AFTER

By Sarah (winks7985)

 

 

Part 2

 

Within the hour the team had reconvened in their bullpen, JD and Vin having successfully pillaged some donuts and snacks from who-knew-where, Buck boasting about a phone number from the new secretary on the third floor, and Nathan and Josiah drinking something nasty-looking from a juice bar that had just opened up on the block.  Chris was in his office again, having left the door open once he returned from getting his coffee after their little chat earlier.

 

No one had mentioned Ezra’s injuries, or the fact that the appointment to have the rest of the stitches removed had been this morning.  It was unnerving to the southerner.  Usually Nathan would ask a million questions, but he sat silently, rummaging through files on his desk.  Even Josiah was silent, contentedly sipping a drink that truly looked like mud.  Ezra wondered how it made it up the straw…

 

“Ezra,” Nathan’s voice chimed in but he never looked up from what he was doing.  “Don’t itch.”

 

Ezra was shocked to realize that he had his hand on his chest, rubbing the scar through his shirt.  “I’m not.”  He dropped his hand down immediately.

 

Nathan looked up at him.  “They give you anything to put on it?”

 

Ezra sighed dramatically.  “Yes, but I wasn’t itching.”

 

“Right.”  He locked eyes with the southerner.  “Do you need help putting it on your back?”

 

Understanding dawned on Ezra, and he curled his mouth in a half smile.  “You’re dying to see, aren’t you?”  There was humor in his tone as he spoke.  Nathan had been watching Ezra so nonchalantly that even Ezra hadn’t noticed.  The southerner was impressed.

 

Nathan sighed, “Yes,” he admitted somewhat disappointed.  He’d thought he was being slick.

 

Ezra looked around at his other teammates.  “You’re all a bit curious, aren’t you?”  His voice still held a tone of humor.

 

Smiling at the looks of obvious curiosity in his teammates’ faces, he loosened his tie and started unbuttoning his shirt.  He sighed dramatically through a half chuckle, motioning with his arms as he spoke, “I don’t want to be on display, so gather round.”

 

Ezra sat back in his chair as five sets of eyes gathered around.  All were morbidly curious, having not seen the injury either at all or not in over a week.  Buck made no move to leave his chair, but feigned interest as he leaned to make it look like he wanted to see.  He didn’t want to give Ezra the impression that he didn’t care.

 

What am I doing? Ezra thought to himself.  When he first realized what Nathan was trying for, he felt a sense of familiarity, a sense of normalcy.  There had been plenty of times that they had all sat around and traded war stories, showing the scars that went with them.  But as soon as he started to undo his tie, he traveled back to that warehouse.  Slowly, he continued to unbutton his shirt, hoping to give his racing heart a chance to slow.  He worried that the rest of the team would actually see it thundering in his chest.  It felt as though the organ would break open his rib cage.  But he couldn’t not continue at this point.  He could do this.  These guys were his family.  But that didn’t make it any easier.  What if they think I’m horribly disfigured

 

Ezra took a calming breath as he pulled the shirt open, the scar becoming visible.  Though jagged and quite pink, all the stitches were out.  The five inch jagged gash ran down the sternum and was about half the width of a pen.  Ezra controlled his breathing so as not to show his nervousness.  He looked at each man’s face in turn, gauging their reactions.  Nathan looked on intently, bent at the waist to give his medical eye a better look at the work done.  The others stood back, watching the reveal with a less intense, but no less interested, gaze. 

 

“May I?” Nathan asked, looking into the panicky green eyes of the southerner.

 

“Sure Nathan.”  Ezra’s heart fluttered in his chest in what could only be fear at Nathan’s question.  Nathan reached and ran his fingers over the scar, feeling for who knows what, but apparently liking what he found. 

 

While everyone’s attention was elsewhere, Buck got up and left his desk.  There was only so much he could take of this.  He headed to the kitchenette for coffee.

 

“She does good work,” Nathan commented.  Ezra hoped the medic couldn’t feel his heart’s panicky beat within as he felt the length of the scar.  “That feels real smooth.  She tell you to watch out for pulling on it?” he asked as he looked at the southerner.

 

Ezra nodded.  Maybe he wasn’t as damaged as he thought.  Nathan wouldn’t hold back about something like that. 

 

Dropping his hand back down, Nathan repeated his earlier question, “Do you want help putting that stuff on your back.”

 

Swallowing once, Ezra replied, “Thank you Nathan.”

 

The two left the office heading for the men’s room. 

 

***

 

Josiah had seen Buck get up and leave his desk, and followed him discreetly into the kitchenette.  Walking through the door, he saw Buck leaning with his palms flat against the counter, head hung. 

 

“Buck?” Josiah asked.

 

Buck raised his head, but didn’t turn to face the big man.  “Josiah,” he said softly.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Buck laughed to himself; a short, wry chuckle.  “No, Josiah.  I’m not alright.”  Buck turned and leaned back on the counter, looking at Josiah’s face.  Josiah could see the pain within his friend’s blue eyes.  Buck turned and looked out the window, then bent at the waist and rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans.  He rested his hands just above his knees and didn’t look up as he spoke.  “I’m not alright at all.”

 

Josiah nodded and sat at the table.  Buck remained standing.  Josiah was going to let him set the pace of this conversation, and sat quietly as the mustached man warred with his thoughts.

 

After a full minute of silence, Buck spoke.  “I can’t… I can’t look… at the scars.  I don’t want to.  If I can’t see them then I don’t have to remember how he sounded when he was… screaming.”  Buck stood and looked at the preacher, seeking direction, advice, consolation, something.

 

Josiah nodded pensively, but didn’t speak.  He knew there was more to be said.

 

“Josiah, I don’t know what to do here.  I love him like a brother, I love all of you.  But I can’t be around him.  I can’t… I can’t breathe when I think about that warehouse.  About that guy.  I wish he wasn’t dead so I could kill him with my bare hands.”  Buck stared out the window when he was done speaking, crossing his arms across his chest.  Josiah could see his jaw muscles clenching and unclenching. 

 

“Buck,” Josiah began, taking a deep breath and blowing it out.  Buck turned tortured eyes to the preacher.  “It’s not easy for any of us.  So I can’t even imagine what it was like for you, having been there, hearing what you did and seeing what you saw.”  Buck dropped his chin to his chest.  “But Buck, we need to stick together on this.  All seven of us.  You can help Ezra, and Ezra can help you.  You two are the only two who know exactly what happened in that warehouse.  Talk to him Buck.  All of us are here for you all the time, never doubt that, but none of us knows what you went through while you were there.  We were there after.”

 

Buck nodded and smiled to himself when Josiah repeated the same logic Buck had used on Chris the other morning in the office.  The answer had been looking him in the face that day and maybe countless other times before.  “Thanks Josiah,” Buck said as he pushed himself off the counter and clapped the big man on the shoulder on his way back to his desk.

 

*******

 

It’s an odd sensation, standing half naked in front of a man who is applying a cream to your back.  Ezra was surprised how at ease he felt, even in this awkward situation.  His shirt lay on the counter nearby, his back to the healer. 

 

Ezra stared at Nathan’s reflection in the mirror as he applied the cream to the scars on his back, looking for any indication of what his friend was thinking as he touched the wounds.

 

Nathan was trying to keep his composure as he applied the cream to Ezra’s back.  Like the scar on his chest, these felt smooth and well done.  Nathan didn’t fail to notice that Ezra was watching him in the mirror as he worked.  He also didn’t fail to notice that Ezra gripped the sink in front of him with white-knuckle intensity.  Was it pain?  If it was, it was most likely remembered pain more than actual hurt.  More than likely, it was fear.  Nathan couldn’t help but let his thoughts wander to the day that they had found both Ezra and Buck in the warehouse.  He had been so shocked by the condition Ezra was in that he couldn’t speak.  He had also been angry; more angry than he had ever been at another human being.

 

“That bad?” Ezra asked.

 

Nathan was brought out of his reverie by the quiet drawl.  His head snapped up and looked at Ezra in the mirror.

 

 “What?”

 

“Does it look that bad?” Ezra asked.  Nathan had stopped applying the cream and the look on his face had changed, prompting the question.

 

Nathan shook his head slightly, silently berating himself for letting Ezra think that.  “No.  Ezra it looks really good.”

 

Ezra nodded and dropped his head.  “Considering,” he added morosely.

 

Nathan couldn’t fault him there.  Considering he had been assaulted and slashed.  Considering he had been knocked around.  Considering it should never have happened in the first place. 

 

Nathan laid his hand on Ezra’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry Ezra, I was thinking about that day.”

 

Ezra looked up at Nathan in the mirror.  His look invited Nathan to continue.

 

Nathan huffed out his breath.  “Ezra, when we found you… I was so… scared.  But that turned to anger so fast that it scared me.  I was so mad at that… animal… that did this to you.  I keep thinking, if I hadn’t been in court that day, if I had been there…”

 

“Nathan,” Ezra started.

 

“No Ezra, I need to say this.”  He paused and took a steadying breath.  “I see you sometimes, you know?  I see you in my dreams.  I see you hurt and bloodied and in pain.  Only in my dreams, you don’t live.  And that kills me.  Then I see you, and you’re still you, still a pain in the ass, still my friend, and that kills me because the dreams are so real that I feel like I lose you every night.  It’s selfish, I know…”

 

“It’s not selfish Nathan,” Ezra said as he turned and faced the black man.

 

“It is.  Ezra, I find myself at a loss here, because I feel the need to almost smother you, if only to make myself feel better.    But every day, I find myself doubting if you’ll be here when I’m driving to work.”

 

Ezra looked hard into Nathan’s eyes.  “I’m sorry, my friend.”  For pushing you away that first week.  You and everyone else.  “I shouldn’t have acted the way I did.  That was selfish on my part.”  Ezra started to shrug his shirt back on, mindful of his still not 100% healed body.

 

Nathan helped him get his arms into the sleeves of his shirt.  Ezra looked up at his as he worked his buttons.  Nathan smiled at him.  “Couple of selfish bastards then, aren’t we?”

 

Ezra chuckled.  “Indeed sir, we are.”

 

 

*******

 

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Buck thought as he got out of his truck.  But Josiah had said he should do this.  It had taken him an hour and a half to get into his truck and drive over here, debating with himself the entire time.  But now he was here, and seemingly ready.

 

He wasn’t.  Deep down, he knew he might never actually be ready.

 

Thoughts aside, he started up the walk to the Southerner’s front door.  Finding any reason to be distracted, Buck thought on how nice the lawn looked, and how nice a neighborhood Ezra lived in.  What an interesting sound his own boots made on the walkway.  Despite his best efforts, he found himself at Ezra’s door sooner than he had anticipated.

 

Just knock.  Just put your hand out and hit the door.  Easy as that.  But it wasn’t that easy, and he knew it.  Knocking on the door would open up the subject that caused him to lose sleep and to dream dreams that were better suited for slasher movies.  His fist rapped on the door, and Buck stood astonished when the sound resonated in his ears.  He looked down at his betraying appendage as though he didn’t know from whence it came.

 

The door opened, and a smiling, although somewhat shocked looking southerner stood. 

 

“Ezra.”

 

“Buck?” Ezra asked.  “What are you doing here?”

 

“I uh, I… you know what, it’s stupid. Forget it.”  Buck turned to leave.  A hand on his upper arm stopped him.

 

“Please come in Buck.”

 

Buck nodded and turned back to face his friend.  Ezra turned and went back inside, leaving the door open for Buck to enter when he was ready.  After only a moment of hesitation, the tall agent entered and shut the door behind him.

 

No turning back now.

 

Shrugging out of his jacket and placing it in the foyer closet, he continued further into the house.  Ezra came out of the kitchen and into the living room, sitting on the couch.  Buck joined him, but sat on the other end.  His discomfort did not go unnoticed.

 

“You alright Buck?”

 

“Yeah.  Um, well… yeah.”  How do you start this conversation?

 

Ezra nodded slowly.  His friend had something to say, no doubt, and Ezra was pretty sure he knew what it entailed, but he wouldn’t rush the man.  He reached for his rapidly cooling coffee and took a sip, patiently waiting. 

 

Buck smiled wryly, and chuckled softly as he said, “A bit late for coffee, ain’t it Ezra?”

 

The southerner put the cup back on the table.  A half smile played on his lips.  “I haven’t exactly been sleeping too well.”  After a pause, he added softly, “As I’m sure you can empathize.”

 

Buck nodded and smiled a small smile he didn’t mean.  “That I can Ezra.”  He sighed quietly.  “That I can.”

 

“And that is the crux of the matter… the reason for your visit?” 

 

The direct approach.  Buck wasn’t shocked.  The two had been dancing around each other for a while now; averted eyes and redirected walking routes, a sudden appreciation of Ezra’s personal space.  “Yeah… it is.  I just don’t quite know how to start.”

 

“Say whatever you’re thinking, right at this moment.  No matter what it is,” the Southerner prompted.

 

“Why doesn’t it bother you?!” Buck almost spat. 

 

“Why doesn’t what bother me?”  Ezra kept his voice calm.

 

Buck stood and faced the sitting southerner.  He sputtered and waved his hands about with no real purpose aside from showing his irritation.  He waved his hands at his own torso before mimicking the motion towards his friend.  “Everything!  How can you walk around with your normal look on your face, acting like nothing happened?!  How can you joke and show everyone your scars and act like it’s from nothing more than a papercut?”

 

“A papercut?!” Ezra almost shouted.  He stood and faced Buck.  He didn’t mean for his temper to flare, but this had been building.  Ezra had been irritated, frustrated and angry for far too long with no outlet.  Buck insinuating that he didn’t give a damn about what had happened to him, to him, was the last straw. 

 

Buck recoiled, shaken by the gambler’s outburst.

 

Ezra’s eyes were wild, and his voice rose as he continued.  “You think it doesn’t bother me?!  You think I don’t get up every day, look in the mirror and HATE what I see?!  I see that asshole EVERY DAY!  I see him in my sleep, so much so that I try NOT to sleep if I can.  So if I have to pretend that that didn’t happen just to get through the day, who the fuck are you to say that I don’t care?!”

 

Buck fired right back.  “I was there too!  You may not have seen how you looked when he dragged you out, but I did!  You may look in the mirror every day and hate what you see, but I can’t get the picture of how you looked laying on the floor of that warehouse, not answering me, out of my fucking mind!  Every time I see you, every time I hear you, I can only imagine what he did to you… I can hear you fucking scream!”

 

“Well, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been put through,” Ezra’s voice dripped with disdain.  “You can only imagine what he did?!”  Ezra was yelling.  He reached for the front of his own shirt and ripped it open, buttons scattering and bouncing away.  “Have a good look Buck,” he spat as he held his arms wide open.  “He tried to flay me open!  Imagine that.  Imagine what it felt like to have a blade slice you open.  Imagine the look of the devil in the eyes of the man doing it to you.  Imagine the joy in those same eyes as you try not to scream.”

 

“I thought he was killing you!!”

 

“He was!!”

 

Silence filled the room.  Both men stood shocked at the revelation, breathing heavily in the stillness that enveloped them. 

 

Ezra dropped his head and placed his hands on his hips, shirt hanging open.  Buck studied the man, seeing that his earlier assumption couldn’t be more wrong.  It did bother Ezra, probably more than the southerner wanted any of them to know.  “So why, Ezra?” Buck asked softly when the silence got to be too much.  “Why do you act like it’s nothing?”

 

“I can’t…” he stammered.  “I can’t be… looked at like that…”

 

“Like what?” Buck was confused.

 

“Like damaged goods. I’ve gotten that look most of my life.”  He breathed in and out slowly, then added, “Like all I am now is the guy who was tortured...”  His voice broke as he added, “that’s not who I am…”

 

Buck’s expression softened as he looked at his friend.

 

“That’s the look,” Ezra commented as he glanced up at his friend’s face.  “Don’t you dare pity me, Buck.  Don’t you dare!” he snapped.

 

“I don’t pity you Ezra.  It’s called sympathy.”

 

“Whatever it is, I don’t need it.”

 

“Tough.”

 

“Tough?  What are you, four?”

 

“Fuck you Ezra.  We’re your friends.  I’m your friend.  Don’t act like I don’t have a right to care.”

 

Ezra stared at Buck.  “This is not going to be the defining moment in my life.  This isn’t going to be the thing everybody is going to refer to.”

 

“What?”

 

“The one defining moment in my life.”   Ezra’s tone became mocking, “‘That happened before the incident, this happened after the incident.’ I won’t let it be that.”

 

“Ezra, this doesn’t define who you are,” Buck said.  The southerner turned abruptly and went into the kitchen.  Buck followed on his heels.  “Where you going?  Don’t walk away…”

 

“It doesn’t define me, huh?” Ezra said as he stopped and turned to face Buck.  Holding his arms out again as he had done earlier, he added, “Look around Buck.  What do you see?”

 

“Your kitchen?” Buck asked with a hint of a smile.  What was he supposed to see?

 

“What don’t you see?”  Ezra spat, lowering his arms and placing his hands palm down on the island countertop.

 

Buck shook his head slightly and shrugged.

 

Ezra whipped open one of his lower cabinets and started hurling things out.  Buck dodged a pan and a mixing bowl as they clattered by on the floor.  Ezra found what he was looking for and slammed it on the counter.  It was his knife block with all his knives in it.  He whipped open a drawer to reveal his silverware tray, the knife section empty.  Whipping open another drawer he reached in and pulled out a handful of different knives… butter knives, breadknives, even one of those plastic green knives that are supposed to be good for cutting vegetables.  Once all the items had been slammed onto the counter, he returned his hands palm down to the countertop.

 

“I can’t look at a fucking knife without breaking out into a cold sweat.  Even a goddam butter knife,” he said disgustedly.  With one swift motion, Ezra cleared the counter sending all the knives to the floor.  Over the crashing, he yelled, “How does that NOT define me?”

 

Buck didn’t flinch when Ezra sent everything crashing to the floor.  Guilt came to the forefront of his mind.  He had goaded Ezra into this.  This hadn’t been what he hoped to get out of this evening’s conversation.  Knowing Ezra felt like this didn’t make Buck feel any better, like he had thought it might.  “Ezra…”

 

“Isn’t this what you wanted Buck?  You wanted me to show you it bothered me?  You wanted me to lose control and throw shit, break shit, admit to having nightmares and not being able to sleep?” Ezra’s voice was full of contempt.  “Does this make you feel better?”  The soft drawl was quiet and defeated when he added softly, “Knowing that I’m miserable?”  He slumped to the floor, his back against the cabinets.  The last question was as much of an admission to himself as it was to the other man.  The southerner pulled his knees up and rested his elbows on them as he hung his head.  Buck sat next to him, mimicking his position.

 

“We’re human Ezra.  We’re not gone be fine right away.  So fucking what?” Buck’s voice was soft and kind.  “We will be.  I know it in my heart.”

 

Ezra’s breath hitched, strangling a sob.  Buck put his arm around the smaller man’s shoulders and held him.

 

As they both cried.

 

*******

 

“JD, where’s Buck this morning?” Josiah asked as JD got to his desk and started up his computer.

 

“He was running way behind.  He got in wicked late last night and went right to bed.  I didn’t ask, cuz he woulda given me the details.  There’s only so much of that you can take at 7AM.” JD replied, sipping on his early morning coke.

 

Josiah glanced at Buck’s empty desk before looking at Ezra’s.  Had Buck gone to Ezra’s last night?  Maybe.  Lost in his own thoughts, he caught Nathan’s concerned expression out of the corner of his eye.  Looking directly at the healer, he answered the unasked question with a slight headshake saying, no nothing was wrong.  He hoped.

 

Buck strode to his desk twenty minutes after JD had arrived.  It wasn’t uncommon for the two of them to take separate vehicles, but at the same time, there was a weird tension about the tall mustached man this morning.  “Boys,” Buck said as he took his seat.  He nodded slightly to Josiah and smiled. 

 

“Buck,” Josiah said in greeting, accompanied by Nathan’s ‘good morning’ and Vin’s nod.  Josiah watched the man carefully.  Buck looked tired, but hid it well.  He also looked tense.  What had gone on between the two men last night?

 

Within the hour, the seventh man entered the office, looking as normal as ever.  It was only when Josiah was scrutinizing Ezra he could see the same weariness and tension that Buck had shown.  Josiah watched Ezra and Buck greet each other with somewhat sad smiles and ducked heads.  Both men seemed determined to not look at each other.  Josiah smiled to himself.  Maybe both of these men were starting on the right road.  Then again…

 

*******

 

Josiah entered Chris’s office without knocking.  Shutting the door behind him, he strode over to the front of Chris’s desk. 

 

Chris had looked up as soon as Josiah had entered.  From the look on the preacher’s face, he knew something was up.  Exactly what, he wasn’t sure, but he figured it had to do with their undercover agent.

 

“What’s up Josiah?”

 

“I know you said not to push, and I know you said not to preach, but I can’t help but think that Ezra is hiding something from us.  And I think that whatever it is, he let Buck in on it.”  There was no accusation in his voice, just concern for his brothers.

 

“Ok?” Chris was confused.

 

Josiah sat in one of the two seats in front of Chris’s desk.  “Chris, I’ve been watching the two of them this morning.  I have never seen those two try harder to make it look like something wasn’t bothering them; both of them.  I talked with Buck yesterday and told him that he and Ezra could help each other to heal, but now I wonder if the problem hasn’t been compounded a bit.”  He took a long breath and blew it out. 

 

“It could be nothing, you know,” Chris said.

 

“I know.  And I know I don’t have the gut instincts that Vin does, but still, I wanted to put my concerns out there for you to think about.”

 

“Are you worried about them?  About how they’ll perform their jobs?”  Chris was trying to understand what it was that was eating Josiah.  “Are you worried about the safety of them being on active duty?” 

 

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about them.  Both of them.  I know they would never endanger anyone on this team, and I know that they would seek help if they truly felt that they needed it.”

 

“But?”

 

“But I don’t think they know that they need it.”

 

“Jesus Josiah, what are you saying?” Chris asked, exasperated.  He was sick of all the dancing around.  Someone just say what they needed!

 

“As the leader of this team Chris, I think you need to know that we’re still reeling from this.”

 

“You think I don’t know?” Chris almost snapped.   “So far, I’ve had Vin tell me Ezra isn’t all put together, Buck tell me he isn’t ready for Ezra to be back at work, and Ezra is too bull headed to let anyone care.  I’m losing sleep over this myself, Josiah.  And unless Ezra says he needs or wants help, our hands are tied.  He passed the psych eval, and was cleared for duty.”

 

“You know as well as I do Chris that he could pass a psych eval without batting an eye,” the profiler argued.

 

“I know that Josiah.  But he has to work it out in his own right.  We’ll be here for him, but we can’t force him into anything unless we feel that he poses a danger to himself or others, or unless he flat out asks for help.  What do you want me to do?”

 

“Watch him.  Talk to him.  He listens to you Chris.  He might give you a heap of shit about it, but he listens to you more than anyone else.”  Josiah stood and headed for the door.

 

Chris blew out a long breath.  He knew Josiah was right; they would be reeling from this for a long while.  And he knew Ezra was having trouble with the whole ordeal; the man had told him so.  He hoped that Buck hadn’t riled the southerner and caused him to regress into the state of withdrawal and moodiness he had been in for the weeks after the incident.  One way to find out, he mused.

 

“Ezra!” Chris barked from his office.

 

*******

 

“You bellowed?” Ezra asked as he sauntered into Chris’s office. 

 

“I did.  Shut the door.”

 

Ezra shot Chris an inquisitive look, then complied with the request.  Turning back around, Chris gestured to one of the empty seats in front of his desk. 

 

Wincing his eyes and sitting where directed, the Southerner looked for any clue from his leader of what was coming.  As Ezra sat, the blond man rubbed his eyes and scrubbed his hands over his face.

 

“Something wrong?” Ezra asked, perplexed.

 

Chris dropped his hands palm down onto his desk.  Locking eyes with the Southerner, he said, “You tell me.”

 

Quirking a half smile, Ezra honestly answered, “I don’t understand.”

 

Chris stood, blowing out a breath and turned towards the window, arms crossed over his chest.  He stared at the city buildings that filled the landscape.  “Ezra, I know this isn’t easy for you.”  He paused.

 

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about Chris.”

 

Chris turned slightly and looked at his undercover agent.  Ezra’s face held the confusion he was feeling.  He turned the rest of the way around and came around the front of his desk.  Leaning against the desk, he faced Ezra directly.

 

“If you can’t handle this yet, I understand.”

 

The meaning of the conversation dawned on Ezra.  “You think I’m not ready to be here?” he asked carefully.  His voice held no emotion. 

 

“I am asking you, right here and now, if you’re ready to be back.”

 

Ezra just looked at him, feeling blindsided by the question.  After a moment of dumb silence, he managed to get out “What makes you think I would come back before I was ready?”

 

Chris crossed the room to sit in the other empty chair that faced his desk.  He twisted in the chair facing the southerner.  “Ezra, I need to know.”

 

“Of course I’m fine to be back.  It says so in your files.”

 

“You know I don’t put all my faith in what the files say.”  Chris’s gaze was unwavering.

 

“Are you doubting me?” Ezra asked, incredulously.

 

“Never.”

 

“Are you worried I’ll put someone in danger?” the southerner fished.

 

The slightest pause was the giveaway. “No,” Chris said forcefully.

 

“Chris, I read people for a living.  That’s exactly what you’re thinking.”  Ezra sighed loudly.  “And if it isn’t you, then it’s someone else on the team thinking it.  Who is it, Nathan? Vin?  Maybe Josiah?”  He eyed the blond skeptically.

 

“Ezra, if you’re not 100%...”

 

“You know I’m not fucking 100%,” Ezra countered, keeping his voice even, controlling the urge to yell.  There had been enough yelling last night.  “And I may not be for a while yet.”

 

“Fair enough,” Chris said.  He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. 

 

“We done?” Ezra asked, a half smile again playing on his face.

 

“For now,” Chris nodded. 

 

Ezra got up and turned towards the door.

 

“Ezra,” Chris waited until he had the other man’s attention.  “None of us doubt you or your abilities.  We just want to make sure you take care of you.”

 

“I always do.”  Ezra smiled and turned back to the door.  Resting his hand on the doorknob, he looked back at Chris.  “I may be fucked up lately Chris, but I am still capable of doing my job.”  His smiled didn’t falter.  After a moment he added, “I may put myself in danger, but I would never do anything to put anyone in a bad position.”  I would quit if I had to, just to keep them safe, he thought to himself.

 

Chris nodded and Ezra left the office, closing the door behind him.  His gaze returned to the window, and he spoke to the empty room, “I know.”

 

 

*******

 

Half an hour after Ezra left Chris’s office, the blond strode through his door into the bullpen.  Never actually stopping, he announced “Gear up, Nine’s rolling on the shiners.”

 

They were in motion.

 

*******

 

Chris had to hand it to them, Team Nine ran a smooth operation.  But then, Karl Morgan, leader of Team Nine, had a good team backing him.  The moonshiner was spewing off some rather unpleasant sounding threats as he was led off to an awaiting cruiser.  His three sons had attempted to run off into the woods. Doug Mason of Team Nine halted the escape of two of the brothers, who gave up fairly easy, while Ezra pursued the third man.

 

Chris shook his head as he looked to where his undercover agent had been.  Ezra’s guy was a little more determined than Doug’s.

 

And fast.

 

*******

 

Why do I always get the ones who run? Ezra thought while he chased the fleeing son of the moonshiner.  More like a son of a bitch.

 

“Fucking track star,” Ezra muttered as he panted, moving at a full out run.  “You’re making this worse for yourself!” he yelled up to the sprinter.

 

And for whatever reason, the runner turned his head back towards the southerner… and proceeded to trip over debris on the forest floor.  A spectacular wipeout followed, creating a mass of arms, legs, twigs and leaves.  The moonshiner lay unmoving once he came to rest.  Ezra caught up to the heavily panting body as it groaned in pain.

 

Smiling to himself, he said, “You do know you’re under arrest?” Taking advantage of the suspect’s daze, he rolled the downed man onto his stomach, and swiftly cuffed his wrists behind his back.  “You gotta work on your dismount my friend.  Let’s go.”

 

Ezra wasn't taking any chances as he walked the cuffed man back to the vehicles, holding tightly to  the man’s shackled hands.  One could never be too sure if he would turn rabbit again.  

 

His chest scar pulled slightly and ached, reminding him that he still had a way to go to being fully healed.  The man, whose named turned out to be Frank, still seemed a bit dazed as they made their way back through the copse of trees.  Didn’t stop him from telling Ezra exactly what he thought of the ATF.

 

“Fucking ATF!” Frank muttered loud enough for Ezra to hear.  He stopped walking and turned to face the agent.  “We’re brewing the hooch for ourselves.”

 

“With a five hundred liter still?” Ezra asked sarcastically.  “I don’t think so.  Keep moving.”  He turned Frank in their original direction.

 

“Well…” Frank tried.

 

“No.”  Ezra punctuated his reply with a gentle shove forward.

 

Frank huffed.  “You think you’re so slick…”

 

Hey Slick… you alright?

 

Ezra stopped mid-stride pulling Frank to a halt beside him.  Buck?  “What?”

 

Frank turned, his face a question.  “What?”

 

“What did you just say?”

 

“I didn’t say anything.”  Frank was truly confused.

 

Ezra’s head was light.  Buck’s face, a mask of worry, danced through his mind.  And what was that smell?  Blood?  Or was it his own fear?

 

Sensing the agent's confusion, Frank looked like he was thinking of bolting.  Ezra placed a hand on Frank’s arm and snapped, “You run, and I will shoot you.”  The man's eyes widened in fear at the tone.  He nodded once at his captor to show he understood.

 

Ezra slowly shook his head to clear it.  Once back in the moment, he directed Frank to keep walking.

 

What the fuck was that? Ezra thought once the momentary flash of panic passed. 

 

Before he had time to consider that thought more fully, he and Frank entered the clearing where the vehicles and the rest of the two ATF teams were cleaning up the operation. 

 

“Doug?” Ezra barked.  The other agent was deep in conversation with Josiah, flailing with his arms as he spoke.  Undoubtedly reliving his apprehension of the two brothers. 

 

Doug Mason turned when his name was called.  “Yeah?”

 

“Will you please take this gentleman and reunite him with his kin?”  Ezra pushed Frank towards the other agent, trusting that Frank wouldn’t be running with that offer to shoot him still fresh in his mind.

 

“You alright Ezra?” Josiah asked from nearby.

 

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” he smiled at the profiler.  I think.

 

He looked across the clearing and smiled as he caught the questioning eye of his leader.

 

*******

 

Standing next to Karl Morgan, Chris surveyed his surroundings.  With the bust more or less complete, cleanup duty had begun.  The still had to be dismantled, as was protocol, but much to Buck’s dismay (and to a lesser extent, Vin’s and JD’s), they would not be blowing it up.  Josiah was over talking to Doug Mason, who was animatedly recounting for the profiler how he had corralled the two men he just assisted into a waiting cruiser. 

 

Nathan was walking towards Josiah, and Buck, Vin and JD were still discussing the merits of blowing up the still as opposed to just dismantling it… so where was Ezra?  Dammit, where had he gone off to?

 

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind did Ezra come into the clearing with the third son of the moonshiner.  Ezra said something Chris couldn’t hear, and handed the shackled man off to Doug Mason, who continued ferrying him towards the cruisers where his brothers and father waited. Chris heard Josiah’s deep rumble of a voice, but couldn’t make out the words.  Ezra replied with a smile.

 

Looking back across the clearing towards a questioning Chris, Ezra opened his arms in a gesture of a question: What do you think?

 

Chris held Ezra’s gaze, trying to read the his state.  He nodded once at his agent. 

 

A curt nod from the southerner in reply told Chris what he wanted to know.  Ezra was fine.

 

THE END

 

 

PART 1

 

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