Blood, Sweat and Tears
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The next morning Chris sat down opposite Ezra at the kitchen table. Hed been worrying all night about leaving his friend with Nettie again. He really couldnt understand why Ezra had felt the need to flee the day before. He sighed and decided to broach the subject again. Now, Ezra, I want your word that there wont be a repeat of yesterdays events.
Chris paused momentarily while studying his friend closely. He couldnt put his finger on what was wrong with his friend but he definitely seemed uneasy about something. Promise?
The blond nodded. Good. If you behave for the rest of the week, you can go into town with Vin on the weekend.
Ezra looked up angrily as his face clouded and Chris knew that hed said the wrong thing. N..n..not a b.b bab..b..by. D..dont n.need br..brib..bing.
Prove it then. Act your age, Chris said harshly, before he could stop the angry words from escaping his mouth.
Ezra looked startled and forlorn at the rebuke. He moved his eyes to stare at the floor and turned red.
Chris reached out a quick hand and patted Ezras arm. Sorry, Ez, but I need you to be responsible. I know you took Arnie and your cell with you yesterday but Mary and the others didnt know where you were. They were worried, and I dont want them worried. I dont wanna be worrying about you either, okay?
Chris knew that hed got his message across but he was still concerned about his friend. He wasnt going to leave for work until hed discovered what was wrong. Ez? Is there something else thats worrying you about them taking care of you?
Ezra winced and fidgeted, feeling stupid about his reason. P..p..pee, he mumbled.
Chris frowned, interpreting pee as the letter and not the word. He considered what Ezra might be trying to say but when he couldnt guess, he asked, P what, Ez?
Oh, I see. Im sorry, Ez, Chris apologized, wondering how the man had managed the previous day when hed been on his own. He supposed the need hadnt arisen. Chris could see how uncomfortable Ezra looked so he tried a bit of compromise, hoping it wouldnt backfire in the long run. Well, maybe you can try going to the bathroom yourself, but only if Nettie can wait outside in case you need help, okay?
Ezra shrugged. He was more than willing to give it a go, but he knew in his heart of hearts that he wouldnt manage on his own. He was just too proud and embarrassed to admit it.
Nettie arrived at that point and Chris took her aside and explained Ezras fears. The elderly lady agreed to not interfere unless needed. She chastised herself for not thinking that Ezra wouldnt be happy with them caring for him in certain respects.
Okay, Chris. Just hope that he will call. Hes a proud man, Nettie said, echoing Ezras own thought.
Yeah, I know. The blond went back to his friends side. Alright, Ez? Ill see you tonight.
The undercover agent nodded and watched the blond leave when Mary and Rain came. He then wandered through to the living room and settled for a few hours before needing to go to the bathroom. He stood up and looked at Nettie, who rose silently and followed him along the hallway. Ezra, inevitably, encountered problems because he just hadnt got the movement in his fingers to do everything himself. Going to the toilet was a very fiddly business and Ezra failed to complete the task adequately. Halfway through the act of peeing, his fingers lost all feeling and he felt a warm wetness making its way down his leg. He cursed forlornly and felt his stomach knot in shame as his clammy pants stuck to him. He really didnt know if he could face his companion right now but he didnt really have a choice. He couldnt stay in the bathroom until hed dried out, could he?
Nettie, as promised, waited patiently outside the bathroom until the agent appeared after a few minutes. Manage okay? she asked before seeing that he hadnt.
Ezra shook his head and didnt meet the elderly ladys eyes. He felt like an eight-year-old whod wet the bed and was expecting to be told off.
Oh, dear, never mind. Lets get you tidied up, shall we? Stay there and Ill get you some clean clothes, son.
The lady returned with a selection of clothes and Ezra backed into the bathroom. Nettie closed the door behind them and helped the man change after shed washed him over gently.
S..s..sorry, Ezra whispered as he watched Nettie pick up the soiled clothes.
She rubbed a hand up and down his arm as she smiled softly. She could understand exactly how he felt. No apology necessary, son. Just one of those things, so theres nothing to be ashamed about.
Ezra disappeared outside as soon as he was let out of the bathroom while Nettie met up with her companions in the kitchen.
He okay? Mary asked, wondering where the two people had been all this time.
Nettie winced and shook her head negatively as she put the dirty clothes straight in the washer. Had a bit of an accident so hes understandably upset.
Oh, Rain said in understanding.
Just give him some space, Nettie advised. You can imagine what hes going through and he looked a bit tearful.
Ezra wandered in and out of the house for the rest of the day, keeping to himself as much as possible. He did, however, call on Nettie when required. It was humiliating to have to ask for help but it was even worse to wet himself. He decided on the lesser of the two evils.
Chris returned from work late afternoon to find Ezra on the porch looking unhappy. Okay, Ez? Had a good day?
The agent nodded but Chris knew he was hiding something. He decided to ask Nettie about what was wrong instead but he knew deep down why Ezra seemed subdued.
Hello ladies, he greeted as he stepped into the kitchen. Nettie, can I have a word?
Of course, the lady replied, knowing what was coming.
Chris herded the elderly lady out of the room and then turned to face her. Ez seems a bit unhappy. Any problems that I need to know about?
Well, yes. She explained what had happened and watched as the blonds face dropped as a consequence.
Damn, Chris cursed as he bowed his head and stared at his shoes. Thats got to have knocked his confidence again. Shit, he said as he kicked the wall gently over and over again.
Well, it may have been a good thing really, Chris. Hes accepted help from me ever since but I know its not nice for him having to rely on us for things like this. Its not pleasant for anyone, Nettie replied quietly.
Thanks for dealing with him, Nettie. Ill have a word with him later on to make sure hes alright.
The small lady smiled and took a pace backward. Okay, well, well leave you to it then but let me know if youd rather we didnt come again. We wont be offended, son.
The blond nodded. Ill give you a call, but I dont really have any alternative. Hopefully hell be alright from now on.
Chris waited until the three ladies had gone before approaching Ezra again. He hoped the man would have calmed down a bit and would talk to him about his concerns.
Hello, Ez. Feel okay?
Y..yes, Ezra replied although he was still embarrassed and upset.
Will you be alright for the rest of the week with Nettie?
Chris tried to put across another point of view in an attempt to ease his friends worries. I know youre unhappy about having to have help with peeing but just remember that shes embarrassed too. It aint easy for her either.
Ezra looked up with a frown. Nev..ver thought bout it, he admitted. Only th..thought ab bout me.
Chris rubbed Ezras back in comfort as he watched his friend closely. I know, and I totally understand your reservations. I shoulda thought more about things before making plans.
N..Netties better than M..Mary or Rain. N...not c..comf ftable with them help...helping, Ezra mumbled quietly.
Why? Chris asked, trying to get to the bottom of his friends unease.
Theyre y..your and N..Nats girlf friends.
Chris winced and then smiled. I understand, son.
+ + + + + + +
The weekend arrived again and the team met up at the ranch. Chris wanted the boys to indulge in activities that Ezra could participate in so hed dug out some of Adams old jigsaw puzzles. They had big pieces which the blond hoped Ezra could manage. Although the subject matter of the puzzles was inevitably childish, it didnt matter. All that counted was helping Ezra to get his dexterity back.
JD was left in charge of the undercover agent first of all, while the rest of the men went to help Chris mend a stall in the barn.
Hey, Ez. Do ya wanna help? JD asked as he indicated the puzzle hed just started. The youngster had idly been doing one and he had a corner section completed. JD preferred computer games but there was no way Ezra could handle the pace needed for that at the moment. The youngest agent, though, was happy to do anything that helped Ezra to recover and if Chris said to do a jigsaw; then a jigsaw he would do.
O..Okay, Ezra said as he nodded and sat down next to his friend.
The injured man carefully slid one piece toward the edge of the table and picked it up before it fell. He looked at what JD had already done and decided that his piece would fit in the corner nicely. He made his hand move toward the section he wanted, but he couldnt do the intricate maneuver of interlocking the bit into position. He dropped it on top of the puzzle and slid it across the top in another attempt. He managed to get it over the space he wanted but couldnt get it to go flat in the hole. JD finally reached out and spun the piece round a bit so that it dropped in neatly.
Thats great, Ez. Now, how about this bit? JD asked.
Ezra took the piece that JD held out to him. He bit his lip and then realized that the piece would go in next to the one hed just dealt with. He again tried to move the square where he wanted but got it hooked round another piece of the puzzle that was already in place. He tried to untangle it but only succeeded in breaking up what few bits had been fitted together. He swept the rest of the puzzle onto the floor with a yell of frustration.
Sorry, Ez, JD apologized quietly.
Not y..your f..fault. I h..h..hate m.me, Ezra almost sobbed.
The dark-haired agent placed a comforting hand on Ezras back. Oh, Ez. Why?
No, you aint, the youngster said as he squeezed his friends shoulder.
Am, Ezra snapped as he stood and stumbled out of the room.
JD hesitated, wondering what to do. He didnt want to make matters worse but he knew he couldnt leave things as they were. He stood up and hurried out into the hallway and almost bumped into Josiah, whod been on his way to relieve him from his duty.
Hey, kid. Wherere you off to in such an almighty hurry? the big man asked as he stopped JD with an enquiring hand.
Just the person I need, JD thought to himself. Ez is real upset, the youngster said out loud.
JD explained the circumstances and Josiah could understand the youngsters concern. Ezra had taken things pretty well up to now, all things considered. The man was entitled to get angry once in a while and it was entirely natural.
Okay, lets go find him and sort this out.
The two men headed out into the yard and saw Ezra walking slowly toward the creek with shoulders slumped in defeat.
Ill go after him, son. You find Chris and tell him what happened.
The profiler headed off after Ezra while JD went to the barn in search of the blond.
The profiler caught up with Ezra pretty quickly and pulled him gently to a halt. Ez? JDs worried about you. Talk to me, son. Whats wrong?
C c c, he stuttered helplessly. Ezra clenched his jaw as he kicked a stone angrily because of his faltering speech.
Josiah put his hand on Ezras arm as he attempted to provide comfort. His friends stutter always increased with any upset, and unless he settled down he wouldnt be able to talk things through at all.
Calm down, Ez. Sit on this log and take a deep breath. The profiler helped Ezra sit down and then waited patiently for a couple of minutes. When he thought that Ezra had settled sufficiently, he said, Now, try again, slow and steady.
Ezra nodded and took another deep breath. C..cant d do a s simp..ple ch..childs jig jigsaw. I h h hate m me.
Josiah put his arm round the younger mans shoulder. Youre improving every day, Ez. I know you get frustrated, but Ive seen how much youve progressed in the small amount of time since you left the hospital. Youll soon be able to do the jigsaw with JD. Your hand is getting stronger, aint it? Patience has got to be your master at the moment, Ez. You cant rush these things no matter how much you want to. Slow and sure, son, as I said before. Theres no other way.
C..cant even t...talk pr..properly, Ezra whispered forlornly as he put his head in his hands.
The profiler rubbed his back in encouragement. Youre doing brilliantly, Ez. Just think back to when you were in the hospital and you first started your speech sessions. Cant you see how much better you are now?
Ezra shrugged and sighed as he kept his gaze downward.
Youve just got to practice, practice, practice, son. Youve come so far and you are so close to regaining your life. Were all here to help you, but there are some things only you can do.
I know and Im t..trying s .so hard.
Josiah smiled softly. I can see that, and Im so proud of you. Youve fought back from the brink of death very bravely. You have real strength, Ez.
Ezra stayed quiet for a while. He always found Josiah a calming influence and the man was so sensible with the advice that he dispensed. No matter the circumstances, Josiah could calm him down with just a few words.
The undercover agent finally looked up and said, Im s sorry. I g..get s.sad.
Thats understandable, son, but please come and talk to me if you feel like this again. I wanna help you, Josiah said as he patted Ezras back gently.
Ezra looked up at his friend and smiled lopsidedly. Okay.
You coming back with me now?
Ezra shook his head and hugged his knees tight. N..not y..yet. N..n..need to th..think.
Okay, but dont be too long.
J Josiah? Ezra called before the man could leave. The undercover agent needed to know the answer to one question that had been bugging him for ages.
W..what h.h..h..happened to me? Ezra asked quietly, wanting, but not wanting, to know the answer. He wondered if he could cope with what he was going to be told.
The profiler sighed and took a deep breath before telling Ezra exactly how he had come by his injuries. Josiah watched Ezra closely while he spoke but he couldnt really tell how the injured man was taking the news.
T..thank y..you, Ezra said, when Josiah had finished.
Will you be okay?
Josiah nodded and left his friend to come to terms with what hed just learned. He hoped Ezra would really be alright on his own. After all the inevitable frustration, anger and tears throughout Ezras continuing recovery, to have the added burden of knowing that Marty was responsible must be hard to bear.
Chris was waiting anxiously on the porch for Josiah. Hed been as fidgety as a kid on the first day at school while awaiting his friends return. He alright? he asked worriedly as he hurried to meet his tall friend.
Yeah, just upset and a bit unhappy. We had a talk and I hope hes feeling better. Hes real fragile, Chris, and it breaks my heart to see him like this.
The blond reached out and rubbed Josiahs back in comfort. Yeah, I know. Hes lost all his confidence and I hate that. He herded the man back to the porch and they sat down on the swing seat there.
Hell get it back. When he can do things for himself again hell regain his self-esteem. Unfortunately he has to take knocks on the way. Itll make him stronger in the long run, Chris, Josiah said in a tone that suggested that he wasnt convinced about his statement.
Hell of a way to gain strength, Josiah. Lifes shitty sometimes, and this is one time that I dont need to hear about God and the greater good, big guy.
Fair enough. Couldnt think of anything to say in His defense at the moment anyway, to be honest. These are the times that my faith is tested to the limit, the older agent said as he rubbed a hand over his face.
Chris looked at Josiah and then reached out a hand and patted his thigh in encouragement. The blond said quietly, I just cant help wondering about his speech. He only seems to stick to small words and still stutters pretty badly. Do you really think hell get better in that respect?
Its a confidence thing in some respects. Maybe when he doesnt stutter over small words, hell start with longer ones. Hes just keeping things brief and not being too ambitious and thats probably a good thing right now.
Maybe, Chris said as he leaned back in the seat.
Josiah cleared his throat and said, He asked me how hed been injured.
Oh. Howd he take it? the blond asked anxiously.
The profiler shrugged. Couldnt really tell but he seemed pretty calm, I spose.
Well, well watch him just to make sure he really is okay, Chris said as he patted Josiahs thigh. Im surprised hes waited this long to find out what happened to him. He musta been curious for ages.
Yeah, I bet.
The two agents waited patiently until Ezra strolled back an hour later seemingly a bit happier.
Okay, Ez? Chris called.
Y..yes th..thank you.
The blond couldnt read Ezras face properly. If you wanna talk, were always around, bud.
I kn...know. Ezra smiled and went inside the house slowly. He really didnt know how to deal with what hed been told. Marty had been his lover and Ezra had only just got over what hed done to him during their relationship. To find out that the man had stalked him for assumed revenge was even harder to digest. The agent knew that the accident hadnt been planned but Marty had obviously meant him harm in some way, to have abducted him in the beginning. Ezra vowed to consign his ex-lover to the past because he only wanted to look to the future from now on.
Ezra sighed and shoved the thoughts to the back of his mind to deal with later. He had another matter that needed sorting out right now with a true friend. He searched the house with determination for JD.
Im Im sorry ab..bout earlier. I..It was chi child dish, the inured man said as he came to a halt in front of the youngster.
No, it wasnt. You just werent up to doing the puzzle yet. Sorry if you felt bad. Chris chose things that we thought we could do together so you felt more a part of things.
Ezra studied his young friend and saw how guilty he looked. The undercover agent put his left hand on JDs shoulder awkwardly. N..n..nev..ver felt apart from you. F..f..feel closer to you, if anyth..thing.
JD smiled and gave the man a quick hug. Im glad. Fancy a coffee?
T..that I c..can handle, Ezra replied with a grin.
+ + + + + + +
Chris entered the kitchen just after the two men had split up after enjoying their drink together. JD still sat at the table cradling the mug in his hands distractedly. He had a faraway look in his eyes.
Hey, kid, the blond greeted.
Chris studied his youngest friend and knew he was upset. Unlike some of his companions, JD tended to wear his feelings so that everyone could see them. Ez okay? the blond asked after a while.
The blond studied the youngster some more, not sure if he should push him or not. It was obvious that he needed to get something off his chest though. You okay?
Chris narrowed his eyes worriedly. It was unlike the kid to say so little. He always talked, whether he was scared, upset or happy. Sure? he asked gently.
JD nodded. Ez said he feels closer to us cause of what happened.
Think we all feel that, kid.
The youngster shrugged and wriggled his fingers uneasily. Why does it take something so bad to make that happen? Why cant we appreciate each other before?
I dont know, kid. Human nature, I guess, Chris replied uncertainly.
The dark-haired agent looked up at his boss. Its kinda like that saying. You know, the one that says you dont know what youve got until its gone.
Ez isnt gone, JD.
He coulda been, or coulda become a totally different person, personality-wise.
Chris took a seat and put his head on one side questioningly as he looked at JD. You havent really talked about what youve felt through this, JD. Wanna say anything now?
Not really. I just got to thinking after what happened today. Ive never really thought of things from Ezras perspective before. When I was back in the hospital with him at the beginning of all this I was embarrassed to be with him and I feel ashamed about that now. He really needed us and all I could be was embarrassed. That was the only other time that I thought of things from his side. He looked at me and I knew my feelings had to come second. He couldnt do anything for himself, relying on strangers to do things for him mostly. He couldnt even complain if they didnt treat him right. Id hate to be in that situation.
Same here, kid. This has been tough on everyone but Ez is doing great now. What our thoughts were back at the start of this dont matter now. Weve learned a lot, one way or the other, on this journey. Ez still needs help with some things but hes getting nearer to regaining his life as each day passes. However, theres a lot of emotional baggage that were all gonna be carrying around for a long time to come.
Yeah, tell me about it. JD sighed. Thanks for listening.
Thats okay. Thats what Im here for, Chris said with a smile as he rose and left the room.
+ + + + + + +
A couple of weeks later, Ezra sat at the kitchen table with paper and an extra-large pen in front of him. He picked up the pen awkwardly and put the nib against the clean page. He started to write with great concentration and even stuck his tongue out the corner of his mouth unconsciously, as if doing so would help. The bigger pen made things slightly easier but he still had trouble making it do what he wanted. It was like trying to write with a banana.
Ez? What you up to? Chris asked on entering the room and seeing his friend there.
Oh, what are you writing?
M..my n n..name, Ezra replied quietly as if Chris would think him stupid.
Can I see? Chris asked as he stopped opposite his friend.
Ezra looked up uncertainly, even covering the page with his arm like a child. He pursed his lips and looked down quickly at his writing again in indecision.
If you dont want to show me, thats fine, son. Chris didnt want to force his friend into doing something he wasnt comfortable with.
The undercover agent hesitated a while longer. Ezra then slowly removed his arm and pushed the page toward the blond. N not g..g..good, he whispered in shame.
Chris looked down at the child-like scrawl. He could have read what it said even if he hadnt known what Ezra had been trying to write.
Well, I think youre doing yourself an injustice, Ez. Thats real good, the blond said encouragingly.
N..not like it u..used to b..be.
Chris narrowed his eyes and saw another piece of paper under Ezras hand. He reached out and took it curiously. He saw that it was a poem that Ezra had written the year before. The handwriting was beautiful and Chris knew that Ezra had been trying to copy the style, if not the words.
S..spi.d..der, Ezra said as he looked up at Chris in despair.
No, it isnt. You havent written for months. I know your hand is getting better but until its fully recovered you cant expect to be writing like you used to. After all, youve only just managed to hold a pen again, havent you? Itll come, Ez, itll come.
D..dont k..k..keep sss.saying that, Ezra said angrily. Alw..ways s..saying t.t..time heals. T.t too sl..slow for me.
Chris really didnt know what to say. Hed been frustrated by the slowness of Ezras recovery but he really couldnt imagine how it had been for his friend. He saw his agent grinding his teeth in agitation and he sighed at the sight.
Im sorry, Ezra. I just dont know what else to say to you, son. What I said was true, but I know its hard to hear it over and over again. The truth is hard to accept sometimes, the blond admitted as he moved so that he could rub Ezras back softly.
Ezra looked up at him resignedly, knowing that Chris indeed spoke the truth. He couldnt change things, no matter how much he wanted to.
P..practice, practice, p..practice, Ezra whispered to himself, remembering Josiahs words.
He pulled the page back and began writing his name time and time again while saying practice under his breath like a mantra. He tried to grip the pen properly but the only way he could hold it was in his fist, which didnt make for easy writing. He wasnt going to let it deter him though.
Chris stood and watched for a while when he saw the renewed determination in his troubled friend. He was pleased that the man hadnt just given up as he so easily could. It was that kind of effort that would see him back to full fitness.
+ + + + + + +
One morning two weeks later, Nathan and Ezra met up for breakfast in the ranchs kitchen.
W..walk, Ezra said. I w..want to w..walk.
The medic looked up and nodded in agreement. Ezra was certainly getting a bit more adventurous and Nathan intended to encourage that as much as possible. Okay, Ez. Where do ya wanna go?
Nathan looked around the floor in search of an essential piece of equipment. Where are ya shoes then? Cant go barefoot, can ya?
Living r..room. Under c..couch.
Nathan went off in search of the footwear and found them exactly where Ezra had said theyd be. He came back with them and knelt in front of his friend. He put them on and then tied the laces for him because Ezra still hadnt re-mastered the art of tying them himself yet. To him, they were like wriggling worms that he couldnt control.
Off we go then. Nathan opened the door and saw Ezra out safely. They stood on the porch while the undercover agent studied the yard thoughtfully and then pointed to the barn.
Oh, hes coming too, is he? the medic asked when he saw Ezras eyes light up in anticipation.
Yup, Ezra replied with a decisive nod.
The two men collected the dog from the barn where he had been busy annoying Chriss stallion.
Anyone else you want to come to some with us? Nathan asked with a smile and a raised eyebrow.
Ezra shook his head and indicated the three of them. No, j..just us.
The companions set off again with Arnie jumping about and barking excitedly at the prospect of a walk. Ezra smiled and patted the bouncing canine indulgently.
Feel okay, Ez? the medic asked as he watched the recovering agent closely.
Nathan smiled. Ezra had gone through many emotions and it was rare these days that he would admit to being happy. The medic was pleased to be the one to share in his friends contented state. He put an arm round Ezras shoulder, like a friendly crutch, and the two men wandered along companionably.
They finally reached the meadow and Ezra leaned against the fence and stared out over the tall grass, which Chris was going to harvest for hay for the horses over the winter. There was a light wind and the injured agent watched as the grass moved like waves in response to the breeze.
R..r..rip..ple, he mumbled.
Nathan looked at his friend, not quite sure what he meant. He turned back to the meadow and finally realized the significance of what had been said. Yeah, beautiful sight, aint it?
Ezra nodded and watched as Arnie ran through the meadow, leaving a path in the tall grass as he went. The only part of the dogs anatomy that could be seen was his tail sticking up like an antenna. The undercover agent leaned over and ran his left hand over the soft, swaying grass. It felt nice and he smiled.
F..ffurry. L like Arnie, he said as he focused his eyes back on the zig-zagging tail.
Yeah, but without the fleas, Nathan retorted as he too touched the grass.
Hah, Ezra laughed as he climbed up and settled himself comfortably on the top rung of the fence.
Nathan kept a close eye on his friend as he completed the maneuver and reached out when he saw the man wobble momentarily. The medic then climbed up to sit beside him to keep him safe.
Had enough? the medic asked after half an hour. He could tell that Ezra was tiring.
Y..yes. Enj..j..joyed it.
Nathan jumped down in front of his friend and helped Ezra reach the ground safely. The two men then headed back to the ranch slowly with Arnie running ahead as usual.
Had a good walk? Chris asked when he met up with his friends on the porch.
Yes, Nathan said as they moved into the kitchen. It was great.
Chris watched his dog running around, still full of life despite his exercise. Did Arnie behave?
Y..yes, b..but Nat s..s..says he has f..fleas, Ezra said with a smile.
What? Nathans got fleas? Chris asked with a grin as he patted the undercover agents back boisterously.
N..n..no, Arnie, Ezra said with rolling eyes and a despairing tone.
Nathan winced in embarrassment and looked at Chris. It was only a joke. The tall agent hoped the blond wouldnt take offense.
Probably true though. I dare say hes got an army of them walking through his fur.
Ezra turned round without comment and headed outside with determination, leaving his two friends behind.
Chris looked across at the medic and arched an eyebrow in question. Whats he up to now?
God knows, Nathan replied with a shrug.
Ten minutes later they heard Arnie barking and the sound of splashing. The two men looked out the window to see Ezra somehow manage to manhandle the dog into the old bathtub in the yard and start washing him awkwardly.
Chris chuckled. Now, thats Ezra, although the hands on approach is new. Hed usually bribe JD to do whatever he wanted.
Arnie dont look too amused, does he?
No, cant say Ive ever been able to get him in a bath before, so its a new experience for him.
One he aint enjoying, Nathan said with a laugh.
Ezra finally released the now sparkling dog and Arnie promptly ran off into the barn to roll in the dirt out of sight. No m.m more f fleas, Nat, the green-eyed man stated as he wandered past Chris and Nathan, who burst out laughing.
For some reason, since his accident, Ezra had started calling the medic Nat. Nathan had to admit that he really quite liked it. It made him feel even closer to the injured man because, as yet, none of the other men had copied the new name.
The medic turned and watched Ezra disappear inside the house and he smiled as he thought back on the enjoyable time that theyd spent together that day.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra? Do you fancy getting on a horse again? Chris asked a few days later.
Hed been talking to Nathan and both men thought that Ezra might be ready to get back in the saddle again. Ezras trembling hands had stilled and his right arm was ten times better than it had been on leaving the hospital. It still needed a lot of work, though, to be back to one hundred percent movement.
The undercover agent nodded eagerly at the offer. Having been surrounded by horses since his release hed been dying to get back riding again.
Okay, come on. Lets get Justin saddled up, the blond said, seeing his friends excitement.
The two men went to the barn and got Chriss most gentle horse ready. The blond then helped Ezra get on and led him out to the corral. He attached a lunge rein and sent the horse out to circle round him.
Feel safe, Ez? the black-clad man asked worriedly. He hoped that Ezra would tell him the truth.
Yes. Im fine.
Okay, well just take it easy anyway. Cant just rush back into these things.
Justin continued plodding round amiably as the two men talked and Chris waited until he thought that Ezra had settled nicely in the saddle. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten his friend by starting before he was ready.
Okay, Ez. Wrap the reins round the horn. Lets do a few exercises. Chris waited so that Ezra could get used to not having the leathers in his hands. Right, can you put your arms out to the side like an airplane? Great, now can you raise your left arm so that youre pointing to the sky?
Ezra did so but wobbled a bit, bringing both arms down abruptly to cling to the horn. Keeping balance on a moving animal was harder than he remembered.
Alright, Ez? Chris asked quickly, ready to end things then and there if need be.
Im okay. My arm was heavy and I wobbled, Ezra told the blond as he held tight to the saddle horn with his left hand. He then reached down with his right hand and stroked Justins coat, as much to calm himself as to comfort the horse.
I saw, Ez, but youre doing great. Lets try something else. Hold onto the horn with your left hand. Now, point the fingers on your right hand out over Justins ears and see if you can hold your arm there.
Ezra managed to obey the instructions for a short time and all the while Justin continued walking round in a large circle. The undercover agent concentrated really hard and clenched his jaw as if that would help keep his arm stay out straight.
Great. Hold onto the saddle again and let me pull Justin in to me. Chris halted the animal with one command and then drew him in to the center of the corral. Right, let me see you touch your toes. Reach your hands down to your left foot.
Ezra bent sideways and stretched his fingers toward his toes. He gripped the horse tightly with his legs when he felt that he might tumble off head first. He grunted in effort but finally achieved his aim.
Chris smiled. Terrific. Now do the other side.
Ezra straightened up and turned to the other side. He took a deep breath, as if he was going under water, before bending down slowly and succeeding in touching his toes.
Well done, Ez. Okay, out you go again, the blond said when Ezra straightened up with a smile on his face.
Justin did two more circuits before Chris asked any more of his rider. He kept a close eye on Ezra as he rode round and round but the man seemed happy enough to carry on for a while longer.
Ez? Can you reach behind and touch as near Justins tail as you can?
Ezra flicked a look over his shoulder to gauge the distance hed need to stretch. He then turned to his left and reached behind carefully but didnt move too far, feeling really unbalanced. He suddenly turned back and grabbed the horn as he groaned and closed his eyes briefly.
Okay, well leave it there, Chris said, sensing Ezra might lose his confidence if he did any more. You did real good, son. Dont wanna overdo it cause by tomorrow youll have discovered muscles you never knew you had.
Found some already, Ezra informed the blond as he rubbed his thigh.
Chris led the horse and rider back to the barn to find Vin brushing down Peso.
Hey, Ez. Ya been riding? the long-haired man asked as he looked up in surprise. He reached out a hand and patted Pesos neck to keep him calm as he moved away to meet Ezra.
Yes, the undercover agent said, sounding tired.
Did ya enjoy it?
Vin saw his friends eyes shining and he felt his heart lift at the sight. Good. Ill have to watch ya next time.
The sharpshooter moved forward again and helped get his friend down while Chris held Justin steady.
My legs are wobbly, Ezra said as he clung to Vin tightly. He felt weak from all his exercise but hed loved it. He began to realize that he was finally getting back toward normality.
I bet they are. Ill take ya back to the house, Vin offered. You can tell me all about what ya did on Justin.
Chris smiled gratefully before leading Justin off to unsaddle him. Vin escorted his recovering friend back across the yard while Ezra talked happily and proudly about his exploits. Vin listened intently and rubbed Ezras back in encouragement as he led him into the kitchen.
Hey, guys. Ez has been riding, he told the two other agents who were there.
How about that? Wont be no holding you now, Nathan said with a grin.
Im real proud of ya, Ez. Bet youre thirsty after all your exercise. Fancy some juice? Buck asked as he stood up and headed to the fridge.
Pineapple, please, Ezra said as his friends realized that the man hadnt stuttered once. Their friend of old was beginning to show himself, although he still only spoke the minimum amount of words necessary.
The group enjoyed a celebratory drink and asked Ezra questions about his riding lesson. The man couldnt stop talking about it because he was so excited about his achievement.
The four men stayed together until Vin and Nathan expressed a need to be heading home. They said their goodbyes to Ezra and went out to their vehicles. Buck, meanwhile, went to help Chris with the horses.
Ezra made his way to the bathroom. Hed just spilt his drink down his pants and into his shoes. His feet were sticky and he decided to have an early bath and head to bed. Chris was still outside and he would usually help Ezra to bathe. However, this time, Ezra decided he could cope on his own. He didnt want to disturb the blond, or the ladies man, when they were busy.
Anyway, Ive just ridden, havent I? I can cope with taking a bath.
He undressed awkwardly and ran the water before stepping into the tub and sliding down rather abruptly onto his ass. He then reached out with his left hand and picked up the soap. It was difficult to keep hold of at the best of times, but Ezra had real trouble keeping his grip on it. He washed himself as best he could and dropped the soap in the water as he washed off the suds. His fatigue after his riding exercise was now making itself known. He fished around for the elusive bar of soap but gave up in frustration. It would appear when hed run the water out so he hauled himself upright after first getting on his knees. He went to get out but his foot found the lost bar of soap during the maneuver. His foot went out from under him and he toppled over the side of the tub and onto the floor. One minute hed been feeling on top of the world but now hed, literally, been brought down to earth with a bump.
Chris had just come in from the barn to get something from the kitchen and he heard the thud upstairs. Ez? Is that you? Are you okay? he called worriedly.
The blond hurried upstairs and checked his friends bedroom first of all. He then noticed that the door of the bathroom was shut and that stirred his curiosity. He opened the door and gasped when he saw his already damaged friend sprawled on the floor next to water-filled tub.
Jeez, Ez. Why didnt you wait for me? the blond asked as he dropped to his knees beside his dazed, naked friend. Are ya hurt?
No, Ezra sobbed, thinking Chris was mad at him.
The blond looked at his upset friend and smiled in comfort as he checked him over for injuries.
Chris? You there? a voice called from downstairs.
The black-clad man sighed in relief. Bucks timing was getting as good as Vins. Buck? Ez has had a fall. I need your help, bud.
The blond heard pounding footsteps coming up the stairs and the mustached man appeared in the doorway.
What happened, pard? Buck gasped as he hurried to stand beside his friends.
Chris continued checking Ezra for damage before looking up at his oldest friend and shrugging. He tried to bathe on his own for some reason.
Come on, Ez. Lets get you sorted out, Buck said kindly as he found a towel and dried the sobbing man. Theres no need for tears, Ez. You aint hurt, are you?
Chris left his upset friend in Bucks capable hands and went to Ezras bedroom. He collected a pair of pajamas and then went back to the bathroom. He knelt beside Ezra and helped to put the garments on when Buck had finished drying the man off. They then escorted Ezra to bed and tucked him in after making sure that he really hadnt harmed himself.
Why did you do it, Ez? Chris asked as he sat on the bed and rubbed a hand up and down Ezras arm.
Spilt my drink. I was sticky, Ezra replied quietly, keeping his eyes downcast.
Why didnt you call me? the blond asked as he studied a developing bruise on Ezras cheek. The injured man had been pretty sensible, except for the Nettie incident, in asking for help. Why hadnt he asked this time? the blond wondered. Chris then realized that Ezra still hadnt answered his original spoken question. Well? he prompted.
Chris sighed in exasperation. Im never too busy to help you, Ezra. You shoulda called me.
Ezra looked up and saw that Chris looked angry. He winced and clutched at the sheet in agitation. Sorry.
Its okay, just dont do it again. You scared me.
The two men sat with their friend until he fell asleep and then adjourned to the living room. Buck flopped onto the couch but Chris paced about, unable to settle. The black-clad man was feeling a mixture of emotions. He was angry, scared, resigned and upset.
What was he thinking? the blond asked quietly, needing reassurance from his friend.
The ladies man shrugged. Trying to regain his independence, I spect.
He isnt quite up to it yet, Buck. Jeez, he coulda hit his head. Well, he did cause hes got a bruise on his face.
Chris, hes okay except for the fright he gave himself. Anyway, how can you say he aint up to it? Hes just been on a horse for Gods sake. Thats twice as dangerous.
Yeah, but I was with him and Justins safe.
No horse is safe, bud, Buck pointed out quietly. He studied Chris critically. Ez just wants to start doing things for himself, I spect, and maybe letting him do so will help him progress. We cant do everything for him, Chris. Hes gotta start some time.
Im all for him spreading his wings but only if one of us is there to keep an eye on him. The blond sighed. Do you think I upset him? Chris asked worriedly. I didnt mean to sound angry but I was scared.
The dark-haired man nodded in understanding as he tried to calm his hyperactive friend down. He knows you were, pard, and he also knows he shoulda asked for help. Sort it out when he wakes up. Hell understand.
Sure hope so.
Chris checked on his friend two hours later and found him awake staring at the ceiling. Hey, Ez. You okay? he asked as he sat on the bed.
Yes, thank you.
The blond stayed silent as he went back over events in his mind. He sighed and asked, I didnt upset you earlier, did I? I thought youd hurt yourself again and it made me snap.
Sorry. I thought that I could manage.
The black-clad man ran gentle fingers through Ezras hair and smiled. Youll be able to soon, but until then, I want you to promise that you will ask one of us for help. You can do most of the task yourself but we need to be there in case of trouble. We care for you and dont want you to take risks, okay?
Yes, I understand.
I thought youd have learned your lesson after the trouble with Nettie, Chris said with a quiet smile.
Ezra smiled sheepishly before going back to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Chris knew how much Ezra had enjoyed his riding lesson the previous week. His friend had now had time to get over the aches and pains produced and he thought that Ezra would like to progress further. Hed do anything to keep his friends spirits up. He really felt that riding was helping Ezra both physically and mentally. Ezra was still improving bodily. Hed got back his independence in several ways. He could now dress himself and go to the john, which was an immense relief for him.
Ez? Do you wanna go out for a proper ride today? the blond asked.
The two men wandered over to the barn and met up with Buck, who helped Ezra to mount Justin. He and Chris then quickly jumped onto their own mounts and pulled up on either side of their friend. Chris reached over and picked up the lead rein and clutched it tightly.
Ezra nodded, so the two men set off with their friend safely in between them. Buck kept close with one anxious hand always at the ready in case Ezra should falter. He steadied his friend a few times during the ride to the creek and back. They rode at a walk for one hour and returned safely to the barn having really enjoyed the quality time theyd spent together.
Buck dismounted and moved to stand next to Ezra. He reached up and made sure that his friend made it to the ground in one piece.
Enjoy that, Ez?
Ezra nodded as he brushed down his pants to rid them of some horse hairs. Yes, thank you, but I want to ride my own horse next time.
The ladies man pursed his lips, unsure of what to say. He didnt want to say no, so he decided on diplomacy. Well see. Hes a bit more of a handful than Justin. You did real good today though. Why dont you go in and wash up?
Ezra nodded and set off back to the house and left his friends to see to the horses. He really loved riding because it made him feel ten-times better about life. He didnt know why. Maybe because it gave him a certain amount of freedom and independence. Whatever it was he heartily approved of it.
+ + + + + + +
Over the next two months, Ezra started being very secretive, spending hours in the barn with his horse and Arnie. He always acted shiftily when one of his friends appeared and they wondered what he was up to. All the men, though, noticed that his mood improved immensely when he was in the company of the animals.
JD tried to catch the agent out, but Ezra always seemed to know when he was skulking around. No matter how devious the youngster was, Ezra always knew he was there. Thats what made him such a good undercover agent. He had an extra sense, although unfortunately, it hadnt helped with the Marty situation.
JD finally gave up his spying missions in despair, although it didnt dim his curiosity at all.
Ezra was, in fact, using the solitary time to practice his speech and use his upper right limb as much as he could without being watched. It was much easier to do it in private. The agent forced himself to brush down the horse thoroughly every day using both hands. He also used the opportunity to say longer words without being embarrassed if he couldnt say them properly. When he was in company, he still kept to short, concise words and sentences, but when he was alone he could be very adventurous. He knew that his hard work was really paying dividends and he was planning a big surprise for his friends.
+ + + + + + +
When Ezra finally felt confident enough to show his re-learned skills, he searched out the blond first of all. The slender blond was in the kitchen washing up and the undercover agent stepped in from the porch.
Perfect, Ezra thought to himself. Mr. Larabee? Do you require any assistance with washing the dishes? he asked out loud.
Chris paused with a frown and turned round, absolutely astounded at hearing the old Ezra.
Sure, thanks, Ez, he said, not sure whether his ears had deceived him.
The undercover agent picked up a dirty plate with his right hand while Chris looked on anxiously, expecting the crockery to fall to the floor and smash. Ezra held tight though, without a hint of a shaking hand.
Good to have you back, Ez, Chris said as he took his hands out of the water and dried them on another cloth. He smiled broadly and gave the man a quick celebratory hug. It had been a long journey but now it had come to an end: a good end.
Its good to be back, Mr. Larabee.
Vin and the others chose that moment to bundle into the kitchen, all talking against one another and making a lot of noise.
Ezra smiled as he held up his hands to ask for silence. Gentlemen, gentlemen, a bit of hush, if you please. Hows a chap supposed to recuperate with all this kafuffle?
Jeez, Ez. You got outta the wrong side of bed or so..? Vin stopped, realizing that something was different about his friend. He stared at Ezra with a disconcerted frown on his face. You spoke, he said quietly.
Yes, I can categorically state that I spoke.
But you spoke normal, Vin said in disbelief.
Ezra grinned and asked as he raised a questioning eyebrow, Arent I allowed to?
A slow smile spread across the quiet mans face. Sure you are, bud.
Ill do something else too, Ezra said as he picked up the plate that hed been wiping and put it away safely.
The men surrounded their friend and congratulated him on his recovery. There was a great deal of back-slapping and hugs as Ezras friends took pleasure in being a whole unit again. They never felt right when one of them was absent through injury or sickness, especially for such an extended time. A group of six was never the same as a group of seven. Seven was complete, familiar and natural.
Ezra had been through hell, but with tenacity hed fought back from his debilitating injuries. His friends couldnt get over the fact that hed changed from a chrysalis into a butterfly almost overnight. Ezra sure liked to astound them.
Jeez, pard, its great to have you back in full working order, Buck said as he almost crushed the undercover agent in a bear-hug.
Mr. Wilmington, if you keep squashing me as you are currently doing, I wont be in working order for long, Ezra gasped and tried to pry the taller man off him.
Sorry, pard. Kinda got carried away, the handsome agent said as he let go and grinned broadly at his friend.
By all means get carried away but please do it gently. I dont want to lose another nine months of my life because of injury, Ezra pleaded as he shrugged his shoulders to get the feeling back in his upper arms. He looked round the group and knew he owed them a debt of gratitude. There was no way he was going to be able to tell them just how much their support had meant to him. He tried, but knew the words he used were very inadequate in the circumstances. I want to thank you all for standing by me throughout these awful times. I am privileged to have such wonderful friends as you, the elegant agent said as his eyes filled with tears. Seems I can only rely on my friends in times of trouble because Maude was conspicuous by her absence, wasnt she? Ezra said as a couple of tears trickled down his cheeks.
Jeez, dont cry, Ez, youll get us all going, Vin said as he wiped his own eyes unselfconsciously. You dont need to thank us either. Youd have done the same for us, bud.
What we gonna do by way of celebration? Nathan asked as he rubbed Ezras back, touching the man just to make sure he wasnt imagining things.
You choose, Ez, Chris said, but dont you dare suggest a game of poker. Ive only just made up the losses from the last time we played.
Spoilsport, Ezra grumbled. Well, the only other thing that I really crave is a day-long horseback ride. I really enjoyed the therapeutic sessions that I had with you, Mr. Larabee, and its whetted my appetite for a nice fast ride.
Great. Well go tomorrow. Think we could all do with some good quality time together.
Ezra smiled. I agree, and afterwards I will treat you all to a five-course meal at my favorite restaurant. Without you, my trusty friends, I would never have coped through the long hard months of recovery and rehabilitation. I salute you, one and all, Ezra said as he picked up an empty mug from the sink and raised it in the air as if toasting his friends.