Ezra kept his face carefully blank as he looked over the email he’d just received for a second time. He minimized it and looked at the attached document he'd opened. Everything looked to be in order, ever T-crossed and every I-dotted.
It couldn't be real. He refused to believe it.
It was some sort of cruel joke. Not from Buck or JD, he was certain they would not stoop that low, nor would Mr. Tanner. No, Vin would never do something like this. Perhaps it was something cooked up by Team 3, their undercover agent hated him. It had to be. Just an unkind jest.
Yet the very official looking memo, with what appeared to be genuine transfer papers attached, stared him in the face. It informed him in crisp, bureaucratic language that Agent Standish-him-was being transferred out to the California branch effective Monday, to work under some SAC he’d never heard of. It looked real. He couldn't deny that.
It was Friday. It said he was expected to move, or at least arrive, in another state on Monday, and no one had bothered to let him know until today. Absurd.
Surely before this step there would have to be a meeting wouldn't there? There were protocols that had to be followed.
Of course, Ezra wasn't sure if anything in those protocols said he had to be at the meeting.
It looked official. It was sent from the right department.
He was being sent away, transferred, again. What had he done? Why? What could he possibly have done? Ezra knew he’d been hard to live with since he came back from their last case, knew the sarcasm was rolling off his tongue thicker than ever and that he had not been careful who he aimed it at. Three months of living hard with scum that would have made the usual degenerates turn away in disgust could do that to a man. He’d thought they understood. They’d told him they understood, Mr. Sanchez had anyway, even if it had been in the midst of what amounted to a scolding for his behavior. The lecture had been surprisingly gentle, and filled with reminders that he could come to Josiah if he needed to. Truthfully, it had been more comforting than anything, not that he'd admitted it at the time. The others knew what he had seen, even Dr. Jackson had been gentle after, after…Ezra swallowed down the bile that was forming in his stomach at the memories, firmly shoving them away.
That had just been a few days ago. Had Josiah known? Did Josiah know now? Mr. Larabee would have had to sign any transfer papers before anything official was sent out, but had he told the others? Everyone was acting completely normal, had acted normal all morning before they left for court.
Ezra couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe they wouldn’t care, that they wouldn’t at least acknowledge that he was being sent away. Good lord, were none of them even going to say goodbye?
It was Friday. Court was likely to go long enough they wouldn't be back into the office today. So perhaps he was wrong, and they wouldn't.
They'd said he was family. Fool that he was, he'd actually been starting to believe them. He really should know better by now.
He just didn't understand why.
Suddenly a chill went through Ezra that froze him to the core. He knew what had happened. The rumors had never quit following him, even after almost three years with the ATF and on Team Seven. The whispers whenever a leak was suspected, the murmurs when certain names were brought up. Ezra had ignored it, acted like it didn’t hurt, partly to keep up the facade for himself, and partly to keep the more overprotective of his teammates from seeking revenge on his behalf. It didn’t matter that Ezra had never been, and never would be on the take. Once the rumor of corruption hit a man the stench stayed.
Had those doubts begun to penetrate his team without him noticing? Had they lost their faith in him? Ezra's head bowed, and he allowed his eyes to close for just a second. Why was he asking? It was obvious they had.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't true. It wasn't him!
But when had that ever mattered?
Every time he'd let his guard down before, every time he'd thought he'd found his place, he'd lost it. That was his destiny. There was clearly something inside Ezra P. Standish that said he couldn't be trusted. Something that only those closest to him could see. That had to be it, because either they left, or he was sent away and it had been like that for as long as he could remember. On auto-pilot Ezra hit print on the memo and attached transfer papers. It still felt so unreal that if he didn't have a copy he wasn't sure he'd be able to do the things he had to do to get ready for the move.
The move. He clamped down harshly on the slightly hysterical laugh that wanted to bubble out of him, doing his best to keep his face smooth and unconcerned, and not at all sure he was succeeding.
Still in a haze-if he hadn't been he would have noticed the concerned looks Buck was shooting at him-Ezra signed out of his email and shut-down the computer, walking over to the printer to collect his papers and was starting to leave when Buck spoke up, doing a bad job of sounding casual, “Hey Ez, you going to lunch already? Thought you said you had a ton of paperwork to do?”
Ezra looked at Buck, looking for the tells that he was hiding something, or feeling guilty, and saw only genuine concern. Perhaps Buck didn't know? “Ah find mahself havin' to take care of a few personal matters. Ah should be back before yah have to covah for me.” As their team members were in court for almost the whole day, except for Josiah who'd been at a conference yesterday and wouldn't be back until the afternoon, Ezra knew that wasn't saying much and hid a sigh when Buck frowned. He headed towards the door again, and Buck stood up now, limping over in his walking cast to block his path, and Ezra felt both annoyed and touched, annoyed that Buck could apparently see through him so well, and touched that what he saw concerned him.
“It's freezing out, Hoss, you ain't going nowhere without your coat.” Buck had his arms crossed now and was raising an eyebrow at him like he was JD, and Ezra felt a surge of hope. He was certain now that Buck didn't know, and for all Vin and Chris seemed to share a brain the leader told his oldest friend just about everything. Perhaps there was a mistake? Maybe this was something the higher ups were doing that Chris was trying to fight? Travis had complained before about 'the brass', never mind that he was part of it, trying to break up 'his' team. It had been nice to hear it, nice to know that even though he and the man may never personally get along well, that he still considered Ezra and the rest of the seven his. But as soon as the surge of hope came it left. Mr. Larabee would have had to sign before any official transfer could be arranged, and being told to report in to a specific California office at 8 O'clock Monday morning was very official. “Ezra? You in there?”
Now Buck was looking downright worried and Ezra hastened to smile at him, “Yah are right of course, Mr. Wilmington. Ah'll grab it right now.” Buck watched as Ezra put on his coat, hat, and gloves, and then cleared his throat and pointed to the scarf still laying over the back of his chair. Ordinarily this would have led to rolled eyes and a sarcastic remark, but Ezra just grabbed the scarf and put it on, not noticing as Buck's worry deepened.
“Ezra, is something wrong? You're scaring me a little here, hoss.” His look of concern was so genuine that Ezra wanted to tell him, wished he could, but how do you even do that? 'Our boss and your oldest friend doesn't trust me anymore, and is having me transferred to another team. Only he didn't tell me, just let me find out when personnel sent over the transfer approval.' He couldn't tell him, and the more Ezra thought about it the less he wanted too.
What if that look of concern turned to one of suspicion? Mr. Wilmington trusted Mr. Larabee above all others. The idea that he might stick up for Ezra was laughable. “Nothing concernin', just time sensitive.” Buck's appraising look was more than a little suspicious, but he eventually nodded, shuffling back so that Ezra had enough room to pass by him, if barely. He could see Buck still staring after him as he shut the office door behind him, but put it out of his mind as he climbed into the elevator. Ezra had a moving company to arrange and a plane ticket to buy.
Then he was going to find a bar, and get very, very, drunk.
Buck waited until the door closed to Team 7's office and then hobbled back over to his chair. Once he'd settled himself he pulled a folded pile of papers out of his pocket. If Ezra's expression going almost completely blank at the same time as his accent got thick as molasses hadn't tipped him off that something was very wrong, the fact that he'd been able to lift it out of Ezra's pocket without him noticing was the equivalent of an alarm bell going off.
Buck supposed he should have felt guilty both for using skills Ezra had taught him against the undercover agent and for prying into the overly private man's life, but he didn't think this was something that would resolve itself. He might not have Vin's ability to sense when trouble was coming, or Josiah's omens, but one thing Buck knew was people. He could read them, had learned early on which of his mother's “clients” were dangerous and which were just sad, knew from the way a person held themselves what they were likely to do next. Didn't have the patience to develop it properly, or the team profiler's skills in knowing what to do with what he saw, but his instincts rarely served him wrong. Ezra had been hurting, and hurting bad when he left, worse than even his distracted state indicated.
As he unfolded the paper and read the memo Buck's fingers tightened on the edges until they ripped. If his ankle wasn't broken he'd be out the door and running down the stairs, trying to catch the elevator for all it was already too late, but it was broken, and by the time he'd hobbled even as far as the elevator bank Ezra would be long gone. He had his phone out of his pocket and was dialing Ezra before he'd finished setting the top paper to the side, growling as it told him the voicemail box was full, slapping the phone down on the desk in frustration and turning back to the pile. He shook his head in disbelief as he looked over the transfer papers. He didn't know what this was, but he knew it couldn't be true. Chris would never have allowed his team to be separated, even back in the early days. Now, after everything they'd gone through together, after Christmases and hospital stays, nearly losing JD, after becoming a family, it was plain and simple an impossibility. Chris Larabee had lost his family once, and the idea that he'd let anyone take his new one from him without a fight-a fight that he would win-was laughable.
Buck knew that, because Buck had lost his family that night too. It might have been a sister and a nephew, and for a time a brother, instead of a wife and a son, and he would never try and compare his pain to Chris's, but Buck's family had been gone after that horrific night too. It hurt, in ways the big man wasn't sure he could ever describe, other than that if there was a hell, surely that would be the only punishment the devil would ever need. What would he do to keep this new one he had found, to protect his six brothers?-well, what wouldn't he do? There wasn't a whole hell of a lot. For Chris, who hurt so much worse then him, he wasn't sure there was anything.
When they got their hands on whatever sick fuck thought this was funny, was trying to mess with Ezra's head, or whatever sort of game this was, they were really, really, going to regret it.
Buck picked up his cell phone from where he'd slammed it down and shot off a text to Ezra telling him to get a hold of Buck now. He tried to call again only to find the phone had been turned off. He called Chris, cursing when it went straight to voicemail, his phone off too. He was in court, hell they were all in court. He hung up and called back, to leave a voicemail this time, “Hey stud, we have a major problem. Ezra wigged out, did his shut down thing and took off. Wouldn't tell me what was wrong, but I found a paper by his computer.” He wasn't going to tell Chris he pick-pocketed a member of the team, even now. “Somebody sent him what looks to be transfer papers saying he's getting sent to California. Chris, I know they gotta be fake, but I don't think Ezra does. I'm sure he doesn't. And now his phone is shut off. Call me back, please.”
Buck called the other members of the team, despite knowing that their phones would be turned off too, and left similar messages. You never knew who would check their voicemail first. Then for good measure he called Inez at the Saloon and asked her to keep an eye out for Ezra, to let him know if he showed up. He didn't give her any details, just told her he was worried, and she agreed, which didn't surprise him, without asking any questions, which did.
He almost didn't call Miz Nettie, but then did, because while it may have been only Vin who claimed her as a surrogate mother, she'd become something of an Auntie to all of them. Despite the rocky start the two had had, and the way they could still needle at the other, she was protective of Ezra-a trait that had developed about five minutes after she'd met Maude. There was a small, but definitely possible, chance Ezra would show up at her place.
Miz Nettie got the details out of him, though Buck had wanted pretty badly to tell an actual person instead of a machine by then, so he couldn't say she'd had to try particularly hard. “You tell me, boy, when you find out who did that to our fancy pants. I want a piece of them too.”
“Yes'm, I will.” Buck wasn't sure how much would be left after he and the boys got through, but Miz Nettie was welcome to it. She could be awfully creative, even when she liked you.
Bum leg or not, he couldn't just sit there, whatever Nathan had said when he insisted on picking him up in the morning about ice, and broken ankles, and not being cleared yet to drive. Buck was sure he could charm someone in the motor pool into signing a car out to him.
Almost half an hour later (you'd think crutches would be old hat by now, but he had to get used to them every time) Buck was hailing down a cab outside, smiling winningly even as he cursed the heartless SOB's in motor pool. So what if Chris had nearly killed them when they gave Vin that Hummer when he had the broken collar bone? Cowards. Buck had the cabby take him straight to Ezra's apartment, asked the guy to wait, and grilled Ezra's doorman on whether he had seen him come in or out of the building. He might have had more trouble, but by now the dignified old man was used to such strange things as Mr. Standish's friends showing up on crutches, flashing badges in his face-as though he didn't know they were all ATF by now-and demanding to know whether Mr. Standish was in his apartment.
It was better than the time the medic had shown up, asking Carlton whether he'd noticed if 'that stubborn southerner' was bleeding, then breathlessly started running for the elevator before he could answer. At this point he'd just resigned himself to pretending it was normal, as he did rather like that nice young man.
The man informed him that Ezra had come in very briefly, leaving only ten or so minutes after he arrived, and had not talked to him beyond the usual hellos. Carlton seemed genuinely regretful when he told him he would be unable to call him if Mr. Standish came home, not without securing the other man's permission. Buck was on his way out the door again, when he called out after him, “Mr. Wilmington-”
“It's Buck, pard.”
“Yes, well, Buck, Mr. Standish, seemed, for him, a tad upset. Please...” He trailed off, finding himself at a loss for words, not something Buck figured he was accustomed to.
“We'll get him taken care of, don't worry.” He tipped an imaginary hat at him, and was out the door.
Buck smiled as he climbed back into the cab. Ezra didn't know it, but he had a whole mess of people who cared about him, not just the team. Then he sighed, because apparently Ezra really didn't know, and that included the team. He told the cab driver to go to the Saloon, because well he was pretty sure Inez would tell him if Ezra showed up there, if anyone would be able to talk the bar manager out of it, it would be Ez.
He was gonna find that southern pain-in-the-ass, make sure he was okay, convince him those goddamned transfer papers were nonsense, and then kick him in the butt for scaring him like this.
Chris leaned back in his chair, hero half-eaten, watching his men with an air of tired satisfaction. Maybe a hint of bemusement as Vin and JD 'sparred' with their french fries. Court was done for the day, out early after one of the witnesses had had a panic attack at the idea of testifying. After what she'd been through Chris wasn't surprised.
It would be real, real gratifying when that SOB was behind bars. Standish had done a damn good job on this case, but he'd been under with the sort of men that would give the Terminator nightmares. The case had dragged on longer then expected by over a month, turned out to be a hell of a lot bigger than expected, and if it hadn't been so important, Chris would have pulled him out weeks before, damn the bust.
If he'd realized how it was effecting his agent he would have done it anyway.
Ezra would have been furious at him for doing it, and Chris would have felt the same in his place, but he still would have done it.
Then that scene at the end...it was no wonder the man had been walking around the office on eggshells, when he wasn't snapping one of their heads off. Well, he smirked faintly, the rest of Team Seven's, he hadn't been crazy enough to take it beyond his usual sarcasm with Chris. Still, snapping people's heads off was Chris's job, and while the undercover agent had been doing better for the last week or so, Chris wouldn't be happy until this case was over and he could bully the younger man into taking a vacation. The week off after the bust where Ezra had mostly slept didn't count. He idly picked up his pickle and started munching on it, going back to observing the rest of his team. Having one of their own gone for so long, and then obviously hurting, had been hard on all of them.
Somethings stayed the same no matter what though, and Tanner refusing to eat anything that grew out of the ground that wasn't a nut, a grain, a potato, or a bean-not counting green beans or Lima beans-was one of them. As was Nathan's never ending quest to change that, and his growing frustration at his failure. Vin, from what Chris could tell, thoroughly enjoyed the fuss. That Vin had placed the small salad that came with his burger on Nathan's tray had only been met with rolled eyes. When he added the lettuce, onion and tomato from his burger to the top of it, sliding his pickle wedge next to Nathan's sandwich, that apparently was going too far, and as Chris watched the vegetables were passed back and forth several times, looking decidedly worse by the time Vin all but tossed them onto JD's plate across the way. JD, who was busy trying to get cell service, mumbled thanks, absentmindedly piled the extra vegetables on his burger and took a bite.
“Vin, you know eating something green isn't gonna kill you.”
Nathan was still going for reasonable, but the sharpshooter looking at him mock seriously and responding, “Don' know 'bout that. Been so many years my digestion might not be able to handle it,” didn't help.
“You want scurvy?” The medic was clearly growing exasperated by now and the twinkle in Vin's eye said he wasn't anywhere near done with his fun.
“Vin.” The sharp shooter turned towards Chris, who pointed firmly at the pickle still resting on Nathan's plate. “Pickle.” It was full of Vitamin C so Nathan would stop his nagging, and Vin liked them fine, whatever he tried to say.
“Ye're no fun, cowboy.” Chris raised an eyebrow, and with a roll of his eyes Vin picked up his pickle and bit into it.
“Why don't you ever listen when I do that?” Nathan grumbled, starting to eat Vin's salad.
“Duh, 'cause Chris is scarier than you.” JD mumbled absently as he hooked up-something? A tiny box of some sort-to his cell-phone. Then what he said fully registered with him and he looked up at Chris, a bit wide eyed, “Uhh-”
“Took it as a compliment.” Chris hid his smile behind his soda cup as JD all but sighed with relief, instantly going back to his project. JD wasn't nearly as jumpy around him as he had been a year and a half ago, which was good of course, but Chris liked knowing he could keep his men on his toes.
For a minute or two there was nothing but the sound of four men eating, that and the occasional beeping or clicking noise from whatever JD was doing with his phone. Kid better not be hacking into anything in the middle of a federal court building. Not after what he'd told him the last time. Chris was taking the last bite of his sandwich when JD all but shot up out of his seat, shouting as he tossed his phone at Chris, “Chris, listen to that!”
“JD, what the hell?” He barely caught the phone before it went shooting past him, hoping the look he shot at his tech expert made it clear he wasn't happy.
“Listen!” The fact that the kid was willing to get his head ripped off for shouting at him like that told Chris it was serious and with only a warning glare, he turned his attention to the phone, pressed two to replay the message and stuck it to his ear. Chris's eyes narrowed as Buck's voice, more worried than he'd heard it in awhile, came through the speaker, face going cold and hard with anger as the message played.
Standish, Ezra, was a pain-in-the-ass half the time, he was late at least two days a week, if more than three months went by without Chris having to talk Travis into not writing him up for insubordination he assumed the man was sick. But he was Chris's pain-in-the-ass, one of his men, one of his family, right now the most vulnerable member, and this was not to be tolerated. With far more calm than he actually felt, Chris laid the cell-phone on the table, turned on the speaker phone and pressed two again, both Nathan and Vin leaning in close, alert and worried. “Hey kid, listen, someone played a real nasty prank on Ezra, and I need all hands on deck. Somebody sent him a very official looking email saying he was getting transferred to California, papers attached and everything. He took off before I figured out what the hell was going on, turned his cell off, and either way, you know Ezra, doubt he's gonna believe anybody but Chris who tells him it ain't true. Call me back quick as you can, please.”
There is a pause where all of them, including him, just stare at the phone as though it is a bomb. Vin's fingers are tight on the edge of the table, eyes trained on Chris, waiting for his orders. Nathan, looking like he might by sick, said quietly, “It is just a prank, right?” At the harsh look Chris directed his way, he hurried to explain, “I know you wouldn't Chris, but Travis, sometimes...”
Harsh look still firmly in place, Chris snapped at him, “Week or two loan, he can go over my head. For a permanent transfer he requires my signature. It's a prank.” Nathan's shoulders relaxed just a bit then, and if he hadn't been so furious Chris might have found some humor in that. Those two were fine friends, as long as no one tried to make them admit it. “Alright, lunch's over, time to saddle up. JD, get started trying to trace that email, if you can do it from your phone do it, and do what you have to do.” JD, fingers already flying over the tiny keyboard, nodded sharply in response, no sign of the usual grin he got when Chris all but told him he could hack. “Vin, you make the rounds, if anybody has a problem with Ezra, hell is saying anything about him, the bust, anything, you find out.” The former bounty hunter was able to blend in, be unobtrusive, just by changing his body language a little, add that to the charm and the accent, and he was by far the best on their team at gathering information the old fashioned way. “Nathan, I want you to put out feelers to the local hospitals, the medics you work with. If Ezra or anyone matching his description is checked in anywhere I want to know in five minutes.” Without another word Chris rose and turned to stride away from the table, no doubt that the others would be following at his back.
Ezra walked slowly into the run down church, not at all sure why he was here. He seemed to be running at least half on auto-pilot and it wasn't until after he'd parked that he'd fully realized where he was. Josiah had gotten them all to volunteer here last Christmas and Ezra had found to his surprise that he enjoyed it. That had been nearly a year ago now, the first time he'd stepped foot in a Catholic church since Christmas that dreadful year he lived with Aunt Bernice when he was nine, and Mr. Sanchez had talked him into coming back with him twice since. It was empty, which he supposed made sense in the middle of the day on a Friday, any activity would be going on in the building that housed the office and the large cafeteria that functioned half as a soup kitchen and half as a safe place for the kids in the neighborhood in between school and their parents getting home from work, away from the pressures of the gangs and worse. Here, in the old chapel, there was no one.
He supposed that was maybe what he'd wanted. Ezra walked up the isle, hoping the place was as deserted as it seemed, and sat down in the middle of the rows, staring up at the carving of Jesus. His mind flickered briefly to a discussion Nathan and Josiah had had about how the depiction was all wrong, Jesus would have looked more Middle Eastern or African, dark skinned like the Hebrew people of the time. The modern depiction of Jesus was based off the lover of the artist hired by the church. Ezra smirked as he wondered whether that meant the man had seen God in their lovemaking. Buck regularly claimed that his conquests could do just that, so perhaps.
“Ah don't know why Ah thought coming here would help.” His words seemed to reverberate back to him through the empty church. “Ah suppose Ah wanted answers, but the truth is Ah don't really know what questions to ask. Not sure Ah'd like the answers Ah'd get anyway.” Ezra just sat there for a few long minutes, growing more and more uncomfortable in the silence, and then suddenly, the idea of him, Ezra P. Standish, who, after that brief stint when he was twelve and Uncle Ephai (his mother wasn't the only one in his family with a penchant for obscure biblical names) had “taught” him how to be a “faith healer”, avoided churches like the plague, coming here to find comfort, coming here at all, struck him as hilarious and he started chuckling, then laughing, laughing so hard he was holding his stomach, and there were tears streaming down his face, and he wasn't sure anymore if he was laughing or crying or doing both at the same time, but it didn't matter, it felt good. How long had it been since he'd let himself do this? Years? Had he ever just let himself go like this? He laughed and cried until his cheeks were sore and his gut ached, his eyes puffy and the corners of them red-raw from tears. Ezra supposed he'd needed that.
Still. That was more than a little embarrassing. At least, if a breakdown of that magnitude had been inevitable, Ezra supposed he had found a secluded place to have it in. He pulled a handkerchief out of his inside suit pocket, and quickly mopped his face of any evidence. Ezra wasn't sure if it was the church, or the solitude, or what, but he had found some measure of peace here, and for that he was grateful. He planned to get up, planned to head out, but he just couldn't seem to find the energy, and next thing he knew he was talking again. It wasn't that he really thought anyone was listening, Ezra wasn't entirely sure he believed in any sort of higher power at all, but something about the silent, cavernous room just asked for the silence to be filled.
“Ah thought Ah'd found mah place. Thought Ah'd found mah people.” He bowed his head slightly, the emotions he was so sure he'd expunged creeping back in faster than he liked. “A family. Mah family. Six brothers.” Anger suddenly coursed through him, the feeling of betrayal slicing all the way through the fog of disbelief for the first time, fist lashing out into the solid oak pew in front of him, and suddenly he was talking to the God he wasn't sure he believed in, angry and demanding, and wanting to know why, “Ah thought ah was finally done moving on. Thought the prayers Ah used to pray befah Ah was old enough to know better, to know that even if there was a God he didn't bother with the likes of me, had been answered. Ah know Ah'm a sinner, Mothah had me running cons before Ah could tie mah shoes, but Ah thought there was mercy for the repentant. That's what Josiah says anyway, and he is meant to be the expert. Thought the fact that Ah've spent mah entire adult life doing the exact opposite of what Ah was taught might eventually count for something. Ah don't even cheat at cards anymore, not that Ah ever needed too.” Ezra smirked, no humor in it, “Perhaps this is a sign Ah shouldn't bothah.”
“Ah don't know if Ah have it in me anymore to start ovah somewhere new.” He laughed then, “Lord, Mothah would be ashamed if she heard that. Probably threaten to disown me again. Mah childhood was nothing but starting ovah new, the most important thing she taught me, how to start ovah and come out on top every time.”
Be on top. Win at all costs, unless it's to you. Always have a plan. Everyone has an angle.
Lessons drilled into his head every day of his childhood spent with her.
Her number one, of course, had always been 'appearances are everything'.
The worst part was she was right. She had always been right.
Why had he come here of all places? This was Mr. Sanchez's place, not his. Perhaps, some last pathetic attempt to feel close to the man. Ezra's place was nightclubs and underground gambling halls, smoke-filled bars with washed up singers crooning away in the corners, back alley dice games one night and high stakes poker the next. Not here. He heaved himself to his feet and headed to the little stand where the votive candles were kept, going to pull his wallet from his back pocket, holding back a pained noise when his hand protested. He moved it into the light where he could see it and grimaced. Ezra had forgotten he'd done that. At least one knuckle was broken, the whole thing red and starting to mottle with bruises and Mr. Jackson would not be-
Ezra cut off his thought almost violently, using his other hand to grab his wallet. Opening it, he pulled out a bill and shoved it into the collection box at the front, then regarded the candles a bit warily. He knew he was supposed to choose one, place it and light it, but wasn't there kneeling involved? Ezra didn't even know if a non-Catholic was supposed to light a candle. He remembered he'd had to stay seated for communion when his aunt and cousins had gone up for it.
While, the church could just have a donation then. Giving his typical two finger salute to the front of the room in general Ezra turned and strode back down the aisle. It was past time to find that bar.
“Nathan, why does Chris think Ezra might wind up in the hospital?” JD half whispered it in his ear, trying to be quiet, as they hurried through the parking lot. Chris was on the phone to Buck in front of them, barking out questions and listening impatiently to answers, and getting killed for talking too loud was not going to help him trace that email. He held in a huff as Nathan hesitated, either not wanting to answer or not sure how to. Geez, he'd been off probie status, an official agent, for a year now, since he turned twenty-one. When was everybody going to stop treating him like a kid?
“Hell JD, ya know Ez can be kinda unpredictable when he's upset bad.” Vin leaned over, inserting himself to Nathan's visible relief, “'Member what he pulled last time his Ma came to 'visit'?” JD cringed, then nodded.
“He tried to pick a fight with that giant guy at the saloon.” Chris had about killed Ezra for that, JD was pretty sure the only reason he hadn't was because they'd all been there when Maude had ripped Ezra's heart out that time. It had still come pretty close when he'd started mouthing off to Chris as he was being dragged away by the scruff of his neck.
And this time there was no one there to drag him away. Crap.
They were at the SUV then, and any chance of conversation clearly over, the tension radiating off Chris already filling the vehicle as they were climbing in, Chris and Nathan in the front, Vin and him in the back. JD fiddled with his phone, it was relatively easy to hack into the email server the Denver ATF used from his phone, and it would only be another few minutes or so until he was in Ezra's email, but tracing where the email had come from would be a lot easier and more accurate once he was back in the office and had some proper equipment. From the way Chris was driving, probably breaking about half the traffic laws Denver had, it wouldn't be long. His fingers flying over the keys with a mind of their own, JD's mind drifted back to Ezra and his mother.
Truth was, the first time he'd met Maude he'd been kind of jealous of Ezra at first, not only was he the only one of them who still had a mother, but Maude had seemed sophisticated and glamorous, and she'd been so friendly to JD.
He'd gone home that night and missed his Mam bad, worse than he had in ages. He'd heard a bit of Ezra's life by then, not much, but a bit, had known Maude had often left him with relatives, but JD had assumed it was because she had to, because it was the only way she could support him. Before she got sick JD had seen his Mam come home with her knees bloody and back bent from scrubbing floors, to make sure he had enough, to make sure he never went without. Buck had grown up moving from hotel to motel while his mother had literally done just about anything to keep her boy fed, clothed and housed. Buck called his Momma a saint, and JD thought the same of his Mam.
Mother's weren't supposed to leave their children because they couldn't be bothered with them. Weren't supposed to only come back when they needed them for something.
Josiah had told him once when they were talking, that that wasn't quite fair. That while Maude was obviously not an ideal mother, she had led a hard life that taught her how to survive, and raised her son to be the same. JD had been tempted to tell Josiah he didn't think he was thinking entirely with his brain, but he wasn't that stupid. So instead he'd asked him if he thought Ezra had understood that, when he was just a little kid. Josiah had gotten quiet then, for so long JD had thought maybe he wasn't going to say anything else, then in probably the softest voice JD had heard from the big man, he'd said, “No, no, I don't suppose he did.”, and got up and walked away. He hadn't seemed quite so enamored with her the next time she'd come to town.
After what she'd done last time JD was pretty sure all of them but Ezra hated her. At the least, they resented the hell out of seeing her hurt Ezra like she had.
Maude had swept into the office with all her usual fanfare, on the second day of what had been supposed to be a week long visit, to announce she was leaving on a cruise, “with an old flame who contacted me out of the blue with a wonderful opportunity, if Ah don't go now Ah can't at all, and you understand, don't you, darlin'?” Ezra's“But Mothah,” had still been hanging on the air, as she swept back out of the room, leaving as quickly as she had entered.
Ezra had insisted he was fine, laughed it off as typical, and tried to offer his restaurant reservation for that night to one of them-“Perhaps Rain and you would enjoy it Nathan? Oh, I'd forgotten she was out of town. Buck didn't you say you were meeting a new lady love tonight?”, but it had been patently obvious he wasn't fine at all. Who could be, after that?
The birthday balloons and cheesy singing card that Buck and him had brought in that morning, that Ezra had pretended to be appalled by, but still wound up in a place of honor on his desk, even the more sedate cards and trinkets from the others, had suddenly seemed more mocking than anything. Chris had taken over then, announcing that since it was almost five, none of them had been working much anyway, and he needed a drink, they were all going to the saloon. Yes, Ezra, everyone.
Chris hadn't said it, but JD had known exactly what he meant-they'd be damned before they let him spend his birthday alone. Besides, before and after Ezra nearly starting a bar fight they'd actually had a lot of fun, and JD was pretty sure that included Ezra too.
With a few more steps, he was in Ezra's email, and opening up the memo titled “Official Transfer; Final Documents”. His heart sank as he read it over, no wonder Ezra had believed it-JD would have believed it, at least would have been scared it was real, and though he liked to think he would have talked to somebody instead of just taking off like Ezra, he wasn't sure.
He'd been secretly hoping he'd open it up and see something glaringly wrong, something that made them obviously fake that Ezra just hadn't noticed because it was so personal, because that might have meant that it had just been meant to shock and startle him, that whoever had done it had figured Ezra would realize they were fake before too long. It would have been mean either way, and it had hurt Ezra no matter what-that was most important, and whoever it was would still have faced Team Seven's revenge. JD hadn't wanted to believe that someone had hurt his teammate, one of his brothers, that badly on purpose, but they clearly had. Reaching forward JD tapped Nathan on the shoulder, and when the unusually solemn faced man turned to face him, handed him his phone to read what was on the screen. Nathan read it quietly, let out a deep and angry sigh, and passed the phone back. “We'll fix it, JD.”
JD bit back the urge to say, “Promise?” on the grounds that he wasn't a kid, and he did know that, he did. He just didn't understand why someone had tried to break it, tried to break Ezra in the first place. Because that's what they were trying to do with this, they were trying to break his friend.
He'd been worried as hell this whole time, still was, but suddenly JD realized he was really, really mad. Some stranger, some unknown enemy had attacked his family. Only it wouldn't be a stranger, would it?
No, there would be no reason for a stranger to attack like this, even if somebody was hired this led back to an enemy of some sort. Something like this was personal. Then there was the email itself. There was a reason, JD was sure, that the email had come when it did, when almost everyone was unavailable, either in court or out of town. Buck was still in a cast too, and while that wouldn't slow him down much, it was still a factor. It implied they knew their schedules at least, which either pointed at someone else in the ATF trying to create a rift between them or information somehow getting out to an enemy, through a leak of some sort-the second option was far, far worse. JD thought it was less likely too. Ezra had disappeared and turned his phone off, leaving him alone and potentially vulnerable, but that had been no guarantee. He could have done any number of things, asked personnel what was going on, actually told Buck what was wrong when he asked (Okay, JD had to admit that was a definite long shot), knowing Ezra, stormed up to Travis's office and told him to shove his transfer where the sun didn't shine, only more sophisticated sounding-which probably would have gotten him fired, so at least he hadn't chosen that one. Running off might have been the most likely choice, and it had been the choice he made, but it was definitely not the only one.
“JD, get your butt in gear.” Vin shoved at his shoulder and JD looked up to see that they were in the parking lot, Chris already striding across the cement floor of the parking garage, Nathan and Vin sliding out. JD hurried to follow, jogging forward to catch up with Chris once he was out of the vehicle. Talking to Chris when he was in this kind of mood was a little risky, but even if JD thought the chances were low, he couldn't not share what was on his mind.
“Chris?” The man nodded sharply to let him know he was listening. “I'm worried this isn't just a prank. I-”
“Dammit JD, I told you all, they aren't-”
“No Chris, not that, whoever sent that email, sent it a time when almost all of us were unavailable. It could be a coincidence, but it seems more likely it's someone who knows our schedule. Maybe that just confirms it's someone in the building, trying to mess with our team, or having a problem with Ezra, or maybe it means someone is leaking information to an enemy from this bust or an old one. Maybe they were watching, hoping to get him alone and vulnerable.” As far as JD knew Ezra had only ever been compromised on one mission, and that had been because a suspect from a previous job had been hired on by the new guy and recognized him, but that didn't mean that it couldn't have happened again. There was a muscle twitching in Chris's jaw now, and he was silent almost all the way to the elevator.
“Forward that email to me. I'm going straight up to Travis's office.” JD didn't hesitate, pulling his phone out of his pants pocket and forwarding the email to Chris. Chris had also pulled his phone out, JD thought maybe to call the director and make sure he was in his office, until Chris started snarling, “Agent Standish, this is your boss. Get your ass back to the office now. I have no intention of transferring you anywhere, and the fact that you think I would without even talking to you first is something we are gonna have a long talk about. I mean it, Ezra, your ass back at the office now! Until we know who sent that email and why we're treating this as a potential threat. Call me back.” The elevator chimed then, doors opening and all four climbed in, Nathan and Vin, who had caught up in time to hear Chris's message but not JD's theory, exchanging worried glances. Why had this gone from a vicious prank, bad enough, to a potential threat?
“What's goin' on, Chris?” Vin sidled close to Chris in the elevator, asking his question quietly. Chris inclined his head in JD's direction, muscle in his jaw still twitching and not in the mood to talk. Both Vin and Nathan turned towards him, expectant and JD shrugged.
“Could be nothing, but think about it. The email came in when almost everybody was out of the office, so they have our schedule. Could just mean it was internal, probably what we all thought anyway-how else would the papers look so legit?-but what if it's worse? What if he was compromised without us knowing, after a bust or something, and someone they have on the inside leaked our schedule? Hoping he'd do something stupid like, well, take off and turn off his phone so no one knows where he is.”
“Their whole plan would depend on Ezra reacting a certain way to the email,” Nathan pointed out, frowning, “Who besides us knows him that well?”
“I thought about that, that's why I was saying it could be nothing, but better safe than sorry, right? If we don't treat it like a threat and it is...” JD shuddered despite himself, and felt a bit bad at how Vin's jerky nod and the tight way Nathan's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed made him a little less embarrassed for doing so.
“Ezra's going to be fine. Whoever did this won't be.” Chris's voice was hard and dark and a comforting promise all at once, and the knot that had been growing in JD's stomach relaxed just a little. He knew he was probably too old to think like that, but when Chris said something was fine, JD believed him.
As he pulled out of the church parking lot, a restlessness, a not knowing what to do with himself, filled Ezra, sitting on a bar stool for the rest of the day no longer as appealing. It was after all, he glanced down quickly at the dashboard to confirm, only a little into the afternoon. If he started drinking now he'd likely be in jail by midnight, and Ezra Standish did not do drunk tanks. Still, he needed something to do with himself, something to distract himself from his cycling thoughts. The answer came unexpectedly when at the intersection across from him two car loads of teens began trash-talking each other, shouted curses mixing with laughter and revving engines before the light changed and they peeled out, the well plowed and traveled road luckily not giving them any trouble. Ezra had the sudden urge to peel out himself, to push his baby to the limits. He wouldn't do so here, not in a crowded neighborhood like this, but he wasn't that far from the warehouse district. It wouldn't be the first time he'd put the jag through it's paces there, though a first for this time of year.
A grin curling on his face, Ezra took the winding roads back to the highway, getting on for only a few exits, before getting off again. He kept his speed within normal ranges, pushing it a little on the straights, going around a few corners just a bit too fast, enjoying the pull on the car and on his body, until he was far back in one of the abandoned corners of the warehouse district. Very little police presence, Ezra knew that for a fact, and he let his speed increase, and increase again, until he was whipping around corners, wheels barely on the ground, nearly fishtailing more than once, pushing the Jag to the edge of it's limits, the rush leaving a wide grin on his face and the concentration needed to keep the car under control pushing everything else from his mind. He couldn't go as fast as he wanted, the roads weren't as well salted or as well traveled out here and there was still more than a bit of ice on the pavement, but he pushed the car far harder than he knew he had any right to be doing in this weather. Ezra spun out once and barely managed to get the car back under control before he hit the sidewalk and the streetlight there, adrenaline coursing through him and drawing out a wild laugh.
This was freedom. This was fantastic.
Ezra didn't really notice how long he'd been driving, or how far he'd wound up traveling from the few abandoned blocks until familiar red and blue lights began flashing behind him and with a curse he slowed down and pulled over. His registration and proof of insurance were tucked next to him in a small Ziploc for easy access but he didn't reach for them, instead placing his hands neatly and in plain sight on the wheel as the officer-plainclothes, he noticed, in a nondescript car-approached, looking rather incredibly infuriated. At least he'd slowed down to 60 from the 80/90 mph easy he'd been doing before, his subconscious having picked up that he'd moved to a busier part of the district with other vehicles and workers around even if he hadn't actively noticed it, but since that was still more than double the speed limit he doubted that would help him.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” It was boomed down at him, and Ezra fought the urge to glare back at the grizzled old man. There were ordinarily very few people he would put up with yelling at him like that, but Ezra was aware enough that he was in the wrong here.
There was also something strangely familiar about the man, that had him wondering if he'd interacted with him when undercover, only he would swear he'd never met him before. Most people categorized faces first, but a childhood of listening at keyholes and halfway up stairwells had made Ezra very good at recognizing voices and he was certain he'd never talked to the officer before in his life.
“Yes sir. Ah need to inform you, officer, that Ah am an ATF agent and am carrying a firearm in mah glove box.” If anything the glare got more intense, the officer stiffening, but he'd expected that and waited patiently.
“I'll need to see your badge.”
“Of course. It's in mah inside suit pocket, it's alright if Ah reach for it?”
“Go on.” Slowly, being sure to telegraph each of his movements, Ezra pulled back his suit jacket and removed his badge and identification handing it over to the officer who relaxed almost immediately as he looked it over. He handed it back, then fixed Ezra with a gimlet eye. “So, is it ATF business that had you speeding like a maniac through here?”
For a brief moment Ezra considered saying yes, that he was on important business, and he needed to go right now, but only for a moment. He was, even now, proud of being an ATF agent and it wouldn't do to corrupt that in anyway. Despite what others might think. “No, Officer-”, he shot a questioning look at the other man,
“Captain Brady.” Oh Lord, Ezra, when you step in it you really step in it, he thought.
“No, Captain Brady, Ah'm afraid Ah can't claim that.” While doing his best to look suitably contrite Ezra suddenly realized why the man looked so familiar, and his stomach dropped. He had seen him before-in an image of a younger Buck and Chris, still with homicide, holding strings of fish with an older man, a man they had referred to as Sergeant Brady, one of the only pictures on Chris's mantle that wasn't of the team. “Mr. Larabee is going to kill me.” He hadn't meant to say it out loud, but from the look the man tossed him he clearly had, a questioning look that quickly turned amused as he realized what Ezra just had.
“You're one of Chris's boys?” He chuckled and shook his head, “You know when I wished for him to get a handful to match him and Wilmington as rookies I didn't realize it would actually happen. I feel kind of bad now.” Ezra sunk deeper in his seat. If he weren't so thoroughly screwed he'd ask the man just what sort of things Chris and Buck had gotten up to, but judging from the evil glint in the man's eye recognition didn't mean he was off the hook. “So, not ATF business?” Brady bent down and looked Ezra in the eye, all laughter gone, “I'm thinking it's just a young man with a too fast car on an unexpectedly sunny day doing something real stupid, isn't it?” Ezra wanted to protest this, both on principle and because it made him sound younger than JD, but found he couldn't. He didn't agree either, instead just sitting there, but the police captain didn't seem to be expecting him too, and carried on, “I should take you in for reckless driving.” Ezra opened his mouth to protest, because sixty wasn't that extreme of a speed-surely a ticket would suffice?-but was talked over before he could get more than half a syllable out, “What do you call going 75mph around turns with the roads like they are?” Ah. Brady had seen more than he thought, or at least had it called in to him.
He waited expectantly for a response from the agent, who at first said nothing, assuming it was a hypothetical question, then when he realized an answer was expected said, slightly grudgingly, “Ah suppose Ah cannot argue with your definition.” If the man was aware of his earlier recklessness he really couldn't afford to argue with him, but feeling as though he had just lost any hope of talking Chris into keeping him here wasn't helping his attitude either.
“Damn straight.” He glared at Ezra until he looked away, not sure what else to do. “Tell you what. Since I know what a pain in the ass it is to have to bail your men out of jail, I'll let you go with a warning. But-” he held up a hand to stave off the thanks that was already forming on Ezra's lips, “I'm still telling Larabee.”
“Oh god.” The words came out as a slightly horrified whisper, and with Brady's lips twitching, clearly having gotten the response he was hoping for, Ezra spoke quickly, and what he hoped was smoothly, “Thank you, Captain. Ah truly do appreciate your kindness in this matter.”
“Uh-huh. I catch your ass pulling this kinda shit again, I won't do you any favors. Understand?”
“Good. Get out of here.” The older man straightened up and took a few steps back from the car, crossing his arms as he waited for Ezra to turn the Jag back on and pull onto the road before he walked back to his own vehicle, intent on making a phone call. Neither of them paid any attention to the small Mazda that had driven ahead while they were talking, and Ezra didn't notice as a block or so later it pulled back out behind him.
No, Ezra was busy being torn over the thought that Mr. Larabee likely would not be reading him the riot act over this, nor Mr. Sanchez or Mr. Jackson. Why would any of them bother? Ezra would be gone by Sunday night, all but the few precious possessions he'd carry with him would be packed up by a moving company the day after that, and then Ezra and all reminders of him would just be a distant memory.
He'd always assumed that the thought of no longer being subjected to the rather intense dressing downs that Mr. Larabee was so fond of would be a relief. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that he was a fool. Also, staying away from bars wasn't keeping him out of trouble, so what was the point? At least if he was drunk he'd be able to forget about this for a little while, and it would likely be a safer outlet for his frustrations than what he had been doing. Now that the adrenaline had faded away the memory of that rapid spin-out was a bit...much.
Ezra had gotten almost all the way to one of his usual haunts, a gambling hall called Mariano's, when he changed his mind. People knew him there, the owner was a friend of sorts, and while the idea of losing himself in the flash, the slick conversation, the fast-paced games of chance, and beautiful people, was enticing, Ezra knew himself, and the black mood hanging over him now was not something to bring there, not with as drunk as he was planning to get. Not if he wanted to be welcome in the future.
He paused in the turn lane, not really noticing as the car behind him honked, then went around him a second later, driver cursing and flipping him off. He wouldn't be here in the future, so why in the world was he worrying about his welcome?
No. Ezra liked Mariano, and had no desire to cause any trouble in the man's club. He wanted somebody in Denver to think well of him when he was gone. Besides, it did no good to burn unnecessary bridges.
Better to go somewhere where nobody knew him. Ezra looked to make sure it was clear and did a quick u-turn. He knew just the spot, a rough and tumble, run-down place on the edge of town. He could honestly say they didn't know him there. Aaron Swales had been five lbs heavier, had a lip piercing and a NY accent, along with blue eyes and bleach blond hair that was several inches longer than Ezra wore his regularly. Besides, most of the people he'd frequented the establishment with would be in jail for the next few years. Perhaps it was foolish, but Ezra figured if Mr. Larabee was going to get rid of him he might as well give him a good reason, more than simply being told on by the man's old boss. Mind made up, he hurried to get there, never once noticing the small and banged up little Mazda following him from half a block behind.
Chris sat ramrod straight, waiting for Director Travis's response to the news he'd delivered, the man pursuing the email he had opened on his computer much slower than Chris felt was appropriate. Finally the director sat back, face tight, clearly furious, and Chris felt something in his own shoulders ease just a bit. He knew that Travis would take action against whoever this was no matter what, that even if the intent wasn't criminal that level of maliciousness wouldn't be ignored-and if it had been Chris would have just had to give one of those private contractors who kept contacting him a call back-but Nathan was right when he said sometimes Travis was too hard on Ezra.
Hell, the same could be said of both Chris and Nathan, but that was different. They were family and there were certain lines they knew not to cross. Travis wasn't. Not quite. So to the see that the man was upset, personally outraged, was welcome. “Agent Dunne thinks this might involve a threat to Agent Standish?”
“Yes Director. Because of when the email came in, and the chances of Standish-”
“Running off half-cocked?” Chris felt his face tighten, but nodded.
Travis sighed and leaned forward, “Don't look at me like I'm the enemy here, Larabee. Standish has grown on me just as much as the rest of you disreputable characters, and you know my wife adores him. I don't want to see anything bad happen to the boy either. Especially...well, it isn't right to kick a man when he's down. Whatever this is, whether it's a personal vendetta, or if the email is involved in a larger threat against him, or your team as a whole, heads are going to roll This kind of interference with a federal agent is highly criminal and they won't just be fired. You let me take care of that part.” He leaned back again, “For now, you concentrate on finding our missing man and tracking down the source of that email. The idea of sending out anyone else to look for him doesn't sit well with me, even if it was meant to be a prank the level of cruelty involved...if the jackass behind it wound up being one of the people looking who knows what could happen. If it's not a prank...well, it's not worth the risk. Unless you have specific people you want to bring in at this time, I'd like to keep it to just your men.”
“Maybe Ryan Kelley, and a couple of his guys, no one else. Only if we need it though, for now I agree, let's keep it my team.”
“Alright. Anything else I can do for you, let me know.” It was an order, and one Chris had no problem following.
“Mostly sir, I want to know Ezra's not going to face repercussions at work if he gets himself into trouble.” Chris had never asked for a get out of jail free card for himself before, let alone one of his men, and in any other situation he wouldn't. But while he had every intention of holding Ezra responsible himself for any trouble he was in, he didn't want a black mark on his record, or worse, not for this.
Travis glared at him for a long moment, and finally snapped out, “Keep him out of jail more than overnight and I'll do my best.”
“Thank you, Director.”
“My best, Agent Larabee.” The director warned, and Chris nodded. “Get busy. Keep me updated. Try not to kill anyone. Including him.” Chris let a hint of a grin show on his face at that, pushing himself to his feet.
“Yes sir.” He turned to go, was almost through the door when Travis called after him, the words making his blood boil.
“It's not your fault, Chris.”
“He thought I was transferring him off the team. That I would let him find out by goddamned email. Like hell it's not, Orin.” Chris took the last step out of the room, slamming the door behind him and glaring back at Travis's assistant when she looked at him askance. By the time he got to the elevator he'd started to calm down, when his phone rang and pulling it out he saw the number on it and felt a headache starting to build behind his eye. Brady could just be calling for the hell of it, but he wasn't. Chris just wasn't that lucky. He hit the answer button on his phone at the same time as he jammed his finger on the elevator call button, thankful when it opened almost immediately, and even more thankful that it was empty, quickly walking in.
“Larabee.” Chris pressed the door close button, but didn't select the floor, having a feeling he'd want privacy for this conversation.
“You know when you told me you had a pack to beat you and Buck, I didn't believe you. I stand corrected.” There was a laugh in Brady's voice and Chris relaxed a little, because if Ezra were hurt or in serious trouble there wouldn't be.
“What the hell did he do?”
“Used the abandoned section of the warehouse distract as his own personal Nascar racetrack. Noticed you aren't asking which one.”
“Standish is the only one of my men unaccounted for. When you say Nascar?” Chris wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. His men. More like boys.
“Fastest I saw him going was ninety but he was slowing down to about seventy-five or so for the corners.” Loud swearing filled the elevator for a good minute, Brady's quiet chuckling the only other sound. Finally Chris tapered off, and the other man continued, “Your agent is just fine, son.”
“Would've been real easy for him not to be. I swear, next time I leave the office I'm tying him to his damn desk.” Chris was pissed, and he was serious about not letting him out of his sight once he got his hands on him. Ezra was going to spend his weekend at the ranch, like it or not, where he could make damn sure he didn't do anything else suicidally stupid. Chris would keep him too damn busy. He had plenty of chores for him. Oh yes. Ezra's weekend was going to be full of mucking out stalls and whatever other disgusting things he could come up with. “Is he still with you?”
“No, I gave him a warning and sent him on his way. Made sure he knew I was going to tell you though. He seemed more scared of that then a reckless driving charge.” Chris had half been expecting that, there was no way they'd find Ezra that easily, but he still bit back a curse. “What is it?”
“Thanks for letting him off, Brady, I owe you one.”
“You don't owe me shit, now, what is it?” He trusted Brady as much as he trusted anybody who wasn't part of his team, and after a minute decided he'd tell him part of it at least.
“This morning, while ninety percent of my team was unavailable to him, somebody sent my agent fake papers saying I was transferring him away by Monday. Standish, the idiot, believed it, took off and shut off his phone. If he's already trying to crash his damn car who knows what the hell he'll do next.” In the empty space of the elevator, his old mentor in his ear, Chris let himself sag back against the wall, shoulders slumping. It wouldn't be long before he'd be back with his team and he'd have to stand tall.
“Hell Chris, if I'd known...” The regret was clear in Brady's voice, and Chris brushed aside the apology tiredly.
“No way you could have. How long ago this all happen?”
“Not more than ten minutes ago. I can get in my car right now, see if I can catch up with him.”
He meant to say he'd appreciate it, instead what came out was, “Please.” Chris wasn't used to words he didn't plan to say coming out of his mouth, and he didn't much like it. Didn't much like the sick/angry/worried feeling that permeated his body and only seemed to happen when one of his men was in a bad situation.
“Of course. I'll let you know if I find him.” Brady clicked off then, no better with goodbyes than Chris was. Chris took a deep breath, shoved his phone in his pocket and pressed the button for Team Seven's floor. By the time he stepped out of the elevator a minute later his back was straight and his shoulders square, plans already being formed as he stalked down the hallway to their office, calling out orders as he shut the door a little too hard behind him. “JD, put a hold on that trace for now, we've got a lead on Ezra. I want any footage you can get off street cams, traffic cams, any kind of video at all from over in the old section of the warehouse district, last hour or so.” JD was already switching things around on the network of technological devices he had tethered together, just nodding, not looking over at Chris, which meant he was 'in the zone'. “Nathan, get that duffle bag you call a first aid kit, get ready to go.” Nathan patted the duffle bag, which Chris now saw was already on his desk, knowing Nathan he'd been checking every inch of it over so he knew what he had, even though he'd checked it at he beginning of the week and they hadn't been out since the bust.
“Ready when you are, Chris.”
“Good. Buck, guess who Brady just pulled over for reckless driving?” Buck's mouth dropped open, and went through a few contortions as he scrambled for words that would have been funny under ordinary circumstances.
“What-Brady? Reckless driving? You're serious? That little shit okay?”
“Fine, for now.” Until Chris got his hands on him. “Brady let him go with a warning. Vin reported in yet?”
“Nah, it's only been about half an hour since he left.”
Nathan, whose mouth had dropped open with Chris's first sentence to Buck, broke in here, “How reckless? Putting his life in danger reckless?” He was clearly starting to fume, Chris figured assuming, and rightly so, that the answer was yes.
“What it sounded like.” Nathan closed his eyes and muttered something that Chris figured Rain would have smacked him for, and the way his hand had closed on his first aid duffle he was fighting the urge to check it one last time. “JD, any luck on that video?”
JD shook his head, still not looking away from his screen, “Not yet, I'm getting closer but I'm not a miracle worker.” His voice was a touch snappish, frustrated, and Buck smacked him on the back of the head, knocking his hat askew, “Hey, what was that for?”
“Being a smart-ass.”
Chris shook his head and headed into his office to grab a few things, calling over his shoulder, “Quit distracting him Buck!”, JD's triumphant “Hah!” back at Buck bringing a reluctant smile to his lips.
Everything was ready. They were going to look for Ezra, and they were going to find him.
As soon as JD started following the Jag through the street camera's he might even know where to start.
“What the hell does he think he's doing?” Nathan stared at the screen over JD's shoulder, his fingers in a death grip on the back of the boy's chair, “Is he trying to kill himself??”
As the video was currently showing Ezra's car going around a corner on three wheels, barely, no one could really argue with him. It had taken JD almost twenty minutes to get video of Ezra, first having to get access to the city's traffic and street cameras, then search through video from the rather large disused corner of the warehouse district before he got a glimpse of the distinctive car. At first Ezra's driving, while far from safe, was still in the bounds of sanity, but it had gotten increasingly risky, to the point that Nathan kept flinching, not able to convince his body what his mind knew-dumb luck or otherwise, Ezra had come out unscathed.
As JD moved the feed to the next camera along the route, speeding through the video, skipping ahead to another camera when he thought he could tell where Ezra was heading next, jumping back when he was wrong, retracing until the Jag was on the screen again, having to guess where to look when there were long gaps with no cameras, muttering under his breath at his computer, they came to a scene that made Nathan's heart about stop, breath catching in his throat. Ezra's car spun out hard, twisting around a good two or three times in the middle of an empty intersection. The camera had perfectly caught the moment when his head had impacted on the driver's side window, and, while it obviously wasn't hard enough to knock him out or even daze him much, because he got the car under control-only seconds before he would have crashed the Jag into a streetlight-Nathan still forgot to breath until the car stopped sliding, straightening out. There was a camera facing Ezra at the intersection as he sped away, and the cocky idiot was laughing. Ezra could have died, or been mangled beyond recognition, or paralyzed, any number of horrible things that Nathan had seen happen, he'd done the field triage on hurt and dying people after more than one car accident, everyone of them popping through his head in those terrible few seconds of video, and Ezra could have died, horribly, and the son-of-a-bitch had been laughing .
Nathan forced himself to take one deep breath, and then another. Ezra was fine. Brady, from the stories he'd heard, was the sort of man who would have noticed the signs of a head injury pretty quickly. Ezra was fine . He hadn't crashed his car, and he wasn't going to crash his car.
He didn't do these things just to drive Nathan crazy.
Buck nudged him in the leg with his crutch tip and Nathan drug his eyes from the screen to look at Buck, sprawled out in the chair next to JD, who gave him a lopsided smile under worried eyes, “Makes you wonder if there's a way to ground a grown man from his car keys, don't it?” Nathan chuckled despite himself, and Buck ran a hand over his hair, shaking his head, “Boy needs his ass kicked for that one.”
“More like a trip to the woodshed.” Nathan muttered, Buck huffing out a laugh.
“Hell pard, once Chris sees that video he's gonna come up with something a whole lot more painful than that.”
“Once I see what video?” Chris emerged from his office, gunbelt and other bits and pieces he couldn't take into the court building firmly in place now, suit jacket replaced with his heavy black duster, heading over to them, “JD?” JD split the screen in two, still speeding and jumping through the bits of video of the Jag and Ezra he could find to track him as close as they could, as he headed first one way and then another, as though he either had no destination or kept changing it, and opened the video he'd captured earlier of Ezra's wild ride. Nathan privately suspected JD thought the video and Ezra's acting out-that's the only way he could describe it-was incredibly cool, but JD was twenty-two and everybody was that stupid at twenty-two. Chris, on the other hand, had an opinion closer to his and Buck's judging by the look on his face. It wasn't as horrifying to watch the second time around, but it reinforced Nathan's desire to explain to Ezra, very thoroughly, just what he thought of his driving skills. “JD, where's Ezra now, close as you can tell?”
“Last intersection I've got him at was Murray and 25th, went west on 25th, but there is a long gap with no street camera's after that, and he's not coming up on the next one down the road, he must have turned off, but that's a mile of side roads to check, and so far nothing. Some of them don't have camera's, or he could have turned again before a camera,” JD was clearly getting more discouraged as he talked, the screen split into eighths now as he sped through various video feeds, hoping for a glimpse of the distinctive car, “I mean, it was lucky for me to even be able to follow him that far-” JD cut himself off, going completely silent as he leaned forward towards the screen, before full-screening one of the tiny videos, and jumping to his feet, hands in the air, “found him, six blocks off 25th, I'm the shit!”, then went bright red, sat back down and said, “Um, I mean, he was on 31st and SW Rose thirty minutes ago, Chris.”
Chris just nodded, fully in leader mode, “Good work. Keep us updated. Everybody's got their headsets synced, radios checked?” A round of nods. “Anybody been able to get a hold of Josiah?”
“No,” Nathan said, shaking his head,” his phone's been off since I started trying him.” Chris frowned, and Nathan was sure he was thinking what he was-that it was probably a coincidence, but having the ever reliable Josiah suddenly unavailable in the middle of all this was more than a little disconcerting.
“Probably nothing, he's not due back for another hour, but we'll keep an eye on it.” Chris turned to the door, eager to get started, “Nathan.”
Before either of them had cleared the doorway, JD spoke again, stopping the whole room, “Wait guys, I think this same car was behind Ezra before. Look, it was!” In the few seconds it took Nathan to get back to JD's desk, Chris overtaking him halfway there, JD had about four different videos paused on the same gray Mazda, zooming in on it in the background, behind Ezra at various distances, “This isn't good. This is not good.”
“No, but it's damn good that you caught it,” Nathan said reaching over so he could clap JD's shoulder. “Damn good.”
“Buck call Grady and update him on Ezra's last location, and that he's being tailed. JD, you're doing good, keep it up. Nathan, let's ride.” This time there were no delays and as they marched down the hallway to the elevator, the few people that were there moved out of their way quickly, not sure what had Larabee and Jackson so pissed but wanting nothing to do with it. Ordinarily Nathan would have been secretly pleased at such a response, the pride he felt at being on Team 7, the reputation they had more than earned, resting as a comfortable weight in his mind.
There was no time for any of that now. Even the warring fear and anger that were pumping through him needed to be shoved as far down as they could go. His mind had to be focused, on trying to find Ezra and dealing with whatever this situation was, on keeping him safe and taking down the threat.
Only then would he be able to really focus on the deep, underlying problem here. Ezra still didn't trust the team enough to have his back. Hadn't been able to talk to Buck, or wait for any of the others to be there, still thought they would just send him away at the drop of a hat. As though he still didn't know, after everything, that he was one of them.
Nathan knew that Ezra still kept his emotions somewhat hidden, hiding behind cutting sarcasm and a mostly pretended disdain of team weekends and fishing trips, but it had become clear to him over the years that's what it was, a way to hide. As the sarcasm had become less biting, as Ezra showed up for every event no matter how he complained beforehand, he'd thought the younger man had figured it out. Did he think they were just blowing smoke when they said he was family? When Nathan had called him his brother? His frown grew. He didn't say things like that lightly, and the younger man should have known better.
Or maybe, it was that he still didn't think himself deserving of having them at his back. Ezra had had a team throw him to the wolves, after all, and then they'd told him he deserved it. If Nathan could get five minutes alone with some of those Feebies...
Truth was, he hadn't been much better the first six months or so Ezra had been on the team, and he knew it. At first he just hadn't known the man, hadn't liked the idea of having someone who had been implicated in taking pay-offs on the team, the man's overly large vocabulary and seeming air of superiority not helping a bit. Chris had trusted him though, enough to put him on the team anyway, and Nathan trusted Chris's judgment. Then Ezra had screwed up, screwed up bad, on their first big case together. He'd swooped in and saved them at the last moment, but Nathan hadn't been able to forget that Ezra had been the reason they'd been in danger in the first place. He didn't like having a gun pressed to his head, and liked even less seeing it done to his teammates. That wasn't something you forgot easy. He hadn't wanted to forget it, not at first, or accept that it had truly just been the result of a panicked mistake. It wasn't so much that Nathan had thought Ezra had put them in that situation on purpose, far from it, more that he just plain didn't know what to think, and couldn't help but be suspicious. He'd liked the undercover agent well enough he supposed, enjoyed playing poker at the saloon with him, and it was nice to have a debate with someone who didn't talk in so many circles you never got anywhere, like Josiah, but Nathan hadn't trusted him, and Ezra had known it.
Slowly, faster then he'd realized at the time, but slower then he liked now, that had changed, coming to a head the day the undercover agent had blown his cover to push Nathan out of the way of a bullet, taking it himself. While dragging his teammate back, trying to find cover, the shock of the situation, the gratitude, was covered by fear, not the usual urgent but controlled need to help, the fear that his skills would not be enough to handle the emergency, that he would feel for any human being, but a hot, sick, wash of pure horror, that he was about to lose someone else, someone he hadn't realized was so important to him until right then. Then he'd had to push that fear down, had to examine Ezra as his patient first, but it had still been there, bright and hot in the back of his mind.
It had just been a graze, hadn't taken any time at all for Nathan to stop the bleeding, clean and dress the wound, but that meant that their had been bullets still flying when he was done, and all he could do was crouch there and cover his injured friend. Ezra had been unconscious for most of it, more from the shock and pain of it then blood loss or damage to the flesh, thank God, but he woke briefly when a trio of bullets had whizzed over the stack of pallets they were hiding behind, glancing around frantically and trying to get up until Nathan had stuck his face right over the top of Ezra's, whispering that it would be fine, Nathan had them covered. Ezra had stared at him, smiled, and passed back out. That was when it clicked. He'd been shocked at the situation, hadn't realized there was a gunman in that direction, but he hadn't been surprised at what Ezra had done for him. When Ezra, injured and confused, had realized he was with Nathan he'd trusted that he was safe, that nothing else would happen to him. Trusted. Somehow, without him ever realizing it Nathan had come to trust Ezra to have his back, just as much as any of the others, and it was clear Ezra, Ezra who didn't seem to trust anybody, not even his own mother, trusted him to keep him safe.
Things had changed faster then, there was no way for them not to. Oh, Ezra and he still butted heads, but now it was mainly over him taking too many risks, or occasionally Ezra's obsession with money and luxury-though Josiah had drilled it into Nathan's head enough times that it really had nothing to do with material goods, and everything to do with the security and stability they represented that he thought he might actually get it now. And, sure, they butted heads, but they also watched ancient black and white movies together-not just the classics either, Ezra had a secret love of old monster movies that Nathan was pretty sure only he knew about-, and Rain had adopted the man as her little brother as much as he had, JD and Vin too, but Ezra more so. She made sweet potato pie for Nathan at Thanksgiving and Christmas, said it was too much work to make it more than that. Ezra complimented her on it once, now they had it almost every time he came over for dinner.
He wondered though, if things hadn't changed enough. If he hadn't changed them enough. The elevator came to a stop then, and Nathan hustled off of it, long legs eating up the pavement between him and Chris's ram, as he did what he had intended to do in the first place, pushing his emotions down so he could do his job and do it well. Sliding into his seat Nathan buckled up, then reached to his radio, pressing a few buttons, “JD, any updates on location?”
“As of twenty-five minutes ago he's still on 25th, but about five blocks up, slowing down. Buck thinks maybe he was planning to stop soon.”
“Why?” Chris broke in, tersely, as he slid the truck into reverse and started to back out.
“'Cause there's a whole lotta bars and titty clubs down round there, Chris, and I figure that's where our boy is heading next. Perfect sorta ones to cause trouble in too.”
Chris muttered, “You'd know about that.” and flipped off his mike, the Ram now pulling out of the parking garage at a faster than recommended speed. Nathan pulled out his phone and sent another text message to Josiah, hoping he'd answer this time. Not only was he the best at them at getting through to Ezra, it just wasn't like him to be unavailable. Knowing it was pointless, he tried Ezra again, then froze. It was ringing.
Ezra sat quietly on a corner bar stool, ignoring the people around him as he nursed a bourbon and coke-well, he thought a bit fuzzily as he realized it was almost gone and looked up to see if he could flag down the bartender, perhaps nurse wasn't the right word, but he was being quiet enough. He accidentally flopped his broken hand against the counter as he reached for his drink again, cursing. It had to be the hand he used for everything that he'd broken, and Ezra was beginning to think he'd done more than crack a few knuckles as the pain kept radiating down to the center of his palm. It wasn't hurting near as much as it had anymore, though. The bartender was busy, or maybe ignoring him, but that was fine, his drink wasn't quite gone and he was feeling more than a little inebriated anyway.
Intoxicated. Sotted. Smashed. Plastered. Bombed. Crapulous. Loaded. Stewed. Stoned. Wasted. Soused. Sloshed.
In the words of young Mr. Dunne, Ezra was decidedly 'lit'.
It was amazing how many words humans had in just the English language to mean one was drunk. Also, Ezra thought back over his list as best he could, amazing how many of them started with the letter S. Surely that couldn't be a coincidence? Perhaps it was because S's were hard to say without slurring when you were intoxicated...that way when you asked a sloshed person if they were sloshed, you'd be able to tell when they answered, when they slurred the word...he waved his hand at the bartender again and this time the man came over and refilled his cup, Ezra giving him his customary two finger salute as thanks. The man said something to Ezra about maybe slowing down, and he nodded but had no intention of listening as long as he kept serving him. He'd been in the bar for about thirty minutes now, and while he'd certainly consummated larger amounts...wait, that wasn't the right word, consumed, he meant consumed. Ezra snorted to himself, picturing the reaction if he were to inform someone he was a consummater of alcohol...consummater...was that a word? He didn't think it was a word...what had he been thinking about again...oh, yes. He had consumed-that was the word, Ezra-far larger amounts of alcohol before, but he was pretty sure this was the most he'd every drank in half an hour. So far it was having the desired effect, and he was grateful.
He'd tried the life of the party thing for about two seconds, ordering an AMF when he got here, cracking a joke that he would be saying, “Adios, Motherfucker,” to Denver soon to the bartender. The bartender hadn't so much as twitched a jaw muscle, making a drink and passing it to Ezra with as few words between them as possible, obviously having heard that joke one too many times. Almost all of the people in the bar were regulars, and most of those wore the colors of the gang whose gun trafficking ring Team Seven had taken down. Luckily the bar was close enough to the highway that all of them were used to tourists and outsiders stopping in occasionally, and Ezra didn't garner more than a few eye rolls and a couple of appreciative looks from a few girls he figured couldn't be any older than JD, probably students from the local technical college who thought it was brave to come to a bar with such a bad reputation. Most locals stayed away. Discouraged, and knowing he wasn't truly in the mood to party anyway, Ezra had retreated with his drink to the bar stool and stuck to whiskey since.
They hadn't named the bright blue drink that for nothing though, and combine that with about three whiskey and coke's, four now, and two shots of crown since and Ezra was flying more than a little high. Wait, was it four now, or was it five? Ezra frowned, trying to remember, before deciding it didn't really matter. He was drunk either way, and as fast as he'd been downing them, whether this was the fourth or the fifth, the fourth hadn't hit him yet, so Ezra was soon to be even drunker. All the other times Ezra had been in this bar he'd to be very careful how much he drank, pretending to be far more intoxicated then he actually was. One night he'd had to pretend to snort something, which was every bit as difficult as it sounded. His fingers tracing the pattern in the wood counter-top in front of him with increasing involvement, his mind moved fully from the etymology of drunkenness to the case that had led him here so often, one from about a year and a half ago now, maybe a little longer. JD had been almost brand new, technically still a consultant as the ATF wouldn't officially hire on anyone under 21, couldn't be issued a gun or allowed to work outside the office, even in the surveillance van. Ezra himself had just been starting to relax, just starting to see the others as true friends, and that had been his longest undercover assignment with the team yet, a good four months, when most were no more than a few weeks, the longest still until this last one-though unlike his most recent assignment, he'd had a good idea of just how long he was going under. He'd been more than a little petrified he'd do something to ruin everything, and that was without the everyday stress of maintaining a persona completely different from his own, the fear of either not being convincing enough or delving too far into another life, keeping his wits about him while working to arrange a deal with his imaginary supplier and the gang's head-but only after he'd managed to acquire certain vital pieces of information, because without them the bust would be a bust. Ezra smiled a bit smugly, overly pleased with his own wit. The bust would be a bust, that beat any of Mr. Dunne's puns by far, he was sure.
To Ezra's surprise and relief everything had gone perfectly on the assignment and during the bust(the bust had not been a bust, hah!), and when things had been over Ezra had realized that the relief and satisfaction, the pride and triumph that came with knowing there were less illegal guns on the streets because of him, was stronger somehow, more real than it had been before. Because he hadn't just been finishing a successful operation, he'd been coming home, and he hadn't just been missing his feather bed and his Armani suits, he'd been missing his friends. Against all previous expectations they had even seemed to have missed him as well.
Ezra had even allowed himself to entertain the thought that maybe, silly a thing as it might be for a grown man to want another grown man's approval in such a way, they had been proud of how he had done. That that was what it meant when in a quiet moment in between cheerful welcome back's, and jokes about his blond hair, Mr. Larabee had stepped over next to him and clapped a hand on his shoulder, squeezing, and said quietly, “You did good, Standish.”
Then the announcement had come that money had come up missing from the bust and Ezra had expected, had known , that accusing stares and disappointed looks would soon be following his every move, only-
Only he had been wrong. Mr. Larabee had told I.A. to come back with proof or to shut the hell up, and he had been the personal witness to Mr. Jackson heatedly and viciously tearing into an agent when the man had knocked hard into Ezra when he walked past him in the hallway, making him stumble back into the wall, snarling an accusation at him under his breath. He had still been certain half the time that Nathan was only tolerating his presence on the team-the rest of the time he knew he was being ridiculous, but old habits die hard-and his uncertainty must have shown on his face when he thanked him, because Nathan had scowled, reached out and not so lightly cuffed his shoulder and told him, 'ya dang idiot, of course I know you didn't do it.' Then he'd wanted to know what the hell Ezra was still doing at the office, he'd just come off months undercover, and had he eaten yet? Chris had told him to go take a nap on his couch ages ago, if he wasn't going home. He looked like he'd lost weight, and Nathan didn't like it. That earlier feeling, that he'd had when he stumbled back into the office, having been separated out from the other suspects with them none the wiser and gone through the initial debrief, and the others had crowded around him, of pure acceptance, of being wanted , had filled him again and he'd just kind of let Nathan take over. He still didn't quite remember getting back to his apartment that night, but he had.
When the money had turned up the next day, never missing, just miscounted, misplaced-and Ezra would wonder forever if someone had been trying to set him up, if the others scoffing at the accusation against him had caused I.A to check more thoroughly than they otherwise would have and saved him more grief then they knew-Ezra had been at home sleeping, and had woken up to six men invading his apartment, carrying breakfast and groceries to replace the expired orange juice and moldy bread in his fridge, loud 'told you not to worry”'s ringing in his ears, eyes blurry because they had woken him up before noon and where was their humanity? Not one of them had taken his complaints seriously, because they knew better, knew him better, just grinned at him and kept right on doing what they were doing.
It had been a decidedly different reaction to the one he'd received about a month after he'd arrived in Denver, when he had fumbled a bust, fumbled it bad, and nearly gotten them all killed-all except for him, which certainly hadn't looked good. There had been both suspicious and disappointed looks directed at him then, some of them lasting longer than others, and Ezra hadn't blamed them, not at the time and not now. Frankly, he was surprised they'd bothered with the disappointment. He had, plain and simple, not been where he was supposed to be. Dereliction of duty. A shudder ran through his body at the memory, of strolling through that door full of fake bravado, and seeing his five teammates with guns to their heads, his fault, and as bad as it had been then, to think on it now, when they'd all come to mean so much to him was far, far worse. There was no excuse, none that could ever be good enough, and he hadn't even tried, had just waited to be shown the door. Hell, he'd been waiting to be shown Larabee's fist, probably a couple of times, and while the man had shoved him back into the wall at the end of the bust, had shaken him hard enough his teeth rattled, he hadn't actually struck him.
Then he'd done something no one else had ever done. Mr. Larabee had given Ezra a second chance.
Even though it had been tinged with suspicion and anger he had been given a second chance. A real one. He'd been told he had second chances before, both by the relatives Maude had left him with, and professors in boarding schools and later college. It had always just been words, and whether Ezra changed what he was doing or not, whether he'd been doing anything in the first place or not, their minds had already been made up, one way or the other. Generally, it had been in a way that wasn't good for Ezra.
He'd tried to live up to this one, once he'd realized it was real, and he'd thought he'd done so. Ezra had really, truly thought he had, but he was becoming more and more certain that he must have been incorrect, that he had failed in some way that was obvious to everyone but him. Mr. Larabee was, while often harsh, also in general a fair man. He would not have done this for no reason.
Ezra just wished he would have told him what he was doing wrong. He could have tried to fix it, tried to be better...He swallowed and went to lean his head down on the counter, when the bartender called out to him, voice snappish, “Hey, Buddy.” Ezra lifted his head, annoyed, to tell the man he wasn't passing out, just melancholy, and, really, you'd think working in a bar he would be used to it, when he said, “Your phone's been ringing for about five minutes, either shut it up or answer it. Also, the James Bond theme?” For a second Ezra opened his mouth to defend James Bond against this plebeian, then realized what the man had said, and scrambled for his phone. He must have leaned up against the on button at some point, he knew he'd turned it off. Ezra pulled it out in time to see Nathan's name fade off the screen, biting his lip as he saw that while the number of missed calls wasn't high, the alerts flashing on the top of the screen meant that he had a much larger number of texts and voicemails. Ezra bit his lip, he would have thought they would still be in court, it was only about four o'clock in the afternoon. Why would they be trying so hard to get a hold of him?
Maybe, Chris had told the others and they wanted to say goodbye?
…Maybe they didn't want him to leave? Maybe, he thought, a feeling of vindication rising for just a moment in his chest, Mr. Larabee had told them, and they were angry at him. Maybe they wouldn't let him send Ezra away. It was possible, wasn't it? Maybe.
Nathan's name appeared on the screen again and Ezra knew he should answer it, but a bolt of panic that he didn't quite understand ran through him, and instead he hit the silent button, turning the ringer off and shoving it back in his pocket. He didn't understand this. Ezra was way, way, too drunk to understand this, to handle this, and a minute ago that had been a good thing, but now it was decidedly not.
A twist of guilt filled Ezra's stomach. If they had been trying to get a hold of him all afternoon maybe something bad had happened. Something had gone wrong in court, or after, maybe someone had been hurt. Ezra scrambled to his feet, clutching at the bar top as he he swayed a bit unsteadily. He had to get back to the office. He tossed a bill down on the counter, more than enough to cover his bill, and after making sure the bartender had seen it, turned and started for the back door, vaguely wondering how he was actually going to get there. Ezra couldn't leave his baby in this part of town, but he wasn't so drunk that he thought driving in his state remotely acceptable. He would have to figure something out...he couldn't leave the Jag here. As he was walking he heard somebody mutter about a pig, and worried someone had recognized him, or would, he hurried his pace, almost tripping a few times, but managing to make it outside without falling on his face. Ezra didn't see the grizzled and barrel chested cop talking impatiently to the bartender, and Brady didn't see him.
Josiah let out a groan, side aching, as he pushed his ancient range rover the last few feet into the security of the parking space, not sure if the icy ground was helping or making it harder, but very glad he hadn't fallen on his face in doing so. It just figured that when he'd finally made it into the city proper his junk heap (Josiah was allowed to call it that, the rest of the team wasn't) would decide to break down. At this point, a meteor could have landed on his car and he wouldn't have been surprised.
The entire day had been nothing but one disaster after another, and that was neither an exaggeration or hyperbole.
First his sleep had been constantly broken by disturbing dreams all through the night before, never letting him get more than an hour or two at a time. Though, by the end going back to sleep had been the last thing he wanted to do. He could only remember misty bits and pieces now, but they had primarily featured Josiah watching helplessly, unable to move or even yell, as various parts of his teammates faded away to nothing. Leaning his back against the side of the car for a moment Josiah
shuddered as the worst of it, a clear image of all six of his brothers standing facing him with the center of their skulls dissolved away to clear air, but the outline, the frame of each head, including ears, had still been there, sprang to his mind. He wasn't sure if the smooth, almost plastic like flesh that had peeped out of each hollow frame was better or worse than if it had been gore and bone instead. They were not the worst dreams he had had in his life, those would always revolve around either Hannah or Desert Storm, but they were easy competition for any others.
Shaken, he'd gotten out of bed well before his alarm had gone off, but the comedy of errors had only continued. The shower water hadn't been cold, but it hadn't been warm either, instead falling somewhere between lukewarm and tepid and nothing he did seemed to change it. Combine that with the non-existent water pressure and the fact that he'd forgotten the bag with his shower things and had to use the flowery smelling stuff the hotel had provided and it was a thoroughly unimpressive start to the day. Then he'd tripped climbing out of the shower stall, and though he'd caught himself before he hit the floor, his side had hit the counter first, a rather spectacular bruise forming in less then ten minutes, that had been twinging all day, and after the effort it had taken to move the suburban had at least temporarily transformed into a consistent ache.
When filling up on ridiculously tiny boxes of cereal at the hotels complimentary breakfast, Josiah had looked out the dining room window to see a large crow perched on the sill, staring directly at him. It had cawed in a particularly menacing manner when he'd started at seeing it, and the chill he felt had gone through him to his soul. At that point Josiah had decided Someone was sending him a message and the leisurely morning of puttering around the small town the conference had been held in, maybe finishing up some Christmas shopping before he had to head home, had been put on permanent hold. He was clearly needed back in Denver. Josiah had hoped that that revelation would stop his streak of bad luck, but it had just gotten worse, starting with him standing up from his breakfast table and bumping the edge so he'd dumped still very hot, though not quite scalding, coffee down his leg, which had not only hurt, but meant he had to change. Having only been planning for the one night, he had a choice between the wrinkled and frankly uncomfortable to drive in suit pants that he'd worn to the conference the day before and the too short sweatpants he'd slept in. Pulling his ATF sweatshirt over his button-up Josiah had gone for the sweats. It wasn't like he'd be doing anything but driving, and he wasn't a teenager anyway, to get embarrassed over high waters.
An hour after that Josiah was seated in Les Schwab, having already filed a police report about the slashed tires and washed off the eggs that had been smeared on his windows. You would think the local delinquents would have avoided vandalism in a parking lot full of vehicles belonging to law enforcement officers, but Josiah supposed that was the main appeal. He shifted slightly in his chair, trying to make his pants leg cover his hairy ankle as an attractive women about his age walked by, smiling at her, but she'd paid him no mind. Damn sweats.
Almost two hours later-in addition to everyone and their brother being in line ahead of him, the credit card machine had gone temporarily down, and the cashier, who had looked like he should have been in junior high, didn't even know what the check policy was, and by the time he'd found someone who did, the machine had been back up for ten minutes and Josiah had been ready to ring himself out-he'd finally been on the highway, heading home and managed an almost forty-five minute stretch where the worst thing that had happened was bad traffic. He'd known it wouldn't last while it was happening. The knot in his gut had just kept getting tighter. The only thing that had really surprised Josiah when he flipped on the radio to see why traffic had gone from a reasonable crawl to a veritable standstill was that he wasn't in the major accident. Listening to where it was, he decided to stay on for another few exits, there was a road he could connect with, that, while not a shortcut, would be a lot better then either waiting for the accident to be cleared, or getting off when he didn't know the area at all.
Of course it had been closed. Not at the beginning, no, that would have been far too easy, it was only after he had gone a good five miles down it that the signs telling him about the rock slide ahead appeared. He pulled over, pulled out his atlas and tried to figure out a way home that wouldn't put him right back at the back of the traffic jam, and eventually found one, but it would take him out of his way by quite a bit. With a sigh, Josiah figured he was going to be late anyway, and went to grab his phone out of the center console where he'd placed it that morning to send a quick message to Chris. It was dead. With a vehement curse Josiah remembered that he'd been unable to find it the night before, and it had only been for about an hour that morning it had been charged. He'd intended to turn it off to conserve the battery, but completely forgotten when he'd seen the state of his vehicle.
He hunted through his car for a portable charger, found one, and then cursed even more vehemently when he saw it had gone the way of any electronics left around JD for too long. It had been “improved”. His “ancient” smart phone took too long to charge according to the boy, and since Josiah refused to get a new one-it was still perfectly functional, why did it matter if it was three years old?-JD had taken to trying to soup up his chargers despite the fact that he'd told him to leave them alone, a couple of times now. Josiah knew he had been too quiet on the way back from the baseball game they'd gone to the month before. Well, it wouldn't hurt to see if maybe he'd gotten it to work this time...Josiah plugged the charger in and then his phone, more wishful than hopeful and-nothing. Damn. No doubt, with a proper plan and enough chargers to work with, the tech genius would eventually figure it out, but since this was the fifth of them he'd broken in the attempt the profiler was becoming more than a little tired of it.
So, no phone and no charger, and his choices in directions were going to have him getting back into town late no matter what he did. “Have I upset You,” he asked the sky, “or was today simply going to be a boring one without torturing me?” No answer came directly, as expected, and really, Josiah supposed he was just lucky another crow hadn't appeared. Nothing for it, he backtracked the way he came, then took another back road that had gotten him mostly past the traffic jam before he had to get back on the highway.
Strangely enough, things had gone pretty smoothly from that point on, he'd gotten off the highway as soon as he hit the outskirts of the city, and had been pleased to see that if nothing else happened he wouldn't even be that late back to the office. So then, of course, the thing that usually went wrong, the one disaster he could have predicted long before this trial of a day, had. The suburban had first stalled and spluttered, then stopped completely, luckily with enough warning for him to get it far enough to the side to not be in the way of traffic. Hadn't kept the jerk who'd been behind him from screaming profanities at Josiah as he'd passed him, as though the delay in getting to the red light ahead would bring about the end times. Finally, he shoved himself up off the side of the car, heading to the bar on the far side of the parking lot, in need of their phone. And a drink.
Halfway through the parking lot Josiah did a double take, turning to get a better look, and assuming he'd find he was wrong. No, that was definitely a Jaguar of the same make and model as Ezra's, but surely it wasn't his. A dingy and run-down tavern in a veritable field of similar bars, tobacco emporiums, strip clubs and pawn shops was about the last place he would expect to find the boy. It simply wasn't his style. Besides, it was just after four, Ezra should still be at the office. Still, his gut tightening even more, Josiah walked closer, unconsciously quickening his pace. Josiah had no doubt that his mornings misadventure had a purpose behind it, and if that was Ezra's car, he was likely it. Close enough to see the license plate, he cursed and looked at the bar. He supposed that after the end to their last case it would not be surprising for their undercover agent to seek solace in a bottle, and if he wanted to do so in peace a place no one would expect him to come ordinarily might be exactly where he'd head.
He knew that no matter how many times he told him what had happened to that boy wasn't his fault, there was nothing he could do to make Ezra actually believe it. The fault lay with one person and one person alone, the arms dealer who had decided to bring a fourteen year old boy eager to prove himself along to a deal without informing his connection he was doing so. The man had apparently had the sense to tell him to stay back in the vehicles, but that had turned to disaster when during a tense moment in negotiations the child had appeared, a gun he had no business carrying brandished boldly in his hands. Even then, if it had just been left to them and Team 8, if they hadn't been forced into taking back up from team four, including their rookie, the reason Chris hadn't wanted them along in the first place, it never would have happened. The rookie had startled and let off a blast off gunfire, and the bullets had made their way unerringly into the child's body.
Things had exploded then, everyone moving, firing at each other, except for the father wailing over his boy, already gone, and Ezra frozen, standing there with blood splattered on his shoes. Josiah had been too far away, and pinned down by gunfire, knowing it wouldn't be more than a handful of seconds before someone put the connection between the ATF being at the buy and the supplier their new connection had arranged a deal with, and that if Ezra didn't move, now, he was a dead man-unless he was taken out by a stray bullet first, which had seemed more likely by the moment. He had seen Chris, who'd been playing the supplier, trying to get to him, even as his gun hand was winged he'd kept pushing forward, but it had been Vin who'd gotten there first, and as the sharpshooter had yanked Ezra away the man had come out of it at least enough to know what he was doing as he'd followed Vin out. They'd gotten their guys, with only minimal injuries to their own men, Buck's ankle, Chris's hand-superficial damage, the gun taking most of the blast-, Vin had a minor concussion, and Nathan had gotten a handful of long splinters in his shoulder when the wooden door he'd been shooting around had finally taken as much punishment as it could and had quickly gone from protection to shrapnel, and as always, despite the fact that he would have killed any of them for doing it, the medic had tried to blow his own injuries off to focus on the others, particularly Ezra, who he'd been worried would go into shock, and Chris, as superficial or not an injury of that type was always concerning for an agent. Josiah understood, but he'd still wanted to shake the boy.
It had not, not to any of them, but especially not to their undercover agent, felt like a victory. Ezra had said very little that night. Josiah had taken him to his place, Nathan not wanting Ezra to sit through the emergency room with the others for no reason, and none of them about to leave him alone, whatever he said. Neither of them had really felt like eating, in fact Ezra lost whatever he'd already had in his stomach not long after he got him home, but it had been clear that sleeping was out for the night and the younger man was far from ready to talk, and so the two had spent most of the night on Josiah's couch, watching the television. He'd gotten a little tea with some whiskey into the boy after an hour or two, and Ezra had relaxed a bit, slowly moving over into the little crook of space made by Josiah's arm draping along the back of the couch. When the Bond movie Ezra had stopped on last had ended and it had switched to the first film in a Harry Potter marathon he'd tensed against Josiah's side, and volunteered the only words he hadn't had to coax out of him. “He liked Harry Potter. The boy. Juan.” Josiah had moved to change the channel then, thinking it would be too much, but Ezra had stopped him, putting his hand over the controller. “ No. Ah want to watch it.”
There had been nothing he could say to that but, “Of course.” He'd kept a careful eye on the younger man while they watched, but it had seemed to help, and he'd finally fallen asleep about two-thirds into the second movie. It had been a fitful sleep, in which he twitched and muttered often, but it had been sleep.
When Ezra had walked into the bullpen after only a week of his two week vacation Josiah had worried that he wasn't ready, but except for keeping a close eye on him, something he'd already been doing, there wasn't much he could do about it. Chris had growled and snarled for awhile, but Ezra had known his heart wasn't in it and hadn't paid him much mind. The truth was, while they'd all been going around to see him in the evenings, and everyone knew why Vin's lunches were suddenly twice as long as usual, sending him away from work would have meant he'd spend the majority of the next week alone, isolated, and that had been the last thing he needed. Work, the routine and normalcy of the office had seemed to help. He'd even gotten the ATF's psychiatry department to clear him for field work, though Josiah knew Chris had no intention of letting him go under again anytime soon. Ezra had been concentrating his efforts on convincing everyone he was fine, and Josiah regretted to say that as the last few weeks had gone by, while he certainly hadn't thought the boy was fine, he had thought things were good enough that any drinking binges would have taken place at the saloon.
It seemed the days events had put him exactly where he needed to be, and, sending an apology above for his earlier griping, Josiah turned to head towards the bar's entrance, when a muffled thumping sound from behind the row of dumpsters at the back of the parking lot caught his ear, the knot of unease that had been in his stomach since that crow had stared through him that morning suddenly bursting through through his entire body and Josiah was sprinting, knowing without a doubt that was where he'd find Ezra. His shoes slapping against the pavement as he went it took him both forever and no time at all to get there, every second an eternity. He came around the corner to see Ezra trying not to slide down the side of the dumpster he was using to prop himself up at the same time as he dodged a kick at his midsection from one man, a punch from a second connecting, another assailant on the ground, knocked cold behind him, but it was obvious he'd paid for that victory, one eye swollen shut and his left arm hanging loosely at his side, and in the split second it took Josiah to take it all in he was already moving again, grabbing the first man bodily with one hand, turning him toward him as his other swung at his jaw with all his might, tossing the limp body at the second man as he charged at Josiah. He dodged, his friend landing face first on the gravel, and Josiah stepped back so he had time to grab him, one hand on his throat and the other on his belt, hoisting him up and over his head so he could throw him into the dumpster, hard enough to make the thing rattle, then slammed the lid down with a grunt. Before he could turn to check on Ezra a gruff voice barked behind him, “Denver PD! Put your hands in the air and turn around slowly.”
For the love of-
Cutting himself off with another silent apology, Josiah did so, supremely glad he'd worn his ATF sweatshirt when he saw that the cops shoulders relaxed a good fraction when he saw it, “Standish, you okay?”
Josiah's brow furrowed in confusion, as Ezra, strained voice making Josiah want to turn to him, said, “Yes sah, Captain Brady. Could you please stop pointing a gun at mah teammate?” A low, relieved chuckle and the gun went back into the holster, the man motioning for Josiah to put his arms down, who did so, immediately turning to check on Ezra who had slid all the way to the ground by the dumpster, looking utterly miserable and smelling like a distillery. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the other man pull a radio out and heard him call for medical and uniforms to come take care of the perps, then move to put cuffs on first one man on the ground, then the other, and nodded in gratitude at him, even as most of his attention was focused on Ezra.
“Son, are you doing okay? How's your ribs?” He laid his hand on the non injured shoulder, not squeezing in case he was wrong and there was an injury there too, Ezra's eyes glazed as they tried to focus on him, and Josiah wished he knew whether it was from alcohol or concussion.
“Sore. Mah hand hurts.” The slur in his words was accompanied by a very slight pout, which Josiah felt was a vote in booze's favor, and, relieved, he smiled a bit proudly at the younger man, who really had been holding his own quite well for fighting drunk against three attackers.
“Looks like you broke that fella on the grounds nose when you knocked him out, I'm not surprised.”
Ezra blinked at him, then mumbled, “Ah broke it when Ah hit the church.”
“Ah punched it.”
Not quite sure what he was talking about, but seeing no need for the boy to look so shamefaced, Josiah patted his arm and said, “That's okay Ezra, I've felt like punching the church before myself.” Ezra's face transformed in an instant, beaming at him.
“Ah knew you'd undahstand, Josiah.” Josiah couldn't help but smile back, even though he was still worried and confused.
“You want to tell me what's going on?” The smile left Ezra's face as quickly as it had came, a look of almost devastation covering it, Ezra quickly pasting a subpar version of his usual poker face over the top, but since Josiah had learned to read through his best years ago, he was far from fooled. “Ezra, son, whatever it is, you can tell me.” He moved the hand that had been on his good shoulder to the nape of his neck, rubbing a circle there with his thumb.
Ezra's voice shook minutely as he answered, but other than making Josiah more determined to strangle whoever or whatever had made his boy look like that, his answer only added to his confusion, “Josiah, will you come to mah goodbye party?”
“Goodbye-Ezra, what the hell are you talking about?” Before he could answer, the police officer-who both knew Ezra and had seemed to expect to find him in danger-was approaching, giving orders to the uniforms Josiah had realized arrived but hadn't really paid any attention to as they were hauling away the criminals to be seen to by medical before being locked up, two of them attempting to fish the third guy out of the dumpster without having to climb in themselves. A medic was approaching with him, and the man stepped back so she could pass, stopping as he gave final directions to his men.
“Take 'em over to the cruisers but wait for Larabee to get here, I've no doubt he'll want to take custody.” He leered at the man being pulled from the dumpster, who was at least semi-conscious, “Do any questioning himself.” His face changed, a genuine smile, tinged with relief and concern, as he turned to them, Josiah in the middle of sliding back so that the medic could get close enough to start examining Ezra. “Sorry, about that. Didn't think I could be any too careful with what's going on. I'm Brady, Max Brady, and you can only be Sanchez. Chris send you?”
Still confused, though less so, as he knew Brady's name, Josiah shook his head, “No. No, Providence did.”
The other man raised an eyebrow, and Ezra, voice solemn in it's drunkenness, said, “Josiah is very religious.”, even as he tried to shift away from the young lady and Josiah gave him a look and put his hand back on his neck in an effort to get him to cooperate with her, mhmming at his petulant, “No, Ah want to wait for Nathan.”, before turning back to Brady. The sooner his shoulder was reduced, the less painful it would be.
“I have no idea what's going on,” Josiah confessed, “Was just somehow in the right place at the right time.”
“Well, huh. That's one for the record books. And it reminds me,” He focused his attention solely on Ezra, face growing slightly stern, “I got a message from your boss for you. If you ever get an email like that again, you consider it highly suspicious. You don't take off without telling anyone what's going on, and you don't turn off your phone.” Ezra looked both confused and hopeful, and Josiah sincerely hoped that didn't mean Ezra had received some sort of threat and then left the office with no one the wiser, as that would be so far beyond foolish he didn't even know how to describe it. “You aren't getting transferred anywhere, son. Those papers were forgeries.” Josiah closed his eyes for just a second as he digested what that meant, hand tightening protectively on Ezra's nape. Goodbye party. A threat, but a threat that had been disguised as a blow right where it would hurt Ezra the most. Ezra had his broken hand up over his mouth, covering physically the emotions he could no longer hide, and Josiah moved next to him, silently asking the paramedic if she would slide back for a moment, and with his shoulder reduced and hand splinted, not much to be done for the bruising on his face and ribs but time, she did so, nodding at Josiah. He wrapped his arms around Ezra, mindful of the still sore shoulder, waiting for a moment to make sure he was neither hurting or overwhelming him, then gently pulled him into his chest. He stayed tense in Josiah's arms, but scooted in closer, so he was plastered to the big man, small sobs, tight and breathy, leaving him, giving in to a portion of the turmoil he must have felt that day.
Those sons-of-bitches had been real lucky he didn't know all they had done to his young brother when he came around that corner. Real, real, lucky.
Vin idly shoved chips in his mouth, staring off into space from his perch on the table off to the side of the vending machines in one of the communal break rooms. He sat here often enough no one would really notice him, and since he'd never paid any attention to their gossip before-or at least never done anything with what he overheard-no one really bothered to keep their voices down or edit what they were saying either.
So far it had been a bust. In 15 minutes the only thing he'd heard about the team was a warning to the new tech geek lady on team five (their old tech geek hadn't cut it, apparently) that Buck was a sweetheart but didn't take the women he dated very seriously. Which was patently true, even if Vin thought he was open enough about it himself that no one really needed to be given a warning, and kinda hilarious. He couldn't wait to tell Buck that he was now being announced to new people as the office Don Juan.
Also, Vin was growing more and surprised A. That the entirety of the Denver ATF didn't have an STD, (apparently gossip was just what ladies called locker room talk that happened anywhere) and B. That anybody got anything done. Ever. Johansen from Team 10 had been up here before Vin was and showed no signs of moving. Yeah, Vin may have appeared to be doing the same thing but he was actually gathering information. Trying to.
He'd already done the rounds of the gym and men's locker rooms, starting a few conversations, a few of the more private conference rooms, and a few other nooks and crannies good for private meetings, spots outside certain team offices (Vin didn't want to think Team Four had anything to do with it, he'd thought they were decent, but then that son-of-a-bitch Finley had tried to blame his rookies-well, fuck up wasn't good enough, but what the hell else do you call it?-on Ezra. Hell, if it had been anybodies fuck-up, it had been Finley's, you don't put a rookie on point like that, and if he were any kind of man at all...) making use of the tiny recording devices JD had gotten bulk from somewhere and then went Dr. Frankenstein on. Vin didn't really get how they worked, but wherever he turned them on they started recording, only they didn't store it on the device, it sent it up to the kid's computer, or a server, or something. Somehow. JD had explained it to him, but he'd been using so much techno geek talk he hadn't understood a word. They only recorded for three hours, but Vin refused to believe they'd still be looking for Ezra in three hours. Chris had shit his pants last time they'd used them-something about rogue technology and not waiting for his approval, and maybe the fact that Vin had climbed into that warehouse to place them without anybody but JD the wiser.
Yeah, Cowboy had not been a happy camper that day. Still this wasn't a case, and the things were so tiny and hard to see it wasn't like anybody was gonna notice them anyway. Besides, Vin figured pretty much nothing was off limits right now, not 'til they had Ezra back.
With a sigh, he finished the last of his chips and chugged his soda, sticking another of the little tan squares to the side of the garbage can as he leaned over and lifted the lid to toss his trash in, deciding he'd stroll down to the labs, or maybe the target range, jumping off his table (earning a disapproving look from Johansen, Vin giving him a grin in return) and started heading towards the door. His head tipped down as he walked, thoughts whirling even as he kept his ears open. Chris was expecting him to have found something-Ezra was counting on him to find something, and so far he hadn't heard a thing of value. He'd been so sure he would too, that he would at least find something that would lead them to a clue. It just figured, that now when it really mattered, would be when he failed. Vin sighed, hands finding their way to his pockets as his shoulders slumped. He'd check in after he was done with the labs, and then try again, keep on trying, but Vin was starting to think it was going to be up to somebody else to point them to Ezra.
That was when he heard him, right as he was in the doorway, his slim build making him all but invisible to the man stalking away from him, talking quietly but urgently into a bluetooth. That little shyster Sharpe from Team 3, and Vin couldn't quite hear him, not all the words, but the words he could set him on high alert, and he sidled out the doorway after the man, who was too wrapped up in his conversation to notice him. No wonder Ezra didn't think much of him, what kind of ATF agent couldn't tell when somebody was tailing him down a straight hallway with no cover, let alone an undercover agent? The man had rubbed him the wrong way from the second he'd met him, Ezra didn't like him none either, and why the hell hadn't Vin even thought of him?
Probably because he was so damn boring and bland he was all but invisible. Like a really obnoxious chameleon. “What do you mean he went into The Sprawl.....took over that place five years ago, and he would know that.” A pause while the man listened, then snapped, “Don't ask how I know, ask how you're gonna tell the boss you lost him when you had him alone in the warehouse district.” Team 3 was in-between cases, they'd been helping Team 7 with some of their wrap-up, all but Sharpe, as putting him and Ezra in a room together wasn't wise, and Vin had a very, very, bad feeling. It wasn't no perp he was talking about. “No, don't follow him in there, we can't afford to start something on their territory.” He had to pause, bending down to tie his shoe at a recycling bin, when something that was said to him made Sharpe stop short, and then he waited a second after the man was moving to follow after, not wanting to risk alerting him and losing this chance. Vin did miss a little of the conversation, but caught up in time to hear the man say, “Yeah, just do your job right, and soon they'll be the Magnificent Six.”
Huh. As fury coursed through Vin he realized he didn't much care if this jackass knew he'd been heard, though he kept enough presence of mind to wait until he'd disconnected his call, just in case knowing this guy was made would make things worse for Ezra. Then he pounced, knocking the man's legs out from under him at the same time as he pulled his arms behind his back, just a little farther then he would do to most suspects, only Vin's grip keeping him from hitting the ground. As he snapped his handcuffs on the bastard, Vin smiled grimly. He knew there was a reason he slipped them on his belt today, even if they were supposed to be in court. He quickly stripped the man of his blue-tooth and phone, checking for anything else he might have. “What the fuck?! Let me go Tanner, you hick piece of shit!” Vin shook the man like a puppy, his lip curling back in disgust as he yelped.
“Oh no. I'm takin' ya to see Chris. Ye're gonna tell us jus' exactly what ye're up to.” Then, partly because nobody was looking, but mostly because the son-of-a-bitch had pissed him off so bad with that Magnificent Six line he just didn't care, he dropped him, hard, right on his face. Okay, maybe he kinda threw him on it. And sorta stomped on his hip. Whatever. The man yelled like a stuck pig, but they were close enough to the elevator Vin got him into it before anybody came looking. Really, he thought as he pressed the button for Team 7's floor, probably not a very good response time for ATF agents, but for now it was working in his favor, so it didn't bother him much. Too bad about the blood though, somebody was gonna notice that. Still, he hadn't been sure he could throw him at the right angle to break his nose, so that was a point to Tanner.
He might just have to rack up a few more points before he handed him over to Chris and the others.
“You won't get away with this! They have cameras in that hallway!”
“Takin' down a possible leak who threatened my team? Hell, they wanna fire me for that, I ain't gonna wanna work here anyway.” He smiled, slow and languid, but didn't bother looking over at the bastard, even as he tightened his grip on his arm.
“I don't know what the hell you're talking about! You attacked me for no reason!”
The man was quaking where he stood, and now Vin did turn to him, pointing to the red button in the elevator, “Know what happens if I press that button?”
“Gee, it says stop, but I don't know. Oh that's right, you're the one that can't read, aren't you?”
“It stops. And there ain't no camera's in here. Ya best think on that.” Vin turned away from Sharpe then, still keeping watch on him out of the corner of his eye, wishing he enjoyed the way the man paled from his words more, but he was just plain too worried. Not only did Ezra have whatever thugs this guy was working with after him, he'd gone into The Sprawl, a gang bar on his own, and if Vin was remembering right, a gang bar for a gang Ezra had gone undercover with. Yeah, Ezra was good, when he was undercover he could probably walk by just about everybody who knew him and have them not know him. Not Vin though, and as good as Ezra was there was always a chance somebody would recognize him. Bone structure didn't change. They'd got a good chunk of the gang, but it sure as hell hadn't been all of them, and they'd had nearly two years to rebuild. Hell, anybody pegged him as a Fed, wouldn't matter if they recognized him anyway. It wasn't that Ezra couldn't take care of himself, just that alone, drunk and vulnerable, he'd be a very tempting target. The thought had him tightening his grip on Sharpe's arm without realizing it, but all the bastard's whine did was piss Vin off more, and he wrenched his arms up even higher, making him yowl. “Oh quit yer bitchin', I got at least another inch and a half to yank 'em 'fore I start causin' permanent damage.” If the son-of-a-bitch only realized what Vin wanted to do to him he'd be shitting his pants.
Vin didn't blame Ezra a bit for freaking out, thinking the papers were real, even for taking off-though going into that bar was damn stupid. But he couldn't blame him for being afraid of being sent away, of the team deciding he wasn't good enough, not when Vin was still scared of the same damn thing sometimes.
It had taken him a while, but he'd figured out that Ezra and him had grown up the same in a lot of ways. Maybe Ez had had nicer clothes, a fancy education, but he'd been shipped here, there and everywhere by Maude's whim, never in the same place more than a year at a time, and some of those 'relatives' hadn't been any better than the worst of Vin's foster parents-Vin knew what cigar burns looked like, even if he didn't think anybody else but Nathan, and maybe Josiah, did- and he'd never had a home or a family anymore than Vin had. Maybe less, at least when his Momma was alive he'd known she wanted him. He didn't think Ez had every really had that. Maude loved Ezra, Vin had seen enough to know that as cruel and thoughtless as she could be, that that wasn't in question. Didn't keep her from being perfectly willing to throw him under the bus, or just outright hurt him, while acting like she was teaching him a lesson-believing it, maybe.
Thing was, being sent from place to place like that makes it so a person expects it. Vin had been in Denver for almost four years now, and it was by far the longest he'd ever lived in one place. Chris called him stubborn more than once for refusing to move out of Purgatorio, and he'd be lying if he said that wasn't part of it. But most of it was just that it was his apartment, and he wasn't going to leave it until he was good and ready, let anybody take it from him, not even Chris. Once you started pulling up roots, or putting more down for that matter...while he figured he clung to his apartment for the same reason that Ezra couldn't unpack that stack of boxes in his. Different reactions to the same situation, but it was easy to see once you looked for it. Vin wasn't sure if he'd gotten better at reading his fellow southerner or if Ezra had quit hiding so much, or maybe a little of both, but Ezra was easy to see now.
For Ezra, for Vin before Chris, being packed off was normal, it was what happened, you either weren't wanted or someone else said you had to go, and then everything was gone again, good and bad and in-between, all of it. Growing up didn't change it, for all he'd thought it would as a kid. It wasn't something a man talked about often, that kind of history or that kind of fear, but strong drink and a late night will get you to saying thing you wouldn't ordinarily, and the long and short of it was they'd each made a promise to the other that they wouldn't let that happen. It was more for Ezra, really, than him. Vin didn't always know why, but since he'd met Chris that little ball of uncertainty, that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, had gotten smaller and smaller. For Ezra, it hadn't. If anything, Vin would wager it had gotten bigger over the last couple of years, as they'd all gotten closer. After all, he had something to lose now.
Vin fixed his eyes on Sharpe, the reason Ezra had thought that old fear had come true, the reason he thought Vin had broken his promise, right as the elevator door opened, and he pushed him through the opening, 'accidentally' shoving him into the door frame as he was went. He almost had him down the hall and into the Seven's office when he heard a voice behind him and hid a cringe, “Tanner, what the hell are you doing?” Ryan Kelley sounded both bewildered and pissed, and Vin supposed it did look bad, what with him dragging a fellow agent along, bloodied and hand-cuffed. Sharpe opened his mouth and Vin slapped the hand that wasn't holding onto him over it, Kelley shifting forward and he figured he should talk fast.
“Ezra's missing, he's involved, saying they're gonna turn the Magnificent Seven into the Magnificent Six.” Kelley's face darkened and he stepped back, nodding.
“Get him in your office then, I didn't see a thing. Next time don't bloody him up 'til you're done with transport, it leaves a trail.”
Turning to open the office door and push Sharpe through it, Vin flashed a grin back over his shoulder at him, “Not as much fun.”
“You're all fucking nuts, you know that, right?” Kelley was already walking away as Vin shut and locked the office door, urging Sharpe in front of him down the short hall. Buck and JD gaped over at him as they caught sight, Buck's easy-going face immediately going hard as stone as he realized there weren't many reasons Vin would have brought the man with him. Buck was a heck of a lot quicker than most people gave him credit for.
“We got ourselves a lead boys.” Vin shoved the man forward so that he was in-between the two seated agents and Vin, “Wanna guess what he wants us to rename the team?” He told them. He woulda figured it would be Buck who'd react quickest, but damn, JD was developing a real nice right hook.
“Kinda hard to question him if he's knocked out, kid.” Buck said, though he sounded more proud than pissed.
“Josiah and that Brady guy-”
“Yeah, Captain Brady, got Ezra, and Chris and Nate are on their way there, it'll be okay. Besides,” Vin watched, trying to process what JD had just said, the younger man prodding the body on the floor with his foot, “he'll wake up soon.”
“What do ya mean, Josiah's got Ezra?” Vin looked back and forth between the two of them, starting to hope, relief flooding through his body when they both nodded at him.
“Yeah, got the word from Nate about fifteen minutes ago. Josiah broke down right outside the bar Ezra was drowning his sorrows in, like he ain't praying for miracles, he's making 'em. There were a couple thugs working Ez over behind some dumpsters, but 'Siah swooped in just in time. He's banged up a little, but not bad, and last I heard Chris's ETA was ten minutes out, nearly five minutes ago. And this piece of shit traitor is behind it, huh?” If Vin hadn't been so relieved they'd found Ezra, he would have been pissed that nobody called him, but as it was he just sagged a little where he stood, nodding to Buck, who used his crutches to push his chair over Vin's way, wheels squeaking, and punched him lightly on the arm, “ Good job, Junior. Between you and JD you didn't leave much for the rest of us didjya?”
“Guess not.” Then he straightened, eyes narrowing as he thought back over what he'd heard from Sharpe and what Buck had said, “Buck he was jus' talkin' to his guys, telling 'em to stay away from The Sprawl, wasn't worth it.”
“What are you saying?” Buck was frowning in thought too, but before Vin could answer JD broke in at a mile a minute.
“You mean those guys at the bar weren't the ones tailing him? Chris said Brady said they didn't see a gray Mazda anywhere, put out an APB on it, so that makes sense. Like, maybe they were trying to steal the Jag, or recognized him from when he went undercover there? Shit, we need to let everybody know, so they stay on guard.” He turned rapidly back to the communications gear, not even waiting for Vin to get more than halfway through his nod, and Vin, shaking his head at how damn fast the kid's mind worked, turned to Buck to ask whether he thought putting Sharpe in Chris's office 'til he woke up was a good idea, only to pause at the scowl on his face.
“What the hell are you talking about, when he went undercover there?” JD was talking into his headset, and not paying Buck any mind, so he turned his attention to Vin. “When did Ezra go undercover there?”
With a silent apology to Ezra, but figuring Chris had remembered the second he'd heard where Ezra was anyway, Vin told him, “'Bout two years ago. With the _______, 'member?” Buck swore rather impressively.
“Ah, c'mon Buck,” JD had finished passing on his information and turned back to them, “You can't be too mad at him, you know those papers must of upset him real bad.”
“When one of my family first pretends he's in The Fast and the Furious, then goes alone into a bar where people have reason to want him dead, I got every right to be pissed, JD.” Buck scowled again, JD scowling back, clearly not liking that answer, but Buck turned his attention to Sharpe, “Somebody wanna get that piece of shit off his face before he suffocates?”
Mouthing “Fast and the Furious?” at JD, who mouthed back “Later.”, Vin decided that being charged with a murder he'd actually committed, helped commit anyway, would probably suck nearly as bad as being framed for one and moved to pull the unconscious man from the floor, not sure where to deposit him, JD springing up and bringing back a chair from the break room without being asked and Vin all but dropped the man in it, only doing the bare minimum to keep him from falling right back out. Sitting down and talking quietly but rapidly into his headset for a minute, JD turned back to them, “Nate says him and Chris just pulled up to the bar, Chris hopped out almost before the truck was in park.”
Buck snorted, “I bet he did. Poor Ez.”
“He'll make sure he's okay, and that he knows he ain't getting sent anywhere, before he yells at him, won't he?” JD sounded a heck of a lot younger than his twenty-two years just then, looked it too, and Vin was real glad it was Buck he was looking at for answers, Buck who was feeding him a line or two, because while Vin was a hundred percent sure Chris would make sure Ezra knew that, he also thought it was gonna be wrapped right up in the yelling, Chris demanding Nathan make sure Ezra was okay, while Cowboy scorched his ears but good for being such an idiot.
Poor Ez, was right.
Chris slowed the car from the rapid speed he'd been using on the road, flipping off the dashboard siren and lights he'd turned on when JD had relayed the death threat from Sharpe and the possibility that the people in custody were not the ones who'd been tailing Ezra, turning into the parking lot that was now full of police cars and two ambulances. He could see the drunker or stupider of the gang members gathering in a cluster in-between the bar and the scene on the far end of their parking lot, and if it was three of them who'd attacked his agent they'd be a damn sight smarter to get the hell back in the bar...
He got as close as he could and slammed the car into park, jumping out without even bothering to shut it off, and headed straight for where he could see Ezra, sitting on the back on an ambulance that had its doors open, Josiah standing next to him like a bodyguard. An officer tried to stop him, but he had his badge out and all but shoved in his face before he could say a word, snapping out, with almost military precision, “I'm Agent Larabee, and that's my man over there.” Chris didn't add 'move or I'll move you', but it must have been clear, the other man quickly stepping out of his way, and motioning him through. Ezra saw him approaching and went even paler then he already was, his swollen eye dark and angry against his skin, slowly standing up, the blanket that had been on his shoulders sliding down to pool on the metal ledge behind him. Chris's mouth tightened as he saw the sling and splint on his agent's arm. Josiah's voice rumbled his name, clear warning in it, arms crossed across his chest, and Chris shot him a look that could have melted steel before turning his gaze back to Ezra, only a few feet away now. As he stepped forward he reached out and pulled Ezra tightly to him, wrapping his arms around the younger man in a fierce, protective, clinch. It was probably too hard, though he'd made sure to not touch his left shoulder, but as Ezra's good arm came up, clutching at him, his grip so tight it almost hurt Chris, he just kept right on squeezing. He could feel Nathan hovering behind him, no doubt wanting Chris to get the hell out of the way and give him a chance to examine Ezra, but the other man could wait.
Finally he stepped back, keeping a hand on Ezra's arm, staring at him and purposely narrowing his eyes, the way Ezra shifted as he felt Chris's intense gaze not giving him the satisfaction it usually did. This was too big for that. He opened his mouth, but Josiah, who apparently was suicidal, because Chris was not in the mood, leaned his upper body forward slightly, growling out, “Chris, he's injured and drunk, and been through hell.”
“I have eyes and a nose Josiah. And Ezra's only been through hell because he took off without talking to anybody, and then decided to act like an angry teenager; drove his car like a maniac, nearly got arrested, and then finished it off by getting plastered in a bar filled with a gang he's gone undercover with, so, I really do not want to hear it right now!” Josiah hmmed at Chris, something the man knew he hated, but leaned back to his original position, still guarding Ezra like a mother dog guards its pup, but not from Chris anymore. Good. He'd been coming very close to losing his patience. He turned his gaze back to Ezra, who had dropped his eyes to the ground during his rant to the profiler, and said, voice much quieter than it had been, but still hard and sharp, “Ezra, look at me, now.” With clear reluctance, eyes, one Chris could see was red from both tears and drink, the other mottled purple and black and so swollen it was just a slit, met his, “You aren't leaving this team unless you choose to leave it, and even then you'd have one hell of a fight on your hands. There is not a goddamn thing you are capable of doing that would make me transfer you to fucking California. I sure as hell wouldn't do it without talking to you first!” He was yelling now, good intentions about keeping his voice level thrown out the window, “Dammit Ezra, you should know better! What the hell kind of person do you think I am? You honestly think I would do something like that to you? It didn't even occur to you there was something suspicious about that email? If you'd taken two seconds to talk to Buck, instead of taking off and shutting off your phone, he would have set your ass straight! Instead, you risked your damn life, not just by driving that hot rod like you think you're Dale Earnhardt, but by putting yourself out of contact when there was an active threat against you!”
“Ah-Ah didn't know.” Chris narrowed his eyes further at the interruption, leaning a little closer, but he also noticed the pronounced slur to the man's words, drunker than he'd realized, and the way his eyes had widened at the words 'active threat'. Of course, he should have known Josiah hadn't told a drunk and injured man there was a potential death threat against him, and Chris's scowl was as much for himself as his agent. He wanted to put the fear of God into Ezra, he didn't want to actually scare him.
“Maybe you didn't know, but that doesn't change the fact that you know damn well not to be out of contact like that. And there is nothing, not a thing, that can explain that damned stupid, suicidal, stunt you pulled with your car! Going ninety miles an hour when there's still ice on the roads! Going around corners with barely two wheels on the ground! What the hell is the matter with you!” Chris heard a slightly strangled sound from Josiah at that, not surprised at the big man's reaction at all. Ezra had been doing his best to look him in the eye, knowing it was was what he expected, but his gaze dipped down now, whether out of shame or knowing Chris could read his eyes better than his face, he didn't know, but he wasn't having it. “Eyes up, Ezra.” He waited impatiently for the younger man to follow his order, only speaking when his eyes were once more trained back on Chris. “JD put together a great little video from the street cameras, exactly what I wanted to add to the home movie collection-you almost getting wrapped around a streetlight!” The noise from Josiah this time was an outright growl. “I swear to God, Ezra, you ever pull anything that stupid again, I'll kick your ass myself! You won't have to worry about the cops suspending your license, I'll suspend it right to my pocket! You could have died. Then to top it off, you decide to get plastered at a bar full of a gang you went undercover with, people who'd be damn happy to see you dead!” The last sentence was hissed, Chris's voice lowering automatically, not about to shout such information where it might be overheard by the wrong person. “Everything you did today was so damned reckless I almost can't believe it! If you were trying to get my attention you damn well got it! You're gonna be having a lot of it for awhile to, you're coming back to the ranch with me, at least until we find the source of this threat, and I'm gonna be keeping you plenty busy. By the time you get back to your apartment my barn is gonna sparkle.”
“Not until he heals up, Chris.” Nathan's tone was matter of fact, not demanding, but expectant, the healer knowing that the team's health was the one thing he could get away with countermanding Chris on, and knowing that Chris knew he knew.
“Oh, the stall mucking can wait, but I'm sure I got plenty of things he can do one handed, even sitting down.” Ezra looked at him warily, alcohol making his face more open than it usually was during a dressing down, and Chris grinned, a slight, not very nice grin. “Plenty of things.”
“Ezra, know is not the time to argue with me.”
The look Ezra gave him was somehow a pure mixture of petulance and genuine hurt, and Chris bit back a noise he wasn't sure would have been a growl or a sigh, as the other man spoke, muttered really, voice as fretful as his face, “Ah wanted to apologize...” Goddammit. How the hell was it that Ezra could break every damn rule in the book, put himself in danger multiple times, and now Chris was standing here feeling guilty for giving him a tongue lashing he damn well deserved! It was almost enough to piss him off all over again. He took a deep breath, and then another one, reigning in his temper with a force of will.
Still, he knew what he wanted to say, “I don't need you to apologize Ezra, you can save that for the others. I need you to promise me nothing like this will happen ever again. That you'll come to me first.” Chris bored his eyes into his agents, needing him to know how serious he was. The two stared at each other for a long minute, Chris not quite able to read all the emotions flickering on and off Ezra's face, before finally the younger man nodded, short and jerky.
“Ah will do mah best.” That was not a promise, but, Chris figured, was a lot more honest than anything else he could have said, and while he glared harder for a minute, finally nodded his own acceptance.
“Good. And Ezra? The bastards who sent you those papers, who hurt you? They will not get another chance to try and do anything to you. Whoever they are, we're going to find them. Then we're going to destroy them. They will pay for what they did to you. I promise you that. No one is allowed to hurt you like that. I won't have it." He could see that Ezra was choking up now, and embarrassed by it, and let go of his shoulder, stepping slightly to the side and jerking his head to motion Nathan forward. He would stick right here until he was sure Ezra wouldn't give Nathan any trouble. Then he was going to find Brady, make sure they both were on the same page, and get him to point him in the direction of the sons of bitches who jumped Ezra. He was going to have a nice long talk with them. Chris's jaw tightened as Nathan, ignoring Ezra's slurred protests that he'd already been examined, tugged up the man's already untucked shirt, exposing the mottled bruising that was already turning to deep shades of black and blue. A very long talk.
Satisfied that Nathan and Josiah had things well in hand, Chris had turned and walked a few steps away when he heard a sad sounding 'whisper' from Ezra to the medic, “Nathan, will Chris really make me do chores while Ah'm injured?” Goddammit.
Before Chris had quite turned back all the way, a snort from Nathan had him pausing, “No, I wouldn't let him, but you know he wouldn't either, quit trying to make him feel sorry for you.” Turning all the way around now, Chris's eyes narrowed at the too innocent expression on Ezra's face. That little shit.
“Ah wasn't.” Sober Ezra would have been horrified at the hint of a whine in his voice. Hell, Slightly-Less-Drunk Ezra would have been horrified.
“Sure you weren't. Anyway, you're lucky, if it were me you wouldn't be getting chores.” Ezra was looking at Nathan very dubiously now, the suspicion almost dripping from his tongue on his next word.
“Yep.” The word all but popped off Nathan's tongue, and Chris felt a smile pushing at his lips, not sure what Nathan was going to say, but sure it was going to be good. “If it were up to me, I'd wait 'til you healed up good, and drag your ass out to the woodshed. Decided about, oh, the third time I watched you nearly crash your car.”
Ezra's mouth hung open, tiny spluttering noises leaving him for a few seconds, a grin covering Chris's face, and a quick look at Josiah showed a matching one on his. Even when the undercover agent eventually found words they kept escaping him, “Ah-you can't-Mistah Jackson, Nathan-of all the ridiculous-Ah'm not-Josiah!” On the last word, Ezra turned his head up plaintively, clearly expecting Josiah to rescue him, but he was chuckling now, and just raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
“Make him stop!” It was half-wailed, if quietly, and if Ezra hadn't dug himself into such deep shit Chris might have felt bad for him.
Apparently taking a small amount of pity on him, Josiah answered, still chuckling intermittently, “Oh, I don't know. Until I watch that video myself, I can't be sure whether or not I agree with him.” Ezra looked back and forth between Josiah and Nathan for a moment, flicked his gaze at Chris, before apparently deciding he wasn't going to test the waters there, went to cross his arms, hissed when he pulled on the injured one Chris assumed he'd forgotten about, and settled for laying his good arm underneath the sling.
“Ah think you are both being verah mean.”
“Alright, Ezra, alright, we'll stop. Won't we Nathan?”
“I'll let up for now, but I wasn't joking.”
“Nathan.” The healer nodded reluctantly and Josiah seemed satisfied. Chris generally thought of the team as his chosen brothers, not that it was the sort of thing he said out loud, but sometimes it seemed more like he and Josiah had somehow gotten stuck raising a pack of rowdy kids together.
Satisfied that if Ezra were up to pouting so spectacularly he was obviously fine, Chris decided it was time to go find Brady, and turned, only to find that sometime in the last minute or two the man had at some point walked up right next to him. “How long you been there?”
“Long enough to find that conversation as funny as you did.” Chris raised an eyebrow, amused, though anyone else listening in would have pissed him off, Brady was...Brady.
“You got the bastards who assaulted my agent nearby?”
“Yep, follow me.” Brady was already walking away, quirking two fingers over his shoulder at Chris, and he quickly fell into step with him, “So, you said you didn't think these were the guys tailing him, and so far that checks out. They're with the Damnation, and according to the bartender they've been here half the day. Connection between the two's unlikely, but I wouldn't rule it out. Themselves, they aren't being very talkative. Figured you'd want to fix that.”
A very different grin than had been on his face a minute ago passed over it, “Oh, I think I can give it a try. He went undercover with them, about two years ago, any signs Standish was recognized?”
“One of them did inform me that 'the ATF can fuck off', but that could just mean they recognized him as an agent.” Brady cocked his head at Chris, “Now, what about this guy you've got holed up in your office? Buck told me he was passed out and cuffed to a chair.” Brady's words might have sounded disapproving, but his tone was just curious. “You sure none of you are gonna wind up in trouble for that?” Curious and a little worried.
“JD's the one who told me about Sharpe, didn't say a damn thing about them knocking him out.” He was going to strangle them, starting with JD for withholding information.
Son-of-a-bitch had deserved it, though. As long as they didn't hurt him bad enough to lose their jobs or go to jail he would only strangle them a little. “I'll figure something out, Travis was pissed enough about the possibility of this mess involving a leak, that I think combining that with an implied death threat against one of his agents will be enough for him to look the other way if he can. Doesn't mean I.A or the court system won't tear into us.” Chris ran a hand through his hair, more worried than he cared to admit. It was one thing for him to do something like that, where he knew he would be the only one to take the fall, he hated the idea of it being one of the others. “Dammit, that explains why I haven't got an update, can't interrogate somebody who ain't awake.”
“Sounds to me like they need to actually arrest the guy once he wakes up, cover their asses that way.” Brow furrowing even more, Chris asked Brady to hold on a second and pulled out his phone, quickly texting JD.
Why didn't you tell me Sharpe was knocked out? Not OK. Also, ask Vin if he ever
placed Sharpe under arrest.
He really was going to strangle them. Chris shoved his phone back in his pocket and nodded at Brady to let him know he was ready, the older man setting off without preamble. They walked not much farther when Brady came to a halt, in front of them two men, spread out far enough they couldn't talk, each guarded by their own officer. “One of 'em's still with medical, apparently getting hit by Sanchez's fist and thrown face first onto the ground causes quite a concussion.” Brady clapped him on the shoulder, and in an overly loud voice said, “Alright Larabee, here's the bastards who attacked your agent. You have fun now.” He turned around to walk away, saying under his breath, “I've had my people telling them stories about you. All true, too.” He walked away and Chris looked between the two men, letting an evil smirk slowly wind across his face. The gang member on the right swallowed in response, so that was where Chris headed.
Oh yes, he was going to have fun , all right.
Ezra held the cold-pack wrapped in a towel gingerly against his swollen eye, hissing slightly. He didn't think it would do any good, as his eye was already swollen and bruised, and had said so, but Nathan hadn't given him much of a choice. In fact, Mr. Jackson seemed quite annoyed that he hadn't already been given one, and was currently muttering quietly to himself about that, a deep scrape on Ezra's back that had been missed by the original paramedic, and the general incompetence of all medical professionals that were not him, as he repacked his kit. As his annoyance was not towards Ezra, for now at least, he was grateful.
That Ezra had refused an ice pack when the young lady had tried to insist (That had been after he'd been moved over to the ambulance, when Josiah had been giving his statement to Brady, and hadn't been looking), and been generally uncooperative during her exam, was something he was planning to keep thoroughly to himself. It was just, much as he complained at times about Nathan's mother hen tendencies, he was the only person Ezra actually trusted not just to poke and prod at him for no reason. The man insisted he see an actual doctor occasionally, had all but dragged him to his last physical, but he didn't really see the point, it wasn't as though he ever went to anyone but Nathan when he was actually sick. Not unless he needed a hospital. Ezra felt a bit bad for allowing the maligning to go on, but Mr. Jackson was already decidedly not pleased with him. She would likely never even see Nathan again; Ezra had heard him call Rain and tell her he was going to spend the night at the ranch.
Ezra wondered how much Rain knew. If she was as displeased with him as Mr. Jackson seemed to be.
He was certain the medic had been teasing him with his earlier threat, whatever he had said about not joking-after all it was simply too ridiculous of a suggestion for him not to be teasing. He must have been. Ezra was certain of that. Mostly certain.
It's not as though he were a child, and Josiah had been laughing, so it had to be a joke. Then again, Mr. Sanchez had a rather unusual sense of humor, and sometimes saw a joke where there was none. Dropping the ice pack to the side of him without really thinking about it, Ezra's fingers curled in over his palm, plucking worriedly at his shirt sleeve before he realized what he was doing, and forced his fingers flat, moving them down to lay on his leg, hoping no one had seen such an obvious tell. He did not, however, pick up the ice pack again, it was simply too cold, and it stung when he pressed it to his eye, and Nathan would have to understand. Ezra darted a quick look at the medic to make sure he was still deep in his medical bag, only to find him looking at him with an eyebrow raised. Ezra quickly picked up the ice pack, reapplying it with a hiss.
He was fairly certain, but still, it would not due to push at the moment.
Lord, he was being ridiculous, and he knew it. Nathan might not have been entirely joking, but he certainly couldn't have been serious. He'd said it so that Ezra would understand how unhappy he was with him, to press his point home about what a fool he'd been that day.
Ezra felt like a fool, so he supposed Nathan's point had been made. They were all so upset with him, and he was imagining that the others were as well. He knew he'd brought it on himself, Mr. Larabee's scolding had made that more than clear, but as childish as it might be, he wished they weren't, whether it was deserved or not. Later, they could be upset all they wanted, right now, he just wanted...
He didn't know. To go back in time maybe.
Ezra had spent most of the day thinking he had lost his home, thinking that he was being sent packing by the closest thing he had to family, and perhaps he had been a fool to think that, perhaps Chris was right and he should have known better, but he hadn't, and it had hurt. Ezra knew he'd made blunder after blunder today, but this had ranked as one of the worst days of his life before he'd been attacked by thugs, and now everyone was mad at him, and probably would be for ages.
He was also starting to feel sick, like the hangover was starting before he'd gone to bed or even sobered up most of the way, which frankly, felt decidedly unfair.
Chris had said there was an active threat. Someone was trying to kill him. Not just torment him, for all they had, someone was trying to kill him.
“Ezra, you're shivering.” Josiah placed his hand squarely in the middle of his back, rubbing briskly for a moment, then reached down and grabbed the blanket Ezra had forgotten about, tucking it in firmly around his shoulders and pulling the ends around the front to cover him.
“Thank you, Josiah.” He could hear the tremor in his own voice, and wasn't sure if he wanted Josiah to have noticed or not. A second later there was a nudge against his arm, Josiah indicating he should slide over, and, after a seconds hesitation, he did as best he could without dislodging the blanket, having not realized he was cold until he started to feel the difference between the parts of him that were covered and the parts that weren't. Ezra grunted as he stretched a particularly sore spot on his side, right as Josiah was sinking down next to him, an arm wrapping around him and pulling him close to the big man's side. Nathan had turned at Ezra's grunt, in time to see Josiah move him, and glared.
“Josiah! Be careful, you can't just yank him around right now. Ezra, you okay?” Ezra blinked, surprised, and nodded, a warmth creeping over him that wasn't just from Mr. Sanchez's body heat, though he suspected the man could moonlight as a furnace, as Nathan looked him up and down anyway, his hand coming to rest on his knee.
“I didn't yank on him, but I'll be careful.” Josiah sounded strangely pleased for someone who'd just been scolded, and then Nathan rolled his eyes at the older man for some reason Ezra didn't quite pick up on. His hand patted a few times at Ezra's knee, before he pulled it away and stood with a stretch.
“As soon as Chris gets back we should see about getting him out to the ranch, he should be in bed.” Ezra opened his mouth to protest this, more on general principal than anything else, as laying down in a dark, quiet, room, did not sound unappealing right now, for all it wasn't even six o'clock, but Nathan cut him off before he could, “I know, you aren't tired, I never said you had to go to sleep.”
Annoyed at being treated like a whiny child, for all he had been about to whine that he wasn't tired, Ezra opened his mouth to protest that Nathan had accurately predicted his protest, when a yawn escaped him, Nathan chuckling and Ezra sending him a half hearted glare in return. The hand that Josiah didn't have wrapped around him began fussing with the front of his blanket again, tucking it in around his legs, and Ezra wondered vaguely what had happened to his coat, he'd had one, hadn't he? Nathan came over and propped his back up on the ambulance door on the other side of Ezra, hand reaching out to tousle Ezra's hair, and he ducked away, sending another glare at him. Did he suddenly look like JD? Nathan just smiled at him, and, well, he supposed it was better than the 'noogies' Mr. Wilmington was so fond of. As another yawn escaped him, Ezra doing his best to hide it in a fold of the blanket, part of him wanted to lean his head down on Josiah's shoulder, but he had the feeling he was going to be embarrassed enough in the morning as it was-he'd already disgraced himself, sobbing all over the man like a distraught child, falling asleep on him like a toddler was not to be thought of.
Besides, while Ezra was well aware he would be no help if the threat were to show itself, if he was awake he'd be less of a burden, less dead weight. Of course the chances of someone trying something here, when they had back up on all sides, were slim, they'd be more likely to wait and try something-Ezra sat up straight, eyes widening, suddenly very awake. “Ezra? What's wrong?”
“Ah can't go back to the ranch, Mistah Sanchez.”
“Yeah, I don't really think you have a choice.” Nathan sounded slightly sympathetic, but mostly bemused.
“Ah can't.” He was plucking at his shirt sleeve again, not even bothering to try and stop himself this time.
“Chris has never actually killed any of us, Ezra, I think you're safe.” Ezra frowned at Nathan, that wasn't what he meant at all.
“Why do you think you can't go back to the ranch Ezra?” Josiah's hand was rubbing up and down his back again, slow and gentle, but he couldn't relax.
“Ah'll put Mr. Larabee and any of the rest of you who come out in danger. If something...Ah couldn't-Ah couldn't-” His voice cracked, and he shut his mouth before he could humiliate himself further, but to his shame he could feel tears prickling in his eyes and willed them away as best as he could. Josiah didn't make it easy, pulling Ezra back to where he had been, one of his hands guiding his head down to the crook of his neck.
“We aren't going to let anything like that happen, not to you, or to any of us. Vin already found the leak, the boys are probably questioning him right now, which means we're halfway to finding the source of the threat and dealing with it.” Ezra paused in the middle of shaking his head, his curiosity almost overcoming his fear, but tamped down on it, finishing his head shake.
“Ez, where else would you go?” Nathan's voice was quiet, some emotion in it that Ezra couldn't quite identify, but it made him not want to look at Nathan's face.
“Mah apartment, that way Ah'm the only-”
“No.” Josiah's voice was a rumble, deep in his chest, his arm tightening around Ezra enough to make his shoulder twinge, “No, don't you ever ask us to abandon you again.”
“No, Ezra, I mean it.”
“Josiah's right, Ezra, that just isn't happening. You can't go back to your apartment right now, and you're not going anywhere alone.” Ezra swallowed, well aware that his argument was diminished by his head resting on Josiah's shoulder, but not wanting to move anyway. It would be so easy to just give in, to let the others keep taking care of things.
But as painful as it had been to think that he would soon be separated from them, it would be far worse to know one of them was gone for good.
Lord, what if it was more.
“Ah could use one of the safe houses.” They were all actually FBI run, just available to the ATF, and the idea of his life being put in the hands of people who uniformly thought he was a traitor made him a little sick, but it still wasn't as nauseating as his previous train of thought.
“Like we'd leave you alone with the damn feebs. If you had, had, to use one of the safe houses at least one of us would go with you.” Ezra thought that rather defeated the whole point, but he was starting to identify the emotion in Nathan's voice as outrage, and frowned expressively at him rather than responding.
“You can glare all you like, son, neither of is changing our answer.” Giving up for now, Ezra sighed, letting himself slump even more onto Josiah.
It was, he supposed, a bit gratifying that they balked so firmly at the idea. It wasn't that being alone right now was something he wanted, just that the potential outcome of the alternative seemed far worse. “What's going on, boys? Why are we talking about FBI safe houses?” Mr. Larabee sounded suspicious, and Ezra, not sure if he'd overheard, but not foolish, let the already heavy eyes that were mostly hidden in Josiah's neck slide shut.
“Ezra's getting a bit paranoid about the threat.” He waited for Josiah to go on, to disclose what he'd said, but he didn't, and Ezra relaxed, relieved.
“Nodding off, not quite there yet.”
A hand, heavier then Nathan's and not as gentle as Josiah's, was smoothing over the side of his head now, calloused skin catching lightly at his ear, almost scratching, squeezing at his neck and then doing it again, “Nobody's gonna do anything to you, we're not gonna let 'em.” A few more passes of Chris's hand and Ezra was in that twilight stage, where he wasn't quite asleep and wasn't quite awake, letting the others conversation wash over him.
“Learn anything useful?”
“From the Damnation punks? Other than that they saw Ezra's badge sticking out of his pocket, and beat the shit out of him just for being a fed, no.”
“They regret it?” Nathan's voice was strangely sharp, Ezra's ears pricking up a little at the change in tone.
“They do now.”
The, “ Good .”, came in stereo, Josiah's rumble vibrating through him, as Nathan's clipped tones echoed above.
“Buck told Travis about Sharpe, he isn't happy they roughed him up, but he's more unhappy that Sharpe ain't talking, even with him down doing the questioning now.” Sharpe? Ezra came awake a little more at that. Sharpe? That pathetic little man who often repeated Ezra's own comments back, slightly rephrased, when attempting to insult him? Ezra felt vaguely offended that such a toad could have affected him in such a way. Surely if he had enemies who wanted to kill him they could be of a better class than that. He kept his eyes shut, not sure if the others would continue the conversation if they knew he was properly awake.
“Why am I not surprised they roughed him up?”
“I wouldn't be,” Nathan said, “Except when JD talked to me and Chris on our way here he didn't say a word about it.”
“No,” Chris's voice was dry in a way that Ezra knew from experience did not bode well, “He did not. I understand losing your temper, wouldn't mind having a go at the son of a bitch myself, but I am not happy he withheld information.” Poor JD. “It's time to get out of here. We should all fit in the Ram.” With both Josiah and Nathan, Ezra wasn't sure about that.
Wait a minute...“What about the Jag?” As three sets of eyes trained on him Ezra remembered he'd been pretending to be asleep, and forced a yawn, Josiah chuckling from above him.
“Should of known that would wake you up.”
Buck stared exasperatedly at a jittery JD, who was looking at Buck to save him, “Well, of course I told Brady when I updated him. Why the heck didn't you tell Chris in the first place?”
JD looked at him like he was crazy, “Because he'd be mad.” Buck groaned and rubbed at his forehead. He knew the others liked to joke that he didn't act much older than JD, that that was why the two got along so well, and most of the time he felt like he had to admit there was some truth in it. Right now the age gap couldn't have seemed bigger if he were ninety and JD was in preschool.
“And you decided that lying to him would make him less mad?”
Looking mighty offended, the boy snapped back, “I didn't lie!”
“Withholding vital information is lying, kid. Withholding it to save your own butt, even with Vin's included, doubly so. You know that's what's Chris is gonna say, and he's right.” JD slumped then, looking miserable.
“I'm in trouble, huh?”
“Big time.” JD was the one to groan this time, putting his face down on his keyboard.
“Today sucks.” Buck reached over and patted him on the shoulder.
“Look on the bright side, tomorrow has to be better.”
JD raised his head just enough to glare grumpily at Buck, “You realize you just cursed us, right?” Buck sighed and knocked on the top of his desk.
“There, I knocked on wood, no curse, happy?”
“I'm pretty sure that's not real wood.”
Buck rolled his eyes to the heavens, “Your head can be pretty wooden sometimes, why don't I knock on that?”
As JD was scowling at him, Vin came out of Chris's office where he'd wheeled Sharpe, Buck hoping that the reason he'd taken so long wasn't because Sharpe had new bruises on his body, and JD's head shot up and in Vin's direction, “Chris knows we hit Sharpe, wants to know if you ever placed Sharpe under arrest. I really hope you did, 'cause he sounds pissed off over text-I didn't know you could do that. The only reason he woulda texted instead of using the radio is if he was too mad to talk too.”
Vin paused, processing all of that, and then a hand was reaching up to tug it's way through his tangled hair, and Buck bit back another groan, because he hadn't, had he? “Shit.” Yep, shit was right. Dammit Junior.
When the hell had he become the grown-up here? “He awake yet?” It had been long enough that if Sharpe wasn't they should probably see about getting the mule-faced piece of crap medical attention-not that Buck would mind letting him suffer, but it wasn't worse the risk of JD or Vin getting in trouble.
“Yeah, stirrin' and bitchin'. Figured we'd start questioning him soon.”
Buck nodded, “I know it's just words, but get your butt back in there and tell him he's under arrest, read him his rights, get things started official like.” Vin was second in command, and under most circumstances he'd be the one issuing orders, but at the moment Junior looked like he was in over his head, and hell, Buck had been a cop when the kid was still in high school. Supposed to be in high school, anyway. He could take over for a little while. Vin nodded at him, looking like he was back on firmer ground, letting him know the kid was going to let him. He snagged one of his crutches and pulled himself to his feet, “If he's awake it's time to get Travis, he wanted to be told if we found anything important, and I can guarantee one of his agents being involved with a hit on another is important. I'd wait on questioning him until Travis is down here.” The director was liable to be more than a bit ticked off they'd waited this long to tell him. Another reason for Buck to go up himself, he hadn't actually done anything, and could act as a buffer between Travis and the boys if this got his dander up.
That the director hated to see any of his agents injured, and Buck still had a rather noticeable injury couldn't hurt, either. Buck had to try not to roll his eyes when JD looked at him dubiously, biting his lip. Other than needing rides-and help up the stairs that night the elevator in their building had gone out-Buck had been getting around just fine, crutches or no. He'd come and gone from the building a couple of different times today, he wasn't helpless. What the heck did the kid think was gonna happen in the elevator trip to the top of the building? Buck grinned at the kid, trying to reassure him, even if he had a feeling his grin looked more commiserating than anything, and balancing on one leg, he used the crutch he had to lift and grab the one that had been lying out of reach, ignoring JD's squawking as he turned towards the door. He was fine.
Then again, since JD seemed half convinced Chris was gonna kill him for his little stunt, instead of just scorching his ears and assigning him every bit of paperwork that crossed his desk for the next couple of weeks, he probably thought the director would do worse, and was just wishing Buck didn't have to go get him. But the twenty years he had on the kid had taught him that putting off things like this just made them worse. Besides, if any of them should be worried it was Vin. The man would be pleased they'd found the leak; it was the bruises on him, particularly the broken nose that had been swelling up beautifully (and was gonna make questioning Sharpe a pain in the ass, dammit), that he wasn't going to like. But there wasn't anything to be done about that now, and anyway, Travis knew that if Vin wasn't around, then Chris wasn't around, and the whole rest of the team would go with them.
If Buck were either a bit more of a coward or a bit braver, he'd say nothing about the injuries, hoping that the director would be angry enough at the situation Travis would ignore it when he saw them, but he wasn't willing to take that risk. Halfway down the hall to the elevator bank he noticed a spotty trail of blood that must have been left by Sharpe's dripping nose and cursed vividly. It looked like the blood had slowed enough the trail didn't go much farther towards their office from where he'd first seen it, but as he started forward he could see that there were spots here and there that led all the way to the elevator bank, and decided to get in the one next to the one the blood trail had come from. Buck wasn't sure he wanted to see the inside of it. Vin was ordinarily more careful than that, you'd think he at least would have tilted Sharpe so the blood dripped onto his shirt not the floor. Clearly this was getting to all of them. If he didn't think a guy on crutches scrubbing blood up would probably draw at least as much attention as the blood he'd have tried to wipe it up himself.
The elevator couldn't have been too bad or someone would have reported it to security.
God, he hoped no one had reported it to security. Buck felt like time was dragging almost to a stop as he climbed in and managed to bend over far enough to press the button without overbalancing. Being tall could make some things tricky when it came to crutches. He adjusted his stance, bouncing a little as he straightened up, wincing as a dull flare of pain spread through his ankle. Nate kept telling him it was taking so long to heal because he wasn't staying off of it enough, and Buck knew he was right for all he'd told him to stop his fussing, but things kept coming up. Admittedly, this was a heck of a lot more important than when he'd been hobbling around the break room table, chasing after Vin for the sandwich he'd snagged. As the elevator started moving he tapped one of his fingers on the handle of his crutch, thinking over what he was going to say to Travis, and wishing the elevator would move faster so he had less time to worry about it.
Still, he couldn't say he was particularly happy when the chime sounded, doors opening so he could-crutch?-what the heck do you call it anyway? Hop maybe, he thought-so he could hop slowly out into the large reception area, smile charmingly at the Director's lovely assistant, banter back and forth a bit, (whatever she said, Buck knew she loved him) and then, after getting the all clear to go on in, pushed open the door and shuffled his way through, just beating the director opening it for him. “Bucklin, find a seat. I hear if we want your ankle operating at full capacity anytime soon you should be taking it easy.” Vin was right, Nathan was a snitch. “Now, what do you have for me?”
“Ezra's been located, sir. He was attacked at The Sprawl, but he's alright. Chris has him. Our old S.O, Captain Brady and a good amount of his boys from DPD are helping clean things up, containing the scene.”
“Thank God.” A deep sigh left Travis, his body slumping for just a moment before he straightened again, “Are the attackers in custody? Do we know if they can lead us to who's behind this?”
“Yes sir, three of them. And,” Buck scratched at his head, not sure how Travis would take this, “From what we can tell, they ain-don't got anything to do with that email, just random Damnation bangers who didn't care for having a fed in their bar. Bu-”, Travis cut him off before he could tell him they had a lead.
“How did they know he was a fed? What the hell was that boy doing at The Sprawl anyway?” Uh-oh. Buck winced a bit for Ez at the 'that boy'. Looked like he hadn't just pissed off 'Dad' and 'oldest brother' (and a drunken JD goading an equally drunk Ezra into helping him place Team Seven & Friends on a family tree, labeling them as they went was still probably the funniest thing he'd ever witnessed. Gary from forensics was the perfect 'creepy cousin who shall one day kill us all'. He wasn't sure how Josiah would feel about having six kids though), but also 'Great Uncle and possibly family benefactor'.
“I can't rightly tell you the answer to the first question, but as to the second I'm pretty sure he was getting plowed. Uh-Director.”
The director gave a sound somewhere between a chuckle and an exasperated sigh, “I suppose that's a lot better than some of the things he could have gotten up to today.” Buck smiled, careful not to say anything one way or the other to that comment. “I can tell you have something else to tell me, what is it?”
“There is a leak, and we found it, or Vin did, actually. It's Charles Sharpe, Director Travis.” Buck felt almost apologetic as he told him, knowing Travis was the type to feel the betrayal of any agent, even one Buck didn't figure he'd had much to do with. Sure enough, there was a slightly sharp intake of breath, a disgusted shake of his head and a muttered curse Buck couldn't quite hear but could still feel the intensity of.
Then Travis smiled just a bit, shaking his head again, but not in disgust this time, “You boys sure move fast.” The older man clambered to his feet, “Alright, is he in the Team Seven office? I have a few important matters I'd like to discuss with the gentleman.” Buck grinned, wondering if he had been meaning to sound like Hoss there. Either way, he wouldn't mind seeing the tough old man take Sharpe apart a bit. Which reminded him...
“Director...you see, there was an incident...”
“How badly is Sharpe injured?” Travis was still standing behind his desk looking down at Buck, definitely not happy, but he wasn't as angry as he might have been, and clearly not surprised at all.
“Well, his nose is broken, gonna have a couple shiners to go with it, and he was unconscious for a while...got a nice bruise on his jaw too, way it was swelling it might be cracked. Don't think there is anything else.” He figured there were probably more bruises from the couple times the dick had hit the floor, but Buck hadn't actually seen them, so they didn't count.
Travis had placed his hands on his desk, putting his weight on them as Buck talked, jaw growing tighter as he leaned forward, “I can't believe I'm saying this, and I won't be repeating it, but-dammit, you've been in law enforcement for how long? Don't you know not to mark a suspect up where it's visible? Better yet, how to not leave a mark? Either way, you don't touch the face!”
Buck spluttered, torn between shock at what the usually straight laced Travis was saying, and indignation that he was the first suspect when there were two hotheaded young pups downstairs, who, unlike him, might not have known those unspoken rules. “I didn't! Hell, sir, I can't even take more than two steps without crutches right now!”
There was a pause and then Travis nodded, “Tanner?”
“Got his nose.” Travis raised an eyebrow and Buck continued, very aware that the pride that had somehow crept into his voice with that statement wasn't appropriate, but unable to contain it, “JD's the one who popped him in the jaw.” He hurried on, wanting to finish the story before the director decided he'd heard enough-Buck recognized that expression-and headed for the elevator, “They were provoked, Director Travis, and badly. Vin overheard that pile of-uh, Sharpe, talking to two guys, who we're pretty sure are the same guys JD got video off of the street cams following Ezra, saying if they,” Buck swallowed, his stomach rolling at the thought, “did their job soon we'd be the Magnificent Six.”
“A death threat? You're telling me there is a hit out on Standish?”
“Next time, tell me that first.” The director was already heading towards the door, opening it and waiting impatiently for Buck to pull himself up and start that way, holding back the sarcastic comment he would have given Chris-'really, before I told ya he was safe?-, knowing the director would not appreciate it. Not that Chris would have appreciated it either, but that wasn't the point. “We're going to get some answers, sooner rather than later.”
“Yes sir.” Buck moved as fast as he was able, but Travis still got to the elevators before him, picking out, of course, the one that Vin had used. Buck said nothing as they stepped in, and neither did Director Travis, though he was pretty sure his jaw clenched when he saw the really quite small and already mostly dry puddle of blood underneath where Sharpe must have been standing. To his surprise the director pulled out first his handkerchief from his suit jacket pocket, then a flask from a pocket that must have been sewn on the inside. He doused the handkerchief with something that was definitely not water, whatever it looked like, and to Buck's amazement knelt down and started scrubbing at the spot, the alcohol making it come right up, searching out a few stray spots before he climbed to his feet, folding the handkerchief so that the bloody part of the fabric was on the inside with layers of cloth around it and sticking it back in the inside pocket with the flask. “Thank you, Director.”
“No need to thank me.” The man's face was grimmer then it had been, and nothing else was said for the remainder of the ride or the trip down the hall. As they entered into Team Seven's office Buck frowned as he realized the boys were nowhere to be seen, meaning they were in Chris's office.
“Sharpe's in there, reckon that's where Vin and JD are too.” He pointed and started heading that way, not at all surprised that Travis beat him to it. Buck cringed as the older man opened the door and he got a clear view of a bright light shining in Sharpe's face, Vin standing over him holding it, while JD sat on the top of Chris's desk, leaning down to talk to the man, like they thought they were detectives from a movie set in the 1940's. He'd told them he was getting the director, what the hell did they think they were doing?
The wavering light made the bruises and slightly terrified look on Sharpe's face stand out keenly, and while Buck personally thought it was a good look for the little weasel, Travis couldn't condone it, and he knew that. That the two acted guilty as sin the second they noticed them didn't help, Vin shutting off the flashlight and clasping his hands behind his back like he thought if they couldn't see it anymore they'd forget about it, JD straightening up and pasting an innocent expression on, like he hadn't just been snarling threats in Sharpe's face. “So boys, learn anything useful?”
They exchanged a look, JD opening his mouth and then shutting it, opening it again to say, “Maybe?”
The director continued to stare at them for a long moment, the intensity of his gaze deepening as he did, “Come out and tell me about the maybe .” Not as stupid as the scene they'd walked into might suggest, they hurried out into the hallway. Sharpe, who seemed to have finally caught up with what was going on, called out before the door was swung shut behind them.
“Director Travis? I didn't do anything! You've got to believe me!” The man's swollen nose and jaw made his voice come out muffled and distorted.
“We'll see.” The expression on the director's face left no doubt of who he was most likely to believe, and if it had been any other situation Buck would've hated the way Sharpe's face crumbled, might even have still had some sympathy when his expression transformed into rage a second later.
“I want my lawyer! You have no right to hold me here!” As it was, he took great pleasure in watching the few seconds of all out tantrum the man threw as Travis firmly shut the door behind them, the sounds muffled almost to nothing once it was shut.
Wasting no time, Travis turned to Vin, “What exactly did you hear?” Vin told him, Buck feeling tempted to go 'talk' to Sharpe for awhile as it was rehashed.
“Do you have any proof?”
Vin looked surprised, and then hurt and a little angry, “Director, I ain't ly-”
“Tanner, if I didn't believe you you'd already be in the holding cells. I'm asking if you have any proof that will hold up in a court.”
Vin didn't do anything for a minute, just standing there, to the point that Buck was a little worried he was being purposefully insubordinate, before he slowly and reluctantly reached into his pocket and pulled out-a flat gray square? “Conversation's on this, sir.”
“That a bug?” Travis seemed slightly amused, “Never heard of someone bugging themselves before, but as long as it works.”
“It's a bug, sir, only way better than the standard one's we have, it can't be detected with any of the usual scanners and the file goes right to a secure server I set-up.” Buck jerked his head at JD, now was the time to go get that file, not try to sell the director on his tech.
“Why don't you go get it up on your computer for us, kid.”
“Yeah, of course.” JD looked at the director to make sure he was actually dismissed, rushing down the hall to his computer when the man nodded.
“So, what is this 'maybe' JD was talking about?” All of Travis's attention was now on Vin, and he straightened, almost coming to attention as he answered.
“Some of what Sharpe was sayin' made it seem like it had to do with enemies Ezra made when he was in the FBI, maybe even all the way back to somebody he went to the academy with. He didn't say nothin' concrete, all vague threats, but it's there.” Goddammit, hadn't the FBI done enough to Ezra? It was bad enough that if the other agency was even remotely involved things would be complicated endlessly, if it was any of the bastards who'd scapegoated him in the first place was behind this, and Buck got his hands on them...
“Hey guys!” JD's head came around the corner, “I've got the file up and forwarded to where you can hear Sharpe.” He disappeared before Buck could do more than wince at the way he included the director in his shout of 'hey guys', and with Buck falling back to last they made their way down the hall to stand in a clump behind JD's desk. Even after hearing Vin repeat what the man had said twice now, having to say it himself to Director Travis, Buck still found himself shocked at the level of animosity in Sharpe's voice when he was talking about Ezra. JD went to stop the tape after Vin had clearly handcuffed Sharpe and, by the sound of it, all but wrestled him into the elevator but Travis stopped him. Vin sidled a bit away and behind the rest of them as the tape played, Buck grinning a bit as his lesson in what the stop button did played back, though the director didn't look very happy. Travis motioned for JD to stop it a minute later, turning to Vin.
“'Another inch and a half to yank them before I cause permanent damage', Agent Tanner?”
Apparently at a complete loss for what else to say, Buck hoped so anyway, because otherwise it was just plain stupid, Vin choked out, “It was the truth?”
“That a statement or a question?” He waved Vin off before he could answer, “That's not the point. Did you forget you had a recording device in your pocket when you were threatening him, Tanner?”
Another pause, Vin's face flushing just a bit, and a quiet but distinct, “Yes sir.”, leaving his mouth as he realized what the director was actually upset about. Damn kids. Like Travis really gave a shit if a traitor's shoulders were sore. Of course it was Vin threatening him on tape that was the problem. JD started the tape again at Director Travis's request, Buck wondering when they got to the bit with Kelly why the hell Vin hadn't said a word to him. Kelly's word was good, he wouldn't say anything about it, but in a situation like this you needed to know who knew what. The insistence on innocence mixed with nasty comments about Ezra, Sharpe clearly trying to rile them up, when the boys were questioning him was hard to listen to, but they were right, Sharpe had brought up the FBI a couple different times, and not just when he was trying to tell them they had the wrong man pegged as a traitor.
Ass clown didn't realize how close he'd probably come to serious injury. Vin had been wrongfully accused himself during his time with the Marshalls, knew how it felt, and had little patience for that kind of crap in the best of circumstances. At that point Travis decided he'd heard enough and began issuing orders, “Agent Dunne, I want you to get a hold of Agent Larabee and get an update from him. I want to know where they're taking Agent Standish and what security measures will be in place. Once you've done that clean up this file, make it something that won't ruin Tanner's career if we need to use it.”
“On it, sir.” If Buck hadn't nudged his ankle with a crutch JD would have crammed the radio on his head and started talking before Travis had finished.
“Agent Tanner, was the one in your pocket the only bug you placed today?”
Travis did not look surprised, “I want you listening to the recordings for anything useful, use your discretion for which ones to go through first. If this goes any farther than Sharpe I want to know. Dunne, can you get the files up on Tanner's system?”
“Wilmington, you're with me. Let's see if we can convince Sharpe to be a bit more talkative. Dunne, come knock on the door when you have your report compiled.” He smiled a tight, decidedly scary smile, that was a bit out of place on the older man's face, and moved out of the row of desks and back down the hall to Chris's office.
Five minutes later Buck was leaning back languidly in a chair to the front and left of the one Sharpe was handcuffed to, chair turned so he was at an angle to the other man, whose own seat was positioned with the side facing the front of the desk. The director was perched on the edge of the desk, where he'd been quietly describing the unfortunate ex-agents he knew who had wound up in prison with the people they'd put behind bars, and the grisly ends several of them had met. Sharpe had spent a few minutes trying to convince the man of his innocence, now he just stared blankly ahead at the wall. If Buck hadn't had prime view of how the muscle in his leg kept jumping he might have believed he was tuning it out, but once you noticed that it was easy to see from his shoulders that he was tapping his fingers as best he could. There was a pause in Travis's dialogue and Buck slipped in a line, “I know you're scared, but try not to piss on the carpet. Larabee is likely to cut it off if you do.” Sharpe twitched a bit at that, and Buck shook his head in mock dismay. Really though, they'd only been in here for five minutes, what a pussy.
A knock came on the door then, and as Travis went to stand, Buck figured to go out in the hall and get the report from the kid, said kid opened up the door and barged right in, talking a mile a minute, making Buck sigh. He'd already had a talk with him about how just because you knock it doesn't mean you can walk in the third time JD had busted in on him and a lady, and the kid still couldn't seem to learn. “Hey Director, Chris said they're taking Ezra to the usual place,” which meant the ranch, Travis would know that as well, and that the kid had enough sense not to blurt sensitive information in front of a suspect they could only hold for so long unless they got a confession or something definite on him, “and they've got a DPD unit for security, and he said he'd contact you directly later about more measures. Since they weren't connected they're letting them take the guys who attacked Ezra back to their lock-up, charging 'em with assault in the first degree.” The boy grinned suddenly, eyes shifting to Buck, “Guess Ezra freaked out a little when he thought they were leaving the Jag for the night, I guess Captain Brady's gonna drive it home for him.”
A sudden snickering from Sharpe drew all three of their attention, “What the hell are you laughing at, fuck stick?” Not language he usually would use around the director, but the tone of Sharpe's laugh had set him right on edge.
“You think you won, by catching me, but it's too late. It's too late.” His snickering turned into full out laughing, and through gasps of laughter he choked out, “Hope he has a safe ride.” Part of Buck was aware of JD shouting into the radio, telling Chris to get everyone away from the Jag, there was something wrong with it, but mostly his mind had flashed back to a time that was nearly six years ago now, the burned out metal husk of a car, Chris screaming, the sound like nothing he had ever heard before, and he was launching himself across the short distance, the broken ankle he'd forgotten about collapsing under him halfway through, sending him crashing to the ground in front of the still laughing Sharpe, roaring with pain and fury.
Heart in his throat, JD's voice ringing in his ears, Chris turned away from the Ram and screamed at the top of his lungs, “the Jag is booby-trapped, get the hell away!” There was a split second where everyone, including Brady, already sliding into the car, keys in his hand, just froze, and in that moment Chris was sure, sure the next thing he was going to see would be fire and explosion, and after would come the smell of charred flesh...
Then Brady was stumbling away from the vehicle, backwards, as though he didn't want to turn his back on it, and, barking at the now wide-eyed agent he'd just finished loading into his truck not to move a muscle, knowing the officer on protection detail would watch him, Chris marched forward, brusquely announcing into his mike that Brady had exited the vehicle safely and the area surrounding the Jag was being cleared, they didn't know what was wrong with it yet, not surprised that JD's rapid fire questions only slowed, didn't stop. He winced as Brady tripped over a crack in the asphalt and went down on his back, hard, then winced again for the officer who ran to help him, getting scolded before she'd even got the Captain halfway up for approaching a vehicle she'd just been told may be rigged-Brady was pretty sure she had not joined the bomb squad, and she sure wasn't in a suit. Having been in the shoes of both the detective and Brady, Chris was hard pressed to choose who he agreed with-until Nathan went to stride past him and the containment area the DPD were setting up and his hand shot out, closing like a vice grip around the taller man's arm. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Going to check on Brady, the ambulances left, I'm the only paramedic on scene.” The look he gave Chris was impatient, though he didn't try and shake his hold on his arm.
“Since he won't have more than some bruises, do you think it could wait until he's clear of the compromised car?” It was not a question, however it was phrased, and after a beat passed Nathan had the good sense to appear chagrined.
“Sorry, boss.” Nathan was in general the most sensible of his men, and with another look, knowing that would be the end of it, Chris let him go. Then he noticed Nathan was looking at him like he had a question and quirked an eyebrow. “Where's Ezra? Who's with him? Josiah went to get his stuff out of the suburban.”
“The Ram, there's an officer watching it.” Chris automatically looked over his shoulder eyes seeking out the cab of his truck, expecting to see Ezra's silhouette in the middle seat where he'd left him, cursing when all he saw was empty pick-up. Eyes roaming, he spotted him about ten feet away from the truck, arguing with the cop who'd been supposed to prevent that from happening. As Chris saw his agent try and and step around the man, only to have him step in front of Ezra again, then repeat the whole thing, as though they were doing some sort of strange dance in the middle of the parking lot, he wasn't sure who he was more pissed at. “Dammit!”
“He's probably worried about Brady, Chris.” Though his words were clearly meant to placate his boss, Nathan's own brow had furrowed with annoyance, and the tone of his voice was more long suffering than sympathetic. Tossing another look at Brady, who was now leaning against a cruiser off to the right of them, pale and, from the look of things, insisting he was just fine, Chris directed Nathan that way and then set off to collar Ezra.
As he approached, glare on his face, his agent saw and immediately stopped what he was doing, freezing in place instead and trying for an innocent face, though when Chris tightened his jaw he dropped it for a much more honest 'oh shit' look. The officer with him, who hadn't noticed Chris walking up-not exactly who he wanted guarding Standish when he was vulnerable-, sighed, and said, “What the hell are you doing now? Look, why don't you get back in the truck before your boss kills us both?” Ezra was still staring at Chris over the man's shoulder, not paying the cop any attention at all, and frustrated, he leaned forward, getting far too close to Ezra's face for Chris's liking and snapped out, “ Or I could put you back in the truck myself-but you might not like that.” Ezra flinched back, and then started to look pissed himself, but Chris had already put his hand on the cop's shoulder and whirled him around.
“What the fuck did you say to my agent?” The man stammered for a second, then glared, though Chris could see the nervousness underneath it.
“I was told to keep him in the truck, for his own safety.”
“You already failed at that, didn't you?” He leaned in, smiling a very nasty smile, “You sure as hell weren't told to threaten a man whose already been assaulted, and you don't know how lucky you are you hadn't actually put your hands on him when I got here. Go tell your boss you aren't part of the protection detail anymore.”
“Get out of my sight, now.” He watched until the man got close, and then turned to Ezra, not glaring nearly as hard as he had been at that joke of a cop, but judging from the shifting the man was doing it was plenty effective, “You, get your butt back in that truck.”
“Brady's fine. Go on.” With a scowl, Ezra turned and walked back to the truck, Chris keeping close behind him. He wanted to go check on Brady, but it would have to wait until Josiah was back, though Chris was assuming he'd already be heading this way from the other side of the parking lot, where he'd left the suburban, with the commotion that had just happened. Chris watched carefully as Ezra climbed back in-he was sobering, but with as drunk as he'd gotten it would be a long while until he was actually sober-glad he had when his foot slipped a bit and if Chris hadn't been there to steady him he probably would have had another bruise to add to his collection. Leaning back lightly against the truck door once Ezra was actually inside and settled, he surveyed the area. The perimeter had been set up, vehicles that were at the edge had been pulled away, and there must have been an explosive expert already on site because there was someone suiting up to go check out the car. A worried little gasp left Ezra as he watched, and Chris shifted a little closer, moving his gaze to him, but not saying anything, not wanting to embarrass him and not sure what to say anyway.
“Ah suppose this proves there is always a silver lining. If Ah had not been delayed by those brutes...” Ezra's lips pressed tightly together on his last word, fighting emotion, and suddenly the full force of what might have happened hit Chris like a punch to the gut, fear and rage roaring inside him, and for a moment he was sure he was either going to be sick or hit something, possibly both. Either Ezra or Brady could have died tonight.
Could have been ripped to pieces and burned at the same time, flesh charring, fat melting, almost nothing left but ashes and bones...just the smell, the overwhelming smell and a sense of pain and panic in the air hanging over it all.
Not his pain. Theirs. Chris stumbled a step away from the door and fell to his knees, retching, not stopping until there was nothing left in his stomach but acid, and even much of that expelled. As he tried to get his breath back he became dimly aware that someone was gently patting at his back, talking intermittently. “You're all right Mistah Larabee...easy there.” Ezra. Chris was supposed to be taking care of him, not the other way around.
“M'fine. Should be in the truck.” A little huff of a laugh, a little huff of a laugh that sounded dangerously close to a sob, and Chris slowly straightened up, wishing he had a handkerchief, and he wasn't sure if he'd said it out loud, but he wasn't really that surprised when one was pressed into his hand. Embarrassed, he muttered his thanks and wiped first his eyes and then his mouth, shoving it in his pocket, assuming there was no way the undercover agent would want it back before it had been washed. Slowly he pushed himself to his feet, turning to pull Ezra the last of the way up as he'd only made it about halfway by then, then tugged him into his chest for the second time that day, not hugging as long as earlier, but just as tight.
“Hey, did Ezra get sick?” Nathan and Josiah were walking up together, Chris vaguely wondering how that had happened when they'd been in two opposite directions and then deciding he didn't care. Probably one of them had gone to find the other.
“Nope.” Pushing Ezra in the direction of the truck door, Chris left it at that, and for once, likely guessing the reason, Nathan left it alone, though Chris felt his eyes on him, worried, until he'd climbed into the truck cab and plopped down in his seat. He still wanted to check on Brady, badly, but the urge to get away from this place where all his senses kept screaming danger was even stronger, “Let's get out of here, one of you go tell them we need the rest of that protection detail, stat. And that little shit I got replaced earlier is not part of it, make sure of that.” He'd seen the man's replacement walk up earlier, and even though he hadn't actually talked to him Chris was sure he was an improvement.
Nathan nodded, and walked off to do just that, while Josiah, concerned, stepped around the puddle of sick and up to the door. He didn't actually say anything, just appraised Chris for a long moment while he fought the urge to glare at him, and then gave in. He was fine. If he wasn't fine it was no one's business but his own. Wisely, Josiah decided not to ask how Chris was doing, instead focusing on his last statement, “You had to have someone removed?”
“Yep.” Josiah was clearly waiting for clarification, but Chris knew the man's temper, in the right mood it could be worse than Chris's own, and him deciding to threaten the uniform was not something he was willing to deal with right now. After a minute the gray haired man seemed to accept that he would learn no more just then, and reaching up he clapped Chris on the shoulder once.
“I'll load up.” Chris pulled his door shut as Josiah went around the front of the truck, hoisting himself up, sliding into the cab and over so he was partly in the middle, his arm going up and along the back seat, which annoyed Chris for a second-they were going to be crammed once Nathan got in, there was no way around that, but there was no need for it yet-until he saw Ezra oh-so-casually shift even closer to Josiah, pressing into his side, his arm dropping from around the seat to drape over Ezra's shoulder. Unlike earlier the man was clearly wide awake as well, and the fact that he was seeking out comfort in front of a witness made sure Chris knew exactly how strongly this was effecting him. A curl of the protective rage he had felt earlier flared up in his belly, more tempered now, and thinking that was a better way to go than the misery and empty bottle that lay in the other direction, Chris seized onto it.
They needed to plan properly, at least they needed to make plans to get everyone to the ranch safely-there was a chance that Ezra wasn't the only target, or that they would use the others to try and get to Ezra, and either way Chris knew he would not be able to sleep unless the whole team was there. Travis had said Chris could have what he asked for, Team 8 to be security for his guys was nothing. They must have recorded the interrogation, he'd get the boys to bring home a copy of that, and all the footage JD had gotten off the street cameras, and they could do a lot of the preliminary research tomorrow right from there. Knowing the leak had been someone directly inside the building with them made him leery, he'd be going back tomorrow to talk to Sharpe, more than likely-they had enough to hold him on now and technically could let him stew for a bit, but Chris was not a patient man-but, until they knew exactly who they could trust he didn't want to risk discussing sensitive information there. He would be much happier when Sharpe and Friends, whoever they were, had been safely taken care of.
If the sleazebag got off on a technicality because Vin and JD had roughed him up too much he was going to have their hides.
They needed to arrange for the Jag to be brought back to the ATF forensic labs as well, there had been no time to wait for Buck to come and diffuse it if there was a bomb, and Chris was frankly glad of that. He wanted no more risk to his team today. There was no way they weren't handling this investigation themselves, however, and their forensic teams were good. More than that, Nathan had enough standing with the head of the department, and was liked enough by most of the lab jockeys, that he had access to almost the entire department and could practically lead that part of the investigation anywhere he had a computer to talk to them on.
As he was debating the merits of calling Travis directly or communicating via the headsets/JD-he highly doubted Sharpe or whoever he was working with had bugged his phone, but he knew JD had checked all the radio equipment before they left-Chris saw Nathan and Brady walking that way, the head of the unit that was going to be escorting them and providing security for the first night, Detective Mora, walking with them. She'd seemed capable and confident when he'd talked to her earlier, but then she'd assigned that asshat to Ezra so Chris was reserving judgment. There were a few officers piling into squad cars in the background, it at least seemed like they'd be able to leave soon. Chris rolled down his window as they got close, Nathan breaking off to go around and climb in by Josiah, leaning his arm on the edge and hanging his head slightly out the window, “Brady, how are you doing?”
“Shook me good, but I'm alright.” Brady still looked a bit pale to Chris, and he could see scrapes on his hands from where he'd tried to catch himself on the asphalt, but he just nodded. “I heard you wanted to get these boys home for the night, and I don't blame you. I'll need to know who you want to go about processing the Jag.” He moved closer and said in an apologetic voice, glancing at Ezra, “There was an incendiary device implanted in the car, we got a guy neutralizing it, but standard procedure when the employee of another another agency is involved is to turn over handling and any evidence to them, but with the circumstances I wanted to leave where to take it and who exactly to contact to you.” Chris nodded along, even though there could have been something else wrong with the car, cut break lines, anything really, or Sharpe could have just been screwing with them, none of those had seemed like real possibilities, and he would have been surprised by anything else.
“I think it should go back to our labs, I'll contact Travis and have him arrange for it. We just need a few of your guys here to deal with transferring it all into who he send's custody.”
“No problem there. Anything else you need?”
“Just to let Detective Mora know that we'll be having the rest of our team join us out at the ranch.” As Brady went to slide back and let his detective forward, Ezra called his name.
“Captain Brady?” Brady halted his backwards motion, instead leaning closer, into the window.
“How are you holding up, Agent Standish?”
“Ah wanted to apologize, sir, for the dangah mah request put-” Ezra's voice was subdued and formal and Chris hated that he was apologizing for something that had been done to him.
“Now, you can stop that right there. I offered, you didn't request anything, and anyway, I'm fine and so are you and that's what's important, isn't it?” Brady always had had a way of phrasing questions that made it difficult to argue with him, and Chris wasn't surprised when Ezra nodded reluctantly. “Good, glad we settled that.” Then he was moving backwards so Chris could talk to Officer Mora, quickly hashing out a few details.
As she went to inform her team, Chris turned on his mike and asked JD if he could pass his headset to the director, and after a moment, the older man's voice came on the line. “What can I do for you, Agent Larabee?”
“Director Travis. I wanted to keep you updated, there was an explosive planted in Ezra's car. They've got somebody from their bomb squad working on it, but I need it picked up and transported back to the labs, sir.”
“That shouldn't be a problem. Once we get the evidence on that, combined with the audio tape from Tanner, and the statement Sharpe made about the car there should be plenty to start building a case.” Travis sounded quite satisfied, and Chris felt the same, he wanted this son of a bitch locked up quick, that was badly needed good news. “Now, JD told me you have a DPD unit assigned for security, how long are they going to be with you? I've got Kelly on notice that we're going to need his team, but we need to coordinate a switch over.”
“Until the morning, Director. They're doing their own switch over at midnight, and I told them I'd have something set up for the morning at six. I was hoping to get Kelly and a couple of his guys to escort the rest of the team out to the ranch, I don't want to assume no one else is a target and be wrong.”
Travis made a hmming noise, “While it doesn't seem likely with what Sharpe's been saying, that is definitely an area where I'd rather be safe than sorry. Think I'll send them out in a company car too, since you've already been driving your truck we know it's fine, but I don't think any of the rest of the team should use their vehicles until they've been checked out.”
“Sounds like a good idea, sir.” Chris could hear the exhaustion in his own voice and forced himself to straighten, it was not time for him to put his guard down yet.
“Alright, Agent Larabee, I've got the rest of this tonight. You just concentrate on getting yourself and the others home safely, that's an order.”
“Yes, sir.” They exchanged goodbyes and as Chris started the truck, JD started talking in his ear again.
“Hey Chris, should we get groceries or grab dinner or something? Maybe pizza?” Chris thought about his pantry and fridge, realizing he hadn't been shopping since the last time he'd had the boys over for a game, busy enough he'd been picking up take out on his way home, or just heating up a can of soup.
“Yeah, actually, but maybe see if one of Team 8 will grab it for you.”
“Okay. Be safe, okay?” Not exactly JD's customary goodbye, and as Chris let one of police cars drive in front of him as he drove towards the parking lot's exit, another pulling in behind his truck, he was once more furious with Sharpe and whoever he was working for. The kid shouldn't have to be worried about them like that, especially not in between cases, when by all rights none of them should have been in any danger at all. None of them should have to be worried about being attacked by someone who was supposed to be one of their own.
“We will, JD, and you watch your back too.”
Ezra let Josiah help him out of the truck slightly grudgingly, his sore and bruised muscles having stiffened just a little on the long drive to the ranch, that combined with the fact that he was still a little more than wobbly from his marathon drinking session making it a necessity. Necessary or not, part of him thought the injury to his dignity wasn't worth it. The others, along with a good chunk of Team Eight, had beaten them there, and a welcoming committee had trickled out onto the porch as the sounds of the Ram pulling up had been heard, and to Ezra it felt rather like they were all staring at him. Josiah quietly told him he was going with Chris to introduce the head of the DPD unit to Kelly, Ezra nodding without really hearing him. He swallowed as he stood next to the truck, hoping it wasn't noticeable, not at all sure what to say and do, not a usual state for the undercover agent, usually he had at least three different scenarios for how any situation might go running through his head. He flinched a little as a hand pushed lightly at his shoulder, Nathan's voice, steady and soft, hitting his ears a second later. “Didn't mean to startle you, Ez, but it's cold out here. C'mon, it's time to go inside.”
He let himself be bundled along, grateful for the hand he saw Buck, balancing on one crutch and the porch rail, lay on JD's shoulder, making sure the almost vibrating youth didn't decide to dart forward. No doubt he had a million questions for him, and likely Ezra owed him the answers, but it would have to be postponed, preferably until the morning. He mustered up a smile as he was going up the porch, the overflow of words from the members of the team he hadn't seen yet, loud greetings and thank God's from Buck and JD mixed with Vin's quiet smile and, “Glad yer okay”, making it easier than he expected. When he reached the top there was no holding them back, all three hovering around him, gentler than they might have been if he hadn't looked so pathetic, pats on the back replacing friendly slaps, JD actually asking if he could before he hugged him. He made his way into the house under his own power, Nathan hovering at his elbow the whole time, and eventually managed to make it all the way to the living room, collapsing on one end of the couch.
Ezra let his body sag down even as some of his bruises pulled and protested, closing his eyes. He wasn't actually sleepy, just simply too worn out to deal with anything and was assuming Nathan would make everyone leave him alone when he saw he was resting, relieved when he heard the sounds of the medic shooing everyone out of the room, not taking no for an answer. Then Nathan's hand was on his forehead, Ezra not sure what he was looking for, being as he wasn't actually sick. “You want some water or anything Ezra?”
“No, thank you, Mistah Jackson.”
“Alright, I'll come get you for supper.” He nodded without opening his eyes, hoping it would be awhile, as he had no doubt Nathan would insist he come eat with the rest of them when the time came. “Hey, I told you guys he needs to rest.” Ezra was confused for a split second, his brain not quite processing that it wasn't him Nathan was talking too, until he heard Buck's response and rather wished he could fall asleep right then.
“I'll let him be in just a minute, but I got a couple things I need to tell him, and that I think he needs to hear.”
“He nee-wait, what the heck did you do to your ankle? The top of the aircast has a dent in it and it looks more swollen than it was.” A hint of a smirk came to Ezra's lips unbidden-Mr. Wilmington's chances of getting past Nathan had just been drastically reduced.
“Aw, it ain't nothing, Nate-”
“Uhnt-uh, no way, not gonna work. Just how you said that tells me it's something, what happened?”
“Maybe I fell a little...it's not a big deal, Travis looked at it.” Buck's voice had gone from purposeful, to blustery, to slightly evasive, and was the man trying to set off all of Nathan's red flags?
“If you fell why aren't you using both crutches now? Like I've been telling you to do. Sit your butt down on the couch while I get my bag, Travis might know first aid, but he's not a medic. Let Ezra alone unless he talks to you. Here, put your ankle up on this.” Yes, Ezra realized, annoyed, as he felt the weight of a body lowering itself to the middle of the couch that was exactly what Buck had been trying to do, knowing Nathan wouldn't move him more than he had to if he'd hurt himself, and taking advantage of it. Ezra suspected that he may be a bad influence on his teammates.
He could feel Buck's eyes on him, it seemed that the man was going to follow Nathan's orders and not speak unless Ezra did first. Ordinarily this would be a game that Ezra would have won easily, but his nerves were plain shot, and he could feel Buck's eyes on him, penetrating his defenses without Ezra even seeing him.
It didn't help that the last few minutes in the office, and the way he had lied directly to the older man's face when he'd asked if something was wrong, kept replaying in his head. Finally, after what felt like ages, but since Nathan wasn't back probably hadn't even been a minute, he opened his eyes, trying to manage a smile, “Hello, Mistah Wilmington.”
“Hey, Ez. How you feeling?”
Confused. Guilty. Vaguely terrified. But he couldn't say any of those, so instead he mumbled, “Ah've been bettah.”
“Yeah, I bet, pard.” A moments silence, and then Buck was reaching out, tipping Ezra's chin up, “When you're feeling up to it, Hoss, you and me are gonna have us a talk about why you decided to run off and get yourself in a whole lotta trouble, put yourself in danger, instead of just talking to me.”
Ezra swallowed, the guilt that had been wallowing in his belly trying to surge its way up past the lump that was suddenly filling his throat, “Ah know that it doubtlessly isn't good enough, but Ah can only offer mah apologies and hope you will forgive me.”
“Ez, of course I forgive you, you don't ever have to worry about that, you hear?” Buck's finger was still under his chin, making nodding rather inconvenient, but the man plunged on again without waiting for an answer anyway, “And, for what's it's worth, I appreciate the apology. You scared me pretty bad today, so thank you for saying sorry. But that don't mean we don't have to talk. Because for some reason one of my brothers thinks I won't go to bat for him, and that just ain't true.”
“Don't try and tell me different. You thought if it was real I wouldn't stand up for you, that I'd just let you get sent away.”
“Ah didn't think you'd be able to do anything.”
“Maybe. But that ain't why you didn't tell me.” It wasn't. Ezra wanted to deny it, but he couldn't, not without lying to Buck again.
The truth was simple-he'd been terrified. Shocked and angry, hurt, but mostly just plain terrified. Terrified it was real. Terrified of exactly what Buck had said, that the man would do nothing. Terrified that he would assume that if Ezra was getting kicked off the team he must have done something to deserve it. Terrified that he had done something to deserve it.
Talking about it would have only made it more real, more inevitable, and fleeing, preparing for the unavoidable had seemed the only thing to do. It hadn't been logical, not entirely, he realized that now, but at the time it had seemed so. It had had naught to do with Buck, truly. Perhaps if Chris had been there he might have gone to him, but Ezra doubted it. He wasn't sure he could explain that adequately to Buck, however. Either way, he supposed an explanation of some type was due him, and Ezra thought for a minute of a way to try and make it make sense. “Buck, do you remembah the Collard case? Vin caught the flu so you went in as mah bodyguard instead?”
“When things went south, and we thought it was done-Ah wasn't nearly as scared then as Ah was this morning. Ah just...” He broke off, shuddering, and it was Buck's turn to swallow now, the hand that had been under his chin moving to squeeze his shoulder.
“Ezra there weren't no call for you to be that scared, because you should know I would never let something like that happen to you. If you'd trusted me, the way we trusted each other on that case-and if we hadn't it probably would have been done-you would have known that those papers were fake a lot quicker. You put yourself through hell today for no reason, and I ain't gonna lie pard, that bothers the crap out of me.” Buck's voice was earnest and stern at the same time, and Ezra knew he was right, had already known it.
“Ah do trust you, Buck,” Buck opened his mouth, but Ezra hurried to continue before he could interrupt, knowing he had to say this now or he never would, “Ah'm sorry Ah didn't act like it today.”
Buck nodded slowly, “Well, alright. We can work on it, anyway.” He clapped him on his good shoulder, “We're okay then. And Ezra?” Just a hint of a grin showed on his face as he spoke, “for the record, if your ass does ever pull something like this again, I'll fully support Nathan's woodshed plan. Hell, you disappear on me like that again, I might just beat him to it, got it?”
“Mistah Wilmington, Ah assure you Ah have no-.”
“I'm sure you don't, pard, but you remember what I said anyway.” Ezra valiantly fought the blush that was attempting to cover his face, scowling internally, because really, hadn't his dignity suffered enough today? Mr. Jackson did not need to be putting such ideas in their other team members heads. A few seconds later a throat cleared, Nathan looking slightly uncomfortable as he stood in the doorway, medical bag and the second crutch Buck had abandoned in his hands. Ezra hoped he hadn't been there long, but had to presume he had been, they had been talking rather longer then it would have taken him to fetch it and come back.
“Ready for me to look at that ankle, Buck?”
“If I say no will you listen?” Buck let out a long suffering sigh at the end of his question, turning so he was facing forward instead of twisted around to face Ezra, leaning back into the cushions of the couch.
“Nope.” Nathan grinned a bit, the satisfied grin of someone who could torture his friends by helping them, leaving them unable to breath a word of legitimate complaint, as he knelt down by the ottoman Buck's foot was resting on. “Let's get that boot off and make sure you didn't do yourself any serious damage.” Ezra watched as Nathan started unstrapping the front of the aircast, Buck hissing a bit even though it was clear the medic was moving slowly and steadily, being as gentle as he could.
“C'mon, do you think Travis wouldn't have had me to medical if it was serious?” Buck didn't seem entirely serious himself with his complaining, mostly just giving Nathan a hard time for form's sake, but as the large, capable hands began easing the injured limb out Ezra winced with him.
“If you broke it bad, sure, but a little fracture or something with the tendons and ligaments is harder to see. I need to look at it Buck, I know it doesn't feel good to pull the boot off, but it's this or the emergency room.” Any humor had dropped from Nathan's face before he'd ever started removing the aircast, but as Buck winced again, a little noise of pain leaving him, the man's dark face looked briefly miserable. Just for a second, but Ezra saw it and frowned. He knew of course, that as much as they sometimes teased Nathan that he enjoyed tormenting them, nothing could be further from the truth. Likewise, he assumed that the stress of situations where their lives were in his hands was probably rather torturous for the medic. It hadn't really occurred to Ezra that he wouldn't have grown inured to things like the relatively small amount of pain he was causing Buck, but for just that moment the man had looked wretched. Conceivably, the stress and worry Ezra had put the man through today wasn't helping, likely Mr. Jackson was much more on edge than he usually was and ordinarily wasn't effected so, but either way Ezra resolved he was going to do his best to not give the man as much trouble as he usually did while recovering.
He wasn't entirely sure he would succeed in his endeavor, sitting still and allowing someone to poke and prod at him, examining his body for some fault that needed to be fixed, had by no means ever been something that came naturally to him, but there was no reason he couldn't attempt it. There was silence for several long moments as Nathan examined the new swelling in Buck's ankle, humming occasionally under his breath. It wasn't until he was reinserting it into the aircast, Buck biting his lip, that he pronounced the outcome, “Looks like you got lucky Buck, there's still more swelling than I like, and there was some stress put on the break, but nothing serious. If you stay off your ankle as much as possible, and use both crutches I don't think you added more than an extra day or two in the boot. You have to stay off of it though Buck, or you will wind up re-injuring it. Maybe enough to go back into a regular cast, and I remember how much you hated that.” Buck nodded, but he must not have looked convincing enough to Nathan, because after he gingerly laid Buck's ankle down on the ottoman he sat back on his haunches and raised an eyebrow at him, “I'm serious, now. I want you on it as little as possible, and if you don't listen, don't think I won't sic Chris and Josiah on you.”
Buck scowled, but his response of, “Geez, Nate, I ain't gonna do anything stupid.”, must have seemed genuine to Nathan because he just nodded and stood in one fluid move.
“Alright, I'm holding you to that. Ezra, you don't look like you want to move, and Buck, you don't need to be, so I'm going to see where the others are on dinner and get them to move it in here when it's ready.”
“Mistah Larabee has banned eating in the living room since the taco incident, remembah?” His own participation aside, Ezra hadn't blamed the man. The rug had been shifted to cover the stain, but they all still knew it was there.
“Yeah, but he caved during the last Bronco's game-” Buck paused for a second, frowning, “Sorry, you were still under then-so, hey, we can eat in the living room again, good news, right?”
Ezra chuckled lightly, “Ah should have known once football season started it wouldn't last.”
“He did say that he would wear the next person's who launched food across the room, on purpose or not, guts for garters.” Nathan said dryly over his shoulder as he left the room, “Just to warn you.”
“You know, I've never understood guys saying that,” Buck said, as he used one of his crutches to hook the coffee table leg and pull it close enough he could grab the clicker off the table, then pushed the table back where it was as best he could, leaving it rather crooked, “I mean ladies wear garters to hold up them fancy stockings they wear sometimes, sure, so what, are you giving your girlfriend somebodies guts as a present?” He flipped on the TV, hitting the mute button before going to the TV guide channel, “With all the presents I've had to give sometimes it's a scramble, but let me tell you that hasn't ever occurred to me. Can't say I think it would have gone over very well if I had.”
Ezra laughed out loud, then winced as his bruised ribs protested, waving Buck off when he looked over, concerned, “Ah'm fine, just sore. But, Ah do know the answah to your question. Old fashioned men's shirts often had overlong sleeves, and they'd use a garter to shorten them to wrist length. Collars were detachable as well, which makes that thing with the different colors of thread in Tom Sawyer considerably less confusing.”
“Huh. How'd you know that?” Buck passed the clicker to Ezra, apparently giving up on finding something he liked, and Ezra grabbed it and quickly changed the channel to the start of the classic movies section, knowing if he found something decent Josiah and possibly Nathan would vote for it as well, and anyway, when it came to the clicker, possession was definitely nine/tenths of the law. He grinned as he saw the opening credits of A Rear View Window and used the DVR Chris had claimed was ridiculous until JD had actually installed it for him to pause it. Hitchcock would get no argument from either Josiah or Nathan, and probably not Chris as well, and if Buck hadn't seen it he'd likely be sold on the murder mystery aspect. He would have said JD and Vin wouldn't be too crazy about anything that old, but that was before that morning he'd found them eating lucky charms and watching Perry Mason like it was Saturday morning cartoons. Vin had apparently been hooked on the show by one of his foster dad's, and had been in the process of converting JD to a fan when Ezra joined them. He had to admit the show had its own appeal. “Ez, how'd you know that? Fashion encyclopedia, huh?”
“While Ah certainly consider mahself a bettah dressah than you, Mr. Wilmington,” Buck huffed around a chuckle, taking it in the manner it was meant, “Ah am not an encyclopedia of any class-”
“Just a dictionary.”
Ezra mock scowled at a snickering Buck, “If you'll allow me to answah your question without interrupting, Mr. Wilmington...” Buck waved him on, and with a roll of his eyes, Ezra continued, “Ah spent a fall when Ah was fourteen or so, in Scotland of all places, with a second cousin who was also a tailor. Maude wanted us both out of the country for awhile, Ah'm not sure why. He was nice enough, just had little idea what to do with a boy, and for the most part let me run rathah wild with the othah children in the village. Sundays, however, he taught me to sew while we listened to old BBC radio programs and plays, and since he made costumes for the local theatah Ah learned about the styles of several different time periods.” Ezra realized with a sudden sense of hindsight that he'd just told Buck of all people that he could sew, and waited for the ribbing to follow.
“Sounds nice. My Momma taught me how to darn my socks and patch my jeans, 'cause I was always ripping holes in the knees, when I was little, and if she wasn't working she'd let me stay up late and watch those old late night b-movies movies that came on on Saturdays, you remember those-actually, I think you might not have been born yet, come to think of it-, and we'd eat popcorn and she'd show me how to fix 'em, and...it was real nice.” The others charged into the room like a train with no whistle then, Josiah carrying a large bowl in each hand, Vin and JD after him with a gigantic pizza apiece, JD carrying a sleeve of plastic cups by way of sticking the end of the sleeve in his mouth, Vin juggling two card tables under one arm, which probably explained the scowl on Chris's face, following behind and balancing a tray of bread sticks on top of yet another pizza, paper plates tucked underneath both, Nathan bringing up the rear holding several bottles of juice, lemonade and a pitcher of water-probably having left any soda behind on purpose, not as he often told them, that sugary juice was really much better-, and with what looked to be a bag of cutlery slung over his shoulder.
“We got take and bake pizza, and greek salad and pasta salad, and lots of stuff,” JD said, him and Vin having temporarily set their pizza's and JD's cups down on the askew coffee table, and busy unfolding the two card tables, both quickly covered by the amount of food on offer.
“Good lord, lot's of stuff, indeed.” Ezra hardly had time to sit up properly before Josiah was placing a plate filled with two slices of pizza, and a large scoop of Greek salad in his lap, and he almost protested that he wasn't an invalid, but when a similar plate, with all meat pizza and pasta salad instead of Ezra's fare was handed to Buck half a minute later, the chaos of the room building to a happy din, his stomach growling as the smell of chicken and bacon wafted up from his plate, he decided that he'd rather just eat his pizza.
Vin shuffled his feet as Chris pointedly cleared his throat behind him, slowly turning around. He'd already known from the way his boss's eyes had narrowed a little and his face had hardened when Chris had looked at him before he'd walked off with Josiah and Kelly and some officer he didn't know to figure out security, that the older man was none too pleased with him. He hadn't said anything while they were getting dinner ready or eating, or even after when the movie was over and they were cleaning up, but Vin had known it was coming eventually. Judging from the look on Chris's face now, he was definitely through putting off 'discussing' how he'd brought in Sharpe. “Go get JD. I'll be on the porch.” He nodded, shutting the hall closet he'd opened in search of sleeping bags and blankets and skirted around Chris, whose eyes were eating into him, in search of the computer genius.
Vin wasn't sure he'd screwed up quite this bad before, not since he'd been with Team Seven, and except for a few occasions where he'd done something even he realized was damned dumb (But effective, like when him and JD bugged that warehouse and had gotten everything they needed in two days, versus the two weeks of leg work that had gotten them almost nothing. Try telling that to Larabee when he was in a mood, though), Vin knew he hadn't pissed Chris off quite this bad before. He shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked down the hallway, only pulling one out to knock on the guest room door, where a half asleep and grumpy Ezra was being assisted into bed by a Nathan who looked like he was both trying really hard to be calm and like he was about to kill their fellow southerner, to see if they knew where JD had gotten off too, but neither of them had seen him. The kid wasn't in the kitchen or the living room, and since Vin knew he wouldn't have left the house without telling them-couldn't have with security outside, but wouldn't have anyway, not with what was going on-that left the den or the bathroom, because Josiah and Nathan had already snagged the second guest room with the two twin beds, and walking into the den Vin held back a chuckle. The surprisingly comfy pullout bed (it was better than the older of the two twin beds, anyway, Vin had slept on both and he'd vote for the pullout any day, whatever Josiah said) had been pulled out and an amused and slightly long suffering Buck was watching from a chair as JD made almost a whole nother mattress from the pile of comforters he was laying on it, pillows having already been set along the top. “Hey, JD. Chris wants us.” JD froze for a second and then finished with the last blanket, folding back the edge to make it easier for Buck to slide in.
“Oh, okay, just let me help Buck finish getting in-” Buck had been sliding to his feet while JD was talking, and used his crutches to let him pivot around in a move that was definitely not Nathan approved, and plop his butt down on the mattress.
“Buck can take care of the rest just fine, don't worry about me.” The underlying meaning of 'worry about yourself' was loud and clear, and JD gulped, Vin getting the idea that he'd let himself get so distracted with everything he'd pretty much forgotten he was in trouble until Vin had said Chris wanted them. Poor guy looked like Vin felt.
“Okay, well if you're sure...”
“Hey, Chris ain't really gonna kill either one of ya. He just don't like it when one of us gets our hands dirty 'cause it make it hard for him to protect ya. Just don't argue with him,” His gaze moved solely to Vin here, and he looked back like he didn't know what Buck was talking about, even though he did, “and you'll be fine.”
“Heck Buck, you always argue with him,” JD said, looking more confused than anything. Vin doubted he had had any intentions of arguing with Chris in the first place, but Buck telling him not to do something that he did himself was too much for the kid to resist protesting.
“And how well does that tend to work out for me?” Buck said, “Anyway kid, remember do as I say and not as I do,” He winked outrageously at JD, who groaned and went to smack him, before he remembered that Buck was injured and pulled himself short. It was a long standing inside joke between the two, that none of the others had ever actually been let in on, but since JD inevitably got flustered, did something to Buck for revenge, then started laughing himself, it was entertaining, and anyway, Vin would get one of them to tell him about it eventually. “Alright, both of you get out there, trust me, you don't want him to come looking for you.” Buck was definitely right about that, and Vin reached out to snag JD's shoulder and turn him, get him moving, before heading out of the room himself a bit quicker than he ordinarily might have.
His feet slowed automatically as he entered the kitchen and started walking towards the back porch, JD trailing behind him. He wished the kid weren't in trouble too, at least not for the punch he'd thrown. Vin might as well have done it himself, the way he'd thrown Sharpe in front of them, and announced him as a traitor. JD wasn't a kid, for all they called him one, was a good, capable, agent, but Vin was second in command, JD was supposed to follow his lead, and he hadn't led him anywhere good. He wasn't sure if Chris knew about how out of hand the interrogation had started to get, if either Buck or Travis had told him, and he didn't have an excuse if he did. Vin had plain and simple been damned angry and scared, hadn't wanted to wait or do things by the book, and so he hadn't. JD had been surprised, not reluctant, but surprised when he'd said they were going into start the interrogation, the idea never would have even popped into his head if it hadn't been for him. If Chris did know he'd do his best to fall on that sword.
For not telling Chris what had actually happened when he'd told him and Buck he'd updated him-well, if nothing else it had guaranteed Chris was a sight more pissed off than he would have been, and likely had made things worse for both of them, so Vin would stay out of that. JD had brought that one on himself. The sliding glass door was standing open and he could see his boss's silhouette in the faint light shining out of the kitchen onto the porch. He was leaning against the railing, and the little ember moving back and forth from his hand to his mouth meant he was smoking a cheroot, which wasn't a good thing. Chris was trying to quit and only smoked them when he was pissed or stressed. Taking the last few steps out onto the porch's creaky boards, the winter air hitting his face and making him wish he'd grabbed a sweatshirt, Vin straightened up, looking at Chris expectantly, feeling JD hovering next to him, the kid's nerves keeping him from holding completely still. “Shut the door.” JD moved before Vin could to slide the door shut, grabbing the excuse to put a little distance between him and a Chris who looked like he wouldn't object too much to roasting the two of them over a spit right now, even if only for a few seconds. When JD had reluctantly taken his place next to Vin again, an inch or so farther back than he had been, Chris just looked at them both for a long time, Vin having to fight the urge to duck his head. “Vin. You left a puddle of blood in the damned elevator and the Director had to clean it up. Judging from the lack of bruises on you, I'm gonna guess that Sharpe's broken nose ain't a result of self-defense. Am I wrong?” Chris's voice was hard and cutting, almost daring Vin to lie to him and see what happened.
“No, Boss. I lost my temper.” His voice was quiet and clear, and guilty. While Vin didn't really feel bad for hurting Sharpe, he hated that Chris was so angry with him, especially since he knew his best friend wouldn't be this angry if he weren't scared too. Chris's hand came smacking down on the wood railing, hard enough that it felt like the whole porch vibrated just a little, JD jumping next to him.
“You know how damn lucky you are that Travis was willing to look the other way, Tanner? Did you realize you didn't just put your job at risk, but his too for covering for you?” Vin hadn't thought about that, had worried about himself and JD, but even though he knew Travis was breaking the rules for him the director seemed untouchable. Vin should know better, knew that Travis was only head of their branch of the ATF and he still had bosses and bosses bosses to answer to, had worked more than one op that if it had been up to the director Team Seven never would have been anywhere near it. But Travis was solid. Always there. Vin swallowed, head dipping down as he shook it.
“You're supposed to be my second. I expect better.” That hurt. Vin knew it was supposed to, that that was the point of a tongue-lashing, but damn if that didn't sting, his head jerking up and down in acknowledgment of Chris's words.
Chris's attention turned to JD, who, in a move that was both brave and stupid, spoke before Chris could, half mumbling a very miserable sounding apology, “I'm sorry, Chris, I know I screwed up bad.” Any of the rest of them and Chris wouldn't have softened a bit, but for JD he did, and Vin was glad.
“You did. Tell me what you're sorry for, JD.”
Speaking up louder and clearer, straightening a little at what was clearly an order, Vin found himself proud as JD answered, not trying to sugarcoat it at all, “I punched Sharpe in the face, and then when I updated you I withheld that and what Vin had done, which was like a lie. And, when Buck went to get Travis and asked us not to start interrogating him yet, we didn't listen and,”, JD swallowed and Vin kinda wished the earth would swallow him, “the director may have walked in us using non-standard techniques.” That softening Vin had seen was long gone, reversed, and Chris looked not at JD, but Vin, eyes flashing.
“And you just weren't gonna mention that, huh?”
“I thought the director woulda told ya.” It wasn't a lie, when Chris had known about the blood in the elevator Vin had figured Travis had told him everything.
'Course, when Chris hadn't brought it up he'd wondered if maybe he'd gotten lucky, so it wasn't quite the truth either. Ordinarily Vin liked that Chris and him could read each other as well as they could, but with Chris's eyes narrowed on him, Vin certain Chris knew exactly what was running through his mind, he could have done without it. “You should've told me.” Chris moved his gaze so he was looking at both of them, “What the hell does 'non-standard' mean?”
“All JD did was talk, but I shined my big mag light in his eyes,” Vin admitted, shamefacedly. It sounded plain stupid said out loud, childish even, and the look on Chris's face said he agreed with him.
“It wasn't all Vin, I was threatening him with some pretty nasty stuff.” JD was trying to sound brave, but what he needed to do was be quiet, and let Vin handle this.
“Only because I told ya to.”
“And I could have told you no, Vin, I'm not a robot, but I didn't want to.”
“I ain't saying yer a robot, but I'm above ya in the chain of command, and it wasn't fair for me to tell ya to break the rules.”
“Enough.” Chris's growl had both their mouths snapping shut, Vin feeling his cheeks heat as he realized they'd just been squabbling over who was to blame like a couple of ten year olds. At least they hadn't been trying to put the blame on the other, it could have been worth. “You're both right. Vin, you had no business telling someone under your command to break the law. JD, whatever you want to do or not, if someone tells you to do something that could compromise your job I expect you to tell them no. Understood?”
Chris rocked back on his heels, stubbing out the cheroot that had almost burned down to the end on the railing and flicking it down into the old coffee can filled with sand that sat at his feet, as he surveyed them. “So both of you tried to keep something from me. Both of you left visible marks on a perp in your custody. And both of you mishandled an interrogation. That's the kind of crap that could let Sharpe walk, you realize that? There is a reason we follow those rules. They'll try and say anything you learned is inadmissible. Neither of you are rookies, even you've been with us long enough that's not an excuse anymore, JD, you know this shit. His lawyer is going to try and pin you two for excessive force at the very least, and there isn't anything I can do about it. Not unless we're willing to negotiate lowering Sharpe's charges in exchange for them not pressing them against you.”
Vin's face tightened, jaw firming, JD shaking his head to beat the band just visible from the corner of his eye, “No way in hell, cowboy.”
“We can't Chris! He tried-Ezra could have-”, JD cut himself off abruptly, swallowing hard, the emotion seeming to come off him in waves.
“I know that, JD! You think I don't know that? I ain't saying we're going to do it, I'm saying I don't know what else to do. I want you to think, think real good, both of you, on how Ezra would react to either of you losing your jobs, or winding up in fucking jail, because of this. You know he'll blame himself. Forget the fact that the rest of us don't want to lose you either, and just think about that.” Swallowing himself now, Vin did as he was told. He'd known that losing his job was a possibility, but even as he'd worried about it, part of him hadn't ever really believed it could happen. Even if he never actually said it, Vin knew Chris would try and protect him, them, no matter how angry he was.
But Chris couldn't protect them from everything, and Vin knew that too. Ezra already had a problem thinking things were his fault, Josiah said he internalized stuff, and Chris was right, this was gonna make it worse. Earlier the man had looked like hell, not just physically, though exhaustion and pain had seemed to radiate off of him, but there had been something broken, something wrong in the way he carried himself. If he looked like that know, what would he look like, how much worse would it be, if he was blaming himself for breaking up the team? 'Like ice,' his mind supplied unasked, 'he'll shut himself down, shut everyone out.'
It sounded right, and Vin felt it like a punch in the gut. “I don' know how t' fix it.”
“It's for Travis and me to try and fix it, you just both make damn sure you don't ever do anything like this again.” Chris looked hard at each of them, expecting and getting no argument.
“Yes, sir.” Vin didn't ordinarily call Chris sir, he called him Chris, cowboy, boss, never sir. But right now the sir felt needed, and when JD copied his lead and Chris's stance eased a little, his own did as well.
“We're going to have a war meeting tomorrow at 0500 with Team Eight, go over what we have and decide who's doing what. Anytime you two aren't working on the case, you're going to be here, in the tack room, polishing every bridle and saddle in that whole barn until they gleam like new, and neither one of you are going to give me a bit of lip about it, got it?” They got it. “Good, it's late, get your asses to bed.” They got, though Vin almost turned around when he saw that Chris wasn't following them inside, instead pulling out another cheroot to smoke, but Chris turned so his back was facing him, looking out over the yard. Feeling a bit like a kicked puppy, he slunk after JD.
JD and him were bunking in the living room, and headed that way silently, neither feeling much like talking. Vin blinked in surprise when he walked in and saw that a sheet had been laid over each couch, a pile of blankets and a pillow tossed down at the end, and then realized it must have been Josiah, he was the only one who would have. Grateful and exhausted he kicked off his shoes at the end of the one closest to him, shucking off his shirt and jeans next and letting them fall in a pile on top of his shoes, vaguely aware of JD doing the same as he straightened out the blankets and slithered underneath them. Vin had long ago perfected the art of sleeping no matter what was going on, and was well on his way to crashing, drawing his breaths out slow and even, when JD said his name, almost inaudibly. “Vin?”
“Do you think we're gonna get kicked off the team?” JD was trying to sound casual, and failing completely.
“Not if Chris has anythin' t' do with it.”
“Yeah...” Wide awake again, and cursing in his head, because that clearly hadn't reassured JD at all and he didn't have a damn clue what to say, Vin fought for words.
“Look, it ain't gonna happen, but if it does we'll stick together.”
“Yeah? Like maybe we could start a P.I business?” Well, that wasn't what Vin had been thinking about at all, but sure, why not? JD's head had to be an interesting place.
“Could be fun. What's the name of that show ya watch, real observant guy tricks-”
“Yeah. We could be Geek and Tracker.” JD snorted, his pillow thumping against Vin a few seconds later, and Vin grinned, stuffing it under his head.
“Hey, you're not supposed to keep it, give me back my pillow.” Considering he'd given it up willingly JD sounded awfully insistent, even around the yawn in the middle of his sentence.
“Ya threw it at me. Must not want it that bad.”
“C'mon, Vin. You already got the longer couch.”
“Not my fault ye're a shrimp.”
“You're only, like, an inch taller than me!”
“Two inches.” Vin plumped the pillows underneath him, debating on how much longer to hold JD's hostage, since it was doing its job of distracting him nicely.
“Give it back or I'm gonna come get it.”
“Ya can try.” The sound of blankets moving, JD starting to scramble to his feet, hit his ears and Vin sat up, not wanting to be pounced on while he was flat on his back, when the hallway light flipped on, freezing them both.
“Boys, we have a meeting in five hours and some of us are trying to sleep. Vincent give John Daniel back his pillow.” Uh-uh. Full names were never good, and it was rare that the patient profiler used them. Josiah was framed by the entrance to the hallway, voice thick with sleep and annoyance, and from what little of his face Vin could see from the hallway light shining past him he was not joking around. He tossed JD back his pillow without another word.
“Didn't mean t' wake ya.”
Josiah snorted, shaking his head, “Goodnight, Vin, JD. Try and get some sleep, alright?” He shuffled back down the hallway as they called goodnights after him, and yawning, Vin shifted a little as he laid back down, scratching idly at one leg.
“G'night, Vin.” The words were muffled and drowsy, and a glance his way showed that JD was all but face down on his pillow, eyes closed, and scrunching down into his own pillow so there was a hollow for his head Vin shut his own eyes and let himself drift off.
Buck rolled over on the hide-a-bed, farting loudly into the covers and scratching aimlessly at his crotch, a yawn escaping his mouth before he muttered, voice foggy with sleep and eyes still half closed, “I don't know who the hell is in here, but I'm telling you now, if you're planning to put something in my bed, or stick my hand in water, you will live to regret it. You won't want to, but ya will.”
“I ain't planning to do anything to you or your bed.”
“Chris?” Buck sat up slowly, scrubbing a hand across his eyes and frowning as he squinted across the room at his friend's shadowy shape, “What are ya doing, pard?” Seeing that Chris was rummaging in his desk, and recalling more than one night when he'd found an already plenty drunk Chris searching for a bottle he'd hidden, and knowing that drinking when he was upset was the problem for Chris, not the booze itself, the frown went from curious to concerned, “Looking for something?”
“Not what you're thinking.” Buck shook his head, opening his mouth to tell Chris he wasn't thinking anything at all, when the man's head raised, eyes somehow meeting Buck's squarely through the dark. “Yeah, you are. But I'm not.” Having found what he was looking for, he shut his desk drawer and walked over towards Buck, proffering a couple of boxes, “Samoas or Thin Mints?”
Buck chuckled, relieved, “You stash them in your desk now? Samoas, of course, but only 'cause you're crazy and don't buy Tag-a-longs.” He caught the box Chris tossed him, opening it up as the other man shoved the armchair that sat to the side of the hide-a-bed so it was facing Buck, and settled into it.
“Vin kept eating them all when I put them in the freezer. And peanut butter and chocolate ain't natural.”
“You're not natural,” Buck teased around the mouthful of cookies he was already chomping on, bits sneaking out to decorate both his mustache and the bed sheets, Chris eyeing him with disgust as he nibbled on a thin mint.
“And you're washing those sheets, I don't want ants inside the pull-out.”
“Eh,” Buck waved him off, “I eat in bed at home all the time, ain't never had ants.”
“Considering the kind of eating you're probably doing the most of, I'd sure as hell hope not.” Chris grinned a wicked little smile as Buck barked out a laugh, holding up a hand to catch the cookie he chucked at his head, popping it in his mouth and chewing.
“Just so you know, I licked that.” Chris froze for a second and then scrambled madly for the tissues that sat on the end table by the arm of the couch, Buck howling with laughter and pounding the mattress as Chris hurriedly rid his mouth. He slowly raised his head to glare death at his friend, Buck barely calming down enough to get out words between his laughter, “Hell pard, you shoulda seen your face.”
“Bucklin, you better have been joking or I will kick the crap out of you.”
“Can't. I'm injured.” It was the one good thing about being hurt-not that he didn't expect Chris to get his revenge, in one form or another. But unless he wanted to face the wrath of Nathan, which could be nearly as bad as Chris's own, he couldn't touch Buck right now.
“Your ankle is, that still leaves me a lot of ground to work with. Did you lick that damn cookie or not?” That little vein in Chris's forehead was starting to throb, and Buck just grinned. Of course, he hadn't licked it-if Chris had been paying attention he would have seen that it had been pulled out of the package only a second before he tossed it at him, but he wasn't about to tell Chris that.
“Well now, pard, you'll never know for sure now, will you? What with you threatening me, I might just lie and say I didn't lick it even if I did. On the other hand, I always have kinda wondered how fast I could get that vein,” He pointed and Chris growled, “going, so I might lie and say I did lick it when I didn't. Have fun wondering.” Chris moved out of his chair like a rattler, the fist that connected with his shoulder striking fast and hard enough to make him oof, but not near as hard as Buck was sure it would have been if he hadn't had a cast on his ankle. The glare was still on Chris's face as he settled back into the old corduroy chair he'd had since before Sarah, sitting at a comfortable slouch.
“One of these days, Buck...should make you give me my damn cookies back.”
“Aw, you know you love me.”
“Not enough to want to share your slobber.” Buck chuckled and shifted back in the bed so he could lean against the head of it, snagging a pillow he'd knocked over to the side when he was sleeping to put behind his head.
“Ain't we supposed to be up and at 'em in,” Buck squinted at the electric clock that sat on the edge of Chris's desk, barely able to make out the numbers, “damn, Chris, three hours? You look like you ain't been to bed yet.”
Buck raised an eyebrow, “Might help a bit if you took off your pants. And your shoes.” Of course, he wasn't too surprised Chris wasn't feeling like sleeping, between the dangers he was worrying about now and the memories today had drudged up, but that didn't mean it wasn't obvious he hadn't even tried.
Chris raised his eyebrow right back, “Feel like you're getting a mite fresh there.”
“Hate to break it to you, but you ain't exactly my type. I like 'em cushier, specially round the chest area.”
“Thank God for that.” The man closed his eyes, and Buck wondered if he was intending to sleep there. Fine with Buck if he was, it was a damn comfy chair, especially after you reclined it, but he wanted to know so that he knew whether he could go back to sleep or not. “What are we gonna do about Vin and JD?”
Buck shook his head, taking a second to find words, “Hell Pard, I think my brain is still processing that moment when the director opened the door and I saw 'em, like something out of a cartoon or a movie, Vin shining his mag light in that yellow-belly's eyes and JD snarling in his face like he thinks he's a pitbull.” Chris snorted out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a heavy sigh and put the box of cookies that had been resting on his lap on the wide, flat arm of the chair, twining his fingers together and setting them in its place, all without opening his eyes.
“Travis blow his stack?”
“Nah, actually, he stayed real calm-was pissed as anything, I guarantee that, 'specially after he heard the tape, but he kept his cool.” With a soft groan Buck slid a little more into his pillows, stifling a yawn, “Should probably know, JD told me he didn't just clean up the audio tape, he started working on the security videos while we were still at the office. Guess he figured if Travis wanted one cleaned up he'd want it all cleaned up. Had already got pretty far into it by the time I realized.”
“Please tell me he didn't just erase it so it looks like Sharpe magically appeared in our office.” Chris's voice was pained, his hands slowly moving up to rub at his temples, as Buck scoffed at his words.
“'Course not, the kid knows better than that. Ain't quite sure what all he's done, but I know it ain't that, don't even worry. Little bit I saw, what he did made it seem like Vin really did drop the asshole on his nose by accident. And remember, innocent until proven guilty counts for us too, if there's no video, no audio, that incriminates them it's their word against his.”
“Don't really like the idea of the boys perjuring themselves any either. It's wrong, Buck.”
Well, Buck didn't much like the idea either, not at all in fact, but if it kept them safe and out of jail or the unemployment line, with the team, then hell, he'd get up on the stand and do it for them if he had to. “Sometimes, when wrong has been done to you or yours you have to do wrong back. You know that, Chris.”
“Yep. Don't mean I have to like it.”
Wasn't much Buck could respond to that with but a nod, and a, “Me either, pard.”
There was silence for a long time, not exactly an uncomfortable one, but not a comfortable one either, both of them sitting, thinking about what had happened. It was a little too much really, how fast everything had happened-from worrying about Ezra, to worrying about someone trying to kill Ezra, to JD and Vin managing to somehow get themselves in real deep shit in a time period of not much more than an hour. The information they'd gotten was valuable, but the only thing they'd really needed to know about right then was the car bomb, and it hadn't been either Vin and JD's questioning, or for that matter his and the Director's, that had gotten them what they needed. That had been a stroke of luck, or, according to Josiah, a moment of divine intervention. He could believe whatever he wanted, but Buck had to admit he wondered why God wouldn't have interfered before there was a pipe bomb in the Jag. He wondered just how much Sharpe knew. The man was obviously a lackey, whatever resentment or hatred he had towards Ezra he wasn't the one running the show, and Buck doubted he had enough clout to get anyone to pay attention to who he wanted to target. This wasn't just some lunatic trying to take a rival out, someone a lot cleverer than Sharpe had arranged this, had maybe sought Sharpe out as their insider.
“He thought I wouldn't even have the respect to tell him to his face.” Chris's head was tipped back so he was looking at the ceiling and not Buck, he couldn't see his face, but his voice had layers to it, anger first, on top of confusion, and hurt down at the bottom, almost hidden. Buck knew instantly what he was talking about and straightened up from where he'd been slouching, knowing this needed his full attention even as he stifled a yawn.
“Chris, he panicked. I ain't saying it was right, and I had words with him myself, but I don't think it had nothing to do with you. Not really.”
“The hell it didn't. I'm too hard, maybe. I go off on him sometimes, you know that. He always knows exactly what to say to push me just a little too far. Been a couple times I've said things I wished I hadn't.”
“If you're talking about when he does something stupid or against orders, and nearly gets himself killed, he brings that on himself. If you're talking about crap like when we went camping and you and Ezra got in that huge fight because he didn't want to go fishing...yeah, you might want to watch that. Ain't no need to get angry about stupid crap like that, and you do a lot with Ezra. Got some control issues there, Chris.” Chris grumbled, but Buck carried on talking. He knew it was right anyway, Josiah had said it. “And I think Hoss takes it a bit more seriously than he lets on, even when he's cracking sarcastic one-liners to everything you say.” Buck stretched his arms over his head, a yawn making it's way out of him so forcefully his jaw cracked, taking a second to think about what he was going to say next. “Still, that kinda shit ain't enough for this, not on it's own. His Momma has a lot to do with it, the most I'd say, and everybody else who raised him. The FBI sure as hell didn't help none, the disloyal pricks. And yeah, we've all probably screwed up a couple times, I know I have. The first time JD went under? Wasn't until the kid about ripped out my head off that I even realized that when I'd been talking to them when they were prepping, I kept reminding Ezra to look out for JD, but hadn't said a damn word about JD looking out for Ezra. Made damn sure I did after that, but that don't change the fact that I hadn't. It ain't all on you pard, and acting like it is ain't gonna help anyone.”
“Not all, but a lot.”
Buck sighed exasperatedly, “Ain't never been any use arguing with you when your mind's made up, more stubborn than a donkey mixed with an elephant.”
Chris reached down and pulled the lever on the side that moved the chair into a reclining position, pushing back with his upper body so it went as flat as it could and Buck figured he was planning to sleep there after all. Also planning not to say another word. Looking him over as best he could in the dark he suddenly realized that Chris was wearing different shoes than he had been earlier. Which meant he had tried to sleep, which if he was up meant-
Well, he'd set up more than once so he could wake Chris if it got too bad, and if that's what he was asking for-without ever actually asking for it, of course-that was just fine with Buck. “Bucklin, lay down and go to sleep. I'm fine.”
He scooted down, skeptical, but deciding Chris would probably sleep better without him staring, pulling his pillows with him, “Still say you'd sleep better if you'd take your dang boots off.”
“Sleep, Buck.” Buck had to hold back a chuckle as a few seconds later he heard the sounds of boots being unlaced and tugged off, tossed to the side, first one muffled thump, then another. “Shut-up.”
“Didn't say nothing, pard.”
“Can hear you thinking it.” Not holding back his chuckle this time Buck stared at the ceiling, determined to stay awake just in case-which is why he was so surprised when the next thing he knew he was being shaken by JD, the young agent almost shoving a piece of toast with some bacon on it in his face.
“We've got fifteen minutes until the meeting starts, Chris says to hurry.” Taking the food before it smashed into his nose, Buck pushed himself up with his other hand, JD now proffering his crutches at him.
“Give a man a second for chrissakes,” He grumbled, swiping a hand across his eyes to knock away the crusted sleep stuck to his eyelashes, and then stuffed a big corner of his breakfast in his mouth so he could hold it there with his teeth, reaching out for the crutches and heaving himself up once he had them. He looked down at his track pants and old SEALS T-Shirt dubiously, grabbing his toast with one hand so he could talk, “Think anybodies gonna care if I'm in this?”
“Depends-are you planning to brush your teeth first, 'cause if not I don't think anybody is gonna notice anything else.” JD waved a hand in front of his nose to indicate the level of offense Buck was apparently giving off, the older man balancing on one crutch long enough to swipe at JD with one, the kid jumping out of the way like he'd known he would.
“I'll brush your teeth, you don't knock it off.”
JD's face crinkled in confusion and a hint of pity for what Buck had to admit was a very lame comeback, “That's a really weird thing to say. Am I supposed to be scared or something?”
“Oh, shut-up.” Grumbling jokingly, Buck crutched around JD, who only seemed to realize that he could use some space to maneuver after Buck was most of the way around him, stepping back and stumbling into the chair Chris hadn't bothered to push back to it's usual place when he got up, hovering off-balance for a second before sitting down abruptly on the arm of it. “Careful there, be pretty sad if you got taken out by an armchair.”
“Shut-up.” JD muttered, a little embarrassed as he pushed himself up and stepped in front of Buck, heading out of the room. Buck was still chuckling as he took a bite of toast and set off with intentions to find a bathroom, in urgent need of a toilet and apparently a toothbrush.
Ezra awoke to the noise of someone moving around the room he was in, and did his best to lay and breath as he had been, trying to determine where he was before he revealed he was awake. The sheets were not his own Egyptian cotton, but they weren't the stiffly laundered and starched sheets of hospitals either, they were soft and warm, they...were jersey knit, what JD called T-shirt sheets, and that meant he was at the ranch. The way he felt he had one hell of a hangover and possibly someone had used his middle for a punching bag...or target practice...
The day before came abruptly back to Ezra and he sincerely wished it hadn't, not entirely sure he'd been able to completely suppress the wince at the memories. He was not sure he had ever erred quite so spectacularly before, not during his time with Team 7 anyway, and it was hard not to cringe as he remembered that there was apparently video of his 'wild ride'. Perhaps if he claimed a black out, that he simply had no recollection of the events of yesterday...but no, he'd never been prone to them, and more than likely to tell such a falsehood would erase any measure of sympathy he might otherwise receive. In the unlikely chance that he was believed Nathan would certainly fret himself half to death worrying he had a head injury that had gone untreated and drag Ezra to his doctor. From the footsteps and other movements he could hear around the room that was who was with him now.
Though, as he strained his memories of the day before, well he certainly hadn't blacked out, he thought some of his memories might actually have been affected by his alcohol consumption. He had the strangest image of Josiah holding him while Chris, of all things, stroked his hair. Surely that couldn't be accurate. Yet, if he'd imagined it that would almost be worse.
So no, claiming a black-out was not a viable option, it simply wouldn't work. He did not particularly want to lie to his teammates anyway, but now, without the sheen of alcohol gilding them, the severity of his gaffes was almost intimidating.
Not as intimidating as the fact that someone had tried to kill him. That at least one person in the ATF itself had been directly involved. Ezra knew he had enemies, both his own and the one's he'd inherited from Mother, on either side of the law. Those who were still convinced he'd been on the take wouldn't necessarily have a problem with him disappearing. There had been an incident on a TDY assignment last year where his back-up had conveniently 'gotten the address wrong', and went to a warehouse two blocks away from Ezra. It wasn't a bust, just a meeting, but the leader of the group was known to be volatile and jumpy, and while Ezra had managed to arrange everything satisfactorily, had not actually needed the back-up, it had been most unsettling.
Hell had reigned down on the guilty parties heads when it had been reported, and Mr. Larabee had refused to release him on TDY to anyone he did not approve of personally since and yet he had still...
He hadn't trusted him. He should have known better, did know better, and yet he'd allowed blind panic to dictate his actions. They wouldn't just throw him away and move on, like he was an outdated appliance or an old shirt. How he, Ezra P. Standish, had wound up with such loyal friends, such decent men, sometimes still mystified him. Lord knew he didn't deserve them, especially after this.
“How long are you planning on pretending to be asleep?” Nathan's was soft, and slightly amused, but now that he'd decided to call Ezra on what was apparently a subpar performance of playing possum, he would keep talking until he had gotten both a response and whatever medical concoctions Ezra had been prescribed administered. He opened his eyes a slit and immediately regretted it as pain slammed into his head.
“If you'd drank both glasses of water I gave you last night instead of refusing after the first your head wouldn't hurt as bad.” Ezra muttered something rude and pointed about what the medic should do with his own head, and Nathan chuckled softly. “I've got painkillers here for you, and even some coffee to wash it down with.” Ezra held out his good hand expectantly for the pills, but nothing was placed in it. “Nuh-uh, let me help you sit up first.”
“Was that a word?” Cracking his eyes open slightly wider despite the splitting headache, Ezra turned his head enough that he could glare directly at Nathan instead of a random corner of the room. “You'll feel better once you let me help you, c'mon.” Nathan sat down just below the head of the bed and leaned over so he could prop Ezra up a little with his body, then slid an extra pillow or two behind him and helped him lean back against the headboard. Despite the large amount of practice the team had given Mr. Jackson at shifting bodies in various states of injury around, and the infinite care with which the man moved him, both his ribs and his shoulder ached with every movement. His hand was sore as well, but the dull throb didn't seem to be effected by the shifting so far. “Here, painkillers and water first.”
“Yah said coffee.” It was a mumble, accompanied by the most miserable face he could make, and as horrific as he felt Ezra considered it accurate enough.
“I did, it's right here, in a thermal mug to keep it warm and with far more sugar than is good for you. You can have it as soon as you take the pills, and you need to take them with water.” Nathan rolled his eyes when Ezra made no move towards the glass, “And what is wrong with water?”
“The ranch's well watah could be mined for heavy metals.”
“Ezra, it's fine, Chris uses a filter. Both in the well house and on the faucets. You have literally drank it thousands of times.”
“Thousands?” Ezra tried to raise an eyebrow and regretted it as a flash of pain went through his head, pressing his lips closed as he rode it out.
“You know what I mean. C'mon, take the pills, I can see you're hurting.”
“Finish that word, and I will feed you these pills, Ezra. You're not fine, and you won't be for awhile, nearly all your ribs are bruised, which is why you're going to take your medicine.” Ezra recognized that determined tone and let Nathan plop the pills in his hand without another word, popping them in his mouth and accepting the glass of water from his teammate's outstretched hand. He only meant to take a swallow, but the second the water hit his lips he realized how thirsty he was and drained half the glass. “Good. Here's your coffee.”, they traded the glasses, Nathan setting the water down on the nightstand.
Ezra brought the mug close to his face, intending to inhale deeply and thought better of it, remembering his ribs, instead taking a long, slow slip. Mmm...not only was it the blend of coffee he'd brought over to the ranch himself in an attempt to educate his colleagues on the virtues of a superior product when it came to something as all important as coffee, particularly morning coffee, but it had the required-and perfectly reasonable, it wasn't like he was Vin who made his coffee strong as death and then put half a sugar bowl in it-amount of sugar. Possibly there was a bit more cream than he would have added, Nathan's attempt to get some calories in him he was sure, and unexpectedly, a piece of peppermint candy melting into it.
That was an indulgence the others had picked up on not long after he began joining them on weekends at the ranch, when JD had seen him slip the sweet into his cup and immediately wanted to try it as well. The youth still didn't care much for coffee, but had discovered that working long hours in the surveillance van required it-particularly after their resident medic had seen the young man chug an entire oversized energy drink in under a minute and had had a conniption fit. JD had been treated to both a series of lectures on the dangers of energy drinks for his heart and required to watch several videos decrying them for the same reason and with quite a few grizzly graphics of just what they did to ones internal organs, and been thoroughly put off. Though, whether it was the potential medical effects or the risk of enduring more lectures from Mr. Jackson that had done so was anyone's guess.
He wondered if it had been Nathan who added the peppermint, or one of the others. He took another series of sips and then simply held it, enjoying the warmth seeping into his hand through the mug. Ezra looked up at Nathan with just his eyes, wanting to get a feel for whether or not the medic was displeased with him, or had just been being pointed about his medication, and had a sudden flash of memory. He pressed his eyes closed in horrified mortification as an image of Nathan helping him bend over a bucket while he rubbed his back filled his mind. Lord, as if he hadn't humiliated and disgraced himself enough. “Mistah Jackson...Ah would like to apologize fah the inconvenience Ah was to you last night...Ah-”
“What do you mean inconvenience? You aren't an inconvenience.” Nathan sounded annoyed, the exact opposite of the effect that Ezra had been seeking.
“Ah just,” He struggled with what to say, “Ah know your rest was disturbed-”
“Ezra.” The undercover agent froze at hearing the amount of exasperation and even anger in his teammate's voice, but for a long second Nathan said nothing more, just shaking his head with his lips pressed firmly together, and finally pinning Ezra with his eyes. “If you want to apologize to me, do it for the worry you caused by disappearing and turning off your cellphone-not to mention ignoring my phone calls when you turned it on again. Or for nearly smashing your car into a damn streetlight, or letting your badge get seen when you were drunk and vulnerable in a bar full of gang members who have a grudge against the ATF-do not apologize for needing my help when you're sick or hurt, not ever. Not ever, Ezra. You understand me?” His eyes were blazing at him, angry and worried, and a little hurt, and all Ezra could do was nod, it seeming to take forever before he was able to tear himself away from those eyes, mumbling a quiet affirmation before becoming very interested in the contents of his coffee cup. There was silence for a good minute, tension first rising then seeping out of the room.
“Might Ah inquire as to the hour?”
Ezra paused for a second, wanting to groan when he realized he'd heard right, “Good Lord, that's practically still the middle of the night. Ah'm going back to sleep.” Nathan gave a sound that was half a sigh and half a chuckle, shaking his head, but accepting that they were done with their previous topic.
“You're at work by nine at least most of the time, this ain't that early.”
“When Ah am not required to be at the office or performing some othah duty it most certainly is.” Ezra took another long drink of his coffee, perhaps sabotaging his purported attempts of reentering the dream world, but as sleep was something he was particularly good at he didn't think it would prove itself a problem, and attempted to snuggle back into his pillows, wincing as his shoulder twinged painfully.
“If you want to lay down again let me help you, but Chris was hoping to recap the morning meeting with you, and go over some stuff JD found out about Sharpe. It'd be a good idea for you to move around a little bit too, keep yourself from getting too stiff.” As much as the idea of moving sounded like a painful and altogether unpleasant endeavor that he would rather avoid, there would be no going back to sleep or even relaxing with the lure of knowledge hanging over his head, his desire to know not so much a want as a need. Something Mr. Jackson was well aware of and using nicely to his advantage.
Also, now that his body was starting to wake up properly another, slightly embarrassing, need was making itself known. “Ah suppose we could make a quick stop in the lavatory so Ah could freshen up a bit?”
“Sure. You want to try and get up now?”
“Ah suppose there is no time like the present, unless that time is nevah.” Slowly, and leaning onto Nathan far more than he liked, Ezra first managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed and then to carefully make his way to his feet. His middle ached fiercely, but he'd had worse more than once and the pain medication was clearly dulling it anyway, and while both the pain in his shoulder and the awkward sling that was all but strapped to his chest were annoying and inconvenient, he was almost used to it by now with as many times as his shoulder had popped out. Nathan kept him supported out into the corridor but by the time they reached the hall bathroom he had his feet properly and firmly underneath him again, and to his relief the medic made no noise of protest when he shut and locked the door behind himself.
Though the fact that Nathan could have easily overpowered the small lock if Ezra did lose his footing and required his assistance probably played no small role in that.
Morning abulations and other necessary items taken care of, including a very vigorous scrubbing of his teeth, Ezra hobbled back out the door and with Nathan hovering at his elbow began the long trek across the living room and kitchen to the den, where Chris was waiting for him. They passed Josiah and JD sitting on the long couch with JD's laptop open on the coffee table in front of them. Josiah nodded at him, but Ezra got the feeling from his body language and the rather weak smile he gave him, that Mr. Sanchez was more than a bit peeved with him, and JD, for some reason, was giving him an apologetic look. He turned his head after he was past them and looked at the computer screen, and yes, that would rather explain Mr. Sanchez's irritation with him, as well as JD's remorseful look. They were watching a video of his drive through the warehouse district, or had been, as they'd paused it when he and Nathan entered the room. Explanation had, he continued forward, pretending he wasn't bothered and ignoring the medic's knowing look.
Buck and Vin were in the den with Chris, looking over some files, but as Nathan helped him into the room they only waited long enough to say hello and make their escape, though it took Buck a considerable amount of time longer to leave the room than Vin, Nathan following after and chiding him, “to get the weight off that foot, now,” and Buck making a groaning noise in response. Ezra was left sitting across from Mr. Larabee at his desk, suddenly aware that he was still in his flannel pajamas as he faced the man in black. They were top of the line, name brand, flannel pajamas, but still. The two of them regarded each other for a long moment, Ezra feeling a bit like a bug being dissected under a microscope as Chris looked intently at him. “How are you feeling?”
“Ah have had worse hangovah's, but not since the last time Ah accompanied Mistah Wilmington on the town.”
“Took your turn playing wingman, huh?” The man leaned back in his chair, smirking a bit.
Somewhat surprised at how friendly Chris was being, Ezra nodded warily. He supposed the man had chewed him out most thoroughly the day before but he had still assumed he was in the proverbial doghouse. “It was an interesting evening, although Ah spent the second half of it sans Buck.” Chris laughed and Ezra rather wondered if his boss had been body-snatched. It was almost a relief when Mr. Larabee straightened up, face growing serious.
“So, we've had a few developments this morning. JD got into Sharpe's email and found something that confirms a theory we were throwing around, that he was brought in by an outsider who was looking for someone with a grudge against you.”
Having to know one way or the other now that the thought had occurred to him, Ezra asked, “Wait, Sharpe was imbecilic enough to use his ATF email to converse with someone with whom he was plotting to murder an ATF agent?”
“Not exactly,” Chris said, “though JD tells me he might as well have. Something about forwarding cat picture emails back and forth between his personal email and work, either way the kid was able to crack into his private email even though it was encrypted and found some email correspondence between him and who we think his contact is.” Ezra nodded, waiting somewhat impatiently for Chris to go on. “They were in code, but JD thinks he's got a last name at least. Buck and Vin have been listening to the bugs Vin planted-don't ask, long story,” He said as Ezra's face grew questioning and his mouth started to open, “and they think they heard Sharpe say it at least once yesterday, and Noll as well. There was enough there, discussion between Sharpe and Noll that Team 8 is going to bring Noll in this morning, I'm going down to question him and Sharpe later.”
Chris waited a second as Ezra processed that. He'd never had much to do with Agent Noll, not the antagonism he had with Sharpe, just no relationship at all. It was disturbing to know that there had been not one, but two people inside his own agency who'd been actively participating in a plot to kill him. Still, that was not the most important thing Chris had mentioned, no, the supposed name that JD had discovered was that. If anyone could find so vital a piece of information as quickly as that, and so easily as well, it would be Mr. Dunne. Well they were far from the only skills he brought to the team, his computer and hacking expertise was truly second to none. “And what name did Mistah Dunne deduce from these emails?”
“Does the name Cardamone mean anything to you?” Ezra felt the blood drain from his face, and his right hand tightened where it rested on his knee. No. He'd heard wrong. That particular demon was nearly twenty years in his past and had no reason to have interest in him now. It was a mistake. No. “...Ezra...? Ezra, breathe! Nathan!” Startled by the shouted order Ezra rapidly sucked in a breath and released it, then another, not having realized until Chris shouted that he hadn't been. Nathan, who must have been in the kitchen, appeared a second later, running up to the desk.
“What's wrong? Ezra?” As he questioned Chris he was already looking at Ezra with clinical concern, moving his chair away from the desk so he could reach him.
“He's panicking, quit breathing for a second when I said Cardamone's name.”
Ezra, who was breathing normally now, even if his mind still felt like it had frozen, waved a hand at them, trying to get Nathan to stop examining him, “Ah'm fine.” To his consternation he did not sound fine, but instead his voice was unsteady and a little strained sounding, and he had seen and felt that the hand he waved was trembling a little. Nathan moved so he could look him in the eye better, and said quietly,
“What is with all of you and saying you're fine when you're anything but?” He helped Ezra slow his breathing, which had perhaps still been a little fast, to match Nathan's and asked him to, for reasons beyond Ezra's knowledge, run his hand over his body, tell him the date, and then touch first the table and then the chair and take a moment to appreciate their different textures. As his heart slowed and breathing became a little easier Ezra had to admit it had worked. “Alright, you just sit tight and concentrate on breathing.” Ezra nodded and for a minute did that, looking over at Chris who he could still feel looking at him intently.
“Ezra, who's Cardamone?” His voice was quiet but implacable, and even as he heard Nathan protesting that he needed to rest, he answered, needing to say it.
“What? Ezra, what does that mean?” Chris was leaning forward in his chair, not liking how pale Ezra was anymore than Nathan, who was glaring at him, but needing to know what that meant. The boogeyman? Something in the way Ezra had said it had sent a chill down his spine. He couldn't say his undercover agent wasn't prone to dramatics, he could be, but this was not that. That had been true, deep, panic, a panic that seemed ingrained at the mention of the man, and seeing it on one of his men like that sent his need to do something, to fix it, into overdrive.
“Dammit Chris, give him a minute, he just had the start of an anxiety attack.” Nathan was shifting so he was inbetween him and Ezra just a little, and there was no need for that. It wasn't like he was going to force him into talking. He leaned back, nodding, but unable to just leave it there.
“Whoever he is, he ain't gonna get anywhere near you.” Chris's voice was severe, harsher than he meant it to be, but Ezra looked up at him, face still stark and stared into his eyes almost demandingly, “And he ain't gonna hurt you. He won't. I'll kill him first.” Ezra just kept looking at him and Chris willed him to see, to understand the promise in his eyes, his agent staring for so long he wasn't entirely comfortable with the heavy gaze, but he just looked back, waiting until Ezra found whatever it was he was searching for and sank back a little in his chair, gathering himself before he spoke.
“Cardamone was my stepfather, my second stepfather. You learned, when that insipid fop Preston Wingo attempted to extort mah Mothah into marriage, that she had had five previous husbands. The numbah is actually six, but we do not...we do not acknowledge or discuss Cardamone.” A very brief, very slight, shudder ran through Ezra, but it was more than enough to set Chris's hackles even more on edge.
“He was abusive?” There was a long moment where Ezra just breathed, and Chris didn't even need to hear the answer.
“He was a monstah. More to Mothah than to me. She...she protected me as best she could.” Chris wasn't sure he should believe that, knew Maude had left her son in more than one bad situation. He wouldn't say that to Ezra though, as much as they didn't get along half the time he still seemed a bit in awe of his mother for the rest. Chris could see Maude being the type of person, as well, who could pretend abuse wasn't happening when she wasn't there, but be unable to do nothing if her child was hurt in front of her. In fact, he thought grimly, he thought that summed up Maude's protective instinct pretty well. Ezra eyes were glued to his lap, deep in thought, and he had started rubbing along his upper jaw line with the side of his good hand, elbow on the arm rest, and curve of his pointer finger pressing tightly into his face, and, Chris's eyes narrowed as he watched, he didn't seem to realize he was doing it.
“Is he where you lost your tooth?” Chris thought he must be wrong even as he said it, because Ezra wouldn't have had his adult teeth yet, not if this was only the second in the string of now six stepfathers, but after a long moment of stiffness Ezra nodded sharply, and after an even longer pause where Chris tried to think of something to say besides more threats to kill Cardamone, he spoke quietly, raising his head enough that he was staring at the top of the desk instead of his lap, but no more than that.
“Yes. Ah was struck in a mannah that both dislodged the immature tooth and damaged the adult tooth above beyond repair.” Death was too good for the man.
“How old were you?” He thought maybe he'd remove the same number of teeth from Cardamone's mouth if he got a chance.
Chris knew he couldn't, not in reality, that unless he posed a physical threat when they got their hands on him-and get their hands on him they would-he could do no more than shove him around a bit when getting cuffs on him. Cardamone was going to rot in jail for a long, long time. Of course if he did pose a physical threat, if he was stupid enough to fight...
“Chris...”, Ezra shook his head, not answering, and Chris dropped it with a nod. He'd find out before too long. “Ah nevah imagined he would seek me out at all, let alone attack me...Ah don't understand, ah was merely an annoying encumbrance to him, and Ah certainly have no knowledge that he could consider a threat...he has no reason to want me dead...” The man was fiddling with his pajama sleeves, and still not looking directly at Chris, voice getting quieter as he spoke, like he was speaking more and more to himself. “Ah know this is putting a large strain on everyone, particularly aftah the difficult case we already had-”
“Ezra...” Chris shook his head, disbelief filling him, “are you apologizing because of this evil son of a bitch trying to kill you?” Ezra looked at Chris through his eyelashes, not actually raising his face, and then abruptly changed the subject.
“Ah need to get a hold of mah Mothah, Ah have to make sure she is alright, and warn her her well-being could be in dangah. Ah need mah phone, Ah have to get it.” He tried to stand up, much too fast, and went pale, Chris half standing as Nathan wrapped an arm around his shoulder and helped him back into the seat.
“No, you need to sit, I'll get your phone. On the dresser, right?” Ezra nodded, and with a solid pat on his shoulder and a warning look to Chris-shooting a similar look back, Chris wondered why was he the bad guy now?-Nathan strode off on his mission.
“Do you know where your mother is now?” Chris asked. As much as he didn't like the woman, he didn't want her dead either, and not solely for Ezra's sake. And no one, even those far worse than Maude, deserved to be attacked or murdered because an abuser thought he still had the right to do as he liked with them.
“During mah last email exchange with Mothah she was in Switzerland and planning to stay for several more weeks, but it has been nearly that long since Ah have heard from her. She could easily have moved on by now, or be in the process of doing so.” Worry flickered over Ezra's face, the man not going to the trouble he usually did to hide his emotions, too preoccupied. Chris was certain he was worrying over something already having happened to his mother, and he wanted to tell him it would be fine, but he knew damn well it could be a lie and so he kept his mouth shut.
The two waited in a tense silence, Chris more anxious than he wanted to admit as the minute or so it took Nathan to get the phone and come back seemed to stretch out and out. If something had happened to Maude, let alone if she'd been killed, the toll it would take on Ezra...whatever else she was, or whatever Chris's opinion of the woman, she was still Ezra's mother.
He had other questions about Cardamone, what the man was involved with, if he had any friends in high places, that kind of thing. Ezra saying he had no information that Cardamone could consider a threat meant that information like that existed. Frowning, Chris wondered just how exactly Cardamone made a living. Call it a hunch, but Chris would bet his badge it was something illegal. Most kids wouldn't have picked up on the kinds of things Chris wanted to know, but he highly doubted Ezra had been much like most kids.
Finally the medic was back and handing Ezra the phone, nodding to the quickly muttered thanks, and standing over him like a sentry as Ezra fumbled just a bit in unlocking the phone and dialing the number. They waited and waited, and it was clear by the southerner's expression that it had gone through to voicemail before he spoke. “Mothah, Ah need to talk yah right away. It's a serious emergency, please call back.” Then his fingers were flying over the keys, he must have been sending a text. In a move that Ezra ordinarily wouldn't have considered, he immediately redialed the number, waiting impatiently only for it to go to voicemail again. Chris watched as he, scared and frustrated, slapped it down onto the desk without leaving a message this time, “Why won't she answer?!”
“Maybe Maude has her phone on silent. Or, you said she's likely to be in Switzerland, if she's on the slopes it would be pretty hard for her to hear her phone, or answer if she did.” Chris did his best to make his voice sound calm and reasonable, and Ezra nodded his head slightly to each suggestion, though Chris could see he was just as wound up as he had been, voice strained against another potential outburst as he responded.
“Ah suppose that those are possibilities, Mothah does so love to ski.”
“What's the time difference between here and Switzerland anyway?,” Nathan asked, moving to lean his side against the desk so he was in Ezra's view without him having to turn his head, and looked at Ezra as he spoke, “Could she still be asleep?”
“No, Ah had considered that briefly, but in Switzerland it would be late afternoon or early evening by now, Ah believe they are eight hours ahead of us.”
Nathan blinked in surprise, “Do you have a world clock memorized?” He was clearly joking, but Ezra, high-strung and with most of his mind elsewhere took him seriously.
“What? No, of course not.” But he knew almost exactly what time it was where his Mother was supposed to be. Chris cursed internally, hoping that Maude called back soon. After a moment, Ezra said quietly, “Would it be possible for me to examine the email correspondence? It may be that my knowledge of Cardamone could reveal more pertinent information.” Ezra was asking Chris, but Chris looked up at Nathan, because it was fine with him as long as he gave Ezra the all clear.
The man hesitated for a second, nodding after he'd thought it over, “As long as he sticks to the couch and doesn't overdo it that's fine. Ezra doesn't need to be sitting up at a desk though, and he hasn't eaten yet.”
Chris nodded, “Alright, I'll go tell JD to get copies of the emails set-up, you get him fed.”
“Excuse me, Ah am present in the room, you know, and perfectly capable of making mah own breakfast.” Nathan had looked slightly sheepish at the beginning of Ezra's statement, but by the end he was shaking his head. Chris looked him over and shook his own head. In addition to his nerves being about shot it was obvious he was in pain, and even if all he wanted was his customary bagel with cream cheese, he didn't need to be expending the extra effort.
“Ezra. Let Nathan help you.”
“Mistah Larabee, Ah am fine.”
Despite knowing that 'Mr.' had come from annoyance, Chris looked sternly back, tightening his lips a little when Ezra showed no reaction. “Ezra. Let Nathan help you.” A almost invisible nod was his answer, but Chris waited until he'd allowed the medic to start helping him to stand before he took his gaze off him and climbed to his own feet.
“Alright, I'll get that arranged with JD, and then I'm going to make my way into the office.” He'd been planning to wait until later on in the day, when they'd had more time to gather information and do research, but this new information changed things. Chris wanted to know everything Sharpe and Noll knew about this plot and Cardamone and he was going to find out. “Ezra, in addition to going through the emails I want you to make a file full of everything you remember about Cardamone. You've got one of those microphones on your laptop that turns talking into typing, right?” Ezra's shoulder had come out before, and there wasn't always someone available, either on the team or from the administrative support pool, to take dictation.
“Yes, but Ah do not have mah laptop at the present moment.” Damn, he should have thought of that. Of course he wouldn't have it here.
“Is it at the office or at your apartment?”
“Ah believe in mah haste Ah left it at the office.”
“Well, I'll bring it back for you, in the meantime see if JD can get something similar on my laptop, if not have him do your typing.”
“And what has error has young Mistah Dunne committed to have become the day's chore boy?” Chris thought for a moment, decided he wasn't going to open that kettle of fish if he wanted to get out the door anytime soon.”
“You can get that story from him and Vin. About Cardamone-put the things you think are most important first, but don't leave out anything, I mean anything, that you remember-down to his shoe size, favorite food.”
Ezra gave him a look that implied Chris was a few cards short of a deck, but you never knew what information could come in handy and Ezra knew that as well as any of them. “Unless your plan involves somehow luring the man with either shoes or calamari, Am am not sure what purpose that information would serve.”
Chris narrowed his eyes slightly, “Do it anyway, smart-ass.” Ezra nodded, and he said, just as seriously, “Don't work too hard, and rest when you need to.”
“Ah am fairly certain Mistah Jackson will ensure that eventuality.” There was a hint of wryness in his voice, and Chris wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not, if Ezra was actually coping or just putting up a mask, but there was little he could do about it now.
Nathan nodded from beside Ezra, “You're damn right I will.”
“Good.” Chris nodded and walked purposefully from behind his desk, patting Ezra on the back and heading out of the room. JD was in the kitchen gulping down a second breakfast of runny and slightly burnt looking scrambled eggs, meaning the kid had cooked them for himself, and stopped long enough to tell him that Ezra was going to need his help with the computer and to ask where Josiah was.
“He went out front, said he needed to walk around a bit.” Chris nodded, thinking Josiah likely needed to let off some steam if he'd gotten around to watching that video like he'd been planning to. Sure enough when he went outside he could see Josiah walking back from the direction of his barn, and whether the man had been talking at his patient old work horse, Job, in the building or letting out his frustrations on a hay bale out in back of it, Chris didn't know. He could see that he looked calm enough as Chris raised a hand in greeting to him, Josiah raising one back as they walked towards each other, and that was what mattered.
“Yeah, want to start the interrogation.” He paused, as Josiah nodded, then said bluntly, “Cardamone was one of Ezra's stepfathers. Ezra hasn't a damn clue why the man would have any kind of grudge against him, but he abused him and Maude. That's how he lost his tooth. Said he was the damn boogeyman when I asked if he knew the name, and had what Nathan said was the start of a panic attack.”
Josiah's jaw had set as Chris was talking, and when he was done said quietly, voice tired and angry,“No matter how much of it I see, even with what I experienced, I will never understand the cruel things people can do to the children in their care. I'll make myself available to him, but if he doesn't want to talk about what happened pushing would do more harm than good, Chris.”
Chris nodded, “Good man,” and with a smile that barely turned up the corners of his lips, turned and headed for his truck. The sooner they got the lead they needed, the sooner they could get this scumbag, and throw away the key.
JD quickly attached the hard drive he'd been collecting all the information they had for the case so far on to Chris's laptop-this was not the kind of info he was going to pass over the internet. No matter how close he thought he had Chris's system to unhackable, or the protections he'd put on the individual computers, the best way to keep someone from stealing your files was to not have your system connected in the first place.
Of course, he'd heard of hackers who had devices that could remotely enable the Wi-Fi adapter in a computer if it was turned off, and from there it would be easy to reconnect the system-man, he wished he had one of those.
Just, you know, so he could reverse engineer it and figure out how to proof their systems against it. He wouldn't use it, totally wouldn't.
Not even to convince Buck his computer was alive, or possessed maybe, using that and a little tiny mike to talk into...well, try to convince him, Buck generally didn't fall for pranks that had to do with technology. Which was disappointing, since he had some good ones, but made sense. There was a reason their explosive materials expert and computer expert often shared the surveillance van duties, and despite the teasing he'd heard occasionally from other teams, it wasn't because JD needed a babysitter. Buck was behind the times when it came to the computer technology, but really only compared to JD, and he kept himself up to date on the surveillance equipment. And for as loud as he was the rest of the time, somehow he always knew when it was time for radio silence and close listening.
Selecting the folder he wanted, that had both the emails and the transcripts Buck and Vin had made of the bugs that had picked up Sharpe and Noll's conversations, and the various notes that had been compiled, JD dragged it onto Chris's desktop and waited for it to tell him it was finished. He knew Josiah had started building a profile based off the little they knew, and wasn't sure if he'd gotten around to typing it up yet, but JD was pretty sure something had changed in the past hour that would mean the profiler had to start over anyway. He wasn't sure what had changed, but from the way Chris's voice had sounded when he was giving him his orders, and then how Nathan had been fussing over Ezra even more than JD expected, and Ezra had been letting him without complaining, it was pretty big.
They'd come in the kitchen when JD was rinsing his plate, and Nathan hadn't even let Ezra get his own napkin. Everybody had been wondering if Ezra would know the name Cardamone and it sounded like he did. JD knew that Chris had been going to talk to Ezra about what he'd discovered in the emails-it wasn't a lot really, they'd used a variation on a standard code that JD could have cracked when he was like, fourteen, but they hadn't said that much in the emails, not details wise, just enough to freak him out. The couple of name drops seemed like plain carelessness, Sharpe and whoever his contact was-JD didn't have a name for that particular underling-getting over confident as they got closer to the enactment of their plan.
He knew he'd screwed up yesterday-Chris had made sure of that-but if it weren't the fact that it could wind up hurting the team, he wouldn't care. JD felt terrible and was scared about having put his job at risk, and felt even worse that Chris was right and Ezra would probably blame himself for all of it, but if he could have gotten away with it, if the only consequences had been the bruises to Sharpe's face...
He wouldn't have regretted it all. JD got that law enforcement was supposed to be better than that, good cops anyway-and JD desperately wanted to be good , had seen both kinds growing up in his shitty little neighborhood, and knew that people needed to be able to trust law enforcement, that if they didn't they wouldn't call them, that it created situations that were dangerous for both regular people and law enforcement. Yeah, he was an ATF agent and not a beat cop, or even a detective, and it meant a lot of the suspects they dealt with were about as nasty as you could get. But there were still lines you didn't cross, and, for JD at least, it had always been just as much about decency and honor as it was about rules and not having a case thrown out on technicalities.
He knew better than to punch a suspect unless it was the only way to subdue a threat, certainly knew he had no business laying his hands on someone whose hands were cuffed behind his back. The one time he'd come close to crossing that line before had been when that crazy white supremacist group had decided it was Nathan's fault their leader had died. The EMT had covered a shift for a friend and been one of the people to work on the man who'd let gangrene rot his leg all the way up to where it met his middle and his guts-apparently they also hated doctors, or at least any doctors who didn't share the same hatreds-but he'd died en route to the hospital. Two days later they'd snatched Nathan as he went out his front door, and if his car hadn't been in the shop, if Vin hadn't been pulling up to give him a ride while they were shoving Nathan in their van, Vin following them as he called for back-up...
It had been over nearly as quickly as it started, Vin hadn't let them see him and so they'd led him right to where they were going without any evasion attempts, and since Nathan had lived closest to the office before him and Rain had moved to the suburbs, the rest of them hadn't been far behind. Chris had pushed down the nose of his gun when JD had gone to shoot one of them as he fled, telling him, 'you don't shoot nobody in the back', even as JD could hear that his voice was shaking in rage. They'd got them all anyway, it hadn't been a huge group, and Chris and Vin had taken out several of them at the beginning, the ones who'd...JD swallowed, not wanting the picture of what those men had been doing to Nathan to be so clear in his head after all this time, but it was.
They'd got them anyway, blocked the doors and gotten hand-cuffs on them-no one, JD recalled, though he wasn't complaining, they'd deserved it and more, saying anything when they were handled in a manner that left more than a few bruises as Josiah and Buck had 'helped' the uniforms that had been called in to help haul them away load them up. Of course, he didn't think they'd hauled off and punched any of them in the face when they were already subdued and hand-cuffed, either.
The kidnapping and attempted murder of a federal agent were serious enough even without the fact that it had been a hate crime that none of the racist bastards would be seeing the other side of jail wall for a long, long time, and Nathan had told him later that that was enough for him, and that he didn't want JD to ever take a life if he didn't have to, and JD had promised he wouldn't. He hadn't been thinking about actually killing the man, just stopping him, hadn't had to kill in the line of duty yet then, had only had to do so once in the two years that followed and it had shaken him to his core. JD knew he would have regretted the consequences, knew that shooting someone in the back would at least have ruined his career, and knew, really, that both Chris and Nathan were right, it would have been wrong. But not as wrong as what those men had done to Nathan, and for a long time afterwards there had been a part of him that when he remembered that moment thought it would have been justified.
As terrifying as that had been, it had been over and dealt with in a little more than an hour, they'd been able to go after the threat directly and get rid of it, neutralize it. Nathan had been fine, physically at least, JD wasn't stupid enough to think he'd actually been okay-okay even though he'd insisted he was.
With Ezra, all they had was a couple lackeys and a name that JD was hoping would lead them somewhere, but there were no guarantees. They'd already found out that two ATF agents, two people who were supposed to be on their side, their people, had been part of a plot to kill him. They'd brought him home, and he wasn't hurt bad, but the threat was still out there. They didn't know what they were planning, or how many of them, or why the hell it was happening.
Maybe, JD thought, he'd be able to find something new if he went over the emails one more time. Or, there was a chance that the contact wouldn't know how far their mission had been compromised, would obviously know that the car bomb plot hadn't worked, but not necessarily know that Sharpe and Noll had been implicated. If so, they might send another email to see what was going on. Long shot, and not the smartest move, but if these guys had been making smart moves JD would still be trying to get into Sharpe's email. Okay, maybe not still, but the measly half a hour it had taken was almost an insult.
Who makes it that easy to get into an inbox that contains information on a planned murder? Who, even with an encrypted account and coded emails, plans a murder over email? Those guys were seriously cocky, or majorly dumb, or both. Which made their job easier, but still.
“So, mah young friend, Ah hear you have some pertinent information for me to pursue?” JD turned to Ezra, who'd hobbled past with Nathan pacing him just in case on his way to the guestroom, and now had hobbled back out on his own, dressed in jeans that probably cost more than JD's whole outfit, and a shirt that he thought had been one of the other guys, big as it was, that had the sleeve cut off of it from the last time Ezra had hurt his shoulder, smiling, and motioned for him to join him. He scooted down the couch to give Ezra more room, shifting the excess laptop cord to the ground.
“Yeah, I've got some decoded emails for you to look at, though the code was simple enough you probably could have done it yourself, and Buck and Vin made transcripts and took notes on, uh-”
“The bugs you and Mistah Tannah planted?” Ezra sat down carefully, JD pretending not to notice as he winced, because he knew Ezra would get embarrassed and annoyed if he thought he was fussing. He put up with a certain amount from Nathan and Josiah because they were Nathan and Josiah, there was no getting out of it, but JD didn't fall into that category.
“Technically, I made them, Vin planted them,” He said, trying not to blush. Planting bugs in their own building was definitely not standard evidence gathering, was in a sort of gray area in legal admissibility. Ezra, who made great efforts to make sure, that no matter how unorthodox his actions were in some ways, the evidence he gathered was above the pale, might not entirely approve of the way they'd winged it.
“Ah appreciate the efforts you both made on mah behalf.” Ezra said it sincerely, though he was looking mostly at the computer screen and not JD, shooting him a sideways smile at the end of his sentence.
“Of course, Ez. You'd do the same for us.” JD launched right into an explanation on the various files on the laptop screen and how to use the little mike JD had attached to it if he wanted to take notes, leaning over to whisper the password Ezra would need to get them to open-overkill probably, because who was going to get a chance to get on Chris's laptop that wasn't supposed to be on it?-in his ear. He grinned conspiratorially as his choice drew a small chuckle from his friend. “Nobody would ever guess that one, right?”
“No, JD, Ah'd imagine that is not a combination that would occur to the average mind. You may want to make sure that you are not within reach of Mistah Wilmington if you have cause to share the information with him.”
“I figure I have a much better chance than usual of outrunning him.” Ezra outright laughed at that, but then his hand went to his middle, pressing on his ribs as he hissed, and JD felt like an idiot. He'd wanted to cheer Ezra up, but it wasn't like he didn't know he'd bruised his ribs.
“Yes, well,” the older man said a moment later, when he'd caught his breath, “let me know beforehand, that can be the day's entertainment.” JD rolled his eyes, grinning. There was a pause that JD could feel then, Ezra held out his hands for the laptop and waited expectantly for JD to hand it to him, but he could see that there was something that Ezra wanted to ask him and he wondered with a squirm if the undercover agent had picked up on the fact that Vin and him were on Chris's shitlist at the moment. If he asked him why JD would tell him, but he didn't want to. He didn't think Ezra would be mad at him, but he didn't want him worry about him and Vin's jobs right now, not when there was way more important stuff going on. “Mistah Dunne?”
“What information would you need to trace credit or debit card activity? Credit card activity in a foreign country to be exact?” Ezra looked a little unsettled, which probably meant his nerves were jumping all over the place.
“Well, at least the name and the company, like Visa or Mastercard, but the more you have the easier it will be. But,” he looked at Ezra dubiously, “I'm supposed to have a warrant before I do anything like that, and Chris is already pretty-”, He stopped himself from saying, 'p.o.'ed at me' with an effort of will, covering it with, “on edge, not sure I want to risk pissing him off.” Ezra's eyebrow arched up, making it clear that he had noticed JD's slip, before letting it go, more important things on his mind as his expression became slightly pleading.
“It's for mah mothah.”
“What?” JD asked, confused, “For your Mom? Is she okay? Why would she need someone's credit card activity?” He couldn't imagine Ezra would just ask him on a whim, but it wasn't making a lot of sense to him. Maude wasn't the most trustworthy person in the world by a long-shot, and JD wasn't entirely sure he was comfortable doing something like that for her, but at the same time, she was Ezra's mother...
“Ah fear she is not, and it is her card activity Ah was hoping you would look up.” Oh. Well, that was different. It was technically still pretty illegal for him to do that without a warrant, and he wasn't sure Chris would be happy, in fact, considering JD was already deciding to do it, and Chris wasn't here to ask, he was one hundred percent sure he wouldn't be happy. Ezra was really worried though, JD could see that now, and considering someone had just tried to kill the southerner if he was worried about his mother he probably had good reason. This was something he could do to help.
“Sure, let me get my laptop, that way you can still look through those emails.” Before JD could stand up, Ezra's hand was clasping his shoulder, the way his thank you came out letting him know that worried was an understatement. “Dude, it's your mom. Of course. Where is she anyway?”, JD asked as he finished climbing to his feet.
“If things are as they should be she is ending a skiing holiday in Switzerland, however Ah have not heard from her in some time and am unable to reach her. Ordinarily Ah would not worry, but now...”
Ezra shrugged, an action JD had heard him scorn as undignified more than once, and trying to keep his teammate from worrying even as he felt nerves start in his own stomach, JD spoke, doing his best to sound casual, “Bet ya when I get a lock on her it'll be in some fancy boutique up in the alps.”
A small chuckle left Ezra, “That is certainly one possibility...of course, if Mothah is shopping while on a holiday with her new paramour Ah doubt she is spending her own funds...”
“You know the guy's name?” If he was going to get killed he might as well earn it.
Ezra thought for a second, the frown that was spreading across his face turning thoughtful, “You know, Ah believe that information may be in mah last correspondence from Mothah, Ah just have to check the email.”
“Cool. Only, can you check it on your phone? I turned off the Wi-Fi in all the computers, and disconnected Chris's hardwire. And shut off the router.” Seeing that Ezra was clearly about to ask him why in the world he had done that, JD continued, “Just in case of hackers-I mean, just because Sharpe is useless doesn't mean everyone on this Cardamone guy's payroll is, I don't want them knowing what we know, or getting information they could use against us.”
Looking at him with just a hint of concern, Ezra said carefully, “John Daniel, Ah think you might be being a little paranoid.”
“Well, yeah, somebody's trying to kill you!” He didn't exactly shout it, but he didn't say it quietly and calmly either, and in the blanket of silence that fell afterwards, smothering them for a moment, JD could feel the blood rushing into his cheeks and hoped he wasn't scarlet.
Like Ezra didn't already know that. Like he wasn't already paranoid enough for the both of them without JD shouting about it in the middle of the living room.
“You have a point there.” Ezra's voice was quiet, slightly shell-shocked, when he responded, and god, JD felt like an idiot, and he wasn't sure what to say and before he thought of anything Ezra started talking again, looking up and staring him right in the eyes. “JD, they tried, but did not succeed. Now that Ah am here, with both the team and additional security around the clock, their chances of getting close enough to me to attempt something have been greatly diminished, their chances of succeeding in this unlikely attempt are no higher.” JD shrugged, then nodded, knowing that was true, but still feeling like he had every reason to be paranoid. “Ah trust in you and the rest of the team to keep me safe.”
“You didn't earlier.” It had nearly gotten him killed, but JD wasn't going to say that part out loud, felt kind of like a jerk for what he'd already said.
A guilty look was on the undercover agents for a split second, immediately replaced with a trace of Ezra's usual grin, “Ah assure you Ah learned my lesson there,” JD didn't smile back, didn't think anything was funny, just looked at Ezra until the older man sighed, and said quietly, “Ah apologize for mah facetiousness, but Ah truly have.”
“Promise?” JD's eyes wanted to close in embarrassment as his mouth apparently decided to ask that without running it by his brain first, jeez, that was just like with what happened with Nathan, and what was wrong with him? Ezra wasn't saying anything, was just staring at him, and JD swallowed. Ezra turned away from him and JD's heart dropped. Shit, he'd pushed him too far, too fast.
“Ah promise, JD. Ah truly did not set out to alarm you or the othahs.” JD shrugged and smiled a little, still embarrassed, and mumbled that it was okay.
“I'm gonna go grab my laptop, be right back.” JD made it all of two steps down the hall, his stuff stored in Nathan and Josiah's room, before he saw Buck standing in the doorway of the hall bathroom, looking at him. Fighting a groan, JD stepped close enough to say under his breath, “How much did you hear?”
“Enough.” JD looked at Buck wondering what he was going to say, when the man softened, shaking his head, “Look kid, do it quick, do it quiet, and don't get caught.” Buck slapped him lightly on the shoulder and said, “If you do I'll tell Chris I authorized it.”
“Yeah, really, but only because I think it's important, and like I said, don't get caught.” Buck motioned for JD to shift out of his way, and he quickly did so, grinning a little to himself as Buck moseyed down the hallway, muttering good-naturedly about people setting up like roadblocks all over the house. Leaning in the door to the second guest room JD snatched up his laptop case and headed back to the living room. Oh, he was going to have to go turn the router back on...
Josiah quietly pushed the barn door open and stepped inside, the body heat and smell of the horses enveloping him as he pushed it closed behind him. Job, whose stall was closest to the entrance, knickered softly at seeing his human again and stepped to the front, sticking his head over the door. The profiler wasn't here to see him, but as who he was here to see had yet to acknowledge his presence, even after he called a quiet, “Hello, Ezra,” down to him, he stepped up to the stall door, leaning on it and scratching companionably at the white blaze that ran down the old horse's nose. There were a few, just a few, gray hairs starting to appear here and there outside the strip of white, not nearly as many as in his own salt and pepper hair, but enough to make him mourn the passage of time just a bit. Nearly 21 wasn't that old for a horse, and Job was healthy and spry for his age, but it made him wish he'd known the horse in his prime. Not, he thought with a chuckle, that he'd had any place to keep a horse before he'd joined the team, but it would have been nice to prevent some of the trials the aptly named animal had gone through. Turning his attention down and across the aisle, where an auburn haired young man was lavishing attention on his own mount, Josiah wished even more that he'd known Ezra when he was young. It didn't take a genius or even a profiler to see that he'd had a difficult childhood, and Josiah had known without having to be told that physical abuse was part of it, but the prior knowledge didn't make it any easier to hear. It certainly didn't make it any easier to see that it was still hurting him, or to know from his own experiences that in some ways it probably always would.
The profiler was both pleased and annoyed that Ezra was able to continue acting as though Josiah simply wasn't there. Annoyed because it was rude, and the undercover agent hadn't exactly been blameless in yesterday's fiasco-that video had given him chills and made him want to break something at the same time. Pleased because it was perfectly in character, and might mean the boy was handling this better than he'd thought. Knowing that if Ezra had kept it up this long already it might be a good half hour or more before he broke the silence on his own, Josiah gave Job one more quick scratch and headed up the aisle, the horse giving a small snort as he walked away. Ezra did acknowledge his presence as he approached, briefly, with a nod, before turning his attention back to Chaucer.
“Looks like you're moving alright now,” he said easily, leaning against the next stall over, patting lightly at Lady, Buck's big gray mare when she snuffled his hair, shifting himself away a little. Lady immediately moved her nose to follow his hair, snuffling like she was searching for a treat and, deciding he was taking no chances on her deciding his hair was the treat, Josiah took a step back out of reach, a bit confused by the horse's uncharacteristic behavior. Lady was affectionate and a bit spoiled, but she was also, well, a lady. Seeing that Ezra was doing a poor job of hiding a smirk, Josiah raised an eyebrow at him. “You have an idea why Lady's decided to add keratin to her diet?”
Pivoting slightly so he wasn't facing the back of the stall, Ezra questioned, voice arch, “You recall, of course, that particularly equine's fancy not just for all manner of fruit and vegetables, but for flowering plants of many varieties.”
Josiah nodded, “Yes, and I remember when she got out and ate all of Nettie's snapdragons. Gloria's roses too.” The two nearest Larabee neighbors hadn't been pleased, though at least they'd tracked her down before she could get onto Conklin's land. That man was just annoying. “I'm still not sure what that has to do with my hair.” Though, if whatever it was had Ezra’s lips tugging up like that, Josiah supposed it was worth it.
No longer attempting to hide what had turned into an outright grin, Ezra asked, “Have you perhaps made a change in your hair care products recently? Ah noticed a pleasant, flowery scent last night, but was not quite in the right frame of mind to comment.” Josiah stared at him in blank confusion as he finished talked, then half-groaned, half-chuckled as it hit him. That damn hotel shampoo! And damn hot water running out before he got into the bathroom this morning, so that the scent hadn't been washed away. “Ah believe Lady approves your choice,” Ezra quipped, and Josiah snorted.
“I'm afraid she's soon to be disappointed, when I switch back to something not so appealing.” Addressing the horse, Josiah informed her, “My head is not your lunch.” Lady whinnied and gave him a beseeching look, and Josiah couldn't help but laugh, “She begs for treats about as much as Buck.”
“Mr. Wilmington ate half the fudge mah mothah sent me without evah asking, let along begging. Ah have always maintained that his horse has bettah manners than him, and Ah do not think this changes that.” Josiah shook his head at Ezra, another laugh leaving him.
“Still, Buck has never tried to eat my hair.”
Ezra looked from Josiah back to Lady, his expression growing more somber as he gazed at her for before speaking, “Ah imagine with Buck laid up for so long she is feeling a bit lonely, a bit out of touch with her her usual routine.” Josiah only nodded, wondering whether they were still talking about the horse. Ezra looked over at him suddenly, face slightly dismayed, but before the big man could do more than straighten, the gambler rushed out, “Not of course, that Ah'm not sure that you gentleman have not made sure she received more than adequate care and exercise, and affection as well, just as Ah know you do for Chaucer when Ah am away.”
Trying not to let on how surprised he'd been by the sudden plea, Josiah only nodded. “Of course. And Buck hobbles out here to love on her when he gets the chance, but that doesn't mean she doesn't notice the changes or miss him. I know Chaucer misses you when you're gone, that strong personality gets about three times stronger.” Ezra's good hand rubbed on the silky underside of Chaucer's neck, the horse arching it and twisting a bit to show his rider the best place to rub, “What did you think would happen to him yesterday? When you thought you were being transferred?”
Ezra's hand froze, his whole body stiffening just enough to be noticeable and guilt rose in Josiah's chest, only to be pushed firmly back. Discussing or dealing with what was happening was not something Ezra was going to do without being pushed, not beyond the legal aspects of it anyway, and this topic at least wasn't as raw as discussing Cardamone directly. It took a moment for the young man to gather himself enough to attempt an answer, and Josiah half expected him to toss off something sarcastic, or to outright change the subject. Instead, Ezra spoke quietly and seriously with a level of exhaustion in his voice that the profiler didn't think came from his interrupted night, “Even in the illogical fountain of misinformed thoughts that enveloped mah head for most of yestahday Ah knew that Mr. Larabee would continue to care for Chaucer until Ah was able to arrange stabling and transportation for him.”
“Hmm. I wonder, why is it that you trust Chris more with Chaucer's well-being than you do your own?” Josiah knew it was a risky question when he asked it, and the glare that was leveled at him told him it had struck home. That had been his intention, but he still wasn't quite prepared for Ezra's next words, or the bitter huff of a laugh that preceded it.
“Well, obviously, because Ah am one fucked-up individual, Mistah Sanchez. Ah had a childhood where Ah was tossed around much like the bags of oats stored in the tack room, a mothah who loved me fiercely sometimes and seemed to find mah existence an inconvenience at others, and a string of fathah figures, none of which Ah would describe as a good influence. Leading to a serious problem with authority figures and an expectation that family ties are transient. What?” he said to Josiah's stunned face, “You aren't the only one on the team to have read a psychology book. Interestingly enough, knowing one has an issue does not remove its existence.” Ezra stopped then, as abruptly as he started, and giving Chaucer, who had pulled back a bit, sensing the flaring emotion, a reassuring pat, turned towards the stall door, unlatching it and likely expecting to make a quick exit from the barn's back door.
“Acknowledging you have a problem doesn't mean much if you're convinced there is nothing you can do about it.” In fact, announcing you had a problem was often an excuse to not work on it, such as someone using a temper problem to expect others to tread lightly around them rather than working on controlling themselves. But they were talking about Ezra, not Chris, and he had expected, had been prepared to deal with, an utter refusal to acknowledge a problem, not this.
Not that it wasn't, he observed wryly, it's own way of refusing. This simply gave him less to argue against, which was probably at least part of the reason for Ezra's outburst. Ezra finished latching the stall behind him, Josiah having to stop himself from helping, knowing both that it wasn't easy to manipulate the special latch the too-clever horse required one-handed, and that assistance was not wanted. Done, Ezra turned away from him, tense in a way that had Josiah wincing for his ribs, speaking over his shoulder as he started to walk away.
“Really? And here Ah thought recognizing you had a problem was half the solution.” Ezra's face was sardonic to match his voice and Josiah stepped forward, raising a hand to lay it on Ezra's shoulder, freezing as his teammate, his brother, flinched and twisted away, good hand starting to raise as though expecting to have to ward off a blow.
“Ezra...son, I would never-” Ezra said nothing for a minute, the sudden movement having more than jarred his ribs and shoulder, obviously hurting as he caught his breath.
“Ah know. Ah know you wouldn't, it's not...” Straightening, color rising in his cheeks, Ezra shook his head and turned away, leaving, and this time Josiah let him.