Disclaimer: Ownership neither implied nor profited from.
Author's Note: So I originally published this under the title "Demons Past" then forgot about it. I never intended to. So here we go. The first chapter was a little rough and I've gone over it to smooth it over a bit. The bulk, however, remains the same. Please enjoy. Feedback is welcomed and embraced. Also, a shout out to MOG for creating the ATF universe.
A Man's Price
Whatever you do, stamp out abuses, and love those who love you.
Pausing just pass the threshold Nathan Jackson sent his friend and fellow ATF agent a gently questioning look. He didn't ask what was wrong, and neither did the expression in his warm brown eyes; that was something he figured he already knew And, if asked, Nathan himself would've been hard pressed to explain what exactly he was asking. However he did know two things, one, the last time Ezra'd been in this building, on this floor, or in this office he'd been accused of taking kick-backs, put on indefinite suspension (pending investigation) and given an armed escort on his way to the door. The second thing he knew, was, Ezra being Ezra, the readiness displayed by his co-works to believe such a thing of him had cut deep, far, far deeper than those sardonic green eyes of his would ever give away. As a consequence he was still trying to prove to the world in general, himself in particular, that he was a better man then these people thought him to be.
And now, three and a half years after being permanently loaned to the ATF like some unwanted Christmas present gifted by a much loved, yet somewhat senile, aunt or grandparent whom we don't wish to hurt by simply throwing away their gift, here he was again. Standing on the threshold of what was once his office, on the ninth floor of Atlanta's FBI head quarters, a somewhat queer expression chasing itself across his face.
When his first prompting went ignored, Nathan tried again, careful not to alter tone or pitch in a way that might alert those agents nearby or draw their attention. The two of them hadn't been noticed yet and if Ezra was having some sorta crisis then Nathan wanted to keep it that way.," Ez?"
"I was merely ruminating," Ezra P. Standish shook his head gently, as if trying to dislodge some particularly persistent thought, his rich southern tones at once precise and lazily relaxed and no different than they had been twelve hours earlier when the two of them had been standing in Chris's office getting their airplane tickets, "on our lack of separate cubicles. Remind me to thank our dear Misters Larabee and Travis, when next we meet, for overturning such a convention."
He smiled at the look of disbelief on Nathan's face, an honest smile that no one in this room would've recognized though its occupants had known him for the better part of a decade. Clearly the ex-medic didn't believe his words, yet, as was his distressing habit when among his fellow members of Team Seven, he'd spoken true. He'd forgotten, or rather misplaced the memories of cubicles; let slip his mind that so much of his life had once been contained within three cheaply constructed and hastily erected walls. Forgotten the privacy those walls were intended to allow, as well as the division they'd fostered and allowed to fester.
Which had only been inevitable. After all, one did not erect a wall to further feelings of camaraderie and strengthen the bonds of friendship.
How could I forget that?, he wondered, his
gaze skipping across the room, Forget the distrust, the baleful,
suspicious looks they sent my way those last two weeks? Forget the
utter lack of surprise as I cleared out my desk and surrendered first
my gun and then my badge? How could I, for even one moment, not
consider what these men and women thought of me?
No doubt Nathan, and more than likely Chris who refused to even entertain the idea of letting him do this thing alone (And now that he truly considered it Vin or Buck or J.D. or Josiah as well; not to mention A.D.
Travis, Inez, down at the saloon, Mary Travis, Casey or Nettie Wells, or any soul unfortunate enough to come into contact with his comrades in the last week or so) would never believe that his first thought upon stepping off the elevator and seeing this once familiar place had contained nothing of betrayal or shame or injustices, but of the cubicle he'd once occupied and how the fourth open wall had seemed always to beckon to him with a siren's song of life without.
my first thought was of the cubicles. And dear Madams' and
Monsieur's, he thought with a rueful, if dry amusement, aware
of the fact the addressing the images in one's mind hardly made one
a poster child of sanity, I have been doing my level best
not to think of this moment at all for the past month or so. And
wasn't that a disturbing revelation to have as I drifted on some
hazy line between sleep and waking; that our current case would
infringe upon the jurisdiction of my former fellows? Disturbing
hardly describes it I can assure you. Also, let there be no confusion
on the subject, it was none other than the third thought
blossoming from my subconscious that contained thoughts of injustice
and betrayal. The third thought which brought to mind the names and
faces of acquaintances , whose lives I'd held in my hands on
numerous occasions and whom did not hesitate to feed me to the
wolves, as it were.
"Do ya really think a cubicle would last in our office Ez? Really? "
"Most certainly not Mister Jackson," his reply was smooth and prompt, giving no hint that his thoughts had ever drifted elsewhere.," I'd expect Misters Wilmington and Dunne to blow it, and consequently the rest of us, to minute, inoffensive pieces. Which is, of course, the reason for my thanks. You people make enough noise as it is."
"Now I know you ain't trying imply that you are any quieter than the rest of us., " Nathan huffed, as he and Ezra continued into the office, not unaware of the under cover agent's thoughts. He was calling the boys Mister this, or Mister that, something he only ever did when upset and distracted. The man'd refer to his own mother as Mrs. ... well Mrs. whatevername she was currently using (Was she still on number six or had she moved on already?) when he was like this. No wonder Josiah'd just chuckled at the rest of them when they'd complained of Ezra being too hard to read, all you had to do was listen to the man.
"You cannot be implying that I number amongst the rest of you cretins? No, I am far too mannered to behave as the rest of you do, and any extremis to which I venture is merely the response of a desperate and maddened soul."
"Yeah, and last week when Vin fell asleep and you managed to cut a couple inches off his hair before he woke up..."
"Further proof of my desperation sir."
"An' it had nothing to do with them purple streaks he an' Buck an' J.D. ..."
"You wound me sir, to think that I would sink so low as to consider such base retaliation.," he waited half a heartbeat," Furthermore it was J.D. holding the scissors, not I."
"It was your idea."
"I merely laid odds against him actually having the...audacity to do such a thing. How I was to know that he actually would?"
Nathan shook his head, catching the look of disbelief on the face of the man in a nearby cubicle as he recognized Ezra's voice and turned to see the two of them striding toward the Director's office.," Because it's J.D., and you're Ezra, and you called him a.."
"I never actually said..."
Three voices overlapped, two cutting off abruptly as their owners turned to face the man who'd questioned Ezra's presence with disbelief and what Nathan was willing to bet was outrage coloring his voice.
Green eyes hooded, Ezra easily slipped into the familiar skin of the man he was expected to be, affecting an air of cool detachment," Agent Markham, isn't it?"
Nathan glared at the man, about Chris's height, maybe a little shorter, with a handsome but not noteworthy face, wanting to break his nose. He'd seen that mask fall over his friends face and wasn't stupid enough not to know how many walls they'd have to climb and moats they'd have to swim before Ezra took it off again.
Even now, after all they'd been through together, overcome together, he didn't fully trust the six of them to fully trust him, and was so careful not to let them hurt him.
Facing one, though not the principal who was busy working on her sixth or seventh marriage right now, reason for that Nathan found himself clenching his fist at his side to keep himself from lashing out.
Thank God Chris didn't let Ez come on his own like he wanted to., he thought
Then, quite out of character he heard himself snap," Your name Ericson? No? Then I guess it ain't any of your business." With as much of Buck's bravado and Chris's menace as he could conjure. Which turned out to be quite a lot, judging from the look on the man's face, and the slanted expression Ezra sent him.,"C'mon Ez. Can't stand the smell 'round here."
They were nearly to Ericson's office before Ezra stated," Markham's not a bad man Nathan, and he's a decent Agent. "
"You ever work with him?'
"He stand up for you, defend you at all?" It wasn't really a question because Nathan heard the outrage in the man's voice, recognized the look of dislike that had crossed the man's face. Of course he hadn't stood up for Ez, you didn't protest the innocence of a man you thought was guilty.
why, because he drives a better car than you? You stupid
"I was never around to hear the debates on my innocence or lack thereof Mister Jackson."
"Son of a Bitch is just lucky it's me here and not Chris or any of the others. ," Nathan muttered, unaware of the smile playing at the corner of Ezra's lips.
They entered Director Ericson's office without knocking; purposely ignoring the courtesy though this was something neither Agent would've admitted to under pain of torture.
Ericson, somewhere near Josiah in age and built like a man who'd spent the whole of his life behind a desk, looked up from his paperwork in surprise and annoyance, "What do you think...,' the annoyance disappeared when he realized that neither of the men in his doorway were his Agents; when he further realized who they were, surprise took control of his lined but pleasant looking face. There wasn't a Law Enforcement Agency in the country that hadn't heard of the ATF's "Magnificent Seven" and if he didn't know Nathan he knew Ezra. ,"Can I help you?"
The picture of urbane charm Ezra stepped forward," Mister Ericson, allow me to introduce my associate, Agent Jackson, Team Seven's Forensic liaison, Nathan, Regional Director, Hugh Ericson.,"
Nathan nodded, but ignored the outstretched hand of the man before him, an action he would also deny on pain of torture, at least to anyone but the rest of his team. The rest of the Team would think he'd acted with the utmost decorum when anyone of them would've much rather thrashed the man to within an inch of his life.
After all, this was the man who'd handed Ezra over to them like a bag of yesterday's trash.
Ezra held out the file containing the necessary paperwork for Ericson to take in order to cover the breech in etiquette," We seem to have, quite unintentionally I assure you, stumbled into your sandbox, as it were. Certainly a most eventful locale, I must say. Not, of course, that I am in any way surprised. However, as a result of our inadvertent lurch into this sinkhole, and in respect of certain, pertinent, facts, A.D. Travis has informed my Team and I that we will now be participating in this ..."
When he appeared to be unable to find the right word Nathan offered, without the slightest hint of satisfaction, "Cock- up?"
"I was thinking debacle, yet that works just as well.," There was a pause, a slight look of consideration on his face before he turned slightly toward Nathan," We're not being entirely fair though, after all, the bungling came before, certainly I would never voluntarily participate in anything so demeaning as a cock-up, as you so properly labeled the thing. And, of course, we must hope that this current assignment does not, in anyway, degenerate into one, else Mister Tanner and myself will, indeed, be in the fire."
"Hell," Nathan muttered," the two of you carry matches and gasoline 'round in your pockets just waiting to get bored."
The corner of Ezra's mouth turned up as his attention shifted back to Ericson, who'd already opened the file with a resigned look of horror on his face.
Sighing the older man indicated they each take a seat, which they did. Gauging Chris's limits had become something of a science among the seven; and while he'd find it perfectly acceptable that they hadn't knocked on Ericson's door (it was only half closed, which could easily be seen as half open after all) and that Nathan refused to shake the man's hand (Chris himself wouldn't have, and Ezra had diverted the man's attention with the file) making such a blatant statement of defiance as to remain standing after being offered a seat would not be tolerated at this point. Yes, it was a given that Regional Director Ericson ranked about as high as the dirt in the gum on the bottom of Chris's boots right now, and yes, there was a reckoning not far on the horizon for Mr. Ericson and quite a few others for how they'd treated Ezra and what they'd done to him. But on this day, in this moment, things could only go so far. Judge Travis said to play nice and mind your manners, and Judge Travis had the power to dismantle the team.
Not of course that it'd mean much if he did. More than likely they'd just quit their jobs and reform in some new arena, but it was the threat that mattered. The words hanging over their heads. He would separate them.
That was the terror that lurked in the places they didn't share, even with each other. That they be separated. Lost to one another. Alone.
They'd each been loners, in their separate ways, before being recruited by Chris, never forming lasting or meaningful relationships. Even J.D. who'd come out west so soon after his mother's death. And that had been fine, dandy, preferable. This was not a conscious thing, nothing they ever truly thought about, it was simply how they lived and were, for the most part, ignorant of how it could be otherwise. Not that they'd cared overmuch to see such a thing come about anyway.
It really was amazing that a person could spend his entire life lonely and not know what lonely was until you showed him.
They would've taken the offered seats in any case, the threat would not have been necessary to ensure their ...civil...behavior, not at least with these two members of Team Seven. One of whom would take the seat because his dislike could not overcome the simple good manners he'd been raised with, and the other because allowing Ericson to see that he had any effect on him at all would allow him, in some ill-defined way, to win.
No the threat hadn't been necessary and Chris wouldn't have even told them about it, not yet, not until it became necessary, though his snippy temper would've been a dead give away. Yet Judge Travis hadn't issued the ultimatum to Chris alone, as he usually did, but to the team as a whole. Didn't want to take the chance, wouldn't take the chance, he said, that their dislike of this man and his agents would muck this up. He didn't really think it would, (there was a reason Team Seven had the highest success rate in the country), but he had to make sure. Too much at stake. Too many lives at risk.
"Travis said you were coming, though he didn't mention names," Ericson looked up from the file a wry grin on his face, "he did say why though."
Since he seemed not to expect any response they obliged him and made none.
"We have over a hundred Agents working on this and we're working with the DEA already. It was never my intention to exclude the ATF, but I think your presence is unnecessary, and perhaps questionable." Across from him Nathan seethed and Ezra merely quirked and eyebrow ," However I've been overruled. That being the case I have to know if we can work together."
"Though I myself have not pursued the contents of that folder sir, I do believe that Agent Larabee or A.D. Travis would have included a print out of our arrest record. With no false modesty I can assure you that it is impressive; as I can likewise assure that should any personal matter disrupt this case it will be none of ours."
Ericson frowned. This had always been part of the problem, half the reason he couldn't let himself like or really trust Standish. The man was arrogant, pompous and reckless, though he never did endanger another Agent, and tended to wield his vocabulary as others would a gun. He'd always been full of a kind of studied defiance, this southerner, using said vocabulary to twist and turn a simple sentence till you didn't know what the hell he'd just said but you'd still be willing to bet that there was an insult in there somewhere. And it didn't matter that you were the commanding officer because the man had no respect. And not a damn bit of it really mattered at all because he never did anything you could just point to.
Though Ericson had a theory that if you ever did point at him he just might lose some of that sophistication and bite your damn finger off. Ezra Standish was not a man who liked to stand out or be seen unless he was orchestrating the whole damn thing.
He fixed the Agents in front of him with what he considered a menacing look, though after two years of Chris and his Glare Of Death neither Agent was overly impressed, and stated," That better be so."
Briefly Ezra had a vision of his teammates and the instances when personal matters had crossed into the realm of their work; after the bust went down, after the bad guys were safely restrained and away, after whomever was currently enjoying the unique hospitality of the Hospital awoke. Never during. Not that he could recall, which amounted to the same thing. " I dare say that you shall have the privilege of witnessing my associates utilizing a level of decorum I had hitherto despaired of their ever attaining.," He allowed his voice to lose some of its geniality then, honing his words to a cutting edge.," You unjustly malign them when you assume that they would behave in any manner unbecoming to the professionals that they are; and you go well beyond the acceptable when you imply that any of them would, by their behavior or even their thoughts, do anything to endanger the outcome of this case."
No, Ericson thought, he certainly hadn't missed this. It was amazing how pleasant and uncomplicated life could become when you never had to deal with people that used fifty words when five would do just as well.," Good, because this time I'll have your badge., " He included Nate with a wry half grin.," All your badges."
"Sir, I in no way exaggerate when I say it would be one of the greater pleasures of my life to watch you try."
Not the most politic of responses to be sure, but Ezra couldn't help thinking that Chris would eat Regional Director Hugh Ericson alive for even saying such a thing, let alone attempting it.
Ericson, aware that he'd just been challenged and laughed at by a man he considered to be the next best thing to a traitor, felt his face flush and what little temper he possessed starting to boil.," Whatever you might have gotten away with in the past Standish, it won't happen again. I know about you now, my men know about you, and you will be caught. Sooner or later everybody fucks up, and you may think your shit don't stink but you're no better than the rest of us. One of these days you'll fumble it and I'll be there to take you down when you do. "
Ezra remained still and impassive as his former boss spoke; refusing to react to the man's words, knowing to do so would only justify them. He could feel Nathan tense beside him, felt both gratitude and surprise that he should take offense from the insults directed at him.
Of all his coworkers his relationship with Nathan was, at the best of times, delicate. The ex-medic was still possessed of his own preconceived prejudices and ( though they'd surmounted the bulk of those during their first months together) the situation was inevitably aggravated by what Nate perceived as Ezra's insistence on purposely maneuvering himself into the line of what he considered a greater danger than was strictly called for.
"I don't know how you've managed to convince both Travis and Larabee that you're clean but you haven't gotten away with anything. We know what you really are.," Ericson hissed, his determination to provoke a response from Ezra obvious, but overshadowed by his unmistakable belief in what he was saying.
It shouldn't have affected him, he shouldn't have let it effect him, yet Ezra was only just able to check the urge to deny such charges. To shout in the man's face that he wasn't a dirty cop. That he hadn't taken kick-backs. That he had not and would never sell himself nor anybody else out like that. Much as he would like to deny it, the idea that people could even now, after all he and his Team mates had accomplished, believe such things of him, left him feeling raw and tainted.
If I had sunburn, he mused, and I scratched it raw with sand-paper, that feeling might be comparable to this. He felt the corner of his mouth tilt, though there was nothing of humor in the expression., "Agent Ericson I assure you, I've gotten away with far more than you will ever be able to comprehend."
"Get out of my office."
"We'll do better than that.," And Nathan was on his feet, with Ezra quickly rising to join him there, his lips compressed to almost non-existence with the effort it was taking to control himself, "We'll leave your office, your building, your city and even your state. But I promise the next time you hear Ezra's name you'll be reading his commendation for solving your case."
Ericson launched himself to his own feet, spluttering with indignation," How dare you?!"
"How dare I ?," Nathan demanded in disbelief.," You damn near ruined the man who was quite probably the best Agent you ever had! And all on account of some paltry, insubstantial rumors, you accepted because you couldn't see past your own petty dislike and inadequacies! Ezra is a good Agent, one of the best Agents' in the entire Department of Justice, and the best damn under-cover Agent there ever was, you stupid little man!"
"No wonder the ATF wanted Standish. If this is what you people call acceptable behavior then a dirty cop should fit right in."
"I'll be sure," Perversely he enjoyed the contrast between his own, collected and controlled, voice and that of Ericson's, whose composure had been summarily shattered by Nate's remarks, "to convey your opinion to Agent Larabee, whom I'm quite sure would enjoy the ensuing debate no end. Nathan, our flight back to Denver leaves soon. We should be going."
Shooting the FBI man one finale, baleful look, the forensic expert nodded tightly, once, and turned to go.
"No.," Standing behind Nate, blocking his view and his rout to Ericson, Ezra watched him tense and prepare to swing around and lay into the man a second time. ," Though I deeply appreciate your defense of my person, I would rather not see you face assault charges for actions taken in the further pursuit of that defense. The man is inconsequential, as are his opinions, and it is beneath you to give him the satisfaction he so craves. "
"It is enough Mister Jackson, to know that you would."
Disagreeing with that in more ways than he could count Nathan nevertheless conceded the point, and continued out of the office into the bullpen beyond.
Once out of Ericson's office, and leaving the door ajar on purpose, Ezra, touched and irritated all at once, asked, "While I do realize that I requested, in fact demanded, that you never again ask me to justify my actions, I find myself at a loss to explain your own actions of a moment ago. Consequently, I fear I must, in an attempt to banish this rare show of ignorance, now venture to ask you to perform the same action which, when required to execute, I find so very offensive."
Stopping in the middle of the isle, turning to face him, Nathan looked only slightly less livid with him than he had with Ericson," You think I shoulda just sat there, listen'in to him insulting you to your face like he had every justifiable right in the world, and not done anything about it? That I shoulda just let him think he could get away with it?"
"Agent Ericson will think and act as he pleases and your display of loyalty, however appreciated or misplaced, serves no purpose but to draw his ire to your own person. "
Taking a step closer to the Armani clad southerner Nate leveled a finger at him, poking him in the chest with it for exclamation, "Fuck you Ezra. That's's what friends do, and I'll be damned if I'll let anyone, including you, talk about you like you're nothing at all. So you take your "misplaced" and shove it where the sun don't shine, because I'm tired of having my motives and judgment brought into question every time you have an attack of melancholy or loss of self-esteem."
He blinked, but gave no other sign of his reaction, though if he had even an iota less control he knew he'd be gaping at Nathan and the finger he was still pointing at him. "Very well then Mister Jackson, but may I ask you to refrain from making any further scenes until we've departed? These men and women need no further reasons to dislike or distrust me, and I see no reason to provide them with more fodder with which to besmear my character."
Melancholy? Loss of self-esteem? He'd very much appreciate the chance to correct Nate's misguided assumptions, but this was neither the time nor the place. It didn't matter that these people already thought as little of him as they possibly could, his own innate dignity and damnable, wretched, pride, will not allow their opinions to be further deteriorated by his own actions.
Visibly restraining himself, giving evidence to a far greater reserve of control than he'd displayed in Ericson's office, Nathan retracted his finger and nodded once, turning on his heel with a military precision not completely forgotten in the years since his departure from that august organization, and proceeded to stalk toward the elevator banks.
Neither surprised by, nor ignorant of the looks sent his way, nor the hasty glances directed at Nate's forbidding continence, Ezra suppressed a sigh.
This was absolutely wonderful.
He truly could not wait to hear a recounting of their actions here upon their return to Denver. There was no doubt in his mind either Chris or the Judge would be waiting for them with just that, not to mention a few choice and no doubt colorful, words articulated for their express benefit.
Their own behavior, though it would be excused once they relayed the actual happenings, has been bad enough to warrant that, but by the time the rumors reached home it'd be a thousand times worse than it actually happened to be. Truly, Chris should have let him come alone, he'd survived far worse treatment in his life than R.D. Ericson was capable of doling out, no matter how bitter or resentful, how convinced of his guilt, the man happened to be.
Wasn't it odd that he could inspire trust in even the most suspicious, paranoid and fanatical of criminals, yet couldn't convince even those who owed him their lives that he was, in the end, no worse a human being than they themselves happened to be?
There was an irony in that thought that didn't at all escape him and which he had absolutely no difficulty in appreciating as he followed Nate into the elevator, pretending that he didn't feel the eyes that tracked his every movement until the doors had slid firmly into place between himself and those men and women who were so sure of what they thought he was.
Pretending, for the sake of pride and Nathan's temper, that he didn't feel their judgment
No matter what our achievements might be,
we think well of ourselves only in rare moments.
We need people to bear witness against our inner judge,
who keeps book on our shortcomings and transgressions.
We need people to convince us that we are not as bad as we think we are.