Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
The Network

by Rebel Yell


Painted Wings Give Way

"What?!" Chris Larabee managed to stay in his seat, but barely. He'd been expecting an uncomfortable meeting in Travis' office, but this was a bit much.

"He's fired. As in he is no longer employed by this agency, or any government agency as a matter of fact. Badge and gun are due tonight." The suit replied, having been pre-warned that Larabee would not take this well.

"You can't fire him. Judge, when you asked me to head up this team I asked for one thing. That I choose my men. He's one of my men, damn it."

"I'm sorry, Chris. Its not my decision this time." Orrin Travis watched the clenching fists, knowing that if he hadn't been the man's boss, he'd have been introduced to those fists.

"That man has pulled too much shit in too short a period of time, Agent Larabee. I won't even mention his less than stellar reputation and the fact that he's a dirty cop. Now, I expect that badge and gun, today, Agent. Judge." The suit, a man sent from Washington to take care of situations like this, left the office. Leaving Travis with a very irate team leader in front of him.

"Chris, I'm working on it. I had no warning of this."

"All because he 'broke cover unnecessarily'? Hell, the suspects didn't even notice! We got the bust, got the guns and ammo, DA says the cases are rock solid." Chris stood now, letting some his frustration out in his pacing. “For God's sake, his mother was in a car wreck. She's comatose. He called to check on her, that's it. To tell Josiah, and ask him to keep track of what was going on. What the hell do they expect from a man?"

"Chris, its not that simple. Ezra broke regulations. Again. This is the third time in as many cases."

"In as many months." Chris shot back. “ It's been six months since any of us had appreciable time off. Regs get broke in the field, especially when the suits are pushin' for results in narrow time frames. So, now I get to fire a man for doing his damn job?!"

"Chris. I know you're upset-"

"Hell yeah, I'm pissed."

"Chris. I'll see what I can do. But, for now, it has to be done. I'm sorry."

"No. I'm sorry. Sorry I have to go downstairs and fire the best damn undercover agent in the country because he had the gall to be human and to care about something other than some damn case!"

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Orrin Travis was pissed himself. Team 7 was his team, everyone knew it. And he liked the men on his team, even the aggravating southerner. Chris sighed, and ran a hand across his face.

"Yeah. Go down and tell the guys. I sure as hell don't want to do it."

"If you're serious…"

"Nah. I should do it. Damn. I hate office politics. Any ideas on how to do it, Judge?"

"Same way you always do things, Chris. Straight. Be honest with them."

"Yeah. Sir." Chris nodded to his boss as he left the office, and headed for the elevator. Damn it. This would not be pretty. JD would probably be near tears. Josiah would look for somebody to break in half. Buck, Buck would have his hands full with JD, and if Chris was honest with himself, Buck'd watch him too. Vin would swear a blue streak, and probably entertain the notion of quitting himself. Nathan would accept it, and be the calm anchor of the team. Ezra. How the hell do you tell a man his whole life is gone. Being an agent, especially an undercover and one as good as Standish, didn't allow for much life outside work. Ezra'd be all calm on the outside, and disappear to lick his wounds. Probably head to France to see his mother. Chris had planned to ask the Judge for FMLA time for the southerner this morning. Chris Larabee barely tolerated Maude Standish-yada-yada-yada, whatever the hell name she had now. But she was still Ezra's mother, and what affected one of his men, affected Chris. His musings were stopped as the elevator doors opened onto the twelfth floor, and he stepped into the 'bull pen'. His team, perceptive to the end, noticed right away something was wrong. Considering where their boss had been, there was bad news on the way.

“Chris?" Buck asked, taking in the appearance of his oldest friend. Chris had that look of 'I just got pissed off, but that's giving way to depression'. No, this was definitely bad news.

"Conference room. Now." Normally those words would have had at least urgency to them, as they were called onto a case. There were a lot of times when there was anger in those words, after somebody had pulled something stupid. Now, there was a quiet resignation, and the members of Team 7 were wary. Filing in, and taking their usual seats, Chris watched his men. Josiah and Nathan came inside, discussing some new issue brought up in National Geographic. Buck and JD brought the remnants of their breakfasts, their usual banter present, but quieter than usual. Vin and Ezra followed, both silent and watching Chris. Once his six friends were seated, Chris began.

"Normally, I wouldn't do this with all of you here. It'd be between me and Ezra. But, it affects all of us, and I figure you have the right to be here."

"This about this last case, Cowboy?"

"Yeah, Vin. I guess I should just say it, ain't usually one to beat around the bush. Agent Ezra Standish, pending official termination, you've been suspended without pay. I, uh, need your badge and firearm, Ez." The southerner, for his part, remained silent while the others exploded.


“Why the hell they do that?"

“What's goin' on?"

"Can they do that?"

"He's fired?!"

"Guys. I'm sorry, Ez, ain't my call this time. Big guys in Washington made up their minds."

"Perfectly all right, Mr. Larabee. I understand." Ezra replied, his poker face firmly planted on his visage, his badge and gun gently slid towards his now former boss.

"The Judge is lookin' into it, Ez. Give it some time."

"Yes well, forgive me if I choose not to halt my respiratory pattern during the wait."

"You, uh, well…"

"I'll be leaving the building momentarily Mr. Larabee. I need to retrieve a few things from my desk."

"Hey, Ez?" Vin called.

"yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"Go check on yer Ma. It'll be fixed by the time you get back."

"I sincerely doubt so, Mr. Tanner. A trip to France does seem to be in order, though." The undercover left the conference room, and Chris felt all eyes turn to him.

"What'd they decide he did wrong now?"

"Called Josiah to check on Maude. Broke cover unnecessarily."

"Hell, Spencer never even noticed. So what's the real reason?" Buck asked.

"That's all the guy said. Too many broken regs in his file. Hell, Buck, his file is so full of reprimands it's a damned miracle he lasted this long."

"You agree with this?" JD asked, surprise coloring his tone. The glare he received from Chris answered his question.

"JD, Ezra is not quite twenty-eight years old. He has more reprimands that most agents do at retirement. He drives a car he couldn't afford on his salary. He dresses better and more expensively than most of the crooks we catch. He's damned aggravating, and enjoys pissing off authority. And the Authority decided he was done."

"So just like that, he's done. No hearing nothing?"

"Oh, no, there'll be a hearing. Next month."

"Cowboy, the Fletcher case opens in a week." Vin reminded them. Ezra had gotten the file a few days ago, and was already setting up his cover.

"I know. Probably one of us'll go in, or we'll haveta borrow from another team."

"So, he's really fired, huh?" Buck mused, watching the southerner through the blinds. He was at his computer, probably dumping his files. On the always meticulous desk were his keys, a small cactus and Erte print, and the newest addition a small framed picture of the team's first fishing trip of the spring last month.

"Yeah. Least til Travis can pull some strings." Chris replied.

"May not work this time, Chris." Nathan spoke up. " The Judge is well-respected, but he's pulled a lot of strings in the year we've been together. How many favors do you think he's owed still? And Ezra hasn't endeared himself to the higher ups."

"Gentlemen." Ezra stood at the door, his briefcase in hand. He looked as impeccable as always, his face unreadable and his posture giving nothing away. " I take my leave. My agency cell phone is on my desk, Mr. Larabee. I made arrangements to fly to France later this evening. So I must pack in all haste. Goodbye, gentlemen. Good luck." Ezra turned around to leave before throwing over his shoulder,

"And thank you." and their seventh was gone, around the corner to the elevators. The room was silent for a moment as the reality of it sunk in.

"I wonder if we'll ever see him again?" JD pondered out loud, his voice giving away his proximity to tears.

"We will, kid. He'll be back in this office right quick." Buck reassured. They all wanted to believe it, but weren't sure they could.

Chapter 1

Seven, Again

Two weeks passed, and each day the absence of the seventh man made the team edgier. AD Travis, while honestly attempting to finagle a way to put Standish back on Team 7, was hitting walls of red tape. More importantly, some of the higher ups disliked Standish by reputation. And the former undercover did not help any by being in another hemisphere. The Fletcher case was getting to the point where they needed to introduce their agent to the organization, and now, there was no agent to introduce. All six of the remaining team members had been dismissed. Chris wasn't patient or indirect enough to do serious undercover work. Buck, well, Buck just didn't have the right kind of charm. Unless they needed him to charm the ladies, that is. Josiah stood out in all crowds, merely because of his size. Nathan was dismissed for the simple reason that Dennis Fletcher was a rather obvious bigot. JD, well he hadn't really been considered. The boy just couldn't lie worth a damn. Vin, usually their second man under, if such was necessary, was known to one of Fletcher's immediate underlings. Angel Rodriguez Delgado still lived in Purgatorio, and was in fact a high school classmate of Vin Tanner. Long hair and the ever present Texas drawl made the young agent stand out, and would get him recognized immediately. For this reason, Orin Travis was about to do the one thing that would probably undermine his relationship with Team 7 completely. The debacle with Standish was not his call, and they understood. This, this was put entirely on him, but it was unfortunately necessary.

"Well, Agent Phillips, good luck."

"I'm very good at what I do, sir. I'm sure the case will go fine."

"I'm sure it will. Its your teammates you'll need luck to survive with." Agent Dan Phillips was a recent recruit. Formerly of the Providence PD, he'd been an undercover for the FBI for only a year. Having gone from team to team in that time, he was honestly hoping he'd be able to settle in here. He'd been told only that he was replacing an agent who'd been fired, and that he was joining a highly successful, if eccentric team. At thirty-three years old, with a wife and two kids who'd recently completed their second move within a year, he wanted a place to settle down. This new team, was supposed to be his chance. From the AD's tone of voice, however, Dan wasn't so sure.

“They're a tight knit group, Agent Phillips. Just, don't expect a warm welcome right away. Their previous undercover left under…difficult circumstances."

"That's Standish, right? The one who was rot?" Phillips asked offhandedly.

"Agent Phillips, if you want to survive your time here, I suggest you simply stay away from the topic of Ezra Standish. And I am serious when I tell you that I have never believed Standish was anything but a damn good agent." Orrin Travis leveled a glare at the new man, to make sure he was understood. The doors opened, and the two men stepped into the playground of the formerly magnificent seven. Now, the imbalanced six. Dan Phillips was a bit surprised at the office area. Cubicles, the usual fare in these offices, were nowhere to be seen. Six desks lined the right hand wall, set up in pods of two. One wall had windows that faced the mountains, while the other had the blind-covered windows of the conference room and the SAC's office. A bathroom was tucked into a corner, and in the center of the room was a pad of printers, fax machines, copiers and file cabinets. The five men currently at their desks looked up at the AD. Phillips looked over each one, trying to get a feel for his new teammates. The closest desk held a tall black man, his desk covered in neat piles of files and medical journals. The small bookcase beside the black man held more texts, the title of which were unreadable. Across from the black man stood a man Dan could only describe as an oak tree made human. Not as tall as the first agent, this one was probably about fifty years old, his close cropped hair graying, but still exuded the aura of someone who could break a man in half easily. His desk was covered in National Geographic magazines, as well as other books and magazines which Dan didn't check out too carefully. The two desks had a neat, orderly feel to the pod, which was a direct contrast to the middle pod. Kids' Meal toys decorated both desks, and other knick- knacks and toys joined the clutter. One desk also sported various computer parts, while the other looked like someone had picked up a Hawaiian souvenir shop and dropped it there. Except most of the items were emblazoned with Jimmy Buffet, Parrothead, or the like. The two agents at those desks looked more like tourists than they did federal agents. The computer expert looked about twenty years old, his sweatshirt proudly bearing the name Boston College. The second agent, nearly as tall as the black agent, sported a mustache and a white tee shirt with a brightly colored parrot on the front. Both wore jeans, from what Dan could tell. The next pod had one empty desk, its computer screen black. That would obviously be his new second home. The desk closest to the window, close enough in fact to make a quick and easy exit to the fire escape, had a small cactus visible, a spur resting at the base. Pictures lined the wall, prints of western scenery, and one framed Erte print rested on the desk as well. The long-haired man who owned this desk wore jeans, a tee-shirt and cowboy boots, which currently rested on his desk corner. Well, eccentric was certainly a good way to describe this team.

“Gentlemen." The Judge nodded to his agents.

"Chris is in his office, Judge." Vin spoke up. Travis led the way into one of the closed doors on the opposite wall, and Phillips followed. The door shut behind them, and a blond-haired man dressed in black looked up from his desk. Dan quickly took in the office as AD Travis and the SAC greeted each other. The desk held three pictures. One was of a beautiful chestnut-haired woman, probably the SAC's wife. Another was of a boy with light brown hair, probably about six year old. Phillips assumed this was the man's son. The other frame held a group photo of seven men, the man in front of him, the five from the outer office, and one other man who Dan assumed was Standish. Similar photos of the group graced the walls, as well as commendations. One commendation in particular caught his eye, as it carried a different name than the others. All but this one were for Team 7 as a whole or Christopher Larabee. The plaque this time bore the name Ezra Standish. A commendation for a fired agent, rumored to be on the take was not a common thing to find on an SAC's wall. Before he could read what the commendation was for, he was being introduced to Larabee.

"Chris, I want you to meet Agent Dan Phillips. Agent Phillips, Senior Agent in Charge for Team 7, Chris Larabee."

“Dan." Chris shook hands with the agent, silently wondering why the hell he was being introduced to him.

"Agent Larabee." Dan replied.

"Chris, Agent Phillips is the new undercover for your team." the Judge finished quickly, and wasn't disappointed.

"What the hell?! I have an undercover, damn it."

"Not for the Fletcher case, Chris."

"He's a rental?"

"He's here indefinitely."

"I don't need a new man, Judge."

"Yes, Chris, you do." Travis insisted. “Standish is in France, Chris. He's not an agent. He's not an option. Agent Phillips is a very good agent, and I trust you to do what is best for this case."

"Mr. Larabee-"

"Chris. Nobody calls me Mr. Larabee anymore." Chris responded, and Travis caught the regret in that statement.

“Chris. I know Agent Standish left only two weeks ago, but I'm sure we can have a professional relationship nonetheless. I am here to do a job, and perhaps remain on your team afterwards."

"Well, Agent Phillips-"


"Dan. Since I don't have a damn choice, I'll call the rest of the team into the conference room, you can meet 'em all." Chris headed out his door, and Dan looked to his new AD.

"Agent Phillips, welcome to Team 7. Good Luck. You're gonna need it." With that, Travis headed back to his own office, feeling genuinely sorry for the agent that was just thrown to the sharks. Phillips, for his part, headed towards the conference room, where the rest of his new team was already gathered. The table would hold ten people comfortably, and the head seat was claimed by the team leader as a matter of course. To his right, sat the long-haired Texan. To Larabee's left the tall mustachioed agent. Continuing on the left there was the young computer expert, and then the black agent. Across from him was the oak tree come man, leaving an empty seat between the Texan and the older agent. It looked, for all the world, like a missing man formation. Knowing that the empty seat was off limits, he took the seat next to the black man. Everyone's eyes were on him, but he was used to being introduced to new agents.

“Guys, this is Agent Dan Phillips. Dan, this is Team 7. On my left, Buck Wilmington, next to him, JD Dunne, on your right, Nathan Jackson. Across the table is Josiah Sanchez and on my right is Vin Tanner. Dan is here as our new undercover."

It took a few moments for the protests and muttered cursing to quiet.

"Judge assigned Dan to the Fletcher case, and this team indefinitely."

"What about Ez?" JD asked.

"Paperwork and all that red tape takes time. We can't be out of commission that long, kid." Buck reassured their youngest, fielding the query before Chris could. Their leader merely nodded, hoping this wasn't the judge's way of preparing them for the news that Ezra was really done.

"Well, Dan, welcome to the team. Buck and JD here are our surveillance guys. Nathan is officially our research and forensics agent, but mostly he acts as team medic. Josiah is our profiler and Vin is our sharpshooter. You can use Ezra's desk for now. Any questions right away?" Dan thought about asking why they were so intent on working with a rot cop, but he wasn't stupid.

"Only a few. Each team has its own set of unofficial rules. Any I need to know about?

"Be here on time. Work hard, do your job and don't get dead." Chris responded.

"Sounds easy enough to remember." Dan smiled lightly.

"Not with this crew." Nathan muttered, bringing smiles to the other five men's faces.

"All right, back to work." Chris announced, and left the conference room. The others filed out behind him, leaving only young Dunne with Dan. The kid smiled at him warmly.

"You'll like 'em." JD volunteered cheerfully. He didn't want to replace Ezra, but Phillips hadn't asked to be put here either. No point in being unfriendly for something the man couldn't help.

"Well, I'm here to do a job."

"Sorry. It's just…tough you know. Ez, well, he was a real good friend of ours. He got a raw deal." JD explained, seeing a slight nod from the new undercover.

"Mind if I ask-?"

"Not me. The others, well, they aren't a real talkative bunch. Ezra was a bit of a rebel, broke regs sometimes to get the bust. Nothing illegal, just not necessarily procedure either. This last one was just the final straw for the guys upstairs I guess. He went to France, be with his mother."

"He's French? I mean, Ezra Standish doesn't sound like a French name."

"Huh? No, I mean, Ezra ain't French. He's from America. Use to work in Atlanta before here. His mom just lives there with her husband. I gotta get back to work. Good Luck, Dan."

"Mr. Dunne." Dan replied absently. JD looked up, and Phillips saw the slightly pained expression.

"Dan, call me JD. Other guys too. We use first names 'round here. No misters."

"Good enough, JD." The young agent nodded and left, and Dan took a moment to adjust to this newest information. Well, Standish certainly made an impression on his coworkers. He couldn't help but wonder why the bureaucrats upstairs couldn't see that loyalty like that was rare even among law enforcement. Dan seriously began rethinking his opinions about his predecessor. Rot cops usually didn't get support from anyone, even former friends and partners.

Chapter 2

So Far Gone

The plane had landed in Paris ten minutes ago, and Ezra already had his bags, and was on his way to a waiting limousine. He suddenly remembered why his mother loved the lifestyle she led. People loved money, the world over, and they loved those who had money. And there was no doubt that Georges VonHauken certainly had money. His hand and money were in practically every successful pot in western Europe. Ezra allowed the driver to place his bags in the trunk and slipped easily into the limousine. Lord, he was tired. He idly watched the familiar Parisian streets pass by, as the city faded slowly into the more sedate estates and vast lands of the obscenely wealthy. His mind, however, was back in Denver. A year. He'd been in Atlanta four times that and still the southern city had never felt as much like home as the mile-high metropolis. His mind played over the events of the past year, the memories he'd garnered in twelve content months. Ezra was brought out of his reverie by the gentle halt of the limousine in front of his stepfather's estate home. The southerner was unimpressed by the sheer size, having seen it quite a few times before. He stepped from the car, not waiting for the driver to open the door. Knowing his bags would appear in his room without his supervision, he headed straight for Georges study.

"Monsieur Standish. Monsieur VonHauken is expecting you." Jean Marc De la Croix had worked for the VonHauken family for nearly forty years now, beginning when Georges was not yet twenty- five. He'd seen many people come and go from their lives, and everyone knew that Jean Marc would be there for more to come. He had watched Georges marry that first time, was there when the girls were born, and when the infant son died after only a few hours. He had seen his employer through Madame Danielle's death when the girls were still young. He had watched two subsequent marriages fall through, and watched as his friend slowly gave up on all but his businesses, and his daughters. Then, that aristocratic American woman appeared. Far too smooth and stunningly beautiful, Jean Marc had not liked Maude Standish. Until she had brought Georges back to his younger self and done what no other had been able to do. She had brought a son into this family. Her son Ezra, younger than the girls by a fair margin, never failed to brighten the aging CEO. For this, the young man now before him had earned Jean Marc's faithful loyalty and honest friendship.

"Jean Marc. I believe I asked you to call me Ezra. How are you?" Ezra replied in his trademark drawled French. He could erase the southern hint if needed, but he preferred to allow his heritage to shine through.

"Oui, you did. I am well. Madame Helene is here as well."

"Wonderful. The children as well?"

"Oui, the whole family."

"That's spectacular news, Jean Marc. Give my best to your family."

"I will, monsieur." Jean Marc replied before the young American stepped into the office.

Slipping in the door, Ezra was a bit surprised to see two other men there already speaking to his stepfather. He had not been expecting company, and was certainly not properly attired to be in business negotiations. He was about to slip back out when Georges looked up.

"Ah, there he is. How fares my American son?" Georges asked. Ezra smiled gamely, falling back once again on his mother's early training.

"I am quite well, monsieur."

"Good. Your mother is upstairs, she is still restricted to bed rest. Shall we go visit her?"

"I do not wish to interrupt." Ezra gestured to the other men in the room.

"Not at all. Ezra, these are my estate attorneys, Charles Brooks and Nicolas Degas. Gentlemen, allow me to introduce my son, Ezra Standish, lately of Denver, Colorado."

"It truly is a pleasure, gentlemen." Ezra shook hands with the two attorneys, who returned the sentiment politely.

"It is certainly a pleasure to meet you as well, Monsieur. Georges speaks of you often."

"Don't believe a word of it. He's just trying to get others to pester me into working for him."

"Will it work?" Georges smiled brightly. The boy had such potential, he was truly all his mother bragged off. Highly intelligent, charming, and good-looking, with a quick and curious mind. His education was extensive and at some of the best schools money could buy. And from what Georges had seen so far in his acquaintance with his stepson, he would make a fine businessman.

“Perhaps." Ezra smiled in return. He enjoyed Georges. The Frenchman never asked him to change, there was no real pressure, just a constant invitation between them. And for once, his stepfather was interested in him. Maude was happy here, and Georges treated her beautifully. His mother had even confided, in a rare moment of mother/son bonding, that for the first time since his father, she was thinking of being married truly until death. But then, Ezra reasoned, that was exactly what had ended his parents' marriage. Death.

"Well, I shall have to continue my efforts. Now, gentlemen, I believe I shall escort my son to see his mother. Ezra." Georges held the door for the southerner, as the attorneys headed for the door. As they walked up the stairs, Georges broached the topic that brought this boy to his home.

"Your mother informed me that you are currently unemployed. You realize I do mean my invitation for you to join my business enterprises?"

"Yes, I know. You are kind to offer. And I may just do that. But, first, I would like to talk to Mother."

"Of course. No rush on any decision. Please, step inside." Georges led the way into the lushly decorated 'sick room'. A nurse was on duty, and Ezra was struck by the sight of his mother. She was still beautiful, but she looked so weak. In all his life, his mother was never weak. It was who he learned it from. The strong survive, and a Standish is nothing if not a survivor. On seeing her husband, she smiled lightly, spreading further as her baby boy followed Georges inside. She caught his almost imperceptible wince at her state, but that would soon be over. Maude Standish-VonHauken did not take anything lying down. Her boy, a man now to the world but still HER boy, looked tired, if as handsome as ever. Lord, he looked so much like his father. A wonderful man, Caleb Standish, with the same heart and soul that beat in his son. And Maude's greatest fear on Earth was that the same heart that made Ezra so like his father would be the death of her boy, like her first husband.

“Mother, you look quite well considering you were in a coma a two weeks ago."

"Yes, well, we Standishes are quick healers, darling."

"I don't recall telling you of my dismissal, Mother."

"Oh, that. Mr. Larabee was kind enough to tell me when I called looking for you earlier today. He said your flight out of Denver was two weeks ago. I might ask where you've been, Ezra dear."

"I stopped in Charleston, Mother. I…felt the need to see my father." Ezra admitted.

"He'd understand, Ezra. Caleb was may things, but perfect was not one of them."

"Yes, well, I doubt he'd be particularly proud at the moment."

"Posh. Ezra, your father wouldn't care if you were a federal agent or a school teacher or a CEO or a….a…construction worker," Maude finished with obvious distaste, “He'd be happy as long as you were happy. And I for one, would prefer you have a profession were getting shot is not a common occurrence. It's not easy on this old heart, dear, and I wish to live a good long life yet."

"I'm certain you will Mother. Have you ever failed to achieve a goal you set yourself?"

"Not yet, dear. Not yet." Maude was truly happy at this moment. She was surrounded by the money that made her feel secure, and her two favorite men were in the room with her. Georges was a wonderful man, and handsome as well, although he was a decade older than she. Ezra was here, finally away from that atrocious job that so often left her worrying from a world away over her only child.

"I was just trying to convince Ezra to sign on with the family business." Georges announced, smiling at his wife. There were some people who distrusted and disliked his wife, she was simply too perfect in all her appearances. VonHauken however, knew Maude enough to know that she was content here. She enjoyed the life she led as Mrs. Georges VonHauken, and the influence that came with that. He also knew that her son was well-liked by nearly everyone he'd met here in France, his charm and education winning over men and women alike.

"Oh, that would be wonderful, Ezra. You have such a talent for business."

"I am considering the offer Mother. Now, on to better things. How goes the attempt to land the Dearborn account?" Ezra knew full well that Georges and Maude only kept up the pretense that she was uninvolved in his financial affairs. His mother had a naturally devious business mind, and her husband would have been a fool to ignore that. Georges did not earn his millions by being a fool.

"Now that you mention it, I believe it could use your personal touch, my boy…"

Chapter 3

Learning to Lose

“No conviction." Chris announced, looking over his team. Well, not quite his team, their seventh was still missing. Phillips, while a solid undercover, was a spoke out of place in the wheel. 'A round peg in a hole that might once have been round, but is now square to accommodate another', Josiah said. Coming from the giant profiler, that was considered an easily translated riddle. And besides that, Dan Phillips was simply not on par with Ezra. Yet, the agency had saddled them with a case Ezra would've considered an intriguing challenge. The bust had gone down, minimal injuries, but the case had just ended in a disappointing verdict.

"We have the weekend off, boys, then it's a new case Monday. Let's call it a day."

Quickly shutting down computers and hitting lights, the agents of Team 7 left their offices. Six men headed for the saloon, a Friday tradition, while their undercover hoped to make it home in time to surprise his wife with a night out. Four weeks since he'd started here, Dan Phillips had settled in somewhat. The other agents were cordial enough, friendly sometimes even, but he was rarely included in their bantering and general camaraderie. He was the oddball in the group, the family man, with people and ties outside the team. And he was constantly, silently, being compared to Standish. Dan wasn't sure it was even conscious on their parts, from the stories he'd heard, he might have liked Standish. Another move on the horizon. Lord, he wondered why his wife didn't divorce him.

The saloon had its usual Friday crowd filtering in, as the six remaining men of Team 7 sat at their usual table. Their conversation waned in spots, gaps were a verbose southerner would have dropped a few sly comments to prod the bantering along, and a place sat empty, but only those who knew them well noticed. To others, they seemed a whole group, enjoying a night out with good company.

"Judge say anything new, Chris?" Buck asked, referring to the mid-afternoon visit the leader had paid to the AD's office.

"No. Filled me in on the Fletcher trial. Case dismissed. Evidence was good, but not enough."

"So, Phillips begged out early?" JD cut in.

"He's a new undercover, mistakes happen. But no, I don't think so. From what Dan told me, he got all he was going to without taking a year inside. Just wasn't enough." Chris answered, watching the pool table as a middle-aged hustler worked the men gathered around. That same man had been here two weeks before, and Inez complained loudly, but he wasn't technically doing anything illegal enough to warrant action. Ezra would have cleaned him out within an hour.

"Just weren't Ez." Vin corrected, sipping his beer. The Texan's faith in his southern friend's abilities was nearly boundless. He wasn't alone. Prosecutors delighted in Standish's coolness under cross-examination and his photographic memory. He recalled conversations with eerie precision, as exactly as a recording more times than not. And the characters created as his covers were completely fleshed out and as complicated as the man portraying them.

"Nope." Buck seconded, and the comment earned nods of agreement from the others.

"So, Judge ain't got any further?"

"No, JD, unfortunately he hasn't. Says he's hitting stone walls upstairs. Not sure how much longer he can keep up the fight." Chris' eyes never met those of his men.

"Not sure I can ask him to fight much more."

"You're givin' up?!" JD was appalled, and his sentiment was echoed by Tanner. The others were more understanding.

"Don't want to, but yeah, I'm thinkin' on it. Judge, well, he's got other fights to fight, and if he keeps at this, he hurts his chances on those others. Can't ask him to do that."

Any protests from the two youngest team members was cut off as Vin's cell-phone rang shrilly. Quickly answering it, the others watched as his face lit up in a genuine smile.

"Damn, 'bout time I heard from your ugly mug."

"Yeah, Chris called off early."

"Sure, everybody's here. Guys, Ez says howdy." Loud greetings were shouted towards the phone, as well as good- natured insults.

"My apologies." Vin grinned before turning to his teammates, " He actually sends his most fraternal greetings. I translated."

"Dismissed. Coulda used your touch pard."

"Who? Naw, JD, he don't want to talk to ya, Ez." Vin teased, and everyone laughed at the youngest's squawk. JD grabbed for the phone, but the Texan squirmed away.

"Damn it, Vin! Let me talk!"

"Sure Ez, I'll tell him. JD, he said-" Before Vin could finish, the Bostonian had snatched the cell-phone, batting away the Texan's attempts to retrieve it.

"Hey, Ez." JD laughed at something on the other end.

"Yeah, Buck started calling me shortie already."

“Sure. Well, uh, about the jag…"

"NO! Just that we been takin' turns drivin' it, just keepin' it runnin' ya know, and it handles real good by the way in the rain. And Casey said to thank you for helpin her show up some girl cuz her boyfriend picked her up in a jag. Anyway- "

"Nah. Buck did use it as a chick magnet though." JD answered the southerner.

"Sure. Hold on. Buck." JD passed the phone to his roommate, who immediately burped into the receiver.

"Wouldn't want ya t'think I went and got civilized in your absence, squirrel." Buck laughed at his friend's comment, invoking the nickname he had given the southerner after watching him climb a tree faster than humanly possible.

"Hey, that pretty car just sittin' doin' nothin, well it might as well-"

"Miss Jennie? Now, she and I went out last weekend, as a matter of fact."

"Last Wednesday."


"Tomorrow night." Buck grinned as the other guys shook their heads in mock exasperation.

"Animal magnetism, pure animal magnetism."

"Ain't plannin' on it, pard. Don't you change neither, runt."

"I can call ya whatever, seein' as how ya can't shoot me from France." Buck laughed at the threats on his life due to the unwarranted nickname. Unwarranted from Ezra's point of view anyway.

"You wouldn't."

"You would. All right. All right. You win, Ez."

"Now, she's weakening, I tell ya. Hold on." Buck placed a hand on the receiver and turned around to wave at Inez who headed towards their table.


"Somebody wants to talk to ya, Inez." Buck handed her the phone, for once leaving off any attempt to sweet-talk the barmaid. Eyeing the man suspiciously, Inez put the phone to her ear.

"Hello?" Her tentative greeting gave way to a genuine smile as well.

"No more than usual, Senor."

"Si. Good to hear you, too, Senor. Uno momento, por favor." Inez handed the phone back to Buck, who nodded at her as she headed back towards her place behind the bar.

"What, Ez?"

"Just a sec." Buck passed off the cell to Nathan who took his turn talking to their missing member.

"No major worries. Vin got scratched in the last bust."

"Rain's great. Hospital's busy as ever, but she's happy there. How's your end?"

"Great. Who's that?"

"Yeah. That's great. Sure, no, no problem." Nathan handed the phone to Josiah, who smiled before even saying anything.

"Brother Ezra."

"Yes, well, the children miss your stories."

"I'll be sure to tell them."

"That's fine, son. How's Maude?" Josiah waited a few moments as the southerner answered his question.

"Wonderful." There was another long pause as Josiah's grin grew.

"Yes, well, most of life does depend on one's point of view, son."

"Of course, Ezra. Of course." Josiah nodded to whatever the southerner had said, and handed the phone to Chris, who took it with some trepidation.

"Hey, Ez."

"Yeah, Phillips is a good agent. Not as good as you, Standish." Chris started laughing a moment later.

"You settling in over there?" Chris asked, serious again. Damn, he missed that sarcastic son of a bitch.

"Good. Always said you had the mind of an accountant."

“We're at the saloon."

"Yep. Naw, that scruffy Texan doesn't want his phone back. He doesn't talk anyway." Vin grabbed the phone, mimicking JD's actions from a few minutes before as the other men laughed.

"Hey again, pard."

"Naw. Hard to pull off anything good with my partner in crime missing in action."

"Fella here at the pool table, needs ya to teach him a lesson."



"I'll tell 'im."

"Sure." The other agents looked at each other with growing frustration. Vin's short answers was making it impossible to tell what the southerner was talking about.

"Judge's hittin' walls, pard."

"Yeah. This end too."

"Ya ain't getting all maudlin on me, are ya?" Vin laughed, the blue eyes shining in genuine mirth which had been missing since his friend had left.

"Yeah. My work's sufferin' something fierce with ya gone, hoss. Losin' all them big words in my 'cabulary."

"Sure. Good to hear from ya, Ez." Vin replied, looking up at the others. “Ez says he's gotta go, but it was nice talkin' to y'all."

A chorus of goodbyes rang out as Vin held the phone out, and then put his ear back against the piece.

"Can do, pard. 'Bye." Ending the call, Vin placed his phone back in his pocket. His smile faded quickly, as he looked around the room. The other five men were quiet as well, reflecting on the man who was missing from their ranks.

"Damn, I miss that ornery cuss." Buck spoke first.

"Yeah. I even miss waiting for his butt to make it in every morning." Chris added.

"I miss those suits, and listenin' to him complain about Buck's clothes." JD easily ducked the playful swipe from his roommate.

"The walking thesaurus." Buck griped good-naturedly.

"I just miss that little weasel, period." Josiah replied, before rising and heading for the bar.

"Ain't the same, no more, Cowboy." Vin added, following the giant profiler. The other four watched them for a moment.

"Hittin' them two the hardest, ain't it?" Buck asked, and Chris nodded.

"Vin's even quieter. Ain't pulled a decent prank since Ez left. Josiah, well, we all know how he felt about Ezra."

"Except Ezra," Nathan commented, remembering the undercover's constant corrections of Josiah's 'paternal delusions'. Chris and JD both stared at the medic, wondering how he missed it.

"He knew. Believe me, he knew," Chris argued.

"He joked about it, but I think he liked it," JD added, playing with the lip on the mug of his beer. " He was real protective of Josiah too, you know. And they went to all those museum openings and stuff together."

"Yep. And them two troublemakers was always disappearing for some reason or another. Reckon Vin is missing his evil twin as much as Josiah is missing his boy." Buck continued the thought. They all nodded, thinking about how close the Texan and Southerner had become. Buck remembered something else, and clapped a hand on his roommate's shoulder.

“How 'bout you kid? I know you and Ez' were getting pretty close too."

"I'm okay, Buck. I miss him, too, yeah. He always treated me different than you guys. I mean, I love you guys, but he didn't treat me like a kid all the time. Said I had fine instincts, and with some experience, I'd be the best agent in my field. And, he helped me impress Casey."


"Yeah. Got me reservations at that fancy new French place for our anniversary. Best table in the place, and real personal service. All because I dropped his name."

"Lord, he's teachin' you the art of name- dropping. He's corruptin' ya, JD." Buck laughed, teasing his young roommate.

"He's settling in over in France. Said he's moving some of his stuff this weekend. He's working for his step-father." Chris remarked, downing the rest of his beer.

"Guess that's good. I mean, if he's not coming back…" JD trailed off.

"Yeah. Seemed happy enough." Nathan nodded, thinking over his short conversation with their missing seventh.

"So, what do we do now?" Buck asked his friends, Josiah and Vin returning with another round of beers for the table.

"We learn to lose, brothers. We learn to lose." Josiah answered, guessing what the ladies' man was referring to.

"I know about losing, Josiah," Chris replied, an edge easily discernible in his voice, “I could lose most anything."

Their leader left his fresh beer on the table, and went out the back door. The others sat in silence for a few minutes, contemplating their own feelings of loss. They each had a special relationship with all the others, their connections being strengthened by each man's individual personality and interaction with the others. Each man had a place in their family, but Chris was the undisputed head of the clan. He had brought these men together, and the force of his personality kept them together for a year. They had become his family, the brothers he'd never had, and sometimes he felt like they were practically surrogate children. Either way, he was losing another family member, the one thing he'd promised himself to never lose again.

Chapter 4 (8 weeks)

If You Can Do Anything Else

Dan Phillips had noticed a difference in his colleagues these last two weeks. Their camaraderie was slowly starting to encompass him, as he was included in their lunch and weekend plans. He had even convinced his wife to head up to Larabee's ranch tomorrow for the barbecue they'd been invited too. Dan had asked if he'd finally get to meet Chris' family, and was now glad he'd asked Wilmington privately. Buck had just looked at him, and asked if the Judge hadn't told him. So, the ladies' man had filled him in on the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee, and Dan thought he understood his new boss all the better for it. He knew how he'd feel if his family died, and knew to never mention the woman and boy whose photos graced Chris' desk again. Some things were just too painful.

It was Friday afternoon, the clock was slowly counting down their final hour in the office for the week. Little work was being accomplished, as Buck and JD bantered loudly with the Texan sharpshooter across from Dan. Dan and Nathan occasionally threw in comments, as the giant profiler merely smiled at the interplay. The ding of the elevator was ignored, and the familiar presence was not noticed immediately as the agents concentrated on flinging barbs at one another. Dan didn't know it, but this was still a far cry from the former wars of Team 7, pitting the Texan and Southerner against kid and ladies' man.

"Well, Mr. Tanner, it seems as if you need some assistance in putting these upstarts in their proverbial place." A cultured southern drawl crossed the room, and every man there came to sudden and complete halt. Looking up, Dan saw the man he recognized from various pictures as his predecessor standing at the edge of 'the bullpen'. A second later, the other agents came out of their shock and rushed their friend.

"Ezra!" JD practically yelled, wrapping his arms around the southerner for a quick hug. He was followed immediately by Buck, who proceeded to attempt to crush the younger man in one of his patented bear hugs. Nathan shook hands warmly with the returned friend, and Vin just grinned at his 'partner in crime'. Josiah placed his hands on his boy's shoulder, looking down into those incredibly green eyes.

"Good to see you, son."

"You as well." Ezra replied, before shocking them all by pulling the bigger man into a hug. Usually stand-offish, the undercover rarely accepted let alone initiated such familiar actions. The embrace lasted longer than the others had, the emotions perhaps a bit deeper between the reluctant prodigal son and the giant man who had adopted the southerner.

“Chris, get your ugly self out here!" Buck called to his oldest friend, who appeared at the door to his office a moment later.

"Buck," Chris began, then his gaze stopped on his missing man. Damn, it was like the world had found its balance back, just having the man back in this office. His voice stopped, looking over the as always impeccably dressed young southerner.

"Mr. Larabee." Ezra greeted his former boss. Dan noticed that Standish referred to them all as Mr. and wondered if that didn't explain their insistence on first names with him.

"Standish. Why haven't we heard from your scrawny ass in two weeks?"

"I'll have you know, sir, that my ass has received compliments the world over. It's good to see you as well."

“I'll just bet it has. Answer the question."

“I was involved in a current merger for my step- father's printing corporation. I was distracted."

"Working out well, that new job?" Buck asked.

"Aside from the lack of adrenaline highs induced by dodging bullets, its satisfactory. However, as I was in Denver for the preliminary meeting on another deal, Georges graciously allowed me a short vacation. As disturbing as I myself find it, I actually missed y'all and your rather plebian habits."

"Hell, I missed being told I was a plebian." Buck commented.

"A plebe, Mr. Wilmington. Plebian is an adjective, not a noun."


"Ah, you must be Agent Daniel Phillips, formerly of Providence, Rhode Island, a 1990 graduate of the University of Massachusetts, husband and father of two."

"How do you know all that?"

"I have connections, sir." Ezra replied.

"Well, Mr. Standish, you have me at a disadvantage. I don't much about you, except you use to live in Atlanta.

"I prefer it that way. And you can call me Ezra if you like."

"Fine, call me Dan."

"I shall endeavor to try, good sir."


"Ezra," JD interrupted, “You gonna come out to Chris' place?"

"I would certainly be remiss in my duties as long-lost friend if I did not attend your little team soiree."

"Where you stayin', Ez?" Buck asked, wondering which hotel they'd be dropping a rather inebriated Standish off at late tonight.

"Georges' company has a penthouse suite in the Belmont Towers. I have been given the use of said domicile for my time in Denver."

"The Bel Towers? I think our conman has moved up in the world, guys." Chris joked. Belmont Towers was a rather well- known pod of three ten story towers, all full of rich and influential people, the old guard and society folk.

"I was born for a life of ease and refinement, Mr. Larabee." Ezra smiled widely at that, and continued, “At least, that's what Mother insists continuously."

"Hey, Chris, whatcha say we knock off early and start celebratin'?"

"It's 4:30, ain't like you guys are gonna get anything done anyway. You're a corruptive influence, Standish." Chris replied, and everyone started shutting stuff down for the weekend.

"Mr. Larabee, I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"Shut up, Ezra."

"My point stands proven." Ezra cracked, earning a good- natured glare from his boss and chuckles from his friends.

"I said, shut up Ezra."

"It's good to be back where I'm still being- "


"-appreciated by my colleagues and listened to with such attention-"

"Standish, shut up or so help me God I'll shoot you where you stand." Chris grinned as he said what he'd been itching to say for so long.

"There's no place like home." Ezra returned the smile, his gold tooth visible.

"Damn, its good to hear that again. Chris has gotten right mellow with you gone, Ez." Buck joked, looking over at his oldest friend. No one had missed that Chris' wardrobe, slowly emerging from its days of all black, had returned there when the irritating southerner had left.

"Mr. Larabee? Mellow? It must be old age setting in."

"Yeah, we get to be ol' Chris' age, maybe we'll get that way too." Vin teased, glad to have his 'evil twin' back and they stepped right back into their specialty. Making that vein in Chris' forehead throb.

"I am not old."

"Hell, Cowboy, you'll be forty soon."

"Forty is hardly old, boys." Josiah cut in.

"Not when you're fifty. When your twenty-two it sure is." JD commented, joining up with the other two 'youngins'.

"Cocky little bastards, aren't they?" Buck mused aloud.

"Most boys their age are." Josiah answered.

"I think we should be offended, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Dunne. I believe they are implying we are hardly more than children."

"Ain't that young." Vin complained.

"You're twenty-seven. Ezra here is only a year older than you. JD, hell, I had to get shit waived just to get that pup on the team." Chris cracked, taking a shot at the youngest members of their team.

"Oh, Mr. Tanner, speaking of age, I was wondering if you'd be interesting in taking a trip to Aspen with me in due time. They have a new slope open for snow-boarding, which claims to be the most 'expert' hill yet open."

"Sure, Ez. Sounds like a time."


"Hell no." Chris argued, the vein already starting to protrude in his forehead. Why the hell had he missed this?

"Mr. Larabee, we are both adults and as such you can not- "

"Ezra, every time you and Vin go off on your own, one or both of you end up in the hospital. I'm tired of filling out the paperwork, and I'm damn tired of talking to Maude about your injured ass."

"We'll take JD." Vin compromised, seeing the computer expert perk up at being included. JD was a good enough boarder, not on par with he or Ez, but few were.

"This is not a negotiation. Besides, didn't I say you two weren't allowed to go anywhere together without proper adult supervision."

"Cowboy, I'm twenty-seven-"

"And together you and Ez act like sixteen year olds. Add in JD and suddenly all three of you have the common sense of table salt."

"Gentlemen. Why don't we all attend. I'm sure I can arrange enough rooms for all of us. Perhaps even invite significant others along."

"Sounds great, Ez."

"Let's head for the saloon, boys." Buck called, grabbing his jacket. The others filed out behind him, still discussing their ski weekend.

"Casey loves to ski." JD commented, ducking his roommate's swipe at his hat.

"I can think of a pretty girl or two I could bring along." Buck added.

"Mary and Billy would probably come." Chris continued the chain of thought.

"Yeah, and Rain too."

"So, that's a total of twelve so far. Mr. Phillips? How about you and yours?"

"I'll, uh, I'll ask my wife. Kids are a bit young to ski."

"Come and enjoy the lodge, at least." Ezra insisted, as they crowded into the elevator. Dan was surprised to be invited, considering he had replaced this man. Then he thought about it. He was not replacement. He didn't have the relationship with the others this man had. He was just too different from them.

The next day, Dan, his wife Maggie and their two children, Lexi and Ben, arrived at the Larabee ranch, not surprised to see the long driveway nearly full of cars. Dan recognized, and pointed out, the vehicles to his wife, corresponding them with the owners Maggie had not yet met. Larabee's Ram was in the garage, and directly behind that was Vin Tanner's battered jeep. Next in line was Nathan Jackson's SUV, followed by Josiah's ancient Suburban. Buck's 'classic' Chevy truck was behind Sanchez, and most likely JD had rode out with his roommate. The Judge's white Lexus was behind the Chevy, and then a two cars he didn't recognize. The first was a light blue SUV, newer than Nathan's by a few years. The second, right in front of the Phillips' own dark green Cherokee was a nearly brand new, black Jaguar convertible. He assumed it was Standish's, as he'd heard here and there about the fancy car the former agent had always driven. Walking up to the front porch, Dan knocked on the door. The ranch had a definite rugged feel, a feeling which was only heightened when the door opened on his boss.


"Chris. This is my wife Maggie, our daughter Lexi and son Ben. Guys, this is Chris Larabee, my boss."

"Nice to meet you. Come on in. Everybody's out back on the deck."

Chris led the way through the house, and out onto the back deck. Mary was sitting next to the Judge and his wife, while Billy was down towards the corral looking at the horses. Josiah manned the grill and Nathan was setting out the rest of the food. The other four agents were out on the back lawn, a football flying between them as tackles were made indiscriminately.

"What're they doing?" Maggie asked.

"Oh, its some version of football they invented for the four of them. You must be Maggie."

"And you must be Mary Travis." Mary nodded, and turned to introduce her in-laws.

"This is Judge Travis, and his wife Evie, my in- laws."

"Its nice to finally meet you all. This is Lexi, and Ben."

"Lunch'll be ready in a few, boys." Josiah called to the men on the lawn, and as one the four headed for the porch, laughing and pushing each other good-naturedly.

“Mommy, he has pretty eyes." Lexi whispered to her mother, pointing to Ezra. The former undercover agent did not miss her attention, and squatted in front of the two new young arrivals.

"Might I return the compliment, Miss Phillips?" The girl nodded.

"You have quite beautiful eyes, yourself, my dear. My name's Ezra."

"I'm Lexi. This is my brother Ben."

"Ah, a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my good man." Ezra shook the boy's hand just as he would a man's, and Ben smiled happily.

"How come your eyes are so green? I've never seen eyes that color before." Lexi asked, her five year old mind not realizing it was an unusual question. Maggie looked a little embarrassed, but Ezra, as usual, handled it like a pro.

"Mother swears it's the color of money. However, I'll let you in on my secret." Ezra leaned over and whispered in her ear. The girl giggled happily, and made a motion of zipping her mouth to show she wouldn't tell.

“Wow are those your horses, Mr. Larabee?" Ben asked in awe. He was going through a cowboy phase, not unusual for seven year olds.

"Some of them. I board the rest for these guys."

"Really? Which one's which?"

"The big black is Chris'. His name's Job." Billy answered before the adults good. He was proud of his relationship with these men, especially Chris. “The gray is Buck's and her name is Lady Jane. Then there's the smaller black, that's Peso. He's Vin's. The small bay, that one in the corner? That's Boston, JD's horse. Next to him is Nellie, that's Nathan's horse. Then the real big horse in the back? That's Prophet, he's Josiah's. And I get to ride Chaucer, he's the chestnut over behind Lady Jane."

"Wow. Can I go see the horses?"

"After lunch, Ben." Maggie answered.

"Billy, you know the rules. You two boys stay out of the corral, and don't go near-" Mary started, only to have her reminder finished by her son.

"Peso or Job or Chaucer without Chris or one of the others because all three will bite me quick as look at me."

"But Chaucer's yours." Ben seemed confused, and Billy looked surprised. The adults, except the Phillips, looked to Ezra, seeing a flash of pain there before it was gone, replaced by a small if genuine looking smile.

"Nah. Mom says maybe when I'm older I can really have my own horse. Chaucer's Ezra's, but he says I can ride him while he's gone. Right, Ezra?"

"Indeed, Master Travis. As long as its okay with Chaucer, that is."

"He likes me. I give him apples and carrots lots. And sugar sometimes too, but Chris says it just makes him difficult."

"That horse is spoiled rotten." Chris grumbled.

"I see no harm in treating a fine animal well, Mr. Larabee."

"Horse is just contrary, and stubborn as a mule."

"Takes after his owner." Vin jabbed at the southerner, who grinned back.

"So does yours. He will eat anything that's not tied down."

"Now, what's the fun in a meal if its already tied down?" Vin commented, earning a slightly disgusted look from Ezra. As much as the seven went camping and the like, Ezra never could be around when the guys cleaned dinner. He preferred not to eat things which he had personally seen the face of.

"Billy, Lexi, Ben, grab a plate." Mary directed, as Josiah started taking the meat off the grill. The kids eagerly lined up, followed by the equally eager two youngest of Team 7. Buck wasn't far behind, and the others knew from previous experience that they'd better get in line before those three went back for seconds and or thirds. Plates were soon filled, and they spread around the deck, the kids seated on the floor occasionally dodging the tail of the wandering Diablo. The dog never begged food, but rather attention, as the food usually appeared without any effort. Chris figured Diablo was too old to bother with the excess energy of begging for a sure thing. Sniffing carefully at each person on his porch, the dog received numerous pats as he made his rounds. He stopped at a familiar smell that had been missing for awhile now. Zeroing in on it, his tail wagged furiously. Only one person he knew smelled like that. Paws up on the southerner's lap, he nudged the familiar chest.

“Looks like somebody missed ya, Ez." Buck commented, smiling at the old dog's antics.

"Indeed, I always stated that Diablo was a dog of high standards and tastes." Ezra replied, petting said dog and feeding him the remainder of his hamburger as well.

"More likely he knows you're always the one givin' him burgers and such." Chris muttered, knowing all his friends fed that dog. Of course, usually it was JD and Vin giving him the vegetables, only Ezra gave up perfectly good red meat.

"Can we go see the horses now?" Ben asked, as the three children placed their plates back up on the table. Mary and Maggie both nodded after receiving a quick nod from Chris. The three kids were off the porch before Ezra had even risen from his chair.

“I think I'll go supervise this little excursion."

"Sure, Ez. Give ya a chance to check on Chaucer."

"Indeed, Mr. Larabee. Not that I don't trust you to take perfect care-"

"Ez, just go see yer damned horse." Chris shot at his former agent, bringing grins to everyone's faces. The southerner was soon over by the kids, obviously engaged in a lively conversation.

The day passed quickly, as the friends enjoyed the company of each other and their former teammate. It was late evening by the time Dan and Maggie headed out from the ranch, Ben and Lexi nearly asleep in the backseat. Mary and Billy weren't far behind, leaving with the Judge and Evie before going their separate ways at the cars. That left only the original seven, back in their familiar places spread around the Larabee living room. Chris had 'his' chair, cigarillo in hand, and Vin was next to him in the window seat. Josiah occupied the recliner to match Chris', while Buck and JD lounged on the large stone hearth of the fireplace. Nathan had abandoned the couch for the floor, allowing Ezra to stretch the length of the couch, relaxing in the company of good friends. Mostly they shared jokes and stories of the last few months, including Ezra's long recitation of an encounter with the wife of a board member that had them all in stitches for twenty minutes. Beers were distributed, the stories became raunchier, if no less funny, and the night passed amicably. It was nearly one thirty before Josiah finally checked his watch.

“Well, brothers, I hate to break up the party, but these old bones are tired."

"Wow, I can't believe its this late. I've been up since five thirty, but I don't feel tired." JD commented, earning glares from some of his teammates. Their youngest had more energy than should have been humanly possible.

"We really should call it a night, boys. Horses gotta be fed early…" Chris hinted, knowing that for most of them habit didn't allow their bodies to sleep very late, even on their days off.

"Yep. You headin' out, Ez?" Vin asked, as the southerner rose and fished through his pockets.

"I was under the impression we were calling it a night."

"He ain't drivin' anywhere." Nathan put in, reaching for the keys to the Jag.

"Mr. Jackson, I have an appointment tomorrow in the city- "

“Don't care. You've had by my count eight beers in three hours, and lets not forget all the ones from this afternoon and evening."

"No drivin' Ezra. You can crash here tonight with the rest of these bums." Chris declared, and Ezra nodded in defeat. He really didn't feel like leaving yet anyway.

"When's that appointment tomorrow?" Josiah asked, setting his watch to go off so they could awaken the southerner in time without sacrificing one of Chris' alarm clocks to the early morning violence of one Ezra P. Standish.


"We'll get ya up by nine thirty then."


"Hey, at least its not a work day." JD remarked at Ezra's less than pleased response.

"Mr. Dunne, I do not rise before ten on a work day if avoidable."

"Your boss lets you do that?"

"My boss is my step-father, who is very well-acquainted with my dear mother. She rarely rises before noon. He understands my non-affinity for mornings light." Ezra answered smoothly, earning light chuckles from the other men.

"Good night, brothers." Josiah called as he headed down the hall towards the bedrooms. A chorus of replies floated behind him.

"Guess I'll head for bed too."

"Night, Nate." Vin commented, echoed by the others again. The remaining five sat for awhile, just enjoying the atmosphere for a while longer.

"See ya in the morning, guys." JD announced, followed immediately by his roommate, the two of them bickering as they went down the hall in the manner only they quite managed. Chris, Vin and Ezra absorbed the silence for some time, content in current company, before Chris finished his last cigar and nodded at his two friends.

"Night, boys."

"Night, Chris."

"Night, John boy." Ezra commented, earning a glare from Larabee. Of course, the glare was broken by a small smile, which destroyed its effectiveness.

"Reckon I'll head off too. You comin?" Vin asked, heading for the final bedroom.

"I suppose I should. Come Mr. Tanner…let us retire to soft beds and fair dreams."

"Reckon you'd get the floor, seein' as how I had dibs on the bed…"


"Yeah, meanin I got there first."

"Well, Mr. Tanner, I would have thought with your enjoyment of camping out, that you would not mind the floor-"


"Besides, I believe I am officially company since I no longer reside in Denver and-"

"Aw, hell." Vin sighed, figuring it would be easier to just sleep on the floor then let Ezra get wound up talking. Get the man going and it might be dawn before he shut up again.

“Beds yours, Ez."

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

"No problem."

“Boys, shut up!"

"Yes sir, Mr. Larabee-"