Hazel '04: Process Of Evolution

Ezra frowned heavily as he considered the small piece of paper with but a few lines written on it in his own neat, distinctive handwriting. The note said it all and yet was not nearly enough. There was no way he could explain his decision without talking to Vin, and yet if he spoke to Vin there was no way he could act on what he'd decided. The proverbial rock and a hard place were becoming all too familiar territory.

Ezra sighed, green eyes closing in regret, impotent fury at being in this position at all making his fist clench so tightly he could feel his nails digging into his palms. There was no other way. Hopefully Vin would understand that. Would forgive him when he got back…if he got back.

A firm hand on his shoulder made him open his eyes. "You don't have to."

Ezra struggled to get what he wanted to say past his clenched jaw. "Yes, I do." He took a deep breath, nibbling on his lower lip. "It hurts him too much…hurts me too much…this tethered existence. This fucked up way of living…losing bits and pieces of my soul…I just can't keep--"

"I know."

Ezra nodded grateful he didn't have to say any more. Joe was likely one of the few people who really did understand. He was going for the same reason Ezra was.

"What did Levon say?"

Joe's lips curled in a wry smile, blues as warm as the Caribbean waters they resembled. "Come back with your shield…"

Ezra winced, not seeing the humor. It was the beginning of an old saying attributed to Spartan women. They were rumored to have told their men to come home from war with their shields, meaning they were victorious, or to come back on it, meaning they died bravely standing fast until the bitter end and their bodies had to be carried home.

Joe's smiled broadened. "Or I'll have to come get you."

In spite of himself Ezra chuckled. Leave it to his cousin to alter things to suit him. It was decidedly reassuring to know Levon already planned to come get them if need be.

"Do you really think he could?" Where they were going wasn't going to be all that easy to get to, and Levon would be decidedly short on details since he wasn't going on the mission the powers that be tended not to share information. 'Need to know' was a phrase Ezra hoped to hell he'd never hear again.

Joe shrugged, looking vaguely apologetic. "No way to know for sure if he'd succeed, but you know as well as I do…he'd likely die trying." Blue eyes held green. "Fairly certain Vin would do the same."

Joe patted his shoulder before moving away. "And I did share most of the mission details with Levon…Just in case."

Ezra grinned. "Good."

"You aren't the only one who abhors gambling." Joe smiled tightly, a determined gleam in his eyes. "Particularly not when the stakes are this damn high."

The taller man turned toward the door, head cocked slightly. "You ready?"

Ezra took a deep breath, and then another. "As ready as I will ever be."

"Okay, then." Joe nodded once firmly. "Let's go do this thing."

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Spending the day in Purgatorio was always a worthwhile endeavor to Vin. He liked the people there and enjoyed being able to help them. Simple things like fixing elderly Mrs. Santos screen door or repainting the lines on the vacant lot that doubled as basketball court were not big in the grand scheme of things, but they served to emphasize their place within the neighborhood. Camp AWOL might be fenced off and mostly off limits to the townspeople, but the Seven for Hire team did not isolate themselves from the community.

Nathan's clinic was really the only medical care most of the people had access to. He tried to keep regular hours whenever possible. Josiah took it upon himself to help out with the local church, although, given the big man's less than stellar carpentry skills Vin wasn't sure he was as much help as he thought he was. The priest seemed to enjoy speaking with someone as conversant in the catholic religion as he was, and the run down little chapel was still a center piece of life for most of the town's residents.

When it was brought to their attention that the local school needed a new coat of paint, inside and out, most of the team had been quick to volunteer to help. Josiah had already made a commitment to visit his sister, and Nathan was on duty at the clinic, but the rest had shown up on time ready to do their part. Ezra had said he'd be by later once he took care of some on line trading that he needed to do.

Vin frowned as he realized his lover was long overdue. It wasn't unusual for Ezra to be so focused on what he was doing so as to lose all track of time, but this was excessive even for him. It wasn't like him not to show up at all.

A faint unease settled over him. Vin unconsciously looked skyward, searching for a black chopper, but saw nothing. Chris glanced over at him, a small frown forming between his brows.

"Something wrong, Cowboy?"

"Ezra's late."

"Maybe the trades he was going to make took longer than he thought." Chris pursed his lips, shrugging one shoulder. "Not like there aren't enough volunteers to get the job done, so maybe he changed is mind about working today."

Although a valid point, Vin could tell Chris didn't believe that any more than he did. "Knows this is important." The sniper shook his head as he remembered something. "Ez was going to work with some of the art students on painting a mural. Art teacher was real gung ho on the idea."

Chris's jaw tightened. "Go." The older man jerked his head toward Camp AWOL. "Find out what's going on."

Chris didn't have to tell him twice. Vin quickly headed for his ancient El Dorado. The rest of the team, along with most of the paint supplies, had come in Chris' Land Rover so he didn't have to worry about leaving some one stranded. Not that they couldn't get a ride home with Nathan if the need arose.

Vin turned the key and cursed vehemently when an ominous click could be heard. The El Dorado could at best be called temperamental, and at worst unreliable, running on a wing and a prayer more often than not. He smacked the steering wheel in anger, pissed that it would pick now of all times to fail him. A rising sense of urgency made his chest tighten. He didn't have time to try and coax the damn thing into starting.

Without a second thought he slid out from behind the wheel and jumped into Chris' Land Rover. Chris kept a spare set of keys hidden in a magnetic holder hidden inside the back bumper. It was a good thing because Vin wasn't sure he could hotwire the Rover without doing any damage. And he just couldn't waste more time running back to ask for the keys.

He spun the tires as he sped away from the school, wheels spitting gravel behind him as they gained purchase. Vin was decidedly grateful Purgatorio didn't see the need for red lights. At a sedate speed he could get back to Camp AWOL in twenty minutes; Vin intended to be there in less than half that time.

Thanks to the Rover's antilock braking system, Vin didn't quite skid to an abrupt halt in front of the closed gates eight minutes later. He leaped out of the vehicle, barely remembering to put it in park before running to push the gates open. He didn't bother to close them as he drove through, intent on his goal.

He drove the Rover across the rec ground and between the barracks, something they didn't normally do. Vin stopped in front of the quarters he and Ezra shared, turning off the vehicle. He eyed the closed door warily, suddenly feeling foolish for racing here when he everything seemed quiet and in order.

Shrugging to himself Vin got out. If everything was fine and dandy he and Ezra could both get a good laugh out of his slightly insane, mildly panicked behavior. It wouldn't matter as long as Ezra was inside.

Vin stepped into the dim interior, eyes adjusting quickly. The silence seemed bear out his earlier fear. Whenever Ezra was working in their quarters he had the stereo playing, usually something instrumental acting as a background filter. He said the harmony helped make it easier to concentrate on what he was doing, made intuitive leaps in thinking easier to make.

Unwilling to give up the small glimmer of hope he still harbored, Vin checked their bedroom. Although, Ezra normally preferred to work in the common room rather than at his desk in their bedroom he did periodically find it easier to simply leave his laptop where it was usually docked. Vin cursed when he saw the computer sitting in its usual place, dark screen confirming it wasn't up and running.

He spun around, blue eyes searching the room, instinctively cataloging everything, seeking what was missing. Vin opened the closet. The small duffle bag Ezra always kept packed was gone. He moved to the night stand, confirming that Ezra's side arm was gone as well.

Vin whispered a curse. He should have made Ezra come with him this morning. At least then they'd have had the chance to say good-bye. He might have even gotten some inkling as to where Ezra was going or what he'd be doing. Not that his lover had ever deliberately let anything slip in the past, but Vin had learned to read a lot from Ezra's reaction to the call, whether he hesitated to accept or not, how much tension appeared in his shoulders.

Vin blinked as something fluttered on the bed. Lying on his pillow was a sheet of the writing paper he'd gotten for Ezra as a gift the first Christmas Ezra had been with the team. It had seemed like the linguist was always writing to someone and not knowing what else to get a man he barely knew, Vin had opted for some top quality stationery. He knew Ezra had liked it because it was the only paper he used to write letters on now.

Vin reached for the paper, fingers shaking slightly. This would be the first and only time Ezra had ever left him a note before heading out on one these mysterious missions. Vin couldn't shake the feeling that didn't bode well.

The paper was the same thick parchment he remembered buying, each sheet slightly more dense than the cheap notebook paper Vin himself favored. The neutral beige color was offset with small decorative fleur de lis in silver gilding that graced the corners like ornate framing. He took a deep breath, preparing himself to read whatever Ezra had left for him to find. It felt so much weightier than one sheet of paper should, as though what was written on it somehow added substance.

Vin's own handwriting verged on being illegible scrawl most of the time, but Ezra's writing was always neat and crisp. It looked like the calligraphy Vin had seen on historic documents. He could read what Ezra wrote easily enough, even if he didn't always understand it.

The phone rang. This will be the last. Talk to Levon.

Vin frowned. He read the note a second time. What the hell did 'this will be the last' mean? There were only two interpretations that readily came to mind.

It could easily mean Ezra would finally be free of this shadow organization, never have to answer that damn phone ever again. Or it could mean he was on some suicide mission and he wasn't coming home. That thought had Vin crushing the note in a tight fist, viciously crumpling the parchment.

He shuddered and struggled not to scream. One deep breath and then another. He unclenched his fist, carefully smoothing out the creases, reading the note a third time.

'Talk to Levon.'. The only number he had for Ezra's cousin was at the ranch just outside Houston. The instruction told him Levon wasn't on this mission with Ezra.

Vin blanched, legs shaky as he slowly sunk on to the bed. Levon wasn't with Ezra. Did that mean Joe wasn't with him either? Levon had said he and Joe usually went on missions together. Shit. Was Ezra out there in harm's way without trustworthy backup?

Vin felt sick. He hung his head between his knees and took deep breaths through his nose. When he didn't feel quite so much like he was going to throw up, Vin raised his head and read the note a fourth time, as though one more review would suddenly provide him with more information.

He sighed deeply. Vin nodded to himself. 'Talk to Levon.'. Right. Okay. He could do that.

Vin reached for the cell phone clipped to his belt. He held it, debating with himself what it was he wanted to ask, how to phrase the question. He curled his hand around the phone, biting his lower lip.

If Levon was going to confirm his worst fear, that Ezra was out there somewhere alone on a suicide mission, Vin didn't want to hear that over the phone. He needed to be able to see Levon's face, to be able to read the older man clearly. That was the only way he could be completely certain that Levon was being totally honest. Not that he really expected the blond to lie to him, but like Ezra, Levon wasn't adverse to leaving out information.

Sure of his course of action, Vin stood up and grabbed the packed duffle back that until today had sat next to Ezra's. He also retrieved his sidearm just in case. His boot gun was already in place since he never went anywhere unarmed, not even to Purgatorio to paint a school.

Vin stepped outside and eyed Chris' Rover. Chris would understand him taking it to get back to Camp AWOL. The dead carcass of the El Dorado would have been enough for his friend to know why he'd taken it, but he couldn't take the Rover to Levon's ranch.

Vin stepped back inside and strode over to the stereo cabinet. Perched on top was a puzzle box that the rest of the team thought was simply decorative or some sort of toy. Vin quickly worked the mechanism Ezra had shown him, opening the box that so easily defied the others. He pulled the spare keys for Ezra's Bentley.

He closed the door behind him as he left, locking it. Locking it was more habit, something he and Ezra did routinely when they expected to be gone for more than a day. Chris had a key if he needed to get in for any reason.

Vin drove the Rover to the garage, leaving it in Chris' usual spot. He keyed the door on the Bentley, using the button on the key chain to disarm the automatic alarm as he did so. Vin threw his duffle bag into the passenger seat and fired up the car. Unlike his own hit or miss vehicle, the Bentley came to life with a smooth rumbling purr. He absently stroked the steering wheel the same way he would the neck of a horse.

It wasn't until he was heading done the two lane road that would get him to the highway that Vin realized he hadn't said anything or left a message for the rest of the team. They might not worry immediately about Ezra, having grown accustomed to his periodic disappearances, but both of them being gone without a word was bound to be cause for concern.

Vin sighed. He reached for his cell phone, cuing #7 on the speed dial for the main office. He knew it would be the natural gathering point when Chris rounded the others up to strategize about how to track him and Ezra down.

Vin waited for the standard 'we aren't in' message to finish. "Chris…Ezra got a call. I'm headed to Levon and Joe's ranch. Don't know how long I'll be gone. Will call you when I got a better idea."

That message wasn't nearly enough information, but it would have to do. Vin didn't know what else to say. After he talked to Levon he'd have a better idea. He hoped.

Assuming traffic and road construction didn't slow him down it would still take close to eight hours to get to the ranch. Vin kept the pedal pressed to the floor. He intended to do his level best to shave as much time as humanly possible off that estimate.

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Levon sipped his beer, quietly taking in the beauty of the evening, the heat of the day having dissipated enough to make it cool enough to be pleasant to be outside. At home, he rarely whiled away the evening hours on the porch swing. By this time of the night he was usually in bed.

He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. He hated it when Joe was gone. He'd already resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to get any sleep tonight.

Levon reviewed the mental list of chores that needed doing around the ranch. He could easily keep himself busy for the next few days. Wear himself out enough that he could sleep for a few hours tomorrow night. If he was really lucky he'd simply wake up restless and lonely, missing the warmth of Joe's solid form wrapped around him, rather than sweating and shaking from a nightmare that made it hard to breathe and left him wanting to puke.

He sighed and stood to stretch, easing the ache of muscles that had never really relaxed during the day, and likely wouldn't until Joe and Ezra were safely home. Levon finished his beer, listening to the insects humming the usual nightly chorus. Unbidden a smile flickered as Levon remembered his then just a good friend's long ranting complaint about how damn loud the little bastards could be the first time Joe had been to the ranch. Born and raised in an urban environment, his lover had been both surprised and appalled by how loud the natural world could be. It had taken him some time to get used to it, but eventually the insects no longer bothered Joe.

Levon cocked his head as he heard a faint ringing from inside the house. It wasn't the phone. That was the signal on the front gate announcing it was being opened via the code. A more blaring alarm would sound if the gates were forced. There were a limited number of people who possessed code. Levon had given it to Vin himself when the younger man had last visited the ranch. No one else he knew would be showing up at midnight without calling first.

Levon sighed and mentally saluted his lover. He'd owe the man a dollar when he got home. Unconsciously he stressed the 'when' of his thought. "Wants is money, boy has to come home to collect."

Nodding to himself, Levon headed back inside for another beer. He pursed his lips considering what the kitchen was stocked with in the way of food supplies. Levon wasn't the cook Joe was, but then he suspected it wouldn't matter much. Vin probably didn't have any more appetite than he did. The blond already knew the younger man routinely lost weight every time Ezra had been called away.

Since they had gotten together Ezra had been called away three times. None were for truly lengthy assignments although no less dangerous for it. He and Joe had successfully managed to get themselves included in those missions. That success was in large part due to two things: The powers that be wanted them there and let slip Ezra had already been called, or by the simple expediency of spreading word among all the operatives they knew that if they were called for a mission Ezra was on they were to decline if able leaving a slot open for either Joe or Levon, preferably both.

He heard a soft, hesitant knock at the door and walked over to open it. "Evenin', Vin."

He suppressed a grin at the way Vin had stepped back in surprise, hands rising in an abortive motion that could have resulted in either defense or attack. The younger man had obviously not been expecting him to answer the door quite so quickly. Not enough lights on in the house to suggest any one might still be awake, so it would have been natural to assume he'd have to knock more than once and a lot louder than he had initially to get a response.

Vin blinked and took a half step back. "Sorry…Know it's late and I shoulda called. Didn't mean ta wake ya--"

"Ya didn't wake me. An' yer family now so callin' ahead isn't really required." Levon assured him with a small smile. He opened the door wider. "C'mon in."

Vin nodded slightly. "Thanks."

"Any time, Vin." Levon understood how much that easy acceptance and welcome meant to the younger man. Noticing the duffle bag Vin had in one hand, he pointed with his chin toward the small suite of rooms that belonged to Vin and Ezra. "Why don't you stow yer gear in yer room."

Levon flicked on the hall light, rapidly assessing Vin's appearance as the former sniper moved passed him. He had no doubt the younger man had driven straight to the ranch as soon as he'd found out Ezra had left. He shook his head. It would have been easier to call. Although, he had a pretty good idea why Vin hadn't.

He pitched his voice to carry down the hall without actually shouting. "I'll get ya a beer and ya can join me on the porch when yer ready."

Levon went back to the kitchen and retrieved two beers. He headed back out to the porch. Tracking down the lighter he kept near the grill, Levon lit a few citronella candles that lined with the top rail of the porch railing. They'd added enough light to see by without attracting any biting insects.

Levon settled on one of the Adirondack chairs rather than the swing. The chairs were better situated to allow for face to face conversation. He had a feeling that Vin was going to be demanding answers so he might as well be comfortable while he gave them. He did a rolling shrug trying to loosen his shoulders and amended his thought to being as comfortable as the circumstances would allow.

When the younger man appeared in the door way, Levon offered him a long neck bottle. He popped the top on his own and took a sip. Vin didn't sit immediately, slapping the still closed bottle down hard on the arm of the chair, jaw tight. Levon remained silent, waiting.

"How the hell could you let him go alone?" Vin hissed, voice tight with anger, fear and confusion.

"What makes you think I LET him do anything?" Levon arched an eyebrow, sitting back slightly in his chair. "And he's not alone. Joe's with him."

Vin opened his mouth before snapping it shut with enough force Levon could hear his teeth click. Vin blinked, clearly absorbing what Levon had said. "Joe's with him?"

"Yep." Levon could almost see some of the tension draining away from Vin. He wished to hell he could say it did the same for him. Vin might lose the love of his life, but Levon stood to lose that and his little brother. It took all the brutally earned sangfroid Levon had not to unleash his own sense of anger, frustration and loss on the younger man.

Vin ducked his head slightly, sitting slowly, hand fingering the beer but leaving it unopened. "He's got back up?"

"Yeah." The blond nodded, understanding Vin's need to be certain. Knowing Ezra and Joe would look out for one another made it marginally easier to handle staying behind.

Confused sky blue eyes met brown. "Why didn't you go with them?"

Levon sighed, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. "Because on this mission, I'd be more of a liability than an asset."

Letting them go without him hurt like hell, but there was no way he could have gone with them knowing he increased the danger they faced. And knowing what this job represented, he couldn't argue against them going. It was a classic rock and a hard place situation. Levon hated that position with a passion.

Vin reached into the back pocket of his pants and withdrew a piece of paper. He held it out to Levon. "Ezra left me this."

Levon reached to take the carefully folded piece of paper gingerly, noting the faint crease marks that could only have come from it being crumpled and smoothed out again. He recognized the parchment as the same stationery Ezra regularly wrote to him on. He set his bottle down gently, wiping the condensed moisture off his fingers onto his jeans before opening the note to read it. His mental grimace as he read the brief missive wasn't reflected on his face. He might not be as good at poker as his cousin, but he'd more than mastered the self control necessary to control his facial expression.

"What does 'this will be the last' mean?" Vin asked cautiously at though he were bracing himself for the answer.

Levon handed the note back to Vin as he considered how to answer that question. The note was the sort of thing he'd want to hang on to, and judging by how carefully the former sniper refolded the note and pocketed it, he felt the same way. Nodding to himself, Levon began his explanation.

"Ezra has a unique set of skills. Those skills are something they needed very badly." Levon sighed silently and sipped his beer. "Wasn't a mission he had to accept. Is one o' those times when he could say no. They knew that but in this case timing is critical, and they were desperate, so they made him an offer."

Levon didn't bother to clarify precisely who 'they' were, and was grateful Vin didn't ask. He hated having to lie, and simply refusing to answer didn't seem a whole lot better.

"What kind of offer?" Vin looked wary, eyes narrowed as he studied Levon's face.

"Biggest carrot they had." Levon sipped his beer again. "Do this job and he never has to talk to them again."


"Ever." Levon confirmed with a nod, understanding the hope that inspired. He waited as Vin processed what else it also meant.

Vin took a deep breath, frowning as he again studied Levon's face. "Just how dangerous is this job?"

"I said they were desperate." Levon pursed his lips. "Desperation is never a good thing."

Vin cursed and stood up to pace. "Why the hell couldn't have asked me…talked to me instead of leaving me a goddamn note? Would it have killed him to wait?"

"And jus' what would ya have said if he had?"

Vin spun on his heel blue eyes spitting fire. "I'd have told him not to go. We could find another way. That it wasn't worth it."

Levon raised both brows. "You'd tell him it wasn't worth it." He repeated slowly shaking his head, mocking disbelief clear in his tone. "And when the phone rang again?" Levon's tone switched to calmly challenging, his chin rising unconsciously. "When they called again he couldn't say no? You think his being free forever wouldn't be worth it then?"

Vin grimaced, a hand running through his hair. "That isn't what I meant."

"So you would have told him it was okay to go then? Okay to risk life and limb?" Levon snorted. "And if he dies on that fuckin' mission he'd leave you a burden o' guilt that would break you."

He watched as what he said made Vin pale, the younger man flinching, almost stepping back from him. Levon leaned forward slightly, no longer challenging or confrontational, just feeling a lot older than his years. "Now you know why he didn't talk ta you."

Vin took a deep breath and then another. He hung his head, voice little more than a whisper when he spoke. "I should have gotten the chance to say good-bye."

"Be glad you didn't." Levon countered. He'd rather have his last memory of Joe be the two of them making love in the morning, not seeing him get into a chopper without him. "Good-byes suck. Always have and they always will."

"Easy for you to say." Vin snapped back. "You got to say yours."

"Yeah, I did." Levon studied him calmly. "And where does that get me? I'm still on this porch, in the middle of the night, scared and lonely and unable to sleep…so you'll pardon me if I don't see jus' how the hell I'm better off for it."

He glared at Vin. He understood where the other man was coming from. He'd been there more times than he cared to think about. Tonight was one of those times when the benefit of experience simply didn't count for a lot.

Levon sighed and forcibly reined in his temper. He wasn't angry at Vin any more than Vin was angry at him. It was a frustrating situation that left them both with little outlet. Vin had come a long way seeking answers and reassurance, neither of which Levon could give him.

"He knows you love him. You know he loves you." Levon shrugged one shoulder, unconsciously mimicking his missing cousin. "You not getting to say it one more time doesn't change that fact."

"Know that." Vin ran a hand through his hair again. "Just-"

"Yeah, I know." Levon smiled wanly. "Believe me, kid, I know."

"Sorry about-"

Levon chuckled. "Yeah, I know that too." He cocked his head giving Vin the once over. "You seem to be a bit less than steady on yer feet there."

"I'm fine." Vin waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.

"Bullshit." Levon rolled his eyes. "You drove eight hours or better. Probably stopped once ta piss and grab some coffee that was either weaker 'n well water or strong enough to pave the highway. Betting you didn't eat since breakfast."

Vin opened his mouth to argue, but Levon halted his words with an upraised hand. He was too tired to have this conversation, hell any conversation. He felt too off balance right at the moment. Too much more and he'd just end up snapping and snarling at Vin, and he really didn't want to do that any more than he already had.

Levon knew he'd answered the biggest question the younger man likely had. Ezra was off on a mission that could be his last, but he wasn't alone. And if he succeeded he'd never have to leave again. If he had anything to offer that would ease the anxiety of having one's best friend and lover in the line of fire he wouldn't have still been awake when Vin knocked on the door.

"It's late." Levon rubbed the back of his neck. "You should try and get some sleep…maybe eat something."

"Not really hungry." Vin shook his head, expression rueful. "And as for sleep…well, I would if I could."

"Get that." Levon nodded. "You change your mind, you know where everything is." He stood up and tried not to think about how stiff he felt from being on edge all day. "I'm going ta go lay down for awhile and try to pretend that I'm not starin' at the ceiling."

He headed inside when Vin calling his name stopped him. "Yeah?"


He dipped his head in acknowledgement before turning away and stepping inside. He didn't want to see Vin's expression or posture. It wasn't something he could fix and that just added to his overall discontentment and anger.

Levon dumped the remaining beer down the kitchen sink and headed for his room. He shouldn't feel responsible for Vin. The former sniper was only four years younger than he was…he was an adult and knew what he was getting into when he got involved with Ezra. Levon wasn't some goddamn baby sitter, and Vin was certainly no child in need of a night light or security blanket.

The blond winced at that thought knowing it wasn't a fair assessment. Joe represented a lot of what was right with his world, the same way Ezra probably did for Vin. He sighed and shook his head, refusing to go back out and say any more to Vin. At this point it would do more harm than good, and he didn't know what the hell to say anyway.

With dogged determination he completed his usual nightly rituals, and crawled into bed. Normally he sleep on his left side, Joe curled up behind him, holding him close. Unable to get comfortable without Joe at his back, Levon resigned himself to looking up at the ceiling. An odd thread of humor worked its way into his contemplation, making him wonder if he shouldn't invest in having some sort of mural, some complicated geometric designs painted on the ceiling. It would certainly be more interesting to look at. God it was going to be a long time until the sun rose.

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Vin rolled out of bed feeling no more rested than he had when he laid down several hours ago. The drive to the ranch had been long and tiring, but hadn't been enough to really wear him out the way he needed whenever Ezra was gone. The conversation he'd had with Levon had helped him relax a bit, enough to get a few restless hours of sleep. Knowing Ezra had back up always made it easier for Vin to breathe. Knowing the mission wasn't specifically designed to be suicidal helped some. Although the powers that be might not be deliberately trying to get Ezra killed, Vin knew all too well that was definitely a possible outcome.

He sighed and made his way to the bathroom to take care of the usual morning necessities. The bedroom had been sufficiently different so as not to feel so 'wrong' without Ezra's presence. And conversely it had been imbibed with enough of what Vin had unconsciously labeled as defining his lover so that he'd been able to relax. Grimacing at his reflection in the mirror Vin wasn't sure he appreciated the paradox the way someone else might.

He was going to skip shaving but one look at how much the stubble added to his overall haggard appearance made him change is mind. Vin didn't think Levon would say anything, but he was pretty sure the blond wouldn't be up and around looking like death warmed over no matter how much he might want to. If Levon could do it there was no reason Vin couldn't follow his example.

He opted to forgo showering just yet. He might as well get a workout in while it was still relatively cool. Vin smirked tiredly to himself knowing he'd probably be thinking the same thing again after the sun set. With any luck he would be able to do more than toss and turn when he laid down again.

Dressing in a pair of cut off shorts and a tank top, he went in search of Levon. The former sniper had no doubt that the blond was up. He didn't know if the older man would want to run with him, but it couldn't hurt to ask.

He frowned when he didn't find Levon in the kitchen. The coffee pot was perking, but that seemed to be a near constant state at the ranch and didn't indicate much about where the older man might be. Vin liked his coffee, but Levon loved it. The blond drank close to a pot a day, and Vin doubted Joe's absence had altered that habit.

Vin headed for the barn. It was the next logical place to look. The horses had already been turned out. Or maybe never brought in. If Levon wasn't working with any of them it wasn't unusual for him to leave them out in the pasture.

Vin looked toward the gym, noticing the doors were open. The gym had been constructed to match the architecture of the barn. From the outside it could easily have been mistaken for another, smaller stable. Inside it was a large open building that housed several pieces of aerobic workout equipment, free weights, some gymnastics apparatuses, boxing equipment and a padded floor that made for an ideal place to practice judo and grappling moves.

Vin spotted Levon working out in the back. The blond was working with two bamboo batons and a heavy bag. Vin recognized the pattern of strikes as escrima, a Filipino fighting style that the former sniper had more than a passing familiarity with.

It took a long time to master, but the basic moves were fairly simple, requiring more flexibility in the wrist and elbow than outright arm strength. Once he'd figured out how to let the baton do the work, Vin quickly realized strikes and blocks could be made with blinding speed. It was akin to working out with a speed bag in boxing, rhythm and coordination were more important than raw power.

Watching the blond it looked like he knew what he was doing. Levon's gray t-shirt and sweats were darker in places where the cotton had absorbed sweat. Vin moved closer, stepping into range of Levon's peripheral vision. He wondered how long the older man had been out here.

"Only been here 'bout fifteen minutes." Levon looked over at him, stepping back from the heavy bag, hands lowering the batons to his sides.

Vin shook his head, still surprised by how easily the other man seemed to know what he's thinking. "Ya gotta tell me how you do that some time."

"Not sure I would even if I could." Levon chuckled, and shook his head. "Larabee already asked first."

"You got another pair o' those." Vin pointed to the batons Levon held. Sparring would be a damn fine work out.

One blond eyebrow rose. "You know how to play?"


"Then I got another pair." Levon pointed with his chin toward a large wooden closet. "Might as well get us both a set we can spar with without doin' too much damage. Should be two sets o' padded ones in there."

Vin opened the closet to reveal a nicely ordered set of martial arts weapons covering an impressive array of styles. He whistled, looking over his shoulder at Levon. "You know how to use all o' these?"

"Between me, Joe and the rest o' our team, yeah." Levon shrugged one shoulder. "But me personally, no, I only know how to effectively use 'bout half o' them."

Vin knew that Levon's definition of 'effectively' likely coincided with Ezra's definition of 'fluent' with regard to languages. He'd bet good money the older man could use every weapon in the closet, and do well with any of them, even if his skills didn't measure up in his opinion to being as good as they should.

Vin found the padded escrima batons. They were basically a heavy foam rubber. Getting hit with them would sting, likely raise a welt and leave a few bruises but nothing would get broken. The heavier sticks like the ones Levon had been practicing with could easily break bones in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing.

Vin tossed one pair to Levon, the older man catching them easily. The heavier ones were already safely discarded off to the side of the practice area. "You wanna warm up first?"

Vin nodded. He needed to stretch out a bit, loosen up muscles that were too tense. He took his time, feeling hamstrings pull and flex more freely when he was done, shoulders rotating easily.

He felt a sudden flash of loss as he watched Levon do a few limbering exercises of his own. They were the same moves Ezra used. Vin shook his head, and did his best to banish thoughts of his missing lover.

They faced each other and nodded once, signaling to each other that they were ready. The initial movements were feints and blocks, feeling each other out, getting an idea of what the other was capable of. Several minutes were spent just testing each other to see what the other knew and how good they were.

Levon moved with the same lethal grace and economy of motion that Ezra used. Vin's throat tightened. The last time Vin had sparred like this was with Ezra and it felt wrong to be doing this with anyone else. But Vin wanted this, needed this, to lose himself in the moment.

He couldn't help but be impressed with Levon's speed and agile footwork. Levon had mastered the wrist snap that made use of the tip of the baton for accuracy so much faster and easier. It was a skill that eluded Vin from time to time, his instinct to use more force than finesse keeping him from truly mastering that technique. The younger man felt a flash of pride though when his own rapid blocks and neat movements easily let him dodge several of Levon's strikes.

His pride took a hit when Levon neatly executed a strike that clipped his wrist hard enough to cause his fingers to automatically release their grip. If it weren't for the rawhide loop that encircled his wrist tethering the baton, Vin would have dropped it. Vin bit back a curse, glaring when Levon smirked.

"Still wanna play?" The question was as cocky as the smirk. It made Vin want to take Levon down a peg or two. He wasn't a pushover, and he sure as hell wasn't a novice at this.

"You bet yer ass." Vin gave him a feral grin. He was eager to push himself, to not think past the moment, and this was just the sort of contest that would do that. He got an answering grin back. Levon's brown eyes sparkled and Vin knew he'd found a kindred spirit.

The stakes went up from that point on. Attacking movements and blocks coming faster as they covered more ground. Each man pressing, holding nothing back.

Vin forced Levon across the floor, but found himself on the defensive only seconds later. A mutually silent agreement had eliminated head shots, and that alone saved Vin from what would likely have been a ear ringing blow when Levon deliberately checked a follow up strike Vin could not have blocked.

Taking advantage of that aborted movement, Vin landed a solid hit to Levon's left side. The blond grunted and flinched away, letting Vin know he'd gotten his attention. The older man seemed to favor that side leading Vin to believe he might have found a weakness he could capitalize on.

"You still wanna play, old man?" Vin taunted, dancing just out of reach for a moment. It felt good to be able to do something, to take action and not be at the mercy of circumstance.

Levon's eyes narrowed, sizing him up. "Only just gettin' started, kid."

The rapid strikes that followed pressed Vin hard reminding him anew that the blond was good at this. Vin had to work hard to block most of Levon's strikes, finding himself responding to the rhythm the older man set, unable to establish is own. It frustrated him, and made him work harder to find a way to wrest control of their match away from the blond.

Vin knew more than one hit Levon scored was going to leave him with some interesting bruises. But this was a pain he could deal with far easier than the near constant ache that had settled in his chest since finding Ezra gone. He welcomed this pain with all its easy familiarity, and equally easy ability to be dismissed.

He managed to score a few hits of his own, again focusing on Levon's left side. He drew the older man into several moves that opened up the more vulnerable flank. He felt a savage surge of glee at knowing he had surprised Levon, showing he could do more than just hold his own.

Vin forced Levon back. He didn't notice when they'd worked their way to the padded area until he felt the difference under his feet. He had to adjust his stance for the additional cushion and less firm footing. It didn't slow him down or cause him to lose focus.

Sweating profusely now, breathing hard but easily, Vin continued to press the older man. He waited for an opening, focusing the weaker left side. It looked like Levon dropped his guard and Vin moved to take advantage of what he thought was a blatant invitation. It proved to be a trap he never saw coming.

Vin moved forward to strike as Levon lunged out and down on one knee. As the blond moved to duck Vin's attack he executed an upward movement with his right baton that went over Vin's neatly smacking the younger man hard and high in the chest. Levon used his left baton to catch Vin behind his knees in a move that literally took the former sniper's feet out from under him.

Vin hit the floor hard. He was absently grateful for the padding underneath him, knowing a similar fall on the hardwood floor would have left him breathless for more than a few several seconds. As it was, he was still stunned unable to do much when Levon followed up with a grappling move that kept him neatly pinned to the floor.

"Ya feel better?" Levon asked, panting slightly, when Vin reluctantly tapped out.

"Oh yeah…much." He gasped out getting a weak chuckle in response.

Levon patted his chest lightly and rolled away from him. Vin took a deep breath and bent his knees, pulling his legs toward his chest before thrusting them out and arching his back to snap upright in a move Hollywood action films had made famous. He grinned, feeling better than he had in the last two days and turned toward Levon expecting to see the blond facing him. Instead he saw Levon was still on his hands and knees, left arm held tight against his side, head bowed as he breathed shallowly.

Vin immediately stepped closer and crouched down. He hadn't thought he'd hit the older man all that hard. Enough force to bruise, but nothing really excessive. He guiltily remembered wanting to hurt Levon, not checking his strikes as he vented his anger, fear and frustration.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." Levon nodded, eyes closed. "Fine."

"Don't think so." Vin shook his head. Levon's color wasn't even close to what Vin thought of as normal for him. "Definition o' fine don't usually involve lookin' like yer gonna puke or pass out."

Levon sighed. "Point."

Vin ran a hand down Levon's back in a soothing gesture, unconsciously relieved that the older man had allowed him that liberty. Given how careful Levon normally was keeping some distance between himself and others, Vin hadn't been sure the blond would let him get close enough to help. He repeated the motion, trying to tell just by feel how much damage had been done.

"Let me see, Levon." He gently pulled Levon's arm away from his side, guilt growing as he remembered each blow.

"Wasn't you." Levon shook his head, eyes still closed, not fighting Vin's efforts to help him uncurl. "Well not…jus' you."

"Meaning?" Vin had caught the bottom of Levon's t-shirt and was working it upward, jaw tightening at the extent of bruising he could see. The deep plum color was a clear indication they weren't new. Although their recent bout hadn't helped matters any.

"Was working with a show horse…client was havin' trouble with. Miserable…son of a bitch tried…scrape me off using the corral fence." Levon swallowed hard, slowly uncurling a bit more to give Vin a better look at the damage, shallow breaths gradually evening out. The former sniper winced in sympathy. In addition to the obvious bruising there was also some scabbing from where skin had been scraped raw.

"Cracked three ribs." The blond was finally breathing easily, no hesitation in his speech. "Was one o' the reasons I'd o' been more of a liability than an asset on this latest job."

"Why the hell didn't you say something?" Vin ground out in exasperation and worry. He never would have suggested sparring or let it get so intense if he'd known Levon was already injured. Ezra was going to be so pissed that he hurt his cousin. Never mind what Joe might do. And Levon was his friend. Vin didn't make a habit out of inflicting damage on people he liked.

Brown eyes met blue. "Cause I need this too."

There was nothing he could say to that. No argument to be made. Vin grimaced. Joe and Ezra were still going to be so pissed. His jaw tightened. If they hadn't left in the first place none of this would have happened.

"Not their fault, Vin." Levon patted his arm, sitting up right and climbing to his feet. Vin rose with him, making sure he was steady before stepping back.

"Don't mean I'm not going to blame them if they start bitchin'."

"Fair enough." Levon chuckled weakly. "Course, if we just keep our mouths shut, there won't be anythin' for them to bitch 'bout."


"Might as well go get cleaned up." Levon nodded toward where he'd laid the heavier batons. "Git those for me, will ya?"

"Sure." Vin hung all three sets back in the closet, closing the door. He kept a close eye on Levon as they left the gym and headed for the house.

"Knock it off." Levon shot him a dirty look. "Ain't gonna fall apart on ya."

"Damn good thing." Vin shot back. "Don't want to have to carry ya."

Levon grinned. "What's the matter? You don't think ya could?"

Vin saluted him with one finger, making Levon's grin widen in response. The former sniper was impressed with how quickly the older man bounced back. He would never have believed it was the same guy who'd been on his knees only a few minutes ago pale as a sheet. It wasn't until Levon stumbled, a wince flickering across his features, that Vin remembered both Joe and Ezra's comments on Levon's ability to hide how much pain he was in. He still didn't have the entire story, but Vin knew enough to know Levon had learned that skill at an early age at the hands of his alcoholic father.

Vin knew better than to ask if Levon was all right. He'd get the same answer he'd likely give. It was better to just keep an eye on him, make sure he was there if Levon needed him. He didn't say a word as he reached out to cup Levon's elbow, offering support. The small smile he got in return let him know he'd done the right thing.

"What do ya want for breakfast?"

"Not really hungry." Vin gave Levon a wry glance. The question hadn't really been a request as much as it had been and order. "But I s'ppose I oughta eat somethin'."

"Got some homemade bread Joe made 'fore he left and some o' Mother Minnie's peach preserve." Levon waggled his eyebrows. "You up for some toast?"

Vin had fallen in love with Joe's bread the first time he'd visited the ranch. It was quite possibly the best thing he'd ever tasted. And Levon's grandmother's jams and jellies were easily a close second. Ezra kept a jar in the small fridge in their quarters at Camp AWOL. Once a month or so a new jaw would appear to replace the old.

Vin nodded, half-smile curling his lips. "Think I could eat that well enough."

"Good." Levon snickered. "I'm all out o' everythin' else."

"So what the hell were you gonna do if I'd a said I wanted steak and fried taters?"

Levon shrugged one shoulder. "I'd a said we were going out ta eat."

Vin laughed lightly. "Nice to know you had a plan."

"Hell, kid, I always got a plan." Levon smiled. "Not always a good one…but I always got one."

Vin had little trouble believing that. Ezra always had a plan too, thinking through actions and consequences, weighing the risks and odds. He resolutely did his best not to dwell on Ezra for the moment. He mustered a weak smile. "Toast and coffee it is."

<:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:>

Vin counted the rings as he waited for Chris to answer his cell phone. He'd considered calling the office again knowing the odds were good he'd simply end up talking to the machine. But he knew better. If he didn't talk to Chris directly the former Marine would eventually call him. And if that didn't work, he'd probably end up paying a visit to the ranch. While Vin had little doubt about his own welcome, he wasn't sure how Levon would react to the rest of the Seven for Hire team descending en masse.

Chris answered with his usual not quite curt, not exactly polite recitation of his name. It was both identification and an order to the caller to start talking and make it quick. Vin shook his head. "Didn't yer momma ever teach you anythin' about the right way ta answer the phone, Cowboy?"

"Vin…you all right?" Chris didn't so much ask as demand. "You get to Levon and Joe's okay?"

"Yeah." Vin nodded even though Chris couldn't see him. "I'm okay, Cowboy. Got here last night."

"You want to tell me why the hell you just took off like that?"

Just from the tone of his voice Vin knew Chris had a white knuckled grip on his phone. Vin winced. "Didn't mean ta worry ya."

"You thought…what?...I'd just have not one but two of my men disappear and I wouldn't even wonder about it?" Chris snorted and then sighed heavily. "Worry is all I've done since I met you. I'm getting pretty damn good at it."


"Yeah, I know." Chris' tone was readily forgiving. "Levon and Joe tell you anything? And why the hell didn't you JUST call them?"

"Ezra left me a note."

"A note?" There was a short but significant pause. Ezra had always managed to say his farewells in person before, or left a message on the answering machine just as Vin had earlier. His leaving a note was as significant to Chris as it had been to Vin.

"What did it say?"

"Said he'd gotten a call. Was gonna be his last one."

"Last one?" He could almost hear Chris frowning, eyes narrowed as he considered what that might mean. "Last as in never have to do it again…or-"

"Last as in never have to do it again." Vin quickly confirmed. "Needed to talk to Levon to know for sure."

"Ah." A wealth of understanding rounded out that small vocalization. Having been informed of the brutal death of his wife in child via an impersonal military telegram, Chris understood better than anyone how much better it was to have bad news delivered face to face. It didn't so much soften the blow as it made the truth of the situation more concrete and less deniable. Buck had mentioned once that Chris refused to believe Adam and Sarah were really dead until he'd sifted through the ashes of his home himself.

"So he's alone on this job?"

"Nope." Vin shook his head. "Joe's with him."

"Good. Got some reliable back up then." The satisfaction in Chris' tone was unmistakable. Only a heartbeat later he asked, "Levon okay?"

Vin shrugged. He wasn't sure he was qualified to give an answer to that. "Think so." The former sniper grimaced realizing just how uncertain he sounded. Every time he thought he had a good read on the older man, he went and did something that surprised the hell out of Vin. It was just one more character trait Ezra and Levon had in common.

Chris made another soft sound of comprehension. "You going to be there a bit yet then?"

"Yeah." Vin pinched bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Not sure how long. Know it leaves ya short handed and-"

"We can handle it." Chris stated firmly. "Don't worry about it, Cowboy."

Vin smiled tiredly. "Thanks, Chris."

"Don't thank me." Chris warned, a light teasing note in his voice. "I'm already thinking up ways you can make it up to me."

Vin chuckled. "This better not have anything to do with getting rid of Hoss." Chris had been trying since Josiah brought the broken down, never quite mobile Hummer to Camp AWOL to get rid of it. So far his efforts had met with little success.

"Might." Chris snickered. "The thing is an eye sore."

"No worse than Buck's truck." Vin countered. It was a mystery what held the older F250 together. The body seemed to have more rust than paint, but the engine ran as smooth as silk.

Chris snorted. "You might want to think twice before you say as much to Buck."

"I'll let JD tell him." Vin answered smartly.

JD had said as much on more than one occasion when Buck had ragged on the youngest's choice of transportation. Buck, ordinarily a lover of anything and everything with wheels and an engine, didn't think much of JD's motorcycle and had said so several times. The tall Midwesterner thought the Kawasaki was too dangerous. An argument that had always made Vin scoff silently given what they did for a living.

Chris laughed lightly. "You are a coward, Tanner. Getting the kid to do your dirty work."

"Prefer to think of it as engaging the enemy intelligently." Vin's smile faded as he realized what he'd just said was the same thing Ezra said on their last mission. He rubbed his chest, wishing that thinking about his lover didn't make him ache.

"He'll be home soon." Chris said firmly.

"I know, Cowboy." He tried to mimic the confidence Chris had imbued in his statement. He hoped that Ezra would be back soon, in one piece, but he wasn't as sure of that as he'd like to be. Vin hated this.

He hadn't realized he said that aloud until Chris responded to it. "I know, Cowboy. We all do."

Vin sighed. "I'll call ya in a couple o' days."

"I'll call you tomorrow." Chris countered smoothly, tone brooking no argument.

"Okay." Vin decided it was better to take the path of least resistance. He already knew arguing would be a losing battle. It left a warm feeling in his stomach to know Chris was watching out for him. There were several years of his life when no one was.

"Thanks, Chris."

"Any time, Cowboy, any time."

<:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:>

Levon sat back and tried not to think about how much his ribs were bothering him. He needed to keep busy to keep his mind off the fact that Ezra and Joe were somewhere else without him; the only way he knew how to do that was to put his body to work. It didn't matter that it hurt.

Vin wouldn't even consider sparring with him again. Having the younger man looking at him with a worried frown just made him feel guilty so pushing his workouts with Vin around simply wasn't an option. Fortunately on the ranch there was never a shortage of chores, chores Levon relished in knowing they provided him with an opportunity to stay busy and could be argued as being necessary.

He'd found a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in taking care of the legacy his grandfather and great uncle had seen fit to bequeath to him and Ezra. The ranch had always been a safe haven for both of them. And Levon wanted it to remain that way for years to come.

Over the past three days he and Vin had set themselves to tackling the list of things Levon had that needed doing. Several miles of fence had been checked and repaired. Vin wouldn't let Levon dig any of the post holes, telling him he wasn't going to have to explain to Joe why Levon was worse off now than when he'd left.

Levon snorted, remembering the defiant and determined look Vin had given him. He'd let the younger man dig all the holes he wanted. It wasn't like he'd ever intended to fight him on it anyway. Stringing the wire tightly and securing it was enough to convince him is ribs wouldn't tolerate the stress of digging.

It had taken both of them to move the irrigation pipe that Levon had for over twenty acres of alfalfa. He'd considered buying a motorized system with a central pivot but that style of irrigation used more water. Levon still thought a little sweat and swearing were better in the long run than using so much water.

He pursed his lips considering the hay crop. He didn't use that much alfalfa for the horses, typically feeding them more grass hay. But he liked having the better forage on hand for the brood mares. It should be ready to cut and bale next week. They'd already cleaned the loft making sure it was ready to store the new crop.

The slight sag in corral gate had been fixed. And the board that had cracked right along with Levon's three ribs had been replaced. The barn had gotten a new coat of paint as well. It probably could have waited another year, but Levon figured they might as well take care of it now. Other than leaving him with stiff shoulders from repetitive motions, it wasn't particularly labor intensive.

Vin had helped take care of the horses, mucking the stalls and working with some of the younger animals on a lunge line, one of the first steps in their training. The former sniper had been curious as to which one had caused Levon to be injured, giving each animal the once over as he asked the question before he started working with any of them.

"He's not here." Levon shook his head as he curry combed a yearling, getting the youngster familiar with being handled.

"Joe saw what happened and damn near shot the son of a bitch." The blond worked around animals nearly all his life and had accepted the idea that periodic injuries were bound to happen; Joe was not so understanding, which is why he'd been watching Levon work with the gelding in the first place when he usually didn't give the horses much more than a passing thought or cursory glance. Joe was aware the animal had severe behavior problems having heard Levon and the owner talking about the horse before it arrived. The Chicago native knew just enough about horses to understand that likely meant trouble for Levon. The blond figured the gelding had been lucky to get away with Joe punching it hard enough in the head to literally stagger the animal, nearly dropping it where it stood.

Levon shook his head slightly, still amazed by the force his partner could bring to bear. "Was touch and go there for a bit, but we finally agreed on Joe not killing him if I promised not ta work with him anymore. Sent the horse over to my neighbor's for the time being. Cory and I talked 'bout how to handle him. Started working ta correct that attitude and make him a good show horse again."

Levon sipped at his cold beer. Two o'clock in the afternoon might be a bit early, but given how hot it had gotten, Levon didn't really give a damn. He wanted a beer, and the time of day didn't really mean much to him since he'd been up before the sun had risen.

He glanced over to where Vin was dozing on the couch and smiled tightly. Levon hadn't been too far off on when he'd expected the former sniper to crash. The blond was more familiar with insomnia than he'd like to be, and knew his own limits with regard to it very, very well. He recognized the washed out, up for too long look on Vin's face having seen it on his own many times.

He sighed. Vin probably wouldn't sleep long, but every little bit helped. Levon knew there was nothing like hard work and heat to wear a man down.

Levon sat forward and used his left hand to push himself upright, grimacing at the flash of pain that made it hard to catch his breath for a second. He made his way silently into the kitchen, seeking the bottle of aspirin that took up constant residence above the sink. There were stronger painkillers in the bathroom, but Levon didn't like taking those. And he knew better than to take them with alcohol.

He swallowed three pills with a quick mouthful of beer. Levon made a face at the way the aspirin affected the taste of his beer. The dulling effect would be welcomed though.

Levon regarded the fridge for a few moments. He should make something for dinner. Something more substantial than what they'd been living on for the past few days. He nodded to himself and with drew some hamburger from the freezer to thaw. Could make them on the grill without too much difficulty. And the meal wouldn't be too heavy after how little either of them had consumed in the past few days.

Levon smiled to himself, shaking his head. He had a suspicion Ezra had sent Vin to talk to him not just to reassure his lover, but to give his cousin someone else to focus on. "Little shit." The whispered comment was said with more affection than condemnation.

He finished his beer, stepping back into the living room to check on Vin. Seeing that the former sniper was still sleeping, Levon headed for the bedroom he and Joe shared. A quick cold shower would help to deal with the heat. Then he'd see about tackling dinner and forcing both of them to eat something.

<:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:> ~ <:>

Vin sat in the swing, one foot pushing off the porch lazily to keep the swing in motion. He had eaten the hamburger Levon had convinced him to consume. Vin grimaced thinking the older man wielded guilt as well as he did the escrima batons.

Levon gave him a sidelong glance from where he sat in one of the Adirondack chairs. "Can't tell me you weren't hungry."

Vin snorted, sipping at the third obscenely expensive aged scotch Levon had handed him when he'd stepped out on to the porch only a few minutes ago. "Not gonna say I wasn't."

"Good." Levon grunted as he shifted position slightly.

"Ribs botherin' you?"

"Only every time I breathe."

Vin smirked. "Shoulda listened ta me."

"Shaddup." Levon returned with no real heat. He shifted again and sighed softly.

"You want some pain killers?" Vin frowned. He didn't like the idea of his friend suffering, even if it was the result of his own stubbornness.

Levon held up his own tumbler. "Got it."

"Not sure Joe would approve o' that kind." Vin offered quietly. He was certain Nathan wouldn't have.

"It's Joe's scotch." Levon arched an eyebrow. "He'll be more upset I was drinking it without him than he will be with the reason I was drinking it at all."

Vin snorted. "Liar."

"Sounded good though, didn't it?"

Vin made a waffling motion with one hand. "Fair to middlin'."

"Fuck you, Tanner." Levon grinned as he sipped his drink.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence for several minutes. Vin took a deep breath of the cooler night air. It wasn't as comfortable here as it was at Camp AWOL. The close proximity to the ocean and its steady breeze kept the heat of the day from being as sweltering as it was at the ranch.

"Can I ask you somethin'?"

Levon gave him a curious look, shrugging one shoulder. "Sure."

"If Ezra…if this mission works out right-"

"It will." Levon interrupted, his tone confident. Vin nodded, accepting that. He didn't want to believe otherwise either.

"So he's free?"

"Yep." Levon answered, clearly not at all bothered by Vin's wanting to rehash ground they'd already covered the first night he'd arrived.

"Where does that leave you and Joe then?"

"Joe got offered the same deal Ezra did."

Vin blinked. "He did?"

"Yep." Levon sipped his scotch, the ice clinking softly against the glass. "Told ya they were desperate." Levon shrugged one shoulder. "This'll be his last job." There was no mistaking the satisfaction and relief in Levon's voice.

"What about you?" Vin didn't like where that situation left Levon at all. Who would be his back up? Who would make sure he got home alive? Why hadn't he been given the same opportunity?

Levon's expression turned wry. "I earned the right ta quit more'n three years ago."

"I don't---" Vin shook his head, confused. "When we met in Denver-"

"Didn't tell you I was out then, 'cause I wasn't. Not really." Levon bit his lip. "All they ever needed ta hold me was for Ezra and Joe to be stuck." Brown eyes met blue. "Weren't any way I could say no, even though I had the right, and they knew it. Was likely the reason they were willin' ta cut me loose in the first place."

"Nothing like having a man over a barrel." Vin hissed out between clenched teeth. "Rat bastards."

"And then some." Levon agreed and then shook his head negating his statement. "Not really fair to lump them all in that category. S'like any thing in life…ain't all dirty and it ain't all clean."

The blond sighed, and sipped his drink. "Most people join up 'cause they think they are doing the right thing, doing somethin' that needs to be done." Levon grimaced. "Thing is, most stuff that needs doing usually ain't for the faint o' heart or the idealists." The older man tipped his head back to rest against the chair, eyes closed. "It's like cleaning an outhouse…or lancing an infected wound…needs doing, but it any pretty or pleasant for anyone involved."

Vin nodded slowly. Being a sniper had taught him a lot about similar situations. The army liked knowing they could put a man out in the field who could take out a target from over a mile away. It was a solution that made it easy to fix a problem with surgical precision. Eliminate one man rather than taking out an entire army.

But most people didn't like the feeling of vulnerably that came with knowing such things could be done at all. And death, be it one man or thousands, was still death. It was always ugly and brutal. Deciding who deserved it and who didn't was often a call made by the narrowest of margins, and not always made by those best qualified to judge.

"You said you earned the right to quit." Vin cleared his throat, feeling a bit like he was treading on shaky ground. "How did ya do that?"

"Politics." Levon opened his eyes and smiled tiredly. "And jus' be by bein' too damn stubborn to die when everyone else had enough sense to just lay down."

Vin raised both eyebrows. "Don't s'pose I'm going to get any more details than that."

Levon saluted him with his tumbler. "You s'pose right, Vin."

Vin snorted. "I hate you."

"Maybe so." Levon winked. "But I got my doubts about that."

Vin shook his head. Wasn't something worth arguing over, particularly since he didn't dislike, much less hate the other man. He just resented like hell that there were aspects of Ezra's life he had no concrete knowledge of. Those gaps sparked a curiosity in Vin that was like an itch between his shoulder blades that he couldn't quite reach. And he hated the fact that Levon was privy to all those secrets, knew his lover better than he did, might well always know him better in terms of events of his life that shaped into the man Vin had fallen in love with.

He sipped his drink before asking another question, curiosity and determination mingling again. "When yer all free o' these people, will I get straight answers?"

Levon shrugged one shoulder. "Term o' service might be over, but the promises made last a lifetime."

Vin made a moue of distaste, unhappy with the answer he'd been given but not surprised by it. "That would be a 'no' then."

"That would be a no." The blond agreed quietly. He pursed his lips and sighed softly. "There is always a possibility they might call again."

Vin's grip on his glass tightened and he almost snarled. "Thought Ezra was free when this job was finished?"

"He will be." Levon's expression turned rueful. "But like I said…it ain't all dirty. Every once in awhile, more times than I care ta think about, the ends did justify the means. And if we weren't suckers for a good cause, we wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place."

Levon tipped his head back, eyes centering on the full moon above them for a moment. "Doubt he'll be saying yes anymore." Brown eyes lowered to focus on Vin once more. "Got himself more than 'nough reasons to stay home and let someone else play secret agent man."

In spite of himself, Vin felt a flush of warmth at Levon's assessment. He wanted Ezra to stay home, or at the very least not leave without him ever again. He cocked his head to one side. "What about you?"

Levon's expression shifted through a number of emotions too fast for Vin to catch them all settling on one he couldn't read. "Won't go without Joe. Wont' have him leave without me again, that's for damn sure. But anything else…well, imagine we'll play that hand when it gets dealt."

Vin sighed and finished off his drink in one long swallow. "Why is it when I talk to you I end up with more questions than answers?"

"Dunno." Levon gave him a sly smile. "Think it has more ta do with the questions ya ask than the answers I give."

"Asshole." Vin pointed a finger at Levon, but the curse lacked any real hostility.

Levon just shrugged. "Hello, Pot, I'm Kettle."

Vin laughed lightly. Surprising himself with how good it felt to be able to do so, enjoying the banter that just came naturally with Levon. The only other person such lighthearted arguments and verbal sparring came so easily with was Ezra. He felt a sudden surge of longing that nearly choked him.

"Easy, Vin." Levon counseled softly, his tone the same as what he used around the skittish colt he'd worked with earlier that day. "S'okay, kid. Jus' take a deep breath….Let it out slow…and in again…there ya go. Good boy."

"I'm not a kid." Vin grimaced, giving Levon a dirty look to cover just how grateful he was for his soothing, coaxing guidance.

"Younger'n me." Levon returned quietly, no trace of apology in his voice. He held up his tumbler. "You want another?"

Vin considered the offer. He normally avoided drinking to excess; too much more and he'd be well on his way to being more than just tipsy. Getting drunk wouldn't really help the situation, but in all honestly, other than feeling like death warmed over tomorrow morning, he was pretty sure it wouldn't hurt much either. And if he passed out, at least he could get more than two hours of sleep at time, and maybe, just maybe he wouldn't have any nightmares tonight.

"Yeah, I'll have another."

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Joe sighed and settled more deeply into the chopper seat. He tried to ignore the steady throbbing coming from the bullet burns on his calf and thigh. Joe was grateful the shooter's aim was off just bit. The shallow grooves hurt like hell at the time and still ached, but they would definitely heal faster and easier than a true penetrating gunshot wound.

He glanced over at Ezra, wincing as he took in the black eye that was still swollen shut and the split lip. Joe was pretty sure Vin was going to have something to say about that once he got over the initial satisfaction over having his lover come home. The former Chicago native pursed his lips wondering how many four letter words would be involved when Vin found the knife cut on the right side of Ezra's abdomen that took twenty stitches to close. He was fairly certain it wasn't a bet Levon would be willing to take him up on.

Joe shook his head, banishing those thoughts for something better. He cued his mic and asked the pilot to call the ranch and patch him through when Levon answered. It didn't matter that it was three o'clock in the morning, long past and well before his lover's usual waking hours, he knew Levon would answer the phone.

Joe heard one ring and the beginning of the second when Levon answered. Just hearing his lover's voice, even only one word, made the off kilter feeling of the past week vanish. The world seem to right itself immediately.

"Hey, Cowboy."

"Hey, yerself." Levon responded with a smile Joe could hear easily. "You headed home?"

"Yes." Joe knew he'd packed a lot of satisfaction in that one word answer. "In transit now."

"Everything go okay?"

Joe recognized the question for what it really was. "Mission successful and everyone is in one piece."



A faint snort carried clearly through the line. "Define minor."

There was no mistaking the order there. Joe grinned in spite of himself. "Some stitches and bruises, but nothing that won't heal."

"Good." Levon sounded relieved and pleased in equal measure. "When will ya be here?"

"ETA is a couple of hours yet." Joe sighed and resisted the urge to scratch at the bandages under his combat fatigues. "Gotta drop of Ezra first."

"No you don't."

Joe raised both eyebrows. "I don't-"

"Vin's here, Joe."

"Ah." Joe nodded slowly. He remembered the note Ezra had left. He should have figured Vin wouldn't bother with the phone. Joe sure as hell wouldn't have.

He smiled slightly. "You owe me a dollar, Cowboy."

"Yeah, yeah."

He could almost see Levon waving a hand in a gesture that was both dismissal and defeat. Joe was glad to have been right this time. A faint frown creased his brow as he considered wither or not being right was actually a good thing or not.

"Everything okay there?" He knew Vin and Levon liked one another, and were probably the only other person either could turn to for true understanding of their situation, but given the tenor of Ezra's note it was possible Vin had shown up loaded for bear. Things could have gotten ugly, and the last thing Joe or Ezra would have wanted was for Levon to have borne the brunt of that.

Levon's soft sigh, followed by a faint huff of laughter carried through easily. "Gonna need more scotch, but otherwise fine."

Joe chuckled, relieved. "Drink it all did you?"

"Put a hell of a dent in the supply." Levon answered with wry tone and a smile Joe could hear and ached to actually see. It had been a long, long week. He hadn't thought he could miss his lover as much as he had.

"Missed you, Cowboy."

"Yeah, I know. Me too." Levon's tone was warm. Joe could almost feel his touch, voice managing to mimic the same light caress of Levon's knuckle ghosting over Joe's cheekbone and jaw.

"I'll see ya soon, Levon." Only a few hours more. That's all, Joe reminded himself. It wouldn't be fast enough, but it would have to do.

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Ezra smiled listening to Vin and Levon discuss something related to the ranch. He couldn't really be bothered to concentrate on what they were talking about, content to let the sound of their voices flow over him. At the moment he was just too damn comfortable where he was, lying on the couch cradled in Vin's arms. It was an added bonus to have Vin running his fingers through his hair in a near constant, soothing caress.

He sighed and settled more deeply, unconsciously pleased to have Vin tighten his hold, callused, capable hands moving to physically reassure himself that Ezra was still fine right where he was. Ezra didn't react when Vin's fingers lightly ghosted over the still healing gash on his side. Mentally he grimaced at how upset his lover had been when he'd seen the wound.

Ezra was damn glad he hadn't suffered anything more serious. He wasn't sure he could survive any more devastated, haunted by what might have been looks from Vin. As it was it would be awhile before he recovered from the recent blistering his ears had gotten when the former sniper started cursing softly but vehemently.

Levon hadn't said a word to Joe when he'd limped off the chopper but the look that passed between them had spoken volumes. It didn't keep them from hugging each other fiercely, coming together as naturally as flowing water and holding on for several minutes. For as long as they'd been together, Levon and Joe's relationship seemed to have only grown deeper with time. Ezra thought it boded well for his own future with Vin.

He opened one eye, the only one capable of opening until the swelling went down a bit more in the other, and gave Joe and Levon a quick once over. Ordinarily their position on the other couch would mimic Vin and Ezra's own, but Joe didn't think Levon's cracked ribs were up to holding his weight or reclining comfortably. Ezra suppressed a snicker as he recalled Joe's reaction to what Levon had been doing while he was away. At least he wasn't the only one whose ears had gotten blistered.

Instead of their usual position, Levon sat upright in one corner, feet propped up on the coffee table, with Joe's head in his lap as the former Chicagoan lay stretched out taking up nearly the entire length of the couch. Like Vin, Levon's fingers seemed to be constantly busy slowly combing through Joe's dark hair in an unconscious gesture of affection, comfort and reassurance. Joe's blinked sleepily reminding Ezra of a big cat. Piercing blue eyes met his for only a moment before Joe winked and closed his eyes completely, giving into the lethargy and simple comfort of the moment with a soft sigh.

Ezra's focus shifted to his cousin. The linguist was fairly certain that Levon hadn't slept more than a few hours a night the week they were gone. He knew Vin hadn't. The hollowed eyed, gaunt expression was one Ezra knew better than he'd like to. It was also one that he sincerely hoped never to see again.

Dark shadows still lingered under Levon's eyes, accentuating his normally fair skin to something more akin to a sickly pallor. The bruising shadows would fade with time, Ezra knew having seen it more time than he could count. A few good night's sleep, a few good meals, and his cousin would once more look as robust and healthy as he usually did.

Ezra grimaced knowing it would likely be several days before Levon got a good night sleep. Unlike Vin whose brief bouts with insomnia were always directly related to Ezra's absence, Levon's were often the product of more than just Joe being gone. For as long as he'd known his older cousin, Levon had always been a very light sleeper, never really seeming to settle easily into something most people took for granted, the ability to sleep deeply, uninterrupted for eight solid hours.

Golden brown eyes met his, a blond eyebrow arching in question. Ezra realized his scrutiny and changing expression had not gone unnoticed. He smiled slightly letting his cousin know everything is fine.

Levon gave an infinitesimal nod. Ezra knew better than to think it meant the older man was accepting his silent assertion. The blond would probably catch him later for a private, more detailed conversation. The linguist didn't mind. He'd take the easily granted reprieve and honestly welcomed a chance to talk with his cousin in depth later.

He was not surprised Vin didn't seem to have noticed the momentary, silent interaction between him and Levon. Joe had jokingly accused them on more than one occasion of deliberately hiding some sort of telepathic ability. That the conversation about the ranch continued uninterrupted was something Ezra was grateful for. The last thing he wanted was to disrupt the current mood.

He breathed in as deeply as the healing gash would allow and let it out slowly. Joining Joe in slumber didn't seem like a bad idea either. It had been a long week.

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As he drove Vin wondered if he should finally break down and get a new car. He loved how responsive the Bentley was, no hesitation when he depressed the gas pedal, gears shifting smoothly, no worry about whether or not it would start, no trick to open the door. Ezra's car was a thing of beauty and Vin could well understand his lover's fondness for the vehicle.

Vin stroked the steering wheel, enjoying the smooth, warm feel of high quality leather beneath his fingers. He couldn't afford anything this nice, but it wouldn't take much to buy something a step up from is hit or miss, rattle trap. Vin sighed, lips quirking upward in a small smile. If he did get a more reliable vehicle he wouldn't have an excuse to use the Bentley.

He glanced over at his lover, mouth open to ask Ezra what he thought Vin should look into getting. It was a topic they'd discussed several times, usually just going round and round for the fun of it. Vin shook his head slightly, mouth closing to form a fond smile as he watched his green eyed soul mate doze in the passenger seat.

Vin honestly hadn't expected Ezra to stay awake as long as he had. He knew his lover had spent the better part of last night talking to his cousin. Vin would have liked to have been on the porch with them, but Joe had shaken his head, and invited him to play chess in the living room instead. He was savvy enough not to argue against Joe's politely couched order.

"Got to give them some time to catch up." Joe had said quietly as he set up the beautifully appointed marble board and carved chessmen. "Got stuff between them that's private same as I got stuff with Levon that stays between us and you got with Ezra."

Vin remembered the heat of embarrassment that dusted his cheeks. At times he forgot Ezra had a life before him, before the team. Joe had given him an understanding look.

"Easy to forget isn't it?"

Vin had snorted, fingering one of the chess pieces. "You readin' my thoughts like Levon now?"

"Hell no." Joe had chuckled. "But I've been there myself often enough." Joe shook his head, expression turning rueful. "In some ways, Ezra and Levon are a hell of a lot closer than I'll ever be to either of them."

Turquoise eyes met sky blue. "Don't go thinking that makes you some sort of outsider, Vin. It doesn't."

Vin's lips twitched as mild envy and sadness were replaced with irony and humor. "You wanna form a club o' our own?"

"Sure." Joe grinned. "Think we already did the day we met."

In spite of lingering desire to know what Levon and Ezra were discussing, Vin enjoyed having a chance to bond with Joe. It helped to better understand the dynamic of the family he was now a part of. Vin grinned thinking about Joe's comment about how nice it was to get along with his in-laws. He snickered imagining Maude's reaction if he greeted her as 'mom'.

Vin had eventually followed Joe's example and gone to bed, leaving Ezra and Levon on the porch. He hadn't expected to be able to sleep, figuring he'd lay in the dark waiting for Ezra the same way he had for the past week, but Vin found himself waking with a start when he heard Ezra enter the bedroom hours later. He couldn't resist smiling and shifting to welcome his lover to bed, opening his arms to pull the other man close, relaxing even more deeply when Ezra was settled within his embrace.

There was something so incredibly right, so familiar and yet achingly new about that moment Vin had closed and eyes and strove to imprint it indelibly upon his memory. The warmth of Ezra's smooth skin against his, the subtle fragrance of his soap and shampoo, the way he whispered Vin's name as though granting a benediction. The petal soft kiss Ezra placed on his chest before raising his head to place a similar one on Vin's lips made the former sniper feel as though something broken inside was healed by that touch.

"Missed you." Ezra whispered, resting his forehead against Vin's.

"Missed you too." Vin had lightly cupped Ezra's face, blue eyes transfixed on his lover's green eyes made nearly black by the lack of light.

Ezra sighed, a soft puff of warm air ghosting over Vin's skin. The former sniper could feel his lover relaxing against him and welcomed the solid form melting into him. He moved his hands to run through Ezra's hair and encourage him to lay his head on Vin's chest. Ezra turned his head to place one ear over Vin's heart, a favorite position.

"S'good ta be home."

Vin smiled, an infusion of warmth overtaking him as he remembered Ezra's definition of home. He hugged Ezra gently, tilting his head to place a kiss in Ezra's hair. "Yeah, it is good ta be home."

"Never leaving again." Ezra declared in an emphatic whisper, rubbing his cheek against Vin's chest snuggling in the way he usually did to his down pillow.

"Good." Vin was decidedly pleased to hear Ezra say that, although a faint whisper in the back of his mind reminded him of Levon's words about promises made lasting a lifetime. He vowed that the if his lover did find himself ensnared again, he wouldn't be leaving without Vin.

It was perhaps the sobering prospect that their freedom might not be absolute which kept Levon and Joe from having any sort of grand party, but Vin doubted that. He suspected the older couple were like him and Ezra; that they found just being together, reconnecting with each other and reveling in simply being with each other more than sufficient expression of their liberation. It was rather poetic, Vin thought as his hands moved to caress Ezra's back. They were choosing to do what they would prefer to always do, be with each other; there was no better celebration.

They spent the few hours before dawn just holding each other. It was the most restful sleep Vin could remember getting in a long time. They could have spent more time lounging around and Vin wouldn't have minded, but Ezra was anxious to get back to Camp AWOL. So they'd left bright and early after a light breakfast with Joe and Levon.

Vin smiled as he glanced over at his dozing lover again. Vin had really come to appreciate the benefit of a good night's sleep. His lover's absence induced insomnia gave him greater understanding of what Ezra went through on nearly every job and occasionally at Camp AWOL. He was damn glad he didn't experience sleeplessness as often as his lover or Levon.

Without conscious thought his right hand moved to lightly caress Ezra's cheek, relieved that the swelling around Ezra's eye had gone down even though the bruising was still a deep purple. The former sniper was decidedly pleased to note that even though Ezra hadn't gotten that much sleep the night before he still looked more rested than he had when he got off the chopper. Tension lines around his eyes were gone and he looked far more relaxed and at peace.

Ezra sighed softly, leaning slightly into to Vin's touch. He murmured something Vin couldn't quite make out, but he figured that whatever Ezra said didn't really matter, he understood the intent. The former sniper reluctantly withdrew his hand. He didn't want to wake Ezra until they were pulling through the gates at Camp AWOL.

The others would likely want some sort of explanation, details and information. While he doubted Ezra would give them any more than he'd gotten, Vin knew the others would still demand something and Ezra would oblige. Vin figured it wouldn't hurt to let his lover rest up for that friendly interrogation.

Wouldn't hurt to let him rest up a bit for more active romantic pursuits either Vin thought with a grin. He was looking forward to a more physical expression of their love for one another. He'd missed that too, but knew better than to push for more until Ezra was back up to speed. His injuries weren't serious, but Vin wanted sex between them to be about not having to hold back, solely about giving and getting pleasure. He didn't want to cause Ezra pain, or to have to check his own actions and impulses. It was better to simply wait.

Vin would feel better once Nathan gave Ezra a once over and a clean bill of health. He chuckled quietly to himself knowing full well his lover would argue there was no need. There likely wasn't, but Vin was going to let Ezra talk himself out of anything. He was fairly confident he wouldn't be alone in his insistence. He'd already called Chris to let him know they were on their way home and the team leader knew Ezra had suffered a few minor injuries. Chris would see to it that Ezra got a thorough check up. Although not truly a military unit anymore, the former marine still had a way of issuing orders and seeing to it his orders were followed.

Vin sighed and shifted a bit in his seat. Even though the Bentley was far more comfortable than his car, hours in the seat still was still not the most pleasant way to spend the day. At least when they got home, he wouldn't be too stiff or sore. That was a true testament to the seat design.

He looked over at Ezra again. The linguist's hand moved restlessly for a moment. Vin reached over and lightly clasped this lover's hand, entwining their fingers. Ezra seemed to settle easily, a small smile forming almost immediately.

Vin nodded to himself. He could drive one handed all the way home if need be. Was only another two hours or so, not a big deal. He could got a hell of lot further than that if it meant being with Ezra.

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Chris sat on the swing, enjoying watching the rest of his team as they interacted like a class of unruly second graders. He couldn't keep the smile from forming and didn't bother trying. It was good to have everyone back where they belonged.

And everyone was back permanently. That was the best part. No more mysterious phone calls or secrets. Well, Chris amended that thought, no new secrets.

His lips twisted slightly as he considered the less than forthcoming answers Ezra had given in response to their questions. They still didn't know where he'd gone or what he'd done. Chris decided that it didn't really matter. The only thing that he cared about was Ezra wouldn't ever have to go on another one of those shadow operations again. He was sure the others felt the same way.

Chris took the beer Buck offered him and shifted so that he didn't take up quite so much of the swing, making room for his old friend to sit. Buck sat with his habitual slouch, grinning widely as he eyed everyone else. He raised his beer to clink against Chris'.

"Damn glad everyone is back where they belong."

"Yeah." Chris agreed with a smile. Buck never had any trouble expressing what everyone was thinking.

"You talk Ezra into a bonfire yet?" Buck wanted them to ceremonially destroy Ezra's cellphone in a cleansing fire.

"Sort of." Buck shrugged, blue eyes twinkling.

"Sort of?" Chris arched an eyebrow.

"Well, he wouldn't go for the whole pig and hulu dancers." Buck laughed, waggling his eyebrows. "But he is more than happy to toast the phone. Jus' asked us ta wait a week or so."

Chris frowned. "Why?"

"Wants to invite Joe and Levon."

Chris nodded. Vin mentioned Joe got the same deal Ezra had and that Levon was finally free as well. Chris wasn't entirely sure he understood exactly how all that worked, but he wasn't sorry to know Levon and Joe were free as well. They were good guys. Seemed only right that they be part of any celebration the team prepared.

"He call them?"

Buck gave him a disgusted look. "Chris, they've only been back a couple hours. Hell, man we only just suggested it."

Chris blinked. "Oh. Right."

Buck chuckled. "I should have given you an iced tea, big dog."

"Shaddup." Chris lightly punched Buck's shoulder. "And I haven't had too much to drink you pain in the ass."

"I know." Buck's grin softened to a warm, gentle smile as his eyes studied the others. "Just so damn glad to have them back it's easy to forget they really ain't been back all that long."

Buck pursed his lips in a silent whistle, shaking his head slightly. "Boy still has one hell of a shiner."

"Vin said it was worse yesterday." Chris shrugged one shoulder. "Least he can get both eyes open now."

"Nate gonna take out those stitches in a few days?"

"Yeah." Chris sipped his beer. "Said whoever stitched him up did a real good job. Figures it won't scar much."

"Lucky little shit."

"That he is." Chris nodded. "We all are."

Buck gave him a sidelong glance. "Didn't think I'd ever hear you admit that."

Chris snorted, eyes shadowing slightly with memories he tried not to dwell on. "Didn't think I'd ever have reason to say it."

Buck patted his shoulder, squeezing once. "Ain't you glad you listened to me?"

Chris nodded, and took a deep breath. "I'm just damn glad this was one of your better ideas." Shaking off his dark mood, he snickered, arching an eyebrow. "Hulu girls?"

Buck laughed. "Figured the rest o' you bachelor boys might enjoy having something pretty to look at." Buck gave him a sly wink, nodding toward JD. "Already got me something pretty o' my own to look at."

Chris rolled his eyes. "You are a romantic."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." Buck slapped his shoulder and rose to his feet. "C'mon, Chris, let's see to getting 'em all tucked into bed."

Chris snorted. "I'm not a den mother, damn it."

"You don't help, they'll be here all night." Buck pointed out with a small smile. "And you won't be able to sleep until you got all your boys tucked in."

Chris grimaced, giving Buck a dirty look. "Have I told you yet how much I hate it when you are right?"

"Once or twice." Buck laughed, not at all cowed. "You gonna help me here or what?"

"Yeah, yeah." Chris sighed as he got to his feet. It was time to remind his team they had beds and it was about time they found them. He grinned. It felt good to know they'd all be right where they were supposed to be. It felt mighty damn good.

"Alright you losers, our lost lambs are home. And they're not going to disappear into a puff a smoke." Chris called out to his unruly team. Everyone had been hanging close to both Vin and Ezra since they'd arrived as though afraid if they took their eyes off them they'd vanish again. "Let's wrap this up and get some rest."

"Aw Chris, it's early yet." JD insisted. "We've only just-"

"We've got a training run in the morning." Buck countered easily, easily wrapping one arm around JD in a loose hug.

"All of you." Chris narrowed his gaze, feeling a certain sympathy for his old drill sergeant as he assessed his troops. "Except for Ezra, until Nathan gives him a clean bill of health."

Ezra grimaced at his pronouncement but didn't argue. Josiah frowned at him in a look Chris correctly read as annoyance and insult, but the big man didn't fight him on it. Nathan just shrugged, looking a bit resigned. Vin's expression was neutral, but his relaxed posture was a clear indication he wasn't at all upset with Chris' herding them off to bed.

Chris suspected Vin might even be a bit relieved to have him intervene. Vin had been sending concerned looks toward Ezra ever since the linguist started yawning an hour ago. He obviously wanted Ezra to rest, and Ezra was just as obviously reluctant to leave clearly enjoying his time with the others.

"Lights out in ten." Chris ordered causally in a voice that he was sure his old drill sergeant would have recognized as his own. He resisted grinning in triumph when his team began moving, cleaning up as they went.

Chris ignored the grumbling and less than military precision with which they all shuffled off toward their respective barracks. He also overlooked the way Buck patted JD's ass, and the fact that Vin and Ezra were holding hands. They might respond to his orders out of habit, but sure as hell weren't true military any more. Chris couldn't bring himself to feel bad about that.

He sighed and stretched. Bed time for him too. He grinned evilly already planning the workout for tomorrow. They had a couple of job offers that he needed to look over again now that they were back up to their full compliment. Would be good to know everyone was fit and ready to go.

He'd find some less physical aspect for Ezra on whichever job they took. Somehow he was fairly confident it didn't matter. The linguist had always managed to pull his weight, and Chris had no doubt he'd continue to do so.

Chris nodded to himself. God it was good to have everything back the way it should be. He shook his head as he realized just how right Buck had been. He was waiting for them all to be inside their barracks, to have the lights go out and everyone settled in.

"Goddamn it." He whispered that curse. "I am a den mother."

Chris laughed softly and headed for his own barracks. Den mother Larabee. So be it. He'd been a lot worse things in his life. At least this title came with benefits.