by KellyA

 Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

****Part 1

Chris Larabee leaned against the doorframe of his office looking out over the maze of cubicles that made up the 7th floor of the Federal Building.  He saw the head of his long time friend, Buck Wilmington, pop up over a partition searching for his next victim.  It was the day before Thanksgiving and everyone had pretty much decided that real work was secondary.  Chris smiled when the youngest member of their team raised his head up only to be plugged with the nerf football thrown by Wilmington. 

'Another holiday without his wife and son,' the smile on his usually somber face diminished slightly at the thought.  He listened to the prankish antics of his newfound family coming from the outer office.  Maybe it wasn't the same as his previous family, but they all held a place in his heart.  His musings were interrupted by the silent approach of his new friend.  The lean sharpshooter noticed right off the more stoic than usual appearance, which now resided on the blond leader's face.

"What 'cha thinkin' cowboy?" Vin asked, leaning against the opposite wall.

The ATF leader turned his pensive blue eyes to the man he almost considered a brother.  A faint smile curved the corners of his mouth upwards as he replied,  "Wonderin' how I'm goin' to feed all you yahoos."

JD ducked into Standish's cubicle just as the nerf ball went flying overhead.  The normally composed agent gave his intruder an annoyed smirk as he leaned back in his chair lacing his hands behind his back.  He was trying to finish a report so he could leave early, but the constant interruptions and capers of his fellow agents were making it almost impossible.

"Hey Ez, heard you're not coming to Chris's for Thanksgiving tomorrow?"  JD asked as an afterthought, peeking over the top of the wall looking for Buck.

"That is correct, Mr. Dunne.  My mother has seen fit to grace me with her presence on this auspicious holiday.  We plan on having an elegant dinner at an exclusive restaurant then a quiet evening catching up on our lives," Ezra explained to the young agent who was only half listening.

JD fired the nerf ball at Josiah, who had entered the office area, then ducked down before the large agent could see who the culprit was.  JD then turned his attention back to the suave undercover agent.  He held a lot of respect for the slick operator.   Standish didn't treat him like a kid or coddle him, unlike some members of the elite team.  What JD didn't know was that Ezra watched him like a hawk, he just wasn't aware of it.  "Well I guess seeing your mother is good, but we'll miss ya."

Ezra gave the young man a grateful smile, detecting the disappointment in the young man's voice.  JD jumped at the sound of Buck's booming voice.  "Yikes!  See you on Monday, Ez," he shouted over his shoulder as he took off.  

As the afternoon waned everyone finished up their paperwork in preparation for the long weekend ahead.   The office building was already emptying out as other government employee's slowly made their excuses and left.

Larabee poked his head around Standish's cubicle seeing the urbane agent busy at his computer. "Hey Ez, you know you have an open invite for tomorrow. Hell, you can even bring your mother," Chris grimaced slightly as he forced out the words. He wasn't real fond of Maude.  She seemed to give no thought to Ezra's feelings or belittling his position as a government agent.  She believed his job was beneath him and that he was wasting his so called God-given talents.  Of course, Ezra being the best undercover agent this side of the Mississippi mattered little to the aristocrat woman.

Ezra swiveled around in his chair to face the highly respected leader.  "I thank you Mr. Larabee, but my mother and I have a lot of catching up to do."  Ezra was grateful for the invite.  He knew how hard it was for the ATF leader to extend an invitation to his mother.  Both Maude and Chris felt the same way about each other, intense and utter disgust.  Chris gave the customary two-finger salute and left.

The esteemed leader strode down the hall his thoughts drifted to the six individuals who made up his elite team.  When he selected each man, he had no idea how integrated they would all become.  They worked together seamlessly, each knowing what the others were thinking during an operation; this saved their lives on more than one occasion and made them the best ATF team in the country. 

On a personal level, they felt like a family, with one exception.  Ezra Standish kept them all on the outskirts of his life.  He was more the errant stepchild; a position he seemed very accustomed to.  The impassive mask he maintained gave nothing away about how he really felt.  This attribute was what made him an exceptional undercover agent, but it came at a price, keeping him estranged from the people he worked closely with.

Chris was familiar with the haunted look that, at times, fluttered across the Ezra's green eyes when he furtively looked at the other agents.  It was one Chris had seen on his own face countless times in the past, after the death of his family.   Ezra wanted to belong, but was afraid. He was afraid of being stabbed in the back again, of always being the scapegoat.  He had been hurt one to many times and taught at a very young age not to let anyone get close.  Even his own mother maintained a cold, sterile relationship with her only child. 

Chris smiled as he entered the stairwell to head downstairs.  Without any prodding from him, he had noticed how the others were slowly chipping away at Ezra's protective wall, trying to bring him into the fold.  It was happening, the last couple weeks everyone was pleasantly surprised when Ezra entered the bar where they hung out on Friday nights after work.  He even came to one of Chris' barbecues last month, after which, he took all their money in a poker game.  Yes, Ezra Standish belonged; he just didn't realize it yet.

*****Part 2

Ezra slept in the next morning, and then had a leisurely brunch. He was actually looking forward to seeing his mother and spending the holiday with her.  The last time they had spent time together he had introduced her to the six men that he now worked with--it didn't go well. 

He looked up at the face of the large grandfather clock, which stood guard in his living room, seeing that he still had three hours before he was to pick her up at the airport.  Her plane was due to arrive at two o'clock from Rome where she spent most of her time.  The phone rang just as he finished cleaning up the last of the dishes.  He picked it up a scowl coming immediately to his handsome face as he heard his mother's voice on the other end.  His eyes slowly closed as she informed him that she was still in Rome and wouldn't be coming to visit.

"Of course mother, I, I don't expect you to leave him, you just met him...sure, maybe Christmas...goodbye."

Ezra took the handset away from his ear, stared at it for a moment, and then set it gently back down in its cradle.  He fell heavily into the overstuffed leather chair.  His mother had met a wealthy entrepreneur and wanted to spend time with him, or in other words get her hooks into him.  Of course, her son was expendable when it came to these romantic/lucrative endeavors.  He fully expected to be receiving an invitation to attend a wedding within the next three months.

In all his thirty-one years, he couldn't remember a family-style Thanksgiving.  He had spent a couple Thanksgivings with some distant relatives, but was forced to serve and clean up and didn't participate in any of the family activities.  Many Thanksgivings were spent abroad without anyone, unless some friend at the time offered to share their family.  Well, this year it would be different, this year he would have a memorable Thanksgiving with people who cared about him.  Ezra grabbed his coat and headed out the door as the first snowflake started to fall.

***** Part 3

Mary, Josiah and Nathan were arguing about how much longer the turkey should cook and when the vegetables should be put on.  JD, Casey, Buck and Vin were trying to improve the reception on Chris' TV for the football game.  Chris was adding more wood to the huge fireplace as the temperature had taken another dive.  He grabbed the nearby poker to push some of the logs further back.  A smile tugged at his lips at the sounds that filled his home.   The laughter and chatter of friends who were as close as family brought life back into the log home.  Some of the sorrow that constricted his heart at this time every year lifted.

"Okay JD, now lift your right foot just a little and raise your left arm."  JD looked like the karate kid, standing next to the thirty-two inch TV.  He was holding onto an antenna with one hand and a connecting wire with the other, attempting yoga style movements to try and get the picture better, much to everyone's amusement.  He finally got fed up with Buck and Vin's directions and threw down the antenna.

"That's it, it's perfect!" Buck yelled, looking at a clear crisp picture.  His yell turned into a shout of triumphant as he caught the score seeing that his team was winning.  Vin slumped down in the comfortable chair.  He had bet Buck $50 on this game, well it was only the 1st half.

"OUT! OUT!"  Buck, Vin, JD, Casey and Chris turned to see Nathan and Josiah being ushered out of the kitchen by Mary, who held a ladle up, threatening the two men.  "Have you all never heard of to many cooks... Casey can you help me?" Mary pleaded a look of exasperation on her frazzled features.

"Sure Ms. Travis."  Casey smiled and gave JD a peck on the lips as she extricated herself from under his arm and headed for the kitchen.

What did you two do?"  Chris asked his two most steadfast and down to earth agents, though at times, he suspected they were behind some of the inner office shenanigans.

Nathan and Josiah shared a quick glance then shrugged, plopping down in two available seats to watch the game. "I don't think Miss Travis appreciated our culinary advice," answered Josiah as he grabbed a handful of peanuts that sat on the table.

Nathan looked over at his huge friend and grinned.  "She just didn't want you adding your mysterious herbs to anything.  You remember what happened last time."

"Now brother Nathan, let's not rehash past indiscretions," Josiah quickly interrupted.

Dunne was about to ask Nathan what he was talking about when Buck leaped from his chair yelling and gyrating as his team made another touchdown.

"Elvis lives!" Josiah shouted.

Vin slumped deeper into his seat as he watched his friend gloat.  He then turned his head to look out the window.  He wished that Ezra could have made it.  He was beginning to take a liking to the sophisticated agent's dry sense of humor, and getting use to his easygoing presence. 

The snow was falling heavy and fast, snuffing out the afternoon sun, giving the outside a hazy gray appearance.   Vin believed they would all probably be stuck here the night.  His brow furrowed as he noticed tendrils of smoke coming from the side of the house.  He stood and walked over to the window laying his face against the pane to look to the side.

"Hey Chris, your shed's on fire!" Vin yelled as he headed for the door.  Everyone, except Mary and Casey, raced outside to see the small shed completely engulfed in flames.  Chris stood with his hands on his hips; there hadn't been much inside and certainly nothing flammable, why would it go up?  He started getting a bad feeling; he hated when he got this feeling.  Vin gave him a sidelong glance getting the same unpleasant sensation in the pit of his stomach.

The shed was far enough a way from the house to pose little danger and the falling snow and cold would quickly put out the flames.  The men watched until they were sure there was no threat then headed back inside.  They were greeted with a sight that caused their hearts to skip and race up their throats.

Six men, all wearing army surplus parkas and pants were standing in the kitchen doorway.  Two of them held guns to Casey and Mary's heads.  The other four stood with smug grins on their faces and guns pointed directly at the surprised ATF agents.

"Ah shit!"  Buck exclaimed as he recognized three of the men as John, Peter and Michael Nichols, notorious drug and weapons traffickers.

"Good to see you again, Larabee,"  Peter Nichols sneered as he stepped forward.  Peter Nichols matched Chris' height and build with long black hair tied back in a ponytail.  His eyes held a constant dark edge to them, which gave him a scowling appearance.  His younger brother Michael was a mirror image of him in almost every way, even personality.  John Nichols was more conservative with close-cropped hair and gaunter features.   He appeared lost and unsure, looking toward his brothers for guidance.

Michael and another man approached the formidable ATF agents and removed any weapons.  Chris clenched his fists, berating himself for being caught off guard, but it was Thanksgiving for god's-sake.

"What are you doing here, Nichols?" Larabee asked, not bothering to hide the disgust he felt for the man standing before him.  His icy blue gaze locked on to Mary's face trying to reassure her.  He could tell she was scared, but she refused to give in to it.  It was one of things he found so attractive about the strong newswoman.

"Well, we were in the neighborhood and figured we'd stop by.  You see it's hard to enjoy Thanksgiving when half your family is dead!" Peter snarled.  "I thought maybe we'd come by and return the favor."

*****Part 4

Standish had stopped by the ATF office to borrow one of the agency's SUVs.  His jag would never make it up to Larabee's cabin, especially with the snow that was now falling all over Denver. The mountains would be twice as bad; he just hoped he could make it before they closed the roads.  He had packed a small bag, figuring like the rest that he'd be stuck up there for the night, either due to the weather or their inebriated states. 

Ezra had stayed angry with his mother on the drive to the office, but now that he was heading up to Chris' he was actually starting to feel glad his mom had canceled.  He had a hard time trusting people, and maintained a cool exterior to keep people from getting to close.  Since joining Team 7 he was finding it hard to keep up the front with the six unique individuals he worked with.  He knew they were trying to pull him into their elite coterie, what was inconceivable was that, he was letting them.  He trusted these men with his life; it was time to trust them with his heart.  Ezra smiled as he made his way out of Denver and into the rugged Rocky mountains.  He actually looked forward to being with his friends.  This would finally be a Thanksgiving to remember.

The Nichols' brothers and their three associates quickly tied everyone's hands behind their backs.  Tanner started fighting and one of the men threw a fist into his stomach, sending him gasping to the floor.  Chris tried to go to him but was stopped in his tracks by a gun in his face.  They were all forced to sit down against the wall.  JD managed to maneuver himself beside Casey who was so terrified she hadn't uttered a word.  Her skinned crawled each time she saw Peter Nichols leer at her.

"Don't worry Cass, everything will be okay," JD quietly tried to reassure her.  She forced a smile onto her young face, trying to be strong.

"Well boy, I wouldn't go liein' to her now," Peter answered, kneeling down in front of the young girl and running his hand down her cheek.  Vin threw his shoulder over JD to hold him in place.  Casey pulled away, which brought a smile to the man's face.  "I like them feisty."  He stood and walked away.

"What do you want?" Chris asked again.

Peter Nichols stood over the blond ATF leader enjoying the sight.  He knew that Larabee considered these men his family; he intended to make him suffer as he suffered.  "First, let me introduce you to my associates. This is Hawkins, Gunther and Thomas, who really hate government agents for various reasons we won't go into at this time."

The six lawmen quickly took in the three hired men.  Hawkins looked more like a store clerk, with Gunther and Thomas looking like a couple of barroom bouncers with the IQs of retarded chimpanzees.  Hawkins seemed to be the man in charge of the other two; Gunther and Thomas just seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"Now, as I said before we're here for a little pay back.  You all killed two of our brothers.  My mother died recently of a broken heart, and I blame you."

"Your brothers were dealing drugs and had a lab set up in the warehouse," Nathan interjected, bringing Peter's dark eyes upon him.  The dark agent returned the glaring stare.

"It's your fault the warehouse burned, they never had a chance," Peter yelled, turning away to hide the sudden flood of emotion.  He had watched as grief slowly took his mother, watched her die a little each day until she finally ended it.  He found her hanging from the rafter of their barn.

Josiah looked over to see John Nichols bow his head at the memory of his mother. 

Since her death, John had been numb.  He had been unable to think for himself or pull himself out of the depression that gripped him.  He looked at the eight captives, and tried to feel anger toward the men who were responsible for his brothers' deaths, but he couldn't--All he felt was fear.

The seven ATF men had raided a warehouse several months ago after their undercover agent had learned that a large supply of weapons were being stored there.  The drug lab they found was an unexpected bonus. There was a shoot-out, which caused the extremely volatile chemicals to explode completely engulfing the warehouse.  The seven lawmen barely escaped with their lives.  Josiah and Buck had both received severe burns trying to save the two men trapped inside.

Peter turned back around having composed himself. He glared at the six men he believed responsible for his brothers' and mother's death.  He pointed his gun at Chris who didn't even flinch.  "Michael, you and Gunther go out and incapacitate the vehicles, just incase anyone gets brave or stupid on us," Peter ordered.  The two men left and after a couple moments, the silence was broken by gunshots as they shot out the tires then returned.  "Now, I think it's time we dispense a little justice."

*****Part 5

An unpleasant smile came to Peter's face as the aroma of turkey wafted from the kitchen.  "Wait... there's no sense letting a perfectly good Thanksgiving dinner go to waste."   His men nodded, taking in the delicious aroma, which made their mouths water.  "Untie the women they can serve us."

Thomas and Gunther kept their guns trained on the six lawmen as Hawkins untied Mary and Casey.  "Alright you two, go and set the table and serve us some food, any funny business and you'll be responsible for the death of one of these brave men," Hawkins intoned, his voice carrying a strong note of sarcasm.  Mary took Casey's arm and pulled her close as they were ushered toward the kitchen.

JD watched with fearful eyes as Casey was forced into the kitchen and out of sight, he hated feeling so helpless.  He glanced over to Chris whose eyes burned with rage his mind working on a plan. The only chance he could see was if one of them could get out and make a run for it.  There was another ranch about five miles down the mountain.  Vin would be the best choice to go, now if he could only give the sharpshooter the chance.

Mary and Casey served the food to the Nichols' brothers who sat around the table.  The three hired men sat in the living room while they ate, keeping their eyes on their prisoners.  When Casey came up to Peter's side to dish out potatoes he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into his lap.  He could feel her tense in his grasp and smiled.  JD jumped up before Vin could stop him and rushed past the three grinning men who guarded them.  Gunther leaped over the couch and grabbed the young fugitive by the collar before he reached the table.  Peter kept his hold on Casey, who could only stare at JD who was coming to her rescue.

"So, we have a hero do we?" Peter commented, running his hand through Casey's hair, enjoying the reaction he was getting from the young agent.  The other agents' hearts raced in fear for their rash friend. 

Chris could read the fear in Buck's face and knew he was about to lose another agent to rage.  Thomas and Hawkins raised their guns halting any further heroics.

Dunne clenched his jaw, not wanting to show the fear he felt coursing through him, but he knew that the man before him could see it in his eyes.  He chided himself for acting so impulsively, so much like a kid.  When he saw Nichols' hands on Casey all rational thought disappeared.  Gunther looped his arm behind JD's arms and wrenched upward bringing forth a yelp of pain from the young agent.

"LEAVE HIM ALONE!"  Buck yelled, his face red with pent up rage and fear for his young friend. 

Peter looked over and smiled at the mustached agent.  This was going better than he hoped.  He stood up pushing Casey off to the side. 

Mary grabbed Casey and pulled her behind her.  She then looked over at John who stared at them with sad eyes.

"Take her into the kitchen," John softly said.  He knew what was about to happen and was hoping to save the young girl from witnessing it.  Something in the quiet man's eyes made Mary quickly grab Casey and pull her into the kitchen.

All the others could do was watch. They all knew JD was going to pay for his impetuous act. 

"He's just a boy, leave him alone," Josiah pleaded, knowing his plea was falling on deaf ears.

Peter Nichols walked up to the youthful agent and looked down at him.  Michael grinned from ear to ear behind him, causing the ATF agents' anger to grow.  John just continued eating; trying to ignore what was about to take place. 

Peter brought his fist up into JD's stomach causing the agent to double over, but Gunther held him up.  Two more blows to his stomach and an uppercut to his jaw sent the young man to the floor in an unconscious heap.  Gunther dragged the limp form back to the others and deposited him next to Vin, who tried to assess his injuries.  Peter straightened out his shirt and smiled.  "Well, that built up my appetite for dessert," he smugly voiced and returned to the table.

*****Part 6

They all heard the truck coming up the driveway, the tires spinning slightly as they hit patches of ice, then the engine cut off.  The three hired men turned their guns on their captives daring anyone to yell out. 

"If anyone makes a sound, I'll kill ya,"  Hawkins sneered, nervously pushing his brown hair back out of his eyes.

Peter grabbed Mary and Casey and shoved them back toward his men.  "Tie them back up!"  He motioned for Thomas to go check and see who it was.  He hadn't planned on anyone else showing up and didn't like deviations in his plans.

John casually moved behind the oak bar, seemingly unconcerned.  The fact was, he hoped they would all be caught and put and end to this.   He had loved his mother, but when she died he had hoped his life of drug and gun trafficking had finally come to an end.  Then Peter had stepped into the roll, taking over the family business.  Now John figured the only way he was ever going to get out of this life was in a pine box or jail, right now prison was looking mighty appealing.  He pulled out a bottle of fine sippin' whiskey and poured himself a shot.  He tossed back the smooth liquor and reveled in the warmth that burst in his belly.   A faint smile creased his face as he watched his brother pace the room.  Peter could not handle complications well; he expected everything to go smoothly and as planned.

Though a consummate southern boy, Ezra had to admire the splendor of white that blanketed the rugged peaks, giving them even more depth and beauty.  The scenery was spectacular, the snow capped mountains a thing of beauty and awe.  By the time Ezra reached the opening to Chris's long drive the temperature had dropped several degrees and the snow was coming down in large white flakes, so heavy you couldn't see the next mountain ridge.

Ezra pulled to a stop near the house, noticing that everyone else had already arrived.  He hoped no one would be displeased at his late and unexpected arrival.  He berated himself for the thought.  The others had been doing all they could to prove to him that he was an accepted member of their team.  It was his feelings of mistrust and lack of self-respect that prevented him from accepting that.  

Ezra got out of the car, throwing on his suede jacket and closing the car door, and then he stopped.  The hair on the back of his neck prickled, something wasn't right.  For one thing, someone would have greeted him by now, especially since he wasn't expected.  He looked over to his right at Buck's beat up Chevy and noticed something that sent a chill up his spine.  The truck seemed to be listing to one side, on closer inspection he discovered three of Buck's tires had been shot out.  He looked over at Vin's jeep and saw that all four had been flattened.  He reached behind his back and pulled the gun out from his waist band.  He then slowly crept toward the house, his eyes darting back and forth watching for any sudden movement.  The cover of snow muffled every sound, giving an eerie feel to the whole area.

The back door suddenly flew open revealing a large, imposing man, holding a gun.  'Not very bright,' Ezra thought as he dropped to the ground firing two shots, killing the man instantly.   He scrambled back behind his truck for cover as two more men appeared and started firing.  He returned fire then quickly reloaded, his heart pumping ferociously with adrenaline and fear for the others.

Tanner looked over to Chris who sat next to Buck and silently mouthed, "Ezra?"  Chris shrugged, but he believed it was his undercover agent.

Peter sent Hawkins and Gunther to help at the sound of multiple gunshots.  He angrily took over guarding the ATF agents next to his brother, Michael.  He threw a look of disgust at his brother, John.  The man had been all but useless since their mother had died.  He knew he would have to deal with him after this was all over with, he couldn't afford to keep such a liability.

*****Part 7

Hawkins and Gunther stumbled over Thomas' body and swore as they saw the neat bullet hole right in his chest.  They started shooting at the SUV that Ezra was hiding behind, keeping themselves inside the doorway for protection.  Ezra kept his head down trying to figure out what was going on and what had happened to the others.

Peter paced inside then threw up his hands, fed up at the standoff his men seemed to be in.  He glared at his brother John who was downing another shot.  "John, get your worthless ass over here and guard these people."

John set the glass down and picked up his gun, strolling over to stand next to Michael, the gun held loosely in his hand.   Peter snorted in exasperation at his brother.   He shouted back to Gunther and Hawkins.  "Stop shooting!"  He then went over and grabbed Casey by the arm hauling her up. "I'll show you how to take care of this!"

JD had come too during the shooting, but was still groggy and trying to make sense with what was going on.  When Peter grabbed Casey, his mouth overrode his brain once again.  "Leave her alone!"  He yelled, causing his head to pound.

Peter kicked the youth in the chest throwing him back against the wall gasping for breath.  He dragged Casey toward the open door, having to step over Thomas' inert body.  He placed her in front of him holding a gun to her head. "Alright, whoever you are come out or watch this pretty young girl's brains splattered all over the place," Peter called out.  

Standish peered over the hood of his truck to see Peter Nichols' holding Casey around the throat.  The girl was terrified, her face almost as white as the falling snow.  Ezra laid his forehead down on the side of the truck and swore.  

Peter grinned as he watched Ezra slowly rise from behind the truck, the falling snow giving him a ghostly appearance.  Ezra threw his gun to the side and put his hands into the air.  Gunther and Hawkins ran out with guns drawn.  They frisked the undercover agent then Gunther slammed his fist into the agent's stomach causing him to double over. 

"That's for Thomas, you bastard," he snarled.  The two men took the now gasping agent by the arms and dragged him inside as he tried to recover the air that had been forced from his lungs.

Peter threw Casey back against the wall with the others and she slid to the floor.  JD winced at the pain he felt, but moved closer to her trying to comfort her as much as possible.  She buried her face into his shoulder and he listened to her quiet sobs.

"Damn!" Chris quietly swore as the two hired goons dragged in his agent.

Ezra raised his head, relieved to see that everyone was alright, even though he noticed that JD had been roughed up a bit.  A cocky smile appeared on the suave agent's face.   "Gentlemen, can't leave you alone for a moment without you all getting into trouble."

Larabee threw a warning glare at his smug agent hoping to curtail his smart-ass comments.   "Ezra, what are you doing here?" Buck voiced wishing the southern agent hadn't come.  He had found himself growing quite fond of the pretentious man and was now very afraid for him.

The arrogant smile remained on Ezra's handsome countenance as he replied,  "You have my mother to thank."

Peter Nichols stepped in front of the smart aleck undercover and grabbed his jaw, forcing him to look straight at him.  "Well, well, if it isn't the man responsible for setting my brothers up," he spat.

Larabee's wrists were raw and bloody from trying to get loose.  He stopped his struggles at the tone of Peter's voice, and dread flickered over his somber features.  He glanced apprehensively over to Vin seeing the same fear on his normally impassive visage.

"It was my pleasure," Ezra sarcastically replied.  "By the way how's your dear old mother?"  Ezra had heard about Ma Nichols' unfortunate demise.

Josiah shook his head, why did the southerner always feel the need to promote anger in dangerous people.  If he liked danger, why couldn't he take up sky diving? It would be safer.

"I've been dreaming about this for a long time."  Peter handed his gun to Michael rolling up the sleeves of his shirt.  He motioned for Hawkins and Gunther to move away and give him room.  Ezra quickly shook out of his jacket, sizing up his adversary and the situation.  The odds were definitely not in the house's favor.  He had managed to take out one joker, but five remained, and five men with guns was still drawing to an inside straight with little chance of winning.  His mother always told him never gamble unless you had a sure bet.  He would have to even up the odds some.

*****Part 8

"Peter, what are you doing?" John grimly asked.

"Shut up, John.  I consider this therapy, because I'll feel a whole lot better afterwards," Peter sneered.  He swung his fist out connecting with Ezra's jaw and sending him to the wooden floor.  

"Leave him alone, Nichols!"  Chris yelled watching his agent, his friend, climb to his knees.

By the fierce smile on Peter's visage Chris and the others could tell he was enjoying himself.  He circled the kneeling agent then abruptly kicked him in the side, sending him sliding closer to the others. 

Ezra again tried to stand up, struggling for the air that wasn't there, then gasped when oxygen finally found its way into his lungs.  He managed to stagger to his feet, took a clumsy swing at his adversary, and missed, allowing Peter's fist to connect once again with his jaw.

The other six stared incredulously at Ezra, wondering why he was letting Peter beat the crap out of him.  They had recently discovered, as had the bad guys they captured last month that Ezra held a black belt in Tae-kwan-do.  A punch to the southerner's middle then another to the jaw sent him sprawling on to Vin and Buck's laps.  Hawkins and Gunther stood off to the side with amused grins on their faces.

"Come on get up, I thought you government agents could fight better than that," Peter jeered. 

Ezra turned his head, spitting out the blood that filled his mouth, at the same time his hand went quickly behind Vin's back dropping a jackknife into his hand.  Vin kept his face impassive, giving nothing away as his fingers wrapped around the knife.  A sly smile broke out across Ezra's face as he slowly stood. 

Larabee's eyes narrowed, causing his brow to furrow as he noticed the change in his agent's demeanor.  He saw the glint in the green eyes and the self-assured stance he now held and wondered what the sly undercover agent was up to. 

Ezra wiped the blood from his chin and his emerald eyes narrowed as he crouched down slightly, waiting for Peter to approach.  As the taller man came closer, Ezra turned sideways, putting his weight on his left leg.  He kicked up and out with his right, connecting with Peter's jaw and sending the dumbfounded man to the floor.  Peter was quickly on his feet and charged the undercover agent who deftly dodged the now enraged drug runner.  

Ezra wanted the fight to last, for all the attention to be on them, giving the others a chance to free themselves. Peter turned around seeing the amused grins on the ATF agent's faces.  He didn't like being made a fool of.  Ezra's face remained emotionless his eyes never leaving his opponent.

"Ah right Ez, kick his ass!" JD yelled enthusiastically.  Chris didn't like this, why was his agent antagonizing a psychopath?

Tanner worked furiously at his ropes with the small knife that Ezra had slipped him.  He knew that Ezra was trying to keep all the attention on himself, but Vin feared this would get the audacious agent killed.

Peter's rage was growing, making him sloppy and careless.  He swung his fist out, which was easily blocked by the highly trained agent.  Standish brought his own fist around and clocked Peter in the jaw, whipping his head back.  A swift, but constrained kick to the solar plexus sent the Nichols' man to the floor once again.  Ezra knew if he killed the man outright that his brothers would just shoot him and the others.  Ezra stared down at the man who was on his knees gasping for breath and chuckling.

"It appears... we have ourselves... a martial artist,"  Peter finally managed to gasp out.  "Well, this isn't...really a fair fight then...I think you need a handicap." 

Before Ezra understood what his psychotic opponent was talking about.  Peter nodded toward Michael, who turned his gun and shot Ezra in the leg, sending him to the floor. 

Ezra hissed in pain as the bullet ripped through his leg, lodging itself a little above the knee.   His face contorted as severe pain exploded above his knee cap.  He applied pressure to the wound trying to stop the flow of blood, which was pouring through his fingers.

Tanner had freed himself and wanted nothing more than to go and help his friend but he was out-numbered.  He could not blow the one chance that Ezra had given them.  It was the hardest thing he had ever done, but all the steadfast sharpshooter could do now was watch and wait until the rest were free.  He only hoped that Ezra lasted long enough.

When no one was watching Vin passed the knife quickly to Buck who sat at his right.  When Buck's hand grasped the knife a faint smile came to his face, which he quickly wiped away. 

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Larabee yelled, trying to stand up.

Hawkins ran over and kicked the blond leader in the chest throwing him against Josiah.  Sanchez glared up at the hired gun, his gray-blue eyes sending a shiver of dread down Hawkins' spine causing him to turn away.  It was a good thing the money was good, or he would have left after Thomas' was killed.  These agents unnerved him; even helpless they still seemed threatening and dangerous.

Peter stood over the wounded agent a maniacal smile on his pasty face.  He pulled his leg back and kicked Ezra in the side with everything he had.  Ezra felt and heard one of his ribs break.  He rolled over onto his back trying to hold onto consciousness through the pain and blood loss.  He could hear laughing and the whole room was spinning like one of those sickening rotating cage rides.  The ones that spun so fast that the centrifugal force held you against the walls of the ride. He swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat.  

"Leave him alone!" Nathan yelled out, grimacing at the injuries that were being inflicted on his friend.  "Haven't you done enough?"  When did he start considering Ezra a friend?  He wasn't sure.  He only knew now that his gut hurt and he was scared for the undercover agent. 

Michael stepped up to the black man and swung his pistol across his face.  "Shut up, he got what he deserved."

Nathan leaned against Josiah, blood trickling down his face from a cut on his forehead.  He never wanted to tear a man apart so bad in his life.

"Oh, I've only just begun," Peter snarled.  "Hawkins, Gunther get over here.  John, help Michael watch the prisoners."

Hawkins and Gunther pulled the wounded agent up to his feet.  Ezra had to stand on one leg; his right leg throbbed as rivulets of pain stretched out from the wound.  He tried to focus on the face that hovered before him.

Josiah noticed that John had paled at the abuse his brother was inflicting on the agent.  Michael, on the other hand, wore the same evil grin as Peter and seemed to be enjoying it just as much.  Maybe with John there would be a chance for escape. 

Buck turned to Vin knowing how hard it must be for the freed agent to just sit by and watch. 

Peter Nichols let his anger and hate intertwine into one overpowering force.  In his own twisted way, he had loved his brothers and mother.  She had made him what he was today and he loved her for it.  Gunther and Hawkins held Ezra up by the arms as Peter landed punch after punch on his already battered body.  Ezra barely felt the blows anymore and blackness swam just out of reach, but he forced it back, wanting to keep the show going for as long as possible.

"STOP IT! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP IT!" Mary Travis pleaded.  She couldn't stand it anymore.  She had closed her eyes, but could still hear the brutality.  She watched as the two men released their hold on the southern agent allowing him to collapse to the floor.  Silence fell. All that could be heard was the sound of Peter's heavy breathing. 

Ezra moaned and tried to open a swollen eye.  He slowly tried to rise getting to his one good knee.  His head swam and he felt as if he would blackout.  The only thought going through his pounding head was to keep the attention on him, give the others the chance to get free.

"Stay down, Ezra, please," Josiah quietly muttered, his heart breaking at the battered form of his friend. 

Buck had cut through his bonds, but like Vin, he knew the odds weren't in their favor.  It was the hardest thing he had ever done, watching as his friend was beaten, unable to help.  He quickly passed the knife to Chris.   When the blond leader grasped the knife renewed hope flowed through him and he realized what Ezra had been doing.  Chris looked down the line at Buck and Vin, knowing the two men were free and knowing the guilt they must be going through.

Hawkins picked up his gun and joined Michael and John in guarding the others.  This slowed Larabee's progress as he had to stop each time one of the men turned a suspicious eye at them.  Gunther grabbed the recalcitrant agent under an arm and pulled him up.  He grinned when he heard the Ezra's sharp intake of breath at the pain that surged through him.

"Well, you just don't know when to quit."  Peter's dark menacing eyes stared into glassy green ones.

"My ma didn't raise no quitter, to bad your mother wasn't a more suitable roll model," Ezra quipped.   Peter's eyes narrowed in contempt at the maligning agent.  He peered over Ezra's shoulder at the crackling fire seeing the poker sticking out of the flames, a demented grin cracked his face.  Peter reached down and took hold of the poker handle bringing it up to Ezra's face.  Standish turned his head sideways trying to pull away from the heat.

John seemed about to say something then decided against it. 

Larabee's heart pounded hard within his chest he could feel each beat.  His lips were pressed into a line of fear, but his eyes glared with hate and revenge.

"NO!"  JD and Josiah yelled in unison.

Vin swallowed hard and looked at Buck, they both looked over seeing Michael and Hawkins eyeing them, guns ready.  There was nothing they could do; they both closed their eyes to what was about to happen.

Peter waved the poker end back and forth in front of the suave agent's face.  Ezra clenched his jaw when he saw the look in Peter's eyes knowing what was about to happen.  Peter pressed the heated tip of the poker against Ezra's shoulder, causing the material of his shirt to melt to his skin. 

Ezra screamed as he felt the searing pain drill into his shoulder and smelled his own flesh burning.  His face contracted in agony and sweat streamed down his face.  Reflexes took over and he kicked out with his good leg catching the sadistic brother in the knee.  Peter yelped and collapsed as a torturous pain erupted from his own knee.  Gunther maintained his hold on Ezra whose legs trembled and were just barely holding him up.  Michael took a step forward to help his brother, but was waved off as Peter struggled back up, using the poker as a cane.

Peter stood and grabbed a handful of Ezra's shirt and gave it a jerk.  He glared at the defiant man before him, trying to figure out if he was really that bold or just stupid.  Ezra's face was covered in a sheen of perspiration and his whole body shook, bile and blood filled his mouth. 

In what he figured would be his last defiant act Ezra spit the sanguineous gob into Peter Nichols' face. 

Any sanity that had resided in Peter's soul vanished.  He brought the poker up over his head and struck the insolent southerner up side the head.  Ezra dropped bonelessly to the floor, landing on his side facing away from the others.

"I win," Peter sneered, kicking the fallen agent in the back.