Applied Pressure

by Pharoah's Kitty

Rating: Sadly, PG13. Adult due to theme material.
Setting: Magnificent 7 TV show, ATF AU courtesy of Mog.
Pairing: Chris/Vin/Ezra.
Summary: First time fic. Vin is getting out of the closet and into Chris's pants. With some help. Along the way, Ezra becomes involved.
Author's Notes: For Sue, the best inspiration another author could ever ask for.
For EJ, because without her how could I ever have finished?

Vin eyed the closed door of Larabee's office with a combination of concern and the awful finality of the moment when you have finally given up all hope; any shred of a shred of a tiny thread of hope. Chris was never going to see him. Yeah, he could read Chris like a map (not like a novel, because the damn print never stayed in place - but then come to think of it, neither did Larabee lately - just when Vin thought Chris was at long last taking notice of Vin's quiet adoration, the blond would do something to prove just how oblivious he was to the fact that Vin WANTED him - Chris would put a hand on him or say something in that tone of voice that was more than a boss or a buddy and then... *poof* ((no pun intended; Vin reassured his offended psyche)) Chris turned back into a guy without a fucking clue, damn him all to...). Ok. The point being Vin COULD read Chris and Chris was determined to ignore, bury any evidence before his eyes that Vin was anything more than his best bud.

With a growl, in shoved his chair back from his desk. He stood and cracked the kinks out of his back. No matter how ya looked at it, these dang desks weren't made for men as tall as 'Siah 'n' Nathan 'n' Buck 'n' Chris 'n' him. Fact was, the only two team members comfortable with them were Ezra and JD.


"Yehsss, Mistah Tannah?"

Vin grinned. The more tired Ezra Standish got the more his native (was it?) drawl sounded like honey. Too damn bad he was gone on a man whose voice chomped on the words coming out of his mouth in sheer cantankerous temper before letting them free. Had to be the reason Chris used so few of them. ('an' what's yer excuse, Tanner?' whispered a voice in the back of his head). Yeah, if he wasn't completely lost to steely green eyes that only burst into flames when their owner lost his some considerable formidable temper, then he would have made a play for Ez. If only so's he could find out whether that sticky voice ever got 'round to using short words ones like 'fuck me!'.

"If that ole bear ever comes outta hibernatin', tell 'im I'll finish up the report later tonight. 'm gonna be late."

"Whatever for, Mistah Tannah?..." Ezra turned his head to face his compatriot but it was too late. Vin was gone. Ezra hadn't even heard the door to the ATF Team 7 bullpen close. Ezra stared at the door for a few seconds before returning to the research through shady financial records that had kept him late in the office in the first place. A thought was niggling at the back of his head, but it just wouldn't come front and center.

About half an hour later, Chris left the inner sanctum of his office and headed for the door. With a growl of his own that Ezra was sure would have matched Vin's earlier audible non-verbal remark perfectly (if a sound engineer ever thought to tape both of them snarling and compare the two, Ezra was certain the sound waves would have confirmed with evidence that Vin and Chris were sometimes actually the same persn) Chris huffed out, "Where did he go?"

"He said he was going to be late?"

"What the hell does that mean?"

Chris glared at the empty chair behind Vin's desk. Then he stomped from the room.

Ezra contemplated the closed door. It had slammed quite impressively and jogged loose that errant thought that had been avoiding his company.

'Vin has a life outside Chris?'


Vin Tanner leaned against the wall, long legs splayed sideways in the ripped and torn jeans he felt the most comfortable in. The blue of his shirt made his eyes seem just that much more impossibly deep blue - like Texas bluebonnets growing wild or the sunlit bright sky blue above a desert. Tucker snorted. Vin. Looking all relaxed and slugging that cold beer just as if he didn't know what a pretty damn picture he made. It seemed to be working anyway, their opponents were doing more drooling than playing.

There went the shot and the girl missed completely, courtesy of VIn hitching his hips full view at the end of her cue. Tucker was up and took full advantage, dropping every ball neatly into the pockets. Vin never even had to leave his beer.

Some partnership. Tuck got to do all the work and that silent no-account rangy cowboy got to have all the fun. Tucker sighed. Once upon a time.... But those days were gone. Tucker wasn't going to be distracting anybody anytime soon. That's life for ya. One day you're a prize and then you're leftovers. It was Vin's turn to be the prize. Heck, who was Tucker kidding? Vin had been the prize since he left babyhood behind. Everybody loved them long legs, tight ass, sunkissed curls and those eyes ya could drown in.


"Yeah, Tuck?"

"Need another beer."

Vin peeled himself off the wall and wandered off to the bartender, some Hispanic woman with a soft spot for the fella a mile wide. Tucker grinned. What woman idn't have a soft spot for Vin? His natural bashfulness contradicted that natural predatory look he got from time to time and it tended to just turn most a' the ladies into lil' puddles of drool. Pity they'd all be disappointed. Vin was one of the quietest gay fellers Tucker knew but he definitely trolled the other side of the fence.

Not that the guy had been doing any trolling. Tucker had watched as Vin completely ignored subtle invites and turned down flat the ones without finesse. Vin was gone on somebody and he wasn't getting any of it.

Tucker chewed down on an already ravaged lip. Vin was the only friend Tuck had here. Six months and Tucker hadn't made any others - probably because of a profound lack of trust toward people - anyway that's what Psych called it. Tucker called it survival instinct. Anyway, when you only have one friend, it tends to bother you a lot more when that one solitary friend is unhappy. Not that a body could really tell. Vin didn't leave any clues.

rom the outside, Vin just looked like a wallflower. That feller would rather watch the goings on than participate. Most people would think that. They thought that about Tuck too, no doubt. Since moving to Denver, the most activity Tucker had participated in was this pool league with Vin. Not that they were doing too well since either one or the other couldn't make it to most of the games. The only reason they were still on the chart was that they tended to win the games they did play.

Dead last. Tucker grinned. It wasn't winning that mattered. It was having a reason to hang together. In the beginning they'd needed one. Tanner had blown into the Saloon one Tuesday afternoon after being kicked out of where he worked (Tucker didn't ask - that was Tanner's business). Tucker had been bored bored bored after just moving into the neighborhood. A friendly game of pool had led to a short conversation. Then Sunday afternoon, Tanner had shown up in a foul mood at yet another bar where Tucker was busy killin hours of boredom with the help of sudsy beer and a set of darts. They'd left together and discovered a mutual interest in bikes. They owned the exact same Harley right down to the paint job. About six hours and six beers later, they'd decided to go for a haul through the mountains on the next Saturday. Vin's only comment had been 'gotta clear it with my boss'. Odd. Who told their boss where they were going on their day off?

It wasn't until they were finally past the first stages of friendship, past all the nervous thoughts of maybe something more than friends might be better, past all that awkwardness and settled into the comfort zone of hanging out sweaty from a pickup game of basketball or a run through the park that Tucker started to discern the nature of Tanner's relationship with his boss. Larabee was his boss by virtue of the fact he was lead agent on the ATF team, but the tough as nails boss was a friend you could count on to all of them. Vin was particularly close to him and growing closr still. His offhand remark about Tucker's ability to read his mind 'just like Chris' was telling - especially when the word 'Chris' was breathed with a wistful yearning.

Tanner's behavior tonight just confirmed it all. The lanky feller was loco about his boss. All there was to it.

Vin passed over the cold longneck brew and Tucker sighed. Sometimes friendship was about going past the parts that were good and ripping open the scabs a feller had.


Vin slipped Tucker a lopsided sheepish grin signifying he'd been a million miles away from what he was supposed to be focusing on - winning the next game.

"Tanner, ya want to explain to me why y' don't just pounce on the guy?"

"What guy?" Vin looked around as if trying to figure out who the blazes Tuck meant.

"The one ya work fer."

Aw, hell. That blush was truly adorable. Lookit the way it just kind of bloomed on his cheeks and the head ducking embarrassment thing. Tucke was amused and captivated. Tanner really loved the blind idiot.

"Ain't gay."

Tucker didn't stop looking at Tanner and waiting for more.

"Hell, yer as bad as Ez." Vin nervously wiped a palm on his jeans. "He was married to a wonderful lady and had a kid. They were killed as a result of the job. Arson. Meant to destroy the man's sanity. He ain't gay."

"Don't mean he can't be bi. Unless yer as prejudiced as some a' the other gay fellers I've met. They think men that are bi are lying to themselves one way or the other."

"Sometimes I think...," Vin hesitated and slugged down some of his beer. "Sometimes I think he is just a step away from saying something or doing something and then... and then, he just changes back. He don't want to see me that way."

Tucker screwed up a good scowl and rolled a pair of eyes showing complete disgust. Sipping some of the cold brew over a tongue that needed an excuse to pause and think, Tucker reviewed the case fact thoroughly.

"Y' know. Maybe he'd see ya a little clearer from a little further away."

Vin looked puzzled.

"Hell, Vin. Every time I call ya and ya ain't at work with him, yer at his house working his ranch or out with him taking yer ease at a game or a movie or just kicking back at some bar. He ain't got time to miss you. You're always there. He ain't got a reason to wish for more of yer company. He gets all he wants. He ain't got time to wonder about what it might be like with ya in a more personal way. Yer always there fer him."

"Gotta help him out. Only right. My horse is stabled there at his place."

"Ain't saying for ya to stop. Ain't saying to abandon him. He'd just adjust to not having ya around. What I'm saying is...," Tucker's green eyes gleamed wickedly. "Hey, Vin, doesn't he blow a gasket whenever one a y'all get hurt?"

"Y' ain't hurtin' me!"

"Don't plan on it. But I do have a plan."

"I hear you're pretty damn ood at that."

Tucker winced. Past history had proven capabilities for anticipating catastrophes in ways Tucker dearly wished had never come to pass.

"Right, now here's my thoughts. Step one will be this..."

Tucker outlined a bold plan covering the next two months. Tanner's mouth gradually tilted up into an all out grin that spoke of a hope taking root behind his vivid baby blues. By the time Tucker finished, Vin's jaw was set with determination.

"Let's do it. Worst that could happen is - I get killed doing all this."

WIth a clink of two beer bottles, they drank to it.


"Yeah, yeah. I know. Need another beer, don't ya?"

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The door to Larabee's office was wide open so he couldn't help overhearing the conversations that started cropping up fairly regularly the next week. The phone would ring; Vin would stop whatever he was doing and pounce on it; and then a huge smile would break on his face. The first couple of days hadn't bothered Chris.

But since Wednesday morning, he'd been dying of curiosity and something worse.

Vin had apologetically backed out of Monday night television after they'd finished the chores up with the horses. Then he'd been ecstatic about someplace he was going Tuesday night, but never explained it to Chris or anyone else that Chris had casually pumped for information. Wednesday morning Vin had pounced on the phone and raved about the great time he'd had to somebody named "Will". Further phone calls Wednesday and Thursday to "Billy Joe" and "Will" about plans to go somewhere Saturday had resulted in a conversation between Vin and Chris that went something like this -

"Hey, Larabee. I got plans Saturday so cain't come out ta ride. Ya want me to stop by and give ya a hand with the muley cuss before I go?"

"I can handle Peso. Not like I haven't before when you've been injured."

"Just hope I ain't by the end of the day Saturday or you'll be stuck with him fer a good while."

- and before Chris could ask any of a dozen questions Vin had wandered back out to his own desk leaving Larabee to wonder what the hell was going on.

Now it was Friday night and the whole team was getting ready to cruise over to the Saloon for their end of the week relief and Vin.... Vin wasn't going to join them. Chris stood astounded as Vin snagged his jacket and fairly flew out the door calling out "see ya fellers Sunday!".

Ezra remarked out loud to nothing and no one in particular, "Does it seem to you that Vin has recently engendered a life without us in it?"

Chris just looked at him, stung by the truth of that.

When had Vin started to go?

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Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. Another beautiful day as it only could happen in early May. Bees already swarmed the wildflowers in front of the porch. Vin had gotten tired last year of looking at the blank flowerbeds where once Sarah had planted her handpicked annuals for the year. Unknown to Chris, Vin had bought a sprinkler can of wildflower mix and spread it in the beds after the first hard frost last fall.

The seeds had lain dormant until the chilly spring began and slowly but surely they'd begun competing for room in the bed. Vin had dumped the whole can meant for a fifty foot field into four flowerbeds. When Chris had realized the culprit responsible for the new growth - based on Vin's 'no! ya cain't do that!' when he'd thought to clean the 'weeds' out - and wormed the details from Vin, he'd just sighed at the scrawny-assed Texan's remark 'eh, the good 'uns will survive and the puny ones won't'. Who'd have thought such a hard-bitten cautiously realistic fellow would have such a romantic streak anyway? Wildflowers!

Chris reflected on Vin's silliness with a grin. The flowers did cheer the whole front of the place up. Kind of like the whitewash on the barn made the place look 'lighter 'n happier' and not something 'dank 'n dismal, shore to give m' horse fits'. A whole lot of damn work to cheer up the mythical spirit of Vin's blasted hell-horse. Damn thing ought to be stabled in a place painted fire-engine red with flames stenciled on the walls. Probably Peso would feel right at home then.

Sobering, Chris wondered if Vin's recent spate of activities these last few weeks was going to continue. He sure didn't want to end up having to be the one to drag Peso out to hold for the blacksmith or the vet. Bad enough cleaning the animal's stall and feeding him up without having to get downright personal with the monster. Vin was the only one that could gentle the horse. Just Vin's presence calmed the thing down.

Sort of like it calmed him down.

Chris sighed while reviewing the last weeks. He'd been blowing up more since Vin had started pulling away. Vin had been occupied with whatever instead of spending time out here at the ranch. Chris was feeling less and less peaceful - more like he'd been before signing Vin to the team. God, the last two years had been... comfortable. He'd gradually slid into a routine encompassing work and the ranch and time with Vin until the loss of Sarah and Adam hadn't seemed like such a glaring, gaping black hole of loneliness.

Hell, he'd even celebrated HOLIDAYS this year. Starting with the Fourth of July last year and Vin's insouciant assumption that Chris would let him set off whatever fireworks Vin wanted to. Who knew Ezra and JD and Vin AND Buck would all possess the same maniacal pyromania? He expected it of Buck. Buck was their explosives expert and was fascinated with anything that could possibly go 'BOOM!'.

Then there was the infamous Labor Day picnic at the ranch with a horde of bachelor ATF agents (hazard of the job, a helluva divorce rate - same as any branch of law enforcement or the military) getting stinking drunk and holding water pistol battles over a Nerf basketball prize. Said prize being ensconced in a certain AD's inbasket where it had been deposited by a grinning sharpshooter. Only place it could be appropriately protected until next year according to a slow spoken Texan.

Halloween. He'd helped Vin out with the setup of a haunted house in the Purgatorio Community Center. Taken part even. It had been fun scaring the living daylights out of kids as a corpse rising from an impromptu grave (courtesy of a floor hatch to the subflooring underneath the Center). Vin hadn't been much kinder, swooping down on the kids from on high courtesy of a wire and some scary bat wings. Even Ez had gotten into the act as a zombie cowboy gambler playing cards and looking up to reveal a completely blank featureless face. Ok. THAT had scared the shit out of Chris when he'd seen it.

Come to think of it, maybe Ez had a few things he needed to talk to Psych about what with pulling so much undercover duty. Chris ruminated and decided, yep, there were things he needed to know about his agent. He pulled out his cell phone and phoned in a voice message to Dr. Timmersen before he forgot. Ezra had a way of making you forget things when he was around. He seemed so damned normal and cheerful and was so amusing that you never dreamt sometimes that inside his head was a stew of memories so awful they'd have driven most people into an asylum.

Thanksgiving had been cozy and fun. They'd skipped the traditional dinner and opted for lots of pizza, beer, football and ended with the Team - all seven of them - spending the entire four day weekend at Buck and JD's watching movies, playing with various computers and losing vast fortunes none of them possessed to Ezra during some of the most cutthroat poker Chris had ever participated in. Nathan had even spent the entire four day period in their company allowing that he and Rain would be tied to their families for the major holidays soon enough.

And Christmas.

He'd been sunk into misery so deep and black that he'd just sat in his den in the dark on Christmas Eve staring at a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. He'd been lost. Chris knew perfectly well that one damn thought hadn't entered his mind. Not sorrow, not regret, not need. He'd just been... well... numb.

Until Vin had walked through the door with plates of cookies from Miss Nettie in hand, two for him and one for Chris with a gallon of milk. They'd gone out to the stables after and worked on the tack until four in the morning and Chris was tired enough finally to sleep. Which he'd done in the stables, just sliding into rest against a wall.

Chris flinched away from thinking on holidays. He was thinking too much on Vin again. Seemed to be happening a lot lately.

Ducking his head, Chris blew across the top of his coffee mug and wondered when Vin would get there. He was usually out here earlier than the others on Sunday, eager to get a ride in before the boys arrived for lunch and lazy Sunday afternoon beer and sports. Chris couldn't guarantee any of the others would come out, but Vin always did.

Josiah begged off for religious reasons or spiritual ones. Nathan spent long weekends with Rain as was only right. Man and woman were meant to cleave to one another - especially if they'd been planning on marrying as long as Nathan and Rain. JD often had friends he wanted to visit and Buck had his women encroaching on a weekend here or there. Ezra... sometimes Ezra just needed to be away from them when he wasn't undercover. Most weekends they would spend a thought or two worrying on Ezra's whereabouts, but he usually managed to check in on a Sunday at some point to let them know - to let CHRIS know - he was still alive.

In a way then, Ezra was always guaranteed to be there. He made a point of letting Chris know something, one way or another. The others weren't always as considerate. Sometimes it was late in the week before someone mentioned just why they'd been missing Sunday. Sometimes they never mentioned it at all. And it hadn't bothered Chris.

Because he knew Vin was going to be there.

Today, he wasn't sure. Today, Chris wasn't sure of anything.

Maybe Vin would be here today. But what about next week? Next month? Next holiday?

Chris watched his driveway and wondered what he was going to do the day Vin didn't arrive and the only one he could count on was Ezra.

Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing?

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Vin snarled and snapped and turned around restlessly inside the cage of his head. This plan wasn't going quite like he'd imagined. The more things he undertook without Chris, the bigger the gaping hole in his belly got. He missed Chris like coffee in the morning, like hot water for showers (he missed that a lot - his building tended to go belly up in the heat and hot water departments - ancient boilers). He missed Chris like cold beer on a hot day and like breathing. His chest hurt all the time now.

The more he had to fake being happy doing things with other people in other places, the more his dreams at night devolved into nightmares trying to eat him whole.

God a'mighty. He MISSED Chris.

And it had only been a couple a' weeks.

The pictures he'd brought in to show the fellers had made it to Larabee's desk and predictably, Chris blew a gasket. It seemed to have widened the gap between them, not made Chris stop and think.

Not that he hadn't had fun doing all this. Maybe he was the adrenaline junkie that Chris had accused him of being. He had pics of rappelling the rockfaces on Long's Peak, kayaking (now that had been a surprise! Vin hadn't done that before) down Clear Creek (Chris had freaked - Clear Creek had lots of sections NOT for beginners), riding the coaster at Royal Gorge with a pack of fellers he'd never met before, taking a dive off a cliff with nothing but a kite for company (Vin didn't let Chris know just how much training he'd done in a few days for that one). Then there was the skydiving. Vin knew a thing or two about that and had been pleased to find it wasn't something you forgot. This weekend he was going to help try out a new racebike around a test track courtesy of Beelzebub. Dang if he knew how Tucker managed to pull all this stuff off, but it had been fun.

Chris was getting hotter and hotter under the collar and accusing Vin of being addicted to his new friends' company. New friends that none of them had met. Friends that they one and all hated already for encouraging Vin into dangerous ways.

Vin had been expecting Chris to fly off the handle knowing he was risking his life and livelihood during his free time. He'd never expected the others to do so as well.

And Ezra.

Ezra was the most surprising.

Ezra had picked up the pictures, looked at them all, turned white and then flatly said, "I hope this friend of yours, the one taking these panoramic pictures, because he isn't IN any of them, is he? I hope this friend is worth dying for. Because he's going to get you killed, Mistah Tanner."

Vin had been shocked by the sheer pain in Ezra's eyes. You didn't ever SEE anything in Ezra's eyes that was personal. Just flashes of humour and stern no-nonsense get-down-to-business-now-please stubborn determination.

"I'm being careful, Ez."

"Doesn't look like it, Mistah Tanner." Ezra had dropped the pictures with haste. "And Ah am NOT wearing black to your funeral. It doesn't become me."

Vin had blushed furiously. Black became Chris mightily, from his scruffy black jeans to the tuxes he wore to functions AD Travis demanded he attend. And he'd had the sudden thought of Ezra in matching black looking at him just as furiously. He'd thought he was going to come right then and there.

Shit. Fuck. Now THAT was an inappropriate word. Cause he wanted to suddenly. He wanted to do that real bad. The idea of peeling Ezra out of black jeans and a black silk shirt had been suddenly just as present as the thought of doing the same to Chris.

Hell, he had to talk to Tucker. What on earth was happening to him?

He was supposed to be trying to get the attention of CHRIS! Not drowning in the abrupt realization that Ezra was one heck of a mighty fine looking man.

Yeah, he needed to talk to Tucker.

Vin ordered another beer and kept a watch on the door.

Please, please, please let tonight be one of the nights Tucker showed.

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The snick of a pool cue against the white ball was echoed a minute later by two balls clacking together and then the thud of a ball hitting the pocket. It was all over once again. Tucker eyed the cleared table with satisfaction. Especially satisfying since, for once, Tuck hadn't had to do any of the work.

Vin was possessed by an abundance of energy and an anger that seemed at odds with the thoughts that crossed his face when he wasn't playing. The lanky feller seemed alternately aroused and confused by whatever he was thinking on. It was all in the crinkles around his eyes and in the far distant look in the blue of them. That blue might as well have been a lake far off in Canada somewhere, because it was sure certain it wasn't anywhere in this room tonight.

When Vin finally sat at the table, deep green flannel shirt hanging open over a white T beneath that only played up the tan he seemed to perpetually have, he couldn't sit still. First fidgeting with his glass and then adjusting his chair and then playing with the munchie menu. Tucker was about to burst out laughing.

Vin, calm steady Vin, looked like a three year old with a serious case of ants in his britches. But reflecting on his actual age, it probably was more like something else lively down there instead. That Chris feller must be something.

"Tucker, I got a problem."

Tucker didn't answer. Vin would get around to the rest soon enough.

"What do ya think it means when I think about two fellers the same way?"

The beer went down sideways and Tucker gasped for air as Vin's helpful hand rapidly beat the liquid back into place.


"Yeah. Can't stop thinking about the look in Ezra's eyes when he saw those pics. HE cares about me. A lot. I didn't know. Said he wasn't gonna wear black to my funeral." Long slender fingers raked through long locks. "Can't stop thinking about him in black now."

"Tanner, my good man, ya got some weird ass hangups."

Vin blushed.

"How are ya thinking about him?"

"Ya know... " Vin's hands waved vaguely, indicating nothing at all. "Like that."

"No, I don't know." Tucker growled. "Need more information to do a profile, sunshine."

"What do ya want to know?"

"Sex? Ya thinking about hot sweaty bodies and being tangled together, tasting the salt and smelling skin?"

"Yeah." It was an confirmation breathed with soft exhalation and an equally soft look in the eyes.

"Thinking about breakfast the morning after...?"

"Yeah. And being curled up in bed, listening to him talk. That voice a' his... could melt a feller."

"Just sex? Or do ya want more? Like ya got with Chris? What you ALREADY have with that Larabee feller. Friend ta get cozy with over TV and coffee. Friend ta talk to or not. Friend to spend time doing things that ain't sex with?"

"Yeah. Can see fighting over the channels with Ez. He's gonna wanta watch the financial report and I'm going ta want to watch the game. Breakfast going ta be a problem too."


"Ezra likes his comforts. Fancy coffee and flaky pastries about nine in the morning. Me, I like m' eggs over hard with toast an' bacon. LOTS of bacon. Before the sun even thinks about getting up."

"So compromise on the time and go out for breakfast." Tucker laughed. "Ya love him, ya know."

"I do?"

"Yer a moron, Tanner, but I like ya anyway." Tucker thwipped Tanner upside the head with a couple of fingers. "Love 'em both. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Only wrong if ya try to have yer cake and eat it too without a full disclosure."

"Ez ain't any more likely than Chris ta do anything if he does want me. Which I don't think he would. Ezra is kind of... kind of... out of m' league." The voice was flat and bleak.


"He's so educated and worldly and refined. You should hear the words he uses when he talks and whoo! whee! the way he dresses would blow your mind. Man is always perfection. Clothes cut to him personally. Spends a fortune on the way he looks. And his house... was in there once or twice. It scared me. Everything was so clean and neat and fine looking. Polished wood and deep carpets and fine china every day..." Vin looked at Tucker with apologetic eyes. "Know ya think they don't come finer than me, but Ez is. He likes the best of everything and I... ain't."

"So basically, ya think you have more of a chance with Larabee than yer Ezra?"

"Reckon so. Comfortable with Chris. Got feelings for him that are hot, sure. Got feelings for him that are just... Don't know how to say it. We're right together. I'd never be right for Ezra."

"Think it's time for stage two, Vin, since your birthday is coming up. If you're still pursuing this?"

"Yeah. If I got any chance at all, it's with Chris. Damn fool thing ta do though, ain't it?"


They grinned at each other. Both of them liked damn fool things. The more stupid it was, the more likely they were to charge in. Tucker kicked Tanner underneath the table and got shoved back.

"Here's ta stage two, Tuck."

"Bottoms up."

"Funny, funny."

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"Hey there, Junior! Where we going tonight for your birthday bash?" Buck's voice boomed across the office bullpen.

Five other pairs of eyes and ears tried not to act as if the answer mattered much. The birthday boy among them always picked a place to celebrate. Since Ezra joined the team two years ago (he'd been the last of the seven agents that Chris had carefully picked) the birthday blowouts had just seemed to happen naturally. It had become an unspoken Team 7 tradition.

But Vin hadn't mentioned a thing as the day loomed closer and closer.

Yep, every set of ears was straining to hear what Vin might say. Vin grinned. Maybe there WAS something to this plan of Tuck's. They had gotten so used to having Vin around that the distance over the last weeks had made them appreciate Vin more when he chose to hang with them all. He just hoped they could stand the shocks he was planning on throwing their way. It was make or break time.

Because Vin couldn't take any more of this.

Living in Chris's pocket, but not being able to show how much he loved the man. Living a lie with fellers he considered closer than blood kin could ever have been. Living with the feelings of inferiority, wondering if he was really good enough fer anybody ta love.

Either they survived this, or he was going back ta bounty hunting. Tucker would be pleased to join him. Boredom was ever present in Tuck's green eyes lately. Must be hell working in the back room when once ya'd been the best of the best. If he couldn't have what he yearned for now with his whole heart, then it was time to get out and go somewhere it wouldn't HURT so much. Being here was beginning to feel like being a slug in a salt dish. He was melting away and dying by inches fucking hurt.

Vin bit his lip and fidgeted. Then he got up and handed out the business cards to everyone - the last one to Chris. His hand was shaking so much that he could barely pass the little bitty piece of paste board over.

Tonight was going to change everything.

Vin wanted to puke.

"So Junior? What is this?"

"Private club. Got in courtesy of Wil. Wil's throwing my birthday bash there. 9 PM. Wear jeans and regular shirts. You too, Ezra. They only dress on the weekends." Vin blushed furiously. "It's... it's open mike night. Ya supposed to perform but seeing as yer guests and not members, ya don't have to."

"Perform???!" Several shocked voices raised up.

"Told ya, yer guests. Don't have ta do nothing. But most of the members at least get up and tell a knock-knock joke or somethin'. It's fun." Vin cleared his throat. "Heck, Nathan. Ya could recite a first aid procedure and it would count. Feller a couple a' weeks ago explained six methods to get the mildew stains outta the bathroom grout. He's a real estate feller. Was kind of interesting."

Chris drawled, "Well, Buck. You shouldn't have a problem. Just tell one of those godawful dating stories of yours."

Buck watched Vin pale and looked at the card in his hand. Thumbing the raised graphic of a drunk rooster and a peacock with wings over each other's shoulder, he smiled. He didn't need to look at the address on the back at all.

"Nah, Chris. I got some right interesting knock-knock jokes that'll do just fine."

The look of relief in Vin's eyes tugged at Buck's heart. Tonight was going to be hell for the kid. Buck turned the card over and over in his hand, waiting for the others to go back to work. Then he moseyed into Ezra and Vin's office after the Texan, closing the door behind him. Buck was completely unsurprised to find Vin leaning his head between his knees with his hands clasped behind his neck.

"Try counting. It'll help slow down your breathing."

"Sure, Buck." Vin gasped it shakily and counted to twenty, taking a slower and deeper breath each time.

"Sure you want to do this, Junior?"

Vin looked up at Buck wide-eyed. "No. But I have to. Cain't live like this no more."

"I understand that." Buck gestured with the card. "Haven't been here in a coon's age. Be nice to catch up some old friends."

"Buck?!?" Vin's voice strangled and his eyes got wider.

"Ya think them fellers ain't got sisters, Vin?" Buck laughed before sobering. "I'll stand by you, kid. But can't promise it won't shake the others up. Might be a bit mad for a while, might not be able to handle it at all. You ready for that?"

"No. But Buck, I gotta."

"Chris hates surprises." Buck ran a hand over his cheek. "This should be downright interesting."

"Ya'd probably call Armageddon interesting too, Buck."

"Yep." Buck grinned happily. "Probably would."

"Buck?" Vin took a deep breath and sat up straight as he could. "Means a lot to me that it doesn't matter to ya."

"Whyever would it?"

Vin smiled shyly. Yep, that was Buck. He took people as they came and appreciated them just the way they were. Probably why he was so handy with the ladies.

"I can do this. Helps ta know you'll still be my friend... after."

"I think they'll all adjust. But Vin... it might be rough country for a bit. You need to talk any, you come to me. I'll be there for you, Junior."

Vin watched Buck leave with a feeling that Buck was his lifeline, his one and only safety. Wasn't true. There were others. But right now, he wanted everything and was afraid he'd end up with a handful of nothing at all. After tonight, would he still have the friendship of those he was most afraid to lose?

God, he was insane. This was insane.

He was blowing his world apart with a ton of C4.

How stupid can ya get, Tanner?


Outside the offices of ATF Team 7, one Ezra P. Standish stood looking at the card in his hand like it was a rattlesnake bound to bite him. He couldn't go. No way in hell could he go. He groaned.

What in Heaven's glorious name was he going to DO?

Ezra felt cold and clammy. He couldn't leave Vin to face them alone.

He had to be there.

He had to be insane to be contemplating this.

Vin, my dear fellow, you've really gone after the prize adrenaline rush, haven't you?

Ezra could cry. He hoped this friend of Vin's was worth all this.

Or he, Ezra Standish, sneaky bastard that he was, would kill the worthless prick.

---------------- ATF * 7777777 * ATF * 7777777 * ATF ----------------

By 9 PM that night, all members of ATF 7 had arrived in a quiet parking lot where the entrance to a club was supposed to be. All members but one that is.

Ezra was running late.

Per usual.

Chris huffed. Man had an excuse to be late to the office. Undercover work involved late nights in dark nightclubs and smokey hole in the wall bars or diners. He didn't have an excuse to miss this. Whatever was up wasn't your usual birthday. Vin was scared. Chris felt it in the hair prickling at the nape of his neck.

Vin was scared and Buck was holding him up practically, while shooting long worried glances at Chris. So Buck knew something Chris didn't. Knew something fairly goddamn important and hadn't breathed a word to Chris. A slow churn was brewing in his gut and he didn't have a single antacid on him.

After several minutes of talking they all realized Ezra wasn't going to show. Not right away at least and maybe not at all. Sometimes he had to make a contact suddenly, but usually he called Chris to let him know EXACTLY where he was going and how long he'd be. Chris flicked open his cell and checked it but it was brightly blank in the message box. No text message, no voice mail.

Maybe Maude had descended and was holding her son captive as she sometimes did. Ezra hadn't a single bit of spine sometimes when it came to his mother. She ran roughshod over him in pursuit of what she thought was best for Ezra whether it was or not. Whether he protested or silently surrendered in resignation to the whirlwind.

"Vin, let's get going. Either Ez will show later or..." Chris left it unsaid.

Vin nodded. Maybe this was best. Only one earthshaking loss tonight instead of two. Though how could you lose what you weren't ever going to have? He didn't know. His brain wasn't exactly functioning right now anyway.

Drawing strength from looking at Buck, Vin straightened and led the way to the door where a bouncer stood with a radio.

"Vin Tanner and guests."

The bouncer nodded. "Weren't there supposed to be seven in the party, sir?"

"One's late. Ezra Standish."

"Oh, he's not late, sir. Already arrived." The bouncer nodded firmly, ignoring Vin's surprise. "Wil sends apologies. Work has regrettably interfered."

"Ain't law enforcement great?" Vin laughed, knowing that at any moment any or all of their phones could require them to hoof it in to support another ATF team. That was their life. Ya lived with it.

"Glad to be out of it, sir." The bouncer grinned back. "Rafe pays a lot more. Nobody ever got comfortable on a civil servant's regular check."

Vin nodded and moseyed inside followed by his teammates. Could he still call them friends? For a few seconds more at least. Walking down the steps to the club floor, Vin started to get calmer. He was what he was and that was that. It was time. He was ready for this.

"Yo Vin! Hey Birthday Boy!"

"Do I get to spank you, doll?"

Hoots and hollers greeted him as he walked into the room full of tables. One end of the club floor was taken up by a stage, dark except for a lone spotlight on a mike. The other end of the club was a dance floor swarming with couples. Couples and threesomes and groups and singles. This place catered to all kinds of groupings. Of gay and bisexual males mostly.

Somewhere behind him, Vin figured his life was going to pieces. But he didn't care. These people accepted him as he was for who he was. He owed Billy Jo a huge debt for that. He had people that could pick up the shattered bits after this was over.

Nathan whispered to Josiah behind Chris' shoulder, "Jo-si-ah! This is a gay club!"

"Seems to be so, Brother Nathan. Seems to be so." Josiah patted Nathan's arm gently. "Not exclusively so though. Look around."

Chris was looking. There were men dancing with men on the floor, necking with each other in the booths, chattering excitedly to each other at the tables. There were MEN hugging Vin and smacking kisses on his cheek, wishing him the best, offering to buy him a drink later, impeding Vin's way to the table that was clearly reserved for them judging from the balloons attached to one chair and the pile of gifts on the table next to a birthday cake.

All those guys touching Vin were making him furious!

They shouldn't be touching Vin. Vin was... gay?

Chris stopped. Buck plowed into him.

"Hey, old dog? You going to breathe there?"


"Yeah, I know. Come on. Not much further to the table. You can do it."

"They know Vin."

"Yep. Now take a step. Come on. Table's right over there."

Chris swallowed. He blindly obeyed Buck's instructions and never took his eyes off Vin.

Vin was in his element, accepting birthday wishes and exchanging greetings. A tall dark haired fellow showed up and automatically created a barrier of space around Vin and himself. The well wishers calmed down a bit and backed off to their tables. The stranger leaned down and whispered something in Vin's ear that seemed to please him. He shook the fellow's hand and joined them at the table.

JD regained his voice first (though Chris realized Buck never lost his - Buck was just sitting back and waiting for the rest of them to catch up). "Ah, hey, Vin. This your way of telling us something kind of important?"

Vin nodded. Clearly he was terrified.

"Okay, then. Hey, look! There's some of Casey's friends. I'll be back over in a minute, Vin. Gotta say Hi or Casey will kick my butt for being rude." JD bounced up in excitement. "Cool cake. Your friend get it for you?" JD pointed out the theme on the cake with glee. "That your next challenge, bull-riding?"

VIn finally croaked an answer, "Yeah. We're going to take lessons. Want to try for the amateur division at the State Fair."

"The HELL you are!" Chris exploded. "You trying to break your neck? Want us to sit in the emergency room waiting on you to be dead or worse - paralyzed for life? Bad enough that we risk our lives at work like we do, but YOU... you go and take on damn fool stupid stunts for what? Your friend? An endorphin high? Do you get off on it? Got so you need the goddamn adrenaline now or what, Tanner?!"

Vin blinked. There wasn't one word in that whole tirade about his being gay. Not ONE word.

Chris didn't care about that?

"Whoa, old son. You can discuss that with Vin tomorrow. When you've calmed down and he's finished having a happy birthday. You do understand the happy part, don't you?" Buck put a calming hand on Chris, literally holding the man down in his seat when he'd have jumped to his feet to yell some more.

JD gulped. Foot in mouth again. "Excuse me, Vin. Back in a minute. Just going to go over there and say Hi to the guys." Desperately, the boy escaped to a table of guys that clearly looked like college students, the majority of which seemed to be natural born nerds. Vin watched JD be assimilated into that group like he belonged despite being straight. He probably fit there just fine, since he clearly didn't have a problem with where he was.

Despite what the kid said, he probably wouldn't be back for a while. Nobody in their right mind would walk back into a grizzly pit.

Clearly, Vin wasn't in his right mind.

Buck leaned to the table next to the him and exchanged pleasantries with the couple there. The two of them seemed to know Buck pretty well, asking after his latest conquests and snickering over the tall tale he promptly started spinning.

Chris was still simmering with fury. Vin kept trying to get himself killed lately. First the kayaking and then the hang-glider; skydiving and... and... Vin was going to end up DEAD. Chris shuddered. How was he going to survive that? Vin being dead was going to kill Chris because he couldn't take losing someone else he...

A wild screech of sound woke the club. The dance music cut out and everyone started taking their seats. No time at all and the club was orderly with an expectant hush.

Fairly soon, the tall stranger that had been speaking to Vin stepped up to the mike.

"Hey there boys!"

A chorus of "Hey!", "Hiya!" and "Get on with it!" met the greeting.

"Well, everyone here knows it's Vin's birthday."

And that was greeted with another cacophony of hoots and hollers and the odd rude remark like, "I've got a present for him if only he wants it!". Chris tensed up again, getting madder than a wet hen.

In back of the table, Nathan whispered to Josiah, "Thought Ez was already here somewhere?"

Josiah shrugged. He hadn't seen their errant agent since they'd come in. Didn't mean he wasn't around.

"Well, since it's the birthday boy's night, we'll let him go first, shall we?!"

Affirmation thundered from every corner of the club. Feet pounding the floor, hands pounding the table, whooping and hollering "yeah!", they all seemed to agree. Vin was blushing.

Somewhat shakily Vin got up, not daring to look at his fellow agents. Awkwardly he climbed the stage steps. His natural grace seemed to have been swallowed up. Chris wanted to get up and yell that Vin didn't have to do it. Vin absolutely hated speaking in public. To the point he puked afterwards.

Vin's voice was shaky when he began, but firmed up as he went. It became clear to Chris that what he was saying wasn't to the nightclub audience he couldn't see, but to one person he cared about. He was just speaking from his heart.

"Lights from windows fall on the sidewalk.
It's night. The moonless kind.
Wish I knew what it was like
Behind the glass."

Vin looked out into space.

"Can't be myself, afraid of my own fear.
Look at the tables inside where it's warm,
Wish I knew what it was like
To sit there laughing."

Vin spoke slowly, the words rolling off his tongue and hypnotizing them all into not breathing.

"Wish I could tell secrets of the heart
To someone at my side
Wish I knew what it was like
On the other side of the glass."

Vin hesitated.

"Without a moon to light my way,
no sun, no star to follow.
How 'm I goin' ta find
Someone at my side?
Wish I knew what it was like."

Absolute silence followed Vin's exit.

Chris swallowed the lump in his throat.

The announcer regained the stage and quietly said, "Well, hell, Vin. Depress us all." Then he grinned broadly and yelled, "Any volunteers to show him what it's like?"

A chorus of "Me!" thundered.

"That's what I thought. Now let's have some happier fare, folks. Someone get their ass up here and amuse us all!"

A parade of would be comics, singers that ranged from great to so terrible you had to wonder how they could stand to hear themselves until they laughed, and storytellers followed. Buck and JD were both quite popular with some absolutely horrendous jokes. More pathetic than JD's usual.

Josiah recited Hamlet and Nathan actually got up and managed to spellbind them all with a story about his experience as a medic. Chris wasn't about to let Buck's challenging smirk go by so eventually, he too made his way to the stage. Where he managed to crack up the house with a John Wayne and Clint Eastwood impersonation conversation about which of them was the better cowboy. When he got back to his seat he laughed at Buck's lifted eyebrows.

"Thought I forgot that skit, didn't ya?"

Somewhere in there, Vin had managed to open his presents, eat cake and find out that Josiah was okay with his orientation. Nathan was uncomfortable when Josiah prodded him about his reluctance to be in the club at the start.

"It's just that I don't want Rain to worry, Josiah. Vin."

"Why would she worry any, Brother Nathan?"

"Closest I ever came to living with someone before I met Rain was a paramedic. If Ross hadn't been killed by a crazy during a domestic, we would have... we would have..." Nathan sighed. "Rain's seen his pics. Just don't want her to ever THINK I might be looking for someone else."

Vin blinked. Josiah chuckled, "She seems awful certain of you, Nathan. And she knows what we're like when we let loose."

"Kind of what I'm afraid of." Nathan ducked his head. Everybody knew Rain had him wrapped. He was just confirming it.

Another screech of the mike summoned everyone's attention back to the stage.

Once again, the announcer took to the spotlight and called out, "We need a birthday boy up here!"

Vin looked startled.

"Yep, sunny. Get your behind up here. Apparently you've been sent a very special present." Someone handed a chair up to the announcer and he placed it at the center of the stage. Then he patted the seat and pointed at Vin. "Butt goes right here."

Buck and Josiah grinned. They didn't know what was up, but it looked like Vin was about to be the central character. This could only be fuel for future teasing. With a quick conspiratorial nod, they seized their sharpshooter by the arms, dragged him forward, grabbed his britches and fairly flew him up to the stage. The announcer seized him and pushed Vin, still protesting, to the chair.

"Just set right there. This won't hurt a bit."

The lights dimmed and the spot came up on a robed exotic Middle Eastern beauty. Eyes behind the fringe of a headpiece were clearly lined heavily with kohl. A half-mask shaded her face. Long purple skirts with a multitude of veils floated freely, declaring the reality of silk as her hips shimmied the hip scarf coins once or twice to make them ring. Bell bracelets and anklets, finger chimes, a tunic top. Clearly an actual dancer of skill and not some American copy.

Minutes later the music began, the flutes and drums beginning their thudding rhythms, winding their way through everyone's skin. The dancer floated across the stage, wriggling hips, indulging in impossible displays of flexiblity. The bare feet were sensual as they seemed to caress the stage flooring, the fingers graceful as they flexed and chimed counterpoint to the droning pipe rhythm.

The first melody came to the end, having clearly established the dancer's skill in the dance. A newer, faster melody started and the dancer whirled, suddenly losing the tunic top - revealing an all male torso with a developed chest and rock hard abs. The skirts shimmied seductively, whirled around his anatomy as he drew close to Vin and fell back repeatedly. On the far side of the stage, the dancer smiled beneath the mask as he twirled and there was the glint of gold as he turned.

Chris froze. Then sat up as straight as he could and leaned forward. That was Ezra? Hell, that WAS Ezra. Chris gritted his teeth and let his jaw have its way, grinding molars together as Ezra displayed a sex appeal that he'd only hinted at in his everyday manner.

On the stage, Vin was starting to realize he knew the dancer but hadn't yet figured it out.

The pace was getting faster and the veiled skirts started to part ways from the dancer as they seemingly detached on their own and flew out into the audience. Cries of "I've got one!" squealed among the patrons. Chris fought the urge to jump out of his seat and go gather up the material that had so recently been close to Ezra's skin. He didn't want to share any part of his men with anyone else, damn it!

A particularly sinuous move in front of Vin's face widened his eyes as the skirts slipped, revealing a scar line. A familiar scar line across a left kidney area. A line where a perp had tried to end the life of a certain undercover agent that wouldn't wear kevlar into a situation where he was supposed to be swinging a deal since 'kevlar is a dead giveaway, Mistah Larabee and Ah might as well wear a badge attached to my person'. Vin clenched his teeth as the dancer's teasing became nearly unbearable.

Dangle raw meat in front of a hungry tiger, why don't ya, Ez?

The dance ended with only a single skirt of floating silk left. Cheers and catcalls abruptly followed with some comments of "Take it off, E! Take it off!"

Promptly answered by, "Nevah!"

The realization burst inside Vin's head. Ezra was a regular here. They knew him. Ezra was every bit a lover of men as he himself was. He had a chance! But no. There were dozens of men here who were better suited to Ezra's company. Men that knew what the hell all those funny ticker tape numbers meant. Men that had gone to various Ivy League colleges and wore suits every bit as nice as Ezra's but without Ez's style. HE still wasn't going to make it into Ezra's life. Ezra might tumble the sheets with him now that they both 'out' among their colleagues, but Vin could never be more than a good fuck.

The lights came up and the audience was appreciative as Ezra pulled off his face veil and curtsied like a Southern belle, purple circle skirt held up wide. He stood up grinning and turned to Vin, bending over the now sulking, arms crossed, slouched down in his chair and pouting, sharpshooter.

"Didn't you enjoy mah shimmying, Mistah Tanner?"

"Ain't gonna lead to nothing, is it Ez? Kind of mean to raise a man and leave him without respite, ain't it?"

Ezra's face was immobile as Vin got up and dropped off the stage. Down in the audience, Chris himself was stunned by what he'd felt as Ezra had leaned over Vin to speak to him. He'd wanted Ez to kiss Vin, to close that gap and lean down to press his mouth to Vin's. Christ, what kind of pervert had he become? Chris refused to acknowledge that under the table, his prick was rock hard and the full length of it was being strangled by the denim surrounding it.

Ezra squeaked something to Vin, went to follow him off the stage, got entangled in his skirt and went flying headfirst. Chris stood straight up as something cracked loudly. His heart was pounding from terror as he dived for Ezra's side the same as Vin.

God, if their resident brat had broken something, Chris was going to read him the riot act until Ezra got it through his skull that he had to be more careful. Every time he and Vin got hurt, they nearly stopped his heart from beating. Ezra and Vin? His heart?

Ezra sat up slowly while the two of them were anxiously running their hands over him checking for broken bones.

"Good Lord, Ah've died and gone to Heaven."

"Ezra, you okay? You sound like you knocked yourself silly."

"If this is silly, Mistah Larabee, I'll take it over sober any day." Ezra looked at Chris, then turned to look at Vin, then back again.

Vin grinned lopsidely at Chris, who smiled back with mischief. Some entire conversation went on in an instant. Questions were asked, answered, plans made. Ezra ended up being the recipient as two heads ducked down to two ears to tell him, "Don't go anywhere, Ez. We're taking you home tonight."

Chris tugged Ezra to his feet, directed him to change quickly and shooed him off. He stood there eye to eye with Vin and a whole new understanding entered him. Vin was HIS. Vin was all his. And Ezra... Ezra was THEIRS. How simple could things get?

He wasn't entirely sure Ezra understood this new hierarchy, but their Southerner would figure it out soon enough. Ezra had more brains in his little finger than the graduating class of M.I.T. this year.

In the dark farthest corner of the club, Tucker leaned against the wall.

Happy ever after didn't happen much, but one could dream, couldn't they?


Sunday afternoon. Ezra dressed himself carefully. Just because he was wearing casual today was no reason to be slovenly. His jeans were worn, true. But they weren't halfway to Heaven like Vin's. His shirt was actually silk, though it looked and felt like a T-shirt. The difference was on his skin. He'd convinced Vin that silk T's were worth the money once Vin experienced the incredible warmth of one. That rail thin body was always cold. Vin's toes were guaranteed to wake the dead.

Ezra smiled bashfully at his reflection. He liked being woken in the night by Vin's cold feet. He liked being woken by Chris whose body functioned perfectly well in his sleep whether he knew it or not. He liked being theirs. Because it was true.

He was theirs.

Their treasure, according to the two of them; theirs to defend, theirs to love, theirs to please, theirs to spoil rotten.

Somehow it didn't seem constricting at all when they put it that way.

He didn't have whatever it was that Chris and Vin had together, but that was them. When it came to that bond, Ezra wasn't a part of it. But it didn't matter. He was a part of the other one. The one that went from them to him. How had God seen fit to bless him with such munificent riches?

They loved him.

He loved them back. Every ornery, temperamental, moody inch of Chris. Every poetic, romantic, stubborn inch of Vin.

Ezra sauntered down the stairs, eager to find his two lovers. He loved to drive them crazy while they couldn't do a damn thing about it because of company. And they had plenty today.

Labor Day picnic festivities were in full swing. Water battles had already begun, with the Nerf basketball changing hands several times. Ezra had heard the hollering from upstairs. JD and Vin seemed to be outgunning most of their opponents.

Ezra joined Chris on the porch where he was comfortably sprawled in a lounger and indulging in bad habits. Sweeping a hot gaze over Ezra's attributes, Chris applied himself a little more thoroughly to his hard lemonade.

"That friend of Vin's is coming out today."

"Do you suppose he'll really show this time?"

Chris shrugged. He didn't actually want to meet the guy. Vin still went off from time to time to play pool with him, but no longer accompanied the wild adventures he related to his lovers. It was 'Billy Jo went off and ...", but he neither seemed envious nor wistful. Vin seemed content with things as they were now.

Ezra knew that this friend of Vin's bothered Chris. Chris still seemed convinced that the man had a death wish and would somehow drag Vin down with him. Ezra was curious though. Vin spoke of Billy Jo fondly. It had taken Chris and Ezra some time to figure out there was only ONE friend. Billy Jo and Wil and Tuck and Tucker were the same person. From time to time, Vin threw in other nicknames to confuse them further. It was like the one person was so many people, Vin had to name every part.

A motorcycle was slowly wending through the parked cars along the drive and in the front yard. By the time it had pulled to a stop, Vin was whooping and running for the rider. Before either Chris or Ezra could lift themselves out of their seats, Vin was directing JD to show the helmeted visitor where to change. Then he joined Chris and Ezra on the porch, sinking down on the steps.

Vin grinned as he watched Ezra subtly, with deft handling, work Chris into a frenzy with mere stretches and shifting in his seat. Sometime this afternoon, he was certain the two of them would 'go see to the horses' and disappear for a while. Chris needed it. The prospect of actually meeting Tucker had knotted Larabee into a pretzel.

A few minutes later soft steps walked out onto the porch and a body leaned on the porch rail next to Vin.

"Nice party, Tanner."

"Nice shorts, Tucker."

A wicked smile shot down at him. Then Tucker backed off the rail and turned around as if to get Vin's approval of every aspect.

Vin approved.

Chris and Ezra were silent as death. Chris taking in the fact that Tucker was a woman and probably was damn beautiful once. Red hair and green eyes, a soft voice like Sarah's had been but full of fire. A pair of shorts and a cropped peasant top, sandals that were a confection of straps and beads. She kissed Vin's forehead, nodded to Chris and then met Ezra's eyes and he stopped breathing.



Ezra had been counting the bullet wound scars as she turned and couldn't quite grasp the fact he'd got past fifteen. Her face was contorted with badly healed wounds where clearly ricochets had ripped her face apart. Not beautiful anymore.

Worse, not capable of her job anymore.

Once upon a time she'd been the best of the best. Ezra strove to be like her every day since he'd realized what she'd been. She'd been the best deep undercover agent the FBI ever had.

And he'd stuck her with that dreadful nickname.

"Yer EZRA?"

"I am afraid that I am."

"World is jes too damn small a place."

"You're Texan."

"Yep. You're Southern. Carolina?"

"Ah'm afraid so. ATF Agent Ezra Standish, delighted to meet you."

"Federal Marshal Hoover Tucker." She held out her hand. "Wilhelmina Josephina Tucker, also known colloquially as Billy Jo."

"Don't tell me you actually admit to that appalling appellation, Hoover?!"

"Proud of it. Ain't every woman that can get a man to declare, on tape no less, that no being whether celestial, supernal, supernatural, demonic, or jes plain red-blooded male could fail to appreciate the fact I can outperform mechanical devices intended to create a space devoid of any molecule of air."

"Regrettably, I spoke before the blood had returned to my head."

"Good. Then ya meant it." Tucker smiled and gently excused herself, "If y'all will excuse me. I was assured by m' best friend that there were simply HORDES of unattached males at these picnics. I mean to locate some diversion." She stepped eagerly off the porch, never looking back.

"You want to do some explaining? Both of you?" Chris lazily ordered it, but the tone was firm. He cast an expectant eye at his lovers.

"Tucker moved here about this time last year. Met up with her in a bar." Vin shrugged. "She likes me and I like her. Friend to have at your back."

"Indeed, Mistah Tanner." Ezra's gaze was inward. "What happened to her? The last I saw of her, she was a highly decorated but unlauded agent. Her expertise was going deep and pulling down whole organizations. The woman never broke character and I fail to see how she could have made any mistake that would result"

"Gettin' shot with two full clips from a pair a' Glocks?"


"Wasn't a perp. It was of the FBI's own. She'd finished testifying in a highly public case. They blew up her office, killing some of the team that backed her. They blew up her farm. Shot her horses an' her dog. Blew up her truck. Paid an assassin to shoot her outside a storage unit where she kept some gear to change identities with, than blew the hell out of that place. She survived the shooting. Dragged her ass to a vet, got him to risk his license by patching her up and then hiding her until she could go after the bastard that did it. About killed her to find out it was someone she was supposed to TRUST to keep her alive. Member of her own damn team. Out of jealousy."

"Good Lord."

"More like tha' devil, Ez."

Ezra was still lost in horrified disgust at the pettiness a human soul could sink to when Chris brought him out of it with the soft question, "I take it you met while you were undercover?"

"Yes, we did." A cockeyed grin lit up Ezra's face. "She was a major crime figure's bodyguard and he'd lent her to a minor player to cover for an arms deal. One where I was most unfortunately the buyer. She was required to check me for weapons and for wires. She pulled my guns and then... then... she covered the fact I was wearing a wire. Claimed she needed a bonus for pulling such boring duty. The woman sank to her knees and sucked me off until I was burst. I'm afraid to say I was quite vocal during that despite the audience we both knew was listening in."

Ezra paused with a smile. "Saved my life. Until then, the seller was SURE I was a fed but her behavior soothed his fears. Of course I wasn't a cop. Who the hell would orgasm in public and on tape?" Embarrassed, Ezra blushed. "I'm afraid I accidentally saddled her with that dreadful nickname when I said what I did. The other agents listening in couldn't get over the fact I'd called her better than a vacuum cleaner."

"Christ, Ez!" Chris had a look of complete mischief in his eyes. "I'll have to let Buck know."

Vin pointed off to the barn where Buck believed he was luring Tucker inside. "Fairly sure, Chris, thet he's about ta find out."

"Well, gentlemen, shall we wager on how long they will be borrowing the hayloft?"

Chris snickered and grabbed Ezra by the belt as he rose to his feet. "About as long as we're going to go take a nap?"

"Yer getting old, Larabee!" Vin dodged the casual swipe Chris aimed at his head.

Vin sprawled on the steps.

Life was good.


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