Written for Kim MacBearly, with wishes for a very happy birthday! She requested an ATF story featuring Ezra, Vin, some h/c and a bit of nasty weather. (All the usual disclaimers apply. Not mine, never have been, no money being made!)
Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
"Hey, guys. Guess who just became an uncle?"
"Well, judging by the unusually pleased expression upon your face and the fact that your youngest sister was expecting a special delivery any day now, I would say that you did, Mr. Larabee," teased Ezra, rising from his chair to shake his supervisorís hand. "Congratulations."
The other five members of Team Seven had likewise jumped up from their desks and hurried over to offer handshakes, backslaps and words of appreciation.
"Boy or girl?" Buck asked, his grin wide enough to suggest that it was he who had just received the happy news.
"Boy," Chris said proudly. "7 pounds, 7 ounces, and theyíve decided to call him Matthew Christopher, after his two uncles."
Josiah nodded his approval. "A fine name. And his birth-weight suggests that he just might be a lucky young man. Seven has certainly proven to be a good number for you!"
Nods of agreement, renewed congratulations and offers of drinks flew from the assembled men and Chris, not usually one to enjoy the limelight, absorbed their comments with a smug expression. Suddenly, his grin faded into a look of consternation as he looked over at Vin and exclaimed, "Damn!"
Puzzled, Vin replied, "What?"
"I promised Carrie Iíd fly out tomorrow morning to see the baby. I forgot that you and I were supposed to go on that fishing trip this weekend."
Vin shrugged. "So, just call her back and tell her you already got plans. Ainít like youíll never have another chance to see the kid. Theyíre all pretty ugly at this stage anyhow."
For a moment, dead silence filled the office as everyone gaped in disbelief over the callous statement. Then a sparkle of mischief filled Vinís blue eyes. Pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun he pantomimed a shot at Chris and said, "Gotcha."
Roars of laughter filled the room as Chris threw a mock punch at Vinís jaw. "Damn, Tanner. Why the hell do I put up with you?"
"Probíly because I do the same for you," he said, laughing as he added, "Donít worry about it, Cowboy. Just have a good flight, take a few pictures and drive us all crazy gloatiní about how great your new nephew is when you come back next week."
Chris grinned. "Thanks, Iíll do that. So, what about you? Still planning on going up to the lake?"
Vin shrugged. "Might as well. Cabinís already paid up and itís too late to get the money back. Reckon it wonít kill me to go alone." He glanced around hopefully at the rest of the men. "Unless one of you boys wants to claim the extra bunk."
"I would, but Iím taking Casey to a concert this weekend," JD said reluctantly. "Sheíd kill me if I backed out of it now."
Buck laughed. "Sheíd have a right. No woman wants to hear that her boyfriend would rather spend the weekend catching fish with a buddy than cuddling with her. Thatís why Iím staying around home this weekend myself. Got two pretty ladies whoíll be mighty put out if they lose their tickets to ride on the Wilmington love-train."
At these words, Nathan promptly whipped out a bottle of antacids and shook it inquiringly at the others. "Learned to keep these handy around you," he offered when JD, Vin and Josiah each held out his hand to accept a tablet, grinning when Buck gave all of them dirty looks.
"You just donít appreciate true talent," Buck huffed. Then his injured expression turned into a lascivious grin. "Luckily, the ladies donít have that problem."
"Donít need a lot of ladies when youíve found the right one," Nathan shot back, hitching his eyebrows. "Me and Rain are heading out tomorrow for a little weekend activity of our own, if you know what I mean."
Josiah pretended to ponder this. "Heading over see that new museum exhibit on 19th century medicine?"
Everyone broke into laughter when Nathan suddenly looked very guilty.
"Mister Jackson, perhaps now you will understand why I tell you that I have no need, whatsoever, to cheat when playing poker against you," Ezra chortled. "You cannot hold a bluff to save your soul."
"And speaking of saving souls, Iím afraid Iím out on the fishing trip too," Josiah apologized. "Itís my turn to fill in as guest-speaker at the Sisters of Mercy mission this weekend."
Vin waved a hand dismissively. "Donít worry about it. I didnít really expect you all to change your plans at the last minute. Just figured Iíd check. Suppose you got things to do too, huh, Ezra?"
"Iím afraid so. Besides, the great outdoors are really not my milieu," he said. "Iím sure youíll have a better time without me there. I know Iíll have a better time without me there."
The others chuckled again and Vin smiled. "Reckon so. Well, maybe next time."
The seven members of Larabeeís ATF unit sat perched on desks or slouching back in chairs talking about their plans for the weekend.
"Thought I might fly out to Macon this weekend; visit my sister and her new son," Chris announced, adding, "If things get boring, I can sneak out and head over to Atlanta; take in the Braves game."
Ezraís calm features drifted into a slight frown. He had thought Chrisí sister lived in Ohio. And since when did this man like the Braves? He liked to make fun of Ezraís continued loyalty to his hometown team whenever the opportunity arose, telling him it was time to let go of the security blanket and find a real team to support.
Realizing his attention had drifted; Ezra was brought back by Buckís happy announcement that he would be busy all weekend. He had a date, he claimed, with the waitresses from Hooters restaurant.
"Which ones?" JD asked curiously.
"All of Ďem!" Buck said smugly. "When they change shifts, so will I."
Everyone shook Buckís hands and patted him on the back, congratulating him on his strategic planning, Nathan offering him a vitamin supplement as a precaution. Ezra stared around at them all, wondering if they had lost their minds. Surely they werenít taking this seriously!
"I donít believe it," he said flatly. "Those women wouldnít date you. Not all of them!"
Buck patted him on the arm in an infuriatingly sympathetic manner. "There, there, son. Ainít my fault if they turned you down. You could always try the girls at Spanglers nightclub, theyíre usually pretty charitable to a man whoís hard up." He grinned at Ezra, glancing pointedly downward.
Ezra shifted back further, out of the range of that knowing gaze. "Spanglers," he huffed. "As if I would be caught dead in such an establishment."
"Just a suggestion," Buck said with a careless shrug. "Well, time for me to head out, fellas. Need a little extra time to get ready for the day shift."
Calls of good luck and promises of details on Monday followed him out the door. When the conversation resumed, nobody even seemed to notice Ezra, still stewing with insult over Buckís suggestion.
"Hey, you know the art museum is celebrating the completion of its remodeling with a great new showing of French Impressionist art this weekend," Nathan announced. "I got two tickets to the grand opening. Theyíll be showing some pieces that arenít available to the general public, just for this one event. Rain has to work this weekend, but Iím still going. Shame nobodyíd be interested in the extra ticket."
With that, Nathan fished a scrap of card paper from his pocket, its gilt edging catching the light in a tempting show as he held it up, seemingly deaf to Ezraís declaration that he would be happy to purchase the item. Without a glance at his teammates, Nathan tore the ticket into tiny scraps and tossed it in the garbage, as he headed back to his desk.
JD made a disparaging noise. "Art shows? Jeez, thatís no way to spend a weekend, especially when the weather is supposed to be prime for rock-climbing. Iím heading up to the mountains tomorrow and take advantage of it. Got my gear all ready for some adventure."
Ezra had been staring mournfully at the trash basket where Nathan had thrown his ticket, but he looked up in interest at JDís announcement. He loved rock-climbing; had been doing it for years, both in climate controlled gymnasiums and out in the real world when time and weather permitted. "Would you like some company?" he asked hopefully.
"Nah," the young man said with a wave of his hand. "Caseyís busy, so is Buck, and Vinís going fishing this weekend. Iíll just go alone."
Deciding that his hint had been too subtle, Ezra tried again. "You donít have to go alone. Iím very good at climbing."
"Really? Thatís nice." JD said absently, then muttered, "Wonder where I put my good pair of hiking bootsÖ"
For a moment, Ezra just gaped at him, unable to believe he had been so flatly ignored. Then Josiah spoke up. "Hey, Ezra. Are you going to hear Rafael Del Toro sing the lead in the Denver Operaís production of ĎDon Giovannií tonight?"
Instantly Ezraís mood shifted from irritation to excitement. ĎDon Giovannií was one of his favorite operas and Rafael Del Toro was the brightest young tenor on the stage. Only two years into his career, people were calling him the next Pavarotti. "No. I hadnít even known that a production was to be staged here, and as far as I knew, Del Toro was booked on a tour of Europe for at least another year. Where did you hear this?"
"Well, I thought everyone knew. Itís been in the papers for a month. The entire run has been sold out since it started and tonight is the final performance. The entire Company is heading back to Madrid once the show closes."
Ezraís heart sank. He had missed it! But wait. Josiah had certainly sounded complacent enough, and he was the only other person in this office who shared Ezraís love of opera. "Are you going?"
"Couldnít let an opportunity like this go to waste," he confirmed with a nod. "I wanted to go sooner but couldnít get away until tonight. Rafael understood."
"Understood? You make it sound as if he knows youíll be there."
Josiah looked surprised. "Of course he does. Front right Orchestra, as always. His father and I are old friends. We met when I was traveling through the countryside of Spain, doing research for my thesis on Roman-Catholic cathedrals. Rafael saves me a couple of seats whenever thereís a chance I can make one of his performances. You knew that."
"No, I didnít. Youíve never mentioned it before," Ezra protested.
"Sure he did."
"Whereíve you been?"
The scornful words of Nathan, Chris and JD drove spikes of guilt into Ezraís heart. Had he really taken so little interest in the lives of his coworkers that he had been completely oblivious to such an important fact about one of them? "Well, I certainly do apologize if I failed to pay attention, Mr. Sanchez. Is there any chance that you mentioned it while I was out on an assignment?"
"Could be," Josiah said easily. "Anyway, about tonight."
"Yes?" Ezra said eagerly.
"I need a suggestion for a good restaurant. I had originally intended to go alone tonight but then I had an opportunity to ask Melissa Grogan from Payroll out on a date and this seemed too perfect to pass up. I thought Iíd treat her to a late supper after the show."
Ezra felt as though he had swelled into a gigantic bubble of hope, only to have a very sharp pin strike out and deflate him. "Oh," he said quietly. "Of course. Let me check around and see if I can procure you a reservation somewhere."
"Thanks," Josiah said, his face beaming with happiness. "Iíll owe you one."
"Think nothing of it," he said smoothly, then muttered under his breath as he walked back to his phone. "Not that you will anyway."
As soon as he reached his desk, which sat next to Vin Tannerís, the other man spoke. "Hey, Ezra. You doing anything this weekend?"
Still smarting over having had such temptation dangled before him and then snatched away, Ezraís reply was curt. "Not a thing, apparently."
"Great," Vin said enthusiastically. "Iím going up to a great little cabin to do some fishing. Maybe get in a little hiking and do some sight-seeing. I was wonderiníÖ"
Ezra felt his irritation smooth away. Camping was not exactly his favorite thing in the world, but he did enjoy it on occasion when the weather was good and the company friendly. Trust Vin to throw him a line when everyone else was too busy with their own lives to remember he existed. "No need to go any further, Mr. Tanner. I would be pleased to."
Looking surprised, Vin slowly broke into a grin. "You really donít mind lookiní after Riley for a couple of days? Hey, thatís great. I didnít think you liked dogs."
Ezra could almost smell rubber burning as his thoughts screeched to a halt. "Dog? You donít have a dog."
Vin looked at him oddly. "Sure I do. Had Ďim for years. You remember, donít you? Big, hairy, likes to pin you down and slobber on you whenever he gets a chance? You called Ďim a flea-bitten, saliva-spewing monstrosity last time last time we came over to your place."
It was Ezraís turn to stare. He had no idea what Vin was talking about. The animal sounded horrific, though, and he had no intention of spending his entire weekend looking after it. "Why donít you just take the creature out into the wilds with you?" he asked sharply. "Wouldnít your apartment-dwelling canine love a chance to lift a leg in claim of the great outdoors?"
Vin shot him an admiring glance. "Thatís funny, I hadnít even thought of that. Good idea! Guess I donít need you after all."
Unexpectedly, those words stung. "No, I guess not."
Vin lowered his head back to the paper he had been writing on, then abruptly looked up once again. "If you didnít want to look after Riley, what did you think I was gonna ask? You said youíd be pleased to do something."
For a long moment, Ezra hesitated, then plunged ahead. "I thought you were going to ask me to go with you tomorrow. I was going to say that I would do it."
Unexpectedly, Vin laughed. "Thatís a good one, Ez! You, spendiní a weekend without a stove, soft bed or indoor john?" He laughed harder and called out to the others. "Hey, guys, Ezra just volunteered to go up to the woods with me this weekend. Camping!"
Hoots of laughter filled the office. Soon, every man was bent double in a howling spasm of mirth, utterly oblivious to Ezraís objections.
Suddenly, Ezraís protest died in his throat as he found himself remembering all the times the others had invited him to do something, only to have him refuse:
"Hey, Ezra, you want to catch the Jazz festival down at the park with me and Nathan? Weíre going right after work" Ö "No, thank you, Buck. I donít really care for jazz."
"Yo, Ez, me and the guys are gonna go try out that new rib joint over by the airport. Síposed to be real good. Want to come?"Ö "Thank you, Mister Tanner, but I have dinner plans already."
"Thought weíd go catch a movie tonight. You game?" Ö "I appreciate the invitation, JD, but thereís nothing playing that I find particularly appealing. Perhaps another time."
The scenes and events in question changed, but every result was the same. Movies, sporting events, music, barbecues, and a dozen other things; someone would ask and he would come up with an excuse not to go.
No wonder they no longer wanted his company. No wonder they laughedÖ
Ezra woke with a gasp, sitting upright in bed and groping for the clock on the bedside table. He turned it towards him to see the bright electronic readout. Just after four oíclock in the morning.
With a relieved groan, he flopped back against his pillows, rubbing his face in the darkened room. It had been a dream. No one was laughing at him, or deriding him, or shunning his presence in their lives. On the contrary, most of the time everyone went out of their way to include him.
Thinking back, he frowned deeply. Was that why this dream disturbed him so? None of the men he worked with had ever ignored him in such a fashion, but a part of him kept thinking that it was only a matter of time until they did. Over the last few months since he had joined their ranks, every member of Team Seven had urged him to join them in some social activity but he had always manufactured excuses not to go along, some of them downright flimsy. His refusals had only seemed to make the others more persistent in their efforts to include him, which perversely had made him all the more determined to avoid their company.
"So whose fault will it be if they do one day give up on me?" he asked the darkness.
The answering silence felt accusing, readily supplying the answer to his question. After all, a manís patience only went so far and he had certainly pushed the limits with those six. Other than the occasional poker game or evening spent sipping drinks at The Saloon after a hard day, he more or less avoided them all. It had just seemed like a good idea initially. If he avoided becoming friends with those he worked with, then one day if something happened and he was forced to leave the team, it would hurt far less than it had when heíd been drummed out of the Atlanta FBI.
"Perfectly logical, right?" he muttered, then sighed deeply. Certainly it had been, but contrary to all plans and expectations he had come to count all six of his new coworkers as friends; perhaps the best heíd ever had, and the thought of losing the casual camaraderie of those six men did hurt.
Was it too late to let them know? And how could he go about doing it? It wasnít as though he could breeze into the office on Monday and start flinging suggestions for communal activity about like confetti. Nor could he just give in to the peculiar urge heíd had lately to accept all of the offers extended to him. No, that would certainly raise some questions. Perhaps he could just begin with one or two invitations, build up his stamina, and eventually ingratiate himself fully with the others.
A niggle of worry bit at Ezra. What if the dream was really his subconscious mind trying to tell him that it was already too late? What if he had finally run out of second chances?
NoÖthere was still at least one opportunity. Vin Tanner had invited him to go fishing this weekend, hadnít he? Perhaps that would be a good place to begin.
Flinging the covers back, Ezra jumped out of bed and switched on the light. Squinting against the sudden brightness, he moved to the dresser and grabbed his cellular phone. His hand trembled slightly as he dialed the number and waited for Vin to pick up.
"Itís four thirty in the morning on a Saturday, you idiot," he muttered to himself after the fourth unanswered ring. "Heís probably still asleep. Besides, itís really a bit late to be inviting yourself along on his---"
He cut himself off as the line picked up and a surprisingly alert voice said, "Ezra? Somethiní wrong?"
For a moment, Ezra did not respond, wondering how Vin had managed to psychically divine his identity. Then his brain kicked into gear. Vin had caller I.D. on his phone.
"Oh, Mr. Tanner, youíre home," he said, mentally cringing at the sheer obviousness of his statement. "Um, no, nothingís wrong. I just---" He winced. Damn it, why was he so flustered?
Sounding more concerned, Vin asked, "Has something happened?"
Ezra sighed. This was ridiculous. "No, Iím sorry to call you at such an inconvenient hour. This was an absurd idea. Forget I bothered you."
He started to disconnect but was stopped by Vinís shout of, "Wait! Ezra, donít hang up. Whatís going on?"
Before he could think of a reason not to, Ezra heard himself blurt, "Do you still want me to come to the fishing cabin with you?"
Silence filled the line and Ezraís heart sank, sure that the other man was struggling to come up with a polite excuse to rescind the invitation. Then, unexpectedly, Tanner laughed, sounding absolutely delighted as he said, "You really mean it? You want to come?"
"I, well, yes if youíre sure you donít mind."
"Course I donít! Youíre right welcome," Vin told him. "I was just getting my stuff together and wishing I had some company. You got any supplies or should I just pack enough for two?"
Astonished, Ezra replied, "Well, I must admit that I hadn't really thought this through fully. Water, spare blankets, and snacks I can manage. Iím afraid I donít own a sleeping bag or fishing gear."
"Iíll grab my spares for you, then," Vin said easily. "What kinda snacks?"
Ezra thought for a moment. "Iíve got fresh fruit, a leftover bag of mini pretzels courtesy of JDís plant-watering presence the last time I was undercover, and an entire tin of chocolate chip cookies."
"Naturally," he said, laughing at Vinís eager tone. Mrs. Prescott was Ezraís neighbor, a kindly old woman who insisted that he was too thin and was constantly foisting baked goods on him in an attempt to fatten him up. Most of her goodies ended up in the break room at work and, as a result, she had become a great favorite of Vin Tanner.
"Hell, thatís worth the price of a few campiní supplies right there. You do most of the cookiní and Iíll call us even!"
Ezra found himself grinning like a little boy. "Having sampled the burnt offerings you try to pass off as edibles, Mr. Tanner, I believe I can agree to that condition in self-defense."
Completely unfazed by this insult, Vin chuckled. "Well, all right then, itís a deal. Iíll swing by and pick you up in about a half-hour. That okay?"
"Make it forty-five minutes. I may have lost my sanity to do this, but Iím still sensible enough to insist on one last hot shower before I become one with the wilderness."
Vin laughed again. "Okay, Iíll see ya then. Pack yourself a couple changes of clothes and be sure to wear your jeans, boots if you got any, and comfortable shirts you can stay warm in without worrying about getting dirty. None of that designer shit, okay?"
Ezra sighed. Vin really did know him well. "Is it too late to rethink this?"
The other man snorted. "Yep. I ainít letting you get away now, specially after you promised me cookies! See ya soon." Then he added simply, "Thanks, Ezra," before disconnecting the call.
Ezra smiled at the brightly lit phone display. "No, my friend. Thank you."
Feeling strangely excited about the upcoming trip Ezra showered, shaved, dressed and packed up his belongings with plenty of time to spare. By the time Vin arrived he was sitting out on the front porch steps calmly sipping on a cup of steaming coffee. Brandishing his cup, he called out, "Right on time, Mr. Tanner. Would you care for some coffee before we begin?"
Vin reached behind him and pulled out an enormous thermos. "Got it covered. You all set?"
"Just let me grab my things," Ezra agreed, running inside to make sure everything was shut off before reemerging with his belongings. As he hefted a large red backpack into the back of Vin's vehicle, he smiled, wondering what the other men on his team would say if they could see him. There was nothing fancy or stylish about Ezra P. Standish today. He had dressed in a comfortable pair of jeans, hiking boots, a warm if slightly faded sweatshirt and a wool and suede letterman-style jacket so well worn that the leather in both sleeves had begun to crack and fade. It was clothing that he loved; but had never worn where there was any chance of being seen by someone he worked with. Until today.
Vin gave him a nod of approval but said nothing about his appearance as Ezra climbed into the passenger seat of his jeep. "You had breakfast?" Vin asked, as he pulled out of the driveway and hit his turn signal in preparation to pull onto the main road.
Ezra rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and pulled forth an apple. "As promised on the phone, fresh fruit."
"Gonna need something a little more substantial than that," Vin scoffed. "Itís two hours up to the cabin, then a good half hourís walk to the lake. That little bitty apple ainít gonna hold you for long."
Unsure if he was being chided or if the other man was simply dropping a hint, he asked, "What do you suggest?"
"I always stop at a place called ĎThe Log-Jamí when Iím heading out this way. Plenty of food and a fair price. Itís about a half mile out past Chrisí place. He took me in there the first time we went campiní together and told me to order up a plate of their world-famous pancakes."
"Worth the boastful reputation, I take it?"
Licking his lips in memory, Vin said, "You betcha. I couldíve eaten them things all day if I hadnít got so stuffed. So, what do you say?"
Ezra had already decided to let Vin call the shots, in deference to his graciousness in allowing last-minute company, but he pretended to think it over. "Is this the restaurant that Buck talks about? The one he claims has cinnamon rolls as big as his head?"
Enthusiastically, Vin nodded. "Thatís the place."
"Well, then, how can I refuse? Such a phenomenon must surely be witnessed in person to be believed, particularly considering the size of Mr. Wilmingtonís cranium."
"Iím gonna tell him you said that."
Ezra grinned wickedly. "Iím counting on it."
By the time the two men left the restaurant and resumed their journey, Ezra felt as though he might never need to eat again. "Dear Lord, I cannot believe that was the half-sized serving of biscuits and gravy," he groaned. "They could have fed half the county with that order!"
Vin laughed softly. "I warned you, and it ainít like you had to eat every bite. You couldíve stopped at any time."
"I was raised to avoid the practice of wasting food."
"Children starviní in Africa?"
"I believe it was China, but that was the gist of the argument, yes."
They grinned at each other. "Your mother?" Vin asked.
"Aunt," Ezra replied shortly. "You?"
"Foster mom," he replied. "Wash behind your ears, brush your teeth before bed, say your prayers and clean your plate Ďcause there are children starviní in Africa whoíd be glad to have it."
Ezra snorted. "Do you suppose weíll ever say things like that to our own children, should we happen to have any?"
"I Ďspect. Think itís some kind of preprogrammed instinct that kicks in as soon as you have a kid."
"Even if the child is not yours," Ezra agreed. "This particular aunt was no blood relation and had no children of her own, but she was a virtual treasure-trove of parental mores. I can recall being told that Iíd go blind by sitting too close to the television, deaf from listening to my radio at the volume I found acceptable, and that my features would become stuck in a grotesque pattern if I continued to make faces behind her back. This worried me somewhat when I was nine years old, but as Iíve managed to reach maturity without finding myself blind, deaf or disfigured, I must conclude that such advice is somewhat lacking in accuracy."
Vin snickered. "Lucky us."
For several miles they drove in companionable silence, watching the surrounding scenery grow more lush and green as the city of Denver fell behind them.
"Beautiful," Ezra said softy, watching pink and gold light fill the eastern sky. "I donít often get to see the sunrise."
"Not even when youíre on a case and donít have a choice about sleepiní late?"
Ezra shook his head. "Assignments like that donít usually allow for such luxuries as stopping to admire the majesty of nature."
"Ought to make the time now and then," Vin told him quietly. "Itís worth it."
Ezra sighed contentedly. "Perhaps I should. Itís good to do something different once in a while."
"That why you changed your mind about coming with me? You figured you felt like trying something different?"
"Something like that," he agreed. Again, silence reigned for a minute, then hesitatingly he asked, "Have you ever had a dream so strong, or so strange, that you couldnít ignore what it was telling you?"
Vin looked at him probingly. "A time or two. Always figured those kind of dreams were the spirit talkiní louder than the brain, and that I ought to pay attention for my own good." Smiling a little, he teased, "Your spirit dream told you to go fishiní?"
"I suppose that does sound rather ridiculous," Ezra admitted, avoiding looking the other man in the face. Spoken out loud, the admission that he had followed the urgings of a dream and hared off on a weekend of outdoor adventure seemed completely absurd.
Seeming to sense his concern, Vin tapped him on the chest with the back of his right hand. "Hell, I donít think itís so ridiculous. Wish more of my dreams were like that! You imagine what Chris would say if I were to call him up some morning and say, ĎSorry, Cowboy. I canít come in to work today Ďcause my dreams tell me the trout are bitiní. See ya next week.í?"
Ezra grinned. "You ought to try that some morning. Just be sure and give me enough advance warning to have a camera ready to catch his expression."
Vin threw his head back and laughed. "Deal!"
They reached the cabin just after eight a.m. Ezra was rather pleased with the accommodations once he got a look inside. The log cabin was worn and rough looking on the outside and he had steeled himself for a dank, insect-riddled hellhole. Instead, while rustic, the interior was pleasantly neat and cozy. It consisted of a single large room with wide bunk mattresses on either side, a small kitchen area off to one side, and a large fireplace dominating the center of one wall, before which sat a rough-hewn wooden table and a couple of worn but comfortable-looking armchairs.
"Great, huh?" Vin gloated, looking around the cabin with satisfaction as he tossed his duffel bag onto one bunk and placed Ezraís pack on the table. "My friend Riley built this place about forty years ago. Heís too old to spend all his time out in the woods these days, so heís taken to renting it out some weekends to friends. Keeps the place in good shape too."
"I can see that," Ezra said amiably. His amused tone caught Vinís attention and the long-haired man raised an inquiring eyebrow, inviting him to share the joke. "Riley is that rather enormous fellow with the Yeti-like hair and beard and the propensity for indulging in chewing tobacco, correct?"
Vin laughed. "Yeah, thatís him. You only met him one time, Iím surprised you remember."
"He makes a rather lasting impression," Ezra said wryly. "Between the tobacco stains in his beard and the fact that he ignored my offered handshake in favor of nearly squeezing me to death in his anaconda-like embrace, I highly doubt I shall ever forget him. On some level, I suppose I must have remembered that it was his cabin you and Mr. Larabee had chosen for your fishing expedition this weekend."
"Reckon so," Vin agreed, grinning at Ezraís description. "Riley and me were in the Army together. I was a green recruit and he was neariní retirement as a top-kick sergeant, but we got along real well right from the get-go. He used to tell me stories about his life back in Colorado, and I guess that was part of the reason I decided to give this place a try."
"Did you introduce your friend to Mr. Larabee, or was it the other way around?" Ezra asked curiously.
"I recommended Riley when Chris was lookiní for somebody to come around the ranch and help out with his stock last year. Manís a wizard when it comes to horses. It was just luck that he happened to still be liviní around this area."
Ezra gave him a bland smile. "They do say that fortune favors the foolish."
"That why youíre such a lucky son of a bitch?" Vin shot back with a grin, flipping Ezraís pack at him. "Címon, weíd best get going towards the lake. This nice weather ainít gonna hold all day and I donít want to get wet unless itís to wade in and wrestle one of them fish out with my bare hands."
Ezra chuckled. "Surely youíre joking. Itís a beautiful spring day. Hardly a cloud in the sky."
"Itíll rain, I guarantee it. Probably not Ďtil late afternoon though."
Though Ezra had his doubts about the accuracy of Vinís meteorological skills, he decided not to take any chances. Pulling his coat back on, he grabbed the fishing pole Vin had loaned him and the tin of cookies he had brought along. It never hurt to be prepared. "Letís be on our way then."
Soon, Vin was tromping through the woods with complete confidence in his route while Ezra trailed a few yards behind him, intent on keeping up but deliberately lagging far enough behind to admire the scenery. Contrary to popular belief, Ezra did not hate spending time outdoors. He found a certain degree of enjoyment in fresh air, exercise and the beautiful sights that Mother Nature had to offer. He simply preferred to choose for himself when and to what degree he came into contact with those things.
They had been walking for nearly forty five minutes and Ezra was beginning to wonder just how much of a hike Vin planned to subject him to when they came to a clearing. Just beyond the edge of the tree line lay a small lake, its waters stirring faintly in the soft breeze, causing sparkles of sunlight to dance on the surface.
"This is a lovely place," Ezra said sincerely. "It doesnít even seem as though it should be here, just tucked away in the woods like an unexpected piece of paradise."
Vin smiled in pleasure at the approving comment. "I felt that way too when I first saw it. Rileyíd told me there was a lake and several small ponds tucked up in these woods, but he hadnít told me exactly where. Iíd come up here to do some backpacking one weekend, was just climbing up a slope around the other side figuring to cut through this way before heading back to the cabin, and here it was."
"So you had the joy of discovery as well as the pleasure of this sight," Ezra said. "Very fine indeed. So, what do you say we find out whether or not there are, in fact, fish within the boundaries of this promising little body of water."
"Oh, thereís fish all right. Chris caught him a real whopper the last time we came up. It was so big even Buck couldnít beat it with one of his best stories."
Ezra laughed, settling down on a sun warmed patch of grass and helping himself to a cookie before offering one to Vin and setting the tin between them for easy access. "It sounds as though you must have been expecting Jonah himself to pop out of the beastís mouth."
Now Vin chuckled. "Well, maybe it was a mite smaller than that, but pretty damn close. We took it back to the ranch and Chris dressed it out and invited the rest of the guys over for a fish-fry that night. Every single man of us ate like kings off of that beauty."
The small regretful sigh that met this statement had Vin looking curiously over at his companion.
Ezra saw the look and said, "Sounds enjoyable. I rather wish I had been there. Was this before I joined the team, or simply one of the many times I was elsewhere while the rest of you were enjoying your leisure time together?"
Vin took a moment to digest the acerbic question, readying his line and casting it out into the water while he considered. "It was last fall. You hadnít joined us yet. Neither had JD or Josiah, so it was just four of us then. You know you wouldíve been welcome to join us if youíd been around, right?"
Ezra looked out at the water and shrugged one shoulder. "I suppose."
Vin put down his pole to give the other man his full attention. "Whatís eatiní you, Ezra?"
"What ever do you mean?"
He shifted a bit closer, forcing Ezra to look at him. "I mean that you been acting downright crabby lately. First youíre annoyed when we invite you to do things, then youíre irritated when we donít. You turned down my offer to come out here cold, then you did a 180 and called up in what youíd usually consider the middle of the night to ask if you could join me. Now youíre mad because you know that the rest of usíve been doiní stuff together before you even knew us?"
A flush had crept up Ezraís neck at the accusation and he once more looked away. Had he really been so obvious? "I apologize, Mr. Tanner," he said stiffly. "I had no right to be churlish. I should not have been irritated with any of you when you were only attempting to be friendly."
Laying a hand on his shoulder, Vin told him, "Donít apologize. Just tell me whatís goiní on in that head of yours."
Ezra found himself struggling to maintain the bland disinterested attitude he had long ago mastered to keep other people from intruding on his private thoughts and emotions. He was shocked by how strongly Vinís encouraging tone was giving him the desire to, as JD would undoubtedly phrase it, Ďspill his gutsí.
Tanner waited him out patiently, averting his gaze to stare out at the water and give the other man a moment to collect his thoughts. His patience was rewarded when Ezra suddenly raked a hand through his hair, blew out a frustrated breath and began to speak.
"I really donít know whatís bothering me. Itís just---lately Iíve been having the oddest impulse to accept all those offers you and the others are always making to socialize with you outside of work. Even the activities Iím truly not interested in! Iíve found myself on the verge of attending brainless action movies, mind-numbing philosophy lectures, monster-truck rallies and all manner of other loathsome events. Last week I even came alarmingly close to allowing Mr. Wilmington to brainwash me into going on a blind date with him and his femme du jour."
"The olí distract the roommate with fresh meat while Buck sneaks off for some mattress-danciní ploy?" Vin said knowingly. "I been the bait in one of them traps too. Scary, ainít it?"
"Horrifying," Ezra agreed heartily, relaxing a little at the joke. "I fell victim to his wheedling ways not long after I moved to Denver. Spent an entire evening trying to fend off some cross-eyed octopus in a dress while Buck enjoyed his evening elsewhere in the company of her roommate, a young woman who had the appearance of a Barbie doll and the apparent IQ of a turnip."
"Well, Buckís a mighty persuasive man sometimes," Vin laughed. "Especially when you donít know him too well. The fact that you almost went for round two is a little scary, though. As for all them other things, it sounds to me like maybe you just been keepiní to yourself too much lately. You really should go out and do stuff with the rest of us, Ez. Youíre more than welcome. We donít bite, yíknow, and it ainít like youíre gonna lose that mile-wide independent streak of yours if you give in and let us be your friends."
When Ezra looked up in surprise, Vin nodded. "Thatís it, ainít it? I kinda wondered if thatís why you kept turning us down."
Ezra stared at him for a long time, then hesitated a moment before saying, "I told you earlier that Iíd had a dream last night?" At Vinís encouraging nod, he went on. "In it, for the first time since Iíve known you all, everyone had plans that I found enticing. And also for the first time, I was completely unwelcome in all of those plans. I had become less than an afterthought to you all, a joke really. And---and I knew it was my own fault. When I woke up, for a moment I was unsure whether it had been real or a figment of my imagination. I only knew that I did not want it to be true."
"So you called me?" Ezra nodded, clearly embarrassed by the admission. Vin nudged him and gave him a grin. "And has it been such a bad deal so far?"
"Iím having a good time," he said quietly.
"Good. Try and remember that the next time around. We ainít gonna let you down, Ezra. You can trust us all to be straight with you, and you can feel free to be just as straight with us about what you want, whether that means you do want to hang out with us or you donít."
For a few seconds, Ezra was silent, turning the statement over in his mind. Then he said, "You know, Mr. Larabee is right about you." At Vinís raised eyebrow, he said solemnly, "You really do have a way of cutting through the crap."
For a moment, Vin was startled. Then he caught the twinkle of humor in Ezraís green eyes and both men started to chuckle.
"All righty then. Now we got that settled, what do you say the last one of us to catch a fish cleans the whole mess?" Vin wagered, stuffing two more cookies into his mouth and picking up his pole once again.
Feeling a tug at the end of his freshly baited line, Ezra grinned. "That, sir, is a bet."
Vin and Ezra had been sitting next to the sun-dappled lake for nearly three hours, relaxed and lazy as they enjoyed the warm idyllic morning, sharing sporadic bursts of conversation and the rest of Mrs. Prescottís chocolate chip cookies. Ezra had made the first catch of the day and was thereafter content to just float his line and let Vin worry about capturing dinner. If any other fish happened to take an interest in his line, he would pull them in but it wasnít important that they do so. He was happy with his one good-sized catch, comfortably smug in the knowledge that he would not have to clean anything they captured, however many that happened to be.
Ezra had nearly fallen asleep on the warm grassy bank when the first drop of icy rain hit him square in the middle of his forehead. He sat up with a squawk of indignation that was echoed by Vin as the rain began to fall in earnest.
Even though he had predicted precipitation before the afternoon was out, Vin was shocked by the suddenness of its arrival. In one moment the sky was clear and bright. In the next, the sunlight disappeared like a doused candle flame and huge cold drops of water began to pelt down upon them.
"Dang it, give a man some warning next time!" Vin barked at the sky, hurrying to load supplies back into his knapsack and shooting a malevolent glare upwards as he rushed to tie the string of four lake trout he and Ezra had caught between them.
"Good Lord, I have never seen a storm gather so quickly," Ezra gasped, jerking the cuffs of his jeans down and quickly pulling on the boots and socks he had removed to dabble his feet in the cool lake. Stuffing the last of his possessions into his pack, he threw his jacket on and scrambled up the bank into the woods right behind Vin.
Ezra had experienced his fair share of cloudbursts back in the south, often catching an impressive show of thunder and lightning as a bonus, but this was ridiculous! Each drop of rain that fell seemed to originate from a thimble-sized bucket, cold and harshly driven by the now howling wind, and within seconds both he and Vin were soaked to the skin. Water streamed in rivulets from their hair and down their clothing, splashing over their faces and bodies as they made for the safety of the cabin.
Slipping and sliding the two men ran, trying to ignore the branches slapping at them and the increasingly muddy ground that alternately sucked at their boots or seemed to slide right out from under them. The rain continued to slash down with driving force as the angry wind pushed and pulled. It grew steadily more difficult to made any progress as the ground quickly became a sucking morass of mud and the wind shifted again and again, propelling them forward, slapping them from side to side, then pushing straight back into their faces like a giant unseen hand.
"I never seen anything like this!" Vin shouted, straining to make himself heard over the crashing force of the storm. "We canít be far from the cabin but I can hardly see where Iím goiní! Donít think we can risk going any further until this slows up or weíre gonna get turned around for sure!"
"Perhaps we can find some other shelter!" Ezra shouted back. Knowing it was futile; he wiped the streaming water away from his face as he stopped to look around. The black clouds overhead had grown impossibly thicker and darker, making the time seem more like midnight than not yet noon. "I canít see a Goddamned thing in this!"
"Hang on a second while I dig out my flashlight."
Ezra doubted that would help very much but he refrained from saying so. The force of the wind increased and the ground grew steadily more saturated. The temperature had begun to plummet as well, and Ezra hunched down into his coat as far as he could manage in an attempt to escape the foul weather.
"Hold on, I almost got it," Vin told him, cursing quietly at himself for having shoved his light down into the bottom of his pack in his hurry to get everything inside.
"Take your time," Ezra replied sarcastically, shivering against a pool of cold water that chose that moment to roll over his collar and down the back of his neck.
In his misery with the weather conditions, Ezra never noticed the state of the tree he chose to brace himself against while waiting for Vin. He could not see that it was settled on a slope, appearing as tall and strong as any of those surrounding it, but possessing roots that were only half buried in the earth.
The precariously positioned trunk was no match for the sudden force of a one hundred sixty pound adult male throwing himself against it in a show of disgust with the world.
Vinís head whipped around at Ezraís shout of alarm, turning just in time to see the great tree Ezra was leaning against suddenly rip itself out of the ground, crashing backward and pulling the southerner off his feet. Tree and human seemed to move in a strange slow-motion dance as the muddy ground beneath them churned and slid, not giving the frantically groping man anything solid to brace himself against. The roots threw clumps of soil up into the air, pelting Vin with mud as he scrambled forward, trying desperately to reach Ezra.
For a moment, their fingers touched, and then the last of the treeís roots ripped free, sending Ezra Standish tumbling down the hillside.
"Shit! Ezra, hang on, Iím cominí!" Vin shouted, running back to his abandoned pack and thrusting a hand inside. Not caring now how much of a mess he made, Vin flung his fishing equipment and other possessions to one side as he reached for the light and a length of strong rope. Quickly but carefully tying one end of the rope to the trunk of a still-solid tree flanking the area where the fallen one had been, he grabbed his flashlight and scurried down the slippery hillside as fast as he could manage.
Ezra had disappeared from sight as the tree rolled and slid to the bottom and Vin shouted his name repeatedly as he descended. "Ezra!" Vin called again as he reached the upended roots. "Címon, talk to me! Where the hell are ya?"
There was no answer and for a long terrible moment, Vin feared that his friend might be dead, crushed beneath the weight of the fallen tree. Then he heard a soft moan coming from the opposite side of the thick trunk.
"Thank God," Vin huffed, scrabbling over the broken, rain-drenched branches to reach the other man. For a moment, he still did not see anything as he moved the flashlight beam slowly over the ground.
Another muffled groan drew his attention closer to the tree and Vin sucked in a breath, realizing that his initial fear was not far off base. He could make out a hand, an arm and a thatch of wet hair, but nothing more. The rest of Ezraís body was trapped beneath the tree.
"Jesus," he muttered, scooting further down so that he could lay a hand on Ezraís shoulder. "Iím here, Ez. I gotcha."
At the touch, Ezra flinched, then carefully twisted his head away from the trunk so that he faced outward. Finding himself staring at a pair of mud-caked boots, he blinked slowly and frowned, straining to lift his head high enough to see his companionís face.
Vin was relieved by the effort. If Ezra could lift his head then maybe his spine was undamaged. Hunkering down so that Ezra could see him better, he asked, "You all right? How you feeling?"
Ezra seemed to consider the question quite seriously before he replied, "Flat?" Vin smiled at the questioning tone of his voice, prompting Ezra to add, "Did I just---get assaulted---by a tree?"
"Looked like it," Vin told him, using his fingertips to lightly brush some of the mud and debris away from his friendís face. "Reckon you mustíve pissed it off somehow."
Ezra did not answer, only gasped a bit and let his head flop back down to the muddy ground as the strain of trying to hold his neck at such an unnatural angle became too much.
"Tell me whatís goiní on with you, Ezra," Vin ordered. "I canít see most of you, so youíll have to give me some clues."
For a moment both men were silent as Ezra took stock of his body, the only sound in the woods the steady beat of raindrops on the surrounding leaves and the howl of the wind. If there was one positive in the situation it was that the canopy of trees far above their heads prevented the worst of the weather from reaching them.
Finally, Ezra spoke again. "I think---my right leg---may be broken."
"Damn. What else?" Vin persisted.
Ezra drew in a sharp breath, eyes opening wide with a sudden shock of pain as he attempted to shift. "Ribs. I can move---just a little, but it---hurts!"
Noticing that Ezraís free hand had begun to flutter and clench nervously, Vin reached out and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Try to keep still, Ez, youíre doiní good. Keep talkiní to me. I want to try and move you but it might not be a good idea until I can be sure how much damage you got under there. Donít want to make the situation worse."
The suggestion prompted a far different response than Vin was expecting. Instead of resuming his physical inventory, Ezra suddenly panicked. Jerking his hand free from Vinís light grasp, he began to twist and fight against the weight pressing down on him, gritting his teeth and shutting his eyes against a few tears of pain that began to trickle down his muddy cheeks as he struggled. "Vin---itís---crushing me!" he gasped. "Canít---breathe!"
"Ezra, go easy! You got to stop moving around! Iíll help ya, but you need to stay calm," Vin ordered, succeeding only with difficulty in keeping his own voice steady. Clamping Ezraís shoulder to the ground with a bit more force than he had intended, he said, "Itís okay, Ezra. Itíll be okay."
Ezra tried once again to wriggle free, moving far more weakly this time. Craning his neck in an attempt to once again see Vinís face, he begged breathlessly, "Please---get it---off!"
Dropping low to the ground, Vin shifted to place one of his hands on Ezraís head, tightly squeezing his flailing hand in the other, knowing that the other man needed as much human contact as he could get right now.
"Calm down, partner," he ordered, gazing squarely into Ezraís wild green eyes. "The treeís not moving. Itís pressiní on you and I know that has to be mighty uncomfortable but it ainít gonna crush you. This soft ground has enough give in it to cushion you some. As for the rest, I can only imagine how awful it must feel to be lyiní there hurt with a mouthful of mud and some goddamned overgrown toothpick leaniní on you, but you gotta try and take it easy. Hear me?"
As Vin continued to speak in soft even tones, Ezra stopped struggling. He swallowed harshly and nodded his head in a single quick jerk; eyes squeezing shut as he attempted to gather his emotions together. His hand was gripping Vinís tightly enough to hurt, but the long-haired man made no protest.
"Good, thatís real good," Vin told him. "Now I want you to take some real easy breaths, slow in and slow out. Just concentrate on getting some air and donít worry if itís not as easy as usual. Just breathe, Ezra. Nice and steady; thatís it."
Finally, Ezra reopened his eyes, the fear in them having subsided to a manageable level. Quickly releasing Vinís hand, he croaked, "Sorry."
Patting him lightly on the back of his shoulder, Vin said reassuringly, "Nothiní to be sorry about. Iíd be pretty riled up in your place myself. Now you just take it easy and Iíll see about findiní a way to get you freed. Once I get this tree up off you, weíll get ourselves out of here and be back home in time for supper."
"Not thí fish," Ezra murmured softly. "Doní really---like fish."
Startled by the comment, Vin barked a laugh. "You telliní me that you been catchiní trout with me all morning and you donít even like Ďem? What the hell did you do it for then?"
"Good compíny," Ezra said vaguely, jerking his head and blinking as his eyelids began to slide closed against his will.
"Well, I appreciate the flattery but I think youíre just sayiní that because youíre afraid youíll have to eat my cookiní," Vin said lightly.
Ezraís right cheek creased up with a slight smile. "Caught me." Glancing around, he squinted at the surrounding foliage, frowning in confusion. "Dark already?"
Worried, Vin sat up and retrieved his flashlight from the ground next to him. Lightly gripping the back of Ezraís head, he shone the light into his eyes in an attempt to gauge the size of his pupils.
Ezra weakly pushed the flashlight away, whining, "Quit it!"
"Think youíre goiní into shock here, buddy," Vin told him, letting go. Glancing at his hand, Vin froze as the beam of light touched it. His palm was stained bright red where it had been in contact with Ezraís scalp. In the dim light and rain he hadnít been able to see or feel the blood. "Shit. Looks like you bashed your head on the way down, Ez. Youíre bleediní some."
Ezra swiped at his cheek, smearing the mud and the remnants of tears. "íM a mess," he said unhappily.
"Yeah, Iím afraid that about sums it up," Vin agreed. "I gotta get you out of here pronto. Now, you said you think your leg and maybe some ribs are busted, so once I figure out how to get this tree out of the way, we still got to find a good way to get you back up to level ground."
Not entirely sure what Ezra was referring to, Vin asked, "Arenít we what?"
"Nah, you used that tree like a big olí sled. Slid straight down into a gully that I hadnít even known was back here."
Ezra sighed, wincing a little. He considered this news for a moment, visibly struggling to put his thoughts in order then said, "Donít sípose---service."
"What are you talkiní---?" Vin said, then stopped, realizing what Ezra was referring to even as he formed the question. "Aw, shit! Why didnít I think of that?"
Letting go his grip on Ezra he began to pat frantically at his jacket. He couldnít believe he had forgotten all about his cellular phone! Fumbling the device out of his inside pocket, he flipped it open and stared at the display. A grin slowly spread across his face. "Well, Iíll be damned. Itís mighty weak but it looks like we got a signal!"
Only a vague Ďmmmí noise came in reply
Knowing that his reception would be better higher up, Vin debated the wisdom of climbing back up to the trail to call for help. He did not want to leave Ezra alone, but time was against them. The longer his friend lay trapped, the greater the danger to his life. He was bleeding from at least one wound and God only knew how much worse the damage was to the rest of his body. The break to his leg could have come through the skin, or his ribs could be in danger of puncturing a lung. Hell, he could have internal injuries and not even know it.
Suddenly, Ezra gave a groan and his head began to loll forward, moving his face closer to the ground. Vin made a frantic grab for him, knowing that if Ezra passed out he could easily drown in the shallow pool of muddy water that had formed beneath his cheek.
Ezra jerked at the touch, gasping and coughing as he sucked in some of the debris, groaning in renewed agony at the sharp movements.
"I got no choice," Vin said to himself. Using his flashlight, he looked around for something to use as a temporary headrest for Ezra while he climbed up the hill. Just as he had decided that he would have to use his jacket, the edge of the beam caught a flash of red. Ezra had lost his backpack on the way down!
Taking the risk of leaving his friendís side for a moment, Vin leapt over to grab the pack, practically ripping it open in his haste. The bag itself was too big to use for a pillow given Ezraís limited ability to move or lift his head. Inside, however, Vin hit the jackpot. Ezra had brought along a fleece blanket against the possibility of chilly weather. It, like everything else the two men carried, was damp but it was still drier than his own sopping jacket, as well as being soft and comparatively warm. Padded around the small flat tin that the cookie-supply had been in, it would be high enough off the ground to keep Ezraís face out of the mud and there would be enough of the blanket left over to tuck around the exposed portion of his visibly shivering body.
"Hey, Ez," he said, shaking the injured manís shoulder gently. Ezraís drooping eyelids fluttered back open. "Listen, I got to go back up the hill and call for some help. Iím gonna have to leave you for a few minutes, but I give you my word Iíll come right back. You understand?"
"Stopped raininí," he mumbled. "Gíon."
"Yeah, youíre right. The rainís gone," Vin said, having barely even noticed that the storm had ended.
Ezra grimaced in irritation. "Not gone. Go on."
Vin was pleased by the small show of spirit. Hoping that Ezraís correction meant he wasnít down for the count just yet, he rapidly tucked the blanket in place. "Be back as soon as I can," he promised, then ran back to the rope and began to climb.
Getting back up the slope proved to be somewhat more difficult than going down it had been. Streams of runoff water from the trees continued to fall, making the hill slippery and difficult to navigate, but Vinís determination kept him going.
When he finally reached the top and looked back down he let go a soft curse. From up here his friend was completely invisible beneath the tree, and a look overhead proved that the canopy of trees was too thick to allow the possibility of the chopper heíd been hoping to request. The enormous blades of a helicopter would never be able to land safely in this spot. They would most likely have to set down in the clearing where the cabin was. Paramedics would probably need someone to lead them back to the scene of the accident if they were to make good time too. Even if he were to run all the way to the cabin and made good time coming back, it would probably still take at least an hour to bring help. How could he leave Ezra alone for that long, hurt as he was?
"Fuck!" Vin shouted, venting his frustration. The exclamation seemed to echo in the quiet woods and he again looked guiltily down into the gully. If Ezra was still conscious, the last thing he needed was to share his rescuerís feeling of hopelessness.
Well, standing here doing nothing wasnít helping anyone, he decided. He would just have to make the call and hope for the best.
It took a few extra minutes of walking before Vin was able to find a clear enough area so that his phone reception would not cut in and out. He and Chris had both put the park rangerís office on speed-dial as a precaution when theyíd begun to come up this way often, and though neither had ever needed to use the service before, both believed in being prepared.
"Címon, címon, pick up, damn it," he muttered as the phone rang, then rang again. Finally on the third ring a voice answered, a woman identifying herself as Cooper. Vin blew out a relieved breath. "Ranger Cooper, my nameís Vin Tanner. My friend and I were hiking up the trail from Pointe Lake when a big rainstorm hit the area. We were running for shelter and my friend took a bad tumble. Heís trapped at the bottom of a gully with a tree on top of him and heís hurt bad. I didnít want to try and move the tree without knowiní for sure how much damage it did."
The voice on the other end asked for details about the injuries and location of the accident, agreeing with Vinís assessment that leaving Ezra and the tree where they were had been very sensible under the circumstances.
"The trailís marked pretty clear from the cabin where weíre stayiní but the place is tucked up kinda snug in these woods and not so easy to see," Vin explained. "Itís in a clearing on the north edge of the foothills, about a mile and a half off of mile-marker 63 and-"
He stopped when the woman interrupted to ask if he was referring to Yosemite Rileyís place.
"Yes maíam," he said in surprise.
She assured him that with that information she would be able to send a medivac chopper out. It seemed that Riley, unbeknownst to Vin, had been a search and rescue volunteer at the ranger station for a number of years, with his cabin offered up as a checkpoint. Ranger Cooper advised that it might take some time for help to reach him as a lot of damage calls were flooding in after the brief but violent storm. Vin readily agreed to leaving a clear marker on the trail where the accident had occurred, glad to know that he would not have to leave Ezra alone until someone arrived.
As soon as the call disconnected, Vin grabbed the rope and scrambled back down the slope, retrieving Ezraís red backpack and hauling himself back up once again to place it prominently on the trail. He wished he had thought to grab a couple of the road flares he habitually kept in the back of his jeep, but this would have to do.
He paused a moment as his eye landed on the fishing gear and their abandoned catch lying filthy and forgotten on the ground, wondering regretfully how a day that had started out so terrific could have gone wrong so quickly. Damn.
Slipping and sliding back down the gully for a third time, Vin skidded to his knees in the mud next to Ezra and placed a hand on his arm. Ezra did not respond to the touch, but the blanket had done its job keeping his face out of the murky standing water and he was breathing shallowly but steadily.
For a moment, Vin debated. As long as Ezra was unconscious he could remain pleasantly unaware of his situation. On the other hand, there was no way to know how bad the injury to his head might be and it could be very dangerous to allow him to sleep in that condition.
Decision made, Vin once again shook the other man awake. "Ezra? Come on back, buddy. We need to keep talkiní for awhile."
Ezra grimaced, coughing a little and groaning as the motion shook his battered body. "Doní wanna talk," he grumbled.
Uncaring of the mud that squelched beneath his body, Vin adopted a side reclining position, propping himself on one elbow so that he could look into Ezraís glazed eyes. "Now that ainít the Ezra Standish I know," he said lightly. "Ainít you the guy who claims that thereís never a bad time to hold a civilized conversation?"
"Never happened---bífore," Ezra replied crossly, sounding slightly more alert.
Encouraged by the response, Vin pretended to be insulted. "You sayiní Iím not civilized?"
Ezra smiled slightly. "No. Just---non-conversant."
"True enough, I guess," Vin chuckled. "Iím williní to make an exception, though. Need to keep you awake until help arrives. Our options for entertainment are kinda limited, so I figure we might as well talk awhile."
Unable to stop himself, Ezra tried to shift his position but quickly stopped, his face going pale and tense as he gave a small gasp. "How---long?"
Vin did not want to give him a time estimate to worry over, knowing that every minute already had be crawling by with agonizing slowness. "As long as it takes."
Taking a chance that Ezra was asking for information and not offering a plea, Vin told him, "Rangers are sending a medical team up to the cabin in a chopper. They know right where we are. Should be here in no time at all."
Closing his eyes, Ezra nodded shallowly. "Good," he breathed.
"Donít you fall back asleep now," Vin warned, shifting again to place one hand atop Ezraís head. The contact seemed to help him stay awake but Vin could not help wishing it was unnecessary when he saw the bunching of muscles in Ezraís jaw and realized that he was clenching his teeth against pain. "Your leg feeliní worse?"
"On fire," he agreed, swallowing hard. "Entire---body hurts, but---legís agony."
Short, panted replies were all that Ezra could manage. As the tree continued to press down on him it was becoming increasingly harder to draw normal breaths, even without his ribs protesting every single one. His head was throbbing and dizzy, and though he had not told Vin, he was growing increasingly worried about his left side. The arm, leg and pretty much everything in between was numb; leaving Ezra with the peculiar sensation that everything left of his backbone had been disconnected. That was why he had panicked a little while ago, and why he was struggling mightily to keep from giving a repeat performance now. What if the tree had crushed his body past repair? Would he be paralyzed? Require amputation of the affected limbs? Would he die?
A soft animal-like moan escaped from Ezraís lips and Vin began instinctively to rub the tips of his fingers into his friendís scalp, offering what scant comfort he could. Ezra could not even drum up a hint of the resentment he would normally have felt at being handled like someoneís pet cat or dog. The touch was reassuring somehow. "Iím scared," he admitted, the words barely audible.
"I know," Vin told him. "Kinda feeliní that way myself, but this wonít last forever. Before you know it, weíll be out of here and youíll be fixed up and comfortable in a nice warm hospital bed."
Ezraís nose wrinkled in distaste. "Hate hospitals. Noisy---intrusive---foul-smelling places."
"Yeah, and they always got that same puke-green paint on the walls," Vin agreed amiably. "But theyíre cleaner than here, you gotta give Ďem that. Got good drugs and lots of doctors for you to order around."
A little snort was Ezraís only response to this, knowing perfectly well that Vin Tanner was the only member of their ATF team who hated hospital stays even more than he did.
"Not convincin' you, huh? Well, there's always a chance to flirt with all them pretty nurses. Even I like that part. Besides, just think what a great story this'll make to impress 'em with."
Ezra made a derisive noise. "Man fells---mighty oak---with one thrust of his---ass. Resulting in a---Jack and Jill---impersonation. Indeed. M-most impressive."
Surprised by the dry comment, Vin laughed. "Ain't so sure I like that comparison. Makes me Jill, don't it?" Ezra smiled, closing his eyes once more. Vin nudged him again and continued, "You got a point, though. Reckon youíll have to dress things up a little. You should ask Buck for pointers. When it comes to women, he can spin bullshit into gold better than anyone I ever met."
Ezra just blinked sluggishly. His previous quip seemed to have taken all the energy he had.
Vin wracked his brain for something else to talk about. Ezra seemed to be enjoying listening to his voice but was clearly beginning to struggle to pay attention. He needed to find something that would keep him awake and interactive.
His gaze fell upon the mud-caked sleeve of Ezraís jacket. "This for real?" he asked, plucking at the material to get the other manís attention. "A lettermanís jacket, I mean. I didnít see a letter, but it looks pretty old. You get it in school?"
Ezra stared at the sleeve for several seconds before replying, "High school. Removed thí letter. Looks better---without."
"You never struck me as a jock," Vin said, genuinely surprised. He had expected a negative answer; assuming that Ezra had just purchased the coat somewhere because he liked the way it looked or needed something for an undercover assignment. "What sport did you letter in?"
"Two," Ezra mumbled. "Swimming. Baseball."
Suddenly, Vin was glad he had chosen this particular topic. Not only did it seem to be working as a distraction; it was allowing him to find some unexpected common ground with his secretive companion. "Used to play a little myself. I was a damned good pitcher in my day. You?"
"Catcher," he replied. "Nobody---charged my base---without paying dearly."
That made sense, thought Vin. Ezra could be damned aggressive when it came to protecting anything he viewed as his own. "Bet you were a pretty mean batter too."
"Nnn-uh," he murmured negatively. "Too many---pop-flies."
Vin smiled. "Outfielderís dream, huh? How Ďbout the swimming then? What was your best event?"
"Four by---one hundred--- m-medley."
Ezraís breath caught on the final word and he spent several long agonizing seconds choking and coughing, trying desperately to stop himself as the pressure against his ribs grew excruciating and every jerk of his body seemed to send fresh spears of white-hot pain lancing through his right thigh.
"Ah---God," he moaned when the spell finally ended. Shifting his hand away from his mouth, where he had automatically placed it when he began to cough, Ezraís gaze fell upon his skin and froze. "Vin?"
Vinís eyes followed the path of Ezraís and he muttered, "Shit." Both the hand and Ezraís lips were darkly stained with blood.
There was no more conversation after that. Ezra was afraid to speak, concentrating all of his energy on breathing as normally as possible and not aggravating his lungs into another fit of coughing.
Vin understood and did not try to force him. Instead he redoubled his efforts to distract the injured man, reciting poetry, singing snatches of country music songs until Ezraís irritated glare made him stop, and generally prattling on about anything he could think of.
"I feel like I done used up an entire monthís worth of words today," he commented after a while, smiling to see amusement shining in Ezraís weary eyes. "Yíknow, Buck and Chris, JD and Nathan wouldnít believe I had it in me to ramble on about nothing for the best part of an hour. Josiah, though, heíd know better. Him and me got good and drunk together one eveniní and something he said started me spoutiní off like a live volcano. Donít exactly remember what it was all about, but that was probably the longest string of words Iíd ever put together at one time until right now."
Ezra did not answer, but reached over and gave Vinís wrist a weak squeeze, thanking him silently for his ongoing efforts.
"Least I couldÖ" Vin cut himself off, head snapping up sharply at the sound of a voice calling out from above. Jumping to his feet, he waved both arms and shouted. "Hey! Weíre down here! Hurry!"
From up the hill, someone shouted a reply and soon three people were climbing down using ropes to steady their descent. One man carried a large pack upon his back and balanced a medical kit in his hand, while another maneuvered a backboard and another large case. Vin moved back out of the way as the first paramedic knelt down next to Ezra, talking calmly to him as he checked vital signs, which were reported into a walkie-talkie.
The third rescuer, a tall black woman in a green uniform moved to Vinís side. "Iím Ranger Cooper, we spoke on the phone," she said briskly. "Weíve brought the parkís ATV to take you and your friend to the cabin. Thereís a chopper there waiting to transport you both to the nearest hospital."
"Thank you," Vin told her gratefully. "My friend started coughing up a little bit of blood about forty five minutes ago and I been real scared that he mightíve punctured a lung. Was getting worried you folks wouldnít reach us in time."
Cooper relayed this piece of information to the two paramedics. They nodded and the one nearest Ezra again spoke into his walkie-talkie. Vin watched as the men quickly deliberated on the safest way to remove the tree, then one reached into his pack and pulled out a light tarp. He spoke to Ezra for a moment, then placed the cloth over his face and the exposed part of his body.
Vin was about to protest this action when the other man removed the case he had carried down on his back and pulled out a chain saw. Cooper gestured Vin back while the others donned safety glasses, then she moved to help balance the weight of the tree away from Ezraís body so the third rescuer could cut through it in sections. Unable to stand back and do nothing, Vin quickly crossed around to the opposite side of Cooper and helped lift the thick trunk. The first paramedic began to protest but the second, a middle aged man with brown eyes that looked as though they had seen through centuries, looked Vin in the eye and just nodded, reaching into his pack for an extra pair of plastic goggles.
Four workers and the powerful saw made quick work of the fallen tree and within minutes the medics were bustling around Ezra, checking him carefully and cataloging each new injury and physical reaction. Soon, they had strapped all three of the previously trapped limbs into splints, carefully applying a neck brace before rolling Ezra gently over onto the backboard.
Vin had stepped back to allow the professionals to do their work but he craned his neck trying to watch Ezraís face. He had hoped that his friend would do as heíd been struggling not to do for the last hour and lose consciousness, but perversely, the southerner was now wide-awake. He held himself very still while the medics worked, but his green eyes were darting fearfully and his breathing was growing harsh and unsteady. The pain he felt was obvious and Vin knew that Ezraís inability to see him, to reassure himself that he had not been abandoned the moment someone else arrived to take charge, was only making things worse.
Ezra Standish valued his privacy more than most, but the men he worked with had quickly discovered that he also had an almost paranoid fear of abandonment that tended to surface most powerfully when he was sick or hurt. Vin had never asked questions, knowing that Ezra did his best to keep anyone from noticing, but he had often wondered whether the quality stemmed from too many years working undercover, the trouble Ezra had experienced in his final months with the FBI, or something left over from his childhood. It was probably a mixture of all three. All that mattered now, however, was that he do something before Ezra became completely overwhelmed.
Exchanging a quick glance with the older paramedic, Vin moved to Ezraís right side and clasped his free hand in both of his own. Meeting his eyes, he smiled. "You can take it easy now, Ez. Breathe nice and slow and steady, just like I told you before. Iím right here with you and Iím gonna stay until we reach the hospital. Iíd stay after that too, Ďcept you know how those folks can be. Theyíre most likely gonna kick me out and send me off to sign about a million and a half forms granting Ďem permission to give you the Frankenstein treatment."
Ezra calmed visibly as Vin continued to speak, even smiling a little at the last comment. "No bolts---Ďkay?" he whispered.
Vin gave him a grin. "Not a one. Theyíre just gonna fix you up as good as new." Noticing that Ezraís eyelids were beginning to droop as his adrenaline rush faded, he leaned closer and whispered. "Go on and rest now, Ezra. I ainít gonna abandon you, you got my word on it. When you wake up in the hospital, Iíll be there."
As Ezra lost his fight with consciousness, the paramedics hooked the backboard efficiently to the ropes they had lowered and gently guided it up the hill.
The first thing he noticed was the smell. A strange, sharp, antiseptic tang mixed with a softer and more pleasant odor of something else. Flowers, maybe? Yes, definitely flowers but he could not decide what type. Not roses, he thought, though maybe there was a hint of those. He hoped it wasnít orchids. Orchids made him sneeze.
It was incomprehensible. Hadnít he been out fishing? That might account for the presence of wild flowers, but there was no such thing as an antiseptic fish, was there? He would have to remember to ask Nathan.
And what was that noise! Surely that didnít belong around any lake or remote fishing cabin. Unless perhapsÖ The humming could be a generator. Vin had mentioned that the cabin had one to power the small microwave and refrigerator in the kitchen. He remembered now, and that made sense, but what about the beeping? There was a continuous sort of blip that sounded and resounded every couple of seconds. Perhaps Vin had forgotten to take something out of the microwave. He really should say something to him. It was rude to just leave it beeping all night.
He drifted for a few moments, lost in a soft haze filled with interesting smells and that odd continuous blip. Then, suddenly, he became aware of a new sensation Ė a most unpleasant one. He could not move! He tried but it seemed to be completely impossible to shift his body. That couldnít be right.
He frowned, disturbed by this new discovery, but somehow not quite able to summon up the energy to protest it.
Why couldnít he move?
Then he remembered. The tree! He was lying trapped beneath a tree that was slowly crushing him to death!
Vin! Where was Vin? Had the other man left him behind? Was he going to die alone, suffocated and smashed into the ground like a hapless insect?
Oh God, oh God, it couldnít end like this! He had to get out!
Vin sat up straight in his chair, the magazine he had been browsing falling to the floor forgotten as Ezra began to struggle against the tightly tucked covers of his hospital bed. A whimper that could have been either pain or fear escaped his throat as his right hand fought free of the bedding and formed a loose fist, as if he were trying to battle against some unseen foe.
Grabbing the flailing appendage in a tight grip, Vin scooted closer to the bed, hoping Ezra would wake before the rapidly beeping heart monitor could develop into a full-on shriek that would bring the doctors and nurses swarming in like an army of ants. Vin knew that a crowd, even a well-meaning group of medical professionals, would only increase Ezraís feeling of vulnerability if he were to wake up and find himself surrounded by them. He knew, because he would feel exactly that way himself and the more time he spent with Ezra, the more he realized that deep down they were not nearly as different as they seemed on the surface.
"Take it easy there, buddy. Iíve got you. Wake up now and take a look around. Youíre okay, Ezra."
Ezraís eyes opened, blinking slowly as he took in his surroundings. It was a long moment before he could focus on the man next to him. "Vin?" he croaked.
"Thatís right. Iím here, just like I said Iíd be. You didnít think Iíd gone and left you all alone, now did ya?"
Studying his face uncertainly, Ezra slowly shook his head. His voice sounded as rough as sandpaper as he asked, "Where?"
Ignoring the question for the moment, Vin retrieved the water glass he had left near the bed in anticipation of Ezraís awakening. "Here, have a sip of this," he said, guiding a straw to his lips. "The water probably ainít too cold anymore, itís been sittiní for quite awhile, but itís still good and wet."
Ezra seemed more intent on staring at him than in drinking any of the liquid being offered, but finally he seemed to notice the straw and took a brief pull, and then another longer one. Licking his lips, he sighed, his eyes tilting upward as the continuous beeping noise captured his attention. His eyes followed the path of the monitor wires and IV lines attached to his body and some of the nervous tension faded from his expression.
"Hospital," he said, thankful for the realization that his previous thoughts had been part of a dream. The rescue had been real and he was no longer trapped out in the cold and rain and mud, immobilized by a fallen tree.
Vin told him, "Thatís right. Youíre in a nice clean hospital, with lots of doctors and nurses and good strong painkillers, just like I promised you."
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment, allowing the relief of that news to wash over him, then his brow wrinkled with worry as it came to him that while the rest of his condition had been considerably improved, his body still felt almost entirely numb. Swallowing down the fear in his throat, he asked softly, "How am I?"
Understanding his meaning perfectly, Vin told him, "Not so great right now, but you didnít do anything you wonít recover from with a little time and effort."
Ezra nodded, recognizing the truth shining in Vinís eyes. Vin Tanner could never lie to him when he was looking him straight in the eyes. It was a quality that made him an easy mark when playing poker and a great comfort at times like this one. "Thank you," he said sincerely.
"Any time," Vin told him, knowing that the thanks for more than just that little bit of information. "So, do you want to know?"
Ezra started to draw a deep breath, then stopped, grunting softly in discomfort when he realized that he could not quite manage to do it. His hand pulled free from Vinís grasp and touched down gently over his ribcage, feeling the bandage around his midsection. "Tell me," he ordered.
"Well, for starters, you cracked a whole bunch of ribs. Three on the right side, four on the left and one of the right side ones broke all the way and managed to nick your lung. Thatís why you were spittiní blood for awhile. Lucky for you it didnít collapse your lung, it just bled in a little. The doctors patched you up real good, but I been keepiní an eye on you. Wanted to make sure you didnít accidentally twist around and mess everything up again."
Ezra paused, taking this information in, then asked, "What else?"
"Oh, plenty," Vin said ruefully. "Bruised one of your kidneys up, strained a bunch of muscles and you also managed to whack your head pretty good. It made you a little disoriented for awhile and required a few stitches back there to close the gash on your scalp but you somehow managed to avoid giviní yourself a real concussion. I told Nathan that when I called him last night and he said he was gonna give you a medal for beiní the first one of us all year who managed to bash the shit out of himself without causiní any brain damage!"
He chuckled at that and Ezra smiled in response. "A dubious accomplishment, I must say."
"Ainít it, though? Letís see," he paused a moment, mentally cataloging the list of injuries. "You got a compound fracture in your right femur, which means you wonít be walking much or driving for a couple of months and you managed to crack both the bones in your left forearm. You wrenched your left ankle too but it ainít broken. You should be able to get around on crutches as soon as all that other damage heals up a little. I think thatís about it."
Ezra looked down to confirm Vinís words, a small part of him still haunted by his fear down in the gully that his limbs might be damaged beyond saving. There were two reassuring lumps under the far end of the covers where his feet should be and his left arm was strapped down next to his side, presumably to keep it from resting atop his damaged ribs. It was encased from elbow to fingertips in a bright blue cast.
Vastly relieved but at the same time needing to make sure that Vin was telling him everything, he said, "My left side was completely numb. I couldnít feel any of this."
Vin nodded. "Paramedic told me that a knot in that damned tree trunk had been pushing into you in such a way that it blocked off a major nerve center. Made everything go dead and pinched a nerve in your back so bad that the docs actually had to give it a little shock to make it unclench. Youíre gonna be mighty sore for a while once they start cuttiní the medication back, but youíll be okay."
The drugs in his IV combined with the surge of relief he was experiencing made Ezra feel light-headed and a little woozy. Blinking rapidly, his eyes moved across the room and it occurred to him for the first time that he and Vin were alone. That was odd. The men he worked with had a habit of charging through hospital wards like a herd of stampeding buffalo when one of their own was hurt.
Even as he opened his mouth to ask, Ezra noticed that room was filled with flowers. So, he hadnít imagined that! The entire space seemed to be filled with vases, pots and baskets, each brimming over with blooms and greenery, the scent so powerful that he could detect it even with a nasal tube inserted in his nostrils to provide extra oxygen.
Vin noticed the direction of his gaze and grinned. "Oh, yeah, ainít they something? The rest of the guys werenít able to get out here right away and I think they felt kinda bad about it. Casey was with JD when I called him, and she and her aunt sent you that bunch of bright red carnations next to your bed. The card on them daisies over by the window came from the Sisters of Mercy mission, so I got to assume Josiah was behind that one, and those real good-smelliní things right next to Ďem are from Rain and Nathan. That mess of lilies that looks like somebody filched it out of a funeral home came from Chris just about an hour ago. Between you and me, I think his sisters bullied him into sending that, Ďcause Chris ainít really a flower kind of guy."
Ezra grinned, agreeing with the assessment. "And the rose wreath?" he asked, gesturing vaguely toward a huge horseshoe shaped assortment parked in the far corner. "Donít tell me itís from Buck."
"Nope, Buck said heíd be bringiní you something when he gets here that youíll like a whole lot better than flowers. Believe it or not, your ma sent that thing. Kinda looks like you just won the Kentucky Derby, donít it?"
"Indeed," Ezra murmured, shocked at the realization that enough people had been worried about him to make such a prominent show of sympathy. "When did Mother find out? How long have I been here?"
"Just since yesterday afternoon," Vin reassured him. "Itís only a little after 10-a.m. on Sunday right now. I expect Josiah called her, Ďcause that wreath showed up about an hour after I talked to him. He and Buck and JD and Nathan all said theyíd be here this afternoon. They wanted to come last night but I managed to convince Ďem that there wasnít much point in dropping everything to drive two hours just to sit in a waiting room doiní nothing all night. The doctor told me heíd be keepiní you sedated until this morning."
A small nod of approval greeted this decision. As much as part of him enjoyed the idea of everyone holding an all-night vigil on his account, a stronger part would have hated for them to do so, particularly when he would have been completely insensate to the gesture. It was quite enough that one of them had made that sacrifice. "You stayed in here all night?"
"Gave you my word Iíd be here when you woke up," Vin confirmed with a warm smile. "The doctor said I could stay if I promised to behave myself and not get in anybodyís way. Seemed fair enough. Thatís the argument I used on the rest of the guys, too. Said if I was to sic Buck and Nate and everyone on the staff here, theyíd kick us all out and weíd never get any news about ya."
Ezra smiled. His colleagues must have felt that one of their number keeping a round the clock guard over him was preferable to sitting supportive but uninformed out in the lobby. "How often have you had to give updates?"
"Every hour on the hour," Vin said, chuckling. "About like youíd expect. I had a hell of a time convincing Chris not to run out on whatís turned out to be kind of a family reunion back in Ohio. Told him if he did that and you found out about it, youíd lecture him Ďtil his ears fell off and then kick his ass from here to Cincinnati just as soon as you had a leg healed up well enough to do it."
Ezra gave a puff of laughter, clutching his tender ribs protectively as he did so. "That actually worked?"
"Well, it wouldnít have but his youngest sister convinced him to wait until tonight to fly home, like he originally planned to. I really gotta meet that woman some time. She must be hell on wheels if she can get Chris to back down when heís dead set on doing something."
"Most impressive," Ezra mumbled, yawning helplessly as his energy began to give out.
Vin patted him on the arm. "Get some sleep. Youíre gonna need your strength when the rest of the fellas arrive to cheer you up later."
Ezra could not even manage a retort as he succumbed to the pull of Morpheus, secure in the knowledge that he was on the mend, and that he would not have to go through his recovery alone.
Ezra had been laid up for two long weeks, but now freedom Ė or at least a change of scenery Ė was at hand and he was champing at the bit. He couldnít wait to go home; to eat food with actual flavor to it, sleep in a bedroom with comfortable furniture and an immunity to artificial lighting and intrusive medical personnel. He wanted his CD, DVD and book collections close at hand when he needed entertainment, and the freedom to make phone calls for as long as he pleased without being charged exorbitant amounts of money for doing so. Most of all, he wanted to be able to see his friends without feeling that he was causing them any great inconvenience.
Between the assorted broken bones and the damage to his lung and kidney, he had been unable to function with any sort of independence and it had been decided that he would have to remain in the hospital for a full two weeks. The distance of his current location from the vicinity of his home meant that it was not as easy as usual for his coworkers to drop in for a visit, but they had never left him alone all day, in spite of this fact. At least two had made the long drive every single day and Ezra could not find the words to express how much that generous gesture meant to him.
The prolonged rest had done Ezraís damaged body a world of good and he was mending quickly. His ribs still twinged with soreness whenever he did anything to jar them, such as laugh at the bizarre antics that Buck, JD and the others put on to entertain him, but it was now possible to draw deep breaths without breaking into a sweat at the pain it caused. Everything else was still sore and, in some cases, itchy but at least he was now awake often enough to notice.
The stitches had finally been removed from the back of his head this morning and that, to Ezra, was a clear sign that it was time to end his life as a lab rat and get things back to normal. Luckily, the doctor had agreed that traction was no longer essential for the recovery of his damaged femur. As soon as his friends finished signing him out, Ezra would be a free man. Well, almost. While the others had agreed grudgingly to allowing him to recuperate in his own home, for the next few weeks he would have a rotation of roommates until he could once again function fully on his own.
Ezra had never liked depending too much on other people, even those who professed to be willing to take on an extra burden when he was not at his best. He welcomed the idea of having the other men around him more, but hated the thought of them being there only because he could not get along without help. Perhaps if he could prove that he could operate with some measure of independence, things would go easier, he decided.
What he needed was a test.
With effort and careful maneuvering of the crutches Buck had brought him (motivation to get well fast, he had called them), he managed to successfully stand up and move across the room. It was not easy with his left arm barely functional and his right leg not functional at all, but he was unwilling to give up now that he had gotten this far. With much shifting and swearing, he kept going until he reached the roomís small lavatory and proceeded to empty his bladder. It was a great relief to realize that he could, in fact, take care of this particular bodily function without aid or the use of those detestable bedpans, but his sense of triumph was short lived.
Now that he had done what he set out to do, Ezra felt his strength fading. He had managed to flush the toilet and turn himself around, but found that venturing all the way back the way he had come seeming more of a Herculean feat by the second. The bed was no more than ten or fifteen feet away, but it suddenly looked more like a mile.
Leaning against the doorframe, he wondering how long he had before the trembling support of his left leg gave out under the pressure of holding him upright. Maybe he should just give in and crash to the floor, he mused. He could crawl back over to the bed before anyone came in and noticed, right?
The broken bones in his right leg and left forearm throbbed at that thought, as if to remind him just how bad an idea that was.
"Need some help?"
Ezra had been concentrating so intently on his target that he had not heard the door open behind him and he jerked, instinctively turning toward the voice and promptly losing his precarious balance.
"Shit!" Vin exclaimed, diving forward and catching Ezra just as he started to fall. "Iím sorry, Ezra. I didnít mean to startle you, I thought you knew I was there."
With a grimace of pain, Ezra flung his right arm over Vinís shoulder, allowing the crutches to fall with a clatter as he straightened back up. "Not your fault," he grunted. "I should have been more aware of my surroundings."
"Just lean all your weight on me and Iíll get you situated," Vin promised, balancing Ezra carefully and trying not to squeeze his damaged ribs.
It was slow progress as the two men inched their way back over to the bed. Surprising Vin, Ezra let go a breathless chuckle. "Bet youíre wishing I was JD right now," he huffed.
"Because. Thank you," he interjected as they reached the mattress and he practically fell onto it. He paused a moment to catch his breath, and continued, "Because you and I are of a matched size. If I were a few inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter, our short journey would have been a much less arduous one for you."
Vin laughed. "You got a point, but it could be worse. You couldíve been Josiah! Heís only got two or three inches on us but heís built like a stone fortress. If Iíd tried to catch him that way, we both wouldíve wound up on the floor. Of course, if you were JD I probably wouldíve just sent Buck up here to pick your heavy ass off the floor while I went to get the wheelchair."
Ezra grinned. "Now you have a point. I am grateful for the assistance, however. I was afraid I might have taken on a larger task than I could handle."
"Whatís the matter, couldnít you wait five minutes until help arrived? You knew we were cominí up."
Ducking his head in embarrassment, Ezra said, "Call it a foolís errand. Some things one just prefers to do on oneís own."
Glancing back towards the bathroom and the crutches lying on the floor, Vin shook his head, amusement shining brightly in his blue eyes. "Suppose so."
"Make way, make way, Wilmington express cominí through!"
Both men looked up as Buck careened around the corner pushing a wheelchair in which sat JD Dunne, laughing and holding on for dear life.
Ezra shook his head. "Mr. Wilmington, if you try to push me in that manner I will sue you for reckless endangerment. I currently have quite enough damage to my physique without your help."
Close behind the playful pair came Nathan, Josiah and Chris. "Youíre all set, Ezra," Nathan told him as he crossed over to the bed and automatically began fussing about the patient. "You sure you feel up a long ride? We can wait another day if you donít."
"Nathan," Chris said in exasperation. "I just got through signing about twenty different forms to get him out of this place."
"I know," Nathan said sheepishly. "Iím just worried. Heís been through a lot and he still needs to take it easy until those bones have a chance to knit some more."
Ezra patted Nathanís arm. "I do appreciate the concern, but I wonít be doing any walking or lifting or anything that might endanger my recovery. I wonít even be packing my assorted belongings and gifts as I make my exit from these dreary premises." Looking around at the others, he gave them a cheeky grin. "Thatís what I have these able servants for."
"Just for that, maybe Iíll feed you jello and mushy vegetables for dinner instead of the spaghetti and meatballs I was planning on," Josiah said, gray eyes twinkling as he began loading his arms up with some of the floral arrangements Ezra had been sent.
"Drew the short straw tonight, did you?" Ezra asked him. He was not really surprised. Josiah denied it, but he was the worst worrywart of the bunch, even more so than Nathan, and would want to reassure himself that his injured friend had a restful first night home.
Josiah gave him a much put-upon sigh. "Yep, Iím afraid I did. And on the same night I had made plans to catch up on the New York Times crossword puzzle too. Wouldnít you know it?"
Buck reached over to the bedside table, flipping a magazine style publication to Josiah. "If you get bored, maybe Ezraíll let you work out a couple of these babies."
Ezra made a grab but was not fast enough in his stiff and sore condition to intercept it. He sighed in defeat. "Mr. Wilmington brought me that in lieu of the flowers everyone else provided to cheer me," he explained, wincing a bit as Josiah gave an intrigued grunt and then a wolf-whistle at whatever he was looking at. The publication, which at a glance looked just like any run of the mill puzzle book, contained crosswords, word searches, connect the dots and assorted other games, each with a lewd Adults Only theme to it.
Chris snatched the book out of Josiahís hand and grinned. "Well, I reckon this would have kept me from getting bored," he approved.
"Yes," Ezra agreed with a reluctant grin. "After I finished the first word search I was mortally afraid to find out what sort of image I would get if I dared to connect the dots."
Everyone laughed as they bustled about the small room. Josiah, Buck, Chris and JD quickly packed up all of Ezraís possessions while Nathan and Vin helped him to get dressed for the journey home.
As he finished working his casted arm through a shirtsleeve and allowed Nathan to button him up, Ezraís gaze fell on a package sitting on the end of his bed. He frowned, certain it had not been there earlier. "Whatís this?" he asked, reaching for the string tying the brown paper wrapping closed.
Vin stopped him, blocking the knot from his grasp. "Itís just a little present I brought in for you. Thought you might want it back."
Intrigued, Ezra batted his hand aside and tugged the package into his lap. Everyone else stopped what they were doing to watch. Their interested expressions proved that they did not know what the gift was either. As the paper fell away, Ezraís breath caught. Carefully, almost reverently, he lifted the worn, freshly laundered lettermanís jacket from the paper and held it close to his chest.
"I thought sure this was gone," he said softly. "When it wasnít returned with my wallet and other personal possessions, I assumed it had been destroyed with my other clothing when I was brought into the hospital."
"It almost was," Vin told him. "They were just about to cut it away from you and I stopped Ďem. Told Ďem it was really special to you and asked if there was any way they could save it. They managed to work it off you without hurting that broken arm and I took it back home and had it dry cleaned for you. The cleaners did a nice job, I thought."
Ezra was too choked up to speak for a moment, but finally, conscious of six pairs of eyes watching him, he drew a deep breath and swallowed down the emotion he felt. His voice was only slightly husky as he said, "How did you know it meant so much to me?"
"Iíd never seen it before," Vin said simply. "You donít seem like the type of guy who has a lot of old keepsakes you like to show off. When you told me what that jacket was for, I figured you wore it that day as a sign of trust, maybe. It was somethiní youíd earned, somethiní youíd cared about enough to keep for a lot of years. You deserved to have it treated with respect."
Ezra nodded, then cautiously raised his head and looked around to see if anyone thought this was funny. No one was laughing, only looking at him with a level of understanding that surprised him. "Thank you," he said simply, handing the coat back to Vin. "Help me put it on, please?"
Tanner did so without a word, only offering a pat on the shoulder when he was done. "All right then, you ready to get out of here?"
"More than," he said heartily, relieved that nothing more would be said on the subject.
Once Chris and Buck had helped him maneuver his battered body into the waiting wheelchair, putting the right leg rest up to accommodate his cast, Ezra looked around at everyone. "Gentlemen, I realize that Iíll be seeing a great deal of all of you over the next few weeks, but I was wonderingÖ" They paused, waiting. Ezra licked his lips, feeling suddenly nervous. "I was wondering whether, when Iím back to full mobility, you might be interested in joining me at the park some weekend."
"Park?" JD asked, his puzzlement reflecting in the othersí expressions as well.
Ezra frowned, hoping he was not about to make a colossal fool of himself. He looked up at Vin, who nodded encouragingly; seeming to realize what was going on. "Yes. The park a few blocks from my home has several baseball diamonds. I thought, since the weather is warming up, perhaps you might enjoy a chance to play. They have barbecue pits as well, should we wish to make an evening of it."
When only silence met this announcement, Ezra looked up nervously. To his relief there was shock and a certain amount of disbelief in the menís faces, but they also looked intrigued.
Vin decided to help him out. "Something we got to talkiní about up at the lake," he said. "Itíll take a little time before he can squat down with any kind of comfort, I expect, but Ezra tells me he used to be a pretty fair catcher and I can pitch. We ainít got enough men for a full-on game, but I reckon we can play some catch."
Suddenly Buck grinned as brightly as a neon sign. "Well all right," he said happily. "I used to play outfield back in the day. I imagine I can still catch anything you bunch of daisies manage to hit out."
Josiah bumped him hard enough that he fell off balance and had to catch himself on the bed. "Who you calling a daisy? Iíll bet you five bucks right here and now that I can belt one past you."
They shook on it, the other men also getting in on the action.
"What position should I play?" JD asked eagerly.
Buck cuffed him, laughing as he said, "What else, kid? Short stop!"
As the men filed out, plans and playful insults flying back and forth, Vin grabbed the handles of Ezraís wheelchair and began to push him out toward the elevators. "Knew youíd take a chance on us one day, Ezra," he said softly. "Think youíll ever feel like giving fishing another try?"
"Well, given the success of our last venture," he began ruefully, then paused, glancing at the other men laughing and joking around him, realizing that for the very first time he truly felt like one of them. Craning his neck to look up at Vin, he smiled. "I think I just might."
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