Friday – 0510 Hours – Room 413

I was wrong. I did sleep. I think Larabee slipped me some extra meds when I wasn't looking.

Gotta remember to thank him.

I still hurt like hell, but the sleep helped. Well, that and knowing that Ezra ain't dead.

"Josiah been here?" I croak. Can't believe how dry my mouth is.

Chris holds up a cup and straw so I can drink. While I'm sipping he tells me that Ezra's been out of surgery for several hours and the doctors are optimistic.

Chris says that Ezra took a hit in the upper right chest. Did some damage that's gonna take a while to heal. Sounds like we'll be twins – both of us with trussed up shoulders and arms. Seems he cracked his head pretty hard on the concrete floor when he went down. Said he's got 8 stitches on the back of his head.

I've got a few stitches, too, but they're in my leg. Figure it got cut on the railing when I went over. Could'a had stitches on my forehead, but they butterfly'd it. Still itches.

Someone knocks on the door and I turn. Damn, I gotta stop doing that. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing trying to control the pain.

I hear Bucklin whisperin' and askin' how I'm doing.

"I'm fine, Bucklin," I say. "How's JD?"

"I'm okay, Vin."

I open my eyes and sure enough JD's there on a pair of crutches. Chris moves and lets JD have his chair.

"Yeah," says Buck, "He's getting around good for someone who trips over his own feet."

"I didn't trip over my feet," JD grumbles, but he doesn't say more. Something about his expression tells me there's more to it, but he doesn't share.

"Thanks, Kid," I say.

"For what?" he asks and I can see the confusion on his face.

I tell him that Chris told me JD was the one who spotted that I was in trouble from the video camera we had to record the bust. Chris couldn't get the guy before he hit me and dumped me over the rail, but he stopped the guy from ever hurtin' anyone else. And JD was the one who warned everyone from comin' up the catwalk system, and called in the rescue team. He did great and I tell him so.

He blushes and I laugh. And then I cuss. It's gonna be a long couple weeks until stuff really starts to heal.

Buck makes excuses, saying JD needs to go home, but he gives me a wink and I know he's keeping it short for my benefit.

'Bout that time, Josiah comes in and he razzes JD, too. And I see it again. JD's got this look of satisfaction that I can't quite figure, but I get the impression he's letting them tease him just to lighten the mood.

What really happened out there, Kid?

Buck and JD leave, but they're stopping by to visit Ezra on the way out. Wish I could. It would make me feel a helluva lot better to see him for myself.

Josiah says that Ezra was awake for a while, but he's pretty out of it. Says the poor guy doesn't know when he's talking and when he's not and he keeps saying really funny stuff.

I glare at Larabee. He better not repeat the stuff I said when I was waking up. He grins.

I'm doomed.

Once Bucklin hears I was flirting with the nurses, I'll never hear the end of it. Hell, Chris says I ended up with phone numbers of everyone in the recovery room – including the doctor, the anesthesiologist and… the male nurse.

I'm doomed.

Chris sits there chuckling, not sayin' a word, just laughing. I tell him to get the hell out and go see Ezra.

Josiah laughs, knowing that something happened and knowing that he'll know soon enough. He shoos Chris out of the room and takes his place in the chair. He starts telling some story and before I know it, I'm dozing as his voice lulls me to sleep.

Friday – 0630 Hours – Room 239

My head hurts. I am not going to open my eyes.

"Yes, you are, Ezra," he tells me. "You've been sleeping long enough."

The command in his voice works, and no matter what I'm feeling, I'm compelled to respond. It's not as easy as it sounds, to open your eyes, I mean. It is a monumental effort to force my eyelids open.

"Come on, Ezra," he urges.

I open my eyes and immediately wish I hadn't. The light gives me a headache and I wince before I can stop myself.

Somehow he knows and he orders the drapes to be closed.

“He’s still loopy,” another voice says.

I am not loopy. A loop is a circle. No, an ellipse. A circle is always an ellipse but an ellipse is not always a circle.

They’re laughing at me.

“Sorry, Ezra. It’s just that you have the most profound statements when you’re under the influence.”

I force my eyes to look at him, realizing that I must have spoken aloud. And then I know I must be loopy. It’s Josiah and I thought it was Chris commanding me to wake up.

I must look confused because now Nathan is looking down at me, straightening my sheets.

“I don’t like hospitals.” I mumble.

“I know, Ezra,” he says, “But right now it’s where you need to be.”

He holds a cup and straw to my lips and I sip. It’s only water, but it is exactly what my throat needs. As I drink, I examine both faces. Nathan and Josiah are very serious and I remember that something terrible happened and it’s my fault.

“Who?” I want to know who’s hurt. I groan. Don’t let them be dead, please.

Josiah looks distraught at my question, but Nathan takes it in stride. “It’s Nathan and Josiah, Ezra. The pain medication is confusing you. Don’t worry about it.”

I’d roll my eyes… if I could remember how to make that work.

I try again. “What?” I have to know what happened.

Nathan launches into an explanation of the bust going bad and that I was shot.

No! Don’t you understand? I need to know who else… where is everyone else? Nathan puts his hand on my arm stilling my movement and tells me not to get all agitated.

I sigh in frustration. I’d ask where, but they’d probably tell me I was injured in the warehouse.

They’re laughing again. I must have said it aloud. It is very disconcerting to not know whether I’m speaking or not.

“I think you need some more rest,” says Nathan.

“First you tell me to wake up. Now you tell me to rest…” I say, but I realize he’s right. I’m very sore and very tired.

Wait. There’s something I have to know.

“Easy, Ezra.” Nathan pushes me back down on the bed. I’m sure it doesn’t take much effort because as soon as I moved, pain ripped through my chest.

I can feel tears in my eyes as I’m trying to catch my breath. I don’t want to cry. I’m not a child. I hate hospitals. I hate pain medication.

“We know, Ezra,” says Josiah.

Ah hell. I did it again, didn’t I? I said it aloud. I hope I only said the part about hating hospitals and medication.

Josiah’s mouth drops open slightly as if something just dawned on him. He smiles gently as if he understands. Understands what? How much I hate being like this, being out of control? I look away, embarrassed.

“Ezra,” he says.

I still can’t look at him. I hate being so helpless. I can’t even make him understand what I need to know.


This time I look. He takes my hand in his and I let him.

“Everyone is all right.”

Oh, thank God. “Where? Vin’s down. I remember,” I mumble. It’s so hard to stay awake.

Josiah smiles. “Vin was injured, but he’s going to be fine. Chris is with him. He was here to check on you about an hour ago. Says Vin doesn’t believe him when he tells him you’re okay. Buck and JD are at home. They were here all night, but the doctor made JD go home.” He squeezes my hand and chuckles. “JD took a header or something getting out of the van when everything went bad. Tore some things up in his knee. He may have to have surgery, but he’ll be okay.”

“Have to remember.”

“Have to remember what, Ezra?”

“Tell JD how important he is. Have to remember…”

Friday – 1032 hours – Room 413

Just shoot me and get it over with. The nurse is cleaning my scrapes and applying ointment for the umpteenth time. I hiss. I don't mean to, but it just slips out when my body is this tired and the meds have me off balance.

She apologizes, and I tell her it's not her fault. She's being real gentle, but with this stuff it don't seem to matter how soft a touch you have. I get a good look at my right leg and it ain't pretty. What ain't black and blue is a combination of scraped and burned. Hard to believe I could get that kind of damage through my fatigues.

She covers my leg with the sheet and starts in on my arm. It's a little harder to do with the strapping for my shoulder. I do my best not to let on that it hurts, but she seems to know anyway. She talks quietly the whole time, telling me what she's doing and showing me how to take care of the wounds myself. 'Course it's gonna be a little harder for me since I'll only have one hand to work with.

When she starts in on my cheek, I think about how glad I am that I was wearing the Kevlar. If I hadn't been wearing my vest, I probably would have scrapes all up and down my chest and side as well.

My head's really starting to pound now and I know I need to rest some more. I really hate lying around and doing nothing.

The doctor comes in and does his share of poking and prodding, too. That's another thing I hate about hospitals – all the poking and touching and people just bein' too much in my personal space. There's no way to be really alone when you need some space. But then again, I 'spect being alone when you're recovering isn't always a great idea.

I know I'm not catching everything he's telling me; my head is still muddled from the pain meds. But his next words make my day. I'm gettin' outta here tomorrow. Yes! He tells me to get some more rest and I comply without complaint. It's been a long couple 'a days and contrary to what I tell everyone else, I do know that I need rest to recuperate. I relax as much as I can and let myself drift off.

Friday – 1215 hours – Room 239

Well, I’m really awake this time. I can tell by the throbbing in my head and the incessant ache in my chest. I move my arm in an attempt to get comfortable and know immediately this was a mistake. I don’t mean to groan, but I can’t help it. I can’t stop it.

No one speaks, but someone shifts my arm for me and adjusts my pillow.

“Thank you,” I mutter.

I hate muttering. If one has something to say, he should speak clearly and communicate concisely. Concisely? I laugh at the thought. I know I haven’t been concise for the past – uh – however long I’ve been here.

“What’s so funny?”

“Chris?” I open my eyes and see our team leader, our boss – my friend. He looks tired.

He nods.

“You look awful.”

He snorts at my comment. “If I were Buck, I’d have to say…”

“That’s damn near impossible,” I finish. We both laugh. I guard my chest with my arm as I find that laughter is not a good idea.

“You all right?” “How’s Vin?” we ask at the same time.

He smiles. “Since I know you’ll just say you’re fine, I’ll tell you that Vin’s doing well. He may go home tomorrow if he behaves himself.”

Home? I want out of here. I hate hospitals. Maybe I can convince…

“Don’t give me that look, Ezra. No one’s gonna break you out of here.” He pauses and gets very serious. “I want you to hear me, Ezra. I know you hate it here. I don’t know what happened to make you hate hospitals so much, but I do know that this is necessary. Ezra,” he pauses and swallows hard. Chris is not an emotionally expressive man, and clearly he is struggling with this. “We almost lost you,” he whispers, “And that is not acceptable. You hear me?”

I nod, surprised at the emotion but overwhelmed by it at the same time. It must be the drugs.

It has to be the drugs.

“So you’re going to stay here and do everything, and I mean everything the doctors want. Understand?”

Again I nod, but I have to look away.

“I’ve got miles of paperwork to complete and I don’t have time to be breaking in a new undercover agent.”

I smile. The words are meant to lighten the mood, and they do, but I also hear the unspoken intent and I am awed at the reminder that I am truly a part of this team, this group of brothers. It is still a foreign feeling to me, but it is one to which I’m growing attached.

“Buck’s going to bring JD by to see you after his therapy appointment tomorrow,” Chris says, changing the subject to make it more comfortable for both of us.

“How’s his knee?”

“The doctors seem pretty sure they won’t have to do surgery, but he’s going to be on desk duty for quite a while.”

“He won’t like that,” I say with a yawn. How rude of me. I should have covered my mouth. Chris seems amused. Why is it that I seem to bring such amusement to these men? It’s certainly not funny that I don’t have full control of my faculties. I can’t help it if I can’t remember good manners.

I hate painkillers.

Wonderful. Now my mind is wandering again.

“And I’m pretty sure that you and Vin won’t like it either.”

That got my attention. Desk duty. No field agent truly enjoys desk duty. I know now that JD will be bouncing off the walls. At least he’ll have computers and communication gear to keep him occupied.

Vin? He’ll take it silently in stride, like he does everything else, but it will be very difficult for him. Computers, reading, and writing reports are not his forte. His skill in the field as a marksman and his ability to plan and envision the big picture are his strong points. And his drawing skills. He has a remarkable gift for sketching out the schematics of a building.

“Right?” he asks.

I nod even though I disagree. Oh, he’s right that I won’t enjoy doing miles of paperwork, although I can do it well. And I do love being in the field, interacting with the criminal element and taking them down, but I’m not disappointed about the desk duty. It will give me time to heal, to refresh after being away so long, but it will also give me time with JD’s drumming, Buck's teasing, Josiah's philosophizing, Nathan's hovering, Vin's quiet humor and Chris's grumbling about damages to his house or wasting time at the office.

Desk duty. I find it an oddly comforting thought.

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.
Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

~ Jane Howard

Friday – 1322 hours – Room 413

Had myself a good nap and picked at my lunch. Hope someone will bring me some decent food after they get off work. One 'a them pastries of Ezra's would be nice.

Ezra. Wish I knew how he was really doing. Everyone tells me he's going to be fine, but I figure he's pretty miserable right now. He hates hospitals more 'n me. He won't say why, but I reckon he had a real bad experience in one sometime. Wonder sometimes if it was something to do with his dad. His ma has the same aversion. She tried to visit Ezra the last time he was hurt. Shortest visit I ever seen. Ezra didn't mind, though. We were all harpin' about how she could'a spent more time, and Ez jist said, "She was here. That's all that matters." Then he went back to pretendin' he could handle being in the hospital.

That's it. I know Buck and JD stopped by after JD's therapy appointment, but no one else is gonna be here until at least six. Ez needs the support and I ain't doin' nothing but lying around anyway.

Truth is, I can't stand bein' caged up either. Leastways I can pass the time with Ez.

Decision made. Could be a bit of a problem carryin' it out. It's not like I'm not supposed to be outta bed or nothin'. They had me up walking earlier today.

I push the blankets off with my left hand and brace myself for the effort of sitting up. Ain't so easy to do when yer all trussed up and movement aggravates everything. Here we go.

Yeee-oww. I blow out my breath and take another nice and slow. Gotta give the room a chance to stop spinnin'. When it does, I slide off the bed onto my feet, steady myself and latch on to the IV pole. I'm grateful for the scrubs Bucklin came up with. Well the pants anyway. Got the stupid gown for the tops, but that makes it easier for the staff to work on me.

I head down the hall at the breakneck speed of a slow shuffle, tryin' to remember what room they said Ez is in.

Friday – 1335 hours – Room 239

Well that was certainly not fun, but they say the dressing needs to be changed to prevent infection. They're decreasing the pain medication, for which I'm grateful. I don't like the loss of control and confusion of thought.

I sigh. I don't like the clarity of mind either. Too much time with nothing to do but think and that's the last thing I want to do while I'm stuck in here. I want out.

Buck and JD came by earlier. They were bickering and bantering and even though the noise exacerbated my headache, the distraction was welcome. Everyone else is at the office, though, to a man they assured me they would return this evening to visit.

Unfortunately, that doesn't help the present. I tried watching television, but I prefer something more challenging than soap operas, game shows, daytime talk shows or the drivel they purport to be courtroom shows.

I can feel the panic starting to creep in and I'm at a loss to prevent it. At least with the stronger medication I wasn't truly aware of where I am staying. I wonder if Mr. Tanner is feeling as caged as I? There's one way to find out. Road trip, JD would call it.

I raise the head of my bed to give myself the greatest advantage in escaping it. Pushing the blankets to the side, I slide my legs over the edge of the bed and let them dangle for a moment while I catch my breath. Funny how just breathing pulls at the muscles in my chest and shoulder.

I'm not certain that I'm really ready for this journey, but I know that I can no longer stay in this room. I take hold of my IV pole and begin the trek, shuffling like an old man.

I pass the nurses station and the woman on duty gives me a friendly nod. It is not an oddity to her to see patients parading through the hall in silk pajamas and gowns, clinging to IV poles. In fact, I made this circuit early this morning with the assistance of one of her coworkers. Now, however, I am on my own and in search of freedom… and distraction.

My shoulder twinges, and I have to slow my pace. I think I saw a snail pass me. Hah. Guess the meds are still having some effect.

I look toward my goal. The elevator doors seem a million miles away and I'm beginning to seriously doubt I can make the distance. I stop and look back toward my room. It's just as far, and I'd be going back into confinement.

Elevator it is.

I shuffle forward, using my IV pole to balance. Earlier I was thinking how much I wanted to be rid of the IV, but now I find myself oddly grateful for the support.

I realize that if I fall, there is no way I'll be able to catch myself.

Another step and I curse the bunny slippers Mr. Wilmington so "thoughtfully" provided when he brought my pajamas. The floppy ears dangle and I've managed to step on one. Now I can't move that foot and I'm off balance, having expected to shift my weight.

I hold onto the IV pole with a death grip, watching the bag sway with my motions. How ridiculous. I'm about to fall on my face and I'm watching my IV swing on the hook.

Somehow I regain my balance and shift my weight so I can free the bunny ear. Mr. Wilmington will be receiving paybacks in full.

At the time of my choosing.

If I survive this trek.

I look up and find I have reached my objective.


I want to reach my hand out to press the elevator call button, but I'm not sure I can let go of the pole. So I stand here, staring at the door, wishing it to open.

"Ah hell," I mutter. I've just realized I don't know where to find Vin. I made this long trek without knowing where I'm going.

I glance back at my room. There is no way I can make it that far. And there is no way that I will ask for help.

Guess I'll just have to stand here clinging to my IV pole, staring at the elevator door hoping it will open. Then I'll have to figure out where they've secreted my teammate.

"Open. Open. Open," I mumble, repeating the television commercial for that store with the early morning sales. Oh, Lord. I am truly losing it.

The doors open with a swish.

"Hey, Ezra."

I stand here and grin stupidly at Vin. He looks worse than I feel. At least I don't have to find his room.

"Goin' somewhere?" he asks.

"I was going to pay you a visit," I answer. He grins, and then winces.

"Your place or mine?" he jokes.

"Truth?" I say.

He nods.

"I don't think I can make it to either."

He looks concerned, and maybe a little surprised at my honesty. He steps off the elevator clinging to his IV pole.

"Waiting room, looks good," he says.

I agree. Anything less than ten feet away looks good. We both turn and shuffle to the small waiting area and sink awkwardly down to a couple of couches that are arranged at a 90 degree angle to each other.

I start laughing, in hysteria or relief, I'm not entirely certain which. Vin laughs, too, until we both have tears in our eyes, which isn't long considering the pain we have just caused.

We fall silent and just sit for a while, soaking in the fact that we are both alive and relatively in one piece.

Home is not where you live but where they understand you.

~ Christian Morgenstern

Friday – 1348 hours – Waiting Room, Second Floor

I was surprised to run into Ezra in the hallway. From what the guys told me, I didn't expect him to be outta bed yet. Surprised me even more when he told me he couldn't make it to the room.

Scared me. There was no way I could help him if he went down. It quickly became clear that this was a dumb idea – for both of us. But if I'd stayed put, Ezra might still be starin' at that Elevator, probably from the floor.

"You doin' okay?" I ask.

He gives me that look; the one where he raises his right eyebrow and looks, what's that word - uh - incredulous.

"Are you?" he asks.

All right, it was a dumb question, but I didn't mean physically. I was asking about the other thing – the hating the hospital issue. But he's not likely to talk about that either.

We sit there and the silence becomes awkward. I want to tell him I'm sorry about screwing up and failing to protect him at the bust, but I've never been too good with words, and nothin' wants to come out.

So we don't talk about it. We talk about the couches being uncomfortable, the walls needin' a paint job, what we had for lunch. Anything that means nothing.

But it's okay because Ezra's forgetting about how much he wants outta here. At least I think he is.

After a while a family comes into the waiting room, a mom and two kids. The girl looks about 11 or 12 and the little boy might be 5 or so. I frown when the mom leaves the kids there and goes down the hall without 'em. I mean, they're fairly safe with two semi-stoned ATF agents, but the mom didn't know who we were before she just up and left 'em.

The girl settles in to watch TV, and the boy plays with the magazines on the table, mixing them up, moving them around, piling them up and then spreading them out. It's not long before he needs something else to do.

He looks at me and Ez and I groan inside. I'm not up to entertaining a kid, and I'm pretty sure Ezra ain't either. He looks like he's dozing.


I smile and say hello.

"Did you have surg'y?"

I shake my head, no.

"Did you have surg'y?" he asks Ezra, tapping him on the knee.

Ezra's eyes shoot open and he's got this panicked look.

"It's okay," I say. "The kid wants to know if you had surgery."

He slows his breathing and gathers himself.

"Hello, young man," he says.

I grit my teeth as the kid reaches towards Ezra's bandaged shoulder and repeats his question about surgery.

Ezra takes the boy's hand in his good one, preventing the kid from touching his injured shoulder. "Yes, I did."

"Oh," says the kid. "My Daddy did, too. But they won't let me go in his room 'cuz I have a cold."

The kid coughs and sniffs and Ezra closes his eyes in frustration.

"Jeffrey, get over here," orders the sister. "Mom says you're supposed to do what I say."

The little kid surprisingly does what his sister says and goes over to watch TV with her.

I look at Ezra and he has this lost expression on his face. Damn. Something about the kid is setting him off. He closes his eyes and rubs his forehead with his good hand.

"Ezra, do you want me to get some help?" I ask.

"No," he says quickly. His breathing is too quick.

It could be his injury, but more likely he's getting close to having a panic attack. The only time I ever seen Ez have one before, was the last time he was in the hospital.

"You were gonna tell me about that opera you saw last week," I say.

"Huh?" He looks at me and I can almost see him latch on to the lifeline. "Oh, yes."

Ezra starts telling me about the opera, about the guy that wrote it and what it's all about, and pretty soon he's breathing normal and talking like nothing's happening.

Somewhere in the middle of his monologue, the mom comes back for the two kids and leaves us alone again. Ezra pauses, and I look at him.

"Thank you," he says softly.

"It's the least I could do," I say.

Ezra frowns. "What do you mean by that?"

The door's wide open Tanner. Just open your mouth and say it.

"It's the least I could do since I'm the one that got you stuck here in the first place. I should'a been quicker. I didn't watch your back."

Ezra looks at me with a sad expression. "If I recall correctly, I wasn't shot in the back."

I growl. "That's not what I mean, Ezra."

He grins.

I grin back. I can't help it. His smile is infectious.

"And here I was trying to figure out how I could apologize to you," he says.

"For what?"

"I should have given the alert earlier. Things could have happened differently."

I shake my head. "Geez, we're a pair, aren't we."

We're quiet for a moment, and then I say, "Ezra, I know you did it right."

He nods. "And I know that you executed your job perfectly."

"It just happened?" I say.

"It just happened," he agrees. "No blame, no fault. Except for Timmons, of course."

I nod. I think we both knew it all along, but we just needed to say it. We both needed to make sure the other was truly all right.

Silence again, but it's comfortable again. It's not long before Ezra's dozing again. I watch TV for a while, but I hate the daytime crap. Give me a good western or an action flick anytime.

Somewhere along the line, I lose track of time. I must have dozed off as well. But I'm awake now, and my stomach's growling.

It's downright cruel that they have a snack machine across the room from me, staring me in the face, and I have no money.

Someone clears his throat and I look up.

Uh-oh. We're dead meat now. Chris is glaring, and Nathan's just about got him matched.

I kick Ezra's foot and he jerks awake. I'm not facing this alone.

I wait for the explosion.

"Are you two all right?" Chris asks quietly.

Okay, that was odd. He's supposed to glare and yell at us. Nathan just turns and walks down the hall.

"Ez needed some company," I say.

"I believe it was Mr. Tanner who needed company," Ezra counters.

Chris sits down on the arm of the couch. "Got this far and couldn't get back?"

I look at Ezra. He's staring at his bunny slippers. Buck'd better be watching his back, 'cause Ezra will definitely get even. I wiggle my toes in my Miss Piggy slippers. I have my own plans for Bucklin.

"We could have returned to our rooms if we wanted," said Ezra.

"Eventually," I add.

Chris smiles knowingly. "You didn't do any more damage?"

"We're fine," I answer. Then Nate comes back with a wheelchair, followed by an orderly with a second chair.

As Chris wheels me back to my room, I make sure someone's going to stay with Ezra and Chris assures me that they will. We reach the door and I see the nurse who took care of me earlier standing there frowning, with her hands on both hips, tapping her foot.

Hell, she must be related to Nettie.

I sigh. I'm in trouble again. Hell, what else is new?

I snort, and Larabee shakes his head.

Friday – 1348 hours – Waiting Room, Second Floor

We sat quietly for a while, and truth be told, I needed that time to recoup my energy. When we do talk, it's about petty things, not what I really want to convey to Vin. I want to tell him that I was remiss in giving my warning. If I had spoken sooner, perhaps things could have turned out differently. Perhaps neither of us would be in our current condition.

I'm known for my verbosity, but somehow, I just can't find the words. So we chitchat about nothing, but it is the distraction I needed. I've almost forgotten that I'm trapped.

Oh that was really intelligent, Ezra. Start yourself thinking about it again.

Vin says something about the furniture and I comment on the need for fresh paint on the walls. Drivel.

I must be more tired than I think, because the next thing I know, I'm jerking awake. That is not a wise thing to do while recovering from a chest wound.

I hear Vin say that I'm okay, and I find a small boy in my face. I'm confused for a moment and Vin explains that the boy wants to know if I had surgery. I greet the child and tell him that I did have surgery.

He tells me that his Daddy had surgery, too, and that he is not allowed to see him due to a cold, and then he proceeds to cough and spread his germs all over me. But it's not the bacteria that disturbs me. It's the memory of another little boy in another hospital in another city in another time; a child waiting for his daddy to come home from a "simple procedure." The simple procedure went well enough, but the resulting infection…

Oh gawd, I can't breathe. I have to get out of here.

"Ezra, do you want me to get some help?" Vin asks.

Hell, no! I think. The last thing I need right now is medical personnel smothering me. I tell him "No," in what I hope is a calm fashion.

My heart is racing and I'm feeling faint and I'm helpless to stop the oncoming panic attack. I have to get out of here.

I have to get out.

Let me out.

"You were gonna tell me about that opera you saw last week."

The comment is so out of context that when it registers, my vocabulary drops to the buffoon level. "Huh?" I say.

Vin wants to know about the opera? That's strange. He didn't want to know about it last week when I was inclined to tell him. "Oh, yes," I say.

Opera. What did opera did I see? I start talking without remembering what opera I saw last week, but it doesn't matter. As I focus on the details my mind begins to calm. The racing heart and the breathing are a different matter. The physical reaction has to run its course.

It feels like I've prattled on for hours, but I know it's been only minutes. I pause and realize that we are alone again. My breathing is nearly normal and my heart seems to be back to its regular rhythm.

I look at Vin and express my sincere gratitude. I know exactly what he did with the opera question. He threw me a lifeline.

"It's the least I could do," he says.

I frown, uncertain of his meaning.

He tells me that it is his fault that I'm in the hospital, that he didn't watch my back.

He couldn't be further from the truth. I know without a doubt that Vin did everything within his power to protect us. It's his very nature.

"If I recall correctly, I wasn't shot in the back," I say, trying to ease the guilt he feels.

He growls. He's been around Mr. Larabee too long. He's picking up his mannerisms.

"That's not what I mean," he says. I'm certain he wants to add, "and you know it!" but he doesn't.

I grin. We've both been beating ourselves up over something neither of us could have prevented. "And here I was trying to figure out how I could apologize to you," I say.

He wants to know why, and I need to tell him. I need him to know that… I just need him to know.

"I should have given the alert earlier," I say. "Things could have happened differently."

He tells me that he knows I did my job, and I tell him the same. Neither of us blames the other and we agree that it just happened. No one is to blame except for Jason Timmons.

We fall into the comfortable silence of friendship, where there is no need to talk, there is simply the appreciation and support of being together.

I never knew what I was missing by keeping others away.

I lean deeper against the back of the couch. My chest is hurting and I feel exhausted.

I must have nodded off again, because the next thing I know I'm jolted awake by someone kicking my foot.

I grimace with the pain that tensing my body created and then I look up and I want to groan. Chris and Nathan are standing in front of us, glaring.

I look at my bunny slippers. Buck Wilmington will get his due for inflicting them upon my person.

I wait for the tongue-lashing, but it's oddly silent.

"Are you two all right?" Chris asks quietly.

"Ez needed some company," Vin says.

Me? I'm not taking the blame for this. "I believe it was Mr. Tanner who needed company," I counter.

"Got this far and couldn't get back?" It's more of a statement than a question. I'm still surprised that there is no verbal assault, but he probably recognizes that we both know we went a bit beyond our ability.

Why are these slippers pink? I've never seen a pink bunny.

"We could have returned to our rooms if we wanted," I say lamely.

"Eventually," Vin adds.

I snort. We've been here for hours and I still don't think I can make it back.

"You didn't do any more damage?" Chris wants to know.

"We're fine," Vin answers, and I agree with him. Physically we both have a ways to go, but we are fine.

I look up as Nathan arrives with a wheelchair and an orderly following with a second chair.

Nathan assists me into the chair, which is not an easy maneuver. He smiles tightly, and I know that he wants to growl and bitch at me for getting out of bed, but he doesn't.

He assists me back to my bed and helps me with my pillows as I ride out the pain.

"We're off tomorrow," he says. "Someone will be here all day."

It sounds like an apology for not being here, and I think I should address that, but it's all I can do right now to keep from groaning.

"Hang on, Ezra," he says gently. "I'll call the nurse."

I keep my eyes closed tightly, taking short breaths, knowing too well that my trek down the hall was not beneficial to my physical health.

But it did wonders for my emotional well-being.

I feel Nathan wipe my brow, and I am grateful for my friends.

Saturday – 1100 hours – Mercy General, Second Floor

I am outta here!

I know I'm still in the building but I'm officially released and Chris is wheeling me down the hall. He and Nathan assured the staff that they would escort me all the way to the hospital doors, but since we have a stop to make first, we aren't tying up the orderly's time.

Nathan already picked up my prescription ointment and other meds from the pharmacy. That was down right embarrassin' having Chris and Nathan both there watching the nurse tend to the scrapes and burns from the road rash. But we all figured out real quick like when I tried to do it myself, that I was gonna need help for a while. I can do some things left handed, but twisting around the way I have to so I can apply the ointment aggravated my shoulder. So Nathan and Chris both learned how to do it so I can go home.

'Cept I don't get to go home. Can't negotiate the stairs safely. Can't put the ointment on. Hell, I can't even tie my shoes. I hate that I have to have someone take care of me, but I'm getting outta here and I'll take that.

We stop by Ezra's room. He looks a lot better than he did yesterday.

"Going home?" he asks.

I nod. I see the longing in his eyes and wish he was leavin', too.

"They want to keep me a couple more days."

I nod again. "When they spring ya, we'll sit around at Chris's and talk opera."

Everyone else looks confused, but Ezra gets my message.

He nods and then asks Josiah to give me a bag.

I'm puzzled. I open the bag and look inside. It's a CD. Otello by Verdi. I grin at the confusion around us. It's the opera he was telling me about yesterday.

"Thanks, Ez," I say. I look at the CD liner. I'll give it a listen even though I'm not much into opera. From what Ezra told me, it sounded like a pretty interesting story, and Ez usually has good taste in music.

A nurse comes in and says she needs to change Ezra's dressing. She gives us some time and says she'll be back in a few minutes.

Chris says we should go and I tell Ez I'll see him in a couple days.

Damn. He looks so sad. It's not like he'll be alone. The guys have a rotation all planned out to stay with him. But I understand probably better than the rest about his aversion to being here.

"Hey, Ez," I say as Chris is pushing me through the door. Chris stops and let's me finish. "If you get bored, call me."

Ez smiles a bit and nods his thanks.

Saturday – 1130 hours, Room 239

"Do you want to talk about it?" Josiah asks.

It's his turn to sit with me, since the others went home with Vin. It makes me feel like a child, and yet I appreciate the gesture at the same time. How's that for an oxymoron?

"No," I mumble.

"It may help," he suggests.

He doesn't understand that talking about it, allowing myself to think about it makes it worse. I need to stay in control. But he tries, and I appreciate that.

"I just want out of here," I say. I refuse to go any deeper than that.

Mercifully, the nurse returns at that moment to care for my wound and Josiah is requested to step out.

The procedure seems more painful than it has been. I watch her face and I know she is seeing something she doesn't like, and my heart goes cold. She tries to assure me, but she goes to get my doctor.

This isn't good.

I wait, none too patiently, trying to keep the fears at bay. She's back within minutes with my doctor.

"It's showing some signs of infection," he says.

My heart starts to race.

"It's nothing to be concerned about," he says, but he orders a change in my antibiotics.

Damn. I hate this. I am not a man of many fears, but this one I cannot contain. And I can't prevent the physical response as the second panic attack in as many days becomes full blown.

"Mr. Standish?" he says.

"I have to get out of here," I state and I try to get up.

"You aren't ready," he says.

"I have to get out!" I'm yelling now, but I can't stop the terror. "I can't stay here. I'll die if I stay here."

"Ezra, Look at me."

It's Josiah. He takes my chin and turns my face to him. "Breathe. You're all right."

The doctor says something and the nurse hurries out of the room, but I try to focus on Josiah.

"I don't have an infection. Really I don't." I sound like a fool, and I know it.

"The antibiotics will take care of it," Josiah assures.

"I don't have an infection. I don't. I don't."


The nurse comes back and injects something into my IV through the port.

"Mr. Standish," the doctor says, "We're giving you something to help you relax. You're going to be fine."

That's what they said about my father.

Josiah jerks back slightly and I know immediately that I said it aloud.

Damn drugs.

Everything seems to be slowing down. Must be a fast acting med. I drop my head back on the pillow; it's too much effort to hold it up any longer.

"You're going to be fine," the doctor repeats.

I'm not quite out, but not really awake when I hear the doctor ask, "What brought that on?" and Josiah answering, "He's afraid of hospitals."

I'm not afraid. I just hate them.

I'm usually a better liar…

Sunday – 1412 hours – Larabee Ranch

Ezra's home. He's sleepin' on Chris's couch, drooling on the pillow. I'm just takin' it easy in the recliner.

I swear Chris did this on purpose. He put the footrest up for me, saying I'd be more comfortable, but I think it was because he knew I couldn't get out until he comes back and puts the footrest down. The handle's on the wrong side of the chair for me to do it myself. He was kinda whistling when he left the room.

Ezra's sleeping pretty good now. He's home a day sooner than expected. Nathan and Josiah had words over it. Seems Josiah convinced the doctor that coming home would be better for Ezra despite his little setback with the infection, and Nathan didn't think it was such a good idea.

He was showing some signs of infection the day I got out, so they upped his antibiotics. Somethin' else happened, but Josiah's being tightlipped about it. I figure Ezra had another panic attack. Anyway, the antibiotics seemed to be doing the trick, so the doctor let him come home last night instead'a waiting until today.

JD hobbles back into the room on his crutches and settles into the other recliner. He's hurtin' a lot more than he's letting on. They did orthoscopic surgery on him yesterday afternoon to fix something in his knee. He seems to think that because Ezra got shot, and I got banged on the head and thrown off the catwalk that his injury doesn't matter. Leastways he's actin' like it's nothin.

But it's something. And I'm sure that it didn't happen the way McAndrews said. JD ain't denying it, but every time one of the guys gives him a hard time over it, he puts up a feeble protest and then just smiles to himself.

"What really happened?" I ask him.

He shrugs and says, "I fell." Then he grabs the remote and changes the channel on the TV.

The phone rings and I hear Bucklin answer, "Gimp Central."

Funny Buck.

"No, Chris is out workin' in the barn right now. I can take a message. Uh-huh. He what!? Are you sure? Right. Thanks. I'll let Chris know."

He comes into the room. "I'm gonna be outside for a few minutes. I'll be right back." He swats JD on the side of his head as he walks out.

"No!" Ezra yelps, and then he jerks awake. He moans at the pain and then shifts.

"Welcome back," I tell him. He sighs and shifts again.

"How's your knee, Mr. Dunne?" he asks.

"Fine. How's your shoulder?"

Bucklin's right. We are Gimp Central.

There's a ruckus in the kitchen and I hear the guys comin' in. Sounds like Josiah and Nate are back with supplies as well as Chris and Buck. It's a happy sound that's been missing for a few days.

The ruckus rumbles right into the living room where we are and stops at JD's chair.

Four men are starin' right at him.

"What?" he says. "What did I do?"

"You been holdin' out on us," says Buck. "Lettin' us think you fell."

"I did fall."

"On top of Jason Timmons," says Chris.

"Preventing his escape," adds Buck.

"I was the nearest agent," JD explains with a shrug.

"Mike Donolly says you tackled Timmons," said Chris.

JD ducks his head. "How'd you find out?"

"Donolly called to congratulate Chris," Buck says. "Said McAndrews didn't come into the picture until you were cuffing Timmons. Why didn't you say something, JD?"

JD just shrugs and grins. Buck gives him a noogie and JD shoves his hand away.

"Our boy done good!" Buck crows proudly.

"Woo-hoo!" I holler as Josiah and Chris slap JD's shoulders.

I look over and see Nate helping Ezra sit up. Ezra winces, but he's grinnin' like a fool.

I smile, too. It's good to be home.


Comments to: jkersteter@aol.com