Odd Man Out

by Celeste

Part VI
Ezra sat in the main lobby of the hotel, trying to look like he was working on his competition pieces. Of course, it was rather useless; he had the thing memorized word for word. It was rolling around to the time for free choice lectures, and after yesterday, the southerner was quite sure Larabee would want them all to do something together. Chris felt it was his duty to do such things. He was after all, the leader, and more inclined than the rest to attempt to fix things that were broken.

The hairs on the back of his the southerner’s neck tingled for the umpteenth time that day, and he tried not to look agitated. Was someone watching him? Deftly, he looked out of the corners of his eyes, not seeing anyone but a burly looking bell hop helping an elderly tourist with her bags and the concierge sitting at his desk flipping through a newspaper. But, he was definitely under scrutiny; he could feel it. Upon hearing a series of familiar footsteps clicking on the marble colored tile, the undercover agent sighed. "Well, hey Ez, was wonderin’ where ya’d gone off to."

"Merely studying, Mister Wilmington," Ezra responded without looking up at the group that he knew was gathered around him. He read one sentence over and over again and pretended to concentrate, but in reality, he just wanted to have some time to himself to come to terms. If he could pull this off, perhaps he wouldn’t have to do anything until competition? In a way he was envious of some of the others. Chris, Josiah, Buck, JD, and Nathan had free time during individual competition, as they had been eliminated in earlier rounds. Most competition judges wanted those eliminated to stay and watch the next rounds to learn something, but it was not mandatory.

Chris’s competition was all leadership skill, of course; he had been given six rookies still in the academy to work with on an imaginary bust. Larabee had been eliminated when he had made three of his team members cry, and one of them wet himself. Chris’s defense was the fact that he wasn’t used to working with amateurs. Josiah had been eliminated just recently on a technicality. His thoughts in the profiling competition had been a little TOO far outside the box as far as the psychologists present were concerned. Though Sanchez’s ideas had some plausibility they had not been exactly what the writers had wanted to hear. Nathan had lost in the semis to one of the world’s foremost experts in his field, and by the luck of the draw, JD had been eliminated by Buck and his experience, in the first branches of the surveillance competition draw. Buck in turn, had lost in the last round by two tenths of a point when he was distracted by a particularly lovely waitress on camera and missed a detail. Only Ezra and Vin were still in the main draw.

"We were thinkin’ we’d go and check out the high powered weapons talk, but Vin said that’d be sort of like the shooting demo we’d already seen."

Ezra’s attention turned to JD, who was quickly explaining exactly what it was that the other six members had been debating about. The undercover agent pretended to look like he had been listening the entire time.

"So…since we’re evenly divided, we thought we’d use your opinion as the winnin’ vote," Dunne finished with a flourish. "Whad’ya think?"

"I think Mister Dunne, that the three of you who wish to go to the other seminar should be free to do so, while the rest of you go and explore the weapons lecture. As for me, I think I will attend…" Standish paused, racking his perfect memory for the most boring speech topic he could think of. "…the hostage negotiation lecture."

"That sounds…interesting," Chris said, trying to sound agreeable. He almost glared reflexively, but caught himself and turned it into a blink. He hoped his agent had missed that. Noting the silence of his other men at his statement, he grimaced slightly and elbowed Vin.

"Yeah! Reckon that might be somethin’ ta see… could get us out of a fix in the future," Vin covered nicely.

"Sure would save some lives if we learned it right, brothers…"

"Ain’t Laura Courtwright givin’ that talk? She’s… well, she’s… WHABAM! Ya know what I’m sayin’?"

"Don’t you have to listen to demands? I wonder how someone gets a private helicopter in the first place… would be good to know."

Chris bit his bottom lip to keep from growling at his team’s overcompensation for the earlier silence. If only they all gave as smooth a delivery as Agent Standish. He had to remind himself that not all of them were born that lucky, or unlucky, depending on how one looked at it. He sighed. "Let’s get going then boys."

Ezra hid his annoyed look and pushed his papers neatly back into the envelope. He got up and brushed the front of his pants off. "Shall we then?"

"I’ve seen him around today. He’s been watching Colorado like a hawk."

"More like a buzzard. But, I’ll give him this; the bastard’s tricky. You can barely notice he’s there unless you’re looking for him specifically," Kingston told Lamonte, admiration clear in his voice. "He’s in the back now. Think he has an eye on Standish for some reason."

"Kaplan’s always been ambitious," Lamonte laughed quietly.

"What exactly is he going to do with Colorado to keep them from winning today?"

"I don’t know, fake a kidnapping, something. I just told him to take care of it. He’ll take care of it, Kingston. No need to worry."

"He’s a hit man you know, Lamonte. ‘Take care of it’ only means one thing to guys like him."

"Does it matter?"

"I just wondered if you knew," Craig shrugged.

"Yeah, I know. I grew up in Queens. I’ve gotta know."

"So, you think he has a gun on him right now?"

"Hotel security has been pretty lax. He probably does."

"What if he kills Standish?"

"Then he kills Standish."

"That might be taking things too far, Joe."

"Do you care, Kingston?"

"Not really, but Larabee might. What if Jeff gets caught?"

"Kaplan’s a professional."

"You so sure he won’t rat us out?"

"He’s a professional, Craig."

"Whatever you say," Kingston shrugged. Lamonte heard the doubt in his teammate’s voice.

"What is it?" Joey asked, not amused.

"You keep saying he’s such a professional. You think he won’t turn on his own if he has to?"

"He won’t."

"It’s just…I thought we were professionals too," Kingston’s expression held a sort of twisted, wry smirk on his face at the irony of it all, "and look at us." Lamonte only looked irritated, but he didn’t comment, as he shifted in his chair. The two agents returned to watching the hostage negotiations lecture, very aware that their hit man was studying his targets sitting on the opposite end of the auditorium.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra expertly transformed his yawn into a deep breath. He successfully made it look like hostage negotiating was the most interesting thing in the universe. JD’s head dipped down and jerked upward in a pattern as the young agent attempted to stay awake in the half full auditorium, while he listened to the sound of Miss Courtwright’s cute Kentucky accent bouncing off the elliptic room. Buck had been right; the woman was quite attractive, being tall, and shapely, with hazel eyes and golden brown hair. Ezra shook his head, but damn it all, if she didn’t have the most terrible job of all time. Consorting with mad men in attempt to make them feel safe, yet threatened? Promising things as outlandish as purple helicopters and unbelievable sums of money to loonies, who, when push came to shove, had no way out?

Agent Standish was sure the job itself was intense and demanding, but the statistics Laura shot off in the lecture were droll at best.

"And that’s why you never commit, ladies and gentlemen. Make a statement, then retract it slightly. Never promise that you’ll have their ten million dollars, tell them, ‘you’ll see what you can do’. It placates the perp to a degree but still keeps him jumpy… in fact, 50% of all…"

Chris blinked fiercely to stay awake. Damn it all! Ezra was the biggest ass when he wanted to be. Vin cocked an amused eye at Chris, his look saying that the younger agent knew exactly what his friend was thinking, and that he did not believe that any of what was filtering through Chris’s mind right now would help the current situation. Chris shrugged an eyebrow noncommittally. Vin grinned at the older man, making him realize what he had just done. Larabee snorted at the absurdity and rubbed at his forehead in annoyance.

That still didn’t answer the sharpshooter’s question however. What would they say tonight? What would they do? Vin shrugged. ’I have no idea.’ Chris grumbled. ’Thanks for the help.’

"When dealing with armed hostiles it’s best to give them room and let them think they’re in control so they won’t feel the need to do anything drastic. Only talk after they’ve spoken to you so you don’t seem overly demanding. Use a firm but gentle tone of voice and never sound rash or uncertain about anything you say. Keep your cool, or they’ll turn your words around on you and pull you into a trap of sorts. This graph shows that 70% of all…"

Eyeing Ezra, Chris wondered if he should take notes.

The clock finally, hit 1:30. Team 7 was out the auditorium doors faster than Buck got agent Courtwright’s phone number. Chris tried to pretend like he had learned something from the talk. But in reality, all he wanted to do was kick Ezra for making him listen to that crap.

Okay, so maybe Ezra had not MADE him listen to it, exactly. Standish HAD after all, stated he thought everyone should go to whatever it was they most wanted to see. Tricky bastard! He wondered if he should ask the undercover man what they were going to do for free choice demos. Would that be overdoing it? He looked at Vin, hoping for some answers.

Tanner responded to Chris’s inquisitive look with yet another noncommittal shrug. Chris sighed. Lord help them all when Vin was picking up JD’s habits. Reading his mind, the Texan cocked a crooked half smile and tipped his hat. Chris raised an eyebrow. Seems that Vin was working on his own version of Ezra’s "cocky ass son of a bitch" grin to boot.

Damn. Realizing what he had done, Larabee let his eyebrow drop quickly. He really had to stop doing that.

"Something troubling you Chris?" Nathan looked at his boss curiously, wondering why he was scowling for no reason.

Chris shook his head. "Not anything new, anyway."

"So, what we gonna do now?"

"Figure I won’t say anything yet. Ez’ll know if we overplay this whole psuedo-apology." God, Chris Larabee using Josiah words. "I reckon we just wait and see what his next step is going to be and work from there." Shit, did he just say "reckon"? He was using Josiah and Vin words now. He let out an exasperated sigh.

Nathan’s eyes twinkled. "Wait for your hostile to take the first step, huh? Guess ya learned something from Miss Courtwright after all," he stated, before walking off to join Josiah and Buck.

Chris glared at the EMT’s back. Comedians! He had a team full of comedians. They were more like clowns.

"You could start by sayin’ your sorry I figure… if’n you kin let go your pride long enough."

The quiet drawl came unexpectedly from beside Chris, interrupting his thoughts but not quite causing him to jump. "My pride has nothing to do with it Vin. I’d apologize if it’d fixed things, but you know what words like that mean to Ezra," he responded darkly.

"Yeah, he reckons words aren’t worth so much cuz people don’t usually mean what they say. But, he knows what words mean to you too, Cowboy. He knows ya always say whatcha mean."

Chris shook his head. "I don’t know. What we did was big. It wasn’t a game just then; it was every day for us. You don’t fix something like that with just an apology."

"Figured it was a start."

Larabee slitted his eyes thoughtfully. "Yeah. It’s a start."

+ + + + + + +

"Hey guys! They have a demonstration on High Speed Chases!!" JD urged. "Agent Connelly told me about it while we were listenin’ to Miss Courtwright, he said it’s just like a giant arcade! Virtual training and everything!" the youngest of Team 7 spouted. "We have SO got to go there!!!"

Buck and Josiah laughed. "Hell JD, the way you drive already I don’t know if I want you learnin’ that."

"But c’mon guys…VIDEO GAMES! I mean, what other demonstration is there that’s even REMOTELY cool that we haven’t done already?"

"We could go see the K-nine unit demonstration."

"Our team doesn’t use dogs, Buck."

"Yeah, but Meg’s directin’ that demo and…" Buck finished his statement with a waggling of the eyebrows.

Everyone groaned. "Buck, ya got Angie’s number, ya got Laura’s number… you want Meg’s too?" JD shook his head. "We only got one more night here anyway. How’re ya gonna hook up with three agents?"

Buck shrugged. "Figure I can keep the two extras for future reference."

"If those two ain’t mad at you for not callin’ ‘em tonight," Nathan quipped, shoving Buck lightly on the shoulder.

Dunne ignored Buck and looked to the others. "Do you REALLY want to see the dog show?"

Josiah shrugged. "Whichever the rest of you decide, figure I’ll just follow."

Nathan concurred. "Too scared to leave you boys alone anyway."


"Well, Mister Dunne, I would but…"

"Aw c’mon Ez! You don’t gotta study no more. We all know you’re gonna sweep your competition today no matter what you do, so just come with us!" The youngest urged.

Standish was oddly touched by the sentiment. "Um well… I suppose…"

Eventually, with enough cajoling, JD convinced Ezra to come to the driving demos with the rest of the guys. The undercover agent hated it when the kid pulled that damn "innocent/faith" trump card. He was getting far too good at utilizing it. Ezra wondered if he was being conned.

Team 7 converged upon the demonstration session taking place in the convention room of the hotel. Excited, JD barely took time to read over the instruction booklet before grabbing Nathan, the unfortunate man nearest to him, and plopping down into one of the stations. It wasn’t long before Nathan’s cursing could be heard throughout the room.

"Damn it JD, you’re gonna topple us!" Nathan admonished the younger agent.

JD grinned and shrugged. "It’s just a demo Nathan. Besides, didn’t you think the ‘covert tailing’ level was boring? High speed chase is WAY better!"

"We are never letting you drive," the ex-EMT ground out, still jerking with JD’s turns of the wheel. The computer-generated image of the car they were chasing made an abrupt U turn in the street, which JD promptly followed. Nathan cursed and slid out of the passenger seat. "You sit with him Buck. I knew comin’ with him to this demonstration would be a bad idea."

"Hell no Nate! I wanna keep my lunch, what I got of it anyway," Wilmington finished his statement with a glare in Vin’s direction. JD produced his best look of hurt. Buck sighed before sliding into the seat next to the younger man. "Damn."

Ezra shook his head from the driver’s seat of his own vehicle, the passenger seat having recently been vacated by Wilmington. "These cars handle dreadfully, I hesitate to think it is entirely Mister Dunne’s fault," he drawled lazily in all his boredom.

Josiah stayed near the back with Chris and Vin, watching the four men, especially the seemingly nonchalant southerner, in the demo stations. The oldest agent smiled. "I think JD’s faith always helps," the preacher’s son said in his deep, rumbling voice after a stretch of silence passed between them. They watched JD draw Ezra into conversation every once in a while, and Larabee and Tanner had to agree. JD was good for them all. But, it still did not fix their problem.

"I think we need more than faith, Josiah," Chris stated after a minute. "You got any ideas on what we’re gonna say tonight?"

"The truth?"

"And what would that be?"

"That seven will always be an odd number."

"Ezra might know that already."

Sanchez shrugged philosophically. "It will always be odd brothers, course… it’ll always be lucky too, dependin’ on how you look at it."

"Ain’t the time to be playin’ round with our minds ‘siah."

"Ain’t playin’ brother Vin. Just thinkin’ out loud," the big man sighed and quirked an eyebrow.

"Aw hell, not you too," Vin muttered.

Realizing what he did, Sanchez chuckled throatily. "Well, seems Ezra’s more a part of this group than he thinks he is, if he’s rubbin’ off on all of us."

Chris allowed a crooked smile. "Yeah, but that isn’t gonna get us out of this sinkhole any faster, Josiah."

"He’s in the finals you know."

The two younger men looked at their eldest questioningly. "Yeah, knew that."

"You are too, Vin."

"Well shoot, knew that too," Tanner laughed.

"Ya’ll will be competing at the same time."

The conversation Chris had had with Judge Travis the night before sprang to mind instantly. "We’ll be there Josiah," the leader stated, looking at Vin for confirmation.

The sharp shooter nodded. "Reckon I saw that comin’ when I saw all of ya in the stands yesterday. Hell, havin’ all you boys sittin’ there makes me nervous anyway," he grinned lazily. "Don’t know if Ezra might feel the same way or not though."

"It might be best to try," Chris shrugged.

Both of Chris’s men had agreeable looks on their faces at the suggestion. The leader took that as a good sign.

"Figure he might get suspicious if’n all you fellas show up suddenly, though," Tanner speculated after a while.

Josiah nodded slowly. "Well boys, that’s a might easier to deal with," he stated almost cryptically.

Chris’s eyebrow shot up before he could stop it. He dropped it instantly and narrowed his eyes, characteristically, instead. "And exactly why’s this going to be easier Josiah?"

The profiler grinned wickedly. "Because, six is an even number."

Kaplan watched idly from the corner. He wanted to get Standish secluded. It would do no good to kill the man in front of so many witnesses. Yet, his team was trying to compensate for what had happened yesterday, and they would not let he man so much as go to the restroom by himself. Of course, the way the slippery bastard was trying to get out of things, he’d probably be alone before much longer. Funny thing though, how Standish wanted to get away from the only things keeping him alive right now.

Growing impatient, the hired killer leaned against the door and pulled out a cigarette. Impatient he might be, but he was still a professional, and he had learned to ignore such feelings long ago. Besides, the feds were interesting to watch. They were complex and angsty, like a bunch of women. He chortled pleasantly. Who would have thought such hard asses could act like a bunch of crying, whining, scared, teenage girls? Maybe that was their secret to success. Kaplan shrugged noncommittally and set a hand on the revolver in the inside pocket of his coat. Even if it were the reason Team Colorado was so good, it would also be the reason Standish died today. It was just a matter of time.

Ezra drove the car lazily, following the "perps" in the car ahead of him. They really believed this sort of training would help officers in the future? He snorted. ’Damn it, Mister Larabee.’ He resolved to stop doing that from now on. Just like he had resolved to stop shrugging like JD and grinning like Buck, last month. He leaned back into the driver’s seat. Look what they were doing to him. Six men had dismembered his years of private school behavioral lessons with their most annoying habits, all in the span of twelve months. Ezra’s education was rapidly going backwards and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Nothing he wanted to do to stop it either, in any case. Though he would never admit it, there was a certain satisfaction at being able to snort, chortle, or roll your eyes without having to worry what your friends would think of you. Of course, it could just be some odd, fanciful notion he was having. He found himself having more and more of those since joining Team 7. Lines begin to blur when one lets their guard down, as mother had always said.

Well, his lines could definitely be defined as nebulous right about now. Was it not just yesterday when Chris Larabee and delivered a fierce right to Ezra’s jaw? So, now what? Remorse? Chris Larabee was not the remorseful type. Pity perhaps? The last thing Ezra needed was a handout. Chris Larabee could keep his sympathy; Standish had never needed it from anyone before, and he most certainly did not need it now. He did not need the pity of the others because he had been left alone. That had been his initial intention his first day on the job with Team 7 anyway.

So what if he was still a loner? It wasn’t a big deal. It was nothing to be ashamed of, and it had gotten him this far because it was easier. He looked over to Buck and JD. The older man smacked the younger unmercifully as their virtual car accidentally skidded into a mailbox. Red flashed on the screen and a siren sounded. Ezra cracked a small smile before he could stop himself. Damn it! What happened to control? The sound of JD’s protests and Buck’s chortles floated back to him. How nice it must be… he stopped. ‘Odd number.

"Ya’ll just about done here?"

Ezra looked up to see Agent Delaney and his eight teammates standing beside the demo stations. "Quite," Standish drawled, extricating himself from the psuedo-vehicle. "Though I can’t speak for my teammates," he added quickly. It would do him no good to ire the rest of his team by giving up all of their stations prematurely. Delaney nodded and motioned to one of his men to take the passenger seat. The man scowled at his boss, but sat down.

Ezra quirked an eyebrow at this, and moved to study the other men who were moving into other vacated stations around the room. He heard their grumbling and their cursing, at the agency and at their team leader for putting them in such an undignified predicament as this. Loners too, the lot of them. Ezra wondered if he was much the same as these gentlemen. He didn’t know whether he hoped so or not.

Chris looked at his watch again, five minutes until they should leave for personal competitions. He looked on as Ezra relinquished his seat to Delaney and Frappart. Delaney was a dick. Ignoring his random thought, Chris looked at Josiah. "What do you think Josiah, you wanna see a little play acting today?"

The preacher smiled toothily. "Been a while since I been to the theatre, brother Chris," he agreed.

Vin nodded in acknowledgement. "Damn…wish I didn’t have to miss it. Ya’ll whoop some for Ez for me, huh?" he asked, smiling largely.

"Will do pard," Chris replied. He put a hand on Vin’s shoulder. "Good luck out there too." The statement acted as Chris’s apology for not being able to watch Vin.

"Hell Chris, figure I got all the luck in the world when what happened yesterday didn’t happen to me," Vin said after a second. He wanted to make sure that Chris knew by his tone that the apology had absolutely no basis. Something was bugging him however. He paused for a while, wanting to share what was really getting his dander up. "Still got that feeling though."

Josiah tilted his head quizzically to the side. "Somethin’ eatin’ at you, Vin?"

The Texan shrugged helplessly. "You feel like someone’s watchin us? Laughin’ at us?"

Chris looked to the older man for confirmation. Josiah just mirrored Vin’s shrug in response. "That might very well be God," the ex-preacher speculated. "I figure I’d be laughing if I were in his shoes, and I was looking down at this mess."

Vin cracked a wry smile. "Reckon it’s a possibility."

Chris was the only one who could read the doubt in his friend’s voice.

"What’re ya’ll talkin’ bout?" Buck asked, poking his head into the conversation after once again leaving Nathan to the mercy of JD’s driving.

"Gonna watch brother Ezra’s performance for the first time today," Josiah stated simply.

The corners of Buck’s grin straightened out. "But, it shouldn’t be the first time, should it, pards?"

No one nodded; but then again, no one had to. "Well hell, I’m in then." The mustached agent’s smile hit full force once again, and Chris wondered if it could possibly, blind him one day. "Course, if that’s okay with you Junior?" Wilmington paused and looked to Vin for assurance.

Vin looked down. "Damn fellas, I ain’t your mammas, you do whatcha think ‘s best. Won’t rile me none if’n nona ya’ll show up. I might actually go through it without bein’ nervous," the young man revealed with a wry smirk. Not that he didn’t want his team watching him, but Vin knew when the guys were needed elsewhere. Besides, he figured Nate and JD would be watchin’ him anyway. Ezra needed to see he was an equal part of this somehow. If all of them were to go to Ezra’s, the man would read it as a leap of the odds in his direction for no other reason than pity. Splitting the team evenly between them however, would show his equality, his part in the unit. At least, that’s what Vin had deciphered from Josiah’s earlier, cryptic, statement about six being even. It looked like five had to be split between Tanner and Standish, but it was still a six-man effort as far as the former bounty hunter was concerned. Vin would be rooting for Ezra the entire time. The sharpshooter grinned. Things must really be going to hell if he was using Ezra’s word’s and Josiah’s brand of reasoning. They were turning him into a regular psychoanalyst, or whatever the word was.

"Gentlemen, I think I had best be going, my competition starts in fifteen minutes."

The lazy drawl came from behind them, but Chris could read the almost relieved inflection the voice. Standish wanted out, now. Larabee set his jaw. Well, Standish was not getting out today, not if he could help it. "Before I depart, I just wanted to wish Mister Tanner well. I have the utmost confidence he will take the top prize quite easily. I imagine you’re all in for quite a show."

"That a promise, Ezra?" Buck asked with a broad smile.

Ezra arched an eyebrow delicately. "Well, I can make no promises for Mister Tanner…"

"But, ya can for you. Hear you’re in against Thompson today brother Ezra. Now, he’s a grizzled vet if I ever heard of one. Though I think you’ll beat him today, the way you’ve been going. However, I recall a story…" Josiah started off towards the exit of the convention room. He continued to rattle off some random story about Thompson while Buck and Chris followed, both looking like they were listening quite intently. Standish scowled at their backs. More likely than not, Sanchez was talking absolute gibberish about Thompson in a cleverly orchestrated ploy to keep Standish from protesting to the others’ attendance. He sighed, and looked at Vin.

Vin ignored the mild expression of annoyance on his friend’s face. "Well, reckon me’n the others should get goin’ too. Good luck, Ez."

"Ah… thank you Mister Tanner. Good luck to you as well." Ezra made to follow his teammates out the north exit while Vin gathered up JD and Nathan so they could leave for competition on the other side of the grounds. The muscles of Vin’s back suddenly tensed, and he turned around to see Ezra walk out the double doors. He looked around a bit, but saw no one but the agents still in their demo stations and an usher taking a smoking break by the door. He frowned and shook himself, before leaving the room.


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