne was staring at Wilmington blankly, mouth slightly ajar. Jackson was focused on Jenner, eyes narrowed in anticipation. Sanchez was looking on mildly, a bit of wonder and sadness in his stare.
Taking a deep breath, he leaned into Kevin who drew him in closer, folding arms around his lover as they faced the scared men in the room. Then Terry locked eyes with the dark blue ones of the tall lanky Wilmington, and told them what had happened. Told them the truth.
Ezra enjoyed the warmth and strength inherent in Chris Larabee's careful hold on him. It was unlooked for comfort from his usually abrupt and reserved boss. He listened to Chris' Midwest accent as the man slowly described all that had happened from the perspective of the rest of Team 7. He described the agonizing that had gone on as the team realized that Ezra was out there alone and at risk, how Vin and Buck had been dragging around with their guilty feelings at losing sight of Ezra.
At the mention of Buck, Ezra stiffened. Buck. He still couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that Buck would know what had happened. He hadn't seemed very angry earlier, before Ezra insisted that everyone leave. But he would be. Once he found out. Ezra burrowed deeper into Larabee's shirtfront and began to tremble.
Chris stopped mid-word in his description of what they'd been doing to find Ezra. What did I say? Buck's name. Even as he asked himself, he knew. Ezra had confirmed Vin's guess that Ezra and Buck were an item. It was alright with him, but he could see it wasn't as simple as he'd hoped. Knowing Buck, the man hadn't committed yet. Hell, Buck was a bee among the flowers of life, had been ever since -- well, anyway, had been for a long time when it came to his love life. Likely still was, except that Ezra wasn't the flower type. Chris began to rub Ezra's back in soothing circles, no longer talking. Larabee thought back over the last few weeks. Yep, he definitely remembered Buck's boasting about Lila in the secretarial pool, and Veralee in accounting, and what was her name? Eunice. Eunice at the shooting range. Chris rested his chin on Ezra's head. Buck hadn't ever, ever mentioned Ezra. Nope. But then, Buck never told when it might be serious.
"Buck is a complicated kinda fella." Chris waited, feeling the other man become quiet. "He plays the field a lot. He got burned bad, back in high school," Chris sighed, feeling his regret at that time, then added, "and he's never tried a steady relationship since then."
Silence met this. Chris began to wonder if he shouldn't just let Buck do this. But Ezra was in a very fragile state right now. A little groundwork wouldn't hurt any. Buck could be very good for the undercover agent. Would be. If they really cared about each other and he could tell that Ezra did. Buck has a heart as big as the world, he'd be the one to keep Ezra safe and happy. If only these two men could get past this.
Finally, a muted voice asked, "Nevah?"
"Nope." Larabee cricked his neck to look down at Ezra's head. "Think he could maybe, with you, though."
Ezra thought this over. Chris Larabee was Buck's oldest, best friend. If anyone knew Buck, it was Chris. If Chris thought things could work out, maybe they could. Only, Buck hadn't been that interested before -- before the purple dress. He did seem a bit upset though, last night, at the club, when Jardain started putting on the moves. Ezra, lost in thought, actually managed to skip over reaction to Jardain's name as he studied the problem of Buck Wilmington, lover extraordinaire, wishing that he could add the name mate to that. As Ezra's quick mind darted about the problem and Buck's behavior, he began to relax in Chris' hold, eyes half closing. He wondered why Buck hadn't said anything to him yesterday. Hadn't been angry, well, at least, not at first.
"Um." Larabee had noted Ezra's calming body language and was feeling more at ease himself. He'd loosened his grip on the smaller man, still holding him for comfort though.
"Buck never said a word yesterday when you briefed us." The hurt in Ezra's voice tensed Larabee again. Ezra felt the tension in the man he leaned against. "Chris, I don't understand."
"Ah, Ezra, Buck can be funny sometimes. He seems so open, so easy to read, but he isn't, not really. Holds things deep and hard against his heart. He'll play the waiting game, move slowly, when it counts. Man is a hidden soul."
Ezra nodded solemnly, as things began to click for him. The early meetings, the heavy handed come on. The sexual liaisons without any meaning. Then, gradually things had changed. He thought just for him, but as he studied it now, he recalled the little signs that Buck was changing. The nudges to get to work on time and avoid Larabee's wrath. The teasing moments, the tender ones. Those hadn't been there at the beginning. They'd emerged slowly, over time, and it was after they started to appear that Ezra began to realize himself that he wanted more, that his casual relationship had mutated into love. Why was it so hard to believe that the same had happened to Buck?
"You think he and I?"
"You'd be good for each other." Larabee sat up straighter and let his hands drift down to grip Ezra's arms, as he looked into the wondering green eyes.
Ezra lowered his eyes and a smile began to flicker across his face. "Maybe I should talk with him some more?"
"Maybe you should." Chris slowly stood up. "You want, I could get him. He's probably out there right now, wearing a track in the floor."
The southerner lay back, eased down by Larabee's hands. He blinked up at his boss. "Chris? Thanks."
"You're a good man, Ezra, you didn't deserve what happened. But, you're a strong man, too, my friend. I think you'll make it fine." Chris brushed Ezra's errant curls back from his forehead and stood up all the way. "I'll go find Buck."
The sound of the cell phone's shrill beep shattered the heavy silence in the conference room. Jenner yanked his free of his belt and spoke into it briskly, turning away from the devastation his monologue had produced. "Jenner."
Listening, he felt Kev move to shelter him, give him some privacy. Conklin and Teak, were reporting in, Bob Conklin doing the talking. Team 6 was coping with the clean up operations without their team leader or the second in command, but it was getting difficult. "Okay, we'll be there in," Terry paused to look down at his wristwatch, finishing, "in about thirty minutes. Hang in there." Flipping the phone shut, he turned back to the other men in the room, sparing a telling look at Kevin. "We have to go. That was Bob. Clean up operations."
Nathan and JD both nodded dismissively, Josiah pulling open the door, face looking ravaged with the new burden of knowledge. Vin and Buck were ignoring them now, Tanner massaging Wilmington's back as the tall man sat slumped forward over the table, his hands covering his face, his whole body shaking. Jenner looked down with regret then met Kevin's eyes. They'd done the right thing. It was time to leave and let Team 7 cope with their tragedy.
Sergeant Loyola Briggs watched the parade of suspects march in to the holding pen. When the ATF got busy, they always filled the pen. He fingered his clipboard, noting down names and charges as the escorts reported in to him. The name Herve Jardain brought Briggs' head up sharply and he looked across the shoulders of Jaime Mendoza at the arrested man. Trooper Mendoza didn't notice the flash of silent recognition and communication that occurred at that moment because he was adjusting the handcuffs on his prisoner.
Briggs had ceased to write, watching as Jardain was put in the number two cell, along with three other perps. This was going to take a bit of arranging, but he was good at that. That was one of the reasons he'd been on Jardain's payroll for all these years.
Buck finally sat up, hands brushing Vin away from his back, while his eyes thanked the man for his support. He stood up and took a deep breath. Looked around the room. JD was wrapped up in his own arms, huddled against the windowsill of one of the large windows in the room. Nathan was staring at the floor, absently spinning one of the swivel chairs in a slow, continuous rotation. Josiah had leaned back against the door after closing it behind Jenner and Hennessey. And then there was Vin. The sharpshooter was standing close by, looking worried and sympathetic.
Buck dragged both hands down across his face, stretching his skin and distorting his features momentarily. "I've got to see him."
"You sure that's a good idea?" JD asked in a low voice without moving.
"He needs me."
"He needs someone who cares and wants to be with him, not just sometimes, but for all times." Nathan's sharp retort cut across the room. He raised hostile brown eyes and appraised the taller man with reserve. "You say you've been together for a long time now, but you still come in boasting about girls you date."
"Is it?" Josiah walked back toward the table and sat down, looking up at Buck.
"YES!" Wilmington threw his hands up in the air in anger.
"Do you think Ez will believe that?" Nathan sat down across from Sanchez and spun his chair to look directly at Buck.
Vin spoke up now, "Hell, the way Buck was shooting off sparks at Jardain and Ezra last night, it's a wonder old Ez didn't get burned. He knows."
"But, Vin, does he believe?" Sanchez could look like a sorrowful bloodhound when he got serious. "You heard him. He wanted Buck out, away from him."
"That's just crazy talk. Man was raped, beaten, shot." Buck spoke fiercely, through gritted teeth. His face had lost it's hard lines, the anger smoothing out his features, making him look deadly.
JD Dunne saw the change and suddenly believed. He'd been around his 'big brother' long enough to know when Buck dropped his clown act and meant what he said. This was one of those times. "He needs you, then, Buck." JD looked around at the other men. Despite the serious nature of the events and the pain his friends were feeling, JD's young heart saw beyond to the love there. Strong and deep, just now uncovered by the night's happenings. He shook his head. They had to dig themselves out of this emotional crevasse or they'd only make it worse for the man in bed just down the hall. JD's quick mind flashed to the future and he actually found a smile. Someday, Buck and Ez would find a way to tie this knot. He knew that the rest would understand as he said, "Just remember, the rest of us will be there with shotguns if you get cold feet part way through."
Somehow, the comment released the tension in the room. Josiah tossed his head back and laughed. Nathan seemed to settle into himself again, as if he'd puffed up like an adder and was only now backing off. Vin just grinned and ducked his head, punching Buck lightly in one shoulder.
Buck looked around at his friends. "Don't you worry, boys, this is the forever kind of love. Just took me a while to figure it out."
Josiah rose and spoke as he shoved in his chair. "I could use a drink about now." He looked up at the others, brows beetling. "Just you all remember that what happened to Ezra doesn't leave this room."
"Same's true for Terry and Kevin's little secret," Nathan added, getting confirmation from each set of eyes as they met his. He stood up and gestured towards the door. "Alright, Buck, sounds like we have some business downtown at the precinct. You take care of Ezra for us. And tell Chris where we are."
Wilmington, who'd started for the door, stopped now and faced his teammates again. "I don't think you should do that, Nate. Stay away from Jardain."
"Who said we was going anywhere near him?" JD asked as he joined Jackson and Sanchez. Vin Tanner moved over and joined them as well.
Buck worried at his lower lip, torn now. He wanted to go to Ezra, but he didn't want to let his friends, hell, brothers, head into trouble on account of him and Ezra. "Please promise me you guys won't do anything stupid."
The four men facing him all looked at each other, then back at Buck. Josiah spoke for the group. "All we will seek is information."
Buck nodded uncertainly and opened the door. The pull to return to Ezra was too strong for him to stay and argue.
"Chris? Can I come in?" Buck spoke quietly, only his head sticking into the room through the partially opened door.
Larabee looked up at his old friend from where he'd been sitting beside Ezra, reading the newspaper aloud to him. Chris peered over his Ben Franklin's at Ezra, tipping the open newspaper down to see over the top of that as well. "Ezra?"
Faced with seeing Buck again, speaking to him, Ezra paled and seemed to shrink on his pillow. But, he nodded. "Yes, let him in."
Team 7 leader Chris Larabee stood abruptly, folding the newspaper and dropping it on the side table. He pocketed his reading glasses and turned away from the bed to look at Buck. "Come on in. I need to use the john anyway."
Buck slipped into the room sideways, as if afraid to open the door completely. He sidled over to the bed, passing Larabee and ending up in the newly vacated seat. "Hi, Ezra."
Standish didn't answer him right away, instead meeting Chris' hazel eyes, a question mutely asked. Chris smiled encouragingly. "Give him a chance, Ezra."
Ezra smiled slightly, green eyes warming as he nodded to his boss, no his friend. He was happy for the opportunity they'd had to be together alone. They'd built some bridges that would last, he knew. Even if they continued to rub each other the wrong way at work. Ezra's eyes opened wider as he realized he'd thought about returning to work for the first time. Something in his expression must have shown his feelings because Chris bent over the bed and leaned down on two balled fists, one on either side of Ezra's head. He smiled that quirky half-grin of his and his hazel eyes were warm and caring. "Thanks. You'll be glad you did. Just remember, you still belong to Team 7 and I expect your sorry ass back in my office in a few weeks." Even as the words left his mouth, Larabee wished he could call them back. Hell and damnation, 'sorry ass'? What the hell was I thinking?
Ezra saw the stunned look of self-awareness freeze Chris' expression. Just went to show how very normal Larabee was being about all this, back to business as usual. Ezra was overwhelmingly grateful. His eyes filled as he smiled up at his boss. "It'll be there."
The simple words relaxed the anxious team leader who grinned back and winked wickedly at his undercover agent. "See that it is. And take care of old Buck here, he's not as swift as a slow-moving stream these days."
Ezra's green eyes danced over to Buck's face. He smiled warmly. "I shall try," he answered Larabee.
Chris had been backing up during this last teasing exchange and now eased his way out the door, shutting it behind and mentally crossing his fingers. He sighed. No one in sight. Okay, time for the nearest john, then some coffee.
Once the door was shut, Ezra looked up shyly at Buck. "Hello."
"Hello, baby." Buck sank to his knees beside this precious man. "I'm so sorry, about everything."
"I damn near deserted you yesterday after Chris dumped that job in your lap." He shook his head. "I'm sorry." He reached out and caught one of Ezra's hands, gently clasping it to his chest. "I don't know what to say to make it all right for us, Ezra. I hadn't figured out that I loved you yet, when this all came down." Buck felt Ezra's hand jerk at his words. Oh, he had a lot of making up to do. "I had thought I'd wait and see."
The bitter self-accusatory tone rang true for Ezra as he listened to the man he had lost his heart to. "Buck--" he started to interrupt only to have one of Buck's fingers gently touch his lips to halt his words, barely touching the injuries to his mouth.
"Wait, Ezra, let me finish. I have to tell you. I was blind, Ez, blind to what we had together. Was why I just kept putting you off, playing you off against the girls. They didn't mean a thing to me, Ezra." Buck lowered his head until it was resting lightly against Ezra's stomach, cautious of the wound on the far side of his torso. Speaking into the hospital gown, he continued. "It was you. Has been for a while now. But I was a fool. Didn't see it. You're too easy on me. You let me do all that shit and never said a word. I guess I just don't read you that well yet, baby. But I'm going to work at it."
When Buck paused to order his thoughts, Ezra tentatively touched the man's thick mane of dark brown hair. Buck froze, then lifted his head a bit, to force Ezra's hand deeper into the strands of hair. "I love you, Ezra." He turned his face to the side and up, so that Ezra's hand slipped from hair to Buck's face. Deep blue eyes sought out crystal green ones. "Aw, Ezra, you are my life."
"You are mine." The whispered response was so soft that Buck caught and held his breath waiting and hoping that the smaller man would repeat himself. Ezra let his bandaged fingers stroke the long jaw line, feeling the stubble growing there. "I love you, too, Buck." Ezra felt at peace now. He let himself lay back down on the pillows, his hand dropping away from Buck's face, to fall on Buck's hand and clasp it to him.
Herve heaved a sigh of relief as he strode through the dark alley. He didn't look back at where Sergeant Loyola Briggs lay forever still, in a puddle of his own blood. The man should have tried harder, gotten him out sooner. Worthless cretin. Jardain licked his lips as he wiped bloody hands on thick thighs. Have to go to ground now for a while anyway. Then, a new city, new identity. A shame, really. I liked Denver. A face grew in his mind's eye. Liked that little piece of ass, too. Dear sweet little Ezra. He swallowed a sudden mouthful of saliva. Might just arrange to take a little baggage along with me, he thought with amusement.
Continue to Part 2