Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Rating: NC-17 for explicit m/m sex and violence.
Author's Notes: A huge thank you to Sherri for beta'ing this for me. Any final mistakes are mine. Also kudos to Lumina for her support and suggestions. This story was first published in the zine Sinful Seductions #1 available through the Demon Bunny Press.
March 14th, 2000
Ezra studied the still, pale figure lying on the hospital bed, deliberately not looking at the white bandages swathing the now shaved head. He was sitting as close as possible, carefully avoiding the tubes running out of the younger man's arm as he held his lover's hand gently in his.
The doctors weren't sure if he would make it. Ezra had been told all about skull fractures and the possibility of permanent brain damage -- provided, of course, that Vin ever woke up.
He exhaled tiredly. It wasn't fair. Life wasn't fair. One minute he had been deliriously happy by Vin's side, enjoying the night air as they left the party meant to celebrate their first year as a couple, the next he was trying to prevent four bigots from bashing their brains in.
He had been the lucky one, his only injury a broken arm. Vin had been hit with a baseball bat on the head. Viciously. With the intent to kill.
If their friends hadn't been close by, Ezra was certain he would have killed the bastards who had dared attack them. Even so, three were in that same hospital, one of them also in the ICU. He had half a mind to search for them and finish what he had started in that dark, filthy alley.
Still, Vin looked better after three days in the hospital. According to the doctors, Vin's vital signs had stabilized, although he was still critical. And soon after being out of surgery his respiration and heart rate had been doing well, much stronger than expected. Only problem... he wouldn't regain consciousness.
He had been told that talking helped. So he had. Talked and talked until he had nothing left to say nor any voice left to say it with. And still... Nothing.
Oh, the eyelids twitched occasionally, and the doctors said one of the machines hooked up to his lover registered brain activity, but he would only believe it when he saw it. When he watched those beautiful blue eyes fall open and smile up at him, his name whispered from the sweet, addictive lips. Until then he would keep his emotions tightly under control.
"You should go home and rest, brother," a voice pleaded from behind him.
"When he wakes up, Mr. Sanchez," he rasped out.
"It's no use, Mr. Larabee. I won't leave his side," he interjected, eyes never leaving the frail-looking man on the bed.
And he hadn't. For three days he had remained firm, hovering around the ICU door, until he was finally allowed inside. And then he had commandeered a chair, sat by his lover and there he had remained, leaving only when a quick trip to the bathroom was absolutely necessary. He hadn't bathed, shaved or changed garments since arriving at the hospital. His nourishment consisted of gallons of black coffee and whatever food the others -- especially Nathan -- forced on him.
He gasped as the hand he held suddenly twitched, a guttural moan reverberating throughout the crowded room as Vin moved weakly. He heard JD call for a nurse, but was unable to look away from the bed, unconsciously holding his breath as Vin's eyes fluttered open.
Their eyes met, locking for a moment, then Vin looked away, glancing around the room and at each man there.
"Vin?" Ezra called faintly.
The blue eyes focused back on him, the hand pulling briskly away from his. "Who are you? Where am I?" Vin asked suspiciously, and Ezra felt his world crumbling down all around him.
"Mr. Standish, you are listed as Mr. Tanner's domestic partner." The doctor looked up from her desk, a sympathetic expression on her face. "I'm sorry, I realize this must be difficult for you."
Ezra nodded, but was unable to say a word. The simple fact that the doctor had asked to speak with them in her office didn't bode well for the future. She had spent nearly an hour examining Vin, asking question after question, running test after test, until she was finally satisfied.
"Is Vin going to be okay?" he heard Buck ask.
The doctor sighed tiredly. "Mr. Wilmington, I'm not going to lecture you on the unknown territory surrounding head injuries. Physically, he is on his way to recovery. Mentally... Mr. Tanner will probably never regain his memories of the attack. We call it traumatic amnesia. It's pretty common in such cases."
"And the rest?" Chris pressed. "Will he remember us? What he does for a living?"
"I spent a long time speaking with him. He has lost approximately seven years of his life. He remembers his time with the Army Rangers and becoming a bounty hunter after he was discharged. He has no memory of joining the US Marshals or being recruited to your team. There's no guarantee he is ever going to fully regain his memory. And if he does, it can take days or months, no one really knows for certain how the mind works."
"How will we be able to tell if he's remembering something?" Josiah asked softly.
"Well, most people regain their memory in bits and pieces, recognizing family, friends, past events in their lives. The longer he goes without remembering anything, the less likely it is that the amnesia will ever go away."
"How long until we give up hope?" Ezra finally murmured, holding his broken arm against his chest protectively.
"I can't give you a safe answer for that question, Mr. Standish. I've seen people suddenly regain their memory years after the trauma, but it's extremely rare. I would say, if he doesn't begin to remember anything within a year at the most, he never will."
"Do we tell him about us? About the three years we have been friends?" JD rushed out.
"Wait a day or so until he feels stronger, then tell him. Don't do it all at once, give him time to adjust to all the information."
"When will he be discharged?" Chris again.
"I want to run some more tests, brain scans, and I want to monitor him for a while to make sure there aren't any unforeseen complications. Depending on how well he does, maybe in two weeks. I'll let you know for sure when I get the results from all the tests." She rose from her chair. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other patients to see to. I'm really sorry I don't have better news for you. I'm certain you don't agree with me at the moment, but Mr. Tanner was extremely lucky. With that kind of injury, it's a miracle he is still alive. Gentlemen."
"Ezra, do you want to be the first to speak with him?" Chris asked once the doctor had left. "Tell him about your relationship?"
Ezra sighed sadly. "I'm not going to tell him, Mr. Larabee."
Nathan frowned at him. "Why not?"
"The part of him that loved me is gone. If he remembers or begins to feel the same again, then we'll see. If not... I'm a stranger, and so is he, in a way. He's not the same man we met three years ago. Trying to force him into a relationship with someone he doesn't even remember would be wrong, and should he be told, he might feel obliged to remain with me. I wouldn't be able to go through that. It's best this way. If by the time he is to be released he still doesn't remember us, I will go to his apartment in Purgatorio, retrieve all of my possessions and return the ones he has left in my abode." 'And it will be the most painful thing I will ever do in my life', he added silently to himself, feeling his heart break at the thought of losing Vin forever.
Thirteen months later
April 17th, 2001
Chris spotted his wayward agent the moment he stepped in to Inez' place. Ezra was sitting alone in a secluded table at the back of the saloon, a beer bottle held between his hands.
"I stopped accepting his orders," Inez said when she saw him. "But he's beyond drunk as it is, seņor."
He nodded and walked over to the table, sitting before the weary man. Ezra looked like hell. The last year hadn't been easy on anyone, but especially on the undercover agent. Ezra had been right; Vin was not the same man they had first met, and although he had mellowed out some, he was still wary and cautious around them, never letting his guard down. Worse than Ezra when he had joined the team.
Josiah had said the timing had been right when the seven had first joined forces; destiny had been ready to prepare their path in life. But the attack had set Vin back seven years and disrupted that timing. There was nothing left of the sometimes shy, sometimes prankster young man; in his place stood the bounty hunter, the predator who wished for nothing more than solitude, and no one had been able to reach him.
Dynamics within the seven had changed; he and Vin no longer had the almost unearthly relationship they had shared before. Instead -- and surprisingly -- Ezra had become one of the closest people in his life. He hadn't even noticed it at first, but it made sense in a perverse sort of way; he had lost his best friend, Ezra had lost his lover. They had come together from a shared grief and found they were more alike than they had first thought possible.
An uneasy truce had grown between them, allowing them to get to know each other better, to go beyond their limitations. And soon they realized they had become good friends.
But it hadn't been easy. There had been times when he had been at a loss as to what to do to help Ezra. A few months after leaving the hospital, Vin had become sexually active again, dating men and women alike. Ezra had shut down, sinking deeper and deeper into a dangerous depression, until the others were certain they were going to find him gone one day.
Chris had been the sole barrier between Ezra and destruction, doing everything in his power to prevent him from drowning into a bottle or giving free rein to the impulsive gambling the other man seemed to have acquired of late. And in between trying to keep the team together and being there for Ezra, Chris realized he had fallen in love with the Southerner. It was a scary thought, and an even scarier emotion, but he was powerless to control it.
All that was left was for him to be the best friend he could be to the other man and push his feelings aside. Ezra wouldn't be able to face the truth and it was unfair to lay that in his lap. Better to just let it be.
"Time for beddie-bye?" Ezra drawled sarcastically, his bloodshot eyes looking dazedly at him.
"You said it, not me. You did your fair share to help boost the economy, it's time to go home."
He helped lift Ezra from his chair and half-dragged, half-supported him out of the establishment. Getting him in the passenger seat was an exercise in frustration, but after long minutes of curses and drunken giggles, Ezra was finally seated and belted up.
Chris drove slowly through the deserted streets, his mind going around in circles. No matter how hard he tried, he could see no way out of their current situation. Little by little they were losing two of their team members. Vin was skittish and looked about ready to bolt for greener pastures while Ezra was on a collision course with his misery. Nothing good would come of it. If he didn't do something soon, the Seven would eventually break up.
He parked the Ram in front of Ezra's townhouse apartment and once again was forced to half carry the man inside. Grunting with the effort, he managed to open the door, disable the alarm, and take Ezra to his room. Once there, he set about to undress the other man and lay him down on the bed.
That accomplished, he turned to go, avoiding looking at the boxer-clad body sprawled wantonly on the bed. A hand on his wrist prevented him from moving, and he looked down at Ezra.
"Don't go," Ezra pleaded roughly.
"Ezra --" Before he could utter another word, he was pulled down with surprising force, falling heavily on top of the other man. He looked down into the pale face under him, noticing the pain and regret shining from within the expressive eyes. "Ezra?" he whispered, confused.
"I-I need you to stay," Ezra breathed brokenly. "I'm dying, Chris. Please, help me... Touch me, love me, it's been so long... so very long..."
He should have said no, he should have left. But he didn't. Instead he touched the moist lips, feeling Ezra inhale a shuddering breath before the lips under his opened hungrily. He lost himself in the beer-soaked heat, kissing Ezra urgently, frantically, knowing he was crazy to do so, but past caring.
Hands carded through his hair, massaging his scalp, holding him in place while strong fingers slowly caressed down his neck. Dragging himself away, Chris panted sharply, not having believed it would be possible to get so aroused from one drunken kiss. His body was burning beyond control, his cock painfully hard as Ezra tore at his clothes, getting him naked in a heartbeat.
He returned the favor by getting rid of Ezra's boxers, moaning as the final barrier disappeared and he could finally feel all of the sensual body writhing beneath him. He groaned as Ezra devoured his mouth a second time with amazing skill. When the need to breathe finally got to be too much, he released the sweet mouth to bite Ezra on the sensitive juncture of neck and shoulder, marking the smooth skin possessively.
Ezra arched off the bed, sobbing his name and Chris thrust down between the slick thighs that embraced him, increasing the friction between their bodies while his lips and tongue charted the perfect torso laid out for his pleasure. He felt Ezra claw at his back, straining against him, bucking wildly as he sought release.
Chris buried his face in the elegant neck, nuzzling the scented hair as they tensed for release, thrusting faster, harder, kissing each other desperately before finally spiraling down into completion.
When he could think again, Chris made to roll away, but was prevented from leaving as Ezra wrapped his arms lightly around him.
"Don't," Ezra begged him hoarsely. "I want you to stay."
He forced himself to look into the beseeching green eyes. "Ezra, where do you want to go from here?"
The other man licked his bottom lip nervously. "I'm attracted to you, I always have been."
"Do you love me?" He had to know.
Ezra swallowed hard, lifting a hand to caress his cheek gently. "Yes. Not the way I love Vin, but yes, I do love you. You have been my touchstone, my strength, for the past year. I wouldn't have made it this far without you. And I have a feeling I could come to love you very, very much."
A lonely tear fell from sorrow-filled eyes. "My Vin died over a year ago. I've been holding on to the memory of a man who does not exist any longer, holding on to a love that isn't real anymore. It's time I faced up to that fact. He never showed any signs that he remembered anything from the past years, not even the slightest detail. I can't go on like this; I need to let go. Stay?" Ezra asked hesitantly.
Chris rested his forehead against Ezra's, taking in a shuddering breath. "God help me, but yes, I'll stay. I'm too weak to step back, especially after tonight." 'And God help us all if Vin ever regains his memory and decides he wants his old life back', he thought desperately. He wasn't certain if he would be strong enough to let Ezra go. Not anymore.
July 15th, 2001
Their coupling was frenzied. Vin grasped his lover's hips in a tight grip as he thrust into the tight channel, long, hard thrusts that had them both grunting in sync. He reached for his lover's cock, stroking in time with their frantic pace, setting the body beneath him alight.
Ezra whimpered into his mouth, lifting his hips to allow him to move in deeper, their movements becoming quicker, more desperate, more demanding, pushing them both closer to the edge.
He felt Ezra's orgasm bathe his hand and surrendered to his own climax, exploding deep within Ezra's body, groaning pitifully as his pleasure was dragged out of him. He collapsed against the other man, sighing contentedly as he felt his lover wrap strong arms around him.
He remained snuggled in Ezra's embrace, eyes closed, panting for breath, until he realized there was something wrong.
Opening his eyes, Vin realized he was no longer in bed with Ezra; he was up, fully clothed, although still in the room. But the scene had changed and so had the feelings he was experiencing. He was no longer surrounded by their love, he felt scared, knowing there was danger lurking close by.
Focusing on the bed, he saw Ezra lying comfortably under the covers, sleeping soundly, a soft smile dancing on his lips.
The door to the room opened suddenly and a man walked in, leering at Ezra's helplessness. He licked his lips hungrily, eyes roaming over his prey's peaceful features and hidden body. He approached the bed slowly, hands reaching out to touch warm flesh.
Vin wanted to shout at Ezra to wake up, wanted to throw himself at the man and prevent him from hurting Ezra, but he couldn't move or speak, he was completely paralyzed. He watched in horrified fascination as a dagger abruptly appeared in the man's hand. He stood poised over Ezra, positioning the blade above his lover's heart, lifting it higher and higher, ready to strike.
Once again Vin tried to shout, to free himself from his invisible bonds, but it was useless. The man swung his arm down, plunging the blade straight through Ezra's heart, who whimpered softly before becoming eerily silent.
Vin woke up from his nightmare with his lover's name still echoing in the room. He sat on the bed, clutching at the sheets, stunned by the memories hitting him all at once, aching physically and emotionally. He finally remembered everything, every single person, every single event he had lost from the last years.
He fell back on the bed with a heavy sigh. He had been remembering a lot in the last months, especially about the cases with the ATF. Each time they had a case and something happened, it brought back memories from older busts, visits to the hospitals, shootouts, the occasional undercover assignment with Ezra.
He had kept the knowledge to himself. At first because he still had no idea how to deal with six virtual strangers, and after because the more he remembered, the more he realized how much of a bastard he had acted towards the others, especially Chris and Ezra. His mind knew it was not really his fault; after all, he had been an amnesiac, but his heart... He felt ashamed of the distance he had created between himself and the others, of all the times he hadn't been there, of all the things he could have said and hadn't.
And with the bits and pieces he had begun to remember, the thing that would unbalance him the most was the erotic dreams featuring Ezra. He hadn't known which way to turn on that one. Were they memories? Were they just wishful thinking on his part? The other man certainly hadn't given him any sign they had been involved in any way before the attack.
But now he knew, now he remembered. His nightmare was a scrambled mess, but not enough that he hadn't remembered their first time together, the first night he had finally made love with Ezra.
A bust had gone bad and Ezra had been taken hostage, a knife pressed to his throat to keep the rest of the team from any attempts at rescue. The standoff hadn't lasted long; using a moment of distraction on his captor's part, Ezra had escaped, allowing them to charge in and arrest everyone.
Vin had taken the undercover agent home afterwards and, heart still hammering in his chest from fear, had blurted out his feelings for the other man. He could still picture the smile on Ezra's face as he listened to his tumbled words, the green eyes mirroring the emotions Vin was trying to express.
"God, Ezra," he mumbled to the empty room, remembering the last strained months. "What ya must've gone through because of me."
Suddenly he just had to see Ezra, speak with him, apologize. Ignoring the fact that it wasn't even four in the morning, he jumped out of bed, looking wildly around for his clothes. He was dressed in minutes and out the door seconds later. He gunned his jeep and was on his way to Ezra's townhouse before he could give his idea a second thought.
He knocked on the door desperately, his heart going a mile a minute as he tried hard not to think about what could be wrong. When the door was finally opened, he rushed in, turning to the blond man blinking owlishly at him.
"Chris, I think somethin' happened to Ezra. I went by his house, but he wasn't there. It's four in the mornin'! Where the hell can he be at this hour? What?" he finally snapped, realizing the other man was looking at him with a strange light in his eyes.
"You remembered, didn't you?" Chris asked him mildly.
"Yes. Well, most of it anyways. I still can't remember the attack. What did really happen that night, Chris? All I remember is leavin' the restaurant with Ezra, after the party you guys had thrown for our first anniversary as a couple. The rest is a blank."
Chris sighed tiredly. "While we were at the restaurant these four bastards saw you and Ezra kissing. They left and waited by the alley, near the parking, for you to show up. They had baseball bats and tried to beat the crap out of you with them. When we got there you were on the ground, unconscious, and Ezra was kicking the shit out of two of the men. We called for an ambulance and you were taken to the hospital. We were told you suffered cardiac arrest on the way, but they managed to stabilize you enough for surgery. You remained unconscious for about three days. You know the rest."
"Why did ya tell me I was mugged?"
"Ezra thought it best not to mention your relationship, so we couldn't tell you it had been a gay bashing."
Vin stopped his frantic pacing in the living room. "Okay, I get that. But where the hell is Ezra?"
"Here," a familiar voice replied blandly from behind him.
Vin turned to see Ezra in the doorway, wearing casual jeans and a sweater, looking disheveled and thoroughly fucked. He wrapped his mind around that last thought, glancing suspiciously between Ezra and Chris until he finally put two and two together and came up with four.
"You bastards!" he growled, incensed. "Here I was beating myself up for the way I had been actin' these last months and all this time you have been fuckin' behind my back! How long has this been goin' on?" he hissed at Ezra, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him angrily. "How long did it take ya to forget me, ya little bastard?"
"Vin! Cut it out!" Chris shouted, stepping forward.
"You stay out of this," Vin snarled. "You were supposed to be my best friend, not go 'round my back and jump into bed with my lover." He clutched his hands into fists, moving towards the other man menacingly.
"Stop it!" Ezra snapped, getting in between them. "Your problem is with me, Vin; leave him alone. Chris, can you do me a favor? Get dressed and go out for a while. Vin and I need to talk."
Vin could clearly see Chris' hesitation. "Ezra --"
He watched Chris nod curtly and disappear into the bedroom. It was only after he had heard Chris' car drive into the night that he turned to Ezra again. "Well?"
Ezra exhaled sharply. "Three months."
Vin frowned at him. "What?"
"Chris and I have been together for the last three months," he explained gently. "It wasn't something we planned, it... just happened. I'm sorry. It was my fault, I seduced him."
"Oh, sure! I'm sure he gave ya a hell of a fight before he surrendered to your charms," Vin gritted out with a scowl.
"That is hardly fair, Vin," Ezra retorted. "The two of us grew closer after what happened, he missed his best friend and I was half out of my mind without you. I'm not going to provide you with any excuses, I was weak and yes, I betrayed you. But try to see it from my point of view. I spent most of my life without knowing what it was like to love someone, to be loved. Then you came into my life and everything changed. For over a year I was alone, watching you date man after man, woman after woman, each day hoping you would remember us -- me -- until finally there was no hope left. Chris was my salvation."
"Do ya love him?" Vin asked in such a soft tone Ezra wasn't even sure he had heard him correctly.
"Yes," he replied truthfully, his voice also hushed.
Vin turned to him. "And me?"
Ezra regarded him sadly, knowing things between them would never be the same. "I'm certain you won't believe me, but yes. I have never stopped loving you. I merely... gave a piece of my heart to someone else."
He watched Vin walk to the window, looking out into the night. He doubted the other man could see anything in the total darkness, but the distance between them provided him with a chance to control his raging emotions. Waking up in Chris' bed hearing Vin's alarmed voice had been a shock. He had not been prepared for this situation, not anymore. He had long ago lost hope Vin would ever regain his memory.
He shook his head ruefully. Lady Luck was playing with him again, doing her best to throw him off course. And this time he had no idea what to do to make things right. He had half a mind to return to Atlanta and leave all this mess behind. It would certainly be best for all of them.
He forced himself to remain still as Vin finally turned to face him. It was clear he had reached some kind of decision, Ezra just wasn't certain if he was ready to hear it.
"I'm sorry," Vin told him, throwing him completely off track.
"W-what?" he stammered, startled.
"I shouldn't have said the things I said. I know there was no way of knowin' if I would ever get my memory back, and I do understand why ya never said anythin' about us. And... I guess I can imagine what it must've been like for ya seein' me date all those..." He took a deep breath. "It'll take time for us to be right again, but I want ya back. Damnit, Ezra, I love ya! Once the memories came back, so did the feelings and stronger than ever. I *need* you in my life!"
Ezra closed his eyes at the desperation he heard in Vin's voice. They were at a dead end, all of them. There was no way out of their predicament. He felt Vin move closer, hands cupping his face gently.
"Shhh. Open your eyes," Vin commanded softly.
He obeyed, and looking into the blue eyes regarding him with such an intense expression of love, he felt his eyes filling. "Vin," he breathed, nuzzling one of the hands caressing his cheek.
"I love you, Ez," Vin told him. "That'll never change." Lips brushed over his in a ghost touch. "I'll give ya all the time ya need to decide what ya want, if ya want to stay with me or Chris. And I want ya to know that whatever happens, I'll always be there, I'll always be your friend."
"Lord, Vin, I missed you so much!" he gushed out hoarsely, hugging the younger man tightly to him. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he whispered over and over again.
Vin's hands caressed his back tenderly, soothingly. "I know. I'm sorry too. This isn't anybody's fault. Not mine, not yours, not even Chris'."
At the mention of the other man, Ezra moved back in the embrace enough to see Vin's face. "Vin, about Chris --"
Vin nodded grimly. "It's okay, Ez. I won't try to pound him into little pieces, if that's what you're so afraid of. I don't know how things will be in the future between the two of us, but I think I can handle civilized."
Ezra smiled sadly, running his fingers through Vin's long hair, pleased the other man had decided to let it grow back. "I don't believe I deserve you, Mr. Tanner," he quipped gently.
Vin rubbed their noses together tenderly. "No, ya don't," he deadpanned. "But ya still got me if ya want me."
Ezra sighed, feeling the serious mood taking over again. "Give me time, Vin. I don't want to hurt either you or Chris, you both mean too much to me."
Vin nodded. "Okay. I better be going, he's bound to come home soon. See ya tomorrow at the office."
He watched the other man leave before collapsing, exhausted, on the sofa. He was bone-deep tired, both physically and emotionally. And now he had a true dilemma on his hands; two men who loved him and who he loved back and he was forced to choose between them. No matter who he decided for, someone was going to end up hurt, which was the last thing he wanted. And what of the team? Would the seven be able to survive this new twist in their lives? He leaned back against the back of the sofa, closing his eyes and wishing his mind would just go blank for a few hours so he could rest.
It was over an hour later when he heard Chris returning to the ranch. Ezra remained on the sofa, waiting silently until the blond joined him.
"Everything okay?" Chris asked as he sat beside him.
Ezra exhaled slowly. "I guess you can say that."
"When are you going back to him?" Chris murmured in a defeated tone.
For the second time that night Ezra wished for a hole in the ground to swallow him whole and make him disappear. "Who said anything about going back to him?" he finally asked.
"It's pretty obvious in my book, Ezra. You never stopped loving him, his memory is back, you can get back together again."
"It's not that easy, Chris," Ezra told him, hearing the sorrow in his own voice.
"No?" Chris challenged roughly, eyes begging him to explain.
"These last months with you have been... I drunk myself to oblivion, I gambled a small fortune away... I have been obnoxious, stubborn, I have said things spitefully, because I was hurting and wanted the whole world to suffer for it as well. I took stupid chances with my life because I was too numb to care... And throughout all of this, you remained by my side; you never gave up on me. You have seen the best and worst of me and you are still here, you didn't leave." He touched the back of his hand to Chris' cheek. "I love you, Chris. But I also love him. I don't know what to do. The right thing would be to choose between you, but I..." His voice broke and he simply shook his head, lost in the immense confusion he was feeling.
Chris wrapped his arms around him and pulled him closer. "It's okay, Ezra," he breathed gently. "We'll get out of this mess somehow, you'll see."
He nodded, resting his head on Chris' shoulder, wishing he could believe him. One quote from Sir Walter Scott kept going round and round in his mind relentlessly and he was unable to stop remembering it. 'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive'. He had never meant to deceive either of these men, but somehow the three were caught in such a tangled web, he had no idea what to do to set them free. He only hoped they were all strong enough to survive whatever decision he made.
July 29th, 2001
Chris felt his heart speed up as he realized this was the moment he had been dreading; they were finally going to be told of Ezra's decision.
"You've made your choice?" Vin asked from beside him, both of them standing rigidly in Ezra's living room.
"Yes. I..." Ezra looked down at his hands, then back at them. "I never meant to hurt either of you, you must know this before I go any further. I owe you both so much... You and the others have taught me what it means to have friends, what it means to have a family. What it's like to love someone." He exhaled slowly. "While I was trying to decide the best course to take these past two weeks, one scene kept repeating itself over and over in my mind."
"What?" Chris asked, curious in spite of the tense situation.
"You almost came to blows because of me that night at your house." He shook his head slowly. "When I first joined the team, I used to watch the two of you, see the amazing way you seem to connect with each other. I'm not worth destroying that."
"Let me proceed, Vin. I know what happened changed things, but I also believe given time we can go back to some semblance of normality." Chris watched Ezra's tongue sweep over his bottom lip and forced himself to concentrate on what the man was saying, "So I have decided not to choose either of you. I will remain alone."
"What?" Chris shouted incredulously. "Why?"
"Is it that hard to make a choice?" Vin asked in an undertone.
Ezra smiled humorlessly. "Yes, it is. Believe me, I gave this some serious thought. Even if I chose one of you, half of me would always be thinking of the other. It wouldn't work. It's best this way. I just hope in time you will be able to forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive, Ezra," Chris said after a long, awkward silence. "I don't like your decision, but I understand," he added, watching Vin nod his agreement.
"Yeah, I get it too, Ez." Vin seemed to hesitate, then shook his head. "I guess we better leave ya alone. 'Night."
Chris followed Vin out of the townhouse, his heart sorrowful but also strangely relieved. It was finally over. Ever since that first drunken night he had been waiting for the other shoe to fall. It had finally fallen and taken his life with it. He was alone yet again.
He turned to see Vin leaning against his jeep. "Yeah?"
The other man approached him, holding out his hand. "Truce?"
He shouldn't have been surprised by the sudden kindness in Vin's eyes, but he was. He didn't really deserve to be forgiven for what he had done, but he had never meant for things to get so out of hand. He shook the offered hand eagerly, glad for the second chance being given to him.
"Vin --" He stopped himself, lost on the words to say.
There was no way he could apologize, not really. No way to explain what had happened, why he had acted the way he had. Vin was his best friend and hurting him had been the last thing he had wanted to do. He looked at the younger man, seeing the knowing smile on his face.
"I know," Vin told him. "I never meant to hurt ya either, Cowboy."
He shook his head tiredly. "What a damn mess," he muttered grimly.
"What do ya say we go down to Inez' place and drown our sorrows in a couple of beers?" Vin asked evenly.
Chris took a deep breath. "Sounds good."
Vin nodded, already walking back to his rundown jeep. "Meet ya there."
Chris watched him go, shaking his head ruefully. Within the ashes of the last weeks, he felt glad Vin still wanted to be his friend, was still reaching out for him. Maybe everything wasn't lost after all.
August 30th, 2001
There was a knock on his door and then Ezra walked in. They were the only ones left in the office, both of them staying behind to finish the reports on the team's latest case. The others had long left, probably to have a drink at Inez'.
"Here is my report," Ezra stated unnecessarily, handing him the file.
Chris nodded. "Thank you, Ezra. You did well. We wouldn't have caught Jenkins with his hand in the cookie jar if you hadn't insisted on waitin' until the man met with his suppliers. It was a good call."
He had been hoping to draw Ezra out from behind his renewed walls, to make him open up even if only for a moment, but Ezra merely shrugged. "I was simply doing my job. Goodnight, Mr. Larabee."
"Ezra, wait!" he called out, rushing to block the other man's way. "Why don't we go down to Inez' for a drink? It's been a while since we went out together."
Ezra looked up at him with troubled eyes. "I better not, Chris," he said in a subdued tone.
"Ezra, please," Chris pleaded. "I miss you. I miss havin' you around; I miss our 'lively' conversations as you call them, the way you contradict every single thing I say just for the hell of it, I miss that uncanny way you have of showin' me the flip side to every situation. Can't we go back to being friends?"
Ezra closed his eyes, shuddering slightly. "I can't, not yet. Vin asked me the same thing... I just can't." He opened his eyes and Chris could see the brightness in the green depths. "Give me some time. Please?"
Chris exhaled slowly. "Sure," he agreed, unable to keep the disappointment from his voice.
He ran his thumb over Era's lips, eyes locking with the Southerner's. He felt himself moving forward, getting closer, until they were breathing each other's air. He made to capture Ezra's mouth, but the other man stumbled back.
"No! Chris, please, I can't!" Ezra whispered, pain-filled eyes begging him to understand. "I... I have to go."
He watched Ezra practically run out of his office and damned himself for his stupidity. Now he would never get the other man to trust him again. But God, Ezra looked so good, and he missed him so much...
Chris closed his eyes dismally. He would have to play the game by Ezra's rules. It had been unfair of him to try and kiss the other man, temptation or not. Things were in enough of a mess, without him making it worse. Maybe Ezra was right and eventually everything would return to normal. But he doubted it somehow.
September 2nd, 2001
Chris checked his gun for the thousandth time, feeling a strange kind of premonition. Vin was by his side in the abandoned warehouse, while the others were outside, spread throughout the grounds. It was five minutes past the meeting time and the guys they were after had yet to arrive.
One of Buck's snitches had given them a tip about a large gun buy taking place in the warehouse area and they had rushed to the site to catch the alleged dealers in the act. But no one had showed up as of yet; he was beginning to believe it was a bust.
He was about to order everyone to clear the area when he heard the sound of tires screeching as a vehicle parked in front of the warehouse.
"Chris, a van just pulled up," Nathan's voice sounded through his headset. "Three men are walking out. No familiar faces."
"Check. Keep low," he ordered.
Minutes later the men walked in, all heavily armed. They looked around slowly, taking in their surroundings, obvious making sure they were the first there. He felt Vin move beside him, then held his breath as the other man cursed and the sound of a metal pipe falling echoed throughout the building.
One of the men looked up, spotting them and diving for the floor with a warning shout. The man lifted his automatic and aimed at them. Chris looked at the gasoline tanks beside him and felt his blood freeze in his veins. As the first shots went wild, he pushed Vin out of the way, yelling at him to get out.
They didn't make it very far before all hell broke lose. A bullet hit one of the tanks, which exploded into a burst of intoxicating flames. He kept running, trying to remain close to Vin as the other containers all exploded, one by one, the loud explosions rocking the old building dangerously. The last thing he heard was the frightening sound of torn metal and splitting wood, and suddenly the weight of the world was on his shoulders, bringing him down.
He woke up coughing harshly from the dust choking the air. His side hurt like the devil and he realized he was bleeding profusely. Trying to control his breathing enough to stop coughing, he focused on his surroundings. Most of the warehouse seemed to have collapsed, but somehow he had managed to survive, finding himself in a cave of sorts between the rubble.
"Vin?" he rasped out. "Vin, are you okay?"
He heard a moan from his left side and forced himself to crawl on his stomach towards the sound. He scooted closer to the other man, finding his way through the darkness by touch alone, stopping only when he had Vin's face within reach. He patted a dusty cheek gently.
"Vin, wake up," he gritted out painfully.
The other man groaned again, moving his head slowly to face him. "Chris?"
"Yeah. You okay?"
Vin coughed a couple of times, then panted out, "I think so. You?"
"Good," Chris mumbled gratefully.
He slumped against the other man, the fear that Vin might have been hurt, deserting him and leaving him drained. Without really realizing it, he slowly slipped into unconsciousness, the sound of his name being frantically called sounding in the background.
Realizing Chris had fallen unconscious, Vin ran his hands gently over the other man's body to determine the cause. He could detect the coppery scent of blood and soon his fingers identified the precious fluid soaking Chris' shirt. Stripping his own shirt off, Vin used it to press against the bleeding wound, tearing a large strip of the cloth to hold everything together.
He leaned carefully back against the debris behind him, then very gently manhandled Chris until the other man was lying on top of him, between his legs, head resting against his shoulder. He pressed one hand against the wound to help stop the bleeding, then closed his eyes, trying to control the panic clawing at him.
He hated small spaces and being locked up and this was much worse. There was no light, he could hardly sit straight, and the constant whine of metal and wood around him was upsetting, to say the least. There was no way of knowing if the noise meant someone was trying to dig them out or if the remnants of the building were slowly collapsing around them. He seriously hoped it was the former.
His thoughts turned to the five men outside. He couldn't even begin to imagine what Ezra would be feeling at that moment, with both him and Chris buried under all that rubble.
He shook his head ruefully. Life sure was strange. When Ezra had first joined the team Vin had been slow to offer his friendship to the other man. Maybe because he recognized in Ezra the same weariness he himself had felt at some point in his life, particularly when he had left the Rangers and turned bounty hunter.
But that in itself had been an insight into the Southerner's soul, and little by little Vin had begun to understand and respect Ezra, seeing the gamut of emotions lurking in the clear green eyes when he thought no one was looking. And as time went by a tentative friendship began to grow between them until one day he had looked at Ezra and realized he had fallen in love with the undercover agent. Unexpectedly. Totally. Helplessly.
He had fought it like a caged animal, but in the end had surrendered and found a safe haven in Ezra's arms and life. And considering their completely opposite outlook on life, everything had been going amazingly well.
Until the attack.
Now he had nothing. Ezra was no longer his lover. He couldn't even call the other man his friend anymore. After telling them he wouldn't choose either him or Chris, Ezra had begun to withdraw, to rebuild the layers around his heart, keeping the others at arms length.
He hadn't made it easy on Ezra either. A few days after Ezra's final decision, they had been trapped in one of the elevators during a malfunction of some kind. To distract his mind from his claustrophobia Vin had concentrated all his energy on seducing Ezra, moving closer to him, grinding against his body, trying to kiss him, to show Ezra how much he loved him. It had been the pain he had seen in the green eyes that had finally caused him to stop, to realize what he was doing to the other man.
But it was too late; the damage had been done.
It hurt. It hurt because he ached for Ezra with everything that he was; it hurt because he could see what giving both him and Chris up was doing to Ezra; and it hurt because Chris was also hurting, going back to the badass persona Vin had met when the team had been founded.
And it hurt because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't think of a way out of that tangled mess. It was hopeless, desperate. The three of them were sinking in quicksand without even a slim chance of rescue.
"Can feel... the wheels spinning," a weak voice rasped painfully, the warm breath caressing Vin's throat as the words flowed out.
"Chris," he sighed in relief. He ran his fingers through the silken, blond hair. "How ya doin'?"
"Been better," was the whispered reply. "You?"
"Got another lump on the head. Nothin' serious this time, I reckon," Vin said, then remembered Chris' comment. "Wheels spinnin'?"
"Yeah... You're thinking too much..."
"Oh." He sighed. "Can't help it. It tears me up seein' Ezra backin' away from us. I know it's his way of protectin' himself, but I don't like it."
He could feel Chris' soft exhalation on his neck. "I know. Don't like it... either. Got used to havin' him around... all the time. Miss him. Not the lover so much as the friend."
"I'm sorry." Vin closed his eyes at the pain he could hear in the other man's voice.
Chris shook his head feebly. "Not your fault, Vin..."
"Yeah, it was," Vin insisted firmly. "Things might not have been so bad if I hadn't tried to seduce him right after he told us he wouldn't pick either of us. He got even more quiet after that."
To his surprise, Chris chuckled weakly. "Don't worry. I did the same just a couple days a..."
Realizing the other man had suddenly gone silent, Vin shook him gently. "Chris? Hey, Cowboy, can ya hear me?" Chris groaned, but didn't reply. "Come on, Larabee, ya need to stay awake here."
"Sorry," Chris breathed. "I'm so tired..."
"I know. But I can hear diggin'; the others will be here soon. Ya need to stay awake a little longer, okay?"
"'Kay." After a long silence, Chris finally replied. "It's you, you know?"
Vin frowned. "What?"
"He would've chosen you... I... I think he was too afraid of hurtin'... me. If I don't make it --"
"Don't ya dare die on me, Larabee!" Vin growled, his heart lurching painfully in his chest at the thought the other man might die. "You *will* make it. Ya hear?"
A faint chuckle stirred the little hairs on his neck. "You can't... fight destiny, Vin... Promise me..."
"What?" Vin whispered, feeling his eyes blurring.
"If I die... Fight for him, don't let... him go..."
A surprisingly strong hand squeezed his forearm. "Promise... me..." Chris interjected.
Closing his eyes again, Vin swallowed around the lump in his throat. "I promise," he vowed fiercely.
Chris' head nodded slightly against him. "Good..."
They remained silent for a long moment, hearing the scuffling sound of metal and wood that meant digging to them, until finally light began to shine through the piles of debris. They were closer to the surface now.
"Vin! Chris!" a familiar voice called from close by.
"Buck!" Vin shouted back. "In here!"
More noise and suddenly a large hole appeared inches away from where they were sitting. Vin blinked against the harsh light, but was unable to prevent a wide grin from breaking through as Buck's head peeked down from the opening.
"Vin! Lord, I am glad to see you!" the mustached man gushed out.
Vin chuckled slightly. "Not as much as I am, Bucklin. Get us out of here?"
"We're on it. Chris?"
"Still here," Chris replied weakly. "Hurry up."
The next half an hour went by in a blur for Vin. They were removed from the rubble with the help of a couple of EMT's and rushed to the hospital. There, he was separated from Chris, taken to an examination room where his vitals were taken and a CAT scan was done, along with some x-rays. Throughout the whole ordeal all he could think about was Chris, wondering if the other man would make it, and what would happen to all of them if he didn't.
The next morning
September 3rd, 2001
Ezra looked at the two men currently occupying the twin beds, feeling a strange sense of deja vu. Nearly a year and a half had gone by since Vin had been in that same hospital, in one of those same beds, fighting for his life.
Life had come full circle.
He had spoken with Vin briefly before the younger man had fallen asleep. The doctors had wanted to keep him overnight for observation due to his history with head trauma, but he seemed fine and was going to be discharged in the afternoon.
Chris... Chris had yet to regain consciousness. He had undergone surgery and been given a blood transfusion to replace that which he had lost earlier, but that had been nearly twenty-four hours earlier; the anesthetic should have worn off by now.
He watched both men, faces slack in repose. Two men, so different, yet so much alike. Chris wore a mask of his own, anger and intimidating glares hiding a heart that had been shattered once too often, protecting a man who was too afraid to care and get hurt anew.
Still, Chris dared to reach out. First with the team, by being their leader, their friend, watching out for them. And then with Ezra, loving him even when he was certain his feelings would never be fully returned.
And Vin... Vin was a contradiction. In spite of years living on the streets as a teenager, of years working for the government and seeing the worst humanity had to offer, somehow he had retained some of the innocence of youth. He was a combination of an ancient soul in a young heart, making an enthralling human being.
But for all their differences, both men were fiercely loyal, trustworthy, passionate in their beliefs and in their love for him. It made him feel unworthy, humbled, guilty and sorrowful beyond words. Because he now knew where his heart lay, he now knew which of the two men he wished to spend the rest of his life with.
It had been the first name on his lips, the first face on his mind as he watched the warehouse collapse onto itself.
So he was faced with the same problem as before; he could either confess to his feelings and make his choice, or remain alone. But could he really keep denying his own heart? How could he possibly let go now that he knew what it was like to feel love's warmth? How could he go back to being the shell of a man he had once been?
"Ezra..." a weak voice rasped, startling him out of his reverie.
Ezra turned his head to see Chris awake, eyes looking at him intently. "You're awake," he stated unnecessarily. "Thirsty?"
At Chris' nod, he left the room to search for some water or ice to soothe the other man's aching throat. He returned with a cup filled with ice chips and a spoon, only to find Vin had also awakened. Hiding his turmoil behind a neutral expression, he approached Chris' bed, scooping a few ice chips and placing them in the other man's mouth.
"Vin, how are you feeling?" he asked, sitting back on the chair between the two beds and watching Chris suck the ice quietly.
"I'm okay, Ez. You, on the other hand, look like ya could use some rest," Vin replied, and Ezra could feel the other man's intense gaze focused on him.
"I'm fine," he retorted gruffly.
"You don't look it," Chris added just as softly. "What's wrong, Ezra?"
He thought about obfuscating or using one of his usual diversionary tactics, but decided against it. He was too tired, too bruised. Maybe it was time for some honesty.
"I feel..." his voice broke and he stared down at his hands with a frown. "It was... unbelievably hard to see the warehouse collapsing and..."
"Thinkin' we were dead?" Vin supplied placidly.
He looked up then, nodding curtly. "Yes. It hurt. I'm not used to these feelings, I didn't know what to do, how to react. All I knew was I wouldn't be able to go on if --" He bit his lip to stop the flow of words.
"If one of us had died?" said Chris, this time.
He shook his head firmly. "Both of you. No matter what happened or what happens in the future, a part of me will always love you both," he vowed fervently.
"But you realized which one of us ya really love, didn't ya?" Vin stated knowingly.
He exhaled in a sigh. "Yes. When I heard the explosion and saw the building crumbling, I --" He swallowed noisily, closing his eyes at the pain and guilt he was feeling. "I'm so sorry," he whispered brokenly.
"Why? Because you can't love us both? We always knew it would eventually come to this," Chris assured him.
"Yeah. Ya can't make your heart love someone just because ya want it to, Ez."
"Go on," Chris prompted gently. "You can tell us, Ezra. It'll be okay. We all know who it is that you love anyway."
"You do?" Ezra queried softly.
Chris gave him a sad smile. "Yes. You and Vin were together for a whole year before the attack, Ezra. The only reason the two of us got together in the first place was because you were hurting and needed someone. I understand that, it's okay."
Ezra shook his head fondly. "You know, for someone who leads an ATF team and throws himself headfirst into every dangerous situation that comes along, you certainly have a confidence problem. I won't deny your words, Chris. That night I needed someone desperately, I was drowning and I guess it's safe to say you were my lifebuoy. But as I told you then, I loved you too. What we both went through that year brought us together and showed me who Chris Larabee really was, is. And I loved what I saw."
He rose from the chair and moved to Vin's bed, sitting carefully and taking the other man's hand in his. He smiled gently, feeling an overwhelming sense of tenderness towards the younger man. He leaned down, brushing his lips softly against Vin's in a parting caress.
When he moved back, he saw understanding in Vin's sorrow-filled blue eyes. "Forgive me?" he begged, voice low and sorrowful.
Vin smiled up at him, a sad, but genuine light shining from his eyes. "Nothin' ta forgive, Ez. Just remember my promise, okay? I'll always be here; I'll always be your friend. To both of you," he added, turning to Chris.
"I don't understand," Chris said with a frown.
"When the warehouse collapsed it was your name I shouted, Chris," Ezra explained, glancing guiltily at Vin and feeling the hand within his tighten in understanding. "This year and a half changed me, changed all of us. And...as difficult as it was to come to terms with my feelings, it's you I want, it's you I love. I need you in my life."
And as he said the words he knew them to be the irrefutable truth. A part of him would always be attracted to Vin, would always love him, would always care. But his heart was Chris'. He needed and desired and loved the other man with everything in him, with everything that he was. And that would never change.
Chris knew he was gaping like a fish on dry land, but he couldn't help it. He had heard the words, but they didn't make any sense. Ezra couldn't have chosen him over Vin. It just wasn't possible.
"Chris?" Ezra called out, his tone sounding cautious to Chris.
He watched the Southerner rise from Vin's bed and walk over to him. Noticing the amusement in the green eyes, he didn't quite know what to make of it, of the whole situation. It wasn't a feeling he was comfortable with, helplessness. He hated not being the one in control.
"Reckon it's time for me to go to the bathroom," Vin stated suddenly, already up and on his way out of the room. "I might take a while," he added with a wry grin, and Chris realized the other man was giving them a chance to talk.
Once they were alone, he focused on Ezra, finally finding his voice. "Ezra, are you sure about this?"
"Yes. We have all changed so much these past months, I..." Ezra sat on the bed, a thoughtful expression crossing his face. "What I want out of life has changed. And what Vin has to offer me no longer fills that wanting. Life with him was always an adventure, a wild ride, certainly never boring. It's not his fault, it's not anyone's fault, but because of the amnesia Vin is at the place where we left off over a year ago. But I moved on, changed, and I have different needs now. And you... you are what I need."
Chris gave him a crooked grin. "So you're basically saying I'm boring and that's why you chose me?"
Ezra chuckled softly, giving him a mock glare. "That's not what I meant and you know it. The age difference between Vin and I, although not all that great, is enough to make an impact. He wants to live life to the fullest, to enjoy all there is out there. I do too, but I'm older, I have done most of those things. I want security, someone to stand by my side through thick and thin. And I always doubted Vin was that someone. Not because he didn't love me or because he couldn't be trusted, but because he still had a lot to experience and live on his own."
"And you think I can give you what you need?" Chris asked, half-awed.
"In all of my life there have been very few people -- if any -- that I respected and trusted the way I do you. I *know* you will stay with me, that you will give me what I need. You already proved that when you stood by my side after Vin lost his memory. Stay?" he breathed, echoing the plea from their first night together.
Chris looked into warmth-filled eyes, realizing for the first time that Ezra's protective mask, the one he wore to hide from the world, had vanished. And it suddenly came to him that it had been gone for some time now, that Ezra felt comfortable and trusted him enough to be himself, to let his layers go when they were alone. And that was the biggest proof of love the other man could have given him.
"Yes," he whispered. "I'll stay."
"In that case, Mr. Larabee, I suggest you apply your mouth to something other than talking," Ezra quipped, leaning forward and capturing his lips in a passionate kiss.
Chris opened up to him, allowing the other man to take the lead for the moment, finally able to believe in Ezra's love. His heart ached for Vin, for the loss his friend would undoubtedly be suffering, but most of all he was filled with a wondrous feeling of contentment. He had moved forward from the devastation of the past, daring to love again, to try one final time, a phoenix rising up from the ashes. He was finally ready to soar the skies with Ezra by his side.
March 17th, 2002
Chris smiled into the darkness at his lover's slumbering form. Ezra was silent in sleep, the sarcasm and smugness replaced with an innocence that was not to be seen while he was alert. Lips parted in relaxation, a hand under the pillow, his face a hairbreadth away from Chris', Ezra was a sight to behold. One he knew he would never get tired of.
He looked up at the ceiling, feeling sated and worn out from their earlier coupling, but not enough to sleep. The last months had been surprising, to say the least. Things between him and Ezra were going great. They still had their fights, both too headstrong and stubborn to back down, but the make-up sex more than made up for it.
He grinned ruefully at that thought.
But the fights were getting fewer as they adjusted to their new relationship. He had even managed to convince Ezra to come live with him. It hadn't been easy, but the green-eyed man had finally relented and agreed to sell the townhouse apartment and join him at the ranch.
The others had been told and were supportive, and best of all, Vin was keeping to his promise, being the best friend he could be to both of them, always being there when they needed him, always lending a helping hand.
Chris had been worried about him. The first few months after Chris and Ezra had gotten together, Vin had withdrawn from the team, keeping much to himself. Not even Ezra had been able to reach him. But things were finally changing. Two weeks earlier Vin had met a woman during an investigation and seemed to have fallen head over heels for her.
Chris wasn't exactly sure what to make of Charlotte, he had only met her once and didn't know much about her, but all that mattered was that Vin loved her and looked happier than he had been in a very long time.
Everything was as it should be; the three of them were getting back to basics. They had broken free from fate's tangled web. The road ahead would probably be rough and dangerous, especially in their line of work, but they had taken hold of their lives and would make their own future. Because above everything else, they were survivors... And they would persevere.
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