azombiewrites: (The Magnificent Seven)
[personal profile] azombiewrites
Title: Burnout
Rating: PG
Warnings: Strong Language.
Fandom: The Magnificent Seven
Main Characters: Ezra, Chris, Josiah, the rest of the guys and an OMC.
Summary: After spending a prolonged period working undercover, Ezra suffers from 'Burnout'.
Disclaimers: The guys are owned by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, and The Mirisch Corp.
Spoilers: None
Status: Complete
Total Word Count: 26,949

Present Day

Ezra Standish stared at the man who was talking to Chris Larabee. His intense green eyes showed the hatred that his inner soul felt for the large man. It had started when the man first walked into the conference room on the seventh floor of the ATF building and had continued to grow ever since. He wasn't the only member of the team that felt this way but he had a reason to hate him that the others didn't have. The man wasn't large in height, just weight. His stomach hung over the trousers that were too small for him. His coat was also tight fitting. The man had been to lazy too buy the much needed larger sized apparel when he had gained the weight. Ezra grimaced in disgust.

His eyes didn't waver when the man turned his head to look at him. Ezra smiled at him, he knew it would anger him. It did, the man scowled at him and shook his head in a demeaning manner then returned to his conversation. He knew he was the origin of the conversation, he always was. He had been discussed quite a lot over the last six weeks. He didn't like it. He didn't like it one single bit. And now that the case was over, he was going to tell him where he could put his fat ass.

He turned his head slightly when he heard Chris' voice rise in anger. He was defending him. Chris did a lot of that lately, so did the rest of the team. He was grateful for what they were doing for him but even they couldn't refuse to obey the guy's orders. He was tired of staring so he allowed his head to fall towards his chest. He looked at the custom made boots that he was wearing. He could feel the thick socks that his mother had sent him five weeks ago. He was only wearing them because he'd run out of socks. He hadn't had time to do any washing for the previous two weeks.

Ezra heard footsteps coming towards him. He held his breath and looked up. The breath was released when he saw Chris walking towards him. He knew what he wanted Chris to say and hoped that he would say it but the way things had been going lately it wouldn't surprise him if it was bad news.

Chris looked at his undercover agent and sighed. At least it will be over tomorrow afternoon Chris told himself. He leaned against the van next to the Southerner.

"Asshole." Chris grumbled.

"Defective bloated parasite." Ezra added to the insult.

"Imbecile." Chris continued.

"Morbid moronic imperfection." Some of the anger had left the Southerner.

"What dictionary do you use?" Chris turned to him.

"Life." Ezra smiled. "Go ahead and say it Chris, don't keep me waiting all day."

"Porter didn't say much. He wants a meeting tomorrow to close things up." Chris told him part of the conversation.

"And?" Ezra hadn't turned to look at his boss.

"You did a good job Ezra. Should be a commendation in it for you." Chris tip toed around the subject.

"I meant the meeting." Ezra put an end to Chris' runaround tactics.

"Seven in the morning. Reckons he's got a ten o'clock flight out of town." Chris winced when he heard Ezra's intake of breath.

Any one wouldn't think that it would be such a problem but Porter found out that Ezra hated early mornings. He took every opportunity to arrange their meetings to take place before seven thirty. Each member had made an excuse to make them later, it had worked for a while but Porter caught on to what they were doing.

"Don't come in Ezra, stay in bed. We all know why he wants the meeting and it's nothing to do with the case. We'll deal with him then send him on his way."

"No, it'll piss him off if I come in. Besides, I'd rather see him off myself." Ezra's smile was wicked.

"You sure about that?" Chris knew Ezra was tired. It was written on his face and showed in his body language.

"Yeah I'm sure."

"You want to go to Inez's for a drink. We're all going."

"No. I need to get some sleep."

"I'll drive you home." Chris slapped him on the back and pushed him towards his car.


The sun tried to find it's way into the ATF's undercover agent's bedroom at the abnormal hour of five but the thick curtain that covered the large window kept it out. The Southerner slept on his stomach, the white covered quilt was wrapped around his waist. His right arm was hidden under the pillow and his left hand lay in front of his face. His position didn't change when his alarm began to sound. The gentle rhythm of classical music filled the large bedroom but he never heard it.

He continued to be oblivious to the noises around him as the hours passed. Horns blared, gunshots were heard from the television set in the second floor apartment, dogs barked at people passing by. The phone rang a few times but the calls were quickly picked up by the answering machine. It didn't ring long enough to wake the sleeper, so messages that would never be answered were left. The sound of knocking three hours later didn't elicite any movement from the sleeping form, he continued to sleep like the dead. The agent still didn't move a few minutes later when gentle hands shook his shoulders.

"Ezra . . . " Chris continued to shake his agent's shoulder while Nathan lifted an eyelid.

"He's alright, he's just sleeping. Probably exhausted." Nathan informed Chris and Vin.

"There's nothing wrong with him?" Vin asked even though the ex-medic had said his friend was fine.

"Why don't we make ourselves at home until he wakes up." Nathan pulled the quilt up over Ezra's back. He listened to the smaller man's steady breathing for a moment then quietly walked out of the room. The others hesitated before following him out.


Sound finally registered through the thick blanket of sleep that filled Ezra's mind. He didn't want to wake up. His body and mind felt heavy with fatigue. He thought about rolling over onto his back but didn't think he could manage it. The thought of lifting a finger was even too much for him at the moment. He decided to stay where he was and allow his body to wake in it's own time.

An hour later he still felt the same. His muscles felt weak, his mind felt as though it was filled with fog. He was unable to concentrate, if he tried, some sort of force would push the thought away before it revealed itself. Maybe he just needed some coffee and something to eat. He managed to push himself up and roll over into a sitting position. It was a few moments before he realised he was still wearing his trousers from the day before. He couldn't be bothered changing, he'd do that after he had breakfast. He looked over at the clock and swore under his breath when he saw the red digits displaying 4:06pm.

Larabee was going to be pissed. No on second thoughts he was probably worried about him. First a phone call then dinner. It was too late now for breakfast. He dragged himself out of bed and shuffled out into the living room. He failed to notice the three men sitting on the long sofa. His mind was elsewhere, they could call out his name and he wouldn't hear them. He picked up the cell phone that he had left on the kitchen counter and dailed Chris' number.

"Ezra." Chris called to him. He was surprised his agent didn't see them but then again he looked like death walking. Maybe he had a drink or two last night Chris thought. He couldn't blame him. Ezra didn't respond to his voice so he tried again. "Ezra!"

Ezra jumped at the sound of his name and dropped his cell phone. It broke on impact. He turned around to see Chris, Vin and Nathan sitting on his couch. He unconsciously allowed his shoulders to slump and walked to the large chair that had been placed to the left of the sofa when he first moved in. He fell into it heavily and leaned his head back.

"How long have you been here?" Ezra asked them without looking at them. He couldn't be bothered.

"About six hours." Chris answered then turned to Vin who was sitting between him and Nathan. "It's been six hours hasn't it Vin?"

"Yep, I reckon six hours is about right. What do you think Nathan?" Vin asked the heavier man who sat next to him.

"Six hours and twelve minutes actually." Nathan corrected them.

"Sorry, I must have slept through the alarm." Ezra's excuse was a cliché but they believed it. There was no reason for them not to.

Nathan watched the undercover agent closely, something was wrong but he couldn't put his finger on it. Ezra seemed different but he wasn't sure in what way. He was slightly pale with flushed cheeks. Nathan decided to take a closer look. He stood up and moved to the chair that Ezra occupied. Ezra was still leaning back and his eyes were now closed. He placed a large hand against the smaller man's forehead. There was a slight fever.

"You feelin' alright Ezra?" Nathan asked him as he kept his hand against the warm flesh of the Southerner's forehead.

"Just tired Nathan." Ezra answered the question without an argument.

Now Nathan knew there was something wrong. Ezra always put up an argument, and a good one at that, when his health was questioned. "You sure, you've got a fever Ezra."

"I'm probably just hot after spending all day in bed."

Nathan didn't agree with him. "You hungry?"


"When did you last eat?" Nathan continued to question the tired man before him.

"Why all the questions Nathan?" Ezra opened one eye and looked up at Nathan. He used his right hand to remove the larger man's hand from his face.

"Answer him Ezra." Chris ordered him. He got up from the sofa and moved towards Nathan. He sat on the arm of the comfortable chair and looked down at his agent. He used his own hand to confirm Nathan's diagnosis.

Ezra frowned in concentration. "Day before yesterday."

"Any particular reason why you haven't eaten." Nathan tried to keep the anger out of his voice. Ezra wasn't the source of his growing anger, the reason for the lack of appetite was. Agent Horris Porter.

"I've been too tired to eat, can't be bothered going through the effort of cooking and eating." Ezra explained then yawned.

"You still tired?" Nathan began to feel uneasy.

"Yes." Ezra didn't know why. He'd gone to bed as soon as he got home. That was five thirty yesterday afternoon. He had slept for nearly twenty four hours. Maybe he had slept too much, sometimes that can make you tired.

"How do you feel physically?"

"Tired, like I have no energy what'so'ever." Ezra looked at Chris then Nathan. "You guys mind if I go back to bed, I know you came to . . . "

"Your not going anywhere until you eat something, even if it's just a sandwich." Nathan headed to the kitchen knowing that Chris and Vin would make sure that the Southerner didn't go anywhere. He searched the fridge to find nothing edible. The cupboards were next. Empty. He shook his head. The man must have eaten everything there was and didn't buy anything more. If they left him to it he would have starved to death. He walked back to the living room.

"Vin, you wanna help Ezra back to bed."

Chris frowned at Nathan when Ezra didn't refuse the help. He waited and watched as Vin helped remove Ezra from his comfortable position in the chair. His eyes followed his agents until they dissappeared behind the bedroom door. "What's wrong Nathan?"

"For a start there's nothing in the kitchen to eat. I'll send Vin out to the grocery store when he comes out. As for Ezra, I'm not sure Chris but I think we should make an appointment for him to see the ATF Doctor tomorrow."


Ezra woke the next morning feeling slightly nauseas, his head felt like someone had kicked it during the night. He forced himself to roll over. He wanted to be able to see the alarm clock when his eyes cleared themselves of the fine mist that made his vision blury. It took longer than he expected. The numbers on the clock told him that it was 10:45.

"Good Lord." He moaned and was surprised at the coarse whisper that spoke the two words. He swallowed and winced at the sorness that was there. It felt as though his throat was on fire. Must be coming down with the flu he thought to himself.

He sat up in bed and put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He didn't even have the strength to keep his head up. He didn't move when he heard a gentle knock on his bedroom door. A second knock came, he couldn't be bothered to answer the request someone was making to enter his room. He remembered that three of his friends were here yesterday. One of them must have stayed the night.

"Ezra? You awake?" It was Chris' voice on the other side of the door.

Ezra felt a slight relief in the knowledge that Nathan wasn't still here. He liked Nathan, they got on well but . . . well he was like a mother hen sometimes. He had a way of makings things seem worse than they actually were. He only had a bit of a cold. Nathan would make out that he had a serious case of the flu and that he would need to stay in bed for a week and be looked after. The Southerner cringed at the thought.

"Just open the door and have a look!." The voice had a hint of frustration in it.

He couldn't help but smile. Vin had stayed as well. They must be worried about him. God it was good to finally have friends that cared about him. But these men weren't just friends, they were family, something he never had before in his life. He had a mother but he wouldn't really call her family. A sewer rat would treat him with more respect, kindness and love.

"Get out of the way, I'll check him."

Ezra's smile left his visage, he groaned and forced his head up then waited for the mother hen to enter his room. He turned to look at Nathan and forced the smile back onto his face. Vin and Chris followed the dark man into the room, their chins were nearly resting on the ex-medics shoulders. The smile became real.

"Three mother hens." The dryness in his throat caused him to cough.

"You okay Ezra?" Nathan sat down next to him and put his hand against the smaller man's forehead. The fever was worse but not dangerous.

"Need a drink of water."

Vin rushed into the bathroom and returned with a glass of cold water. He placed it into Ezra's out stretched hand. He couldn't help but notice the hand was trembling. He went to help him before he spilt it but Ezra practically growled at his attempt of assistance.

"Ezra you can have a shower while I'm making you some breakfast. You have an appointment at twelve thirty." Nathan stood up and walked to the door.

Ezra watched him leave the room. The mother hen wanted him to have a shower. Hell he had trouble holding a glass of water. How was he going to manage having a shower. He looked up at Chris then Vin. Like hell. He would have to do it himself, he wasn't going to ask for help.

"What appointment?" He asked Chris as an afterthought.

"Doctor." Chris smiled at the grimace that appeared on his agent's face. Ezra hated Doctors. "You need help with . . . "

"No I don't thank you very much. I am quite capable of doing it myself. I am not sick!" Ezra pushed himself off the bed and walked into the bathroom.

He slammed the door behind him then leaned against it. He felt awful. He moved to the shower stall and turned the water on, he waited until the steam began to escape from behind the shower curtain to cover the mirror with a moist mist. He removed his trousers and boxer shorts then threw them into the already overflowing laundry basket. Now that the case was over he would be able to get some of the laundry done.

He weakened at the thought.

He stepped into the shower and didn't pull the shower screen across. He allowed the hot water to soak through his hair and run down his body. It felt good at the beginning but the heat and steam began to make him feel sick, he felt even weaker. Dizziness took control of him and he feared he was going to black out. He leaned against the cool tiles but it didn't help. He turned the hot water off, the heat stopped but the feeling that he was going to faint didn't.

"Ezra you need any help?" Nathan called through the door.

He wanted to say yes, to tell Nathan that he felt sick, that he was going to faint and hit his head on the basin. He didn't have to. When he didn't answer Nathan's question the door opened and the larger man walked in.

"What's wrong Ezra?"

"I think I'm going to be sick, that's if I don't collapse first." He couldn't ignore it anymore. "I feel like hell Nathan."

"Let's get you out of there Ezra." Nathan grabbed a towl and wrapped it around Ezra's naked waist. He put an arm around the undercover agent and helped him back to his bed. He allowed Ezra to sit down.

"The heat just made me feel worse." Ezra muttered.

"Let's dry you off then get you into to bed." Nathan went into the bathroom and got a second towl. He came back and began to dry Ezra's hair. The smaller man leaned his weight against him. "I'll call the Doctor and ask him to come here."

"I don't think I could walk out of here Nathan." Ezra looked up at him. "I don't have any energy left and it's an effort to think."

"You'll be okay Ezra." Nathan helped him to lie down then covered him with his quilt. He removed the towl.

"Think you could stay awake to eat something?"

It was a futile question. Ezra was asleep already.


Nathan stood outside of Ezra's bedroom door, he placed his ear against the door hoping to hear some sort of indication that the undercover agent was awake. There was no sound. He opened the door and looked through the small opening he had created. He could see that Ezra was fast asleep. The agent was lying on his right side, his mouth was open slightly as he continued to breath. The hair that was still slightly damp stuck up in different areas giving him the impression that Ezra had taken it upon himself to get a spiked hair cut.
Nathan opened the door wider to allow the Doctor to enter the room. He followed him in and shut the door to stop the others from entering the bedroom. The ex-medic didn't want to disturb Ezra's sleep, he knew the younger man needed it, if he didn't he wouldn't have slept so much over the last forty two hours.

"He'll be hard to wake up, always is, even when he's healthy." Nathan warned the Doctor as he sat down on the side of the double be that was empty.

"I came prepared." Doctor Renneth pulled out a small bottle of smelling salts.

Nathan chuckled as he watched the Doctor wake Ezra up. He decided that he was going to carry one himself. Ezra's features began to screw up at the foul smell that assaulted his breathing passages. Nathan gently took the hand that tried to push the offending smell away.

"Ezra, it's Nathan. I want you to wake up."

"I assume by the smell," Ezra stopped so he could yawn, "that Buck made breakfast."

"No he didn't." Nathan began to shake his shoulder while the Doctor continued to wave the smelling salts under his nose.

"Come on Mr Standish. I need you to be awake when I examine you." Doctor Renneth used a serious tone.

Ezra opened one eye, the other one was hidden by the pillow. He looked at the Doctor and groaned at the sight. The man reminded him of Marcus Welby except he was older than the television character. He closed his eye again. "I'm not sick, I'm just tired."

"Why don't you let me make that decision." Renneth pushed Ezra's mouth closed forcing him to breath through his nose. It only took one breath, his patient immediately sat up and pushed the smelling salts away from his face.

Ezra gagged at the smell. He was feeling sick enough as it was, the smelling salts were about to make it worse. "Are you trying to make me sick?"

"You already are Ezra. Remember, this morning, you told me that you felt like hell." Nathan helped his friend to lie back down again.

"Oh yeah, I did forget." Ezra lifted his hands to rub his eyes but after only a few seconds he allowed them to fall back to the bed. "Gawd Nathan, I don't even have the strength to lift my arms."

"You want to tell me what else is wrong?" The Doctor began to examine his patient while he listened to the symptoms that were given to him by Ezra and Nathan. The ex-medic filled in the gaps that Ezra left open.

Ezra thought the Doctor wasn't really listening, he seemed too busy doing other things. He took Ezra's pulse, blood pressure, checked his eyes and throat. Then he made him sit up so he could listen to his breathing and heart beat. The Doctor then began to ask questions. He wanted to know about Ezra's previous case, how long it went for, was he under a lot of stress. He also asked about the undercover agent's personal life, if there was anything that would cause him stress. Ezra lied and told him no, he wasn't about to start discussing his mother. He thought that was the end of it until he saw the needle.

"What's that for?" Ezra began to shift towards Nathan hoping that the larger man would protect him.

"Blood test." Was all Renneth would say.

"Why do I need a blood test?"

"Just to be safe. I know what's wrong with you but this is just routine." The Doctor explained.

"If you know what's wrong with me then you don't need to take blood." Ezra retorted.

"Is it what I thought?" Nathan asked the Doctor.

"Yes. I've seen it before with other agents. It's not unusual." The Doctor reluctantly put the needle away. He could tell by the agent's look of determination that he would have a fight on his hands even if the man was lacking in strength.

"Mind telling me what it is." Ezra didn't like being talked about as if he wasn't there. It had happened too often over the last six weeks. It wasn't going to start again.

"Burnout." Nathan and Renneth spoke at once.

"What's burnout?" Ezra yawned again.

"It's stress related . . ." the Doctor began.

"I don't get stressed." Ezra argued.

"The last six weeks haven't been easy for you Ezra. You've worked long hours. Porter didn't make the job any easier. And we know you haven't been sleeping or eating much."

"Ezra let me explain it too you." The Doctor made himself more comfortable. "Burnout is the loss of mental and physical energy following a period of prolonged job related stress. It can sometimes show itself through a physical illness, the symptoms that you gave tell me that you have a cold but it's part of the whole illness. Your motivation and incentive can also become extinct."

"I've had longer cases than this and ones that have been a lot worse. This has never happened to me before." Ezra couldn't believe he was feeling this way because of stress.

"You didn't have Porter breathing down your neck on the other cases Ezra." Nathan informed him.

"I want you to see a psychologist that I know." Renneth took out a pen and a business card and began to write down a name and number.

"I don't need to see a shrink!" Ezra growled at him.

"I don't care what you think. I am going to recommend it in my report. You won't have a choice Mr Standish. Besides it's what you need. The psychologist will try and find out the cause of the stress and show you how to deal with it." He handed Nathan the card. "Apart from that you'll need plenty of rest and after a week or so you can start doing some light exercise. But don't over do it."

"Aw hell!" Ezra exclaimed. "A week. How long am I going to stay like this?"

"Can be anywhere from a week to six months. It all depends on you Ezra." Renneth told him.

"It's not your fault Ezra. This can happen to anyone." Nathan patted his shoulder.

"It didn't happen to anyone Nathan, it happened to me!"

"Get some rest Ezra. I'll be back in a minute with something for you to eat." Nathan didn't like the false facade that Ezra had put in place. It meant that he was hiding what he was feeling. His attitude wasn't going to help him get better.

Ezra closed his eyes and turned away from Nathan. He didn't understand what was going on. He had never been bothered by stress, if anything he thrived during his undercover work. He thought about his mother. She had tried all his life but never succeeded in breaking him. If he was stressed it wasn't caused by work or his mother. But what else could it be he thought to himself. Maybe it was the rest of the team. He didn't think of it as a bad thing. Family and friends were things that he had never had before, that was until he was transferred to the Denver ATF. He had gone through a lot of emotion torture trying to stop these men from getting close to him. But they had never given up. He had become physically ill at times when they had pushed him too far. Then he cracked, he could remember that three day weekend well, it was a period of time that he was never going to forget.


Five Months Earlier

"Ezra Standish! You get your unsociable butt out here now!" Chris Larabee's voice boomed through the office.

The only body in the group that flinched was Ezra Standish. His form jerked in surprise and his morning coffee spilt all over the report he had just finished printing out. He decided to make his boss wait, it was the thing he did best. He got a certain enjoyment out of agonising Larabee. He counted to twenty then walked out of his office. He could see the rest of the team watching him. Their faces were covered in smirks. Buck Wilmington actually turned away and burst out into laughter. JD slapped him on the back then joined him.
Ezra was too busy watching his team mates to see the piece of luggage that sat outside Larabee's office. He tripped over it and fell flat on his face. "Hell!" It was only nine thirty on Friday morning and it was already proving to be a lousy day. What Ezra didn't know was that it was going to get a lot worse. If he had known what was going to be on the agenda he would have driven his car into a pole on the way to work because dying was a lot easier than trying deal with people who wanted to be your friend.

Ezra twisted around to see what he'd tripped over. His handsome features frowned in confusion. It was his bag. He knew he hadn't brought it into work. He sat up and unzipped the bag, it was full of his clothes and toilet accessories. "What the hell . . ."

"I see your ready to go." Chris Larabee stood in the doorway of his office. "Here, your going to need your coat." Chris threw a thick wool lined jacket to his undercover agent.

"Ready? Ready to go where? I didn't know I was on a case." Ezra spoke quickly.

"Your not. We have the day off so we're going to my place for the weekend." Chris knelt down so he could look Ezra in the eye. "And your coming with us."

Ezra stuttered for a moment then found his voice. "I can't, I . . . "

"No excuses this time Ezra. Your coming even if we have to cuff you and throw you in the back." He grabbed the Southerner's arm and pulled him to his feet. Chris nodded to Vin who took the other arm and they both led the protesting agent to the elevator.

Ezra continued to protest from his position in the back seat. Josiah sat at his left and Nathan on his right. He knew he wasn't going to be able to escape from this awkward predicament. God he was going to hate this. By the time the weekend was finished his sarcastic attitude was going to get him transferred. He wasn't going to be able to handle this, he couldn't deal with friendship, the thought of it made him ill. He was also afraid of it. What if he opened himself up and allowed them in? What if they didn't like the real Ezra Standish? What if he wasn't capable of being a friend? He'd never had the opportunity before.

"You alright back there Ezra? You've gone quite on us." Chris looked in his rear view mirror. His agent looked pale.

"I feel sick." Ezra told him. It was something that always happened when they pushed him like this.

"Better stop the car Chris." Nathan suggested. "I don't want him throwing up all over me."

Chris pulled over to the side of the road and waited silently while Nathan opened the door and got out. Ezra moved quickly and pushed Nathan out of the way. He'd made it just in time. His breakfast rose into his throat and he almost choked on it. He opened his mouth and allowed it to come out. His stomach muscles contracted violently. It was a few minutes before it was over. He stood bent over with his hands on his thighs. Saliva dripped from his mouth. He felt a damp cloth as it was placed against the back of his neck and another one began to wipe his mouth and face. He pushed the hand away. He didn't need people to look after him, he was quite capable of doing that himself.

"Just trying to help Ezra." Nathan rubbed the Southerner's back in support.

"I don't need that kind of help!" Here we go Ezra thought to himself. My defenses have started already.
"Why are you doing this to me?"

"Doing what?" Nathan frowned at him.

Ezra didn't answer. He straightened up and removed the cloth from his neck. He wiped his own face then handed the damp material back to it's owner. "Let's get this over with shall we." He walked back to the car and got in. Ezra ignored the concern on the faces that looked at him. He pulled his steel rimmed sunglasses from his pocket and put them on. He leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He could already feel a bad headache starting behind his eyes.

It was another two hours before they reached Chris' cabin. Ezra had fallen asleep and his head now rested on Josiah's shoulder. The ex-preacher had noticed the sheen of sweat that lined Ezra's forehead. Nathan checked Ezra at Josiah's request and found that he had a slight fever. It wasn't serious but he was going to keep an eye on the younger man. He hoped that Ezra wasn't going to spend the weekend in bed. That wasn't what they had brought him up here for.

"Rise and shine Ezra!" Josiah nudged him with the shoulder he rested on. "We're here."

"Why?" Ezra groaned as he forced his eyes to open.

"Fresh air, good food and the company of friends." Josiah lifted his shoulder.

Ezra became aware of what he was using as a pillow and bolted upright. "Sorry."

"That's okay Ezra. You can use my shoulder anytime." He looked at his friend. "And I mean that Ezra."

Ezra frowned at him then looked away. He struggled to get his sleep ridden body out of the vehicle.

Someone took his arm and helped him out. He looked up to see Vin smiling down at him. Why do they have to be so happy all the time? he asked himself. He looked around the area that surrounded Chris' cabin. The trees were large and green, he'd seen trees before but not like these. He turned towards the lake when he saw the sun reflecting off it. It was as still as glass.

"Come on Ezra. Let's get unpacked." Vin slapped him on the shoulder.

Ezra winced as the momentum made his headache grow in volume for a few seconds. He followed Vin towards the steps that lead up to the front door. He heard the second car pull up. He groaned at the loudness of Buck and JD's voices. What he needed was a hot cup of coffee, some pain killers and a bed. He wanted it to be his own bed. But he knew he wasn't going to get either. If he admitted to not feeling well then they would treat him as a sick person. They would smother him with concern, put him to bed and probably spoon feed him with chicken soup. He wouldn't be able to deal with that.

"You okay Ezra?" Nathan asked. He hoped the Southerner would admit to being sick. He had checked his fever again before they had arrived. It wasn't any worse but it hadn't improved either.

"I'm fine." Ezra lied. He wasn't fine. He was scared to death of what might be going on. They brought him here for a reason. It wasn't social because they wouldn't put up with him and the way he pushed them away just for a social event. No, they were up to something and he knew he wasn't going to like it.

"Who's up for some lunch?" Buck asked as he got out of his car.

"You cooking?" Chris asked him.

"Hell no. You know I can't cook." Buck grinned back at him. "Thought Ezra might like to cook seein' how it's his first time here."

"Ezra's a guest. He's not doing anything but watching." Chris winked back.

Ezra saw the exchange of looks. They were definitely up to something. The question was what.

"You coming Ezra." Chris turned at the top of the steps and waited for him.

"Do I have a choice." Ezra scowled at him.

"Nope." Chris didn't allow his expression to falter. They knew what they would be going up against when they decided to do this but they'd made a decision. They were going to use the weekend to make Ezra aware of what he was missing. What he wasn't willing to allow himself to become a part of. They knew he was afraid. They just had to make him see that there was nothing to be afraid of. He just hoped they got through the weekend without killing him.

"It'll be fun Ezra." JD told him as he walked past.

"It depends on what you consider to be fun." Ezra grumbled. "Me, now I would rather spend the weekend with a gun dealer who was aware of my real profession."

"You don't mean that do you Ezra?" Josiah stopped at his side. He couldn't see Ezra's eyes so before the Southerner could stop him he reached out and removed the sunglasses from his face. He saw the fear before it disappeared. "It won't be that bad Ezra. If it gets too much for you let me know and I'll get them to back off."

Ezra smiled slightly. It had already gotten to be too much for him, that's why he had thrown up earlier but he wasn't going to tell Josiah that. He didn't want to look weak in front of his associates. He followed Josiah up the stairs and into the cabin that was going to be a living hell for more than two days.

The afternoon didn't go well for Ezra Standish and things didn't get any better by the time darkness had surrounded the cabin and it's occupants. He watched silently as Chris Larabee moved around the cabin turning the false lights on. He looked around at the group of men who were huddled around the large table that had been set up behind the sofa. A deck of cards sat in the middle. He knew they intended to involve him in a game of poker. He wasn't going to play. They had tried to get him to go fishing earlier in the afternoon. He refused their offer with a polite refusal. When they tried to throw him into the lake he still refused in a polite manner. He had accepted Nathan's help when he asked them not to. He didn't know why Nathan had stopped them but he thanked him for his interference anyway.

He shifted his gaze to watch as Buck and JD boisterously entered through the archway that led to the spacious kitchen. Buck carried the beer and JD held onto the potato chips, cold pizza and peanuts as though his life depended on the foods safe arrival. Josiah followed them with a large pot of coffee and seven mugs. It seems that they planned on playing into the small hours of the night.

Ezra stretched and yawned, it was time for bed, even if he wasn't tired. His head still ached slightly and a small wave of nausea continued to roll around his stomach. He stood up and began to make his way to the spare room. He knew he was going to have an uncomfortable night on the lower bunk bed but it would be better than making conversation with six men that scared him. He felt comfortable keeping them at an arms length away from him. He cared about them, would give his life for them but he wasn't capable of getting close to them. He didn't know how to be a friend, he didn't know what he had to do to make them like him. He was afraid of messing it up.

"Going somewhere?" Chris placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder and spun him around then proceeded to shove him towards the card table.

"Bit tired, thought I'd go to bed, get an early night." Ezra tried to make excuses but it was useless. They weren't going to let him be alone.

"Ever played before Ezra?" Vin asked him after Chris pushed him down into the chair next to him.

"My mother tried to teach me the game." He told the truth. He had learnt well, he'd also been taught how to cheat. But his mother still claimed that he still had a lot to learn and when he was ready to come back she would teach him. He only used that talent when it was required of him, so far as part of Team Seven he hadn't needed to use it.

"I'm sure we can help you when you need it." Buck winked at JD. An easy victim he was thinking to himself.

"Why don't we take it easy on Ezra to start with. Maybe let him win a few games first." Nathan suggested as he looked over at the undercover agent. He could see that Ezra was still pale. He knew that if the others had succeeded in throwing him into the freezing water he would have ended up with a nasty cold.

"There is no need to do that. I think I am quite capable of holding my own in this game." Ezra decided that he was not going to hold back. If he won all their money they might not invite him to play again.

"If that's what you want Ez." Buck grinned at him.

"My name is not Ez Mr Wilmington it is Ezra." Ezra corrected him. He'd always hated the shorter version of his name.

"Sure Ezra." Buck continued to smile, he wasn't offended by Ezra's retort. Once the Southerner accepted them as friends then he would accept the affectionate term.

Ezra easily won the first three games. The others thought that the dealer was allowing him to win. After the Southerner won five out the next seven they were beginning to suspect they were being conned. One hour later the game was over. Ezra collected his money while the others watched him.

"You’re pretty good at something your mother tried to teach you." Chris continued to watch as Ezra picked up the money that he'd lost.

"She thinks that there is still more for me to learn." Ezra shrugged his left shoulder.

"Really." Vin smiled at Chris. "Next time you won't be so lucky."

"Next time?"

"Yeah, we do this once a month." Josiah saw the look of fear that flickered through Ezra's eyes. He felt a touch of affection for the younger man. Ezra seemed to fear the act of friendship.

"I think it's time we all got some sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow." Chris reminded them.


"Nature walk." JD's enthusiasm made Ezra cringe at the thought.

"You mean out there," he pointed towards the outdoors, "with the fly's, and bugs and spiders and snakes and . . . and the dirt."

"Yep." Chris slapped him on the back as he got up.

"Oh great!" Ezra moaned."


Ezra sat on the upper step while the others tried to convince him to go with them. Chris tried the threat of violence. Josiah used a gentle approach, it didn't work. JD tried to convince him that it would be fun. Nathan told him that the fresh air would do him good because he was still a little pale after his experience in the car the day before. Ezra flat out refused to go with them. If they wanted him to go they would have to carry him. The six men gave up in the end and went without him.

Ezra watched them leave as a group. He felt the pain of loss, they had given up on him. Maybe the rest of the weekend would be spent in peaceful solitude. He couldn't have been more wrong. He waited until the figures disappeared then stood up and stretched his back. His green eyes looked around the area for something that may occupy his mind. There was nothing. He saw the fishing poles leaning against the wall. He didn't go fishing with the others yesterday because he didn't know how to. He didn't want the others to know that.

The Southerner began to walk towards the lake. The early morning sun reflected off it. It was a beautiful sight. He didn't know where he was going until he got there. He stood at the end of the jetty and looked down at his reflection. What he saw was a lonely man. A man who was afraid to make friends, to make a commitment where people would depend on him for emotional support. Ezra sat down and took his shoes and socks off. He rolled his trousers up and placed his feet into the water. He winced as the chill of the water bit at his skin.

His thoughts began to wonder back to his childhood and the difficulty he had making friends. On the times he had succeeded his mother violently ripped him from his environment and sent him somewhere else where he had to start all over again. After a while he stopped, he didn't want to make a friend only to loose them. He was afraid of losing these men. Ezra wasn't aware of the person standing behind him. His existence didn't register in his mind until Josiah sat down next to him.

"You okay Ezra?" Josiah's soft voice was full of concern for his friend.

"No." Ezra didn't look up, he continued to stare at the reflection of his visage in the water.

"Want to talk about it?" Josiah didn't want to push the younger man, he knew if he did that Ezra would shut him out and refuse to discuss anything about what was wrong.

"Not now Josiah." There was no anger in Ezra's voice.

"Mind if I just sit here with you then?" Josiah hoped his request wasn't refused.

"No." Ezra moved his feet and watched as the ripples distorted his image. "Josiah, did you ever have a hard time making friends?"

"All the time. My height was a problem at school. The other kids thought I was a freak. They wouldn't allow me to be a friend. Just wanted to pick on me all the time. So I went through most of my life without them."

"You didn't have friends?"

"No I didn't." Josiah chanced a glance at Ezra. He didn't like what he saw. "These guys were my first true friends, they accepted me for who I am. They may make it look easy Ezra but it isn't. Chris was like you. He didn't want to get close, not after what happened to his family. He was afraid that if he made friends he'd loose them. Now he regrets not doing it sooner. We're like a family now Ezra and we want you to be a part of it."

"Don't know if I can." Ezra muttered.

"You can only try Ezra."

"And if it doesn't work out, then what, you'll get rid of me."

"It'll work out Ezra." Josiah sounded confident. He knew it was what Ezra wanted, he just had to allow himself to have it.

"Ezra, there's something I have to tell you." Josiah was going to enjoy the reaction.

"What?" Ezra finally looked at him.

"They have a game of football planned for this afternoon and they intend making you a part of it, even if they have to use physical force."

"Football? Will this hell never end." Ezra groaned and hung his head. He heard Josiah laughing beside him.


Josiah stood to the side talking to Chris, his light grey eyes flicked over to Ezra. They had to come up with a plan to get him into the game. The rest of the team were ready, each man wore his sweats while Ezra still dressed in his jeans and white short sleeved shirt. It had gotten warmer as the day wore on. "Why don't we just ask him." Chris decided.

"That will give him a choice. Yes or No." Josiah shook his head. "We don't want him to have a choice."
Chris nodded in agreement. "Someone has to get hurt."

"What?" Josiah was shocked.

"In the game, if someone gets hurt then we'll be one short. Ezra won't have a choice." Chris gave Josiah his best evil grin.

"I'll do it." Josiah told him.

"We let the others in on the plan then." Chris nudged him.

Josiah had convinced Ezra to at least watch the game, maybe watching would change his mind about playing. Like hell. The older man had just smiled at the answer. Ezra sat comfortably in a chair and sipped on a cold beer. This was as active as he was going to get today. He looked up when he heard someone cry out in pain. Josiah was lying on the ground holding on to his left ankle.

"Looks like the game is over." Ezra watched as Chris and Nathan helped Josiah towards him.

"Ezra, your going to have to take Josiah's place." Chris told him as they helped Josiah to sit down.

"Thank you but no." Ezra saluted him with his beer then took a large drink from the bottle.

"Sorry Ezra, you've got no choice." Chris grabbed an arm and pulled the undercover agent to his feet.

"I believe I do." Ezra retaliated.

"Come on Ezra, the guys are all hyped up, they need to release their frustrations." Nathan told him. "They'll only end up fighting later on."

"I am not going to play football."

"Why not? You'll enjoy it." Josiah told him.

"I doubt that very much." Ezra growled at him.

"Five minutes, see how you go. If you don't like it then we'll play without you." Chris pushed him towards the others.

"Why don't you play without me now." Ezra planted his feet firmly on the ground.

"Your playing and that's an order!" Chris growled at him and shoved him towards his fellow team members.

"What didn't he just order him in the first place." Nathan muttered as he followed them.

"Don't worry Ezra, we won't let you get too dirty." JD laughed.

Ezra glared at the younger man. Anger was the only thing he was feeling right now. Vin stood on his other side. "Isn't this a bit one sided." Ezra commented. "All the larger people seem to be on the other side."

"They prefer brawn, we prefer brains and agility." Vin hoped that Ezra knew what he was getting into. But then again how would he. The man had never seen one of their games before.

Vin moved up into his position and JD stood behind him. Ezra saw Buck and Chris do the same thing. Nathan stood beside Chris. Ezra decided that he would have to do the same. He stepped forward to stand next to Vin. He didn't know what to do when Nathan growled at him.

"Your mother wears army boots." Nathan spat at him.

"How did you know?" Ezra asked him.

He listened as Chris counted down then throw the ball backwards between his legs. Before he realised what was happening Nathan charged forward, lifted him off his feet and slammed him into the ground.

"Bit slow to react Ezra." Nathan patted his chest then ran after his team mates.

"This is football." Ezra groaned. He struggled to get up then turned around to see Chris jumping around with the ball in his hand.

"Didn't hurt you did I?" Nathan laughed as he ran past.

"That's okay Ezra, we'll get them next time." Vin pulled him back into position.

This time he faced Buck. The ladies man had a smile that reached from ear to ear. They had planned this all along. He thought he was prepared this time but didn't expect the onslaught of Buck Wilmington. The air was forced from his lungs as he landed on his back. Ezra refused to move when someone reached down to help him up.

"Ezra the guys are waiting." Chris pulled the Southerner to his feet. "Your doing fine. We've scored twice now thanks to you. We should get you to play more often."

"Not in my life time." Ezra growled under his breath.

"Why don't you swap positions with me Ezra." JD suggested.

Ezra reluctantly agreed. At least he couldn't get hurt in that position. All he had to do was throw the ball. How hard could that be. He stood behind Vin and waited for the ball. It came sooner than he expected. He lifted his arm to throw the ball but two bodies slamming into him stopped him from releasing it. He fell in a heap with the weight of Nathan and Buck on him.

"Get the hell off me!" Ezra yelled at them.

"You okay Ezra?" Buck couldn't take the smile off his face.

"Just get off me Buck!" Ezra tried to push the heavier man off him but he failed in his attempts.

"Get off him Buck." Nathan grabbed the back of his pants and pulled him off Ezra who was still trying to get up.

When he did manage it he began to walk back to the cabin. He only managed to take four steps when Chris stopped him. Ezra pulled out of his grip and turned to face him. "I will no longer submit myself to that."

"It's only a game Ezra. We just get a bit rough sometimes." Chris tried to pull him back into the game.

"A bit. It doesn't feel like a bit to me." Ezra turned on his heel and walked away.

Ezra stormed past Josiah, he wasn't going to stop now. The small wave of nausea he had yesterday suddenly became a tidal wave. He ran to the bathroom and fell to his knees. His stomach emptied itself for the second time in two days. He heard someone enter the room behind him. He didn't stop to look up, his stomach wouldn't allow it.

"Did you hit your head Ezra?" Josiah moved forward and sat on the edge of the bath. He reached over for a hand towel and turned the cold water on. He held it under the cold water then rung it out. He placed it on the back of Ezra's neck and waited patiently for him to finish.

Ezra sat back on his heels and leaned against the shower stall. "No. This is called fear."

"Your afraid of football?" Josiah was confused.

"How can you be afraid of something you've never played before." Ezra grimaced at his admittance.

Sometimes Josiah had a way of getting him to talk without trying.

"You haven't played before?"

"Didn't have anyone to play with. When we lined up to get picked, well, I was that kid that was always left to last. Even then they would rather play with one person short than let me play. They thought I would

"Why didn't you just say so Ezra."

"I didn't want to look stupid in front of everyone." Ezra looked down at his feet in embarrassment. "Weak too, it would show them how weak I am."

"Ezra they're your friends. They won't think that."

"Are they?"

"Ezra if they didn't want to be your friend they wouldn't be going through all this trouble for you. They understand what it must be like for you. Chris and Vin thought that if you saw what it was like to have friends that it may help you to let go of your stubborn pride and join in."

"Join in. I can't even fish Josiah. I never had a father to teach me things when I was a kid. No older brother, no friends, only a mother that passed me around. I had to learn things on my own. Survival was more important than football or fishing."

"What are you afraid of Ezra?" Josiah stood up and stepped towards Ezra. He sat down next to the younger man and took the towel from the back of his neck. He knew Ezra wouldn't allow him to wipe his face so he handed him the small towel.

"I hide behind a wall Josiah, I'm afraid that if I let the real me out you won't like him. You'll ask me to leave. If I make the effort and somehow manage to succeed it will all be taken away from me."

"Your stuck with us for life Ezra. If we don't manage to get you to be more sociable by the time this weekend is over we'll just try something else. We won't give up on you Ezra. You'll just have to face your fears and give it a go. We're here to help you. You won't have to do it on your own. Chris knows how hard it is for you, it was hard for him but he managed. You'll manage too Ezra." He stood up and reached down with his hand. "Come on, let's go and teach you how to play football."

"Who's side will you be on?" Ezra looked at the hand that was being offered to him.

"Your's." He smiled when Ezra took his hand and allowed him to help him up. "Nathan and Buck are due some payback and I know just how to do it."

Ezra remembered spending the rest of the afternoon playing football. The others had been patient with him and taught him the rules of the game. He had become quite good at it. His agility allowed him to get around the larger men. He had been covered in bruises by the time they finished but he had enjoyed himself. The next day Vin and Josiah took him out onto the lake and taught him how to fish. He repaid the act of friendship by giving them some tips on the fine art of poker. They played again that night but it was for match sticks only. Ezra still won the majority of match sticks but Josiah and Vin weren't far behind him.

Part One | Part Two

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