To Better Days Ahead

By Helen Adams

Answer to Angela B’s January ’06 Challenge: In any open AU, have the guys reflect on the worst thing that went wrong in the previous year, then have them reflecting on what they want to accomplish in the coming year.

Moved to Blackraptor November 2009

“Dear God, what a miserable day this has been,” Ezra groaned, shifting uncomfortably in his deeply upholstered recliner. He had wrenched his lower back while knocking Buck out of the path of a bullet during a warehouse raid and the abused muscles were now twinging with every move he made.

Squinting through a lightly concussed haze, the result of knocking his head on a cement floor when Ezra had tackled him, Buck protested, “It could have been worse. One of us could’ve been shot.”

“True enough, but I’m with Ezra,” Vin said, vaguely waving his plaster-encased left arm. The beam he had been perched on during the raid had unexpectedly snapped under his weight as he scooted forward and the Team Seven sharpshooter had tumbled to the hard warehouse floor, managing to land on one of the escaping gun-runners, but breaking his own arm in the process. “It was like we was all cursed with bad luck or something. For awhile, I didn’t think the gun buyers were even gonna show, and then they finally turned up and weren’t gonna make the damn deal. If Ezra hadn’t sweet-talked ‘em into accepting the original terms, the whole damn thing would’ve been a wash.”

“Oh, yes, and my powers of persuasion were so effective,” Ezra said sarcastically. “Good enough to convince those cretins to take the guns and pass us the payment along with a personal sample of what those guns could do. If I’d been a second later in reacting, Mr. Wilmington would now be missing a significant portion of his cranium.”

Buck vaguely waved a hand in dismissal. “I’m here, ain’t I?” he said. “Got a lump on my head that makes each of you look like you’ve grown a twin, had to call off my date so there’s nobody to kiss at midnight, and Nathan won’t let me have any booze, but hey, I’m alive, so I’d say you did just fine.”

JD came in from the kitchen with a bottle of sparkling cider. He topped off Buck’s glass, then poured a fresh serving out for Vin and Josiah, who had each been given pain medication and so could not partake in alcohol. Ezra had been prescribed pain meds for his back as well, but refused to ring in a New Year with anything less than the Dom Perignon he had bought for the occasion. Dom was worth a little suffering, and as long as he didn’t move, everything was fine.

“Look on the bright side, you guys,” JD said, lowering himself down to sit on the carpet next to Buck’s chair. “Because of what you did this morning, we’ll have a few less bad guys to start the year off with.”

“Least you managed to arrest yours,” Chris grunted, raising his glass of champagne to them briefly before taking a gulp. “If the bureau was so short-handed with people out for the holidays that they needed to split us up; they could have at least stocked enough people in surveillance to make sure they had the locations right!”

Next to him on the sofa, Josiah chuckled. “Now that was a comedy of errors for certain.” Gingerly fingering the bandage over his right eyebrow, he added, “Not only did they send us to a different convenience store than the one that’s been selling alcohol to minors, they had to do it on New Year’s Eve, when everyone in the world was out buying booze!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask. How did you manage to upset that little old lady enough that she clocked you with a bottle of champagne anyway?” Nathan asked curiously, shaking his head at the sight of his four battered teammates. “I was in the back room getting some more supplies and came out just in time to see her swinging that bottle and you falling like a chopped oak tree.”

Josiah grimaced. “Seems some people don’t wait for midnight to start their celebrating,” he said shortly. “All I did was suggest to the lady that maybe she’d already had enough and offer to call her a cab to go home in. Guess she took offense.”

Ezra started to laugh, then immediately gasped when his abused back protested the shaking. “As I said, a miserable day.”

“Not like we haven’t had worse times this year,” JD protested.

“Is that supposed to make us feel better?” Chris growled.

JD shrugged. “Well, sort of. Nobody’s in the hospital right now and you guys’ll recover pretty fast from the injuries you’ve got. Remember the chemical explosion last February? I think those burns I got on my arms hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. Took forever for my skin to get back to normal.”

Josiah and Chris both automatically reached up to finger their eyebrows, as though assuring themselves that the features had, in fact, grown back.

“That was bad,” Nathan agreed. “And it was just like you boys to go and get yourselves blown up on my day off, too.”

“Well, you made up the difference last spring,” Josiah reminded him, chuckling as he thought back. “You took enough shrapnel from that old man with the moonshine still and the shotgun to keep you in Fate’s good graces for about a decade, I think. The people at the hospital were picking lead out of your ass for an hour.”

Smirks flickered across the other’s faces, and Buck quipped, “Good thing you got plenty to spare back there, Nate. That old coot came pretty close to shooting it off for ya!”

“Least I didn’t hold a memorial service for what I lost, the way you did a couple months back,” Nathan grunted.

Buck instantly flushed, causing Chris to chuckle. “He’s got a point there, big fella. First time I ever saw anybody go into official mourning just because they had an equipment malfunction. It happens to every man sooner or later, y’know.”

“Ever happen to you?” he demanded, just as he had at the time.

And just as he had at the time, Chris hurriedly protested, “Of course not!” causing everyone else to break into laughter.

Pitching a paper napkin in Buck’s direction, Vin said, “Your little buddy there was just protesting the working conditions, I figure. Needed a rest an’ decided to take a vacation.”

“Who you callin’ little?” Buck growled, then abruptly changing the subject, he turned to Ezra. “What was your worst time this past year?”

Ezra did not hesitate, shooting Chris a dark look as he said succinctly, “Marcell’s.”

Chris smiled blandly and said, “That nightclub was transporting and selling imported liquor without a license, and you got the proof. I figured you could handle the job.”

“And I did,” he said flatly, “but you led me to believe that I was to be cast in the role of bartender. Not telling me until we arrived that I was to be part of the floor-show was just rude.”

“Maybe so,” Nathan said, his deep chuckle rolling through the room, “but you made a pretty good transvestite. It was a little scary, actually. Half the guys in that audience wanted to take you home.”

Vin was laughing so hard his eyes were tearing. “That fella who jumped on the stage and tried to grab your ass is probably still singin’ soprano.”

Each affecting a bad southern-tinged falsetto, Buck and JD chimed in, “I’m not that kind of entertainer!”

Ezra flipped up a middle finger and waved it in the general direction of his guffawing teammates as he sipped from his champagne flute and muttered, “Bastards.”

“You’ve had to put up with worse,” Chris said heartlessly, then with a chuckle, added, “Besides, if you want to blame somebody, blame Josiah. Switching your assignment was his idea.”

A look of outrage filled the southerner’s face. “What?”

Josiah smiled. “Seemed appropriate. After all, you know what they say, don’t you? Payback is a bitch.” Seeing Ezra’s frown of incomprehension, he raised an eyebrow. “April? My truck?”

A slightly guilty looking grin flickered over Ezra’s face. “Oh, yes. That’s hardly fair, though. After all, what happened to your vehicle was an accident. Just a regrettable miscalculation, really. And it isn’t as though I failed to replace your Suburban. With a much newer and more reliable model, at that!”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Vin cut in. “You don’t mess with a man’s vehicle.”

“Says the man who found the junkyard we hid it in!” Ezra retorted indignantly. Refocusing on Josiah, his voice took on a note of chagrin. “It was only supposed to be an April Fool’s day joke, to make you walk through the junkyard and see if you could recognize which piece of rolling rusted scrap-metal was your own. How could I have foreseen that the owner would get his work-orders mixed up and put your vehicle in the crusher?”

“Still not sure I buy that you didn’t know,” Josiah muttered. “Not after all the times you tried to talk me into replacing that truck.”

Buck grinned. “I think he did you a favor. Think of all the money you saved on spare parts and tow-trucks over the last nine months. Not to mention all the days you haven’t needed to call one of us to bring you into work when that old heap broke down.”

“Your insurance costs went down too,” Nathan said helpfully. “And we don’t spend so much time worrying that you’ll blow something vital and wind up in a ditch somewhere.”

“It really was an accident,” Ezra said again.

After staring him down for a moment, Josiah gave a reluctant nod. “I suppose it was, and I really do like the new one. The CD player alone is probably worth as much as I could have gotten for selling the old one.”

“More,” Ezra muttered, rapidly knocking back the remainder of his champagne and grunting as the sudden movement aggravated his sore back.

“You better go easy on that,” Nathan told him. “Midnight isn’t for another few minutes yet and you’ve already had four glasses of wine. If your back’s hurting you that much, you should’ve just taken your meds like you were supposed to do in the first place.”

Ezra favored him with a lopsided smile. “Ah, but this is so much more flavorful an analgesic.”

The medic snorted. “Might not be worth it in the morning when your back is all stiff and your head’s about to fall off too.”

“Jesus, Nate. You really know how to make a person look forward to a New Year,” Buck grunted.

Feeling a need to change the subject, JD asked, “Anybody got any New Year’s resolutions?”

“Don’t bother with ‘em,” Vin told him with a shrug. “Seems kinda silly to make promises to do something you ain’t been willin’ to do the whole rest of the year, just because the calendar is changing over.”

“I do,” Nathan countered. “I like to look at the changing of the year as a fresh start. My resolution for next year is to spend less time worrying about things that are out of my control.”

Josiah nodded. “A good choice, my friend. Sometimes I fear that you’re going to worry yourself right into an ulcer. For my part, I’d like to devote the coming months to reconnecting with some of the parts of my life I’ve let slide; old friends and interests that I’ve allowed to drift away.”

“Guess I’ll resolve to learn how to delegate,” Chris decided, grimacing at the very idea. “Travis has been on my back for months about giving you guys more responsibility and not trying to control every situation.”

Buck chuckled. “Who are you kidding, Larabee? Your picture’s in the dictionary under ‘Control Freak’. You start delegating, without checking up on us every five minutes, and I’ll start cutting myself back to one date a week!”

“A most charitable resolution, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said approvingly. “Cutting yourself back to only 52 women a year should finally leave a bit of uncharted territory for the rest of us.”

Vin added, “Hey, Buck. Maybe you could post a schedule in the break room so we can all know who’s still free.”

Watching Buck’s mouth working in shocked silent protest, Chris grinned wickedly. “Right nice of you to help me out by providing an incentive, Buck. Looks like it’s shaping up to be a good year already.”

“Perhaps you and I could work on our resolutions together, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra suggested. “I should very much like to learn the art of functioning in a position of authority, preferably without drawing the ire of those around me.”

Shocked by the declaration, Chris simply said, “You?” Ezra was a man who preferred to do things his own way, and who could manipulate others into doing nearly anything he wanted them to, but he was also notoriously reluctant to issue orders. Chris suspected that Ezra’s checkered past had left him with the certainty that no one would respect his decisions, much less obey his commands, were he to ever take on a leadership role. He did not want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt because of him.

Reading all of this in Larabee’s face, Ezra shifted uncomfortably in his recliner and dropped his gaze. “There reaches a point at which even the best of undercover specialists cannot safely perform that function any longer, either for personal reasons or because he becomes too easily recognizable to the local criminal element. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I know that it will come. Perhaps I’m not suited to being a team leader, such as you, but I do have a great deal of experience in a wide variety of fields. I believe that those skills could benefit others; in an instructional capacity, perhaps.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” JD encouraged, nodding his approval. “When I started learning Undercover this year, you were real good at teaching me what I needed to know without trying to do it for me.”

Buck nodded, “Kid’s right, Ez. You got a cool head and a sneaky mind. I don’t want to lose you any time soon, but any team’d be lucky to follow your lead.”

“Quick reflexes and that ability you got to see all the angles would benefit a young team, in particular,” Nathan agreed, earning himself a surprised look from Ezra. “You could stop rookies from doing something stupid that might get ‘em killed before they get a lot of experience under their belts.”

Vin grinned at Chris. “He’s a hell of a lot more patient with paperwork and PR schmoozing than you are, too. I’ll bet Ezra’d take to team leadership like a duck to water.”

Ezra’s green eyes shone with pleasure at his teammates’ unexpected show of support. Seeing this, Chris made his decision. “I had no idea you were even interested, Ezra, but I’d be happy to show you what I can. Give you a little experience commanding in the field maybe.”

“That would be most appreciated,” he replied. “I’ve always believed that if one is to take on a new challenge, it is advisable to learn from the best.”

Larabee raised his glass in appreciation of the compliment, then asked, “What about you, JD? What’s your resolution?”

The young man shrugged. “It’s not work related or anything.”

“So what?” Vin said. “Give.”

Everyone’s interest was piqued when JD suddenly flushed bright red and began to stammer. “Well, I, um…I’ve kinda been saving my money for awhile and…well, I’ve been thinking that me and Casey…”

As JD trailed off, Buck, who had been slouching lazily in his seat, suddenly sat bolt upright and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Holy shit, Kid! You tryin to tell us that you finally got up the nerve to marry that little girl?”

An embarrassed grin lit the young man’s face as he nodded. The room erupted with excited whoops and questions, and JD held up a hand to quiet the din. “I haven’t asked her yet! She’ll be away visiting her cousins until Wednesday. We got a date on Friday, and I kind of thought I might ask her then.”

“I’m sure you’ll have no difficulty gaining the young lady’s approval,” Ezra said brightly, looking as proud as if he’d engineered the entire relationship himself. “Congratulations, my friend.”

Buck wiped away a mock tear from the corner of his eye. “My baby’s leaving the nest,” he said mournfully, then laughed as JD smacked him in the leg. “Way to go, Kid.”

“You got a ring?” Nathan asked seriously. “I made the mistake of waiting to get the ring until after I’d asked Raine and she didn’t think I was serious at first.”

JD grinned happily. “Yep. I had my mom’s wedding ring resized. Nettie helped me figure out the right size.”

“So, that mean you asked Nettie’s permission?” Vin pressed, nodding approvingly.

“Not permission exactly. I guess I just wanted to make sure she approved.”

Chris nodded. “That’ll make things easier,” he grunted, remembering his own difficult relationship with his former father-in-law, a man who had never approved of the choice his daughter had made. “Congratulations, kid. I hope you two share as much happiness as Sarah and I did.”

Surprised by Chris’ casual mention of his late wife, JD smiled shyly. “Thanks, Chris. That means a lot.”

“And on that happy note, I see that it’s almost midnight,” Josiah announced, prompting JD to jump up and refill everyone’s glass. Rising from his chair and kneeling between Ezra and Buck, so that the more seriously injured men would not have to strain to participate in the toast, Josiah raised his glass. “Here’s to all of us. To the blessings that we share, and the individual blessings yet to come. Happy New Year, my friends.”

Six voices chorused back, “Happy New Year,” and seven glasses clinked together just as Ezra’s grandfather clock struck midnight. It was going to be a very good year.

The End

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