The Misery of the Human Condition

by Beth Green

Author's Notes: Think summer: Ezra and Buck, who are NOT having fun in the summertime.

Thanks to Chris for the beta work. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.

Part 1
Ezra Standish found himself in the atypical position of contemplating the misery of the human condition. Normally, he left such impractical pursuits to the purview of Team Seven's resident philosopher, Josiah Sanchez. However, conditions at present were far from normal, as least as far as Ezra was concerned. Ezra shook his head, appalled as he abruptly recalled the rest of the details of the philosophical work regarding the misery of the human condition. It was a measure of his poor state of mind and health that he was actually contemplating the work of a philosopher who rejected the value of wealth.

He cursed silently to himself. "Damn, blast, and Hell." His condition was so debilitated that he couldn't even manage anything more succinct in the way of profanity.

Ezra sighed, tossing the bedcovers from his overheated body. He did not require the use of a thermometer to know that his body temperature was currently elevated above normal. He turned his head toward the clock on his nightstand. The numbers that were displayed provided information of which he was already well aware. It was decision time. If he was going to give in to his body's declaration of ill health, now was the time to call in sick. Were it any other day in the workweek, he would not have hesitated to pick up the phone to declare his ill state of health and consequent need to make use of a sick day. Unfortunately, it was Wednesday, the 20th. All of Team Seven, and especially Chris Larabee, were aware of his strong desire to absent himself from the offices of the ATF on this day.

Sunday evening he had received a call from an old friend, Lillibeth Munroe. Her voice warm with the promise of good things to come, she purred, "Ezra, dear, I'm so glad to have caught you at home. I'm sorry to give you such short notice but I suddenly find myself with an extra ticket to La Costa in San Diego. Ricky and I were planning to leave this coming Wednesday, but something's come up and he had to cancel. I just can't conceive of traveling alone, and you are the first person I thought of as a suitable replacement. Is there any way that you can free things up enough in your schedule that you could go with me?"

Ezra searched his mental files for what he knew of La Costa. He recalled information regarding Roman pools, saunas, therapeutic treatments and massages. He immediately wished that he were there already. "Lilli, there is nothing I would enjoy more. Until I speak with my superior, I cannot promise you anything. However, I intend to apply my considerable powers of persuasion to arrange for the time off. If I am successful in my efforts, I will gladly accompany you. I'll phone you tomorrow evening with my answer." Ezra hung up, plotting his strategy.

The next morning, Monday, he made sure that his day started with the proper tone for his self-appointed mission by arriving at the office before any of his coworkers. Various expressions of disbelief were thrown his way by his teammates as they staggered in with their usual Monday morning tardiness.

After Ezra, Josiah was the first to arrive. The man did a double take when he saw Ezra busily typing away at his keyboard. The team profiler made a show of looking at his watch, tapping its face and shaking it. He declared, "Hm. My watch must be broken. It has to be because there's no way that you're sitting at your desk before eight o'clock in the morning on a Monday."

Ezra merely raised an eyebrow at him and stared rudely. He did not deem Josiah's witless quip worthy of a reply. When the older man refused to take the hint and leave, Ezra questioned, "Is there some reason that you're standing in front of my desk while I'm trying to work?"

Josiah smiled, shook his head and walked over to his own desk. "No, no reason at all."

Buck and JD were the next to arrive. Ezra could hear them long before they entered the office proper. Buck was trying to educate JD on the hazards of motorcycles. "You see kid, days like today just prove my point. When it's raining fit to drown the sewer rats, ain't no point in even owning a motorcycle, much less trying to ride one."

JD was not persuaded. "I never claimed my ride was an all-weather one. You can say what you want, but when we're both sitting at the gas pumps, who's gonna go broke trying to fill his gas-guzzler of a truck tank? Not me, that's for darn sure."

Buck opened his mouth, preparing to respond. He was distracted from doing so when he walked in and noticed Ezra already working at his desk. Buck made a dramatic grab for his chest, declaring, "My heart can't stand the shock! Ezra Standish, here bright and early on a Monday morning."

JD looked from Buck to Ezra, then asked, "Did Hell just freeze over?"

Ezra dismissed them with a casual wave of his hand. "You all ought to know before anyone else the circumstances of the weather in Hell, seeing as you spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling there."

Buck's eyes narrowed and the smile disappeared from his face. He stated, "If I didn't know you were suffering from some sort of mental breakdown, seein' as you look like you're making like you're working when everybody knows that's impossible this early in the morning, I'd think you were trying to insult me. Lucky for you, my mama taught me to be forgiving of the feeble-minded."

Buck and Ezra proceeded to ignore each other while JD headed to the break room for coffee.

By the time Vin arrived, things had quieted down. He surveyed his coworkers, then walked past Ezra. His voice low, he stated, "You must want somethin' real bad."

Ezra never paused in his typing, not bothering to acknowledge the comment. However, he allowed a fleeting smile to cross his face at the team sharpshooter's astute observation.

Chris was the last to arrive. The Team Seven leader did a quick check of the room and then headed for his own office, keeping any comments to himself.

After about an hour of diligent duty, Ezra determined that it was time to approach Chris. He knocked on the door, waiting for the Team Seven leader's invitation to "Come in," before he entered.

He was pleased to note that Chris seemed calm and unhurried, in relatively good spirits. Admittedly, Chris' stoic expression made assessing his mood difficult. However, the Team Seven undercover agent made a habit of studying body language and Chris's declared him to be rather more relaxed than usual. Ezra began his speech. "Good morning, Mr. Larabee. It has recently come to my attention that I have accumulated a fair amount of unused vacation time." Ezra paused, hoping for a nod or a hint of a warm thought in the cold visage confronting him. It was not to be. Chris simply stared. Ezra continued, "I would like to put in a request to use a few of those days."


"I would like my leave time to begin this Wednesday and to continue on through until next Monday."

Chris shook his head. "No. Absolutely not."

Ezra, unprepared to take "no" for an answer, was not so easily dismissed. "Mr. Larabee. I have never asked this of you before but I beg you to kindly reconsider. I'm sorry that the circumstances involved resulted in such short notice. Truly, I was only informed yesterday of a most rare opportunity."

Chris raised his hand in the universal nonverbal "stop" sign. "Ezra. Do I really have to remind you that Team Seven is already short one man?"

Ezra did not need to be reminded. He was well aware that Nathan Jackson was not due to return from his currently scheduled combination of educational and vacation leave until next week Wednesday.

Chris went on, "Hell, I'd like to call Nathan back, regardless, just to have him on hand for when the Henderson bust goes down this week. It's bad enough we've got to do this a man short. I'm not gonna put the whole team at risk trying to do it without two of my best men."

Under any other circumstance, Ezra would've been flattered at the rare compliment. However, he was in no mood to be placated. He had the feeling if it were any other member of the team asking - say, Vin, for example - the request would have been granted, or at least considered without being dismissed out of hand. Ezra's inner vision may have been impaired somewhat by the images of La Costa, that exclusive spa and resort, occupying his mind. He knew that it was highly unlikely that he would ever again be offered the opportunity of an all-expenses-paid trip.

He let the disgust he was feeling seep into his voice as he stated, "So you’re telling me that you won’t even consider the possibility of a cooperative effort with one of the other teams."

"That's what I'm telling you." Chris felt no need to go into the details behind his decision. The Henderson case was so complex and involved that he did not want to consider the potential for disaster involved if he were to bring in someone new at this late date.

Ezra began contemplating using his sick time as an alternate solution to his problem.

As if reading his mind, Chris added, "If you should happen to call in sick, you'd better be in the hospital, 'cause don't think I won't visit you every day to check on your progress."

Ezra scoffed. "Your concern for your employees is touching."

Ezra turned on his heel and left, not bothering to close the door behind him. He suspected that if he had laid a hand on the door, he would have slammed it with enough force to earn himself a reprimand.

He spent the rest of the day sulking. The next day, Tuesday, he arrived later than even his usual wont. Ezra was disappointed when no mention was made of his tardiness. He was decidedly unhappy and would have welcomed the opportunity to snap at someone. The day dragged on interminably.

By the time he returned home that evening, he began to suspect that more than just discontent lie behind the reason that he felt sluggish both mentally and physically. He had little appetite for dinner, and was suffering from a mild overall body ache. He took two acetaminophen tablets and retired for the evening at the ungodly early hour of nine o'clock.

+ + + + + + +

Once Wednesday morning dawned, it was quite clear to Ezra that he was suffering from some sort of virus. He felt hot, tired, and achy, and wanted nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep. However, in order to do that, he would have to call in sick. He recalled Chris' words from earlier in the week: "If you call in sick, you'd better be in the hospital." After reviewing his options, he realized that he had no choice. He was not so ill as to require the care of a hospital or a physician. Therefore, with great regret, he undertook his morning toilette.

He scowled at his pale face in the bathroom mirror. The dark circles under his eyes gave the appearance that he had not slept at all, despite his having acquired more than his usual amount of rest. "Ezra, I must say, you look decidedly unwell. Do you think that anyone will notice? No, they will not." Despite the fact that Ezra noted every last physical detail about his teammates, the reverse could not be said to be true. With Nathan absent from the office, Ezra morosely reflected that no one would notice his ill state of health unless he was to expire in the middle of the bullpen.

Ezra winced when he walked into the office. The neon lighting seemed unusually harsh to his sensitive eyes. He quickly replaced the sunglasses that he had removed upon his arrival. The ill man just wanted to be left alone. As a point of fact, he was in no mood for Buck's teasing. Naturally, then, Buck saw fit to start in on him as soon as he sat down at his desk.

"Hey 'Hollywood,' no need to try to hide behind those shades. We'd recognize your sorry ass anywhere. Of course, maybe you've got something you don't want no one to see. Running late, as usual, you probably didn’t have time to do your makeup this morning to hide the bags under your eyes."

Ezra tried to ignore Buck as best he could. The sharp-tongued Southerner's weary brain could not come up with an appropriate rejoinder. He prayed that Buck would take the hint and simply go away. Alas, that was not to be.

Buck continued, "What, no snappy comeback? None of them twenty-dollar words you're always throwing around?"

Ezra's initial response had been to simply stare at Buck. The effect was unwittingly spoiled by the sunglasses he'd forgotten that he was still wearing. He resorted to words. "Actually, Mr. Wilmington, I decided not to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man."

Various comments and sounds of approval at Ezra's riposte were offered by the remaining members of Team Seven. Thankfully, Buck offered no further remarks. Ezra was able to turn his attention to the file folders waiting on his desk. He found it more difficult than usual to decipher the contents of the reports. Trying to ignore the overall aching of his body, he determinedly set to work.

As the morning progressed, so did his illness. By noon, he declined the others' offer to include him in their carryout order. Instead, he removed his sunglasses, rested his head on his folded arms and cradled his aching head on that makeshift pillow. He guessed he must have dozed off, as he was startled awake by the touch of Josiah's cool hand on his too-hot forehead.

The concern evident in his voice, Josiah stated, "Ezra, feels like you got a fever. You all right?"

Ezra shrugged off the gesture of concern, forgetting his earlier personal lament that no one would know or care that he was unwell. His voice peevishly annoyed, Ezra replied, "I am fine." He looked around the room, seeing the doubting expressions of his teammates. He decided to amend his pronouncement. "And, if for some reason I was not fine, it would be through no failing of my body's immune system. More likely than not, any illness affecting me would have occurred as a direct result of my trek through that pestilence-ridden swamp last week."

Ezra's stomach churned in nauseous remembrance of the sights and smells of the fetid ground. He and Buck were pursuing a suspect, one Brian Brooks, through a rural area of residences. Mr. Brook's flight had taken him through land that was affected by an obvious drainage problem. Most of the surrounding area had a bog-like coating of water over rotting vegetation. Buck had plunged right in without a moment's hesitation. Ezra was not nearly so foolhardy. For one thing, he wore shoes more appropriate for business wear, unlike Buck's hiking boots. How the man could consider such footwear as proper office attire was beyond Ezra's comprehension.

Ezra's momentary thoughtful pause was interrupted by Buck's yelling. "C'mon, Ezra, cut him off on the right side! We’ll have him boxed in!"

The fastidious man grimaced. Some days, he really hated this job. He headed off in the indicated direction, bemoaning the ruin of his suit pants, not to mention the shoes he wore. The ground squelched sickeningly underfoot with each step, soaking his lower extremities with the noxious soup of contaminated muck.

The suspect had been duly apprehended. Ezra had submitted a bill for the damages to his attire. Perhaps he needed to amend his expense report, and include the damages to his person.

Back in the present, he speculated, "If, for some reason I were to come down with some sort of illness, more likely than not it would be dengue fever or some such exotic malady directly attributable to having been exposed to toxic waste while in pursuit of Mr. Brian Brooks. However, I suspect that at present I am experiencing nothing more than the effects associated with my body's rejection of my presence here, rather than at La Costa."

Unfortunately, by denying his illness Ezra made himself a target for continued abuse from his teammates. Not one to let an opportunity go by, Buck commented, "You know, I was in that swamp, too, and I'm feeling healthier than a bull out servicing his harem. Guess Wilmington genes is superior to Standish genes."

Josiah decided to show off his knowledge of foreign climes. "Unless you fellows were chasing Brooks through the tropics, there's no way you could've gotten dengue fever."

Ezra had no desire to continue this discussion. He simply raised the middle finger of his right hand and got back to work. Thankfully, his teammates did likewise, at least until Buck decided to pay him a visit.

Whether or not the man's action was sincere, Ezra would never know. The consequences of his action were immediate and devastating. Holding a takeout carton in his hand, Buck opened it, offering its contents to Ezra. "Hey, Ezra, seeing as you missed lunch I thought I'd see if you wanted some of my chili cheese fries."

Prior to Buck's offer, Ezra's stomach had been grumbling from time to time, letting him know that it was not happy. The pungent aroma of spiced chili and melted cheese shoved practically in his face, combined with the fact that the sight of the alleged food item with its congealed cheese resembled something that had already been partially digested, caused Ezra to be consumed by a tidal wave of nausea. He barely had enough time to grab his wastebasket before he began to heave the meager contents of his stomach into the trash receptacle. His head pounded with each violent retch. The spasmodic muscular activity emphasized the overall aching of his body.

In the midst of his misery, Buck commented, "Guess I'll take that as a 'no,' then."

Finally, after far too long an interval, Ezra finished emptying the contents of his stomach. Giving a mental "Thank you" to the cleaning crew who saw fit to line the trash cans with plastic bags, he made quick work of tying the offensive contents away from his nose, the odiferous contents gagging him as he did so. The ill man was even more grateful to Josiah, who silently took the offending bag out of the room once Ezra had set it down. He verbalized his thanks then made his way to the restroom.

Ezra tried to ignore the foul odors lingering from the toilet's last occupant. The agent was mostly successful, his body forcing out one or two dry heaves before quieting. He made use of one of the room's disposable paper cups to rinse out his mouth. Ezra avoided looking at himself in the mirror, knowing that he would not like what he saw there. He grabbed a wad of paper toweling and ran it under the cold water then used it to cool his overheated face. He groaned at the ignominy of having been felled by a simple virus. "At least there is now a definite possibility that Mr. Larabee may believe that I am indeed unwell without requiring further medical proof."

After completing his business in the restroom, Ezra slowly made his way back to the office. He was in the hallway just outside of the bullpen when he heard his name mentioned. He paused, straining to hear what the conversation was about.

Chris' distinctive voice declared, "If I didn't know any better, I'd say Ezra stuck his finger down his throat just to give himself an out from my order that he get a doctor's note if he tried to call in sick today."

Buck defended his teammate, sort of. "Nah. Ezra would never do anything so crude. More 'n likely, he just dosed himself with ipecac."

Ezra cursed mentally, sending a sarcastic thought Buck's way. "Thank you so much for that ringing endorsement." Truly, Ezra personally found the act of vomiting so decidedly unpleasant that there was no way in hell he would voluntarily subject himself to something that would actually cause such a reaction. He supposed that's what he got for eavesdropping. It was said that those who did so never heard any good of themselves. Oh, well. It was obvious that Mr. Larabee intended for him to remain at work, no matter how ill.

Ezra squared his shoulders and proceeded to enter the room. He headed straight for his desk, avoiding eye contact with the bullpen's occupants. Ezra actually had to shove past Josiah to reach his desk chair. Once he'd done so, he scowled up at the hovering man. "Do you mind?"

Ezra was shocked when the back of Josiah's large hand was abruptly placed on his forehead. Angrily, he began, "Excuse me . . .?"

Josiah's words rode right over Ezra's. "Chris, he’s pretty warm here. I think Ezra's right. He did pick up some kind of bug."

Chris sighed. He'd seen how haggard Ezra looked when he returned from the restroom. "Yeah, I figured. Guess I'd better see how quick we can get Team Four up to speed on the Henderson case."

Ezra was too ill to immediately realize the impact of Chris' words. He reached for the topmost file folder from his "In" box.

Chris' hand stopped him in mid-reach. "Ezra." The man in question's bloodshot eyes looked up at the Team Seven leader from a too pale face, puzzled. Chris continued. "Go home." Ezra stared, not believing what he was hearing. "The rest of us don't need you sharing whatever it is you got with us. Go home, and don't come back until your fever's gone and you can keep your head out of the trashcan."

Ezra's hand shook slightly as he replaced the file folder. Josiah, who'd been observing, stated, "How about I drive you home? Vin can follow along in your car."

It was a measure of Ezra's over-all malaise that he raised no objection to the plan. Normally, the idea of anyone else behind the wheel of his beloved Jaguar was enough to induce an apoplectic fit. As further inducement, Josiah stated, "This way, if you do get sick again, it won't be all over your purty little car. You can just hang your head out the window of my truck." Josiah's brief smile quickly disappeared when Ezra failed to react to any of his comments. He helped Ezra to his feet and proceeded to escort his friend home.

Ezra dragged himself through his door and into his bed, where he remained for the next two days. Blessedly, there was no recurrence of the nausea. Of all the physical ills which could befall a person, Ezra found vomiting to be the most repellent. He supposed it was connected to an incidence of childhood infirmity that had been indelibly etched in his mind. His mother had taken off for parts unknown, leaving him in the care of some relative or other. Ezra had been all of five years old, and desperately ill. Not being able to control himself, the child that he had been vomited all over his person and bedding. Thoroughly miserable and missing his mother terribly, the soiled child had begun to cry. His alleged caregiver had finally responded to his cries. Upon seeing the mess, the woman had slapped him, shaken him, and then stood in the background scolding as Ezra was forced to clean up the bed and finally himself. It had made a lasting impression. To this day, Ezra loathed the very sight, sound or smell of vomit.

Fortunately for Team Seven, the Henderson case dragged on into the next week, giving Team Four the time they needed to get up to speed. Ezra remained home for the rest of the week. Through daily phone reports and visits, his friends kept an eye on their ill friend. By Friday, they were able to see significant signs of improvement. Ezra no longer felt the need to sleep twenty hours a day.

The Team Seven undercover agent could not believe that he was actually looking forward to going back to work. His forced confinement had been decidedly unpleasant. When Ezra called in on Friday, he reported that he was able to eat a full breakfast and that his fever seemed to have finally departed. He still suffered from the pain of a generalized body ache but that, too, was improving. Ezra offered to come into work that afternoon, but Chris assured him that he could wait until Monday and resume a regular schedule.

Now that he was feeling better, Ezra found himself in the rare position of being bored. He also was feeling an emotion that took him a bit of analysis to discern. When he did so, he was surprised to identify the feeling as guilt that he was taking it easy at home while his friends were working shorthanded. He mused to himself, "Mother would be appalled that I have come to this." He eased his guilt by reminding himself of the unfairness done to him by Chris in denying the opportunity of a vacation at La Costa. Oddly enough, the bitterness that should have accompanied that thought did not appear.

The tedium of his illness was relieved that evening. Ezra's fellow team members all stopped by after work. They freely admitted that they were checking up on him. Ezra tried not to let it show, but he was truly touched by their actions. Indeed, they had been very solicitous over the past few days. Even Chris, once he'd realized that Ezra was not conning him, had joined in their worrying.

"I sure wish Nathan was here, just to take a look at you."

Ezra waved a hand in denial. "I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I am fine." He amended his statement. "Or, at least I am well on the way to being so."

Chris shook his head. "I think every one of us has said that at one time or another and been lying through our teeth." When Chris saw that Ezra was about to object, he continued, "However, I believe you. This time."

The members of Team Seven, reassured of their friend's health, dispersed to attend to their weekend pursuits. Ezra smiled at their departing backs. It meant more to him than he could or would say that someone cared enough to worry about him. He wondered if this is what people meant when they spoke of family. Never having experienced that particular unknown except for the vagaries associated with Maude's own peculiar idea of motherhood, since joining Team Seven he was privy to a brotherhood that went beyond blood. For the first time in his life, he found himself thinking of actually settling for what he had. Perhaps it was time to unpack some of his belongings.

Part 2

All things considered, Buck thought that he'd done a pretty good job of covering up the fact that he felt like shit during his little visit to Ezra's on Friday. He stayed in the background, glad that Nathan and his too-knowing medic's eyes were nowhere near him, seeing as the man was still out of town. After all the teasing he'd heaped on Ezra, the last thing Buck needed was for his teammates to find a reason to turn their attentions to him. He just didn't have the energy to deal with any of their in-kind comments. Fortunately, the men did not linger at Ezra's, not wanting to wear out their recovering friend. No one seemed to notice that Buck was quieter than usual.

There was one person Buck didn't expect to be able to fool and that was his friend and roommate, JD. To Buck's credit, he didn't even try. He shuffled into their shared apartment, his dragging feet a sign of his sagging spirit. JD immediately took notice when Buck failed to follow his usual Friday night routine. Instead of spiffing himself up for a date with his latest lady love, Buck collapsed onto the sofa. After a minute, he pulled out his cell phone.

Buck didn't attempt to hide his phone conversation from JD. "Hello there, darlin'. Yeah, it's good to hear your voice, too. Look, Ronnie, I'm so sorry to be callin' you on such short notice, but I'm not gonna be able to make our date tonight. Hell, I wish I did have to work. It'd be a better excuse than the reason I gotta give you, and that's the truth. There's a virus goin' around the office, and I'm afraid I've got it. Trust me, you don't want me to share it with you. Otherwise, I'd jump at the chance of havin' you come on over and wipe my fevered brow. Yeah. Me too. I'll be in touch." He closed his eyes, ignoring JD's waiting, hovering form.

Buck had started to fall asleep sitting up on the sofa, when JD's voice intruded. "Hey, Buck, what's up?"

Buck started to stretch but aborted the move, wincing at his aching shoulders. Hell, to tell the truth, his whole body was aching. He sighed. "Well what's up sure ain't me, at least not for very much longer."

Stating the obvious, JD questioned, "You sick?" JD's worry increased when Buck did not attempt to deny the accusation.

"Yeah, kid, I'm afraid so. I'm thinkin' whatever laid ol' Ezra low is doin' its best to take me down, too."

JD reached a hand over to feel Buck’s forehead, only to have it pushed away before it could reach its destination. "Ain't no need to get all touchy-feely here. I expect I probably got a fever. That's what happens when you get sick."

JD frowned. "Don't you think you better take something? Damn, I wish Nathan wasn't out of town."

Buck replied, "How about I take two aspirin and call you in the morning." The ill man sighed. "You saw what happened with Ezra. He was sick as a dog for a day or two, then started gettin' better. Not a whole lot I can do except let this thing run its course." Buck needed both hands to lever himself up off of the sofa. "I'm goin' to bed. 'Night."

JD's worried gaze followed Buck's retreating form. "Good night. You let me know if I can get you anything."

Buck did not bother to turn around or give a verbal reply. He merely waved a hand, acknowledging that he'd heard. He appreciated JD's concern. It was good to know that someone cared about you enough to worry over you if you got sick. It's just that Buck was usually the one doing the worrying. He didn't like being on the receiving end. Nope. Not one bit.

Buck slept twelve hours straight. JD had looked in on him a time or two, needing to see for himself that Buck was all right. The younger man had just started to fix himself breakfast when he heard Buck's heavy tread on the stairs. JD went to check on him. He couldn't help the slight smile which escaped. Buck had a serious case of bed-head, and looked hung over. JD's smile immediately disappeared when he reminded himself that Buck's haggard appearance was not due to the after-effects of a wild night on the town. The man was obviously sick.

JD stated, "I was just about to fry up some ham and eggs. You want some?"

Buck's eyes got wide and he put a fist up to his mouth. Swallowing back nausea, he replied, "No, my stomach's a little too rough to try to put anything in it right now. I think I'll just hang out on the sofa for a bit."

JD considerately aired out the kitchen as he cooked, trying not to have the smells of frying grease upset his roommate's delicate stomach. Once he'd finished, he headed to the living room to check on Buck. He found the ill man lying on his side, curled around a pillow. He reached out a hand to check for fever. It was a measure of Buck's illness that he didn't bother to make a comment at JD's action. The younger man was pleased to note that while Buck felt a little warm, his temperature did not seem dangerously high. He offered to make a more accurate measurement. "Buck, you feel a little warm. How about I get the thermometer and make sure you're not getting too hot?"

Buck understood JD's need to be doing something. Unfortunately, there really wasn't anything to be done. If it would make JD feel better to check his temperature, Buck wasn't gonna make a fuss about it. Not wanting to make the effort to talk, he shrugged in reply.

JD took that to mean "yes." On Nathan’s recommendation, Buck had purchased one of those fancy thermometers with an ear probe. It only took a minute to record Buck’s body temperature. JD announced, "100.1. Yeah, you’re a little warm. Tell you what, even if you don't feel like eating, you should try to drink plenty of fluids. How about I get you some ginger ale? Seems to me warm ginger ale was about the only thing I could keep down last time I had the stomach flu. I remember Nathan saying something about the ginger root being good for settling a nervous stomach. I just need a minute or three to call Casey and let her know I can't make our date, then I'll head out to the store for that ginger ale."

Buck raised his hands, crossing them in a "T" formation, the universal sign for "time out." "Whoa there, kid. You are not gonna disappoint that gal on account of me. JD, I do not need a baby sitter, especially seeing as I don't plan to do much of anything other than spend my time either here or in bed. If you wanna go pick up some ginger ale, be my guest. But please, don't hang out here just watchin' me be sick. Go out, have a good time."

It took a few more words on Buck's part, but he was eventually able to convince JD to leave him to his misery. Of course, before he left, JD had brought Buck extra pillows and blankets and made sure that the phone in Buck's bedroom was working, as well as the cell phone left handy by the sofa. He'd set the coffee table with containers of both water and ginger ale, as well as aspirin. Looking around, JD couldn't see anything that he'd missed. "You be sure to call me if you need me." Buck waved him out the door.

Buck spent most of the day sleeping. Nevertheless, by nightfall he was once again in bed by eight o'clock. That’s where JD found him when he returned home at ten o'clock. He looked in on his ill friend, deciding that Buck didn't look any worse than he had earlier in the day, and took himself off to bed.

Sunday was pretty much a repeat of Saturday, although Buck's stomach settled down enough that he was able to eat a little bit. Unfortunately, his stomach upset returned with a vengeance during the wee hours of the morning. JD had been sleeping with his door ajar, wanting to hear if his roommate needed him. Therefore, he was awakened around three o'clock in the morning by the sounds of Buck losing the contents of his stomach. JD winced in sympathy at the sounds of retching. He entered the bathroom just as Buck's bout of vomiting appeared to be at an end.

JD knew all too well what to do to provide comfort under the circumstances. During his mother's final illness, she had given her worried son the task of doing what little he could to ease her discomfort after a similar episode. JD dampened a wash cloth with cold water. Buck accepted it gratefully, running it along his too-warm face. JD then put a small amount of mouthwash in a paper cup, adding water to cut down on its potency before he offered it to Buck with the directions, "Swish and spit." Buck held the cup, looking at it for a moment before JD encouraged, "Go on. You want to get that taste out of your mouth." Buck agreed, and silently complied.

After a minute, JD asked, "You ready to go back to bed?"

Buck paused, focusing his concentration on his roiling stomach. Deciding that he had nothing left to throw up, he stated, "Yep." He didn't hesitate to accept JD's offer of a hand up. His legs felt a little unsteady as he hauled himself upright. "Shit." This was day three of his illness. By Ezra's timetable, he should be starting to get better, not worse. He verbalized his next thought. "This sucks."

JD almost laughed in relief at the typical Buck remark. At least his friend wasn't so ill that he couldn't offer a pointed comment or two regarding his condition. JD simply agreed with the statement. "Yeah, it does."

As they headed out of the bathroom, Buck decided not to head back up the stairs. For one thing, he wasn't sure that he had the strength to make the long climb. For another, it was a long trip from his bedroom to the bathroom. He stated, "I better sack out on the sofa. I think I need to be near the bathroom for a while."

JD helped Buck over to the sofa. "Sounds like a good idea."

Buck was sorry that he'd disturbed the kid's sleep. JD had gone out of his way to try to do things for Buck this weekend, and this was how Buck paid him back. Damn. He sure didn't want JD to get so worn out that he ended up getting sick, too. JD did not need what Buck currently had. "I'll be okay here, JD, go back to bed."

JD agreed to do so after completing one more thoughtful gesture that reminded Buck how much he loved this kid. Not only had JD cleaned up behind Buck in the bathroom, but his friend took one of their wastebaskets and lined it with a plastic trashbag. Once he'd completed doing that, JD left it by the side of the sofa, stating, "Just in case you can't make it to the bathroom in time."

Buck's voice was rough with emotion as he replied, "Thanks." Both men settled down for a few hours' sleep.

That morning, JD was torn between conflicting loyalties. He wanted to stay home and look after Buck. However, his teammates needed him available to work the Henderson case. Buck had the final say. "You ain’t stayin' here. The team needs you. If you try to stay home, I'll just haul my ass in to work. I feel bad enough leavin' 'em down another man. They can't lose you, too." When JD tried to take his temperature, Buck refused to let him do so. "I know I got a fever. You don't need to be worryin' over the numbers. You need to get your head back on track with the Henderson case, where it belongs. I can take care of myself for a day. Right now, the best thing you can do for me is to take care of the rest of the guys. You already got me set up with everything I need right here." He gestured toward the door. "Go on. Git."

JD stood, hands on hips. "Fine. Have it your way. But I'll be calling to check on you, and you call me if you need anything." He emphasized, "I mean it, Buck."

Buck leaned back on the sofa, having no energy left to argue. He looked beyond tired as he replied, "Yeah, I got it." Buck was already half-asleep when JD left.

The ill man was too uncomfortable to do more than doze lightly. His body was wracked by chills, so he piled on all of the blankets available. Within an hour, he had tossed every one of them off. Buck felt incredibly hot, so much so that his eyes were burning. He couldn't focus his gaze well enough to read or watch TV, as both activities only served to increase the irritation of his eyes. His body was one giant ache, and the center of that ache seemed to be settled in his head. The dull headache that had been sneaking up on him the past day or so was now a throbbing, steady beat of torment. He was so intensely miserable that he found himself at the point of tears. It was past time for a pep talk.

"God, Buck, you went and told JD that you didn't need no baby-sitter, and here you are, actin' like a baby." His bleary eyes opened to notice the bottle of aspirin sitting on the table in front of him. He'd forgotten that they were there. "There you go, just what the doctor ordered." Unfortunately, the childproof aspirin container proved to be beyond his current ability to overcome. A quick sob, abruptly stifled, erupted when the still-closed container slipped out of his hands and rolled out of sight somewhere under the sofa. Buck leaned over to search for it. The motion caused the pain in his head to escalate, sending him tumbling to the floor. He did not remember falling.

+ + + + + + +

Some time later Buck regained consciousness, confused to find himself lying on the floor next to the sofa. His churning gut had awoken him. Aside from that, the only other thing that he was presently aware of was the intense, throbbing pain in his head. Buck did not see or remember the trash container that JD had left nearby for emergency use. He clamped a hand over his mouth and headed for the bathroom. When his legs refused to coordinate enough to allow him to walk, he simply crawled. The desperately ill man could taste the bile in the back of his throat by the time he reached his destination. He leaned over the toilet bowl, heaving his meager stomach contents into the water. With each contraction of his stomach, his head threatened to explode.

When Buck's stomach quieted, he slumped to the side of the commode. The cool tile was soothing to his overheated body. He decided to remain where he was for the time being and curled up onto the floor. He had a vague memory of having made some snide comment to Ezra when the man had been sick last week. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he recollected that he'd been downright cruel. Damn, he owed his teammate an apology, big-time. When somebody was sick, they didn't need a jackass like Buck Wilmington ragging on their ass. He supposed this was some kind of cosmic payback, having him walk a mile in the other man's shoes. "Well, God, I done walked a mile and then some. I think you made your point. You can let up anytime, here."

God did not heed Buck's plea. Instead, his headache increased in intensity to the point that the suffering man wrapped his hands and arms around his head, needing to hold his skull together as it was threatening to explode. After a while, Buck decided he might be better off if his head did explode; at least then he'd be put out of his misery. Following that thought, he lost the ability to think at all.

+ + + + + + +

Team Seven had been run ragged by the events of the morning. The Henderson case had finally been concluded with the able assistance of Team Four. Thankfully they had not needed to fire a single shot. Now Team Seven was drowning in the usual sea of reports that followed on the heels of such a complex operation. It was not until after three o'clock in the afternoon that JD finally had a moment free to call and check on Buck. He tried the cell phone first, supposing Buck to be on the sofa and within its reach. When there was no answer, he tried the phone at Buck's bedside, with a similar lack of response. Worried, he tried to rationalize away his fear. "Maybe he's in the bathroom. If he is, talkin' on the phone's gonna be the last thing he'd want to be doing." JD tried again a half hour later, with the same disturbing lack of results.

Paperwork half-finished, he hurried into Chris' office. He began, "Chris, I know you want my report completed before the end of the day, but we got a problem. At least, I think we might." He stared at Chris, his eyes speaking volumes of the depth of his concern. "I've been trying to get a hold of Buck, and there's no answer. As sick as he was this morning, someone needs to go check up on him."

JD was half-afraid that Chris would dismiss his fears as being a simple over-reaction. Chris did no such thing. The Team Seven leader stated, "The report can wait. Maybe Buck can't. Go on, get on home. Call me when you get there."

JD's ride home was much swifter than one would expect given that he had to travel in rush hour traffic. He was on his motorcycle, the vehicle that Buck had so recently tried to talk him out of riding. Although it was against countless traffic laws, JD skillfully weaved his way through the gridlocked vehicles and made it home in record time.

He hurried into the apartment, calling for his roommate. "Buck!" He looked toward the sofa. No Buck. He headed up the stairs. Buck was not in bed, either. That left the bathroom. The door was partially open, suggesting that the room was unoccupied. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. JD's heart lurched at the sight of Buck lying in a semi-fetal position on the floor. The young man quickly knelt beside his roommate. "Buck!" When his friend didn't answer, JD gently tried to move the stricken man's arms away from his head. That action drew a response from his desperately ill friend.

Buck moaned. "Oh, my head!"

JD anxiously questioned, "Did you hit your head when you fell? Let me see, Buck!" Buck finally loosened his grip enough to allow JD to move his arms away from his head. The young man's frantic search revealed no obvious injury. However, Buck refused to open his eyes. JD did not need to see the tell-tale flush of fever on his friend's face to know that his temperature was dangerously high. He could feel the heat radiating from Buck's body. JD continued his assessment. "Buck, what happened?"

Buck muttered, "Gotta tell Ezra." Buck's thoughts were muddled and confused. The intense pain in his head was all-consuming, overriding any attempt at rational thinking. He didn't know or care why JD was fussing at him. He had no idea of where he was or how he'd gotten there. It hurt to even try to think, as his thoughts were consumed by the hot, burning, agonizing pain before they could form anything resembling coherency. The only thing that Buck knew for certain was that he owed Ezra an apology if he was to have any hope of escape from this Hell.

JD's fear mounted at Buck's incoherent response. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. "Yes, I need an ambulance." He quickly reported his name and address, and the little he knew about Buck's condition. His next call was to Chris.

"Yeah, Chris, it's me. I'm not sure what happened, but it looks like Buck fell in the bathroom. He's awake, but he's not makin' a whole lotta sense. I'm just waitin' on the ambulance. I'll meet you at the hospital."

Buck's prayer for a respite from the pain was partially granted as he slipped into a mental state somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. His relief was cruelly interrupted when somebody started to poke and prod at him. The ill man was too exhausted to make the effort to try to figure out who it was or what they wanted. When that same someone tried to shine a flashlight into his eyes, the pain flared to lethal intensity. A searing knifelike pain stabbed through his brain and Buck could do nothing beyond cry out in agony.

JD had been forced out into the hallway outside of the bathroom by the paramedics’ arrival. There was not enough room for him to remain in the confined space while they examined Buck. JD was content to wait until he heard his friend's heart-wrenching cry. He almost crawled over the back of the paramedic in the doorway, trying to get to his roommate. "Buck!" He turned to the paramedic. "What's happening?"

The paramedic extended an arm, keeping JD out of the small room. He tried to reason with the distraught young man. "Take it easy. Your friend is pretty sick. Me and my partner are just trying to help. Buck's having a hard time understanding what's going on, and might not appreciate everything we're trying to do. You're doing everything you can right now, which is to step back a minute and let us do our job. It would help if you could give me some history on your friend."

JD told the paramedic as much as he knew, all the while looking over the man's shoulder toward the bathroom. Eventually, the paramedics prepared to move Buck onto a gurney. The bathroom was too small to bring the gurney in, so they were lifting him toward it when he began to struggle. The paramedic at Buck's head immediately figured out the problem. He ordered, "Turn him on his side, quick." They returned Buck to the floor just in time for him to vomit the small amount of bile in his stomach onto the floor.

Buck's agonizing headache was complicated by the rocking motion when the two men picked him up. His irritated stomach responded by trying to eject its contents. As Buck vomited yet again, he prayed for unconsciousness. It did not come. God must really be pissed. Then he remembered. Oh, yeah. He still hadn't apologized to Ezra. God wouldn't let up on him until he did. He tried to tell that to whoever was with him, but only managed to get out, "Ezra."

JD stood helplessly to the side as the paramedics tended to his stricken roommate. At the questioning look from the paramedics, he stated, "Ezra's a friend." Why in the hell Buck kept asking for him, JD hadn't a clue. However, he knew that there was one more thing that he could do. He dialed Ezra's cell phone.

Like the rest of Team Seven, Ezra was on his way to the hospital. He answered his cell phone on the first ring. As expected, it was JD. What was not expected were JD’s words.

"Buck's asking for you." His statement both a plea and an order, JD stated, "You be there when we get to the hospital."

Concerned as well as puzzled, Ezra stated, "Of course. I'm on my way."

+ + + + + + +

It took a few more minutes for the paramedics to get an IV started due to Buck's dehydration, but they finally had him ready to transport to the hospital. JD rode in with Buck, but was escorted to the front passenger seat while the paramedic tended to Buck in the back of the ambulance. Once at the hospital, JD was directed to the waiting room as Buck was whisked off to an exam room. JD was relieved to see the remaining members of Team Seven waiting for him.

He repeated what little he knew. "I came home and found Buck lying on the bathroom floor. I figured he must've fallen." JD began to pace. "God only knows how long he was lying there. Damn! I knew I should've stayed with him."

Josiah offered what comfort he could. "If you could've seen into the future and known what was going to happen, you would have. However, you figured the same as we all did: that Buck had the same thing Ezra had last week. And Ezra certainly did not need someone with him twenty-four hours a day."

Chris added, "With everything that was going on with the Henderson case, there was no way Buck would've let you stay home today." JD looked up, startled. Chris had not been present during his conversation with Buck this morning, yet he might as well have been. Chris gave the hint of a smile at JD's reaction. "I've known Buck a lot of years. I pretty much know what he would've said if you tried to tell him you were gonna stay home to look after him. The words, 'Uh-uh,' 'No way,' and 'Not gonna happen' immediately spring to mind."

After about an hour of anxious waiting, Buck's doctor approached. He introduced himself. "I'm Dr. Lawrence Brady. I need more information to help me figure out what's going on with your friend. He's got a fever of 104 degrees. How long has he been sick?"

JD filled in the blanks in the doctor’s knowledge, completing Buck's health history. As the doctor concluded his interrogation, JD asked, "So what's next?" The doctor's reply sent JD's heart plummeting to his shoes.

"There's something going on with Buck neurologically. It's my job to figure out what. I've scheduled him for a CT scan. Depending on the results, our next step is a spinal tap. Also, I'm waiting on the results of his bloodwork. In the meantime, one of you can head back to stay with him." As JD prepared to follow, the doctor added, "He's been asking for Ezra."

JD tried not to let it upset him further, but he couldn't help the childish sense of hurt he felt that his best friend in the whole world was asking for Ezra and not for him. Sensitive to JD's mood, Ezra offered to wait. JD shook his head. "No, if Buck's got something he wants to say to you, we'd best let him get it said."

Ezra tried to maintain his poker face as he headed into the depths of the Emergency room. He disliked hospitals immensely, whether he was confined as a patient or a visitor. He tried to distract himself by trying to figure out what Buck could possibly want to say to him. Once he'd been escorted back to the gurney containing his friend, the nurse pulled the curtain around them, giving the illusion of privacy. Nevertheless, Ezra could hear the grunts, groans and complaints of the other Emergency room occupants through the cloth barrier. The hospital sounds faded from his attention once he got a good look at Buck. The man looked terrible. His dark hair lay limp with sweat. His face bore the unhealthy flush of fever. The dark circles under his eyes, combined with the gauntness of dehydration, made him look as if he had been ill for weeks rather than just days. Ezra carefully sat on the hard plastic chair which some kind nurse had pulled up for him. He took Buck's hand in his own, alarmed at its coolness. If Buck’s body temperature was 104, it couldn’t be a good sign if his hand was cold, could it?

Ezra had an overwhelming urge to drop Buck's hand and run far and fast. This situation promised emotional entanglements he did not want to deal with. Ezra thought further. If he left, his thoughts would remain behind in this room with Buck. Additionally, he would be burdened with the guilt generated by his desertion. Hell and double damn! His quick self examination revealed what he already suspected: he was well and truly emotionally involved with these men. He could no sooner leave than cut off his right arm. With a mental sigh, he squeezed Buck's hand. "Mr. Wilmington. I am here. I understand that you have something to say to me?"

Buck had been drowning in a haze of pain and fever. He reached for the life raft offered by Ezra's voice. "Ezra." He opened his eyes to slits, wincing at the harsh light. He saw an Ezra-shaped blob sitting by his side. Buck returned the squeeze of his hand. "Ezra," he repeated. He knew that he had to talk to Ezra. He just couldn't remember what it was he had to say. Something about God bein' pissed off at him . . . Oh, yeah, now he had it. "Ezra. I'm sorry."

Ezra sat, silently encouraging Buck to continue. When no further words were forthcoming, he gave Buck’s hand a slight shake. "Buck? Buck?"

Ezra's fear for his friend increased exponentially when Buck muttered, "Gotta tell Ezra . . ."

Ezra pleaded, "Tell me what? I'm right here. Buck?" The ill man was beyond answering. Ezra's entreaties elicited no further response. Ezra was relieved beyond measure when an orderly arrived to take Buck down for a CT scan. Finally, someone was doing something. Ezra took advantage of the opportunity to rejoin his friends in the waiting room.

Part 3
EZRA et al

Several hours and tests later, the doctor met with Buck's anxious friends. He began, "The CT scan was negative. Once we determined that your friend has no apparent head injury, we had to look for other causes. His fever and flu-like symptoms are a reason for great concern. I need to ask you, has anyone else acquainted with Mr. Wilmington been ill recently?"

All eyes in the room turned toward Ezra. He felt a chill run down his spine as he responded, "Yes, I was ill for several days last week." Dr. Brady proceeded to question Ezra carefully regarding his symptoms. The doctor seemed unsurprised at what he heard. Although Ezra already knew the answer, he finally asked a question himself. "So, is what I had related to Buck's illness?"

"Yes, we believe so. It will be a while yet before we get the definitive test results back, but we believe that your friend is suffering from West Nile viral encephalitis."

JD echoed, "He's got the West Nile virus? Ezra, too?"

The doctor hastened to reassure Ezra. "Mr. Standish probably had, and I emphasize the word 'had,' West Nile virus. Let me tell you a little bit about this particular virus. It's what we call vector-borne, which means it's not transmitted from person to person. You have to get bitten by the vector, which in this case happens to be a mosquito. Most people who are bitten never have any symptoms. Of those who do, most are never diagnosed, as they present as a mild case of the flu until the body fights off the infection. Unfortunately, in a few cases, such as your friend Buck's, the virus spreads to a vital area like the brain, and it becomes much more serious."

JD nodded. The explanation seemed straight forward enough. "Okay. Now that you know what's wrong, you can treat it, right? You just give him some antibiotics and he's gonna be all right?"

The doctor sighed and looked away from JD's intense gaze. "I'm afraid it's not that easy. Antibiotics are ineffective against a virus."

JD's breath hitched as he asked, "So what does that mean? Is Buck gonna die?"

Dr. Brady finally looked back. "Despite the severity of his illness, the odds are in Buck's favor. He's young and he's strong. He was in good health prior to this illness. I have to warn you, though, that any inflammation of the brain may result in serious, life-threatening complications or result in permanent disability. We're doing what we can, which is to support Buck's body while it musters its defenses to fight off the virus." The doctor added, "And it wouldn't hurt to offer up a prayer or two."

Chris shook his head, still not wanting to believe what he'd heard. "Hell, we've all armed ourselves to the teeth with mosquito repellent courtesy of Nathan. Ever since West Nile first raised its ugly head, he made sure that we were taking every necessary precaution. Buck can't have West Nile."

Ezra raised a finger in objection. "I'm afraid that both of us could have easily contracted the West Nile virus. In our pursuit of Mr. Brooks two weeks ago, we did not deem it prudent to take the time to douse ourselves in insect repellent prior to giving chase. I do not believe that Mr. Brooks would have waited for us to do so."

The doctor turned sharply at Ezra's pronouncement. "You know where you encountered the vector?"

Ezra nodded.

The doctor smiled. "Half the battle in containing the West Nile virus is eliminating its source. The CDC will be very interested in speaking with you."

JD winced at the reference to the CDC. It was usually the term that other members of the team used to refer to the disaster area known as Buck & JD's apartment. To hear that the actual CDC would be involved in Buck's case erased all humor from the term. He never wanted to hear it again.

Once Buck was moved to a regular room, JD took up a bedside vigil. He had no desire to return home to an empty apartment. Also, he didn't want to leave Buck's side while his friend was so desperately ill. He'd left him once already, and shuddered to think of the consequences. He would not soon forget the image of Buck lying still and death-like on the bathroom floor.

Although Buck appeared to be sleeping, it was not a restful sleep. He tossed and turned, frowning, obviously uncomfortable. JD anxiously asked the nurse, "Can't you give him something for pain?"

The nurse sadly shook her head. "I'm sorry, but we need to keep a close watch on Buck's mental status. We can't give him anything stronger than the Tylenol suppositories he's receiving every six hours around the clock."

Buck's mental status remained poor over the next two days. The few times JD could get Buck to talk any sense, he was almost sorry that he had. When asked how he was doing, Buck was too sick to put up a front. With heart-breaking honesty, he replied, "I ache all over, and my head feels like someone put a bullet through my brain." He added, "And could you do something about all these lights? Like shoot 'em out?"

One of the side effects of Buck's illness was an extreme sensitivity to light. Despite the fact that the lights were kept to a minimum, they still seemed too bright to Buck's burning eyes. After a while, JD fancied that he no longer remembered just what color Buck's eyes were, as they were never open.

In his delirium, Buck frequently asked for Ezra, so much so that the Team Seven undercover agent spent almost as much time at the hospital as JD did. JD was frustrated regarding his inability to soothe Buck's agitation when he started asking for Ezra. Buck would insist, "Gotta tell Ezra I'm sorry."

For his part, Ezra was amazed at how quickly he could calm his upset friend. He merely had to hold Buck's hand and tell him that he was listening. Buck would hold still, his body language reflecting his concentration. After a few minutes, he would remember the words he needed to say: "I'm sorry." The exhausted man was usually able to rest undisturbed for several hours after each incident. As much as Ezra hated hospitals, he hated seeing Buck in such dire straits even more. He did not begrudge Buck the need for his presence.

What was most frustrating to Ezra was his inability to convince Buck that the man had done nothing for which an apology was required. If Buck heard him, he did not acknowledge the fact. It may have been simply that he could not remember that the matter had already been addressed. From time to time, Ezra would try to get Buck to elucidate his reasoning behind the need to apologize. Buck either would not or could not comply.

JD tried not to let it get to him, but he couldn't help but feel a little resentment regarding the fact that Buck was asking for Ezra instead of his best friend and roommate, JD. Once the younger man took some time out to think on his feelings, he realized that he was actually feeling jealous of Ezra. He gave himself a good talking to for that one. "JD, if that isn't absolutely the most immature thought you've ever had. Your best friend is lying there, fighting for his life. You can't be mad at him for talking out of his head, so you're gonna be mad at Ezra, instead? I don't think so. Put that anger where it belongs: on the damn virus that did this to him." There was a noticeable improvement in JD's behavior toward Ezra after that.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Nathan returned. He was immediately set upon by his friends wanting confirmation that everything that should be done for Buck was being done. After consulting with Buck's doctor, Nathan reassured them that Buck's care was more than adequate.

Nathan found himself spending a lot of time at the hospital. He could not help but feel guilty. If he had been here instead of off having a good time, more than likely he would have picked up on the severity of Buck's illness long before the man had ended up on the bathroom floor. Heck, even Ezra's illness would have put the wind up to Nathan. With the recent outbreak of the West Nile virus in Colorado, any flu-like symptoms were immediately suspect. This was not the time of year for colds or the flu, especially not in a previously healthy individual.

+ + + + + + +

It seemed to take forever, but gradually Buck's periods of lucidity increased. Buck himself declared that he was getting better when he was given Tylenol for his headache and, for the first time since he'd become ill, the medication actually eased his pain. Thankfully, he was able to take the medication in pill form and not immediately feel the need to vomit afterward.

JD saw the proof he needed of Buck's recovery when his friend finally began to flirt with the nurses. Sick as he was, Buck still managed to get a few new phone numbers to add to his little black book. When Buck boasted of the fact, JD merely commented, "'Little black book,' my ass. It's more like the Denver Area phone directory."

Buck smiled. "Yeah, it is, ain't it? When you got it, you got it."

JD replied, "And when you ain't, you don't."

Buck quipped, "You ought to know."

Ezra stood outside the door to Buck's room, more relieved than he could say to hear the familiar banter. JD had actually agreed to spend some time away from the hospital today, provided that Ezra kept Buck company. Ezra was more than happy to do so, especially in light of Buck's continued improvement.

Witnessing Buck's pain and confusion up close and personally had proven to be quite painful emotionally to Ezra. To see his eternally bright and cheerful friend reduced to a faded shell of himself was most distressing. Not possessed of Buck's optimism, Ezra had despaired of his friend's ability to ever regain his mental faculties. He could not recall ever being happier to have a supposition of his proven to have been in error.

Ezra was immensely glad to hear Buck sounding like, well, Buck. He could mentally "hear" how his friend would respond were he to discover Ezra's doubts. "You should've had more faith in them 'Wilmington genes.'"

Ezra took the room's sudden silence as his cue to enter. Buck looked like he was preparing for a nap. Ezra held up a brown paper sack, making sure that it was within Buck's improved line of sight. "Seeing as you are recovered sufficiently to have resumed a regular diet, I thought that I might provide lunch." Ezra was especially glad that he'd done so when he saw the joyful expression on Buck's face. The warm feeling Ezra felt in response was well worth the time and effort he'd taken to procure the item in question.

Buck immediately recognized what Ezra held. "Don't tell me. Is that a carryout order from Little Tony's?" The aforementioned delicatessen was a favorite lunchtime stop for the members of Team Seven, and Buck in particular.

Ezra nodded, handing over his gift with a smile. Buck's lethargy disappeared in an instant, and he set upon the bag's contents as if he hadn't eaten for the past week. In actual fact, that was nearly true. Ezra's stomach gave a twinge at the thought, a sympathetic remembrance of Buck's protracted battle with nausea.

Ezra was glad of the opportunity to spend some time alone with Buck. It had broken his heart, the way Buck kept insisting on apologizing to him during the worst of his illness. He'd tried telling Buck that, to the best of his recollection, the man had done nothing to offend him. Nevertheless, every visit he was presented with Buck's abject, "I'm sorry," until the day that Ezra had finally given up and replied, "Apology accepted."

Once Buck had eaten his fill, Ezra broached the subject. "Mr. Wilmington. May I ask you a question?"

Buck forced his closing eyes to open. Trying to stay awake, he replied, "Sure, go right ahead."

"During the past several days, on more than one occasion you felt it necessary to apologize to me. However, you were never able to tell me just what it was that you were sorry about. Do you happen to remember?" By Buck's suddenly lowered gaze and the hint of a blush on his face, Ezra knew that he did. After a minute, Buck decided to share the information.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Even half out of my head, I remember what I said and did when you got sick."

Ezra averred, "Well, I must confess that I do not. You have an unfortunate tendency to run off at the mouth, and I have learned to separate the verbal wheat from the chaff. That is, I remember only what is significant, and I disregard the rest. Truly, I did not consider what you said to have been of any significance."

Buck shrugged. "Well, thank you for that, I think. Anyway, let's just say that under the circumstances I could've been a bit more sympathetic to you than I was."

Seeing that Buck was still troubled by the matter, Ezra offered his hand with a smile. "Apology accepted."

His friend's return smile was blinding in its brilliance. Buck shook the offered hand, declaring, "Well, all right then."

In response, Ezra felt the smile linger on his own face long past the point it would have faded on its own.

During his own illness, Ezra had been philosophically reflecting on the subject of misery. In the face of subsequent events, and in particular the way that he was feeling at this moment in time, Ezra's thoughts again turned to philosophy. However, the current philosopher he was thinking of was a Buddhist. This fellow had believed that the light that shines the brightest from the depths of dark misery is the light of love. Looking at his 'brothers' smile, Ezra could not help but agree with the man.