by Angela B –

Ezra walked along the edge of the winding river, passing other tourists. At last he was alone. True, he was among hundreds of people, but in essence he was alone, at last. No criminals to undermine and turn his way. No colleagues questioning his sanity or physical well-being. Most important, there was nothing vital to remember in order to stay alive. Here, among strangers, he was at last safe.

The last job had been hard on him, both physically and mentally. He had lost thirty pounds. The target played rough and worked even tougher. By the end, Ezra’s life had been in a maelstrom. He just wanted to be alone and regroup. The others, for reasons he hadn't understood, had wanted to go on a trip together after it was over. They seemed adamant that he join them. When he refused, he had been inundated with visitors. Each man on the team  had shown up on his doorstep or cornered him privately at work. They had all asked the same questions; "Why didn't he want to go with them?” "What other plans did he have?”  and worse of all: "Was he okay?". He had managed to either politely rebuff their questions or skirt the answers. That was until Chris called him into his office and began asking him if he was truly all right. The whole incident had shocked Ezra into silence. He found it the hardest to lie to Chris, or evade the near interrogation. Finally, getting himself mentally together, the undercover agent was able to come up with a reasonable explanation for not joining the others on their trip to Sante Fe, the chosen designation. Ezra had simply stated, “I’ve been there, done that”.

In reality, he couldn’t image being cooped up in one vehicle with six other people. Talk about overcrowding. Ezra shook his head as he passed along a little shop selling jewelry. Just the thought of being confined made him shiver. No doubt Buck and JD would put in a CD and try to sing along, try being the key word. It would be worse if things went awry like it did the last time they all crowded into one vehicle and then the CD got jammed in the player. Nothing worked; not the radio, CD player nor the cassette player. Then, to fill the silence, someone would try to sing by themselves. Some of it was okay, but Buck and JD could ruin a song faster than anyone, mostly by trying to out sing each other. Nope, Ezra was definitely glad he had slipped away and gone in the opposite direction.

Ezra meandered along at his pace. An open “boat”,  that looked more like a barge with seats on it, passed by carrying tourists. Ezra had decided he would take one later that evening and have dinner on it. Several restaurants along the river offered this deal. He thought it would be quite something to float along in the cool evening, sitting at a table with linen tablecloths and good food and just enjoy the sensation of solitude without being actually alone.

A flashing store sign caught the agent’s eye and Ezra stepped in. It, too, was selling jewelry. He found several pieces of good silver; unfortunately most were necklaces. Heaving a depressing sigh, he was once again reminded of the high price he paid in order to do a job he was good at and loved.

He had made a solemn promise to himself when he got into  this business that he would never marry or have children as long as he was an undercover agent. The price was simply too much to ask of a person. He was gone for long periods of time. Sometimes, he would almost lose his identity and had to have moments like this to reconnect with himself. That, in itself, was a big reason not to get married or become attached to someone. He had been left behind too many times in his life to do it to someone else. Then, there was the possibility of death and leaving behind a widow and orphans. The possibility was a price for all law enforcement, but being an undercover agent made his chances of coming out in a body bag much higher than normal. No, he had told himself he would never marry until he was ready to settle down to a desk job. And that was a long way off because, as bad as it got, he still loved his job.

Leaving the shop, he walked to an outside café and sat down at one of the tables. After simply ordering a soft drink, Ezra stared out at the water and let his mind drift. The water had a calming effect on his frazzled nerves. The waiter soon bought out his drink and left the man to his thoughts. The undercover appreciated that courtesy.  The people in San Antonio were kind and gracious. Snorting, his cynical side came out as he rebuffed himself. Of course they were polite, it was their business to be that way in order to draw people in and keep them coming back.

He had looked at the map to escape from the guys, and San Antonio had popped out at him. So here he was. He had flown in and taken a taxi to the Hilton, on the river. The nice thing about it was that there were shuttles going everywhere so he didn’t have to drive. One less the thing to stress him out.

Ezra was lost in his own world when he felt a presence at his side. Thinking it was the waiter checking on him, he mindlessly waved the person off, stating he was fine.

“I don’t think so,” the familiar voice answered.

Looking up so fast he popped his neck, Ezra gasped and cursed at the same time. Sitting down at his table was the communications expert of the team.

“Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra half stuttered, still trying to get him mind wrapped around the idea his teammate was actually sitting down at the table next to him. “What…what?”

“What am I doing here?” Buck asked for him with a sad, amused look on his face.

Ezra could only nod. How in the world had Wilmington found him and why was he here? The agent couldn’t figure it out.

“Because, you’re our friend. Because you weren’t as fine as you tried to convince us and because …don’t you know: the more the merrier,” Buck answered.

“So the others let you just take off from them?” Ezra asked in real confusion. He couldn’t see any of the team not having Buck around. He was, as they say, the life of the party. And he certainly couldn’t see JD letting his mentor do anything without him.

Buck could read his friend pretty well and could see the turmoil and bewilderment in those eyes. Breaking into a wider grin, the older agent slapped his friend on the back and laughingly asked, “What do you think?” Then he jutted his chin out pointing to the other side of the river.

Ezra turned and found Josiah, Nathan and Chris sitting at a table watching him. Josiah raised his hand in a wave, but they remained sitting. Apparently they were not to immediately join them. Ezra figured it out in a flash. Buck was sent in to do the groundwork and, when the older agent thought it was sufficient, he would bring in the others.

Turning back to Buck, Ezra simply asked, “So what did you do with the other two?” He knew they had to be here somewhere.

Buck shrugged. “They’re around.” In truth he, with the aid of Vin, had gotten JD to go sightsee at the Riverside Mall. He loved the kid, but frankly, he knew the kid would have no patience just sitting and waiting. JD would want to join Ezra immediately and then start shooting off questions and information about great sightseeing places to visit. The kid had yet to master the art of silence.

Ezra nodded and looked back to his glass that had been refilled. He grimaced to himself; he hadn’t even noticed the waiter’s return. Sitting, staring at his glass, he waited for the questions to start, but none came. Looking sideways at his friend, a little tension seeped from his shoulders. Evidently Buck was content to just sit and be there in the shade, out of the sun.

It was late May and the weather was beginning to really warm up. The temperature was still in the nineties. Another week and it would start to really get hot. Ezra stared at the water flowing gently by and wondered what it would have been like to just be able to keep flowing like that with no worries.

Buck watched Ezra closely through slit eyes. Josiah had been right; the case had been extremely harsh on the undercover agent and taken a real toll on the man. Buck laughed to himself. It hadn’t been too many cases after they first joined together that the profiler realized that Ezra would never tell the truth about the effects a case had on him. So he had come up with a process of figuring it out. He had made up a three part questionnaire for the guys to answer, that he gave them the night before a bust, involving how hard the case had been on them. At first, they, too, had lied about it. Not wanting anyone to know they weren’t tough enough to take it. But then Josiah had reminded them that the whole reason for doing it was for Ezra’s benefit. After that they would answer truthfully. It helped when Josiah explained they didn’t have to put their names on it. Then Josiah would average out the answers and multiply it by four. In some way, Buck never understood, Josiah could then put the number to a stress level and come out with how bad Ezra would be once back in the group. Buck didn’t completely understand, but so far the man hadn’t been wrong.

Tearing open a package of complimentary crackers, Buck sat in silence and waited Ezra out.

After a long period of silence, Ezra was beginning to adjust to the idea that his friends had given up their vacation to follow him out here. The “why” was still a mystery. Without looking up, he quietly asked, “So, you guys checked in anywhere yet?”

“We thought we’d try the Rodeway. It’s about a mile from here,” Buck answered. They had agreed not to be too invasive into the man’s world. Unless they felt the need to.

Licking his lips, Ezra hesitantly stated, “The Hilton isn’t too bad of place to stay.”

Buck snorted out loud. That was like saying the Taj Mahl wasn’t too shabby. Buck looked across the river and slightly nodded. The invitation had been made. Josiah and Nathan rose from their seats and left. No doubt they would go find the other two, go sign in and unload the SUV they had rented. Ezra, by now had figured out, if they had found him, they also knew where he was staying.

Chris rose with his two men, but instead of following them, he headed for the nearest bridge. The river had several ornate bridges to cross along the river. Without being in a hurry, he walked along. The blond had actually been worried when Josiah had come in the morning of the bust like he had done every other bust to give him a rating on Ezra. The look on the profiler had said more than the words. Ezra was in for a tough time reemerging into the “real” world.

Chris took his job seriously and part of that job meant keeping his “boys” in good shape. He knew what other people in the Federal Building thought him and the team. That most of the seven had paired up, leaving Ezra to be looked after by whoever was available, but that was bull. The blond leader cared about each one of his men. It was just that, being the leader, he had learned best how to handle each one and what each one needed. Like now. He knew, as well as the others, that Buck and Ezra had formed a tight bond. A bond that let Ezra trust the man with information he wouldn’t necessarily trust with anyone else.  Ezra formed a bond of a different type with each one on the team. With Chris, it was mostly professional; with Vin, it was a footloose relationship for times when the man was feeling mischievous, and so forth. So, right now Ezra would do better with Buck as the instigator of reforging the friendships.

Walking at a slow gait, Chris finally arrived at the table and simply ordered lemonade. He had already had one drink and wasn’t all that thirsty, but felt it was rude to just sit at the table not ordering anything. Like Buck, he simply sat in silence. Sitting close to his subordinate, Chris could study the man better. He could see the dark circles around his eyes, the deep engrained lines around Ezra’s mouth, the hazy film that seemed to have settled over the eyes, and the stiff tension in the man’s shoulder‘s. The time under had really done a number on his agent.

The threesome sat in silence, watching the people pass by; listening to the busy buzz as the strangers talked to each other, pointing out different sites; the people on the boats as they floated by laughing at whatever the guide was saying. It was silent and noisy at the same time.

Ezra finally turned to the two men at his table. Without the others as an audience, he felt more at ease to talk. “So…,” he began, looking at Buck, “I never asked how you fared during the recent doings.”

The mustached man saw this for what it was, an opening to talk about the case and its hardship. Taking a sip of his cola, he swallowed and tilted his head slightly. “Not that great, frankly.” He was going to be completely honest and hoped Ezra would feel comfortable enough to do the same.

His interest piqued and a little worried, Ezra let the concern show in his voice, “Oh?”

Buck nodded, noticing Ezra’s short and simple words. “Yep. A bit rough at times. You know?  Listening to the guy’s ramblings for hours on end.” Buck took another drink and kept talking. “I don’t think that guy slept more than five hours at a time. His constant moving almost drove me nuts at time. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for you having to be there twenty-four/seven for all those weeks.”

Ezra nodded in agreement. “I agree with you. The man certainly had a propensity for being active.” He wasn’t quite ready to divulge everything, yet.

Chris nearly spewed his drink. “That’s an understatement.”

The leader had been filled in on the target’s movements at the end of each day. The man was always on the move. Worse than one of those little birds whose wings flapped a thousand times a minute. To make it worse the guy was erratic. There was never any telling what he would do from one minute to the next. On more than one night, Chris had lain in bed without sleep, worrying about the danger his agent might incur.

Ezra looked at Chris curiously. He wondered what his boss knew of the job that had nearly crushed him mentally and drained him physically.

Chris looked up and stared straight at his undercover agent. “It was a nightmare from my standpoint,” he said. Seeing his agent wanting more, he continued, “It was always a tough call…whether to keep you in or pull you out. If I should send in one of the guys to back you up…” shrugging, the blond stopped talking. There had been many more questions that had plagued him, not to mention an overworked brain playing out the worst scenarios that could go wrong.

Ezra sat in silence, working out all the things that had been laid out for him. Slowly, he began realizing that he hadn’t gone through the past case as alone as he had felt. The guys, his teammates and…Ezra nodded to himself mentally, yes, friends, had gone through it with him. If not right there beside, him at least right at his back.

Taking a deep breath, he was ready to talk about it, he realized. He wanted to talk about it. “There were some days…some days that I just wanted to walk away,” he admitted quietly.

Neither man said anything. Buck nodded once in understanding, but that was it.

“It seemed if I stayed one more day, I would completely lose myself,” Ezra said, revealing something he never thought he would, with two men he trusted most in the world at keeping his secrets. Ezra felt a release of pressure from telling his darkest thoughts.

Chris cursed to himself. He was aware of how big of a leap they had just made with Ezra relinquishing a bit of himself, but the blond wished the man would trust him enough to give those thoughts light when it was actually happening. The thought that Ezra would wait too long and lose his identity scared Chris more than he wanted to admit. He didn’t know what he, or the others for that matter, would do if they lost Ezra mentally to another world. He knew for certain they would fight relentlessly to get him back, but he preferred not having to do it in the first place.

Ezra felt a bit stronger. They had not made a commotion out of his confession, nor had they given false platitudes, such as: “That would never happen”. They were too smart not to believe it couldn‘t.

Since there had been no recriminating remarks about quitting the case, Ezra felt a little lighter. “Some days,” he began softly, talking mostly to himself, “I just want to…,” He stopped, alarmed with himself that he almost revealed a most inner thought. It scared him to think he was feeling so secure with these gentlemen that he would allow them beyond the structure he had  constructed around himself for emotional safety. No one, not one person in his entire life had been even remotely trustworthy enough, in his opinion, to gain that entry.

“To quit,” Buck said, finishing Ezra‘s thought.

Ezra kept his eyes downcast, gulping silently for air. Buck had finished his sentence. The alarm in him rose. Had he subconsciously allowed Buck to get so close to him that the man could read his mind?

Buck didn’t bother waiting for a response before continuing. Nodding to himself, he said, to no one in particular, “Felt that way a few times myself.”

Ezra flashed a look at Buck before turning his attention back to the flowing river and staring out at the throng of people milling around, wondering briefly if their lives were ever as complicated as his seemed to constantly be.

“Me, too,” Chris added, then to lighten the mood that had grown oppressive added, “Especially when a few of you knuckleheads seemed intent on making me gray before my time by doing some of the stupid stunts y’all do.”

A light laugh and a slow smile joined Buck’s outright bark of laughter.

Ezra kept his eyes diverted as he truthfully, and quietly, acknowledged, “It’d be nice to settle down. Have an eight-hour job. Maybe…,” he swallowed hard and resigned himself to finish. “Maybe find a wife and have a family.”

Ezra wasn’t hesitant to mention marriage and family because of Chris. After all, the blond man had even considered remarriage. That was until he found out the woman he intended to marry and start another family with was responsible for the death of his wife and son. No, Ezra wasn’t afraid of mentioning it for Chris’ sake. He had been hesitant to admit he wanted those things out of fear of being ridiculed.

He was surprised at himself that he wasn’t surprised that there were no negative comments given. How did he know he could trust the guys with this longing, he had kept buried for so long? How long had he been among such true friends and still on the fringe, and when did he start realizing it unconsciously? These questions assailed him as Chris began talking.

Chris looked at the ring of water from the sweat of his water glass forming on the table lost in his own train of thoughts. Having someone waiting for him when he got home. Having a child, or even children, run towards him; greeting him with a huge hug and warm welcome. It would be a nice feeling to have once again. He had missed Sarah and Adam unbearably the first year or so, but then life kept going and with it, his true nature returned. The kick-rear-take-names later attitude on the job; the wicked sense of practical jokes he played on his closest friends when they were least expecting it and in a delicate situation. Now the thought of having another family wasn’t out of the question like it used to be.

“I could like that,” Buck stated. “A home. Wife. Kids. Going to the park. Sunday afternoon cookouts with the whole family and friends. Yeah, I could handle that,” he said with a far away look in his eyes.

Ezra’s head snapped up, his eyes full of surprise. “Why, Buck, I thought you were a confirmed bachelor,” he said in a semi-teasing, semi-serious tone.

Cracking a slanted smile, Buck looked at Ezra and said. “Well, you know what you say, Ezra? Appearances can be deceiving.”

Raising his eyebrows briefly, Ezra smiled. “Touché.”

Silence reigned once again.

“Why don’t you?” Chris suddenly asked.

Ezra couldn’t, wouldn’t, pretend not to know what his boss was talking about. Thinking carefully whether he really wanted to answer, he stared at the flowing water as if would give him the courage to keep being honest with these men.

Buck and Chris held their tongues, waiting for ultra private man to decide what, if anything, he would want to divulge.

“Because,” Ezra began slowly, “I made a promise a long time ago that, if I ever had a family, I would be there for them, with them, everyday of my life. I would never abandon them, for any reason.”

Waiting a moment to capture his breath after such a secreted revelation into his thinking and perhaps his childhood, he continued, “And despite this last exhaustive case, I am not quite ready for a regular job,” Ezra finished with a smile, using his fingers as quotation marks at the word regular.

Again the men fell into an agreeable silence, each lost in their world of thought. Realizing slowly that, as different as they might seem on the inside, they shared a few of the same thoughts. In the short conversation they had sparingly had, each felt a little closer to the others and less adrift.

Ezra looked out to the other side of the river to the people passing on that side and spotted four familiar faces. Josiah, Nathan and Vin were walking along, apparently listening to the youngest. JD was turned backwards talking animatedly waving something in his hand wildly, making passersby dodge his antics. His head bobbled up and down like one of those toys people had in the rear window. Ezra’s laugh bought Chris and Buck’s attention to focus. They all laughed as JD stumbled and started to fall sideways, straight towards the water. Buck laughed outright at the sight. If JD had fallen in the water, the gregarious man wouldn’t have been surprised. Their team had a habit of having those kinds of accidents. It was freakish that way. As the three men watched, Josiah’s quick reflexes had him grabbing the young man and pulling him back on even ground.

Ezra thought about that action. That is what this team did: pull each other back onto even ground, never allowing a teammate to fall.  The thought, as corny as it sounded, gave Ezra a deep sense of well-being and gratification. The four others finally crossed over the bridge and joined them.

Buck was first to scrutinize the green ice-cream in the cone in the young man’s hand. “What in the world are you eating?” he asked with an almost disgusted tone.

“Pistachio ice cream,” JD replied indignantly. “What’s it look like?” His tone suggesting he was not going to be picked on.

“You don’t want to know, kid,” Buck said in a teasing tone anyway.

Turning his attention from Buck to Ezra in a heartbeat, the youngest member began asking Ezra questions about the city, staying away from the topic of why the undercover agent had chosen the city instead of going with them. Buck had been blunt with him, as Buck did when he wanted JD to learn a lesson.

Buck, having heard enough of the kid’s repeatedly asked question in the airport as to why Ezra went to San Antonio,  had turned to the kid and stated brusquely, “Maybe he wanted to get away from you and your interrogation. You know he’s a friend, not a foe and he doesn’t have to answer to you.”

At first, the sharpness and criticism had hurt JD feelings, but he knew better than to show it. He had a hard enough time being accepted as a “man” on the team without being teased about having a soft heart.  That would only engrain the thought that he was nothing but a kid. He wouldn’t give anyone that satisfaction.

After thinking cool-headedly about it later though, he realized he did have a pension for asking too many personal questions. He didn’t do it to pry, but just out of interest in getting to know the others better. Sometimes, he felt adrift in this team being the youngest.

Now, he was among the whole group and, as far as his instincts told him, everything was all right. He knew not to ask personal questions, but everything else was okay, he figured.

“So, have you been to the Alamo yet? Or Sea World? Or Fiesta Texas? I hear that is a really cool amusement park,” JD rambled excitedly.

The youngest didn’t miss the looks the others surreptitiously, gave Ezra and wondered if, once again, JD had overstepped the boundaries. Learning where those invisible lines in the sand were was becoming a trial for JD. The “kid” was relieved when Ezra broke out into a smile and smiled wide at him.

Rising from his chair, Ezra slapped JD on the back and said, “Don’t ever change, JD.”

Buck and Chris rose from their chairs and the seven, breaking into smaller groups to walk down the narrow sidewalk along the river, moved as one. It didn’t matter where they went or what they did. They were together and no one was left alone.

Ezra walked along the river’s path with his group of friends surrounding him passing by people headed the other way.