Odd Man Out

by Celeste

Part VII
"Ah Josiah, that ain’t shit, I seen Ezra do better," Buck waved, hearing Josiah’s story on one of Thompson’s legends. "Hell, remember that time Ez convinced those runners the FBI, CIA, ATF, DPD, State Troopers, and US Marshall’s were surrounding the building when it was really only me’n JD?"

Josiah nodded. He remembered that bust clear enough. Ezra, JD and Buck had been called in to help Team 5, who were short three men and in need of a superior undercover agent. It should have gone routinely, an easy sweep after all the preparation that had been put into it. However, Team 5 had fucked something up royally and had gone to the wrong building. Of course, they blamed it on Ezra’s relay of instructions to the location, but in reality the screw up had happened because agent Riley had not been able to hear Ezra clearly over his car radio and consequently, Destiny’s Child’s "Survivor." However, the three members of Team 7 had contained the situation. Agent Standish had even received a field commendation for arresting all perpetrators without having to fire a single shot. "Yeah, that was some work you did, Ezra."

Standish eyed Sanchez. "Only doing my job, I assure you."

"Still some good work," Chris said quietly, looking Ezra in the eye.

The southerner almost had a skeptical look about him, as if he had earned this praise with the pity card. Standish turned his eyes away. "Thank you, Mister Larabee." But, it sounded empty.

 + + + + + + +

Kaplan watched from a safe distance behind, as Standish, Wilmington, Sanchez, and Larabee walked towards the undercover competitions. So, he had been right about that little rat bastard. He was really The Standish. Who else would make it to the finals? He would really hit this problem to the underground weapons circuit head on, wouldn’t he? Jeff slipped into an alley as his targets walked up the main path and jogged silently ahead of them to get into position.

Once he was there, he gauged their pace and decided he had about two minutes, plenty of time. The hit man loaded his handgun as he hummed pleasantly to himself before clicking the safety back and gripping the weapon. As soon as the others separated from Standish, he would get his shots off. They would be going into the bleachers to watch the competition from behind the glass, so they would need to enter the first door to the viewing room. Standish would need to use the last entrance to get into the main competition room. He chuckled to himself a little, after realizing that his whistling might give his position away. Weirdest of times to whistle a Disney song if had ever had heard of one… it was "Whistle While You Work" though, and he figured that it fit well enough. He pulled a box of cigarettes and a lighter out before readying his gun.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Josiah stepped into the viewing room doors as Ezra continued to the competitor’s station. Chris watched him go, scrutinizing his man with both confusion and exasperation. Why was Ezra Standish such a puzzle? He watched Standish walk, head high, giving the appearance that he had all the confidence in the world. It was that very appearance of confidence that hid the man’s sensitivity and raging self-doubts. Ezra stepped past an alley and a man smoking a cigarette who was wearing a thick coat, which was far too heavy for the warmth of the evening. The man moved out from the shadows, and he tossed his barely finished smoke to the ground, as he stepped away from the place where he had leaned against the wall. Chris’s gut churned instinctively and the muscles in the back of his neck tensed. Hadn’t he seen that man before? Instead of following Buck and Josiah to the viewers stand, Chris let the door click quietly shut, and he watched Ezra and the man suspiciously. What the hell was that guy doing back here anyway? Smoking was allowed in the hallways inside. There were designated areas and everything.

The man pulled a gun. Chris saw it, beneath the heavy material of the coat. The tip stuck out inconspicuously among the heavy material, making it barely noticeable to the naked eye. Larabee saw the minute signs when so many would have missed them, because it was his job, and because he needed to be sharp. He was the one who was ultimately responsible for the lives of his men, like now. His eyes moved in a straight line from weapon directly to the target. He fought the urge to scream at the top of his lungs and cause a riot when he realized someone wanted to kill his agent. If he had yelled, it would only have served to doom his friend that much quicker. ’What a time to not have a gun.’ Chris broke into a panicked run instead.

Ezra made his way towards his competition area, although he knew his heart would not be in it today. There were more important things happening; he could feel it. The conference wasn’t just about this political game of who’s who of ATF anymore. It had become the event that had torn down his safety net. As long as he had been ignorant to the inner workings of Team 7, he had been safe from his own denial. Now, there was only a big shining spotlight on his insecurities and self-doubt, illuminating them among the dark of everything else. He was expendable.

However, he still had a competition to take part in. Forfeiture was not an option. Ezra had never been known to not finish what he started, and he would be damned if that began now. After all, he still had to have something about himself he could hold on to.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled suddenly, as they had been doing off and on throughout today’s events. It was a weird sensation, and it was one he disliked vehemently, because it usually meant something was wrong. The pounding of footsteps behind him only confirmed it. They were frantic, carelessly slammed down…afraid. Years of training kept Standish from whirling around to meet whoever it was approaching him, and he tilted his head sideways ever so slightly instead, to view the person. A flash of black in the late afternoon sunlight caught his attention. Chris?

The quiet warnings his body had been giving him all day suddenly went on full alert. Chris was running like all the minions of hell were after him. Actually, Ezra wasn’t sure if even THAT would cause Chris Larabee to run, but it made him think something far worse was dogging his leader. He turned around slowly to ask the question. "Mister Lara…"

That was when Chris flung himself at the undercover man. Larabee was a fiercely determined leader who would be damned if he’d lose one of his own if it was preventable. Then, less than a second later, several gunshots exploded in the evening calm, and shattered the placid air surrounding the conference and the people attending. Ezra’s eyes went wide at the familiar, frightening sound. As he fell under Chris’s weight, and he clutched the older man against him to ease their fall, his mind put two and two together. Chris’s body jerked several times, and then went slack against his chest. A pure, primal panic erupted in Ezra and without thinking, he released the sleeve mechanism of his gun, and he fired blindly in the direction of the shots. A grunt rewarded his efforts, but he was beyond caring. He held Larabee’s limp form in his arms, and stared at it incredulously. "Mister Lara… Chris… CHRIS… CHRIS!!!"

The derringer dropped, forgotten to the concrete, still smoking. Ezra Standish, for the first time in a long time, completely lost all semblance of self-control. "Damn it! Look at me, you son of a bitch," he rasped out with desperation.

He turned his leader over hastily but gently, and his eyes searched frantically for the wounds. He found one, oozing thick red blood, and he pushed his palm against it desperately, leaning into it with his full weight to stem off the flow. "CHRIS!!"

The agent moved instinctively through the shock-induced haze. He could hear himself alternately screaming obscenities and mangled cries of distress. The outside world passed him by in those moments. Nothing existed save the blood on his hands and the absolute horror of what Chris Larabee had just done.

Eventually, Ezra realized there was something around him, outside of his confusion and shock. The outside world was still moving despite his desperate pleas for someone to stop it all so he could make this right; so he could fix it. There was a plethora of sounds and disembodied movements; he could not find the concentration to focus on anything in particular, and he nearly screamed in frustration. Chris was bleeding under his hands, damn it, and the world was still moving. He wanted it to stop and recognize what had just happened.

Chris Larabee had just saved Ezra Standish’s life. Chris Larabee could die. How could the world go on, when Ezra’s personal one was left frozen in its tracks? God damn it! The world should stop for men like Chris, during times likes these. It should have taken pause to realize the extremity of such an event. But it didn’t… it went on, with or without Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish, and this made Ezra angry. The world needed Chris!! Lord knew there were far too many despicable men out there; it needed every good one it could get. It was necessary that the world realized this and came back to this spot, right here, right now, to mourn its potential loss, the loss of one good man. Chris Larabee had just saved Ezra Standish’s life.

He felt a hand on his shoulder after what seemed like an eternity in his own personal distress. He shrugged the appendage off, stubbornly, concentrating on the ragged breathing still coming from the man lying prone on the concrete. He heard his name, and the sound of a panicked, worried voice in the background. Buck yelled somewhere in the slowly gathering crowd as Josiah attempted to snap Ezra out of his daze. Buck? Josiah? The two other agents must have been alerted by the gunfire. They must have been waiting for the competition to begin and heard the shots. Someone yanked Standish forcibly aside and bent over Chris. Paramedics? He wasn’t sure. He tried to get back to Chris, to see if his friend was still alive.

Josiah yelled, "EZRA! Let them take care of him!" The man was only loud when he was desperate. Something in the back of Standish’s mind clicked, and he heard older man’s pleas. Ezra backed off without realizing he was doing it, though his eyes still remained locked on Chris. The bullets had been aimed for him. They would have hit him head on, killed him, if Chris hadn’t interceded. If Chris had not interceded; if Chris had not taken them for him.WHY?’

Buck hated the smell of hospitals. It wasn’t a natural smell like rain, or flowers, or coffee. It had a completely synthetic feel to it, a dreamlike falseness existing in its own reality, a slower, more distressed time and space. On top of that, it smelled like plastic and white out in its fakeness. The large agent hated having to be in one for these reasons, among others. The other reason he hated being in hospitals was because people died in them. People important to him always died in them. His mother, his first partner, his best friend’s family had died in a hospital. Chris Larabee better not fucking die today, not in a place that smelled like this place did. Chris should have rain and flowers and coffee. Screw the plastic and white out.

The team was gathered outside the surgical wing, draped haphazardly anywhere they could find a place to sit. Vin alternated between pacing beside the window and sitting worriedly on the end of the stand next to JD’s half of the couch. A first place trophy sat discarded on the end table. Vin Tanner, first prize, ATF National Convention.

The shooter occasionally glanced outside into the waning sunlight of the warm summer’s eve, not feeling, or even seeing the serenity that surrounded it. It bathed the city in a soft pink glow as the sun dipped below the skyline; the rest of the Capitol was safe and secure, unaware of Team 7’s distress. Back at the hotel, Team New York celebrated victory with Team Colorado’s forfeiture, their first victory in three years since the match against California some long summers ago. Ezra sat in a thinly padded armchair, with numerous rips and tears in the cushion; his eyes stared straight ahead. He fiddled endlessly with the cuff of his shirt, dully noting the blood caking at the ends of it.

Josiah watched the younger man silently, feeling his pain, his guilt and his confusion. He knew every emotion Standish went through as he sat, watching. He was in so much distress that the infamous poker face had gone the way of the Dodo, if only for today. What the oldest member of the team was witnessing on Standish’s face was, in itself, history. It was sad, in its own way as well, because Sanchez could plainly see what Ezra was thinking right now, and the young man was thinking that the exchange had not been worth it. He was thinking that his own life was not, nor would it ever be, worth the life of one, Chris Larabee. Josiah wished he could tell Ezra that Chris had thought it was worth it, that they all would have done the same. But, Standish’s response would have been an incredulous widening of the eyes and a doubtful smirk.

When would he learn? It was a give and take, and everyone was willing to give it all, every single one of them. Why was Ezra so surprised, like he hadn’t expected it? He did this very thing yesterday for Chris, but when Chris reciprocated, Standish was shocked into silence and a face full of sincerity.

"Excuse me…"

Six pairs of eyes turned upward and focused on the orderly that approached them. The young man wrung his hands nervously together under their intense scrutiny. "The man you came in with… the one all in black?"

As one, Team Colorado stood, grim, angry, anxious, and most of all, frightened. "Yeah?" Nathan asked, his voice betraying his impatience and his fear.

"I’m sorry, but… but…he didn’t make it… we just lost him."

They all stared at him incredulously. It couldn’t be. That wasn’t right!!!! "No…no… he’s okay…you made a mistake…" Buck started, furious. JD had to physically restrain his older friend from ripping into the young man wearing surgical scrubs.

The nurse looked down at the floor. "I’m sorry. He died of a single gunshot wound to the…"

Vin stopped him with a shaking, unsteady hand. Sharpshooters should never have those. "Single?" the Texan asked, voice low, so no one could hear it rattle uncertainly in his throat. Chris had been shot four times.

The young man nodded at the longhaired agent’s question; noticing the curious looks he was getting from these, well, scary, for lack of better word, men. "Yes… 45 year old male, 6’4, 256 lbs…"

There was a unanimous sigh of relief. Standish plopped bonelessly back into his chair. "The shooter," Josiah clarified.

Buck let out a strangled cry and angrily reached out towards the orderly. "Boy don’t you EVER do that to us! Ya hear me? The "one all in black" is CHRIS d’ya hear me?! He has a fucking name! His name is Chris Goddamn Larabee!! Not just "the man", not just "the patient."He has a fucking name!! Chris… his name is Chris!"

The medic jumped backwards like a frightened rabbit and let JD hold the older man back. "I’m sorry…I assumed since you came together…"

"Don’t you assume nothin’! Now what about Chris, boy?" Buck’s eyes were angry, his fists tight.

"I don’t know about the other patient…er Chris… but, I’ll go see if I can find out anything for you," the man stammered before scurrying towards the doors, away from Buck and away from the obvious danger.

"Dear Lord…" Josiah breathed, rubbing a weary hand over his face. "I’m getting too old for this."

"Reckon age don’t got a thing ta do with it, Josiah," Vin responded, once again staring out at the sunset over the Washington skyline, while he willed his rapidly beating heart to slow before it overran itself.

"I thought he was gone for a second," JD said softly, sounding like a scared child.

"But, we haven’t… they ain’t said nothin’ yet…" Buck responded, as if he could save Chris Larabee with his will alone. "And, as for the shooter, I say good riddance. Nice shot Ezra."

Standish did not acknowledge the fact that he had been spoken to. Buck smiled sadly. "Figures he’d be the only agent armed after the Directors specifically told us weapons weren’t allowed," the older man stated quietly, thankfully.

Josiah let his eyes twinkle a bit. "Thank God for small favors."

"Perhaps you should speak to God and ask him for a larger favor, Mister Sanchez. I would do so myself, but I feel my voice would mean very little in such a matter."

Everyone looked up as Ezra spoke for the first time since the shooting. He had his cards out now, and he shuffled them rhythmically, without the usual care he devoted to them. It was almost rigid, mechanical. "Would you be so kind as to ask him if he would like to offer an exchange, Mister Larabee for the man who should really be in there? That is, for the one that deserves to be there?" The cards flew from left to right and right to left without the usual flourish.

The seven prepared to object to Ezra’s the self-deprecating statement, but just then, with all the timing of his kind, the doctor came in.

They stood up again, trying to read the man’s face behind the spectacles and the facemask, through the weariness of a hard day’s work, and through the stress from the operation. Ezra was as usual, the only one successful in such an endeavor. He read the man’s eyes through the tiredness he saw in them to what he really felt. After a long minute, Standish sighed with a surge of unbelievable liberation and collapsed back in his chair, his head tilted slightly upward, and his body slack. Before the doctor could even speak, Buck and the others, having seen Ezra’s reaction, whooped and grinned with their own relief, each falling back into their own seats with a "whoosh".

The doctor looked puzzled at the seemingly random outburst. "Mister Larabee will…"

"LIVE!" Buck finished, happily.

"Can we see him doc?" Vin prodded, trying to get control of his heartbeat once again. If this kept up, he would give himself a heart attack before he turned thirty.

"Yes, we’re moving him to ICU now. But, please gentlemen, only one visitor at a time."

Everyone looked at Ezra. He nodded, and made his way through the ominous double doors. The southerner braced himself for what was yet to come. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Larabee.’ Josiah noted the gambler’s look heavenward and the mouthed, ‘thank you.’

"Ex…excuse me?"

The five who remained in the waiting room turned around, almost startled by the noise. "The other man… the um…shooter…"

Buck sighed. It was the orderly again, the one that had shaved fifteen years off of his life with one uttered sentence. "What do you want, son?"

"He said something before he died… he said to tell Team Colorado… I’m assuming that’s you."

"You think I care what that no good, back shootin’ bastard said?" Buck asked with his mouth agape. It was a disturbing mannerism he was picking up from JD.

"Let him talk brother Buck. Might give us some reason for this whole mess," Josiah urged, putting a heavy hand on the younger agent’s shoulder.

Buck almost looked chagrined, but then he remembered whom he was talking to. "Sure Josiah."

"Go on, son," the big ex-preacher turned his attention to the orderly.

"Well, he said, um… something like, ‘almost got him, huh? Woulda been big, if I’da got him. Ha. Lamonte sends his regards, Team Colorado… the little bastard can go down with me…’ I think it was that. I might be a little off… "

The curses that came from Team Colorado made the tattoo artist sitting in the opposite waiting room cringe.

Ezra sat over the inert form of Chris Larabee, his face covered in the shadows that belied his feelings. The bullets had been real. Chris Larabee…his boss, his friend… had saved his life. The man had jumped in front of the bullets like it had been the most natural thing in the world, like it was the right thing to do.

Suddenly, Ezra hated himself for earlier. He hated himself for wanting to be higher on the list of priorities because this is what had happened. He hated himself for feeling dismayed and ecstatic at the same time. The dismay was a given, but why ecstatic? He was happy because for once, someone really cared. Someone had pushed past the falsities and worthlessness of words and had shown him that he really, truly cared. Ezra Standish, con man, gambler, liar and cheat extraordinaire, had been prioritized above the greatest possible thing Chris Larabee could possibly offer. Larabee had thought Ezra Standish was worth the price of his life.

Standish hated himself for wanting that, because now, Chris lay on the hospital bed, pale and quiet, broken and in pain, because of him, all because Chris Larabee had cared. Why on earth had he ever wanted this? How could he have wanted someone to put HIM above all else? It wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t worth it.

The gambler sighed and leaned back, rubbing his hand tiredly over the back of his stiff neck. How could he have wanted this, ever? If he had not, perhaps he would be the one in that bed looking pale and broken, instead of the one man that cared. The one man that made him care in return, as well.

"I’m sorry…" he whispered, his face for once, expressing the complete spectrum of emotions he felt. Why had he wanted this? Caring caused too much pain. ‘Look at you, Chris Larabee. Dying because of a man no better than the ones you throw behind bars every day. My life was never worth yours. It never will be.’

The bullets had been real, this time. There had been no denying anything in that. In the moment he had caught Chris’s stunned body, Ezra had realized how selfish he had been in the past days. Not a priority? Damn it, this man, these MEN prioritized HIM over their own LIVES! They felt he was worth something, that he was something special in comparison to themselves. God, if they only knew. Men like Ezra should die for men like them, not the other way around. The bullets aimed for them should always hit a man like Standish. Not the rare Chris Larabees, or Buck Wilmingtons, or Josiah Sanchezs, or Vin Tanners, or Nathan Jacksons, or JD Dunnes of the world. They should have hit him. "I’m sorry."

He leaned back in his chair, his hands toying idly with the cuff of his shirt. Yet, here was the proof he had been looking for all this past year. It lay right in front of him, more brilliant and painful than he ever could have imagined. He belonged to this powerful group of men. They accepted him as part of the whole, and they were willing to risk everything to keep it whole.

The bullets had been real. Chris Larabee had known that, and he hadn’t cared. He did what he could do to save Ezra, and Ezra was damned if he wouldn’t have done the same thing for this man, for any of these men. The exchange would always be worth it in the eyes of the one making the sacrifice, wouldn’t it? The bullets had been real… proof that closed off all questions and doubts. Seven was still, and would always be, an odd number, but it would always be a lucky number as well. The southerner chuckled to himself. Ezra Standish was part of something noble. Would wonders never cease?

He looked down at Chris with eyes slightly less jaded, but no less guilty. He chalked that up to another aspect of caring. "I doubted you. I misjudged you, all of you. I’m sorry."

+ + + + + + +

He couldn’t see. He could hear apparently, because there was some God-awful beeping going on in the back of wherever he was. But, most importantly, he couldn’t see. That, and he couldn’t move. Well… he actually COULD move, but it hurt to, so he categorized it as not being able to. ‘Why?’

"I’m sorry." It had just been a whisper, barely audible around the damnable beeping. It was a heart monitor. Shit, that usually meant he had been shot.

His eyes fluttered slightly behind closed eyelids, and he attempted to groan. "Ezra?" he wheezed, still unable to force open his eyes.

"Chris?" the voice was still soft, full of concern and guilt for more than just his current condition.

"You okay?"

"Fine, Mister Larabee.... thanks to you."

"Mmm k. Good."

"How are you feeling?"

"Okay." That was a lie.

"Do you need anything?"

"No. Thanks"

Chris’s eyes stopped moving behind the lids after a while and his breathing deepened. Ezra assumed the older man had gone back to sleep. Sleep he most definitely needed. But then the tired green orbs opened with great effort, and Larabee fought to focus on his man. Written across the younger agent’s face, Larabee saw all the evidence of hope, guilt, sorrow, and self-loathing that he had heard in his voice. He knew the feeling. "Somethin’ you wanna say Ezra?" Larabee croaked, his voice only slightly louder than the machine. He attempted a weak smile.

Ezra knew the man was fighting to stay conscious. He just shook his head, but Chris just continued to look at him expectantly. Ezra sighed and relented. "The bullets were real, Chris," he stated simply, though hidden meanings ran rampant in that one sentence.

Chris paused, deciphering Ezra’s confession in his statement. The leader would have smirked, had it been a painless motion on his part. It seemed that the eyebrow quirk wasn’t the only thing he’d picked up from the gambler this past year. He could understand the layering behind the younger man’s words now, as well.

‘The bullets were real.’ What did that mean, beyond the basic English translation, to Ezra Standish? ‘Does this mean this is real now too? Was it worth all this?’ Standish locked eyes with his friend lying there on the bed, and watched the injured man with uncontained regret.

"The bullets were real, Chris." ‘Was I worth it?’

"I know." ‘Yes.’


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