Ezra returned to the office shortly after 7:00 PM, weary from a day of trudging through decrepit neighborhoods tracking down informants, and frustrated at the lack of information he had received for his efforts. He entered the bullpen, unsurprised to find all of his teammates at their desks despite the lateness of the hour. He lifted a hand in greeting as he dropped tiredly into his desk chair.
"Gentlemen," he said, stifling a yawn. "I hope you have had more success in your inquiries than I have."
"Nope," Buck said tersely.
Ezra lifted an eyebrow at the shortness of his response. None of the others had responded verbally, though he did get shakes of the head from JD and Josiah. There seemed to be a decided coolness in the air and Ezra shrugged it off, assuming it was simply due to the same type of weariness and frustration he himself was currently feeling. But when he looked at Nathan, he was shocked at the open hostility on the man's face. Ezra swiveled his head around slowly, studying the rest of his teammates, and began to note their unusually closed expressions. As an undercover agent, he was an expert at reading people and his experience was telling him that something was amiss.
Ezra turned his gaze to Vin, who sat at the desk across from him. "Excuse me, Mr. Tanner," he asked quietly. "Is there something wrong?"
Vin looked away from his computer, meeting Ezra's eyes briefly. "Not that I know of," he replied. "I'm just pissed that we didn't find out anything today."
The maddeningly unreadable look on the sharpshooter's face didn't tell Ezra anything new, but he had a gut feeling that the man was lying to him. Schooling his own expression, he smiled sympathetically as he began typing up his notes. "Yes, I know the feeling."
The silence was beginning to be uncomfortable and Ezra determined that it would be best if he left for the night. He didn't know what was going on, but it was obvious that the others were not going to be forthcoming. If he had learned one thing from his time with the FBI, it was that it was wise to remove oneself from such situations before they deteriorated. The look on Nathan's face alone told him that things were not well and Ezra knew that retreat was his best option for the moment, until he could do some clandestine investigating and find out what was causing his teammates' aberrant behavior.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was nearly ten o'clock the next morning before Ezra dragged his tired self into the office. He had hit the streets again shortly after leaving the office, checking with those of his contacts who preferred the evening hours. The odd behavior of his teammates had left him feeling slightly unsettled and, despite being tired when he finally returned home, he had spent most of the early morning hours snooping through their computers via his remote connection.
Ezra was more of a computer expert than he let on and knew a few techniques that even JD, their resident computer genius, didn't, but he found nothing that explained their strange reaction to his presence. Eventually, his exhaustion won out and he collapsed into bed, only to awaken three hours later when his alarm went off. Still half asleep, he had shut off the annoying device and returned to his interrupted slumber. Two hours later, Ezra had awakened again, blinking blearily at the clock, then cursing himself for his tardiness. He hurried through his morning routine and drove as quickly as he dared to the office. After the previous day's cool reception, he didn't want to do anything that might incite the ill will of his teammates.
"Good morning, Mr. Sanchez," he greeted Josiah, who was standing near the doorway to the break room.
"Ezra," Josiah nodded in greeting. "Chris wants to see you in his office ASAP."
Ezra groaned. "Wonderful." He detoured into the break room and poured himself a cup of coffee. He was going to need a healthy dose of caffeine in order to deal with an irate Chris Larabee, even if it came in the form of the battery acid that was brewed in the break room.
Ezra set his briefcase and coffee on his desk and draped his coat across the back of his chair before turning to face his obviously unhappy superior. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"My office. Now." Chris turned on his heel and strode determinedly into his office.
Straightening his shoulders, Ezra picked up his coffee and followed, wondering what he might have done, other than arriving late. He closed the door behind him and took a seat in one of the chairs that faced Chris's desk, waiting for whatever reproof or lecture the man had in mind for him this time.
"You're late," Chris said sharply.
Ezra grimaced at the tone of his voice. It wasn't the first time he had been late. Far from it, in fact. But Larabee had never taken such a harsh tone with him over his tardiness before, and Ezra wondered what other reason there might be. "Yes, Mr. Larabee. I spent some time speaking with a few of my sources last night. Some of them are rather nocturnal, you see, and I wasn't able to talk to them during the day."
"Did you find out anything?"
"Not much," Ezra replied. "Several of them have heard the rumors and one told me that the suppliers have become aware of this new buyer. I asked them to check around quietly and to let me know if they are able to obtain any more detailed information."
"It's not your problem anymore," Chris said abruptly. "I have a new assignment for you."
"Oh?" Ezra eyed the blond man carefully, but could discern nothing from his expression.
"Team Three has a new undercover agent. Travis wants you to help with his training. Show him the ropes, share some of your expertise... you know the drill." Chris looked at his undercover agent dispassionately.
"Of course," Ezra said uncertainly. "How long shall this assignment require my participation?"
"At least a week," Chris answered. "Maybe more. Travis didn't say."
"I see." Ezra calmly took a sip of his coffee, wondering at the sense of unease that began to creep along his spine. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was being removed from Team Seven's current case for an entirely different reason.
"Get over to Team Three's office right away," Chris ordered. "They've been waiting for you for more than an hour already."
Ezra simply nodded, tossing off his standard salute, before exiting the office and returning to his desk.
Chris watched the man go, his heart heavy with the deception he was forced to carry out. There was simply too high a likelihood of a poor outcome from this charade for him to be entirely comfortable with the situation. If Ezra was indeed an innocent participant in their current case, there was a strong chance he would never forgive them for their lack of trust. And if he was involved... Chris didn't even want to contemplate that possibility. He only hoped that when all was said and done, his team would remain intact.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra sat heavily at his desk and casually glanced around the room at his teammates, frowning when he saw that they were all studiously avoiding his gaze. They obviously knew about his change of assignment. Normally, they would be teasing him and making light of the situation, since none of them liked such training assignments, but this time the usual good-natured banter was absent. It was almost as if they were uncomfortable with his presence. It struck him as he was gathering up some files that none of them, besides Chris and Josiah, had even spoken to him yet this morning. He looked up sharply, catching Vin and JD both looking away quickly. Pasting his poker face into place, Ezra stood and made his way to the elevators. "Good day, gentlemen," he tossed over his shoulder, not bothering to wait for a reply.
* * * * * * * * * *
"This sucks," JD said after Ezra had left. "No way Ezra is one of those... those...."
"Bigots," Josiah supplied.
"Yeah," JD nodded vigorously. "Ez just ain't like that."
"Lot of racists are real good at hidin' it," Nathan retorted, "and Ezra's a real good actor."
"I don't think he's that good," JD said doubtfully. "I've never seen him act that way to anyone."
"Don't mean anythin'," Nathan said defensively. "It's not like he spends much of his free time with us anyway."
"You can't always be sure about people," Buck agreed sadly. "Me and Chris worked with a guy named Arthur back when we were with the PD. Nicest guy around," Buck paused. "... or so we thought. One night, he nearly beat a black suspect to death. He would have, too, if we hadn't stopped him." Buck shook his head. "I'll always remember the surprised look on his face when we pulled him away from the suspect. He looked at me and Chris and said, 'What did you stop me for? He's just a nigger.'" Buck turned to Nathan. "No offense, Nate."
Nathan nodded his understanding.
"Art didn't think he had done anything wrong," Buck said despondently. "It really bothered a lot of the guys, since we all really liked him. We never had a clue that he was so prejudiced."
"I ain't judgin' Ez 'til I see some proof," Vin said quietly.
Nathan shook his head and walked away.
The remaining four men looked at one another somberly before returning to their work.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra sighed and picked at his salad disinterestedly. The day hadn't been as bad as he had anticipated. His training assignment was going well and he was enjoying it more than he thought he would. Stephen Cardoza was an apt and eager student, albeit with a misguided (in his opinion) case of hero worship. Ezra snorted when he thought back to their meeting that morning.
Team Three's leader, Aaron Miller, had introduced him to the new agent.
"Stephen, this is Agent Standish, from Team Seven."
"Agent Cardoza." Ezra reached for his hand, receiving a vigorous handshake in response.
"Agent Standish," Cardoza said enthusiastically. "I've heard all about you and I studied most of your cases. Your work is amazing!"
Ezra was taken aback by the admiration in the younger man's voice. He wasn't used to being held in such high esteem. "I wouldn't call it amazing," he said quickly. "I merely do what needs to be done."
"Don't be so modest, Agent Standish," Cardoza countered. "From what I hear, you're practically a legend!"
Ezra laughed and clapped the young man on the back. "I try," he said self-deprecatingly, unsure of how else to respond to such praise. A legend? Hardly. Notorious, maybe. The boy obviously hadn't been around long enough to hear about the darker side of Ezra Standish.
They had spent the afternoon reviewing cases and engaging in some role-playing scenarios, and Ezra had found himself impressed with the new undercover agent's performance. He still had some rough edges, but Ezra was certain that he would do well with some practice.
While this training assignment was turning out better than expected, Ezra was still disturbed by the situation with his team. He had returned to his desk to retrieve his things before leaving for the day and was greeted with the same awkward silence as in the morning. His attempts to start a conversation with his teammates had fallen flat, so he had decided to leave things alone for a while. Ezra considered that he might simply be paranoid, that maybe he was overreacting to the situation, but his instincts were not usually that incorrect. Right now, they were sounding warning bells and he had learned the hard way not to ignore them.
Ezra sighed and gave up on the rest of his dinner. His appetite had deserted him anyway. Pouring himself a glass of brandy, he moved toward the French doors that opened onto his balcony, where a clear view of the setting sun was visible. "Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark," he whispered to himself as he sipped the brandy.
Ezra gazed at the darkening landscape and scoured his memory for anything he might have done or said to upset his associates, but found nothing. He had thought that they were finally beginning to accept him, 'warts and all', as Buck would have said, but their current aloofness told him that this was not the case. A frown creased his face as an unwelcome thought crossed his mind. What if the rumors were starting again? A chill raced down his spine as he remembered what had happened when he was with the FBI.
When the rumors had begun there, his FBI teammates had acted much like his current associates, ignoring him and giving him dirty looks the standard cold shoulder treatment. It had escalated from there into pointed comments and nasty practical jokes, like letting the air out of all four of his tires or 'accidentally' spilling food on his expensive suit jackets. As it spread further, Ezra got more and more undesirable assignments until he was doing nothing but the shit jobs no one else wanted. Ezra's jaw clenched as he noted the similarities. History appeared to be repeating itself and, once again, he was powerless to stop it.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Chris! I think we got a break," Buck said as he burst into Chris's office.
"What's up?" Chris asked calmly, used to Buck's excitability.
"I just talked to one of my sources..." he paused. "You remember Little Jimmy, don't you?"
Chris nodded. Little Jimmy was hard to forget, since, at six-foot-five and three hundred and fifty pounds, there was nothing 'little' about him. "What have you got?"
"Jimmy heard that a buy is going down Thursday night with Tony Arbella and his boys," Buck answered. "He hangs out with some of Arbella's bodyguards and one of them did some talking after a few too many drinks."
"Any idea when and where?"
"No exact time, but he said the deal was going down behind Arbella's produce warehouse sometime that night," Buck finished.
"You think it's our buyer?" Chris asked skeptically.
"Probably," Buck replied. "Jimmy said the bodyguard was impressed with the size of the deal, so there's a good chance it's them."
Chris tapped his pen thoughtfully on the edge of his desk. "Okay, you fill the guys in. I'm going to let Travis know. We'll probably get Team Two for backup, since they're not working on anything big right now. Tell the guys we'll meet in the conference room later to discuss the plans."
"Will do," Buck said with a grin, looking forward to some action.
"Oh, and Buck?" Chris called to the retreating agent.
"Make sure that none of you tell Ezra what's going on," Chris said, a pained expression on his face.
Buck's expression hardened, but he nodded his consent.
Chris sighed after Buck left, hating what he had to do, but it was best for all concerned to keep Ezra out of the picture for the time being. He lifted the phone and began making his calls.
* * * * * * * * * *
Smothering a yawn, Ezra made his way silently down the hall to his team's office. Agent Cardoza had insisted upon taking him out for drinks after work and Ezra had reluctantly complied, not wanting to disappoint the other man or insult him by refusing his invitation. It was now well past ten o'clock and he was planning only to pick up his briefcase and head home to bed. He hadn't slept well the night before and it was catching up with him.
As he entered the bullpen, he was surprised to find the lights still on and his teammates' belongings still scattered on their desks. Ezra stepped further into the office, spying the light escaping from beneath the closed door to the conference room. He paused for a moment, then crept silently to the door, pressing his ear against it carefully.
"... so Vin, you'll be up on this corner of the roof. Ron Thompson will be on the other corner," Chris said.
"Are those the only high spots?" Vin asked.
"Yeah. The produce building has a huge loading dock and parking lot back there," Chris replied.
"Where will I be?" asked Buck.
"You'll be at this spot here," Chris said, "... behind the dumpsters."
"Aw hell," Buck replied, amidst the snickers of the rest of the men.
"That ought to put a damper on your animal magnetism, Buck," JD snickered.
"Shut up," Buck replied unhappily.
"So, everyone clear on your positions?" asked Chris.
Ezra heard a chorus of affirmatives through the door.
"Good," Chris answered. "Between us and Team Two, Arbella and his customers have nowhere to go."
Ezra frowned as he pulled away from the door, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. As he retreated to his desk, he mulled over what he had heard. He was familiar with Tony Arbella. The man was a known arms dealer, and a very good one at that, since he had not yet been caught. No one had been able to get enough evidence on his activities to arrest him. Now, though, it appeared that there was a bust going down. Why hadn't he been informed? Unless the others had just heard about it and were waiting until morning to fill him in? Ezra picked up his briefcase and headed for the elevator, ignoring the little voice inside his head that told him otherwise. Morning would bring the truth, one way or another.
* * * * * * * * * *
The knot in his stomach tightened as Ezra stepped off of the elevator. He had slept badly again the previous night, and his head was beginning to pound from the lack of sleep and worry about what was going on with his associates. Today would tell him for sure whether or not he was being intentionally left out of his team's current case something he wasn't sure he really wanted to know. The cynical side of him was certain he already knew the answer, and as Ezra made his way down the hall to his team's offices, he hoped for all he was worth that he would be proven wrong for once.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Ezra greeted his teammates with a cheer he didn't feel.
"Mornin', Ez," JD answered.
Ezra shed his coat and sat at his desk, rifling through his briefcase for his notes while sipping his favorite coffee from Starbuck's. "How goes the investigation?" he asked in a conversational tone, feigning interest in the papers before him.
"Uh, not good," JD said hesitantly. "We haven't made any progress yet."
Ezra saw Vin and Buck nodding in agreement.
"I see," Ezra said nonchalantly, firming up his poker face to hide the disappointment that was flooding through him. "Well, that's too bad."
He stood, clutching his folder in his hand. "I must be going. My protégé awaits." Stifling a yawn behind his hand, Ezra walked stiffly to the door. "I hope you have better luck today, Mr. Dunne, gentlemen."
That was it, then, Ezra thought glumly as he leaned against the rear wall of the elevator. They were intentionally keeping him away from the investigation and the forthcoming bust. There was only one reason he could think of that would cause his teammates to do such a thing: they were afraid he would compromise the operation.
Ezra shook his head, wondering what sort of scurrilous rumor was going around this time that would cause his team to doubt him. He had begun to enjoy the mutual trust of his co-workers, especially after having spent so much time without it. During his time with the FBI, he had known that the only person looking out for his safety was Ezra Standish. Since taking his position with Team Seven, though, he had come to enjoy the pleasant security of having someone else watch his back for a change.
Even before the rumors of his corruption had started, Ezra had not been well-liked by most of his FBI associates. It had always bewildered him, since he never understood what it was about him that people disliked so much. He knew he was inexperienced with friendship, not having had the opportunity to forge many of them throughout his life, and he had become convinced that it simply was not in the cards for him. His loner tendencies had kept most people at bay, and when the rumors had begun, he found there was no one standing at his back or by his side. It wasn't until he had met these men that Ezra had begun to learn what trust was all about and that the possibility of real friendship actually existed for him.
Rumors. Ezra shook his head in disgust. The talk about him had started long before his mother had gifted him with the Jaguar. The snide remarks about his expensive clothing had indicated that his FBI associates were suspicious of him, even in the beginning. They had never bothered to ask and he wasn't sure he would have told them if they had where he got the clothes. The fact that he wore expensive designer suits on a daily basis, and not just when he was undercover, had been enough to convince them that he was corrupt.
"Something else to thank Mother for," he muttered to himself. Maude insisted upon sending him packages of designer clothing several times a year and Ezra was convinced it was simply to spare herself the embarrassment of witnessing her only child dressed in anything she considered unsatisfactory, especially since she had never once asked for his opinion or consent. He simply accepted the clothing graciously, knowing how useless it was to argue with the force of nature that was his mother.
Ezra had thought that he had made enough progress for his teammates to trust him when it came to his job. It was the one area of his life in which he had real confidence and, as such, he would never do anything to jeopardize it. Despite the fact that many found his morals to be lacking Nathan Jackson, in particular Ezra had certain principles that he would never compromise, not the least of which was his dedication to his job and to his co-workers. Unfortunately, it was also the one area where his loyalty was always called into question. And that was what hurt the most.
The elevator door opened, rousing Ezra from his reverie. With a sigh, he forced a smile onto his face and stepped forward, determinedly pushing the dark thoughts from his mind. He had a job to do.
* * * * * * * * * *
"He knows something's up," Vin stated quietly.
"What?" Buck asked, turning his head toward the sharpshooter.
"Ezra," he continued. "He knows there's somethin' goin' on."
"How do you know?" asked JD curiously. "He didn't act any different than usual."
"No, but I could see it in his eyes," Vin said flatly. "His face was smilin', but his eyes weren't."
"Why didn't he say anything, then?" JD queried.
"He probably figures he's better off not knowing," Josiah said with a sigh. "I get the impression he's used to being on the outside."
"You think it's going to be a problem?" asked Chris, joining the conversation.
"I doubt it," Josiah replied. "Brother Ezra isn't one to make waves. His pride won't let him react in such an 'undignified' manner."
"I hope you're right," Chris said doubtfully. "It's not a good time for him to make trouble."
"Is it ever?" Nathan said with a snort.
"No, but right now we don't need to be giving the FBI any more ammunition," Chris said. "I have a feeling those bastards are out to get him, guilty or not." There were some things that he hadn't told the rest of the team; things Ezra had told him in drugged confidence the same night he had shed light on his past by sharing his small photo album with his boss.
Chris hadn't believed it at first when his undercover agent had told him in a slurred whisper that his cover had been deliberately compromised by one of his own associates during his last operation with the FBI. To Chris, it was inconceivable to turn on your own in such a way, and he had told Ezra just that. The younger man had just given him a sad smile, saying that rules like that simply didn't apply to him.
Chris had refused to argue with the man in his semi-coherent state, but curiosity and a nagging sense of unease had refused to go away until he had looked into the matter. What he had found hadn't proved Ezra's claim, but left him feeling troubled by the incident nonetheless. Later discussions with the recalcitrant agent had not garnered him any new information, since Ezra had flatly refused to talk about it, claiming he must have been babbling nonsensically while under the influence of the medication. But Chris had seen a momentary flash of fear in Ezra's eyes before that formidable poker face had shuttered his emotions once again and vowed he would do whatever it took to earn the man's trust. No one should have to go through life with such a fear of mistrust and betrayal.
* * * * * * * * * *
Buck watched the emotions flash across his oldest friend's face and didn't for a moment envy him his position. Being forced to lie to, and possibly betray, one of his men went against everything that Chris Larabee stood for and it was only his respect for Orrin Travis that kept him from telling the FBI where to stick it. Buck was hoping that Ezra was innocent of any wrongdoing, primarily because he liked the slick undercover agent. The man had a wicked sense of humor, on the rare occasions that he allowed it to escape, and Buck wanted to see what that scathing wit would do to the hapless FBI agents if they were proven wrong.
But that didn't seem to be the likely outcome. Things didn't look good for Standish, and he felt his anger building toward the younger man for causing Chris such distress. It had taken a long time for Chris to start living again and Buck hated to see anything bring pain to his friend's face again. He only hoped that the situation was resolved quickly, before anyone got hurt.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra made himself scarce for the rest of the day, keeping his mind busy by focusing diligently on his training assignment. It went without saying that he was still going to lose sleep over the situation, since he had no such distractions when he was home alone in his bed, but for now, all he could do was perform his assigned task to the best of his ability and avoid the rest of his team. Ezra had long since learned the futility of worrying about things over which he had no control, but it didn't make it any easier to take. Whether it was being handed off to a new relative or boarding school every few months, or being bombarded with rumors and accusations from his FBI counterparts, he had always had that control taken away from him... and now it was happening again.
Ezra sighed as he drove home, thankful that he had been able to retrieve his coat and briefcase from his desk without encountering his teammates. The rest of his team had, once again, gathered in the conference room to discuss the bust that was to take place, and he had picked up his things and beat a hasty retreat before any of them became aware of his presence. He had had enough stress that day and had not wanted to add to the burden with any more uncomfortable confrontations.
As he pulled into his driveway, Ezra noticed an unfamiliar car sitting across the street, with two figures seated inside. He stepped out of the Jaguar and was about to investigate when a friendly voice behind him drew his attention.
"Ezra!" Bradley greeted him cheerfully.
"Bradley." Ezra returned his cousin's handshake with a smile, his mood brightening. "I wasn't expecting you."
"I know," Bradley said with a shrug. "I got done early today and I was hoping you'd know a good place to get some dinner."
"That I do." Ezra's grin widened. Dinner with a friend was just what he needed to dispel his melancholy mood.
"Good, 'cause I'm getting really tired of Big Macs and Whoppers," Bradley said, clapping him on the shoulder.
After a quick stop in Ezra's apartment to drop off his briefcase, the two men climbed into the Jaguar and headed off to dinner. Ezra glanced across the street before he left, noting that the car he had seen earlier was gone. Shrugging it off as a result of the stress of recent days, he drove to the restaurant, determined to have a pleasant evening.
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