Odd Man Out

by Celeste

Part I
"Only one casualty…"

Chris heard the words echoing somewhere in the back of his head and tried desperately to ignore it. Only one casualty. He should have been proud, right? His Team was currently ranked among the top four ATF teams in the entire nation… a commendable job. So many judges, directors, and assistant directors had come to shake his hand to tell him how remarkable a job it was that he had almost started to believe it himself. But, then there was that damn comment. One casualty.

He nursed his iced tea, glowering at the glass, and wished for something stronger. Alcohol was not allowed during the conference. Heaven forbid that the representing teams would take the chance to become inebriated before tomorrow’s final competition. He never should have let the judge talk him into taking the seven to Washington to represent Colorado in the annual event. It was a stupid event. Just a chance to assure political big wigs that their investments in the ATF were filtering into capable hands. A chance for agency heads and directors to gauge the men and women available to them and file away names, rankings, and performances.

He looked up towards the back of the room where his undercover agent sat, surrounded by more of his breed. Undercover agents from Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, and Michigan all sat crowded around Standish, studying him around a handful of cards that would more likely than not win them absolutely nothing. Birds of a feather…

Ezra was doing well in competition. All five days he had raked in perfect scores, although he had been ranked only 35 at the beginning of the conference. However, he was currently placed first with his 100% marks on all challenges, which was something usually unheard of in the conference, although Chris couldn’t see why. So far, Vin’s shooting had garnered the coveted 100% score on all scorecards, as well. That, of course, had created quite a stir among the agency and Team leaders. Chris knew those two names would be filed away for future reference. Standish and Tanner, both were top in their fields. He watched Ezra scoop up a pile of cash and grin at his cohorts, winning yet another hand. The younger man seemed so dapper right now, as if nothing had happened at all that afternoon. But, something had happened; only one casualty.

The leader grunted as Josiah joined him by pulling up a chair and plopping down gracelessly in it. He was tired, and he hated Washington D.C. It was crowded, dirty, loud, and highly political. The two agents nodded at each other in greeting. Silence permeated the table for a good five minutes as both recapped the events of the day to themselves. "Brother Standish seems to be takin’ today’s events rather well." the big man speculated after the time had passed.

Chris returned his eyes to the iced tea that he had yet to indulge in. He stirred it with the spoon, staring at it as if his will alone could transform it into beer. "He’s fine," he replied to Josiah’s statement, after realizing his tea was going to stay tea.

"I’m sure he is." The psychoanalyst crossed his arms over his chest, a thoughtful light in his eyes as he recalled the day’s events.

A regretful silence descended at the table yet again as both men quietly studied the cheerful gambler. Only one casualty…

Earlier that day, in competition…

The "impartial" judge, who was playing referee for today’s event, explained the rules slowly, in a large, projecting, and authoritative voice. He noted with some disdain that Larabee’s men looked less than impressed, let alone interested. Travis had said they thought the conference was stupid and a waste of time. Travis sure knew how to pick ‘em. "All right, Team Colorado: meet Team California…" the ref waved from Team 7 to the eight burly men standing across the field. "They’ll be your opponents in the semi-final team Competition."

"An observation I’m sure we could not have arrived at without the aid of our enormously vocal arbitrator," Ezra drawled; noting the uniformly colored jumpsuits they had all been forced to wear, with an air of distaste. Colorado wore black and California wore white. How fitting.

"Shut up Ezra," Buck grunted, before turning back to their referee. He actually wanted to win. Lord knew an upset would make things more interesting here. He hated Washington, this conference, and the arrogance of Team California. The surveillance specialist had overheard California’s sharpshooter last night, as he talked long and loud about how easy it would be to beat a year old team from Denver.

The ref ignored the comments presented by both Standish and Wilmington and continued with the instructions. "Time is limited to ten minutes. The only rules are that you proceed as you would in the field during a real bust. Once you’ve been hit, I will determine the severity of your injuries and whether or not you can continue the competition. I will communicate the decision to you through your ear radios. You will not be able to communicate with each other electronically. The team that can eliminate the most, or all targets, at the end of the allotted time moves on to the finals against New York."

He looked to both sides, to see if anyone had any questions. The California team was eager, and everyone could tell. They were a bunch of veterans from the Los Angeles front who figured they had these mountain rookies beat good and easy. California was the Team Competition’s champion three years running. They wanted to get past this wet behind the ears group that had upset Team Florida and go on to beat their biggest rival: New York. The seven men from Colorado just looked bored.

Deciding this was going to be one of the quickest field competitions he had ever witnessed, the judge stepped back to sit on the elevated observation platform that housed the head directors of the ATF. He could not, for the life of him, fathom how Team Colorado had gotten this far in competition with that attitude. Heck, the recently formed Team Hawaii had had more enthusiasm, before being massacred by New York.

Both groups were given five minutes to formulate a plan, get into position, and check equipment. Team California grouped in a tight huddle, debating the best possible strategy for the terrain available, their one-man advantage, and the cover they would take.

Chris simply lifted his chin at his men, meeting each of their gazes expectantly. They nodded in reply and scanned the area, which was set up to resemble one of the many warehouses in which such busts often took place, and proceeded to pick out their positions. Chris waited until they had all decided on their places before he coughed to gain their attention. All of them turned, acknowledging the request. Six agents clicked the safeties back onto their weapons and surveyed the ammo, bullets filled with paint, and the mechanisms in their arms. The sound and the feel of the rifles and guns alone was proof that everything was functional. Chris checked his own at Vin’s silent indication. Once finished, and satisfied at the expressions on his men’s faces, the leader nodded his assent before he and Vin naturally paired off and stalked towards center cover, right into the action.

Josiah and Nathan looked at each other and headed to cover the stairs from behind a stack of boxes and crates. Buck and JD took high ground on the other side, climbing to the second story platform that overlooked the warehouse floor. Ezra debated with himself a second, then decided on lower ground to Vin’s left. With Vin and Chris at the epicenter of activity, he decided it to be prudent to watch the sharpshooter’s blind spot, while Tanner would be busy ferociously watching Larabee’s. He figured JD and Buck, so high above them, would provide sufficient cover for him. He noted, much to his own amusement, Team California’s annoyance that Team Colorado had slipped into the choicest positions, during the two minutes while they had been conferring.

Breaking their huddle, Team California took their places and awaited the signal from the judges. They were tense and ready, nervously checking and rechecking their weapons and ammunition. Team Colorado still looked, much to the administration’s chagrin, bored.

However, the second the large clock on the wall went from 10:00 to 9:59, a change occurred. There was none of the tenseness and anxiety in the group from Colorado as there was in California’s. There was just a loose, professional ease. They had faith in each other that could easily be mistaken, by the casual observer, as over confidence. All seven of the Colorado dream team gritted their teeth into amused, feral smiles; a pack of wolves ready for the hunt. They had each set their sights on one or two members of the other team, and they had made eye contact with each another by the time the clock counted 8:50. The referee announced two of Team California "dead," from shots fired by Ezra and Vin, to the other administrators in the "box" as the countdown clicked down to 9:45.

Vin and Chris worked like two parts of the same machine, naturally in tune with each other’s rhythm. Chris shot, and Vin covered. Vin shot, and Chris covered. Their opponent’s sharpshooter had had Vin in his sights at one point, but Chris yanked him back forcibly by the collar, with a short bark of warning. The bullet whizzed by and exploded in a splash of red against a shipping crate. They took a second to grin at each other before getting back to the action. One more of Team California was deemed dead, by Chris’s gun and Vin’s cover, as the clock on the far wall hit 8:12. The two agents never blinked as they continued working.

JD and Buck had a busy time keeping their Team covered, because California’s sharpshooter had taken to the opposite platform balcony to cover his own, but they managed. The two knew it was usually Vin in such a position, but Chris had decided this would be good practice for each of his men. He had switched all of their positioning, if not their pairings. JD peeked his head around one of the packing crates. Buck aimed cover fire on the stairs so Josiah and Nathan could nail the two men keeping them from watching over Ezra. JD yelped when the opposing sharpshooter’s bullet exploded where his head had been, before Buck had shoved it down to relative safety.

"Watch your head, JD!" the older man chastised, his tone laced with concern. The bullets had paint in them, but they were still bullets, and they were everywhere.

JD pulled Buck out of the way of a bullet aimed at him from Team California’s leader down below. "Watch yours, Buck!" the kid replied evenly, before turning back to the task at hand. The older man laughed at him a second before turning to fire. The kid grunted in frustration when he only managed to wing one of Team California on his next clip. However, Buck followed through when the man balked from JD’s bullet, with a well-placed shot into the chest. California’s fourth man was determined unfit for competition at the count of 6:50. They took the time to throw each other a congratulatory smile before getting back to work.

Nathan and Josiah were having a bear of a time. Buck and JD had just taken out one of the men bothering them, but they, for the life of them, still could not see Ezra. The most frustrating thing about it was that none of the men really knew how many of the other team was left. They knew one had just been taken out by the twosome on the platform. But, how many had Chris and Vin, or Ezra taken? For that matter, how many had they taken themselves? The bark of the guns was far too constant to gauge California’s numbers. For all they knew, the odds were simply even now. If the damn referees would just announce it, it would make things easier, but that was against the rules. "Can you see him?" Nathan shouted over the fire. He tried to get Standish in his sights to assure himself that the slippery rogue was okay.

Josiah grunted a quick ‘no," in reply, before firing at the sharpshooter on the platform, who had been taking steady aim at Nathan. Luckily, the man took longer to steady and aim than Vin; otherwise, Nathan would be out of the game. The EMT smiled apologetically, knowing he probably shouldn’t crane his neck like that to see, but as far as he knew, Ezra was uncovered and alone. "Ezra…" he started to say.

"Buck and JD will cover…" Josiah replied, quite sure of himself.

Nathan nodded, sure that they would, and even if they didn’t, Vin or Chris would. He returned his concentration to watching Josiah’s back.

They turned to each other and nodded in satisfaction, as they watched twin bullets slam into the chest and leg of a big veteran hiding behind the barrels to their right. Both knew without doubt that that had at least put the odds in their favor. The clock clicked down to 4:23.

Ezra fired steadily, watching Vin and Chris from the corner of his eye, while he attempted to gun down a tricky bastard near the doors. He grinned to himself when he saw his well-placed shots explode onto the blonde gunman’s torso. California was down to its last two men at 4:00.

Chuckling to himself, like the cat that ate the canary and convinced the owner otherwise, Standish reloaded. Just as he lodged the clip in and released the safety, he felt a gun train on him…like a sixth sense. He rolled to the side quickly as two paint filled bullets exploded to his right. The Californian sharpshooter was rather crafty. Luckily, the undercover agent was relatively good at covering his head. He glanced at the splattered red paint on a box behind him and ground his teeth. He hoped that he would get to put that well trained adversary down himself.

It was during those self-musings when Ezra heard a clipped curse from Vin and a frantic, worried, "Chris watch it!" Spinning around, the southerner looked on in fascinated horror. Vin’s gun had jammed. He could tell by the way in which the sharpshooter hastily opened the chamber to dislodge whatever had gone wrong, slamming it with his palm while calling out to his boss and friend. Apparently, Chris hadn’t seen it, and had gone up to shoot at the sniper upstairs without Vin’s cover. He missed, and in the process gave Team California’s leader the opportunity for a steady lock on him. Ezra watched as the stocky, balding man poised to fire. He groaned inwardly, realizing what he had to do; in that split second where everything goes to slow motion and one has to make a choice, fast. ‘The second I turn my back on you two…’ he thought, before instantly coming to his inevitable decision. Steadying his hand, Standish leapt out in front of his cover crates. Squinting, he trained his gun on the target’s chest, hoping he could "dissuade" the gentleman from shooting his leader. The gambler muttered a prayer, hoping that his aim was true and that someone was keeping an eye on him, as well.

Much to Vin’s relief, Chris had ducked before the opposing leader could fire. He watched as three bullets hit the man square on, dead center in each other’s wake, giving Larabee the chance to save his miserable hide. Tanner grinned as he dislodged his jam. Only one southern cuss shot like that, although it was usually through an ace of spades. Vin silently thanked Ezra, before he noticed that the sharpshooter on the platform had, for a split second, broken cover. Team 7’s crack shot did not have the time to consider this odd. He simply swung his now un-jammed rifle upward. He shot twice, without even glancing through the scope, hitting dead center; 100% accuracy.

The clock stopped as the last of Team California was gunned down. 3:27: Impressive! The judges fought the urge to applaud as if they had seen a great movie. Instead, they rewound the replay tape for screening by both competitors. "Team Colorado is the winner," the referee announced over the PA into the training stage. "Both teams please report to the conference room for Team Evaluation."

The members of Team California picked themselves up and with as much dignity as possible exited. They followed their grumpy, incredulous leader who could not believe COLORADO, of all states, had bested them. His Team would be the laughing stock of the California ATF circuit for the rest of their careers. Colorado was a state that simply never won. It was a rule. New Mexico, Kentucky, Oregon and Colorado never won. They never won!

Team 7 had resumed their partially bored, steady façade, in the administrator’s opinions, as if nothing had occurred out of the ordinary. The Team didn’t celebrate, as winning squads usually did in victory, nor did they look impressed with their opponents or their own performances.

Larabee and his men had the right to be bored, the witnesses concluded, as they scribbled down on their notepads the fact that there was not so much as paint splatter on the six who emerged from the debris. They were untouched. The men walked out from all corners of the field like angels of death; they converged around their leader for further instruction. They were an amazing group, unorthodox reputation or not. That undercover agent though… the directors scribbled down another note. Apparently, Standish was good at what he did, but he just did not seem to have a grain of worth in a gunfight.

+ + + + + + +

The corners of Chris’s mouth turned up slightly as his men started to emerge from cover. He wiped away the thin line of sweat that had formed on his brow with the sleeve of his black jumpsuit. Nothing too exerting today, thankfully. The rest of his men looked the same, exhilarated from the action, but not challenged. Hell, JD hadn’t even gotten winged this time. Yup, he grudgingly admitted that he was proud of this team… he narrowed his eyes. Where the hell was Ezra?

However, his desire to seek out the errant southern agent was diverted by a tap on the shoulder. He turned and immediately recognized the man behind him. It was Dick Johnston, one of Travis’ peers. He had met the man at the big kick-off banquet five nights ago at the fancy hotel restaurant. "Something I can help you with Dick?" he raised a single, questioning brow, a habit he was beginning to pick up from Ezra, much to his chagrin’. Both Buck and Vin took the liberty to snicker at this. The leader of Team 7 ignored them; he couldn’t help but dislike the look on the director’s face; how the man grinned like mad.

"I just wanted to come and congratulate you personally, Chris. That was some impressive work you boys put out there just now. I don’t mind telling you that after this conference is over every ATF team in the states will be looking to work with you…or at least borrow some of you," Johnston said excitedly.

"Great," Buck muttered to JD. That probably meant more trips to D.C. and LA. The kid just grinned and shrugged.

Johnston, not having heard Wilmington, kept on with his seemingly endless praise for the seven. "And all of your statistics are wonderful gentlemen," he referred to his conference statistics thus far, fanning through the clipboard with his hands. "Your personal rankings and performance scores in your individual fields of expertise were amazing, you have two men in the finals for crying out loud! And your group efforts to get you to the finals of team competition have been…well, astounding. You didn’t even have one major injury catalogued before today..."

Vin frowned. What did he mean ‘before today?’ He looked up at Chris questioningly. The leader’s brow was furrowed. Tanner was about to ask Dick what he meant, but the man was still spouting.

"…I see agent Dunne was clipped by a "bullet" on Wednesday against Florida, but that seems to be the extent of it. Florida is one of the top three ranked Teams in the agency. I hear they were quite annoyed about the fact that they didn’t even hit any of you. Now today, that was simply art gentlemen, art! Against California; now in the top four… you had only one casualty in today’s huge upset match and…"

Everyone froze, Johnston’s words finally got their attention. Casualty? Chris’s eyes narrowed to slits, as realization hit him like a train. "Shit! Ezra…" he shoved himself around the babbling director, not having heard a word he said after, "You had only one casualty." None of the other five moved, not even to explain what was happening to a very bewildered AD. Shit was right!

 + + + + + + +

Ezra emerged from the crates he had fallen into. He hefted himself up with a groan, noting with some disgust the dull ache in his knee that alluded to a bad landing from his leap of faith. His earpiece had long ago fallen out in the mad dash from cover, and he yanked the offending mechanism from his neck irritably, tossing it aside. The agent began to brush some of the debris off of the arms of his jumpsuit, hoping to make himself presentable before they had to meet in Eval.

That was when he noticed the unsightly red blotches that covered his chest and stomach. His eyebrows jumped in surprise, though he did not vocalize his distress. He dabbed at it with a finger, wondering if it was just something leftover from last year’s gathering. The paint was still wet. It came off on his finger like water, thin and sandy feeling. Bright red paint…what a choice of colors. It was cold and angry; screaming at him. He began to peel off the suit hastily, attempting to maintain some semblance of reason, although he was quite visibly shaken. He barked at himself in sarcastic laughter. ‘If mother could only see me now,’ he thought, trying to hide behind his usual façade of disinterest. ‘So unnerved by simple paint discoloration… surely she would disown me if she knew.’ He wasn’t even really dead. It was just a stupid competition. It hadn’t been real. It was simply a drill; practice. However, the paint was still there. He had been deemed dead; he was certain of it. The places he had been hit were far too vital to have had it come out otherwise.

Where had his teammates been? Were they okay? Had he failed to cover them? Did they lose because of his foolishness? Questions streaked through his head in quick succession, each hitting like a bolt of lightning. Perhaps they were all really okay? They were okay. They had to be okay! Then what happened? They forgot about him. That had to be it; it was the only explanation. The others were too protective of each other to allow their respective counterparts to be shot.

With this realization, he suddenly became so very disappointed. He was once again, the odd man out. They forgot, or they prioritized each other over him. ‘No Ezra… you should have known better,’ he chastised himself hastily for trying to place blame on the others. It was his own fault that he had been careless. It was always his fault. How could they have even had the chance to protect him? Buck was probably pulling JD away from bullets, Josiah reminding Nathan to duck, and Vin yelling at Chris to watch out. The men weren’t omnipotent; they couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Ezra was dead because he had forgotten to watch his own back. He had let that damn sharpshooter get him during a moment of overconfidence. He should have shot the man aiming at Chris and rolled the other way, or planned what he would have done after the shot. Instead, he had jumped out blindly, without thought, causing his own death. The others had been too busy to worry about him, and who could blame them? It was his own fault. He ran his fingers over his forehead in a pinching motion, hoping to ease the tension that erupted there so suddenly. Still trying to calm himself, Standish turned towards the exit as directed by the voice on the PA. He followed Team California out of the thick, heavy, sliding metal doors and into the wide corridor that led to Eval. He didn’t even notice his teammates were still on the floor, talking with Johnston.

 + + + + + + +

"Ezra!" Chris stalked through the entire training room, tossing crates in every direction, as if the death had been real. It might as well have been, as far as the team leader was concerned. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, anger and frustration coloring his tone. What sort of idiot risk had the man taken this time? What stunt had he pulled to get himself shot and killed? What sort of odds had he weighed? He swore that the moment he found his undercover agent that he would rip him apart bodily for doing something so blatantly reckless and irresponsible. He couldn’t do this anymore. He couldn’t keep taking unnecessary risks, because it wasn’t just about him now. It was about all of them, and what had happened today could have just as easily been real. Apparently, Standish didn’t care how his death might affect the team. Well, Chris would show that arrogant bastard otherwise, right after he beat the living hell out of him.

"Team Colorado, we’re waiting for you in the Evaluation Room." The PA system seemed to multiply the judge’s irritation at being detained, and Ezra was STILL nowhere to be seen. Larabee kicked an empty cardboard box out of the way in his frustration. Damn it, where was he? "Team Colorado, please report to the Evaluation Room, NOW."

Larabee suddenly had the sense to realize Ezra might have already gone to Eval. After being shot, the man probably didn’t want any extra attention attached to him by his team’s goading and teasing, or in Chris’s case, cussing. He tossed a box into a group of hollow crates in a final act of annoyance, and knocked them to the side. He saw one of his team’s black jumpsuits. The man couldn’t even stay in uniform! He growled aloud and picked it up. The paint was still wet. "Team Colorado…" the damn PA crackled through his red haze, and he turned and strode back towards the others. The rest of his men were still standing there, silently, as if they had yet to process Johnston’s statement. One casualty.

"Well, I better not um…detain you gentlemen any further…" Dick stated, after the uncomfortable silence had become too much to bear. "You should probably head to the Eval Room before the judges get pissed off."

"Yeah," Vin nodded, though his eyes never left Chris and the jumpsuit draped across his arm. He tilted his head in the direction of the sliding doors as Johnston scurried off, as if he had been physically stung. "We best get going fellas," the tracker stated, pushing them through the doors. Ezra was probably waiting for them with Team California. The crack shooter stopped to let Chris catch up before falling in step beside the leader as the six fanned out into the corridor and headed towards Eval. "He’s probably there."

"Yeah," was all Chris said in response.

Six of the seven stood abreast, walking down a brightly lit corridor with a high ceiling. People scurried to get out of the way. Team Colorado didn’t seem to notice.

Vin dodged splashing coffee, as a fat ATF agent with a cup and a jelly donut sidestepped to avoid being run over by Larabee. The tracker could not help but smile a little. When Larabee was pissed the whole world ran.

Josiah and Nathan pushed open the doors to Eval, which was really just a big square room with a long table in the center and a huge TV on the far wall. Team California sat in a line along one side of the table, clothed in white jumpsuits, and covered in paint that was starting to dry and cake. At the head of the long table were two of the district judges who had been watching the competition. Ezra sat by himself on the opposite side, sans jumpsuit, beside a row of six chairs. Everyone looked up at Team Colorado upon their entrance. Ezra acknowledged their arrival with a nonchalant nod.

Chris tossed the jumpsuit on the floor beside the door and ground his teeth. "Ezra…"

"Mister Larabee, if you and your team would have a seat?" One of the judges motioned at the seats, interrupting Chris mid-tirade.

The leader of Team 7 studiously ignored the statement, and none of his agents moved from his flank. Ezra swallowed slowly, an imperceptible sign of slight discomfort. His face remained neutral. "Yes, Mister Larabee?" To anyone else, it would seem as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred today.

"What happened?" Chris asked his simple question.

Ezra bit back a sarcastic grin. "I broke cover." He opted to respond with a simple answer instead.

"Gentlemen, if you’re ready to start?" The judge was annoyed.

Buck placed a steadying hand on Chris’s shoulder. "Let’s see the tape first Chris."

Chris bit the inside of his mouth and nodded at his oldest friend, although there was still a dangerous glint in his eye. He took the only chair beside Ezra. When he sat down, the rest of the team followed; Vin to Chris’s right, Buck beside him, then JD, Nathan, and Josiah. Team 7 looked straight ahead, unflinching under the scrutiny of Team California. They had received more intimidating looks from Inez at the Saloon.

Chris trained his eyes forward as the judges talked, not hearing a word they said. "If you took an unnecessary risk, I swear, I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands you arrogant bastard," he whispered, just loud enough so Standish could hear.

Ezra bowed his head slightly in response, but he said nothing. Vin coughed, to notify Larabee that the tape was playing. It showed a bird’s eye view of the training room, starting at the time when the referee had explained the rules. Buck took this as his cue to hit the lights. The judge with the remote began to speak in a lilting Arkansas accent, the kind all politicians seem to have. He droned on about how prudent it had been for Team California to confer with one another during their five minutes, directing special attention to Team Colorado’s lack thereof. JD tried his hardest to look like he was paying attention, but his gaze kept darting between Ezra, Chris, and the video. Chris didn’t look too happy; the tension was tangible.

"Now, I know you had some stupendous results today, Mister Larabee, but perhaps you could have avoided agent Standish’s untimely "death," if you had taken time to plan during the allotted five minutes. I find the fact that you did not even utter a word to your men rather disturbing."

Josiah almost interrupted the man to tell him sometimes words were not needed, but then again, he wasn’t so sure this time. Ezra had been shot… no, not just shot; he had been killed. He had seen the stains on the jumpsuit Chris had carried in. It now lay discarded, in a heap on the floor near the entrance, symbolizing defeat. The older agent looked thoughtful, as the tape played in shades of blue and black in the dark room. He had been so confident someone else was looking out for the undercover agent, and that he would be fine. Apparently, everyone else had thought so too. He paid attention to today’s Eval.

Buck hated the politician’s detached tone of voice. It was as if Ezra’s casualty had meant nothing. Technically, it wasn’t real, but it might as well have been. Their attitudes in busts were all the same. Today they had gone up against real professionals, and Ezra had been killed. Who was to say that if they hadn’t done this today, that they would have found out too late? What if, somewhere in a big bust against the baddies, they had forgotten to cover Ezra and he had gotten killed, for real? Wilmington frowned, watching the screen as the judge rambled on about Team CA’s commendable planning job. He tapped his fingers on the desk, bored. The leader of Team CA gave him a dirty look. This goaded the Colorado agent to tap louder and faster, until Nathan threw him his own look of disapproval. Buck grinned and relented.

"California, I want you to pay attention to this part here." The younger judge from North Carolina pushed the slow motion button as the tape began to show the actual battle. "You obviously underestimated your opponents at the start of the drill…Standish and Tanner killed agents Jameson and Parker so fast because they both thought they could take out Larabee, while he was shooting at Sykes." The judge nodded to the CA sharpshooter. "Both of you gentlemen didn’t hold into account how they all covered each other. You thought you were faster and more accurate than them, and you took the chance."

Josiah studied the scene on the TV, while the judge’s voice offered narration. Larabee had been firing at the sharpshooter in the balcony. It was something Chris did out of habit…try and get the person most dangerous to his men out of the way first. While he had been shooting upward, Parker had leveled on the Denver Team leader from the right, preparing to shoot on Chris’s blind side. Tanner provided a single shot of cover, cutting Parker out of the game. Vin however, had failed to see that Jameson, on his left side, had also trained his weapon on Larabee. Two bullets from Ezra kept Chris in the game.

The leader saw this as well, but he ground his teeth and tried to stay angry. Covered him or not, Ezra had obviously done something stupid later in the game, and that was what mattered.

+ + + + + + +

Standish’s eyes shifted back and forth between Chris and the TV screen with slight trepidation. Larabee had his ass. Ezra kept his face neutral, but could not help but fidget a bit with the cuff of his shirt under the table. The only one that knew about his "nervous habit" was Vin. The con man turned his eyes, heck his whole frame towards the screen, with his head facing away from Larabee and the almost heavy scrutiny there. Even after all this time, the year they had been together, Chris was still kept trying to gauge something by the con man’s appearance, but that the one thing Ezra always, ALWAYS, had control of no matter what. It was the only thing that he had control of now. Chris would not be able to read anything, above the table.

"Mister Standish… you took a risk aiming for Paterson there…" The southerner even tried to listen to the judge. Apparently, he placed a good shot, but he was lucky that he dodged those first few bullets from the sniper. All right. Yeah. He would remember that in the future. Ezra sighed to himself in boredom and frustration. So, he HEARD what the judge was saying, though he might not exactly be listening. The listening was made somewhat difficult, considering he was still reeling from the whole "dead" thing. The fact that he could practically feel his boss’ breath on the back of his neck was of no help either. His face remained characteristically neutral.

+ + + + + + +

The feeling of dread grew in Nathan each second the screen flickered across the warehouse scene. He hadn’t been able to cover Ezra, had he? The feeling in the pit of his stomach intensified. He should have trusted his instinct. He should have made sure; he should have found a WAY to make sure. Instead, he had been so confident someone ELSE would be there, that someone ELSE would take care of Ezra. The southerner had had far too much of that in his life already. Yet, the very people who had promised not to throw him back to the sharks had just done so, like everyone else in Standish’s past. He turned away from the TV to breathe. The flickering of the screen lit the dark room and Team 7’s grim expressions. It was still on slow motion. Now it was showing JD and Buck’s cooperative effort in putting down Jacobson, the forensics specialist in team California. The Californian grunted in disdain when the judge dolled out advice to avoid death and muttered, "lucky shot," under his breath.

Buck replied, very coherently, "Easy target."

"Buck…" Chris took the time to shut his agents up before a fistfight erupted in Eval. Buck stood down, but still shot a look of triumph at Jacobson when he was sure his oldest friend was not looking.

"Gentlemen…" the judge coughed to regain their attention. This part of the gun battle is crucial. He pointed to the screen. "Mister Standish…"

"Oh, lawd." Ezra avoided his teammate’s gazes as everyone's attention flickered to his likeness on the screen. Did they have to put the damn monitor on slow motion? He tapped his fingers nervously against his pant leg so that they did not make any noise. It would be too costly a thing if his team were to see his state of unease. He looked up at the TV screen upon hearing the judge repeat his name. He saw Chris’s reflection in it. The undercover agent bit the insides of his mouth to hold onto his poker face, because he knew Chris was staring hard at him from the reflection on the television. Perhaps, if he acted normally it would eventually all blow over. After mentally calculating the odds in his head, the gambler decided that was not a favorable wager to make. Nor were the odds of his avoiding a trip to the dreaded hospital after this was all over either. He clenched his jaw at the memory of the last encounter he had with Mister Larabee’s personal kind of "authority". The bruise was gone, but the memory lingered like a bad aftertaste.

He heard JD’s sharp intake of breath, and turned his attention back to the TV and it’s bluish undertones. He watched his own body being splattered with bullets seconds after he fired. It was a strange sensation, seeing your own "death". He saw his lunge carry him into a stack of crates seconds before the sharpshooter was taken out by mister Tanner’s reliable shot, albeit unreliable rifle. The whole scene played out in less than three0 seconds, but it lingered in each team member’s mind as a permanent, terrifying imprint. The look Ezra sent skyward before he jumped shattered Buck and JD’s hearts. He thought they were covering him. They SHOULD have covered him.

"Now, it was a rather stupid risk to break cover like that so you could shoot team leader Grayson. Don’t do that in a real battle." He paused to think. "But I suppose if this was all strategy for the competition it was ingenious…it drew Sykes’ out and Tanner did get him."

Chris bit his bottom lip; he did not pay as much attention to the video as perhaps he should have. As far as the leader was concerned, he had seen all he wanted to see when Standish took that jump. The thing that made him most angry was that Standish WOULD take that risk in a real bust, and it was going to get him, or someone else killed one day. That was one thing that Larabee would not tolerate any longer, a risk to his team, a gamble where the odds were far too perilous.

Vin was almost as livid as his best friend, but for decidedly different reasons. First of all, Ez had been shot because HIS rifle had jammed. He should have checked it more thoroughly. The guilt was eating at him something fierce. Second, because that damn Arkansas judge had said doin' something like that was "ingenious" to win the game, as if it were worth the risk for their dumb game in the first place. That assumption somehow made Ezra's sacrifice seem tainted, the way the judge decided it was for done purely for the victory, and not to save a good friend's life. It wasn’t that way at all. It was much more than that. Finally, Tanner was mad because his rifle jam had opened up another rift in the great chain of valleys that traversed the ranges of Chris and Ezra’s faith in each other every time something unfavorable occurred. But, Chris blamed only Ezra, and not Vin in the slightest. The leader always did. It was no one’s fault. It was just what happened. The sharpshooter aimed to tell his best friend that, just as soon as they got out of Eval.

The rest of the team studied the remainder of tape in silence, their thoughts melting away into guilt over the happenings. The judge hit rewind and showed Standish jumping again from a different camera angle; lecturing on something else he had done wrong as it played through in slow motion. Team 7’s eyes were glued to the screen in morbid fascination, except for Chris’s. He had seen all he wanted to see. Ezra could be dead. If they hadn't...if that had been real back there, the man, their friend, would be dead, and Larabee, among others, would be cursing him for his foolishness even beyond the grave.

"Yes, I understand Sir." Ezra nodded as the judge doled out advice. He seemed to be agreeing, but those who knew him knew he was a million miles away. The others turned to listen, hoping for an explanation or even a word in self-defense from the southerner. None was forthcoming.

Standish was uncomfortable under the scrutiny, but hid it expertly. He tuned out that look in their eyes and their intakes of breath. He averted his gaze from JD’s questioning expression and saw past Larabee’s grinding jaw. He ignored the scraping of chairs as they changed angles to look in his direction, and he ignored the site of his own bullet-ridden body hitting the cement in painstakingly slow motion across the flickering TV screen. He feigned his familiar little smile, and he held on to the only thing he had left, the only thing reliable now, his indifference.

"And, I trust you will avoid doing the same thing in the future?" the judge looked expectantly at the young undercover agent who was nodding amiably at his fatherly advice. Ah yes, he himself remembered being 28 and full of rash mistakes and dreams of glory, once, a very long time ago. Hopefully, Standish would learn his lesson and survive to become a veteran, as he had. Someday…

The undercover agent paused at the unexpected question. Would he do the same thing given similar conditions? The room was silent, waiting for an answer that should have come easily. In reality, the simple inquiry was tearing him between the way in which he was raised to survive and how he now felt towards the dark clad enigma to his right. Ezra honestly struggled with it. After a moment, he took a little breath and focused his haunted green eyes back on the judge. "Under such circumstances, real or otherwise, I can honestly say I would have performed exactly as I did moments ago, Sir." The judge was dumbfounded, as was Team California. Most of Team 7 was speechless. As for Larabee, well, he began to emit a strange gargled growling noise from deep within the confines of his throat, one you had to strain to hear.

"Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I find myself requiring the facilities." Ezra excused himself, before anyone could comment, with a tip of his imaginary hat and tight smile, which did not quite reach his eyes. He left the room at a brisk clip. His tasteful shoes clacked down on the linoleum floors, sending echoes back into the stony silence of the Evaluation Room.

It took the whooshing of air as the door closed behind Standish to prompt Chris into action. Like an avenging angel, the ATF supervisor rose from his chair and pursued his errant agent, his eyes cold and fists clenched in barely contained fury. His jaw was firmly set. The judge almost squeaked in indignation at team leader Larabee’s disrespect. "Mister Lara..." he began to call after him, attempting to regain his air of authority. Larabee heard him, but he didn’t care.

Like one, the rest of the team rose and followed their leader wordlessly as always. Apparently, they had not heard, nor cared about, the judge's obvious disapproval. At the table, Team California sat, at the table, stunned and muttering to themselves about "lose cannons", "mavericks", "wildcards" and the like.


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