When a Door Closes


ATF Universe

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, Mirisch, Trilogy, CBS and TNN, among others. This was intended for pleasure only. No compensation of any type was earned with the writing of this piece.

Notes: My sincere thanks to Mog for creating this fantastic universe with which I am obsessed! Secondly, this is my first attempt in this genre but the story I had wanted to tell in the beginning kept growing until it had a life of its own. There will definitely be at least one more installment if not two to complete this story. Last, but not least, my grateful thanks to my Mentor Kim! Without her honesty and guidance this would not exist. Thanks for the help on the beta duties!

This is my first attempt at slash. I have read most of the great stories many of you have written and have enjoyed them shamelessly. Figured, it was about time I ventured out and stuck my toe in the pool.

Hope you enjoy it.


It had been a hard two days for the entire Team Seven. After months of preparation by all seven men and weeks of intense undercover work by Ezra, the bust was finally completed. Five out of the six gunrunners were lying dead on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse while the sixth man had been forced to his knees by a glowering Josiah Sanchez. Several vital minutes had passed before the six ATF agents realized that their team's sharpshooter was not in their midst. Larabee quickly gave the terse order to spread out and locate their missing friend.

It seemed as if hours had passed when, in reality, it had only been a few brief minutes before the southerner heard Larabee call out for Nathan. He pushed past a couple of uniformed cops and quickly made his way to the far side of the building. He stumbled to a halt when he caught sight of the other members of his team standing over Chris and Vin. He hesitantly approached the others just as he saw Nathan reach out to search for a pulse along the side of Vin's neck.

He did not realize that he had been holding his breath until he heard the faint, relieved gasp that escaped his tightly pressed lips. Shock flowed through his body as his eyes took in the scene in front of him as the horrendous thought tumbled through in his head. `He's dead.'

"Mr. Jackson…"

The ex-army medic threw a quick smile over his shoulder as he informed the others, "Got a strong pulse. Just give me a minute to check him out."

Ezra's muddled mind tried to understand the meaning behind the hushed words. Slowly he worked his way through the quiet sentences until he was finally able to make sense of them. With Nathan's brief reassurance, he was able to feel the knot in his stomach ease up.

He had never told a single soul what his deepest desire was. Sure, there were times when the seven of them were sitting around the poker table, enjoying the camaraderie and cold beer, when he felt accepted. But, even then, a corner of his mind would treacherously speak up and remind him that if any of these men he called friends ever found out his secret, he would find himself alone once again. He was willing to forego chancing the unknown, for the reality of being able to sit in the same room as his secret desire. So that he was able to take part in the day-to-day activities, that they had all shared for the past three years, without the fear of condemnation from the other six.

He watched intently as Nathan began to do his initial examination of the injured man. His sharp eyes followed as the nimble fingers ran along the entire length of the lanky man, investigating every part of the man. There was no blood evident and, he noted as Nathan sighed with satisfaction as his hands brushed the ribcage, finding all of the parts intact.

"Musta hit his head," Nathan exclaimed. "Can't find a single wound or broken bone on him, Chris." The ex-medic looked over at his boss and added, "Think it's just a concussion."

The next several minutes passed in a haze. The paramedics arrived and claimed custody of the injured agent while JD, Josiah and Nathan returned to the scene to assist in the clean-up. Chris stood back and thoughtfully watched as his undercover operative attempted to make himself busy while not leaving the accident area. It was unusual to see Ezra pitching in with the clean-up after a bust. Usually, he was the first one back at the office and half way through the required paperwork before any of the others had booted up their system. Larabee caught Buck's eye and silently gave the command for the big man to keep an eye out for Ezra. After receiving Buck's nod of acceptance, Chris quickly followed in the wake of the paramedics and climbed up next to Vin in the back of the rig.

"We'll see you all at the hospital."


It had taken over two hours before Vin regained consciousness. The doctor had agreed with Nathan's field diagnosis that the sharpshooter was suffering from a minor concussion. As soon as Ezra heard the final prognosis, he replaced his worn deck of cards in his jacket pocket and walked over towards the window.

`Thank God. Thank God he is going to be alright.'

"Alright boys, let's go see him for ourselves," Larabee said.

Five tired men trudged towards the bank of elevators, never realizing that they were leaving their sixth brother behind. Ezra took advantage of their departure to make his way to the stairwell and down to the ground floor. He quickly hailed a cab and gave the driver his home address. All he could think about was how relieved he felt when he heard that Vin was going to be fine.

It wasn't until sometime later in the early hours of the new day that he recalled all of the details that occurred the previous evening. He cringed when he realized that he had left the hospital without seeing the Team's injured member. He could not come up with a single excuse to offer his team members should they ask him why he left the hospital without a word. What could he tell them without revealing his secret? Did his actions of the previous evening tip his hand to the others?

"Oh, God. What have I done?" he whispered in anguish.


Seven o'clock came much too quickly for the exhausted man. When the offending alarm clock dared to announce its arrival, it met with the untimely demise that each of its predecessors had – one wall, no second chance at life. Ezra dragged himself out of bed and sluggishly made his way into the shower. After subjecting his sore body to a hot shower, he tied the towel at his slim waist and shuffled out to the kitchen. His preset coffeemaker had his favorite blend ready and waiting for him. He indulged in the refreshing brew as he listened to the early morning newscast.

At exactly eight o'clock, he eased his Armani-clad body into the low slung leather seat of his Jaguar and set out for the hospital. He had decided earlier that morning as he laid in his cold bed that he would stop by the hospital and see that Vin was truly alright with his own eyes. He knew from experience that, when plagued with a concussion, a patient was liable to sleep more than normal so he had a very good chance at completing his visit without anyone knowing he had been there.

The nurses at the main desk smiled as he strode past them, watching his trim figure as he rounded the corner on his way to Room 428. He drew in a deep breath and, after holding it for a few moments, exhaled heavily, forcing himself to relax before entering the darkened room. He stopped over the threshold, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. His eyes darted around the interior of the room, noting the bathroom door that stood slightly ajar before coming to rest on Vin's form in the bed closest to the window. On silent feet, he neared the bed and stood looking down at the handsome face. Memorizing every curve and angle of it. After watching the man's chest steadily rise and fall for several minutes, he gently reached out and smoothed back his shoulder-length hair.

"I am so pleased that you are relatively unharmed. You can only imagine how my heart felt when I rounded that corner and saw Chris next to your crumpled figure on that cold floor. You were not moving and I was so afraid that I was too late. That I had let you down. That I had not kept you safe." The southerner stroked the soft tendrils as he continued to confess his deepest fears to the slumbering form. "You see, when I saw you lying so still, I believed that you had left this world. I knew that if this were so, I could not continue on without you gracing this Earth." With a soft chuckle, Ezra shook his head. "Damn, I sound like some sort of maudlin Harlequin greeting card."

Ezra's hand stilled as Vin moved slightly in his sleep, seeking a more comfortable position. After he was sure that the man was settled, he returned the comforting touch as he continued. "I have known for some time that, should anything happen to you, I would have no reason to continue on. I'll never be able to look you directly in the face and tell you that you are my life. I…"

Abruptly, Ezra stopped when he heard the door open to admit an orderly bearing a breakfast tray. The dark man smiled briefly at the southerner after he deposited the tray on the wheeled table and left as soundlessly as he had entered. Ezra snuck a quick glance at his gold Rolex and found that almost an hour had passed since he had arrived at the hospital. He knew that he needed to get to the office and complete the report on the previous night's bust. With Vin out of commission, the rest of the team would need to pull together and complete the work in his absence. With a quick glance towards the closed door, he chanced fate and pressed his warm lips against Vin's cold ones in an effort to convey his devotion to the man without words. He knew that this would be his one and only chance to steal a taste of the forbidden fruit that lay before him. He would never take advantage of the man but he had to share his affection in the only way he knew how.

After one last tender caress of his hand against the sharpshooter's cheek, he spun on his heel and retraced his steps out of the hospital. The door whooshed closed behind him, leaving the room plunged into silence. Slowly the bathroom door inched fully open and Chris Larabee stepped out. He quietly made his way over to the visitor's chair and sank into its vinyl depths with a tired sigh.

"Hey, cowboy."

"Hey yourself, Vin."


Ezra found Nathan, Josiah, Buck and JD already pounding away at their respective computers by the time he made it to the office. After the subdued greetings, he slipped behind his desk and began to fill out the endless array of government forms that needed to be completed by the end of the day. He was so completely absorbed in his self- imposed task that he did not see Buck's tall form standing next to him until the man cleared his throat, announcing his presence. With a jerk, Ezra's slender fingers ceased their race across the keyboard and he sat back in his chair, raising an eyebrow in question.

"You doing okay, Ez?"

"Of course I am, Mr. Wilmington."

The self-titled ladies man shifted his weight as he searched for the words he wanted to say to his friend. "You know, if you ever need to talk about anything…"

"I am sure I have no idea what you are referring to," Ezra coolly interrupted the well-meaning man.

A slight frown settled on Wilmington's high forehead as he listened to the words being offered him. He leaned closer to the man, bringing his face even with Ezra's. "I think you do, Ezra. I just wanted you to know that I am here for you no matter what. I am your friend. Nothing can or ever will change that." With that said, he patted the other man's shoulder and returned to his desk, leaving a baffled friend behind.


The remainder of the afternoon was spent toiling over the seemingly endless array of forms that needed to be completely filled out by each person who had participated in the bust. It was well past quitting time when Ezra deposited the final paper in Larabee's in basket. JD and Buck were sprawled out, resting their aching heads on their desks. Josiah slowly stretched his large frame, popping a couple of joints as a sigh of relief escaped. Nathan scrubbed his eyes with ink stained fingers and took stock of his fellow workers. Chris had called a couple of hours ago to let them know that the doctor had released Vin and the two of them were headed out for the ranch.

"Let's go grab a bite to eat before we head on out to the ranch."

Buck's suggestion was met with quiet agreement from all of the room's occupants, save one. The usually gregarious man forced his head up from its comfortable position, hunting for the missing voice. A frown marred his handsome features when his search came up empty.

"Where'd Ezra go?"

"He just left a few minutes ago," Josiah answered grimly. The large man had been surreptitiously studying the southerner ever since he had arrived that morning. He had noted how Ezra had diligently applied himself to his self-appointed task of completing both his and Vin's required forms. He knew from his own experience how tedious filling out one set was, much less two. "He is carrying a heavy burden. One that he can't seem to share with anyone else."

Nathan nodded in agreement as he gathered up his heavy coat and gloves. "Well, we might as well go grab something to eat for Chris and Vin. Doubt Chris remembered to stop for anything on his way home."

Buck twisted his torso to the right and then to the left, producing the satisfying sound of cracking vertebrae. "You fellas go on ahead. I got something I need to do." He grabbed his down-filled coat and heavy key ring before heading towards the bank of elevators.


The beat-up Chevy made its way down the dirt road, following its twists and turns as Buck craned his neck, searching for his lost friend. It had been a fluke eight months ago when Buck had discovered Ezra's hideaway. To say that he had been shocked would have been an understatement. Who would have guessed that the smooth, urbane gentleman actually enjoyed the quiet solitude of sitting next to a gently gurgling brook out in the middle of nowhere. Buck had known about this spot for more years than he cared to remember. He had used to bring some of his more adventurous lady friends out here to spend `quality time' with him when he was just a rookie on the force. Later on, Buck continued coming back to the spot to find his inner peace when the job threatened his sanity. It was after one particular hard case that both he and Ezra had been working together from the inside that he had blindly made his way out to the spot only to find the undercover agent staring pensively out at the water. Buck had silently retraced his steps back to the main road and took up the watch over the troubled man. He would never leave a friend's back unprotected.

Now that he thought back on the time, he realized that this was the case where they had almost lost Vin. The sharpshooter had been shot by the hidden bodyguard of the drug dealer they had just finished off. The Texan had just begun to shimmy down from his topside position after the standard `All clear' call was sounded when the young punk had jumped out from behind some rotting crates and fired. The doctors had worked on him for over four hours before finally coming out to tell the others that, barring any complications, their friend would be fine.

As soon as Ezra had heard the good news, he gathered with the others in the small recovery room to see him with his own eyes. Buck remembered how, after almost an hour of anxiously waiting, Vin cracked open his fuzzy blue eyes, searching for his talisman. He questioning gaze lingered on each man's face, assuring himself that each of his fellow teammates were fine. The young man had become agitated as he silently pleaded with Chris for an answer to his unspoken question. After taking account of the room's occupants, Buck immediately realized what the sharpshooter sought.

"He's fine, Junior," Buck assured the frightened man. "He was just here with us but, I guess he needed to step out for a couple of minutes. You know Ezra. He probably thought up some grandiose scheme of his and went to hook some unsuspecting doctor in on it."

Vin had stared intently into the older man's deep blue eyes and read the sincerity behind the spoken words. Only then did he allow himself to slip back into the healing slumber he had just recently climbed out of.

It was hours later before any of the other men had discovered that the missing man had returned to the office and had completed a majority of the required paperwork for them all. No one ever questioned Ezra about his disappearing act but Buck had begun to watch the aloof man a bit more closely, noting how he continued to keep himself emotionally apart from the other six men while his emerald gaze would continually keep track of one certain shaggy sharpshooter. There was nothing obvious in his actions that the ordinary bystander would take note of. Buck himself would have missed the minor clues if he had not known what to look for.


His unorthodox upbringing had left him with the special acceptances of all sorts of individuals. His mother had taken the time to explain to her impressionable son that when two people truly loved one another, there was nothing wrong with their feelings. It was commonplace for Buck to see two people of the same gender engaged in a loving relationship. Those lucky couples were surrounded by complete acceptance of the rest of the household where they were provided with a fertile ground on which their love could and did mature.

A smile crept across his face, easing his worried mind as he remembered his `Uncle' Patrick and `Uncle' Andrew. He had been almost thirteen years old when he had happened upon the two men as they were expressing their love for one another in a most passionate way. The new teenager had stood slack-jawed in the doorway, unable to tear his stunned eyes away from the sight of the entwined limbs. His mother had found him there a few minutes later and had hurried him away from the two oblivious lovebirds.

Over a frosty glass of cola and a handful of homemade cookies, she had gently explained to her son that while the majority of society found themselves paired up in a girl/boy relationship, there were those special individuals who found love in a mirror image. She impressed on Buck that while he will be told throughout his life that such relationships are wrong, there can be no such thing as bad love. He could still hear his mother's lilting voice as she explained to Buck her beliefs that he carried in his heart to this day. She had told him that love was a pure emotion that is gifted by the Lord to mere human beings. Because it is so unique and not given to everyone that, when you are presented with this gift, it is your duty to cherish it. No one had the right to pass judgment on another. That was God's duty alone. To say that two people's love in one another was wrong or immoral just because it did not fit in a specific mold was to say that God was wrong. In her eyes, no one ever had the right to say that He was wrong.

He could still feel her touch as he recalled her stretching across the scarred table and grasped his large hand in her smaller one. `Promise me that you will always cherish this gift when you find it in your life. Promise me that you will help those around you to cherish it should they need that little extra help. It doesn't matter who they are, be it man and woman, man and man or woman and woman, love must be fought for and protected at all costs.' The young man had solemnly sworn to himself right then and there to uphold his mother's teachings to the end of his life.

Buck eased the old truck off the country lane and grabbed his suede gloves from the passenger seat. He could see the faint image of the Jaguar up ahead so he quietly made his way towards his target. With the ease of familiarity, he took up his position behind the snow- laden tree and took up the watch over his friend. Ezra didn't need to know that he was there but Buck needed to know he was there for his friend should he need him.

`Well, Mama. If it weren't for you and your clear sight, I would be a really sorry piece of man. I promise, I'll help Ezra understand and cherish his gift just like you taught me.'


The icy water slowly winded its way down its path, past the silent figure on its shore. He had been in such a rush to escape his own memories that he did not notice just how cold it had gotten. When he had left for work earlier that day, the weatherman had been predicting temperatures in the 40s but, true to form, this was proven wrong. He burrowed down even further in his heavy winter coat, silently cursing the weatherman. Of course he would have been more comfortable if he had remained in the warm interior of his car but the scent had driven him out.

While he had been occupied by his latest assignment, Vin's jeep had broken down once again. Ezra had offered him the use of his car with only one condition attached. He tried to make Vin promise that he would not bring his beloved vehicle any closer than a five mile radius of that hole in the wall neighborhood the other man called home. He remembered Vin's lazy smile drifting across his face as he grabbed the keys from the reluctant agent. `Don't worry, Ez,' he had drawled. `I'll take real good care of the Jag. Treat it just as if it were my jeep.'

The southerner had cringed as he heard the last few words, making a half-hearted attempt to retrieve the key ring. `Just be sure that it is returned to me in the pristine fashion in which you are accepting it in, Mr. Tanner.'

When Ezra had left the offices that evening, he had planned on going directly home and burying himself in the nearest brandy snifter. Those plans changed as soon as he settled his tired form in the car. With the heater going full blast and the soft leather caressing his body, all he could focus on was the smell of Vin's scent that lingered inside. The clean scent that was uniquely his. He knew that the other man used only the barest essentials in his daily grooming. A bar of soap, shampoo and mint toothpaste. No aftershave or fancy lotions were necessary. The troubled man found himself directing the Jag out of the city limits, heading to his quiet spot. He needed to think. Re-evaluate what had happened and what he was going to do.

Ezra sat at the water's edge, idly combing his stiff fingers through the snow as he replayed the entire week. He had known for some time that what he felt for Vin was something more than friendship. It was a feeling that he usually ran from. Normally, he would have cut his losses and hidden his head in the sand in an effort to escape the reality of the situation. Surprisingly, this time he had not run. He had remained with the team, joining them during off-duty hours, celebrating holidays and birthdays with them. He had come to crave those times where he could be with his heart's beloved. Stand next to him and see his blue eyes glow with satisfaction. He reveled in the infrequent pats on the back and the occasional hand on his shoulder.

Their friendship was the product of Vin's never-ending mission to win a place in Ezra's life. The sharpshooter refused to take no for an answer. Every time Ezra had refused any invitation to spend time with the team or Vin himself in those early days, Vin's resolve hardened. Ezra watched as the other man methodically plotted and played out his next course of action. Eventually, Ezra learned to trust the six men he worked with and, with this trust, came a softening in his barriers. It was not uncommon for him to find himself spending a Saturday with Vin at some obscure gun show looking at antique firearms or relaxing over a couple of beers after a long day at the office. He had come to learn that the other man was an extremely complex, yet intriguing, man. During late night talks over a good bottle of whiskey and long hours spent undercover together depending on no one but each other, Ezra's need for the other man grew by leaps and bounds.

He found himself lying awake at night after those quiet visits, yearning for something he could never have. It was inconceivable to him that the younger man would ever look upon him as anything more than a good friend. A brother.

With this knowledge came his private vow that he would do anything in his power to ensure that this special man would not meet with any harm. Now, as he sat in the snow, mindless of the cold that enveloped him, he wept with self-recrimination. If he hadn't been slower in taking his appointed man down. If he hadn't taken his eyes off of Vin before the sharpshooter decided to descend from the rafters. If he hadn't … He could sit there until the middle of next week before coming close to running out of the numerous `if only' scenarios. The fact of the matter was plainly, he had broken his promise to the one person he cherished above his own life. He had let Vin down and, in the process, Vin had been injured.

The piercing call of an owl shook the man out of his tortured reverie. He blinked his eyes several times, forcing himself to return to his surroundings. He was astonished to find that the sun had set and several stars had already made their way out for the evening. After shaking his head abruptly in an effort to clear his muddled brain, he pushed his stiff body to its feet and tiredly made his way back to the car.

Buck watched his friend settle into the creamy interior and fiddle with the various knobs on the dashboard. `Probably blasting that damn heater on the highest setting!' Knowing that the southerner would take the time to completely warm up his engine before turning back towards town, Buck used that time to return to his truck and coax it back to life. He pulled into parking lot of the small diner that sat on the roadside five miles down the road and waited until the familiar sports car sped by, on its way back to the city.


"Do you need anything, pard?"

"Naw. Got everything I need right here." The coffee table was covered with an assortment of potato chips, candy bars and cans of cola. The recovering patient had the black remote clutched in his left hand and a slice of pizza in his right one.

Chris leaned back in his recliner and smirked at the sight. One of his top agents was currently ensconced on his leather couch, huddling under a mountain of quilts. Vin hadn't moved from that spot since they had returned to the ranch late that afternoon. "Just as long as you're sure you ain't missing anything over there."

Vin scowled in his direction before resuming his channel surfing. His mind had not settled down one bit since early that morning. He kept replaying the one-sided conversation that had taken place in the dark hospital room that morning. When he had first gotten to the ranch, he made a futile effort to push all thoughts of Ezra from his mind. His head still felt as if it was being used as a beginners Tyco drum set and these new thoughts were not helping it any.

He knew from experience that the best way to make it through the aftereffects of a concussion was to get lots of sleep and stop dwelling on any crazy notion that might pop up. The only problem with this self-prescribed antidote was the fact that he was not following the instructions. Every time he closed his eyes, it was as if someone hit the rewind button on a tape recorder, and the sound of Ezra's voice would begin to flow through his brain. Refusing to admit defeat, he tried to direct his attention to the basketball game that was now on the big screen. Unfortunately, even the prospect of one of his favorite teams beating the crap out of the Bulls did not appease him.

Larabee set the empty beer bottle down on the floor next to the Lazy Boy and glanced back over at his friend. Ever since he had unwittingly overheard the conversation between his top undercover agent and his unconscious sharpshooter, he had wrestled with how he was going to address the situation. There was no way that this could be swept under the rug. He could tell that Vin was struggling with the situation but still refused to reach out to him for help. Besides, Chris knew from past experience that, if this was not met head on, it could create a dangerous situation at the office.

He had known from the beginning where Vin's preferences laid. The young man had been up front with him on that account, quietly telling him before he accepted his position on the team that while he was attracted to some women, he also found himself to deeply care about some men. Larabee had been instilled from his time in the Navy with the belief of `Don't ask. Don't tell.' But even more so, Larabee's gut reaction to this revelation was that Vin Tanner would never place his Team in danger or his friends in any situation where they were uncomfortable. Vin had lived up to that belief every day since. No one who had met Vin would have guessed that he enjoyed the company of both men and women. In fact, if anyone took a poll in the ATF today, the results would be 100% in the heterosexual column.

"Hey, Vin," Chris called out softly, keeping his eyes on the screen. "You know that if you want to talk about it…"

"Yeah, I know," he gruffly interrupted. "Just ain't ready to do that. Gotta do some figurin' on my own."

Chris nodded slightly, "Just so you know…"

"I know. Thanks."


Several days had passed and the entire team was back at the office, preparing for the next case that had come down from A.D. Travis' office. JD and Buck were entertaining the others with their never ending harassment of one another. Today, it was the Battle of the Fittest Rubber Band Shooters. It had begun as a simple request by JD for a larger rubber band and quickly escalated to an all out war when Buck had offered the item in his own unique way. Ezra had tucked his head down and tried to concentrate on the paperwork that was scattered in front of him after he took the obligatory bets on who would win the battle. It was two to one that the young Agent Dunne would ultimately prevail, especially since Josiah and Vin were quietly supplying him with ammunition.

Vin had covertly kept an eye on the man seated across from him, watching and noting the black smudges beneath his eyes and the increased coffee consumption. He didn't know what to say or, for that fact, how to even approach the subject that had been in the forefront of his mind ever since Ezra's hospital visit. He had spent several restless nights, struggling with the good versus bad aspects of any possible change in their relationship. It had taken so many months just to earn the Southerner's trust that he was reluctant to do anything that may destroy it. Vin knew that on the basic levels, he was strongly attracted to Ezra. Who in their right mind wouldn't be? Here was a man who kept himself in very good shape, dressed well and always smelled nice. He was extremely smart and never hesitated to share that wealth of knowledge with those around him through his five dollar vocabulary words. His wicked sense of humor was addictive. The gleam in those green eyes when he was plotting havoc was spellbinding. But the one thing that was the most attractive quality about the man was the side of himself that he rarely allowed to be seen. The caring man that was kept hidden beneath the poker face. Vin had seen the way Ezra would slip a downtrodden kid a few extra dollars or the way he would relax only after the doctor had pronounced the pending recovery of one of the other men. There were more pluses than minuses in his book as to why he should take the chance. But, the fear of losing the friend he had fought to know as well as possibly driving him from the team should the relationship end badly kept Vin silent.

Ezra could feel the scrutiny, causing him to be more nervous than he already was. He struggled to keep his attention on the paper in front of him but found his thoughts straying to the man across from him. The lack of sleep and the over abundance of caffeine in his already taxed system did nothing to help the situation. With a muttered curse, he pushed himself away from the desk and stalked into the small break room for another cup of coffee.

Looking up from his mini fort he had erected to protect himself from JD's flying missiles, Buck called out to the stiff back, "Hey, Ez. If you keep inhaling that sludge Vin calls coffee, you're goin' turn into a pool of oil."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, for your continued dissertation on my liquid intake, but I find I don't need your quaint observations."

"But you always say that drinking Vin's coffee is like drinking a vile concoction of tar and river sludge," JD added. "Can't see why you are drinking so much of it since you don't really like it."

Ezra pointedly took a large sip of the tepid liquid, forcing his face to keep from betraying the grimace that raced through his mind before answering. "Mr. Dunne, when one can no longer obtain the quality of coffee that I am accustomed to, one must lower one's standards and partake in what is available at the time." The southerner took one more pull from his coffee mug before adding with a smirk, "Besides, Mr. Tanner's coffee has become quite the rage. I do believe he is using a rather unique blend of beans that have no equal."

Josiah and Nathan started laughing when they saw the blank looks on the two roommate's faces. They could see the wheels spinning as the two men who avoid Tanner's coffee like the plague tried to figure out if Vin had indeed been making more palatable coffee. Buck shook his head and chuckled quietly to himself. "Naw. I just think you're desperate for the caffeine fix. Ain't that right, Ez?"

"You should know by now, I would never admit nor deny anything that may come back to haunt me!" Ezra slid back into his desk chair and saluted the Texan with his mug before turning his attention back to the documents before him.

Vin smiled back at the man, noticing not for the first time the warm feeling that stole through his body whenever the southerner flashed him a private smile. `Chalk up one more for the plus side.'


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