Comfort and Joy
"Any change?" Chris asked Vin as he and Buck entered the room.
Vin nodded. "He woke up a couple hours ago. Gave the doctor some dirty looks."
Buck smirked. "Guess he feels the same way about 'em as you do."
"How did he seem?" Chris asked.
Vin shrugged. "He was hurtin' some, but the docs fixed that." He paused, looking down at the sleeping man. "I don't think he was expecting to see me."
"Why not?" asked Buck.
"Don't know," Vin answered. "Maybe he figured we wouldn't want to interrupt our plans. He got kind of upset when I mentioned Christmas."
"Damn," Chris answered.
"That boy's got a lot to learn about us," Buck said sadly.
"Yep," Vin said simply.
Chris stared at his friends thoughtfully, then, nodding to himself, strode purposefully from the room.
Buck and Vin looked at one another in surprise and confusion.
"Any idea what that was about?" Vin asked.
"Not a clue," Buck said, eyeing the closed door through which Chris had disappeared.
* * * * * * * * * *
The thin light of dawn was filtering through the curtains when Ezra opened his eyes. The room was eerily silent, the equipment that monitored his condition having been switched to a quieter mode during the night. Ezra yawned, then smiled, remembering what had happened the previous night to allow him that action.
He had awakened after dark, unable to keep the surprise from his face at the sight of his six teammates draped over every available piece of furniture in the room. He had not expected to see them there at such a late hour; they had, after all, already done their charitable duty by visiting him earlier. Ezra had been utterly confused by their continued presence but, due to the ventilation tube in his throat, he had been unable to question them about this anomalous behavior.
The doctors had not given him time to ponder on this, however. Minutes after he awakened, the other men were ushered from the room while the doctor finally removed the hated respiration tube. The injection that followed had sent him quickly back into slumber, his questions unanswered, while his teammates favored him with unexpected looks of concern. His last memory of the night was of Josiah saying, "Just sleep now, son." It was extremely unsettling, to say the least, and Ezra wondered if he hadn't imagined some of it.
The room was empty, this time, much as Ezra would have expected prior to his recent experience, and he found himself feeling oddly disappointed. It had never bothered him before to have no visitors while he was in the hospital. In fact, he was accustomed to it. Usually the only people who visited were his superiors, who were intent only on getting a statement or report before leaving him alone to recuperate. No one had ever come just to visit. It made him wonder what Larabee and company wanted from him. Ezra sighed. He supposed he would find out, now that he was once again able to communicate.
* * * * * * * * * *
The sound of metal clattering on tile woke him with a start. Ezra didn't remember dozing off, but the sky outside his window now reflected the warm hues of sunset; he had slept the entire day away quite a feat considering the usual disruptions his slumber endured while incarcerated in a medical establishment. A cough directed his attention away from the windows and Ezra turned, his eyes suddenly widening and darting around the room, bewildered at the sight of his co-workers, frozen like statues in the doorway, with their arms full of boxes.
"What is going on here?" Ezra rasped.
JD looked up at him from his position on the floor, where he was scrambling to collect the silverware that had escaped his grasp. "Hey, you're awake!"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Obviously," he retorted dryly.
"Guess that means we don't have to be quiet no more," Vin said with a smirk as he set his box down on the folding table that had mysteriously appeared in the room.
Ezra's confusion grew as the men removed foil-covered containers from the boxes and laid them out on the table. The situation became more clear when JD and Buck left the room, returning with a small, decorated Christmas tree. Ezra's lips tightened into a hard line. He knew what they were up to and he was not happy about it. Ezra Standish didn't need anyone's pity. His lack of holiday plans had obviously been discovered, and his associates now felt sorry for him, thus the current display of holiday cheer. Ezra watched irritably as they turned on some Christmas music on JD's portable CD player and began dishing out food.
"What are you gentlemen doing here?" Ezra asked, attempting to make his hoarse voice sound indignant.
Vin grinned at him, dropping a small plate of food in front of him on the rolling table designed for that purpose. "You never got to have your Christmas dinner, seein' how you were out saving the day and all, so we figured we'd bring it to ya."
Ezra looked at the men, searching their faces for any sign of deception, but to his surprise and chagrin, he found none. Then he realized that they had probably had their own Christmas dinner interrupted as well. Turning away, he mumbled softly, "I'm sorry."
Chris frowned. "What for?"
"I apologize for spoiling your holiday celebration," Ezra replied quietly, not looking any of them in the eye.
"You didn't spoil nothin'," Vin said dismissively. "We just wanted to make sure you got to have your own Christmas party."
Ezra turned his head slowly and asked uncertainly, "Why?"
"'Cause we like you," Buck replied simply. The disbelief on Ezra's face made Buck want to laugh and cry at the same time. He silently cursed Maude and all of the others who had made the southerner so wary of a simple act of friendship. The past days had been quite a revelation. It had been a surprise to Buck that their suave, confident undercover agent could be so uncertain and fearful in his personal life. He had always assumed that the southerner was something of a snob and was aloof because he didn't want to associate with the rest of the team, but after what he had seen recently, he suspected that wasn't the case at all. The gregarious agent decided then and there that he was going to make it his personal challenge to show the stubborn cuss what it meant to be part of Team Seven.
"Eat up," Nathan said, depositing some silverware next to the plate. "You need to get your strength back."
Ezra stared at him for a moment like he was an alien, then turned to stare at his plate. Slowly he picked up his fork with a shaking hand and began to eat, sending surreptitious glances at the men currently making themselves at home in his room. He wanted desperately to throw them out and regain his fractured composure, but for the life of him, he couldn't seem to do it. Something was holding him back, preventing him from driving them away yet again, and Ezra wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
This motley group of men had willingly given up their free time to spend it with him of all people. This was new territory for Ezra. Normally, he was quite good at discerning the multitude of motivations behind a person's actions, but his teammates were defying all that he knew. Nobody had ever acted in quite the same way as this before, and Ezra found himself in the unaccustomed position of being utterly clueless as to how to deal with the situation. Against his better judgment, he decided to accede to their wishes at least until he could figure out what was going on.
* * * * * * * * * *
"How is he today?" Buck inquired as Vin strolled into the bullpen. It was nearing the end of Ezra's fifth day in the hospital, and while each of the men wanted to lend his support to their ailing friend, they still had jobs to do, which forced them to take shifts staying with him. After learning about how Ezra had planned to spend his Christmas and why they had insisted, both to the doctors and to their superiors, that at least one of them would remain with Ezra at all times to lend their support.
Vin shrugged in response to Buck's question. "He's doin' better, but... he's quiet."
"And this is a bad thing?" Nathan asked, half-joking.
Vin tossed him a dirty look. "It ain't like him."
"I know what you mean," JD agreed. "It's like he's afraid to talk to us."
"I think our injured brother is not used to having so much concern directed at him," Josiah offered. "He doesn't quite know what to make of it."
"He did seem awful surprised when we showed up with Christmas dinner," JD pointed out.
"Surprised?" Buck snorted. "Hell, you would'a thought we all walked in there dressed in pink tutus by the bug-eyed look on his face."
"Now there's a picture," Josiah said, chuckling.
"Damn, Buck," Vin said, stifling a laugh. "I don't think I wanna know why you're dreamin' of us in pink tutus."
"Pink tutus?" Chris said mildly, his eyebrows lifting in question as he entered the room in time to hear Vin's comment. "Something you want to tell me, Buck?"
"We're discussing Ezra," Buck said, shooting a glare at Vin.
"What does Ezra have to do with pink tutus?" Chris said, then held up his hand. "Never mind, I don't want to know."
Buck gave a long-suffering sigh, while the rest of the men broke into unrestrained laughter at his expense.
"So, whose turn is it?" Vin asked, once the merriment had died down.
"Mine," JD said enthusiastically. "I'd better get going. Don't want Ez to get lonely."
Buck watched enviously as his roommate practically bounced out of the room. "Damn, I wish I had that kind of energy after a full day's work."
"It's called gettin' old, Bucklin," Vin taunted, ducking out of the taller man's reach as he attempted to grab him.
"Shut up, Junior," Buck grumbled, pitching a paper wad at the nimble sharpshooter.
Chris watched his team with an amused grin. Sometimes they acted like overgrown third-graders. The smile faded when he thought about the newest member of the team. After joining the team, Ezra had rebuffed all of their attempts to get him to join in their social activities, something that had not endeared him to the rest of the team, and Chris had begun to wonder if he had been wrong in bringing the southerner on board. It was hard for a team to function properly if they were unsure of one another. It was difficult enough for him to have to manage such a disparate group of men without having to worry about their emotional issues as well.
Since Christmas, though, Chris had gained new insight into the man's character. With what he knew of the man's past with the FBI, and this new information about his less than warm relationship with his mother, Chris had begun to get a clearer understanding of his undercover agent. When Vin had first joined the team, he had been wary and suspicious, not trusting any of them right away. He had been let down in the past and was used to having no one to depend on but himself. Finding himself suddenly surrounded by people who cared what happened to him and were willing to watch his back was a huge adjustment for someone who was used to facing life alone. Chris surmised that it was much the same with Ezra, perhaps to a greater degree. Maude's unfeeling message for her son told Chris volumes about his newest agent and he felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the man. He had suffered through hard times himself, but he had at least had Buck to help him through the worst. Ezra apparently didn't have anyone at all.
"Something troubling you, Chris?" Josiah asked, noting the thoughtful look on his boss's face.
"Just thinking about Ezra," Chris replied.
"I think we've all been doing a bit of that lately," Josiah said with a sigh. "He has given us all a lot to contemplate."
"Yep," Chris agreed. "They're releasing him tomorrow and I was thinking about bringing him out to the ranch."
Vin shook his head. "Not a good idea, cowboy."
"Why not?" Buck asked curiously. "We brought you out there after you got shot."
"Yeah, but Ez ain't gonna take too kindly to havin' all of ya hoverin' over him," Vin warned. "I sure as hell got sick of it, and Ez is a mite touchier than I am."
"He's right," Josiah agreed. "Having us all around while he's been in the hospital has been enough of a shock to him. We might overwhelm him if we don't give him some time to himself."
"But someone needs to look after the stubborn bastard," Nathan countered. "If he's half as bad as the rest of y'all, then he ain't gonna take care of himself."
"We'll figure something out," Chris said, running a hand through his hair tiredly.
"I'm plannin' to pick him up from the hospital tomorrow," Vin stated. "I figure I'll take him home and stay with him a while."
Chris met the sharpshooter's eyes and read the unspoken intentions there. He nodded slowly. Vin was the one of them who could most identify with Standish and was the least likely to have his offer of assistance refused.
"Let us know how it goes," Buck said with a smirk. He remembered all too well how cranky and uncooperative the Texan had been upon his release from hospital confinement.
* * * * * * * * * *
JD bustled into the room with his usual exuberance and Ezra had to stifle a smile at the younger agent's unfailing good cheer. He couldn't handle the man's enthusiasm for life in large doses, but he did find it refreshing at times.
"How are you feeling today, Ez?" JD asked brightly as he dropped into the chair beside the bed.
"Better, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied sincerely.
"Guess that's why they're lettin' you out tomorrow, huh?"
"Presumably," Ezra said.
"At least you'll be home for New Year's," JD continued.
"It does set a bad precedent to begin the year in a hospital bed," Ezra said wryly.
JD smiled and looked at his friend, pleased that he had regained some color in his face. Seeing him so pale before had worried him greatly. He suddenly remembered the bag in his hand. "Oh, I brought you something." He reached into the bag and retrieved a book, handing it to the bedridden agent.
Ezra took it, glancing at the title. His eyes widened in surprise. "The Three Musketeers?" He eyed JD curiously.
JD gave him an embarrassed shrug. "When I was a kid, I had the chicken pox and had to stay home from school for a week. I was bored silly and my Mom went out and bought me a copy of that book." He shrugged again. "Anyway, I always liked that story and working with all of you guys kind of reminds me of it." He looked at Ezra apprehensively, hoping the man wouldn't poke fun at him, but he saw only understanding in the southerner's face.
"One for all and all for one," Ezra murmured. If only that were true.
"Yeah, that's it," JD said with a smile, glad that Ezra knew what he meant. "I mean, there's something about working with you guys that's just... different. I never felt that way when I worked on the Boston PD."
"Well, we are a different sort of group," Ezra conceded. He wouldn't go as far as equating them with the Musketeers, however, at least not where he was concerned. He could see how JD would feel that way, probably seeing himself in the young d'Artagnan.
"I knew you'd understand," JD said happily. "I tried to explain it to Buck once, but he can be kind of dense sometimes."
Ezra laughed at that, feeling an unexpected warmth that JD had trusted him with such a personal thing. "Mr. Wilmington doesn't always think about things as deeply as some of us."
"Have you read it before?"
"Yes," Ezra replied. "But not for a long time." It was the truth. It was one of the stories he had read with his Aunt Grace when he was younger, and he had always enjoyed it, both for the story itself and for the experience of reading it with his aunt. It was a lonely young boy's fantasy of heroism and adventure... and of having good friends to stand by his side. He understood the appeal of the book to his fellow agent more than he cared to admit.
"Want me to read it to you?" JD asked, noting how Ezra's hands still shook while trying to hold the book.
Ezra opened his mouth to refuse, but then saw the earnest, open expression on JD's face and decided he couldn't refuse such a sincere offer. "I'd like that."
JD grinned and took the book from him, reading aloud, "On the first Monday of the month..."
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin glanced over at the man in the passenger seat of his jeep when they stopped at a red light. "You doin' okay, Ez?"
Ezra sighed. "I'm fine, Mr. Tanner."
"Just checkin'," Vin said placatingly. "You're bein' awful quiet over there."
Ezra sighed again and shook his head. "There is no need to hover, Mr. Tanner. I am quite all right." Vin laughed, much to Ezra's surprise. "What is so funny, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra sent him an annoyed glare.
"Sorry," Vin said, smothering the last of his laughter. "It's just that you ain't seen hovering 'til the guys pull their mother hen act on ya."
"They've already done that," Ezra said, eyeing him doubtfully.
Vin snorted. "That? That ain't nothin'. I got shot in a takedown, 'bout a couple months before you came on board, and they didn't leave me alone for a minute. Hell, Larabee dragged me off to his ranch for a whole week after I got out, so you're gettin' off easy."
"I see," Ezra said, his forehead wrinkling in confusion at such behavior.
"You're just lucky I convinced 'em to let me take you home," Vin added. "They just about drove me nuts, so I figured I'd better butt in before they started in on you. They mean well, but they can be a bit much to take when they're worried about you."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, a hint of relief in his voice. Just the thought of the six men fussing over him made him shudder.
Vin nodded and continued to watch the silent agent during the rest of the drive. Ezra didn't speak again until they had arrived at his apartment and gotten him settled comfortably on the sofa.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said tiredly. The trip home had taken more out of him than he expected.
"No problem, Ez," Vin replied as he sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair next to the couch. "Glad I could help."
"There is no need for you to stay," Ezra said, noticing that Vin had removed his jacket and seemed to have settled in for a lengthy visit. "I'm sure you have better things to do than sit around here with an invalid on New Year's Eve."
Vin looked at him steadily. "Ain't much bother to keep a friend company, 'specially when he ain't feeling well."
Ezra stared at him, unsure of how to respond to that. Vin had called him a friend. He could count on one hand how many times he had heard that in his life, and there were fewer still that had actually been sincere. He absently fingered the book he had received from JD. He was good at reading people's true intentions, despite how well they tried to camouflage them, and he was seeing nothing but truth in the man sitting next to him. Maybe this time, he could trust the words, take them at face value.
Vin watched the emotions flicker over Ezra's face, knowing how hard it was for the man to trust. "It ain't easy to trust other people, is it?" he asked.
Ezra looked away, suddenly uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.
"I've been in the same position, Ez," Vin continued. "I worked alone for a long time. Nearly got kicked out of the Marshals because of a frame-up, so I know how it feels to have people you thought were your friends turn on you and leave your ass hangin' in the breeze."
Ezra looked back at Vin, shocked by this revelation. He had no idea that the sharpshooter had experienced such a similar betrayal.
"I didn't know what to make of Chris and the boys at first." Vin leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. "I trusted Chris right off, for some reason, but it was real hard to believe that all these fellas suddenly wanted to be my friends. Hell, I kept wonderin' what they wanted from me, waitin' for the other shoe to drop." He shrugged. "Hard as it is to believe, they're for real. 'Bout knocked me on my ass when I realized it." He looked suddenly self-conscious. "Ain't never had anyone who gave a damn... 'least, not since before my ma died."
Ezra sat silently, stunned by what Vin had revealed. For the second time in two days, he felt that warmth that came with the knowledge of what it had cost his teammate to make such a personal admission. He felt privileged to be deemed worthy of such trust, and also uncertain as to what was expected of him in return. Everything had always come at a price.
"Mr. Tanner, I..." Ezra trailed off for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. "You are correct. It is difficult for me. I have not had the best of luck in my relationships with others." He looked at Vin tentatively. "It will take... time for me to get used to this."
Vin nodded his understanding. "Took me a while, too. They ain't always the easiest bunch to talk to."
Ezra smiled. "That is quite true."
"Just take it slow," Vin advised.
"I will attempt to do so. Mr. Tanner... Vin... I... thank you," Ezra said quietly, stumbling slightly over what he wanted to say.
"S'okay, Ez," Vin replied. "You'd do the same for me."
Ezra smiled. "Perhaps I would," he answered softly. He held up the book in his lap. "Mr. Tanner, have you ever experienced the film rendition of this classic book?"
"The Three Musketeers? Nope, I guess I missed that one," Vin answered.
Ezra pointed at the cabinet containing his videos. "In there."
Vin retrieved the video Ezra requested and put it in the VCR.
"I think you'll enjoy this one," Ezra said confidently.
Vin smirked at him. "If you say so."
"Trust me," Ezra said, locking eyes with his... friend.
Vin smiled and nodded, settling in to watch the movie.
Ezra leaned back and looked at the small ceramic Christmas tree. It had been an unexpected and revealing Christmas and, oddly enough, it was turning out to be one of his best ever. He ran his fingers along the binding of the book once again. Maybe JD was not so far off in his literary comparisons after all. One could only hope.
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