The Way of Things:
Alter Ego

by Mitzi

Part of The Way of Things story collection.

Acknowledgements: MOG..ATF her idea. Ursula's story The Way of Things ATF started this story thread.

Thanks: Heather for all the encouragement to even finish this and for finding the song. It's the Superman Song by the Crash Test Dummies. Thanks, again.


The only thing that kept the small bar going was its proximity to the hospital. People could come here and, if not solve or ignore their problems, at least drown them for a short while.

There were no windows. The lights were always low. The Naugahyde was torn on most of the booth seats. Cigarette burns decorated the bar and several of the tables. There was no décor. Droopy silk plants, Victorian fixtures on the ceiling fans, and the ornate backdrop behind the bar where the bottles sat, suggested that at one time this had been a lovingly maintained, family run drinking establishment.

That was before people transferred regularly to follow the almighty dollar and cyber communities had all but replaced interaction based on something as mundane as living in the same neighborhood.

Now this was a place to be alone. Be unknown. The drowsy bartender and only other customer inside didn't know you. They could suspect that something had hurt your heart because you were here, hiding in the shadows with them. But they weren't obligated to ask.

The door opened. The sun tried to invade the darkness. It was shunned. The distorted silhouette of the newcomer disappeared when the door closed. The shadow that followed him in blended all too easily with the darkness.

"Mr. Wilmington," The voice held the tone of a teacher addressing a favorite, but petulant student.

The dark head came up slowly from its contemplations that went far beyond the shot glass he had been staring into. "Hey, Ez?" The voice was genuinely confused, "What are you doin' here?"

"I thought the plan had been that one of us would extricate you from that medical facility as soon as we extracted ourselves from execution of the search warrant."

It was clear there were still painkillers in his friend's system and they were playing a game of one-upmanship with the alcohol on the man's mental state. The lids over the dark blue eyes were half-mast. The brow was furrowed in thought, trying to reason what had been said, or trying to remember something.

Suddenly it hit the taller agent and he banged his knees against the small table as he tried to get up and away, and, out of habit, he laughed, "Shit. Chris." He swayed fighting vertigo and the drug laced liquor.

"Sit." The undercover agent demanded and gave a slight shove to the man's shoulder for emphasis. That was all it took. Wilmington was back in the booth and almost on the floor had Standish's quick reflexes not caught hold and kept him in the seat.

"It has been deemed you are well enough to leave the hospital," Damn HMO's, "Not that you are 100%. Not that you are even well enough to be up." Damn HMO's the southerner repeated to him. It wasn't bad enough the man wanted out of the hospital so badly, now the system was telling him he was fit.

"What time is it?" The slurred words were barely understandable.

"How long have you been here?" Ezra countered.

"I signed the discharge papers at noon. Didn't want to sit … thought I'd wander back before …"

"You've been mixing alcohol and painkillers for five hours!?"

"Chris is gonna kill me." He laughed again, but there was disappointment in the tone.

Ezra briefly raised his eyes above his friend's head at a soft rustling disturbance. He frowned; defying any interference. The barkeep, thinking to perform the duties of waiter, turned back from the table at the look. Immediately Ezra refocused all of his attention back to the man before him, hoping to ease his mind, "This is not the first time Mr. Larabee will have tracked one of us to this …" Dive. "Establishment." There didn't seem to be a reaction, "You yourself have found one or the other of us here on occasion as well."

Buck gave a self-depreciating snort. "You're allowed to be high maintenance, Ezra. You and JD and Vin." He was staring at his glass to hide the fact that he couldn't hold the smile, "Me 'n Josiah 'n Nathan, we're supposed to be low maintenance."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"You're worth the trouble."

"Mr. Wilmington …"

"Hey, Ez, we gotta get back," Buck interrupted and again made to stand.

Ezra put a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him in place and then sat across from him, "Buck. What is bothering you?"

"Nothin'." The sincere smile was accompanied by Buck reaching quickly for the bottle of Johnny Walker Black. He missed on the first try and Ezra moved it smoothly out of his reach.

"Buck," And he said no more until the other man looked up in response, "You are not healing like you should. And while the doctor avoids saying anything as banal as you seem to lack the will to get better, I will see it."

"No! That's just bull. You think I like being a burden? You think I wouldn't take my own responsibility as fast as I could?"

So, Standish mused, could trying too hard cause the same result as not trying at all?

Ezra looked hard at the man across from him. There was something festering under the surface there. As hurtful and damaging as it was, it was also apparently not to be shared. Just as surely, it was something that needed to come out. All the time in the hospital and he had held it inside. Ezra P. Standish, what makes you presume this man will confide in you? When did it become so important to you? The reader of men thought carefully on his next words so as best to draw it out. He hated to manipulate the other man, but as usual, the end justified the means, "My apologies, Mr. Wilmington. I didn't realize my multiple hospital stays were a burden."

"What? You're no …"

"And Mr. Dunne, not only must you shoulder that load during hospitalization, but also during recuperation at home."

"I'm talking about me!" Spittle flew from beneath the mustache with the surprisingly venomous reaction to the fact that the topic had been turned to others.

Standish sensed, on the level that made these two so much alike, that the anger wasn't that the good-hearted man begrudged the attention given to others. He just didn't see himself as deserving help and didn't want to lump the others into his category, "Then talk about you."

Buck tried. But the words wouldn't come. Was it because men didn't speak of such things? Shouldn't be bothered by such things? Or if he asked, gave voice to his fears, they would be proved true?

Ezra Standish waited. How could it be that this man, thought to be so open, while he, himself, was seen as enigmatic to put it kindly, had reversed roles? Buck made it look so easy, to draw someone's fears into the light of day and dissipate them with the magic of his friendship.

Ezra hoped he had learned this lesson well. "Buck, if there is something you want to talk about, you know I will not betray your trust if you don't want it repeated."

Standish thought it wasn't going to work, but finally a small voice began, "That night …" And there was silence.

"The medical personnel attribute your reticence to speak to anyone and personality change to the natural depression associated with trauma and an extended hospital stay …"

"I ain't goin' to no damn shrink. Even if they say I gotta before I get back to full duty."

"I think Mr. Larabee will have something to say about that."

"I could get any boss to care and say he was worried. It'd be his job 'cause I work for him."

"Mr. Larabee is not just any supervisor."

"I don't want anyone's friendship out of pity … or guilt."

Whoa. Where did that come from? The Southerner took a moment to look away and assimilate the clue and the words themselves, to maybe look for answers elsewhere, "Mr. Larabee, I …"

"I don't blame him, though."

"Blame him for what?" Ezra looked back and studied the damaged soul. The words were swirling all around the crux of the problem. Ezra was good at reading people. He could have written the curriculum for the Reid School. This man was hurt and insecure and afraid of … of what? Ezra knew he didn't want to hear the answer to that question because something in the situation left him with an uncomfortably familiar sensation. But he would listen if it would help the man in front of him. Ezra would patiently let the words eddy and swirl back and forth until they coalesced.

"JD, though, I that he would ..." The alcohol and drugs were peaking. The slurred voice wasn't even speaking to Ezra, but outted words that had been festering from the night of the shooting. "Hey, Ez …" For a moment it appeared the taller man had lost his train of thought, then he focused and started again, "Hey, Ez, do you know what it feels like? To see the six people you think are your friends not 10 feet away and still think you'll die alone?"

Oh, Dear God. Ezra almost gasped. Friendly to all but friends with very few. So there it was. Like a hidden image in camouflage art, it's so clear when you look just right. And you never see the original picture exactly the same again. Ezra realized he had been denying this picture. He knew it so well, so personally.

"Hey, Ez," The man's face turned on a smile like a mask, and asked, with most the humor usually associated with Buck Wilmington, "You ever heard that thing about your whole life flashes before your eyes just before you die?"

Standish nodded slowly, fearing any words would stop the coming confession.

"What if, what really happens, is you get this moment of clarity? Where you see what your life has really been like without no rationalizin' or dressing it up, foolin' yourself, pretendin' things are one way when deep down, you know they're another way? Wouldn't that be a hell of a joke?"

"What do you think you saw?"

The gentle man shook his head. The words wouldn't come. It wasn't the kind of thing a man was meant to talk about; to care about. "Me? Nothing. It's just a question, maybe something I saw on the Discovery Channel or something. It's bullshit. It'll pass."

But Ezra knew. He remembered the look of hurt and betrayal he saw on the man's face right after the shooting but before he lost consciousness. Ezra had convinced himself all of Buck's mutterings and nightmares weren't saying what he thought. Ezra had spent several nights trying to convince himself and Vin that the look of resignation in Buck's eyes at the scene had been imagined. It had been there.

The little boy who was all of Ezra Standish's insecurities recognized the same boy in Buck. All those irrational fears, like monsters under the bed, were still there haunting the adult. "Not good enough." "More trouble than you're worth." "Get out of my life." "Never ask for help." Likely none of the others would see it as clearly.

"It'll pass." Buck repeated, as if convincing himself.

He regretted that Buck Wilmington of all people would believe that no one cared. But since he was the one who understood that self-doubt, he was the best one to help the other man through it. "It will not pass. You will wrap it like soft silk around your heart and it won't show anymore. And, unlike the stones Mr. Larabee and myself erected to allow emotions neither in nor out, your softer defenses will block only the concern others would direct at you …not that comfort which you would offer to others." Buck felt uncomfortable with the words and started to pull away. Ezra grabbed his wrist hard enough to bring the sapphires up to meet the emeralds, "But be assured, Buck, that even silk, layered thick enough - old hurts denied and forgotten - can eventually form a barrier that cannot be breached. I will not let that happen. I refuse to lose any part of what makes you, you, most especially that generous heart."

Ezra met Buck's eyes and held them by sheer willpower alone. The taller man seemed to have trouble breathing. Ezra's words took his breath away. He appreciated so much Ezra would say he cared. It was more than he knew how to take. He started to rise, "Hell, Ezra, we should be gettin' back …"

"No. We will not leave until this is resolved. The others will worry. So be it."

"Will they?" It was almost too low to hear.

"What?"

"Will they worry?"

"Buck, how can you ask that?"

"I know it's stupid."

"Unfathomable," Ezra said almost to himself. As the Southerner struggled to wrap his mind around the fact that this man could feel so isolated from his team his silence unintentionally stoked the self-doubt. It was never the words that were said, but rather those that were never spoken … never explained ... never questioned so a misunderstanding could be explained.

"Hey, Ez," Standish was beginning to think his name was Hey, Ez. But he looked up to show he was listening. And he wished the man before him didn't feel the need to look so cheerful. But this time he was sincerely laughing at some secret joke. His mask was more firmly in place at the moment than Ezra's. "Hey, Ez," he slurred again, "Ya ever read Batman when you were little?" Again changing the subject.

The southerner hesitated, wondering if the song was the source of this apparent non sequitur, then admitted as if he were at confession, "I preferred Marvel comics. The line they drew between right and wrong, heroes and villains was not so black and white as DC. And if you ever mention I read comics, I will deny it vehemently."

"They were a good place to hide, weren't they?"

Ezra's wide eyes told Buck he'd hit a nerve. He carried on so Standish wouldn't have to answer, "I liked Batman. No super powers, just a man who trained himself to do what's right."

"I can see the appeal," For you, my friend.

There was silence. Uncomfortable, awkward. Ezra didn't know what to say. Buck didn't know how to say what was on his mind. He snatched the bottle from Ezra and downed a stiff slug before even Ezra's nimble fingers could interfere. "Stop that." Standish demanded and retrieved the bottle

But the liquid courage seemed to work. A quiet voice asked, "You think Batman ever wished he was Robin?"

"What do you think?"

"You know, not to have to be right all the time. Robin has this bigger than life crime fighter at his side; Robin knows he's gonna screw up. But all the time, Robin knows that if he does the best he can, it will always be good enough. He has Batman to lean on. Who did Batman lean on? God, Ezra, you can't imagine what it feels like to always do your best and your best is never good enough."

That moment of clarity. Ezra couldn't tell the proud man the fears were groundless. They were too buried in childhood disappointment to even be recognized for what they were. And, the five-year-old boy in Ezra couldn't really tell him such fears weren't real. His thought processes drew Standish back to Batman, and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. The not-a-care-in-the-world-playboy-bachelor image hid the all too mortal superhero; a superhero molded by a traumatic childhood.

The alcohol and medication had stripped Buck's inhibitions and given Ezra a glimpse of the alter ego. Had JD ever been given this insight? Did he recognize it for what it was? Did Chris?

All Ezra knew was that, when the larger man sobered up, the five-year old's fears would be buried again. Buck Wilmington, the jovial clown, dangerous protector, loyal friend would be back in place. But not for them, would he? The five year old had told the adult he had been betrayed; that he was not good enough.

Buck decided he had said too much. He stood, swayed, wrapped an arm around his still healing side, closed his eyes to the pain, physical and emotional, and staggered toward the door. He ignored Ezra's offered arm of support. Ezra didn't try to stop him. Words were cheap to this man.

"Hey, Ez, don't tell nobody … if I done said too much? Don't say nothin'." Too much? Damn, if only you trusted me enough to say more. "If ya'll try to make it right 'cuz I'm a whinny drunk … hell, I don't need nobody fixin' things just ' cuz I think they're broken. …" Ezra hurried to catch his friend as the larger man reeled back. The alcohol and drug cocktail was taking its toll. They would have to watch him closely for the next little while. Nathan was going to be pissed. Buck never lost his train of thought, "…or maybe they've already seen what I've been missin'… that moment of clarity."

Ezra wanted to tell Buck that the adrenaline had distorted time and reality that night. It had made a mere 30 seconds of consciousness seem like a lifetime to the injured man. And fear had added a new definition to so many slights old and new, large and small, real and imagined.

Lying there, thinking no one cared enough to check on you was no moment of clarity.

Clarity had been realizing that Buck wasn't standing behind Chris and JD that fateful night; not a firm foundation to control Larabee's anxiety or the tower of strength to reassure JD. Not the personification of every make-believe childhood best friend a young, abandoned Southern boy had created to play with.

Clarity was following the direction of Vin's prone line of sight to see Buck bleeding on the pavement almost under Chris's truck. The memory still paralyzed Ezra.

But you won't believe the words, will you?

Clarity was Nathan and Josiah performing CPR until help arrived. Not because failing was not an option, but because losing Buck Wilmington was not an option.

You're mind has already left us behind, hasn't it? Words aren't going to mean anything after what you thought you saw.

I could tell you how, when you could only have one visitor every 10 minutes on the hour in ICU, Chris strode in on each of those opportunities. His need to see that you were still breathing overrode even his understanding that JD needed to see his friend and that Vin needed to salve his unfounded guilt. When JD tried to take his turn, Larabee just said, "I need to see him." He felt no need to explain further.

You're heart has given up on us hasn't it?

Mr. Dunne still has nightmares of what he almost lost between one heartbeat and the next. When you awoke in ICU and thought you were alone, Mr. Larabee threatened to put the resident on call in the bed next to you. We got to stay with you after that. The resident took the rest of the week off. But Chris knew you well, didn't he? He knew that waking and thinking you were alone would stir the damaged psyche of your childhood. Even he couldn't have known you thought we had abandoned you even earlier. But I - we - know now.

Your soul has hardened, fearing any more betrayal.

No words are strong enough to change what you thought you saw. But actions speak louder than words.

Your body is still here, even if only because you aren't well enough to leave. But that gives us time. It gives us a chance to change your mind.

We'll have to show you how important you are. And we will. I will. "Come on, Buck. We need to get you home." Buck staggered slightly as Ezra grabbed his elbow and steered him toward the door. This time he allowed the support. He had learned that lesson from Chris Larabee. Again and again Chris had tried to push Buck away. But when Buck kept coming back to offer support, Larabee finally accepted the help in the sincerity with which it was offered. In this case, in this dreary bar, Ezra had found him and kept coming back with his support. Buck looked appreciatively at the hand supporting him. Yep, action speaks louder than words.

"Don't tell Chris, okay, Ez? He wouldn't understand."

"I won't say a word."

The door opened, the sun peeked in briefly and Ezra led Buck into the warmth. After they left, the shadowy form of Chris Larabee moved from behind Buck's booth. His features were grim with concern for his friend and himself.

All this time, Chris Larabee had tried to convince himself that the moodiness and dejection and worry and helplessness that permeated the team and especially it's leader's waking hours were overflow for Buck being depressed. He was blaming his old friend as usual. But now, he realized that what they were feeling was, rather than depression, the lack of the other man's friendship and their own guilt. Buck had given up on them and pulled away. It was a dark place for all of them. Chris Larabee wanted Buck Wilmington back. All that he had just heard had given him a path. He would make it right. And he followed his friends into the light.

None of them registered the song on the jukebox that followed them out the door.

Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man
He'd just come along and scoop 'em up under his arm
Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle
But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin' around in no
Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but he would now
Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

Tarzan was king of the jungle and Lord over all the apes
But he could hardly string together four words: "I Tarzan, You Jane."

Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phone booths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him …

- Crash Test Dummies

END

Comments to: mitzi@onr.com