Ezra gripped the door handle with a ferocity that surprised even himself. The 'white knuckle death grip' didn't go unnoticed by JD who sat beside him. They were about halfway to the Judge's and thankfully the trip was going smooth. Nathan had been worried and he had a reason to be. The team's undercover agent had been through enough and the medic didn't want him under any more stress.
"Ya cold Ez?" JD asked, noticing he'd started shaking. He also noticed the distant look in the Southerner's eyes. JD looked up and looked at Josiah through the rear view mirror and at Nathan who turned around in his seat to make sure everything was fine.
Josiah, Nathan, and JD had all shed their heavy coats. Only Ezra still wore his, and JD noticed, obviously it wasn't enough.
"I got a heavy coat behind the backseat JD, why don't you throw that over 'im," Josiah said, taking a concerned look at the undercover agent.
JD reached behind the seat and grabbed the big heavy coat and scooted closer to Ezra. He gently threw the coat over the Southerner's shoulders and looked at Nathan when Ezra jumped in reaction to the touch but didn't respond to any of them. "He gonna be okay?"
"Ezra, you feelin' alright?" Nathan asked in a concerned tone. He reached out to feel the undercover agent's forehead but a braced hand pushed him away.
Ezra pushed himself further back into the seat and gripped his right side even tighter. All he wanted to do was fall asleep but he couldn't. Control, he needed to maintain control. He hated this. He didn't want to be touched, or crowded, or spoken to. He just wanted to be left alone.
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and rested his head against the window after Josiah unintentionally hit a pothole in the road. What he would give for a bed. JD reached out and touched his shoulder out of concern and Ezra jumped again in response. "Please don't Mr. Dunne." He kept his eyes closed and tried to hide himself in the confines of the seat.
JD looked at Nathan unsure of what to do. At this moment Ezra reminded him of a scared animal trying to hide in the corner of a cage. Nathan gently slapped JD on the knee letting him know everything was going to be fine. It had to be fine.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah, Nathan, and JD all sighed in relief when the Judge's house came into view. Ezra hadn't moved nor had he acknowledged anything anyone had said. Josiah and Nathan were both concerned about the Southerner and they hoped the ride hadn't been too much for him. The lights were on in the house indicating that the rest of the team had made it. Josiah pulled the Blazer to a stop and turned off the engine.
It took both Josiah and Nathan to get the Southerner out of the vehicle. Ezra kept insisting he was able to walk on his own without help but as soon as his feet hit the ground his knees started to give out. Nathan got under Ezra's left arm and Josiah got under his right.
"You ready?" Josiah asked good-naturedly, trying to add humor to the moment.
Ezra didn't answer instead he hung limply between the two larger men trying to control the urge to collapse. As Josiah and Nathan started up the steps they took into account the harsh breathing coming from their burden. There was no denying he was exhausted his dragging feet only confirmed it. Nathan stopped abruptly and shook his head in Josiah's direction letting the big man know that they weren't going to make it up the rest of the steps carrying Ezra the way they were. The Southerner was already slipping to the ground and Nathan was concerned that they might rip out his stitches.
Josiah reached down and picked the undercover agent up as though he weighed no more than a bag of potatoes. JD and Nathan then both understood how Josiah could bench-press over three hundred pounds. Ezra lost his battle with consciousness before he had a chance to complain and Josiah headed up the remaining steps to the house.
+ + + + + + +
Chris held the door open for his men and he threw a concerned look to Nathan when he noticed Ezra lying limply in Josiah's arms. "He alright?"
"He's just exhausted," Nathan reassured.
Chris nodded his head in understanding and directed his men towards the room where they thought Ezra would be the most comfortable. The blankets on the bed had already been thrown back and Josiah laid his burden on the flannel sheets. Before he or Nathan could get Ezra out of his clothing the Southerner curled up on his left side folding his arms across his abdomen. Nathan slipped off Ezra's shoes and threw the blankets back over him.
"Buck made his specialty for you boys." Chris smiled knowing it had been a while since they had eaten.
"Son-of-a-bitch stew?" Josiah and Nathan said in unison.
"I think I'd rather have Burger King," Nathan didn't hide his almost fatal remembrance of Buck's stew.
"I heard that!" came the shout from the kitchen.
"I'll stay with 'im, you boys go and get something to eat," Chris ordered. He watched as both Josiah and Nathan turned their attention back towards the bed before leaving. The team leader turned on the adjoining bathroom light and left the door open so the room would be partially lit when he turned the bedroom light off. Chris grabbed an old chair and pulled it over so that it rested next to the head of the bed where Ezra slept, now completely submerged underneath the pile of blankets, he sat down to wait.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan carefully went through the bag of medical supplies that Dr. Straus had told him to get. Bandages, tapes, antibacterial ointments, and prescriptions littered the table. The good doctor did prescribe some pain medication for Ezra but they weren't as strong as Nathan would have liked them to be. In reality they weren't any stronger than an extra strength Aspirin. Of course Dr. Straus's main concern had been Ezra's migraines, and strong pain relievers could cause them to be worse.
Josiah set a plate of Buck's famous stew in front of the team's medic and smiled a sorry grin. "Vin sends his regards."
Nathan groaned at the site. "Don't you have a quote in that brain of yours in regards to really bad food?"
Josiah stopped and thought a moment. "Dinner at the Huntercombes' possessed 'only two dramatic features the wine was a farce and the food a tragedy'."
Nathan threw a disbelieving look at the big man before shaking his head and grabbing the plate of food. "Hey Buck!" Nathan yelled into the living room where the others had gathered to watch some TV, "stay out of the kitchen from now on."
"My stew is world famous..." Buck defended himself. He didn't understand why the others hated his cooking.
"For spreading the 'Atomic Trots'." Nathan responded while dumping the stew down the garbage disposal.
JD snorted at Buck's facial reaction to the medic's comment. "He's right," the kid decided to press the issue. "It damn near killed me the first time I tried it."
"Laid me out flat for a week," Vin added to the teasing. He looked up when Chris stepped out of the bedroom and carefully left the door open. "Everything alright?"
"He's out like a light." Chris grabbed a chair and ran his hand over his face. The dark circles under his eyes confirmed his exhaustion. "Vin, get on the horn with the Judge let him know what is goin' on and find out from him what's goin' on with the case." He looked around the room to his men. "When Ez is up to it I want to know exactly what happened."
"What are we goin' to do about Carson?" Vin asked.
"Unfortunately it's goin' to take more than Ezra's word to bring charges against the man." Chris shook his head at the thought. What could they do about the man? They needed proof and they didn't have any. On paper Carson was as clean as they come and to say the least the man knew how to cover his tracks. Ezra had been right when he'd told Chris that he was dealing with people who knew what they were doing and it was going to take more than suspicions and accusations to put the man where he belonged.
"Even after what happened?" JD asked, biting down on a sunflower seed.
"All that matters Brother Dunne is what others see, and Ezra knows that better than any of us. He worked with those people in Atlanta for a little over nine years and he's worked with us just over six months, everything Ezra's goin' to tell us will be like reading one of his reports." Josiah stated.
"In other words he ain't goin' to tell us any more than what he has to," Vin responded.
"Get some sleep," Chris said, getting to his feet, "we'll talk about this in the morning."
Nathan sat next to the bed where Ezra was still sleeping. The medic was thinking about things he hadn't thought about in years. The way his father would try and cook meals for him and his sister's after their mother had died. The way his mother died and the pain that followed her death. So many things might have turned out differently if she had lived and Nathan couldn't help but wonder how. When his mother had died it was his first real feeling of betrayal. She left her husband and her three children and when it happened Nathan was angry, hurt, and bitter. What hurt him most was the fact that no matter what he did it wasn't enough to keep her around and he blamed himself for her death. His father had worked hard his whole life and he told his young son to be proud of whatever path his fate held for him. Now, Nathan lived by those wise words. He did take pride in his job; he was honored to work with this group of men. His father had prepared him for such a task and Nathan was thankful he had.
It was strange thinking about the way things had turned out. It would have only taken a few minutes to change the outcome. The team had come so close to losing one of their own and now they were faced with the possibility of not being able to punish the perpetrator. Nathan now understood how different Ezra's feeling of betrayal differed from his own. He also understood why the Southerner had to bend the law in order to complete his job when he worked undercover.
Nathan would no longer condemn or criticize the man he was growing to respect. He reached out and pulled the blanket back exposing the right side of Ezra's face. The man was still asleep and Nathan understood why. He'd been through enough and the trip to the house had worn him out. Nathan reached out and pressed his hand against the Southerner's forehead to check for a fever. Even in his sleep Ezra was elusive, pulling away from the touch and concern of others. How do you gain the trust of someone who'd been burned so badly by the people he was suppose to trust the most. Nathan gently pulled the blanket back up and leaned back into the chair. Vin would replace him in a few minutes. It was funny how the sharpshooter thrived in the early morning hours.
Vin tapped on the door waking Nathan from his moment of reverie and he stood up and slapped the sharpshooter on the arm before leaving the room. Truly they were all an odd assortment of men but despite their differences they were family and like JD had said in the early morning hours the day before, it didn't take blood to be family. It seemed the harder they fought the stronger the bond became. It was almost as if a force, stronger than any of them, was keeping them together. If that force was real then perhaps it was the reason behind Ezra's survival. How else could they explain why he was still alive?
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pushed the blankets back away from his face and lifted tired eyelids. The blinds on the windows had been turned down and for that he was thankful. He didn't think his head could handle even the dullest light at the moment. He noticed Josiah dozing in the chair beside the bed. Ezra sat up and set his feet on the carpeted floor while keeping his right arm braced against his right side. The pain was bad but he could make it to the bathroom it wasn't that far away. The pain in his side was the constant reminder of what happened and he shivered at the thought. He got to his feet and waited until the dizziness passed before slowly making his way to the bathroom. He needed to relieve himself, shave and wash his face, anything to be clean.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah woke with a start and looked at the empty bed. Before he could even jump to his feet the bathroom door opened and out stepped Ezra. The Southerner had shed his jacket and even taken the time to shave. Vin was in the right when he thought about grabbing Ezra's shaving supplies. The man didn't like to be unshaven any longer than he had to when it came to maintaining his appearance.
The big man had to stop himself from getting up and helping Ezra get back to the bed to sit down. Josiah didn't want to crowd him so he stayed seated but was ready to jump up if he needed to. He let out a deep breath when the Southerner finally got seated on the edge of the bed. The short walk had worn Ezra out but he refused to give in.
"Do you feel like eating something?" Josiah asked.
Ezra cocked an eyebrow and looked questionably at the big man. "Who's cooking?"
Josiah chuckled, everyone had fallen victim to Buck's stew. "Nathan." He smiled when Ezra nodded his head and slowly got to his feet. Josiah stood and followed him out of the room at a slow pace.
Nathan looked up when he noticed the two slow moving forms coming out of the bedroom. He was pleased to see Ezra up and walking, which was a good sign. He noticed Josiah walking close enough behind that if Ezra were to have a mishap the big man would be there to catch him. Nathan took the chance and grabbed the bandages and medications.
Ezra slipped into the first chair he came to. He leaned back and took a much-needed deep breath thankful that he'd made it this far.
"How ya feelin' Ez?" JD asked enthusiastically.
Nathan handed Ezra a couple capsules of antibiotics and painkillers. "You need to take those." He then handed him a glass of warm water.
"I'm not taking anything that is going to make me sleep." He reached out to put the pills on the dining room table.
"There's not a sleep agent in the painkillers," Nathan replied, as Ezra debated on whether or not to believe him. "Honestly," he tried to reassure. He sighed when the Southerner finally took the pills and then swallowed them down with a long drink of water. "I need to change your bandages, it's been almost sixteen hours since you've had them changed." Nathan rested down on his knees while reaching for Ezra's shirt not giving him time to object.
"I've got it," Ezra said with his jaw clenched. He pushed Nathan's hands away from the front of his shirt and unbuttoned it himself.
Nathan rested back on his haunches wanting to get a look at the wounds. "Take the braces off your wrists as well." He watched Ezra's slow movements and wondered if he was doing it on purpose, trying to avoid the process, or if he was still under the effects of the pain medication the doctor had given him when he left the hospital.
Chris moved forward realizing what was happening between his undercover agent and his medic. He grabbed one of the other chairs and sat it in front of Ezra next to Nathan. "Are you up to talkin'?" Chris got right to the point knowing the importance of getting the man's mind off of what Nathan was going to do.
"You'll have to be more precise, Mr. Larabee, about what you wish me to converse about." Ezra sat the braces on the table and looked at the white bandages covering his wrists. He then looked hard at Chris, letting the man know he wasn't up for the idle chat. He leaned back in the chair letting the shirt fall open exposing the bandages high on his right side.
Nathan turned slightly to his left and got a reassuring nod from Chris and then he started. He looked up and noticed Ezra clench his jaw in anticipation. Nathan reached up and gently pulled the tape away from the bandage while Chris started his conversation.
"How much do you remember?"
Ezra looked harder at the team leader feeling the muscles on his side, abdomen, and chest quiver and flex in response to Nathan's touch. "Enough," came the harsh reply. He didn't want to be here and it was taking every bit of his self-control to remain seated.
"Do you speak Russian?"
Ezra looked oddly at Chris and shook his head, "No."
Chris nodded his head and looked to Josiah who only raised his eyebrows in question. The team leader didn't know if Ezra was lying or if he really didn't know he could speak the language. "The manila envelope that was taped to your leg, how'd you find the evidence?"
"Someone slipped under my room door." Ezra said skeptically. Leaning forward he quickly started buttoning his shirt while ignoring the questioning looks coming from everyone.
Nathan was thankful that the Southerner's side looked clear of infection. Now it would be a challenge to change the bandages on his wrist. Nathan grabbed a new roll of gauze and he waited until Ezra finished buttoning his shirt. "Let me change those bandages on your wrists."
Chris watched as the Southerner stuck his arms out for Nathan to take a look at them. He couldn't blame the man for being cautious. For the first time he was seeing the amount of damage that had been done to Ezra's body. Chris was sure the images and the accompanying fear would be enough to cause Ezra to be on edge until the physical wounds healed, and probably for years afterward. "Do you think Agent Carson was behind what happened?" Chris went ahead and asked.
"If he was..." Ezra clenched his jaw when Nathan carefully cleaned the abrasions on his right wrist, "neither you or anyone else will be able to prove it."
"Let me take a look at your other wrist," Nathan said, finishing the bandage.
"Do you know a man by the name of Harry Kessler?" Chris asked, he could see a look of question come from Josiah and he knew the others would want to know as well. Harry had said not to mention him to Ezra when it came to the referral he initially gave the Southerner back when this team was starting.
"What are you asking me?" Ezra looked in distrust at the team leader. "What does this have to do with what happened?"
"Do you know him or not?" Chris asked again, noticing how agitated his undercover agent was becoming.
"No." Ezra pulled his arm away from Nathan's grasp and returned it to his side. His attention was being pulled from the pain in his side to the uncertain questions coming from Chris. "I don't know the man."
Chris nodded his head in acceptance. "What about your father?" he went ahead and asked, knowing that fine thread keeping Ezra bound within the team might further fray.
"That, Mr. Larabee, is an inappropriate question." Ezra threw a threatening glare in Chris's direction warning him not to press any further.
"Chris didn't mean anything by it Ezra." Josiah tried to calm the now unsettled waters. The big man reached out to gently grasp the undercover agent's shoulder not knowing that Nathan was reaching up to grasp his arm.
Ezra jumped and almost fell out of the chair when hands grabbed him from all directions. This time the hands retreated but he didn't as he quickly got to his feet gripping his right side. Backing away from the group of men he tripped over a rug and landed on his backside but he continued to push himself back toward someplace, anyplace but here. He made it into the bathroom and quickly closed and locked the door then he proceeded to the farthest corner of the room. Disregarding the cold floor or dim lighting, Ezra kicked out with his feet until he ran into the wicker shelf across from the toilet. He held his arms over his head as bottles, towels, and toilet paper fell from the shelves onto him. He could hear the others pounding on the door wanting him to let them in. Ezra pushed himself between the empty shelves and the bathtub.
"Ezra!" Josiah yelled while pounding on the bathroom door.
"What in the hell were you thinkin' askin' him shit like that?" Buck snapped, pulling Chris around to face him.
Chris looked around at the questioning faces. "Harry worked with the CIA before he became a SEAL," he paused looking at his longtime friend. "His partner was Ezra's father."
"You need to work on your people skills," Vin stated, in a matter of fact tone.
"Who the fuck cares?" Buck snapped back at him.
"Ezra!" Josiah yelled again. The big man turned and with a hard look at Chris, "Do you have any idea how much shit he's been through these past few days and now you go and ask him questions about Lord knows what."
"I need answers before one of us ends up in the ground." Chris knew he'd pushed the barriers but he also knew that if he didn't he might have lost the chance to ask. "I want this behind us for all our sakes."
"If it had been anyone of us except Ezra in that situation I doubt you would've asked questions like that," Nathan spoke up, and for the first time verbalized his disapproval.
"Nate's right," Vin added, "it's gonna be harder to get his cooperation now."
"I can't be concerned about stepping on some toes here," Chris said in a serious tone, "I have a team to worry about."
"Ezra." Josiah tapped lightly on the door again trying to get any kind of a response.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat up on the edge of the bathtub and listened carefully to what was being said outside the door. Harry Kessler was not a name he was familiar with, but why would Chris bring up his father. Ezra had very few memories of the man and he wasn't about to share any of them with any one here. His side was hurting and his head felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. He didn't doubt that Carson knew what he was doing but how was he supposed to go about proving it. He could make a few phone calls, call in a few favors but he didn't want to raise any eyebrows, especially if the Judge was going before the State Justices in less than six weeks. Maybe he should have quit when he had the chance. Ezra shook his head; he was in deeper than ever.
Ezra stood up and walked to the sink intending to splash water on his face. He tried to fight off the strong urge to sleep, he felt so tired. He heard Josiah tap on the door again and call his name. The man was persistent. Ezra wiped the water off his face and looked at the door debating whether or not to open it and face the inevitable.
+ + + + + + +
Chris handed Josiah the file Judge Travis had given him days before and waited for the big man to have a look. Half the file had been blacked out but there was enough left to show that Harry Kessler and Patrick Standish had worked together for almost four years. On what, only the people with black markers knew.
"Ezra was just a kid when your friend Kessler was working with his father. He's not going to remember the man." Josiah handed the file back and looked questionably at the leader.
"Maybe," Chris agreed.
"Ezra!" Nathan yelled, knocking on the door. He had other concerns about their Southern friend. Ezra was still weak from blood loss and the chance of him hemorrhaging was still high. "Will someone please help me out here?" he looked around to the others, "I feel like I'm tryin' to talk one of my sisters out from under her bed."
"Why did your sisters hid under their bed?" JD asked curiously.
"They would sneak into the cookie jar and eat the cookies under the bed so they wouldn't get caught."
"I like you sisters' way of thinkin'." Vin chuckled at the thought.
Chris stepped up to the door, the look on his face causing the others to back away. He was determined to get the Southerner out of the bathroom. "Ezra!" he yelled while banging on the door. "Quit your fiddle fart fuckin' around and get your ass out here."
"Like I said Larabee, you need to work on your people skills." Vin sat on the bed and waited to see how far the team leader could get. Tact was not Chris' strong suit.
"Hey Chris," Buck spoke up while leaning against the wall, "that vein on the side of your head's popin' up."
Chris threw the ladies man a look of 'don't mess with me' and he went back to banging on the door. "Ezra!" he yelled again.
Much to everyone's surprise the door slowly opened. Ezra stood back leaning against the counter. "I am not deaf, Mr. Larabee." He wiped the beads of sweat away from his forehead and returned his grasp to the counter edge.
"You alright?" Chris asked concerned, stepping closer to the undercover agent.
Ezra nodded his head. "Fine," he responded in a low tone while keeping his eyes cast toward the floor.
"Yeah," Chris grunted, grabbing Ezra under his arms as his knees gave out. "Nathan!" he yelled while gently laying the Southerner on the bathroom floor.
Nathan moved passed the others and kneeled down beside Ezra and immediately checked his bandaged side. Relieved find no sign of hemorrhaging he felt for Ezra's pulse. "He's fine," Nathan reassured everyone, "just exhausted."
Chris grabbed under the Southerner's arms while Nathan took his legs and together they moved him to the bed. "JD," Chris looked to the kid, "why don't you and Vin go out to my place and pick up that box of files we started workin' on a few weeks ago."
JD and Vin didn't waste any time heading out. The others watched them go while Nathan replaced the braces on Ezra's arms. Things were starting to come to a head and Nathan knew it wouldn't be long before something broke. The team could no longer stand by and watch as Ezra fought enemies within the Bureau. The organization that had recruited a young kid out of college was trying to destroy his life. The question was why and for whose gain? Nathan placed his hand over Ezra's forehead checking for a fever and pulled away relieved he didn't feel one. It didn't add up, nothing added up. What did Carson hold against the Southerner? He pulled the blanket back up over Ezra's chest and he headed out of the room to speak with the others.
Chris watched as Josiah and Buck read through the file Judge Travis had given him. Buck continually shook his head. He couldn't believe Harry had worked with Ezra's father. What bothered him even more was the fact Harry hadn't said anything to them. He and Chris had known the man for what seemed like, forever.
"Why didn't you say somethin' about this earlier?" Buck leaned back in his seat and waited for Chris to answer.
"We've been a little preoccupied."
Josiah cleared his throat and waited until Nathan sat at the table with the rest of them. "I don't know Harry Kessler, but I know you," he looked hard at Chris and then to Buck, "if you trust the man, then you have no reason to doubt the rest of us trusting him either." Josiah looked around and met everyone's eyes. He trusted Chris and he'd worked with the man long enough to know that when he made a decision about someone he stuck with it. He knew to give Ezra a chance when everyone else had counted him out. Josiah also couldn't ignore the fact that Chris had taken a chance and hired him as well. A fifty-year-old cop who'd spent most of his career talking with other cops and victims and here he was working with this team, no longer an outsider looking in.
"I appreciate that," Chris replied. "I want this done, I want Ezra cleared of all this bullshit."
"Take it easy on 'im," Nathan spoke up. "He's not up to this Chris."
"I know that Nathan." Chris ran his hand over his face and leaned back in his chair almost mimicking Buck's relaxed pose.
"Call Harry, find out from him what he knows?" Buck suggested.
"Not until Ezra lets us know what he does."
"He may not..." Josiah started.
"He does," Chris disagreed. "I think it scared him to learn what it is that we know."
"Which is what?" Buck looked hard at his longtime friend.
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