This is a Round Robin story from the Vin F&D list. Each part could be no longer than 750 words and was based on the theme ‘questions and answers.’
Authors: Sue, JudyL and Mary Ann
ATF RR Part 1
The elevator doors opened and Chris Larabee stepped out into the subdued atmosphere of the bullpen. It had been this way since the closure of their latest case two days before, when they’d taken down Michael Chambers, a particularly unpleasant gun-runner, and four of his henchmen.
The bust had gone well, without a shot being fired, but the three months of hard work leading up to it had taken its toll on the team, especially Ezra and Vin who’d had to spend long periods of time undercover with the suspicious and demanding Chambers in order to gain his confidence. The whole team was tired, physically and emotionally, and Chris had to give AD Orin Travis credit for having noticed, but a week’s vacation would have been a lot more welcome than the departmental butt-covering response he’d been offered.
But, Chris was just as tired as his men, his argument had lacked its usual fire, and so Travis had gotten his way.
“What’s up, Cowboy?” Vin asked, as he looked up from the report he was typing and frowned at the tight set of his friend's shoulders and the pinched look to his eyes, both sure signs that Larabee wasn’t happy.
Chris dropped a set of papers on each of their desks before replying. “Our annual psyche evaluations have been scheduled for Monday. These questionnaires need to be completed before then.”ť
“It don’t seem like a year since our last evaluation,” Nathan commented as he picked up the papers and scanned the front page.
“It’s not, they’ve been moved up a month,” Chris confirmed, and managed a wry smile. “Apparently we’re looking a little 'rough-around-the-edges'.”ť
Picking up his copy of the questionnaire, Buck turned over the cover page and snorted at the first question. “What is your favourite color? ” His face broke into its trademark grin. “Ya need any help with that one, Chris?”ť
Larabee fixed his friend with a glare, and shook his head. “At home, Buck, on your own, that’s why it says Confidential on the front.”ť
“Hell, I got better things to do with my weekend than answer a lot of dang fool questions. Question two, Do you have a lucky number”ť
“What’ve these questions got to do with how we do our jobs?” JD asked, flicking through the pages.
“It’s not looking at how you do your job, JD, it’s an evaluation of your state of mind,” Josiah explained, and took a breath as he prepared to launch into a more detailed explanation.
“It’s how they weed out the fruitcakes,” Vin simplified.
“Well, it hasn’t worked too well thus far,” Ezra commented drily, glancing at Buck, who promptly stuck out his tongue and waggled his fingers in his ears.
Sighing, Ezra found that he didn’t have the energy for a further response and instead picked up the questionnaire and flipped over the first couple of pages, Josiah’s voice echoing in his head, “it’s an evaluation of your state of mind” Well, he wished the unfortunate soul whose task it would be to evaluate his state of mind at the moment the very best of luck. Not that he had any intention of ‘opening up’ to anyone, particularly not to a stranger paid to “weed out the fruitcakes” as Vin had so eloquently put it.
The words blurred on the page in front of him as he mentally struggled with the question he’d been wrestling with for two days. He was certain it wouldn’t appear in the damned questionnaire but it most definitely spoke to his state of mind, “Do I want to do this anymore?”ť
“Ez, you okay?” Vin’s voice broke into his thoughts, and Ezra was caught off guard. The mask slipped momentarily from his face, and as he met Vin’s concerned gaze he knew that his friend recognized the fear and confusion he was feeling.
Checking that Chris had returned to his office, and the others were all focused on their questionnaires, Vin stood up and moved to Ezra’s side. “Let’s get a coffee, pard,” he rasped softly and pulled his friend to his feet, guiding him towards the break room.
Realizing where they were headed, Ezra shook his head. “Not here,” he whispered and veered towards the elevators. Not caring now whether anyone wondered where they were going, Vin punched the button and as soon as the doors opened, they stepped inside.
“Talk to me, Ez,” Vin coaxed and Ezra swallowed hard, trying to regain control of his churning emotions.
Ezra shook his head and Vin accepted his silence as they exited into the garage. He followed Ezra to his Jaguar and briefly wondered if he shouldn’t insist on driving. Vin shrugged and got into the passenger seat. Ezra would talk more if he wasn’t too focused on his audience.
After several minutes on the road, Vin began to question his decision. Ezra entered the on-ramp to the highway and shifted gears bringing the sports vehicle to the speed limit and slightly over. Vin relaxed slightly as he realized where Ezra was heading.
“I’m relieved to finally have Chambers incarcerated,” Ezra said suddenly.
Vin nodded. “Me too. Guy was a nut,” he added, fighting off a shiver as he recalled some of the close calls they’d had with the fanatical gunrunner. He went silent, waiting his friend out.
“I… I was afraid he had discovered who we were,” Ezra finally said, his voice soft and full of an emotion Vin couldn’t identify.
“Why’s that?” he asked softly.
Ezra swallowed and gripped the steering wheel tightly. “You know those ‘games’ Chambers liked to play?”
Vin gritted his teeth and nodded. Russian roulette with a loaded gun was one of Chambers’ favorite past-times.
The undercover man ran a shaky hand through his hair and quickly returned it to the steering wheel. He held on as if he was holding onto a lifeline. “He pulled me aside one day, a week or so after we got in,” Ezra said slowly, “and asked me to…” he swallowed hard and Vin’s hand clenched into a fist as his imagination went wild.
“Chambers told me that in order for him to trust us with this deal that I had to pull the trigger on a pistol he provided. But I had a choice as to where it was pointing,” he paused, consciously trying to relax. Ezra tried to send a cocky grin Vin’s way, but it didn’t quite reach his lips. “He gave me the choice of two targets. Myself or you.”
Vin closed his eyes. “God, Ezra.”
Ezra snorted and shook his head. “There was never a time when I thought about choosing you,” he said. “And obviously I won,” he continued with a forced chuckle.
Vin opened his mouth to say something, but stopped as the words played back through his mind… ‘never a time’… “Damn, Ezra! How many times did he ask you to play?”
Ezra took a deep, shuddering breath and exhaled before answering. “Funny, you’d think one would remember each of them quite distinctly, but honestly I don’t recall. Four, five?” he finished with a slightly puzzled tone.
Vin slumped down in his seat as Ezra took the turn onto the road to Chris’ ranch. “Son of a…” he whispered.
They sat in the parked car, staring out at the ranch-style house that needed a paint job.
“I don’t know if I can do this anymore, Vin,” Ezra admitted, leaning his forehead on the steering wheel. “It’s one thing to know that if I screw up I might get myself injured or killed, but… I…”
Vin turned in his seat and laid a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “You should have said something, Ez. Chris would have pulled us out. There was no need for you to go through that.”
Ezra straightened and met Vin’s eyes with a slightly confused look on his face. “We’d worked too hard to get in with Chambers. I wasn’t going to let him get away again.”
Vin exhaled and just barely avoided rolling his eyes. “Ezra… No case is worth what you went through.” Ezra’s brow wrinkled as he prepared to argue and Vin gave his shoulder a shake. “No case. Ever. You’re safety, physical and mental is more important than closing any case, you hear me, pard?”
Ezra looked down. “I knew that Chris would pull us out, that’s why I didn’t say anything,” he admitted reluctantly.
Vin patted his shoulder. “And look where sticking with it has gotten us. You’re miserable and want to break up the team.”
Ezra’s head lifted so fast Vin swore he could hear his neck pop. “What?! That’s not what I said.”
“No? Then what? Even if you’re not going under cover, there’s always going to be a chance one of us is gonna get hurt,” Vin argued. “What then? After all, we are the ATF - Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Bullets are gonna fly. What happens if someone does get hurt on your watch? You gonna walk away?”
by Mary Ann
The two men walked to Chris’ back deck.
While Ezra sat down on a chair Vin unlocked the house
and went inside, reappearing minutes later with two cold beers.
Ezra took a drink and looked out over the peaceful landscape where horses grazed contently in the pastures. “I don’t know Vin. I feel like I don’t know myself anymore. It was a real effort for me to get through this assignment, to keep Chambers from finding us out. I wanted to kill the man so many times and that is not ‘me.’” Ezra paused, then continued, “Yes, Chris would have pulled us out, but by then, I wanted the man, and I wanted him bad. But … I just don’t know…”
Green eyes met blue ones, and Vin felt the uncertainty in his friend come straight into him. He didn’t break the gaze, putting his heart into his voice he replied. “You know we’re all here for you Ez, no matter what you decide to do. We’d back you from here to hell.”
The corner of Ezra’s mouth lifted, “And I’m sure you will drag my sorry ass back from hell, as Mr. Larabee puts it so eloquently, as he tells you often.” A smile crossed his lips when he saw Vin’s face turning red.
“Hell Ezra, he says that to all of us when we’re hurt bad.” Vin saw an eyebrow go up. “Alright, me mostly.”
For several minutes they sat in silence. “Are you thinking of leaving?”
“NO! That never crossed my mind. I … Maybe I just need a break from undercover assignments for awhile. Yes, I am an ATF agent. No matter what I’m not walking away from the job or … My friends.” Again Ezra paused, searching for the right words. Vin waited in silence. “You know, Mr … Vin, I haven’t had many friends in my life, and when Chris brought me in, I never thought I’d gain some friends … much less brothers, whom I trust to watch my back. I’ve never had ‘family’ as I do now.” Ezra ran a hand through his hair.
“No, I’ll never leave. I just need … something …”
For long minutes they sat in silence, letting the peace and quiet rollover and through them. All of a sudden Vin grinned and looked around. Rising he hurried into the house, leaving Ezra looking after him.
Minutes later Vin appeared again holding some cloths, he tossed pants and shirt at Ezra. “Go change, there’s a pair of tennis shoes in the laundry room. Hurry!” Vin ordered.
Ezra rose and went inside, wondering what his partner was up to. Vin quickly changed and barefooted ran to the barn. When Ezra walked out Vin was coming from the barn a ladder under one arm and rags and brushs in the other hand. Vin tossed a hooked opener to Ezra.
“Start shaking one of the paint cans over there and open it while I put this up.”
Ezra suddenly realized what Vin was up to when he spied seven cans of paint sitting in the corner of the deck, out of the weather. With a shake of his head he reached for a can and began shaking it. He had it open when Vin appeared with a stir stick and a smaller bucket with a handle. Silently Ezra watch as Vin stirred then poured some of the paint into the small bucket. He almost balked when Vin handed him the bucket, a brush and rag, but held his ground.
“Let’s go. I’ve got an idea that will get your mind off the bust.” Vin said as he led him around the house to where the ladder was. “I’ll do high, you do low. Let’s see how good a painter you are.” Vin went up the ladder and started painting. With a sigh Ezra began to work.
Several hours later three rigs pulled into the driveway and the rest of Team Seven climbed out. Shocked looks took in paint splattered men painting the house. Ezra glanced at them just as a glob of paint hit him on the shoulder; with a quick twist of his hand he shot a brush-full of paint at the sharpshooter with tan painted feet, barely above him.
“What’s going on Brothers?”
“We’re painting Lar’bee’s house. What’cha think?”
“Hope your other favorite color is tan Chris,” Buck snickered as more paint fell on Ezra.
Soon they all were laughing and the paint fight began. Tension relief Chris decided.
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