Rubbing tiredly at his face Ezra sank into the uncomfortable, bright orange molded plastic chair. He felt tired and raw, jittery, though the jitters had nothing to do with the gallons of coffee he seemed to be living on. Instead it was the steady beep of the heart monitor that had him on edge as he waited for it to shift from constant to a grating monotonous tone that signaled the end.
It had happened and would again. The last time the jarring sound had shaken him from his nightmares and he had stumbled to his feet only to be pushed away by nurses in scrubs far too bright for the hopelessness represented by the intensive care unit. That time the alarm had been ended, sent back into the steady sound that was supposed to be reassuring but wasn’t.
Reassuring for him would be silence of the monitors, would be his lover conscious and not tied down, his lover breathing alone. Not being in this dreary room, but being at home, curled against his lover’s lean body. A steady grating sound he heard in his dreams, when he did manage to sleep, was not reassuring.
Ezra hunched forward, elbows on the neat blankets, all thoughts of proper posture gone. Proper posture is for in public, when appearances are to be maintained. Here, where the nurses knock before entering and bring him coffee, where they have given up trying to make him feel better with their forced cheerfulness posture is not important.
He picked up Chris’ hand, the one without the IV, rubbing at sharp ridges of bone and lax tendons. Raising the hand Ezra pressed his lips to the back of it, swallowing hard against the ball of emotion that knotted tighter in the center of his chest. His inner mind screamed at the wrongness of it, how even now Chris’ hand seemed so warm when the rest of him was cold, his vibrant intensity burned away because some idiot gunrunners had felt the need to get revenge.
- The group hadn’t even been a big player in the long run, just a jumped up gang making it easy for people to get automatic weapons.
He had been leaning against Chris, warm from the drink and the heat radiating off the other man. The team knew about them, had for months, though they rarely touched when around them. Maintaining the balance of the team was more important their personal time together. Because of the alcohol or still riding high on a job well done Chris hadn’t minded his closeness, had in fact pulled him closer for a kiss.
The squeal of tires had caught all their attention as a sedan of indeterminate colour had rounded the corner, moving at a fast clip towards the Saloon. A gun barrel had been sticking out the back window and before Ezra had been able to react Chris had pushed him to the ground just as gunfire echoed through the streets.
Under the sound of gunfire Ezra had heard the sound of bullets penetrating flesh, Chris’ choked off cry of pain. He had felt Chris collapse next to him and ignoring the danger he had shifted to crouch over the blond’s body, hands seeking the injuries he knew where there.
The car had disappeared as quickly as it had come and seconds later Nathan was kneeling next to him, competent hands pressing down on the wounds in Chris’ chest as he yelled for someone to call 911. Chris’ breathing had been wet and harsh, darkness staining his lips, eyes open and unseeing.
By some miracle of Nathan’s Chris had still been breathing when the paramedics had arrived. Buck had claimed a ride in the ambulance as he still had Chris’ medical proxy, changed right after Sarah and Adam had been killed.
The police had arrived only shortly after the ambulance, wanting their statements. Josiah, standing strong in light of the officer’s pushing to get Ezra and Vin’s statements, had sent the two of them to the hospital. He had in no uncertain terms told the officer, and the detective that had shown up minutes later that they were going to have to be happy with three accounts for the time being instead of five.
An hour later Nathan, Josiah and JD has arrived at the hospital, all of them looking drawn and frustrated. Their frustration only deepened when they found out there had been no word on Chris’ condition that even Buck hadn’t been out to tell them anything.
Another hour passed and Buck had finally shown up, long body drooping, dark eyes haunted. Chris had crashed twice in the ambulance, the second for upwards of eight minutes.
None of them had left the hospital or the waiting room. Even Ezra, hands streaked in Chris’ blood hadn’t moved, had barely twitched to clean the blood off his hands with the antibacterial wipes provided with a nurse.
There hadn’t been an update until almost seven that morning. Chris had died again on the table, though through another seeming miracle had been brought back again. He was stable but still in critical condition and breathing with the help of a ventilator. A bullet had pierced his lung, another had perforated his stomach, a third had come dangerously close to his left kidney and a forth had become lodged near his spine.
Numb it had taken all of Ezra’s concentration not to break down.
A soft knock broke Ezra from his reverie and he glanced at the door, not surprised to see it was Amelia. She was one of the few nurses whose scrubs didn’t offend him in their colour. “Good morning Amelia.”
“Ezra, honey, you need some sleep. You look like you’re going to fall over. Couldn’t you take the day off and go home?” The only reason Ezra didn’t get offended by her perpetual pet names for him was because she was older than his mother with the same iron backbone that kept people from arguing with her.
Ezra shook his head, Chris’ hand pressed against his cheek. “We’re busy with cold cases and helping other teams with theirs. I know its just busy work Travis gave us to keep us occupied but it doesn’t help.”
Nothing could help the gnawing emptiness in his chest anymore. Three weeks since the shooting with very few leads, the Denver Police Department doing everything they could since many of them still considered Chris one of their own. Three weeks and four crashes and Chris still hadn’t woken, hadn’t showed any signs of awareness at all.
He pressed another kiss to Chris’ hand and stood, chair scrapping back on the linoleum, the sound loud in the room. All of a sudden it was too much. He needed desperately to get away from the hospital, to try and forget the picture before him, Chris wrapped in machinery and pale, the flame of his personality banked so low it was almost gone.
Ignoring the worry he could feel in Amelia’s gaze Ezra brushed his fingers over Chris’ cheek before leaving the room without a word.
Only once he was in the safety of the Jag and the darkness of the parking complex did Ezra let the rest of his façade slip away. Forehead resting on the top curve of the steering wheel he closed his eyes, hands digging into his knees. Three weeks and it was damn near impossible for him to see Chris in his mind’s eye as he had once been, gloriously alive, lips curled into that familiar wicked grin.
Everything was fading away.
Entering the office was the same as it had been every day since the accident. JD’s dark eyes hopeful, the hope melting away when he shook his head. The others were more resigned, having seen more of the darkness of life.
Ezra draped his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down, pulling the stack of files close. The amount of paperwork they had sifted through since the accident was truly astonishing. They had all seen through Travis’ ruse the moment the boxes of old files had been brought up to their offices. The AD had given them work that could be dropped at a moment’s notice, knowing that nothing would get done until they had word on Chris. There would be no new cases, no new team leader. Chris was the only one strong enough to keep the infamous Team Seven under control.
Opening the file in front of him Ezra glanced up at Chris’ office. The door was closed, the blinds drawn, as silent and empty as its occupant.
“He crashed again.”
He felt Buck tense and he caught the man’s shirt. “They brought him back…barely.”
The others had joined them and Ezra felt hands touch he and Buck, soothing and tightening the web of familial ties.
A wave of cool air touched his chest and Ezra drew his robe tighter as he ghosted through the great room of the ranch, unable to sleep. Usually he spent his nights in his town house, to be closer to the hospital in case something happened in the middle of the night. This night however, the draw of the ranch had been too great and he had come out, telling Buck and Vin he would take care of the horses, to give them a break from making the long drive out and back.
Cleaning out the stalls, something he normally avoided at all costs had been the mind numbing labor he had been looking for. The muscles in his chest, back and arms had been stiff with pain afterwards as he had dumped all his frustration into the removal of soiled straw and manure.
None of the lights in the house were on, the room illuminated by the moonlight streaming in through the large window. The mantle of the massive stone fireplace was littered with pictures. Chris and Buck in the Navy. Wedding pictures of just Chris and Sarah and two with Buck, several pictures of Adam, as a baby and older.
There were several pictures of the team, all of them on horseback or at the weekly barbeques. JD was forever flitting around on gatherings with his digital cameras taking pictures and they all had copies of them.
And hidden slightly behind the team pictures was another one, in a dark frame of he and Chris. In the picture they were standing on the deck, facing each other. It was obvious they had just finished arguing about something, from the flush on his cheeks and the determined look in Chris’ eyes. Chris’ hand was curled around his neck, thumb rubbing the skin below his ear.
The picture had some how managed to capture the essence of their relationship, if only in the faintest of ways. They still bumped heads at every turn and got aggravated with each other on a regular basis. But under that had been tenderness and other emotions neither of them had ever given voice to.
Eyes squeezed shut Ezra sank into the huge leather arm chair, hand pressed to his chest. “We can’t continue this way.”
Ezra paused in his reading of The Odyssey long enough to turn the page before he started again, his words a soft counterpoint to the constant beeping. The doctors had said touch and sound was important to recovery but after a month and a half Ezra had started to lose faith.
The only reason he had even brought it in was because he could remember Chris telling him it had been one of the few things he had enjoyed reading in high school. He had been digging through a box of books looking for something else when he had found his own copy of The Odyssey, its cover torn and worn smooth from having been handled so many times.
Reaching out he resumed touching Chris’ hand, fingers brushing over joints that were becoming more pronounced every day. Chris had healed, the four entrance wounds nothing more than fresh puckers of scar tissue. Physically he was fine but even the doctors were not so confident in whether or not he would ever regain consciousness.
Ezra looked up from the book when he heard his teammates’ voices, not surprised they had shown up, since ten was the start of visiting hours on Saturdays. He had never paid any attention to the posted hours and the nurses and security had stopped trying to force him to leave after he had managed to sneak back into the room. Closing the book he set it on the small table next to the bed and raised Chris’ hand, lips brushing across the back before he gently tucked it back under the covers.
One by one the team streamed into the room, their chatter falling off. Each of them touched Chris, on the hand, shoulder and Buck’s touch lingered the longest, brushing hair off Chris’ forehead.
A stack of chairs had taken up permanent residence in the corner of the private room and they were moved into a circle around the bed. Ezra leaned back in his own chair, hand sliding under the blanket to touch Chris’ fingers, needing the comfort of the contact even if Chris was no longer with them. A quick glance to his left showed Vin watching him, the faintest hint of a smile visible.
Not able to return the feeling Ezra dropped his head, chin resting on his chest. Eyes closed he tangled his fingers with his lover’s and listened as the other men talked, their soft words drifting from the weather to sports to the cases they were working on. After four months they were back to working on their own cases, though without Chris’ guidance it took them longer to get everything organized.
Ezra waited until the conversation had died down before looking up at his friends. Josiah looked even older; his body slumped in the chair. Buck looked absolutely lost and on closer inspection Ezra was sure there would be grey hairs amid the darkness. Nathan’s face was pinched and he looked tired. Most of JD’s innocence had burned away, leaving him subdued. Shadows darkened Vin’s eyes, blunting their sharpness. He didn’t need a mirror to know he no longer looked his best.
They were fading away as surely as Chris was.
He cleared his throat and felt everyone looking at him. Feeling suddenly tongue tied he licked his lips, taking the moment to get his thoughts in order. “I-” He paused and when he finally managed to find his voice it was barely more than a murmur. “I think we need to let Chris go.”
There was a moment of silence as the others processed his words. Buck was the first to react, his eyes hard with anger. “What the hell Ezra? I never thought you’d be the one to give up first.”
Not breaking eye contact with Buck Ezra set his other hand on the bed, his fingers inches from Chris’ hip. “I’m not giving up. I want him back as much as the rest of you. How long was he not breathing in the ambulance Buck? Almost twelve minutes. You heard what the doctors said, that the chance of brain damage was high under the circumstances. They can’t be sure that he’ll ever wake up.”
Ezra pulled Chris’ hand from under the blanket and pressed it to his cheek, eyes never breaking from Buck. “You nearly lost him five years ago after the fire Buck. Remember how that felt, to know that you’d lost someone you loved to something beyond your control, never knowing whether or not they would be coming back.”
He glanced at the others who were all motionless, seeming to be hanging off his every word. “You got him back for two years Buck. Is this really how you want to remember him, lying in this bed, unable to breathe on his own? Do you want him to be killed by some infection in the middle of the night, alone?”
“There are no guarantees he is ever going to come back to us Buck. And even if he does ever wake up, there is a chance he won’t ever be the Chris Larabee we all know and care for. Are you really holding on to him because you believe he’ll wake up or is it a more selfish reason, that you can’t let go of the one person who hasn’t left you in fourteen years? You know as well as we all do that if it was you in the bed Chris would let you go. Chris would mourn but he’d let you go, knowing it was for the best.”
Standing he kept hold of Chris’ hand. He knew his next words would hurt, could possibly break the team apart but they had to be said. “You have his medical powers Buck, it is your decision but know this. If you dither on this I will take matters into my own hands.”
JD’s gasp filled the silence of the room. Ezra knew it was dumb, to so neatly admit to his ability to commit murder of someone he cared for but it had to be done. He was tired of watching Chris waste away, of trying to keep up a front of optimism for the others.
“That would be murder. Federal agents don’t do well in prison.”
At Josiah’s words Ezra looked at him. “I know, however even the thought of prison is not a deterrent.”
“Why Ezra?” JD’s voice cracked a little on the Z and Ezra couldn’t stop a brief smile. Always trying to make the others forget about his age JD had once again managed to show that he wasn’t as jaded as he would like them to believe.
He met JD’s dark eyes squarely, knowing he owed the team a reason. “Because I love him. You always do what is best for those you love, even at the expense of your own life.”
His gaze drifted back to Buck who had gone pale. “I’m not saying you have to make a decision now Buck, I just wanted you to know.” He licked his lips. “I have the combination for the safe and the key to the safety deposit box with his will, the deed to the ranch and all the other paperwork for the lands he owns.”
Feeling suddenly tired Ezra dropped back to the chair, forehead resting on the bed. He was vaguely aware of movement and of hands settling on his shoulders, squeezing softly. There was the sound of shuffling feet and the door closing, the silence broken only by the infuriating beep.
“I shouldn’t have said what I did.’
Buck. He should have known. “I don’t blame you Buck. I shouldn’t have just dropped this on you in front of the others, but I couldn’t do it in private. Part of me has given up. I’m having a hard time remembering what he looks like without all the equipment. I don’t want to remember him this way.”
The hands on his shoulders slid over his arms and then Buck was pressed against his back, arms tight around his chest. “I know, and I realize now that I’ve been being selfish. Chris has been my only meaningful adult relationship for fourteen years and I figured having him around even in a vegetative state was better than letting him go. Took me seeing how much you love him to realize I was hurtin’ you as much as him. Let me get the others so they can say goodbye.”
Heart tight in his chest Ezra nodded against the bedcovers, feeling Buck pull away.
The door clicked open and shut and he forced himself to stand, knowing Buck was giving him a last moment alone. He brushed his fingers over Chris’ cheek, avoiding the tape holding the ventilator in place. Over nose and across forehead, fingers sliding up to brush through the corn silk soft hair one last time.
Leaning forward he pressed his lips to Chris’ forehead, arm curling over the broad chest in a final hug. “I love you.”
Ezra drew away and stepped back from the bed, hands curling into fists hard enough to drive his nails into his palms, the pain the only thing keeping the tears at bay. The urge to touch again was almost overwhelming and he quickly crossed to the door, yanking it open.
Buck was outside talking to a doctor, his long body drooping. The others looked to be in shock but they filed back into the room. JD was first, his face stricken, tears rolling down his cheeks as he touched Chris’ shoulder and mumbled a goodbye before retreating to the corner of the room. Nathan’s eyes were bright with unshed tears as he mimicked JD’s light touch.
Josiah laid his hand on Chris’ forehead and bowed his head, lips moving in silent words. He joined Nathan in the other corner, hand resting on his friend’s shoulder. Vin simply touched Chris’ shoulder and stepped back, standing next to Ezra.
Buck entered with the doctor and for a moment it looked like he was going to bolt but after a moments hesitation he strode to the bed. Long fingers touched cheek and forehead and hand, the word goodbye so deep it almost seemed impossible that it was coming from a human throat.
As the doctor rounded the bed to the life support machine Ezra suddenly couldn’t watch and he closed his eyes, head falling back against the wall. He was only vaguely aware of the warm body on either side of him, of hands taking his own and squeezing hard just as the unrelenting wail sounded.
And then there was silence.