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Hombre's Magnificent Seven Fan Fiction

Differential Diagnosis

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Notes: This story was taken from another real-life account in the health section of The Daily Mail newspaper. I also got some very good information from the following book 'The Complete guide to symptoms, illness and surgery,' by Dr. H. Winter Griffith. This book is my life-line. Thanks also to Romanse. She helps beyond the call of duty and keeps me on the straight and narrow. Thanks also to Susan who has been kind enough to beta quite a few of my recent fics.

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Only noon, Ezra Standish cursed silently as he looked at his watch. Can this interminable day pass any slower? I feel as though I've been here since the dawning of mankind.

Most of his team-mates were out on assignments, or in meetings. Ezra and Vin, however, had drawn the short straw and were trawling through what seemed like half a century's worth of paperwork. The undercover agent had been bemoaning that fact ever since arriving that morning and realizing what he was expected to do. Boredom, as well as pain, was now gnawing at his soul.

Ezra shifted in the computer chair for the umpteenth time and sighed in frustration. The seat felt as hard as rock and was becoming very uncomfortable. He rolled his shoulders and tilted his head first to one side and then the other with a groan. Nothing eased the pain in his body, though. He sighed and closed his green eyes briefly as he tried to calm his rattled nerves.

“Ants in yer pants?” Vin, the team's sharpshooter, asked as he watched his fellow ATF agent’s non-stop squirming.

“No, Mr. Tanner,” the dark-haired man said wryly as he opened his eyes and looked across at his sole companion.

Vin met Ezra's gaze as he put down his pen and stretched. He was bored as hell, too, and watching what Ezra was doing was a welcomed distraction. “Why you fidget-assing about, then? You ain’t sat still for a minute since you got here,” the long-haired Texan observed dryly. “Maybe you got some other complaint,” he noted as he smiled and waggled his eyebrows in amusement.

Ezra looked offended as he sat up straight. He almost snorted as he pointed his pen like a sword in Vin's direction. “I’m certainly not suffering the symptoms you are insinuating. I have backache if you must know.”

The sharpshooter raised his eyebrows, his blue eyes laughing. “Well, you didn’t get it doing any hard work, did ya?”

Ezra smiled and lifted one buttock off the seat as if that would help. He was running out of exercises to try. “That’s true. It has been affecting me for the last few days and it is most infuriating and debilitating. I can't sleep and nothing seems to help.”

At last Vin began to sound sympathetic. He could see that his friend was truly uncomfortable. “You taken something for it?” he asked, with real concern in his voice.

“Yes, for all the good it does.”

The younger man shrugged and said seriously, “Maybe you need to be active for a bit. It ain’t good for you to sit still for too long.”

The southerner fixed Vin with a penetrating stare and narrowed his eyes. “You’ve been listening to Mr. Jackson too intently. You’re becoming his twin and that’s rather disturbing, Mr. Tanner. One of him is enough to deal with, thank you all the same.”

Ezra rose and stretched carefully, wincing as he put a hand to the painful spot in his lower back. He then began pacing around Team 7's office and ended up staring out the window as he arched his spine gently. Walking didn't seem to be helping, but he would persevere. Anything was better than being afflicted by constant pain. He’d been putting off going to visit his own doctor or seeing Nathan. He just hadn’t had the time, and he’d hoped his back would cure itself without medical intervention.

“Want something to eat, Ez?” Vin asked as he took some food out of his backpack.

Ezra looked at his friend and shook his head. “No, thank you. I must be ailing for something because I haven’t had much appetite lately, either.” He paced a circuit of the room before stopping by the window again with a heartfelt sigh.

“Yeah, well, yer skinny enough without cutting down further, Ez. Nate’s always moaning to you about yer weight.”

Ezra smiled and said, “I can’t help it if I have a fast metabolism.”

“That’s the only bit about you that’s fast, then,” Vin said sarcastically but with a grin. He screwed up a piece of paper into a ball and threw it at Ezra, deliberately missing. “Never seen you move faster than a crawl before. Sloths move like lightening compared to you.”

“Very witty, Mr. Tanner.”

“Hey, guys. Thought you two were supposed to be clearing those files I gave you,” Chris said as he entered the office and saw the inactivity. He looked from Vin to Ezra and back again with a scowl. Something was obviously going on, but not anything useful by the look of it. The blond team leader didn't mind his men talking, but he'd rather they were working while they did it.

“We have been, bud. Done about half between us already," Vin said calmly, taking no notice of the look on Chris’s face. "Ez has just got backache so he’s taking a break.”

Chris turned his attention to the other man. “What have you been up to Ezra? Haven’t been overexerting yourself for once?” Chris asked in an amused tone, his irritation gone in an instant.

Ezra scowled. He was getting more than a little annoyed by his friends' jokes. He knew they didn't mean anything by it, but it grated on his nerves just the same. “Yes, maybe I pulled a muscle as I rose from bed this morning. The strain of that strenuous exercise must have been too much for me to bear,” he snapped sourly.

Chris let his smile fade, knowing he shouldn’t be so jocular. Backache was no laughing matter. The black-clad man studied Ezra closely and could see the pinched look round his eyes. “Maybe you need to let Nate have a look.”

“Not likely. He’ll probably make me wear a girdle, or some other instrument of torture,” Ezra disagreed in horror.

Chris couldn't help laughing, knowing Ezra was probably right in his thoughts. Nathan, the team's medic, was all for trussing people up in bandages and the like. “Well, think on it, bud. You don’t look too comfortable.”

“I’ll survive, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said as he made his way back to his seat and tried to get back to work.

Chris nodded and dropped the subject for the time being. He would definitely be keeping a close eye on his undercover agent for the rest of the day, though. The blond turned and continued on his journey to his own office as the phone started ringing.

**************************************

Nathan bumped into Ezra coming out of the restroom the next day. He stopped the man with a gentle hand on his arm and smiled when Ezra looked at him. "Hey, Ez. How's yer back? Vin happened to mention yesterday you were in pain."

"Did he indeed?" the undercover agent said resignedly.

The medic crossed his arms and nodded as he moved to block his ailing friend's journey. He could see that he was going to try and avoid the coming inquisition. "Yeah, and he said you didn't seem too hungry."

"Pain has that affect on me, I’m afraid. Doesn't it you?" Ezra asked as he took a side step only to find that Nathan had countered the move.

Nathan shrugged as he thought about it. "S'pose so. Why don't you let me have a look to see if I can find out what the problem is?"

"I know what the problem is. It hurts," Ezra retorted, unable to stop himself rubbing the area concerned.

Nathan smiled. "I know, Ezra, but you know what I meant. There is a reason that it's hurting and maybe I can cure it."

Ezra shook his head and waved a denying hand. "I'll soldier on, Mr. Jackson. It isn't severe enough to impede my work."

"It could get so if you leave it," Nathan warned with a shake of his head at Ezra's stubborn attitude.

"I'll inform you if it reaches that stage," Ezra said, hoping to put Nathan off by giving that assurance. He just wanted the man to leave him alone. Sometimes Nathan was a bad as a dog with an old bone and it irritated Ezra immensely.

"Make sure you do," the medic said as he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He knew he was being given the brush-off and he couldn’t do a thing about it. He couldn’t force his friend to undergo an examination, no matter how much he wanted to. *Maybe I’ll have to get Chris to intervene on my behalf instead,* he thought to himself as he eyed Ezra worriedly.

Ezra tried a bit of reason, seeing that Nathan still wasn't convinced. "Well, I haven't exactly got the luxury right now of taking time out. Tollard is expecting a visit from me tomorrow. It's a bit late to back out now, if you'll forgive the pun."

Tollard was the city’s biggest crime lord, dabbling in drugs, weapons and anything else of monetary value, and Ezra had managed to gain access to his gang. The bust would be one of the most important that Team 7 had ever dealt with. Ezra had been slowly working his way into the gang as a buyer over the past six months. He’d proved himself a trustworthy person to Tollard and now things had a reached a point where the team could move in and make a good arrest.

"Work shouldn’t over-ride sickness, Ez. If I feel that you ain’t up to it, I'll speak to Chris," Nathan warned as he made sure that Ezra knew he was serious.

"I assure you I can handle it. If I am still troubled when this case is over I will come and see you. Anyway, that will probably be tomorrow, won't it? This is an in and out job. Tollard is due to be arrested when I go in." Ezra hoped that would clinch things in his favor, and it worked.

"I'll book you an appointment then," Nathan said as he patted Ezra's shoulder and let the man go.

******************************************

The day of the bust dawned and the men congregated at work for their final briefing. They all admitted to being a bit nervous. As Ezra had said the day before, it should be an in and out job, but they could never guarantee that nothing would go wrong. Despite the team’s experience, things were still a bit fraught.

At the beginning of the case, just finding the location of Tollard’s headquarters had been like tracing the Holy Grail. Despite a lot of hard work, Chris and his team had been unable to trace it at first. No amount of bribes to their regular informants had produced results. Then one of the gang had approached Ezra while he’d been working undercover on another case. It had been pure luck, and the team never looked a gift horse in the mouth when such a big prize was at stake.

The man, Hernandez, had wanted to join Ezra’s current smuggling gang thinking it would eventually become bigger than Tollard’s. Ezra had played along, using the opportunity to test out Hernandez’s reliability. Ezra had managed to persuade him to remain in Tollard’s gang and introduce him to the crime lord as a buyer. Ezra also made sure that Hernandez passed on any information about other clients and deals that he could. The undercover agent promised that he would definitely take over Tollard’s gang and promote Hernandez to be his second-in-command. That was an offer that Hernandez was not going to turn down. So, over the past six months the two men had worked side by side while Ezra stealthily moved toward his main goal. Hernandez, instead of improving his employment prospects as he planned, was walking blindly into the arms of the law.

Chris had been wary about the new source of information, but Hernandez had proved his worth recently with several other good tip-offs. That didn’t mean that Chris wasn’t still suspicious, but he was willing to go with the flow to catch Tollard. That day was now unexpectedly upon them and a plan was having to be hastily made. Ezra had received a panicked call from Hernandez late the previous afternoon telling him he had to act straightaway. The man had told him that Tollard wanted him to buy a large consignment of drugs immediately.

Chris looked around the group of agents and nodded to himself. He still marveled every day that he had found such a great bunch of men to work with. They were all utter professionals, and for that, he was rightly proud. He’d molded them into an awesome unit.

His gaze settled on Buck Wilmington. The man was lounging sideways in his chair with one arm hanging over the back. He was Chris’s oldest friend and they had been through some really tough times together. As usual, sitting next to him was JD, the youngest agent. He shared a condo with Buck and was an absolute wizard with a computer. He’d really matured since joining Team 7 and had proved to be able to handle himself in any situation.

Josiah Sanchez dwarfed JD in size but was normally a gentle giant. He had a furious temper when riled, though, but that wasn’t a side of his character that he showed too often. He was the oldest agent, and his hair was showing a touch of gray, but he was as fit as a man half his age.

Vin, Ezra and Nate sat talking quietly to one another nearby while waiting for Chris to speak. Chris’s eyes roved over them briefly, catching Vin’s eye as he did so. The sharpshooter stopped talking and turned to face the black-clad man expectantly.

Chris stood up when he saw that all his men were settled. “Okay, guys. I don’t need to tell you how important this is. We’ve been after Tollard for years and this is the only foot in the door we’re ever likely to get.” He paused. “Josiah? I want you in the surveillance van with me. You’re gonna act as Ezra’s associate and take the money in when the deal is done, okay?”

“Sure. How are we getting the money at such short notice? I guess it’s gonna be a sizable amount,” the profiler pointed out.

“Travis has been pulling a lot of strings this morning. He’s got it all in hand,” Chris said as he looked down at the hastily written notes he’d got in front of him. “Right, the rest of you split into pairs and take a vehicle each. Maybe Vin take JD with you.”

“Do we know where we’re heading yet?” Nathan asked.

Ezra looked toward his boss. “I’ll answer that, shall I?” He waited for a confirming nod from Chris before speaking. “No, Mr. Jackson. Hernandez hinted that it would be a new venue. Tollard has even been known to swap locations at the last minute and that's how he has remained at large for so long. He's unpredictable.”

Buck nodded. “So how are we gonna play this, Chris? Hate not knowing what we’re facing. There could be any number of problems when we get there.”

“That’s part of this job, Buck. We'll just have to act accordingly when we get the information from Ez. That's all we can do." The blond looked round the group once more. "Vin? Once you get to the drug pickup I want you to check the area out. The rest of you spread around the building concerned as best you can. Radio in with your exact locations, so I know where you'll be when we go in. Vin can update us on the best entry points later, but I want the place surrounded as soon as we arrive. I know we don't have a whole lot of information, but we've worked with less before."

"Quite so," Ezra agreed.

The blond turned to the undercover agent. “Watch your back, Ezra. Don’t give Tollard cause to doubt you.”

Ezra looked back at the man calmly, sensing that Chris was a bit hyper. "I don't think that will be too much of a problem, Mr. Larabee. He already seems to trust me."

“Yeah, I know he does, but he's also a slippery bastard as you said yourself. I don't wanna lose him, but I don't wanna lose you, either. You're too valuable.” There, I've said it, Chris thought to himself. I've made sure Ezra knows how much I rely on his undercover skills. Shoulda said it more often to him.

Ezra nodded slightly in thanks for the compliment. “If we all follow procedure, we will come out of this unscathed and hopefully with Tollard in custody,” the undercover agent continued casually.

Chris nodded, but still urged caution. “If you are in the least bit suspicious, Ezra, get out. Hernandez has been good so far, but I’m holding my opinion on him until after this.”

“Why are you being negative when we’re getting what we wanted? We wanted Tollard, and one of his gang is helping us get him, albeit unwittingly. It doesn’t matter how we came by our information, does it?” Ezra asked in confusion. He really couldn’t understand Chris’s reasoning. “I checked Hernandez out when I met him and he seems totally genuine. You have to agree he's been more than helpful so far. Anyway, I’m willing to face danger to get my hands on Tollard, whatever the cost.”

“Well, I ain’t so sure about Hernandez. Don’t risk your life over this, Ez,” the blond said, not placated at all.

“I believe that is exactly the purpose of my employment,” Ezra commented, slightly sarcastically.

Chris ignored the comment and, after checking his watch, signaled that the meeting was over. Time was overtaking them and this was one time that he didn't want to be late.

Ezra set off immediately to meet his contact after JD had sorted out a wire for him. He drove to a bar downtown and pulled into the parking lot. He stayed in the vehicle and put a hand to his back while taking a deep breath. The pain he had been experiencing had come back and he wriggled uncomfortably.

Chris was in the surveillance truck with Josiah and he frowned when Ezra didn’t get out of his car.

“Do you think he’s okay? Hasn’t seemed his normal self recently,” Josiah commented as he put on his headphones, leaving one ear uncovered.

“No, he’s had backache,” Chris said, his eyes glued to the screen where Ezra’s car was clearly in view. Still the undercover agent hadn’t emerged.

“He’s a stubborn fool where his health is concerned sometimes,” the profiler said with a smile.

Getting Ezra to see anyone for a medical problem was like trying to keep a thirsty horse away from water. Josiah had, on several occasions, nearly carried the smaller agent to appointments. The older man tended to keep an eye on Ezra's welfare, because he knew that he didn’t always take good care of himself when undercover. He’d almost become his guardian angel - making sure he got enough sleep and that he actually ate.

“Stubborn all round, bud,” Chris said distractedly with a slight smile, interrupting Josiah’s thoughts. “Everything all right, Ez?” the blond finally asked through his mike.

Ezra jumped as he heard the voice in his ear. “Yes, Mr. Larabee. Just collecting my thoughts.”

The undercover agent climbed out of the Jag and headed to the bar. He entered and looked round for Hernandez. After noting that he wasn’t here, Ezra made his way to the counter and ordered a beer. He perched awkwardly on a bar stool and sipped his drink slowly.

Hernandez finally arrived and sidled up to Ezra. The man was small, dark-haired and had a perpetual smell of tobacco about him. “Hey, how ya doin’?” he asked in a whisper.

“I’m fine, thank you, and there is no need to whisper.” Ezra sighed. “That’s almost as suspicious as looking over your shoulder every second,” he said wryly, as he watched Hernandez do exactly that. “Have you made suitable arrangements?”

“Yeah, Tollard is expecting you in an hour. It ain’t easy lying to him. I feel a bit of a traitor.”

"It's a bit late for that type of thought after all your previous betrayals." Ezra sincerely hoped that the man wasn’t having second thoughts. “You will be suitably rewarded for all your efforts, I assure you of that,” he placated. “Now, did you find out why he needs me in such a hurry to buy this consignment?”

Hernandez looked highly uncomfortable. “He lost his main buyer, so I suggested you could buy it. He’s worked with you enough now to totally trust you and he agreed real quick. Reckon he was relieved.”

“How did he come to lose his buyer?” Ezra asked suspiciously. Hernandez’s body language told him that it would be bad news.

“He killed him,” the man mumbled as he looked down at his shoes anxiously.

Ezra narrowed his eyes. For an informant, Hernandez seemed to be reluctant to impart all his information. Ezra sighed and asked resignedly, “Why?”

“He thought he double-crossed him. Well, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but he couldn’t take that chance, so he offed him.” Hernandez wouldn't look at Ezra and instead played with a beer mat distractedly.

Ezra nodded as he digested the news. “Am I meeting Tollard alone?”

“No, the whole gang will be there covering his back. I’ve done all I can to make him believe that you can take over as his main buyer now. He thinks yer a godammed saint after what I told him, but he expects one hundred percent loyalty.”

“He’ll have it - for at least an hour,” Ezra said with a smile.

“He’ll be extra watchful. He’s managed to keep outta prison before. He ain’t stayed that way by being sloppy,” Hernandez said seriously.

“Quite so. Thank you for pointing that out.”

The betraying gang member was now becoming agitated. He was worried that if things went wrong Ezra would tell Tollard that he’d been working both sides. He almost pawed Ezra's arm as he spoke. “You wouldn’t tell him I’ve been helping you out, will you?” the man asked anxiously.

“Of course not,” Ezra placated. “I will keep our little secret, but he’ll find out eventually when I take over his gang, won’t he?”

“S’pose,” Hernandez mumbled unhappily, "but he'll be in prison by then, hopefully."

“We’d better go to our rendezvous, don’t you think?” Ezra said as he stood up, wanting to get going before Hernandez bolted.

The two men set off to their appointment after Ezra had removed his wire in the restroom. He was relying on a mike hidden in a pen, and he hoped that Chris could hear him properly through it.

He was taken to a derelict Catholic church in the center of town. I wonder what Mr. Sanchez will be thinking about the venue. It's sacrilegious, Ezra thought to himself as he followed Hernandez. The agent was thoroughly frisked by a large henchman on entering the building, and his pen was overlooked in the search. Hernandez slunk away silently to join his fellow gang members, glad to be out of the limelight.

“Ah, Mr. Tollard. How nice to see you again,” Ezra said as he strode toward the gang leader and held out his hand.

Tollard, a tall, broad-shouldered man, shook it as he scrutinized the agent closely. Ezra did not flinch and Tollard nodded as if confirming something to himself.

“Take a seat,” Tollard said as he pointed to a nearby chair.

Ezra did so and crossed his legs nonchalantly as he watched a tall, swarthy man exit an office nearby. The man walked up to Tollard briskly and whispered in his ear. The crime lord nodded in reply as he watched Ezra closely.

“I’ve just heard that the drugs have arrived, so let’s get down to business. How much of my consignment do you want?”

“All of it, as I thought you wanted. I’ve already set up another distribution network in readiness. The drugs will be out of town within hours and no one will be able to track it.”

“You have the collateral?”

“I do. I just need to call my associate when the deal is done. I didn’t want to carry such a large amount of cash myself, you understand. There are so many unscrupulous people about these days,” Ezra commented and then laughed, his gold tooth shining brightly.

Tollard smiled as he indicated for Ezra to stand and follow him.

“Well, the drugs are kept in a different location. If you’ll come with me, I’ll take you there.”

“I have my car outside,” Ezra said, hoping to follow on his own so that he could talk to Chris.

“I’ll bring you back after we come to an agreement about the drugs,” Tollard said forcefully.

Ezra smiled and nodded in agreement. It seemed that he didn’t have a choice but accompany the man.

He was taken outside to an SUV and he climbed inside, seeing Chris crawl into the front of the surveillance van in order to follow. Josiah would stay in the back to continue listening in to any conversations between Ezra and Tollard.

On arrival at the storage center, which was housed in a run down area of town, Ezra was taken through to a large room where numerous boxes were piled. Tollard pointed to a table at the back of the room where a few bags of drugs were sitting. Ezra inspected the goods and nodded in satisfaction after he’d tested the quality.

“Could I just choose one more bag from the rest of the consignment? Not that I don’t trust you, but just for my own peace of mind. I always like to choose what I test, then there’s no cause for cheating or bad feeling.”

“Fair enough. Help yourself,” Tollard said with a nod of approval.

Ezra checked another bag from the bottom of the pile and smiled again. He held out his hand and Tollard shook it firmly.

“Very good batch, Mr. Tollard, thank you. I’ll just call my associate and you can have your money.” Ezra pulled out his cell and called Josiah.

The big man didn’t arrive straightaway. Although he had been outside the building, he wanted to give the idea of having had to travel to get there. It was an anxious time for the agents who were spread around the area outside. Ezra, meanwhile, engaged in small-talk with Tollard for half an hour, not showing that the waiting was getting to him.

Josiah finally wandered into the room after being search by one of Tollard’s men. The profiler nodded to everyone and handed a large briefcase to Ezra. Ezra opened it and showed the contents to Tollard. The man took the case and checked some of the notes to make sure they were genuine. Although Ezra had given him no reason to doubt him, he was taking no chances. He was being as cautious as Ezra had previously been with the drugs.

“Let’s celebrate our business partnership with a drink. If you want to join me in the office,” Tollard said as he showed the way, satisfied with the money.

Chris was still listening in the surveillance van and he held off giving the signal to go in. He didn’t want Tollard to think that Josiah had led them there.

Ezra and Josiah were forced to suffer an hour in the Tollard gang’s company. Ezra was especially finding it tough, because his back was hurting more with each passing minute.

Finally they heard Chris’s voice. “ATF. Put your hands in the air and don’t make any sudden moves. Got a real itchy trigger-finger,” the blond called as he appeared as if by magic from the rear of the building.

All the gang members were in the room with Tollard, celebrating their multi-million dollar deal. They were trapped like fish in a net. One man threw himself out the door to land flat on the floor as he fired at the incoming agents. He survived for all of five seconds, Vin taking him out without batting an eyelid.

“Come out without your weapons,” Chris yelled, “or you’ll all end up like your friend. We don’t care if we take you dead or alive. It’s up to you.”

The agents ducked as a chair was thrown through the office window, shattering the glass. Two more gang members then started firing as Chris and his team ducked behind nearby boxes. A sudden lull, though, gave the ATF men a chance to fight back. Buck rose and ran forward to get nearer the gang, protecting his head with his hands as bullets followed every step. The other agents took advantage now that Buck had everyone else’s attention. They stood and sent a volley of bullets toward Tollard and his men, breaking the rest of the windows and making the gang drop to the ground. The ATF men had been very careful not to aim anywhere near their two undercover colleagues who were, of course, in the same room as the gang.

Once it was safe, Vin and the others quickly moved in and disarmed the gang before they could recover. The sharpshooter kept the room covered by his weapon, but there was no further resistance. Each gang member was patted down and relieved of all weapons after they’d been firmly cuffed while still on the floor.

Ezra turned to Tollard looking furious. Chris had hold of him and was forced to pull the man away from Ezra as the ATF agent continued with his charade. Ezra was certainly putting on a good show.

“Mr. Tollard?” he shouted. “I was led to believe that you were the best – that no one could touch you. It seems I was informed incorrectly,” Ezra snapped. “I’ve managed to stay one step ahead of the law, but you have caused my arrest, sir.”

Chris put a hand on Ezra’s chest and pushed him away from the gang leader, seemingly telling the agent to back off. JD stepped forward and intervened, taking Ezra outside, acting as if he was struggling to control with the man.

Josiah also did his bit to convey his innocence in the bust. He went so far as to attack Buck as he was trying to cuff him. Josiah sent out a huge fist and connected with Buck’s chin. He made sure the blow glanced off the man’s face, not hitting him as hard as it looked. Buck fell artistically to the ground as Vin moved in and sorted Josiah out with a nifty judo move.

Ezra and Josiah were kept with the other prisoners and had to endure the trip back to the ATF headquarters with them. Soon after they’d arrived, though, Chris snuck then out of the holding cells and took them back up to their own office.

“Well done, Ez. It went perfectly and Tollard didn’t suspect a thing,” Chris praised as he patted Ezra’s shoulder boisterously. He was certainly relieved that this case was over. He'd felt like a coiled spring all day, but now he could hopefully relax.

The undercover agent nodded. “Yes, he seemed rather perturbed by your appearance. Hopefully he’ll think one of his own men sold him down the river, which they did,” Ezra said with a smile as he brushed down his slightly dusty clothes.

He then turned to the profiler who was standing next to him. “Mr. Sanchez, that was an inspired move to punch Mr. Wilmington. It added credibility to our supposed innocence.”

“Tell that to my chin,” Buck said as he ambled by, rubbing his jaw.

Chris smiled at his best friend before turning back to the other two agents. “Okay, guys. Go and write up your reports for Travis, and then we’ll celebrate. Reckon we all deserve it, but you the most, Ez.”

******************************************

The seven men stood around the conference room toasting their success. None of the agents had been hurt and none of the baddies had evaded capture. It was a good result all round. The team was in good spirits and Chris allowed them time to enjoy the capture of Tollard. It wasn't often that things went without a hitch, so it was twice as satisfying when they did.

Ezra flexed his back and raised a hand to the aching spot. He’d been feeling rotten all day, and the pain was now moving toward his stomach, which seemed rather odd. He decided to stay at the get-together for another ten minutes and then make his excuses and leave. He felt the need of a nice hot soak in the tub followed by a good night's sleep.

“Yer back still bothering you, Ez?” Vin asked as he moved to stand beside his friend. He reached out a concerned hand and placed it gently on Ezra’s shoulder.

“A bit. Perhaps it is old age,” the undercover agent replied with a weak smile.

He put down his glass of orange juice and rubbed his stomach instead. Vin offered the man some potato chips but Ezra declined them with a wave of his hand. Even that small movement seemed to affect his whole body and he winced and groaned.

“Well, back problems are nasty, I should know,” Vin said, alluding to his having to live with a slightly curved spine.

To Ezra, though, it seemed more than just normal backache. Maybe he’d take up Nathan's offer of help now that he had finished this case and had the time. Time, however, was not on his side. Ezra was suddenly overwhelmed by the most terrible pain in his stomach and groin that he’d ever experienced. He bent double in reaction, but had no time to do anything else as the floor came up to meet him. The world had turned black even before he’d hit the ground.

Chris turned quickly as he caught the movement out the corner of his eye. He frowned and his heart skipped a beat as he watched Ezra's downward journey.

“Ez? Shit!” Vin exclaimed in horror.

The blond watched as the sharpshooter reached out to catch the collapsing agent. Vin just managed to get a hold on him but was pulled down to the ground by the man's impetus. He ended up on his knees with Ezra’s upper body cradled awkwardly in his lap.

Nathan spun round as he heard the ominous sounds and then charged across the room. He’d been standing furthest away, looking out the window with Josiah. He pushed the rest of his shocked friends out of the way in his haste to get to the unconscious man.

“Ezra?” he called, while dropping to his knees beside the prone agent as Vin moved aside. He wondered if the agent had been hit by a stray bullet during the bust and not realized it. “Open your eyes,” he ordered as he checked the man for blood stains.

The medic didn’t find any so he checked his friend’s pulse and frowned. He then examined Ezra's belly with probing fingers as another terrible thought entered his mind. Events of the last few days suddenly converged and he realized that Ezra's symptoms could be pointing to something life threatening. Vin saw the man clench his jaw and intake a sharp breath at what he discovered.

“Nate? I thought he was having trouble with his back, not his guts. Has he just fainted?” Buck asked from where he looked on anxiously.

“No, I reckon it’s something much more serious. Get an ambulance, now. Tell ‘em it’s a possible ruptured triple A.” He shook his head and scowled. "Dammit, I shoulda realized what was wrong when you told me that he had backache and wasn't eating, Vin. Shit, now it could be too late."

"What's a triple A?" the younger man asked worriedly.

Nathan, however, wasn't listening and Vin knew better than to badger him right now. The men would find out all they needed to know when they reached the hospital.

*************************************

Six very anxious men sat in relative silence in the waiting room. Every so often one of them would stand up and wander round the room, look out the window and then return to their seat. They each took a slightly different route on their journey, one or two of them going as far as the door to check the hallway for any sign that someone was coming to update them. So far no one had, and it was wearing on their nerves.

Chris suddenly started to mumble under his breath, the occasional swear word being said loud enough for all to hear. JD began fidgeting continuously in the hard-backed chair he was sitting in. He looked like a child who was having to sit through a long sermon in church and wishing he were anywhere but there. Every few minutes, Buck leaned toward him to try and calm the youngster down with a few whispered words of encouragement.

It was a scene that was repeated in every waiting room in hospitals the world over. Anxious people waiting for hours on end for news of a loved one or friend.

The waiting finally came to an end an hour later. If it had gone on for much longer all hell would have broken loose. Chris, especially, was not known for his patience.

A disheveled doctor entered the room and stood still as he looked at each of the worried faces that stared back at him. He'd been told that his critically ill patient had six friends awaiting news, and that they were all law-enforcement agents. He'd also been told they were not a bunch to be toyed with when one of their own was the patient concerned. They wanted the truth, no matter how bad that might prove to be.

Bad news was never easy to impart, but Dr. James had developed a way with words that somehow deadened the blow. He was a compassionate man and would always do what he could to ease peoples’ fears.

The doctor cleared his throat roughly and ran his fingers through his thinning hair wearily. “Hello. My name’s Dr. James and I am the attending physician for Agent Standish." He could see that his pleasantries were only irritating the group of men, so he took a deep breath and started his report. "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that Mr. Standish wasn't unfortunately suffering from run-of-the-mill backache as he thought. The differential diagnosis that Mr. Jackson rightly identified was a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm." Dr. James looked round the group again and saw that more explanation was needed. "Before a rupture occurs, pain manifests itself in the back, before moving round to the stomach at the last minute, which is what Mr. Standish experienced."

"What is an aneurysm?" JD asked.

Dr. James smiled. "Well, in your friend's case, the main artery in his stomach developed a bulge, which weakened the artery wall, eventually making it burst. That caused him to bleed very badly internally as a result. The good news is that he got here fast. Most patients bleed out and die before they even see the inside of the hospital. Mr. Standish's blood was beginning to clot by the time he got here, so he was very lucky because that doesn't happen very often.” The man took a breath and sighed. “He’s in surgery right now to get the bleeding stopped totally but he’s inevitably in shock because of the blood loss.”

Josiah stepped forward and put a hand on the doctor’s arm. “He’ll be okay, though?”

The doctor was certainly not going to mislead the men. There could be no sugar-coating of the facts in situations such as this. “I can’t say for sure, because his overall condition is critical at the moment. There is also a real possibility of complications later on, but we’re doing all we can for him.” Dr. James smiled encouragingly and turned to leave. “I’ll be back when he’s out of surgery.”

“Nate? What sorta complications?” Chris asked as he turned toward the medic quickly in fear.

Nathan also knew he had to be truthful, but he hated adding to his friends’ woes. “Some patients suffer an embolism, or a heart attack, a few days after surgery. Ezra is young, but aneurysms are killers, guys. This is real serious for him.”

Silence descended after hearing that warning from Nathan. The shocked men sat anxiously and waited for news of their friend, hoping he would be all right.

**********************************

Dr. James returned half an hour later looking upset and he wasn’t looking forward to his next task. Chris, in particular, was a formidable man, and when his temper broke he'd heard he could be truly frightening.

Chris spotted the man and stood up in expectation, but also with a frown. He could see that the doctor looked highly uncomfortable. “Doc?” he prompted worriedly.

“I am afraid I have some bad news.”

Chris felt sick. He started hyperventilating as he imagined what that bad news was going to be. “Is Ez okay? What’s happened?”

The doctor’s gray, apologetic eyes met Chris’s green, anxious ones. “Something that shouldn’t have. I’m afraid there seems to have been a mix-up over Mr. Standish’s blood. He was being given the wrong type during his transfusion. As a result he suffered some nasty allergic reactions which have caused his condition to deteriorate. He went into a quite severe case of anaphylactic shock. We’ve started measures to correct the mistake and the symptoms should hopefully clear in time, now that the transfusion of that blood type has stopped. He'll be on a cocktail of drugs to support his blood pressure and make sure he doesn’t develop acute kidney failure, though.”

The black-clad man’s face clouded ominously. “How the hell could something so important be fucked up?”

The doctor took a step back, almost feeling the man’s anger as an unseen force pushing him away. He was going to defend himself, but he knew nothing would placate the blond man at this precise moment. “In pressure situations like this there is always the likelihood of a mistake. That in no way excuses what happened and I sincerely apologize. It has, of course, added to the seriousness of Mr. Standish’s condition and we will be monitoring him very closely from now on.”

"If you have been concentrating on what you were doing earlier this wouldn't have happened," Chris muttered darkly. "Jeez, yer incompetent."

Josiah put out a strong hand and pulled Chris away. He made Chris look at him and shook his head slightly in rebuke. “Is he outta surgery?” he then asked the doctor, still keeping a firm grip on Chris.

“No, and he won’t be for a while.”

“Shit,” Nathan snarled once the doctor had gone. He punched the wall and then stood with his hands on his hips, staring at the floor.

“Do you think Ez will be okay?” Josiah asked as he studied his unhappy friend critically.

Nathan shrugged, staying in his previous position as he scuffed the floor distractedly. “As the doctor said, it hasn’t helped. I really can’t say anything about his recovery, but he coulda done without this on top of what was already an emergency. A small number of blood transfusion reactions are fatal.”

“Dammit,” Chris cursed as he pulled out of Josiah’s grasp and strode outside angrily to get some air.

************************

“Dr. James? What news?” Vin asked as he spotted the doctor coming into the waiting room.

Dr. James smiled softly. He came to a standstill where all the men could see him, and then put his hands in his pockets. “Well, he’s in ICU for the time being. The bleeding has been stopped but he’s going to be with us a couple of weeks while he starts to heal. He had to have a major incision from his breastbone to lower abdomen to access where he was bleeding. As you can imagine, there was no time for niceties, and all his internal organs in the area had to be removed. With everything he’s suffered, it means it’s going to be quite some time before he’s really well again.”

JD screwed his face up at hearing the details of the operation. He hadn't counted on such a vivid description.

“What caused the aneurysm?” Nathan asked as he caught the doctor's eye.

“I can't say for sure where Mr. Standish is concerned. As you know, Mr. Jackson, it could have been as a result of a previous injury, or in some people it’s a birth defect. Mostly though it’s because of smoking, high blood pressure, stress and being overweight.”

“Three outta four of those last options apply to Ezra, although he doesn’t smoke too much. Coulda been an injury, too, I s’pose,” Chris said as he exchanged glances with his medical friend. The blond had calmed down after his earlier outburst, knowing anger would do no one any good.

“Can we see him?” Josiah asked.

Dr. James nodded. “Just a couple of you. I want to warn you that he's not out of the woods yet. Heart attack is a real danger at this point.”

“Nate told us about that, doc,” the profiler said quietly.

Dr. James nodded and led the way to ICU, Chris and Nathan being the ones to accompany him. They stood by the bed and looked down at their friend worriedly. Ezra had a dressing over the long wound that stretched right down his stomach. He inevitably looked pale and a shadow of his former self.

The blond's eyes roved over the various tubes and wires that were attached to Ezra's body. First his gaze settled on the heart monitor pads on his chest that were connected to the beeping machine nearby. Next he moved onto the clip on the forefinger of his right hand that checked his blood oxygenation. From there he followed two IV lines in Ezra's arm up to twin bags of clear liquid hanging by the bed. Next to that was red blood in a bag, and he traced that line's journey back down to Ezra's arm again. He looked at the oxygen mask over his friend's face that was pumping pure O2 into his lungs. Finally, Chris sighed unhappily as he studied the wheals on Ezra’s skin from a bad attack of hives.

"He looks awful," he mumbled.

“He’s suffering from shock still, and bear in mind that he’s been through a major trauma. I'm sure you can understand that he’s not going to look too healthy for quite some time to come. The hives should hopefully start to fade soon, though. It was just one of the symptoms of his blood transfusion reaction, I’m afraid.” Dr. James pursed his lips. “He’s going to have had about 25 units of blood replaced in total, which as you see is still being done. Mr. Standish had a synthetic graft put in place where the aneurysm occurred and he was very lucky to survive. It's a lot for anyone to cope with.”

"Yeah, I know, doc. Thanks."

Chris and Nathan stayed with Ezra for a few minutes and then went back to update their friends.

“Cowboy?” Vin asked worriedly. “How’s he doin’?”

The blond shook his head and shrugged. “Doc says he was lucky to live, but we already knew that." Chris rubbed his eyes. "Ez is covered in hives and looks like shit.”

“Least he’s still with us, fellas,” Josiah said, trying to be positive. He looked round the group and caught their eyes. “I’ll keep putting in a good word with the Lord, though.”

*************************************

Chris made sure Dr. James understood that there would always be one of them with Ezra, no matter what time, day or night. The doctor had heard from his colleagues about the close-knit group of men and he gave his consent to the arrangements freely.

Buck was keeping Ezra company that first evening. He felt very tense as he sat and stared at his friend as if expecting tragedy still to strike. Nathan's words still reverberated round his brain and he couldn't help but fear the worst for his friend.

Ezra still looked as pale as a ghost and the multiple hives stood out in stark contrast to the color of his skin. Even though he was unconscious, he had a strained look on his face. Sweat continually beaded on his forehead and his hair was quite damp to the touch.

The ladies’ man took hold of Ezra's hand and started talking to him. “Jesus, Ezra. I don’t think I’ve been so scared in a long time. One minute you were celebrating, and the next you were fighting for your life. It was so unexpected, bud.” He reached out and ran his fingers through Ezra's hair gently. He really wanted to get a response from his friend, but he knew it was way too early.

“Mr. Wilmington?”

Buck turned as Dr. James entered the room. “Hey, doc,” he greeted.

“Had any response from him yet? I heard you talking to him,” the doctor commented as he checked his patient’s condition.

Buck smiled while watching the doctor closely as he examined his friend. He kept his gaze focused on the man's face and tried to read his expression as he worked. “No, he ain’t even moved a finger. Thought talking to him might help, and I’m not one for silence, and neither is Ez. Quietness makes me nervous,” the ladies’ man admitted.

“I can understand that. Hospitals aren’t the most comfortable places to start with, are they? They breed nervousness - especially in ICU,” Dr. James agreed as he looked at Buck and smiled encouragingly.

The ladies’ man nodded as he stood up and began to pace the room. “How is he?”

“Well, the symptoms of the blood mix-up are slowly clearing, which is good. The drugs he's on for that are certainly helping. Other than that, though, he's still very weak and a bit shocked.”

“How long did you say that he'd have to be in here?” Buck asked, still trying to get his head around the situation.

“Probably a couple of weeks altogether. The clips in his wound can come out after a week hopefully, but as I said before, it’s going to be a while longer until he gets back up to full speed again. He’s going to have to take things very easy after his release. If it had been a scheduled operation he would probably have recovered faster, but as it was a rupture it is much more serious.”

"Yeah, I can understand that. We'll take good care of him when he gets outta here. He won't lift a finger without our say so," Buck promised.

**********************************

Ezra was still in ICU and Chris was sitting with him for the time being. It had been a whole twenty-four hours since Ezra'd come out of surgery and he still showed no signs of waking up. Each of his friends had taken turns to sit with him, but now caring duties were down to Chris and JD alone. Buck and Vin had been due in court, while Josiah and Nathan were on a joint mission with the FBI which couldn’t be changed.

“Hey, boss,” JD said as he strode into the room.

“Hello. Did you sleep okay?” Chris asked as he studied his disheveled colleague.

The young agent shook his head as he moved to stare out the window. He yawned loudly and stretched tall before turning to face Chris. “No, Buck and the others kept calling to find out how Ez is doin’. I ain’t been able to rest without being interrupted.”

Chris nodded in understanding. He'd have done the same thing if he'd been unable to visit. “Well, they have a right to be concerned. It can’t be easy for them to be away from here during such a critical time.”

“I know. He ain’t woken?” JD as he looked at Ezra sadly.

“No," Chris said with a shake of his head. He then smiled as he thought back on JD's earlier comments. "Well, don't count on getting much rest in here either, will ya? The nurse in charge of Ezra checks on him every fifteen minutes and Dr. James is in and out a lot, too.” The blond stood and patted JD’s shoulder. He then headed to the door and waved. “See ya later, JD.”

JD took the seat that Chris had just vacated and shifted about to try and get comfortable. He finally sat back and closed his eyes with a sigh, but didn't fall asleep. His mind drifted and he thought back to a day when he and Ezra had gone skiing in the mountains. He smiled as he recalled hearing Ezra shouting in pleasure as he'd gone down the slope at high speed. It wasn’t often that the undercover agent allowed his true feelings to show, but that day, JD had seen the man beneath the usual poker face. He couldn’t help chuckling out loud as he remembered Ezra falling over his skis while trying to maneuver at the top of the slope. The undercover agent had been mortified, and the look on his face was still etched on JD’s memory. Happy days, he thought, unlike now.

JD opened his eyes and looked sadly at his friend. “Sure hope you’ll be up to skiing again in the future, Ez. That was a fun day.”

The young man sighed and closed his eyes once more, his mind blank. An hour passed by quietly, although JD heard the nurse moving around the room doing her duties.

Ezra then groaned long and low, making the young agent get to his feet instantly, now wide awake. “Ezra? It’s JD, can you hear me?” he called anxiously.

Another groan escaped Ezra's colorless lips as he tried vainly to open his eyes. His eyelids fluttered uncontrollably as he fought against the lead weights that seemed to be holding them closed. Finally, he managed to open them ever so slightly so that a very thin slit of light leaked through. The seriously ill man appeared to be entering the waking world again.

If it weren't for the powerful medication he was on, Ezra would have been in great pain. Even so, he was still aware of a constant deep ache that throbbed throughout his body with every breath he took. Ezra really didn’t know what was going on, or where he was. He had heard a voice talking to him as if from a great distance, but his brain couldn’t register the words, or who was communicating with him.

JD leaned over his friend, as much as his small stature would allow, that is. “Ez?” he called as he touched Ezra’s cheek gently. He wasn’t really sure if Ezra was fully conscious or not.

The nurse heard JD talking and she hurried to stand by the bed, too. She attracted Ezra’s attention by touching his hand gently. “Hello, Mr. Standish?” she said when Ezra’s half-open eyes swiveled her way.

Ezra forced his eyes open a bit wider and tried to smile at her. He had no idea who she was but he could tell she was there to help, not harm, him.

“You’re in Mercy hospital and you’ve had major surgery. Just stay quiet and still if you can. My name’s Petra and I’ll be helping to take care of you. Mr. Dunne’s here to keep you company, too,” the young brunette said as she smiled sweetly.

“Hey, Ez,” JD said as his friend turned to look at him in total confusion. “Real glad you’re still with us, bud. You’re doing fine.”

“I’ll just get Dr. James,” Petra said to JD as she turned and hurried out of the room.

“What?” Ezra managed to mumble as he continued staring at JD. He was a bit more awake, but nothing was making sense to him. He felt truly awful and his mouth had the sensation of being stuffed with old socks.

“You had a stomach aneurysm, Ez. Thought we were gonna lose you,” JD told Ezra as he reached out and took hold of his sick friend’s hand tightly. “Just relax and let the doc take care of you, okay?”

Dr. James arrived and moved to stand on the opposite side of the bed from JD. “Hello, Mr. Standish. Let me take a good look at you. Do you know what happened to you?”

“I just told him,” JD said.

Dr. James nodded and gave the sick man a few more details as he checked the readouts on the machines near the bed. He noted down the details on Ezra’s chart before turning his attention to the wound itself. He did a quick hands-on examination and nodded in satisfaction. By the time he’d finished, Ezra was deeply asleep.

“How’s he doin’?” the dark-haired agent asked after turning away so that he didn't have to look at Ezra's wound.

“Pretty good, all things considered. He’s very drowsy and disorientated, which isn’t surprising. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the state of his heart a while longer, though. It’s been put under considerable strain throughout this.” Dr. James patted JD's shoulder and left the room with Petra.

JD nodded and took the opportunity to go outside and call Chris. He couldn’t keep the real worry he felt from showing in his tone. “Hey, Chris. Ez woke up, but I don’t think he really knew what was going on. He seemed real confused and sleepy. The doctor seems a bit worried about him still: his heart especially.”

“Well, Nate did warn us about that. The doc’s just being cautious, for which I’m glad. Shows he’s doing his job properly, JD. All this only blew up the day before yesterday so Ezra’s not going to get better quickly, is he?” the blond said, trying to placate his anxious young friend. He knew that JD tended to get a bit panicky when on duty in the hospital on his own.

JD shrugged unhappily. “No, guess not. Seems he was sick longer ago than yesterday.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back in a couple of hours, okay?” Chris said, giving JD a time-line to latch on to.

“Sure.”

JD went back inside and sat beside Ezra until Chris arrived a few hours later. The blond timed his entrance to perfection and turned up just as Ezra woke again.

JD stood up as soon as he noticed and smiled down at Ezra in welcome. “Hey, Ez. Thought you’d be asleep longer than that. Feel okay?”

“No,” Ezra mumbled dreamily as he looked around the room with bleary eyes. He had such bad vision that he missed seeing Chris altogether.

“Well, that’s not surprising. You had to be opened up like a disemboweled deer and all yer innards became outtards for a while.”

JD,” Chris said in astonishment at the man’s candor.

“What?” JD asked innocently as he looked at his boss. He turned back to Ezra and grinned. “Shoulda asked the surgeon to put in a zipper, ‘cause you’re bound to be back in here again. They could just unzip you then, instead of cutting you open,” the kid said as he pretended to unzip his own stomach to emphasize his point.

“Jeez, JD. Your mind thinks up some crazy-ass things sometimes,” Chris said as he patted the young man’s back and laughed.

Ezra let out a light huff of laughter, too, and then groaned at the pain. He didn’t really know what he was laughing at anyway. He hadn't been listening to anything JD had said, but the tone of his friend’s voice suggested he was trying to be funny.

JD ran his fingers through Ezra’s short hair and then stroked his cheek softly to calm him down. Ezra lay still and slowly relaxed as JD continued his tactile ministrations. The feel of his freind's fingers on Ezra’s skin and in his hair was soothing, and certainly had the desired effect on the bedridden man. He dozed contentedly until he moved on the bed a few seconds later.

Petra wandered over when she heard Ezra groan softly again. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, we’ve just been pulling Ezra’s chain,” JD said as he rubbed his friend's arm.

“Torturing a defenseless man, are you?” Petra asked in amusement.

“Well, he’s usually the one making jokes. This is the only time we get for retribution,” JD explained.

Petra smiled at Ezra and checked his condition again. She rearranged the bedding at the bottom of the bed when she noticed that Ezra’s feet were uncovered. She touched them to see if they were cold and quickly covered them up to keep them warm. She then cast an eye over her patient before leaving him with his friends.

Chris leaned over Ezra and gained his attention. “Hello, buddy. Hope JD’s been taking good care of you.”

Ezra managed a small smile but no words. He felt devoid of energy and that one small facial gesture had exhausted him. Being in the hospital was enough to cope with, without having to interact with the medical staff and his friends. He appreciated Chris and JD's company and he knew they would understand that he wasn't up to much right now.

Chris took hold of Ezra’s hand and rubbed the back of it gently as he sat down in a nearby chair. “Get some rest, Ez. You look real tired. Need to save your strength as much as possible.”

Ezra seemed to agree and closed his eyes, falling asleep almost immediately.

“Looks real poorly, don’t he?” JD commented.

“So would you in his position. It’s nothing to worry about, well...you know what I mean - it’s to be expected.” Chris nodded at his friend. “Why don’t you go and have a proper rest, too? I’m happy to stay.”

JD nodded and headed out, glad for the break. Chris relaxed once he had gone, but still kept a gentle hold on Ezra’s hand as the man slept.

***********************************

Days passed and Ezra was moved out of ICU and into a private room. At the end of the first week, he had the clips in his wound removed as expected. He’d been encouraged to get out of bed as soon as he felt able, but even a short trip to the hallway and back exhausted him. He tended to spend most of his time sitting quietly in the chair by the bed just dozing. As the end of the second week approached, though, he began to feel a bit more alive and had increased his activity marginally.

For once, Ezra was on his own. All his friends had other commitments and didn't have the time to spend with him. They had begun to shorten their visits now that he was on the mend anyway.

“Mr. Standish? How are you feeling today?” Dr. James asked as he strode into the room briskly.

“Much recovered. Not quite up to sprinting across the promenade yet, but stumbling across on all fours – maybe,” Ezra replied with a grin.

“Well, I’m certainly pleased with your progress over the last few days.” The doctor smiled as he checked the man’s condition. “I think I’m going to set a date for your release.”

“I’m ecstatic to hear that.”

Dr. James fixed the undercover agent with a serious stare after he’d made some notes on his chart. “You are obviously going to have to take things very easy for quite some time. Don’t be surprised if you feel unwell, tired or depressed. Gradually get back up to speed, but only if you feel up to it. I want you to come back for a check-up a few days after your release just so I can see how you’re coping.”

Ezra nodded, his mind already on the next question. “When do you think I can return to work?”

The doctor shrugged as he perched on the side of the bed. “Let’s wait and see. It’s gonna be a month or more, all depending on your progress. Take it one day at a time. I’ll keep a close eye on you, and when I’m happy, I’ll give you the all-clear. Don’t rush is all I can say, and I can’t emphasize that enough.”

“Well, I’m a firm believer in resting, sleeping and taking things easy, so there’s no problem with your instructions,” Ezra nodded, knowing there was no way he could rush anyway.

“Glad to hear it. You’ll have to stay with someone during your recovery. I don’t want you on your own.” Dr. James really hoped that Ezra did understand how important it was for him to be careful. He decided it would be best to have a word with one of his friends, just to make sure they were aware of what he had ordered.

“One of my friends will hopefully become my nursemaid. They’re very good that way,” Ezra said, breaking through the doctor’s thoughts.

“I’m sure they are," Dr. James said as he stood up, patted Ezra’s shoulder and left the room.

Buck ambled in half an hour later and smiled when he saw his friend.

Ezra waved and beckoned the man over to where he was sitting by the bed. “Ah, Mr. Wilmington. You can be the first to hear my news. I’m being allowed out on parole,” Ezra said as he looked longingly out the window.

“Straight up? That’s great, bud.”

“I have to report back to the governor every so often as a condition of my release, though,” Ezra informed his friend quite seriously. He shifted in the chair and looked up at Buck with a smile.

Buck laughed, glad to see Ezra in good spirits. “Damn, Ez. You ain’t been in prison.”

“Really? It always seems that way to me.”

*****************************************************

Ezra currently had the decorators in his house, so that meant he couldn’t go to his own home when he was released. His next-door neighbor had been seeing to their needs while he'd been in the hospital for which Ezra was very grateful.

The day before his expected release, Ezra had a mass visit from his six friends. They had all come to give him a good send-off. Alternative arrangements had been made amongst then about who he was going to stay with. It turned out that Vin was currently the only one in a position to accommodate the sick man.

Josiah apologized about not being able to take Ezra in. “Sorry, Ez. Whenever you need a place to stay I always have my sister visiting. It ain’t intentional.”

Chris smiled. “Well, I’d willingly have you, but I reckon you need to be in town for your hospital appointments.”

Nathan winced. “Rain’s staying. Kinda like to be on our own, bud, if you know what I mean.”

"We ain't got too much spare room at any time, pard," Buck said. “You know our place - the dark side of the moon, man,” he said with a grin.

“That’s all right, gentlemen. I will be perfectly happy at Vin’s abode, if he’ll have me that is,” he added hastily, realizing that Vin might not want him.

Vin looked amazed at the statement. “You always say that my apartment’s mayhem.”

“Yes, but it’s organized mayhem.” The Texan’s lifestyle was the exact opposite of his own, but in times of crisis Ezra craved it like a drunk craves alcohol. The undercover agent always felt truly at home in Vin’s untidy home.

"Well, I'll be sure happy to have you stay, pard. Get kinda lonesome on my own sometimes."

********************************************

The following day, late afternoon, Vin arrived to collect Ezra from the hospital. He hurried into his room to find Dr. James, Petra and various other medical staff there to wave him off.

“Hey, how come you get the special treatment?” Vin asked with a grin as he surveyed the scene with hands on hips.

Ezra smiled. “That’s just what I am, Mr. Tanner, special.”

Vin laughed and patted his frail friend’s shoulder gently. “Yeah, yeah. You ready to go, then?”

“I am,” Ezra said decisively as he took his time kissing Petra good-bye. He’d really become rather fond of the woman.

“Could I have a word first?” Dr. James asked as he held out an arm and escorted Vin outside.

“Is everything okay?” the sharpshooter asked worriedly.

“Yes, I just wanted to go over a few things with you. I’ve already told Mr. Standish that he needs to take things very easy, but sometimes patients don’t always do as they’re told once they gain their freedom,” he said in amusement.

“Jeez, you read Ezra like a book,” Vin said as he grinned.

Dr. James nodded. “Make sure he has lots of bed rest during the first few days. Then allow him up for a few hours, or half a day, if he can manage it. He’s been a bit active here, but I’m not convinced that he’s really up to much. He's fine to be released, though” He paused and then dug in his pocket. “Here’s his prescription. Looks a lot, I know, but it’s all necessary medication. The pain meds, especially, are very strong, so would you keep charge of them yourself? Depression after surgery can make patients do silly things, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll keep everything under lock and key. Is that everything?”

The doctor handed over another sheet. "That's a list of things he can eat. He's been on a liquid diet during his stay here, but he can start on more solid food in a few days time. I've listed the two diets separately, okay?"

"Thanks, appreciate all you've done for him."

“That's what I'm here for. Well, good luck and I'll see you when he comes back for his appointments." The doctor smiled. "I’ll keep Mr. Standish company now while you get the prescription filled, shall I? I dare say he won’t need me, though. He seems to have rather hit it off with Petra,” Dr. James said with a glint in his eye.

Vin laughed and hurried to collect Ezra's medication. He was relieved to find he only had to wait a matter of minutes to complete the prescription. He had known it to take hours.

He went back with the big bag and collected his friend from his room. He pushed him through the hallways in the obligatory wheelchair as Ezra waved to a few other nurses whom he had come to know during his stay. Vin then helped Ezra climb into the front seat of the jeep before returning the wheelchair to the building. Vin hurried back to join his friend in the vehicle and started off on the journey to his apartment.

The short trip from the hospital was going to totally wear Ezra out. He tried to hide the extent of his fatigue from his companion, but Vin was much too astute not to notice his friend's behavior. The sharpshooter could see with each movement of Ezra's body that he was tired and in pain. The bumpy road was doing nothing to help the situation, either. Ezra turned his face away from his friend and stared out the window, leaning against the door in an attempt to remain upright in his seat. Without the door and his seatbelt to hold him up, he'd probably have toppled forward uncontrollably. All the effort he was expending to try and conceal his true condition only used up energy that he could ill afford to lose.

By the time Vin found parking space as near to his apartment block as he could, Ezra's posture clearly showed his distress. Vin carefully helped the man down and out of the vehicle and took him inside the building. For once, the elevator was working and the two men stepped inside after Vin had summoned it. The long-haired man could see that his friend looked very fragile, so he didn’t hurry him along the hallway to the apartment once they'd arrived on the appropriate floor. Vin unashamedly took his friend's arm and felt Ezra finally give up the pretense that nothing was wrong. The sick man leaned heavily against his friend, accepting his help without comment. Neither man spoke, knowing there was no need for words in this particular situation.

Finally, they arrived in front of Vin's apartment and the younger man managed to hold Ezra upright while also unlocking the door. He gently herded his friend through to the living room, sat him on the couch and looked at him closely.

“I’ll get you a drink of tea and some water for your pain meds, bud.”

“Oh, thank you. My mouth has the sensation of the Sahara desert. An oasis would be welcomed,” Ezra replied with a small smile as he let out a shaky breath. He knew he didn't have to pretend any more with Vin. There as no shame in admitting he was in a rather bad way.

Ezra sighed as his friend went out into the kitchen. Vin returned moments later and handed over glass of water and some pills.

“Take these first for me, bud, then I’ll get your tea.”

Vin smiled and made sure that Ezra took his medication. The sick man looked to be in real pain and was actually shaking slightly. Ezra handed the empty glass back after swallowing his pills. He then closed his eyes and couldn’t help allowing his fatigue to overtake him. He sat and listened distractedly to the sounds of Vin moving around in the other room. It had the same effect as a lullaby and finally he could hear no more.

Vin came back a few minutes later to find Ezra sound asleep. He put the drink on the table and moved to stand over the man. He lay his friend down and covered him carefully with a thick, fluffy blanket. He took a seat opposite and drank Ezra’s tea slowly. He had no idea how long it would be before his friend woke, so there seemed no point in wasting the brew.

An hour later, Ezra woke to find that Vin was still with him, reading a newspaper. The long-haired man sensed his friend was awake and he looked over at him with a smile.

“Hey, Ez. Feel better for yer sleep?” he asked as he leaned toward Ezra.

Ezra struggled upright with a groan. “I’m sorry. How long was I asleep for?” he asked as he rubbed his stomach distractedly. If he moved too fast it was liable to hurt him. His mind felt rather fuzzy and he knew it was because of the strong medication he’d been given earlier.

“An hour,” Vin guessed as he shrugged.

“I didn’t mean to waste your time. You were making a drink, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, and I drank it. Very good it was, too. Put new life in me,” Vin said as he licked his lips.

Ezra put his head in his hands and sighed. “Wish the same could happen to me.”

“I’ll make you another one and see, shall we?”

“I promise not to take a nap this time,” Ezra said as he looked up and grinned.

The long-haired smiled and then went to the kitchen to make his friend a fresh drink. He handed the mug over when it was ready and watched Ezra drink the hot, sweet liquid.

The undercover agent drank the last of the mug's contents before putting it aside. “Thank you, that was very good. Why do we enjoy tea? It doesn’t have a taste, does it, but it can cheer you up and make you feel better, as well as satisfy a thirst. Very strange,” Ezra said thoughtfully. “If you’re really clever you can also use the tea leaves to tell your fortune.” Ezra picked up the mug and looked into it, frowning as he looked at the soggy brown leaves. “I think mine resemble a two-legged bear. What does that foretell, do you think?” he asked in amusement as he showed his friend.

“I reckon it means you will very shortly be taken to bed for hibernation,” the long-haired man said indulgently as he signaled for Ezra to rise. He knew that the conversation he’d just had was a result of his friend’s drug-addled mind. Ezra had a habit of talking absolute crap in a totally seriously way when on certain medication. The next minute, though, the man would seem to be back to normal. His friends often wondered if he even realized what he’d been saying.

“Very witty,” Ezra said.

Vin took Ezra through to his bedroom. “All set, Ez? Got everything you need?” he asked as he looked round the room to make sure it was ship-shape.

“Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I still hate the thought of using your bedroom,” the undercover agent said, sounding his old self as he patted Vin’s back in thanks.

“I ain’t got fleas or nothin’,” Vin replied, sounding affronted.

Ezra smiled and shook his head. "That’s not what I meant.”

“I know. I was only yanking yer chain. I’m perfectly happy on the bed in the living room. I can watch TV in bed,” Vin said with a grin. He was really looking forward to watching some late-night horror movies.

************************************

“Sleep okay, Ez?” Vin asked as he opened the bedroom door and stepped inside. It was now almost 11 o’clock in the morning.

He’d checked on Ezra several times but the man had been dead to the world. Now, though, the sharpshooter noticed that a light was on in the room so he knew Ezra was awake.

“In patches.” Ezra’s body had been knocked for six by his almost fatal sickness and he was finding it hard to recover from.

“You were comfortable enough? The bed, I mean?” Vin asked anxiously.

Ezra nodded as Vin sat down gingerly on the bed. “Yes, it was my body that was the problem. I couldn’t turn my brain off, and then I developed stomachache and I fidgeted most of the night trying to get comfortable. It was only at six that I fell asleep.”

“Well, you had five hours sleep, so that’s better than nothing," Vin said. "What would you like for breakfast, then?”

“Better be brunch at this hour.” Ezra rubbed his eyes as he considered what his stomach might be able to handle. “Porridge, if that’s all right. Dr. James advised me to stick to liquid-type nourishment at the moment.”

“Yeah, he gave me a list. I’ll go fix you some and then you can go back to sleep for the rest of the day.” He stood up and looked down at the man anxiously. “Stomachache gone now?” Vin asked, wondering if his friend was really all right.

“Not really, but it’s not anything to worry about. It’s ached ever since it developed its puncture,” the undercover agent said wryly.

“Ezra!” Vin laughed. He really did enjoy Ezra's sense of humor. The man had a very peculiar way of saying things.

Ezra raised a questioning eyebrow as his friend headed to the door. "What's so funny? It's true. It was like a bicycle tire developing a leak, except with more serious consequences."

"Yeah, well, you've had yer hole patched, so start pedaling is all I can say," Vin retorted.

"Very droll, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a chuckle.

Vin smiled. "I’ll get yer pain meds, too. Hopefully that will sort out yer stomachache, but let me know if it doesn’t. I’ll check back with the hospital if you still ain’t right.”

“I don’t think I’ll be right for quite some time, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra muttered, once Vin had gone.

********************************************

Ezra ambled into the living room at 10 in the morning two days later. The man was still in his pajamas and hadn’t combed his hair or anything. He felt half asleep and he couldn’t help yawning long and loud.

Vin looked the man up and down and tilted his head on one side questioningly. “Gonna get dressed?”

“Eventually,” Ezra agreed with a sigh as he rubbed his eyes in an attempt to feel more awake.

The sharpshooter narrowed his eyes. He could see that Ezra really needed some time to get going. He was moving sluggishly and had a hand continually clamped to his stomach.

“Come and have some breakfast, then,” he said.

Vin escorted Ezra through to the kitchen and sat him gently at the table. He gave him his medication and then saw to his friend’s meal, sitting with him while he ate it.

“What do you wanna do for the rest of the day?” Vin asked once Ezra had finished. “Do you feel like staying up for a while?”

The green-eyed man shrugged forlornly. “I really don’t know, Mr. Tanner. I don’t feel as if I have much useful purpose at the moment.”

Vin knew that he needed to keep the man occupied if he was staying up. He was inevitably rather depressed, and being active would be beneficial as long as he didn't do anything too strenuous. “Well, do you reckon you can help me get supper ready for tonight? Peel potatoes, shell some peas? You can sit at the table and do that, can’t you?” Vin suggested.

Ezra put his head on one side as he considered the proposal. “Yes, I expect I can manage that. It doesn’t seem too taxing.”

“Buck and Chris are coming over to eat with us. Is that okay?”

“That will be nice.”

Vin nodded and smiled encouragingly. “Well, go get washed and dressed and then we’ll get started when you come back. You can have a rest this afternoon before they come, okay?”

"That sounds most agreeable," Ezra said as he rose and headed back to the bedroom.

Forty-five minutes later, Ezra shuffled into the kitchen. Vin pointed to a chair and indicated for Ezra to sit down. “The guys are coming early and won’t stay long. I don’t want you getting tired out.”

“It doesn’t matter how long they stay. I can always go back to bed when I’ve had enough. I’m sure they won’t mind and I promise I will tell you when sleep calls,” Ezra said reasonably.

“Well, see how ya feel, bud,” Vin said as he placed some potatoes in front of his friend. He then went to the fridge and began collecting the provisions he needed for the rest of the meal. “You all right, now? You took a while getting ready,” Vin observed casually. On the first morning after his release, Ezra had insisted that he was capable of dressing himself. Vin, though, was now having his doubts.

“Yes, I’m fine. I ran into trouble with my underwear, I’m embarrassed to admit. My foot didn’t seem to want to go through the correct opening. I think I had them on in every position imaginable, except for the correct one. I had to have a bit of a rest after that fiasco.”

“You shoulda called me, Ez. I’m here to help ya, ain’t I? You ain't got nothing that I ain't, so there's no need to be embarrassed.” Vin turned to face the man seriously. “You know that most accidents happen in the home, don’t ya? Injuries caused by underwear, or zippers,” Vin said unable to contain his laughter.

Ezra pulled his legs together and put a hand to his crotch. “Ow, Mr. Tanner. I don’t want to contemplate that last occurrence. I promise to call you in the future, all right? I don’t want to have to call out Mr. Jackson to look at a certain part of my anatomy if I should suffer a zipper attack.”

“Thought that’d make you toe the line, bud,” Vin said in amusement as he got back to work.

**********************************

Chris and Buck arrived mid afternoon full of chatter and good will. Just having them around did wonders for Ezra’s state of mind. It gave him a real lift.

“Hey, Ez. Glad to be outta the hospital?” Chris asked as he ambled into the living room and shook Ezra's hand firmly.

“What do you think, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra asked with a grin.

“Feel okay?” the blond asked as he studied his friend closely. Ezra usually had a healthy, glowing skin, but he looked lackluster and pale at the moment.

Ezra shrugged, but answered his boss truthfully. “I seem to have a quarter of my usual energy and I feel unsettled all the time. Other than that, I’m hunky-dory. This is the first day that I’ve been out of bed since my release and it’s been nice. Nice, but tiring.”

Vin appeared in the doorway and smiled. “Ready to eat, guys? Ez and I have been slaving over a hot stove all day.”

“Well, that’s not quite true. I managed to peel all the potatoes. That was my sole contribution to the coming feast,” Ezra said as he wandered through to the kitchen with his friends. He took a seat at the table with a heartfelt sigh and put his napkin on his knees.

“Sure Vin appreciated your help, pard,” Buck said as he patted the man's back gently.

Vin served the meal and his friends tucked in with gusto. Ezra was unusually quiet throughout, although he did eat everything on his plate. He had a smaller, pulped version of what his friends were having. His appetite was only really just coming back after his hospital stay. His restriction to the total liquid diet had been lifted but he knew it was going to take time to get used to eating more solid food again.

"Okay, Ez?" Buck asked. He put down his cutlery, licked his lips and looked across at his frail friend. He was sitting next to the man so he reached out a hand and squeezed his shoulder, leaving his hand in place afterwards.

"Yes, thank you. I think I wore myself out with all my potato peeling," Ezra said as he yawned, feeling his eyelids becoming heavier with each passing second.

"Well, it’s a job that can send anyone to sleep, pard,” the ladies’ man said in amusement as he gave his friend one last pat on the back.

“Wanna head off to bed?” Vin asked as he watched the undercover agent yawn again. He didn’t want the man overdoing things so soon. Ezra was unlikely to say that he'd had enough, despite his earlier promise to do so.

"No, I'm all right. I want to talk to Buck and Chris."

Vin didn't argue at that time. He'd give the man ten minutes and then make Ezra capitulate.

The four men transferred to the living room to enjoy their coffee in comfort. Vin looked over at Ezra after a few minutes and saw that he was asleep. Ezra's head had flopped forward while his body was listing hard to port. He looked highly uncomfortable.

"Jeez, Ez. You shoulda admitted defeat earlier, bud," he muttered as he shook his head in despair.

Chris stood up and hovered over Ezra as he looked toward Vin. "How's he been since his release? I know it hasn't been long, but how is he?"

“Tired," Vin snorted. "He just keeps falling asleep – except when he should be - at night. He didn’t get to sleep until six the first morning he was here and he didn’t get up until eleven. He fell asleep as soon as I got him home from the hospital without any trouble at all, though.”

“Well, he’s bound to tire easily,” Chris said with a shrug. “Shall we get him to bed between us, then?”

Vin nodded and Ezra was taken along to the bedroom and gently manhandled into his pajamas. He was laid on the bed and he didn’t wake or stir during his journey.

Vin, Chris and Buck then spent another few hours together just talking. Chris, in particular, could tell that Vin was glad of their company. He knew it must be worrying for the man to take care of Ezra on his own.

"Give us a call if you ever need to talk, bud," the blond said when it was time to leave. "We can always come over if you want a break from care-taking duties. Just 'cause he's staying with you doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself. I shoulda arranged for us to help you out in turn."

"Thanks, but I'm sure we'll be fine. I'm happy to care for him myself although I admit it ain't been easy. If I feel the need of a break, though, I promise to call."

"That's all I ask. I'll call tomorrow, anyway. Nettie's visiting with Casey, so I'll tell you all her news," the black-clad man said.

"Give her my love," Vin asked. Nettie Wells was a good friend of the seven men, but she held a special place in her heart for Vin, as he did her.

The blond smiled and nodded. "I will. See you some time," Chis said as he patted Vin's back.

"Yeah, and thanks for coming tonight. Ez really enjoyed it," Vin said gratefully. He'd seen the change in Ezra's mood and it gladdened his heart.

"So did we," Buck said as he waved and set off with Chris.

********************************************

Vin and Ezra got into a daily routine, taking things easy and doing as they pleased. Vin didn't push his friend, allowing him to go at his own pace. Ezra tended to lay in until late, as was his preference anyway. It gave Vin the chance to do chores and have some time to himself, so things were working out quite well.

There was something that Ezra was dying to do. He’d been craving it ever since his release.

“Could I have a shower, do you think?” he asked during the evening of the fourth day.

Vin looked up from where he was reading a motorcycle magazine. “Yeah, but I don’t want you falling over so I’d better come in with you.” He saw the puzzled look on Ezra’s face and smiled. “In the bathroom, I mean, not in the shower with you.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Ezra retorted in relief. He'd had visions of Vin scrubbing his back for him.

“Well, you’re still a bit unsteady on yer feet, ain't ya?" Vin pointed out reasonably. "I wanna keep a close eye on you, bud. If I don’t, Nate’ll crucify me.” The long-haired man smiled, stood up and helped Ezra get up.

“Fair enough. I wouldn't want you to be on the end of a backlash from Nathan.”

Ezra headed to the bedroom on his own to get undressed. He struggled out of his pants and socks and put them for washing. He then stripped off the rest of his clothes and put on a bathrobe instead.

“I’ll be there in a minute, Ez. Don’t start without me,” Vin called anxiously from the living room. He hoped that Ezra was sensible enough to obey his command.

“I won’t,” the undercover agent promised as he put his slippers back on.

Ezra made his way to the bathroom really looking forward to his ablutions. Something about the feel of warm water on skin was soothing and refreshing. He hoped that he was going to wash away all his cares and worries along with the soap.

The sharpshooter ambled in a few minutes later to find Ezra waiting patiently in the cubicle.

"Off you go, then, yer watchdog's here."

"Thank heavens. I was getting goose-bumps on my goose-bumps," the sick agent said wryly.

Ezra quickly started the water cascading over his head. He'd made sure it was already running warm before he’d even ventured inside. He ran his fingers through his hair and tipped his head back to let the water from the shower-head hit his chest directly. He then picked up the bar of soap and began rubbing it over his body to make it lather.

"Oh, lovely. I feel as if I'm washing off at least an inch of dirt," he murmured, just loud enough for Vin to hear.

"Whatever you say, Ez," Vin said with a grin as he lounged on the side of the tub. He kept a wary eye on his friend through the frosted glass of the cubicle. He was ready to leap into action if he thought Ezra was in trouble.

The showering man took his time, savoring every moment. He finally picked up a bottle of Vin's shampoo and thoroughly washed his hair as well. Clean hair always gave him a feeling of well being, and he hoped that would be the case this time, too.

Ezra eventually turned off the water and opened the door to grab a towel. He then stepped out as he wrapped it round his waist gingerly. Vin passed him a smaller towel for his hair once Ezra'd secured the bigger one safely.

Vin’s eyes were inevitably drawn to the very long healing wound that ran down Ezra's abdomen. He studied it quietly for a few seconds while Ezra dried off his face, arms and chest.

"Jeez, Ez. I still can't get over what happened. Seeing that," he indicated the wound with a wave of his hand, “just makes me realize how damned close we came to losing you."

Ezra looked down at his torso and traced the mark tentatively with an outstretched finger. "Life and death," he murmured thoughtfully. "I always expected to expire as a consequence of my employment - being shot, or something of the like. It was rather shocking to have my innards explode instead."

"Ezra," Vin said, not able to conceal a smile at Ezra’s description. He had a vivid mental picture of his friend’s stomach exploding, rather like a scene from the film Alien. He thought it was good that Ezra could laugh about what had happened to him.

Ezra pointed to his stomach. "JD took great delight in telling me that all my internal organs in this region had to removed during surgery. It makes me wonder if they were returned to their correct places at the end. I must admit to feeling rather uncomfortable in the abdominal area." Ezra shrugged resignedly and looked at Vin. "But there, I suppose it's rather like a jigsaw puzzle - there's only place each piece can go."

"Ezra," Vin said again as he laughed and stood up. "Jeez, you're mad sometimes. Come on, get dry before you get goose-bumps again."

The sharpshooter made sure Ezra's hair was totally dry. He didn't want the man catching a chill. He took the towel from Ezra's hands and rubbed his short hair vigorously.

"I do believe I am dry, Mr. Tanner. You are liable to rub out all my hair if you carry on in that manner," Ezra called from under the towel's folds.

"Sorry, Ez. Just looking out for ya," Vin said as he gave one last rub for luck. He released his friend and opened the door to let him out of the bathroom.

"I know, and I appreciate your actions," Ezra said as he shuffled along to the bedroom. His hair stuck out at all angles and he looked rather windswept as a result.

"You okay to get dressed for bed?" Vin asked anxiously.

"I'll be fine. I've mastered the art of putting on my pajamas, but if I should run into trouble I will call you. See you in the morning, Vin."

"Yeah, sleep well, bud," Vin said as he waved and closed the door.

********************************************

Vin looked out of the window and saw that it was a fine, bright day. He nodded to himself and headed to the kitchen.

“Feel up to going for a walk, Ez?” he asked his friend.

The man had been out of the hospital for two weeks and Vin knew he was getting cabin fever. The only trips out so far had been to the hospital for checkups.

Ezra looked up from where he was reading the newspaper. He folded the reading material up and put it aside with a nod. “Fresh air would be nice.”

“We won’t go far and we’ll take our time, all right?” the younger man said in encouragement.

Ezra nodded, but felt rather apprehensive about his first foray into the real world. His stamina was still nowhere near its usual levels, but he had to start getting his life back some when. He stood up and went to the bedroom to get ready. He put on his shoes and coat then wandered along to the front door to wait for Vin to join him.

“All set? You sure you’re happy to go?” the sharpshooter asked as he picked a jacket off a nearby hook and put it on.

“Yes, I’ve got to exercise, haven’t I?” Ezra replied quietly, not sounding too confident.

“Well, Dr. James was real happy with your progress at your check-up. He said we could start extending your activities to outdoors now, didn't he?” Vin said.

Vin opened the door and followed Ezra out, locking the front door behind him. The two friends ambled along to the elevator only to find it out of order.

“Dammit,” Vin cursed.

“Stairs it is, then,” Ezra said wryly as he changed direction.

The agents descended to ground level slowly, stopping if Ezra wanted to. They passed numerous residents making their way up, huffing and puffing with the effort of the climb.

“Left or right?” Vin asked once they’d got out onto the sidewalk.

Ezra looked either way, pretending to decide, as he took a moment to regain his breath. He tried to keep a poker face, not wanting Vin to see that he'd already had enough.

“Right,” he said eventually, trying to put some power behind his voice. To his own ears, his reply had been no louder than a whisper.

Vin, however, didn't seem to have noticed. “Okay," he said, "we’ll go round the block and we can stop off at the diner if you like.”

They set off at a sedate pace with Vin keeping a wary eye on his companion. Ezra didn’t speak but concentrated solely on walking. His legs were already beginning to feel wobbly but he continued onward with determination. They rounded the first corner and Ezra stopped to survey his surroundings.

“Ez? What’s up?” Vin asked as he backtracked to stand beside Ezra. He’d taken two extra strides before realizing that Ezra wasn’t with him.

“Just admiring the view,” Ezra said quietly as he took a deep breath. He was now feeling very breathless and dizzy.

The sharpshooter stood with hands on hips and looked at his friend in disbelief. “Liar. You always call this a rat-infested shit-hole. You just use prettier language when you insult my neighborhood.”

“All right, I’m resting. Satisfied?” Ezra asked as he turned to face Vin with a wry grin.

“Yeah. Do ya wanna go on, or have you had enough? Don’t lie to me neither. Be sensible,” Vin ordered, fixing the man with a no-nonsense glare. He could now see that Ezra looked rather tired, but he wanted Ezra to admit it. He would give his friend one chance to admit defeat, but if he didn't, Vin would then insist on their returning home.

Ezra shrugged and decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor. “I’ve had enough. I still have to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest to reach your abode.”

“Not quite that far, Ez. Don’t need oxygen to get there.”

I might,” Ezra retorted, attempting to sound as if he was joking.

Vin studied his friend, trying to determine if he *was* being serious or not. He really couldn’t tell. “Do you mean that? Do you feel that bad?” the sharpshooter finally asked, worried that he’d stretched Ezra’s endurance too far.

Ezra shrugged again. “I’m just rather fatigued all of a sudden. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready after all." He looked up and down the street and sighed. "Didn’t get very far, did I? Maybe if the elevator had been in working order, things wouldn’t seem so bad.”

“You did real well, Ez. Turn round and take it nice and slow. There’s no hurry, bud, we've got all day,” the sharpshooter said kindly.

Vin put a hand on his friend’s elbow and aided his journey back to the apartment block entrance. Ezra came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and sighed as he looked upward. He knew that he would not be able to climb right up to Vin's apartment, but there was no other way to get there than to climb. Even as he stood there, he could feel what little strength he had left slowly ebbing away.

“One step at a time and we’ll stop whenever you need to,” Vin reiterated, trying to sound positive and encouraging. He couldn't help but be very concerned about the sudden onset of Ezra's current fatigued state.

Ezra started off on the climb, but got slower and slower the higher he went. His breathing was deteriorating into gasps and the pain in his abdomen had returned with a vengeance. Each step sent a stab of agony through his body and he bit his lip to suppress the groans that he could so easily have emitted. The dizziness he had previously experienced was increasing and he felt very faint as a result. Ezra was coming to realize with each passing second that he was definitely not going to reach his destination.

He finally stopped for a second on every step until he came to a wobbling halt. Much to his horror, he let out a huge sob. The noise sounded twice as loud in the empty stairwell and he bowed his head in shame. He quickly put one hand against the wall to keep himself upright as his legs became increasingly weak.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbled as a tear escaped his eye. He’d reached halfway and he really couldn’t go any further. He hated the fact that Vin was witness to his humiliating weakness and despair, and that added to his feelings of hopelessness.

The sharpshooter rubbed his friend’s arm and quickly supported him around the waist. He thought the man looked on the verge of collapse. Vin's heart had started beating twice as fast when he'd heard his friend break down. He knew Ezra to be a proud man, and he vowed not to embarrass his friend by making too big a deal about his distressed state. He would let him know that he cared, but not go overboard about it.

“Sit down, Ez, yer doing real well, all things considered.” Vin eased his friend down and moved his arm to put it round the sobbing man’s shoulders instead. “Come on. Crying will only make ya feel worse, bud.”

Ezra wiped his eyes and rubbed his stomach gingerly. “It’s so frustrating. I’m used to running and taking vigorous exercise. It’s so hard to be suddenly lacking in energy.”

“I know, bud, but you’ve gotta work within yer body’s limits at the moment. I shouldn’t have suggested that we go out. It was too soon,” Vin apologized.

“Not your fault. I thought I could manage. Whatever are we going to do? Even if I sat here for an hour, I don’t think I could get all the way up,” Ezra almost whispered. Even speaking seemed beyond his capabilities right now.

Vin patted Ezra's back and pulled out his cell. “Sit tight. I’ll call Josiah.”

The sharpshooter put in the call and Josiah duly arrived. The big man squatted down awkwardly in front of Ezra, somehow folding his large frame into the small space. He balanced precariously on the step below and kept a grip on the nearby handrail to keep him from falling backward.

“Hey, Ez. How ya feeling, son?” He could see that Ezra’s eyes were red from crying and his shoulders were slumped in defeat. Overall, he looked rather frail and distressed. Josiah could feel his eyes brimming with tears at the sight but he blinked them back. He knew it would only cause Ezra more embarrassment if he saw how others were being affected by his situation.

“Exhausted,” Ezra whispered, barely able to hold up his head.

“Well, let’s get you back upstairs.”

Josiah pulled Ezra upright gently with Vin’s help. He didn't move straightaway, letting the man stand and catch his breath for a second. He held Ezra tightly and waited patiently for a sign that he was ready to continue. When he saw that Ezra really was too exhausted, he lifted the man into his arms as if he were as light as a baby. He went upstairs carefully with his burden, Vin staying close by in case he should falter. Once they reached his apartment’s floor, Vin hurried ahead and opened the door to allow them access. Josiah took Ezra straight through to the bedroom and put him on the bed gently.

“Get some rest, son. I think I’ll get Nate to come and check you out, just to be on the safe side,” he said as he took off his friend’s shoes and pulled the covers up over him.

“I’m all right,” Ezra mumbled as he fell asleep.

“You okay, Vin?” Josiah asked quietly as he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door. He could see that the younger man wasn't very happy about what had happened.

Vin met Josiah's sympathetic gaze and winced. “Feel guilty. I thought he’d be all right. He’s been improving and the doctor said he could start going out. Damned elevator broke down, which didn't help. Maybe if…”

Josiah put his arm round his friend's shoulder and herded him along to the kitchen. “Leave it, son. He woulda been worn out anyway. He's just gotta be real careful and not be too eager when he's allowed to do something new. It's hard for him to know what he can manage and what he can't at the moment. It's all new territory for him.”

"We went slow, but I shoulda known that he wasn't up to it. He's only be roaming round the apartment, which won't get him very fit. He doesn't look anywhere near his old self yet."

"No, he doesn't, and it's gonna be a while until he's messing about like he usually is."

Josiah moved to the kettle and made a couple of drinks. He then called Nathan and updated the medic about what had occurred. Nathan agreed to visit as soon as he could, and turned up half an hour later.

“Hello, guys. Where is he?” he asked after Vin had let him in. He could see that Vin was looking very strained and unhappy.

“In bed asleep,” the sharpshooter said quietly.

Nathan smiled and patted Vin's back. “I’ll go check on him.”

Nathan wandered through to the bedroom and opened the door after knocking softly. He turned on the light, went to the bed and saw that his friend hadn't stirred. He sat on the mattress and shook Ezra’s shoulder gently to wake him up.

“Ez?” he called. He saw that Ezra was exceedingly pale and his hair had the lifelessness that illness brings.

The agent woke and rubbed his eyes as he squinted up at his visitor. Nathan reached out and helped Ezra sit up a bit. He rearranged the pillows at his back and then studied him quietly for a second or two.

“Hey, Ez. How ya feeling?” he asked as he checked the man’s pulse. He did a few other tests, including taking his temperature and checking the wound site.

“Bit sick, but I’m tired more than anything. I hope Mr. Tanner isn’t feeling responsible,” Ezra said as he yawned softly.

The medic ran a hand up and down Ezra's arm in comfort. “He’s a bit upset, I reckon, but don’t worry about him. He’ll be okay. As for you, have some of this and then get some more sleep. You look real pale, bud.”

Nathan gave the man one of his herbal brews, settled him back on the bed and then left him alone.

“Nate, is he okay?” Vin asked anxiously. He’d been hovering in the hallway trying to hear what was being said in the room. He almost pawed the medic in agitation while awaiting his answer.

“Tired and sick. I gave him something to help so I’m sure he’ll be fine. Don't let it get you down, Vin.”

“Was I stupid?” the sharpshooter asked, still not placated.

“No, he needs to try to get back up to speed, but maybe we need to think about moving him somewhere at ground level. These stairs are a killer to even the healthiest person.”

Vin nodded and took a few minutes to think of possibilities. “I could move into his house. He’d be okay there and he’d feel more at ease in his own surroundings. Decorators have gone now. I called Ezra's neighbor and she said they packed up yesterday.”

Nathan nodded and smiled in agreement. It seemed the perfect solution. “I have no objection to his going home. See what Ezra says when he wakes up." The medic patted Vin's back and asked kindly, "Do you want me to stay for a bit now?”

“No, thanks. We’ll be all right. I’ll make sure he stays in bed for now. Thanks for coming so quick, Nate.”

Josiah cleared his throat. He had no intention of leaving Vin to cope on his own, and if he could get him to leave, he would. “I’ll stay, Nate. Haven’t seen much of Ezra lately and I’d like to spend some time with him.” The profiler surreptitiously winked at the medic and turned to face Vin. “Would you like to go into work for a change, Vin? I’m happy to stay and keep Ez company for the rest of the day. Bet you’d like a break.”

Vin considered the offer. “Yeah, okay. Thanks, Josiah. Can I catch a ride, Nate?”

Nathan nodded eagerly. He knew Vin was feeling the pressure and he was pleased that Josiah had managed to get him to accept a change of scene for a while. “Sure, I’ll drop you back tonight, too. I can check on Ez again, then, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Vin and Nathan ambled downstairs to Nathan's Explorer and set off to work. Vin was quiet on the journey and Nathan didn't push him to talk. Vin was a brooder and tended to clam up even more if questioned about matters that were upsetting him.

The two men eventually arrived at their destination, still in silence, and they made their way upstairs to their office.

“Hey, Vin. What you doing here?” Chris asked in surprise when he saw the long-haired man wander into the office looking slightly lost.

“Josiah’s staying with Ez for me,” Vin replied, not meeting his boss's gaze.

“Everything all right?” Chris asked, detecting the worried tone in Vin’s voice. He got hold of his friend’s arm and guided him away from the other men.

“Kinda.” Vin explained what had happened after taking a seat in Chris's private office.

Chris tried to comfort his friend as best he could. He knew he always took to heart anything that went wrong when caring for one of his friends. “Well, can’t expect it all to be plain sailing, bud. He came within an inch of losing his life, so it’s gonna take time.”

“I know.” Vin then told the blond what had been suggested about moving Ezra.

Chris nodded and smiled encouragingly. “Good idea, but let Ez recover from this setback for a day or so.”

Nathan, meanwhile, was updating Buck and JD about Ezra's condition. The two men were saddened to hear of their friend’s problems and they continued to discuss matters until Chris and Vin joined them. The group of five men finally got back to work, although their thoughts didn’t leave Ezra for a second.

At the end of the day, Nathan and Vin headed back to relieve Josiah, and hoped to find Ezra in better spirits.

“Hey, big guy. Has he been okay?” the sharpshooter asked when he hurried into the living room and saw that Ezra wasn’t there.

The profiler nodded and stood up to greet his friends. He’d been surprised that Vin had resisted the urge to phone during the day to check up on things. He’d expected at least a dozens calls from the man. “Yeah, he got up about two hours ago. He’s been real quiet, but he ate something and had a shower,” Josiah said calmly.

“Where is he?” Nathan asked.

“In the bathroom cleaning his teeth," the big man said. "I was trying to persuade him to go back to bed again.”

Nathan nodded and went along to see his friend for himself. The medic came back alone fifteen minutes later and sat on the couch beside Josiah.

“He okay?” Vin asked almost jumping out of the chair.

Nathan pursed his lips. “Better than he was this morning but he still looks real pale. He took your advice, Josiah, and has gone to bed." The medic turned to face Vin. "Do you want me to stay overnight in case he ain't well again, Vin?”

Vin shook his head after a bit of deliberation. “No, I’ll be okay. I’ll call, though, if I’m worried,” he said, looking at Nathan hoping he’d accept those terms. He really hadn't got anywhere for the man to sleep, anyway.

“Sure, any time, Vin. Make sure you get some rest, too. You’re looking a bit strained,” the medic said insistently.

He didn't want another friend to be sick. He knew that Ezra would feel responsible if that should happen, and that would inevitably upset him. That was the last thing he needed right now.

Vin nodded and escorted his friends to the door and waved good-bye. He was going to head straight to bed as per Nathan's orders. He'd never felt so tired in all his life. It wasn't that caring for Ezra was tiring, it was the worry that was exhausting him.

******************************************

Ezra sat in the living room in Vin’s apartment the next morning. The sharpshooter wandered in and sat opposite him but Ezra didn’t move or look at him. Vin noted that he was sitting on the edge of his seat and was slightly hunched over.

“You feelin’ okay?” the younger man asked after studying his companion closely for a while longer.

Ezra was pale and looked rather uncomfortable. He’d slept sparingly during the night and, as a result, felt exhausted and unwell. All that, on top of yesterday's problems, meant he was feeling even worse than the day before. “A bit queasy, actually,” he finally admitted as he shifted in the seat and clenched his jaw. He’d only just managed to force down his breakfast and it felt as though it might not stay in his stomach for too long.

Vin stood up and felt his friend’s brow before squatting down in front of him. He knew that Ezra was worried and needed comfort and encouragement. Hell, so do I, he thought to himself. “You’re not hot or sweaty. Do ya want Nate to come see you again?” he asked out loud.

“No, I just think this is the continuation of yesterday’s events,” Ezra said as he managed a small smile. "I never realized just how much I'd be affected by my unfortunate circumstances."

“Wanna go back to bed?” Vin asked gently as he sat beside the man.

Ezra nodded. “I think that would be advisable. I thought I had recovered, but obviously not. Maybe I’ll resort to another of Mr. Jackson’s potions. I had trouble sleeping, which hasn’t helped my current situation.”

Vin rubbed Ezra's back with lazy circular movements, knowing the man was upset. He could feel his friend trembling so he laid his other hand on the man's arm and squeezed it. “You can’t bounce back like you usually do, Ez. Yer not in the best of health, you know, are you?" The younger man stood, got Ezra up on his feet and held him steady. "Come on, take it easy.”

Vin escorted his fragile friend into the bedroom and helped change him back into his pajamas. Ezra just about managed to lift each foot so that Vin could thread them into the legs of the pajama pants. The sick man was literally wilting before Vin's eyes. The sharpshooter finished his task eventually and settled the man in bed gently and pulled up the blanket.

“Holler if you need me,” he ordered.

Vin turned out the light and went straight to the phone. His heart was beating fast and his feelings of guilt returned with a vengeance. Ezra seemed to be getting worse instead of better at the moment. Even though he knew he couldn’t do any more to care for his friend, it didn’t stop him feeling inadequate.

“Nate? Just wanna tell you that Ez still don’t feel too good after yesterday. I just had to put him back to bed again. If you wanna come over some time, I won’t complain. Ez says he doesn’t need you but I’d rather you took a look at him. He looks kinda gray and sick,” Vin told his friend anxiously as he ran shaky fingers through his hair.

“He isn’t being sick?” the medic asked worriedly, wondering if Ezra had now developed an infection or something.

“No, he said he didn’t sleep well and he was feeling sick, but I think he’s just real tired. You know how he gets when he exhausts himself,” Vin said with a shrug, hoping he was telling the truth. “He’s taken his medication but it don’t really seem to help much.”

Nathan nodded in understanding. “Well, when I saw him yesterday he wasn't suffering anything out of the ordinary considering his problems. I’ll come and see him after work, but call me if you get real worried about him before then. I’m sure he’ll be okay, though, so try not to be concerned, Vin. As you say, he just needs a lot of rest.”

Vin wasn’t particularly placated, but he trusted Nate to know if Ezra was in need of any special attention. The sharpshooter couldn’t settle to any task during the day and he spent his time anxiously prowling round the apartment until the medic arrived at six.

“Hey, Vin. How’s he been since you called?” Nathan asked as soon as Vin opened the door.

The younger man shrugged. “Asleep. Ain’t heard a peep outta him. I looked in on him every hour or so, but he’s been out for the count all day. Didn't wanna disturb him, so I left him alone.”

“Can I stay till he wakes?” the medic asked as he studied Vin’s worried features closely. He knew that Vin always got stressed out in situations like this and Nathan wanted to lend as much support as he could.

“Yeah, sure be glad if you would,” Vin said gratefully, before confirming Nathan previous thoughts. “I hate it when he’s sick like this and I could do with the company this time. Maybe I shoulda let you stay with him yesterday, too, and then he woulda recovered properly.”

"Me staying wouldn't have changed anything, Vin. He'd still have been suffering the same symptoms," Nathan said as he patted Vin's shoulder in comfort.

Ezra wandered into the kitchen three hours later. He smothered a yawn, rubbed his eyes and came to an abrupt halt.

“Oh, Mr. Jackson. Just passing through?” he asked in surprise when he saw Nathan lounging at the table sipping a drink.

The medic smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I had to drop something off for Vin and we kinda got talking. Time seems to have gone by real quick. I’ve been here since six but it only feels like half an hour’s passed.” He smiled and made his next question sound like a normal, everyday inquiry, still not letting on that he had come deliberately. “How ya feeling, anyway? Vin just mentioned you weren’t feeling too well again.”

Ezra took a seat and accepted a mug of herbal tea from Vin. “Bit tired, but I’ve just had a lovely sleep and feel much better for it. I think I’m progressing.”

“Glad to hear it. You need a lot of rest after what you’ve been through. Seeing as I'm here, I'll just check you over, okay?” Nathan asked as he stood up and pointed to the living room.

“Whatever, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra said, knowing that Nathan wouldn’t take no for an answer. He followed his friend and took up residence on the couch. “Just be gentle with me,” he pleaded with a grin.

“Always am. Frightened you’ll break if I ain’t, Ez,” Nathan admitted as he squatted down in front of Ezra and took his pulse.

“Why?” Ezra asked curiously.

“You’ve had so many injuries in the past that I think just touching you will hurt something.”

“I’m not that fragile,” Ezra scoffed as Nathan then checked his temperature.

The medic grinned broadly. “Maybe not, but you have that china-like quality,” he joked. “I dreamed I bumped into you the other night and your leg fell off. Woke in a real sweat, I can tell ya,” Nathan said as he laughed.

Ezra laughed, too. The image of what Nathan dreamed would stay with him for a while.

Nathan stood up and sat beside his friend. “Well, you seem fine, except for your obvious fatigue. Do as little as possible for the next day or so and get your strength back, okay?”

“I’ll see that he does, Nate,” Vin said with a relieved smile, “even if I have to hogtie him to the bed.”

****************************************

Ezra rose from his bed and went ambled down to the kitchen quite nimbly. He’d been brought back to his own home the previous day, two days after his relapse.

“Hello, Ez. Sleep okay?” Vin asked with a smile.

“Like a baby. I feel rejuvenated – as fresh as the paint on my walls,” Ezra enthused. Being back home certainly seemed beneficial.

“Glad to hear it. You’ve got an appointment at the hospital today, remember?” Vin said, noting that his friend really did seem a bit perkier. He hoped Ezra's improved health would continue.

Ezra nodded after checking the date on his watch. “So I have. I had quite forgotten after all the excitement lately.”

“Well, I’ll take ya, but make sure you tell the doc everything about how you’ve been feeling lately. Don’t leave anything out. Be real honest with him,” Vin said insistently.

“I will,” Ezra said as he saluted and began making his breakfast.

*************************************

“Well? What did he say?” Vin asked when Ezra emerged from the doctor’s room.

Ezra took a seat beside him and sighed. “He informs me that it will be at least another three weeks before I can even contemplate returning to work. Rest, gentle exercise and healthy food are the order of the day. He has booked me another appointment next week, too. I seem to be under close surveillance.”

“Not surprised, bud, but I'm also real pleased. It's good that the doc is really looking after you.” Vin smiled and patted Ezra’s knee. “Did he say how much, or what type, of exercise you could do?”

“Short walks on level ground,” Ezra said with a twinkle in his eye. “Maybe some swimming, too, now that my wound has totally healed.”

Vin looked pleased and sounded very enthusiastic when he next spoke to his friend. “Great, swimming sounds good. All the boys could come, too, if ya like.”

Ezra turned toward his friend and smiled broadly. “What a splendid idea. It would certainly make it much more enjoyable. I’m looking forward to it already.”

“One thing at a time, bud. We haven’t even gone home, yet,” Vin said in amusement as he escorted his friend outside.

**************************************

The seven men met up at the local pool two days later, choosing a quiet time so that Ezra could concentrate on what he was doing. Josiah took charge of Ezra’s session along with Nathan while the others began swimming and generally messing about in the water nearby. It was a long time since they’d spent some real leisure time together, and swimming was always a good way of relaxing.

“Just take it nice and slow, Ez. Don’t go thinking you can swim fifty lengths first go,” Josiah cautioned.

Ezra waded carefully through the water in the shallow end and then came to a stand still. “I’ve learned the error of running before I can walk, Mr. Sanchez. I am more than happy to let nature take its course.”

“Glad to hear it, son,” Josiah said, keeping a hand on Ezra all the time.

Ezra spent most of his time floating on his back while Josiah and Nate steered him round other swimmers. The recovering agent wiggled his feet and flapped his arms lazily to keep himself on top of the water. He then turned over and did some very leisurely breast-stroke. That movement made his stomach ache, though, so after quarter of an hour of gentle activity he signaled that he’d had enough.

“Wanna get out, Ez?” Nathan asked as he got the man upright.

Ezra nodded as he brushed the hair off his brow and wiped the water from his face. “Yes, I think so. It was pleasant, though. I’ll get changed and then watch our friends for a while. I’m getting a bit chilly.” Not to say tired, he said to himself.

Nathan nodded, not wanting to allow the man to leave on his own. “Okay, I’ll come with you in case you need help getting dressed. Getting yer clothes on after swimming is bad enough when yer well, let alone when yer in your condition.”

“Yes, mother,” Ezra said with a grin.

Nathan and Ezra headed off to the changing room while Josiah moved to join Chris to update him.

“Ez okay?” the blond asked worriedly as he watched the man’s slow progress along the side of the pool. He could see that Ezra had a large towel draped over his shoulders and was hugging it tight while shivering.

“Yeah, he’d had enough. He was getting cold, but he did real well.”

“Okay, I’ll call the boys together and we’ll go.”

“No, it’s okay, Chris,” Josiah said as he stopped his friend from leaving. “Ez is happy to sit and watch after he’s finished dressing. Think he needs a bit of time to recover, so do him a favor and stay, will ya?”

“Fair enough. We’ll stay another half an hour then. Is he really all right?” Chris asked, still not convinced, although he knew Josiah wouldn't lie.

“Yeah, just tired.”

The blond nodded and went to pass the news on to the others. Ezra eventually took a seat poolside with Nathan and watched Josiah and the rest of the group fooling around. He smiled and closed his eyes, feeling contentedly tired. He was wrapped up snugly and didn’t feel cold any more.

“Okay, Ez?” Nathan asked as he glanced at his friend. He reached over and started rubbing Ezra’s back gently.

Ezra just nodded. It was relaxing listening to the splashing of the water coupled with the laughter and chatter of the swimmers. Ezra dozed happily, allowing his body to recover from its exertions. Time passed and Ezra and Nathan were soon joined by their friends.

“Hello, Ez. Enjoy that?” Vin asked as he patted Ezra’s knee to gain his attention.

Ezra opened his eyes and stretched carefully as he looked round the group of men and smiled. The excursion had been very pleasurable for him, and he knew it had done wonders for his state of mind. “Yes, thank you.”

Vin’s hair was drying into tight curls in the damp atmosphere of the pool and he ran his fingers through it to try and straighten the unwanted kinks. The sharpshooter then squatted down in front of Ezra and smiled. “Ready to go home, or do you want something to eat?”

Ezra rubbed his eyes and blinked as he considered the options. “Home please. Thank you for your company today, gentlemen. It was very pleasant indeed.”

“Okay, maybe we’ll come again next week. See how you feel, buddy,” Chris said.

**************************************

The next day, Ezra wandered round his garden sniffing the flowers that were in bloom. He enjoyed the feel of the sunshine on his face and he sighed in contentment as he continued his perambulation. It was a nice light activity which made him feel as if he were improving. His stomach still twinged occasionally, but the pain was easing as each day passed.

“Do you think you can handle a short walk today, Ez? Just down the road and back, nothing too far. No long staircases,” Vin asked when Ezra made his way back to the porch.

Ezra took a couple of seconds to decide, but finally nodded. “A gentle stroll would be good.”

“Not too tired after yesterday?” Vin persisted as he stood up. He was being extra cautious after his last experience with taking Ezra out.

“No, I’m fine,” the green-eyed man insisted as he headed toward the front of his house.

The two men set off along the sidewalk until they reached the corner. They crossed over the quiet street and wandered back up the other side until they stood opposite Ezra’s home.

“Enough?” Vin asked as he turned to look at his friend. He was pleased to see that he appeared to be fine. He wasn’t breathing excessively and seemed to have a bit of energy in reserve.

“Yes, I think so. Maybe tomorrow we can go a bit further?” Ezra asked tentatively as he looked up the road speculatively.

The sharpshooter nodded, pleased that his friend really seemed to on the road to recovery at last. “Sure. At the weekend we can go out and stay over at Chris’s, if you want. You can take Arnie for walks then.”

“That would be nice. I will look forward to it.”

******************************************

The two men arrived at the ranch on the Saturday morning. The sun was still shining and weather prospects seemed settled for the next few days. Ezra was looking forward to enjoying some more outdoor activities. After all his inactivity, he was now raring to go.

“Hey, Ez. How you feeling?” the blond asked as he walked to meet them. He studied the man as he got closer and noted that he was definitely looking better since the last time he'd seen him.

“Improving. We walked quite a long way yesterday and I didn’t feel too tired afterwards,” Ezra said, sounding very happy.

“That’s good to hear. Let’s get you settled in and then you can tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Chris carried Ezra’s bag into the house and showed him to the spare bedroom.

“After lunch, how about going to the creek for some fishing?” he suggested while helping Ezra to unpack.

Ezra smiled and looked across at the blond wryly. “I’m glad you said after lunch, Mr. Larabee. If you were hoping that we’d catch our meal, I think you would have been very disappointed.”

“You could be right. Never have much success, do we?” Chris said as he laughed. He put his arm round his friend’s shoulder and steered him out of the room.

“No, but we enjoy trying,” Ezra said as the two men met up with Vin again and ate a leisurely lunch.

The three men then spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the creek and, as expected, caught nothing. Not that they minded in the least. It had been relaxing for them all and given them a chance to talk.

Chris lay back on the river bank with hands under his head. He felt content and he allowed his eyes to shut as he enjoyed the warm sun on his face. “When do you think you’ll be back at work, Ez? Desk duty to start with, of course,” he asked distractedly, swatting an annoying fly from his face.

Ezra was leaning back against a tree, continuing to fish happily enough. He tugged his line in the hope of attracting a large prey, but to avail. “Week after next, maybe, if I get the all-clear from Dr. James. I’ll begin with half days, if that’s agreeable. I can’t predict how long it might be before I commence my usual undercover duties, though.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Having you back at work in any capacity will be great. You work however many hours you want, okay?” Chris agreed as he sat up and collected his equipment together. “Ready to head home, guys? Got the horses to see to before supper.”

“Yeah, I’m all fished out,” Vin said as he stood and stretched while yawning loudly.

Ezra pulled in his line and took his time packing up. He smiled as he walked to join the blond. “Thank you Mr. Larabee for suggesting this activity. It certainly does wonders for the nerves. I haven’t felt so relaxed in ages.”

“Glad to hear it, bud.”

**************************************

Arnie, the black Labrador, ambled into Chris’s living room and sat down in front of Ezra who was on the couch. He looked up at the undercover agent pleadingly but Ezra didn’t move. The dog whined and nuzzled Ezra’s leg with his nose. The dog almost sighed at the lack of response, so he stood and wandered back out of the room looking depressed. He reappeared a few minutes later with a leash in his mouth. He took up position in front of Ezra again and growled softly as he wagged his tail lazily.

Ezra laughed and sat up straight as he looked down at the dog. “You are joking, Master Larabee. Since when did you wear a leash? I note that you haven’t even got a collar on. To what am I supposed to attach your restraint?”

Vin entered the room after hearing Ezra’s voice and he stopped as he took in the scene.

“Jeez, Arnie. Give the guy a break, will ya?”

Ezra reached out a hand and patted the canine’s head while smiling at Vin. “It’s all right. He’s keeping me entertained with his antics. I’m wondering where he actually found the leash. I don’t believe Chris has ever put one on him so I’m surprised he even knows what it is for.”

“You gonna take him out?” Vin asked as he leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms.

“Arnie doesn’t need me to take him. He’s free to do as he pleases.”

“But he’s asking you to go with him. He wants yer company, bud. How can you turn him away? Look at him with those big brown eyes," the sharpshooter cajoled in amusement.

“Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said in despair as he pursed his lips. “A minute ago you were telling him to leave me alone. Are you now suggesting I take him for a walk?”

“Yeah,” Vin said as he stood up straight and ambled forward.

“You didn’t bribe Arnie in some way to impress his charms on me to make me capitulate?” the undercover agent asked suspiciously as he eyed his approaching friend.

“No, Ez.” Vin laughed. “Come on, I’ll come with ya. It’ll be good for you.”

Ezra sighed and stood up. Arnie barked, dropping the leash from his mouth as he did so. He then turned and scampered out of the room still barking excitedly. Ezra stared down at the saliva-soaked leash and laughed. He walked out through the kitchen with Vin and headed out into the yard.

The two men walked along slowly with Arnie. The dog ran on ahead, checking back every so often to make sure his human companions were still following. After half an hour of leisurely strolling, Ezra came to a halt.

“Ez? You okay?”

“I seem to have developed a stitch,” he admitted as he rubbed his ribs to try and ease the pinching pain. He took short, shallow breaths, unable to do anything else.

“Okay, we’ll stop here a while. It’s a great spot to look at the scenery, anyway.”

The two men sat down and just took pleasure in their surroundings while Ezra recovered.

Arnie came lolloping back a minute later and lay in the shade of a nearby tree. He didn’t harass the two men, perhaps realizing that something was wrong. He rested his head on his paws and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.

Ezra smiled at the easy companionship of the dog, wishing he could have a pet of his own. With his job and lifestyle, though, that seemed an unlikely dream. He rubbed his ribs again and sighed at his sometimes lonely life.

“How ya feelin’, Ez?” Vin asked, watching his friend closely.

“I’m fine. The pain is subsiding now.”

“Glad to hear it. Let’s stay a bit longer and then head home. Arnie looks content to rest at the moment, doesn’t he?” the sharpshooter noted in amusement.

The two men rose ten minutes later and stretched. Arnie was up and running straightaway after first taking a few seconds to make sure that everything was all right with his friends. He instinctively knew they were going to be heading home. He set off in that direction at a steady pace, nose to the ground, weaving from one side of the track to the other eagerly.

“Well, half an hour’s walk is an improvement,” Ezra commented as he started to follow the dog.

“Yeah, it’ll be an hour by the time we get back. You did real well, Ez,” Vin said encouragingly as he draped an arm round Ezra’s shoulder companionably.

“I do believe I am improving every day now. Things seem to take less effort than they did last week, anyway.”

Vin nodded and squeezed his friend's shoulders briefly. “I agree. I can see a real difference in you. You seem more confident, too.”

“I thought I was always confident,” Ezra said in confusion as he looked over at Vin. He didn't really understand what he meant.

“Not since yer aneurysm you ain’t. You’ve been real skittish when trying things after yer release from the hospital. I’ve been watching you and have been with you every step of the way, remember. It’s been like watching a toddler taking his first steps in the world. I reckon you’ve got the hang of it, now, after suffering a few trips and falls along the way. You’re foot-sure again, bud.”

“Very eloquent and descriptive, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said with a laugh and a nod. Vin was a very observant person and he had described things perfectly.

The two men finally reached the ranch house and walked toward the swing seat on the porch. Although they hadn't hurried, Ezra was inevitably feeling a bit tired after completing the longest walk since his release from the hospital.

“Hey, Ez. How ya feeling?” the ladies’ man asked as he intercepted the undercover agent. Buck and the other men had arrived half an hour before, ready to celebrate Ezra's return to health.

Ezra lowered himself gingerly onto the seat. “Very well, Mr. Wilmington. Thank you for asking.”

“Well you’re looking perkier. Got more color in your cheeks. Been looking like a ghost for far too long, pard,” the ladies’ man observed. He couldn't help but remember how the man had looked on the first night in the hospital. The difference now was startling.

The rest of the team came out onto the porch after hearing the voices. They scattered around on various chairs nearby and all looked toward Ezra.

“You’re looking better, Ezra,” Josiah said with a smile as he studied his young friend.

Ezra grinned. “So Mr. Wilmington informs me. It must be the country air. I feel reborn,” he said as he stretched.

“Don’t rush back to work, Ez,” Nathan cautioned. “Just ‘cause yer feeling better right now don’t mean you’re cured. I don’t wanna see you at work for another week.”

“When I visited Dr. James this week, he said I could return in three weeks time, well, that's about two weeks now. I won’t be overextending myself in the meantime, Mr. Jackson. I still suffer the odd ache and pain and I’m perfectly prepared to be patient. I have no desire to return to the hospital in the near future.”

“Nor do we, bud.”

Ezra got a glint in his eye. "However, if I could be tended by that darlin' girl, Petra, well..."

Vin held out his hands hastily and shook his head. "Oh, no, Ezra. Don't you go getting any ideas, or I'll have to admitted to the hospital with you."

Buck smiled as he looked round the group of friends. Each of them looked more relaxed than he'd seen in quite a while. The worry that had been plain to see in previous weeks was gone. Vin, in particular, looked less strained.

"What ya smiling about, Buck?" Nathan asked as he patted the man's shoulder.

Buck turned round to face him. "Nothing much, pard. I was just thinking that it's great to be all together again." The last time they had been, excluding the recent swimming session, was the day of Ezra's collapse.

"You can say that again," Chris agreed with a firm nod of his head.

Buck opened his mouth to do exactly as Chris had said, but his lips were firmly covered by a huge hand from behind. Josiah pulled the ladies' man back into a bear-hug as the other men laughed. It truly was good to be back together.

The End.

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