Helen Adams

Warning: Story involves a permanent physical injury to one of the Seven.

Twilight = A state of being between darkness and light.

Moved to Blackraptor November 2009

Chapter 1

A random event . . . such a terrible accident.

It could have happened to anyone.

A shame . . . so much of life ahead of him.

Cut down in his prime.

Who would want to live like that?

Who will take on the burden of caring for him?

No family except a mother. She can't take him . . . or won’t.

Next of kin is listed as his boss . . . how sad . . .

Maybe it's best if he never wakes up, never knows what's happened.

Better off dead . . . dead . . . dead . . . dead.


Were the words real?

They whispered deep inside his brain, spurts of conversation, voices of strangers echoing like reflections of sound off a far away satellite, bouncing through space and time to land in a perfectly random place.

Only . . . what if the words were not random? What if they did concern him? He had thought them only fragments; disconnected dreams. Had one of the others been hurt? Did someone need his help?

But no . . . the strange voices had said something about a mother, hadn't they? He was the only one in his circle of friends who still had a living parent. At least, he thought that he was.

Maybe the words were only overheard speculations about some stranger. He knew it was wrong to hope that this was the case, but he did so anyway.

Those terribly pitying words could not possibly have been about . . . him?

It might be better to stay quiet. To remain hiding in the dark, where it was safe, where he would never have to know for sure. Except . . . he suddenly felt afraid of the darkness. Surely it would be better to wake and ask his questions aloud.

Only . . . what if it wasn’t? What if the truth turned out to be even more frightening than the darkness?


"Chris, I think he's waking up."

The words were hushed, choked inside a throat roughened by too many swallowed tears, carried on a tone that sounded hopeful and, at the same time, reluctant.

As he looked toward the still figure lying in the hospital bed, Chris Larabee's eyes showed that he felt the same. They were dull, bloodshot, and weary from too much worry and too little sleep over an extended period of time.

The two friends exchanged a soul-deep glance, questioning and answering, then Vin Tanner gave a respectful nod and moved to stand by the window, staring down at the streets below.

Vin kept his back to the scene playing out in the room, offering privacy and at the same time protecting himself from the look that would come to Ezra's face once he heard.

In some ways, it had been easier when the doctors had thought that Ezra's comatose state would remain permanent. The news that he had instead passed into normal sleep and should be awakening soon had been a blessing and at the same time, a burden to the hearts of his friends.

Beside the bed, Chris gathered a limp hand in his own, squeezing and choking back a swell of emotion as he realized that his friend had no awareness of it. "Ezra?" he said softly. His word was gentle, coaxing, spoken in a tone softer than most would have believed the redoubtable Chris Larabee capable of producing. "Come on, buddy. It's time to wake up."

A tiny sound, no more than the softest grunt, issued from the man's throat in response. Encouraged, Chris leaned even closer, repeating the words directly into Ezra’s ear, then holding his breath in anticipation as the features in the too-pale face twitched and thick eyelashes began to tremble.

"Open your eyes, Ezra. I know you can do it."

In spite of himself, Vin turned around to watch. The tubes, monitors and wires faded into the background of his mind as he focused all of his attention on the figure in the bed. For the first time in three weeks, Ezra did not look like some strange inanimate wax doll. There was life in him, nerves twitching beneath his closed eyelids, blood pulsing visibly in the fine network of veins beneath his near translucent skin. He found himself cheering on the effort at waking. "C'mon, Ez. C'mon!"

With a small gasp, the colorless lips parted. The eyelids clenched tightly and then opened to narrow slits; the low light in the room proving too much for pupils no longer used to anything but darkness. Even barely seen, the clear apple-green color of Ezra's irises made a startling show of color against the pale backdrop of his face.

"Ezra?" Chris said again, tone encouraging him to respond.

The patient's eyes rolled slowly to his right, eyes blinking lethargically as he became accustomed to the light and tried to follow the voice to its source. He attempted to speak, but only a soft "K" sound emerged.

"That's right, it's Chris," Larabee said; sure that the sound had been an attempt to say his name. "Vin's here too. He's right over there by the window."

This appeared to be too much information to handle, for the only reaction was a small frown line appearing between Ezra's eyebrows. His throat constricted in a swallow and he tried again to speak. "W-?"

Unsure if he was wanting to know what had happened, where he was, or simply requesting a drink of water, Chris decided to start with the latter. Taking one of the ice chips out of the bucket next to Ezra's bed, he slipped the cold object between his friend's lips. "Have some of this. I'll bet you could use it. You want to know what's going on?"

Ezra's attention seemed capable of focusing on only one thing at a time right now. He became entirely involved in the ice chip, pushing it partway out of his mouth with his tongue and holding it between his lips as it melted, allowing the drops of cold water to slide down his throat. His eyes closed as he sucked on it, remaining that way for a few seconds after it was gone. Just as Chris thought he might have fallen back asleep, the heavy lids struggled open again.

Seeing the question in those confused eyes, Chris explained. "You were hit by a car. You'd gone in to the deli near work to get some lunch but a truck ran a red light just as you and another pedestrian moved into the intersection. You pushed her out of the way, Ezra. Saved her life, but you got hit yourself."

Ezra blinked at him, struggling to take the story in. He tried to nod his head to indicate that he'd understood, then frowned, only then seeming to realize that he was wearing a neck brace that prevented such movement. Again, he struggled to form words, but could not manage more than a hiss.

"How bad?" Chris guessed. Again, Ezra's eyes shifted toward him and Chris drew a deep breath. "A witness to the accident said you went flying; were airborne for a couple of seconds before landing with most of the impact on your head and shoulder. You wrenched your neck pretty good, dislocated your shoulder, broke your arm in two places and got a very serious concussion."

Ezra's gaze grew more intense. Time seemed to move into suspension as the two men stared at each other. Fear slowly filled Ezra's eyes as they silently demanded to know what Chris was holding back.

Steeling himself, wishing desperately that someone else could have delivered this news even though he had told the doctors himself that the responsibility was his, Chris did not hesitate. "You broke your neck, Ezra. Several vertebrae were compressed, damaging nerves and tendons along the spinal cord and cutting off most of the sensation from your shoulders down."

Ezra's eyes widened, horrified, begging Chris to tell him that the damage was only temporary, that everything would soon be fine. Those words did not come. All he saw in the sad, resigned, grief stricken hazel eyes was a life sentence.

"You're paralyzed."

Chapter 2

JD and Josiah jumped to their feet, the grim faces and reddened eyes of their friends filling them with dread as Chris and Vin reentered the waiting area.

For a moment, none of the men could bring themselves to speak, but finally JD broke the silence. “What happened?  Ezra’s not . . .”

Vin laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “No kid, he’s okay; much as he can be, anyway.  He woke up.”

“And you told him,” Josiah concluded somberly. 

Once they had been informed that Ezra would awaken, the six members of his team had taken turns staying in the hospital room, none of them wanting their injured friend to wake up alone for the first time in his current condition.  Each man had privately prayed that he would not be the one called upon to deliver the terrible news, but each had mentally prepared himself to do so. 

Chris dropped heavily into a chair, rubbing a hand slowly over his face and massaging his tired eyes.  “Yes, I told him.  God,” he exclaimed softly.  “I knew it would be hard, but if you could have seen the look in his eyes.  I felt like I’d stabbed him right through the heart.  He just looked at me, Josiah.  Didn’t say a word, didn’t try to deny it; didn’t even cry.  I thought he would yell or curse; maybe even spit at me, but there was nothing.  No reaction at all.  He just stared until a doctor came in and chased us out.”

“He wouldn’t look my way at all,” Vin added, dashing at his nose with a hard sniffle.  “I tried to talk to him; told him the doctors wanted to wait until he healed up a little more before making their final prognosis.  I just wanted a chance to give him some hope, y’know?”

“I doubt that he’s ready for hope just yet,” Josiah said with a sigh, taking the seat across from Chris and leaning forward to rest his forearms upon his knees.  “First he needs a chance to accept what’s happened to him.   Ezra’s got to be in a state of emotional shock right now.  I doubt he can process much of anything beyond his own feelings of disbelief and loss.”

“He’s had everything taken away in an instant,” JD agreed sadly.  “I can’t imagine what that must be like.  I mean, to us it’s been three weeks since the accident.  We’ve had time to absorb it, maybe even to accept the idea of Ezra being paralyzed.  To him, it must feel kind of like he fell asleep normal and then woke up disabled, with no time at all in between.”

Vin’s fists clenched, beating against his thighs in a jerky rhythm as he began to pace the waiting area.  At first his voice was so quiet that the others missed the words he was repeating with each impact of his hands, but as it began to grow louder the all looked at him.  “Damn it.  Damn it.  Damn it.”  Finally, he stopped moving, anger and frustration shimmering in his blue eyes as he pounded one fist into the nearest wall and shouted, “God damn it!  Why?  Why the fuck did this have to happen?  Why Ezra?  Hasn’t he been through enough shit without this?  For the first time in his life he found a home, freedom to do things his own way, a job he loved, folks he could count on.  He had a life, damn it!   What the hell does he have now?”

Shocked by this outburst from Vin, who had been the voice of calm and reason to everyone else since the day of the accident, the other men simply stared.

Waving a hand as if to stop a flow of comments that no one had actually uttered, Vin backed toward the corridor leading to the exit doors.  “I can’t . . . I’ll be back later.  I gotta get out of here.  I just . . . Tell Ezra I’ll see him when I can.”

With that, he turned on his heel and strode out as fast he could without actually breaking into a run.

Chris half-rose, intending to go after him, then stopped, plopping back down with no resistance as JD placed a hand on his shoulder and gently urged him to keep his seat.  

“Let him go,” the young man advised.  “He’ll be okay.  He just kept it bottled up too long.  I guess seeing Ezra awake and knowing that he’s aware of what’s going on now just pushed him too far.  He’ll be back.”

Not having expected the calm explanation, Chris and Josiah each gave JD a questioning look.

“Been there,” he said with a humorless smile.  “My mother was sick a long time, but in the last few weeks her condition just nose-dived.  I went to see her every day and I spent all my time being strong for her, doing everything I could to avoid showing how much it hurt me to see her like that.  Then one day, the doctor told me that she only had a couple of days left.  I thanked him, went to see her as usual, and then I went home, grabbed a hammer and smashed the shit out of every single one of my mother’s Hummel figurine collection.” 

Josiah nodded.  “Some people smash things, some of us drink.  Everyone has his own way of dealing with tragedy.”

“He’ll run,” Chris said quietly.  “Swim, box, lift weights; hell, maybe all of ‘em.  Vin always uses exercise to de-stress, same as Nathan.”

He stopped speaking abruptly, clenching his teeth against the words before they could escape.  Josiah finished the thought anyway.  “Same as Ezra.”

Silence yawned around them as each became lost in his own thoughts.  The minutes crawled by in utter gloom until JD sighed softly and rose from his chair.  “I’ll see you guys later.  I’m going back to Ezra’s room.  I’ll just wait outside if the doctor’s not done with him but I need to make sure he knows.”

“Knows what?” Chris asked.

JD smiled.  “That I’m glad he’s still alive.  That no matter how much his life, all of our lives, are going to change because of what’s happened to him, I’m still his friend.   I figure it’s like Vin said, Ezra needs to know he still has folks he can count on.”  The smile brightened a bit.  “I found some new jokes on the internet last week, real stink-bombs.  Think I’ll share a few with Ezra.  That way he won’t think I’m visiting out of pity and he won’t have to pretend to be interested.  He never acts interested in my jokes.”

With that, the young man disappeared down the corridor. 

“God bless that boy. I think he’s going to be exactly the medicine that Ezra needs right now,” Josiah said with soft approval.  Glancing at Chris, he suggested, “It would be best if we let JD work his magic privately for now.  Can you use a drink?”

Eyes still fixed on the hallway down which his youngest agent had gone, Chris nodded.  “I could use a whole bottle.”  Offering a smile that perfectly matched the other man’s ruefully understanding expression, he added, “But I’ll settle for a drink.  Thanks.”

Chapter 3

Ezra felt detached; as if hearing Chris' words had somehow separated his brain from all of his senses, not just those that involved bodily sensation and motor control. He was vaguely aware of a doctor and nurse coming into his room, a light being shone in his eyes, the doctor asking him questions while the nurse did something in the vicinity of his arms and legs that he could not make himself care about. He ignored it all, instead just staring at the white insulation tiles in the ceiling above his bed until they departed once again.

Those small monochromatic squares might as well have been the only real things in the universe; a blank, white nothingness that seemed to sum up his entire existence. Just what he had done in his life that was so bad as to be condemned to an eternity of nothingness? Would he spend weeks, months, even years in this manner; just existing - one could hardly call it living - as little more than a head without a body; a helpless burden who could be of no use to anyone?

Ezra barely even noticed the tears that formed in his eyes and trickled down the sides of his face as he closed his eyes, concentrating on feeling something, anything. There was no response at first, then a spear of pain lanced through his head. He reopened his eyes with a gasp and for a moment, the white ceiling grayed out above him. An uneven pattern of blurry dark spots came to cover its surface as a wave of dizziness swept through him.

After several long seconds, his vision cleared and the sharp pain faded, leaving only a pounding ache behind his eyes. He moaned softly, wishing it away, then abruptly changed his mind. Pain, at least, was real. As long as he could feel it he was still alive, at least partially.

His dark musings were interrupted as his ears caught the sound of a door opening slowly; too slowly, someone really needed to oil that hinge; but he ignored the sound, figuring it was just another doctor or nurse coming in to study him.

"Hey, Ez," a familiar voice greeted instead. Suddenly eager to be interrupted from his thoughts, Ezra shifted his eyes to the right, attempting to confirm the identity of his visitor as the voice continued, "How's it going? Sure glad you finally managed to wake up. We were starting to think you might hibernate until spring, and this is only the beginning of October!"

Ezra found himself feeling unexpectedly comforted by the normalcy of the light teasing. It was so unlike those pitying whispers he had heard in the darkness and the terrible sadness that Chris and Vin had shown when they were here. It was a welcome change from the senseless babble of the medical personnel and the bleak company of his own thoughts.

"J-" He stopped, finding it difficult to form words. He tried again. "J . . . D."

The young man smiled brightly at being acknowledged, resting his hip lightly against the side of Ezra's bed and making himself comfortable as he positioned himself high enough that the recumbent man could see him clearly. "Sure is good to see you awake," he said. Fishing a tissue out of the box next to the bed, he casually dabbed away the tears running down Ezra's temples as he continued, "Josiah came to the hospital with me but I wanted to visit on my own for awhile. I saw the doctor coming out of your room a minute ago. What'd he say?"

The injured man looked at him blankly.

"About your condition, I mean," JD prompted. "We were told they wanted to wait until you were awake before running more tests. They did a bunch of x-rays and CAT scans and other stuff while you were out, but they wanted to let the broken bones and other injuries from the car accident heal more before they diagnosed the level of damage to your spine. Once they know that, they can figure out what kind of therapy and equipment you'll need. Did they say anything about that?"

"D'know," he mumbled, frowning as he tried to recall. He knew the doctor had been speaking to him, but the words had all been like a field of white noise the he couldn't make sense of.

"Well, it doesn't really matter right now," JD said, smiling as Ezra's distressed expression faded. "Hey, you want to hear a joke? I got some new ones last week."

Not waiting for an answer, he launched enthusiastically into a complicated story. Ezra found that he could not quite follow the narrative, but the sound of his friend's voice washed over him like a warm tide, temporarily smoothing away his fears and worries. He struggled to hold on to that sound, but found it fading into the background as his eyelids drifted shut, refusing to open again no matter how hard he tried.


JD continued for a few more seconds before noticing that he had lost his audience. Smiling, he left his perch to take a seat in the same chair that Chris had recently vacated. As he looked at the tear-dampened tissue crumpled in his hand, JD swallowed a lump in his throat. "Everything's gonna be all right," he whispered.

Even JD could not have said whether he was talking to Ezra, or to himself.

Chapter 4

Vin Tanner ran. The moment he cleared the hospital's front steps, he was off like a shot, first jogging and then running full tilt. Today was Sunday and at 8:30 a.m. the sidewalks were mostly empty, so there was nothing to impede his progress. Even the traffic signals seemed in a mood to abet his efforts, holding at green or yellow until he had crossed the end of each city block.

Vin ran with no particular destination in mind. He wanted only to outdistance the memory of his friend's shocked face and the imagination of what Ezra's life, and consequently the rest of their lives, might be like from now on. He ran past the Federal building where his team worked, past the gym where he considered and then dismissed the idea of stopping for a workout, past the bar and grill where he and the others typically spent their Friday nights. He just kept running.

His arms and legs pumped hard, propelling him forward until his lungs heaved, his body became drenched in sweat and every muscle trembled with the effort to keep moving. He felt as if he could not stop, as though he were running for his life; not just for himself, but for Ezra, exerting himself against all of the frustration and pain that his friend could not express. As if his own body could provide the physical outlet that Ezra was now denied. It was not logical, but it felt right.

Finally, Vin was forced to stop when his legs abruptly refused to carry him any further. He stumbled for several steps, nearly collapsing on to the sidewalk as he leaned over to rest his hands upon his knees, breath wheezing, heart thundering in his chest.

He glanced around, noting that he stood in the middle of a sidewalk on a quiet suburban street. A soft curse left his lips as he realized that he had left his vehicle miles away and had no energy left to travel back the way he had come. Automatically reaching back to confirm that he had his phone and wallet on him, he relaxed. He could call a cab as soon as he had his bearings.

Deliberately drawing slow, deep breaths, Vin straightened and began to walk slowly down the street toward the sign on the corner. A startled look came over his face as he recognized the cross-streets. He was only two blocks away from Ezra's house.

"So much for not knowing where I was going," he muttered, realizing that he must have subconsciously been drawn this way because his thoughts were so deeply centered on his injured friend.

For a moment, he debated. Should he call that cab, or would it be all right to pay an uninvited visit to Ezra's empty home? He did have a spare key, and he knew that Ezra wouldn't mind if he told him that he'd stopped in to take a quick shower and borrow something to replace his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Besides, this way he could pick up a few things. Now that Ezra was awake, he would surely want his own pajamas to replace the hospital gown, and maybe he would appreciate a few of his own possessions to brighten up the room. He could grab the laptop as well. Ezra might not be able to operate the controls, but he could watch the screen and read from assorted websites if one of the others were to do the surfing for him.

Knowing perfectly well that he was only making excuses, justifying his own need to see Ezra's normal habitat, to embrace a reminder of who the man truly was beyond his physical body; Vin began to walk.

Chapter 5

The hammock moved slowly backward and forward, propelled by the force of the leg hanging over its side kicking lazily back and forth.

It looked as though it would be a beautiful day, Nathan thought, taking a deep lungful of early autumn air and letting it go in a sigh. It would be a pure waste to just lie here doing nothing on such a fine day. He should call his girlfriend and see if she was free.

"Sunday," he murmured, reminding himself that Raine worked morning to early afternoon on weekends.

Maybe he should go for a run through the park then, or take a drive somewhere. He considered his options for several minute, then dismissed them all without ever budging from his comfortable spot. He did not have to do anything. Although, he reminded himself, he should at least call over to the hospital and find out if there had been any changes.

Nathan continued his idle rocking, a weighty depression settling over him like a blanket. He and the others had been waiting for days, ever since Ezra's doctor had given them the slight hope that he might awaken, but so far there had been nothing.

It shamed him deeply to realize that he was almost glad. Ashamed because he knew that the others would naturally turn to him for advice, would look to him to take charge once Ezra began therapy, and he did not feel ready to meet that challenge.

Everyone would quickly forget that he was only an EMT. He could administer CPR, suture a wound, set bones, administer IV drips; hell, he could even take out a bullet if there was no one else available. He had done all of those things in the past, but this was different; so different he shrank from the very thought of it.

When Ezra awoke, he would require constant supervision, aid with even the simplest of tasks. The doctors had established that he could breathe without a ventilator, but what about the rest? Eating, drinking, dressing, even going to the bathroom would require an outside presence, and that didn't even cover the need while he was confined to bed of having someone move him several times a day in order to avoid bedsores.

Would everyone, including Ezra, naturally assume that Nathan would take care of all that since he normally volunteered as nurse when any of them were injured or sick?

Suppose he refused. That would shock them all, and no doubt they would think him cold and selfish. But suppose he did agree. Would his constant nursing duty cost him his relationship with Raine; would his career at the ATF be at an end because he no longer had time for the work; would his friendship with Ezra Standish deteriorate until they shared nothing but resentment for one another?

Nathan sighed again, rocking a bit harder. That was his biggest worry, if he were to be honest. He knew in his heart that the others would never let him take on all of the responsibility, even if he wanted to, and they wouldn't allow him to martyr his way out of promising career either. Raine, a licensed nurse practitioner, would understand his changed priorities and probably offer to help him.

He was less certain of Ezra. The two of them had always had a difficult relationship, even under normal circumstances, with wildly varying opinions and outlooks. He had, he knew, a tendency to be nosy and overbearing sometimes, and Ezra was a deeply private person. Ezra disliked being told what to do and absolutely loathed being unable to fend for himself. How could the man help but feel violated if his friends were to suddenly take on the task of caring for all of his personal needs? How could they help but feel changed towards him?

On the other hand, if they were to get a private nurse and maintain a respectful distance, Ezra might jump to the conclusion that he had become an unwanted burden to everyone and retreat inside of himself when he most needed emotional support.

Letting go a frustrated groan, Nathan rubbed both hands over his face. Staring at the blue sky above his head, he whispered, "God, what are we gonna do?"

When his cellular phone chose that moment to give a loud trill, Nathan was so shocked that his entire body jerked, flipping him right out of the hammock to land with a thud on the ground beneath. Fumbling the phone out of his hip pocket, he recognized Josiah's number on the caller I.D. Remembering that his friend was supposed to have this morning's shift at the hospital, Nathan did not even bother to say hello, instead greeting him with, "Josiah? What's wrong?"

He was suddenly glad to be sitting on the ground as he heard the deep voice on the other end tell him that Ezra had awakened, was recognizing faces and voices, and had been told of his condition. Chris was calling Buck to let him know the news, JD was in with Ezra and Vin had taken a break to get some air. Did he want to come to the hospital?

Nathan said nothing for several seconds, trying to take in what he had heard. Then, as Josiah asked if he was still there, he sagged, tears beginning to fall even as he broke out into a broad smile. His friend was alive and aware; something that he now realized he had not truly believed would happen. The rest of Nathan’s fears were still valid, even more so now, but their importance suddenly faded. His family was still whole. They could deal with the rest as it came.

"I'll be right there," he promised. As he hung up the phone, Nathan glanced at the cloudless sky overhead and gave a grateful nod.

Chapter 6

Buck had been sitting in his favorite chair in the apartment that he shared with JD, flipping channels for the past hour and a half. Ten minutes of one program, twenty minutes of another, then back to flipping. He simply could not pay attention to anything. He had felt this way for weeks, ever since he'd returned from lunch and followed the wail of the sirens converging outside the Federal building. He had run to investigate, only to find Ezra Standish lying broken and bloody on the ground, a swarm of police, paramedics and gawking strangers surrounding him.

In the three long weeks since that day, he had felt numb; not even the terrible news of Ezra's paralysis able to break him out of the cold nothingness. For what did it matter how badly Ezra’s body was damaged if he never woke up to know about it?

Buck had had that terrible tense feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long that he had grown almost used to it. He went about his work like an automaton each day, first to arrive, last to leave. He had not been late for a single one of his turns at the hospital and had spent every one of those hours talking to the unconscious man in the bed, about anything, everything and nothing; just talking and willing him to awaken. His usual crammed social calendar had been emptied, each date canceled without regret and no others made, even when his teammates had all urged him to go out and blow off some steam.

He could not bring himself to do it; it just felt wrong, disrespectful, to act like nothing had happened while one of his best friends was possibly dying. The guys had understood.

Picking up the ringing phone, Buck muttered, "Yeah?" He sat up straight, a great beaming grin breaking over his face for the first time in weeks as he said again, eagerly this time, "Yeah? Oh my God, Chris, that's great! Did he talk to you? Uh-huh, uh-huh, well that still ain't bad for a man the doctors thought would never wake up! Who's with him now?"

The grin got bigger at hearing Chris' reply that JD had wanted a chance to tell his newest batch of bad jokes to his captive audience.

"Good for him. He better be careful, though, or Ezra might just slip back into that coma out of self-defense," he said with a chuckle. "Give me fifteen minutes and I'll be right there."

As he hung up the phone, Buck launched himself out of his chair and broke into an impromptu jig, right in the middle of his cluttered living room. He felt so happy he did not know what to do with himself, not even caring that this might only be the first step in a long road ahead.

Suddenly, Buck ran through the front bedroom that led to a balcony overlooking the street. Flinging open the door, he let loose a high pitched rebel yell, then another, catching the attention of several neighbors who looked up at him curiously. Grinning so widely his jaws ached, he shouted down to them, "He's awake! My friend Ezra is out of his coma! He's alive and awake, and I'm the happiest man in the whole goddamned city of Denver, Colorado! Wha-hoooo!"

Not even knowing of whom he was speaking, the neighbors burst into a round of applause, their warm reaction melting the last of the cold shock from Buck's heart.

Chapter 7

"He's waking up."

Ezra's brow furrowed as the soft words penetrated the fog of slumber. Nathan, he thought, but what on earth was Nathan Jackson doing in his bedroom?

"Come on, buddy, open those big greens for us."

Buck was here too? That was very odd indeed.

Cautiously opening his eyes, Ezra regarded the two men looming over him for several seconds. He supposed he should ask what they were doing, but he could not seem to get his thoughts to focus.

"Sure is good to see you awake," Buck told him sincerely. "When Chris told me, I could hardly believe it."

Nathan was smiling so widely that his teeth almost seemed to glow in his dark skinned face. "I should've known. Just wouldn't be like you to do what any doctor expected you to do. Damn, it's great to see you."

Ezra smiled uncertainly. Glancing around the room, he dully confirmed the bland sterile environment of a hospital room and the presence of three more of his friends, all looking at him with an odd mixture of happiness and solemnity. For a moment he struggled to remember why he had been incarcerated in a hospital this time, then the pressure of the cervical collar against his neck and the lack of sensation elsewhere penetrated his awareness, forcing him to remember.

Buck Wilmington's smile dimmed as he watched the sleepy confusion on Ezra's face transform into a terrible sort of despair. "Aw, buddy, it's okay," he whispered, lifting his hand to rest against the top of Ezra's head and gently rubbing his fingertips against the thick unkempt hair. It was a gesture he had always found comforting when he was hurt and it appeared that Ezra was no different as the stricken expression slowly faded into one of depressed acceptance.

"No," Ezra replied bleakly, coughing a little. "It's not."

"We know," Josiah agreed, walking up to the head of the bed and fishing some ice out of the bedside container. "It's a long way from okay, but you're alive and you're awake and making sense. That's more than your doctor led us to expect, and more than good enough for right now."

Ezra's gaze shifted to study his face as he accepted the ice, slowly crunching the chips between his teeth as he pondered the comment. He was becoming more alert now, far more so than he had been the first time he had awakened and he could see something in the other man's eyes that he was not quite sure how to interpret.

Swallowing the pulverized ice, he paused for a moment to concentrate on the coldness of the liquid easing his throat, suddenly feeling that it was vitally important to catalogue and study any physical sensation, however minute. The chill of the ice-water, the soft scratchiness of the collar resting against his jaw, the pleasant pressure of Buck's fingers against his head. He noted each one, filing it away in his memory to hold on to and relive at a later time.

"You expected me," he said, coughing a bit to clear the roughness from his voice, "to die?"

He could just see Chris moving to the foot of the bed to stand next to JD. Placing a hand upon the younger man's shoulder, Chris said, "It was touch and go for awhile. When that truck sent you airborne you landed hard, slammed your head on the concrete."

"It's a miracle that you didn't suffer any permanent brain damage," Josiah added, "but they weren't sure that you wouldn't at first."

Ezra chewed lightly on his lower lip as he returned his gaze to the white ceiling tiles, thinking over what they had said. His head ached still, just as fiercely as it had when JD had talked him to sleep earlier and there was additional discomfort in his neck, as though he needed to roll and pop it but could not. Below that level he could detect nothing at all, but if what the others were saying was true then it was something of a surprise that he was able to notice anything at all. A phantom chill swept through him at the thought of lying here as a vegetable for the rest of his life, unable to move but equally unable to think, just taking up space until someone decided to pull the plug and bury him once and for all.

The trouble was, he was not convinced that having only half of that situation come true was an improvement. Was it better to be totally inanimate but fully aware of it, or just to fade away quietly without ever knowing his life had changed? Which alternative would the rest of his team have truly preferred?

An intense panic-driven need seized him. He had to see the others clearly, to look into their eyes and read their expressions. He had to see his own body, to assess the damage with his own eyes; just to know for a fact that it was still there. "Elevate," he commanded urgently.

Buck realized what he meant first. "You want to raise up a little? Sure, no problem."

Easy now," Nathan warned. "Slow and don't raise it too high. You don't want him to fall off balance."

"Right," Buck agreed, fiddling with the controls until he had elevated the top of the hospital bed about eight inches. "How's that?"

Ezra could not answer, but he tried to smile a little to show his gratitude. The others had gathered in even closer, lining his bed on either side. Had Vin Tanner been present - And why was he not here, a small voice in his head asked plaintively? - they would have been lined up in perfect three on three lines. Like pallbearers.

Deliberately pushing that thought away, Ezra again took inventory of himself. It seemed as though he could breathe more easily now and he could definitely see his friends more clearly. He studied the men on the right side first. Chris Larabee seemed to radiate the same sad yet strong presence as before, and he felt reassured by it. This man had willed him to live, prayed for it perhaps, but had been ready to let him go if need be. There was something perversely comforting in that.

Next to him, JD Dunne was nodding as if confirming something to himself, smiling and bright-eyed as though he held some wonderful secret that he just might be willing to share. Something about the sight of his face brought another small smile to Ezra's.

Josiah Sanchez' face was solemn, but those kind blue eyes were full of warmth and reassurance. They held his gaze for a moment and Ezra had the oddest sensation of having been hugged.

"Is there anything we can get for you?" Nathan asked hopefully, drawing his attention to the opposite side of the bed. The man was worrying the edge of a blanket with both hands and Ezra frowned a bit at the nervous gesture. He had never known Nathan to act fidgety before.

Buck was also over-active, tapping his fingers and bouncing his weight from foot to foot as if he were hearing some kind of music that no one else did. He looked as if he were about to break into a dance, but it was clear from his face, bright-eyed and unable to quit grinning, that it was excitement and not nerves that caused his restlessness.

"Where's . . .?" he stopped, finding himself unwilling to finish the question.

"Vin hasn't come back from his run yet," Chris told him.

Ezra tried not to react to this. Vin had been here this morning when Chris had told him his fate. Had the man literally run away, unable to face the pathetic creature that had replaced his friend and coworker?

Observing Nathan, who was still plucking at the blanket, he felt a rush of sadness. When their initial pleasure over his renewed awareness faded, would all of them eventually become uncomfortable around him, perhaps begin avoiding him altogether?

Seeming to read his thoughts, Josiah patted his leg. He could not feel the comforting gesture but the sight of it was appreciated just the same.

"Vin just needed to get some air and clear his thoughts," Josiah reassured him. "He's been a rock for the rest of us these past few weeks and I believe the relief of seeing you awake hit him like the crash we all get at the end of an adrenaline surge."

Ezra attempted to nod, irritation flickering over his features when the cervical collar again hindered this movement. The touch drew his gaze back down to the rest of his body. It looked deceptively normal. Everything up to his ribcage was a hilly lump beneath the thin hospital blankets, giving away nothing. His arms were positioned straight down his sides, the left one encased in a sturdy splint to keep it still, a heavy plaster cast obviously having been deemed unnecessary in his current state, and the right decorated with IV lines and monitor wires. It disturbed him to see his arms positioned this way. He never slept with his arms arrow straight, and he certainly didn't keep them that way when he was awake. It had always been his habit to gesture and wave his hands when he conversed, or lace them over his stomach when waving them about was inappropriate.

He concentrated, trying with everything that was in him to wiggle the fingers of his right hand. The appendages ignored him rudely.

"What's wrong?" JD said, drawing his attention back to his visitors.

Suddenly, Ezra found himself unable to hold back the terror, the horror, the sheer hopelessness of his new reality. Jaw trembling, he whispered, "Everything," then did something he had not done in front of another person for nearly twenty-five years and burst into tears.

Had the situation been less tragic it might have been comical to see everyone surge forward, nearly falling over each another in their haste to reach Ezra when he began to weep. Chris somehow muscled his way past JD and Josiah and even beat Buck to the punch as he perched one hip on the side of Ezra's bed, leaned forward and pulled him into a carefully supportive embrace.

Chris said nothing, offering no empty words of reassurance nor trying to shush the other man. Instead he simply held him, offering silent strength as Ezra cried, and rocking back and forth to provide comforting motion. He took great care not to jar Ezra's injuries, only adjusting his grip slightly when the form in his arms became heavy. Three weeks with neither exercise nor solid food had taken a toll on Ezra's weight, but the limp body of a full-grown man was still awkward to manage.

For once in his life, Ezra could not hold back his emotions; too overwhelmed to even try. He wept uncontrollably; accepting Chris Larabee's embrace without protest as the sobs tore through him. Each agonized burst seemed to express one more opportunity he had lost, one more thing he would never do again. His eyelids squeezed hard against the tears, yet still they flooded down his face, some spilling over his chin to be soaked up in the dark material of Larabee's shirt, some filling his own mouth with the taste of salt and the bitterness of broken dreams.

Buck had resumed his gentle scalp massage, as much for himself as for Ezra, his other hand continually brushing away tears of his own. The other three simply waited, offering quiet support to Ezra's expression of loss, silently drawing his anguish into their hearts.

Time moved slowly while the cycle of grief was spent. Ezra's body jerked and hitched within Larabee's grasp, moved by the simple involuntary force of his sobs. It felt as if he were trying to expel in one go all of the tears he had held back over a lifetime. Finally, he simply had nothing left and the tears were replaced by soft sniffling.

Chris held on, not wanting to force Ezra to give up his support until he was ready. A soft, "I'm sorry," told him it was time and with Buck's help, he carefully eased Ezra back against his pillow.

"You've got no reason to be sorry," Chris told him firmly. Accepting a tissue that Nathan handed him, he held it for the other man to blow his nose and then took a second cloth that JD had soaked with cold water and dabbed it against Ezra's red swollen eyes and overheated cheeks. "It'd be worse if you hadn't broken down."

"Here," JD offered, handing Buck a small glass filled with water. Looking at Ezra, he smiled. "Mom always told me to drink a full glass of water when I had the hiccups."

Glancing at him, Ezra saw nothing but understanding in his young friend's eyes. "Thanks," he whispered, then concentrated on pulling small sips from the plastic straw Buck was holding to his lips.

"What is it?" Nathan asked then, seeing the grimace of pain that flashed across Ezra's face as he let go of the straw. Offering him a sympathetic smile, he said, "All that crying was good for you, believe it or not, but I bet it gave you a pretty fierce headache."

"Had one," he mumbled. "Worse now."

Nathan glanced at the chart hooked to the end of Ezra's bed and frowned, telling the others, "There's a notation here from about two hours ago that says not to administer any meds without the doctor's consent." Addressing Ezra again, he added, "They're probably scheduling another round of tests now that you're conscious."

Ezra winced as another spike of pain lanced through his skull. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I . . . I think I just need to be alone for awhile."

All five of them frowned at this; clearly feeling that the last thing Ezra needed right now was solitude. Not wanting to refuse the request outright, Josiah gave the others a nod that said he would take care of things.

Moving to the head of the bed, he said, "Sure Ezra, we understand, but how about if I see if I can't do something to help that headache first?"

Ezra did not reply, his expression so bleak it broke every heart in the room.

The other men moved toward the exit, promising to return later. Ezra did not even seem to notice, not reacting when they all stopped at the door, curious to see what Josiah planned to do.

Placing his fingertips lightly against Ezra's temples, the older man began rotating them in slow clockwise circles.

"All right, Ezra. I want you to close your eyes and try to relax. Don't think about this room, or the damage to your body, or the pain. Just listen to the sound of my voice," he said, dropping his tone into a velvety near-whisper. As Ezra's eyes fluttered closed, he continued, "That's it. Don't try to concentrate on anything, just listen to my voice. Let the sound wash over you, draw it inside of you and let it push away the pain. Let your thoughts drift to favorite songs, beautiful poems, books you've enjoyed enough to read over and over again."

He fell silent for a few seconds, slowing the pace of his fingertips. Slowly Ezra's tense facial muscles began to relax, his breathing deepening a bit.

"Good," Josiah crooned. "That's very good. Just let yourself float while your mind paints scenes of beautiful places you've visited. I want you to feel the warmth and security of my voice surrounding you, standing between you and the pain."

He allowed his voice to fade again as Ezra's features relaxed even further.

"He's out," Buck whispered a few seconds later, awe in his tone. "Where'd you learn to do that?"

Josiah glanced over his shoulder, smiled and began to lower the head of Ezra's bed back down. "One of my psychiatry professors was a trained hypno-therapist. She taught me the basics."

"Don't put it all the way back," JD suggested quickly, stopping him from lowering the bed any further. "I think it scared him before, not being able to see what was going on around him."

He nodded, stopping when the bed was at about four inches.

For a moment the five men studied their sleeping friend, then with a rough clearing of his throat Chris suggested, "Nathan, why don't you and I go see if we can track down Ezra's doctor and find out what he wants to do next. Josiah, you planning to stay here?"

In reply, Josiah eased his body more comfortably into the chair. Smiling at JD, he said, "It's my turn for a little one on one. Or maybe I should say two on one." He glanced up at the ceiling, his meaning clear. "I'd like to be here in case his headache comes back before the doctor does."

The young man smiled back. "Good idea. You almost put me to sleep right along with him, but what I really need right now is some food. What do you say, Buck? Can I treat you to a Big Mac?"

Buck nodded. "Sure kid. Sounds good. Maybe afterward we can track down Vin and get him back here. I got a feeling he could use some company about now too."

Chapter 8

Vin Tanner awoke with a snort, sitting bolt upright and staring wildly around him. Running a hand through his hair, he scowled when his fingers became entangled in the locks. He had not intended to take a nap after his shower, but his body had apparently had other plans.

Upon reaching Ezra's house, Vin had spent several minutes just walking through the place. That strange ambiance of prolonged desertion had begun to fill it. There was a light sheen of dust on the shelves and table surfaces that would have outraged their owner had he seen them. The two houseplants drooped sadly, their shriveled leaves proving that no one on the team had thought to come here and water them during Ezra's convalescence. The handful of magazines and newspapers neatly stacked on the surface of the coffee table all showed themselves to be out of date.

Taking a few moments to water the thirsty plants and dispose of the papers in the recycling box, Vin had wandered into the kitchen, finding more proof that nobody had been here since the accident in the curdled and furry contents of the refrigerator. Feeling strangely guilty for having allowed the compulsively neat Ezra's home to fall into such a state, he dutifully disposed of all the garbage and dusted the surfaces with a paper towel.

There was something strangely soothing about the action of cleaning up, as if by putting the home back into order he might somehow cause the rest of Ezra's ravaged life to resume its normal shape. It seemed as if Ezra himself might walk through the door with some sarcastic jibe about actually knowing what a dust rag was used for, an invitation to stay for lunch and a warning not to drop any crumbs down the furniture.

Of course, this did not happen and Vin felt a great heaviness in his heart as he entered Ezra's bedroom and searched his bureau for some clean clothes to borrow once he took his shower. Had the man been here, he certainly would have allowed this. Probably he would have insisted on it the moment he took in Vin's sweaty and disheveled state, but without him the actions felt strange and intrusive. Trying to push that feeling away, Vin had gone to clean up.

After the shower, he had sat down on the living room sofa with a lap full of books and DVD's. Ezra's laptop was multimedia compatible and a few movies had struck Vin as a good way to pass the time. He had no sooner settled into the soft comfortable piece of furniture, however, than the combined exhaustion of his desperate run, his scrambled emotions and all the semi-sleepless nights of the past few weeks had caught up to him.

The electronic notes of the "Mission Impossible" theme music emanating from his hip pocket alerted Vin to the reason for his abrupt awakening. Pulling the phone out, he flipped it open and said, "Yeah?"

He attempted to stifle a yawn as he listened to Buck's voice on the other end. "I'm at Ezra's house," he said, deciding that he might as well be honest. "Thought he might like havin' a few of his own things around him. A hospital room is about the dullest place on earth, especially when you're stuck in one for a long time."

Buck and JD, whom he could hear in the background, both thought this was a fine idea, and asked if he needed any help.

"I wouldn't say no to a ride. I left my truck back at the hospital this morning," he admitted, grateful that Buck did not ask why he had done so. "See you in a few then? Great. Thanks, Buck."

As he hung up, Vin looked around the room again. With three people to transport stuff, that hospital room could be turned into a regular home away from home. The hospital staff would probably hate it, but Ezra would appreciate it all the more for that reason.

For what felt like the first time in a month, Vin Tanner grinned.

Chapter 9

Ezra was living in his own version of hell. He had awakened to find his friends gone, thrown out of his room, he was certain, by the crowd of circling vultures better known as the medical staff. The doctors and nurses had surrounded him, babbling away with peculiar medical jargon that seemed like a foreign language that he was frustratingly close to understanding but never quite able to grasp.

Once two burly young orderlies had transferred his unresponsive body onto a gurney, a nurse had spoken some soothing nonsense and injected a shot of something into his IV. Ezra could not decide if she was being sarcastic or just thoughtless when she used the words, "Relax, this won't hurt a bit." He did not particularly appreciate them either way but he said nothing.

He had long ago decided that the only way to deal with medical personnel was to ignore them and hope that they eventually returned the favor. The technique rarely worked, but he never gave up trying. In the current circumstance, his silence was a desperate attempt to distance himself and pretend that none of this was real. He had always detested being poked and prodded and it was somehow a hundred times worse to suspect these things were being done without his being able to confirm it.

Soon his gurney was wheeled into an elevator, then turned down a bland nondescript hallway filled with still more doctors and nurses who scurried from place to place like busy ants in a colony. He gave up his attempt to convince himself that none of this was really happening when his arm splint and cervical collar were removed and replaced by padded blocks as he was loaded into an MRI scanner. This test was followed by several more, finishing at last with a full skeletal X-ray.

Through it all, Ezra was constantly reassured by strange voices that everything was okay and that it would all be over soon as they flipped his body this way and that, positioning his limbs according to their preference. He wished he could scream at them that it was not okay, that he wanted them all to leave him the hell alone, to just let him be; but he said nothing. He simply endured.

By the time he was finally wheeled back to his own room Ezra was exhausted, part of him wondering how he could be so tired when he had not actually done anything. As he was pushed through the door of his hospital room and transferred back into bed, his eyes widened in surprise.

A nurse with a kind looking face and steaks of gray in her short dark hair paused in the action of tucking the covers around his body as she noted his expression. Glancing around the room, she smiled. "Doctor King thought this would be a good idea when your friends told him what they were planning. I think he was right. Do you like it?"

Unable to speak past the lump that had formed in his throat, Ezra simply stared.

"Mr. Tanner said it was a way to let you feel close to them all when they couldn't be here physically," she told him.

His lips tilted slightly. Vin had come back.

Seeming to understand, she touched his cheek. "They've gone home for the evening, but your friends will be back tomorrow." She chuckled. "Those men have all been here so often we're starting to feel like they're part of the hospital décor!"

Ezra felt comforted by this woman's words and brisk actions as she raised his bed back up a few inches, checked to make sure his reattached arm and neck braces were properly in place, and adjusted his pillow, blankets and IV lines one last time.

"There you go, all set. My name is Jeanette, by the way. I'll be checking on you often, so if you need anything you just let me know."

"Thank you," he said automatically.

"You're welcome. Now, I'll leave you to just relax and enjoy this room for awhile," she said. "I'll be back in about an hour with your dinner."

He did not reply this time, barely even noticing her exit as his eyes took in the details of his transformed room. There were balloons and a couple of flower arrangements decorating the corners. His own houseplants, at least he thought they were his though their sickly appearance made him question it, had been set on the windowsill along with three photographs. There was a professional looking shot of his mother, a slightly off-kilter one of himself and the rest of Team 7 taken during a vacation trip, and a third that halted his visual survey for several seconds as he contemplated it.

He remembered the scene well. He and the rest of the guys had gone to a football game and his team had been losing badly. He had made a foolish wager with Buck that they would rally by the third quarter. The team had instead entered the second half 30 points behind and Buck had happily gloated as he accepted Ezra's money. Ezra had flipped him off and bet double or nothing that his team could still win the game. JD had been snapping pictures with his digital camera and had captured the moment in all its sarcastic glory.

Ezra smiled. His team had not let him down that day, making up the deficit and eventually winning the game by a field goal. It did not take a genius to figure out the message his friends were trying to convey by including this particular photograph.

His visual perusal continued. Framed lithographs depicting two of Ezra's favorite Impressionist paintings had been removed from his bedroom wall at home and hung up in this one. Another wall bore a poster of the current year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit model of the year. He wondered who had chosen that one. He maintained a subscription to that magazine but had certainly never displayed this poster on a wall.

A few feet to the left of the poster hung a large classic car calendar that Vin had given him at Christmas. Ezra's smile fell away at the sight of it. He was not interested in marking how many days he spent in this place, or figuring out exactly how long it had been since life as he knew it had ended.


Chapter 10

"So, what do you think?"

Ezra's gaze shifted from an intense study of the photographs on his windowsill to the doorway of his room. He smiled at the sight of his visitor. "The view is much improved, thank you."

Vin Tanner helped himself to the bedside chair. Grinning, he said, "I was just about to say the same thing about you! You look about ten times better 'n the last time I saw you."

Incredulity creased his brow. "If that's true, I'm suddenly glad no one offered a mirror yesterday."

"Hey, you're makin' sense this morning too," Vin observed happily. "How you feeling?"

For a few seconds, Ezra pondered the simple question. "I don't know," he finally said. "The headache is better, my thoughts are considerably clearer, but everything else is the same."

"Guess you were probably hoping you'd wake up this morning and find it was all just a nightmare, huh?"

"I suppose," Ezra admitted wistfully. "As I opened my eyes, there was a moment of blinding hope and then just," he made a noise indicative of a crash.

Vin shook his head. "I'm sorry, pal." With a sigh he added, "I'm sorry too that I wasn't here with the rest of the boys yesterday. I went over to your place to get some stuff and kinda fell asleep on your couch. By the time I got back to the hospital you were out having tests done, then they kicked us all out for the night. Guess they bent the rules by letting everybody in at one time so they figured they'd better enforce visiting hours."

"It's all right. I wasn't really up to more visitors."

"Rough day, huh?"

"Very," he agreed simply, features tensing for several seconds before slowly relaxing again.

Trying to inject a positive note, Vin said, "Heard you're supposed to be getting regular food pretty soon. They start that yet?"

Ezra grimaced. "Bland soup and watery jell-o last night." He lifted his brows in a way that suggested a shrug and added, "Those didn't make a return appearance, so for breakfast I was graduated to scrambled eggs and juice."

"You don't seem too happy about that," Vin noted. "You know they won't keep you on that crap forever, right? Pretty soon you'll be able to have decent food whenever you want it. Even that fancy gourmet stuff you like."

He waited for Ezra's mood to perk up at the reminder but it did not happen. If anything, he appeared even more depressed.

"Something happen you're not telling me?"

For a moment, Ezra did not say anything. Then, averting his eyes he murmured, "They spoon feed me, Vin. The nurse last night said she'd be bringing dinner, and I never even thought about how I would eat it." He squeezed his eyes shut as his voice began to tremble. "This morning a different nurse fed me again, then she brushed my teeth for me and gave me a shave and a sponge-bath."

"Damn," was the quietly sympathetic reply.

"It was so humiliating." A couple of tears tracked down Ezra's cheeks in spite of his efforts. "All I could think about was that this is what it will be like every day for the rest of my life."

Vin said nothing, realizing that there were no words of comfort he could offer that would not sound patronizing. He simply waited, offering silent support as he brushed away the tears.

After a few seconds, Ezra opened his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I keep doing that."

"Reckon it's got something to do with you bein' a human being," Vin said gently. "You think the rest of us ain't bawled like babies over these last few weeks? I did. I know JD and Josiah both did. Bet the rest of 'em did too. Why shouldn't you get your share of wailin' in? You got more cause than the rest of us."

To his surprise, instead of breaking down again Ezra gave him a weak smile and changed the subject. "Nurse Jeanette said I should have the results of my testing back some time today."

"That's great. Then you can put ol' Larabee out of his misery."

Ezra's brow furrowed. "What?"

Vin shrugged. "Chris and Nathan talked to your doctor yesterday. He told 'em about the tests they were gonna do, but wouldn't give them anything else. Said he wouldn't even if he had the test results in hand already. Now that you're conscious, he wants to give you the diagnosis direct before sharing it with anyone else. Chris wasn't too happy but there wasn't anything he could do about it. He knew the doc was right. You got more right to know what's going on than any of the rest of us."

"I'm not sure I want to know," he replied quietly.

Seeing that the Ezra was avoiding looking at him, Vin stood and laid a hand upon his head. "You listen to me, now. You're gonna be okay, Ez. Even if the doctors say you won't ever get any better physically than you are right now, you will be okay. There's machines you can use and people you can hire to be your hands and feet and arms and legs, and there's no shame in letting them do what you can't. Meanwhile you still got a good brain and a better heart that you can put to use."

Ezra's lowered green eyes finally tilted up to study his face, so Vin leaned closer to allow him a good look, wanting him to see that he meant what he was saying. "You just remember that no matter what you do with the rest of your life, you ain't ever gonna be alone. The six of us are here to stay, so you might as well get used to the idea."

For a few seconds, Ezra stared at him. Then finally he gave a slow blink that Vin recognized as a substitute for the ability to nod his head.

"Good man," he said, giving his head a pat. "Now, tell me. Do you really like the room this way or do you want some changes? You doctor said we could have free rein as long as we didn't go crazy and block access to anything, but if you want something different that's just fine."

Ezra nibbled thoughtfully at his lip, glancing around the room once again. "It's fine, except . . ."

Noting the hesitation, Vin coaxed, "C'mon, give. I ain't gonna take offense."

"The calendar," he said quietly.

After a moment's thought, understanding washed over Vin's features. "Shit. That probably wasn't real smart when you don't have a release date yet, huh? Lookin' at that and wondering how many days you're gonna have to stare at these walls. I'll take it away."

"No," he said quickly. "Just . . . move it out of my line of sight."

"You sure?"

He swallowed. "Yes. Eventually, I'll have to acknowledge the passage of time. Just, not right now."

Vin started to pat his arm, then realized the foolishness of that action and brushed his hair back instead. "You got it."

"Where is everyone else today?" Ezra asked as Vin moved to comply with his request, moving the calendar to the wall behind his bed where he could no longer see it.

"At work. They'll be here at lunchtime, though. Travis has been really great about letting us spend time away from the office, but there's some kind of mandatory staff meeting going on today. Chris talked him into letting one of us skip out when he called yesterday to tell him the news about you wakin' up."

His satisfied smirk told Ezra that he hadn't minded one little bit being the one chosen to miss out. "Lucky you," he said. "Has Travis been here?"

"Yeah, a couple of times," Vin agreed. "He got into a little fight with the insurance adjusters last week. They tried to claim you were on lunch break the day you got hurt, not on the clock, and so it wasn't actually an on the job injury and they shouldn't have to pay the full premium. Travis told 'em that was bullshit and your injuries fall under the "accidental death and dismemberment" clause of the insurance contract, and so the accident didn't have to have taken place on the job. Just to make sure, though, he also signed an affidavit swearing that you were on your way to meet an informant who was giving us help with an upcoming bust. The rest of us offered to sign too, and the insurance people backed off."

Worried by the word ‘dismemberment’, Ezra glanced down at his blanket-covered body. "That was just a ruse, though, was it not?" He swallowed. "I'm not actually missing anything."

Eyes widening, Vin rushed to reassure him. "No, everything is just where it's supposed to be. Jesus, I'm sorry if I made you think otherwise. It's all there."

"It just doesn't work," Ezra finished sadly. He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Has anyone else been to visit?"

Vin followed his line of sight and sighed, remembering that Ezra had been staring toward the photograph of Maude when he had first arrived. "We've been leaving her messages ever since the day you got hurt but nobody's talked to her directly."

"She couldn't handle the news," he replied softly. "I was in a coma and you believed that I would either die or exist in a state of living death. She's run away."

"Don't seem right, runnin' out on your kid when he needs you."

Ezra's face was serious. "It's how she copes. If she cannot control her environment, she finds a new one. I don't blame her for not wanting to face this. I wish that I could run away from it too."

"But she's your mother," Vin protested helplessly.

"And she'll be back," he replied calmly.

Trying to hold back the doubt he felt, Vin replied, "I hope so."

"She'll be back," he repeated, sounding more like he was trying to convince himself than Vin. "Mother always returns . . . eventually."

Realizing that his doubt was only upsetting his friend, who had no other choice than to cling to the hope that his mother loved him enough to come back for him, no matter what condition his body was in, Vin changed the subject. “Hey, you want to watch a movie? I brought your laptop and some DVD's. I can just set it up on your bed tray."

Ezra's eyes closed. "Not just now. I'm rather tired."

Recognizing a dismissal when he heard one, Vin backed off. "All right. Guess I should get going so you can rest."

Just as he reached the door, he turned at hearing a soft, "Vin?"


Ezra's eyes reopened and he offered a small but genuine looking smile. "Thank you for coming back."

Vin gave him a grin. "You just try and get rid of me. I'll see you later, pard."

Chapter 11

It was beginning to seem as though his life was being manipulated by a remote control held in the hands of someone with a strange sense of humor.   His body had been placed on pause, while the world around him was moving in fast forward.   And now it appeared that the controller was skipping scenes.

Ezra would have sworn he had only closed his eyes for a moment after Vin had gone, but when he opened them again, Vin was not only back but the other five were with him. 

They had appropriated chairs from somewhere and all of them were standing or sitting in various places around the room, each man lost in his own thoughts.  Buck was flipping channels on the small television set mounted in the upper right corner, Josiah was turning the pages of a magazine he was clearly not reading, Nathan and JD were talking softly in the corner nearest the door, Vin was staring out the window and Chris was simply brooding, index fingers pressed against his lips as he stared intensely at the far wall.  

For several seconds, Ezra studied them, content not to be noticed.  He had not been aware of much beyond himself before now, but as he looked closely he could see signs of prolonged stress in each of their faces: tired eyes, tense muscles that would occasionally twitch involuntarily, lines creasing the eyes, mouths and foreheads where he was sure none had existed before.  It made him feel guilty, knowing that those signs of stress and fatigue were due to their worry over him, but at the same time he was touched by the obvious signs of how deeply they cared for him.

The air of seriousness that filled the small hospital room was thicker than usual today.  Ezra was beginning to grow used to the subtle air of sadness that seemed to linger here; but this time something was different.  There was an almost funerary quality to the quiet gathering and for a moment he felt a chill that had nothing to do with physical sensation.  Was he worse off than anyone had told him?  Had something terrible happened to one of the others that they had attempted to spare him knowledge of?  Oh, dear God, what if Mother had not returned because something had happened to her!

“What’s happened?” he said softly. The question was addressed generally but his eyes automatically locked on Chris as he asked it.

All six men jumped like they’d received an electric shock, turning to face him in such perfect synchronization that he again experienced that peculiar sense of cosmic manipulation. 

When no one rushed to assure him that everything was fine, Ezra’s apprehension grew.  “Please, tell me,” he begged, a sudden leap of intuition telling him that whatever was bothering his friends was not related to himself, at least not directly.  Seeing that they still hesitated, his temper flared.  “I may be immobilized, gentlemen, but I’m not dead yet!  Am I not still a part of this team?”

To his dismay, the other men flinched as if he had struck them.  JD’s expressive eyes welled with tears, causing him to turn away in embarrassment, while Josiah’s face became pinched, his eyes as sad as if he had just been asked to deliver a eulogy.

“What?” Ezra asked again, whispering the word urgently. 

Chris cleared his throat and rose to stand next to the bed.  “We had a meeting with Travis this morning,” he began, drawing his body straight in the instinctive military pose that he tended to assume whenever forced to deliver news that he did not want to share. 

Recognizing this, Ezra swallowed down a spike of fear.  “And?”

He licked his lips.  “You’ve been officially decommissioned, Ezra; placed on permanent medical disability.   Your severance and unused vacation pay have been automatically deposited in your bank account, and the bureau is picking up the cost of all your medical treatments since Travis has declared the traffic accident an on-the-job injury.”

The flat dispassionate tone of Larabee’s voice gave the news a matter of fact quality that attempted to hide his true feelings, but Ezra could see them in his eyes.  His supervisor, former supervisor now apparently, felt guilty, angry and above all, grief stricken by what he was saying.  Ezra recognized the emotions, because he felt every one of them himself. 

“I,” he paused to clear his throat as the words momentarily stuck.  “Please tell Director Travis that I’m grateful for his efforts on my behalf.”

For the moment, he could go no further as a wave of emptiness swept through him.  He closed his eyes in an attempt to keep the emotion at bay.  It had finally happened!   He had lost everything, again.   He had lost his freedom, he had lost his job, his mother had seemingly deserted him, and in spite of Vin’s earlier reassurances, it was likely only a matter of time before he lost these men too. 

Forcing himself to try and appear calm, Ezra opened his eyes again and looked around the room, meeting each pair of eyes evenly.   “What happens to the team now?  How soon am I to be re---replaced?”

He gritted his teeth as he stumbled over the final word, and Chris nodded in understanding.  “Travis gave us a month to find someone new.  If we can’t or won’t choose a new undercover operative, then he’ll assign someone for us.”

Buck spoke up.  “We also have the option to disband Team 7 and let ourselves be absorbed into the other teams.”

“Or retire,” Josiah added, his tone making it clear that he was considering doing exactly that.

“Or quit,” said JD, gaining himself more than one startled glance that proved he had not yet shared that thought with anyone else. 

“Would you really quit the ATF, JD?” Nathan asked him, apprehension in his voice.  “We’ll still have a team if Chris finds somebody good enough at Ezra’s job.  No offense meant, Ezra.”

Ezra smiled sadly at the instant, nervous-sounding apology.  In any other circumstance, he would have bet considerable money that Nathan Jackson would be the last person who would act skittish around a disabled friend. 

“None taken, Mr. Jackson.  If I’d thought about it, I would have seen this coming.  Your lives cannot fall into stasis simply because mine has changed.”  Tilting his eyes towards JD, he added, “And he’s right, you know.   There are plenty of adequate undercover agents within the bureau.  I could even recommend a few candidates, if that would make you all feel more comfortable.”

JD turned to look at him, anger sparking in his eyes.  “That’s just it, though. I don’t want someone else.  I don’t want to feel comfortable.  Dang, Ezra, it’s going to be a little tough to settle for ‘good’ or ‘adequate’ when we’ve already had perfection!”

Surprised, Ezra blushed, both pleased and embarrassment by the casual assessment of his past contribution.

“Besides,” JD continued, with a shrug. “I can work with computers anywhere, even as a remote consultant if I don’t want to go to a regular office.  I want to stick with you, Ezra, you and all the rest of the guys.  That’s the most important thing to me now.”

The young man cast a guilty look toward Chris, slumping in relief when his boss only nodded. 

“JD makes a good point,” Chris said. “After three years with you clowns, I’m not so sure I’d be willing to settle for anything else either.”

“Pretty good coin in private investigation and bodyguardin’ type work, if you’re good at ‘em,” Vin commented placidly.  “All you need’s a license and a permit for certain kinds of weapons and tactics.  Reckon our ATF certifications would make those a piece of cake.”

“Not like any of us have spent much of our money over the last few years either,” Buck added, a smile breaking out on his face.  “At least I haven’t.  Ezra here put me onto some, what did you call ‘em, lucrative investment opportunities?   So I’ve got plenty just sitting in the bank.  I’m thinking I could manage to bankroll a new business, if I had me some partners.”

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, wishing the neck brace would allow him to shake his head to clear it.  “Just hold on one damn minute,” he said, feeling that the mysterious remote control holder was at work again and had just switched the channel on him.  “You cannot possibly be serious!  Leaving the ATF, just because I’m not there with you anymore?  That’s ludicrous!”

“Why?” Josiah asked calmly, clearly warming to the idea.  “Lately I seem to be providing muscle more often than I’m actually profiling our suspects, and I’m getting a little old for that kind of crap.”

Even Nathan had started to smile.  “If I had more time and a lighter workload, I could go back to school like I been wanting to.  Maybe even get licensed as a physical therapist.”

“Because of me,” Ezra said again flatly, a hot anger kindling inside of him.  “I get run over by a fucking car, and suddenly you all want to throw your careers, your entire lives, away just so you can spend all of your time taking care of me?”

“Somebody has to!” Buck protested, then instantly winced at his own words as he saw the stricken look in Ezra’s eyes.  “Shit, don’t look at me like that.  All I meant was that we want to stand by you. And I’d say the same thing if it had been Chris or JD or any of the others in your place.  Hell, the only reason Chris and I both stuck with the government this long was this team.  Right, pal?”

Leaning his fists on the bed and drawing closer so that Ezra had no choice but to meet his eyes, Chris said, “Damned straight.  Three years ago I recruited myself a team, wasn’t looking for much more than a chance to kick a little ass.  Instead I found myself a fucking gold mine.  A family.  We’ve been magic on the job, and a hell of a lot more than that off it.”  He nodded.  “JD’s right, Ezra.  Alone, none of us would have been much.  Together, we’re damned close to perfect.”

Josiah had risen and leaned over to rest his forearms on the bed’s metal end rail.  “You wouldn’t really want us throw that away, would you?”

There was no doubt in Ezra’s mind that he was being manipulated.  He had done the routine enough times to enough people to recognize all of the signs.   These men would get along just fine without him.  There would be an adjustment period for them if they simply chose a replacement for his position on the team, and it would be awkward, but they would persevere.  It would be selfish beyond measure to accept their offer, however kindly meant, simply because he was afraid of being left on his own.

“I can’t let you,” he began.

“Can’t stop us either,” Vin cut in, blue eyes pleading with him to reconsider what he had started to say. 

Eager to make up for his unintentional blunder a moment ago, Nathan threw in, “You won’t have to worry about us hanging over you and driving you crazy, either.  If you don’t want us to be part of your therapy, we’ll find you the best personal care tech in the western United States.”

“Sure,” Buck added with a broad grin. “We can drive you crazy in our spare time.”

“Your life has undergone a major change,” Vin put in, tone very serious as he looked Ezra straight in the eye.  “That means our lives have to change too.  This idea is new, but we’ve talked about the possibilities among ourselves a bunch of times these last few weeks.  We’re willing to accept the changes, if you are.”

Ezra felt completely inadequate to express how he felt in the wake of this show of solidarity.   Were they really willing to take such a huge step, just for him?   Yes.  He could see it in their eyes that they were.  They actually wanted this, and the wary yet determined look each man carried also said to him that every single one of them expected him to be too prideful to accept their offer and were already marshalling additional arguments.  

Nibbling his lip, he turned his gaze toward the ceiling, once more using the blank white tiles as a way to separate himself from the reality of his situation while he pondered.  It was horrible to consider that he might be so selfish, but the very thought of his team, his brothers, going out into the field with some other undercover operative, inviting this stranger to join them for drinks at their favorite bar, Sunday barbecues at the ranch, evenings of poker, movies and bullshitting sessions at their homes; doing all of these things while he lay here alone and missing them, made him feel sick. 

What if he did allow them to help with the physical part?   Would the humiliation be worth it?  Would it draw them even closer together or would they be pulled apart by resentment and frustration?   Nurse Jeanette had told him last night as she gave him his dinner that some form of therapy would be started as soon as his injuries were deemed sufficiently healed to begin.  He also knew that once therapy began the process would be never-ending, even if it never produced a single scrap of improvement in his condition.  He seriously doubted that his friends had truly considered the commitment they were offering to make. 

His eyes flickered briefly to Nathan.  Nathan had considered the long-term, he was certain of it.  Suddenly, he knew that this was the reason his usually eager to help friend had seemed nervous ever since he had awakened.   He understood what would be required and it frightened him.  Nathan was afraid that he would be asked to do too much, but able to do too little. 

‘But he came back anyway,’ a little voice whispered in Ezra’s brain.  ‘He’s here and he’s making the same offer as everyone else.’ 

Would it be more selfish to accept or to decline?

“Come on, Ezra,” JD said softly, capturing his attention once more.  “Take a chance on us, huh?”

He weighed the costs, both present and potential, against the one hard truth of his situation – he needed these men.  He had come to depend on them, in spite of a lifetime spent learning how not to depend on anyone, and the thought of going through this ordeal without them was unbearable.

“Are you really sure you want to do this?” he asked finally.

For the first time since he had awakened, Chris Larabee favored him with a genuine smile.  “How would you feel about being a financial consultant?  I don’t know shit about running my own company.”


Chapter 12

Ezra found his attention drifting in the midst of the others men's planning, lulled by their excited discussion of the team's newly proposed future and the comforting knowledge that he was still a wanted and necessary part of that future, no matter his physical condition.

"We should go; let him rest."

Unsure exactly who had spoken the words, but knowing that he did not want them to go yet, Ezra forced his heavy eyelids open. "No," he grunted. "'M all right."

Stubborn cuss, I though you were asleep," Nathan chided, the smile on his face reflected in his voice as he laid a hand atop Ezra's head and gently ruffled his hair. There had been a time when none of them would have considered doing such a thing, but they had quickly adapted to the realization that their once standoffish friend now needed and craved physical contact. "Sure you're okay?"

A sigh puffed over Ezra's lips at the question and he frowned, concentration suddenly diverted by the awareness of air passing in and out of his lungs. Had he been able to feel that before and simply been unaware of it? It was possible. After all, how often did anyone think about breathing unless they were having difficulty doing it?

Very slowly, Ezra drew air in through his nostrils, inhaling until he could hold no more. It was a most peculiar sensation, for there was no straining of back or chest muscles that he could detect; yet he was aware of the pressure against his lungs. Letting the breath flow back out through pursed lips, he again catalogued the feeling, then repeated the entire exercise again, and still again. Never had the simple act of drawing breath been so fascinating.

A concerned Buck drew his attention away from his curious contemplation. "Ezra," he demanded. "What's wrong, buddy? You having trouble getting enough air?"

"No," he said simply.

Picking up on the note of wonder in his tone, the others exchanged confused looks.

"You're not?" Nathan confirmed.

Feeling foolish, he admitted, "I can feel my lungs expanding and contracting as I breathe. That's all. I hadn't realized it before."

The concerned looks melted into approval and surprise. "That's good isn't it?" JD asked hopefully. “I mean, there wasn't anything below the neck yesterday, right?"

Embarrassment growing, he said, "I believe I've only just becoming aware of the process." He blushed. "I'm sorry, that must sound incredibly inane."

The younger man only smiled. "Not to me. I think it's great! Unexpected, too."

Oh?" he asked, wondering if he was being humored.

Josiah confirmed that he was not. "The odds against you having any kind of sensation, especially this soon, were so long that the doctors didn't even bother to handicap them."

A flicker of humor twitched Ezra's lips. "So to speak."

Surprised by the comeback, the others laughed.

"Your friends are right," a voice said from the doorway. As everyone turned to look, a doctor walked into the room brandishing a clipboard in one hand. Addressing Ezra he continued, "Ever since the day you were brought in, these men have been telling me that you're someone who enjoys beating the odds. I'm glad to be able to confirm that they were right."

"Hiya, doc," Vin said casually.

Ezra found himself slightly disturbed by the familiarity with which the rest of his friends also proceeded to greet this stranger. "Excuse me," he interrupted, "but who exactly are you?"

Cheerful expression fading into a more rueful one, the doctor said, "I apologize, Mr. Standish. After three weeks I'd forgotten that we haven't been introduced yet. My name is Doctor Michael King and I've been your primary care physician during the time you've spent at Denver Memorial. It's nice to finally meet you."

Ezra was chagrined to recall that he had seen this man last night during his battery of testing but had dismissed him as an intern. He was of medium-height and built on the chunky side, his dark hair shaved down to mere fuzz that only accentuated his round face and large blue eyes. The fact that his crooked eyebrows gave him a continually surprised look and he also sported a tiny triangular soul patch beneath his lower lip did not help. The man looked younger than JD!

Seeming to understand the dubious expression on his patient's face, King grinned. "Don't say it. You were expecting someone older, right?"

"Well . . . yes," he admitted slowly.

Obligingly bringing his hospital ID close enough for Ezra to read, he pointed at the birth date which confirmed that, in spite of appearances, he was actually 38 years old.

Ezra studied the identification, then canted his eyes up to take another good look at the man's face. Now that he was closer, Ezra could make out fine lines around his eyes and mouth. "I apologize," he said, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt. "If anyone should understand that looks can be deceiving, it's me."

"Happens all the time," he said easily. "In fact, I get a kick out of it."

A wan smile flickered over Ezra's face and then faltered into a look of nervousness as he asked, "Do you have the results of my tests?"

The doctor held up his clipboard again, "Right here."

"Let's have 'em," Chris interrupted impatiently, looking as if he wanted to reach out and snatch the papers right out of King's hand.

The physician did not so much as flinch under the power of this hard-eyed stare, and Ezra's respect for him instantly went up a notch. "You said something about beating the odds?" he asked.

"Yes, I did, and I'll explain what I meant by that in a moment. First, I need you to better understand the nature of the injury to your spine. Could one of you gentlemen assist me for a moment?"

Not quite knowing what he was volunteering for, Vin raised his hand and stepped forward. "What do you need?"

"I'd like borrow you momentarily as a visual aid for Mr. Standish. Can I ask you to pull the back of your shirt up?"

Realizing what he intended, Vin quickly untucked his shirt and gathered it up, pulling it forward over his head and turning around to give Ezra a good view of his back.

Placing his fingers high in the center of Vin's shoulder blades, King drew a short line downward. "The damage was to the thoracic region, right here, specifically the first and second thoracic vertebrae. When the car struck you, you flew backward and impacted the ground directly against this spot. You then continued to roll into a half somersault which pressed your skull forward and caused additional compression damage to your lower cervical vertebrae." His finger drew a line upward, pausing at the center of Vin's neck before once again touching the spot between his shoulders. "The human spinal column is extremely strong, but these two vertebrae were struck with enough force to crack them. One drove a piece of itself directly through the spinal cord, causing the nerves and tendons to shear. We repaired what damage we could but I'm sorry to say that the location and severity of this injury indicates that the damage to your legs will be permanent."

Ezra's eyes clenched tightly against a tide of pain and panic that flooded over him at the confirmation of his paralysis as a lifelong condition. Then they flew open again, blinking as he replayed the doctor's words. "I'm sorry, did you say my legs? Just my legs?"

The doctor patted Vin on the shoulder to indicate that he could straighten his clothing again. "Thank you." Turning back to Ezra, he said, "With time and a whole lot of intensive therapy, there's a very good possibility that you will eventually regain much of the feeling and motor control throughout your upper body."

This was so far distant from what anyone had been expecting to hear that they all simply stared at the doctor for a long moment, barely able to make sense of his words. Finally, Josiah spoke for them all as he choked out, "You mean he’s going to get better?"

"He already is getting better," King said, smiling. He allowed them a chance to process this information, then told Ezra, "Fortunately, you have what is known in medical circles as an incomplete spinal cord injury. Your current inability to move has actually proved beneficial in that it's prevented any sort of stress on your body. No strain on the bones and joints means that the damage is mending cleanly and quickly. Your separated shoulder has healed and the brace on your arm should be able to come off very soon as well. The neck brace will need to stay in place for a bit, but it's been doing an excellent job of realigning the compression injury to your neck. We're already seeing considerable improvement to your cervical spine."

"But," Ezra faltered, "If the damage to my neck is healing, then why . .?"

"Why can't you feeling anything?" the doctor anticipated. "The compression injury was a severe one and the nerves and tendons of your upper spinal cord still have some healing to do. In addition, our tests have shown that you have a fluid buildup between two of the healing vertebra. It's pressing against the spinal cord and blocking most of the sensation you might otherwise have begun to feel."

"Is it dangerous?" Chris demanded.

Quick to reassure, the doctor said, "Only if it's allowed to remain untreated indefinitely. Blood clots are not at all uncommon in situations where a patient is immobilized over an extended period of time. Under normal circumstances, we could perform surgery to remove it and that's still a very likely option, but in Mr. Standish's current condition the blockage is actually less dangerous than the surgery would be."

"Why?" asked JD. "Wouldn't it be better to remove it now so he can start getting some feeling back?"

Ezra was in total agreement. Anxiety making his tone sharp, he added, "Anything would be better than this!"

Looking him straight in the eye, the doctor's tone softened. "Mr. Standish, I know this is difficult but please keep in mind that in addition to your other injuries you're recovering from a severe head trauma. That alone gives us reason to be cautious, especially as you've been exhibiting normal brain activity for less than 48 hours. The last thing I want to do right now is to put you under anesthesia for a surgical procedure that would have no real benefit to you yet. I know it isn't what you want to hear, but it's for the best, believe me."

Ezra studied his face for a long while, reading the truth in his eyes. This man was only trying to do what was best for him. Fighting the urge to argue, to demand that something be done immediately, he asked, "Can you promise me that after my body has healed more, you will remove this blockage?"

"As soon as it's medically feasible," he said.

Licking his lips, Ezra confirmed, "And, and eventually I will get better?"

Able to recognize how desperate he was for reassurance, Doctor King's pale gaze did not waver. "Yes."

Ezra gulped, tears springing to his eyes and swelling his throat, preventing him from saying anything more.

Voice hushed, Chris said the words for him, "Thank God."

Beaming with relief and happiness, Nathan asked, "So, if you can't operate right now, then what's the next step? I assume you're not going to just ignore that blood clot and hope it doesn't get worse."

"I've prescribed a course of blood thinners," King told him evenly, seemingly undisturbed by the note of challenge in the EMT's voice. "I also want him to begin physical therapy immediately to help with general circulation. There's a chance that the treatments may cause the clot to dissolve without surgery, but in any case we want to give the body a chance to heal as much as possible before conducting any sort of invasive procedure."

Blinking away his tears, Ezra cleared his throat. "And if I do get better-"

"When," Buck and JD interrupted in unison.

Ezra smiled slightly. "When I get better, what degree of improvement can I expect?"

Checking his clipboard, the physician noted, "The damaged area will primarily affect your body from the waist down. This means that if you work hard, you could eventually regain the majority of sensation and dexterity in your hands and arms."

"But not my legs," he concluded flatly, staring sadly down at the unmoving lump beneath the bedclothes.

"I'm sorry."

Ezra thought this over for a long while, trying to come to grips with fact that he had just been offered unexpected hope while at the same time being condemned to never walk again. Assorted ramifications for his future flooded through his brain too fast to process. Finally, as his gaze fastened on the lines of fluid stretching out from below his covers, Ezra cleared his throat. He knew what he wanted to ask but found himself embarrassed to say the words.

"What are you thinking, Ezra?" Vin asked gently. He and the others had been curiously silent, allowing him a chance to absorb what he had heard.

Trying to remind himself that he had long since deemed it acceptable for these men to have access to his private concerns, Ezra's eyes flicked towards the doctor again. "Can you tell me if, as I recover, I will regain control over my . . . my personal functions?"

Several faces colored as the implications of the hesitant question sank in.

"Your physical therapists will help you regain muscular control in any area that regains feeling," the doctor said, promising everything and nothing all in the same breath. "Unfortunately, only time can answer that question. I won't lie to you, Mr. Standish. You're looking at a long and difficult road ahead. I can't promise that your life will ever go completely back to normal, only that it will get better with time."

"We'll that's good enough for me," Buck stated firmly. "And don't you worry, pal, 'cause we're going to be with you and back you up every step of the way."

Picking up Ezra's limp left hand Buck covered it with his own, nodding to JD, who added a hand of his own. Quickly, the other men followed suit until all seven were united.

Slowly, a determined look bloomed over Ezra's features. "What kind of odds would you give me now, Doctor King?"

The physician winked. "Whatever they are, something tells me that you'll do everything you can to beat them."

 The End



Author’s Note: I realize that this feels like a bit of a non-ending, as there are several points brought up (Maude’s non-appearance for one.) but I didn’t want long passages of describing Ezra’s therapy and struggles with paralysis in this particular story. I tried, and it just didn’t fit.   I prefer to leave this one on a note of hope and possibly deal with the rest in a sequel somewhere down the line.