Getting Ahead

by skaia7

Companion piece to Back to Normal

Ohh... please Gawd... just kill me now...

He couldn't take it anymore. He didn't think he could open his eyes one more time without the blinding pain causing him to pass out.

Unfortunately, it was only 10:30. He had another six and a half hours to go.

Ezra laid his aching head down on his desk, grateful that the other members of Team 7 were in a meeting with Travis and wouldn't be out for another fifteen minutes. He reached into his drawer and wrapped his hand around his prescription migraine medication. A quick shake told him that it was empty, and he groaned in frustration. A quack doctor he'd been to about 5 years ago had told him that if he didn't consume any caffeine, never drank alcohol, exercised regularly, and avoided stress, then his migraines would disappear. He'd just laughed. What kind of life would it be if he actually followed the cretin's advice?

His headaches hadn't really bothered him until he was in his teens. Then, sometimes when he'd been studying for a particularly difficult test, or when his mother brought home yet another conquest he was expected to be polite to, he would suffer through a few hours of misery before it went away on its own. It got worse the older he got, when he was stressed too much during the day - too long a day at work, too complicated a case. But the worst it ever got was when he went undercover two years ago. He'd stayed awake for four straight days as he struggled to find out the location of the arms deal in order to get yet another batch of assault rifles away from the Spanish mobster intent on profiting from the death of innocent civilians who were caught in the crossfire of the South American civil war. By the end of it, he'd fallen unceremoniously into his feather bed in exhaustion and pain, curling up and panting heavily, waiting for the pain to pass. He'd been sick for two days, crawling out of bed long enough to retch his pitifully empty stomach into the nearest waste basket and begging God to take him away from his misery. Long hard cases took their toll, and even though he was the best undercover agent in the ATF, he paid for it dearly in the end.

After that, he'd paid through the nose for the best neurologist to take CAT scans and MRIs, only to prescribe a pitiful little pill that was mostly ineffective.

He was into his early thirties now, and his migraines were worse than ever. He didn't think it was possible, but the metal vise that currently pinched and scraped along his skull causing lights to dance in front of his eyes told him that indeed, it was.

Ezra heard voices in the hallway, and attempted to raise his throbbing cranium from the temporary relief his arms offered. Supporting his temples in his hands, he squinted at the door just as Vin entered the office.

It was no use trying to fool the sharpshooter. One glance at the ashen face, sweaty brow, and bloodshot eyes would tell the Texan exactly what was going on with the southerner.

The throbbing continued, and after a minute or two, he took a deep breath, and decided to get it over with.

Swinging his right leg, the con man barely got his ankle to clear the chair leg before his vision started to snow. He gripped the desk for all he was worth, praying to get both feet under him, praying to make it up without passing out. Somehow, he managed to do it, and stood there leaning heavily against his desk. Breathing in short pants, he waiting for his vision to clear, not imagining how in the hell he was going to get to Larabee's office to fill out a leave slip, let alone get down to his car and drive home. .

As is always the way on days like this, a soft voice drawled from behind him.

"Hey, Ez."

Taking a breath to pull himself together, Ezra turned his head to find Tanner looking him up and down, a glass of water in his hands.

"Mr. Tanner," he managed, thankful that his voice didn't give away how much pain he was in.

"Going somewhere?"

Was it even worth trying to act like nothing was wrong? "Perhaps," was all he could manage.

"Looks like you need t'go home."

Maybe there was a God.

"You would be correct," he answered, turning his head slightly to gaze at the younger man. "Would you mind...?"

"Sure thing," Tanner replied, turning to disappear into Chris's office. He hadn't missed the pinched look on Standish's face, and knew that when Ezra got a migraine, he really got a migraine. For the smaller man to have asked even something as simple as someone getting a leave slip for him - for him to have decided to head home - he had to be in immense pain.

' Prob'ly ran outa his p'scription... ' Vin thought.

Returning with the form in hand, Vin decided something. "Ez..." Looking around for some easy way to... 'Aw, hell. ' He handed Ezra the slip, and just said it. "Need a ride?"

Ezra took the form and tried to keep his hand from shaking as he filled out the required information. His stomach was churning, and he hoped he could manage not to disgrace himself in front of the other man. "I believe..." he swallowed, struggling. "I believe that would be..." he was losing the battle. "...good..."

Vin quickly took three steps back to allow the southerner to streak past. He followed slowly, knowing he'd find the undercover agent in the last stall in the men's room, trying desperately NOT to throw up.

' Don't know why the man doesn't just upchuck and git it over with... ya always feel better right after pukin'...'

Ezra had just been sent out on a long undercover mission, one which normally would have taken three or four days to complete. However, he'd come back into the office yesterday afternoon, looking like he'd been through hell and back. He'd pressed himself to the limit, and most of the upper management had been left with their mouths hanging open at the speed and excellence of Standish's work on the case. He'd managed to get the required information in record time, and with minimal risk to any of the other agents. No one knew if he had taken any risk to himself... he never would discuss his undercover missions with anyone. Even his reports were sketchy, offering skeletal pieces of information that barely covered the elements required by the agency.

Right now, with his head hanging over the bowl of a public toilet, Ezra was experiencing a phenomenon that had happened often in his life: he was questioning the wisdom of his decision.

Flushing for the second time, he braced himself on the stall walls and stood slowly. He held himself stiffly, taking small, slow steps to the sink. Half of him wanted to fire off a shot, have someone come running to help him. Half of him was trying desperately to seem normal, like nothing was wrong, relying on instincts ingrained in him since childhood to never show weakness, never give in. The two halves of himself warring inside him, he made his slow way across the bathroom. His whole body was intent on making it home, where it would be dark and quiet, with a soft mattress and some relief from the throbbing pain.

+ + + + + + +

Unbeknownst to the older man, a pair of blue eyes had been watching him since the moment he exited the stall, eyes that rarely missed the finest detail.

Leaning against the wall near the door, Vin waited for Ezra to register his presence.

It didn't take very long.

"Mr. Tanner," the southerner intoned, leaning his elbows on the counter and splashing cold water on his face.

"Ready when you are. I got'cher keys and'jer jacket."

Ezra sighed, taking in his own colorless features reflected in the harsh fluorescent glare. "Thank you," he replied, standing. He gripped the counter and closed his eyes as he swayed slightly. "I believe I have returned from my... latest excursion... a little worse for the wear."

Vin crossed to his trembling friend, taking him firmly by the elbow.

Standish grimaced. "Mr. Tanner, it is not in my nature to be handled in such a forcible manner." He pulled his arm free. "I shall inform you when I require assistance."

Vin let go, and took a small step back. "Sure, Ez," he replied patiently. "Just let me know what'cha need."

Another deep sigh shook the smaller man's form. "I need to go home," he answered softly. "I just need to go home."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. snorted, flinging himself down at his computer and glancing back at the ladies' man.

"You catch that?" Buck asked, incredulous.

J.D. just shrugged. "Most days," the youth replied, enjoying the confusion on the mustached man's face.

"Well," Buck continued, blinking. "Translate."

"Travis was talking about a high-tech new program for keeping track of all the inter-agency expenditures."

"Oh," Buck replied, peering down at the handout they'd just received in the meeting.

"We're supposed to take this training course at three o'clock this afternoon, and start using the software by the end of next week."

Buck continued to gaze at the paper in his hand, as if he were reading Swahili. After a few moments, he unceremoniously dumped the packet of information into the bin at his feet. "File thirteen," he announced with a decisive nod, then marched back to his desk.

Nathan and Josiah just laughed, both leaning against the filing cabinets where the coffee maker was percolating its second pot of the day.

In the midst of the noise, the four men hardly noticed their sharpshooter sneak past them into Larabee's office. He was only in there for a moment or two, and then tried to make his way out.

"Hey Vin!" J.D. busted him. "Where you goin'?"

Now, a less honest man would have made something up. But Vin was notoriously truthful, no matter what the circumstances. "Takin' Ez home. Got himself the migraine from hell," he replied. "Don't know if I'll be back today. We'll have to see."

Nathan, as usual, had some good advice. "Make sure he don't drink no coffee. It'll just make it worse. Get 'im to drink plenty o' water, 'specially if he's nauseous."

Josiah, always willing to lend a hand, added, "Call me if he needs anything."

As far as Buck was concerned, if he wasn't bleeding, and he was walking - albeit slowly and painstakingly - he couldn't be too bad off. Besides, Buck knew Ezra had just taken two days to complete a four day case, and that had to be hard on any man, even one of Ezra's stubbornness and stamina. He probably just needed a hot meal, a bath, and a few hours sleep.

"Aw, Josiah, he prolly ain't too bad. If he needs help, he knows where to find us."

"You sure, Buck?" J.D. asked. He'd noticed Ezra's entrance into the office that morning as the rest of the team had rushed to the meeting, and wasn't convinced that the con man didn't need help of some kind. His body had been held too stiff, his head down and focused on his feet. And the youth hadn't known of a day where Ezra would have passed right by the coffee maker without getting a strong cup and making some comment about 'uncultured swill.' "We could always just go and ask 'im if he..."

"Nah," Buck said, slapping his hand on his legs before throwing a paper wad at J.D., which went wide. "Let 'im rest for a while. He just came offa that case, and'll prolly snap our heads off if we go and pester 'im before he's had some shuteye." When J.D. looked doubtful, the ladies' man added, "If we don't see 'im tomorrow, we'll go check on 'im. How's that?"

Vin let out a small frustrated sigh. He knew all too well that the southerner would try to hide any ailment, any infirmity, to the point of stupidity. Misters Dunne and Wilmington may have confidence in the Standish's common sense, but he had no such illusions when it came to the man's health. Well, if one method failed, the sharpshooter was more than capable of finding an alternative. He shook his head, and turned to Nathan.

"He's down in 'is car. Even gonna let me drive 'im home. He wouldn't hear of leavin' that Jag in the garage, but he's gotta be hurtin' somethin' fierce if he's lettin' me behind the wheel."

Nathan finished his coffee and nodded, stretching kinked muscles with a sigh. Glancing at Chris's closed door, he asked, "What'd Chris say?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was convinced his head was going to fall off, and he wasn't exactly sure what to do about it. He sat in the passenger seat of the Jag, holding his head with both hands, and trying to figure out how he was going to keep his brains from exploding all over the interior of the car. The good Lord had only given him two hands... and both of them were currently in use. Maybe he should just give in and go get Nathan to help... But looking around at the underground parking garage, he didn't know how he would get out of the car and back up to his office without spewing everything to kingdom come...

Suddenly, a questioning cough came from behind him.

"Hello, Ezra."

The con man glanced over at the driver's side window. "Mister Larabee, I am always amazed at your ability to appear where you are least effective."

The older man grunted. "Don't need to get cranky, Ezra. You're the only man I know who can raise himself up out of a killer migraine to snap a five-dollar cheap shot."

"Well," Ezra gulped, squeezing his eyes shut and chanting about Italian leather seats in his brain to keep his stomach under control. "As mother always says, breeding is all."

"I'm sure she did," the green eyes were concerned.

"What can I do for you?" Standish panted, struggling to breathe through the pain.

"I told Vin to take you home and make sure you're okay. I thought I'd come down to let you know you don't have to come back until Monday. You've done a full week's worth of work already, and deserve to take a break."

Ezra was surprised enough to raise his eyebrows. "You are certain? I'm not at a good stopping point with the reports..."

"Screw the reports, Ezra," Chris interrupted, his voice kind. "You're a mess." Glancing over his shoulder, he continued, "Here comes Vin. Get some rest. I'll see you Monday mornin'."

Ezra was stunned. Here was a man who would have no problem walking into a mob restaurant and telling everyone at the head table to go to hell, Uzis or no Uzis, and there he was telling Standish to go home to bed... which was about all that the southerner thought he was capable of doing. Larabee truly cared about these men, his... friends... And Ezra wasn't quite ready to let them know that he, also, cared about these men. Acknowledging that he was grateful for the help Vin and Chris were giving would reveal his weakness, his vulnerability...

Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.

"Mr. Tanner," he said once the sharpshooter had gotten in and closed the door. "I am beginning to feel better, and believe I am now capable of driving myself..."

"Shut up, Ez," was the reply. "Yer a damn liar. Sit back and close yer mouth b'fore ya spew more than words onta yer dashboard."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stood just inside the door to his townhouse, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Vin was just a few steps ahead of him, setting his jacket down on the back of a recliner. When dim shapes began to emerge from the darkness, he hobbled painfully over to the couch, unsure whether he would make it to the bedroom, even though his body ached to sink down into the feather pillow top. He put his hands out to lean on the white leather, breathing shallowly. Breathing too deep set off the searing fire in his head. He was tired enough that he didn't really think he needed the light, and his eyes probably couldn't handle the hot spears poking the already throbbing tissues.

Vin passed Ezra on his way to check that the bed was ready. Damn , he thought. He looks like shit. Maybe I kin call Nathan back n' put a rush on his p'scription...

Striding purposefully into the bedroom, he noticed first that the bed was made. Not only was it made, it was unrumpled. Clothes were strewn across the floor, attesting to the southerner's preoccupation with this week's case, so the ex-bounty hunter knew it wasn't a recent maid's visit that was responsible for the pristine bedcovers.

A grizzled head poked into the living room. "Ezra?"

Standish, as usual, was struggling to hide his rapid deterioration. As taciturn as Vin was, he couldn't help the gasp of surprise when he saw Ezra swaying next to the couch, holding the back of it for dear life, his face whiter than a bleached sheet. The gambler most definitely had his "game face" on, looking determined and ready to face a battle.

A battle which the tracker knew the southerner was definitely not going to win.

After a few moments of stunned silence, Vin managed to rasp, "May as well come in, I reckon," as he made his way towards the bowed man. "Here," he offered, holding his hand out. He wasn't about to make the mistake of grabbing the smaller man's arm twice.

The southerner stepped towards the sharpshooter, reaching out to grab the proffered hand in a firm grip. "Mr.... Tanner... I think..." he began, his vision quickly darkening. Then, suddenly, the world tilted, and he found himself sinking towards the floor.

Tanner wasted no time. Kneeling quickly, he caught the undercover agent mid-descent, and supported him gently. Throwing one of Standish's arms over his own shoulders, he managed to get the smaller man back on his feet, and then managed to guide the half-conscious man into the bedroom.

Vin took a deep breath before lowering his charge down to the bed. Standish was past all caring now, exhausted, depleted, and he just wanted the agony to stop. "Please dear Gawd," he breathed softly as he lowered his pounding head into his hands, his pronounced drawl serving as yet more evidence to his exhaustion and pain. "Jest make it stop."

Vin stood next to the bed, looking down on it and feeling that there was nothing he wanted more in the world than to be able to grant Ezra's request. Instead, he turned and went into the bathroom. After a moment or two, he returned with a cold wet washcloth and a bowl, which he set on the nightstand.

"Here, Ez," he whispered, using his calloused hands to guide the sick man's head to the pillow. "Got somethin' that'll help ya." Wringing out the rag, he placed it gently across the older man's eyes.

Again, Ezra couldn't help that surprise flashed across his face, but the look was immediately replaced by one of relief. He always knew the Texan was perceptive, and if he'd thought about it he should have figured that Tanner would be the first of the other six men to put his own insecurities aside when one of them needed his help. "Ohh," he breathed, his body relaxing into the bed.

Vin squeezed the other man's arm. "Let me help ya, Ez. You done good work this week - work that saved a lotta innocent people's lives. It's the least I kin do ta help ya when ya need it." The last was spoken so quietly that anyone more than a foot away would not have heard.

But Ezra did hear, and - knowing what it cost Vin to say it - nodded slightly.

Without a word, Vin reached out with both hands to take a hold of the gambler's shirt buttons and made short work of them. He helped Ezra turn over, keeping the washcloth over his burning eyes, and gently eased the sleeves over the tense shoulders and down the sweaty arms. Despite his delicate movements, the action elicited a sharp hiss from the smaller man, causing the ex-bounty hunter to wince in sympathy. Using his deft hands, he turned Ezra to face him. By the time he got the other man settled, Vin could see the sheen of sweat that stood out in the dim light. He pulled his own handkerchief out from his pocket and gently wiped the moisture from Ezra's pale face.

A knock startled both men.

"Stay here," Vin said, straightening up. "That's prolly Nathan. He's got'cher p'scription. That should help." Crossing to the door, he exited, closing it behind him with a quiet click.

When Vin was gone, Ezra let out a ragged sigh. He had to admit, he didn't think he could have done this on his own. He had thought he could, but as he had begun to discover over the course of the last year with this group of men, there were times when a man didn't have to struggle on alone.

There were times to lean back and let your friends do for you what you couldn't do for yourself.

He didn't know how long he lay there, but it couldn't have been more than ten minutes before the door opened again and the sharpshooter stepped into the room carrying a glass of ice water and a small bottle of pills.

"Ez," Vin whispered, setting the water down on the nightstand. "Kin ya sit up fer me?"

All Ezra could do was grunt. He was so tired, so spent, and had been in pain for so long that the sheer relief of having someone else take care of him was almost more than he could bear.

Vin helped him to sit up, and pushed two pills into his shaking palm. Vin's steady hand helped guide the glass to his mouth, and then set it aside when he was finished.

All he replied, however, was, "Thank you... Vin."

The taller man knelt in front of his friend. "Let's git'cha ready fer some shut-eye."

Ezra nodded once, but made no other movement, the one nod having set off explosions behind his eyes.

There was a moment of waiting before Vin set to removing the gambler's shoes and pants, knowing Ezra wouldn't be comfortable sleeping in his Armani trousers. When he was finished, Standish had gone a shade paler, and was holding his breath. Vin closed his eyes, knowing all too well how Ezra must feel in such severe pain. Whenever his back pain struck him, he felt similar agony.

He waited a few moments for it to pass before murmuring, "Oh yeah, I fergot... Yer s'posed ta take that with food. Hang on. Don't got t'sleep jist yet..." He disappeared for another few minutes, and then brought a glass of milk and held it out. Weary green eyes regarded him suspiciously. "Go on," was the reply, and wordlessly the under cover agent took it and drank. Within a matter of moments, the empty glass was handed back, and another satisfied sigh seeped out.

Vin placed the glass next to the lamp and pulled the lone chair up beside the bed. One emerald eye cracked open for a few seconds before sliding shut again.

Both men relaxed in the waning light without speaking. Vin found himself experiencing a strange kind f déjà vu... like the two of them ad found themselves in a similar situation before... although how could they? His back twinged in response, and he shifted until it passed, as quickly as it had come.

After a long period of time, Vin shook his head clear of the impossible thoughts and eased himself off the edge of the chair, trying not to disturb Ezra's peace and quiet. Nathan had said that he'd talked Ezra's doctor into upping the dosage of his pain medication, and that this new prescription would be much more effective that his old one. As it was, however, the doctor had said that with a migraine this bad, it might take two or three doses of the medication - spaced 6 hours apart - for the pain to disappear completely. The medic had also said that it would knock the southerner out for a few hours the first few times he took it, until his body got used to the new dosage.

A soft snore pulled him from his reverie.

Vin pulled a thick blanket out of the chest at the foot of the bed and gently draped it over the softly-snoring body of his friend. He checked one more time to make sure Ezra was deeply asleep, then picked up the glass and the keys on the nightstand before tip-toeing out the door, leaving it slightly ajar. Knowing that no one would disturb Ezra's much needed rest, and knowing also that the intensely private man would never tell anyone what the sharpshooter had done for him, Tanner settled into the leather recliner with the remote to the flat-screen TV, turning it on and pushing the "mute" button.

Don't need no sound t' watch football, anyway...

He looked at the clock: 2:00 on a Thursday. Yup , the Texan decided, he deserved the afternoon off. Right now, he was right where he was needed. When Ezra awoke, he would make sure he got a decent meal, a hot shower, and another dose of pain medication. In another twenty minutes, when he was sure Ezra would stay asleep, he'd give Chris a call and let the boys know what was up. Let everyone else at the office worry about getting ahead. As for himself, he was content taking care of his friend.