Josiah sniffed the air appreciatively. "Smells good. I may have to change my mind about breakfast."
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Heart-attack on a plate, that's what it is." He stuffed the last of his English muffin in his mouth and leaned back in the overstuffed chair, trying to ignore the tantalizing odor of cinnamon that wafted from the kitchen.
"Yeah," Buck agreed, setting his spoon in his empty cereal bowl that sat on the coffee table. "I have to watch my girlish figure."
Josiah chuckled and was about to go back into the kitchen for more coffee, when the doorbell rang. The three men looked at one another, before Josiah stood and headed for the door.
* * * * * * * * * *
Orrin Travis stood impatiently on the front porch of Larabee's house. He should have known the men would come out here after the funeral; he had been tempted to do so himself, even though he didn't have all of the shared memories of the place that his agents did. Josiah's call had surprised him and he hoped that whatever they wanted him for was important, since he was missing his usual Sunday brunch to be here.
"Josiah," he greeted the large man who opened the door.
"Come in, sir."
Travis followed him inside. "Buck, Nathan." He nodded to the two men sitting in the living room. "What was so important that you had to see me on such short notice?" It was usually best to get right to the point with these men.
"Have a seat, sir," Josiah said, gesturing to an empty chair.
Travis sat, the pleasant aroma in the air making his mouth water, and looked at them questioningly.
JD burst out of the kitchen clutching his cinnamon roll and acknowledged Travis's presence. "Good morning, sir. Would you like a cinnamon roll?"
Travis eyed the exuberant agent curiously, then nodded. "They certainly smell delicious."
"Ez made 'em," JD said over his shoulder as he dashed back into the kitchen.
"Standish is here?" His eyes narrowed and he looked to the other agents for confirmation.
"Yes," Josiah answered. "But that's not why we asked you to come."
"Then what is the reason," Travis asked, a tinge of annoyance in his voice.
"That." Josiah pointed at the kitchen door.
Travis turned his gaze toward the kitchen and felt his heart begin to pound in his chest. Limping through the door was a very-much-alive Chris Larabee, followed by an equally-animated Vin Tanner. It wasn't often that Orrin Travis, Assistant Director of the Denver ATF, found himself speechless, but this was one such occasion. He gaped at the men, his mouth opening and closing silently until he finally found the words. "Sweet Jesus! What in heaven's name is going on?!"
"It's complicated, sir," Chris replied with a crooked smile as he took a seat on the sofa.
"Would you like some coffee?" Ezra asked hesitantly as he stood next to Travis.
Travis nodded, his eyes never leaving his two formerly-deceased agents. "Well? Let's hear it!"
Vin and Chris looked at one another, then began retelling their tale.
* * * * * * * * * *
"What do you need?" Travis said, his voice hard. He had found himself growing more and more furious as he had heard about what had transpired during the past week. Nobody messed with his boys and got away with it -- not if he had anything to say about it.
"Back-up," Buck answered simply.
"We tracked down the location where they were being held, and it turned out to be an old weather station that isn't being used anymore," JD said, pointing at the map that lay spread out on the coffee table.
"Jarvis said he'd return Monday to finish his little game," Chris said icily. "I want our guys waiting for him when he gets there."
"Gotta send 'em in by chopper," Vin announced. "If Jarvis sees tire tracks in the snow, he'll know somethin's up."
"We can do that," Travis said with a slow nod. "I'll put Team Four on it; they're not doing much right now." Travis looked up at the men and grinned. "Besides, I seem to remember that they owe you boys for saving their bacon on the McLaughlin job."
Chuckles rippled through the assembled men.
"We'll be heading back to our own places this afternoon," Nathan explained. "We don't figure Jarvis will bother watchin' us anymore now that the funeral is over."
"One of us will wait in the woods near the access road here..." Josiah pointed at the map. "...while the rest of us park in this rest area and follow Jarvis after we get the alert."
"We don't know when he's planning to show up, so we'd better have everyone in place early, like 6:00 AM or so," Chris suggested.
"Good plan," Travis nodded. "I'll make sure everything else is ready." He stood and favored Chris and Vin with a broad smile. "Damn good to have you back, boys. Place wouldn't have been the same without you."
"Thank you, sir," Chris said with a smile.
Travis stood and headed for the door. "I'll call you later with the details." His eyes passed over Standish, who had sat unobtrusively in the corner during the discussions, and he briefly considered having a much-needed talk with the man, but then decided it could wait until later. One problem at a time.
* * * * * * * * * *
The men spent the rest of the morning going over their plans and, but for Ezra, enjoying each other's company. Ezra had retreated to the kitchen after breakfast, taking his time cleaning up the detritus from his cooking, even to the point of doing the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. He was uncomfortable spending much time in the presence of his other four teammates, their disdainful glances and silence beginning to wear away at his composure.
He seemed to be on a more even keel with JD, and Josiah didn't appear to be as upset with him as before, but Buck and Nathan were another story. He wasn't surprised; they had been his biggest detractors all along. Buck had been afraid that Ezra's apparent unreliability would hurt, or worse, kill, one of the others and his protective nature kicked in against the perceived threat. Nathan had disliked him on sight and had strong opinions on his lack of character and ethics, and Ezra's actions on that first assignment had only cemented his beliefs.
Finally, he could delay no longer and slipped quietly from the kitchen, taking a seat on the far edge of the group. He sat silently, not offering any opinions or participating in any conversations except to answer direct questions. Chris and Vin sent him occasional looks of concern, but Ezra shrugged them off with a smile. They had more important things to worry about than his emotional state.
"We should get going, guys," Nathan suggested with a yawn. "It's two now and we really ought to get some sleep before heading out tonight."
"It takes around four hours to get there from here, so make sure you give yourselves plenty of time," Chris told them.
"Yeah, I figure on leaving around midnight," Buck said. "We can't be sure how early he's gonna show up."
"Good," Josiah said. "Why don't we meet at your place?"
"You comin' too, Ez?" JD asked.
Ezra opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by Chris. "He's staying here with us."
Ezra was about to object, when he spotted the slight wink Chris sent his way. "Ah, yes, I believe I will stay and keep these two out of any more trouble."
Buck snorted slightly, but quieted after a glare from Chris. He and the others turned to leave, and Vin noticed that they had seemed relieved that Ezra was not accompanying them. He frowned at that thought, but knew that this was not the time to open that particular can of worms.
Once the door was shut, Ezra turned to the blond leader, his eyebrow arched inquisitively. "You do not expect me to stay here, do you?"
"Hell no," Chris said with a sly grin. "You're drivin' us up there."
"Mr. Larabee..." Ezra began to protest.
"Relax, Ezra," Chris said. "We're going to stay in the car, don't worry."
"Yeah," Vin agreed, nodding vigorously. "We ain't dumb enough to go runnin' around out in the woods again. We just need to be there when that asshole goes down."
"Just like you do," Chris added.
"What about your agreement with the others?"
"Hell, he only promised we wouldn't go with them... and we ain't," Vin said. "We're goin' with you."
"Semantics, Mr. Tanner," Ezra frowned.
"Would you rather we go without you?" Chris asked pointedly.
Ezra studied them for a moment, then slowly nodded. "All right, but if your conditions deteriorate, we will immediately seek out the nearest hospital."
"Deal," Chris agreed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra looked over his shoulder at Chris, who sat in the back seat with his leg propped on a pillow, snoring softly. Next to him, Vin reclined in the passenger seat, dozing quietly. Ezra smiled slightly, stifling a yawn. When this was over, he would sleep for a week. His back was throbbing, the long hours of driving taking their toll. He hoped Dr. Landry didn't find out how poorly he had followed her directives.
The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon and Ezra craned his neck slightly to get a glimpse of the main road. They had found this small dirt road on the map before they left the house. It was located a half-mile from the access road leading to the old weather station, in the opposite direction from the rest area where the others were waiting, but close enough to hear their radio conversations. Ezra kept his microphone switched off so as not to inadvertently alert them to his presence. Even though it had been Chris and Vin's decision to be present at the bust, he doubted that would carry much weight with the rest of his teammates.
JD had drawn the short straw and was currently sitting in the bushes at the foot of the access road, complaining occasionally to the others out of sheer boredom. Ezra was bored himself, but didn't want to pull Vin and Chris from their much-needed sleep simply to converse with him. So, he sat quietly, playing a rather cramped game of solitaire on the clipboard on his lap. He nearly dumped the cards all over the car when the call finally came.
"Guys, he's here!" JD's excited whisper came over the earpiece.
"Okay, JD," Buck replied. "Sit tight. We'll be there in a minute."
Ezra shook Vin's shoulder gently. "Mr. Tanner."
"Huh?" Vin blinked sleepily.
"Jarvis has arrived."
"Hot damn!" Vin exclaimed. "Let's go!"
Vin took over the task of waking Chris while Ezra piloted the car onto the highway. They reached the trail shortly after the rest of their team and followed the bumpy road through the woods, staying far enough back so that they wouldn't be seen.
When they arrived at the top, the raid was already in play. Agents surrounded the concrete structure, exchanging fire with those inside. Over the smoke and gunfire, their arrival went unnoticed.
"Stay here," Ezra warned. "I'm going to assist them."
"Be careful, Ez," Vin cautioned.
"Aren't I always?" Ezra gave him a two-fingered salute and slipped out of the car to join the fray.
He crept along the back of Nathan's car, moving alongside JD, who was firing from his position near the front. "What the hell are you doin' here?" he hissed when he noticed Ezra at his side.
"Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee were determined to view the event in person," he explained. "With or without my assistance."
"Stubborn..." JD shook his head and continued firing.
Ezra smiled and moved away, edging toward the bushes located to one side of the vehicle. As he arrived, there was a shout from within, and three men suddenly burst from the building. A moment afterward, the building exploded, sending chunks of concrete shooting in all directions. Ezra ducked, narrowly avoiding one such projectile, only to be struck by another directly in the center of his chest. The blow knocked him backwards into the side of Nathan's truck and he slid to the ground, trying to catch his breath.
In front of the building, agents swarmed around the three suspects, who lay either dead or unconscious next to the remains of the structure. Travis had let Team Four in on the miraculous return of Vin and Chris to avoid any excessive violence in the name of vengeance, but that didn't prevent the suspects from succumbing to their own miscalculations. As Ezra watched, Buck approached the crowd of agents, clutching his left wrist with his right hand. Nathan followed on his heels, attempting to examine the injury, while Josiah approached from the other direction, a bleeding gash on his forehead.
"You okay Ez?" JD asked, stopping short when he saw the undercover agent sitting on the ground.
"Just fine, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, somewhat breathlessly. "I merely had the wind knocked out of me."
JD nodded then rushed to join the others. Taking a careful breath, Ezra pushed himself to his feet and walked toward the other agents, rubbing absently at the ache in his chest. Nathan spotted his approach first and shot him a fierce glare, moving to intercept him.
"What are you doing here?"
Ezra gazed at him calmly for a moment before stepping around him without responding.
Nathan grasped Ezra's shoulder and pulled him around to face him. "I'm talking to you!" he snarled.
"Yes, you are," Ezra replied placidly. He was tired, sore and sick to death of having to justify his every action to people who would believe what they wanted regardless of what he might say.
Buck then took notice of his presence and stomped toward him angrily. "You're supposed to be watchin' out for Chris and Vin!" he shouted.
"I am," Ezra answered with a smirk. "They're over there in the truck."
"You *brought* them here?!" Buck was furious.
"It was either that or let them come by themselves," Ezra said acidly. "Would you have preferred that, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck glared at him, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Ezra sighed and moved aside, continuing toward the men surrounding the suspects.
"Are they alive?" Ezra asked Agent Tom Harrison.
Harrison looked up at him, an expression of distaste flashing across his face. The grapevine being what it was, Standish's recent actions were well known to all of the ATF agents. He hesitated a moment before replying flatly, "Jarvis is dead, along with one of his gorillas. The other one took a hit, so he'll be visiting the ER before we haul his ass to jail."
"Jarvis was gonna blow the place with Tanner and Larabee inside, only he set the timer before he made sure they were still there." He shook his head in disbelief. "Idiot didn't leave himself anyway to shut the thing off if he changed his mind."
"And his time ran out," Ezra said quietly. "Thank you." He had seen the look Harrison gave him, but forced himself to ignore it. It wasn't the first time he had been subjected to such expressions, though he had hoped to never experience them again after leaving the FBI.
Ezra turned to leave, so that he could report the news to Chris and Vin, who were probably impatient to hear from him.
"Standish," a voice barked behind him.
"Yes sir," Ezra said, reluctantly turning to face the Assistant Director.
"I thought you were sitting this one out," Travis asked coolly.
"Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner insisted upon being present for the festivities," he explained yet again.
Travis looked over Ezra's shoulder toward the black sport-utility vehicle. Vin, watching from an open window, waved at him. A faint smile flickered across his stern face. "Stubborn S.O.B.'s, aren't they?"
"Quite," Ezra agreed.
The rest of Team Seven joined them, and Travis looked at each one in turn. "Good job, gentlemen. Now, why don't you go round up those two idiots sitting in that truck over there and escort them to my helicopter." He gestured behind him to the short path that led to the helipad.
"Bradley," Travis called to Rick Bradley, leader of Team Four. "Can you have one of your guys drive Agent Jackson's vehicle back to the office?"
Bradley nodded, and Travis turned to Nathan with a smile. "You boys come along so we can make sure Larabee and Tanner get to the hospital where they belong."
Buck grinned broadly. "Yes sir." He, JD, Josiah and Nathan hurried toward the car to retrieve their recalcitrant friends.
Travis pointed at Ezra, his smile turning to a frown. "I want to see you in my office when you get back." He turned abruptly and headed toward the helipad.
Ezra watched him go, followed by the boisterous members of his team. They were quickly joined by the rest of Team Four, who were eager to see Chris and Vin for themselves. He smiled sadly as he found himself alone in the cold once again. Some things never changed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra sat in his car and stared out into the half-empty parking garage. It was nearing 7:00 PM and he was exhausted. He had been up since 10:00 PM the previous night and had spent more than ten hours driving. His back was killing him and he felt unequivocally horrible. It was tempting to simply go home and face the Assistant Director tomorrow, but he knew he would sleep easier once he got this over with. Though, Ezra did wonder if he would be leaving here this day as a member of the ATF or as someone destined for the unemployment line. With a weary groan, he opened the door and went to face the inevitable.
* * * * * * * * * *
Travis looked at his watch and sighed. Standish would be arriving shortly and he still had no idea what he wanted to say to the man. Part of him wanted to simply fire his ass and be done with it, but Chris and Vin's explanation of the events leading to their supposed deaths merited some consideration. He could understand the undercover agent's reluctance to face the rest of his team, given the abuse he had endured at the accident scene. He had already reprimanded Agent Wilmington for that incident. The incident hadn't really been Standish's fault, but that didn't excuse his later actions. Deserting the team, as he had done once before, was simply not acceptable, especially in a time of such crisis. Travis was still pondering the dilemma when the soft knock sounded on the door.
"Come in," he called, already knowing who was there.
Ezra pushed through the door and stood before his desk, his usual poker face tainted by lines of stress and exhaustion.
"You look like shit, Agent," Travis commented.
Ezra winced at his directness, but shrugged indifferently. "Yes, probably."
Getting straight to the point, he asked in a demanding tone, "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Ezra blinked against the sudden wave of dizziness that washed over him, then replied carefully, "Nothing you'd want to hear."
Travis felt his temper rising. "Agent Standish, I will not tolerate your flippant attitude! Now I want an answer!"
Ezra smirked weakly. "You and everyone else. Unfortunately, I have none to give. Not that it matters anyway. You've already made up your mind... haven't you?"
Travis was about respond with a harsh reprimand when the arrogant southerner's face suddenly lost all color and he slid silently to the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. "What the hell?" Travis jumped up from his seat and hurried to the unconscious agent's side, placing a hand on his forehead. Ezra's skin was cold and clammy and his pulse was beating far too rapidly. Travis wasn't a doctor, but he knew that spelled trouble for the young man. He reached for the phone and dialed 911.
* * * * * * * * * *
Six men looked up when the door to the room opened.
"How are you boys doing?" AD Travis asked as he entered the room to which Chris and Vin had been admitted.
"Be better if they'd let me outta here," Vin complained.
Travis smiled a bit at that. None of these men were known for their patience with doctors and hospitals.
"I didn't think we'd see you again tonight, sir," Josiah asked curiously.
Travis sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "I hadn't planned on it, but Agent Standish had other ideas."
"Ezra?" Chris inquired sharply. "Where is he?" He had been more than a little perturbed that Travis had made Ezra drive home by himself, while the rest of the team had a much shorter ride in the helicopter.
"In surgery," Travis replied. He lifted a hand to forestall the questions he knew were forthcoming. "I don't know what's going on yet. We were having a little discussion in my office when he suddenly collapsed." He looked up at them with tired eyes. "They almost lost him in the ambulance -- something about his blood pressure."
A stunned silence filled the room as the men tried to comprehend what they had just been told. Finally, JD's distressed voice broke the stillness. "I didn't think he got hit that hard."
"What are you talking about, JD?" Chris asked more sharply than he intended.
"Um, when that building blew up, one of the pieces hit him in the chest." JD looked up at them guiltily. "He seemed okay."
"Damn," Vin whispered.
"Josiah, Nate," Chris called to the two men. "Can you see if you can find out anything?"
Both men nodded grimly and left the room.
"I never saw anything coming either, son," Travis said comfortingly to JD, who still sat with a stricken look on his face. "Hell, he was his usual *charming* self when he came into my office." He shrugged helplessly. "There simply wasn't any warning."
"To us, anyway," Chris said with a sarcastic snort. "He could be bleeding all over the floor and the obstinate bastard would still insist that he was 'fine'."
"Sounds like some other people I know," Travis said with a smile, looking pointedly at the two men in their hospital beds.
"He's got your number, guys," Buck said with a chuckle.
Nathan and Josiah returned a few minutes later.
"Anything?" JD asked hopefully.
"They couldn't tell us much," Josiah said apologetically. "Only that he has internal bleeding and they're operating on him now."
"That explains the blood pressure problem," Nathan determined "All we can do is hope they caught it in time."
"I asked the nurse to have the doctor come speak to us here when she was through," Josiah added.
The seven men shared a grim look and settled in to wait.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dr. Beth Landry pushed her way wearily through the door. She had to suppress a smile at the way the seven hard-looking men suddenly came to attention at her entrance. Visiting hours had long since passed, yet these men remained, awaiting word of their friend. Her gaze lingered on the men occupying the two beds in the room. The story of the extraordinary return of the two agents had spread through the hospital like a firestorm, and she found herself feeling immensely grateful that these fine men had been spared. There were far too few of the 'good guys' these days, and she was glad that these two would live to fight another day.
"Doc?" Vin asked tentatively, noting the faraway look on her face. "How's Ezra?"
"Gentlemen," she sighed, pulling herself from her thoughts. "Mr. Standish is in critical condition. He re-injured himself and nearly bled to death."
"What do you mean, 're-injured'?" Chris asked.
"Mr. Standish was nearly killed in that explosion last week," she explained, figuring that the others hadn't informed him of that incident yet. From the blank looks on their faces, she suddenly realized what had happened. She sighed, rubbing her forehead tiredly. "I take it he didn't inform you of his stay with us?"
"No, he didn't," Josiah said.
"I should have known," she muttered. These men all seemed to suffer the same lack of common sense when it came to taking care of themselves. "Your Mr. Standish arrived in my emergency room after that explosion and collapsed, much like he did today. He was apparently thrown quite forcefully against a tree and suffered a deep puncture wound that nicked his kidney and renal artery."
"Shit," Nathan commented. Those were serious and potentially fatal injuries.
She regarded them with a frown. "I specifically told him to avoid strenuous activity and driving, Apparently, he doesn't follow directions well, as he has managed to reopen his wound and acquire a few new ones."
"Hell, he's been lugging our sorry butts around since Thursday," Vin said gloomily.
"Literally," Chris added darkly.
Dr. Landry reached into her pocket and removed a plastic bag, handing it to JD, who sat the closest to her. "I forgot to give that to Mr. Standish when I discharged him last Tuesday," she explained. "I didn't know if it might be needed for evidence or something."
"What is it?" Buck asked curiously.
"It's the pieces of the vehicle that I removed from his body," she replied.
"Jesus," Vin said, leaning his head back against his pillow.
"Is he going to be all right?" Travis asked.
"Yes," she replied. "As long as he does what he's told this time and gets plenty of rest."
"Can we see him?" asked JD.
"One at a time," she said. "And don't get in the way of my nurses."
"Thanks, Doc," JD said.
"I'll keep you informed of any changes in his condition," she said as she left the room.
"I'm gonna go see him," JD said determinedly, quickly following her out the door.
The other men sat in guilty silence, wondering why they hadn't taken greater notice of his injuries. All of them hoped they would have a chance to make things right.
"Well, now we know why he wasn't in the office," Josiah said sadly.
"Stubborn fool," Nathan said. "Why didn't he say anything?"
"After the way you guys treated him, can you blame him?" Chris asked pointedly.
"He tell you about that?" Buck inquired.
"No, Jarvis did," Chris replied.
"Jarvis? He was there?" Nathan said with surprise.
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "He waited until Ez got a good look at what was supposed to be us sittin' in the jeep before he blew it up."
"Hell, Chris. We didn't even know he saw it," Buck explained. "He didn't tell us."
Chris rolled his eyes. "He watched two of his friends get blown up right in front of him, and from what the Doc says, looks like he was pretty messed up himself. I'm surprised he could remember his own name."
"Why wasn't it in the police report?" Travis asked.
"They only sent us their final report, not any individual statements," said Josiah.
"He still should have told us," Nathan insisted.
Chris snorted. "He probably figured you guys would jump all over his ass again if he showed his face."
"Sounds like you gentlemen need a refresher course in teamwork," Travis stated. "Maybe I should sign you up for one of those team-building retreats." All of the men grimaced at the thought.
"I think we can handle this, sir," Chris said confidently. "We'll work it out our own way."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "I don't think this bunch would react too well to outsiders tellin' 'em what to do. I know I wouldn't like it."
"All right, but I expect to see results," Travis warned. "You're too good a team to let things fall apart like this. You're not going to encourage teamwork, especially with someone like Standish, by beating up on each other or tossing accusations around every time the chips are down."
"Ezra don't make it easy," Buck said with a sigh.
"I know," Travis said with a sigh. "I find it difficult to talk to the man myself."
"He's used to being the scapegoat," Chris said, shaking his head in disgust. "When he was with the FBI, the blame always seemed to fall on him, no matter what happened."
"He expects it," Josiah agreed sadly. "So he does nothing to defend himself."
"Well, we're going to change that," Chris said. "Whether he likes it or not."
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra looked fragile. That was the first thing JD noticed when he stepped quietly into the room. Tubes and wires were attached to his body, his skin was pale gray, looking death-like in contrast to the white sheets, as he lay there, unnaturally still. "God, Ez," JD said, swallowing nervously as he stood next to the unconscious man. "Ya look terrible, man," he continued. "I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention to how you were feeling."
JD reached down and took Ezra's cold hand in his. "You know, all of us are worried about you. Even AD Travis is here. You scared him good passin' out in his office like that." JD smiled slightly. "I bet nobody's ever done that before."
"You gotta wake up soon, Ez," JD pleaded. "I want to tell you how sorry I am about the way I acted. I was a real jerk and I'm sorry." He toyed with the edge of the sheet, standing quietly by the bed until the nurse gently tapped his shoulder to indicate his time was up. Tossing a last look over his shoulder, he headed back to Chris and Vin's room.
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