Hazel '03: Under Duress

Author's note: Work in progress.

Chris glanced up as the door opened as a svelte blonde entered with several lackeys in tow.

Now maybe he would get some answers.


He didn't remember being brought here, only waking in the cell with a killer headache. He tried in vain to recall how he'd come to be here, locked in what could easily be referred to as a dungeon without overstating things. But no matter how hard he concentrated, he only recalled waking up with the three youngest members of Team Seven locked up in a stonewalled cell next to an identical one containing their leader.

They'd wrapped up work a little early and as a group convened for their usual Friday night gathering at The Saloon. After two rounds, Buck was off to his date with a stewardess in town for the weekend (the date would likely last all weekend), Nathan planning to join Rain for a weekend at her parents' place in Boulder, and Josiah heading to the youth center where he volunteered to chaperone a Friday night dance and then Saturday's swap meet for the center's associated parish.

Chris and the three youngest members of the team had hung back for a few more beers before all heading out to the ranch together, having actually talked Ezra into joining them for a full evening of movies, poker, and shooting the bull. Chris distinctly remembered pulling into the drive with JD babbling on about some new computer poker program he'd been practicing with, the truck followed by Ezra's Jag with Vin in the passenger seat.

He didn't remember anything after that.

In the adjoining cell Vin and Ezra lay unconscious. JD was sitting on the floor between them, resting his arms on his knees, his head in his hands. When he heard Chris gasped his name, he looked up and moved to the bars that separated them. "Chris! God, you're alive! I couldn't tell, it didn't look like you were breathing…"

"I'm okay, kid," Chris groaned. "Vin? Ez?"

"Alive. Vin's got a nasty shiner and Ez has a knot on his head the size of a golf ball, but they're breathing easy." JD watched with concern as Chris moved closer to him. "You okay?"

"I think I took a crack on the head too. You?"

"Yeah, me too. I can feel a lump back here." JD moved his hand to the back of his head, turning at Chris's gesture so the blond could feel it. "It's okay, doesn't hurt much. A little tender is all."

"Try to keep still for a while, just in case." Chris sat back on his heels, his gaze wandering to his unconscious men. "Any ideas on where we are?"

"None," JD sighed. "I've been awake for a while now – I don't think I got hit nearly as bad as the rest of you. I heard a train a while back, but that doesn't mean anything. Didn't sound close enough to say we're anywhere near it."

"No one's come by to enlighten you on why we're here?"

"Nobody's checked on us even once. They don't really have to, though." JD moved his eyes only. "They've got cameras in various spots on the ceiling. Maybe sound too, it's hard to tell. But likely they're watching us."

It had been at least another twenty minutes, Chris guessed – seeing how their watches had all been removed – before Vin had started to stir, though it was much longer after that before he could really be considered conscious. Ezra was the last to awaken, perhaps another half hour after Vin. And they'd been left alone for a good long while after that.


"Nice to see you're all awake," the woman smiled, her dark blue eyes not sharing the expression. "Sorry to keep you waiting by I had pressing matters to attend to. You all seem well enough, though."

"Fer bein' locked in a cage," Vin growled. Once he and Ezra had regained their senses, Vin had moved them all to the back of the cell, placing JD in the corner next to Chris's cell, with the sharpshooter and the undercover specialist between the boy and the cell door. Chris had moved to sit in the corner of his cell next to JD, keeping the four of them as close as possible for all the emotional and physical comfort they could provide each other.

"What do you want, lady?" Chris asked, his voice cold. The woman strode to lean against the bars of Chris's cell.

"Information, Larabee. You know things I want to know, simple as that."


"Well, for starters, you know where I can find Joshua Matthews."

Matthews was a gun runner between Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, who used stopovers in Dallas and Denver to cover his tracks. The ATF had been tracking his movements for a good six months, waiting for the opportunity to catch him in his tracks with a shipment – the best way to put the man in jail for life. Ezra's contacts had provided an almost day-to-day schedule for the man for the next three months, and Team Four's undercover agent had used the information to get inside Matthews' circle.

"I'd have to check with the office for that kind of information," Chris said simply. "It's not like I memorized the man's activities."

"I wouldn't expect you to, such a busy man as yourself," the woman purred. "You'll be sent back to your office so you have access to the information I want. The only reason you're really here is so that you completely understand that if you try anything stupid, you're friends here will pay for it." Chris glanced at the trio of beefy men currently holding guns on his teammates and nodded silently. "Just so we understand each other, of course."

"You're the one holding the cards, lady," Chris said coolly. "Is that all you wanted?"

"No, that's actually just a minor point." The woman fixed her eyes on the blond and a small smile spread across her lips. "I have a list of information I want you to provide me, but in the end what I'm really interested in is Senator Donald Morgan."

Chris frowned. "Don't know the man."

"Oh, I know, but you really don't have to. You see, you're going to kill him for me."

"Come again?" Chris asked, his eyes incredulous. "You've got to be kidding."

"No, I'm not. You see, you have an invitation to attend the formal gala at Huntington House on Sunday evening. The senator will be in attendance. You are going to be there to slip him a nice fatal mickey."

"My dear woman, you must be daft," Ezra spoke up for the first time. "Even if Mister Larabee were to attend, there is no way he would ever get close to the Senator. They simply don't know the same people."

"Yes, Mister Standish, but Orrin Travis works for Peter Dufford, who works for Frank Bauer, who works for Joseph Sabine, who is the cousin of Congressman Lawrence Shevatti, who *does* know the same people. All your fearless leader needs do is request Dufford to make the introduction to Shevatti and work his way up from there. It shouldn't be difficult; after all, your team is the most distinguished of the year, and the Senator has been very supportive of the ATF's activities."

"Even if he could, he won't," Vin retorted. "Chris won't commit murder."

"Not even to save your sorry necks?" Chris felt his heart drop as the woman met his eyes; there was no humanity recognizable in those deep blue pools. "You see, Larabee, I know how protective you can be of your men. And I have three to choose from. I suppose I shall have to give you a demonstration, hm? Just so we understand each other?"

"I think I understand you perfectly, lady," Chris growled.

"Perhaps a demonstration might just drive home that point a little better. But how about this? I'll make it your choice. I'll give you an hour to decide. When I come back, you will tell me which of your three young men there will get to be used to show exactly how serious I am. If you don't pick one, I'll let my men play with each of them for a little while." The woman's eyes narrowed as a feral grin spread across her lips. "I suggest you choose – one injured man is better than three, don't you agree?"

With that, the woman and her followers let the federal agents alone.


"Don't matter, Cowboy." The words were soft, nearly inaudible. Just enough that Chris could hear them, but likely no electronic bugging equipment would pick them up. And as soft as they were, they were calm, reasonable. Sure.

Chris looked up at Vin. The four men had been silent for a long while after the blonde had made her declaration, each taking in the horror of what she had said. Chris's mind had gone completely blank, not capable of handling even the slightest thought, for fear of what that thought might be.

"No matter what happens, ya can't kill the senator."

Chris shook his head. It wasn't an option, even he knew that. But the alternatives…

"Mister Tanner is correct, I'm afraid." Equally soft spoken, equally calm. "You shall, of course, have to agree to the lady's terms so that you can warn the man of his peril."

"Ez, if I did that, she'd…" Chris trailed off, looking at the southerner's face in shock. "The three of you…"

"I did not say I looked forward to the results," Ezra smiled wanly. He had laid an arm around JD's shoulders as the youngest began to realize their position. "But it is the only responsible thing we can do."


"Ya have ta, Chris," Vin agreed. "If ya don't tell'em yer gonna do it, she'll jist find someone else. This way, leastwise ya kin warn Travis and Morgan."

"But she'll kill you." Chris's words were no more than a hiss. His eyes flickered to their youngest, who was leaning into Ezra's embrace, brown eyes wide in fear. "JD…"

"You can't kill." The boy's voice was shaking. "I don't care what they do to me, but you can't kill anyone." The three older agents smiled at his courage despite the obvious terror pouring off him.

"We gotta get'er to let ya take him with ya," Vin said simply. "Me'n'Ez should be enough hostages for her. Don't need the kid."

"No, Vin…"

"JD, you got the best chance of helpin' Chris find us. You got them computer smarts. And yer the best to remember stuff that might help find us if they keep you awake for the ride back."

"Mister Dunne, it is imperative that you assist our teammates if we are to be rescued." Ezra smiled at the boy. "Besides, I fear for Mister Wilmington's sanity if he is left to his own devices." JD nodded slowly, not liking that they were asking him to leave but understanding their position and logic.

Chris was still shaking his head. "She'll kill you."

"Very likely." Ezra sighed. "And I doubt it will be painless."

His eyes met Vin's and Chris saw something pass between them.

And he sat back in surprise.

Vin and Ezra…

How long? How many times had he seen the two of them look at each other like that before and never noticed, never realized… How often had they shared a look just like that, a simple glance that should have told him the whole story…

He caught Vin's eye and cocked a sandy brow. He didn't voice his question, but Vin met his gaze with a slight nod that said the younger agent had heard it anyway. The sharpshooter was sitting so close to Ezra, they were practically in the same space. Vin's hand ghosted over Ezra's slightly before returning to his own thigh.

"If ya kin get JD outta here, we'll hang on best we can till ya bring in the cavalry."

"We don't even know where we are."

"You'll find out." Vin shrugged.

Chris shook his head – they had so much faith… either that or were completely suicidal. "Vin… Ez…"

"Mister Larabee, there really isn't much of an option here."

Chris dropped his head into his hands, praying silently for another way and knowing full well there wasn't one. Wishing desperately that his best friend wasn't silently watching him, expecting him to go along with a plan that would likely end up with him standing over the funeral caskets of two of his men. Wishing those two men weren't telling him that at least it wouldn't be three caskets.

"I don't know if I can do that…"

"You can, Chris," Ezra said softly, reaching out to rest a hand on his supervisor's shoulder. "Vin and I will hold out as long as we can." Soft green eyes met blue, and Chris could almost hear the unspoken vow that if they did die, at least they would be together. Chris blanched at the thought, but found a little strength in the serenity the two men seemed to have in each other's presence. JD seemed oblivious to the interactions – which Chris wasn't sure was a good thing or a bad thing.

"In the meantime, when she comes ta give her little example, yer gonna choose me," Vin said softly. Ezra frowned but Vin just shook his head. "Gotta be, Ez. Ya know I got the trainin' to take it better'n you from my Ranger days. An' if'n Chris don't make a choice, likely she's likely gonna pick on JD the most cuz he's the youngest."

"Vin," Ezra whispered. Chris was astounded at the way it sounded like a caress.

Vin gave the southerner a small smile. "I got practice in takin' anythin' they kin dish out," he said gently. "An' you gotta keep'em from touchin' JD. Yer the best one ta do that. Ya got them fancy martial arts moves an' ya got more bulk to protect'im than my skinny ass."

"I concede your point," Ezra sighed. "I dislike the necessity but I cannot fault your justification."

"Why can't we just all fight'em?" JD asked as if hearing the conversation for the first time. "I don't need to be protected, Vin."

"We know that, JD," Ezra answered for his partner. "But if we all attempt to brawl, likely one or more of us will be hosting a bullet wound rather than bruises. If only I engage them in an effort to keep you out of harm's way, it is more the chance they will be satisfied to punish me for the offense and shall leave you intact. Mister Larabee will be left unharmed because they need his cooperation, and we must attempt to see you released unharmed if we are to have any chance of all remaining alive."

"JD, they'll see you as we used to," Chris added, hating that he was agreeing but sure of his teammates' intentions. "If they see you as too young, they might let you go. We know you're a force to be reckoned with, but they can't know that."

"We know yer more'n capable of handlin' yerself, kid," Vin concluded. "But if they see us tryin' to protect ya, they'll hopefully like ta think yer just a hang-on upstart pup an' let ya go with Chris."

JD glanced from one teammate to the next, seeing in their eyes the truth of their words. They really weren't just trying to protect 'the kid'; they really did believe he would be able to help if he got away. "Okay," he resigned. "I don't like it, but I'll play along."

"'sides," Vin added, cuffing the youth lightly on the chin. "If'n we don't watch out fer ya, ol' Mama Bear Buck'll eat us fer breakfast."

"And pick his teeth with our bones," Chris scoffed.

"I daresay he wouldn't even use a napkin," Ezra ended, giving them all a good chuckle. JD grinned slightly, thinking on Buck's reactions to his friends' intentions. He prayed to god they'd all live to experience it.


The agents stood when the door to the room swung open and the blonde strode in, several pro-wrestler types filing in behind her. "So, Mister Larabee, have you made your decision? Which of your little buddies there do my boys get to make an example of?"

Chris swallowed hard, glancing at the resolute faces in the next cell for support. His voice sounded hollow, a hoarse desperate rasp as he spoke the words he knew would likely haunt him the rest of his life. "Take Vin." He saw JD flinch at the words, and a stark look of torment flashed through Ezra's eyes. Vin's face, however, remained as mild as if Chris had just suggested they go for a walk on a cool summer day.

"Excellent," the woman chuckled. "I like a decisive man, Larabee." She trained her gaze on her intended victim. "I do hope you'll make this easy for everyone involved, Mister Tanner." Her sapphire eyes flickered toward the guns trained on the other men. "Wouldn't want anyone to get injured while you're being removed from your cell, would we?"

"Reckon not," Vin said flatly. He took a moment to meet the eyes of each of his teammates before he moved to the cell door.

The woman smiled toothily. "Turn around, Mister Tanner. Hands behind your back, if you please." Vin obeyed and the woman deftly snapped a pair of handcuffs on him, securing his wrists at the small of his back. She then pulled a key on a long cord from the confines of her blouse and inserted it into the door of the cell, popping the lock. She opened the door and guided Vin through it; he was pushed toward one beefy guard as she quickly relocked the cell door and dropped the key back down her shirt. "We'll be back in a while, gentlemen," she said cheerfully. "Don't worry too much about your friend here. It doesn't do me a lot of good to kill him this early in the game, does it?"

Chris saw Ezra bristle slightly, something he was sure only a close friend of the southerner would be able to see, but remained perfectly still with his green eyes meeting the blue ones of the man held captive outside their cells. A world of words and meanings was conveyed in that momentary gaze, and then Vin was gone and Ezra slumped back against the wall.

"Ezra," Chris whispered. "He's going to… it'll be…" He stopped, unable to spout the platitudes he knew Ezra wouldn't believe anyway. Hell, he couldn't convince himself that his best friend would be fine so how could he convince the man's lover? He studied Standish solemnly as JD sat down and wrapped an arm around the man's solid shoulders. Chris smiled; the kid always was good at doing the right thing at the right moment – usually without even realizing it.

"Ez?" Chris asked again.

Green eyes lifted, filled with sorrow. "I'm okay, Chris," Ezra said simply. "I have to be."

"He's strong, Ez," JD offered, leaning his head against his friend's. "He'll be back."


Josiah Sanchez prowled the small observation room like a tiger in a case. He had been in here for nearly eight hours without any real contact with anyone. Two burly guards with guns had delivered several meals – mostly fast food which was likely sending his cholesterol levels off the charts – and all the water he could want, but nothing else. He had access to a small bathroom which had been carefully stripped of anything a resourceful ATF agent could utilize as a weapon, and had even been left several volumes of classic literature. Not that he'd felt like reading.

Funny how being held captive did that to his interest in Shakespeare and Hemmingway.

The one-way glass looked another room, this one obviously a lab of some sort. There was a gurney off to one side and various medical- looking machines, along with numerous large cabinets and a few chairs. The room was maybe thirty-by-thirty, more than large enough for all the equipment and storage and a large open area in the middle. There was a door in the rear right corner, but Josiah got the impression there was also one just off to the left side of the glass which likely met the same hall as the entrance to his current prison.

He checked his watch again, noting about six minutes had passed since the last time he'd looked. If his captors were planning on driving him insane by eternal waiting, their strategy was working. If he at least knew why he was being held…

The rear door to the lab was opened to admit several men, all of whom practically had `flunky' tattooed on their foreheads – not one of them looked capable of doing anything other than following orders. Two entered immediately, followed by another pulling a reluctant body behind him…

Vin Tanner.

"Shit," Josiah breathed, suddenly more tired than he could imagine. He slumped into the nearest chair and rubbed at his eyes.

"I thought you might enjoy the show better without a preview." Josiah glanced up at the voice. No one had entered the room, thus obviously the room had a very good speaker system hardwired into the walls that he hadn't noticed earlier.

"Who are you?"

"Shall I use a bad cliché and say `your worst nightmare'?" The voice asked. Josiah listened carefully, but the voice was tampered with just enough through the speakers that he couldn't identify it. Assuming, of course, there was reason for him to be able to in the first place. "I suppose that's rather tacky. Let's just say at the moment I'm the person who holds your life in their hands. As well as the lives of four of your friends."


"Mr. Tanner is simply our first guest. If you'll look to your left?"

Josiah glanced to where a panel in the wall was sliding open, revealing a color television monitor showing the imprisoned forms of Chris Larabee, JD Dunne and Ezra Standish. JD had an arm slung over Ezra's shoulder as the southern gentleman buried his head in his arms on his knees.

Ruefully, the profiler wondered where his remaining two teammates were and prayed they were safe from this nightmare.

"Isn't that a lovely picture?" the voice asked. "Standish seemed particularly upset with the removal of Mr. Tanner. Just how do you expect he'll react when we return him a little worse for wear?"

"What do you want with us?" Josiah asked angrily. "Why separate me from them? Do they even know I'm here?"

"So many questions, my old friend. But I'm in a good mood, so I'll indulge you. I want nothing from them actually, just you. They're here to encourage you to cooperate. Well, and for me to play with. You're separate because I would hate for them to learn you're the cause of their torments; so, to answer your third question, no, they don't know you're here."

"So what do you want from me?"

"The location of Elizabeth Michelson."

Josiah sat back, stunned, as though he'd been hit hard and his brain had been jostled a little too much. "Elizabeth Michelson? I have no idea where she is."

"Really. And you expect me to believe that?"

"She went into witness protection. I haven't a clue."

"So find out."

"What?" Josiah laughed in spite of the situation. "I don't have access to that kind of information, and I don't have a clue who does. And even if I did, they'd never give it to me."

"Hmm, that's too bad. Perhaps I can give you incentive to change that answer. Please look into the main room."

Josiah felt his jaw clench as he turned to see that Vin had been strung up, his arms locked in heavy shackles that hung from the high ceiling. The chains had been pulled so that his now-bare feet barely reached the floor, forcing him onto his toes to relieve the pull on his shoulders. The young man had been blindfolded with a professional blind, one that carefully covered all of his eyes to the outer edges of his temples and a good portion of his cheeks – there was no way he could see, even a little.

The flunkies looked up, hearing something that Josiah couldn't, and the profiler realized that the two rooms must be soundproofed so that their captors had complete control over what they could or could not hear. Whatever the instructions given, the three bullies smiled in obvious pleasure. Two proceeded to open the cabinet at the far wall, and the view turned Josiah's stomach.

The cabinet contained all sorts of twisted devices, from whips and knives to various restraints and more odious options. Many of the items Josiah recognized as used by people who practiced sexual deviations, but other choices were simply for the infliction of pain. Josiah dreaded to think he would be forced to watch those items used on his friends.

"I think we'll start simply, hm?" the voice asked as one of the flunkies selected a large hunting knife. "A little humiliation is always nice to get things started."

Josiah clenched his fists as the flunky carelessly sliced away Vin's shirt and tee, cutting away the arms to leave the item in rags at his victim's feet. Vin got a nick or two in the process, but didn't make a sound – something Josiah knew only because the speakers had been set now so that he could hear the sounds made by the knife ripping through fabric.

The knife-wielder stepped away to allow Flunky Number Two to move in. With deft hands, the man opened the button-fly and stripped Vin of his jeans, taking the underwear with to leave the captive completely nude. Josiah could see a hint of flush in the sharpshooter's face, a sign that the normally reserved young man was not entirely unaffected by his stripping. The flunkies stepped away and waited.

Josiah heard a soft, almost imperceptible click over the speakers, and then the voice spoke again. "How about I let you choose?" it said far too cheerfully. "The boys will either give Mr. Tanner a nice taste of a leather whip, or they will apply a hot iron to the soles of his feet. Which would you prefer?"

Josiah absently swiped at his chin with the back of one hand. "You want me to pick how you torture one of my friends?" he growled angrily. "You actually want me to choose what kind of pain you inflict?"

"We could always do both," the voice coolly. Josiah's shoulders slumped as it continued, "At least you have an easier choice than Mr. Larabee. He had to select which of your friends would get the honor of submitting to your choice. All you have to choose is how."

Josiah pinched his nose, thinking quickly. The level of injury done by a whip depended on the skill of the wielder, but any fool could do serious damage with a hot iron, and the soles of the feet were extremely delicate. Vin had a better chance of recovering from a whipping than that sort of burning. "If you insist on either, use the whip," he said, not hearing the hard edge in his tone.

It was not lost on his captor, who chuckled. "Excellent choice. Very old school. Now, why don't you sit back and enjoy the show?"

Josiah refrained from verbalizing his thoughts on that subject, so he heard the speakers make that soft click again before the room went silent. Josiah could see the flunkies listening to their instructions, and then another soft click allowed him to hear the sounds of one of the bullies retrieving the chosen weapon from the cabinet.

Though the young man attempted to resist, Vin's legs were spread forcefully by the two remaining men and locked into place at a wide angle using a metal bar and cuffs. Despite the rough handling Vin maintained his silence, not gracing his captors with a so much as a grunt. Josiah prayed the young man would be able to continue his quiet defiance.

And then the whip began to descend.


Three men looked up as one when the room door opened. Ezra felt his jaw clench as he saw the blonde enter first, followed by her three men, two of whom were dragging the limp, naked body of his lover.

"Ez…" Chris warned in a low murmur. Ez nodded stiffly and reached for JD's arm. The young man had stiffened, his body coiled for attack. Standish knew the feeling only too well, but he also knew that any such confrontation would not do them any good. Ezra tugged firmly until JD and he were both all the way back to the far wall.

"Good boys," the blonde smiled at her victim's cellmates. She unlocked the door and pulled it open, allowing her men to deposit Vin just inside the cell. The flunkies retreated and she relocked the door behind them; the whole time, Ezra, Chris and JD remained still, watching their tormentors.

"Nicely done, gentlemen," the woman said, smiling cheerfully as though she'd just invited them on a picnic. "I'll be back in a little while with some food. Then, Mister Larabee, you and I shall discuss your futures." She gave a small bow that screamed of sarcasm and then exited the room, taking her men with her.

Only then did Ezra fly to Vin's side, JD barely a step behind.

"Oh, god, Vin," the conman whispered, his voice cracking. Vin's backside, from his shoulders to his calves, was covered in vicious welts that bespoke a horrible beating with thin leather straps. The skin was broken in only one or two spots, but that didn't mean the pain was any less. Ezra carefully checked for a pulse and breathed an unconscious sigh of relief when he found it rapid but strong.

"JD…" Standish barely registered Chris' voice, but he did respond quickly when JD thrust a soft cotton button-down shirt in his face – Chris' shirt. Nodding to no one in particular, Ezra quickly stripped off his suit-coat and laid it out on the cement, then lifted Vin to his knees by the armpits so that JD could slip the soft cotton over Vin's arms, the youth's hands sneaking around from the back to button up the front. Once the shirt was on, Ezra gently laid his lover stomach-down on the suit-coat. Momentarily Standish was thankful that Chris' preferred to where longer shirts than were stylish for a man his size, which meant the shirt tails dropped low over Vin's ass to provide a modicum of modesty.

*Oh, love…*


Chris watched the actions of his friends, helpless beyond the donation of his shirt. Now, standing only in a ratty old tank undershirt that Sarah would have made him throw out a year ago, he gripped the bars that separated him from their cage with a death grip, wishing he could offer more than just moral support from afar. "How is he?" he asked, his voice rough with barely-contained anger.

Ezra's hand drifted briefly across Vin's cheek, and Chris was not entirely sure the man realized he'd done it. "He's alive," he said softly. It was all he said, and Chris realized how much effort it had taken his friend to even say that. Ezra's tone was strained with the fury of a lover, a feeling Chris knew only too well. Standish settled in next to his mate, pulling Vin's chest and head into his lap and began absently stroking long sable locks with a tender touch.

Chris's hazel eyes flickered over to register JD's response to all this, and was surprised to see the younger man sitting next to Ezra, resting a hand gently on Ezra's shoulder. Chris knew JD was no dummy; the kid had to have figured out what he had, but there was no question that if Dunne did know about Vin and Ezra, it didn't phase the boy one bit. He was going to support and protect his friends no matter the circumstances. At that moment Chris knew that if he'd ever had any doubts about JD's ability to keep up with his teammates, he'd never have them again. *Buck would be proud,* he thought, unable not to allow a small smile to pull at the corners of his mouth.

But only a small one.

"He's gonna be okay, Ez," JD said, possibly more for his own sake than Ezra's, but Standish nodded his acceptance of the words without question. The youngest team member fell silent at the lack of response, but continued to keep his hand lying heavily on the silk of Standish's shirt, contributing calm reassurance through the warmth of his touch. Chris noticed Ezra seemed to lean slightly into that touch, grounding himself in it as he offered his own care to Vin.

Chris leaned his head against the bars and let out a long breath, his mind racing at the impossibilities of the situation. They had no idea where they were, who these people were, or how long they'd been here. He did know it was likely either still Friday night or very early Saturday morning, or the woman would have referred to Sunday as 'tomorrow' or 'today'.

But that just meant that likely no one had noticed them missing yet – assuming anyone would miss them at all before Sunday.

He tried to recall if any of his three co-captives had mentioned having plans that would bring their disappearance to someone's attention. Buck's current girlfriend would likely keep him tied up – possibly literally, if Buck's stories were to be believed – until Sunday night which meant he wouldn't be home to notice his absent roommate. JD had mentioned Casey and Nettie were going to Tennessee to visit Nettie's cousin Ruth, so he wouldn't be missed there either. Chris was supposed to escort Mary to Sunday's ball, but she wouldn't likely blink if she didn't hear from him before then…

What about Vin and Ezra? Vin volunteered regularly at the youth center in his neighborhood, but would they think twice if he didn't show up when expected? And that was assuming there was a reason they would be expecting him this weekend. And Ezra… well, Ezra was the king of keeping his private life private, so Chris didn't have a guess as to whether the man had had plans for the weekend or if anyone would notice. For all he knew, Ezra's idea of `private life' was locking himself in his house all weekend to read some eight- hundred-page novel cover to cover for the thirtieth time.

If someone did go to the ranch looking for the four of them, they would find the cars in the drive, the horses in the stables, and no sign of them in the house. He'd had the driveway paved last spring after JD had taken a bad fall in the barn and they'd been delayed getting him to the hospital by a sudden cloudburst that had turned the dirt drive ground into a eight-inch-deep mudslide that even Vin's four-wheel drive couldn't get through. The dirt drive might have been disturbed enough to offer hints of the additional vehicles their kidnappers must have used, but the pavement would hide any hint of additional cars or any fight the four of them might have put up.

They would simply be gone.


Buck Wilmington paced anxiously in his living room. It was four in the morning, and JD wasn't home. Chris didn't pick up his phone – any of them: home, office, cell – and neither did Vin or Ezra.

The lanky ladies man had originally been annoyed that Lucinda had had to cancel on their plans, but he couldn't exactly fault her either; she'd explained that she owed her coworker several favors and couldn't really say no when he'd called asking her to fill in on his flights over the weekend. So Buck had headed home bracing himself for a full weekend of JD teasing him about being stood up, knowing the kid would be like a five year old given *the* present of the year.

Except when he'd walked through the door at nine-thirty, JD wasn't home.

That hadn't really worried Buck, knowing that JD had planned to head out to Chris' for the evening. But even on a late Friday, JD would have been home by two at the latest – the kid preferred to sleep in his own bed whenever possible, and their apartment was only a twenty minute drive from the ranch. Of course, he could have decided to stay at Chris' if the guys were having a good time, but then he'd have called and left a message saying he wouldn't be home.

Of course, he wasn't expecting Buck to come home to get the message…

Which was why, at two-thirty in the morning, Buck had been making phone calls. And why at four o'clock, Wilmington was near frantic. It wasn't just JD missing, it was all four of them.

So he'd called Nathan and Josiah.

Nathan had been pretty pissed off at first, not really thrilled to get a call on his cell in the middle of the night while sleeping on his in-law's lumpy guest room mattress. But upon hearing that Buck couldn't raise four of their teammates by any means tried – even the emergency two-way pagers they all carried and routinely ignored – Nathan had declared he'd be on the road back at first light.

Josiah hadn't answered either. While the man had probably only gotten to sleep around three or so after his evening at the dance, and was known to be a heavy sleeper in his first few hours of sleep, it didn't make Buck any happier knowing he would need to wait a while before he could get the ex-missionary on the case as well.

Until then, there was little else Buck could do but wait.


Chris didn't even realize he'd dozed until he was startled by the door opening. A quick glance indicated that JD had also fallen asleep against Ezra's shoulder and was also suffering from the sudden waking, and that Vin was still unconscious. Ezra, however, appeared to have remained on guard the entire time.

The blonde entered with her usual goons, one of whom carried several bags from McDonald's. She approached the door to Chris' cell, her walk lazy and relaxed. Chris narrowed his eyes, studying everything about her in the hopes he'd be able to put a name to that face when he got back to the office.

"Time for breakfast, kids," she chirped. She gestured to the bag-carrying lackey, who moved forward and set his bundles next to Chris' cell. "I'll give you a half-hour to eat, and then I expect you to be appropriately prepared to see things my way. Otherwise…" She smiled sweetly and her eyes flicked over to where Vin still lay across Ezra's lap. Ezra's emerald eyes hardened at the way her gaze drifted over long naked legs. "He does have quite a nice body, doesn't he?" she purred, running a painted nail across her bottom lip. "Would be a shame to damage it further, wouldn't it?"

Chris was sure he heard Ezra growl something in a foreign language, but if the blonde heard it she ignored it. "I understand," Chris spat angrily. "You made your point, you don't have to make it again."

"I'm so glad you understand your position, Mister Larabee." Those dark blue eyes of hers darted back to Vin briefly before she shrugged and moved to the door. "I do hope you continue to remember it. For your friend's sake."

As soon as the door shut behind her, Chris was moving to the bags. He had to remove their breakfast to bring the bags inside his cell, but once he had them he quickly sorted through a vast selection of options. Apparently, starving them wasn't in the woman's plan. "Hell, there's enough here to feed Vin for the whole weekend," he muttered as he handed three large juices to JD. "Ez, you have to wake Vin and get him to drink that. He's gonna need to stay hydrated."

Ezra nodded woodenly, obviously not fond of the idea of forcing Vin to leave his painless sleep. A couple of good shakes, however, and Vin was beginning to move slowly. "Come on, love, time to wake up," the conman murmured low in Vin's ear. Chris wondered if Ezra even realized the endearment he'd used. A quick glance at JD's face surprised the blond as he caught JD watching their friends with a look of affection, amusement and concern; apparently the kid had known about the secret relationship before Chris had.

Vin moaned softly as the kid helped Ezra roll him onto his side and sit up slightly, most of his weight being born by his smaller lover. It was JD who lifted the juice to Vin's lips as Ezra's arms were needed to balance the two, and Vin's eyes cracked ever so slightly to glare at his benefactor. JD's only response was to tear off a piece of sausage from one of the sandwiches and slip it into Vin's mouth.

"Kin feed myself," Vin mumbled softly between chews.

"S'pose you can," JD replied, his voice brooking no argument. "Don't mean you gotta." JD continued to feed Vin one bite at a time, Chris was sure Vin would have made an attempt to stop it if he'd had the energy to. Ezra's eyes looked as the young man, his face soft with gratitude. JD simply gave a small smile and a quick shrug and continued his actions.

Chris snorted softly. "Hell, if we ain't a picture." His men glanced at him, all three questioning, but their leader could do no more than shake his head. How could he explain how bizarre this all was to him? To be sitting on the dirty cement floor in a pair of cages, watching as Vin was comforted by Ezra, who it turned out was his lover, and while JD – the youngest and the one they always sought to protect – looked after the both of them. While Chris, the leader of their merry band, the one they usually turned to for guidance, sat helpless to do anything but watch.

"I'll be okay," Vin murmured a moment later, his eyes catching his best friend's. "Little whippin' ain't nothin' I can't handle." His gaze shift up to find Ezra, and the two shared a long quiet moment that neither of their friends felt moved to interrupt.

"Little whipping," Ezra repeated softly, the sarcasm evident. "I would suggest the term 'flayed raw' as more appropriate." Vin opened his mouth to reply and Ezra cut him off. "Don't tell me your fine, Tanner. You'd be lying through your teeth, and I would recommend that if we are in fact getting close to the time of eternal judgment, you should avoid adding to your stockpile of sins."

"Hell," Vin chuckled lightly. "Gonna burn in hell anyway with the life I've led, might as well pad myself a nice fat cushion, huh?" Ezra sighed and shook his head. Chris wasn't entirely certain he'd understood the exchange, but he figured it probably was a private joke and they'd explain if they wanted him to know.

They didn't.

The next few minutes passed in silence as Vin was settled into Ezra's lap again, and then JD handed Ezra his own breakfast. The conman frowned distastefully but refrained from making any rude comments about the cuisine, which made Chris more worried that relieved. If Ezra wasn't making wisecracks, he was seriously concerned about Vin's health.

When their captor returned, the ATF leader was more than ready to deal with her. He stood, body taut, his hands resting on the bars of his cell and met her eye to eye. "Whatever you want, fine, I'll do it. But you leave them alone."

"You do what I want, and I have no reason to harm them further," the woman nodded.

"One condition," Chris said through clenched teeth, desperately wanted to slap the gloating sneer off that pretty face. "You let JD come with me."

The woman laughed out loud. "And why should I do that? The more of your people I have to hurt if you disobey, the more leverage I have."

"He's just a kid," Larabee growled. "Hell, he's not even old enough to drink yet, for god's sake."

"Federal agents are required to be twenty-two," the woman retorted. Inwardly, Chris winced at her knowledge.

"He's an exception. Started college at sixteen, graduated with honors from the police academy in Boston, and he's a crackerjack computer tech. We took him on conditionally that he wouldn't be in the field until he was older. He's a good kid, but he's not a real agent."

"And I should care because you feel responsible for the baby boy?"

Chris glanced at JD, whose face was tight with hurt and anger. If it was an act, JD was a better actor than Olivier. "Look, he may be just a kid, but he's also my computer tech. Without him, some of the information you want me to get may not be possible to access. I don't work every case in the ATF and I don't have access to anything I'm not directly involved in. JD's the one who would be able to gain access without me having to ask my coworkers favors you don't want me to ask."

The woman looked skeptical, and Chris sighed. "Look, I start asking people for information on cases I'm not on, and people are gonna start asking *me* questions I can't answer without raising suspicions. And if that happens, I won't be able to do what you want, will I? JD has computer clearance I don't and the hacking skills to do the rest."

He knew all the arguments in the world weren't going to work if the woman was as cold as he believed she was, but he had to try. JD was really their key hope in getting Ezra and Vin back alive; the kid could be as sneaky as Standish when he wanted to be.

"My dear lady, surely you wouldn't be so crude as to hold a child hostage," Ezra piped up from where he still held Vin on the floor.

"I'm not a child!" JD snapped, but his actions cause him to appear even younger. With a pouting lip and crackling dark eyes, he appeared a petulant teen refraining from throwing a temper tantrum. The look on the woman's face was hard to read, but if Chris had to bet, he'd wager she was considering her options. He knew partially they were hoping that their criminal adversary had the tiniest hint of maternal instinct, and their plan gambled on that extremely thin hope. God willing they weren't wrong…

Ezra tossed a slightly exasperated glance toward the boy but otherwise ignored his outburst. "You will still have two hostages, full-fledged agents of the Bureau. You have already shown us full well what you are capable of, and Mister Larabee will not be foolish enough to risk his best friend's health further."

Chris threw Ezra a dirty look but understood the ploy. Making Vin a more valuable hostage would up the likelihood that the woman would decide she didn't need the third body at her disposal. And his use of the positive 'will' rather than the tentative `would' was a psychological trick Chris remembered Josiah discussing with them once over a third bottle of tequila – it tended to push the listener's mind into the affirmative of your request as though they'd already agreed, rather than leaving the argument open for debate.

Chris decided to stay quiet, trusting Ezra's ability to persuade people with his slippery tongue. He also noted that JD had retreated to the corner of the cell, giving the illusion of a teenage pout; Ezra had obviously coached the young hacker on his behavior.

"Fine," the woman sighed, as though a monarch benevolently granting a request to kiss her feet. "We leave in twenty minutes. Just remember, Larabee, you do anything to screw up your assignment, and your best friend and his pal there will be praying for death by the time I'm through with them. And I can always pick up the boy again, can't I?"

She stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her. JD moved like he was going to join his friends again, but a slight shake of Ezra's head reminded him that he had cameras watching him; until he was free, he had to remain the put-upon mascot of the older agents, keeping his distance from the men who had just declared him a glorified gofer. Chris knew it was likely eating the young man from the inside out, but the boy's actions made Larabee proud to have him on the team.

Chris knelt down as close as he could get to his friends and met the lovers with a steady stare. "Don't you two do anything to piss them off, okay?" he asked in a low rasp. "I ain't fond of the idea of collecting what's left of you after those wolves tear you apart."

"Don't plan on it, cowboy," Vin replied quietly. "Gonna just lay back and chill out, let Ez call the shots."

"Why doesn't that reassure me?" Chris chuckled lightly. "Standish gets in as much trouble as you do."

"I take umbrage to that remark," Ezra said, squaring his shoulders. "I am quite capable of holding my tongue… so long as those baboons keep their distance."

Chris grinned, then reached a hand through the bars toward his friends. Vin's hand met his in a firm grasp, and Ezra covered both hands gently, the three older men seeking reassurance in the moment.

They remained that way until the lackeys arrived to remove Chris and JD from the cells.


Josiah watched the monitors as his friends confronted a person he couldn't see, then were left alone for a while. Something had been said which apparently angered JD, and the boy's brat-like behavior puzzled the profiler. The other agents seemed to ignore the tantrum, however, and were seeking the comforting bond of touch, something they rarely did. It made the oldest member of Team Seven more than a little nervous.

"Enjoying the view?" the voice asked when the speakers cackled to life. "I thought you might enjoy watching your friends in the aftermath."

"Is Vin alright?"

"He's alive. And you'll be happy to know that I've decided to release Larabee and Dunne. Call it a show of good faith."

"Why?" Josiah frowned.

The voice chuckled. "What, you don't believe I'm simply releasing them because I'm a kind-hearted soul? Josiah, you wound me!"

"A kind soul wouldn't have beaten Vin with a leather whip," Josiah spat. "What is it you think you're going to achieve by letting them go?"

"It's quite simple, really," the voice said flatly. "Mister Larabee has been instructed that he is to assassinate Senator Morgan at the gala tomorrow night. If he succeeds, Tanner and Standish go free. If he fails, they will suffer until they are begging for death." Josiah felt the color drain from his face. "Larabee has until tomorrow night at eight pm for you to achieve your goal. If you get me the whereabouts of Elizabeth Michelson, I'll call off the hit and release Larabee from having to choose between the lives of his friends and committing the cold-blooded first degree murder of a United States Senator – which, as you know is a federal crime punishable by the death penalty. Assuming he survived in prison long enough to get to the gas chamber."

Josiah bent his head over his hands, his heart dropping. Even if he knew how to begin searching for Michelson, he'd never be able to get to her. And if he DID find out where she was, how could he endanger her life even for the lives of his friends?

"If you want me to get you this information, I'd need access to my office computer."

"I don't think so. You can make a few phone calls."

"Nobody's going to tell me anything over the phone!" Josiah barked. "Even if I personally knew the people I'm gonna need to talk to, which I don't, they'd never release that information over the phone. It's too easy to disguise or fake a voice." His eyes narrowed as he looked pointedly at one of the cameras. "As you damn well know."

The voice remained silent, and Josiah hoped that meant he'd scored a point. He didn't have a clue if he what he could do to get out of this situation, but step one had to be getting in touch with his remaining free teammates. And if their captors were going to release Chris and JD as well, that might help.

"If I release you, the first thing you'll do is inform Larabee of my designs for you."

"Won't change the situation, will it?" Josiah asked, not hiding the coldness in his tone. "If I can't get you the information you want, you still make Chris go through with killing the Senator. And you know I can't do it instead because I'm not on the guest list for that damn party."

"True…" The voice trailed off, obviously considering.

Josiah's mind raced, trying to formulate some kind of plan, but his host began speaking again before he could say anything else. "Allow me to remind you, Sanchez, that I am not stupid. I know how your mind works, and I'll be keeping a close eye on you. I've got wires and bugs in places you can't even imagine, and your friends will pay for any mistakes you make trying to cross me."

"I understand perfectly." Unfortunately, he really did. And that meant he knew damn well he was likely to cause Vin and Ezra more pain before Team Seven could free their mates from this hell.

"You'll be leaving in a few minutes. If you need to freshen up, do it now."


Buck arrived at the office only a few minutes before an exhausted and obviously frazzled Nathan appeared with his wife trailing behind. The medic took one look at his friend and the empty office and came to a conclusion pretty quickly.

"Josiah's missing too?"

"Yeah," Buck sighed, collapsing into his chair. I got tired of dialing my phone at six and went over there myself. Had Mark Trusky meet me to pick the locks - he's at his desk downstairs, said to call him when you got in. Josiah's bed hadn't been slept in, no sign he ever got home last night." He nodded wearily to Rain, who remained silent as she hung out just inside the office doorway, not wanting to interfere in the discussion but wanting to hear what they knew so far.

"Did you call the youth center?" Nathan asked, needing the routine of thinking everything through to get his barings.

"Raided the man's Roladex and spoke with a very cranky nun. Hell, I thought them ladies got up with the dawn… if she hadn't been just as worried, she's have spanked me with her ruler right through the phone. Anyway, he never arrived at the dance last night and no one's heard from him. I've got an APB out on his car."

"What about the others?" Nathan asked, settling a hip on Buck's desk. The fact that four of their teammates had vanished into thin air had made his stomach queasy, but the knowledge that Josiah was gone too was a better wake-up than three cups of Vin's mudslide coffee. Buck looked like he could use a few cups right about now himself; then again, Nathan had at least gotten a few hours sleep and Rain had been the one driving on the ride back. Buck had been up all night, and alone at this for hours.

"Called Tiny Thompson and asked him to drive over to the ranch," Buck said. Both Rain and Nathan nodded at the name of Chris' neighbor and regular emergency stable hand. "Says Chris' truck and Ezra's Jag are all in the driveway, but it don't look like anyone's been in the house since yesterday morning. No signs they went in the house at all when they got there."

"What about Vin and JD?"

"Vin's Jeep is still in the garage downstairs – I assume he caught a ride to the ranch with Ez – and JD rode in with me yesterday."

"You checked the hospitals?" Rain asked nervously, not wanting to mention it but feeling it was pertinent. "I mean, I can't think of anything that could have happened that would cause them to leave all their cars with no other clues, but just in case…" Buck's face clearly said he hadn't thought of that, and Rain quietly moved to Vin's desk and dialing the phone. Nathan smiled sadly at his wife's gentle support.

"God, Nate, I didn't…"

"Ain't like you can think of everything," Nate said, waving the man off before he got his engine revved up for that guilt trip. "You're going on empty here. I want you to go grab something out of the vending machine in the pantry – no caffeine, now – and then you're gonna lie down on the sofa in Chris' office for a while."

"Nate, I can't…"

"Buck, if it's really just you and me and everyone else is missing, we can't afford to fall apart. You need some sleep, and I'll give you a sedative if I have to for you to get it." Buck reluctantly nodded, the frustration blazing in his eyes. "Rain and I can make phone calls," the medic said, reinforcing his orders. "She'll check the hospitals, I'll call Travis and bring in the rest of Team Four. By the time everyone's here you be more rested and we'll be able to put together a game plan."


Both JD and Chris were gagged, blindfolded and handcuffed before they were shoved roughly into the back of a large van, but they weren't sedated or knocked out, which made JD's spirits soar. As soon as he was settled he carefully cleared his mind and focused on the movements of the vehicle and the sounds of the road. He knew Chris would be trying to do the same thing, but Vin had working with JD on sensory depravation training for almost six months now. He knew he was their best bet.

The trip involved a lot of twists and turns, and JD was sure the driver was taking them on a wild goose chase just to try to avoid them being able to memorize the route. As it was, he didn't have to worry too much since one of their captors occasionally would slap JD's or Chris' head against the back of the van just for the hell of it, interrupting JD's concentration. Still, the hacker was pretty sure he could remember enough of the route to give them a fairly good idea.

They were unceremoniously dumped out of the van rather unexpectedly when JD thought they'd perhaps stopped for a traffic light. In fact, they had – and in Vin's less than stellar neighborhood, no less. The cuffs and gags were removed rather roughly and then they were tossed out onto the pavement. The vehicle sped away before either man could regain his senses enough and pull off their blindfolds to look at the van's license plate. Not that it mattered: likely the van would be run through a car wash and dumped before they had time to even get to a phone.

"Come on, kid," Chris said softly, picking himself up from the payment. "We should be close enough to Vin's place to use his phone." Chris looked down as JD rubbed absently at his head. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I guess," the youth sighed, rubbing his head. "Just really wish they hadn't enjoyed whackin' me so much."

Chris chuckled ruefully, rubbing at his own abused skull. "Yeah, they're a real group of winners." He offered a hand to help JD up, which the young man took gratefully. Together, they began the six block course to Vin's walk-up.


Josiah felt the van pause, and then felt a shudder. He'd been blindfolded, cuffed and gagged, and then they'd put earplugs in his ears which significantly muffled the noises around him, but he could still vaguely hear the sound of the rear doors being opened briefly and then closed again. Then they were driving again, for at least another fifteen minutes he would guess, before they stopped again. His restraints and impairments were removed, and he looked up to face one of the big blocks of human flesh he'd seen mistreating Vin earlier. His face flushed with anger, but the gun in the man's hand helped him control his anger.

"You got till tomorrow night, pal," the ox with the gun sneered. "You'll hear from us before then."

"Oh joy," Josiah muttered. He climbed out of the vehicle and away from his antagonists, watching them carefully as they climbed back in and drove away. He made note of the plate, but wouldn't be surprised if he learned later that it was stolen. With a sigh, he glanced around the neighborhood they'd dropped him off in; it was the main shopping district, about twenty blocks from the federal building and his office. Fully aware they had neglected to return his wallet, he began trudging his way down the street.


"Thank god Mrs. Valasquez likes you," Chris growled after JD closed the door behind them.

"She'd like you better if you didn't hiss at her cat," JD scolded. "Fluffy doesn't like you, that's why she doesn't like you."

"Nothing personal, I don't like cats in general. And Fluffy started it."

"You're just not an animal person. Face it, the only animal that likes you are the horses, who rely on you for food, and Cuervo, who isn't terribly discriminating to begin with."

"Dogs like me," Chris declared as he dialed the phone.

"Sure. Name one."

Chris opened his mouth to give an example… and realized he couldn't. He thanked god when Buck's voice cut off his need to reply.


"Buck, it's…"

"Chris!! Where the fuck have you been? Are the boys with you? I called Nathan back from Boulder, we've been looking allnight…"

"BUCK! Shut up a second, will ya?"

"Chris, it's Nate; are you guys okay?"

"We're fine, Nate. Can you both just…"

"Chris, it's Orrin Travis. Where the hell have…"

"WOULD EVERYONE JUST SHUT UP A SECOND?" Chris bellowed, sure that the game of 'pass the receiver' would stop at that. "And for god's sake, would you put me on speaker so I don't have to repeat this six times?" He heard the soft click and then Orrin's voice sounded like he was inside an oil drum. Ah, the joys of speaker phone.

"Alright, Larabee, talk."

"JD and I are fine for the moment, we're at Vin's."

"Are Tanner and Standish with you?"

"No, and I'm not going into it over the phone. Can someone come pickus up? Then we can all meet at the Waffle House for breakfast. I'm starved."

"Waffle House?" Buck's voice was a little concerned. The Waffle House was one of Chris' most despised restaurants due to routinely bad service and worse coffee, and Chris was sure they wouldn't miss the implications of such a selection.

"I'm in the mood for their Grand Slam," Chris said casually. He could almost hear Nathan refraining from an instant comeback about their cholesterol levels.

"I can pick you up and get us there in about a half-hour," Buck replied. He was sure everyone in the room had puzzled looks on their faces, but no one – not even Travis – would question a cryptic conversation between the two old friends.

"We'll be waiting."


Ezra glanced up when the blonde entered the room. She was alone this time, but somehow that didn't make Ezra feel any better. She leaned against the wall, studying her two prisoners carefully, her blue eyes dark and thoughtful.

Vin had recovered enough that he was sitting up now, leaning against the wall, dozing against Ezra's shoulder. He was wrapped in Chris' oversized shirt, and wore the boxers Chris had donated before leaving. The men had taken a little pleasure out of how Chris had defiantly stripped down to pull off his underwear in spite of the cameras, offering Vin what little dignity he could after questions had revealed the demise of Vin's clothing upstairs. Chris had declared that even dirty underwear was better than nothing, and Ezra had been grateful even if Vin had made faces.

Now, Ezra was very glad Vin hadn't argued about it; he didn't know if he could have sat as the woman had stared at his lover's nearly nude form without making a few rude comments.

"You do know you're both going to die before this is over, don't you?"

The quiet question, devoid of any real emotion, unnerved the undercover specialist more that he would ever admit. He was glad that years of training and his mother's dedicated tutelage allowed his face to remain set with an empty gaze.

"I suspected as much," he replied lightly. "Is there a particular reason you are divulging that little tidbit?"

"Just thought you should know," she said simply. "Call it fair play, if you like. I suppose perhaps there's a part of me that feels badly that you and Tanner are the ones who will ultimately suffer for your teammate's actions."

"Chris will do what you ask, you know," Ezra lied easily. "You don't need to kill us. He'll do what you want."

"No, he won't." the woman laughed. "Though if I didn't know that outright, I'd probably believe you. No, Larabee will spend the next thirty-two hours desperately trying to figure out who I am and why I'm doing this. Not to mention where I'm keeping you. But in the end, when push comes to shove, he's too honorable a person to commit cold-blooded murder for no reason whatsoever except to save your skins."

"Then why this farce?"

"If it makes you feel better, it has nothing to do with Larabee, actually. He's as much a pawn as you two. But keeping your boss off balance is important until I get what I want. After that, it doesn't really matter.'

"Because then you kill us and disappear."

"You are the clever one, aren't you, Standish?" the woman chuckled. "Yes, and in the meantime I use you to torment your friends."

Ezra said nothing in response. His prayer was that the bitch meant by their being held captive, but she'd already proven far too eager to inflict pain. The woman was smiling at him, a haughty, triumphant look that told him she knew damn well that she'd scored a point against him… he was afraid. Not for himself, but for what Vin might have to suffer before this was all over.

"Don't worry, sweetie, you've got some time yet before the next session." She focused on Vin's sleeping form in a way that turned Ezra's stomach, then smiled again and left.

Ezra bent his cheek to rest on Vin's head, his mind racing… if only there were a way to get out!


Chris and JD were waiting on the sidewalk when Buck drove up and took no time climbing into the truck. The gregarious ladies' man couldn't resist yanking both of them into a group hug, which was extremely awkward in the truck cab and only ended when JD managed to gasp out that he was choking. Buck instantly noted that JD was wearing the exact same thing that he'd worn the day before, while Chris was wearing a shirt that absolutely screamed `borrowed from Vin' – the fact that it was red, for starters.

"God, I've been worried sick!" Buck scolded as he watched his friends buckle in.

"Don't rest easy yet," Chris replied grimly. "But let's get to the restaurant first; I don't think we can go through this twice."

The drive took only a few minutes, and then they were sliding into chairs around a large group of hastily-shoved-together tables in the `party room', where Orrin Travis, Nathan and Rain, and most of the members of Team Four waited for them. The waitress requested their drink orders and was surprised when everyone not only gave their beverages but their food selections as well. Noting the distinct air of tension, she nodded quietly and left them alone.

"Alright, Chris, what's going on?" Travis asked. Chris leaned his elbows on the table, his hands clasped in frustration under his chin.

"Ezra, Vin, JD and myself were kidnapped last night by some blonde chick I didn't recognize." Eyes around the table swiveled to JD, who confirmed with a shrug that he didn't know her either. "She gave me a list of information she wants me to get for her," he said, pulling a paper from his back pocket and handing it to his boss. "Everything from the locations of certain people we have under surveillance to the code for the evidence locker downtown. But more than that, she wants me to kill Senator Morgan tomorrow night at the Huntington House Gala."

"And that's why Ez and Vin aren't with you?" Buck asked.

Chris nodded, fisting one of his hands in the other. "If I don't come through, or if I misbehave, they'll pay for it. She already whipped Vin as an example. I'll be I'm gonna be followed to make sure I don't… misbehave." The blond's heavy silence spoke volumes."

"Which means…" Nathan started, considering his friend's face carefully. "They're gonna pay for this meeting aren't they?"

"I expect so," Chris nodded wearily. "But what can I do? I can't kill the Senator, and I can't give her any of that information."

"We could feed her false information," Travis suggested. "At least until tomorrow night. Might buy us some time."

"Maybe," Chris nodded. "But I think she'll be following up on anything I give her pretty fast."

"Probably better not to give her anything at all," JD said softly from his chair next to Buck. "Stalling might be safer than giving her stuff she can confirm is wrong."

"That's a good point," Travis nodded, and Buck smiled at the man. JD was obviously distraught, and the A.D.'s approval would go a long way in helping the lad keep his balance.

Talk was interrupted as beverages arrived. Everyone took a few moments to digest what they'd heard, and once their waitress had discretely vanished again, Jack Tormell piped up.

"So what are we going to do in the meantime?" Team Four's leader asked. Travis looked to Chris to take the lead, knowing the man would end up in charge anyway.

"JD and I were blindfolded on the trip back, and the bad guys liked to thump us occasionally for the sport of it, but we should probably start by seeing if we can remember how we got here." Chris looked to Rain. "Rain, do you think you could run us through those memory exercises to see what we can come up with? Hell, hypnotize us if you have to."

"I have a friend who's a hypnotherapist," she nodded. "I'll call him to meet us at the office as soon as he can."

"Maybe between the two of us, we'll remember enough to find where they're holding Vin and Ez," Chris said. "In the meantime, we can do a composite sketch on the woman. Max, you can do that, right?"

"Yeah," the profiler for Team Four nodded. "We can use the composite program Josiah and I have been testing that will run the sketch through the bureau's files for a comparison. If we've ever taken a picture of her, we'll nail her."

"Davidson, McNulty, Trusky, I want you guys to run everything you can on the people on this list, see if there's anything they have in common. Tormell, Hodges, Crane, I want you guys to research Senator Morgan. Find out about anything he's ever been involved with, and anything he's working on actively right now. Hopefully we can come up with a reason why someone would want him dead and be able to match it to the bitch who's running this operation."

"I'll get the Director to change your clearances," Travis told the agents around the table. "Call in anyone on the other teams not actively doing case work at the moment: I want my entire branch working on finding our missing men."

"Wait a minute, what about Josiah?" Nathan asked. Chris frowned, and the medic felt his anxiety rise slightly. "Josiah's missing too. Never made it to the dance last night and no one's heard from him."

"Shit," Chris groaned, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I don't suppose he could just be home sleeping through the phone?"

"Mark and I broke into his house to check," Buck replied. "He ain't been there all night."

"Coincidence?" Jack asked. "I mean, if he wasn't with you…" He trailed off, knowing how lame he sounded.

"No way it's coincidence," JD said firmly, surprising everyone slightly. "But, if he wasn't with us, where the hell is he?"

"Tormell, call Dakota from Team Six," Travis sighed. "I want his team working the Josiah side of this mess. Maybe there's a connection there. Call it a hunch, but I'd bet the key to this lies in why Josiah was taken but kept separate. And I didn't get to be A.D. without a few good gut instincts."

"After we all eat, let's get back to the office and start digging." Chris sighed, noting that the waitress had started setting up stands in anticipation of delivering their meals. "Nate, Jack, Carrie, I want you three to be our coordinators. Keep each other posted on what your respective teams find, see if you can make some connections. Rain and Max will work with JD and I on our composite and our directional memory. Buck, I need you to work with security to sweep the offices for bugs and surveillance; I'd bet money she's somehow managed to get bugs in somehow, and we need to be clean if we're going to have a shot in hell of doing this."

'This' meant saving their friends, but Chris couldn't bring himself to say the words and he doubted anyone wanted to hear him say them. He tried not to imagine what would happen to Vin and Ezra because he'd outsmarted the enemy by holding a meeting at a restaurant he hated and never ate at, but he also knew there would be a number of other things he would have to do before this was all over…

… all of which would bring retribution down on his brothers.


Ezra looked up sharply from where he'd been dozing when the woman stormed in, her face dark. Instantly he knew that Chris had done something that displeased her.

And they were about to pay for it.

"Take him," she spat as she unlocked the cell door.

Ezra's grip on Vin tightened unintentionally as the door swung open and Vin awoke with a sharp gasp.

"No!" Ezra gasped, jumping to his feet and putting himself between the two brutes who entered the cell and Vin. His stance, sure and light, lightly bouncing on the balls of his feet, made the lackeys pause, giving Vin a chance to climb rather painfully to his feet.


"No, I won't allow it," Ezra growled, not looking back at his lover.

"Don't make this worse, Standish," the blonde warned, but her face indicated she was clearly enjoying the spectacle. "I have no problem taking both of you."

Ezra kept his eyes focused on the two men before him, waiting for a signal. Vin was in pain, but the man had the survival skills of a wild animal – even injured he would fight like a feral cougar… viciously and without sympathy for his enemy. Ezra just hoped he could do some serious damage before one of their foes got past him to get to Vin.

The attack came from the left, the smaller of the two hulks, and Ezra assessed in the man's three steps forward that he was likely dealing with the IQ of a really big stalagmite. The move was no more than a slow-paced football rush, which Ezra sidestepped easily and met with a roundhouse to the throat, dropping the man like a stone as he gapped like a fish trying to get air through his crushed windpipe. Unfortunately, Ezra didn't have time to recover for the second man's arrival, and he had only just returned to a fighting stance as meaty paws wrapped around his neck.

It was a joint effort to release the brute's grasp, with Vin delivering a less-than-full-strength right hook to the nose while Ezra drove his knee into the man's groin with a force increased by the memory of his lover's pain. As the big man grunted and dropped, the two friends dodged for the door.

Where they stopped in front of the blonde and her very shiny gun.

"Nice moves, boys," she sneered. "Enjoyable show, really. Not really happy about those two morons, but hey, not like I can't hire a few more, huh?"

"Grow 'em big, here, do ya?" Vin snapped, trying to ignore the fact that Ezra had place himself between Vin and the gun. If the sharpshooter hadn't been gasping for breath and every inch of his body screaming for painkillers, he probably would have bitched about it, but as it was he had to hang onto the cell bars to keep a wave of dizziness from knocking him off his feet.

"Big enough," the woman replied. "Obviously I overestimated their size being able to intimidate you into cooperating. The next ones I'll just have to arm with guns." She smiled as the sound of approaching footsteps echoed in the hallway through the far door. "Back up into the cell, Standish, or I'll be happy to give you an extra hole or two."

Ezra hesitated, wanting desperately to rush the woman, but a hand on his shoulder and the appearance of three more flunkies in the doorway changed his mind for him. Getting himself killed wouldn't help Vin at all, and he refused to leave his lover to suffer that way. Reluctantly he stepped back, his eyes never leaving the blonde before him.

"Good boy," she said, her voice cool. "For being such a smart little boy, I'll even give Vinny here the option of leaving his clothes behind, rather than having them cut off again. Larabee was so nice to donate them to your cause, I'd hate to see them ruined."

Ezra saw Vin jaw tighten; his lover was one of the most modest men he knew, preferring not to even shower in the lockers at work or the gym if he could avoid it. To be forced to walk naked among their captors was surely discomforting to say the least, but they both knew he would need something to wear after his next torment was over. The cells were too cool for comfort, for one thing, and at least having something to put on when he returned would give him back a small piece of his dignity.

"Vin…" Ezra whispered. Vin nodded and pulled off his shirt and boxers, tossing them to his lover. Despite the embarrassment he surely felt, Tanner stood as tall and defiant as his abused body would allow. The woman smiled, her eyes raking his body in lust.

"Very nice," she purred. "Shall we proceed with a little less commotion this time?" Vin bit his lip and nodded, his stride as rebellious as he could make it. Ezra's heart pounded as he watched the two bodies be dragged from his cell and the door closed and locked. He moved to the door and rested his hands on the bars.

"I wouldn't suggest you try anything like that again," the blonde commented as her men filed out, following in Vin's wake. "I am planning on making your deaths as quick and painless as can be provided, but I won't have a problem torturing you both until you're begging me to put a bullet between your eyes."

Her eyes were as cold as Ezra could remember having seen anyone's, and the thought chilled him to the bone.


Josiah pressed his thumb into the scanner and waited for the security guard to run the record. He was sore and tired, and really wanted a shower more than anything. But first he needed to call Buck and Nathan and get them up to speed on what was happening. He tried not to wonder what was happening to his friends in the meantime.

"All clear, Agent Sanchez," the guard said with a smile. "Sucks to lose your wallet, huh?"

"You have no idea," Josiah replied with a sigh. He took the pen offered and bent over to begin signing the forms required for an agent entering the secured ATF floors without his identification when he heard his name shouted from the door behind him. Looking up, he saw Nathan, Chris, Buck and JD sprinting across the lobby, with Team Four and Orrin Travis huffing along behind them.

"Sanchez! Where the hell have you been!" Larabee growled even as Nathan and Buck were yanking him into a tag-team hug. JD looked both relieved and furious, and the rest of the men just looked puzzled.

"Chris!" Josiah yelped as he was released from the clench, stunned to see his boss in front of him. The big man turned equally surprised eyes on their youngest, pulling the boy into a bear hug. "JD! You're alright!!" He let the boy go, looking around frantically. "Are Vin and Ezra alright? Are they with you?"

"You know about Vin and Ezra? About us?" JD asked, his dark eyes sobering.

"I…" Josiah slouched against the security desk, running a hand through his graying hair. "They took you all because of me."

"They what?"

"Chris, you're just being sent on a wild goose chase to keep you distracted. I was there, they showed me you guys in the cells on a video monitor. I…" He closed his eyes against the memory. "I watched… what they did to Vin… they made me choose what was going to be done to him…"

"Christ on the cross," Buck murmured. The big profiler radiated pain at what his friends had experienced, and obviously planned to blame himself for their torments. "Josiah, this isn't your fault."

The big man looked up sadly, and Nathan rested a hand on his friend's muscled arm. "You're not to blame for actions of a mad woman."

"Woman?" Josiah blinked.

Chris' eyes narrowed. "This whole operation appears to be run by some blonde bitch. I take it you didn't get to meet her?"

"I didn't see anyone except a scrawny kid who delivered some food to me. They only spoke to me through a speaker."

"The woman's about five ten or so, build like a runway model, blonde hair, bright blue eyes."

"Personality of a scorpion," JD added dourly, earning him an affectionate cuff from Buck. Josiah frowned, trying to think.

"Doesn't ring an immediate bell, but she wants to know where to find Elizabeth Michelson."

"Who's that?" McNulty from Four asked. Josiah glanced at Travis, who was frowning.

"Michelson," Travis said thoughtfully. "Haven't heard that name in a few years. That would have been back when you were still working for the KCPD, wouldn't it? Harvey Read would have had my job back then; I was still working at the regional branch in Texas."

"Nineteen-eighty-six," Josiah nodded. "Wife of Spencer Michelson, who kept the books for Rory O'Kiery."

Several people whistled at the name. "O'Kiery was a legend," Tormell said, more for himself that the uninitiated among them. "The bureau lost over twenty agents trying to take him down. Multi-million a year weapons smuggler, side businesses in drugs and prostitution, blackmail of public officials and rumors of some slave trading in the middle east."

"Man went to the electric chair last year in Texas," Travis nodded. "Most of the evidence collected was based on documents provided by Elizabeth Michelson."

"She realized what her husband had become part of, and also that the man wasn't being coerced. So she'd sneak into his study in the middle of the night and take pictures of his files and books." Josiah rubbed his eyes. "I was her only contact. We'd met at the dentist office purely by chance one day. She was having a routine cleaning, and I was there for an emergency after breaking a tooth while eating a bagel. I happened to be wearing my uniform because I was supposed to give a presentation on the psychology of the criminal element at the academy that afternoon.

"Liz took one look at my uniform and dragged me into the ladies' room." The big man grinned at the memory. "She was so terrified at what her husband was into that she broke like an egg when she saw my uniform… just started babbling everything she knew."

"She was lucky you weren't on the take," Travis said sourly. "Turned out nearly a sixth of the KC police department was on the take from O'Kiery directly or one of O'Kiery's lieutenants. If you'd been the wrong man, she wouldn't have lived to get home for dinner that night."

"But she was lucky," Josiah smiled ruefully. "And once we'd talked everything through, I told her to meet me in two days at a department store where she liked to shop. Then I went to my captain and told him I had a contact in the heart of O'Kiery's operation. I wouldn't tell him who, even though I trusted him with my life, and bless him he didn't ask. He got me the special camera for her to use, which I gave to her at the department store. After that, we'd meet once or twice a week for her to give me anything she could find, any pictures she'd taken, or just to talk so that she wasn't so terrified.

"Once she got into it, she was the perfect spy. Didn't change her routine or her behavior, just did as she always did. We'd meet at the grocery store, at the mall, at her kid's school. I was everything from an mobile ice cream salesman to a janitor to a deli clerk. We had to assume that either Spencer or O'Kiery might have her followed, simply because she was the wife of one of his men. We didn't believe for a second that they would ever suspect her of anything, but we weren't taking any chances that one of O'Kiery's boys would see us together too often and become suspicious. I swear I dyed my hair four or five times a week, and used more facial putty to glue on sideburns or a goatee or a full beard… I even padded out once to what would have been almost three hundred pounds just to buy a hot dog in the park.

"After about three months, we had enough stuff on O'Kiery to put him and most of his men away for five lifetimes. So the last time Liz met me I smuggled her out the back way of the women's dressing room at Lord and Taylor's and handed her off to the U.S. Marshalls who promptly entered her into the witness protection program. She had no kids, no other family, so we didn't even let Liz know in advance.

The last time I saw her was at the trial, where she testified in a closed session about the work she and I did together and all the information she'd given us. She was a rock on the stand – O'Kiery's lawyers couldn't even wrinkle her suit."

Josiah smiled sadly. "I only got to speak to her for a few minutes that day, but she seemed so happy, for the first time since I'd met her. She told me she felt freer than she'd ever felt. She had a new job, a new life, and was even going to night school and since she'd been granted a divorce she was even dating again."

"Sounds like a pretty amazing woman," Chris said, his face softening slightly.

"Sounds like you could have fallen for her," Buck said, smiling.

"That I could have, my friend," Josiah grinned. "But her path lay another way than mine."

"And our mystery criminal wants to know where she is?" JD asked.

Josiah nodded. "But even if I could find out, I could never turn her over to someone like that."

"Of course not," Chris sighed. "Any more than I could kill the Senator."

"So, why'd she tell Chris she wants him to killed Morgan, if she's really after Elizabeth Michelson?"

"I suspect," Josiah said thoughtfully, "that she is merely killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Likely the two are either linked in some way, or they are both people who have caused trouble for our villain."

"Let's get upstairs," Chris growled. "We need to get moving on this if Vin and Ez are gonna have a chance at all."


Ezra was beside himself. Vin had been gone an eternity, and the conman could only imagine what might be happening to him. Unfortunately, he could imagine quite well, and far too many horrible possibilities.

For a long time, Standish had simply sat against the wall, head in his hands, praying to whatever diety might still bother to listen to him. Eventually he'd stopped praying, stopped reviewing the retribution he planned to rain down on the heads of any person who had even breathed the same air as his lover. He'd stopped calculating the odds that JD had been successful in tracking their return trip – on the assumption he'd been allowed to remain conscious. He'd stopped considering their options for getting out by themselves.

And he'd started pacing.

He'd only finally stopped when he'd flashed back to when he'd learned about Vin's claustrophobia. They'd been stuck in an elevator in the federal building when a severe thunderstorm had knocked out the entire downtown power grid. For whatever reason, the emergency generators had not immediately kicked in. Ezra had been annoyed, but Vin had quickly gone from annoyed to fearful to panicked. Standish had been flabbergasted to what the normally unflappable sharpshooter crumbling before his eyes.

Though they had only been friends back then, with no inkling they'd ever be anything more than that, Ezra had taken the man into his arms and provided an anchor in the buffeting storm of irrational fear gripping his friend. He had diverted the man's attention by making him recite poetry, calculate necessary distances for a decent shot, and regaling him with absurd stories of his youth, like the time in high school in a lower class district in Boston, when the leading lady had called in with strep the day the musical was supposed to open. Faced with the tears of his fellow classmates, many of whom had worked day and night for months looking forward to the two night production, and knowing if the performance was postponed the show was as good as cancelled, Ezra had taken on the role of Eliza Doolittle.

The audience had never known the difference (thank god for good makeup, corsets and Ezra's slender fourteen-year-old build at the time), the ticket sales had gone to the budget for the following year's production instead of having to be refunded, and Ezra's very straight Henry Higgins had discovered he was a better actor than he'd thought.

And Ezra had talked Maude into sending him to live with his aunt in Atlanta the next semester. Vin still loved to hear that story, maybe more so after Ezra had sworn the man to secrecy – on pain of castration if Buck ever heard one word about it.

That flashback to the elevator had stopped Ezra in his tracks. He'd never believed in Josiah's cryptic omens but the idea of being reminded of telling Vin about his first kiss with another man (even if it was for the sake of show biz) was too much. He'd deliberately moved back to the wall and forced himself to sit down, taking Vin's clothing in hand and clutching it to his chest.

And in his heart, he felt the terror reign.


"Tell me…" Vin murmured.

Ezra glanced up at the video cameras and for a brief moment wondered if they were being watched or listened to. After a moment, he decided he really didn't care anymore, so he leaned down and pressed a kiss to the forehead resting in his lap. "Tell you what?" he asked softly. He felt Vin shift slightly and saw a small wince of pain mar those treasured features before the man settled again.

"Tell me," Vin breathed. "…what we'd be doin' tonight if we weren't here."

Ezra sighed. They took turns planning their Saturday evenings, usually trying to surprise each other just for the hell of it. Vin was fond of planning things in nature - hiking or horseback riding, swimming in summer and ice skating in winter – and Ezra was prone to more cultural events – opera, theatre, art exhibits and poetry readings – but they both always selected things they knew they would both enjoy. Sometimes the plans were grandiose, other times they were simple – Vin had one planned a picnic in Ezra's back yard, and Ezra had once scheduled an entire evening around a Nick at Nick Three Stooges marathon (Vin's favorite comedy team).

Ezra ran a hand through Vin's long locks, heavy with dirt and sweat, and refrained from sighing. Vin wouldn't ask unless he needed to be distracted. Which meant his beloved was in more pain than he was letting on.

"Well," he started slowly, collecting his lover's hand in his own. "I had told you I would be picking you up at four, did I not?" He felt Vin's slight nod against his thigh. "And you were to be dressed in nice casual clothes. I planned to take you to an open-air poetry competition they are holding at the Harbor Walk, in front of Jacqueline's."

Jacqueline's was a notable sweet shop that Ezra had introduced his lover to on one of their first dates, and though Vin had been appalled at the cost of some of the delicacies, he learned quickly that there was a reason for the prices. Each candy was handmade, the fudge mixed right before your eyes, the desserts whipped and baked with exquisite care. Maddie and Jenna Malloy, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the founder, still used all the original family recipes and still insisted on hand-picking the ingredients themselves, refusing to buy anything in bulk just because it was cheaper. The milk chocolate meltaways were Vin's absolute favorite, and Ezra loved nothing more than picking up a half-pound box of the treats and hand-feeding them to his love at the end of a long evening. Though how Vin could consume half a pound of chocolates in one night without getting sick was still beyond him.

"Mm," Vin smiled sleepily. "Gonna feed my sweet tooth, huh?"

"Perhaps, if you're a good boy," Ezra chuckled.

"Then what?"

"I thought… dinner at the Fisherman's Fancy. I believe tonight they planned to have a lobster special with all-you-can eat shrimp scampi and crab-stuffed mushrooms."

"Like them."

"I know," Ezra said softly, toying with an errant curl. "Then we'd walk on the pier for a while looking at the artisan booths before returning to Jacqueline's for dessert."

"I was gonna get Jackie's before and after dinner?" Vin whispered. "Damn, this bitch is SO gonna pay."

Ezra hummed noncommittally. He hated lying to his beloved, but Vin needed to be diverted from his suffering and somehow Ezra didn't think his real plans – a large pan-style Domino's Meatza Pizza feast (extra sauce, extra extra cheese) with three orders of Cinnastix and a case of Pepsi in front of a Charlie Sheen movie marathon – was too likely to make waves. Had the plan come to fruition, Vin would have been ecstatic, but in pain in on the cool floor of a prison cell he probably wouldn't find it too thrilling.

*And if it's the last date we ever get together, I want it to be something special,* Ezra thought mournfully. He knew Vin was strong, but even the strongest man could only withstand so much… and they had at least another twenty-four hours to go.

"So… what sorta poetry is it?"

Ezra smiled to himself, thinking swiftly. "Tonight's competition was for ballad poetry – poems that tell a story."

"Like 'Paul Revere'."

"Exactly," Ezra smiled. He continued to murmur the basic judging components, the elements that would be used by the auditors to rate the pieces; he knew Vin likely didn't care about the logistics of it, rather simply wanted to hear him speak.

Ezra could still recall the first time he had recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" to his friend. They'd been thumbing through Ezra's vast book collection. Vin had finally convinced Ezra to get off his sorry ass and unpack all the 'unnecessary decoratives' that had remained in boxes in the corner of his condo for nearly two years. A concerned discussion had led to the admission that it wasn't so much that Ezra feared the permanency symbolized by unpacking – the man was simply incredibly lazy when it came to such a Herculean task. It was just so much simpler to leave everything in the boxes and dig around occasionally when he wanted something. Once Vin had realized this, he had cheerfully declared he'd do all the 'putting' and that Ezra simply needed to do the unpacking.

And so they had sorted through Ezra's treasured collection of knick-knacks, books, antiques and collectibles together, and Ezra had found it immensely enjoyable when he had someone to ask him where something should go, or where did he get it, or Vin's favorite question, "What the hell IS that thing?" which had lead to lengthy discussions on Japanese superstitions, Matrioshka dolls and penguins (Vin found Ezra's collection of ceramic ones hysterical). Eventually it had led to a debate regarding the merits of Ezra's books, and Ezra was surprised to learn that Vin was quite familiar with some of the more known American poets.

"Had a foster mom who liked to read poetry to one of the younger kids," Vin had shrugged. "Annie was sick a lot, `n Mrs. Peterson thought poems were soothin'." Ezra had been pleasantly surprised to learn Vin was able to recall by word several poems by the likes of Dickenson and Doolittle, Whitman and Wristen, Crane and Cummings, Eliot and Emerson, Plath and Poe.

He was, however, astounded to learn - merely by chance - that Tanner had never experienced Longfellow's exciting ballad of the revolution. Standish had been listening as Tanner recited one of his favorite pieces, __, and responded with the mention that his one of his own preferences was the classic Longfellow ballad. Upon learning his friend had somehow escaped ever hearing the tale, he had pulled Vin down onto the couch and launched into an animated telling of it, thrilling as Vin's eyes grew wide with the excitement of it. It had been a moment Ezra had cherished even long after their friendship had segued into something more.

"Tell me…" Vin was whispering again, the pain in his voice barely hidden. Ezra stroked a tanned cheek softly, wishing he could do more than simply distract. "Tell me… `bout… the wine…"

It was Vin's favorite poem to hear Ezra recite. He admitted he didn't entirely understand it all, even though Ezra had discussed with him the meanings of some of the names and phrases, and the deeper undertones that supposedly resided in the words. Tanner admitted he really just loved hearing the way his lover's voice lilted over the stanzas, each word made musical by the soft accent as the man murmured each verse. Still, the poem had taken on a new fondness for the undercover man in knowing how much his beloved enjoyed hearing him speak it. So Ezra began to recite "Bacchus" in lulling tones, hoping Vin would finally sleep for a while. "Bring me wine, but not wine which never grew in the belly of the grape…"

Swept gently on the current of his lover's voice, Vin Tanner slept.

To Be Continued...