Lord, he was tired. A bone-deep, soul-aching tired that sapped his energy and left him wishing he had not had to drag his abused body from his bed that morning to present himself in the office to complete his report. Another in a long, and seemingly endless, series of reports that, to the depressed undercover agent, were a gross misuse of time and paper. They changed nothing. A complete waste.
Just like his whole life had been.
Ezra Standish, the best undercover agent in the business, and member of the ATF's most successful team, stared out the window beside his desk in a most uncharacteristically vague way. He was supposed to be writing the final report for his last assignment, but his mind kept shying away from the memories of the time spent undercover in Adrian Hillier's palatial estate posing as an arms dealer in need of a new supplier.
Truth was, he didn't want to remember. Didn't want to see the fourteen year old girl lying beaten and broken on the floor of Hillier's bedroom. Didn't want to think of how he had failed...again. The hand resting on the desk beside his unused keyboard unconsciously clenched into a tight fist, the knuckles showing white from the force of his emotions. He did not want to think period.
In the month since the bust that had brought down the West Coast's illegal arms Tsar, the men of Team Seven had watched their undercover agent slip deeper and deeper into a depression that no one seemed able to pull him from. Even now, worried eyes flicked concerned glances at the man staring vacantly out into the grey, rainy sky on the other side of the window glass. They were losing him to his demons and they knew it.
Chris Larabee, Supervising Agent in Charge, strode down the hall toward the team's office with a determined step and a squared chin that had the clerical staff and even seasoned agents scurrying out of his way like frightened mice. Everyone knew not to get in the man's way when he looked like that. It wasn't healthy. He could flay a person to the bone with just his glare and the force of his personality.
Chris walked through the office door into the team's bullpen and his eyes immediately arrowed to his undercover agent. A silent sigh escaped his lips at the sight of the man staring out the window looking as wounded and lost as a puppy that had been kicked. He knew he had made the right choice when he had browbeaten Orin Travis into giving the team the next two weeks off. Standish needed it, and he needed them. He might not want to acknowledge it, but he did, and they were determined to help pull their stubborn brother from the dark place where he had been residing for the last several weeks.
It had started routinely enough. It had taken almost five months, but Ezra had made contact with one of Hillier's lieutenants and ingratiated himself up the ranks of the very well organized criminal enterprise until he had reached the top man himself. Adrian Hillier had been impressed by the Southerner's sharp wit and smooth sophistication. He had extended an invitation to the supposed arms dealer to join him at his well guarded estate to conclude an arms deal that would have made him the top independent supplier in the business...if it had been real.
Ezra had accepted the invitation with his usual grace and charm, although inside he was cheering gleefully. To the delight of the team listening via the transmitter hidden in his belt buckle, Hillier had confessed to dozens of crimes in his attempt to impress the undercover agent with his ruthlessness. Ezra had played along, drawing the man further and further into the web set to bring him to justice and shut down his operation for good.
It had all been going along splendidly until the night before the deal was set to go down. Then it had all turned to shit, and Ezra blamed himself.
The evening had started off as usual with a gourmet dinner, fine wine, and interesting conversation. It wasn't until Hillier had brought out the evening's entertainment that Ezra's gut had twisted into a hard knot as fear, loathing, and disgust battled inside him. Adrian Hillier was into little girls it seemed.
It took every ounce of discipline that Ezra had to stop himself from leaping at his host and strangling him with his bare hands when the man nonchalantly offered Ezra his pick of the dozen or so girls that Hillier had imported for the night. Judging by their size, Ezra estimated the oldest could be no older than fifteen, the youngest no more than ten. Looking into the innocent and frightened eyes of the children had sent a spear of ice through Ezra, tearing at his tender soul and leaving it bleeding.
Using every bit of acting talent he possessed, Ezra had laughed easily at his host's offer and wittily convinced the man that he preferred his females a bit more buxom and better able to carry on an intelligible conversation. Hillier had been amused but not offended at the undercover agent's clever refusal. Within minutes, Hillier was excusing himself to his guest and dragging a screaming child with him out of the room.
Ezra had wasted no time in using the panic button built into his transmitter to call in the troops. He hadn't cared if the arms deal had not gone down yet. He hadn't cared if he had blown six months of painstaking work. He hadn't cared if the directors of the ATF fired him and kicked him out on his ass. He couldn't leave that poor child, that innocent baby, in that monster's clutches. He had to save her.
Ezra had swiftly shut down the security system, allowing the ATF teams to come storming into the compound of the arms dealer and catching everyone inside completely unawares. Ezra had immediately rushed, gun drawn, to Hillier's bedroom only to find on his arrival that the girl was already dead, lying in a pool of her own blood after Hillier had beaten, raped, and then stabbed her to death. It had taken three agents to pull the enraged Standish off Hillier, and twenty minutes for his friends to calm him down enough to get him to explain why he had pushed the panic button.
Standish had been falling into a deep pit of guilt and depression ever since. Now Larabee and the rest of Team Seven was determined to haul him out of that dark place and back into the light -- kicking and screaming if necessary.
"Standish, you finished with that report yet?" Chris asked, his usual hard look hiding the concern that filled him. "I want it on my desk in an hour."
Ezra gave a startled jerk as he was yanked out of his deep thoughts by the sound of his boss' voice and his head swung around to face the man standing by his chair. For one moment, all the pain he was feeling shown plainly on his face before an emotionless mask fell into place. Ezra straightened the shoulders that had unconsciously drooped under the weight of guilt he was feeling, and stared up coolly at the waiting man.
"I will do my utmost to assure it is completed by your deadline, Mr. Larabee," Ezra stated flatly then turned around and faced his computer.
Larabee silently sighed again before turning away. He glanced at Vin and jerked his head at the now furiously typing Southerner, silently ordering the sharpshooter to keep an eye on their wounded teammate. Vin nodded to acknowledge his understanding, his face grim from worry over his friend's mental state. Chris wanted to find words to reassure the longhaired blond that things would be alright, but he couldn't. He shared the man's fears. All he could do was hope.
At that moment, Buck Wilmington and his roommate and fellow agent, JD Dunne, entered the bullpen. Buck threw a look at his leader over the Southerner's head and gave a small nod. Larabee gave a satisfied half smile in response. The next step of the plan was taken care of. Things were right on track.
The next hour dragged by as reports were finished, saved to files, and then printed. Although usually the first to finish, this time, Ezra was the last agent to place his report on Larabee's desk.
The office had been unusually quiet and still as the undercover agent had worked. The normal by-play between his co-workers had been absent, although Ezra had been too lost in his own misery to really be aware of it. Not one joking insult or paper airplane had flown. Not one story of sexual conquest had been told, or one lecture on the necessity for maintaining a healthy diet. The agents had been too busy surreptitiously watching the unaware agent and worrying about his welfare.
When Standish eventually shoved his chair back and pulled his report from the printer, all eyes in the room followed him to Chris' office where the man knocked once then pushed open the door and entered.
He dropped the completed report on his supervisor's desk as if it burned his fingers. He just wanted to be done with it. He wanted it over.
He wanted out.
Chris looked down at the sheets of paper and calmly reached out to gather them up. He tapped the pile against the desktop to straighten them then set them down to one side before looking up at his over-tense agent. He drew in a deep breath. Showtime.
"If that is all," Ezra began, "I believe I will take myself home for the evening. I find I am a bit fatigued. I will bid you good evening." Ezra gave his customary two finger salute and started to turn away when Larabee's voice stopped him.
"Not so fast, Standish. We're not done."
Ezra turned back to face his waiting boss. He fought a battle to keep the impatience and, although he hated to admit it, desperation that was building in him from showing on his face. He wanted to go home, take a bottle of brandy to bed with him, and pull the covers up over his head. He just wanted to shut the rest of the world out and be alone.
It was unfortunate for him that his friends had other ideas.
"We've got a new assignment," Larabee began.
Ezra interrupted angrily. "I just came off a very difficult six month assignment. I am tired and in no shape to begin another. I need some time to decompress! Policy states that I should be given at least two weeks to recover before I resume my duties!"
Drawing on unforeseen acting depths, Larabee stared back at the man calmly and replied, "I'm sorry, Ezra, but the brass has spoken. My hands are tied. This is an emergency situation and you're the only undercover agent available. You'll just have to suck it up for a few days. I'll do my best to make sure you're given extra time off at the end of this one, but you have to do it."
Ezra's faced bunched into an awful scowl as he snarled, "This is beyond contemptible! And if I refuse?"
Chris stood up and put his hands on the desk to lean closer to the enraged agent, staring at him coldly, and telling him unequivocally, "You're doing this, Standish. End of discussion. We don't have time for any of your bullshit. We have to leave right away. You'll be briefed when we get there. Now move it!"
Ezra spun on his heel in angry obedience. He might have been livid, but he wasn't stupid. He knew better than to defy Larabee when he used that tone. From past experience he knew that it would get him nowhere. Besides, his mother had spent a fortune on his orthodontia. He would only be a wasting her investment if he provoked Larabee into action.
Chris watched as Standish stomped off like a toddler in a high dudgeon, and the blond smiled. Stage One of the plan had been completed successfully; now on to Stage Two.
The seven men had loaded into a van that was waiting for them in the parking garage. Such was Ezra's state of mind that he never even bothered to wonder where it had come from or why the cargo area was full of duffle bags and suitcases instead to the more normal surveillance equipment, and weapons. If he had bothered to look closely he might have recognized his own set of designer luggage piled in with the other men's belongs.
They had been driving for five hours when Chris finally announced that they had arrived-- five long and very uncomfortable hours for Team Seven. Ezra's obvious resentment of his new assignment had him stewing in self-pity for the whole trip and manifested itself in his occasional bitingly sarcastic comments. Comments that met with silence more often than not from his wary teammates. His inability to engage his friends in any kind of verbal skirmish, as was so obviously his goal, had left him frustrated. It was a very relieved bunch of men that piled out of the van when it reached its destination.
Ezra stood stretching his stiff muscles and gazed around. There was not much to be seen in the darkness that surrounded them. They appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. A large, two story cottage stood solidly in front of them and Standish could hear the distinctive sound of waves crashing on a nearby shore, and smell the scent of salt water in the air. Obviously they were at the beach, but where?...he had no idea.
The group made short work of unloading the van and hauling the assorted luggage into the cottage after Chris had produced a key and unlocked the front door. Ezra had stood off to one side, stubbornly refusing to have any part in the maneuver, not that any of his teammates seemed to mind. They just went about their business, seeming to ignore the pouting undercover agent. Ezra had grudgingly followed Josiah inside and stood looking around the place.
The cottage was larger than it looked from the outside. The ceilings were high, and gave the space an open, roomy feel. The furnishings were comfortable looking, upholstered in cool, inviting colors that were soothing to the eye. A large stone fireplace sat opposite a wall of floor to ceiling windows that faced the ocean and promised a spectacular view, although there was nothing to see at the moment but the blackness of the night.
Ezra stood watching silently as the men discussed and argued about where each man would sleep. The house had three bedrooms upstairs and a fold out sofa in the living room that would accommodate the group. He indifferently shrugged off the news that he would be sharing a room upstairs with Vin and walked over by the window to stand staring blindly out into the darkness.
Ezra really didn't care where he stayed since he didn't anticipate sleeping anyway. Sleep for the last month had been only an occasional release from his terrible thoughts and was usually only obtained after the consumption of a bottle of his favorite brandy. Ezra doubted it would prove different here.
"So when will the briefing for this precipitant mission begin?" Ezra inquired acidly, still irritated at being coerced into taking the unwanted assignment.
All activity in the cottage instantly came to an abrupt stop. The hairs on the back of Ezra's neck began to rise for some reason.
Larabee cleared his throat and Ezra swung around to face the stalwart leader who was now watching him with a combination of determination and unease.
"There is no assignment," the blond man admitted. "I lied."
Ezra was flabbergasted. "You lied," he repeated with disbelief.
"We've been watching you, Ezra," Buck said seriously as he took a step closer to the man frozen in place by the windows. "You've been foundering, Ez. We could all see you were going down for the third time, and we just couldn't sit back and watch you do it. We had to do something, but you wouldn't let any of us close enough to help you."
"So you took it upon yourselves to hijack me?" Ezra asked, anger beginning to burn through him and releasing him from his immobile state. "You drug me off into the middle of nowhere, knowing I did not want to go and thereby circumventing the exercise of my free will? Lying to me and generally abusing my trust in you? Arranging my life for me without my knowledge or consent? Have I grasped the situation correctly?"
A guilty looking JD answered with, "Well...yeah."
Ezra smiled grimly at the watching men. He sarcastically tipped an imaginary hat and began walking toward the front door.
"Well, no thank you!" He growled out. "I do not want your so-called assistance. I have no need of your help!"
He never made it to the door. A wall of men blocked his attempted retreat.
"Ezra," Josiah's gentle voice held firm resolution as he stood in front of the angry agent. He wanted so badly to wrap his arms around his hurting friend, but knew Ezra wouldn't have allowed it. Instead Josiah sought to explain their actions to the irate man.
"If you had been addicted to drugs or alcohol they would probably call this an intervention. You may not have a drug or alcohol problem -- although I've seen the signs that you're skirting dangerously close to the edge with the alcohol," Josiah looked sad as Ezra looked away and refused to meet his eyes at the last remark, "But I think you're rapidly becoming addicted to guilt. You're beginning to wallow in it, to draw it around you like a blanket. And it is guilt that isn't yours, Ezra. You've got to let it go. We're here to help you."
"I never asked for your help!" The volume of Ezra's voice rose higher and became sharper with every word spoken. "Neither did I ask for your assessment of my emotional state! If I wanted a therapist then I would seek out a professional, not a..."
"Standish!" Chris' voice whipped out and stopped the cutting words before they could spill out of the man who was so close to being out of control.
Ezra stood before his friends clenching his fists as he tried to reign in his emotions, his chest heaving with the effort.
"I am a free man," Ezra ground out through clenched teeth. "You can not make me stay where I do not want to be. If I have to walk all the way back to Denver... hell, to Georgia...then I will."
The sudden feel of cold metal quickly slipping around his wrist and the soft snick of a clasp closing shocked the agent who looked down to find his wrist was now handcuffed to that of a long-haired blond sharpshooter. Ezra raised disbelieving eyes to stare at Vin who looked back at him with apologetic resolve.
"I'm sorry, Ez. But we can't let ya do that."
Ezra jerked at the cuff, causing Vin's arm to jerk too.
"Remove this at once!" Ezra shouted, finally losing it completely. He grabbed Vin's jacket by the front and began to shake the unresisting man. "I demand you free me! You have no right! No right!"
Vin reached out, pulling Ezra to his chest, and held on, but the Southerner wanted none of it. He fought to free himself of Tanner's hold, but the sharpshooter held on tenaciously, taking the punches Standish aimed at his side and back with winded grunts, but never loosening his grip on the other man. Josiah stepped forward and captured Ezra's free hand, stopping the assault. He pulled it close to his own chest, holding it against his heart firmly, but as gently as possible. Buck trapped Ezra's other hand. Standish was reduced to wiggling and writhing in their grip, but was unable to escape although he tried with all his might.
Ezra was past the point of talking intelligently. As he strained and fought, the frustration that built inside him at his inability to regain his freedom became the straw that broke the camel's back. Guttural snarls and screams began coming from the struggling man as the negative emotions that had been building inside him for so long pushed him over the edge.
Ezra went berserk.
It was only Nathan's quick reactions that kept Vin from having a broken nose when Ezra tried to slam his forehead into the Texan's face. The tall medic was hard-pressed to maintain his hold on the chestnut-haired head as Standish attempted to jerk it away and try again. Chris and JD were forced to hold onto the man's kicking legs to keep them from crippling their friends. The men were eventually forced to take Ezra down to the floor and hold him there.
It took several long, terrible minutes for the undercover agent to wear himself out. As abruptly as it had started, the episode ended. Ezra lay on the floor, breath coming in heaving pants, forced to remain still by the combined weights of the six men on top of him.
He stared with desolate eyes at the ceiling above him...and broke.
Tears began forming in his emerald eyes and spilled down the side of his face to drip into his ears as agonized, heartrending sobs began rising from deep within him. All the pain and guilt and hopelessness that had been eating at his soul all month came pouring out in a flood.
As Ezra began to sob, two strong hands settled gently on either side of his face and a blond head rose above him to look down into the raw bleakness of his eyes.
"It's going to be alright, Ezra." Chris Larabee's compassion filled voice assured the desolate man. "I promise you. We're here. Your friends are here, and we won't give up on you. You hear me, Ezra? Whatever it takes, wherever it leads, we're with you."
"We got your back, Pard," Vin seconded as his hard grip on Ezra softened and he began rubbing his hand up and down the now shuddering back in a soothing rhythm.
"We're with you all the way," Buck affirmed. "You just gotta let us in, Ez."
"Lean on us, Brother," Josiah intoned softly by Ezra's ear. "There's no shame in being sustained by your family when you lack the strength to rise above the evil that surrounds us all sometimes. Let us be your strength, Ezra."
"Let it out, Ez," Nathan encouraged gently. "You can let go. We got ya, and we'll keep ya safe."
"Don't worry about anything," JD said from his perch on the prone man's legs. "We'll take care of you, Ez. We'll help make it right again. Just trust us."
Ezra could only continue to sob out his sorrow as the six friends surrounded their now quiescent seventh. The storm raged for a long time, purging the Southerner and leaving him exhausted and empty. Sleep, the deep healing kind that had been missing from his life since the end of the last assignment, snuck up and finally claimed Ezra.
He never felt the handcuff being removed. He never felt his friends lift and carry him upstairs, or the gentle hands that undressed him and slipped him in between cool cotton sheets. He never knew of the six worried men that stood around his bed watching him sleep, praying that they had done the right thing and that their brother would return to them whole once more. He never knew of the turns they took sitting with him through the night in case he woke and needed anything. No, Ezra slept in deep, dreamless oblivion through it all.
The sun was half way up the morning sky when the Southerner awoke the next day. His body felt worn, drained, and lethargic -- as did his spirit. Ezra lay on his rumpled bed and stared indifferently toward the open window, watching the light blue curtains billow and fall with each gust of sea air that blew.
He felt wrung out and hollow; an empty shell. And he felt fragile, as though he would crumble and blow away at the slightest touch. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
As it was, he couldn't even summon up the energy or the will to sit up. It was beyond him, so he merely continued to lay there and watch the curtains as they danced in the breeze.
It could have been minutes or hours later that Ezra heard a soft knock on the door. He didn't know and didn't particularly care either way. He was drifting in limbo and the rest of the world didn't seem to connect.
The door was pushed open and a dark head snaked through just enough to glance at the bed to ascertain if its occupant was still sleeping. Seeing that Ezra was awake, Buck slipped inside and crossed the room to kneel on one knee beside the bed. His face was pulled back in a warm, caring smile as he looked at Standish.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Buck told him with carefully reigned cheerfulness. "Looks like its going to be a beauty of a day. The sun's warm and the sky is clear as a mountain stream. It's a great day to lay on the beach and catch some sun. What do you say?"
Ezra pulled his gaze away from his window watching to stare at Buck apathetically. He just couldn't get motivated enough to respond.
Buck seemed to understand for his smile was gentle as he rose and walked over to the suitcase Josiah had deposited in the bedroom the night before. One of the suitcases that Buck had packed for the undercover agent himself yesterday when the team had come up with this plan and Chris had slipped him the key to Ezra's condo. Buck set the case on a straight-back chair that sat against one wall and opened it, pulling out a shirt and the pair of swim trunks he had packed in it the day before.
Ezra watched uninterestedly for a moment before turning back to the window. Unaffected at the lack of response, Buck carried the clothing back to the bed and set it on the covers.
"Let's get you up and dressed, Ez," Buck stated with kind indomitableness.
Faced with someone with more resolve than he could muster at the moment, Ezra chose the path of least resistance. He pushed the covers back, sat up, and began to dress, accepting the apparel Buck handed to him without comment, not caring for once what he was wearing. He obediently shoved his feet into the beach sandals that Buck placed on the floor in front of him. The only time Buck left him alone was when he made a brief sojourn to the bathroom, although even then the door remained partially open at Buck's quiet insistence. Ezra never gave a sign of protest.
Wilmington kept up a soft, low key commentary on the cottage and the attractions that the rest of the team had already discovered that morning. It filled the silence that Ezra had no energy to break, and made the morning seem somewhat normal.
Ezra passively followed Buck from the bedroom and the pair walked down the stairs, the big mustachioed man unobtrusively keeping an arm ready to catch the other man if he should stumble or falter. Buck gently steered Standish into the kitchen where the other men were gathered around the table sipping coffee, and eating a leisurely breakfast that Josiah and Nathan had prepared. Ezra sat in the chair Buck pulled out for him, staring at the table top in front of him and not meeting the eyes of any of the men watching him so closely, or making the effort to return the greetings tossed his way with studied casualness.
A plate of fluffy scrambled eggs and bacon with a golden brown biscuit on one side appeared on the table in front of him. Once again he lacked the energy to make a fuss or explain that he wasn't hungry. At Vin's softly spoken, "Eat up, Ez" Standish accepted the fork that JD handed to him and began eating in total silence.
The conversation started up again as Ezra ate. Although the men seemed to be ignoring Ezra for the present, each was actually observing their friend closely; glad to see him eating, but worried at the uncharacteristic compliance he was showing. The word Compliance and Ezra just didn't belong in the same sentence. It was an indication of just how bad Ezra's state of mind was at the moment, and how far their friend was from normal.
Ezra ate what was put in front of him and drank what was handed to him without ever appearing to care, which actually he didn't. Eat, don't eat, dress, don't dress, stay in bed, or get up: what was the point in putting up a fight about any of it? It didn't matter to the soul-wounded man. Nothing mattered anymore. He was too tired, too lost, too empty to care.
The other men tried not to let his lack of response discourage them. They had set their course when they had decided on this plan, and now were determined to follow through. Only time would tell if it had been the right choice.
His teammates waited patiently for Ezra to finish his meal before hurriedly cleaning up the kitchen and gathering up their things to head for the beach. Towels, sunscreen, ice chests, folding chairs, and an old football were grabbed up gamely by the others and the group tromped down the wooden steps on the back deck of the cottage and headed down into the warm sand.
Ezra walked where JD directed him, staring out at the ocean that had captured his full attention the moment he had stepped onto the desk and faced the vast blueness that seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other. He sat on the towel the young agent spread on the sand for him without a word. Ezra allowed Nathan to coat his exposed skin with sunscreen and JD to push an icy cold drink into his hand, but nothing really made much of an impression on him. His friends might as well not have been there for all the attention he showed them. His gaze never strayed from the sight of the ocean waves that slammed in endless succession onto the sandy beach.
While the others busied themselves spreading towels on the sand and stripping off shirts, Ezra sat with his arms wrapped around his raised knees and observed the ocean. For almost a full hour he was completely still as well as silent, but eventually he began to unconsciously move with the unceasing, pounding rhythm of waves breaking on the shore, rocking forward as the wave raced up the beach and back as it receded once again. There was something intrinsically soothing in the repetitive process. It was almost like watching the earth itself breathing: in and out, in and out. Instinctively, Ezra's own breathing began to copy the rhythm. Almost against his will, his body began to relax and his mind to settle. Ever so slowly, the surreal cocoon he had existed in since he had awoken that morning faded away and awareness of the world around him began seeping into his consciousness.
Chris had spread his beach towel out on one side of Ezra and Josiah had claimed the other side. JD and Buck had challenged Vin and Nathan to a game of flag football. The four men had moved down the beach a ways and were deep into their game, laughing taunts and insults being thrown back and forth across the sand adding spice to the lively game. Sanchez had stretched out on his towel and soft snores could be heard coming from his serene form.
It was such magnificent montage of normalcy.
Maybe that was part of his problem, Ezra reflected as his relaxed state finally allowed his mind to begin thinking again. Maybe it was all too normal. Surely it shouldn't have been. A beautiful child was dead. The bright light of her life had been extinguished before she ever really had a chance to shine. Shouldn't there have been something cosmic to mark the loss? The senseless waste of it should have stopped the world on its axis, shouldn't it? How could it just keep spinning after that?
And how did he live with himself now knowing that it was his failure that had allowed that light to be extinguished and the evil darkness to spread?
A tear spilled out of eyes no longer empty of emotion. It didn't go unnoticed by the blond that had been sitting silently by his side all morning. A hand reached out and gently brushed it away.
"It wasn't your fault, Ezra," Chris said softly, seemingly able to read his agent's mind. "You did everything you could. No one can ask for more."
Ezra stiffened and swung his gaze to Larabee. "I can," he snapped hoarsely.
"You're just a man like the rest of us, Ezra. All you can do is your best. No matter how good you are or how hard you try...you can't save them all."
"All?" Ezra scoffed and wiped an inpatient hand at the tears that continued to flow down his face, "I couldn't even save one! What am I doing here? Why do I have this job? What good am I if I can't save even one?"
Ezra buried his face into his hands and his shoulders began to shake as he tried to control the sobs that ripped through him. Flashbacks of the horrible scene in the bedroom of Hillier's mansion filled his head and he wished he had a knife so he could cut the memories out of his brain.
Ezra heard Larabee rustle in the shirt he had discarded earlier before settling on his towel. He felt Chris insistently bump something against one of the hands he had on his face. Ezra looked up at the urging. Chris grabbed his hand and pushed something into it. Ezra looked down impatiently and started to give it back then stopped as he saw the stack of photographs in his hand.
"What? Who?" Standish stuttered, clumsily shuffling through the stack then looking at his boss.
"You seem so determined to focus on who you couldn't save that we thought you should see who you did." Chris stared at him levelly. "Look at them, Standish. There are eleven children there. Children that you did manage to rescue. Eleven families that have their loved ones back and don't have to spend the rest of their lives in a misery of uncertainty. Eleven innocent little girls that have the chance at a normal life because of you. That can never be counted as a failure, Ezra."
Ezra seemed mesmerized as he went through the stack of pictures again, more slowly this time. Each one showed a smiling little girl, surrounded by her family. Ezra recognized many of the little faces from that awful night. Several of the children held hand drawn posters and pictures in the photos. The drawings on them differed but the words on each were identical: Thank you.
A strangled sob burst from the undercover agent as he stared down at the photos. Fresh tears began to rain down, but somehow Chris knew that these tears were different. Larabee smiled with quiet relief.
"We confiscated over seven hundred automatic weapons, Ezra," Chris continued. "If each gun was used to kill only one person, then you saved another seven hundred lives. Seven hundred, Ezra, because of you. And there's no way to count the number of people that will keep their lives because of the bombs that won't get built with all the explosives that were seized in the raid. A raid that couldn't have happened without you. You have to see that. In spite of what you think, you did good, Ezra. You made a difference."
A hand curled around the back of Ezra's neck and he looked up to find Buck kneeling beside him watching with compassion. He looked around and found the rest of his teammates surrounding him, encircling him in a ring of protection and support that touched him so deeply that he didn't know how to express it. Unknown to him, the naked gratitude shining out his eyes as he looked at each of them told each man what Ezra couldn't.
"This one is named Suzy," JD told him softly as the young agent plopped down in front of him and reached for a photo, turning it over to show the agent the writing on the back before flipping it over again. "She's ten and lives in Des Moines. She loves horses and wants to be a vet when she grows up."
Ezra's eyes devoured the picture of the laughing blue-eyed redheaded girl that was standing in front of a woman that was obviously her mother and surrounded by three older red-headed boys that had to be her brothers. Her proud and happy father stood beside the woman, one of his hands holding on to his daughter's shoulder with a loving, protective grip as though afraid to let go in case she disappeared again.
Vin bent over and pulled another photo from the pile, holding it out so Ezra had to look at it.
"Her name's Melanie," Vin told him with a grin, "She's twelve and says she wants to marry you when she grows up because you're the best man there ever was for getting her away from the filthy 'creepazoid.' She's a spitfire, Ez. Probably give the man she does eventually marry a hell of a time, but he'll never be bored."
Ezra made a sound that could have been a faint chuckle, the first sign of amusement or enjoyment anyone had heard from him in a month.
"Now if you want to talk spirited," Buck threw in, pulling another picture from the pile, "You gotta mention Honey here. This one will give you a run for your money. She's fourteen and a little lady that knows her own mind. She's gonna be the first female President when she grows up. She's already decided on it. Damn, if I don't think she just might do it, too."
And so it went, each teammate telling the fascinated Southerner a story about one of the children that had been rescued from Hillier's clutches.
"But I don't understand," Ezra finally admitted. "How did you manage this?"
JD shrugged and answered for them. "Chris got on the phone and got the names and phone numbers for all the girls from the FBI who had tracked down their families. Then we called them up and told the girls and their parents about what had happened and how badly you were suffering. They were all grateful to you Ezra, and wanted to do something to help you feel better."
"Alicia's grandmother is making you a quilt as a thank you," Nathan told him with a grin pointing to the photo of the smiling child. "She'll be sending it along as soon as it's finished."
"Monica asked me to ask you if you would come to her birthday party next month if you're feeling better," Josiah told him. "She wants you to help her blow out the candles on her cake."
"They all wanted to let you know how much they appreciate what you did, so they took pictures for you and emailed them to us. I printed them out," JD said watching the other man closely, "so you could see for yourself that you shouldn't be beating yourself up over what happened. To these people, Ezra, you're a hero."
Ezra was overcome once again by the caring each of his friends had demonstrated with their efforts. He was humbled by it all.
"I don't know what to say... how to ..." Ezra stuttered.
Buck laughed and gave him a playful punch on the shoulder then pointed at one of the photos. "Hey, even those kids know all that needs to be said in situations like this."
Ezra looked down to where Buck was pointing, and then nodded. Pausing to look each of the watching men in the eye for a moment, Ezra said with heartfelt sincerity, "Thank you."
"That works just fine," Vin assured him.
The afternoon sun was on the downward slide of its journey to kiss the western horizon as Ezra reclined on the beach, soaking in the warmth of it's dwindling rays.
He had spent the rest of the day spilling out the last of the guilt that poisoned his soul to the brothers-in-arms to whom he had finally been able to open up. Every time the guilt had threatened to bury him, one of his friends had been there to push a photo into his hand, and remind him again of all that had been achieved to counterbalance it and beat back the darkness again. They had listened to his fears, and doubts, and self recriminations with true compassion and an honest devotion that left the undercover agent overwhelmed with gratitude and a sincere appreciation for their unselfish and unbounded friendship.
No one expected Ezra to immediately bounce right back to the person he had been before being subjected to Hillier and the results of his depravity. They all knew that the healing process had only just begun. He still had a ways to go, but he knew now that he wouldn't have to face the darkness alone anymore. He knew without a doubt that six men would be there at his side, lending their strength and support whenever he needed it. There was tremendous comfort in the thought. It would take time, but now at least there was hope -- something that had not existed in the dark world that Ezra had resided in for too long.
Ezra suddenly recalled a scrap of verse he had come across in his college days.Hope, like the gleaming taper's light,
Adorns and cheers our way;
And still, as darker grows the night,
Emits a brighter ray.
Ezra sighed to himself. He had a much clearing understanding of the tiny poem now, having lived in the stygian midnight of no hope.
He was still dealing with the physical results of a month with very little sleep or food, and an overabundance of alcohol. He was tired and sleepy. Knowing he was safe with his friends keeping watch over him, Standish lay back comfortably on his beach towel, his stack of photographs clutched in his right hand like a lifeline, and concentrated on the warmth of his skin where it was touched by the rays of the waning sun. Letting that warmth sink into his bones; into his spirit. It felt so good.
At peace for the first time in weeks, he drowsily listened to the sounds of his friends as they frolicked on the beach like children. Vin made some remark that Buck and Josiah had taken exception to and the pair was attempting to toss the heroically resisting sharpshooter into the ocean. Nathan and JD were egging them on, calling out unhelpful suggestions and teasing the longhaired man about being caught so easily. Chris was laughing at his friend's predicament.
Feeling cherished and secure under the protection of his friends, Ezra reclined in the sun, and drowsily noted the loud splash that was immediately followed by a round of strident cursing as Vin lost his battle and wound up taking an unscheduled dip in the ocean. As he softly surrendered to sleep, for the first time in over a month...
Ezra Standish smiled.
Author's Note: The poem quoted above was written by Oliver Goldsmith. Many Thanks to Jenn for looking over this for me and for encouraging me to go ahead and post it. :D