- Violence - Canon-Level
- Canon Divergence
- Crime Drama
8 June 2009
Tony sat in the Denver FBI offices, rethinking his decision to check this interview off his list. After a week of having his concept of where he was in the universe readjusted by General O’Neill, he had taken a couple of days at a hotel to sit down and look at the job offers coming his way. He had divided them into Interesting, Probably-Not-But-Good-Contacts-to-Make, and the Ninth Level of Hell.
The Bureau still made him twitchy, but he had decided to let someone outside of the DC spiral make an offer just to be fair. Honestly, they would need to offer him something different, and O’Neill had set the bar pretty damn high. So far, they were living down to his expectations. Making him wait to build suspense and establish power? So grade school.
Movement caught his attention, and he suppressed a smile at the antics at the doorway. A man, approximately Tony’s age with a full mustache, wandered in and started flirting with the admin at the desk. Tony was an expert at the art of the flirt, and this man had serious skills. In two lines, she was eating out of his hand. Meanwhile, a second person, who looked like he should still be in high school, hesitated at the doorway, file folder in hand, before taking a breath and walking toward Tony.
“Agent DiNozzo?” the kid asked.
“That would be me.”
“If you could come this way for your appointment?” The kid turned and walked toward the door. Tony was bored, so he was willing to go along. The glance at mustache on the way out confirmed the collusion. He noted another agent leaning against a wall in the hallway, reading a magazine. He was good looking but hair a bit longer than Tony usually liked.
They were entering the elevator when the Deputy Director of Investigations, John Smidt, came running out of the office after them. In a very smooth move, magazine guy moved at just the right moment and clipped him, sending Smidt to the floor with a quick apology. The doors closed as the Deputy Director was making his second attempt to stand with help.
Tony suppressed the laughter and followed along as his guide led him through doors marked Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. They passed by several desks and reached a door with a nameplate, Christopher Larabee.
His guide knocked once before opening the door. “Chris, that agent you wanted to meet is here.”
There was a long, loud sigh from the office. “What did you do?”
“Uh…it was Buck’s idea.”
“Of course it was.” The sound of a file cabinet closing preceded the man. He extended a hand as he rounded the desk and introduced himself, “Chris Larabee.” He was blond and dressed all in black. On him, it looked good. Damn good.
“Tony DiNozzo,” Tony responded with a smile.
“I’m sorry if my men interrupted your interview.”
“I think maybe they rescued me from complete boredom.”
The green eyes crinkled in amusement as he was motioned into the office. “Agent DiNozzo, I’m going to be honest with you here. The ATF does want to recruit you. Hell, name an agency that doesn’t and I’m sure there’s some idiot there who needs to be investigated for corruption. But I want to make it clear that I’m not replacing anyone on my team, no matter what the rumors may have told you.”
He took a seat opposite the man. “Good to know.” And it was, though the man probably didn’t know why.
“Our go-to undercover agent is the absolute best. Nothing and no one on this planet can replace him. But you and I both know that undercovers can be used until they burn out. I don’t want to see that happen to him. And I won’t allow it to happen to you, either. This team looks out for each other. In the field, you must be able to trust your team to have your back. I would trust every single one of them to have mine.”
“So, you just want me for backup UC? That’s it?”
“Hell no! Do I look stupid to you? My team is known for taking down some of the worst scum out there. But everyone knows you have the highest case closure rate in the US. When a man works for me, I expect him to put all his skills to work. I was a SEAL, so I know and respect the experience you bring to the field from NCIS. I also respect anyone who can screw over the FBI as many times as you have.”
“I do what I can.” Tony glanced around the office, noticing the photos of the team. The first had Larabee and five others, three of which he had already “met.” The rest had a seventh member included but always a step apart. Tony was careful not to let his expression show how closely he was examining those photos. He preferred to get answers without revealing his true interest. “Tell me why you’re the one speaking to me instead of the Assistant Director. Orin Travis is well known in circles, and I would have expected recruitment from him.”
“And you probably have an offer from him already. I just wanted first shot. I’m asking for six months with my team. My agent needs surgery on his shoulder and keeps putting it off for cases. He’s dislocated it one too many times, and he will need time for recovery and rehab. That would give you a chance to learn how we work and, in turn, teach some of my yahoos advanced investigative skills.
“After my man is back, I would want to keep you, and it would be your choice, of course. But, frankly, the AD wants to build more units for his rapid response task force. You would be first up to form your own team. Team leaders here build from the ground up to get the skills you need so you can set the tone and expectations. The task force is expanding across the US, so you could stay in Denver or move to another region.”
“You are guaranteeing my own team in six months?” Tony focused on the offer, trying to put aside the mention of surgery.
“Let’s face it, Travis would give you your own team now. If you accept a meeting with him, he will offer. I would just like a chance to use your skills and let you ease into the ATF first.”
A head popped in the door. “Chris, Smidt is moving around the building searching for Agent DiNozzo.”
“Where is everyone, JD?”
“Buck and Vin are here, Nathan is coming up from evidence, and Josiah and Ez should be back from court any minute.”
“Agent DiNozzo, how would you like to get lunch and meet the team?” Larabee stood and pulled his firearm from the desk drawer.
“Sounds good.” Tony really wanted to meet “the team.” All he knew about them was on paper and occasional emails.
They stepped into the main office and paused for introductions, “So, these are some of my team: JD Dunne, Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, and Nathan Jackson. Guys, this is Agent DiNozzo.”
“Tony is fine.” Handshakes were traded, and they headed out of the building with the usual small talk along the way.
As they exited the building, an ancient Chevy Suburban pulled up and backfired. The passenger quickly exited the vehicle.
“Mr. Sanchez, I refuse to travel in this rolling refuse depository one minute longer.”
“Standish!” Larabee called out. “Got someone here I want you to meet.”
Ezra turned to see the team and Tony locked eyes with him. Ezra froze, and then a broad smile grew on his face to match the one Tony knew he wore. “Dominic, what are you doing in Denver?”
Tony moved forward to meet him, and they exchanged a hug, though Ezra, as usual, was stiff in return. As they broke apart, a scream of warning called out, “Ez!” just as Tony was tackled to the ground. The distinct report of a sniper rifle echoed through the buildings.
He looked up into Chris’ eyes and moved quickly with him to reach cover. Tanner was pulling Ezra to their location. “He OK?”
“Yeah, just rung his bell a little when we hit the cement,” Tanner answered as he pulled his weapon and started checking trajectories. A second shot rang out, and they pulled back.
Tony was trying to check him, but Ezra waved him off and pulled his weapon. After a quick glance, he reached for his backup and handed it to Tony.
Larabee quickly and efficiently communicated with others, and it was only minutes before they were given the all clear and hustled into the building.
* * *
That night, he found himself in Larabee’s house, frustrated to be kept out of the investigation. Granted, he was one of the potential targets, but that just increased his frustration. After the blow up at NCIS, the last thing he wanted was to be back in protective custody.
Ezra was no different. He had complained incessantly, though Tony noted that he sat still and cooperated with Nathan’s concussion assessment. Of course, the words never stopped. Now the two of them were stuck here. Sanchez and Jackson were on duty. Larabee, Tanner, Dunne, and Wilmington had just arrived with food, and they were setting everything out. A second team was handling perimeter around the ranch house.
For such a quirky group, Tony had been impressed with their professionalism on the job. Buildings were searched and forensics onsite before they could finish their statements. Larabee was a hard-assed SOB, but he wasn’t blinded by the situation. He kept an eye on Ezra, and on Tony, and quickly moved them for safety and comfort.
The atmosphere at dinner was relaxed. Tony was eating some of the best Mexican food he’d ever had, making a quiet wager with himself on who would crack first. He traded a questioning look with Ezra whose eyes were sparkling as he made a barely perceptible motion toward Buck and JD. Those two were nudging each other in a completely not hidden way.
“So Ez, you and Tony worked together before?”
“What would give you that impression, Mr. Wilmington?” Ezra asked, his face one of polite inquiry only.
“The hugging kinda lends to the impression.” Buck leaned forward with a smile. “Unless that wasn’t hugging, but was ‘hugging,’” Buck said, raising and lowering his eyebrows suggestively.
“Mr. Wilmington, I would thank you to keep your crude insinuations to yourself. Dominic and I have never and would never have the kind of relations you are implying,” Ezra replied with a bit of snip in his voice.
Tony had to agree because, him and Ezra…just no. He did, however, note that Vin and, oddly enough, Chris had leaned back with relieved expressions.
JD was vibrating. “Then how do you know each other?”
Tony grinned. “Well, Ezra is my little brother.”
“What?” Multiple voices exclaimed. The guys were exchanging looks while Ezra rolled his eyes.
JD shook his head. “No way. Your bios both show you are only children.”
“Well, to be more accurate, you could say that we shared a transitory legal familial relation,” Ezra “explained.”
Josiah grinned. “Their parents were married, JD.”
“Oh… OH, you know Maude?” JD’s head whipped around from Josiah to Tony.
“As a matter of fact, I have had that honor. Dear old Dad will chase anything in a skirt as long as she has money,” Tony started.
Ezra smirked. “And as you are all aware, Mother is always fishing for the next big catch.”
“A fishing metaphor? Really, Ezra? I’m trying to imagine Maude baiting a hook.” Tony’s eyes were dancing at the thought as Ezra dramatically shivered.
“How long were they married?” Josiah inquired.
“Six months. One of Mother’s longer relationships, I think.”
“Definitely one of Dad’s longest. He might have stayed with her if she hadn’t left the way she did,” Tony remarked and saw Ezra wince.
Vin was quiet but watching everything with sharp eyes. “What happened?”
“It only took a few months after the honeymoon for them to figure out they were conning each other. They would have had the whole thing annulled right then but they stumbled into a larger con that only worked with them married.” Tony looked at Ezra.
Ezra sighed and shrugged gracefully. “Mother stayed long enough to let Anthony do most of the work then left with most of the money.”
Jackson had been quiet during the meal as well. It was obvious what his feelings were regarding their parental units. “So, why do you call him Dominic?”
“Because it’s his name.”
Buck cocked his head. “I thought his name was Tony.”
“Anthony Dominic DiNozzo Jr. He didn’t like to be called Anthony, and I refused to succumb to Mr. DiNozzo’s preferred appellation of Junior,” Ezra explained.
“Wait!” Buck grinned and looked at Tony. “He calls you by your middle name. Does that mean you know what Ez’s middle name is?”
Everyone turned toward Tony, and it felt like sharks circling in bloodied waters.
Ezra’s expression grew threating. “Don’t you…”
Tony let the smile grow across his face until it was blinding. “Don’t worry, Presley. I won’t tell them…oops.”
“I will end your existence.”
“Presley???” Buck’s eyebrows popped up into his hairline.
“Father was an Elvis fanatic, but Mother drew the line.”
“Your real name is Ezra Presley Standish?” Buck started laughing and fell off the chair.
* * *
After dinner, they gathered in the living room to review the findings of the investigators. “FBI is supposed to be running the investigation, but they aren’t fighting us on protection. The Feebies think there were two shooters in the building across from ours. One took a shot from the fourth floor then another from the second before exiting the building.”
“They’re smokin’ sumthin’,” Vin interjected while pointing at photos of the building. “Fourth floor was the second shot. Second floor has the nest. Someone was waiting there for several hours. Fourth floor has access to the parking garage behind it. Our shooter was waiting closer to street level. When he missed, he high-tailed it up two flights for a different angle, made a second attempt, then got out of there. No way to tell from the angle who they were after. You were both together for both shots.”
“So, we’re looking into which one of you was the likely target.” Chris met Tony’s eyes. “We know Ezra’s enemies, so we’re running those on the assumption Ez was the target. But we need to cover our bases.”
JD perked up and pulled out some forms. “I’m checking through the lists of likely suspects, but I would like to see if anyone is tracking your footprint. We can’t ignore the fact that you scheduled a meeting with the FBI one day and someone took a shot at you the next. If I could get your authorization to check your accounts?”
“You mean you haven’t already?”
JD blushed. “I might have considered it, and I could totally do it without you knowing. But I need your permission to access without a warrant. Chris would kill me if the evidence weren’t admissible.”
Tony quickly scanned the form, noting it was the correct one and signed. JD grabbed it and moved to the table with his laptop.
“Honestly, we’re going with the idea that Ezra was the target. It makes the most sense. But, if we let you go, the Feebs are going to take the opportunity to take you under their wing and, frankly, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
“I actually appreciate that.”
“Whoa, there is some serious security around your accounts, Tony.” He moved over next to JD. “And, you have a bazillion emails. Your mailbox is beyond full.”
“Anything I need to be aware of?” Tony asked.
“No, but whatever mess you were involved with back in DC, they’re all up in your business. It all appears to be on the up and up though. Anyone you can check with back there?” JD raised his eyebrows in question.
Ezra, who had been sitting in an armchair walked over and handed him a phone. “It’s a burner, you know what to do.”
Tony took it and left the room.
* * *
Tony was relieved that the usual suspects hadn’t left DC, but his relief came with anxiety for his friend.
Tanner and Sanchez disappeared for four or five hours after dinner. They had a lot of contacts in the not so affluent parts of town and were hitting the streets together to follow some leads. They returned tired and angry.
“Chris, word on the street is there’s a price on Ez’s head. Well, his persona’s. Someone doesn’t want Elliot Small testifying against Garlock.” Vin grabbed a soda from the fridge and leaned back against the bar, taking a drink.
Josiah accepted his drink and sat down at the kitchen table. “It’s high enough to be worrying but short-term. And no one has a description of him, but they know he’s a federal agent.”
Tony filled a glass of water and handed it to Ezra who had entered the kitchen with him. They had been catching up in the living room. “I thought you were at court testifying today.”
“No, that was a deposition. Since my identity is protected, it was recorded with voice modulators to protect me. But, frankly, it was a waste of my time. It was honestly more of an attempt to force me into court,” Ezra explained.
The gears started moving. “They don’t want you to testify, but they force you into the courthouse to get this recording. You’re there all day, and the moment you return to the offices, someone takes a shot at you? Who ordered you to the court building? That kind of recording can be set up anywhere and broadcast to the defense. There was no reason for you to go to a specific location unless someone was trying to ID you.”
Everyone traded looks, and Chris’ jaw looked like it could break while the vein in his head was throbbing. He grabbed his phone from the counter and stalked out of the kitchen.
* * *
By noon the next day, a federal court clerk was in custody, and three bodies were in the morgue. The clerk had snapped one candid image of Ezra. That image was forwarded to a burner phone, which was found on the body of one Paul Bonners, their sniper. His body was found with a broken neck in the early morning hours in LoDo. The sniper rifle was in his rental.
Martin Garlock’s attorney was found dead at home, a victim of a home invasion. His security system conveniently turned off. And Garlock himself, well, Tony had been present for that interrogation. Gibbs could be as intimidating as hell, and Tony himself was a master at the art of the question, but Chris Larabee just scared the hell out of the guy.
It was like a dark presence surrounded him as he entered the room. Tony would be kidding himself if he didn’t admit that it kinda turned him on. It took only moments before the guy was demanding witness protection for turning evidence against his boss. Unfortunately, he didn’t come back from the holding cell alive after someone approved it. Someone was cleaning house, and word on the street was Garlock’s suppliers were moving out of the region.
The team had been pissed, but that investigation wasn’t theirs. Tony understood how they felt. Frankly, he was relieved that Ezra was safe. Chris and team planned to keep him under wraps for the rest of the week until things settled, but whoever was calling the shots didn’t seem the type to draw more attention to himself than was already in play, so Tony agreed with the threat assessment.
* * *
Tony took Chris up on his offer of another night at the ranch with the guys. It had been a stressful day, and he really appreciated the inclusive atmosphere. They spent a few hours with a short horseback ride on Chris’ ranch to a small lake. Tony had been against riding the horses but eventually agreed.
“This place is gorgeous.” He looked around while JD took care of the horse.
Chris smiled at him. “It’s one of my favorite places.”
Ezra unrolled a blanket in the shade and relaxed back against the saddle while pulling out a book to read. The rest of the guys were moving closer to the lake.
JD handed Tony a towel as he passed him. “Come on, the water’s great here.”
“Uh, great for what?”
“Swimming, of course.” JD turned back toward him and gave him a questioning look.
“I didn’t exactly pack a swimsuit.” Tony looked around to see the others beginning to undress.
“Don’t need one. No one’s around here anyway.” JD dropped the towel then pulled off his boots and proceeded to disrobe.
Tony had played sports, so it wasn’t his first time around naked men, but the smirk on Ezra’s face as Tony tried to avoid staring at Chris Larabee’s bare ass was disconcerting. There were a couple of yells, followed by splashes as the guys began to jump in.
“Aren’t you joining them?” Tony asked as he turned to face Ezra, allowing only a peripheral view of bare bodies headed toward the water.
“I am not. I am quite comfortable relaxing here.”
Tony looked from Ezra to the men playing in the water and started to strip. When he reached bare skin he inhaled deeply, cracked his neck, then took the book away from Ezra. “Take a chance and join in, Ezra.”
“I don’t believe I asked for…”
“Take a chance.” He dropped the book and turned to jump into the lake, relieved that the chill of the water helped hide any uncomfortable circumstances. He swam over to the group, who were horsing around. It was the look of awe on Vin’s face that told him Ezra had followed.
* * *
Orlando Magic scored again, and Buck threw popcorn at the TV, screaming at the Lakers to move the ball.
JD grinned. “It’s gonna be great working with you. Can’t wait to see what you do undercover when you take Ez’s place.”
Tony saw Ezra’s face freeze up from where he was listening by the doorway. Before he could say anything, Ezra had backed through it. The sound of the back door opening and closing carried faintly into the house.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet where I’m going. I have a lot of offers on the table. I really like you guys, but I feel like if I don’t check out all my options, I’ll just be settling. I’ve settled before, and it always turns out bad in the end. I don’t just want a place to go, I want to find where I really belong.”
“But, nothin’, JD.” Vin stared down JD then turned to look at Tony after glancing toward the back door, proving he had noticed Ezra as well. “Most important thing in the world for a man is findin’ where he belongs. Ain’t right to interfere. If he’s meant to be here with us, he’ll be back. And, if he’s not, well, I think he might be visitin’ Ez and us now and then. Friends don’t stop bein’ friends just cause there’s a little distance between them.”
Tony offered a small smile and closed his eyes while giving a single nod in agreement.
* * *
Tony sat down on the bale of hay and watched Ezra speaking softly to his horse. The animal’s bright, intelligent eyes tracking his master’s every move. The way the ears twitched and the expressions changed, Tony could almost believe the animal understood him.
There was a look of contentment on Ezra’s face that Tony wished could be on his own. “You’ve got a great team here.”
“Indubitably. As irascible as they may sometimes appear, they are a superior force in law enforcement,” Ezra agreed.
“I’ve been part of superior teams before; the best are tight-knit groups that act more like family than colleagues.” Tony watched as Ezra nodded and whispered something to the horse. “My last team liked to pretend we were a little family. But I learned that was all it was, pretend.”
“It is difficult when you have your preconceptions ripped away,” Ezra murmured under his breath with sadness.
“But there is a big difference between acting like a family and being one. You are lucky that you have a real family here.”
Ezra didn’t move, but his breath hitched. If he hadn’t been watching for it, Tony would have missed it or mistaken it for movement around the horse. Not a bit of Standish’s expression changed; his motion with the horse never wavered. But Tony was a pro at undercover himself, and he could see the signs of someone playing a role. Tony knew the feeling of not being able to be yourself because you needed to hang on to the role everyone expected you to play. But he could also tell that in this place, those men throwing popcorn and pretzels at the TV in there, they didn’t need anyone to play a role.
“You and I are both aware that family is not necessarily inclusive of all members.”
“Ezra, I’m going to be blunt because I’m tired and you need to hear it. Those men in there aren’t brothers in blue. They’re just brothers. And, like it or not, you’re one of them even if you don’t see it. Take it from an outsider’s point of view. You are 100 percent one of them in their eyes.”
“He’s right, ya know.” They turned to see Chris Larabee standing in the open door.
“Mr. Larabee, has our presence been missed?”
“Don’t deflect, Ezra. You’re one of us. Might not always say it, but kinda thought you knew that by now.”
“I would not want to presume…”
Chris made a motion and cut him off. “Can’t presume the truth, Ez.”
Ezra swallowed hard and nodded once. Tony caught an unguarded moment of emotion in his eyes and saw hope painfully ignite before blanking back to normal. The slight gasp from Chris said he saw it too.
“Ez, what you heard back there with JD wasn’t us trying to replace you. You can’t replace family…just add to it.”
“Then what should I understand it to be?”
“Doc says you need that surgery on your shoulder. Another injury could disable you permanently. I would rather have you out of the field for the six months of recovery than gone for good. We were just trying to recruit Tony while you recovered. Just looking out for you. No one can take your place here.”
Ezra’s eyes tightened. “And you would have kicked him to the curb when his time was up?”
“No, then he would have started his own team. Six-month time in position with a waiver for the full year normally needed for supervisor status. Weren’t going to use him up, just give him a step up.”
Ezra nodded before taking a breath and relaxing. It was the real relaxation that was seldom seen. “Perhaps we should return before the end of the game. Mr. Wilmington owes me $30 so far, and I still have $20 to go on our bet.”
“Buck,” Tony said, shaking his head.
“When a man acknowledges you as a brother, you call him by his given name, Ezra,” Tony admonished him.
“That’s right, Ez,” Chris added with a shared grin.
“When the man learns mine, perhaps I will endeavor to remember his, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris groaned. “Ezra!”
Ezra’s eyes sparked, and his lips twitched. “Yes, Christopher?”
* * *
The airport was busy as Tony waited for the private plane to begin loading. He had spent a couple days with Ezra, and it was great to catch up. It was a real chance to get to know the team, and he had even taken the opportunity to meet with Assistant Director Travis.
It was tempting to stick around. The teams here were tight-knit and down to earth. But he felt a need to explore and test what was out there. Like he told JD, he didn’t want regrets later. And, frankly, the more emails he erased, the more he got.
The attendant motioned him toward the jetway, and Tony picked up his bag.
“Are you certain you want to try California next?”
“Yeah, I think I do. Hey, Ezra, stay in touch. I enjoyed catching up with you.”
“I as well. Let me know where you land; you’re always welcome here, Dominic.”
Ezra held out a hand, and Tony pulled him in for a big hug. “Thanks, Presley.”
“You will regret that.” Ezra hugged him back and then stepped away. A disturbingly evil grin on his face.
Tony gave him a little smile and turned to follow the attendant onto the very nicely decorated private jet. The attendant stowed his gear and provided him with a drink before securing for the takeoff. It wasn’t until the plane was climbing to a cruising altitude that he pulled out his wallet to look at the picture of himself and Ezra that Vin had snapped at the lake. Ezra was relaxed and happy…so was Tony.
He started to close it and felt something wrong along one side. He flipped it over and saw an empty space where his American Express Card should be stored. “Ezra!”