by BMP

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6 | Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9
Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12 | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15 | Page 16 | Page 17 | Page 18
Page 19 | Page 20 | Page 21 | Page 22 | Page 23 | Page 24 | Page 25 | Page 26 | Page 27

They circled each other uncomfortably for the rest of the evening, after Nathan had given the few details that Buck had left out. Not that there was much awkward conversation. Chris had spent a good couple of hours on the deck staring out at the pasture beyond his house, lost in some train of thought. Nathan had the good sense not to attempt to pry it out of him.

After spilling his guts so easily in the kitchen, Nathan didn’t feel like exposing any more raw nerves tonight—his or anyone else’s. So he kept it light. Held his tongue. He knew Chris had been overdoing it. A quick look at the straw bales stacked outside told him that, at the very least, target practice had already begun. A word with Vin at the barn after dinner told him that it was progressing quite quickly, too. When he returned to the house, Chris was back on the deck, huddled in a blanket, staring toward the sunset, but not seeing it. Nathan perused the list of exercises the doctor gave Chris. He read the list of symptoms to watch out for. And at the appointed time, he handed Chris his meds, but this time, he didn’t hang around waiting to see if Chris took them.

Lost in thought, Chris barely registered that Nathan had come out and gone back inside. It was another 20 minutes before he remembered to swallow the pills, their colored coatings grown sticky in his palm. The sun disappeared. The stars came out along with the crickets, the fireflies, and the mosquitoes. He stayed until the damp chill started to seep right through him. He was stiff when he got up.

When he slipped back in through the glass doors, he was surprised to find Josiah sprawled across his sofa. He was reading.

Over the top of his book, the profiler watched Chris glance around the first floor of the house.

“Nathan headed home,” Josiah said finally in answer to the unasked question.

Chris frowned again, trying to assess Nathan’s state of mind from Josiah’s tone of voice. He could not. “How was he?” Chris inquired, hiding his annoyance at being forced to ask.

Josiah shrugged. “Status quo, I think,” he replied.

“Doesn’t tell me much,” Chris retorted, aggravation leaking into his tone.

“I told you,” Josiah said calmly, returning to his book. “These things take time.”

Chris glowered at him. “That’s what I keep hearing,” he said darkly. “Maybe I should try that on the brass?”

Josiah shrugged. But refused to be goaded into an argument. Nathan had filled him in, and he was not surprised to discover that Chris had ricocheted straight from guilt back to anger. He only hoped the team leader did not want to start asking questions while he was still angry. The profiler knew already that none of the answers would please the younger man.

The TV went on. A moment later, Chris emerged from the kitchen with a bag of chips and a glass of soda. He slid into his recliner and under the blanket.

Josiah smiled to himself, chiding himself gently for not giving Chris enough credit. The team leader knew better than to try to conduct an inquiry while he was angry. Plus, by now he must have some inkling of the roles that each team member played in their unsanctioned mission. The one Josiah had christened Divine Retribution before he got Ezra outfitted as a priest and sent him to take a gangster’s confession. In the last week Josiah had considered his transgressions quite closely. And discovered he was a lot less upset about breaking man’s laws than about violating the sacred trust he had shouldered as a priest. Just because one is no longer a priest does not mean one should disregard what one knows.

He eyed Chris over top of the book and wondered how Chris would react if he told him that. Yes, I’m aware of the legal ramifications of my own actions and that of the team. No, I don’t regret it. Not that part of it, anyway.

“You gonna eat all those chips yourself?” Josiah asked.

Chris folded up the top of the bag and tossed them at the profiler, without so much as turning his head. The bag hit Josiah squarely in the chest.

“Thanks,” the profiler replied.

He received only a muffled grunt in return.

Josiah had always been conscious of his limitations. As a teenager, he had freely admitted that he was a terrible babysitter. He realized that had not changed, as he was jolted from his reading by a clock striking eleven. He snapped the book closed, feeling an unaccountable relief flood through him when he realized Chris was still in his recliner. A documentary was droning on the TV, but Chris was no longer watching. He was fast asleep.

Josiah smiled gently, rising to pull the remote control from the limp fingers. He turned down the volume. And stood looking down at his team leader, watching him breathe, wondering whether he should wake him up and send him to bed or just leave him. He knew what Nathan would say. But no one knew like Josiah did, how comfortable a man’s favorite chair could be.

Josiah bolted from the guest room shower at the sound of gunshots. He was all the way to the door, when he remembered the target practice. Muttering, he yanked his towel from the rack, wrapped it haphazardly around his hips and tracked wet footprints up the hardwood hall to the guest room window. Below, he could see the thin figure of Chris Larabee, dressed in sweats, lining up a series of shots into the silhouette pattern of a man. He watched as Chris moved backward a distance, set himself, and fired a tight pattern into the black shadow head. Then another tight pattern into the center of the chest. Chris activated the safety on his gun, and placed it back in the holster. Josiah released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

Chris pulled the paper off the bales and examined it closely.

Well, hell, he grinned to himself. I ain’t no Vin Tanner, but that’s more than good enough to get me requalled.

His eyes traveled up the driveway to the road beyond. “Now for the conditioning,” he said aloud with a wide, devilish smile and a glance back toward the house. He just hoped he could get his guns stowed away and his CD player on before Josiah made it downstairs.

Josiah intercepted Chris coming back from the den. “Going somewhere, Brother?” he asked suspiciously.

He got a wide smart-ass grin in return, as Chris beheld the big profiler, still wet, and looking like he had crawled into his clothes in the dark. Trying to stare him down. “Mornin’, Josiah,” Chris said as if nothing were out of place.

Josiah narrowed his eyes, taking in the sweatshirt, the long shorts, and the well broken-in running shoes.

Chris laughed. The sound split the hallway silence and nearly made Josiah grin. He would have if he hadn’t been so determined to try to redeem his reputation as a babysitter.

Chris cocked his head over to one side, smirking, and eyeing the disheveled profiler from head to toe. “Thought I’d take a stroll,” he said casually. “Long as you’re dressed, you might as well come along.”

Josiah looked at him suspiciously. “Are you allowed to take this ‘stroll’?” he asked.

Chris held up a piece of paper that Josiah had seen on the fridge last night. “Doctor approved,” Chris replied, the smirk growing wider.

Josiah plucked the paper from his fingertips and scanned it. He looked back at Chris. “Long as you’re inviting me, I imagine I’ll go.” He pinned Chris with a blue-eyed warning glance. “To make sure you stick to the rules.”

Chris laughed. Josiah wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad, but he pulled on his battered sneakers and followed his team leader out the front door, suddenly aware that he was still wet, wearing whatever clothes he had found first, and had yet to have his first cup of coffee.

The workout left Chris gasping. Squatting down into a calf stretch, sweat running down both sides of his face in rivers, he fought to catch his breath.

Josiah forced himself to stand still. To not help. Just glad that it was over. All told, he was not sure whether he was more shocked at how much Chris was able to do in comparison to last week or at how little he could do in comparison to the athlete Josiah knew him to be.

Chris looked up at the profiler with a wry grin. “Pathetic wasn’t it?” he panted.

Josiah opened his mouth but Chris cut him off. “You say ‘it takes time,’ Preacher man,” he said between gulps of air. “An’ I’ll show you I ain’t too tired to deck you.”

Josiah grinned back at him. Chris might just have one good enough punch left in him. “Actually,” Josiah said, “I was going to suggest we have some breakfast.”

Chris pushed himself back up to his feet and wiped his face on his sleeve. He nodded. “Now you’re thinking.”

Josiah clapped a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and pushed him toward the house.

They pushed the breakfast dishes aside and regarded each other for a moment.

“Is it time?” Josiah asked, reluctant to let go of the moment of calm and good cheer.

Chris winced. “I gotta know, Josiah,” he said.

Josiah nodded. “I know Brother,” he said. “No surprises.”

Chris nearly smiled at that. Clearly they had been spreading the word. At least he knew his team was still talking to each other. And, to Chris’s immense relief, they had apparently decided that he was not the enemy.

Josiah’s telling didn’t take long, and most of the important parts Chris had already heard. When the profiler had finished speaking, Chris leaned back in his chair and regarded him thoughtfully.

“You really outfitted Ezra as a priest and sent him out to hear Bautiste’s confession?” he asked with something like disbelief. For a moment Josiah was reminded of J.D.

“Taught him everything he knows,” Josiah replied.

Chris’s lips turned up. “Proud of that?” he asked wryly.

Josiah shrugged. “Not proud exactly, but I do good work.”

At that the team leader actually did laugh. “You up to hearing a confession?” Chris asked suddenly, leaning forward across the table.

Josiah looked at him seriously. “All right, but I can no longer grant absolution.”

That patent Chris Larabee smile stretched across his too-thin face. “I think I’m way past absolution,” Chris said lightly. He dropped his voice to a more conspiratorial tone and grinned as he said, “Wish I’d seen Ezra as a priest.”

Josiah burst out laughing. “That can probably be arranged,” he replied. “J.D. had the house security cameras looped, but he had a spy program that sent images back to his laptop. You can probably print an image from there.”

A shadow suddenly crossed Chris’s face. God damn it! They took pictures. Larabee thought, forgetting all about Josiah, wondering if J.D. had had enough sense to destroy the evidence.

Josiah looked at him curiously. “Anything else you want to know?” he asked looking at his leader intently.

Chris returned the gaze, considering. “I think that’s it for now,” he said tightly.

Josiah nodded, rose from the table and began collecting the breakfast dishes.

From the corner of his eye, he could see that Chris was thinking. Thinking hard. Much like Nathan had reported last night when Josiah arrived. He wondered if anyone had a clue, which way Chris was planning to jump on this one.

“This could get ugly, brother,” Josiah said quietly.

Chris looked up at him, his expression closed. “Already is, brother,” he returned, a ghost of that cold, cocky Larabee smile resting on his lips.

“You got a plan?” Josiah asked.

The smile grew wider and colder. “Workin’ on one.”

Josiah narrowed his eyes. “Plannin’ on sharin’ it?” he asked.

“Nope,” Chris replied, rising from the table and moving toward the door. Slower now, Josiah noted, watching him mount the steps and disappear onto the second floor landing.

The ex-preacher sighed and returned to the dishes.

When he had cleaned up everything in sight, he wandered into the living room and returned to his book, listening with one ear to the shower running upstairs.

The phone on the other end rang three times before the stilted emotionless electronic voice came on again. Ezra didn’t know why he should be surprised. It was the fourth time he had called in fifteen minutes. What else could he expect?

He hung up the phone again, leaving no message. He stared at the piece of paper in his hand, crumpling it in frustration. After all, how could he even know the number was still good? His arm was in mid arc to toss it into the kitchen garbage when he stopped himself.

You always know where you can find me, it assured. He had kept it since he was 11 years old. He could hold onto it until he knew for sure. He waited five minutes and tried again.

He was about to hang up when a breathless voice answered on the fourth ring.

“Hello,” said the woman’s voice cheerfully, and even in that one word, Ezra could hear a sweet southern accent that made him feel homesick for the scent of magnolias lingering heavy in the air and Spanish Moss drooping from the limbs of ancient oaks.

He cleared his throat, which was suddenly dry. “Good afternoon. My name is Ezra Standish. I was hoping to speak to John Thorpe.”

“How did you get this number?” the woman asked, her polite curiosity a thin veneer over her suspicion.

“It’s not a sales call,” Ezra said hurriedly. “I knew Mr. Thorpe a rather long time ago.”

“What did you say your name was?” she asked, still wary but less suspicious.

“Standish,” Ezra replied. “Ezra Standish.” He paused, not knowing if it would help his case or not, he added, “Maude’s son.”

There was a brief silence before the voice drawled out, kindly this time. “Just hold on a moment and I’ll fetch him.”

Ezra nearly sagged with relief. He found a chair and sat down. He waited while the seconds stretched out.

He had almost made up his mind that the phone call was a stupid idea and that he should hang up, when a mellow southern baritone voice came on the line.

“Ezra?” the voice asked. “Is it really you?”

He paused. Awkward. Realized he should have hung up when he had the chance. But he sucked up his courage and continued onward. “It is, indeed,” he replied with forced cheerfulness.

There was a soft laugh on the other end. “Well, I’ll be,” the voice said with a genuine warmth that surprised and humbled the jaded undercover agent. “Tell me about yourself, boy,” the voice said suddenly. “Where are you? What are you doing?”

The voice paused as if an idea had come upon it, changed tone. “How are you?” it asked.

Several hundred miles away, Ezra heard the concern in the tone and wondered how it could be that a man he had not seen since he was eleven, with whom he had lived for less than a year, who was no real relation, and who owed him nothing, could have known so quickly the reason for his call. Am I that transparent? he mused. Some undercover agent I am.

He tried to sound nonchalant. Tried to find his smooth banter. But he couldn’t. Not in the face of that voice. “Well,” he hesitated, his throat tightening suddenly. “Not so good, now that you ask,” he replied, wincing at his own tone. You disappear from his life with the woman who ditched him for someone with even more money, and then you call him twenty years later to ask for his help. Ezra, he ought to just hang up on you.

“Hold on,” said the voice.

Here it comes, Ezra thought, waiting for the polite excuse or perhaps the recrimination that would allow John Thorpe to make his escape. Avoid a messy entanglement.

Instead the voice came back on the line. “I just had to shut the door. Get a little privacy.” Across the miles he heard the man settle down into a chair. He spoke again. “What’s wrong Ezra?”

Standish sighed. Hedged. Found himself eleven years old again. He gave in and spilled it all.

Vin nearly keeled over in shock when the door opened underneath his pounding fist.

“Ezra,” he grinned.

Ezra did not grin back. “There is no need to damage my door,” he drawled, returning to the living room.

Vin looked around at the boxes. His face grew dark. “Ya leavin’ Ezra?” he growled.

Ezra sighed. Dropped onto the nearest sofa and covered his eyes. For a short time there, he had felt better. Balanced. Thorpe had made some good arguments on both sides. But even he had said that only Ezra could make the decision.

For a long time after the conversation had ended, he had sat staring at the phone. His problem momentarily forgotten. John Thorpe’s last sentence repeating in his head. Don’t wait another 20 years to call me, Ezra. You can always reach me here. Good news or bad.

Funny, Ezra had promised to call. But already he wondered whether he ever would.

He remembered suddenly that Vin was still standing in his living room, glaring at him. He looked up over the top of his hands and fixed Vin with an impudent stare.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, precisely, Mr. Tanner,” he said, his voice steely. “Have you come to antagonize me?”

Vin’s eyes narrowed. “We’re worried about ya,” he said. “You don’t answer yer door. You don’t answer yer phone.”

“I needed space,” Ezra snapped.

“We gave you space,” Vin returned, his hands on his hips.

“Well maybe I need more space,” the undercover agent nearly growled, green eyes flashing.

“Like the distance from here to Atlanta?” Vin retorted suddenly.

The sentence hung in the air between them a second before Ezra’s face darkened. “Get out,” he hissed.

Vin hesitated. Surprised at the vehemence. Surprised at the dismissal. “I didn’t mean…”

Ezra rose to his feet, fists clenched. “I don’t give a damn what you think you meant. Get out.”

Vin held up his palms. Ezra could see the confusion in his teammate’s face. But he refused to let himself care. He pointed to the door. Seething. Furious.

“Alright,” Vin said calmly, backing up. “I’m going.”

He stopped at the door. “Just promise you’ll talk to us before you make a decision.” The voice was almost plaintive.

“Get out,” Ezra growled again with more force, grabbing the door and yanking it out of Vin’s hand. He pushed the sharpshooter out onto the porch with one hand then slammed the door in his face.

Not even looking back to see if Vin had really gone, Ezra returned to the sofa, breathing hard. When he calmed down enough to think rationally, he almost laughed at the idea that he had thrown the tough-as-nails ex-Ranger right out of his apartment. Almost. He didn’t feel much like laughing. Vin’s words rolled around in his head and made him mad all over again.

Atlanta, he snorted bitterly. Atlanta where his career in the FBI had been about to blow up in his face. He had been pegged to take the fall in a bribery and corruption scandal. He could not prove his innocence. And he had no allies. He had made up his mind that if he were going to go down, he would make it one hell of a fire.

Ezra had begun laying the groundwork for his plan, when Chris Larabee had materialized out of nowhere. Met him over lunch. Told him what he wanted. Made some pie in the sky promise about never leaving his agents vulnerable in the field.

Right, Ezra had thought at the time. He knew better than to trust Larabee. Trusting anyone was folly. The only one you can count on to put you first is yourself. He had learned that from an early age.

Still, there was something about the way that Larabee had put every FBI director right on edge that piqued Ezra’s curiosity. Ezra had watched with something like glee as the hard nosed ATF agent simply walked into the FBI building, told Ezra’s supervisors that he was hiring Standish for the ATF and that they would be leaving the day after tomorrow. They had not said a word. They simply stood there stupidly and blinked while Larabee handed them paperwork.

As Larabee left the office, one of them found his voice. “He’s dirty,” he spat. “And he’ll turn on you.”

The contemptuous glare he got in return made him back up a step. Chris had smiled coldly, as he said, “Then you won’t mind my taking him.”

And just like that, Ezra found himself on a plane to Denver, transit arranged for his belongings. Plucked from the jaws of ignominy and disgrace and deposited in Denver.

Admittedly, at the time, he had not expected Team Seven, whatever the hell that was, to be different from the FBI. He would still be on his own. But he did need a way out from under the blame that was poised to fall on him, like a safe in some old cartoon. And this was an available exit.

He hardly dared admit to himself that he was curious about this Team Leader, who hid his thoughts almost as well as Ezra did and appeared to have no regard whatsoever for appearances. In direct contrast to Ezra’s own upbringing and his undercover work, where appearances were everything.

Ezra had accepted the offer to save his own skin. He had not imagined that he would come to care about his team or about his career. He had not imagined that he would ever turn down offers from other agencies and bureaus, offers with more money and impressive titles. He had slowly come to make himself a promise: I will not work for anyone else in the field of law enforcement.

He grimaced, as the promise sounded in his brain. He leaned his head against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes against his growing headache.

Now it appears that I will not work for anyone, he thought bitterly. Fitting, since I have indeed proven their suspicions right. Run out. Turned on you. There are no third chances.

For the first time in his adult life, he was stuck. Unable to leave. Unable to stay. Unable to face the present. Unable to return to the past or to see the future. He felt like a fish caught on a line. Struggling, twisting in the air. The difference, of course, he realized was that while he and the fish were both suffocating, someone would eventually come free the fish—one way or the other, to swim free or to die. Ezra Standish had to free himself. But he couldn’t tell which way was freedom. And which way was really death.

For the second time in one day Vin was surprised at a friend’s front door. This time it was to see Chris, standing in the doorway, answering his own door. He stood there in black jeans and a black t-shirt. The black flannel shirt Ezra had purchased hanging off his shoulders. He leaned in the doorway and grinned at Vin.

All the black made his face look even paler, the green eyes glowing like odd lanterns out of the thin face.

He looked tired. But not bad tired. Just tired.

He hadn’t realized his thoughts had run away with him until Chris spoke. “You wanna come in,” he asked dryly, “Or should I step out into the light so you can see the bruises better?”

Vin made a face. “You’re not funny, Cowboy,” he said sourly.

Chris grinned. So far as he knew, humor had never been listed as one of his good points. He stepped aside and waved Vin in.

Vin entered reluctantly. Wondering now whether he should have come. Whether he should bother Chris with this. He knew Chris had started digging up what happened in Texas. Did he need to know that Vin had just made things even worse with Ezra?

Typically, Chris read him too easily to let him turn back now. “What’s wrong?” he asked, leading the way into the living room.

Vin saw Josiah stretched out on the couch. He looked from one to the other.

“I came to see Josiah,” he said quickly with a smile. He focused on the profiler. “I came to talk to you about that project I was working on yesterday.”

Josiah frowned. He could see in Vin’s face that there was something he needed to say and wanted deeply to avoid saying it to Chris.

He stood up.

Chris watched the exchange from the corner of his eye, pretending to stare at the TV, pretending not to notice Vin’s discomfiture. Something had just happened. And Vin was lying to keep it from him. Twin flames of anger and frustration began to burn in his stomach. How many more wrong turns could this disaster take?

He watched them walk out of the living room. Heard the front door open. Heard both men go out. Then he turned his gaze back to the TV. His gaze but not his focus. His focus was consumed by figuring out how to ferret out the truth from Vin.

A thread of his encounter with Buck tumbled into his mind. He scowled. In the next moment he pushed himself out of the chair. He doubted seriously that he could throw Vin down even in his best condition. So he did the next best thing.

The front door opening caught both Vin and Josiah off guard. Vin stopped in the middle of a word. But so far as Chris could interpret, the word was Ezra. If he had doubts about what he had learned from the few minutes he had spent standing on the other side of the door, the expression in the Texan’s blue eyes confirmed the worst.

He stopped and leaned in the doorway. “Anyone been to see Ezra?” he asked, his voice giving away nothing.

Vin’s eyes snapped down to his shoes.

The silence continued, while Chris waited for an answer.

“I’ve been there a couple a times since this weekend,” Vin said without looking up.

“And…” Chris prompted, thinking what a clever substitute “this weekend” was for “since you chased him off.”

“He’s okay,” Vin replied. At least that’s what he wanted to say. He had never been much good at lying, and, irritatingly enough, he found it next to impossible to lie to Chris. The few times he had tried, it had done no good anyway. God damn stubborn cowboy saw right through him. He searched for an answer. Something believable. His hesitation gave him away—again.

Chris pursed his lips. He disappeared into the house. Vin and Josiah waited, exchanging uncomfortable looks.

The team leader returned only seconds later, flicked a glance at each of them, then pushed between Vin and Josiah and started down the porch steps onto the driveway.

Both men heard the jingle of the car keys at the same time. They launched themselves off the porch.

“Where are you going?” Josiah demanded.

“Chris you can’t drive, yet!” Vin cried out alarmed.

“It’s only an hour,” Chris returned not looking back. “Hell, I can stay awake that long all at once.” Since he wasn’t taking his pain meds, the driving precautions didn’t apply anyway. Of course, he knew better than to bring that up.

His truck was in the driveway, where he had moved it this morning so Josiah would be able to get the table saw out this afternoon. Apparently whatever project he was working on required some more equipment. He had to admit it had felt strange to be behind the wheel after so many weeks. But they didn’t need to know that either.

They caught up with him by the time he reached the truck. He knew they would.

Josiah clamped a large hand down on his shoulder. “Where are you going?” he asked again, more forcefully.

Vin slipped between Chris and the truck, blocking the door.

Chris sighed in exasperation, but he turned to Vin instead and gave him a pointed look. “Get out of the way, Vin.”

“Wherever you need to go, me an’ Josiah can take you,” Vin said, crossing his arms stubbornly.

Chris managed to keep the triumphant smile off his face. He held the keys out to Vin “All right. Drive me over to Ezra’s.”

Vin’s eyes immediately told him the sharpshooter wanted to take the promise back. The blue-eyed gaze flicked up to Josiah. Chris moved to intercept it.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Vin said.

Chris’s hand closed on the keys again. “I wasn’t asking,” the blond said, his voice hard.

Josiah looked away. Should have known. Once Larabee was on his feet it was going to be his way or no way.

Tanner knew he was trapped. He swore.

Vin yanked the keys out of Chris’s hand and muttered several more swear words directed at Chris. “Get in,” he snapped.

As he moved around the truck, Chris allowed a tiny smile to leak onto his face.

Josiah shook his head as the black truck went out of the driveway, wondering when they’d be back. Or if they’d be back before he had to explain to the next shift that Chris had gone out. Might as well accept it once and for all, he decided, with a shake of his head. I am a terrible babysitter.

They hardly said a word to each other for the entire drive.

Vin’s mouth stayed set in a hard straight line. Mad. Worried. Mad. Mad. Mad. An endless cycle that repeated itself in his head while his expression grew grimmer and grimmer. First of all, he didn’t like being manipulated. And Chris was going to get a piece of his mind, or his fist, one or the other, as soon as he was well enough to take it. Second, he didn’t want Chris to see that Ezra was packing to leave. Because the next question was going to be whether the rest of the team had known that and what the hell were they planning to do about it? Third. Ezra was a grown man. He could be stubborn and stupid and selfish if he wanted to, right? Wrong. Chris would never let him just leave the team. He was going to go ballistic when he saw the boxes. God damn son of a bitch, Larabee. Just had to make me drive you all the way out there. Could have asked first. Don’t need to play no stupid games.

All the while the thoughts rolled around in Vin’s head, Chris stared out the window, the furrow that was slowly deepening between his eyebrows the only clue to the direction of his thoughts. Vin cursed him roundly one more time for good measure as they pulled into the driveway.

“Listen, Chris,” Vin began, shutting off the engine. He wanted to warn him about what he would see. Chris paused, his hand on the door handle. “If he really wants to leave, you can’t stop him.”

Chris raised one eyebrow at the sharpshooter.

Vin smirked, reading the thought. “Punching his lights out ain’t gonna fix the problem.”

A fleeting smile crossed the leader’s face. He pulled open the door and slid out.

He glanced toward the door. “Could be a while,” he told the sharpshooter. “I’ll call when I need a pick up.”

An evil smile lit Vin’s face. “An’ if you ask nicely, I might come get ya.”

Chris glowered at him. He could only handle one problem at a time, and at the moment, Tanner’s hurt pride wasn’t high on his list.

“Good luck,” Vin said, watching Chris walk up the short steps to the front porch. He figured he ought to at least make sure that Chris got in the house before he left.

There was no answer when Chris rang the doorbell. Vin craned his neck to see in the garage window. Ezra’s Jag was there. He nodded at Chris’s inquiring glance.

Chris took a breath, pounded hard on the door. Then said loudly, “Open the damn door Ezra, or I’ll break it in.”

A passing jogger abruptly crossed to the other side of the street. Two children playing in a driveway two houses away stopped their game to stare. A neighbor doing lawn work paused in clipping his hedges and stared at them hesitantly.

Vin waved cheerfully but offered no explanation.

Chris had taken a step back from the door and was scanning it for a good, weak entry point, when the door opened abruptly. Ezra stood there, glowering at him. A phone connected to his ear.

“Yes, Mrs. MacIntosh, I know them… No you don’t need to call the police.” He went on, placating the person on the other end of the phone while his sea-green gaze scanned Chris from head to toe.

He hung up, glaring at Chris. “Apparently,” he drawled, “this was a nice peaceful neighborhood until I moved in. Next time the property values go down, you know who they’ll blame.”

He motioned Chris in. Vin gave Ezra a half-salute as he pulled out of the driveway. He made a face at the Texan as he pulled away. He should have known Vin would bring in the heavy artillery.

“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra drawled, closing the front door. Chris was looking at the boxes. A slow feeling of dread churned through Ezra’s stomach. He fought for a handle on how best to play this. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks,” Chris said. He paused before the box in front of the bookcase, bending to pull out a book, surprising Ezra with the way he moved. He was still stiff evidently, still pale, still thin, but not the gaunt specter Buck had fallen on in the yard and certainly not the battered wreck that Ezra had brought home on the plane. In fact, if Ezra didn’t look too closely or think about it too hard, he could almost imagine that Chris looked almost normal. Almost, he reminded himself as Chris put the book back and stood up slowly.

Ezra brought two cups of coffee into the living room and motioned Chris to take a seat. Chris ignored him and continued making his rounds of the boxes. Ezra sat on the sofa and waited, a carefully-crafted congenial smile on his face.

“You look much better,” he said warmly.

He received a taciturn grunt in reply.

Ezra made small talk, to which Chris made no reply. Typical.

Chris completed his inspection and then cut Ezra off in the middle of a comment about current politics. “Still sitting on the fence, then?” the tall blond asked. At least it sounded like a question. Ezra knew it was not.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you are referring to,” he hedged, trying to sound insulted.

Chris waved a hand at the boxes. “Looks like you haven’t decided whether you’re going or staying.” He gave Ezra a penetrating stare, as he indicated the evidence.

Ezra refused to squirm.

“Well, you understand it is a big decision,” he replied calmly. “One has to carefully weigh one’s options.”

“Bullshit,” Chris said with a smirk.

“Excuse me,” Ezra snapped, indignantly.

“I said bullshit,” Chris repeated firmly. “You can lie to yourself if you want, but don’t bother lying to me.”

Ezra opened his mouth to reply, but Chris cut him off.

“If you want to go, go. If you want to stay, stay. I’ve made my position clear. The team needs you.”

Ezra leaned back into the cushions and stared at Chris from under hooded eyes.

The team leader bent his lean frame into a chair opposite and fixed Ezra with an intense gaze. “Fish or cut bait, Ezra,” he said quietly. “Dragging it out is what’ll kill ya.”

Ezra nearly spat out his coffee. He choked. Coughed. Chris handed him a napkin and regarded him intently over the top of his own coffee cup.

“I beg your pardon,” Ezra managed to cough out, blotting a stain on his polo shirt and glad to have somewhere else to look.

“Make your decision,” Chris replied calmly.

Ezra stared at him, jerked his gaze suddenly into his coffee cup. What was Chris trying to say? What was his agenda? After all they had been through, would Chris really let him walk away that easily? Would the team? Was the door really open? And could he really walk through it?

Chris saw the indecision swim through the undercover agent’s green eyes.

A sad smile flickered and died on the team leader’s lips. “It’s hard to make a decision when you’re trying to decide the wrong question,” he said slowly.

Ezra’s gaze snapped up to Chris’s face. He noticed suddenly how the bruises had faded. How the eyes were again animated by an inscrutable intensity. He remembered how hard it was to outmaneuver Larabee when he was on his game. Remembered how much he had enjoyed trying.

Chris saw the challenge in Standish’s eyes. Barely managed to suppress the automatic smirk that threatened to climb onto his face. He hadn’t come to get into a pissing match.

“Remarkable,” Ezra drawled sarcastically, “how my colleagues have suddenly developed such a deep understanding of my state of mind.”

Chris’s response was not what Ezra expected. “I do understand your state of mind,” he said simply, putting his coffee cup down to look Ezra in the eye. “The question you need to answer isn’t whether you are going to stay with Team Seven or leave it. And it sure as hell isn’t about your career.” He leaned forward. “The question is whether you’re going to let fear run your life.”

Ezra jerked. “This has nothing to do with fear,” he said with an incredulous laugh.

“Yeah it does,” Chris replied calmly. “You pack like a person who’s running away. No reason. No order. You’re afraid.”

Ezra stared at him. Gave no answer. Worked hard to keep his face impassive.

Chris didn’t seem to notice.

He got up again and returned to the boxes. Squatting down beside a stack of framed photos waiting to be wrapped, he searched through them with interest. He pulled out the one of Team Seven on a fishing trip. The same one they all had. The same one Chris kept in his office. Only Ezra had smashed the glass in his.

“This what you’re afraid of?” Chris asked quietly holding up the photo, tiny shards of glass sliding down it onto the carpet.

Ezra didn’t answer. Chris searched the undercover agent’s impassive face.

He looked down at the photo again, passing his fingers over the tiny crumbs of glass to rest on each man in the picture, Ezra last.

He looked back up at his undercover agent and smiled grimly. “Don’t blame you,” he said. “They’re a pretty scary bunch.”

He pulled himself back up to a standing position and carried the picture back to the sofa. He laid it down on the coffee table in front of the chair he had been sitting in and fished around in his pocket for his wallet.

Ezra stared at him curiously, as the blond opened up his wallet, searching for something among the bills and receipts.

When he found it, he threw it down on the table next to the picture of Team Seven. A photograph. Of a smiling woman holding a child. The same woman and child who stood next to Chris in the photo on his office desk. The one that Buck had claimed before they sealed the door shut. It didn’t take much careful observation to see that at some point the picture had been torn into pieces. And at a later time, it had been carefully taped back together.

“That’s what scares me,” Chris said, looking down at the small, ragged wallet photo.

A lump formed suddenly in Ezra’s throat.

“Know what the difference is?” Chris asked, shifting his gaze back to the undercover agent.

Ezra looked up at him. Waiting.

Chris pointed back at the wallet photo. “That really happened.”

Ezra flicked his gaze back down to the table at the two photos. There was a long moment before he could speak. Chris stood and waited. Silent.

When the undercover agent did look up again, Chris saw, to his immense relief, that the stone-faced veneer of imperturbability had cracked. Beneath it, for he first time since he came in the door, he caught a glimpse of Ezra Standish. The real one. The one he had always believed existed. The one he and the rest of the team were slowly coming to know. Now, he realized, he had to tread carefully.

“What did you do?” Ezra asked softly, suddenly.

Chris smiled a sad smile. He sat down slowly in the soft chair. His head tilted to one side and he seemed to look inward and at Ezra at the same time. He was sure that Ezra had heard the story of his descent into alcohol-fueled rage and hell-bent self-destruction from Buck at some point. So what was he really asking?

“Tried not caring,” he said quietly, thoughtfully. “About anything. Or anyone.” He looked back at Ezra and shrugged. “But I didn’t really have it in me.”

Ezra looked down again at his empty coffee mug.

Chris continued, his voice far away. “Then I tried pushing everyone away, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

“Course that didn’t work either,” he said smiling grimly. Mostly ‘cause they wouldn’t go, he thought, Buck’s face rising before him.

He shook his head to clear the memory. This wasn’t about him.

He pinioned Ezra with a serious look. “Then I ran away,” he said simply.

Ezra looked back up at him, an expression of surprise on his face. He knew that Chris had pushed Buck out of his life. But he had never heard this part about running away.

Chris smiled a self-deprecating smile as he guessed at Ezra’s thoughts. Buck would never have phrased it that way, but Chris knew he had run. Rabbitted. Fled. He had run long and hard before he came to his senses and turned around. “I left the DPD. Moved out of the ranch. Hid in a bottle. Picked fights with the biggest bad asses in town. Joined the ATF and alienated every one of my colleagues by being an obnoxious, bad-tempered son of a bitch.” He shrugged, regretfully, but not exactly apologetically. After all, that plan had worked. Sort of. At least for a time.

“I was looking for oblivion,” Chris confessed. He paused before forcing himself to complete the thought. “Of one kind or another.”

Ezra gave Chris a sharp penetrating look before dropping his gaze back to the photos. Oblivion, he thought with an internal shudder. His glance flicked from the photo of the team back to the photo of Sarah and Adam. No matter what had happened to him, he had never sought to end his problems in oblivion. His survival instincts were too well honed for that.

He looked back up at the blond, to find the green eyes still gazing at him, still intense, with some sort of message he was trying to bore through Ezra’s head by the power of thought alone. Ezra almost smiled at the idea. He would have, but there was something more important. Something he suddenly, desperately, wanted to know.

“What changed your mind?” he asked suddenly.

Chris cocked his head. “About running away or about oblivion?”

Ezra suddenly felt as if he had intruded. Felt his face flush slightly, fought to keep the evidence from showing. “Um, both, if you don’t mind,” he said somewhat awkwardly.

A sardonic smile twitched up the team leader’s lips. You opened the door, Larabee, he chided himself silently. Now you gotta face up to it.

Ezra sensed the leader’s sudden reluctance. He started to say something about it not being his business, but Chris stopped him. Calmly, matter of factly.

“I got tired of being scared,” he replied.

Ezra stared at him. Fear was not a word that one normally associated with Chris Larabee, unless it was fear of him. Funny, that in the years he had worked for Larabee, he had never really thought about the tough, stubborn team leader being scared.

Chris shifted under the intensity of the gaze. “I didn’t want the fear making my decisions anymore,” he said awkwardly. “Seemed like a damn stupid way to live out the rest of my life.”

“So you just stopped. Just like that. Fear lost its power over you?” Ezra said narrowing his eyes. His voice suddenly laced with suspicion. The first inkling that perhaps Larabee was playing him.

He was shocked to hear Chris laugh. A hard, brittle, unpleasant laugh.

The gaze he leveled at Ezra burned. Hot. But his tone was icy. “Ezra,” he replied, his voice as hard as his laugh had been. “I’m scared most every day I do this damn job. Scared I’m going to make a decision that gets someone killed—or worse. Scared the bad guys will win. Scared that I’m going to have to put someone else I care about in the ground. And scared that the next time I won’t have the sense to turn around and come back.”

Ezra blanched. So it wasn’t going to get any easier.

But Chris wasn’t finished. “But,” he said quietly, his voice holding a keen edge. “If I spend the rest of my life letting that fear dictate how I do my job, how I live my life, then the bastards have already won.” He spread his palms out. “I’ve only got myself, Ezra. I get the credit. I get the blame. I can fail. I can succeed. But I sure as hell am not going to spend all my time worrying about what might or might not happen. Not when I can act to prevent it.”

He stopped. Short. Suddenly noticing that Ezra had gone pale. Chris felt the flush climbing up his neck. He had said way too much. He had come here to bring Ezra back into the fold, he chided himself, not air his own problems. He reached for the wallet photo.

Ezra’s hand darted out to stop him.

They looked at each other, but somehow Ezra couldn’t find the words for what he wanted to say. It didn’t matter. Words never seemed to matter much to Chris Larabee.

The blond just nodded once at what he had seen in Ezra’s face, then pulled his hand and the photo back. He pulled his cell phone out of another pocket. And told whoever answered to come back and pick him up.

Ezra smiled inwardly. He had thought Vin had set him up, bringing Chris here. But maybe it was Chris who was calling the shots now. He felt his stomach unclench. Seemed like it had been way too long.

He watched Larabee snap his phone shut and return it to his pocket, then carefully return the tattered photo to its rightful place among the bills and receipts. Chris rose and thanked him for the coffee. His tone had lost its intensity. It was neutral. Official. He gave Ezra an appraising look.

“The official inquiry begins on Monday. I will be conducting it in the Team Seven offices. I expect you to be there with the rest of the Team—whatever happens,” he added with a tone of warning. “Before then, I expect to see you at the ranch to discuss your role in extorting information out of Bautiste. Off the record.”

A sarcastic smile appeared on Ezra’s face. He couldn’t help it. “Is that an order, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra asked.

Chris nearly smiled back. “Yes, it is, Agent Standish,” he replied.

“When will you expect my decision?” Ezra asked, some stubborn streak within him unwilling to relinquish the control.

Chris did smile then. That cold, vaguely threatening smile that made people want to hit him. “I think I’ll be able to figure it out, Ezra,” he replied. “You don’t show up, I’ll know you ran.”

He left then. Went out the door to wait for Vin. Left Ezra to assimilate the conversation.

It did not take long for the big black truck to return. Therefore Vin couldn’t have been far away, Ezra noted. There was a brief discussion, more of an argument really, Ezra could tell, although he could not hear the words that were spoken as he watched from behind the living room sheers. It ended with Vin climbing out of the truck and stomping angrily around to the passenger side, hurling what were probably some unusually colorful words at his boss. Chris climbed behind the wheel. Ezra smiled to himself as they drove away.

It was some time later, when he wasn’t thinking about anything but the dinner he was preparing on the stove, when a word popped into his head. Collateral. He puzzled over it. Wondered what it could mean. Then it hit him.

Common sense, and experience told Ezra that no one knowingly, willingly gives a conman something that might become ammunition later. Yet Ezra was willing to bet that few people had ever heard the candid truth about the aftermath of Sarah and Adam Larabee’s death. It was a topic that Larabee guarded intensely, avoided entirely if he could. Anyone with an ounce of sense knew the topic was off limits. Even Buck avoided it. Mentioned it rarely, and only when Chris wasn’t around. Yet Chris had offered it up freely, unasked, unbidden. Admitted to the fear he felt. Why?

The conman in Ezra answered for him. The admission was collateral. Assurance. Chris had given Ezra something to hold over his head, if he chose. Yet at the same time Ezra knew he never would. Did Chris know that? Was that his whole point? That he trusted Ezra to make the right decision?

For a moment, his anger returned. What right did Chris have to determine what was the “right” decision?

Then suddenly, there it was: the third option. One he had never considered. One that ran contrary to everything his mother and his own experience had taught him. An idea totally alien to his entire philosophy of living so far. And yet it was so simple.

He could give in. He could simply obey the order.

He stood totally still for a long time, wooden spoon dangling above the saucepan. And while his dinner burned, he began to laugh. A long, hard laugh. At his own expense.