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“Buck, are you sure about this? I don’t want to get into trouble…”

“You ain’t gonna get into trouble - because no one’s gonna find out,” Buck reassured his roommate and fellow conspirator. “And it ain’t like we’re really doin’ anything wrong, just checkin’ up on a friend, makin’ sure everything’s all right. Now have you got that camera workin’ yet?”

“Yeah.” JD fiddled with the connections for the fiber-optic camera and the monitor in front of them lit up with a grainy picture of their teammate Ezra’s living room. “I don’t know why it’s so important to find out who he’s been seeing, though. I still say he’ll tell us when he’s ready.”

Buck made a face at the younger man. “It isn’t important, we’re all just curious why he’s keepin’ her such a big secret. I just thought we could use this to get a look and get a field test in on the new equipment while we’re at it.”

JD snorted. “Now that we do need to do. Just so you know, though, if this comes out I’m gonna tell Ez it was all your idea.”

“He won’t believe you – even though it is true.” The ladies’ man laughed quietly at the look on JD’s face. “Oh quit your worryin’. Even if he did find out, we’re recording tonight and he’ll probably be right happy to let it go in exchange for us not showin’ everybody the tape. Now get that picture cleared up, he’ll be home any minute.”

It was actually a quarter of an hour later that Ezra came home and crossed the camera’s field of vision on his way to the kitchen. Buck was elated when someone else walked in front of the camera and moved to sit down on the couch…but his triumph turned to disappointment when he saw that the visitor was Vin Tanner, their sharpshooter. “Aw damn, why did Vin have to visit him tonight? I thought for sure they both had dates…”

“Maybe they’re dating each other,” JD countered sarcastically, adjusting his camera again to try to improve the picture. “Okay, I think that’s the best resolution we’re going to get; just let me mark down the settings and then we can go get a pizza or something.”

“Yeah, tonight’s a bust.” Buck frowned at the image of Vin sitting on Ezra’s couch. He’d been positive Tanner had mentioned having a date tonight and Ezra had mentioned having plans of his own for the evening, so what was the sharpshooter doing at the undercover agent’s place? They didn’t have a case to go over at the moment…Ezra came back into the picture at that point and to Buck’s surprise plopped down on the couch next to Vin instead of taking one of the room’s chairs. And then…

JD was startled when Buck suddenly swore loudly, but he understood why when he saw the monitor. “Oh damn, I was just kidding about that…”

“Wish to hell this was a joke,” Buck muttered, watching Ezra apparently trying to find Vin’s tonsils with his tongue while his nimble fingers unbuttoned the sharpshooter’s shirt. Vin didn’t look to be fighting the smaller man, but it didn’t look to Buck like he was encouraging him much either. “What the hell is this, Vin isn’t gay!”

“If he wasn’t, I think he would have pushed Ez off by now,” JD observed dryly, although his eyes were still wide with shock. “No wonder Ezra wouldn’t tell who he’d been seeing, if this got around neither one of them would have a job…”

“There’s a reason for that,” was the unhappy answer. Ezra’s hands had moved down to Vin’s jeans, and Buck abruptly reached out and flipped the monitor off. “His kind don’t belong in law enforcement.”

JD shook his head. “Don’t you mean their kind, Buck?”

“Vin’s not gay,” the ladies’ man grated harshly. “That damned Southerner must have confused him, suckered him into this somehow. I bet this is why the little bastard was in trouble in Atlanta, probably tried to push it on someone else that didn’t want it.”

“But they were both…”

No, they weren’t; Vin Tanner ain’t that way, I tell you!” Buck’s jaw was set, his dark blue eyes hard and angry. “He’s Chris’s best friend, if he was gay Chris wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with him. It’s Ezra, I tell you! Couldn’t you see, he was doin’ it to Vin, not with him? Vin wasn’t helpin’ him any at all, he was just…just sittin’ there!” He rubbed at his eyes as though wishing he could wipe away what he’d just seen. “Okay, we’ve gotta figure out what we’re gonna do…”

“We should tell Chris…”

“NO!” Buck’s exclamation was so loud that JD flinched; the ladies’ man immediately reined his anger back in. “If we tell Chris that will be it; he’s the team leader, if he knows the law and the regs say he can’t touch that little queer with a ten foot pole, he’d just have to suck it up and pretend he’s all right with it. No, we’ll have to handle this ourselves, figure out ways to keep Standish away from Vin until the boy gets his head on straight.”

JD nodded slowly. “Yeah, we could do that – but wouldn’t it just be easier to get Ezra to quit? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

His roommate smiled broadly and clapped him on the back. “There ya go! Okay then, we got a goal; now let’s get hold of Nate and fill him in – don’t want to risk Josiah just yet, don’t think he’d approve of what’s goin’ on either but he is awful fond of Ez…”

 

Back in the condo, Ezra tossed aside Vin’s jeans and then slid back up his lover’s body to look down into blue eyes sparkling with repressed mischief. “All right, I did as you asked; you are as naked as the day you were born. Now what do you want me to do?”

Vin stretched lazily and grinned at him, then in a lightning fast move flipped over so that Ezra was on the floor and he was on top of him, pinning him to the rug. He leaned down and kissed the smaller man hard, tangling his hands in the soft auburn hair. “That was it,” he purred softly against Ezra’s lips. “You said I had to let you do somethin because you just didn’t feel right about it otherwise, so now you’ve done somethin’. I get to do the rest.”

Ezra tried to protest. “But Vin…”

“But nothin’.” Vin kissed him again. “You just came off a tough assignment and I know damn good and well that you’re tired as you can be, so you are going to let me take care of you tonight, got it? Have you forgotten who’s in charge here, huh?”

“You are.” Ezra moaned when one of Vin’s hands wandered southward to caress him teasingly through his pants. “You are completely…totally…in charge. I give over all…control to you.”

His lover smiled, satisfied. “Just like you did the first time,” he murmured. “And now that we’ve got that out of the way, why don’t we move this into the bedroom…”

 

Two weeks later, Ezra stalked into his boss’s office without knocking and marched right up to the desk; he pointedly did not look at Vin, who was sitting not two feet away in his usual chair. “If you had wanted me gone, all you had to do was tell me so,” the undercover agent told the startled Larabee in a flat, cold voice. His poker face was firmly in place, but there was a flicker in his jade green eyes that might have been hurt, or betrayal. From his pocket he pulled a fiber-optic camera and a folded sheet of paper and threw them down on the desk with a shaking hand. “There was no need for this.”

Vin leaned up out of his chair to see…and then jumped to his feet with a stricken look on his face and intercepted his lover before he could disappear back out the door. “Ez, where…”

“The television.” The answer was a whisper, and Ezra wouldn’t meet Vin’s eyes. “There is no telling how long it has been there…I am just relieved that it was only me they reacted against. I am sure they will destroy the evidence once I am out of the picture, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about…”

“The hell I shouldn’t!” Vin kept hold of the smaller man and turned back to their boss. “Chris, what the hell is goin’ on here?”

“I wish I knew,” was the grim reply. Larabee turned the small camera over in his fingers, scowling, then glanced back down at the blandly worded resignation that had come with it and sighed. “But whatever it is, it’s going to stop - I sure as hell didn’t tell anyone to do something like this.”

Ezra looked up at him, startled. “But…but you must have known what they were trying to do, you’ve been helping them keep…” He broke off and bit his lip, not wanting to say too much. “You’ve been helping them to achieve their goal; I could only assume you had helped them set it.”

Chris was mystified, but horrified comprehension suddenly dawned on Vin’s face. Quickly, he locked the door and steered the resistant undercover agent to the chair he himself had just vacated and pushed him down into it. He looked around the room with a frown before saying anything. “Cowboy, you’ve been had - and so have I. They’ve been using you to keep me away from Ez.”

Larabee looked around too, his scowl coming back; fiber-optic surveillance devices were notoriously easy to hide, but luckily the decor in his office didn’t lend itself to hiding much of anything. “Buck told me he thought you were at loose ends and maybe we should keep a closer eye on you for a while, and JD backed him up…and Nathan added his opinion too and convinced me that there was something wrong.” He lay the camera carefully on top of the resignation and stared at it for a second. “God, boys, I’m so sorry; never occurred to me there might be something ugly like this behind it all. What else have they done, Ezra?”

There was no answer, and the undercover agent merely huddled into himself a little deeper. Vin went down on one knee beside the chair and stroked the man’s shoulder comfortingly. “Ez, I know you don’t want to get them into trouble, ‘cause if you did you would have taken that camera straight to the lab instead of bringin’ it here. But baby, they deserve to get in trouble; if they don’t, they’re gonna do it again to someone else. I know you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”

Ezra shuddered slightly; Vin knew him too well, knew that while he found it easy to excuse wrongs committed against himself he couldn’t stand by and let the same thing be done to someone else. “I didn’t catch on at first,” he said slowly, still not meeting either man’s eyes. “Two weeks ago, something changed. Buck and JD seemed to have begun carrying some veiled hostility toward me and were expressing it at every opportunity, and then Nathan began to do the same. Things started to happen…my car was vandalized in minor ways several times running, a virus was sent to me through my private e-mail address that destroyed most of the files on my computer…”

Vin gasped and his hand tightened on Ezra’s shoulder. “The novel?”

“Yes - but as luck would have it I had not only just backed it up, I had also just printed out a copy.”

That surprised Chris. “You’re writing a novel, Ezra?”

“He already wrote it,” Vin answered proudly. “Been lookin’ around for a publisher. I thought you had that real tough virus checker on there though? How’d it get through?”

The undercover agent looked even more upset. “It had been designed to infect the anti-virus software first, it came in through a…back door.” He took a deep breath, let it out, and then risked a look at Larabee; they all knew who had written the anti-virus program that everyone on the team used. “Chris, this would end any chance of a career anywhere for JD, it would ruin his life. He’s a young man with his whole future ahead of him, he doesn’t deserve that.”

“He’s almost twenty seven, Ezra,” Chris corrected. “And the one that didn’t deserve what’s been going on is you - JD knows right from wrong, and legal from illegal.”

“The camera carried no sound, it was not necessarily illegal,” Ezra disagreed. “Vandalism can be disputed as accidental, as can…other things.”

Chris stood straight up and Ezra jumped, but Vin now had hold of both his arms to keep him in the chair. “Ezra, take off your shirt,” Larabee ordered.

The undercover agent dropped his eyes again. “It can all be explained away…”

“Not around here, it won’t be. I don’t put up with this shit on my team and I never have - and Buck knows it. Now show us, Ezra.”

“This ain’t Atlanta,” Vin reassured his lover softly, already busy with the buttons on Ezra’s shirt. He barely had the soft linen open down to the waistband of Ezra’s trousers when he gasped and started back slightly. “Chris…”

Larabee was already there and he gasped as well when he saw the pattern of varicolored bruises decorating the smaller man’s torso. Elbows, he knew, could be used to do that to someone, or ‘accidentally’ running into a person while carrying a book or a box. There was a red splash-shaped first degree burn low on the Southerner’s chest and abdomen, and Chris knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had been only Ezra’s quick reflexes that had kept the scalding liquid – it had probably been coffee – from hitting its intended target just seven or so inches lower. He knew that somewhere, probably on the man’s back, there would be a puncture wound or two from a sharpened pencil, bruises on his shoulder blades from being pushed into a wall...and he wanted more than anything to be able to say that none of his men would do something like this.

But they had. Chris didn’t know whether to be sick or to scream with rage; he did know that eventually he would probably do both. Now wasn’t the time for either, though. He went down on one knee beside Vin so he could force Ezra to look him in the eye. “Vin’s right, this isn’t Atlanta. Now what I want the two of you to do is this: Go back to your place…and pack. Just the basics for now, and anything you can’t replace. Then you go to Vin’s and do the same thing, and then you go out to my ranch. You two just moved into the apartment above the barn, camp out in the spare bedroom for now so we can get things situated the way you want them up there. I’ll be home early tonight and then we’ll figure out where to go from here, okay?”

Ezra just stared at him. “We’ll see you tonight, then,” Vin answered for both of them. When Chris stood back up he patted his lover’s knee and stood up as well. “Meeting?” he asked. At Larabee’s nod he walked briskly around the desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper, then signed it with a flourish and dropped it on top of the camera. “We’ll wait till you get them all rounded up before we head out - ain’t sure I could contain myself too well right now.”

“Ain’t sure I can either,” Chris admitted. Sapphire eyes met turquoise and silent communication was exchanged, then Chris nodded once and left, taking the papers and the camera with him.

 

Ezra would have been proud of him, Chris thought smugly as he sat at the head of the conference table and looked at the four men sitting in front of him. He’d been so low key about calling the meeting that none of them saw it for what it really was, he’d even seen Buck smile reassuringly at JD. And Nathan had been more than happy to lend him the pad he always carried to take notes on. Chris wrote a few things on it, referring once or twice to the other two pieces of paper he had with him, and then tore the sheet off and handed the pad back to the chemist with a nod. What he really wanted to do was something violent, but in its own way this was more satisfying - because he knew they didn’t see it coming. Explains that smug look Ez gets sometimes, he thought. “All right,” he said aloud, injecting just a hint of careless boredom into his tone. “Standish just resigned, so we’re going to have to hand that mob case over to Team 5. Josiah, I want you to gather up everything we have on DeAngelo and get it down to Jerry ASAP so they can get moving.”

“So Ez finally quit, huh?” Buck said casually, leaning back in his chair. “Well, have to say I saw that comin’.”

JD didn’t look nearly so relaxed. “Did he say why he was leavin’, Chris?”

“Don’t matter,” Buck stated before Chris could say anything. “He never really did fit in around here.”

“Apparently not,” Chris said dryly. He took Ezra’s resignation and tossed it to JD. “He left that on my desk, it’s pretty much what I’d expect from him.” He watched the piece of paper go from man to man, seeing relief on three faces and disappointment mixed with resignation on the fourth; he’d already guessed that Josiah hadn’t taken an active part in what had gone on, but he also knew the profiler had done nothing to stop it either. “It’s a shame, really; that man was the best damn undercover agent I’ve ever seen.”

“We can get a better one,” Nathan said flatly, handing the paper back to Chris. “Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“I don’t know about that,” was the dubious reply. “This team had a reputation to begin with, and once people start to leave for no apparent reason…well, I guess if Ez was here he could tell you all about how rumor and innuendo can mess things up for people, just turns into a shadow that follows you everywhere. You’ll play hob getting anyone good in here after this.”

Buck’s eyes narrowed. “You’re talkin’ like the whole team just went belly up ‘cause we lost one man. And there’s ways we can settle them rumors.”

JD flinched slightly, and Chris was secretly pleased; there might just be hope for the team’s youngest member after all. “Well, you can try,” he said, handing the next piece of paper to JD. “Not sure how much good it’ll do you, though.”

JD gasped and turned white when he read what was on the paper and Buck snatched it out of his hands. He grimaced when he saw what it was, then sighed. “Well damn, I knew somethin' was wrong. I bet if we all go over and have a talk with him we can get things cleared up…”

“Might not be such a good idea,” Larabee drawled, watching Josiah and Nathan’s reactions as they read Vin’s resignation. “He wasn’t too happy once he figured out what you boys had been up to.”

“Aw, that little Southern bastard’s just been tellin’ him lies,” Buck declaimed. “We can get him to see sense…”

“I wasn’t too happy either,” Chris continued conversationally, and had the extra satisfaction of seeing the four men practically stop breathing. “You see, you all were so gung ho to let Ezra know how you felt that no one thought about how much evidence you were leaving. Just one person doing it could have been passed off as an accident, but all three of you…well, you did enough damage that Vin noticed he was hurt and then the fat was in the fire. I wouldn’t recommend any of the four of you gettin’ anywhere near Vin Tanner for a good long while.”

Chris stood up. As if in afterthought, he reached into his pocket, pulled out the camera and sent it skittering across the table to JD. “Oh, Ez dropped that off with his resignation but he didn’t want to tell me where it came from; it’s yours, right?” Without waiting for an answer, he dropped the piece of paper he’d taken from Nathan’s notebook in the center of the table on top of the two others. “Don’t bother picking those up - the judge’s secretary will be down to get them in a few. Now I’m going to go clean out some desks.”

He was at the door when Buck’s voice stopped him. “I can’t believe you’re gonna choose that dirty little faggot over us.”

The cool facade Chris had borrowed from Ezra disintegrated, and when he turned around his face was full of cold, deadly fury. “If you mean,” he all but spat, “am I choosing a man who was loyal to this team and the men he thought were his friends over three prejudiced bastards and a coward? Well then I guess the answer would be yes. And since you brought it up…” He fixed that icy gaze full on JD, who cringed. “Ezra told me the main reason he didn’t turn you all in was because you had your whole future ahead of you and he didn’t want you to lose that. My suggestion to you, John Dunne, is to put your resignation on the table before Gloria gets down here and go take the second chance your friend gave you - and don’t you ever forget that you didn’t deserve it.”

 

Dead silence hung heavy in the conference room after Chris left. Buck was shocked and angry, Nathan shocked and worried, and Josiah had buried his face in his hands. JD sat staring at the camera he held, but he was actually seeing the past two weeks. Every detail unfolded itself before him with sickening clarity, from putting the camera into the television set to glitching the security cameras in the garage to sending off the virus he’d created to wreak havoc on a computer he himself had guaranteed was protected from such malicious invaders. All because Ezra liked men instead of women…all because the man he liked happened to be Vin Tanner. Ezra had never been anything but nice to him, so what did that say about JD Dunne?

His stomach clenched as another thought struck. My God, what would his mother say about him? She’d told him before she died that he’d never done a thing in his life to make her ashamed, but that certainly wasn’t true anymore. He, the person everyone on the team had always teased about his idealism, had helped to commit what amounted to a series of hate crimes against a man that he worked with – against a friend who even after all of it had refused to retaliate. Chris was right, a second chance was the last thing he deserved.

But he was going to take it anyway.

Buck started to say something when JD took Nathan’s notebook away from him and started to scribble on it, but he instead just decided to let it go. Chris had been right about one thing, this would destroy the reputation of everyone left on the team and if the kid had a way away from that then more power to him. He waited until the fourth resignation was lying atop the pile in the center of the table and his roommate – well, most likely former roommate, now – was on his way out of the room before having his final say. “You did the right thing, kid.”

JD froze, but he didn’t turn around. He pulled the camera back out of his pocket, looked at it…and then tossed it over his shoulder, its clatter against the polished wood of the conference table incredibly loud in that silent room. “No, but I am now.”