AFTER

By Sarah (winks7985)

This story immediately follows Sarah's GONE WRONG.

 

 

The dream was always the same.  Evil eyes looking unwaveringly into his own, the stench of stale breath and the smell of his own blood.  Unable to use his arms, he was at the mercy of the knifeman.  Pulse quickening, breath coming in rapid huffs, he felt the knife every time.  No matter how he tried to escape it, it found its mark with each precise movement.  The smell of the warehouse.  The feel of being dragged on the hard floor.  Buck’s voice…

 

Ezra woke from his fitful sleep to look at his bedroom ceiling.  There was no smell of blood, no smell of rotting warehouse.  There was only the faint smell of his clean sheets, of lavender detergent, and there was also another smell… an odd mixture of sweat and terror.  It was a smell that Ezra had become quite familiar with when he woke from the dream.  Looking around the room, he gazed at his drawn window shades.  It was still dark outside, but he was wide awake.  He rolled onto his side and swung his legs out of the bed, placing his bare feet on the floor. Rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hands, he blinked blearily and looked at his alarm clock.  The menacing red blurs slowly came into focus, announcing the time as 3:57 AM. 

 

He shook his head.  Whatever, he thought.  He ran his hands through his unruly bed head and begrudgingly got to his feet.  Arching his body backwards, he grunted while he stretched.  Satisfied at hearing two of the bones in his back crack, he smiled to himself.   No sense fighting it, I’m up.  As he let his hands fall back to his sides, he felt the wound on his chest pull slightly.  Resignedly closing his eyes for a moment, he sighed loudly.  Opening his eyes again he trudged towards the bathroom in the waning moonlight.

 

He reached in and started the shower, turning the faucet up to as hot as he could stand it and went back to the sink.  He placed his hands on both sides of the vanity and looked at himself in the mirror.  Haggard, tired eyes stared back at him.  He hadn’t slept well in a long while, plagued by nightmares similar to this most recent one.  He needed them to end.  He needed to sleep.  He needed a shave.

 

While the shower warmed, Ezra shaved.  He wiped the last bits off with a towel and looked at himself in the mirror again.  Clad only in his sweatpants, he stared at the angry scars on his chest.  Tentatively, and without taking his eyes from the mirror, he brought his hand up to the healing wound.  He slowly ran his fingers over it.

 

Most of the stitches had been removed from his other injuries four days ago, and the plastic surgeon was pleased with the results.  The slash across his stomach and the two higher on is chest, the doctor felt, wouldn’t scar too badly.  The knife had sliced him cleanly, the sharpness of the blade making him essentially easy to sew up.  As it was, those wounds were still pink, but the doctor assured him that they would fade with time and become less noticeable.  The one down his sternum, the one his fingers danced over, that one would remain a visible scar.  Ezra closed his eyes and winced at the thought. 

 

The injury could have been worse, he knew, but that didn’t make it any prettier.  The stitches were still in that one.  Ezra’s fingers flitted over the delicate sutures, feeling their odd texture.  A funny thing, to be held together by so much thread, he thought to himself.  The doctor had wanted those stitches to stay in for another 5 days. 

 

Ezra ran his thumb down that scar, enjoying the feeling of relief he felt by way of itching.  But under that slight relief of healing skin, he could still feel the pain.  He could still feel the hurt that lived just below the surface.  Staring at the macabre spectacle in the mirror, he was disturbed by the thought of knowing he had an equally nasty looking one down his back, also with stitches still in. 

 

Emilio. 

 

Ezra winced thinking about that man.  No, that animal.  He dropped his hands back to the vanity and dropped his head.  He took several deep breaths through clenched teeth while the man’s face floated through his mind.  Emilio was dead, sure, killed by 4 bullets from his team’s guns, but Ezra still thought about him.  It was hard not to.  Every time he looked in the mirror, he could see what the man had done.  Every time he moved, he could feel the wounds pull. 

 

He had to stop this madness.  He had to stop thinking on it so much.  He brought his head up and met his own eyes in the mirror.  Best thing to do would be to accept it and move on. 

 

He was working on it.

 

*****

 

Ezra sat on his couch after his hot shower nursing a cup of coffee.  His hair still dripped occasionally onto his t-shirt.  Today was his first day back at work since the episode with Emilio.  ‘The Incident,’ Ezra was calling it, even if only in his head.  He sat staring at the TV, absentmindedly playing with the cuff of his pajama bottoms, watching some infomercial about a food processor.  It was so early there wasn’t even any news on! 

 

He was actually looking forward to getting back to work; he needed the routine.  After the incident, Chris had wrangled him into staying at the ranch for a couple of days, just to make sure that Ezra could take care of his wounds properly.  Or so Chris had said.  Ezra knew it was also so Chris could keep an eye on him.  Chris had been worried about him; they all had been.  But Ezra also figured that by having him stay at the ranch, Chris could help control the others’ hovering, which could be smothering at times.  Ezra definitely didn’t need to feel crowded.

 

Of course, Ezra had resented the whole situation at the time.  After two days of constant companionship, Ezra Standish had had enough “together” time.  He knew that they had all meant well, but sometimes the best recuperation was done alone, in his opinion.  So on day three, Ezra respectfully requested to be returned to his own house, and much to his shock, Chris complied. 

 

When he had been driven back to his townhouse in Denver, Ezra had noticed that his Jag was parked outside.  Someone had brought it back home for him.  For that, he was thankful.  At least he would be mobile if he chose.

 

Chris had walked in the house with him, carrying his bag.  Ezra felt odd about the situation, considering for a moment that his leader thought he was incapable of caring for himself.  He momentarily harbored a bit of anger towards Chris at the simple gesture, but let it go.  Chris seemed to need to help him.

 

Putting the bag down in the living room next to the couch, he turned to Ezra and without preamble said, “I know you’ve been feeling cramped, staying at the ranch and all.  I want you to call any of us, for anything.  And the boys have been kept pretty much at bay while you’ve been there, so don’t be surprised if they drop by more often than usual now that you’re home.”

 

Ezra groaned.

 

“Hey, you wanted to be home,” the blond man replied with a smile and a laugh.  Then he added in a more serious tone, “Take a day or two to yourself.  I’ll keep the boys on a leash.  But call for anything.”

 

“I will,” replied the southerner.  Leave it to Chris, he thought to himself, to know exactly what I need right now.  Must be why he didn’t fight me on coming home. 

 

Holding out his hand, Ezra took it and shook it firmly.  Chris nodded, but didn’t let go.  He pulled the southerner into an embrace and held him for a moment.  Ezra tentatively placed his free hand on his leader’s back, returning the gesture, even if only half-heartedly.

 

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” he replied weakly after they had parted. 

 

“Me too,” replied Ezra, somewhat awkwardly.

 

Chris slapped Ezra on his shoulder lightly, mindful of his injuries, and left, closing the door behind him.

 

“Odd,” the southerner remarked to his now empty townhouse.

 

*****

 

Ezra stood up from where he was sitting on his couch and headed for the kitchen.  After watching the infomercial another whole time, the news had begun.  There is no way those people can truly be that chipper in the morning, he thought to himself. 

 

He put his coffee cup into the sink, debating making more, but he really hadn’t enjoyed the first pot.  It had been made more out of habit and routine than actual want.  It wasn’t that he was worried about going back to work, or even seeing the rest of the guys.  But something about this time…  He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.  He felt apprehensive about something.  He thought for a moment…  

 

Maybe he was worried about the looks he would get from members of other teams, other ATF employees within the Federal Building?  Would he would be the subject of scrutiny?  Would people be gawking at him hoping to catch a glance at his scarred body?  Looking for cracks in his personality?  Would there be pity behind their concerned visages?

 

His heart fluttered for a moment, considering the possibilities.  No, he was being foolish.  This worry was unfounded.  They had all been wounded before, all returned to work.  Everything had been fine before. 

 

But no one had been tortured before.

 

Tortured.  That’s what it had been.  But the word sounded so dark.  So final.  It brought to mind people being chained in dungeons like some bad film.  He was still alive, and relatively unharmed.

 

God, he thought, I don’t know if I can do this.  He placed both of his hands on his countertop and hung his head.  He breathed in and out, calming himself.  After several cleansing breaths, he felt more centered.  He could do this.

 

He looked over at the clock.  It was 7:30 AM.  If he showed up at 8, like he was supposed to, he was sure to shock his co-workers.  He smiled a half grin.  Maybe he would do that.  Just for fun.  Or he could go and watch another round of news.  Maybe that would be the better idea.  If he was there too early, they might think something was wrong.  But wasn’t something indeed wrong?

 

A knock on his door pulled him from his thoughts.  He walked unhurriedly to the door and looked out the peep hole.  A Starbucks coffee cup encompassed the entire field of view.  He smiled as he undid the lock and opened the door, knowing exactly who it would be.

 

“Vin.”

 

“Ezra.”  Vin walked in, handing the cup to the southerner as he passed him.  Ezra shut the door behind him.

 

“To what do I owe this early visit?”

 

“I figgered you could use a ride to work.”  The Texan smiled as he took a drink of his own coffee.

 

“I am capable of driving myself.  But thank you.”  Ezra smelled the sweet nectar in his hands.

 

“Suit yourself.  I just figgered it would be easier going back with a wingman.”  He took another sip of his coffee.

 

Ezra just smiled.  It was as though Vin knew what he had been thinking only a short time before.  And Ezra conceded that it might be easier on him if he went with Vin.  At least it would keep him from changing his mind halfway to the office.

 

“So is that a yes?” Vin asked.

 

“I’ll get my things.”  Ezra went to finish getting ready.

 

“Might want to put something else on, don’t think Chris will look kindly on you coming into work so casual,” Vin razzed and Ezra walked away.  The southerner for his part just looked back over his shoulder and smiled on of his ‘You don’t say?’ smiles.

 

Vin wandered around the apartment while Ezra was getting ready, his sharp eyes taking everything in.  He saw fresh coffee rings on the table, and figured that Ezra had been up for a while.  He also noticed little things that were different—the blanket that usually hung so meticulously on the back of the couch was more crumpled than folded.  The dishes in the sink looked like they had been there for a while.  Hell, there were dishes in the sink!  Maybe he just needs to get back into a routine, Vin thought.

 

Ezra came back out to the living room looking as put together as ever, holding his briefcase in one hand and the coffee Vin brought him in the other.

 

“Ready?” Vin asked.

 

“As I’ll ever be,” he lied.

 

*****

 

Buck rapped his knuckles on Chris’s door as he entered.  He didn’t wait to be invited.

 

Chris looked up from his desk, then glanced at the clock on the wall.

 

“You’re in early Buck.”

 

“Well so are you,” he replied as he slunk down into the chair and faced his friend.

 

“I’m the boss.  I’m supposed to be here early.”

 

“Maybe I’m aspiring to be like you,” Buck said chuckling.

 

Chris looked into Buck’s eyes.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing,” he said defensively.  “Why would you think something’s wrong?”

 

“Cuz I’ve known you too long.  Something’s eating you.  What is it?”

 

Buck sighed.  “Where’s Vin?  Don’t you two usually get here at the same time?”

 

“He wanted to pick up Ezra.  Make the first day back easier for him, I guess.” 

 

Buck nodded and leaned forward, placing his forearms on his knees and staring at the carpet.  Without Vin here, it was just Chris and Buck.  The others usually rolled in about 8 or so.  He looked directly at Chris as he spoke.  “You think he’s ready to be back?”

 

Chris looked in askance at Buck.  “He’s been cleared for duty Buck.  All around.”

 

Buck shrugged and looked out the window.  “I know that but… you think he’s ready to get back in the saddle?”

 

“What’s this really about?” Chris leaned his elbows on his desk.

 

“Nothing,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal and glaring back down at the carpet before meeting his friend’s gaze.  “It’s stupid.  Forget it.”  He got up to leave the office.

 

“Buck.”  The one word froze the big man in his tracks, and he turned to meet the stare of Larabee.  Chris just pointed to the chair Buck had just vacated.  Buck returned to his seat.  He fiddled with his hands and looked out the window again.

 

“Look at me.”

 

Buck turned his head and met Larabee’s gaze.  Chris’s eyes were compassionate as he spoke. 

 

“Are you ready for him to be back?”

 

Buck looked like he had been slapped.  “I, uh…”

 

“I know, Buck.”

 

Buck looked at his friend, a question in his eyes. “How’d you know?”

 

“Because I’m not sure I’m ready for him to be back,” Chris replied and sat back in his chair.

 

Buck nodded.  He should have figured Chris would know what he was thinking.  Hell, that Chris would feel the same way.  The southerner had kept his distance for the past week, regardless of who called or came to visit.  Even when he was with them, he didn’t seem to be with them.  He seemed irritated with their presence, even though he tried to be the perfect gentleman and not show it.  He was less-than-successful.  So the rest of the Seven had let him have plenty of alone time.  It made it feel like the southerner was out on assignment or on vacation; not recuperating from his time at the hands of a madman.  Without Ezra around, they didn’t have to think about what had happened to their teammate.  Not seeing the results or the effects 'the incident' had on their wayward brother had allowed them to put off dealing with the incident themselves.   Buck especially.  He had been the only other member of the team in the warehouse with Ezra.  He had his own nightmares and demons to face resulting from the incident.  And without constant contact with Ezra, he didn’t have to think about those demons and he didn’t have to be subject to those nightmares.

 

The attack hadn’t only happened to Ezra Standish.  The attack had happened to the whole team.  And that’s what Chris was saying.

 

“It’s just… I can’t… God Chris, I don’t know how to treat him.  I mean, what happened to him, at the warehouse… what that asshole did…”

 

“I know Buck.  I was there too.”

 

Buck looked solemnly at his friend.  “No Chris, you don’t know.  You were there after.”

 

Chris looked at his long time friend and did not break his gaze.  Then the blond leader nodded in concession and looked to the window.  No, put that way, he had to admit he didn’t know.

 

He didn’t know shit.

 

*****

 

Cleared for duty.  That’s what Chris had said on the phone at the end of last week.  And now he was on the way to the office.  One part of him wanted to be happy, but the other half wanted to crawl under something and hide.

 

He wasn’t scared, but he didn’t think he was ready to go back.  Hell, when would he be ready if he had his way?  A month?  Six months?  Ever? 

 

At least, maybe his life would now regain some sense of normalcy. 

 

Vin glanced over at his passenger.  Ezra watched the scenery go by, not really seeing anything.  Vin returned his gaze out the windshield.  

 

So lost in his thoughts, Ezra nearly jumped when Vin spoke.

 

“You scared?” Vin asked.  There was no judging, no reproach in his voice.

 

You smell scared…

 

Emilio’s face flashed in Ezra’s mind.  Ezra shook his head slightly and it was gone.  “What?”

 

“I asked if you were scared.  You know, about going back.”

 

“No.  We’ve all been here before.”  And they had.  The first day back jitters would fade.  Ezra raised his coffee cup to his mouth and took a long sip, hoping that would be the end of the line of questioning. 

 

Vin nodded.  He watched Ezra sip his coffee and put his hand back down on his lap.  He also saw Ezra raise his other hand and rub at his chest with his thumb.  Vin wasn’t even sure if the southerner was aware of his action.  They had all been careful of asking Ezra about his injuries.  Since he had opened up to everyone in the hospital right after the event, he had been slow to offer anything else.  Maybe that’s why he had opened up then.  If he got it out in the open then, maybe it would make it easier to deal with, and he wouldn’t be expected to relive it again and again.  Maybe he had opened up to them to get it over with.  Either way, Vin wasn’t going to push.

 

“How them stitches feelin?”  Vin didn’t look at him when he asked, keeping his eyes on the road, but he tilted his head slightly as he spoke. 

 

Ezra smiled to himself.  “They itch,” he replied, humor in his voice.

 

“When they come out?”

 

“Tomorrow.”

 

“Good.” 

 

Ezra nodded. 

 

If he didn’t want to have a long drawn out conversation, Vin wasn’t going to push it. They would be at the office soon anyway.  Vin turned the radio up slightly, giving Ezra a reprieve. 

 

The southerner returned his gaze out the window.

 

***

 

The elevator dinged, announcing its arrival.  Buck looked up from his desk, seeing the last two members of the team arrive. 

 

“As I live and breathe…” Buck announced to the group, “Ezra Standish is early.”  Buck stood and applauded. 

 

Ezra walked over to his desk, a wry smile on his face, and placed his briefcase alongside it.  He placed his now-cold coffee on the desktop and held his hands out in a mock bow. 

 

Buck halted his golf clap.  He turned to the Texan, just sitting at his own desk.  “…and Vin Tanner is late.”  He resumed clapping, this time for Vin.

 

Vin smiled as he kicked his feet up onto his desktop.  “Eat shit Bucklin.”

 

Buck stopped clapping and looked at JD, who was laughing at the scene.  “Some people don’t appreciate being appreciated,” Buck stage whispered.

 

JD snorted at the lewd gesture Vin gave to Buck.

 

Chris watched the scene from his office doorway, where he leaned casually, sipping on his cup of coffee.  It was good to be back whole.  And it was good to see Buck being Buck.  After their conversation earlier, Chris had been worried about how Ezra’s return would affect the team.  So far, so good.  He turned and went into his office, leaving the door open.

 

“Hey Ezra,” Nathan said. 

 

“Nathan,” Ezra said with a grin.  He could tell that Nathan was trying not to ask how he was feeling, how he was doing, or how his injuries were.  Ezra’s smile grew as he could see Nathan trying so hard not to mother hen him. 

 

“Ezra,” Josiah’s deep voice greeted him.

 

“Josiah.”  It was obvious to Ezra that someone must have read them the riot act.  Between Josiah and Nathan, Ezra was going to have an amusing day, if nothing else.  Ezra smiled and looked at the preacher and the medic.  He chuckled.  “It’s killing you, isn’t it?” he asked, barely containing his mirth.

 

“No,” Nathan tried to sound stern.  Josiah just smiled.  It was killing him, anyway, and Josiah knew Nathan was chomping at the bit to ask after Ezra.

 

“Your body language would belie that,” Ezra drawled.  Yeah, today was going to at least be fun for him.

 

Nathan eyed him from his own desk, trying to look busy but only succeeding in looking flustered and caught.  “I’m fine,” he said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.  Nathan stopped shuffling his items around with no particular rhyme or reason and looked directly at Ezra, his eyes asking the question he was obviously forbidden to voice.

 

“As am I, thank you for your concern.”  Ezra smiled at him.  He had to throw him that bone at least.  Nathan was horrible at hiding what he was thinking.  That’s what made him such a bad poker player.

 

Nathan nodded and smiled in concession.  He had been worried about Ezra.  Not just for his physical well being, but for his mental wellness.  Chris had pulled Nathan and Josiah aside this morning when they had arrived at the office and told them, in no uncertain terms, not to harass the southerner today.  Tomorrow would be fair game, but today was off limits.  He had looked directly into Nathan’s concerned gaze when he continued, “Do not ask him how he’s feeling.  Do not hover about him.”  Chris had then turned to Josiah, “Do not preach to him.  Do not remind him of how lucky he is.”  He looked out his window as he added, “If he wants to talk, then fine.  But he starts the conversation today.  We,” he eyed both of his agents when he paused, “are not going to push him.”

 

Both men had agreed.  It would be difficult for them but they agreed.

 

Vin sat at his desk, observing the southerner have his fun with Nathan and Josiah’s obvious desire to hover and brood over the undercover agent.  He couldn’t help but smirk.  Ezra sure knew how to rub it in when he wanted to.  Vin turned his gaze to his boss’s office, and Chris’s eyes lifted to meet his.  The slight head nod beckoned Vin to join him in the office.

 

Vin kicked his feet off of his desk and ambled towards the kitchenette to get a cup of coffee.  Once he had a steaming cup of the wondrous black drink, he walked into Chris’s office and shut the door.  Activity in the bullpen did not let up.  This was a common enough occurrence that no one paid it any mind.  An emerald green gaze followed the action, but nothing was said as its owner continued to set himself up for the day ahead, and to catch up on anything important from the time he missed.  JD was telling him about an email virus that had been making its rounds a week ago, but had since been eradicated. 

 

And other idle chatter.

 

***

 

Vin sat in one of the chairs facing his boss and took a tentative sip of his coffee.  He crossed his right ankle over his left knee and waited.

 

“Well?” Chris asked.

 

“Well what cowboy?”  Vin smiled back.

 

“It’s too early to be a wise ass.  How did this morning go?”

 

“He’s here.”

 

Chris smiled.  “Yeah, no shit, I see that.  Any problems?”

 

“Naw.  But I don’t think he wanted to come back.  Least ways, not yet.  I don’t think he’s as put together as he wants us to think he is.”  He absentmindedly fingered the hem of his jeans as he spoke.

 

“I figured as much,” Chris replied and turned his gaze out the window.

 

“You read Josiah and Nathan the riot act this morning?” Vin looked up with a mischievous grin.

 

Chris smiled evilly as he continued to watch a flight of geese out the window. “Just reminded them not to push.”

 

“I bet.”  Vin took another sip of his coffee.

 

Chris looked back at the tracker.  “What?”

 

“I’m just saying, you’re not always as subtle as you think you are.”

 

“I never said I was subtle about anything.”

 

“Oh, well then you are as subtle as you think you are.”  Vin smiled into his coffee cup.  He swallowed the rest of the warm liquid, then put the cup on Chris’s desk.  “He’d been up a while when I got to his house, but he wasn’t ready for work.  Coffee rings on the table.  House is a bit of a mess, by Ezra’s standards.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Stuff’s out of place, dishes in the sink… just what I saw quick.”  He paused.  “He really didn’t fight me on hitching a ride in.”

 

Chris thought about this for a minute.  “You think he’s worried? Anxious?”

 

“I don’t know Chris.  He didn’t really want to talk on the ride in.  I asked him flat out if he was scared, and he balked at the question.  I don’t think he’s sleepin too good.  He was still in his sweats when I got there this morning, and I only had to bang on the door once.”

 

“How was the rest of the ride?”

 

“Ride was fine.  When we got here and were walkin in, he had that damn poker face of his on.  He said hi to a handful of people… but I doubt he could tell you who they were if you asked him right now.  His eyes kept dartin back and forth to everyone we passed.  I don’t know if he was sizing them up, or what.  Some of them were giving him looks…”

 

“Looks?”

 

“Yeah.  Almost like they felt bad for him.”

 

“Pity?”

 

“I wouldn’t think so, but I bet Ezra would.  When we got in the elevator, he was sweatin.  Not bad, but enough for me to notice.  He calmed down by the time we got up here, then he seemed fine enough.”

 

“He’s not gonna be okay all at once, Vin.”

 

Vin blew his breath out as he leaned back in the chair.  “I don’t know if he’s okay even a little right now.”

 

***

 

The morning progressed as many others had before it.  Ten o’clock found all of Team Seven in the conference room going over the next case. 

 

“Boys,” Chris started, bringing the others to focus on the case at hand.  He handed out files to everyone.  “We’re working in tandem with Team 9 on this one.”

 

“Tandem?” asked Buck.  He looked disbelievingly at Chris.  “You mean we gotta be their backup?” he almost whined.

 

“Fraid so.”

 

Over-dramatic boos and hisses came out of several mouths, but the look from Chris brought everyone back on point.

 

“We’re easing back into things boys.”  Chris did his best not to look at Ezra, lest he feel like they were coddling him.  They had learned long ago that the one thing that Ezra hated was pity.  Even though this wasn’t pity at all, there was every chance that he could take it that way.  And after whatever looks Vin had seen that day as they came in, Chris didn’t want to add to it.  It was always a fine line walked when dealing with Ezra Standish.

 

Ezra noticed the purposely averted eyes when Chris announced their role.  He breathed deeply, trying not to roll his eyes.  “I hope this isn’t on my account, Chris,” his tone forcing Chris to meet his gaze.

 

 “No Ezra, it isn’t.  None of us,” he gestured to the rest of the table, “have been at the top of our game lately.  The past couple of weeks have been slow, thankfully, so when this came up for Team 9, Travis figured we could do with an easy one.”  Especially after what happened with the last one.

 

Ezra nodded as he bowed his head, accepting the answer, for now.

 

“So what’s the case?” Vin asked.

 

“Shiners.”

 

Groans filled the air, escaping everyone’s throat.

 

“I hate moonshiners,” JD commented to no one in particular.

 

“The last one we had set his own still on fire as he ran off, remember?” Buck asked.

 

“That fireball scared the shit out of me, and all of Team 4,” Nathan said from across the table, a smile filling his face as he remembered that case.

 

“Saved us from having to destroy it ourselves though,” Vin added.

 

“Remember that other one, the real backwoods one, asked us if he could get one more taste of his own stuff before we carted him off?” Buck asked.

 

“Takes a special kind to be a moonshiner,” Josiah mused.

 

“I hate moonshiners,” JD repeated, to nobody.

 

“Regardless, this guy isn’t an amateur, so I don’t think he’ll light his own still on fire,” Chris said.  “This guy does some decent business in the area, so I’m told.  9’s running this, but make yourself familiar with this guy’s operation.  You know the drill.”

 

Grunts of acknowledgement filled the room as they all got up to return to their desks.

 

“Hey, who are the Avalanche playing tonight?” asked Nathan.

 

“The Bruins,” Ezra replied nonchalantly.

 

“Ez, you like hockey?” JD asked.

 

“I like a lot of things JD.  Just because I don’t talk about it as much as yourself, doesn’t mean I don’t like it.”  His voice was tinged with humor.

 

“You watching the game tonight?” JD asked.

 

“Perhaps.”

 

“Guys!  Game’s on at Ezra’s tonight!” JD announced to the group.

 

Ezra rolled his eyes at JD’s exuberant announcement.  Although, he mused, the company would be nice.  It would be good to get back into the swing of things, and hanging out for a sporting event was different than coming over to see about his well-being.  Maybe this was just what he needed.

 

***

 

Vin entered the townhouse and headed for the couch.  Ezra followed Vin inside and closed the door, heading for the kitchen with the bag he carried.  The rest of the guys would be along shortly, having split up to grab pizza, beer, and other munchies. 

 

“Vin,” Ezra said as he came back into the living room where the Texan lounged on the couch, already flipping through the channels to find the pre-game report.  Vin looked up when he heard his name.  “I’m gonna get in the shower real quick.  Make yourself at home.”

 

“Never known a man to shower so much Ezra,” Vin said with a smile.

 

Ezra gave a half smile back as he headed for the bedroom to grab a change of clothes and then headed back to the bathroom.

 

Vin found the pre-game show, and turning the volume up so he could hear from the kitchen, went to get himself a pre-game snack.  Ezra didn’t keep a lot of “snack” foods in his house, but Vin did manage to find himself some sandwich fixings, and made himself one.  True, the pizza and beer would be here soon, but he was hungry.  Eyeing his masterpiece, he reached for a knife only to find that the knife block wasn’t where it usually was. 

 

Maybe the knives are in the dishwasher, he thought to himself.  He opened the appliance only to find that it was empty.  Confused, Vin started looking through drawers and cabinets.  He found the knife block, along with all its knives, in the cabinet next to and below the sink.  Not thinking much of it, he put it on the counter and withdrew one of the knives, cutting his sandwich in half and placing the dirty knife in the sink.

 

The shower ran for ten minutes, during which time Vin ate his pre-game snack and became fully engrossed in the pre-game show.  It didn’t hurt that the reporter was an impossibly good looking woman with dark hair and sparkling eyes, who seemed to know everything about hockey that there was to know. 

 

Vin got up and took his empty plate to the kitchen during a commercial.  He rinsed it and the knife and put them in the dishwasher.  While he was at it, he took care of the dishes that resided in the sink as well.  He had noticed them that morning, and figured he would help out.  If only Ezra had seen him do it.  It would make the conman smile to know that he, Vin Tanner, wild man and tracker, could in fact be somewhat domesticated.  In fact, almost every time that Vin would visit him, Ezra would comment on his apparent inability to clean up after himself.  Well, now he had cleaned up not only after himself, but after Ezra.  He heard the water stop running for the shower, and decided to tell Ezra of his mighty deed. 

 

The bathroom door opened and Ezra stepped out, clad in jeans only and towel-drying his hair.  Vin came out of the kitchen and saw Ezra’s back as he started to walk to the bedroom.  “Hey Ez…” he started, then stopped himself.  The angry scar that ran down the southerner’s back made his blood run cold and his stomach drop.  Although mostly healed, it still looked mean.  The dark stitches were a striking contrast to the pink scar tissue.

 

Ezra turned and faced Vin, looping the towel around his neck to catch drips.  He continued to walk backwards, thumbing towards the bedroom.  “Tee shirt fell on the floor into a puddle, I’m just gonna grab another one,” he said as he turned and continued towards the bedroom.  “Be right out.”

 

Vin had only seen the scar on Ezra’s chest for a moment, but it was enough to have his own feelings of that day come rushing to the forefront of his mind.  He turned his head and closed his eyes, bombarded by images…

 

Cutting Ezra’s bonds.  Hands coming away with blood…

 

Vin went back into the kitchen and took a can of soda from the bag that Ezra had brought in when they arrived and took a long, slow drink..  The chest scar was angrier than the back scar, but its stitches were just as pronounced.  Vin shook his head, thinking of how Buck had described Ezra’s screaming from that day.  He couldn’t help thinking about how much those must have hurt when they were being inflicted to make the southerner scream.  Vin had never heard the man scream, and he had no desire to, ever.  Ezra had told them in the hospital, had told Vin individually even, about the incident.  The scars he now sported were a macabre tribute to the man’s endurance.  None of the team had seen either injury since the day it happened, except Nathan, who had helped Ezra care for them and change the bandages in the beginning.  But Nathan hadn’t seen the injuries in at least a week, since Ezra had told them to piss off.

 

Vin took another long swig from the soda and turned towards the sink.  He grabbed the knife block and put it back in the cabinet where he had found it.  He understood.

 

***

 

As the others arrived with their assorted wares of pizza, chips, and the makings for nachos, they all took up lazy positions around Ezra’s living room.  The Bruins played an incredible game against the Avalanche, and the game went into over time, then a shootout.

 

JD crooned loudly and danced a victory when the Bruins edged out the home team.  Pillows and crumpled napkins were thrown at him as he continued to celebrate his hometown team’s win.

 

“You do realize that no one else here likes the Bruins, right kid?” asked Buck.

 

“Don’t care,” he replied as he continued to shimmy and dance. 

 

Buck threw another pillow at JD, who caught it and flung it right back at Buck, nailing him in the face.  He then scampered off into the kitchen to avoid possible retaliation.  “JD,” Buck called after him, “grab me another beer while you’re in there!”

 

A muffled affirmative came floating back through the room.

 

Ezra sat in a slouched position on the end of the couch, laughing quietly at the antics of his friends.  It was good to be around them again, and not have them in mother-hen mode.  He just needed some normalcy in his life right now.  Lost in thought, his hand drifted to the buttons of his shirt as he absentmindedly rubbed at his chest.

 

“Is your chest bothering you?” Nathan asked, sitting on the floor near the coffee table.

 

Ezra’s hand drifted back down to his lap.  “No.”  His voice was flat; he didn’t want to talk about it.

 

“Don’t scratch it Ezra,” Nathan added.

 

Chris shot a glare at the healer, a stern reminder of no preaching.  He threw one at Josiah as well, just for good measure.

 

“It itches.  I’m not tearing at it Nathan, it’s just the cold makes it itch like hell.”  To spite the healer, he rubbed at his shirt with his thumb, glaring at Nathan as he did so, humor in his facial features as though to say What are you going to do about it?

 

Nathan bit back a retort and took a drink of his beer.  He shook his head and smiled.  Ezra knew how to push his buttons.

 

“When do the stitches come out?” asked Josiah.  “Tomorrow, right?”

 

Ezra nodded as he rubbed his chest.  “Most of them came out at the last visit, but there are still… some.” 

 

Josiah nodded, knowing that Ezra didn’t want to be the focus of everyone’s attention.  Everyone else let the matter drop as JD came back into the living room and tossed the bottle of beer to Buck.

 

“You guys wanna watch a movie?”

 

******

 

Ezra entered the office at 10 o’clock the next morning.  Again, he felt like all eyes were on him from the moment he got out of his car in the parking garage.  The appointment had gone well, and the last of the stitches were removed.  No matter how many times he had stitches removed, he would never get used to the creepy feeling of the suture being pulled from his skin.

 

The scars were an angry pink, but the plastic surgeon had said that they would fade.  She had given Ezra care sheets on how to make the scarring less noticeable, and had given him some creams as well that would help.  She also told him not to do any strenuous pulling exercises, due to the nature of the injury.  The skin could, she explained, pull apart a bit while it was still healing.  And it was still healing; probably would be for another week or so.  But the skin, although weak due to the newness of it, looked good.  She told him he was lucky that there would be minimal scarring.

 

Ezra had laughed at that.  This, this was minimal scarring?  The jagged line down his sternum looked so much more than minimal…

 

Getting to his desk with as little face time as possible had been the goal, and he was more or less successful.  A couple of secretaries and several other agents had greeted him, but other than that it was business as usual.

 

Laying his briefcase on his desk, he sat down.  Chris’s door was shut, and the rest of the bullpen was empty.  Being just a little after ten, Ezra surmised that JD and Vin were probably out scavenging for a mid-morning snack, Buck was probably off doing what Buck does, and Nathan and Josiah were around… somewhere.

 

Chris’s door opened and the blond leader came strolling out.  He stopped when he noticed Ezra at his desk.  “You just get here?” he asked as he changed his course to come over to the southerner.

 

“Just this very moment,” he replied, his voice more pleasant that Chris had heard it in a while.

 

“How did it go?” Chris asked as he sat on the corner of Nathan’s unoccupied desk.

 

Ezra leaned back in his chair and sighed.  “About as expected.  Stitches are out, scars look horrible, but the doctor said it was minimal.”

 

“You don’t think so?” Chris asked, perplexed.

 

“No.”  He blew out a tired breath.  “No I don’t.” He looked directly at Chris. “Even if the scars were miniscule, it would be too much.  I’ll never be rid of what that asshole did to me.” 

 

Chris shifted from the desk to Nathan’s chair and rolled it towards the southerner.  “Ezra, what he did to you pales in comparison to what he could have done to you.  He could have killed you.  He could have killed Buck.  We may never have found you.  Either of you.  But we did.  And you’re here.”  He paused, then added, “I don’t know what I would have done if we hadn’t found you when we did.”

 

Ezra looked at Chris, seeing the sincerity in his eyes.  “I know Chris.  It’s just hard to get my mind around things right now.  You know, I still see him sometimes?  I see him every time I look at myself in the mirror in the morning,” he spoke quietly, placing his hand at his chest.

 

“It’ll get better Ezra.  I promise it will.”

 

Ezra nodded.  “Chris?  Please don’t tell the others about this.”

 

“About what?” Chris asked.

 

“I’m having… trouble… with this.”

 

“I would be more worried if you weren’t having trouble with it,” he paused, then nodded.  “All right Ezra.  But don’t shut us out.”

 

Ezra nodded, but kept his eyes down.  Chris slapped his knee lightly as he got up from Nathan’s chair and went to get some coffee.

 

 

PART 2

 

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