e-mail: ch1diva@lycos.com

Warnings:  This fic may be unsettling for those that don't take nausea well. 

Rating: PG

Characters:  Ezra, Chris, Seven

Happy Birthday to all the 7H7C list sibs celebrating a birthday in July!

Part One

If lightening, a tornado, a hurricane, a blizzard, or any other natural disaster struck him down now, he would be blessed. Hell, if he were honest with himself, an unnatural demise would be welcome; anything to distract him from this all-encompassing dull throbbing ache in his head. It felt like his brain functioned on two levels – pain, and whatever meager amount was left to handle living. Fortunately for him, most of today's to-do list dealt with routine matters that he could do by rote at his desk without interacting with others.

Ezra Standish had a nasty headache, and he was miserable.

Snippets of conversation swirled around him, each one a thread to a larger tapestry of noise.

"Kid, did I ever tell you about the time –"

"Brother, I don't think you need this sentence –"

"Buck, you're so full of crap!"

"Ya couldn't beat me at shootin', no matter how hard ya tried."

"But this sentence leads to this point, and I need this point –"

"Tell the straight truth, Buck."

Ezra rubbed his temples and tried to block it out.

"I'd like ta see yer ass lyin' flat atop a beam a few hours then shootin' straight."

"You covered that point here, Nathan."

If anything, the pain worsened, nausea creeping in, interrupting his pitiful attempt at concentration to the point he was making stupid mistakes on things he knew how to do without even looking.

"You're wrong, Vin. I can outshoot you. I chose not to sit on the beam; I pay you for that."

"You calling me a liar, Kid?"

"Uncle Sam pays me, not yer high falutin' mightiness, ya damn Cowboy."

"What about here, Josiah? If I move this paragraph here, does it flow better?"

Ezra stood. "I need to get something." A quiet dark room, break away from you people, fresh air, all were thoughts he kept to himself. Of course, they didn't acknowledge he spoke, too wrapped in their own conversations to notice. While he walked out the door leading to the hallway he said, "If perhaps you hear shrieking, I have flung myself from the top of the building, or I am relieving stress."

Again he was ignored.


Making his way to the ground floor, he stepped outside into the landscaped quasi-park reserved for the employees. His sensitive eyes felt grateful for the deeply overcast skies, his nose smelled the coming rain. Feet operating on autopilot found his favorite spot – a single bench tucked away facing a Zen rock garden. Often, just getting away from the mayhem known as Team Seven helped clear his head, or refocus his thoughts.

Nimble fingers loosened his tie and undid the top button; today both the shirt and the tie choked him. Part of that unpleasantness came from the sensation the wrong move would cause his stomach to go through with the planned revolt. The cramps caused enough agony, thank you very much. Sitting down and letting the quiet embrace him lessened the insistent throb. His head fell into his waiting hands, his eyes drifting closed. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Outside air – with all its imperfections – soothed him more than the stale soup passing for air inside. How long he sat that way, he could not say; yet it did not feel that much time passed. Even the cursed nausea backed away, fading into recent memory.

Green eyes slowly opened to stare down at the Zen rock garden. Idle snippets drifted through his head; the most frequent was comparing himself to that rock. Tossed into calm or choppy waters, it made a splash. The circular ripple effect would be felt for a short time. Then the water would still, or return to its normal pattern dictated by the currents.

But what became of the rock? It sank to the bottom and waited in darkness, largely ignored and forgotten, unless someone fished it out to use again.

That was him now.

There were seven team members, and seven was an odd number. Everyone usually paired off, and he was left to his own devices. No, that wasn't quite right; they never excluded him, nor were they consciously aware of whom they went to the most frequently. He was always invited, and threesomes were interesting, but sometimes he would have liked to be part of a pair more often. There were times when it was Ezra and Vin, Ezra and Buck, Ezra and Josiah; Ezra and Nathan were considered verbal sparring partners. Rarely was it Ezra and JD, but that blue moon happened more often than Ezra and Chris.

He belonged, but he perceived himself on the outskirts. Maybe that was why he rarely, if ever, told them about having these headaches and how severe they were. The doctor told him they weren't migraines, but stress headaches. A change in diet, sleeping patterns, and more exercise helped, but they still came, relentless in their intensity. Usually he toughed them out, telling no one, and medicated himself into unconsciousness after work. Today's held the ferocity of a linebacker sacking a quarterback with even less mercy, and he harbored no desire to return to the office.

Quite simply, he could not face the mayhem masquerading as normalcy. Not for the rest of the day, and definitely not tomorrow. Checking his watch, he saw he had been out here long enough for the workday to
end. Relieved and resolved, he buttoned his shirt. His tie went back to the perfect position, knot intact. He returned to Team Seven's offices to find them empty except for Larabee's private sanctuary. Chris was on the phone when Ezra looked in passing, which made things easier. He filled out a leave slip for tomorrow, Friday,
giving him a three-day weekend if it was approved. It must be approved.

"Ezra?" Chris appeared beside his desk. "You okay?"

He jumped and swallowed, half-startled and furious with himself for allowing Chris to approach without his awareness. "May I have tomorrow off?" One hand extended to offer the leave slip. His mind worked through various arguments to use in case Chris questioned or objected.

"Sure. Something wrong?' Chris signed the form without hesitating, passing Ezra his copy. "You seem quiet."

"Headache." Ezra reeled that Chris noticed he wasn't his normal self, and commented on it. Usually looks served as communication between them.

"Ouch." Chris winced in sympathy. "I know how you feel."

"Yes, I'm sure you do." Standish flat out refused to covet and did not want the responsibilities Chris had as their team leader, nor the stress and headaches that came with controlling so many strong personalities. There was not a pushover in the group if one of them made up their mind. "I'm positive you understand," he said, truly meaning it.

Chris smirked. "Enjoy your weekend off. We're meeting at the saloon for dinner if you feel up to it."

Just the thought of a saloon, music, talking, alcohol, and six friends free from the restraints of proper work behavior sent sharp pains shooting from the back of his neck to stab behind his right eye. His stomach clenched, becoming a constricting iron band right in the middle of his abdomen. The agony nearly took his breath away. Determined not to show any more weakness, he said, "Highly doubtful, but my thanks for the offer."

"You need a ride home? Rush hour's a bitch when your head hurts."

"I'll make it." It would not be a pretty drive, but he had driven in worse pain. He heard his prescription medications calling him, or was he wishing for them?

Chris stared thoughtfully at him for a moment. "I have no doubt you will, Ezra." He reached forward and squeezed Standish's shoulder. "Take care of yourself." As quickly as the hand was there, it was gone with the owner.

A strange feeling washed over him - Chris cared. The man who often made his life difficult because of their different work styles actually gave a damn about him, Ezra P. Standish. There was true concern, not just a boss and friend going through the motions.

The room tipped.

Ezra clamped a hand on his desk, leaning heavily on it while closing his eyes. His legs felt ready to give out, and he swallowed twice to prevent vomiting. When the weakness passed, he quickly gathered his things and left.

How ironic that the first time Ezra truly saw how Chris felt he nearly fainted, practically fell on his backside and disgraced himself. What a fool he was, and disgust rolled through his system. He was stronger than that, made of sterner stuff, as Buck would put it. A little emotion made you weak, Mother told him, and she was right. Determined to go home and go unconscious, Ezra put it all out of his mind. He intended to wake a little groggy from the side effects, but headache free.

The drive home was a nightmare; concentrating required more energy than he thought, depleting him further. Pulling into his development, he saw the neighbors were having a party. Balloons, streamers, and mini-vans abounded, the vehicles discharging children no older than ten.

Absolutely not.

He turned around and got back on the highway. His lakefront cottage beckoned. No matter the pain of the drive, the quiet of his destination would be well worth it. It turned into one of the longest hours of Ezra's life. Almost too late he realized, he had not stopped for supplies, and the cottage had been empty for nearly a

"Hay-ell," he muttered. Seeing one of those 24-hour pharmacy turned general purveyor of everything, he pulled into their parking lot.

Stepping out of his Jaguar, his balance quit on him. Both hands landed on the roof while his knees buckled, and his stomach revolted, stopping halfway up his throat. Bile burned on the way back down. It took at least half a minute before he regained enough control to push himself upright. He felt drained and disgusted with his traitorous body.

Sheer will carried him into the store, but the glaring florescent lights hurt his eyes. The throbbing in his neck and now behind both eyes intensified. Overhead music - designed to soothe - ripped through his skull one melodic note at a time. Grabbing a hand basket, he found the basics - milk, orange juice, coffee, bread,
cereal, snacks, and ginger ale.

It was hot in here. His head felt worse, and he needed to lean on the closed register counter while waiting in line. His sinuses drained mercilessly down his throat into his already churning stomach, making getting sick a virtual certainty. In fact, he just made it outside right before he sacrificed his suit's silk handkerchief to the cause. That went immediately, and without thinking of its loss, into the trashcan.

He drove quickly, knowing that he was now on borrowed time. The motion of the car - such a smooth ride – ironically made him feel worse with the lack of bumps, jostles that often keep his nausea at bay. He resorted to opening the window and tipping his head toward the cool night air to improve his breathing.

Moments later, Ezra cursed, using words he learned from the colorful vocabularies of his co-workers. Not only was he having a hard time with driving, but also the man in front of him operated his own vehicle recklessly. The undercover operative could see the one hand gripping the cell phone. Some people should not drive and use their cell phones; this man was one of them.

Focusing on not hitting the weaving vehicle in front of him took all of his concentration. Suddenly, the brake lights came on before him. Ezra swerved his Jaguar to the right, noting the belated directional signal indicating the man was turning left. But this was only after the idiot slammed on his brakes and came to a complete stop, even with no traffic in the opposing lane to hamper his immediate crossing.

His tires slipped on the loose gravel lining the soft shoulder, sending him into a dizzying slide and single spin. Once he finished spinning, his head took a few moments to catch up. His stomach violently objected, his concentration blown. Somehow, he managed not to hit anything, so he was able to get back on the road and drive away. He noted there was no sign of the distracted motorist that sent him on his brief detour, so he figured the man did not even know of the disaster he caused.

Heart racing, stomach churning, he traveled less than a mile before he stopped to get sick. On the shoulder, he bent over and heaved. His head shot searing stingers to the back of his eyes. Each time, with every shaking moment, agony gripped his brain. The worse the pain, the more he nauseous he grew, putting him in what felt like a never-ending loop. To add to the misery, his throat burned.

Finally, blessedly, it ended. Tears streamed down his face, his nose ran incessantly, and he still felt horrible. Since he nearly wrecked just down the road, being found sick on the side of the road did not bode well for him if found by police. It was time to leave.

He continued his drive toward his cottage, praying every moment to arrive safely. Turning onto the two-lane road leading to his retreat, he knew he was not going to make it. He pulled over, got out, and used the shoulder again in a manner not compatible with his cultured image. A horrible popping sound reached his ears. One glance told him the story – two of his tires leaked air, quickly going flat. Staggering over to them, he found his parking on the shoulder caused him to drive over broken glass, destroying the tires on the passenger side of the car.

Ezra nearly wept. He hurt too much to deal with this. Looking down the road, his desperation to reach his cottage became a focused goal. Snatching his duffel bag, arranging his groceries, he left his car there and walked the distance to the house.

"Tomorrow," he said aloud. "I will get the car tomorrow. I cannot deal with this now."

During the walk, his vision blurred, he stopped to be sick twice, requiring him to pick up everything he dropped. He swore his feet turned to lead, his leg muscles the consistency of limp noodles, and his head bloated beyond all recognition. The waistband of his pants sagged, his gun a solid, dragging weight in the middle of his back. The weapon harness up his sleeve was no better; it hurt from having so much weight pressed atop it from the groceries.

His front door loomed ahead of him. His already wet eyes watered more from relief. Three tries later, he found the keyhole with the key, aligned both, and opened the front door. His groceries landed on the kitchen counter, the duffel bag on the floor, and he aimed for the bathroom for yet another visit.

He brushed his teeth three times when done, unpacked his groceries, and finally undressed. Ezra swallowed the strong narcotic painkiller his doctor prescribed, shut the shades tightly, and fell gratefully on the bed. He was out before five minutes passed.

Chris slid into the chair, accepting the beer slid to him by Vin. "Thanks."

Vin nodded. "Ez comin'?"

"Doubt it."

"That headache must be pretty bad today," Buck commented. "He didn't say more than fifteen words, and that's downright unnatural for Ez."

"Fool won't even admit he gets the headaches." Nathan frowned in disgust. "If he'd stop being a martyr we could help him, instead of guessing he's in pain."

"Ya expect Ez ta be forthcomin'?" Vin chuckled. "For all his talkin', he don't say much."

"All foam, no beer," Buck seconded.

"That's why we leave him alone," added JD. "So we don't bother him when he's hurting. Let him do what he needs to and get through the day without us making him nuts."

"Like that's a stretch." Buck rolled his eyes.

"We all have our moments, brothers. Some just take longer to develop, or are harder to spot." Josiah sipped his beer.

"You saying we're all nuts?" Nathan wore a teasing smile.

"Just you," Buck joked.

"I think we're all a little crazy to keep doing what we do." Chris ran a finger down the beer bottle's long neck. "And we all deal with the stress differently. What happened shook him harder than he thought, and he's having a delayed reaction. Ezra stores up his stress until it has to get out, giving him the headache for
starters. We only closed the case last week."

"Never knew a man so calm under pressure, 'specially facing what he did. Hell, I can't believe he didn't even twitch. If I didn't know him, I woulda thought he had ice fer blood."

"Good thing he didn't flinch; that would have gotten you both killed," JD pointed out.

"Ain't many like Ez." Buck lifted his glass in toast. "To Ez, and keeping Vin alive."

"To Ez," the others answered.

"At what cost?" Josiah asked. "Ezra keeps his nerves steady, wills himself not to react, yet when it's done, he collapses from the release."

"Damn strong force of will," Buck agreed. "Until he relaxes."

"He took tomorrow off," said Chris. "Maybe he'll use the weekend to rest."

"We can hope," JD muttered.

Nathan added, "I'd like to hear some good sarcasm, and not the weak stuff he's peddling now. No challenge there."

"Just wish he didn't feel he had to deal with everything alone." Josiah sighed. "We're here if he wants us. The hand's extended; he must decide to take it."

Everyone fell silent as they thought of their missing friend and their thoughts echoed their profiler's observations. They would all feel better if their missing man would let them in more; let them prove they would not let him down. He was one of them whether he liked it or not.

Almost to himself, Chris said, "I'll call him Saturday to see how he's doing."

Officer Helmick was used to finding drunks in his jurisdiction. Rich, snobby, ignorant drunks who wrecked and abandoned their expensive cars to go to their homes, drink a few drinks, finally calling the police at a later time. Fifteen years on the job taught him that a car with damage on the side of the road was ninety percent of the time the property of a drunken person. The number of innocents out here was rarer than the odds of him winning the lottery.

It was no surprise for him to find the Jaguar on the side of the road with two flat tires. Nor was it surprising to him to smell human sickness on the shoulder. Rolling his eyes, he ran the tag. What a surprise – it was not local. He did not recognize the name, either. At least it wasn't stolen; that was a blessing. After having his dispatcher call the residence of the registered owner – one Ezra P. Standish – and getting no response, he ordered a tow. The man was not going to be happy to find his car towed, but it was partially in
the roadway and it was not drivable. Odds were he would report it stolen instead of admitting to driving drunk. Since he could not reach the registered owner, he waited for the tow. This Ezra P. Standish, when he sobered up, would call when he realized it was missing. Besides, a tow bill would teach him not to wreck and leave his car partially in the travel portion.

Disaster struck when the tow truck's chains broke, dropping the Jaguar off the tilted rollback onto the front end, damaging the bumper. It looked bad – really bad – and the airbags deployed from the impact. Helmick wanted to pound on the tow truck driver. This required his supervisor respond; now it was a liability game between the police and the tow company who paid damages. Once there, the supervisor requested the Denver Police respond to the man's residence to see if he was at home. The long wait for that ended up with a note left on the front door of the owner's house saying call the police department.

None of them realized the note blew away during the night; the officer leaving it really didn't care, not securing it properly. Several strong breezes lifted it away from the handle, sending it drifting down the sidewalk.

Part Two

He did not want to wake up, but his bladder had other ideas. It subtly informed him - through a dream of using the facilities - that he no longer could lie there. With a sigh, he cracked his eyes to see the time. They felt heavy and unwilling to open. It was halfway dim in the room, courtesy of the shades. A thin line of sunlight, weak at best, slipped around the edges. Rolling his head, he squinted at the clock. Shortly after three in the afternoon, which told his beleaguered brain he had slept for well past twelve hours.

Lovely; most of his leave day was shot from sleeping. Forcing himself to his feet, he wobbled. Hands leaned on the bed to keep him upright. He hated this part - the near hangover feeling from the strong medication. It would take at least an hour before the aftereffects cleared out of his system. Bracing off the wall for
support, he shuffled to the bathroom. When he washed his hands, he made the mistake of looking in the mirror.

The face reflected back at him surely did not belong to him; that was not Ezra P. Standish. No.

Denial, however, only went so far. That was him, and the last time he looked this bad he was in the hospital and shot. His eyes were glassy, the irises red, and the pupils dilated. The skin around them puffed out, and he would swear someone punched him beneath both eyes for how deep purple they were. Saddlebags were not attractive.

His complexion was pale, his dark hair making his forehead and cheeks seem almost corpse-like. Not counting the puffiness on his forehead by his eyebrow line, and his swollen nose. He looked like he went on
a bender and got run over by a truck. Fortunately, he would not see anyone today, and probably not until Monday. That gave him three days - well, two and a half - to clean up.

Cleaning up was not on today's agenda. Today he would recover. That in mind, he brushed his teeth, making his way to the kitchen for a late breakfast. A bagel, lightly toasted, accompanied by cream
cheese, tasted heavenly to his empty stomach. Orange juice was his first choice of beverage, until he remembered yesterday's indignities. He opted for water instead. No gain in upsetting his stomach unnecessarily, especially since it felt cooperative right now. There was something he was supposed to do, but it escaped him for the moment.

He settled into his leather black recliner, and turned on the large television. Soap opera - pass. His life too closely resembled one of those, so no need to compare. Eighties movie - not right now. Four channels of sitcoms in their hundredth or so showings - pass. Local cable channel - good music, bad graphics, pass. Eight different talk shows - he shuddered. If people learned something, hooray for them, but not for him. Law and Order repeat - something formula and harmless; he put the remote down.

Ezra enjoyed the second hour's show; that episode actually kept him guessing. Then a good psychological thriller movie came on, distracting him until seven. He pried himself out of the recliner, dizzy from sitting still so long. Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs - infernal medication hangover - he fixed another bagel, not
wishing to cook or go out to buy something. Tomorrow he would shop, but not tonight. One trip to the bathroom later, he returned to his recliner.

Now that the sun went down, it felt a little chilly. Moments prior to slipping into the comfortable leather of his recliner, the thought crossed his mind to raise the thermostat. He turned it up a few degrees. He grabbed the throw blanket from the couch as he passed; covering himself once he was back in his favorite position.

His car. He nearly shot bolt upright at the memory.

"Hay-ell," he muttered. Ezra tried to stand, falling back into the recliner, and nearly tipping himself onto the floor. The room spun. His previously cooperative stomach warned him that standing was not a good idea at this current time. Walking fell under the same category of things not to do. Moreover, he needed to call a tow, wait for the truck to arrive, the loading, finding out where the shop was, along with arranging the purchase of two tires, installing them, et cetera. Ezra Standish may be many things, but ignorant of his
limitations was not one of them. Pushing himself now, so soon after yesterday's travesty, would result in his admittance to the hospital. That he did not want to do. He detested hospitals.

His mind reminded him this was an exclusive neighborhood; his Jag would be fine for one more night. The police did frequent patrols. It wasn't like he could drive it here, either. At worst, the police would tag it for towing, giving him twenty-four hours to move it. At best, he would find it right where he left it. Tomorrow morning, he promised himself. I will deal with it tomorrow.

That decided, he channel surfed again. He found a cop movie he had wanted to see on a premium channel, and tucked the blanket a little tighter to keep warm. For some reason, he was chilled. His attention focused on the movie to distract him from the feeling of not getting warm. An hour into the movie, the cop had to stand there indifferent while his partner received a threat of execution right in front of him.

"Deplorable," Ezra muttered.

The cop made the wrong move. The partner died.

"Absolutely dreadful." Ezra changed the channel. He thought if the cop was that inept, so would the rest of the movie be. He settled in for another cop drama rerun, and fell asleep without being consciously aware of it.

Ezra stood in the paneled office of Ethan Redick without fear in his heart, half-wondering why he was here. He remembered the cottage, and not much else. He was too well trained not to play the hand he was dealt; figuring out how he got here was secondary. The con was all that mattered; they were minutes away from closing their deal. Heavily tinted, Ezra could see out of the office windows, but he could tell Vin was not able to see in.

"I don't know you, Mr. Sellers," Redick said. "You came highly recommended. Yet, I don't trust you."

He expected this reaction; it was a conversation he held just about every deal he worked. "I wouldn't trust me either."

Redick stared incredulously at him, one hand motioning for an explanation.

"You do not know me, Mr. Redick. You only know what you have been told. A wise, cautious man only believes what he sees. What can I do to earn your trust?"

"For someone who could be killed in the next few minutes, you're remarkably calm."

"Practice." That was no lie; he frequently put his life in the line for duty. What fool he, but that was fodder for another day.

"What kind of practice?" Suspicion tinged the tone.

"Our line of work holds considerable risks, Mr. Redick. Nor is it for the weak. One must be strong to rise through the morass to reach the top."

"Well said, for a cop."

Ezra scoffed. "You wound me." He covered his heart with his hand. "I am many things, but I am no jackbooted thug wearing a badge and uniform." The truth, with his own twist; he did not wear a
uniform or a badge. Jackboots were not one of his fashion accessories.

"And your partner?"

"Bodyguard, not partner. You'll note he was not privy to this meeting so he knows nothing should ambition dare enter that muscle-bound brainless head." He would pay for that remark when Vin heard the tapes; Tanner could be quite creative in his retaliations.

"You wouldn't mind losing him then, as a show of good faith?" Redick flicked a finger to the muscleman standing in the corner by the door. Big and Brawny removed a handgun from his jacket pocket. He
pointed the weapon through the glass at an unsuspecting Vin.

Ezra sighed. "Training a new one's a bother, but I must earn your trust. Do what you wish." His bluff always worked; the head man motioned for the gun to go away because of Ezra's lack of regard for human life.

But not this time. At a nod from Redick, Big and Brawny squeezed the trigger.

I've failed, Ezra thought in that instant. I overplayed my hand, and Vin will die. His heart constricted, yet as difficult as it was, no emotion crossed his face.

The click of the trigger was obscene and loud in the close room. But no bullet shattered the glass; Vin did not die. These people bluffed him, Ezra P. Standish. He dared not breathe. Nor did he shout an
ungentlemanly "Hallelujah" like he wanted.

"You passed, Mr. Sellers. You could have cared less if he died, which absolutely tells me neither you nor your partner are cops."

"I believe I stated that already," Ezra drawled. His heart threatened to pound out of his chest; his knees wanted to give out, and he fought the impulse to grab Vin and run like hell. He refused to give anything to this man though; he just did what he was so good at and kept his reactions locked within.

"You did. Shall we get down to business?"


Ezra woke cold, even though his heart pounded hard and fast in his chest. A dream. A memory, but only reliving it in a dream, he reassured himself. Cursing the heat pump and lacking the energy to build a fire, nor did he trust himself to safely maintain one; he stormed over to the thermostat and turned it up again. He fetched the heavy spare comforter and bundled up in his chair. The news came on, giving him something to watch. He finally got warm right before the weather started, and drifted asleep again.

Ezra sighed. "Training a new one's a bother, but I must earn your trust. Do what you wish." His bluff always worked; the head man motioned for the gun to go away because of Ezra's lack of regard for human life.

But not this time. At a nod from Redick, Big and Brawny squeezed the trigger.

I've failed, Ezra thought in that instant. I overplayed my hand, and Vin will die. His heart constricted, yet as difficult as it was no emotion crossed his face.

The window sported a new hole, but Vin hit the ground before the shot connected.

Bless his reflexes, Ezra thought.

"Shall we get down to business?" Redick asked.

"What the hell?" Vin shouted.

"Sorry. It went off accidentally," Big and Brawny yelled back.

"Mr. Sellers?" Vin queried.

"It's fine," Ezra reassured him. "Mr. Redick and I are talking."


Ezra started, and looked blearily around the room trying to figure out what woke him. The damn dream again. There was loud laughing and clapping from the direction of the TV and he noticed one of the late night talk shows was on. He could not have been asleep very long. The noise must have disturbed him. Fumbling for the remote, he turned the volume down a bit, but left the set on, finding a bit of comfort in the pictures on the flickering screen.

He shifted a bit in his recliner, gathering the comforter from where it slid to the floor. He shivered as settled it back around him, knowing he would be better off in bed, but could not gather the strength or willpower to get up and move into the bedroom.

Watching the antics of the talk show host while he dealt with a monkey playing hairdresser, he slowly drifted back to sleep.


Ezra sighed. "Training a new one's a bother, but I must earn your trust. Do what you wish." His bluff always worked; the head man motioned for the gun to go away because of Ezra's lack of regard for human life.

But not this time. At a nod from Redick, Big and Brawny squeezed the trigger.

I've failed, Ezra thought in that instant. I overplayed my hand, and Vin will die. His heart constricted, yet as difficult as it was no emotion crossed his face.

The window sported a new hole, along with the bloody one in Vin Tanner.

Shock covered the Texan's face, yet he valiantly tried to reach his friend Ezra. He fell forward on his face, a pool of crimson forming beneath him.

"ATF!" Shouts filled the room.

He woke breathing hard and sweating. The headache was back and his stomach was rolling.

The scream startled him and he jumped setting his racing heart off again, just as it had begun to settle down. The TV drew his eyes again. Some horror film villain claimed another victim. He jabbed at the remote on the table beside the recliner and turned it off.

As much as his aching head would let him, he tried to concentrate on easing his breath into a gentle rhythm. In, out. In, out. In, out. In . . .he drifted back into his restless sleep, trying to curl up for warmth, and shivering, as the comforter lay forgotten on the floor this time.

Ezra sighed. "Training a new one's a bother, but I must earn your trust. Do what you wish." His bluff always worked; the head man motioned for the gun to go away because of Ezra's lack of regard for human life.

But not this time. At a nod from Redick, Big and Brawny squeezed the trigger.

I've failed, Ezra thought in that instant. I overplayed my hand, and Vin will die. His heart constricted, yet as difficult as it was no emotion crossed his face.

The window sported a new hole, along with the bloody one in Vin Tanner.

He went down immediately. "My legs. I can't feel my legs."

Vin was paralyzed and it was Ezra's fault.

"ATF!" Shouts filled the room.

Ezra set up and groaned at the movement. He blinked as he looked around the room wondering what woke him this time. The night was silent.

A shaky hand dragged tiredly down his face. He stared at the palm of his hand as he felt the unfamiliar moisture there. Vaguely he tried to think about the cause.

The chill made him drop his thoughts. Instead, he looked around for the comforter, dragging it back around him and sinking back into the chair. He really did need to go to bed was his last thought as the weakness he felt dragged him quickly back to sleep.


Ezra sighed. "Training a new one's a bother, but I must earn your trust. Do what you wish." His bluff always worked; the head man motioned for the gun to go away because of Ezra's lack of regard for human life.

But not this time. At a nod from Redick, Big and Brawny squeezed the trigger.

I've failed, Ezra thought in that instant. I overplayed my hand, and Vin will die. His heart constricted, yet as difficult as it was no emotion crossed his face.

The window sported a new hole, along with the bloody one in Vin Tanner.

He went down immediately. Vin didn't –

Ezra woke screaming, nearly toppling himself out of the recliner. Two heaving breaths later, he went face-first into the kitchen trashcan. When it stopped, Ezra realized he was crying. Was it a dream? He was not sure anymore. Which ending was real? Was any of it real? Dear Lord, let it be a dream. Was Vin – he couldn't even think it. He needed to hear his voice. Using the wall phone, he dialed Vin's cell.

"Hey," a sleepy voice answered.

A giant sob of relief escaped his body into the receiver.

"Who's this?"

Mortified, Ezra hung up. He stared at the phone waiting for it to ring back, for Vin to call and check on him, then belated realization struck that he programmed the telephone to read anonymous with no number on the caller ID.

Relief flooded through him, potent in its strength. Vin didn't sound hurt, just tired. There wasn't the beep-beep-beep of hospital machines in the background. Maybe it went down like he originally thought, a clean bust where no one got hurt. It had to be a dream. Dear Lord, how many times had he relived that moment?

He was confused. Cursed medication; it never fouled him up this long before. He drank some ginger ale, promptly running to the bathroom to get sick again.

Between the stress headache now returning, the heaviness of his head, sinus problems, and the medication making him sick, it was a good thing the others could not see him. Finally giving up on the recliner, he headed toward his bedroom. He could not get warm, which aggravated him to no end. Frustrated, annoyed, and cold, he turned around, cranked the heat up some more, bundled up in sweats, and added the extra comforter on his bed.

He barely got settled when an ominous rumble started in his stomach.  This was ridiculous. He freed himself, stomped into the bathroom  while feeling the cold, swore it was the last time he would be on his knees, and let his body go. Actually, it was the last time he was on his knees; the next hour brought a new problem, leaving him with the trashcan in front of him and his legs falling asleep from sitting too long.

He finally passed out around dawn, still unable to get warm, his throat raw, nothing left in his system. The reality-turned-twisted-nightmare returned, but he could not wake up. His sick and weary mind was stuck viewing a horrific video stuck in an endless playback loop. He was trapped reliving that moment and imagining through dreams all the horrible different outcomes.

Ezra whimpered to the empty cottage. Because of his own stubbornness and determination not to be a bother to others, he was sleeping where his friends did not know he went. And no one would miss him until
Monday morning when he failed to show for work.

"What?" Chris Larabee snarled into the phone, the annoying machine having dragged him from his slumber. Whoever it was, they had no right to wake him on one of his few days to sleep in, Saturday.

"Sorry, Stud, but there's a problem." Buck's voice sounded tired and full of worry.

"Who's hurt?" He snapped instantly awake.

"Not that way, Chris. JD's sick."

"How bad?"

"He's on the throne with a trash can in front of him. Prayed to it most of the night."

"Too much information." That was not a visual he wanted or needed.

"He caught a stomach bug, along with a touch of food poisoning. He and Ez were the only ones that went to the deli on Thursday; rest of us ate pizza. I called them, and they just found their refrigeration went dead without them knowing it. The mayo went bad."

Chris winced in distaste. Something struck him as odd. "JD seemed fine yesterday. Shouldn't take that long to kick in."

"Kid hid it from us with all those tech assistance calls he made to himself to get out of the room."

"He faked tech calls?" One hand ran down his face. Looked like he needed to convince them that it was okay to say they were sick, instead of making up excuses to hide it. That definitely was not the
example he wanted to set for JD to learn for his hopefully long career.


"Why can't any of you admit you're sick?"

There was a long pause. "When our leader starts to, I think the rest of us might consider it."

"Gee, thanks." He made a mental note to allow them to see some weakness when he wasn't feeling one hundred percent; lead by example. "You call Ezra?" he changed the subject.

"Yeah. Machine and voice mail on his cell. Even tried the cottage, but got the machine there."


"Got a weird call late last night – someone crying in the phone. Thought it was a prank. Caller ID said anonymous. He's heading to Ez's place in town. We figured you could hit the cottage because you're closest, got a good fifteen to twenty minute head start on the rest of us."

"Yeah, sure." Chris started getting dressed in his favorite old jeans and a clean black t-shirt. "Nathan?"

"Hasn't been called. JD's so embarrassed to be seen this way even by me. Vin and I figured Ez would be worse. Doc at the ER gave him something for the nausea, said lots of fluids and if the temp goes to
102, take him to the ER. Other than that, not much to do because the bug's gotta work its way out. Vin will tend your horses once he checks Ez's for him so you can get a start now. If you find him and have to stay, Vin'll take care of things."

"Thank Vin for me. Okay, fluids, watch the temp. Anything else?" Chris tugged on his boots.

"Yeah. You don't eat anything yourself."

"That bad?"

"Only reason I ain't right next to the kid's because of the crap we saw in the SEALs."

Chris detoured to his medicine cabinet for the Vick's Vaporub™ to go under his nose. "Great."

"Yeah. Keep in touch."

"I will." Larabee disconnected, putting the cordless phone back. He grabbed some sports drinks from the refrigerator and headed out. Hopefully, Ezra was okay, but with their luck and knowing the stubborn fool like he did, the Southerner was sick, alone, and probably in denial.