DISCLAIMER: I 'm making free use of the ATF Magnificent Seven characters which Mog created, based on similar characters in the series "The Magnificent Seven" which belongs to the guys from CBS. No profit is made, no litigation is warranted. Please, don't bother bringing any lawsuits against me. It's not worth it.

WARNINGS: Only some mild language and moderate violence.

NOTES: This short saga in three acts is a sequel to my previous ATF story "Angie". And it is respectfully dedicated to Dina, ideas merchant and beta-reader extraordinaire.

A Literary Woman, by Derry

Act I

The superiority of one man's opinion over another's is never so great as when the opinion is about a woman.
--Henry James
The Tragic Muse (Chapter 9)

It was 8pm and the office was almost completely dark, save for the glow of the computer screen and a faint light emanating from the hallway. It wasn't quite silent either.

"It might've been a good idea to close the door, Buck."

"That'd just make them suspicious. You at your computer, that's a sight they see every day. If we bothered to close the door, THEN they'd start to wonder."

"Suppose. But y'know this ain't exactly legal. Maybe it's not such a good idea."

"Oh admitting defeat, are ya? Y'know what that means."

"No, I can do it! You just watch! Whose would you like to see?"

"Whose'd be most interesting?"

JD and Buck looked at each other and chorused in unison, "Ezra's!"

JD's fingers danced over the keyboard at lightning speed. In less than a minute, he'd achieved his objective. "There you go! Done, and done!"

Buck grinned, "I take it all back kid! You're a genius!"

"And YOU owe me!" Although he was pleased with Buck's acknowledgement of his talents, JD wasn't going to let him off the hook, "Next week, Colorado Rockies, hot dogs, the lot!"

"Okay, okay!" Buck agreed, then leaned forward to examine the profit of JD's labours. "Now what have we here?"

JD followed his gaze. "Looks like he went on a little spending spree here. Arabella's Florist, Thornton's Confectionary, Rutherglen (they're a wine store, aren't they?) and Dymock's bookstore. Interesting combination. What do you reckon it means?"

Buck gave him a pitying look. "Oh kid! Flowers, candy, wine ... what do YOU reckon it means?"

"A girl? What about the bookstore?"

Buck shrugged, "Coincidence?"

"No, 'cause here's the same combination again, and here again. Florist, candy store, liquor store and bookseller."

"Maybe she's into reading?"

"Must be. Geez, here it is again! He must like her a lot."

"Who likes her?" Josiah's voice boomed.

Buck and JD nearly jumped three feet into the air. They turned to see Josiah and Nathan in the doorway. As they wandered over, the latter asked, "What are you two doing?"

JD was instantly sheepish, "Not much. Just playing round."

"That's a credit card statement!" Nathan was scandalized.

"Um, yeah."

Josiah raised an eyebrow but spoke mildly. "Isn't that illegal, boys?"

Nathan, however was outraged and demanded, "Whose is it?"

"Um, Ezra's," answered JD, "We were just having a look."

"Found something very interesting too," added Buck.

"That don't make it right!" said Nathan.

But Buck continued, as if he hadn't heard, "Every so often, he goes off and buys flowers, candy, wine and a book."

Much to Nathan's annoyance, Josiah appeared intrigued. "So y'reckon he's got himself some kinda literary woman?"

Buck nodded, "That's exactly what I reckon."

"He's kept awful quiet about it," JD wondered, "Who could she be?"

"I still don't believe you guys are doin' this!" Nathan exclaimed but they ignored him.

"Yeah," said Buck, "And where do you think he met her? I mean, where'd he find the time?"

"That's what we ask ourselves about you," Nathan muttered under his breath.

"Where'd who find the time for what?" said a Texan-accented voice behind them. They turned to see two new arrivals, Vin and Chris.

Josiah chose to just answer the question. "Ezra find time for a belle amour."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "What? Who says he has?"

"His credit card," said Buck.

Chris wasn't impressed. "What the hell do you lot think you're playing at?"

It took a good dose of Larabee anger to finally bring Buck back to earth. "Just a bit've fun, Chris."

Vin shook his head, "Not sure Ezra would see it that way."

"Why should he find out?" Buck asked, with a hint of conspiracy.

Vin took a pointed look around at the group already assembled. "Don't see why not."

JD, meanwhile, hadn't let go of theorising about the lady's identity. "Maybe he met her while he was undercover."

"Oh yeah?" said Buck, "Like who?"

"Well, what about Nora or Lydia or Emily?"

"Them ladies of the night?" Buck shook his head, "Not saying Ezra wouldn't but they weren't exactly the type to go for books."

"Well, what about that Chinese girl he met when we had that brush with the triads? She really got under his skin."

Vin laughed, "Yeah, he nearly went ballistic when you and Buck rigged his car stereo to play that Chinagirl song by David Bowie."

"Yeah!" Buck enthused, "What was her name? Li Pong, or something like that. Now, SHE was a bright little fortune cookie."

But Josiah quashed that theory. "I don't think so boys. She got relocated to San Francisco, for her own protection. Don't think Ezra'd get in contact with her even if he could. It'd put her in too much danger."

"What about Terri Greer, that security expert from way back, she had a brain cell or two. I know Buck was a lot more obvious about it, but I reckon Ezra rather liked her too. Maybe he's kept up with her." Chris surprised them all by adding to the conjecture and Nathan gave him a 'not you too' look.

"Nah, she had a kid," said Buck, "Ezra wouldn't be into that!"

The others all looked at him and began to shake their heads slightly.

"What?"

Nathan tried to explain patiently. "Buck, you're talkin' about yourself. Ezra's always been soft on kids and he thought little Olivia was as cute as a button. For him, her bein' in the picture might even be a plus rather than a minus."

Buck considered this. "You reckon? Maybe it IS Terri. So, how long's all this been going on for?" He leaned forward to scroll back along the dates listed on the screen and suddenly swore, "Sonovabich!"

JD looked at him in confusion. "What?"

Buck seemed unable to speak due to rapidly building anger. Instead, he just pointed at a date on the screen and they all crowded around to see.

"Oh-my-God," Nathan breathed, "You don't think he was seein' her then, do ya?"

"Looks like it." Chris spoke with quiet anger and most of the rest fell silent.

But JD was still confused, "What? I don't remember that date."

"Perhaps, you wouldn't, JD," Josiah said quietly, "You were unconscious for most of it."

Realisation dawned. "Oh. That's the day I got shot, isn't it?"

Nathan couldn't believe it. "Oh c'mon! He wouldn't have! Not at a time like that!"

He remembered that day vividly. They'd nearly lost JD. He'd bled from an abdominal gunshot wound for hours before they got to him. More than two hours in surgery, more than two days in Intensive Care. When a friend was in such a desperate state, chasing women wouldn't even enter the head of any decent man. Hell, even Buck, the resident sex maniac, wouldn't think of such a thing at a time like that.

Nonetheless, the resident sex maniac was utterly convinced that Ezra had been doing just that.

"How else do you explain this?" he demanded.

"He disappeared for a long spell that day, didn't he?" added Vin.

In the face of the mounting evidence, Nathan finally accepted what they were saying. "Oh shit!" Then he remembered some of the other the concerns he'd had for his colleagues that day. "An' I was worried that he was gettin' plastered 'cause he felt guilty."

"Yeah," Buck growled, "Don't you feel like a sucker now?"

Buck's anger had superceeded rationality. The reasons were manifold but two came to the fore. First, the protectiveness he felt towards JD was legendary and, second, he too had been concerned when they noticed Ezra was missing. The thought that the man might have been out enjoying himself while they were all nearly killing themselves with worry, made his blood boil.

However, although JD was somewhat hurt by the thought that Ezra might have abandoned him that day, looking around at the anger building in the men surrounding him, his main concern now was what the others might do to Ezra when they next saw him.

Then, in a career littered with inopportune entrances, Ezra Standish accomplished one of his more spectacular efforts.

"Greetings, gentlemen. Workin' late? Or are y'all enthralled with JD's latest computer-animated diversion?"

With the exception of JD, they turned as one and he suddenly found himself facing a wall of hostility.

"So who is she?" Buck demanded.

Ezra was totally lost. "What are you talkin' about?"

"Been looking at your credit card statements ... "

Ezra was almost too astonished for proper indignation. "You've been WHAT?"

Buck wasn't even listening, " ... and we know that you regularly buy her flowers, sweets, wine and a book. So is she some sort've literary type? She must be something to drag you away from the kid's hospital bed after he'd been shot!"

Even Nathan couldn't contain himself, "I just can't believe you'd do somethin' like that! Here was I worried that you mighta been gettin' trashed outa your skull in some bar somewhere and all the while you were foolin' around in some woman's bed!"

Disoriented, Ezra's first refuge was the actual truth, "I wasn't with a WOMAN!"

Buck just steamrolled on, "Woman, man, transvestite, goat. I don't really care ... "

"Goat!" Ezra couldn't seem to find a footing in the face of this relentless assault. It was all just too surreal.

Vin could see things were about to get totally out of hand. "I think we all need to calm down."

But the pause gave Ezra time to get his bearings and when he did, he became very, very angry indeed.

"Do you really think so? You decide to invade my privacy, go through my finances. Did you check to see if there were any unexplainable payments which might indicate bribery and corruption? Why not? It's a golden opportunity! And now, on the basis of some purchases, y'all have decided that I have some sort of paramour whom I was having some sort of passionate dalliance with while JD was lying in hospital, recovering from his gunshot wound. Oh, why the hell not?! Nathan thought I was gettin' blind drunk. It stands to reason that Buck's first thought would be that I was havin' a roll in the hay!"

He paused for breath and his voice became quite low and dangerous. "But do you want to know what I find most interestin'? It seems that you might've sympathised if I'd been lookin' for solace at the bottom of a bottle. But you're utterly scandalised to think that I might've found it in the arms of another human bein'. So, y'all can believe what you like. I really don't care anymore."

Unable to cope with what he, in his turn, saw as a massive betrayal of trust, he turned to exit the way he had come in.

The others also lapsed into silence with the realisation that they weren't entirely blameless in all this.

But one of them had detected the minutest hint of equivocation in Ezra's tirade. The Southerner had gone from a flat denial of a romantic encounter to a vague defence of such behaviour.

Now convinced that there HAD been some kind of rendezvous, Vin quietly asked, "What's she like, Ezra?"

Ezra glared back at him for an instant but then he aimed a savage smile at them all. What the hell, why not throw them a bone?

"Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate, with fascinatin' conversation and a brilliant sense of humour. And utterly devoted to me."

Buck, a little chastened despite himself, tried for a little mollifying humour. "And old enough to be your mother?"

The irony of that was too much for Ezra and he couldn't contain a short burst of derisive laughter. Then realising that that was indeed the perfect parting shot, he turned and walked out the door.

Act II

I know not how to pray your patience
Yet I must speak.
Choose your revenge yourself,
Impose me to what penance your invention
Can lay upon my sin: yet sinned I not
But in mistaking.
--William Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing (Act V, Scene I)

Nathan had the 4am to 6am vigil. It had been more than 24 hours now and the staff in Intensive Care had put their collective foot down. One person only at any patient's beside after hours. So the six of them had divided those hours into two-hour shifts with the rest taking up residence in the waiting room.

They'd all been here, more or less, numerous times before. Different one of them occupying the hospital bed, different reasons for hospitalisation, different reasons for the guilt.

The traffic cops had been adamant. It was clear that he'd swerved to avoid an oncoming car that was on the wrong side of the road. The other driver had a blood alcohol level which the Emergency doctor had facetiously classified as "clinically dead" and Ezra's was completely clear. As far as the traffic cops were concerned, it was a clear cut case, although they rather morbidly hung around for a while to see if the charges were going to be driving under the influence and vehicular assault or vehicular homicide.

His car had rolled and, although a bit battered, it looked like it would be fully repairable. It was touch and go with its driver for a while, though. Most of his body had only sustained a few bruises but his head had struck the side window with enough force to crack both the glass and his skull. They'd managed to get him to surgery quickly enough to relieve the pressure from the intracranial bleeding before it proved fatal, but he still hadn't woken.

All the evidence indicated that it was just one of those situations which they couldn't have done anything to prevent. But despite this, each member of the 'what if' brigade was privately thinking that perhaps if he hadn't been so fiercely angry with them all when he'd left, his reactions might have been just a bit quicker and the accident might have been avoided.

Just as the minute hand moved to indicate 6 o'clock, Nathan thought he saw a faint stirring of movement. He leaned closer and just when he had almost convinced himself that he had imagined it, he heard a soft murmur.

"Angie."

He placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder to see if he could manage to rouse him any further but there was no reaction. Despite his worry, he managed to raise a smile.

"Angie, eh? At least we got a name for her."

All that recrimination seemed entirely pointless now, but it would still be interesting to find out who she was. Where could Ezra have met this Angie?

Then, in a rush, it all fell into place. "Oh, my God!"

Nathan leaped up and headed for the door, almost colliding with Buck who was on his way to relieve him.

"Whoa, Nate! What's up? Is he okay?"

"He said her name. I think I know who she is."

Buck looked at him with a mixture of curiosity about this answer to the mystery and concern that it seemed to have so agitated Nathan.

"Who?"

"Angie."

"Angie who?"

"Well, I'm guessin' but I'd say, little Angie Velasquez."

Buck closed his eyes in pain, "Oh, shit!"

Nathan nodded and began to echo Ezra's last words to them, "Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate ... "

"And he laughed when I said she was old enough to be his mother ... "

"Because she's young enough to be his daughter."

"Oh, shit."

Gloria Potter opened her front door, half-expecting to see one man standing there, only to find two others instead. Both tall and with sombre expressions, one African-American and one Caucasian with a moustache.

The black man spoke with quiet politeness, "Sorry to disturb you Mrs Potter. I don't know if you remember us. This is Buck Wilmington and I'm Nathan Jackson. We're colleagues of ... "

"Oh, my God! What's happened?" Gloria immediately extrapolated the situation to its worst conclusion. "God! How are we going to tell Angie?"

Nathan saw where her mind had taken her and gave himself another swift mental kick, as he hastened to reassure her as much as he could.

"He's alive, Mrs Potter! He's been in an accident, but Ezra's alive."

"Accident? What? How?"

"His car was run off the road. He's still hasn't fully regained consciousness but he called for Angie ... "

Gloria frowned. She knew what they were asking and what it would mean. More time, possibly days, for the child to spend in a hospital at that man's bedside. Once Angie found out, there would be no stopping her.

But the inevitable was exactly that, and there was no point in hiding from it. She led them to Angie's room where the child was sitting on her bed, apparently reading. Angie glanced up at the intrusion.

"Hi, Angie!" said Buck with a fulsome smile, "Remember us?"

She nodded, "Hello, Mr Wilmington, Mr Jackson." She instinctively glanced behind them, "Where's Ezra?"

Nathan also smiled, "He couldn't come right now but we thought we might take you to him."

Angie regarded them through narrowed eyes. Their smiles were broad but their movements were tense and she found the combination rather suspicious.

"What's happened?"

Buck realised that they were sprung and stooped to face her on her own level.

"He's been in an accident, Angie, and he still hasn't woken up. But he said your name in his sleep and we kinda thought you being there might help him some."

Angie regarded him seriously then nodded abruptly, like some one accepting a task which they had been assigned. She closed her book, slipped off the bed and went over to one of the shelves where a small book collection resided.

Nathan blinked, "What are ya doin', Angie?"

She briefly glanced around to look at him, as she extracted several volumes from the shelf, "Ezra reads to me until I go to sleep. I'm gonna read to him until he wakes up."

Buck and Nathan looked at each other. There was a weird kind of logic to that.

Buck then headed over to give her a hand. "How many are ya taking?"

She shrugged as she continued to add to the pile of books, "These are his favourites." As he watched her, he realised that these were probably THE books and felt another sharp stab of remorse.

Finally, she seemed satisfied and Buck lifted her onto his hip with one arm and picked up the books with the other. He turned to see that Nathan had picked up the one Angie had discarded on her bed and was frowning at the inside cover.

"What is it?"

Nathan said nothing but proffered the book for him to read an inscription in Ezra's handwriting, "To Angie. From Ezra. For all the usual reasons." Then he noticed Nathan was pointing at the date. It was THE date.

"Oh, Christ! That clinches it, doesn't it?"

"Yeah."

Angie also looked where Nathan was pointing, "Yeah, he was kinda sad that day. Wouldn't tell me why."

She was surprised when Buck groaned in pain and looked at Nathan, "Could this get any worse?"

"Oh, yeah," said Nathan softly. He'd already considered the very worst that may befall them. "We just have to pray it doesn't, for all our sakes, includin' hers."

Angie just looked at him, apparently contemplating his words but looking unperturbed. Either she hadn't understood him or she just refused to believe such a thing could happen.

Chris Larabee had to admit that he'd been dubious when Nathan and Buck had so resolutely set off to fetch Angie, as if she was going to be some sort of magic cure. Now he regretted that they hadn't brought her in earlier. Not that she had enticed Ezra back to consciousness yet (though she was definitely giving it her best shot) but she'd certainly managed to get the Intensive Care staff to take a more lenient approach towards visitors.

He'd seen and indeed participated in many spectacular confrontations, during his career. But the sight of this girl of five-going-on-six facing down experienced and determined nursing staff had to be one of the highlights. He should've known really. The last time Angie had hung around the hospital, she'd also managed to talk them into getting her own way most of the time. No wonder she seemed to get on so well with Ezra!

So she was still here, refusing to budge despite the ungodly hour. Fatigue had done nothing to diminish her determination and she reached for another book from the pile on the table beside her, even as she failed to stifle another yawn.

Her eyes were half-closed but Chris had long suspected that she was mostly reciting from memory, rather than reading, anyway. Since she'd begun, she'd used such characteristic inflections that he'd almost been able to hear Ezra's voice superimposed over hers.

"At the far end of town Where the Grickle-grass grows And the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows And no birds ever sing excepting old crows ... "

Another yawn got the better of her and her eyelids fluttered again.

"Is the Street of the Lifted Lorax."

Those last words were mumbled in a Southern-accented male voice and Angie's half-closing eyes snapped open.

"Ezra?" She climbed onto his bed to peer into his face and was rewarded when he, in turn, slowly opened his eyes.

"Angie?" He blinked to bring her into focus. "What's happened?"

"You had a car accident and hit your head and you've been asleep for days."

Chris had fetched the others and they crowded around the bed. Ezra took in their presence and closed his eyes with a sigh, "Oh, the circus is in town."

"Yeah," said Chris with a slight smile, "checking up on our chief clown."

Ezra managed a brief chuckle but cut it short with a wince. He opened his eyes again and asked seriously, "How many days?"

"Two, going on three."

Ezra looked at Angie, "And you've been here the whole time?"

She shook her head and there was just a hint of accusation in her tone, "No, they only came to get me today."

"Well," said Buck, "we didn't know that we should've got her until you started calling for her in your sleep."

Nathan saw the discomfiture creeping onto Ezra's face and reassured him, "Don't worry, you only said her name, not anythin' else to let us know what a big softie you are."

"But she DOES have a lovely book collection," Buck added.

"Oh," Ezra briefly closed his eyes in embarrassment and opened them again to see not only Angie but also JD succumb to another yawn.

"What time is it?"

Chris looked at his watch, "About twenty past midnight."

That shook Ezra fully awake, "Angie! Who let you stay up to this late hour?"

He swept an accusing glare amongst his colleagues and Buck protested, "Hey, you try and get her to go to sleep!" Then he reconsidered, "No, on second thoughts, it might work for you."

"We all tried," said JD "The nurse in charge even threatened to give her an injection!"

Ezra raised an eyebrow at that, "And?"

"And Angie told her that she could damn well try."

Ezra looked sternly at the girl who appeared thoroughly unrepentant, "I hope you didn't use that language!"

She shrugged, "Even Gloria uses that one, and I've heard you say things that are much worse."

He shook his head slightly and, with a chagrined sigh, asked, "So, what happened then?"

"She wussed out completely!" The child's triumphant disdain would have sounded more impressive if the last word hadn't been interrupted by yet another yawn.

"Well, I'm not goin' to," he warned her, "Sleep! Now!"

She just grinned at him and he dropped the stern façade and lifted his arms to hold them out to her, "Come here."

To that invitation, she happily acquiesced and lay down beside him, avoiding the various IV lines he was still attached to and snuggling up in his embrace.

"Now, close your eyes and don't say another word."

"What about 'goodnight'?"

"Alright, 'goodnight' and that's the last one till mornin'."

"Goodnight, Ezra." She grinned as she snuck in an extra word.

"Goodnight, Angel."

Already teetering on the edge of exhaustion, she was asleep within seconds. Momentarily forgetting their audience, Ezra planted a light kiss on her forehead and she didn't stir.

The other six marvelled at the spectacle in silence. Ezra had mellowed somewhat over the past few years but he still usually maintained an aloof demeanour. Overt demonstrations of affection simply weren't his style. And frankly, his colleagues had always believed that he was totally incapable of such open sentimentality.

Buck cleared his throat and Ezra looked up, slightly embarrassed.

"Gorgeous, vivacious, affectionate...eh, Ez?" Buck nodded towards Angie and, as was not unusual, his tone was slightly suggestive.

Ezra frowned. He knew Buck was incorrigible when it came to the female of the species but surely the man wasn't that desperate or depraved.

"Mr Wilmington, I trust that you are aware of the age of consent in this state," he said reprovingly.

Buck blinked at him in surprise, "You don't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

Ezra was still aiming a rather askance look in his direction. "I sincerely hope that I don't."

The others looked at each other, as realisation dawned. It was Nathan who tentatively asked, "Ezra, what's the last thing you remember?"

Ezra frowned again. That was a good question. "I remember what I had for breakfast this mornin'."

"Two days ago," Nathan corrected automatically.

A rueful expression briefly crossed Ezra's features. "Two days ago, then." He looked up to see six expectant faces. "Grapefruit juice, coffee and a croissant with black cherry jam."

The others continued to stare at him, struck dumb with the realisation that Ezra had no memory of that last confrontation and considering the implications of that fact. Maybe, if they all stuck to their guns and didn't mention it, they could effectively hit the rewind button and tape over it.

Ezra began to feel uncomfortable under their gaze, "What? I was feelin' kinda continental."

Buck looked around the group and silently pleaded with his friends to keep it under wraps. But he could see Nathan's conscience gnawing at him and JD looked very uncomfortable too.

Ezra gazed up at the six of them, for once not able to discern even the faintest hint of what a single one of them was thinking from the expressions on their faces. He found it very, very unnerving.

"What is it? Have I forgotten somethin' important?"

Act III

UNLESS someone like you
Cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
It's not.
--Dr Seuss
The Lorax

Alone again, naturally.

Well, that wasn't strictly true. He looked down at the child still sleeping in his arms. He knew that she would never abandon him, nor he her. And hadn't he just decided that he didn't need anyone else's trust or friendship?

So, why did he feel like his heart had just been ripped out?

Even in these depths of the night, there were still vestiges of light, sound and movement, as the Intensive Care staff continued to go about their business. But still, Ezra felt utterly alone.

And 'miserable' was totally inadequate, as an adjective. His head throbbed, he felt nauseous, every bone in his body seemed to weigh a ton and an aching coldness seemed to have taken up residence inside his chest.

He desperately didn't want to think and fervently longed for the oblivion of sleep. But despite his weariness, it remained tantalizingly just out of reach.

And he would have given nearly anything to hear Angie's voice. But he couldn't in all conscience wake her. She'd pushed herself to remain awake far beyond what was healthy for a child of her age, just to be there for him in his hour of need. It would be churlish to ask any more of her.

He pulled his arms slightly tighter around her, in an attempt to garner just a little more warmth, and she stirred only slightly. So he remained alone in this isolation of the soul, which was entirely of his own making.

He couldn't even remember the incident that they'd described. But he'd been so angry and hurt when he'd learned what they had suspected and accused him of, that he'd probably lost his rationality for a while.

It had been so long since he had possessed friends that he could just instinctively trust and rely on. And even longer since he'd known the sense of belonging and camaraderie that he had felt while working with these men. He was absolutely certain that he would never enjoy the like again.

There had been a time, not so long ago, when his place on Chris Larabee's team had meant everything to him.

He was used to being an outsider. Mistrust and isolation had started as working conditions but then they had become a way of life. He'd trained himself to think of his life as efficient rather than empty, always suppressing the urge to belong. He could only believe in himself, no one else could be relied upon.

But then he'd been assigned to this team. 'The Magnificent Seven' some called them. It was vaguely ridiculous but also rather gratifying. Seven very dissimilar individuals who came together to form a remarkably effective unit. And he'd been a part of it. None of his carefully erected defence mechanisms could stand against that and, for the first time that he could remember, he'd felt an overwhelming need to belong.

He had immensely respected each and every one of the other team members and needed to believe that they respected him too. And he had strived long and hard to gain acceptance among them. So much so that, for a considerable length of time, he had been unable to believe that he had achieved it.

In the early days, he'd constantly expected to be dropped from the team because Chris would finally realise that appointing him had been a mistake. That apprehension had gradually faded but never fully disappeared from his mind. He still felt the need to constantly prove his worth to the rest of them but, finally, he had come to believe that they did actually like and trust him.

Now, with so little regard or consideration, they'd invaded his privacy. And with so little faith in his integrity and so low an opinion of his capacity for human feeling, they'd accused him of abusing their trust and friendship. He'd felt maligned and violated and betrayed.

So, without once raising his voice, he'd announced his intention to sever all ties with them. And he'd used some quite superlatively caustic and vicious phrases to ram the message home.

The Intensive Care staff had bundled out the six visitors, before a serious disturbance had arisen. And Ezra's fury had been such that he'd been very glad to see them go.

But the anger had faded and now all he had left was this deep aching sense of loss.

He hugged Angie close again, the last spark of brightness left in his life. But try as he might, he couldn't focus on what he had left, but only on what he'd just forfeited.

The other six had taken up occupation of an all-night coffee shop (and the manager was currently regretting that policy).

"You HAD to tell him every little detail, didn't you?" Buck accused furiously.

"He had a right to know!" Nathan shot back, just as incensed.

"And you think it's made him feel BETTER?"

"Buck, that's enough!" Chris thundered, "We don't need you two ripping into each other. We've already..." his voice faded abruptly.

"We've already what? We've already torn one guy to shreds?"

"Buck..."

"But he's right, isn't he?" came JD's quiet voice from the corner, "Ezra must feel awful. Do ya think he was serious about resigning?"

"Dunno, JD," Josiah also spoke quietly, "He once told me that being on this team was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Now, we may have found ourselves currently relegated to second place, behind Angie, but I reckon this team's still very important to him."

"So, you think he might forgive us?"

"He might. Maybe not just yet. We need to give him time. And we need to give him a damn good apology."

"I still say we didn't NEED to give him details," Buck grumbled.

"Because it would've made him feel better or because it would've made YOU feel better?" Nathan countered.

And the two of them were off again.

When Ezra had contemplated the pleasantries of breakfasting with Angie, he hadn't considered that it might involve sharing a hospital breakfast tray. Not that he wasn't enjoying it. He'd even been entertained by the little tussle they'd had about division of the contents.

He got the coffee, she got the orange juice. That part was easy. When he'd suggested that she should have the porridge to help her "grow up good and strong", she'd pointed out that he probably needed it more than she did at the moment. The nurse had come down on her side and furthermore, Angie had managed to wheedle some chocolate-flavoured cereal out of her. He'd managed to ensure that they divided the toast and fruit pieces right down the middle, but she'd flatly refused to eat any sort of melon and so got all the pineapple and strawberries.

However, as he watched her munching on the last piece of toast, he couldn't stop the dark thoughts from crowding in again. He'd discovered that it was Monday. Soon Gloria Potter would probably arrive to whisk Angie off to school and then he'd be truly alone.

Angie put down her toast and gazed at him in concern. "What's the matter?"

"Everythin's fine." The prevarication was almost an automatic response.

Her scrutiny became vaguely reproving, "Y'know, you once promised never to lie to me."

His mortification must have been obvious, because she immediately backpedaled.

"It's okay! I used to get angry but Gloria explained it to me and I understand now!"

He blinked. Gloria Potter had in some way defended him? The woman didn't even like him.

"What did she say?"

"She said sometimes when you're sad, you pretend that you're not so I won't get sad too. She said that you were trying to be kind so I shouldn't feel betrayed."

"But DID you feel betrayed?"

She shook her head, "Not any more. But that first time you told me what your real name was and that everything before that was a lie. Well, the only thing that hurt worse than that was finding out Mama was dead."

He winced again and she pushed the breakfast tray out of the way so that she could climb over and hug him. After a moment he drew back, so that he could look into her eyes.

"So you could forgive me for betraying you like that?"

She nodded seriously, "You were really sorry and you were trying to make things alright again and well, I love you, Ezra. You're my best friend and I don't ever wanna lose you."

He drew her into a fierce embrace. "You won't, Angel girl. I promise you won't."

Then she also pulled back to give him a soul-searching look. "Ezra, I'm so happy that you're alright again that nothing's gonna make me sad. So you can tell me what the problem is. I won't mind."

He grinned at her and shook his head slightly in wonder at her juvenile perspicacity. The problem was a matter of dealing with betrayal and the solution had just been clearly delineated for him.

Putting aside this kind of injury would be difficult. But Angie must have also faced that difficulty and she had overcome it. Evidently, one sometimes had to sacrifice some pride, in order to conserve something of value. And he knew from experience that clinging solely to one's pride could leave a cold emptiness in your soul.

"It's nothin' that can't be fixed, Angie. Give me another hug and I'll be fine."

She did and he gleaned a last additional morsel of strength from her, before Gloria came to fetch her for school.

The sleepless night had taken its toll and Ezra had drifted off soon after Angie left. He remained asleep until late afternoon when he was awakened by a familiar minor uproar, dominated by an even more familiar strident voice.

"It HAS to be all've us. We won't be long but we HAVE to go in together."

The reply was relatively quiet and thus difficult to distinguish but then the strident voice returned.

"That was last night and he was probably tired. Honestly, he'll be glad to see us now."

Ezra dragged his eyes open. If they were leaving the negotiating to Buck, they'd need all the help they could get. He reached for and pressed the call for assistance button, and after he'd spoken briefly to the nurse, the six of them were ushered in.

It was all very well to sit back and detachedly decide on forgiveness. But now when faced with the actual task, Ezra still found residual anger warring with his resolution towards clemency and he didn't quite trust himself to speak.

But the silence didn't last more than a second anyway.

"Hiya, Ez!" said Buck heartily, "Feeling better? You LOOK better. Hey, we got you a present!" He produced the wrapped article from behind his back.

Ezra wasn't sure what he had expected but somehow this wasn't it. Where were all the justifications that they were going to put forward, and which he had been preparing himself to reluctantly accept? Somewhat stunned by this turn of events, he just stared at the gift in his hands and barely remembered to thank them.

"Hey, that's okay. Go on! Open it!"

Ezra complied to reveal a fine leather-bound copy of the Henry Fielding novel, 'Tom Jones'. They'd bought a book! And a piece of classic literature, at that! Stunned was no longer an adequate adjective, he was astounded.

Buck leaned over and opened the front cover for him. There was inscription inside. The handwriting was Buck's. The contents had to have been dictated (and spelled) by someone else.

To Ezra.

From Buck, Chris, JD, Josiah, Nathan and Vin.

For friendship's sake and in the hope that they will be forgiven the infringements perpetrated due to their lack of consideration and the unjust accusations made due to their lack of faith.

Remember, the quality of mercy is not strained.

"Do ya like it?" JD asked nervously.

"It's superb." Ezra tried to keep his voice under control but he could hear the catch in it.

"So," said Buck hopefully, "forgive and forget?"

Ezra laughed shortly, "Well, I already forgot it once. Might be a bit more difficult second time around. But y'all are already forgiven, in principle."

"Why?" Chris had noted Ezra's expression when they'd entered and hadn't expected forgiveness to given so easily.

Most of them didn't understand Ezra's little self-deprecating little smile, as he looked up at them. "Because you're sorry and you're tryin' to make things right again and because y'all are my friends and I don't really want to lose you."

But Josiah raised an eyebrow, "Why do I get the feeling that's a borrowed piece of wisdom?"

Ezra grinned at him, "Because you're a gentleman and a scholar." He picked up his gift and regarded it thoughtfully. "Speakin' of which, were y'all tryin' to tell me somethin'? The eponymous hero of this tale wasn't completely innocent. He just wasn't guilty of the particular transgressions which he was accused of and punished for."

"Oh," said JD, "Is that what it's about? Josiah just said that it was appropriate and that you'd understand what it meant."

"And I thought it was about the guy who sang that Deliah song!" Buck added.

Ezra shook his head in mock resignation. "To call you lot 'uncultured' would have to be one of the grossest understatements of the century!"

"Uncultured?" said Buck indignantly, "How ungrateful! That's not the only present we got ya!" He indicated the dressing which was still attached to the side of Ezra's head, "Don't know if you realise but underneath that, they had to shave off a bit of your hair when they operated. And knowing how vain you are about such things, we gotcha something to cover it."

He tossed a Colorado Rockies baseball cap onto the bed. Ezra groaned, "Oh, no!"

"Don't be like that!" Buck admonished, "Here put it on!" And, suiting word to action, he placed it on Ezra's head.

Nathan reached over and handed him a wrapped package whose size and shape irredeemably identified the contents as a deck of cards. However, when he unwrapped it, Ezra was surprised to find 'Old Maid' rather than the traditional deck.

"What's this for?"

Nathan looked at the others, "He IS ungrateful, isn't he?" Then he directed his gaze back to Ezra. "What does it look like? Thought you and Angie could play. After all, you can hardly play stud poker with her!"

Ezra just looked at him.

Nathan was incredulous. "Do you mean to tell me that you've already begun corruptin' that poor child?"

"Me?" Ezra did his best impersonation of injured innocence. "Angie's mother taught her to play poker long before I even met her. And she has an aptitude for it which would probably alarm you."

"No doubt," Josiah grinned and then handed a box of liqueur chocolates to Ezra who regarded them with suspicion.

This gift was far too traditional. Ezra knew that he had to be missing something but he couldn't think what. So he looked up and raised an eyebrow at Josiah who sighed.

"Don't tell me you've forgotten that too. I simply don't believe you. These are the same type you used to try and bribe little Eugene. The only time I've seen your Pied Piper act fall flat on its face."

"LITTLE Eugene?" exclaimed Ezra, "That boy was gargantuan!"

"Oh, yeah!" Buck burst into raucous laughter, "Didn't he guzzle a whole box then throw up all over ya?"

Ezra winced and nodded.

"Oh well," said Nathan, "Just be grateful you never used the chocolate bribery trick on Angie."

Ezra laughed at that, "Actually, I did. But she had the graciousness to only take the one offered to her. Eugene was the most gluttonous and obnoxious excuse for a child that I've ever had the misfortune to encounter."

"Hey! Hang on, Ez!" Buck's chivalry asserted itself. "You're talking about a nice lady's son."

Ezra wasn't backing down, "Only a mother could love him! And what are YOU goin' on about, anyway? She nearly took your head off when she caught you tellin' him tales of your less than savoury exploits!"

JD snorted at the memory which earned him an elbow in the ribs from Buck.

Ezra eyed the group as whole, "Well, thank you for such a splendid trip down memory lane! Next time, can I have an anaesthetic?"

"But wait, there's more!" Vin grinned evilly, "Remember when you were trapped with Lydia and Emily and the only way to get out safely was to disguise ya as a woman? Well, I know that you were so fond of that little purple number you wore that afterwards you went out and ritually burnt it. So, we just HAD to get ya another one."

Ezra was horrified as he watched Vin deposit a bundle of purple silk on the bed. Then he folded his arms and glared at them.

"THAT is NEVER goin' to be worn!"

Chris smiled and Ezra's apprehension went up several notches.

"Yeah, perhaps you might be a bit overdressed in that," the 'fearless leader' admitted, "So we gotcha another outfit."

He too deposited the 'outfit' on the bed. Strictly speaking it was a tablecloth, a green-patterned tablecloth with a decorative fringe, to be exact.

Ezra opened his mouth to protest but he simply couldn't find the words and Buck took advantage of his uncharacteristic silence.

"Yeah, I've always meant to ask you about that. I mean, I can understand why you had to get out of that place pretty damn fast. But I just can't figure out why you arrived wearing only a tablecloth."

Ezra had gone bright red but he spoke slowly and deliberately, "I was havin' a shower."

"But Ez, when you're in the shower, most people would grab a bathrobe or a towel. What I don't see is why a tablecloth was the closest thing on hand."

There was no way that Exra was going to elaborate any further. Instead, he buried his face in his hands with a tortured moan.

When he looked up, he was blinded by a camera flash.

"An eight-by-twelve copy of that's going up on the office wall!" JD grinned.

"JD...," growled Ezra and pointed a warning finger in his direction. But JD just snapped off another photo. Ezra almost lunged forward to grab the camera but was stopped by the sound of a woman's voice.

"Isn't this a bit raucous for a hospital ward?"

They looked around to see Gloria Potter and Angie Velasquez in the doorway.

"Nice hat, Ezra," said Angie.

Gloria looked at the purple garment draped across the bed, "Nice dress."

Ezra looked at her hopefully, "Would you like it? It's really not my style."

Gloria shook her head, "I really couldn't deprive you."

Angie ambled over to deposit herself on edge of the bed and asked, "How's your day been, Ezra?"

"Restful for the most part. And yours?"

"Interesting."

Gloria made a small exasperated noise then said, "She was asked to stand up and give a talk on 'my best friend'. So she decided to tell them how she met you. It's the first time I've ever heard of a first grade class presentation being censored for violence and language. She made several of her classmates cry and then went to war with the teacher because Angie had decided that she was only reporting the truth."

Ezra tried desperately but he couldn't stop himself from laughing. Nor could his colleagues.

Gloria tried to look stern, "You lot are hopeless!" But she couldn't completely keep the amusement out of her voice either.

Ezra held his arms out to Angie, "Come here, Quentin Tarantino!"

She embraced him tightly and whispered in his ear, "Are you okay, now?"

He drew her back to look into her eyes again. "Everythin's fine."

She scrutinized his face for a second before breaking into a huge grin, "Yeah, I believe you, this time!"

They glanced around when Gloria called their names and the camera flash went off again.

"Another one for the office wall!" declared JD.

"And I want a copy to frame and hang over my mantelpiece!" added Gloria, who was now holding the camera.

Ezra took an appraising look at the mirthful crowd gathered at his bedside. It was time for a little retaliation and now he was certain that he could count on the presence of a willing and able accomplice.

He threw her a significant glance, his hand resting on a corner of the green tablecloth which lay on his bed. Angie dipped her head slightly in acknowledgment as her hand dropped to another corner of the tablecloth. With a swift simultaneous flick of their wrists, they launched the cloth over the heads of those beside the bed then pulled it back, ensnaring several of them.

Gloria had seen them perform this manoeuvre before and deftly sidestepped. And Vin, Chris and Josiah were also able to evade it. But Buck, JD and Nathan were hopelessly entangled and went down in a flailing heap of arms, legs and green cloth.

Angie managed to give Ezra a high-five before collapsing onto his bed in a fit of giggles. But as Ezra wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, he realised that their triumph would probably be brief.

The formidable nurse in charge of Intensive Care was bearing down on them with an expression fiercer than an arctic blizzard.

The four people standing beside the bed and the three trying to pick themselves up off the floor, also watched with a little trepidation and a lot of anticipation.

They simply couldn't wait to see Ezra and Angie try and talk their way out of this one.

END

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