by BMP

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It was afternoon by the time the undercover agent had accomplished his tasks. He had not yet had lunch, and he was aggravated. Therefore, he decided, any further dealings with his irascible boss could wait until Ezra P. Standish had had something to restore his blood sugar levels and his temper to normal. Unfortunately, exceptionally bad counter service and a large, scalding hot cup of coffee spilled down his shirtfront by another patron’s careless backhand only served to worsen his mood. He vaguely wondered where this anger was coming from. But he did not have time to wonder long. The thread of thought snapped when he saw what awaited him in Chris’s new room.

Technically, the two of them weren’t awaiting him. They were not awaiting anyone. They had the person they came for. Cornered. A virtual prisoner. Ezra stopped dead, jerking himself backward out of sight, but not out of earshot. He very nearly reached for his gun. Alarmed at his own display of temper, he got his hands under control and forced himself to listen to the conversation.

“There’s no need for this to get ugly,” the woman’s voice said smoothly.

Silence was the only answer.

She continued, an almost undetectable note of irritation marring her otherwise perfect delivery. “You’ve obviously been through a lot. Mistakes were made on both sides. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just smooth this over now and be done with it?”

Silence again.

The irritation in her voice became a bit clearer along with a sly, threatening edge. “We all know that mistakes happen, particularly in situations that can be—shall we say emotionally charged.”

Ezra wished to God he could see inside the room from his position. But he knew if he crossed the doorway, he would give himself away. He leaned his head back against the wall and listened carefully.

“AD Rivers,” answered Chris’s voice finally with deceptive politeness, “I’m a little tired. So if you’ve got something to say, say it. Otherwise leave.”

Inside the room, Rivers smiled. Alright, then, she thought. Let’s talk turkey. It was better this way. She was much better at out and out intimidation.

She looked him right in the eyes, as she said, “It’s a curious fact, don’t you think, that at the same time that your team was AWOL from Denver, noted arms dealer Samuel Bautiste’s home was invaded. Apparently by people with impressive expertise in both surveillance and covert operations.”

She was mildly disappointed to see that the agent in the bed before her did not flinch. She was faintly disturbed to see his lips twitch minutely upward.

“I hadn’t heard,” he said, his tone still conversational, almost cheerful.

She narrowed her eyes. “Some might even call it suspicious,” she ventured.

He tilted his head slightly, and the corners of his mouth turned up a bit more. “Surprising, actually,” he replied thoughtfully. “One wouldn’t think a man in Bautiste’s business would report to the police that his own house was broken into.” He frowned artfully. “A story like that gets around and it might damage his reputation.” He looked up at her with feigned puzzlement.

She smiled patiently, icily. “He may not have filed a police report, but stories get around.”

“Oh,” he said, his brow furrowing even further, as he cocked his head over to the side. “I’m still surprised he would let a rumor like that get around,” he said, seemingly to himself.

“Oh,” she replied, almost airily, in a tone that reminded Ezra of his mother at her most deceptive, “He denies it, of course. Without a police report it’s hard to prove anything.” She skewered him with a penetrating glare. “If you know what I mean.”

He actually laughed. It was short and brittle.

She bristled.

In the hallway, Ezra edged closer to the door. Prepared. Ready to intervene.

“Fortunate then,” Chris’s gravelly voice replied, “that I got a copy of my police report when I did, isn’t it?”

Standish risked a peek into the room.

For the first time, Rivers flinched. Her head jerked around at Richter.

He stared back at her. Then turned a threatening glare on Larabee. “There is no report,” he said, calling his bluff.

Richter’s heart dropped into his stomach when Larabee, still wearing that cold smile, reached under his pillow and pulled out the very report that Richter and Rivers had maneuvered out of existence.

“Must be my mistake,” Chris replied dangling the nonexistent report from his fingers. He returned Richter’s glance coldly. “I’d let you take a closer look at it, but you don’t seem to have a free hand.”

Ezra nearly choked as he swallowed his laughter. Buck had dislocated both of the other agent’s shoulders in the fight. Richter stood in the room, both arms temporarily immobilized.

“Boys,” Rivers interceded smoothly. “There’s no need to be hostile. We are, after all, on the same team. We all want the same thing, the capture of the militia leaders who destroyed so many lives.”

She turned up her act as she refocused on the Denver agent. “This happened in our city. Surely you can understand why we take it personally.”

Larabee rolled his eyes, the smile disappeared and the green eyes glittered dangerously. She was reminded of a snake. But not a cornered one. A hunter. In its prime.

“You came here to deal,” he said. “Either spill it, or get out.”

Her eyes glittered back at him.

He reached for the call button at his side.

“Fine,” she said, irritated at suddenly finding the terms being dictated to her. “I want you to bury that report. Forget what happened and stay out of our way. You do that for me, we won’t press assault charges against Agent Wilmington and we’ll bury the Bautiste break in. It’s a simple exchange. Do we have a deal?”

She was unable to read much in his expression as he slowly repeated the terms back to her. “You and your boy there will refrain from starting unsubstantiated rumors about Bautiste and you’ll drop any impending charges against my agent, if I’ll forget that one of your agents assisted in assaulting me and that your team leader kidnapped me and more or less blackmailed me into participating in a sting operation? Is that the idea?”

“Yes,” she hissed tightly.

“Not much of a deal,” he said. He put on an elaborate display of making up his mind, but she could see his eyes get harder. He looked back up at her. “What if I say no?”

Richter twitched forward threateningly.

Rivers put her hand out, as she sensed his forward motion. He stopped.

She looked hard at Larabee. “Then I will chase those rumors hard until I have proof that your team committed an illegal breaking and entering and possible assault with a deadly weapon, motivated by a desire for revenge. I will press charges for the assault of an ATF agent, who has become a hero to this city, at the hands of an interfering, glory-grabbing, hot-dogging agent from another jurisdiction. I will also detail your assault on and attempted murder of agent Pirelli, another hero to this city. Believe me it won’t play prettily in the papers.”

For a moment, she thought he was going to tell her to go to hell. Instead his voice was steely as he agreed. “Looks like I don’t have much choice.”

She refused to let her triumph show, responding gravely, “You’ve made a good decision, Agent Larabee.” She held out her hand. “We can seal it by burning the police report.”

The full cold, humorless smile took her by surprise as he folded the report and slid it back under his pillow. “I think I’ll keep that,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers. “In case I need to remember.”

For just a split second she considered, pushing him aside to get the report. But she withdrew her hand slowly, recovering her poker face in remarkable time. “Alright then,” she said, tearing her eyes away but adding “But remember it works both ways.”

“Oh, I’ll remember,” he said in a low, measured voice. But he looked at Richter as he said it. A look that promised that punishment for any future troubles would be taken from his precious hide.

Richter looked away, pretending not to notice.

Larabee turned the smile back to Rivers. “Thanks for dropping by.”

Ezra nimbly removed himself several yards up the hall and assumed the manner of a man just arriving. He seemed surprised to see them, as they came toward him. Temporarily blocking their path.

“Agent Richter,” Ezra said with narrowed eyes. “How charming to see you again.” He eyed the slings. “I heard you took a fall.”

Richter narrowed his eyes back at Standish, who continued blithely. “Good of you to be willing to suffer a little pain for the good of your city and your profession. Nice picture in the papers by the way.”

“Go to hell,” Richter responded.

“See you there,” Ezra returned. He nodded at AD Rivers, but he did not move. They had to go around him instead.

He returned to the room to find Chris lying back against the pillows, looking angry. The tops of his cheeks were flushed red. The rest of his face was pale.

He meant to be congratulatory, but it didn’t come out quite right. “In bargaining for their silence, I hope you have given away nothing of importance,” Ezra said, as he looked down at Chris. Even as the words came out, he knew that wasn’t what he meant.

Chris looked at Ezra guardedly, realizing that he had been overheard. “Only the right to press charges,” he replied. To be honest, he had never even considered it until Rivers brought it up.

Ezra pursed his lips. Pirelli and Richter were a couple of thugs and ought to be in jail, not running around looking like gold-plated heroes.

Chris’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully at Ezra, scanning his faraway look. “Is there anything you want to tell me about Bautiste, Ezra?” he asked, sounding a little more suspicious than he meant to sound.

“Not that I can think of,” Ezra replied in his most thoughtful voice.

“They say confession is good for the soul,” Chris commented dryly.

Ezra flinched at the choice of words, but true to form, he was quick to find an escape route. “You look like that fever might be up again,” he said smoothly. “I’ll go get the nurse.”

In the hallway Standish swore silently to himself. He cursed Chris, Buck, Josiah, Nathan, Vin, J.D., and Travis all in one long, virulent, muttered stream. Babysitting Larabee was going to be one long unbroken hell. The man would torture him slowly until he confessed. Until he told him everything. And then Buck was going to flay him alive for not keeping his mouth shut. Confession is good for the soul, Chris had said. Ezra snorted. Maybe so, Mr. Larabee, but it is seldom good for the body.

After he sicced the nurse on Chris, partly out of spite, the undercover agent went to talk to Doctor Kahar. After all, as Chris’s doctor, the man had a right to know that Larabee would be breaking out of here tomorrow. For the sake of everyone involved, Ezra thought it would be a good idea to get some medical instructions and prescriptions, which would prove to be entirely superfluous, since Chris was unlikely to take either drugs or advice from anyone but Nathan. Stubborn fool, he could hear the medic now. He wondered vaguely when Nathan had taken up residence in his brain.

He realized then that if he wanted to save his dignity, his sanity, and maybe even his career, he needed a strategy; he needed Chris Larabee, and he needed a strategy for handling Chris Larabee. His step became more determined as he proceeded up the hallway. There really was not that much time to prepare.

Ezra leaned against the doorway well out of reach and wore his poker face. Doctor Kahar was trying to talk Chris out of checking himself out of the hospital. Chris had been on the phone when Ezra had arrived with the doctor. He had hung up in a hurry. Then he had thrown Ezra one of those looks that made the undercover agent feel like his skin had just become transparent. He hated those looks.

Larabee listened to the doctor’s sundry good reasons for him to stay and then he simply said. “I understand. But I have to leave, so just tell me what I need to do when I get home.”

The doctor turned to Ezra. “He is your friend. Please try to reason with him.”

From the safety of the doorway, Ezra laughed. “That, my good man, is like trying to reason with a stone wall. Mr. Larabee has made up his mind. Neither heaven, nor hell, nor good sense itself will make him change his mind.”

Chris glared at him.

The doctor frowned darkly. “Fine then,” he said to Chris. “You can sign a form that says you released yourself against my medical advice. But I am faxing Four Corners General in case you end up there with a relapse.”

“Excellent idea,” Ezra said, ignoring the green-eyed glare directed his way.

The doctor wrote out a sheet of instructions and handed them to Chris.

With surprising agility, Ezra stepped forward and intercepted them. “I’ll take those,” he said.

Chris glowered threateningly.

Ezra ignored him and accompanied the doctor from the room. “You shouldn’t in any way feel bad about this,” he said after he made sure he had the instructions correct. “Mr. Larabee has prematurely released himself from the hospital so many times that the staff at Four Corners calls it the Larabee Maneuver. Although, you should consider yourself lucky,” the southerner added thoughtfully. “He’s usually a lot less polite.”

This last was said loudly enough for the occupant of the room behind him to hear it.

The doctor was neither comforted nor amused. He simply said that he did not feel guilty about it in the slightest. He had done his best by his patient. And that was all he could do.

Ezra returned to the room expecting to be met by the famous Larabee glare. He was not disappointed, although he could see that Chris was making an effort to dim it down.

“What time does the plane leave?” Chris asked.

“The plane leaves in the late afternoon,” Ezra replied, looking smugly back at his boss. “There are conditions for your parole, of course.”

“Conditions?” Chris asked cocking an eyebrow at him.

“Conditions,” Ezra said, still looking smug.

One corner of Chris’s mouth quirked up challengingly. “And your conditions would be?”

Ezra laughed shortly. “Do you take me for a fool? You shall discover the conditions when it is time to go, and not a moment sooner.”

Chris narrowed his eyes.

Ezra narrowed his eyes right back.

“Alright, Ezra,” Chris said frostily. “In the meantime how about you have a seat and tell me about your resignation.”

Ezra congratulated himself on not letting his surprise show. He wondered who had told him. It wasn’t a story he wanted to tell when Chris was already obviously irritated with him. “That would be a long story,” Ezra hedged.

“You’d better start telling it then because we have an appointment with a board of inquiry at 8:30 sharp on Monday morning,” Chris replied curtly.

“We?” Ezra retorted, growing irritated himself. Nobody could push his buttons like Chris Larabee. “Does one have to appear before a board of inquiry after one resigns?” Couldn’t resigning have just one good point that he could enjoy?

“Only when said resignation is not accepted by one’s superior,” Chris replied mockingly.

Ezra made a face at him.

“Besides,” Chris said, his grin vanishing, replaced by something far colder. “It looks like I’m not allowed to drive, so someone has to get me there.”

“By ‘someone’, I suppose you mean me,” Ezra retorted.

“Looks like you got left here to be my official babysitter, so you can be the chauffeur, too,” Chris snapped.

“I believe the job title I resigned from was ATF Agent, not Personal Servant,” Ezra countered.

“I believe you’ll be lucky if we can convince the directors to let you have a job at all,” Chris said icily.

Some detached part of Ezra’s brain knew the conversation was not at all going to plan. In fact, if this had been an undercover operation involving an armed felon, the rest of Team Seven would have charged in by now to save him. But there was no backup. And he watched it go downhill quickly, somehow helpless to stop it.

He had meant to tell Chris about the resignation. He had meant to get Chris safely home. He knew that if anyone could get him reinstated, it would be Chris Larabee. And hadn’t Chris just said that was his intention? So, in that sense his plans were working out. It was his strategy for handling Larabee that had gone all wrong.

Chris was getting truly angry now. And the angrier Chris was, the more irritating he became. Right now he was working his way into rare form. Unfortunately, when Chris was at his most irritating, Ezra found it harder and harder to keep his cool. Or control his tongue. Even when he wanted to.

Thus, that previously detached part of his brain he used to monitor his undercover performances stuttered in abject horror, as he heard his mouth say, “What makes you think I want to come back?”

Worse yet, the rest of it fell out before he could stop it. “What could possibly make it worth my while to endure another disaster like this? Certainly not your overwhelming gratitude.”

Silence fell as if someone had dropped a soundproof curtain. Chris stared at him. And said nothing.

Ezra had played a lot of roles in his life, but humility was not one of his stronger points. The words had rolled right out, and he didn’t know how to take them back.

You’re not going to just sit there and take that are you? he asked silently, staring back at Chris. When it gradually became clear that Chris wasn’t going to say anything, he tried to cajole himself to speak. But his famously glib tongue stayed glued to the floor of his mouth.

By then an impassive mask nearly as good as Ezra’s own came down over Chris’s face. “Alright Ezra,” Chris said calmly. Far too calmly. “I could use your assistance getting back to Denver. After that, your decision is your own. If you don’t want to come back, I’ll accept your letter of resignation.”

No, no! This is not how this is supposed to go, Ezra’s mind screamed, but he felt himself still staring resolutely back at Chris.

Chris broke eye contact for a moment. And when he looked back at Ezra, the undercover agent couldn’t read his expression at all. In detached, official tones, he said, “I’ll see you in the morning.” As he pushed his call button to summon a nurse, he added, “Thank you for getting the plane tickets.”

Ezra stared, dumbstruck. He started to fashion some sort of reply. But the nurse appeared and began a quiet conversation with her patient. Ezra turned, numbly, and walked out of the room.

His feet carried him to the end of the corridor, but he was not aware of it. Even when he pressed the elevator call button. His mind was back in the room, sifting through the wreckage, wondering how the hell he had messed that up so badly. Your decision is your own. I’ll accept your resignation.

“Why on earth do you pick now to start listening to what I say?” Ezra muttered bitterly. He realized he had been muttering to himself when he noticed the man next to him staring at him over his newspaper. He glared coldly at the man until he turned red and buried his face back in the paper.

Chris asked the nurse for a painkiller. Requested no visitors until morning. He took the pill and lay back, waiting for oblivion. Until it arrived, he berated himself soundly. For a minute there, he had thought the team would survive this spectacular series of blunders and errors in judgment. Thought they had escaped. Miraculously. Again.

He was wrong. Clearly, his failure in leadership had just lost him his undercover agent. More than that, he chided himself. A teammate. A friend. He cursed himself and his stupidity. Continued cursing right up until the painkillers finally took hold.

It was dark by the time Buck arrived at the condo he shared with J.D. Dunne. He jostled the kid awake. “We’re here.”

J.D.’s eyes opened wide for a second, then he ran a hand over his face. Without another word, he stumbled around the truck, stretching in the cool Denver air. It was spring, but the evening still held a chill. He shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his duffel bags from the back of the truck. On the other side of the truck, Buck did the same. They walked up the walkway to their building and then to their door in silence.

Silence greeted them as Buck unlocked the door. J.D. could see the answering machine blinking in the darkened entry to the living room. It was quiet. Empty. It even smelled empty. J.D. stifled a yawn, and proceeded toward his room without turning on the light. He stopped at the answering machine. “Sixteen messages,” he called over his shoulder.

“The ladies must have missed me somethin’ fierce,” Buck replied from the kitchen.

J.D. rolled his eyes, remembered at the last minute to step around a hamper filled with clean but unfolded clothes, and proceeded into his room. He dropped both duffel bags and pitched forward onto his bed.

He heard Buck go upstairs a minute later and then come back down almost immediately. He heard keys jingling as the older man headed toward the door.

“Where are you going?” J.D. asked, still lying on his face on top of his bed.

“Gotta go check on the ranch,” Buck said.

J.D. picked up his head and looked at the clock. It was early yet. It just felt like the middle of the night.

“For what?” he asked. “Can’t it wait till tomorrow?”

Buck paused, his hand on the doorknob and sighed. Hadn’t they just recently learned—all over again, in Buck’s case—that sometimes there is no tomorrow to do what you should have done. He shook his head to clear it of the grim thought. Then he turned back to J.D.

“Just gonna check the house. Check the horses. Make sure everything’s okay. Tell the neighbors thanks for taking care of the place. Let them know Chris is coming home soon.” He looked down the dark hallway to where he could just make out the dim shape of J.D.’s feet hanging over the end of his bed. “Won’t take long,” he said, pulling open the door.

“Wait,” J.D. called. “I’ll go with you.”

Buck looked toward the ceiling, then put his head down. He thought for a moment that he might just convince the kid to stay behind, but decided he owed J.D. more than that. He turned from the door and made his way down the hall to J.D.’s room. He stopped in the doorway, as J.D. looked up at him questioningly.

“I appreciate the offer,” he said. “But if you don’t mind, this one I’d like to do by myself.”

For a second the kid looked disappointed, hurt maybe, but then he covered it. “Sure, Buck,” he said with a shrug and plopped himself back over on his bed. “That’ll give me a chance to call Casey. Tell her I’m back.” He looked up suddenly and grinned. “I can tell her and Mrs. Wells that Chris’ll be home soon.”

J.D.’s girlfriend lived with her aunt on a small ranching property across the pasture from Chris’s home. They had sent a condolence card to the office, but Casey had sent a special one to J.D. He had not shown it to Buck. It was in his backpack with the others. He wondered what to do with them now.

Buck made one extra stop before getting to Chris’s ranch. He climbed out into the chilly air and made his way among the shadowy headstones guided by the large moon hanging like a lamp in the sky. Even with the moonlight, it was too dark to read the names on the stones he passed, but he knew the way. He could have found the ones he was looking for with his eyes closed.

He stood for a moment peering down at them in the darkness. Then he knelt in front of the stones. He stayed just that way for a time, the rhythmic hum of insects in the trees and the occasional night bird call filling the silence around him.

“So I didn’t lose him,” Buck said finally to the dark granite shape hunched in the shadows before him. “But I guess you knew that, when he didn’t show.”

He reached out one hand and blindly traced the name so carefully carved into the face of one of the stones.

“I know you miss him,” he continued with a sigh. “But I gotta say I’m glad you’re gonna wait a little longer.” A tiny, sad smile flickered across his face. “Just don’t take him back too soon, okay? I don’t think this old heart can take it.”

He turned to the stone on his right. “That goes for you, too, Junior,” he added quietly, leaning forward to brush his hand across its carved face.

An owl called somewhere in a nearby tree. He paused.

“Miss you both,” he said softly, rising to his feet and brushing his pants off with his palms. Both knees were damp from the grass. He turned back to Sarah Larabee’s headstone, a dark bulk in the shadows.

“Don’t worry. I’m still taking care of him,” Buck assured her before he walked away. “I never break a promise to a lady.”

The ranch, as it turned out, was fine. As it also turned out, Buck wouldn’t have needed J.D.’s help. When he arrived in the driveway, Vin was already there. Together, they inspected the property, both men knowing that Chris’s neighbors would have taken good care of the place. Everything was in order, in the house and out. A fence had been repaired in the west pasture. The dishes had even been done.

The elderly couple had been Chris’s neighbors for a long time. They had watched over his property discreetly through the long months after Sarah and Adam died. When Buck asked them to keep an eye on the place until he returned, they had readily agreed. Chris had been a good neighbor to them over the years. This time, when Buck stopped in and told them that Chris was not dead and that he would be home soon, he saw tears gather in the fading blue eyes of the wife. The husband simply shook his head in a sort of knowing disbelief and offered Buck a drink. He was driving. He declined.

Inspection completed, the two men stood in the driveway, and regarded each other silently.

Vin grimaced as he looked up at Buck. “I reckon I still owe you an apology for throwin’ ya out of here.”

Buck shrugged. “Forget it,” he said lightly. “It ain’t the first time.”

It was too dark to see Buck’s expression even with the porch light on, but the sharpshooter could hear the undercurrent of pain in the other man’s voice, and he knew the story behind it. “Still,” Vin pressed. “I had no right. What happened…” he stopped suddenly and grinned. Then corrected himself. “What didn’t happen, wasn’t your fault. You were following orders, same as the rest of us.”

Buck looked down at the gravel at his feet. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Vin shook his head. “Ya know, I’m tryin’ to apologize, but you keep interruptin’.”

Buck grinned silently, ducking his chin into his collar. A speech like this was a rare thing from Tanner. He ought to enjoy it while it lasted.

“Anyway,” Vin said, watching his foot slide along the gravel. “If I’m bein’ honest, I wasn’t any madder at you than I was at me.”

“I know,” Buck said quietly, searching for the blue eyes in the shadowed face. He smiled softly, sadly. “Like I told you, I been there before.”

Vin’s smile mirrored his own. He reached out a hand to seal the apology, to renew the friendship.

Buck eyed the hand. Then he took it and pulled the young agent into a trademark Buck bear hug. He slapped him on the back twice and then released him.

“Meeting tomorrow,” Buck said as he moved off toward his truck. “We’ll meet here. At ten A.M. We better discuss some tactics for dealing with the brass.”

Vin nodded. Tactics, he thought as he watched Buck’s truck roll up the driveway and onto the road. For a second it crossed his mind that maybe Nathan was right. Maybe they did need Chris. He would know how to deal with the brass. Or at least he’d have a plan.

Vin put the thought out of his head. They had gotten themselves into this mess. They should get themselves out. Or at least take their punishment like men.

Later, in the early hours of morning, the mustached agent turned in his bed. He was awakened by the raw scream clawing its way up his throat. His eyes snapped open and the sudden silence of the room descended on him like a heavy blanket, torn by his own harsh breathing. He felt the sweat soaking his t-shirt.

But this time he told himself it was only a dream. Yes, the pictures in his head had really happened. But they had not ended the way he thought. He reminded himself, until his heart stopped pounding and his breathing quieted. Reminded himself until he believed it. When he drifted away again, the nightmares had lost their power.

In Texas, Chris was dreaming dreams of fire and guns. Mixed up images of Sarah and Adam, of Buck and Vin and the team. Dreamed of Ezra shouting to him across a burning warehouse. And he couldn’t understand what he was saying. And he couldn’t seem to get him to leave. Not even when he saw the roof was about to collapse, could he get Ezra to stop talking and just get out.

But once, once in the middle of the barrage of confusing, blurring, superheated images, the roaring of flame, images of charred ceiling beams, and the smell of burning rubber, once there was a short dream. Of no place. Like a fog. Pearly, misty gray. But it smelled sweet, like summer rain on mown hay. And she was there. His Sarah. He didn’t see her, but he heard her whisper and felt her hand as she touched his forehead, like she used to do to both of “her men” when cold season came and they looked to be running fevers. Her hand was soft and cool, the way he remembered. And she said something softly in his ear. He couldn’t hear the words, but it seemed to him that he could understand. And though he knew it wasn’t real, he felt himself relax. Just for a bit. A short respite before the nightmares took him again.

It was still relatively early when Ezra returned to the hospital. He had taken a long shower during which he argued with himself about how to straighten out the mess he made yesterday when he let Larabee provoke him. Unfortunately, most of the conversation consisted of alternately complaining about how irritating Chris Larabee could be and chiding himself for letting Chris get to him.

After all, he had played his undercover roles to absolute perfection in countless difficult cases. He had never yet faltered. They had never yet cracked his cool. So how could it be that one man could do this to him on a regular basis?

He told himself to just back off. To play nice. To explain that he said those words in haste. He realized that it would be the smart play. He got ready to do just that.

He stopped at the nurse’s station on the floor, balancing his bundles carefully against his leg, as he inquired of the nurse on duty whether Mr. Larabee was awake yet.

“You can go ahead in,” she replied. She stopped Ezra as he picked up his bags. “So you know,” she said, “he had a rough night.”

Great, Ezra thought sardonically.

“The doctor should be coming shortly,” she added.

Ezra nodded and thanked her politely, showing his dimples, practicing the attitude he was going to take with Chris. Polite. Deferential. Plainspoken. He repeated those three words to himself as a reminder. Then squared his shoulders and set off resolutely down the hall.

“You look like utter hell,” were the first words out of his mouth.

He expected a retort, but realized quickly that he wasn’t going to hear one. When the green eyes fluttered open, they were slightly glazed. Ezra realized that couldn’t be good.

He dropped his packages and his bags.

“Did you sleep at all?” he snapped, taking in the tense expression on Chris’s face. “Not a good first step to getting out of here today.”

He watched an annoyed light flicker into the green eyes. Wonderful, Ezra, he scolded himself. I said polite, deferential, and plainspoken, not blunt and accusatory.

A glare was Chris’s only response. It lacked its usual force.

Ezra took a breath and calmed himself. Polite, deferential… He was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor.

Kahar reviewed the charts briefly, his frown growing steadily darker.

His examination of the patient himself was even quicker.

He faced his patient frankly. “Your fever is up again. The infections are slowly clearing up, but still present. My recommendation is that you remain here a few more days. We might be able to arrange to transfer you to Four Corners General in Denver sometime tomorrow or the next day. Frankly, looking at you, I can’t imagine that you still feel up to leaving today.”

The green eyes rolled toward the doctor. He said nothing, but his determination was obvious.

The doctor looked at Ezra. Standish shrugged. What was there to say? He had already warned the doctor.

The doctor sighed. “If you are determined, then you have my instructions,” he said, directing his gaze toward Ezra.

Ezra nodded, reaching instinctively into his jacket pocket and fingering them.

“Good luck,” Kahar said, shaking Chris’s hand.

“Thanks,” Chris said, unclenching his teeth just long enough to get the words out. “For everything,” he said. He meant it. His sincerity was as evident as his determination.

The doctor shook his head and then shook Ezra’s hand, wishing him even more luck. Then he gave last minute instructions and disappeared.

Ezra stood for a moment staring at Chris. He didn’t need the doctor or the chart to tell that Chris’s fever was up. It was obvious just looking at him. He looked even worse this morning than he had yesterday.

Ezra remembered his last hospital stay and how much he had wanted to leave. Had mentioned it the very first night. Nathan had laughed at him, told him that was the IV talking. Ezra remembered how good an IV can make you feel, as it delivers sugars, hydration, blood, painkillers, medication, whatever you need. If you’re stubborn enough and willing to overlook the obvious, like tubes and wires sticking out of your body, you might even feel like you could manage on your own.

Then they took it away, of course, and a hundred small pains and all the large ones became glaringly apparent. Then he began to really understand the violence that had been done to his body. It only gets worse if one stubbornly, inexplicably refuses to take painkillers. Like his mule-headed masochist of a boss.

“Rough night?” Ezra asked.

Chris barely nodded in response. He was too busy vowing to himself to never take painkillers again. If there was a bright spot, it was that at least this morning he wasn’t going to lose whatever was left in his stomach. He took a deep breath, dug down inside and found his game face. Then he slowly raised the head of the bed.

Ezra took another look and decided that perhaps now was not the best time to broach the subject of his resignation. It might just take all his determination to get Chris to the airport. His problems could wait.

“As requested,” Ezra said with forced cheerfulness opening one of his shopping bags. “I brought you some clothes to wear, in the sizes you indicated.” He pulled out a pair of soft, lightweight nylon wind pants and a T-shirt. “All in your preferred color. Black.”

He laid them on the bed. Then he pulled a heavyweight flannel shirt from one of the bags. “Have you any idea how hard it was to find one of these at this time of year?” he asked. He felt Chris’s eyes on him, but he continued with forced cheerfulness. “Nevertheless I persevered. And,” he said as if he were a spokesmodel showing prizes on a game show. “It’s actually black. Well, it does have a little blue running through it, but overall, not so bad. And, fortunately not bright red.”

He had hoped for the tiniest of smiles in reward for his efforts. He was disappointed.

“Ezra,” Chris croaked out instead, a strange look passing over his face.

“Good Lord!” Ezra exclaimed as Chris bolted suddenly, awkwardly out of the bed, tangling a foot in the sheets, staggering, stumbling, but hitting the bathroom just in time. Still holding the flannel shirt in the center of the room, Ezra recovered from his astonishment long enough to wince at the retching sounds from the bathroom. That has to hurt, he said silently, thinking about the bruises and the broken ribs. He didn’t know whether to go in there or not. Was there any comfort he could offer? Would he even be welcome? He stayed where he was, mutely, awkwardly, stupidly, still clutching the shirt.

Chris rested his head momentarily against the cold metal of the pipes, the bitter taste in his mouth working to calm the flutter in his stomach that heralded the next bout of nausea, something he desperately wanted to avoid. Both arms were wrapped around his middle and he became aware that he was kneeling on the cold floor. It occurred to him that this did not bode well as a start to his escape.

He sat back on his knees and dragged a shaky hand impatiently across his face, wiping away the sweat and tears, trying to clear his head. Damn painkillers. He hated that fuzzy feeling. He’d rather have the pain.

He pushed himself determinedly back to his feet, nearly losing his footing on his slippery, medicated, gauze-wrapped feet. But he grabbed the sink and reached gingerly to press the lever that would get rid of the evidence of his weakness.

Guess I was wrong about that, too, he thought dimly, as he watched it spiral away. Wrong about a lot of things lately. They’re all down the toilet, too.

“Mr. Larabee?” the southern voice called tentatively.

He turned to the door, purposely avoiding the mirror before him.

Ezra was relieved to see Chris reemerge from the bathroom. Stiffly, pain written into his very posture. But thankfully, he was at least standing upright.

Chris caught sight of Ezra, still holding the flannel shirt up, a strange perplexed expression on the southerner’s face. And he couldn’t help smiling. It wasn’t every day the unflappable Ezra Standish was taken by surprise.

His gaze fell on the shopping bags and he eyed Ezra’s purchases for the first time. He raised his eyebrows in silent approval.

“I believe I have everything you requested,” Ezra said, catching Chris’s expression and feeling for the first time in days a familiar feeling of understanding pass between them.

Chris’s lips twitched, looking again for the moment like his irascible, indestructible self. “I don’t suppose you have a real toothbrush in there anywhere?”

There was a definite note of appeal in the raspy-throated question. It was Ezra’s turn to grin.

“Funny you should ask,” he replied, reaching into the bottom of the next bag. He withdrew a small, soft rolled travel kit filled with personal items in convenient small sizes.

Chris smiled, lowering his head as he took it. Leave it to Standish, he thought, humbled at the undercover agent’s thoughtfulness. Troubled at his inability to reach him and make him want to stay.

He looked up at Ezra again, taking firm hold on his resolve. He couldn’t give up yet. There were hours in which to attempt to make him change his mind. I won’t fail you again, Chris thought.

Ezra felt Chris’s eyes bore into him again, but he waited until he was sure Chris was not looking before he risked a glance in Chris’s direction. The team leader was leaning on the sink in the bathroom, slowly, stubbornly, working his way through getting himself in order. He found himself staring, somehow moved by the determination etched into the bruised, haggard face. He turned back to the task of removing tags and laying out the clothes, resolved that he could find at least as much determination in himself.

Chris was winded when he returned from brushing his teeth and washing his face. He hadn’t bothered attempting to shave, to Ezra’s immense relief. Doggedly, he set about putting on the clothes Ezra laid out for him.

Ezra watched him struggle for a moment with clumsy bandaged hands and arms that had begun to shake slightly. When he could stand it no more, he realized he would either have to help or leave the room. “May I offer my assistance?” he asked tentatively, and was not sure what he hoped the answer would be.

“No,” Chris said shortly, aggravated.

His head snapped up a second later, throwing him slightly off balance. Ezra caught his arm. “What I meant,” he said, trying again, “was thanks, but I need to do this on my own.”

Ezra smiled to himself. “I’ll be outside the door if you need me,” he replied, fingering the imaginary brim of an imaginary hat. It was a convenient escape, since he had yet to bring in the one purchase he knew Chris would hate. Conditions of parole.

After what seemed like a long time, he peeked back in the door. Larabee was seated on the bed, breathing hard, but mostly dressed, except for his bare feet.

For a moment, Ezra thought he had purchased the wrong sizes. But he hadn’t. He had purchased the sizes Chris had indicated. Yet the T-shirt hung limply from Chris’s shoulders and he could see about a half a mile of drawstring cinching in the pants. A man ought to know what size he wears, Ezra thought, confused. It dawned on him only then how much weight Chris had lost. Weight Ezra didn’t even think the man had had. It was disquieting. He felt himself grow inexplicably angry. And swallowed it back down again.

“Ready or not here I come,” he called into the room as he entered.

He looked Chris over and tried not to let his expression give anything away.

Chris cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, a sardonic twitch at his lips revealing what often passed for a smile. “No shoes, Ezra?”

“Ah, no,” Ezra said, clearing his throat. “I believe I mentioned there were conditions to your parole.”

“I see,” Chris said, the corners of his mouth twitching again, amused but by no means complacent.

Ezra continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “To be perfectly blunt, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said, launching quickly into his patter. “At the speed you are moving, we would have needed to leave for the airport yesterday. Clearly you are not capable of walking much further than the distance from the bed to the bathroom. Also, I don’t want anyone tracking us by the trail of bloody footprints.”

“Don’t you think shoes would take care of that?” Chris said with a smirk.

Ezra ignored him. “Therefore, I have made a small purchase for the sake of speed and convenience.”

He unfolded and set out the portable folding wheelchair.

Chris eyed it doubtfully.

“You’ll get to board the plane first,” Ezra said in a voice that sounded suspiciously like the kind of voice one would use when trying to bribe a screaming toddler with a cookie.

Chris’s lips pursed together, as he tried not to grin. “You reckon that thing’s strong enough to hold me?” he asked.

He eyed Chris’s gaunt frame. Right now, Mr. Larabee, a good-sized spider web looks strong enough to hold you. But all he said was “Positive. I asked at the store where I purchased it.”

Chris’s eyes moved from Ezra’s face back to the chair. “All right,” he said, and nodded as if trying to convince himself.

Ezra blinked in surprise. He resisted the urge to ask Chris to kindly repeat that for posterity. He did commit the moment to memory to share with Nathan. He wondered whether he should be concerned. He shook the thought away.

“You do not, however, have to go barefoot.” He reached into the shopping bag and pulled out the final items. He held them out for Chris to inspect: the thickest, softest, heaviest, most padded pair of hiking socks that Chris had ever seen.

When Chris looked up at him, Ezra saw the gratitude written in the green eyes.

Ezra pushed on before Chris might say something embarrassing. “They only came in gray and brown,” he said with a shrug.

The gratitude was replaced with a spark of humor, as Chris smiled a lopsided smile. Ezra was relieved.

“Your chariot awaits, sir,” he said, waving his hand toward the chair with an exaggerated flourish.

Chris slipped off the bed, took two slow steps, wincing even with the heavy socks on, and slid gingerly into the chair. Ezra put up the foot rests as far as they would safely go, placed the flannel shirt in Chris’s lap, slung the travel bags over his shoulder and pushed Chris toward the door.

Chris watched him shoulder the bags. He offered to take one. Ezra only grunted, but when he banged the chair and an elbow on the doorframe as he attempted to maneuver them out of the room, Chris had narrowed his eyes and ordered him to hand over one of the bags. He handed over the lightest one and they made it out of the room without further incident.

The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully. Relatively. After they left the airport anyway.

At the airport itself, the curious stares he garnered at the airport put Chris’s teeth on edge. The sympathetic looks were even worse. Both men gritted their teeth and tried to ignore them. Truthfully, Ezra could hardly blame them. Chris looked like a one-man train wreck.

He noted the irony of his situation. He was an undercover agent. He was trained to hide in plain sight. And well he knew how Chris hated to call attention to himself. Yet, here they both were, in a situation practically guaranteed to bring the curious eyes of every traveler in the airport down upon them. They had been in the airport less than twenty minutes and Chris was already getting hot under the collar, and Ezra really wasn’t sure how long he was going to be able to keep him in the chair.

Standish bit his tongue as they passed through ticketing. He clenched his jaw as security directed them through a special gate, and Chris grated out, “I can manage to walk through the gate.”

“You’ll stay in the chair,” Ezra snapped, steering the chair around in the direction the guard indicated before Chris made up his mind to get up.

Everyone waiting in the long line watched their progress through the separate gate. Only some of them had the good grace to look away when Ezra returned their gaze. But every one of them found his or her shoes or the far wall suddenly very interesting, when Chris turned his glare on them. Standish grimaced. He could well imagine Chris Larabee glaring his way through an entire airport. He was glad that Chris did not have a gun. He was glad he had put his own gun in his checked luggage.

As soon as they got through the metal detectors, Ezra headed for the nearest newsstand. He parked the chair just outside, where he could keep an eye on its occupant, and purchased two news magazines and a pulp fiction bestseller guaranteed to be filled with lots of totally unrealistic shootings and picturesque explosions. He also bought some bottled water.

He handed the bag with the reading material to Chris. “Read something,” Ezra ordered between his teeth. “And ignore the uncouth masses.”

Chris looked at him, exasperated, but seeing the sense in Standish’s advice and not having anything else that needed his particular attention, he pulled out the bestseller and began to read.

Ezra congratulated himself on his cleverness. Then he saw the Starbucks and realized he had plenty of time for coffee. He ordered two. Chris was getting the hang of the chair now and wheeled himself toward the napkins, with two bandaged hands and his stocking feet.

Ezra watched him go with irritation, psychically sending a stream of epithets raining down upon his rock hard head. Then he saw the gargantuan man in the black shirt and jeans with many rings on his hand. He was large in every direction. And Ezra knew with the sharp instincts he had honed over years of undercover work that this was going to be trouble.

In an obvious hurry, the man shoved his bulk in front of the wheelchair, cutting Chris off, bumping the chair hard, and spilling the hot coffee into Chris’s lap.

“You don’t mind, do ya pal,” the man said without noticing what he had done or looking back. He apparently didn’t hear the soft epithet. But Ezra did.

“I do mind,” Chris said frostily, quietly, dangerously.

The man turned suddenly. “Excuse me,” he said, with evident hostility. Clearly, he was used to getting his own way. He stared down at the man in the wheelchair.

“I said, I do mind,” Chris repeated, evenly. “And you’re in my way.”

The man reared back. He looked Chris over. “You don’t look like you’re in a position to do anything about it,” the man snorted derisively, nodding his head at the chair. Then he turned away.

The silent string of impolite adjectives Ezra directed at Chris got even longer and more colorful.

If Chris had been standing up, the man would have had at least four inches on him. If Chris had been in his typical shape, the heavyset gentleman would have had almost a hundred pounds on him. Even so, in a fair fight Larabee could have taken him easily. As Ezra caught sight of his boss’s malicious smile, he knew it was not going to be a fair fight. But he didn’t know who would need to be rescued.

He grabbed his change and his coffee and sprinted the five steps to the chair, hoping to intervene. He was too late.

In one move, Chris swung his legs up over the outside of the chair and launched the chair toward the man. He caught one leg between the footrests, jerked the man expertly off balance and sent him falling into a nearby table, pulling the chair over and spilling Chris on top of him. Chris recovered quickly. Grabbing the toppled table for balance, he put his knee against the man’s throat.

From a step away, Ezra could not hear the exact words Chris said, but he saw the man’s eyes suddenly go wide and his huge fists go limp. He could also see airport security running toward them at a full on sprint.

“Great,” Ezra snapped between his teeth, pulling up short beside the two men.

The larger man’s eyes were wide and fearful, as they turned toward Ezra. He turned his eyes back toward Chris and croaked out the word, “Yes.”

Chris removed his knee. Ezra grabbed Chris’s good arm and yanked him none too gently to his feet. Without another word Chris returned to the chair, put his feet back on the footrests and turned to collect two napkins.

Airport security began interrogating all three of them.

There was no emotion of any kind on Chris’s face, as he replied to their questions. “No there’s no problem,” he said. “Just had a little accident with my chair, that’s all.”

The other man rubbed his throat and glared hotly at Larabee but said nothing.

Airport security looked suspiciously at each of them, but since no one seemed inclined to say anything more about the incident, they gave each man a stern and threatening glance and then returned to wherever they were waiting.

The man picked himself up off the floor and walked away, muttering. A boy, still in his teens came to clean up. He did not look at anyone, just ran a mop over the coffee, picked up the empty cup and walked away quickly. Ezra grabbed the wheelchair handles and started to push, but Chris held up his hand.

“Wait,” he said.

“Whatever for?” Ezra shot back, nearly forgetting to keep his voice down. “Did you want to make another scene? Was this one unsatisfactory?”

Chris looked blandly up at him. “I need my coffee.”

Ezra looked from his boss back to the counter. The long line had melted back for the oversized lout that Chris had just assaulted. As Ezra watched in disbelief the man ordered another coffee exactly like the boy had just cleaned up off the floor. The man paid for the coffee and handed it to Ezra. He took it. Stupefied.

“Fucking lunatic,” the man sputtered taking one last look at Chris. Then he moved quickly away through the crowd.

Still dumbfounded, Ezra pushed the wheelchair back into the main stream of foot traffic.

It was another minute before he found his voice. “What kind of a stunt was that?” he demanded hotly. “It would serve you right if he pressed charges. Serve you right if you pulled the stitches out of your hands. At the very least I hope it hurt like hell!”

Chris grinned back at him, broadly, genuinely. “Oh it did,” he said frankly. “But it was the most fun I’ve had in weeks.”

Ezra rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and the heavens beyond. Not for the first time since he had signed on with Team Seven, he wondered if he were being punished for a specific transgression or just on principle.

Perhaps Chris had just needed to get it out of his system, Ezra reflected, from his cramped center seat. He watched Chris sleep, slumped up against the bulkhead, the heavy flannel shirt, which should have been way too warm for the spring day was buttoned up to his neck and a small blue airline blanket was draped over his legs. The ludicrously little pillow provided by the airline was wadded up and jammed into the crack between the seat and the bulkhead. Chris had asked for the blanket and the pillow nearly the second they got on the plane. He was out like a light well before take off. He came to groggily as the lunch cart went by. He refused anything to eat. Ezra asked the attendant to get him an apple juice and shoved one of the bottled waters into his hand. He drank several sips of the water. He was asleep again before the juice arrived.

Now Ezra watched the gentle sloshing of the amber liquid as the plane moved slightly in the air and felt a pang of jealousy. Perhaps that was the key. He just needed to throttle some idiot who desperately deserved it. Then maybe he could sleep peacefully, too. He rolled his eyes and leaned past Chris to look out the window. Perish the thought that it could be so easy, he thought.

The young woman on his left, after nearly an hour and a half of not-so-subtle staring finally got up the courage to ask Ezra what had happened to his friend.

Ezra turned a baleful glance on her and whispered his reply. “I had to teach him a lesson. It was unfortunate. But it had to be done.”

She stared at him, mouth slightly open. “What do you mean?” she stammered, whispering back.

Ezra smiled toothily and purred in his best aw-shucks southern boy drawl, “He just wouldn’t mind his own dang business.”

She jerked, pressed her lips together and shot him an indignant look before turning away. She did not speak to him or look at either of them for the rest of the trip.

Standish smiled to himself as he opened his magazine. Perhaps Chris was right. He did feel better.