Your True Family

By: Ruby

 

Rating/Warning: PG-13 Language

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish and MGM. No money is being made. This fanfic is purely for entertainment purposes 

AU: ATF - Thanks Mog! :)

Author's Notes: Thanks Mog for starting this wonderful universe. I started writing this story a few days after Mog posted A Birthday in the Present (the first ATF story). Thanks to Judy, Shawna, Mog, Janet and PattiW for all of your help with this story.

Introduction of some of the vehicles that are used in ATF Fanfiction. Larabee-black Dodge Ram l Tanner-Jeep l Sanchez-Suburban l Jackson-Ford Explorer l Dunne-Motorcycle (Kawasaki) l Wilmington-old Chevy truck

The Jaguar is Mog's baby. :)

Note from 2003: This story is from July 1999. It's my first posted fanfic. Please excuse all grammar/punctuation problems. Hopefully, I've learned a few things since this story. <g> Also, just for my piece of mind, one more note: When I started writing this story, I assumed the AU was going to be set in the hot/dry Southwest like the show, hence the Jeep that 'hadn't seen doors or a top in years.' It was a short while later that I found out the AU was going to be set in Denver. I took some ribbing over that, and I always wanted to explain myself, which I did in my later story: The Top. :)

Feedback is always greatly appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you, Ruby :)

 

Part One  I  Part Two  I  Part Three  I  Part Four  I  Part Five  I  Part Six  I  Part Seven

 

 

Your True Family

By: Ruby

*****

The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life.

Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.

~ Richard Bach, Illusions

*****

Part One 

Vin Tanner parked his jeep in front of the federal building in Four Corners.

The dark blue vehicle hadn't seen doors or a top in years and was badly in need of a paint job, but somehow it just fit the lean young man.

The ex-bounty hunter jumped out and made his way to the all black club-cab Dodge Ram that was also parked in the parking lot.

Tanner opened the door of the large truck and climbed inside.

"Mornin' cowboy." 

"Mornin' yerself." Chris Larabee handed his best friend a cup of coffee. 

"What, no donuts?" The ex-bounty hunter drawled. 

Larabee gave the younger agent a sardonic grin. "We're cops Vin, we can't be sittin' out here eatin' donuts. People will talk."

Vin's blue eyes twinkled as he laughed at the older man's comment. Tanner looked up and over at his best friend. "Sure good to have you back, cowboy."

Chris smiled "It's good to be back. Somebody has to keep you boys in line." 

Both ATF agents looked up as a brown and beige, two-toned Ford Explorer and a black Suburban pulled into two more of the empty parking spots.

Chris and Vin watched as the young black man made his way out of the Ford and Sanchez got out of the Suburban.

A rusted old Chevy truck pulled in next, followed by a loud Kawasaki Ninja. Buck and JD.

Tanner and Larabee opened the truck's doors and stepped outside. The men could hear Buck and JD already arguing.

"I told you boy, the next time I caught ya ridin' that damn death trap without a helmet, I was gonna knock some sense into that damn thick head a'yours." Buck knocked JD's newspaper boy cap off of the kid's head.

JD bent down to pick his hat up and Wilmington kicked him from behind. 

Dunne went sprawling on the pavement. "OW, dammit Buck! Whad'ya do that for?!" 

JD slowly stood, wiping off the knees of his torn and faded jeans. 

"Hurts don't it?!" Buck smiled under his thick, dark mustache. 

"Well, hell yeah it hurts Buck, you just kicked me in the ass! You know this ground ain't too soft!"

Buck looked at the kid. "Well then, how do you think it would feel hitting it at 30 maybe 40 miles per hour!"

JD held his hands up in surrender. "Ok, OK Buck! You win, I'll buy a darn helmet, ok! You happy?!"

Buck grabbed the kid around the neck. "Am now!" 

"When ya gonna get rid of that 'nagasaki nutbucket' and get ya an American ride?" The mustached man asked the black haired kid as he gave him a hard dutch rub, ruffling the kid's already messy black hair.

Nathan and Josiah laughed at the two men's antics. It seemed that Buck took a liking to the kid as soon as they met and had been smothering the boy with the mother hen act ever since. The two men were more than familiar with this friendly bantering.

All four ATF agents looked up as Larabee and Tanner walked up to them. 

"Boys." Larabee greeted his men. 

"Damn glad to see ya boss. Now we can get back to work, get a new assignment. We're all going stir crazy around here."

Josiah wore a huge grin on his face as he shook the younger man's hand. 

Nathan stepped forward and clasped hands with the man in black. "How do ya like yer birthday gift?"

"It's a beautiful jacket, thanks guys." 

The men were inspecting Larabee's new black leather jacket when Tanner's soft voice drew their attention.

"The gangs all here." 

The men looked up as a jet-black '94 Jaguar XJS coupe with dark tinted windows pulled smoothly into a spot.

"The black sheep." Josiah looked fondly at the man that was exiting the expensive car.

Ezra Standish, the last of Larabee's team, stepped out into the bright sunlight. 

Standish's gray Zenalla suit fit him to a T. His green eyes were hidden behind a pair of silver-rimmed sunglasses.

The southerner walked up to his associates and proffered his hand to the man in black.

"Mr. Larabee, it's a pleasure to have you back." 

"Thanks, Ezra." 

JD, who stood to the side of the southerner, got a look behind the man's glasses. "Damn Ezra, what the hell happened to yer face? You look like you got the crap beat out a ya!"

Ezra smiled and looked towards the ground as he pulled his glasses off. "A very astute observation, Mr. Dunne. You are well on your way to reaching your...so desired rank of...'detective'."

With out the barrier to block their view the rest of the seven were clearly able to see what the kid had seen.

Ezra had two black eyes, and a small cut below his left eyebrow. 

"Lord Ezra, you try to save the soul of the mayor's daughter again?" Josiah asked as the larger man came forward to inspect the southerner's injuries.

"I assure you sir, it was nothing...that interesting. In fact, it was nothing I wish to speak of."

Standish swatted Jackson's hand away. The agent had also stepped forward, trying to get a closer look at the southerner's eye.

"Please Mr. Jackson! I am fine!!" 

Ezra turned towards the building. "Don't we have a new case to start, gentlemen." 

"Ezra?" 

The voice stopped him. Standish turned around to find Chris Larabee standing right behind him.

"You will tell us what happened." 

"As I just assured our resident healer here, I am physically fine... and I don't feel the need to discuss my...personal business?in the presence of my...professional colleagues."

Standish turned once again towards the building, thinking that that was the end of the conversation. A hand on his shoulder stopped his advance.

The six men saw the southerner jerk away in pain, quickly pulling his shoulder from Larabee's grasp.

Standish whirled around to face his boss. The southerner's face was red and a vein stood out on his forehead.

"Mr. Larabee! What part of 'I don't want to talk about it' do you not understand??"

"If someone beat the shit out of one of my men it concerns me and my team." Larabee was starting to become just as pissed off as the southerner.

"Believe me Mr. Larabee, this has nothing to do with the ATF office, or this team. Like I said before, it was a personal matter.

And if I thought it had any bearing what-so-ever on the safety of this team., I would not even be standing here."

Larabee's eyes burned with fire "So, what your telling me, Agent Standish, is that you are refusing a direct order from your commanding Officer?"

The two men faced off. It reminded the rest of the seven of a show-down in the Wild West.

"I guess Sir, that is...what I am...telling...You!" Ezra's green eyes burned with equal intensity.

"Then your out, as of right now, you're off the team. When you get your head out of your ass and decide to let the rest of us in on your problem, so we can help you, then you're back on the team."

Ezra stared at the older man, a look of disappointment and loss flickered across the younger man's features but just as quickly his 'poker face', as his friends had once dubbed it, was back in place.

Standish did not utter a word. He brought his right index finger up and tipped an imaginary hat, nodding his head at the man in black. It was an old signal, one that the two men had used since they first met.

Standish stepped around his boss and walked through his associates who were staring at him open-mouthed.

The southerner stopped as he heard Larabee's voice once again. 

"You have friends here. You might want to consider that. We are here for you, just like you're here for us. We're here to help you Ezra...you might as well let us."

Standish didn't turn around, but his soft words were clearly heard "Not this time." The southerner didn't voice his next thought, 'This is too dangerous.'

Ezra got back in his Jag and peeled out of the parking lot, leaving six very concerned men behind.

 

Part Two

The sign above the bar's door was ancient. Time and the elements had not been kind to the piece of wood that hung precariously from its frame by one rusted hinge. At one time the now debilitated sign had proudly boasted the name of the establishment it hung above, but most of the letters had long since vanished and all that was left was the remnants of an 'a'. The seven ATF agents had taken to just calling the place,'The Saloon.'

Wilmington and Dunne had arrived at around seven-thirty, the clock on the wall now showed five after nine. The men had taken their place at their usual table in the middle of the room, near the bar. Buck and JD had brought Wilmington's truck, leaving the kid's Ninja at home for the evening. JD had brought along his new prized possession, a soft back book...not aptly named...'More Funny Jokes'.

Josiah and Nathan came through the doors at eight-forty-five. Josiah ordered a round of beers for the men at the table, even though JD had barely even touched his first. Buck smiled his lady-killing smile at the waitress who brought the drinks. The young Mexican woman rolled her eyes at the mustached man, gathered up the empty glasses and found her way back behind the bar.

The banter around the table was light and jovial, with none of the men touching on the subject that was on all of their minds.

'What the hell was with Standish.'

A quiet drawl alerted the men to Vin's arrival. The ex-bounty hunter took his usual seat, leaned his chair back until the front legs no longer met the floor, and looked over his left shoulder. "How long he been here?"

"How long has who been here?" JD asked. 

Buck took a long drink from his beer before he answered. "Nez said he got here 'bout three, been drinkin' hard stuff ever since.

She said he got a poker game goin' with a couple of the old guys, but since that ended he's just been sittin' over there alone, drinkin' and playin' solitaire."

Tanner shook his head. "Damn." 

JD's face was a mask of confusion "Who, Buck? Who the heck are ya talkin' about?" The kid looked over into the dark corner to try to catch a glimpse of the man his friends were discussing, but all the kid could see was a dark form sitting by himself. The kid looked around at his comrades, his expression clearly showing that he still did not know the identity of the man in the corner.

"Ezra, kid," Buck looked over at his young friend. "He's been sittin' over there since we got here, didn't you notice?" Buck looked exasperated, "Kid, you're supposed to pay attention to things. You know...it's part of your job." It was clear that Buck was joking...clear to everyone...but the kid.

JD lowered his head, but not before the other men saw that his face had started to redden. Josiah clapped the young man on the back. "Don't worry son, heck I had to look twice when I came in. The man is an 'undercover agent,' it's 'his job' to blend in. Besides it's not everyday that we see Ezra lookin' like the rest of us."

Nathan called over to the man sitting alone, "Ezra, why don't you come on over here and join us, your making that whole damn corner dark and gloomy."

JD watched as the form slowly stood and revealed himself, the kid suddenly knew what Josiah had been talking about. Instead of the usual Zenalla suits Standish favored, the southerner wore a pair of khakis with a tight black tee-shirt. A plain black baseball cap covered his chestnut hair.

Ezra looked like a different person without the suit...and the guns. That was what was so different; where JD usually saw Ezra in his suit and tie, he also saw him with the gun holster clipped to his belt and the shoulder holster. To JD the man looked naked without his weapons, and the kid wondered if Ezra felt that way too.

The kid looked down and saw the bulge near the southerner's right ankle. Almost imperceptible to the average person, but not to JD's trained eye...no matter what Buck said.

JD could see the outline of the small gun the southerner usually kept strapped right above his ankle. The seven liked to joke with Standish, referring to the small gun he kept in the ankle holster as his 'derringer'.

The kid suddenly noticed just how muscular the southerner was. Where the suit jackets normally hid his bulk, the tight black tee-shirt clung to the man's biceps and chest, showing just how much work Ezra put into keeping his lean body in top physical shape, and ready for anything. JD made a mental note not to ever get into a knock down-drag out with Standish.

Ezra took the seat that Buck pulled out for him, taking a place between the ladies man and Josiah. The shadow from the brim of the southerner's hat almost hid the ugly bruises that marred his face. Standish sat with his cards in his hands, slowly moving the Ace of Spades through his nimble fingers.

The uncomfortable silence lasted until JD looked around the table at all of his friends. The kid couldn't stand the stifling feeling, so he did what he did best...he opened his mouth.

"What's the only fruit that's a couple?" JD read the first joke he came to in the book that was sitting in front of him.

"A pear!" The kid's boisterous laughter was cut short when he looked up and saw five sets of eyes staring at him with slack jawed expressions. Disgust clearly written on their faces.

"JD, what the hell are ya laughin' at boy? That's not even a funny joke." Buck slapped the kid on the back of the head, keeping from knocking the boy's cap off only because JD anticipated the move and placed his hand on his head to keep his hat in place.

"It was too a funny joke, Buck! See," the kid held the book up to within inches of Wilmington's face, "says right here...'More Funny Jokes.'"

"Lord boy, I don't care what the damn book says! That was one of the lousiest jokes I ever heard! Almost as bad as that three-legged-"

The chorus of loud groans that emanated from the men sitting around the table interrupted Wilmington.

"Buck, don't remind us." Josiah rubbed his forehead. "That one 'bout did me in." Sanchez looked over at the pouting kid sitting next to him and gave him a slight wink.

JD threw his hands up in the air in disgust as he got up from his seat. "You guys wouldn't know a funny joke if it came up and bit you on the butt!" With that the kid walked over to the jukebox, put in a quarter and punched a couple buttons.

JD came back to the table, picked Buck's feet up off the chair that the kid had just vacated, and not very gently placed them on the ground. JD sat, throwing a grumpy look at his best friend, then turned to the southerner. "Ezra I played that song that you like so much. 'The Gambler'.

Standish lowered his head as the first refrains from the song could clearly be heard, a slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"Why do you like this song so much?" JD asked the southerner the same question every time the song was played and every time the kid got the same answer. Standish said nothing. That was why JD was so surprised when this time Ezra looked up at him with thoughtful green eyes and spoke.

"I have always felt a certain...kinship...with the older gentleman in the song." 

"I'm sure you won't be lucky 'nuf to die in yer sleep, Ezra." Tanner's eyes twinkled as he said the words, his soft gravelly voice holding back a chuckle.

Ezra turned his pensive gaze towards the table and fixed his stare on the cards his slender hands were shuffling. It was a long moment before the southerner brought his green eyes back up to meet Tanner's blue ones. "No, Mr. Tanner...I'm fairly positive...I will not be afforded that...luxury."

Tanner could see something flash through Ezra's eyes. But for the life of him, he couldn't tell what it was, and just as quickly it was gone.

The ex-bounty hunter sat watching his friend intently as the southerner placed his troubled gaze back on his cards. Vin caught a glimpse of something black towards the front of the bar. "Don't get into any trouble boys. I'll be right back." The lean young man got up and walked towards the exit and out into the cool night air.

*****

Chris Larabee pulled his Dodge Ram into the only parking space that was still available on the street in front of the bar. The man in black sat in the truck staring at the black Jaguar that was parked right in front of him.

Larabee's thoughts drifted back to the first day he had met the new undercover agent he had helped the ATF acquire from the FBI. They had all heard the rumors that the young agent was on the take. The man in black had to admit that it didn't help the young man's reputation as a 'dirty cop' any to be driving around in an almost brand new Jaguar.

The initial meeting had not gone well. Standish was burnt out and cynical, standoffish at best. Almost coming to blows with Jackson because of their different 'views' on the south. When a week went by and the southerner had not even made an attempt to warm up to his new team members, Larabee began to question his decision to take the man on in the first place.

Standish seemed just not to care any more, actually leaving them on his first mission with the team.

Larabee could still see plain as day, the six ATF agents standing in front of the arms dealers, who had got the drop on them because Standish wasn't in his spot to see them coming. The agents stood with five gun barrels pointed at their heads. Ezra wasn't anywhere to be found. Chris had told himself then, that if by some miracle he managed to make it through this he would personally rip that damn southerner's head off.

Tanner was leaning over and reminding Larabee about the fifty bucks that the older man owed him from the football game the night before...when in walked Ezra Standish, whistling 'Red River Valley.'

The southerner had a gun in each hand and a wicked look on his face. 

Before, the spark of life in the young agent's eyes was extinguished, but they watched as it flickered back to life and once again started burning bright. Standish made eye contact with each one of the ATF agents that he had left for dead.

The arm's dealers turned around at the soft sound the southerner was making, but before they could even react Standish started firing, immediately cutting down two of them. The remaining three were swiftly taken care of by the six ATF agents.

The man in black swept the area with his eyes, making sure every member of his team was unhurt. When he was sure that they were fine, he stormed up to Standish and punched the southerner hard in the face. The man in black reached down, grabbing the lapels of Ezra's expensive jacket he picked the smaller man up from where he had fallen.

Larabee slammed Standish against the wall behind him and stood face to face with the young agent. "Don't you ever run out on me again!" Larabee's words were laced with contempt, his face contorted with fury.

The man in black finally backed away from the bloodied southerner, letting go of his now ruined jacket.

Standish cleared his head. For a second he thought he heard Larabee say 'don't you ever run out on me again'...but that meant...the man in black was giving him another chance. Ezra stared at the older man and brought his index finger up to an imaginary hat brim, in the gesture of tipping a hat...like in the old days. The southerner lowered his face as he passed the man in black, on his way to help the other agents clean up the mess.

Since that day the two men had used that silent signal as their 'good to go' sign. 

Then during the team's second outing the southerner saved Josiah's life. Ezra knocked the larger man out of the path of a bullet, seeming to not even think for a moment about himself. The young FBI agent dismissed the act as 'something anyone would have done.' But the rest of the ATF agents knew better.

Time after time the southerner was cool and calm in action. Taking the blame entirely on himself if things went wrong. And if things went right, he would just shrug his shoulders and act like he had nothing to do with it.

Chris knew that this job meant absolutely everything to the southerner and the young man would be lost without it. For a second he wondered what Ezra had been like when he first joined the force. If he was a gung-ho rookie, filled with dreams of justice and helping his fellow man. Then to have all of that thrown back in his face with the accusations of wrong doing. Getting thrown to the wolves by his fellow cops.

Larabee stepped out of the truck, ducked his head in the bar's door and saw Vin sitting with the others. Chris locked eyes with the ex-bounty hunter and with a jerk of his head motioned him to join him outside.

 

Part Three

Larabee was standing behind his truck, in the process of pulling the tail-gate down, when he heard Tanner's soft voice.

"Hey cowboy," Vin greeted his best friend as both men found a seat on the gate. 

Larabee looked towards the door Vin had just come through. "He been here long?" 

Vin nodded, "Buck said he asked Nez. She said he got here around three, been drinkin' whiskey ever since."

Chris and Vin made eye contact. 

The man in black looked up at the starry sky as he spoke, his mind replaying the look on Ezra's face when he told him that he was off the team.

"What the hell do you think it is Vin? Why won't he tell us? Why the hell doesn't he trust us?" Chris looked back over at his best friend, watching the young man purse his lips before he spoke.

"Hell Chris, if I knew the answer to that?" The young man gave a wry chuckle. Vin's eyes grew serious as he spoke again. "I think he's in trouble though. I mean, something's up with him. He's not acting like himself at all. Not even like his normally elusive self."

Chris looked back over his shoulder towards the bar, "Hell, if I thought it would help, I would try to beat it out a' him myself."

Vin looked sharply towards the other man, "You know something?" 

*****

The jokes just kept on coming, one after another. If Wilmington thought he could do it without pissing Nathan off, he would have butted the kid in the head with his gun. An unconscious boy can't tell bad jokes. But instead the four men were forced into hearing one horrible joke after another.

JD had just recently found a whole chapter in his book entitled, 'Law Enforcement Blunders'. Buck had to admit that the 'cop' jokes were a little easier to take. Even with JD telling them. 

The men were starting to relax and enjoy themselves. Even Ezra seemed like he might make it through the night, when JD once again, put his foot in his mouth. 

"What item can you not get cleaned at the dry cleaner?" 

"A dirty cop." JD's eyes widened as he realized what he had just said. The kid tried desperately to get the words back into his mouth, but they were already out and JD quickly looked at Ezra with a face flushed red with embarrassment.

The rest of the men fell silent, furtively glancing at the southerner to gauge his reaction to JD's joke.

Ezra sat with his head lowered, his face half hidden in the shadow of his hat brim. The only indicator that he had even heard the joke was a slight clenching of his jaw muscle. He could feel the other men's eyes flit towards him, and just as quickly look away. 

The southerner raised his head and attempted a smile for the kid's benefit "Gentlemen, I do believe I will call it a night. Its been a...big day for me." Ezra fished around in his pant's pocket and pulled out a set of car keys. The southerner placed them in front of the kid. "JD, think you could drive the Jag home for me?" 

JD's face lit up, no one but Ezra ever drove the Jag. "Really??" 

Ezra smiled at the kid's exuberance. He stood from the table and made eye contact with the other men. Placing his finger on the brim of his hat he quietly spoke. "Gentlemen...till tomorrow." 

The four men watched as Ezra made his way out the back door. Buck reached over and slapped the kid's head once again, this time knocking his hat clean off his head. 

"God Dammit Buck! Stop doin' That!!" JD glared at his friend, not even attempting to put the cap back on his head.

"Good goin' JD. He was just starting to feel better and you go and say something like that." Buck was really angry with the kid, even though he knew he really shouldn't be. 

"Sorry, Buck...I just didn't think. I just don't think about Ezra like that. Hell...it was all just rumors anyway!"

The three ATF agents sat staring at the kid in amazement. The kid that was so sure, without a doubt, without even knowing him at the time, that his friend had never done any of the things that the rumors said he had.

Josiah stood and placed JD's cap back on the kid's head. "I wish more people had your kind of faith and loyalty, JD." Josiah looked towards the back of the bar, to the door that Ezra had just walked through. "I think our southern friend's life would be a lot easier." Sanchez reached down and squeezed the kid's shoulder before he walked outside after his friend.

*****

Ezra leaned against the fence that separated the bar's property from the run down building next door. He placed the back of his head against the cold metal and stared up at the stars that he could barely make out with the light coming from the street lamp.

He brought his head around as he heard the back door of the bar open, and watched as Josiah appeared in the doorway and started towards him. 

"How ya doin', Ezra?" Josiah's soft voice rumbled with concern. 

Ezra looked down, a wry laugh left his throat before he replied. "Couldn't be Better, Mr. Sanchez. It has been an absolutely delightful day." The southerner slowly brought his eyes up to meet Josiah's. "Except of course...for the part where I lost my job." 

"Kid didn't mean nothin' by it. He just didn't think is all." Josiah watched as a hurt look flickered across Ezra's face. Sanchez could see the purple and green hue of the harsh bruises that darkened the skin under the younger man's eyes. Ezra's green eyes looked young and lost for a second and the southerner reminded Josiah of a child who had just gotten into a shoolyard fight.

Sanchez wished it were that simple. 

Ezra took a deep breath and exhaled as he replied. "Ah, hell...I know. That kid doesn't have a mean bone in his body." The young man let out a soft humorless chuckle. "Hell, he'll probably feel bad about it for weeks."

"Buck's taking care of that. Might be closer to a month." Josiah tried to bring a little levity to the situation. He of all people knew how Ezra felt about this whole deal. The missionary's son turned his head when he heard Ezra speak, thinking for a minute that the emotion filled words he was hearing were coming from someone else's mouth.

"It wasn't the joke, Josiah...it's...every eye at that table landed on me at the mention of the word 'dirty cop.' Do you have any idea what that's like? Whether any of you believe the rumors or not,they're there. And there is nothin' I can do about it. Nothin' I can ever do." There was more emotion on Ezra's face than Josiah had ever seen the young man exhibit.

The southerner's eyes were bright in the dim light that the street lamp cast. "Dammit, do you think I like that? I'm so damn sick and tired of it all." Ezra spoke so softly, almost to himself. "Sometimes I think it would have been better just to've taken the fuckin' bribe and saved myself a'lot'a beatin's. Hell, at least then I would get something out a all a this." Ezra looked up and saw Josiah's eyes narrow in question, but the southerner cut off whatever Sanchez was about to say.

"People believe what they want to believe." Ezra chuckled. "Hell, with my past record, I guess I would believe it too." Ezra lost any warmth his voice carried and his expression hardened, "and I'm the one who would know."

Josiah opened his mouth to talk, but Ezra cut him off once again. "I'm done for the night, I'm gonna go get some sleep."

"You ain't walkin' home." 

Standish looked at the tall man and saw the concern in his eyes. "No, I...I'll call a cab." The southerner turned once more towards the alley and the street at the end. Then he stopped, seemed to think about something, and turned back around so he was facing the larger man. 

"Josiah??"

Sanchez stopped in his tracks when he heard the southerner's hoarse voice. He turned towards his friend, who was now just a shadow in the night. "Yeah?" 

"Thanks." With that Ezra nodded his head once, turned and was immediately out of Sanchez's sight.

Josiah stared at the darkness that his friend had vanished into. "You're welcome, son."

 

Part Four

Ezra Standish walked down the darkened alley that ran parallel to the street in front of the saloon. He pulled the small phone out of his pocket and pressed the speed dial number for the cab-company. He asked to be picked up on the corner in front of the bar. 

The southerner knew the cab would take quite a while so he slowed his pace. Ezra relished the darkness of the alley and the idea that he was alone with his thoughts. He knew that he could have just asked the kid to give him a ride home in his Jag. But it would have been awkward, with the kid apologizing to Ezra the whole way home. No, He just needed to be alone right now.

The southerner's thoughts started drifting back to the past. 

*****

Ezra Standish had garnered the nickname, 'Wildcard,' early in his FBI career. The young southerner was known for taking chances on the job. Not conforming to the FBI's rules and regulations. Just basically being a maverick. And that's what led up to this impromptu meeting with Deputy Director Jack McKinley. 

McKinley stood in front of the southerner. The man's large face had turned beet red as he reprimanded Standish, once again. The man had been ranting and raving for over half an hour now. Ezra had basically tuned the man's voice out about five minutes into the longwinded speech. The southerner was replaying one of his favorite poker games in his head. Ezra had just laid down his hand, 'aces over eights gentlemen,' when suddenly he was pulled from his reverie by McKinley's final words. 

"Standish, you're one hell of a narcotics agent, but this shit ends now! You might have commendations coming out of your ass, but we've had enough of your antics. Your 'wildcard' days are over, you're being assigned a partner."

Ezra's face showed the surprise that he felt at this newest development. His voice was a barely controlled hiss. "I work alone, I've always worked alone...that's how I am. I don't work with a partner." 

"Huh, we thought you would say that." The older man's mouth curled up in a wicked grin. "Ok, we'll give you a choice. Either play nice and take on a partner, or you're out. We feel like we are being more than fair. You're a good agent, Standish, but this shit ends right here, right now. You either work with this guy or find a spot in the unemployment line. We all know how much your job means to you. Hell it's the only thing you got. It's your decision. I think you'll make the right one." 

*****

The young FBI agent sat waiting to meet his new partner. Standish had heard all the stories about Dick Palamon. The man was a legend in the FBI. Ezra couldn't believe he was going to be that man's partner. Ezra had never seen the older agent. Academy stories were the closest he had ever come to actually meeting the man.

Standish sat in the uncomfortable chair, waiting for the seasoned FBI agent to make an appearance, he didn't have to wait long. 

Ezra didn't know what he was expecting but this certainly wasn't it. The big man towered over Standish. The southerner's 5'10 frame was no match for the other man's 6'3. Dick Palamon was square shouldered with a massively large build. The older agent's wavy blond hair and eyebrows made the man's tan seem even darker.

Standish stood up and clasped hands with the bigger man. "Are you acquainted sir, with the author who penned your surname?" The younger agent asked after the formal introductions were made. 

A wry grin took hold of Palamon's mouth. "And at the self-same moment Palamon enters by Venus' Gate and takes his place under a banner of white, with a cheerful face." 

"You had not found, though you had searched the earth, two companions so equal in their worth." Ezra finished the quote, grinning and shaking his head in amazement. 

" 'Chaucer'...well, well sir...I look forward to many lively conversations with you." 

Palamon nodded his head, " 'The Knight's Tale' was always my favorite." 

"Mine too sir, mine too." Ezra smiled a genuine heartfelt smile. 

The rest of the agent's first meeting was spent, not discussing their upcoming partnership and aspects of law enforcement, but discussing the characters that peopled the book 'The Canterbury Tales.' "

From that day forward the two men had a wonderful partnership. The two were inseparable, like brothers. Standish did not completely lose his image as a maverick, but slowly he learned to trust his partner and started listening to his advice. Under the older agent's tutelage, Ezra soon started to work within the FBI's rules and regulations. Palamon's 'by the book' way of working tempering Standish's 'wildcard' ways. For two years the men made a fearful team. Until that fateful day when all hell broke loose and the rumors got the better of Standish.

*****

Standish parked his Jag in front of his modest apartment complex. The FBI agent stepped out of the car and started towards the building's front door. Suddenly three men were blocking Ezra's path. 

"Excuse me, gentlemen." Standish made an attempt to get around the rough looking men.

"Agent Standish? We have a proposition for you. We work for a very... successful business man. He seems to think that you would make a wonderful business associate. "

Standish recognized Hunt Calhoun. The man was the top henchman for the drug dealer Paulo Lagraven. The southerner's lip turned up in a feral grin. "I know who you work for. You're some of Lagraven's goons. I don't associate with...gutter trash." 

That earned Ezra a vicious punch to his stomach. The two other men reached down and pulled the gasping southerner to his feet. 

"We had it under the highest authority that you would jump at the chance to make some money." Calhoun looked over at Ezra's Jag and then his eyes raked Ezra's wardrobe from the southerner's white collar to his expensive shoes. "You must need some way to finance that fancy wardrobe of yours." 

Ezra chuckled, "Gentlemenm, the federal government finances my wardrobe." 

Standish felt the fist connect with his face. His body kept from hitting the hard sidewalk only for the two men that still held their grasp on the smaller man. 

"All you need to do is...*not* do your job. We bring a shipment in the country...you look the other way and you let us know if we're gonna get any heat. You'll get a percentage, believe me you will be compensated very well for your...trouble." 

As Ezra looked at the man standing in front of him he thought of all the money he could make. It did not take Standish one moment to make his decision. 

"No." the southerner's voice was clear and strong as he said that one word. 

Hunt Calhoun looked at Ezra with astonishment. "What?" 

"No, I said no...is that clear? The answer...is no!" 

"Well maybe this will help sway your decision." The man punched Ezra hard in the ribs, then caught the stunned southerner with an uppercut. 

Ezra felt the ribs break. Then he felt the pain in his jaw as the man punched him in the face. The men held him up as their leader hit the southerner over and over. 

"Yeah, let's see if that helps you come around to our way of thinking." 

One last punch and Ezra's battered body fell to the concrete sidewalk in an unconscious, bloody heap.

*****

Three days later the southerner woke up in the hospital. Dick Palamon was sitting in a chair beside Standish's bed.

Ezra's eyes slowly drifted open, the green showing through the slits his eyelids made.

"Hey, wildcard." 

Ezra looked over to see his partner sitting beside him. 

"How ya feelin'?" Palamon looked into Ezra's cloudy eyes, trying to assess his partner's condition.

Ezra brought a hand up to his face and gingerly touched his cheek. "Good Lord...like I...been...run over by a...truck."

"You remember what happened?" Palamon's voice was full of concern for his young partner.

Ezra thought about what did happen, suddenly he remembered. "I was approached by three of Lagraven's goons. They offered me a bribe. Look the other way when their shipments come in...for a percentage."

Palamon took a long, hard look at his partner. He leaned forward in his chair and pursed his lips. "Some disturbin' rumors are circulating regarding your relationship with Paulo Lagraven. You got trouble kid. The word on the street is...you been workin' for Lagraven for some time now, and you wanted a bigger cut."

Ezra couldn't hold back his shock and anger. "What? What are ya saying Dick? You think I'm on the take?" Ezra was startled when he saw the look of utter disappointment cross his partner's face. 

Palamon leaned back in his chair and looked away from Ezra, not meeting the younger man's eyes. "Hell kid, I don't think that. I told you...it's the rumor on the street. But it is there and the boss wants to meet with you as soon as you're up to it. I've been reassigned, I have a new partner." 

Standish saw the look in his partner's eyes. A look that showed he had already written him off, like he was guilty.

Ezra's voice was almost pleading as the southerner spoke to his friend. "I didn't do it Dick. You of all people have to believe me. Hell, you know me better than anyone." 

Palamon just stared through Ezra. "Sure kid, I know you didn't do it." The large man stood, as if he were uncomfortable to be in the presence of a 'dirty cop.' "You get better...ok." With that the older agent turned and walked out of Ezra's hospital room. 

 

Part Five

Chris looked back over his shoulder towards the bar. "Hell, if I thought it would help, I would try to beat it out a him myself."

Vin looked sharply towards the other man, "You know something?" 

Larabee took a deep breath and let it out. "Got a call this afternoon. An old friend a mine from the Atlanta FBI office. He said that there's a rogue agent giving info to Paulo Lagraven. They haven't found him yet. That was until yesterday. They had a young undercover agent deep inside Lagraven's drug cartel. The feds got a call from him early yesterday mornin'. He said that he just overheard someone telling Lagraven's men that 'Standish has a tape and it would put Lagraven away for life.' Well that made them think that Standish was the rogue agent, how else would he have gotten a tape? He would have had to a been really close to Lagraven." 

"What did you tell them, Chris?" Vin asked the older man. 

"I told them that they were barking up the wrong tree. That Ezra didn't have anything to do with Lagraven."

Vin saw the look come over his friend's face. The sharpshooter's voice was a hoarse whisper as he replied, "But you don't believe that, do you?" 

Chris shook his head and pursed his lips. "Dammit Vin, it just don't look good. What with everything that happened this morning. That gives them a lot of ammunition against Ezra right there. I want to believe in him, I really want to be able to trust him, but damn, he doesn't make it easy." 

Vin shook his head venomously. "No way, Chris...no way! He never worked for that bastard! Not Ezra. What other information did the undercover agent give?" 

A dark look crossed Larabee's face. "That was it. While he was talking on the phone...someone killed him."

Vin cursed as he closed his eyes tight. "What the hell is goin' on here, Chris?" 

"I don't know. But my guess is that some of Lagraven's men are here to get the tape from Ezra. That must be what happened to him." Chris shook his head as he looked away from his best friend. "IA's on their way. They wanna talk to Ezra, see what he knows. Ezra is gonna have problems with this one, big problems." 

Vin looked towards the bar, and his friend. He really did think of Ezra as a friend, no matter how hard the stubborn southerner tried to push all of them away. Vin could always see the good in the undercover agent. The sharpshooter hopped off the truck's tailgate. "Well, let's just take the bull by the horns and go talk to 'im." 

*****

Josiah walked back into the bar. He noticed that the three ATF agents sat morosely at the table where he had left them at when he walked out to talk with Ezra. Josiah sat down and took a drink of his warm beer. He looked at JD. The kid sat staring at the table. 

JD looked up to see Josiah quietly take his seat. The kid quickly averted his eyes. 

Buck motioned with his head towards the back door. "He alright?" 

Josiah looked over at Nathan, then to Buck and finally to the kid. "He's just got a lot on his mind, he's gonna take a cab home."

Buck lightly clapped the kid on the shoulder. "See kid, no harm done. He's gonna be fine." 

JD looked up at his best friend. "That's not what you said a little bit ago, Buck." 

Buck looked at the other two men for help. "I told ya kid...don't listen to anything I say." The ladies man attempted a laugh, to relieve some tension. 

JD wasn't listening. "No, I made a huge mistake. Did you see the look on his face? Oh God, I can't believe I said that."

"Now come on JD, we all messed up. We shouldn't have looked over at him. Hell, we are more at fault than you." Josiah tried to comfort the troubled boy. It wasn't working. 

Buck picked up the set of car keys that were lying in the middle of the table. The ladies man fingered the Jaguar emblem on the black key-chain. "Kid, why don't you just bring the Jag home to our place tonight. Then on our way to work in the morning you can run it by Ezra's maybe talk to him again. I'm sure he doesn't want you to feel bad about this."

JD looked over at his best friend. The kid thought that that sounded like a real good idea. Then he could apologize to the southerner one more time. He nodded his head at Buck's suggestion. 

The men sat in silence for quite a while before the bar's front door opened and Larabee and Tanner walked through.

"Boys." Larabee greeted the agents. He could immediately see that something was wrong. Chris and Vin sat down, both men noticed the look on JD's face. 

Vin leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands over his stomach. "You guys run Ezra off?" He asked with a wry grin.

JD stood quickly, almost knocking his chair over. The kid grabbed the keys to Ezra's car. "I'm heading home. I'll see you guys in the morning." 

The men didn't even have time to say goodbye, the kid practically ran out the door. 

"What was that all about?" Chris asked the group. 

"Long story," Buck answered watching the front door slam shut. 

Chris watched the men, he knew something had happened, he figured they would tell him when the time was right. "Where is Ezra? We need to talk." 

"He's gone, Chris." Josiah answered, "He left a while ago." 

*****

Standish was still lost deep in his past as he slowly made his way down the darkened alley. The southerner registered the noise behind him one second too late. 

Ezra felt the rough hands grab him and his body was tossed up against the wall. A man dressed in a dark leather jacket held Standish against the wall, with his arm across the agent's throat. Another man stood in front of him, holding a gun...pointed right at Ezra's face. 

Ezra could hardly breathe with the arm blocking his airway. Finally the southerner gasped out, "Did we not go through this once already. I told you then I know nothing of this 'tape' you keep referring to." 

The large well-dressed man stood menacingly in front of the ATF agent. The barrel of his gun two inches from the younger man's eye. 

"We know ya have a tape, Standish. Now we also heard that you have it in such a place that if you die, it will be sent straight to the FBI. You know what that means?" 

"What?" Ezra tried to sound as sarcastic as he could, but sarcasm seems to lose its effectiveness when the person using it can't breathe. 

"All that means is we can't KILL you." Ezra felt the man behind him punch him hard in the kidneys.

Ezra doubled over, but was quickly brought back to his feet, "Gentlemen, I assure you I know nothin' of what you are talking-"

Ezra was interrupted by a blow to his already battered face; blood filled the inside of the southerner's mouth.

"There are six men in that bar. Six friends who care about you. It would be a shame to see something bad happen to one of them." 

Ezra's mind screamed NO!! But his face remained impassive, "Sir, those men are no friends of mine. They are business associates, and not even that any longer...as I seem to have lost my job." 

The man in front of Ezra smiled a cruel, sinister smile. "Huh, well we'll see about that. The boy that took off in your Jaguar, he seemed pretty young. It would really be a shame if something happened to him, now wouldn't it."

'Oh Good Lord NO! Not JD!' Ezra's mind was reeling. What was he thinking sending the boy home in his car? Obviously he wasn't. 

"You bring that tape to the warehouse on the corner of Main and Watson, nine o'clock tomorrow evening. You come alone, no guns. Don't even think about wearing a wire. If you do that...we won't spread that kid's entrails all over the Four Corners highway." 

Ezra spit the blood from his mouth out on the ground. "I'll be there. I'll bring your tape. But, if you touch one hair on that kid's head...you won't like the outcome of our meeting." Ezra's face was devoid of emotion, but the man could hear the rage and the threat that rolled like thunder with the agent's words. 

"Just be there." The man behind Ezra flung the southerner against the wall. Standish's head connected with the brick building.

The men left the unconscious agent alone and bleeding in the darkened alley.

 

Part Six

The four ATF agents sat and listened as Chris retold the story he had just told Vin. The men could not believe their ears.

Josiah looked Larabee square in the eye, "It's not true Chris, whatever is going on...I know Ezra never took that bribe."

Larabee returned the missionary son's stare. "You are so sure of that Josiah? So absolutely sure that you would risk the lives of every man on this team?" 

Everyone looked up when the front door banged open and was immediately filled with the form of a very disgruntled cab driver. The men knew Johnny, he worked this side of town and had taken each of the agents home on at least one occasion.

"Can you tell Standish to hurry the hell up? I've been waiting out there for at least half an hour."

Chris and Vin exchanged confused glances, which quickly turned to concern when they saw Josiah jump out of his chair and fly towards the back door and out into the darkness of the alley. 

The four men followed Josiah out of the bar. 

"Josiah?" Chris yelled to his surveillance man, "What the hell is goin' on??" 

Josiah turned, "I left Ezra out here, he was gonna call a cab, he went walking down the alley, but that was over an hour ago!"

"Good Lord," was Nathan's response. 

"Nez keeps a flashlight right inside the back door." The ladies man was back in a second with a halogen flashlight. Buck clicked the light on and the five men quickly canvassed the alley. 

"Buck! Shine the light up there on the left." Nathan was running forward to where he had seen the dark form in the shadows.

The shadow was suddenly bathed in white light and the men saw Standish's bloody, beaten body slumped against the building.

"Oh Christ No!" Josiah hissed as he kneeled next to the healer who was checking the southerner for a pulse.

Nathan felt Ezra's body for any breaks, then he cupped the man's neck in his hands and asked Buck and Vin to gently pull

Ezra's legs out, so his body was flat on the ground. 

The men quickly had Standish lying flat so Nathan could get a better view of the smaller man's injuries.

Buck snapped his phone shut, "Medics are on the way. How is he, Nate?" 

Nathan saw all the blood that had saturated Ezra's chestnut hair. He lifted the undercover agent's eyelids to gauge his pupil response. "It looks like he got his head hit pretty hard. I would be real surprised if he doesn't have a concussion."

Buck leaned down, "They really did a number on him, didn't they." 

Ezra's eyelids fluttered open, disoriented green eyes blinking rapidly. 

"Ezra?" Larabee was beside the smaller man in an instant. Nathan used his jacket to wipe the blood from the southerner's forehead, sirens could be heard in the distance. 

Standish squeezed his eyes shut as an excruciating wave of pain threatened to send him back to unconsciousness. For a second the southerner could not remember what had happened. Then it all came back and he remembered the threat against JD that was made by Lagraven's men. Ezra tried to sit up, "JD! -driving my car home...they...they threatened him...you have to find him-"

Nathan pushed against Ezra's chest to keep the frantic man on the ground. Chris turned towards Buck who was already dialing the number to his and the kid's place. Buck spoke into the phone and then quickly turned to his comrades, "He's fine, the kid's at home. Nothing's happened to him." 

The strength fled Ezra's body and he fell back to the ground. "Thank God," the southerner said under his breath. Then Standish remembered the other threat, against all of his friends. Ezra opened his eyes to see five very concerned men hovering over him.

The southerner did the only thing he knew to do to keep them safe. 

"I'm fine, I don't need any help from you!" Standish spat his words at the black man. Ezra tried once again to regain his feet but

Nathan held him down. "Leave me alone Nathan. I told ya I was fine, it's nothin' I'm not used to!" Standish's face was red with exertion. "I don't need any of you, just leave me the hell alone!" 

Finally Standish made it to his feet, the fight against Nathan taking a lot out of him. The other men watched as the southerner swayed. Buck reached out to grasp his arm but Ezra knocked Wilmington's hand away. The southerner made a soft gurgling sound and whispered, "oh" right before he vomited on Josiah's shoes. Standish's eyes rolled back in his head, his knees buckled and he instantly crumpled to the ground. Buck and Chris' fast reflexes stopped the southerner from hitting the hard cement. The two men gently laid the unconscious man on the ground. Nathan was furiously checking him over when the ambulance pulled up and two paramedics jumped out and ran over to the scene. 

Nathan explained the situation to the two young men. They quickly got Ezra ready for transport and Larabee rode with them on their way to the hospital. 

*****

Chris Larabee sat beside Standish's hospital bed with his long legs stretched out in front of him, quietly reading and waiting for the younger man to wake up. It was eleven o'clock the next morning. 

Standish's forehead was swathed in white cotton, the purple underneath his eyes a striking contrast to the paleness of his skin.

Larabee looked up when he heard Jackson's words. "He's comin' to, Chris." 

Ezra woke up to find Nathan Jackson standing at the end of his bed, with his arms crossed in front of his body. "Where's the tape, Ezra?" 

"What are you talking about, Mr. Jackson?" 

"Ezra, we know you have some kind of a tape. It's already gotten one agent killed, who's gonna be next?" When Nathan saw that the information wasn't going to be coming from the southerner he turned and stormed out of Standish's room.

Ezra looked over and suddenly noticed the man in black sitting next to him. He had a horrific sense of deja' vu. For a second he thought it was Palamon and the older agent was once again going to tell Ezra how disappointed he was in him.

"Ezra?" Chris saw the fear and confusion flicker through the southerner's eyes. 

Standish heard the man in black's voice, and his mind quickly came back to the present. "Mr. Larabee, did I not tell you that I do not want to have anything to do with you?" 

Chris watched as Ezra tried to sit up in the bed; the older agent propped the pillows behind Standish. "Ezra, I got a call last night from an old FBI friend a mine. He said that they had an undercover agent inside Paulo Lagraven's cartel. He was just a kid, fresh out of the academy. Anyway, he called the feds, saying that he overheard someone telling Lagraven's men that you had a tape, evidence against Lagraven. He was killed before he could give anymore information to the feds. IA's gonna be here in a while to talk to you. You wanna tell me what is going on?" 

Ezra shook his head, "The men...that beat me up...they asked for the tape, but I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. I still don't." 

Ezra rolled away from Larabee, facing the wall. The southerner closed his eyes and wondered how his life had gone to hell in a hand basket seemingly overnight. 

Larabee got up and quietly left the room. 

Ezra heard the door click behind the man in black. The southerner climbed to the edge of the bed, stood unsteadily, and made his way to the bathroom. He stood in front of the mirror, slowly pulling the gauze off of his forehead. The gash above his right eye was deep and ugly; the southerner counted six stitches. He washed his face with cool water and stepped over to the closet.

There was a change of clothes hanging in his closet. One of the guys had been thoughtful enough to bring him a clean outfit. It took a while for him to pull the clothes over his battered body, but finally he was dressed and ready to get out of this place. He had a meeting to get to at nine. 

All he had to do was sneak out of the hospital and go find his car. Either it was at Wilmington and Dunne's place or they had brought it back to his place. Then he would lay low until this evening. 

Out in the hallway Larabee walked up to Nathan. The black man shook his head. "Sorry Chris, that man is so exasperatin', he don't even care that he's in so much trouble. He's gonna get himself killed!" 

Chris looked at the black man. Of all his men he never thought that Jackson and Standish would ever get along, that was why he was so surprised that Nathan cared about the stubborn southerner so much. "We'll be there for him. He just don't know it yet." Chris had a wry grin on his face as he looked towards Standish's room. 

*****

Ezra stood outside the hospital. He hailed a cab and decided to try his place first, since it was closer. The southerner could see the black Jaguar parked in front of his apartment. Ezra reached inside his mailbox and felt the set of keys tucked neatly inside.

Ezra jumped in the Jag and tore out of the parking lot. All he needed to do now...was buy a blank tape.

The six men sat in the surveillance van. Chris and Vin were in the front seats, which were turned around facing the interior of the van. JD was sitting in front of the computer monitor, with headphones covering his ears. "Got it!" The kid cried out enthusiastically. "I got 'im, he's headed west on Bucklin drive." 

"Got sound?" The man in black asked the computer expert. 

JD turned a knob and the men could hear music. Beethoven. Ezra was fond of the fifth symphony.

The tiny wire that was placed inside Standish's jacket, before Nathan hung it in the closet in Ezra's hospital room, was working perfectly. 

Chris looked over his team, "Ok, we wait now. Keep an eye on 'im, see what he does. If he doesn't want our help...we'll give it to 'im anyway." 

At nine o'clock sharp the six men watched Standish walk into the warehouse on the corner of Main and Watson.

*****

Ezra Standish stepped into the dimly lit warehouse. Dust swirled in the soft light that came through the high windows. Ezra held the tape in his hand - the blank tape. 

Standish expected to see Lagraven, or at least his henchman. He could hear someone walking towards him, the man's boot heels clicking on the hard wood floor. 

Ezra's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open when the mysterious person's identity was revealed to him.

Dick Palamon stepped out of the shadows, into Ezra's view. 

Ezra could not remember a time when he had been so caught off guard. The southerner did not understand, could not comprehend why his old partner was here. "Palamon!?" 

"Wildcard, my boy." The older agent greeted the stunned southerner. 

Suddenly everything clicked and Standish knew, he knew. Ezra quickly recovered his senses and his confusion turned to rage.

"It was YOU? All along it WAS YOU?!" 

Palamon smiled at the younger man. "Frankly, I'm surprised that you didn't get it sooner, but that's what trust does, it blinds ya, kid." 

"You set me up?" 

Palamon's smile was now accompanied by a wry laugh. "It was so easy! To be honest, I really thought you would accept the bribe, the way you like money so much. Hell, I told Lag you were a sure thing. Imagine my surprise when he told me that you refused. Anyway, I thought to myself what a wonderful scapegoat you would make. What with your 'less than stellar' reputation. All I had to do was start a few rumors, throw the possession of a Jaguar into the pot, and let it boil. Rumors are a wonderful thing, spread like wildfire. It took the heat off my shoulders and put it squarely on yours."

Palamon looked down, an evil grin consuming his mouth, slowly bringing his eyes up to meet Ezra's. "You should have seen your face in the hospital kid, when I told you I was 'disappointed' in ya. Hah, you looked like a child. You were crushed!"

Ezra's body was shaking with rage and hurt. 

"And then, when the heat got heavy again, I just let it slip to Lagraven that you had a tape, evidence against him. They don't need to know that there never was a tape." Palamon reached out and took the blank tape from Standish's hand. All he had to do was give the ruined tape to Lagraven, then Palamon would finally be back 'in' with the cartel and Lag would really trust him again. 

"That stupid young undercover agent played right into my hands, did you know he was a friend of mine? After hearing that you had a tape, he came straight to me and together we called in. Of course, the kid couldn't finish his call...since I...slit his throat."

Ezra's mouth came open, and his eyes narrowed into slits. 

Palamon laughed, "When the kid turned around and looked at me, as he bled to death, he had the same look on his face that you're wearing now. Complete and utter shock, mixed with indignant outrage." 

Ezra's fists shook with rage, "You're crazy, Palamon, you've gone completely insane. You killed that kid, you Son of a BITCH!

He was just doin' his job. He trusted you...and you killed him!" 

Palamon slowly pulled the blank tape out of the plastic covering and wadded it up in his hand. "Then to find out that you had been thrown off your 'precious ATF team. That you were on your own now, no friends to watch your back. Well, that was more than I could have asked for." 

Ezra closed his eyes as he slowly shook his head. Opening them he looked into the eyes of the man he had thought of as a brother. "Why didn't you just kill me and get it over with?" 

"I couldn't just kill ya, hell then you'd have been a martyr kid. No, I had to ruin your reputation, make you lose those precious friends of yours. Do you know what you cost me when you refused the bribe? It was all I could do to keep Lag from killing me. It was never the same. You cost me boy. I wanted to let you suffer first. Revenge is a wonderful thing." Palamon reached behind his back and pulled his gun out, pointing it at Ezra's heart. 

"Now the heat is off me, once again. They'll find your bloody body here and with a few well placed clues they'll believe that you met with Lagraven's men and it went bad. I know you, losing your good reputation is worse than death for you. I could never understand why you didn't put a bullet in your brain years ago." 

"Back then I still had something to live for. I still had my job. I don't care anymore. I've lost my friends. I've lost my job. Why don't you just get it over with!" 

Ezra looked right into Palamon's soul. "Since you have become so adept at 'knifing me in the back' I would hate to end your roll now. I don't have the proverbial knife on me. It is a shame that Mr. Jackson is not in our presence. He has some of the finest throwing knives I've seen and I'm sure he would have been delighted to've let you borrow one. Especially if he knew it was gonna be put to...such good use. But, I'm sure your bullets will work just fine." 

With that Ezra Standish turned his back on the older agent and slowly started walking away. 

The southerner heard the two quick gunshots. A blinding pain just below his shoulder blades told the undercover agent that both rounds had hit him dead center in his back. The southerner's own momentum combined with the force of the bullets flung his body to the ground. A white hot light exploded in his head as his right cheek connected with the hard warehouse floor.

Darkness slowly crept in from the fringes of Ezra's vision, quickly overwhelming the southerner and sending his consciousness reeling into an opaque oblivion.

 

Part Seven

The surveillance van sat outside the warehouse. The six ATF agents had been listening to Palamon's words with bitter rage.

Nathan listened closely to Ezra's words. 'Knifing me in the back, don't have a knife on me, but your bullets will work just fine.'

Suddenly he realized what the southerner was about to do. "NO Ezra! Don't turn your back on the son of a bitch!"

The other agents stared at Nathan as they realized what he was talking about. 

Josiah was pissed, "What is he trying to prove?" 

"Let's move out!!" Larabee yelled at his men. They heard the two rapid gunshots coming from inside the warehouse as they took off out of the van. 

As the ATF agents rushed into the warehouse, Larabee saw the burly blond headed man with his gun at his side. "Federal

Agents! Put your hands up now!" 

Standish's body lay face down on the warehouse floor. 

Palamon raised his gun towards Larabee. Chris shot the FBI agent in the heart. 

Nathan was beside Ezra in a heartbeat. The black man placed two fingers on the side of Ezra's throat, feeling for a pulse.

Jackson didn't hold much hope for the fallen southerner. 

Jackson saw the two neat bullet holes in the back of Standish's jacket. With help from Josiah they turned the smaller man over, sitting him up in the process. The men saw the new bruise was forming on the southerner's right cheek.

Nathan could feel the smaller man's heart beat strong beneath his fingers, his brow furrowed, "What the hell? Where's the blood?" 

Awareness suddenly took hold in Nathan's eyes, "Son of a Bitch Ezra! Son of a BITCH! Every so often you surprise me!" A huge grin broke out on Jackson's Face. The rest of the men watched with rapt attention as Nathan ripped open Ezra's shirt...revealing the black material...of the southerner's bullet proof vest. 

The unconscious man came awake with a start, "Wha...What?" 

"Easy Ezra. Easy now, you're gonna be ok." Nathan was feeling the southerner's back, he felt a couple broken ribs in the man's back, but at least he was alive. "You broke a couple ribs. That's why it hurts to breathe. We're gonna sit ya back now, just hold on." 

"Palamon?" Ezra hissed out through his pain. 

Larabee knelt down next to his undercover agent, "He's dead Ezra. He was gonna shoot me, I had to kill him."

Ezra closed his eyes and let out a long breath. Slowly he drew his eyelids open, seeing the six agents around him it suddenly dawned on him, "How? How did you know...," he gasped as a sharp pain ripped through his back "...here?"

Vin grinned at his friend. "We tagged yer car, and we bugged ya. You wouldn't let us help you, so we took it upon ourselves.

Good thing too." Tanner's face hardened and he glared at the southerner. "What the hell were you thinking? Turning your back on that man, letting him shoot you in the back?!" 

Standish took a deep breath and let it out, testing his ability to talk and breathe at the same time. "Well sir, I had hoped for this outcome." Ezra took another long breath, "I hoped he would aim dead center. I was his partner for quite a while...I knew

where he always aimed at the shooting range." 

JD looked at the southerner, a puzzled look on his young face, "But, Ezra...what if he had aimed at your head?"

The men stared at the kid. Larabee raised his eyebrows, then looked back down at his undercover agent.

Ezra's brow furrowed and he sighed, 'leave it to the kid to find the flaw in my plan.'

"Well, Mr. Dunne, I suppose...that would have solved...ALL of my problems." 

The six ATF agents stared at the southerner. Josiah started to reply to the undercover agent's logic when he was cut short by a loud yell. 

"MEDIC! Medics comin' through." 

"Ah hell!" Ezra looked at the white clad young men with complete disdain. "Nathan, can't you tell these well-meaning gentlemen that I am fine?" 

Nathan stood up, next to Larabee. The two men watched the southerner argue with the paramedics about his ability to take care of himself, and his aversion to the medical profession in general. 

Nathan covered his mouth to hide his laugh. "That's our Ezra all right." 

*****

The six ATF agents waited for news of Ezra's condition, all finding various positions around the emergency room's waiting area.

"MR. Larabee?" A young nurse addressed the formidable man dressed all in black. "You can see Agent Standish now. We just got done wrapping his ribs. He took another blow to his head and while he was in the ambulance he vomited again. With the concussion he just received we're gonna keep a close eye on him. You can see him before we take him up to his room."

Chris Larabee left the rest of his ATF agents in the waiting room and stepped into the examining room marked number five.

The team leader saw the southerner stretched out on a gurney, a white bandage wrapped tightly around his ribs.

A nurse was just leaving the room as Chris walked in. "He's gonna be pretty out of it, with all the pain medication. He won't be awake much longer." 

The team leader nodded at the young girl as she slipped through the door. He walked over and stood next to Ezra.

Standish had one hand over his eyes, "Mr. Larabee-" The southerner didn't finish the sentence. He brought his hand down across his face and his glassy green eyes stared at the man in black. 

Neither man knew what to say. They just stared at each other for a moment. Finally Chris spoke, "Ezra, I'm sor-"

"No." Ezra tried hard to focus on his leaders face, but he could feel himself drifting away. "I...I can't right now. I just can't talk about it." 

Chris nodded in understanding, "I want you back on the team Ezra. But first we need to talk about a few things. When you feel up to it, come down to the office. You and I will have a nice long talk. Maybe somehow I can get it through that thick skull of yours what it means to have friends. People who are there to watch your back." 

The southerner nodded once before his eyes drifted closed and he fell into a deep sleep. 

*****

A week and a half had passed since the night in the warehouse. Larabee and Tanner once again sat on the tail-gate of

Larabee's Ram in front of the run down bar. 

"You think he'll be alright?" Vin knew that the storm had passed for Standish, he was cleared of any wrong doing and was back on the job, but the southerner seemed even more upset lately than he ever had been before. 

"I think it will take time, he'll have a hard time for a while. But we'll be there for him, if he will let us." Larabee wondered what it would be like to have your best friend turn on you, wondered what a horrible feeling that would be. The man in black looked over at the sharpshooter who was staring at the stars and knew that that was one thing he would never have to worry about.

"Let's go see how they're doin', pard." Chris and Vin stood and silently entered the bar. 

JD was just sitting down at the table when Chris and Vin sat down. The kid looked mischievously towards his roommate.

The table fell silent as the words from the song came through the jukebox speakers. 

'In a bar in Toledo...across from the depot...'

Buck looked over at his best friend, "Hey kid, ya played 'Lucille'! Love this song! You know, I dated a girl named Lucy once."

Buck leaned back in his chair and started singing the words. With each sentence the ladies man's voice got louder and louder, until he was raucously belting out the song. 

"You picked a fi-ne ti-me to le-ave me Lu-cille. With four hun-dred chil-dren and a cr-op in the fi-eld." Buck was interrupted by a soft southern drawl. 

"Hungry." 

Buck looked over at the southerner who sat staring at the ladies man like he was JD and had just told a horrible joke.

"Hungry, Buck. It's four 'hungry' children...not four 'hundred' children." Ezra rolled his eyes at the tall mustached man.

Buck wasn't convinced, "Ya shure? I've always sung it four 'hundred'." 

"Ah...yes...Mr. Wilmington...I am quite certain that the man in question did not have four...hundred...children!"

Nathan shook his head at the ladies man, "Hell, Buck, how the hell could he a' had four hundred kids anyway?"

Buck's mouth turned up in a mischievous grin. He winked at his comrades, "Well, hell...I just always thought he had my...animal magnetism." 

JD threw a hand full of peanuts at the tall ladies man, the rest of the men just groaned at Buck's response.

Through it all Larabee sat watching his team - his friends. Everything seemed to be back to normal. His eyes passed onto the southerner. He noticed that, though the undercover agent wore a smile on his face, it didn't quite reach his eyes. His still...haunted eyes. Chris wondered if Ezra was completely over this, or if it was just the beginning of his problems.

The man in black sighed. They would cross that bridge when they came to it. For now the team was back together, things were slowly returning to normal. 

The seven would 'ride' again. 

*****

The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life.

Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.

~ Richard Bach, Illusions

*****

the end (July 1999)

 

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