by Celeste

Feedback: (yes!) No flames though, please. LOL There’s not really a plot for you to complain about anyway. ;)

Disclaimer: The seven aren’t mine. But, I dream, occasionally. You know, get deluded and try to pretend they are mine. Then reality smacks me and I realize it’s all just a nice fantasy. ;P I always return the fellas (for the most part) in tip top shape, anyway. So it’s okay. ;) The ATF universe ain’t my creation neither (kudos for Mog on that, yet again). I just go for occasional romps in here and I make sure I clean up my messes when I’m through. *G*

Notes: Well… more psychological babble for me. My muse is never up for anything substantial, the bloody lil bugger. It’s really the plot bunnies’ fault anyway. They multiply like crazy I tell ya! Moving along, just want to thank Keren, my ChrisSis, for putting up with the stories that aren’t really stories that I always seem to write. (My random musings as I call them.) I also want to thank Luna for doin’ her best to make this coherent, I bow to her mighty red pen. LOL And last, I’d like to thank Kelly, NotTasha, Heather and Debby from the Brigs’ list, cuz even though they like to torture me with their cliffhangers on occasion, they always come through in the end. J My muse could take lessons from theirs. Great job ladies! Keep the fic coming! Please? J Ach, on wid’ the story then.

There was a dull beeping in the background as he came to consciousness. It grew more high pitched with every second of his awakening, every second he grew more aware. The sound crept along at a lethargic pace, like a metronome set on Largo, not hurrying for anyone, with no crescendo or decrescendo. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. The sound was as steady as a rock. He tried to roll over to get away from the noise, tried to put an arm over his ear to muffle the sound, so he could get back to sleep. But, he encountered resistance. His arm refused to cooperate with the demands of his brain, tied off by something or other that he couldn’t see. After a second, then a third attempt, he gave up and succumbed to the unending, shrill noise beside him. He completely woke up.

Ezra opened his eyes slowly, his senses dull, but coming back to life with each passing moment. He could feel the thin, hard mattress at his back, and smell the sterile scent of disinfectant relentlessly attacking his nostrils. He blinked twice to adjust to the brightness of the room in all its stark, white light. The beeping continued to his left. He groaned at the all too familiar sensation of waking up in the hospital, and sighed at the feel of the catheter and the IV violating his person. He tried to turn his head, but a wave of dizziness washed over him as he did, and he realized it would be prudent to attempt to slow his motions. The undercover agent steadied himself, and paused to regain his bearings. Once he felt less lightheaded, he tried again, more slowly this time. First he turned toward the left. Yes, there it was, he saw it with half hooded eyes. The damnable heart monitor; its sound one he had regained consciousness to far too many times in his life. He rotated his head gingerly to the right, and eased it against the stiff, clean smelling pillow.

He saw a door on the right side of the room. It was open and he could see nurses, doctors, and patients file by it every so often. He heard the bustle of the staff and the ding of the elevator doors in the distance. There was a chair at his bedside in the room as well; it was empty. Licking dry lips, the undercover agent racked his mind, trying to figure out why he was here. What had happened? They had been in the car… God… Carretta.

Ezra remembered now. The seven had arrested Jacob Carretta six months ago. Ezra was going to be the key witness in the trial. He had been undercover on that case, had seen and heard enough things to put Carretta and his whole merry gang of outlaws in prison on life sentences with no chance of parole. Justice was going to prevail; he was going to play a key role in pulling the bastards along with their drugs and weapons off of the street.

Why didn’t he take the drug dealer’s threats seriously? He had put the cuffs on Carretta himself, the day of the bust. Ezra had been so proud of the accomplishment that day. It had been his team’s accomplishment, another flawless bust for the Magnificent Seven. Caretta had laughed at the agent as he was being cuffed. He had said with a grin on his face that was more like a sneer than anything else, "You think I won’t be able to get you, your fuckin’ whole team, while I’m in jail? You don’t think I can touch you from the inside?" A threat if he had ever heard one, and Ezra had completely ignored it. It had been too good a day. They had marched the whole gang of gunrunners into prison, that good day. Ezra had thought nothing more of the threat after that; he had gone home, taken a shower, met the guys for dinner, and had drinks with the AD Travis. He had done his job.

He was paying for his lack of concern now, apparently. Ezra felt the pain of broken bones, the soreness of bullets, the ache and dizziness of blood loss. The IV throbbed dully in his arm, annoying him to no end. He hated those goddamned things, hated the feel of them, the look of them. He pulled the offending tube out without a second thought. The sting was of no consequence.

What else had gone on? He was missing something. What was the last thing he remembered? Oh god. Vin, Josiah… JD. They had all been in the car with him; Josiah had been driving them all to the courthouse so they could see their work come full circle. They had stopped for a red light in the lunch hour traffic, still early for the trial. A sedan with tinted windows had pulled up next to them as they stopped. It had been nothing special, not even ominous and black, like in the movies. It was just a plain gray car, gray and dirty, to top it all off. They had stopped for lunch earlier; the four ATF agents had gone to a nice Italian eatery to do a preemptive celebration, in honor of the conviction they knew they were going to get. They had solid evidence, after all.

Ezra had seen the tinted window start to roll down in the vehicle next to them during that red light, as JD and Vin joked and laughed in the back and Josiah fiddled with the radio, as he tended to do when the Suburban’s reception went out. Ezra’s instincts had told him to watch out as the window came down, something had clicked in his gut, had caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise in apprehension. He knew even before the nozzle had been shoved out from within the depths of the car, knew that something was wrong. Ezra could remember yelling. He had yelled, made sure everyone was down, before he had ducked himself. "JD…Vin, Josiah, get down!!" He remembered hearing the gunfire, and the sound of the tires squealing as Josiah struggled to get them away from the danger. He remembered the smell of the rubber, the scent of the smoke, the fiery pain of bullets. But that was all; he had fallen unconscious shortly after.

God…the others. What had happened? He struggled to sit up in bed. He tried to get his legs to move him off of the bed, but they didn’t respond. He felt so weak. Standish fought off a wave of dizziness with a mule headed stubbornness that had become his trademark, because he had to know now, or he would die from the worry. Were they all right? God help them all if they were dead because he, Ezra Standish, had been careless.

"Mister Standish! Please!!!" A nurse, who had been passing by and seeing the patient struggling to get out of bed, rushed in and reprimanded him sternly. She set her clipboard down on the nightstand next to him and gently pushed him back against the pillows. "You’re in no condition to be doing anything but resting, young man."

He groaned, too weak to fight her at the moment. "Ma’am…" he croaked. She shushed him with a stern look and got him some water, taking care that he drank it slowly.

"Now, what can I do for you?" she asked after he had finished.

"What happened?" he questioned, his voice regaining some of its smoothness.

"You were shot, two times actually."

Well, THAT explains a lot. Thank you.’ He bit his tongue, holding the sarcastic comment in, and instead took a breath. "The others I was with?" he asked, trying to sound patient.

"They’re being watched over by their friends, Mister Standish. They’re all right. Mister Tanner banged his head up a bit from the crash you boys took into a parked car. He broke his arm and bruised some ribs too, but he should be fine with plenty of rest. Mister Larabee is with him."

Ezra allowed himself a little relief. Chris would be with Vin. He was glad the sharp shooter was okay. God help them all if Chris had to lose Vin, too.

" JD?" He looked at the nurse imploringly.

"Mister Dunne is sleeping right now. He took a bullet to the right shoulder, and he was grazed in the temple. He’s woken once or twice already, and he’s been lucid the few minutes he can stay conscious. That charming Mister Wilmington is with him."

JD was all right then. Standish felt more of the tension leave his body. Buck was with JD. Everything would be okay then. Wondering if his luck would hold out, Ezra coughed to clear his throat of the worried thickness that had built up there before starting again. "And, Josiah?" he inquired weakly.

"He’ll live. He took four bullets, Mister Standish. However, that man is built like a tank. He’ll be sore for a while, but he’ll live. Your Mister Jackson has been keeping an eye on him. He hasn’t woken up yet… in fact… you’re the first one to fully wake up."

Ezra nodded his thanks for the information. "Could I perhaps, go see them?" he asked the older lady hopefully.

She shook her head sternly. "I’m sorry Mister Standish, but I can’t let you out of here. You need to rest." She stopped at the downtrodden look on his face. "Do you want me to go get one of your coworkers?" She tried to console him a bit with the offer.

He shook his head gingerly, careful of the pain. "No, please, don’t bother them."

She smiled. "All right then. Get some rest, Mister Standish."

"Thank you, ma’am."

"No problem, sir." She smiled and closed the door softly behind her on the way out.

Ezra was glad that the others were okay. He wouldn’t have been able to live with himself, if the situation had been otherwise. He leaned against his pillow, noticing a small splatter of blood on his blanket, from when he had pulled the IV out. He ignored it and flipped off the heart monitor, still feeling slightly unnerved. Waking up in the hospital, alone, did that to a man sometimes. Something bitter welled up in the back of his throat, but he shoved it down with all the decorum one would expect from a man of his pride.

It wasn’t as if this had never happened to him before during his career. When it had before, he had always told himself he wouldn’t be bitter about it. It did no one any good, after all.

Once, during a shooting in Atlanta, he had been hit twice, quite severely. Of course, Maude had been notified, but she wouldn’t come. After all, a last minute flight to Georgia from Switzerland would have cost a fortune. He supposed he should understand the reasoning behind that, or at least, he made himself believe he could understand. It wasn’t a big deal after all, and he had lived.

Ezra toyed idly with his call button. He had been alarmed at first. Usually, he woke up to either Chris or Josiah sitting next to him, sometimes Buck or Vin. But the nurse had been nice enough. She had answered all of his questions. Hell, she had even given him Nathan’s customary "get some rest" speech to a certain level of satisfaction. It hadn’t been quite as adamant as Mister Jackson’s would have, nor had she glared as much as he would have liked to do the role justice. But she had been nice enough. The others had more important places to be, right now. Ezra couldn’t imagine what would have happened to the team, if Chris had lost Vin, if Buck had lost JD, or if Nathan had lost Josiah. Too big a price to pay. They needed to be there for each other.

The undercover agent sat up after a while to dispel such unattractive thoughts, already becoming restless. He wanted out of here, but he was too weak to escape this prison by himself. He needed to keep himself busy he supposed, if he was going to get out of this hospital trip with his sanity. He looked at the TV skeptically. No, he wasn’t quite THAT desperate, yet. Gingerly, he eased himself back onto the pillow, and tried to relax. Maybe one of his teammates would come and check on him soon. He could do with the company.

He slapped that thought away as unsavory, as the customary selfishness of his nature. Vin needed Chris. JD needed Buck, and Josiah needed Nathan right now. What would happen, if JD woke up and Buck was not there? Would the boy be as unnerved as Ezra had been when he had awoken? Would he be scared that he was alone, with no one to tell him what had happened or why he was here? Standish did not wish that upon any one, his teammates especially.

He would be fine on his own for a bit. He had always been all right in the past, by himself. Now shouldn’t have been any different. He tried to convince himself of the fact. However, in the back of his mind, his brain voiced his nagging doubts in the most irritating of murmurs. Throwing a look to the empty chair at his bedside, he wondered if anyone had sat in it while he had lain here on the bed, unconscious. He wondered if someone had lost sleep, and foregone food, to sit there with him, as was their custom. Had someone made those sacrifices to be there when he woke up? Had anyone wanted to make sure he was comforted by their presence as he slept the sleep of the sick and injured? He tried to picture one of his teammates, his friends, sitting next to him, talking softly while they told him some inane bit of news or information about their day. It was a nice dream, a fantasy, but he couldn’t see it, exactly. It was as if it were a little too far out of the reaches of his mental capabilities. Skeptically, Ezra let his eyes fall to the empty chair next to his bed. Looking at it, he couldn’t help but wonder, if maybe one day someone might care that much about him, enough to sit there and do those things he dreamed of. He wondered which of his teammates it would be, when that day arrived.

But, he was being selfish again. How many times had he been at the bedside of a wounded comrade? Not many. It was a give and take, wasn’t it? Oh, how many times he had wanted to be the one sitting there, telling his inane story about the weather, or the horribly rude driver he had encountered on the way over here. But, he had always stepped aside for those who had more right to be there. He would have sat unwaveringly beside Buck the last time he had been injured on a bust gone badly, but JD had deserved to be the one at the ladies’ man’s bedside. The young man had had more right than Ezra had to be there for his friend. So, Ezra had faded into the shadows and watched on the fringes instead, as the kid sat by Buck unwaveringly for three days.

When Vin had been shot taking a bullet for him, the undercover agent had wanted to be there to thank him when the Texan woke up. It had never been his right. Chris had sat for two days on end, worrying; waiting for his best friend to wake up. So, the seventh man had sat down in the waiting room and tried valiantly not to hate himself. None of the men he called friend had never woken up to see Ezra Standish exhausted and worried at their side. Why then, should he in turn, expect it from them?

Did he really expect Buck to be here with him, while JD was still unconscious and only half lucid? Or did he truly believe for a second, that Chris would leave Vin’s side? Hell, Chris probably hadn’t even left to get something to eat, to use the bathroom, or to get some sleep. Why would Chris then, want to set eyes on the reason for his distress?

Ezra felt it gather at the back of his throat, that feeling of regret and guilt. He was sorry. He should have paid attention; he should have taken the threat seriously. He should have gone to court alone. But, he had had some dependency, a crazy kind of want for their companionship in his hour of success. He should have told them they didn’t need to bother themselves to come with him. He was sure they had had work to do, anyway. But no, he had been thrilled that they wanted to be there to support him. He had been, proud even. Pride was a deadly thing. Resolving to be more prudent in the future, Ezra sighed wistfully, and tried to go to sleep.

Maybe, one of the others would come, later. Something told him that would not be so, but it was still nice to hope.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah groaned, and a dull throbbing erupted in his chest and arms in protest of the movement. What the hell had happened? He heard the dull beep of the heart monitor and closed his eyes tighter for a second. Damn. That always meant he’d been shot. Never had he tired of a sound more quickly than he tired of that infernal beeping. He tried to roll over.

"Easy now there, you gonna rip out that IV, ya hear?"

The big agent blinked his eyes owlishly, opening and closing them five or six times before his vision came into focus. He smiled in relief, seeing Nathan’s concerned features hovering above him. That usually meant everything was okay, or at least, it was going to be. He relaxed against his pillow. "Brother Nate." His voice was scratchy.

"How you feelin’ Josiah? Want some water?"

Sanchez just nodded, and accepted the cup of cool water when Nathan handed it to him.

"Slow down nah, ain’t gonna run out on ya there."

He listened to his friend’s advice; he was too tired to do anything else. Sipping the water slowly, Josiah tried to remember what had happened. Hadn’t they been on their way to court? His brow furrowed thoughtfully. Yes… he and Ezra…and JD and Vin. Ezra was going to testify in the Carretta trial. They had stopped at that red light… he had been fiddling with the radio. Ezra had shouted all of a sudden, yelled for everyone to get down. The preacher’s son remembered hearing the sound of gunfire…remembered feeling a fiery pain on his back and side. But, he had to get them away… he had floored the gas pedal, turned the corner…and crashed. God, what about the others?

Nate, having read the look on his friend’s face, took the cup out of Josiah’s hands and set it gently on the nightstand. "Vin’s just got a nasty concussion from that crash into the other car. Bruised some ribs and broke his arm, but he should be okay. He ain’t been able to wake up all the way yet, still has some trouble with that head injury. Chris is lookin’ in on him though."

Josiah nodded. "What about young brother Dunne?"

"Got hit in the shoulder, an’ a slug grazed his forehead. He’s a might dizzy but he woke up once or twice. Should be all right. Buck’s been with him nonstop the entire time. Fool’s been up for more than 24 hours straight." Nate shook his head. "You feelin’ all right?"

The older man nodded, but winced when it strained the stitches in his side and back. "And Ezra?"

Nate was about to say that the damn fool was fine, but stopped after taking a breath of air. He really didn’t know how Ezra was doing. The hospital staff had put the gambler on a separate floor and Nate hadn’t had time to go down three floors in-between grousing Chris and Buck to sleep and waiting for Josiah to wake up.

Josiah took Nathan’s silence the wrong way. "No…"

"No…he ain’t dead. I don’t think he’s dead. They would have told us." Josiah’s brow furrowed, and Nathan could tell that that small action had required considerable effort on the older agent’s part. "You relax now Josiah, you need your rest."

"You’re telling me that the entire time we’ve been here Nathan, no one’s looked in on Ezra?" Josiah was incredulous.

"I didn’t say that. Chris or Buck might have been down there earlier. Look, Vin and JD’s room is just down the hall, they moved ‘em together this morning. I’ll go look in an’ ask ‘em about that cocky son of a bitch, okay?" Nate attempted to placate the big man, knowing that if he didn’t, Sanchez would rip the IV out of his arm and lumber like a giant bear, down to visit Ezra himself. God help anyone who tried to stop him if he ever got that far.

Josiah, too tired to argue with Nathan at the moment, nodded. "Go."

"Ya don’t need anything else then?"

Sanchez would have shaken his head in response, but he realized early on that it would hurt. "No."

"Okay. I’ll go get the doctor, tell him you’re awake, then I’ll talk ta Chris’n Buck."

Josiah closed his eyes after he heard the door close behind his friend. He hoped Ezra was still unconscious, and that he would stay that way, until someone could be there with him. No one should have to wake up here, confused, frightened, and in pain. No one should have to be here alone.

+ + + + + + +

In the room down the hall, Buck sat, watching JD sleep, relieved that the kid would be okay. He glanced over his shoulder to look at Chris, who was seated next to Vin, the sleeping sharpshooter. The steady rhythm of Dunne and Tanner’s heart monitor’s were a comfort.

Both senior agents looked up at the sound of the door opening, and nodded a weary greeting to Nathan when he slid inside the room. "Josiah woke up," he announced softly. "Thought ya’ll might want to know."

Buck nodded his thanks, relieved that the big man was okay. "How’s he feelin’?"

"Sore, tired. The usual. How’re these two?"

"JD stirred a little, mumbled some. I take it as a good sign. Vin tried to roll over once."

Nathan nodded and appraised the two keepers. "Ya’ll had anything to eat today?"

Both shook their heads. "Haven’t had time."

"Because you’ve been sitting here all day doin’ nothing, and that takes time," the ex-paramedic drawled, though he understood perfectly. "I’m gonna get you something to eat. Be right back."

They watched him slip back out of the doors, muttering to himself the entire time. However, neither Buck nor Chris felt particularly hungry. Angry and miserable, yes, but not hungry. Chris wondered what sorts of things he could do to Carretta in prison that would keep him within the legal bounds of the law. He figured that it wasn’t as much as he would like to be able to do to that bastard. Thoughtful, Chris leaned back into the plastic hospital chair and watched Vin breathe.

+ + + + + + +

He heard a steady beeping noise somewhere in the background, as the fuzziness, otherwise known as unconsciousness, cleared from his mind and began to spread outward. Vin grunted and tried to grasp at the comfortable blackness, tried to get it to come back. He was tired, and he ached all over. All he wanted to do was be allowed to sleep a while longer. The infernal beeping continued, doubly, in the background, and Vin knew then, that all was lost. He wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep; he could practically feel his precious oblivion flitter out the window.

Reluctantly, he tried to open his eyes. At first they wouldn’t obey the command, and on the second attempt, he had to concentrate all his will power on the small act of peeling them apart. Once he managed to, he quickly wished he had not, slamming them shut again. The light had stung his eyes, and he had cringed physically in surprise, jostling his injuries, inciting a fresh bout of soreness. The young Texan groaned quietly.

"Vin? You awake?"

He heard Chris’s voice, it was slightly fuzzy, like the man was shouting at him through a long tunnel. But it was definitely there. The sharpshooter opened his eyes again, more slowly this time, and squinted in the light. "Chris?"


"What the fuck happened?" Vin ground out in his usual straightforward manner.

"You got shot at an’ banged up a little," Chris replied with a half-shrug that effectively hid his overwhelming feeling relief at seeing his friend awaken.

"Explains why I feel like shit," Tanner grunted, trying to sit up. Chris’s hand stopped him.

"Easy there. Lemme help you... slowly."

Vin allowed Chris to ease him up, watching the hardened senior agent fluff the pillows behind his back like he had been doing it all his life. It would have been funny if Vin didn’t think it would hurt to laugh. Chris scowled, knowing what the younger man was thinking, and he didn’t agree that it was any laughing matter.

"Hey Junior, how you feelin’?" Buck’s voice came from across the room, tired sounding and jovial, but Vin could read the relief in it.

"’m fine, Buck." Vin craned his neck slightly to look over on the other side of the room at the ladies’ man. He caught site of JD lying there on the bed, and the memory of what happened washed over him like a tidal wave. "The kid… is JD all right?"

Buck nodded, trying to allay Tanner’s fears with a smile. But, it didn’t quite reach his eyes. "He’s woke up a coupla times already. Kid’ll be fine."

"Good," Vin nodded. He swallowed, only to find out how dry his throat was. "Chris…" the sniper’s voice cracked like burned paper.

Larabee hastily moved to pour his friend a glass of water, knowing instinctively what he needed. "Slowly now," Larabee warned. Vin sipped the liquid sparingly. He didn’t know if he could take large doses right now, anyway.

"Who?" the sharpshooter asked, leaning back against his pillows and closing his eyes again.

Chris looked at Vin as he placed the cup back on the nightstand. "Carretta."

"I thought the bastard was in jail."

"He had some contacts."

Vin nodded understanding. "Damn mob."

Larabee allowed himself a small half smile. "Yeah."

"What about Josiah?" He remembered who had been in the car that day. He hoped everyone was okay.

"He just woke up…" Vin sluggishly opened an eye at the sound of Nathan’s voice. The ex-medic slid back into the room with his announcement on Josiah’s condition and two trays of food.

"‘Ey Nate," the sniper greeted. He was too lazy to offer a wave, or any other bodily movement to his friend in greeting.

"You take it easy there now, Vin," Nathan warned, passing the first tray to Chris and then the second to Buck. Both accepted without argument, their appetites returning slightly at the positive turn of their teammates’ conditions.

"Don’t see how I could ‘take it’ any other way, seein’ as to how I can’t move," Vin drawled lazily.

"Well, he’s makin’ bad jokes, guess he is feelin’ better," Buck quipped, uncovering his food and wrinkling his nose at the smell that assaulted his nostrils.

Vin debated the merits of giving Buck the finger for his comment, but decided against it when he realized the IV might prove an insurmountable obstacle in such a task. "I feel like I’ve been shot."

"Funny you should say that when you weren’t. JD and Josiah took the bullets," Nathan snorted.

"Well then, I feel broke," Vin amended, eyes still closed. He stopped, thoughtful for a minute. "Ya’ll said that JD and Josiah took the bullets. That mean Ez is fine?" he rasped out after considerable silence.

Nathan, Buck and Chris all looked at each other expectantly, waiting for someone else to answer the question, but not realizing that no one knew the answer. Vin’s eyes shot open at the quiet. "You don’t mean… he ain’t…"

"No, he’s okay. He’s not dead anyway," Buck hastily assured the Texan, looking from Chris to Nathan with a properly distressed expression. "They would have told us. I think. Right?"

However, Vin caught the true meaning in Wilmington’s statement. "What do you mean none of ya know? Ain’t any of you been in to see him?" he asked, furious, and most of all, scared. They had no idea how much they were scaring him. "One of ya had to be in to see him! Is he okay or not?"

There was silence again.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah grunted and stirred from his short nap, hearing the door creak open. He lazily opened one eye, and moved to try and sit up. Nathan put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, gently pushing him back against the mattress. "Easy there, Josiah," the healer warned quietly. The older agent relented, not having the strength to fight.

"How are they?" he mumbled tiredly, his voice low.

"Vin woke up just now, got some water down ‘im. JD’s still asleep," Nathan answered. His voice was devoid of emotion, immediately stirring a feeling of dread in Josiah’s stomach.

"Is JD okay?"

Nate nodded, sitting himself in the chair next to Sanchez’s bed. "Yeah, no changes. He’s just resting."

The profiler let out the breath he had been holding. "And Ezra?"

Nathan fidgeted slightly in his chair; he was stalling for time in hopes of finding a way to tell Josiah that they didn’t know, without having the oldest agent pull himself out of bed and go see Ezra himself. Chris, at Vin’s insistence, had gone to find out where they had put Ezra, and hopefully, about the man’s condition. Buck had stayed with JD and Vin. They would know soon enough. Nathan could only hope Standish wasn’t dead. The sound of Sanchez’s voice startled the ex-EMT. He realized he must have been silent for far longer than he had expected. "No one checked on him, did they?" Josiah asked, not really waiting for an answer. He closed both eyes in resignation, and took a deep, shuddering breath.

"No, we didn’t," Nate admitted, voice soft. His friend didn’t reply to the confirmation, but instead, started a prayer under his breath. Nathan listened to him for a while, he held his hands clasped in his lap, and head angled toward the floor. They sat in silence, waiting for news from Chris, and trying to find a way to forgive themselves.

Josiah’s head swirled, the possibility of Chris returning, only to say that Ezra had been lost, playing in his mind’s eye like a cruel joke. What if Ezra had woken already, alone and disoriented? Worse, what if Standish had expected this all along? The thought of the charismatic southerner shutting himself out from their lives stung more than the bullets that had hit Sanchez.

He tried to imagine himself in Ezra’s shoes, tried to picture what his life might have been like. He pretended that he had charm, and looks, and cunning like Ezra Standish. He imagined he had a guarded heart, a painful past, and an inability to trust and accept like Ezra Standish. He only found more questions as he went, and less answers.

The young man had so many people around him, constantly. It was as if he surrounded himself with them because he couldn’t stand a moment to himself. He could chat amiably with strangers and make them feel like old friends. He could flirt with the occasional young lady like a complete gentleman, and not make her feel uncomfortable in the slightest. He got along famously with children; they loved his card tricks and the way he made them feel like the most important people in the whole world. He had six friends who thought they cared about him. They accepted him, for the most part, as he was, and they liked everything about him, for the most part. To look at it, the man had everything in the world.

Then how could Ezra Standish, surrounded by so many people, and such friendliness, still be so very alone? He wondered how it felt, to be that alone, to feel that secluded and hidden away from the world. The mere thought of such a thing made the preacher’s son go cold inside, made him feel transparent. The mere thought of it. To experience it firsthand must have been the most numbing, empty thing in the world. It could make a man completely hollow.

Perhaps the answer to the question that was Ezra Standish was hidden in Josiah’s very thoughts. Ezra had six friends who thought they cared about him. They accepted him, for the most part. They liked him for who he was, for the most part. Perhaps one day, there would be no ‘thought’ or, ‘for the most part’. One day, his friends would be able to just care about him. One day, they would just accept him. One day, they would just like him, and everything about him. Maybe, one day.


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