Five members of Team Seven found their way to the surgical waiting room of Mercy General with an ease borne of repetition. Sadly, all the magazines had been memorized, all the seats had been explored to find the most comfortable ones, and the staff knew most of them by name.
Five weary bodies found their seats and settled in to wait. They were joined ten minutes later by Nathan.
"Boys," he said somberly as he took his seat.
Five gazes locked on him.
"Ride was rough. He fell into another coughing fit." The tired man dragged his hands down his weary face, then rested his forehead against his palms as his elbows perched on his knees. "He's got a bunch of contusions, internal and external, some broken bones in his chest, and they were unsure of internal bleeding. The coughing up blood is most likely from contused lungs, but they weren't willing to rule out a puncture just yet."
The silence hung heavy in the air.
"Leg wound's the least of his worries. It'll hurt him some for a while, but Tripp dressed it fairly well."
Nathan leaned back and rested his head against the wall, but kept his eyes upon the coffee table in front of him. There was more.
"He was starting to become hypothermic, but they got his temperature up. He's in surgery now."
Nathan's voice was flat; disconnected.
Eyes drifted down, settling in for the wait, when a sudden, loud crash snapped all their heads up to its source. Nathan had risen from his seat, grabbing the table in front of him and throwing it across the room, breaking it into several pieces. Chris and Josiah came out of their seats first, approaching their agitated team member with their hands out to their sides.
"Nathan, calm down," Josiah soothed.
"He shot him three fucking times in the chest!" Nathan snapped, just short of yelling. "He was fucking with him… Fucking with US!" Nathan began to pace back and forth. He looked like a caged tiger, seething with anger. "Why? Why would someone do that?"
"I don't know, Nathan," Chris said flatly.
"He knew he was wearing a vest, he just wanted to hurt him!"
"Yeah, he did," Buck said as he stood up from his seat.
"He shot at you," Nathan pointed at Buck, "He shot at his fucking niece! What kind of animal DOES that?"
"I don't know," said Josiah.
Nathan continued to pace. He ran his hands over his shaved head, clenching his hands into fists repeatedly. "Fuck!" Nathan yelled as he stormed out of the waiting room. The door would have slammed behind him if it hadn't been on hydraulic hinges.
After a moment of silence, Chris and Josiah went to pick up the remains of the table. Buck paced towards the window.
JD looked back and forth between the door to the waiting room that Nathan had gone through, and to the three men standing around the room. He leaned towards Vin sitting next to him, and said, "Should someone go after him?"
Vin, who had been quiet until now, turned and looked into JD's eyes. "No, Kid. He needs to cool off." He turned his gaze back to the room.
"No, JD," he said without looking at him. "Leave him be. He'll be ok."
Vin cut him off. "Think of it this way JD: someone comes to you with a computer problem, knowing you're the computer expert. Now, no matter how hard you try, you can't fix their problem. Kind of like with the comms today. Felt like you'd failed, right?" he locked eyes with the youngest when he asked him the question.
"Now imagine someone is pleading for your help, but it's not about a computer problem. They're asking you to take their pain away; to make them better. And they're scared."
JD shut his eyes. "Jesus."
"I'm surprised all he did was break a table."
JD shook his head once, disappointed in himself that he hadn't realized what Nathan went through whenever anyone of them was hurting.
"He'll come back when he cools off." Vin gestured towards the door. "That's what he does. When he realizes he did everything he could, he'll be ok."
"How did you get to be so observant?" JD asked, trying to break the tension.
Vin looked over his shoulder at JD and shrugged slightly. "Patience." He settled back in his chair and zoned out.
JD nodded and sat back in his own chair, watching as Josiah and Chris finished with the scattered mess on the floor.
3:12 A.M. found the uninjured members of Team Seven in various states of repose in the surgical waiting room. Nathan had slunk back into the room about an hour after he had left, taking up residence on the couch nearest the door. His knuckles were bruised, and undoubtedly there was a hole in a wall or a dent in a locker or vending machine somewhere that matched his fist in size. He currently sat forward with his head resting on his open palm.
Vin sat in the same chair he had been in since their arrival, his head leaning against the wall. He looked like he was asleep. JD leaned his head uncomfortably against the wall to his left, dozing. Josiah would drift from time to time, the lolling of his head waking him briefly only to repeat the motion.
Buck and Chris were the only two fully awake. Buck's tired eyes periodically swept to the clock on the wall, then back to his hands. Chris sat and watched his oldest friend.
After the third look at the clock in the past 15 minutes, Chris leaned forward and spoke quietly. "Buck, why don't you try to get some rest?"
A half smile graced the blonde's bruised face. "Bullshit. You're asleep where you sit."
Buck raised his tired gaze to his friend's. "I don't need to sleep. I don't even think I could if I wanted to." He leaned back in his chair.
"It's not your fault."
"I know that."
"Do you? You have that look on your face like the world is resting on your shoulders."
Buck gave a wan smile in reply. He blew his breath out slowly. "You know I can't stand to see anyone in pain…"
Chris waited quietly, shifting his elbows forward to his knees.
"Jesus," Buck looked at the ceiling, then back to the floor. "I thought he was gone. I thought when we got to the cave the smell… the blood… I thought Tripp killed him. Again." He laughed ruefully. "I thought he was dead when I heard that gunshot." He looked up at Chris, who nodded solemnly, encouraging him to continue. "Then I found out he was alive. Then the cave. And again, he was alive. But then he started coughing blood…" He turned his gaze away and rubbed his hand over his mouth. "I thought I was going to watch him die."
Chris laid his hand on his friend's knee.
"God help me Chris, I almost wished he had died those other times. At least it would have been quick. And he wouldn't have been looking at me with those pleading eyes of his, trying to understand what was going on. He wouldn't have been in all that pain."
"He'll be ok, Buck."
Buck turned his head to his left to look at his oldest friend. "You so sure about that this time?"
"I refuse to accept any other outcome."
A moment of silence passed, then Buck let out a snort.
"What?" asked Chris.
"No, I just had this weird visual of you storming the Pearly gates and sockin' Saint Peter in the mouth till you got your way."
Chris smiled at the thought. "Yeah, well…"
Buck smacked him in the chest with the back of his hand and pointed to the door, where they could see a doctor approaching through the glass.
"Guys," Chris said as he stood. Everyone was awake instantly.
Doctor Miranda Collins walked into the waiting room. "Gentlemen, we have to stop meeting like this; people will talk," she said with a small smile.
"How is he?" asked Buck.
"Doing well. Please, sit." She motioned to the chairs and took one for herself. "I know you're all tired, so I won't beat around the bush. He came through surgery fine. He will be all right."
The tension in the roomed eased immediately.
Nathan was about to inquire as to the nature of the injuries, but she held up a hand towards him, meeting his eyes with a smile. "Now, he is in ICU for the time being. He has a cracked sternum and fairly bad pulmonary contusions, or bruises on the lung. That's what caused him to cough up blood. He will most likely continue to cough up some blood as his lungs heal. His lungs took a beating. So did his ribs. Two are broken, and no," she looked at Nathan, "he does not have flail chest."
Nathan relaxed some.
"Why is he in ICU?" asked JD.
"Because of the nature of the injury to his lungs, we have to watch for possible pneumothorax or hemothorax and, although the chance is low, it is still there. Hopefully, if all looks well tomorrow," she looked at her watch, "actually later today, he'll be moved to a room and should be released shortly thereafter, maybe a day."
"Seems kinda quick," said Vin.
"There's really no need for him to stay here past that. He had minor internal bleeding, hence the surgery, but there's really not much you can do for broken ribs. I'll be sending him home with painkillers, but we don't want him to overdo it on those. He needs to cough to clear out all the crap in his lungs. It's gonna hurt, but he needs to. If he doesn't cough and clear it out, then there's a chance he could come down with pneumonia. Coughing will help prevent infections."
"He's not gonna like that," said Nathan.
"I know. But it's important that he does it. I'm also going to send him home with some supplemental oxygen to be used at your discretion," she looked pointedly at Nathan. "When he coughs, he will feel like he has no breath, and the oxygen should help calm him during and after the coughing."
"I understand," Nathan said.
"I am also recommending he see a respiratory therapist, and the sooner he starts, the better. We need to encourage him to start expanding his lungs to their full capacity. He is not going to want to do it because it will hurt. The therapist will work with him. The guy I have in mind should be able to deal with his stubbornness and should be able to do home visits almost immediately. And yes, he is one of the best at what he does. " She rose from her chair and sighed tiredly. "I don't want to call out the luck factor here, boys. It could have been a lot worse." She paused. "Any questions, you have my number."
"Thank you, Doctor," Josiah said.
"You're welcome gentlemen. And I'm serious about us meeting like this." She walked towards the door to the ward, reaching for the button that would open the automatic doors. "People will talk." She smiled at them. "One of the nurses will be out shortly to take one or two of you to his room to see him. I can't let you all in, I'm sorry. It's late and there are other patients. It's the best I can do."
"Thanks," Chris said. She nodded and scooted through before they shut.
"Doesn't sound too bad," Buck said, almost in askance.
"Like she said, it could have been a lot worse," Nathan conceded, "but he's gonna be in a bit of pain for a while."
Silence followed Nathan's comment. No one knew what to say to that.
"Buck," Chris said, turning to face him. "You and I will go see him tonight." It was a given that Chris would be one of the two that would be let in to see the Southerner, and no one complained or voiced any type of protest over Chris's announcement. Buck had been beating himself up all day over Ezra's plight, so he was the other logical choice.
Fifteen minutes after Dr. Collins left, a nurse came out and escorted Buck and Chris into the ICU, adjacent to the surgery wing.
The open floor plan of the ICU allowed the nursing staff to see into almost every room at the same time. All the rooms were walled with glass, or plexiglass, or whatever the hell was deemed safest. Curtains provided the only semblance of privacy from the neighboring glass cubes. The doors to the individual rooms were nonexistent, leaving entrances easily accessible.
Ezra's room was flanked on both sides by other occupied rooms. Buck and Chris didn't have to be told to be extra quiet so as not to disturb these patients.
The nurse gestured into the room. "Ten minutes, no more. If he wakes, he can have ice chips, but no water, ok?" her soft voice asked, punctuated with a kind smile.
Buck and Chris nodded absently, their attention on their resting comrade.
Ezra's bed was propped at an angle, helping ease his breathing. His hair was disheveled, pointing in several directions. Had he been awake, had it been a normal day, it would have been funny… the way a little kid gets a cowlick that won't be tamed.
The white blanket was pulled up onto his torso, but not quite making it to his chest. His hands rested on top of the blanket, an IV inserted into the back of his left hand. His head lolled slightly to the left, his eyes closed. His features were slack. A nasal canula sat above his lip, supplying extra oxygen. The patterned Johnny he wore swooped in the neck, allowing for a multitude of wires to come through and attached to a wireless transmitter. The heart monitor was at the nurse's station, so the irritating beep beep beep of the machine was a thing of the past. Progress.
Chris and Buck walked up on opposite sides of the bed, each lightly touching the Southerner's hands. Bandages encircled his wrists from where he had been bound.
"Ezra?" Buck asked quietly. He gently touched the sleeping man's brow, pushing some of the hair down into something of normal look. "Can't have these lovely nurses seeing you less than your dapper self now, can we?"
"Ezra, can you hear me?" Chris asked quietly. "You're safe."
"Jesus Chris, look at his chest."
Chris looked down to where the Johnny hung open for the wires, revealing a large purple bruise in the direct center of his chest. "The Doc did say he had a cracked sternum." He looked into the eyes of his friend, offering reassurance. "She didn't seem too concerned about it."
"It's not fair… not fair for this to happen to him," Buck said as he stroked Ezra's hair again.
"No, it's not," Chris agreed. Looking into the sleeping agent's face, he furrowed his brow in thought. "I think he has a powder burn on his cheek here."
"And the hits keep comin'," Buck answered dejectedly.
Buck returned his hand to Ezra's, which then jerked slightly out of his grasp. "Ez? Ez, you hear me? Chris I think he's waking up."
A moan answered him.
"Ezra, open your eyes… come on…" Chris coaxed.
Ezra's left eye cracked open slightly, followed by the right. Both were only open a slit, and then they blinked together as one. He took a breath, then scrunched his face up in pain. He groaned pitifully and started to writhe in his bed.
"Hold still Ezra, don't move," Buck said.
"I know it hurts Ez, hang on," Chris said. "Buck, go get the nurse."
Buck reluctantly let go of his friend's hand and went to find one of the nurses on duty.
As Ezra started to get some of his senses back, the first thing that registered was the elephant sitting on his chest. Deep breaths weren't possible, and he did his best not to panic.
"Hold still Ezra, and breathe… That's it… Hold onto my hand..."
The voice cut through the fog and the pain. That was Chris' voice. Chris was here, which meant that Ezra was safe. "Chris…" he ground out between clenched teeth.
"I'm here Ezra, right here."
"I know Ezra… The nurse will be here soon with something for you."
"Buck's fine. He's here too. He just went to get the nurse."
Ezra took a tentative breath and released it slowly. "Chris…"
"Yeah Ez, right here."
"Was there… a dog…?"
Chris smiled the first real smile in over a day. "Yeah Ezra, there was a dog."
"Tye's gonna be pissed… if I smell… like dog…"
Chris chuckled. "Yeah she is." He looked up as Buck came in with one of the nurses. He smiled at his friend and stood back so the nurse could administer the pain medicine. With a sigh, Ezra slipped back to sleep.
"Ok guys," the nurse said. "He'll be out for a while with what I gave him. Sleep is the best thing for him right now. You can come back during visiting hours."
"Thank you ma'am," Buck said to her, then turned and squeezed the sleeping southerner's hand. "We'll see you soon, Hoss."
Buck turned and joined Chris at the entrance and headed for the waiting room where the rest of the guys would still be waiting. Chris still had a large smile on his face.
"What are you grinning about?" Buck asked quietly.
Chris chuckled, "He worried he's going to smell like dog."
"He remembers the dog?" Buck asked as they stopped at the door to the waiting room. "That's good, right?"
"He's worried Tye is gonna be mad at him."
Buck's face turned serious. "Let's hope not. She's not that forgiving."
Chris snorted. Buck pushed the door open into the waiting room and Chris slapped him on the back as he walked through behind him.
Ezra lay on his couch, his leg elevated on several pillows. He was propped up slightly to ease his breathing. Tye sat on his belly, napping as he stroked her soft fur.
He had been released from the hospital last night and had been chauffeured home by Nathan and Chris. Buck, Josiah, Vin and JD had gone to Ezra's house before the other three, and had straightened up as much as possible. Not that there was much to straighten, mind you. But they had propped up one end of his bed, should he choose to sleep there, and they had checked his fridge for essentials and sent Vin out to get a couple of things. Batteries on remotes were changed out so that there was no question as to their functionality. And Josiah took care of Tye—feeding her and cleaning out her litterbox so that Ezra wouldn't have to bother with it and could just come in and relax. Basically, the four of them were looking for things to keep themselves occupied.
The lights were on at his home as they pulled up to the front walk. Ezra had been given some painkillers for the ride home, and was only partly aware of what was happening around him. When the truck came to a stop and the door opened, Ezra remembered Josiah and Buck standing at the open door. He didn't remember his feet being on the ground at all, and could only hope that he hadn't been carried into the house like an invalid. He remembered being asked if he wanted to be on the couch or in the bedroom, and replying "couch" without even considering. He had been settled and had fallen asleep quickly.
He lazily scratched Tye's neck, right under her collar where she liked it best, and she purred in her sleep.
This morning had been a whirlwind of activity. Nathan had apparently spent the night in the guest room and had checked on Ezra frequently as he had slept. He helped Ezra get situated once he had woken up, bringing him coffee and a light breakfast, as well as his next painkiller. When Ezra ad said that the pain didn't feel too bad at the moment, Nathan had explained that it would if he didn't keep ahead of it. Ezra had relented and took his painkillers without further protest. The phone started ringing at 9:00, no doubt the rest of the team asking how the patient was. Nathan fielded all the calls, and for that Ezra was thankful. He really just wanted to sit and rest.
Tye had been thrilled that her Daddy was home, even though he wasn't moving around as much as he usually did. She figured if he wanted to have a lazy day, she would join him for the better part of it.
He woke from his nap a bit later, and found Tye curled up on him. He didn't know where Nathan was. He was content to sit and pet the small kitten for now. And maybe watch some TV.
Ezra looked up at Nathan, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. The man was wiping his hands on a dishtowel as he spoke. "You need anything?" he asked.
Ezra smiled kindly. "Not right now Nathan, thank you."
Nathan nodded and returned to whatever he was doing in the kitchen.
Tye pranced merrily around the living room floor, amusing herself with one of her many toys. Ezra had the TV on in the background, but was flipping lackadaisically through a magazine. He rested a hand on his chest and winced. He should probably ask for another pain pill…
Nathan appeared as though by magic, holding a pill and a glass of water.
Ezra looked up at him with a question in his eyes.
"It's close to time," Nathan answered. He was already helping him sit up ore so he could take the pill with ease. "Plus you get kind of wincey around the eyes as it starts to wear off."
Panting lightly as he sat on the couch in an upright position, he took the pill from Nathan and swallowed it with the water. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Hey, so Buck and Vin are planning on swinging by. Is that all right with you?"
"Of course," Ezra said, even though he didn't feel like company right at the moment, he didn't want to drive anyone away. "But I won't be as gracious a host as usual."
"You're not as gracious as you think," Nathan said with a big smile.
Ezra snorted in amusement, then erupted into a coughing fit. He doubled over his knees where he sat, coughing hard. He gasped in between bouts, but couldn't seem to catch his breath. And DAMN his chest was erupting in pain.
Within seconds he felt a hand on his back, rubbing it soothingly. He also felt a towel placed in his hand and guided up to his mouth. As his lungs continued their effort to clear out all the junk in them, Ezra's eyes watered and he groaned in pain. The hand at his back started rubbing circles.
"Breathe, Ezra. Breathe. I'm here, you're safe. Just breathe," Nathan coaxed.
As his strength drained through the fit, so did the fit's intensity. He cleared his mouth with the towel, and sat hunched over panting. The oxygen mask came out of nowhere and covered his nose and mouth, and he breathed in the clean smell as he tried to get his respiration back under control.
His hand came up and held Nathan's, covering it and the mask. Nathan moved to take his hand away, but Ezra tightened his hold on the other man's hand. Locking gazes, Ezra's eyes said what his mouth wouldn't let him at that moment. Thank you.
Nathan nodded and rubbed his back again. "You're welcome," he said quietly.
Ezra nodded and squeezed Nathan's hand before letting go. They sat quietly next to each other for a minute, waiting for the breathing to come to normal.
Ezra sat back, pulling away from the mask. He grunted softly as the bruised muscles on his chest and back pulled.
"You ok?" Nathan asked.
"I just want this to end," he droned miserably.
"I know Ezra. It won't last forever, I promise."
The southerner nodded in response.
"You want me to tell Buck and Vin that tonight isn't good?"
"No," he croaked. "No, I'm fine." Even if he wasn't at his best, he had to admit that he was pleased at the thought of having the company.
Nathan nodded. "All right. But we'll keep it short. Deal?"
"Deal," he croaked out.
Ezra was reclining on the couch when Buck and Vin arrived. Buck was the first through the door. "Did I miss her?" he asked loudly.
"Miss who?" Ezra asked from his seat. He looked questioningly at Vin who was shutting the door behind him. Vin just shook his head and nodded at Buck, who was making a show of looking in the closet and the kitchen.
"Come on, Ez. When they said you were getting a nurse I almost jumped out of my seat!"
Ezra smiled, looking down at his lap. Tye sat looking up at him, having been woken up by Buck's loud entrance. She yawned and stretched, then resettled.
"The nurse left for the day," Ezra said, looking up into Buck's eager face.
"Oh man…" he huffed theatrically. "Well, tell me everything about her then. Spare no detail, I want it all. What was her name?"
Ezra looked over to Nathan, who stood leaning on the door jamb to the kitchen. He shook his head and bowed out of the room, holding his hands in a manner of do what you will.
Looking back at Buck, Ezra smiled and said, "Randy."
"Oh, nice name," Buck said approvingly. "What's she look like?"
Buck smiled and closed his eyes, a faraway look on his face.
"Dark skin… darker than anyone I have ever met before in my life." His drawl was thick, and he was laying it on equally as thick.
Buck sighed, eyes still closed.
Ezra looked over at Vin and winked at him. The Texan responded with a shit eating grin. This was gonna be good.
"Knows how to help dry a man off."
Buck's smile got bigger.
"And extremely striking in looks."
"Oh yeah…" Buck sighed.
"For a guy."
Buck was so lost in his daydream that it took him about four seconds to register what Ezra had said. When it did sink in, Vin was already chuckling behind him. Buck's brow furrowed, then he opened his eyes and in a voice of mock horror, he asked, "Your nurse is a guy?!"
Ezra smiled in response, chuckling lightly.
"That's just not right. Nathan! We'll have to fix this," he said as he headed for the kitchen.
Vin came over and sat down in a chair near Ezra. He scratched Tye's head as he went by. "How are you doin', Ez?"
Ezra pet Tye as he answered. "Good. All things considered."
"I doubt that," he replied. When Ezra looked like he was going to protest, Vin forestalled him. "You get this look when you're hurtin'."
Ezra chuckled ruefully. "I must be becoming transparent." He read the question on Vin's face. "Nathan called it 'wincey'."
"It's as good a word as any I s'pose." He smiled at his friend. "How are you really?"
"Hanging in there. The coughing is torture, but I'm not supposed to keep it in. And my muscles feel like they're getting stiffer rather than looser."
"They'll loosen up when you start using them. You got crutches?"
He nodded. "Not supposed to use them for a while yet."
Vin nodded. "I would imagine not. How's the nurse? What's his name, Randy?"
"A very interesting individual. He's as big as or bigger than Josiah, and is the gentlest person I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with." His smile was genuine.
"Well that's good then. I wouldn't want to think they stuck you with a dick."
Ezra snorted. Thankfully this time it didn't erupt in a coughing fit. Looking over his shoulder, then back at the sharpshooter, he asked, "How's Buck?"
Vin shrugged and blew out his breath. "Well, it took all of us a few tries to finally convince him it weren't his fault what happened. He's a stubborn bastard. How's Nathan been?"
"To be honest Vin, I'm glad he's here."
"You hear what he did to the waiting room while we were there?"
"You should ask him. He flipped out in style."
"Let's just say, they shouldn't have furniture in the waiting rooms that's not nailed down."
Ezra smiled and shook his head.
"And don't be too shocked when you see Chris either."
"Buck laid him out with a hell of a punch."
"When did that happen?" Ezra asked confusedly.
"When he came back without you. Back at the compound."
Ezra shook his head in disbelief. "I missed a lot then."
"Some," Vin said with a smile.
Changing the subject, Ezra asked, "How come it's just you two?"
Vin jutted his chin towards the kitchen. "Buck wanted to come see you, make sure you were ok. I think a part of him wasn't sure. Just needed to see it with his own eyes. JD is gonna come by later, but he needed to blow off some steam. The kid was kind of ripped up about the fact that the comms didn't work right. He talked himself into a big ol' hunk of blame too."
Ezra sighed and shook his head.
"We set him straight. There was a lot of interference he couldn't have known about, and even if he did, there wasn't anything he could do to make the comms work any better. He's out with some of his friends doing whatever it is they do."
Ezra nodded, accepting the answer.
"Chris is with Josiah. He's helping him fix… something," he hedged.
Vin smirked. "Josiah may or may not have punched a hole in a wall. Or two."
"Yeah, he really wanted to talk to that Darryl guy, and when they said no, he punched the wall."
He tried to hedge, but it failed. "It could have been… the police station."
"Wow. Did he hurt himself?"
"His pride mostly. But the cops understood. Murph worked it out so that if he did the repairs, they wouldn't even write up that it happened."
Nathan came into the living room then, holding a cup of something steaming. He put it on the coffee table in front of Ezra. Buck followed.
"Thank you Nathan."
"How's the pain doing?" he asked.
"It's bearable for now."
"You cough if you gotta. These two," he pointed back and forth between Vin and Buck, "won't pay you no mind, so do what you have to. You want another pain pill, you say so."
"Wait a minute," Buck said. "Those aren't the pills that make him think Vin's a squirrel or anything, right?" he asked through a laugh.
"Shut up Buck," Vin answered.
Vin glared at the mustached man. "Don't push me Buck, I might have a laser pointer around here somewhere."
Buck's grin fell, and in a serious voice he said, "I'm sorry, Vin."
"Ladies," Nathan said to put a halt to the banter before it went as far as it sometimes did.
Ezra couldn't help but snicker, which led him to cough a heavy, wet cough. Buck and Vin were frozen, unsure of what to do. Nathan was next to him immediately, having become familiar with this dance. He rubbed circles on his back, handed him a towel, and reminded him to breathe. He gave him the pillow that Randy had left him with earlier. The bout was shorter than the earlier ones, and Ezra sat panting as Nathan leaned into him.
"You want the oxygen?"
He shook his head no.
"Ezra," Nathan's voice had an edge to it. "Do you want it?"
A slight pause, then a gentle nod. The mask was immediately put up to his face as he panted.
Vin sat where he was, leaned forward with a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "You ok?" he asked gently.
Ezra nodded slightly.
"What do you need me to do Nathan?" asked Buck.
"Here Buck." He handed him the towel he used to clear Ezra's mouth. "Throw this in the washer." He looked at Buck with stern eyes, commanding him not to say anything further.
Buck at first was confused, then looked at the towel in his hand. There was blood in it. Ezra remained hunched over, looking at the floor, breathing shallowly. He never noticed the exchange.
Buck locked gazes with Vin and nodded towards the kitchen. Vin got up and followed him.
"What?" he asked quietly.
Buck held out the towel.
Vin was considering the towel when Nathan came and joined them. "He wants some water."
"What the fuck is this, Nathan?" Buck asked.
"It's nothing, Buck."
"Don't look like nothin'," Vin added.
"Guys, keep your voices down," Nathan said as he glanced towards the living room. "Ok, he's been coughing up some blood. Randy and I talked about it. It's in his lungs, like a bruise. As he heals, he's going to cough it up. He isn't bleeding. But Randy and I both agreed that he doesn't need to see it. It will upset him, and right now he needs to have as positive an attitude as possible. Sounds lame, I know, but he does. You know how he is. He has to know he's safe. And coughing up blood to him, right now, will send him into a panic."
Vin and Buck both seemed to consider the situation they were presented with. It did make sense.
"You're sure it's nothing to worry about?" asked Buck.
"I am," Nathan reassured. "If he sees the blood, which is already less than it was earlier, or he sees us react to it as alarming, Randy and I both think that he'll stop trying to cough. If that happens, he can get real sick."
"I don't like keeping things from him," Buck added.
"We're not," Nathan explained. When he was met with two confused faces staring back at him, he explained. "Vin, when you're sick, you need to be able to see the outdoors: a window, a doorway. You can't feel trapped." Vin shrugged in acknowledgement. "Buck, you always need to feel reassured in hospitals, especially when you're the patient. You have to know someone is with you. You have some fear of being left that none of us can explain." Buck's face turned pensive as the words sank in.
"He," Nathan nodded towards the living room, "needs to not be a burden. That's part of the reason for Randy. Josiah figured it out the last time he was hurt. He will keep his pain to himself if he feels like he's putting one of us out or making us uncomfortable. But if Randy is here, he accepts the care. And if he thinks that he's worse off than he really is, he'll fight us. All his energy will be put into making it appear he's fine. That's the last thing he needs right now."
The two men stood motionless, taking in what the third had said.
"I have to go give him a pain pill. Come back in when you're ready." And with that, Nathan returned to the living room.
Both men stood silent for a moment after they were left alone.
"I thought you were the one who noticed shit like that," said Buck.
"Damn, me too."
"Well, looks like you're rubbing off on him. In a good way too."
Vin shrugged. "I guess I ain't the only one who makes a habit of watching people." He looked back to the living room.
"Speaking of watching people… Who's Carolyn?"
"She's a friend."
"Oh yeah? You seemed real comfortable snuggling with that dog and Ezra. You do any snuggling with her?" He arched his eyebrows suggestively.
Vin started to blush slightly. "Shut up, Buck." He started walking back towards the living room.
"Hey Ezra! Junior here has a secret girlfriend he wants to tell you all about!" Buck loudly announced as he walked into the living room.
"Hey Ezra! Buck said Tye can stay with him next time you're out of town," Vin announced in the same voice.
Buck's grin vanished from his face. For the second time since they had been there, Buck's voice went deadly serious. "I'm sorry, Vin."
Ezra smiled as he settled back on the couch with Nathan's help.
"You all right ,Ezra?" Nathan asked.
Ezra smiled to himself. "Yeah, Nathan. I'm good."