Odd Man Out
"EZRA! Turn around and look at me you son of a bitch!!!"
JD pulled in close to Buck at the sound of his heros fury. Everyone else quickly evacuated the corridor. "This aint right Buck maybe he didnt see Ez take the dive to save him? He wasnt payin attention to the new camera angle when they replayed it," the kid stated in an excited, scared whisper.
Buck bit the insides of his mouth, for a thoughtful moment, and looked at the back of his oldest friend as he tore down on Standish. "I think, kid, THATS the reason ole Chris is so pissed."
JD was confused. "But why? Ezra saved him!" He couldnt hide his exasperation.
"Yeah, he saved him all right, but got killed himself," the older agent returned evenly. He looked at his little brother, and realized his statement had just made Dunne even more perplexed. "Chris dont see that as a worthwhile exchange."
The young man deflated. "But what? I mean "
"Do you think the trade was worth it?"
JD paused; Ezra for Chris? Was Buck askin him who he would rather have alive given the choice? He glared pointedly at his friend. "I cant answer that Buck!"
"Thats cause there IS no answer kid. But Chris seems to think there is, and Ezra bubbled in the wrong letter." His big blue eyes trailed off to the confrontation taking place in the middle of the hall.
"We should help him."
"I think wed best stay out of this one, JD. Its tween Ez an Chris. Figure those boys got some issues need workin out."
"JD, ya gotta learn when to leave well enough alone. Cmon kid, Ill buy ya a coffee. Those two alpha males ll have it worked out by the time we get back." Wilmington put on his most disarming smile for good measure.
Dunne really did not want to leave Ezra, but he trusted Bucks wisdom, and apparently, so did everyone else. Four of the five following Larabee detoured to the lounge to delve into their own thoughts. Perhaps this was something those two DID need to work out by themselves. And Vin would play mediator, like always. It would be fine come evening.
"Mister Larabee?" Ezra turned at Chriss demand, ignoring the insults and sliding his mask of indifference over the fear his boss glare was inducing.
"Dont Mister Larabee me you bastard. What the hell were you thinking?!"
Chris looked down from the three-inch advantage he had on Standish and practically growled. Standish as per usual, did not flinch. He looked back pleasantly, as if the breach of personal space didnt exist. "What was I thinking, you say? I believe I was thinking that I would utilize the washroom, and then perhaps go in search of liquid refreshment and a bit of repast before going to bed."
Chris decked him hard. "This aint the time to play dumb Standish, cause in spite of all the evidence I know you arent."
Ezra recoiled at the blow but maintained his feet with great effort, or perhaps it was stubbornness. He moved his jaw slowly, testing to see if it was broken or not. Finding that it was indeed, intact, he popped it back into place and set it. Vin made a sound of protest at the physical treatment but was silenced with a look, THE look from Larabee. Both men turned to stare silently at Standish. The southerner had the floor.
"It was a momentary lapse in judgment," he started to explain. They mostly looked skeptical. Vin looked guilty. But, Vin always felt guilty, in spite of the circumstances, because it was very rarely his fault. Ezra coughed and worked around the swelling developing around the side of his face. He was getting annoyed. One good deed his entire career and all he had to show for it was a bruised jaw and the disapproval of his teammates. Well, if they were going to play dirty, he supposed he could stoop to potshots as well. His irritation and uncertainty melted into a professional, cheerful aloofness. "It really was nothing, Mister Larabee, Mister Tanner."
"Like hell it wasnt." Chris pinned him in place against the wall, facing him down.
"If I must explain "
"Lookin like ya should Ez " Vin advised quietly from behind Larabees tall shadow.
Standish coughed. "Yes, well, I simply forgot to watch my back for a second gentlemen, nothing more," he stated uninterestedly, brushing imaginary lint off of his shoulder before inching around his boss to resume his journey to the restroom.
Not surprisingly, Chris let him pass while the senior agent was trying to unravel what it was Standish had just said to him. Vin figured it out that much faster, and felt like he had been kicked in the gut for his efforts. Ezras statement, simple as it was, said a lot more than the wording itself. In truth, he had said he forgot to watch his back. But, it also said the undercover agent felt he had to look over his own shoulder for protection once again. It said that he did not expect them to watch his back. That he could not count on them too. The ex- bounty hunter growled and stormed up to his best friend, straining onto his toes so he could meet him eye to eye. Chris looked down at him evenly." Dja hafta hit him?!" the shootists voice was raspy and quiet, but his eyes were afire.
Chris was dumbfounded at Vins vehemence. "He "
"He saved your life you ungrateful son of a bitch!"
The older man resented this attack on his person. "Yeah? What if that bust had been real, Vin? Did you see his uniform? Did ya really take a good look at it? He woulda been dead for sure!"
"He was willin ta risk it!" Tanner nearly shouted back. He lowered his voice. "But, why he would for the likes a you I cant guess." Vin left his leader with a curt nod.
"I cant either," an equally soft response.
Tanner turned around. "Ever think its cause hes your friend?"
Chris was quiet, and that in itself, was everything the tracker needed to hear.
Chris started from his flashback at a whoop from Michigans undercover agent. "Damn Standish, heard about that stunt you pulled against California to draw their fire and win the match. Youre a manipulative snake, if I ever saw one!" the man laughed jovially.
Ezras eyes showed a flash of distaste at the comment, but in the blink of an eye he covered it with a jovial grin for the men at his table. "Yes, I hear California was quite put off by the unexpected turn of events."
"Hell yeah!" Kentucky agent Calvin Roth snorted. "I hear New Yorks s about as nervous as they kin git! Heard the news bout today and them fellers have been practicin and studyin up on yall all day."
"How good a chance do you think you have against them tomorrow afternoon?" one agent asked with a shake of his head towards New Yorks tabl,. the big table. They were bullies, the lot of them. All ten men of the formidable team were gathered around eating their dinner and throwing furtive looks at Larabee and Sanchez when they thought no one was looking. One of them whispered to the other and made a slicing motion across his neck. Team Colorado was dead meat. Ez did all he could to refrain from rolling his eyes, a habit he was picking up from JD, God forbid, before turning back to the others.
"New Yorks good, and they know it. Theyve got a three man advantage over you Colorado boys." Florida agent Jake Callahan stated around a sip of soda.
"Apparently, but they lack Agent Larabees formidable glare or his right hook." Ezra touched the purple spot along his jaw.
Georgia agent, Lafe Faulkner, whistled. "So, thats where ya got that. Heard tales goin through the camp ahbout Larabees tempah. Someone should report him before he goes too fah."
"One should not appeal to rumors circulated by cowards and sneaks my friend. Agent Larabee simply does what is required to make his point, unorthodox or against protocol be damned," Standish returned evenly. His eyes flicked in his leaders direction. "Hes a forward man, he faces things head on at all times. If he does not approve of your actions, hell let you know."
"Seems to me like its workin," Kentucky replied thoughtfully. "In the last ten years, Colorado aint never even seen past the second round, til today."
"I suppose so," Ezra turned contemplative, shuffling the cards deftly as he spoke, though his mind was somewhere else entirely. No, he certainly could not be mad at Chris for todays proceedings. The volatile older man had after all, slugged for lesser wrongdoings, in the past. Heck, he had reciprocated those shiners and bruises more often than not. Standish worked his jaw gingerly without thinking. He winced at the sting and took a sip of his drink to soothe the pain a little.
Chris had hit him for being careless. It was funny, how at the time, he hadnt thought his actions were the least bit risky. He had been certain that JD and Buck would cover him, or even Josiah and Nathan. He would have, at the time, bet his fortune on it. Until scant hours ago, he had had abundant, unwavering, faith in his friends loyalties. Apparently, his teammates had all thought his was a reckless and foolish gesture, and that in it self was explanation enough as to who was going to watch his back. In short, if they had all thought he was potentially at risk, it meant they didnt think anyone was going to aid him. He had taken a risk when they all KNEW he was not protected.
Well, that was being unfair. It was not that they simply did not care to protect him, and it certainly was not a question of their loyalties, but rather, their priorities. Yes, he was certain Buck would cover him, unless of course, JD needed the cover. Then he was on his own. Yes, he was positive Josiah would watch his back, unless Nathan had run into trouble. It would be very much the same for Vin and Chris. It just seemed that loosing Ezra Standish would be preferable to loosing one of the others to their respective counterparts. Ezra snorted uncharacteristically, into his glass, a habit he was picking up from Larabee, much to his chagrin. In other words, he was not a priority, as if that were anything new. The undercover agent laughed humorlessly to himself, realizing he had just stumbled across the very makings of Team 7, and the fact that "seven", for all its intents and purposes as a "lucky" number, would never be an even number. There would always be one loner
"You gonna deal us some more bad hands so we can play or did we lose ya somewhere Standish?" Michigan agent, Dan Wales, asked, upon growing impatient with watching the cards zip from one palm to the other between Ezras lighting fast fingers.
Agent Standish snapped from his reverie and smiled disarmingly at his peer. "But of course, my friend. Just remember that it was you who requested a loosing hand," he stated before tossing the cards out neatly to each of the players situated at his table.
"Looks like ole Ez is back in the game," Buck stated, sliding his iced tea onto the table before turning a chair around, plopping down, and resting his arms across the back. He cast a headlong glance over his shoulder at the younger man.
Chris looked up at Standish once more. "Yeah, he does, doesnt he?" He sounded unconvinced.
Josiah, who had been carefully studying the gambler the entire time, was quiet. He had watched Ezras face. Those who did not know him had seen nothing in the expression. But, for those who did know him, every little thing, including nothing, was actually something in itself. When he cut the deck with one hand he was thinking and most likely tapping his fingers against his leg with the free hand. When he fanned the cards from hand to hand he was looking at every angle, calculating. When he slouched, even in the slightest, against the back of his chair, he had come to a realization he did not like but accepted nonetheless. When he took a prolonged drink he was allowing himself a bitter smile. Those who did not know him would see nothing amiss.
The oldest agent coughed and leaned forward in his chair. "I think brother Ezra has had an epiphany of sorts."
"Whos doin what?" JD asked, barging up to the table with his usual fervor. Vin nodded, announcing his presence to Larabee, in his own fashion, from behind the kid.
"Ezs realized something," Buck reiterated for the greenhorn.
There was a pregnant pause, and the preacher could feel the eyes of his compatriots looking to him expectantly. He coughed and told them the only answer that he had. "Dont rightly know," Josiah admitted before taking a drink.
Wilmington groaned. "Ya cant do that to a man Josiah!"
The ex preacher shrugged, looking around the rim of his glass. "Only told ya what I know, brother Buck. Ill think on it some more though, and Ill get back to you when I figure things out." The big man shot a proportionally big, feral, grin in Agent Wilmingtons direction.
"Think on it later, looks like we got some trouble fellas." The group at the table looked up to face the source of the warning. Jackson and Tanner nodded in acknowledgement to their friends.
"Figures the second theres trouble I decide to join yall," Nate drawled, before he could help himself. Josiah chuckled at his friend and pulled up a chair for him, which the chemist reluctantly took.
Chriss eyes narrowed and he looked in the same direction of Tanners gaze. "Trouble?" His brow knit.
Vin indicated the problem area with an upward tilt of his chin. They watched as Team New York rose together from their table, with their eyes set on Standish at his poker game.
"Maybe they just wanna play?" JD asked with a shrug. Buck cuffed him none-to gently on the back of the head.
Ezra did not turn at the sound of his name but straightened in his seat to seem more presentable. "May I help you gentlemen?"
Team New York surrounded the little table, eyeing the person that was rumored to have taken CA out in the end. Ezra decided it was disheartening to look upon their sheer number, but did not physically indicate the fact anywhere on his person. Luckily, all undercover agents present had a reasonable poker face. Reasonable being the key word. Ezra let some rather unimpressed thoughts run through his mind about his peers when he saw them visibly tense and stay that way. He looked virtually undisturbed at the intrusion. "Saw that stunt you pulled to win today. Always heard you were a cheater," Undercover Agent Tony Ferretti sneered in reply to Ezras question.
"He didnt cheat you ass," agent Wales shook his head at the rat like New Yorker.
"You aint good enough to even tell Wales. Michigans been out since round five," NYC surveillance specialist, Jim ONeil, grated in an annoyingly thick accent.
Wales snorted. "Five against ten wasnt the best odds." He tossed four dollars into the center of the table. Callahan and Roth folded.
"You fellas gonna turn around when were talkin to ya?" team lackey Montoya goaded. He smacked the hat off of agent Faulkners head for emphasis. Lafe caught it before it fell and threw an annoyed look at Montoya.
"Please gentlemen, if you must result to hair pulling and name calling for your amusements, do it outside. The rest of civilized society would like to get on with this hand," Ezra drawled distastefully, anteing up without even turning to face the surrounding team.
"Heard you were a smart ass too," Cronkin, NYs second surveillance officer stated rather obnoxiously.
"In comparison to what stands before me, I suppose my ass could be considered sentient."
Everyone at Larabees table groaned inwardly. Would that smart ass of Ezs ever tell him when to shut the hell up? Larabee sighed and stood, followed by the remainder of Team 7. Despite what Ezra believed, they would still watch his back. All six subtly chose prime spots surrounding the powder keg that was Agent Standishs table, hiding themselves until the right moment.
Most of Team New York didnt understand the jab. Luckily (or not) for Ezra, team supervisor Brantley William Ross Usherton III got it. His right hand man, sniper Craig Kingston understood as well. They didnt think it was funny.
"Hes pokin fun at us boys," Usherton stated, voice low and menacing. The supervisor motioned with his eyes to Matt Ashcroft, New Yorks Profiler. Ezra would have laughed out loud at the poor, kitten like, imitation of Larabees warning growl, if he had not seen the shadow that was coming up behind and to the left of him. He ducked low and grabbed the New York agents hand, as it swung high over his head. Using his opponents momentum, he threw a bewildered Agent Ashcroft over his shoulder and onto the poker table with a dull thud. Standish speculated a second on the sturdy craftsmanship of the cherry table before standing up and turning to face his attackers, who were suddenly very much engaged with most of his teammates and some of the other undercover agents.
Bucks fearsome whoop of exhilaration let the room full of ATF and other government agents know the fight was on. Hotel security called the DC police department.
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