The sun glinted off his earring and then his gold tooth as the pirate smiled confidently. Dressed all in black except for the white sash around his waist, he raised his sword and charged his opponent.
Other fights were swirling around them on the deck of the ship. Pirates dressed all in black versus sailors all in white.
It was a bloody battle with many of the black pirates killing the white sailors viciously, slashing them or savagely running them through with their swords.
The gold-toothed pirate seemed to almost dance in his fight with the sailor with blond hair and green eyes. The choreography was flawless as they parried back and forth. With a quick move, the pirate easily disarmed his opponent, but instead of running him through with his sword, he forced the sailor to jump off the ship before turning to his next victim.
The battle raged on for several minutes before all the white sailors suddenly disappeared. They just vanished into thin air. There in the middle of the deck was the gold-toothed pirate. The white sash around his waist seemed to glow in contrast to the darkness around him.
All of the black clothed pirates were facing away from him, but they turned as one, seemingly drawn by the white sash.
A fleeting moment of fear could be seen in the gold-toothed Pirate's eyes as he saw the faces of the other pirates and their horrible protruding eyes.
Suddenly they rushed him, swords drawn, determined to destroy all the white and
"Vin, wake up! Wake up!"
Vin gasped as he jerked awake.
"Wake up! You's having a bad dream," said JD as he shook Vin's shoulder with one hand, clinging to the rail of the bunk bed ladder with the other.
Vin's heart pounded as he realized there were no troll pirates with protruding eyes, it had been a dream.
"Sorry, JD," he said softly.
"S'okay. Ya want me to sleep with you?"
Vin shook his head. "No, I'm going to get a drink and go to the bathroom."
JD nodded and climbed back down the ladder and climbed under his covers. He was tired. It seemed Vin was having a bad dream every night. Trusting that his friend was truthful that he didn't need JD to sleep with him, he snuggled his floppy Scooby Doo up to his chin and quickly dozed off.
Vin quietly climbed down from his bunk, his heart still pounding in fear.
His feet didn't bother to stop at the bathroom, leading him instead to his refuge. His security.
Chris woke with a start. Someone was watching him. He rolled on his side to face the doorway, easily recognizing his son's form silhouetted by the night light in the hallway.
"Are you all right?" he asked sleepily.
Vin nodded once but continued to stand in the doorway.
"Did you have a bad dream?"
Another single nod.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
A shake of the head.
Chris sighed. He was only half awake and he was pretty sure that Vin wasn't fully alert either. Sometimes trying to be a good parent in the middle of the night seemed harder than it ever did in the light of day.
Vin had come to the doorway several times in the past couple of weeks - ever since he saw Ezra at Wal-Mart. Sometimes he didn't even seem awake enough to answer. Those were the nights the boy would just stand there for a few minutes and then return to bed. Evidently the security of knowing his father was there was enough. Other nights, when he was more alert, he would wait until invited and then climb in bed with Chris, needing more than an assuring word.
"C'mere," said Chris softly.
Vin padded quickly across the floor and scooted under the blanket Chris held open to him.
After he settled, Chris spoke. "Do you remember what your dream was about?"
"Uncle Ezra," he whispered.
Chris grimaced in the darkness. More often than not, Vin's dreams revolved around Ezra right now, and probably would until Ezra returned from his undercover assignment.
"He was a pirate," Vin said softly as he snuggled closer to the security Chris offered.
"A pirate, huh?" Chris asked. Somehow he could picture the smooth southerner as a pirate. He gently stroked the back of Vin's head soothingly. It was obvious that Ezra's absence was influencing Vin's dreams.
"He pretended to help the bad pirates, but he wasn't really bad." Vin couldn't say more. He didn't want to think about the pirates that were really trolls. Or what happened to the gold-toothed pirate after the troll pirates charged him.
Feeling his son shudder, Chris decided to direct his thoughts away from the details of the nightmare.
"You miss him."
Vin nodded. "When is he coming home?"
Chris waited as Vin rolled over to face him. He knew his son was trying to see his face in the darkness and read his truthfulness.
Sometimes he was grateful for the darkness.
"I wish I could tell you for certain, Vin," he said. "But you know Uncle Ezra's job isn't always predictable. If I were to guess, I'd say maybe in the next few days, but I don't know that for sure."
Vin dropped his head onto Chris' upper arm, using it for a pillow.
"I wish Uncle Ezra didn't have to play with the bad guys," he said with a sigh.
"I miss him, too, Cowboy," Chris said. "I miss him, too."
Chris draped his free arm over the seven-year-old and pulled him closer, kissing the top of his head. He could go into a long discussion of Ezra's job and how important it was, but that wasn't what Vin needed. The seven-year-old just needed to know that for right now he was loved, he was safe, and he wasn't alone.
Vin sighed and Chris kissed him again.
"Sleep Cowboy," he said. "I've got your back."
Vin rolled over and pulled the covers up around his neck. He didn't know exactly what those words meant, but he was glad Chris was there to chase away the dreams.
Something was wrong.
Vin looked at JD. The younger boy was blissfully playing with Ringo and Elvis as the pups tried their best to lick his face. Apparently he hadn't noticed the TV.
A special news bulletin had interrupted the cartoon and the female reporter had said there was a shooting. She had said that they didn't know the details but one man was dead and an ATF agent was taken from the scene in an ambulance. More information was promised on the Five O'clock news.
Vin tensed as he tried to reassure himself that Chris and Buck had promised them to be extra careful. There were lots of ATF agents in Denver, he reasoned. It could be anyone.
But then the phone rang.
Mrs. Potter had answered the phone, was quiet for a moment and then gasped, "Oh, dear."
Two simple words had drawn Vin's attention like a magnet. His heart began to pound as she stepped around the corner and pulled the kitchen door closed for privacy.
He didn't mean to eavesdrop, but his feet seemed to move of their own accord and led him to the doorway.
"Please let it be someone else," he whispered to himself, his breath quickening in fear. All chance of reasoning with himself had fled at the two simple words, "Oh Dear."
"Don't let it be Dad. Don't let it be Buck. Please Please Please."
Mrs. Potter's voice was muffled, but he heard her say something about making arrangements with someone so that she could stay.
Vin felt tears coming to his eyes unbidden, as the impact of her words set in. If Mrs. Potter was staying, something really was wrong at work.
Maybe they just had to work late.
The seven-year-old bit his trembling lower lip. The news lady hadn't said whether the man who died was a bad man or ATF, but she did say the ambulance took an agent to the hospital.
"It's not them," Vin whispered to himself. "They just have to stay late because someone else needs help." He swallowed hard. "Please "
Mrs. Potter opened the door and found big, teary, fear-filled blue eyes begging her to tell him it was all right.
She should have scolded him for listening to her conversation, but she didn't have the heart. The seven-year-old had an uncanny perception about things and he was worried about his family.
She placed her hand on his head and smoothed his hair. "Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington are going to be late. I'm going to stay and feed you boys your dinner and get you ready for bed tonight."
"Are they okay?" he asked, his voice cracking as he spoke. "The lady on the news said "
"Yes, Sweetie," Mrs. Potter assured. "Your father and Buck are fine."
"What did you say about Da?" JD asked, hearing his father's name. He unburied himself from Ringo and Elvis so he could get up off of the floor.
"Your father and Chris are going to be late tonight," she repeated.
"Why?" asked JD as he wandered over. "Was that Da on the phone? How come he didn't talk to me?"
"No, Sweetie. That was Mr. Travis on the phone."
Vin involuntarily gasped. If it wasn't Buck or Chris or one of the uncles, that meant they were
"He said they were very involved in what they were working on and Chris asked him to call me." She looked at Vin. "They are fine. They just couldn't come to the phone."
Vin chewed his lip. Mrs. Potter said Chris and Buck were all right, and Mrs. Potter didn't lie. But the lady on the news said
"How come he didn't want to talk to me?" asked JD. "We know Judge Travis. He's our friend. I wanted to talk to him."
Gloria smiled. JD wanted to talk to anyone and everyone on the telephone.
Vin sighed and looked at JD. The younger boy had obviously not heard the news lady and that was probably for the best. Knowing that Chris and Buck would not want him to upset his little brother, he decided he'd just have to trust it really was okay.
Well, he'd try anyway.
Maybe God had listened to him when he prayed that Chris and Buck weren't hurt.
"We gonna eat dinner without 'em?" asked JD.
Gloria nodded. "We'll save some for them to eat later."
"Look, Vin!" JD exclaimed as the music for Scooby Doo started. "It's Scooby!"
Mrs. Potter put a hand on Vin's shoulder and gently guided him towards the television set. She hoped it would distract him from his worry about the men of the household.
"We should call the boys," Buck said as he paced the waiting room.
"Travis called Gloria," Chris replied. It was a poor substitute, but what could he tell a five-year-old and a seven-year-old who had already seen too much loss in their lives? He couldn't tell them that there had been a screw-up at the bust and their Uncle Ezra had paid the price.
Too high a price.
There would be hell to pay and Chris would be extracting the payment.
Buck settled in the chair next to him. "Vin is really perceptive, Pard. You've seen the news flashes on the TV there," he said pointing to the set in the waiting room, "and you know they'll have seen them too during cartoon time. He's going to be worried. He'll need to hear your voice."
"What the hell am I supposed to say?" Chris growled in fear and frustration. "I'm sorry but your Uncle got shot because someone was stupid."
Buck took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The combination of wanting to tear the shooter apart limb from limb and waiting for word on Ezra's condition was making them crazy. He knew all of the others were just as frightened as he was, that Ezra wouldn't make it. The undercover agent had lost so much blood, so quickly. Too quickly. Nathan's actions had been sure, but Buck couldn't recall a time where they were so urgent.
Ezra had to make it.
'Please, let him make it.'
"Chris, I'm going to go call the boys," he said softly.
The image of a frightened blue-eyed boy moved Chris out of his seat to accompany Wilmington. He needed to reassure his son even if he couldn't reassure himself.
"What if they ask?"
Buck rubbed a hand across his face. "I know we promised not to lie to them, but I think this is one circumstance where it would be better to wait with the truth."
Chris looked at him. It was a tough choice, but Buck was right. In this case, it seemed best to at least wait until at least they knew if Ezra was going to survive.
The problem was he didn't know if he could keep the worry or the anger out of his voice.
Vin sat on his knees leaning over the back of the couch, watching out the window. Hearing Buck and Chris on the phone had done a lot to ease his fear. He had played some with JD, and he had eaten most of his dinner, but unconsciously he kept returning to the sofa to watch for his father. Even with the reassurances, he needed to see Chris to be sure.
He didn't notice when JD stood up on the couch next to him, joining his vigil.
Gloria Potter had done her best to distract the boys, turning off the TV and thus the news reports, encouraging them to play a game, and even reading a book to them, but it didn't seem to work. As she finished the dinner dishes and returned to the great room, she found both boys watching out the window, with two pups lying quietly next to the sofa.
"Boys," she said, "It's time for bed."
"But Da ain't home yet," protested JD, pulling up a sock that had slid down to his ankle.
Gloria wanted to smile at that picture. Both boys' shoes were strewn around the couch. Apparently they reasoned that Buck and Chris always said, "Shoes off the furniture" so if they took off their shoes, it was perfectly acceptable to stand on the couch.
"Sweetie, it's late. You have school in the morning," said Mrs. Potter. "Your father will come in and check on you when he gets home, but didn't he tell you to go to bed?"
JD turned around and plopped down on his bottom, bouncing slightly on the sofa. "But I misses him."
"I know," she said softly. "Gather up your shoes and let's get ready."
Vin watched out the window as long as he dared. He didn't want to upset Mrs. Potter, but he wanted Chris and Buck to come home. With a sigh he slid off the couch and followed.
Four men waited in one corner of the emergency room. Still dressed in his tee shirt and Kevlar vest, a blonde paced restlessly like a caged lion. Seated on one side of his pathway was a slightly gray haired man rubbing the shoulders of a very somber black man, as if he was trying to encourage the younger man. On the opposite side of the pathway was a tall dark haired man with a moustache, leaning against the wall watching the pacing lion for a few moments and then casting a fiery glare at the five men in the opposite corner of the waiting room.
Ken Torres and Team Four waited in the far corner. The distance was very necessary. Three of the men looked sympathetically between their team leader and Team Seven across the room. The fourth was in an intense discussion with Torres, and didn't seem to be hearing his Team Leader's instruction to go home.
He couldn't leave. Not until he knew whether the agent he had wounded lived or died.
Each time Larabee paced their direction, the young man involuntarily flinched back. He deserved every thing they could throw at him.
Each time Larabee paced in their direction, it was all he could do to keep himself from continuing across the room to pound the stupid kid into nothing but green dust. He turned and headed the opposite direction.
He stopped and swore softly. What was taking so long? It had been almost three hours since they brought Ezra in.
"Why don't you sit down for a while?" Buck suggested gently.
Chris looked at him, hesitated, but then moved and sat in a chair near Buck.
Buck moved from his spot against the wall and sat next to Chris.
"Taking this much time has to be a good thing, right?" he asked. "I mean, it means he's still " Buck's voice trailed off with the useless words.
All they knew was that less than fifteen minutes after Ezra arrived at the hospital, he had been rushed into surgery, his wound necessitating an immediate response not only for his survival, but to save his leg.
Since that time, they had heard nothing. Nathan, who would normally go and track down information was in no condition to do so. Ezra's injury had shaken the man to his core.
Seeing Nathan so shaken had rippled through the rest of the team. Jackson was the man who knew the most about medicine, and if he was so upset, Ezra's chances weren't very good at all.
Chris blew out a heavy sigh. This had all gone to hell in a split second. A quick decision that had been the wrong one.
He glanced over at the kid from Team Four. He was self-destructing before their eyes. And as much as Chris wanted to feel some sympathy for him, he wanted to punish him far more.
Orin Travis had been here a couple of hours ago and ordered the two teams to have no contact until the situation was sorted out.
Chris growled out loud. Ezra Standish was not a situation.
He still wasn't sure exactly what had happened in the melee at the bust. One moment everything was fine and the next bullets were flying.
Ezra had broken protocol. In a normal bust, Ezra was taken down with the perps in order to maintain his cover. He'd go to jail right along with them and then be released at an appropriate time. On rare occasion, he would break protocol and chase the perps himself and that is what had happened today. Ezra had chased after Carson and it had possibly cost him his life.
Chris had stood in shock after the ambulance had taken Standish away, and Torres, the leader of Team Four had informed him that Ezra had been hit by friendly fire, and the shooter had been one of his team members.
Things like this weren't supposed to happen.
The next few minutes had been crazy as Buck went after the kid threatening to tear him limb from limb. Wilmington had gotten in a couple of punches before Chris and Torres had pulled him off. Then Josiah went after him. Leaving Buck in Torres' hands, Chris tackled Josiah and with the help of two men from Team Four had brought Josiah down. Chris had ordered Torres to get the kid out of his sight, and Ken had quickly done so, for everyone's sake.
Sometimes it sucked being the leader. He wasted his energy pulling his men away from doing the very thing he wanted to do.
And now several interviews later, here they all were, waiting word on Ezra.
Almost another hour had passed before a doctor came to talk to them. He explained that Ezra had been taken immediately to surgery to have the best chance of saving his life and his leg. They had some difficulty during surgery with peripheral bleeding and had nearly lost him. But now Standish was in surgical ICU. There were still concerns with his erratic and sometimes dangerously low blood pressure, as well as potential complications.
Ezra was still alive. But he wasn't out of the woods.
Chris blinked, containing the moisture in his eyes. He turned his gaze to Jackson to gauge his response to the doctor's report. Nathan was still somber, but there was a glint of hope in his eyes.
"I want to see him," Chris said.
"Mr. Larabee, his condition is critical right now," the doctor replied. "There are strict limitations on visiting in the surgical ICU."
Chris nodded. "When can I see him?"
"One visitor per hour, for ten minutes at the top of the hour. No exceptions. The patient needs rest."
Chris nodded again.
"There's a waiting area on the 3rd floor," the doctor informed them before shaking Chris' hand and leaving.
The team gathered up their belongings, including Ezra's weapons and ID and walked toward the elevator.
"Someone should tell Team Four," said Nathan.
"Let 'em suffer," Buck growled angrily.
Chris shook his head. He felt the same as Buck, but it wasn't fair to Torres. Ken was a good man, and his team was a good team. How this had happened was still a mystery.
Knowing that Josiah and Buck were still too hot to 'play nice' with Team Four, and Nathan didn't need the strain, he stopped.
"I'll meet you upstairs."
He walked back towards Team Four and waved Torres over.
It was hard to fall asleep, but somehow the rigors of the day had finally claimed both boys. JD had picked up on Vin's nervousness, and had seen one of the news reports before Mrs. Potter turned off the television. He wasn't as bothered by it as Vin seemed to be because he knew his Da and Chris were all right. But even with that assurance, when Mrs. Potter checked in on them, both boys were sleeping in JD's bunk, huddled together, Vin clutching Cat tightly, while JD clung to Scooby Doo.
At least they were sleeping.
Around midnight, Gloria settled on the couch and covered herself with an afghan. She didn't know how long it would be before Chris and Buck came home, and she decided she might as well get some rest.
It was nearly two in the morning when she felt someone shake her shoulder gently.
She looked into the exhausted eyes of Buck Wilmington.
"Didn't want to wake you," he said softly, "But I figured you wouldn't want to sleep on the couch all night."
"Oh, no," she agreed as she sat up. "How's Mr. Standish?"
Buck let out a weary sigh. "He's in rough shape, Gloria. But he's alive."
Mrs. Potter covered her mouth with her hand as tears trickled down her cheeks. Ezra Standish could be annoying with his particular ways and his idiosyncrasies, but his dimpled smile had stolen her heart, as had the rest of his teammates.
Buck pulled her into a hug and just held her for a minute while she composed herself.
"You okay?" he asked gently.
"Do you want to stay here tonight? You can use my room," he offered. They had a guest room but the bed was currently buried under the supplies for remodeling the boys' bathroom.
"No," she said with a shake of the head. "You need to get proper rest. Where's Mr. Larabee?"
"In the barn. He's taking care of the horses."
"I wish I could have done that for you," she said.
Buck shook his head with a smile. "You're here for the boys. That's what matters."
"They're both pretty worried," Gloria said. "Last I looked, they were both sleeping in JD's bunk."
"Thank you," Buck said placing a kiss on the housekeeper's forehead. "I don't know what we'd do without you."
"He's right," said Chris as he came into the room.
"It's my pleasure," she said simply. "I'd better get going."
"Are you okay to drive?" asked Chris. "You could stay and use my bed."
Gloria smiled. "Thank you for the kind offer, but you need to get a good night's rest."
"I'll walk you to the car," said Buck as he assisted her with her coat.
Chris nodded to them as they went outside. He hung up his coat and rolled his shoulders trying to unkink the tight muscles. He wanted a drink, but he needed sleep more. There were going to be a lot of tense times until Ezra was completely out of the woods, and until the person responsible got what was coming to him.
He closed his eyes, not willing to think about the possibility that Ezra wouldn't pull through. The doctor had made no promises.
"Check on the boys, then go to bed," Buck said softly.
Chris opened his eyes. He hadn't noticed Wilmington's return.
Buck gave his shoulder a bit of a massage and a pat. Then he nodded towards the hallway.
Both men stepped into the hall and stopped. There, halfway between Buck's room and Chris's door was their family. Vin was slumped down onto his left side, his left arm curled around Cat, which doubled as his pillow. His right hand rested on JD's head. The younger boy found his brother's tummy to be a good pillow. His chubby fingers were entwined in Ringo's fur at his collar as the pup slept against the boy, keeping him warm. Elvis seemed content to use Vin's legs as a place to rest his chin. His tail thumped on the floor in recognition of his grown-ups.
"Guess they couldn't decide which room to wait in," Buck whispered.
Chris just shook his head, his heart aching for the fear the boys had to be feeling.
Blue eyes popped open and Vin raised his head groggily at the voices. "Dad?" Vin asked uncertainly.
"I'm here," Chris assured.
Buck reached down and scooped up JD. The little boy shifted and yawned before dropping his head on Wilmington's shoulder. A small hand patted his Da's neck as they moved quietly to Buck's room.
Skinny arms reached for the safety and security that Chris Larabee provided.
Swallowing back his emotion, Chris lifted the seven-year-old, only slightly surprised by the arms latching around his neck as if Vin would never let go.
"Bed!" he commanded to the pups. Both dogs trotted down the hall to the boys' room to the blankets reserved as their doggy bed.
"Dad," Vin whispered.
Chris felt tears fill his eyes. The one simple word he cherished from this child was now expressing Vin's overwhelming insecurity. He rubbed his boy's back as he walked to his room hoping the physical touch would assure his son that he was all right.
He sat on the bed, attempting to lay Vin down, but the boy wouldn't let go. Chris wanted to laugh and cry at the same time - laugh at trying to get his boots off with a seven-year-old hanging from his neck, and cry because his son was frightened enough to have the need to cling so tightly.
He struggled with the boots, and then pushed the comforter back with one hand. Chris lay down, still keeping Vin close. He pulled the comforter over both of them and turned off the lamp by the bed.
A sniff in the darkness had him hugging Vin tighter. "Shh, son. Sleep now."
He felt the arms slip from his neck and wrap around the arm he had over Vin.
He smiled as he felt the boy shift and something furry was tucked under his arm as well.
He'd miss times like this when the time came that Vin outgrew the stuffed Cat.
Josiah sat in the 3rd floor waiting room as it neared dawn. He had faithfully gone in to see Ezra every hour on the hour after the rest of the team had gone home. Getting them to leave was a minor miracle in itself, but rational minds had prevailed. Chris and Buck had two little boys to be concerned about, and Nathan had Raine. It only made sense that Josiah would stay.
Chris had visited first and then Nathan. While Buck was seeing Ezra, Josiah had talked to Chris and Nathan and convinced them that staying wouldn't help Ezra, and could adversely affect their families. So when Buck returned to the waiting room at 1:12 a.m., after Josiah promised to update them in the morning, they had finally gone home.
Josiah would keep watch for as long as it took. One of his teammates would relieve him at some point, but the schedule was unpredictable. There would be more interviews and meetings regarding the shooting and they would all be called in at various times.
Josiah looked at the too pale form on the bed. Only Carson, Pearson and Ezra knew what had happened at that fateful moment, and Carson was long gone, Pearson was falling to pieces, and Ezra wasn't talking.
"What happened, Ezra?" he asked the unconscious man.
"Sir? It's time for me to check his wound."
Josiah made a pathetic attempt at giving the nurse a smile before he left the room.
Buck walked into the kitchen at half past six. Chris was seated at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee, his eyes barely open and his hair in the disarray of sleep. Or rather, lack of it.
"You look like I feel," Buck grumbled. Just like his waking hours, JD's sleep was normally full of changes of position, but the five-year-old had slept hard, barely moving at all. When he did move, Buck was well aware of it, as JD would flip over abruptly or fling his arms or legs. Buck's hand unconsciously moved to his cheek and rubbed the spot where JD's elbow had connected sometime around four a.m.
Chris made eye contact and sighed. "I don't think I slept more than a couple hours."
"Junior restless?" Buck asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He really didn't need to ask. The answer was obvious by just looking at Chris.
Larabee blew out another sigh. Restless was an understatement. He couldn't count the number of times Vin's movements or cries had awakened him. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so helpless.
Vin was too exhausted to truly wake up from his nightmares. It was heartbreaking to listen to Vin's sobs and not be able to take away the fear and pain. Chris had seriously been tempted to shake Vin completely alert, so the boy would truly hear his assurances, but instead he had spent a great deal of the night soothing his son with soft words, gentle strokes and strong hugs, trying to reach his subconscious.
It was nearly six a.m. when Vin slipped into a deep sleep. Not having the heart to wake him twenty minutes later to start getting ready for school, Chris had left the boy sleeping in his bed and made his way to the kitchen.
"Yeah," Chris replied, "It was rough, but I've got a feeling today could be worse."
Buck nodded. He did not look forward to telling the boys that their Uncle Ezra had been wounded.
At the sound of little feet running down the hallway, both men tensed. Apparently the lack of sound sleep wasn't as hard on the boys as it was their fathers.
Two whirlwinds burst through the kitchen door launching themselves at their respective fathers.
For a moment there was quiet as the four reconnected. If Chris and Buck squeezed a little too tight, Vin and JD didn't say anything. Neither boy had been awake enough last night to truly appreciate the fact that their fathers had come home.
Finally, Buck started to speak, finding he had to clear his throat first. "So, are you boys hungry?"
As Buck settled JD into his chair the little boy asked the question both men had been dreading.
"Da, how's the man?"
Vin saw the look Chris and Buck exchanged and felt his stomach twist.
"What man, Little Bit?"
"The man on the news. The news lady said a ATF man got hurted."
Vin was looking at Chris with the big eyes. He knew without being told that something was horribly wrong.
Taking a deep breath Chris picked Vin up and sat down at the table pulling the seven-year-old onto his lap.
"Boys, the agent on TV, well there's no easy way to say this. It was Uncle Ezra."
JD burst into tears clutching at Buck, "NOOOOOO, I don't want Unca Ezra to dream with the angels."
Chris felt Vin's small fingernails dig into his arm as his son clutched tighter.
"Easy, Little Bit," Buck soothed as he rubbed JD's back. "Ezra's not dead. He's in the hospital."
"But she said a man died." JD buried his face in this father's chest as Buck held him tightly.
"It wasn't him, JD. Shh. It wasn't him," Buck soothed.
Chris put his hand over Vin's and gently released the fingernails from his forearm, offering his hand to be clutched.
"Is he gonna be okay?" Vin whispered.
Smiling firmly, Chris said, "The doctors are taking really good care of him."
He caught both of Vin's hands in his and held them comfortingly. "Josiah stayed with him all night last night. He's going to call us this morning with an update."
As if on cue, the phone started to ring.
There seemed to be a collective gasp from the foursome, but no one moved toward the ringing phone.
On the third ring, Chris slid Vin onto the chair next to him and moved for the phone.
His movement seemed to galvanize the others into action and as soon as he picked up the receiver it was bedlam.
"Is it Unca 'Ziah?"
"Is Uncle Ezra okay?"
"What did he say, Pard?"
The questions spilled out of the boys and Buck as they clamored to be heard.
Unfortunately, it made it impossible for Chris to hear.
"QUIET!" he demanded.
Vin stepped away from the shout, but Buck was behind him, reassuring with a squeeze of a shoulder that there was nothing to fear from Chris' outburst.
"Sorry, Josiah. Go ahead," Chris said to the phone.
"Okay Yes Good Yes, we'll be in, but we'll be late. We'll be taking the boys to school on our way in Okay. Thanks, Josiah."
Chris placed the phone in its cradle.
"Well?" asked Buck.
"His blood pressure is better. He hasn't woken up, yet, but the doctors are pleased with the BP."
"Is Unca Ezra okay?" asked JD.
"The doctors are taking good care of him," assured Buck again.
If either boy noticed the evasive but truthful answers, they didn't say anything. More than likely, at their ages, the boys just wanted to know Uncle Ezra would be okay. They didn't need to know how tenuous his situation was at this point.
Chris and Buck had decided on their way home last night that they would send the boys to school today despite the worrisome circumstances. Both men felt that holding them out of school would only emphasize that something was wrong and perhaps make it even more traumatic for the boys.
They would talk with their teachers, Mr. Beidler and Mrs. Roquette and fill them in on the situation not only for Vin and JD's sake, but also for the teachers'. Both boys would likely be acting a bit out of sorts for a few days.
Arriving at the school midmorning, Vin and JD moved quietly to put away their backpacks while Chris and Buck spoke with Mrs. Roquette.
Mr. Beidler was out on the playground supervising the rest of the class at recess.
Carolyn sensed the men's reluctance to leave the boys in school today, but she did her best to assure them that it was good for Vin and JD to keep busy. The normal activities would help to keep them from fretting over their Uncle.
As Buck and Chris left, her eyes drifted over to the two waifs. JD was practically attached to Vin at the hip. Carolyn sighed. She hadn't observed such insecure behavior in the boys for a long time. She prayed a quick prayer for Ezra Standish hoping that he would recover and this insecurity would be a fleeting moment for the boys.
"Good morning, Vin. JD," she said as she approached. "Recess is almost over, so why don't you go ahead and pick a work station?"
"Can we do art?" JD asked. "I want to make a picture for Unca Ezra."
"Certainly," said Carolyn with a tight smile. It wasn't going to be easy to try to distract the boys. "How about you, Vin? Where would you like to start?"
"I'll do art, too," Vin answered softly. Then he quickly covered his mouth as he yawned. "Excuse me."
She watched as Vin and JD got out the supplies they needed and started to draw pictures for their injured uncle.
They had just started drawing when the noise level rose indicating the rest of the class was returning from recess. The children moved quickly to their desired workstations and settled in on art projects, math games, reading or puzzles.
Angelica Beane joined JD and Vin at their art table. She was fairly new to the school but had become friends with Vin as he helped her get acquainted with the others.
"Hi, Vin," she greeted with a smile.
"Hi, Jelly," he replied.
"Hi, Jelly," JD echoed.
"Whatcha making?" she asked.
"We're making feel better pictures for Unca Ezra," said JD.
"What's wrong with him?" Jelly asked.
Vin and JD looked at each other. It wasn't a secret what happened, but neither boy was anxious to talk about it or even think about it.
"He got hurt at work," said Vin sadly.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Jelly sincerely. "Could I make a picture for him, too?"
JD pushed a piece of paper over to Jelly while Vin moved the crayons to the center of the table so she could reach them as well.
By lunchtime, twenty-four pieces of fine art had been produced for Uncle Ezra. It was amazing how the generous nature of two little boys brought out the best in their classmates as well. Each child had wanted to make a picture for Ezra Standish. Even Eli Joe and Freddie Chaney, although their pictures were a little more graphic than most of their classmates.
Carolyn Roquette collected the creative pictures and put them in a portfolio to make it easier for Vin and JD to take them home.
Nathan watched as something on the monitors caught the young nurse's attention. She said something to her colleague at the nurse's station and then moved quickly towards Ezra's ICU cubicle.
Nathan felt a stab of fear in his chest as he moved to follow her. He tried to reassure himself that this was ICU and that they monitored ALL changes in condition, not just for the worse.
Standing at the door he watched her efficient movements as she checked the monitors and her patient. She quickly completed the necessary readings and adjustments, and then seeing Nathan, she smiled.
"Mr. Jackson, he's beginning to wake up," she explained unnecessarily. Nathan could see Ezra's hand twitch and small leg movements. "It would be helpful for you to sit with him, talk to him. Give him something familiar to wake up to."
Nathan nodded and approached the bed. "How's his blood pressure?"
"It's still pretty low. Shirley is calling for Dr. Stevens."
"Thanks," said Nathan absently as he moved toward the chair near the bed. He stopped at Ezra's bedside and lifted his cold hand, holding it between his own, willing some warmth into it.
"It's about time to wake up, Ezra. Sleeping on the job ain't your style." The barbed words failed to mask his concern for his teammate. They had come dangerously close to losing Ezra and there was a high potential for complications.
Nathan couldn't remember ever being so helpless. He knew as soon as he reached Ezra's position in the warehouse that an artery had been hit and that his teammate had precious little time. He had quickly applied pressure to the wound as he immobilized the leg and tried to keep the southerner alive.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly willing away the memory of holding Ezra's life literally in his hands, but his mind wasn't cooperating. He remembered with stark clarity the labored breathing and the fear on Ezra's face as his eyes pleaded with Nathan to help him.
'Dizzy cold.' Ezra's words had been disoriented and few as the rapid blood loss took its toll.
'You hang in there Ezra, you're going to be fine.' The words had been offered as a comfort - a lifeline - from a friend who secretly feared all he was doing would be too little, too late.
He remembered the chilling terror as Ezra's eyes rolled back and he passed out. And then his useless mantra: 'Don't you give up on me. Ezra stay with me.'
Nathan shook his head. He had repeated those words, or similar, over and over until the paramedics had hurriedly loaded Standish into the ambulance and rushed him away.
Then there was stark emptiness - loneliness - pure helplessness as he looked at the too large mass of blood the floor where Ezra had lain. Nathan had allowed Josiah to steer him outside and sit him on the bumper of the observation van. It was there in the privacy between two friends that Nathan wept.
"You scared me," he said softly to Ezra as he placed the hand back on the bed. It had been close, but the luck of Team Seven was still holding.
Nathan sank into the chair. The artery had been nicked. If the bullet had strayed any deeper, or if Nathan had been a few steps further away, they wouldn't be waiting for the stubborn undercover agent to wake up. They'd have been at his funeral.
Complications were still a high probability. Between the shooting and the subsequent problem with peripheral bleeding in surgery, they had replaced Ezra's blood volume twice. It would take some time for his body to adjust. His blood chemistry could be seriously messed up for a while and it would take some time for his body and the medications to balance it out. The doctors would be monitoring it very closely and Ezra could be on several different medications. It could take weeks before he would be fully stabilized.
Then they had to worry about blood clots, jaundice, edema, and stroke, and liver and kidney problems as the liver and kidneys would be fighting to deal with the byproducts of the chemistry issues. Secondary infection was always a possibility because his immune system was compromised. Ezra would be on some heavy antibiotics.
Nathan sighed. This was the biggest problem with his paramedic training, and having a wife who was a doctor. He understood the possibilities.
Ezra twitched and groaned. The anesthesia was definitely wearing off and he would wake up soon. Nathan looked at his watch and let out a half-grin. Ezra was known for loving his sleep and he was definitely taking his time waking up.
The doctor entered the cubicle and took note of the monitors as he checked his patient. After his assessment he began talking to Ezra and trying to get him to wake up. The southerner was stubborn, but this doctor was persistent.
"Mr. Standish," he repeated for the umpteenth time. "You need to wake up now."
The slurred and mumbled words were the sweetest sound to Nathan. "That ain't going to happen, Ezra," he said softly.
"Tired," Ezra insisted.
"I understand that," said the doctor. "I just need a couple more things, then you can rest."
Nathan shook his head. It didn't look like Ezra was going to stay awake long enough to cooperate.
"Can you tell me your name?" asked the doctor. His mental capabilities could be impaired from the lack of oxygen due to blood loss.
After a long silence, Ezra said, "Jackson."
The doctor frowned.
"No," said Nathan, forestalling the doctor's conclusion. "That's me." He stood up next to the bed where Ezra could see him. "You're safe, Ezra," he said softly.
Ezra blinked slowly, processing the information in a medication-muddled mind.
"Ezra P. Standish," he mumbled letting his eyes close.
"And do you know what happened?"
The deepening of Ezra's rhythmic breathing was his only response. The agent was asleep.
"He's an undercover agent," Nathan explained. "He didn't know if he could tell you who he really is. His response wasn't abnormal. He was just trying to be safe."