Perceptions of the Rock  (cont)


Part Three

His level of frustration grew, especially with Vin's report he found Ezra's house locked tight without a sign of entry. Tanner's spare key showed Ezra was not home, nor had he been since the morning, considering the absence of Standish's briefcase. Vin found the answering machine blinking, but he did not listen to the messages, telling Chris he felt that was a violation of Ezra's privacy. The Texan further reported the Jaguar was not on location, further
cementing Chris's belief his undercover operative and friend drove himself to his lake cottage. If he had a getaway where he would not be disturbed when he felt sick, that's where he would go too.

One thing he hated about the Ram was the gas mileage – it swilled gas. More than three fourths of the way there, his tank hovered at a quarter tank. Deciding not to risk it, he found a service station with a repair shop and tow yard. While he filled the Ram, his eyes, never still, wandered around the lot. The fence surrounding the storage lot kept intruders out, but the gate sat open while the tow truck unloaded a vehicle. From the number of vehicles inside the lot, most of them with damage, Chris figured this place served in the capacity of a police storage yard. He had heard about them in the smaller departments and outlying counties using a rotation of wreckers instead of incurring the expense of an impound lot, the police responsible for making sure the tow company stayed compliant with their policies. The owner of the vehicle owed the tow company, neatly taking the police out of the civil dispute between them.

His eyes roamed over the vehicles, most damaged from accidents, some in pristine shape, absently he wondered of the stories behind them. Something caused him to swing back around to one corner of the lot.

Ezra's Jaguar.

He needed to get closer to it to be sure, but that looked a lot like Ezra's car. The one next to it was also a Jaguar, this one silver and smashed to bits. Only the style and hood ornament gave away the make. Chris made his way to the edge of the lot, intending to cross to Ezra's. The tag matched. His heart plummeted at the damage – the front end crushed in on itself, the airbags drooping, and tires flat. Ezra had to be hurt. There was no way that the Jag suffered that much damage without Standish taking it right along with it.

"Lot's closed, Mister." The tow truck driver stopped him from moving forward.

His glare raked the man blocking his path. Brawny arms folded across a broad chest, legs planted apart. "The Jag. What happened to the driver?"

"Ain't your business."

That was not something Chris wanted to hear. His hand reached into his pocket, removed his identification wallet, and held it up. "ATF. You have five seconds to tell me about the owner of the Jag."

"Don't care who you are. You're trespassing. Take your scrawny ass back to your truck and get off my back lot."

If he didn't need to know about Ezra so badly, he would gladly kick the hell out of this guy for the fun of doing it. He just might anyway, call it stress relief. "That Jag belongs to my Agent that's missing. You either tell me where he is, or I charge you with kidnapping and obstruction."

"Whoa, Mister. We ain't supposed to tell people anything. Lemme see your ID again."

Chris thrust it under his nose.

"Easy, man. Sorry to tell you, but the owner of the Jag got killed. Body went to the morgue. Picked it up last night."

His heart stopped beating; it must have. When he breathed, it was a huge exhalation, followed by a large inhalation. "That Jag over there?"

"The silver Jag. Police told me they notified next of kin."

He would have hit the man if he wasn't so full of relief. "The other Jag," Chris gritted out.

"Shit, man, that came in as an abandoned vehicle. Police-man didn't tag it, just towed it."

"Abandoned? Where was the owner?"

"My driver said the cop told him it was in an accident, abandoned. Said he had his dispatch call the owner, leave a note at the house to call. Figured eventually the owner would call. Driver said it had two flats, passenger side."

If this was the truth, where the hell was Ezra? Since Vin was listed as next of kin, Tanner would have been called if Ezra was admitted to the hospital. Unless, of course, that stubborn fool took advantage of the new health laws and requested no one be notified. Hell and damn. "Which police agency?"

"County Police. Hang on, lemme get the paperwork." The man disappeared, returning a short time later. "I'm Curtis, and this is my garage, Agent Larabee. Sorry we got off on the wrong foot, but I don't just give away information."

"Understood. Officer's name and phone number?"

"Here. I wrote it down for you. Tell Mr. Standish when you find him we're sorry about the damage to the front end. I'll pay for his choice of shop to repair it."

"Damage?" Chris quirked an eyebrow.

"The front end. Driver didn't replace the chains like I told him to do. Broke when he had the Jag halfway up the back of the rollback. Dropped it right on its nose. Damn shame, but I'll pay for it."

"I'll talk to him. Just keep an eye on the Jag until you hear from me or him."

"You got it. You need my phone?"

Chris shook his head, whipping out his cell phone. "I got it. Thank you, Curtis." He felt generous, especially considering he had more information than before. Larabee paid for his gas, using his phone to call Ezra's.

His call to the cottage went unanswered.

Unfazed, the blond drove toward the cottage while on the phone with the police department. He went through the dispatcher, who transferred him to the duty officer, who then referred him to the Shift Commander, which brought him a promise to call the officer back and find out if he had any contact with Ezra at all, once they called Denver ATF and confirmed his identity.

He figured that would take about five minutes, causing significant grief up and down the chain of command because of the verification. That would buy him leverage; since they would want him calm and not filing complaints when they called back.

Sure enough, the next call came through telling him that the officer found the vehicle, where he found the vehicle, the surroundings noting the remains of human illness detected on the shoulder, the condition of the vehicle, followed by blaming the tow company for the further damage to the vehicle. He went on the defensive when they implied Ezra must have been drunk driving; Chris immediately countered with the food poisoning aspect, along with their own admission of the broken glass on the road, which would have caused flat tires if Ezra pulled over to be sick. His pointed questions about notifications yielded information about the request to Denver Police to leave a note and message for Ezra. No one saw Ezra, nor did they know how to reach him. Figuring he gained all the information he was going to from them, he disconnected after scribbling names and phone numbers down on the pad left in the truck.

The road to the cottage caused him to slow and stop. His own examination of the shoulder revealed the stench of sickness left outside, along with the glass, which he carefully avoided. Not counting the pieces of headlights from the Jaguar where it went on his nose. Ezra was going to be pissed, and there was no easy way to break it to him. The first priority, though, was finding Ezra.

Ezra Standish must be okay. There was no other option acceptable to Chris Larabee. He reached the cottage, parking out front. With the shades tightly pulled, Larabee was not too concerned. Ezra liked his privacy, which made that usual.

He knocked. Of course, there was no answer.

Chris thought Ezra coming to the door would be too easy. With Standish, easy went to the wayside. He pounded harder, yet the Southerner never answered. Larabee sighed in resignation, worry chewing at him. Ezra must either not be here, was at the hospital, or here and not answering intentionally, which made his life harder. It was time to get in and confirm either his friend was there, or he was not. He hoped he was, that way he could check on the Southerner and make sure he was okay. Searching the exterior with shrewd attention, he looked for where Ezra would hide a key. This was Ezra's sanctuary; whether he would believe it of them or not, they respected that. They understood how much of himself he lost every time he had to go under for a case. They understood the stress he faced, and his preference to rejuvenate his balance in solitude. The visits here by the rest of the team were rare, and now Chris regretted they had not included the cottage in the exchange of keys for emergency purposes that they had all shared in.

Surveying the front of the property, nothing popped out at him, and Chris knew that the obvious places were out. Standish was too wily for that, and would think that below his talent. He walked the perimeter of the property, finding something that did seem to fit his idea of the crafty undercover operative. A fox sculpture halfway hidden in the bushes, ornately set in the perfect landscaping, made him smile. Attached to the fox's tail was a black band. Knowing Ezra as he did, he went to the back porch and tipped the twenty-gallon rainwater collection drum, designed to provide water in case the well failed, or the electricity cut out. He used care not to damage the filtration pipes connecting the drum to the house. Band, drum, ha ha. There was the spare key in a waterproof plastic box, neatly tucked in an indentation designed for it beneath the drum. He carried it with him to the front door and unlocked the door.

A wave of heat rolled over him, causing his forehead to perspire almost immediately. Then the smell nearly bent him in half. His eyes watered. He did not smell death, a great relief, especially with the heat this high and the house closed up.

"Hell, Ezra," Chris muttered. "You have to be sick if you let it smell this bad." Two steps in and he left the front door open, the screen and glass door closed. He tossed open the windows to let the air in, looking around when finished. Not much was out of place; just the blanket strewn halfway on the recliner, and the stink in the kitchen.

"Ezra! It's Chris!" His yell carried through the cottage. Last thing he wanted was a sick Standish shooting him. "Ezra?" He yelled a little louder.

His eyes watered when he reached the kitchen, and the Vaporub™ went on a little late. A few breaths without the cloying, permeating smell of sickness helped reorient him to what he was doing here.

"EZRA!" Chris approached the bedroom door warily, but no answer came. There was no Southerner on the bed. Hell. A few more feet, and if nothing there, he would start calling hospitals.


That was the sweetest sound Chris heard. He rounded the bed toward the bathroom. "Can't do that. You're sick."


Larabee looked in the bathroom to see Ezra lying on his side in his boxers, face pressed into the tile. His skin was pale and appeared brittle, with the always-perfect hair now a spiky mess, flat in places and chunks shooting out in different directions in others.

"Out," Ezra muttered.

The fact Ezra had yet to look him in the eye did not escape Chris's notice. "No."

"Get…out." A little more nastiness went into the protest, but since it wasn't said above a whisper, Chris ignored it.

"Okay, I'll get you out of here." He bent down and picked up Ezra like he had been taught to move injured in the SEALs, and set him down on the bed. A badly swung fist ineffectively hit his arm with the force of a wet paper towel.

"Cretin." Standish gripped the mattress, then heaved.

Fast reflexes got the handy trashcan under the nose, but it was only dry heaves.

"You're going to the hospital," Chris decreed.

Ezra could not believe it. His tired mind was not grasping the fact Chris Larabee – the usually indifferent Chris Larabee – drove up here, his cottage, and was in his bedroom. Even harder to take was the humiliating position Chris found him in – nearly naked and drooling on the bathroom floor, too tired and wrung out to move for Lord knew how long. Then nearly to retch when moved from that ignoble position like a sack of grain was an insult. Mostly an insult; just the principle of not moving himself grated, but the bed felt so much better.

"I'm serious, Ezra. I'm taking you to the hospital."

How galling. He would not stand for it. "No. . .hospital." His voice cracked, making him sound weaker than he felt, which was saying something. "Hay-ell."

"You've probably got food poisoning. I already figured you've been suffering from one of those stress headaches you refuse to tell us about. You look like hell."

"Lovely," he croaked. "Hadn't . . . noticed." That explained much, but he did not tell Chris that he did not know about the food poisoning.

A hand slapped onto his forehead.

He swatted at it, but it stayed.

"You don't feel like you have a fever."

No, Ezra thought; that broke some time ago during the hellacious hours he spent lying in a puddle of his own cold sweat and shivered until it finally dried. Yet another tidbit Chris would never know.

"I'm going to trust you to stay here so I can get something. Trash can's right here." Chris gave him a hard stare. "Don't go anywhere. Or try." He left the room.

He felt peevish and poorly, not wanting nor needing the child-like treatment. Ezra mouthed the words "Don't go anywhere. Or try", followed by sticking out his tongue in the general direction of the door. He realized that fat, fuzzy, foreign object belonged to him and shuddered. His eyes checked out the distance between the bed and the bathroom, his mind debating if he was capable of crossing the distance to brush his teeth. One foot touched down on the carpet, and the second beside it. He stood, and promptly sat back down. When the tilt-a-whirl stopped, he leaned back into his original position.

Hmm. Perhaps I can gain some benefit from Mr. Larabee's visit; a fetch and carry man would be nice. It would save him from injuring himself further, and allow Chris a sense of control. A win-win situation, one giving him boasting rights of having Nurse Larabee tending him in his time of need. Chris would believe he helped, while Ezra gained more insight into his boss and friend.

Chris detoured through the kitchen to take the trashcan outside. He would clean it later, but not right now. Fetching the sports drinks and medical kit from his truck, he put the drinks in the refrigerator. Then he filled a glass with ice, emptying one of the bottles into the glass. He rummaged around until he found a straw.

His relief at finding Ezra alive and cognizant was something he would examine later. That reminded him; it was time to call the others. Just to check a theory, he picked up the kitchen phone and hit redial.

"Hey." Vin's distinctive drawl came through the line clearly.

"Found him, and he called you last night. We might be going to the hospital, we might not. Either way, he's alive."

"Good. Lemme know either way what yer doin', and I'll let the others know he's okay now."

"Later." Chris disconnected. Telling Vin about the car wasn't important right now; that was something he needed to talk to Ezra about first before sharing with the others. Grabbing the drink, and the medical kit, he went to Ezra's bedroom. He gave his friend a significant look. "Nice to see you can follow orders."

"You trusted me," Ezra replied easily in a scratchy voice.

Larabee did not know how to take that, and therefore allowed it to pass. "Temperature, followed by your drink."

"I...refuse." He tried a weak glare.

The blond gave his friend a half-grin, somewhat amused and relieved by the attempt. It meant Ezra was feeling a little better, or well enough to argue. That was better than his previous face-first on the bathroom floor. "We can do this two ways, Ezra, with or without your cooperation. Either way, I'm getting your temperature."


That half-grin showed him how serious Chris was; either Ezra acquiesced to getting his temperature taken orally, or he would have a struggle and a rather unpleasant encounter. Seeing these options, he deflated. "If…you must."

"You must."

Again, that infuriating half-grin showed through, making Ezra want to smack him. He opened his mouth, accepted the digital thermometer, and entertained thoughts of spitting it out, or doing something else unspeakable with it and the blond leader's anatomy. That pleasant thought died when he saw the knowing look in his friend's eyes.

"One hundred," Chris read. "I expected worse."

"Perfect," Ezra stated, his drawl pronounced and dragging out each syllable. "You may leave now."

"Yeah, right. At least you're not going to the hospital."

Ezra silently gloated.

"But you're going to drink this slowly, and you'll finish it." Chris put the drink into his hand.

If the thought of having something wet to soothe his raw throat were not so delectable, he would decline. That electric blue drink was not his regular bottled water, nor was it something he really wanted to drink. However, exceptions became necessary upon occasion. He took a sip. Surprisingly sweet, yet refreshing. He sipped again, and again.

"Slower, Ezra. I brought plenty, and you don't want to heave again."

How unpleasant; just the thought of making friends with the toilet caused a shudder. He slowed his consumption, realizing that before Chris spoke, he had taken in half the drink. It seemed to be sitting well in his stomach, which pleased him.

Chris watched Ezra down a drink through a straw without appearing to lose any of his inborn class and sophistication, wondering how the man managed to look regal even as unkempt as he was now. At least they did not fight over taking the temperature; he really preferred not to treat Ezra like a child. Until he acted like one, then all bets were off.

While he watched, he asked, "You mind if I clean your place up a bit?"

"Be my guest. You must do a better job than the maid. He quit."

The blond rolled his eyes. "When you're done, let me know." Chris took a step toward the bathroom.


When Chris looked, he saw Ezra giving him a Cheshire cat smile. That made him suspicious. "What?"

"More of this color challenged, visually offensive drink, please."

"Your voice is better."

"Liquid does that," Standish replied. He held out the empty glass. "And I prefer crushed ice versus cubes, only halfway up the glass, allowing more room for liquid."

"Fine." Scowling, Chris had the sinking sensation Ezra was setting him up to be run ragged.

Heading for the kitchen, he emptied the glass, rinsed it out, refilling it with the drink, and crushed ice to the prescribed levels. From beneath the sink, he picked up some cleaning supplies, a large garbage bag, and some latex gloves - no doubt pilfered from supplies – returning to the bedroom arms laden.

The drink went to Ezra first, accompanied by a warning. "Slower this time, okay? That way I can clean up first."

"I refuse to salute you in my own home." Ezra sipped delicately.

"Here's the plan. The bathroom, then you, then the bed, then the rest of the house. Can you stand it if I open a window?"

"It does seem a trifle stuffy in here."

Hotter than hell, Chris thought, but he was not going to argue. He cracked the window first to let some air in. The breeze made him feel better, and circulating air would drive some of the rancid smell out. Ezra's nose probably quit a long time ago, inuring him against the smell. Glancing back, the blond saw his friend had finished a quarter of the drink and watched him closely, eyes unreadable. There was something, though, that needed attending immediately.

"How about a blanket for cover? The snake wiggled free."

"Dear Lord!" Ezra whipped the bedcovers over him quickly. Outraged, Standish snapped, "Why were you looking?"

Chris glared. "It was there. Now, I'm going to be in the bathroom. When you're done, let me know."

"Would you be kind enough to give me the remote? I would prefer not to hear your menial labor." He shuddered.

"Sure." Larabee handed him the remote. "All yours." He went into the bathroom. It was not as bad as he thought, but it was rather nasty. Almost like when he and Buck roomed together and had that party that Chris did not remember most of what happened. Two flushes later, Chris liberally poured bleach into the toilet bowl, closed the lid, and let the chemicals do their job. His next effort was to remove the trashcan from the bathroom, carrying it between gloved hands out the door. It joined the other one outside. He scrubbed the floor, the shower, and the sink, finishing with the toilet last. Once everything was clean, he took the supplies back to the kitchen, the returned to look at Ezra.




"No, thank you. However, I do have a request. I'm sure you noticed my vehicle on the side of the road."

Chris rubbed the back of his neck.

"What happened?" Green eyes narrowed immediately. "Someone hit it?"

"Let's just say that the police found it abandoned and thought it was left by a drunk who wrecked and walked away. They towed your car."

Someone else touched his car. They actually towed it. How…how…deplorable. He studied Chris's face, seeing something there that blond was not telling him. "And?"

"Well . . . the tow truck's chains broke. Your car fell off the truck onto its nose."

"My Jaguar," he started.

"Has damage. Tow company said for you to pick your body and fender place."

"My JAGUAR!" Ezra yelled. "My precious baby."

Chris winced. His head throbbed. "You need to calm down. There's nothing you can do about it now."

"To hay-ell with that. I want to talk to the tow company. They will pay most dearly for their negligence. I will have remuneration. A new Jaguar will look quite nice on me."

Chris smirked. "Figure maybe the Larabee glare worked for you? I took care of it. It's going to stay at the garage until you are ready to have it moved. I have the county police intimidated you'll file a complaint, and the tow company ready to pay. Damn shame it happened, but it will be fixed."

"I know just the place. If they deem it –" he swallowed, "unrepairable, I will have a new Jaguar."

"You love that car," the blond said softly. "More than you're willing to admit."

Ezra did, surprised to see that Chris truly understood that he blustered about a replacement. His Jaguar held sentimental value; losing it would be losing part of himself. The body shop he had in mind was the most expensive that recreated perfection out of damaged metal. They were not cheap, oh no; between the police and the tow company, both would rue the day they attempted towing Ezra P. Standish's vehicle. Especially without contacting him, the local police department serving the development had his information on file in case of emergency. A simple phone call to them, especially since the vehicle pointed toward the exclusive development, would have netted results.

"I'm sure you do, Ezra. I'm sorry about that."

"I will cope."

"Just glad you're okay," Chris said softly. "What else can I do to help?"

Ezra pushed the unaccustomed emotion of warmth, feeling good about Chris's care, with a statement. "I would like a shower."

"Don't blame you. You're pretty ripe," Chris told him.

"How very common to abuse the sick, especially after imparting such horrific news about a man's vehicle." He recognized the tactic, changing the subject to get his mind off the Jag's damage. However, Mr. Larabee did not have to be so blunt.

"Get your sick butt in the shower so I can strip the bed. Don't come out until you don't offend yourself anymore."

"Well." Ezra huffed, shouldering past Chris into the bathroom on wobbly legs and shutting the door.

"I'll be in the kitchen when I finish here," Chris yelled. "Join me when you're done; need to get some food in you."

The shower's running water reached his ears.

"Same old Ezra." Shaking his head, Chris changed the bed, his fingers not surprised at the high quality sheets. He went to the kitchen, cleaned there, disinfected the recliner, and then hosed out the trashcans and deposited the waste in the outside bin. By the time he returned inside carrying his overnight bag, he found Ezra sitting at the table.

"I have refreshed my body, now I require nourishment."

"Can't you say you're hungry like everyone else?"

"I believe I just did."

Chris rolled his eyes. "We'll start with dry toast; see if you can keep that down."

"A bagel with cream cheese, lightly toasted," Ezra countered.

"Dry toast, because dairy with a fever doesn't work." Larabee prepared it, and put it in front of Standish.

"Must you be so bossy all the time?"

"Long as you're being a pain in the ass, I'll be bossy."



Some time later, Ezra settled comfortably in his recliner ostensibly watching television. Chris was on the sofa on his cell phone for what seemed like the duration. He could tell that the blond was talking to the others, telling them that yes, Ezra was okay, yes, Nathan, he had a slight fever, no, they weren't going to the hospital, and on and on through each one of his teammates.

He was touched that they cared that much about him; of course, it could just be professional courtesy because they were co-workers. Catching Larabee rolling his eyes at something said on the other end, Ezra made a childish face to try to cause the serious man to laugh.

Chris cracked a half-smile.

Ezra stuck out his tongue.

Chris crossed his eyes.

Ezra put his thumb on his nose and waggled his fingers.

Chris mimed shooting himself in the head, and then said, "Nathan, I am perfectly capable of taking care of a friend. Spend your time with Rain, and that's an order." He closed the phone. "Three, two, one." He opened the ringing phone. "I said I can take care of him, damn it."

"I don't need caretaking," Ezra protested intentionally to cause Chris to track two conversations at once.

"Yes, and no, Nathan, that wasn't directed to you. Stay with Rain. I'm hanging up now." Chris closed the phone, and turned it off. "To hell with them."

"Quite." It amused him to watch Chris trying to juggle so many things at one time, a facet of his leader that he did not get to see very often.

Chris took a deep breath. "No wonder you came out here to get away."

"I shall leave that comment alone, and request refreshment. What obnoxious color have I not tried today?"

"We have pink, green, red, and clear."

"With those choices, surprise me."

It was green, and tasted faintly of watermelon. Artificial, chemical watermelon, but the drinks were making a difference; he felt better. That was all that mattered. The pair settled in to watch a movie.

The Southerner felt a bit better but knew he was not a hundred percent, and still felt the weakness the illness had left behind. He felt his eyes growing heavy and began to drift off. As much as he loved his recliner though, he did not relish another night of trying to battle sleep in it. It was time to seek the comfort of his bed.

Glancing over, he smiled, noticing his fearless leader already snoring softly on the couch. For a minute, he thought about the usually stern man that was now so relaxed before him. Amazed the man was still here after the day he'd put him through. Larabee did not complain or even yell, even when Ezra was certain that Chris had figured out the fetch and carry routine he devised to try to rile him.

It was hard to explain how he felt about the care Chris had given him. He'd come to expect it from Nathan, but always their well-being was something he saw as his job. After the others' constant calls today to check his well-being and Larabee's care, he was giving this friendship….this brotherhood idea a great deal of more thought. It was a feeling he was coming to enjoy. As usual though, he wondered just how real their friendship was; so many times in the past he had been burned by those who claimed to be his friends and stabbed in the back at the first whiff of trouble. Before he allowed his thoughts to get darker, he decided to quit while he was ahead.

He carefully laid the comforter over Chris, before he made his way to his own bed.


Chris woke to screaming, and it wasn't his own.


Part Four

When Chris reached Ezra's bedroom, he found no threat except those of the sleeping demon kind. The man writhed in his blankets and yelled Vin's name.

"NO! VIN!"

"Ezra!" Larabee attempted to call Ezra out of his nightmare.

"Dear Lord, no! Vin! My fault, my fault!"

"EZRA!" Chris tried yelling over him, tried breaking through the claws of the nightmare.


He reached down and shook Standish by the uncovered shoulders, seeing the eyes snap open unfocused and the rapid breathing. When the green orbs half-focused on him, Chris said loud and clear, "VIN'S OKAY."

Several heaving breaths later, Ezra seemed to collect himself.

The last image in his mind before he felt himself being shaken was the crimson spread of blood across Vin's chest from the bullet, and the disbelieving expression on the Texan's face before he fell forward onto the floor. It took a few seconds for that image to soften, fade, and reform into the concerned, shadowed face of Chris Larabee.

"What?" he rasped. Hands held the shoulders, but not in a tight grip.

"Nightmare," Chris answered carefully.

The only light came from the hallway, brightening the gloom in a small wedge of the room.

"Yes." He did not want to find out, dared not ask if Vin was truly okay. He did not trust his mind.

"Vin's fine, Ezra. You want to talk to him?" Chris released his shoulders, sitting down on the foot of the bed. He slipped into the shadows, giving the man space to collect himself.

"No," answered Ezra. How did Larabee know that was what he was thinking? Was the man psychic? He had speculated that before, but now, he seriously wondered about it. He already felt the fool for waking his friend with his distasteful conduct. A middle of the night call would bring his mental status under scrutiny.

"You want to talk?"

Ezra gave that question serious thought, instead of his almost automatic desire to say no. Perhaps, after all the care Chris gave him, his friend was entitled to know what roused him from his slumbers. It apparently was not going to go away on its own, and with the weakness, he still felt maybe he would be wise to accept some help. He took a calming breath, leaning further back into the darkness, and away from that wedge of light.

Exposing his expression to the light would be too painful; it felt dark enough Chris probably could not see his face. He felt safer.

When he spoke, he talked softly. "That last assignment, when they bluffed me, I never saw their challenge coming. I never anticipated that they would bluff me. I was careless, cocky. I was overconfident, nearly lackadaisical, and Vin nearly paid for my negligence with his life."

"I was there, and I heard the tapes. No way to see their move coming."

"Yes, there was. I miscalculated, did not consider the possibility. I am a liability. You must discipline and transfer me." A sense of relief filled him at saying the words he had been thinking since that incident.

"No, Ezra. I won't discipline or transfer you. You did more than what was asked of you. You always have." Chris sighed. "We've asked the impossible of you more times than I'd care to count, and you've come through every time. I will not say without complaint, because you can be a royal pain in the ass, but you get results. Nevertheless, I think we've gone to the well too many times, depended too much on you to do your magic, and not prepared ourselves enough. We didn't anticipate either. Lesson learned."

"You don't depend on me." His voice was flat, emotionless. "You barely trust me."

"Like hell. Now you're shooting the bull. You need me to smack you in that thick head?"

"I would prefer not."

"There you go again."

"What?" From his vantage point, he saw Chris roll his eyes and frustration enter the features.

"You get formal when the conversation gets personal."

"I do not."

"Yeah, right. Listen, Ezra, I like to think you're my friend, and I hope it's mutual. So as your friend, I'm telling you I trust you implicitly. No holding back, no restrictions. That goes for all of us. If I haven't earned your trust by now, I'll leave. You can quit trying to push us away. You're stuck with us, no matter what you do."

The content of the words surprised Ezra. His usually glib tongue failed to cooperate, and his fast wit escaped him. They trusted him. He was really one of them. Simple words with a powerful effect. Thinking back on his early thoughts and doubts, he realized he'd been given his answer. The feelings of friendship were real. He sat there, stunned, until he found his voice. "You are my friend," he said finally. "Stay."

What felt good was that he meant it. Chris Larabee was a true friend; how many men would clean up another man's illness and tend him so well without letting Ezra feel like less of a man? Or speak so honestly about feelings, when the man was notoriously closed-mouthed?

"That hurt, didn't it?" prompted Chris.

Ezra saw the smile – a full smile, not the half-twist that Chris should have trademarked. He smiled back. "I find it hard to discuss personal matters."

"Then let me talk. I know it's a rare thing; you're usually blowing the hot air."

"I should be offended."

"Don't. We both know you're the talker, I'm the glare machine."

"You have mastered that ability quite well," he teased.

"Just listen, smart ass. Team Seven wouldn't be a team without you."

"Ha!" Ezra scoffed. "Now who's shooting the bull, as you so crudely said."

"I thought I said to listen. Do we have to do this the hard way?"

"Would you gag me?" asked the Southerner, sarcasm thick in his voice.

"If you don't shut up, I just might."

Ezra heard the lightness in the tone, but he remained quiet. It was always better to let others speak and reveal without playing your own cards.

"Better. We don't say thank you enough, Ezra."

He barely bit back the snort.

"Look, we pair off often, and usually it looks like we're excluding you. But we're not."

"I know that," Ezra said softly.

"You're a hard man to get to know. You're like the rock in one of those Zen gardens. You know the gardens I mean?"

"Yes." Interesting that Chris brought up the Zen garden, and the rock, because that was what he had often felt like, and just thought of himself as on his last day working.

"Well, the rock makes ripples wherever it goes, and it takes some time for the ripples to settle down. You're like that rock – you love to stir the pot, mix up the water, and not let anything get stale. I like that about you. Keeps things interesting. The only problem's that the rock can only be used so many times, then it will get scarred and pitted, or the surface will wear away. Sometimes, the rock even gets forgotten in the midst of confusion it causes."

"Go on." He was getting a different perspective on his own thoughts, and yet, some of them paralleled.

"See, we tended to pick up and throw the rock over and over again, but we didn't think about the damage to it. When we finally realized that you weren't made of marble, that you could be dinged, dented, and scratched up, we worked a little harder to make you feel more a part of the group. You don't make that easy. We want you to know you're wanted."

"I have never felt unwanted," Ezra said softly.

"But not included as much as you could be. So we figured you'd come to us when you wanted to be included. Stupid idea, because then you didn't come to us. We had to put the feelers out to you. Sometimes you accepted, sometimes you didn't. But you know what? Without you, we're not as strong."

"I don't believe you."

"You need convincing? Buck has the shakes every time you go under. He makes JD nuts by checking everything at least ten times before he'll let you go, and demands absolute silence in the van. JD's barely allowed to breathe."

"I believed him thorough."

"He doesn't want you to get hurt because he screwed up. Nathan will do everything he can to not argue with you before you go in, up to walking away and forcing himself to be silent so that you're not distracted by your arguments."

"Aloofness," Ezra countered.

"Concern for your wellbeing. Josiah prays. He usually starts right after you go in, and he doesn't stop until you're safe. That's why his mike's always muted, so that we can hear you and not him."

Ezra swallowed hard. Each reaction made him care more, a feeling he was not accustomed to at all. And Chris wasn't done.

"JD listens to every word like it's gospel, then when you get a name he doesn't know, he's got the name running five ways to Sunday until he has every little detail he can on that person, and briefs us on it."

"Doing his job."

"Caring for you. Vin may look tough, but until you're out, he won't relax his guard. He won't let anything happen to you. If it does, he won't forgive himself. Usually needs at least two or three beers, or a couple shots of whiskey, before he stands down."

"He I knew about. I usually supply the beverages."

"And the last one is me. I don't eat or drink anything on the day something's going down because I don't want it churning in my stomach. I'm a former SEAL, Ezra, and I'm not supposed to get stressed. But I do, because you're out of my control, and I hate that. I really, really, hate it."

"That's quite a confession."

"Yeah, well, I figure we all need a little bluntness every once in a while. You're a part of the team, Ezra, my team. And when we see you with those headaches that come when the stress hits you late, then we try to leave you alone. We're not excluding you, we're trying to make it easier on you so you don't have to think about faking you're okay and making it worse."

He was surprised. As much as he enjoyed the quiet, he never considered they did that intentionally out of respect for him.

"We hate to see you all torn up about things, not letting it come out until it's almost too late. We're here if you want to talk, do something, scream, yell, give JD wedgies, make Nathan so mad he can't see straight and starts spouting or stomping off, but you need to take the first step. We don't want to force ourselves on you, overwhelm you."

"I…I need to think about this."

"I know. Take all the time you need. By the way, transfer denied. Commendation already noted." Reaching over to give Ezra's shoulder a squeeze, Chris left.

Ezra watched the light turn out, leaving him in darkness. For some reason, it was not as dangerous or lonely as he thought. His mind went over the conversation, committing it to memory. Eventually, hefell off to sleep.

This time there was no more nightmares.

They cared about him. It was too early in the morning, he had not slept enough, but that thought kept repeating in his mind. All six of them wanted him there, worried about him, and he was part of the team. More than he thought. Perhaps the rock still had some life in it, and if it was as cared for as Chris led him to believe, then things would be better. From his perspective too.

With a more positive attitude, he arranged for his vehicle to go to the location of his choice, riding with Larabee back to his house, thanking Chris for his services. They parted better friends, and Ezra felt good about himself.

Monday, his first workday back, he had a spring in his step. He considered himself fully recovered from both his illness and the headache. In fact, the stress ball hitting him accidentally in the face didn't provoke a negative response. He calmly picked up the ball, nailing the thrower – Buck – right in the face.

"You must develop better reaction times," he admonished.

"Didn't know you could throw that hard, pard," Buck replied with a smile.

"Yes, well, I am a learned man."

"Learned in shooting the bull, yeah."

"He's better at it than you are, Buck," JD said. "How are you feeling?"

"Most excellent, until I came here."

"Yeah, this place will do it to you, brother. Welcome back." Josiah patted him on the back.

"Mr. Standish," Vin drawled with a wink.

"Mr. Tanner," he replied, winking back.

"You taking care of yourself, or are you ignoring the fact you're sick again?" Nathan had his arms crossed and blocked Ezra's path.

"Yes, and I had the esteemed Nurse Larabee to watch over me, he's almost worse than you."

"Ran my butt off, too." Chris smirked while he passed by into his office. He re-appeared saying in a dead-on voice, "Fluff my pillow. Fetch me another color-challenged drink. My food needs reheating. I take two slices of lemon with my tea. I prefer crushed ice, not cubes."

They all laughed.

He finally reached his desk, staring suspiciously at the wrapped present sitting right in the middle. Of course, wrapped gaudily in bright orange paper, he would not miss it, and the neon pink bow helped the "make Ezra wince" cause. Green eyes stared suspiciously at it. "What is this?"

For some reason, the office was empty. None of the men was in evidence, and it was quiet. Ezra opened the card first.

"Welcome Back To Someone Special," he read aloud. Deft fingers opened the card, finding one message written in there, "If you think we're going to get mushier than this, you've got a butt kicking coming." It was signed by all six of his teammates.

He smiled. When he opened the box, it was a shiny, smooth stone, along with a polishing kit. There was a note attached:

"When you feel like we're taking advantage of you, bean us with this."

Maybe it would not be so bad to be a rock.

They found him grinning when they came back in.



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