ATF Universe


Ezra stared at his hands. Soft, smooth, graceful hands that were not meant for manual labor were now covered with blisters. The entire team had helped their teammate, Vin Tanner, for the past two days in his effort to help build a temporary youth shelter to replace the building destroyed by Douglas Randall in an arson fire.

Ezra couldn't remember the last time he had used a hammer. He smiled ruefully. For that matter, he couldn't remember ever using a hammer at all, and judging from the less than gentlemanly words he had uttered upon striking his thumb, he was certain the rest of the team knew he hadn't used a hammer. Ezra snorted. He was considered a graceful person, but there was absolutely nothing graceful about his attempts to nail a board into place. The southerner smiled to himself as he carefully washed his ill-treated hands. No, he had not always been graceful. Numerous childhood bumps, scrapes, and tiny scars could attest to that fact. Whatever had possessed him to attempt such a disastrous endeavor as swinging a hammer? He knew the answer. It was Vin Tanner. His teammate. His friend. Ezra delicately applied salve to the damaged areas on his palms, wincing at the discomfort. Helping his Texan teammate was costing him in more ways than he planned.

When Ezra finished wrapping his hands with gauze, he returned to his living room, turning on his CD player. Soft, relaxing classical music filled the air as he retrieved a mug of steaming hot chocolate from the microwave. Smiling to himself, Ezra returned to the living room and settled into the plush leather recliner. He wouldn't be caught dead drinking cocoa with the rest of the team around, but it was one of his secret comforts. A long hot shower, some good music and a cup of cocoa, and he would be ready to sleep in no time. Ezra sipped the brew, letting the sounds of piano, violins and oboe wash over him. He took in a deep breath and sighed it out. Setting the mug on the end table, he closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink into a very relaxed state.

A knock at the door startled him from his tranquillity. With heart pounding and quickened breathing, he picked up his handgun and headed toward the door. As an undercover ATF agent, he never knew who would come hunting for him. If he hadn't been so tired, he probably would have realized that a drug dealer bent on revenge wouldn't have knocked. Still, he had to be prepared for anything.

"Who is it?" he growled.

"Ezra? It's me," said Vin. Noting the tone of Ezra's voice, he added, "If it's a bad time, I can just go on home."

Ezra leaned his forehead on the door, letting out a sigh. No bad guys this time, just a hurting friend. The agent was relieved, and just a bit annoyed, as he began to unlock the deadbolt and the chain lock. He was relieved it wasn't a suspect coming after him. He was annoyed that his quiet time was being disturbed. He had anticipated relaxing after a hard day's work and now that idea was shot. The southerner pushed aside his irritation. He knew how much Vin was struggling emotionally after their last case, and after all the times the sharpshooter had helped him, Ezra owed it to him to be there for the Texan. He opened the door, pasting a smile on his face. "Come in, Vin."

Looking at his exhausted teammate, Ezra chided himself again for being aggravated. Vin's face was pasty. His normally bright blue eyes were dull and lifeless. The eyelids were red and puffy as if he had cried recently. Dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep made him appear racoonish. Clad in a T-shirt and jeans, his lean frame seemed even thinner than normal, almost emaciated. He had definitely lost more weight, weight the Texan could not afford to lose.

Vin followed Ezra inside, second-guessing himself. "I should go, Ez. I'm sorry ta bother ya."

Ezra watched a slight hope struggle with the haunting despair in Vin's eyes. If Team 7's sharpshooter ever needed the southerner to be a friend, it was now. "Nonsense, Vin," drawled Ezra. "Sit." He gently prodded Vin toward the couch. The southerner moved back to the door, closing it and locking it. Much to his chagrin, when he turned back to the living room, Vin had deposited himself in the recliner. Ezra's favorite spot. Ezra sighed to himself. "Can I get you anything?"

Vin fingered the coffee mug on the table beside him. "This one of them fancy coffee's a'yers, Ezra? Smells like cocoa," said Vin absently.

Ezra snatched the mug from Vin and set it on the coffee table by the couch. "It is cocoa, and I find it relaxing, Mr. Tanner." The words came out a bit more defensively than he had intended, but Vin didn't seem to notice. He had a far away look in his eyes as if the thought of cocoa, or perhaps the smell had triggered a memory. Ezra's sense of hospitality quickly kicked in and he found himself softly offering the exhausted man a cup of his own.

Ezra walked the few steps to the kitchen and made up a mug for Vin. It took just a couple minutes before he returned with the steaming brew and placed it on the end table next to the recliner. "Be careful. It's hot."

Vin sucked in a surprised gasp at the simple words. 'Be careful. It's hot.' Memories tumbled through his mind. Sitting with Joe and Becky Donlan on a cold winter night, drinking hot chocolate and eating cookies. A smile toyed at Vin's lips. His foster mom had always made cocoa for him on special occasions. The smell reminded him of family and times that had been good.

Ezra sank down on the leather couch, sipping his own brew. He would wait, just as he had done every time Vin had sought him out since the Randall arson case had concluded. Sometimes Vin talked, or rather, asked questions. Sometimes Vin just sat with Ezra, unconsciously feeling the need for some kind of contact with his friends, perhaps feeling safe with Ezra because of the southerner's own fiercely guarded privacy.

"Becky made cocoa," said Vin with a lop-sided grin that faded too soon. "She was one of my foster moms." Vin paused to reconsider his words. "That don't do her justice. She was the closest thing I had to a mom after Mama died."

Silence overwhelmed the room when Vin finished speaking. Ezra felt so awkward. Vin should be talking to Josiah, or a counselor. Even Chris. Anyone but him. The southerner felt wholly inadequate to help his friend. But, Vin had come to him, and he had to try to do something.

"That's right nice music, Ezra," commented Vin, trying to direct his own thoughts away from the memory of the Donlans.

"It's Panis Angelicus. Charlotte Church," answered Ezra.

"I don't know all the fancy words to describe it. But it's purty," said Vin, self-conscious about his lack of culture.

"I think that is a perfect description, Vin," responded Ezra carefully, "but I don't think that's what you wanted to talk about."

Vin shook his head and began to fidget with the arm of the recliner. "Damn, Ezra. How come it's so hard to talk?" Vin blurted in frustration with himself.

"That's simple, Vin," responded the southerner gently, setting his mug down, leaning forward and rubbing one hand through his short brown hair. "You and I are intensely private people, Vin. We are accustomed to handling things on our own, and when situations like this dictate…" Ezra struggled for a word. "When situations like this dictate that we must talk, that we must share a piece of ourselves, it goes against everything you and I have been taught."

"Hell, I don't even know what I been taught anymore. Everything is all muddled up and I can't seem to sort it out." Vin sighed and rubbed his eyes. He was so tired, but he couldn't sleep. His mind wouldn't let him. When the exhaustion took over and his body could not stay awake anymore, nightmares filled his restless sleep.

"I'm so tired," said Vin simply.

"Go to sleep, Vin. You can stay right here," offered Ezra. He didn't miss the flicker of fear that crossed the Texan's weary features. "Sleep, Vin. I'll be right here," he assured.

"I have dreams," warned the Texan.

"I'll be right here. I'll wake you up if you want." Ezra could see the uncertainty in Vin's eyes, begging the southerner not to betray him. "I won't tell anyone what I hear, Vin."

Vin sighed. He really needed to sleep, but he didn't want to be alone. "Hell, Ez. I don't know why I can't get myself together. I'm just a big baby." Vin washed his hands over his face and through his long hair.

"No, Vin. You are not," chided Ezra gently. "You are simply a man who has been through a traumatic time. You are responding normally to Critical Incident Stress. You will get through this, Vin, and right now, you need to sleep."

Vin tried to gauge how Ezra was really feeling about him showing up on his doorstep again. "Ya sure about this, Ez?" he asked, believing that the offer was genuine, but not certain he wanted to stay.

Ezra nodded. "I'll get some blankets and a pillow." Ezra took their empty mugs to the kitchen before going to get the blankets from the closet. Vin got up out of the recliner, and started towards the door, intending to go home, but he was just too tired. The couch looked too inviting. He dropped wearily on the couch and pulled off his boots. Ezra shoved a pillow under his head just as he lay down. Vin snuggled into the pillow, closing his eyes and felt a blanket being draped over him. He yawned, "Thanks, Ezra. I owe ya."

'Not at all, Vin,' thought Ezra. 'I'm just beginning to pay you back for all the effort you put in to making me a part of this team.' Ezra turned down the stereo and dimmed the lights. "Sleep well, my friend."


Ezra reached out and smacked his hand on the top of the alarm clock, but the noise continued. He peeled one eye open. Three forty-five. That couldn't be right. His clock was set for six-thirty. Hearing the noise again, he realized it wasn't his clock that had awakened him. His company in the front room was the cause of the disturbance. Ezra reluctantly threw back his warm covers and slipped on a pair of sweat pants. Still half asleep, he padded into the living room to check on Vin.

The Texan's blankets were on the floor as he thrashed on the couch, obviously having a nightmare. Having no experience with how Vin would react to being awakened, Ezra thought it best to keep the back of the couch between himself and the dreaming Texan. He cautiously reached over the couch and shook Vin's shoulder. The sharpshooter wasn't fazed in the least at the gentle shake, trapped deep in his nightmare. Ezra shook him firmly.

"Vin. Wake up. You're having a nightmare."

The undercover agent jumped back as Vin sat up suddenly, yelling, "Josiah! No!"

"Easy, Vin," soothed Ezra, stepping closer again, and laying a calming hand on Vin's shoulder. "It was just a dream." Frightened eyes sought his face for assurance. "It was a dream, Vin. You're all right."

Vin was confused as he woke, but he grabbed on to Ezra's reassurance and closed his eyes, reining in his breathing. Ezra moved to the front of the couch and leaned his hip on the leather arm.

"Do you want to talk about it?" asked Ezra.

Vin shook his head, but after a few more deep breaths he said, "I can't stop thinking about it."

"About what, Vin?" He watched his friend closely. The fear of the dream demonstrated itself through trembling hands, Vin's bowed head and slumped shoulders.

Vin slowly looked up. "Josiah dying," he said simply.

"In the fire?" asked Ezra.

Vin nodded.

"But Josiah didn't die," said the southerner. "He's fine. You know that."

Vin rubbed his eyes with his hand. "Yeah. I just wish someone would tell my dream that." A slight grin curled the corners of his mouth.

Ezra smiled. Vin's wry humor was beginning to peek out. A good sign indeed.

"It doesn't happen the same in my dream," said Vin. "I'm at the mission fire with Randall, and when JD and Josiah are trapped, I run away from Randall and get them out."

Vin looked at Ezra, who nodded to him to continue. "So you got them out?"

"Yeah, but all the sudden, it jumps to the Youth Shelter fire. You know, Josiah weren't even there. He was in the hospital."

Ezra nodded in confirmation.

"But." Vin hesitated. He wasn't sure how to explain what happened in his dream. He absently rubbed his thumb and index finger together, staring at something in his mind, but gazing blankly into space.

"Go on, Vin. What happened?" prodded Ezra.

"When Chris keeps me from going back in..." Vin stopped and shook his head. "This is crazy, Ez. When he keeps me from going back in, Josiah is suddenly there, and, and, as the building falls, he dies."

Ezra could see Vin shudder at the thought. "Why do you think that happens, Vin?" he asked softly.

Vin's nightmare leaving him vulnerable, he didn't even think about what he was revealing with his answer. "Because I lived there for awhile. Josiah steered me there." Vin nervously raked shaky fingers through his tangled hair. "When it was burning down, I felt like I was losing the last part of my childhood. I'd already lost everything' else. I couldn't stand losin' one more piece." He clasped his hands together, trying to stop the trembling. "Don't know why Josiah dies there, 'cept maybe 'cause I didn't know he was alive when the shelter burned." Vin stopped, suddenly realizing how much he had unintentionally revealed to the southerner.

Ezra smiled reassuringly, understanding the fear. "I promise you, Vin, I won't tell anyone what you said."

Vin nodded, knowing the southerner would keep his word. What was slightly amazing to the man was that, for some reason, it didn't seem quite so embarrassing to have someone know he had lived at the shelter. Ezra hadn't been shocked, dismayed, condescending or even piteous. He had accepted Vin's admission without judgment. "Ez, I ain't never told anyone I lived on the streets or at the Youth Shelter, 'cept JD when we was on the street. And Josiah knows 'cause he was there. Don't know why I never said nothin'."

"Yes, you do, Vin," replied Ezra, nodding.

Vin grinned. "Yep. Guess I do." He snorted. He definitely knew why he had never shared that element of his life. He was embarrassed to have his friends know, not just that he had lived on the streets, but the things he had had to do to survive. He had long since made restitution for things he had stolen, at least the stuff he could remember, but some things could not be repaid or fixed. Not wanting to dwell on those thoughts, Vin tried to change direction. "Remember that night we was at Buck and JD's?"

"Last week?"

'Was it just last week?' thought Vin. It seemed like a million years ago. "Yeah. When everyone started talk about funny things that happened when they was kids?"

Ezra nodded, remembering the night well. He had made up a whopper of a tale to share with the team that night.

"It's just, y'all had such normal stuff, and me..." Vin didn't finish the thought.

"You felt like you didn't fit?" asked Ezra.

Vin nodded. "Ain't that stupid? I mean, I'm a grown man and kid's stories make me feel like I don't belong."

Ezra shifted uncomfortably. He understood far better than Vin knew. He had fabricated the story about a school that he had never attended and a prank he had never pulled. Ezra looked at the vulnerable friend before him. The southerner was waging a small war within himself about whether to tell Vin the truth about that night. He decided what Vin didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

"It isn't stupid, Vin. I understand completely." He saw Vin's skeptical look and knew what the sharpshooter needed him to do. It went against his nature, but the hurting Texan was drawing things from the southerner that he would never expose to another of his teammates. "I lied that night, Vin," he confessed in a whisper.

"What?" asked Vin, surprised. He knew Ezra stretched the truth on occasion as needed, and that had never bothered him. It was the same as Buck with his stories about his ladies. The confession was what surprised him.

"I, too, wanted to fit in. So, I made up a story." Ezra shrugged.

"Why the hell wouldn't you fit in?" blurted Vin without thinking. Suddenly realizing he had asked something too personal, Vin backpedaled. "You don't have to answer that. I wasn't meanin' to pry."

"Well, let's just say, life is not always as it seems," said Ezra.

Vin snorted. "It sure ain't." He stretched his arms and rubbed his tired eyes again. "You figure any of the others have skeletons in their closets?"

Ezra chuckled. "Most certainly." He sobered quickly, seeing Vin's weariness. "Do you think you can go back to sleep now?" he asked quietly. Vin nodded and eased back down on the couch. "Good," said Ezra with a grin. "You may have to wake me to get to work on time."

Vin laughed softly. "I'll make sure you're awake. Just make sure your damn peashooter ain’t anywhere near ya." Vin took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Ezra?"

"Yes, Vin?" said Ezra, scooping the blankets off the floor.

"Thanks, pard."

"You're welcome." Ezra smiled. "I believe you lost these." He tossed the wad of blankets at the sharpshooter, heading back to his bedroom.


It was four-thirty. Sleep had not returned to the southerner. Ezra's mind was too busy rolling over thoughts of his childhood. Old memories, long stored away had come to the surface with Vin's comments. Why had he made up the story about the boarding school? Vin's mention of not fitting in made Ezra realize he had much more in common with the scruffy Texan than one would imagine.

Appearances would have you believe that the two men came from different sides of the tracks and would have nothing in common. The southerner knew that the rest of the team believed that he was well-to-do financially and he did everything to perpetuate that myth. Ezra smiled bitterly at the memories of scraping for every penny when he was a child and throughout his college years. While he had a very healthy nest egg now, he was far from what he would consider wealthy. He drove a fancy car that he wouldn’t have if not for his mother. He wore fancy clothes but many of them were a gift from his mother as well.

She had certainly instilled in him an appreciation for the finer things of life. There was nothing quite like a fine gourmet meal, a good bottle of wine, the symphony, an art museum, or the feel of expensive silk against your skin. His mother had trained him from his earliest days to pursue wealth. She had tasted poverty and wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Ezra grimaced. No, he didn't relish poverty either, but other than the allure of the pursuit itself, he found no fulfillment in wealth either. He had watched his own mother for years, as she reeled in one wealthy mark after another, but she was never satisfied. Ezra had doggedly tried her path until his senior year of college. A brief smiled crossed his face at the memory of his mother's reaction to his announcement that he was an FBI agent.

"Why Ezra, Darling, you must be joking," she had said with her usual flourish.

"Not at all, Mother," he had replied.

"You are becoming better all the time at this game." She pinched his cheek proudly. "Your poker face is getting better all the time. Why I almost couldn't tell you were teasing with me."

"It's not a game, Mother. I am serious. I started working for them after the cruise fiasco." Ezra had watched Maude step back, uncertain about this game. When she had determined her baby boy was serious, she had become livid.

"Ezra, what are you thinking! You will never be able to support your lifestyle on a civil servant's salary," she chided. Maude laid her hand against her cheek in dismay. "They must have switched babies on me at the hospital. No son of mine would ever throw his life away on this foolish little pursuit."

"I don't care, Mother." Ezra knew that somewhere in her heart his mother cared what happened to him, but he had seen this manipulation scheme one too many times.

"You don't care! Have you not learned anything I taught you? How could you disappoint your own dear mother like this?"

It always came back to that. Disappointing his mother. Ezra shook his head at the memory. He had spent all of his childhood and youth trying desperately to please his mother, to win her love, but he had failed. He was always a disappointment in her eyes. When he was just starting elementary school, he was rather uncoordinated, and Maude, insisting that appearances were everything, had enrolled him in ballet classes. On a scholarship, of course. She wouldn't have wasted her precious money on something so trivial. Ezra stopped himself. It was useless to allow the anger and resentment to build. The ballet classes hadn't been that bad although he probably would have outgrown the awkward stage on his own as his muscle coordination matured. It had, however, led to merciless teasing by his peers at Robert E. Lee Elementary School.

"Ezra? You awake?"

Startled by the appearance of Vin at his bedroom door, Ezra sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, I find myself unable to sleep." He sat up and turned on the bedside lamp as Vin approached the bed and held out the cordless phone.

"You got a phone call. It's your ma." Vin frowned at the anger that flitted across Ezra's face.

"You'd think by now she'd figure out the time difference," said Ezra curtly as he snatched the phone from Vin wondering how he had missed hearing it ring. "Hello Mother," he grumbled. Ezra caught Vin's look of disapproval and heard him mutter something about, "treating your ma with respect," as he left the room.


Ezra hung up the phone. Five-thirty. There was no point in going back to bed. He would only oversleep. He decided to get up and shower. Maybe he and Vin could go out for breakfast. He sat up and slipped on the sweat pants again and stood up. His ankle twinged slightly. It was still tender from the sprain, and he had to be cautious so he wouldn't re-injure it.

He slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and checked Vin on the way to the bathroom. The Texan was sleeping, apparently peacefully, facing away from the back of the couch with his blanket nearly pulled over his head. Ezra was grateful that Vin had been able to sleep. He certainly needed the rest.

As he showered and groomed, Ezra reviewed the conversation with his mother. She would be in town this evening and had demanded that he escort her to dinner. Ezra smothered a yawn. He hoped it would be a short evening and that maybe, just once, it would be pleasant. Ezra smoothed his hair into place and straightened his tie carefully. He had just finished putting away his shaving kit when he heard a crash in the living room.

Ezra stepped out of the bathroom and moved quickly toward the sound. He had to smile at the sight of a scruffy Texan lying on the floor doing battle with his blankets.

Vin finally got himself free and threw the blankets on the couch with a grunt of triumph. He glanced up and saw Ezra smiling. "What's so funny? I could've hurt myself, ya know." He pushed against the coffee table trying to unwedge himself from between the couch and table. He looked up, having heard the southerner's ungentlemanly snort.

Ezra held out a hand offering help up. "How ever did you manage that predicament?" drawled the southerner.

Vin grabbed the hand that was offered. "I rolled over," he said as he pulled himself up and sat on the couch. He grinned sheepishly. "Didn't remember I wasn't in my bed 'til I hit the floor." Vin yawned and stretched. "Did I oversleep? You're ready for work."

"No. It's still early. I thought perhaps we could go get some breakfast?" offered Ezra.

"Sounds good. Just let me grab a shower." Vin replied with another yawn.

"I put a pair of jeans and a shirt in the bathroom," said Ezra. "I hope they'll fit."

"I didn't know Gucci made blue jeans," teased Vin.

Ezra shook his head and rolled his eyes. "I'll make coffee."

"Thanks Ez. I really appreciate it," said Vin.

Ezra just nodded and headed for the kitchen. As he ground the coffee, the fresh aroma wafted over him, again bringing to mind Vin's words from last night. Vin had actually shared a small piece of his past when the smell of the cocoa reminded him of his foster family. Ezra's heart twinged a little. Even knowing that Vin's early days had been very difficult, he envied the Texan's time with his loving foster family. He coveted the sense of family and even the love Vin had experienced. Tanner's mother had died when he was very young, but Vin had the memory of her love. Ezra still had his mother, and she had no idea what love was or how to express it. Vin had a string of foster homes, at least one of which was very loving. Ezra had a string of so-called relatives who resented him and had simply put up with him after his mother dumped him on their doorsteps. There had been just one small haven in his childhood - Aunt Grace.

"Ezra." It was the third time Vin had called the distracted man's name. He laid his hand on Ezra's forearm and the southerner literally jumped, jerking his arm away from the touch. "Sorry," said Vin softly.

Ezra calmed his pounding heart as he poured a cup of coffee for Vin.

"Wha'cha thinkin' about, Ez?" inquired Vin.

"Nothing, Mr. Tanner," responded Ezra distantly.

"Come on. You were a million miles away," encouraged Vin.

Ezra eyed Vin. "Yes, well, if you must know, I was considering how fortunate you were to have a loving mother and a loving foster mother."

"Yep," said Vin as he tilted his head slightly, trying to read the southerner. There it was. It was just a glint. Was that jealousy? Why would Ezra be jealous of him? "You got your ma."

Ezra grinned bitterly. Yes, he did have his "ma" as Vin so eloquently put it. And she would be in town at five o'clock and he could once again endure her adoring criticism of every single thing about him, particularly his choice of employment.



"Are you all right? You seem upset," said Vin.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. I've been discourteous. Pardon me for being inattentive. Are you ready for breakfast?"

Vin nodded, seeing that Ezra wasn't going to talk about what was on his mind.


Breakfast was a quiet affair. Ezra was preoccupied with his mother's impending visit and the uncomfortable thoughts that been stirred up by his talk with Vin. The Texan knew that something about his mother's phone call had upset Ezra but, understanding his private nature, he didn't push.

Vin's stomach growled, and he grinned, slightly embarrassed. It was letting him know he was actually hungry - not just eating because he was told to eat like he had done so many times in the past few days. He had almost finished his food before he noticed that Ezra's plate was barely touched.

"You all right, Ez?"

"Hmm?" said Ezra, startled from his brooding.

Vin nodded to his full plate. "How come you're not eating? Is it because your Ma's coming to town?" he asked only half jokingly. With Ezra's mother coming for dinner, Ezra had a history of not making it through the entire meal.

Ezra smirked at Vin's attempt at humor. "Truly, Vin, I have never had much of an appetite for breakfast." Ezra took a couple of bites for Vin's sake, then thought he should try a bit more.

"I never did hear how the arraignment went, Vin," said Ezra before he took another bite. Seeing the grimace on Vin's face, he regretted bringing it up.

"I'm in the doghouse with Chris for that one," said Vin with a sheepish grin. At Ezra's raised eyebrows, he continued. "Randall had all these high priced lawyers. I never seen so many motions at once. One of 'em wanted him evaluated for competency to stand trial." Vin swallowed, vividly remembering the events of the previous Friday. "I reckon I let the judge know what I thought of that idea, and Chris didn't approve."

"What, pray tell, did you say?" asked Ezra as he sipped his coffee.

The arrival of the waitress prevented Vin from answering in the exact verbiage he had used in the courtroom. She refilled their coffee mugs and left their checks before moving to the next table.

"Well, I was escorted rather quickly out of the courtroom by the bailiff. Chris said I was real lucky I didn't get fined for contempt." Vin looked at the bill for the meal and pulled out his wallet, looking inside. "The judge called Travis. Travis called Chris, and Chris wasn't happy. I know he's mad about Travis calling' him, but I thought he'd understand I needed to be there. I can't let Randall get away with this. He killed too many people setting those fires. He's gotta be locked up."

"You'll get no argument from me, Mr. Tanner. The miscreant deserves far worse than prison."

"I mean, yeah, we don't usually go to the arraignment, but this is different," said Vin, trying to justify to himself why he felt it was necessary to be involved in every part of this case. Everyone had already told him it wasn't healthy to spend so much time thinking about it. His job had concluded with Randall's arrest, with the exception of his testimony. "This is personal," he muttered.

Ezra's fork froze halfway to his mouth in surprise at what he had just heard. He lifted his eyebrow slightly as he watched with a small sense of satisfaction as his troubled friend worked out why he felt so driven to see the man found guilty.

Vin's eyes widened as he realized what he had just said. Maybe he was pushing too hard on this case because it really was personal. Maybe it was his way of redeeming some of his past life on the streets and making Randall pay for all the wrongs that were ever done to him or anyone else on the streets.

Or maybe it was just what it was. Randall had caused the deaths of nearly twenty people that they knew of. He had caused millions of dollars of property damage. He had destroyed a safe haven for kids when he burned the youth shelter, a place hurting kids really needed.

Vin smiled briefly as a piece fell into place. Nope, he was not crazy. He was simply following through with the case. Now if he could just get his memories back in their box.


The next few days fell into a routine. Vin was still keeping his distance from the team as he tried to sort out his emotions. He spent a good deal of his time at the shooting range, practicing and helping out the instructors on occasion. When quitting time rolled around, he headed for the warehouse and worked on the temporary youth shelter. With all the volunteer help it looked like the renovations might be completed by the end of the week. That news was both exciting and frightening to the Texan. It was great that the kids would have a safe haven from the severest parts of street life, but it was unsettling to the sharpshooter as he realized he would have a lot more free time to think. It was so easy to pour himself into physical labor, but when that was finished, what would he do?

Vin was feeling guilty about bothering the southerner so frequently, but Ezra really didn't seem to mind, and just being able to sit with a friend made things seem better. The Texan was still worried about Chris. He respected no one more than he respected Chris Larabee. He trusted Chris implicitly in all ways but one. He couldn't seem to trust Chris with his past. Vin couldn't bear the thought that Chris would be disappointed with him. He knew that Chris was disappointed that he couldn't trust him with what he was dealing with, but at least there was some uncertainty with the way things were. Intellectually, he knew that if he told Chris everything, he would remove all doubt but that was something he just wasn’t ready to try. Vin sighed deeply.

It was late Thursday evening when Vin found himself sitting once again in the southerner’s living room, grasping onto whatever small sliver of peace he could find there. He looked up and silently thanked Ezra when he handed him another bottle of imported beer. The two men had been talking in circles for a couple of hours. Sometime during the conversation, Ezra admitted to himself that he had once been in the same spot his friend now found himself in. Without realizing it, Vin was asking for permission to accept help from his friends. His upbringing had forced him to be fiercely independent, and relying on another person for anything was unacceptable, just as it was for Ezra. The southerner looked at his hurting friend and offered the words the counselor had told him time and time again.

"Have you ever broken a leg, Vin?"

"What?" asked Vin, surprised by the question. "Yeah, I did once."

"And may I assume you never went to the doctor, you didn't have a cast put on, and you didn't use crutches to walk?"

Vin looked at Ezra as if he'd lost his mind. "Hell, no. Of course I had a cast and crutches. What are you getting at Ezra?"

"You had no problem using crutches because they were part of the healing process, correct?"

Vin nodded.

"Use your crutches now, Vin. They'll help you heal faster. That's what your friends are for."

Vin shook his head. "It's that simple?"

Ezra nodded, "And that complex."

"I guess I could give it a shot," said Vin.

"No one will think less of you Vin, not for using the crutches that are meant to assist in healing properly."


Buck Wilmington had watched his hurting friend struggling all week. Enough was enough. Buck made it his mission to make Junior laugh. He knew that humor was a great stress reliever and that a few chuckles could make the world seem a little less dark for Team 7's sharpshooter. With this in mind he made a quick trip to the local convenience store to pick up his needed supplies. JD watched his roommate curiously, knowing that Buck had something up his sleeve. When he returned to the office, Buck took his stash into the conference room to prepare his surprise for the Texan. He pushed JD out and locked the door.

When his preparations were complete, he hunted down his victim. "Hey Junior, I got a surprise for ya."

Vin looked up at Buck, his expression clearly communicating that he wanted to be left alone.

"Come on now. Don't give me that look. You'll like this." Buck pulled Vin's chair out from his desk and began to wheel it toward the conference room with Vin still in it. The ladies man didn't miss the hint of a smile the sharpshooter gave him. Curious, the rest of the team followed. Buck wheeled Vin's chair up to the conference table and plopped a paper sack in front of him.

"This is the Buck Wilmington Stress Reduction Kit." Vin looked at him warily. "Go on, Junior. Look inside."

Vin reached inside and pulled out a bag of miniature marshmallows. Taped to the bag was a note, which Vin read aloud: "Fun ways to deal with stress. Jam tiny marshmallows up your nose, and try to sneeze them out. This is particularly effective if you aim at Ezra." Vin grinned.

"Mr. Wilmington. How dare you suggest such a disgusting deed?" protested Ezra lightly.

Vin reached into the brown grocery sack and pulled out the second item, a bag of popcorn. He read the note, "Pop some popcorn without putting the lid on."

"Not in the conference room," warned Chris with a grin. Vin was smiling broadly now.

The next item was a yellow smiley face sticker. "When someone says ‘Have a nice day,’ tell them you have other plans." Vin shook his head and set the sticker with the marshmallows and popcorn. He reached in the bag and pulled out a National Geographic magazine with a marking pen attached to the cover. He chuckled at the note and handed it to JD.

"Thumb through National Geographic and draw underwear on the natives." JD grinned. "Buck. You're so full of crap."

Vin pulled a dictionary out of the bag and tossed it to Ezra. The southerner read the attached note. "Read the dictionary backwards and look for subliminal messages."

A can of alphabet soup was the next item out of the paper sack. "Write a short story using alphabet soup," chuckled Vin.

"Not in the conference room!" laughed Chris.

"Y'already used that line cowboy," said Vin.

"Well, it applies to anything that makes a mess," said Chris.

Vin set the can aside and pulled out the next item, a fork. "Am I supposed to eat my soup with this?"

"Just read the note, Junior," said Buck.

"Stare at people through the tines of a fork and pretend they're in jail." Vin handed the fork to JD who tested the theory.

"I couldn't figure out how to represent some of my favorites, so you'll just have to remember them," explained Buck. "Like, press every button in the elevator as you get off, but I think you already do that, Junior." Vin's grin broadened at the suggestion. "Or, relax by mentally reflecting on your favorite episode of the "Flintstones" during an important meeting."

"Not!" interrupted Chris.

"Well I could've told him to refresh himself by putting his tongue on a cold steel guardrail," added Buck. "Go on Vin, there's one more. You gotta read this one to yourself."

Vin reached in the bag and pulled out a Twinkie with a note attached. He read the note silently. 'Replace the filling of a Twinkie with ketchup and put it back in the wrapper. Be careful. This one's loaded. Make sure you eat the other one.' Vin's eyes lit up. "Cool. A Twinkie. Hey JD." He pulled the note off and tossed the loaded Twinkie to JD and pulled out the remaining one, ripping open the wrapper and stuffing it in his mouth. Buck managed to make out the words "Thanks Buck" from a mouthful of cake and cream.

The others knew something was up when Vin's eyes glanced to the side to watch JD as he eagerly bit into his snack cake.

"Bleck!" Twinkie came spewing onto the table as JD tried to rid himself of the offending taste. "Ketchup. Damn. You put ketchup in a Twinkie!"

Vin laughed outright, and six men smiled. Buck had a nice touch.

"Thanks, Bucklin," said Vin as he placed his stress reduction kit back in the sack.

"Anytime Junior," said Buck wrapping Vin into a headlock and mussing his hair. But his greatest reward was when Vin showed up at Inez's place after work.


The rest of Team Seven joined the sharpshooter with his building efforts at the warehouse again on Saturday. With added pressure from the community, the building inspector was present on the weekend and gave the approval for occupancy. JD spent all day Sunday with Vin searching alleyways for kids, telling them about the new youth shelter. By sunset Sunday evening the new shelter was full. Vin felt a surprising contentment at the accomplishment. The fear of having too much time on his hands was set aside. He had a lot of catching up to do with Carlita and his neighborhood kids.

On Monday, most of the team was on the practice range for the afternoon. Ezra and Vin had stayed after the others left, making their return to the office well past five o’clock. The rest of the team had headed for home before the two finished the last paperwork of the day.

Ezra was just about ready to head out the door when his phone rang. "Hello?"

Vin watched his teammate as he answered the phone. He dropped his feet off his desk when Ezra's body language stiffened. Whatever he was hearing was not good news. Ezra was nodding as if the person on the other end of the phone could see him, clearly too disturbed to respond verbally. Ezra's hand ran nervously through his hair.

"Okay. Yes," the southerner responded automatically once he had found his voice. "Thank you for calling. I'll be there as soon as possible." Lowering the phone from his ear he absently dropped it back in the cradle. He closed his eyes tightly trying to grab hold of his emotions before they betrayed him.

"Ezra? What's wrong?" Vin had moved around to Ezra's side of the adjoining desks when he sensed there was trouble. "Ezra?" he asked a second time, laying his hand on Ezra's arm.

Ezra shrugged away from the touch and sucked in a deep breath. Self-preservation had kicked into high gear, which meant pushing everyone as far away as possible in order to protect himself. Ignoring Vin, Ezra grabbed the phone again and punched in Chris Larabee's cell phone number. The team leader wouldn't be home yet. Ezra just hoped he hadn't reached the dead zone where his phone had no service.

"The cellular customer..." Ezra growled and hung up at the automated message. He didn't have time for this.

"Ezra what's wrong?" Vin persisted.

"Not now, Mr. Tanner! I have urgent personal business I need to handle," Ezra answered abruptly. He dialed Assistant Director Travis's office, sighing with relief when Travis answered.

"Sir? This is Ezra Standish. I need emergency personal leave effective immediately."

Vin sat on the edge of the desk watching Ezra's end of the conversation.

"Yes, sir. I tried to reach Mr. Larabee. His cell phone is out of range. Sir, time is of the essence." Ezra twisted the phone cord impatiently. "No, sir, I don't know how long. A few days maybe." He closed his eyes mentally adding, 'If I'm lucky.'

Vin watched the southerner worriedly. Ezra was nodding to the phone again, something totally uncharacteristic to the unflappable undercover agent. If he pulled any harder on that phone cord, he would disconnect himself. There went the hand through the hair again.

"Yes, sir. I'll make sure the paperwork is on his desk. Yes. Thank you, sir." Ezra quickly ended his conversation and rifled through his desk for a form.


"Please, Mr. Tanner," Ezra bit at the Texan. "I really don't have time for this." He hastily scribbled on the form, filling in the information as fast as he could.

"Let me help," said Vin.

"You want to help?" asked Ezra glancing quickly at his watch. "Make sure Mr. Larabee gets this first thing in the morning." Ezra pushed the paper at the Texan.

Vin took the paper and looked at the request for leave. Ezra's wording was so vague that it told him nothing more than he already knew.

Ezra made quick work of clearing off the top of his desk and throwing everything into the desk drawers. As he slammed the center drawer, he yelped as he caught his pinkie finger in it. Jerking his hand free, he let out a very ungentlemanly curse. He quickly checked his finger and, seeing that there was no blood, he made quick work out of locking the drawer. He checked his watch again before shutting off his desk lamp. He stood and found Vin blocking his path.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra sighed.

"What's with the mister crap, Ezra? What's wrong?"

"Mr. Tanner. Vin. I really must go." Ezra sidestepped around the sharpshooter. Concern for his friend caused him to add quietly, "Vin, please go talk to Josiah while I'm gone. Use your crutches." And with that the southerner hurried down the hall at a trot leaving a worried Texan behind him.


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