Pilgrim Soul

by Amy

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: Characters are not mine, I intend no slander nor copyright infringement. ATF universe originated with Mog.

Author's Note: This takes place a few months after a previous story of mine called A Little Nearer. Also, I borrow ruthlessly from William Butler Yeats' poem When You Are Old. The relevant stanzas can be found at the end of the story. Lastly, Ezra's past as Atlanta Vice comes from Mog's first ATF story; in my ATF universe, he was Atlanta Vice first, from which he was recruited to the FBI, then finally to the ATF.

The sun lifted over the low-hung cafe curtain gathered across the window above Buck and JD's sink. Though it hadn't achieved the brass tones of full day, the buttery glare had enough strength to send up red sparks in Ezra's eyes as it struck him in the face. He closed his eyes with a grimace; the light glowed relentlessly through his eyelids.

He would have liked to get up, move to the easy chair and put his back to the wretched sunshine. However, that would require the removal of his feet from the coffee table. The sagging, corduroy-upholstered couch, which had been devouring him all morning and was, he was certain, soon to begin the long process of digesting him, would never offer enough leverage for him to accomplish such a feat. He was stuck there, in capricious half-sleep, in the embrace of his own arms and the jaws of the infernal couch, until Buck woke up and liberated him. He settled for turning his face, so that the sun assaulted only one eye, warmed only one cheek and ear.

Oh, for the cool, sepulchral darkness of his own bedroom, and the hard indifference of his extra-firm mattress. His steady breathing heaved once in a long sigh, and then settled again, noiseless in the quiet room.

"I wanted to swing by Casey's tonight." JD's voice sounded, as most things do at a vaguely drunken 2 a.m., like a swarm of bees. His face was pale in the drab light of the men's restroom, and a little blurred, like the noise from the bar coming through the door. He followed Ezra to the sink, and as he continued talking he copied unthinkingly Ezra's hand-washing. Ezra noted this and felt a muzzy relief; at least he'd accomplished something positive today. "But I don't want him driving himself home, you know? And, I kind of don't want him to be alone...."

If Ezra hadn't had that last glass of brandy, he might have had the sense to refuse. Ezra had been avoiding Buck all night. Buck knew him too well, and after the fiasco that had masqueraded as a bust that day, the last person Ezra wanted to be around was someone who had him pegged but good.

Unfortunately, the liquor had, as usual, soaked up and washed away all but his most disquieting knee-jerk reactions. After making some unnecessary and offensive remarks regarding JD's habit of taking people for granted, Ezra sighed, and agreed to drive Buck home. JD thanked him with a grin and slapped him on the shoulder.

A noise like the snap of a pistol's empty chamber made Ezra's heart leap. His eyes flicked open, and he stared at the pile of soda-damaged motorcycle magazines slipping into the crack between the arm and cushion at the end of the couch. He didn't really know where he was, and his body was as stiff as the stark memory it recalled. Then he heard water spouting behind a closed door, and, shortly thereafter, a muffled curse. Buck. In the bathroom. Which meant Ezra was on Buck's couch. Where he'd been since almost three that morning.

Which naturally meant that Ezra wasn't dead, or near death. The realization struck Ezra's body as a good thing, so it relaxed back into the squashy, voracious couch cushions, and dropped him back into a doze.

Poetry rarely stuck with him. He read it to get his mind off of other things, and as such was generally too preoccupied to remember what he read. But as he slowly maneuvered his car through the maze of empty streets leading to Buck's apartment, and glanced over just in time to see Buck staring at him, he remembered something by...by....

Buck's eyes were glazed. He'd been drinking hard all night, as was customary after a lousy day on the job. Although why that day would have qualified as lousy, Ezra hardly knew. They'd got the bad guys, and none of their team had been hurt.... The rattle of furious clicks that indicated an empty automatic geuysered up in his memory. A more inept bunch of criminals...when the thug had fired wildly in the direction of Ezra's well-concealed fellow agents, before swinging an empty gun around to bear on his hostage, Ezra had stood mute and briefly paralyzed with shock -- at the man's stupidity, of course. He had been nearly certain, in the half-second it took for the muzzle to find his unprotected chest, that the gun was empty.

In the flash of a streetlight passing overhead, Buck's eyes were also warm, like blue summer, and more direct and more intense than they properly should be, considering the man could hardly slur three words into a coherent sentence.

Or perhaps the shock had been at his own stupidity, for having been caught out in an undercover assignment by someone as moronic as Jelly Face Joe Fledge. Granted, the man had lost at least 150 pounds in prison -- where, as luck would have it, Ezra had sent him while in Atlanta Vice -- but he should have recognized the disturbingly fleshy nose and lips sooner.

Yeats. William Butler. Yeats. The poem about growing old. "...the soft look/Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep...." Buck's eyes had shadows. Ezra turned away after that quick glance, and carefully watched the road ahead of him. With a sinking feeling, he realized he didn't want to leave Buck alone tonight, not with the day so close behind them, and both of them too inebriated to make light of it. Ah hell. He detested that damned, droopy, people-eating couch....

He was sinking; it wasn't just a feeling, he really was sinking. But he was sinking toward the smell coffee, and that comforted him somewhat.

As he slid sideways, his shoulder, and then his head, came to rest against a solid mass. The mass shifted, and he felt breath warm the top of his head.

"Best wake up, Ezra," was the soft command. "This couch will kill you if you spend too much time on it." After a moment, during which Ezra mentally agreed with this observation and proceeded not to move a muscle, Buck said as if in afterthought:

"I made coffee."

The statement, cruelly seductive despite its blandness, interrupted Ezra's indulgence in the first relatively comfortable position he'd been able to achieve all night. He opened his eyes and saw, down the bent length of the arm against which he leaned, a steaming mug of coffee cradled in Buck's hand. It would be black; Buck knew his tastes. Then Ezra gasped. It would be gourmet! Buck had recently started buying the good stuff....

Ezra strained to sit up, but the couch had him deep in its pitiless maw. All the muscles of his back, stomach, and shoulders were horribly confused -- after-effects of the contortions necessary to fall asleep on the corduroy beast.

"Buck --" he murmured over his cottony tongue, "I can't get up."

The coffee went away, toward the coffee table -- appropriate, Ezra mused -- and with a combination shove and lift, Buck's broad, strong hands moved Ezra out of his slouch and into something resembling a sitting position. Ezra's bare feet slid off the table with a pair of thumps.

Eyes still stuck at half-mast, Ezra thread his fingers behind his head and straightened, like a cold snake unfurling; the snapping of his vertebrae back into place and the subsequent howling of his back and shoulder muscles shocked him fully awake.

"Good God, Buck!" he moaned through the agony. "Don't you and Mr. Dunne make enough between you to get another couch? One that isn't a chiropractor's nightmare, for example?"

He took the proffered coffee and let the steam from it rise up over his face. Slow-roasted, rich, replete with caffeine...he blew ripples across it's surface and took a fat sip.

Buck grinned, or tried to. "The recliner's more comfortable."

Ezra hmphed. "After hauling your whiskey-soaked corpus to bed last night, I was in no condition to do more than collapse on the nearest piece of furniture." Damn it to hell. Buck still had that look in his eyes. And his face, now that it wasn't lax with drunkenness, was as expressive as usual.

Adrenaline, post-bust euphoria, meticulous reports, liquor, sleep. There had always been something to place over his emotions, like a dirty bandage over an ugly wound. Ezra had made it a point never to continue on that pilgrimage so many made, toward the thing that healed: friendship. Or -- love. The journey was too fraught with disaster, as he had learned many years ago.

Rather, he thought he hadn't continued that journey. Looking at Buck, he realized he had been mistaken. There was, it seemed, a reason Buck had him figured out.

The question on Buck's face was what if? A small question. But it was enough to force Ezra to face his own.


Why, why in the name of all things logical, all things probable, had Joe Fledge run out of bullets before turning to shoot him?

He felt his breathing speed up, chasing after the sudden flight of his heartbeat. His hands shook and coffee sloshed out of the cup; he didn't feel the burning on his hands or thighs, or the cup's disappearance from his grasp, but he did feel the cloth gently close over his hands, soaking away the heat. He blinked. His eyes uncrossed. The cloth was Buck's T-shirt. The shirt was no longer uniformly white. Ezra was momentarily horrified; then it re-occurred to him that it was Buck's shirt.

He laughed -- a short, hysterical laugh. With it he was exposed. He expected Buck would crack a joke, or needle him about spilling coffee on the couch; Ezra wasn't the only one with a supply of dirty bandages.

Instead, Buck removed his shirt from around Ezra's hands, and smoothed the damp fabric down over his belly. Then, in a sudden, graceless gesture, he clamped a hand roughly over Ezra's forearm; a mixture of anger, fear, and grief twisted Buck's usually handsome features. His voice was frighteningly steady.

"That was too damn close yesterday."

"It wasn't my fault," Ezra said with mocking defensiveness. "I had no idea --"

He stopped. Buck wasn't blaming him; the sharp look that told him that also told him Buck wasn't going to let Ezra distract him. Ezra looked away. The sunlight no longer filtered through the kitchen window. Instead it lit the buildings across the street with a hot gold light, and gave the kitchen a soft daylight warmth. He turned back to Buck. His own hands were still shaking; he stilled one by laying it over the hand gripping his arm. Softly, he said, "It was too damn close."

Ezra found he loved the sorrows of Buck's changing face.


When You Are Old (stanzas 1 & 2)

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

Wm. Butler Yeats