Alley Cat

by BM


Alex stepped out of the taxi and waited patiently as Ezra paid the fair. After returning Rosie's car and a quick meal at the diner, Ezra had called for a cab to take them to his townhouse in the southwestern suburbs of the city. She had questioned the return to his home, but he had just smiled and said that sometimes the best place to conceal oneself was in plain sight and that home was really the last place anyone would think that he would go.

She had been properly awed as the cab pulled into the drive of the housing complex and stopped outside the small convenience store located to the right just within the gate. On the other side, a one story brick building, built in the same traditional architecture as the rest of the buildings in the complex and clearly labeled 'Business Office', stood dark and silent, while a two story, more modern building rose up behind it, well lit and very active at six-thirty on a Sunday evening. The sign on its front proclaimed it to be the recreational center. Behind it, off in the distance, the shimmering waters of a small lake danced in the fading colors of the sunset, while the mountains towered majestically in the backdrop. She could just make out a playground and park lining the water's edge. To her right, the drive wound its way up a small knoll, lined on both sides by stately homes. The landscaping was manicured and well kept, even though it was still the middle of winter. All in all, the place spoke of prosperity and affluence, and she eyed her companion curiously, wondering how he came to live here.

Ezra led her around the back of the recreation center to a semi-concealed path leading along the water to the wooded area that extended three-quarters of the way around the lake at the far end of the park. He had her wait there for him while he climbed the grassy hill to the last apartment building and, after pulling the gun from his pocket, disappeared around the side. A few minutes later he reappeared at the corner and with a low whistle motioned for her to join him.

He led her across the patio of the right-most unit on the end of the building and after checking for tampering, he quickly unlocked the sliding glass door, entered the pass code into the alarm that had still been set, and led her into a short hallway that ran parallel to the patio. A small half-bath occupied one end of the hall to the left of the patio door, while the kitchen stood at the other end. The hall then took a ninety-degree turn to run the length of the unit to the front. Alex stayed close to the patio door and glanced back over her shoulder at the silent playground and calm lake scanning the area to be sure they hadn't been followed while Ezra crept through both floors and the basement garage of the dwelling, ensuring that no surprises awaited them. "We're alone," he announced as he came back down the stairs from the second floor a few minutes later, un-cocking the gun and slipping it back into his pocket. "There is no surveillance in the front, either, but we will keep the lights down, just in case."

Alex nodded and followed him into the kitchen, where he pulled the window curtains shut then flipped the light above the stove on. In the faint glow, she could see the dining room across a bar and a small foyer through the doorway leading from the dining room to the hallway. Ezra adjusted the thermostat and the heating system kicked on in response, filling the air with a soothing hum and a promise of warmth soon. She followed him into the dining room where he pulled the drapes and turned on the desk lamp before setting the briefcase on the table. He then turned to her with a smile. "Welcome to my humble abode."

"I'm impressed," she said as she looked around, noting the fine mahogany dining room set and the marbled counter tops, ceramic floor tile, and state of the art appliances in the kitchen.

He took his coat off and headed for the foyer and the closet underneath the stairs directly across from the front door. Alex followed behind him and stopped in the doorway of the living room. Light from the street lamp on the corner spilled in from the large bay window overlooking the street and in the soft glow, she could see two leather recliners sitting in front of the window and a small fireplace on the opposite wall. Wooden floors lined the hallway and the foyer, and even in the dusk, she could tell that the soft blue carpet of the living room was thick and plush. Ezra hung the coat on a hanger and placed it in the very back of the closet then turned and, noticing her observations, shrugged self-depreciatingly. "I must apologize for the condition of the premises. It has been a while since I last occupied it for any length of time. May I?" he asked as he reached to help her out of her jacket.

"Oh, sure," Alex answered shyly, quickly shedding the jacket and handing it to him to hang in the closet. "And I think the place looks fine," She assured him with a smile as they walked back into the kitchen. "Actually, it's very nice. Comfortable. You been here long?"

"About seven months," Ezra answered over his shoulder and he opened the refrigerator door and frowned at the empty shelves. "I'm afraid I have nothing in the way of refreshments to offer you except for water," he smiled at her apologetically. "I suppose I'll have to make a quick trip back down to the store later," he said with an exaggerated sigh. "I'll need something to appease the rabble that will be invading in a few hours."

"I don't need anything right now, but thank you." she murmured a little shyly.

"Well, then, allow me to show you to your quarters so that you may freshen up and rest if you so choose." He led her out the opposite doorway into the hall and up the stairs.

They passed the master bedroom to the left at the top of the stairs and a large window overlooking the street below before turning down the hallway and entering the room opposite the master bedroom. He pulled the thick drapes closed and turned on the small lamp on the nightstand just inside the door. "It's not much," he explained as he went to the closet and pulled down a set of sheets and a quilt from the shelf, "I don't have many guests, and as such have never really taken the time to completely finish setting this room up." He set the quilt down on the chair beside the closet and proceeded to make the bed.

"That's alright," Alex replied, setting her backpack on the floor and helping him with the chore. "I'm not really particular about where I sleep as long as it's dry."

"Yes," Ezra mused, remembering the chapel. "I suppose that would be a vital consideration." He pulled a pillow from the closet and fitted a case over it while she spread the quilt down. He placed it against the headboard and stood back. "There. Is this to your taste?" he asked.

She hesitantly sat on the edge of the bed and bounced a little then ran her hand over the quilt and the high-quality pillow case. "It's very soft," she said, a touch of wonder in her voice. Ezra winced a little at her words, a pang of sympathy settling in his heart. When was the last time she had slept in a real bed? he wondered.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, they are the best money can buy. One should indulge in the pleasures of life once in a while," he grinned. "Now, let me show you to the bathroom." He led the way back out into the hall and passed a shut door further down.

"What's in here?" Alex asked, her curiosity getting the better of her as she pointed at the door.

"Nothing," he grinned at her, opening it for her to see. "It's just an empty bedroom, though I have plans to turn it into an office one of these days."

"If you don't mind my asking, why does an obviously single man live in a three-bedroom townhouse?" She peaked into the room and took note of the moving boxes stacked neatly along one wall. Has he not had any time to unpack? she frowned.

"That would be because of this," he motioned her to follow him back out into the hallway and opened the French doors at the end of the hall leading to a balcony over the patio.

Alex gasped lightly when she stepped out onto the small balcony and saw the breathtaking view of the last rays of the setting sun behind the backdrop of the majestic Rockies and its reflection on the calm waters of the lake below. It was a picture-perfect panorama suitable for any postcard or travel brochure on the scenic wonders of Colorado. "Beautiful, isn't it?" Ezra asked as he came up beside her.

"Absolutely," she agreed whole-heartedly.

"I was in dire need of a dwelling place on very short notice upon my arrival to this fair city, and was on my way to tour another property when I passed this complex and decided to stop. I found that I liked the place and made inquiries into the vacancies they had. They had this unit and a two-bedroom one across the street, but once I saw this view," he shrugged, "I knew this was what I was looking for."

Alex leaned against the rail and watched the final golden hues of the sunset give place to the dark navy of twilight. She looked up and examined the stars that were coming out and smiled softly. "It's so peaceful," she confessed softly. "There's just something about the mountains that always draws me to them. Something safe, that whispers of home. I never feel quite comfortable anywhere else. Of course, the Rockies and the Appalachians are two completely different things, but they both have the same effect on me." She glanced over at him and smiled slyly. "I guess it's true what they say," she went on.

Ezra leaned his back against the rail with his hands in his pockets and cocked his eyebrow at her in question. "And what is that?"

She gave him another side-ways glance, and her smile grew larger. "You can take the girl out of West Virginia, but you can't ever take the mountain spirit out of the girl."

He raised his other eyebrow to join the first in mild surprise at the newest small bit of trust she had just placed in him and smiled back at her. "West Virginia?"

She nodded as she leaned back against the rail herself and crossed her arms. "You had already figured out I was from the Appalachian region. Born and raised in Southern West Virginia, to be precise. And if I hear just one hillbilly joke, I will not be responsible for my actions," she warned with a shake of her finger.

Ezra laughed and held his hands up in defense. "No jokes, I promise, as long as you never mention redneck in my company."

"I can agree to that," she answered with a laugh of her own. "Of course, that term has been applied to me as well."

He noticed her shiver and motioned her into the house. "A West Virginia girl, then," he mused as he shut the door behind them and made sure the curtains on the doors were pulled tightly shut. "If I remember correctly, that state was comprised of several rebellious counties traitorous to the glorious cause of the confederacy."

She nodded in agreement and grinned at the comment. "Yeah, but at least we were on the winning side."

"Indeed," he answered as he led her to the bathroom immediately to the right of the balcony doors and turned on the light. "But I've been informed that winning isn't everything."

"If that's the case, then you can just let me win all the hands the next time we play cards," she shot back.

"But where would be the fun in that?" Ezra grinned at her as he reached into the small closet for clean towels. "If you would like to take a shower, I have toiletries in the master bathroom. I don't use this one very often and thus do not keep it stocked," he explained as he handed the towels to her.

"That's fine. I have my own," Alex indicated the backpack she carried on her shoulder. She glanced around in admiration at the marbled basin, ceramic tile, and glass shower doors as well as the thick rugs at her feet and the plush towels and wash cloths in her hand. "It's all very nice," she complimented.

"It suits me," he smiled. He stepped back out into the hallway, pulling the rolls of film out of his shirt pocket. "I'll leave you to your ablutions, then. The washer and dryer are downstairs in the garage, if you would like to clean your clothing. I will get these started before I change myself." He pulled at the shirt and looked down at his dirty clothes in distaste, a grimace on his face. "Yes, it will be quite agreeable to be back in my own clothing once again." He sighed long-sufferingly. "I do detest some of the situations I find myself in because of my present occupation. Felons these days simply have no sense of fashion whatsoever."

She shook her head with a laugh at the expression on his face. "No, I guess not." She glanced around the small room again then looked back at him shyly. "Thank you," she said softly.

He returned the smile with a reassuring one of his own. "Think nothing of it, my dear. Call if you need anything." He turned and headed back downstairs, leaving her standing in the doorway.

Alex stood there for a moment, clutching her bag to her, feeling unsure and very out-of-place. She looked at the shower longingly, but hesitated. A nice, long, hot shower would be just wonderful! It had been such a long time since she had last had one, having relied on quick cold, wash ups in public restrooms or the occasional brief sojourn at a mission or shelter. And to have the luxury of privacy and cleanliness-it would be simply heavenly! But a small voice inside warred with the desire, cautioning against being an imposition. It was not her home, after all. She shouldn't take advantage.

She gingerly rubbed her hand on the thick towels and her resolve wavered.

Maybe just a quick one-just this once.

Heading for the kitchen, Ezra smiled to himself as he heard the shower start. He knew from experience the uneasiness of entering the residence of another and the hesitancy to intrude, no matter how welcome one was made to feel. It was difficult to accept assistance from others when one had depended on one's self for so long.

He gathered the supplies that he would need out of a cabinet and headed for the small half-bath across from the kitchen to set up his darkroom. He hastened his pace, hoping to get the chore done as quickly as possible.

A long, hot shower sounded simply divine to him as well!

* * * * * * *

A few hours later found him stepping off the last stair, buttoning the black velvet shirt he now wore over a pair of kakis and finger combing his wet hair as he looked for his companion.

It was wonderful to feel human again!

He found Alex in the living room, fingering the old upright piano in the corner and examining the contents of the entertainment center. She had closed the blinds and the drapes hanging on the bay window and had turned on a lamp beside the couch on the far side of the room. She was dressed in her familiar jeans and t-shirt, her hair again pulled back in a tight French braid that he was coming to associate with her. "Do you play?" he asked as he entered the room.

She heard him come in and quickly turned to face him, a slight blush coloring her cheeks at having been found out. "No-I mean, not anymore. I used to, a long time ago," she answered with a shy smile. "Do you?"

"Once in a while, I will indulge myself. I will admit-it is quite soothing." He motioned to the instrument as he took a seat on the couch. "Feel free to renew yourself with it. It was tuned at Christmas and has a pleasant sound to it, for an upright."

She took a step back away from it and shook her head. "Oh no, really. I wouldn't want to impose-"

"You are not an imposition, my dear. The instrument was made to be used, and I don't mind," he interrupted her.

She looked down at her hands for a moment, the slight blush on her face turning a bit darker. "Maybe later," she answered softly. She looked back at the huge television set occupying the entertainment center, as well as the high-tech stereo system resting on the shelf beside it. "You really have a nice set up," she commented, motioning toward the solid oak shelving.

He nodded, allowing the subject change. "As I mentioned earlier, I do enjoy the finer things in life," he grinned.

She gave his CD and movie collection another once over and smiled in amusement. "And an interest in a wide variety of music and movies, too." She motioned towards the shelves holding an array of CD's in several genres including country, classical, rock, jazz, the blues, and even blue grass, not to mention the wide range of DVD's and VHS tapes, from action to drama to old classics, that also occupied the spaces to either side of the television equipment.

"Yes, well, I find that my taste reflects my mood," he shrugged in reply.

She smiled disarmingly at him. "There's nothing wrong with that. I like a wide range of styles, myself." She slipped her hands into her pockets and turned her attention to more serious matters. "So, how did the pictures turn out?" she asked, getting back to the matter at hand.

"Very well. They should be dry by now," Ezra answered at he climbed back to his feet and led the way back down the hall to the bathroom. He took the 8 x 10 photos out of the dryer and began flipping through them, handing them to her as he finished with each. "Better than I hoped, really, considering the quality of the generic film from the pharmacy," he nodded as they walked back to the dining room.

Alex tapped the photos together into a neat stack and them down on the table beside the briefcase as she took a seat at the table and turned sideways in her chair to face him. "We have the ledgers, the photos, and the tape. I guess all we need now are the cavalry."

Ezra smiled at her ruefully and stepped toward the two phones that sat to the side of the bar separating the kitchen from the dining room. "Indeed. It is time to call out the troops." He dialed a familiar number from memory and leaned back against the wall behind him as he waited for the connection. "Let's just hope they wait to kill me until after they hear us out," he muttered to himself.

* * * * * * *

"Alright-we have two large pepperoni with mushrooms, three large super supremes, and one medium plain cheese for Nathan. JD's right behind me with the beer and hot wings, if someone will get the door," Buck bellowed as he shoved his way through the front door of his apartment. After spending another fruitless day working on the case, he and JD had decided that they all needed a break and made a quick food run to the little pizzeria on the corner.

"Keep it down! Chris's on the phone," Nathan, who was sitting on one of the sofas, frowned at him, motioning toward the dark-clad leader as he paced in front of the dark floor-to-ceiling window taking up the front wall of the living room, the cordless phone glued to his ear.

"Oh, right," Buck dropped into a loud whisper as he used his foot to clean off a spot on the coffee table and set the pizzas down.

A sharp pounding on the door announced JD's arrival. "Hey, someone open up! My hands are full!"

Buck rolled his eyes and jerked the door open. "Pipe down, kid! Lawd a mighty, you tryin' to wake the dead?" he scolded.

Josiah smirked at the comment while Nathan just shook his head. JD shoved the stack of pizza boxes over to make room for the huge bucket of hot wings and the three six-packs in his hands. "I ain't the one who couldn't whisper in a church!" JD shot back hotly.

"Are you kidding, boy? I can be as quiet as a mouse if I need ta be. Just ask Courtney Stevens!" Buck answered as he took a seat on the back of the couch behind Nathan.

"You mean the sweet little receptionist for the law office across the street? Doesn't she have four brothers all in special ops in the military?" Josiah asked from his position in the old recliner.

"Yep, and she still lives with her old man, who happens to be a retired marine who thinks real high of his only daughter," Vin answered with a smirk of his own from his seat on the arm of the other couch. "I heard tell he's mighty particular about who his baby girl dates."

"Sure is. He ran off that hot shot new lawyer over there just last month. You know, the one whose dad is a Wall Street billionaire and his mother a senator. And it wasn't a pretty situation, either. That boy couldn't get back to DC fast enough," Nathan grinned.

"I heard he keeps a real close eye on that girl, and that he sleeps with a shotgun under his pillow at night," Vin pointed out.

"Do tell," Josiah mused as he settled himself more deeply in the recliner.

"Yeah, well ol' pop can be a pretty sound sleeper," Buck answered. "And let me tell ya, that girl knows her stuff! And she's got a daring streak through her, too. Invited me over just the other night, right under her daddy's nose. We sure had us a time," He stroked his mustache and smiled dreamily at the memory.

"You're full of crap, Buck, do you know that?" JD gave him a friendly shove off the couch on his way to the kitchen for some napkins.

Buck growled, reaching out to grab the boy around the throat as he passed, and, knocking his cap off, began to give him a sound noogie as the others laughed in the background. "I'm full of crap, huh?"

"Oww, Buck, lemme go!" JD whined as he struggled against the bigger man's grip for a moment before aiming a light kick for his shins. Buck yelped but didn't let go.

Chris looked up at the commotion and snapped his fingers once then held his index finger up in the air in warning while aiming a glare at the noisemakers. Buck immediately let JD out of his grasp and shrugged an apology. JD picked his cap up off the floor and put it back on his head, straightening the brim of it defiantly in the older man's face. He then deftly reached up and flicked Buck on the back of head before racing for the kitchen with a laugh. Buck let out a roar and took off after him.

Chris rolled his eyes in a 'Why me?' fashion and turned his back to the room and his attention back to the phone. "Uh-huh…Yes….Alright. Thanks for the help, Kelly….No, no word yet…Yeah, well, sometimes no news is good news…Let me know if you find anything....Thanks." He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes tiredly as he turned the phone off and tossed it on the couch.

"No luck, huh?" Vin commented casually.

"No," Chris answered with a sigh. "D**n-it! It's been three days, and we still haven't gotten anywhere!" he growled and pounded a fist on the back of the couch.

"Hey, don't go abusing my furniture, now!" Buck protested as he re-entered the living room, grabbed a beer, and settled back on the couch beside Nathan with a pleasurable groan as he swung his booted feet up on the coffee table and rested his arm on the back.

"Like you're going to notice one more dent in the thing," Chris shook his head.

"It's a good couch! It took me years to get it where I like it."

"You like it as a lumpy sink hole?" Nathan asked in disbelief.

"It's not that bad!" Buck defended.

"Brother, you could lose the city of Atlantis between those cushions," Josiah offered with a grin.

Vin's cell phone chose that moment to ring, interrupting Buck's next retort, and he flipped it open as he smirked at the argument going on around him. He keyed it on with his thumb and gave a short 'Tanner' in the form of a greeting-and stood up sharply in surprise at the voice that answered him. The others looked up at him apprehensively.

"Buck, what did you do with my-" JD complained as he re-entered the room and stopped shortly as the others shushed him.

"Yeah, Cuz, I hear ya. Been a long time. How ya doing?" Vin began pacing slightly back and forth in front of the couch, an intense expression on his face. "Ya don't say?...So, how was the flight into Dallas?...Uneventful? Good, good. How's your brother doing? Heard he did a number on himself in that airplane accident…Well, that's good to hear. Sure, I'd love to get together with ya next time you're in Denver. Where'd you want to go?...Sure, I can bring him. He's been kind of on edge lately…Yeah, one his pups got out a couple a days ago, and he's been searching high and low for the thing….Yeah, he'll be glad to hear that…Okay…See ya soon…Yeah, you too…Talk to you later," Vin flipped the little phone shut and let out a relieved sigh as he rubbed a hand down his face.

The others stared at him, amazed at the flood of words that had just poured out of the usually reticent sharpshooter.

"Vin, was that-" JD started to ask the question that was on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Vin met JD's gaze and let a wide grin split his features. "Yeah, kid, it was him."

Buck let out a whoop and Josiah a "Thank the Lord!" While JD gave a shout, Nathan a laugh, and Chris a relieved sigh as he leaned on the couch in front of him and sent his own silent thanks skyward.

"Where is he? Is he okay? Where has he been the last three days? Why hasn't he checked in? Did he say what happened?" Everyone began bombarding Vin with questions until he held his hands up in surrender. "Hey, hey! No, he didn't say where he's been. He did say that his cover had been blown. But he's fine, Nate," he warded off the medic's concern.

Nathan snorted. "Yeah, sure. He could have two broken legs, four gunshot wounds, and a bashed-in skull and he'd still say he was fine."

"Really, Nate. He said he wasn't hurt," Vin assured him.

"So where is he?" Chris asked impatiently.

Vin grinned. "At his townhouse. He did say that we should be on the lookout-someone could be watching. That's what all that was about on the phone-he was afraid it had been tapped. Oh, and he asked if someone would be kind enough to stop by the grocery store and get him some milk, bagels, cream cheese, and kiwi. He doesn't have anything for breakfast tomorrow."

"I swear I'm going to kill him!" Chris growled in exasperation as he pulled his jacket on, fished his keys out of his pocket, and strode purposely toward the front door, jerking it opened with force.

"So what are we standing around here for? Let's go!" Buck grabbed his own keys off the coffee table and headed for the door behind the blond along with the others. JD had one arm in his jacket and was trying to pull the other arm on as he ran out of the apartment behind them, slamming the door shut as he went. Five seconds later, he swung the door back open and grabbed the pizzas and the hot wings while balancing the beers on top before rushing back out the door, closing it with his foot.

"Hey, Buck! Wait for me!" he yelled as he took off down the hall.

* * * * * * *

Ezra stood up from where he had been sitting in the faint glow of the lamp on the computer desk in the corner of his dining room and positioned himself beside the window, cocking the gun he had laying beside him. He used the barrel to gently lift the curtain away from the window, giving him a clear view of the street below. Alex looked up from her seat at the dining room table, where she had been organizing the evidence they had while he had been sorting through the various internet files they needed to go along with what they had in hard copy. "It's them," Ezra answered, letting the curtain fall back into place as he slid the gun in the waist of his pants at the small of his back and went to open the door. Alex stood up and shuffled the papers together a little nervously before rounding the table to stand in the doorway.

He took a deep breath then tossed a reassuring smile over his shoulder at the girl as he unlocked the door and pulled it open. "Ah, Mr. Larabee." he greeted the man on his doorstep.

He had prepared himself for a wide variety of reactions from his boss-anger, shouting, seething rage-and he had spent the last thirty minutes composing a plausible excuse in his head-an excuse that he was not able to even begin to articulate.

For as he opened the door, a wide smile on his face and the words on his lips, he received the one greeting that he was completely unprepared for-a good solid punch to his jaw that sent him careening back into the closet door behind him with a crash. He slumped down to the floor, his eyes widening in complete surprise.

Chris didn't say a word as he calmly stepped over his agent's extended leg and walked into the living room.

Ezra reached up to gingerly touch the tender spot on his face, poking his tongue in the side of his cheek to test for any damaged tissue caused by catching the skin between his teeth and his boss's fist. A pair of scuffed cowboy boots stopped in front of him, and he looked up into a pair of twinkling blue eyes as Vin Tanner squatted down in front of him, resting his arms on his knees. He grinned widely at his fallen teammate. "See, Ez? I told ya Chris missed ya."


Vin stood up and held out his hand to help Ezra to his feet as Buck and Nathan pushed their way through the door. "Ez! It's good to see ya, Pard!" Buck pounded him on the back, nearly knocking him to the floor again.

"Yes, I can see that," Ezra muttered sarcastically as he stepped aside out of Buck's reach and dusted himself off. "I trust you ensured you were not followed?" he asked.

"Of course we did! What do you take us for? Amateurs?" Buck protested.

"No one followed us, and there weren't any kind of tracing devices or bugs on the vehicles either. We came in separately to be on the safe side," Vin assured him.

Nathan immediately began giving him the once over, looking for hidden injuries. He grabbed for his chin to get a better look at his face, but Ezra pulled out of his grasp. "I'm fine, Mr. Jackson!" he snapped as he straightened his shirt and pulled at his cuffs irritably.

Nathan stepped back and frowned. "No broken bones? No cuts, bullet holes, or concussions?" the medic demanded.

"No, no, and no. I am in perfect health, so kindly remove your hands from my person!" Ezra grumbled.

Nathan shook his head in disbelief, but seeing as there were no obvious bandages, casts, or blood dripping on the floor, he was forced to begrudgingly take the other man's word for it. He stepped to the side as Josiah entered the small foyer, carrying the beer and the chicken bucket, followed closely by JD with the pizzas and a million questions that he immediately began to fire at the undercover agent as soon as he was through the door. "Ezra! I knew you weren't dead! Where've ya been? We've been looking all over for you! Why didn't ya call in sooner? What happened at the hangar? How'd ya get here? Are you really alright? Where do you want me to put these pizzas? Sorry, we didn't get your milk and stuff. Buck wouldn't stop. Who's the girl?"

The last question had the others swinging around in surprise. With their attention on their missing agent, they had all failed to notice the slim young woman leaning against the dining room door facing, her arms crossed in front of her as she observed the greetings. Her left side was ensconced in the shadows of the darkened hallway, while her right was softly highlighted by the glow of the lamp from the dining room, revealing the raised eyebrow and amused half-smirk on her lips. She straightened at the acknowledgement, but didn't make a move to step forward.

Ezra looked up and smiled as he motioned toward the girl. "Ah, gentlemen, may I introduce Miss Alex. Ally, my associates."

Buck was the first to move as he reached out his hand and smiled widely in greeting. "A pleasure to meet you, Ally. I'm-"

"Buck Wilmington," she interrupted as she took his hand and returned his smile a little shyly, finally stepping toward the group of men. "And you are JD Dunne," she nodded at the young man, "Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez, and Nathan Jackson." She offered them all a small smile and a handshake before her gaze stopped at Larabee. The smile didn't slip, but it did become somewhat cooler as her piercing blue eyes met his and held them. There was no fear in them-only wariness and an intuitiveness that unsettled him slightly as it was completely unexpected in one her age. She held out her hand to him. "And you are Mr. Larabee."

He shook her hand, noting the firm grasp, and raised an eyebrow in question. "Ezra told me a bit about you all before you arrived," she offered in explanation.

Buck laughed loudly and put an arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Well, young lady, Ol' Ez here tends to exaggerate sometimes, so I wouldn't put a whole lot of faith in his description. I'm sure we're nothing like what he says."

Alex released Chris's hand but held his gaze for a moment or two longer. "That remains to be seen," she murmured quietly, her eyes darkening slightly with an intensity that spoke of a quiet confidence, a wisdom gained from hard experience, and-was that disapproval?-before she finally broke the tension and turned to JD with a smile and offered to help him carry the pizzas into the kitchen.

Chris couldn't help but feel as though she had just sized him up, and found his previous actions wanting. She seemed to give him the respect his position deserved but was waiting to see if he deserved her respect for his character. Something about that reserved blue gaze told him that she was not one to be cowed or intimidated and that she held respect only for those who earned it. He shook his head at the thought, then looked up to catch Vin studying him and realized that he saw the exact same thing in another set of steady blue eyes.

There was no defiance in either look, no challenge, no arrogance; only a question-did he deserve their respect? While Ally's eyes made it clear that she was still unsure of the answer, Vin's declared that he had already found it, and they showed brightly with friendship and loyalty-along with a bit of amusement at the slightly unnerved look on his best friend's face. He raised an eyebrow, then let his lips curve up into a faint smile that seemed to ask what's the matter, cowboy? Chris just glared at him, which only amused the sharpshooter all the more. JD's yelp from the kitchen at Buck broke the silent conversation, and they followed the others into the dining room.

* * * * * * *

Ezra leaned back in his chair with a slight smile, watching as his teammates settled in his dining room and demolished the pizzas as they teased, joked, and bantered with each other. Even Chris had seemed to cool down somewhat from his initial anger. Ezra's ears still rang with the quietly intense dressing down he had received earlier from his boss for working on his own and not checking in, and thus at first, he had maintained a slight distance from them all that remained unnoticed by most of the other team members, save Vin and Josiah.

In reality, the reprimand didn't really bother him-well, maybe the words did at first, but in truth, it wasn't the first he had ever received, and it certainly wouldn't be the last, so it wasn't really an issue-and as the evening wore on, he felt himself slowly slipping back into the familiar pattern of the team and into his usual place on it.

That place just happened to be on the fringes.

But he could live with that-it was closer than he had ever been to what might actually be called friendship, and besides, if he were to be honest, it was probably as much his fault as theirs. Even so, he did slowly relax-or, at least, as much as he could with six men occupying his dining room, three of which happened to be Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, and JD Dunne.

He dreaded to see what his kitchen would look like once they left.

Alex stood in the kitchen doorway, watching the seven men interact with each other and keeping quietly out of their way. She frowned as she noticed how much more closed, controlled, and reserved Ezra had become at the arrival of the others.

Oh, he did answer them back when they teased, adding his own sly remarks and witty comments to the conversation, and a few times, he even initiated a joke at one of the other's expense, but still, he seemed to be much more guarded than he had been over the last few days. While he hadn't exactly been completely open with her (carefree was not a word she would use to depict the man) he had seemed to be a little more-how to describe it?-easy, less tense; at least, he had been after the first few hours, anyway. Maybe he was like her, working better one on one and tending to be quieter, more circumspect when in larger groups, but she didn't know him well enough to say for sure just yet.

Of course, after hearing the reprimand he had gotten from his boss, she could understand the distance. From the reactions of the others, she assumed this to be a fairly common occurrence; nevertheless, she did feel sorry for him and had finally interrupted them to announce that the pizzas were ready. She knew Ezra respected the man-it had been obvious to her as she listened to his description of his teammates-but she wasn't sure what to think of Chris, especially with the way he greeted his agent. The leader exuded raw power and intimidation, and she instantly saw that he was a force to be reckoned with, a man to be very wary and cautious of and that should under no circumstances ever be treated lightly, but she had yet to decide if this was because he was a tyrant and bully, or if it was because he was a great commander and leader. She could tell right away that what you saw was what you got, and that he was a down to earth man that operated on the traditional principles of duty and honor, and that she respected. But there was a darkness, a danger to the man that made her uneasy.

She took a moment to study the blond more closely, to watch how he interacted with the others, trying to decide just what kind of man he was. From what she could see, he was a born leader, with good instincts and a tenacious edge that stubbornly declared to the world that he and those under him were not to be messed with. He seemed to be the type to lead his men through hell and would never ask anyone to do something he wasn't willing to do himself. He demanded from those around him just what he gave them, which was complete loyalty and 110% of their all.

She nodded to herself with a hint of a smile as she came to her conclusion. She believed that Chris Larabee was a man of character, and she could respect that and maybe even like him-but he had terrible people skills and seriously needed to be slapped upside the head once in a while to broaden his focus a bit and get him thinking straight.

She looked again at the man in question, and laughed to herself.

She would love to meet the person courageous enough-or would that be foolish enough?-to try it, though.

Over pizza and beer, or in Ally's case, water, Ezra told the others what had happened at the hangar and what they had found at the ranch. Ally was thankful that he left out all mention of the chapel and Rosie's Diner, and was a bit amused when he also forwent any mention of the bank.

"So Paul Randolph is the mastermind behind this whole operation. I'd never have believed it," Nathan mused as he flipped through the pictures.

"It came as a bit of a shock to me as well," Ezra commented dryly as he settled in a chair at the table beside the man.

Nathan stopped at the first clear picture of Randolph and Vitalis and leaned forward as he examined it more closely. "Hey, Josiah. Does this guy look familiar to you?" He passed the photograph across the table.

Josiah picked it up and studied it for a moment then looked up at the medic. "You're right. That's Martinez, the general manager of Fieldman's Contracting."

"Actually, gentlemen," Ezra explained, "that is Tony Vitalis, Randolph's right-hand man."

"I knew something was going on at that place!" Nathan exclaimed as he sat upright in his chair.

"But we went over that company with a fine-toothed comb. We couldn't find anything," JD remarked from his position in front of Ezra's computer.

"Ah, but that is because you didn't have the key," Ezra smiled as he pulled the ledgers over and walked his teammates through the evidence he had gathered.

"So Banning was working with them and was killed that night," Josiah commented when Ezra was finished. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. "That explains why I couldn't get in to see him Friday."

Buck stood up to get another beer. "We've got 'em, then. Hook, line, and sinker," he declared as he re-entered the room, popping open the can as he went.

"It's not going to be that easy, brother," Josiah frowned thoughtfully. "They know we're looking for them. And all that research we did into the construction company had to have worried them."

"But we didn't find anything," JD said in confusion as he moved to the head of the table to flip through the photos.

Vin spoke up from where he was leaning against the wall beside the window. "Yeah, but all that digging's spooked them. And they're gonna be worried about Ez, too. They're gonna be real careful for a while now."

"I would have expected them to just pull out and lay low for a while until this whole thing blew over," Nathan observed as he studied the books. "From what I can see from these ledgers, they're involved in a lot of different enterprises. They could have afforded to pull out of the gun-running business for a while." He passed the books down the table to Chris.

Josiah tapped his fingers together reflectively. "This meeting with this Hammings guy must be huge if Randolph's willing to risk it."

"They have been keeping a very close surveillance on your investigation," Ezra noted. "And as such, they know that your efforts have turned up nothing. That is why they have the courage and the audacity to continue with the conference. As long as it appears that you gentlemen are still hitting the proverbial brick wall, they will remain confident that they are in the clear."

"Yeah, but they're still going to be mighty worried about you and Al," Buck pointed out, not noticing the girl's grimace at the nickname. "And the closer it gets to that meeting without you guys turning up, the more nervous they're going to get."

Nathan nodded in agreement. "They're going to be turning this city upside down looking for you two."

"So what do we do now?" JD asked.

Chris tapped his fingers on the ledgers thoughtfully. "We let 'em think that we still haven't found anything." He leaned forward in his seat. "JD, I want you to look into this Hammings. Find out everything you can. Buck, you go back to the office tomorrow and continue with the investigation. Go talk to Dawson and Lewis, head back down to the airport, keep digging into the initial set-up on Carnelli. Make it look like we're still looking for a lead. Vin, I want you and Nathan to set up surveillance on Fieldman's, Randolph, and the ranch. I'll get teams eight and three to help out. Josiah, you stay here. Ez and the girl are going to need round-the-clock protection," he held up a hand to silence Ezra's protests, "we'll set up a rotation." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "We've got a week to bring these guys down. Let's make the most of it." He stood up and glanced at his watch. "For now, though, let's get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a long day."

"As for myself?" Ezra asked, noting that he had been left out of the loop.

Chris fixed him with a cool stare. "You stay here, keep your head down, and stay out of trouble."

Ezra's eyes narrowed. "And my part in this investigation?"

"Well, h**l, Ezra, You done did most of the work!" Buck laughed a little forcibly, trying to break the tension that was rising between the two men. "I'd say you can sit the rest of this one out!"

Ezra glanced over at Buck then cocked his head challengingly at his superior. "That may be, Mr. Wilmington, but I still want to see the case to its conclusion. Therefore, I would like to know what my assignment will be." He raised a questioning brow at his superior.

Chris met Ezra's question with a warning glare. "We'll handle things right now. Your job is to lay low and keep out of Randolph's radar. I want you someplace secure, not out on the streets making yourself a target."

Ezra stood to his feet and leaned forward on the table. "Contrary to what you apparently believe, Mr. Larabee, I acted as judiciously as I could considering the circumstances and see no reason for this punishment," he stated firmly.

"I'm not punishing you!" Chris growled. "I'm trying to keep you safe. You two are critical witnesses to that murder and to this investigation. Randolph's going to do everything he can to make sure you don't survive to testify against him. You need protection, and I don't need you making things harder by going off somewhere half-cocked and doing something stupid to get yourself killed."

"I can take care of myself!" Ezra argued back.

"This is not negotiable, agent," Chris snapped. "Either you remain here, under protection, or I'll jerk you off this case completely and slap your a** into a safe house under protective custody so fast your head'll spin. Do you hear me?"

"You do that, and you tip off Randolph and blow this whole investigation," Ezra shot back.

"This investigation is not worth your life!" Chris yelled in exasperation.

"And my life isn't going to be worth a dime if Randolph walks!"

"Which is why I want you here instead of gallivanting off around the city!"

"He's right, Ez," Vin interrupted softly. He held up a hand to stop Ezra's comment as the man turn toward him with a glare. "Chris ain't trying to cut you out of the investigation. What he's trying to do in his a**-backward way is to keep you safe. You can make your contacts from here and keep up with the case. But it's just too plain risky for you to be out and about right now-for you and Ally." He slipped his hands into his jacket pockets and gave the man an understanding nod. "She's in as much danger as you. And you know Randolph's going to be looking high and low for you two. Do you want to take the risk of leading him here to her?" He glanced up at the young lady in question, and she nodded in approval.

Ezra looked from Chris to Vin to Ally as he considered Vin's words and sighed in defeat. "Alright," he agreed at last. "I will stay here. But at least allow me to aid in the coordination and research. I am perfectly capable of working in complete anonymity from my domicile through my computer connections. Would that be agreeable?"

"I don't see why not," Vin nodded. He looked over at Chris and cocked his head. "What do ya say, Cowboy?"

Chris regarded the two men for moment and finally sighed. "Fine. Work from here. Just stay out of trouble." He motioned to the others and turned to leave. "Let's go."

Josiah put a hand on Ezra's shoulder as they stood in the foyer and watched the others troop down the sidewalk to their respective vehicles in the early hours of the morning. "Brother Chris is only worried about you, son," he commented softly.

Ezra shrugged the hand off. "Yes," he said dryly, "I'm sure he would hate to lose this investigation because his witness was murdered. And I am not your son."

"He's not worried about the case, Ezra, or about losing a potential witness. He's worried about losing a friend," Josiah pointed out.

Ezra snorted. "Hardly. I'm sure Mr. Larabee's intentions aren't nearly as noble as you make out." He moved toward the dining room, cutting off the argument on Josiah's lips. "I'm afraid you'll have to make do with the couch, Mr. Sanchez, as I gave the guest room to Ally. I hope you don't mind." He called over his shoulder.

Josiah clamped his jaw shut and bowed his head a moment, frustrated that he hadn't been able to get through to younger man and hurting for the self-made distance and loneliness of his friend. "No, I don't mind," he finally answered with a sigh, realizing that he wasn't going to win any arguments tonight. "I'm supposed to be on guard tonight, so I won't be getting much sleep, anyway."

"Yes, well I believe I shall retire myself for the night, then. Do let me know if you find yourself in need of anything," Ezra nodded a goodnight and left the older man standing in the living room without a look back. Josiah sighed again and, after checking out the bay window, turned the lamp beside the couch on low, set his loaded gun on the table underneath the lamp, and perused small collection of novels on the shelf below the DVDs before making his selection and settling himself on the sofa, prepared for his vigil till dawn.

Alex stood in the darkened doorway of the kitchen where she had been cleaning up the mess left behind by the men and listened to the quiet exchange in the living room. A few minutes later, Ezra entered the kitchen with the intention of cleaning up the mess himself only to find that Alex had finished it. He apologized, embarrassed that he had left the work to someone he considered to be a guest, but she assured him that she didn't mind at all. He thanked her again, gave her a light smile, and urged her to rest as well, which she promised she would do in a few minutes. They exchanged good nights before he headed for the staircase. She heard his bedroom door close a moment later and frowned, mulling over the events of the last few hours and the intricacies that was team seven. Instead of climbing the stairs to go to bed herself, she filled the kettle and set it on the stove while reaching for the tea and sugar she had found earlier in the cabinet above.

She wanted to think for a while.

* * * * * * *

Ezra truly tried to rest, but found that his mind just would not shut off, running over the events of the last few days and hours, analyzing the evidence and forming scenarios and plans for the next week, trying to head off any potentially fatal situations that could possibly occur. He had trained himself years ago to always think a situation completely through, weigh the pros and cons, and decide on the best course of action based on that analysis, and his mind could now flash through that routine at lightening speed, making decisions and adapting to situations almost subconsciously in a matter of moments; however, he found that now he had a very difficult time turning the whole process off when needed, thus leading to frequent bouts of insomnia. The situation only worsened while he was on a case or coming down from one because of the tension and stress of creating or maintaining a cover, and there were many mornings that he watched the sun rise.

His teammates knew nothing of this, though. They just assumed that he was a night owl and stayed up late from nature (which was partially true-he was definitely not a morning person!) or from being out at the Indian Nations casinos or whatever else he did on his time off. They concluded that he always slept like the dead, as he did the few times he had spent the night at Chris's ranch with them. They had never stopped to ask why or to realize that the two or three times he had been at the ranch overnight, he was either injured or coming off a bust after weeks of being undercover and was sleeping the sleep of the drugged or the exhausted.

They never considered that maybe he came in to work at eight-thirty or even nine o'clock when the workday started at seven-thirty because many a night, he hadn't fallen completely asleep until four or sometimes five that morning. They didn't know that he was actually a very light sleeper and came awake at the slightest noise, that the deep slumber he usually fell into while with them was not a normal occurrence (Actually, it was one that he couldn't really explain himself). He couldn't afford to sleep deeply while undercover and surrounded by his enemies, and he had been in this business for so long that the insomnia and tendency to sleep lightly had become second nature, his body becoming used to running on only four or five hours of rest.

Tonight, however, he had truly wanted to relax. He could count on his fingers the number of hours of sleep he had gotten in the past week, and his body was screaming for rest even as his mind raced on. He had honestly tried. He had turned the heat down in the room, sealed the curtains to cut out any source of light and even covered the alarm clock to block out the dull red glow, but as soon as his head hit the silk pillow case, he became wide awake. He tossed and turned for thirty minutes before finally giving up. He had a small bottle of sleeping pills in his medicine cabinet, but he loathed the things and would have to be completely desperate before he would even consider taking one. He despised the lack of control and the vulnerability they left in their wake, and he always had a difficult time becoming alert the next day. No, he would just sit up for a while, allow his mind to completely decompress and unwind slowly. He knew that eventually, he would be able to relax enough to sleep.

Thus he found himself sitting on the floor in the upstairs hallway, leaning against the wall beside the balcony doors and absently shuffling a well-worn deck of cards as he stared out into the night through the glass. Though it was the middle of winter, he had propped one of the doors open-not enough to be noticed from outside, but enough to allow a breath of fresh air pass through, as well as the sounds of the evening. He hoped that the cool, fresh air would serve to help him relax.

The night was a balmy forty-five degrees, warm for Denver in February. The meteorologist had predicted that a warm front would move in that evening bringing unseasonable temperatures for the next few days, and he had been right. Ezra relished the more temperate weather-his body was still acclimated to Atlanta, and he had a very difficult time adjusting to Denver's more extreme winter.

He had known there was a reason he hated snow.

A soft creak alerted him to the presence of another person and he looked up to find Alex standing at the end of the stairwell railing, holding two steaming mugs in her hands. "Mind some company?" she asked quietly.

He quickly made room on the floor and reached for one of the mugs. "No, not at all. But shouldn't you be enjoying a light repose in the comforts of your bed? It is," he glanced at his wristwatch, "three o'clock in the morning."

She shrugged as she sat down beside him. "I guess you and I are suffering from the same case of insomnia tonight," she answered after a sip from her mug.

"Indeed." He sniffed at his own cup and recognized the familiar smell of the cinnamon tea he kept in his cabinet as he took a drink and resettled into a more comfortable position.

They sat in a comfortable silence for a few moments, both enjoying their drinks and gazing out the doors at the night sky as they contemplated their own deep thoughts. Alex glanced over at her companion and finally broke the silence. "Your teammates are definitely a unique bunch," she commented casually.

He smiled in response as he continued to perform a particularly difficult-looking shuffle without looking up at her. "Yes they are," he agreed.

A few more minutes passed and she moved around a bit to get comfortable. They heard a quiet whoosh as Josiah gently pushed the sliding glass door open below them on one of his periodic patrols then another and a click a few minutes later as the door was closed and re-locked and Josiah returned to the warmth of the living room, not knowing that they were awake overhead. She took another sip of her drink before making her next statement. "They're more than just a team, though."

He paused a moment and looked at her from the corner of his eye, wondering where she was going with this. "Some would say so," he ventured as he casually flipped the top card over to reveal his trademark ace of spades.

She smiled. "Watching them tonight, I'd have almost sworn they were a bunch of boys."

"Yes, well they have been accused of that on more than one occasion," he admitted with a wry smile.

She turned her gaze down at the mug in her hands. "Watching them tease each other, bicker and fuss at each other-it was like watching my own family," she said softly as she looked back out at the night, a reflective look on her features.

Ezra looked up sharply. "You have siblings?" he asked cautiously, a bit surprised at her comment.

She glanced over at him with a wistful smiled and shook her head. "No, I was an only child. Not that mom and dad didn't want any more; it just didn't work out for them." She focused on the moonlit silhouette of the mountains in the distance and listened to the muted sounds of traffic coming in through the opened door. "But dad had a brother who he was very close to, as well as my grandparents. Grandpa's sister and her family were in the area too, and we all got together all the time. It was the most wonderful thing in the world, those times. I didn't realize just how precious they were until they were gone. Of course, what child does?"

Ezra turned his gaze to the mountains as well. "You are quite correct," he agreed. "It is one of the endearing characteristics of a good childhood, to not think about the circumstances one finds oneself in, but to just live life as it comes."

Alex nodded as she sipped at her mug. "Dad and Uncle Ethan were always tormenting each other, challenging each other, teasing each other. They managed to make everything competitive. Mom used to swear they were two overgrown boys." She chuckled at a memory. "It was so easy to tell that they were best friends. Not that they didn't get into a fight once in a while, or ever get mad at each other. Shoot, sometimes they could have shouting matches that you could hear the next state over, and once in a great while, they would even come to blows, though when that happened Grandpa would step in and read them the riot act." She snorted. "They were two grown men, and usually Grandpa respected that, but he could still make them toe the line when they needed it."

Ezra felt an old familiar ache rise at the description and he sternly pushed it back down. It simply wouldn't do to pine over something that was never meant to be. One should accept the circumstances one found himself in and work with the cards that had been dealt to him, not sit there wishing for a better hand. Wishes and dreams were for fools.

Then you must be the king of fools, a voice inside mocked him, because you know you would give anything to have that. He shook his head at himself.

Mother would be horrified.

"The thing is," Alex's voice brought him out of his musings, "though they sometimes fought, and sometimes disagreed, and sometimes did things that hurt the other, they wouldn't let any of it come between them or break their friendship. They were both willing to work things out in order to keep it. They had a friendship and a brotherhood unlike anything else I've ever seen."

"It truly sounds like a priceless treasure indeed," Ezra agreed quietly as the cards glided through his nimble fingers at a slightly slower pace. He wondered to where she was leading this conversation.

"It was," Alex answered. She shifted her leg up and leaned forward on her knees as she gazed out at the night sky. "But you know, I saw the beginning of it in there tonight." She glanced over at his surprised look and smiled softly. "Your teammates are like that. Watching them tonight, it was easy to see that they are forming a family. And families formed out of choice are strong things. It's a bond that's worth fighting for."

Silence again fell between them, interrupted only by the sound of the traffic in the distance and the cards in Ezra's hands. He thought about her observations and came to the same conclusions. Yes, he could see it. They were much more than just teammates, co-workers, or even mere friends. They were a brotherhood, and that was the binding force that made them successful, invincible, legendary. But did that brotherhood include him? Did they want it to? Did he want it to? Because she was right. That kind of friendship required give and take. One had to be just as willing to compromise and to give as the next person in order to preserve the alliance. Mutual trust and respect had to exist for the bonds to remain strong. Did they truly trust him? Could he ever truly trust them?

"They want to include you in that family, too, you know," she stated softly, seemingly reading his very thoughts and startling him out of his revere.

He snorted in disbelief and smiled ruefully. "I hardly think that is the case, my dear," he answered her, focusing his attention once more on the cards in his hand. "I am simply a member of the team, not the family. I am merely serving a purpose."

She shook her head in denial. "There's more to it than that. Mr. Larabee strikes me as someone who tells you like it is, and if he doesn't like you, then you're out. He doesn't seem to be very tolerant. Do you really think that he would keep you around just to serve a purpose? Especially when there are many more other agents in this country who could perform the same duties with a lot less trouble? Why else would he allow you to remain?"

He frowned, unable to come up with a definitive answer to her query. "I don't know. It's a question that I have asked myself countless times in the past months. When I left my previous place of employment, it was under a cloud of suspicion and mistrust. Indeed, I firmly believed I was headed for the unemployment line when Mr. Larabee offered me a position on his team. I swore to myself that I would do everything in my power to justify his choice." He laughed at himself derisively as he lay the cards still to take a sip from his mug. "Of course, I then promptly bungled the first case."

"But you're still here," Alex pointed out.

"Yes," he said softly. "But one cannot help but wonder why. Mr. Larabee did indeed give me a second chance, even though he does not trust or even like me."

"What makes you think he doesn't like you?" she asked in confusion.

Ezra shook his head and once again flipped through the cards in a lackadaisical fashion. "It is simply the nature of the beast, my dear," he declared. "Mr. Larabee tolerates my presence for reasons I have yet to uncover, but that is all. The same is true for the other members of the team. I do not instill confidence in those around me. Reliability and dependability are not among my more endearing character traits. I am simply not a person that is to be trusted."

"I trust you," Alex answered softly.

He laughed, but she shook her head. "It's true," she insisted. "Look me in the eye and tell me differently. I trust you."

He looked up at her and studied her set features, searching for the slightest hint of falsehood in the steady blue eyes but found none and quickly turned his own eyes back down at the cards in his hands to hide his surprise. The look of mistrust that he had come to expect from everyone he met simply wasn't there, and it startled him. Did she really trust him? "Why?" he asked softly, looking back up at her in bewilderment.

"Because I think that you are worthy of my trust," she stated firmly.

He shook his head and laughed. "Surely you jest." When she didn't answer, he went back to shuffling his cards. "You can't possibly trust me," he declared. "You barely know me."

"Nevertheless, I do trust you," she asserted. She twisted the mug in her hands thoughtfully. "It's true-I haven't known you all that long, and the good Lord knows I have every reason to be leery of people. Living on the streets does nothing to foster faith in mankind," She smiled dryly. "But there's something about you that made it safe, something that said I could depend on you. And the more I get to know you, the more I believe that."

He set the cards down on his lap and raised an eyebrow at her with a smirk. "If that is the case, then tell me what it is that you are running from."

"What do you mean?" she asked quickly, clearly startled and uneasy at the question.

He snorted. "Come now, my dear it is quite obvious that you are evading something. If you truly trust me, you can tell me what it is." He watched her shoulders slump for a moment before she stood and walked to the door, leaning on the facing with her hands in her pockets and staring out into the night, and he silently cursed himself for pushing her.

Who was he to demand such honesty? L**d knew he had enough secrets of his own-who was he to demand that she reveal herself to him when he himself refused to do so to her? He had lived his whole life firmly with the belief that everyone was entitled to their own privacy. Indeed, he deeply cherished his right to his own confidentiality. So why did he just throw that gauntlet down at her feet?

A few moments of silence passed, and he sighed, ready to tell her to forget it, that she didn't have to reveal anything to him, that he had no right to make such a requirement, but her soft answer stopped him. "Sanders," she spoke quietly.

He froze. "Excuse me?"

Alex shifted against the frame. "My full name is Alexandria Christeene Sanders." She glanced down at her feet, but kept her back to him. "I was born on March 31 in Ronceverte, West Virginia, to Allen and Colleene Sanders. My uncle's name was Ethan, my grandfather's name was Jackson. With that information and your contacts, you should have no trouble whatsoever finding out anything else regarding me that you would like to know." She finally turned to face him, a serious expression on her features. "Just keep in mind that with that knowledge, you now hold my life in your hands," she said lowly, her intense gaze piercing his soul even in the murky shadows of the night.

He averted his eyes to the still cards in his lap in shame. "I am truly sorry. I had no right to question you," he said lowly.

"No, you were right," he looked back up in surprise to see her smile at him faintly. "Words are cheap. If I really trust you, then I should be willing to show it." The smile dropped as she stared at him intently. "But I want you to listen to me. Trust is a two way street, as is friendship. Both parties must be willing to give a little. Your teammates are not asking that you bare your soul to them, just that you be willing to accept their friendship, be willing to give them a small piece of your trust at a time. It doesn't have to be big, and it doesn't have to be all at once. I know that there will be times when they will hurt you and there will be times when you hurt them-it happens when you deal with people-and there will be times when you seem to take two steps backward for every step you move forward. But keep trying. True friends will work to get past that hurt and to preserve their friendship. All that they ask-all that I ask-is that you give us a chance. And if we mess up, then give us another and another and another, whatever it takes. Just don't give up."

Ezra smiled at her weakly. "I'm afraid that is much easier said then done, my dear. How can you be so sure that it is worth the risk, that the others truly want me included in their little group?"

Alex snorted as she bent down to pick up her now-empty mug. "They want you, but they're men. Men are stupid when it comes to things like that. Something to do with too big egos and not enough common sense." She shook her head as she straightened. "And they're scared to death that if they show just the least little bit of emotion, their manhood will be threatened."

He laughed at the put down as he climbed to his feet and pulled the door shut. "Your high opinion of the opposite sex truly astounds me," he deadpanned.

She snorted again in response as they turned back to their rooms, but smiled anyway. "Laugh if you want, but it's true and you know it." Her smile faded as she changed mental gears. "And as for the risk being worth it, I can tell you this. I've experienced loneliness and the pain that comes with isolation. And I've experienced family, and the joys and the sorrows that it brings, and let me tell you-any pain, any effort you are forced to put out, any comprise that you must give to make a family work is worth it. The joy and the benefits of family far outweigh the cost." She stopped outside the guestroom and fixed him with another intensive gaze. "I realize you might not put much faith in the Bible, but there is a passage in it that talks about how two are better than one, because if one falls, the other is there to pick him up, but woe to him that is alone. It goes on to say that one person alone is easily withstood, but a three fold cord is not quickly broken. Imagine the strength of a seven fold cord."

Ezra snickered and shook his head as he reached for her mug to return it along with his own to the kitchen. "My dear, you are beginning to sound like Josiah with his parables."

She smiled and leaned back against the door. "There are worse people to be compared to." She moved into the dark room and went to close the door, but paused and raised her eyebrow at him questioningly. "You asked me if I thought that trust was worth the risk. You tell me? Is the security of being your own person and the safety gained from building a wall about yourself to keep others out worth the loneliness and isolation? Or is the risk of being hurt worth the friendship gained? People weren't meant to be islands, Mr. Standish. They were created with the need of friendship, of companionship. It doesn't make you less of a person or demean you to admit you need a friend. Opening yourself to friendship doesn't weaken you-it strengthens you. But you have to be willing to try." She gave him one last smile before she shut the door quietly, leaving him to stare at her door and ponder her words.


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