Chris Larabee sat in the hospital room trying to make sense out of something that would never make sense: how two of his men, ATF agents, were struck down not in a raid, but in a senseless accident. One moment they had been laughing and teasing as they left his ranch house, now they were silent and still except for the sounds of the machinery which supported their lives and monitored their conditions. It was so unreal. He kept waiting for someone to wake him up from this horrible nightmare.
He prayed someone would wake him up.
An uncharacteristic sniff from across the room drew his attention.
Ezra wiped his eyes with his index finger, his handkerchief forgotten in his pocket. He took a couple of deep breaths in a vain attempt to control his emotions, but it had been too much and too long.
"I'm sorry," Ezra whispered, bolting from the room.
Chris' gaze followed Ezra to the doorway. He looked back at the man in the bed and then to the door.
"I've got him," said Josiah solemnly, heading for the hallway.
"Thanks," Chris said softly, watching Team Seven's profiler follow the undercover agent. Chris' heart ached for Ezra, knowing full well the guilt, the responsibility for his friends' condition that he was feeling right now. Nothing would relieve that remorse other than their survival and return to 100% capacity. And even then, Standish would still punish himself.
Chris sighed, knowing he would do the same thing.
Yet, it wasn't Ezra's fault. It was no one's fault. That's what made it so incredibly unbelievable. Just hours ago they were laughing and teasing…
"Would you guys get out of here?" Chris growled as JD and Vin tripped over each other, laughing.
"Yes, Sir, Mr. Larabee, Sir," Vin said, snapping a salute.
Chris slapped the back of his head as Vin laughed.
"Hey!" JD protested as Buck slapped his head. "I didn't do anything!"
"I know, * Kid,*" said Buck. "That's for what you're going to do."
JD laughed and shoved Buck out the door of Chris' ranch house. They wrestled their way to the driveway, to the waiting vehicles. With a final shove, Buck pushed JD away and paused to button up his coat.
"Woo-wee, it's chilly out tonight," he commented.
"Ya coming, Ezra?" Vin asked as he stepped off the porch. Josiah and Nathan had spent the evening at the ranch as well, but they had chosen to head home at a reasonable hour.
Ezra buttoned his expensive wool coat and wrapped a scarf around his neck before stepping into the cold.
"Good night, Mr. Larabee," he said.
Everyone groaned at the formality.
"There is nothing wrong with good manners!" Ezra shouted at his teammates, completely destroying the illusion of proper etiquette.
Vin laughed and climbed into his Jeep and attempted to start the engine. It groaned pathetically and so did he.
"Problem, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin rolled his eyes even though Ezra couldn't see the gesture in the dark.
"Would you like a ride in a nice, warm, *reliable * vehicle?" Ezra offered.
"Yeah," Vin conceded. "It's too damn cold to try and fix her tonight."
Chris stood on the porch and shook his head. It wasn't like this hadn't happened before.
"Get in, JD," said Buck, trying to corral his roommate into the truck so they could head home.
"No way," said JD. "If Vin's going in the Jag, so am I!"
"That makes no sense, Boy," said Buck. "Why make Ezra come over to our place just to drop you off when…" Buck shook his head when he realized he was talking to air. JD was already in the back seat of the Jag.
"Race you home, Honey," Buck teased.
Ezra grinned at him and opened his door.
"You will not," Chris ordered. "It's cold. There's likely to be fog on the highway. You watch yourselves on the way home."
"Yes, Mother," both Ezra and Buck answered at the same time. They looked at each other and laughed.
Chris shook his head, walked into the house, slammed the door and shut off the porch light growling about ungrateful friends.
Buck gunned the truck and peeled out of the driveway, scattering gravel in his wake just to antagonize Chris a little more. He raced down to the highway leaving the Jag behind. As fast as the car was, Ezra was a cautious driver, not willing to risk life or limb, or the expensive car to the poor weather conditions.
Within a few minutes Buck was far ahead of them as the three friends in the Jag enjoyed the smooth ride of the vehicle.
"Mr. Tanner, desist!" Ezra ordered as Vin tuned the radio to a County station.
“Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses,” Vin sang loudly along with the radio.
Ezra winced. Tanner had absolutely no sense of pitch. Or taste in music for that matter. He reached over and pushed the button for the Jazz station.
“Aww,” Vin and JD groaned at him. Then, as if they had the same thought at the same instant, both of them belted out, “Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!” drowning out the radio
The men rode along laughing and joking until the fog became very dense. Ezra slowed the car down to a crawl. It was difficult to see where they were going, so he focused on the white line at the side of the road to keep him on path. Vin and JD were silent, allowing the southerner to concentrate on the task at hand.
The normal thirty-minute drive had now stretched into forty-five and they still had a long way to go. They weren't exactly sure where they were because the fog was disorienting.
"Stop!" Vin called urgently.
Ezra slowed the car and pulled off onto the shoulder of the highway, now seeing the same problem Vin did. About thirty feet ahead of them, headlights were facing them on their side of the highway. With two lanes in each direction on the divided highway, it was clear that a car was on their side of the road. The headlights were at a strange angle to each other and far too low. Something was definitely wrong.
"Let's see if we can help," Ezra suggested as he reached for his cell phone.
Vin was already out of the car heading over to the scene as JD crawled out of the back seat.
The single vehicle was upside down with the front end wedged at a 45-degree angle against the concrete median. It looked like it had rolled. Vin tugged vainly at the passenger door, but it was too badly mangled to get it open.
"Ezra, flashlights?" he called. He looked over towards the Jag, but couldn't even see it through the murkiness.
JD seemingly materialized from nowhere as he approached through the dense fog.
"I can't get in from this side," said Vin. "Let's try the other side." He and JD moved to the median, choosing to climb over it rather than going around the back of the car.
"Vin? JD?" called Ezra as he approached with a flashlight. "Help is on the way."
"Good. We're going to…" Vin's voice was cut off by JD's scream as they both disappeared from sight.
"JD! Vin!" called Ezra frantically. He ran to the median and turned the beam of light towards his friends. The southerner gasped as he saw what they had not noticed in the fog. The car had overturned on an overpass and Vin and JD had jumped over the median into nothingness, falling from the divided overpass through the gap between the northbound and southbound lanes.
Ezra struggled to catch a breath as it sank in that his friends had fallen to the roadway below. "Vin! JD!" he called frantically, his heart pounding wildly. He shown the flashlight towards the ground below, but it was of little use. He could see no further than a few feet in the thick fog.
"Vin! JD!" he screamed again as he moved seemingly on autopilot. He ran for the end of the overpass, knowing that most of them had some sort of ladder or staircase for emergency workers. There was no question of who to help first. The victim in the car would have to wait. If Vin and JD had survived the fall, they would be on the roadway below and in danger of oncoming traffic. And with the thick fog, a driver, no matter how alert would never see them.
Somehow Ezra found his cell phone in his hand and he placed a second call to 9-1-1 as he scrambled to find the path to the road below. He reported that additional help was needed, but he couldn't tell them what overpass he was on. The operator calmly told him where to look for the identifying number on the bridge and Ezra relayed the information as he stumbled down the steep steps.
Now on the roadway below, he tried to gauge where his friends would have landed, scanning the area with the flashlight.
He sucked in a breath and his heart seemed to stop as he found JD. The young communications specialist was in the middle of the road, sprawled awkwardly on his stomach. Blood was pooled near his face.
Ezra's heart pounded relentlessly as he felt for a pulse. His relief on finding it was short lived. He could hear a car coming. Every bit of training he had ever had screamed at him not to move his friend, but none of the training had dealt with someone in the middle of the road on a dark foggy night. He had no choice. As carefully as he could he placed his hands under JD's limp arms and dragged him to the side of the road. He cautiously maneuvered the young agent onto his side, since JD was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and he was afraid he might choke.
The undercover agent turned back towards the road. He needed to find Vin. The approaching car passed as he held his breath and prayed – prayed that he would not hear a horrible thud of car hitting flesh.
Letting out a breath as the car passed, Ezra strained to see through the fog. He had to find Vin. Trembling hands made it difficult to shine the beam of the flashlight with any steadiness. Hearing a groan, Ezra focused the light in the direction and hurried towards the sound.
He nearly dropped the flashlight as he slid to his knees beside a bloodied Vin in the opposite lane of traffic. If that vehicle had been going the other direction…
‘Stop it!’ Ezra forced himself to focus on the immediate need. Faced with the same decision of moving his injured friend or leaving him at the fate of traffic, Ezra made the same choice a second time. He stood, becoming angry with himself as his legs shook. He needed to be strong right now. The nerves could settle in * after * Vin and JD were safe.
The other shoulder of the road was closer, but Ezra chose to drag Vin next to the communications specialist. He needed them together to do what he could while he waited for help. Settling the sharpshooter next to JD, Ezra fell to his knees beside them. His legs would no longer hold him up. He shined the beam of light over his two friends, taking a shaky breath. There were so many obvious injuries. Where could he even start to help them?
Nathan would know what to do, but the medic wasn't here. Ezra P. Standish was all his friends had until real help arrived.
He wasn't really conscious of his actions as he dug his cell phone out of his pocket and set the flashlight on the concrete next to him. Ezra ran one bloody hand through his hair as he dialed.
"C…Chris?" he said stuttered into the phone.
It was the call no one ever wanted to receive. When Chris heard Ezra’s trembling voice on the other end of the line he knew instinctively that something was wrong and that it was bad. What scared him the most was the fact that he had to work to get Ezra focused enough to tell him what was going on. The undercover agent was not easily rattled, but he was obviously shaken. At first Chris feared that Ezra was injured and unable to communicate clearly, but with some firm coaxing and a pointed order, he got the undercover agent on track and was given the grim news. Vin and JD were seriously hurt in some kind of an accident.
“There’s so much blood…”
“Ezra! Ezra listen to me,” Chris ordered sharply. The undercover agent was losing focus again. “Did you call 911?”
“Yes, they’re on the way,” he replied. “I don’t know what to do, where to start…”
Chris hated to be harsh with him, almost certain the southerner was also injured or in shock, but injured or not, Ezra was the only lifeline that Vin and JD had at the moment. “Think, Ezra!” he demanded.
“Need Nathan,” Ezra said softly.
“Basic first aid, Ezra,” Chris ordered. “You know what to do.”
“A-B-C,” muttered Ezra.
“That’s right,” Chris assured. “Airway, breathing, circulation. Just do what you can. Help’s on the way.”
Chris continued to hold the cell phone, listening for anything as he quickly put on his boots and grabbed for his coat.
He heard a distant groan and then Ezra’s voice telling someone to be still. It was a relief of sorts to know that at least one of them was alive, but frustrating that he couldn't help.
Chris cursed as the connection cut off. He dialed Ezra’s number, but it simply rang and went to voice mail. Grabbing the keys to his truck, he ran out the door, dialing Nathan as he went.
The only thing worse than receiving a call like this was passing on the news to someone else. He told Nathan all he knew. There had been an accident. Vin and JD were hurt, how bad he had no idea, except that one of them was groaning and Ezra said there was a lot of blood. It wasn't much information, but it was all he had.
Nathan had been Nathan. He had tried to reassure Chris as much as he could and took on the task of calling Josiah and Buck, leaving Chris to focus on driving on the foggy highway.
Chris cursed the fog. He cursed the ‘luck’ of his team. He cursed whatever fool had caused the accident, fervently hoping it hadn't been Ezra.
Larabee drove far too fast in the poor conditions. His single advantage was the hundreds of times he had driven this highway. Even in the dense fog he knew the turns, he knew the exits and onramps. But even his knowledge couldn’t get him to his friends fast enough.
He reached the scene of the accident nearly 40 minutes later. Flares on the road and flashing lights of emergency vehicles cast an eerie glow in the fog. Chris pulled over to the side of the road and parked the truck behind Ezra’s unscathed Jag.
How the hell had Vin and JD been injured if the Jag was in one piece?
Grabbing his flashlight, he exited the truck and headed up the shoulder of the highway until he found a police officer. Chris identified himself and asked about the injured men as the officer led him to the scene commander. He could see the single car upside down, but there was no sign of his men or what had happened to them.
“You’re Larabee?” the Sergeant asked.
Chris nodded. Ezra must have told them he was coming.
“Your men stopped to help the accident victim.” The Sergeant grimaced. He hated to convey bad news to anyone, but when it was something so senseless, it seemed a million times worse.
“I think the fog obscured their vision.”
“What happened? Where are they?” Chris impatiently.
"It appears they climbed over the median to go around the car."
Chris motioned with his hands as if to say, "So what?"
"Agent Larabee, what they didn't see in the fog, is that they were on an overpass."
Fear surged through Chris as the implications hit. They had fallen.
He couldn't stop the instinctual impulse to look over the edge. He saw nothing but fog and knew that is all his friends had seen.
"They're on the way to Denver General," the Sergeant added.
"They're alive?" asked Chris in a hushed voice.
"Yes," said the Sergeant. "Standish insisted that he go in with one of the men." He looked at the shaken blond with concern. "Do you want an escort to the hospital?"
Chris shook his head. "I've got lights and sirens if I need them."
The man put his hand on Chris' shoulder. "I hope they're all right."
"Thanks," said Chris, truly appreciating the Sergeant's concern. "The other victim?"
"He's fine. A few bruises," he replied with a shake of his head. "Paramedics took him in just to be safe."
"Drunk?" Larabee asked.
"Don't know, yet," the Sergeant replied, "but it's likely."
Chris closed his eyes, cursing under his breath. This was totally pointless. Vin and JD had been hurt trying to help someone in distress who chose to drink and drive.
"We'll find out for sure, and we'll charge him," the Sergeant offered. It wasn't much, but it was all he could do.
"Thanks," said Chris, shaking the man's hand before heading for his truck. He needed to get to the hospital.
Striding through the Emergency Room doors with an air of authority, Larabee did a quick scan of the waiting area, easily spotting his team. With less distance to travel, Buck, Josiah and Nathan had arrived at the hospital before him. Off in the far corner of the chairs, the men had unconsciously set up a perimeter around Ezra.
The southerner was seated on a hard plastic chair, slumped forward, his elbows pressed into his knees and his forehead resting on his fisted hands. There was an empty chair on either side of him as if attempts at approaching him had already been made and his teammates had backed off.
Buck stood near the window, staring out. Having teammates injured was hard on all of them, but when JD was involved it was particularly hard on Wilmington. He and JD were more than roommates - they were brothers.
Josiah sat across from Ezra, his head slightly bowed, eyes closed. No doubt he was praying for his teammates.
Nathan met Chris' gaze as the team leader joined the vigil. Shaking his head, he said, "We haven't heard anything, yet."
Chris nodded and walked forward, sitting purposefully next to Ezra.
From this vantage, he could see the dried blood not only on Ezra's clothing, but also on his hands and face. There was a long tear in the knee of his pants.
"Are you all right?" Chris asked quietly.
Ezra sat up and took a deep breath. Chris didn't miss the trembling hand as Ezra pressed the offending appendage against his thigh to stop the shaking.
Chris grimaced. A single word with no flowery explanation, no obvious denial of the facts. But the shaking hands and simple speech spoke volumes about Ezra's true status.
"Mr. Standish?" The young doctor who spoke intruded into their space.
Ezra nodded. “How are they?”
"We’re working on them,” the doctor said, brushing off the question. “We need to know a little more about the scene. Doctor Maxwell said you were there before the paramedics?"
Chris frowned as Nathan moved in close, taking a protective stance between Ezra and the doctor.
"He did what he had to do," Nathan growled.
The doctor raised his hands in surrender. "I understand. That’s between you and Dr. Maxwell. I just need to know how Mr. Tanner was positioned when you found him."
"I found JD first," said Ezra. By his answer, it was obvious that the Southerner wasn’t thinking clearly. "He was on the road. I had to move him."
"You did right, Ezra," Nathan affirmed.
The shaken agent looked at his teammate. He seemed to soak up the support, and then turned his focus on the doctor.
"JD was on his stomach. His uh…" Ezra paused for a steadying breath. "His right arm was beneath him and he was bleeding from the mouth and nose."
Subconsciously Team Seven closed in around Standish as he told of their downed teammates, but he didn't seem to notice.
"I'm sure his leg was broken, maybe both,” Ezra rambled. “I think he may have landed feet first and fallen forward hitting his face…"
The Southerner paused as the images of JD flooded his mind. Things he never wanted to see. Things he hoped he could forget. Feeling Chris' hand on his shoulder, Ezra looked at him and took another deep breath.
"And Mr. Tanner?" asked the doctor.
"Vin was on his back, more on his right hip I think."
"Which was it, his side or his back?" the doctor tried to clarify.
"I didn't want to move him."
"It's all right, Ezra," Nathan assured again, as he placed a hand on the under cover agent's other shoulder in support.
"His leg was broken. There was blood."
"Enough," said Nathan, glaring at the doctor. Standish was plainly shaken and this physician needed serious help in the area of sensitivity. "I'm going to take Ezra and get him cleaned up. If you need more information, you can talk to him when he’s up to it."
Nathan turned his focus back to the slightly shocky agent. "Come on, Ezra. Let's get you cleaned up. Get some clean clothes." Nathan took Ezra's arm and pulled gently until the Southerner stood and moved with him past the doctor.
The doctor headed back into the exam rooms assuring Chris, Josiah and Buck that he would keep them informed.
"What the hell was that about?" Chris asked.
Josiah sat down beside him. "Ezra was in the exam room when Doctor Maxwell went off on a rampage about the moron who moved Vin."
"My feelings, exactly," said Josiah. "Nathan got there just about the end of things when Ezra told the doctor that he was responsible for moving Vin. Actually, Nathan said that Ezra said, 'I'm the moron. But what's done is done and you're wasting time focusing on me when Mr. Tanner needs your attention.'"
Chris grimaced. Ezra’s words were true, but his sarcasm and anger wouldn't win him any high marks with the doctor.
"Maxwell had him removed to the waiting room. Nathan says he spent the next twenty minutes trying to assure Ezra that he had done the right thing."
"Doesn't sound like it worked," said Chris.
"Hell, no," Buck joined into the conversation. "How do you convince someone that a crippled friend is better than a dead friend?"
Crippled. The word struck hard as Chris began to piece together the information. The doctor was angry because someone moved Vin.
Vin might be paralyzed.
If he survived.
Nurse Jenna Dawson led Nathan and Ezra to the staff lounge. She knew Raine Jackson and had met her husband, Nathan, numerous times. After ascertaining that Ezra wasn't seriously injured, she had guided them to the lounge and retrieved a pair of scrubs for the agent. She watched as Nathan wooed the shaken man to the sink and helped him wash the blood from his hands and face.
It was easy to see what Dr. Jackson found attractive in her husband, and it wasn't just his handsome features. The man had a gentleness and compassion about him that was rare. He was taking great care of a distraught friend when he had every right to be just as worried.
Nathan took the supplies she had offered and tenderly cleaned the scrapes on both of Ezra's hands, expertly placing bandages on the heel of each hand. He spoke softly to the patient the entire time, assuring him that he had done all anyone could do for his friends.
When it came to dressing the knee, Nathan asked for her assistance. It was a deeper scrape and required first flushing the area, and then picking out some bits of rock that were embedded in the abrasion.
Ezra, for the most part, sat silently enduring the ministrations. He stared at his hands but didn't really seem to be looking at them.
"Can you slip these on?" asked Nathan, holding out a set of blue scrubs to Ezra.
Ezra mechanically took the clothing from his friend. Jenna excused herself while he dressed, saying that she would be back in a few minutes.
True to her word, she returned with a plastic bag for Ezra's damaged clothing, a small bottle of orange juice and a packet of cookies.
Nathan thanked her for the kindness, and made sure Ezra ate a cookie and drank some of the juice.
The Southerner followed Jackson’s instructions without conscious thought, eating part of a cookie and taking a drink when Nathan handed him the juice.
Fortunately, Nathan could see what was coming before it hit him and grabbed a trashcan, holding it for Standish while his stomach rebelled.
The waiting was interminable. Each minute they waited seemed like hours as they hoped for some information, * any * information on their friends. Chris' limited patience had long ago expired. His frustration and anger continued to build with each minute that passed without word on Vin and JD.
While Ezra remained silent in his thoughts, the remaining team members had vented their anger verbally, promising retribution against the drunk driver. Whether any of them really would harm the man was unlikely, but having somewhere to focus their frustrations kept them from chewing on each other or innocent people around them as they waited.
But even that had now been stolen from them. Sergeant Tucker, after wrapping up at the accident scene had come to the hospital to follow up. He needed a statement from Ezra, but one look at the man and he knew the questions could wait. Receiving the lab results from the doctor, he let out a frustrated sigh. He had to inform Larabee and his men that the driver was not intoxicated. It was simply a case of an eighty-six year old man disoriented by the fog and going up the off ramp into the wrong lanes of traffic. There was no villain, no one to blame for the senseless accident. No way to rationalize the injuries to two young men who had simply stopped to help.
Chris looked around the waiting room. He gave a nod to the fire chief. They had worked together on a recent arson investigation. There were paramedics, Denver Police officers, ATF agents, some he didn’t recognize at all. It was no surprise to him that as word started filtering out about the accident, even in the middle of the night, that fellow law enforcement officers and firefighters joined Team Seven in their waiting room vigil, showing support for their fallen. It was an honor that Chris sincerely appreciated but wished they didn't need.
When a doctor came to speak to them, there was no privacy. Every law enforcement officer and firefighter edged closer, wanting to know the fate of his or her comrades. It never occurred to Chris to ask for some space. All he wanted to know was if Vin and JD would be all right.
Chris didn't absorb all the details of JD's injuries. It was the major words that shook him. He glanced over to Nathan and the Paramedics who waited nearby. The look on their faces showed their understanding of the details and that it was serious. He looked away quickly, not wanting to acknowledge that losing JD was a real possibility, but his eyes fell on Buck. The glazed look on his face confirmed the fears.
“And Mr. Tanner…”
Chris didn’t want to hear the doctor’s next words. He didn’t want to hear that he had lost a friend; or that he could lose two friends today. Or that their lives would be changed forever. He wanted to hope that they both would be fine and everything would go back to normal. Taking a deep breath, he listened anyway. He needed to know.
Possible spinal cord injury.
Chris cursed. He felt Buck’s hand rest on his shoulder. As torn up as Buck was about the news, he was still offering support.
“Chris?” Buck interrupted his thoughts. “He asked if someone wants to go be with Vin until they take him to surgery.”
Chris looked over at Ezra, thinking that maybe after all he’d been through that Ezra needed to be with Vin. The look of guilt on the southerner’s face was like a blow to the stomach.
Ezra shook his head at the silent question from Chris. There was no way that he could bring himself to face his friend whom he had probably crippled for life. He ran a shaky hand through his hair before returning his elbows to his knees and resting his forehead on his fists.
Chris stood to join Buck in following the doctor. The ladies’ man would be allowed to walk with JD’s gurney on the way to surgery. Catching Nathan’s eye, Chris nodded towards Ezra.
Nathan nodded in agreement. He would keep an eye on Ezra. He exchanged glances with Josiah and they both moved closer to the undercover agent as Chris and Buck left the waiting room.
Chris stopped at the entry to the cubicle where Vin waited. Two doctors stood together conferring over some x-rays and images, presumably of Vin’s injuries. A nurse was checking Vin’s nasal canula, speaking softly to him.
Vin was a mess. His face was bruised and swollen on the left side and a large bandage covered some injury above his eye. His head was immobilized to prevent further damage to his spine. His right arm was bandaged in several places and blood seeped through the largest bandage just above his wrist. Bruising was already beginning to show on his torso. His right leg was temporarily splinted.
Hearing a whimper of pain, Chris moved forward. The nurse smiled and nodded, encouraging him to come closer.
Vin’s eyes were closed tightly as he panted through the pain.
“Take it easy, Cowboy,” Chris said softly.
“Chris?” Vin opened his eyes.
Larabee moved closer to his head so Vin could see him.
“Guess we should’a looked before we leaped…” Vin gasped and then clinched his eyes tightly again.
Chris swallowed. Here Vin was, all busted up and trying to crack a joke to make it easier on him. The blond looked at the nurse for permission as he reached for Vin’s hand. She nodded and he gently lifted Vin’s hand a couple inches off the bed and held it.
Immediately Vin’s long slender fingers wrapped around his and squeezed hard as he rode out the pain. Eventually Vin started to relax the grip, as the surge of pain lessened.
“JD?” he asked as he opened his eyes.
“On his way to surgery,” informed Chris. “He got pretty banged up, too.”
“He’ll be okay?” Vin gasped as another wave of pain hit. He cursed vigorously and squeezed Larabee’s hand like a vice.
“Can’t you give him something?” Chris asked of anyone who could hear.
One of the doctors broke away from the conference and did a quick check on Vin. “We’ve given him what we can until we get the head CT back. We’re expecting it any minute,” he assured.
“M’ back hurts so bad,” Vin complained.
Larabee looked at the doctor, giving him a hard glare. Sure the man had years of schooling and supposed expertise in his field, but at that moment all that Chris cared about was the incredible pain that Vin was enduring. From past experience, he knew that Vin had a very high pain threshold, and if Vin were complaining even after some pain meds had been given, it had to be unimaginable.
“I know,” said the doctor, soothingly. “Just a little longer and we’ll get you into surgery and take care of that.”
Chris frowned. This couldn't be the jerk who yelled at Ezra. He looked at Vin’s eyes, noting that there wasn’t as much fear as just moments ago. The guy was pretty good at calming his patient.
“Here’s the CT results,” said a technician as he entered the room.
“Great,” said the doctor in the same low tone. He smiled at Vin. “See? Just a little while more.”
Vin closed his eyes and started to squeeze Chris’ hand again as the doctor moved away to look at the results and make his final decisions about possible spinal surgery and taking care of the fractures.
All too soon, and yet not soon enough, Vin was wheeled away from Chris to surgery.
And the waiting continued.
Buck had been quiet since he returned from escorting JD to surgery. What he had seen *wasn’t * JD. It couldn’t be. His friend had horrible bruising on his face, both eyes blackened and swollen. His jaw seemed puffed-up twice it’s normal size and it was at an odd angle. He was receiving oxygen through a tube since the damaged jaw and swollen nose made airflow difficult.
Buck wanted to touch him, to hold JD's hand or something, but one arm was splinted and the other had an IV attached. The lumps under the sheet indicated an injury to his lower legs but he couldn’t see to what extent.
“Hey, Kid,” he had called softly to the unconscious agent as they hurried the gurney down the hallway to the operating room. “You’re going to be just fine, you hear?”
The nurse had given him a sympathetic smile as they left him standing outside the operating room doors.
He had slowly made his way to the surgery waiting room, knowing that the others would join him there at some point.
If only he had made JD get in the truck, maybe all this wouldn't have happened.
Buck closed his eyes.
Maybe he could have forced JD to ride home with him and spared his injury, but if he had, maybe it would be Vin and Ezra in the hospital instead of JD. Or worse. If Vin and Ezra had fallen and no one had been there to help, maybe they'd be…
Buck cursed. 'What ifs' were useless. The situation was what it was and there was no changing it.
He closed his eyes and let out a sigh.
"Want to talk about it?" Josiah asked as he sat down beside Buck.
Buck gave Josiah a half smile and a shake of the head. He appreciated the offer but knew if he talked he wouldn't be able to keep his emotions in check.
Wilmington looked up as Ezra and Nathan came through the door, wincing at Ezra's defeated appearance.
"Maybe you should talk to Ezra," Buck suggested in a hushed voice. "He needs to know it's not his fault."
"He won't hear it," said Josiah, "until he's ready."
Buck shook his head as Josiah walked away, knowing that Josiah's words were aimed at him as well.
“Why don’t you try to get some sleep?” suggested Nathan.
He fully expected the response he received, a shake of the head from the weary southerner.
“All right then, just do me a favor?” Nathan shifted some magazines off of the padded bench seats in the surgery waiting room. “Just put your feet up here. Rest that knee a bit.”
“It’s nothing,” Ezra protested softly.
“Humor me,” said Nathan, slightly surprised when Standish gave in and put his feet up on the couch. The scrape on Ezra’s knee was minor and wasn’t of concern at all to the medic. Standish had to be exhausted. The adrenaline had burned off long ago and the emotional and physical drain was taking over, and even as hard as he was fighting it he was having a difficult time keeping his eyes open.
Nathan folded up his jacket and placed it between Ezra’s shoulder and the back of the couch, hoping that Ezra would give in and nap a little. “You know,” he said softly so that only Ezra could hear, “you aren’t to blame for what happened. You did it right, Ezra. No one will think any less of you if you sleep a bit. Staying awake won’t make the surgery go any faster.”
“Disrespectful,” Ezra muttered, fighting to stay awake.
“No, it’s not,” Nathan admonished. “You need to rest so you don’t make yourself sick. We’re going to have some long hours here ahead of us.”
“Thanks to me…” Ezra’s muttering was even softer as his eyelids drooped and his head dropped forward.
Nathan gently pushed Ezra’s head against the folded jacket.
He smiled sadly as Ezra finally gave in and let sleep claim him.
“No, Ezra. They’re alive, thanks to you.”
With Ezra sleeping covered by his teammates’ coats, Nathan turned his attention to the other members of his team. Physical injuries, he could handle, but the emotional wounds he and his teammates struggled with were more Josiah’s department. Still, he could do everything possible to make sure his friends took care of themselves, something that people waiting in circumstances like this usually failed to do.
The accident had happened sometime around one o’clock in the morning, and it was now nearing six o’clock, but getting anyone to leave the waiting area to do something as “trivial” as eat, would be unlikely. Nathan talked to a few of the extended law enforcement family who waited with Team Seven, and several men and women jumped at the opportunity to do something tangible.
Soon Ezra was covered with blankets instead of the jackets that had been offered. A pillow replaced the jacket under his head. The southerner slept through the changes without so much as a murmur or a shift in position, attesting to his exhaustion.
Less than forty minutes later, two coolers appeared filled with beverages and sandwiches. A basket of fruit was added to the growing collection. A hospital volunteer set up a large coffee maker and a firefighter brought in a five-gallon jug of water.
Nathan picked up some of the wrapped sandwiches and walked around to each of his teammates. He placed sandwiches in their hands and told them to eat. One of the firefighters followed him, giving each man a cup of coffee.
When Nathan was satisfied that the others were actually eating, he sat down on the couch where Ezra still slept. He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed the back of his neck wearily. Opening his eyes again, he found a sandwich held in front of him.
He chuckled and accepted the offering.
Nathan looked at Ezra as he moved restlessly. He tucked the blanket around the southerner’s legs before looking back to the Paramedic.
“Make sure they know the food is for everyone,” Nathan asked.
“Sure thing, Nathan,” Katherine replied. She looked at Ezra as he began to really thrash in his sleep.
“NO!” Ezra shouted as he sat up suddenly, startling everyone.
Nathan put a calming hand on Ezra’s ankle.
“You’re all right,” he said soothingly.
Ezra blinked at Nathan for a moment, trying to push away the horror of his nightmare and figure out where he was.
Looking around the room to gather his bearings he suddenly felt like the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room - the awkward object everyone knew was there and no one chose to talk about.
Everyone was looking at him.
He swallowed uncomfortably and ducked his head failing to see the sympathy and empathy on the faces.
Paramedic Katherine Taylor stepped in to ease the awkward moment. “There’s enough food for everyone,” she invited. “Team Seven would like to thank you for being here and they ask that you help yourselves.”
When the focus was turned to the food, she returned to Ezra with a sandwich and a cup of coffee. His eyes widened and his face paled at the sight of the food.
"No, thank you," he said with a shake of his head.
"Ezra, you need to eat," Nathan encouraged.
"I can't." Ezra closed his eyes and sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly. The thought of putting anything into his mouth made him nauseous.
Nathan set aside his own sandwich and coffee, wondering if there was going to be a repeat performance of Ezra losing what little he ate earlier after he had bandaged the southerner's scrapes.
“Take some deep breaths,” he said softly, knowing that Ezra was already mortified about drawing attention from the nightmare. He didn't need to throw up in front of his peers as well. Seeing the slightly panicked look on the southerner’s face, Nathan stood and took Ezra by the elbow.
“There’s a restroom right around the corner.”
Ezra gratefully exited the waiting room with Nathan.
Chris watched them with concern. He turned to Orrin Travis, who had joined them about an hour earlier and excused himself from their discussion, following his agents into the hallway.
He rounded the corner and entered the restroom, finding Ezra bent over the sink, spitting. The undercover agent took sip of water from the paper cup in his hand and rinsed and spit.
Larabee frowned. There was no evidence of Ezra being sick, and Chris had been too close behind them to have missed it, not that he wanted to witness it. So Standish hadn't been sick, but was repeatedly rinsing out his mouth. The blond raised an eyebrow at Nathan.
The medic shrugged in response. He wasn’t sure what had precipitated the obsessive behavior.
After the third cup of water, Chris reached out and put one hand on Ezra’s forearm. He removed the paper cup from the southerner's hand with his other hand, crumpled it and tossed it into the garbage can.
“You all right, Ezra?” He asked.
Ezra refused to look at him. If he didn’t meet that gaze, he didn’t have to tell the truth.
“Sergeant Tucker wants to get your statement.” Chris folded his arms across his chest and leaned against a stall frame, looking at Ezra in the mirror. “Are you up to that?”
The southerner looked up, catching Chris’ reflection in the mirror.
“Might as well get it over with,” said Ezra.
“That’s not what I asked,” said Chris, unfolding his arms and stepping forward as Ezra turned to face him. “I asked if you were up to it.”
Ezra looked at him uncertainly. How could he tell his boss, one of the few people he truly respected, that he was a coward and didn’t want to think about the incident at all, much less make a report on it?
He took a slow deep breath, averting his gaze.
“I’ll stand with you,” Chris offered.
Ezra shook his head, unaware of the movement.
“You need to be debriefed,” Chris suggested, uncertain whether he was trying to help too soon or not soon enough.
Ezra knew that Chris was right, but he didn’t want to think about what had happened, what * still * could happen because he hadn’t done enough or because he’d done it wrong.
Without warning he slammed his fist against the mirror, sending little spiraling cracks out from the point of impact.
Chris winced, knowing from personal experience how much that hurt. Nathan simply waited for Ezra's next move.
The stressed undercover agent slowly opened his hand and examined his knuckles.
“That was really intelligent,” he said with self-condemnation.
Nathan took Ezra’s hand into his and looked for any cuts.
Ezra shook his head ruefully and pulled his hand away. He wasn’t injured. It was just another way to feel foolish… stupid… useless.
“I’ll make the statement,” he said.
Chris nodded, and followed Nathan and Ezra out into the hallway.
Settling in a quiet corner of the room, Chris joined Ezra as Sergeant Tucker took his statement. Even though Ezra knew procedure, Tucker emphasized that it was only a statement of the events, not a judgment of any kind.
Ezra matter-of-factly went through the events that had occurred, pausing only occasionally when he felt like his emotions would betray him. He described finding his friends “Agent Dunne” and “Agent Tanner” as if the formality would keep him from feeling. When it came to describing what actions he had taken, the southerner was brief and vague preferring to make blanket statements rather than give the blow-by-blow details. * Anything * to keep from reliving the events.
"Thank you, Agent Standish," said Tucker.
Ezra nodded to him, then stood suddenly as a doctor walked into the waiting room.
Chris did the same, passing Ezra and moving to meet the doctor.
"Why don't we sit down," suggested the surgeon as Chris approached. Some ATF agents vacated their seats, provided room for the doctor and Chris to join Buck, Nathan and Josiah.
Ezra stood back from the group, wanting to hear, but not wanting to know if the news was bad.
"Mr. Tanner is out of surgery. It went very well," the doctor assured. "We took care of the fractures in his leg."
"What about his back? Will he be…" Chris' voice faded out. He couldn't bring himself to say the word they all feared: * paralyzed.*
"It’s severely bruised. We won't know if there is permanent damage to the spinal cord until the swelling goes down, and that will take a couple of days." Seeing the fear on their faces he added, "I wish I could tell you one way or the other right now, but I am optimistic."
He let his words sink in before continuing. "He's in recovery right now, and we'll be moving him to a room on this floor soon. He'll be placed in traction to help keep him immobile and stabilize the fractures."
The doctor gave them a little more information and then excused himself from the room. There was little relief among those who waited. Yes, it was good that Vin was out of surgery, but the possible spinal cord injury was still an unknown.
And they were still waiting on word of JD's condition.
As Nathan explained some of the terminology the doctor had used, and what kinds of things they could expect, Ezra withdrew from his teammates, sinking down onto a chair on the far side of the room. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
If only he hadn't moved Vin…
Time moved slowly. Firefighters and law enforcement officers came and left as their schedules permitted. Their presence was appreciated by Team Seven, conversations allowing the men to distract their thoughts, at least momentarily, from Vin and JD.
Chris was torn between waiting for word on JD and wanting to be with Vin as he woke, but when he had asked to be with Vin, the doctor had refused. Hospital policy prohibited visitors from the recovery room. No exceptions. He could visit once Tanner was settled into a hospital room.
At that point, Dr. Raine Jackson had become their advocate. Because of her status on staff at the hospital, she was able to check on the progress of JD’s operation from the Surgery Observation area. After briefly updating Nathan that JD’s vitals were good and that the doctors had told her the surgery was progressing as planned, she headed for the recovery room to follow up on Vin.
And her lovely face was what Tanner saw when he woke. She was a little out of focus, but it was very calming to recognize someone and to know he was in good hands, whatever had happened.
“You got a sister?” he whispered hoarsely.
Raine laughed. "I'd expect to hear that from Buck, but not from a shy guy like you."
"Buck?" questioned the groggy Texan. "I know Buck."
"Yes, you do," said Raine with an amused smile.
"Buck likes women," Vin informed her. "Buck likes 'em tall. He likes 'em small. Hell, Ol' Bucklin likes 'em all."
Raine just shook her head. It was always interesting to see a patient come out of anesthesia, and the medications certainly had a strange effect on the sharpshooter.
"Hey, I rhymed, didn't I? I'm a poet and don't know it." Vin laughed at his own joke, and then frowned. "I don't feel so good."
"You just rest, Vin," said Raine.
The Texan closed his eyes and slipped back into oblivion.
"Well, at least he didn't come up swinging," said the Doctor, knowing that his patient would likely drift in and out of awareness several times before he was truly awake.
Raine nodded and stood by as the doctor checked Vin and set into motion the procedures necessary to prep him for moving to a room.
Ezra made his way to the restroom for the third time in the past hour. The waiting room was too crowded. The stories people told just to ease the tension annoyed him. It made it seem that what had happened was trivial. Somewhere inside, he knew that each person was simply trying to deal with the tragedy in his or her own way, but reconciling those thoughts took more energy than the southerner had left, and escaping the room was easier.
Besides, he still couldn’t get rid of that horrid taste in his mouth.
Or the smell of the blood…
Or the picture of the battered bodies of his friends…
“Don’t go there, Ezra,” he said softly as he looked in the mirror after rinsing his mouth and spitting in the sink.
“Don’t go where?” asked Tony Nash as he entered the restroom. Tony was Katherine’s partner. The two paramedics had been the first rescuers on the scene and had treated Vin and JD.
Knowing that Ezra wasn’t going to answer the question, he held out a paper sack to him.
“What is it?” asked Ezra, throwing away his paper cup and accepting the brown bag.
“Katherine thought it might help,” he answered simply.
Ezra looked inside. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Mouthwash.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully, pulling the items out of the sack and opening the toothbrush package.
“No problem.” The paramedic shifted nervously before he spoke again. “Katherine and I called in the CISM team.”
Ezra frowned. Critical Incident Stress Management was a good program, but he could feel the invitation coming, and he really didn’t want to think about the accident, much less * talk * about it.
“I used to think CISM was for wimps. You know, guys that just couldn’t handle the tough stuff.” Tony shrugged, “But I’ve gone through the debriefing process a couple of times. Told myself it was just to support Katherine.” He snorted. “Who was I kidding? It helped me as much as it helped her. Sometimes…” Nash paused, gathering his thoughts.
“Most of the time I can deal with the blood, the broken bodies. But when it’s a kid, or a co-worker, or a friend, everything changes.” Tony shifted his weight to his right leg. “Anyway, since Katherine and I have to go back on duty in an hour, we set it up for tomorrow. It would be good, if you feel like it, if you could meet with us and just talk through things.”
He looked at Ezra, waiting for any kind of a response. “It would be helpful to *Katherine, *” he added with a smirk.
Ezra allowed himself a half-smile, fully understanding what the paramedic was offering.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll think about it.”
Tony nodded to him as he left the man to brush his teeth and use the mouthwash. After brushing his teeth three times, Ezra finally returned to the waiting room.
"JD." The word was barely a breath from Buck's mouth as the doctor entered the waiting room.
Conversations fell silent as the doctor sat down across from Buck and Chris.
Chris steeled himself for the worst. He didn't like the look on the doctor's face.
"Mr. Dunne is out of surgery. We're situating him in the Intensive Care Unit right now."
Buck sucked in a breath at the implications of JD being in ICU. Chris rested his hand on Buck's forearm in support.
"The fractures in his arm and leg have been repaired. He has a fractured jaw and a concussion. For the time being we haven't completed treatment for the jaw fracture. Our first concern is maintaining his airway."
The doctor looked at the concerned faces in front of him, knowing that he could not give them the news they hoped for.
"We have him on ventilation to assist with his breathing. The jaw fracture obstructed his airway and we're concerned about how long he was without oxygen on the scene."
The information hit like a ton of bricks. No one had mentioned that JD had stopped breathing. Chris looked across the room at Ezra.
He could see Ezra's shoulders rise and fall as the southerner struggled to catch his own breath. His dazed expression disappeared as Standish dropped his face into his hands.
"We won't know if there are any residual effects of the obstruction until he wakes up. Once we're certain that his airway is stable, we'll complete the jaw repair and wire his jaw closed."
Chris again fell back to watching Nathan's expression as the doctor spoke. The team medic understood the ramifications of JD's condition. Unfortunately, Jackson's demeanor wasn't very encouraging.
"Can I see him?" Buck's question was barely a whisper.
"I'll send a nurse to let you know when he's settled." The doctor looked at the four men closest to him. "One person for ten minutes each hour."
"Someone needs to be with him," Buck protested.
"Someone will be with him," the surgeon countered. "One of the staff will be with him 24-7."
Buck cursed softly before burying his face in his hands in a vain attempt to hide his tears.
Josiah stood and moved next to Buck, placing a hand on the back of Buck's neck and massaging gently.
Chris took a deep breath in order to control his own emotions.
"Thank you," he said softly.
The doctor nodded and excused himself.
For the second time that morning, Nathan explained the details and implications of what the doctor had told them.
Chris rubbed his forehead as Nathan spoke. He could feel a headache coming on. But, more than that, he felt an overwhelming disappointment that they had no resolution. When surgery was over, the doctor was supposed to come out and tell you everything was fine, that life would go back to normal. But it wasn't okay. JD might never wake up, or he might have brain damage, and Vin might never walk again.
Feeling the need to have his team together, Chris asked Nathan to get Ezra to come and sit with them. Through the past couple of years of working and playing together, they had become much more than a team, they were family. And more now than ever, they needed to be together.
Seeing the frown on Nathan's face, Chris turned to look at Ezra.
The undercover agent was gone.
Ezra sat on the floor of the staff restroom one floor down from the surgical waiting area. He had needed to escape the waiting room, which seemed to close in on him tighter and tighter with each passing moment. Moving without thinking, he instinctively avoided the restroom on the surgical floor as well as the chapel, both were places the others might look for him. Running away from the closed in feeling, he'd found the elevator, gone down one floor and found the private bathroom. He'd entered the room and locked the door before allowing himself to slide down the wall and sit on the floor.
The only problem was, he still felt like he was being smothered. His whole world was caving in on him.
What had he done? Why had he moved Vin? Why had he subjected his friend to a lifetime in a wheelchair?
And JD? He should have checked him closer. He should have known he was having trouble breathing. Now JD might have brain damage and never be…
Ezra took a deep, shaking breath. When he had discovered JD wasn't breathing…
Tears filled his eyes as his body trembled with emotion, and even though he didn't recognize it, shock. He wanted to cry, to let loose of some of the fears and pain, but the tears refused to fall.
Ezra wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged tightly, hoping if nothing else, to stop the shaking.
JD's bloody face invaded his mind. Vin's crumpled leg.
"If only I hadn't stopped…"
"If I hadn't told them to go help…"
"If I'd told them to go around the back of the car…"
Ezra thumped the back of his head against the wall with each self-recriminating thought.
"If I hadn't moved them…"
"If I'd noticed JD wasn't breathing sooner…"
"If Nathan had been there instead of me…"
"Ezra? Open the door."
Ezra looked at the door. Chris was knocking in sync with his thumping. The agent shook his head, and then resumed his 'thunking', his body shaking uncontrollably.
"Don't you have a key?" he could hear Chris ask someone in the hallway.
Ezra took another shuddering breath and closed his eyes just wanting it all to stop. The next thing he realized was someone was putting a blanket around him.
"Can you get him up?" asked a voice he didn't recognize. "There's a couch in the lounge. We can put him there until a doctor takes a look at him."
Ezra wanted to protest. He wanted to tell them that he wasn't hurt and they should be focusing on Vin and JD, not him. But nothing seemed to work. He was too damn tired and he couldn't stop shaking.
"It's all right," soothed Nathan as Ezra's tears finally began to flow.
Ezra sat hunched over on the couch, his elbows on his knees, fingers laced behind his neck. No matter what Nathan tried, Ezra would not give in and lie down. He was too confused and agitated to allow himself to react rationally. He was trying to be stoic but his body betrayed him. At least he was calming down, and for now, it seemed that was the best Jackson could hope for.
There had been no verbal protests, Ezra's body too much in shock to allow him to be vocal in his objections, but he had relaxed considerably after Nathan suggested that Chris return to the waiting room upstairs to see if he could visit Vin, and that they would follow when they were ready. Chris had been reluctant to leave the southerner in the state he was in, but he trusted Nathan implicitly to handle the situation.
Nathan adjusted the blanket Standish had cocooned himself in. "I didn't know you had to rescue breathe for JD," he said softly, watching the shudder run through Ezra's tense form. "That must have been hard.”
Seeing that Ezra seemed to be listening, Nathan continued to affirm his actions, trying to assure him that he had done what was necessary and done it well.
"Something like that can really rattle a guy. I know that I’d be pretty shook in the same situation. Katherine told me you did a great job. Said you kept it up even after they arrived until they could take over. She said you did everything possible." He paused to make sure Ezra was listening. "And she said you did it right."
Ezra said something under his breath, that Nathan couldn't quite hear, but he did hear his teammate sniff. He picked up a box of facial tissue from the coffee table, and held it out to the undercover agent, touching his elbow to get his attention.
Standish accepted the tissue and wiped his nose.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear what you said, Ezra."
“It wasn’t good enough.”
Nathan held his tongue. He wanted to scream at Ezra and shake him until he realized that it wasn't his fault and that he had kept his friends alive and safe until the paramedics arrived. But, yelling would have no more effect on Standish than the quiet words Jackson was already speaking. Ezra needed calm. He needed quiet. He needed to sleep.
"Vin and JD are alive, Ezra," He said softly. "That was your doing. You gave them the chance they needed and now it's up to the medical staff, Vin and JD and whatever higher power there is."
Nathan looked up as someone knocked on the door and pushed it open. He smiled as his wife entered the lounge.
"Hi," she said softly as she approached the two men. "Chris said that I might be of help down here."
Ezra ducked his head, embarrassed.
"Would you rather I have someone else check you over?" Raine asked.
"Rather not at all," Ezra muttered, barely audible.
Raine smiled sympathetically. "Well, you have a couple nurses here on this floor concerned, and I think it would be a good idea just to check things out. You've been in a traumatic situation and sometimes the body does funny things to protect itself."
She sat down next to Ezra. "I'm just going to take your blood pressure, and check a couple of other things, all right?"
Ezra nodded. He didn't want to be checked over. He didn't want any attention on him. They needed to be focused on Vin and JD. But even as the thoughts ran through his mind, his head drooped forward as fatigue threatened to lull him to sleep. Ezra jerked his head up, trying to stay awake.
Satisfied that Ezra's blood pressure wasn't too low, Raine recommended that he stop fighting it, and let himself sleep. She could feel him tense at the suggestion.
"It's very normal to have nightmares," she assured even though he hadn't indicated that was an issue. "They'll decrease over time."
"As your doctor, I'm telling you to sleep. I can give you something to help."
"No," protested Ezra. "I need to be there…"
"Ezra, listen to me," said Raine. "I know it's important for each of you to be there for the others, to be there when someone who has been hurt wakes up. I love that about you guys. But in this case, it's not going to happen. Someone can be with Vin, but JD may or may not wake up when one of you is with him for those ten minutes an hour. What they really need is you to be rested so that you can be with them for the long haul."
Standish rubbed his forehead wearily.
"I tell you what. Instead of giving you a strong sedative," said Raine, "I'll give you some Tylenol PM. It has enough to help you sleep for a while. You can lay down right here and be comfortable."
Ezra shook his head but didn't say anything.
"What?" Nathan asked him gently.
"Upstairs," Standish replied.
"It's not very private up there," said Nathan. "Or quiet."
Ezra shook his head again. "If I stay down here, you'll stay with me. You need to be…"
He didn't finish the thought, but Nathan understood where Ezra was headed. He felt guilty enough about the entire situation. He didn't want to be responsible for keeping Nathan away from the others.
"All right," Nathan agreed. "Upstairs it is."
Chris sat in a chair at Vin's bedside. The Texan was all trussed up in traction to aid in the healing of his leg fractures as well as keeping him still. His face was pale and bruised with a scrape on his right cheek.
Vin would survive. He may not walk, but he would survive.
Chris watched Tanner's eyelids twitch as he tried to wake. As much as he wanted those eyes to open, he dreaded the road that lay ahead. Weeks, maybe months of healing and therapy.
He half smiled as Vin let out a little groan like noise. He stood and moved closer to the bed, taking Vin's hand and squeezing it.
"Hey, Pard," he said softly. "Just take it easy. There's no hurry."
"Nuh-nuh-nuh," Vin mumbled.
Chris watched him closely.
The mumbling was louder and more focused. It was beginning to sound like Vin was intending to say, "nuh."
"Nuh, nuh, nuh…" Vin took a breath and rasped, "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses."
Chris snorted. At least he wasn't singing * The Name Game * like he had when he was hospitalized last time.
"I'm here," said Larabee offering a spoonful of ice chips to the parched Texan.
After a second spoonful, Vin looked at Chris. "Where's ever'body? They's all here, right?"
"Where's uh…" Vin frowned as his mind seemed to blank on his teammate's names. "You know."
Chris shook his head. He wasn't sure which of the team members Vin was asking about.
"You do too know. The one with the caterpillar on his lip," said the groggy Texan. "And Preacher man…"
Chris smiled. Vin was trying valiantly to be coherent.
"Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses."
But he wasn't entirely successful.
"Buck and Josiah are in the waiting room," Chris said.
"Who?" Vin asked in confusion.
"Caterpillar Lip and Preacher Man."
"Oh. And… and…" Vin frowned again.
"Nathan?" Chris offered.
Vin smiled. "Yeah, him."
"He's here, too. He's with Ezra in the waiting room."
"And JD?" Vin closed his eyes. "I tried to catch him."
Chris hesitated. Did Vin know what he just said? Was what he said true, or part of his mixed up confusion?
"Whiskey for my men," Vin crooned.
"Hey, Chris?" he asked, opening his eyes and staring at the blond.
"What?" asked Chris.
"How come the men get whiskey and the horses get beer?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "I don't know."
"Don’t hardly seem fair," said Vin. "The horses do all the work."
With that sage comment, Vin yawned and closed his eyes, heading back into the safety of sleep.
In the waiting room, Ezra had retreated into sleep as well, but it hadn’t been without a fight. While Standish was curled tightly in the fetal position on one couch against the back wall, Josiah Sanchez was sprawled on an adjacent row of connected seats. Nathan covered both men with blankets and grabbed an apple before sitting down next to Assistant Director Orrin Travis.
Upon their return to the waiting room, Ezra had tried to go back on his agreement to sleep. Josiah and Nathan had double-teamed him and finally convinced him, with the caveat that Josiah would sleep as well, so that he and Ezra could be awake and alert to relieve Chris and Buck later.
Nathan took a bite of his apple. He’d cross that bridge when they came to it. He knew it would be just as difficult to relieve Buck and Chris, if not more so, than it was to get Ezra to rest, but he would do it.
Someone needed to take care of the team while they were too vulnerable to do it themselves. Besides, if he kept focused on the others, he didn’t have to think about the very strong possibility that Vin and JD may never be able to return to Team Seven.
Jackson took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Sometimes it was hard having the knowledge and skills of an EMT. He understood all too well the implications of the doctors’ words. He’d explained some of them to his teammates, but had kept the heaviest thoughts to himself. None of the others needed to know right now that the very nature of Vin and JD’s injuries made it a high possibility that neither of them would return to 100% of their capacity, let alone return to work.
Vin’s prognosis ranged from a worst case of paralysis to best case of a lengthy recovery with intense therapy for his fractured leg. JD…
Nathan took another deep breath and let it out. He didn’t want to think about the worst possibility with JD, but the truth was JD wasn’t out of the woods yet. Without knowing how much damage he suffered from the lack of oxygen, it was still possible that he may not survive, and if he did, he may have brain damage. At best he could wake up in a few hours and only have to deal with recovering from his fractured arm, leg and jaw. * Only. * Having his jaw wired closed for eight weeks would drive JD crazy. The fractures to his arm would probably require the most therapy.
And that didn’t even take into consideration the psychological ramifications.
Nathan glanced over at Ezra, relieved that he was actually sleeping. Standish had psychological ramifications of his own to deal with. * Hopefully * when Ezra woke, he would be refreshed enough to be able to deal with the stress better. But, it could be a long haul for the undercover agent as well.
Though Ezra hadn’t given him details, Nathan knew too well the incredible strain of holding a teammate’s life in his hands. Standish had to rescue breathe under the most difficult circumstances with JD’s facial trauma and trying to assist Vin as well. He could easily imagine the fear the southerner felt, the doubt about his skills, the helplessness to do anything more.
And then that fool doctor…
Nathan growled under his breath. If there was one time he wished he could take a 2 x 4 to someone’s head, it had been that moment in the emergency room. While he understood the doctor’s frustration over a patient with a back injury being moved, the man had failed to consider on-scene safety being the primary concern. Maybe he should be thrown into a similar situation and let him have to make the difficult choice of moving an injured person or leaving them in harm’s way. In any case, the doctor’s words of frustration and ‘righteous indignation’ had hit the already self-doubting southerner full-force. Harsh words from an authority figure had served only to confirm Ezra’s misgivings and reinforce the fear that he had done irreparable harm to his friend instead of recognizing he had saved their lives.
The problem was, they didn’t even know if there * was * irreparable harm, let alone if Ezra moving Vin had caused it. More than likely if there was permanent damage, the fall had caused it. But the doctor’s words had escalated Ezra’s feelings of self-doubt to self-recrimination.
Nathan hoped that Ezra would take part in the CISM debriefing. It could go a long way in defusing the stress before things got really out of hand. The facilitator could help make a determination if Ezra needed additional help through a counselor or therapist.
“I need to go.”
Nathan jerked, startled from his thoughts by the Assistant Director’s comment.
“Will you let Chris know that we’ll be covering the team’s urgent casework for the rest of the day?” asked Orrin.
Jackson nodded. “Yes, Sir.”
I’ll need Chris to check in with me later today, perhaps after he’s had some rest so we can determine how to shift the caseload.”
Nathan gave a quick nod and shook hands with Travis as he stood to leave.
“Call me if there’s any news.”
“Yes, Sir. I will,” Nathan replied.
As Travis exited the area, he stopped and shook hands with a very haggard looking Buck Wilmington who was returning from his first visit with JD.
Buck shuffled past the AD and settled heavily into the chair next to Nathan’s.
“Ten minutes ain’t long enough,” he said with a sigh.
Buck scrubbed a weary hand across his face. “He doesn’t even look like JD,” he said softly. “It’s unnatural to see him so still, you know?”
“Yeah,” Nathan agreed.
“He’s gotta…” Buck swallowed back his emotion, unable to finish his thought. His hope that JD would be all right.
Jackson was quiet, letting his friend collect himself.
After a few moments, Buck nodded towards Ezra.
“Finally got him to get some sleep, huh?”
Nathan nodded. “Wasn’t easy.”
Buck snorted softly. “Never is.”
“Had to promise him that Josiah would sleep, too, so the two of them could relieve you and Chris.”
Wilmington shook his head. He had no intention of being relieved. He looked at his watch and fiddled with the alarm setting on it.
“If this thing doesn’t wake me in forty-five minutes, will you?” Buck asked.
“I give you my word,” agreed Nathan. Buck taking a catnap without prompting was more than he expected.
“And you’ll wake me if anything…”
“Yes,” Nathan interrupted. “Sleep.”
Buck grabbed a pillow and a blanket and walked over to the “sleeping corner.” He unrolled a mat that someone had brought in for their use and made himself as comfortable as possible on the floor.
“Three down, one to go,” said Nathan softly as he returned to his seat and put his feet up on the coffee table waiting for Chris’ return.
The thin mat provided little padding, but that wasn’t what kept Buck awake. It was the image of the broken and battered body of his 'little brother' that prevented sleep.
He knew JD wouldn’t look good, but it was still numbing to see the ventilator breathing for him, the IVs, various monitors, and the young agent himself. JD’s jaw was swollen and bruised. Both eyes were black and he had a small scrape on the tip of his nose. How he had not broken his nose was a mystery. That would have complicated the breathing difficulty even more.
Buck felt so helpless staring at his young friend. He held JD’s hand despite the IV and talked to him, telling him to quit laying around on the job and wake up. Dunne hadn’t even twitched, but the doctor had told him not to expect anything for at least twenty-four hours. Still, he had hoped.
The ten minutes had gone by far too quickly and he was asked to come back in an hour. Buck didn’t want to leave, but the fear that trying to stay or making a scene would cause harm to JD made the decision for him. He promised JD that he would be back and he returned to the waiting room.
He was relieved to see Ezra sleeping when he returned. He had seen the toll this accident was taking on the southerner and was grateful that he was finding some relief. He had wanted to be angry with Standish, to blame someone for the senseless accident, but what could he blame him for? Being too cautious and driving slow enough that the accident had occurred between the time Buck had passed and they had arrived? It was stupid. It was no more Ezra’s fault than it was his own. Josiah in his gentle wisdom had reminded Buck that they were all looking for some reason, some way for this mess to make sense and the natural inclination was to find someone to blame, even if there was no blame to be given. It was a lot easier to find fault than it was to accept that there was no reason, no justification for Vin and JD lying in a hospital.
Buck felt the blanket being tucked around him and opened his eyes. He gave Nathan a half-hearted smile and closed his eyes again. He did need a nap. They all did. Nathan and Josiah were the only ones who had any sleep last night, and they had been awakened after only a couple of hours.
Was it only last night? It felt like weeks.
Buck had visited JD two more times, and still Ezra slept. None of them had any intention of waking the Southerner for “his turn.” He needed the rest and would have plenty of opportunity to be there to support Vin, and the Lord willing, JD, in what would likely be lengthy recoveries.
Josiah had awakened and had gone to Vin’s room to sit with the sharpshooter for a while. Chris was now dozing in the chair next to Nathan. He would visit JD when the next ten-minute segment was allowed, and then he would go in to the office. Larabee didn’t want to go, but he was in charge and someone had to make sure the pressing cases were handled. Although it didn’t feel like it for Team Seven, life went on for the rest of the world.
After a too brief visit with his youngest agent, Chris made his way to the Federal Building and met with Orrin Travis and three ATF team leaders. With some creative shuffling, Team Seven's most pressing cases were reassigned and Chris made arrangements for Josiah, Nathan and Buck to assist with bringing the other teams up to speed. Larabee was grateful for the flexibility, knowing that the physically healthy members of his team would need a couple of days to regroup, yet need something to do to keep busy.
The one thing that could not be reassigned was testifying in court. Vin and Ezra were scheduled to testify for the next couple of days. Obviously, Vin would not be able to be in court. Chris blew out a sigh. Ezra wasn't exactly in shape to testify either, but without Vin, the Southerner's statement was even more critical.
It was nearly dinnertime when Chris was free to head back to the hospital. He gathered up a stack of files that could be worked on in the waiting room at the hospital, as well as packing up JD's laptop. Larabee headed for the parking garage and stopped by Ezra's Jaguar. A police officer had driven the car from the accident scene as a favor to Standish. Chris unlocked the trunk and retrieved Ezra's briefcase. He would need his case notes to review before testifying. Balancing the laptop bag, and two briefcases, he closed the trunk and started back to the hospital.
His head ached and he was tired. The bed was uncomfortable and he had a crick in his neck. The pillow was starchy…
Ezra flinched. Where was he? Or more importantly, * who * was he? Was he on a case?
Standish breathed in and out slowly, willing his muddled head to clear enough to sort things out. Waking up undercover was always a tricky proposition.
"You awake, Ezra?"
The undercover agent waited, giving himself time to figure out who he was playing in his current assignment. The voice had called him Ezra, but was it a trick?
"You're at Denver General in the waiting room," the same voice soothed.
Nathan! It was Nathan. Why was he so groggy?
Tylenol PM. It wasn't too strong, but had enough sedative to disorient him.
Ezra opened his eyes, trusting that Nathan was telling the truth.
"How do you feel?" asked Jackson.
Standish gave him a less than gentlemanly response bringing a grin to Nathan's face. He knew Ezra would be disoriented when he woke, and had intentionally clued him in by calling him by name and telling him where he was, but the cursing served to show the undercover agent wasn't quite "together" yet. In normal circumstances, Ezra would not have admitted he was less that absolutely fine.
With a jolt, Ezra sat up suddenly, and Nathan knew reality had just come crashing back to the Southerner. Standish scanned the room, unconsciously noting which teammates were with him and which were absent, meaning they were with Vin or JD. Chris and Josiah were missing from the room.
"Do you want something to eat?"
Ezra shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Nathan was still doing his best to take care of his teammates.
Ezra looked up and took the bottle of water that Buck held out to him.
Buck pushed the Southerner's legs off of the couch and sat down wearily next to him.
"You're up next to visit JD," said Buck, looking at his watch. "You can see him in a couple of minutes."
Ezra couldn't hide the slight panic that crossed his face. Everything that he'd managed to push aside by sleeping began to overwhelm him again – the fear that he hadn't done enough and had blown it by not noticing JD wasn't breathing soon enough.
He didn't deserve to see JD.
He was afraid to see JD.
Ezra cleared his throat. "I'm sure you'd like to see him…" he started.
Buck shook his head, easily seeing what Ezra was doing.
"No." He stood, grabbing Standish by the elbow and pulling him up. "Come on," he encouraged.
He led Ezra down the hall, not releasing the elbow until the Southerner stopped cold by the doorway.
"I'll wait right here," said Buck, nodding towards JD's bed.
Ezra worked to slow down his breathing. It was hard to believe that his heart was pounding so hard.
What had he done? How could he have failed his teammates so badly?
He flinched as Buck squeezed his shoulder. "I'll wait here," Buck assured as he gave a small push.
Ezra stepped forward and entered the ICU area.
"Are you here for Agent Dunne?" asked the nurse.
Ezra swallowed and nodded.
"He's over here," she replied softly and led Ezra to JD's bed.
Ezra didn't want to look, but he steeled himself and determined that he was going to pull it together and be a professional.
"Aw, JD," he said softly as he looked at his friend. Ezra would never say it to his teammates, but the young agent looked a hundred times better in the hospital bed than he had at the accident scene.
Without any thought, Ezra stepped closer and picked up JD's hand. "You look a lot better than you did earlier," he babbled. "They cleaned you up nicely."
He fell silent watching JD's chest rise and fall in time with the ventilator and for the next ten minutes he simply sat by the young agent. He prayed for his friend, doubtful that God would ever answer something for Ezra P. Standish. No, he'd done things… But JD? Maybe God would listen on behalf of JD.
Ezra looked up.
"Sir, I'm sorry, but your time is up," said the nurse. "Someone can come back in an hour."
Ezra nodded and reluctantly let go of JD's hand.
Walking out of the area, he barely made it outside of ICU before he found he needed a wall to hold him up. He took a deep breath and fought off the threatening tears, before looking up and meeting Buck's gaze.
Buck simply nodded to him and then tipped his head to indicate going back to the waiting area.
Ezra followed Buck, allowing time to compose himself. Standish paused at the waiting room entrance as Wilmington walked past.
Sensing the hesitation, Buck turned back to him. "Junior's just a couple of doors down."
'Aw hell,' Ezra thought. 'He wants me to see Vin, too.'
"He's been asking for you," said Buck. "Gets really agitated. I don't think he believes us when we tell him that you're okay."
That did it. Use a tiny touch of guilt to get the Southerner moving again.
Ezra moved quietly into the room, noting that Vin, too, looked better than he had at the accident scene. The picture of the broken bodies of his friends would likely not fade for a long time.
"I think he's still awake," Chris said softly from the chair next to the bed.
"Who's awake?" mumbled Vin.
"You are, you drugged up Texan," Chris replied.
"Oh." Vin closed his eyes tightly and hissed. "Think maybe I need some more."
"I'll ring the nurse," said Chris.
"I'll go get her," volunteered Ezra, wanting to do anything to get out of the room, away from his friend. His friend who was trussed up in traction because of Ezra P. Standish's incompetence.
"Stay, Ezra," said Josiah from his position by the window.
"Ezra?" Vin opened his eyes, recognizing Standish's voice. "That you?"
"It's me," Ezra agreed reluctantly.
"Thanks," said Vin. "Thanks for saving my life."
Ezra shook his head as Tanner drifted back to sleep. He slumped into a chair across from Chris as Vin's words worked against his self-deprecation.
Vin was thanking him for saving his life, when in all likelihood, he had crippled him. It just didn't make sense.
Standish sniffed and wiped his eyes with his index finger, not even bothering to look for a handkerchief.
It just didn't make sense.
"I'm sorry," Ezra whispered as he bolted from the room.
Chris' gaze followed Ezra to the doorway. He looked back at the man in the bed and then to the door.
"I've got him," said Josiah solemnly as he headed for the hallway.
The big man moved quickly, not wanting the undercover agent to make a repeat performance of his earlier disappearance. But Josiah didn't have to go far. Ezra had only gone outside the door and was leaning against the wall struggling for composure.
"Let it go," Sanchez said softly.
Ezra shook his head.
It wasn't that he wanted to hold on to the guilt, the memories, or the fear, but how could he possibly 'let it go'? Vin was lying in that bed in traction because he had moved him, because he had told his younger teammates to go help the man in the first place.
"Ezra, it's not your fault. You did everything you could. Everything any of us would have done."
Josiah looked at Standish's defeated posture. Ezra clearly was not hearing him, but he had to try. Maybe something would sink in.
"He thanked me." The words were so soft, Josiah barely heard them. "He thanked me for crippling him."
"No!" Sanchez stated firmly, watching Ezra's gaze jerk up to meet his. "He thanked you for saving his life. And that is exactly what you did."
Josiah felt his heart sink as Ezra's gaze fell away. The Southerner wasn't ready to believe his words.
But he would remind him again, and again if necessary, until Ezra accepted the truth.
"A.m. or p.m.?"
The question startled Josiah, and it took him a moment to figure out what Standish was asking about. Ezra was looking at his watch.
"P.m.," Josiah answered, only slightly surprised that Ezra didn't know whether it was morning or evening. It was a wonder that any of them knew.
"Wednesday?" Ezra's voice was raw with the discomfort of being unsure of himself.
"I need to go home. I have to prepare for court tomorrow."
"Carson said he won't need you until two," Chris said as he stepped outside of Vin's room.
"I need to get my files," said Ezra.
"They're in my truck," said Chris as he held out the keys. "You're okay to drive?"
Ezra nodded, accepting the keys.
"Go over your notes, then get a good night's sleep," Chris instructed. Standish wasn't a child, but it seemed that the simplest things were the hardest to remember under stress. "Be back here at ten for the debriefing."
Ezra's eyes widened at the mention of the debriefing, giving away that he had no intention of taking part in it.
"For Katherine," said Larabee, locking eyes with Standish.
Ezra closed his eyes and gave a short nod of agreement.
Chris reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll get through this," he said softly.
Ezra tried to smile, but didn't fool anyone. "Ten?" he confirmed.
"Do you need someone to go over your notes with you?" asked Josiah.
Ezra shook his head. "No. You're needed here."
"Someone has to get Nathan to rest," the Southerner added.
Josiah shook his head. "All right. I'll work on Nathan."
Ezra gave a half-hearted two-finger salute and walked down the hallway towards the elevator to find his way home.
Chris drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair waiting for eight A.M. to arrive. Buck was still dozing on the couch where Ezra had slept earlier. They hadn't been allowed to see either Vin or JD for the past eleven hours. The hospital had visiting hour rules and they stuck to them.
Hopefully Nathan and Josiah had slept better than he had. They had accepted the hospitality of the crew of the fire station down the street from the hospital. They had a couple of empty beds and offered them to Team Seven, as well as the use of their showers and kitchen.
Two more minutes.
It could take him two minutes to walk to Vin's room, couldn't it? No. It wasn't that far away.
Maybe he should wake Buck?
"Mmmph," Buck grumbled as he struggled to wake up. "What time is it?" he asked as he rubbed his eyes and stretched.
"Almost eight," said Chris.
Buck sat up and looked around the quiet waiting room. They were alone for the first time in over 24 hours.
"Several of the guys from the office stopped by on their way into work," said Chris, noting Buck's silent observation of the room. "Josiah and Nathan are at the fire station, and Ezra's at home in bed… I hope."
Buck nodded. "Anything new?"
Chris shook his head. "After you see JD, come to Vin's room and let me know how he's doing."
Buck nodded in agreement as the two men headed for their teammates' rooms.
As Chris entered the Sharpshooter's room, two things were abundantly clear: Vin was no longer under the strong pain medication, and he was now aware of his prognosis.
"How're you feeling?" asked Chris as he walked over to the bed.
Since he still couldn't move his head, Vin's eyes tracked to the left to look at Chris.
"Looks like I'm in for the long haul," Tanner replied.
Chris nodded hesitantly, not exactly certain how Vin was dealing with the news of the possible paralysis.
"He's still unconscious," Larabee replied, "But the doctor said that they may start cutting back on the medications today and allow him to wake up. Buck's with him now. He said he'll drop by after he visits JD."
"What's wrong?" asked Chris.
Vin sighed. "This is going to get old real quick. I can't even nod when we're talkin'."
"Only for a couple of days," Chris replied. "The doctor said as soon as the swelling goes down they'll free you from that contraption and you can turn your head all you want."
"Is he good?"
Chris nodded. "Raine said he's the best."
"Well, he's wrong about one thing."
Larabee raised an eyebrow in question.
"There ain't no maybe about me walkin' outta here. When I go home, I'm walking out under my own power."
Chris nodded in acknowledgement of Vin's spirit and determination. "Well, I hate to say it, Cowboy, but I think that broken leg of yours is going to require a wheelchair for departure."
Vin grinned sheepishly. "Okay, yer probably right about that. But you know what I mean. I'm gonna walk. Fate ain't gonna win."
Chris again nodded in agreement and was silent as both of them gathered their thoughts.
"You wanna let go a' my hand and see if there's any jell-o left on that tray. I'm still a mite hungry and it's a little tough to feed myself."
Chris grinned and released the Texan's hand. Yes, it would be a long road ahead, but Vin Tanner would keep things interesting.
Larabee jerked awake as someone touched his shoulder.
"Easy there, Stud," Buck soothed.
Chris blinked trying to gather his thoughts. He didn't remember dozing off. Last he knew, he was feeding Vin jell-o.
Stealing a glance at the Texan, he relaxed realizing that Vin was asleep. And the empty jell-o cup was on the bedside table. At least he hadn't nodded off while feeding Tanner.
Feeding Tanner. That thought made him hesitate. Vin had been too calm, too accepting of his condition. Maybe it was partly the medication, but it seemed odd to Chris, that Vin had been so composed at such disturbing news. At first, he was willing to take the sharpshooter's reaction at face value, but as he'd fed him the jell-o, he'd witnessed the edginess as Vin chewed on him for moving too slow with the spoon.
Vin was upset. He was just keeping it hidden inside.
Or trying to.
"You all right?"
"Yeah," said Chris with a sigh. "How's JD?"
Buck tucked Vin's blanket over his leg. "They're taking him off the meds that have been keeping him out. Doc says that I can stay with him the whole time while he's waking, as long as I stay out of their way."
"Yeah," said Buck. "It is. It wasn't setting too well with me, thinking JD would wake up alone."
Chris eyed his friend. Buck was counting on JD waking up even though there had been no guarantee that the young man would.
Optimism or denial?
Chris looked at Vin, and then at Buck.
Denial. Both of them.
"How's Junior doing?" Buck asked.
"Swears he's going to walk out of here." Chris scrubbed a hand across his face.
"But?" prodded Buck, Larabee's actions telling him there was more.
"He's scared," said Chris. "He's hiding it with grouching, but it's there."
Buck brushed the back of Vin's hand. "He's got a right to be scared." Turning to look at Chris, he added, "We all do."
A soft knock at the door ended their conversation.
"Come on in," said Chris in a hushed voice as Ezra peered into the room.
Chris took a quick look at his watch. It was now nine o'clock and the CISM debriefing wasn’t for another hour. As weary as the Southerner was, one would expect he'd still be asleep. Despite the elegant suit and tie, taking a good look at the dark circles under Ezra's eyes gave him the answer.
"Did you get any sleep?" Chris asked.
Ezra held up the files of case notes. "I am fully prepared for testifying. How's Mr. Tanner?"
Chris grimaced. 'Artfully dodged, Ezra.' He couldn't really blame the agent for spending the late night hours reviewing the case. And avoiding the nightmare they were currently experiencing. In normal conditions, Standish would have used the days prior to testifying to prepare, but the circumstances of the past… day and a half… two days? Larabee blew out a breath. He had lost track of time.
"You look tired," said Buck.
"Pot calling the kettle black, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied. "JD?"
Buck smiled half-heartedly. "The doc is weaning him off the meds that have been keeping him out. It'll be a few hours yet, but he should be waking up today."
Ezra nodded, hoping with all his heart that JD would indeed wake up.
And be fine.
"Any more room in here?" asked Josiah as he and Nathan entered the doorway.
"I'll go," volunteered Ezra. "I need to…"
"No!" four voices chorused at the same time, startling the weary southerner.
"There's lots of room, Ez," said Buck. "No need for anyone to go."
"Except for those who need to go to the office," chided Chris softly. He would give his team as much leeway as he could, but Josiah and Nathan were due at the office.
Nathan looked apologetically at Chris before checking Vin's monitors. Seemingly satisfied, he gave Ezra a once over as well.
"Did you get any sleep?" he asked.
"I've already been grilled, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied, sidestepping the issue for a second time.
Nathan looked at Chris, who shook his head indicating that Ezra had not slept. Nathan held his tongue knowing that Ezra had responsibilities today that could not be rescheduled simply because there was a personal crisis and he needed some sleep.
"I saw Katherine in the hall," Nathan said, changing the subject. "The CISM facilitator is here a little early. Tony's here as well as Jack. He was the first officer to arrive on scene. They wanted to know if you wanted to meet a little early since you're all here?"
Ezra closed his eyes. 'No!' he screamed to himself. 'I don't want to meet at all.' Opening his eyes and taking in the expectant looks of his teammates, Standish nodded.
"When and where?" he asked.
No one said he had to talk.
It was a mistake. A huge mistake.
Ezra closed his eyes and took another deep breath as he listened to Katherine talking about her experiences at the scene of the accident. Every word seemed to bring to the forefront all the visions he'd been trying so hard to bury. The detachment he was using as a safety zone was rapidly disintegrating.
The Southerner's head snapped up as Tony began to speak. He had expected Katherine to talk about her feelings. It was something that a woman was more prone to do than a man. But when Tony shared, Ezra started to realize that he was not the only one profoundly affected by the trauma. True, Tony and Katherine didn't know Vin or JD personally, but the simple fact that they were in law enforcement and therefore "brothers" had affected them deeply.
He listened to the stammering speech of the young police officer, the trauma – or talking about it – was taking its toll on him. When Jack said that he was certain they were all better at handling this than he was, Ezra was spurred to speak.
"No, we are not," he said. All eyes turned to him as he spoke for the first time in an hour. "At least I'm not."
"Go ahead," encouraged the facilitator.
"I was terrified," Ezra said softly, closing his eyes again as scenes from the accident site raced through his mind. JD's crumpled leg. Vin's arm. JD's bloody face. Vin's groaning. The terror of the oncoming car. Or worse – the realization that JD had stopped breathing.
He had moved automatically, the training kicking in and taking over when fear wanted to rule. He had cleared JD's airway and breathed for his young friend. Ezra shuddered remembering the horrid tang of JD's blood in his mouth, the slick substance smearing as the dark haired agent's jaw shifted unnaturally in his hands.
Standish took several deep breaths, fighting back the nausea that rolled through his stomach even at the memories.
Again the facilitator encouraged him to continue, but Ezra balked. He couldn't do this. Not now. He had to hold it together until after court. He couldn't fall apart now.
He shook his head and shut down the emotions to the best of his ability.
The experienced facilitator recognized what was happening and diverted the attention away from Ezra. Her job was not therapy. It was to provide the opportunity to talk about what had happened and to help them determine if therapy was warranted.
Fortunately, the few words he had spoken, were enough to encourage the young officer that his feelings and reactions were not abnormal. After all, if an officer with Ezra's experience had been scared…
Standish focused his thoughts on the slimy perp he would be testifying against in a few hours. He thought about the abhorrent deeds the man was being tried for, and was almost successful in reestablishing his detachment. There was just one little detail.
Vin was supposed to testify with him and he was lying paralyzed in a hospital bed.
Ezra cursed aloud, drawing attention back to himself. Would this never end?
It had been a long day for all of them. Vin was asleep most of the day, thankfully. It meant the Texan had less time to worry about whether he would walk again. JD had shown no signs of waking despite being weaned off the medication that had kept him comatose. His lack of response weighed heavily on all of them.
Chris groaned as he pulled off his cowboy boots and dropped them on the floor beside his bed. It had been difficult to get Buck to leave JD’s room. They’d been lucky to get him to agree to go and sleep at the fire station like Josiah and Nathan had done the night before.
Fighting his own warring emotions over staying with Vin and JD or leaving, Chris had decided to go home and get some sleep in his own bed. He and Buck were due to spend some time in the office tomorrow while Josiah and Nathan stayed with their injured teammates.
Ezra? Josiah had relayed the information that the undercover agent’s testimony had gone long and from what the older agent had heard, the cross-examination had been brutal. Standish would have to return in the morning to finish his testimony. Ezra hadn’t stopped by the hospital after his court appearance, but everyone just assumed he had gone home to actually sleep.
The jangling of the phone just as Chris laid his head on his pillow confirmed an error in that assumption.
“Hello?” Chris answered with a weary sigh.
“Inez?” Chris asked, immediately concerned that the pretty proprietor of The Saloon was calling him.
“I’m sorry to call you so late, Senor, but…” her voice trailed off, emphasizing her reluctance to call. “Did you perhaps get some bad news today about Vin or JD?”
“Nothing new,” said Chris, knowing that Inez knew of the accident. “Which one?” he asked, knowing one of his team members was at the bar.
“Senor Standish," Inez replied. "He’s not causing any trouble, but I cannot leave him here and I’m getting ready to close.”
Chris sighed, rubbing a weary hand across his face. “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
“Thank you, Senor,” said Inez. “I’m sorry to have to call.”
Chris ended the call shaking his head. He had assumed Ezra had gone home. “Gee, Larabee,” he muttered to himself as he pulled on the jeans he had just discarded moments ago. “You know what they say about assume. It makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’”
He made quick work of his boots, grabbed his wallet, cell phone, keys and a jacket and headed back to town.
He ran scenarios through his mind as he drove, wondering what exactly had pushed Ezra to get drunk. The accident and the pressures of testifying were obvious influences, but Ezra wasn’t prone to losing himself in alcohol.
The Southerner was a lot like Vin on that account. While he enjoyed quality liquor, Ezra was loathe to put himself into a situation where he didn’t have control of himself. Chris let out a sigh. He wondered just how harsh their young lives had been to instill such a strong sense of self-preservation and a reluctance to rely on others. It didn't matter, now. The past was the past and right now he had to figure out what was twisting Ezra so tightly.
Better yet, how to unwind his tension-filled undercover agent.
Chris knocked lightly on the door of The Saloon, noting the ‘closed’ sign in the window.
“Senor Chris,” Inez greeted as she unlocked the door. “Thank you for coming.”
Chris glanced past her to the forlorn figure hunched at Team Seven’s regular table. Standish was oblivious to his arrival, aimlessly drawing patterns in the condensation on his scotch glass.
“Sorry you had to wait,” Chris said in apology to Inez as he moved towards Ezra. He stopped next to the table and waited for Ezra to acknowledge him, but the southerner was either too drunk or too deep in thought to notice him.
Standish looked up, not even attempting to mask the terror he felt at hearing Chris’ voice.
Chris stared at him for a moment before he realized what the fear was.
“No!” he offered belatedly, trying to assure that Vin and JD weren't dead. “It’s not anything like that. There’s no real change in their conditions.”
Ezra dropped his face into his hands in sheer relief. While he would prefer to hear they were fine, he’d settle for ‘no change’ right now.
Larabee frowned as he turned a chair around backwards and straddled it, sitting at the table. Unless Inez had already cleared away his empties, Ezra shouldn't be drunk. There was only one empty glass along with the half finished drink in front of him.
He took a deep breath trying to figure out what to say to Standish. He never was much for motivational speaking or pep talks, but from the exhausted look of the Southerner, he wouldn’t be absorbing much of it anyway.
“Ready to go home?”
Ezra sat up straight and looked at his watch. “Oh dear Lord,” he said softly, realizing it was late. “Miss Recillios…”
“Is ready to go home,” Chris said, trying to ward off another guilt-trip for Ezra. He looked up as Inez approached the table with two steaming cups of coffee-to-go.
“I apologize…” Ezra started, but Inez didn’t let him finish.
“There is no need, Senor. There have been many times where you have stayed late just to walk me to my car.”
Ezra shook his head. "That's not the same…"
Inez pressed the coffee cup into his hands. “Please. It is no problemo. Just take care of yourself and your friends.”
“Thank you,” Standish said softly as he followed Chris outside. They paused, making sure that Inez locked up and escorted her to her car.
As she left, Chris looked around for Ezra’s Jaguar, but couldn’t see it. “Where’s your car?”
“Safe at the office,” said Ezra with a sardonic smile.
Chris raised an eyebrow. “Not planning on driving home?”
“No," said Ezra with a sad chuckle, "I fully intended to drink myself into oblivion.” The half smile fell. “Couldn’t even do that right. I got in there and started thinking and forgot the drinking.”
Ezra took a stumbling step and Chris noted that Standish was a little less than sober. It was likely that the drinks had been his dinner, and with the little he'd been eating lately, there was nothing to absorb the strength of the alcohol.
“That’s not a bad thing,” said Chris taking a sip of coffee before nodding towards his truck.
“But if I was soused, I wouldn’t have to think,” Ezra countered with the slightest slur to his speech.
“Doesn’t fix anything.” Chris spoke with the conviction of a man who had been there, done that. “Problems are still there, but then you’ve complicated them with a hangover.”
He pushed the button to unlock the truck. "Besides, you have court in the morning, remember?"
Ezra shook his head sadly as he opened the passenger door. "McAllister is going to get off."
Chris frowned. Their case was good against McAllister. The evidence was strong. They hadn't made any technical mistakes on the case.
Two doors slammed and two men sat in silence inside the cab of the truck.
"Josiah said court was tough today. What happened?"
"Atlanta," said Ezra, taking a sip of his coffee.
Chris groaned inwardly. That's all Standish needed. A nightmare from the past that seemed to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times. Hints and rumors of wrongdoing had hung Ezra out to dry in Atlanta. Undoubtedly McAllister's attorney was trying to discredit the Southerner's testimony with the innuendo.
"If we had Vin's testimony…"
Chris looked at Ezra, hearing the barely audible curse as he trailed off knowing that the agent's thoughts had traveled from his troubles in court to his injured friends. He waited for the southerner's next move, maybe not so patiently, but he hoped he didn't show it.
"I can't stop thinking about it."
Chris didn't know whether to wish that Ezra would talk and get it all out in the open, or clam up because he didn't want to know the gory details of the accident. Talking might be better for Standish, but Chris was certain that hearing what happened wouldn't help him sleep.
"When I found JD wasn't breathing…" Ezra put his coffee in the cup holder, fearing that his trembling hands might not be able to hold it any longer. "I should have seen it sooner."
Ezra looked out the window, trying to see anything except what his mind was seeing. His shaking hands curled into fists in an attempt to stop the trembling.
He wanted to stop talking. Stop thinking. But he couldn't. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe it was his exhaustion. Maybe it was just that he needed someone else to know, someone who could help him shoulder the burden. Someone he trusted. Whatever it was, the words continued to tumble out.
"He was bleeding… I cleared his airway and started rescue breathing." Ezra shook his head. "I don't know how I gave him any air. It seemed like I could hardly breathe myself. That first breath…"
Chris could see the shudder run through Ezra. He remained quiet, letting his friend speak.
"I got a mouthful of blood… JD's blood…the taste won't go away…"
The blond closed his eyes as Standish spoke. Now the obsessive behavior made sense. Ezra's continual need to rinse out his mouth, to brush his teeth; the inability and lack of desire to eat took on a whole new meaning. This was far deeper than the southerner's natural fastidiousness.
"His jaw… it kept shifting in my hands…" Ezra unclenched his fists and looked at his hands. "I could hear Vin. He was in so much pain…I couldn't help…"
The words trailed off as Ezra concentrated on just breathing. His heart was pounding even now, days after the accident, simply from the memory. He took a couple of hitching breaths trying to keep the tears at bay. As much as he didn't want to cry in front of Chris, he was more afraid of losing control completely. He was scared that if he gave in and allowed himself to really feel, that he would never get it together again.
Chris watched the struggle, fighting back a few tears of his own. As hard as it was for him to just hear the details, Ezra had lived them, and it had affected Standish far more deeply than any of them had truly realized.
What could he possibly say? Everything he could think of seemed trite, and Chris knew from personal experience that those words, no matter how well meaning, were worthless. He remembered all the empty words when he lost Sarah and Adam. Nothing had made a difference. Nothing except Buck's continuous presence. Friendship.
And suddenly Chris knew what to do. It may be outside of his comfort zone, but right now Ezra just needed a friend. Someone to listen to him and share the burden. Later, he would need someone to push, pull or drag him into therapy.
"It must have been incredibly hard," said Chris.
Ezra looked up, the understanding from his boss momentarily confusing him. It wasn't that he didn't expect support from Chris. Rather, in his state of mind he expected the others to be as hard on him as he was on himself.
He nodded. "It's something I wish never to do again."
"I hear that," Chris agreed.
"When I had to move JD… it was the hardest decision… And Vin…" Ezra stopped and shook his head.
"What?" Chris asked, encouraging him to continue.
The Southerner kept shaking his head. "I didn't have to move him… my fault."
"He was in danger," Chris countered.
"No. Don't you see?" Ezra looked at Larabee, his expression a combination of guilt and remorse. "I didn't have to move him. It's my fault he's paralyzed."
Chris shook his head, struggling to control his anger at the unnecessary guilt. "You had to move him," he insisted.
"No car came!" Ezra practically shouted his guilt. He turned his face away and stared out the window. "There was no car…"
Chris closed his eyes for a moment, understanding the weight of Ezra's guilt, misplaced as it was.
"Ezra, you made the right choice," he said. "You made the only choice."
"No car…" Standish muttered, refusing to look at Chris.
"You had to move Vin. You couldn't take the chance that a car would come."
"There was no car…"
"You couldn't know that. You made the right choice," Chris said with firm conviction. "Scene safety comes first and that Jack-ass of a doctor…"
Ezra's head snapped up at the mention of the doctor.
"He was dead wrong. He needs to spend a couple days with the paramedics and get his perspective screwed on straight."
Looking Ezra in the eye, he continued, "Everyone knows that. * All * the medical staff… The Team.... Vin."
Ezra dropped his gaze, rubbing one hand on his knee.
"And I think you know it, too, but maybe you're not ready to accept that fact." Chris blew out a sigh. "Sounds crazy, but it's not. My therapist told me once…" Larabee paused when Ezra looked at him in disbelief. "Yes, I had… have a therapist. You might think about talking to someone. Doesn't make you nuts or weak. It just helps you sort things out. Anyway, when I lost Sarah and Adam," Chris swallowed hard, "I needed someone to blame and when I couldn't blame Buck, I blamed myself, even though it wasn't my fault. Dr. Taylor told me that my reaction was a normal critical incident stress response. We need to blame so that the situation makes sense, so there's a reason. In this case, it's a stupid accident. We were even robbed of blaming the driver. He wasn't drunk, just old and confused. Believe me, I * want * to be mad at someone, to blame someone, but Ezra, there is no blame to be placed. None of this is your fault, or Vin's or JD's."
Ezra leaned his head back on the headrest. He was so tired. And scared. Even in his slight intoxication, Chris' words made sense. But he couldn't deal with that now. He had to finish his testimony and put McAllister away for life. Or at least a very long time.
"I need to go home," Ezra said softly.
Chris looked at the clock on the dashboard of the truck. It was two-thirty in the morning. It would take at least twenty minutes to get to Ezra's place and it was thirty minutes in the opposite direction to get to the ranch. He'd have to turn around and come back by seven-fifteen – earlier, in fact, because Ezra would need a ride.
"I'll take you to the ranch," Chris said, starting the engine.
"No," Ezra protested feebly, smoothing his rumpled suit. "I-I need a suit."
"Ezra," Chris growled softly, "It's late. Humor me. You like the bed in my guest room."
Standish yawned, forgetting to cover his mouth. "I need a suit."
Chris looked at him and shook his head. The Southerner was barely awake. "We'll stop by your dry cleaner's on the way in tomorrow."
Ezra didn't respond. Chris put the truck in gear and headed for home.
The bed in the fire station down the street from the hospital was comfortable enough, but his worry for JD and Vin had kept Wilmington awake longer than he thought. Finally his weary body had overruled his hyperactive mind and he slept.
Nathan held vigil in Vin’s room, while Sanchez napped on the couch in the waiting room. Nathan watched the sharpshooter’s restless sleep. It seemed odd to think that someone who was basically immobilized and sedated could be restless, but Tanner’s moans and mumbles and twitches revealed his state of mind. Nathan rested his hand on Vin’s shoulder and spoke softly to the Texan. His body stilled and Vin relaxed into a deeper sleep. About that time the nurse reminded Nathan that visiting hours were long ago over forcing him to join Josiah in the waiting room.
In the den of a ranch house outside of Denver, Chris covered the sleeping Standish with a blanket. The sofa wasn’t known for being comfortable, but it was as far as Ezra had made it after entering the room. Leaving the undercover agent to rest, Chris made a circuit of the house, checking all the doors and windows and setting the alarm system. Turning out the lights, he headed to bed for the second time knowing it would be a very short night.
In a hospital room not too far from Vin’s, consciousness was beckoning. The young dark-haired agent opened his eyes for the first time in days. It was dark and confusing. He hurt all over, and he was alone.
Without clarity of thought, he did the instinctive thing and called out for his friend. The tiniest movement flared intense pain through JD’s jaw, but the only sound he could make was a groan. Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks as he tried to control the pain. His heart pounded rapidly and his breathing became a struggle. A monitor sounded shrilly causing Dunne to flinch away from the noise and the pain flared again. Tears flowed in earnest.
“Mr. Dunne?” the voice was almost angelic, soft and soothing, reminding him of his mother. “Try to remain calm.”
JD’s struggled as she continued to speak soothingly to him. “Don’t fight the machine, just relax. There’s a doctor on the way. The tube is helping you breathe. You need to relax… Let the ventilator do the work… That’s it.”
She looked at the frightened hazel eyes. “You’re going to be just fine,” she soothed as the breathing slowed into the rhythm of the ventilator and the eyelids began to droop. “Just rest now. Your friends will be here soon.”
His eyes drifted shut.
Time had passed, or had it? JD was confused. Everything seemed to hurt and he couldn’t figure out where he was. He could hear voices speaking softly nearby. One was the same soothing voice that kept telling him he was okay.
“Mom?” he mumbled around the breathing tube. Tears sprang to his eyes and he moaned as pain shot through his jaw.
“Shh,” the voice soothed. “Don’t try to talk. You’re safe.”
He knew that deep voice. Dunne opened his eyes and tried to focus on the blur leaning over him.
Nathan’s gentle hand rested on his shoulder. He was glad the nurse had beckoned him from the waiting room. “You need to be calm, JD,” Jackson assured. “You were in an accident. You’re in the hospital. Your jaw is broken, that’s why it hurts when you try to talk. You have a tube in your throat that’s helping you breathe.”
JD’s eyes tracked fearfully toward the door as a doctor entered.
“It’s okay. It’s one of your doctors,” Nathan soothed.
The doctor introduced himself and carried on a monologue as he and the nurse checked JD’s vitals. Even though it was the wee hours of the morning, his patient was awake, and he needed to know just how aware John Daniel Dunne was and to try to determine to what extent his brain had been damaged from the lack of oxygen.
“JD,” interrupted Nathan. “He goes by JD.”
The doctor nodded. “JD, I’m going to ask you some questions, but I don’t want you to try to talk. Can you move your right index finger for me?”
Nathan watched anxiously. It seemed to take forever, but JD moved his finger.
“Good,” encouraged the doctor. “Can you move it twice for me?”
Again, seemingly in slow motion, JD moved his finger, this time twice in response to the doctor.
Nathan couldn’t help but grin. JD was responding to commands, a good sign.
The doctor went on to ask a series of questions needing a yes or no answer. JD responded to all of them until he could no longer stay awake.
“He’s doing good?” Nathan asked.
The doctor allowed himself to smile. “He’s responsive. It’s difficult to tell if the slow responses are from the head injury or from the medications, but being communicative at this stage is good. Very good.”
Nathan nodded. He understood that only time would show any lingering effects, but JD had known him and had responded to the doctor.
“His vitals look good. I’d like to give him a few more hours and then we’ll schedule him for surgery for the facial trauma.”
“I’ll call the others,” said Nathan.
“The ten minutes an hour during visiting hours still applies,” the doctor stated firmly. “He needs his strength for the surgery.”
The doctor softened his command with a smile. “But I’m glad you were here tonight. It seemed to ease his confusion.”
With that said, the doctor tilted his head towards the door indicating it was time for Nathan to go.
“Thanks, Doc,” said Nathan as he patted JD’s shoulder before leaving the room.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully. JD slept the night through, as did Vin. Sleep didn’t come so easy in the Larabee house – between the late night trip to get Ezra and the phone call from Nathan a couple of hours later, Chris wasn’t ready to face the day, let alone the weary undercover agent.
Ezra was silent. Chris had steered the weary man through the motions of getting ready, and drove him into town. Ezra hadn't said a single word all morning, and from the looks of it, was suffering from a killer headache.
"Where's your Dry Cleaner?" he asked.
"Fifth and Wilcox." Ezra winced as if the sound of his own voice exacerbated his headache.
After a quick stop at the Dry Cleaner’s and then the office where Ezra changed, Chris accompanied his agent to the courthouse. Standish didn’t need a baby sitter, but Larabee felt the need to be in the courtroom today. His natural protective instinct made him want to be at the hospital with Vin and JD, but last night had made it abundantly clear that the team had suffered three casualties, not two, and Ezra needed the team’s support as much as his physically injured teammates.
The courtroom was closed to visitors allowing only the attorneys, the defendant, the jury and court staff. Witnesses were kept in a separate area until needed. Ezra was in a different room to help protect his identity. His testimony was given on closed circuit television, disguised by darkness.
Chris sat in the darkened room watching his agent testify, calm and professional despite the headache he knew Ezra suffered. He shook his head with a smirk. It always amazed him to see Ezra transform into one of his undercover personas. There wasn’t even a trace of a southern accent as he spoke, his statements simple and straightforward. Eddie Samuels to the core.
It made the blond briefly wonder if the drawl and fancy talk was just another persona for their benefit.
He half smiled as Ezra was Ezra in his testimony. He could hear the frustration creeping in to the defense attorney’s voice as Standish danced around his attempts to trap him.
Ezra P. Standish. Chris was certain the P stood for ‘Pain-in-the-ass.’ His smirk widened as he heard the judge taking the defense attorney to task for trying to continue to allude to the rumors about Ezra’s past in Atlanta. He had already ruled that it wasn’t pertinent to the case and threatened the attorney with contempt if he tried to bring it up again.
Ezra coughed and covered his mouth, but not quick enough for Chris to miss the southerner’s grin despite the darkened room.
The cocky smile stayed with the southerner as he was dismissed, gracing his face all the way to the parking garage.
As he approached Chris’ truck, his step slowed, his shoulders drooped and the smile disappeared. Reality slammed home full force. Things may have gone his way in court, but his teammates lay in the hospital in serious condition. He rubbed his face with both hands waiting for Chris to unlock the doors. The headache he’d managed to push aside during testimony was now making itself known with pounding throbs.
He felt Chris’ hand on the back of his neck, a huge show of support from a man who wasn’t big on physical contact.
“You did great,” Chris affirmed. “We’re going to get through this,” he added softly.
Ezra nodded but didn’t meet his bosses’ gaze.
“Let’s get something to eat and head over to the hospital,” said Chris as he unlocked the doors with his remote.
“I’m not hungry,” Ezra replied softly as he climbed into the truck.
Chris climbed into the driver’s side and closed the door, pausing to take a good look at Ezra’s pale complexion and the dark circles under his eyes. He was perfectly groomed, not a hair out of place, but his exhaustion was obvious. If this continued, he was going to make himself sick. He needed nourishment and rest.
Starting the engine, he put the truck in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. He wanted to head straight to the hospital and check on Vin and JD, but making sure Ezra ate something was just as important. Sheffield’s was a little out of the way, but it was one of the Southerner’s favorite restaurants and it seemed like a good idea.
He made a left at the next light.
Ezra’s head jerked up. “Where are we going?”
“I said we were going to get lunch before going to the hospital,” Chris answered.
“And I said I wasn’t hungry.”
Larabee kept his eyes on the road but smirked at the annoyed tone. At least it was a reaction. Maybe Ezra was starting to find his feet again.
“Well, I am, and since I’m driving…” He let the sentence hang.
Ezra looked out the passenger window and sighed.
“I’m buying,” Chris offered.
“It better not be McDonalds,” Ezra grumbled.
Vin huffed out a frustrated breath. He ached everywhere and he couldn’t even shift to ease the pain.
“Are you all right?” Josiah asked quietly.
“That’s a @&#*$(%! stupid question!” Vin growled.
Josiah stood and moved into the Texan’s line of sight.
Vin closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them. “Sorry,” he said.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” said Josiah. “If I were in your shoes I’d be mighty frustrated, hurting… and maybe a little scared.”
Vin’s eyes darted away at the last word. Hell yes he was scared, but just like every one of Team Seven, he was reluctant to admit it.
“I hate the waiting,” he finally whispered.
“So they’re gonna take JD to surgery pretty soon?”
Josiah nodded again, recognizing the diversion and knowing that Vin wasn’t ready to open up about his fears or the “what ifs” of his injuries. He watched Tanner grimace in pain and try to disguise it. The big man reached over to the pain pump and put the control in Vin’s hand.
“It doesn’t help if you don’t use it,” he said quietly.
“I hate this stuff,” Vin muttered as he administered his own pain medication.
Josiah hid his smile. He didn’t want to do anything to deter Vin from using the pain medications.
“How do you think Ez is doing in court? Maybe you should go check on JD. Tell him I’m thinking about him and I’m sorry I can’t get up there and see him.”
This time he couldn’t hide the smile. Vin’s medication was definitely kicking in as the young man began to babble.
“I’ll tell him, Vin,” said Josiah, tucking Vin’s sheet up over his shoulder. “You get some sleep now.”
Vin briefly struggled to keep his eyes open, but the medication won the battle and he drifted to sleep.
Chris had seen Ezra’s slight smile as he turned in to Sheffield’s parking lot. He’d also seen the questioning glance and the deep breath as Ezra seemed to pull himself together. The restaurant had been a strategic move on Chris’ part. He hoped that maybe the comfort of a familiar place with favorite foods would help make the thought of eating more palatable, and he was fairly certain that the gentleman in the southerner would make him feel obliged to eat something since it would be rude to refuse when Chris was paying.
Ezra had greeted the host with his usual flair and they were escorted to his regular table. He chatted amicably with the host before reading the menu.
Maybe testifying in court and playing his undercover persona had given him the focus he needed.
Ezra had perused for the past fifteen minutes a menu he knew by heart.
“You need to eat,” Chris said softly, “or you’ll make yourself sick.”
“That is exactly what I’m trying to avoid,” Ezra quipped with a smirk.
Unfortunately, Larabee knew there was more truth than humor in the statement. “Does anything sound appealing?” he asked.
“Well, anything with red sauce is definitely out.”
Chris swore softly. That ruled out half the menu at the swanky Italian restaurant. * And * the entrée he was about to order. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think…”
“It’s all right,” said Ezra. “You were trying to lure me to eat with comfortable surroundings.”
“I’m that obvious?”
Ezra nodded with a smile. “Thank you,” he added softly.
“Are you ready, Sir?” asked the waiter.
Ezra nodded to Chris to order first. He went with Fettuccini Alfredo and Ezra followed his order with a request for a house salad and bread sticks.
They ate their meal in relative silence. Ezra made a valiant effort at eating. He managed a few bites of salad and two bread sticks before he gave up and started pushing his food around.
He looked up when he sensed Chris staring at him.
Chris had a smirk on his face. “I was just thinking about Brewster. You had him running in circles.”
Ezra grinned slightly. “I think the judge helped. If your only defense is that the witness’ background is suspect, that hardly refutes the evidence.”
“You’re good, Ezra,” Chris said sincerely.
Standish faltered. He wasn’t sure what to do with the compliment and while it made him feel warm inside, it also made him uncomfortable.
“I know,” he said sounding cocky, but the hesitation had been long enough for Chris to see that his words had been heard and acknowledged.
“You’re also a pompous ass,” Chris laughed.
The grin on Ezra’s face and the natural banter gave Chris more hope that Ezra was on the way up from the pit of grief and confusion of the past few days. He still had some serious issues to deal with, but it looked like with some rest he’d begin to face what had happened, not only to Vin and JD, but himself as well.
Josiah approached JD’s room. He had already seen him once in the morning, but wanted to check in on him before he was taken to surgery for repairs to his jaw.
“Hey,” said Buck softly as he noticed Josiah’s arrival. He and Nathan stood next to JD’s bed. Buck was holding JD’s hand and comfortingly running his thumb across the young agent’s knuckles. “He’s just about out.”
JD blinked his swollen eyelids in an attempt to stay awake.
“Go to sleep, Son,” said Josiah. “We’ll be here when you wake up.”
Nathan resisted the urge to check JD’s monitors, instead focusing on his teammate. “They’re going to take care of your jaw and get rid of that tube.”
JD’s eyes tracked to Nathan as he tried to resist the anesthetic.
“Vin sends his best,” Josiah added. “And Chris and Ezra are on their way from lunch,” he said, relaying the information he received in a phone call from the team leader, “but probably won’t get here before they take you in. Chris says they’ll be here when you wake up.”
JD’s eyes closed as the anesthetic won the battle.
“It’s going to be fine,” Buck assured, hoping he was telling the truth.
Josiah returned to Vin’s room, sitting with the sharpshooter as he slept. He noticed the same restlessness that Nathan had mentioned earlier. He rested a hand on Vin’s shoulder and spoke soft reassurances until the young man stilled.
Vin wasn’t the only one who hated the waiting. Nothing seemed worse than sitting helplessly at the bedside of a friend, a family member and being able to do nothing.
Unless, of course, you were the person in the bed.
Josiah wordlessly voiced a prayer for Vin who rested beside him, and for JD who was hopefully in recovery. He was about to add a wily southerner to the list when Ezra and Chris entered the room.
Seeing Vin was asleep, the three men stepped out into the hall so they wouldn’t disturb him.
“How’s JD?” Chris asked.
“He was supposed to be out of surgery about now,” Josiah answered, checking his watch. “How’d court go?”
Ezra’s smug grin appeared momentarily and Josiah chuckled.
“Ezra had the defense going in circles,” Chris praised.
Josiah squeezed the back of Ezra’s neck and gave him a playful push. “Good for you.”
Standish regained his balance and straightened his jacket. The grin faded as he found he faced Vin’s door.
“He’s doing okay,” Josiah said softly. “A little frustrated that he can’t move yet, and a lot more in pain than he’ll admit, but he’s using the pain pump without too much pressure. He fell asleep about an hour ago.”
Ezra nodded. The guilt he felt was still evidenced on his face, but there was also resignation. He still felt the guilt, but the fact that he couldn’t change the outcome was setting in and becoming reality. No amount of bargaining could change the fact that Vin was in a hospital bed looking at the possibility of paralysis and JD might have brain damage. He couldn’t trade places with them and he couldn’t fix things as if it had never happened.
“You wanna stay here or go up and check on JD?” asked Chris.
Ezra sighed softly. He really didn’t want to do either. He cared deeply about Vin and JD but looking at them reminded him of his failure to…
To what? What could he have done differently?
“Sorry,” he said, shaking himself from his contemplation. “Why don’t I stay with Vin while you and Josiah check on Mr. Dunne. And then perhaps Josiah would like some lunch?”
Chris nodded in agreement. He watched as Ezra silently slipped into Vin’s room, knowing full well that Ezra was hoping that Vin wouldn’t wake up on his watch.
+ + + + + + +
The waiting room was a little more vibrant than it had been for the past few days. JD was in surgery now, but he had been awake and seemed to recognize everyone and that was great news. There was still concern over brain damage from the lack of oxygen, but hopes were high.
Things were changing in Vin’s room as well. Much to Ezra’s dismay, Vin had awakened during his “shift.” Neither of them was really ready to face what had happened, so they chatted aimlessly about the weather, the court case, and anything else that didn’t steer them toward the accident.
Eventually the room fell silent, both of them wondering about JD and hoping that he would be all right. Ezra glanced at his watch.
“Go,” said Vin. “See how he’s doing.”
Ezra shook his head. “I’m to stay. Josiah said he would keep us informed. When he comes back I have to go pick up a prescription.”
Vin took his words the wrong way. “I don’t need a damn babysitter,” he growled in frustration.
Ezra looked at him, slightly startled by the change in mood, but he said nothing.
His silence frustrated Vin even more. He needed to vent, he wanted a fight and Ezra just sat there. Usually Ezra was great to verbally spar with - he could debate circles around your argument and he didn’t take it personally. But now he just sat there. Vin let out a string of curses.
Ezra sat in silence as Vin spewed his frustration. Vin needed to vent and Ezra felt he deserved to be on the receiving end of the anger. Under normal circumstances the southerner wouldn’t stand for this kind of treatment, but these were far from normal circumstances and he felt Vin had every right to cuss at him and more.
Fortunately for everyone, Josiah walked in. He walked over to the bed and laid his hand on Vin’s shoulder.
Vin’s eyes flicked in his direction.
“I know you’re hurting, but I could hear you clear down the hall,” he chided gently.
“I don’t care who the @#$^&*(! can hear me!”
“Yes, you do,” said Josiah gently. “You know there are other patients who are hurting and need rest.”
Vin closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He was angry and wanted the whole world to know, but Josiah was right. He didn’t have a right to subject others to his frustration.
“Sorry,” he said softly.
Josiah nodded and patted Vin’s shoulder.
“Sorry, Ezra,” said Vin.
When the southerner didn’t answer, Josiah turned and looked. Ezra was gone.
“Have you heard from Ezra?” asked Chris.
Josiah and Nathan both looked up from their computers. “I haven’t seen him since before JD’s surgery,” said Nathan.
“I tried to call last night,” said Josiah, “but his machine picked up.”
Chris looked at the clock again. Ezra was more than an hour late. Undercover agents had more flexibility in their hours than most agents simply due to the nature of their job. When he was on assignment, he might go for days, even weeks without physically checking in to the office. When he wasn’t on assignment, he was expected to be on time in the office, like everyone else. Ezra had a knack for intentionally arriving at the last second just to irritate Chris. He was known for pushing the envelope on timeliness, but he was rarely late. And this was beyond late.
“I’ll try his condo,” said Josiah.
“I’ll call his cell,” said Nathan.
“And I’ll call Buck,” said Chris.
Each man moved to make his phone call.
“Tanner’s House of Torture,” said Buck as he answered the phone in Vin’s hospital room.
Chris could hear Vin in the background saying sarcastically, “Ha. Ha. Very funny.”
“Hush, Junior,” Buck said. “I’m on the phone. Hello?”
“Are you done?” asked Chris.
“What’s wrong?” asked Buck.
“Has Ezra been there this morning?”
“Let me ask. I was up with JD until ten minutes ago,” said Buck. “Vin, has Ezra been by?”
“No. Haven’t seen him since yesterday. Said he had to go pick up a prescription.”
“Did you catch that?” asked Buck.
“Yes,” said Chris. “Prescription?”
“Prescription?” Buck relayed the question.
“How the hell should I know?” Vin replied grumpily. “He couldn’t get out of here quick enough. It was probably just an excuse.”
“Not a good morning?” Chris asked quietly.
“No,” said Buck. “They took him for an MRI early, and he’s been pissed ever since.”
“It didn’t go well?”
“Don’t know yet, but I think bouncing him around set him off,” said Buck. “His pain meds don’t seem to be keeping it in check. They’re looking at getting him something stronger.”
Chris sighed. “How’s JD?”
“Sleeping. The pain meds are working just fine for him.”
“Hang in there, Buck,” said Chris. “Josiah will be over in a couple of hours to give you a break.”
“Talk to you later,” said Buck.
Chris hung up the phone and stepped out of his office. “Anything?”
“Answering machine,” said Josiah.
“Voice mail,” said Nathan.
None of them voiced their concern, but all three were worried about Ezra’s difficulty coping with the accident.
“Vin said Ezra told him he had to pick up a prescription,” said Chris.
“For what?” asked Nathan.
“He didn’t know,” said Chris.
Nathan frowned. “I want to go check his condo.”
Chris nodded. “I’ll go. You two finish up this assignment.”
Nathan looked at Chris, meeting his gaze. He really wanted to go, but as long as someone went to check on Ezra, it was all right. He gave a nod and turned toward his desk.
Chris had seen Nathan’s concern, and knew that Josiah shared it as well. Ezra was a mess and they all wanted to help. “I’ll call,” he said as he stepped into his office and grabbed his jacket.
Twenty minutes later he was pounding on Ezra’s door. After knocking repeatedly and getting no response, he used the key Ezra had entrusted to him in case of emergency.
“Ezra?” he called as he entered. Hearing no response he stepped inside. Ezra’s jacket was tossed haphazardly on the back of the leather sofa. Mail was scattered across the coffee table and several coffee mugs littered the normally immaculate space, confirming Ezra’s inner disarray.
Chris made his way to the southerner’s room hoping that he had simply overslept. He’d been avoiding sleep in hopes to avoid his nightmares, but at some point the body would give in to its need.
He pushed open the door and saw Ezra sprawled on his stomach on the bed, face turned to the side and one arm dangling off the bed. A glass rested on its side on the floor beneath his limp fingers, water pooled on the hardwood. Chris’s eyes drifted up to the nightstand and his heart stopped.
“No, no, no!” he cried as he ran to the bed.
An empty prescription bottle rested on its side on the table, like the glass on the floor. Only four pills remained, scattered across the nightstand, pointing to Chris’s worst fear.
“Ezra, wake up!” Chris called, slapping his cheek lightly. Fear surged through him. This couldn’t be happening. Not Ezra. Not an overdose.
An unanswered alarm beeped persistently, attesting to Ezra’s condition.
“Come on, Ezra. Don’t do this.” Getting no response he shook him roughly, rolling him onto his back. “Ezra!”
He wasn’t sure his friend was even breathing. He paused long enough to watch to see the slight rise and fall of his chest. He was breathing, but it was shallow. “How much did you take?” he whispered before grabbing the phone and dialing 911.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
“A possible drug overdose.” Chris couldn’t believe the words even as he said them.
“What’s your location?”
Chris stumbled over the address, still trying to calm himself.
“Hold for a moment while I contact the authorities.”
Chris held the phone with one hand and slapped Ezra with the other, striking a little harder with desperation.
“Sir, help is on the way. Is the patient breathing?” asked the operator.
“Yes,” said Chris. He continued to try to rouse Ezra as the operator talked him through the situation and helping as much as he could until the paramedics arrived.
He slapped Ezra’s face again, praying for a reaction.
The slurred complaint stopped Chris cold. “Ezra? Ezra can you hear me?”
“Go ‘way,” the southerner mumbled.
“No. You have to wake up,” said Chris, setting the phone aside as he grabbed Ezra by the shirt collar and pulled him up into a seated position.
“How much did you take?”
“What?” Ezra was clearly out of it.
“Pills, Ezra. How many did you take?”
“Damn it, Ezra,” Chris growled. He balanced Ezra with one hand and grabbed the pill bottle. Holding it in front of Ezra’s face, he asked again, “How many pills did you take?”
Ezra blinked, stared at the bottle and blinked again. “One. She said just one.”
“You only took one?” asked Chris incredulously. He looked at the bottle. Dr. Brady. If it was the same Dr. Brady he knew, she was a psychiatrist. The prescription was for 5 days, 1 pill per day. Four were still on the table.
“One,” Ezra mumbled. “Couldn’t sleep… took pill.”
“When?” asked Chris, feeling both relief and anger.
“Three,” said Ezra with a yawn, “thirty. Tired.”
Chris set the bottle down and eased Ezra back down on the bed. He picked up the phone. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but it was a false alarm. My friend took a sleeping pill in the middle of the night and I couldn’t wake him.”
“The paramedics will be there shortly,” she said. “They’re required to complete the call.”
Chris understood. It was standard procedure to complete the call, and check and make sure things really were as claimed. It would be too easy for an angry husband to call back and claim his abused wife was just fine now. They needed to make sure the person was safe.
“I understand. Thanks for your help.”
Chris ended the call and sank down to the floor, his back against the bed. His shaky legs didn’t want to hold him up anymore. He ran trembling hands through his hair, trying to regroup as the adrenaline began to dissipate. He sat quietly for a couple of minutes, slowing his breathing until Ezra groaned.
He forced himself to his feet to check on Ezra. The southerner had pulled his blankets over his head.
Chris pulled them back. “Damn it, Ezra, I thought you tried to kill yourself.”
“Off,” Ezra mumbled.
“Off,” Ezra growled covering his ears. “Off!”
It was only then, when things were calm that Chris realized the alarm clock was still beeping. He fumbled with it a moment before successfully shutting it off.
“Thank you,” Ezra said softly, yawning again. “Do you honestly think I’d have set the alarm if I were going to…” he said as he pulled the covers over his head.
Chris shook his head and blew out a sigh. “Go back to sleep, Ezra.”
He walked out of the bedroom and pulled the door mostly closed. Flipping open his cell phone he dialed the office.
“Hello, Josiah? Yeah, I found him. He’s okay. Took a sleeping pill in the middle of the night and overslept. He was so out of it when I woke him that he didn’t even gripe that I was in his condo. Yeah. I told him to go back to sleep. I’m going to hang around here for a couple of hours just to be sure everything’s okay. Yeah. When you see the boys tell them I’ll be by later.”
As he ended the call, the paramedics were knocking at the door. “Sorry, guys,” he said as he let them in. “I thought he’d overdosed, but he only took one pill. He just took it really late.”
“We have to check him out,” said the blond paramedic.
“His bedroom’s this way.”
Chris led the two men to Ezra’s room. “The bottle’s on the nightstand.”
“What’s his name?” asked the dark haired paramedic.
The blond checked the bottle. “Prescription for five, four on the table,” he confirmed.
The other paramedic began checking Ezra’s vitals. “Mr. Standish? Mr. Standish can you hear me?”
Chris grimaced. Ezra would not be happy.
Ezra groaned. “Go away.”
“I can’t sir. I have to check you vitals.”
Ezra’s eyes opened wide as his mind registered the strange voice.
“What the hell…” the stare became a glare that found it’s way to Larabee.
“Hey, Kid,” said Buck softly. “How’re you feeling?”
JD’s reply was unintelligible. The wires holding his jaw in place didn’t allow for movement, which meant his speech was a mumble at best.
“Doc was pretty happy with your tests. Good thing you have all that empty space up there for your brain to bounce around in, or it could have been worse.”
JD glared and gave Buck a one-fingered response.
“Well, you don’t seem to be having a problem communicating,” said Josiah with a chuckle as he entered the room.
“Ha-ha,” JD responded but it sounded more like “mm mm.”
Josiah smiled. “Glad to see you feeling better John Dunne,” he said patting JD’s arm.
PUT THIS LATER IN THE STORY
Vin knew about Ezra's guilt complex. Chris and Josiah had explained to him what had happened and what Ezra was thinking. They had also assured Vin that they were working on the stubborn southerner.
Vin figured words weren't what Ezra needed. They wouldn't have worked for him and they wouldn't work for Ezra. Waiting until he could catch Ezra's eyes Vin rasped, "Hear you think you're responsible for me being this way."
Ezra gulped, finally someone had said it plain. Yes he was responsible, for Vin, for JD. It was his fault both were where they were. Nodding slightly, he said, "I can not begin to apologize,"
Vin cut him off, "Forget it, luck of the draw. Maybe I won't walk again maybe I will. That's up to me and the docs. What I don't need is to feel responsible for you."
"Me?" Ezra stammered, "how are you responsible for me?"
"You're feeling guilty because of me. That's a burden I don't want and I bet JD don't want it neither. So stop it." Vin fell back against his pillows. "I'm alive, JD's alive. Tell you what, if it'll help, when we get out of here, we'll throw you off a bridge."