Oak '04: Whys And Wherefores

Commercial flights rarely take off on time. Hell, the whole time I was in the service military flights rarely took off on time either, so I’m used to the idea of waiting. Used to it may be overstating the case…resigned to it probably fits better. Know I wait a damn site better than Chris, Vin, Buck or JD. Not that that is really saying a whole lot. Only one on the team who really waits with any real grace is Josiah, although Ezra can give him a run for his money when he’s in the right mood.

I couldn’t help thinking when the stewardess announced the delay due to severe thunderstorms that I was real damn glad Chris had decided the whole team didn’t have to go. Took all of us to find the runaway we were looking for, but it wasn’t like it took seven men to return her to her family. Sheila Riley was a good kid who just got caught up in a bad situation…she just needed a little encouragement and reassurance to get her headed in the right direction- home. Three of us were more than enough to ensure she got back to her upscale middle class Pittsburgh neighborhood safe and sound. How much she shared with her family about what she was doing south of the border wasn’t something we had to worry about. Another thing I was grateful for.

Our flight is expected to be delayed for a little over an hour the Stewardess announced with a smile. Wonder if they all get training in how to apologize insincerely for the inconvenience or if it is just her. Oh well. It really isn’t all that bad when I remember having a layover that lasted twelve hours because of mechanical difficulty, something I was glad they found while we were still on the ground, even though I resented like hell the delay. I just kept reading my book and did my best to wait patiently. Figured that was really the only option. I snickered thinking Chris would probably have disagreed with that sentiment.

I had expected Vin to be pacing or fidgeting nervously like he usually does. But he just sat there, slouched enough sideways so he was leaning a bit into Ezra, eyes closed, headphones Ezra had loaned him firmly in place listening to whatever CD was in the walkman. He hasn’t changed the CD since we got here that I saw, and I make a mental note to ask Ezra what was in there keeping Vin from freaking out. Never saw him so relaxed about flying…unless of course it was Buck at the helm. Can’t really blame him there. Buck has to be the best damn pilot I’ve ever flown with, bar none.

Ezra spent his time working on a crossword puzzle. Would have thought him totally engrossed in it if not for the way he’d look up now and again to check the flight board. And every so often he’d reach out to touch Vin’s arm or pat his leg. Ever since Ezra had gotten back from his last trip away I’d noticed he and Vin were both a bit more prone to touch than they’d been before. Usually wasn’t anything real blatant, but it was definitely there.

“He really missed you a lot.” Slips out as I watch Vin move his head enough to rest it more comfortably on Ezra’s shoulder. What I said is really one hell of an understatement. Vin was more like a shadow of himself while Ezra was away.

“The feeling was mutual.” Ezra responds softly, glancing toward Vin’s face, his expression verging on tender. In another place I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Ezra place a kiss on Vin’s temple, but here it is just way too public for him to make that sort of display of affection.

I watch Ezra shift carefully in his seat, letting more of Vin’s weight rest against him. Can’t really be all that comfortable for either of them, but Vin looks as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him, damn near boneless actually. With his eyes closed it is hard to know for sure if he’s asleep or not. No reason to wake him up. Not when we got no idea when we’re going to be allowed to board the damn plane.

“Don’t think he’s had a lot of good things in his life. Not really a big surprised he’d worry over losing you.” I observe quietly, thinking about what little I know of Vin’s past. He’s never said much, but what little he’s let slip hasn’t exactly been Ward and June Cleaver material. Not all that hard to picture Vin being devastated if Ezra hadn’t made it home.

I don’t think Ezra’s past was really all that much better than Vin’s, his family having more than just a little money not withstanding. Although, having met his cousin, it is nice to know Ezra had some reasonably decent family he could count on. Still, even with familial support, I’m pretty damn sure that he’d be just as devastated if anything happened to Vin.

Green eyes meet mine, a faint glow to them letting me know something I said has pleased him. “You think I qualify as a good thing in his life?”

“Yes.” I chuckle, shaking my head slightly that he’d even have to ask. Thought I’d already said as much when I found out they were together, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to repeat it. My momma always told me good things usually bear repeating. Would hate for her to think I hadn’t learned even that much from her. “Blind man could tell you are good for each other.”

Ezra smiles, dimples appearing. He gives me one of those regal tips of his head. First time he did that it annoyed me, but now I understand it a whole lot better than I used to. He don’t do it all that often and not everyone gets it so I’ve come to think of it as being akin to the gold stars my teachers used to give me in grade school.

Truth is we all understand one another better than we did when we first met. Course, Vin and Chris seemed to hit it off from the minute they laid eyes on each other. Damn glad they did or I wouldn’t be here today. Probably one of the luckiest days of my life was having both of them in Purgatorio at the same time. I can hear my momma’s voice telling me ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

Even with that instant connection, I am willing to bet Buck and Chris are still better friends in some ways than Vin and Chris. Buck and Chris got some deep history between them. I’m thinking they are still learning things about each other though. Sort of always figured that was what it took to make a friendship that lasted. Find out everything worth knowing in ten seconds, I’m guessing there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to stick around any longer than that. Know I’m still learning things about Josiah and we’ve known each other for years.

JD isn’t quite so wet behind the ears any more. Not that he ever really was. Kid had more guts and intelligence than we gave him credit for. Only reason that first mission really worked was because of the ground work he laid. Pretty sure he gets that we valued his help or Chris never would have offered him the job, but I make a mental note to tell him just in case. Compliments, even those handed out late, aren’t a waste of time.

I frown a bit thinking about that job. Like this last one, it wasn’t exactly something that paid us a whole hell of a lot, but it was the right thing to do. Damn drug lord wanna be shouldn’t ever be allowed to run roughshod over good people like that. Still pisses me off when I think about children afraid to play outside, women afraid to walk the streets alone in broad daylight, teenagers with no future but to join a gang and run drugs. Whole reason I was there was to help people. Taking that bastard and his gang out was probably one of the best things for them I could have done.

Know Chris did it pretty much for the same reason. Man had a lot of anger to work through and taking it out on someone who deserved it was better therapy than any psychiatrist could have devised. The thought of Chris in a traditional anger management seminar leaves me torn between feeling decidedly amused and sorry for anyone else trapped in there with him.

Probably didn’t hurt that he was going to be living right next door. Chris isn’t the sort of man to tolerate having a den of rattlesnakes near by. Not if he can help it. One of the things I have to respect about the man…he might practice a firm policy of leaving others alone as long as he was left alone, but he would never stand idly by and allow an innocent to be hurt if he could do something about it.

Buck was there because Chris asked for his help. And I’ve never met anyone with a sense of adventure quite like Buck’s. Man is an adrenaline junkie. Think his definition of a good time has to involve either getting naked or damn near dying. When all hell is breaking lose he’s one of the most stable, well-centered people I’ve ever seen…if you overlook that crazy ass grin on his face.

Know Josiah signed on for reasons similar to Buck’s. I asked for his help, and as a long time friend, he couldn’t turn me down. The man might have a unique perspective on right and wrong, but he definitely has one, and making Purgatorio a safe place to live certainly fell within the category of ‘a good cause’.

Funny thing, I don’t really know why Josiah was in the area in the first place. I mean, yeah, I knew he was working to restore the church, but the man is no misguided missionary. When I asked him why he was trying to rebuild a ruin all he said was he was working as an act of penance; knew better than to ask him what it was he felt he needed forgiveness for. Given that he was working as a spook when I first met him, I figured asking him would just put him in a position where he’d be forced to lie to me or reply only with silence.

Not really sure I know why Vin was even in the area. Don’t think he’s ever mentioned it, and I was just so grateful in the beginning that he was there to save my neck, I never thought to ask. Figure it’s probably better not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I’d be willing to bet Chris knows what Vin was doing in Purgatorio. Just seems like the sort of information the two of them would share. I give Ezra a considering look thinking he likely knows as well. Figure Vin knows what Ezra was doing there. If he is, then he’d be the only one.

Ezra raises an eyebrow at me. Must have seen my look. “I was thinking about our first job together.”

“Ah.” Ezra nods his head, lips curling up slightly at the corners. “A bit different than this one, eh?”

“Not that much different.” I counter, still pitching my voice just loud enough to carry to Ezra but not so loud as to bother Vin.

“If you overlook the fact that during this assignment,” he holds up a hand, counting off points as he spoke, “we were not shot at, didn’t shoot anyone, nothing blew up, and there was no blood spilled by any of us or anyone else for that matter, then yes, I’d have to agree.” Ezra laughs silently, shaking his head. “Oh, I assent wholeheartedly that both were worthwhile endeavors, but the first definitely had a more…how to say it....'we are all going to die' fatalistic aura.”

I snicker. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Really?” Ezra gives me a look. “Then why did so many of our little company insist that JD was much too young to be exposed to such dangers?”

I sigh. It was hard to argue against that. “Don’t remember you telling JD he was too young or that it was too dangerous?”

“It is his life.” Ezra shrugs the one shoulder Vin isn’t resting against. “It wasn’t as if all those dire warnings and admonishments produced the desired result anyway. He was still there in the thick of things with us.”

I shake my head, not negating what he said just a bit bemused by the whole situation. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Ezra smiled. “So I’ve been told.”

“Why were you there?” That just naturally slips out and I wince knowing I might have stepped over some unseen boundary. I get another raised eyebrow for my trouble, green eyes glinting at me with a mixture of amusement and challenge. Sometimes I get the feeling he’s testing me to see I’m really committed to a course of action or not.

With a mental shrug, I figure I may not have meant to ask, but I’ve already made an assault at the gate, might as well keep going. “Purgatorio isn’t exactly the kind of place one ends up accidentally.” The town barely graces the map, has no tourist attractions to speak of, and in spite of being a border town, it lacks any major thoroughfares that would allow traffic to pass thru easily on their way to somewhere else.

“It isn’t the sort of place you just stumble across and decide to stay awhile.” I’m sure once in a great while someone just happens across it. They might have run out of gas, taken a wrong turn, or gotten a wild hare to try out a lesser known road…but Ezra’s way too smart to fall into the category of ‘victim of circumstance’ or carelessness.

With a bit of daring I deliberately ask again, knowing he rarely refuses to answer a direct question. “Why were you there?”

Ezra bites his lower lip, and I can almost see him weighing his thoughts. It is probably the only tell he has and has become something of a red flag to the rest of the team. It only shows up when he’s weighing the odds very carefully; like when he’s about to say something he isn’t sure how we’ll receive or something he isn’t sure he wants us to know. Nothing to do but wait and see if this is one of those times when he elects to choose silence over answering.

“The growing drug traffic crossing the border in Purgatorio was something of an open secret.” Ezra sighs softly, one hand drifting to again touch Vin’s leg. This time I think the touch is more because he needs it than because Vin does. “There was no official government mandate or initiative to halt that flow, but that doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t being regularly monitored and assessed.”

“You were there to do that?”

“No.” Ezra smiled bitterly. “But I knew the man who was.”

“Friend of yours?” I hazard a guess.

“I believe it would be more accurate to say we had a mutual pact of non-aggression than to say we were friends, but I respected him. And I like to believe that he held me in a similar regard.” Ezra sighed. “When his death was reported, I took it upon myself to find out what had happened to him.” His eyes were suddenly shadowed with an emotion I couldn’t decipher leeching the light jade green of nearly all color. “His wife and children deserved better than the standard ‘training accident’ explanation so frequently given to those without sufficient clearance to know the truth.”

His expression turns wry. “Mr. Larabee’s request I join in your endeavor was fortuitous.”

I can feel both my eyebrows climb. “How so?”

“It improved the odds considerably that justice would be successfully dispensed.” He gave me a smile that held very little warmth, reminding me anew that under his civilized veneer lurks a very dangerous man. “All of them deserved a slow, painful death, but I was willing to settle for them simply dieing.”

I remember thinking he seemed to be very thorough on that job; he shot every single man twice, head and heart, like he wanted to be damn sure they were dead. Remember thinking he was one of the most focused, cold-blooded bastards I’d ever worked with. At the time I thought that was an asset, but I freely admit it made me a bit leery when he signed on with the team permanently. I half expected him to be like that all the time, even though watching him play with the kids in Purgatorio should have been ample proof I had nothing to worry about. Glad I got the chance to get to really know Ezra P. Standish.

“Thank you.”

“What for?”

Lots and lots of things, but I settle for the obvious. “You didn’t have to answer me.”

I am rewarded with another of those regal head bows. “You are welcome, Nathan.”

Stewardess’ announcement we’ll be boarding shortly cuts off any other comment I might have made. Honestly, I’m not sure what the hell to say so it is probably just as well she cut me off. I’m not always very good at knowing when to leave things well enough alone and not to push so hard all the time. Has taken me awhile, but I’m slowly getting the hang of having conversations about Ezra’s past take place in piecemeal fashion, settling for what information he’s willing or able to give at the time.

I shove my book into my carryon bag where I can get it again when we are on board. Carryon is all any of us brought, so at least we won’t have to stand around to collect our stuff when we finally get to Corpus Christi or worry they lost it in transit. Can never figure out how a delay almost guarantees they’ll lose your luggage. All that extra time must muff up their ability to do their jobs right or something.

Ezra lightly shook Vin’s leg, shifting to remove the headphones before leaning in to say something I couldn’t hear. The way Vin blinked and stretched made me think he really must have dozed off. He gives Ezra the sort of smile I get from Rain, and I look away to give them what privacy I can.

No one else is even paying much attention to us. They are all too fixated on the thought that they might get to leave the gate and continue moving. I managed to suppress a snort. They get all antsy from sitting and then get excited about the prospect of having the opportunity to sit some more. Just plain stupid; the whole lot of them.

We just wait a bit longer, letting everyone else mill around like cattle in a loading pen. Sort of wish I had one of those electric prods they give the guys who work at livestock auction barns. I trade a grin with Ezra, knowing he probably has a damn good idea what I’m thinking. Likely shares the sentiment.

I’ve found being the last to board has several advantages. Don’t have to deal with people slapping you with their bags as they go by. Don’t have to get out of your seat to let someone else in because the schmuck with the window seat always manages to get on after you do. It is actually easier to find your seat or an open spot that sometimes magically appears and means you won’t have to share an armrest for the entire flight. And best of all, it gives Vin less time to get antsy about the whole flying thing.

We are the last ones to board. Somehow knowing that we are last always makes me feel sort of smug, like all these impatient people already in their seats and eager to be gone were held up for the us. And the damn plane won’t take off until WE are seated. Hah.

Flight is about three quarters full. Not great but not unbearable either. Fortunately all three of us are seated in the same row. Ezra takes the window seat. Know he gave the one passenger behind us a quick once over, evaluating him as a possible threat as he moved inside. Ezra’s not obvious or anything, I’ve just around him enough to spot that little habit. Man behind us looks old enough to be my grandfather. Safe bet he’s no danger to us.

Although Vin doesn’t really like feeling confined, he silently takes the middle seat. Learned some time ago he handles flying better if flanked by people he knows. When the whole team flies together someone usually takes the seat in front of him and behind as well if we can swing it. Him being quiet is pretty much part of the routine too. Isn’t like he says much on a good day but when he’s nervous the man does a fair imitation of being mute.

Ezra pulls the shade down. Vin says if he can’t see outside it is easier to ignore the fact that he’s so far above the earth trusting his life to someone he’s never met. Personally, I don’t even think about it much. Always figured flying fell into that category of things my momma said required putting your faith in God and just trying not to dwell on.

Vin’s face doesn’t give away much. Wouldn’t think he was tense if you couldn’t see the white knuckled grip he’s got on the arm rest with one hand and way he’s got his other hand entwined with Ezra’s, holding on for dear life. Even before they were lovers, Vin always made a point of sitting next to Ezra. I’ve never quite figured out what it is about Ezra that helps him, but I guess it doesn’t much matter why it works or how, only that it does.

Having the aisle seat is really just an illusion of more space and leg room, but I like having it. Know Ezra usually prefers the aisle, so I’m fully aware he did me another favor by taking the window seat. I look around Vin to nod and smile at him, let him know I appreciate it. He just waves his free hand in a dismissive gesture.

Ezra pulls on a faded long sleeved flannel that has got to belong to Vin. It isn’t too heavy but will definitely be warmer than those paper thin blankets the stewardess usually offers. He shifts a bit in his seat before resting his head on Vin’s shoulder, closing his eyes with a sigh.

“Wake me when we land, will you?” Ezra tosses that out to either Vin or me with no real expectation of an answer, knowing it is pretty much a done deal. Vin tilts his head enough to rub his cheek against Ezra’s hair, blue eyes partially hooded, but watchful. Their clasped hands are now hidden between them so to strangers they look like a couple of worn out travelers, friends using each other as pillows.

Vin might have been able to sleep in the airport, but I am sure he’ll be awake for the entire flight. Never could understand how Ezra can sleep so easily on a plane. My being awake isn’t a nervous thing like Vin’s. More like I just can’t get comfortable enough to relax. If I were tired enough, I can and have slept pretty much anywhere, but I’m not that tired most of the time.

I sigh and try to relax. We should be landing in Corpus Christi in a few hours. From there it’s just a short drive to Camp AWOL. We’ll get home a little later than planned, but we will get home, and that is all that matters.

Beginning to share Chris’ desire to have everything go the way it should just once. Course, it is the unexpected stuff, good or bad, that tends to make life a bit more interesting than it would be otherwise.

I laugh silently, mentally picturing the expression on Chris’ face if I said as much. No, that little pearl of wisdom, like the bit of information Ezra shared with me just a few minutes ago, is best kept to myself.

Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to have a similar conversation with Vin. A quick glance over at my traveling companions is all it takes to tell me today is not the day. No worries. I smile to myself. Doesn’t really matter why he was there any more than it mattered why Ezra was there. They were and we did good together. And we’ve been doing good together ever since. My momma would be right proud of me, I think, for knowing that.