A Wonderful Christmas
December 24th, 2001
The cold wind was biting, the night starless in the overcast sky. Buck exited his building with a light step, zipping up his old leather jacket and stuffing his fists into the fur-lined pockets.
It was finally Christmas Eve, the date he promised himself he would take action. It was do-or-die time. After months of surreptitiously dating Ezra, he was finally going to confess his feelings for the other man. Of course, he hadn't told Ezra they were dating. The late nights at the movies, the dinners at expensive restaurants, the weekends spent at ballgames… It was just friends having a good time together. Or so he had told Ezra.
Tonight he would tell the other man the truth and hope for the best. He was fairly certain Ezra felt the same. The Southerner was always ready to join him in his latest escape, and if the secret smiles and covert glances were any indication, Ezra was in as deep as he was. But Buck still needed to be sure.
He grinned ruefully. He was probably biting off more than he could chew, but damn if Ezra wasn't a challenge worthy of his time. He couldn't even recall the first time he realized he had fallen in love with the ornery agent. Ezra called out to him on so many levels, he was impossible to resist. Ezra was intelligent, possessed a wicked sense of humor, and once someone had earned his trust, he was fiercely loyal.
And there was something about the Southerner that brought forth his protective instincts. Not because Ezra required looking after - the man was more than capable of handling himself in any dangerous situation - but because there was a deep, concealed need within him that very rarely came to the surface. But when it did it was overwhelming, and Buck wanted to fill that need with everything in him.
His pickup truck was in front of the building, so be began crossing the street, still lost in thoughts of Ezra. It all happened in a few seconds. A black van came barreling down the road, ignoring the stop sign, going straight for him.
Buck heard the engine and turned around, but it was too late to run for safety. He tried to dodge out of the way, to push off of the vehicle and away. He only managed to twist his body so his side connected with the corner of the van's front end. The force of impact propelled him up and forward, and he landed on the pavement, hitting his shoulder and head painfully.
He was barely conscious as he heard footsteps coming closer, his blurry vision trying to focus on the giant hovering over him. He reached out to prevent the man from inching closer, but his arms felt like rubber and wouldn't obey his silent command.
He felt a strong hand holding a cloth over his mouth. He struggled briefly, recognizing the scent of chloroform. Moments later, the world began spinning and he felt himself falling into oblivion.
Ezra left the store with a wide smile gracing his face. He had seen Buck ogling an expensive leather jacket in the store a few weeks earlier. The one the mustached man had was getting old and torn in places, so Ezra had returned to the store alone the next day to buy the jacket. They didn't have the right size and had been forced to order from the factory, but it was finally there. Buck's present had taken its time to arrive, but it certainly would be worth the wait just to see the look on the older man's face when he saw the brand new leather jacket Ezra had bought for him.
His smile softened as he thought of the other man. Buck had become the most important person in his life in the last years, someone who had been there for him even when Ezra tried to push him away. In time, he had learned to trust Buck, getting to know the man behind the easygoing façade, and he had liked what he'd seen. Buck was loyal, honest, had a sense of humor to match his own, and was such a caring person it left him feeling humble just to be the man's friend.
The Jaguar was parked around the corner in an alley, and he quickened his pace, shivering as the wind picked up. Fumbling for his keys, he opened the driver's door, placing Buck's present in the back with the rest.
He was going to be late joining the others at Chris's ranch for the usual Christmas party. He was supposed to be there at eight and the drive took forty minutes, more if it snowed as predicted.
He startled when a shadow stepped out from a doorway, a giant of a man in a black coat. The man broke into Ezra's thoughts, as he calmly said, "Excuse me."
Ezra opened his mouth to ask what the man wanted, when his gaze stopped at the gun in the giant's right hand. The barrel of the Glock was pointed at his head.
Ezra narrowed his eyes as he decided on how to proceed. The man was several feet away; it would be risky to try and jump him. Drawing on the man was out of the question; he probably wouldn't even have time to reach for his holster.
"I wouldn't try it," the giant advised coolly, as though reading his mind. "I am an excellent shot. Now, get on your knees. Do it!" he ordered, when Ezra didn't move.
Cursing under his breath, Ezra obeyed, feeling the man approaching carefully. "What do you want? I have no money."
The man chuckled. "I'm not interested in your money, Mr. Standish. Be so kind as to get rid of all your weaponry, please. Slowly. Cell phone, too. You won't be needing it."
Once again, he was forced to obey, his eyes never leaving the man standing before him. "What now?" he asked.
"Extend your arms, put your hands together," came the soft order.
Alert to any flaw in the other man's plan, he did as he was told, but before he could even blink, his hands had been bound tightly together, the ropes biting cruelly into his wrists. He watched the man pocketing his gun and phone, then he was hauled up to a standing position, his head jerked to face his abductor.
"What do you want?" he repeated, angry at being caught like a mere amateur.
"For a start, I would like to take you for a ride, Mr. Standish. Come with me. And I advise you not to do anything stupid. We wouldn't want any innocent bystanders to get hurt, would we?" the giant continued, his white teeth gleaming as he grinned down at Ezra.
The big man clamped a hand on his shoulder, making him wince. He was pushed forward roughly, towards the deserted street. A coat was strategically placed to hide his bound hands, a strong arm wrapped around his shoulder in a parody of friendship. Ezra wanted nothing more than to jerk away, but knew better than to provoke the man.
They reached a black van, and he was thrown headfirst into the back. Then he was tugged into a sitting position, and the big man sat down next to him, dark, cold eyes locking with his.
"I want you to behave as I drive," the man told him. "If you're having any bright ideas about overpowering me while I have my back turned, I should warn you I have one of your teammates already, a Mr. Wilmington. If you try anything, no one will ever be able to find him alive. Do you understand?"
Ezra swallowed hard as he looked at the man. Somehow he didn't think his captor was bluffing. He nodded meekly, wanting nothing more than to join Buck and make sure he was all right.
"Good. Relax and enjoy the ride. It shouldn't take long." The man grinned infuriatingly, before he disappeared behind a slammed door.
He came round to the driver's seat a few minutes later and seconds after that, the inconspicuous van was driving away and blending with the flow of traffic in the area.
It did take long. It was over an hour later when the van finally came to a halt. Ezra had tried to keep track of where they had been heading, but with no windows to the van and the constant turns - probably to shake any possible tails - he had been unable to discover anything relevant. All he knew was they had left the downtown area behind. He hadn't heard any other cars or the normal buzz of traffic in awhile.
The side door to the van was pushed open and the man moved inside, placing a hood over Ezra's head. He was dragged out of the vehicle, pushed through several doors and finally down a steep set of stairs.
The hood was removed, and he blinked against the sudden harsh light. He was in a large room of sorts, probably part of an abandoned warehouse, with no windows and only one exit. It was lit by a single bulb in the ceiling. In a far corner, against the wall, rested a threadbare mattress, and on the mattress, lying on his side, hands also bound, was an unconscious Buck.
"Buck!" Ezra exclaimed, rushing to the other man.
It was difficult to examine the other man with his hands tied so securely, but he was beyond relieved when he found a steady pulse. He could smell chloroform on Buck's skin, which helped him relax a little. Even so, there was a large lump on the man's head, which told him Buck hadn't survived his capture unscathed.
He wondered briefly why the man hadn't bothered using the chloroform on him, but then realized it was a moot point. Their captor had told him he had Buck, so he obviously knew Ezra well enough to know he wouldn't try to escape and risk Buck's life.
"What the hell do you want with us?" he asked angrily, turning to the man who had remained silent while he checked on Buck.
"Let's say I have a bone to pick with Chris Larabee."
Ezra frowned. "I can see why you chose Buck, but why me?"
The man shrugged. "I like to work alone; less chance for mistakes. Sanchez and Jackson are nearly my match in size; it would be dangerous to go after them. The Texan has been away on vacation, and I haven't had time to study him. As for the kid, he's been staying with the old woman, Wells, and the niece, so he was never alone. That left you two."
"So, what are you going to do with us? Torture us? Kill us? What?"
"Nothing, yet. It will be enough to have Larabee half-crazy out of his mind looking for you. I remember how protective he is of his men. In a few days… We'll see. I'll be back in the morning to check on you. Have a nice Christmas, Mr. Standish," the man said, turning around and leaving the room, shutting the door behind him.
Once he was certain the man was gone, Ezra settled down on the mattress next to Buck. A quick check confirmed Buck had also been relieved of his gun and cell phone. They had been deprived of anything that could help in their escape.
It took some doing, but he managed to manhandle Buck carefully until the other man's head was resting on his lap. He sighed wearily. What a way to spend Christmas Eve.
Chris looked down at his watch for the tenth time in the last fifteen minutes. Something was wrong. Both Buck and Ezra had yet to arrive, and although he wouldn't put it past Ezra to be late, Buck was always on time, especially if there was food involved.
He glanced around at the noisy crowd gathered in his living room. Vin had been the first one there, having returned the day before from a two-week vacation to Texas. AD Travis and his wife Evie, Mary and Billy had also attended. Nettie and Casey were chatting with JD, Nathan and Rain were snuggled on the couch, and Josiah… Josiah was frowning at the door, as if waiting for someone to arrive at any moment. He knew the other man was also worried.
Reaching for his phone, he tried Buck's number. No one answered at the condo. He tried the cellular next, but it was turned off. Chris rubbed the bridge of his nose, sighing wearily. Making a last attempt, he tried both Ezra's home number and his cell phone; also, no reply.
"What's wrong, cowboy?"
He turned to see Vin looking at him, concern shining in his blue eyes. "Buck and Ezra are almost two hours late, and I can't reach either of them. I think there's something wrong."
"Want us to go back to the office, see if we can track them down?" Nathan suggested, having heard the conversation.
Chris hesitated. All focus was on him now, everyone waiting for him to make a decision. He hated to break up the party, but he couldn't shake the gut feeling his two friends were in danger.
"I'm sorry," he stated, "but yeah. I think they're in trouble."
Travis nodded grimly. "Let's go then. The ladies can stay here. We'll call as soon as we learn anything."
"JD, call the Denver police. Ask them to put an APB on both Buck and Ezra; give them a description of their vehicles. Even with the usual Christmas Eve traffic, it shouldn't be too hard to find them.
"Got it, Chris."
They rushed out the door, dividing into two groups. Chris, Vin and the AD got in the Ram, the others in Nathan's Ford Explorer. Chris stepped on the gas, wanting to arrive in Denver as rapidly as possible. He was seething inside. Someone had had the nerve to go after two of his men on Christmas Eve. Payback was going to be swift and deadly.
Buck wasn't home, not that that was any news to Chris. He hadn't been expecting to find his friend at the condo, but the sight of the pickup truck parked across the street was alarming. It meant that, wherever he was at that moment, Buck had probably been taken by someone else.
A search of Ezra's townhouse apartment had brought the same results. The Southerner was nowhere to be found, but they hadn't spotted the Jaguar either.
"What now?" JD asked, with a worried frown.
"We go back to the office, go through old cases, see who might have a reason to go after Buck and Ezra both," Chris replied, already walking to the door.
He wouldn't rest until the two men had been found safe and sound, and whoever was responsible for their disappearance had been caught. Nobody messed with his team and got away with it.
Buck came to slowly, feeling a world of pain crashing down on him and causing him to moan pitifully. His side and shoulder ached fiercely, he had the mother of all headaches, and he was freezing.
"Buck?" he heard someone whisper softly, a hand stroking his forehead gently. "Come on now, Mr. Wilmington, time to rejoin the world of the living."
Recognizing the voice and hearing the underlying worry in the tone, he forced himself to full consciousness, blinking his eyes open and squinting at the painful light. He peered up at Ezra, realizing he was lying on the Southerner's lap. He frowned in confusion for a second, then remembered what had happened.
Groaning, he rolled onto his back, his head still pillowed in Ezra's legs as he closed his eyes again at the pain emanating from his whole being.
"Yeah, Ez?" he asked, refusing to move or to open his eyes.
"Are you all right?"
Buck chuckled weakly. "Been better, pard, been better."
"What happened to you?" Ezra queried softly.
"Was getting ready to drive to Chris' party when I was hit by a van. Before I could react, this guy put me to sleep with chloroform. You?"
"Kidnapped at gunpoint," Ezra replied, sounding disgusted with himself. "Didn't even see the man coming."
"No, but he did mention Mr. Larabee. Said he had a bone to pick with our illustrious leader."
Buck narrowed his eyes, pensive. "I only caught a glimpse of him, didn't look familiar."
"Well, whoever the hell he is, and whatever he wants, we have to get out of here. If only we had been handcuffed instead of tied," Ezra bemoaned.
Buck grinned. "You'll have to teach me how to pick locks one of these days, Ezra."
"Not that it would come in handy now," Ezra huffed, with a scowl.
"Doesn't matter, pard. It might one day. Let me see if I can sit up. Maybe we can try to free each other."
He crawled to the wall, pushing against the cold stone to force his body to rise. Panting harshly, he allowed his head to fall on Ezra's shoulder, waiting until his stomach settled before he again tried to open his eyes. When he finally did, Ezra was looking at him, his expression concerned.
He smiled slightly. "'S'okay, Ez. It feels worse than it looks," he said, surprising a laugh out of the other man.
Ezra shook his head fondly at him. "You're an exasperating man, Mr. Wilmington."
"Yeah, but you love me anyway," he remarked, the words leaving his mouth before he could censor them.
He watched Ezra's eyes widening before his emotions were carefully hidden behind lowered lashes. "I believe we should try to free ourselves," the Southerner drawled, in such a low tone Buck hardly heard him.
Not wanting to spook the younger man any further, Buck simply nodded and set out to accomplish the task, clenching his jaw at the pain the other man's withdrawal caused him.
They did try to break free, but quickly discovered the tight bindings around their hands had left their fingers quite numb. They couldn't move them properly, not enough to untie such complicated knots.
"Dang it," he whispered, leaning back against the wall after five minutes of unsuccessful tries. "We'll never untie these ropes. They're too tight. We have to think of something else."
Ezra grimaced unhappily. "Our captor did mention he would return in the morning. Perhaps we could try to overpower him and search for something sharp to free ourselves. Even if we don't find any such object, we can try to escape."
Buck nodded. "Good idea. Ez?"
"Mind if I lie back down? I don't feel so good."
"Certainly, Mr. Wilmington, please do."
Mindful of his upset stomach, he laid back down again, resting his head slowly on Ezra's legs, a soft sigh escaping him as he settled down. He smiled slightly as he felt gentle fingers combing through his hair, soothing his pain. It wasn't what he had in mind for the night, but he couldn't think of anyone else he would rather be with than Ezra. They would just have to make the best of their strange situation.
JD rushed into Chris' office. "Ezra's Jag has been spotted in the downtown area. The police have several patrol cars in pursuit."
Chris jumped to his feet. "Can they tell who's driving?"
"No, but it isn't Ezra. The driver has long hair."
"Okay. Vin, you're with me. The rest of you, keep digging through the files," Chris ordered, reaching for his coat, Vin following right behind him.
"Think it's our perp?" Vin asked, as he pushed the button for the elevator.
Chris shrugged grimly. "Your guess is as good as mine, but it's our first lead to finding those two and I'm holding on with both hands."
Ezra sighed in relief as he felt Buck's breathing change into sleeping pattern. He was apprehensive about allowing the older man to doze off - after all, he might have a concussion - but he would let Buck rest for a couple of hours before he roused him.
He shook his head dejectedly. He was a coward. Buck had given him the perfect opportunity to admit to his feelings, and what had he done? Nothing. He had seen Buck's hurt expression as he'd shutdown, and yet had said nothing, done nothing. He knew how the other man felt for him. He returned Buck's feelings, so why couldn't he open up his heart and acknowledge the truth? Why couldn't he confess to being in love with Buck? Why was he so afraid? He trusted Buck, he knew the other man would never hurt him, and still he had frozen.
He looked down at the sleeping man, his fingers brushing over a cheekbone tenderly. He would have to do better. When chance surfaced anew, he would take it. He wouldn't back down again. Not when they both had so much to lose.
Chris slammed the kid against a squad car. "Where the hell are my men?" he snarled angrily.
The young man who had been arrested driving Ezra's Jaguar, a barely twenty year old kid, with long, blond hair and hazel eyes looked frightfully at him. "I don't know what you're talking about, dude! Honest!"
"The owner of the car you were driving… Where is he?" Chris gritted out threateningly, holding the man by the shirt.
"I don't know. I found it abandoned in an alley, the driver's door open. I've always wanted to own a Jag, man. I couldn't resist taking it for a spin. I don't know anything about your men or the owner. I swear, man!"
"Chris," he heard Vin call out from behind him.
"What?" he snapped.
"I think he's tellin' the truth. Ezra told me he was goin' ta pick up Buck's present tonight before goin' to the party. I checked the backseat. All our presents are there, including Buck's. Whoever has 'im and Buck caught him as he was gettin' into the car."
Chris growled low in his throat. "Fine! You're going to show us that alley, kid. And you better be telling the truth, or you'll be spending the rest of your life rotting in jail!"
He dragged the kid to the Ram, opening the back door and pushing him inside. He leaned down. "You mess with us, and I'll personally make sure you suffer the torments of hell before you're booked, you hear me?" He slammed the door shut, ignoring Vin's amused look. "Let's go," he ordered his friend.
Maybe they would find something in the alley that would lead them to Ezra and Buck. He couldn't shake the feeling of urgency, that time was running out for the two men. He needed to find them fast.
The alley hadn't turned up anything new. They were no closer to finding their two friends than they had been in the beginning. Chris leaned against a cold wall, watching a patrol car drive the kid away, while Vin still searched the dark corners of the alley in hopes of finding something.
It was useless.
Ezra opened his eyes with a startled gasp, realizing he had fallen asleep. Looking at his watch, he saw it was already the 25th - Christmas morning. He groaned deep in his throat. His back ached from being in the same position for so long, his neck was sore, and he was thirsty and hungry. Not to mention in dire need of a trip to the bathroom.
The room was freezing. He wanted to stand up and stretch but was reluctant to disturb Buck, who was still asleep in his lap. Even if he had to wake the other man up, there was no reason to dislodge him.
"Buck?" He shook the mustached man gently. "Buck, wake up." Buck moaned, his eyelids fluttering open before they closed again. "Buck, come on, wake up."
"Ez?" Buck breathed softly.
"Yes. Wake up, please?"
Buck sighed tiredly. "If I must." he drawled, eyes finally focusing on Ezra. "Coulda waited a little longer, pard. Was having such a great dream…"
"About the female of the species, no doubt," Ezra retorted sarcastically, unable to keep the jealousy out of his voice.
Buck grinned. "Nope. We were in the Bahamas, strolling on a sandy beach, enjoying the sunny day, the clear ocean…" He sighed contentedly. "Heaven."
Ezra knew he shouldn't ask, but curiosity got the better of him. "'We?'" he echoed.
"You and I," Buck replied seriously, his gaze locking with Ezra's.
Ezra swallowed nervously. "I'm sorry," he whispered, licking suddenly dry lips.
The other man frowned in confusion. "What for, Ez?"
"For… earlier," Ezra replied, lost in the affectionate blue eyes looking up at him. "I should've said something. It's just that-" Gentle fingers brushed over his lips, preventing him from saying more.
"Don't," Buck whispered. "I love you, Ezra, and I think you know that. And maybe you're starting to feel the same?" he half-asked, half-stated in a hopeful tone.
Ezra nodded curtly, still unable to say what he knew Buck longed to hear. He felt like a fool when Buck gave him a wide, honest smile. It was as if any time he had to deal with emotions, especially his own, he would freeze, an invisible force paralyzing him. He wished he could react differently, but he was fighting the demons of a lifetime.
"That's enough for now, Ez. I can wait until you're ready to say the words." Buck grinned cheekily. "You're worth it."
Ezra smiled down at the other man, shaking his head fondly. "Truly an exasperating man," he whispered.
"But you love me anyway," Buck said back, firmly this time.
"Yes. Yes, I do," Ezra replied seriously.
Not the actual words yet, but it was close enough.
Chris marched out of his office in search of yet another cup of coffee when something caused him to stop in his tracks. Squinting at the darkness surrounding the open office area where the rest of the team usually worked, he noticed a shadow looking out one of the windows. JD.
He approached the young man silently. "JD, what are you doing here?" he asked softly. "Why aren't you in my office with the others?"
"I, uh, I needed to be alone for a while," JD replied, without turning to face him.
"Yes. No. I-" He sighed unhappily. "I just… I keep thinking…" He swung around, his expressive face showing all his agitation and fear. "What if they're dead, Chris? It's been nearly twelve hours since we've last heard from them. A lot can happen in that frame of time!"
Chris squeezed a tense shoulder. "They're not dead, JD. You have to believe that. I've been in this business for a very long time now, and there's one thing I can tell you for certain. Bad news travels at the speed of light. If whoever took them wanted them dead, we would've known by now. The lack of information is meant to make us wonder, to taunt us, to set us off course. They *are* alive."
He could see JD searching his face for the truth. "You really believe that, Chris?" the young man whispered softly, looking a little calmer.
He tried for an honest smile. "Yeah, kid, I do."
He refrained from mentioning that just because he was certain Buck and Ezra were still alive, that didn't mean they were not hurt or in danger at that very moment. And that was what he was hoping to prevent.
Buck leaned against the wall with a sigh. The few hours sleep had done him wonders. Although he still had a throbbing headache, it wasn't as bad as before and he wasn't nauseous anymore. His body still hurt and felt stiff when he moved, but the pain was manageable. They had been forced to relieve themselves in a corner of the room. Thankfully, the space was wide enough that the smell didn't bother them.
They had spent most of the night talking quietly, willing the hours away. And, of course, planning their escape. The lonesome kidnapper would be there soon, and they needed to be ready for him.
As if reading his mind, the sound of footsteps was heard and soon the door to their room was being opened wide. He exchanged a knowing look with Ezra, before turning his attention to the large man standing before him. Ezra had been right; the man was impressive. Without the long, black coat, it was easy to see the powerful build, the muscled torso and arms. He would give Josiah a run for his money in the strength department.
"Good morning, gentlemen," the man greeted with a smile, a Glock held tightly in his hand. "Merry Christmas, by the way."
"Who the hell are you?" Buck growled.
"My name's Clive Jones. Not that it will mean anything to you, of course. Only Larabee knows who I am."
"What are you? Another 'innocent' man Chris sent to jail to rot?" Buck asked disgustedly. He really hated people who wouldn't take the blame for their own deeds. "Well?"
"I never claimed to be innocent, Mr. Wilmington."
Jones seemed almost amused at his reaction, which angered Buck even more. "Then why all this?" he spat.
"Larabee killed my brother. It's only fair I show him what it feels like to lose the only family you've ever had."
"He already knows," Ezra replied from beside Buck.
Buck looked at the Southerner again and suddenly knew it was time to act. Jones' aim had diverted slightly from its previous targets, allowing them to put their plan into motion. As one, they both dove for the man, Buck going for his legs, Ezra for his upper body. Caught off guard, Jones went down, taking the two of them along in a tangle of arms and legs, but not before he managed to get a shot off.
Buck heard the gunshot but didn't waste any time. While Ezra held Jones down, Buck lifted his bound hands and hit the man hard across the side of the head, once, twice, three times, until he was certain Jones was unconscious.
"Ez, you okay?" he panted. "Ezra?" he repeated when the Southerner didn't reply.
Turning to look at the other man, he noticed Ezra was lying nearly on top of Jones, his shallow breaths loud in the oppressive room. The Southerner had his head down, away from Buck, making it impossible for him to see Ezra's face.
Buck crawled closer, turning Ezra to him by the shoulders. He gasped as he saw the growing red stain on Ezra's shirt. The younger man had been shot.
"God, no," he whispered, laying Ezra carefully on the floor.
He checked the other man's torso slowly, noting the bullet went in dangerously close to Ezra's heart, relieved when he found the exit wound at his back.
"Buck," Ezra moaned softly.
"Shhh, I'm here," he assured, holding Ezra's hands within his own.
"Go for help," Ezra pleaded between pants.
"I can't leave you here alone, Ez," he whispered frantically.
Pain-filled eyes looked up at him. "You have to. Take his gun with you, if it makes… you feel better. I'm sure… he won't revive for a while. I… I need help, Buck."
Buck scowled at their luck. He knew Ezra was right. His friend could bleed to death without the proper care, but he dreaded leaving the other man alone, helpless, especially when Jones could come to at any minute.
Cupping Ezra's face tenderly, he pressed his lips to the other man's in a flitting caress. "Hold on, hoss. I'll be back soon, I promise."
Rising from the floor, he gave Ezra one last look, then rushed out the door. He had to find help fast, before he lost Ezra. Permanently.
Buck went through every room in the abandoned warehouse until he reached what resembled an old office area. Running to a decrepit looking desk, he searched desperately for something to cut his bindings with, almost sobbing with relief when he found a letter opener in one of the drawers.
He hacked awkwardly at the ropes until he was free, groaning at the painful sensation of pins and needles as his circulation was restored. He looked around urgently, wondering what to do, as he waited until he could feel his hands again. A backpack resting by the side of the desk caught his attention.
Reaching for it, he looked inside, feeling like whooping for joy when he saw both his and Ezra's guns and cell phones amongst Jones' personal possessions. He snatched his phone from the pack and dialed Chris' number, willing his friend to hurry up and answer.
"Larabee," came the tired voice from the other end of the line.
"Chris, it's Buck."
"Buck! Where the hell are you?"
"I have no idea. Ask JD to trace this call."
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, but Ezra got shot." He closed his eyes as he remembered the pain etched in Ezra's haggard features. "Send an ambulance, okay? And hurry, please."
Never releasing his white-knuckle grip on the phone, he rushed back to join the Southerner, armed with the letter opener. He didn't know how badly Ezra was injured, and it made his heart lurch at the thought Jones might wake up before he returned to stand by his friend.
"JD's already tracing the call. We'll be there as soon as possible. Who's responsible for this, Buck?"
"Says his name's Clive Jones. Name mean anything to you?"
He could clearly hear Chris sighing wearily. "I arrested him about a month before you joined the Denver PD. He and his brother were robbing a bank when the call came through the radio. I was close by, so I answered it. There was a shootout, and his brother got killed. I remember thinking Jones was a bit odd. He had a college degree, was highly intelligent, well traveled. Not the kind of person you'd expect to go around robbing banks. Listen, JD got the trace. Hang on, we're on our way."
"Thanks. I'll leave the phone on anyway. We're on the basement floor, the last room at the end of the corridor. Chris, hurry up," he pleaded anew.
Buck was massaging Ezra's wrists carefully, trying to get his circulation going, when he heard the muffled sound of sirens getting closer.
"Help's here," he told Ezra, glad to see him nod. "Hold on, ya hear me?"
Ezra gave him a weak smile. "I hear you," he replied in a breath.
Minutes later, Buck heard footsteps and then Chris was storming into the room, followed closely by the others. A couple EMT's carrying a stretcher and medical equipment immediately rushed to Ezra's side.
"What happened to him?" Vin asked, gesturing towards Jones.
"I'll tell you later," Buck replied, suddenly feeling too exhausted to even talk.
He followed every movement the medics made as they quickly examined and patched Ezra, before laying him down on the stretcher.
He saw Chris crouching down next to the wounded man. "Ezra, nice to see you awake at this hour for a change," the blond man quipped softly.
Ezra gave him a lopsided grin. "Always had trouble… sleeping without the… comfort of my down pillow, Mr. Larabee," he whispered, eyes fluttering closed.
"Ezra," Buck called urgently. "You need to stay awake. Come on, hoss."
Ezra exhaled slowly, but opened watery eyes to look up at him. "Tired," he whispered, in such a low tone Buck could hardly hear him.
"I know, Ez, but you have to try," he said, gently brushing the damp hair from Ezra's forehead.
"Hey, Ez, we have the Jag. It's in the garage back at the office," JD stated, obviously trying to draw the Southerner's attention.
Ezra nodded his head, eyelids closing as he smiled grimly. "Buck?" he whispered.
"I'm sorry…" The words trailed off as Ezra's head fell to the side, his face going slack as he lost consciousness.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted. "Ezra!"
"He's merely unconscious, sir. He lost a lot of blood and is suffering from dehydration, but still with us," one of the EMT's assured him soothingly, already wheeling Ezra to the exit with his colleague's help.
Trying to control the panic inside, Buck nodded, running out after the medics so he could ride to the hospital with Ezra. There was no way he was letting the Southerner out of his sight until he was certain the other man was going to be all right.
Chris sighed tiredly, as he watched Buck rush out of the room. His own adrenaline rush was starting to fade, and he felt exhausted beyond belief.
"Vin, Nathan, get this bastard locked up," he ordered, scowling at Jones. "The rest of us will go ahead to the hospital. Meet us there when you're done."
"Think Ez will be okay?" JD asked worriedly.
"He better," Vin replied seriously. "I think we might lose Bucklin otherwise."
Chris glanced at his best friend, knowing what he was referring to. He had seen Buck and Ezra's growing friendship, had seen it blossom into something stronger. And knowing how Buck really felt about the Southerner, he shared Vin's fear that Buck might not make it through in one piece if Ezra died.
Ezra looked out the window of his hospital room, watching the falling snow. Physically, he felt better, but then he had slept for over twenty hours straight, or so a nurse had informed him. He remembered seeing the other men scattered across the room as he came to after surgery, but he had fallen back to sleep before he could utter a word. When he had opened his eyes again, he found he was alone, with no idea where the others had disappeared to.
Emotionally, he guessed he was feeling what most people called the Christmas blues.
He used to despise the holiday season while growing up. Spending Christmas alone in the numerous boarding schools he had attended, or with relatives who really hadn't wanted him around, had been painfully hard. With no close family, no friends, no presents or even the traditional dinner, he had been left to his own devices, coming to hate that time of year with a passion, for it reminded him of what he didn't have, what he had never had.
Team 7 had changed all that. They had slowly dragged him into their fold, emotionally kicking and screaming, until the celebration at Chris' ranch had become a tradition. He began to defrost, to enjoy himself, to accept what the other men were offering. It was hard to remain unattached as he joined the boisterous crowd for dinner, as he was surrounded by the warmth of family even if not by blood. And even if the emotions behind Christmas itself were so much more important to him now, for the first time in his life, he had also been given presents that truly meant something to him, instead of the little bones his mother usually threw at him to keep him happy.
Which was the reason why he was so depressed. He had missed Christmas this year; they all had. They would still exchange the presents, but what he really craved, the warmth, the family feeling, would be absent because the day had passed.
A knock on the door brought him back from his reverie. He frowned in confusion as Buck poked his head inside.
"You awake, pard?" the mustached man asked.
"Good," Buck stated, with a grin. "We have a surprise for you."
The door opened wide and his teammates walked in, followed by the Travis family, Rain, and Nettie and Casey Wells. They were all carrying presents, silverware, dishes, and an assortment of items that made Ezra's frown deepen.
"What's all this?" he asked softly.
"I have always been a firm believer that Christmas is when a man wishes it to be," Josiah remarked. "Since we missed our traditional party, we decided to go with that and make it happen today. And, of course, as you are confined to this bed for the next few days, we thought we'd bring the party here instead of having it at Chris' ranch."
"And I talked with your doctor," Nathan added. "As long as you promise not to overdo it, you can have a little of everything. Except alcohol," he added, with a wicked grin.
Realizing the enormity of what the others had done for him, Ezra felt once again humbled to call these men his friends. There were no words to express what he was feeling, so he decided for heartfelt gratitude.
"Thank you," he said softly, after clearing his throat awkwardly.
Chris chuckled softly. "You're welcome, Ezra. Now let's eat, I'm starving."
Throughout dinner, Ezra found himself watching his "guests," the warmth once again seeping into his whole being. In spite of everything - the kidnapping, being shot, having to remain at the hospital - this was turning out to be a wonderful Christmas, maybe his best yet. Without any fancy words or actions, his friends had shown him what the holiday season was all about - being there for each other.
He just wished he wasn't tiring so rapidly. Keeping his eyes open was beginning to be a problem, and he had to fight the urge to yawn. He tried to hide it, but he saw Nathan shaking his head chidingly at him.
"Seems our wayward brother is getting tired," Josiah stated, obviously having also noticed how exhausted he really was. "Maybe we should start opening the presents now."
"Uh, I don't have mine here," he stated sadly.
"Yes, you do, Ez," JD told him. "We got them out of the Jag and brought them along."
"Good. Let's get to it then." Vin rubbed his hands together greedily, and Ezra couldn't help chuckling at his little boy antics.
The presents were exchanged over the next few minutes, happy exclamations, kisses and pats on backs following close behind. He watched contentedly as Buck practically drooled over his new jacket, donning it almost immediately and keeping it on to show off. He also noticed that, although he had received presents from all the others, he had yet to be given Buck's gift.
"Okay, people, time to go," Nathan announced. "I promised the doctor we wouldn't stay long and would disappear as soon as Ezra began to show signs of being tired."
Little by little, the small crowd began to exit, with a parting wave, kiss or a whispered "Merry Christmas." Soon, there was only him left in the room. And Buck.
Ezra watched him for a moment, quietly noting the other man's uncharacteristic fidgeting. Buck looked uncertain, endearingly awkward, and Ezra knew whatever he had to say had to be extremely serious.
"I guess you noticed I haven't given you my present?" Buck finally asked. Ezra nodded, but remained silent, waiting. "Well, I wanted to give it to you alone," Buck continued. "It's kinda personal. Here."
Ezra reached for the small box, removing the string and paper and opening it carefully. Inside, he found a key. He looked up at Buck curiously. "I don't understand."
Buck cleared his throat. "It's the key to the condo. I mean, I know I live with JD, and I know it's not the cleanest of places. Okay, so it's a pigsty most of the time, but it's still my home. And, well, it sounded like a good idea at the time, you know? It's stupid, I know, but I wanted something to show you how I felt and-"
"Buck," he spoke up, interrupting the babbling.
Ezra grinned. "I love you. And I couldn't have thought of a better present."
Buck smiled back. "Yeah?"
Ezra chuckled. "Yeah."
He closed his hand around the key, knowing what Buck had really been trying to tell him. It was not only the key to his home but the key to his heart, and Ezra wanted everything Buck had to give him.
"I love you, too," Buck said, his eyes warm and affectionate.
"In that case, maybe you would care to demonstrate it?" Ezra suggested, with a slight leer.
Buck laughed softly. "Gladly."
Buck leaned down, his lips brushing lightly against Ezra's. When they parted, the Southerner glanced up at the other man with a mock glare. "That can't be the best you can do, Mr. Wilmington. I would believe a man of your reputation would know what a real kiss feels like."
"Oh, yeah? Think you can teach me?" Buck taunted.
"Get back here, and you bet I will teach you."
Ezra grabbed Buck by the shirt, pulling him down and bringing their lips together. He licked at Buck's lower lip, slowly, lightly, sucking it into his own mouth. Buck groaned, opening up to him, and Ezra explored the older man's mouth to his heart's delight, making the kiss deeper, more passionate, their tongues dancing together sensually.
"This… is a kiss," Ezra panted, as they finally broke apart.
Buck blinked dazedly at him. "Ummm," he agreed, licking his bottom lip wantonly. "It'll take some time before I get the hang of it. Think ya could give me a few lessons?"
"As many as it takes," Ezra replied through a jaw-breaking yawn. "Sorry."
"It's okay, you're still weak. I'll be back tomorrow," Buck promised, giving him a chaste kiss. "Get some rest, pard. Love you."
"I love you, too," Ezra replied, with a tired smile.
He watched the other man leaving through sleep-leaden eyes, feeling an amazing sense of well-being settling over him. He had finally said the words, breaking free from the past. He had Buck's love, his most desired wish, and he was still alive to enjoy it to the fullest.
A most wonderful Christmas, indeed.
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