Notes: There are some thoughts on hospitals later on that you probably won't agree with. I've never, touch wood, had to be admitted to one but I've visited relatives in them and have hated every minute. If I had to spend time in one as a patient I'm positive that I would not be able to cope. I am very shy face-to-face with people and I would hate having to share a room in a hospital with others. Would hate the thought of being watched while I slept or people seeing me in my hospital gown! I would probably make myself sicker than when I was admitted! Anyway, back to my comments later - no offence is meant to medical staff whom I know work damned hard for little praise. It's just my fear-filled observations breaking out of my brain. The medical complaints that Ezra suffers from in this are serious and I am not trying to trivialize them by writing about them in a fic. I have known three people, one personally, who have suffered from the final sickness. The person I knew survived unscathed, but of the others one lost part of a foot and the other person died. Hope this just brings the sickness to light although it is well known but quite often misdiagnosed. The websites I used for my research were: www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk, www.methodisthealth.com, www.ninds.nih.gov and www.nevdgp.org.au.
Ezra left the FBI's building and stepped outside into broad daylight. He'd just finished a marathon debriefing session with two very severe-looking FBI agents and he was pleased to get out of the stuffy room that he'd almost been a virtual prisoner in. He leant back against the wall and took a deep breath as he looked at his watch. All night I've been in there! Well, no time for going home to bed because I've got to see Travis next. No rest for the wicked as the saying goes. He pushed himself upright and walked on wobbly legs to the Jag, knowing if he once stopped for any length of time in one place he would never move again. He even hoped that once he'd driven to his destination he'd have the energy resources to be able to get out of the car. If not, he could imagine his mummified body being found in his car years later when someone actually decided to look for him. Perhaps Mr. Larabee will allow me to go home after my meeting. I really feel quite bizarre, he thought to himself as he rubbed his brow before starting the motor.
The undercover agent arrived at the office and made his way up in the elevator as he rubbed his eyes in an effort to stay awake. As he walked along the hallway unseeingly he bumped into Nathan who was just coming out of the restroom. The medic put out a steadying hand and stared intently at the green-eyed man once he'd come to a wobbling standstill.
"Please pardon my clumsiness, Mr. Jackson. I'm afraid I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. If you'll excuse me, Mr. Travis is awaiting my arrival and I am somewhat late already," the man said as he looked quickly at his watch once more.
"You feelin' okay?" Nathan asked in concern when he saw the undercover agent's worn-out features. He'd never seen his friend look quite so sick before.
"Fine," Ezra lied unconvincingly as he wriggled out of Nathan's grasp. "I'll see you later."
Nathan watched him walk unsteadily away and then shook his head worriedly when he saw just how unstable the agent looked. He turned on his heels abruptly and hurried to see Chris to voice his concerns. He knocked on the blond's door and was beckoned in.
"Nate? What can I do for you?" Chris asked with his attention already back on the paperwork in front of him.
"I really need to talk to you about Ezra."
"What about him?" the blond asked, as he flicked a quick look upward at the medic who was hovering in front of his desk.
"I'm worried about his health."
"Mental health?" Chris asked with a grin. "Always wondered when the men in white coats would come to collect him."
"Chris, I'm serious," Nathan reprimanded in a sharp tone.
"Sorry," Chris apologized when he saw that Nathan looked highly perturbed. "Sit down and tell me what you think might be wrong with him, Nate."
The medic sat on the edge of his chair and leaned his elbows on Chris's desk anxiously. Nathan's posture conveyed to Chris that he really was worried about Ezra. "I really think he's heading for burnout or somethin'. This last case may well have tipped him over the edge. We ain't had no contact with him for three months and I was shocked when I saw him in the hallway just now. I'm tellin' you he needs watching closely. He's done three real hard undercover assignments back-to-back, which have lasted for six months in all. Plus he's had a bad year away from work, as you know. I bet he ain't slept properly for months what with one thing and another."
"You're saying I should insist he has some time off?" the blond asked, taking Nathan's concerns very seriously.
"Yes, before it's too late," the medic agreed solemnly with a vigorous nod of his head, knowing he'd got his message across.
Chris's phone rang interrupting the discussion and Nathan made moves to leave so that his boss could talk in peace. The blond waved at him though and pointed at the seat that the medic had just vacated. Nathan sat back down and couldn't help but listen to the one side of the conversation that he could hear.
"Yeah he's here, sir," Chris said as he flicked a look across at Nathan and frowned as the caller spoke some more. "Shit." The blond listened again and then said, "Okay, I'll send him straight in."
The black-clad man disconnected and sighed as he rubbed a hand over his face. "Well, it looks like it's too late already, Nathan."
"What?" the medic said, not connecting the phone call to their previous conversation.
"Ez just collapsed in Travis's office."
"Dammit," the medic complained as he stood up and left the room at speed.
Nathan hurried along the corridor and saw Travis standing outside his room waiting for him. The medic nodded in acknowledgement of the man's presence but headed straight inside the room to see his patient. He dropped to his knees beside the stirring undercover agent and thought that the man looked even worse than when he'd seen him earlier. He helped his friend to sit up when he was fully awake but made sure he stayed on the floor.
"Ez? How ya feelin'?"
"Mr. Jackson? What happened?" Ezra asked in confusion as he put one hand to his brow and the other to his Adam's apple. His throat had been very painful for the past few days and he coughed softly when he'd finished talking as he continually rubbed the flesh on the outside.
"You passed out. Did ya feel sick or anythin'?"
The undercover agent frowned while he rubbed his eyes and bent forward as if he was going to put his head between his knees to cure his faintness. Nathan put a hand on his back to steady him and rubbed it a couple of times worriedly. Ezra finally straightened up after a minute and leant back with his hands supporting his weight on the floor behind him as he answered Nathan's question. "No, I can't describe how I felt. I was standing up as we were talking but all of a sudden Mr. Travis's voice faded and although I could see his mouth moving, I couldn't hear any sound. Everything then seemed to lose its color and that's all I remember until I woke up on the floor. I don't think I was dizzy but I really can't remember."
Nathan raked the man from head to foot with his eyes before asking, "Think you can get up now?"
"Yes, I believe so. I am sorry to cause such a fuss, Mr. Jackson," the dark-haired man apologized half-heartedly.
"Ya can't help how ya feel, Ez. We all get sick." As he talked, Nathan reached under one of Ezra's armpits and helped the man to his feet. Ezra staggered sideways slightly once he was upright so Nathan quickly got hold of him with his other hand as well. Travis moved a chair toward them and Nathan lowered Ezra onto it before squatting beside him. He got hold of Ezra's wrist between his fingers and took his pulse as Ezra leaned forward once more with a groan.
"When did you last eat, Ez?" the medic asked anxiously, as he wondered if the man was on the verge of collapsing again.
The undercover agent was silent while he gathered his thoughts. He looked up at Nathan after a while and shrugged his shoulders as he replied honestly, "I really don't know. Certainly not in the last twenty-four hours anyway. The FBI certainly weren't very generous in offering me anything last night."
Nathan stared at him suspiciously. "What about sleepin'?"
"It's all been rather hectic lately, as you can appreciate, so I've just had to take what I could get. Only an hour or so at a time if I was lucky, I s'pose." The undercover agent coughed again and wished Nathan would stop questioning him. His throat was on fire and the act of talking hurt beyond imagination, especially after speaking for hours during his debriefing with the FBI.
Nathan sensed his pain and said, "Okay, well we'll start by getting you something to eat and drink. Let's go back to Chris's office and I'll sort something out. Are you sure yer alright to move now?"
"Well, we'll soon find out, won't we?" Ezra commented with a weak grin. He'd never felt so lacking in energy before. Everything seemed such an effort and he felt as if he had the beginnings of flu. He had a headache and a runny nose as well as his very painful throat.
The medic pulled Ezra to his feet and let him stand still for a minute to make sure he really was able to stay upright. He then escorted him back to the team's office at a snail's pace.
Ezra felt out of sync with the rest of the world. His hearing was muffled because his ears were blocked and he found himself having to breathe through his mouth because of his stuffy nose. He knew when it came to eating he'd probably sound like a pig at a trough what with trying to breath and eat through the same facial opening. His throat was getting worse and the fact he was breathing through his mouth made matters worse because it dried the tender area quickly. It literally stung and he found it hard and painful to swallow.
The undercover agent wasn't his usual bouncing self that was for sure and the medic couldn't help but fret about him. Nathan kept a supporting hand on Ezra's elbow and took him past the rest of the team members without speaking and knocked on Chris's door. The blond looked up and beckoned them in with a wave of his hand.
"Chris? Can we use yer office for a bit?"
The black-clad man took one look at Ezra and nodded in agreement. "Sure. You need me to leave?"
"No. Just wanna get Ez to eat somethin' without being given the third degree by the others. He's out on his feet and needs some peace and quiet, Chris. I'll take him home when he's eaten so he can catch up on some sleep."
"Okay. How ya feelin', Ez?" Chris asked as he looked once more at the pale, shattered-looking agent. No wonder Nate was concerned about you, Ez. You look like shit, he thought to himself.
"Bit shaky actually. I feel like I've gotten a cold or something worse developing but I'm also very fatigued," the green-eyed man conceded with a rough cough.
During his last assignment he knew he'd been running on empty but he also knew that he couldn't just walk away because he wasn't feeling well. That would have meant nearly a year's worth of work going down the drain and he didn't want to be the one responsible for that. He had somehow managed to keep going, surviving on nervous energy alone but now that there was no more pressure on him, his body was finally succumbing to exhaustion, both mental and physical.
"Well, take a seat on the couch. What do ya fancy to eat and drink?"
"Mr. Jackson? I would really rather like one of your disgusting herbal teas, if you can believe it. I really must be sick, mustn't I?" the smaller agent asked wryly. "As for food, just somethin' small, please. A sandwich maybe, if it's not too much trouble. My throat is rather troublesome and I fear it will prove even more painful to swallow food than it would with mere liquid."
"Are you sure that's all you want?" Nathan asked in concern.
"Yes, thank you. I'm not feeling all that hungry and the thought of eating is rather nauseating now I think about it."
"Well, sit tight and we'll be back in a minute."
Both the blond and Nathan left the office so Ezra could have a bit of time to recover on his own. The medic went to find some food while Chris spoke to the rest of the team.
"What's up with Ez?" Buck asked anxiously.
"He collapsed in Travis's office. Nate was only telling me earlier that he thought Ezra was near burnout, exhaustion or somethin' when Travis called to say Ez had passed out. He can hardly put one foot in front of the other as you no doubt noticed."
"Shit. Can we help?"
Chris shook his head negatively. "Not at the moment. Just gonna get him some food and a drink and then take him home. I oughta have known he'd be feeling bad after such extended undercover cases but I was just so pleased that we'd caught those bastards that Ezra's health didn't even come into the equation. I didn't get to see him after the bust, or before he saw Travis today and I didn't realize how bad he was. The FBI whisked him off for a debriefing straight after the bust, as you know, and he was probably with them all night. No wonder he's dead on his feet."
"From what I saw just now, I can honestly say that I ain't seen him looking so bad after an assignment," Vin agreed seriously as he fiddled with a pen distractedly. "He looked kinda like a deflated balloon."
Chris nodded and said, "Yeah, I know what ya mean, cowboy." He turned and wandered back into his office to find Ezra curled up on the couch sound asleep. The blond frowned and took the phone off the hook before going back outside to give the man some peace. He shut the door quietly and then sat at Ezra's desk before sighing softly.
"He okay?" Vin asked anxiously.
"Yeah, fast asleep on the couch. He sure looks rough." Chris turned as he saw Nathan enter the outer office. "Nate? He's asleep."
"Okay, I'll leave the sandwich in there and get him another hot drink later then."
The men worked quietly outside until they heard the sound of movement coming from the office. Nathan hurried in and saw Ezra sitting up properly with feet on the floor but with his head in his hands. The man was rocking gently backward and forwards as well as groaning softly.
"Ez? You okay?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson. I really feel rather odd."
"Can you describe it?" the medic asked as he dropped to his knees before his friend. He put out a hand and felt his brow and frowned at the heat emanating from it.
"No. Just all jumbled, if that makes any sense, and very sleepy. My head hurts and I'm feeling increasingly nauseous."
"Come on, I'll take you home." Nathan saw that Ezra hadn't touched the sandwich and he sighed in defeat. Perhaps he'd manage to get him to eat something when they got home. He walked out into the other office to pick up his keys and bag before going back to collect the sick man.
Ezra pushed himself off the couch with the help of Nathan's hand on his arm but his knees gave way as soon as he got upright. He fell forward onto the small table in front of the couch and then slipped off that into the gap between the two pieces of furniture. Nathan tried his best to break the man's fall but was pulled down onto his face without achieving his aim. With the bag in one hand and Ezra's arm in the other he hadn't stood much of a chance anyway.
The men heard the commotion coupled with Nathan's swearing and they hurried to the doorway. When Chris saw what had happened he indicated for the others to go back to their desks while he entered the office to help Nathan.
The medic had picked himself up gingerly from the floor but stayed kneeling beside the collapsed agent. "I want him checked out at the hospital, Chris."
"Are you okay? You didn't hurt yerself when you fell?"
"No. Just knocked my knee on the table but that don't matter. Ez is what concerns me at the moment."
"Do you want me to get an ambulance?"
"Yeah. If he's gonna keep passing out like this I'd rather he got to the hospital in comfort. He said he weren't feeling too good before he fainted so somethin' ain't right with him. He's so run down that he's liable to catch anything." The medic pulled a couple of cushions from the couch and put them under Ezra's legs while Chris called for help.
The blond then pulled the table out of the way and took up position on the other side of the sick man. He wiped the hair from Ezra's brow gently and asked, "Anything I can do?"
"No thanks. Hopefully he'll come round in a minute."
The paramedics arrived before that happened, however, and the two agents moved out of the way to allow them access to their patient.
"What's his name?" one of the paramedics asked.
"Okay. Ezra? Can you hear me?" The paramedic turned to Nathan when he got no response and asked, "What happened?"
"He's passed out twice in the last hour but he's been out for quite a long time this time. He said he thought he had a cold coming but I'm sure it's more than that. He's got a fever but he's also real tired."
"Okay, let's start him on some fluids. Ezra? Can you open yer eyes?" the paramedic asked again, hoping for some response.
Ezra only woke as he felt the needle of an IV being put in his arm and he looked totally confused by what was going on and not entirely awake.
"Ez?" Nathan said. "Do you know what day it is?"
The undercover agent opened his mouth to answer but closed it when he realized that he actually didn't know. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes with his free hand and coughed roughly. Nathan winced as he imagined the pain that the cough must have elicited in his friend's throat.
The green-eyed man sighed as he looked up with puffy eyes at the people surrounding him. Whenever he had a cold it always seemed to go straight to his left eye. The optic would water nonstop and felt as if it was stuck out on an organ stop. He wiped the tearful eye once more and took a halting breath.
"Can you remember what happened?" one of the paramedics asked, continuing Nathan's line of questioning.
"No.....no, I'm sorry," the undercover agent replied distractedly as he rubbed his throat and swallowed painfully.
"Okay, don't upset yerself, Ez. Yer just exhausted so try and relax," Nathan said soothingly.
"What job does he do exactly?" the paramedic asked as he explored Ezra's neck with gentle fingers.
Chris said, "He's a cop obviously but he's been working on some real hard cases lately and it's taken its toll on him."
"He says he ain't been eating or sleeping properly so that's obviously had some detrimental effects on his body too," Nathan said.
"Alright Ezra, we'll take you along to the hospital and get you sorted out, okay? The glands in yer neck are quite swollen so we'll have to see what's caused that," the taller medic said as he helped his colleague transfer Ezra onto the gurney. "Is anyone coming with him?"
"Yeah, I will," Nathan said.
"We'll meet ya there then, Nate," Chris said as he patted the medic's arm.
Chris watched his agents leave and then picked up his car keys and went out into the outer office.
"How is he?" Buck asked.
"Didn't even know what day it was, Bucklin. You all coming?" he asked although he already knew what the answer would be.
+ + + + + + +
The men arrived at the hospital and met up with Nathan in the waiting room.
"How is he, Nate?" Chris asked.
"How much time have you got?" Nathan sighed. "Well, he's totally exhausted as you already know and they're just doing a blood test 'cause they think he may have infectious mononucleosis."
"Jesus, no wonder he's been feeling so bad. How did he keep going? He shoulda been wiped out, shouldn't he?"
"He's probably been feeling real tired and sick for the past week or so but didn't realize the seriousness of it. I guess today his body just gave up the ghost and told him to slow down. He could hardly stop what he was doing before today, could he? He knew the importance of the case and he just pushed himself too far and these are the consequences."
"Thought mono was something you catch," Buck said quietly.
"It is. Can't think he's been kissing anyone recently but someone may have sneezed or coughed near him. Anyway, he was a prime candidate for developing it in his condition and it's hit him hard."
"What they gonna do?"
"Well, they've decided that they're gonna keep him in overnight. You saw what he was like, Chris. They can't send him home as he is 'cause he'd just collapse again. He needs, rest, rest and more rest."
"Can we see him?"
"Sure but only for a minute and don't disturb him, okay? He's asleep anyway but keep the noise down."
They followed Nathan along the hallway and quietly entered the room to see for themselves how Ezra was.
"I'll stay," Chris whispered after a silent minute had passed.
"Okay. I'll come and relieve you tomorrow, or is he gonna be released, Nate?" Vin asked, equally quietly.
"They'll see how he is, I s'pect. He's ain't gonna suddenly be doing handsprings overnight and he's gonna need quite some time to get over this."
The six men left Chris on guard duty and Ezra slept peacefully through until morning. Vin arrived at nine o'clock as promised and wandered along to the sick man's room. Before he reached his destination though, he spotted Chris getting a drink from a vending machine so the long-haired man went to join him there.
"Chris? Do you know what's happenin'?" the sharpshooter asked as soon as he drew near.
"They're letting him go, cowboy. We'll take him out to the ranch so I can keep an eye on him. I don't think he should be on his own at the moment. The doctor said he needs lots of bed rest to recover from the exhaustion particularly so it's best if someone's with him," the blond replied as he headed back to Ezra with Vin trailing behind.
"Hey, Ez," the sharpshooter greeted on seeing the exhausted man.
Ezra looked up and smiled weakly. "Mr. Tanner."
"How ya feeling?" the man asked sympathetically.
"Well, if you asked me to wriggle my toes I don't believe I could and if I were in danger of being burnt alive I think I'd sit there and be fried. It's going to be hard enough getting out of bed, I reckon." The man coughed painfully and rubbed his throat. "Got tonsillitis too and I ache all over."
"Sorry, Ez. You just stay quiet and rest and we'll take you out to Chris's."
The blond disappeared and came back with a wheelchair and a bag of medication. The two agents took their friend down to the Ram and after settling in his seat Ezra rested his head against the window. He let out a breath and watched as the glass near his mouth fogged up and then cleared. Getting in and out of the wheelchair and into the Ram had really tired him and he groaned at how he was feeling.
"Okay, Ez?" Vin asked anxiously.
"Yeah," the undercover agent mumbled quietly.
Chris exchanged glances with Vin in the rear view mirror worriedly. It was unusual for Ezra to say so little and it gave another pointer to his friends to say just how bad the man was feeling. Chris pulled out onto the road and after traveling for a couple of miles, he took another look at his passengers and saw Ezra was already asleep.
Once they arrived at the ranch after an hour-long journey, Vin shook Ezra's shoulder gently while calling his name, "Ez? We're here."
Ezra eventually opened his eyes and sighed deeply.
The undercover agent looked at the distance he'd have to cover to reach the ranch house and sighed once more. Chris had parked as close as he could but the distance still seemed like a thousand miles to the exhausted agent.
"I'll be alright in a minute. Just need to summon the energy to move," Ezra croaked.
Vin got out and moved to stand next to Chris as he looked back at Ezra who seemed almost asleep again.
"Should they have released him, cowboy? He ain't even got the power to keep his eyes open. I'm real worried about him, Chris."
"So am I, buddy. Let's get him inside between us and put him straight to bed 'cause that's definitely the best place for him at the moment. I'll get Nate to have another look at him if he don't improve."
Chris opened the passenger door and looked in at his sick agent. "Come on, Ez. Let's get you indoors and in the warm." He reached in and literally pulled his friend out. Vin moved to help now that the agent was in the open and between them they escorted Ezra upstairs very slowly.
Once they reached the spare bedroom, Ezra folded his body carefully and sat on the bed. He flopped backward to lie on top of the comforter as he closed his eyes once more. Chris sighed and began undoing the man's shoes as Vin started undressing Ezra's top half. Chris found some of his own pajamas and put them on his friend and then pulled the comforter out from under his body and covered him with it. The two men sat down in chairs beside the bed, huffing and puffing after their exertions.
"Jeez, that was hard work, weren't it? Now I understand something of what Ezra's experiencing," Vin said quietly.
"Come on, let's leave him alone. Hopefully he'll sleep 'til tomorrow." Chris turned as he saw Arnie pad softly into the room. The animal put his snout on the comforter and sniffed the bed and whined before taking up position at the bottom of it on the floor. He lay down and rested head on crossed paws and looked set to join Ezra in a nap. "Come on, pup. Let's leave Ez in peace." Chris put out his hand and got hold of the animal's collar but the dog actually snarled at him threateningly so the blond let go his hold quickly.
"He ain't doin' no harm, Chris. He'll keep Ez company," Vin said quietly.
"Long as he don't pester him."
"Sure he won't. S'pect he knows Ez ain't well. Animals are very perceptive to how we're feeling and you know how much he loves Ez."
Chris nodded and backed out of the room, leaving the door slightly ajar in case Arnie decided he needed a break from sentry duty.
After checking the sick man every hour for four hours Chris had a sudden idea. He went into his bedroom and rifled around in his closet and came out with a baby monitor. He looked down at the equipment and inevitably thought of Adam. Don't know why the hell I kept these but looks like they're gonna come in handy. Used to love hearing the sound of Adam breathing on them when I was downstairs at night. Jesus, I miss him.
"What ya gonna do with that?" Vin asked, interrupting his regrets.
"Well, if I put it in with Ez we can listen out downstairs if it sounds like he needs us. We can still check on him personally every so often but this'll tell us if somethin' is wrong in between times."
"Not just a pretty face, are ya? That's a damned good idea, Chris," Vin said as he patted Chris's back.
The blond put one monitor on the nightstand as close to Ezra as he could and carried the other one with him to the living room. He set it down on the table and the two men listened to the sound of their friend breathing noisily. They found they could relax a bit more now that they could hear exactly what was going on upstairs.
+ + + + + + +
For the next couple of days Chris and Vin took care of Ezra, and Arnie only ever left the undercover agent's side when he needed to go outside for a leak. The exhausted man spent most of the time sleeping but Chris was pleased that, even though Ezra shouldn't have had an appetite because of his mono-induced feverish state, his friend had agreed to eat when offered soup. That, and drinks, was all that the man could really manage anyway because of his tonsillitis.
During the first night no-one got much sleep. Although Chris was in charge of the baby monitor, Ezra was coughing so loudly and often that Vin couldn't help but be woken as well. The two men decided to take it in turns to go and make sure Ezra was alright when he coughed, seeing as they were both awake anyway.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Ezra apologized for the fourth time as he tried to stifle a cough in the pillow. He looked very red in the face as he finally let the cough have free rein.
"It's no bother, Ez. Have some of this. It'll help soothe yer throat," Chris said sympathetically.
"Thank you," Ezra said after drinking the medication. He lay down and curled up under the covers and shivered from head to foot.
Chris reached out the back of his hand and sighed when he felt his friend's feverish skin. "Probably be a couple of days before you get rid of yer tonsillitis, Ez. Yer quite warm too, ain't ya? I'll leave my door open so call me on the monitor or come and get me if you feel bad."
"Monitor? What do you mean?"
Chris pointed to the nightstand and Ezra followed the direction of the blond's finger and frowned when he saw the baby monitor standing there. "What's that contraption doing in here?"
The slender man saw his friend's confusion and said, "Just wanted to make sure we knew you were okay at all times, Ez. This seemed the best way."
"Oh, I see." Ezra nodded gratefully and closed his eyes with a sigh. "Better not start farting then, had I?" the undercover agent mumbled wearily but with a hint of amusement.
"No, I wouldn't if I were you. Can hear all sorts of things on here, Ez," Chris laughed before leaving the room.
Other than a couple more coughing fits Ezra finally managed to sleep for a few hours, for which Chris was glad.
+ + + + + + +
On the second day, Chris heard the sound of unsteady footsteps padding along the hallway and then the flush of the toilet. He made his way upstairs to check on Ezra and found him stumbling back to the bedroom with the ever-faithful Arnie at his heels.
"Yeah, just needed to relieve myself and stretch my lower limbs. I felt the need of a bit of movement but even going to the bathroom seemed like a journey to the ends of the Earth."
"I know Ez, but you know mono takes ages to get over, even without taking into consideration the exhaustion you suffered as well, so don't try to run before you can walk."
"That's hardly likely," Ezra croaked wryly.
"Well, keep drinking, won't ya? Nate said you need to drink a lot so don't stop just 'cause it's an effort to get outta bed to go to the bathroom. We can always lend a hand if you give us a call. I know we can't pee for you but we can get you to the john safely," Chris grinned.
Ezra put his hand to the wall to support himself as he nodded in understanding and smiled weakly in response to Chris's joke.
"Need some help?" Chris asked anxiously.
"No thanks. Just need to be horizontal again."
"Do ya feel okay?"
"Got a monster headache, really pounding like a drum, and before you ask I have taken something for it."
"Okay but call if you need anything else." Chris followed Ezra into the bedroom and made sure he got back into bed safely. "Is Arnie being a nuisance?"
"No, he hasn't been any trouble at all. It's quite comforting knowing he's around actually." The undercover agent took a couple of sips of water from the glass on the nightstand before settling down on the mattress. He pulled the comforter up to his chin and closed his eyes.
Chris patted Arnie's head before backing out of the room to let his friend continue with his recuperation.
+ + + + + + +
On the third morning Chris was making breakfast when Arnie appeared at his side. The dog sat down on his haunches and looked up at his master with big brown eyes. "Hey, pup. Wanna go outside?" Chris walked to the door and opened it but Arnie just sat staring at him. "What's up? You must be bursting for a pee. You better not have cocked yer leg indoors 'cause I'll rub yer nose in it if you have," the blond warned with a mock-stern look.
"Chris? He ain't left Ez for any other reason than to relieve himself." Vin knew the dog wouldn't have made a mess in the house so he came up with the only other explanation he could think of for why Arnie would have interrupted his vigil. "Perhaps he wants you to go up with him to look at Ez for some reason," the sharpshooter suggested with a shrug. He hadn't heard anything out of the ordinary on the monitor but that didn't necessarily mean that there wasn't a problem with the sick man.
Arnie seemed to understand what Vin had said and he ambled to the door and looked back over at Chris before wandering on a few steps more.
"Well, I'll take this up to him at the same time then," the blond said as he picked up a mug of soup. The blond shrugged and followed the canine up the stairs.
"Come on, Ez. Rise and shine." He put down the soup and opened the drapes before looking over at the bed to find the occupier curled slightly on one side. "Ez? You okay?"
He walked over to the bed and pulled the covers away from the man's face to try and get a better look at him. "Ezra?" The blond had to call the man's name very loudly several times before he opened his eyes.
Ezra reached out feebly and swatted Chris's hand away from where it still held the comforter. "G'way."
"Got some soup for ya. Don't ya want it?" the blond asked in concern.
"No. Leave 'lone," Ezra grumbled quietly as he coughed and sniffed. "Pull drapes. Want dark."
Although Ezra hadn't been eating with his normal rapacious appetite he had at least had something every day. It worried Chris that he was now refusing to eat at all. He obeyed the man's request by re-closing the drapes and then left the room anxiously. The blond went back down to the kitchen where Vin was waiting in the doorway.
"Is he alright? I couldn't hear what he said to you on the monitor," the sharpshooter asked when Chris returned.
"He wanted the drapes drawn and said he weren't hungry. Took ages to wake up too. Think I'll get Nate to look at him again. He's worrying me and Arnie obviously detected Ezra's condition had changed or he wouldn't have come and got me."
Chris phoned Nathan. "Can you come and look at Ezra? He ain't eating and don't seem too good."
"Okay. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Nathan duly arrived and went straight upstairs to find that Ezra was asleep. He hated to wake the sick man up but he really needed to see for himself how Ezra was. He turned on the light and sat on the mattress beside the undercover agent.
"Hello Ez," Nathan said as he shook the man's shoulder gently.
Downstairs in the living room, Chris flinched as he heard Nathan's voice seemingly in the same room. He looked down curiously and saw that he still had the baby monitor hung on his belt. He looked up and met Vin's eyes and grimaced while wondering whether to continue listening or not. If Nathan had asked them to be present while examining Ezra that would have been different but it seemed wrong to eavesdrop on what amounted to a private medical consultation. Chris just didn't feel comfortable breaking doctor/patient confidentiality so he reached down and turned the receiver off and saw Vin nod in agreement with his actions.
Meanwhile back upstairs, Ezra didn't wake to the medic's call so Nathan shook him a little harder. When he still didn't rouse, Nathan patted his cheek softly and called his name louder. "Ezra? Wake up, will ya? I wanna talk to ya."
Finally after a bit more shaking the undercover agent peeled his eyes open a crack and winced up at Nathan.
"Can you tell me how yer feelin'?" the medic asked.
"Nnnnnnoooooooooo. Aaaaahhhhhh," Ezra mumbled as he swallowed slowly and made a choking sound.
"Yyyyaaaa." Ezra scrunched up his eyes as he put a hand to his head and groaned loudly.
"Where? Yer head, yer throat? What?" Nathan asked desperately.
Nathan saw Ezra's eyes close so he slapped his face. "Ezra! Stay awake," he ordered. He reached out his hand and felt the man's skin. It was still much warmer than it should have been seeing that Ezra's tonsillitis was on the wane. He saw Ezra open his eyes again but the man immediately turned his face away and Nathan realized that he was turning to the darker side of the room.
"Ezra? Can you do something for me? Can you try and touch your chest with your chin?" he asked anxiously, knowing it sounded a very strange order.
The undercover agent tried his best to comply with the request but he just couldn't do it. "Can't. Hurts," he mumbled softly as he lay his head back with a loud, groaning sigh before vomiting noisily.
After cleaning the man's face, the medic checked the undercover agent's skin and found a rash developing on his abdomen. The rash looked like bruising and that fact made the medic worry. He picked up Ezra's empty glass and pressed the side of it against the spots and found that the marks didn't disappear. He made a rapid decision when he realized just how seriously sick Ezra was.
The worried man got up and walked to the door and stepped into the hallway as he called loudly, "Chris?" He then went back to his patient who was groaning softly while tossing and turning in agitation.
The summoned blond hurried up the stairs two at a time as he detected the unease in his friend's tone. He stood in the doorway and asked apprehensively, "Yeah? Everythin' okay?"
"No, it ain't. Get an ambulance. I'm getting him admitted again 'cause I think he's developed some other complications. I had real trouble waking him."
"What do you think is wrong?"
"Maybe meningitis because he couldn't touch his chin to his chest and that's a surefire sign of it. He's real sensitive to the light and he's just vomited. I also found a rash on his stomach and it don't go away when I press a glass against it. That indicates sepsis, which is a complication of meningitis. Is it only today that you've had trouble waking him?" Nathan asked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice although he knew he wasn't succeeding.
"Yeah. I mean he was real sleepy before but nothing like today. He wouldn't let me pull the drapes and wouldn't eat," Chris replied. "I hadn't noticed a rash or anything but I know he's had a real bad headache since yesterday."
Vin heard the upset voices and walked to stand beside Chris who was already on the phone to the emergency services. The sharpshooter looked into the bedroom and saw Nathan fussing round Ezra as the man vomited again. Vin looked at Chris and listened to the conversation he was engaged in so he could find out what was wrong. The blond stood hip-shot with the palm of his right hand on his brow as he talked. The man looked shocked and that fact worried Vin more than anything because it took a lot to really rattle the blond where sickness was concerned.
"I need an air ambulance, ma'am. I live miles from town and it'll take too long for a road vehicle to get here." He listened to the woman's reply and then said, "He's got suspected meningitis and blood poisoning." He listened some more and got slightly angrier at all the questions he was being asked. "Yes, I'm sure that's what he's got. The friend who examined him is an EMT and I trust his word, ma'am."
Vin frowned when he heard the seriousness of the sickness that Ezra had developed so he stepped quickly into the room.
"Nate? Anything I can do?" he asked nervously as he watched Nathan trying to calm a very restless Ezra.
"No, thanks. Ain't much I can do for him myself. Quicker he gets to the hospital the better."
"I'll call the other guys and let them know then." Vin pulled out his phone and tried to contact Buck. He got JD instead and he knew the youngster was liable to panic at the news he had to impart. "Kid? Is Buck about?"
"No, he's just nipped out. Is something wrong?" the kid asked, detecting the worry in his friend's voice.
"Yeah, it's Ez. He's gotta go back to the hospital."
"Look don't go ape, will ya? Nate thinks he's got meningitis."
"What? Meningitis?" the kid yelped.
Vin could almost picture the younger man, knowing he'd be pacing back and forth and shivering at the news. He was on the verge of speaking again when Buck's voice came on the line.
"Who's calling?" the ladies' man barked, after not getting a response to the same question from JD.
"It's Vin, Bucklin."
"What did you say to JD? He's a wreck, pard," the ladies' man said accusingly.
"Ez might have meningitis and blood poisoning."
"Shit! Where are ya? At the hospital?"
"No. We're waiting for the chopper to come to Chris's."
"Okay pard. We'll be there when you arrive and I'll call Josiah, don't you worry about that." The ladies' man rang off and turned his attention to his younger colleague who was still wearing a hole in the carpet with his pacing. "Kid? Come on stand still. We've gotta go and meet up with Chris at the hospital. Find the truck's keys while I call Josiah, will ya? JD! Did ya hear what I said, son?"
"Yeah, I heard," JD answered distractedly as he wandered off in a daze.
Buck punched in Josiah's number and waited impatiently for the profiler to answer.
"Josiah? It's Buck. Get to the hospital, will ya? Ez is being readmitted with meningitis and sepsis," the ladies' man informed the big man with a tremble in his voice.
"Dear Lord. Okay, I'm leaving now."
Back at the ranch, the air ambulance finally arrived and collected Ezra with Nathan for company. Vin looked at Chris and took the Ram's keys from his hand.
"I'll drive, cowboy."
Chris nodded and admitted quietly, "Thanks, Vin. Ain't quite in the mood." The blond's mind was occupied with regrets and recriminations. "Baby monitor wasn't quite as successful as I'd hoped. Still didn't help us notice that Ez was real sick, did it?"
"Maybe not, but it worked real well on lots of occasions so don't start blaming yerself for anythin', cowboy. Anyway, we had another real good monitor in Arnie, didn't we? He's earned a lifetime of doggy treats, I should think," Vin grinned.
"Yeah, he sure has. Thanks, Vin. It's been good having you around through this."
"No problem, Chris."
Vin drove Chris back to town fast but safely and met up with Buck and the others at the hospital.
"Hey guys. Heard anythin'?" the blond asked anxiously.
"No. Ain't even seen him."
They sat quietly but not patiently as they waited for Nathan to come and tell them the prognosis. The medic finally arrived and he didn't look happy.
"Nate? What news?" Chris asked in trepidation.
"Well, they've done a lumbar puncture and blood test and it's confirmed as bacterial meningitis, which is the worst sort unfortunately."
"What about the sepsis? What did they say about that?" Chris asked impatiently.
"They just confirmed that he's got it," Nathan replied, sounding defeated.
"Shit! What can they do for him?"
"Well, they'd started him on a cocktail of antibiotics even before they got the test results back. Because meningitis and sepsis were already suspected they began the drug treatment straightaway. He's up in ICU in isolation and being fed intravenously. We hopefully caught it early so he stands a good, or should I say a better, chance of making a full recovery. We'll just have to see how he reacts to the treatment but his body's already been given a pounding with the mono. Depends how much strength he's got left to fight this with."
"Did I do something wrong, Nate? Did I miss some sign that woulda alerted me earlier?" Chris asked, still feeling guilty.
"No, Chris. You noticed straightaway that something had changed in his condition. You did real well and you've probably saved his life," the medic praised.
"Arnie did, not me."
"What?" Nathan asked quietly.
"Since Ez left the hospital, Arnie's been staying in his room. He wouldn't leave Ez except when he wanted to go outside for a pee. Anyway, today he came down to the kitchen and just sat staring at me and wouldn't go into the yard when I opened the door. Vin thought that maybe Arnie wanted me to go upstairs with him to look at Ez, so I did." Chris shrugged. "If Arnie hadn't come down I probably wouldn't have checked to see if anything was wrong until much later. I'd have just left Ez alone to sleep, so Arnie was the one to make me realize that Ez was real sick."
"Whoever it was don't matter. The fact that Ezra is in the best place and being given the proper treatment is all that counts," Nathan said as he patted the blond's back, knowing how bad Chris was feeling.
"Can we see him?" JD asked.
"No, not at the moment. Not 'til they know that he's no longer infectious. Vin? Chris? The doc wants to start you both on a course of antibiotics too seeing as you've had real close contact with him recently."
"Sure, whatever, Nate. Can Vin and I see Ez once we've started the course of drugs? I don't like him being on his own."
"Should be okay but I'll check with the doctors first, alright?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Chris were finally allowed to see Ezra and they wandered along to his slightly darkened room. Chris hated hospitals. It didn't matter whether he was in one as a patient or just a visitor, they always struck the fear of God into him. However, he wasn't going to let his phobia get in the way of caring for Ezra.
Chris looked down at his undercover agent and sighed. Jeez, hospitals are so undignified. Not deliberately so but undignified just the same. The blond looked around the room and shook his head sadly. Ezra was lying on a bed in the middle of the room surrounded by machines. He looked like he was part of an experiment and Chris expected him to sit up suddenly with arms outstretched like Frankenstein's creation.
Not much luxury is there, Ez? Can't expect creature comforts but a few niceties wouldn't go amiss. I'm sure the atmosphere in here contributes to the feeling of sickness in the patients.
Ezra was lying like a discarded rag doll with his arms away from his body and one leg bent. His head was turned to the right and it looked for all the world as if he'd just been thrown on the bed willy-nilly. His torso was bare except for the wires that were attached to his flesh to monitor his condition. The vast majority of his skin was still covered by a dark red rash of bruise-like spots, which made him look like he'd been beaten up. A badly crumpled sheet covered his lower body just up to his hips and that was the only covering he had. One foot poked out from under the material and Chris growled angrily at the untidy bed. The blond reached out and straightened the sheet and pulled it up a bit higher without interfering with the wires. He then smoothed out the creases and that small change seemed to make a vast difference to the room, and his friend's, appearance. It made him looked cared for. Not that Chris thought he was being neglected in any way but an unmade-up bed gave that impression. Despite his thoughts, Chris knew Ezra was getting the best treatment possible.
Chris looked up and watched as people walking along the hallway outside inevitably looked in to see what was going on inside the room. They, no doubt, meant no harm but they were invading his friend's privacy all the same. Chris moved and closed the shades angrily. Don't s'pect Ez could give a shit but I sure as hell do. I don't want him stared at like a two-headed snake.
He moved to stand beside the sick man once more and said out loud, "Jeez Vin, he looks so frail. He's taken a real battering, ain't he?"
"Yeah, he's had everything there is to have, I reckon. He's had complications of complications, ain't he? I know he's greedy but he went a bit over the top this time." Vin knew it was his nerves talking and he realized he'd said the wrong thing even before the words had left his mouth.
Chris certainly didn't see the funny side of the comment. "This ain't the time for joking, Vin," the blond scolded in a terse tone.
Vin winced apologetically. "Sorry, cowboy. That was in bad taste and I know he ain't out of the woods yet but it's just I'm...um..real scared, cowboy." Vin felt Chris's eyes turn to him questioningly but the sharpshooter continued talking as he kept his eyes downcast. "It's like his whole body's turned against him, Chris. What can you do when that happens?" Vin shrugged. "I could handle it more if he'd been shot but this," he said as he pointed to Ezra with a flick of his hand before continuing, "is all because he was too tired and stressed, for Christ's sake. I ain't sayin' he was weak to succumb to sickness because of that. We all know what a tough job his is but for it all to start with a sore throat and end like this is hard to understand. If he'd been shot I'd see a wound, wouldn't I? I'd know what I was dealing with and I could understand if his condition deteriorated because of it." Vin shrugged forlornly again. "I just don't know what to do when he's like this, Chris." Vin raised his gaze and looked at his friend. "I know from now on whenever I yawn I'm gonna be reminded of this."
Chris reached out a hand and squeezed Vin's shoulder sympathetically. "I know, kid. As Ezra woulda said, it was an innocuous beginning to such a life-threatening ailment."
Vin looked at the blond sharply and paled. Chris wondered if he was in for a telling-off because he'd tried to make light of the situation after not being happy when Vin had done the self-same thing. But it was something entirely different that had upset his quiet, sensitive friend.
"You're talking about him in the past tense, cowboy. Don't do that," Vin whispered with a lump in this throat before leaving the room.
"Shit!" Chris cursed. He hadn't realized he had talked as if Ezra was already dead until Vin told him so. He left the younger man alone for a moment before following him out. "Vin? Kid, I'm sorry. Guess we're all a bit freaked out by this. I know it's hard to deal with so would you rather go home? You don't have to stay 'cause you've done enough for him already. I know he don't look pretty at the moment and the atmosphere in the room don't help."
"No, I wanna be with Ez. I ain't leaving him when he's so sick."
"Come back inside then but if you change yer mind just say the word."
Vin turned round and went back and sat beside Ezra. "Do ya think he heard us talking before, Chris? He won't think we've given up on him, will he?" Vin asked worriedly as he ran a gentle finger across Ezra's brow to push aside his wayward sweat-stained hair.
"We didn't say nothing to give him that impression, Vin. We were just expressing our concerns. He wouldn't have taken it as us thinking he's gonna die."
"Sure hope yer right. Wouldn't want him to think that. He might lose the will to live and I want so much for him to survive," Vin said, in case Ezra could indeed hear what they were saying.
+ + + + + + +
The two men stayed with Ezra continuously until Buck and Josiah were permitted to relieve them when the sick man was declared no longer contagious.
Buck walked in with his usual boisterousness but stopped dead when he saw Ezra. "Jesus Christ," he muttered as he paled considerably before turning round and walking straight back out again. He hadn't seen the man since he'd been sick at work and Buck was shocked.
Chris looked at Josiah and indicated Vin with his eyes. The profiler nodded and silently agreed to talk to the sharpshooter while Chris was talking to Buck. The big man knew Vin had been having a hard time coping too.
Chris walked out when he knew Josiah had received his silent message. "Bucklin?"
"Shit Chris! I'm sorry, pard. I don't know what I expected but what I had in mind sure don't compare with the real thing. I thought when you said he had a rash it would be little red spots not bruises like that," the ladies' man said as he pointed into Ezra's room with a shaking hand.
"I know, Bucklin," Chris said as he patted Buck's back gently.
"We've seen him sick before but....," Buck's voice trailed off. "God, he looks awful."
"You sure you're alright to stay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a bit shocked by how he looked. I'll be okay now."
Back inside the room, Josiah walked to stand beside Vin. "How ya doin', Vin?"
"Oh, I'm okay, Josiah."
"He don't look too good, does he?" the profiler commented quietly as he reached out a hand and wrapped it round Ezra's wrist and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
"No, but he's better than he was."
"Can't have been easy being here all the time with him."
"No, but we couldn't leave him on his own. Found it hard to start with but this ain't about me, is it?" Vin stated emphatically.
"Well, yes it is, son. Can't ignore yer own feelings."
"I can until Ez is better."
"Well, you can talk to me if you feel like it. Any time, Vin. You know that, don't you?" the big man said insistently as he turned to look at his younger companion.
"Yeah thanks, Josiah."
Buck and Chris came back in just as they finished speaking and the ladies' man walked to the bed slowly and studied his sick friend critically. He then took a deep breath and said, "Hello, Ez. Thought you could do with a change of company. Sure you're bored stiff with Chris and Vin. Not much conversation from them, I bet."
"Better than being talked to death by you, Bucklin," Vin said sourly as he flicked a quick smile at the taller man when he saw how unsettled he looked.
+ + + + + + +
After a week, Ezra still hadn't woken and Chris was getting more and more anxious.
"Nate?" Chris asked. "When's he gonna wake up? I could really do with some good news about now. Has he improved at all?"
"Yeah, he has. I know it don't look like it but he's getting better every day. The battle ain't won but he's sure fightin' with everythin' he's got."
+ + + + + + +
A few days later all their prayers were answered when Ezra woke for the first time. It wasn't for long but it was a start. Ezra had actually been awake for a couple of minutes before either of his companions realized. Chris had looked at Ezra twice since he'd woken but it was only on the third occasion that the black-clad man became aware of the fact that his friend's eyes were open. The blond had been so used to Ezra being unconscious that he'd looked at his friend without really paying attention to his condition. From closed eyelids to a flash of green from two tired eyes should have been instantly noticeable. It was something he had been waiting for during the past week but when it had happened he'd very nearly missed it.
"Ezra? Jesus, yer awake. Thank God," the blond said as he rose rapidly.
Vin was immediately on his feet as he heard Chris talking. "Hey fella," he said, but that was all the long-haired man got in before Ezra closed his eyes again.
The blond looked at the sharpshooter and saw the relief in his face. He patted the younger man's back and then pulled him into his arms for a quick celebratory hug. Vin squirmed in embarrassment though, so Chris let go.
"Sorry, cowboy. Just needed to...," Chris apologized as he threw his hands in the air and grinned.
"Yeah, I know, Chris," Vin said as he smiled understandingly. "I'll go get the doc."
"Sure. I'll call the rest of the guys then."
They turned to the door and stopped short when they saw Buck leaning against the doorframe grinning at them. "Fellas? Somethin' ya wanna tell me, maybe? Looked a bit of a cozy embrace there."
"The only thing I gotta tell ya Buck is that Ez woke up. We were just kinda celebrating," Chris said as he smiled broadly.
"Well, that's alright then," Buck said as he took a long stride forward and enveloped Chris in his arms.
"Get off, you jerk," the blond complained as he wriggled free.
"Just gettin' in on the action. Feelin' kinda left out of all the touchy-feely stuff." Buck patted Chris's back boisterously. "Look, why don't I stay with Ez while you two go and do those errands you were talkin' about?"
Chris nodded and left the room with Vin while Buck moved to stand next to the bed.
"Heard you woke up, pard." He reached out a hand and ran his fingers through Ezra's tousled hair. "Sure hope it's the start of yer recovery. I've missed hearing yer voice, Ez."
As he talked, the undercover agent opened his eyes again after feeling the touch of Buck's hand. Ezra took a deep breath and groaned softly but didn't speak.
"Hey, bud," Buck greeted as he leant down nearer his sick friend. He moved his hand to Ezra's face and the bedridden man blinked quickly several times before settling his eyes on the mustached agent. "That's it, pard. It's me...Bucklin."
Vin walked back into the room with the doctor and heard Buck talking so he hurried forward to stand beside him. The doctor, meanwhile, moved to the bed to check the machines before turning his attention to Ezra.
The man moved slightly so he was in his patient's line of sight. "Ezra? Can you talk to me?"
The undercover agent took a shallow halting breath but closed his eyes without uttering a word.
"Doc?" Vin said tentatively as he turned to look at the man.
"Well, let me put it like this, I'm a bit more hopeful than I was yesterday," the medic admitted with a shrug.
"But he woke up. That's good, ain't it?" Buck said anxiously, thinking the doctor wasn't being as enthusiastic as he thought he should have been at the improvement in Ezra's medical state.
"Of course but it doesn't signal an instant recovery or mean that he won't suffer any long-term damage as a result of the meningitis. He's still got a long way to go so don't get too complacent and assume he'll be alright."
Buck scowled as the doctor left. "Jeez, he's a real prophet of doom, ain't he?"
"Just doin' his job, Bucklin," Vin said quietly. "He don't want us to get our hopes up only to be disappointed later on. As he said, Ez is still real sick."
+ + + + + + +
Thankfully the doctor's warnings proved unfounded but it still took another week before Ezra was really on the mend and well enough to talk.
The undercover agent opened his eyes and saw Nathan sitting beside him flicking idly through a magazine. "Mr. Jackson?"
"Hey Ez. Wondered when you were gonna start talking to us," the medic said as he put aside his reading material.
"Where am I? I thought I was at Chris's."
"You're in the hospital. You've been real sick and we've been awful worried about ya."
"What's wrong with me? I thought I had mono. I would have assumed that Mr. Wilmington would have been a prime candidate for catching the kissing disease instead of me. His lips always seem to be permanently attached to someone else's," Ezra grinned weakly. "Why they gave it that moniker, I'll never know." Ezra saw Nathan open his mouth to explain the disease's name but Ezra forestalled him. "I know the reason Mr. Jackson but it still seems a ridiculous pseudonym. Anyway, back to my original inquiry. What is wrong with me now? I thought I had mono."
"You did, but then you developed meningitis and blood-poisoning. You've been here nearly three weeks and you've had a real rough time, Ez."
"All because I overexerted myself?" Ezra asked in an astonished tone as he received a confirming nod from Nathan. "Well," he said in disgust. "Maude always used to tell me that hard work never hurt anyone. I am going to have to inform her that I seriously disagree."
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