Outside Looking In

by Hombre

Notes: This takes place soon after the team is formed and takes its story line partly from the episode Serpents. And yes, this injury can be survived as per an article I found on the Internet about a real event. The item was dated December 1st 2000 but the actual assault took place on 18th Feb 2000 and I discovered it on www.sptimes.com. Hope the story doesn't get too disjointed at the end.

The word was out already. Funny how bad news always spread so fast. Why did it always get out with more speed than good news? The bad news this time was that the money from the bust that Ezra had been involved in had been stolen and replaced with fake notes. Everyone had their own opinions about who had taken it and they weren't being quiet in voicing their thoughts.

The undercover agent wandered unhappily back to the team's office after his debriefing with Travis. The man had expressed his support for Ezra but had suggested it might be best if he went home straightaway.

Talk about given out mixed messages, Ezra grumbled to himself. The dark-haired man really needed to talk to someone else about events and he hoped one of his teammates would lend an ear. However, Ezra stopped dead outside the team's office as he heard JD's shrill voice talking about him inside.

"Well, we don't know Ezra all that well, do we? He's only been with us a short time."

"Son? You shouldn't start pointing the finger of blame before you have all the facts. You oughta know better than that," Josiah said in a warning tone.

Ezra stayed where he was, unable to move, like a rabbit caught in headlights.

The youngster took no notice whatsoever of the profiler's rebuke. "Well, he was in charge of it, wasn't he? How could it have been taken without him knowing? He had a bad reputation before he came to us and I don't see who else it coulda been."

Buck's voice sounded next. "JD's right. We don't know a whole lot about him; only that he had a checkered past. He may have reverted back to his old ways for all we know," the ladies' man said.

Even you believe I'm guilty, Bucklin? Ezra thought sadly. I thought you, at least, knew me better than that.

"Yeah, well, his eyes always light up when he sees money," Nathan chipped in.

"Hey, guys," Vin said softly but angrily. "Why are we turning on him? He's one of us, ain't he? We support each other through the bad times."

"This is different, Vin. We don't know that he's innocent," Nathan said.

Ezra turned and walked away, unable to listen to any more, but he missed hearing Vin sticking up for him again.

"Nate? We don't know that he's guilty either. I know we don't know him well, but I think I can read a good man when I see one, and Chris sure as hell can. Ez didn't steal that money and I'm real surprised that you could all be so quick to judge him. Think yerself lucky that Chris is still interviewing a suspect or he'd have all yer hides for talking like this."

"Yeah, well, we'll see who's right when they've done the investigation," the medic said quietly as the men started work again.

Meanwhile, the undercover agent had hurried out onto the sidewalk. Ezra wandered the streets of Denver before finding his way to a bar where he knew his colleagues would never think of looking for him. Not that he thought they would be looking for him. If they were, it would only be to arrest me, he thought sullenly. He stayed there until the early hours of the morning before making his way back to his place of work again. He sat down at his desk and wrote quickly on a spare piece of paper before placing the missive in an envelope. He then entered Chris's office and placed the letter on the man's desk where he couldn't miss seeing it on his arrival. Ezra looked round with regret at his workplace and left.

+ + + + + + +

Chris wandered into his office with his customary strong, black coffee to kick-start the day. He sat down at his desk and picked up the envelope he found there. He opened it curiously and sat back in his chair while yawning loudly. He suddenly sat up straight and his mouth closed with a snap when he read the letter's first few lines.

Dear Mr. Larabee,

I will save you the trouble of firing me by leaving of my own accord. It seems I have already been tried and convicted by both my fellow workers and a lot of people who don't even know me. I know there's no point in saying that I was not responsible for the money's disappearance because my word seems to hold no weight with any of you.

I thought that when I came to work for you I had at last found my place in the world. Somewhere I could thrive and settle down, but I was wrong. After this afternoon's episode I feel as though I am still on the outside looking in. I cannot continue to work with people who hold me in such low regard and believe me capable of theft. I, at least, expected a bit of loyalty from those whom I thought knew and, bigger fool me, trusted me. Appearances, it seems, can be very deceptive.

I will fight the allegations made against me on my own as it appears I cannot rely on help from any of you.

Yours truly,

Ezra P. Standish

Chris cursed and screwed up the letter knowing he should've spoken to the man himself the previous night. He'd instead become embroiled in interviewing the gang leader from the bust. After that, Travis had called him in about the theft, and it had been very late when they'd finally finished. He'd tried phoning the undercover agent once but he'd received no reply at his house and the man's cell had been turned off too. The blond drove by Ezra's house but saw that the man wasn't there, so he decided that as Travis had already spoken to Ezra, he'd leave talking to the undercover agent himself 'til the next day when things had calmed down a bit. Now it was too late and things had really gotten out of hand. Shoulda tracked him down last night. I'm his boss and I shoulda been there for him no matter what.

His attention was brought back to the letter as he dropped it on the desk, and he stood up angrily as he remembered it contents. "Godammit! What the hell did you lot say to Ezra yesterday?" he yelled as he stormed outside and glared at his team furiously.

"Didn't see him, Chris. He never came back," Buck said.

"Well, he musta done 'cause he seems convinced you believe him guilty of theft. Did you talk about the subject at all?"

There was an uncomfortable silence before Josiah spoke up. "One or two things were said in the heat of the moment, Chris. Vin and I tried to put a stop to it and we both tried to contact him last night to make sure he was alright but we couldn't find him anywhere." The big man shrugged. "All I can say is that Ez wasn't here yesterday when we were talking," the profiler said, feeling guilty over their backstabbing behavior the day before.

"He overheard ya then 'cause he's just quit his job," Chris ranted as he fixed each man with a stern, angry look.

"Guilty then," JD said tactlessly as he raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.

"What the hell did you say, kid?" Chris asked ominously as he loomed over top of the youngster.

"Why leave if he's innocent?" JD replied, seemingly uncaring as he shrugged.

Chris knew that the kid was only saying what everyone else would also think on hearing the news, and it stoked his anger up another few notches. "Jesus Christ! Maybe it's yer attitude toward him that had somethin' to do with it. Read that," Chris shouted as he threw the crumpled sheet at the youngster. "Before criticizing him you should all look to yer own damned halo's. None of you are the angels you seem to think you are. I'm gonna go and see if I can find him and set matters straight. Make sure you've revised yer thoughts by the time I get back or there'll be more than one person looking for another job." The blond turned abruptly and stormed out of the room.

JD grimaced as he spread the sheet out flat and read out loud for all the men to hear. There was silence when he'd finished.

+ + + + + + +

Chris drew up outside Ezra's house and saw the man's Jag in the drive so he walked up to the front door and knocked loudly. Ezra opened it after a couple of minutes and looked astonished to see him.

"Ezra? Can I have a word?" Chris asked as he studied the strained-looking undercover agent. It was obvious that the man had been up all night.

"I don't see what benefit that would have."

The blond sighed when he heard the defeated tone in the man's voice. He tried a bit of encouragement to see if he could begin to change the man's mind. "I don't want to lose you, Ez. Yer a damned good agent and I thought you were fitting in well."

Ezra snorted and said sarcastically, "So did I until yesterday. It seems a few of your colleagues were only fair-weather friends and as soon as something bad happened they showed their true colors."

"Can I come in?" Chris asked, knowing he had a lot to sort out with the man. He'd never had this type of problem to deal with before and he hoped he would handle the matter correctly.

"Whatever," Ezra said as he stepped back inside the house and led the way to the living room.

As soon as Chris sat down, Ezra asked, "Do you believe I did it?"

Chris always vetted the people he wanted in his team very thoroughly before offering them a job. Although he knew Ezra had been a loose cannon on occasion in his previous jobs, he had recognized his potential. "No," he replied truthfully.

"That didn't sound overly convincing. Why don't you just admit your true feelings?"

"Ezra? I don't believe you stole that money," the blond said, more forcefully.

The undercover agent stared at him with narrowed eyes as if trying to ascertain if Chris was lying. He eventually lowered his eyes and looked at the floor as he shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you would be the only one with that opinion."

"That's not true. I think Josiah and Vin are on yer side from what they said to me earlier. Why do you think the others don't trust you?"

Ezra raised his eyes defiantly. "I heard them say so. I was on my way back to the office but I stopped outside because they were talking about me and they made their feelings perfectly clear. Josiah and Vin, as you said, were the only ones who stood up for me in any way and they weren't overly forceful. I cannot work with people who change sides so easily. It makes for an uncomfortable workplace, and with my job, I need to know I can rely on every single person in the team to look out for my welfare."

"Yeah, I know, Ez. Quitting just makes you look guilty though," Chris said as he thought back to JD's comment that morning.

"Their opinions were voiced before I'd even handed in my notice and that is what I find so hard to stomach."

Chris studied the man in silence for a couple of minutes before saying, "I really feel that I've let you down in not showing my support for you earlier. I'm real sorry that I didn't get to speak to you yesterday, Ez. I tried to find you but I gave up when I came by and saw that you weren't at home. Vin and Josiah tried too but obviously with the same lack of results I had." The blond patted Ezra's shoulder apologetically. "Come back and fight to clear your name. I'll back you all the way but I can't guarantee that you won't be suspended from duty until we sort things out. You can't do this on yer own. You know the old saying, don't ya? A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Let me help ya instead."

Ezra smiled at the adage but shook his head negatively. "I don't know if I want to come back. As I said in my letter, your team was the first place I felt truly happy. Everywhere else I felt I was on the outside looking in, and I feel that way again now so I obviously don't belong."

"Don't give up at the first sign of trouble, Ez. Come back with me now and we'll sort something out, I promise."

Ezra clenched his jaw but eventually nodded in agreement. Chris patted his back and then took him outside and made him get in the Ram. He drove back to their office building and they walked along the hallway together in silence. Ezra slowed his pace and hesitated before entering the team's area with his head down.

"Come through to my office, Ez," Chris said as he put a hand in the small of the undercover agent's back to urge him on.

"Wait, Chris," Buck called as he took a hurried pace forward to catch the man's attention. "We wanna talk to Ez."

"Sure. Come in when yer done," Chris said as he left his men to sort out their differences.

Ezra stood in the middle of the room awkwardly and wouldn't look at any of the other men.

"Ez? We wanna apologize."

"What for? For voicing your opinion, or for the fact that I overheard you as you sullied my character? What I can't abide is the fact that you didn't even bother asking me what happened before making your feelings known. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? I thought I could, at least, trust my workmates to stand by me but it appears I can't and I feel dreadfully betrayed by your actions," Ezra snapped as he turned quickly and walked into Chris's office and closed the door loudly.

The blond had heard the brief conversation and was glad that Ezra had stuck up for himself. Perhaps all was not lost after all.

Back outside, the five men stood dumbstruck.

"Well, s'pose we deserved that," Josiah said quietly. "It's gonna take a lot to set things straight, ain't it?"

Inside Chris's office, the blond pointed to the couch and said, "Take a seat, Ez. Now tell me exactly what happened at the bust. I want to know the precise movements of the money bag."

Ezra sat down and crossed his legs. "I'm not sure what I can tell you that's different to what I told AD Travis yesterday." Ezra shrugged. "The bust went to plan, as you know. I handed over the money and collected the documents as arranged, then you came in and I retrieved the money."

"Did you ever take your eyes off the money?"

Ezra frowned and thought back to the bust. "Well, I s'pose the bag containing it was put down on the floor behind a desk when I handed it over. I'm afraid I looked at the people in front of me, rather than the bag, as I didn't know what they intended to do to me."

"Did you check the money when you retrieved it again?"

"Well, no. I saw no reason to. That may have been naive but it had only been gone from my hand for less that five minutes and no-one had left the room," Ezra said as he shrugged.

Chris looked thoughtful. "It wasn't out of your sight after that moment?"

"No, I brought it straight back here to Travis and it was in his office that we found that the money was not the batch I started out with. It was all fake. You checked the money yourself before the bust, didn't you? It was real dollars but when I came back it was fake and I can't explain it."

Chris sat back and considered the possibilities. "What if the bags were switched at the bust while you weren't watching?"

"Maybe, but it would have had to be quick and we caught the gang, so where is it now?"

"How about if they hid it there somehow? They could then get someone else who wasn't present at the bust to collect it later. They specified the type of bag we used for the drop so they could have had a twin under the table to swap ours with, couldn't they?"

"Maybe, but it's still all supposition," Ezra replied sounding disheartened.

"Yeah, I know, but you didn't take it so this seems to be the only explanation. You weren't out of my sight before the bust so the only place it could have happened was when you handed the bag over. Come on, let's get the guys to check my theory out."

"That's if they believe it. They were quick enough to jump to conclusions and assume that I had stolen the money, as did everyone else. You only have my word that I came straight back here after the bust. I had no-one with me to confirm that fact."

"Your word is good enough for me, Ez. It'll be good enough for the others too, you'll see."

Chris went outside and called the rest of his men through to the conference room and first gave them a lecture. "Okay, guys. I won't have disharmony in my team. Ezra is innocent of the charges against him and you'll have me to answer to if you disagree with that. You either stand with Ez and me, or you leave now. Do I make myself clear? So are you staying or goin'?" Chris asked as he looked at each man individually, even Vin and Josiah.

He received five stayings so he nodded and told them his thoughts on how the money had been taken. "Check yer informants. See if what I'm saying is true. Someone on the streets must know what happened."

Josiah nodded and turned to Ezra. "We'll get to the bottom of this, Ez. I'm real sorry some of us doubted you."

Ezra smiled bleakly. "Well, you and Vin didn't, if I recall the conversation correctly but I think it will take a bit more than an apology to make matters right. That's not to say I don't appreciate it, though. It's certainly a step in the right direction and I really hope that we can put this whole nasty episode behind us and start afresh."

The blond waited until the two men stopped talking before speaking again. "Okay, guys. Let's get to it," Chris said as he clapped his hands to instill a bit of energy in the men. "Ez and I are gonna go to the warehouse and see if we can prove our theory about the money being hidden."

+ + + + + + +

The two men drove back to where the bust had taken place and they wandered over to the table that Ezra said had been used.

"This is the desk. I stood here and the bag was placed approximately there," Ezra said as he pointed.

Chris walked round the item of furniture slowly raking it with his eyes from top to bottom as he passed each side. He could see nothing out of the ordinary after his visual inspection and he sighed. He then got down on his hands and knees and felt about underneath. After about fifteen minutes of silence had passed by with no results, he suddenly smiled and nodded his head.

"Well, I'll be damned," he said in triumph.

"Mr. Larabee? Have you encountered something that fits the bill?"

"There's a secret compartment just the size of a briefcase in the left side. It works on a sorta spring mechanism. Have a look for yerself."

Ezra dropped to his knees and looked where Chris pointed. "Well, hopefully that will convince a few of the doubting Thomas's," he said quietly.

+ + + + + + +

The two men made their way back to the office to find their colleagues still working hard.

Chris cleared his throat and was glad when five pairs of eyes turned his way immediately. "Guys? I checked the desk at the bust myself and I found a hiding place. Now we just need to prove that they used it to put the money in. I've called Forensics to check it out 'cause they obviously missed it before. Hopefully they'll find something to substantiate my thoughts."

Buck stood up and patted Ezra's back. "We'll prove that you had nothing to do with the theft, Ez. I know you won't forget the comments that you overheard and I feel real ashamed at sayin' what I did about you. I'd really hate to lose you as a friend 'cause we've had some good times together. Can I make a fresh start by first getting you a cup of coffee?"

Ezra couldn't help smiling at the offer. It is an olive branch of an unusual variety but it is an olive branch just the same, he thought to himself. "A coffee would be good. Thank you, Bucklin."

After having his promised drink delivered to his desk, an hour passed in silence with not much progress toward their goal at all.

"Bingo!" JD suddenly yelled.

"Got somethin', kid?" Buck asked wryly as he looked across at his younger colleague.

"You bet. Seems Chris was right and we were wrong. One of my informants says that the money was picked up by someone belonging to another gang. Well, that's not quite right actually. What I mean is, it's the same old story of one gang member working for both sides. He was the one who took the money for that short time and swapped the bags. He arranged everything and it worked like a charm and he was, obviously, even prepared to go to jail for it 'cause he was caught. It was all done to set you up, Ezra. You dealt with the leader of the second gang a while ago when you were using the same undercover persona as now. He was imprisoned but escaped soon after and joined up with the remnants of his gang again. He thought you'd double- crossed him at the time so he's out for revenge. He thought that stealing your money and getting you arrested would satisfy him. Taste of yer own medicine, so to speak. George Martin was his name, do you remember him?"

"Oh yes, I certainly remember him. Perhaps we need to set up a showdown with me as bait to see if we can double-cross him for a second time. He has worked very closely with the infamous Hernandez in the past and it would be real feather in our caps if we could arrest two of the biggest crime lords this city has ever produced. I could, maybe, get Martin talking about his involvement with Hernandez, possibly get him to mention specific jobs that they've pulled together. He always was boastful so I don't expect he'll be able to help himself." Ezra looked thoughtful and shrugged. "Or I can ask for my money back from the bust, I s'pose. Offer him a trade; he can keep the money if he snitches on Hernandez. I expect he'd like to get rid of some of his opposition."

Chris stayed silent as he considered his options. "Okay, we'll go with yer second idea 'cause it fits in with everything nicely. JD, tell yer informant that Ezra's alter ego has heard of the deception and is out for his blood. He's out on bail or somethin' like that. Try and find out where the gang is based as quickly as ya can 'cause I think we need to strike as soon as possible so that we can put this whole business behind us. I'm gonna find out how the hell the money was taken from the bust in the first place, seeing as the building was supposedly under guard at the time. Someone's head is sure gonna roll for that, if I have my way. I'll see Travis straightaway too and ask him not to suspend Ez or this plan ain't gonna work."

+ + + + + + +

"Okay, are you all set, Ez?" the sharpshooter asked as the men gathered to put their plan into action.

"I think so," Ezra replied while checking his equipment.

"Good luck, then. We'll be watching yer back."

Ezra stared at Vin as he bit his lower lip apprehensively before dropping his gaze. Would they really be watching my back or getting ready to stab it again? Ezra couldn't help asking himself.

The sharpshooter put his hand on Ezra's shoulder when he saw the worry on his friend's face. The long-haired man could read the thoughts in Ezra's mind just by the look on his countenance. "Come on, Ez. The guys have well and truly been shown the error of their ways. We know yer innocent and now we need to concentrate on catching the bastard that set you up so everyone else knows yer innocent too. Please trust us, Ez. We wanna make amends and I promise there won't be no more backstabbing."

Ezra's head snapped up at that comment, and he held Vin's gaze for a while longer before nodding.

The black-clad team leader had watched the interaction between the two men silently. He knew from Ezra's reaction to the backstabbing comment that Vin had read the undercover agent's thoughts perfectly.

The blond looked at his watch and stepped forward to get things moving again. "Right. Off ya go, Ez. We'll be around the area as arranged and I'll be listening in and coordinating things from the truck. Everyone know what they're doin'?" Chris asked.


"Okay, Ez. Just remember to get him talking about Hernandez and the money. You need to get him to incriminate himself before we can come in."

Ezra nodded and left the office to get in his car. He drove to the warehouse and sat outside for a few minutes, just surveying the area. Nathan and Chris took the surveillance van and parked nearby where they had a good view of Ezra's car, as well as the building's entrance. Vin, as usual, took the high ground so he could see the surrounding area in detail. The other three set up where they had previously been told to so that they could cover the other entrances.

Ezra got out of his car when he saw his colleagues arrive and he then walked into the warehouse unchallenged, which should have made him suspicious. He only met resistance when he reached the innermost sanctuary of the gang. He sweet-talked his way in easily though and was shown to Martin's office after being searched thoroughly. Although it proved not to be thoroughly enough, because they didn't find the wire he was wearing.

Ezra set eyes on his quarry and said, "Martin? I believe you have been trying to set me up and I don't appreciate that. How about settling this once and for all?"

The criminal looked up and grinned cruelly. "Well, look who it is. If it ain't that bastard Gooding. Which rock did you crawl out from under?"

"The equivalent of Alcatraz but luckily for me I didn't need to be a birdman to escape. My lawyer tied those foolish police in such knots they're still trying to untie themselves. While I was under arrest, I got to hear that you may have been the cause of my incarceration so I'm here to sort matters out."

Martin scowled. "What the hell do you expect me to do? Say sorry?"

"Yes and pay back the money you stole."

The man guffawed at that. "Hah! You've got balls, I'll give you that." "I should hope so or I don't know what my paramour would say," Ezra said with a quiet smile.

Chris snorted and smiled at the comment from where he was listening to the conversation in the surveillance van, but he was brought back to the unfolding events when he heard Ezra's voice again.

"Have you got the money or not?"

"Hell, no. Already used it to buy a consignment of drugs," Martin said honestly.

"Really? Then I think I'll take charge of that in recompense." Ezra smiled and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Either that, or you can give me some inside information on Hernandez."

The gang leader frowned suspiciously. "Why do you want him?"

"He killed a friend of mine. If you give me Hernandez, I'll forget about my stolen money. If not, I will pursue you to the ends of the Earth. I still know enough to get you locked up for years and I have my contacts in the police who will be only too pleased to arrest you," the agent warned.

"Yeah, well, I know one or two things about you too, Gooding," Martin said cryptically while really emphasizing Ezra's makeshift name.

Ezra didn't quite like the way the man spoke, or the manner in which he sneered at him afterwards. It made him think that the man knew something that would prove dangerous to his continued good health. Not for the first time he wished he would be wrong in one of his assumptions. Ah, when am I going to learn that I never get what I wish for?

+ + + + + + +

Chris adjusted his headphones as he listened to what was going on inside the warehouse. So far things were going to plan. All of a sudden though, he heard a very strange noise on Ezra's mike. It started with a strangled cough and then continued as a gurgling, gasping sound, followed by choking. A few seconds later, the blond froze as Martin's voice addressed him directly.

"Larabee? Chris Larabee? You listening? Thought yer spy could catch me and Hernandez, did ya? Well, he failed. Better say good-bye to him 'cause by the time you arrive he'll be dead, if he ain't dead already!"

"Shit! Move in! Everyone, move in now!" Chris yelled as he picked up Nathan's medical bag. He then threw open the back doors of the truck and pounded toward the warehouse with fear in his heart. Damn, how had Martin known my name?

He was aware of the rest of his men running after him to intercept the gang, as they scattered in attempts to escape. Chris only had one target in mind though. He wanted to find Ezra and fast. He heard another set of feet following him and he knew it was Nathan.

"Over here, Chris! This way. This way!" the medic yelled as he turned right suddenly and spurted ahead of the blond.

Ezra was lying on his side with his back to the rapidly approaching medic. His small frame was shuddering nonstop and the area where he lay was spattered with bright red blood.

Nathan ran to him and moved round so that he was facing the man. He didn't want to touch him until he had discovered exactly what was wrong with him. He soon found out, and his blood ran cold at the sight before him.

"Jesus! Chris? Bring my bag! Hurry Chris," he yelled before turning back to Ezra, who making the most dreadful noises that he'd ever heard. "Okay, Ez. I'm here and I'm gonna help ya. I know yer scared but try and stay calm for me," the medic said as he reached out a hand to his friend's lower neck, just under his Adam's apple, to stem the massive flow of blood.

"There ya go, Nate," the blond said as he came to a sliding halt next to the medic. He then dropped to his knees as he tried to regain his breath. "What do you want me to do?"

"Get an ambulance, now. His throat's been cut."

"What?" Chris gasped in horror before reaching for his cell shakily. He looked down at the bloody, quaking agent before making the all-important call.

Nathan heard the blond talking on the phone but concentrated his own efforts on the injured man before him. He ripped open a sterile pad awkwardly with his teeth and held it against the ragged wound that ran across the width of Ezra's throat. That seemed to slightly stem the blood that had previously been spurting into the air like a fountain. The noises that Ezra had been making lessened a bit too as the wound was covered and Nathan frowned anxiously.

"How is he?" Chris asked as soon as he got off the phone to the emergency services.

"Bad. It's gone deep and hit the artery for sure. Judging by the sounds he was making it may have gone through his trachea too."

"Shit! What was used to do it? Wire or knife?"

"Large knife, I should think, with a serrated edge."

"Jesus Christ," Chris said quietly.

Nathan usually kept fairly quiet when he was treating badly injured patients, but he could see that Ezra needed constant reassurance, despite his semi-conscious state. He knew the agent had a terrible fear of being suffocated to death and he was in serious danger of doing so now as his throat swelled.

The medic decided this was one time when he needed to talk, so he said, "Okay, Ez, lay still. Gotta check yer airway so try to relax while I do this. Yer doin' just fine, buddy."

Ezra gasped continuously as he fought for breath through the covered hole in his throat, as well as through the usual facial openings. He could feel himself beginning to panic, which, in consequence, made him breathe even faster.

"Alright, Ez, have you sorted soon. Slow yer breathing for me, will ya?" Nathan said, as he examined his trembling friend's throat as best he could.

"Nate?" Chris prompted anxiously.

"Reckon he musta been hit too. His throat's swollen above the wound and he can't breathe through his nose and mouth properly, although he's trying hard to do so. I'm gonna have to open the hole in his neck a bit so I can put a tube in," the medic explained.

"Is that safe?" Chris asked as he looked away from the wound. The hole in Ezra's neck resembled a second mouth and the blond felt queasy at the sight of it.

"Ain't recommended to do it in the field, but without it.....," Nathan replied, allowing his voice to trail off rather than say the inevitable words out loud. He then turned back to Ezra and checked the man's condition carefully. "Just let me do this without interruption 'cause I ain't got time for explanations, Chris. Put this second pad on the other side of his neck and then hold both in place but leave me access to the hole, will ya? Still need to stem the blood, but don't press hard on both sides of his neck at the same time, okay?"

Now Nathan's hands were free, he got what he needed out of his bag and set to work. The blond watched anxiously as Nathan carefully opened the wound a bit wider in the badly injured man's neck. The medic straightened up after inserting a tube into the resulting hole, and Chris heard Ezra's breathing immediately ease.

"There ya go, Ez. That should be better for ya. Now, can you just try and slow yer breathing a bit more for me?" Nathan heard his order obeyed so he quickly ran his hand through Ezra's hair and gave him a reassuring smile. The medic then rummaged in his medical bag again and found some bandages. He wrapped them round the pads that Chris was holding in place but made sure he didn't cover the breathing tube in the process. He then put his hands back over the pads to try and get the bleeding to stop completely, but despite his efforts he could still see blood seeping through the bandages.

"Thanks, Chris. I'll take it from here," he said as he looked at the pale blond and smiled.

The two men heard the sound of approaching sirens and looked up to see the paramedics hurrying toward them. The medics rechecked Nathan's work before attaching an oxygen supply to the tube in Ezra's throat. They then lifted Ezra onto a gurney before putting him in the nearby vehicle. Nathan climbed in with him and the ambulance drove off with lights flashing and siren blaring.

"Chris? Was that Ez?" Vin asked as he came running up behind the blond as the vehicle pulled away.

"Yeah," the blond mumbled as he watched the ambulance until it was out of sight.

"What's wrong with him, cowboy?" Vin asked quietly when he saw Chris trembling. He reached out a worried hand and laid it on his friend's forearm.

Chris turned to face the sharpshooter now that the ambulance had disappeared. His eyes met the ice-blue ones belonging to his best friend, and he said quietly, "They slit his throat. He couldn't breathe and he was so scared, Vin. He was bleeding real bad as you can see."

Vin looked down at the blood-covered ground and gasped in dismay at the sight as he tightened his grip on the blond's arm. "Shit! Come on. The police are dealing with the gang so let's go to the hospital. I'll tell the others what's happened and we'll all go together."

+ + + + + + +

"How is he?" Chris asked as soon as the doctor entered the waiting room.

"As you can imagine he's lost an awful lot of blood. We've repaired the damage to his throat as best we can but he'll be breathing through the hole in his neck until the swelling goes down. It seems he may have received a blow to his throat before it was cut. May have been struck by someone's elbow deliberately to silence him," the doctor said with a shrug, unwittingly confirming Nathan's previous observation. "Anyway, his windpipe was broken and his vocal cords damaged so he's not going to be able to talk for a while, if ever again. We'll just have to wait and see."

"Dammit. That wasn't what I wanted to hear," Chris said miserably. "Can I see him?"

"Not yet. He's still in recovery but I'll call you when he's been moved to a room."

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Larabee? You can see your friend now," the doctor called several hours later.

All six men stood and the doctor didn't have the heart to tell them that he only wanted one person to visit at a time. He turned and walked along the hallway with the men trailing in his wake like ducklings following their mother. They were shown to Ezra's room and they stood round the bed so that they could study the injured man.

JD cringed and paled as he saw the tube in Ezra's throat, which was connected to an oxygen supply. His eyes widened at the sight of the dark, multi-colored bruising that surrounded the wound and he put up a hand to his own neck and took a sudden step backward.

"Okay, kid?" Buck asked when he saw his friend's reaction.

"Yeah, fine," JD mumbled, sounding anything but fine.

"Look at me, kid," Buck ordered.

After a while, the youngster turned toward him with hand still clamped to throat.

"Take a seat in the corner, son," the tall man advised as he poured a glass of water. "There ya go. Drink that and take a deep breath."

"Sorry. His neck...," JD said as he shivered after taking possession of the glass.

"He can't help it, JD. Try and think about something else. Ez can do without you gawking at him like he's got gangrene or somethin'."

"Okay, I'll try."

"Do more than try, kid," Buck said sternly as he stood with hands on hips.

"Sure, whatever, Buck," the youngster replied as he sat as far away as he could.

Buck knew the kid was never very good at hiding his emotions and he could certainly understand how JD was feeling right now. It didn't always do to let things show so plainly though. Good job Ez is asleep and couldn't see JD's reaction, he thought to himself. The ladies' man turned back to the bed and exchanged glances with Chris. "We all gonna stay or what?"

"We've got some prisoners to question and it don't look like Ez will wake up for a while," Josiah pointed out.

"Can I stay, Chris?" Buck asked.

The blond nodded in agreement. "Sure. You and Nate stay but call us if Ez wakes."


Buck sat down, once the others had gone, and he traced patterns distractedly with his finger on top of the nightstand beside him. Nathan sat on the other side of the bed and began reading a newspaper and doing the crossword in it.

After a couple of hours had passed, Nathan looked up and asked, "Do ya fancy a drink, Bucklin?"

"Yeah, thanks. Hot chocolate if you can get it, pard. Feel the need of some sugar after what's gone on today."

Nathan returned and passed the drink over, along with a candy bar and a smile.

Buck took a sip and grinned. "That's better." He put the cup on the side and saw Ezra's eyes flutter open at that precise moment. "Think he smelt my chocolate, Nate. You know what a sweet-tooth he's got."

"Be a while until you can have a hot chocolate, Ez," Nathan said as he looked at the machines monitoring his friend's condition.

Ezra opened his mouth to reply but a look of panic appeared on his face when he realized he could neither breathe nor speak through that opening.

The ladies' man put out a quick, calming hand. "No, Ez. You've got a tube through the outside of yer neck to help ya breathe, so you can't talk. I know that will be real hardship for ya but at least it'll give us a chance to get a word in edgewise," Buck said.

Ezra's eyes showed a glint of amusement but his mouth didn't move an inch to show a smile. He automatically raised a hand to see if what Buck had told him was true, although he knew the man wouldn't lie to him about something like that.

Nathan saw the movement and managed to grab Ezra's hand before he could do anything to the tubing. He hadn't meant to be, but he was quite rough and felt Ezra flinch in his grasp, so he let go quickly and held his hands in the air. "Sorry, Ez. The doctor would have my hide if you messed up his work. Hope I didn't hurt ya and I'm sorry if I did."

Ezra winced a bit but indicated that he was not harmed. The undercover agent then transferred his gaze to Buck and the ladies' man wondered what was really going on behind his friend's usually dancing, green eyes. The eyes, for once, were dull and expressionless and the tall agent couldn't read Ezra's thoughts at all. Buck smiled and rested a comforting hand on the man's arm as Ezra fell asleep once more.

+ + + + + + +

Two weeks later Buck turned up to collect the undercover agent on the day of his release. He arrived just as the doctor was talking to the injured man and giving him his last instructions.

"It's gonna take time 'til ya get yer voice back properly. Don't force it or you could do irreversible damage. Yer throat is mending real well, though, so don't fret."

Buck walked to stand beside his friend. "What can he eat?" he asked the doctor.

"Just soft foods until he's really feeling better. He still finding it pretty painful to swallow but he's improving well."

"Thanks, doc. Come on, Ez. Let's get out of here, pard. Seen enough of this place to last a lifetime, ain't ya?" Buck said as he transferred Ezra to a wheelchair and wheeled him out of the hospital, hoping that he wouldn't have to return again in the near future.

All the other men were at the ranch to greet him. Each man made a point of shaking Ezra's hand, and the undercover agent smiled at their show of support. During the following hours, he was treated like a King and waited on hand and foot. They went out of their way to make him feel welcome and he began to feel a bit more relaxed in their company. It was almost like old times again and he realized that he'd never expected to feel that way again. Perhaps he could stay in the team, after all.

+ + + + + + +

At breakfast a few days later, Chris automatically went to make some porridge for the injured man.

"Mr. Larabee? Could I have a bagel instead, please?" Ezra croaked quietly.

"Ez? You spoke. Hey, that's great," Chris said enthusiastically as he strode forward and embraced the man.

"I said a bagel, not a bear-hug," Ezra protested from where he was being squashed against the blond's chest.

Chris threw his head back and laughed out loud. "Oh God, I hate to say it but I've missed yer jokes."

"Like a pain in the head. Yes, I know," Ezra grinned ironically.

"Oh jeez, I asked for that, didn't I?"

"Who ya talking to, Chris?" Buck asked as he wandered into the kitchen and looked round curiously.


The ladies' man turned to the smaller man and smiled broadly. "There goes our peace and quiet then. He'll be talking twice as much to make up for lost time."

Ezra just smiled and rubbed his neck as he swallowed painfully.

"You okay? Does it hurt?" Chris asked anxiously.

Ezra nodded and winced.

Buck patted his back. "Don't overdo it, pard. You ain't spoken for ages so it's gonna take time to get back to normal."

Ezra nodded again and smiled as Chris passed over a thickly buttered bagel. He ate it slowly and licked his fingers clean when he'd finished.

"Okay, Ez?"

"Yes, thank you. It was nice to have something other than liquid."

"I bet. I can't live without a nice juicy steak every week," Buck said tantalizingly as he licked his lips at the thought.

"Bucklin!" Ezra complained. "That's torturous talking about food like that in front of me."

"Sorry, pard. Perhaps we could give you a treat with one of yer favorites foods when you can handle it."

Ezra's eyes lit up and he smiled. "That would be nice 'cause I've almost forgotten what it's like to chew. My teeth have been wondering what purpose they served other than giving me my sparkling smile. Thank you, Bucklin."

+ + + + + + +

Chris wandered through to the living room the next day and sat beside the undercover agent. He looked across at the man and asked, "You up to telling me what happened at the bust?"

Ezra nodded and sighed as he automatically lifted a hand to touch his throat. "I should have realized something was wrong when I was just allowed to walk straight into Martin's lair. I stupidly just thought how lucky I was. Anyway, you heard the conversation we had and he obviously knew I was an agent. Whether he knew that fact before, or after, the previous bust is anyone's guess although I'm inclined to think before. His plan to ruin my career nearly accomplished its aim, didn't it? Anyway, back to the most recent bust. After he'd made his barbed comment, one of his men hit me across my throat with a piece of wood and I then felt someone grab my hair from behind. They pulled my head backwards and I saw a huge knife come into view over my shoulder. It was lowered to my neck and there was nothing I could do to stop him because I could hardly breathe and was on the verge of passing out. I was brought back to full consciousness though when I felt the blade bite into my skin and I saw the resulting spurt of blood. I was suddenly able to breathe for a while again but I was sucking in blood too. It was the most horrible sensation and I felt like I was drowning." Ezra shrugged. "I don't remember much after that but I do recall hearing Mr. Jackson's voice. It was comforting to know he was there but I really thought I was going to die."

Chris nodded in understanding although he hadn't counted on such graphic detail about how Ezra had obtained his injuries. "God, Ez. I'm just glad we got to you when we did. I couldn't believe it when Nate said yer throat had been cut. I was convinced we'd lost you."

"Well, you didn't."

"Yeah, and you don't know how pleased I was. How pleased we all were." The blond paused as he studied the man silently. "How do you feel about still working with us?" Chris asked as he thought back to the reason for the bust in the first place.

Ezra's mind drifted back to the time he spent in the hospital. All the men had taken turns in staying with him and they had all apologized to him about their behavior. He sighed and shrugged. "I think you've all shown how much you care for me over the past few weeks but it is still hard to forget what was said at the start of this affair. It will take a while to feel truly comfortable within the group but I do want to stay."

"Great, 'cause I don't want to lose you," Chris said as he smiled and patted Ezra's shoulder. "I think all of us have learnt a lesson from this; including me."

+ + + + + + +

A couple of days later, Ezra stood in front of the mirror and stared at the scar across his neck. He put a finger up to it and traced the line from one side to the other and sighed in despair.

"Ez?" Chris said as he walked up behind and looked over the man's shoulder at his reflection. He put a hand on his agent's back and Ezra's tearful eyes met his in the mirror.

"It's hideous, Chris," Ezra said gruffly as his eyes moved back to study the mark.

"No, it ain't."

"You don't have to live with it. I won't be able to show my neck in public ever again."

"Nonsense," Chris said as he gave the man's back a quick comforting rub.

"It most certainly is not."

"Come on, Ez. Least you got yer life. You very nearly lost it, ya know?"

Ezra nodded and sighed loudly again as he walked away. Chris shook his head as he watched his friend disappear, not knowing what to do for the man.

+ + + + + + +

"Ez? Gotten something for ya," Vin said as he passed over a brightly wrapped parcel to the sad man, who was sitting quietly on the couch.

"It's not my birthday," Ezra said in confusion.

Vin shrugged and sat beside the man. "I know it ain't, but I thought it might cheer you up."

"How thoughtful. What is it?" the smaller man asked curiously as he squeezed the parcel interestedly.

"Well, open it and see, Ez. No surprise if I tell ya, is it?" the sharpshooter said with a broad grin as he patted the man's knee. Vin really hoped that Ezra would approve of his gift. The younger man had spent ages scouring the stores in Denver for something suitable.

The undercover agent carefully unwrapped it, feeling like kid at Christmas, and took out a highly colored cravat. He looked at Vin and smiled as he headed straight toward the mirror to try it on. Vin followed along behind with a smile and watched as Ezra put the silken cloth round his neck and secured it. The dark-haired man studied his reflection for a minute and then adjusted the material up his neck as Vin reached in to help.

"There ya go. Very debonair, Ez. Suits ya," the sharpshooter commented as he kept an arm round Ezra's shoulder and squeezed him lightly.

Ezra felt tears prick his eyes as he stared at his reflection. His scar was totally hidden beneath the bright fabric. "Oh, Vin, thank you. It's truly beautiful."

Buck came in and saw the two men staring into the mirror. "Hey, guys. Bit narcissistic even for you, ain't it, Ez?"

"Shut up, Bucklin," Vin snapped as Ezra turned his back on Buck and bowed his head. Vin got hold of Ezra's shoulders and turned him back gently to face the mirror as he rubbed his back comfortingly.

Buck frowned and walked up behind the two men to see what they were up to. He then saw what Ezra had on and mentally kicked himself. He remembered Ezra had been avoiding looking in mirrors for the last few days and he was embarrassed to cause his friend discomfort.

"Sorry, Ez. That was uncalled for. My mouth opened before my brain was working," he apologized.

"Is that what you call it, Bucklin?" Ezra said quietly. "I never realized those two parts of your anatomy had actually been connected in the first place."

Vin snorted with laughter both at the comment and the look that it created on the ladies' man's face. "That shut him up, Ez." . "Oh, jeez, I'm cracking up here," the tall man said as he patted Ezra's back in apology yet again and smiled as the undercover agent's shining, laughing eyes met his in the mirror. "Where'd ya get the scarf, then?" Buck asked.

"Cravat, Mr. Wilmington. It's a cravat, and Vin gave it to me."

"Real nice, Ez. Goes with all yer other fancy clothes."

"All I care about is that my disfigurement is out of sight. Although out of sight isn't necessarily out of mind in this case." Ezra looked at Vin and smiled again. "I appreciate your kind gesture and it has certainly boosted my slightly deflated self-esteem."

Vin smiled as he realized just how much his present had meant to the smaller man. "Glad I could help, Ez. Let's go and show it to the others. Bet they'll be dead jealous."

"I somehow doubt that, Mr. Tanner. You heathens hardly have the same dress-sense as me." Ezra laughed as he allowed Vin to lead him toward the living room. The undercover agent, for the first time in ages, felt at ease with life and he felt part of the team once more.

The End

Comments to: hombre55@hotmail.com