Odd Man Out

by Celeste

Part IV
Ezra could knot his tie perfectly without even having to open his eyes. He slid the knot up his throat gently, speedily, and within seconds, the silk was in place. It shone lightly under the light in the airy hotel room, a professional chrome-esque gray against a similar colored shirt and a charcoal suit jacket. He did not need to look in the mirror to know that he looked impeccable, because he always did.

Today was the last official day of competition. Tomorrow night they would announce winners and play highlights, all in a big ballroom with expensive food and drink and important people. Oddly, he found that all so very unappealing in his current frame of mind. The last thing he needed was any public attention drawn to him, reminding him that his teammates, his friends, knew about as much of his success in competition as the rest of the conference’s participants knew. The fact that they had not even bothered to show up to ANY of his competitions told him what a joke it all must be. He had to remind himself that no one was here by choice. It was just Team 7’s dumb luck that their record had outdistanced Team 8’s, the usual Colorado representatives, this year. The last thing he needed was a meaningless piece of metal, engraved with his name and the date, to remind him of the fact. It was all so very infantile when one thought about it.

He slipped into his fine Italian leather shoes and grabbed his room key from the table, where he had unceremoniously abandoned it the night before. He stuck the key into his back pocket, and then clipped his lanyard onto his breast pocket; face down to draw attention away from the horrendous photography job. As he headed for the elevator, he ran his eyes over the "briefing" page he had received in an envelope after his semifinal match against Rowley the other day. He had scanned over it once; and allowed his often praised, thrice damned, photographic memory to ingrain each word into his head. The paper itself had contained about three brief paragraphs of background information on the "gun boss" he would be meeting with in competition. However, said gun boss was in reality, just a fresh out of drama school rookie who needed the money to pay for his flight to LA and some Hollywood style headshots. As if to add to the overbearing charade, Agent Standish would have to transform himself into William Burke, a particularly vulgar gunrunner with a bad attitude, from North London. The actor opposite him would be playing Milo Stanton, a known arms dealer with whom he was to garner a deal.

He sighed distastefully, as he pushed the down arrow that would bring him an elevator, hopefully bereft of companionship. This was all so very juvenile indeed. He had not participated in such sport since his fencing days at the Academy. He wondered if the REAL drug dealers and gunrunners were using this opportunity to double business while the nation’s finest were all distracted by their childish games and sport. Lord help them all. Sighing, he pushed such thoughts, as well as those of competition, from his mind. There was plenty of time for that later. Right now, the mandatory parts of the conference were being held.

The schedule was the same everyday, and the sheer monotony was driving him insane, along with the depravation of two of his favorite things, alcohol and privacy. The inane persons that drew up the conference schedules were in for a particularly brutal reprimand, if he were ever to exactly find out who they were. Every single day of this God awful, never ending week, with exception to the day of arrival, had been the same. Group lecture was at nine a.m. Mandatory demonstrations/seminars/tutorials were at 11 a.m., followed by lunch at 12:30. Then there were free choice lectures at 1:30, free choice seminars at 3:00, and individual competitions at 4:30. The day was topped off with Group competition at 5:30, and dinner followed shortly after, at 7:00. The agent blinked and thought sarcastically to himself. He was SO looking forward to the mandatory lecture on group dynamics today, among other things. Maybe he could find a way to sneak himself some Scotch, or at least a reasonable Guinness.

The "ping" from the elevator pulled him from his random musings, and he stepped inside once the doors slid open. Empty. Good! He hit the "lobby" button without turning around, noting with some disdain that the reflection looking back at him from the mirrored walls wore a slightly crooked tie. With a snort (Goddamn it!) of disgruntled surprise, he moved to straighten the minute dishevelment with a tug here and pull there. Like competition, he had not done that since high school either.

Chris glanced at his watch, then over to the plate of fruit and granola Josiah had grabbed for Ezra. The chair behind the plate remained quite empty. He fought off a sigh. It was a rather distasteful habit he was starting to pick up from JD, and it was not something he needed to add to his repertoire of inherited characteristics. The leader leaned back into his chair instead. "Where is he, Vin?"

Tanner shrugged, before tossing back his entire glass of OJ. "Reckon he’s just takin’ his sweet time. You know how Ezra can be."

Chris wasn’t satisfied, but accepted the shooter’s opinion as a distinct possibility. "One of you boys call him and make sure he’s ready. Lecture starts in five." He knew he was using the lecture as an excuse to keep Ezra and, more importantly, his current condition under close observation. The leader also knew that the others were aware that this was his real reason as well, but he was glad when no one brought it up in spite of that knowledge. He supposed it was because they were feeling like shit about what happened too. Not that they were going to go right out and APOLOGIZE to the man. Ezra had worked with them long enough to know they were not the types. Plus, Ez had been the one to take the damn jump in the first place, right?

Nathan whipped out his cell phone at Chris’s request. He was also impatient with Ezra’s tardiness, and the apparent slight of not wanting to dine with them as he had most of the other days. The EMT hit speed dial 7 on his little black Nokia and waited for that fool stubborn southerner to pick up.

It rang three times before Jackson heard the distinctive "click" on the other end. "Standish."

"Ezra? Where are you? We’ve got to be in the lecture hall in less than five minutes!" Nathan was ready to tear into Ezra for his lack of responsibility, if not for any other reason than to get things back to normal when it came to dealing with the enigmatic man. He, like the others, wanted to forget about yesterday.

"Mister Jackson, that is my current location." The voice on the other end sounded bored.

Nathan paused, surprised. He quickly wiped whatever he had been ready to say to the younger man from his mind and started over. He noticed his teammates listening with rapt attention, blatantly eavesdropping.  Nathan fought back the urge to glare, because he despised picking up other people's habits, especially one of Chris’s. "Uh…Okay. Well, we’ll see you there then. Um, bye." The chemist pushed the "end" button and flipped the phone closed, still looking as surprised as he felt. "He’s already there."

Josiah looked thoughtful. If Ezra was early for something, things could not be all right. Hell, the eldest agent figured that was a given, but still, all of Ezra’s behaviors had a semblance of meaning. The man weighed everything in his life as if it were of the utmost importance, going so far as to visualize a chain of events that could manifest in over several years’ time, by making one simple choice over another. The "gambler" thought everything out carefully before doing it. Because, of course, he abhors gambling, and as such… leaves nothing to chance.

"Well, if Ez is there before us we must be late! Let’s get going," Buck urged, impatiently. He wanted to see if he could find a seat in the back of the auditorium next to one, Indiana Agent, Kate Lowry.

JD rolled his eyes. "Everyone knows Agent Lowry and Agent Ralston are an item, Buck."

"Aw, she’s only with Ralston till she meets up with me kid! Lemme tell ya, I saw her lookin’ at me yesterday during competition…"

"She was probably wonderin’ where that smell was comin’ from." JD grinned, earning a quick round of chuckles from the rest of the team.

Buck chuckled back. "Guess those eyebrows she gave me meant she liked what she was smellin’," the older agent tossed back with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Josiah shook his head as the two got up from the table and argued all the way out of the dining room. With very little imagination, the large ex-preacher could picture them continuing on, even as they strolled out the hotel lobby and across the street to the convention center. The older agent smiled broadly before turning to Chris. "Guess we should go too?"

Chris eyed Ezra’s untouched plate. "You think we should bring him something?"

"Won’t allow it in the auditorium," Vin pointed out, poking at a strawberry on the southerner’s plate with his fork, as if it were an alien organism under observation.

"Maybe you should eat it then Vin," Nathan suggested, not really wanting to throw it away. He was still slightly annoyed that Ezra had not come down to join them.

Josiah’s eyes sparkled at the thought of Vin eating anything that didn’t have enough preservatives to mummify a living man.

As expected, Tanner made a face, his eyes darting from the strawberries and blueberries to the granola. He scrunched up his nose ever so slightly, apparently something he was picking up from their youngest, and he shook his head. "Ain’t touchin’ that rabbit food," he drawled distastefully, pushing the plate an arm’s length away in Larabee’s direction.

Chris allowed a hint of a smile, green eyes glinting ever so slightly. "What were we thinkin’ Josiah? If Vin won’t even eat it, there’s no way in hell Ezra would touch it."

Vin threw Larabee his best, ‘ha, ha,’ look before getting up from the table and encoring Buck and JD’s exit. "Ya old men best hurry ‘fore we’re late," his voice floated back to the three remaining at the breakfast table.

Larabee, Sanchez, and Jackson shared looks of pure indignance. Old? They scooted their chairs back as one and followed after Tanner. Old-ER maybe. It looked like they needed to show some of the greenhorns around these parts to respect for their elders.

The hairs on the back of Vin’s neck prickled when he heard the seemingly casual footsteps following him. But, his instincts told him otherwise, and he trusted his instinct indisputably. With that, the sniper broke into a jog out of the hotel entrance and sprinted to get across the street, before some less than patient DC motorists decided to make a smear of him on the not so clean sidewalk. He didn’t even need to turn around to see the ‘eat shit, Tanner’ look that Chris was more likely than not throwing at his yellow behind as he fled. The Texan decided that self-preservation was more important than getting the last laugh, and he bit back the retort he had planned with some difficulty.

As he rushed into the auditorium, he quickly sought out a place to sit in the back. Somewhere where he could catch up on his sleep while the agent down on the platform droned on about statistics and procedures and the like. He groaned when he realized the more punctual… God, he was using "Ezra words," agents had taken all four of the back rows, from one wall to the other. Buck and JD were among them. Wilmington grinned like an idiot at Vin, and waved before making a show of getting comfortable in his seat. The surveillance agent yawned and stretched, propping his feet up on the seat in front of him and slouching low at the back and shoulders. The kid sat grinning beside his mentor, in a similar position. Tanner KNEW letting Buck take JD under his wing would teach the kid some unsavory (Shit! Another Ez word) habits. They didn’t have to be so damn smug about getting to sit into the back. Tanner grunted.

Ignoring his teammates, he stuck his attendance card into the marker just inside the door and waited for it to register. Then he craned his neck in search of his other teammate, hoping maybe Standish had procured (Damn it, Ez!) a couple of seats NEAR the back where Vin could join him.

Ezra noted Vin’s hasty entrance into the auditorium and quickly slid his half-empty Starbuck’s cup under his seat. He felt somewhat bad for having gone alone after Vin had offered to join him. Of course, at the time, he had not really wanted to go, but the simple smells of the hotel kitchen had made him sick, and he decided being tardy was preferable to dying from swill ingestion. He wasn’t sure if this was possible, but after weighing the odds it was decided that he most definitely would not endeavor to find out. So, he had gone and grabbed a cappuccino and a muffin down the street.

The southerner would have sighed if he had not sworn to himself that he would NEVER pick up one of JD’s habits unnecessarily. Why should he feel bad that he had gotten himself something to eat because he had changed his mind? Why? Because all of a sudden, he cared about what people thought of him. Well, that wasn’t true. He didn’t concern himself over ALL or ANY people, just his team specifically. With that, he knew it might hurt Vin’s feelings, if the shooter were to find out that Ezra had gone in spite of what he had said earlier that morning. Ezra knew he had a perfectly reasonable explanation, in his own opinion anyway. But, knowing the younger man like he did, the undercover agent figured Tanner might read some malicious intent in the action, and the last thing Standish needed right now was to be singled out by the others for insulting, however unintentionally, their golden-hearted Vin. The southerner smiled to himself. Rumor had it that Larabee’s team wasn’t very good with reason anyway.


Speak of the devil. Standish inclined his head in the direction of his teammate, acknowledging his presence with a small nod. Vin pushed his way through chatting agents to Ezra’s side. It was a good side too, off to the corner in the sixth row from the back. Tanner smiled.

"Hey…got a little worried when you didn’t show for breakfast," he stated simply, plopping down to the southerner’s left without waiting for, or really needing, an invitation.

Ezra shrugged slightly, something he had never done until meeting Vin. "I didn’t feel the need to indulge in food wrought with preservatives and…"

Agent Tanner held up a hand, signaling he didn’t need an explanation, especially one he had heard a few times already. "We’d gotten you some berries ‘n some granola."

The southerner smiled inwardly at the small act of thoughtfulness, but stopped when he realized they might be feeling guilty about yesterday. He supposed he should clear up that incident between them soon, because if such wounds were left to fester, Chris Larabee tended to chop troublesome limbs away without asking.

He took a breath to prepare him for his speech; one that he figured might as well be properly articulated. However, the undercover agent paused as a thought hit him. What in the hell was he going to say, anyway? He supposed he could apologize for taking that jump, but then again, he might be apologizing to the wrong man. Selfless, kindhearted, quiet, gentle Vin would have, under similar circumstances, done the exact same thing, with the exact same results. Except, HE might have gotten some cover fire. Standish stopped that thought from completing itself. There was no need to be petulant about things that really could not be helped.

But still…what COULD he say to get rid of the excess awkwardness that had manifested between his teammates and himself after yesterday? "I’m sorry I saved Chris’s life?" Tanner might just deck him for that one, and truth was, he would deserve it. He was not the least bit sorry about what he had done, and he would be damned if he lied to his friends about it. Well…he could try, "It was just a game anyway." That in itself would probably be a lie as well, because if it really had been just a game, he would not have the telltale signs of "Larabee abuse" on his face, and everyone wouldn’t be treating him like they owed him something to make up for yesterday’s "unfortunate accident". There was nothing Ezra hated more than actions brought about by no other reason than guilt. If one was to do something, one was to do it of his own accord for it to mean something. To reciprocate because of a mistake meant nothing except perhaps, a cancellation of debt. In other words, if Chris Larabee were to jump in front of red paint bullets today in competition, to save Ezra Standish, they would be even. But, Ezra would be no higher on the team’s list of priorities than he had been yesterday, and it would still hurt.

So he paused, released the breath he had drawn, and settled back down. He really could not find anything to say that might alleviate the awkwardness and in turn, still mean something. The southerner realized he SHOULD say something to fend off this infernal unease that they had all fought off for the better part of last year. Funny how some things that seemed so strong could be broken in one instant. He straightened in his chair, facing the podium where Chen busily set up pie charts and readied projector slides. The young southerner’s eyes darted occasionally to the man beside him, and Vin, for all to see, looked as if the quiet between them was the most comfortable thing in the world. What else could Agent Standish do other than the same? So the two agents sat facing forward in silence for the remainder of the time, waiting for Chen to begin. Though the heart of the matter was that, in spite of appearances, the silence held an air of internal disquietude between both parties, for decidedly different reasons for each.

True to form, right as the clock hit nine, Agent Chen cleared his throat and adjusted his set of impeccably kept note cards ever so slightly. He nodded up to the usher in the back, a signal to dim the lights a bit and close the doors.

The usher walked over to his little station to the left of the doors and turned the knob that controlled the lights, sending the auditorium into a soft, orange glow, with the main light illuminating Chen and his display behind the podium. The Asian man tapped his microphone to make sure it was working, and after it "twanged" to his satisfaction, he began the lecture with gusto.

The usher moved to the stool behind his little station by the doors, pulled out his already well-read morning paper and flipped through it casually. The stories were all the same. He was in reality, listening to the lecture and taking in the huge number of ATF agents assembled before him. They represented an entire agency of men and women working for the United States Government. This was some of the country’s best and brightest. He was so engrossed in his observations that he nearly jumped when the door behind him creaked open. He turned and glared, annoyed at whomever it was for arriving late and startling him like that. He wasn’t normally one who was easily disturbed.

Chris Larabee breezed into the lecture hall, his two biggest agents flanking him directly at the left and right. The doors swung open with a definitive whoosh of air, and closed shut behind the three ATF agents with a resounding thud. The trio from Colorado did not even have the grace to acknowledge their tardiness, let alone seem abashed by it. Larabee slid his attendance card in, but did not wait for it to register, before moving to the top of the ramp and peering down at the scene before him. Sanchez and Jackson keyed their own cards into the register and followed their leader, never breaking formation. It was a wonderful show to watch. Chris’s steel like green eyes scanned the auditorium, glinting with some disgust when he realized that the back rows were already very occupied. He nodded in acknowledgement when Buck shrugged apologetically to the far right of his line of sight; the gesture saying that he was sorry for not having been able to render a seat for his partners near the rear.

Chen noticed he had lost the attention of many agents, and he paused in his introduction of the lecture to look up from his note cards and see what all the commotion was about. He pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up on his face and squinted in annoyance. The rest of the agents noticed his pause and turned around uniformly. Agent Larabee noticed that he had the conference’s undivided attention at this instant in time, but it didn’t register in his mind as anything important, let alone flattering.

The usher had grown agitated by now, and he slid off of his stool to do his job and get things rolling. He put a hand on Larabee’s shoulder, ready to guide him down near the front rows personally, if necessary. The eyes that turned around and focused on him made him withdraw his hand as if boiling oil had scalded it: the Larabee glare. The usher scowled and tried to meet Chris’s eyes, but looked down a second or two later. In those brief seconds of communication, Larabee decided he didn’t like this usher. The usher was apparently having similar thoughts and turned completely away from Chris. Instead, he motioned to Sanchez, instructing the older, and friendlier, looking agent to proceed down the ramp into the next available row of seats. Josiah nodded in acknowledgement, but did not move until Chris moved. They glided down the aisle and broke right, opting for the same row as Ezra and Vin, though near the aisle rather than at the fringes.

In stark contrast to Larabee’s cool demeanor, Agent Andrew Chen was so angry he could squeak. However, he decided on a less embarrassing reaction and instead muttered a few Latin verb conjugations under his breath and made a show of polishing his glasses to gather himself. Those three men, with the simplicity of an entrance, had garnered more fascination than his entire speech ever could. The room was quiet save for the breaths of the agents, waiting for some sort of dispute to erupt at Team Colorado’s late arrival, and for their blatant disruption of the morning’s structure. But, none came. Everyone had heard about what had happened last night. No one wanted a reproduction.

As Chris, Josiah, and Nathan slid into the row, Chen chanced throwing an irate glare at Agent Larabee, hoping his little show would return some of his authority in the eyes of his audience. The look he got in return was wickedly mirthful in reply. It said quite clearly: "I’m not impressed. Get on with it." The three Agents from Team Colorado found seats, slid into them soundlessly, and reclined as if they were here to catch the Sunday Matinee, or at least, some sleep. Once the sideshow was over, Agent Chen resumed his talk, careful to keep his eyes away from the three men to his immediate left. Chen picked up from exactly where he left off, having to adjust his little stack of note cards only once. Gradually, things settled, and the tension that had crackled in the air with Larabee’s nefarious love for conflict, dissipated as time wore on.

+ + + + + + +

From his corner, Jeff Kaplan kept an eye on Larabee and his two other men. This was the first time he had seen their faces clearly. They were all intimidating men, for government-trained agents, of course. The trained killer’s eyes scanned the room over carefully, and he noticed Wilmington and Dunne in the back. The older agent was snoozing comfortably, while Dunne tied his shoelaces together, snickering all the while.

The big hit man was almost annoyed. Some of the most talked about agents in DC and they didn’t even see fit to keep their guard up, or to stay on edge. If they lived here instead of some western backwater like Denver, they would have been dead long ago from their lack of wariness. Cocky sons of bitches, if he ever saw any. The situation was to his advantage, however. If they were all this laid back today, they wouldn’t be expecting what he was planning. He had had less time for operations in the past, less than two hours once, and he had pulled it off and had more importantly, gotten away. But, Lamonte had given him nearly ten hours. Yeah, he could pull this off.

He noted Tanner sitting off to the side looking half-conscious, with his chin against his chest and his hands folded loosely in his lap. Next to the longhaired agent was someone Jeff Kaplan could not name, most likely because it was someone he had never seen. He could tell the man knew Tanner though, by the way the agent’s green eyes flicked over to the snoozing man every few moments, and how he sort of smiled bitterly and shook his head when he did. But, Kaplan didn’t know him. That probably meant he was undercover; the government tried to keep a tight lid on who those guys were. Jeff had killed a fair share of those agents in his days working the New York circuit, so he knew what went on behind the scenes. He had never liked undercover rats. Some of them were too clever for their own good, while most of them waltzed into a place SMELLING of the damn government, and then expected to walk out again. He wasn’t sure what type the smartly dressed man beside Tanner was, but the assassin took an instant dislike to him. He called it his gut instinct. For now, he would watch. There were too many witnesses here anyway.

The big man relaxed and flipped through his morning paper, a plan worming its way into his head.

Vin felt like he was being watched. He knew Ezra was throwing him the occasional, furtive glance, but what he was sensing wasn’t familiar. It was not the at ease response his body usually had when one of his friends was nearby. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and he felt his gut twinge ever so slightly. Someone, a stranger, was definitely watching him. He hated this feeling. It made him edgy, suspicious, and worried. He glanced over his shoulder subtlety and found nothing, save for the usher lazily turning a page in his paper.

Tanner fidgeted in his seat. It was a nervous habit he had, much like how Ezra drummed his fingers under the table. The shooter looked in Chris’s direction instinctively, but his boss was lost in thought, and Vin seriously doubted that it had anything to do with what Chen had just said. The longhaired agent looked over at Ezra on his right just in time to see the undercover agent shift subtly, throwing a look over his shoulder with practiced ease. He could make suspicion look like the most natural thing in the world. Good, Vin hated being the only one.

+ + + + + + +

The lecture was dreary. Chris had his head tilted downward; eyes locked on some unseen point immediately in front of him. This had been the most boring, sentimental, and inaccurate lecture of them all. Figures that the bastards would save it for last. They liked to drag out the torture by pouring salt on the wounds. Your torture for today is courtesy of the United States Federal Government. Larabee’s eyes shifted over to Nathan, who was listening politely, but who could not hold back occasional yawns, usually at five-minute intervals. Josiah had his eyes closed completely, but by the way his head hung Chris new the older man couldn’t be asleep. Of course, it also meant that he wasn’t very entertained by Chen’s shallow monologue about, "duty, friendship, unity, and harmony" either. For all his knowledge, Chen’s spouting consisted of pure articulation, not sincerity, and that made it droll.

Larabee nudged Sanchez with his elbow. If he didn’t get to snooze, neither did Josiah, damn it. The big agent did not start at the bump, as any normal man would, but instead cocked one eye open lazily and regarded his leader. The eyebrow arched slightly in question. Chris couldn’t help but think, ‘Not you too Josiah.’

"Nate and I aren’t the only ones that are gonna suffer through this," Larabee drawled, in response to Sanchez’s unasked question, before he noted that Agent Chen had shifted his gaze in their direction.

Josiah grunted and slid his eye closed again. He knew Chris’s statement was just an excuse for avoiding what he really had on his mind. Chris Larabee was afraid to be alone with his thoughts right now. The ex-preacher decided it was something that his boss needed.

The blonde agent snorted, characteristically, at Sanchez’s response. So much for following orders. Chris decided not to bother him again. In fact, he was glad that SOMEONE could get some sleep and not dream about yesterday.

He cursed to himself under his breath for bringing up the subject again. He still had to find a way to make it up to that damn fool southerner. God, now he was even calling him the same thing Nathan did. Larabee hunched low in his seat, annoyed. How long ago had it been when all of this could have gone straight to hell for all he cared? How long ago had it been since nothing had mattered enough that he had worried about the consequences of his actions on others? He sighed. What about now? Now, Chris Larabee, legendary ATF agent, bad ass with attitude, and all around scary guy, could be driven into a world of tumultuous emotion with just a look from a sharpshooter, the shake of a rubber chicken from a scoundrel, a perplexed tilt of the head from a kid, a grin from a preacher, a heavenward look from a chemist, and a delicately raised eyebrow from a con man.

Damn it! They had made him care again, and look where it had gotten him. He glanced over at Ezra. Damn you for making me concerned about you, Ezra Standish, and damn you for making it feel right. Chris Larabee cared about how he affected these men. He cared about each and every one of them. He realized he LIKED caring about them, and it was all their fault.

So, now that it mattered, when a year ago it would not have even registered with him, what was he going to do about it? He could very well protect Ezra, especially today in competition, but that would just irk the undercover agent for numerous reasons. One being, he didn’t like being looked after like a, and he quoted, "helpless infant". The other reason being the fact that Standish didn’t give credence to "guilt debts". If that were to happen, Ezra would only become a DEFENSIVE ass, and no one needed that right now. Because, when Ezra Standish wanted to be an ass, he knew EXACTLY how to be an ass. He knew just what to say to send Larabee, or any one of the others into a blind rage. He knew exactly what buttons to push. See Chris? This is what happens when you care. People get to know you, and then they can hurt you. ‘Ha, you stupid bastard, you love every minute of it.’ He glanced over at Ezra. ‘Okay, you love ALMOST every second of it.’

Chen droned on in the background. Chris nearly laughed when he heard what the man was saying. They were going to do WHAT at the end of the speech? Trust building exercises? Bonding games? Fuck that! He locked eyes with Tanner across the room, and noted the Texan’s distress at the announcement. Larabee sent his thoughts to his best friend with his eyes. ‘Spread the word. We’re breakin’ out.’

Vin nodded shortly, and conveyed his own message. ‘You feel like we’re bein’ watched cowboy?’

The hairs on the back of Larabee’s neck stood on end reflexively. Yeah, he sort of did. He sort of had, ever since walking in. But, he had figured that was a reaction to everyone in the room turning around and looking at him. He shrugged back at Vin. Tanner accepted that as a response and moved to tell Ezra they were sneaking out before Chen made them do those damn activities.

Chris turned around, but he only saw the usher toss his paper in a wastebasket near the doors and step out, probably for some fresh air. He frowned.

+ + + + + + +

Vin turned and made eye contact with Buck as Chris had directed him to. Wilmington grinned at the expression on Junior’s face and nudged JD with his shoulder. The kid started from his nap, sending a questioning, irritated look at Wilmington. Buck’s eyes were alight with mischief. JD broke into a smile in spite of himself and shook the sleep from his body with one toss of his head. The kid knew what that look in his roommate’s eyes meant. They were gettin’ out of here, on Chris’s count.

Agent Chen glimpsed up as he finished the main body of his lecture with fervor. It was time for the interactive part now. He prided himself on being one of the few public speakers in the agency that used the latest in psychological stimuli to truly capture his listeners and ingrain some of the lecture into their minds for future reference. The interaction and trust building activities were things he had read in marriage counseling books, which had been modified to fit the Agency’s own purposes. Hopefully, the other agents here would learn a little something about their dependencies on each other and the necessity of working as a single, solid unit.

Little did he know that his theories were entirely true. Right now, he was unwittingly causing Team Colorado to live up to his expectations. The seven men were working as a cohesive unit in the dark of the terraced auditorium. They were acting as a team attempting to avoid interaction. Team 7 was working as a solid group to escape having to acknowledge their work as a team. The Asian man scanned the back for the usher and frowned when he did not see him. He must have stepped out for a moment. "Um…well, if someone will hit the lights?" Andrew adjusted his glasses by pushing them up on his nose with the tip of his index finger.

Chris’s eyes darted back to Buck and JD in the last row. That was their cue. Buck nodded and dashed up the ramp, dragging the kid with him. He hit the lights and as he did, and the two best friends slid out the doors, into the sunlight, completely undetected.

The agents still present blinked as the room illuminated in a flash of brilliance. They rubbed their eyes to help stimulate the adjustment from dark to light. Was it over? God, let it be over. "Now…if everyone will grab a partner from their team…" There was almost a collective groan as Chen kept talking. Guess it wasn’t done yet.

Larabee looked over his shoulder at Vin and Ezra while Chen was busy directing his now standing audience to find space in the aisles for their activities. Tanner and Standish sneaked out through the mass confusion like the pros they were, carefully sticking to the shadows thrown by pillars and section dividers. They clung to the walls inconspicuously, before the two ducked out and rendezvoused with JD and Buck near the valet parking sign of in front of the hotel.

The three remaining members of Team 7 anxiously awaited a chance at escape. Yes, even Nathan, because there was no way in hell Chen was going to get him to open up and tell his boss or his best friend that he "loved them". If the EMT had a gun, he might have been tempted to bring it to his own head to end the misery that the little Chinese man was eliciting. The look Josiah threw him said that the ex-preacher understood Nathan’s musings and agreed, just as long as Nate took him out first.

Chris realized, too late that they were too far up front for Chen to let them escape unnoticed. He looked towards the crowded aisles between seats, filled with ATF officers who had grudgingly accepted their fates. No resourcefulness, as Ezra would say. No knack of playing the field. He shrugged on his duster.

"Agent Larabee, are you and your team going to participate today?"

The rest of the mumbling crowd was silenced at the challenge in Chen’s voice. If they used their imaginations, they could hear the old west showdown music. The little Asian man hid behind the safety of his podium, giving Larabee the "eye," or what he thought passed for it. The other, more complacent agents unwittingly held their breaths. Chen had been a bit of a bore, but he was an all around nice guy. No one deserved the death he was about to face at Larabee’s hands.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Chris grinned and nodded. None were more surprised than Larabee’s own teammates. "Yeah Chen, we’ll play," the blonde stated simply, though the expression on his face said, in no uncertain terms, "Fuck you". So, with the entire ATF federal agency watching him, Chris Larabee played Andrew Chen’s little game, but with his own set of rules. Without looking down, the Team Colorado supervisor pulled a thin framed pair of sunglasses from his pocket and slid them on easily, before turning to Jackson who stood on his right. "Hey Nathan…"

"Yeah Chris?"

"I love you." With that, he turned around and breezed towards the door in much the same fashion he had entered. Jackson and Sanchez cracked huge, twin smiles, before pulling their own sunglasses from their shirt pockets and following their leader out the door, leaving Chen sputtering in their wake. Mavericks.


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