When the Dust Clears
Main character: Ezra
Previously published in: Let's Ride! 12 (Neon Rainbow Press, 2007)
Something was wrong.
Eric Stanley, a.k.a. Ezra Standish, smiled blandly at the muscle who turned to give him a suspicious look, and made a show of glancing at his watch. The meet was supposed to be routine, just another of the several he'd attended those last few days, not even important enough to require backup. It was part of what he did, smoothing his way past intermediaries to get to the man at the top, in this case one Ricardo Benete, a very covert arsonist and bomber supplier. This was supposed to be one of the last stops on the way up, a discussion of financial details. Ezra had had no reason to think this one wouldn't be a cakewalk like all the rest.
That was before his connection had taken a call and disappeared nearly fifteen minutes ago.
Of course, he'd been asked politely to wait, but the request had steel in it. Wait, sure; he had nothing else to do, right? Just sweat and determinedly ignore the smell of a meet gone bad. No problem.
He was too much a professional to sweat visibly, however, and so Ezra quelled the unease twisting his stomach and glanced at his watch again, then addressed the muscle with thin courtesy. "Would you please tell Mr. Minite I couldn't wait any longer? Perhaps he can contact me when he has the time to talk."
"Mr. Minite said to wait," the man, a foot taller and probably twice Ezra's weight, said impassively.
"I have. Now, I'm leaving." If you pretended you were in charge, people assumed you were. Ezra didn't hesitate to lift his chin in the air and turn his back on the goon, walking away at the fastest leisurely pace he could manage while listening closely for movement behind him.
It didn't take long. "Mr. Stanley." The muscle had moved with amazing agility, reaching for his shoulder even as Ezra started to turn. "I have to insist"
A door opened in the back of the empty bar, outlining three silhouettes. Ezra and the muscle both stopped to look at the new arrivals, Ezra's disquiet rising another notch, and then came the words he'd been both waiting for and dreading.
"Stop him! He's a Fed!"
A Fed. They knew. Which meant someone had told them. And Ezra's heart lurched into his feet with a pain that had nothing to do with being in yet another tight spot.
But first he had to get out of that tight spot. True, he'd talked his way out of other times he'd been made, but not with several people running toward him and the muscleman close enough to repel with his breath. No one would listen now to what he said without shooting first. There was really only one approach for a situation like this.
Ezra darted to one side, out from under the descending hand, and took off for the door as fast as he could get around the scattered empty tables.
"Stop him!" another voice called behind him, and there was a crash as Hercules stumbled over some chairs.
Another few feet
The sound of shots were loud in the enclosed room, and Ezra instinctively ducked as wood splintered next to him. A second bullet clanged against something metal and ricocheted, plucking at his sleeve.
And then Ezra was out the door.
Where he lurched to a stop. The street in front of the bar was nearly deserted, with little middle-of-the-night traffic, and no pedestrians. Certainly not much cover there. To either side were other storefronts: a Laundromat, a Chinese carry-out. Neither was open. Which left
Seconds later, the bar door burst open and several men ran out onto the sidewalk, craning to look in both directions. A few words and they split up, two going to the left, two to the right, including Muscles and Alex Minite, the man Ezra had come to meet. He took a stab at it and guessed their meeting was over.
It was only a matter of time before they found him right above their heads, though. Ezra began to climb the fire escape he was crouched on, ascending the crumbling five-story building.
The metal shook with every step, rusty bolts rattling loosely, the whole structure clanging against the side of the building. It didn't take long to draw attention. A few yells sounded below, and soon both search parties were returning to the bar front. A glance down as he reached the fourth floor, and Ezra could see someone already jumping for the fire escape ladder he himself had climbed. He wouldn't have much time. Foxes were sly, but in a fox hunt they were still prey.
And yet again his past had come in handy.
It had taken most of the rest of the night to lose both his visible pursuers and to make sure no invisible ones remained, but Ezra had a lot of cards up his sleeve and he used every one of them. Who knew regular betrayal could come in handy so much?
Day had broken since, finding Ezra sitting in a Starbucks, hunched in a back booth over his umpteenth cup of coffee. He'd watched every customer come and go, and few gave him even a passing glance. No, he hadn't been followed.
But that was the least of his worries now.
Ezra rubbed his eyes tiredly. His arm hurt the bullet had grazed more than just his sleeve, it turned out his body ached from all the exercise and bruising of the night, and his head felt full of rocks. But he had to think now, because he had some decisions to make. Like, what now?
He'd gone over and over the past few days with meticulous care. There had been no slip-ups, no clues that might have revealed who he really was. Ezra hadn't even been into the office since his first meet with Benete's men, just in case. There were other ways they could have found out he was ATF, but the one that made the most sense, that he had the most experience with, was a leak. His brotherhood of the badge never had been very brotherly.
But there was no possibility a member of his team had betrayed him. Ezra still didn't know them that well, only a part of the group less than three months, but he knew that much. You couldn't con a con man, and Ezra was certain Chris Larabee's team was as straight as they came.
He'd found that refreshing at first, after all the lies and backstabbing and dirt of the FBI. That, along with the team's apparent willingness to make him one of their own, had slowly slipped in under the door he thought he'd slammed shut. He'd found himself beginning to care again, not just about his work, but about himself, and others. It'd felt good. No, more than that. It felt like he'd finally found his place.
But if there wasn't a leak in Team Seven, there was somewhere else in the ATF, and Ezra had been made.
No, not just made, but spectacularly outed. The deal was blown, maybe even the whole case a month of work down the drain. And who would Larabee blame when he found out what happened? Certainly not some faceless leak. There were only so many times a person could cry wolf without it turning around to bite him, even if he'd seen the wolf lurking each time. Nobody would believe Ezra, the new man on the team, still on probation, and with a blemished record.
Well. Ezra set down his empty cup. Apparently the decisions hadn't been that hard after all.
He opened the package of paper he'd bought from an all-night drugstore earlier, pulled out several sheets, and began to write. And if his eyes grew a little bright as he did, no one was there to see it, were they?
Over an hour later, Ezra folded the four handwritten sheets, and neatly wrote a name on the front. He climbed wearily to his feet, leaving a generous tip on the table, along with the rest of the ream of paper, and left the Starbucks.
It was only a few minutes' walk to the imposing federal building. There was actually a Starbucks right across the street from it, too, but they knew him there, and other members of the team often stopped there in the morning. Too much risk; he had to do this anonymously, or he wouldn't be able to do it at all.
Ezra was careful to keep his injured arm turned away from the guard at the front desk, even as he smiled painfully at the man. "Billy, would you see Mr. Larabee gets this, please?" He held out the folded papers.
"Sure, Mr. Standish. But are you okay, sir?"
He forced his smile a little wider. "Peachy."
The guard looked doubtful, but he didn't push it. "I'll take it up to him myself, sir."
"Thank you." He nodded, then turned and left with firm steps that wilted as soon as he was out of sight of the glass front door. The deed was done; he should have been glad. Instead, all he felt was hollow.
Ezra steeled his jaw. What other choice had he had? Public humiliation yet again? The piercing look of suspicion in his colleagues' eyes? Or, even worse, bringing down the few good people with him? No, he'd gone that route already, and he couldn't bear going through it with this group. Enough already. At least he could quit with dignity before he was fired.
He was just exhausted, Ezra told himself. A shower, some minor first aid, and sleep, in that order, and it would all look better. He could finally move to a city because he liked it, instead of because he'd been transferred there, find something to do on his terms instead of always on others'. Acting, gambling, grifting: there were opportunities out there for a man of his skills and talents. Maude would approve, at least. Ezra stepped to the curb and hailed a cab with determined bravado.
It didn't even last halfway home.
Who was he kidding? It was stupid, weak, and disgraceful, but that didn't change the fact he was watching his dreams crash in flames, probably for the last time.
And the one thing Ezra Standish had never been able to teach himself, in all his life, was how not to let it hurt.
For a man who appreciated the finer things in life, Ezra had accumulated few of them. There was an extensive wine collection, much of it still in boxes, a closet full of designer clothes, and his car. The rest fit in a pitifully small pile of boxes, the majority of which were still untouched from the trip to Atlanta. Maybe some part of him had known this move wouldn't be permanent, either.
Ezra shook his head, unwilling to think about it or anything else just then, and headed straight for the shower.
He nearly fell asleep under the hot water, head jerking up just as his knees began to fold. Wouldn't that be the crowning glory of the day, concussing himself on the tile walls of the shower? Truly he'd be the laughingstock of Huh. There was no group left for which to be the designated punching boy now, was there? Maybe unemployment had its advantages.
The crease on his arm stung from the water, sluggishly bleeding once more, and Ezra examined it disinterestedly. It probably should have had stitches, but too late for that now. A little antibiotic gel and some gauze would take care of it. There was also a bruise darkening over his eye, probably what had caught Billy's attention downtown, and several black-and-blue marks and scrapes on his body from his clumsy subterfuge that night, but he'd live.
The water finally started to cool, and Ezra stepped out of the shower with dragging steps. Forget the arm; all he wanted now was to go to bed. Who cared if he got some blood on the silk sheets, anyway? Tying his robe on, he stumbled out to his bed.
The doorbell rang.
Ezra started. Surely they hadn't found out where he lived. He'd looked around carefully when he'd reached the condo, but there had been no sign of surveillance or anyone who looked remotely like Benete's men. But if they knew who he was Ezra silently pulled his backup weapon from the nightstand and crept downstairs with it. The doorbell rang again, twice, even as he hurried to the living room window and took a quick peek outside.
Chris Larabee stood on his porch, hands on his hips, lips set and eyes snapping.
Ezra's arms sank to his side, his weapon loose in his grasp. How could that be? Even if Larabee had seen fit to come out to see him in person, he shouldn't have been able to make it so fast. By the time the papers were delivered, Chris got to reading them, then went down to the car and crossed town in rush hour traffic, no less Ezra had expected to be long gone to the world. It was almost as if Larabee had already been waiting for word of him. But no, that was unlikely. He probably just hadn't wanted to miss an opportunity for a good chewing out, or maybe wanted some small detail Ezra had left out of the report.
He shook his head; that wasn't fair. Chris was tough, but he wasn't made of stone. Ezra had quickly seen the man cared about the five members of his team, and in some ways he'd taken Ezra under that same wing, too. It would be just like him to want to accept a resignation in person instead of through messenger.
Ezra sighed. So be it. He'd get the formalities over with, then he'd go upstairs and sleep for as long as possible and just forget. He set his gun down on the sofa and went to open the door.
"Mr. Larabee," he greeted his boss politely.
"I want an explanation, Standish," Chris growled without preamble, and strode inside, brushing Ezra aside as if there had been no choice of invitation.
It jarred his arm, but he smoothed his face before he turned, murmuring a pro forma, "By all means, enter," to the air at large. Ezra pulled his mouth into a neutral smile. "What is it you require an explanation for? I thought I'd been amply clear in my report."
Chris wheeled on him, expression taut with anger. "Not this part." He held up a single sheet of paper, wrinkled from his tight grip.
Ezra didn't need to see it to know what it was. He stifled a sigh. "That, Mr. Larabee, is my resignation."
Chris' eyes could have bored holes through steel. "I know what it is. What I want to know is why, not to mention why you've been on the run for almost ten hours and never called any of us for help. We're a team, Ezra you know what that is?"
"I've heard rumors," he said quietly.
That seemed to take his boss aback, and Chris was not an easy man to surprise. His eyes narrowed as if he were seeing Ezra for the first time since he'd arrived, then, unexpectedly, the grim anger faded from his eyes, replaced by a look Ezra almost thought might be concern. "Are you all right?" he asked in softer tones.
Kindness would just make this harder. Ezra stiffened his spine. "I'm quite weary, so if you wouldn't mind postponing this lecture until a later time"
"You're bleeding." Chris nodded at his arm.
Surprised, Ezra glanced down. The blood had stained through the white robe in two spots. "Yes, well, that often happens when people are shooting at you. It's nothing to"
But again he was interrupted by Chris pulling out his cell phone and punching a button. He turned half away from Ezra, toward the living room, and his gaze took the room in at a glance as he waited. A moment later he said tersely, "Tell Nathan I want him down here at Ezra's." A short pause, then a slightly less gruff, "Yeah, he's fine."
"I assure you, that's not necessary," Ezra said, heat rising to his face. Why did this have to get so complicated? Couldn't Chris just accept his resignation and forget about him?
Larabee put up a hand to halt any further protest as he folded the phone away, but he didn't turn back to Ezra. Instead, he nodded his chin at the living room. "Whole house look like this?" he asked.
"Like what?" Ezra asked automatically, glancing at the room self-consciously. The sofa and coffee table were expensive, the bar at one end of the room well-stocked. Boxes were neatly stacked against the wall between them. The room was neat and clean; what was Chris seeing?
But Larabee didn't answer, just shook his head, then met Ezra's gaze again. "Sit down before you fall down. I still want an explanation for this."
He was exhausted and in pain, and the order made him bristle. "Might I remind you, Mr. Larabee, you are in my home and I am no longer in your employ," Ezra said coolly.
Chris glared at him just as icily for a moment, then softened again. "Ezra please," he said in a tone that bordered on gentle.
Thrown by both that voice, and the sudden changes of mood, Ezra slowly crossed to the sofa and sat down on its edge.
Chris watched him the whole way, then came over to sit on the fragile designer coffee table across from him. An eyebrow rose silently at the sight of Ezra's back-up piece on the sofa, but he didn't comment on it, just looked Ezra not unkindly in the eye. "Tell me what happened, from the beginning."
- "The report" Ezra wearily began.
"I know what the report says. I want to hear it from you."
He sighed, but one more look from those intent green eyes and he began to talk, starting from his arrival at the bar, through the phone call, being made, escaping and evading. Chris only interrupted with occasional questions, gaze never moving from Ezra's face. They'd just reached the coffee shop when the doorbell rang again.
Chris silently got up and answered it, then returned with Nathan behind him. "Bullet creased his arm. I think that's the worst of it."
Besides feeling like he was 200 years old, and thorough confusion at the repeated turn of events. Ezra didn't even protest when Nathan peeled his robe down without preamble to examine his injured arm.
"Doesn't look too bad. This happen when they made you?" That, at least, was directed to Ezra.
Jackson shook his head. "Too long ago to stitch 'fraid you're gonna have a scar there, Ezra. 'Least it stopped bleeding on its own. Shower got it started again, huh?"
Ezra nodded heavily.
"He'll probably be tired for a few days, but he shouldn't've lost enough blood to be dangerous." This was directed at Chris. "Long as he drinks extra liquids for a while, he'll be fine. I'll just put some antibiotic cream on it and wrap it."
"What a novel idea," Ezra drawled. What did they care about how long it would take him to recover, anyway? It wouldn't be their problem anymore.
Lord, he felt husked out, body and soul, and there was still the other shoe to drop.
Nathan did his work under Chris' silent supervision while Ezra blinked sleepily and tried to stay awake. He'd just resigned, Chris Larabee was in his home, and he was being treated for a bullet wound; sleep should have been the last thing on his mind, but his body seemed to have other ideas. Probably as anxious to postpone the inevitable as his mind was.
His arm actually felt better as Nathan slid the sleeve of the robe back up onto his shoulder. Some anesthetic in the ointment, no doubt. Wouldn't want to face the lions or one very forbidding lion, anyway without being in the best of health. The thought made Ezra unaccountably grin. His amusement faded as Jackson poked painfully at the bruise on his forehead.
"You hurt anywhere else I should know about?"
What a loaded question that was. But Ezra at least knew the answer he was supposed to give to this one. "Only a few bruises." It came out as a whisper.
Nathan nodded and stood, surprising Ezra by giving his shoulder a squeeze before he stepped away. Everything seemed to be a surprise since Larabee had first showed up.
A conversation was whispered just out of his hearing, then Nathan disappeared into the kitchen. Chris took his place again on the coffee table.
"So how do you think they made you?"
Ah, here it came. Ezra's awareness sharpened again. "I know how to do my work, Mr. Larabee."
"Yeah, you do. So, how do you think they made you?"
Ezra paused, met those green eyes squarely, fatigue making him bold. "It wouldn't be the first time I've found myself in such a position."
"You're talking about a leak."
"Maybe someone just recognized you."
He huffed a laugh. "I protect my identity with greater skill than that, Mr. Larabee. Besides which, there was no moment of recognition, merely a phone call."
Chris chewed on that a moment. "You think someone was aiming for you."
"That, also, would not be the first time."
"One of us?" The question was deceptively soft.
Ezra was taken aback. Did they believe that of him? "No." He wanted to say more, should say more, but found himself out of words.
Chris' expression didn't change. "If this wasn't your fault, and you don't think any of us gave you up, why the resignation?"
"The case has been compromised."
"Still wasn't your fault."
"You have only my word for that."
"I ever give you the impression that wasn't enough?"
The question unbalanced him. He was too tired; he couldn't see where this was going, and that could be fatal. "Mr. Larabee"
"It's Chris, Ezra. Any of us ever give you the impression your word wasn't enough for them?"
He could be stubborn, too. "Not while I held up my end, no."
"What didn't you do last night that you shouldn't've, Ezra, besides not calling in first chance you had that you were in trouble?"
Since when had he needed to do something wrong to get into trouble? Usually the mere fact of his failure was enough to damn him. Ezra brushed his fingers through his damp hair, agitated. Where was this going? Larabee was never this loquacious, but he seemed determined to make some sort of point. Ezra could usually see two moves ahead in any conversation, but this one defied all his attempts to understand.
The silence stretched too long, Chris waiting for something Ezra couldn't give him, while he avoided his team leader's gaze.
Larabee finally leaned back, his grim expression becoming thoughtful.
"You want to know how much the team thought this was your fault? I got the call about shots fired at one-thirty. By two-thirty, everyone was in the office, trying to find you, all of them off the clock. JD and Buck started visiting hospitals. Vin staked out Benete's place, and Josiah and Nathan tried to put together what happened and liaisoned with the DPD. They think it's a leak, too, and they're closing in on it. We tend to take it personal when someone messes with one of our own. While you were out there playing James Bond, and thinking you were out in the cold alone, we were hoping you wouldn't turn up in a ditch someplace."
His jaw didn't drop in disbelief, but it might have sagged. One of our own? "Chris"
"I'm cutting you some slack this time because you're new to the team, and you were hurt and probably not thinking too straight. And I know the FBI didn't exactly make it easy to be a team-player. But you're part of a team now, Ezra, and if you want to stay, you'll have to act like it."
Stay? "I've already resigned," Ezra protested stupidly.
Those emerald eyes never let up. "You want out?"
He would have dissembled if he'd been less tired, but exhaustion had shorted out his self-censoring. "No," Ezra answered.
"Good. Then we'll just pretend this didn't happen." Chris crumpled the paper in his hands into a ball. "The others don't even know about it."
Ezra's mind spun. Just like that, he was back? "The case"
"You let us worry about the case. You look like you're about to pass out. Get some rest. We'll talk about it tomorrow."
Tomorrow. It was just starting to sink in, like rain on parched land, setting his downtrodden spirit tentatively afloat. He had a place to be again. No, he didn't wholly trust it, but neither was he so resigned to his fate yet that he wouldn't grab for a rope that was being lowered down to him, whether that made him a fool or a dreamer. But who would have thought obligation could sound so good?
Eyes prickling, Ezra slowly nodded.
Chris stood, still unreadable even to Ezra's practiced eye.
"I don't know what you're used to, but I don't expect every assignment to be perfect, or any of my men to be. Sometimes cases get blown it happens. All I expect is for you to do your best, and that you come to me if something goes bad. Can you handle that?"
Ezra nodded dumbly.
Chris smiled, a rare and only marginally reassuring sight. "Fine. I'll see you tomorrow morning. I'm glad you're okay, Ezra." And he got another clap on the shoulder.
It should have unmoored his world, all this trust and camaraderie, certainly not what he was used to. Instead, Ezra felt suddenly anchored against the gale that had become his life, the agitation of the last twelve hours starting to settle in him, the despair trickling away as if it had never existed. It was a strange feeling, this contentment, one he wasn't sure what to do with besides hang on to it with both hands.
Nathan reappeared from wherever he'd discreetly retreated and gave Ezra one last assessing glance. "You better head on up to bed now. You need any help?"
Another mute shake of the head. His tongue was as tangled as his thoughts.
Nathan's mouth twisted wryly. "Would you say it if you did?" He didn't wait for an answer, shaking his head. "Never mind. You just better call if you need anything, or I got some needles I need some practice with, got it?"
Ezra glowered at him, or at least tried to, but that only seemed to amuse the EMT. He went out the door smiling.
Chris started to follow him, then paused. "Oh, Ezra?"
His head snapped up. Was this the punchline?
"Start unpacking." Another wolfish smile and the door closed behind them.
Ezra sat for a long minute on the sofa, trying to assimilate what had just happened there. It wasn't working, though, his mind too foggy to be able to sort out anything. But as he finally pulled himself to his feet and trudged on auto-pilot back toward his bedroom, two facts did seem certain.
One, he was still a member of Team Seven, expected to be back in the office the next morning. Ezra had no doubt Chris Larabee himself would show up again on his doorstep to drag him in if he failed to appear.
And, two, he was wanted there.
How all that had happened still baffled him, but there would be time enough to sort it out later. For now, it was enough.
Actually, it was more than Ezra had ever had before.
He was already dozing as he climbed into bed, as drained as a marathon runner who had burst through the finish line and was finally allowed to rest. There was a lot to think about, but Ezra turned off his sluggishly over-active mind, content for the moment that he had hope again.
Sleep had rarely felt as sweet.
The room was dark when Ezra finally drifted back to consciousness, and he lay for several long minutes enjoying the half-asleep comfort. A glance at the clock with slitted eyes revealed it was only just after five in the morning, but he felt rested, refreshed. Perhaps he would shock his colleagues by beating them in that morning.
Ezra turned lazily onto his side, then hissed as his arm throbbed in complaint. That woke him completely. Denver, the ATF, Team Seven snapped back into memory, as they still did since his recent move. But something was missing, the feeling that usually descended on him as he awoke, like a waiting hangover.
Despair of seeing the inevitable suspicion in the eyes of his new teammates, the first he'd actually wanted to stay with. Dread of the misstep that would be the last nail in the coffin of his career. The dejection of knowing it couldn't last, that he had to keep his distance or the eventual separation would just hurt worse. Like some child with his nose pressed longingly against a toy store window, tantalized by what he saw but knowing it wasn't for him. And now the door had been opened for him and he was invited in.
Maybe Maybe. That was as far as he was willing to let himself go just then.
But even the cautious retreat of despair still felt marvelous.
Ezra washed and shaved, dressing carefully in deference to all the aches and pains that had manifested while he slept. He'd be moving gingerly for a few days, but he'd had worse before. Much worse.
He gave the image in the mirror a wan grin, then turned to go down.
And stopped dead at the bottom of the stairs at the sight of Vin Tanner stretched out on his living room sofa, fast asleep.
Ezra quickly flipped back through the morning before. Vin hadn't been there, had he? No, only Chris and Nathan, unless his head had been working even more poorly than Ezra had thought. So ?
He shook his head. Well, the mystery would solve itself when Tanner woke up, and there was no harm done if the sniper wanted to, er, crash in Ezra's living room, was there? Ezra trusted the man in his home, and Vin had even taken his boots off before putting his feet up on the sofa. It was just odd. No one had ever slept over at his home before, not even Maude, who far preferred a suite at the nearest luxury hotel.
Ezra discarded the idea of waking the man, and padded instead more softly into his kitchen to have breakfast.
By his count, he hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours, and hunger was making itself known now that Ezra was paying attention. Forgoing the usual cereal, he opted instead for an all-out Southern breakfast: fried eggs and ham, grits, bacon, and thawed biscuits from the freezer. Gourmet coffee rounded out the meal.
Even the dead would have smelled that feast cooking, and Vin looked slightly livelier as he appeared in the kitchen door. Giving Ezra a rumpled grin, he slid onto a stool at the island counter. Ezra had been prepared for as much, and soon set a full plate in front of his teammate with an equally laconic smile of greeting. Ezra filled a plate for himself, too, and settled across the counter from Vin to dig in.
The silence of eating was broken only by an occasional moan of sheer pleasure from Tanner. Ezra couldn't help grinning at the display of approval. Maude thought cooking below her and didn't even know how to boil an egg, but her sister had believed every Southerner should know how to cook traditional cuisine, and set to work teaching her nephew every time he visited. Those skills had proved nearly as useful, if not more so, than any Maude had ever taught him.
Vin finally pushed the plate away with a satisfied sigh. "Haven't had a good plate of grits in longer 'n I can count."
"I sympathize. I believe I offended the waitress at the last eating establishment where I ordered it, when I requested cinnamon and sugar on top. It was only when she delivered some distant relative of hash browns that I could see why." Ezra gave a mock shudder.
Vin grinned at him. "Any other talents you been hiding?"
"I am passable at poker," Ezra said mildly.
Vin's grin widened. "'Passable,' huh? Don't think I'll be playing you any time soon."
"Your loss." Ezra finally smiled back. He was used to playing at banter undercover, but the real thing still felt strange. Nice. Might as well take the plunge if he'd gotten this far. "Mr. Tanner, I don't mean to pry, but would you mind answering just one question for me?"
"Sure." Vin shrugged easily.
"What are you doing here?"
His teammate laughed. "Chris didn't tell you? Should 'a figured. He wanted someone here in case Benete figured out where t' find you, or you needed some kind 'a help. J'siah spent the day, an' I came over for the night shift."
Ezra felt his cheeks warm and turned away. "That truly was not necessary. I assure you I'm quite capable of looking after myself."
"Yeah, we kind 'a figured that after the night 'fore last. But Chris was worried about you. Shoot, Ezra, I figure we all were after you disappeared like that. An' it wasn't a problem. Your couch's softer 'n my bed, an' J'siah said he got a lot of reading done."
"How did you get in?" Ezra asked in growing bafflement. He'd given his key to no one, not even Maude, and was fairly sure that even in his muddled state he'd locked the door the day before.
"Don't know 'bout that one. J'siah was already here when I got here last night. But you ever known something like a lock to stop Chris when he's worried 'bout one of us?"
"No," Ezra said mutedly. Worry one of us. There was that language again, assuming he was one of the team. With such motive, he couldn't even seem to mind that his colleagues had free access to his home, an idea that would have unnerved him only a few months before.
Vin gave him a searching look. "Hope we weren't poachin' on your territory."
"Poaching?" Ezra's expression cleared. "I didn't want to offer the impression you weren't welcome, Mr. Tanner, it's just " Just what? This wasn't about them not trusting him, Ezra believed that now, but about the far more incredible fact they were concerned about him. Which touched him deeply, and he didn't want to seem ungracious, but the thought of waking to a member of the team sleeping in his living room every single time he got in a little over his head was nevertheless daunting.
"It's hard to switch from bein' a lone wolf, to runnin' with a pack?" Vin prompted.
Ezra studied the sniper as if he were sizing up an opponent, from the relaxed way Vin sat, to the open look in the blue eyes. Ezra had heard enough of Tanner's background to know he'd also had a lot of past to overcome, not a man used to letting his guard down, and that he'd been the last to join the team before Ezra. Yet there he was in Ezra's kitchen, as relaxed as if he were with an old friend. A shadow always remained in his eyes even at his most easygoing that said he hadn't forgotten his roots, but Ezra understood that too well. Despite the lack of learning and Ezra eyed the faded jeans and T-shirt combination taste, they weren't such opposites underneath. And from the sympathy in Vin's expression, he knew it, too.
Such understanding was disconcerting, but not as much as it would have once been. And if Vin could get past his reservations, Ezra could, too. He nodded his head once soberly.
"I couldn't have said it better myself, Mr. Tanner."
"Vin," the man corrected, just like Chris had, and stood with a leisurely stretch. "'S a good thing, havin' people you can trust at your back. I got used to it faster than I'd'a thought you will, too."
"Assuming I don't get myself fired before then," Ezra said wryly.
The blue eyes became serious. "If you wanna stay, pard, you're in now. Chris doesn't come after just anybody." And he gave Ezra a flicker of a smile before stepping around him and out of the kitchen. "You mind if I wash up in the bathroom?"
"Be my guest," Ezra said absently. He was in. Chris had said as much the same the morning before, if his groggy memory could be trusted. No mention of the past that had followed Ezra around like a dog on a leash, no expectation of the constant proving himself he'd had to do in his previous transfers. Belonging had always been a constant fight one he usually lost not a state of being. Could it possibly be that easy?
"Hey, Ezra, ain't you got any normal towels beside these little napkins?"
Ezra gave an involuntary laugh at the plaintive question from down the hall. "Coming, Mr. Tanner."
Maybe it was too easy; time would tell. But in the meantime, it would definitely be interesting.
If dawn only broke on their ride into the city, Vin didn't comment on it, and Ezra studiously ignored his companion, watching the city go by and trying to qualm the seismic activity inside him.
As it turned out, Vin had been there not only as guard, but also as chauffeur. Ezra's protests were dispatched with a cheerful, "Shut up an' get in, Ezra," and so began his first and, hopefully, last ride in a dilapidated Jeep with Vin Tanner at the wheel.
Another sharp turn had him gritting his teeth as he held on. "You do realize the speed limits are enforced twenty-four hours a day?" Ezra asked tightly.
"You tellin' me you never go fast in that fancy heap of yours?"
"That 'fancy heap,'" Ezra bristled, "is a masterpiece of German engineering that drives fast even when I'm obeying the law, which is most of the time."
"I'd like to take her out for a spin sometime."
The phrase, "When hell freezes over," was on the tip of his tongue, when some other, usually silent instinct prevailed. The casual tone of the statement, the way Tanner wasn't looking at him; Ezra realized he wasn't the only one who was still learning how this team thing worked. "Any time you're ready, Mr. Tanner."
"Vin. You sure?" The glance was part caution, still offering him an out, and part pure delight at the possibility. Ezra found himself smiling even as he also buried a wince.
The delight grew to outright joy. "Cool."
Well. That degree of happiness had certainly been worth the price of his comfort, and maybe a dent in the Porsche. Ezra went back to watching the streets go by, the corner of his mouth turned up.
They reached the office too soon, but at least the place was still empty. Ezra hurried over to his desk and slid into his chair gratefully, trying not to look as nervous as he felt. Funny, a roomful of thugs with guns barely ruffled him, but here he was, quaking at the thought of facing his colleagues. Had Chris entertained second thoughts since their talk the day before? Nathan spread tales of his vulnerability? Any of the others resented his disappearing in the middle of the night? Surely they couldn't all feel like the affable Tanner how would they take his being there?
Did he really have a place like Vin and Chris had claimed?
Vin was already laboriously typing something across from him. Chewing the inside of his cheek raw, Ezra followed his teammate's example and started in on the accumulated paperwork.
Josiah was first to arrive nearly an hour later, and Ezra gave him a tentative smile. Here it began.
The oldest member of the team immediately returned it with far more warmth and certainty. "Vin, Ezra. How're you boys doing this morning?"
Ezra dared another step. "Splendid, Mr. Sanchez. And, might I say, I'm sorry I wasn't able to be a better host yesterday. I don't usually have visitors come and go while I'm indisposed."
His teasing wasn't lost on Josiah, if the twinkle in the man's eye was any indication. "If any of those boxes of yours have books in 'em, I'll stay for longer next time." He nodded.
Ezra startled himself by laughing. Well, that hadn't been too hard. But then, Josiah got along with just about everybody.
It was hard to miss Buck and JD's entrance next, audible as soon as the elevator doors opened. Whatever they were arguing about Ezra was pretty sure he heard the name "Marlene" somewhere in there it stopped as soon as they caught sight of him, and the two men broke into face-splitting grins.
"Hey, Ezra, I'm glad you're okay. How's your arm?"
That was JD, who twenty-four hours before had been searching hospitals for him. "Very well, thank you," Ezra answered humbly, flexing the limb in question for good measure. It made him grimace before he'd even realized it, but the two seemed to find that amusing.
"Got yourself another scar to show the ladies, huh? Got a few of those, myself girls can't resist 'em. There was one, Savannah, I think her name was or was it Georgia? who was so turned on by the one I got on my"
Ezra cleared his throat just as JD groaned. "Fascinating story, Mr. Wilmington. Now, perhaps I could get back to work?"
Buck took no offense, as always, just gave him a cheerful salute, and turned to his own desk. JD gave Ezra a commiserating roll of the eyes, and followed suit. Drawing him into the joke amazing. No condemnation then from those quarters, although Buck and JD both forgave easily. The real tests were still coming.
Nathan walked in a few minutes later, eyebrows going up in surprise at the sight of Ezra already at his desk, and he headed immediately for Standish. Ezra braced himself.
The dark eyes narrowed as he made himself look up to meet them, and Ezra's gut twinged. Then Jackson leaned in, speaking quietly. "How's the arm doing?"
Ezra blinked. "Tender but mending."
"Any bleeding today?"
"You been drinking like I said?"
"Coffee and juice for breakfast, as Mr. Tanner is my witness."
Jackson frowned at him. "Coffee's not gonna help much. Keep up the juice and water for at least the rest of the week."
If he hadn't still been getting over his surprise, Ezra would have chafed at the order. Instead he answered automatically, "Understood, Mr. Jackson."
"Let me know if you need something for the pain or if it gets red or swollen, okay?"
The EMT's voice had softened, and Ezra responded in kind to the unspoken concern. "I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," Nathan said sternly, then gave him an unexpected ghost of a smile before turning away to his own desk.
Well, well, would wonders never cease? Considering that the day before Ezra hadn't expected to set foot in that office again, maybe not. It was hard to wrap his mind around.
And then Chris Larabee finally walked in. He nodded to his team without a word, gaze pausing only briefly on Ezra, then disappeared into his office. Nathan and Josiah trailed him in a minute later.
Ezra typed without a clue as to what he was writing.
The closed office door opened and Chris called, "Ezra, get in here."
The quaking turned into full-scale upheavals. This was it, where Chris told him he'd done some checking around and maybe it really would be better if Ezra transferred to some other office. That was how it was always done, couched in terms of his wishes and best interests, while he nodded politely and they both pretended he believed it.
Knowing what to expect and being ready for it wasn't the same thing, however. Ezra stood straight and lifted his chin, resisting the urge to rub his aching arm, and walked with firm steps across the room, dying a little more inside.
Nathan was perched on the sofa in Chris' office, Josiah standing by the window. They both gave him a compassionate glance as he walked inside and shut the door. Well, at least it wasn't pity. That they felt for him warmed him briefly. Then he focused on Chris, sitting impassively behind his desk.
"We found the leak," Chris said. "Secretary in Orin's office turns out she's been selling information for months. We've already traced a couple 'a blown operations to her. This time we were too fast for her only a few people had seen your reports and, thanks to you, we knew it was a set-up, so, after that, it wasn't hard to trace. Josiah and Nathan got the warrant yesterday afternoon."
Ezra stared at him, not sure he hadn't missed something. "Then it wasn't personal?"
"Nope. Just money."
He swallowed, feeling thick. "Mere coincidence?"
"She never even met you before," Nathan said from behind him.
Like someone watching his back. But Ezra didn't take his eyes off Chris. "So officially I've been cleared of any impropriety in this case."
Chris was staring back just as hard. "You were never under any suspicion to be cleared from, Ezra," he said levelly. "I told you that yesterday. You do your part, and you'll have a place here."
He hadn't changed his mind, nor had Ezra misunderstood the day before. He had a place with them. Ezra took a deep breath, the unease inside him sifting away to make room. Did Chris have any idea how priceless a thing that was?
A touch of humor appeared in the hard green eyes. "I think we understand each other. Now, go earn your pay."
Ezra's mouth curled up. "Of course, Mr. Larabee." Maybe he did.
"Ezra" Chris sighed. "Never mind."
Ezra turned and walked out, casting a smile of gratitude at Josiah and Nathan on the way and getting unfaltering nods in return. JD grinned at him on his way back to his desk, and Buck threw him a wink. Vin just looked up, eyes alight with satisfaction, as Ezra sank down into his seat, still feeling stunned.
"Packs look after their own," Vin said quietly.
"So I'm beginning to learn," he murmured back.
Ezra glanced over the occupants of the desks around him, each concerned about him, ready to back him up at a moment's notice, accepting his place there, and felt unlooked-for and long-unfelt hope stir back to life in him. He was actually starting to look forward to what the days ahead would bring.
And for the first time in years, Ezra went to work with joy.