Many thanks to Mog, for creating this universe and allowing the rest of us to play in it.
Nothing New Under the Sun, Part Six
At the End of the Day by Lumina~
Ezra Standish pulled the collar of his coat closer about his neck and hunched his shoulders in a futile attempt to stave off the bitter night air that stole his breath, yet at the same time stung his skin to expectant life. A wash of blue and red swept the facades of the warehouses surrounding him, a frenetically constant swirl of light from ATF vehicles and ambulances that picked out the almost undifferentiated shadings of gray concrete and old snow. It reflected off scattered patches of black ice, casting the melee of men and women before him into a mad dance around them, accompanied by the beat of shrill sirens and strident voices.
It was a scene that crackled with urgency and excitement, and as Ezra watched, he felt that same current of energy within himself, born of a different source, grow and burn brighter.
Ezra had been under for two weeks, a last minute addition impersonating an out-of-town buyer for Team 6's operation to bring down a local arms dealer. It could have been two weeks respite from two sets of hands that wanted to know his body and from the probing of two pairs of eyes that sought his very soul. He had thought to leave Ezra Standish behind for those two weeks, left with the wantings and seekings of two men, but insistent whisperings, entreating and promising, had followed him instead.
I'm just asking for a chance, Ezra.
The same words uttered by two different men. Two different men with the same wantings and the same seekings. Both voices called to him and spoke to his heart. But one was stronger, and he found its reverberation in his own wantings and in his own seekings.
A simple truth had been revealed to Ezra Standish, even as he was living the life of Eric Stern, gun merchant. It was a truth of such fundamental clarity that it could not be left behind, that would follow him always, no matter what persona he assumed.
Now, with the cleanup all that was left of this assignment, as he watched Buck Wilmington emerge from the surveillance van and as he saw Chris Larabee striding towards him, Ezra felt an inner prickle of warm anticipation that matched the heightened tingle on his cold flesh.
He was ready to be Ezra Standish again.
Chris Larabee approached his undercover agent, his eyes catching and holding Ezra's own as he drew nearer and stopped at his side. He let his gaze roam over Ezra's face, content for the moment to just look, to just be near. A kaleidoscope of artificial light played over those features, as shifting and changeable as the many masks worn by the man himself, but it could not camouflage the paleness there or the fatigue now circling Ezra's green eyes. An ever-present reminder of the toll each assignment, each disguise took on Ezra, Chris was certain he'd see their likeness, on this night, in his own reflection.
His look, steady and searching, met Ezra's again as he quietly asked, "Are you all right?" It was the first question Chris always asked of his undercover operative when he came back in. Never before had it held more meaning for Chris. Never before had the answer.
Ezra leaned against the building behind him, his eyes leaving Chris and drifting over the swarm of activity before them. And in the same smooth drawl Chris always waited to hear, with the same jaunty grin he always needed to see, Ezra gave his usual reply. "Nothing wrong that a night spent in my own bed with my own down pillow won't fix."
An answering smile curved his own mouth with the lifting of Ezra's lips, as those words brought relief and reassurance. But Chris craved more and so took a step closer to Ezra. Placing his shoulder against the chill wall beside him, Chris studied the profile so near to him, watched Ezra's eyes, alert and calm, alive as they roved, and felt that long-refused pull tug him closer still.
His attention never leaving Ezra's face, Chris said softly, "I missed you." It was a statement, wistful and true. It was a question, yearning and hopeful.
That face swiveled back to his then, studying Chris as intently as he had studied, before the smile that had disappeared at his words returned, smaller but warmer, and touching Ezra's eyes with its glow.
Chris took another step closer and continued. "Ezra," he said as he threw a glance around them, "I know this isn't the best time, but I gotta say this now. I've been doing a lot of thinking the last two weeks. Maybe I wasn't ready New Year's Eve to say what I needed to. Maybe I didn't have the right words then. Maybe you weren't ready to hear them if I had. But I- I think I do now, and I'm ready to speak them." Chris paused and as Ezra's gaze held steady, silently, thoughtfully considering him, as Ezra's body held still and relaxed, he breathed deeply and asked, "Will you listen?"
His eyes, his stance revealed nothing as Ezra gave a slight nod.
Chris shifted his shoulder against the hard concrete and moved closer yet to Ezra, an inner warmth forming at the nearness of the other man's body. He saw Ezra's green eyes darken as their focus followed his movements, just as he knew their owner's mind was listening to his words. Chris prayed Ezra's heart was hearing too.
Quietly, Chris spoke. "I've been afraid, Ezra." And with those words, Chris saw a small fissure form in the smooth veneer shrouding Ezra in the quizzical frown creasing his brow. Chris smiled ruefully and nodded. "Yeah. Afraid. I've lost a lot in my life. It hurt me so bad that I never wanted to feel that kind of loss again. I thought the hollowness in me was something I could live with. Better than the risk. Better than the loss."
Chris' smile lightened then as his eyes caressed Ezra's face even as he shoved his hands, wishing to follow, deep into his coat pockets. "Then you came along. And before I even knew it, you'd started filling up all those empty places inside of me. So I got afraid. Afraid of you, afraid of risking, of losing you. Thought if I denied my want, denied you, I wouldn't feel that hurt again."
Chris inched forward, his eyes refusing to let go of Ezra's, his voice hitching on his next words. "Seeing you in Buck's arms though…. That was a different kind of hurt. But just as bad." He shook his head, hesitating as he closed his eyes briefly against that remembered sight and as he fought back the flare of that remembered pain. He sighed as he returned his gaze to Ezra's and saw that man's had never wavered; it was strong and fixed, even if his expression and his feelings behind it remained impenetrable.
"Seeing you like that with Buck tore right through me. Showed me false everything I thought was protecting me. I've been thinking since, and more while you've been gone. I realized some other things, Ezra. I realized I already suffered the loss of you if I never even tried to have you. And there's no point fearing risk if you aren't living. And you aren't living if you're not even trying to get what you want."
Chris closed the remaining distance between them and whispered against Ezra's ear. "I'm ready to risk again, Ezra. I'm ready to live now, and I want to live with you. I want you. I love you. That's not going away. I'm not going away. And I'm not going to stop trying to get what I want."
Chris slowly drew back then and was again facing Ezra's profile as he turned away. Ezra remained silent, no words, no movement betraying his reaction, and Chris tamped down on the disappointment that kindled within him at that lack. He continued to regard Ezra quietly and, after a minute of silence fraught with nervous uncertainty, he sucked in a gulp of the sharp night air and said, "Don't expect you to say anything tonight. You just think on it. I know you're tired now. I'll drive you home."
Those green eyes that were turned from him seemed to fix then on one point and, as Chris followed their line of vision, Ezra softly said, "Buck's driving me home."
The words were quietly spoken, but as Chris saw Buck Wilmington standing by his pickup truck, watching and waiting, as he looked back at Ezra's eyes resting on that man, those words cut as cleanly and as sharply as any blade.
Ezra pushed away from the wall and faced Chris, for one moment, as his mouth opened briefly to speak then closed. Chris held his breath and willed those green eyes to stay, to hold with his, but they slipped away, returning to Buck as Ezra said, "I'll- I'll see you at the office in the morning, Chris."
Chris slumped against the wall of the warehouse, its surface as unyielding as the armor guarding Ezra's emotions, his intent, at this moment. And as Ezra wove his way around people and ice and vehicles, all Chris could see in that departing form was Ezra's approach towards Buck and his retreat from him.
"Don't mean what you think it does."
Chris turned as Vin came up beside him, and he saw that man's gaze on Ezra as he neared Buck. Vin Tanner's words were certain, his tone sure, but they could not dispel the image that haunted Chris and rose up once more in his mind's eye.
Buck's touch on Ezra's skin.
Chris turned away from Vin, even as he could not escape that niggling, taunting memory, and he watched as Ezra climbed into Buck's pickup. "It doesn't, huh?" As Buck's truck came to life and started easing slowly through the crowd of personnel and vehicles, Chris continued, his voice a matter-of-fact rasp, "They slept together."
Vin said nothing then, and Chris smiled in self-derision, that silence seeming to negate the conviction in Vin's words. But as Chris watched Buck's pickup fade from view, he heard the same confidence in Vin's next words that was absent in himself.
"It still don't have to mean what you think it does."
As he looked back at Vin, that man, with quiet assurance, said, "It don't."
Buck Wilmington stood waiting as Ezra knelt and touched a match to the logs that had been lying cold in the grate for two weeks. As fire caught and took hold, Buck reached out a hand, his fingers tracing its light, tracking its warmth as it glimmered in Ezra's hair. As Ezra turned and looked up at him, his face cast with a molten amber sheen, Buck let his hand trail to that heated skin, his thumb gently skimming the shadow underlying one green eye.
Softly, his voice a murmuring accent to the muted lighting flickering across the room, Buck said, "You look tired."
Ezra's gaze traveled over his own face, questing, questioning, then he said, just as quietly, "So do you."
Ezra rose then, and as he moved, Buck's fingers slipped and lost their hold. They itched with that loss, so he touched them again to that face and whispered, "I been missing you."
At that hushed admission, Ezra's eyes faltered and turned away, now seemingly looking inward, even as they'd earlier followed the shrinking shape of Chris Larabee as they'd driven away from the warehouse district. And as that green gaze returned to him, as Ezra faced him, mouth opening to speak, then hesitating, Buck closed his own eyes against the regret and sorrow he saw there, against his own memory of Ezra's eyes as Chris had brushed his ear with his words that night.
Gentle fingers laced with his own as they still cupped Ezra's cheek, pulling his hand away, hugging it with a tender clasp as Ezra whispered, "Buck, I-"
Buck shook his head and his eyes snapped open. "Don't. Please," he said, his voice hoarse, "just don't." He lifted the fingers of his free hand and lightly skimmed them over the surface of Ezra's mouth. He kissed those lips with his trailing fingertips; it was a weak imitation of the kiss of his own mouth against those lips on that night two weeks ago.
Buck knew it was all Ezra would give him now.
Buck tugged on the hand still held in Ezra's, pulling that man towards him until he felt that body stiffen, saw the wariness in Ezra's eyes and heard it in his voice as he spoke his name. "Buck…."
He gentled his touch then and said, "I just want to hold you, Ezra." It was a plea, a last appeal, a dying hope.
Ezra answered it with a small nod and troubled eyes, and with a sigh of breath as Buck's arms encircled him. Ezra's voice was muffled remorse against Buck's chest as he said, "I never wanted to hurt you, Buck."
Buck tightened his arms around the body held close against him and shut his eyes again. He stroked one hand through Ezra's hair, let it trace his face as it had one night two weeks ago. He'd made a vow that night, to himself, to Ezra. He'd renewed it the following night to Chris.
I'll only take what you're willing to give.
It was his touchstone. Unchanging. Constant.
So he replied, more evenly than he would have believed possible, "You never promised me anything, Ezra. I meant what I said that night. I'll only ever take what you're willing to give me. Just know that I'll always- I'll always want it. I'll always want you. I'll always love you. That won't ever change."
And as Buck saw again Ezra's eyes following Chris's form as they left him this night, as he felt again the sadness, Ezra's and his own, as that gaze had touched him, he kept his promise.
"I won't try to hold you."
Chris Larabee extinguished the lights in his office and slowly drifted back to the windows behind his desk. Beyond them, another night colored the cityscape with velvet blackness overlaid with the glitter of red, blue and yellow sparkling from cars and buildings and street lamps. It was one more day fallen to yet another night, seemingly serene and tranquil as darkness buffered Chris's eyes from the harsh edges of city life and as the soundproof glass provided an artificial hush to the noise of the street below.
Another night of illusory peace just as false as the air of calm stillness that had hung about Chris that day, hiding as it did the storm of want and love, need and uncertainty that brewed just under that surface. It was another day with barely a glimpse of Ezra as that man spent his time debriefing with Team 6, preparing his formal report before meeting with AD Travis. And now it was to be another night without Ezra, as well, as the silence in the offices around Chris echoed the growing ache within him.
With a whispering sigh of frustration, Chris turned from the window then stopped as his eyes met those of the man occupying all his thoughts this day, just as he had come to fill all his dreams at night. Ezra stood on the other side of the desk, arms crossed, his gaze holding Chris's for one heartbeat before those green eyes were traveling over the skin of his face with a touch Chris felt as palpably as he would the heated stroke of Ezra's hand. And as he watched those eyes, as their spark danced across his flesh, Chris's breath held when they rested on his mouth before lifting to meet his own again.
Cocking his head slightly, Ezra asked, "You like kissing men, Chris?"
It was a murmur of words, low and sultry, that sent a pulse of excitement through his body. And it was a memory, resonant and distinct, that had hesitant hope arising as Chris cautiously circled the desk.
You like kissing men, Ezra?
Chris held Ezra's eyes as he came to a stop in front of him and, with a soft, small smile that matched the one now flirting with Ezra's mouth, his voice a husky endearment, he replied, "I love kissing you, Ezra."
Ezra's smile warmed at that reply, and his answer was a remembrance of his own. "Then maybe you'd like kissing me again."
Chris let his hand reach out and skim the planes of Ezra's cheek then. He felt a tiny tremor pass through that man's body as his fingers caressed and shivered with his own as Ezra turned his face more fully against his palm. The desire to meet that mouth, so close to his, in a kiss was an insistent hunger that swept through him, but as Ezra had on another night over two weeks ago, Chris responded with a question of his own. It was a need, an urgent wanting and now, as Ezra's warmth flowed against the skin of his hand, his hope grew.
"Ezra, does this mean that you're going to give me a chance?"
Ezra held his eyes, stroking his hand with his cheek for a moment before he twined his fingers amongst Chris's and pulled them away, smoothing the back of that hand with his thumb as he licked his lips and spoke.
"I realized some things myself these last two weeks." Dropping his gaze to their joined hands, he paused a moment before continuing. "I'm not going to lie to you, Chris. I am attracted to Buck. I care more for him than I ever knew I could if you'd asked me before New Year's…."
Jealousy stabbed through Chris as Ezra's voice trailed off, as the knowledge of what Buck had held, what he himself had not was hammered home by Ezra's words and by the unspoken beseeching for understanding he saw in Ezra's eyes. But as Ezra sighed, Chris saw a wave of sadness sweep across their green depths that was heard, as well, in Ezra's voice with his next words.
"Buck said something to me that I wish I'd really heard, really understood sooner. Maybe I wouldn't have handled all of this so badly if I had." Ezra shook his head and released his breath in a self-contemptuous rush. "He told me he'd never take anything I wasn't willing to give. But it wasn't like that between us, not at all. Buck was the one doing all the giving, and if there wasn't you, I would've taken everything he offered without even knowing if I could return it. Buck deserves better than that."
Ezra raised his hand then, a slow half-smile forming as his fingers brushed Chris's face. "But then there is you…. While I was gone, at the end of the day when my thoughts were my own again, I realized you'd already crept so far inside of me that there wasn't any question of letting you in. You're already here. And everything I am, everything I have to offer, I want to give. I want to give to you. And at the end of the day, I want to come home to you."
As Chris felt the tender glide of that hand across his skin, as he heard the perfect reflection of his own hopes in Ezra's words, he pulled that man into his arms and squeezed his eyes shut as a maelstrom of emotions coursed through him. Sorrow and guilt for a friend. Relief and happiness for himself. And, more than anything, love for this man he was holding.
Gently stroking Ezra's hair, he said, "You're not the only one who handled this badly, Ezra. Buck and I both did too, right from the beginning and for a lot longer than you did." And with the truth of his own words, a new realization and a new hope came to Chris. "But you and I, Ezra, we know better now. We'll do better now. And at the end of the day, that's all that matters."
And as Ezra's arms tightened around him and as their mouths met, Chris knew that, at the end of this day, they'd both be coming home.
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