ATF Alternate Universe
Disclaimer: Basically, the exposition is mine; everything else is somebody else's.
Note: I wrote this about a week after Super Bowl Sunday, and am just now getting around to posting. GreenWoman beta'd, and lent her invaluable writer's instinct and a few choice words to the piece...she is, in a word, priceless.
The moon was dropping. It grew larger as it fell, threatening the horizon even as dying night carried it away. Down the avenue, a flickering street light rattled the darkness. Scraps of fog settled on the cars parked curbside, and dulled the shiny darkness of the shadows in the shrubs and alleys.
Thanks to the cozy chill of just-above-freezing, the frayed edge of sleep rippled occasionally against Buck Wilmington's mind; but it couldn't take hold. If the 40-ounce spring water with the 7-Eleven coffee chaser didn't keep him alert, his current case of full-blown insomnia sure as hell would.
'Insomnia.' Kind of like saying 'passed away' instead of 'dead.' Buck shifted slightly, stretching one long leg across the Chevy's bench seat. He pushed his booted foot against the passenger side, pressing himself more comfortably into the nook between the driver's door and the worn leather seat. His hands remained stuffed in his coat pockets, and he stared blankly at the patch of steam painted across the windshield by the coffee sitting on the dash. He knew what his problem was -- why he was in his car wide awake instead of at home sleeping off the large amounts of alcohol he'd consumed during the weekly poker game earlier that night. This 'insomnia' had become habit during the last month. Usually he rode it out watching the news loop on CNN on the couch at his and JD's apartment. Tonight, though, he'd somehow ended up watching the lighted living room window belonging to the reason for his weekly sleeplessness.
Simple confusion was the culprit, honestly. Spending all evening listening to Ezra Standish distract his opponents through tales woven with the wool of a honeyed drawl and sophisticated lingo left Buck completely befuddled these days. Everyone expected to be regaled by the undercover agent's broad vocabulary and large store of past misdeeds. It had all become a sort of joke, and Ezra played to his audience gleefully, if the mischievous grin that showed up whenever JD looked blank or Nathan got riled by the stories was any indication.
Buck had always been entertained by it, too. Until lately. Until he'd been with Ezra during a stakeout some weeks ago. He'd turned to watch his partner talk, tell some anecdote about the time back when he was in Atlanta Vice, when he almost got in a fist-fight during a stakeout by winning his very irritable partner's full month's paycheck in a game of Blackjack. While Ezra spun the tale, the orange-red of sunset had splintered the trees outside their ATF-issue beige Crown Royale and cast his profile in soft gold. Ezra's eyes had sparkled a gilded green. It had been quite a sight. Buck had become abruptly aware, not just of the perpetually seductive tones of Ezra's voice, but of the heat of him sitting so near. Of his smell -- warm, subtle, like sex in a warm winter kitchen. Buck had laughed, at the story and at the pure pleasure of being stuck all day in that car with Ezra Standish. And then the feeling faded a bit, as he realized that the story itself only told him something he already knew -- Ezra was a helluva card player.
The thing about it was, Ezra knew a lot about Buck. Since Ezra had been with the team, he and Buck had become fairly good friends -- friendlier than Ezra was with anyone else, at any rate. For one thing, Ezra was game for most of Buck's hare-brained schemes, if only because they offered an uncertain outcome on which to place a bet. And, Buck remembered fondly, they had bonded once over a sling-shot and smoke bombs during the raid of a warehouse storing almost a quarter million dollars worth of untaxed contraband cigarettes.
Then, at some point, as Buck had continued to adjust to the distance that had grown between himself and Chris Larabee over the last few years, he discovered that Ezra understood what it felt like to be outside looking in. And he had found, a little to his surprise at the time, that Ezra was as good at listening to a friend as he was at drawing information from a mark.
Sure, Buck loved JD Dunne like a brother. Like a little brother, actually -- and there were some things you didn't tell your little brother. So it turned out that Ezra knew a lot about Buck from the stories Buck told him over lunch or drinks at Inez's bar.
And generally a man didn't end up feeling about a little brother like Buck had begun to feel about Ezra. With that admission, Buck had to shift a little, quirk his hips just slightly, and in the silent cab of the truck the squeak of the old seat springs and the soft, low sound that rose in the back of his throat were loud. But, he thought, along with the growing desire to explore the richness of the southerner's taste and touch, he wanted to give back what Ezra had given him. He wanted to be able to double the happiness of a moment, or halve the burden of a pain. How the hell could he do that if he hardly knew anything about the man, though?
At first, Buck had thought maybe he just wasn't paying enough attention. So he listened more closely, and in among the long strings of ornamental words were morsels of information so small they wouldn't have fed a mouse. Morsels so small, Buck thought, that they could be packed up in a second and spirited away. Kind of like the handful of knick-knacks and the stack of still-taped boxes that decorated Ezra's condo.
And damn, that drove Buck crazy. Which is why after watching the deft movements of Ezra's strong, agile hands while he dealt cards on poker night, taking in the green eyes and relaxed grin, and trying to make the lyrical natter flesh out the handsome man -- Buck spent the rest of the night wide awake and feeling as though somehow he knew less than he had going into the evening.
Buck dipped his head to the side, peering through the foggy windshield up at Ezra's condo. The window was still lit -- and there went a shadow past it. So Buck wasn't the only one awake at -- he glanced at his watch in the bare street lamp light -- 4:32 am.
Upon which realization, the coffee and water made themselves known.
"Ah hell." Buck rubbed his tired, dry eyes. He could go home, or go down a few blocks to the all-night gas station. But he'd rather just go up to Ezra's. What was he supposed to say, though?
'Hey, Ez, I was in the neighborhood for no particular reason at 4:30 in the morning and I wondered if I could use your bathroom'? Right. Stupid. Something closer to the truth? 'Hey Ez, I'd really like to hear about you for a change, and man, do I gotta use the john.' Sure, even better.
If he had a six-pack or something, that would be okay.
Then he remembered the shirt.
Buck unlocked his stiff, chilled muscles and joints and leaned across the seat to rummage around in the pile of junk on the passenger side floorboard. Out from beneath the drifts of snack packages and crumpled fast-food wrappers, and shedding a layer of unopened bills as he lifted it, he withdrew the plastic Sports Plus bag.
It contained a St. Louis Rams t-shirt, commemorating their recent triumph in Super Bowl XXXIV. Buck had tracked it down the previous weekend. He remembered that Ezra had lived in St. Louis for a while, and knew that whenever Ezra talked about the city, it was with a bit more fondness than Buck usually heard when the southerner mentioned his succession of step-families and borrowed homes. Ezra had put all his money on the Rams, despite the fact that most sportscasters and newspapers predicted the Titans would win. He'd ended up taking everyone but JD's money in the office pool, and been pumped by the Rams' victory. Well, until Monday morning, at least, when he'd slipped into the office and proceeded to spend the day working intently on his backlog of reports and specifically not engaging anyone in conversation; who the hell knew why.
So far Buck had kept forgetting to bring the shirt up to the office. Now, oversight became good fortune. It wasn't beer, but it should get him through Ezra's door and to the bathroom, at least.
The old pickup's door creaked open and banged shut in the late night quiet. Buck watched his breath float away as he jogged across the street and up the stairs to the open walkway in front of Ezra's second-story apartment. As he rapped quietly on Ezra's door, he wondered what Ezra did in the wee hours of a sleepless morning. Not to mention what Ezra wore to bed. He grinned wolfishly to himself as he waited for the door to open.
Ezra wore navy blue flannel drawstring pants to bed, with a bathrobe added to answer the door. His hair appeared slightly damp; the bathrobe was open, baring a smooth, fair-skinned, muscular chest. Buck did not stare.
"It's four o'clock in the morning, Buck, what the hell do you want?"
Buck smiled, held out the plastic Sports Plus bag, shivered, and said, "Have a look! While I, uh, use your bathroom."
Ezra took the bag, and after pausing to stare narrow-eyed at his fellow agent, stepped back and let Buck slip past him.
Buck headed through the living room, shooting a glance at the television -- CNN, what do you know -- and made a bee-line for the back hallway. Ezra directed him to the first door on the left, which Buck waved off with "I know." He'd only been in the place once, for a grand total of three minutes when he'd picked Ezra up for work, but he'd spent that three minutes waiting for Ezra to grab his coat and work bag snooping around. Buck never left a place without knowing where the bathroom was. And the bedroom, usually. Ezra's was, incidentally, the other door at the end of the hall. It was as spartan as the rest of the house, just a dresser and a nice, big, comfy-looking four-poster bed. In walnut, he was pretty sure.
Ezra's bathroom was warm, with a faint humidity in it. It wasn't messy, per se, but a small collection of plush, dark blue towels apparently hadn't found a place to live yet. Buck picked a damp one off the toilet and threw it over the shower bar.
The small room smelled like -- Ezra. The warm, musky smell, tinged with something Buck had never been able to place hung about it with the humidity. A peek in the shower revealed a strange brand of shampoo and shaving cream, water-flecked bottles with leaves printed on them and names like 'Clear Mountain Stream Shampoo with No Added Scent' and 'Vanilla Nut for Men, Sensitive Skin Formula.' Vanilla. Buck was surprised; he had always associated vanilla with scented candles and the sickeningly sweet potpourri that Denise in Records kept on her desk. He'd never figured it for a rich, subtle odor that would become more and more appealing the more he was around a particular man.
Sensitive skin, huh? Sounded ... intriguing.
The white light of the fat, round light bulbs jutting out uncovered from the wall above the sink mirror milked Buck's face of color while he rinsed his hands. His eyes were glassy and red-shot in the reflection, and he sighed. He really needed to get some sleep.
Ezra was next to the kitchen sink, capping a small, stout brown bottle when Buck came out of the bathroom. Buck leaned on the bar that separated the kitchen from the living room; he saw the Sports Plus bag at the end of the bar near the front door, with the neatly folded t-shirt on top of it, and felt a unexpected twinge of disappointment that it appeared the gift was about to be returned.
"So, Buck, what has inspired you to descend upon my doorstep in the early hours of the morning bearing gifts?" Ezra set a diamond-cut tumbler on the bar. Buck swirled the amber liquid before raising the glass to sniff curiously at the contents, as Ezra added, "Plumbing go out in your building again?"
Buck paused mid-sniff. The plumbing -- now, that would have been a good excuse. But he shrugged. "Nah, couldn't sleep. And JD's at Casey's tonight, so I couldn't wake him up to keep me company. And I'd forgot to bring that shirt in to work this week."
He took a swallow of the sweet-smelling drink, and had to strangle a cough as the liquid shrank the inside of his mouth and seared his throat. Then, as he sucked in a breath, the liquor's heady perfume suffused through his chest. It was damned relaxing.
"What the hell is that?"
"Blackberry brandy and a shot of vodka. One of my mother's favorite all-purpose medicinal aides. Good remedy for insomnia." Ezra smiled slightly at Buck's reaction, and his green eyes glittered amusedly as he sipped his own drink.
"Medicinal is right." Buck blinked and wrinkled his nose as his sinuses cleared dramatically. He swiveled his head to look into the living room; the alcohol fused with the caffeine and exhaustion added a whole new dimension to the scene. Honeyed light fell from the single lamp beside the dark, Mission style couch, and floated up in a freckled halo through the geometric designs in the pearl and green Tiffany shade. News clips flickered and anchor people muttered on the nearly-silent television, their images reflecting in muted blurs on the surface of the Mission coffee table. A fleece blanket of pale green was piled in the brown leather recliner. Despite the bare walls, the boxes lining the far side of the room, and the loneliness of the single picture frame and spare handful of Time's and Scientific American's which made up the room's only decoration, the place felt downright cozy.
Buck wandered a few steps toward the back of the couch, the hard-edged glass sweating slightly in his hand, and saw a pair of dark red plaid pillows squished into the corner of the couch beside the lamp. When he looked back at Ezra, the southerner had rounded the bar and was watching him.
"You too?" Buck asked.
Ezra's brow furrowed briefly as he wended his way back through the recent conversation and found the relevant thread.
"Got into a good book." He motioned toward the couch. Buck peeked over and grinned.
"Dashiell Hammett. You a hard-boiled detective fan?"
Ezra grinned back. "My classmates at the boarding schools wanted to be Spiderman, or GI Joe, or a top CEO like their fathers. I wanted to be the Continental Op."
Buck chuckled, remembering the self-described portly, unattractive, but sneaky and tough-as-nails Op inhabiting Hammett's short stories. Sneaky and tough-as-nails, yeah, but....
"I don't know, Ez, I'd have thought you'd be more the James Bond type. Slick and stylish and all that."
Ezra's face softened briefly with amusement. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. But I wasn't exposed to 007 until Timothy Dalton, by which time I knew better than to be dazzled by mythological contradictions of wealth and law enforcement."
Buck shook his head in exaggerated sympathy at the idea that Ezra had to go through adolescence without getting to meet Sean Connery's Bond-James-Bond. No kid should suffer that.
It made him smile, though. Two more things he'd just learned about Ez.
"Buck," Ezra said hesitantly. He was looking at Wilmington intently, and his face wore a rare expression -- a look that indicated that he wasn't sure how to say something. He made a small noise, an unobtrusive clearing of his throat, and set his drink down on the bar beside Buck's gift. "I don't mean to imply ingratitude -- but what, exactly, made you think I'd want a Rams t-shirt?"
If Buck had had his wits about him, instead of being dead tired and slowly melting under the soothing warmth of the brandy and vodka and of Ezra's quiet home, he might have misinterpreted and been offended by the wince of self-reproach that crossed Ezra's face as he fumbled through the question. But he didn't, and he wasn't, so he rolled with the candor and answered honestly himself.
"You were rooting for them, and I've kinda got the impression that you got a fondness for St. Louis." He shrugged. "I know it ain't exactly your style, but I thought what the hell."
The southerner didn't respond at first. Buck figured it must have been the liquor and the late hour working on Ezra as well, because he had no problem reading the normally inscrutable southerner's reactions. The first look was a minute, surprised furrowing of the southerner's brow. And then Ezra's eyes narrowed in a way that made him look more tired than wary, and his posture loosened. A terrycloth-clad arm wrapped around his bare, muscular stomach with residual uncertainty, but his shoulders dropped an inch, and he leaned hip-shot against the bar.
"Actually, I already have one."
Buck blinked. "A Rams shirt?" Well, damn.
Ezra missed the cue as his fingers touched lightly on the folded shirt. "Just like this one. I got it today, in fact. From an ex-step-sister in St. Louis."
Buck almost reached to take the extra shirt back before Ezra's tone of voice registered on his sluggish brain. Suddenly he didn't really think that was the point of the comment, so he stayed his hand and said softly, "That was right nice of her."
Ezra smiled -- another surprise. "We always did get along. I spent the one summer Mother was married to Michael at their home. Michael took us kids to a baseball game every month. Shannon and I have kept in touch, sort of."
"You talk to her after the Super Bowl?"
"Yeah, I called her."
"Not really. Michael died that Friday. Heart attack. They ended up throwing the Super Bowl party in his honor -- in lieu of a wake, as I'm sure Michael would have appreciated." Ezra grinned lopsidedly at the idea. "But it was still pretty hard for her." The smile faded, but oddly, a trace of contentment muted the sadness that remained. "She said she'd tried to get a hold of me, to invite me, but I hadn't been in touch with her since I left Atlanta. When she found out where I was, she sent me the shirt."
Buck had no words to offer at this revelation, but Ezra didn't notice. He continued, "I don't want you to think I don't appreciate this, though..." He looked at the shirt below his hand.
"You're welcome to return it, or exchange it. Receipt's in the bag."
Ezra smiled a small warm smile. "Actually, I think I'll keep it."
A crackle and click behind Buck made him start, and he turned to see the television, which had switched off, suddenly come back on. The picture no longer showed CNN; instead, Shania Twain jiggled across the screen in a skimpy silver crop top and matching silver skin-tight pants. The low volume kept her voice and back-up band to a thin wail. Buck looked back at Ezra, whose ears took on a hint of red.
"Country Music Television?"
"Ah, I tend to fall asleep on the couch quite a bit. I set the t.v. alarm for five o'clock, to kick me off and into bed for a couple of hours. CMT was the most obnoxious station I could think of to use, besides the Cartoon Network."
"Right." Buck would have liked to rib his friend a little, but he couldn't pull anything witty enough out of his sleepily disorganized mind to make it worthwhile. He wobbled suddenly as the liquor convinced his body that now would be a good time to sleep, and set the glass down on the bar. "I best be going."
The statement caught Ezra halfway through a yawn, and he shook his head once briefly before he could speak. "Just crash on the couch, Buck." He eyed the man up and down. "You shouldn't -- I don't want --" He half-shrugged. "No need to sleep-drive home."
Buck kept his grin from being too pleased, he hoped. "You got a point. Thanks."
Ezra removed his book from the couch, turned off the lamp and television, and pulled the windowshade against the growing light outside. Buck stretched out on the couch, with his lower legs hanging out over the end cushion. Ezra's mouth quirked, and with tipsy grace he used one bare foot to shove an ottoman under his guest's dangling boots.
As Ezra wandered sleepily toward his bedroom, Buck let his eyes close. Maybe he had been selfish all this time, to want this -- to want to be invited to see the flesh and blood that Ezra was when he was alone with his thoughts. But to see something now that he'd only seen fleetingly before -- Ezra in a state of absolute ease, and talking about himself -- Buck wasn't sorry for it.
After a moment the grittiness of exhaustion began to give way to weightless sleep. The couch smelled like Ezra. Buck wasn't sorry for that, either. Not at all.
|My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.