Meredith's Miscellany: Fanfic: The Magnificent Seven: ATF AU: The List: Parts 51-55

The List

Title: The List
Author: MMW
Disclaimer:See Parts 1-5

Part 51

Vin looked into the walk-in closet and sighed. He had never had this many clothes before and, to be honest, he found it rather daunting. His own clothes only took up a small fraction of the space, the rest having been filled with gifts from Fellini that came with the house. He could still hear the man's explanation. "There is a suit for every occasion and an occasion for every suit. And you, my boy, are going to need them all."

An involuntary shudder coursed down his spine as he remembered the older man's hand coming to rest on his shoulder, as he remembered the fatherly pride beaming through Fellini's eyes. Vin felt the fear, the despair, the sense of being trapped begin to build within him once more. His pulse quickened along with his breath as panic set in.

"Only two more weeks, Mr. Tanner. Surely you... Surely we can endure that long, my friend." Ezra's words from earlier echoed in his mind. Two weeks. Taking a deep breath, Vin nodded his head in agreement. He could do this for two weeks.

Glancing at his watch he wondered if he should call Ezra to come over and help him figure out what to wear. "What do you wear to your own funeral?" Vin wondered aloud, allowing a sigh to escape as his mind wandered over the events of the day.

Was it just yesterday he had shot his best friend, his brother? It seemed almost a lifetime ago. But that scene wouldn't bear thinking. He and Chris had left early so Vin could drop him off at Fellini's before heading into the office. Fellini had barely acknowledged Chris, but had warmly embraced an praised Vin. Vin hadn't known what to do. A part of him responded to the praise of the older man much as a child responds to the praise of his parent, another part of him was repulsed.

It worried him that he had such opposing feelings, but he didn't know what to do about them. He understood the dangers of playing into Fellini's hands and knew he was on a job, but a father's approval, actually any parental approval, had been something he yearned for but never had. He could feel Chris' worry even several feet away. At that moment he would have done anything to assure his friend he didn't buy into it, but in his heart he knew he couldn't. Vin Tanner was losing himself in the role he was playing, in the role of being Frederick Fellini's adopted son, his heir apparent and that knowledge terrified him.

Eventually he had met up with Ezra. They were now on a two-week deadline but a new twist had been thrown in. There was now someone who, being jealous of Vin's rapid rise to the top and inclusion in Fellini's family, was now targeting Vin. Ezra didn't yet know who or why, but he was going to find out at dinner, if he could. When Ezra had informed Vin of this, Tanner had nearly lost control. The events of the past months had finally caught up with him and the Texan found he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, didn't even know who he was.

Ezra had been there, his voice calming, a safe port in the storm. As Vin had gotten himself under control once more, Ezra spoke to him of their past, of the things they had done together before this started, of the apartment building filled with friends and neighbors awaiting his return. Of the kids at the youth center, of the family of men they belonged to, all of whom wanted nothing more than to return to normal.

Slowly Vin had come back to himself, had once more found who he was.

Once he was in control, he and Ezra had sat down and reviewed what information they had, what they would need to acquire and where they stood. They once more reviewed the organization into which they had been accepted and the new information Ezra had obtained. Things had gotten more complex and dangerous for them and for Chris, but, at the same time, the new twists, the new divisions, opened up new opportunities for them provided they kept control and played their cards right.

Ezra would pretend to be upset with Vin's meteoric rise and easy acceptance while his own position remained less than he would desire. Hopefully this would allow him to draw closer to the dissatisfied faction and determine their threat level. While Ezra was doing this, Vin would be left with less back-up, but on the other hand, it might give him access and opportunity to areas about which they had been previously unaware.

Though less than comfortable with the new twist on things, the duo had set aside their concerns and done their jobs. Heading off to the offices, they noticed that they had picked up a tail Not knowing if it was friend or foe, they had continued on their appointed course, keeping an eye out only to ensure the tail offered no threat. Right now there were so many people involved, so many people it could be, they just didn''t know what to do.

Arriving at the Federal building, they both breathed a sigh of relief. Though they were still forced to play their false roles, at least they could easily identify friend from enemy. Or so they thought.

One thing they hadn't planned on was a negative reaction to Vin; nor had they thought about the quiet accusations that would be whispered behind their backs. Yes, they had expected to have some odd looks, some questions as to how they felt having once been so close to Chris, but the whispered accusations haunted them. The belief that Vin had allowed Larabee's demise raced through the invisible gossip lines like wildfire, devastating the young agent.

Team Ten had absorbed their two newest members into their office area, not offering comfort so much as a wall of protection against outsiders. It wasn't the comforting wall that Team Seven would have put up, though. This protection served one very specific purpose - an opportunity to observe them and try to find cracks in their facades. All of team Ten, in fact, all of the federal building knew Larabee and Tanner had been closer than brothers before their split, how would Vin react to the loss?

Fortunately Vin hadn't had to worry about that for too long since he was to talk to Internal Affairs about the shooting and the death of the suspect. There were also some questions about why he didn't see the shooter sooner and what else was going on that might have distracted him. Then he would make the first of several visits to the shrink. Though normally there wouldn't be follow-up visits, because of the situation, Tom had felt it best to be overly cautious. Of course, there wasn't any question of Tanner being cleared again, after all, the Psychiatrist was part of Fellini's organization.

Those grueling meetings had finally ended, leaving Vin free to return home to relax and prepare for the big dinner.

That brought him back to the present with the dinner hour approaching and no idea what to wear. He was just about to give up hope of figuring it out when his cell phone rang. "Tanner," he answered.

"I'm assuming you're properly attired in the dark blue evening suit with the cream shirt and matching tie?" Ezra's voice asked across the airwaves.

Vin couldn't help the smile that lit his face. Leave it to Ezra to know just what he needed. "Thanks, Ez," he said softly into the phone.

"You're quite welcome, Vin," Ezra replied. "I'll be by in about a half-hour."

Vin's smile broadened as he ended the call. He couldn't wait for this to be over so he could go home, so he could stop pretending, so he could make sure Chris was truly alright and the images he saw every time he closed his eyes weren't real.

Part 52

Light blazed into the darkness, warming the cool shadow of night as the timeless sound of music, laughter and conversation floated along the slight breeze. The night itself cared little for such events.. The creatures that roamed the world could not affect the darkness, well, not for long. Humans had brought light into night's domain, but they would fail to conquer the darkness. The human light would prove little more than a brief flair before the eternal circle of light and dark sought and discovered balance once more. For now the light was making inroads into darkness' kingdom through its operatives, but before long, darkness would fight back reclaiming its own and much more.

The subtle battle of light and dark meant little to those within the confines of Fellini's house. There were other battles to be fought, other topics to engage their attention. Swirling dresses and dapper suits filled the ballroom as they waited for dinner to be called. Groups formed and broke apart as the ebb and flow of conversation and convention dictated. All seemed content to float along the currents and eddies of society. all except one group who remained stationary by the door greeting guests. Of the two, one received accolades and congratulations while the other looked on proudly.

Those two men were not the only stationary forms, however. Along one wall in a slight alcove, stood a lone figure. The rigidity of the man's stance showed discomfort, but if one were to read his face, they would see the rage and disgust flickering there as he watched Fellini greet his guests and Tanner accept their praise.

His glass of champagne ignored, Ezra Standish glowered at the duo, his every fiber vibrating with resentment and a budding hatred of the man he used to call brother. Vin Tanner had stolen his glory, had usurped his rightful place in the organization. It was Standish, after all, who had the background necessary to seamlessly integrate with the organization. It was he who had the educational background on par with any other here. And it was he, Ezra P. Standish who had the subtlety and grace necessary to maneuver the political machinations of such a system.

Ezra allowed his hand to dip into his jacket pocket and finger a small object there. It wasn't much, but it was all he could afford at the moment. He knew his performance had to be flawless for his own safety as well as Vin's but the vehemence of his last series of thoughts had disturbed him. The quick touch of the familiar object was enough to remind him of who he was. He sighed inwardly with satisfaction as he noted the approach of the Assistant Mayor. Finally he might be able to make some headway into the faction of the organization causing unrest.

Now, the most dangerous part of the game would be played - the verbal fencing necessary to convince The Assistant Mayor he was serious in his disillusionment without allowing the man to believe that Ezra wanted anything more.

It would be a fine line to walk, but one he had done many times before, just never with his friend's life on the line.

"Agent Standish!" came the cheerful greeting of Assistant Mayor Cord MacGowen.

Ezra turned to face his attacker and smiled. "Assistant Mayor," he greeted civilly.

"Quite a turn out for Tanner's little victory celebration," the older man observed.

Ezra raised a brow,. "Oh," he stated casually, his voice cold with just and edge of anger. "Is that what this is?" he inquired. "I was wondering what Tanner was here for. I thought it might be a wake for the man he once claimed as brother. Mr. Larabee was, after all, listed as Mr. Tanner's next of kin." Ezra caught the spark of interest in MacGowen's brown eyes.

"So they were very close?" MacGowen inquired, aware he would have to tread cautiously. He struggled to contain his excitement at this oversight, at this opportunity to form a wedge between Fellini andthe young upstart.

"Indeed," Standish affirmed, hoping Chris would forgive him for what he was about to say. "I never cared for the man myself - too uncouth. Though he claimed to have some college education I swear the man never heard of the word finesse. He had no appreciation of anything and no idea of all the myriad shade of gray that exist in this world. To him it was black and white."

"And yet Tanner was close to him," MacGowen observed casually.

Ezra snorted softly. "I doubt very much Mr. Tanner has the capacity to think for himself in matters. The man does seem to bend easily to the will of someone stronger."

"Tanner killed Larabee,"the Assistant Mayor observed. Receiving nothing more than a shrug from Ezra, he continued to wonder aloud, "If they were as close as they appeared, how is it Tanner doesn't appear to be affected?"

Ezra sneered slightly, praying that this time Vin would forgive him. "Mr. Tanner may not be the brightest of men, but he is a survivor. After all what is the love of a brother compared to that of a father?" he observed, indicating Fellini's proud smile and Tanner's beaming smile.

"And if that father figure should... walk away?" MacGowan asked.

Gotcha! Ezra thought. "Well," he responded turning a cold, calculating smile toward the Assistant Mayor, "He always has me." After a pause of several seconds where the sized each other up, Ezra turned back toward the object of their discussion. "Are you aware of his background?" Seeing the intense interest in the Assistant Mayor's eyes, Ezra continued his tale. "Mr. Tanner was orphaned at a young age. He knew little of life other than surviving. Though he has never spoken of his time in foster care, something happened that caused him to run away. He then lived on the streets for several years." Ezra watched the disgust in MacGowen's eyes fight for control with the glee he saw there. He knew that to MacGowen and to most other people in this organization, such a background revealed Vin to be exactly the type of person they were trying to eliminate. "Somehow he managed to get into the Army where he became a trained sniper."

"Stood around taking orders," MacGowen observed.

Standish nodded. "A sure sign he is unable to think for himself. Give him a strong leader and he seems to be able to cope, but I highly doubt he'd be able to develop a long-term plan or execute it without someone to guide him."

"Doesn't sound much like leadership material," MacGowen sympathized.

Ezra watched the man next to him carefully while seemingly remaining completely focused on Tanner. He could see the ideas turning through the man's mind and knew the moment when MacGowen arrived at the desired conclusion.

"How unfortunate for Fellini," the Assistant Mayor said quietly.

Turning away from the view of Vin blushing under Fellini's praise, Ezra looked directly at his conversation companion, eyebrow raised in question. "How so?" he inquired.

The Assistant Mayor stared hard into Standish's eyes. After several seconds he nodded, obviously happy about whatever he had seen there. "Come with me," he offered, we need to talk. Then, resting a hand upon Ezra's arm, he led the way outside into the darkness and away from prying eyes and ears.

Settling on a stone bench just out of sight of the house, MacGowen indicated Standish should follow his example. Waiting for the agent to settle, MacGowen lighted a rather thick cigar. "Several members of our group have noticed some... irregularities over the past few months and years." Seeing he had Standish's full attention, he lowered his voice and continued. "Fellini had a sister. It appears the sister went insane and is now dead. We believe the insanity wasn't limited to the female members of the family. Fellini's getting more and more ... daring in his plans and in his treatment of the organization. Our fear is that at the rate he's going, we will be exposed before we have an opportunity to even begin to make a difference."

"Our fear?" Ezra asked, having picked up on the plural pronoun.

A sly smile appeared on MacGowen's face. "Honestly, Mr. Standish, you can't expect me to reveal all my secrets. We have determined that there needs to be some control put in place, some way to ensure that the interests of everyone in the organization are addressed. Fellini is basically untouchable, but the same can not be said of everyone. It is this concern that has led us to ... plan for a change, a restructuring of the organization."

Ezra was silent for several minutes, his eyes shuddered as he contemplated what MacGowen was telling him. He wondered idly at the openness of the man. Surely someone plotting to go against Fellini would be more circumspect in his dealings and in voicing such opposition to another member. "I see," he finally said. "And why have you decided to inform me of this ... opportunity. Isn't that something of a risk? What if I were to go to Fellini with what you've said?"

MacGowen laughed. "My dear Mr. Standish, I would have been disappointed if you hadn't picked up on that. Why are we telling you? Well, you said it yourself. You have all the skills, all the training necessary to lead in an organization such as ours. Being overshadowed by someone as undeserving as Tanner has obviously not sat well with you. There he is living the life of luxury while you are relegated to shadows, grunt work, if you will. It isn't Tanner who needs to fear anything at the ATF but you who not only have to cover your own posterior, but Tanner's as well. It is you who are the liability to Fellini, you who are expendable."

Silence settled between the two men as Ezra contemplated the offer. This was exactly what he had been angling for, exactly what he needed to move their plan along to the next level, exactly what he needed to position himself for the culmination of this god-awful nightmare he had been living for the past... he didn't even know how many months. Yet everything within him rebelled against this man and what he suggested even as self-disgust over the lies he told of Chris and Vin grew. Two weeks. That was all he had to do this, two weeks. "Tell me more," he encouraged.

Part 53

Chris rested his forearms against the top rail of the corral. It had been a busy day trying to maintain his role as well as adjust to the life and terms of his employment as Fellini's Horse Trainer. As far as his cover went, the job was familiar enough and working with the horses had been wonderful. Fellini certainly had top of the line stock. What had proven challenging was the constant observation he faced. There were surveillance cameras set up throughout the grounds and the patrolling security people brought to mind prison. Still, he knew he would be able to avoid them if need be, though tonight there would be no need.

Vin was supposed to stop by after the party guests left for the evening to see how "Trent" was settling in to his new job. There wouldn't be anything unnatural about Vin checking up on his friend.

A shadow of worry dimmed Chris' feelings about meeting his friend to get and give updates. Vin and Ezra had been under too long in roles too close to who they really were. Hell, they were practically being themselves. He felt like he was losing Vin and Ezra hadn't seemed too much better. Chris had managed to be up by the house when the two men pulled up. He saw the smile on Vin's face as Fellini greeted him, but he also saw the light of pain and worry in his friend's eyes. It had only been a little over twenty-four hours since Chris had been "killed" and Vin was still having trouble dealing with it.

What had worried him even more than the pain in Vin's eyes was the envy and resentment in Ezra's. He knew the Southerner to be a consummate professional, but what he saw wasn't acting. In his worry over the less-experienced sharpshooter, he hadn't really stopped to think that Ezra might be losing himself as well. He knew they would have to stop this soon, have to get everyone out before too long.

A sigh escaped as he thought of the two weeks he had to keep an eye on Fellini and work on a way to safely extract Anna. That was his official responsibility - remove Anna and ensure her safety. His unofficial responsibility was to try and make sure he didn't lose two of his team in the effort to bring down the organization.

He tensed slightly at the sound of footsteps making their way through the grass behind him. Forcing himself to relax, he waited patiently for whoever the interloper was to approach. He knew by the tread it wasn't Vin or Ezra and the step was too light to be one of the security men.

"Fine evening," he greeted, turning to gather his first glimpse of the intruder. He was a little surprised to see it was Anna. Taking in the woman's appearance, he was struck by her beauty and poise, but what caught his attention was the worry burning in her eyes.

Anna looked at the man before her. She knew he was Vin's friend. She'd been present when Vin asked about the position after the other Trainer had been caught misappropriating funds. Being honest with herself, she was afraid of the new man. When she had initially dropped the diskette off to Vin all those months ago, she had been certain she would be out of harm's way within six months and then her friend could forward the information. She hadn't planned on coming home to the welcome her uncle had for her. With the tightened measures, there was no chance for her to escape, now.

At first, she had taken comfort in the knowledge that Vin was on the job, their early meetings had seemed positive. Since then, though, she had watched both Vin and Ezra sink deeper into her uncle's organization. When she had been told what had been asked of Vin to prove his loyalty, she had been physically ill. When she was informed yesterday that the man she'd turned to for help had murdered his Team Leader in cold blood, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that her last hope had died. She was forever trapped in her uncle's clutches. A prisoner he would not kill because of the memory of his sister, her mother.

Trent seemed like a good sort. Knowing it had been a while since he had seen Vin, she felt it only reasonable to inform him as to the changes Tanner had undergone. A small part of her hoped that this man possessed the integrity she had thought to be a part of Vin Tanner.

"Is it?"" she finally responded to the greeting. The man's green eyes were unreadable in the darkness. She clearly remembered they were green, however. Their meeting earlier in the day had shown her that.

Chris tilted his head to the side. He couldn't tell her who he was, not yet anyway. He needed to find out more about the set-up here and make sure he had a good plan of escape before broaching the subject. His target was to get her off the grounds and someplace safe the night before the deal. That way she wouldn't be missed and it would be too late for Fellini to worry about anything else.

"I think so," he replied. "What are you doing out here?" he asked, puzzlement evident in his voice. "Shouldn't you be back with all the fancy people?"

Anna sighed and turned away from the intent gaze. Facing back toward the house, she leaned against the rails of the corral fence. "How well do you know, Vin Tanner?" she asked out of the blue.

Chris thought about his reply. "He's like a brother to me," the man replied honestly.

Anna thought this over, nodding slowly. "How long has it been since you saw him last?"

Shifting from foot to foot, wondering at the purpose behind the questions, Chris stuck to the story they had planned. "'Bout two, three years, though I hear from him 'most every week."

Anna nodded, accepting the information. So, Trent hadn't seen his friend in several years. "A man can change a lot in three years," Anna observed, warning edging her voice.

Chris raised an eyebrow at this statement. "I suppose so," he admitted thoughtfully. "But not Vin. He is who he's always been," he tried to soothe, not allowing the worry to show in his voice.

"How can you be sure?" Anna demanded turning to face the Horse Trainer one more time. She desperately wanted to believe she still had a chance of escape from her nightmare, but it just didn't seem possible.

Chris looked down at his boots and then up into the eyes of the woman before him, his conviction shining brightly. "Because I know Vin Tanner," he said. "He's had to do some ugly things in his life to survive, but he's never gone against what he thought was right."

Anna's fear shot the words out before she had a chance to think them through. "So to him killing a friend is right?"

His sincere eyes burned into her panicked ones. "If he did that, then the man was no friend. But Vin is nothing if not a survivor. And that means sometimes things aren't what they seem." Waiting a few minutes to make sure Anna had heard him. He was about to say something more when the sound of rustling grass met his ears. Turning, he saw the bulky form of one of the guards approaching.

"Best get back to the house," he commanded Anna. "They're gettin' ready to sit for dinner."

Anna looked at the man, resentment flowing from her. "Very well," she said dismissively. Turning back to Chris, she allowed her comment to him to pass away unsaid as his words chased through her mind...'things aren't what they seem'. Nodding to the man, she turned and headed back toward the light and noise of the mansion, still mulling over the conversation she'd had.

Chris turned back to the corral, wondering just how much of what he'd said to Anna he believed himself.

Part 54

Vin sighed in relief as the last of the guests left the mansion. Playing his role was becoming more and more difficult and having to shake all those hands and pretend he felt nothing at the supposed death of Chris Larabee had been exhausting, especially since his subconscious kept trying to convince him he really had killed his friend.

Still, he had gotten through the dinner.

Though he wouldn’t know for sure until later, he was fairly certain that Ezra had made contact with MacGowen. That would be a good thing.

Now, however, Fellini wanted to sit down with him in the library and begin reviewing the organization. He knew it was important and he would have to find out as many secrets as he could in order to build the case, but it still didn’t sit well with him. He was honest by nature and all the lies he’d been living for so long were beginning to blur the line between reality and fiction. Of course, he had noted that after the first lie, the others came more easily.

For now he had begged a break from his father... from Fellini, he mentally corrected. The closeness of the gathering had left him feeling slightly claustrophobic and he wanted some air. Besides, Chris was expecting him.

Making his way up to the corral they’d agreed upon, Vin wasn’t surprised to see the thin form of his friend resting against the rails. He was thrown for a moment by the lack of dark clothing and blond hair, but the stance and the aura of power were all Larabee.

Taking up a position to Chris’ left, Vin folded his arms on the top rail and looked at the horses. He knew they didn’t have much time, knew they had a lot to say, but right now the comforting presence of his best friend was all he needed.

“Vin,” Chris finally greeted after several minutes of silence. He was happy to see Vin and enjoy the comfortable silence the two of them seemed to share, but something just didn’t seem quite right. He had taken the few minutes of silence to study his friend and realized with some shock, he couldn’t really “sense” Vin anymore. Almost from the start of their friendship, he had been able to know what Tanner was thinking and feeling. Tanner had been able to do the same with him. Now, however, Chris realized, he had no idea what Vin was feeling, what was going on in his mind. With a start, Chris suddenly understood two things; first, he didn’t know Vin any more and second, Vin didn’t know himself..

Vin sighed. He didn’t want to do this, didn’t want the confrontation and questions he knew would be coming. He was tired physically, emotionally and mentally. “Cowboy,” he greeted back with a slight smile, knowing it would get a rise from the other man as well as allay some of Chris’ fears. He received a small growl of disapproval for his efforts. Laughing lightly, he informed, “Everything seems to be going well. No one questioned your death or the disappearance of your body, at least not to me.”

“Good,” Chris replied, that was one less thing for him to worry about. “And Fellini?”

Vin sighed silently and answered, “Happy as a clam. I have to go back there and begin learning the ins and outs of the organization.”

Chris picked up a note of disgust in Vin’s voice but wasn’t sure if the feeling was directed at Fellini, the organization or the thought of having to study things so late at night. Chris tamped down the small voice that insisted only a few months ago he would have known. “Ezra?”

Vin shrugged. “Lost track of him somewhere along the way. He’s been around. I think he made contact.”

Chris nodded, wondering about the Vin’s lack of concern. “Good,“ he said. Now, with all the official business concluded, Chris’ features softened and he asked, ”How are you doing, Vin? Really?”

Vin sighed and refused to look at Chris, afraid his brother would see the doubts there, afraid he would see the growing attachment to Fellini which terrified the Texan from his head to his toes. Turning to look at the house, he searched for an answer. How was he? Confused. Alone. Lost... Lost. He, Vin Tanner, a man with an excellent sense of direction was lost and he didn’t know how to get back to where he started, didn’t know how to get back to himself. Knowing Chris wanted an answer, he gave a simple one, “I’m tired.”

Chris had watched his young friend and found he could read the look in the expressive blue eyes. Vin Tanner might be tired, but even more so, he was lost and Chris didn’t know how to get him back. Reaching out, he rested his hand on Vin’s shoulder, frowning when he felt the initial tensing at the contact. “It’s almost done, Vin,” he said softly.

Vin didn’t know what to say, he didn’t have anything to say. He wasn’t even sure he wanted this to end. Nodding, he offered a faint “bye” before walking off toward the house.

Hearing Chris’ farewell behind him, Vin reached up and removed the tie which he’d previously undone. He needed to hold onto something, do something with his hands. He needed to focus his attention on something other than the twisted tempest of his emotions and thoughts. Nothing seemed real anymore, and that didn’t worry him nearly as much as it should have.

The image of Chris falling as the bullet - his bullet - made impact the previous day almost made him turn back to reassure himself that Chris was alive, but he knew he couldn’t. Besides, Fellini was waiting for him, waiting to teach him the family business.

Squaring his shoulders, he managed a few more steps toward the house before his memories betrayed him again. Buck’s primal scream of pain, grief and denial echoed in his memory, piercing the fragile wall he had erected to section off those emotions. Losing his footing and uttering a strangled cry of his own, Vin felt himself falling. It was then that he felt a hand catch his arm and support him long enough for him to regain his balance.

Turning his head to see who had helped him, he found himself staring into unreadable emerald eyes. Standing straight, he looked down into those eyes and searched for something, anything that would reveal his friend, the support he needed, the forgiveness and reassurance he craved at that moment.

Ezra revealed nothing. His eyes remained cold and impassive. Vin forced himself to clamp down his emotions and thoughts, forced himself to be equally cold, equally impassive. For the remaining two weeks of this assignment, he had no team but Team 10, no friends at all and no family but Fellini. For the remaining two weeks of this assignment, he stood alone.

Nodding once to Ezra in thanks for his assistance, Vin pulled his arm from the Southerner’s grasp and walked confidently toward the house.

Had he looked back, he would have seen the pain, regret and fear in the green eyes.

Stepping into the house, he nodded at the caterers cleaning up and made his way to his father’s den.

Knocking briefly on the door, he opened it and felt himself grinning at the pride-filled, beaming smile that greeted him as his father crossed the room. Without a moment’s hesitation, he returned the warm embrace with which Fellini gifted him.

Part 55

Ezra watched Vin walk away. He’d easily read the need in his friend’s eyes, but had been unable to respond. They had to break and it had to be complete - starting now. Vin would be standing alone with Fellini and the others, but Ezra would be standing alone on a very small point. Playing a dual role had become almost second nature to him over the years, what he was about to undertake was as close to what he did normally as San Antonio was to Deluth.

Staring at the closed door a moment longer, he set out to meet with Chris. Unlike Vin, Ezra would be in touch with Buck, though that would be of little comfort. Somehow he had to manage to maintain his role as Vin’s friend and one of Fellini’s chosen among the constant scrutiny of his team while working with MacGowen to undermine and overthrow Fellini. All while trying to maintain a sense of himself. Stopping in his walk, he looked up at the night sky as if seeking answers. Who was Ezra Standish anymore? Who had he ever been?

With a sigh, he lowered his head and continued his trek to the corral where he was to meet with Chris.

Standing half a step behind the man who had been his boss and became a friend and a brother, he struggled with the images of the day before - watching as Chris fell to Vin’s bullet, as blood pooled around the body, the look in Vin’s eyes...

Chris looked over his shoulder, knowing Ezra was there. It was the small choked sound that the Southerner made that caused him to turn in concern. Reaching out, he rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You OK Ez?” he asked, worry evident in his voice. Taking in Ezra’s appearance he could read the strain, fear and exhaustion in the normally impeccable agent. This had to end. They were all being pulled apart, Vin was lost and, from all appearances, Ezra was on the verge of snapping. Not for the first time Chris began questioning whether bringing down Fellini and his organization was worth the loss of his friends, of his family. It was becoming harder and harder to convince himself the sacrifice was worth it.

Reading Chris’s thoughts play across his face, Ezra smiled at his friend. Chris’ concern warmed and soothed him. He knew exactly what Chris was thinking, for he had thought it many times himself over the past months. “It is worth the sacrifice, Chris,” he said softly. “Vin would say the same. This may be our only chance to stop him, and if we don’t do it now, he will only find a way to hide deeper beneath layers of security until no one will ever bring him down.”

Chris read the plea in the emerald eyes and knew Ezra was right, but that didn’t stop his heart from protesting. Nodding in acknowledgment of Ezra’s point, he pushed aside his concerns. “Any luck?” he inquired.

Ezra sighed. Looking away, he stepped forward and watched as one of the young colts danced around the corral, playing with the breeze. What he wouldn’t give to be that free right now. “It was a successful night on all fronts,” he reported, knowing he didn’t have to go into any more detail than that. “Inroads are being made, alliances forged and friendships broken.”

Chris’ green eyes drilled into Ezra as the Southerner’s voice cracked slightly on that last phrase. Placing a hand on his shoulder, Chris offered what he could. “It’s not real, Ezra,” he assured. “Vin knows that. He knows you’re there for him. Hell, you’ve been there for him more than anyone else these past months. I don’t know how either of you have been able to do this for so long, but I do know that you did it together.”

“But it feels real,” Ezra said, his voice barely a whisper on the night wind.

Chris felt the pain of that quiet statement more strongly than if it had been shouted. Squeezing the shoulder of his friend, he found he had no words. “Two weeks, Ezra,” he reminded. “Then it’s over.”

Or just beginning, Standish added mentally. Taking a deep shuddering breath, Ezra pulled himself together and turned to face Chris. “I have made the first step, but it’s going to be close work playing both sides,” he reported. “I don’t believe there’s anything I need at this point from you. Have you been able to contact Anna?” he asked, knowing he needed to bring a report to Buck.

Chris nodded. “We’ve met. I haven’t yet told her who I am or why I’m here. I’ve managed to scope out most of the grounds and have a pretty good idea of where we can beat the security. The latest updates to their security system would be nice, but not necessary for what I have in mind.”

Ezra raised an eyebrow at that. “You have a plan of escape already?” he asked, amazed.

Chris chuckled softly. “Not quite, but I have the basic idea. I just need to work out the details and see if I can reduce the risk.”

Ezra nodded. It was still impressive. “What did Vin say?” he asked. His own face fell slightly when the darkness failed to hide the shadow that cast its pall in Chris’ eyes.

“Things are going well. Fellini is moving him along. When he left he was meeting with Fellini to begin a more detailed study of the organization.”

“He’s bringing Vin along quickly,” Ezra observed.

Chris nodded, not sure what that meant to Vin or their investigation. “I almost feel too quickly,” he breathed. Then shaking his head, he continued. “Vin’s going to be here a few days most likely learning everything he needs to replace Fellini.”

Ezra forced himself to chuckle softly, trying to act like himself. “I suppose our sniper feels that it is some sort of unjust punishment having to study?”

Chris heard the forced nature of the chuckle and forced his own lips into a smile. “Yep,” he agreed, wondering when they’d begun to pretend with each other. Then, seeing the exhaustion in Ezra’s eyes, he ordered, “Go home and sleep, Ezra.”

Ezra eyed his boss, almost refusing just for the sake of refusing, but he was tired and the real concern he read in Larabee’s eyes calmed some of the storm raging within him. With a genuine grin and a two finger salute, Ezra turned and headed for his car, already organizing the information he had into the report he would be giving Buck.

As he approached the house, he glanced at the windows of the library. His heart clenched at the sight. Vin was sitting at Fellini’s desk in front of the computer. But what sickened him was the look on their faces. Fellini was beaming down at Vin, all the pride of a father in his son evident in the man’s look. Vin sat in the chair, looking up at Fellini, fealty, love and pride showing in his eyes and on his face. “What have we wrought?” Ezra queried, not sure he wanted an answer.

Turning, he walked quickly to his car and left. He had to get away, he had to run, he had to... Had to what? What did he have to do?

Allowing his car to slow, Ezra found he was less than a mile from Chris’ ranch. He knew then what he needed to do. He needed to find Ezra Standish and where better to do that than at home with friends, with family.

Pulling up the driveway, he cursed silently at the dark house. Of course no one would be up, it was far too late. Just as he was about to turn around, however, he saw a movement on the porch. A moment later, the shadowy form of Buck Wilmington coalesced in the light of the moon and the stars.

With a sigh of relief, Ezra continued up the drive and parked the car in his normal spot, unable to stop the feeling of relief that came as he thought, I’m finally home.

Stepping out of the car, he turned toward Buck who was now easily identifiable by his wide, white grin. Ezra was unsurprised to find a matching one appear on his own face. He didn’t even protest when the dark-haired agent gathered him into a hug. In fact, Ezra found himself returning it, as he allowed all of his masks to drop.

Pulling back, Buck allowed his hands to rest on Ezra’s shoulders. Even in the moonlight, he could see the strain and fatigue on the man’s face. “Welcome home, Ezra,” he greeted, surprised by how relieved he felt at not having to pretend. He realized then how much this had taken from him, how much he missed Vin, how much he missed having his family complete.

Ezra sighed and bobbed his head.

Releasing Standish, Buck turned and headed toward the house. A tilt of his head all the invitation Ezra needed to join him. “JD’s inside too with Josiah. We’ll just be sure to get them up and make a party of this thing,” he encouraged, bounding up to the door and throwing it open.

Maybe, Ezra thought, allowing a spark of hope to flare in his heart, just maybe I can get through this after all.

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