"That was a fine service," Orrin Travis stated as he joined the four men standing on the deck behind his house. "You all spoke well... I'm sure they would have been proud."
Josiah nodded sadly. The small church had been filled to overflowing with agents, police officers, and friends of Chris and Vin. The service itself had lasted over two hours, as many people stood to eulogize and reminisce about the two men. AD Travis had offered his spacious home for the post-funeral gathering, and inside, people milled about, comforting each other and dutifully partaking of the catered lunch.
The four members of Team Seven had fled to the deck to escape the crowd of well-wishers... for a while anyway. Travis sympathized with them, feeling somewhat hemmed-in himself, and joined them, bringing a bottle of fine brandy and five glasses.
"A toast, gentlemen," Travis offered. "To Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, two of the finest men it has been my privilege to know."
The five men clinked their glasses together and drank a silent toast to their fallen friends.
"I see Agent Standish chose not to attend," Travis said with fire in his eyes.
Buck's expression darkened. "Next time I see the bastard, I'm going to flatten him... teach him some respect."
"The man has no decency," Nathan spat angrily. "Can't even be bothered to pay his respects."
"He's used up just about all of my patience," Travis stated. "I'm not going to be cutting him anymore slack."
"He'll be back," Josiah said confidently. "Brother Ezra needs to fight his demons in his own way."
"Doesn't excuse his behavior," Buck growled. "He should be here with us."
Their angry words were interrupted when Mary Travis came out to the deck, followed by Nettie and Casey Wells.
"Hi JD," Casey said sadly.
"Hey, Case." JD greeted her with a peck on the cheek. "Miz Nettie," he nodded to the older woman.
"Boys," Nettie greeted them. "Have you gotten any closer to finding the animals who did this to our family?"
"Not yet, ma'am," Josiah replied. "But we'll keep going until we get them."
"Good," she said, nodding her satisfaction. "I know it's un-Christian of me, but I hope the bastards rot in hell!"
"I think we all agree on that sentiment," Travis replied.
"If there's anything we can do to help..." Mary offered, fresh tears springing to her eyes.
"We know where to find you." Josiah smiled at her.
"I didn't see Mr. Standish there," Nettie said sharply.
"Don't get them started, ma'am," JD warned. "We're all a little mad at Ezra right now.
"Hmph!" Nettie sniffed. "What kind of no-account excuse of a man doesn't come to pay his respects to his friends?"
"The kind like Ezra," Nathan replied acidly.
"How awful," Mary murmured.
"How is Billy doing?" Buck asked kindly, changing the subject.
"I don't think it's hit him quite yet," she answered. "He's been wearing that toy badge Chris gave him ever since I told him. He even wears it to bed."
"Children are resilient. He'll be all right." Nathan put a comforting hand on her arm.
"Yes, I know," she replied sadly. "I wish it were as easy for the rest of us."
Orrin Travis put his arm around his daughter-in-law. "We'll get through this, all of us."
Mary smiled at him gratefully, clasping his hand in her own. "Why don't you all come back inside? Evie sent me out to get you. I think she's worried."
"I'll be right in," Travis told her.
Mary nodded, then retreated into the house. Casey and Nettie followed, leaving the men alone again.
"You boys coming?" Travis asked.
"No," Buck said. "I think we need to go... say our own good-byes in private."
"I understand," Travis said as his eyes roved over the four distraught men. "I'll give your regards to everyone."
"Thank you," Josiah said.
With a short nod, Travis went back into the house and left them to their thoughts.
* * * * * * * * * *
"This was a good idea, JD." Buck reached over and tousled his young friend's hair as Nathan turned the SUV onto Larabee's long driveway.
"We had a lot of good times out here," Josiah agreed. "I think it's fitting that we celebrate their lives in a place that held so many good memories for all of us."
"Hey, whose truck is that?" Nathan slowed his vehicle as the black Ford Explorer came into view.
"Maybe it's that guy who takes care of the horses when Chris is away?" JD suggested.
"Jack Patterson." Buck dredged the name from his memory. "But he drives an old Ford pickup."
"Maybe he got a new car?" JD looked at Buck inquiringly.
"Maybe," Buck mused. "We still better check it out."
Nathan parked behind the unfamiliar vehicle. All four men exited, drawing their weapons from their shoulder holsters. They had kept their weapons handy, since there was no way of knowing if they were next on the 'hit list'.
"Nathan and I will check the barn," Josiah said softly.
Buck nodded, then gestured to JD to follow. They crept close to the front of the house and peered through the windows.
"You see anything?" JD whispered.
"No... wait!" Buck squinted his eyes, a frown slowly forming on his face. "There's someone in there."
"Don't know, but there's a foot hanging off the sofa."
"What do you want to do?"
Buck turned toward the barn, where Nathan and Josiah had just exited and given the 'all-clear' signal. He motioned to them that there was at least one person inside and for them to enter through the kitchen door. He waited for a minute, then quietly pulled out his keys and unlocked the front door and went inside. He and JD moved to either end of the couch just as Nathan and Josiah came through the doorway to the kitchen. Buck looked at the slumbering form on the couch, then cursed, lowering his gun.
"It's Ezra!" JD exclaimed upon recognizing the sleeping man.
Buck angrily shoved his gun back into its holster and reached toward the object of his wrath. Grabbing Ezra by the front of his shirt, he hauled him from the couch and shoved him into the brick wall by the fireplace. "What the fuck are you doing here?!"
Ezra awoke with a start, confused by the sudden, violent movement. Panicking, he began to struggle, his head bobbing back and forth while his half-asleep brain struggled to put together a coherent thought.
Buck lifted him off his feet and shoved him against the wall hard enough to crack his head against the bricks. "Too busy gettin' your goddamned beauty sleep to pay your respects?!" He pulled his fist back and slammed it into Ezra's face. "Answer me you son of a bitch!"
"Put him down, Buck," a gravelly voice commanded.
Four heads instantly whipped around to confront the voice from the grave. "Chris?" Buck said incredulously, suddenly letting go of Ezra, who slid limply to the floor.
"My God!" Nathan whispered, taking a step toward the apparition that stood before him.
JD gaped, mouth hanging open, while Josiah closed his eyes and whispered a silent prayer of thanks.
"Chris!" Buck practically leaped over the sofa and rushed toward his friend, wrapping him in a huge bear hug.
"Ow, easy, Buck," Chris gasped as Buck squeezed his aching ribs.
"Geez, what's all the damn racket in here. Can't a guy get some sleep?" Vin grumbled good-naturedly as he shuffled down the hall in his stocking feet.
"Vin!" JD finally found his voice and rushed toward his friends. "What... how... I don't understand?!"
Vin held up his good hand. "Long story, pard."
Buck released Chris, then moved to Vin, a grin threatening to split his face. "Hell Junior." Buck gripped the smaller man by the shoulders. "You two are sure a sight for sore eyes." He turned back to Chris. "And you better have one *hell* of an explanation."
"Welcome back, brothers," Josiah's cheerful voice boomed.
"What are you guys doin' here, anyway?" Vin asked curiously. "We weren't gonna call ya until tonight."
"We came out here to toast your memory," Nathan said sheepishly.
"Now we can toast your miraculous resurrection instead," Josiah laughed.
"Too late," Vin said mischievously. "We already done that last night. Me and Chris and Ez polished off a mighty fine bottle of scotch."
"Where is Ezra, anyway?" Chris craned his neck to look around Josiah, but saw no sign of him.
"He went in the kitchen," JD said. "I'll go check on him."
Chris nodded, then gave Buck a dirty look. "*We* are going to have a talk, but not right now. We have work to do first." He gestured to the others to follow as he started toward the center of the room.
Buck frowned, but helped Chris to the couch.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Ezra?" JD called as he entered the kitchen.
"Here, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied.
"I thought a pot of coffee might be welcome."
"Need some help?"
Ezra looked at him, prepared to rebuff his offer, but relented when he saw the sincerity in his face. "The coffee is on the shelf over there." He pointed to his right.
JD grabbed the can of coffee from the shelf and handed it to Ezra. "Guess we know why you didn't go to the funeral."
Ezra gave him a half-smile but said nothing.
"Have you known the whole time?"
"No," Ezra replied after a brief pause. "I only learned of their continued existence early on Thursday morning. Needless to say, I was quite astonished to hear their voices on the telephone."
"How come you didn't tell the rest of us?" JD asked petulantly.
"I believe Mr. Larabee is about to relate the entire sordid tale, so I suggest you join the others," Ezra said, somewhat testily. "I shall be along with the coffee shortly."
"Uh, sure." JD headed for the door, tossing a last look over his shoulder before he left.
* * * * * * * * * *
"You need to go for x-rays," Nathan said as he got his first close look at his two friends. "Both of you."
"Later, Nathan," Chris argued.
"You belong in the hospital," Buck maintained, agreeing wholeheartedly with Nathan's assessment. "You look like hell."
"We already went through this with Ezra," Chris explained tiredly. "It's too dangerous."
"Hey guys," JD greeted them. "Ez is makin' coffee."
"Good, I could use some," Vin said eagerly.
"So what the hell happened?" Buck asked impatiently. "We thought you were blown to bits in the jeep."
"Vaporized," Vin moaned. "My poor jeep."
"Yeah, and the two homeless guys Jarvis blew up in it," Chris said somberly.
"Jarvis? That's the name Ez gave us," JD said.
"Yeah, he was right," Chris nodded. "Raymond Jarvis grabbed us at the bar. Staged the whole explosion thing so you guys wouldn't come looking for us."
"He was probably attempting to demoralize you as well," Ezra stated as he emerged from the kitchen with a tray of coffee cups. He set the cups down, not looking at anyone but Chris and Vin.
Josiah nodded thoughtfully. "That fits with the careful planning of the whole scenario."
"Yeah, he made sure we knew nobody was coming to the rescue," Chris replied grimly.
Ezra left again, returning with the pot of coffee and a pitcher of milk, which he set on the table before retreating to a position on the fringe of the group, positioning himself as far from Buck as possible. Chris noticed this and frowned, but continued with the story.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Jesus." Buck stared at them in disbelief as Vin and Chris finished relating their story. "You hiked all that way in that condition?"
"Yep," Vin said with a grin. "Then Ez came and picked us up."
"Literally," Chris said, shooting a grin toward Ezra, who gave a self-deprecating shrug.
"How are we going to catch Jarvis?" asked JD.
A predatory grin took up residence on Chris's face. "He's planning to go back to the bunker on Monday to finish us off, so we'll just have to be there waiting for him."
"You're doing no such thing," Buck stated vehemently. "You two are in no shape to be running around on a mountain in the snow."
"Buck," Chris warned.
"Nope. Uh-uh. No way. You ain't goin' with us." Buck folded his arms across his chest and glared at the two men. "We'll take care of the sonofabitch. We ain't taking a chance on losin' you again."
"You'd do the same if our positions were reversed, brother," Josiah pointed out.
Chris and Vin looked at each other then reluctantly surrendered. "All right, but I want video," Chris demanded. "I want to see the look on the bastard's face when he goes down."
"You bet," JD said confidently.
"Are we going to let AD Travis in on this?" asked Nathan.
"Yeah," Chris answered. "We'll need him to get us backup. We'll call him tomorrow when we finalize the plans."
"He's going to be in for a shock," JD said.
"No joke," Buck agreed.
Vin's stomach chose that moment to begin growling again.
"Hungry brother?" Josiah grinned at his young friend.
Vin shrugged sheepishly. "Ain't had much to eat this week."
"Hey Ez, you gonna cook for us some more?" Chris sent the undercover agent a teasing smile.
Nathan looked up in surprise. Ezra cooked?
"I suggest you send out for something if you expect to eat soon," Ezra replied. "Cooking for a large group takes a significant amount of time."
"I could go for pizza?" JD offered.
"Sounds good," Buck agreed, not sure that he'd want to eat anything the southerner might prepare anyway. "I'll go with you."
"Damn, I was hopin you'd make some more of that chicken stuff," Vin sighed disappointedly.
"Perhaps another time," Ezra offered, pleased that his efforts had been appreciated.
"I'm holding you to that," Chris warned with a smile.
"While they're getting the food, I want to take a look at those bullet wounds," Nathan said sternly. "They could be infected."
"They're fine," Chris said irritably.
"Sorry pard, but I'm with Nathan," Buck said.
"So am I," Josiah said.
JD grinned and sidled alongside Buck, who looked around with a self-satisfied smile. "Looks like you're outvoted and you aren't in any condition to argue with us."
"Ez, help us out here," Vin pleaded.
"I'm afraid I have to abstain," Ezra replied with a wicked smirk.
"Thanks a lot," Vin said grumpily.
As the group ushered Vin and Chris past on their way to the bedroom, Ezra made some clucking noises, drawing dirty looks from both injured men and raised eyebrows from the others.
"I'll remember that," Chris warned.
Ezra gave him their standard two-fingered salute, accompanied by a cocky smile.
* * * * * * * * * *
"You dig the bullet out yourself?" Nathan asked Chris incredulously.
"Nah, I made Ezra do it," Chris replied with a grin.
"You really need to be in a hospital," Nathan said with a frown. "Your wounds are infected and you're both congested. You could get pneumonia if you don't get some antibiotics soon."
"We've been takin' penicillin," Vin argued.
"Where'd you get that?"
"Ez had some left over from one of his hospital visits," Chris explained.
"Ain't supposed to have any 'left over'," Nathan grumbled.
"Yeah, well, he did, an' he let us have some," Vin said defensively.
"You need proper medical care," Nathan maintained.
"We'll go to the hospital after Jarvis is taken care of," Chris said reassuringly. "We can't risk blowing this."
Nathan frowned, then gave a reluctant sigh. "All right, but I'll hog tie the both of you and drag you kicking and screaming if I have to."
"Don't worry, Nate," Chris assured him with a crooked grin. "I'm looking forward to gettin' some real painkillers."
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra stared up into the darkness, unable to sleep. They had spent several hours talking that night, the others being reluctant to let Chris and Vin out of their sight, but eventually, everyone had yielded to their fatigue and gone to sleep. Chris and Vin shared the king-size bed in the master bedroom, with Nathan sleeping on the floor at the foot of the bed, disinclined to leave his charges in case they required his help during the night. JD had been relegated to Adam's old room, while Josiah and Buck had claimed the sofas in the living room. Ezra had, thankfully, been assigned to the guestroom, where he could have some solitude. It made him wonder if Chris had done it on purpose.
Chris and Vin were perceptive, and it probably hadn't escaped their notice that Ezra and the other four agents never communicated directly with each other. There was a decided coolness in the air. The others still blamed him for Chris and Vin's condition and Ezra wasn't certain that they were wrong, but he was still angry at the way they -- especially Buck -- had treated him. Chris and Vin didn't blame him at all, as they had repeatedly told him, but Ezra was confused by the opposing views of all of the other men.
He really hated being so unsure of himself. Sure, he was self-confident when it came to his job. He was good at what he did; no one had ever disputed that fact But when it came to the emotional side of things, he was at a complete loss. Nobody had ever taught him about that. His mother had scoffed at such things. For Maude, emotions were simply another tool to be used when necessary, another mask to slip into place when the situation demanded it. "Appearances, you know, are everything, darlin'," she would tell him. The family friends and relatives who had reluctantly provided him accommodations when Maude couldn't be bothered -- which was, truthfully, most of the time -- had not troubled themselves with him any more than necessary, so he had learned little from them. He simply never learned to deal with people on anything other than a superficial level, and his past unsuccessful attempts to do so had only discouraged him from trying.
Several times that evening, he had caught Josiah staring at him thoughtfully, almost as though he wanted to talk to him, but Ezra wasn't ready for any discussions, especially not in front of everyone else. If he was ever going to make peace with these men, it was going to have to be on an individual basis. He had had enough of group dynamics and didn't feel like facing four-to-one odds again.
Chris and Vin would probably back him, but he didn't want to be put in a position between all of the men. It was hard enough for him to fit in as it was, without the others fighting because of him. He didn't want to be the source of discord within the group -- if he was even a part of it any more. He had yet to face AD Travis, and he knew the man was likely to be even less forgiving than the rest of the men.
Travis had made it clear from the start that he thought Ezra's addition to the team was a mistake, never letting an opportunity pass to let his opinion be known. If it hadn't been for Chris's intervention, Ezra would have been tossed off of the team after that first disastrous assignment. Chris had given him a second chance, something that everyone else seemed reluctant to do, and he wondered if, this time, he had used up the last of his good fortune.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin awoke to find the first faint tendrils of dawn streaking their way across the morning sky. Glancing to his right, he found Chris fast asleep, his knee elevated slightly on a pillow. A faint rumbling snore told him that Nathan was still sleeping as well. Quietly, he eased his way out of bed, stepping carefully around Nathan and slipping out the door. After a short visit to the bathroom, he made his way to the kitchen, in desperate need of coffee.
Pushing his way through the door, Vin was surprised to find Ezra already up, a full pot of coffee on the counter behind him. "Ain't it a little early for you?" Vin asked as he poured himself a cup.
"Under normal circumstances, yes," Ezra agreed. "But these hardly qualify as 'normal', wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah, things're a little weird right now." Vin scrutinized the southerner, noting the dark circles under his green eyes. "Y'okay, Ez?"
"I should be asking you that question, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied pointedly. "You are the one who is injured, not I."
"Then how come you're sittin' there with a face that's half purple and a buncha cracked ribs," Vin retorted.
"It hardly compares to what you've suffered recently." Ezra waved a hand dismissively.
"Yeah, but I ain't hurtin' on the inside."
Ezra snapped his head around to look at Vin, unable to come up with a suitable response.
"Gotta be tough seein' two of your friends blown to hell right in front of your face," Vin sipped his coffee, watching Ezra out of the corner of his eye.
"Yes, well...." Ezra worried at the edge of his mug with his thumb. "You were not, as you put it, 'blown to hell', so I am fine."
"Uh-huh," Vin replied, sounding unconvinced.
Ezra stared into his mug, avoiding the penetrating blue eyes that were studying him. The man was too damned perceptive sometimes.
The silence was broken by Chris's quiet entrance into the kitchen. He stopped short upon seeing the other two men there.
"Guess I ain't the only one who slept too much yesterday," he said with a grin.
Vin snorted. "Eighteen hours in a single day hits my limit for sure."
Chris filled his mug with coffee, a sigh of pleasure escaping at the rich aroma. He maneuvered himself carefully into a chair and gazed at the other two men over the rim of his mug, frowning at Ezra's tired countenance. A slight shake of the head from Vin told him not to press the issue for now.
"So who's gonna call Travis?" Vin asked suddenly.
"Might give him a heart attack if he hears either of us on the phone," Chris replied.
"Yes, it might," Ezra agreed. "I know it certainly gave me quite a start."
"I can just picture his face," Vin said, suddenly pulling his face into a slack-jawed, stunned expression.
Chris laughed, nearly choking on his coffee, and Ezra chuckled heartily, setting his mug down so as not to drop it.
"Maybe you should call him, Ez," Vin suggested.
Ezra looked at him, shaking his head vehemently. "Not a good idea. From the tone of his voice in the rather scathing message he left on my answering machine, I suspect his reaction would be quite violent."
"Like this?" Vin frowned, squinting his eyes angrily.
"No," Ezra answered thoughtfully. "More like this." Ezra pulled his face into a deep, threatening scowl, his brows furrowed in feigned anger.
"Nah, this is it." Chris glowered menacingly, his eyes focused in a piercing gaze as his face began to turn red from the effort.
At this, the three men erupted into loud laughter.
"Damn, that looked just like him, Chris," Vin gasped, clutching his aching ribs.
"Yes, you have mimicked the glare quite effectively," Ezra said, trying not to inhale any more coffee into his nose.
"All together now," Chris directed, and as one, the three men did their impressions of AD Travis.
Awakened by their voices, Buck and Josiah entered the kitchen at that moment, freezing in their tracks at the angry expressions with which the three men were regarding one another. Ezra, Chris, and Vin saw their stunned expressions and dissolved into a fit of laughter.
"Everyone all right?" Nathan asked breathlessly as he burst through the doors, JD close on his heels.
The new additions only served to increase the laughter, until all three men were red-faced and gasping for breath. The four other men exchanged bewildered expressions.
"They were mad at each other when I walked in," Buck said, shrugging uncertainly.
"Ah shit," Chris finally wheezed. "That hurt."
"Most definitely," Ezra agreed, nodding his head as he attempted to catch his breath.
"This is all your fault," Chris accused, glaring half-heartedly at Vin.
Vin looked at them innocently, still chuckling. "I just started it. Y'all didn't have to join in."
"All right, *what* is going on in here?" Nathan glared at them, folding his arms across his chest.
Vin snorted, threatening to break out in laughter again. "I think Nathan's got him down pretty good."
Chris and Ezra choked, shaking their heads in dismay while stifling their chuckles.
"Brothers?" Josiah prompted gently.
"We was just tryin' to picture what Travis's face would look like if one of us three called him today," Vin said with a grin.
"We figure he'd either have a heart attack or a hissy fit," Chris added with a snicker.
Josiah began to laugh, while the other three men shook their heads in disbelief, certain that the three men had lost their minds.
"Great," Buck grumbled. "They've turned into the Three Stooges."
"They have a point, guys," JD said with a smile. "I think one of us should call him."
"Josiah." Chris nodded toward the big man. "Travis told me once he thought you and Nathan were the voices of reason on this team."
"What does that make the rest of us?" asked Buck.
Chris grinned. "You don't want to know."
"I'll make the call," Josiah agreed.
"Just tell him we need him out here ASAP," Chris suggested.
Josiah smiled and returned to the living room to make the call.
"I'm hungry," JD said. "What's for breakfast?"
"I don't know," Vin answered. "Hey Ez, what're you makin' us for breakfast?"
Ezra arched an eyebrow at him and smiled sardonically. "What would you like?"
"I don't know," Vin shrugged. "Eggs or somethin'."
Ezra nodded. "Mr. Larabee?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Gentlemen?" He turned to the rest of the group.
"Eggs have too much cholesterol," Nathan said flatly.
"I'm havin' cereal," Buck said absently.
Ezra ignored the obvious snubs and turned to JD inquiringly.
"I'll have what they're having," JD said hesitantly, indicating Vin and Chris.
As Josiah re-entered the room, JD asked, "Hey Josiah. Ezra's making breakfast. You want some?"
"No, thank you," he replied. "Coffee will be just fine."
"Travis coming?" Chris directed his question to Josiah.
"Yeah. Should be here in an hour or so."
"Good," Chris nodded.
"Could you gentlemen kindly vacate the room so I can prepare our morning repast?" Ezra said as he rummaged in the refrigerator.
* * * * * * * * * *
"That was excellent, Ez," Chris complimented his undercover agent.
"Yeah," Vin said through his mouthful of omelette.
"And these cinnamon rolls are awesome!" JD said as he grabbed another one off of the plate in the center of the table. "Where'd you learn to make 'em?"
"I observed an elderly aunt prepare them once," Ezra said with shrug, pleased that they enjoyed his cooking.
"Ez's been holdin' out on us, JD," Vin said as he reached for another roll himself. "He cooked me and Chris some really good chicken stuff the other day."
"Will ya show me how to cook sometime, Ez?" JD asked hopefully. "It'd be real great to have something' besides takeout or..." He shuddered. "...Buck's cooking."
"Something edible, you mean," Chris said with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "Certainly, Mr. Dunne. I could show you a thing or two."
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