He sat there staring at his own hand. All five digits, fine-boned, tapered, smooth save for a callous on his trigger finger, and covered in blood.
Shaking his head, he blinked and checked again. Sure enough, it was blood. But oddly enough, his hand didn't hurt. He lifted the other. Nor did this one. Yet his head pounded so hard, so insistently, the room was fading in and out in bright flashes and vague white shadows.
He raised his head with more difficulty than he thought possible, and looked blearily at the room he was in. Hospital, he recognized in a daze. White walls, metal cabinets lining the walls, and a tray pulled up close to him and the gurney he was on, along with wads of bloody cotton.
He swallowed. There was a lot of cotton. He drew in a shaky breath, finding himself both relieved and apprehensive he was in a hospital. Not a clinic or some hotel room where he could lick his wounds, waiting for the door to be kicked in by some thug or scumbag who'd discovered his true identity or, worse, a friend who no longer was a friend but a—
"Here you go, sir. These are the forms to fill out. Be sure you list your medical insurance correctly on the bottom. Someone will be with you shortly." A clipboard was placed on top of his bloody hands. A whiff of antiseptic and clean cotton, a flash of a white uniform, and the nurse was gone before he could ask where he was. He stared blankly at the door that swung shut behind the voice and caught his own reflection fuzzily on the chicken-wired glass.
Wide green eyes stared back from a pasty face topped with chestnut hair in complete disarray. He raised his hand toward it, then stopped. He couldn't even determine if it was slicked back before or swept up in some sort of disguise. He felt a cold chill of panic tightening his chest as the realization sunk in. Why was he in the hospital? Shot? Trembling fingers touched his face half-masked in blood. He didn't even dare touch the huge gash on his head that matched its phantom on the glass. No. Not shot. But hurt. Oh, yes, much hurt, very hurt.
Ouch. He bit back a laugh. How very coherent and verbose of him. He brushed his hand against his chest, wishing the blood would wipe clean, but succeeded only in smearing it across his palms and his wrists. Suit. He wasn't wearing a suit, but that wasn't saying much. His pullover sweater was stained, the neckline stretched from where he pulled at it as he fought for air. He could see an odd striped bruise slowly purpling across his aching left shoulder. He shuddered. A ghost sensation of being crushed, confined, choking on a strap across his throat made him shudder.
Looking at his own face—so unfamiliar and so unsettled—made his stomach churn. He looked away but found staring at the slick colored illustrations of a body's cutout even more disturbing, so he lowered his gaze to the clipboard the nurse had shoved into his hands.
They were forms.
He raised a shaky hand, tracing the rough, mangled chain that attached pen to clipboard until he found the writing instrument. Forms. The nurse said he needed to fill them before he could get help.
He raised his head. Help? Did he wanted help? No. He didn't need it. He could take care of himself. No need for anyone to look over their shoulder and remember he was there. Didn't matter if they forgot his name, or his presence, or that he could hear words—harsh or jeering—and might care that they believed the rumors over his own word. No. He didn't want anyone's help… No, wait, wasn't that why he was there? Hospital. Hospital was for help. For the other kind of hurt.
He stared at the cheap plastic pen in his hand, then at the forms.
Name of patient.
He almost wished he drew a blank, but what was worse was the fact that he not only didn't draw a blank, he drew many names, so many, they spun in his head until he grew breathless. He swayed before he braced himself with a dubiously steady hand on the bed.
What name, damn it? He breathed in shallow, quick gasps. Eric Stack, loan shark? Ethan Straton, mafia accountant for the Giovanni family? No, he remembered that name's legacy ending in a blaze of fire, him chained to the wall beaten half-conscious, watching with a smirk as the head of the family was taken down with a well-placed bullet courtesy of one Vincent Tanner before the promised bullet to his own head was delivered. Eli Singer, the forger? Evan Smith, the dealer? God, no, he hoped not. He hated the ill feeling Smith gave him. Every night after bidding that garbage Kurt Kepler good night, he went back to his alias' hotel room, helped himself to a stiff drink to forget the nonchalant way Kepler talked about his buying and selling of young children, and then had a hot shower. Many showers, in fact. He scrubbed his skin clean every night until it was raw and red. No, please, not him. Anyone but him.
His hand shook as he started to write out his first name. E…He stopped. Ezra…Standish? Which one? His head spun. He felt achy, his face pinched in agony. Why did it hurt to think?
Was it Denver? Today, was he Ezra Standish, ATF undercover agent for Team Seven? An exiled FBI agent sent far from Atlanta, Ezra Standish, whose life was hidden away in a cold, empty townhouse filled with dusty packing boxes yet to be opened. It'd been—God, he couldn't remember—six months? A year? Why couldn't he remember?
Ezra swallowed again, his pen trailing off the 'E' to a crooked line that marred the top half of the page. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could hear his heart hammering loudly in his chest.
Maybe there was no Denver. Atlanta. Maybe it had always been Atlanta. He was really in Atlanta, and the past year was nothing more than wishful thinking that he'd found a team he could almost dare call his friends; people who he knew wouldn't turn away at the first sign of doubt on his credibility, people who wouldn't sneer and mock the façade he wore and believe that was all he really contained. He— Ezra raised a hand to his face, forgetting for a moment it was covered in presumably his blood. He was sitting here because of a failed raid? Perhaps his department deposited him again in a nearby hospital and went back to work. Yes, it would explain the queasiness in his gut, the urge to vomit and—
No, that couldn't be it. Both hands on his face now, Ezra bowed his head. He groaned. If only the pounding would stop just a minute so he could think. Nothing was making sense. Couldn't be Atlanta because that wouldn't have bothered him. What his co-workers thought of him was no concern. As long as the job was done, the con pulled, the evidence gathered, what did it matter to him that he was always the outsider? As long as the job got done, right?
Where was he? Who was he this time? Oh, if his mother could see him right now. Maude Standish would have ample ammo for her argument that he was wasting his "god-given talents on unappreciative civil servants."
Wait. His mother? Maybe he was Ezra Standish, a.k.a. Edward P. Simpson a.k.a. Eugene P. Standish Von Gretson or Von—damn it, what number was it this time for his mother? Husband number five? Eight? No, it was four when he'd finally had enough, packed his bags and his share of the take, and left for college, keeping his original surname of Standish. It was his father's, and he didn't want anyone else's name attached like a long, strangling chain.
Maude was appalled, and it wasn't until graduation before she grudgingly agreed it was the best move for him. An education would do wonders in pulling their next con, she had declared. Ezra enjoyed immensely telling her otherwise; he was going to Quantico instead to train as an FBI agent. His normally quick-witted mother for the first time had nothing to say, sputtering as he calmly packed his bags for Virginia. She warned him she didn't support this. How could she? Ezra shrugged at her warning. It wasn't like he expected her to be proud or to even show up for the graduation ceremony.
The room lights flared, and Ezra flinched. He moaned, his head dropping lower until his chin touched his chest. His head was slowly being squeezed like a vise, one turn at a time. He sagged, elbows on his knees, one hand still curled around the pen now pressed to his forehead. He pondered briefly on how unsightly it would be if the nurse were to discover him in a heap on her nice clean linoleum floor.
He didn't care about Maude not showing up for the ceremony. Not like she'd ever shown up for his high school or either of his university ones, either. And for the record, he didn't wait outside Harvard to see if her limo would turn the corner of the campus, forgivably late. Actually, he was debating on how to maneuver the new car Maude had sent over as a birthday gift—on a rare occasion she did remember—out of the parking lot through the thralls of students and proud parents. No, he didn't care. Would have been such a hassle trying to leave that day anyway. Besides, the reservations at the nearby restaurant served a much better purpose for one of his classmates, whose parents were able to come after all to see his graduation. Let them celebrate. It didn't matter. Didn't bother him one bit. Just a stepping-stone before Quantico.
Maybe he was sitting here on this gurney yet again a hapless victim of one of Maude's cons that must have gone awry, leaving him holding the figurative bag or being on the receiving end of a disgruntled mark who came to collect a few lumps. the last one had broken his arm, but luckily no one noticed or cared during finals his last year of high school. The cast was fitted enough to stay hidden in his shirtsleeves and healed well before Maude called upon him again during spring break.
Perhaps Eli Smith wasn't so bad, after all.
His mouth went dry. He clutched the pen tight in his palm. So who is it? Ezra Standish? Earl Stotz? Edison Schmitz? He gulped, feeling bile rising past his throat. Hurt. His arm hurt. His back hurt. His head hurt. And that was the worst, pounding rhythmically as quickly as his pulse and unrelenting. Tears sprang to his eyes when he tried to raise his chin past the height of his shoulders, and any wisp of memory or thought fled as quickly as it came.
The pen in his hand taunted him. Standish? Schwartz? Edwin? Eliot? Ezra? The form remained empty, and staring at the blank lines was doing nothing more than making him sicker and sicker…
"There you are!" A resonant voice cut through his disorder, the exasperated words drifting over to Ezra. A sharp exhale followed as the newcomer got his first good look at him.
Ezra didn't move. Even when scuffed black boots came into view, he couldn't raise his head. Took too much effort, so he gave up the pretense of trying. Didn't even blink when the clipboard was pulled off his lap, the pen carefully pried from of his fingers.
"Been waiting all night. Then JD heard about that pileup on the 710. You okay?"
No, he wasn't. He didn't know what to write down, and it was really asinine, quite ridiculous to think he could not think of something to write down after years of staring down guns, hostile faces of both criminals and co-workers alike, lying through his teeth to doctors about false fathers who were supposed to care and to people to show he didn't care. No. His mind was blank. No, actually, it was too full. Glass half-empty but really overflowing and—what was he saying before? Ironic when the forms were still blank. Nothing, empty, of little value and use and— Wait, what was he saying before?
A hand curled around his shoulder, startling him. He turned his head slowly to stare at the warm, solid presence resting heavily on his right shoulder. Nails need a manicure, he thought fuzzily. He swayed.
"Whoa, don't think that's a good idea," the voice rumbled close to his ear. Ezra blinked when he realized his feet were touching the floor—sort of—and he was standing—kind of—but he didn't feel as steady. His arms floundered as he fought for balance. Another hand whipped forward, around his middle.
"Okay, back up we go," the speaker said matter-of-factly, and Ezra found himself hoisted up. The other man grunted. "Like I was saying, JD heard on the radio about the pileup. Vin had a hunch and tracked down your car. We made a few calls and found out which hospital you were taken to." The hands departed, and Ezra felt oddly bereft. He shivered. When had it gotten so cold?
"Josiah's outside talking to the kid's parents now," the voice continued. "Lucky you saw that kid when you did. Kid can go home to his parents with only a scratch. Bet it'll be the last time he ride his bike at night." A pause. Hazel eyes swept up and down his person.
Ezra hunched over as the eyes narrowed, lingering on the dried blood on his pullover.
"Next time, be sure to stick a contact card in your wallet. Save us the trouble." The voice sounded a little gruff. Ezra felt a squeeze on his knee, but it was fleeting, so quick, he must have imagined it.
"Too bad those two SUVs didn't see you in time."
SUVs? He stared blankly at the floor that was now an appropriate distance away. His legs were swinging on the gurney again. SUVs? Yes, he remembered hearing a screech, a crunch, his own voice yelling, fear that he didn't veer away in time, a rueful thought that the one time he finally agreed to go to one of their gatherings, this happened. It was never meant to be…
"Buck coaxed the nurse to let us see you. She's waiting on those forms, you know," the voice chided.
"Sorry," Ezra croaked. He jumped. God, was that him speaking? It sounded so hoarse, cracked, worn and thin.
"For what?" The voice sounded amused. "Nathan's outside. We'll get someone in here soon enough."
Ezra raised his head and found himself meeting the steady yet concerned pair of hazel eyes.
"What is it?" The voice gentled.
"I—" He floundered, fumbling for the clipboard the man held in his hands. Even sitting on the gurney, Ezra was dwarfed by this person, and it took some doing before he could reclaim the clipboard he needed to fill out. "I, uh need to fill this out." He clutched the clipboard to his chest.
"We'll do it," the voice said smoothly, taking it out of his hands again. Ezra's hands fluttered uselessly for it before dropping limply to his lap.
"I don't know what to…" Ezra swallowed. "Name…" He raised his gaze, pleading with the speaker. "Name?"
The eyes widened, then crinkled sadly. He didn't give Ezra back the clipboard, though, tucking it behind him, beyond Ezra's reach. Ezra stared at it, around the slim athletic build.
The door swung open loudly, and a young voice excitingly burst through. Ezra flinched.
"Hey, you found him! Great, Nathan's threatening to arrest one of the ER docs right now if he didn't treat Ez, but he didn't know where Ez was, either, and, wow, that's a lot of blood! Hey, Nate! You're sure they said it was just a concussion? He's gushing blood out here!" The newcomer was now hollering down the halls. Ezra groaned. The voice was drilling a hole in his head. He sagged sideways. The man caught him with a firm grip around his shoulders.
"JD," the man said tersely above Ezra's head. "Quit your yelling. Step outside for a moment."
"Huh?" JD sounded puzzled. "But—" Another step into the room and he stopped. "Oh, okay. I'll just go get Nathan and get Ez some help."
The speaker only murmured his thanks, and the door swung shut again. But even muffled, Ezra could hear the loud steps of youth echoing out in the hallways.
"Concussion, huh?" The speaker sighed, and the grip tightened for a moment. "That explains a lot."
Ezra kept staring stupidly at the clipboard. Help? He needed to fill that out first. "Ethan?" he croaked.
The speaker sounded amused. "Wrong again."
"Elan? Nope. Guess again."
He looked up at the blonde speaker, who apparently knew his name but wasn't sharing. His mind reeled with confusion.
"Edgar?" he tried again.
The speaker made a face.
Ezra squinted, trying to pluck the names he knew directed at him. "Bastard?" he supplied.
The smile faded a little.
"Snake? Traitor?" Ezra was growing desperate. Why couldn't he remember?
"Edward, Edison, Eliot, conniving, good-for-nothing, dirty cop, no good piece of—"
"Stop it," the speaker said sharply, all joviality gone.
Another brief squeeze around Ezra. He felt his eyes burn.
"Which one?" Ezra whispered, his head drooping low.
The door opened again and footsteps, barely audible, entered the room a step and nothing more.
"Everything okay here, cowboy?" someone drawled quietly. Ezra could barely hear him above the hum of the machinery around him.
"Yeah." Ezra felt the gurney move as the speaker sat and joined him. A sharp shoulder bumped against his. "Just a bit of confusion that needs clearing up."
"Need me to get Josiah?"
"Nathan's chomping at the bit out here. Got himself a doctor. Doc here's looking mite perturbed with those handcuffs on."
A rumble against Ezra's side told him the speaker was laughing. "Thought the kid was joking."
"Not about this," the newcomer said without any mirth in his voice.
The speaker sobered. "No. Suppose not." He cleared his voice. "Give us a minute, Vin."
"I'll be outside." The newcomer paused. Another step closer, then perhaps sensing Ezra was feeling ill, perhaps fearing his footwear would be in peril, didn't come any closer. "Good to see you're okay, Ez."
Ez? Ezra? He didn't dare to hope. He lifted his chin and looked at the door hopefully, but the speaker was already gone. Which Ezra? Which one?
"Let me tell you," the man said, pulling the clipboard onto his own lap. And without pause, he scribbled the name in neat print, writing it so hard with the pen tight in his fist, the form crinkled to a small tear when he finished the surname with an uncharacteristic flourish.
He leaned forward, so far forward, the speaker gripped his shoulders, admonishing him to stay still. Eyes blurring from the light far too bright still for his liking, he looked at the name.
Ezra Standish. City of residence: Denver.
Denver. Not Atlanta, not some hyphenated name's home, or an anonymous hotel room. Ezra Standish, Denver.
He didn't realize how important those words were until he touched them, cringing as his bloody fingers left red scars on the remaining part of the form.
"Okay?" the speaker asked quietly, grabbing his wrist and carefully removing it from the form before he could stain it further. "That okay, Standish?"
"Yes," Ezra whispered. He blinked furiously. "It's most satisfactory." He looked up. The speaker's face wavered, but still he was finally able to draw a name. "Most satisfactory. Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Something flickered across the older agent's face, and a rare smile graced his lips. "You're welcome." He slid off the gurney in one smooth motion, pressing the clipboard into Ezra's hands. Ezra felt a hand cupping the back of his neck, guiding him to lie on his back, a steady and reassuring murmur in his ear that he was going to let Nathan in now with the doctor. Ezra only nodded mutely. He was suddenly so tired. He vaguely heard the door swish open again and more than two voices came clamoring in. Out of the cacophony, he was still able to pluck out his teammates' voices: from JD's rapid-fire questions to the deep rumble of Josiah's voice to the quiet drawl of Vin's comments. Ezra stared at the ceiling, holding tighter to the clipboard.
"Sir?" A pockmark-faced man floated into his view. Ezra thought he could hear handcuffs clanging again the gurney. "Sir? I'm Doctor Adams—Agent Jackson, I really need these things off now if I'm to help your friend here. Sir? I'm Doctor Adams. Can you hear me?"
Ezra sighed out loud. "I can hear you," he slurred. "You needn't shout." He heard Josiah's chuckle as something metallic clicked, Nathan's voice sheepishly apologizing, Buck barking out some comment.
"Do you remember what happened, sir?"
"Accident?" Ezra managed. He tensed when the doctor tried to remove the clipboard from his grasp.
"Leave it," Chris' voice sailed over him, cold and flat, from his immediate left.
The doctor sighed. "Really, I need to…"
"I said, leave it." The barely audible words left no room for argument.
The doctor sighed again. "Sir? Do you remember what happened exactly?"
"A miscreant in a goliath gas-guzzler squashed my car," Ezra said. He tried to open his eyes wider. He hissed when a small pinpoint flashlight glared into one of his pupils. Ezra jerked his head away.
"Do you remember what day it is today?"
"Tuesday." Or he thought so.
"Ahem. And where are you?"
Ezra paused. "Denver?" he said tentatively, feeling relieved when the doctor didn't correct him.
"And your name?"
Ezra turned his head to his left and looked at Chris. The team leader stared back stoically.
"Sir? Your name?"
A small smile curved his lips. "Ezra P. Standish," he whispered, still looking at Chris. His eyes fluttered shut, but the last thing he saw was Chris' nod at the name. Ezra fell back into the darkness despite the doctor's warnings, the clipboard still clutched to his chest. Ezra Standish. His name was Ezra P. Standish, and he was finally among friends.
It was all he really needed to know