Blood, Sweat and Tears

by Hombre

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+ + + + + + +

“Doc?” Chris asked when the doctor appeared six hours later.

“Hello, gentlemen, I’m Dr. Blane and I’ve been looking after Mr. Standish since his admission. He’s just been moved to ICU after having extensive surgery to stop the massive internal bleeding that he suffered.” The tall man sighed. “I’m afraid he’s scored poorly on the Glasgow Coma scale and as a consequence is classified as being in a deep coma. He’s got multiple injuries because of the impact of the accident but I’m sorry to say that his head injuries are by far the worst.”

“Is he gonna live?”

“It’s still not certain, I’m afraid, but we’re doing all we can for him. He’s very poorly and lost a lot of blood. We’ve repaired all the internal damage to his body but he could develop complications later on. We noted that he’s already lost his spleen and that means his immunity to infections is lowered, but we’ll be watching him very closely. He’ll be on life support for the foreseeable future until he can breathe on his own. His lungs were damaged because of the crushing effect of the trunk around him and he’s broken quite a lot of his ribs too.”

The six men exchanged nervous glances and stayed silent for a few seconds while they digested what the doctor had just said.

The blond was the first to shake himself back to the moment. “Can you tell if his injuries are a result of the wreck only? Was he hurt before the accident? We think he was attacked,” Chris asked, knowing it was a hopeless question.

“Can’t tell,” the man replied with an unhelpful shrug.

“What’s the Glasgow Coma scale?” JD asked as an after thought, not caring if he was the only one who didn’t know.

The doctor turned to face him and smiled sadly. “It measures the level of consciousness and responses in patients. As I said, Ezra scored almost at the bottom of each section, which means he’s showing hardly any responses to stimuli at all. That classifies him as being in a coma rather than just lightly unconscious.”

JD nodded gratefully at the explanation. He’d rather know what everything meant rather than just assume.

“Can we see him?” Chris asked.

“Sure,” Dr. Blane said, knowing the men wouldn’t like to be split up and made to visit their friend one by one. He was willing to bend the rules this time, but he would certainly restrict them later on.

The six men hurried along to their friend’s room and huddled round the bed anxiously. Ezra’s skin was mottled with bruises and cuts and he was exceedingly pale. He was on a ventilator via his mouth, and there were several small pads stuck on his chest to monitor his heart and respiratory rate. There were also a few IVs inserted in his arms, one of which measured his blood pressure. The resulting machines and equipment needed to monitor the injured man’s condition surrounded his bed like sentries on guard duty.

Buck stood in front of one of the machines and studied its readouts intently. His eyes followed the line which signified Ezra’s heart rate as it made its way across the screen. It peaked whenever Ezra’s heart pumped and the ladies’ man stared at it hypnotically as he listened to the accompanying beeps. He switched his gaze and looked at the numbers that were displayed on the monitor. He knew that they recorded Ezra’s blood pressure but his eyes, for some reason, wouldn’t focus on them properly. He sighed and turned his attention to the bed instead, just as Josiah sat in the chair beside it.

“Hey, Ez. Can’t imagine how ya felt in that trunk, son. Know how bad you can be affected as a passenger in any vehicle. Being in the dark like that musta been dreadful,” Josiah said as he sat beside the man and held his hand gently. He was careful not to dislodge the lead that was attached to Ezra’s index finger, which monitored the oxygen saturation in the agent’s blood. The profiler wondered whether he should actually move away. There seemed to be so many things he could get tangled up in, what with the IVs, the pads on Ezra’s chest and the urinary catheter. It would be so easy to accidentally disconnect something important.

“Doc? Can you say how long till he wakes?” Buck asked worriedly as he kept his gaze firmly fixed on Ezra’s battered body.

The doctor shook his head sadly. “There’s no way of predicting how long he’ll remain unconscious. The brain is still one of the body’s most mysterious organs. We did do a CT scan and it shows evidence of intracranial bleeding, which could be worrying. He’s being monitored closely to be certain that the bleeding doesn’t reach the point that surgery becomes necessary, though. We’ll just have to wait and see how he progresses.”

“Ez? There are a lot of people waiting to see ya. Don’t keep us waiting too long,” Vin said as he held Ezra’s hand gently after hearing the doctor’s report.

The doctor grimaced and said to Chris, “I wanna warn you that there is the possibility of brain damage after the injuries he suffered. The longer he remains unconscious, the greater the possibility, I’m afraid. We’ll only know for sure when he wakes. Some patients suffer seizures as a result of their head injuries and I just want you to prepare for that event so that you aren’t too upset if it should happen.” Dr. Blane then shrugged before continuing with his list of warnings. “As for his lungs, they should hopefully recover fully but they’re going to take time. If he remains in a coma, though, we’ll have to move his position in the bed every couple of hours to stop bedsores developing because they can be a serious risk to his health if they become infected. He’ll also have to be fed via a tube if he doesn’t wake soon but hopefully he’ll rouse sooner than we expect,” he said with a hopeful smile.

The doctor then walked out of the room, leaving behind some frantic men. He didn’t even wait to see if they had any other questions for him. He’d said as much as he could say anyway.

“I’d better let Travis know,” Chris said, shaking himself back into a functioning mode.

“Wait, Chris. I checked on why Marty was out. He was released early ‘cause of good behavior,” Vin informed his friend quietly.

“Shit. Good behavior, my ass,” Chris snarled. “Someone’s gonna hear about this, believe me.” The blond then wandered out of the hospital and pulled out his cell phone and called AD Travis.

His boss answered almost immediately. “Travis.”

“Sir? Can I come and see you about Ezra?”

Travis detected the fearful note in the blond’s voice and he frowned. He was totally unaware of the undercover agent’s latest predicament. The other agents had been so worried when Chris had found Ezra that they’d left the office without saying where they were going or why.

“Sure, come now,” Travis said.

“Okay, I’m on my way.”

The black-clad man hurried to his Ram and set off to the office. He felt cold, shivery and sick and had real trouble concentrating on what he was doing. He finally pulled into the parking garage and parked in his usual spot automatically before making his way up in the elevator. He then strode along the hallway and knocked on his boss’s door with a shaking fist.


Chris pushed opened the door and walked to the desk looking furious.

Travis looked up and saw the blond’s expression. “Take a seat, Chris. What’s this about?”

The blond cleared his throat and refused the chair in favour of stalking round the room. “Ezra’s in a coma and may have brain damage. He may not even live.”

Travis was clearly shocked and he took a few seconds to answer. “What? What happened?”

Chris told him what he knew.

“Damn. I’m really sorry, Chris.”

“So you should be,” the blond snapped, before giving his boss a piece of his mind. He knew he was treading on thin ice but he was past caring. “If you’d given him more support, we may have been able to prevent this, sir. You didn’t even consult me over how I wanted to deal with Ezra when Kenny was killed. You rode roughshod over me,” Chris said, his temper near the breaking point as he thought back to the wreck.

Travis bit back a sharp reply, trying to placate the blond instead. He knew that with Team7 the phrase ‘cut one and they all bleed’ was particularly appropriate, and it certainly seemed to be the case in light of Ezra’s current injuries. “I’m sorry you felt that, Chris, but in my opinion Ezra was not in the correct frame of mind for doing any sort of work, so there was no point in him being here. Look, Chris, I know you’re upset but as I thought, Ezra’s problem was personal, not work-related. I just can’t allow you, or your men, to take time out when it’s a problem at home like this.”

“I don’t care. He needed help and we were forced to near enough abandon him because of your orders. He deserved better and it’s nearly cost him his life. It wasn’t kids, as you thought. It was Marty, who’d almost killed him once before, if you remember. Ezra was damned right in his gut reaction. He knew that it was something serious, but all we did was send him home to fend for himself all day. Marty was a cunning bastard and he certainly wasn’t going to let Ezra get away with standing up to him and getting him jailed. We shoulda been told that he was let out early.”

Travis definitely wasn’t going to allow Chris to talk to him in such a way, although the older man did feel a few pangs of guilt. “Rein in your temper, Agent Larabee, or you’ll likely regret it. Remember who you’re talking to.”

Chris took a deep breath, knowing he was pushing his luck.

Travis softened his stance slightly when he saw just how strained Chris looked. “Look, I’m sorry that this happened, Chris. Take till the end of the week to get things sorted with him. I can’t let you take more time than that, though.” Travis winced. “I’ll try and find a replacement to take over from Ezra for the time being, but I need you all back next week, no matter how he is, okay?”

The blond nodded, his temper waning. “Yeah, we’ll be here. Just need to be with Ez right now. He’s real sick.”

“I understand and I am sorry, Chris. Keep me informed of his condition.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chris went back to his own office and closed the door. He knew that he had to call Maude, Ezra’s mother, and pass on the bad news so he sat down in the chair behind his desk and put in the call.

“Maude? It’s Chris.”

“Mr. Larabee. What can I do for you?” the lady asked. She was currently in the offices of her global company in Washington. She ran a chain of casinos and betting shops and her life revolved around money.

“Ezra’s been seriously injured and the doctor isn’t sure if he’s gonna recover. He’s in a coma and may have brain damage,” Chris said quietly as he fiddled with the phone cord.

“I see,” Maude said calmly. “Keep me up to date with his condition, won’t you?”

The blond was totally thrown by the woman’s seeming indifference to her son’s injuries. “Aren’t you coming to see him?” he asked in confusion.

“There seems no point, does there? He won’t know if I’m there or not and I have a very important business deal that I cannot abandon.”

“He’s your son, dammit. Your only son. What if he dies?” the black-clad man asked angrily. Maude could be such an uncaring person sometimes but he’d expected more from her in circumstances such as these.

“Then I shall come to his funeral. The only thing I ask is that you don’t ask me to watch him die, Chris,” Maude said, showing some emotion for the first time.

Chris finally understood why she wouldn’t come and he could hear the hitch in her voice as she spoke. He shook his head, slightly ashamed at letting go of his temper earlier. “I’m sorry, Maude. I thought you didn’t care about him.”

“Of course I care, but as you must know I’m not very good at playing happy families. I love Ezra dearly but I can’t bear the thought of losing him. I find hospitals such terrible places and I couldn’t bear to sit beside Ezra’s bed waiting for him to die.”

Chris sighed. “Okay, I understand. I’ll call you as often as I can, but please try to come at some point. We’ll be there, too, so you won’t be on your own with him.”

“Thank you and I will try to come. I’ll see how I feel when I’ve come to terms with what you’ve just told me.”

“Speak to you later then,” Chris said as he put down the phone and ran his fingers through his hair. He knew everyone reacted differently in times of crisis but for Maude not to even want to say goodbye to Ezra, if he should die, was beyond Chris’s comprehension.

Josiah wandered into the office half an hour later. He saw Chris staring into space in his own office so he went to check on his boss to make sure he was alright.

“Chris? You okay?”

“Yeah, called Maude but she ain’t gonna come.”

What?” the profiler exclaimed in surprise.

The blond looked up at his friend and grimaced. “She don’t wanna watch him die. She seemed so uncaring to start with but I could hear she was trying not to cry later on. I didn’t wanna force her to come but I let her know that I was angry at her decision.”

“Well, Ezra and Maude have always had an unconventional relationship. I couldn’t even say how I’d react if a family member of mine was gonna die. I’m not sure if I could be there when they passed away so it’s not an uncommon reaction. She may well change her mind when she’s thought things through,” the tall man said reasonably.

“That’s what she said. I sure hope she does come, for Ezra’s sake, if not her own.”

+ + + + + + +

As the days passed, Dr. Blane indicated that he was more positive that Ezra would survive, although in the days following his admission Ezra had suffered several bad seizures, which worried his friends no end. The doctor reassured them that, as he’d previously said, it was entirely natural, but they were still immensely pleased when the episodes finally abated. It became obvious, though, that it was going to take quite some time for the injured man to stir from his coma.

Ezra’s friends had to return to work because of Travis’s previous order but they visited the injured agent whenever they could.

AD Travis, as agreed, had arranged for a replacement agent to take over from Ezra. Chris met the newcomer first and had quite a lengthy conversation with him in his own office before introducing him to the rest of the team.

“Guys? This is Jake who gonna be our undercover agent.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Vin said.

“Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Jake said with a sneer as he looked over the group of men slowly.

The quiet sharpshooter was taken aback by the reply but he decided to ignore it in case Jake just had a weird sense of humor.

“I’m Vin Tanner and I’m the sharpshooter on the team.” Vin then turned to Josiah. “This is Josiah Sanchez, and he’s our profiler.”

“Hello, Jake,” the big man said as he shook his hand, tightening the grip deliberately.

Jake winced when it felt like his hand was stuck in a vice. He looked up at Josiah to find the man smiling at him while arching an eyebrow as if challenging him to say something out of turn, which Jake wisely didn’t. Chris watched the interplay between the two men with interest. When Josiah finally let go of the grip on Jake’s hand, the blond intervened and continued introducing the rest of the team, finishing with JD.

“This is John Dunne, although we all call him JD. He’s our computer expert.”

The new undercover agent looked the youngster up and down with a scowl. “Jeez, they recruit from kindergarten now, do they? Yer just outta diapers, ain’t ya?” Jake said, in a tone that showed he wasn’t joking.

“It ain’t age that matters, it’s knowledge and expertise,” JD shot back.

“If that was true, I’d have Travis’s job by now,” Jake retorted shortly as he turned on his heels and set off to an appointment with AD Travis.

“Is he for real, Chris?” Vin asked. “Seems a bit full of himself.”

“Yeah, I know, but give him a chance to settle in. I know that first impressions are usually correct but maybe he’ll mellow,” the black-clad man replied with a shrug.

“Like you, ya mean?” Buck said with a loud laugh.

“Very funny, stud.” Chris shook his head unhappily. “Well, Jake’s here to stay so we’ll just have to make the best of it.” The blond had to admit that he hadn’t been too impressed with Jake’s demeanor either, but he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

+ + + + + + +

Days passed by with no improvement in Ezra’s condition at all.

“Doc? What do the tests say now?” the blond asked two weeks later when he caught Dr. Blane in the hallway.

The doctor smiled, pleased that he could give a bit of good news for once. “He’s definitely showing improvement on the Coma scale. He’s on his way back but it could still be days, weeks or even months before he wakes fully. We’re going to start trying to wean him off the ventilator too over the next few days to see if he can breathe on his own. Once he’s come off that we can maybe start thinking about moving him out of ICU.”

“Thanks. That’s a bit of a silver lining anyway.”

Chris wandered along to see Ezra and bumped into a nurse in the doorway of his room. “Is he okay?”

“Yes, I’ve just given him a bed bath and a shave, so he looks clean and tidy for you, if nothing else.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”

The blond stayed for a short time with his unconscious agent and then headed back to the office to update his men. They got their hopes up after hearing the news but unfortunately, the improvement in Ezra’s condition was so gradual as to seem miniscule. Two more weeks passed by with no sign of him waking, but as the doctor had predicted he was now free of the ventilator and was in a private room outside ICU.

Chris hated that Ezra was left alone sometimes for days on end. He tried to get his friends to visit every day, not that it took much urging, but inevitably there were times when no one was free. Ezra had been on his own for three days when Nathan and JD put aside a few hours one evening to stop by the hospital.

“Hey, Ez. Sorry we haven’t been to see you recently. I feel real bad about not being able to visit every day. We really miss you and there isn’t a day goes by, an hour that goes by, that the boys don’t mention your name,” Nathan said.

The medic sat beside the bed while JD headed toward the window to look out at the scenery. The two men stayed in those positions for half an hour, not talking to one another, although Nathan kept up a one-sided conversation with Ezra. The youngest agent turned back to ask the medic a question about something he’d just said, but frowned when he saw Ezra’s left hand move. He looked at his friend’s face quickly and watched as his eyes opened and closed.

“Nate! Nate, he opened his eyes and moved his hand,” JD called urgently as he took a couple of strides toward the bed, his heart beating hard in excitement.

He reached out his free hand and stroked Ezra’s cheek gently in the hope of getting some response. Nathan, meanwhile, stood up and leaned over Ezra. The injured agent made no other moves so Nathan sat down again and watched Ezra closely. The injured man opened his eyes again a few minutes later and Nathan got to his feet hastily.

“Ez? Ezra, look at me,” Nathan urged loudly.

Ezra didn’t focus his eyes or acknowledge Nathan at all.

“Nate? What’s wrong?” JD asked as he shuffled from foot to foot anxiously.

“Nothing, kid. He just ain’t out of his coma yet.”

“But he opened his eyes,” the youngster objected. For him it was cut and dried: if you opened your eyes, you were awake.

“Yes, but it was just a random movement. It can happen, not very often, but it does, kid. There’s nothing to worry about,” Nathan said gently, seeing the doubt in JD’s face.

The doctor came in and smiled at the two visitors. “Everything alright?”

Nathan looked up and nodded. “He opened his eyes and moved his hand, but he ain’t awake. He didn’t focus on me when I spoke to him so I guess he’s just moving randomly.”

Dr Blane nodded and checked Ezra over quickly. “Yeah, that’s sounds about right.”

“So he’s okay?” JD asked worriedly as he stared at the doctor with wide eyes.

“We’ll have to wait until he wakes totally to gauge that for sure, but there’s no deterioration in his condition if that’s what you’re worried about.”

JD sighed in relief and sat beside his friend again. “Thank God.”

+ + + + + + +

Later the next day Ezra opened his eyes again. Chris was with him because the rest of his men were helping out at work on a rush case. The blond stood up and leaned over his agent and this time Ezra looked at him and blinked.

“Hey, Ez. Glad you’re back with us. Do you feel okay?”

The undercover agent blinked again as he tried to focus on the blond. He then opened his mouth to reply to his friend’s question but no sound emerged.

Chris frowned in concern. “Squeeze my hand, Ez,” he ordered as he clutched Ezra’s left hand.

Ezra moved his fingers slightly but didn’t grip properly. Chris smiled at him in relief and squeezed his hand in comfort after giving it a quick rub.

“Speak to me, Ez. Just say my name,” the blond pleaded, hoping that he would be obeyed.

Ezra took a deep breath but was again unsuccessful in uttering a sound. He found he couldn’t even groan, but he really wasn’t bothered about finding out why right now. He was too tired and disoriented, and he just couldn’t get his brain to work properly.

The blond, though, felt his own heart begin beating rapidly again in fear. “Don’t worry, Ez. I’ll just get the doc. Don’t go back to sleep.” Chris went to the nurses’ station and a call was put out for the doctor.

Dr. Blane strode along the hallway after receiving the page and he met an agitated Chris outside Ezra’s door. “What’s up?”

“He’s definitely awake but although he kinda moved his hand he didn’t seem to be able to talk to me,” the blond informed him frantically.

“Okay, leave him with me. Can you go to the waiting room and I’ll let you know what I find?”

Chris nodded and headed to the waiting room while a thorough examination was carried out. Chris didn’t even have the energy, or the will, to call his friends; he was too worried about his injured agent to think straight.

Why didn’t Ezra talk to me? he wondered.

The blond paced up and down the room and then headed out into the hallway to see if the doctor was in sight. His temper was building with each minute but still no one came to update him. He went back inside the waiting room irritably. Sit down, stand up, pace around. That was the pattern for the whole time he was alone. His stomach tied itself in ever tighter knots and he kept coming out in cold sweats as he contemplated why the exam was taking so long. The blond was in the waiting room on his own in this state for two hours.

Dr. Blane finally arrived and he took a seat wearily beside the black-clad man.

“Well? Why did you take so long?” Chris demanded angrily as he clenched his fists fearfully.

Dr. Blane sighed. He hated giving out bad news. It never got any easier, no matter how many times he did it. “Mr. Larabee? Ezra was in a coma for a long time, as you are of course aware, and that was a sign that all might not be well with him. Some patients wake with no ill-effects at all despite appalling injuries, but I’m afraid in Ezra’s case there are a few problems. He can’t speak, has very limited movement in his right arm, and his left hand has been slightly affected too.”

The blond’s anger was extinguished like a blown-out flame. “Will he improve or will he be like this forever?” Chris asked in a whisper; his world suddenly shattered as he thought of Ezra’s impairments.

“I really can’t say yet. We’ll only know after the next few weeks to months. He’s gonna need extensive physical and occupational therapy whatever happens. I’m sorry that it isn’t better news. What I can say is that now he’s awake we can begin trying to get him to eat. We’ll start him off on ice chips first, and if he can handle those, we’ll remove the tube that we’ve been feeding him through up to now. Because he can’t use his hands properly, though, it will mean that he’ll have to be fed by someone else.”

Chris nodded and headed outside in a daze. Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse. The blond stared up at the night sky and looked at the twinkling stars. It was usually an awesome sight but right now it held no interest to him at all. He took a few minutes to settle his nerves and then pulled out his cell to call his best friend.

Vin answered after a few rings but was met with silence. He frowned when he heard the unsettled breathing on the other end and he shivered in fear. He knew exactly who it was and why he was calling.

“Chris? What’s wrong? What’s wrong with Ezra?”

The blond pulled himself together and sighed. “Um...He woke, but he’s...not alright. He’s got some disabilities and the doctor doesn’t know if he’s gonna get better. I don’t know what to do, Vin.”

“Shit. Are you at the hospital now?”

“Yeah,” Chris replied in a shell-shocked tone.

“I’ll cancel my class and come now.” Vin ran self-defence classes for women every week, but not tonight. He could hear the real despair in Chris’s voice and wanted to support him as best he could. Hell, he’d have cancelled the class anyway after hearing such bad news about Ezra.

Vin arrived at the hospital quickly and went straight to Ezra’s room where Chris now was.

“Chris? You okay?” he asked as he studied the usually unflappable blond. Chris was usually good in a crisis, he never panicked. He was the one always giving support to the rest of them, but not today it seemed.

“No, I feel numb,” the blond mumbled.

“What happened?” Vin asked as he sat down and rubbed Chris’s back gently.

Chris looked at Vin and told him exactly what was wrong with their friend. “Ez woke but he can’t talk and has got real limited movement in both his left hand and right arm. It ain’t right that he should be hurt like this. It ain’t right, Vin. That fucking bastard Marty. If he wasn’t already dead I’d fucking kill him myself.” Chris sighed and rubbed his face. “I just can’t take it in. I keep hoping I’m gonna wake up to find it’s all just been a nightmare.”

The sharpshooter momentarily couldn’t catch his breath after hearing the news. After a while, he managed to murmur, “Jeez, Chris. What did the neurologist say?”

The blond shrugged half-heartedly. “Not much. Wait and see. That’s all he ever fucking says. I don’t think they hold out much hope for a full recovery, Vin.”

“I’ll call the others and give ‘em the bad news,” Vin said, seeing that his friend wasn’t up to the task. Neither was he, but someone had to do it.

The sharpshooter wandered outside, still coming to terms with what he’d just learned. He took a deep breath once he reached the open air in an attempt to calm himself down. He then made his way to a wall that surrounded the parking lot and leapt up onto it to sit and dangle his legs. He pulled out his phone and stared at it for a while before punching in Nathan’s number.

“Nate? It ain’t good news about Ez, bud.”

Time stood still for the medic; his blood seeming to freeze in his veins. “What’s happened?” he asked, almost resignedly.

“He came out of his coma while Chris was with him but he can’t speak, and his right arm and left hand have been affected.”

Nathan bowed his head sadly. “Damn, I’ll come.”

Vin rubbed a hand down his face and sighed in despair. “Can you let the others know? Can’t face telling ‘em.”

“Sure. How’s Chris feelin’?”

The sharpshooter sighed again and shook his head. “Real upset. I think he was so glad when Ez woke that it’s hit him twice as hard when he was told that all weren’t well. I can’t imagine how it was for him.”

“Okay, Vin, I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

Vin went back inside the hospital and saw that Chris seemed to have snapped out of his non-functioning state. The blond looked up at him as if seeing him for the first time.

“I just called Nate,” Vin informed him gently. “He’s gonna call the others.”

Chris nodded as he rubbed a hand down his face wearily. “Thanks, bud. I’d better let Travis know what’s going on too, I s’pose.”

He made his way outside and pulled out his cell so that he could call his boss at home. Although it pained him to say it, there might not be any choice in what happened next. None of his men liked Ezra’s replacement, even though they’d tried hard to find something good to say about the man. So far, though, they’d been unsuccessful. Maybe they hadn’t tried hard enough, counting on the hope that Ezra would be back. Now that may never happen.

Chris punched in Travis’s number and sighed. “Sir? Jake might have to become a permanent employee on my team.”

The older man frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Ez woke but things don’t look good, sir. He may never recover fully.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that. How do you want to proceed?”

The blond’s mind was still in turmoil and he really didn’t know what to do for the best. All he did know was that his men needed to be with Ezra throughout his recovery: if he did recover. Chris cleared his throat. “Nothing much we can do ourselves. He’s gonna need therapy for months to come so we’ll just have to play it by ear. If we need time to be with him, can we have it? We just can’t abandon him.”

Travis knew that it was time to make some concessions. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I need you to finish the case you’re on, but after that we’ll see what can be arranged. I can’t just give you all time off now though. I still need you here.”

Chris nodded. “I understand, sir. I really appreciate you considering it anyway.”

Nathan and the rest of the team arrived just as he finished the call and the group wandered inside together. They got an update from the doctor and retired to Ezra’s room in silence. None of them could come to terms with what they’d just been told.

“Do ya think it’s temporary, Chris?”

“I don’t know, Buck, but I sure hope so,” the blond said quietly as he rubbed his face. Why do they keep asking me what I think? I’ve got no fucking idea about what’s gonna happen to Ez. He sighed. I’m their boss, so of course they’re gonna look to me for reassurance, but I just can’t give them any this time.

“You okay, pard?” the ladies’ man asked as he watched the emotions flicking over Chris’s face like clouds on a windy day.

“No, I just can’t believe that this has happened.” Chris stood up and walked to the window. His mind returned to the conversation he’d just had with AD Travis. Their jobs seemed inconsequential at the moment but he passed on to the others what the man had said. “Travis wants us to finish the case we’re on, but after that I don’t know what’ll happen. He didn’t give me a proper answer but I hope he’ll let us be here most days in turn.”

“Good. Hate to think that we couldn’t be with Ez through this,” Josiah said as he looked round the group of men, seeing the devastation on each face.

Vin nodded in relief too and went to sit beside his injured friend. Ezra, though, stared at the ceiling and didn’t move or look at him.

The sharpshooter frowned sadly. “Hello, Ez. We’re all rootin’ for ya and we’ll help ya get better, bud.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked into Ezra’s room the day after his friend had first stirred. He’d updated Maude on her son’s condition, but it seemed that the women still had no intention of visiting. The blond was saddened by her attitude and he vowed to give his friend all his support to make up for the lack of his mother’s.

“Hey, Ez.”

There was no response to begin with but then Ezra’s head turned toward Chris with a jolting movement. The black-clad man winced at the sight but noted that the injured agent seemed slightly more alert although still very groggy.

“Good to see ya, bud,” the blond said as he reached out a hand and touched Ezra’s cheek gently.

While Chris talked, the injured man’s head continued to move in robotic fashion as he looked round the room.

“Get used to the sight of this place, Ez. You’re gonna be in here for a while,” Chris said quietly.

The doctor came in at that point and smiled at the blond. “How are you, Mr. Larabee?”

Chris sat down beside Ezra and shrugged. “Still ain’t sunk in about how he’s been affected. Can’t sleep for thinking about him.” The blond reached out and took hold of Ezra’s hand gently.

“I know it’s hard for you, and it will be difficult to remain positive, but you must for Ezra’s sake. At least while you’re visiting him. Can you do that?” Dr. Blane asked seriously.

“Sure,” Chris agreed, although it was going to be a hard task.

Dr. Blane smiled and moved to check Ezra’s condition. He wrote the results on the chart at the bottom of the bed before leaving the room. Chris had watched the medic’s movements distractedly but now he was alone again he stayed beside Ezra, who had dozed off again, and watched him sleeping. The blond, for once, wasn’t in the mood for pacing about. He wanted to retain physical contact with Ezra to show his support.

Buck wandered into the room half an hour later. “Hey, pard. What’s happening?”

“Not much. He was sorta awake when I got here but that’s about it. I can’t get used to seeing him like this. I know he’s been in the hospital for weeks, but it just hits me anew every time I see him.”

“Yeah, we all feel the same, pard.” Buck walked to the window and stared out unseeingly. “We all need to pull together, Chris. Support each other, while also helping Ez. It’s the only way.”

The blond nodded as he flicked his gaze toward Ezra just as the man stirred. “Yeah, I know, but I don’t even know if he recognizes us, Buck. Can’t tell what’s going through his mind at all. He’s like a stranger who just happens to resemble our friend.”

Buck turned back and saw Ezra look toward him at the same time. “Hey, pard. Nosey as usual, I see. Can’t have a conversation without you listening in, can we?”

The mustached man smiled and moved to the bed. He sat down and reached out to hold Ezra’s other hand. The undercover agent stared at the tall man in total confusion so Buck smiled again and ran his fingers through his friend’s hair.

“Okay, Ez?”

The undercover agent just continued looking at Buck, not showing any other responses at all. The ladies’ man sighed and exchanged glances with Chris.

“Get some rest, Ez,” Buck said quietly.

The injured man closed his eyes while Buck stayed beside him, holding his hand. Buck waited until Ezra was asleep before speaking again. He certainly didn’t want his friend to hear what they were discussing this time.

“Can’t help but think about the future, Chris. What’s gonna happen if he don’t improve?”

The blond flicked a worried glance at his oldest friend. He then shook his head and looked down at his hands. “God knows, Buck. I guess I haven’t even considered it. Don’t want to either.”

“May have to, pard,” Buck pointed out quietly.

“I know, and that terrifies me.”

“Maude sure as hell won’t take him in. She hasn’t exactly made much of an effort to visit him, has she? She didn’t even come when we weren’t sure if he was gonna live. She don’t want much to do with him normally but if he stays like this, she’ll disown him.”

“I don’t know about that, Buck. I can’t think she’d be that heartless although I agree with you that it’s strange that she hasn’t come to see him. If Ez doesn’t improve we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it: if we come to it.” Chris sighed as he sat back wearily to continue the vigil.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had to be left on his own for a few days while the rest of the team finished the case that they were in the middle of. Today, though, should hopefully see an end to it. The agents had real trouble focusing on the task ahead, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.

The team congregated a short distance away from the bar where Jake would be meeting Trent, a notorious drug dealer. Chris looked round the group and settled his gaze on the replacement undercover agent. He still wasn’t convinced that the man knew what he was supposed to do.

“Jake? Remember to get Trent talking about the drugs consignment. We need to know where it’s heading, okay?”

“Yeah, I know what I’m doin’. You’ve told me enough times, ain’t ya?” Jake retorted angrily. He stood with hands on his hips challengingly.

Chris scowled at the belligerent agent. “Ezra wouldn’t talk to me like that.”

Jake took a step closer to the blond. “Yeah, well I ain’t him and I’m sick to death of being compared to him.”

“Cut the attitude and just do your job, will you?”

“I’m trying to, but you seem to think I need wet-nursing every fucking step of the way.” Jake almost sneered as he turned abruptly and headed off toward his meeting place with Trent.

Jake was arrogant and didn’t take kindly to being given orders and it was quite likely that he and the blond would come to blows one day soon. They seemed to grate on one another’s nerves like sandpaper on skin.

“Asshole,” Chris said, thinking that he’d never worked with such a disagreeable man before.

The rest of his team exchanged knowing glances and spread out to take up their allotted positions, unquestioningly. All the men were becoming highly irritated with Jake’s behavior and it made for an uncomfortable working environment. They had once been a cohesive unit, but since Jake’s arrival they had fallen apart. That was probably more to do with Ezra’s accident than anything else, though. This was no time to be thinking about such things, though, so they shook themselves back to reality.

Jake, meanwhile, made his way to the bar muttering under his breath after his altercation with Chris. He pushed through the door and stood inside for a moment while seeking out his prey.

“Hey, can I buy you a drink?” Trent offered when the agent appeared at his table.

Jake nodded as he studied his opponent. The man seemed to be alone, which was good. He’d expected at least six henchmen to be there too, but it sure made his job a bit easier that the man was alone and outnumbered by ATF agents. “Sure, and then we’ll get down to business,” Jake suggested.

Trent bought Jake a whiskey and then sat down opposite him in the sparsely populated bar. Josiah wandered in a few minutes later and, after buying a drink, took up position at the other end of the room where he could watch events unfold. The profiler had chosen the particular booth he was in because of a strategically placed mirror. The reflective object gave him a good view without Trent realizing that he was being observed. It was the perfect setup. At the moment it didn’t look as though the meeting had started, so Josiah sat back and pretended to doze.

“Cheers,” Jake said to Trent as he took a quick sip of his drink. “How long till you get your next consignment in, then?”

“Next month.”

“Why not before? I’ve got buyers waiting,” the agent replied, sounding irritated.

“I’m dealing with another batch at the moment, so you’ll have to wait,” Trent snapped. “He’s one of my best buyers so I ain’t gonna inconvenience him on account of a young upstart like you.”

“Is he anyone I know?”

“Doubt it.”

Jake scowled at not being told the buyer’s name. He started off on another tack, hoping for a bit more success. “How big a network have you got? Local or what?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I don’t like dealing with penny-ante outfits. Where’s your current consignment going?”

Trent sat up and leaned forward, looking angry. He pointed at Jake to emphasize his words and make sure the man understood that he wouldn’t take any sass from him. “Look, fella. I don’t like all these questions. If you’re gonna do business with me you keep your mouth shut. You don’t need to know about my other deals.” Trent then narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You a cop?”

Jake shook his head as he fiddled with his glass awkwardly. “No, I just like to know who I’m dealing with,” he replied, not sure how to proceed. He was out of his depth and it was beginning to show.

The agent’s body posture told Trent all he needed to know and the man blew. “Bullshit. The deal’s off. I don’t trust you.”

“Come on. Give me a break,” Jake said as he looked round the bar and settled his gaze on Josiah, who was still watching events through half-closed eyes.

Trent followed the direction of Jake’s eyes and scowled. “Thought you worked alone? Who the hell’s he?” the dealer asked angrily.

“Who?” Jake asked as he hastily looked back at Trent.

“The man you just signaled,” his agitated opponent stated while getting up from his chair.

Shit,” Chris cursed from where he was listening outside. “Everyone move in.”

Trent’s suspicions were now heightened and he punched Jake, knocking him out of his chair. He then drew his gun and aimed unerringly at Josiah.

“You’re fucking cops.”

Josiah threw himself under the table just as Trent fired at him. He heard the bullet ricochet off the table leg near his head and he came out in a cold sweat at the closeness of the shot. Trent then moved to aim the gun at Jake, thinking that he’d dealt with Josiah for the moment. The profiler, though, looked out from his hiding place and saw that Jake had still not managed to draw his gun. Trent was positioned in such a way as to not allow Josiah to shoot to wound. The big agent was concerned that he would miss if he attempted that method, and as Jake’s life was in the balance Josiah felt that he had no choice but to shoot, and shoot to kill.

Nathan burst in the front door and saw that the situation was now under control. He turned his attention to Jake. “You stupid bastard. You never look at your backup. That’s a basic error that even a new agent wouldn’t make. You coulda got Josiah killed,” he ranted.

Buck hurried in and pulled the furious medic away from Jake. “Leave it, pard. He ain’t worth it. Josiah’s okay.”

“No thanks to him.”

Nathan fought to get rid of Buck’s hold on him but the ladies’ man pulled backwards and forced him up against the wall. The medic finally signaled that he wouldn’t resist anymore so Buck let go. The mustached agent hovered nearby in case Nathan decided not to let matters rest, but the younger man turned his attention to Josiah instead and went to make sure that he really was alright.

“Jake? Get outside and wait for me there,” Chris ordered angrily after he’d witnessed Nathan’s reaction.

The undercover agent whirled round and moved to within inches of the blond. “Jeez, I ain’t a schoolboy.”

“You coulda fooled me. Get outside and keep yer mouth shut,” Chris shouted.

Jake narrowed his eyes but sensibly kept his lips buttoned before storming out while clenching and unclenching his fists furiously.

“Josiah? You okay, big guy?” the black-clad man asked once the cause of his irritation had left.

“Yeah, fine. Bullet came a bit too close for comfort, though.”

The blond nodded in understanding and then turned his attention elsewhere. “Buck? See to this mess and get back to the office when you’re done,” Chris ordered before heading outside. Jake was, inevitably, nowhere to be found. “Bastard.”

Chris knew exactly where the man would be going: to get his version of events to Travis first. Chris hated sneaks.


The blond turned round and grimaced at Vin. “He’s gone telling tales. Jeez, I’m gonna bust his fucking ass. He’ll be scrubbing floors in the john if I have my way.”

The sharpshooter nodded in agreement. “Don’t let him get the better of ya, bud. Travis don’t need to see ya rantin’ and ravin’ about him.”

Chris nodded and then hurried to his Ram as he tried in vain to calm down. He drove back to the office and headed straight up to see Travis. Jake had, as suspected, already seen the man. The unhappy blond was given the go-ahead to enter his boss’s office, so he opened the door and strode purposefully in.

Travis looked him up and down and then nodded. “Right, take a seat and tell me what happened from your point of view.”

Chris told Travis exactly what had taken place and then added, “Jake is not suited to work with my men. He isn’t even worthy of cleaning their shoes. He makes basic errors and could’ve got Josiah killed today. His questioning technique leaves a lot to be desired too and I don’t have the time to teach him; shouldn’t have to teach him. If he’s told you that today’s fiasco is all down to us then he’s a damned liar. I don’t usually have to send my men in to rescue a trained agent because he’s made stupid mistakes,” the blond said, feeling his temper nearing breaking point.

Travis shook his head sadly. “I hate to say this, Chris, but I have been worried about how your team has been working since Ezra’s accident. Your minds aren’t where they should be.”

“I disagree. They’re right where they should be: with Ez.”

The older man sighed and pursed his lips. He’d expected that answer and he hated to have to do what he was going to. “Well, I beg to differ. When you are working, your mind should be on the job. You give me no choice but to stand your team down from active duty and send Jake back to his old job. I want you on desk duties only, okay? You obviously don’t get on with Jake and there’s no one else I can call in to replace him either. Get yourselves sorted out and take care of Ezra between you. I expect a proper day’s work out of you all but I’m not risking sending you out into the field in the near future. You can take over the work of the research team. They’re all field agents too so they can take over from you until I’m sure you’re fit to resume your jobs. Maybe I shoulda done that first off.”

Chris bowed his head, knowing Travis was right in his actions. Research work wasn’t his cup of tea but if it helped them to be with Ezra more, that’s all he cared about. “Sorry, sir. We’ll work as you want and we’ll work well.”

“I know you will, Chris. At least being on desk duty will mean you can always spend time with Ezra. Maybe it’s for the best,” Travis said, putting into words what Chris had just been thinking.