by Beth Green
Author's Notes: This story was written in response to the following challenge from Gail (ShipsCat): Write a story revolving around ½ pound (225 grams) of Finnish Fazer Blue chocolate. Chocoholic that I am, I couldn't leave it at a mere ½ pound. When it comes to chocolate, I am a firm believer that More is Better.
The bullpen held the familiar hum of activity that was Team Seven before a major assignment. Buck and JD were trading quips back and forth, trying to avoid needless worrying regarding their upcoming work. Nathan was rechecking first aid supplies. Josiah was closeted with Chris, reviewing every step of the plan. Vin's desktop was covered with various pieces of weaponry and he was currently keeping himself occupied by cleaning the already pristine equipment. Ezra saw no reason to occupy his time in superfluous activity. He announced, "I'm taking advantage of the momentary lull to make a run to Starbuck's for coffee."
Vin announced, "There's a fresh pot just brewed in the breakroom. I ought to know, 'cause I'm the one who put it on."
Ezra scoffed, "All the more reason for me to visit the local Starbucks. That swill that you prepare is strong enough to eat its way through the bottom of a coffee cup if it sits too long. No, thank you." With that comment, he headed for the exit, adding, "I'll be back."
Vin shrugged in a show of indifference. "Suit yourself."
Thus it was that Ezra was the only man not present when the familiar form of the UPS deliveryman entered the bullpen. The man in the brown uniform was greeted with a round of friendly "Hi Carls" as he made his way toward the desk usually occupied by Ezra.
JD, his curiosity aroused, approached and asked, "What 'cha got there?"
Carl turned the package so that he could verify that he had the correct desk and announced, "Package for Ezra Standish."
Vin was only half-kidding when he declared, "Better make sure it's not a bomb."
Buck left his desk to join JD and the deliveryman. The Team Seven explosives expert examined the package as he stated, "Could be something nasty, but seeing as this box already made its way through the x-ray machine downstairs and the return address label says 'Clo-etta Fazer Make-is-et Oy,'" Buck held the box near his ear and shook it, "And I don't hear anything ticking, I don't think it's a bomb." He reached for Carl's clipboard and stated, "I'll sign for it." Once he had possession of the package, Buck speculated upon its contents. "Well, 'Oy' is Yiddish so I'm thinking this return address is Jewish?"
Ezra entered the room and took in the situation at a glance. He hurried over to Buck and snatched the package from his grasp. "I'll thank you to unhand my package."
Buck stated, "I still haven't decided whether or not it's a bomb. Maybe you better let me open it to make sure."
Ezra shook his head. "I know full well the contents of this package. The items it contains are too precious to have been trusted to the random chance delivery service at my home address." Ezra smiled. "No, it is much better that this particular package be housed in the secure offices of the ATF."
The curiosity of the members of Team Seven was now fully aroused. Josiah and Chris had joined them while Ezra was speaking. Chris asked, "What's in the box?"
Ezra sighed. "It's really none of your business, but the package is from Cloetta Fazer Makeiset Oy, in Finland." Ezra's pronunciation of the words did not sound remotely close to the words Buck had uttered as Ezra continued. "For your information, Fazer is known throughout the world for the fine quality of their chocolates."
JD's voice reflected his disbelief as he questioned, "Are you trying to tell us that you're going through all of this cloak-and-dagger secrecy for a box of candy?"
Buck shook his head. "I don't believe it."
Nathan added, "Me neither."
Chris questioned, "If they're so great, why haven't I ever heard of 'em?"
Vin quietly declared, "I heard of 'em." Something in the tone of his voice brought the room to silence. The others had been light-hearted and teasing in their conversation. Vin's whole demeanor indicated a tense seriousness and drew all eyes in the room toward him.
Knowing that Vin was uncomfortable with the sudden scrutiny, Ezra spoke up. "Oh very well, I'll open the package to reassure you that I haven't received a shipment of contraband goods." Ezra's hands had been busy as he spoke. Once the packing materials were removed, Ezra pulled out six huge chocolate bars, each one bearing an identical label which declared them to be exactly what Ezra had said they were.
Buck looked longingly at the feast spread out before his friend. "Ezra, looks like there's more there than you could ever eat by yourself." He turned pleading eyes toward his impeccably dressed teammate. "I don't suppose you'd consider sharing?"
Ezra nodded and stacked the bars neatly, one on top of the other. "You are correct in your supposition. This is intended for my personal use only." He opened a desk drawer and proceeded to secure the bars safely out of sight before locking the drawer and pocketing the key. "I'll thank you all to leave me to my work, and my personal possessions to myself."
Chris agreed. "Yeah, he's not the only one with work to be done. We need to finish up all of the paperwork on the Jenson case before five o'clock today."
The members of Team Seven wandered off to their assigned desks. As Ezra worked, he felt eyes upon him. More than once, he found Vin staring not at Ezra, but at the drawer where the candy resided. Ezra was disturbed at the air of disquiet surrounding his friend. Vin appeared to be accomplishing very little in the way of work. When he wasn't looking Ezra's way, he was staring off into an empty corner of the room, his gaze unfocused and his mind obviously on something other than the business of the ATF.
When Vin rose and headed to the breakroom, Ezra realized that he'd already decided that he could spare one candy bar. He quickly removed one of the precious milk chocolate bars and tucked it underneath his suit coat. He relocked the drawer then tugged on it experimentally to verify that it was indeed secure before he followed Vin into the breakroom.
If Ezra had to settle on one word to describe the picture that Vin presented, that word would have to be 'depressed.' The sharpshooter was sitting at the breakroom table, staring into his coffee cup as if he were a fortuneteller attempting to divine the mysterious message left by tea leaves. The man's head was lowered so that his hair fell forward, shielding his expression from view. Vin didn't bother to look up when Ezra sat down across from him.
Ezra removed the hand holding the chocolate bar from beneath his suit coat. He looked longingly at the sweet confection before he placed it onto the table. His fingertips lingered on the candy bar as he pushed it across the table until it rested directly in front of Vin.
Vin looked up, confused. "What is this?"
Ezra removed his hand from the candy and sat back. "I thought it obvious, but I'll gladly clarify it for you. It's a bar of Fazer's chocolate." He paused a minute before adding, "For you."
Vin raised his hand to push away the hair from his forehead. His hand absently combed through the brown locks as he clarified, "For me?"
Ezra smiled, pleased at the reaction to his gift. "For you."
Vin carefully picked up the chocolate bar, holding the offering as if it were a fragile, precious treasure. He turned it over and over in his hands, examining the object from every angle. Vin eventually set the bar down; however, he did not let it out from under the possessive shelter of his hand. He cleared his throat, suddenly finding that his muscles had tightened with tension.
After a minute, he began to speak. "When I was a kid, there was this social worker, Mrs. Green. . ." Vin paused, the unpleasant nature of the memories evident by the forlorn expression on his face. He continued, "Anyway, she got me out of a bad situation. One of the first things she did for me, while we were waiting for . . . well, for what doesnt matter, but she gave me a chocolate bar. Not just any chocolate bar, but a bar with a blue label and fancy gold letters. I couldn't read 'em, but that didn't matter. She took my hand in hers and guided my finger along the letters as she spelled 'em out for me: K-a-r-l F-a-z-e-r." Vin's finger traced the scrolled lettering on the label as he spoke. "Just the thought of the taste of that chocolate. . ." Vin looked up, his eyes bright with emotion. His voice took on a husky rasp as he continued, "It'll be just like a hug from Mrs. Green." He paused to wipe a hand over his face, eliminating the trace of any tears that may have managed to make an unwanted appearance. He blew out a breath of air between pursed lips, his hand rising to hold the bar close to his chest. "Ezra, thank you for this."
Ezra smiled, amazed at the profound effect a simple action on his part had produced. He could think of nothing else to say other than, "You're welcome." The two men sat in companionable silence until a bellow from Chris announced that their presence was required elsewhere. As they headed toward the door, Ezra paused to address his friend. "If it's all the same to you, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't let any of the others know that I gave you that." Ezra waved a hand to indicate the coveted candy bar.
Vin smiled as he wrapped a napkin around his precious package to hide its distinctive label. "No problem."
+ + + + + + +
The rest of the day proceeded at a rapid pace. The members of Team Seven were called upon to assist with a raid on a storehouse of illegal weaponry. If the criminals had any degree of intelligence, they would have surrendered when they discovered that they were surrounded by ATF agents. Instead, a fierce gun battle ensued, with the ATF agents quickly gaining the upper hand.
In doing his part to cover his teammates, Ezra spotted a gunman preparing to draw down on the Team Seven leader. His subsequent actions took place in a split-second's response. Ezra's concentration narrowed to a tightly-focused intensity as he lined up his shot and pulled the trigger. His grin held a hint of feral wildness as he watched the man go down.
Unfortunately, while Ezra was occupied protecting Chris' back, one of the gunmen managed to sneak his way around a stack of crates to head toward the one thing standing between him and the door to freedom: Ezra. The undercover agent began to turn around in response to the click of an unfamiliar gun, realizing even as he moved that he could not turn and fire in time to stop the criminal confronting him. The man sneered, "Say goodbye."
Ezra's contemplation of his impending demise was interrupted when Buck's voice shouted out, "Goodbye!"
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief as the man crumpled beneath Buck's well-aimed bullet. He turned gratefully toward his friend. "Thank you."
Buck smiled and waved in reply. "No problem."
The gunfire pretty much disappeared after Buck's fatal shot. It didn't take long for the ATF agents to disarm the remainder of the gun runners. The cleanup in the aftermath took longer than any of the men might have wished, especially when Chris ordered his team to return to the offices of the ATF to file their preliminary paperwork. Ezra silently protested as his stomach growled to remind him that he and his fellow team members were overdue for their evening repast. Fortunately for all concerned, Josiah and Nathan took orders for Chinese takeout, and dinner was delivered directly to the ATF office while the men worked.
Buck reached for one of the cardboard containers, frowning when he noticed that the carton was empty. "Hey, who ate the last of the pork?" He proceeded to go through all of the cartons, adding, "And the almond chicken? And the egg rolls? Damn, you guys ate everything in sight!" Buck sat, forlorn, surrounded by empty cartons.
JD showed a decided lack of pity. He reminded his friend, "Buck, it wasn't your food, it was everyone's." The young man sat back with a satisfied belch.
Buck's lips tightened so that his facial expression bore a strong resemblance to a child's pout. "But I'm still hungry."
Ezra contemplated Buck's pitiable expression. His hand hovered a moment over the drawer containing his candy stash. He did owe Buck for saving his life, but was it worth giving up one of his precious Fazer chocolate bars? Ezra looked around the room, noting that everyone was too involved in report-writing to take note of anything that Ezra or anyone else might be doing. He unlocked the drawer, deciding that he could spare one more portion of his chocolate treasure. He secreted the bar beneath his suit coat then stepped over to Buck's desk. "Excuse me, Mr. Wilmington, but might I have a moment of your time?"
"Sure, Ezra, what's up?"
The man thus addressed added: "In private," with a significant look around the room.
Buck stood, clapping a friendly hand along Ezra's back. "All right, how about we head to the conference room?"
Once the door had been secured, Buck leaned against it, making himself comfortable as he asked, "What's up?"
Ezra began, "It occurs to me that I may be able to solve a problem of yours as well as a difficulty of my own: how to let you know that I am extremely grateful for your timely intervention today that allowed me to remain bullet-free." Ezra removed his hand from beneath his suit coat, holding the distinctively-wrapped chocolate toward his friend.
Buck straightened up from his casual slouch, his eyes widening in disbelief. "You're giving me one of your chocolate bars?" Buck took the offered gift when Ezra nodded his assent. "Wow, I don't know what to say but thanks; thanks a lot!" Buck wasted no time in removing the paper wrapping. He proceeded to take a huge bite from the chocolate, making a portion that Ezra would have meticulously meted out in small bites sufficient to stretch the chocolate to a day's supply disappear in a matter of minutes. Buck's eyes closed and his face took on a blissful expression as the rich chocolate flavor inundated his taste buds. He continued to wolf down the chocolate, his words muffled by the action of mastication as he declared, "You're right, Ezra, this has got to be the best chocolate I've ever tasted."
Ezra squelched his urge to comment upon the rudeness of talking with one's mouth full, merely responding, "You're welcome." Ezra added a last request: "I only ask one favor in return. Please do not let anyone else know that I gave you one of my candy bars."
Mouth still full, Buck nodded. "No problem. I'll even clean up the evidence before I go back to my desk."
Appalled by the appearance of Buck's chocolate-covered face and fingers, Ezra quickly agreed. "That would probably be a very good idea."
Ezra returned to his own desk, trying to decide if he'd digested enough of the Chinese food to sample one of the chocolate bars for himself. Regretfully, he decided that now was not the time. His regret was short-lived. He brightened at the thought that there was always tomorrow.
+ + + + + + +
The next day proved to be more hectic than the previous. A cold case suddenly became red hot, and Team Seven spent the day following up on the new leads.
They were still in the office at six o'clock when Nathan let out a loud complaint. "Damn! I've got to get out of here in five minutes. Rain and I have a dinner date. Oh, damn! Damn, damn, damn!"
The members of Team Seven worriedly responded to the uncharacteristic display of temper. "Nathan, what is it? What's wrong?"
Nathan's fist pounded his desk in frustration. "Aw, hell! Today is one of those odd anniversaries that women make such a big deal out of and men always forget. It's the anniversary of the day when Rain and I had our first date. I meant to get her a little something, maybe some candy or flowers, but I forgot." Nathan's shoulders slumped. "Oh well, she'll get over it. I'll just have to put up with the sad eyes tonight when she realizes that I forgot." Nathan cleaned up his work area, his pace a lot less frantic than it had been as he contemplated facing Rain's disappointment.
Ezra tried not to listen to Nathan's problem. After all, it wasn't any of his business. The team medic hadn't even suggested that he remembered the stash of Fazer chocolate bars that Ezra guarded so zealously. Ezra had almost convinced himself that he wasn't going to share another one of his precious candy bars when he had the misfortune of glancing up just as Nathan exited the office.
The man was the very picture of misery. He gave a weak wave and a half-hearted "Bye!" as he headed out the door; his head was lowered so that he did not see Buck's return wave, nor did he acknowledge any of the encouraging words offered by his teammates. Nathan was so sunk in his own misery that he did not hear the footsteps of someone hurrying to catch up with him. He was startled when Ezra appeared practically at his elbow.
"Mr. Jackson, I believe that I may be able to be of some assistance. It just so happens that I am in possession of some of the finest chocolate in the world." Ezra presented the Fazer chocolate bar in his hand with a flourish.
Nathan looked at the bar, and then at Ezra. He did not immediately accept the offering. His eyes dark with suspicion, he asked, "What's it gonna cost me?"
Ezra angrily replied, "The cost is your embarrassment when you realize that I am offering this as a friend, and that I expect nothing in return." He waved the bar toward Nathan, stating, "Here. Take it."
Nathan, still suspicious, nevertheless accepted the offering. "Thank you."
Ezra's "You're welcome," was a tad on the frosty side. He added, "If you wish to consider yourself in my debt, you are free to do so. Good evening."
Ezra had intended to sample his own wares when he returned to the office. After his encounter with Nathan, he found that he had lost his taste for chocolate. Oh, well. There was always tomorrow.
+ + + + + + +
The next day was on a par with the preceding days for Team Seven. They were working with Team Three on a case that now appeared as if it might have ties to the Russian mob. There did not seem to be enough hours in the day to do what needed to be done, but somehow they managed. This was especially satisfying in view of the fact that it was Friday.
Buck walked away from the printer with a triumphant shout. "Whoo-ee! It's five o'clock on Friday and I just finished my final report."
The room echoed with declarations of, "Me, too!" "I can say the same," "Yes, indeed," and from Vin, "I give up. It's quittin' time."
Buck declared, "In that case, I think we deserve a reward. Who's up for a visit to the saloon?" Buck's teammates all enthusiastically consented to the outing. They decided to carpool due to the fact that it was a Friday. The saloon tended to be a popular hangout for the local population. On Fridays the place was particularly crowded, and parking spaces were few and far between.
Buck rode with Chris in the Ram. JD and Josiah accompanied them, as the two had begun a lively discussion on the merits of big city living versus the country, and neither man was ready to give up on the subject. That left Ezra and Vin to accompany Nathan in his Ford Explorer.
The Ram was in the lead, with the Explorer following immediately behind. Both vehicles were in the left turn lane, waiting for traffic to clear when they heard the screech of brakes. They watched helplessly as an SUV careened into the intersection. The vehicle was traveling at an excessive rate of speed and was unable to stop despite the light for that particular direction of travel being red. Although the SUV had slowed somewhat, it was still traveling at a considerable rate of speed when the driver lost control completely. The occupants of the vehicles waiting in the left turn lane could do nothing but look on in horror as the SUV slammed into the side of Chris' Ram. The force of the impact catapulted the Ram across three lanes of traffic and over the curb before it and the SUV finally came to rest. By some minor miracle, no other vehicles were involved in the collision.
The occupants of the Explorer were immediately on the move. The team medic gestured to Ezra and Vin as he shouted, "Go! Go!" Ezra didn't recall exiting the Explorer, but he was the first to arrive at the stricken Ram. Vin followed practically on his heels, with Nathan a minute behind due to the fact that he stopped to call 911 and to grab his first aid kit.
They found Chris awake but dazed, his confusion evident as he asked, "What happened?" The Team Seven leader did not seem to be aware of the blood running down his face, nor of much else. Josiah, still in his seatbelt, was slumped in the back seat, unresponsive. JD appeared to be uninjured. The young man was seated next to Josiah, frantically shouting, "Josiah, wake up! Please, wake up!" The left side of the vehicle, where Chris and Josiah were sitting, had taken a direct hit from the out of control SUV.
Buck was cradling his right arm with his left as he pivoted in his seat, frantically trying to determine the status of his teammates. "Chris? Josiah? JD? Are you okay? Talk to me! Nathan, what's happening? Somebody, talk to me!"
JD spoke up. "Buck, I'm okay. Nathan's here, he's got everything under control. Josiah's unconscious, but he seems to be breathing okay. Take it easy. Are you okay?"
Compared to Josiah and Chris, Buck was fine. He dismissed his own injuries with a brusque, "Don't worry about me."
While Buck and JD were exchanging anxious words, Nathan and Vin had been trying to open either of the two doors on the left side of the vehicle, to allow for easier access to their most severely injured teammates. Despite their combined efforts, they were unsuccessful. Nathan stated, "Buck, JD, if you're okay, I need you to move on out and give me room to work." JD exited quickly from his side of the vehicle. Buck was slower to follow, despite the fact that Ezra had opened the door for him. Ezra offered Buck a helping hand, which he declined. "Don't go pullin' on me! I hurt my damn arm, and I'd just as soon move myself." Although he ceased trying to grab Buck's arms to pull him from the vehicle, Ezra did wrap a supportive arm around Buck's back to assist him in exiting the vehicle. Buck grimaced in pain, then offered a distracted, "Thanks" as he tried to figure out what was going on with his injured comrades.
JD took over for Ezra, stating, "I've got him." JD felt Buck sway in his grasp. His concern mounted as he ordered, "Sit down before you fall down." The younger man assisted Buck to the ground as his friend half-collapsed into a sitting position. Buck's face was pale and he was sweating despite the coolness of the evening air. JD hovered anxiously, damning himself for his lack of medical knowledge.
Vin went to check on the driver of the other vehicle who was slumped over the steering wheel. The man was still breathing and Vin couldn't see any obvious injuries. He smelled the tell-tale odor of alcohol and suspected that the man was passed out from drink rather than from any severe injury. He looked forward to the arrival of the police, so that the goddamn idiot could get his ass hauled off to jail where he belonged.
Ezra followed behind Nathan, trying to be of some assistance. Nathan fretted over the limited help available. Both Chris and Josiah were in need of advanced care, the sooner the better. The medic cursed. "Damn! Both Josiah and Chris are shocky. Ezra, there should be a blanket or two in the Explorer. Can you go get 'em?"
Ezra was on the move before Nathan finished speaking. Ezra swept through the vehicle and removed every blanket and insulating material he could find. He returned to tuck the items around his injured comrades, working around Nathan as the medic poked, prodded, and bandaged.
JD saw that Ezra had included someone's jacket in his insulating materials collection. He grabbed it from the pile, stating, "I think Buck needs this." Buck didn't seem to notice when JD laid the jacket over his shoulders, but it made JD feel better to actually be doing something. It seemed to take forever, but in actuality it was only fifteen minutes before the police and the paramedics arrived nearly simultaneously.
The paramedics immediately went to work on the most seriously injured, leaving Nathan free to examine Buck. It was obvious to the medic that Buck's lower right arm was broken. As he splinted the injured extremity, Nathan questioned, "You hurt anywhere else?"
Buck shook his head. "Not really. I wouldn't have even broken my damn arm if I hadn't 'a seen the wreck coming. I had just enough time to brace my arm along the side of the truck before we got hit. Looking back, I don't suppose that was the best thing I could 'a done." Buck's conversation was interspersed with hissing and half-smothered groans as he tried not to let on how much he was hurting. He wasn't fooling anybody. JD decided to explain the laws of physics that dictated why Buck would've been better off if he'd kept both arms folded in close to his body. In that way, he was able to distract Buck from the pain caused by the action while Nathan applied the sling.
Ezra was confused. He should've been feeling relief that he had been riding in the Explorer rather than the Ram. Instead, for some inexplicable reason the uppermost emotion he was feeling was guilt. It could have easily been Ezra who was among the injured, had he not chosen to ride with Nathan. He should have been celebrating his good fortune. He didn't know whether or not he should be disturbed that he wasn't. Now that the paramedics had arrived, there was literally nothing more that Ezra could do. It gave him far too much time to think. He had nothing to feel guilty about. It was complete and utter nonsense for him to think otherwise. And yet. . .
Ezra was distracted from his internal musings when the paramedics finally secured both Chris and Josiah in waiting ambulances. Vin volunteered to drive Nathan's Explorer so that Nathan could ride in the ambulance containing Josiah, the most seriously injured of their team members. Buck joined Ezra, Vin, and JD in the Explorer as they followed the route the ambulances had taken to the hospital.
+ + + + + + +
The able-bodied members of Team Seven occupied the hospital's waiting room as news was delivered regarding their injured teammates. Buck was diagnosed with fractures of both of the bones in his lower right arm, the radius and the ulna. Buck was referred to the orthopedic specialist, who put him through additional x-rays before he proceeded to realign Buck's broken bones under a local anesthetic. After the bones had been set, he was allowed to choose the color of his cast. He thought about settling for a dignified and somber black cast, but ultimately opted for a bright blue one. Shortly after Buck was allowed to join his friends in the waiting area, they received reports on their other team members.
Chris' doctor was the first to enter. "Chris has a mild concussion. The injury to his scalp was sutured in the Emergency Room. However, he also suffered multiple fractures of the ribs on the left side of his chest, one of which punctured the lung and caused it to partially collapse. We inserted a chest tube to reinflate the lung, and the damage is being surgically repaired as we speak. They'll let you know when he's been transferred to the recovery room."
Josiah's doctor was the next to appear. "Mr. Sanchez is suffering from a concussion. Although the CT scan was negative, he has not yet regained consciousness. We are hopeful that that is a temporary situation. In addition to fractures of both his left arm and leg, Mr. Sanchez is undergoing exploratory surgery to diagnose the source of internal bleeding into his abdomen."
After that worrisome report, the members of Team Seven spent an anxious three hours waiting for the surgeon's report. They were immensely relieved when the doctor finally appeared. "Mr. Sanchez' spleen was damaged beyond repair. He required a splenectomy in order to control the bleeding. While the spleen's job is to store blood and to help fight infection, a person can function quite well without one. Mr. Sanchez is showing encouraging signs of a return to consciousness. When he does wake up, he'll be in considerable pain. We'll make sure that he receives enough pain medication to keep him comfortable. Between his injuries and the pain medication, he won't be very communicative. The staff will let you know when he's been transferred to the surgical floor. Realistically, I expect he'll be pretty much out of it for the next twenty-four hours. I recommended that you go home and try to get some sleep. We've got your contact numbers in case anything changes."
With the good news having been delivered, the members of Team Seven suddenly realized how tired they were. They had all been in to see Chris after his surgery. He'd been pretty groggy and unable to stay awake. The doctor assured them that the team leader was going to make a complete recovery, and advised the remaining members of Team Seven to go home and get some sleep and to leave Chris to his rest. They could return in the morning during regular visiting hours. Buck had insisted that he wasn't going to leave until he heard about Josiah, and neither were any of the other members of the team. Buck had been napping on and off while they'd been waiting and looked as if he was ready to fall asleep again. JD stood up, yawned, and stretched. "Buck, I think it's time to get you home."
Buck thought about arguing, but he was too tired to object and followed along docilely at JD's urging.
Nathan announced, "I'm gonna call Rain and let her know I'm on my way home. I'll be back here first thing in the morning. In the meantime, I can drive the rest of you wherever you want to go."
Vin, who had the ability to sleep anytime, anywhere, stretched out in the nearly empty waiting room and stated, "I'm just gonna stay here and rest my eyes."
Ezra did not bother to announce his plans, simply heading toward the door and stating, "Good night. I'll see you all tomorrow." Ezra was more wired than tired. He knew that the minute he tried closing his eyes, he'd see the out of control SUV roaring into the intersection. Knowing that attempting to sleep would be an exercise in futility, he decided to head into the office and catch up on his paperwork. With his car still at the office, Ezra arranged for a taxi to deliver him to the ATF building. Ezra worked diligently throughout the few remaining hours of the night, putting quite a dent in his accumulated paperwork. By seven a.m. he decided that he'd had enough. He would visit his apartment long enough to shower and to change his clothes. Then, after a nice leisurely and well deserved breakfast feast at his favorite eatery, he would head over to the hospital to visit his injured comrades.
While Ezra was making his plans, he suddenly remembered the Fazer's chocolate bars in his desk drawer. He pulled them out, contemplating the tantalizing treat. The gold lettering seemed to be calling to him. His hand was poised to unwrap one of the bars when his stomach gave a twinge of protest, reminding him that the sweet confection would probably not sit too well on an empty stomach. However, he couldn't seem to let go of the candy. He tucked all three of the candy bars into his briefcase, deciding that his body was telling him that the candy bars needed to accompany him. He smiled tiredly. "Who am I to argue?"
+ + + + + + +
After he'd showered and shaved, the stress of the previous day hit full force. Ezra laid down on his bed and was asleep before the covers had been fully drawn up. Six hours later, Ezra woke up. He did not feel refreshed. On the contrary, it was more as if he were hung over. "They do say you can never catch up on lost sleep. I suppose my body is trying to remind me of that fact."
Rather than the large breakfast he'd promised himself, Ezra settled for a late lunch at the local deli. After taking the time to properly digest his meal, Ezra drove to the hospital. He stopped to see Chris first. Vin was dozing at the side of the bed while Chris was wide awake. Ezra stated, "Let him sleep," at the same time that Chris was saying, "Vin, wake up. We got company."
Vin snorted, then raised his head from where it'd been uncomfortably resting along the arm of the chair he occupied. He rubbed his neck and stretched, trying to eliminate some of the stiffness. He was wearing the same clothes that he'd had on yesterday.
Chris said, "Ezra's here, so you don't have to worry about leaving me alone. Go home and get some sleep."
Vin protested, "I been sleepin'."
Chris shook his head then winced at the pain he'd caused himself before he continued. "You're making me feel guilty, seeing you sitting here all worn out. Besides, your snoring's keeping me awake."
Vin indignantly declared, "I don't snore. But if you're trying to say I'm a sight for sore eyes 'cause I'm making your eyes sore, I'll take the point and head on home for a bit."
Chris sat forward, rubbing his hands gently along his aching head. He spoke, his words muffled by his cradling hands. "I don't know what the hell you just said. All I want to do is sleep, and I don't need you here to do it." He turned to his other visitor. "That goes for you, too, Ezra. Thanks for stopping by, but I'd like to be alone." When Chris added, "Please," Ezra found himself quite disturbed by the pitiful plea.
It was obvious that the man was in pain, and equally obvious that he didn't want his friends to witness his perceived weakness. Ezra sighed, and exited the room after bidding Chris "Good day." He allowed Vin to pass him in the hall and waited until his friend disappeared into the elevator before he turned and headed back to Chris' room. He paused at the entryway to remove something from his briefcase and proceeded to reenter the room. Chris looked up, bleary-eyed. Ezra placed the object in his hand, a Fazer's chocolate bar, on Chris' bedside table. He stated, "I forgot to leave this when I was here earlier. Get well soon." He left quickly so that Chris did not have to worry that some reply or gesture was expected in return.
Ezra sighed as he hefted his briefcase, imagining that it felt lighter. Oh, well. At least he still had two candy bars left. He headed toward Josiah's room in the surgical wing. He met Nathan, who was just exiting the room. Nathan gestured for Ezra to consult with him for a moment. He stated, "It's okay if you want to stop in and see Josiah for a minute. JD's in there with him now. Josiah's doing as well as can be expected, with no serious problems from the concussion. I just wanted to warn you that, seeing as this is his first day post-op, he's feeling pretty rough. I already told JD not to stay more than five minutes, and I'll say the same thing to you."
Ezra nodded. "I understand." Ezra entered the room as JD was saying his goodbyes.
The young man was making a pathetic attempt to smile. "Okay, Josiah, well, you take care of yourself and get well soon. I'll see you." He quickly exited the room.
Ezra approached the bed, glad of his ability to maintain a poker face. Josiah looked truly awful. To see the usually strong, unstoppable man lying helplessly confined in a hospital bed was quite unsettling. As if the casted left arm and leg weren't bad enough, his day's growth of beard made him look truly wretched. Ezra reached for his briefcase without a second thought and removed the second to last Fazer bar. He set the bar on Josiah's bedside table. "Mr. Sanchez, I know that you aren't currently in the state to appreciate it, but I have brought you a gift. Once your appetite returns, you will find that it is a very special gift. I just want you to know that I think that you, my friend, are worth it." With that comment, Ezra made his own goodbyes and left the room.
He headed toward the elevator when he noticed that JD had not left the floor. The young man was sitting alone in a small waiting area. He did not look up when Ezra joined him. Ezra attempted a cheerful tone of voice as he asked, "Mr. Dunne, how are you today?"
JD looked up, his reddened eyes attesting to a sleepless night. "How am I?" He paused to run a hand through his disheveled hair as he repeated, "How am I? That's the last question that you should be asking. You should be asking how's Josiah, or Chris, or Buck? They're hurting, all of them. Me, I'm just fine. I was in the same car, and I'm just fine." JD's hands twisted together in agitation as he spoke. "What kind of sense does that make? I'm younger, I heal quicker. Why couldn't it have been me?"
Ezra began, "I am very glad that it wasn't you. It would have been preferable that none of my friends had been injured, but I'm certain that I speak for all of us when I say that I am very glad that you yourself escaped any serious injury. Your injury is more of an injury to the spirit. It's only natural that you would be upset under the circumstances." Ezra paused as he contemplated the fact that he had one remaining Fazer bar with him in his briefcase. He thought about how much he'd spent to obtain the treasured chocolate, and how long he'd had to wait for his order to arrive. He remembered the days that he'd let the candy bars sit uneaten, the memory of the exquisite taste growing with each day of self-denial. He also remembered the fact that chocolate was a well known cure for depression. With that last thought, Ezra heaved a deep, internal sigh and removed the last candy bar from his briefcase.
"JD. I wouldn't do this for just anyone, but as a token of my esteem for you, I would like to present you with this."
JD accepted the offer, turning the bar over and over to admire the wrapping as he spoke. "Gosh, Ezra, I don't know what to say. I know you've been guarding this like the gold in Fort Knox." JD paused for a moment of silent thought before he looked up, his face reflecting a measure of peace and gratitude. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Ezra nodded. "I'm certain."
+ + + + + + +
Over the course of the following days, Ezra's injured teammates steadily improved. It took a while, but eventually the last of the injured returned to full duty. To celebrate, Chris decided to host a team barbecue at his ranch. As usual, Ezra was the last to arrive. Before he had done so, Buck stated, "You know, since Ezra's not here, don't you think it would be a good time to talk about him?"
JD questioned, "You mean like, behind his back?"
Buck clarified, "Well, it'd be behind his back if he was here but somewhere else, but he isn't. Anyway, there's something I want to share with you all. The thing of it is, he swore me to secrecy, and the more I think about it, the more I realize he was talking outta the other side of his head when he said it. Ezra did something nice for me, real nice, and I think he ought to get credit for it."
Josiah nodded. "I couldn't agree with you more. While I was in the hospital, Ezra did something nice for me, too. You remember those Finnish candy bars Ezra was hoarding?" Five men acknowledged that they did. Josiah continued, "Well, on the day when I was feeling at my worst, Ezra went and gave me one of those chocolate bars."
JD immediately spoke up. "He gave me one, too, when I was really upset about something."
Nathan stated, "He gave me one and saved me from having to explain to Rain why I forgot our anniversary."
Chris added, "He gave one to me while I was in the hospital."
Vin nodded. "I got one, too. Wasn't supposed to say anything about it."
Buck's eyes widened in amazement as the stories emerged. "Well, damn, that's what I was going to tell you all despite the fact that he asked me not to tell."
JD frowned. "We all got one? Damn, that's too bad." At the confused looks he received, he clarified, "If we all got one that means Ezra gave out a total of six candy bars. I remember when he first took 'em out of the package. He only had six."
Buck shook his head. "The darn fool didn't save one for himself."
Josiah declared, "We've got to do something to make it up to him."
JD had pulled out his laptop while his friends were talking. After a minute, he declared, "I'm already on it."
The six men enthusiastically agreed with JD as he outlined his plan. He concluded, "And we don't tell Ezra. Not until we have to."
Two weeks later
The familiar form of the UPS deliveryman entered the ATF bullpen. He announced, "Got a delivery here for JD Dunne."
JD grabbed the package before anyone else could. He took one look at the return address label and let out a satisfied, "Oh, yeah!"
Buck hurried over. "That it?" JD nodded.
Josiah raised an eyebrow in silent question, pleased when Buck nodded in response. He used his most forceful voice to announce, "Team Seven. Everyone. Conference room." He added, "Now."
Once the team had assembled, Chris began to speak. "Every once in a while, a member of our team goes the extra mile and does something to remind us what being a part of this team is all about."
When Chris paused, searching for the words to continue, Buck took over. "Sometimes the person does it in such a sneaky way that no one realizes what a nice guy they really are. We may have said 'Thank you' to that person, but sometimes a little more is called for. In this case, it was JD who came up with the idea, so I'll let him do the honors."
JD began, "Well, it was Buck who started the ball rolling by trying to tell us all what a nice guy Ezra really is. Thanks to the discussion that he started, we found out. Ezra, you're one of the good guys, and we all know it. As a token of our appreciation, we got you this."
Ezra's mouth hung open as he read the return address label on the package that JD presented to him: Cloetta Fazer Makeiset Oy. He opened up the box and carefully, reverently removed its contents. He mentally counted, "One, two, three. . ." until he reached the last chocolate bar. "Twelve." His poker face temporarily deserted him as he took in the enormity of the gesture. His exercise in kindness had been returned to him two-fold. Once he recovered his usual aplomb, he announced, in typical Ezra style, "I seem to have doubled my investment."
His comment received a round of laughter. Josiah stated, "In case I forgot to say it, thank you, Ezra." His teammates echoed the sentiment.
Nathan had been regretting his initial suspicions of Ezra ever since he'd discovered the full extent of the man's generosity. In an effort to let Ezra know the sincerity of his gratitude, Nathan said, "I hardly ever seen Rain as happy to receive a gift as she was when I gave her that candy. Ezra, I owe you one."
Buck stated, "I said it before, but I'll say it again: Thank you." Buck pointed to the large supply of candy. "We ordered some extra, just in case you decided you wanted to share again."
Taking the hint, Ezra began to pass out the chocolate bars. Ezra found it difficult to remember when he'd ever felt this good. He was beginning to think that the feeling that he'd experienced when he was presented with his teammates' demonstration of gratitude was possibly better than the taste experience of Fazer's chocolate. He bit into a candy bar, smiling when the chocolate caressed his taste buds. As he allowed the chocolate to slowly melt in his mouth, he amended that thought. "Ezra, what were you thinking? There's nothing better than this." His index finger slowly traced the letters on the delivery label directing that the package be delivered to JD Dunne, c/o ATF Team Seven.