Comfort and Joy
The slamming of a car door roused him from his reverie. Chris took a last look at the picture of his wife and son, before setting it back on the bureau. He had promised Buck that he would try to have a good time this Christmas, if only for the sake of JD, who was spending his first Christmas without his mother. It wasn't going to be easy, but he was determined to try. Wiping a stray tear from his cheek, he made his way to the door to welcome his guests.
Christmas Eve. The day had finally arrived, and Chris prepared for the onslaught that was Team Seven. He grinned as Buck and JD argued their way up the stairs onto the porch, their arms laden with bags and boxes.
"Hey, Chris," JD called cheerfully, peering around the cardboard box he carried.
"JD, Buck," Chris greeted his friends. "What's all that stuff?"
"Oh, uh, Casey found out we were all spending Christmas together and she baked us a pie and some cookies." JD's cheeks, already flushed with the cold, turned an even deeper shad of red.
"I see," Chris said with a smile.
"I brought us some beverages, as requested," Buck said, hefting his bag.
"Good," Chris said. "You know where the fridge is."
The two men bustled into the house with Chris trailing behind them, chuckling softly at the banter being exchanged. A noise that sounded suspiciously like a gunshot brought the three of them to immediate attention, as they searched warily for its source.
Buck began to laugh when he identified the cause of the ruckus. "Josiah's here."
Chris shook his head and headed back to the porch, watching Josiah park his car, which was spewing oily black smoke from its tailpipe. "Guess you haven't had time to make use of your gift yet." Chris remarked once Josiah had reached the stairs with his box.
A hearty laugh was his answer. "No, not yet. I've been busy helping out at the homeless shelter this weekend."
Chris nodded, knowing that the older man devoted much of his free time to helping the disadvantaged, especially at this time of year. "I'm glad you could make it."
"Wouldn't miss it." Josiah studied his boss for a moment, noting the hint of sadness in his eyes, and smiled knowingly, knowing that the man was struggling against his memories. "Where do you want this?" He hefted the box in his arms.
"What is it?"
"It's a ham," Josiah replied. "Big one, too."
"It should fit in the fridge," Chris answered. "...provided Buck hasn't filled it completely with beer."
Josiah laughed. "Don't worry, I'll make room."
Nathan and Vin arrived shortly after Josiah, both bearing food.
"So what did you guys bring?" JD asked curiously.
"I made some sweet potatoes," Nathan answered as he searched for a place in the refrigerator to set his dish.
"I brought munchies," Vin replied, dumping bags of chips and pretzels on the counter. "And Nettie sent us this broccoli casserole." He wrinkled his nose. Vegetables were not his favorite type of food.
"She probably knows how y'all usually eat," Nathan said with a smirk. "Wouldn't hurt ya to eat something green once in a while."
Vin smiled and held up a package of green marshmallow Christmas trees.
"Don't count if there's sugar in it," Nathan snorted.
"Well, I like broccoli," Josiah announced.
"Me too," Chris added.
"Good, you can have my share," Vin retorted, taking a bag of chips and his sugary green snack into the living room.
Nathan shook his head, muttering, "Why do I even bother?"
Chris leaned against the doorjamb and smiled as he watched his friends putter around the kitchen. Maybe it wouldn't be so hard to enjoy this Christmas after all.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra yawned and stretched as he shuffled into the kitchen. The one good thing about it being Christmas day was that he could sleep in without worrying about missing anything. He had no place he had to be, so he could stay in bed as late as he wanted. He brewed a pot of coffee while he prepared his bagel. Opening the refrigerator, he frowned when he realized that he had forgotten to buy cream for his coffee. Ezra contemplated drinking it black, but then decided he really wanted cream. It was Christmas, after all.
Dressing quickly in jeans and a sweatshirt, Ezra grabbed his coat and keys and headed for the convenience store down the block. It was cold, having snowed the previous evening, and Ezra shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his wool coat. It was only a short walk to the store, but he hurried anyway, not eager to spend any more time in the cold than he had to.
Nodding toward the bored sales clerk, Ezra entered the store, bells chiming merrily behind him as the door shut. He quickly retrieved his cream and headed for the counter, but when he attempted to pay for his merchandise, he discovered that he had forgotten his wallet. Heaving an annoyed sigh, he returned the carton of cream to its case and turned to leave the store, stopping short when he spotted the man who had just walked through the door.
The man was tall and thin, with long stringy hair covered by a black watch cap. His face was unshaven and his clothes were badly in need of washing, but it was the gun in his hand that had captured Ezra's attention. Cursing himself for not having his own weapon available, he ducked behind a display case and quietly made his way toward the front of the store, where he circled around the armed man and crept up behind him silently. In a flurry of motion, he tackled the would-be robber, kicking the gun away as he restrained the thief's arms. The wiry man struggled against his grasp, but Ezra held firm.
"Call 911!" he shouted to the frightened young man behind the register.
The boy reached for the telephone, then froze suddenly, ducking his head below the counter with a gasp. Ezra turned to see what had frightened him and was met with a sharp blow to the face by a second man, who had managed to enter the store unseen while Ezra had been subduing his cohort. Rolling into a defensive crouch, he attempted to take cover behind a shelf of potato chips, but did not move fast enough. The shot rang out and Ezra was flung backwards into a rack of magazines, a burning pain flaring in his chest. His awareness was fading quickly, and his last thought was that he really should have taken his coffee black that morning.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Incoming!" Vin called, as JD tossed a cookie at Buck.
Buck ducked and the cookie hit the side of Chris's head. Chris turned around slowly, arching an eyebrow in JD's direction.
"Um, sorry Chris," JD said, chagrined.
Chris picked up the cookie and took a large bite. "Thanks, JD."
"I must say, this has been an enjoyable day," Josiah said as he sipped contentedly on his beer. They had awakened early, courtesy of Buck and JD, who couldn't wait to open the gifts they had brought. After a leisurely breakfast, Vin and JD had taken out Chris's snowmobiles, while their older teammates took the horses for a quiet ride through the woods. A vigorous snowball fight had ended the day, and now, they were finally relaxing after a satisfying dinner. It didn't get much better than this.
"Yeah. That dinner was really great," JD said enthusiastically. "Even the broccoli."
Vin made a face and Chris chuckled. "Yeah, it was pretty good."
"Too bad Ez wouldn't have been here," Buck added as he dropped into a chair.
"I wonder how he's enjoying his Christmas," Josiah pondered.
"He's probably having a hell of a time at all those fancy parties," Nathan replied.
"I bet there's some fine looking women there," Buck said wistfully.
"Maybe," Vin said quietly.
Josiah looked at him questioningly. "You don't think so?"
Vin shrugged. "Just got a feelin' Ez ain't having as good a time as he wants us to think."
"What makes you say that?" Nathan asked.
"Nothin' in particular," Vin replied. "Just a feelin'."
Chris eyed him thoughtfully. Vin's feelings were usually close to the truth.
The phone rang and Chris went to answer it, while Buck and JD started wrestling on the floor. Vin entered the fray, jumping onto Buck's back when it appeared that he was winning. Josiah smiled indulgently and Nathan watched closely to ensure that they didn't injure themselves. None of them noticed the rapid loss of color from Chris's face until he said sharply, "When did it happen?!"
As one, the five men turned toward their boss, matching looks of concern on their faces once they saw Chris's expression.
"We'll be there in about an hour," Chris said, hanging up the phone. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose before turning to face his men. "Looks like you were right, Vin."
"What do you mean?" Vin asked, a feeling of dread settling into his stomach.
"Ez ain't having a very good time today," Chris replied. "He's in the hospital."
"What happened?" the men asked, nearly in unison.
"They wouldn't give me any details," Chris replied. "All I know is that he got shot somehow."
"So much for tidings of comfort and joy," Josiah said sadly as he joined his comrades in heading for the door.
* * * * * * * * * *
The nurse's eyes widened at the sight of the six imposing men making their way determinedly toward her desk. She opened her mouth to speak, but shut it when her supervisor approached and motioned to her to leave. Grateful, she hurried away from the desk, but remained within earshot to see what these men wanted in her hospital.
"Mr. Larabee," Nurse Baker greeted the blond ATF leader. She was familiar with these men and was well aware of their tendency to intimidate her nursing staff.
"Where is he?" Chris demanded.
"He's in intensive care," she replied.
"What happened?" Nathan asked politely.
"Agent Standish was brought in at around ten o'clock this morning," Nurse Baker answered succinctly. "He was apparently shot while trying to thwart a robbery at a convenience store."
"Ten a.m.?" Chris asked incredulously. "That's eleven hours ago! Why weren't we notified immediately?!"
"I apologize, Mr. Larabee, but Mr. Standish had no identification on him, and none of the morning staff recognized him," she explained. "I called as soon as realized when I came in for my shift at seven."
"Damn," Buck said, rubbing his hand over his face.
"Hell of a way to spend Christmas," Vin commented softly.
"Can we see him?" JD asked.
Nurse Baker sighed. She was supposed to limit visitors in the ICU, but she knew that such restrictions never worked with these men. "You can see him for a few minutes, but only two of you can stay at a time."
They grumbled, but accepted the conditions, following her apprehensively down the hall to Ezra's room. Quietly, the six men surrounded the bed where their seventh lay.
"What the hell is he doing here?" Buck asked, frustrated by the incongruity of the situation. "He's supposed to be in London with Maude."
"Well, he's not," Nathan said, frowning as he tallied the damage that was done to the undercover agent.
"How does it look, Nate?" Chris asked.
"He took a shot to the chest, probably through the lung I'd guess that's why he's on the ventilator and a hard blow to his head. He's probably got a concussion."
"Is he gonna be okay?" asked JD, worry etched deeply on his face.
"He should be," Nathan said. "But I'll feel better after I talk with the doctor."
The men looked at the livid bruises and bandages on the pale man's face and listened to the steady thrum of the respirator, wondering how their friend had ended up in this condition.
The doctor arrived twenty minutes later, stopping uncertainly inside the doorway when he saw the formidable group of men surrounding his patient. He cleared his throat and stepped into the room. "Gentlemen?"
"Doctor...?" Chris offered his hand.
"Robertson," the doctor supplied his name and shook Chris's hand. "I hear our John Doe has a name."
"Ezra Standish," Buck stated.
"Agent Ezra Standish with the ATF," Josiah added.
Dr. Robertson nodded. "That makes sense, considering the circumstances of his injury."
"How is he?" Chris asked insistently.
"The gunshot wound was quite serious," the doctor explained without preamble, sensing that these men would not appreciate any beating around the bush. "The bullet pierced the lung and bounced off of a rib, so we had to pick out some bone shards before we could stitch him up. He's a bit weak from blood loss, but he's doing quite well."
"What about the head wound?" Nathan inquired.
"We had to put in a few stitches along the hairline, but, aside from a moderate concussion, there was no other damage."
"Will he wake up soon?" JD asked, twisting the hem of his shirt nervously.
"It's difficult to tell," Dr. Robertson said. "He's suffered quite a trauma, so it could be as little as a few hours or as much as a few days."
Nathan nodded his agreement. "We'll be staying with him 'til he wakes up."
"I understand," the doctor said with a sympathetic smile. He had dealt with members of law enforcement before and knew it would be almost impossible to dislodge these men from the side of their fellow agent, even if he had objected to their presence which he didn't. He, unlike many of his associates, felt that family and friends were often the best medicine.
"I do need to examine my patient, gentlemen," he said politely.
Chris gave a curt nod and herded his men out of the room.
"I just don't understand what he was doing in a convenience store today," JD muttered.
"Maybe he changed his plans," Nathan suggested.
"Lord, someone should call Maude," Josiah said, rubbing his hand over his face.
"Do we have her number?" asked Nathan.
Chris shook his head. "No. He told me she moved around too much and never gave me a contact number."
"He must have a number for her somewhere," Buck said.
"Why don't you and Vin go check his place?" Chris directed. "See if you can find anything."
Vin gave him a tense nod and headed down the hall with Buck.
"I'll go check the office," Nathan offered. "He may have an address book or something in his desk."
"I'm going to check with the PD, find out what happened," Josiah said.
"The rest of us will stay here with Ez," Chris said, stating the obvious.
The apartment manager had left for the day, so in the interest of saving time, Vin picked the lock on Ezra's apartment door. Buck eased the door open and stepped inside the apartment, whistling softly. "Damn, this is a nice place!" This was the first time any of them had been inside Ezra's apartment, and Buck was impressed with the spacious residence.
Vin looked around the living room and frowned. "Kind of empty." The apartment was tastefully decorated, but seemed to lack the warmth of a real home, looking more like a magazine layout than a place where someone actually resided. He spotted the small Christmas tree and moved to get a closer look.
"What is it?" inquired Buck.
"His Christmas tree," Vin replied, picking up one of the greeting cards.
"Anything from his ma?"
"This one's from his dry cleaner," Vin said as he set the card down and picked up the one beside it, which had a large, colorful Nutcracker on the front.
"Here's the one JD sent," Buck said. Their youngest teammate had sent them each a card, despite the agreement among the men not to send them to one another. "Who's that one from?"
"The Atlanta Children's Center," Vin said with a hint of surprise.
"Let me see," Buck said, looking over Vin's shoulder.
"Dear Mr. Standish," Buck read aloud. "The children wanted to let you know they miss you and hope that you are happy in Denver. Your generous donation was much appreciated, but I think the time you spent with the children was just as precious. They especially miss the stories you read to them when you visited. I know that Christmas just won't be the same without your rendition of the story of the Nutcracker. I believe the little girls will always consider you their favorite Nutcracker Prince. Happy holidays from the children and staff."
"Well, I'll be damned," Buck said softly as he set the card back on the table. "Never would have thought Ez would be one to spend his time with kids."
"Yeah," Vin agreed, handing him the last card.
"Denver Children's Hospital," Buck said. "Guess he does like kids."
"Ain't no other cards," Vin pointed out.
"Geez," Buck said sadly. "Guess his friends aren't into sending cards."
Vin shook his head. "From what Chris told me, the guys he worked with at the FBI weren't exactly friends. They turned on him as soon as the rumors about him bein' on the take started."
"Hell, that's gotta suck," Buck said with a frown.
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "Why don't you check the bedrooms? I'll look out here."
Buck started down the hall while Vin looked around the living room, checking any drawers and papers he encountered for information about Maude. He felt a bit guilty about poking through Ezra's wallet and personal papers, but recognized the necessity of what he was doing. Finding nothing there, he moved on to the kitchen, not expecting to find anything helpful. There was no number for his mother programmed into Ezra's phone and nothing on the counters except for the usual kitchen paraphernalia. Sighing in defeat, Vin opened the refrigerator, idly studying the contents while he waited for Buck to finish.
Buck came back out to the living room empty-handed. "Any luck, Junior?"
"Nope," Vin said, still gazing into the refrigerator.
"Something interesting in there?"
Vin pointed to the foil container on the shelf. "Looks like Ez was doing take-out for Christmas dinner."
"You think his mother cancelled on him?"
"I don't think he was ever goin' to see her in the first place," Vin said quietly. "He's got dinner and enough videos for the whole holiday weekend."
"But he said he was going to London," Buck argued.
"He never actually said he was spending Christmas with his mother," Vin said. "We all just assumed he was."
"He never denied it," Buck said, doubt creeping into his voice.
"Would you?" Vin asked. "JD must have told him ten times how lucky he was to be spending his holiday with his mother. Nathan made a lot of cracks about how he'd be spending Christmas in luxury. He was probably too embarrassed to admit that he wasn't seeing his ma at Christmas like we all expected."
"Shit, I wish he would'a said something," Buck said regretfully. "Nobody should have to spend Christmas alone with a TV dinner."
Vin nodded. "Come on, Buck. Let's see if Nathan had any better luck at the office."
The two men started toward the door.
"Hey!" Buck said, pointing at the blinking light on the answering machine near the door. "Maybe there's something on here."
"Worth a shot," Vin agreed.
Buck hit the button and listened to the first message, which was just a computerized telemarketer selling replacement windows. The next and final message was more interesting. Maude's voice, sounding peeved, emanated from the answering machine."Ezra, darlin', I received your latest missive. Christmas cards? I suppose you'll be writing to Santa Claus next. Really, Ezra, I do wish you wouldn't wallow in such useless sentimentality every year. Whining to your mother is quite unbecoming. You know very well that this time of year presents the best business opportunities. You cannot expect me to ignore them simply to waste my time on pointless holiday nonsense. The holiday season in Rome is especially rife with prospects this year. You would do well to use your god-given talents to take advantage of some of these opportunities, instead of wasting them on that pitiful government job. *sigh* Well, I'll speak with you soon, darlin'."
"Jesus," Buck said. "No wonder he didn't say anything."
Vin said nothing, but his clenched jaw and stormy eyes spoke volumes.
"Come on," Buck said. "Let's get back to the hospital."
* * * * * * * * * *
The rest of the men were lounging in various positions around Ezra's bed in his new private room when Vin and Buck arrived back at the hospital.
"How's he doin'?" Vin asked.
"Better, but he hasn't woken up yet," Nathan answered.
"Did they get the guys that did this?" asked Buck.
"Not yet," Josiah said disgustedly. "But they've got some good video footage from the store surveillance system to work with."
"You guys have any luck finding Maude's number?" Nathan queried.
"Nope," Vin answered tersely.
"Don't much matter," Buck said darkly. "She probably won't give a damn, anyway."
"What?!" JD said, aghast.
"Care to explain that?" Josiah asked, his eyes narrowing at the insult to Ezra's mother. They had only met the woman briefly when she had stopped by to take Ezra to lunch on a visit to Denver two months earlier, but he had found her beautiful, charming, and seemingly devoted to her son.
"Don't mind if I do," Buck answered grimly. He explained Maude's phone message and what they had found at Ezra's apartment, while Vin radiated silent anger by his side.
"Knew there was something I didn't like about that woman," Chris muttered angrily.
"But... she's his Mom," JD said, confusion in his eyes.
"Not everyone is cut out for motherhood, JD," Nathan explained, feeling a pang of sympathy for the man lying in the bed. He didn't have much growing up, but at least his parents had been supportive of him and the career choices he made.
Josiah sighed sadly and reached for Ezra's hand. He knew firsthand the pain of an uncaring parent. His own father had placed everything and everyone else ahead of his own children, never showing any real love toward them. It saddened him that his young friend apparently suffered the same kind of pain.
"Why didn't spend Christmas with us?" JD wondered aloud. "I mean, if his Mom wasn't gonna be with him, why didn't he come and hang out with us instead?"
"'Cause he's a stubborn cuss, kid," Buck said glumly. "How would you feel if your own mother didn't want to see you at Christmas?"
JD pondered that for a minute before nodding sadly. "Man, that sucks." He looked at his friends guiltily. "I told him he was so lucky to be able to see his mother at Christmas. I guess I made him feel worse."
"Ain't your fault, JD," Vin said softly. "He's real good at hiding his feelings." In truth, Vin felt a bit guilty himself as he remembered all of the times Ezra had witnessed their discussions about the holiday festivities they were planning. Having been on the outside looking in a time or two himself, Vin knew how isolated it must have made the southerner feel.
"He hasn't known us long enough to even begin to trust us with what he's feeling," Josiah postulated. "I gather that his former associates didn't exactly inspire trust, so it's to be expected."
"Don't make it right," Chris said finally. It bothered him that he knew so little about his undercover agent after four months. Ezra's transition to this new position had been anything but smooth, and his emotions were probably still raw from being forced out of his former job. The man was probably feeling quite alone in the world. Chris shook his head in disgust. It shouldn't require something like this to gain insight into the reticent southerner. Watching the heart monitor flash regularly, he decided he was going to have to do something to change that.
* * * * * * * * * *
The harsh odor of antiseptics filtered through the fog of unconsciousness, making his nose tingle. Ezra attempted to take a deeper breath, then started to panic when he couldn't seem to do it. His eyes snapped open as he struggled to inhale and a shrill alarm shrieked from somewhere behind him as Ezra clawed frantically at his throat.
"Leave it alone, Ez," a voice soothed from his left. "You've got a ventilator in there. Just relax and let it work."
Ezra turned his head toward the familiar voice and relaxed fractionally at the sight of Vin at his side. A sharp pain shot suddenly through his chest and he gripped Vin's hand tightly until it passed. A doctor and nurse rushed into the room, silencing the annoying alarm before they proceeded to examine him. Vin gave Ezra an encouraging smile when he met his confused and frustrated gaze.
"Mr. Standish? Do you know where you are?" the doctor asked.
Ezra rolled his eyes and nodded.
"Good," the doctor said. "Are you in any pain?"
Ezra nodded slightly, moving his hand to his chest to indicate the area that hurt.
"This will help," the doctor said as he injected something into Ezra's intravenous line. "Do you remember what happened?"
Ezra thought about it for a moment then nodded again. He remembered everything up until he was shot in the convenience store. It was hard to forget taking a bullet to the chest. He pointed to the ventilator tube in his mouth and gave the doctor a hopeful look.
"Now, I know it isn't very comfortable, but we need to leave the respirator in for a little while longer," the doctor responded, much to Ezra's disappointment. "The bullet that hit you penetrated your lung, so it's important that we let it heal some before we let you breathe on your own."
Closing his eyes, Ezra sank wearily into his pillow.
"You rest now, and we can see about removing the vent tomorrow."
Ezra opened his eyes and glared at him, waving him away weakly. Vin chuckled at the look. It seemed that the southerner hated hospitals as much as he himself did.
"How're ya doin', Ez?" Vin asked once the medical personnel had left.
The look the man in the bed gave him told him all he needed to know.
"That bad, huh?"
Ezra shrugged, immediately regretting it when the pain in his chest intensified. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists until it passed.
"I guess those drugs haven't kicked in yet," Vin said sympathetically.
Nodding weakly, Ezra opened his eyes and looked at Vin inquiringly, as if to say, "What are you doing here?"
"We've been here since they called us at Chris's place last night," Vin answered the unspoken question. "'Course, we would have been here sooner if'n you'd had your wallet on you when they found you."
Ezra waved his hand around the empty room, the question evident in his eyes.
"The others had to go back to the office for a bit, but they'll be back later," Vin explained.
His hands toying with the sheets, Ezra nodded, then looked away, as if embarrassed to be asking about his teammates.
"Hasn't been much of a Christmas for ya, has it?" Vin asked ruefully.
Christmas? Ezra's eyes widened and he stared at Vin, a stricken look on his face. After all of his careful prevarication he had still managed to ruin the holiday for his associates, giving them yet another reason to dislike him. Not that he needed any help in that regard. He seemed to have quite a knack for alienating people without much effort at all.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Vin frowned at the sudden change in his friend's demeanor. "Ezra?" But the undercover agent refused to look at him, shutting his eyes and turning away as much as the tube in his throat would allow.
Vin studied his friend in consternation, wondering what had brought on his sudden withdrawal. Ezra's face gradually relaxed as the painkillers finally took effect and sleep claimed him. Vin settled beside him to wait, reviewing the one-sided conversation in his head. It finally came to him a few minutes later.
"Aw hell," Vin muttered softly. Christmas. He had mentioned the day, reminding Ezra of what he had missed and probably embarrassing him in the process. Ezra now knew that they were aware of his deception and was likely feeling guilty for having misled them. Vin sighed, wishing the obstinate man would look beyond his formidable barriers and see that they weren't enemies from whom he had to hide. But he knew how difficult it was to trust when you were used to being alone, and Ezra had only been with them for four months a short time compared to the many years of doubt and suspicion that had caused him to hide behind his walls in the first place. Vin figured they had their work cut out for them.
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