It had not been a typical mission for the Denver ATF from the start. Thomas Cray wasn't your ordinary arms smuggler -- no, he dealt nuclear.
And he'd come to Denver.
He didn't deal in typical nukes, either--- his were tiny, 'messy' bombs. Unlike normal nukes, one of which could level a city, these were so tiny they could take out something as small as one building. The 'dirty' part -- the part with radiation -- was confined to a twenty-yard radius.
It was the ATF's nightmare --- a nuclear bomb custom-made for a terrorist. And Cray reportedly had one in Denver.
Team Seven had wound an intricate web around Cray, and finally tightened it. Chris himself held the dealer and snarled, "Where's the bomb?"
Cray just smiled at him.
Chris shook him. "Damn you, where is it?"
A small black box appeared in Cray's hand. He pressed the single button and mouthed, "Boom."
The building two buildings away vanished into a distinctive small mushroom cloud.
The concussion knocked the four members of Team Seven around Cray off their feet. Josiah whirled around and sat on Cray. "...G-d....." he breathed, and Vin echoed it.
Chris screamed into the microphone, "Buck! JD! Ezra!"
After a second, "Here, Chris," Buck said. "Knocked off my feet, but here."
"Here, Chris," JD replied. "Somersaulted with the concussion -- heading your way."
"Ezra?" Chris called. "Ezra, report in!"
Nathan shot to his feet and began to run toward the building. Josiah followed, and Vin took control of Cray.
Chris ran behind his men, his voice rising with worry. "Ezra! Ezra....EZRA STANDISH ANSWER ME!"
The silence seemed to mock him.
....I've looked at life from both sides now.... (Judy Collins, "Both Sides Now")
Five weeks later.
Ezra was due to return to work on Monday -- but not soon enough for Chris. He drove to the townhouse, determined to find out once and for all why the undercover agent had turned hermit.
After they'd found him -- unconscious and glowing -- and rushed him to Denver Memorial, the doctors had refused to let anyone but Josiah and Vin in to see Ezra. Even Chris's patented temper couldn't budge them this time. Ezra had been especially adamant that Nathan and Chris not come near him while he was 'convalescing' -- and he'd even tossed Josiah and Vin out every night before nine.
He seemed fine -- the doctors had decontaminated him and he'd shown up at court to testify against Cray -- who was now in prison without parole --- but then he'd holed up in his townhouse. He wouldn't see anyone but Josiah and Vin -- whom he still threw out before nine -- and he would return neither phone calls nor emails.
It was finally too much for Chris. Under the best of circumstances, he was not a patient man.
So he got sneaky. He walked up to the townhouse -- and gave Vin's distinctive knock.
After a moment, the door opened and a tired voice behind it said, "Come on in, Vin."
"Not Vin," Chris said as he walked in.
"Mister Larabee!" Ezra fumed. "How dare you trick me like this?" He was glaring at Chris, his emerald eyes flashing fire.
"Your own fault, you didn't check and see who it was."
He growled and closed the door behind them. "What do you want?"
"Been wonderin' where you've been. It's not like you to hermit up on us. Even Josiah and Vin are worried."
"I allow them access --"
"--not after nine at night."
At that, Ezra shot a look at the clock. 8:45 PM. "Mister Larabee, you had best go." He reached for the door knob, only to have Chris grab his wrist.
"Ezra, I'm not going anywhere until we get to the bottom of this."
"There's nothing to get to the bottom of," Ezra said, glancing back and forth between the clock and Chris's face. "You need to go -- now!"
"I told you, I'm not going anywhere."
Ezra licked his lips. 8:50. "Look.....if you will go now, I promise I'll explain everything in the morning!"
"Why not just skip all that and make it simple? Explain now?"
"Because ... it.... it's.... complicated. Please, Mister Larabee.....Chris.... ju-just go."
Chris's eyes widened. "Ezra? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No!" Ezra said a little too quickly, with a nervous laugh. "No, I'm not in trouble!" He shot another glance at the clock. 8:53. "....yet....."
"Talk to me, Ezra. What is it? We're a team -- let us help you."
Ezra laughed. "You can't help me with this. You can't." He sighed. "Nobody can."
"Mister Larabee, please leave!"
"Ezra, I want to help! Look, we got off to a rocky start, but you are part of the Team. Talk to me -- let me help you!"
8:57. "How do you know, you've not even tried!"
Ezra turned away, hugging himself, bracing himself. "Leave, Chris! Now! I... I don't want you here ..."
8:58. "I don't want you to see this, Chris. I don't want anyone to see this."
Chris took a step toward him. "See what? Ezra.... are you still sick from the radiation?"
With a sharp laugh, Ezra turned back. "Yes, you might say that."
8:59. "The doctors --"
"--can't do anything. This is for life, Chris. And it's something I don't want shared. Please....time's running out....."
Chris took another step. "You're... dying?"
Ezra laughed humourlessly. "No, I'm not dying. But if you don't leave soon, you'll see that I'm a ---"
The clock on the mantle struck nine.
Ezra whirled to face it, then his face contorted and he let out a grunt of pain as his arms wrapped around his lower abdomen and he went to his knees.
"Ezra?" Chris knelt beside him and held his shoulders. "Ezra, what is it?"
After two abortive attempts, Ezra got out, "What I... didn't want you... to see...." His eyes turned to lock onto Chris's. Pain filled them, warring with an equal amount of .... shame. "I'm.... a....." he winced again, and let out a groan filled with the last word he meant to say before. "....freak..."
"You're ...." Chris's eyes grew wide as the form under his hands began to ripple and flow like melting wax. From the moan Ezra let out, it hurt terribly. His body blurred so that Chris could no longer distinguish any features, any colours.
Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Chris's eyes widened and he gasped, his grip involuntarily tightening as he held the form just a little tighter.
In his arms, Ezra had transformed into a beautiful auburn-haired woman.
Chris just stared at ---- her ---- his jaw dropping.
She clung to him involuntarily, then raised her head. The emerald eyes were just a bit larger than they had been, and they swam with tears. "I'm a freak," a genteel Southern soprano voice whispered as she began to slide from his grasp.
"Does it always hurt that bad?" Chris asked.
The long auburn hair brushed her shoulders as she shook her head. "No....only when I change involuntarily. I can change volountarily, and there's no pain at all."
"Then why don't you?"
She whirled on him, the eyes now blazing with fury. "Why don't I? I don't want this, Chris! I don't want to spend part of my life female! I was born male, I want to be male! Not ... not....not this.... this travesty of nature!"
Chris ran a hand along his forehead. "Look... Ezra...."
Chris couldn't repress the smile. "That's certainly....unique."
"Yeah? Well I guess I am too....now." She hung her head.
Chris stood. "Look. You're what you are now. There's no changing it, there's no going back. You've gotta learn to live with it --- and one way is to stop hurting yourself." He tilted her chin up, raising her head. "Stop holding it back till you're forced to change. I, for one, would like to get to know Elizrabeth."
A bark of laughter. "You know me, Chris!"
"Do I? You've not called me 'Mister Larabee' once."
Her mouth worked, but no sound came out.
"My point exactly. Somehow, you're different as Elizrab---as Bess. Fundamentally different."
She winced. "I still dislike diminutives!"
Chris smiled again. "Get used to it, Bess --- I refuse to stumble over four syllables when one will do just fine."
She sighed and rolled her eyes. Then she asked, "Will you tell anyone?"
Bess's shoulders sagged with relief.
Ezra came out of the shower and began to dry off. As he dressed, he noticed his eyes starting to close.
No no no, we can't have this, he chided himself. The last thing I need is Mister Larabee snarling at me first thing in the morning. Again.
Trying to remain awake, Ezra reached over and slapped the radio on. He froze as the words of the song penetrated his sleepy mind.
"Do you know.... what it feels like for a girl?"
Ezra winced. "Unfortunately," he sighed and met his own eyes in the mirror. Those eyes closed....
And when they opened, Bess was in the mirror. She studied her reflection for a few moments, then lowered her eyes and sighed.
You're going to tell them, Chris had said.
"Tell them what?" Bess sighed, touching her reflected image. "That their undercover agent is a damned freak?"
She sighed deeply and shook her head. "No... no, there's got to be another way." Her eyes fell on the picture of the Seven, and she smiled as she ran a finger down Chris's cheek.
"And I think I may just know one...."
Two hours later, a young woman with long auburn hair, wearing a green miniskirt that set off her magnetic emerald eyes, stepped off the elevator. Were anyone close enough to understand her mumbles, they would have heard, "I can't believe I'm doing this..."
She walked boldly into Team Seven's offices and up to Vin, clearing her throat.
He looked up and stood up. "Ma'am.... may I help you?"
She put on her best smile, careful to crook it so the gilded incisor wouldn't show. "Yes, I'm here to speak with Chris Larabee."
Vin nodded carefully. "An' you would be --?"
"Just tell him... Bess is here."
Vin's frown lasted all the way into Chris's office. "Ya got company, cowboy."
"Yeah?" Chris didn't look up from his paperwork. "Who?"
"Says her name's Bess."
Chris's head snapped up. "Bess? Wh-what does she look like?"
"Auburn hair, green eyes...." Vin suddenly found himself alone in the office. "....Chris?"
"Bess!" Chris's face lit up as he walked into the main offices. "I didn't expect to see you..."
"But here I am," she said with a smile.
"Hey, hold on," Nathan said suddenly, coming to his feet. "You got a gold ---"
"Yes, I do," Bess cut him off. She turned and met Chris's eyes. "My.... twin... and I lost those teeth at the same time -- and got matching ones."
Chris shook his head in amusement. "Fellows, I'd like you to meet Bess Standish -- Ezra's ... twin."
Bess smiled up at him and winked her thanks.
"So how can we help you, ma'am?" Buck asked, taking her hand and kissing the back of it -- and wondering why that action had Chris grinning behind his hand.
"Well...." she never quit looking into Chris's eyes. "I've heard a lot about Team Seven -- I'm offering my services when needed."
Chris stared at her, unable to believe what he'd just heard.
"I'm Bess Standish," she finished. "Ezra's equal in every way."
"Excuse us." Chris took Bess by the arm and pulled her into his office, where he closed the door before rounding on her. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
"Well," she said with an air of wounded innocence, "You were the one who said to tell them!"
"Tell them, yes! Tell them like this -- no!"
She gave him a dimpled, gilded smile. "But surely you can see how this can be advantageous to everyone?"
He leaned a dark-jeaned hip on the corner of his desk and crossed his arms. An eyebrow cocked as he challenged, "Oh?"
"I no longer have to hide Elizrabeth," she stepped closer and lay a hand on his arm. "And the team now has a female undercover agent, as well as a male one!"
Chris realised she was right. More assignments... "Agreed," he said tightly, then wagged his finger at her. "But! We are not paying you double!"
Her grin spread again. "Wouldn't dream of asking you, Chris."
That made him smile a bit. "I can not get over how different from Ezra Bess is!"
"Well, of course! I'm female!"
Chris shook his head and uncrossed his arms, taking both her hands. "It's more than that."
He nodded. "Bess is sunnier, more open -- not as formal, not as many shields."
She blinked. "Yes?"
"Yes. Overall, Bess is....warm."
"If you do not cease the flattery ... I am afraid I shall have to...."
"To?" he asked.
"....kiss you," she whispered.
He smiled and lowered his head, gently touching his lips to hers.
Bess's eyes flew wide open, then closed as she returned the tender kiss, her arms rising of their own volition to wrap around his neck.
As the kiss continued, the same thought crossed both their minds:
Things are certainly going to be complicated now --- and interesting!
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