Odd Man Out
When Sanchez, Jackson, and Larabee closed the doors behind them and made their way towards the others, they noticed that Vin and Ezra were gone. Chriss eyes asked the silent question.
"Went to get Ezras prep papers for competition today," Buck shrugged helplessly. "Junior volunteered to join him."
Chris was doubtful that Ez needed the papers or that the man had wanted Tanners assistance. Ezra probably had the information from the packet memorized word for word already. Yeah, that damn fool was as confused about this as the rest of them. Larabee sighed inwardly. Ezra was shying away. Their stride was broken. Josiah was introspective, and unsure of what to do. JD was hesitant; Buck was confident everything would pass; Vin was overcompensating; Nathan was being overtly critical to the con man just to speed things back to normal; and Chris well Chris was thinking too God damn much. "What time is it?" He asked no one in particular. He knew who would answer though.
"Almost eleven, Chris," the kid piped up eagerly after the silence was broken. "We have to go to that hand-to-hand demonstration out by the pool today," he added exuberantly. This was their last demonstration "station" for the conference. Some of them had actually been pretty interesting and then again, some hadnt been. They had all, for the most part, enjoyed the shooting demonstrations and the small sword demo, which Nathan and Ezra both readily participated in. No one had really paid attention to the forensics lesson or the speech on surveillance tricks and reading voice inflection. They all had been eager to see the hand-to-hand demonstrations today, especially JD. Ezra had announced that boxing, karate, wrestling, and kickboxing would all be represented. It was going to be a wonderful show.
"Yeah, I know JD. Lets wait for Ez and Vin to get back and we can all go down together."
So they waited. Vin made sure that he and Ezra returned at the right time, so they would be able to get good seats to the floorshow. Ezra did not look the least bit ruffled, except to Josiah who noticed the slightly indignant clip to the southerners step. Must be riled about not getting more brooding time. Ezra sure was picking up Chriss nastier habits. "You ready to go Ez?"
Ezra nodded, taking his jacket off in the warm midday sun and draping it neatly over his forearm. "I really think I should be preparing for my competition," he drawled.
"Youve got plenty of time, Ez. Sides, this demo is your forte " Buck grinned, draping a good-natured arm around the younger agent. "You can tell us ifn the instructors moves are right." Wilmington added to his statement by crouching low and feigning boxing moves at the southerners midsection.
"Im sure hes very qualified," Standish replied with a slightly exasperated look at the older mans antics before sidestepping neatly.
"You think you could take him?" Buck stood up and matched his stride with the younger mans.
"Even if I could, I am not properly attired for such an endeavor, Mr. Wilmington. Pity."
"That attitude aint gonna get you nowhere, Ez."
"My current whereabouts are proof of that statement already sah," Ezra drawled, slightly amused.
"Well, hell Ez, guess us losers gotta stick together."
Standish paused at Bucks statement. Yes, there were always losers. But, one must be willing to lose, if one was to play the game.
"Cmon, were gonna be late! Lets see if we can get in the front Buck!" JD pushed past them impatiently, racing ahead. Buck followed, as always, right on the younger mans heels. Ezra watched them jog off together, chatting, whooping and laughing all the way. Vin and Chris followed, shaking their heads at the two kids ahead of them. Josiah and Nathan walked side by side in the pleasant late-morning sunshine, talking amiably about what they expected to see in the demonstration. Ezras thoughts turned bittersweet as he trailed behind them all. He might have snorted (Damn it!), but it would have alerted them to his musings. Caring this much over such frivolous luxuries was a far cry from the man he was supposed to be, after all.
As if sensing his discombobulated thoughts, Chris stopped and turned around slightly, eyeing the trailing member of his team. The leader suddenly realized that they were doing it, again. Ezra was alone. "You coming, Ez?" he asked softly, an invitation to join Vin and him.
"Unfortunately, Mister Larabee." Ezra smiled warily for show, but stayed in the back. Vin shrugged helplessly at his best friend.
+ + + + + + +
Kaplan watched them leave the lecture hall and head through the lobby of the hotel to the grounds in the back. He checked his schedule. They would be heading towards the exhibition out by the pool now. The hit man did not expect to nail them there, amidst so many people, but he wanted to keep his observations up incase the opportunity he was looking for suddenly presented itself.
Jeff was a professional, and as such, always took the time to carefully gather information on his targets, whether that information was given to him or he had gathered it himself. He had been watching the seven men since they stepped out of Chens speech and had listened to their every word. Thus, he had come to know the name Ezra Standish, the undercover agent. Well, technically, he had only heard the other six call him Ez, but that had been enough. This was THE Agent Standish. The name was a sort of myth amongst gunrunners and federal agents alike. His was the kind of story the old professionals told their potential successors to scare them at night. Was tomorrows buyer the same guy that had taken down national greats like Miller and Giovanni during the past year? Was HE the mysterious Fed that had been pulling down the real professionals left and right, in the blink of an eye? Will this be your LAST deal? Did you have ANY way of knowing?
Kaplan snorted. He would think some of the best runners in the country would know better than to strike a deal with a government man. They were supposed to KNOW them instinctively, like a sort of self-preservation instinct. That, and that they probably should not sell to any one with a thick southern accent, which was the only information the organized crime circuit had on Standish as of now. Of course, that in itself would eliminate half of the American population that WANTED firearms, namely in the form of the "zealous souths" KKK, rednecks with attitude, and trailer trash druggies. But, Kaplan figured better that than to risk absolute incarceration, as was Ezras apparent record. Be on the lookout for a southern man, working for the government, who had a 100% bust success rate. Be afraid; be very afraid.
But, was the young agent before Kaplan as good as his legend? To Jeff, Ezra seemed ultimately too human up close. Sensitive and emotional. Too turbulent and wild. It surprised the killer mildly. Men in Ezra Standishs position, with Ezra Standishs reputation, should ALWAYS be in control of their lives and of those around them. However, right now, Standish was floundering. He was uncertain and pensive, his eyes flashed without control, and to top it all off, he was sentimental. That was a dangerous thing for a man in his line of work.
Standish was off of his game right now, thanks to someone in his own agency. Kaplan grinned. If the professionals couldnt do it, trust the government to fuck themselves royally. Another ATF agent had taken Standish out in their little games the other day. He had thrown Larabees team off. That just made Jeffs job that much easier. So, the mercenary formed his own plan, based on a number of reasons. Standish was a better target because he was off his stride. Killing Standish would elevate his own position in the circuits. Killing Standish would get the job for Joey done, because there was no way any respectable team would go on with the competition if one of their damned MEMBERS died. Finally, killing Standish would make his name huge. Kaplan had a specific target.
Since they had gotten out before many of their cohorts, Team 7 obtained front row seats to view the exhibition. Standish watched the demonstrators warm up with a lazy eye, while Vin readily explained the Tai Chi movements of the two instructors to JD. Many years ago, the southerner had tried several different forms of the eastern disciplines to add to his repertoire, but he had never had the patience to master them. So, he listened to Vins superior insights aptly, taking casual mental notes. He had always been a boxing man anyway. Standish grunted, his Josiah-esque habit. Right about now, he wished he could punch something.
They all knew the walls had slammed back up, why were they trying to pretend as if they hadnt? It was like, if they pretended that it wasnt there, it would all go away. That apparently, was never the case. Especially with these men. Ezras frustration grew slightly. What the hell was he supposed to do about it? They were walking on eggshells around him, and all it was doing was agitating him. He almost longed for Chris to storm up to him and slug him hard. At least that was some sort of reaction.
Well, on a reaction scale, they had made a big deal about yesterday. He supposed if he had truly been in their circle, the bond would not have broken so easily, though he had to stop and ask himself whos fault that was in the first place. But, here they were anyway. What exactly, had happened here? He had jumped. He had died, but it had been during a game. Hell, every time JD died in a video game his friendship with Buck never suffered. Why this? Why with him? Because, he had died alone. Because, it had been a testament to his character. Was that it? Was it because they did not think he was the type to go all out for a friend? That he would much rather stay out of the line of fire to save his own hide? That they didnt have to worry because Ezra Standish would be looking out for number one, and number one only? He wasnt that man damn it. He cared, but he was still alone.
Sometimes he wondered if it was easier being the man of his past. The devil may care bastard that watched out for himself and himself only. No one had cared for him back then, and he had reciprocated in kind, which was, exactly nothing. Now what? Now that he cared enough to put his LIFE in danger? Now, he got yelled at, accused, isolated, and, above all else, in mental fights with himself. Mother had been right. It was not worth it. It was also, apparently, driving him insane.
But, just the sensation of feeling like he belonged was addictive. It was an illusion perhaps, but still something he had always longed for and thought he had finally found. Stop it STOP it he chided himself vehemently. He was thinking too damn much.
"Ladies and gentlemen, so glad you could join us. Im Agent Galveston and this is my partner Agent Jay. Were going to be giving you a demonstration on different forms of unarmed combat today, which Im sure some of you already participate in. After a few demonstrations, wed love for some of those people to come up and help us demonstrate some more basic moves for everyones benefit."
"We aint six Galveston, so stop talkin to us like we are!" one of the agents roared from the back, bringing a chuckle from the others present.
"You want some adult language Farhien? Fuck you!" Galveston called back to the teammate of his that was causing trouble. Jay grinned, batted her eyelashes, and flipped Farhien the bird for articulation. There was a whoop from Buck.
"Ahem as we were saying were going to start with some simple holds and defensive moves and then go to more aggressive stuff " Jay started, flashing a secretive smile at Buck before taking position as the attacker.
"You can jump me anytime, Angie!" Buck yelled with appreciation.
"From what I hear youre the one always doin the jumpin Wilmington!"
"Fuck you, Bradford!"
"All right guys, pay attention now, in case any of the ADs turn up." Angela Jay chastised with a wink before slowly taking a position and tossing Galveston, who was a good hundred pounds heavier than her, over her shoulder onto the mat. She stood atop him with her foot firmly planted against his chest.
Ezra watched the camaraderie amongst the gathered agents with mild amusement, and admiration for Angela. He was about to comment to Vin about whether or not Buck let Angie take the top on such "jumping occasions," but stopped himself. Lewd comments were not his territory, and he resented the fact that he was picking up one of Bucks nastier habits. Emulating his coworkers was just fueling the fires of his desire for acceptance into their tight circle of friends. Perhaps if he could convince himself that he did not want it, the stirring of unwanted emotions would cease?
Vin eyed Chris a little while after JD had convinced Buck to let the young man try some of those moves on him. "I still got that feelin cowboy, someone watchin us. Its itchin at me somethin fierce," the shooter stated quietly, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes looking straight ahead.
To the naked eye Chris did not seem to react, but Vins sixth sense told him his friend felt exactly the same. "Somethin aint right," Chris answered in a quiet voice, the one everyone but Vin needed to strain to hear.
"Cant shake the feelin that somethins gonna go down."
"Ya think it has anything to do with Ez?"
Tanner turned thoughtful. "Might."
"Well talk to him tonight."
The younger man looked doubtful. Chris conceded to the unasked demand. "Well set things straight Vin, I swear."
Tanner nodded slightly, silently saying, okay in his mind. An unvoiced, I hope its not too late flitted across his mind before he could stop it. The look Chris replied with said the dark-clad man would be damned if he was going to let that be the case.
In spite of his friends words, or lack thereof, Vins unease somehow remained unchecked.
"Wow Ezra, would ya look at that?" JD whispered excitedly, nudging his older friend. The two demonstrators had moved on from eastern arts to something decidedly more familiar, boxing and kickboxing.
Ezra squinted, looking upwards into the slightly elevated ring. "Interestin."
"Yeah, theyre real good, huh?"
"Dreadful form, sloppy. Though I suppose thats warranted. After all, it is a conference demonstration."
Dunne looked incredulous. "Sloppy? Miss Jay looks like she could give Chris a run for his money!"
The southerner raised a brow to the young man in response. JD almost squeaked when he realized what he had said, and he turned around, hoping to God his leader hadnt heard that little remark. The kid sighed in relief. Seemed that Chris had other things on his mind. He leaned towards Standish in an effort to be more discreet. "What do you mean sloppy?" he repeated in a louder than necessary whisper.
Ezra fought back a fond smile and decided to humor the boy, finding a small amount of solace in the fact that some things never changed, no matter what happened. He mimicked JDs movements, leaning in until he was level with the kid, both of them facing the ring. His voice took on that of a conspiratorial whisper. "Well, first of all, I would say Miss Jay is swingin widely and a little too hard. That, my young friend, tends to exchange accuracy for power. Secondly, it is certainly no surprise that she is so easily pounding agent Galveston, seein as to how hes standin rather flat footed with his weight leanin on his left leg. Lazy."
Ezra sighed. "His weight should be evenly distributed, and one should always keep to his toes, Mister Dunne."
JDs mouth formed an "O". The kid tilted his head to the side slightly to get a different view, and watched for signs of what Ezra had observed. "You think we should tell em theyre doin it wrong?"
"No, I dont think "
"Cmon Ezra, theyre gonna be teachin this stuff to all the agents in the country. If its wrong, someone could mess up and get hurt in the field," the youngest rationalized quickly, before he stepped forward. "Hey, Agent Galveston!?"
The two stopped their demonstration and stared at the kid. "Something we can help you with kid?" Jay asked, breathing heavily. "If you dont understand somethin were taking questions at the end sweetie."
JD looked mildly annoyed, but ignored the smart-assed comment he had thought up, a dreadful habit he was learning from Ezra, and took a deep breath. "Ezra here says " The southerner groaned inwardly at the sound of his name. He had hoped to stay out of this. "Well, he says that yall are doin things wrong. Somethin bout your balance " JD started to explain.
Galveston snorted indignantly. "Im sure hes the expert," he drawled with no small amount of sarcasm.
JD took offense when the burly agent dismissed Ezras expertise without so much as a thought. Incensed, the dark haired kid started a half-coherent tirade. "Ill bet Ezs better at boxin than both of you two put together! He could spot your mistakes a mile away! He was a state champion! He beat the instructor at the FBI academy! I bet he could take you out in less than five minutes, Galveston! Youd be on the floor faster than Miss Jay can make eyes at Buck! At least listen to what he has to say!"
Ezra rubbed the sides of his temples before beginning to undo the buttons of his shirt. He knew where this sort of challenge led. This was why you didnt make friends, he remembered. They would kill you with their good intentions.
"Well, if Standish is so good why doesnt he step up and prove it?" Jay drawled smugly. Team Colorados Standish had a reputation all right, and it said that he didnt like to get his hands dirty. He would back down and the kid could eat his words. Much to her surprise, a lithe form sprung over the lines, with impressive clearance, and landed in front of her in the ring.
Ezra Standish neatly folded his shirt over the lines and removed his shoes, amid the whooping and hollering of the others gathered for the demo. The southerner attempted to keep his composure as Galveston and Jay stared incredulously at him. He smiled disarmingly. The challenge had been issued, and he was always one to defend his good well, perhaps that was saying too much; he always defended his name, in any case. Besides, he had wanted to punch something anyway.
"Looks like you lost a fight already honey," Jay stated, motioning to the yellowish bruise along the younger agents jaw.
He smiled back at her. "A lucky strike I assure you my dear."
"Well then, looks like Im bout to get real lucky," Galveston grinned, looking at the smaller man wickedly. At 510 and around 150-160 lbs Standish wasnt very intimidating. Galveston had five inches and about 50 lbs on the younger man, give or take 10 lbs.
"Ya need all the luck you can get Galveston! Get im Ez!" Buck whooped loudly, with all his usual exuberance. Maybe, Buck thought, this would help things get back to normal?
"Knock him on that lazy Virginia ass of his Ez!" Vin echoed.
Chris smiled slightly. This could be the beginning of their bridge to Standish. "You show him how its done Ezra," he said. The leader added his encouragement less vehemently than Tanner and Wilmington, but he meant it just as much as they did. If Ezra had been surprised, no one noticed it. The rest of the ATF, with the exception for Team 7, was VERY surprised however, when Agent Standish inadvertently knocked Agent Galveston completely unconscious. Though no one was shocked when he declined a match against Agent Jay with a charming kiss to her hand and a conceding smile. The spectators whooped. Ezra put his shoes and shirt back on, to Angelas great disappointment.
After the demonstration and Ezras not so hard won victory, Team 7 hoped that things would return to better spirits during lunch. It was not to be however, as Ezra politely declined the invitation to join them, stating he really must go prepare for his competition.
Nathan threw his hands up. "I give up. Whats he so riled about anyway? Hes the one that took the jump."
Josiah and Buck threw him annoyed looks. "Whose fault is that?"
"Yeah, and weve been trying to make up for it, but the fool just wont bite!" Nathan replied, slightly defensive. "So, now whatre we supposed to do? Let him mope the rest of his life?"
"Well talk to him tonight," Chris said quietly, picking at his burger. He frowned distastefully and tossed it to Vin, who grinned and had it wolfed down in a record four chomps. "You know I dont like ketchup," Larabee groused at the younger man.
"JD ordered," Vin replied around a mouthful of stolen fries. Buck slapped the shooters hand away from his cardboard carton.
"Boy, just get your own," Wilmington snapped, snatching his fries away and pushing the box against his chest protectively. "I need to eat too."
The ex-bounty hunter looked down at Bucks stomach. "Looks to me like you need to be eatin a lil less Bucklin."
"What exactly are we going to say to him, brother Chris?" Josiah asked, ignoring Tanner and Wilmington for the time being. His fries were safe anyhow.
Chris paused, drink halfway to his lips. His brow furrowed slightly, and he set the iced tea back down.
At his friends silence, Vin stopped trying to snatch Nathans chicken nuggets. "You mean you were gonna talk to him without knowin what you were gonna say first?" he asked incredulously. The Texan fought the urge to smack Chris upside the head, as Buck often did with JD when he did something green.
Chris glared at his best friend. "I figured Id cross that bridge when I got there."
"Or burn it," Buck snorted. "Ezd turn your own words around so fast you wouldnt be able ta remember what youd meant to say in the first place."
"Yeah, why do you figure the DAs like him as a witness so much? The defense attorneys cant ever find a hole in his testimony," JD added.
"But, he always manages to find holes in their defense," Josiah added fondly.
"Nice tangent fellas, but this still isnt solving anything," Nathan stated impatiently. "What the hell are we gonna say?"
"Were sorry?" JD suggested.
"For what exactly?"
"For doubling up without him?"
"Oh THATd go over REAL well. Good thinking."
"Go to hell."
"Boys, is this accomplishing anything?"
"I say we tie him up and make him listen to the fact that hes a part of this team as much as the rest of us."
"As good an idea as any, Vin. Why dont we blindfold him and torture him while were at it? Maybe even send a ransom note to Maude? You think wed get ten thousand?"
"Fuck you, Buck."
"Nooo thanks, Junior."
"Damn it, will you stay away from my nuggets?"
"I dont know what youre talkin bout Nate."
"All right, who ate my onion rings?"
Chris sighed, watching his team "strategize". What the hell was he supposed to do about Ezra? He pushed his French fries in JDs direction, to placate the boy over the loss of his onion rings to Tanner. JD grinned at Chris and took the fries, instantly forgetting that he had been annoyed with Vin for pilfering his onion rings in the first place. Why were things with Ezra never that easy to settle? Of course, if a simple, "Im sorry" could have done it, Chris would have said it tenfold the number of times he had to, to placate Ezra.
Standish was a completely different animal, however. He had been raised to be skeptical, and wary of other people and their motives. To have something prove itself as genuine, Ezra Standish required much more than words alone. Larabee supposed both he and his agent were the same in that respect. Dont tell me, SHOW me. But, damn it all if it wasnt frustrating. Chris wondered if changing his philosophy now would make it easier for one of his cohorts to apologize in the future. He wished Ezra had thought of that too.
"If youre still hungry will you just go order more damn food?" Buck grumbled in distress, being double-teamed by both Dunne and Tanner for his fries.
JD looked at Vin. "Sounds like an idea! I want some apple pie."
"I like cherry better," Vin responded, getting up and pulling the kid back to the register with him.
"Ya think we should bring some pie for Ez? Ya know, I figured things were better after the way he was acting during the demonstration, but dang it all if he just ran from the courtyard like he stole somethin after it finished."
"I bet Ezra likes cherry," Vin speculated.
"Bet he likes apple more," JD declared, shoving the older man slightly, as if it would prove his point.
Josiah frowned, watching the two youngest members argue over what they thought their self-exiled undercover agent liked best. One year and they still didnt even know the most basic things about the enigmatic man.
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