Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
"Yknow, it just aint right." Vin's statement caught everyone by surprise, seeming to come from nowhere. Vin had been sitting back quietly, sipping his beer as Team Seven sat around their favorite table at the Saloon.
"What aint isnt right, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra demanded, shaking his head at the momentary slip in grammar. He had either had too much beer or he had been spending too much time around Vin and Buck lately.
Vin shifted in his chair so that he was leaning on his forearms, fixing Ezra with a pointed stare. "We been here for the last couple hours, shootin the bull and havin a good time, right?"
"Yep," Chris, who was seated next to him, confirmed, momentarily distracting Vin as he turned to look at him. Today the team had completed a successful bust, the culmination of a month of concerted effort and everyone was celebrating. Vin was by no means drunk, but he had had enough alcohol to take the edge off and become a bit more talkative than usual. In fact, everyone seemed to be enjoying the chance to relax and let off a little steam, so they had all looked up in interest at Vins declaration. Wondering where he was going, Chris prompted, "So, are you gonna tell us or do we have to guess?"
The longhaired man snapped out a finger toward the man seated across from him. "Him! He aint said nothin all night. He never says nothin."
From his place next to Ezra, Nathan Jackson let go a snort. "You gotta be kidding. If we let him, Ezrall talk until we all pass out from his having used up all the oxygen in the room!" The medic flashed Ezra a saucy grin that got wider when the other man retaliated by childishly sticking his tongue out.
"Oh, he talks, all right," Vin agreed easily. "He just never says anything that really matters. It aint right, I tell ya."
Ezra looked offended. "I believe Ive just been insulted. What do you mean, I never say anything that matters!"
"I think he means no personal stuff," JD chimed in as Vin, who had finished his accusation by stuffing a handful of beer-nuts in his mouth, gave him a thumbs-up. "You know, youre always being subtle and sneaky and mysterious! I was saying the same thing a couple days ago, wasnt I, Buck?"
The mustached man nodded. "Youve been part of our team for nearly six months now and we still dont know shit about you."
"Yeah," Vin agreed emphatically, finishing a swig of beer and setting his bottle down on the table with a thud. Warming to his subject now that he had some support, he elaborated. "We know what kind of booze you like, cause we seen you order it. We know where you were born, cause its in your file. We know you became a Fed because you figured itd piss off yer Ma. Weve met her, yknow."
Ezra narrowed his eyes. "Of course I know. I introduced you, remember? And I did not join in Federal law enforcement to irritate my mother." He grinned at the other mans disbelieving look. "I didnt! That was merely a very attractive fringe benefit."
Buck laughed. "That may be so but Vins right, Ezra. Hell, I only know where you live because you let us come over one time after Vins apartment got flooded during his week to host the poker game."
"One time," Vin repeated, clearly feeling that Buck had proven his point.
"That dont hardly even count. Specially when you consider that they
all been to my place so much I sometimes think I ought to start chargin
"Yeah, and weve all been to Chris even more than that," Nathan reminded. "Except for you. You usually dont come to our places, even when we invite you. You never invite us over to your home, except for that one time, and you hardly ever join us here. How come?"
"Dont you like us?" JD added, injury clear in his hazel eyes.
Standing part way out of his chair, Buck draped his long body across the table until he was squinting suspiciously into Ezras stunned face from the distance of a few inches. "You still not trust us or somethin?"
Chris was laughing silently at the slightly desperate expression on Ezras face as the southerner tried to figure out what he could say that wouldnt make things worse. The team leader decided to put in his two cents. "Boys and I think its time you let us get to know you a little better, Ezra. What do you say?"
Ezras eyes traveled around the table, searching for some crack in the groups solidarity that would let him escape this desire for personal information that had suddenly seized them, but didnt find one. Team Seven was a united front. Except for him. Perhaps that was why Vin had chosen to focus on him tonight. Certainly that had never happened before.
Ezra licked his lips, subtly betraying the nervousness he felt. They were right, in a way. It was rare for him to join any kind of non-mandatory group function. Deliberately staying on the outer edge of the others personal lives meant he never had to consider whether or not he was truly welcome within them. Now, taking in the encouraging and expectant faces around him, Ezra idly wondered if he might have been taking his ingrained habit of self-preservation a bit too far. Did they truly feel that he belonged within their odd circle of brotherhood? Looking around once again, Ezra grinned at the metaphor, wondering if the others had ever realized the symbolism of having chosen a round table as their favorite gathering spot within The Saloon. Did that make him one of King Christophers gallant knights in tarnished armor?
Seeing the crooked little smile, Josiah wondered what the other man was thinking. He had, up til now, been silently observing the interaction around him, but it seemed to him that their reluctant friend needed a little push in the right direction. "I believe its time you joined the fold, brother. Youve been our own personal enigma for just about long enough. I think youve accepted us as a team you can count on. Dont you think its time you accept us as friends, too?"
"I know youre my friends," he said quietly, shifting uncomfortably beneath the increased weight of their stares. "What exactly is it you want to know?"
"Lots of stuff," JD jumped in eagerly. "We just want to know more about you."
Ezra looked down at his hands, folded - damn near clenched - in front of him and consciously relaxed, stretching his fingers atop the surface of the table. "Perhaps you could be a bit more specific."
Bucks eyes lit up with triumph. "You mean if we ask you some questions, youll answer em?"
Before Ezra could reply, he amended, "You've got to promise to give us straight answers if we do, though. None of that Man of Mystery crap."
Nathan cut in, "Meaning that most of the time we ask you something personal and you either change the subject or answer in such a roundabout way that we forget what the question was by the time you finish answering it."
Seeing a rebellious expression forming, Josiah cut in with a quick peace-making effort. "Nothing too personal. If were out of line, just say so and well move on to something else." Seeing that Ezra still looked a bit dubious he added in a coaxing tone, "Look around you, son. There are no enemies here. What have you got to lose?"
Ezra bit his lip. Potentially, he had a great deal to lose by letting these men get close. If they got to know him, truly know him, then they would have power over him. They might use what they learned against him, to try and manipulate his emotions the way his mother always did. To betray him the way his former colleagues in Atlanta had. But would they? Ezra cocked his head a bit, reading the faces of his teammates. That was it, he realized suddenly. That was the difference. His ex-coworkers with the Bureau had never asked for personal information; but they had also never reached the point where he thought of them as teammates, much less friends. Perhaps it was time to quit worrying and take a chance.
A smile quickly darted across Ezras lips as he made up his mind. Pretending great reluctance he groaned, "Oh, all right. I have a feelin Im going to regret this but I will allow you to ask three questions, which I promise I will answer honestly."
"As in, three questions each, or just three altogether," Vin pressed. "Three questions for six people dont seem right. I mean, what if we all want to know something different? You oughtta give us three apiece, just to be fair."
Ezra sighed. He had hoped no one would notice that particular loophole so quickly. "Very well, Mr. Tanner. Fair is fair. You may each ask three questions."
"Can I go first?" JD asked loudly, amid a clamor of whoops and high-fiving.
"Go ahead, kid," Vin told him. "I never figured hed give in so easy. Need a minute to figure out what I want to ask."
JD rubbed his hands together gleefully. Then, seeing Ezras slightly nervous smile, he laughed. "Dont worry, Ill give you some easy stuff to start with. One - whats your number one all time favorite food? Two - whos the coolest comic book super-hero ever? And three when you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
JDs choices brought snickers from everyone but Ezra, who looked relieved.
"Dont forget now you gotta give honest answers," Buck teased. "No picking Spiderman if you actually think the Hulk is cooler."
"Very well, but lets not get out of order here. I believe the first question was about my favorite food." Turning back to JD, he said simply, "Spaghetti."
"Why?" JD blurted, then grimaced. "Dang, thats another question, isnt it?"
"It is, but Ill just consider it an expansion on the original query. I suppose its nostalgia that makes me fond of it. I used to occasionally spend winters with my paternal grandmother as a boy. Because I enjoyed spending time with her, and she enjoyed cooking, it naturally came about that she started giving me lessons. Her spaghetti and garlic bread were my favorites and though Ive never yet managed to exactly duplicate the sauce recipe, Im extremely fond of that meal to this day."
"Neat," JD approved. "Okay, coolest super-hero."
Beginning to get into the spirit of things, Ezra confessed, "I never got to spend a great deal of time in childish pursuits during my youth, but comic books were one pastime I did enjoy. So, while he may not have been precisely heroic, in my opinion no comic book character was ever cooler than the Ghost Rider."
Now JDs grin fairly stretched from ear to ear. "Awesome choice, Ezra! Wouldnt you just love a chance to ride the flame-cycle?"
"Im sure that would be most entertainin," he agreed indulgently, "but Id prefer a chance to try the powers. There have been a few particularly vile miscreants I would have enjoyed the opportunity to use Hell-fire on."
Chris and Buck exchanged a questioning look and a shrug, but Josiah surprised everyone by saying, "A flame covered, motorcycle riding, skeletal hell-spawn in black leather is your idea of the coolest comic book character of all time?" JD and Ezra looked slightly guilty as it occurred to them that they might have offended their spiritually inclined comrade, but then both men burst into laughter as he continued, "Ghost Rider was a punk. If you ask me, Hellboy is much cooler."
As the three men began a spirited argument over the relative merits of comic book demons, none of them noticed the bemused grins on the faces of their friends. They had assumed JDs question to be a ridiculous one, but the young man had managed to reveal an interesting secret. Judging by the way their eyes had lit up the moment JD mentioned his collection of rare back issues, it seemed that the teams profiler and undercover agent were also comic book aficionados.
"Id never have figured it," Chris said, grabbing their attention. "You just never struck me as a closet comic junkie, Ezra."
"Me either," Vin agreed with a smirk. "MAD Magazine, maybe, but not comic books."
Ezra choked on the sip of beer he was taking, receiving a helpful pounding on the back from Josiah as he began to cough. "I beg your pardon," he wheezed out at last. "Why would you possibly assume I would embrace such a ridiculously juvenile publication?"
Vin chuckled. Sometimes it was pure fun to ruffle Ezras feathers. "Oh, I dont know. Satire, twisted parodies of reality, good spy versus evil spy; sounds about your speed."
"Your familiarity with the contents makes me suspect you may be searching for a commonality between us, Mr. Tanner," Ezra returned dryly. "Im afraid Ill have to disappoint you, though I must say that it does my heart good to realize that your reading pursuits do stretch beyond the scintillating entertainment of Guns & Ammo."
"Hey, now, Vins taste runs a little wider than that," Buck joined in. "I have it on good authority that he also subscribes to Field & Stream."
Ezra gave a mocking little bow of the head. "Well, then I do stand corrected, but would you care to share with us what you would choose to widen our literary horizons with, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Playboy, of course" he said matter-of-factly. "Damn good articles in there."
"Fascinating," Chris agreed in a serious tone. "Wasnt it only last month that we learned Kimmys favorite turn-ons included scuba diving, barrel racing and playing pool in the nude?"
Buck shook his head. "It was Ping-Pong, not pool."
"I do stand corrected." Chris repeated, mocking Ezras words and tone of a moment earlier. His somber men broke into a grin as he turned back to Ezra and added, "Very stimulating reading. You should try it some time."
Ezra could not help but smile back at Larabees unusually light mood. "It sounds as though I may have been limiting myself too severely," he agreed playfully. "Perhaps when I drop by to view JDs collection of Golden Age comics, Buck will be kind enough to share some samples of his library with me as well."
"Any time, pard," Buck agreed readily. "Got a few in my private vault thatll curl your hair."
Turning to JD, Ezra confirmed, "Hes got a vault?"
"Footlocker," JD corrected. "Its got a padlock and everything."
"Gotta protect the innocence of youth, dont I?" Buck said, tugging the brim of JDs cap over his eyes.
Ezra smirked. "I see. By the way, that reminds me, JD, have you finished with that set of lock-picks you borrowed from me last month?"
"What?" Buck bellowed, causing his roommate to scoot around the table so that Vin sat between them.
The young man shot an exasperated look at Ezra, who merely laughed. "Im afraid Ive forgotten your third question, JD. What was it again?"
Picking up their earlier thread of conversation, he replied, "I think I asked what you originally wanted to be when you grew up."
A fond smile drifted over Ezras lips. "Ah, yes. Well, I did go through a variety of choices, as most children do."
"But?" Chris prompted, enjoying the rare openness that JDs line of questioning seemed to have brought out in their habitually aloof friend.
"But what I really wanted to be " He stopped, suddenly wary. "You arent planning to share the contents of this conversation with anyone outside of this room, are you?"
Realizing what a big step Ezra had taken tonight, Chris did not hesitate to reassure him. "Nothing you say goes beyond this table; not unless you want it to. Right, boys?"
The hard look he gave each of the men impressed upon them that they were receiving an order. Nods and murmurs of agreement arose.
Relaxing again, Ezra finished his answer. "I wanted to be the next Houdini. You know, magic, illusions, death-defying escapes " He shrugged; feeling slightly embarrassed as he saw all of the men grin at his revelation. "Silly, I suppose."
"No, not silly," Josiah said fondly. "In fact, considering what you do for a living and how many times youve had to maneuver your way out of traps, youve probably come closer to realizing your childhood dream than most of us do."
Nathan laughed. "You sure came closer than I did. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be one of those guys who put road tar down on highways. Not sure why, but I thought that looked like a really fun job."
Raising his hand, Buck volunteered, "Fireman wannabe, here."
Taking a sip of the drink in front of him, Chris confessed, "I went through a phase one summer of wanting to be Evel Knievel. I about gave my poor dad a heart-attack the time he saw me come flying off the roof after I climbed up there and tried skate-boarding off the back porch slope."
"Hell, Cowboy," Vin laughed, "Im surprised youre here to talk about that one. If I was your dad, Ida probably killed ya!"
Chris winced at the memory. "I think he was too happy I hadnt killed myself, though that didnt stop him from blistering my ears over it. Not sure if it was the broken arm, the twelve stitches in one leg, the two-week grounding from TV, or the fact that I scared myself shitless flyin off that rooftop that did it, but I was pretty effectively cured of any stunt-man fantasies after that."
"I wanted to be a florist," Josiah offered, bringing incredulous looks to every face. Defensively, he added, "Hey, I was ten, okay?"
"What ten-year-old wants to be a florist?" Ezra asked with a smirk, trying to visualize the tough profiler arranging flowers. "Not that I havent appreciated the talents of those who have helped me manufacture the perfect apology or romantic gift, but "
Josiah gave him a smile. "Actually, thats exactly it. I had a crush on a little girl named Emma who lived next door. My cousin Juan told me that the way to impress a girl was by giving her flowers, so I snuck into the garden old Mrs. Cumberland kept in her back yard and picked a little bouquet."
"Was she impressed?" Nathan asked, eyes twinkling.
A smug grin stretched Josiahs lips. Tapping his face he said, "Gave me a kiss right on this cheek as a thank-you. I was on Cloud 9 all week long."
"And you figured that if you became a florist, shed be impressed enough for a lifetime?" Buck guessed. At Josiahs sheepish shrug, he roared with laughter, pounding the table with one fist. "Sanchez, you are one deep-thinking son of a bitch. I wish Id had you around when I was a kid!"
"Like you needed any extra help," Chris said with a snort. "Ill bet you were already taking phone numbers and juggling dates by the time you were ten."
Buck smiled smugly. "Hey, what can I say? When you got it, you got it! And Dr. Buck is always on call to give advice to the love-deprived if any of you boys got any questions." He put up both hands to ward off the wave of pretzels, nut shells and paper wads that suddenly flew at him from every direction. "Just trying to help! And, hey, speaking of questions, you ready for the next round, stud?"
He grinned lecherously at Ezra, who groaned softly. "I suppose I am. Carry on, Mr. Wilmington."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Vin protested. "I started this thing. Why should he get to go next?"
"Hes right," Chris cut in. "Wait your turn, Buck. In fact, since JDs already had his, why dont we do this youngest to oldest? That okay with you, Josiah?"
The big man waved an indulgent hand. "I am a patient man, my friends. You go ahead. Save the best for last."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Well, after that modest declaration, I must admit I am curious to know what you intend to ask me."
"Guess youll just have to wait and see," Josiah teased, teeth gleaming whitely as he gave a huge grin. "Youre up, Vin."
Knocking back the last of his beer, Vin caught Inezs eye and signaled for another round before saying, "Okay. My first question is, what one thing in your life right now are the most proud of?"
Stillness came over the rowdy members of Team 7 as they heard the question, all of them interested in hearing what Ezra would say in response. Taken aback by the sudden shift in intensity, he answered honestly before he could think of an excuse not to. "Being part of this team." As the words left his mouth, Ezras green eyes widened and he began to stammer, "I I I mean. Th-that is "
"Sokay, Ezra," Vin said quietly, understanding shining warmly in his eyes. "I reckon I know just what you mean."
"Reckon we all do," Chris agreed, nodding approval at the still flustered man. "In fact, Id probably have to give the same answer if that question came to me. Its kind of like having a whole family of lunatic brothers sometimes, isnt it?"
Ezra gave a half-hearted smile at his words, but refused to meet his eyes. Noting that he was all but squirming with discomfort, Buck decided to keep things moving. "Come on, Vin. I want my turn some time tonight."
"Make it something fun," JD added, also having noticed how disconcerted Ezra was by his confession.
"Sure," Vin agreed amiably. "How bout a little speculation. Everybody knows you like to dress fancy, if you got a choice, but suppose somethin happened to all your clothes and you were forced to borrow from one of us for a whole month. Whose clothes would you choose? And sizes dont matter. Just pretend theyd fit, no matter whose you pick."
Grateful for the non-volatile topic, Ezra mulled the question over, casting a speculative glance over each of his teammates. All of them had considerably different styles, so it really was an intriguing question. Buck and JD he dismissed out of hand, as both were given to wearing scruffy khakis combined with shirts whose garish colors and patterns made his eyes want to water. Chris had a tendency toward the exact opposite; favoring dark colors with no decoration or panache whatsoever. Vin had decent taste but too much of a tendency toward simplicity, wearing mostly jeans and T-shirts. His clothes looked comfortable, to be sure, but for an entire month? Ezra shook his head. Josiah he also dismissed quickly. The older mans wardrobe often looked as if he shopped at the local charity Mission where he volunteered his time, and his more formal apparel was a bit too strongly inclined toward his mixed Irish-Hispanic ethnicity. That left just one choice. "I suppose I would have to dress like Nathan."
The black mans eyes widened. "Why me?"
Ezra smiled, enjoying his reaction. "Why not? Clean simple lines, bright but non-garish colors, subdued patterns and comfortable looking fabrics. Next to me, youre undoubtedly the best dressed man on our team."
Nathan puffed up a bit and everyone else looked like they were trying to decide if theyd just been insulted or not. "Next time I feel like shopping for clothes, maybe you ought to come along," the medic suggested with a grin. "See if a little of the Jackson style doesnt rub off on you."
"Maybe I should. If youre lucky then perhaps a bit of Standish savoir-faire will transmit itself to you," Ezra returned with a smirk.
"Holy crap, Ive created a monster," Vin moaned.
Josiah donned his sunglasses and flashed his badge. Lowering his voice, he caused everyone to burst out laughing as he intoned, "Fashion police, ATF division! Youre all under arrest."
Reaching around Vin, Buck snatched JDs newsboy cap off of his head. Tossing it at Josiah, he cried, "I didnt have anything to do with it, officer! I told him to throw it away, I swear!"
"Hey, gimme that!" JD shouted, immediately inciting a game of keep-away as his hat was tossed from man to man just out of his reach.
Vin caught the cap as it was fired towards him, pulling it on backward atop his own head. "Finders, keepers, kid." Grinning widely at the outraged JD, he turned deliberately back to Ezra. "If you had to choose between no gambling, no sex, or no sleeping later than 6am for an entire year, what would it be?"
"Good one," Buck approved. "I know what Id choose."
"We all know what you wouldnt choose," scoffed JD. "You dont gamble or sleep late much anyway. Neither do I, so the choices would have to be different if this was our question."
"Well it aint your question, so pipe down," Vin ordered, smacking JD playfully in the back of the head. The younger man retaliated by snatching his cap back and smashing it triumphantly back down over his thick mop of black hair. Vin grinned at him and resumed, "So, what do you say, Ez?"
Ezra grimaced. "I dont know. I wouldnt particularly like to choose any of them."
"Yeah, but if you had to," Vin pushed, enjoying himself hugely.
He sighed. "Unfortunately, its been so long since any sort of romantic interlude came my way that at this point giving up sex would probably be the most logical choice, but-"
"Dont do it, Ezra!" Buck interrupted in mock horror. Cupping both hands around his mouth he softly yelled toward the ceiling, "You have too much to live for! Back away from the edge, boy! Ill find you a date, I promise!"
Amidst the snickers, Ezra treated his grinning colleague to a rude gesture. "As I was about to say, its been so long that I would hate to curtail any chances of remedying my situation with a premature vow of celibacy." Buck gave a whistle of approval as he; Vin and JD broke into an impromptu round of applause, quickly joined by Josiah and Chris. Trying to appear annoyed but unable to keep a smile from tugging at the corners of his mouth, Ezra said sarcastically, "Your concern for the state of my love life overwhelms me."
"Just tryin to help, pal," Buck laughed. "We didnt know things had gotten that desperate."
Ezra fired back, "This coming from a man who considers sleeping alone twice in the same week to be a monastic existence."
"So, just how long has it been?" Buck persisted, the sarcasm sliding over him like water off a ducks back. "A few weeks, a couple months, what?"
"Are you trying to use up your questions prematurely, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra returned slyly. "Why, I do believe thats cheating."
Buck held up his hands in mock surrender. "Fine, dont answer, but dont think I wont find out." Twirling his mustache like a silent-movie villain, he added, "I have ways of making you talk."
"That means hes gonna question everybody you know, send porn vids as bribes, and basically pester you until youre old enough to retire unless you tell him what he wants to know," Chris supplied. At the grins and raised eyebrows of his teammates, the blond man shook his head and shot a fondly exasperated glare at the evilly grinning Buck. "Ive known this loon for more than a decade, remember?"
Ezra looked as though he had just tasted something sour. "I suppose I will have to heed the voice of experience." Noting that Buck had perked up, he added, "But not tonight, unless you request that information officially."
"No freebies, Buck," JD clarified with a grin. "So, anyway, what was the thing youd choose to give up if not sex, Ezra? Gambling or sleep?
"Youd better pick the gambling. Youd never survive a whole year of six a.m. wakeup calls," Chris put in with a soft snort. "You barely manage to get your ass out of bed by eight on a good day, as it is."
Nose wrinkling, Ezra gave a reluctant nod. "Some of us were simply not put on this earth to be early risers. So, yes, as much as it would pain me, I believe I would choose to take a sabbatical from my courtship of Lady Luck."
"Youd never make it," Nathan said flatly. "Youd go crazy inside of a month if you couldnt bet on anything."
Brow raising, Ezra challenged, "You dont believe I could do it?"
Nathan recognized the signs of an impending wager in the tone of the southerners voice. "Hell, no, you couldnt do it. Youll bet on anything. Why I bet you cant even stand the pressure of wanting to bet on whether or not youd be able to not bet!"
Confusion creased Ezras features as he mouthed a replay of the medics words. "Theres something just not right about that sentence," he murmured. Licking his lips he decided, "I think I need another drink. Thatd help, I bet."
Chris and Vin both laughed as they heard their friend unintentionally confirm Nathans point. As he realized what he had said, Ezra laughed as well. "Fortunately for me, those are merely hypothetical situations, and not anything Ill be forced to abide by. I believe its your turn now, Mr. Jackson."
A devilish gleam lit Nathans dark eyes. Hed often wished for a chance to interrogate Standish without his quarry being able to squirm out of answering, and now he had it. Leaning forward, he asked, "Have you ever done something you were truly ashamed of afterward?"
Ezra matched his posture, resting his forearms on the table. Looking Nathan straight in the eye, he answered, "Yes."
Seconds crawled by, the two men staring at each other with great seriousness. Finally, when it became clear that Ezra didnt intend to elaborate, Nathan burst out, "Is that all youre gonna say?"
"Yes," he said again, a sparkle of mischief lighting his eyes. "Third question?"
Nathans mouth opened and closed like a landed fish before he spluttered, "You cant I didnt Thats not fair!"
"Life is rarely fair, my friend," Ezra returned serenely. "Now, do you have a third query or should we move on to Buck?"
"No!" Nathan said emphatically. After a couple of minutes of silent fuming, he fired back, "If there was one major event in your life that you could go back in time and change, what would you most want it to be and why?"
Ezra pursed his lips. "Thats two questions."
"Its one question. I was just elaborating, like JD did on the food," Nathan shot back.
Both men looked to Chris as referee. The blond shrugged. "You did kind of weasel out of the second question, Ezra. Give him this one and well call it even."
Scowling, Ezra slumped down in his seat, pointedly ignoring Nathans triumphant smile. "There are a lot of things I would like to change, I suppose," he hedged. "Bets I would alter for a more lucrative outcome, a personal relationship or two that I would either mend or break off earlier; perhaps a few case assignments I would like to bring to a different conclusion. Hell, I might just erase whatever decision led me to join the Federal Bureau of Idiocy!"
"You wouldnt want to do that," JD countered. "If youd never joined the FBI, you wouldnt have ended up transferring to the ATF, and you never would have met us."
Ezra smiled. "Very true, and I suppose I did learn a lot from my time with the Atlanta office. It wasnt all bad."
"But what thing would you want to change the most?" Nathan pushed.
A long silence met the question, as Ezra considered yet again the potential risk involved in letting these men inside his protective walls. Well, nothing ventured nothing gained, as the saying went. "I would like to go back to when I was seven years old and convince my mother not to leave my father." Seeing the surprise and sympathy his response had invoked, he felt obliged to add, "She married him for his money, you know, and when that was gone there was nothing left to stay for. At least, she didnt think so then. Ive often wondered if she regretted that decision later."
His wistful expression prompted Vin to ask, "How come?"
"I dont know, really. Perhaps it was her obvious discontent with her subsequent four spouses," he mused. "Or perhaps it was the fact that she always returned to using Daddys surname after those marriages went bad. All I really know is that we were happy for those years we were a family and I would have liked to continue that way for a few years longer."
The men maintained a respectful silence as they allowed Ezra to work through the obvious sadness that his admission had brought. Finally, Nathan said, "Im sorry, man. This was supposed to be fun. I didnt mean to get so personal with you."
Looking up, Ezra straightened in his chair, shaking his melancholy mood away like a blanket that had become too heavy for comfort. "Well, I believe that was supposed to be the point to this little male-bonding exercise, wasnt it? Getting to know me better?"
The slight note of bitterness in his voice prompted Josiah to say, "That is the point, but I think I told you that wed move on if things started to get out of line. You dont have to answer any more questions if you dont want to."
Chris nodded his agreement and after a moment, Buck did the same. He would regret not getting his turn, but the warm-hearted man did not want to do anything that would cause a friend pain.
Realizing that they meant what they said, the sudden tension left Ezras body and he smiled a fond, genuine smile. "Nonsense. I promised to allow you each three questions and I am not about to welsh on that agreement. In fact, I find myself most interested to know what the rest of you have come up with."
Bucks searched his eyes for a moment, then smiled. "Well, Im glad to hear you say that, pard, cause I got some great ones."
Ezra tilted his head back and held his hands out palms-up, twitching his fingers inward as if to say, give me your best shot.
"You strike me as a pretty adventurous guy," Buck told him, a sly smile curving his lips as he reached up to smooth his mustache. "So tell us, Ezra. Wheres the riskiest place youve ever had sex?"
Clearing his throat, Ezras eyes darted toward the bar. "You know, Im suddenly feeling rather hungry again. Arent you? Maybe we should order something more to eat."
Bucks grin grew. Ezras face had unexpectedly reddened at his question, and Buck knew full well that while his friend might be many things, a prude was not among them. "This must be a good one," he chuckled. "Makes me think you mustve got caught! Come on, Ez, cough it up. Where was it?"
Slumping lower in his seat, Ezra groaned, "I must be insane to have agreed to this interrogation."
Leers of anticipation and enjoyment appeared on every face as the men waited, intrigued by his stalling. More than one laughed outright when Ezra reconfirmed, "Nothing I say tonight will go beyond this table, correct?
"We promised it wouldnt," Josiah reminded him. Then, grin widening, he said, "Why do you ask?"
Rubbing a hand over his face, the harassed southerner admitted in a low voice, "Because the answer could potentially land me in the unemployment line if A.D. Travis were to ever hear of it."
Hoots of disbelief greeted his response. "Holy crap! You dont mean to say that youve actually taken somebody into the dragons den!" JD guessed, giving the directors office the nickname first started in the secretarial pool by Travis former receptionist. At Ezras reluctant nod, JD simply stared, eyes wide.
"Nobody goes in there unless they have to," Vin added, a combination of amusement and shock in his tone. Director Travis was a good and fair man, but he did have the ability to be extremely intimidating if he chose. "You got a death wish or somethin?"
"Im not buying it. Theres no way youd take that kind of chance," Nathan scoffed. "Especially knowing that Travis wasnt too keen on havin you around in the first place. Might as well put a sign on your forehead saying, please fire me."
Disappointed, Buck said, "Nathans right. Even I wouldnt do something like that. I though you said you were gonna answer all these questions honestly."
Irritation flickered over Ezras smooth features. "I did make that bargain and Ive stuck with it," he said stiffly. "You asked me a question and Ive answered it truthfully. If you dont find yourselves able to take my responses at face value, then perhaps its time we called it a night."
Chris gripped the irate mans arm, forcing him to keep his seat. "Just hold on a minute," he ordered. "Even you have to admit that its pretty hard to believe that you, hell that anybody, would sneak into Travis office for an afternoon quickie."
"I would have thought that the atmosphere of that place would kill even the most amorous mood," Josiah agreed with a frown. "Besides, why would you take that kind of chance? Was it some sort of revenge against the loathsome curmudgeon, as you used to call him?"
Realizing that he had reacted as much to his own embarrassment over the question as to being called a liar, Ezra calmed. After all, he probably wouldnt have believed such a claim if one of the others had made it either. "I suppose it does sound rather fantastic, but it happens to be true. The party in question and no, I will not tell you who it was, Mr. Wilmington - requires a certain degree of risk to become, shall we say, motivated." He cursed silently as he felt his face heating up once more. He never blushed under pressure, damn it! Then again, this wasnt the sort of subject he normally discussed with anyone, having always preferred to keep his private affairs, private. "I knew that Travis would be down in the boardroom conducting a meeting for at least an hour and his secretary had gone to lunch, so I picked the lock to his office, and, well "
He trailed off, wishing rather fervently that he had done as Buck and Nathan had assumed and made something up.
A deep chortle suddenly bubbled up from Buck. "Ill be damned if you dont mean that!" Reaching across the table he vigorously pumped Ezras right hand. "Congratulations, Ezra, and Im sorry I didnt believe you. Youre either braver or a hell of a lot crazier than I ever realized!"
Bucks clear admiration seemed to dispel the last of the others doubt as they looked at Ezra with a combination of respect and incredulity.
"Man," Nathan chuckled, "I always figured you were nuts but now I know it for a fact."
"Travis office. Damn!" Vin said, shaking his head.
By now, Ezra was smiling, not having expected such a response. The whole thing was still very embarrassing but it was almost worth it just to see the looks on their faces.
"Were discovering a whole new side to you, tonight," Buck said gleefully. He paused for a moment, shuffling questions through his mind. That last one had been a lot of fun, especially when Ezra had gotten a little huffy over it. He was far too controlled to show his feelings very often, so finding a way to push his buttons had become a favorite pass-time. "Okay, try this one. If you were gay, which one of us would you find attractive enough to make a move on?"
Ezra had prepared himself for something outrageous when he saw the thoughtful expression on Bucks face. Still feeling annoyed with himself for reacting so obviously to the first question, he decided it was time for a little payback. Pushing back his chair he moved a few glasses aside and stretched his upper body across the table, much the way Buck had earlier, until he was within a few inches of the surprised mans face. Reaching out a finger, he petted it gently over the thick dark mustache and said, "Why, Buck, whatever took you so long to ask?"
The sheer terror that leapt into Bucks eyes was all that Ezra could have asked for as the man squeaked out, "What?"
Around the table, the other five were struggling not to laugh as Ezra stroked his finger down the bridge of the cringing mans nose. "You know something, Buck?" he breathed, putting a yearning note in the honey-sweet southern tones.
Again, Bucks vocal register was higher than normal as he repeated, "What?"
Ezra swept his fingers lightly across the other mans cheek, causing Bucks body to stiffen in surprise. Leaning even closer, Ezra looked deeply into his eyes and seductively purred, "You, my dear sir, are entirely too gullible." The fingers touching Bucks face gave him a sharp little smack on the cheek, and then Ezra flopped back in his chair and grinned wide enough to make his face ache while the other men roared with laughter.
"Why you you rotten little " Buck stammered, unable to find an epithet strong enough for his needs. "You played me!"
"Like a fiddle!" Ezra agreed happily. "Oh, Buck, that was entirely too easy! I never would have thought youd fall for the same trick twice."
Gesturing toward the giggling JD, Ezra said, "I merely recalled a story JD once told about playing a trick on you, following the purchase of a certain vial of love-potion. I believe it was meant to have a brainwashing effect upon poor Inez, was it not?"
"Yep," Vin agreed. "Only the way I heard it, JD kinda got in your way. Set out to prove to you that all that stuff was just a bunch a "
"Hooey!" all six of them shouted out, drawing curious looks from patrons at other tables around the Saloon.
Realizing he had played right into the other mans hands, Buck joined in the laughter of his comrades. He loved a good joke, even when it was on him.
"Maybe youd better pick something a little less volatile for your last question," suggested a still-chuckling Josiah. "Might be safer."
"He aint answered this one yet," Buck protested.
Ezra looked surprised. "No, I suppose I didnt. All right. Not to disparage the good looks and scintillating personalities of any of you gentleman," he said mockingly, "but if I happened to be amorously inclined toward my own sex, then Id probably choose Vin."
Looking slightly alarmed, Vin demanded, "How come?"
Giving an apologetic shrug, he confessed, "Ive always had something of a weakness for blue eyes, and yours really are quite beautiful." Taking a sip of his drink, he grinned wickedly and added, "Besides, Buck and Josiah are both far too old for me."
Both men shouted, "Hey!" then grimaced as they remembered what it was they were protesting.
Vin laughed. "Well, if thats all it is, then I reckon I can live with you thinkin Im purty. Long as you never do anything othern look, that is."
"Ill try to restrain myself."
Face still shining with good humor, Buck grinned at him. "Well, pard, now that I know how much trouble you got keeping your hands off me, Ill just have to make sure I dont turn my back on you."
Nose wrinkling in distaste, Ezra returned, "I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, your virtue, such as it is, is quite safe. Now, lets just return to the matter at hand, shall we? What final horrifying query have you formulated?"
He chuckled. "Aw, cmon, Ez. Youre enjoying this. Cant fool ol Buck."
A roll of the eyes was Ezras only answer.
"Okay, fine. Whats the strangest thing youve ever done to impress a woman?"
"Told the truth?" Vin cut in with a smirk.
Ezra fixed him with a withering stare that only served to make the longhaired man grin wickedly and clink his beer bottle against Bucks.
Ignoring him, Ezra said, "Thats really not as simple a question as it seems. What may seem abnormal to one of you could be the opposite for me." Thoughtfully running his left thumbnail across his lower lip, he gave a snort of laughter. "But then again, I have occasionally done things that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but now make me wonder if I ought not to have been medicated."
"Not too late," Nathan offered, deadpan.
"Its always a relief to know that youre looking after my welfare, Mr. Jackson," Ezra sniped back. "Remind me not to tell you the next time I feel ill."
Nathan snorted. "Oh, yeah, like thatd be new. You practically gotta have limbs falling off before you admit to needing an aspirin as it is."
"Maybe hes just trying to keep from overworkin ya," Vin chimed in with a grin, earning himself a dark look from the medic. "Hey, youre the one always claimin to need stress relief, aint ya?"
"Yeah, Nate," JD agreed with a giggle. "It aint our fault if you need help relievin yourself."
As the medic spluttered, Buck grinned and sharply elbowed the young man in his side. "Damn, kid, that was almost funny. You been practicin or something?"
"I have been endeavoring to teach our young colleague the value of wit in humorous asides, Mr. Wilmington" Ezra offered solemnly. Tipping back the last swallow of his beer, he stood and winked at them. "From the sound of things, hes half-way got it. Excuse me for a minute, gentlemen."
JD looked confused when Josiah and Chris both started laughing. Josiah dashed a finger in the air to indicate a point for Ezra, and Chris offered a lazy salute, which Ezra returned as he spun on his heel and sauntered back toward the mens room.
"Whatd he say?" JD wondered, brow wrinkling.
Vin slapped him on the back. "When you figure it out, let us know, kid. Mean time, I think Im gonna take me a little break."
Unfolding his lean form from its chair, Vin headed towards the back of the bar, laughing when he heard JD suddenly exclaim "Hey!"
He was still chuckling when he entered the mens room a few moments later, bringing a curious look from Ezra.
"Did I miss something amusing?"
Taking a place at the first available stall, Vin let go a deep sigh as he began recycling some of the beers hed consumed over the course of the evening. "Think JD just figured out you called him a half-wit."
Ezra laughed softly and moved to wash his hands. "Obviously not a very accurate insult but I wanted to see how long it would take to sink in. I suppose hell feel the need to retaliate in some way now."
"I expect," Vin agreed. "Though if youre lucky, Chrisll distract him by askin you something interesting when we get back."
"Im not certain if that idea comforts me or frightens me. JDs idea of revenge would almost certainly be the lesser of two evils." Ezra gave his companion a disapproving scowl as he observed Vin give his hands a quick rinse and shake, then wipe them off on his jeans. "Good lord, man, didnt restrooms come equipped with towels where you grew up?"
Catching the handful of papers flipped his way, Vin obligingly ran them over his hands then crumpled the wad into a ball and attempted a basket, groaning when the projectile missed the wastebasket by a good three inches.
Ezra retrieved the object from the floor and deposited it in the can. "And here I thought you were supposed to be a marksman."
"Aw, what do you know?" Vin chided. "The Spurs are gonna be callin any day now, just beggin to sign me up."
"Dream on, Mr. Tanner, dream on. Now, shall we rejoin our comrades?"
"In a second," he said, tucking his thumbs into his pockets and slouching comfortably back against the wall. "Something I want to say to you first, while its just us two here."
Surprised by the suddenly somber tone, Ezras brow furrowed. "Is something wrong?"
"Nope. Just thought you ought to know that were all real proud of you for bein such a good sport about everything tonight."
Ezra smirked. "You? Proud of me?"
"Sure," Vin agreed easily. "You think you hide what youre feelin, but you dont really. You been wantin to be a part of things for awhile now, but you aint really trusted us enough to settle in and try before. Wanted you to know we appreciate it."
Startled, Ezra opened his mouth to protest but something in Vins steady expression stopped him. Instead he said, "Its not easy. Its been drilled into me all my life that I should never give anything away, lest it be used against me. Unfortunately, that lesson is one that Ive had cause to learn all too well."
Vin nodded. "I been there, Ez. Seen some real shitty stuff in my life. Things that made me want to dig a hole and pull it in after me, but a person cant live that way forever. Sooner or later you gotta take a chance on folks and trust that they aint gonna let you down."
Ezra sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "Ridiculous, isnt it? Every week, we face life and death situations and I know youll all be there. I dont worry or second-guess your potential behavior. I just trust. You wouldnt think the concept would prove so much more difficult to handle the rest of the time, would you?"
"Takes awhile," Vin told him. "Trustin your gut is one thing. You just do what feels right without needin to think on it. Its different when you got time to consider all the stuff that might happen."
"I suppose I do have a tendency to over think certain situations."
Vin smiled. "Yep, but Chris and them know it, same as I do. You been takin baby steps toward bein our friend these last few months, so tonight I figured maybe youd feel like tryin a bigger one."
Ezra cocked his head to one side, amusement brightening his eyes. "Is that why you started tonights little exercise?"
A lop-sided grin tipped Vins mouth and he gave the other man a soft slap on the shoulder. "Reckoned you were ready, s all. Ill see you out there."
Left alone, Ezra turned to meet the surprised eyes of his mirror image. "That certainly wasnt what you expected, was it?" he asked softly, watching as the reflection slowly smiled at him. "Think youre brave enough to face Chris and Josiah, and whatever they might have cooked up for you?" The man in the mirror blinked back at him, looking surprisingly comfortable with the idea. Ezras smile became a full-blown grin. Vin was right. He was more than ready.
"Hey, what took you so long?" Buck called out a few moments later as the southerner returned to join his companions. "You fall in?"
"We were beginning to think you mightve snuck out the back way when we werent looking," Nathan teased.
Waving a hand, Ezra scoffed, "Nonsense, sir. Would I depart and leave you with an unanswered question hanging in the air?"
"Of course you wouldnt," Josiah boomed. "Enlighten us. What strange thing have you done to impress a member of the fairer sex?"
Crossing his arms, Ezra settled back in his chair. "Though it may surprise you to hear it, the female I have gone to the greatest lengths to impress is my own dear mother."
"Actually, that doesnt surprise me at all," Chris said wryly. "Ive seen some of the dumb-ass things youve done to get out of whatever angle shes playing when she comes to visit. Why should it be hard to believe youd want to impress her sometimes?"
Ignoring Larabees sarcasm, the southerner tossed back, "As it happens,
the impression I tried to convey during the incident in question was extremely
"Wait a minute. You tried to make a negative impression on your mom?" JD repeated, confused. "Why?"
He sighed. "Son, you have to realize that I spent the vast majority of the years between eight and eighteen either residing in the homes of charitable relations or being stuck in a series of convenient boarding schools. My mother was often working between stints of traveling with her husband du jour. There was never a great deal of time left for dealing with a child."
"Sounds kinda harsh," Vin said, frowning as he tried to imagine a mother who considered her son to be little more than a burden on her busy schedule.
"Not everybodys cut out to be a stay-at-home mom," Buck commented, "and most of those who are just dont have the option."
Ezra cleared his throat. "Yes, well, as youve met Mother, Im sure you realize that she was among the former class. I can understand her reasoning somewhat now, but at the age of fourteen that simply wasnt the case. Attaining good grades and acting the part of the model child hadnt increased her desire for my company, so I made up my mind to go the opposite way and see what would happen. My adolescent logic had arrived at the conclusion that if I made myself unwelcome enough at school, then my mother would be forced to take notice of me, and perhaps even allow me come back and live with her."
"So, what sort of disruptive behavior are we talking about here?" asked Josiah. "Smoke bombs? Food fights?"
"Nothing so messy as that. I began deliberately failing classes and generally making myself the menace of Forest Ridge Academy. I pulled pranks, started fights, conducted myself rudely in the presence of authority figures, snuck off school property, helped other students cheat on exams I had no intention of passing myself, and a wealth of other misdeeds." He laughed slightly. "I think the worst was probably the time I snuck in and clogged all of the drains in the gymnasium showers then turned the water on full-blast and left it."
"Holy shit," Buck laughed. "That mustve flooded the whole building!"
A shrug and impassive expression could not quite disguise the enjoyment Ezra felt over the memory.
Chris grimaced, suddenly glad that he hadnt been in charge of this man some twenty years earlier. He had witnessed first-hand the kind of aggravation that a mature adult version of Ezra Standish could inflict on those around him when a foul mood struck. How much worse would it have been to deal with that clever mind and sharp tongue in the form of an angry adolescent? "I take it things didnt work out quite the way youd hoped."
"Sadly, no. When I finally succeeded in getting myself expelled, Mother simply gave me a lecture on appearances and responsibility. She told me that if I couldnt control my baser impulses any better than the average uneducated prison thug then she didnt want me around. Next thing I knew, I was being packed off to the next available boarding school, and Mother was off to tour Japan with husband number five."
"That sucks," Vin sympathized. "You try it again?"
"I continued to rebel for a time but it became clear very quickly that my efforts were having no effect." He shrugged philosophically. "I gave up my attempts at obvious juvenile delinquency and turned instead to honing my persuasive talents and gambling skills."
Nathan raised an eyebrow. "That mean you practiced conning people?"
"I realize you dont approve of such activities, Mr. Jackson, but those seemed to be the only personal traits my mother found at all praise-worthy. Fortunately, I went to live with an aunt the following year who helped channel my energies into more productive pursuits, and thus you see before you the well-rounded law-abiding citizen that I am today."
This last was said so smugly that a barrage of shells and napkin wads instantly flew his way.
With great dignity, the southern agent brushed bits of debris away from the cuffs of his long-sleeved silk shirt. "Some people have no appreciation for the finer things," he huffed. "Mr. Larabee, I believe it is now your turn."
"Yknow, its funny," Chris said, rubbing his chin as he contemplated Ezra. Amusingly, the southerner appeared to be steeling himself for something horrible as he waited for the question. "Ive been thinking about what I should ask ever since Vin started this but nothing good is coming to me."
"I got questions left if you need to borrow some. After all, the brain dont work as fast when a fella starts gettin up in years," Vin quipped, blinking innocently at the glare he got in return. "Just tryin to help, Cowboy."
Flipping him the bird, Chris shot back, "And I suppose youd want me to ask something deep and meaningful, like, whats his favorite junk food?"
"Nah, we already know that. You all seen the way he sucked down them peanut-butter cups Buck got from the new secretary down the hall."
"Between you and him, I never even got any!" Buck growled at Vin. Then, expression changing to a suggestive leer he added, "Course you fellas didnt get any of the sweet treats I got from her later, so I guess thats only fair."
Ezra and Vin exchanged a pained look. Theyd both met the woman in question and a bag full of chocolates definitely seemed to be the better end of the deal.
"Okay, I got it," Chris broke in decidedly, bringing all eyes back to him. "This may sound kind of strange, but Ive been meaning to ask for awhile now. Who the hell is Boxcars?"
Ezras eyes widened and he sat up rigidly from the slight slouch he had relaxed into. Suspiciously he demanded, "Where did you hear that name, Mr. Larabee?"
Surprised, Chris said, "You remember the first time your mother was here?" An impatient nod came in reply. "I was trying to be friendly to her; told her we were glad to have you as part of our team and asked if she might want to join us all for a drink or something. Most moms love to talk about their kids, so I figured maybe shed help us get to know you a little."
A grim look came over Ezras face. "And she said?"
Chris frowned at the memory. "Actually, it didnt make much sense. She told me I shouldnt encourage you or the next thing I knew wed wind up like, Boxcars and all his flea-bitten ilk. I was going to ask her what the hell that meant, but then the phone rang and by the time I was done with the call, Id forgotten about it. Whatever it was, it didnt sound too flattering."
"It wasnt," Ezra said with a sigh. "She was implying that your efforts to befriend me would amount to no more than the casual relationship between a child and a stray dog. In other words, lightly made and entirely transient."
Buck shook his head at the comment. "Transient. That mean she wouldnt let you have a pet growing up?" Ezra shrugged one shoulder as if to say that it hadnt mattered to him, but everyone could see that it had. "That just aint right. Every boy should have a pet."
"Well, Maude remembered that one, so I guess you got to keep at least one animal in spite of her. Right?" Nathan said.
"Mmm," he grunted noncommittally. "For a time, when I was ten no, eleven years old. Or was it ten? Somewhere during the year between stepfather numbers two and three, at any rate."
Understanding looks were exchanged between Buck and Vin, and grim ones among the other men as they considered a childhood whose timeline could be traced according to a roster of ever-changing father figures.
Giving up his attempt to pin down the date, Ezra continued, "On the way home from school one day, I found a poor bedraggled pup on the road leading from the train station. Im not sure if hed been abandoned or merely lost but he had an injured front leg and was clearly in need of a few good meals."
"So you took him home, splinted up that leg and nursed him back to health?" Nathan guessed, knowing he would have done the same in that situation.
The southerners embarrassed shrug was answer enough and the others all smiled, having long since discovered the soft spot that their hardened undercover agent had for the abused and helpless. Mix that needy quality with a fluffy animal and they knew their friend would have been a goner.
"I treated him, then gave him a very thorough washing and grooming and a good square meal, attempting to convince my mother that the dog was not a mongrel and would be no bother to her." Squarely, almost defiantly, he raised his eyes and met Josiahs sympathetic gaze. "What was so wrong with wanting a stray dog for a pet?"
Surprised at the defensive tone, the older man looked more closely at Ezra and realized that he was beginning to fall under the spell of several drinks consumed throughout the evening. His speech was still unaffected but his emotional equilibrium was clearly beginning to falter. Meeting the green eyes squarely, Josiah said in a soothing tone, "Theres nothing wrong with it that I know of. I adopted many a stray in my day."
"Me too," Chris volunteered. "Found an old Shepherd that somebody abandoned one time. Kept that dog ten years, until he died of old age. Never had a better friend in my life."
"Present company excepted?" Buck asked with a hitch of his brows.
Larabee shot him a bland look in return. "Hard to say. He didnt have as many good stories to tell but on the other hand, Pepper knew how to sit down and shut up when I told him to."
"Oh, har har."
Smirking, Chris resumed, "So, what happened with Boxcars?"
"Great name, by the way," JD inserted.
Ezra smiled. "Thank you. The dog was a little white terrier mix of some sort. Had six black splotches on either flank. They werent really symmetrical enough for dice, but considering where Id found him, I though it was appropriate. Unfortunately, neither my efforts at cleanliness nor my repeated attempts to communicate what a fine and worthy addition he would make to our family softened my mothers heart. I was told that he could remain in our home only until his health was restored." A rueful laugh broke free. "I kept that poor animal splinted and bandaged for a good three weeks longer than it took to heal him. Used to take the wrappings off at night so that he would be comfortable, then put them on again in the morning. It still surprises me that he allowed it."
"Maybe he knew what you were tryin to do," Vin said softly. "Animals are a lot smarter than we sometimes give em credit for."
"Perhaps," he said fondly, losing himself in memory for a moment. "At any rate, Mother eventually put her foot down and I had to find Boxcars another home. Fortunately, there was a girl in my neighborhood who wanted a dog, so I still got to see him on occasion until we moved away to allow Mother to pursue her next conquest."
"Stepfather number three?" Nathan guessed.
The face Ezra made clearly indicated his opinion of that particular relationship. "Yes. I tried sneaking animals under Mothers radar a number of times after that, all with an equal lack of success. Therefore, her rather ill mannered comment to you, Chris. I do apologize for that."
"No need. You werent the one who was rude. Besides, its been six months and you havent tried to ship us off to the Pound yet, so I figure Maude was wrong about that too."
A puzzled look crossed his face. "What else was she wrong about?"
Looking him steadily in the eyes, Chris said, "A whole lot of things, I think." Ezra smiled, pleased but slightly embarrassed by the implied praise. Not one to allow a sentimental moment to linger on past its prime, Chris took a refreshing sip of beer and asked, "You ready for the next one?"
Ezra blinked. For some reason, he was suddenly finding it a bit difficult to coordinate his thoughts. Then, he realized. "Oh, yes, your next question. May I make a request before you ask it?"
Resting his arms on the table, Ezra fixed pleaded eyes on his superior. "Do you think we could steer this conversation away from my childhood and family life? Please? I think weve covered enough of that territory for one evening."
Larabee considered the matter for no more than a second before indicating his agreement. He had noted Ezras shifting mood and deduced the reason. Knowing that he would not have been happy to have everyone digging into his past for entertainment either, he responded, "Fair enough."
"Thank you," Ezra sighed gratefully.
Chris thought for a moment. "How about this; if you were going to do something other than law enforcement for a living, what kind of job would you be most interested in trying?"
Squinting speculatively, he drawled, "Comin from my boss, I must admit that the nature of that question leaves me slightly unnerved. You tryin to tell me something, Mr. Larabee?"
Good humor sparkled in Chris eyes as he replied, "Maybe I just want to figure out some new angles to play when I send you undercover, Agent. Ever think of that?"
Ezra chuckled, placing two fingers to his right eyebrow in a sloppy salute. "In that case, Id better err on the side of caution and say that Id like to be a chef."
"Cool. Maybe you could practice by trying out some of your grandmas recipes on us," JD said enthusiastically.
Ezra grinned. "I suppose I could at that. Perhaps Ill do that some night anyway."
JD beamed at the offer. "Count me in! The closest I ever get to home cooking anymore is when Buck makes his mystery stew. That can be good, bad or really scary depending on what kinda leftovers weve got in the fridge."
His mouth screwed up in distaste, Ezra told him, "Im amazed that youre still alive to share that experience."
"It aint that bad," Buck assured him. "Mostly just spuds and whatever meat happens to be around. Threw in some leftover eggrolls, macaroni and cheese, and barbecued chicken the last time. That was dee-licious." He licked his lips at the memory, blithely ignoring the expressions of disgust on the other mens faces.
Josiah balanced his chin on one fist, studying Ezra. "You know, I would have guessed that you might want to try being an actor if you werent an agent. Its not all that different from what you do now. Sort of the fun of transforming yourself into another persona without the danger of getting shot by gun-runners."
"Wheres the excitement in that?" he laughed. "I prefer my performances to be mostly unscripted, thank you. Besides, Ive heard that theres to be a Renaissance Festival in the spring. I wouldnt want to risk ending up on a stage speakin in Shakespearean tongue if we happen to get wind of an alcohol or tobacco smuggling ring there."
"Hey, dont knock it," Josiah returned with a grin. "I used to volunteer at those Festivals every year when I was younger. Exotic food and drink, period costumes, live entertainment, acting, singing; it was a hell of a lot of fun. Id probably do it yet, if I had the time."
"Josiah Sanchez in a doublet and tights," Buck said with a bark of laughter and a dramatic shiver. "Not so sure my eyes couldve stood the strain!"
Smiling smugly, the older man responded, "And you call yourself a ladies man. Brother, dont you know that the ladies love a man who can perform the intricate works of The Bard?"
Nathans deep chuckle rolled over the group. "Now, the Shakespeare I can buy. Ive seen the way women react to your voice, but I just cant picture you prancing around on a stage romancing Juliet."
"Never did get a chance to play Romeo," he admitted regretfully, "but my Hamlet knocked em dead. I had women fainting in the aisles over the suicide speech."
"The what?" JD blurted, brow wrinkling. "I read that play in high school and I dont remember anything like that."
Ezra gave him an incredulous look. "You read it, but I assume from that remark that you had no appreciation for what you were reading. The entire to be or not to be sol soquil " he paused, puzzled as he found himself unable to wrap his tongue around the word.
"Soliloquy," Josiah provided helpfully, lips twitching as he watched the normally erudite man struggle.
Giving a nod of thanks, Ezra continued, "That entire speech is about Hamlet arguing with himself over whether to live and continue with his feigned madness for vengeances sake, or end the madness surrounding him by suicide."
"Women go for a crazy, suicidal whacko who thinks about nothin but getting even all day?" JD clarified, shaking his head. "That just doesnt sound right."
"They dont want him cause hes whacko, JD. They want him because hes noble. He gets betrayed by his mother, loses his lover, and wants to get justice for his fathers murder," Vin added, shocking everyone. Smirking, he took a deep gulp of the fresh beer that had been placed in front of him. "Whats the matter, boys. Aint you ever seen a movie before?"
Josiah was delighted. "Bravo, my friend."
An approving nod came from Chris. "Thatll teach me not to make assumptions. I thought you never watched anything but murder mysteries and shoot-em-ups."
Vin shrugged. "Didnt have shootin but there was swordfights and some pretty good action stuff. The talk didnt make much sense but I got the gist of it."
"Im impressed, Mr. Tanner," Ezra told him. "Perhaps we should make a point of visiting the Festival, after all. Who knows what revelations may come forth!"
"Deal," he said readily. "You can get up on stage and show em how its done there, and Ill teach em all a thing or two about shootin them old-fashioned crossbows."
Chris laughed as he watched his two increasingly inebriated agents seal the pact with a clink of glass and bottle. Looking at Josiah he said, "I think wed better hurry up and get our questions in, dont you?"
The big man grinned as he watched the two young men tip their heads back and finish off the latest of what had to be at least a half-dozen beers apiece. "I think youre right, my friend. Pretty soon, well need to cart both of these boys home to sleep the evening off."
"Ah am fine," Ezra told him indignantly, his accent suddenly thick as maple syrup. Waving a hand in Chris general direction, he ordered, "Proceed, suh."
Chris grin suddenly became wolfish. "You know what I want to know most?" Ezra shook his head. "If you had a chance to pay back the bastard who started those rumors about you at the FBI, what would you do to him?"
Without hesitation, the southern man answered, "Give him a taste of his own medicine. Whoever started those stories must have known a lot more about the process of offering and taking bribes than I ever have. Itd be most appropriate if the bastard got caught in his own trap."
"Thats it?" Buck said in surprise. "If it was me, Id probably want to just shoot the son of a bitch and put him out of my misery."
"So would I," Chris agreed, "but I can see the other side of it too. He, or they, made Ezra suffer for a long time over something he didnt do. Itd be over too quickly if we just shot him."
Vin shook his head, a dangerous look in his blue eyes. "Shootin dont necessarily have to be fatal, yknow. I reckon I could make it so that fellad have plenty of time to regret what he done to Ez."
A bit stunned by the bloodthirsty vindictiveness that had appeared on his behalf, Ezra swallowed hard. Knowing intellectually that his teammates believed in his innocence was one thing. Seeing such clear proof of that belief was both shocking and humbling. So much so, that he felt an urgent need to change the subject before he betrayed himself with a blatant display of his feelings.
Making a show of studying the numbers on his watch face, Ezra cleared his throat. "The hour appears to be growing somewhat late, gentlemen. May I request that we conclude this evenings entertainment so that I might go home and partake of some much-needed sleep?"
Josiah smiled at him. Ezra had been working hard on this most recently concluded assignment and he probably was tired after three weeks undercover, but Josiah also knew that the sudden desire for rest was more the result of emotion than fatigue. "Sure," he agreed easily, "but since Im your ride home tonight, Ill get my shot at those questions either way."
"Why are you my ride?" Ezra demanded sulkily. "Im perfectly capable of-"
"Calling your own taxi, even after drinkin all that beer?" Nathan interrupted smoothly. "We know, but since Vins place is on his way and yours is even closer, why not let Josiah save you some cab fare since he was nice enough to offer?"
Chris added, "Id take you in my truck but Ive already got Buck and JD riding with me. You hate having the kid fall asleep on your shoulder, like he always does that when hes had too many."
"I do not," JD protested. He was about to point out that hed stopped drinking alcohol after the first beer, not being overly fond of the stuff, but subsided with a muffled ouch when Buck kicked him under the table. "Uh, I mean, thanks Chris."
Josiah smothered a smile, then nodded his own thanks to Chris and Nathan when Ezra sighed and gave in with an unintelligible mumble. "Good, glad we got that settled. So, think you can manage three final questions, or do you really want to call it a night? Its up to you." Ezras reply of a deep yawn seemed to surprise him as much as it did the rest of the men. Amid the laughter, Josiah said, "Okay, you win."
"No, no, its all right," Ezra protested, forcing himself to sit up straight. "My apologies. Please proceed."
He nodded. "A deal is a deal." Another yawn broke free and he laughed. "Perhaps you had better hurry, though. I dont know whats come over me."
The gray haired man chuckled. "Maybe Id better save some time and do this JDs way. One Other than gambling, what do you like to do for entertainment? Two - What is your deepest fear? And three - What one quality do you appreciate most about each of us here?"
Ezra blinked slowly as he tried to sort through the rapid barrage of questions. His brain didnt seem to be working as quickly as usual. "I I suppose my deepest fear is not being deemed trustworthy," he admitted. "Of dis discoverin that my former associates were right not to have faith in me."
"They were wrong, my friend," Josiah said sincerely. "Have no fear of that. Youve never let us down if you had any choice at all, and we have no worry that you ever will. Not one of us."
"Hes right," Nathan said, saddened but unsurprised to see Ezras eyes immediately fasten on him as Josiah gave his reassurance. "I had some doubts in the beginning but not any more."
"Thank you, Nathan." A bright grin suddenly lit up Ezras face. The reaction was far more dramatic than he would have allowed himself sober and everyone smiled to see it. The sleepy, melancholy mood hed been sliding into seemed to roll off of him as he reached out to shake the hand the medic extended to him. "I think that would be what I appreciate about you, right there. I can always believe what you say, even if I dont always like it."
The dark skinned man grinned, giving him a nod.
Ezra sat back, rubbing his hands slowly together as he studied the others. "I appreciate Chris lack of bullshit in dealin with others," he decided, bringing a laugh from the man in question. "Buck for not holdin a grudge, ever."
Wilmington raised his beer and grinned. "Considering the pile of cash I made off you in the office football pool last month, it just wouldnt feel right to hold anything against you."
A slight puckering of his lips at that reminder was the only indication that Ezra might not be as inclined to let bygones be bygones. "Next time," he vowed cryptically. "Um, let me see. I appreciate JD for his enthusiasm, even when it threatens to give me a headache, and Vin for his sense of fun, which makes for an entertainin if occasionally dangerous workplace."
The two young men grinned at each other, having collaborated both with and against Ezra on numerous practical jokes since hed joined the team. "Right back at ya, pard," Vin said with a nod.
"And me?" Josiah prompted when Ezra began to silently tick off his responses on one hand, obviously trying to decide whom hed forgotten.
Ezra chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip for a moment, then decided, "I appreciate always knowin where I stand with you, good or bad."
Josiah smiled, pleased with that answer. "So that just leaves the first question. What do you do for entertainment when nobody else is around?"
"I suppose that depends on what Im interested in at the time," he demurred. "For relaxation and exercise, I practice tai chi and kick-boxing. In warm weather, I occasionally entertain myself by going over to the park to skate, and when its dismal outside, as weve already established, I like to cook."
Vins eyebrows had risen. "I didnt know you did martial arts. You oughtta join me at the gym some time. We could practice together."
"Perhaps," he agreed tentatively.
"And you could go roller-blading with me and Casey," JD offered happily. "We go a lot when the weathers nice. She wouldnt mind some extra company."
Ezra smirked. "Quite sure of that, are you?"
At JDs baffled, "Why would she?" Buck covered his eyes and gave a pained shake of the head.
"Ill consider it if the lady ever invites me herself," Ezra told him with an uncontrolled snicker. "Otherwise Im afraid Id be interferin in the course of young love."
The other men laughed at JDs continued confusion, the young man obviously not seeing the romantic possibility in a public activity like blading.
Sanchez took his cue and stood up. "Vin, you ready?"
Vin grunted an affirmative as he turned to retrieve his leather jacket off the back of his chair.
"Have a good evening, gentlemen," Ezra bid them pleasantly, swaying a little as he rose too quickly from his chair. "Its been unusual."
"Its been great. Think you might be willing to do this again some time?" Buck asked, reaching out a hand to steady the inebriated man.
Struggling into his coat, the southerner paused. "Yes, I believe I would." As he moved toward the exit, helpfully propelled in the right direction with the aid of Josiah Sanchez large hand parked between his shoulder blades, he threw back over his shoulder, "But next time, I get to ask the questions!"
The four remaining men looked at one another and nodded. They had learned many new things about Ezra tonight and it seemed that he had finally accepted his place in their unusual family of brothers. It was only right that they return the favor. After all, fair was fair.
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