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
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.
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
"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
"Shit, man, that came in as an abandoned
vehicle. Police-man didn't tag it, just
"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,
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
"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
"Understood. Officer's name and phone
"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
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 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
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
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
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
"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,
Fast reflexes got the handy trashcan under
the nose, but it was only dry heaves.
"You're going to the hospital," Chris
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
"I'm serious, Ezra. I'm taking you to the
How galling. He would not stand for it. "No.
. .hospital." His voice cracked, making him
sound weaker than he felt, which was saying
"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
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
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
"You trusted me," Ezra replied easily in a
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
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
"Perfect," Ezra stated, his drawl pronounced
and dragging out each syllable. "You may
"Yeah, right. At least you're not going to
Ezra silently gloated.
"But you're going to drink this slowly, and
you'll finish it." Chris put the drink into
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
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
When Chris looked, he saw Ezra giving him a
Cheshire cat smile. That made him
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"I know just the place. If they deem it –"
he swallowed, "unrepairable, I will have a
"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
"I'm sure you do, Ezra. I'm sorry about
"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
"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
"I have refreshed my body, now I require
"Can't you say you're hungry like everyone
"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
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
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.
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"I would prefer not."
"There you go again."
"What?" From his vantage point, he saw Chris
roll his eyes and frustration enter the
"You get formal when the conversation gets
"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
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
"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,"
"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
"Better. We don't say thank you enough,
He barely bit back the snort.
"Look, we pair off often, and usually it
looks like we're excluding you. But we're
"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
"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
"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
"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
"He I knew about. I usually supply the
"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,
"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
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
"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
"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
"Yes, and I had the esteemed Nurse Larabee
to watch over me, he's almost worse than
"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
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