Vin, part two
I was a mite worried that Ezra still didn't understand how bad Vernon could be when he'd had a snoot full of that pretty white powder. I'd have to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn't do nothing rash. Miss Clover had surprised me with her knowledge of the Munson family. I was pretty sure that she wouldn't have said anything but for the fact that Ezra would be putting his life on the line this time when he went under cover.
She had a soft spot for the genteel agent. And if I admitted it, so did I. He was such a private person and he hid himself under layers and layers of camouflage. But sometimes I saw part of the man underneath and that man fascinated me. I was used to watching others like I watched the men I had hunted for bounty. You can learn a lot about people that way.
And the more I knew about Ezra Standish, the more I wanted to know. He was the mystery man of our team and for some reason I couldn't let him alone. I needed to know more about what made him tick. It just wasn't like me not to give a man his privacy but there was this little itch that wouldn't go away every time I saw him. Not for the first time, I wished my Ma hadn't left me quite so young. She had a way of seeing right through to the heart of folks.
I could use that right now and I didn't know why. Or why that pretty rose on his desk had made me frown. Chris said it was probably just some lovesick secretary but I wasn't so sure. The smile on his face that I'd caught through the blinds in the other office seemed to touch something deep inside of me. It was a happy smile, open and bright, not the way he usually controlled himself.
Part of me wanted to see him that way again. The team was my family and the best I'd ever had but just lately I'd been a mite restless ... wanting something but I wasn't quite sure what. It wasn't something that I could talk to Chris about, at least not yet. But from what Miss Clover had said, maybe I had a friend I could share with. She reminded me of Miss Nettie just a bit.
Both of them were independent elderly ladies and I'd always gotten along well with them. Or maybe I would sit down with Josiah and ask him about these feelings that puzzled me. He never judged anybody, just accepted them for who they were. Those wise eyes of his could see so deep that sometimes it was scary. But his gentleness was as much a part of him as his wisdom and I trusted him almost more than I trusted Chris.
I was a lucky man to have such a close family of brothers. The team I was coaching right now on the firing range didn't have that closeness and I pitied the lone woman among them. Valerie was the best shot of the bunch but she had to hide her ability to keep the peace among her fellow agents. The team leader wasn't using his people to their fullest potential and I thanked God for Chris' ability to accept us for who we were.
Some of the others called us eccentric and other names not quite nice, but none of them could boast our solve-rate or our success in catching the bad guys. I sent team four on their way, keeping Valerie back for a moment with just a little tick of my head. When the others had gone, I grinned at her and proposed a bet. She grinned back and reloaded her gun. Setting up the targets, I took a stance and watched her match me.
Five minutes later we brought our targets forward and I shook her hand. We'd tied each other and I told her that I'd be willing to have her as backup any day. She put her gun away and shook my hand with a quiet, 'thank you'. I'd seen a shadow near the door and I waited for whoever had a need to hide to come out.
Wasn't too surprised to see the leader of team four come forward. His name was Duncan Hastings and seemed to be a pretty stand-up guy. "She's good, isn't she?"
"Yep, she's better than any two of the rest of your team. I wasn't joking about having her as my backup." I kept it simple and watched him sigh.
"I'll work on it, Tanner. I don't want her leaving because we've frustrated her and not utilized her abilities to the fullest. Thanks." He nodded to me and left.
That made me feel better and I'd be sure to tell Chris that Hastings seemed to be a canny fellow. We had paired with them a couple of months back and it had worked out okay. Ezra and Valerie had played a couple on the lookout for some diamonds. They dressed up real good and flashed a lot of money around with Ezra playing poker with his usual style.
I couldn't have done it to save my life but Ezra, he just smiled and cuddled Valerie close while cleaning out the bad guys of all their cash so they had to use their stolen diamonds for one more shot at getting back their money. He and Val were wearing wires and Ezra made J. D. and Nathan outside in the surveillance van laugh over and over. Valerie had told me later that she'd never felt so beautiful as she did with Ez as her escort.
He was real courtly with the ladies but I hadn't seen him dating or anything since he'd joined the team. Partly that was because he was undercover almost seven of the last twelve months with just the occasional time in the office. Sometimes I wondered how he kept who he was straight with his job. Did he ever forget who he was supposed to be?
Heading back to our floor, I checked the time and stuck my head into Chris' office. He was talking on the phone and waved me to my usual chair. I made sure that the others had already left before sitting back and contemplating this new assignment. I hated Vernon with all my heart for his cruelty and part of me wanted to be the one who took him down.
But it looked like Ezra would be the one in harm's way and I didn't like that at all. I kept reliving those long moments when I'd been held helpless by the big man's weight and known that I was a heartbeat away from being raped by someone who I thought might care for me. My stomach was tight and it hurt to take a deep breath.
"What's wrong, Vin?" Chris had finished his phone call without me realizing it.
"Just remembering that night. I'm worried that Ezra might underestimate him and get hurt." I couldn't sit still and had to get up to pace. "Miz Clover was bringing up some files about the family when I had to leave so maybe he'll come up with something else that won't put him in such danger."
"He can take care of himself, Vin." Chris shrugged and that didn't sit well with me. "He's a big boy and his martial arts training will protect him."
"You saying that I was so weak that Vernon could take me easy?"
"Hell, no!" Chris glared at me. "You know better than that. He didn't have the history that he does now. You went in not having the whole story but Ezra does and he knows exactly what he's facing."
I was still pacing from the window to the door. "He's shorter and slighter than I am, Cowboy. All it would take is one lucky punch and Vernon would have him hog-tied and at his mercy."
"Not going to happen, Vin. Those new wires are so small that we can have him wired for sound and Vernon wouldn't find a thing. Not that it will get to that point." Chris was tapping his pencil again which told me he wasn't quite as sure as he was letting on. "At the risk of repeating myself, he can take care of himself."
Movement at the corner of my eye stilled my restless pacing. Ezra had just come in and was carrying some folders to his desk. Laying them on the golden oak, he picked up the vase and took another long sniff of the pretty rose. That smile was back, the one that spoke of old memories that felt real good.
As if he knew I was watching, his eyes lifted to mine and he blushed just a bit as if I'd caught him doing something wrong. And that just wasn't right. He had the right to have good memories, the same as the rest of us. I left the office and reached his desk at the moment he put the rose back down.
"It's a real pretty rose, Ezra. I'm glad that someone thought to bring it in. You don't often find an old fashioned rose with some smell left to it."
He chuckled. "Indeed, Mr. Tanner, it reminds me of the roses that my Grandmother Eugenia tended in her Georgia garden for many years. Some of my summers were spent helping her prune and fertilize 'her babies' she called them. I don't think I've smelled a sweeter rose since."
That was a good memory and I relaxed at the thought it was his grandma and not an old girlfriend he was remembering. "My Ma was always partial to red roses. She told me they stood for passion."
Those green eyes of his met mine and for just a moment I thought I saw sorrow in them before he shuttered them the way he usually did. "She was right, Mr. Tanner, they do stand for passion. It's too bad that my secret admirer didn't think to leave a note. I'll be taking these files home to study tonight."
He opened his briefcase and laid the files inside before turning for his coat. The hesitation caught my eye and when he took his coat and practically turned it inside out, I wondered what was wrong. He felt in both sleeves and the pockets before surveying the floor almost frantically.
"What's wrong, Ez?" It looked like he'd lost something.
"My scarf ... the one you gave me for Christmas, it's not here." He was checking under his desk and then the desks near his.
That made me feel pretty good about my choice of present. When I got his name, I was real flustered. He's a man who believes in quality and I didn't have a clue what to get him. But one day when he was complaining about the cold, I had the idea. Miss Nettie and I went shopping in a real fancy men's clothing store and she'd helped me pick out the green scarf. I knew it was the right one when he opened it and immediately slung it around his neck.
It matched his eyes perfectly.
He'd thanked me quietly but I could see that he really liked it. He'd worn it every day since and I smiled every time I saw it around his neck. "Maybe one of the other guys borrowed it?"
His eyes snapped with emerald fire. "They know better, Mr. Tanner. I'm beginning to think that my 'admirer' may not have the best of intentions."
That sobered me right up. "You mean a stalker."
"Exactly." His voice was tense and his shoulders slumped a little when he turned back to his coat. "Hopefully, you are correct and it will be returned unharmed. I shall just have to endure the chill until it's found."
"You could buy a spare so's you don't have to wear it every day." I suggested and saw his eyes go blank. "Herman's is where I got that one. Miz Nettie went with me so I wouldn't get scared off by those uppity salesmen."
The warmth came back into his eyes and he smiled his familiar half smile. "If it isn't returned I will brave Herman's to see if an adequate replacement can be found. Good afternoon, Mr. Tanner, I will see you tomorrow."
He nodded to me and buttoned his coat on the way out the door. I watched him leave wondering for the thousandth time what went on inside of his head. Heading back to Chris' office, I told him about the missing scarf. He took it seriously too and we decided to say something to the others about watching who came in and out of our offices.
It was a pretty open area and members of other teams used our meeting room since it was the only one on this floor. But the room where our desks were was a little more private with two doors coming in and out. They weren't ever locked since we locked our desks and Chris locked his desk and office. It was a mystery and one that I was determined to solve.
I didn't like to think of some psycho woman targeting Ezra like that.
Buck walked in right then and when Chris said something about it, he flung himself in the other chair and thought hard. "You know it might not be a woman at all but one of the other male agents who's sweet on Ezra. The man is a tasty morsel no matter how you look at it. I got to say that there's one or two who wouldn't mind waking up on the same pillow with our gambler."
I couldn't hardly believe my ears when he said that but when I looked at Chris, he was nodding like he understood. A man? Not a woman but a man who liked Ezra? That just wasn't possible that somebody like Vernon would be on one of our teams. "That's not right, Buck, we don't have anybody like that here."
Buck's eyes met Chris' and they talked silently between them for a long moment. "Vin, it isn't always like Munson. There are men who love other men just like you loved Charlotte."
"And there are committed couples out there who share the same love and devotion that Sarah and I had." Chris' voice was soft, the way it always is when he talks about his dead wife. "It doesn't have to be rape and pain, the way that Vernon tried on you. I can think of at least two other male couples in this building. The policy is still 'don't ask, don't tell' and that's worked pretty well for the last few years."
I couldn't hardly believe my ears. I knew they weren't funnin' me because they both knew the shame I'd felt when Vernon had tried to rape me. "Willingly? Couples that I know on the other teams?"
Chris nodded. "Sorry, Vin, I didn't realize that you didn't know. Male on male love can be just as satisfying as the other variety. Some men and women are bisexual and can go either way."
My brain was trying to put everything back in the right slots but nothing fit anymore. Buck leaned forward and put his hand on my knee. "Vin, if you've got questions, I'd be glad to answer them. I wasn't sure that you'd want to know about that kind of loving so I never offered before. But," he shrugged and shot a smile at Chris, "I've been there and done that so if you want, I'll do my best to explain it."
Buck? Womanizer Buck had loved another man? I felt as if the world had gone upside-down on me and nothing was what it seemed. And Chris seemed to understand it completely. Could he have done ... that too? Was I so stupid that I'd never even thought about men? And that's when it hit me ... I'd enjoyed Vernon's kisses and somewhere in my mind had to have been the thought about where those kisses would lead.
I gulped over the big lump in my throat. "I think maybe I do, Buck. I think maybe I'd like to know what it's like when you ... l-l-like the person you're with."
His eyes were so gentle when he squeezed my knee before sitting back. "No problem, Vin. We'll get together over a beer or two tonight and I'll give you a course in Male Loving 101. Guaranteed to answer all the questions you can think of."
Chris snorted. "I believe I'll come along and make sure that all the information is accurate and not ... stretched at all."
Buck looked wounded and clapped his hand to his heart. "Would I stretch the truth, Chris? Don't answer that. I might dress it up a little but I'd never tell a lie."
"Exactly what I'm afraid of, Buck. I'll come along just the same." He glared at his oldest friend and the thought crossed my mind that maybe they'd been one of those pairs earlier in their friendship. That was a whole new thought for me and I knew that I needed some time alone to think.
After I heard a little more about the whole thing.
Nathan joined us then and his questions about our next assignment let me slip from the room and away from the strange new emotions. Standing hesitantly by my desk, I felt the need to get out and walk away some of this tension. Thinking back to what Ezra had said about wind chimes, I grabbed my coat and headed out.
There was a gift shop near the ATF building that I'd been in before with J. D. who needed a present for Casey. It was a long narrow store and I was pretty sure I'd seen wind chimes in the back. The air was brisk and cold and I breathed it in like I hadn't had fresh air in a long time. Even with all the gas fumes from the cars going by, it was still cleaner than the dry air in our office building.
The bell tinkled when I opened the door and wiped my feet. The owner nodded at me with a bright smile and took me straight back to the spot I'd remembered from before. Even though it was still February, she had garden items on display next to the wind chimes and they reminded me that Spring was coming. She left me alone and I took my time testing the chimes.
One had a real sweet sound and a cat decorating it. I knew that Miss Clover liked cats because there was always cat hair on her clothes. Nothing too much 'cause she was a real clean lady but those critters leave hair everywhere. I took it down and started looking around to see what else was there. I didn't have any reason to be looking for a present but you never knew when you were going to need something.
The gardening display drew me like a magnet. Ma had loved digging in the soil and even though I was only three when she died, I could remember playing in the dirt while she planted seeds nearby. I could still feel the soft earth between my little fingers and the mud pies she'd helped me make while the sun beat down on us. Most of the display was kind of silly; full of things that no real gardener would use.
But the prepackaged seeds and soil looked kind of fun. They had four different kind of herbs and the picture of lavender took me back again to the soft scent in the little pillow that Ma had made for me. I'd had it for most of my childhood until it disappeared during the tenth move or maybe it was the eleventh. It had lost its smell years before but I still missed it sometimes.
The directions were real simple and I thought I'd give it a try. If I got into trouble, Josiah would loan me his green thumb. I paid for them both and held the bag close to me while I walked back to the ATF building. Stopping on fifth floor, I gave Miss Clover the chimes and told her what Ezra had said. She gave that sharp little nod of hers and had me put the hook in the ceiling so I could hang it.
Opening and closing the door made it ring sweetly and she smiled up at me while she patted my shoulder. Then she shooed me out so she could close the library. I hadn't realized that I'd taken that long to shop so I dashed up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. I didn't want Buck to think that I didn't want to talk some more.
The two of them were still talking but Nathan's coat was gone along with Josiah's and the clock showed 5:30. Work had been kind of slow lately and Chris had let us come and go, as we needed. I put my little garden on my desk and scissored open the tops of the plastic bags so I could pour some water from the office cooler in. When I looked up, I saw Buck and Chris watching me.
I couldn't help but blush a little. "Saw this and remembered my Ma growing lavender back when I was a baby. Thought I might give it a try."
Chris smiled at me. "Good idea. When they grow too big for your desk, you can transplant them into that little park by that deathtrap you call home."
"Now, now, don't go calling my place a deathtrap, Chris. It's getting better down in the neighborhood since the Sisters of Mercy moved into that set of row houses a block over. They've already begun talking about planting a garden for the neighbors this summer." I told him as we walked out of the office.
"Right." Buck said, clapping me on the shoulder and continuing the gentle needling I'd come to expect from him. He was the big brother I'd never had and even though he teased me all the time, I knew I could always count on him if I ever got into trouble.
We each took our own cars to Inez' restaurant and bar. That was another sore point with the others whenever they saw my old Jeep. But it was comfortable if you didn't mind a few breezes coming up through the floorboards or the noise of the engine. I could probably afford something newer but I didn't like being in debt and I was still a thousand shy of the cost of a new Jeep.
I got there first and ordered a pitcher of beer for our usual table in the far corner. Inez smiled at me and scolded me for not stopping in to eat in over a week. She promised me a quesadilla platter that would spark my appetite and I accepted for all of us. Some of the others might show up and I wanted some questions answered before they did.
Chris and Buck knowing how stupid I'd been, I could take but I wouldn't want the others to know. The other two were only a couple of minutes behind me and once the beer was poured, Buck started talking. He and Chris went back and forth between the two of them and when I asked hesitantly about their friendship they looked at each other before nodding.
Buck's eyes were gentle when he talked about the joy that came from bedding a friend. And Chris' smile was tender at the need for strength tempered with gentleness. A whole new world was opening up before my eyes and I could hardly think of any questions. But then I asked about some of the 'hows' and their answers widened my eyes. I didn't have a lot of experience with women but Charlotte had gone down on me once so at least I kind of knew about oral sex.
"And that tastes good?" I couldn't help asking.
Buck chuckled and ate another quesadilla leaving Chris to answer. "Yes, it does, Vin. Or at least it doesn't taste bad."
I thought about that for a long moment while I finished my second beer and shook my head at another. I needed my wits about me when I asked my last question. "Did either of you ever wonder if I'd be ... open to another man?"
Buck choked a little and shook his head while Chris pounded on his back. His eyes were watering and he gulped the last of his beer. "Jesus, Vin, don't spring that one on somebody without some warning!"
"Sorry, but I need to know." I wasn't sure what I was really asking but it had something to do with a comment I'd heard once in the locker room.
Chris tilted his head a mite then answered me. "Vin, don't take this the wrong way but I have to say that except for Ezra, you are the one of Team Seven that a majority of the other agents would vote to be marooned with on a deserted island."
"M-m-me?" I stuttered.
"Boy, you've got a kind of classic beauty that a man can appreciate." Buck said earnestly while I was still thinking about it. "But more important, you've got integrity and heart. Anybody, man or woman, would be pleased to have you choose them to share your life with."
I blinked at him and wondered when the world had done this 180 on me. Buck thought I was beautiful? I blushed beet red and dropped my eyes to the table.
"Vin, you okay?" Chris' voice was low. "Josiah and Nathan are headed our way. We better table this for now. But if you have more questions, you come to Buck or me and we'll do our best to answer them."
"Okay." I greeted Josiah and our healer but slid out from behind the table so they could take my place. I had some thinking to do and I needed privacy for all the new thoughts I'd had sprung on me. Saying my good byes, I headed for home and some space. I concentrated on my driving so's I didn't have an accident but those thoughts just naturally followed me home.
I didn't turn on any lights when I got there, just took off my coat and hung it up before going to the window to sit in the old rocker that I'd found on a junk heap a couple of years back. It wasn't the prettiest chair I'd ever seen but it had been broke in by an expert and the steady creaking reminded me of sitting on my Mama's lap and being rocked to sleep.
Just how did I feel about my new knowledge? And did Ezra agree with Buck and Chris about male loving? Why did learning something only lead to more questions? I sighed and settled in for some heavy thinking.