Appearances Are Everything?
(ATF)

by Tex Zavaleta

Main Characters: Ezra, JD
Author's Note: Thank you to Mog for inventing the ATF AU. Thanks to Heather F. for Ryan Kelly (whom I mention in passing).


Ezra Standish was late, even by his usual standards of tardiness, but there would be no repercussions. His presence was not called for until the afternoon briefing since Larabee knew he'd spent half the night making the rounds of his informants seeking information for the team's next assignment. He did not, however, expect his late morning at the office to begin with drama.

No sooner had Standish stepped foot out of the elevator than he found himself backing quickly into it again in order to avoid a collision with an irate JD Dunne who rushed past him as if he were invisible, choosing to slam his way out the door to the stairway at the end of the hall rather than boarding the elevator himself.

A puzzled Standish strode into the doorway of the bullpen of the ATF's Team Seven and asked, "What just happened there?"

His question was ignored. At first it seemed he had wandered into a waxworks display with his remaining five team members and two additional bodies from another team frozen in place and evidencing various levels of hostility.

Chris Larabee was glaring into the bullpen from the doorway of his office. Nathan and Josiah were sitting at their desks and looked somewhat displeased but not yet decided upon a course of action. Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington were standing almost toe to toe with Pete Wilson and Jinx Stewart of Team Five and seemed to be pondering whether giving into their baser instincts and pounding them into the floor would be worth the aggravation of dealing with IA, an outcome which would surely ensue if the confrontation became physical.

Wilson and Stewart were making an effort to look innocent and failing miserably. No one was smiling.

"Gentlemen," Standish said, his emphasis on the term making it clear he was dubious of its accuracy, "what just happened here?"

"Well, Fancy Dan," Wilson offered, using the sneer he customarily adopted whenever he spoke to the well-dressed undercover agent whom he despised, "some people just have no sense of humor. That's all." His eyes never left Wilmington's and there was a definite challenge there.

Buck's usual laidback attitude was missing and his muscles tensed as he straightened to his full height and prepared to move. Before he could more than twitch, Larabee intervened. Evidently, he'd reached the end of his notoriously short supply of patience. "Buck."

The one word told Wilmington and Tanner, who'd also begun to move, to stand down. To no one's amazement, they complied, making it obvious that they were deferring to Chris Larabee by taking one step back, in unison.

This gave Wilson and Stewart just enough room to get past the two men and the desks that were blocking their path to the doorway -- once they made it past Larabee. Every member of Team Seven knew Chris wasn't going to leave it at one word. Standish wasn't certain Wilson and Stewart were smart enough to have figured that out or even intelligent enough to fear the consequences of arousing Larabee's animosity.

Larabee strode forward and took a stance between and slightly in front of Buck and Vin. The intensity of his gaze should have burned a hole in the other two agents. "I think you boys have too much time on your hands. If you can't think of anything better to do than hang around where you aren't wanted, making smart ass jokes about my men..." He left the threat unspoken, but the menace was conveyed just the same through his body language.

The two men could tell that it was only Larabee's authority holding the others in check and, not trusting much in his self-control, made a quick escape past Standish and down the hallway. They hoped, in vain, that they had deceived any observers into thinking they were not fleeing for their lives.

The undercover agent moved further into the room and immediately took note of the picture on JD's desk. It was a badly done cut and paste job which depicted Buck Wilmington sitting in a rocking chair holding a baby in one arm and a bottle in the other. The baby had JD Dunne's face. "How sophomoric."

Josiah growled, "But one joke too many."

Ezra nodded to signal his immediate understanding.

The others exchanged glances. Buck started forward, only to have his arm snagged by Chris. "Not you, Buck."

Wilmington bridled and blustered, "Someone has to go calm the kid down and make sure he's all right..."

"Your use of the term 'kid' and the very nature of the prank played make it obvious that it cannot be you, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra stated placidly.

Buck started to protest, but was cut off by Vin. "He's right, Buck. Those idjits made him feel like ya baby him and he needs to get his head on straight before he can see the truth: that you're trainin' him to be a better agent and keeping him safe while he learns."

"You may go overboard sometimes with the mother hen routine, Buck, but most of the time JD knows you mean well and thinks of you as his big brother. Once he calms down, he'll see he needs to ignore these kinds of jokes," Nathan commented, grabbing the picture and tossing it into the nearest trashcan.

Ezra reflected silently that Jackson was demonstrating a fine lack of understanding of the underlying emotional issues that could possibly drive a wedge between Wilmington and Dunne if handled incorrectly.

"So if I don't talk to him, who--" Buck spluttered, casting a demanding glance towards Chris.

"Mr. Larabee is also out of the question," Ezra stated bluntly, crossing his arms and leaning one hip against Josiah's desk. "He is Mr. Dunne's supervisor and Mr. Dunne may feel any comments are intended as professional criticism and will impact his career."

"Ya volunteerin', Ez?"

Standish shrugged elegantly. "With you, Mr. Tanner, there is an element of hero worship that sometimes affects the group dynamic. JD feels you are the epitome of cool and wishes to be more like you -- hopefully he'll grow out of that eventually, or at least adopt only your more positive qualities and not your sense of style."

Ignoring Tanner's reddening face, he went on, "Mr. Jackson and Mr. Dunne have never established the sort of rapport that would allow his comments to be seen as other than highly critical and I do not believe he would be able to identify with Mr. Dunne sufficiently to help him solve his problem."

"And what about me, Ezra?" Josiah asked, studying the undercover agent with a profiler's eyes as he analyzed the man's arguments.

"You are no less an authority figure than Mr. Larabee, if for no other reason, in Mr. Dunne's eyes, due to your age and years of experience. I have also noticed that on some occasions the young man has appeared as much in awe of some of your pronouncements as he was somewhat befuddled by your tendency to speak in axioms, analogies, and allegories." A hint of a twinkle in the green eyes betrayed the younger man's amusement at his use of alliteration.

"So you're gonna go talk to him?" Buck wasn't sure if he was more outraged, annoyed, or worried. "Half the time he doesn't understand you either!"

Ezra sniffed indignantly. "I am perfectly capable of altering my vocabulary and methods of expression when the occasion warrants it. If you'll excuse me, I will attempt to assuage Mr. Dunne's indignation and bring him to a more settled state of mind. I will advise you of the outcome, of course." Standish performed a mock salute, spun on his heel and left the office, leaving the other five studying his departing figure.

Josiah broke the silence. "He's right, you know. Part of what makes him good at undercover work is reading the situation and the people involved and telling them what they want or need to hear. He'd make a hell of a profiler."

"When did he get to know JD that well?" Buck grumbled, fighting off a twinge of jealousy that someone else might be able to help JD more than he could.

"A few months ago he wouldn't have volunteered," Chris observed. "He must feel like he and JD have 'established a rapport'." His southern accent needed work.

"Does he even know where to find JD?" Nathan asked abruptly.

"Sure," Vin drawled. "Donít you?"

After a brief pause, the five men spoke in unison. "Saloon." Four men looked at Larabee.

Chris checked his watch. "We'll give them a half hour head start before we check on them. That'll take us close enough to call it lunch. While we're waiting, you might want to consider what we are going to do to get even with Wilson and Stewart or if JD would rather do it himself."

"Hell, let him do it," Vin suggested. "He'd probably jist get pissed at us for gettin' in his way."

"Even better," Nathan added, "maybe he'll get Ezra to help him." Though it had never been proven that Ezra was responsible for some of the practical jokes that had taught humility to others in the building, Nathan was sure he'd detected the Southerner's fine and devious hand in the resulting chaos, and the smirk that met any accusations didn't contradict that conclusion. He didn't mind Standish using his morally ambiguous and definitely inventive skills for revenge, as long as he approved Ezra's choice of targets and wasn't one of them.

Buck rolled his eyes and shuddered exaggeratedly. "Now that's a scary thought. JD is smart, but Ezra can be downright mean." He grinned evilly. "Wilson and Stewart are gonna regret messin' with a member of Team Seven."

*******

Out of habit, JD Dunne had slumped into a seat at the corner table in The Saloon that was traditionally Team Seven's, but was sitting with his back to the wall in what was usually Chris' chair.

Inez had been somewhat concerned when he arrived alone and with an uncharacteristically surly expression on his face. She tried to act naturally and even hid her surprise when JD asked for a bottle of whiskey instead of his usual beer, delivering it and the setup without comment.

She was debating calling the ATF office number or Larabee's cell phone to notify him of JD's arrival when she was relieved to see Ezra Standish making his way into the room. Her brown eyes looked past his shoulder as he came to stand at the bar in front of her. She was somewhat puzzled that Buck Wilmington was nowhere in sight, but glad that one of the team was apparently going to deal with JD Dunne. "Señor Standish?"

"Miss Recillos, might I have a mimosa? Better yet, make it a pitcher and bring it to my table in a few moments if you don't mind. Mr. Dunne and I have some matters to discuss and I think the lighter and more refreshing libation may be in order." A flash of a shark's smile accompanied his request.

She smiled sweetly in return. Others might be alarmed by such a predatory smile on the face of the smooth undercover agent but she realized that she was not his prey -- nor was JD Dunne. Someone had evidently offended the young man... and Ezra's protective instincts, which he usually tried more successfully to hide, had been aroused. 'Someone' was going to be very unhappy. She hoped she'd get to see it. JD Dunne was one of her favorite customers. "Perhaps some chicken quesadillas as well?"

"That would be lovely, my dear. Thank you. You might also want to bring a bottle of water. I don't believe Mr. Dunne is ready to appreciate a fine whiskey though I won't try to convince him. Some things must be learned for oneself." Ezra took his leave of her, strode confidently to the corner table and seated himself in the chair to JD's right.

JD ignored the new arrival for a full five minutes. It became a game of sorts, with each man refusing to break the silence. After pondering the bottle for a few more minutes, the younger man poured a full measure of whiskey into the shot glass provided.

Standish watched without comment as Dunne attempted to toss off the whiskey in one swallow, no doubt attempting to emulate Larabee. The older man winced and quickly snagged a few napkins from the table in anticipation. As JD suddenly wheezed, choked and began to splutter, Ezra pushed the napkins into one flailing hand.

JD lost focus on his surroundings for a brief time as he spat half the whiskey back into the glass, coughed a few more times, pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand, and used the napkins in the other hand to wipe the tears off his cheeks as he tried to regain his composure. With another wheeze, he darted a look around the room to see if anyone had noticed his reaction to the strong drink. It was then he observed that Standish had moved and was standing so that he was blocking Dunne from the view of others as he accepted a tray from Inez.

JD had to admit he was glad that his childish reaction hadn't been seen and that Standish had acted to protect his somewhat damaged pride. He coughed one more time to clear his throat and suddenly found a bottle of water in front of him on the table.

Gratefully, he removed the cap and took a few swigs to help dilute the whiskey that remained a burn and foul taste in his throat. "Thanks, Ez," he mumbled, still refusing to meet his friend's eyes.

Standish harrumphed indignantly as he reseated himself and poured what appeared to be orange juice from a pitcher into two champagne flutes. "Ez, indeed. Ez-RA, it's a two-syllable word. How hard can that be?" It was a familiar refrain, reassuring and humorous in its familiarity and went a long way to restoring a sense of calm and balance that JD needed.

One more gulp of water and JD set aside the bottle of water as well as the bottle of whiskey. That was one experiment he wouldn't be repeating. The burning in his stomach made him queasy and the taste -- ugh. How could Larabee and the others like this stuff? He studied the orange juice for a moment then took a sip. Hmm. That was... different. "Hey, Ez -- Ez-RA," he corrected himself, "what is this? Not just orange juice?"

"This, Mr. Dunne, is a mimosa, an elegant blend of orange juice and champagne. It is usually served during brunch in the better restaurants and hotels. Please sip it. This is not a drink to be gulped."

"It's pretty good." That exhausted the drink as a topic of conversation. JD snuck a peek at Standish. The older man appeared to have all the time in the world, his every move unrushed and graceful. Did he really want to talk about the morning's events with the aristocratic undercover agent? Did he have a choice?

"Do you want to talk about it?" Standish inquired.

It was almost as though he'd read Dunne's mind. JD found it disconcerting. "What is there to talk about?"

"Though I did see the picture, it seems I missed something. What was the impetus for that puerile and amateurish attempt at humor?"

"The bust yesterday," JD supplied.

It had been a small bust of illegal cigarette smugglers that had Team Seven acting as back up for Team Five. It was hardly worth the effort and Team Seven had been ragging on Team Five for even thinking they needed help. The only injury had been incurred by JD when one of the miscreants had thrown a case at him which resulted in a bump on the head and a mild concussion.

"I guess Stewart and Wilson saw Buck helping me to the car. He had his arm around me because I was staggering around. I was kind of dizzy for a while. Guess they thought I was being a big baby and wasn't really hurt or something." He wasn't surprised that Ezra didn't appreciate the joke played on him. None of Team Seven's members reacted well when someone outside the team picked on one of the others.

"I have noticed that Stewart and Wilson are extremely macho in their approach to life and overly concerned that someone will think they've gone 'soft'. That attitude somewhat explains their disapproval of anyone who does not behave in a similar fashion, including me, and for that matter, most of Team Seven. They probably do not understand any display of physical affection or support such as Buck hands out freely to his friends. Their idea of intimacy is a slap on the back, preferably one that knocks the recipient off balance and causes him to fall. Moronic machismo taken too far."

"Yeah, I guess. But why make that picture? Do I come across as a baby to everyone? I thought I was doing a good job. I know I was pretty green when I started but I didn't think I was childish. I try to act professional on the job."

Standish considered that as he sipped his mimosa. "Well, I imagine Mr. Jackson would say you should consider the source. Those two cretinous cowboys from Team Five are so lacking in intelligence and imagination they regard it as the height of wit to refer to me as 'Fancy Dan' -- a term I might add that is positively archaic and therefore indicative of a lack of currency concerning their vocabulary. The fact that they can come up with no better insult, considering the munificent ammunition my sartorial elegance and exquisite manners provide them, should tell you that their intelligence and creativity are stunted. In other words, they are to be pitied as well as despised." With that conclusion, Ezra beamed a pleased smile at the younger man, which dropped away when he saw that his words had obviously not had the impact he'd hoped for.

JD had been concentrating considerable attention on just following the argument put forth by his friend and thought he'd caught most of the meaning. "You mean they're stupid so I shouldn't let what they say bother me?"

Standish sighed, sipped his drink, and began again. "Yes, that is what I said." He decided it might be time to reduce his level of communication. He didn't want to lose JD along the way. That would be counter-productive.

"They wouldn't have so much to say about me being such a kid if you guys, especially Buck, didn't treat me like a baby. They got that right," Dunne grumped, unhappily aware he sounded like a disgruntled six-year-old. "I don't know why he has to be so... Maybe I should get my own apartment. I mean I like rooming with him. It cuts down on expenses and we get along most of the time, but if I had my own place maybe he and everyone else would see--"

Standish straightened from his relaxed slouch and held up a hand. "Stop right there. I understand that Mr. Wilmington has subjected you to some manner of embarrassment with his over-protective attitude but you know very well it was not his intention to shame you or make you doubt yourself. I also think you should consider the effect on Buck if you should try to declare your independence and distance yourself. He will take it as rejection of his affection for you. I know you must be aware, Mr. -- JD, that Buck has a deep-seated need to be needed and appreciated... and loved. He finds great satisfaction in caring for others. I do not know how you could, at this juncture, convince him that you are not rejecting his friendship and removing yourself from his orbit in an effort to punish him for some transgression. You would hurt him deeply."

Knowing Ezra was right, Dunne shrugged uncomfortably and took a large gulp of his mimosa, not a good idea since it precipitated another bout of coughing. The conversation lagged for a moment as Inez came to deliver a platter of chicken quesadillas along with a stack of seven small plates. She evidently didn't expect the two of them would have an opportunity to finish the platter themselves. When she'd withdrawn again, the two men served themselves.

While Ezra was sampling the cheesy delight, JD found his voice again. "I know Buck is just a big old bundle of love and he's so sure of himself that he isn't embarrassed to show how he feels. And I know he likes taking care of people and now that Chris has Vin and doesn't need him any more..."

"You are not a substitute for Chris, JD," Ezra stated firmly, punctuating his sincerity by gazing directly into the young man's eyes.

Dunne shrugged again. It was a doubt that had plagued him for some time but he'd not felt comfortable talking about it and he wasn't sure if Standish was correct or not.

"Believe me, you fill another role. From what I have observed your relationship with Buck is not the same as his role with Chris. They are close in age and have a shared history. You and Vin each fill a role for them as something like a favored younger brother or nephew."

JD began to deconstruct the quesadilla on his plate to avoid meeting Ezra's eyes. "So if moving out isn't the answer, what is? I don't see Buck backing off much. I can't even think how to tell him to quit touchin' me so much. Buck's a toucher, does it with everybody, but especially his friends. I don't mind it much myself but I don't like people at work always making me feel like a kid. What can I do to put a stop to it?"

"Mr. Dunne, you might ask yourself if it is actually a good idea to make life altering decisions based on the opinions of mouth-breathing misanthropic morons such as Stewart and Wilson."

Dunne shook his head. He wouldn't have phrased it that way, but he got the gist of Ezra's argument against allowing other agents to influence him.

"You should also take into account that those who know you well are aware of the intelligence, skills and talents which make you valuable to the team. No one who has worked closely with you could fail to see why you have earned a place on Team Seven. Your enthusiasm and energetic approach is quite enlivening and sometimes inspirational -- though you could tone it down at least until some of us have had sufficient caffeine in the early hours of the morning -- but never mind. That is somewhat irrelevant."

JD flashed him a quick grin. The undercover agent was the one who had loudly proposed that morning people should be muzzled until at least after lunch. Even when yelping indignation at Dunne's boisterous style, Standish never made it seem a personal attack. He was just as likely to make a sarcastic remark at any other team member, except for Larabee -- and even him when he was in a really surly mood.

"Those who do not appreciate your abilities are judging you solely based on appearances. My dear mother's favorite aphorism is 'Appearances are everything' which may have some bearing on your troubles."

Dunne looked horrified. "You mean I'm gonna have to deal with this crap about being just a kid until I start looking my age? Until I get old? How long will that take?"

Standish smothered his amusement under his best poker face and countered, "No, that is not what I meant." He noticed the other team members entering The Saloon and seating themselves at the bar, trying their inadequate best to go unnoticed and to appear unaware of the duo at their usual table. He mentally congratulated himself on predicting almost to the minute the timing of their arrival.

"Ya think I should grow a mustache?" JD mused, then shook his head. "Naw, then they'd think I was imitating Buck. Maybe a goatee? But I don't know if I can actually grow one that wouldn't have bald spots. My beard isn't very thick except in spots... Hey, Ez, you know how to change how you look. How would you make me look older?"

"Mr. Dunne, you are missing the point. You may not appreciate your youthful appearance at this point in time, but it is a God-given gift that you could use to your advantage. It's all in the attitude you employ."

The younger man frowned. "How can looking like a kid be a good thing? Oh, you mean like I could go undercover as an underage buyer at liquor stores? That's happened maybe twice. I'm a federal agent, old enough to drink and to carry a weapon. I should command some respect as an adult, but I'm not getting it."

"Undercover work is one aspect of using your youthful looks, but by no means the only one. If you intend to serve in that function in the future, you'd be well-advised to practice deception and dishonesty -- but that's neither here nor there." Ezra decided to change the subject quickly. He didn't really want to think about what sort of physical damage Larabee, let alone Wilmington, might inflict upon him if he put the notion in the boy's head that he should do more undercover work which would put him directly in the line of fire. "You must learn to use your appearance to your advantage."

JD thought about that while he actually ate a few bites.

Larabee caught Ezra's eye, silently asking for permission to join them. Standish enjoyed the novelty of being in command for the moment even as he subtly shook his head. He needed more time.

Larabee could say more with a look than most people could with an hour long monologue. It was clear to Standish that Larabee and the others would give him a little more time, but then they'd be over there to check on JD and he'd better be happier than he'd been when he'd left the office.

"Ezra, I just don't get what you mean. Other than using it to pretend I'm underage, what good does it do me to look like a kid?" Dunne was ready to listen. Buck would have given him platitudes or clichés, Josiah would have confused him, and Nathan and Chris wouldn't have understood why JD was bothered, but the young man knew if Standish or Tanner took the time to actually talk about a subject there was something to be learned.

Standish began to weave a spell with his words as he drew the younger man into his own world of role playing. "Mr. Dunne, let us pretend that this establishment is a bank. All the customers here in The Saloon are customers or work in this bank." He paused to let Dunne make a quick visual assessment of his surroundings. The lunch crowd had started filtering in and there were now about twenty ATF agents as well as office personnel from various neighborhood businesses seated around the tables.

Dunne brought his eyes back to Ezra's. "Okay. This is a bank." Standish and he had done something similar when JD had asked how he got into character for a bust and Dunne was trying to understand the assumption of a different persona.

"Now, let us imagine that the nefarious Dunne gang has just entered the bank with the intention of robbing it. Unfortunately for them, someone sounded the alarm so they find themselves trapped by law enforcement officers surrounding the building and are now in the midst of a hostage situation. You are the gang leader. Look around the room and assess your hostages. Some of them look harmless and helpless. Some of them look like trouble makers. Remember, they are strangers to you. You know nothing about your hostages except for the surface appearance -- what you see before you. You have a limited number of gunmen available to watch your prisoners. Now, if that was the case, which of these people would you tell your men to watch most carefully?"

Dunne's eyes widened. That was an interesting scenario. He tried to put himself into the character Ezra was creating for him and view the others objectively, his eyes studying each person in the room for a few moments, some taking longer than others.

*******

Vin Tanner nudged Larabee with an elbow. "What the hell is JD starin' at?"

"What is that Southern weasel up to?" Buck growled. "They're acting weird."

Larabee grabbed Buck's upper arm and turned him to face the counter. "I don't know but Ez will let us know if he needs any help. He's got JD calmed down anyway. I would like to know what the hell that look is about though... If I didn't know better, I'd think JD was trying to decide which of us to shoot."

Buck gave him a disbelieving stare. "The kid wouldn't--"

"He's not that mad," Nathan added. "But I'd sure like to know what Ezra is filling his head with... The kid just smirked at me."

"Oh, Lord," Josiah moaned, "please, don't let Ezra make JD as ornery as he is."

"Ain't rightly possible," Vin snickered.

*******

Having given Dunne a few minutes to study the room, Standish prompted, "All right, Gang Leader Dunne. Who are the most dangerous men in the room?"

"Heck, Ezra, even if I didn't know them... I'd be keepin' an eye on Chris... Josiah, Ryan Kelly, John Black and... Buck."

Standish was impressed with the boy's perspicacity. He'd gotten almost exactly the same answer himself. "Why? Josiah isn't the biggest man there. He looks fairly tame... if you don't know him."

Dunne frowned and took the question seriously. "He's not the biggest in height, but he's built like a gorilla -- I mean, uh... he's got muscles. You can tell even with those kind of baggy clothes. He looks strong and hard headed. Like if he didn't want to do what you told him, he'd fight ya."

"Very good, Mr. Dunne. Now, why Chris? He's definitely not the largest or most imposing man, though his black clothing does give him a certain grim but stylish appearance."

"You said just look at them as if I didn't know anything about them." JD seemed confused. "I can't say why. Chris isn't all that big and he's not doing anything threatening, but there's just something about him... Like he's really paying attention."

Ezra smirked just a bit. "I believe the word you are looking for is 'intensity'."

"Yeah. He makes you look at him, even when he's not doin' anything and he looks even meaner and more ornery than Josiah." JD suddenly looked alarmed. "You're not gonna tell them what I'm sayin' about them, are ya?"

"Of course not," Standish soothed. "This is a private conversation. Now, you also mentioned John Black and Buck?"

Dunne mulled over his next words as he finished off his first quesadilla and took another sip of mimosa. "Well, they're the biggest guys here -- I mean in height. They're both tall and look like they could put up a good fight. John has this cocky expression most of the time. Buck gets a mean look when someone gets bossy with him and I'd want someone watching him. And Ryan Kelly... well, he's sort of like Chris -- you can tell he's someone who expects people to do what he tells them which would make him and Chris lousy hostages."

"What about Nathan? He's the same size as Buck." Standish was interested to hear JD's take on the EMT.

"I know, but he's... uh, calmer?"

"He doesn't look like he'd start anything?" Ezra suggested.

"Yeah, that's it. He looks like he'd follow orders."

"So, to summarize, you've tagged the most dangerous men as the ones who are obviously not easily intimidated?"

Dunne agreed with a nod as he leaned back in his chair in a relaxed slump.

"You're a smart man, Gang Leader Dunne. Now, for the purpose of this exercise, let's choose the least dangerous people here, the ones your men would bunch into a group and practically ignore while focusing on the dangerous ones. From whom would the gang be expecting the least amount of trouble?"

That took a bit more thought and JD's eyes roamed the restaurant once more.

*******

Wilmington stiffened and elbowed Larabee as he spoke out of the side of his mouth. "They're lookin' over here again."

His friend raised one eyebrow as he studied Buck. "So? What do you want to do about it? There's no harm in looking." He exchanged a quizzical look with Tanner.

"But what are they doin'?" the ladies man demanded.

"Hell, Bucklin, who knows? Whatever it is, it's workin'," Tanner said.

"Well, I want to know why they keep starin' at us," Wilmington grumbled sulkily.

"Mebbe they're waitin' for ya to do a trick?" Vin drawled.

Wilmington turned a glare on the sharpshooter. "Feels more like a lineup of suspects."

Josiah interceded. "Calm down, Buck. Whatever tactic Ezra is using has obviously distracted JD. You can ask him what they were doing later."

"I want to go over there."

Nathan took his own try. "Buck, you might joggle Ezra's elbow in whatever plot he's hatching. Leave them alone. When they're ready to talk to us, Ezra will let us know."

"I don't like it." Wilmington was startled when an irritable Inez Recillos suddenly popped up in front of him with his lunch order.

"Señor Wilmington, leave Señor Standish and JD alone," she said sternly. "JD has finally started to smile. Sometimes those closest to us cannot be of help and it will be the advice of a more objective friend that will be listened to." Having delivered her reprimand, she flounced away to get the rest of the serving plates with the Team's lunch order.

Attacked on all sides, Wilmington subsided reluctantly and took a huge bite of his taco, but kept his eye on his young friend who was still scrutinizing The Saloon's patrons.

*******

"It's hard to pretend I don't know them," JD commented. "I mean, you said look for the ones that would be the least amount of trouble and some of them don't look like trouble, but since I know them, I know they would be."

"For example?" queried Standish.

"Well, Vin for one. I mean, I know he's tough and hard to push around -- I mean, even Chris can't always get him to listen -- but he looks quiet and shy. If he was in the bank in his jeans and boots, I'd think he was some kind of country boy in town for some errand or something. Probably to pay off a loan. He doesn't usually look ya in the eye, just kind of stands back and watches. A bad guy -- I mean me, I would probably think he'd try to stay out of trouble and just let me do what I wanted."

"Anyone else?"

"Nathan -- he may look like he wouldn't cause trouble, but we both know if anyone got hurt, Nathan would get mean. He'd do what was needed to protect the hostages. And Inez. She looks pretty and sweet and friendly -- and usually she is, but--"

Standish flashed his dimples as he completed JD's thought. "But you've seen her handle drunks and ill-mannered patrons enough to know that she would cause trouble for her captors if any opportunity to do so presented itself."

"Yeah," JD said fervently. "And women don't fight fair."

"As Josiah would say, Amen to that, brother." Standish sipped his drink then set it aside. "Now, JD, one more thing. I want you to put yourself on that side of the room. And me. If you were the bad guy and you saw Agent JD Dunne on a usual day and Agent Ezra Standish in his own persona standing in the bank you were going to rob, what would Gang Leader Dunne think of the two of us?"

"The way you dress, I'd probably think you were a bank officer or something. Or one of the rich businessmen who has a big account there. And if ya talked the way you do normally, I might think you were some over educated trust fund baby with not much sense," JD said thoughtfully. "Not much of a threat. Is that how come you can get away with so much when you're undercover?"

Standish smiled wryly. "Precisely. I use my appearance and mannerisms to seem harmless or whatever else the role calls for. Now, what about Agent Dunne?"

"Aw, he's just some kid," Dunne said scornfully. "He'll just hang around behind those big guys and hope they save his butt."

Standish snapped to attention, but didn't attempt to argue directly. "Just some kid? So he's not a threat?"

"Nope." Dunne looked fairly disgusted with himself.

"Ah." Standish flashed his predatory smile and that clued JD in that he'd missed something.

"What?" JD bounced forward earnestly in his seat, facing Ezra fully for the first time as he tried to read the older man's expression.

"Mr. Dunne, what is the most dangerous gun in this world?"

JD blinked in surprise at the abrupt change in topic. "Uh... I don't know..." There were just so many choices.

"JD, it is quite apparent if you think about it. The most dangerous gun in the world is the one you do not know is loaded." Ezra smirked and let the words often used in gun training classes percolate through JD's highly intelligent brain. Once given the reminder, Standish was sure he would make the correct analysis of Ezra's demonstration. He could literally see the moment the penny dropped and enlightenment burst upon the young man's mind.

Eyes widening, fingers tapping on the table, JD suddenly grinned. "Oh!" He bounced in his chair. "Oh! I get it! The dangerous ones like Chris and Josiah are the loaded guns... the ones even the bad guys can spot and will be careful with. But you and Vin and Inez--"

"And you, Mr. Dunne," interjected Standish.

He took the correction and kept on with his train of thought. "The ones no one would think are dangerous -- we're the ones they should watch out for because we're the ones who may blow up right in their faces when they least expect it!"

Standish's expression held a certain amount of pride in the younger man's acuity. "If they don't know how dangerous you are, you tend to be overlooked, and ignored, therefore you have the greatest potential to put a spoke in the wheels of their machinations. I have found being underestimated to be one of my greatest advantages in dealing with the miscreants with whom I closely associate in the performance of my duties."

*******

"The kid's bouncing!" Wilmington reported, hopefully.

"Will you stop lookin' over there?" Larabee snarled. "Eat your damned lunch."

"Got to admit, I'd like to know what's goin' on myself," said Nathan.

"Me too, brother."

"Oh for..." Chris sighed his exasperation. "All of you, eat your damned lunch. We have to get back to the office in a bit and I'm not gonna listen to you whine because you're hungry during the briefing this afternoon. And the next person who elbows me is gonna lose an arm." He spread his glare between the two worst offenders, Buck and Vin.

"It's right handy, the mirror behind the bar, Cowboy. Can keep an eye on things real well without goin' over there."

"Tanner." It was a growl. "Eat. Now."

"Harsh words don't make a good appetizer," Josiah noted nonchalantly.

"Sanchez." The growl was harsher.

Inez used the excuse of refilling their glasses to plant herself in front of Wilmington and Larabee. "I want an explanation. Who and what upset JD?" The guys left the explanations to Wilmington. It would keep him busy.

*******

Dunne rather enjoyed the notion that he was a dangerous man. "Yeah, while the bad guys were watching Chris and them, we'd be working under the radar and ready to jump 'em."

"Exactly."

"But that's still on the job, Ez. My problem isn't getting respect from the bad guys or even my own team. It's the other people... the other agents, you know."

Standish suppressed the urge to smack JD upside the head a la Wilmington. "Mr. Dunne, surely you know that it is only a small and overly vocal minority that hold you in low esteem and it should occur to you to think about their motivation for doing so. Perhaps your lack of arrogance should be endearing, but at times it is very inconvenient."

Predictably JD overlooked the complimentary nature of the latter statement and latched onto what Ezra thought to be the one important word he'd spoken. "Motivation?"

"One of your most irritating habits is that you take for granted your own abilities and gifts, even when you do not become self-deprecating. Do you do that when considering the other team members?" Standish asked.

"I do not," Dunne protested automatically, then his brain caught up with his ears. "What?"

Standish bought himself a moment by refilling his champagne flute. "Tell me, JD, if you were doing evaluation forms on our team, what would you list as greatest strengths for each one? Don't tell me, just think about it."

Dunne took a few moments to think but it didn't take long before he nodded.

"Now think of the negatives. What would you list as the weaknesses of each team member? Let me know when you have them in mind."

That took a bit longer, but eventually Dunne spoke. "Okay, do you want me to tell you now?"

"No, just bear them in mind when answering the next question. Why is Team Seven so successful?" Standish could almost see the wheels turning in JD's head as he thought, considered, analyzed, compared, and finally came to a conclusion.

"Teamwork." JD couldn't believe he could summarize it in one word but it was the only thing that came to mind. Of course, Ezra rarely used a one word answer.

"Yes, teamwork. We work together as a team and our skills and abilities complement each other's. Even our weaknesses are compensated for by the strengths of one of the others. For example, when Mr. Larabee is on the verge of losing his temper and acting in an injudicious manner--" Standish left the remark hanging.

"Vin or Buck or both calm him down. Whenever one of us has trouble, one of the others steps in to help. Like Nathan -- he's so calm most of the time, he helps the rest of us stay calm and takes care of all of us when we're injured or talks to doctors for us."

"Josiah offers insight into motivations of our targets. When Vin has trouble locating building plans and schematics to help him position himself for a bust, he gets the incomparable JD Dunne to access them via his computer, with or without the use of his hacker skills," Ezra supplied. "When JD or any of the others is feeling down or frustrated, Buck lightens the atmosphere with teasing or a physical distraction which allows for an outburst of adrenaline."

"And when JD throws a tantrum and won't listen to anyone else, his friend Ezra Standish steps in to remind him of what he has in this team," JD replied with an understanding and appreciative glint in his eyes that disconcerted the undercover agent.

"Well, yes... but..."

"Don't even try to misdirect me, Ez. I want to thank you. I guess I kind of lost sight of my place in things. I'll try not let it happen again. I know I'm good at my job." There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Ezra never took it well when someone called him on acting in a generous and unselfish manner. "But let's get back to what you were saying about motivation... what motivates those guys on Team Five to pick on me?"

Glad for the redirection, Standish answered with a quotation. "Avarice, envy, pride, Three fatal sparks have set the hearts of all on fire. Dante, The Divine Comedy."

"Avarice, envy, and pride?"

"Mr. Dunne, our team's success rate is to be envied. Avarice for recognition? The sense of pride in one's work? By our very existence, small minded members of other teams are bound to suffer by comparison." With a slight nod, Standish signaled Larabee and the others that now was the time that their entrance into the conversation would be welcomed.

The others were not slow to pick up their drinks and move to the table, taking their seats without comment as they listened to Ezra expound on his theme.

"As the great Babe Ruth once said, 'The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.' You will notice that Team Five and several other teams have excellent individual agents but they do not mesh the way Team Seven does, therefore they lack our... je ne sais quoi."

"Quoting a Yankee? Damn, Ez, you must be hard up for words," Tanner observed.

"Wisdom is wisdom, whatever its source, Mr. Tanner. And if you prefer, I could quote Salvador Dali in saying 'The thermometer of success is merely the jealousy of the malcontents.' The malcontents of Team Five, specifically Stewart and Wilson, are demonstrating envy and presenting a sour grapes attitude because they can do nothing more productive. They went after JD because they perceive him to be our weakest link." Ezra threw a look the others couldn't interpret at JD and received a quick smile in return.

Larabee raised an eyebrow in JD's direction. "You did know that both of them were being considered for Team Seven... until your application hit my desk? After your interview it was an easy decision. They wound up on Team Five together because of a manpower shortage."

"Oh, dang!" the ladies man exclaimed theatrically. "Chris, don't tell me you seriously considered either of those bozos?"

Larabee frowned. "I said they were being considered. You know the bureaucracy. You have to interview a certain number of people before deciding, but no, I didn't want either of them. They have egos the size of Mack trucks and about as much sense."

"Which brings us back to an important topic... gettin' even," Nathan said. The others stared at him, mildly surprised that the medic was the first to make mention of it. "What? You can't let them think they can get away with this kind of behavior. It only encourages them and if they go too far, one or more of y'all will get into a brawl and then I'll have to patch y'all up. I don't need more work."

Josiah stroked his chin and intoned, "The path of the righteous men is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. Ezekiel 25:17."

That thudded into the silence. Josiah waggled his eyebrows at Ezra who was shaking his head, as if to deny the role in which Sanchez was casting him.

"So what do we do to get back at them?" Buck demanded.

"Well, Eric Hoffer said, 'You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.' That will give us a starting point," Larabee pointed out. "Don't look at me like that, Tanner. I read and I can spout quotations if I feel like it." Vin smirked and gave him a mock salute.

JD was bouncing one leg again, unable to sit still. "So if they think it was scary to be thought of as a baby... or like a man taking care of one... they must be afraid of people thinking they're sissies?"

"Now that has a lot of possibilities," Buck said. "They like pictures so much, we could do one of them... put their heads on a couple of women bodybuilders?"

Tanner quickly argued that one down, insisting payback should take a more physical form... turning them blue in the showers perhaps. Nathan counter argued for a less permanent or visible modus operandi. Team harmony restored to what passed for normal, it soon became a round table discussion, with only Josiah and Ezra temporarily abstaining from comment.

Josiah gently nudged the Southerner. "You did good, Ezra."

"Mr. Dunne is worth the effort," Standish murmured. "I would slightly amend a quotation from Louis Pasteur: Chaque enfant réveille en moi tendresse et respect; tendresse pour ce quil est, respect pour ce quil deviendra."

"Aw, hell, Ezra, talk English," Buck demanded.

Standish sniffed indignantly. "If I were speaking to you, I would speak English... or its butchered cousin which is your language of choice."

Josiah smiled. "Buck, he said 'When I approach a child he inspires in me two sentiments: tenderness for what he is and respect for what he may become.' "

"Child? Hell, who you callin' a child? You got after me for callin' him 'kid'!"

"Shut up, Buck! I ain't no kid," JD insisted, having missed the exchange up to that point, but jumping in with his usual response to that stimuli.

"Hey, I called ya a kid... he's sayin' child!"

"Who is?" JD demanded.

Buck turned to point at the undercover agent but couldn't locate him.

Standish had taken advantage of the team's distraction to slip away and was half out the door of The Saloon.

Before JD and Buck could resume friendly hostilities, Larabee snarled, "Damn Southerner -- he stuck us with the check! Again!"

THE END

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