Black and White

ATF Universe

by Violette

Part 10

The sky outside his window was lightening with the approaching dawn. Ezra regarded it wearily, turning his head away with a sigh. His night had been restless, with sleep coming in fitful bursts between bouts of emotional turmoil. His past had been dragged into his present and, despite his best efforts, it was wreaking havoc with his life.

When Chris had brought him into Team Seven, he had said that he didn't care about the pasts of any of his men and that what they did while working for him was the only thing that mattered. Now, though, those words had proved to be untrue, at least when it came to Ezra Standish. He never received quite the same benefit of the doubt as everyone else; there was always some exception to the rule when it came to him and he was tired of the double standard.

Ezra had never inquired into the personal lives of his associates, feeling that everyone was entitled to their privacy, but they apparently disagreed, believing that his own past and private life should be subject to their scrutiny. It hurt him more than he cared to admit. He had come to respect these men and he thought they had at least held some small measure of respect for him. Their recent actions, however, had disproved that and Ezra found that he was as alone as he had been at the FBI. It had simply taken him longer to realize it.

His musings were interrupted by the arrival of the doctor, whose eyebrow lifted in surprise at finding him awake.

"Well, good morning, Mr. Standish," Dr. Tyler said with a smile. "I didn't expect to find you awake. I was told that you aren't much of a morning person."

"I'm not, but this place is not very conducive to sleep," Ezra replied grumpily.

"I imagine not," the doctor said with a chuckle.

"I would like to go home," Ezra stated. The emotions of the past few weeks had left him feeling unsettled and out of sorts. He needed to get away, out from under the scrutiny of his associates so that he could regain control of his life.

"Now, we discussed this, Mr. Standish," the doctor chided. "Your lungs are still congested and you simply aren't well enough to leave yet. Perhaps in a few days...."

"No," Ezra stated, more forcefully. "I wish to leave now."

"Mr. Standish," Dr. Tyler began with an exasperated sigh.

Ezra held up a hand. "Please, Doctor. I am perfectly within my rights to leave. I believe I will recover more quickly in the comforts of my own peaceful abode."

Dr. Tyler recognized the determined set of his patient's jaw and shook his head reluctantly. "I don't agree, but I can't stop you from leaving."

"I assure you that I intend only to get some rest."

"Let me check you over once more and then I'll get you some prescriptions," the doctor proposed. "You're still very sick and you need to continue this medication or else you'll end up back here in even worse condition."

"I understand, Doctor," Ezra said, hiding his pleasure at the doctor's capitulation. "I would also ask that you refrain from reporting my departure to Mr. Larabee. I won't get much peace and quiet once he learns I have left this facility."

"Your friends are only concerned for your welfare," Dr. Tyler reminded him.

"Yes, but they can be quite overwhelming in their efforts," Ezra retorted.

A hint of a smile graced the doctor's face. "Yes, I've noticed their tendency to... hover."

Ezra chuckled. "Then you can understand my desire to vacate these premises and get some quality time to myself."

Dr. Tyler sighed, but nodded slowly. "Yes, I suppose I can." He gave Ezra a hard look. "I expect to see you back here in a week for a checkup."

"Of course," Ezra agreed pleasantly.

Dr. Tyler chuckled as he left, realizing that he had just been smoothly conned into doing as his patient wished. On the hospital grapevine, the members of this particular ATF team were well-known for being reluctant and troublesome patients, and if Standish was anything like the rest of them, he had to agree.

* * * * * * * * * *

With a smile, Ezra shut the door behind him and made his way to the sofa, glad to be home and free of the unwanted attention of the hospital staff. He lay back against the cushions as a coughing fit struck, annoyed that the short walk up the stairs had been so exhausting. It finally subsided, leaving him breathless and sore. He would have liked nothing better than to take a nap right then and there, but he knew that his freedom would be short-lived, once his teammates learned of his escape from the hospital. Gripping his aching midsection tightly, Ezra stood and headed to his room to pack.

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin sat patiently in his jeep, his eyes firmly glued to the arched brick entryway of the building where Ezra lived. He had stopped by the hospital on his way to work, planning to bring the ill southerner a deck of cards to help pass the time, only to find that Ezra had already left. It didn't surprise him that the solitary undercover agent would attempt to leave before his doctors thought it was advisable, since he hated all of the attention that came with being in the hospital, but none of them had expected him to bolt so soon.

Vin couldn't really blame him, though, since he wasn't fond of staying in the hospital either. Normally, he would have left it alone, leaving the other man to enjoy his solitude, but he had an uneasy feeling that something else was motivating his friend. It was for this reason that he was sitting in his car, waiting for Ezra to make an appearance. He wasn't disappointed.

After only a fifteen-minute wait, Ezra walked through the doorway, carrying a small suitcase. Minutes later, a taxi pulled into the curb to pick up its fare. Frowning, Vin followed carefully behind, curious as to where he was going. His question was answered when they took the turnoff to the airport. He followed, turning into the airport parking area when they arrived, then rushing into the terminal, hoping to catch sight of Ezra. He had almost given up hope when he spotted him at one of the ticket counters. Pushing his way through the throngs of people, he made his way to the counter just after Ezra had left with his ticket.

"Excuse me," Vin said breathlessly as he pushed in front of the customer who was making his way to the ticket agent. "I need to know where that man that just bought a ticket is going." He pointed toward where Ezra had disappeared with one hand, while showing his badge with another.

"Is there a security problem?" the woman asked, alarmed.

"No, no," Vin said reassuringly. "But his testimony at a trial was moved up to tomorrow afternoon and I need to make sure I get him there," he lied, regarding the pretty ticket agent with an innocent expression.

"Oh, of course, sir," she said with a smile as she typed something up on her computer. "He bought a ticket to Seattle. First class."

"Great! What gate is the flight leaving from?"

"Gate 24," she replied. "But the plane is already boarding."

"Damn," Vin muttered. "Can you get me a ticket?"

"Let me check... yes, we have plenty of seats left in coach," she answered.

"That'll do," Vin said with a sigh, handing over his credit card.

* * * * * * * * * *

Stretched out in his seat, Vin reluctantly reached for the air phone. He had boarded the plane without Ezra noticing, but Chris was surely going to kill him when he found out what was going on.

"Larabee," Chris answered his phone tersely.

"Chris? It's me," Vin said tentatively.

"Vin? Where the hell are you?" Chris growled. "I've been trying to reach you."

"Yeah, well, I had to shut off my cell phone," Vin replied.

"What for?"

Vin sighed. "'Cause I'm on an airplane." He held the phone away from his ear, wincing at the tirade that erupted at his pronouncement.

"Chris," he interrupted, once the volume of yelling had decreased. "You gonna listen or what?" he said, frustrated when Chris continued to make demands.

"I'm listening," Chris said finally.

"Okay," Vin said with a sigh. "I'm following Ezra."

"What the hell is Ezra doing on an airplane?" Chris barked.

"I don't know, that's why I'm followin' him," Vin said, exasperation creeping into his voice. "I dropped by the hospital this mornin' to see him and he was already gone. The doc said he'd left twenty minutes before I got there, so I went by his place and followed him to the airport."

"Where's the plane headed?"

"Seattle," Vin answered. "I figured I'd follow him, see what he's up to."

"All right," Chris said with a sigh. "Call me when you know anything."

"Will do, cowboy." Vin hung up the phone, chuckling at the image of his boss shaking his head over the actions of his wayward agents.

* * * * * * * * * *

The house was small, but tidy, showing the care its owners took with its fresh paint and well-tended lawn. A colorful flower garden decorated the front yard, filling the air with its sweet scent. Ezra sat in his rental car, staring at the house with trepidation, as he had been doing for the past hour. He was almost certain it was the right place, having looked up the telephone number and address on his computer system before he left. Finally, he gathered his courage and left the car, ambling slowly toward the front door.

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin yawned and grabbed another donut out of the box he had bought at the airport. Ezra had been sitting in front of the small, single-family home in this suburb of Seattle for over an hour, and Vin was wondering if he should just go confront him and find out what he was doing there. Just as he was about to get out of his own rental car, Ezra exited his vehicle and walked, almost reluctantly, toward the front door of the house. Vin watched intently as Ezra knocked tentatively at the door. His eyebrows lifted in surprise when the door was opened by a middle-aged Asian woman. After speaking for a few moments, Ezra followed the woman inside.

"What the hell?" Vin murmured as he reached for another donut.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra lifted his hand and knocked softly at the door, feeling uncommonly nervous. He almost hoped that no one was home, but found those hopes dashed when the door opened. He opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly found that he had no words. The woman looked at him curiously for a moment, then the light of recognition dawned in her eyes and she smiled at him.

"Well, it's been a long time, Mr. Standish," she said in a soft voice. "Won't you come in?"

Ezra followed her inside, surprised that she remembered him. He had only met her twice before, when she visited her daughter at school. "Thank you, Mrs. Davis."

"Would you like some tea?" she asked him.

"That would be nice," he said as he took a seat on the small sofa, looking around the warm and inviting living room. It had a comfortable, homey feeling that his own apartment lacked. His gaze fell upon the pictures that graced the mantel above the small stone fireplace. He stared at the one in the center, wincing at the sight of Monique's smiling face as she stood between her petite mother and her tall, dark-skinned father.

Mrs. Davis returned a few minutes later with a tray containing two cups of tea and a plate of cookies. Ezra took his cup, sipping gratefully at the tea as he tried to think of something to say.

"So what brings you here after all these years?" Mrs. Davis asked curiously.

Ezra set the cup down and brushed at imaginary lint on his pant leg. "Something happened recently...." he trailed off awkwardly.

"Is that 'something' the reason for those bruises on your face?" she asked kindly.

Ezra gave her a half-hearted smile. "Yes, I'm afraid so. I'm an agent with the ATF and I learned something about... about Monique's death during a recent case." He looked away sadly. "I didn't even know she was...."

"I'm sorry we didn't contact you," Mrs. Davis apologized. "We were terribly upset after what happened. I never even thought of it until a few years later when I went through her things and found some pictures of you. But you had graduated by then and I wasn't able to get your address or phone number."

"She was a very special person," Ezra said softly after a few minutes. "She didn't deserve what happened to her. I'm so sorry." Tears glistened in his eyes as he turned back to Monique's mother. "It was my fault," he said in a pained voice.

"Now, now," the older woman said, patting his hand gently. "You couldn't have known."

"That's just it, Mrs. Davis," Ezra said plaintively. "I should have known. My cousin is the one who... who killed her."

"What?" Mrs. Davis looked at him, clearly shocked by his declaration.

"I never knew," he said pleadingly. "I didn't know until he told me recently." Ezra shook his head in disgust. "Bradley was a white supremacist and he apparently didn't approve of our relationship. He harassed and threatened her until she broke it off with me. I... I wish she would have told me."

Mrs. Davis took his hand in her own. "She never told me, either. I knew that something must have happened, since she was so happy when she was seeing you and so sad afterward. I know she loved you very much. I could hear the happiness in her voice when she talked about you."

Ezra met her warm brown eyes with his own anguished green gaze. "And I got her killed. Bradley wasn't content with breaking us up, he...." Ezra shook his head. "If I had only known, I could have stopped him."

"You can't blame yourself for the hatred of others," Mrs. Davis said softly. "You are a good person, or else my Monique would never have given you the time of day." She chuckled softly. "That girl never had much tolerance for fools."

"I loved her," Ezra said simply.

"I know," Mrs. Davis said with a smile.

Ezra brushed a tear off of his cheek. "I'm sorry if I've brought up any bad memories, but I wanted to let you know personally that the man responsible for taking Monique away from you has been punished. He was killed during a police raid on an arms deal." Ezra looked at her earnestly. "I know it won't bring her back, but I hope it can give you some peace."

"I made my peace long ago," Mrs. Davis said. "But I'm glad you came here. I hope you can find that same peace yourself."

"I'm trying," Ezra said with a small smile.

"Wait here." The woman stood and headed down the hallway, returning a few minutes later with a box covered in a floral print. "I'd like you to have this." She handed the box to Ezra. "I think Monique would have wanted that."

Ezra lifted the lid off of the box carefully, then froze, staring at the pictures and letters in the box. It was all of the notes and letters he had written to her, along with some pictures of the two of them. He lifted one picture of them sitting in a canoe and ran a shaking finger over Monique's face. He remembered this picture, taken the weekend they had spent at a lake with Monique's roommate and her boyfriend. It had been one of the best weekends he had ever spent, full of fun and laughter. Ezra smiled, then lifted his eyes to Mrs. Davis, who favored him with a warm smile.

"Thank you," Ezra said sincerely.

"No, thank you, Mr. Standish," Mrs. Davis said with a smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

The door opened again just as Vin drained the last of his coffee. He set the empty cup down and watched as Ezra stepped out onto the small porch carrying what looked like a shoebox. The woman followed him, grasping his hand and smiling before Ezra turned away and headed down the paved walk toward his car. Vin started his car as Ezra pulled away from the curb, the woman still watching from the porch.

"Okay, where to now, Ez?" Vin said to himself.

They drove through the quiet suburb, ending up at a small cemetery ten minutes later. Vin parked behind a hedge and watched his friend wander among the headstones, stopping when he apparently found the one he wanted. He watched for a time, but then his curiosity got the best of him. Quietly, Vin got out of his car and followed. He wasn't sure what was going on, but judging by the southerner's slumped posture, it wasn't something pleasant, and Vin decided it was time to let his friend know that he wasn't alone.

* * * * * * * * * *

Tears blurred his vision as Ezra stared at the engraved tombstone. Monique's name was inscribed there in a delicate script, with birds and flowers intertwined with the letters. Ezra thought it was appropriate, since her voice was as beautiful as the singing of birds. A noise startled him and he turned to find Vin Tanner standing there, watching him somberly. Ezra turned away, brushing away the tears that had once again begun to trickle down his face.

"What are you doing here, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked hoarsely, unsure whether to be angry, embarrassed, or grateful for the sharpshooter's company.

"I went to see you at the hospital this morning," Vin answered, moving to stand beside his obviously distraught friend. "But you had just left, so I went by your place to make sure you were okay...."

"And you followed me," finished Ezra. He turned again to face Vin. "Why?"

Vin shrugged. "I was worried about you." He looked at the gravestone that had drawn his companion's attention, noting the date of the woman's death. "She someone important to you?"

"Yes," Ezra whispered after a short pause.

"You want to talk about it?" Vin offered.

Ezra looked at him, noting the sincerity of his offer. "Not particularly, but I expect Mr. Larabee will require some sort of explanation."

"Ez," Vin said with an exasperated sigh. "Anything you want to say stays between us unless you decide otherwise."

"What about Mr. Larabee?" Ezra raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Surely he knows of this excursion by now?"

"Yeah, but I'll tell him it ain't none of his damn business if that's what you want."

Ezra looked at him doubtfully, arguing with himself over whether or not to trust him. Of all of his teammates, Vin had proven the most trustworthy and Ezra decided to take a chance. The worst that could happen was that more of his personal life would be exposed for all to see. Given all that had already occurred, there wasn't much more they could do to hurt him.

"Very well," Ezra answered. "But not here."

"I saw a nice restaurant near the airport," Vin suggested.

Ezra nodded, then turned back to the grave. Sensing that his friend needed some time alone, Vin squeezed his shoulder and headed back to his car to wait.

* * * * * * * * * *

"She was beautiful," Vin said, handing the picture of Monique back to Ezra.

"Yes, she was," Ezra sighed. "And she could sing like an angel."

Vin smiled, hearing the obvious adoration in Ezra's voice.

Ezra studied him over the rim of his coffee cup. "You don't seem surprised that I dated a woman of color."

"I'm not," Vin replied. "I told you before that I never believed any of that stuff about you."

Ezra lowered his gaze, chastised. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. It's just...." He shook his head, at a loss for words, something that seemed to afflict him frequently of late.

"I ain't happy with what happened, either," Vin said. "It weren't fair for them to treat you like that."

"I'm glad someone agrees," Ezra said with a rueful grin.

"JD was on your side, too," Vin added. "He even told off Travis."

Ezra's eyes widened. "He did?"

"Yep," Vin said with a smile. "He told him he was gonna quit if they shafted you over this whole thing."

Ezra's jaw dropped. "What?!"

"I was gonna to leave, too," Vin added with a smile. "I told Travis that the night we brought you to the hospital."

His mouth opened and closed a few times, but Ezra couldn't find the words to express himself. Finally, he said, "You shouldn't have done that."

"Would'a done it for any of you," Vin said with a shrug.

"But it's not worth it," Ezra said. I'm not worth it, was what echoed through his head.

"Ain't your place to say," Vin said determinedly.

Ezra shook his head, knowing how futile it was to argue with the stubborn Texan.

"How's about we find us a hotel?" Vin suggested, stuffing the last of his apple pie into his mouth. "You're lookin' a little tired."

"I am rather weary," Ezra conceded.

"We can fly back tomorrow," Vin suggested. "If you're ready to go, that is."

"I did what I came here to do," Ezra said softly, running his hand over the box of mementos.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra leaned his head against the seat of the jeep, sending occasional glances from under his half-closed eyelids toward his silent companion. The quiet man continued to surprise him, constantly doing the unexpected. He hadn't thought that anyone would concern themselves about his problems, much less give up their own jobs in his defense.

After checking into a hotel the previous night, Ezra had shared more of the pictures with Vin, telling him about some of the good times he and Monique had had. Vin, in turn, had shared some stories about his own life, and Ezra had realized then that the man was truly a friend. They were both very private people and he knew from personal experience what it had cost Vin to talk about his past. It was almost frightening to know that the man trusted him that much. It wasn't a feeling he was used to having.

Ezra sighed inwardly, shaking those troublesome thoughts away and wondering how he had allowed Vin to convince him to stop by the office before returning home. He had wanted to go directly to his apartment, but Vin had convinced him that Chris would be less likely to disturb him at home if he made an appearance at work. A soft chuckle escaped him.

"What's so funny?" Vin asked.

"You, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "It seems that some of my god-given talents are rubbing off on you."

"Chris won't be too happy to hear that." Vin grinned at him widely, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "Now there'll be two of us to piss him off."

Ezra laughed, then started to cough. Digging into his coat pocket, he removed the bottle of cough medicine the doctor had given him and took a healthy swig.

"You okay?" Vin eyed him with concern as they turned into the parking garage of the Federal building.

"Fine," Ezra croaked, once the coughing had ceased.

"Good," Vin said. "Chris would kill me if'n you got sicker."

Ezra rolled his eyes, then gave Vin a serious look. "Vin, I... thank you."

"You're welcome," Vin said, equally seriously.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Hey Vin!" JD said when he noticed his longhaired friend enter the bullpen. "Hey Ez," he added, spying the undercover agent following behind, clutching his box of mementos tightly.

"Guys," Vin greeted them succinctly.

The four agents watched them with open curiosity. They were all aware of Ezra's escape from the hospital and his impromptu trip out of town with Vin on his tail, but Chris had been unusually close-mouthed about where they had gone and why.

"Where you guys been?" Buck asked outright.

"Around," Vin said, sharing a smile with Ezra.

"You feelin' better, Ez?" JD asked, worried at the pallor of his friend's face.

"Much, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said. Then, as if to contradict his words, Ezra began to cough again.

"Perhaps you should have stayed in the hospital a few more days, brother," Josiah said, his brow creasing with concern.

"I'm fine," Ezra answered between coughs.

"Sounds like it," Nathan muttered sarcastically.

Vin shot Nathan a dirty look just as Chris stepped out of his office. "Boys," he addressed the new arrivals. "My office."

Ezra looked at Vin, who shrugged in response. The two of them quietly followed Chris into his office. Vin slouched comfortably into one chair, while Ezra perched stiffly in the other.

Chris eyed the two men calmly. "You gonna tell me what's going on?"

Vin looked at Ezra, letting him decide how much to tell their leader.

Ezra shot him a grateful smile before turning toward Chris. Slowly, he withdrew a picture of Monique and himself from the box that sat on his lap, handing it to the blond man.

Chris looked at the picture, lifting an eyebrow in surprise. "Is she the reason for your little vacation?"

Ezra nodded. Taking a deep breath, he related the entire story, including the devastating revelation that Bradley had made.

Chris said nothing as he listened to the sad tale, though he was horrified by what Ezra's cousin had done. Knowing the man who sat before him, Chris had no doubt that he was shouldering the burden of guilt over the woman's death. Strangely, he wasn't surprised that Ezra had dated someone who wasn't white. It was just one more facet of a man who had proved to be more complex than he had ever imagined. He could understand Ezra's need for closure, and wasn't about to give him a hard time; his agent had had enough of that already.

Ezra fidgeted in his chair, waiting for Chris's reaction. He half-expected to be chewed out for taking off the way he had done. But his boss surprised him.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Ezra," Chris said softly. "I can see why you needed to make this trip... though I do wish you had told me before you left. I would have been worried if Vin hadn't let me know where you were."

Ezra nodded slowly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did.

"You aren't planning any other excursions, are you?" Chris asked.

"Not at the moment, no," Ezra replied cautiously.

"Good," Chris nodded. "'Cause you look terrible. You should be home in bed."

"That is next on my agenda, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a faint smile.

"I don't want to see your ass back here for at least a week, clear?"

"Crystal," Ezra replied.

Vin nodded to Chris as he and Ezra left the office. He was grateful for his best friend's understanding of the undercover agent's problems.

Ezra stepped out the door straight into a paper-wad battle between Buck and JD. One of the crumpled balls of paper hit him in the forehead, startling him. The box he held slipped from his grasp, scattering pictures on the floor as it fell.

"Damn," Ezra muttered as he stooped to collect the precious photos.

"Sorry Ez," JD apologized, moving quickly to help.

"It's all right, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said with a sigh.

"She's real pretty, Ez," Buck said quietly, handing him a picture that had slid in his direction.

"Yes, she was," Ezra replied, giving the ladies' man a sad smile.

Nathan bent slowly, retrieving the photograph that had fallen near his feet. He stared at it silently, shocked by what he saw. Not in a million years would he have ever believed that Ezra would go out with a woman who wasn't white. Yet, here was clear evidence that he had, and, judging by the adoring looks on their faces, it had been more than a casual relationship. Not knowing what to say to the man, he silently handed Ezra the picture and turned away.

Ezra took the picture, staring after the dark-skinned man as he left the room. He turned a questioning gaze to Vin.

"I think you just gave him a lot to think about, Ez," Vin said quietly.

Ezra nodded to himself, then smiled self-consciously at his teammates before making his own escape from the room.

"I better go after him," Vin said with a sigh. "Make sure he gets home."

The others watched him leave, sharing confused glances.

"I guess we're gonna have to wait to find out what that was all about," Buck said.

"It isn't really any of our business," Josiah said gently. "Though I admit to being more than a mite curious, myself."

The three men looked at Chris, who had watched the mishap from his doorway. He merely shrugged and went back into his office, closing the door on any further speculation.

* * * * * * * * * *

The drive back to Ezra's apartment was a quiet one, both men lost in thought. Vin pulled into the curb in front of the condo complex and turned to his friend. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," Ezra said.

"You want me to tell the guys anything?" Vin asked. "You know they're gonna ask."

Ezra pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Yes, I know." He sighed tiredly. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give them a brief explanation."

"I can do that," Vin said. "Though, I can't guarantee that Buck ain't gonna want more details about how you got such a beautiful woman to go out with you."

Ezra snorted with amusement. "Mr. Wilmington does tend to have a one-track mind, doesn't he?"

Vin laughed. "Yep."

With a shake of his head, Ezra opened the door and climbed out of the jeep. "Thank you again, Mr. Tanner."

"That's what friends are for," Vin said, waving as Ezra shut the door. He watched his friend trudge up the walk and into the building before leaving.

* * * * * * * * * *

Waving briefly at his teammates, Vin strolled into bullpen and straight to Chris's office. Heaving a sigh, he dropped into the chair he had occupied earlier.

"He okay?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, I think so," Vin replied. "Though I don't think he was quite ready to explain things to the rest of the guys."

Chris winced. "I don't think I would have been, either. He's had a rough enough time lately."

"Hell, it's bad enough that most people around here thought he was a racist son of a bitch, then to find out that his girlfriend got killed by his own cousin just 'cause she decided to go out with him...." Vin shook his head. "Christ, that's more shit than anyone should have to deal with."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. The kind of guilt the southerner was feeling was something he understood more than most. He had felt that same guilt after his wife had child had been killed. Knowing that someone would be alive if they hadn't been associated with you was a hard burden for any man to bear.

"I'm surprised he told me the story," Chris said. "I figured he'd tell me to go jump off a bridge if I asked."

"I told him he could trust you," Vin said with a shrug.

"And he believed you?"

"Yep," Vin said, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. "I think I finally convinced him that I'm really his friend. Figure he would'a shot me by now, otherwise."

"That's good," Chris said quietly. "After all the shit that's gone down, he could use a friend or two."

"Don't think he's gonna be trusting anybody for a while, though," Vin cautioned. "We hurt him real bad this time, cowboy."

"I thought as much," Chris said resignedly. "We'll just have to do better from now on."

"I guess I ought to go tell the guys what's goin' on," Vin said after a pause.

Chris looked at him with surprise. "Is Ez okay with that?"

"Yeah," Vin replied. "He figured he wouldn't get any peace unless he filled 'em in."

Chris laughed. "It's the nature of the beast, Vin. We're paid to be investigators, so we tend to have an overabundance of curiosity."

"No joke," Vin said with a grimace. "Buck still ain't quit askin' about that woman who called here lookin' for me two months ago."

"Who was she, anyway?" Chris asked with a smirk.

Vin smiled and waggled his eyebrows suggestively as he walked out the door.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra crawled into his bed, sinking into his pillows with a sigh. He really did feel terrible, though he'd never admit it to anyone. As he lay there, his thoughts turned to his teammates. It had been a surprise to discover that he actually had a friend on the team – two, if he counted JD. The feeling was almost foreign, since it had been such a long time since he had had a real friend. Vin had certainly proven his friendship, standing by him throughout this entire situation despite his best efforts to push him away.

His thoughts turned to the rest of his teammates. Chris had surprised him. Ezra had expected the man to jump all over him for his abrupt departure, but he had shown nothing but understanding and sympathy. When he thought about it, though, it made sense. Chris had lost people he loved whose only fault had been that they were part of his life, just as Monique had been a part of his. The man had questioned his integrity, but it was part of his job to find the truth, so Ezra honestly couldn't fault him for his prying questions or his doubts about the situation with Bradley... though, that didn't make it hurt any less.

His other teammates painted a more confusing picture. Josiah had not judged him outright, but Ezra had seen the doubt in the older man's eyes. Buck had been a bit more obvious, though not as blatant in his hostility as Nathan had been. It bothered him that the respect of these men meant so much to him. When had that happened? Ezra sighed, realizing that he truly wanted these men to be his friends. He envied the camaraderie that they shared and wondered if it was something he could ever have. He snorted in disgust at his own longings. It was going to take a lot before he was willing to let these men get close to him. He had started to let them in and they had thrown it in his face, tossing him aside when the situation went bad. Well, not all of them, Ezra amended. Vin and JD had stood up for him. It warmed him a bit that there actually was someone who would bother to do that for him. But he wasn't ready to take a chance on the others yet.

Ezra stared at the ceiling. He would give them what they wanted, tell them what they wanted to hear, but he wouldn't make the mistake of trusting them again... not yet. Things were still too raw and painful. Oh, he knew they could be trusted to watch his back and might even take a bullet for him, but he wasn't willing to risk that hidden part of himself that they had been searching for so persistently. Exposing his true self right now could only bring him pain, and he had had enough of that for two lifetimes. No, he would play the part and be the man they wanted him to be, but, for now at least, the real Ezra Standish would remain safely tucked away behind the protective shell that had served him so well over the years.


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