Friday night, five weeks and counting since his breakup with Chris and it no longer mattered at all. He was where he belonged: with Ezra.
They hadn't even bothered to join the others at Inez's. They probably weren't even expected. Neither of them had been since Vin's breakup with Chris. Nor had they been out to the ranch. They needed to go soon, to make some arrangement about their horses, but he wasn't thinking about that now.
They lay in Ezra's big bed.
Ezra was asleep, smiling gently.
Vin lay awake, propped up on one elbow just looking at him.
Ezra lay on his back, his head turned towards Vin, as if even in sleep he knew where his lover was.
The curtains were pulled back and the light of the full moon filled the room. The wrought iron grille over it cast curlicue shadows across the room. Ezra's ivory skin seemed to glow where the moonlight touch it, as did his crystal, sitting in its niche in the antique headboard they had found and Vin had refinished. The headboard seemed tailor made for them. It was wide enough to fit Ezra's king-size bed and had niches that were perfect fits for Ezra's crystal and Vin's Phoenix.
The shelving unit that they had found on that first yardhopping excursion was now in the bedroom as well. Once Vin had finished sanding it down and refinishing it, Ezra had declared it too beautiful to house the ugly ceramics that they used for batting practice. So Vin had given it to him.
On close examination, they had discovered that it was put together entirely with wooden pegs. There wasn't a piece of metal in it.
Ezra had never been religious, but after finding his crystal and learning to cleanse and charge it and feeling the power of it, Ezra had begun to delve into the mysteries of shamanism. He had even gone to see Kojay who seemed extremely happy to answer any questions that he had.
One of the first things that Kojay had told him was to trust his instincts. If it felt right to him it probably was right *for* him. One of the first things that Ezra had noted was that he was drawn to crystals and to wood, real wood. Even before, he'd found his crystal, he'd eschewed the new furniture made with fiberboard and wood laminate. All his bedroom furniture was old, heavy, antique wood.
After noting that the headboard and the shelving unit were both pegged together and had no metal in them, Vin had done a close examination of the other furniture that Ezra owned. Every single piece that was a favorite of Ezra's was either pegged together or done with mortise and tendon. There wasn't a piece of metal in any of Ezra's favorite pieces.
The wooden shelf now held what Vin thought of as Ezra's shaman things. There were several wooden bowls in different sizes, two wooden pestles, an ornately carved wooden box that held the sea salt that Ezra used to cleanse his crystal before charging it and a plain wooden rattle adorned with an eagle's feather that Kojay had given him.
Vin shifted to lie flat on his side, his head resting on his arm. He reached out and gently drew a finger along Ezra's chest.
With a sleepy sigh of Vin's name, Ezra turned towards him, not waking, just responding to Vin's touch.
Vin smiled, and reached out to caress an errant curl, knowing that with each touch and caress, Ezra would move closer to him, until he was snuggled tightly against Vin.
Then Vin would kiss him awake and they would make slow sweet love until the alarm went off or, rather, since it would be Saturday, until they decided to get up.
They decided to get up shortly before noon, puttering around in the kitchen together, fixing lunch. Vin made grilled cheese sandwiches, three for him, and one for Ezra, while Ezra threw together a salad and heated a can of tomato soup to go with his sandwich.
Ezra brought a notebook with him to the small table in the breakfast nook and took notes as they ate and discussed what they each wanted in a house.
After agreeing that they wanted a house with some land, not an apartment or townhouse, Vin broached a subject that he had been reluctant to bring up before.
"Are you gonna need the level of security that you've got here?" he asked, gesturing to the iron grate over the breakfast nook window.
Ezra sat back, looking at him for a long moment then gave a small nod as if he had made some kind of decision. "No," he said, "I am not afraid of him any longer."
Ezra grimaced slightly then nodded. "A nightmare from my early days with the FBI, when I was a general agent before I began to specialize in undercover work. He's a sociopath named Simon Trevor."
"You catch him?"
"It was more like him catching me. I wasn't even a major player in the case, just another grunt, doing legwork for the task force. Somehow, I crossed paths with him without even knowing that I had done so. For whatever reason, he became focused on me, deciding that I would make a perfect victim number ten. He kidnapped me."
"But you got away."
"Yes, but only after several days spent being tortured. I thought that I had killed him in my escape. I was certain that he was dead, but when the Task Force followed my directions back to his torture chamber, the body was gone."
"So, you figure he's still alive and gonna come after you."
"He has already come after me, twice, since then. I thought that I killed him both times. Both times the body vanished. I was the only victim that we know of who escaped him. I've seen his face. I can identify him. He can't let me live."
"But you're not afraid of him any more?"
"I'm not alone anymore. We can take him. I know we can... and this time I'm making sure he's dead. I'm going to chop his fucking head off. We'll see if he can come back from that!"
Vin reached across the table and took Ezra's hand giving it a small squeeze. "You're right. You ain't alone anymore. We'll make sure he's dead."
The sat in silence for a few minutes Vin still holding Ezra's hand then he went back to his eating his lunch, asking lightly, "So, if we don't need this level of security anymore, what kind of house do you want?"
"A log cabin," Ezra answered without hesitation. "Cedar logs, with a fireplace and its own power source, perhaps a windmill or solar panels. If we're going to live up high, we'll be off the power grid." He sighed, "I fear that to find what we want we may need to build."
"Maybe not." Vin leaned back in his seat and said, "Tell me the truth, Ez. Do you really think that we're going to be able to stay with Team Seven?"
Ezra shook his head, "Honestly? No. We might be able to, if we were willing to hide our relationship. Which, to be frank, I don't want to do. I'm tired of secrets and hiding. I want to shout it from the rooftops that I love you and that we're together. I seriously doubt, that should we come out of the closet, that it will be well received, even among our own team."
"I don't want to hide either. I want the people that matter to me to know that we're in love, that we're together and that we're happy. So, I reckon that we need to do some serious thinkin' on that idea of goin' into that 'tracker, guide, pilot' business you brought up with Dave. And if we're gonna try that, then I know the perfect place for us. When I's hunting bounty I met up with this fella. Ex-CIA an' right paranoid. He had him a place up between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs. Right dead in the middle of all those parks and ski resorts. Real handy for the kind of business that we're taking about.'
He made a vague gesture with his hand, "Now, I'm not sure it was cedar logs. It could have been, though. It was off the power grid but he had plenty of power. Cabin used both passive and active solar heating. He had backups for his backups. Besides the solar panels, there was a windmill that kept an array of batteries charged and a couple of propane tanks. He had horses and dogs, so, there's a stable and a kennel, both with their own power sources. Place had several hundred acres of land. Don't think he had a chopper pad but there ought to be plenty of room for one. Location's about perfect for the kind of business we're thinkin' 'bout. If it ain't sold yet."
"He put it up for sale?"
"Naw. Past caught up with him. He's dead. The estate's got it for sale. Not many people interested in living up there full time and it's awful expensive for a summer home."
"When I was looking at it, near four years ago, when it first came on the market they were asking five million. A mite out of my range, but if it ain't sold, reckon that price would be negotiable by now."
"Five million," Ezra considered, then cocking an eyebrow at Vin he asked, "You think I can afford that?"
"Reckon this place would sell for a good half mill. I got a little better than that in my money market account. Might have to take a trip to Vegas, let you whup some ass at the poker table, but yeah, I think *we* can swing it."
Ezra laughed out loud. "Your confidence in my ability to 'whup ass at the poker table' is a pleasure to learn of, but I doubt that will be necessary. Unless they have jacked the price beyond five million we should be able to buy it without depleting either your savings or mine. And I believe that I may well be able to persuade AD Travis to buy this place for an ATF safe house. It is imminently suited for it and good safe houses are hard to find."
He tapped his pen on the table. "Give me the details and I'll call my real estate agent on Monday. Have her look it up and see if it's still available. If it is we'll arrange to take a look at it next weekend."
"Why wait until the weekend?"
"We would have to arrange to be off at the same time otherwise. As we are still maintaining the fiction that we're just teammates that would raise questions."
"I'd like to stop maintaining that fiction soon as we can."
"Once we have someplace to go, we will type up our resignations and hand them in to AD Travis."
"He will get a copy, but by giving Travis the originals we eliminate the possibility of his rejecting them."
"You think that Chris might refuse to let us resign?"
"Mister Larabee is a very stubborn and possessive man. What is his is his. He doesn't like to let go of things or people that he considers to be his. He may have ended his affair with you, but you are still one of *his* men, part of *his* team, as am I. I doubt that he will be happy about losing two members of the team."
Vin sighed, "Possessive. Yeah, that about describes Chris to a T."
Ezra rose and moved to stand by Vin's side. When Vin turned his chair and reached up to take Ezra's hand, drawing him close, Ezra straddled his legs and sat on his lap facing him. He carded gentle fingers through Vin's hair then pulled Vin's head against his chest, holding it lightly. He lay his cheek on the top of Vin's head and murmured softly, "I'm sorry."
Vin sighed. "Ain't nothing for you to be sorry about. None of this was your fault." He sighed again deeply then said, "I loved him, I really did, but...."
Ezra waited, letting Vin work out the words he wanted without pushing. While he waited, he let his fingers twine in Vin's hair, stroking and caressing it soothingly.
After a long moment, Vin went on. "I never felt like an equal with him. Even though you've got lots more money than me, or him, I feel more equal in this relationship than I ever did with him. I'm not sure that I can really explain it."
He paused then went on, "Remember when we came back from that Labor Day trip? First thing Tuesday morning when things opened back up for business, you called your lawyer and had him put my name on the deed to this place, tenants in common with rights of survivorship. Then, that afternoon, when we were on the way to his office to sign the paperwork, you stopped off at the bank and opened up a joint checking account. Hell! You dumped near to fifty thousand dollars in it and just handed me the checkbook and told them you needed two debit cards for it, one in each name. You never even ask me what I spend the money on. If I want to tell you I do, if not I don't. I don't feel like I have to account for every penny. I was with Chris for more than a year and he never even brought up the subject of putting my name on the deed to the ranch, or opening a joint account. He certainly never considered selling *his* place and buying one that would be *our* place like you're doing right now."
Ezra leaned back, secure with Vin's arms wrapped around his waist and grinned at him, "I may not have learned much about how to make a relationship work from Mother's many marriages but I certainly learned a bit about what makes them fail. One thing that I learned was that equality in a relationship is less about who *has* the money than about who has *access* to the money and the power to make decisions about what the money is used for. Another was that communication is very important. I know that sometimes you think that I talk things to death, but anything that has a significant impact on the relationship needs to be discussed and a consensus reached before action is taken. That's why we are discussing what we each want in a house before we buy one. It's why we are going to have to sit down and hash out this idea about the tracker, guide and pilot business before we quit the ATF. We may decide that that is not what we want after all or we may decide that it is precisely what we want."
"I been thinking on that book you mentioned. Even went so far as to look through some of my old pictures."
"There is always that. I, too, have been thinking about writing in general, not just that book although I would be delighted if you decided to go ahead with it."
"What else are you thinking about?"
"Most of my books that are in print are children's books. Most of the stories were written a long time ago. At the time the first was published, when I was sixteen, I had already written some two hundred stories. My publisher releases between three and five books per year, which means that I have years worth of stories in reserve. I haven't written a children's story in quite some time. Over the years my interests have changed. Lately, I've been contemplating writing an international thriller. After all, I am an ATF agent. I've been a FBI agent and a Marine. I even worked with the CIA for a brief stint. I certainly have the background for it and I--" he broke off with a sigh,
"And what, Babe?" Vin asked, leaning his head back so that he could look up into Ezra's face.
"I'm tired. I was a Marine at seventeen, mustered out at twenty. Packed four years of college into three and hit the FBI Academy before I turned twenty-four. I'm thirty-seven years old and I've spent the largest portion of the last twelve years undercover. Every relationship that I have had in the past twenty years has failed mostly due to my unrelenting focus on work. I don't want to risk us to my workaholic tendencies. I want to focus on us. I want a life, dammit! And I want it with you!"
"Then that's what we do. We get a life."
"Yep. You've got money. Right?"
"Your books bring in royalties. Right?"
"So, you don't have to work to have money. If you need extra you can just go over to Vegas or out to Monte Carlo and get into a game and win what you need. Right?"
"All right then, we find us the house we want. We get settled in. Quit the ATF and just take a long vacation. You want to write, you write. You don't want to write you don't."
"You'll be bored to death."
"I can take on tracking jobs, maybe do a little guiding and volunteer for Search and Rescue ops. I'll still want to help out down in Purgatorio at the youth center and such. I'll want to check up on Miz Nettie, too. We'll have the horses to look after, maybe get a dog or two. I think that place I was talking about has a greenhouse. If it don't, I can build us one, so I can grow us some fresh veggies. I know how you love them. Reckon I can find stuff to keep me busy."
"That sounds wonderful." Ezra sighed then chuckled suddenly. "I sound like a woman whose biological clock is ticking, wanting to nest."
"Nesting ain't a bad thing, Ez. Everybody needs a home. Before I moved in here, and we became a couple, this place always reminded me of a real fancy hotel suite. Didn't seem like anybody really lived here. My place in Purgatorio wasn't much better. It was lived in but it didn't feel much like a home, more like a cheap motel. I'd be real happy to have you nest with me, have all that energy and love focused on making wherever we end up into a home not just a house."
Ezra sighed softly and lay his cheek back down on the top of Vin's head, "Home," he said quietly. "I don't think that I ever had one until you said that you loved me. Now home is right here, in your arms."
He leaned back again, looking at Vin seriously. "I don't *need* a five million dollar house, or hundreds of acres of land. All I *need* is you. If you'd rather live somewhere else, do something else...."
"Nope. Truth is I always envied that fella that house. Loved where it was, way up on top of the mountain, practically touching the sky with all of wild creation laid out in plain sight below it. You gotta see the view from the upper deck to believe it. Course it'll be cold most of the year and I know that you hate the cold, so it you'd rather be someplace else, maybe California?"
"No. Definitely not. I love high places, too... and I'll have you to keep me warm, darling!" Ezra added with a chuckle.
Vin laughed out loud and stood up, taking Ezra with him and swinging him around with a whoop.
Ezra laughed, too, as Vin overbalanced from his weight and they tumbled to the floor.
Then Vin was kissing him and he forgot about everything else, even the cold tile floor beneath him.
On Friday morning, Vin sat at his desk in Team Seven's bullpen with a slight frown on his face as he waited for Ezra to arrive.
Larabee had been out of his office three times already to check on whether Ezra had arrived yet. The second time he'd told them all that as soon as Ezra got there, they would have a meeting in the conference room.
Vin hadn't liked the sound of that. They weren't currently working a case. For the last two months, they'd been tying up loose ends from the last case and testifying in two previous cases.
Which meant that they were due to pick up a new case. Which meant that Ezra would be going back undercover.
Vin wasn't sure that he was ready to face having Ezra leave him to go under.
In the beginning he hadn't thought much about what Ezra had to do when he was undercover, but then he'd began to think of Ezra as a friend and had begun to worry about him whenever he went under. Later he'd begun to do some undercover work along side Ezra and had gotten a first hand look at what going undercover was really like.
At first he'd only played the bodyguard or driver, only going under for a few hours at a time for meets and such. Then just over a year before, not long after he and Chris had become lovers, he and Ezra had worked the Lattimar case. They had had to go in and live at the compound for almost two months. They'd had to live their cover twenty-four/seven and he had gotten a taste of what real undercover work was like.
It had made him see that no one who had never worked undercover could ever really understand what it was like.
It had been hell, having to live a lie, having to pretend to be someone that he wasn't, having to remember every minute of every day that he couldn't react to things the way that 'Vin Tanner' would but the way that 'Vince Trakkar', his undercover persona, would. He'd been cut off from everything he knew and everyone that he loved.
He was sure that if Ezra hadn't been there to help him, to keep him in character that he would have blown his cover and gotten himself killed within the first twenty-four hours. The memory of things that he had had to stand by and let happen to keep from blowing his cover still sickened him.
He didn't want to risk what he'd found with Ezra to the dangers of undercover work. He didn't think that he could face having Ezra go undercover without him. Then and there he resolved that whatever it took, if Ezra had to go under then he was going with him.
That resolution calmed him some, but deep inside he prayed that Ezra wouldn't have to go under. That they would have resigned and left before it became necessary.
It was just after ten when Ezra finally strolled in, later even than usual. He carried a copy of the Denver Post under one arm, and a large Starbuck's coffee cup in that hand. His briefcase was in his other hand. He was smiling slightly.
Heading straight for his desk, he gave Vin a wink when his back was to the others and set his briefcase on the desk. Laying his paper beside it, he took a swig of his coffee and leaned over slightly to say in a voice to low for the others to hear, "We have an appointment to tour the house tomorrow afternoon."
Vin's face lit up and he grinned at Ezra, just as Chris came out of the office.
"About time you got here, Standish," Larabee snapped, a frown crossing his face as he saw the way Vin was grinning at the undercover agent. Raising his voice he added, "Everybody in the conference room. We've got a new case."
Ezra frowned slightly, looking at Vin.
Vin shrugged. He didn't know anymore than Ezra did.
They gathered up notebooks and pens to take notes while the others did the same, then trailed the herd into the conference room.
Larabee came in last, having gone back into his office to pick up the case files. He shut the door behind him and moved around the table handing out files.
Ezra stared down at the one in front of him then flipped it open. His cover had already been chosen. He would be going under in place of an accountant that was being sent from the main militia group headquarters to the local group.
A chill went through him. It was never good to go in as a real person. There was always the possibility of someone that knew the person seeing him and knowing that he wasn't who he said he was.
Larabee reached the head of the table and pulled out his chair. Sitting down he looked to where Ezra had already opened his file. "I know it's short notice, but you go in on Monday."
Ezra's head snapped up, "No." he said it before he even thought about it. Shaking his head he pushed the file away and repeated the word, "No."
Larabee made an exasperated sound. "I know you'd like more time but we don't have it. He's expected on Monday."
Ezra took a deep breath and stood up, "Then I suggest you brief him then, because I'm not doing it."
He turned way from the stunned looks of the others to face Vin. "I'm sorry," he said softly, "but I just... I just can't do this anymore."
Vin rose to stand beside him, laying a hand on his arm, "It's all right."
"The hell it is!" Larabee exploded.
Vin turned on him, instinctively putting himself between Chris and Ezra. "Weren't speaking *for you*, Larabee, or to ya! It damned well *is* all right with me, if Ezra don't want to do this!"
"What the hell has his going undercover got to do with you?" Larabee demanded, before it struck him.
Suddenly he knew the answer. The way Ezra had turned to Vin to say that he was sorry, Vin's current protective stance between him and Ezra.
"You... you're with *him* now? It hasn't even been two months!"
"Don't look at me like that, Larabee, all betrayed like! You're the one that ended us, said it was over. You ain't got no right to feel betrayed cause I got the hell on with my life instead of pining away over you!"
Buck sprang to his feet, from his seat next to Larabee. "Why you little---"
Josiah lumbered to his feet on the other side of the table, "Ezra, son--"
Ezra shoved passed Vin to slam both hands down on the table with a loud WHAP! making JD and Nathan, who were watching wide-eyed, jump. Even Larabee flinched.
"Enough!" he snarled into the sudden silence. "You!" he stabbed a finger at Josiah. "Sit down and shut up! I'm not your damned son! Never have been and never will be! You don't have one damned thing to say about whom I sleep with. So, just mind your own damned business!"
He turned to face Buck with a disgusted look on his face, "And you! You behaved like an outraged mother whose virgin daughter had lost her cherry to the local Romeo when they first got together. Then since they broke up you've been hissing and spitting at Vin like a wronged wife who has to work with her husband's former mistress. Well. Let me tell you something, Mister Larabee is fifteen *years* Vin's senior. He's no damned body's virgin anything. He's the one that initiated the relationship and he's the one that terminated it. If you don't have the guts to tell him that you're in love with him you don't have the right to object when someone else does!"
"In... in love! W-with Chris!" Buck stammered, looking around wildly. "I'm not! I swear!"
"Bullshit! You've been following him around like a lovesick puppy since you were teenagers! He joined the Navy. You joined the Navy. He signed up for SEAL training. You signed up for SEAL training. He left the Navy. You left the Navy. He moved to Denver. You moved to Denver. He joined DPD. You joined DPD. He left DPD. You left DPD. He joined the ATF. You joined the ATF. You've had your nose up his ass for years!"
He stopped and sucked in a deep breath, looking around taking in the shell-shocked expressions of their colleagues.
With a sigh he turned to Vin, "Aw, hell! I've really done it now."
Vin couldn't hold back a grin and chuckle. "Looks like."
He reached out and stroked a soothing hand down Ezra's back. "It's all right. But I reckon we better go print up our resignations and walk them up to Travis before they come out of their shock."
He jerked his head towards the door and used the hand on Ezra's back to guide him out.
For a long moment after the door closed behind them, there was silence except for Buck's almost continual moaning of "No... no... ain't like that... ain't." as he moved erratically around the room like a rudderless boat.
Finally Chris caught Buck's arm and guided him to a seat. "Sit down, Big Dog. It's all right. We'll work it out. We always do."
He looked down the table to the rest of the Team. He could hear the printer clattering in the outer office. "I don't want any of you saying a word to anyone outside this room about what just happened here. Nate, that means you don't tell Raine. JD, Casey isn't to hear about this from you. Understood?"
"Yes, sir." Both men nodded their agreement.
After a minute, Nathan asked, "What are we going to do about...." He trailed off not sure exactly what he wanted to say. "I mean this could get ugly," he finally finished.
Chris rubbed his temples. "We let them go. As much as I hate to let the team breakup, you're right. It could get ugly, but I don't think it will, if we just let them go."
JD swallowed hard. He couldn't believe what had just happened.
It was over.
Team Seven, The Magnificent Seven no longer existed. Somehow he knew that it wouldn't-- couldn't-- be the same with only five of them left.
They sat there in silence for a long time after the last sounds from the outer office ceased.
Finally Chris rose and opened the door. Stepping out into the bullpen he looked towards Vin and Ezra's desks.
For a moment they looked strangely unchanged. Then he noted that Ezra's Rolodex was gone and the cactus and print that Vin had given him. Vin's desk was also missing his Rolodex and the few personal items that he kept there. The framed Remington print that had hung over it was gone.
Everything else was still there.
It was almost as if they had just stepped out for a few minutes but he knew that, that was an illusion.
They were gone.