Reed '05: Too Little Luck

The pulsing beat of drums was powerful, and Vin could almost feel his heart rate accelerating to match.  He shook his head, trying not to be distracted by the crush of people.  He hated crowds and this one was larger than anything he'd ever had to deal with before.

Cymbals chimed in counterpoint to the drums as whirling dancers moved up the street.  Firecrackers exploded intermittently, startling those closest to them and eliciting shrieks of delighted surprise from small children.  Sparklers and brightly colored streamers added a visual component to the cacophony of sound, making Vin feel even more disoriented.  

Under other circumstances Vin could imagine this revelry as fun and exhilarating.   As it was, the whole thing seemed designed to thwart their efforts.   So many people and so much going on made the job nearly impossible.

He wished the hell he could get above the street.  Vin knew that wouldn't really help him track their quarry.  From a distance details got lost in this moving mosaic of sight and sound, this annual festival of the new year.  Still, he missed having a bird's eye view.  

"Why the hell can't they celebrate the new year on the first of January like everyone else?" he growled.

"Because that isn't their new year," Ezra pointed out reasonably, sharp green eyes scanning the crowd.  "There wouldn't be any fewer people then."  He grimaced.  "And it wouldn't be any warmer then than it is now."

Chicago in February could be just a brutal as it was in January.  Vin missed the heat of the Texas sun and he knew Ezra did too.  Both of them had bundled up in several layers, the added bulk of clothing felt unnatural to Vin, confining and uncomfortable.  He hated feeling like he wouldn't be able to access his weapons with his usual speed.  

Ezra flinched when what looked like a roulette wheel with rockets attached moved by them.  The wheel spun maddeningly casting a shower of harmless sparks in its wake.  Vin wondered if they had to get a permit for that thing.  

"Are we even sure Li Pong's uncle is here?"  Vin asked, trying to pinpoint a face to match the picture Li Pong had given them three weeks ago.  

"No."  Ezra shrugged one shoulder, his breath fogging in front of him as he spoke.  "But the entire community is here for the parade and festivities.  It is probably our best chance of locating the miserable bastard."

Li Pong's uncle, Cho, had been trafficking in illegal immigrants for years.  He'd been instrumental in bringing Li Pong and her younger brother and sister to the states nearly a year ago. The work as a wealthy families' maid her parents had been promised for her and her sister hadn't materialized.  Instead Cho had put Li Pong to work as a mule, ferrying drugs from California to Chicago, using the threat of harm to her younger siblings to keep her in line.

Vin supposed on some level swallowing bags of heroin was a better alternative than working as a prostitute, but not by a whole hell of a lot.  Once she'd gotten over her fear, she'd been decidedly grateful when the Seven for Hire team had stumbled across her while working a simple security detail near the docks.

Vin still cringed by how frightened she'd seemed, so small and fragile.  Little girls weren't supposed to cower like that.  They weren't supposed to look back at him with ancient eyes, terrified but resigned to take whatever came.

Ezra knowing Mandarin had definitely been a life saver.  Literally.  Had she not been able to communicate just how many condoms full of drugs she'd swallowed and when, Li Pong would have died of a drug overdose.  JD had a friend with one of AP news stations who regularly supplied photos and information used by hundreds of wire services.  He hadn't baulked at using Li Pong's face as pictures of the latest Jane Doe, yet another hapless victim of the failing war on drugs.  

Unfortunately, her younger sister and brother were still in Chicago, under Cho's control.  Li Pong had no clear idea what Cho had them doing.  She'd only seen them twice since coming to the United States, and had been unable to speak to them either time.  

Vin discretely cued his mic.  "Anythin' on yer end, Cowboy?"

"Not yet," Chris answered.  He and Buck were further down, on the opposite side of the street.  JD was taping footage of the parade and the crowd from the van for later review if they missed anything.

Nathan and Josiah were keeping an eye on the bar/restaurant that Cho owned, hoping to spot him or Li Pong's siblings.  Vin envied them being in somewhere out of the wind and cold.  But even with the lousy weather and crowd, Vin wouldn't have wanted to miss out on the parade.  As distracting as it was, he was glad to have a chance to see it.

Vin stared, mouth agape at the dragon that was making its way up the street.  The bright red with gold accents certainly made it hard to miss.  The large head with its open mouth swayed and danced, leading the long sinuous body in a serpentine trail that moved from one side of the street to the other.  

He'd seen stuff like this on TV before, but never in person.  Vin hadn't realized how large the dragon would be.  Or how hypnotic the movements would seem.  The steam coming from the nostrils added a nice effect, making it seem even more alive.   

Ezra slapped his arm.  "There."


"Tip of the tail."  Ezra pointed discretely with his chin.  

Li Pong's brother, Liang.  He was the middle of a row of teenagers closely following the dragon down the street.  They were handing out candy and good luck money to smaller children watching from the sidewalk.  

Vin relayed the boy's position to Chris.  There was no way to grab him here, not now, but they could follow.  He scanned the crowd again hoping to spot Li's sister, Mingmei.  If they couldn't find her here, maybe the boy could lead them to her.

Chris told them to stay put, he and Buck would follow Liang.  JD would keep filming.  They might get lucky and spot MingMei but Vin doubted it.  They'd touch base in another fifteen minutes.

Vin wasn't sure he'd recognize Mingmei. The only picture Li Pong had was of her as a toddler.  JD had used the same software the FBI used to update photos of missing children to age it.  The result had a close proximity, but among a crowd of Chinese people Vin wasn't convinced the photo would be good enough for him to spot her.

He wasn't really surprised it was Ezra who'd spotted Liang.  His lover hadn't said so, but it was a safe bet he'd spent enough time in various parts of Asia to not suffer from the stereotypical 'they all look alike' syndrome that seemed so prevalent in most Americans.

"You see her?"

"Not yet."  Ezra shook his head, a small frown forming between his brows.  

Vin knew he was worried about what Cho might have Mingmei doing.  She was only twelve, but Vin didn't think her age would bother Cho much.  Fucking bastard.  

Vin wanted to put the man down like a rabid dog.  Once he was located, Vin might do just that.  He had his rifle packed, unwilling to leave it behind just in case it was needed.  With it, he could take the fucker out at half a mile easy. No one would even know he'd done it.  

"You have my blessing."  Ezra's smile was feral.  Vin nodded.  He no longer questioned just how Ezra knew what he was thinking.  

"Think Chris will mind?"

"No."  There was no hesitation or doubt in Ezra's answer.  

Vin nodded to himself.  This job was pro bono.  Not like his taking out Cho would have consequences for them.  And getting rid of the miserable bastard might just be doing the world a favor.

Chris' voice crackled with static when it came over the mic.  "Anything?"


"We'll stay on the boy.  You guys and JD meet up with Nathan and Josiah when the parade is over."

"Roger that."

"Touch base in one hour."

"Will do."

Vin sighed and scanned the crowd again.  "How long 'fore this is done?"

"Not much longer."  

Vin watched the passing float decorated with red flags bearing gold dragons.  The little pagoda building on top was very pretty.  It reminded Vin of some sort of life sized doll house.  Behind it came several people with drums and cymbals.  He winced in response to the din.  

"I believe that is the last one."  Ezra fidgeted just a bit, clearly trying to generate some warmth.  "The fireworks will go on for a while yet, but the parade is finished."

Vin headed for the van.  Ezra walked in step next to him.  They moved slowly through the crowd, trying to look like all the other tourists and celebrants.  

Vin watched Ezra casually eye several of the booths selling all sorts of good luck symbols.  He wasn't really surprised when Ezra didn't buy any.  His lover didn't believe much in luck…good or bad.

"You think we can get more o' those sweet buns?"  

"Certainly."  Ezra grinned. "And since JD missed out, we really should bring enough to share."

"Josiah and Nathan didn't get any either."

"Quite right."  Ezra nodded.  He stepped up to a booth and deftly began speaking to the vendor in Mandarin.  If the man was surprised to be addressed in his native tongue he didn't show it.

Vin eagerly took the box Ezra offered him.  It looked like Ezra had bought two dozen.  Meant JD, Josiah, and Nathan might get one a piece or so if they were quick.

Vin ate two sweet buns before they were even in sight of the van.  He hoped JD still had some coffee left in the thermos.  He could do with something to take the edge off the chill he'd gotten watching the parade.  

Vin slid into the passenger seat, letting Ezra take the driver's.  Getting into the back probably wouldn't draw any unwanted attention, but it was better to be safe than sorry.  

He leaned over the seat, offering the box to JD.  "Want one?"

"Yeah."  JD grinned.  He handed Vin the thermos as he plucked a sweet bun free from the box.  He bit into one with obvious satisfaction.  "Haven't had one of these since I left Boston."  

JD grabbed a second thermos and offered it to Ezra. Vin knew that one was probably full of tea.  Josiah and Nathan had been raving about some new blend lately and Ezra seemed to find it just as enticing.  

"Thank you, JD."  Ezra saluted the younger man with the thermos before uncapping it and pouring himself a cup.  "Anything on the video?"

"Spotted a couple of Cho's known associates."  JD pointed to two freeze frames he had on his computer screen.  "And I got Liang."  He hit a button, pulling up another photo of the boy.  "But no sign of Cho himself or Mingmei."

"Damn," Vin muttered biting into another sweet bun.  

Ezra reached over and took a bun. He nibbled at it delicately, eating with his usual finesse.  Vin looked away when Ezra licked his fingers.  Now was not the time to let himself think about that talented tongue.  

He shifted in his seat, adjusting himself just a bit as he did so.  Ezra gave him a knowing look, but didn't comment.  The linguist sipped his tea before starting the van.  

"We meeting up with Nathan and Josiah?"  JD asked.

"That's the plan."  Vin nodded, taking a deep gulp of his coffee.  It wasn't nearly as strong as he would have preferred.  But it was close.  Chris must have made this batch, he thought idly, watching the dispersing crowd as Ezra waited for an opening to pull out.  

"Hope they had better luck."  JD grimaced.  "Wish I'd had a chance to bug the place."

"You might yet," Vin offered.  They'd been watching the Cho's bar/restaurant for the past two days.  Deep in the heart of Chinatown it served an almost exclusive Chinese clientele, which would have any of them standing out rather conspicuously as patrons.  And sneaking in for a look around after hours hadn't proven to be a viable option because the Frying Dragon had yet to ever really close.  

Ezra navigated the streets with a familiar ease.  He'd told Vin he'd been to the city several times and it showed.  It was another reason Vin was happy to let him drive.

Once they were within range, JD cued his mic to talk to Josiah.  "We're less than three blocks away, Preacher."

"Any luck at the parade?"  Josiah's deep baritone carried easily on the mic no matter how quietly he spoke or how far apart they were.

"Some."  JD sighed.  "Chris and Buck are following Liang."

"Any luck on your end?"  Vin asked, reaching for another sweet bun.

"Cho entered the building with three guys about the time the parade started."  Nathan sounded like his teeth might be chattering.  One of them had to watch the back door.  The medic had probably lost the coin toss.   "Place as been quiet since."

Ezra raised an eyebrow.  "Quiet?"

"No one in or out," Josiah and Nathan, both confirmed sounding uneasy about it.  

Vin traded a look with Ezra.  That didn't fit with the surveillance pattern of the last two days. There was always someone coming and going.  The place was a regular hub of activity.  Vin didn't think the new year celebration would change that.

"Alley is clear, Nathan?" Ezra asked.


"We need to see what is going on."  

"Figured."  Nathan sounded both calm and relieved.  "Didn't want to head in without back up."

"Wise call," Vin agreed.  With the team split up, in foreign territory, it was best not to get into a hinky situation alone.  "Give us five minutes."

"Copy that."

Ezra found a place to parallel park that put them less than a block away and would give JD clear sight of both the mouth of the alley and the front door of the Frying Dragon.  It also had them well positioned for a rapid get away if need be.  

Vin swallowed the last of his coffee.  He handed the empty cup and the box of sweet buns to JD.  He opened his coat, pulling his pistol out to make sure it was ready for action and easily accessible.  He was glad they'd thought to buy a few throw away pieces off the street when they got to Chicago.  If he had to use this one, he could abandon it easily enough.  Nothing to tie it to him or the team.

Ezra neatly triggered the derringer mechanism, checking its action before sliding it back in sleeve.  He also checked the snub nosed 38 at his ankle before opening his coat and making sure the one tucked into his belt holster was ready for action.  

Vin shook his head.  There was no talking Ezra into leaving that damn derringer at home. Much like his rifle, Ezra rarely went anywhere without his little hold out gun.  The other two were definitely throw-away weapons.  

"You're a walking arsenal."

Ezra grinned.  "Thank you."  

"JD, get in touch with Chris."  He'd have to call on the cell phone since their mics were out of range.  "Tell him we're going in and to sit tight on the kid."

"Will do, Vin."  Dark eyes met blue and then green.  "Be careful."

Vin nodded.  Ezra tossed off a two fingered salute. Together they headed into the alley, keeping a wary eye out for anyone else who might be casing the place.  Digging into Cho's background had raised a few flags that suggested local law enforcement and the FBI might be interested in him.  They weren't able to determine just how interested.

Nathan nodded to them when they got close.  He pointed to the back door of the restaurant.  Ezra held up a hand with fingers splayed, made a fist and then held up two fingers.  Ten minutes.  They'd check it out in that time or Nathan and Josiah would head inside to back them up.  

Vin tested the door, not surprised to find it unlocked. The thin leather gloves he wore would ensure no fingerprints were left behind.  In and out without a trace was the goal.  Nothing of this was to come back to them.  

He moved silently into the short hallway.  Ezra waited in the doorway until Vin signaled the all clear before following him in.  Vin moved forward, confident Ezra was covering his back.

Vin cocked his head to one side.  The silence unnerved him, so he pulled his gun, holding it low at his side.  He saw Ezra do likewise.  

Vin hesitated near the door that led to the main seating area.  He traded a look with Ezra before ducking through the swinging door.  Ezra slipped soundlessly through a second later, warily eyeing the room.  

Ezra arched an eyebrow and pointed to the two men seated at one of the tables.  Both men were resting their heads on the table and to Vin it looked like they'd passed out.  Vin shook his head.  Maybe the Chinese New Year wasn't that much different from the usual drunken bash that marked January first.

Ezra frowned and moved cautiously closer.  He reached out and grabbed a pipe off the table, taking a tentative sniff.  Ezra wrinkled his nose.  

"Not Cho."  Ezra mouthed, after checking the faces of both men, shaking his head.  

Vin looked around.  The man had to be in here somewhere.  Josiah and Nathan were sure he hadn't left.

Ezra jerked his head toward small alcove on the far side of the room.  Together they moved toward it.  Behind the beaded curtain was a staircase.  Vin eyed the stairs warily, ascending slowly, careful not to make any noise.

The landing was empty, but the well-worn seat on the chair positioned in the corner suggested it usually wasn't.  The had no clear idea of what took place on this floor, but Vin had no doubt whatever it was, it wouldn't be pretty.  There was no way it could be.

A row of doors lined each side of the hall.  Vin signaled he'd take the left side.  Ezra nodded, moving with his usual grace to take the right.  

All the doors looked to be hollow core.  They'd definitely been installed to create an illusion of privacy rather than any sense of real security.  Vin tried the knob of the first one; it turned easily.  He was betting the lock didn't work, if it ever had.

He pushed the door open, wincing at the faint squeak the hinges made.  The room was dark, empty save for two twin beds.  The smell wafting from the room made it clear it hadn't been cleaned in some time and someone had been sick within the confines not too long ago.

Ezra opened the door on the opposite side.  It was more of the same.  The disgusted look on Ezra's face said it all.

The next six rooms proved to be carbon copies with varying degrees of filth, neglect and stench.  Vin's internal clock told him they only had another few minutes to wrap this up before Nathan and Josiah entered.  He was hoping they finished before then.

The last door led to another set of stairs.  Vin grimaced.  They weren't as wide as the other set had been, and likely led to something akin to an attic.  The fire escape on the outside of the building only went to the second floor, which meant there was only one easy point of access to the third floor.

"Go."  Ezra jerked his head toward the stairs.  "I'll cover this.  Make sure we can get out of here."

Vin nodded.  The two guys in the restaurant had seemed down for the count but there was no telling how long they'd stay that way.  He headed up, still careful not to make any noise.  

Unlike the second floor there was no landing and no doors.  The stairs simply went straight up through the floorboards, ending with an open space that appeared to encompass the entire floor.  Vin hesitated at the head of the stairs, eyeing what he could see of the room before climbing the last few steps.

His attention was drawn to the queen sized bed on the far side.  The bedding appeared to be of far better quality than what he'd seen downstairs.  And this bed wasn't empty either.

His jaw tightened, muscles flexing as he forced himself not to look away.  Mingmei was a smaller, more delicate version of her older sister.  She lay, naked, sprawled across the silk sheets, limbs bound to the bedposts with leather thongs that had cut deeply into her flesh.  

Bruises on her upper arms, thighs and throat stood out in livid contrast to her pale skin.  The blood on her arms and legs was no longer scarlet but drying to an ugly shade of reddish brown.  Dark eyes stared up at the ceiling, dead gaze unwavering.  

Vin bit back a curse, afraid if he started he wouldn't be able to stop. He stepped closer to the bed, instinctively looking for signs of life even though he knew he wouldn't find any.  He was no coroner, but it wasn't exactly hard to figure out just how Mingmei had died.  And who had killed her.

A sound from the other side of the room startled him.  Vin spun, gun up and tracking the source of the sound.  He mentally smacked himself for letting down his guard.  It was a good way to end up dead.

There was nothing obvious on the other side of the room.  At least not until Vin belatedly realized that the wall he'd only glanced at wasn't the building's outer wall.  The stairs bisected the room, meaning the area with the bed should have represented half, but it clearly didn't.  The wall he'd only glanced at earlier was actually a partition.  There was more than one room.  Shit.  

Vin worked his way around the stairs to the barely opened door. The dark paneling made it nearly indistinguishable from the wall. The sound of breaking glass and someone cursing in Chinese filtered through the small opening.

Vin nudged the door, pushing it open to see into the confines of the room beyond.  It was bathroom, complete with an old claw foot tub, toilet and large vanity.  A shot glass lay broken on the tiled floor, shards glinting brightly next to an empty bottle of scotch.  Cho was bent over the vanity, snorting a white powder through what looked like a rolled up hundred dollar bill.  

Vin studied the man.  Cho was wearing just his boxers, and had to be good six inches shorter than Vin.  There was a suggestion of softness about him that bespoke of over indulgence in more than just drugs and alcohol; Cho hadn't missed any meals recently.  His dark hair was thinning toward the back and it wouldn't be long before he started sporting a huge bald spot.  

Cho didn't look much like a monster, or anyone particularly terrifying.  No horns, no fangs, nothing blatantly obvious that would warn one and all Cho was an evil man. Real world monsters never looked much like the ones shown in children's storybooks.  

Against someone his own size or someone able to move freely, Cho likely wasn't much of a threat.  There was no doubt in Vin's mind that Mingmei had struggled valiantly.  But half his size, and bound, Mingmei hadn't stood a chance against him.  In all likelihood, her resistance, her futile efforts to escape, had probably excited the son of a bitch to the point where he'd lost control and strangled her.

Cho looked up and spotted Vin's reflection in the mirror.  He straightened up, glaring as he turned to look at Vin.  Vin had no idea what the hell he was being asked, but he could guess.  He just gave Cho a wolfish grin when the other man continued speaking, all but frothing at the mouth as Vin assumed he demanded an explanation for his presence.

He wasn't sure where Cho got the knife from.  Or what the man thought he'd actually be able to do with it.  Vin shook his head.  There was way to know what sort of twisted logic was working through his drug and alcohol haze.

"Put it down," he ordered softly, his tone level, blue eyes unwavering in their study of the other man.  

Cho continued to glare at him, and started cursing.  Funny, Vin thought, 'fuck you' sounds pretty much the same in any language.  Vin raised his pistol, centering his aim at a point between Cho's bloodshot eyes and issued his order a second time.

Cho raised the knife, still cursing him.  Cho pushed off the vanity, charging toward him. Vin let him get one step before he fired.  He lowered his aim and fired a second time, hitting the Cho in the heart.  Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, Cho crumbled gracelessly to his knees.  He looked genuinely surprised that Vin had shot him as he fell face first to the floor.  

Vin could have incapacitated the bastard.  He didn't have to kill him.  It was a conscious choice to kill him, and it was one Vin could live with.  Mingmei's broken and abused body, discarded and ignored like she was worth no more than yesterday's trash demanded an accounting of some kind.  
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Vin murmured to himself.  

He backed out of the room in time to see Ezra making his way silently up the stairs. Ezra probably triggered the derringer mechanism when he heard Vin's first shot because he had a gun in each hand.  Green eyes raked over him, concern and relief present in equal measure.  

"I heard shots."  

"Cho."  Vin answered even though it wasn't really a question. He nodded toward the bed, knowing that would explain everything far better than he could.

Ezra's face assumed a bland, neutral mask that he usually adopted when something hit him hard.  Much the same way Vin had earlier he approached the bed, looking for signs of life that simply wouldn't be there.  Vin watched him gently reach out to touch her.  He thought Ezra might be checking for a pulse until he saw his lover touch the bed next to her, his fingers curling around something he'd found there.  


Ezra held up a small pendant, the broken chain lying wrapped around his fingers.  "Li Pong said their mother had given each of them a bit of luck when they left home."  He stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket.  "Mingmei's was not enough."

Ezra sighed, shaking his head regretfully.  "Wish we could cover her."

Vin had the same wish, but his killing Cho meant they couldn't show her that simple courtesy.  Covering her would be a clear sign that whoever had killed Cho might have cared about Mingmei.  It wouldn't be hard to tie that to Li Pong and Liang.  Assuming the cops even gave a shit and were interested in solving Cho's murder.  

Vin moved back to the bathroom and placed his gun on the floor.  He was damn glad it wasn't his personal weapon.  That one he'd have been hard pressed to leave behind, but this one held no personal significance or sentiment.  

Ezra handed Vin his pistol to replace the one he was leaving behind.  Vin watched Ezra pull his ankle piece, grateful for his lover's tendency to keep enough weapons to outfit a small army.  

Vin gave Mingmei's body another glance. Even though she couldn't possibly have known they were coming for her, or had any expectation of freedom, he still felt as though they failed her.  They should have been able to prevent this.

Ezra nudged his shoulder.  "We need to leave."

"I don't want to leave her…here…like this."  He swallowed hard.  Intellectually, he knew they couldn't do anything.  She was dead and didn't really need anything from them now, but he still wanted to help her escape this place.  

"She is already free, Vin," Ezra spoke softly.  "Nothing of her remains here.  Nothing."

Vin took a deep breath and nodded.  He understood what Ezra was saying.  He wasn't being trivial, trite or even religious; it was just a statement of fact.  Mingmei's body wasn't <b>her</b>.

"Let's go."

He led the way back down the stairs, moving faster than he had on the way up.  Ezra tapped his shoulder and pointed to the room in front of them.  There was access to the fire escape through the window.  No reason to risk going through the building again.

Vin tucked his gun into his belt, freeing his hands for a quick decent of the metal fire escape.  Ezra waited until he was on the ground, gun once more in hand, before descending.  Nathan met them, dark eyes silently asking for information.

"Mingmei is dead."  Ezra stated without preamble.  "Cho too."

Both Nathan's eyebrows rose, but he didn't comment or ask for more information.  Chris would want a full briefing.  Going over the details once, with all of them present, was the best way.

They left the alley. Nathan headed for the nondescript sedan Josiah had rented.  Vin and Ezra back to the van where JD waited.

Vin slid into the passenger seat, sighing heavily.  "JD, get Chris on the phone."

"Never hung up on him."  JD handed him the phone.  


"You got Liang?"

"Yeah."  Chris managed to make it sound like confirmation and a question at the same time.

Vin breathed deeply, relieved that at least on of the children they'd come to rescue was safe.  "Mingmei is dead."


"Yeah."  That summed it up nicely.



"You kill him?"

"Yep."  Vin tried not to sound proud of it.

"Okay.  We go to plan B."  Chris didn't sound upset.  Ezra had certainly called that right.  "You and Ezra will stay in Chicago.  Keep tabs on the situation.  Switch vehicles with Josiah and Nathan.  They will head back to base with JD.  We'll take Liang with us."

"Roger that."

"And Vin?"

"Yeah, Cowboy?"

"I'm going to want <b>all </b> the details."

"Figured.  See you in a few days."  

"Definitely.  Be careful."

"Always.  You too."  Vin cut the connection.  He looked over the seat.  "JD, you're with Josiah and Nathan.  We'll be staying in Chicago for a day or two.  You guys are heading back.  We'll meet up at home base."

The younger man nodded.  He was already pulling on his gloves, his equipment already packed.  He held up the box of sweet buns.  "You want these?"

"No."  Just the thought of eating made him nauseous.

JD patted Vin's shoulder.  "Sorry man."

Vin frowned.  "For what?"

"Everything."  JD shrugged.  

"Me too."  Vin smiled wanly.  "Go.  Tell Josiah and Nathan they might want to turn in that car and get another."  It wasn't standard procedure for them, but in this case it was probably a good idea.

"No problem."  JD had his laptop, PDA and plenty of cash.  They could easily take a cab or bus to another rental facility.  It would confuse their trail or create a new one.  

"See you guys in a few days."

"Travel safe and godspeed, JD."  Ezra started the van as JD opened the door and slipped out with his gear.  

They watched JD jog over to the sedan and get in the back seat.  Josiah waved as he pulled out.  Ezra drove off in the opposite direction.

Vin tried to ignore the new year's celebration still going on.  It seemed so out of place now.  He hated knowing he'd watched the parade, even enjoyed it, all the while Mingmei was dying.  

Vin had no idea where Ezra was going. He really didn't care as long as it got them away from Chinatown.   He just couldn't deal with seeing any more delighted, joyful faces.  He let the city pass him in a blur as he stared out the window.
The sight of the lake threw him for a moment.  He knew the Lake Michigan was close, but hadn't realized just how close.  The big, open water reminded him of the ocean.  
Ezra stopped the van and pointed to a long pier that jutted out into the lake.  "Navy Pier."  
"I'm not in the mood-"
"We aren't going there, Vin, I was just pointing it out," Ezra cut him off smoothly.  "It is a famous landmark."  Green eyes shifted to look pointedly at the bit of rocky beach directly in front of them.  "It's not warm, or exactly the right shade of blue…but water is where we go to center ourselves."
Vin blinked, realizing Ezra was right. After every tough case or a long trying day, they always seemed to end up on the beach, watching the waves.  There was something soothing about seeing that rhythm play itself out over and over again, the repeating pattern unconcerned and unaltered by human events.  It drew Vin on an elemental level, and he knew it had the same effect on Ezra.
"No tide here."  It was inane, but it was the first thing that came to mind.
"Doesn't matter."  Ezra shrugged one shoulder.  "C'mon."  He got out of the van and started to head for the beach.  
Vin followed.  The wind coming off the lake was bitter and made Vin shiver violently, cutting through layers of clothing with ease, but it was fresh and clean.  He could almost imagine it striping the last hour away from him, washing away the scent of death and despair, violence and vengeance.
They walked the along the shore, stopping after awhile to stare out over the water.  Vin breathed in deeply, letting it out slowly.  The sky was a slate gray, suggesting snow later.  Chunks of ice floated on the water, bobbing in places and gave mute testimony to the freezing temperature of the water.  

After several minutes of just watching the water and breathing, he looked over at Ezra.  "Thanks."
"Welcome."  Ezra took his hand, entwining their fingers, his shoulder brushing Vin's.

Vin was suddenly conscious of faint tremors coursing through him.  Damn.  It was way too cold out for this.  He looked over at Ezra and noted the blue tinge to his lips, cheeks reddened by the cold.

"Let's go find some place warm."

Ezra blinked, green eyes watching him for a moment.  "You ready?"

Vin sighed.  He knew what Ezra was asking him.  "Gonna take more than one day for that.  No reason to freeze our asses off."

Ezra grinned, cocking his head to give Vin's ass a quick look.  "Would definitely hate to put such tempting flesh at risk."

Vin rolled his eyes, but found himself laughing anyway.  He was one step closer to centered.  Ezra really was very good for him.  

"C'mon."  Vin pulled Ezra around.  "Time to go."

They headed back to the van.  He was sure Ezra would know of some quality hotel that would be able to put them up for a few days.  They only had to stay long enough to find out if damage control would be needed.  Then it was back to Camp AWOL.  

It would be good to be home.  He really hoped they wouldn't have to here more than a few days.  Chicago was decidedly unappealing now.

"If the local cops don't put any more effort into solving Cho's murder than they did into shutting down the man's illegal operations, no damage control will be needed."  Ezra pulled the keys from his pocket.  "We'll be gone in two days.  Three tops."

Vin grimaced.  "You know, sometimes I hate it when you read my mind."

"Sorry."  Ezra shrugged one shoulder.  He didn't sound or look apologetic.

"Asshole."  Vin shook his head, more amused than angry.

Ezra pursed his lips and blew Vin a kiss as he unlocked the driver's side door and got in.  "You love me anyway."

"Yeah, I do," Vin said as he got in.  He leaned over to pull Ezra into a quick kiss.

"Shame it's so damn cold."  Ezra sighed regretfully when Vin released him.  His dimples appeared when he smiled suddenly.  "And we've both long outgrown the age when sex in a vehicle holds much appeal."

Vin snorted.  The last time he'd had sex in a vehicle he'd been seventeen.  It was a desperate, awkward time that had little resemblance to who he was now.  He winced when he realized it was an age Mingmei would never get to experience.

"Hey."  Ezra cupped his face.  "None of that now.  Focus on the positive."

Vin took a deep breath and nodded.  Li Pong was getting a second chance.  Her brother too.  Cho would never hurt another child.  All that had to count for something.  

Ezra started the van and drove into downtown Chicago.  There were a number of high end hotels, restaurants and stores that marked the wealth and status of the area.  They were places Vin never would have even thought of stopping in, but Ezra was clearly familiar with the neighborhood.

Just off Michigan Ave, Ezra pulled up in front of The Peninsula hotel.  It was understated and Vin would have overlooked it if not for the carved dragons marking the entrance.  They looked both regal and welcoming.  The scarlet silk banners with gold lettering handing above the doorway proclaimed both the identity of the hotel as well as showing an affinity with the new year's celebration.

"Nice place?"

"Very."  Ezra slipped out.  Vin followed, after he snagged his duffle bag and Ezra's backpack.  

A doorman greeted them with a welcoming smile.  "Good afternoon, gentlemen."

"Good afternoon."  Ezra tipped his head.  

"Would you like for me to have the valet park your vehicle in our parking garage?"

"Please."  He handed the doorman the keys.  

"Very good, Sir."  The doorman opened the door.  If the man thought it odd they were checking in with no more luggage than what Vin had slung over his shoulder he didn't let it show on his face.

Vin was caught off guard by the receptionists decidedly British accent.  Her Asian appearance had him unconsciously expecting similar tones and speech pattern he'd been hearing all over Chinatown.  She smiled warmly as she took the credit card Ezra offered her.  

"Do you have a reservation, Sir?"

"No, Ma'am."  Ezra smiled.  "But I'd like the Peninsula Suite, if it's available."

She tipped her head regally to Ezra.  "It is open at the moment."


Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, still smiling.  "How long will you be staying with us, Mr. Standish?"

"I'm not sure yet," Ezra smiled in return.  "I'd like to keep my reservation open-ended if I may?"

"Certainly, Sir."  

"Thank you."  Ezra put his credit card back in his wallet, before taking the room key card she offered.  Vin nodded politely to her as he followed Ezra to the elevators.

He raised his eyebrows when Ezra pressed the button for the top floor, and then had to swipe the room key before the elevator began to move.  Clearly the suite Ezra asked for was something special.


Ezra shrugged one shoulder.  "I like having the floor to myself."

Vin blinked.  "We have the entire floor?"


"You don't think that's a bit-"

"No."  Ezra shook his head.  "It's safer."

"Safer?"  Vin snickered.  "You jus' wanna be pampered."

"That too."  Ezra grinned.  "If we have to stay, there is no reason not to enjoy ourselves."

Vin chuckled.  It was Ezra's money.  If he wanted the chance to spend it this way, Vin wasn't going to argue about it.

He whistled when Ezra opened the door and Vin got his first look at the room.  The sitting room alone was nearly as large as their barracks at Camp AWOL.  The décor made the room seem warm and comfortable in spite of its size.  

He followed Ezra into the suite.  The formal dining room gave him a pause, more for the grand piano than the anything else.  He wondered if he might be able to con Ezra into playing a bit for him.  He knew his lover could play, but rarely enjoyed a private concert without an instrument at home.

The master bedroom, with its king size bed made Vin smile.  He was betting this bed would rival theirs at home.  Even the comforter looked to be of the same high end quality.  

"I hope you like it."  The twinkle in Ezra's eyes belied his serious tone as he made a sweeping bow.

Vin laughed.  "I can't imagine anyone not likin' this."

Ezra cued the large screen TV, flipping through to a local news channel.  It was a strange sense of déjà vu to see coverage of the parade they'd been watching just a few hours ago.

Vin knew Ezra would probably put in a request for several of tomorrow's newspapers as well.  Cho's death was more likely to appear in the printed media than on TV, if it showed up at all.  Vin suspected Ezra had been right about his earlier prediction that the local police wouldn't put any more effort into solving his murder than they did into shutting down his enterprise.  Hell, his underlings might even find it prudent not to have his death known at all.

Vin's cell phone began vibrating.  He pulled it free from the clip on his belt and checked the display.  He snapped it open.  "Yeah, Chris."

"You guys get settled in somewhere decent?"

"Yeah."  Vin glanced around the room, noting the master bath with a tub that was nearly as big as the bed.  "We got a nice place."


"You guys doing okay with Liang?"

"Yeah." Chris sighed softly. "Fortunately, he speaks better English than Li Pong."

That was a blessing, definitely.  Chris' sigh made it sound otherwise.  "I can hear a but, Cowboy."

"He's asking about his little sister."

Vin winced.  That wasn't exactly a conversation any of them were going to want to have--there was no way to soft soap it.  "You tell him?"

Vin could easily picture Chris rubbing his temple as the silence stretched.  Another soft sigh came through the phone.  "No.  Figured it would be easier to do this once."

Right.  They were going to have to tell Li Pong too.  "Good thinking."

Chris snorted.  "Feels more like delaying the inevitable."

"Yeah, well, taking time to do somethin' right is never a waste of time."

"I keep telling myself that."  Vin knew Chris was shaking his head.  There was another brief moment of silence before Chris said, "Check in tomorrow."

"Will do."  Vin dropped his duffle and Ezra's backpack on the bed.  "You guys going to drive straight through?"

"No.  We'll get a place later and spend the night."

Getting from Chicago to Camp AWOL was a long drive.  There was no reason to push it if they didn't have to.  "Take care, Cowboy."

"You too."  He could almost hear Chris' smile.  "Stay out of trouble."

"Sure."  Vin stifled a snicker.  Why the hell Chris ever thought that was an order they would follow was a mystery to him.  It wasn't like they went looking for trouble.  Shit just happened.  

Vin glanced around the room.  Staying here...he couldn't imagine them getting into too much trouble.  That was likely another reason Ezra had selected it.  People who stayed in hotels with doormen and rooms that took up entire floors weren't the sort who were asked about things that happened in back alleys.

"Talk to you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow."  Vin flipped the phone shut, tossing it on to the bed.  

He could hear water running.  It sounded like Ezra was filling the tub.  Vin grinned.  That tub was definitely big enough for both of them.  Not like the one at home.

Vin shrugged out of his coat, leaving it on the floor to be dealt with later.  He sauntered over to the bathroom, leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb.  Ezra was pouring something with a wonderful fragrance into the water.  It bubbled up into a frothy foam.

"Chris and the others okay?"  Ezra looked over his shoulder at Vin.

Vin nodded.  "They'll be staying somewhere tonight."

"Good."  Ezra started undoing the buttons of his shirt.  "Long damn drive."

It had been coming up. Flying would have been faster, but it was also would have left more of an obvious, easier trail for someone to follow, and would have limited what they could bring with them.  Vin was damn glad he didn't have to sleep in the van.  If he never had to do that again it would be too soon.

Vin's breath caught as Ezra dropped his shirt on the floor and then raised his arms to pull the simple white t-shirt he had on underneath off.  The smooth play of muscle under lightly tanned skin made his mouth water.  Tousled chestnut hair begged Vin to run his fingers through it.

Ezra arched an eyebrow.  "You going to join me or what?"

"Yes.  Hell, yes."  Vin started striping out of his multiple layers as fast as possible.

Ezra had a head start, and was naked before Vin.  He tested the temperature with one foot, before he eased into the water.  Vin was captivated by the image of his lover disappearing into the bubbles like some mythical sea creature vanishing into the mist.  He suddenly understood the appeal of stories about selkies and mermaids.

Vin shook his head, and quickly shed the last of his clothing leaving it in a careless pile on the floor.  He stepped into the tub. Ezra gave him room, encouraging him to sit between his legs and lean back against him.  Vin sighed as he settled in.  

"We gotta get one of these."

Ezra chuckled.  He nuzzled Vin's neck, warm lips pressing a soft kiss on the pulse point.  "There is no place to put it."

"We could make a place."  

"A remodeling project?"  

Vin titled his head to the side to give his lover a slant eyed look.  "Sure.  Not like we use my room.  Can always make the bathroom bigger."

"You really think a bigger bathroom is preferable to say…a library, a home office or perhaps a guest room?"  Ezra laughed.  

"Might get more use of it," Vin countered.  

"We rarely have time to enjoy a luxury this decadent."

"We could make time."

"You are spoiled now and we've been here less than an hour."  Ezra snickered.  "You are so easy."

"Yeah, but I don't come cheap," Vin shot back with a quick smile.

"And worth every penny."  Ezra captured his smile with a kiss.  "We'll talk about remodeling later…when we get home."

Vin sighed and nodded, head coming to rest against Ezra's shoulder.  There was going to be a lot to talk about then.  He wasn't looking forward to any of it.

Ezra wrapped his arms around Vin, holding him in a gentle embrace.  "It'll be okay."

"For them?" He didn't have to clarify who he meant.  

"Eventually."  Vin felt Ezra rub his cheek against his hair.  "For us too."

Vin wrapped his fingers around one of Ezra's hands.  He brought it up and kissed Ezra's knuckles.  "Love you, Ezra Standish."

Ezra's grip on Vin's hand tightened so it wasn't just Vin holding his hand, it was them holding each other.  "Love you, Vin Tanner."

Vin took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Knowing they were together, and in complete agreement, always made him feel better, lighter.  They'd be okay.  

He grinned, once more tilting his head to look at Ezra.  "If we can't do the tub…how about this bubble stuff?"

"Spoiled."  Ezra laughed.  "You are so spoiled."

"But you love me anyway," Vin parroted back Ezra's earlier statement from when they left the lake.

"Yes, I do."  

Vin wondered what other luxury he could talk Ezra into.  Somehow he couldn't see his lover objecting overly much.  Ezra had picked this place after all.  The man had good taste.

"I picked you too," Ezra whispered.  "I have <b>very</b> good taste."

Vin could feel himself blushing.  He thought he'd gotten used to Ezra being able to know what he was thinking, but once in awhile his lover still managed to surprise him.  "How do you do that?"

"No idea," Ezra admitted with casual honesty.  "But it comes in handy."

Vin nodded.  It had come in handy on more than one occasion.  The whole team had grown used to Ezra's talent; they'd come to rely on it.

He sighed and settled more deeply against Ezra.  The day hadn't been even close to what he'd expected when he got up.  Not that he was surprised by that.  Things rarely went according to plan, but he really couldn't complain about how this day was wrapping up.  

"They got room service here?"

"Twenty-four, seven."  

"Good."  They wouldn't have to leave the room.  

Ezra laughed softly, hugging him.  "Everything we need is right here."

Everything.  Oh definitely, Vin thought with a smile.  They could have been spending the night in a cardboard box…cold, hungry and hating life, and it wouldn't matter to him as long as they were together.  It was cliché, but that didn't make it any less true.  It also didn't mean he couldn't fully appreciate the fact they'd be spending the next few days in the lap of luxury.

"You wanna try out that bed?"

"All in due time."  Ezra nuzzled his neck, hands moving across Vin's chest, fingertips brushing his nipples.  "We're not done with the tub yet."

Vin grinned, instinctively arching into that teasing touch.  "One thing at a time?"


"I can live with that."

"I should hope so."  Ezra's voice was rough, and had dropped an octave.  Vin shivered.  He loved it when Ezra sounded like that.  It was a prelude to serious, slow love making.

Vin decided it was a good thing room service was an option day and night. He had a feeling it would be some time before they got around to ordering food.  That didn't bother him, not one little bit.  

"One thing at a time," Vin murmured, giving himself over to the wonderful sensations Ezra's hands were creating.  The rest would still be there when they were ready to deal with it.