A Beautiful Mess

by JIN

Main Characters: Ezra, Chris, Vin

Disclaimers: Mag7 belongs to others.

Comments: I wanted an excuse to use the title of my new favorite song, and I needed some practice with Ezra angst. Of course, because it's me, Chris and Vin had to suffer along with him.

He could only save one.

Ezra was keenly aware of the perspiration on his forehead coalescing into a fat drop of sweat that rolled in a most undignified manner down his cheek, across his jaw, and over his chin before settling in the hollow of his neck.

"Your choice, Steadman. One dies here, the other comes with us," Flynn Dawson, a two-bit arms dealer demanded.

"We should take them both," Ezra replied, praying the criminal wouldn't hear the desperation in his voice. If his cover was blown, they'd all three die. "Added insurance."

"We got us enough damn trouble without draggin' two feds along. What I should do is take 'em both out right now."

"No," Ezra quickly argued. "You were right the first time. If by chance we are followed, we would do well to have a bargaining chip."

His friends' eyes were on him, the heat from their gazes blistered his skin, but to look at either man would be a deadly mistake. Dawson would quickly deduce that he knew the federal agents and it would all be over.

It was supposed to be a simple rendezvous, a quick meeting, in and out. Chris and Vin had hitched along almost as an afterthought, a "just in case". Dawson was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but he was unpredictable - as evidenced by his last minute decision to move the meet elsewhere.

And Vin had a hunch. Or maybe he was just restless, just bored; after all, it had been awhile since they'd seen any action. Just that week, Nathan had commented that no one had been bruised, bloodied, or broken in months. Buck nearly came out of his seat at that, accusing the medic of jinxing their close-knit team.

Of course, Chris came along just because it was Vin's idea - and Vin's back that might need watching. There was no doubt in Ezra's mind that his own welfare was of little concern to their leader. But perhaps he was being unfair. Trust was slow in coming between him and their esteemed team leader, begrudgingly earned on both sides. But mutual respect and a smattering of affection had gradually taken root - Chris had even acknowledged once that he'd never worked with a better undercover agent.

They were counting on his skills now to get them out of this; to come up with the right combination of creative lying, judicious bargaining, and impeccable timing. But as was often the case, he feared it would really just amount to luck in the end.

Three gunmen held steady at Dawson's back, but it didn't matter. One man or twenty, it only took one bullet at such close range. One bullet, one teammate dead, and the other left with maybe half a chance to escape, once they reached their destination. Or maybe the others would find them by then. Maybe. A long shot, but a chance anyway, for one man. But not the other. The other would bleed out alone in this god-forsaken hell-hole, if he didn't die instantly.

One bullet. Close-range. His choice.

"Pick a man."

Dawson's annoying high-pitched tone echoed against the cement block walls of the dingy, deserted basement. A gust of wind skittered trash in the alley outside, and Ezra was distracted for a moment. Was the window open? Could someone hear?

His gaze sliced through gray light and dusty cobwebs towards the lone window that sat high up on the outside wall. A shift in the shadows, a trickle of air indicated a fraction of open space, but the chances were slim that anyone would pass by. Even slimmer that the need for assistance would be recognized and acted on. They were on their own, and it was up to him to draw out this game.

Another bead of sweat clung stubbornly to his brow. He said nothing.

"Your hesitation is beginning to worry me, Steadman. Is there some reason for this delay?"

"I'm a dealer, Dawson, not a killer. I prefer not to dirty my hands with such matters."

"I'm not asking you to pull the trigger. But your reluctance is of concern. Perhaps their untimely arrival was not so unexpected, after all."

It was a test, of course. If he was truly who he claimed, why would he care about the well-being of the intruders? The choice would be inconsequential, a matter of indifference. Pick a hand, any hand . . .

"I assure you-" Ezra began.

But he was interrupted by Chris. "To hell with this. If you're so eager to put a bullet in one of us, Dawson, it had damn well better be me, because I promise you more trouble than you can handle if you take me with you."

Chris had spoken; the offer, the demand, was his leader's way of telling him what action he was expected to take.

Dawson's fat round belly shook with laughter. "Ah, such a noble sacrifice. What do you think, Steadman, shall we take him up on it?"

Ezra tried to swallow, but his tongue had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. He could hardly squeeze the words past the obstacle in his throat, "I think . . . I think . . ."


His heart was pounding, the blood throbbing painfully in his ears. He blinked away the moisture in his eyes. Chris had made his feelings clear. But it was Vin's voice that pulsed in his head. "Chris changed my whole life, Ezra," Vin had told him once in a rare moment of intimacy. "I can't even think about what it would be like - what I would be like - without him."

That Vin should feel such loyalty and gratitude for Chris was not surprising. But there was more to it, Ezra had quickly realized. He had heard so much more in his friend's voice: devotion, adoration, and yes, love. Something he suspected Vin had sorely lacked in his tortured past.

Chris was his superior, his commanding officer, and his orders were to be followed without question. Yet, wasn't it also his responsibility to protect his leader? Wasn't it the worker bee's duty to die for its queen? Or was he thinking of ants? No matter, the philosophy held. Besides, where would any of them be without Chris Larabee? The man was quite simply irreplaceable.

As was Vin, in his own way. Tanner was the champion of the underprivileged and the oppressed. A rare man who honestly didn't care about another's color or dress or background. A true friend. And if Chris was the soul of their unique band of brothers, was Vin not the heart?

He was getting nowhere fast.

What would the others do in his place? Who would they choose? Time held still, suspended in the thick, humid air as one by one, his teammates' faces flashed through his mind. Buck was simple: his fondness for Vin could never override his allegiance to Chris. Old friendships die hard, and in the end, Buck was the only one Chris could possibly forgive for choosing his life over Vin's.

And although JD greatly respected Vin, clearly no one - not even Buck - held a candle to Chris. Blinded by hero-worship, JD would see only one choice in this matter.

Nathan would surely crack under the pressure and that was why he never went under cover. They'd all be dead by now if Jackson were standing in his shoes. But if by some remote chance he managed to hold it together, what would Nathan do? Ezra suspected the man would choose Vin to be the hostage out of some absurd notion that Chris was stronger and might have a better chance of surviving the impact of lead from a distance of several feet. Was he right? Was it true? Vin did seem to catch every wayward virus that germinated within sneezing distance. But his body bore the scars of one who had suffered many indignities - and survived to tell the tale. Vin was stronger than he looked. But not strong enough - no man of flesh and blood and bone was strong enough.

And finally, Josiah might try some sort of psychological bullshit to talk his way out of this. But if forced to choose, well, Sanchez had a soft spot for Vin and rightfully so. Vin had stuck by him when the big man was accused of murder, after all. He owed him.

Two and two - an even split. Tied. A draw. Dead even. Deadlock. Pick a hand . . .

He finally took a chance and turned his face towards his two friends. But they were looking at each other, communicating in a way that was unique to them. Normally, Ezra could only imagine what they were saying, but this time there was no guesswork involved. Each wanted the other to live. An intense, heartfelt emotion filled their eyes as they bid their farewells, and it was terrible and beautiful, like an exquisite, tragic opera.

Vin would be heartbroken beyond repair, should Chris die in this dark, damp hell. It was all there in the slump of shoulders and the fine tremor of hands that always, always held steady. In Vin's quick, labored breaths Ezra heard his plea for mercy for Chris as clearly as if the man had turned to him and shouted it at the top of his lungs.

"Time's up, Steadman. Gentlemen, take 'em both out. And make sure you board up the door behind us. With any luck, it'll be weeks before the stench leads anyone t' look here."

Chris had done him a huge favor, taking him in like he had. But Josiah wasn't the only one who owed Vin. The last time, the only time, Vin had asked something of him, he'd laughed in his friend's face. He'd regretted his actions and swore to himself that if Vin ever came to him again, he'd not turn him away. Vin was asking now . . .

Ezra's vision seemed to tunnel down as the scene before him unfolded in slow motion. Dawson raised his hand to signal the men behind him. Two arms raised, fingers tightening on the triggers of their semi-automatic pistols, gazes fixed on the two unfortunate prisoners.

Out of time. Pick a man . . .

"No!" Ezra shouted. It was someone else's hand, surely, that raised a trembling finger and pointed towards his teammate, but he could not deny that it was his voice that spoke. "We'll take him."

Dawson's cruel laughter drowned out the bitter denial of the chosen man, but not the sudden, swift bark of the gun or the sickening slap of bone against cement as the body of the other man hit the floor.

The flash of light and the swirling of smoke blinded Ezra. Or were his eyes closed? If so, he wanted to keep it that way, to remain blissfully unaware of the results of his decision. The coward in him wanted to walk out without seeing, without acknowledging what he'd done. But he couldn't - he owed the man he'd just sentenced to death that much. Sweat and tears stung his eyes as he turned his gaze to the downed man. His teammate, his friend, gasped softly, then closed his eyes and lay still in the expanding pool of blood beneath him. The other man fell to his knees and moaned, "No, please, no," before he was jerked to his feet and shoved towards the basement stairs.

The furious burn of bile rose up in Ezra's throat, and his heart bashed against his chest - a wild, foreign thing, no longer his own. Surely he'd relinquished that part of him, along with his soul. Yet he managed to school his features into a perfect mask of indifference. What did it say about him that he was so good at it? That he could watch a friend bleed to death in front of his very eyes but not waver from the charade?

It was all in the details. It was what set apart a good con man from a great one. The pretender, so deep under cover that even the coppery smell of death would not deter him from the cause. Breathe slow and even, unclench the palms, swallow the bile. Keep walking and don't look over, don't look back, don't look down at the slow stream of red liquid seeping through the cracks and fissures of the old cement floor.

Dawson didn't know and he wouldn't know. The motion was in play; no choice but to go along and pray the others found them in time, that the sacrifice would not be in vain. Two might be saved, though 'saved' was truly a relative term, a far too generous hope.

It was too late for him; he'd determined that long ago, though he'd almost been persuaded of late to believe he might yet be redeemed. Not so, not now. His friend's death had obliterated any such promise.

His legs were mired in quicksand as he followed the other men towards the exit, but he hid it well. No one suspected that his body moved of its own accord. Not even when shots rang out and he instinctively rolled to the floor did he appear anything but deliberate; grace under pressure. As always.

The sound of Buck's voice should have brought an overwhelming feeling of relief, but it didn't. It was too late. From his position behind a crate, Ezra watched with numb detachment as the other members of his team easily overtook the startled gunmen.

He watched, too, as Nathan rushed to the fallen man and pushed his bare hands against the open wound. He wanted to remind the medic to don gloves, fragments of Jackson's own lectures about blood-borne pathogens flitting through his mind, but he couldn't speak. Someone handed Nathan a cloth or a rag or maybe it was a quickly discarded shirt, and he insistently pressed it to the bloody hole. But it didn't matter. The black hands were already stained red, and it would take hours to get it all out from under his fingernails.

Ezra knew his own nails were perfectly manicured but he glanced at them anyway, turning his palms up and over again, waiting for the tell-tale stains to appear. He bore his friend's blood on his hands more surely than Nathan did, though the others might not know that yet. And his hands could never be washed clean.

The sounds of footsteps, shouting, and sirens spiraled around him, and somewhere in the midst of the chaos, someone spoke his name. He thought so, anyway, but he couldn't find the breath to respond. Pushing himself to his feet, his focus narrowed once again. His victim's best friend knelt next to the bloody body, mouthing something to Nathan. Ezra couldn't make out the words, but he didn't need to - the desperation in the man's eyes and the moisture on his face were more than enough.

He was going to be sick, the sensation propelling his useless limbs up the stairs and out the doorway. He threw up in the alley; the vile vomit sizzling on the still-blistering asphalt. Or maybe that was his imagination. His life seemed to have taken on a surreal quality, like a dream masquerading as reality. Only it was just the opposite, of course.

At least he managed to avoid marring his perfectly polished shoes. He'd paid a small fortune for the shine just that morning. Maxwell Steadman was a man of wealth and appearances were everything. It didn't matter if he was a shaking, quivering mess on the inside - beauty was only skin deep, after all. And perspiration aside, he'd remained immaculately dressed with not a speck of dirt or splatter of blood to be seen. A job well done.

"Hey, man! You alright?"

It was a foreign voice, accompanied by a strange hand on his shoulder, and he threw off the offending appendage and moved abruptly towards his car. Another voice called after him, JD's perhaps, but the words were lost when he closed the door and turned the key in the ignition. For a brief moment, he wondered how the others had known to come after them, but he quickly decided the question didn't warrant his attention. Just as it didn't really matter how Chris and Vin were discovered and captured. They just were. As much as he detested the overused cliché, the situation truly was what it was.

There would be questions by others, however. Investigations, inquiries, internal affairs . . . "Tell us, Agent Standish, how did you choose? On what criteria did you base your decision? How did you allow the situation to spiral so wildly out of control in the first place?"

How indeed? But there would be time to consider all that, he supposed, though his answers would not change . . . "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

No one followed him home. And hours later, as the condensation from a largely untouched beer ruined his end table, no one had yet come knocking. He'd expected to spend the hours reliving the horrors of the evening, but only one moment replayed itself in his mind: the steely determination in Chris's eyes and the fine tremor in Vin's long fingers as they faced each other. Did they know, he wondered, how fortunate they were? To feel so much for a friend? To willingly offer up one's life to save that friend? Who, he questioned, would offer the same for him?

Yes, they all put their lives on the line for each other. They'd all made a mad dash, taken an insane risk in the heat of a moment to protect a teammate's back. But this wasn't the same. There was time, this time, to think and to know what was at stake. To choose. And Chris and Vin had clearly chosen the other to live in their place. With no hesitation and no regret. Ezra saw it again and again and again in their eyes.

It finally came, that knock on the door, but he ignored it. At least, until he heard the voice behind it call out, "Ezra? I'm not going away until you let me in."

It couldn't be, he thought, not him. He could turn the others away, offer up a weak excuse, a rude refusal, or deny their existence altogether. But not this man.

The shield automatically went up as he approached the door. He'd take what was coming to him, the full force of the other man's anger and grief, without allowing his own feelings to intrude on the moment. This wasn't about him, after all. Well, aside from the fact that it was his fault.

He took a breath as he opened the door and gathered enough courage to meet the other man's eyes. Weariness colored the steady gaze, but anything more was unreadable.

As was his way, Chris said nothing as he moved through the room and casually dropped to the couch. It wasn't until Ezra sat down across from him that he finally spoke, "Vin's gonna make it."

There was a ghost of a smile at that, a lightening in the hazel eyes, so it must be true. But how?

Ezra tried to voice his question, but all that came out was a stutter. "But . . . but . . . he . . . I . . . I . . ."

"They got to him in time. Bullet missed his vital organs. Nathan said . . . ah, hell, I don't remember what Nathan said. Don't matter. All that matters is, he's out of surgery and he's gonna be alright."

Ezra leaned back and closed his eyes, sure now that he must be dreaming. It wasn't possible.

"Ezra? Did you hear me?"

He kept his eyes closed as he reached for the drink at his side and took a long, deep swallow. The lukewarm liquid burned like fire in his dry throat, and he fought the urge to vomit once again.

"The others understand. Sort of," Chris went on in an uncharacteristically chatty sort of way. "Truth is, they all said they would have picked me. To take the bullet, that is."

Ezra peeled his eyes open at that statement, and was surprised to see the soft grin on Chris's face.

"But . . . what?" he stammered.

"You know how they are. Unlike you, JD, Nathan, and Josiah actually follow my orders. And Buck, well, he said he knew that losing Vin would be - would be hard on me." His voice broke for the first time, but he regained his composure within seconds and continued. "I know why you did it, though, and I understand. Vin's a hard man to say 'no' to."

Chris got to his feet then and started towards the hallway, but he tossed over his shoulder, "I'm gonna sack out in your spare room if you don't mind. You should get some rest, too. The hospital says we can see Vin at nine, so you got a few hours."

It wasn't a request that Ezra accompany him to the hospital, but an order - and there'd be no discussion about this one.

The hours passed slowly, and he didn't sleep, although he did stretch out on his couch. Chris's words repeated themselves in his head, sticking and holding on one phrase in particular, "Vin's a hard man to say 'no' to".

Vin hadn't said a word throughout the entire ordeal. But Ezra had heard him loud and clear - as had Chris, obviously. And as the morning sun finally gleamed through the open shades of his large, plate glass window, it dawned on him how phenomenal that truly was. For the first time, he'd not only seen, but understood the immensely personal communication between his two friends. They'd let him in. Ezra felt like he'd somehow been granted access to an exclusive club.

Had that only made it worse? Had knowing how the two men felt about each other only added to the burden of the decision he was forced to make? Probably. Definitely. But maybe his inclusion into their private world meant something more. Maybe Chris hadn't only come to watch Vin's back. And maybe Vin wasn't just restless. Maybe they cared about more than each other - maybe they cared about him.

Well, well. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind for later study as he listened to the soft creak of the bedroom door. Only an hour early, and Ezra allowed himself a small smile. He figured Chris would be banging down the doors to the ICU long before this.

No banging was necessary, however. Between Ezra's charm and Chris's intimidation, the nurse allowed the two men into the glass partitioned cubicle at precisely 8:05. Vin was awake and more alert than he had any right to be, or than Ezra hoped he'd be. He wasn't nearly ready to face his injured friend, but this time, the decision was out of his hands.

And once again, he was speechless - a condition that was becoming an alarming habit. There just seemed to be an awful lot of noise coming from the various machines hooked up to the wounded man, and far too much white to see or think clearly: white light, white walls, white sheets, white skin.

To his dismay, Vin looked at him first and mouthed two words, "Thank you."

Well, what he could do but nod in acknowledgement? It was hardly the time to point out that the man's current predicament was linked directly to his failure to find a better solution - or to make a different choice.

The moment was over, anyway. Vin had already turned his attention to Chris, who leaned forward and grasped Vin's forearm. Something was said in the silent space between them, but Ezra couldn't decipher it.

Ah, so it was limited membership then. That was fine. He'd been admitted when it counted most, and he had no doubt he would be again, should the situation call for it.

His legs nearly gave out as he turned and left the room, and he had to lean against the wall outside for several long moments to catch his breath. But he couldn't stop the chaotic thoughts from wreaking havoc in his head. Vin had thanked him, thanked him, for giving that goon permission to shoot him. Chris not only acted like he'd done nothing wrong, he'd insisted that the other members of the team didn't hold him responsible, either. It just didn't make sense.

He sighed and turned back to view his friends once more. It appeared that Vin had fallen asleep, his lashes dark lines against ashen skin. Chris, unshaven and disheveled in yesterday's clothing, had leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes as well, though his hand continued to rest lightly on Vin's arm. Both men looked considerably worse for the wear, yet there was a peace within them, a certainty that Ezra was sure he'd never have again - if he ever had it all.

And for the first time in his life, it occurred to him that appearances were nothing. He was impeccably dressed, perfectly coiffed, and unerringly neat, while his two friends were the exact opposite.

But who was really the mess?

He rubbed a tired hand across his face, and when he looked up again, Chris was staring at him through the glass. Larabee cocked his head and met his gaze. The door to that exclusive club opened again, and Ezra heard his boss's unspoken thoughts clearly: go home, get some rest, it's alright.

It wasn't alright. But maybe it would be. Maybe with time and rest - and a bit of internal housekeeping - he could make some order out of the chaos and find some beauty in the mess. Maybe there was hope for him yet.

The End