Main Character(s): Ezra, Seven, OFC
Genre : Gen
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Dina, beta-reader and ideas merchant extraordinare, and to Mog for creating the ATF sandbox in the first place.
(Sequel to "Angie")
The superiority of one mans opinion over anothers is never so great as when the opinion is about a woman.
The Tragic Muse (Chapter 9)
It was 8pm and the office was almost completely dark, save for the glow of the computer screen and a faint light emanating from the hallway. It wasnt quite silent either.
"It mightve been a good idea to close the door, Buck."
"Thatd just make them suspicious. You at your computer, thats a sight they see every day. If we bothered to close the door, then theyd start to wonder."
"Suppose. But yknow this aint exactly legal. Maybe its not such a good idea."
"Oh admitting defeat, are ya? Yknow what that means."
"No, I can do it! You just watch! Whose would you like to see?"
"Whosed be most interesting?"
JD and Buck looked at each other and chorused in unison, "Ezras!"
JDs fingers danced over the keyboard at lightning speed. In less than a minute, hed achieved his objective. "There you go! Done, and done!"
Buck grinned, "I take it all back kid! Youre a genius!"
"And you owe me!" Although he was pleased with Bucks acknowledgement of his talents, JD wasnt going to let him off the hook, "Next week, Colorado Rockies, hot dogs, the lot!"
"Okay, okay!" Buck agreed, then leaned forward to examine the profit of JDs labours. "Now what have we here?"
JD followed his gaze. "Looks like he went on a little spending spree here. Arabellas Florist, Thorntons Confectionary, Rutherglen (theyre a wine store, arent they?) and Dymocks bookstore. Interesting combination. What do you reckon it means?"
Buck gave him a pitying look. "Oh kid! Flowers, candy, wine what do you reckon it means?"
"A girl? What about the bookstore?"
Buck shrugged, "Coincidence?"
"No, cause heres the same combination again, and here again. Florist, candy store, liquor store and bookseller."
"Maybe shes into reading?"
"Must be. Geez, here it is again! He must like her a lot."
"Who likes her?" Josiahs voice boomed.
Buck and JD nearly jumped three feet into the air. They turned to see Josiah and Nathan in the doorway. As they wandered over, the latter asked, "What are you two doing?"
JD was instantly sheepish, "Not much. Just playing round."
"Thats a credit card statement!" Nathan was scandalized.
Josiah raised an eyebrow but spoke mildly. "Isnt that illegal, boys?"
Nathan, however was outraged and demanded, "Whose is it?"
"Um, Ezras," answered JD, "We were just having a look."
"Found something very interesting too," added Buck.
"That dont make it right!" said Nathan.
But Buck continued, as if he hadnt heard, "Every so often, he goes off and buys flowers, candy, wine and a book."
Much to Nathans annoyance, Josiah appeared intrigued. "So yreckon hes got himself some kinda literary woman?"
Buck nodded, "Thats exactly what I reckon."
"Hes kept awful quiet about it," JD wondered, "Who could she be?"
"I still dont believe you guys are doin this!" Nathan exclaimed but they ignored him.
"Yeah," said Buck, "And where do you think he met her? I mean, whered he find the time?"
"Thats what we ask ourselves about you," Nathan muttered under his breath.
"Whered who find the time for what?" said a Texan-accented voice behind them. They turned to see two new arrivals, Vin and Chris.
Josiah chose to just answer the question. "Ezra find time for a belle amour."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "What? Who says he has?"
"His credit card," said Buck.
Chris wasnt impressed. "What the hell do you lot think youre playing at?"
It took a good dose of Larabee anger to finally bring Buck back to earth. "Just a bitve fun, Chris."
Vin shook his head, "Not sure Ezra would see it that way."
"Why should he find out?" Buck asked, with a hint of conspiracy.
Vin took a pointed look around at the group already assembled. "Dont see why not."
JD, meanwhile, hadnt let go of theorising about the ladys identity. "Maybe he met her while he was undercover."
"Oh yeah?" said Buck, "Like who?"
"Well, what about Nora or Lydia or Emily?"
"Them ladies of the night?" Buck shook his head, "Not saying Ezra wouldnt but they werent exactly the type to go for books."
"Well, what about that Chinese girl he met when we had that brush with the triads? She really got under his skin."
Vin laughed, "Yeah, he nearly went ballistic when you and Buck rigged his car stereo to play that Chinagirl song by David Bowie."
"Yeah!" Buck enthused, "What was her name? Li Pong, or something like that. Now, she was a bright little fortune cookie."
But Josiah quashed that theory. "I dont think so boys. She got relocated to San Francisco, for her own protection. Dont think Ezrad get in contact with her even if he could. Itd put her in too much danger."
"What about Terri Greer, that security expert from way back, she had a brain cell or two. I know Buck was a lot more obvious about it, but I reckon Ezra rather liked her too. Maybe hes kept up with her." Chris surprised them all by adding to the conjecture and Nathan gave him a not you too look.
"Nah, she had a kid," said Buck, "Ezra wouldnt be into that!"
The others all looked at him and began to shake their heads slightly.
Nathan tried to explain patiently. "Buck, youre talkin about yourself. Ezras always been soft on kids and he thought little Olivia was as cute as a button. For him, her bein in the picture might even be a plus rather than a minus."
Buck considered this. "You reckon? Maybe it is Terri. So, how longs all this been going on for?" He leaned forward to scroll back along the dates listed on the screen and suddenly swore, "Sonovabich!"
JD looked at him in confusion. "What?"
Buck seemed unable to speak due to rapidly building anger. Instead, he just pointed at a date on the screen and they all crowded around to see.
"Oh-my-God," Nathan breathed, "You dont think he was seein her then, do ya?"
"Looks like it." Chris spoke with quiet anger and most of the rest fell silent.
But JD was still confused, "What? I dont remember that date."
"Perhaps, you wouldnt, JD," Josiah said quietly, "You were unconscious for most of it."
Realisation dawned. "Oh. Thats the day I got shot, isnt it?"
Nathan couldnt believe it. "Oh cmon! He wouldnt have! Not at a time like that!"
He remembered that day vividly. Theyd nearly lost JD. Hed bled from an abdominal gunshot wound for hours before they got to him. More than two hours in surgery, more than two days in Intensive Care. When a friend was in such a desperate state, chasing women wouldnt even enter the head of any decent man. Hell, even Buck, the resident sex maniac, wouldnt think of such a thing at a time like that.
Nonetheless, the resident sex maniac was utterly convinced that Ezra had been doing just that.
"How else do you explain this?" he demanded.
"He disappeared for a long spell that day, didnt he?" added Vin.
In the face of the mounting evidence, Nathan finally accepted what they were saying. "Oh shit!" Then he remembered some of the other the concerns hed had for his colleagues that day. "An I was worried that he was gettin plastered cause he felt guilty."
"Yeah," Buck growled, "Dont you feel like a sucker now?"
Bucks anger had superceeded rationality. The reasons were manifold but two came to the fore. First, the protectiveness he felt towards JD was legendary and, second, he too had been concerned when they noticed Ezra was missing. The thought that the man might have been out enjoying himself while they were all nearly killing themselves with worry, made his blood boil.
However, although JD was somewhat hurt by the thought that Ezra might have abandoned him that day, looking around at the anger building in the men surrounding him, his main concern now was what the others might do to Ezra when they next saw him.
Then, in a career littered with inopportune entrances, Ezra Standish accomplished one of his more spectacular efforts.
"Greetings, gentlemen. Workin late? Or are yall enthralled with JDs latest computer-animated diversion?"
With the exception of JD, they turned as one and he suddenly found himself facing a wall of hostility.
"So who is she?" Buck demanded.
Ezra was totally lost. "What are you talkin about?"
"Been looking at your credit card statements "
Ezra was almost too astonished for proper indignation. "Youve been what?"
Buck wasnt even listening, " and we know that you regularly buy her flowers, sweets, wine and a book. So is she some sortve literary type? She must be something to drag you away from the kids hospital bed after hed been shot!"
Even Nathan couldnt contain himself, "I just cant believe youd do somethin like that! Here was I worried that you mighta been gettin' trashed outa your skull in some bar somewhere and all the while you were foolin around in some womans bed!"
Disoriented, Ezras first refuge was the actual truth, "I wasnt with a woman!"
Buck just steamrolled on, "Woman, man, transvestite, goat. I dont really care "
"Goat!" Ezra couldnt seem to find a footing in the face of this relentless assault. It was all just too surreal.
Vin could see things were about to get totally out of hand. "I think we all need to calm down."
But the pause gave Ezra time to get his bearings and when he did, he became very, very angry indeed.
"Do you really think so? You decide to invade my privacy, go through my finances. Did you check to see if there were any unexplainable payments which might indicate bribery and corruption? Why not? Its a golden opportunity! And now, on the basis of some purchases, yall have decided that I have some sort of paramour whom I was having some sort of passionate dalliance with while JD was lying in hospital, recovering from his gunshot wound. Oh, why the hell not?! Nathan thought I was gettin blind drunk. It stands to reason that Bucks first thought would be that I was havin a roll in the hay!"
He paused for breath and his voice became quite low and dangerous. "But do you want to know what I find most interestin? It seems that you mightve sympathised if Id been lookin for solace at the bottom of a bottle. But youre utterly scandalised to think that I mightve found it in the arms of another human bein. So, yall can believe what you like. I really dont care anymore."
Unable to cope with what he, in his turn, saw as a massive betrayal of trust, he turned to exit the way he had come in.
The others also lapsed into silence with the realisation that they werent entirely blameless in all this.
But one of them had detected the minutest hint of equivocation in Ezras tirade. The Southerner had gone from a flat denial of a romantic encounter to a vague defence of such behaviour.
Now convinced that there had been some kind of rendezvous, Vin quietly asked, "Whats she like, Ezra?"
Ezra glared back at him for an instant but then he aimed a savage smile at them all. What the hell, why not throw them a bone?
"Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate, with fascinatin conversation and a brilliant sense of humour. And utterly devoted to me."
Buck, a little chastened despite himself, tried for a little mollifying humour. "And old enough to be your mother?"
The irony of that was too much for Ezra and he couldnt contain a short burst of derisive laughter. Then realising that that was indeed the perfect parting shot, he turned and walked out the door.
I know not how to pray your patience
Yet I must speak. Choose your revenge yourself,
Impose me to what penance your invention
Can lay upon my sin: yet sinned I not
But in mistaking
Much Ado About Nothing (Act V, Scene I)
Nathan had the 4am to 6am vigil. It had been more than 24 hours now and the staff in Intensive Care had put their collective foot down. One person only at any patients beside after hours. So the six of them had divided those hours into two-hour shifts with the rest taking up residence in the waiting room.
Theyd all been here, more or less, numerous times before. Different one of them occupying the hospital bed, different reasons for hospitalisation, different reasons for the guilt.
The traffic cops had been adamant. It was clear that hed swerved to avoid an oncoming car that was on the wrong side of the road. The other driver had a blood alcohol level which the Emergency doctor had facetiously classified as "clinically dead" and Ezras was completely clear. As far as the traffic cops were concerned, it was a clear cut case, although they rather morbidly hung around for a while to see if the charges were going to be driving under the influence and vehicular assault or vehicular homicide.
His car had rolled and, although a bit battered, it looked like it would be fully repairable. It was touch and go with its driver for a while, though. Most of his body had only sustained a few bruises but his head had struck the side window with enough force to crack both the glass and his skull. Theyd managed to get him to surgery quickly enough to relieve the pressure from the intracranial bleeding before it proved fatal, but he still hadnt woken.
All the evidence indicated that it was just one of those situations which they couldnt have done anything to prevent. But despite this, each member of the what if brigade was privately thinking that perhaps if he hadnt been so fiercely angry with them all when hed left, his reactions might have been just a bit quicker and the accident might have been avoided.
Just as the minute hand moved to indicate 6 oclock, Nathan thought he saw a faint stirring of movement. He leaned closer and just when he had almost convinced himself that he had imagined it, he heard a soft murmur.
He placed a hand on Ezras shoulder to see if he could manage to rouse him any further but there was no reaction. Despite his worry, he managed to raise a smile.
"Angie, eh? At least we got a name for her."
All that recrimination seemed entirely pointless now, but it would still be interesting to find out who she was. Where could Ezra have met this Angie?
Then, in a rush, it all fell into place. "Oh, my God!"
Nathan leaped up and headed for the door, almost colliding with Buck who was on his way to relieve him.
"Whoa, Nate! Whats up? Is he okay?"
"He said her name. I think I know who she is."
Buck looked at him with a mixture of curiosity about this answer to the mystery and concern that it seemed to have so agitated Nathan.
"Well, Im guessin but Id say, little Angie Velasquez."
Buck closed his eyes in pain, "Oh, shit!"
Nathan nodded and began to echo Ezras last words to them, "Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate "
"And he laughed when I said she was old enough to be his mother "
"Because shes young enough to be his daughter."
* * * * *
Gloria Potter opened her front door, half-expecting to see one man standing there, only to find two others instead. Both tall and with sombre expressions, one African-American and one Caucasian with a moustache.
The black man spoke with quiet politeness, "Sorry to disturb you Mrs Potter. I dont know if you remember us. This is Buck Wilmington and Im Nathan Jackson. Were colleagues of "
"Oh, my God! Whats happened?" Gloria immediately extrapolated the situation to its worst conclusion. "God! How are we going to tell Angie?"
Nathan saw where her mind had taken her and gave himself another swift mental kick, as he hastened to reassure her as much as he could.
"Hes alive, Mrs Potter! Hes been in an accident, but Ezras alive."
"Accident? What? How?"
"His car was run off the road. Hes still hasnt fully regained consciousness but he called for Angie "
Gloria frowned. She knew what they were asking and what it would mean. More time, possibly days, for the child to spend in a hospital at that mans bedside. Once Angie found out, there would be no stopping her.
But the inevitable was exactly that, and there was no point in hiding from it. She led them to Angies room where the child was sitting on her bed, apparently reading. Angie glanced up at the intrusion.
"Hi, Angie!" said Buck with a fulsome smile, "Remember us?"
She nodded, "Hello, Mr Wilmington, Mr Jackson." She instinctively glanced behind them, "Wheres Ezra?"
Nathan also smiled, "He couldnt come right now but we thought we might take you to him."
Angie regarded them through narrowed eyes. Their smiles were broad but their movements were tense and she found the combination rather suspicious.
Buck realised that they were sprung and stooped to face her on her own level.
"Hes been in an accident, Angie, and he still hasnt woken up. But he said your name in his sleep and we kinda thought you being there might help him some."
Angie regarded him seriously then nodded abruptly, like some one accepting a task which they had been assigned. She closed her book, slipped off the bed and went over to one of the shelves where a small book collection resided.
Nathan blinked, "What are ya doin, Angie?"
She briefly glanced around to look at him, as she extracted several volumes from the shelf, "Ezra reads to me until I go to sleep. Im gonna read to him until he wakes up."
Buck and Nathan looked at each other. There was a weird kind of logic to that.
Buck then headed over to give her a hand. "How many are ya taking?"
She shrugged as she continued to add to the pile of books, "These are his favourites." As he watched her, he realised that these were probably the books and felt another sharp stab of remorse.
Finally, she seemed satisfied and Buck lifted her onto his hip with one arm and picked up the books with the other. He turned to see that Nathan had picked up the one Angie had discarded on her bed and was frowning at the inside cover.
"What is it?"
Nathan said nothing but proffered the book for him to read an inscription in Ezras handwriting, "To Angie. From Ezra. For all the usual reasons." Then he noticed Nathan was pointing at the date. It was the date.
"Oh, Christ! That clinches it, doesnt it?"
Angie also looked where Nathan was pointing, "Yeah, he was kinda sad that day. Wouldnt tell me why."
She was surprised when Buck groaned in pain and looked at Nathan, "Could this get any worse?"
"Oh, yeah," said Nathan softly. Hed already considered the very worst that may befall them. "We just have to pray it doesnt, for all our sakes, includin hers."
Angie just looked at him, apparently contemplating his words but looking unperturbed. Either she hadnt understood him or she just refused to believe such a thing could happen.
* * * * *
Chris Larabee had to admit that hed been dubious when Nathan and Buck had so resolutely set off to fetch Angie, as if she was going to be some sort of magic cure. Now he regretted that they hadnt brought her in earlier. Not that she had enticed Ezra back to consciousness yet (though she was definitely giving it her best shot) but shed certainly managed to get the Intensive Care staff to take a more lenient approach towards visitors.
Hed seen and indeed participated in many spectacular confrontations, during his career. But the sight of this girl of five-going-on-six facing down experienced and determined nursing staff had to be one of the highlights. He shouldve known really. The last time Angie had hung around the hospital, shed also managed to talk them into getting her own way most of the time. No wonder she seemed to get on so well with Ezra!
So she was still here, refusing to budge despite the ungodly hour. Fatigue had done nothing to diminish her determination and she reached for another book from the pile on the table beside her, even as she failed to stifle another yawn.
Her eyes were half-closed but Chris had long suspected that she was mostly reciting from memory, rather than reading, anyway. Since shed begun, shed used such characteristic inflections that hed almost been able to hear Ezras voice superimposed over hers.
"At the far end of town
Where the Grickle-grass grows
And the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
And no birds ever sing excepting old crows "
Another yawn got the better of her and her eyelids fluttered again.
"Is the Street of the Lifted Lorax."
Those last words were mumbled in a Southern-accented male voice and Angies half-closing eyes snapped open.
"Ezra?" She climbed onto his bed to peer into his face and was rewarded when he, in turn, slowly opened his eyes.
"Angie?" He blinked to bring her into focus. "Whats happened?"
"You had a car accident and hit your head and youve been asleep for days."
Chris had fetched the others and they crowded around the bed. Ezra took in their presence and closed his eyes with a sigh, "Oh, the circus is in town."
"Yeah," said Chris with a slight smile, "checking up on our chief clown."
Ezra managed a brief chuckle but cut it short with a wince. He opened his eyes again and asked seriously, "How many days?"
"Two, going on three."
Ezra looked at Angie, "And youve been here the whole time?"
She shook her head and there was just a hint of accusation in her tone, "No, they only came to get me today."
"Well," said Buck, "we didnt know that we shouldve got her until you started calling for her in your sleep."
Nathan saw the discomfiture creeping onto Ezras face and reassured him, "Dont worry, you only said her name, not anythin else to let us know what a big softie you are."
"But she does have a lovely book collection," Buck added.
"Oh," Ezra briefly closed his eyes in embarrassment and opened them again to see not only Angie but also JD succumb to another yawn.
"What time is it?"
Chris looked at his watch, "About twenty past midnight."
That shook Ezra fully awake, "Angie! Who let you stay up to this late hour?"
He swept an accusing glare amongst his colleagues and Buck protested, "Hey, you try and get her to go to sleep!" Then he reconsidered, "No, on second thoughts, it might work for you."
"We all tried," said JD "The nurse in charge even threatened to give her an injection!"
Ezra raised an eyebrow at that, "And?"
"And Angie told her that she could damn well try."
Ezra looked sternly at the girl who appeared thoroughly unrepentant, "I hope you didnt use that language!"
She shrugged, "Even Gloria uses that one, and Ive heard you say things that are much worse."
He shook his head slightly and, with a chagrined sigh, asked, "So, what happened then?"
"She wussed out completely!" The childs triumphant disdain would have sounded more impressive if the last word hadnt been interrupted by yet another yawn.
"Well, Im not goin to," he warned her, "Sleep! Now!"
She just grinned at him and he dropped the stern façade and lifted his arms to hold them out to her, "Come here."
To that invitation, she happily acquiesced and lay down beside him, avoiding the various IV lines he was still attached to and snuggling up in his embrace.
"Now, close your eyes and dont say another word."
"What about goodnight?"
"Alright, goodnight and thats the last one till mornin."
"Goodnight, Ezra." She grinned as she snuck in an extra word.
Already teetering on the edge of exhaustion, she was asleep within seconds. Momentarily forgetting their audience, Ezra planted a light kiss on her forehead and she didnt stir.
The other six marvelled at the spectacle in silence. Ezra had mellowed somewhat over the past few years but he still usually maintained an aloof demeanour. Overt demonstrations of affection simply werent his style. And frankly, his colleagues had always believed that he was totally incapable of such open sentimentality.
Buck cleared his throat and Ezra looked up, slightly embarrassed.
"Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate...eh, Ez?" Buck nodded towards Angie and, as was not unusual, his tone was slightly suggestive.
Ezra frowned. He knew Buck was incorrigible when it came to the female of the species but surely the man wasnt that desperate or depraved.
"Mr Wilmington, I trust that you are aware of the age of consent in this state," he said reprovingly.
Buck blinked at him in surprise, "You dont have the faintest idea what Im talking about, do you?"
Ezra was still aiming a rather askance look in his direction. "I sincerely hope that I dont."
The others looked at each other, as realisation dawned. It was Nathan who tentatively asked, "Ezra, whats the last thing you remember?"
Ezra frowned again. That was a good question. "I remember what I had for breakfast this mornin."
"Two days ago," Nathan corrected automatically.
A rueful expression briefly crossed Ezras features. "Two days ago, then." He looked up to see six expectant faces. "Grapefruit juice, coffee and a croissant with black cherry jam."
The others continued to stare at him, struck dumb with the realisation that Ezra had no memory of that last confrontation and considering the implications of that fact. Maybe, if they all stuck to their guns and didnt mention it, they could effectively hit the rewind button and tape over it.
Ezra began to feel uncomfortable under their gaze, "What? I was feelin kinda continental."
Buck looked around the group and silently pleaded with his friends to keep it under wraps. But he could see Nathans conscience gnawing at him and JD looked very uncomfortable too.
Ezra gazed up at the six of them, for once not able to discern even the faintest hint of what a single one of them was thinking from the expressions on their faces. He found it very, very unnerving.
"What is it? Have I forgotten somethin important?"
UNLESS someone like you
Cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
Alone again, naturally.
Well, that wasnt strictly true. He looked down at the child still sleeping in his arms. He knew that she would never abandon him, nor he her. And hadnt he just decided that he didnt need anyone elses trust or friendship?
So, why did he feel like his heart had just been ripped out?
Even in these depths of the night, there were still vestiges of light, sound and movement, as the Intensive Care staff continued to go about their business. But still, Ezra felt utterly alone.
And miserable was totally inadequate, as an adjective. His head throbbed, he felt nauseous, every bone in his body seemed to weigh a ton and an aching coldness seemed to have taken up residence inside his chest.
He desperately didnt want to think and fervently longed for the oblivion of sleep. But despite his weariness, it remained tantalizingly just out of reach.
And he would have given nearly anything to hear Angies voice. But he couldnt in all conscience wake her. Shed pushed herself to remain awake far beyond what was healthy for a child of her age, just to be there for him in his hour of need. It would be churlish to ask any more of her.
He pulled his arms slightly tighter around her, in an attempt to garner just a little more warmth, and she stirred only slightly. So he remained alone in this isolation of the soul, which was entirely of his own making.
He couldnt even remember the incident that theyd described. But hed been so angry and hurt when hed learned what they had suspected and accused him of, that hed probably lost his rationality for a while.
It had been so long since he had possessed friends that he could just instinctively trust and rely on. And even longer since hed known the sense of belonging and camaraderie that he had felt while working with these men. He was absolutely certain that he would never enjoy the like again.
There had been a time, not so long ago, when his place on Chris Larabees team had meant everything to him.
He was used to being an outsider. Mistrust and isolation had started as working conditions but then they had become a way of life. Hed trained himself to think of his life as efficient rather than empty, always suppressing the urge to belong. He could only believe in himself, no one else could be relied upon.
But then hed been assigned to this team. The Magnificent Seven some called them. It was vaguely ridiculous but also rather gratifying. Seven very dissimilar individuals who came together to form a remarkably effective unit. And hed been a part of it. None of his carefully erected defence mechanisms could stand against that and, for the first time that he could remember, hed felt an overwhelming need to belong.
He had immensely respected each and every one of the other team members and needed to believe that they respected him too. And he had strived long and hard to gain acceptance among them. So much so that, for a considerable length of time, he had been unable to believe that he had achieved it.
In the early days, hed constantly expected to be dropped from the team because Chris would finally realise that appointing him had been a mistake. That apprehension had gradually faded but never fully disappeared from his mind. He still felt the need to constantly prove his worth to the rest of them but, finally, he had come to believe that they did actually like and trust him.
Now, with so little regard or consideration, theyd invaded his privacy. And with so little faith in his integrity and so low an opinion of his capacity for human feeling, theyd accused him of abusing their trust and friendship. Hed felt maligned and violated and betrayed.
So, without once raising his voice, hed announced his intention to sever all ties with them. And hed used some quite superlatively caustic and vicious phrases to ram the message home.
The Intensive Care staff had bundled out the six visitors, before a serious disturbance had arisen. And Ezras fury had been such that hed been very glad to see them go.
But the anger had faded and now all he had left was this deep aching sense of loss.
He hugged Angie close again, the last spark of brightness left in his life. But try as he might, he couldnt focus on what he had left, but only on what hed just forfeited.
* * * * *
The other six had taken up occupation of an all-night coffee shop (and the manager was currently regretting that policy).
"You had to tell him every little detail, didnt you?" Buck accused furiously.
"He had a right to know!" Nathan shot back, just as incensed.
"And you think its made him feel better?"
"Buck, thats enough!" Chris thundered, "We dont need you two ripping into each other. Weve already..." his voice faded abruptly.
"Weve already what? Weve already torn one guy to shreds?"
"But hes right, isnt he?" came JDs quiet voice from the corner, "Ezra must feel awful. Do ya think he was serious about resigning?"
"Dunno, JD," Josiah also spoke quietly, "He once told me that being on this team was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Now, we may have found ourselves currently relegated to second place, behind Angie, but I reckon this teams still very important to him."
"So, you think he might forgive us?"
"He might. Maybe not just yet. We need to give him time. And we need to give him a damn good apology."
"I still say we didnt need to give him details," Buck grumbled.
"Because it wouldve made him feel better or because it wouldve made you feel better?" Nathan countered.
And the two of them were off again.
* * * * *
When Ezra had contemplated the pleasantries of breakfasting with Angie, he hadnt considered that it might involve sharing a hospital breakfast tray. Not that he wasnt enjoying it. Hed even been entertained by the little tussle theyd had about division of the contents.
He got the coffee, she got the orange juice. That part was easy. When hed suggested that she should have the porridge to help her "grow up good and strong", shed pointed out that he probably needed it more than she did at the moment. The nurse had come down on her side and furthermore, Angie had managed to wheedle some chocolate-flavoured cereal out of her. Hed managed to ensure that they divided the toast and fruit pieces right down the middle, but shed flatly refused to eat any sort of melon and so got all the pineapple and strawberries.
However, as he watched her munching on the last piece of toast, he couldnt stop the dark thoughts from crowding in again. Hed discovered that it was Monday. Soon Gloria Potter would probably arrive to whisk Angie off to school and then hed be truly alone.
Angie put down her toast and gazed at him in concern. "Whats the matter?"
"Everythins fine." The prevarication was almost an automatic response.
Her scrutiny became vaguely reproving, "Yknow, you once promised never to lie to me."
His mortification must have been obvious, because she immediately backpedaled.
"Its okay! I used to get angry but Gloria explained it to me and I understand now!"
He blinked. Gloria Potter had in some way defended him? The woman didnt even like him.
"What did she say?"
"She said sometimes when youre sad, you pretend that youre not so I wont get sad too. She said that you were trying to be kind so I shouldnt feel betrayed."
"But did you feel betrayed?"
She shook her head, "Not any more. But that first time you told me what your real name was and that everything before that was a lie. Well, the only thing that hurt worse than that was finding out Mama was dead."
He winced again and she pushed the breakfast tray out of the way so that she could climb over and hug him. After a moment he drew back, so that he could look into her eyes.
"So you could forgive me for betraying you like that?"
She nodded seriously, "You were really sorry and you were trying to make things alright again and well, I love you, Ezra. Youre my best friend and I dont ever wanna lose you."
He drew her into a fierce embrace. "You wont, Angel girl. I promise you wont."
Then she also pulled back to give him a soul-searching look. "Ezra, Im so happy that youre alright again that nothings gonna make me sad. So you can tell me what the problem is. I wont mind."
He grinned at her and shook his head slightly in wonder at her juvenile perspicacity. The problem was a matter of dealing with betrayal and the solution had just been clearly delineated for him.
Putting aside this kind of injury would be difficult. But Angie must have also faced that difficulty and she had overcome it. Evidently, one sometimes had to sacrifice some pride, in order to conserve something of value. And he knew from experience that clinging solely to ones pride could leave a cold emptiness in your soul.
"Its nothin that cant be fixed, Angie. Give me another hug and Ill be fine."
She did and he gleaned a last additional morsel of strength from her, before Gloria came to fetch her for school.
* * * * *
The sleepless night had taken its toll and Ezra had drifted off soon after Angie left. He remained asleep until late afternoon when he was awakened by a familiar minor uproar, dominated by an even more familiar strident voice.
"It has to be allve us. We wont be long but we have to go in together."
The reply was relatively quiet and thus difficult to distinguish but then the strident voice returned.
"That was last night and he was probably tired. Honestly, hell be glad to see us now."
Ezra dragged his eyes open. If they were leaving the negotiating to Buck, theyd need all the help they could get. He reached for and pressed the call for assistance button, and after hed spoken briefly to the nurse, the six of them were ushered in.
It was all very well to sit back and detachedly decide on forgiveness. But now when faced with the actual task, Ezra still found residual anger warring with his resolution towards clemency and he didnt quite trust himself to speak.
But the silence didnt last more than a second anyway.
"Hiya, Ez!" said Buck heartily, "Feeling better? You look better. Hey, we got you a present!" He produced the wrapped article from behind his back.
Ezra wasnt sure what he had expected but somehow this wasnt it. Where were all the justifications that they were going to put forward, and which he had been preparing himself to reluctantly accept? Somewhat stunned by this turn of events, he just stared at the gift in his hands and barely remembered to thank them.
"Hey, thats okay. Go on! Open it!"
Ezra complied to reveal a fine leather-bound copy of the Henry Fielding novel, Tom Jones. Theyd bought a book! And a piece of classic literature, at that! Stunned was no longer an adequate adjective, he was astounded.
Buck leaned over and opened the front cover for him. There was inscription inside. The handwriting was Bucks. The contents had to have been dictated (and spelled) by someone else.
From Buck, Chris, JD, Josiah, Nathan and Vin.
For friendships sake and in the hope that they will be forgiven the infringements perpetrated due to their lack of consideration and the unjust accusations made due to their lack of faith.
Remember, the quality of mercy is not strained.
"Do ya like it?" JD asked nervously.
"Its superb." Ezra tried to keep his voice under control but he could hear the catch in it.
"So," said Buck hopefully, "forgive and forget?"
Ezra laughed shortly, "Well, I already forgot it once. Might be a bit more difficult second time around. But yall are already forgiven, in principle."
"Why?" Chris had noted Ezras expression when theyd entered and hadnt expected forgiveness to given so easily.
Most of them didnt understand Ezras self-deprecating little smile, as he looked up at them. "Because youre sorry and youre tryin to make things right again and because yall are my friends and I dont really want to lose you."
But Josiah raised an eyebrow, "Why do I get the feeling thats a borrowed piece of wisdom?"
Ezra grinned at him, "Because youre a gentleman and a scholar." He picked up his gift and regarded it thoughtfully. "Speakin of which, were yall tryin to tell me somethin? The eponymous hero of this tale wasnt completely innocent. He just wasnt guilty of the particular transgressions which he was accused of and punished for."
"Oh," said JD, "Is that what its about? Josiah just said that it was appropriate and that youd understand what it meant."
"And I thought it was about the guy who sang that Deliah song!" Buck added.
Ezra shook his head in mock resignation. "To call you lot uncultured would have to be one of the grossest understatements of the century!"
"Uncultured?" said Buck indignantly, "How ungrateful! Thats not the only present we got ya!" He indicated the dressing which was still attached to the side of Ezras head, "Dont know if you realise but underneath that, they had to shave off a bit of your hair when they operated. And knowing how vain you are about such things, we gotcha something to cover it."
He tossed a Colorado Rockies baseball cap onto the bed. Ezra groaned, "Oh, no!"
"Dont be like that!" Buck admonished, "Here put it on!" And, suiting word to action, he placed it on Ezras head.
Nathan reached over and handed him a wrapped package whose size and shape irredeemably identified the contents as a deck of cards. However, when he unwrapped it, Ezra was surprised to find Old Maid rather than the traditional deck.
"Whats this for?"
Nathan looked at the others, "He is ungrateful, isnt he?" Then he directed his gaze back to Ezra. "What does it look like? Thought you and Angie could play. After all, you can hardly play stud poker with her!"
Ezra just looked at him.
Nathan was incredulous. "Do you mean to tell me that youve already begun corruptin that poor child?"
"Me?" Ezra did his best impersonation of injured innocence. "Angies mother taught her to play poker long before I even met her. And she has an aptitude for it which would probably alarm you."
"No doubt," Josiah grinned and then handed a box of liqueur chocolates to Ezra who regarded them with suspicion.
This gift was far too traditional. Ezra knew that he had to be missing something but he couldnt think what. So he looked up and raised an eyebrow at Josiah who sighed.
"Dont tell me youve forgotten that too. I simply dont believe you. These are the same type you used to try and bribe little Eugene. The only time Ive seen your Pied Piper act fall flat on its face."
"Little Eugene?" exclaimed Ezra, "That boy was gargantuan!"
"Oh, yeah!" Buck burst into raucous laughter, "Didnt he guzzle a whole box then throw up all over ya?"
Ezra winced and nodded.
"Oh well," said Nathan, "Just be grateful you never used the chocolate bribery trick on Angie."
Ezra laughed at that, "Actually, I did. But she had the graciousness to only take the one offered to her. Eugene was the most gluttonous and obnoxious excuse for a child that Ive ever had the misfortune to encounter."
"Hey! Hang on, Ez!" Bucks chivalry asserted itself. "Youre talking about a nice ladys son."
Ezra wasnt backing down, "Only a mother could love him! And what are you goin on about, anyway? She nearly took your head off when she caught you tellin him tales of your less than savoury exploits!"
JD snorted at the memory which earned him an elbow in the ribs from Buck.
Ezra eyed the group as whole, "Well, thank you for such a splendid trip down memory lane! Next time, can I have an anaesthetic?"
"But wait, theres more!" Vin grinned evilly, "Remember when you were trapped with Lydia and Emily and the only way to get out safely was to disguise ya as a woman? Well, I know that you were so fond of that little purple number you wore that afterwards you went out and ritually burnt it. So, we just had to get ya another one."
Ezra was horrified as he watched Vin deposit a bundle of purple silk on the bed. Then he folded his arms and glared at them.
"That is never goin to be worn!"
Chris smiled and Ezras apprehension went up several notches.
"Yeah, perhaps you might be a bit overdressed in that," the fearless leader admitted, "So we gotcha another outfit."
He too deposited the outfit on the bed. Strictly speaking it was a tablecloth, a green-patterned tablecloth with a decorative fringe, to be exact.
Ezra opened his mouth to protest but he simply couldnt find the words and Buck took advantage of his uncharacteristic silence.
"Yeah, Ive always meant to ask you about that. I mean, I can understand why you had to get out of that place pretty damn fast. But I just cant figure out why you arrived wearing only a tablecloth."
Ezra had gone bright red but he spoke slowly and deliberately, "I was havin a shower."
"But Ez, when youre in the shower, most people would grab a bathrobe or a towel. What I dont see is why a tablecloth was the closest thing on hand."
There was no way that Exra was going to elaborate any further. Instead, he buried his face in his hands with a tortured moan.
When he looked up, he was blinded by a camera flash.
"An eight-by-twelve copy of thats going up on the office wall!" JD grinned.
"JD...," growled Ezra and pointed a warning finger in his direction. But JD just snapped off another photo. Ezra almost lunged forward to grab the camera but was stopped by the sound of a womans voice.
"Isnt this a bit raucous for a hospital ward?"
They looked around to see Gloria Potter and Angie Velasquez in the doorway.
"Nice hat, Ezra," said Angie.
Gloria looked at the purple garment draped across the bed, "Nice dress."
Ezra looked at her hopefully, "Would you like it? Its really not my style."
Gloria shook her head, "I really couldnt deprive you."
Angie ambled over to deposit herself on edge of the bed and asked, "Hows your day been, Ezra?"
"Restful for the most part. And yours?"
Gloria made a small exasperated noise then said, "She was asked to stand up and give a talk on my best friend. So she decided to tell them how she met you. Its the first time Ive ever heard of a first grade class presentation being censored for violence and language. She made several of her classmates cry and then went to war with the teacher because Angie had decided that she was only reporting the truth."
Ezra tried desperately but he couldnt stop himself from laughing. Nor could his colleagues.
Gloria tried to look stern, "You lot are hopeless!" But she couldnt completely keep the amusement out of her voice either.
Ezra held his arms out to Angie, "Come here, Quentin Tarantino!"
She embraced him tightly and whispered in his ear, "Are you okay, now?"
He drew her back to look into her eyes again. "Everythins fine."
She scrutinized his face for a second before breaking into a huge grin, "Yeah, I believe you, this time!"
They glanced around when Gloria called their names and the camera flash went off again.
"Another one for the office wall!" declared JD.
"And I want a copy to frame and hang over my mantelpiece!" added Gloria, who was now holding the camera.
Ezra took an appraising look at the mirthful crowd gathered at his bedside. It was time for a little retaliation and now he was certain that he could count on the presence of a willing and able accomplice.
He threw her a significant glance, his hand resting on a corner of the green tablecloth which lay on his bed. Angie dipped her head slightly in acknowledgment as her hand dropped to another corner of the tablecloth. With a swift simultaneous flick of their wrists, they launched the cloth over the heads of those beside the bed then pulled it back, ensnaring several of them.
Gloria had seen them perform this manoeuvre before and deftly sidestepped. And Vin, Chris and Josiah were also able to evade it. But Buck, JD and Nathan were hopelessly entangled and went down in a flailing heap of arms, legs and green cloth.
Angie managed to give Ezra a high-five before collapsing onto his bed in a fit of giggles. But as Ezra wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, he realised that their triumph would probably be brief.
The formidable nurse in charge of Intensive Care was bearing down on them with an expression fiercer than an arctic blizzard.
The four people standing beside the bed and the three trying to pick themselves up off the floor, also watched with a little trepidation and a lot of anticipation.
They simply couldnt wait to see Ezra and Angie try and talk their way out of this one.