The M7FFA is an archive for fan fiction. Each story or other work available on this archive was created for the enjoyment of the fans with no intention to infringe on any copyright. No profit has been gained from this archive. The specific content of each work is © the original author/creator and should not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without the creator's express permission.
Author's Voice of Warning (aka Author's Note): English is not my first language; it's German. This is the best I can do. Any mistakes you find in here, collect them and you might win a prize. The spell-checker said everything's okay, but you know how trustworthy those thingies are.....
Background: Chris and Ezra are shape shifters, and a bond forms between them. Ezra becomes the last member of Chris' team in law enforcement.
Link to the official Boarderlines site: A href="http://home.arcor.de/larabee/mag7/m7slfic.html">http://home.arcor.de/larabee/mag7/m7slfic.html
The night was pleasantly warm for mid-summer. Darkness had descended two hours ago and the night life of the small town was punctuated by raucous, drunken laughter and music, mainly from one of the two saloons.
Light spilled out of the grimy windows and painted strange patterns onto the hard, dusty ground. Here and there, silent snorts from the corrals could be heard. The normal peace was broken by loud voices and a sudden commotion from one of the saloons. The volume increased and suddenly a shot was fired. There were yells and glass broke, then a small, lithe figure could be seen leaving the saloon in a hurry, darting over the wide street. Not a long time after him, five men exited the saloon as well, guns drawn, looking around.
"Where the hell is the sneaky weasel?" one of them roared.
The smaller shadow moved quickly toward the stables.
"He's over at the stables!" someone yelled.
A soft curse could be heard, then the fleeing man quickly opened the gate to the corral where a herd of recently caught Kiowata was nervously moving around, ears flat on their heads, eyes rolling.
"Yaaaah!" he yelled, startling the first few.
He was just fast enough to get out of the way as they bolted through the open gate. The rest of the herd followed, their instincts telling them there was a way out. The shadowy man climbed onto the corral fence.
He suddenly stiffened, eyes growing wide. Then he shook himself and as one of the large bodies pushed through the opening, he grabbed a handful of mane and slipped onto the warm, broad back.
The wild herd thundered through the town and disappeared into the night.
It couldn't be. Impossible. He would remember, would he? There should be something left to tell him that this had actually happened. Chris Larabee stood in total shock. Sharp eyes took in the green landscape, the flowing hills, the forest behind him, the mountains in the distance.
The air was crisp and sharp, the sun had just risen, and there were birds flying across the azure sky. Everything looked incredibly real, but it couldn't be. Because if it was that meant...
He heard an animal snort and he flinched. It had been him. Sounding like a horse. But he was a man. He was commander of an Agency team. He was Christopher Larabee! Not... not a Kiowata. Closing his eyes, he felt ripples of minute tremors race over the black coat of this animal form.
No, it couldn't be real. It had to be a dream. He just needed to wake up! Someone approached him and his eyes flew open as he instinctively danced away from the man.
"Whoa, easy there, fella," he said, voice smooth and calm. It had a soothing quality, as if he was used to talking to frightened animals.
"Not going to hurt you."
He held up both hands away from his body, smiling. Green eyes kept contact with Chris's as he approached. He was dressed in a blue shirt and tan pants with a matching jacket, which showed some signs of wear.
The clothes had surely been expensive once. A long time ago, actually.
They didn't look ripped, but definitely in need of replacement soon.
"Looks like they didn't get to clipping you, hm? Lucky you. Too bad you have no idea what you are, right?"
And I'm what? Chris wondered. I know who I am and I know that this body can't possibly be me. I'm dreaming this because I'm undercover, trying to catch the smugglers who keep fencing Kiowata products and the animals themselves.
"Well, I won't keep you from freedom," the man went on. "I appreciate the lift you gave me. I hope you'll figure out who you are one day. Then again, it would most likely drive you nuts." A shadow fell over the sun-tanned features.
<I know who I am> Chris muttered.
The man stiffened and his eyebrows rose. "What the.... Oh, no!" He shook his head. "No, no, no. No way!" He stepped back and looked around as if expecting someone to jump out from behind the trees. "I didn't just hear that."
<You... heard me?> Chris exclaimed.
The green eyes displayed shock. "Aw hell....."
People disappearing was nothing new to the Agency. People got lost all the time for different reasons; they were on the run from the law, from their lives or just from themselves. Most of them, close to 85%, reappeared one way or the other after a while. Dead or alive. The others were simply gone, and sometimes soon forgotten. But then the rumors started circling, about the unwanted being disposed of, about criminals not ending up in prison but somewhere even worse. But those were just rumors. No one gave them much credit, treating them as a file that existed but no one wanted to work with. The appearance of a man in one of the Agency offices one day changed that. He was thin, undernourished, eyes darting nervously back and forth. He requested protection in exchange for information on a secret project that concerned the people who had disappeared for no apparent reason. The information that the missing people were changed from human to an animal by a machine was first taken as a joke. Scientists agreed that while it was possible to molecularly disassemble and then reassemble a living being, the risks of failure and death were immense.
Still, a first team started to investigate the claims. When the Judge in charge of Section 7 had been presented enough evidence to merit a deeper research, Chris Larabee's unit had come into the game.
Section 7 dealt with smugglers and piracy in all its devious little variations. Months of detailed research, undercover work and hundreds of hours spent hacking into archives of various private and government companies yielded evidence that something horrific had gone on for decades, right under the noses of high-ranking Agency officials. Investigations were started all across the Territory, and though the people responsible tried to stop Judge Orrin Travis, they only succeeded in setting him on their trail like a bloodhound.
It finally crystallized just where those unwanted and criminals had been taken to.
The planet had been classified as BP-379, an M-Class planet the size of Earth with a breathable atmosphere and some very exotic wildlife.
The small planet had been populated with a life form indigenous to a world called Prima 2, which was light years from this place. They were called 'Kiowata', a kind of large, omnivorous equine with two horns growing out of the bony ridges over its eyes. Now, there were those who paid an extraordinary large amount of money for the Kiowata, even though they were under protection by an Act of the Joined Governments. Ruthless hunting had decimated the species. Prima 2 was looking after its population of Kiowata and whoever hunted or caught them was prosecuted quite severely.
Still, animals were smuggled in from somewhere, though no one could explain how there could be off-spring from the genetically coded herds on Prima 2 or any of the zoo animals. Those confiscated, dead and alive, had shown no traces of having come from Prima 2 parentage.
The rumors were starting to grow more and more into truths.
There had also been a steady increase of ground Kiowata horn that was sold to those who could pay for the rare powder. It had healing powers, some said, or was an aphrodisiac. Some doctors swore it was a better pain medication than every other known painkiller. Whatever the ground horn chips did, they were another reason why the Kiowata were an endangered species. That they were supplemented by turning humans into equines, which then interbred, didn't help matters. It made them worse. Someone had a high disregard for human life.
Chris Larabee was now one of the victims.
He was still in shock, denial running through his system as he stared at the human.
<Who are you? Why can you hear me.....?>
"My name is Ezra Standish, and I have no idea why I can hear you,"
the man answered, warily looking at him. "Who might you be?"
"Commander Chris Larabee, Special Agent."
Was it his imagination or did the man flinch slightly. "Welcome to BP-379, commander," Standish said out loud, a note of sarcasm in his voice. Chris tossed his head, glaring. <Where am I? How did this happen?> he demanded. <Are you involved?>
"Whoa, calm down." Standish raised his hands. "First of all, you are on the North Continent of what is known as BP-379, a really dusty and inhospitable place. As for what happened, you tell me. I didn't have anything to do with it. I'm just making a living here, okay?"
More information flooded back to Chris, all slightly out of context, but the general idea stuck. He had been undercover, he had been discovered, knocked out and then..... the next thing he knew he was looking like an oversized horse! <No....> he whispered, the full impact of it hitting him between the eyes. <Impossible. No....>
Standish watched him carefully. "Remembering, hm?"
<Yes> Chris mumbled.
"Not pretty, I know."
<I have to contact my team!> Chris decided, sounding almost feverish to his own ears. <Where's the next com station for interplanetary connections?> "Sorry to burst your bubble, Commander, but out here are nothing but small farms and the occasional town. There are no com stations."
Chris growled dangerously, stomping his front legs. <There have to be! There has to be a space port! Tell me where it is, Standish!>
Ezra eyes held a strange expression, then he smiled bitterly. "The space port is nearly on the other side of the planet. And even if you could reach it, there is no way you'd be able to send a message. You are a Kiowata. The next rancher who sees you will either shoot you to sell body parts for money or he'll catch you for one of the many meat markets. Then again, you might end up as a breeding specimen."
Chris felt something cold course through him. He remembered the many Kiowata horns they had found while searching for the ones behind the smuggling. The stuffed heads and bodies, the many unregistered animals running around on private lands.
<No!> he roared.
"And then there's the question as to whether you'd even be able to contact your team or not. They might have declared you dead by now,"
Reality was suddenly too much to take. Chris felt his mind whirl, his thoughts running together. He was living a nightmare.
<I have to get a message off this planet> he whispered.
"Well, good luck then, Commander Larabee," Ezra said levelly. "This is where our ways part. I'm going to the next settlement to get supplies, then I'm off to greener pastures. Whatever foolish notion you have about contacting your friend, you shouldn't show yourself all too openly. It's bad for your health."
With that Ezra turned and stalked off. Chris watched him, anger and puzzlement warring inside him. Adding to that was his confusion about the whole situation. His adrenaline level had gone down, but nothing seemed any clearer than hours before. Snorting, he stamped his hooves into the soft ground. He knew he had to contact his team, but as a Kiowata that was close to impossible. He couldn't talk, except through that weird connection to Standish, and the man showed no sign of even considering following his orders.
He had taken several steps after Ezra when he realized what he was doing. Logically, he should find help somewhere else instead of a criminal who had actually 'stolen' him to flee from the local law. Instinct vetoed that. He needed Ezra because without him, he'd just end up in one of the stables or corrals again. Or worse, as a stuffed trophy for some rich collector. Annoyance swamped him.
Chris finally set out after Standish, keeping back, trying not to announce his presence. Better stick with someone who knew his way around here than stay on his own.
Ezra had been aware of Larabee's presence for over an hour by now, but he ignored the Kiowata that followed him in the distance. He had fled the last town, Broken Path, in a hurry and except for the money he had conned off the five dubious characters and the weapons he carried on him, he had nothing left. Not that he had had many possessions to begin with. The little he had had would most likely be sold by the lady who had charged him an incredible amount of money for his room. Oh well....
Ezra knew there was a small settlement a few hours from Broken Path where he might be able to buy supplies. Getting a cheap mount was another matter.
The Kiowata, Chris Larabee, shortened the distance between them throughout the next two hours and Ezra was growing tired of it. The fact that he heard Larabee in his head was disturbing enough. Part of him argued that since no one had any idea how aware Kiowata changelings could communicate, that this might be natural, another part vividly reminded him of the jolt he had felt race through him at the corral. Back then he hadn't given it any further thought, but now was another matter. He had chosen the black stallion out of the many who had pushed past him to get free; why? Ezra stopped and turned to look at the impressive animal. "What do you want from me, Commander?"
Larabee's ears were turned forward, but he appeared tense. <Why can you hear me?>
"You followed me for hours just to ask me that?"
"Why should I?" Ezra asked neutrally, a bland expression sliding over his features.
Chris growled, eyes darkening.
"Threats won't get you anywhere."
The Kiowata hesitated. Finally he tossed his head, annoyance radiating off him.
Ezra shook his head. "Okay, listen. I don't know why. Maybe others can hear you, too. I'm just the only one around."
Chris gave him a dubious look, but he lapsed into silence. Ezra watched him warily.
<It's getting dark> Chris finally remarked, sounding like he wanted to say whatever came to mind to break the silence.
"I noticed. A small farmer settlement is another two hours this way."
He gestured vaguely.
Another moment of hesitant silence. Ezra started off down the path.
Chris followed him.
<You're off world as well?> he asked conversationally.
Standish tried to ignore him, but in the end he nodded. "Trying to get off."
<So do I>
<We could work together> Chris proposed.
"Why?" Ezra had stopped and faced him.
<Because maybe, just maybe, cooperation will get us further than trying it on our own>
"You are a Special Agent. I thought your kind was trained to expect the unexpected and are able to master every situation." He knew he was being sarcastic and rather unkind, but his own experience with Larabee's lot was unpleasant.
The ears flattened against the head. <Circumstances demand adaptation>
Larabee ground out. <And you would get to this settlement faster if you rode>
Ezra's eyebrows shot up. Larabee was offering to let him ride? <I hope you're a good rider> he added.
"Okay, let's say I agree. What's your angle?"
<I want the people responsible. I want the incriminating data to nail them>
Ezra nearly laughed out loud, but he settled for a wry grin. "You against the rest of the world? Commander, you are crazy. Nothing you'll do or don't will ever change this world."
Chris's eyes narrowed. <I might look a horse, but I'm still an Agent for the Joined Governments. I have a job to do>
"Tall order for someone who is completely on his own. How do you propose the two of us can do what a horde of Agents couldn't?"
<We are on the planet, they aren't. My men and I spent months searching for the smugglers' hideout, but we never reached this planet. By not killing me, the smugglers have dug their own graves. I'm here now, I know who I am; you know this world. Maybe you know where the people responsible could hide>
Ezra mulled it over. It sounded risky and Ezra P. Standish didn't do risky as long as he didn't know the fates played in his favor. But it also presented an opportunity to get off this dirt ball. Anyway, who told him that Larabee would really get that far? They might be searching for the smugglers for ages, even if Ezra planned to jump ship the moment he had a ride off world. He would enjoy the pleasures of having a mount for as long as it took.
I must be out of my mind, he thought. Making deals with an Agent who'd, as soon as he finds out who I am, will throw me in jail. But beggars couldn't be choosers. He had to make do with what he had until better opportunities arose.
"All right, here's the deal: I'll help you as best as I can. I won't swear unwavering loyalty to your cause, Commander, but you have my services."
He looked Larabee straight in the eyes.
The Kiowata nodded. <Enough for me. Get on>
Ezra approached warily. Kiowata were generally larger than the standard equine, but he had sat on one before and he had ridden bare back as well.
Grabbing a handful of black mane, he hoisted himself onto the broad back with a bit more difficulty than expected. Chris walked off into the direction they had been going as the night started to settle.
True to his sense of direction, Ezra had found the small settlement by the name of Clearwater, where he had walked in alone, hiding Chris close by. He had bought the necessary supplies, eaten a large dinner and got himself a room. While he was used to spending the nights on a bedroll under the stars, Ezra believed to take what he could get, and the room had been too tempting not to use it. By the time he returned to where Chris was hiding, the Kiowata was livid.
<Where were you?> Larabee spat, raw anger radiating off him. <You were supposed to come back after getting supplies!>
"No, Mr. Larabee, I said I'd get supplies, not that I'd come back right away."
Chris tossed his head in anger. <What were you doing in that town?>
"Exactly what I told you. Then I had dinner and slept in the luxury of a down pillow bed, if you have to know."
He started to untangle the supply bags from the largest purchase he had made. Chris watched him, trying to keep calmer than he felt. He had been worried, for crying out loud! At least after the spell of sudden betrayal that had coursed through him. A long time he had wondered if he had prematurely put too much faith into the man. Then he discovered what Ezra had carried along.
<What's that?> Chris asked coldly, body tensing.
Ezra gave him one of those infuriating smiles. "A saddle, commander."
Chris's ears lay flat on his head and he glared at the human. Standish faced the large Kiowata with no apparent fear. He gazed up into the brown eyes and the smile continued to annoy the hell out of Chris.
A saddle. He knew exactly what it was and he knew what Standish was planning.
<Where did you get it from?>
"I acquired it from a gentlemen in town who had no need for it any more."
<We have no money. You told me so!>
"That was before I discovered the little gold mine called a saloon."
Ezra flashed him a grin. "People in Clearwater are very eager to prove their gambling skills when faced with a stranger."
<So you bought a saddle from money you cheated off people?> Ezra's face closed up. "I do not cheat. I'm a professional and I don't have to stoop to such lowly methods while engaging in a game of chance with the locals."
<Professional? You're a professional gambler?> Chris echoed, sounding surprised. Then again, he had never asked Ezra about his job prior to coming to BP-379. <You're a con?>
Ezra refused to answer.
Chris snorted, anger visible in the brown eyes. <You probably stole the saddle as well!>
"No, commander, I didn't have to steal. Mr. Peerson lost a game we agreed upon."
Larabee clearly didn't believe him. <What else didn't you steal?>
Ezra forced himself to stay calm. "Why is this suddenly of such interest to you?"
<Since I found out that the man I'm supposed to rely on is a thief, cheat and con!>
"Harsh words from someone in your position, Mr. Larabee. A guy has to make a living somehow. An empty stomach doesn't ask, and one can't eat honor! "
Chris stared at him, anger and betrayal coursing through him. Standish was a criminal; he was an officer of the law. Standish had conned people out of their money, Chris would arrest him on sight if he were human.
<Am I next on the list?> he asked, still furious.
"Of course!" Ezra answered sarcastically. "I'll walk you into the next best town, make up a story how I came across you, and hand you over to the highest bidder!" His green eyes flashed, then he forced his rampaging emotions back under control. "How stupid are you, Larabee? You are an unclipped wild Kiowata to everyone! I wouldn't be able to get out of town fast enough before a Handler gets me, and then kills or clips you because you have found your memories again. I'm walking a fine line here! One wrong move and we're both dead!"
Clipping was still the stuff nightmares were made of, but the procedure made sense. When the horns were cut off, which was called clipping, the animal became more docile. By removing a good part of the bony growth, a strand of nerves was cut, which ran directly into the brain. The horns didn't regrow. If the clipped Kiowata was one of the unlucky changed humans, he would also lose his personality, forever altering them from human to mere animal.
"If you want to pretend that I'm the bad guy, do it!" Ezra retaliated, the anger briefly getting the better of him. "I promised you help and I will honor my word. All I ask in return is that you trust what I do in the towns we pass through."
Chris was silent for a while, then his gaze wandered over to the saddle.
<I'm not going to wear that> he finally snarled.
"Listen, Mr. Agent. You said we should work together to get off this backwater hell hole. That means cooperate." Ezra was glad to change the topic, even if the argument went on.
<I'm not going to wear a saddle! It's enough I have to carry you!>
he hissed in outrage.
"Do you know what it looks like if I run into someone, anyone, riding bare back and without even a halter on you? Those few who actually ride Kiowata have tamed theirs through various means, mostly clipping the horns." Ezra gave him a pointed look. "You are, by all accounts, wild.
So we have to cover up those facts, disguise you, for lack of a better word. The saddle and the halter are part of that disguise."
Chris gave the offending piece of leather a dark look. Ezra waited patiently. He knew he had the winning hand here. It was a dangerous game, but he had been playing it ever since he had ignored the voice of reason and accepted Larabee's partnership. He closely watched the black animal in front of him, noticed the tense stance, the flat ears, the cold look in those hazel eyes. Finally Larabee snorted loudly.
"I promise to rub you down properly in the evening," Ezra added. He just couldn't resist.
He danced out of the way, laughing, as Chris snapped at him, sharp teeth just missing his left upper arm.
Days passed into a week. Chris had gone from shock into bouts of depression over the, in his eyes, hopeless situation, and had then reached anger.
Ezra was having an increasingly more difficult time with his unwilling partner and the arguments were repeating themselves, mostly in the morning when Ezra saddled up, and in the evening, when he attempted to make the Kiowata comfortable. Standish knew how to take care of the proud animals, but Chris was a stubborn and independent man, someone who pushed offered help away because of the knot of barely restrained fury in his mind.
"We need money," Ezra stated, counting their last coins. "This barely gets us enough food for you, let alone the bare necessities to acquire a ticket off this planet."
He ruffled through their belongings. Most of it had come into his possession through rather illegal means, the rest had been bought with money won at the gambling tables in the various towns they had passed.
Well, Ezra had passed through most of them, leaving Chris outside town.
A huge, unclipped Kiowata would be something of an attraction and Standish had wanted to draw as little attention to them as possible.
While Kiowata were accepted mounts and pack animals, horses were still out numbering them. Kiowata were valuable trading goods, dead and alive, and the people of BP-379 gave the idea of an endangered species little thought. For them, it counted to survive out here, and if that meant hunting wild Kiowata, so be it. Whether they knew about the immoral origin of most of the current population of these proud equines was a matter of opinion. Ezra had never asked. It was easier to survive that way.
<I'm not interested in leaving this planet> Chris said forcefully.
<I want those responsible for the transformations! We have to find a way to contact the Chimera or the Agency>
Ezra gave him an unreadable look, then produced some food bars. He sat down in the shade of a large tree, unwrapping the bars, and took a bite off one.
"We've been over this before, Mr. Larabee. None of the locals would have a strong enough com station for that."
"The rich and famous." He flashed Chris a grin. "I know a few names and places where to get information."
"So we have to carefully ask around and not arouse suspicion." <And what makes you such an expert on operations?> Chris asked, sounding irritated.
"I've been on this planet a lot longer than you, Commander Larabee.
I know things. One is, don't get on the wrong side of people who have the power to make you disappear for good. And I'm not talking about your horse head on a wall." He threw the half eaten food bar onto the blanket.
<I'm sick and tired of this!> Chris snapped.
Here we go again, Ezra sighed, but he kept his mouth shut as the huge animal behind him tossed his head.
<How long has it been? Weeks? Months? I don't even know what date it is!>
"Our time? Or Standard?"
Chris glared at him as if Ezra was being difficult on purpose. <It's been too long!> he growled. <Too long to carry you around without seeing any results! The saddle chafes my back! This... this torture instrument you call a halter... I feel like a mule!>
Oh, got experience, hm? Ezra thought.
An evil glare answered him. "Whoops," he muttered.
The strange connection between them had changed within the last four weeks. It was becoming clearer in many ways, but also more intense. Whatever was happening between them, Standish wasn't happy about the developments.
If anything, the connection had become tighter.
<We've been through how many towns? Five? Six? You go in, have your fun, while I spend the time tethered to some fence or waiting for you outside!> "We've been over this before, Mr. Larabee," Ezra answered, smoothing his bedroll. "It's the only way. You agreed."
<Because I have no choice!> The ears now lay flat on the head.
<No one but you can hear me! There's nothing I can do except carry you around and pretend I'm a big dumb horse!>
It was something Chris had tried out again and again, but except for Ezra, no one heard him. For them, he was a Kiowata.
"I know how frustrating this is, how you feel..."
<Know? You know nothing, Standish!>
Ezra opened his mouth, then shut it again, shaking his head. He knew he would never win an argument while Chris was feeding off his anger.
The man was so.... irritating and annoying. Even the fact that he was stuck in a Kiowata body hadn't erased the arrogant behavior of an Agency officer. <All I know is that I'm stuck in this form, that my team is out there looking for me, and you are unable to help me contact them!>
"I'm working on it."
<You're working on your conning skills> Chris snarled, baring the prominent canines Kiowata featured. While they were herbivores, they had rather impressive canine teeth. <Why should I trust you when all you tell me is that it's all for the best, but I never see success or results?> Ezra stiffened and gave Chris a withering look. "I didn't force you along, Larabee, let me make this clear. You chose to follow me. You said I might be of help. I've been trying to make this work every step of the way and we came far." His voice was completely level. "If you think you can do better on your own, then leave!"
The Kiowata bared its sharp teeth, snorting. Ezra stood his ground, meeting the wild hazel eyes, gauging how much time he had until Larabee gave in to his anger and attacked. Ezra had been where Chris was, but he had had a few factors working for him as well. For a brief moment he wondered whether to reveal his abilities to Chris, then decided against it. In his current state, Chris wouldn't listen to anything he heard or saw. <Maybe I should!>
With that he turned on his heels and galloped off into the approaching darkness.
That went well, Ezra thought to himself as he watched him go. He slowly relaxed his stance. A small voice whispered that he should go after him, but he ignored it. Chris was in no mood to listen to him and until he had blown off steam, there would be no sense in endangering his health any further.
The anger faded quickly and gave way to a sense of loneliness and fear. Chris had stopped further upstream at the small river that also ran by their campsite. The sound of the water calmed his frazzled nerves and as the adrenaline dissipated. He stepped closer to the stream, his sensitive ears moving like little radar dishes to check for dangers.
His Kiowata side knew how to survive, while the human side was still flailing for sanity. Chris drank a little, then raised his head, sighing softly. He had completely lost it again, this time worse than ever. And Standish had just stood there and taken it.
That little..... He gave a snort and his ears flicked wildly. His tail beat the air and he stamped his front legs, trying to calm down.
Standish was the most infuriating man he had ever had the displeasure of meeting. And he had met a few. One of his best men could drive him crazy with his antics sometimes, but nothing compared to the thief he was now partnered with.
Why him? Why couldn't it have been someone else? Then again, if it had been someone else, like a rancher, he would now be clipped, unaware of his origin, or worse: part of a collection of stuffed animals. No, Standish was the better alternative, even if he was a criminal. Chris had caught himself more than once how he had suspected something behind every word or move of the thief. And it bugged Larabee that he was also the only one who could understand him. This strange connection between them had its uses, but mostly it was a source for even greater annoyance - and it frightened Chris. He was becoming very much used to it.
So far, Ezra hadn't betrayed him. Yes, he had fun in the towns they came through, but true to his word, the thief had done everything to get the information they needed. He was annoying, but he was useful.
Still, the dependency irked Chris. He was used to being in command, of having his orders followed. Currently, orders didn't get him very far because the only person who heard him was Standish and the man was stubborn.
Not even the difference in size or the threats to bite or kick him helped.
Chris was helpless and he hated that feeling.
Chris returned to the camp at sunrise. He hadn't felt quite calm and centered enough to return throughout the night, so he had stayed away.
Ezra was busy packing his things in the saddlebags. As he heard Chris approached he raised his head. Chris noticed the closed expression, the mask that had slipped over the face, locking Ezra's emotions behind a wall. With trepidation, Larabee approached the man.
<Ezra, I..... have to apologize for my behavior last night> Chris said, hoping he hadn't irreparably damaged their rather fragile friendship last night.
It wasn't as hard as he had thought, though rehearsing it had helped.
"Apology accepted," was the neutral reply.
<Listen, I ....>
"There is no need to repeat the apology," the thief interrupted him, slinging the saddle bags over his shoulder as he straightened. "I know you're dealing with a lot at the moment."
<How?> Chris asked quietly. He had wondered about that last night as well, as the argument had repeated in his mind.
Ezra hesitated, but then his eyes took on a hard, uncompromising expression.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," he finally answered, "and I'd like to leave it at that."
<I know you're a thief, con and gambler. You cheat people out of their money and whatever valuables they have> Chris told him, immediately regretting his words as Ezra's stance grew rigid. <And I know you've proven you are a friend> he added, voice softer.
"I'd be careful with that proclamation, Commander Larabee. You might regret it in the future."
Hard eyes didn't show a single emotion. Ezra was withdrawing, his voice almost growing icicles, and Chris shivered.
<I rarely regret my decisions, Ezra>
"This might be one of those rare times."
Gods, how aggravating could one man be? <How do you know what this feel likes? Unless you're empathic or unless you actually went through... this...> Chris stumbled to a halt, realization hitting him. <You went through this as well?> he finally whispered, barely voicing it as a question.
Anguish briefly flittered over the otherwise expressionless face.
It was so quick, Chris almost doubted he had really seen it.
<But... but how.... How did you change back?>
Ezra sighed deeply. "This isn't easy." He let the saddlebags drop to the grassy ground. He stared at them for a moment, then met Chris's eyes. "Do you know what a Borderline is?"
Chris blinked. <Of course. They are humans born with a genetic defect> "So it's called a defect, hm? Others call it a mutation, a dark mark, a blemish, or worse.... Where I come from, Borderlines are at the bottom rung and are still being kicked to let go of the ladder, Commander, because Borderlines have abilities others fear. They are without rights." Ezra ran a hand through his short hair, visibly uncomfortable.
"Those who can evade detection hide. Some in plain sight."
Chris listened to the hesitant explanation, unsure where this was leading. He knew about Borderlines because of the files the Agency kept.
There was no reliable count on how many Borderlines existed or what really defined them, mostly because there was no way to detect these men and women. Those who manifested strong abilities and had no one to talk to soon used them for illegal means. There had been two reported cases of strong telepathy and both had turned insane because of the voices in their heads. There were also accounts of mild telekinesis, precognition, empathy, acute hearing or eye-sight. Those cases where the abilities were strong and could be used to influence someone or something were far and wide. The Borderlines who had mastered their abilities had been registered. Some were even in law enforcement, though Chris had no idea if there were any in the Agency. Since science couldn't explain paranormal abilities all that clearly, the Borderlines existed as a shadowy class of humans who had a genetic defect. In some colonies or even on Earth itself, Borderlines were were considered sub-humans, if they were considered human at all. Ezra's words confirmed that wherever he had been born, he wouldn't have had a warm welcome if displaying his abilities.
"Borderlines show their abilities throughout puberty; well, most of them. Usually it's just one power. Some need to be triggered." Ezra bit his lower lip, then suddenly squared his shoulders and started to unbuttoning his shirt.
<Uh, Ezra....?> Chris asked, confused.
The younger man threw the shirt onto the ground and continued with his boots, then unbuckled his pants.
<Whoa, wait, what's... Ezra?>
Chris turned his head away as the man undressed, startled by the behavior.
He felt a strange tugging in the back of his mind, as if he was pulled somewhere. When he raised his head again to face Standish, he had he shock of his life. Aside from the shock of waking up on a strange planet as a Kiowata, that is.
In front of him stood a Kiowata. It was smaller than him. It had a light brown coat with reddish highlights, and the mane and tail showed some darker colors. But the green eyes gazing calmly at him were all too familiar.
<Ezra?> Chris managed.
<You.... you can ....>
<I can change, yes. I'm Borderline, Mr. Larabee>
There was a wariness in the mind-voice that alerted Chris to how uncomfortable his friend felt. It bothered him on some subconscious level because he had thought Ezra would trust him at least this far. Apparently he had been wrong. Chris collected his racing thoughts. Those were extreme abilities for a Borderline, he thought wildly. He had never heard of a shape-changer before! <You were changed into a Kiowata?>
<Yes. They caught me when I... errr... lifted something out of a top secret lab. I didn't know it at the time, but the files I had been hired to steal contained information on the machinery used to change humans into Kiowata. Instead of killing me, they dumped me here. I think they thought it would be fun. I regained my memory pretty quickly and fled> <How did you find out about your abilities?>
Ezra sent a mental shrug. <It just happened. One moment I was like this, the next I was human. Came as kind of a shock. I didn't know I was a shape-changer till that day. I had... other abilities. I worked on this new element and I can control it now>
There was no pride in his voice; Ezra sounded rather clinical cold as he told his story.
<You see, I know what it feels like, Commander. I know the helplessness, the frustration and the rage> Green eyes met hazel ones. <And it doesn't get you anywhere> Ezra flicked his tail.
Chris watched the smaller form for a while, then nodded slowly. <So you can do it at will because you of a genetic mutation?>
<Yes, probably. I'm not sure on the scientific facts, though> Ezra demonstrated it by smoothly changing back into his human self. It was more a blur of motions and there was no clear picture as to how it happened.
He grabbed his clothes and quickly pulled them on. Chris came closer, looking down at him.
<And you didn't tell me.... why exactly?>
"What would it have changed?" Ezra asked in return, voice neutral.
"You have your impression of me, I've one of you. This tid-bit doesn't exactly tip the balance in my favor, right?"
Chris had to smile to himself. <It means the moment I can figure out how to be human again, you'll be wearing that torturous saddle> Ezra gave him his usual grin and there was a sparkle of amusement in his eyes.
"Only in your dreams, Commander."
Just what are you doing here, Ezra? The thief sat on a small hill overlooking the almost endless plains.
The knee-high grass swayed gently in the breeze. It was a warm day and he had opted to enjoy it as long as it lasted.
You're not supposed to play hero. You are supposed to look after yourself.
You don't offer help to complete strangers. You run away when they reveal what they are.
An Agent, Standish! The damned law! How could you be so stupid? Ezra watched the black form of Chris Larabee as the Kiowata grazed not far away. The sun was playing over the midnight coat, giving it an almost bluish depth. He had no idea what the man looked like, but he was sure that this animal represented him perfectly. There was power behind his movements, an authority few managed in Kiowata form, and a strength that was more than just muscles. Ezra sighed and shook his head.
Showed him my abilities, too. Why? Why let the man in on this secret? Why show him a weak spot? He could have left and disappeared in any number of towns, on any number of occasions. He hadn't. Ezra didn't know where this sudden sense of loyalty came from, what inspired it, but ever since their chance meeting, something had changed within him.
Then unchange it, the biting voice in his head demanded. Do you really think you can help Larabee? What will happen if the impossible happens and you contact his team? They will come, take him away, lock you up and throw away the key! He is a god-damned officer of the law! Can it get any worse? Can you screw up any more? Ezra blinked, lowering his eyes. He studied the blade of grass he was twisting in his fingers. Something inside of him fought the acidic remarks, reminded him that this man depended on him. Chris was all alone, completely on his own, just like himself. He couldn't turn his back and go.
And what's in it for you? Chris raised his head from where he was grazing and those dark eyes met Ezra's for a moment. The thief didn't know if Larabee had picked up on anything that was going through his mind. The Bond was a fickle thing. He was convinced it wasn't telepathy and that Chris was unable to sense anything, but there was a nagging doubt deep inside.
It's because of what you are. You brought this onto yourself, Borderline! But Ezra realized that there was a lot more to it all.
What do you get out of this for Ezra Standish? the voice whispered more insistently.
He bit his lower lip.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Days went by faster than he could count. Chris sometimes lost track of time completely, living from day to day, relaying on Ezra to get them somewhere safe every night, even if it was under the stars. They were crossing unsettled plains and saw fewer and fewer farms. Standish was always alert, saw things that slipped by Chris, and he constantly monitored their environment. Despite his prior exclamations, Chris had formed a bond of trust with the enigmatic thief. Ezra Standish was the only person he could rely on and even if he was on the wrong side of the law, currently it did get them fed and watered. The thief took care of a lot of things for both of them, even down to the morning and evening routine of brushing Chris down and checking the hooves for stones of injuries. In the beginning, Chris had balked at the very idea. After a while he had started to relax into the strong, even strokes of the brush. It felt good and it left him with a peaceful feeling afterwards. He would never tell Ezra, but he suspected Standish knew anyway.
They had to hide Chris's nature, so Ezra had done something ingenious.
Those Kiowata owners who wanted their mounts to keep their splendid horns had them tagged and nails driven deep into the base of the horns. It had almost the same effect as clipping them, but it was also more dangerous.
If the nail hit the wrong area it could kill the animal, or not tame it. And if pulled out, the Kiowata would go wild again. Faking the nails had been easy. The tag had been another matter.
Chris snorted to himself. The tag had been painful because it had to be punched through the ear. A small, silver knob near the base of his right ear. A brief pain, but one hell of an experience. He had nearly trodden on Ezra when his partner had performed the tagging.
Summer changed into Autumn, which was usually quite a short affair in this part of the country. Ezra had acquired a warm blanket, winter clothes and several more items he would need to be comfortable in the last town they had passed through. Chris's coat was growing denser as the Kiowata body prepared for the colder temperatures as well. Whenever they came across a settlement or town Ezra rented stable space for the nights they remained in town. They would need a more permanent residence soon. The winter would get a lot colder before it let up.
After Chris's emotional explosions, matters had suddenly become quieter.
Chris was calmer. His temper was still there, but he had control over himself again and Ezra found that Commander Chris Larabee was a rather likable person if he didn't try to push him into doing something that went against everything Ezra believed in. Every time that happened, his stubbornness collided with Larabee's, and tempers flared. Chris was able to knock Ezra off-center with astonishing precision and he used it now and again. Still, everything had mellowed a little. The confrontations were no longer as biting and harsh as before. Acceptance had settled in.
The landscape around them changed, became more inhospitable, and there were less and less bushes, trees or grass. Chris first became aware of the developing situation when Ezra returned from a farm they had passed, carrying nothing but a small sack full of what smelled like grain. It was an important addition to his diet since the grass and other plants he could find weren't very nourishing. Ezra would buy as much as he could at every stop in addition to the food he needed for himself. As he now returned to their small camp, which was hidden in a crops of trees to keep others from seeing Chris, he wordlessly dropped his bundle and went about setting up his bedroll.
The Kiowata urged Chris to feed and he followed his instincts. Ezra got a small fire going, but he didn't eat.
"I had something at the farm," the thief answered as he stirred the flames with a stick. "Very nice couple who owns it." He flashed Chris a dimpled grin. "The pie itself was fantastic, even though I had to steal it."
An indignant look graced the smooth features. "You want me to waltz in and tell them I need Kiowata food? On foot? In the middle of nowhere.
How should I explain that?"
Chris munched on the last of the corn. He knew it was their only alternative to openly showing themselves, and Ezra had vehemently argued against it.
But things didn't change. Ezra 'acquired' grain for him from somewhere, declared he had had his share of food, and then continued to make camp and refuse to talk to Chris about it any more. What made Chris suspicious was the lack of appetite in the morning as well, and except for the stray berry bush they came across, he never saw Ezra eat much. If at all. Game was scarce, too.
They were crossing the Divide now, a stretch of land that was as lifeless as an asteroid. The whole landscape seemed to consist more of canyons than anything else. From where Chris stood he saw a desolate vista of bare rocks and jagged hills, through which whistled a savage wind that tugged at him. Dark clouds churned overhead threatening rain, but the ground beneath him was deeply dry. Only dust rode the wind, sometimes thick enough to envelop him and obscure his vision, sometimes just creeping along the ground to wrap around his ankles like smoke. Occasionally it hid the distant horizon. The valley that lay spread out beyond him was huge and staggeringly rough, as if a long-ago river had churned violently along the plain, eating it away in huge gulps.
In the days they spent in this loneliness, Ezra had grown more silent.
Chris wasn't a conversationalist to begin with; Ezra usually talked.
But now, the silence stretched between them and sometimes, Chris thought Ezra wasn't even there. Maybe he was coming down with something. He kept himself bundled up in his thick coats all the time.
They made it out of the Divide after several days, Chris feeling exhausted and at the end of his strength. The terrain had been rough enough to trouble him quite severely. Ezra hadn't spoken a word since the day before and stubbornly clung to the saddle. Across the Divide lay more hospitable grounds. There was water, more plant life, and even some game.
That was when they ran into trouble. Chris had been aware of predators in the area a long time before they actually saw one. His Kiowata side had kept him minutely informed about movement of prowlers, but none had ever attacked them. He suspected that a Kiowata was too large for them.
The predators he had briefly seen were about the size of a large dog, though that was where the likeness with the Earth mammal stopped. They were armored, not covered in fur, and their eyes held no pupils. He suspected they were too scared of his size to really strike. How wrong he had been was proven to Chris when the silence of the morning was broken by a sudden yell. <Ezra?>
There was a turmoil of fragmented emotions hitting Chris through the ever-developing link, but he didn't need it to stir him into action.
Ezra had gone down to the near-by river to get the cantines refilled and, as he had put it, wash the daily dust off him. Pounding through the thin group of trees Chris emerged onto the broad river banks. The river itself had narrowed due to the decreasing temperatures and the fact that the mountains were already snow-capped.
What he saw made his mind freeze. Ezra lay near the water, face down, the cantine beside him where it had been thrown. His shirt was ripped and there were flecks of blood. Beside him stood one of the prowlers he had only fleetingly seen now and then. It was larger than the others, much larger than a normal dog, and the yellow eyes swiveled to take in the new threat the large Kiowata presented.
<Ezra!> Chris yelled.
His ears lay flat against his head, he was baring his teeth and sharp hooves danced over the pebbled surface. The predator gave him a curious look, sharp claws too close to Ezra's head for Chris's comfort.
<Get away from him> he snarled, well knowing that the thing couldn't hear him. <He's mine!>
Scaly looking ears pricked forward and the elongated head tilted.
A rumble emerged the sharp snout. <Yours?>
Chris did a double-take, suppressing the Kiowata instinct to flee.
<You can hear me?>
<Of course I can> The voice was hoarse, barely human, and had a strange accent to it. <So he is yours?>
<Yes, mine!> Chris moved closer, all muscles tense, ready to react to whatever the creature did next.
Surprisingly enough, it moved away from the prone form. <He is weak> <He is human> Chris snapped. <Get away from him! Now!>
<You would fight me over his possession?> the rough voice sounded intrigued.
<Yes> Larabee answered without thinking, feeling the stunning realization seep into his mind. Yes, he would fight that thing. <He is my partner>
<He is weak> the prowler repeated. <Otherwise I would not have chosen him>
Chris felt a rumble escape his throat. <Too frightened to take on a larger opponent?> It was out before he had time to think about it.
He moved closer to Ezra, the smell of blood now invading his nostrils.
A raspy sort of laughter echoed through his mind. <I have killed your kind often enough, Kiowata. None was really strong enough to fight me, none wanted any more. They wished for death, weakened by abuse and starving. Like him>
Chris froze. Ezra had no death wish....
<Or haven't you noticed? His system is weakened, he is undernourished>
The words cut into him and he felt a wave of denial flood him, but they also confirmed his worst suspicion. <No....> he managed.
More laughter. <I do not prey on the strong, Kiowata. Only on those who are dying>
<He's not dying!> Chris stopped next to Ezra, willing him to move, but there wasn't even a twitch.
<If you say so, Kiowata> The predator moved away. <But he is weakening>
Chris glared more. <Who are you?> he demanded.
<My kind has no name. Be glad I'm not hungry enough to accept your challenge. The next one who claims your human friend might not be so gracious> With that the scaly creature disappeared into the forest.
Chris's mind whirled. Ezra... undernourished... weak... Why hadn't he seen it? All the signs had been there! He hadn't eaten anything but a few gathered berries in the last days. How long before that had it started. And why? He bent his head and gently nudged the prone form.
<Ezra?> he inquired. <Please, answer me!>
A soft groan could be heard and Ezra's left arm twitched. Chris nudged him again. This time there was a mumble.
Standish rolled slowly onto his back, a grimace of pain evident on his face. Green eyes cracked open and Chris saw the pain reflected in there as well. Now that he really looked at him, he discovered how bad Ezra actually looked. His features were drawn, almost hollow, and his skin pale. <Can you get up?>
"Yeah," came the barely audible reply and Standish tried to get to his knees. He didn't make it and simply contended himself by sitting there. His arms went protectively around his middle, pulling the remains of his shirt closed.
"I'm fine!" the thief snapped, shivering in the cool air.
Chris blew a warm breath onto his neck, making him shiver even more.
<How badly are you hurt?>
"Just a scratch. I knocked myself out when that thing barreled into me. Where did it go?"
There was a fearful note in his voice and Chris felt protective instinct flare. He squelched it for now. <It left>
Ezra stared at the softly gurgling river.
<Why did you do it, Ezra?>
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Anger rushed through him, but Chris forced himself to remain calm.
<You are seriously undernourished! I haven't seen you eating since...
since... a long time ago!>
The cold green eyes fixed him with a dangerously icy expression. Chris almost bodily moved away. He stomped angrily instead, spraying pebbles everywhere. <Stop lying, Standish!>
Ezra's eyes flared with barely contained fury, giving them more life than they had held in the past days. He swayed to his feet, still clutching the torn clothes around his shaking body.
"Leave me alone, Larabee!"
<No, I won't! You stole grain for me, but neglected yourself! I want to know why!>
"I don't owe you any explanations, Commander."
<The hell you do!>
"You are not my keeper," Ezra defiantly met the angry Kiowata. <No, I'm not! I thought I was your friend, Ezra> Chris forced himself to soften his voice.
Suspicion warred with indifference.
<Why?> he pressed again.
"If you have to know, because stealing any more would have aroused suspicion! Because I had no money to buy anything else!" Ezra shot back.
That wasn't exactly what he had expected. Not at all. Chris snorted in stunned surprise, dancing back and forth. <What....?>
Flat green eyes met his. "We are out of money! The last I had went the way of it all: I spent it on food. We didn't hit any larger settlement lately, remember? I couldn't actually play a game or two!"
<So you stole grain?>
"Yes!" Ezra ground out. "I stole your food rations! So sue me!" <Why not money?>
Standish evaded his penetrating gaze. "We weren't that bad off," he muttered.
Not so bad off? Not so bad...?! Chris tried to wrap his mind around those words, flailing to understand the reasoning. Realization hit him.
Ezra hadn't stolen from people who couldn't afford losing money. He had taken a little for the Kiowata, nothing for him, and he had simply urged them on to the next farm or whatever they could find.
<Why steal only for me, Ez?> he inquired softly, coming closer again. <I could have lived off the grass, like I did when I was still wild> The dark head shook slowly. "No. Well, yes, you could live off the grass and bushes, but it's not enough. You'd go hungry out here soon."
<I could do with a diet> Chris tried lightly.
"You don't understand," the thief sighed.
"Kiowata are animals. You are a human mind in an animal's body that has the strong basic instincts of its host. The moment the hunger is too great, the Kiowata will take over. You'll revert, even though you are still yourself, Mr. Larabee. Kiowata emotions like fear, pain and hunger would erase your human side."
Chris looked down at the bowed head. He had first pegged the man as self-serving, only looking out for his welfare. Then he had changed his mind because Ezra had done a few rather dangerous and wild things to keep Chris safe, too. Now that. The fledgling loyalty from months ago had turned into a fierce protective instinct, strong enough to give up on a lot of commodities to take care of the Kiowata entrusted to him.
Ezra suddenly turned away and laboriously walked up the river bank, clutching his tattered clothes. Chris followed, thoughts whirling. Why had Ezra done this for him? Why? Did he feel obliged? Was it some kind of scheme? Stop it! a voice insisted. Stop second-guessing him, stop having misgivings, stop suspecting him! You told him you see him as a friend, so start acting like one! Ezra stumbled and nearly fell. The link between them vibrated and it was the first time Chris was so very much aware of it. He concentrated on the connection and felt Ezra's emotions raging across it, muted somehow, but still a torrent of contradicting waves. Quickening his steps, he pulled up next to him and silently offered a shoulder. Standish was too exhausted and tired to fight it. He laid a hand on the warm flank and let Chris lead him back to camp.
<Do you have any food at all left?> the Kiowata asked softly, gently nudging the unresisting man.
Ezra shook his head, not bothering to answer. He kept his head bowed, still leaning against the warmth Chris's body presented. Chris gazed thoughtfully at him, trying to grasp why a man he had pictured as self-serving if it came to a tie, had sacrificed so much for him. No answer would come. <Ezra? You have to eat something and all we have left is some Kiowata food and the grass that grows around here> he lowered his head and his breath disturbed the fine hair on the bowed head. <Change>
Ezra looked up, exhaustion clear in his eyes. "You can't be serious,"
<It's all we have and you need your strength back>
"We can backtrack to the last farm we passed."
<You stole from them, Ez. It's too dangerous>
"Wasn't thinking about revealing myself." The thin shoulders trembled.
<Change> Chris insisted. <We can stay here for a while. Plenty of water, enough grass>
"Not enough. Chris, didn't you listen? You'll probably end up a schizophrenic!"
Some fire came back into Ezra's eyes.
<Okay, then we'll make a deal: you change and feed, then we'll move on to the next settlement or town. When you go in to steal food, you'll get some for you, too> Chris put as much sternness in his voice as he could. The thief's mouth curled into a sarcastic smile. "You are actually encouraging me to steal, commander?"
Chris glared, but the sensation across the link was amusement. <Change>
Ezra met the dark eyes, battling against the silent urging across the link, his own need to eat something, and finally he surrendered.
Chris chalked it up to the weakness of near-starvation. When his friend was finally in his alternate form, Chris was close to yelling at him again. Lord, he was thin. Why hadn't he noticed the weight loss? <Feed!> he growled, angry at himself as much as he was at Ezra.
Ezra gave a mental sigh and chewed on some grain, then proceeded over to the clearing between the trees were some of the grass still looked edible. Chris watched him, each move and twitch, silently berating himself for not seeing it all before. The question as to why Ezra had done it kept rebounding in his head. He'd probably never get an answer to it.
Winter came quickly and with it the blizzards and icy cold that was to be expected. Travel was harder now. Sudden drops of temperature, blocked ways through fallen trees, rainstorms and floods forced them to make a lot of detours. The sometimes deep snow robbed both Kiowata and rider of their energies and finally Ezra decided that they would have to spend the winter somewhere inside. The trees were barely any buffers against the wind and finding camp grounds was increasingly hard. The land was frozen over and it was time to hole up somewhere.
Chris and Ezra reached Wand, a prospering town just at the foot of a mountain range, two days after that decision. By now, it was cold enough to crystallize every breath of air and Chris's mane was frosted over.
Both were relived to finally be out of the biting cold. Like all towns and settlements, Wand was made up out of mismatched houses out of stone, wood and corrugated steel. Some looked like transformed trailer homes.
There was running water, electricity and plumbing, an independent generator, as well as back-ups, and it was the center of commerce for this part of the country.
It was in Wand that Ezra received the first reliable piece of information he needed, though they couldn't act on it. The man they were looking to get in contact with, a rich breeder called Guy Royal, had his lands on the other side of the mountains. With the snow and cold, it was impossible to cross. They joined the countless people who were waiting for the ice to thaw and the passes to open. The town was throbbing with life and Ezra seemed to open up like a flower in the sun.
Chris watched his partner with growing amusement. Standish had secured him a stable box, which Chris was thankful for, and he had a room in the local boarding house. He spent the time they were stuck here gambling, lifting money off those who were foolish enough to engage in a game of chance with him.
Ever since the latest altercation, the link had developed further and it allowed Chris to hover in the back of Ezra's mind, watching, listening and, sometimes, commenting. It had been vague awareness before, but now it was a pleasantly warm feeling that was wrapped around his mind. Their relationship had changed and both felt it.
The season took its time. Some of the mountain men who regularly crossed the pass commented that it was one of the worst weather conditions they had seen in ages, which did nothing to raise Ezra's hope of getting out of Wand soon. Chris was sometimes restless and they would take short rides around the countryside to get rid of his nervous energy. While the Kiowata was an eye catcher, no one really showed any interest in him. There were more of them in town than either Chris or Ezra had seen in a long time, most of them clipped. The rest, like Chris, had been tagged.
The weather changed right after the new year. The ever-present snow turned into rain, and the biting cold became more bearable. The normally empty streets began to fill with a bit more life, and a lot more mud.
Ezra was woken by a panicked yell through the link.
"Chris?" he blurted.
Larabee was trying to reach him and his words were interspaced with animalistic fear. Ezra knew the instincts of a Kiowata, that they could drown out the human side, could shatter logical thinking. He didn't need an explanation to spring into action. He left his room where he had slept for about two hours after a long game and braved the increasing wind outside. Rain drizzled down on him. The stables were not far from the boarding house and he quickly arrived inside, where he discovered the reason for Chris' panic.
Two men were trying to pull the black Kiowata out of his box. One had managed to get a rope around the strong neck, another was hitting the panicking animal to make him obey the orders.
"Shit!" one man, a thin, rat-faced blond cursed. "Devilish bastard!"
Ezra tried to tune out the unintelligent screams in his head. Chris reared again, catching the second man, a long-haired, uncombed individual, off guard. He quickly grabbed onto the rope that was biting into the black coat, tugging.
"Get me one of them dopes, Reeves!" he yelled.
Reeves, the rat-faced one, turned to reach for a bag laying discarded on the ground when he discovered Ezra. He froze.
"Let him go," Ezra said calmly, aiming his gun at the two.
Rat-face shot his partner a questioning look as he slowly straightened.
"Hey, can we talk about it?" the unwashed one asked, sounding greasy.
"We can split, y'know. He'll get us a right amount o'money."
Ezra smiled coldly, his aim unwavering.
"I have no intention of selling this fine steed, gentlemen."
Reeves spluttered. "He's yours?"
"Yes. Now please leave him alone."
Chris was tensely watching the scene unfold, ears flat on his head, eyes rolling. He was breathing hard. The rope was still around his neck and Ezra could see rope burn where it had bitten too deeply.
"Then how about ya'd give 'im to us," a third voice suddenly said.
"I severely doubt that, sir," Ezra answered levelly, no sign of fear in his voice. He heard the third man approach and his two companions broke out in grins. Ezra heard the tell-tale click of a safety taken off a projectile weapon "Maybe we hafta convince ya then."
"I doubt I'll change my opinion."
Grins blossomed on the unshaved faces of the two he could see. "Yer mighty cocky, boy."
"And you are very unwashed, sir," Ezra deadpanned.
<Ezra> Chris groaned in exasperation. His thought processes had apparently normalized and there were only faint echoes of the former panic in his mind-voice.
Ezra suddenly ducked and swung his weapon arm up, surprising the man behind him as he was knocked into the jaw. He stumbled back and Standish delivered a kick with his foot, effectively disarming them. The others charged and Ezra deflected the first blow easily, bringing up his fists and punching one man in the nose. Roaring like a wounded bull, he staggered back, blood flowing copiously out of his, obviously broken, nose. Reeves struck out with the stick he had used to beat Chris into submission and caught Ezra in the jaw. Pain exploded in his head and as he fell back, he was suddenly grabbed in a tight hold by the third man, who was snarling obscenities into his ears. The goon pinned his arms behind his back, but Ezra didn't give up easily.
He lashed out with one foot and caught Rat-face above the knee. There was a satisfying crunch and a pained yell as Rat-face went down, clutching his leg. The remaining of the two thieves didn't give Ezra a chance to repeat the maneuver.
Chris knew he had lost control when the two thieves had tried to get him out of the box, using ropes and sticks. The Kiowata side had panicked, had tried to get away, while the human side had fought to get a message through to Ezra. Now he was in control again, the searing pain had stopped, and he was able to catch a clear thought. And he had to help Ezra. He charged Ezra's attackers, the Link ablaze with the pain he felt from his friend. The attackers had gotten in some good punches and Ezra was too dazed to resist much longer. Chris would repay them in kind. Yelling, they scrambled for safety as the huge animal attacked them, but there was no real safety in the stable. The one who had been working Ezra over was kicked, and Chris heard with satisfaction as ribs broke. The third, who had held his partner, pushed the limp form toward the charging Kiowata and Chris was just quick enough not to trample him "Let's get out of here!" the apparent boss hissed. "He's more trouble than it's worth!"
They fled, limping and crawling, and Chris stood in the middle of the stable, snorting, breathing hard. As his mind cleared from the rage, he felt Ezra's weak presence and he turned. Standish lay curled up on the hay covered floor, eyes screwed shut, half his face covered in blood.
<Ezra?> Chris probed.
There was no reply.
<Ezra, can you hear me?> He stepped closer and lowered his head, nudging the man gently.
"I'm fine," came the thick reply.
<Right> Chris muttered, tossing his head once. <Can you get up?> Ezra uncurled, but one arm was still wrapped protectively around his ribcage.
Ezra reacted automatically as the strong neck was lowered and he tried to get his feet under him as Chris pulled him up. He yelped as bruised ribs protested the movement, and fell heavily against the warm body, hands clutching the black mane tightly. Tremors raced through him and tears stung his eyes. Chris felt it all and he tried to send back reassurance.
They made it back to the open box where Ezra fell heavily onto the hay.
He groaned again, eyes screwed shut.
<That was stupid> Chris said softly, keeping a close eye on his stubborn partner.
"Oh?" Ezra sounded faint, but also lightly amused. "I thought it was a good idea. Those miscreants were about to steal you."
Larabee chuckled, nudging him gently to lay down. <Anything broken?>
"Everything," came the groaned reply.
<Get some rest>
<But don't fall asleep. You might have a concussion>
<Sure, Ez> Chris nudged him gently.
Outside the storm grew in intensity. There was no chance of Ezra getting any medical help in this weather.
<Talk to me>
Green eyes cracked open and looked up at the Kiowata standing over him. "Want to hear the story of my life, Commander Larabee?" he joked weakly. <If you want to>
A sigh. "Nothing much to tell."
The Kiowata pricked his ears. <How long have you been on this planet?>
"Too long. A year, I think."
"More or less. Spent a few weeks as a Kiowata, even after I discovered who I really was. Stole the clothes I needed and then set out to make enough money to get off-world." Ezra slowly shook his head. "I never really made enough. When I ran into you, I was having a streak of luck at the local gambling halls. The clientele objected to that and accused me of cheating." <Did you?>
Ezra shot him an offended look. "My dear sir, I don't have to cheat to win against those ruffians out here. Their gambling talent is abysmal."
Chris chuckled at the outrage in the green eyes. <Where would you go if we make it off this planet?> he inquired.
The amusement fled out of the expressive eyes and Ezra played with a strand of hay. "I don't know," he said after a while, voice so soft Chris had to strain to hear him.
Outside, the rain beat onto the roof in an ever-increasing staccato.
Chris was surprised how fast Ezra healed throughout the stormy night.
When dawn came, the thief staggered to his feet, rubbing his still sore ribs.
"Comes with the territory," Standish explained as Chris inquired, not meeting his eyes.
<You mean because you're Borderline?>
A nod answered him. "Defective genes," Standish mumbled.
<I wouldn't call this a defect, Ezra. It's an incredible ability>
The younger man just snorted and walked over to the doors to peer outside. It was still raining and the street was a river of mud. People were hurrying over the wooden boardwalks and no one was outside longer than necessary. Chris walked over and stopped behind Ezra. His breath disturbed the fine hair on the brown head.
<Are you okay?> he inquired.
Standish nodded, eyes gazing thoughtfully at the dreary town outside where two horsemen were urging their mounts toward the saloon, where they descended and left the animals at the hitching post.
"A bit sore, nothing else."
<I want to thank you for your help> Chris told him softly.
Ezra only smiled.
<I lost it last night. I don't know why, but when those men put the rope around my neck....>
"Your instincts kicked in and overruled your human side," Ezra finished, shrugging. "That's normal. Kinda."
He ran his eyes over Chris and frowned as he discovered the wounds from last night's encounter. He reached out and gently touched the rope burn. Chris flinched away at first, then forced himself to stand still.
<A bit> he confessed.
Ezra palpated the deepest cut carefully and Chris suppressed a groan.
The back doors opened and interrupted them as the stable boy hurried in from the cold and rainy outside. He shook off excess water, then stopped as he discovered Ezra. The thief still bore the bruises in his face that told of last night's encounter and Chris didn't look much better. "Uh, what happened here, mister?" the boy asked. He couldn't be much older than fifteen.
"Three unsavory characters tried to steal my mount last night," Ezra explained.
The boy's eyes widened. "Do you want me to call the sheriff?"
"No, that won't be necessary. I doubt they'll try something similar any time soon. What's your name, son?"
"Marc Boder, sir."
"Well, Marc, my Kiowata was injured and I need some salve. Is there a doctor in town?"
Marc shook his head. "No, never had a horse doctor, but I have some stuff. I trade with one of the farmers to treat animals with similar injuries." He darted off toward a wooden cabinet and rummaged around.
Ezra radiated surprise at the boy's medical supplied and Chris watched the teenager curiously. "He's beautiful," Marc said as he handed over the salve, gazing at Chris.
"Yes, he is."
Chris gave a little snort and poked Ezra through the connection. "You didn't clip him."
Ezra opened the pot and sniffed at it. It smelled of herbs. "I wouldn't do that to such a magnificent animal."
"Then how do you get him to let you mount?" Marc asked curiously.
"Let's say we came to an understanding, a mutual agreement about a partnership." Ezra dipped a finger into the creamy substance and then carefully smeared the salve onto the rope burns and cuts.
Chris twitched. The salve was cool and pleasant, but the wounds still hurt.
"Shhhh," Ezra murmured almost automatically, his voice soft.
"Mr. Monroe from the farm said it's ansis... antipectic.... Something,"
Marc told him.
"Antiseptic," Ezra helped him, smiling.
"And it soothes the pain."
He nodded, finished with the neck wounds and moving on to the marks the stick had left on Chris's legs and backside. Chris tossed his head, snorting as Ezra treated a deep cut that had oozed blood.
"Almost done," Ezra murmured gently.
<Damnit, that stings!>
"I know, I know.....>
Marc kept back, watching cautiously but still curious. He was quite in awe of Chris. Ezra finished with the salve and handed it back to Marc.
"Is there any way I can purchase such medicines anywhere?" he asked, wiping his hands.
"No. You can't reach the farm in this weather and Mr. Monroe won't be back till the end of winter." Marc played with the jar, then held it out to Ezra. "You can have it."
The thief looked at the stable boy in surprise. "I can't take it, Marc. You might need it for other injured Kiowata."
"I have enough other stuff, sir. Yours will really need it. No other injured I know of in here." He smiled tentatively. "You said he deserves to be treated well."
Ezra was truly stunned and he quickly dug out some coins. "Then let me pay you for it."
Marc shrugged. "I traded it for two night's rent. 's not much...."
Ezra pushed the money into the smaller hands. "Keep the change," he said, smiling.
"Uh, thanks," the boy managed.
"I'll be over at the restaurant, getting breakfast. Will you take care of my mount?"
Marc shot the large, black Kiowata a half-frightened look.
"He won't bite." Ezra reach over and touched the muscular neck, unconsciously rubbing it in a soothing pattern.
"Okay," Marc said slowly.
Ezra fastened the halter around Chris's head and led him over to the box.
They were stuck in the town for the next days. Chris couldn't wear a saddle without making his injuries worse, and Ezra didn't want to risk leaving in the muddy conditions anyway. Many had left already, since rumors that the pass was open had circulated. So Standish spent a lot of time alternating between the stables and the saloon, where he had some irregular meals and played cards with whoever challenged him.
Two weeks after the attack, they finally left. Chris's injuries had long since healed, but Ezra had insisted that they wait. Spring brought with it sudden floods, unstable mountain sides and slippery roads. The saddle bags were filled with provisions and money, and he had bought enough supplies to last them till they were across the pass.
Ezra knew he would never forget the following days. What had started out as a simple ride across the mountains was about to decline into a nightmare. They had enough supplies to last them to the other side. Two weeks was the estimated time and there was enough game to hunt and enough fresh grass before reaching the summit so Chris didn't depend solely on the grain Ezra had packed. The mountains had once been an active volcano, someone in town had told the thief, so there were shallow pools of steaming hot water hidden between the rock formations, a point to rest and warm up in the cold days, or even to spend the night. The days were mostly sunny and warm. The sun shone high in the blue cloudless sky. At night, they sought out sheltered areas and Ezra always lit a large fire. Now and then, snowflakes would drift down throughout the night since the temperature still dropped to rather uncomfortable levels. In his thick coat and warm boots, Ezra felt little cold, and whenever they could, they stayed near one of the steaming pools.
After the third day on the trail, Ezra started to notice a change of behavior in Chris. His partner had grown more restless lately, not eating much, he was wordlessly complaining about something he didn't even know what it was, and while Ezra was having a cold lunch, he repeatedly tried to bite into the saddle straps.
"Chris?" Ezra inquired. "What's wrong?"
It couldn't be the saddle. It wasn't any tighter than usual and Chris had long since grown used to it. He got no clear answer, only the feeling that the saddle was wrong.
"Okay, calm down. I'll take it off." He keep his voice soft and quickly undid the straps. As he did so, Ezra noticed a fine sheen of sweat on the dark coat.
Chris danced away, pawing more, then suddenly lowered himself to the ground and started to roll. A flash of pain raced through the link and Ezra winced as it stabbed into his head.
The worry bloomed a tenfold and he watched as Chris jumped up again, nostrils wide, breathing hard. The pain was increasing and Ezra gave a yelp, hands pressing against his temples.
The spooked Kiowata stared at him, frightened, obviously in a lot of pain, and his respiratory rate increased.
"Shhhh," Ezra soothed him, trying to ignore the pulsing pain behind his eyes. He grabbed the halter and turned Chris's head so he was looking at the wide, brown eyes. "Shhhh......"
Reacting to his voice, the Kiowata stood still, but he still pawed as if nervous. Ezra ran a hand over the slick neck and then the flank, trailing it over the side and stomach. Chris suddenly whinnied and tried to step away, but Ezra held on.
"Okay," he murmured. "All's okay. Shhhh..... all is fine."
Inside, his guts twisted in fear. Ezra Standish had been around Kiowata long enough to know what they could come down with. He had been one himself, for crying out loud, still had the ability to shift, and with it came an understanding for the problems such an animal could face. While they were sturdier than horses, they could suffer from the same illnesses.
Leaving one hand pressed against the abdominal area, Ezra could almost bodily feel the spasms racing through his friend. Chris whinnied again, pawing more violently. He was becoming severely agitated.
God no, Ezra thought. Colic. It can't be! Something must have been in the supplements he had fed his friend over the last few days. Since the grass up here, while plenty, wasn't yet as nourishing, Ezra had rationed the grain bought in Wand just before leaving. Contaminated grain, he thought in despair. Damnit! Contaminated grain! The thief grabbed the halter and started to walk his partner around, talking softly to him. He knew what to do, but he also realized that he was alone. There was no one qualified around to aide him. Chris's coat was shining with sweat and his nostrils opened wide as he exhaled.
He calmed down somewhat after a while, but Ezra knew it was a false sense of peace. Retrieving his blankets, he put them over the dark back, then started walking more. He felt the human mind behind the Kiowata struggle through the pain, trying to communicate, but it was almost impossible.
"It's okay," Ezra murmured. "I know, I know. We'll get you through this. I know." He kept up the litany of soothing, calming words as he alternated between walking and standing still.
The Kiowata's digestive system needed to be set into motion again because that was their main problem. Ezra stopped and gazed at the wide eyes, read and felt the fear, and he rubbed a gentle hand over the strong jaw. Acupressure, he remembered. It was something he had picked up in one of the many settlements. There had been a healer, someone who worked with alternative methods, and he had once shown one of the farmers how to help his horse with nothing but acupressure. It had been an interesting lesson and Ezra had stayed to watch and learn. Kiowata were equii, but looked different, were larger, but Ezra hoped that Chris might react the same. "Let's try this," he murmured, slender fingers running over the bony crest of one horn and down where the black hair covered some of it. "Below the midline of the eyeball in a small depression", he whispered to himself, applying careful pressure to the point.
Chris snorted, trying to step away, but Ezra held onto the halter.
"It's okay. Trust me, Chris. It's okay."
He had to massage it firmly for one minute, several times, then resume walking.
On the lateral topside of the tibia in line with knee joint, Ezra continued the lesson he had heard in his head. This point increases movement of the intestines.
Ezra continued his treatment, then started to walk Chris again, murmuring encouragement. He knew he couldn't let him lie down or roll, that movement would help, though too much movement was bad as well. There was nothing against the pain, only the link between them. Ezra was by now suffering from a headache that wouldn't lessen and he knew it was just a small echo of what Chris was going through. And it was a way of measurement as well. The more the headache increased, the worse Chris was off.
He repeated the acupressure several times, noting that Chris was becoming less agitated, though he was still nervous, still tried to lie down.
He allowed him intervals of rest, then they walked again. Night fell quickly and all Ezra did was light small fires, then continued. He rubbed the sweaty coat dry, always calming and soothing with words or gestures.
Chris sent wordless questions, unable to voice his fear in a human way.
The Kiowata had taken over, frightened, in pain, and confused.
Exhaustion set in around sunrise. Ezra had no idea how much time had really passed until the first fingers of light slipped over the mountains.
A thin streak of red was starting to appear, slowly turning into a velvety yellow. The fires had nearly burned down twice throughout the night and he had only stopped in his work to find a few more twigs of wood. In the end only one had kept going. Putting a hand against the abdomen, the thief felt carefully for the tell-tale spasms, relieved to find none.
The headache had receded to a throbbing behind his eyes, but he attributed a lot of it to the exhaustion. The acupressure had seemed to help and while he still wouldn't allow Chris to feed or drink, he had allowed him to lie down to rest.
Ezra stumbled over to the fire where a pot of coffee sat over the smoldering remnants of the fire. He had no idea how much he had drunk, though if his bladder was any way to measure it, it had been a lot. He ran a tired hand through his mussed up hair and blearily looked over to where Chris had gotten up. The blankets were still on his back, but they were a mess. He had stopped sweating, but the connection between them told Ezra just how much the Kiowata was still dominant. The pain was receding and he prayed there wouldn't be a relapse.
Getting to his feet, swaying slightly, he walked over to his partner, grabbing hold of the halter. He rubbed the dry coat and applied gentle pressure to the point beneath the eye.
"Last time," he promised. "You're okay, Chris. All's okay. It's over."
Never losing contact with the skin, he ran his hand over to the next pressure point. Chris suddenly turned his head, watching him, and Ezra felt a soft warmth at the back of his neck. He was gently nuzzled in an instinctive response. The Kiowata reacted to him as an accepted member of the herd, gently tugging at his collar. Ezra chuckled and automatically reached up, curling one hand around the head. If Chris were in control, he would have a conniption. But he wasn't. He was having the backseat while he fought for control over the Kiowata body, and Kiowata did what it would have done to another of its kind.
Ezra leaned into the warmth, eyes sliding shut. He swayed, feeling like the ground beneath him was suddenly gone. Eyes snapped open and he held onto the large animal as he nearly collapsed. Sleep deprivation, he realized. But he couldn't sleep yet. Not before Chris was back, not before he could be sure his friend was in control.
Shaking his head, Ezra straightened, pushing away from the support, only to nearly fall. He gritted his teeth, furiously blinking his eyes.
Move, he decided. He had to move, walk Chris. And he did. For the next thirty minutes it was okay, but his feet were getting increasingly heavier and so were his eyelids. Biting his lower lips so hard it hurt, the thief pushed on.
He blinked, shaking his head furiously. Something touched his shoulder and Ezra blearily looked at the black head as a gentle nudge was applied to his shoulder. He automatically stroked the velvety snout, smiling dimly. "C'mon," he mumbled. "Just a bit more. Get you back at the steering wheel."
If the Kiowata felt safe enough, Chris would be able to take control again. The colic had passed, he would be okay, but he had to make sure that Chris was okay as well.
Ezra drew a shuddering breath, trying to walk again, but his body betrayed him. He fell and collided with a strong shoulder. Again, something touched his shoulder, warm air brushing against his cheek.
Again. He had heard it before, but his exhausted mind insisted he was dreaming already.
"Chris?" he tried weakly.
<I think so, yes. The pain... it's gone...>
Ezra laughed, relief sweeping through him. "Thank you, Lord," he murmured into the tangled mane. "Thank you."
He had no idea how he made it over to the by now cold fire, but he did. He didn't mind the hard ground, nor the smell of the blanket he lay on. He simply collapsed, exhaustion dragging him into a dark, dreamless abyss.
Chris watched his partner as he fell bonelessly onto the blanket, feeling him slide into sleep almost immediately. His recollection of the last twenty-four hours was hazy. He remembered pain, the fear, near-panic, and he remembered the calming voice, the hands massaging specific points.
He had latched onto that voice, trying not to drown in his instinctive side. He remembered encouragement, shared suffering, the need to get him through this, and the determination.
I owe you my life; again, he thought. Thank you, Ezra Standish.
Ezra woke with a start. One moment he was drifting peacefully through the warm world of semi-consciousness, then he was wide awake. Memories flooded him and he bolted upright, blurting Chris's name. Wide green eyes looked frantically around the clearing, searching for his partner.
<Here> the well-known voice answered.
Ezra unsteadily got to his feet, shivering in the cool air. He looked disheveled, his face still pale, eyes underlined with dark circles. "Chris?"
he tried carefully.
The Kiowata neighed softly, walking over to him. Chris looked fine in his eyes. His coat was dry, the eyes alert, and he sounded normal.
Ezra automatically grabbed a hold of the halter.
"You okay?" he asked.
<Fine> Chris shook his head and Ezra let go of the halter, smiling.
Something passed between them with that simple word, something Ezra was unable to put into words, but he understood. With a nod he turned to the camp, deciding to stay here another night. He didn't want to put Chris under any kind of strain yet and the camp site was sheltered enough.
"We need to find some fire wood and also some grass for you," he muttered to himself. "Tomorrow we go on."
Chris sent his agreement. They didn't talk about the night again, but there was no need to.
Ezra busied himself with his usual morning rituals, even if it was early afternoon already. He washed in a near-by pond, made coffee and changed into a fresh shirt. Since they would stay here for another night he decided to wash his clothes. It helped to steady his still frazzled nerves. He had come so close to losing Chris and something inside him reacted violently to the mere thought. He didn't know what it was, but it frightened him nevertheless, and he pushed it as far from his conscious mind as possible.
Chris had to agree. Guy Royal's ranch was a sprawling, modern building, with large stables next to the mansion-style headquarters. White-washed walls surrounded the estate, trimmed trees and manicured lawns glistening pristinely in the early afternoon sun. A fountain sprayed water into the air and two large statues of rearing Kiowata flanked the main entrance.
It had taken them another two weeks after crossing the mountains to get here. Information about Royal was readily available, but Ezra had to make sure that they were well-prepared for their con. He guided Chris down the well-kept road that led to the estate, keeping a wary eye on their surroundings. Chris could feel the tension of the thief and it seemed to seep into him as well. What they were doing was dangerous, deadly, but it was the only way. Royal was not only the person who owned a transmitter that could reach into space; he was also a member of the smugglers and Kiowata dealers. One of the heads, actually.
Chris knew what picture they presented. Ezra, dressed in expensive clothes he had bought from money he had won at the gambling tables, astride on a black Kiowata stallion that still had its horns. It spelled money and power, and Ezra was one hell of a good actor to pull it off. He was radiating self-confidence and money. Standish had invested a lot of time into their appearances. In the last town they had stayed at he had paid a stable boy to polish the saddle, while Ezra himself had taken care of Chris. He didn't trust anyone else to brush the Kiowata down properly, clean and wax the hooves, as well as untangle the tail and mane. There was always the fear of someone getting too close and discovering the fake nails and tag.
As they approached the large gate, two armed men stepped outside.
Ezra wasn't armed, at least visibly, and he nodded at the two men as he guided his mount through the gate. As he neared the mansion itself, the doors opened and a gray-haired man in expensive clothing stepped outside. Royal, Ezra thought. No doubt about it. The man carried himself with an air of absolute control and the knowledge that nothing could escape his grasp. His clean shaven face was sun-tanned and showed only a few lines. The eyes underneath the gray brows were sharp and intelligent.
Ezra knew he had to be careful.
"Ah, Mr. Standish," Royal called, smiling.
Ezra plastered a friendly smile onto his face. "Mr. Royal. A pleasure to meet you, sir."
"The pleasure is all mine." Calculating eyes roamed over Chris and the Kiowata tensed imperceptibly. "Impressive animal you have there, Mr. Standish."
Ezra got out of the saddle in one fluid motion, resting one hand on Chris's neck in a calming manner as he felt his friend's brief surge of emotions.
"Yes, he is. He is part of the business I came here to discuss with you, Mr. Royal."
Royal nodded, eyes still flickering over to Chris. "Let's go inside then. My Handlers can take care of your Kiowata."
"If it's the same to you, I'd like to take care of him myself. He is my prized possession," Ezra said smoothly.
"Mr. Standish, you do offend me," Royal answered with a smile. "My Handlers are the best money can buy. They know their job."
Ezra knew he had to give in or look suspicious. "You must understand my reluctance," he told the breeder.
Royal nodded. "Such a fine specimen of a Kiowata justifies your hesitation, but rest assured, he is in good hands."
While Chris wasn't overly thrilled to be led away by a stranger, he didn't react any different from other tamed Kiowata. Ezra shot him a last look, masking it as a calculated once-over of the Handler, then he followed Royal inside.
The mansion was as exquisitely decorated as the outside suggested.
Ezra, no stranger to antiques or the finer arts, cast an appreciative eye over the paintings, the delicate statues, the expensive rugs and the clearly select furniture. Royal was a collector, people had told him. What he saw he would get; what he wasn't given freely he had taken from the owners. "I have to congratulate you on your taste, Mr. Royal."
The older man smiled. "Thank you. Would you care for a drink?" Ezra accepted the offered crystal glass and sniffed at the golden-brown liquid.
It was a very old local wine. Expensive, like everything here. "Now, Mr. Standish. My people have told me you inquired about my person." Royal sat back in an old, overstuffed armchair, inviting Ezra to do the same with a graceful gesture.
The thief lowered himself onto another armchair, elegantly crossing his legs. "Yes. I was told you would be the person best-suited for my intents and purposes. I believe it will be mutually beneficial."
Royal raised both brows. "Go on."
"You saw my steed when I arrived. He is the pride of my collection,"
Ezra spun his tale. "He has been in my possession for a while now and have come to appreciate the finer art of the Kiowata spirit. Beautiful animals, very intelligent, and a solid investment into one's financial future." He sipped at the expensive wine.
Royal chuckled. "Yes, many have come to realize that."
"It's a shame that Kiowata are no longer legally attainable," Ezra went on, keeping a close eye on the other man. "I had to come this far and spend quite an amount of money to find what I was looking for. My associates and I intend to purchase a stock of Kiowata to breed our own little financial security."
"Where would you want to breed them?" Royal asked.
Ezra smiled. "My associates have taken care to secure a very remote location for that. Like your humble abode, Mr. Royal." He made a sweeping gesture.
Royal chuckled. "No one bothers me here, true. No law, no agents.
The Joined Governments law enforcement rarely even brushes by this backwater planet."
"So I have noticed. Thankfully it isn't the only planet of its kind.
To start our own breeding line, I wanted to find some unblemished stock.
Not those sold on the black market, beaten into submission and clipped, but the proud spirits they came from." Ezra swirled the contents of his glass. "My associates are interested in buying a complete herd of twenty-five animals, Mr. Royal."
The eyes of the breeder lit up. Twenty-five Kiowata were a lot of money. "I am listening."
Standish curled his lips into a half-smile. Of course he was listening.
"I was sent to choose the animals in question if your stock applies to our standards. I would then contact my associates and arrange matters."
Royal gave him a toothy smile. "I think we will find some fine specimens for you, Mr. Standish, believe me."
Ezra lifted his glass in a silent toast.
Ezra had spent most of his time on Royal's estate wandering around the stables, pretending to inspect the mares and their offspring, as well as the stallions and geldings out in the corrals. He was accompanied by either one of Royal's assistance or a stable boy. The thief had to confess that Royal had quite a breeding stock of Kiowata. They were all fine animals, with the exception of a few who were destined for medicinal purposes, but when he thought just who they had been, it made him sick to the core. They had been human once, like him, and now they couldn't even remember their past. And once clipped or tagged, they would never be able to go back to what they had been before.
He hid his disgust well, making pleasant conversation, all the while keeping a close eyes on what was happening around them. The ranch was large, but he knew that the nerve center with all the information they needed was in the estate. Ezra had his chance to get a closer look at the heart of it all when Royal showed him the breeding history, as well as all the data a buyer would need on selected Kiowata.
Pretending to browse through the offered files, the thief made quick mental notes of the security installations and features. While it wouldn't be easy to get past them, it also wasn't impossible.
"We need some way to validate our message," Ezra said thoughtfully as he played with the straps of the saddle. "Otherwise the Agency will think it's a hoax or something."
He had come to the stables under the pretense of checking on Chris.
Well, it wasn't so much pretending anyway. He was worried what might happen to his partner while strangers took care of him. They were walking a fine line here and if one of the stable hands discovered that Chris was not tame, their cover would be blown.
Chris flicked one ear. <True>
"Do you have a password or something? A name or code only you could know?" Ezra shot him an inquisitive look.
One eyebrow rose.
<I can't tell you my pass code!> Chris growled. <It's secret>
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Come on, Chris! That's childish. You can always change it when they pick you up, right?"
<Right> Chris muttered, not looking happy..
More hesitation. <It's....> He tossed his head. <Stud poker>
he finally ground out.
Ezra stared at him and a sudden twinkle appeared in his eyes. His lips twitched. "Stud poker?" he repeated. "Stud poker!"
<Don't you dare laugh> Chris growled.
"Stud poker," Ezra echoed again, valiantly fighting down his laughter.
<Standish!> The Kiowata snorted angrily and advanced on the smaller human.
The thief was having trouble keeping a straight face and nearly doubled over, giggles escaping him. "Stud... poker!"
Chris didn't know whether to bite him or just ignore the annoying man. In the end he settled for a scathing glare, which didn't impress Ezra very much. It never did. The thief looked up, mirth in his eyes as he wiped a stray tear away.
"Fitting," he managed.
"And you're right, no one would suspect it."
<I said shut up!>
Ezra's grin grew wider, if possible, and Chris changed the glare from scathing to deadly.
Ezra turned, his face suddenly wiped of all emotions. It was as if someone had dropped the shutters on the laughter and fun, and the poker face was back. He was surprised that he hadn't heard anyone approach him. The man was about his size, a lot older, and dressed in work clothes.
Long, white hair fell loosely over his shoulders.
<Didn't hear him either> Chris sent, clearly as surprised as Ezra.
"You didn't clip him," the old man remarked.
"No," Ezra said slowly. "Might I inquire who you are?"
"My name is Kojay. I work for Mr. Royal. I take care of the Kiowata stables." The old man ran an appraising eye over the black stallion.
"You made a fine choice when you bought him, sir."
<Bought him indeed. Stole me is more like it, hm?> Chris teased.
Ezra managed to hide his grin. He shrugged, a neutral expression on his face. Chris flicked the one ear with the annoying tag he had to wear.
Kojay's gaze was unnerving as he looked from Ezra to Chris and back again. He walked over to the Kiowata, completely unafraid of the large animal. He nodded once as he saw the tag, then inspected the fake horn nails. He reached out and ran a hand over the black coat. Chris jumped as the long fingers touched him, giving an involuntary snort. He danced back, flicking his ears.
<Chris?> Ezra asked, worry shooting through him.
<Strange. His touch... I can't describe it>
"Ah, I see," Kojay murmured. "Interesting. So very rare."
"Pardon me?" Ezra asked warily, instinctively moving closer to Chris.
"You and your Kiowata... you share the Bond. So very rare and never seen so close." The old man kept on nodding. "Still wild."
"My dear man, you are babbling."
"Am I really?" Kojay's clear eyes met Ezra's and the thief almost recoiled. There was power behind that gaze, a power that seemed to go right through his shields and sought out his unprotected soul.
Chris felt Ezra's reaction to the calculating appraisal and the Kiowata instincts answered. He flattened his ears against his head, a warning snarl escaping his snout. Kojay chuckled.
"Oh yes. Very much a Bond. Close, oh so close. Not yet done, but getting there?"
Ezra fought down his emotions and reigned his control back in. "I don't know what you are implying, but if you are quite done...."
"He is protective of you, isn't he? Such a proud presence, such spirit.
Two of a kind, independent, strong and stubborn." The old man sounded like he was talking to himself. "You were destined to meet each other, your souls drew you to their counterparts. You would die for the other, almost did, didn't you?"
Fear started to gather in Ezra's mind and he felt himself bump into the reassuring warmth of Chris behind him.
"Don't be afraid, young one," Kojay laughed. "I won't hurt you. You secret is safe with me. Be careful, though. Mr. Royal is a greedy man.
If he doesn't take to your offers, he will take what is yours. He collects beauty and power. You, dark one, are the embodiment of both."
<How can he know?> Chris whispered.
He couldn't, Ezra decided. He's guessing. Shots in the dark. But every shot had hit dead center.
"Your Bond will grow. It might hurt, it might be difficult, but it is what should be. Take care of each other." Kojay walked off down the corridor that led deeper into the stables.
"He can't know," Ezra whispered, one hand against Chris's shoulder, as if it was all that kept him upright.
<What if he can?>
"Nonsense!" The thief straightened and proceeded to saddle his partner.
He fastened the straps with a bit more force than necessary and Chris let him know. "I apologize," he murmured.
Chris looked thoughtfully at him. <What if he can?> he repeated.
Green eyes met hazel ones, but no answer was forthcoming.
A lone figure crept through the night. It was a shadowy outline in the darkness, noiseless and nearly invisible.
Here we are, Ezra thought and looked around. Security was one of the major factors here. There was no such thing as absolute perfection. Every system had its faults, every program a weakness. All he needed to do was find it. He slid the small backpack he was wearing off his shoulders and opened it. He had invested a lot of their last money into these items, but none of it had been spent in vain, he knew. What he was about to do demanded professionalism.
Using one of the lock picks he silently cracked the door open. There was no alarm and no one was yelling, so he had not been seen yet. Checking briefly to make sure he was still undetected, he slipped through. He wound his way through rooms and hallways, down dimly lit passages and stairways. The estate was huge and while he had acquired some information about its floors and make-up, a lot had left much to desire. No one knew a lot about Royal's mansion and Ezra had to rely on his instincts.
He ran into a guard once, who didn't see the intruder, and had to pass by a security system twice. No problem so far. Finally he arrived at the correct door, an unmarked gray security door with a complicated looking locking mechanism. Taking the key card he had snatched off Royal out of his pocket, Ezra slid it through the lock and the door clicked open. The room was made up in a simple layout. There was a row of computers to one side, a shelf to the other. Two chairs stood in front of the computer desks and Ezra chose the one closest to him. He quickly switched on the computer, fingers dancing over the keyboard. Ezra was aware of Chris's presence in the back of his mind, now approaching after he had kept back while the thief had broken through the multiple security devices.
He was in. All files were open to him and he immediately set to work, storing compressed files onto a special disk he had carried along. All he would find on the Kiowata, the estate, Royal, his contacts. Everything.
Ezra knew he was cutting it close here, but he had to get it all. He couldn't risk missing a vital piece and because of it Royal might get free. After what seemed to be a life time, the computer signaled he was done. Logging out of the net, the thief turned to the communication system. The moment he had the com lines open, the presence became more dominant. Ezra pressed his lips together, trying not to fight back. Chris's agitation at the success was almost as overpowering as his Kiowata instincts when they flared.
"Your turn," he whispered. He knew he couldn't really talk to his partner, but Chris would pick it up. Somehow. Not sure how, but it worked.
<Go to U93-Y88, frequency Phi-Delta> Larabee instructed. <Loop the password into it at the beginning and the end>
Ezra didn't ask, he simply did what he was told. He could wonder about it later. Sending off the message that both hoped would reach the Agency, and the additional attachment as proof, he logged out and quickly made his way back where he had come from. He erased all signs of his presence, setting the locks and security measures back again.
When he finally arrived in the stables, a black wraith sliding through the silence that was only interrupted by soft snorts, barely two hours had passed. He went to Chris's box without needing lights.
<You did good> Chris whispered in his mind and the large, dark shape moved to let Ezra inside.
"Thanks," the thief whispered as he could finally stop for a moment.
His body was high-strung with adrenaline and he could feel it ebb only slowly. "Haven't done that in a long time," he confessed with a shaky smile. "Proves to show you never forget what you've been taught."
Chris regarded him silently, then snorted softly, disturbing the brown hair. <Now?> he asked.
"We leave. Best we can do." Ezra pushed away from the wall. "They'll figure out what I did the next time they check the logs. To erase those traces I'd have had to spend more time down there."
Chris lowered his head, nudging him gently. <What you did was enough, Ezra. More than I ever dared to hope>
The thief raised an eyebrow. "Now you confess in your lack of confidence in me?" he asked, mock-outrage in his low voice.
Chris flicked his ears. <Best time I could think of>
"Mr. Larabee, I'm crushed." Ezra walked over to the saddles and lifted his off the rack.
He quickly saddled the Kiowata and pulled the halter over the head.
Then he led Chris as silently as possible to the back exit of the stables.
Around them, the other Kiowata moved sleepily, some peeking curiously out of their boxes. As he closed the doors behind them, Chris suddenly stiffened and Ezra felt some kind of warning tingle of another presence close by. He whirled around and found a shadowy figure approach.
"Do not be afraid," a soft voice whispered.
He recognized it immediately. "Kojay."
The old man bowed, his mile barely visible on his features. "Take the route through the woods and the mountains," he advised. "Don't stop till you reach Darber's Crossing. He won't follow you there. Too dangerous."
"Why are you helping us?" Ezra asked quietly.
Kojay smiled mysteriously, then turned and walked off into the darkness.
Chris sent wordless puzzlement, but Ezra tried not to ponder it all too much. They had to get out of here. He swung up into the saddle and they rode off as quietly as possible.
They were followed, but true to Kojay's words, the hunting part turned back to Royal's estate after Chris and Ezra had passed Darber's Crossing.
From now on, all they could do was wait and keep a low profile. Ezra went into the next few towns alone, always disguised, never staying long.
He didn't gamble at any of the promising halls and he stole as much as he could get away with. The space port wasn't very far, but they moved in random circles, Ezra keeping an ear on the ground to listen to the rumor mill. If an Agency ship landed, they would hear it.
Two weeks after leaving Royal's estate grounds, Ezra stumbled over an abandoned trailer. It sat in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by ancient trees, and there was a spring near-by.
"Not much," he remarked as he exited the contraption.
Chris snorted. "But better than the open sky."
The weather had turned into spells of cold rain and wind. It had grown increasingly uncomfortable outside. Ezra nodded slowly.
"It'll have to do."
Now he sat in the old trailer, listening to the creaks and groans of the aluminum and plastic as another storm battered it. Chris was huddling, head down, in the shack next to it. His thick coat was protecting him from the worst, but Ezra still felt bad about being unable to do more.
The old generator was working, though rather unreliably, and they had electricity, but in this weather it was almost impossible to get any warmth out of it. He gazed out of the smeared windows that were beaten by the heavy rain. Neither of them wanted to ponder what would happen if the message hadn't gotten through.
The Chimera made her way through the quiet darkness of space. With her dark blue colors and dimmed running lights she was almost invisible to the naked eye. On the small but functional bridge, the pilot adjusted the ship's flight vector and read over the last control outputs and nodded.
Just fine. No problems.
"The next jump sequence is starting in a few minutes," he reported to the man occupying the command chair. "We'll be at the coordinates in a few minutes if everything runs smoothly."
Vin Tanner never let his eyes wander away from the main screen where information was flashing at intervals. They were closing in on the small backwater planet, BP-379, fast.
The message that had started this mission had come in over various stations, finally arriving with an Agency outpost a month ago. Travis had called them in and had presented them with a proof of contact with Chris. The contact wasn't more than a brief message sent by someone who apparently knew Chris, as well as an attachment of quite some interest.
The attachment had contained not only a list of names with the Kiowata smugglers, but also passwords, codes, lists of buyers, trade routes, cargo IDs and more. The Agency had checked it all and had come to the surprising conclusion that it was for real.
The code word that had been wrapped into the message had belonged to Chris. According to Buck, no one outside the Chimera team knew it, and not even all of them had heard it before. Meant as a joke between Buck and Chris, Larabee had adopted 'stud poker' as his emergency ID in case he needed to get in contact with his men.
Travis hadn't hesitated any longer. He had given the order to fly to BP-379 and find Chris. The Chimera team had been only too happy to comply. Ever since Chris had disappeared, the men had done everything in their power to find their team leader. Now they had the first real and solid lead.
"Jump in five.... four... three... two... one....." JD counted. There was a slight increase in engine noise as the trans drive activated, then space around them turned completely black for an instant. JD stared into the darkness, his mind reaching out with every fiber of his being, his body feeling the rhythmic vibrations of the mighty engines as they pushed the ship through a region of space rarely entered before. Trans jumping was a dangerous method of going from point A to B in record time. It was only allowed in emergencies and except for official ships, no cruiser was allowed to use it.
A jolt told him that the Chimera had dropped out of the trans space.
"Not much to look at, hm?"
JD had to agreeas Buck joined the young pilot and gazed at the small planet. It was dominated by brown and green colors, some blue, lots of clouds. A moon, a sun, four sister planets. While it had a breathable atmosphere, the ship's data base informed them, it was too dry and too far from the trade routes to become a settlement. Those who had come here were looking for peace and quiet away from the bustling space ports or travel routes. "Deploy scramblers," Vin ordered.
BP-379 had a few Camera Eye satellites, which were used for planetary observation and forecasts. A long range transmitter had been mounted to one of them, enabling those rich enough to buy themselves the needed equipment to communicate with ships passing by the planet. They were few and far. "Company," JD announced.
As if to give proof to the fact, three large ships appeared next to the smaller one. They seemed to bend space around them as they passed out of trans space. The three ships were easily ten times the size of the smaller Chimera.
Buck grinned lop-sidedly. "Where there's promise of a good quarrel, the Regulators arrive in force."
"It's the Hyperion, the Rhea II and the Cyclops," Dunne identified them.
Vin nodded. "JD, look for the space port the message mentioned. Set us down there. And give me an open com line to Captain Hox of the Hyperion."
JD did as told and soon the face of a woman in her late forties with dark brown hair appeared. Her face was smooth and unlined, her eyes a clear blue that seemed to see right into one's soul, and the few streaks of gray in her hair only underlined the authority she radiated.
"Agent Tanner," she acknowledged Vin's presence.
"Captain, we're setting down right at the space port coordinates.
I doubt the Chimera will be recognized as an Agency ship, so I'd like you to stay up here until we gave you the signal to go down. I'd like to get an idea of the situation down there first."
Hox nodded. "I agree. We are still fully cloaked from planetary radar and have detected no satellites or other surveillance so far."
"Five hours," Vin added. "That's as long as I estimate we need to get in and get us a picture. Maybe sooner."
"Good luck," Hox said, then terminated the link.
"JD, take us down," Vin told the pilot and the young man complied.
Exactly four hours and thirty-one minutes after the Chimera had landed, the Cyclops touched down. Regulators poured out of the giant ship, taking over law enforcement and legal matters. The crew of the Chimera kept out of their way. They had done all that had been expected of them.
The infiltration and consequential overtaking of the Gateway station had gone as smoothly as expected. They were professionals, all of them, and there had been little resistance from the Handlers and crew of the nerve center of the large complex. With the codes they had received from Chris, JD had been able to access the station mainframe and suspend everything.
Vin looked around the bustling complex. It was the heart of the planet, consisting of several levels driven deeply into the planet, and a huge expanse of stables and corrals. Kiowata were moving inside the corrals, curiously watching the commotion.
It hadn't taken them very long to find the man in charge of the station and convince him that surrender was better than fighting the Regulators, who had decloaked their other ships just a few minutes earlier. Following up on the reliable information they had gotten, Vin had asked Hox to send out teams to the ranches listed in one of the files. Those Handlers who were willing to cooperate had been teamed up with Regulators to go to where the heads of the organization were hiding. All traffic off planet was currently intercepted by the two remaining Regulator ships.
"So what now?" Buck asked as he surveyed the area, squinting in the early morning sunlight. "How do we find Chris?"
Good question, Vin thought. Very good question.
Their friend and commander was on this planet somewhere. He had sent them a coded message through someone else, which worried Vin to some extent. Why hadn't Chris been able to contact them on his own? And where was he? A prisoner on some undiscovered sub-level? The man in command of the Gateway had assured them that there were no prison facilities.
So where was Chris?
So that's them, Ezra thought, secretly assessing the two men who were currently standing at the corrals outside the Gateway station. One was Vin Tanner, the other Buck Wilmington. Tanner had to be about his age, Ezra mused, possibly a year or two younger. He was short, dark hair, had a stubble in his face, and was dressed in the Agency's official uniform.
There was no mistaking the slight bulge under the jacket where the service weapon was hidden. From Chris Ezra had gathered that Tanner was a quiet man, able to fade into the background of a group quite easily, and that he was Chris's second-in-command.
Wilmington was larger than Tanner, dark-haired, sporting a mustache, and there was an easy-going nature around him that wasn't completely drowned by the worried tension he radiated as his eyes roamed over the animals locked in the corral. Somehow, from what Chris had told him about his oldest friend, Ezra had formed almost exactly this image of the renowned ladies' man. There wasn't an Agency office where women didn't talk about the man, or a space port where not at least five members of the female persuasion were waiting for Wilmington to pay them a visit. Like Tanner he was in uniform, though he had taken off his jacket.
Well, he had to find out if they were who he thought they should be.
Chris was hidden near-by, eager to meet with his team, but Ezra had to make sure this wasn't a trap. He had kept Chris safe for months; he had sworn to uphold his end of the bargain. It was time for the final step.
He had heard of the arrival of an Agency ship, as well as Regulator troop transporters, while risking a quick trip to the next settlement.
Short wave radios were blasting the news all over the frequencies. Ezra had felt a moment of elation, then the severity of what the future held crashed in. Steeling himself, carefully schooling his features, he had returned to Chris, delivering the news. His partner had barely been able to contain his anxiety to get to the station.
Now they were here.
"Mr. Vin Tanner?"
Vin turned and came face to face with a man in a tan leather jacket, dark, worn looking pants and boots. Vivid green eyes gave him a careful once-over and despite the friendly, almost charming smile, Vin detected a certain tenseness in him. This man was ready to beat a hasty retreat if anything happened that would threaten him.
"Yes. Who wants to know?" Vin answered.
Buck joined him, shooting the smaller man a wary but curious look.
"You are the second-in-command of the Chimera team? The Agency?" the stranger asked instead of answering.
"That's right." Vin raised an eyebrow, silently asking the unanswered question again.
"My name is Ezra Standish. A mutual friend sent me. We have been in contact before."
Vin frowned. He couldn't recall an Ezra Standish. Standish saw his dubious expression and gave him a dimpled smile.
"We never talked face to face. I functioned as a messenger. Because of that I have to ascertain your identity."
"Huh?" Buck asked. "Whoa, wait.... You're talking about Chris? You know where he is?"
"We have IDs," Vin told their 'messenger'.
"They can be faked."
"Not Agency IDs," Buck insisted.
Ezra flashed them a grin. "Believe me, they can."
A frown answered that statement.
"So, what you wanna do?" Vin inquired. "DNA check?"
"No. I'd like to have some questions answered. If you answer them to me satisfaction, I'm to reveal the information you seek."
"I'm not going to play question and answer games!" Buck snapped. Vin shot him a sharp look, but Wilmington ignored him. "If you know where Chris is, spill it!"
"Or what?" Ezra asked, voice taking on a dangerous tone.
"Buck," Vin said silently.
"He knows where Chris is and he's playing for time!" Buck erupted.
"What if he's hurt? Or worse? You want a reward?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed. "Somehow, I should have known that you're all alike."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Buck towered over the smaller man, a menacing expression in his eyes.
"Buck, that's enough," Vin ordered quietly.
Wilmington glared at Ezra. "He knows."
"Even if I do, your display of strength won't inspire me to reveal the information before I have the proof. "
"I can throw you in the next best prison cell to prove who I am!"
That annoying grin was back. "You don't get my point, now do you?"
The larger man advanced again. Vin sighed silently to himself. Ever since Chris had disappeared, Buck had feared the worst. Larabee had gone undercover to get an idea where the Kiowata had been smuggled from, where the secret breeding grounds were. For a week, the team had been in contact with their leader. Then the contact had abruptly been broken. They couldn't charge forward and turn everything upside down, due to the fear of blowing their chances to find hard evidence. In the beginning Buck had feverishly combed every inch of the asteroid Chris had last been seen. Then he had insisted to follow even the tiniest clue, to set all the man-power the Agency had on this case; the request had been denied. It hadn't stopped him and Vin had agreed to continue the search while also working on their still active case.
When finally, after months, the encrypted message had come in, with Chris's personal code, sending them not only the position of this planet but also a lot of incriminating data, Buck had started to live again.
Currently, his friend was in a rather volatile state, something that didn't last long but could do a lot of damage.
Vin was about to intervene when something unforeseen occurred. Actually, several things happened. Ezra had moved away from Buck, still smiling that obnoxious smile, while Buck was about to blow a blood vessel if the other taunted him any further. Vin saw it as it was: a game. Standish took great pleasure in riling up Wilmington. But his retreat was stopped by a larger man behind him, who dropped a hand onto his shoulder.
"New friend, Buck?" Josiah asked pleasantly.
Ezra whirled around and there was a flash of fear in his eyes. Vin understood the reaction since Josiah was an impressive man to meet, but he would never have suspected the events to unfold as they did. Buck grabbed Ezra and propelled him against a wall, keeping him pinned down.
"Now we talk!"
"Let go of me," Standish said, voice flat.
"So you can run?"
Cold green eyes flared, meeting mocking blue ones. "One last warning."
"And then you'll kick me in the shins?"
There was a soft clicking noise and Buck suddenly tensed. Vin saw light reflect off a small throwing knife that was now pressed against Buck's ribs.
"Buck!" Vin snapped. "Let him go!"
Wilmington was about to reply when thundering hoof beats could be heard. Something large and black rushed toward the cluster of men.
"Holy....!" was all Buck managed as he threw himself aside. The sharp hooves barely missed him.
Vin's eyes widened as he realized what was standing between Wilmington and Standish. It was a large, black Kiowata, unsaddled, no halter, unclipped.
Its dark eyes were wide, the nostrils flaring. Its ears turned like little radar dishes and it pranced nervously. Buck got to his feet, careful to keep away from the huge animal. Josiah had gotten himself to safety, too. Only Ezra had remained where he was. Now he walked forward and put a hand onto the strong neck, patting it gently.
"He yours?" Vin asked, intrigued.
The dimpled grin was back. "Actually, he's yours."
Ezra hadn't been aware of badly he had sent his sudden panic down the bond toward Chris until the Kiowata had come charging toward the group. It had been a momentary lapse in emotional control and he had regretted it the very instant he had caught sight of his partner. Chris had reacted out of protective instinct; the Kiowata had merged with the human side and had overruled logical thinking. He unconsciously reached up and patted the warm, black skin. Chris's emotions were racing across the link, the Kiowata rather dominant. Ezra sent calming thoughts back, telling the animal side that he was okay. It was flattering and embarrassing to be the center of protectiveness, but it had also sparked a warm feeling inside him. Kojay had called the connection a Bond and in a way, Ezra saw it as such. Their link had turned into something so strangely familiar and eerily beautiful, Ezra was sometimes afraid what consequences it would have for their future. "What?" Buck sputtered at Ezra's declaration.
"I think I can assume that you are the people we were looking for,"
Ezra said pleasantly.
<They are> Chris told him. He had finally managed to get control over his Kiowata instincts. <You just met Buck at his best bull-in-a-china-shop behavior>
<And he's an undercover Agent?>
<He works for section 7, he is on my team, but he was never good at undercover work. Buck's more of a surveillance type>
Ezra sent a snort of disbelief, trying to picture Wilmington on stake-outs.
Aloud he said, "At least he trusts you, though I wonder why." The last was accompanied with a slightly acid undertone and leveled at Buck. "Mr.
Tanner, you are second-in-command, I was told."
Vin nodded slowly, apparently trying to figure out what was going on. "May I introduce? Special Agent Chris Larabee, though he went through an unfortunate transformation." He gave the broad neck another pat. Buck's mouth fell open as he stared at the Kiowata, which now almost playfully snapped at Standish's fingers as he continued to pat it. Chris? A Kiowata? His colleagues weren't any less shocked.
"Chris?" Buck stammered.
The Kiowata gave a snort.
"I'm afraid he can't really talk in any way you might understand,"
Ezra said, smiling.
"But you do?" Vin queried.
A brief nod. "It's a knack." Another grin.
"What happened?" Tanner asked.
"Long story and if you want all the details, I'd advice you to acquire one of the translators the Handlers use. They work wonders."
Josiah nodded at Vin, silently telling him he'd see what he could do about getting one.
"Hot damn," Buck mumbled, looking Chris up and down. "I always knew you were a stud, pard, but this is a bit extreme, even for you!"
The Kiowata's ears flattened and a growl emerged from the large animal.
"But hey," Wilmington went on, ignoring the warning signs. "Bet none of them sweet little mares could resist you."
Chris snapped at Buck, missing him by inches. The large man jumped back, laughing, but kept a nervous eye on the black animal nevertheless.
"I'm not sure how familiar you are with Kiowata body language, Mr.
Wilmington," Ezra supplied. "Or how well you know Kiowata-human minds, especially those aware of what they really are. Sometimes the Kiowata takes over, mostly under emotional strain." He grinned. "I'd advise not to irk him. He might even kick."
"Ah, old Chris knows me."
"I have no doubt, but the Kiowata doesn't, really."
Vin approached carefully, a light smile on his lips. "Hey, Chris."
The Kiowata's ears went forward and the nostrils opened wide, blowing warm air out. Vin's smile widened. "Good to see you again."
"Is that an ear ring?" Buck piped, grinning as he discovered the silvery tag.
Chris's ears flattened again and another growl escaped him. Josiah arrived a few minutes later, carrying three translators. Ezra faded into the background as contact was finally established, a faint smile on his lips that didn't reach his eyes.
So this was it. It was over. A slight pain stabbed through Ezra as he watched the bustle of men and animals, and he bit his lower lip. He had made his decision and he knew it was the only way. Chris didn't belong here, just like Ezra. If not for that unfortunate attempt of industrial espionage where he had bitten off more than he could chew, he wouldn't be here at all. Ezra knew he should be happy to be able to return to his real life, but the darkness inside him only grew.
He had committed the worst crime he could think of: he had let his guard down. He shouldn't have let his compassion get the better of him; he shouldn't have let the bond blossom. When had it happened? When had he surrendered control to something as unreliable as his emotions? And why because of an Agent? Why Larabee? There was no answer forthcoming.
Now Chris was with his friends, soon to be gone. And he, Ezra Standish, was sitting lost and alone in the middle of nowhere. Life had changed for a lot of people, for many Kiowata, since the Agency had finally arrived, but his own life had shattered. He didn't understand half of his actions, in the past and in the present. Something had driven him, and it still did. Only now, Ezra was fighting it.
With a deep sigh he turned away and made his way to the stables. His saddle was where he had put it; his belongings were in the saddle bag.
All he had ever needed, all he would be able to take. Ezra didn't know what he planned to do now. The planet was swarming with Regulators, so lying low was one step. He would have to wait, bide his time, and then con his way onto a transporter. He still wanted to leave the planet, but right now, the need to be as far away from here as possible was greater.
The thief looked around, running his eyes over the assembled horses.
Startled by the voice, Ezra whirled around. I'm losing it, he thought.
I didn't even hear him approach.
Walking into the stables was Buck Wilmington, the man who, three days ago, had attacked him out of worry. Three days.... It seemed like an eternity. "You okay?"
Why does he ask? Ezra busied himself with the saddle. "Yes. I'm fine."
"Taking a ride?"
"I can't see why it's any of your business, but yes, I'm taking a ride." Buck gave him a curious look. "Chris's scheduled for transformation any time now. Thought you'd might want to be there."
"My part in this play ended three days ago, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra chose a chestnut gelding and started to saddle him.
Wilmington sat down on a bale of hay. "Listen, Ezra, I have to apologize for what I did. I wasn't thinking straight. Normally, I'm not like that."
He smiled sheepishly. "Kinda lost it. Just wanted to tell you that. I waited for you to show up around the station, but you were never around....."
"I was busy." Ezra turned to the horse. "Hey, boy. What's your name?"
He almost expected an answer.
In the back of his mind, the bond seemed to whisper insistently. Ezra had no idea why, but he wanted to be far, far away from here by the time Chris was human again.
"So... whatcha running from, Ez?"
The question, the change of topic, startled him.
Myself, he thought, refusing to say it out loud. "I'm not running, just taking a break from boredom."
Buck chuckled. "If you say so. Just too bad you're taking yourself with you on this trip."
Ezra looked up, meeting the lively blue eyes, and bit down on a reply.
It's hard not to, the thought.
"Because when fleeing from yourself you have to know where to run, Ezra."
"Mr. Wilmington, I have no idea what you're talking about, so please stop using riddles." Ezra patted the gelding and gave it a sugar cube.
Buck leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. "I don't know all that happened between you and Chris out there, but I know Chris mighty well. We're old friends. Chris wouldn't talk about you as he does if you were just some two-bit help he picked up; you saved him, Ezra. He will want to talk to you once he is back to his human self."
"I severely doubt that." He led his mount out of the stables. "I upheld my end of the bargain. I'm no longer of any service, nor does he need further help."
Buck regarded him thoughtfully. The tingling feeling turned into a constant whisper and Ezra felt a bit nauseous. It was over. Everything.
Chris back with his friends, where he belonged. He had fulfilled his 'duty'. The whispers had turned into a slight pressure inside his head, like an approaching headache and he sighed silently. Just what he needed.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Wilmington, I need some fresh air."
With that he lightly kicked the chestnut and rode off, ignoring the whispers, ignoring the man. He had to get away from here.
If leaving was the only solution left to him, why was it so painful? Pushing the sensations from the link out of his mind, he concentrated on where he would go from here.
Chris sat on the medical bed, gazing at his hand. Fingers, sunburned skin stretching over the muscles and bones. Flexible. No hoof. An almost silly smile flew over his lips and he moved his fingers, enjoying the feel. He was back; human. Himself. After a year of being a Kiowata, he was human again.
"Five fingers. Any more and I'd be worried." Vin sauntered into the medical room, smiling. "Good to have you back for real, Chris."
"It's good to be back," Chris agreed, still eyeing his hands and then his feet.
"Everyone's waiting to see the results." Vin gave him a critical once-over.
"Seems everything's back where it belongs. Any lingering effects? Craving for grass? Want to gallop into the sunset?"
Chris laughed. "No. It's just slightly strange, is all." He slipped off the bed and found the first problem. "Whoa!"
"Just two legs, cowboy."
Yes, two legs and a million problems because of them. His center of balance was still off and he had grown very much used to coordinating four limbs instead of two. This would take a while.
They left the examination room and walked through the maze of corridors that made up the medical wing of the station. The Gateway station contained the labs that had been used to transform humans into Kiowata. According to his men, a lot what they had discovered should remain under wraps, and Chris agreed. There was a steady stream of Kiowata coming in, waiting their turn to become their human self again. Those who had triggered their own memories were first. The others who still behaved like the animals they were would have to wait.
Guy Royal had disappeared. His ranch had been taken over by Regulators, but except for his men, no one had been found. The man behind it all, one of the heads of the smugglers, was gone. As much as it angered Chris, he knew they had broken apart a very large network. Even though the data inside Royal's computer was mostly destroyed, they had enough on the small compact disc Ezra had taken with him to set every law enforcement officer on Royal's trail.
When they finally exited the building, Chris drew in a breath. He hadn't been aware of how artificial the air had felt inside until he had just stepped into the open. His spirits seemed to soar, his soul yearning to run, to stretch his legs, and for a fleeting moment he felt like he was back in Kiowata form.
//The weather had improved since last night. The rain had ceased and the winds had turned into a gentle breeze, carrying the smell of salt and wet earth, as well as of winter. This year it would be early and promised to be quite cold. He stretched and moved carefully down the steep cliff, using the path that had been trodden into the muddy ground. His sharp hooves left deep imprints in the mud, but the soggy earth slid into the holes and covered his traces neatly. He arrived safely in the valley and looked around, noticing how the river had grown through the rain, not yet turning wild, but one more night of rain and it would.
He smiled and trotted down the river bank, feeling the breeze whip through his mane, running along his smooth, streamlined body. His trot turned into a gallop and he stretched his legs, eating up the distance. He stopped after some time, his nostrils opening, air escaping with a hiss. He felt good today! <Chris?>
Exhilarated from the early morning run, he turned, prancing, ears pricked forward. He discovered the by now familiar figure of his partner.//"Chris?"
"Hm?" Larabee blinked and shook his head. "Side effects."
His second-in-command nodded. "You okay out here?"
More than okay, Chris thought, nodding. Perfect.
The perfection was disturbed by a strange feeling coursing through him, something that had been buried deep inside his mind but was now breaking its way to the surface. A sensation that was associated with someone ... Ezra ...
He didn't notice that he had spoken out the name.
"Mind filling me in who he is?" Vin asked in his usual, quiet manner.
Chris rubbed his forehead. "Ezra? He's a lot of things. Arrogant, stubborn, sarcastic, too proud for his own good sometimes, sneaky, and he gets into more trouble because he doesn't know when to shut up than Buck at a women's convention."
"Sounds like he'd feel right at home with us," Vin commented, which earned him a frown.
"He's also someone I owe a lot." Chris looked thoughtful. "A friend, who happens to be a con; pretty good, too. His skill saved us more than once, either from starvation or freezing in the cold. I don't know why, but I trusted him with my life. Still do. We.... share a bond."
Vin gave him a slightly surprised look. Chris knew more about his second-in-command than anyone else on this team and, aside from Travis, in the Agency. Tanner had lived among the natives of a small moon around Ihj for a study project and had returned to them year after year even after the end of his college terms. He had developed a strong friendship with one particular man and he had called it a soul bond. Two people who shared the same wavelengths, Vin had explained. They understood their respective partners without speaking and had complimented each other.
Vin was a complex, many-layered man who understood humanity and the human psyche a lot better than anyone would give him credit for. Chris had caught him and Josiah more than once as they discussed philosophical aspects of civilization compared to what was called 'wilderness'. Because of it and because of his own experience, Larabee knew his friend understood this situation better than anyone ever would.
"Deeply?" Vin now inquired.
Chris frowned thoughtfully. Before he could answer, someone interrupted them.
"There you are!"
Chris turned and gave the dark-skinned man who now hurried over to them a broad smile. "Hello, Nathan."
Nathan scowled. "You shouldn't be out here!"
"I'm not about to have a relapse."
"No, but I need to check some of your data again. How do you feel?"
Dr. Nathan Jackson was their very own medic, as well as a member of the Chimera team. While he did normal Agency work, he slipped into doctor mode whenever one of the others got hurt.
"Human," Chris answered.
Jackson chuckled. "I hope so. According to this," he held up a scanner, "you are. A few of your bodily functions are a bit off, but that should all realign itself in the next hours or days. Something that surprises me is the heightened brain activity in your frontal lobes."
Vin gave their friend a curious look. "Translation?" he asked. "Wish I knew. In most humans, these areas are dormant. Maybe it's a result of the transformation and it'll quiet down as well. Do you feel anything out of the ordinary?"
Chris frowned. "For example?"
Nathan shrugged. "I don't know. Anything. Though considering how you spent the last months, a lot of the sensations a human body has will be different to you. That's one of the adjustments you will go through."
"Maybe it's the bond," Vin suggested quietly.
Chris shot him a sharp look, but his second simply returned it in his usual, quiet manner. Apparently he thought it was something Larabee needed to share with the medic.
"Bond?" Nathan echoed. "What bond?"
He sighed. Great. How could he explain it to Jackson without ending up a guinea pig with a dozen electrodes attached to his head? He launched into a brief tale about how he had met Ezra and what had transpired between them. Both Vin and Nathan listened carefully.
"I haven't seen him since I nearly ran over Buck. He was there, but I didn't notice that he disappeared, and then events sped up as I could make myself understood through the translator." Chris felt embarrassment rush through him. "Buck insisted I'd be one of the first to be turned back. I was so relieved.... I forgot. How could I?" The last was said with a lot of self-loathing.
"It's only natural that you would latch onto the relief and happiness,"
Nathan told him.
"But it's not natural to ignore something that connected Ezra and me for months! This isn't like some two-way radio I can switch off, Nathan.
It's a connection between us."
"So the guy is a con-man and thief who saved your life, and the two of you share an empathic connection?" Vin's eyes twinkled.
Chris grimaced. A year ago he would have thrown Ezra into the next available holding cell to be prosecuted. Things had changed. "More than empathic, Vin," he answered. "Much more."
Tanner gave him a knowing look, but he didn't say anything.
"Hm," Nathan made thoughtfully. "I'll have to get some more data from the transformation machines, and I want a brain scan done of you, Chris.
This is intriguing."
Larabee rolled his eyes. "I was afraid of that. But before you do that, I need to find Ezra. We need to talk."
"I thought you had a connection?"
A sigh. "We had it while I was Kiowata. Now, it's... muted. I think it has to adjust as well." He didn't want to even think about losing the link. Much to his own surprise, Chris had grown quite used to the presence in his mind. "Whatever he's up to, I need to find him."
"Where do we start? You have a whole planet to choose from." Vin gave him a questioning look.
Chris sighed. Simple question, difficult answer. He looked up the gray, metal wall of he station.
"Here," he then finally said.
"He's gone." Chris' voice was toneless as he tried to comprehend what he had just found out.
Ezra was gone. He had left the Gateway station. No good-bye, no explanation.
Does he need one? a small voice asked.
No, not really.
The pain of loss was raw in Chris's soul and he felt like something important had been ripped from him. Buck looked at him with an almost guilty expression, but Larabee couldn't fault him. His friend had known that Ezra had left on horse-back, but since he had been caught up in Regulator matters, he had simply forgotten to alert Chris to the thief's absence. Wilmington had done his job as a liaison to the new law on this planet, all that had been expected of him.
It had taken Chris too long to realize that what he felt wasn't just the yearning to be back outside in the wilderness again, that the craving wasn't just the need to run and be free. He had singled out the point of the most intense sensation and found it to be the bond. He had thought it would be severed when he turned human, that it had been part of the Kiowata, but he had been wrong. Since then it had only been a matter of time till he had discovered that Ezra had disappeared.
Chris was ashamed to admit that he had given him little thought actually.
He had been too relieved to be back, to be human again, though he had found out there were a few more side-effects that would linger. He had spent a lot of time with his team before he had been changed back, had been debriefed and had caught up on what had happened while he had actually been gone. And I never lost a thought about Ezra.
For the first time in so many months, Chris had felt human again, and he had enjoyed it. It wasn't a crime, but he had so conveniently forgotten that there had been a vital part of him missing.
Vin raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"He left the station. He is not responding to the bond somehow." Chris felt like he was sinking as the full implications hit him.
Nathan had been all over him with scans and medical tests. The results had been astounding and frightening in one. The connection between him and Ezra wasn't the result of a Kiowata meeting a human. Kiowata weren't natural empaths. In Nathan's professional opinion, and because Chris had explained that Ezra was Borderline, the very genes that set Standish apart from other humans had made him connect to Chris. Why exactly with him was a puzzle, but Chris's mind had accepted the offered connection and had integrated it into itself. Through the transformation from Kiowata back to human, Chris had taken the bond along, but it had weakened. It was starting to show. Chris was more jumpy, irritable and he was nervous for no apparent reason.
"Ezra triggered you," Nathan had explained. "He gave you back humanity, most likely because he is a latent empath. The first time you met, he unconsciously set you free. I doubt he knows it. He stabilized you and you gave him a point of balance. Now that you are human again, the connection is in danger of unraveling." A serious expression had been in the dark eyes. "Chris, I'm not sure what it'll do to you. Your brain patterns changed significantly because of Ezra."
Chris didn't want to find out. He and Vin would look for Standish, even if they had to turn the planet upside down.
"How do you want to find him?" It was a reasonable question, but also one very hard to answer.
Chris had a faraway expression in his eyes. "The bond," he finally said.
Vin nodded, accepting the statement with his usual calm demeanor.
"How well can you use it to pinpoint his position?"
"No clue. When it was just the two of us, out there, I had a pretty good idea where he was all the time. It was like a reassuring background hum and I could home in on it. Now..." Chris looked slightly helpless.
"From what you told me about him, he wouldn't leave civilization now that he found it," Vin mused out loud, "so he'll be in one of the towns.
We could wait for him to get into trouble," he added with a grin. "That would get us to him faster."
Chris grimaced. "And it would most likely get him dead. He's a con and thief, Vin. We met while he was beating a hasty retreat from a bunch of people out for his blood."
"Point taken. So we search through the settlements?"
"Yep. It's the best lead we have."
"Might take a while. Travis won't be happy."
Larabee's eyes darkened. "Screw Travis! Ezra is a part of me and I'm not leaving without him!"
Vin smiled calmly, nodding. "I know." With that he walked over to the stables.
Chris frowned and then followed him. They would have to inform the others, get horses, food and a map. He would find Ezra, whatever it took and however long. He just would.
It had taken them nearly a week to get to this place, no thanks to the fluctuating bond. By the time they arrived in Edge, a small town at the very edge of the Glass Fields, Chris was feeling irritable to no end. Something was happening to the bond and it didn't feel very good.
It was getting more unstable, as if one side was about to break completely, and he knew that those feelings accurately described the current situation.
Ezra was running, hiding, trying to close the connection he had to Chris, and it was driving them both insane.
Vin had decided to keep an eye on things happening on the streets.
Chris was glad he had come along, even though Larabee had protested that he would be able to find Ezra alone. The week on the lookout for the thief had shown him that if he had been alone, he would most likely be dead by now. His temper was short, his emotions were boiling, and the pressure in the back of his mind was increasing steadily.
No one gave much of a notice as Chris entered the local bar. People were drinking, laughing, playing games or bargaining with each other over goods. Chris felt the familiar twang of the bond, this time a tenfold from what he had had in the last few days. Ezra was here. In this very room. And he intended to find him, drag him out of here by force if necessary.
Chris continued looking around until his eyes fell on a figure hiding in the shadows.
At this time of the day, the bar was almost empty, except for the town's regular drunks, and Ezra Standish. The thief took no notice of the men around him, except to size them up, categorize them, and discard them as no immediate danger to his person. The town he had sought refuge in was tiny, consisting of little more than a boarding house, a bar, some stores, and a hotel with a restaurant. He didn't mind the filthy appearance of it, the ever-present dust and backwater atmosphere. It was a place to lay low, to hide, to spend a few hours gambling, wiling away the day. It also fit his melancholic mood.
Ezra knew he was drunk. Not dead drunk, but enough to ignore the place in his mind where the bond was screaming at him. Enough to ignore the black hole that was just waiting for him to stumble and fall. Half a bottle of the local rotgut had already found its way down into his empty stomach and he was planning to introduce the rest to his system as well. It would most likely knock him out, but that would at least give him a few hours of peace. The hangover would be hell, but even that was preferable to the constant ache. He had blown it, screwed up, made mistakes. He should have left this hell hole of a planet, but he hadn't.
He should have fled, but he had only stumbled and fallen. Now he sat in a dusty bar, drinking himself to oblivion, and he knew things would only get worse soon. If he wasn't such a coward, he would have accepted the ultimate solution to his problems. The bond seemed to scream louder, even through the alcoholic daze, and he forced it back out of his consciousness.
It was getting increasingly more difficult to do so with every day. He prayed Chris didn't have the same problems, that the man was free, off the planet, with his friends. Looking into the mirror over the bar, Ezra caught his reflection and winced away at the man who looked back. He grabbed the bottle and quickly drank some more, the liquid burning in his throat. Slipping off the stool, he unsteadily went over to the table farthest away from the bar and the mirror. A new arrival caught his attention. The man was tall, slender, with blond hair and intense dark eyes. He was dressed in black, wearing a long coat covered in the ever-present dust of the wilderness outside. The stranger looked around the room, apparently searching for someone.
Handler? Ezra thought fuzzily. Law? There was a powerful aura around him, demanding his attention. Ezra shrunk back deeper into the shadows. He knew he was still a criminal; no amount of time spent alongside Chris, trying to right the wrong, be a hero, could change that. They had kicked off the small stone that had turned into an avalanche, but that didn't change Ezra. It didn't make him any less guilty of his past crimes than before. He was a thief, a cheat, a con man, and he would do it again in a heart beat to earn money and live the good life.
Except that now he heard echoes of Chris Larabee in his mind, telling him he could do better. Curse the man. Curse the bond. But Ezra couldn't take his eyes off the blond man, feeling something inside of him shiver.
Shock coursed through him. What was going on here? Was he already losing it? But the yearning grew, the bond reacting painfully to the presence.
It was time to get out of this establishment, hide in his room or the local livery, and then ride on. The black dressed man slowly crossed the floor of the bar room. Suddenly his head whipped around and he stared straight at Ezra. Standish shrunk back, he gaze penetrating the layers of alcohol for one clear moment and he felt the pain threaten to suffocate him. The intense eyes seemed to burn into his mind, the high-strung feeling increasing. The man walked over to his table, gazing at Ezra, then his eyes flickered over the by now almost empty bottle.
"Trying to kill yourself?"
What is it to you? Ezra thought blearily, trying to tear his eyes away from the darker ones. It was increasingly hard to hear his own thoughts over the noise in the back of his mind.
The man picked up the bottle, studied the label, then took a swig.
"Y're payin' fo' that," Ezra managed, voice slurred. He was more inebriated that he had thought.
"As will you, Ezra. This stuff tastes terrible."
How did he know his name? The pressure behind his eyes multiplied. Shit, the alcohol was really getting to him.
"Leave me alone!" he snarled, pushing back his chair. Getting to his feet was difficult. He staggered past the blond and headed for the door.
One word. The bond sang in response to the mind-to-mind communication and Ezra felt almost dizzy. He had missed the presence; dearly. The whispers multiplied, but he violently shoved them into the box he had kept locked ever since he had returned to the Gateway station, ever since he had left Chris to his friends.
Inside him, everything was in turmoil. His mind was screaming at him to get away, that staying would be a bad idea. But his soul...
Ezra fled out of the bar, but didn't get very far. The alcohol in his blood hit him full force and he fell against the wall, nauseous <Ezra>
The voice again. So familiar it made him sob with need, but also the source of his pain.
"Leave me alone!" he demanded, pure panic rising up inside him. He found it suddenly hard to breathe as all those sensations washed over his body.
The blond man had followed him outside. Dark eyes gazed at him. Familiar.
So familiar. Ezra had never known Chris's human look, only the Kiowata.
Now he saw him for the first time and recognition hit him between the eyes. Taller than him, older by maybe ten years, not as compact as Standish's frame. There were lines in the sunburned face that spoke of pain and need, the eyes burning with something Ezra wanted himself, and he felt his own response. It cut deep into his already torn soul.
Chris approached the agitated thief and he stumbled back, almost as if fearing the other. Ezra shook in anger at Larabee's stubbornness and let the alcohol guide his actions. Their eyes met and emotions sparked wildly.
"Do you know what I went through because of you?" he spat. "Do you even realize what you did to me?"
Open fury crossed the pale features.
"I gave you everything! Everything! I have no idea why, but.... I nearly starved because of you! I was threatened, attacked and beaten! I suffered blinding headaches because you came down with a colic! I had to endure your temper tantrums, your high and mighty attitude! Your arrogance! You might think it was hard to have only me to talk to, but I had you in my head, Larabee! I still have!" The last words were uttered in near-hysteria.
"Why don't you go back to your world, Commander? Why don't you finally leave me alone?"
"Ezra, I can't...." Chris said softly.
"The hell you can! Get on your ship, get out of my life!"
"Not that easy."
"Easy?" He laughed maniacally. "It is easy. Just leave! Go away!"
Ezra was almost blind with rage. He took a swing at the taller man, which, though surprising Chris, went rather wide. The blond caught the fist easily, strong fingers curling around it. "Go away," Ezra repeated pleadingly.
"I don't want this. I'm not different. Please... go...."
<No> Chris answered, holding the desperate gaze. "You don't know why you almost died for me, I don't know why I can't leave you here."
<You might not want it, but you have it, Ez>
Ezra struggled feebly. Darkness crept at the edge of his vision and his mind was going into a fast decline of terror and abject misery. <Fool>
he whispered, then his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed. Chris caught him easily.
Vin walked up to where Chris was gently holding the unconscious form in his arms. "He okay?"
Chris shook his head. "No. Neither of us." He let his gaze wander over the almost deserted street and fall on the boarding house. "Let's get a room."
Vin nodded. "I'll let the others know we found him."
Chris sat on the chair next to Ezra's bed, watching the younger man, taking note of the fine lines of pain, the exhaustion so vividly displayed on the sleeping face, and he noticed the signs of weight loss.
Not again, he thought in desperation. Ezra had stopped taking care of himself once before and Chris wouldn't let him go through that again.
He remembered the haunted look in those familiar green eyes as Standish had recognized him. Haunted... hunted.... In pain and desperate to end it all.
No! Chris felt his own body shake. He wouldn't let it happen. He wouldn't let Ezra go, no matter what. The last months had changed him, had made him aware of something he had missed for so long and finally found. His whole training went against these feelings, but it had no chance when it came to instinctive reaction.
Shame rose again. He had been so selfish, he had forgotten about the very man he owed his life and sanity to. He had ignored the bond, he had ignored the man who seemed to be a complimenting piece of himself.
Chris nearly chuckled. Him and Ezra complimenting each other? Most of the time it was like fire and ice. They were complete opposites in so many ways, but they had managed not to kill each other while working together on BP-379. It still amazed him.
<So sorry, Ez> he murmured.
The link between them whispered again and this time, Chris felt a strange tingle throughout his whole body. He thought he saw his skin ripple, as if trying to shape into something new. He gazed at it in wonder, but suddenly it stopped and the bond quieted down. Nathan had told him that he had retained something from his Kiowata existence. Chris started to realize just what that might be.
And I need you to help me, Ezra, he thought desperately.
Vin entered the room, shooting his friend a silent, inquiring look.
They both never needed too many words to understand the other, which had nothing to do with telepathy. It was a kind of understanding neither could explain.
"Asleep," Chris said softly.
"Buck told me not to hurry. They got everything under control. Want me to go back as well?"
"I'd appreciate it if you'd stay."
Tanner nodded, not asking for a reason. He didn't need one.
He woke to a tremendous headache. His tongue felt like cotton wool, and if it had grown in size. Pain pulsed behind his eyes, soon joined by the sickness spreading from his stomach. Fragments of memories came back. Getting dead drunk in a bar. Ezra groaned and rolled onto his side, his stomach heaving. He clenched his teeth, refusing to give in to the need to throw up. It was undignifying.
Something wonderfully cold was placed into his neck, spreading through his cramped muscles, and he gave a little sigh. A hand started to massage his shoulders, loosening tight coils. He tried to attach a name to the gentle touch, but failed.
A faint hum in the back of his mind announced the reawakening bond as it fought through the alcoholic haze. And with it, the presence close to him grew familiar. Ezra's eyes snapped open and he immediately shut them again. The light lancing through his eyes was extremely painful.
The hands rubbed a soothing pattern on his back.
"Go away," he moaned weakly. "The bond is no more. Leave!"
<Liar> Chris retorted.
Ezra shivered at the mind-touch. Why did Larabee have to do this? It was like a nameless terror waiting for him to falter, it was his worst nightmare. Ever since a childhood experience had confirmed that he was Borderline, ever since he had known he had defective genes, he had been afraid of the developing powers. Yes, they had helped him. They made him such a good con, but in the end, when all was stripped away, they were nothing but trouble. He had successfully pushed it all away while he and Chris had been together, trying to find a way off this world.
He had hoped, prayed, that the bond would die with Chris's transformation back into a human.
"Chris.... please... don't."
"Why did you run?"
It was the first time he consciously heard Chris's human voice. It was a dark, smooth, with a few rough edges. The bond sang softly, pushing Ezra into turning his head. He gazed at the dark-clad man.
"I didn't," he mumbled.
"You didn't say good-bye. You just left."
Standish swallowed. Chris's hands never ceased their gentle massage.
Each movement eradicated more and more of his defenses, the walls he had so desperately sought to rebuild.
<The bond didn't break. We still have it. I can feel it, right now. It's painful> Larabee murmured.
Ezra evaded the dark eyes, trying to gather his defenses back around him. "It will break with time and distance."
<I don't think so. It will destroy us if we try. It will kill us in the end. I want to live, Ezra. I want you to live. We have to heal the bond. We can't run from it>
Standish looked up, desperation on his features. "How... how can you accept this.... abhorring link? You! You should be freaked beyond words! Running from it!"
"Maybe I should, yes," Chris conceded. "But it's not abhorring, Ezra.
I can accept it as it is. Took me a while, granted, but I had to work with it because the link was the only way for me to communicate. I accepted you as the receiving end."
Ezra turned away again, but Chris's hands stayed on his shoulders.
"I lived with you in my mind for months, Ezra. I was freaked, yes.
Completely. But," Chris searched for words, "it started to feel right, like you were a missing part I had just found."
Ezra clawed for some sanity. The daze he was in was cut by the shrill demands of the bond, which he was trying to ignore. The alcohol couldn't numb it anymore. What had happened to him... to them? Why did he feel so lost and alone in a dark and threatening world? "I'm Borderline," he whispered miserably. "I'm not a missing part...
I'm a superfluous one."
<No, you're not> Chris insisted, voice suddenly harsh. <And you're not alone any more>
"What?" he whispered.
"Nathan said I changed throughout the whole experience. My molecular make-up is different. He thinks I retained some of the Kiowata abilities.
It's one of the side-effects. I might even be able to shift, just like you." Chris shrugged. "I haven't really tried it yet, but the knowledge is there. The feeling of something else lurking in me...."
"You can't mean to stay like this!" Ezra protested.
Ezra sought for words. "It's not right," he finally said weakly. Chris chuckled. "Right or not, it's of little difference." He leaned closer, fixing the smaller man with his intense gaze. "Will you come with me?"
There was a sharp intake of breath. Ezra stared at him. "You can't be serious, Larabee!" he finally snapped. "Off this planet I'm.... I'm....
nothing but a petty thief! A criminal! The very people you hunt down!"
His voice rose to almost hysterical level.
"Ezra," Chris silenced him. "We need each other."
Standish violently shook his head and regretted it immediately as the headache roared back. He clenched his teeth against the pain and nausea, concentrating on the man close by. "No! I need to get off this rock, you need to get back to your Agency. That's all we need."
Larabee sighed. "I wish it was that simple."
Ezra thought furiously. He wanted to get off this hell hole of a planet, but not with Chris around, not this close. If not for the bond, he would gladly have taken the chance for a ride, then left at the next best space port they docked at.
He sat, shoulders hunched as though all the will had been beaten out of him. Exhausted with the inner struggle. Chris stepped behind him and placed his hands gently on shoulders too tense to soothe, but he tried.
He sent a gentle warmth through the connection into the taut frame. Then he began to knead in earnest. After a moment he felt the younger man relax a bit, muscles beginning to unclench as he worked over the back.
It was amazing, Ezra thought, how much he reacted to the blond.
The soft question made Standish look up and he shivered at the mild sparks of emotions in the hazel eyes. Chris would drag him back kicking and screaming, he realized. So he would come quietly, maybe even accept the offer to leave the planet, and then slip away quietly. It was the only way. For both of them.
"Okay," he said, composing himself.
"Promise me you won't run again."
The green eyes held a shocked expression, growing more and more distant, and Chris saw the battle in them. Finally, Ezra surrendered. He nodded wordlessly.
Chris smiled, but it lacked the triumph Ezra had expected. Familiarity hit him, longing, need. He squelched it. It would never be. The bond couldn't be completed as it should. The moment they were away, he would run again.
Vin Tanner was the most grounded person Ezra had ever run into in his life. Any more grounded and he would be sprouting roots to attach him to the earth he walked on. He had to reign in his first reaction to look at Tanner's feet, checking for unnatural growths.
As Chris and Ezra left the boarding house, Vin gave Ezra a knowing smile. "Hey, Ezra. Feeling better?"
"Aside from a humongous hangover, yes I certainly do, Mr. Tanner,"
Ezra replied smoothly, refusing to show just how badly he felt.
"JD and Josiah got the Chimera ready," Vin went on, turning to Chris.
"More Regulators arrived yesterday and we're turning everything over to them now. Buck's wrapping it all up as we speak."
Ezra tensed imperceptibly at the mention of the Regulators, the highest group of law enforcement officers within the Joined Governments. They had general jurisdiction on every planet within the Joined Governments and with their presence on BP-379, things would definitely change. He had had a few skirmishes with them before, but not enough to get his face on one of the Black Lists.
"We also got a call from Travis a few hours ago. He wants you back ASAP. Says you're one of the best witnesses he has."
"What about the other Kiowata?" Chris inquired, frowning.
Vin gave a half-shrug. "Buck's been keeping tabs on who was changed back and there's a steady stream coming in, but many just want to leave this hell hole and never be reminded of what happened. Some even decided to remain here, in their Kiowata form. The Regulators will take care of the affairs, so it's off our backs. Our job's done."
Chris nodded slowly. "Then let's wrap this up and leave," he decided.
"JD says he has the Chimera ready for departure by the time we get back."
"Good." Chris turned to Ezra. "Well, it's time to go back to the station."
Ezra tensed more, but he summoned a smile. "Lead the way."
Vin let his horse fell in step beside the other two, giving Ezra a friendly smile that seemed to say 'Don't worry', but Ezra worried. He always did.
The Chimera was a long-distance Agency ship, capable of deep space flight, crossing warp gates and landing on planets. It had the bulky but still sleek design of an older Delta class, but on the inside it was bristling with modern technology. Ezra admired the camouflaged appearance, giving the ship a more innocent look than it really was. She packed quite a punch in a battle and was fast enough to retreat to safety when threatened.
Buck greeted Ezra with a wide, friendly smile, almost bowling him over with his good mood.
"Y'know, you sure gave us a run for our money. Ol' Chris here was really having conniptions over your disappearance."
Ezra gave Larabee a smirk; Chris glared back half-heartedly.
"Want me to chain him up and lock him away?" Buck joked.
Chris chuckled. "Not such a bad idea."
"Knock yourselves out," Ezra muttered.
"But since Ezra is a rather good lock pick, I think it's a futile act," Larabee continued.
"Do go on and spill out my secrets," was the grumbled reply.
"Still got the force field JD cobbled together," Wilmington said thoughtfully.
"Now there's a thought....." Chris shot Ezra a calculating look. "I told you I would come along willingly," the smaller man muttered. <But do I take that at face value?> Chris asked through the link. Anger shot through Standish, but he bit it down, just glaring more. Larabee grinned at him.
"Everything else is in good hands, pard," Buck switched back to matters at hand. "I talked to Karen Hox, the Regulator Commander, and she told me she's taking care of the last formalities. We can be out of here ASAP."
"Thanks. Well, Ezra, I think it's time to introduce you to Dr. Jackson."
Standish sighed deeply. A medic. Swell. "I'm perfectly fine," he said out loud, voice level.
"I'll let Nathan decide that." Chris gave him a little push that propelled him forward.
That got him a chuckle. <You haven't seen bossy yet, Standish>
Nathan watched the new-arrival carefully. He noticed the stance that told him the other man was ready to flee if threatened. He looked more like a cornered animal than anything else.
"So this is him," he remarked to Chris, a smile on his features. "Let's hope he's not as accident prone as some of you."
Ezra grimaced. He hated to be talked about like this, but he kept his tongue.
Vin, who had joined them in the medical ward of the Chimera, almost laughed. Nathan always bitched about their 'talent' to get injured on cases that should be easy. As their field medic, he had to deal with cuts, burns, stab wounds and even poisoning.
"He's Borderline and mind-linked to Chris. Any more questions?" "Very funny, Tanner," the medic grumbled.
Ezra's eyes flashed with emotions as Vin revealed his knowledge about him, and he felt quite uneasy about it. Yes, he knew the team would eventually find out, that Chris had to tell them, but hearing it freaked him. <It's okay, Ezra> Chris calmed him.
The commander was leaning against the wall next to the door, arms crossed in front of his chest, appearing completely calm.
<We're on the same team, and you're not the only Borderline here.
Ezra exhaled slowly. Easy for Larabee to say. He knew those men, he had worked with them, and that he was suddenly less than human wouldn't change their opinion of the team leader.
<Borderline is not less> Chris immediately told him, frowning.
Whoops, let that slip, Ezra sighed. <Where I come from, it is>
<Not where you're going>
Where he was going. The next space port and then.... away. Far, far away. Put some distance between them and - end it. Ezra was shocked by his own thoughts and prayed Chris hadn't heard it, or even caught a glimpse of the morose state-of-mind. He drew strength from Chris's mere presence, but it was also frightening how his mind reacted to the bond.
"Well, Ezra, I'll just do a general medical check," Jackson now said, gesturing at the scanner bed. "If you'd be so kind and lay down here."
Ezra sighed deeply. "I guess there's no way around this. Would you gentlemen mind?" He looked at Chris and Vin.
"Oh, not, not at all. Get comfy," Chris answered generously, waving at the bed. "I'm fine right over here."
<Scram!> Ezra sent.
Chris smirked, but he finally pushed away from the wall and raised his eyebrows at Vin, who followed his example and left doctor and temporary patient alone. Ezra settled on the medical bed and prepared for the round of poking and prodding he knew would follow.
JD Dunne, the Chimera's pilot, was the most energetic law enforcement officer Ezra had ever had the pleasure to meet. He was by far the youngest, with shoulder length dark hair, a bubbling enthusiasm you could drown in, and a kind of gentle naivety that was kind of deceiving. Ezra knew people, had run into enough specimens to be called an expert on how to take them, and until the ay he had met Chris as a Kiowata he had never had any trouble categorizing them. JD was hard to grasp. He was young, granted. He was going about everything with the same energy. But he was also a fully qualified Agent and to be among a crowd like Larabee's, he had to have at least some experience in the field. Maybe he judged the age wrong, but still, the people changed when confronted with the harsh reality of law enforcement. JD hadn't. He was like an innocent, a boy who had just left a protected home and had gone out into the world.
JD showed Ezra the command center, excitement in his voice as he explained the features of the Chimera. He was proud of the ship and he apparently knew quite a lot about it, and space ships in general.
"Since we're not using the Jump System, we'll be at the first warp gate within five days," JD currently explained. "You won't even feel her pass through the gate. She handles like a dream and her stabilizers won't even feel the strain." He smiled widely. "If we push it, we could be there in three, but Chris said to take it easy; no hurry. After that it's a breeze through Ghanjan space and we'll be at the Port of Authority gate within five hours of exiting the other."
Ezra nodded. He knew a fair share about space travel. Born into the artificial world of a bustling space port, he had learned quickly how to get about. Not just within the vast city in space, but also outside.
He could fly the most common personal transport ships, he knew people in the most important ports, and he spoke the most common languages.
But spending such a long time on BP-379 had left him slightly out of the loop. He was planning to correct that the moment they arrived back in civilization, but until then he would try to use the ship's systems to fill himself in on current affairs. He moment he was on his own again, he would need those information.
"If you want to, you can watch the launch," JD offered.
Ezra gave him a polite smile. "Thanks for the offer, Mr. Dunne, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline. Launches aren't my specialty."
"Getting space sick as well?" a voice rumbled behind him.
Ezra turned and gave the man behind him a once-over. "Mr. Sanchez, I presume," he said, offering a neutral smile.
Josiah Sanchez, ship's engineer and the oldest member of the team, was a tall individual, broad shouldered, with curly, gray hair and a short, salt-and-pepper beard. Bright eyes sparkled as he looked at Ezra.
"That's right. And you're Ezra. JD make your head spin yet?"
JD gave him a good-natured glare as he went to his seat and started the pre-launch procedures.
"He's quite a well of knowledge when it comes to this ship."
"That he is. And one mean flyer. Didn't know a Delta class could do double loops and a tail spin until he showed me."
Ezra chuckled. Deltas, while fast and maneuverable, had their limits.
It was impressive to think that the young pilot had managed to fly loops with the heavy bulk.
"Excuse me while I have an eye on the Lady's behavior throughout launch,"
Sanchez now said. "She sometimes bitches about atmospheric interference."
Standish nodded. "I wasn't intending to keep you from your tasks, Mr. Sanchez."
"See you later, Ezra."
Ezra made his way out of the cockpit. He wasn't queasy when it came to crossing from atmospheric flight to space, which gave some people upset stomachs, nor did he get space sick. He just wanted to be on his own. He chose the science station room for that, which was less obvious than his own, and logged onto the computer. Now would be the best time to catch up on things.
Nathan flipped through the results of Ezra's examination, frowning slightly. "Something wrong, Dr. Jackson?" Chris asked lightly.
The medic looked up and gave Chris a welcoming smile as the commander came into the medical ward. "Not exactly."
Larabee sat down in the chair opposite Nathan's desk and made himself comfortable. "Spill it, Nate. What's wrong?"
"I checked Ezra from head to tow," he began. "Physically he's fine.
A bit under weighed, but that's something that'll change if he starts having regular meals. What struck me was the brain scan. Yours has changed through the bond, so I suspected his did the same. Sadly, I have no idea about his prior scans, so I can't compare them, but I believe they'd show me that Ezra was a latent empath to begin with. His Borderline abilities centered around empathy, the ability to read and even subtly influence emotions." Chris raised an eyebrow.
"Whether he did it consciously, I'm not sure," Jackson went on. "I don't think so. You mentioned that he was aware of his Borderline abilities, which means he felt different, but he had no real control."
"But his abilities are shape-changing," Chris interjected.
"Yes. Now. He was empathic when he came here and I firmly believe that this ability triggered his own consciousness and, later, you. Vin explained to me about soul partners and while it's a science I can't really relate to, it's a fascinating one. Soul mates as such aren't a complete rarity. It's not really common, but also not unheard of. Same sex soul mates occur one out about a thousand relationships. But for both of them to be or become Borderlines..." Nathan shook his head. "That's a first."
"A first?" Chris echoed.
"There's nothing in any archive I looked through that indicates this ever happening. Borderlines usually keep to themselves because humanity doesn't trust those who are different. You weren't Borderline until your molecules were scrambled by the machine when you were turned back. If not for the connection to Ezra, I think you never would have developed those abilities anyway. You changed when Ezra touched your mind, the machine simply rearranged the change into a human brain pattern."
Chris thoughtfully chewed on his lower lip.
"How intensely do you feel Ezra?" Nathan suddenly asked.
Larabee gave him a scowl. "That's a mighty personal question, Dr.
Jackson." The other man grinned. "I'm your doctor, my friend. I have to know." "I can feel him all the time," Chris answered slowly. "He's a presence in the back of my mind. When he was gone, it was like I had an Ezra-shaped hole in my head, and it hurt."
"I'm not sure. It's pretty new to me."
"The bond is still establishing itself, Chris. You're kinda off balance, even if you think you are completely at peace with yourselves."
Chris mulled that over. "How long?"
"No idea, Chris. It might be over tomorrow or take a while longer."
"How long 'a while longer'?"
"I don't know....."
"You're not much of a help, Doc, you know."
Nathan smiled apologetically. "While I can recite texts and theories, I have had to treat the actual thing or even met a Bonded pair, let alone a Borderline who was bonded. You two being unique... it complicates matters."
"I didn't ask for it."
"I realize that. Whatever it is you two have going," Nathan raised a hand, "and I mean that in a completely non-erotic way, it has to sort itself out. We'll be at the Agency main port soon. If it hasn't lessened till then, you might have to check in with the medical department. Otherwise I'd say you're on the way for a complete balance.
I could examine you two and..." Chris's expression stopped him and Nathan smiled. "Or not. Listen, Chris, whatever happened, it helped both of you. Listen to the bond. It knows what's best for you."
A sigh answered him. "All right, but I don't have to like it." "Never said that."
Chris sat in his quarters, going over reports and files from the last months, still trying to reacquaint himself with his old job. He was currently off-duty, due to his MIA state, but that didn't mean he could allow himself to be out of the loop. He wanted to be back in action the moment he had a green light from the Agency, and that meant knowing what was going on at the moment.
A knock disturbed his thoughts and he smiled as he discovered who his visitor was.
"Vin," he greeted his second-in-command.
"How ya doing, cowboy?" Vin asked as he flopped down in the chair opposite Chris's desk. His blue eyes gave him a once-over.
"Getting a headache."
Tanner smiled. "No one asked you to catch up on everything within a day."
Chris shrugged. "Had nothing else to do."
That got him a strangely piercing look, accompanied by a frown. "What?"
he demanded, suspicious.
Vin folded his hands over his stomach as he slouched more into the chair. "Oh, just thought you might want to work with your bonded partner on the connection you two share."
"We're not new at this any more, Vin. We know how it works."
The frown stayed. "Really? Could've fooled me."
Now Chris mirrored the mimicry. "What are you talking about?"
"Okay, if you are so hard headed, let me spell it out for you: your bond changed. It became tighter, more personal. You said it yourself, Ezra couldn't mind-talk to you. Now he apparently can. You are human again, Chris. It changes what's up here." Vin touched a finger to his temple. "The bond is changing and you are connecting in new and different ways." Chris's frown stayed. "I don't feel different."
Vin sighed deeply and stood. "Okay, my mistake then. Maybe I'm interpreting everything the wrong way."
"What 'everything'?" Chris demanded.
"Well, beginning with Ezra's state-of-mind when you were back with us, how he tried to run, how you could follow the bond so clearly as if homing in on it." Vin leaned forward, hands placed on Larabee's desk.
"Watching you two, it's almost painful. Ezra's still running. Not from the Agency or whatever awaits him back home. He's running from himself, from the bond, and from you, Chris. He's running from the pain this lack of acknowledgment means."
The blond stared at his second as Vin straightened and headed for the door. Vin was normally a very laid-back type of personality. He never put himself up front if it wasn't necessary and he was a very good observer.
For him to take up the role of an active participant was something remarkable.
"Yes?" He stopped and looked at Larabee.
"What can I do?" Chris asked quietly.
Vin turned thoughtful. "You share more than what I ever did in the little time I was honored to have a soul partner," he said softly. "You are bound tighter than anyone I ever knew. My advise is to seek him out, talk to him, and take it from there."
And with that the door closed after the other man, plunging Chris into the silence of his office and the turmoil of his own thoughts.
Three days. Off planet, aboard an Agency ship, among men who, if he had met them under different circumstances, would have thrown him into a cell and lost the key. Playing with a deck of cards he had discovered in one of the drawers, Ezra gazed at the darkness outside the ship. Space.
He had almost forgotten how it was to be in this empty darkness. He placed his palm against the port window, as always amazed that it didn't freeze his skin. Splaying his fingers against the glass, he watched the stars sparkle through the gaps.
Ezra didn't need to turn his head to know who had approached him.
And only one person could touch his mind like this. They weren't telepathic.
There was no way one of the two could read the other mind, but the emotions coming through were the same. Emotions and something like colors, moods, feelings.... the whole nine yards.
<Thinking?> Chris asked, coming to a stop behind him.
He dropped the hand to his side. <Something like it>
The silent communication was almost natural now, and unnerved the other Agents a great deal, Ezra mused with a grin.
He wanted to counter that he had never had a home, but for the last months the lonely, backwater planet had been his. But did he miss it? In a way. Ezra missed the wide-open spaces, the freedom. He, who had grown up in bustling space ports, who had never set foot on a wilderness planet until he had been forced to run to this little haven.
<Kinda. Not really. I don't know> he finally said softly.
Ezra had tried to withdraw in the last few days, had feigned interest in catching up on news or sleeping in a real bed again, but every so often he was interrupted by one of the others, mostly Josiah or Buck.
Chris was a constant presence anyway; he didn't have to be there physically for Ezra to know that the older man had a worried frown on his forehead or that he asked the others about Standish.
<We could go back>
"What? No!" Ezra turned to look at the slightly taller man, shocked.
Chris's hazel eyes sparkled. "Sure?"
Ezra exhaled slowly. "I don't know. I feel... displaced. I don't belong....."
"You do, Standish!" Chris told him forcefully.
"Really? What will happen when we get to the Agency? You can't protect me from my past. You can't save me....."
The bond whispered to him again and Ezra turned away. Damnit! He hated the bond! It made him want something he couldn't get and never thought about even wanting.
Oh Lord, Ezra thought as the need coursed through him again. Go away.
Now. Before I do something I will regret eternally, something you'll hate me for.
"I'm fine," he rasped, trying to deal with the raw emotions he experienced.
A strong hand grasped his shoulder and he was turned around, not fighting it much. The bond was like a living being inside him, needing the touch, the closeness. Chris caught the flitter of emotion that randomly crossed Ezra's features. They were standing about a foot apart, near enough to touch yet far enough to resist, tension stringing the short distance that lay between them.
<I can feel it, too>
Green eyes met hazel ones. Ezra saw his own need reflected in Chris's eyes and winced.
<Leave me alone, Chris> he managed. God, why couldn't he just die? Here and now.
Chris stepped closer to Ezra, who didn't move away. He looked Standish straight in the eye, the sheer electricity crackling almost audibly between them.
He swallowed, shivering. Warmth radiated from the spot where Chris still held him. <Because it's forced, it's the bond. Not us>
<I talked to Nathan. If we don't give in eventually, it'll tear us to pieces>
Ezra tore from the warm grip. "You went to Jackson about this?" he exclaimed, shock and betrayal in his eyes.
"Yes," Chris answered calmly.
"It's personal! It's.... why?!"
"Because I needed an answer. He told me that because we connected, because we are both Borderlines, the bond is fluctuating. Neither of us is really ready to give in to it, so it'll force us to do what should have been done."
"No!" Ezra yelled, shaking his head. "It's not real, not natural!"
"I don't think the bond cares."
"This connection between us is not sentient!"
Chris smiled sadly. "But its the driving force behind all our actions nevertheless. We have to give in."
Ezra stumbled against the porthole, shaking. "How can you talk about it this way...."
"Nathan told me the alternative, Ezra. Not pretty."
Standish screwed his eyes shut, tremors shaking him. "I can't....."
Chris sighed. "Do you think it's easy for me? We don't even know if the initial completion is enough."
Ezra was hit by another wave of nausea and he clenched his hands into fists as he fought the bile rising in his throat down. Everything seemed to swim around him and he lost touch with reality for a second, losing himself in the sensation being far, far away. It was as if Chris's soul touched him through the link and Ezra flinched in fear. He couldn't lower his natural shields. Just couldn't. No. Please, don't make me! His breath caught in his throat and he felt it hitch. Larabee just stayed where he was, physically as well as mentally.
"Ezra, we have to do something," Ezra heard him say." We'll go insane otherwise. It'll tear our souls apart."
"And giving in won't?" was the quiet question.
"I don't know."
The emerald eyes opened. "We might just make it worse."
Nothing came without a price. He had learned that even before he could walk and talk. Ingrained in him by birth. There was always a price tag, always a hidden agenda. Why would Chris Larabee willingly give into the bond between them? Why would he care? "We might just stay sane," Chris told him, voice serious.
Ezra looked into the open, hazel eyes. No lies, no deceit, just the need to follow what instinct told them both. "And the others?"
Larabee smiled. "They have to deal with whatever happens next." Ezra closed his eyes once more as the words exploded like fireworks the blackness of closed lids, and the intensity was too much to bear, and he couldn't hold back any longer. He opened his eyes, and his fears and protests dissolved away, unarticulated. In a last attempt to prevent the inevitable, Ezra pushed at Chris to get away. He suddenly felt a jet of ice cold lined with fire shoot through his hand where it touched Chris. Like a sliver of energy, it exited his body through his palm, straight into Larabee, and it was the strangest sensation. Not pain, but a deep, intense pulse, like a thousand heartbeats compressed into one.
Chris closed his eyes as he felt the fiery cold rush into his body.
The ice in his veins made him shiver, and he broke out in a cold sweat, feeling flushed - but this sensation was nothing like he'd ever felt before; instead of draining him, it felt invigorating, as if pouring life into his body, infusing a certain power into him from within.
Ezra burned. There was no distinction anymore. There were no lines drawn within himself. There was nothing he was sure of except... the need within him. A need he was finally listening to, a need was trying to fulfill.
Chris woke slowly. Consciousness returned at a leisurely pace, bit by bit, and he felt incredibly calm and at peace with himself. A feeling of everything being completely right, balanced and where it should be coursed through his body and soul. In the back of his waking mind a presence rested comfortably, fitting in, belonging there. Chris opened his eyes, his surroundings coming into focus. There was the faint background hum of the engines he knew so well, but nothing else disturbed the silence.
He stretched, which was when he became aware of the fact that he wasn't alone and that he was laying on the hard floor of the Chimera.
He rolled over and touched something soft and unfamiliar. Chris he felt shock course through him as he discovered the person next to him.
Ezra Standish lay curled up, eyes closed, face relaxed and as much at peace as Chris felt.
Larabee could only stare. How... what.... why....? He sat up abruptly, panic starting inside of him. Whether it was the emotional upheaval or his movements, he didn't know. Ezra woke with a start, eyes snapping open, and the same panic reflected back at him.
With an exclamation of surprise the smaller man moved back. Too bad the space between him and the wall was not wide enough to accommodate that movement. He bumped into it, almost cracking his head.
"Ezra!" Chris exclaimed.
Ezra's wide eyes stared at him. "What..... Chris?"
Confusion mingled in their minds, amplified by the mutual inability to recall what had happened. Chris remembered Ezra touching him, the liquid fiery cold, the completion, then everything had whited out. Judging from his partner's expression that was about all Ezra remembered as well.
"What happened.....?" Standish asked carefully.
"Wish I knew," Chris answered. <It's a bit hazy> The last was said using the link, without conscious effort.
Memories of the last night returned one by one. He had touched Ezra's soul. It had been the beautiful feeling, even if it was alien in so many ways. They had been close in mind before this, but now they were inseparable.
One. He whispered it through the link and saw Ezra's eyes widen. The bond as such had changed, had grown tighter, had strengthened. Chris marveled at how familiar this all seemed. How familiar Ezra was to him.
Before, he had felt kinship, friendship, trust. Now.... it was hard to describe. Mesmerized, the younger man gazed at him. A wordless question arced over the connection. Chris read fear and almost panic in it.
He collected his thoughts. This was awkward. What had happened to them? All he remembered was everything suddenly turning white, then nothingness.
No memories aside from what meager information he had gathered.
"I don't know what happened, but it feels good," the blond told him seriously.
Ezra looked down at his clasped hands, shivering. "I know." He started to rub a thumb over the back of his hand. <I feel it, too>
Chris felt the echo of last night's empathic jolts course through him. "The question is, what will happen now?"
Standish managed to get off the floor and settled down on a chair, almost wary of Chris, as if he feared something would happen that he couldn't stop.
<You okay?> Chris asked, slightly worried as Ezra continued to be silent.
Ezra swallowed. <I thought it was a dream.....>
<No dream, Ezra> Larabee smiled. <For real>
The other man briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Chris was struck by the turmoil in the green depths. Ezra had very expressive eyes when he let his shields fall. Chris felt the doubt and insecurity in the back of his mind that came from his partner.
<This changes everything> Ezra murmured. <What about your team?>
<I told you, the others will have to deal with it>
It wasn't about the link; it was about more. About Ezra being a con man and thief -- quite a good one, Chris had found out through the tight bonding -- and about Chris being an Agency team commander. Opposites in so many ways.
<Ezra, we are soul partners> Chris told him, holding the emerald eyes. <Nothing can persuade me to let you go>
<I'll hurt you>
<You haven't in the past; you won't in the future>
A sigh. <I'm talking about my very presence and your status. I'm a criminal, for crying out loud!>
The thief was starting to reach his breaking point, had maybe already reached it, and he was flailing for reasons to push Chris away.
"You're not running again, Ezra," Larabee stated calmly, catching Ezra off guard. With a smirk he added, "We linked for real last night.
I know what you thought you could do. I'm not letting you run."
The thief suddenly sobered, his eyes becoming unreadable.
"It won't work," Standish said flatly, erecting his defenses once more. "How about you let us find out together?"
Chris saw a familiar mask fall into place at that. Ezra was wearing his poker face again, trying to keep him at bay. Damn, the man was good.
No wonder he was such a pro in his job. Still, the mind-link gave him away to one single person and that was Chris Larabee.
<Ez ... don't do this. I can still reach you, you know that> A warmth permeated him, warmer than any fire, spreading through every fiber of his being.
<Don't you have to be somewhere?> Ezra asked faintly, desperately trying to maintain composure, <Commander Larabee?>
Larabee sighed inwardly, knowing that his friend, no his soul mate, he corrected himself, would sense how he felt. <Okay, for now. But this isn't over yet, Ezra. We'll talk later>
The thief simply nodded, not showing a single emotion. Chris swallowed a sigh and left.
Vin didn't have to ask how the talk had been. He saw the answers written on Ezra's face. On one side the thief was calmer, more relaxed, but there was still a tension in that small frame that seemed to scream at everyone who looked closely enough.
The bond was complete. No doubt about it. Inseparable, interwoven on so many levels that no surgeon would ever be able to cut all the strands.
But Ezra was fighting. He was too stubborn to give in easily, and too independent to seek out help. Then again, he didn't know that there was someone aboard the Chimera who was very well able to understand him and his pain. Vin found him in the exercise room, which was abandoned this time of the day. Ezra had stripped down to a shirt and sweat pants, and was attacking a wall-mounted, padded bag. Covered in sweat, the thief danced in front of the bag, feet and hands hitting the target with precise and hard kicks or jabs. His eyes were fixed only on his imaginary opponent, never wavering in their concentration. One particularly vicious jab made Vin wince. That had to hurt.
"Give the poor bag a break, Ezra," he drawled softly, startling the smaller man. "It's not used to being pounded like that."
Standish was breathing hard, sweat running down his flushed features.
"What gives me the honor, Mr. Tanner?" he asked, slightly out of breath.
"Was lookin' for you."
Ezra started to unwrap his bandaged hand, flexing them. Where the bandage hadn't covered him, scrapes and bruises could be seen. He gave Vin a questioning look.
"Thought you might wanna talk."
"Currently I don't have any inclination to."
"What you're doing to yourself doesn't help in any way, Ezra," Vin went on, recognizing the stiffening shoulders as the first walls coming up. "I'm glad you and Chris finally got yourselves together, but you're about to make it worse again."
"What are you babbling about?" Ezra snapped, green eyes flashing once.
"Mr. Larabee and I didn't 'get together'!"
Vin smiled. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I know you finally really acknowledged the bond between you, but it's not over yet. Just because you gave in once doesn't mean everything's just fine again. You'll hurt much worse till this is over unless you accept the consequences."
Ezra threw the soiled bandages onto the mattresses on the floor. "What makes you such an expert, Mr. Tanner?" he whispered, voice harsh. "You have no idea! None at all! I didn't ask for this!" He clenched his teeth and kept his mouth shut, trying to keep himself from spilling more. "I'm not an expert," Vin said calmly. "Just someone who lost his soul mate and has to live with it."
Ezra's expression was priceless. There was a second of suspicious disbelief, but when he couldn't read a lie in Vin's open features, his eyes widened briefly, and he swallowed once.
"I..... I didn't know....," the thief mumbled.
"Ezra," Vin said gently, walking closer. "I'd hate to see you go through what I did while you have your soul partner alive and well, at arm's reach, just because you're too stubborn for your own good."
"I can't do this," Ezra mumbled. "I can't do it to him. I gave in last night, but I can't give in the rest."
Ezra bit his lower lip, fighting his own demons. Finally he shook his head and turned away, grabbing a towel to rub off the sweat.
"Are you afraid of opening your soul to another being? That someone really knows who you are? Seeing past your walls, discovering the real you?"
"Are you afraid to die to learn to live?"
The smaller man stood still as a statue, then a tremor ran through the compact frame. He turned and Vin winced in sympathy at the raw pain he saw reflected in there. He knew it only too well. And he saw recognition there, that Ezra had discovered the truth in Vin's words.
"I'm not afraid, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, voice barely above a whisper.
"I'm scared out of my mind."
Vin nodded. "So was I. I didn't know what was happening, only that I was suddenly half of something else."
"And how did you cope?"
Ezra hadn't moved from where he stood and Vin didn't dare approach him yet.
"I didn't 'cope', Ezra. I learned to accept. Little by little. His name was Chanu. He was of the tribe of people I had spent a lot of time with throughout my college years. I studied their ways and theoretically I knew everything about what they called life bonds. Practically I was ill-prepared. Chanu helped me, made me see that by accepting that I had to let go of a part of me, I'd gain a lot more."
Ezra gazed at the floor. "I am afraid to die," he said, voice wavering.
"Because I don't know if I can live with what comes afterwards."
"No one does, but if you don't risk it, you'll never find out." "It's not my risk alone. What if I lose this gamble?"
Pain flared briefly inside Vin, reminding him of his own loss. "I lost my life partner, Ezra. Through a terrible accident. It was the most agonizing moment of my life. Our bond was violently severed, I was tossed into darkness, without his soul to guide me." Vin felt his voice quiver.
"I regret the loss, but I don't regret knowing him. I'll always remember what he gave me, I treasure it, and I will live to honor him."
Emerald eyes bright with tears met Vin's blue ones. Ezra drew a trembling breath, hands clenched into fists.
"I have to go," he finally said, voice barely above a whisper, then he turned and almost fled the gym.
Vin remained behind, a sad smile on his lips.
"What is he to you?"
From anyone else, the question would have been personal and earned him a swift verbal return. From Vin, it was a normal inquiry.
Chris looked at his friend and smiled faintly. "A part of me," he answered truthfully. "Something I didn't know I would ever have again after Sarah died. Ezra... fills a void in me, Vin."
Tanner gave him a thoughtful look and Chris felt like squirming. "Is he a replacement for Sarah?" his second-in-command asked straight forward.
Larabee nearly choked on his own breath. "What?" he exclaimed. "No! Sarah... Sarah was my wife. I loved her." He fought down the emotions threatening to rise. "She held a very special place, Vin. No one can touch that place. Ezra... touches something else. Sarah was my heart, my conscience, my better half. Ezra is the missing piece of my soul."
He gazed at the younger man. "I need him."
Chris swallowed a sharp reply. He knew Vin was trying to help them understand what was developing at the speed of a runaway train. "No.
Not like this. Ezra.... I know we have different personalities, Vin.
I know we butt heads, we clash, but... he's part of me. I can't explain it. It feels right. Here." He touched his chest.
Vin smiled openly. "Good." He rose and nodded at his friend.
Chris watched him go. Tanner had somehow developed a protective streak when it came to the thief. Not all that much of a surprise when considering his own past, but still a matter of puzzlement. Ezra wasn't the one to accept help easily or have someone else fight his battles. Whatever Vin had done to get Ezra to trust him in these matters, Chris knew it was a special form of friendship. He opened the drawer of his desk and took out a framed picture. It showed a beautiful, curly-haired woman, her brown hair pulled out of her face, smiling. She had a child in her arms, a boy of maybe three of four. Chris sadly traced a finger over the still face. No, not like Sarah, he thought. Different. Very much different.
Ezra had spent the rest of the 'day' aboard the Chimera in his quarters, staring blankly at the wall, refusing any contact with Chris. His emotions were raging wildly and while he still felt Chris's presence as clearly as before, he had poured a lot more energy into blocking his own. It was a draining experience and he hated himself for doing it. It was for the best, he repeated over and over in his mind. For their mutual best.
But Vin's words echoed through his mind.
Are you afraid to die to learn to live? The answer was simple. Yes, he was. He didn't want to let the part of him die that kept everyone at bay, that hid behind masks and shields, that was insecure and always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The part that made him such a damn good thief because it kept him on his toes. Or at least that was what he told himself. If he offered Chris this part of his soul, if he trusted him so far, he would sooner or later be hurt. Give a little, get a little, it had never worked for Ezra Standish. The few times he had given, he had been hurt by what had been returned to him.
Never trust anyone with your soul, a voice whispered.
Yes, but currently, his soul was inseparably connected to someone else. That was where the whole dilemma lay.
Sleep claimed him throughout the late hours and plunged him into a dreamless state.
Ezra woke, blurting out a name that sounded suspiciously like 'Sarah'.
He lay in his bed, blinking at the ceiling. Who the heck was Sarah and why had he dreamed of her? //The scorched wreck was still smoking slightly, looking like a grotesque skeleton of an ancient creature that had died a horrible death. The area around the wreck was scorched and there was leftover foam clinging to the brittle stone from when the fire-fighters had done their best to contain the flames. He walked toward the burned-out transporter, recognizing it as his own. He had bought it just two years ago. It had been a real bargain. Now it was worth scrap.
Two people had died here. A gruesome, violent death.//Ezra felt his heart rate rise as images of a beautiful woman with a child in her arms flashed through his mind. She was waving at him, smiling happily. Then the happiness was drowned in the blackness of despair as fire raged across the woman's image. He screwed his eyes shut, feeling cold sweat break out on his skin as unbelievable emotional pain and rage he had never felt like this before swamped him.
Not his feelings, a weak voice insisted.
He used the connection unconsciously, reaching out in near-panic.
His voice was a dying candle in a howling storm. Ezra slid out of his bed, tears stinging his eyes as the emotional upheaval brought with it memories of something not he but Chris had experienced. A wonderful wife, a child, his own home, a great job. All blown away in an instant. Ezra stumbled out of his quarters, blindly drawn to Chris's. He was hanging by a thread, emotionally, by the time he got there. His body was shaken by tremors and he was bathed in sweat.
<Chris....> he tried again, but with no success.
He all but fell against the door that led to the personal quarters.
He didn't have the entrance codes, but Ezra was a thief; he knew how to break into locked rooms. He didn't know how he did it, but finally the doors slid open and he made it inside. Without even glancing at the sparsely decorated interior, he staggered toward the bedroom.
Chris was tossing and turning in his bed, mumbling to himself. Like Ezra, he was sweating, his hair plastered to his head, and his movements were jerky and rather violent. An agonized moan could be heard and it cut into Ezra like a knife. Their bond flared with the agony the other man was living through.
<"Chris, wake up!">
Ezra touched one tense shoulder. It was a mistake. Hindered by the incredible headache the flooded link presented him with, slowed down by the nausea the memories evoked, he couldn't evade the fist that came crashing into his face. He was thrown back as pain exploded in his cheek and stars danced in front of his eyes.
"Ezra...?" Chris voice sounded weak, hesitant. "Oh hell!" That was uttered stronger. "Shit, Ez... sorry... I didn't know...."
Ezra blinked owlishly at the man who bent over him. Chris looked like Standish felt.
"What are you doing here?" Larabee demanded all of a sudden.
"You were blasting all over the frequencies," Ezra mumbled, carefully probing his tender jaw. "You had a dream you wanted to share."
Chris sank down next to him, looking shocked. He ran a shaky hand through his damp hair. "Hell...." he muttered again. "I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. Must have been something really bad."
The blond didn't answer. He simply gazed at the floor, appearing a bit lost all of a sudden. "Yeah," Chris said after a while. "Really bad."
Ezra waited. His soul offered almost instinctively, even though part of Ezra resisted. He never offered freely. Too much could be taken from him; there were too many ways for someone else to hurt him.
Chris raised deeply troubled eyes and Ezra winced as he realized the pain hidden in there. <It happened a long time ago> he whispered, not trusting his voice to talk.
<Still hurts> Ezra answered the same way.
A nod. Chris fell silent, studying the irregular patches of light on the floor. <Sarah....> The name came with great difficulty <was my wife. We had a son. Adam. They died>
The wreck, Ezra thought silently. They had died in that burned out wreck.
<The bomb.... had been meant for me> Chris went on, his voice sounding strained. <Buck and me, we were just on our way back from a mission.
It had taken a day longer than expected. It should have been me driving.
Sarah took my place.... and she paid for it>
Anger swamped Ezra, uncontrolled rage at one person: Chris Larabee himself. <Wasn't your fault, Chris> he heard himself say, aching for the other man. His soul cried softly.
Chris screwed his eyes shut, fighting his own reactions. It had been such a long time, but the pain hadn't really dulled. Ezra remained where he was, silent, observing him. Tears started to leak from behind the lids, spilling over the pale cheeks. Tense shoulders shook silently.
The bond screamed with shared agony and Ezra tried to fight the last walls he so bravely upheld.
Trust. Just trust someone. Take the risk and do it.
The inner turmoil exploded and the knot in his mind unraveled. Without conscious thought, Ezra put an arm around the soundlessly crying man beside him, pulling the trembling body closer. He did nothing else, just held him, radiating a strength he didn't know he had. Chris simply fell into the light embrace and Ezra was struck by the vulnerability and the amount of trust the other man put into him, just before he realized what he himself had done.
Tentatively at first, he cracked the shield around his mind. Warmth flooded him and he felt the shield waver. Ezra was still very insecure, trembling, ready to bolt, but he couldn't. He stayed. For a brief time, the bond was open two ways. No more barriers, no more lies. The hunger inside him was suddenly no more, the need no longer so achingly oppressive.
<I'm here> Ezra heard himself whisper.
Chris's presence latched onto him like a drowning man, the despair, pain and loneliness sinking into both minds. Ezra countered the darkness with the little he could give, the warmth of his hope and finally his trust in his partner. A trust he had never given to anyone else in that amount. A trust that, if Chris ever betrayed it, would destroy him.
Ezra came to, feeling beaten and still tired. It had been a long night, and a quite stressful one. Chris had felt anger, pain, betrayal, rage - not a single positive emotion as the memories walked through his mind over and over again. Ezra had simply held him, had shared the pain, had let his partner purge his system. Not a single word had fallen and finally Chris had slipped into sleep.
Ezra had warred with the decision he had to make: leave or stay. In the end he had stayed, using the slightly too small couch to sleep on.
Now his legs were cramped, as was his neck, and he felt terrible. Well, maybe coffee would cure this. He rose slowly and padded over to the coffee machine Chris had in his quarters, trying to work the kinks out of his back and neck.
Chris Larabee woke and for a moment his mind was a blank. Then memories came back. He closed his eyes, willing the surging emotions to subside again. It had all happened such a long time again, but still the wounds felt raw whenever he touched them. Last night, the scars had broken open, though he had no idea what had triggered them.
Stumbling out of bed he made it to the bathroom. He splashed some cold water into his face, resisting to swallow painkillers. They wouldn't be able to numb this particular pain. Resting his hands on the sink's rim he forced himself to relax. After a while his body and mind quieted down. Because of this quiet, Chris became aware of something he had never felt before. A gentle brush touched his mind, fleetingly, like a breeze.
It was warm, of a feathery quality, but still strong. He smiled involuntarily.
Chris left the bathroom, breathing deeply, then stopped. The way the couch looked, a crumbled blanket and some bunched-up pillows, someone had spent the night there.
<Ezra?> he asked, almost unconsciously using the link, then he discovered his partner sitting in the far corner, cross-legged, on the only armchair he owned.
He looked bad. Almost as bad as Chris felt. The link between them radiated open worry and Chris marveled at how clearly he could suddenly read his friend.
<I'm okay> he answered the wordless question.
<Liar> was the soft reply.
<I will be>
<I hope so>
<Ezra, last night....> He saw him wince and lower his eyes. "Ezra?"
Chris spoke out loud, startling the thief. "Thank you," he finally just said.
Ezra's head whipped up and Chris smiled at the open confusion in the emerald eyes.
"Thank you for trusting me."
Ezra swallowed, then just nodded, unable to say anything. He had given Chris everything last night. He had opened his soul, had been vulnerable.
They had placed an immense amount of trust into each other on BP-379 already. Ezra wouldn't have made it on his own and neither would have Chris. Things had changed profoundly the moment Chris had turned human again, and now.... Part of him fought bitterly against the feelings that the bond was creating. He had been raised to trust no one, not even his own mother. All that had been shot to hell with the bond. Larabee shot him a look when he didn't answer. Enough emotions had leaked through anyway. Ezra felt like screaming.
Please let my decision be the right one, Ezra prayed.
"So how does this shifting work?" Chris asked.
Ezra walked around the cargo hall, giving it all a critical once-over.
It was mainly filled with crates which had been securely strapped to the walls. Number and letter codes had been painted on the unicolor boxes, marking them as supplies or machinery.
He turned back to Chris, a look of concentration on his face. "It's a principle of mind over matter. Your mind controls the trigger inside you, the part responsible for the change. The trigger, once found, is easy to locate again, but the tricky part is not to change unconsciously.
Changes can happen because of emotions or thoughts, and if they happen when you least expect them, it can be embarrassing." He flashed the older man a knowing grin.
Chris had decided that since they had a lot of time on their hands till they reached the Agency main port, he and Ezra could spend it exploring their abilities. Since Chris was now also a Borderline human with the ability to change into an alternate form, he needed to know how to do it. It might be an asset when it came to missions, or a liability if he had no idea how to prevent himself from changing involuntarily.
"How do I locate the trigger?"
"Do you remember what it was like to be Kiowata?"
Chris smiled wryly. "Yes."
"Now think of that feeling, what it was like and..."
There was a ripping sound and Ezra had to hold onto himself not to laugh out loud. A snicker escaped nevertheless, which got him an evil look. The huge, black Kiowata towered over the smaller human, nostrils opening wide as he blew out air in annoyance.
"You should take off your clothes first," Ezra managed between bubbles of laughter.
<Very funny, Standish!>
"But you found the trigger, Chris. Good."
<And how do I get back?>
"The same way, but that's a bit more difficult. You have to reverse what you just did."
<I have no clue what I just did!>
Ezra grinned. "You changed."
<Standish!> Chris glared at him, ears lying flat on his head. The thief chuckled. "Okay, try to think human again. Imagine yourself as Commander Chris Larabee."
<And what am I right now?> came the sharp reply. <A horse?>
"Actually.... yes...." Ezra danced out of the way as Chris lunged at him, the sharp hooves clattering on the hard, metal floor. "Think human." Nothing happened. Chris pranced angrily, shaking his head.
Ezra felt a tingle down the link between them and blinked. Before he could think about it, there was the sudden, familiar sensation of his point of balance shifting, his world changed, and the ripping sound told him that his borrowed clothes had just gone the way of all clothes.
What the heck....? Turning his head, Ezra found he was facing a stark naked Chris Larabee, who quickly grabbed his shredded shirt and held it in front of him. "What the hell....?" the Agency commander exclaimed.
Ezra tilted his head, baffled. Valid question. What the hell.....
Chris' anger had washed over him, blanked his mind, and -- had triggered him. Shi-it! <Uh....> Ezra muttered. <You triggered both of us?>
Chris stared at him. "How...?"
<No clue. I felt your anger and then..... voila>
"Voila my ass!" Chris looked around for something that wasn't just rags.
Ezra discovered that some of his own clothes were still rather okay, even if they didn't resemble a shirt or a pair of pants anymore. Shifting back into human form, which resembled no problem for him, he snatched his former shirt to cover himself.
"Is this a private party or can everyone join?"
The jovial voice belonged to Buck, who was leaning against the open hangar doors, watching the two barely covered men with laughing eyes.
Vin pushed into the hangar, smirking.
"Shut up, Buck!" Chris snarled.
"So that's what you call 'training', eh?" Wilmington teased.
Larabee glared. "I said shut your smart mouth and hand me some clothes!"
Vin, taking mercy on them, walked over to a cabinet and pulled out two space suits. Chris turned and quickly pulled it on, followed by Ezra.
"So, you boys making any progress?"
The Glare intensified. "Yes," Chris managed through clenched teeth.
Ezra hid a chuckle, but the intimate connection still translated it.
Chris transferred The Glare to his partner. Standish valiantly bit down on the laughter, unfazed by the evil expression in the dark eyes. "How about we postpone this session?" Ezra proposed.
"How about we chug it out of the window completely?" the blond growled and stalked past them.
Ezra remained behind with the other two men. Buck clapped him on the shoulder.
"So, what were you guys doing in the buff, huh?"
He rolled his eyes. "You have a dirty mind, Mr. Wilmington."
"That's a well-known fact," Vin commented, grinning. "Which brings us right back: what were you guys doing here?"
The last hours before docking at the Four Corners space port Ezra spent alone in his quarters, staring at the wall, trying to shut out Larabee's presence in the back of his mind. Chris was busy on the bridge of the Chimera and Ezra was glad for it. It gave him the necessary peace and quiet to try and figure out what the heck to do. Chris knew he was ready to make a run for it and that meant the commander wouldn't let him out of his sight, let alone wander around alone. He had no doubt that the moment they had docked, the Agency would have people there, welcoming them - and throwing him into jail. Ezra severely doubted that the head of Section 7 would welcome him as a member of the Agency. He was a convict, he had broken the law from the day on he could walk. How could he suddenly have a clean enough slate to become, Ezra winced, a member of law enforcement? The landing went smoothly and he barely felt the shudder of the ship as it touched down within the cavernous hangar. Ezra rose from where he had sat on his bed, feeling Chris's presence change. He was on his way. Steeling himself, slipping his defenses into place, he stepped out of his quarters.
"I take it we have arrived?" he greeted his partner.
Larabee, dressed in the dark blue and black representative Agency uniform, nodded. "JD and Josiah will remain on the ship. To check her through. Buck's taking care of the port authorities. The rest of us has an appointment with Judge Travis."
The need to flee was suddenly overwhelming and Ezra bit down on it, hard. Chris's face changed briefly, compassion and worry on his features.
<Ez, relax. Please. It'll be okay>
No, it wouldn't be okay. Whoever this Judge was, he would have his files by now. He would know who he was. Chris's conviction that Standish would remain free and become a member of the team would be proven wrong.
Still, he managed to conjure up a smile, trying to shield his emotions.
If he could just clamp down on his emotional reactions, Larabee would be none the wiser.
A small voice whispered that Chris knew him well enough already. He didn't need reactions to know how he felt. He had seen and felt it throughout the deep Bonding days ago.
Four men walked through the maze of corridors. Ezra willed himself to just stare ahead, keep his emotions to himself, but Chris's close presence was making it harder and harder. He and Vin were flanking him, Nathan had brought up the rear. He would only move forward and each step took him closer to impending disaster.
<Why don't you believe me, Ezra?" Chris asked softly.
The blond was looking ahead as well, his face passive. Ezra lowered his eyes, his jaw clenching tightly.
<Why don't you trust me?>
The simple question nearly made him stop dead where he was, but he fought on, trying to maintain his neutral expression. He did trust his partner, had opened up to him like to no one else before when he had held him throughout that night aboard. He trusted Chris, but how much power did one single Agent have against a Joined Government Judge? The office of Judge Orrin Travis was large. A secretary smiled at them and informed the four men that the Judge was already expecting them.
Ezra was close to digging his heels in. His stomach was a tight knot of fear, his mind was screaming at him, and the bond didn't help matters at all. He was trying to keep what he felt from Chris, but since they hadn't started on shields yet, it was a lost cause.
Larabee briefly looked at Nathan and Vin, who wordlessly gave them some room, then he turned to Ezra. The thief was evading his eyes, his face a taut, pale mask, his eyes full of barely hidden panic. His hands were clenched into fists and he was shaking ever so slightly. Minute tremors raced through the link.
"Ezra," he said softly under his breath.
Standish refused to look up. It took all his willpower to just stay here, Chris realized through the link. One wrong move and Ezra would bolt. <Nothing will happen to you>
There was a faint hiccupping coming through the connection. <You don't know that> Ezra whispered. <You are just an Agent, you have no power to overrule a Judge>
<No, that I don't> he confessed.
Standish shivered. Images of court rooms and prison cells made it through the barrier of control.
<But I won't let them harm you. You have my word, Ezra. If Travis won't go with it, I'll resign>
The brown head snapped up and wide green eyes stared at him. Gotcha, Chris thought with faint amusement.
"You can't be serious!" Ezra hissed.
"Whatever happens to you, Ezra, it will happen to me. We are interwoven too deeply to go separate ways. I thought you had realized that." The thief opened his mouth to say something, then clamped it shut. "Let's go," Chris said quietly and gave Ezra a little push, feeling the tension in the compact frame.
The four men entered the spacious office, Ezra trying to keep at the back, but since Nathan was bringing up the rear again, that was difficult.
Judge Orrin Travis had his back to them, looking out of the window of the office building that towered over the bustling space port's inner city. He turned as the door closed.
"Welcome back, Chris."
Travis was a man in his early sixties, with a weathered face and gray, short hair. He was wearing a suit with the insignia of the Agency on the left chest. Sharp eyes looked over the small assembly, then came to rest on Ezra, who was visibly fighting not to shrink back from the hard expression. "So you are Ezra P. Standish, then. I heard and read quite a lot about you, Mr. Standish. Con man, thief, gambler, cheat, and the list goes on. I'm surprised you haven't served any time yet."
"Luck," Ezra muttered.
Travis picked up a medium sized folder. "I have it all here, black on white. From petty theft to rather outrageous cons and industrial espionage.
Give me one reason why I shouldn't throw you in jail for the rest of your life right away."
"Sir...." Chris started, feeling Ezra's rising anxiety and panic.
"I think Ezra would be a valuable addition to the team. Hand that he served his sentence on the planet."
"Do you now?" Travis turned his sharp eyes on Chris. "From the reports I've read so far, you aren't the one to impartially judge the situation, Commander. Apparently, you and Mr. Standish have gone through some ...
bonding." A wry smile graced the thin lips.
"We share a connection, Sir," Chris agreed.
"So you think you know him? You trust him?"
"With my life, Sir."
Ezra stared at him. Chris smiled.
<With my soul>
The thief swallowed heavily and averted his gaze.
"You might want to rethink that statement, Commander. The man you want to trust, the man you want on your team, is a criminal. Not just petty crimes like shoplifting or stealing bags from old ladies. He is a pro." Travis' eyes narrowed as he looked at his men.
"I need him on my team," Chris said quietly. "He paid for whatever he did already."
Two pairs of steely eyes met.
<Chris, don't push it> Ezra begged.
"Otherwise, you'll find my resignation on your desk tomorrow morning."
Green eyes widened in shock. "No!" Ezra exclaimed. He turned to Travis.
"Don't listen to him!"
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris growled.
The Judge raised an eyebrow.
Nathan stepped forward. "If I may, Sir. It's not so easy to condemn Ezra to a jail sentence without considering what it will do to his bonded partner." He shot Chris a quick look.
"I read the reports," Travis repeated. "Dr. Jackson, while I know and accept the scientific proof concerning empathic and even telepathic mind-links, I find it hard to see something like a soul bond between Commander Larabee and Mr. Standish."
"But it's true," Chris said quietly. "It's how I survived, how we both survived. Ezra and I share something. If you throw him in jail, you can as well kiss my ass good-bye because whatever happens to him will happen to me."
Travis surveyed them all, eyes coming to rest on Vin, who had been quiet so far. "May I ask your opinion, Mr. Tanner?"
"'s true," Vin only answered. "They are one. And Ezra'd make a nice addition to the team."
"Either your crew is too loyal for their own good, or you really believe you can change a character like Mr. Standish's." Travis's hard eyes held Ezra's gaze. "I won't be blackmailed by your threat of resignation, Commander Larabee," he continued.
Ezra flinched back and Chris felt a surge of protective anger. <Chris, don't make it any worse> Ezra whispered.
<He has the proof on paper! He just won't listen!>
"Adding a known criminal to a team of Agents is against everything I believe in." Travis still watched the two men, and it was hard to miss Chris's barely hidden anger. Ezra kept his face carefully schooled. The Judge crossed his arms in front of his chest. "We would make this team a prime target for all kinds of accusations, in addition to having to watch Mr. Standish 24/7 for... unauthorized activities."
"You overlooked such minor problems when it came to others on my team!"
Ezra blinked. He wasn't the only criminal? "Mr. Standish is a bit more of a complex problem, Commander."
"You'll have complex problems soon enough when I start having nervous breakdowns!" Chris snapped. <And you shut your trap, Standish! I'm not backing down!>
It was hard for Travis not to notice the fury in Larabee's eyes as he briefly glanced at Standish, who gave the Agent a half-smirk. He frowned.
"You better prepare a cell for two if you won't let Ezra stay." Travis allowed himself a smile. He had known Larabee ever since a much younger Chris had become an Agent and had later transferred to Section 7. He had gotten to know him as someone who commanded respect from those he worked with by his sheer presence. He had risen to the position of team leader because of that respect, his dogged approach to cases and investigations, and his sharp mind. Chris was very observant to visual cues and clued in to his intuition. Because of this observant behavior and his instincts, Travis was inclined to trust him on the matter of Ezra Standish. The thief had spent the best part of two years on the hell hole planet, part of it as a Kiowata. The only problem was the claim of a bond between those two rather opposite men, but watching them, Travis saw little signs of silent communication. It was like witnessing an argument without any words being spoken.
"I have no intention to remove one of my best men from the field,"
he finally said into the silence. "But I also don't want to see him getting dragged down because of the likes of Mr. Standish."
Standish's facial control was remarkable. Except for a flicker in the green eyes, he remained perfectly still. Like made out of wax.
"If I give in to your application for another man, for this man, it will be under several conditions."
"Name them," Chris said immediately. And again he shot Standish a look that would have silenced all and any protests, if Ezra had even looked like he was protesting. Curious.
"One, Mr. Standish will officially join the Agency."
Ezra's mouth fell open.
"Agreed," Chris immediately said.
"I won't become law enforcement!" Ezra hissed.
"Shut up, Ez."
The smaller man clamped his mouth shut, but again, Travis had the impression that the argument was going on.
"Second, I want his Borderline abilities tested. Same as yours. They will be on record."
There was a heated expression in the thief's eyes, but he was keeping his mouth shut. With difficulty, Travis mused. Intriguing.
"He will use his skills only in the benefit of the Agency. Any...
extracurricular activities and I'll have all your asses in a sling."
Chris nodded. "Agreed. Shut up, Ezra."
Fury lit up the green eyes.
"Anything else, Sir?"
"I think that about covers it, gentlemen."
<Chris!> Ezra hissed. <What are you doing!>
<Trusting you not to mess up and get us all thrown out of the Agency>
<You aren't the one to decide that!>
<And you are?> Chris snapped back.
<Yes! Me and your friends. You are making decisions for them!>
<Because I'm their boss. Now shut up!>
Travis looked pleased and Ezra tried to keep his mounting anger under control. It was increasingly hard to do so. How could Chris do that? He should have stayed on the planet, he should have hidden in the wilderness....
he should have ended it. Chris was caught in this struggle with his boss because of him, Ezra Standish. He would be responsible if Chris lost his job, they all lost their jobs. Tremors raced through him. It was too much to take and he couldn't even run. In the past he had fled from whatever was threatening him; now.... he had no choice all of a sudden.
He felt trapped.
Someone elbowed him gently and Ezra looked up into the amused eyes of Judge Travis.
"Welcome to the Agency, Mr. Standish," the older man was saying.
"Thanks," he mumbled.
As the men filed out, Travis held Chris back. "A word, please, Commander."
Chris gave Ezra an encouraging smile as alarmed green eyes met his.
<Go. I'll be out in a moment>
Travis looked at his Agent, noticing the relaxed stance, the half smile on the sun-tanned features, and the sparkle that had taken permanent residence in the hazel eyes. He and Chris went back such a long time in the Agency, he had always thought he knew the other man. Now, within the last minutes, he had revised that opinion. At least partially.
"Are you aware of what you're getting yourself into, Chris?" Travis asked. "The trouble you are inviting?"
Larabee nodded. "Perfectly."
The Judge gave him a critical look, then tossed the file over to him.
Chris gazed at him, a frown crossing his features.
"Ezra Standish a criminal," Travis went on, nodding at the folder once more. "Not a big fish, but large enough to survive in a tank full of piranhas - and conning them out of their possessions."
"Judge, you don't understand what happened on BP-379. No one can.
Ezra and I.... came to an understanding about our situation and whether you believe in the existence of soul mate bonds or not, my offer of resignation from service will always stand."
Travis smiled slightly as he met he cold hazel eyes. "I'm not asking you to, and you know it. I just want you to consider the risks you're taking." "I know them all and I think it's worth it."
The Judge looked curiously at him. "You trust him this much?"
"With my life, Sir."
Travis knew Chris didn't make these statements lightly. Whatever was between the two very different men, it had to be something special. He mused briefly if there was something he didn't see or refused to see, then decided against it.
"There might come a day where this statement is put to a test," he remarked.
Chris nodded slowly. "There might, yes. I'm not fearing that day."
"This is as much your call as mine, Chris. I accept your vote of confidence in Standish, but until I see some prove, he will be under close scrutiny."
Chris left the office and Travis went back to his work. Integrating Ezra Standish into the Agency would require some tap-dancing, but he had been part of the company for too long not to know how to do it.
When Ezra had stepped out of Travis' office, he had felt nothing at all. Inside of him, there was no emotion, not even fear. He was becoming part of the Agency; he, a criminal. And Chris was doing everything in his power to make it so. Part of him tried to gauge his soul partner's emotional state as he was alone in the Judge's office, but he was too confused too concentrate.
Someone slapped his shoulder hard and Ezra was jolted back into reality.
"Congrats, Ezra!" Buck called jovially, beaming. "Welcome to our little club!"
"I didn't ask to join, Mr. Wilmington."
"Aw, you'll like it with us." Buck still grinned widely. "Once you can ignore JD's wet-behind-the-ears antics or evade Josiah's philosophical discussions."
Josiah gave his colleague a mild glare while JD protested loudly.
"I'm not wet! I'm a professional pilot!"
"Which is about the only professional thing you are," Wilmington retorted.
"What are you doing here anyway?" Ezra asked.
"Oh, we wrapped up business with the port authority," Buck explained.
"The Chimera's getting serviced and we refueled. Thought we'd come and see if you're still in one piece."
"How considerate," Ezra said dryly.
"So you're really becoming an Agent?" JD wanted to know eagerly. "That's so cool!"
"I had no other choice. Mr. Larabee conned me into it," the thief answered. Buck chuckled. "That's Chris."
The door to Travis's office opened and Chris came out, giving his men a brief smile. "You're all here, good. The Judge has given us time off for now. We are on stand-by, but I doubt we'll be going anywhere soon." He gazed at Ezra. "We have to talk."
"I was afraid of that."
Buck gave him another jovial clap. "See ya, Ezra."
Standish gave Chris an apprehensive look as they walked down the corridor in the opposite direction from the team.
"Nothing is wrong," Chris finally said as they reached an elevator and he gave Ezra a calming smile.
"But....?" He could hear a 'but' coming.
"You can't join the Agency just like that."
Relief and dread mixed together and Ezra felt a mask slide into place.
<Ezra> Chris chastised softly.
He struggled with his instincts and lost. His defenses were up and he couldn't take them down that easily.
"I meant that to become an Agent in this team, to work with us, you have to go through training."
"Training? You want me to train?" Ezra stared at Chris in outrage, defenses momentarily forgotten. "I'm not going to some school, Mr. Larabee! Just put that thought out of your head."
Chris smirked. "Wasn't thinking of an academy anyway, Ezra. You'll be taking a crash-course in Agency training. I know you know about the law, but mostly the wrong side. You'll have to take a physical, pass a psychological evaluation...."
"Psycholo..... forget it! I won't!"
"Now don't be difficult. You agreed."
"No, let me correct you in that statement: you agreed on my behalf, Mr. Larabee. I didn't even get a word in because I was told to <shut up!>"
He sent the last part through the link as well.
Chris shrugged. "It was either that or really making due on my threat and resign. And spend the rest of my days locked up next to you in jail.
You see my reasoning?"
"No, I don't," Ezra sulked. "I won't go back to school!"
"Most of it will be on the job training. But you'll have to pass the psych tests and prove that you know the law, not just how to break it."
Ezra muttered something. It sounded suspiciously like 'not wearing a stupid jumpsuit'. Finally he looked up, his face a controlled mask.
"So when do we start and who has the pleasure of annoying the hell out of me?"
Larabee smiled. "We'll start right now and start with a little physical training."
"As for who will run you, well, let's see who volunteers....."
Ezra had six days of classes each week, each lasting from eight in the morning to six in the evening, with lunch breaks and ten minutes between individual lessons. Law he could handle. It was the easiest of them all. Communication Skills was broken into Protocol, Diplomacy and Languages. It presented little challenge most of the time. Finances was one of the smaller subjects and consisted mostly of the professor droning on about how to fill out blank forms and save Agency money by not chugging spent guns at the enemy. Combat and Tech Basics were his worst subjects.
Ezra could defend himself fairly well, but he relied on his own methods.
Shooting was okay as long as he didn't have to do long range. Flying was mediocre and he wondered why he should learn how to maneuver a freighter through an asteroid belt, but he clenched his teeth and went through with it. Everything was slowly but surely getting on Ezra's nerves.
It wasn't the fact that he had been stuck into rookie classes. He could handle those. He could handle rumors concerning his less than stellar past or how he had come to be here. It wasn't that his instructors held a low opinion of him either. Ezra was supposed to pass through the three months of training with good grades and that was what he was doing. It wasn't that some of them treated him like scum. It was what they said about the Chimera team. Picking on him was one thing, picking on the men who weren't there to defend themselves, something else.
He reigned in his spiking emotions and put them under iron control each time one of the bullies he had come to know from class tried to provoke him into doing something stupid. Sadly, the link wasn't part of that control. Chris was the recipient of more than one dark and violent message, and he wasn't exactly happy about it.
"You need to train," Vin remarked as he watched Chris struggle to counteract his own body's need to run his fist through the wall.
"I need to train?" Chris snapped. "Ezra has to learn some restraint!"
Vin raised an eyebrow and sipped at his coffee, leaning casually against the counter. "Ezra is doing fine. He hasn't killed one of his class yet."
"Because he's sending everything down the link!"
"True. He has no control over that, which is why both of you need to train for that."
Chris gave him a sour look. "You volunteering?"
Vin smiled more. "You asking?"
"Quit playing around, Tanner. You know you're the only one with some experience in this field, so you are our only choice."
"Nice to know I'm the one and only last resort."
"Seriously, Chris. Ezra is under a lot of pressure and it will only increase. I talked to Mary yesterday and she told me that while he has a quick mind and a sharp eye, he's under enough strain to break him.
He needs to know that he has back-up in you."
"He has, Vin," Chris said softly.
"Yes, I know that, but he doesn't. All he knows is what comes back through the link and that's you being ready to strangle him because he has no other outlet for his anger."
Chris rubbed a hand over his face, exhaling slowly. He knew what Ezra was going through and he had asked to see the mid-term results. Ezra was among the top ten, but that was also the reason why he was a target.
Throughout the last six weeks, Standish had slowly removed himself from the team, had spent more and more time alone, and not even Chris was really able to reach him.
The arguments had turned into full-fledged confrontations where harsh words had been exchanged, some of them scathing and rather personal insults.
Chris had been close to exploding, but he had reminded himself each and every time that he only shared a frament Ezra was feeling tenfold. 'You want results? You want me to succeed? Then leave me alone!' Ezra had once snapped into his face and then turned to leave.
Yes, he wanted Ezra to succeed, but he didn't have to top everyone.
He wanted him to go through basic training and afterwards he'd be an official member of the Chimera. Rumors and lies be damned.
"I have to talk to him," Chris sighed, rubbing his forehead.
"Let me have a talk with him first. He doesn't know he isn't alone.
He thinks he's an outsider."
Chris understood. "Okay."
"We'll be at Nettie's. Come in later. Give me about two hours, all right?"
Larabee looked doubtfully at his second, then nodded. Vin smiled, then left the small mess area. He had a certain rookie to find.
The bar was one of the smaller ones on the entertainment levels of the station. Ezra wouldn't have sought it out because it looked so inconspicuous and uninviting. No marks to be found here, the thief in him thought.
No one to con, no one to offer a game of chance to leave him a few hundred bucks lighter. Vin led him through the thin afternoon crowd and Ezra looked around. The establishment looked much better on the inside than the outside. It was clean, well-kept, and had an almost homey atmosphere.
There was a long counter just opposite the main doors and booths lined most of the walls. Tables cluttered the open space. Music played in the background. Vin walked over to one of the booths and slid in. Ezra hesitated, then followed his example. The waitress walked over to them, smiling.
Vin nodded, then gave Ezra a questioning look. The thief doubted it would be a good idea to start the afternoon with alcohol, so he ordered a soft drink. The young woman took their orders and left. When they had their drinks, Vin looked at him.
"How are you doing, Ezra?"
Ezra sighed, studying his drink. If anyone else had asked him, he would have smiled cheerfully and declared he was fine. This was Vin, though. Vin, who knew a lot more about what was going on with him than the rest of the Chimera team; Chris excepted. "Not good," he confessed softly. "But I think you know that. A lot is still going through and Chris isn't happy about it. It's not exactly easy...."
"Nothing ever is, though I think having a fully telepathic bond is something really extraordinary."
"You and Chanu didn't....?"
Vin smiled and took a sip from his drink. "No. We shared a lot, but never silent mind-to-mind communication. I could read him, yes. His moods, his body language... I knew him like I knew myself, but for different reasons. We were one because, as the shaman put it, we shared the same energies." Ezra looked blankly at him.
"The Hija, the tribe Chanu belonged to, believe in gods and supernatural beings like many civilizations," Vin expanded. "Their belief system has four main houses of power. Chanu and I were born in opposite houses, in the same cycle of their planetary year, and we shared the same vibrant soul. A perfect match for potential soul partners. I didn't really know that when I first met him. He was my guide when I explored the wilderness.
We understood each other from the beginning. Our friendship developed quickly because we instinctively trusted each other. When I heard about the bond, it scared me." Vin gave Ezra a quick grin. "I got a lot of help from the tribe and from Chanu, who had grown up with bonded partners."
"Not like Chris and me."
"Nope, not like the two of you. You are unique. Never heard of telepathy like that."
Ezra sighed softly and morosely looked into his half empty glass.
"Great." Vin was silent, keeping a discreet eye on his new friend.
"You regret it?"
"No!" The denial was almost automatic. "No... it feels right, Vin.
I just... it made life a lot more complicated."
"Life isn't ever easy, Ezra."
"Maybe, but now my decisions, my actions, influence someone else as well. Chris and I.... we might be two halves of the same soul, but we are so very different. It's not like we have a lot in common."
Vin played with a cracker, keeping silent. Ezra was in a rare, open mood. He would listen as long as it lasted.
"If I mess up, I'm pulling Chris with me. I already do, Vin." Ezra bit his lower lip, refusing to say more. He didn't want to spill his worries, even if it was Vin who was listening.
"I heard the others, pard. I know what they are saying."
The brown head snapped up and green eyes stared at him in shock. "Old story, actually. I know Leeroy Zardes is on your case, calling you a stray or worse."
Ezra felt his defenses slide into place.
"But he calls us the same, Ez. Chris is known for picking up strays.
Almost all of us have a spotty past or reasons why none of the other teams really wanted us."
The thief gave him a curious look, but he didn't ask. Vin lifted one corner of his mouth. Something told him Ezra wouldn't inquire further if he didn't tell him anything. As far as the others were concerned, Vin had no right to give away their personal problems or affairs. They all knew Ezra's past and if they chose to reveal theirs, so be it.
Buck's ladies affairs were well-known anyway and no crime as such.
It just made him the target of a lot of rumors and sometimes accusations.
One of those rumors had nearly broken his back and while he had proven his innocence in a politically delicate affair, every team commander was now evading him.
JD had no real faults except his age. He was a genius when it came to piloting, could fly the worst rust bucket and still win against a modern one-man race fighter. The boy's instincts were in the right place, but he was too naïve when it came to some matters and he was too intelligent for his own good. He had grown up in the wrong part of town anyway, had no formal education except basics, but through Buck and Josiah he had caught up to standard in no time. With no papers to prove his educational career he had no hopes of any other position than the one he had, though. Josiah's main faults were his age and his drinking problem. He was too old for active service many said, but the man knew places to get spares or replacement parts no one had ever heard of. He understood the inner workings of a ship by sheer instinct, which made him such a good engineer, and most of the reconstruction on the Chimera were thanks to his knowledge and JD's imagination. Then there was the alcohol. Josiah wasn't a drinker; far from it. He was more allergic to the stuff than anything. One beer and the man was dead drunk and lost all inhibition. Together with his size and muscles, it made him a danger in any bar brawl.
Nathan had lost his medical license because he had practiced what the Joined Governments called 'experimental medicine'. Nathan had learned a lot from healers and so-called alternative doctors. He believed in the healing power of herbs and the body itself, and only used chemical medication on the more severe wounds or to numb pain. A fellow doctor brought it in front of a Justice Council after Nathan had healed a young man who had been the doctor's patient before. It had been simple jealousy.
Without his license, Nathan had been unable to uphold his clinic, so he had hired on with the Agency. Chris had expressed his interest in him as a new man and Travis had agreed. Nathan wasn't allowed to practice outside his boundaries as an Agent, but that was fine with him.
"I won't ask for details," Ezra said, startling Vin out of his thoughts.
He smiled almost shyly.
Tanner nodded. "I know." He regarded their new team member thoughtfully, then made a decision. "You'll hear a lot of rumors. Most of them are just that; rumors. Some have a bit of truth in them, but that's usually hidden and beneath all the exaggeration."
"I'm used to that." Ezra gave him a dimpled grin.
Vin chuckled. "Thing you'll hear about me is that I let a bounty go because he paid me enough money."
Ezra's face remained carefully schooled, his eyes giving nothing away.
But Vin could read the question easily.
"I worked as a bounty hunter before I joined the Agency two years ago. Was quite good. One of my most difficult cases was a Eli Joe, a pirate and smuggler. I caught him, but he had someone working for him on the inside. Turned it so that it looked like I was the one who had let him escape again, after he paid me enough money for it. I was after him again but found only his body." Vin gazed into his nearly empty glass.
"No witnesses, only the money in my apartment. Had a lawyer who argued my case and won me my freedom, but I was out of a job. No one wanted me after that. Corrupted, y'know." Ezra nodded slowly. "How could you join the Agency?"
"Met Chris while he was on a case. He hired me as a tracker to find an escaped convict. Must have impressed him." Vin flashed him a grin.
"We worked on the case for two weeks, then he asked me to come along on the next one. I kinda slid right in. Travis said my files looked good enough to give me a job; said he'd ignore the past charges because they were, in his eyes, unfounded and there was no real proof."
"You were lucky," the thief said in a quiet voice.
"Very." Vin waited for Casey to replace their drinks, then leaned forward. "And so were you, Ez."
Ezra didn't answer, just studied the pattern on the table.
"I have an offer to make."
The thief gave him a wary look and Vin smiled openly.
"You need to train your abilities. Both you and Chris. Without training, one day one of you will lose it, despite the stabilized bond. You're letting too much go through to the other side, even with the natural shields your mind has erected. You have to control it."
"I think I already lost it, Vin. Chris and I... had some rather unhappy confrontations lately."
"I know. It's the result of you broadcasting and Chris battering the incoming fragments back at you. It's a vicious circle and you need to break it."
"How?" Ezra asked softly.
"It's not easy and it requires concentration. Chanu and I never touched each other's minds, but we touched souls nevertheless. I went through some training to help me counteract and then embrace what was so foreign to me. I can't guarantee that it'll work like a charm, but it will help."
Vin leaned forward, holding the dubious green gaze. "If you can't take control of your abilities, they will control you, and Chris."
<What do you say, Ezra?>
Ezra's head snapped up and he cursed himself for not noticing his soul partner's approach. Vin simply leaned back, watching them with a faint smile in his eyes. Ezra shot the taller man a tentative look. The last time they had met face to face had ended with snarled replies and Ezra's very clear wish never to see the man again. And the wish that the link had never happened. At the time he hadn't realized the expression of hurt in Chris's eyes but back in his quarters, the weight of his words had come crashing down on him.
<It would help us> Chris went on, intensely holding Ezra's gaze.
There was no malice, no hidden intent, just Chris.
<What if it won't work?> Ezra asked, mind-voice uneven.
<We'll burn that bridge when we get there>
<How very positive, Mr. Larabee> But there was a small smile playing over Ezra's lips.
"You think you can manage us?" Chris asked aloud as he slid into the booth as well.
Vin chuckled. "Sure. We'll work with Ezra's schedule and cram in lessons whenever we can."
"Who needs sleep anymore?" Ezra sighed theatrically.
Finals week was the most trying and difficult of the three months.
For all of them. Chris would walk down the hall with a dark expression on his face that gave everyone but his own team the willies. Despite Vin's constant training and the rudimentary shields both partner had managed, stress leaked through. Ezra was under non-stop pressure by now, he was sleeping less and less, and it reflected back on Chris, who was struggling to maintain his usual façade. Their basic shields, by now a lot stronger than before, were battered by such emotional force that Chris was unable to maintain them at full strength and function normally as well.
The Bond sessions were taking part from eight to ten each evening and most of the afternoon on Ezra's only day off. How the thief managed to cram studying into this already tight schedule was a little miracle, but when Vin had proposed to cut back on lessons, he had immediately protested. The meditation and relaxation exercises seemed to help him as much with the link as they did with the whole basic training stress.
Even Judge Travis couldn't ignore the signs any more and he wondered how all of this would end. Few knew about the bond between Larabee and Standish and it wasn't a topic for open discussion. It would remain and well-guarded secret. Despite earlier proclamations, Travis had started to see the advantages of the soul bond. The training sessions with Vin didn't slip him by either.
Chris's temper shifts grew almost unbearable inside the station, so the Judge had decided to get the whole crew off and into space. One new case and a bodyguard job had done the trick. The bond was limited by distance at the moment, so Chris was becoming more like his old self whenever he was far enough away from Ezra. It had it drawbacks, too.
While he no longer felt the rampaging emotions battering against his new shields, Chris also lost contact with the familiar presence in his mind and fell from aggression into depression. Not strong enough to influence his work, but he was quieter all of a sudden, more introspective, and he removed himself from the team. Three months, Travis thought and sighed. Three months. They would be over by the end of next week, after the finals, and then some kind of normality might be back. At least he hoped so, but something told him that with Ezra Standish on the Chimera team, normality had just been blown out of the window.
Ezra left the room from the last of his exams, Law, looking pale and worn. He walked down the corridor, ignoring everyone, and finally leaned against a wall. He had tried to ignore the unspoken expectations and the blinding pressure of having to pass for three months. Well, tried was the key word. It hadn't really worked and while he had had good mid-term grades, these grades had nearly broken his will. His class mates had wanted to see him fail and the few who actually talked to him were too scared to speak up. He had taken a lot of strength from Chris, his mere presence in the back of his mind, though he was aware that he was putting his partner under the same pressure he was feeling.
Chris had left for some kind of pick-up or other the last week. Ezra suspected Travis was behind this, getting the two partners away from each other. Sadly enough, Chris's sudden non-presence had sent the thief into a sudden decline as the emptiness in his head threatened to swallow what was left of him. It was a shock, like being back on BP-379, in that bar, drinking himself to oblivion to forget what he was going to lose.
He didn't know how he had managed to go through the following ten days.
Startled, Ezra opened his eyes and pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against.
Hope flared inside him and as he finally allowed himself to feel the bond again, he heard it whisper in response. The older man walked up to him smiling. Tired, hazel eyes ran over the pale, features, searching, questioning. "You made it."
"You don't know that. I can still fail." Ezra fell back against the wall once more, tilting back his head to gaze at the ceiling. He just wanted to collapse somewhere.
"I severely doubt that."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
Chris smiled and joined him, leaning his slender frame against the wall. "Results will be available next week."
Ezra closed his eyes, feeling exhaustion creep through him. After a moment he gathered the last strands of his control.
<Chris, I..... want to apologize>
<What for?> Chris asked suspiciously.
The thief smiled tiredly. <Everything. Especially he backlashes over the link. It wasn't my intention at the time. Then there is what I said to you, called you.... I didn't really mean it, Chris>
Larabee smiled. "Know that, Ez," he said aloud. "You up for a beer? The others are already at Nettie's and wondered if you might want to unwind a bit."
That was that. Nothing more. No more explanations, no more shouting matches, nothing at all. Simple acceptance.
Ezra drew a shuddering breath. "Don't even know how to do that anymore."
Chris chuckled. "After two of Nettie's Specials you'll know."
"Are you in a generous mood, Commander?" Ezra teased.
He pushed away from the wall, followed by Chris, and they walked down the corridor. "What'd the illustrious Mr. Wilmington do? Lose a bet?"
"No, he owes Josiah one." Chris grinned as Ezra shot him an inquiring look. "Long story, but it has to do with a blonde woman and her not so happy husband."
Ezra gave a snort of laughter. "I should have known."
"Commander Larabee, Mr. Standish." Orrin Travis regarded the two men who now stood in front of his desk, marveling again how two so different individuals had been brought together by a mind link.
Chris Larabee was completely at ease. Ezra Standish wasn't. Oh, he looked the part on the outside, but there was an expression in his eyes that the Judge was familiar with. Stubbornness. The man had yet to accept his new life, his new place, and he was fighting the Agency in his own way. While Standish wanted to be part of the Chimera team, he was not willing to give up his independence.
"I have Mr. Standish's test results," Travis went on, keeping a close eye on the former thief.
No muscle twitched in the smooth features, but the tension rose. 'Poker face' some of his instructors called the expression and Travis had to agree. The boy had it down to an art.
"I thought I'd deliver the news myself."
Standish looked like he was about to say something, a scathing remark, but like before, Chris kept him back. No words, only silence, not even a direct look. Just an almost invisible twitch.
"You've passed with good marks, Mr. Standish. My congratulations."
"Thank you, sir," Standish replied neutrally.
"That means you are now partaking in the practicals." Travis folded his hands, resting them on the test results. The exams had been surprisingly good, he had to confess. The thief excelled at Law and Finances, which shouldn't have come as a great surprise considering his past, but not every criminal really knew much about the laws he was breaking or money.
"Because of your rather unique status, we had to make a few changes in the practicals to accommodate you."
Standish raised an eyebrow. "My unique status, sir?"
Travis smiled. "There are several factors playing into this that other recruits can't present us with. First of all, you are a Borderline."
The man's face froze up completely. Raw wound, Travis thought to himself, and judging from Chris's expression, one he shouldn't have touched. There was an almost protective spark in those hazel eyes, the posture tensing up slightly, but the commander didn't object.
"Your abilities supercede those of other trainees in that area. Since these abilities are now at the disposal of the Agency, we want to see how you handle yourself in the field."
"I wasn't aware the Agency had a mounted regiment," was the dry comment.
Travis smiled more. "No, we don't. What we have is a team of very good Agents who will get you as an addition. Among them is a man who is linked to you, Mr. Standish, through a mental bond. I have talked to Dr. Jackson at length and he has assured me that while you aren't a telepath, you and Commander Larabee can communicate silently."
Chris looked curious, even slightly cautious, but he still didn't speak up.
"I see this mental link as a weak spot and a formidable weapon. Gentlemen, I want to know how you both handle yourself in the field. It would be wrong just to put Mr. Standish's abilities to a test since they are so tightly interwoven with yours, Commander."
Chris frowned. "Sir?"
"I have spoken to Major Olden. He has prepared the course for both of you."
Standish stared at him, slight shock visible in the green eyes. Chris just blinked.
"You want me to run the obstacle course with Ezra?" he finally asked.
"Exactly. While I'm aware of the fact that you had your annual requalification already, Chris, this is something no one could have foreseen. Agent Standish isn't only a new team member but also your partner." Travis leaned forward, regarding the younger man seriously. "I can't sanction this team without knowing that you are qualified to work together."
"Sir, I think we proved that on BP-379," Chris replied tightly. "Under completely different circumstances."
"I'm not going to change my mind, Commander Larabee. The two of you.
Be glad I didn't ask for the whole team to run the obstacle course. I doubt they would be happy about it."
"And I am?" Standish muttered, disgust audible in his voice.
"Major Olden has orders to pick you up at 0800 hours sharp tomorrow morning. I'd advice you to get some sleep. That would be all, gentlemen."
Ezra was in shock as he left the Judge's office. He wasn't even aware of Chris's presence until the older man touched his shoulder. He jumped, startled, and Larabee smiled slightly.
"Half as bad as it sounds," he said.
"Ezra, I've run the obstacle course before. It's mostly endurance and strategy."
"I doubt the honorable Judge Travis want us to partake in the normal field test," the thief sighed. "Didn't you listen between the lines? This is a test for my Borderline abilities and the link. Running and jumping over obstacles isn't exactly a test for that."
"For a Kiowata it is."
Ezra only grimaced.
"The obstacle course is divided into sections. Each is different to test different skills and to provoke different reactions. Sometimes you have to combine knowledge with ability, sometimes only trust your instincts."
Major Peter Olden looked at the only two participants of this game.
Olden was a senior member of the Agency. He had long since left the active field duty and had turned his skills and knowledge to training recruits as well as requalifying already active Agents. What Travis had asked of him had surprised him a notch, but he was a man who asked few questions when it came to orders from above.
"You operate within a time limit, gentlemen. Forty-eight hours, to be precise. From start to finish. I don't care how you reach your goals, whether together or alone, but in the end, I want to see both of you standing at the finish line with time to spare!"
Standish smirked. "Yes, sir," he drawled.
Olden shot the shorter man a sharp look, but it didn't seem to impress him. Travis had given him an idea who Ezra Standish was, that he would be the newest addition to the Chimera, but he hadn't explained a lot about the background the man had. Or just why Larabee was supposed to go through the test run as well.
"You have the basic equipment of an Agent in the field," the Major went on. "Your food supply lasts for the first day. Everything else is up to you. In case you run into trouble, send up flares. We're monitoring you and can be at your site in minutes. Now, gentlemen, suit up and get ready to go."
Chris shot Ezra a quick look and the thief gave him a cocky smile.
They checked their equipment and then walked over to the starting line.
The whole test was happening in the middle of nowhere down on a planet Ezra had never been to. It wasn't unlike Earth, but sparsely settled under the Joined Government Act to protect natural resources. Finding a stretch of wild and unsettled land wasn't hard. The Agency had several boot camps down here and this obstacle course was just one of three major ones in the area. Chris himself had never partaken in this particular one, but it didn't look any worse than what he had to do in his requalification.
Before them was a stretch of empty plains all the way to where a forest started to obscure the sight. And just after that rose a mountain. "We have to make good on time in the beginning," he told his partner who was methodically checking their supplies once more.
They had a map and a compass which told them where to go. That was about it. Now Ezra looked up and there was a glint in the green eyes that told Chris that he understood just too well what his partner had planned. "Speed is a major determining factor," he agreed. "The question is, are we ready to shock the good Major?" The thief grinned.
Chris chuckled. "We are to use our abilities and skill, Agent Standish,"
he admonished. "We should."
Travis stood in front of the monitors that gave him a good idea of the obstacle course. Currently he was watching the screen where the two men in question were talking with each other. Major Olden had joined him, giving the Judge a curt nod that said everything was prepared and ready. "I hope you know what you are doing, sir," Olden said, frowning at the screens.
"I do, Major."
"The time limit is rather tight for two men to reach the end of the course on foot."
"I'm aware of that."
Travis felt the beginning of a smile as he watched Chris suddenly take off his vest. Olden frowned.
"What is he doing?"
"Using his skills."
Olden's frown turned into raised eyebrows as Larabee neatly folded his vest, shirt and t-shirt, then proceeded to further undress. Standish was simply tugging the articles of clothing into the backpacks, which he had knotted and roped together.
"This is...." The man looked flustered.
"An expected reactions, Major Olden. Commander Larabee is operating within expected parameters."
Olden was about to say something when he almost choked on his words.
One moment there was a naked man, the next a large, black equine with two rather dangerous looking horns stood next to Standish, who didn't even look surprised. Travis had to say he was impressed, by both the transformation and the result. He had never seen Chris as a Kiowata and looking at him now, seeing the difference in size to a horse and to Standish, he started to understand a few remarks in the reports he had from BP-379.
"Major, I don't have to remind you that this test and everything you see is classified," the Judge remarked calmly.
"No, sir," Olden managed, shock and disbelief on his features. "Good."
Travis watched as Standish swung the backpacks onto the broad back, then hoisted himself up. The whole transformation and subsequent preparation hadn't taken any longer than ten minutes. The two Agents were off in a cloud of dust from one moment to the other, the Kiowata's long legs eating up the distance. Not much later they had disappeared into the forest.
Progress was made swiftly and effortlessly. Ezra had fallen into his role as Chris's rider easily and Chris was proceeding at a light canter that preserved his energy. Memories of BP-379 rose unbidden and both men were lost in their thoughts as they passed through the forest. They stopped near a stream around midday and Ezra filled their cantines. Chris grazed nearby, having no problems finding food as a Kiowata. Ezra simply chose to still his appetite with one of the dry bars from the survival packs. <Penny for your thoughts>
Startled, Ezra looked up and found Chris watching him. "Just thinking,"
he replied softly.
With a sigh, the thief straightened out his legs and leaned back against a tree trunk. "How it seems unfair of Travis to condemn you to this just because of me," he said openly.
Chris flicked one ear, slightly puzzled. <Condemn me? Ezra, this isn't punishment>
"Oh really? Our honorable Judge won't say it out loud, but he doesn't trust me to participate in a normal obstacle course like the other rookies because he thinks I'll cheat."
Anger crossed the young features and Chris felt a pang of shock. <He doesn't, Ezra> he tried.
"Of course not, commander." The tone was suddenly biting. "Which is why he ordered you on a case ten days before the finals. Which is why he removed you physically as well as mentally out of my reach. He knows about the bond. He interviewed Nathan down to the very last byte of information.
He knows distance will obscure the connection and plunge us into non-communication!"
Chris walked closer, hazel eyes full of concern. <Ezra, it's not true. Travis sent me off because I was becoming a danger to myself and the others because of the stress I picked up from you. I was unable to think rationally any more and not even Vin's training helped to better it. He did the only thing possible>
Ezra refused to look at him. "Just like now? Can't find a new case, can he?"
<Running both of us through the obstacle course makes sense. Ezra, with you on the team, operations and missions will change. Not because of who you are, not because of your past, but because of what you and I can do. And by the way> Chris added as he saw Standish's scowl, <I wouldn't be able to help you through an endurance and skill test anyway>
The thief huffed and glared at a hapless sapling near-by. "So why just the two of us? Why not let the others in on the fun?"
Chris chuckled. <Count yourself lucky. Buck snores like a chainsaw, JD can make you sick with exuberance, Josiah starts talking nature and Nathan keeps popping up and asking medical stuff. Vin's about the only one you can safely say you won't even know he's there unless he is needed>
Ezra found himself smiling against his better judgment. He looked at the folded map next to him and picked it up. He consulted the compass and silently studied the landmarks.
"If we want to make it to the mountain, we should go," he said after a while.
Chris had to agree. <Your turn tomorrow> he sent.
Ezra gave him a look of disbelief. "What?"
<You heard me>
"It's your blistered derrière, Commander."
Chris had never ridden a Kiowata and the last time he had actually sat on a horse had been a long time ago. Without a saddle, riding bare-back would be quite a comeback into the world of equine transportation. But the switch was necessary. Ezra understood Chris's need to be human for a while and their progress would be faster if that was accompanied by Ezra turning into a Kiowata. It would also continue to preserve food.
Travis kept an eye on the proceedings. He had been slightly surprised that Chris had been the one to change into his alternate form. He would have suspected that the commander would order his new Agent to do it.
Looking at the team, the ease with which Standish held himself on the large equine, he understood more and more. This had been the pairing on BP-379. It was easier to fall back into the old pattern.
The first obstacle was passed with relative little problems. The wide river had a few tricky passages, but Standish had discovered a rather shallow part. Very unexpected, he had dismounted and led Chris through.
The canyon had been tricky, but the bridge, while looking old and brittle, was far from it. The only problem was that it didn't have wooden planks.
It was a rope and knot construction. Chris had changed back into a human since a Kiowata couldn't possibly get across.
The two had then walked for another thirty minutes, both human, and then sought a shelter for the night.
The next day began before sunrise. Chris had woken just as the sky was turning a bluish gray and he had immediately woken Ezra. The thief wasn't a morning person and Larabee had to chuckle as he watched the man almost sleep-walk around and clean up the camp. It was a sight he had grown used to on BP-379, though back then Ezra had insisted to sleep till the sun was actually out and not move until his system had kicked back in. Today they didn't have the luxury. They had a mountain to scale.
Both men trudged up the barely visible slop that had clearly been made by the local wildlife. The underbrush and the trees were too dense to ride through, and the slope was too steep and rocky to be safe for a Kiowata. Suddenly Chris stopped and Ezra almost ran into him.
"Chris?" he inquired.
"Trouble," the Agent said softly and nodded at the ground. He crouched down and ran his fingers over a patch of smooth earth where splatters of what looked like paint stained the leaves.
Ezra was confused, then looked around. With a frown he took in the peaceful scenery. "Obstacle course, hm?" he remarked casually.
Chris straightened and nodded, rubbing the dry paint off his fingers.
"Lots and lots of traps."
The two stood silently side by side.
"Triggers?" Ezra inquired.
"Could be everything. Infrared, motion sensors, weight....."
Ezra frowned. "I doubt it's a motion sensor alone. Or infrared. These woods teem with life. Everything in here would be covered in paint otherwise."
"Possible, but still the same results."
Chris nodded slowly, still not moving. "Size and weight?"
"Do you know what kind of animals live here?"
"Then it might be possible. But if they have wildlife the size of deer, it's another risk factor."
Chris frowned. "Species," he then said softly.
Ezra raised one eyebrow. "One of the instructors mentioned that, but it's still experimental."
Chris's lips quirked into a wry smile. "The obstacle course is the best way to test something experimental, don't you think."
"Quite. So, ideas?"
"One. You won't like it."
Ezra met the hazel eyes and suddenly shook his head. "I'm not changing."
"You have to."
"You change, I'll hang on to you."
"No go. Even if the paint balls don't hit you and only me, we lose.
We both have to become something else." <I know how you feel about being Borderline, about the Kiowata, but we have to move on, or turn around. We can't walk around the mountains....>
Ezra sighed and shook his head. <I hate these choice> he muttered and slid off the backpack.
Chris stilled the motion to unzip his vest. "Me first. I'll carry the packs. Just strap them on tightly."
The thief nodded wordlessly.
Travis nodded to himself as he watched the two animals. When Standish had changed, the Judge had been in for a new surprise. He wouldn't have thought the man would do it. The reddish brown Kiowata was smaller than the black one, but still larger than a horse. The two proceeded through the mine field without encountering a single paint pellet.
"This can't be right."
Ezra tilted his head and regarded the sight before them with a critical expression. "It's a landslide."
"I know what it is, but it can't be."
"Physical proof tells us otherwise."
Chris shot the smaller man a sharp look, then shook his head as he saw the well-known obnoxious grin on the smooth features.
"I meant this can't be our obstacle course."
Chris ran a hand through his blond hair. "Because," he said slowly, "landslides are group obstacles. I had one before, years ago, with the whole team. It takes a lot more than just the two of us to get over this or through."
Ezra looked thoughtfully at the pile of rocks. "Maybe Judge Travis thought we could scale it with our... unique abilities?" There was a lot of sarcasm in the remark.
Larabee shook his head. "No, this must be wrong." He took out the wrinkled looking map and studied it.
"So we give up?"
Ezra almost regretted the question when he saw Chris's expression.
He gave the man a cocky grin. "Thought not. Around it?"
"We have to." Chris stabbed a finger at the map. "We'll have to move down the mountain and then pick up speed along the plains here."
Ezra looked at the topographic map. "Long detour."
"It's the only way."
It took them almost three hours to get down the mountainside without breaking any bones, though Chris once slipped and twisted his ankle.
It was a light injury and didn't swell, but it hampered them.
Arriving at the bottom of the mountain, Ezra shed his backpack. "Ezra?"
"We have to move fast to get where we have to be," the thief said matter-of-factly. "You can't race in your condition, in either form, so we switch." He flashed Chris a grin. "As I recall, it is my turn anyway."
Chris chuckled and nodded. He started to tie the backpacks together as Ezra changed, then stuffed the other man's clothing into the packs.
Getting onto the broad back gave him a lot more appreciation for what Ezra had done on a regular basis back on BP-379. Standish as a Kiowata was smaller than Chris, and Chris was a human was taller than Ezra. Still, it was with difficulty that he got on. It was awkward to sit without a saddle or reigns. <Relax, Chris> Ezra whispered in his mind, then started to move. "Whoa," Chris muttered, adjusting his position.
<You'll get used to it>
"They have left the grid?"
Olden nodded, frowning at the displays. None of the cameras inside the set parameters picked up the two Agents. Travis matched the frown but for different reasons.
"Find them!" he ordered.
"We are searching for them as we speak, sir." Suddenly the major cursed softly.
Travis walked over to the screen the other man was looking at and discovered the reason. "Landslide?" he inquired.
"Yes. Pretty recent. I checked the course three days prior to the scheduled date. Everything was fine."
The Judge gave him a stern look. "It is no longer, Major Olden. Now, where are my men?"
The instructor keyed in a few commands the computer widened the grid, setting new parameters. "They have moved down the only way open to them, without having to backtrack." He pointed at the sloping mountainside.
"That puts them right about here....."
They had plowed through the forest for what seemed like hours. Chris was growing sick and tired of the lush green trees, bushes and vines.
Ezra's sure-footed gait never faltered as he stepped gracefully over upturned roots and evaded mossy patches that looked treacherously solid but were far from it. Flies were buzzing around them and somewhere far up in the trees the never-ending chatter of birds accompanied them.
Ezra stopped all of a sudden, ears pricked, nostrils widening slightly.
"What is it?" Chris asked quietly, his weapon ready.
<End of the road>
Sliding off the back, Chris landed silently next to his partner and gave the stretch of land before him a narrow-eyed look. The forest had grown lighter the past minutes and had finally cleared almost completely.
There were a few dead trees ahead of them, vines curling around the bleached remnants. Bushes clung stubbornly to some patches of light brown ground, but few of them looked like they were actually still alive.
<Quicksand> Ezra commented neutrally.
Chris picked up a rock and tossed it out into the deceptively smooth clearing. It landed with a wet thud and, after ten seconds, started to slowly sink.
"Backtrack and detour," he decided, swinging himself back onto the Kiowata.
Ezra followed their trail for a while, then walked to the left. For another thirty minutes they rode parallel to the quicksand pits, but without much change. Ezra had to go deeper and deeper back into the forest because the quicksand kept stretching inward, taking over. They stopped again. "There has to be a way across," Chris muttered.
<Sure. Might take us days, though> Ezra muttered darkly.
"Which we don't have."
<Exactly. We're already late>
Chris thoughtfully gazed at the quicksand, then at Ezra.
"How did you know not to go any further," the blond asked after a while. Ezra stomped the ground once, a Kiowata's expression of a frown.
<I.... just knew>
<Kiowata instinct> was the careful reply.
Larabee looked at the obstacle before them, then back at Ezra, a slow smile spreading over his features. Ezra stared at him and realization set in as the idea leaked over the Bond.
<Oh no!> he objected, more violently, dancing away. <I'm not going to give up my mind and entrust myself to those nether instincts!> Chris grabbed the narrow head between his hands, fingers exuding light pressure. He met the pale green eyes, feeling Ezra fight him through the bond.
"I'm not asking you to entrust yourself to your animal instincts, Ezra. I'm asking you to trust me."
Conflicting emotions, fear, denial, survival instinct and trust, raced through the younger man.
<You have no idea what it means...>
<I could lose myself, Chris> he whispered.
"No, you won't. I'll make sure of that. We share a Bond, Ezra. Trust me to guide you. Trust your instincts to guide us."
<I ... I can't....>
"Yes, you can, Ezra." <Trust me>
<I do, but.... This is... a lot, Chris>
<I know it is> Chris whispered intensely, using the mental link only. <But if we want to reach the finish line, if we want to prove we can do this, you have to trust me not to let you fall. And I won't> Ezra snorted nervously, tail flicking wildly. He pawed the ground, but Chris's grip wouldn't let him pull his head away without hurting himself or his partner.
<What if... I can't come back?>
<You will, partner>
<You will!> Chris finally let him go, hands falling to his side.
"Your choice, Ezra. I won't force you."
Ezra turned to look at the treacherous ground before him. He knew it was the only way; at least the only way to get across in time to finish this test in the set limit. What Chris was asking was a lot. If he consciously retreated out of his waking mind, if he turned the reign over to the Kiowata, and it Chris lost control, Ezra Standish wouldn't be able to come back. He would be stuck as a backseat driver and eventually wither away. Shrivel up and cease to exist.
If he didn't do this, Travis would win.
Pride flared up inside him. Pride and determination. He wouldn't let the Agency win. He wouldn't give up just now. He wouldn't let the others gloat.
<Get on> he said quietly.
Chris smiled, gently patting the sleek neck before he swung back onto the Kiowata. Ezra's nervousness was taking on a life of its own, flooding the connection. He was valiantly fighting against his fear of losing against the animal side, battling it with the stubbornness Chris had come to know so well. He relaxed his mind, felt along the bond, and placed one hand onto the warm skin beneath him.
<Trust me> he sent, letting each word seep into the consciousness.
"Quicksand?" Travis exclaimed. "Olden!"
The Major looked flustered and more than a little bit at a loss. "Sir, they left the grid when the landslide forced them to go the other way. The quicksand isn't on the normal course. It's for special training purposes only."
"I don't care what it's for, Major. Get my men out of there!"
Olden nodded, then stared at the screen. "Ah, Judge, Sir, I think it's already too late for that."
Travis followed the eyes and started cursing at his obstinate and too-stubborn-for-their-own-good Agents.
Ezra felt a tremor race through his mind, then he consciously let go of control. He slid back and let the Kiowata take hold. It was like falling into his own mind, no safety ropes, no net, no bottom. He could feel the animal rising to the forefront, pawing and skittish, and the thief had to hold back not to reign in control again, take over.
Chris was aware of the change almost immediately. For one second there was Ezra, the warm presence he knew; then there was just a presence without a human mind, human emotions, or the understanding Ezra P. Standish had.
The Kiowata felt different, was more skittish, distrustful, and more temperamental. "Ho, boy," he murmured, patting the neck.
He let his voice take on a gentle, soothing quality as he guided the sorrel toward the quicksand. He had no reigns, no halter, only his legs and his voice. One hand kept contact with the strong neck, the other rubbed the dark mane.
The Kiowata's steps were hesitant, careful. On a deep level it trusted the voice and followed the commands, the leg pressure, the coaxing. But there was also its survival instinct that told it that where it should go was danger. Chris strengthened his hold on the bond, infusing it with calmness, but the Kiowata shied more than once, prancing, almost turning back.
"It's okay, boy. It's okay. Pick your way. Ho...."
Nervous snorts were the only sounds Chris could hear; the blasts from the wide open nostrils. The muscles beneath his fingers were tight as coils and the pointed ears lay flat back against the skull. The Kiowata froze twice and Chris urged it on, cajoling, talking, exuding calm and trust in his partner's abilities. He didn't think of the danger they were in, only the pride he felt, that Ezra could do this, that they would get through this in one piece. Ears turned back and forth, listening to his voice, and the Kiowata moved along the firm path between the sinkholes that would drown them if they misstepped.
"That's it, partner," he murmured. "Steady. Yes, you can do it." Chris wasn't even aware that they were on firm ground until he heard the whinnying.
He turned around and stared at the patch of quicksand, and let out an explosive sigh.
"We made it," he whispered. "By god, we made it!"
Travis released a breath he hadn't been aware of holding onto. Olden sank back into his chair, rubbing a shaky hand over his tired features.
"Damnit, Chris," Travis whispered. "Damnit!"
He had only a faint idea what had happened just now. He might also never get the whole truth out of the two men, but for a moment he had seen the true depth of this connection and something told him that Standish had put a lot of trust into his partner. Whatever had occurred, the two were now on firm and very safe grounds.
"What's their position in relation to the finish line, Major Olden?"
Olden consulted the grid map. "They are five grid points off the ideal route."
"Do you want me to call a rescue unit?"
"No, Major, I doubt that would be a good idea." Travis allowed himself a smile as he watched the screen. "If there aren't any more surprises between here and the finish line, we should prepare to greet our two participants quite soon."
"Sir, it's five grid points!"
Travis just shook his head, deciding not to say anything. He just rose and left the room.
Larabee slid off the Kiowata and the animal nuzzled him as he patted its side. Instinctively reaching along the Bond he sent a burst of pride and joy as he gave in to his exulted feelings.
<Ezra? Ez? C'mon partner, let's get back to the foreground here. Ezra, you there?>
<C...hris> a weak, shaky voice answered.
Chris grabbed the head again and stared into the pale eyes. "That's the spirit. Come on, take control," he coaxed, feeling the well-known consciousness fight its way back.
<I'm .... back, I think>
"Course you are." Chris couldn't stop the grin from forming on his lips. "Damn right you are!"
The thief sent a weak chuckle. <Language, commander> "To hell with it!"
<Whatever happens next, Chris, I'm not doing that any time soon ever again!>
The blond laughed. "Not asking you to, partner. Not asking you to."
Then he grew serious. "Thanks for trusting me, Ezra."
There was a moment of silence and Ezra awkwardly met the hazel eyes.
<I trust you with my life, Chris. You know that>
<Wasn't your life I asked for this time> Chris replied silently.
He turned away and went to check the backpacks. Ezra just watched him, unable to answer, unable to say anything.
"We lost a lot of time," Larabee went on, trying to regain some normality, which Ezra was thankful for. "Time to make up for it. We have three more hours till we start losing points."
"So what's your plan?"
Chris's lips drew into a mischievous smile. "Run?"
Thundering hoof beats announced the return of the two Agents and Travis had to hold onto himself not to laugh out loud. He should have known.
Kiowata were fast. Very, very fast. They easily beat horses and they had stamina. The only way the team could have made the five grid points in time was on four feet, and by steadily increasing pace. Checking his watch, the Judge nodded. Ten minutes past the appointed time, but still, considering the detour and the circumstances, it was record time.
The reddish brown Kiowata stopped just outside the building that served as the last checkpoint, covered in sweat, slightly out of breath. On its back sat the disheveled looking form of Chris Larabee. His hazel eyes bore into Travis and Olden as if daring the two men to say anything.
Travis simply smiled and gave a nod.
"Gentlemen, you are late," he commented.
The sorrel snorted and there was a look of disgust in the pale green eyes. There was a twitch around Larabee's lips and a twinkle in his eyes.
"I'd advise you freshen up," the older man went on, "so we can proceed with the evaluation." He turned, hiding his grin as he heard another snort, again from the smaller sorrel.
"Late," Ezra muttered as he pulled on his t-shirt, glaring at the wardrobe. "Late! He should be glad we arrived at all!"
Chris finger-combed his wet hair and shot his partner an amused look.
Ezra had been grumbling about the Judge ever since the remark that they were late. The thief was riled up and ready to go for blood if Travis so much as criticized their time.
"Ezra, shut up," he advised good-naturedly.
Green eyes glared at him full force and Larabee answered them with an even broader smile.
"We have an evaluation waiting," the older Agent reminded him. "Evaluation? This isn't an evaluation, it's a crucification! I know I failed and he doesn't have to rub it in!" Ezra angrily pulled on his jacket and slammed the wardrobe's door shut.
"We didn't fail. We arrived later than we should have, but we arrived. I've seen teams do a lot worse." Relax, Ez, okay? Ezra screwed his eyes shut for a second and inhaled deeply. "Chris, don't you realize what it means if I didn't pass? It's over."
Larabee shook his head. "It's not and now move your ass, Standish, or we'll get bad marks because we are late."
The thief marched past him, face a mask. Chris shook his head. He understood Ezra's fear only too well, but he didn't believe that they had failed. Got some points deducted from the overall performance, but not failure on a broad range.
Travis sat at the conference table, watching the two men enter. "Gentlemen, take a seat."
Ezra slid into the seat left of Chris, a defiant mask on his features.
Chris was looking his usual, alert self.
"I have your performance records here," the Judge started, tapping two folders. "In your case, Mr. Standish, only your recent performance in this course, additionally to your exams. Well, we evaluated your entire time on the obstacle course and, gentlemen, I have to say you surprised me. I had thought you had understood the rules of the game."
There was a flash in the green eyes of the thief, but no muscle twitched.
Travis allowed a smile to surface, one that didn't give much away. "Your goal was to traverse the terrain within forty-eight hours, using your individual skills and the equipment in your possession to reach your goal. While you did reach the finish line, your conduct was, let me say, quite outside the set rules. The obstacle course is supposed to be crossed on foot."
Chris frowned. "Sir, we were on foot."
"I'm aware that the manual doesn't mention equines as a non-acceptable mode of transportation, but you were not on foot per se."
Something in Standish's eyes flared, but he fought it down. Travis had to give him a few points concerning his emotional control.
"You also left the grid assigned to you and our observation angles."
"There was a landslide."
"I'm aware of that."
"It was the only way around it, Sir," Chris added, voice cool and controlled. "Are you sure?"
"You lost valuable time circumventing the landslide and got injured in the process."
"I still insist that it was the only way." Chris met the Judge's eyes steadily.
"Commander Larabee, if I'm not mistaken you are the man in command of the Chimera team." Travis leaned forward, folding his hands over the papers. "But you stepped back and let another agent, a rookie, too, take over control and command."
This time a muscle twitched in Standish's face and the glare in his eyes told Travis a lot of what had to be going on inside the connection between his two men. For a brief moment, the same anger showed in Chris's eyes, but he fought it down.
"I made a decision based on circumstances, Sir. Agent Standish was best suited for the task and I gave him free reign."
"As I understand it, you also ordered him to release control of his abilities."
It was like a slap in the face and Ezra paled, his hands clenching briefly.
"No, sir," Chris replied, voice deceptively calm. "I didn't order him." "Why not? You were the commander of the team."
"Sir, I never assumed this was a test of leadership skills since there was no team to lead. Agent Standish operated as my partner, not an inferior."
Travis held the cool, hazel eyes. "As the senior Agent on the course, wouldn't it have been your responsibility to lead a younger recruit?"
"In any other situation maybe, but the circumstances demanded adaptation.
Agent Standish was best suited to lead us across the quicksand."
"Even if he had to give up control on his abilities and turn the field over to the animal inside?"
Ezra clenched his jaw so hard, Travis was afraid he'd hear teeth shatter soon. The younger man was hard pressed not to just shoot out of his chair and run from the harsh, accusing words.
"Yes, Sir," Chris only answered, a slight challenge in his voice.
"So after you disregarded the basic rules of this test, left the assigned grid, and could have made a fatal mistake, the two of you also arrived ten minutes late," Travis summed it all up, delivering his final blow.
"Considering the detour," Standish spoke up for the very first time, "we were early. Sir," he added coldly.
Travis smiled. "That is your interpretation of things, Agent Standish.
Your assigned time was up, that is all that interests me."
He let his eyes wander over the two different men in front of him, taking in the tense posture, the disbelief in Larabee's eyes, the barely suppressed anger in Standish's. Ezra finally looked at his clenched hands.
"Well, gentlemen, the results of this little exercise can't be changed."
The thief's shoulders slumped in defeat. Chris's head turned quickly, wordlessly looking at his partner, but Standish refused to meet his eyes.
"Sir," Larabee spoke up, but Travis raised a hand.
"Let me finish."
"Why?" Ezra mumbled. "Not yet run out of scathing remarks?" Defiance flared in his eyes, but he quickly looked away as Travis returned the gaze.
"As I said before, you have shown quite a disregard for rules. I didn't expect anything less from you. You have shown me that you have the loyalty and trust in each other's talents and person I had hoped to find. You went up against impossible odds and mastered them in a brilliant adaptation to changed situations, using the abilities, skills and knowledge at your disposal." Travis had to hide his smile as Standish's head snapped up and the thief stared at him in silent disbelief. "I wanted to know if you two could operate under the pressure of a limited amount of time, I wanted to know if you could trust in each other's abilities. I know what happened on BP-379 should have given me enough material, but circumstances were different."
Chris shook his head, hiding a smile, while Ezra still stared. "Well, Commander, congratulations to your new operative. Agent Standish is of now an official member of the Chimera team. Agent Standish, well done."
"Ezra, stop staring. It's impolite," Chris told his partner, not even trying to keep his voice down.
Ezra blinked, then looked first at Chris, then Travis. "I... passed?"
he asked, voice strangely strangled.
"I think I just said that, Agent Standish."
Chris clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, Agent, congratulations."
"Thanks." Ezra sounded stunned.
"You are aware that you aren't to talk about this test to anyone,"
Chris nodded. "I am, sir. C'mon, Ezra, time to get back home and tell the others. I think Buck's bursting to throw a party in your honor."
Outside, Ezra felt the tension suddenly drain away and a tremor raced through his body. He had made it. He was in the Agency, on Chris's team.
He was in law enforcement. The weight of it all crashed down on him and he groaned.
Chris shot him an inquiring look.
"I think I need my faculties checked," Ezra sighed. "How did I ever allow myself to fall into a career in law enforcement?"
Chris could only laugh at the plaintive question. He clapped a hand on his partner's shoulder and gave him a slight push toward the waiting shuttle. Chris had no doubt that from now on, things would definitely never be the same again.
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