Here's the final part. It's longer than the others but it's kind of the epilogue and it didn't seem to make sense to split it up. Thank you all again for the warm welcome back. Oh, and I remember the other thing I wanted to pimp. An old story by Shawna, "Rough Beginnings". If you search the interwebz you can find it. I highly recommend it. She came up with Ezra's townhome.


Ezra dropped into the passenger seat of the Jaguar, tossed his suit jacket in the back, and pulled the door closed. JD took one look at the black cast encasing his friend's hand and wrist and told him what he thought. "You know this just means Buck will get a pen with metallic ink…probably gold, to make it extra gaudy."

Ezra's expression indicated that he really had not thought of that—he had truly believed his choice of color meant he would escape the anticipated assault on his cast by Buck and Vin. He dropped his head back against the headrest. "I can't win."

JD put the car in gear and patted Ezra's leg. "He's got four years on you. Experience counts."

Except for a background of the cd in the player—"The Fabulous Johnny Cash"—the ride to Ezra's was quiet. JD would occasionally glance at his friend but usually just caught him with eyes closed, lips slightly moving along with the lyrics.

Once at the condo, JD led the way—opening the door, hanging Ezra's suit jacket over the back of one of the chairs at the antique dining table and emptying the white plastic hospital bag that contained care sheets for a cast and a prescribed bottle of pain-killers.

Ezra stood in his kitchen, looking around with a dazed expression. Suddenly, he turned and headed for his room. "I'm going to take a shower. Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Dunne. I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow."

JD was right on his friend's heels. He was pretty sure he was witnessing exhaustion mixed with a 5-500 mg dose of Vicodin. "Whoa, whoa, hold up, Ez. Take your arm outta your sleeve first."


"Maybe even a 10-500 dose," JD thought, seeing the confused expression on the other man's face. "Your cast. Ya can't get it wet."

Ezra stared at his hand for several seconds before seeming to agree. He struggled against plaster-trapped fingers to undo the buttons of his shirt. JD grabbed up a bagged newspaper on the kitchen island, pulled off the rubber band sealing it closed and dumped the paper on the counter.

"Lemme see." Ezra stuck his arm out and JD wrapped and sealed it the best he could with the plastic bag and rubber band. " 'k, you're good."

Several moments later, as JD assessed what food the cupboards and refrigerator contained, he heard the water in the shower turn on. Several moments after that he heard the unmistakable sound of one, possibly two, dense plastic containers hitting the bathtub floor and Ezra's muffled voice.

"How do they expect anyone to function like this?!"

Ezra never ceased to be amazed at the therapy provided by 69,000 loops per square yard of Turkish cotton when applied in bathrobe form. He pulled the belt of his dark blue robe tighter and wandered to the kitchen. While he did not relish the idea of being alone, he certainly could not have expected JD to want to…

"Hey Ez, perfect timing." JD stood at the stove, adding olive oil to a pot of something before stirring it with a long-handled wooden spoon.

Ezra was taken aback. "You're still here." The look he received had him immediately clarifying. "No, no. I meant, I…I just assumed that you would have wanted to go-"

"Grab something out?" JD said, purposefully preventing Ezra from finishing the thought. "Nah, me and Casey are experts at this one. I figured you hadn't eaten much other than that protein bar that Josiah gave you. This was easy to throw together before I took off. Sit."

Ezra obeyed, easing onto one of the high bar stools at the island counter. JD scooped some farfalle in a bowl, topped it with grated parmesan and put it in front of Ezra. He served himself and grabbed up the remaining fork on the island. "Pasta with basil and sundried tomatoes tossed with garlic sautéed in a white wine reduction."

"My word, isn't that just positively 'Top Chef' worthy."

JD spoke around a mouthful of pasta. "It's more impressive than it sounds. Casey and I love cooking together but we really suck at it. Did you know that once an artichoke catches fire it's a bitch to put out?"

"I did not know that."

"She and I have done this recipe about a bajillion times, so it's finally good."

Ezra swallowed his second bite. "I would agree with that."

A moment passed in silence before JD noticed Ezra with a distracted look on his face while glancing around the room. "Damn," the southerner murmured. "I think I left my jacket at the ER."

"Um, you don't remember me carrying it in and hanging it on the back of the chair?"

Ezra's brow furrowed and he looked at the chair JD had pointed to. "I don't mean to sound more unbalanced than I'm already feelin', but there is no jacket on that chair."

JD smiled. "I put it in the Jag. I figured I'd be going past your dry cleaner so I could drop it off. Got the pants too. Hope that wasn't weird, getting 'em off your bed while you were in the shower. Oh, and your shirt is soaking." He pointed his fork toward the smaller section of the two-basin sink. "An hour in cold water with a cup of salt should get out any…" he stopped before he said the word blood. Detective Hilliard's blood. "…stains. If that doesn't work we can try a little hydrogen peroxide."

Ezra's brows rose. "Your Ms. Wells may yet break you of bad habits instilled by Buck."

"Casey?" JD's laugh nearly forced pasta from his mouth. "The girl can scale and gut a fish but I had to show her how to change the belt on the vacuum cleaner. Who doesn't know how to do that?"

"Vacuum cleaners have belts?" thought Ezra.

JD misunderstood the other man's lack of reply. He focused on his food and showed a small shrug. "In the summer I'd help my mom. The more places she cleaned the more she got paid. If she could bring in more money during the summer it made November and December easier for us. Around the holidays, people often cut out 'extras' since they're spending on other stuff."

Ezra looked around the kitchen and noticed there was very little indication that a meal had been cooked. If it had been Buck, there would be sun-dried tomatoes stuck to the curtains…in the living room. "How is it that you can fix a meal and leave virtually no trace, yet you live at the CDC?"

The first time Ezra had seen the condition of the two-bedroom loft apartment Buck and JD shared, he called it the Center for Disease Control. The nickname stuck and now there were even times when the roommates used the expression themselves.

JD smiled. "As a kid I took care of our apartment. I figured the last thing ma wanted to do after getting home was more cleaning."

Ezra affected a bewildered expression and replied slowly. "A mother who engages in manual labor? I don't believe I'm familiar with this."

JD absently stabbed at a couple of pieces of pasta. "I dunno, maybe being with Buck is like…a kind of freedom, like being a kid. Or what being a kid should be. Ya know?" He looked at Ezra as if searching for agreement.

The southerner returned JD's gaze just for a second before focusing on his food. He answered with a soft, sincere tone. "Yes, quite."

JD knew enough of Ezra's background to understand that the southerner had more than a fleeting idea of what it meant to have to grow up fast. He moved to the stove for a second helping. "You want more?"

"No. Thank you. You go ahead, this will be enough for me." He took up his bowl, carefully balancing it on the inside of his cast-wrapped forearm, and wandered to the cordless phone unit on one end of the kitchen counter. The flashing number one on the answering machine stared at Ezra until he pressed the button that allowed the message to play.

"Hello, darlin', it's Mother."

Ezra rolled his eyes and glanced at JD. "She says that every time she leaves a message. As if she thinks suddenly one day I'm goin' to forget the sound of her voice and wonder who the hell is callin' me."

He took a bite of food and tuned back in to the recording as the genteel, feminine drawl continued, each self-pronoun coming out as 'Ah' rather than 'I'.

"I'm goin' to be in Denver next weekend and hoped we could get together for brunch on Sunday. I had such a lovely time at the Brown Palace when you and I were there last time. Of course, I know you're probably busy…"

Ezra repeated his earlier exasperated gesture and JD couldn't help but smile.

"…but it has been ages."

"It's been six weeks," Ezra said to the machine.

"You'll call and let me know, won't you? Love you, darlin', bye-bye. Call me."

He hit the delete button and looked at the clock on the microwave. It would be too late to call New York even if he did have the energy. Scooping the rest of the pasta into his mouth he carried the bowl to the dishwasher as JD opened the door and slid out the bottom rack. When JD started to hand wash the sauté pan he had used, Ezra tried to stop him.

"Leave that. As cook, you are allowed to call in the not-cleanin' card." He left off the words, "You're not required to play babysitter."

JD gave his friend an exasperated look. "Am I gonna have to pin a note to your cast that says, 'Don't get this wet'? You're not washing this pan."

"Mr. Dunne, in case it escaped your notice, I did manage to survive for many years on my own."

JD was focused back on the pan. "Yeah, well, in case it escaped your notice, you're not on your own now."

The double meaning did not escape Ezra's tired brain. If anything, it added an element of calm that the Vicodin could not. "Well then, as I can assume workin' on a laptop is permitted within the confines of cast-wearin', I'll just be gettin' mine."

"You're allowed to do that," JD answered, with mock authority.

There was an easy synchronicity to their movements. Ezra set up his laptop on the dining room table while JD finished cleaning up the kitchen. When JD began to rinse Ezra's shirt in the sink, the southerner interrupted him.

"JD, that really isn't-"

The other man looked over his shoulder. "Whad ar' you, soft?" He heard his own accent taking over and he paused before slowly enunciating the rest of his answer. "And how are you going to wring it out with one hand since the other's not…supposed…to get…wet?"

Ezra watched his friend work on the shirt for a moment when the realization struck him. He focused on his computer screen before providing an answer to the question that JD probably was not even conscious of wanting an answer to. "The sheets for the sofa bed are in the closet." He knew that JD knew which one.

JD didn't turn around but there was a brief pause in his rinsing of the shirt, and then he answered with a single word. "Thanks."

Ezra noticed JD's body language relax, the wringing out of the shirt became less vigorous. Not much later, JD stood, looking around the kitchen. "Have you seen my phone?"

A cursory glance around nearby surfaces prompted Ezra to nod toward the cordless phone. "Feel free to use that one, if you wish." He continued checking his email as JD scooped up the handset and dialed.

"Hey, it's me. I'm at Ezra's. I'm pretty beat and don't feel like driving home so I'm just gonna crash here. Casey's off tomorrow so I should be able to get her to pick me up. Talk later."

A moment later, JD was back at the sink and finished wringing out the dress shirt. "I'm gonna hang this in the laundry room."

Without looking away from his monitor, Ezra spoke again. "Feel free to take any of the t-shirts that are on the dryer. And there is a pair of Vin's sweats there also."

JD showed a wince. "Oh…from the thing with the-."

"Yes." The corners of Ezra's mouth turned down slightly. "The pizza delivery man incident…which I believe we all agreed would never be mentioned again."

"Right," JD said, with a nod.

Ezra did not bother trying to use two hands to type. He rested his left on his lap and carefully typed out an e-mail.

Dear Mother,

I apologize for missing your call earlier this evening.

He paused at what to say next. The truth was out of the question. It did not seem appropriate to write, "Sorry I wasn't home—my friend JD and I were desperately trying to stay alive". He decided to avoid the work issue entirely and simply lied.

I've been considering purchasing a new computer and JD was gracious enough to go with me this afternoon as a consultant. The boy certainly has an impressive amount of knowledge. I consider myself quite lucky to have friends such as him.

Ezra paused at the idea of how lucky he truly was. That afternoon, the three bodies in the hangar easily could have been five. He typed out the remainder of the brief e-mail with honest sincerity.

I would be delighted to see you next Sunday. I know we haven't had the chance recently to see as much of each other as we would like, but always know you are in my thoughts.

I'll call you tomorrow afternoon.

Much love,


JD padded, barefoot, back into the kitchen dressed in a well-worn Colorado Law Enforcement Youth Athletic Association t-shirt and a pair of gray sweats. While the shirt fit a little wide in the shoulders and the sweats bunched a bit at the ankles with extra length, he wore them with a comfort as if they were his own. The phone began ringing and he exchanged a look with Ezra. They spoke at the same time.


Ezra was already halfway to the phone and waved JD off. The southerner answered and JD noted the effects of tiredness and painkillers as his friend's accent rolled out thicker than usual.

"Good evenin', Mr. Wilmin'ton." He was quiet as Buck replied and checked up on him. "…I' been worse… why yes, as a matter a' fact he is." With a slight grin, he passed the cordless handset to JD.

"Hey, Buck… uh, no, that's fine, go ahead… No, you don't have to. I told you, I'll call Casey…'k, bye."

JD hung up the phone bearing a puzzled expression. "He wanted to know if he could eat my leftover Chinese after he got home. Sounded like he was at the Saloon." He shook his head. "Like food being mine has ever stopped him before from eating it."

He wandered to the sofa and scooped up the television remote. Ezra couldn't help but smile inwardly. JD's intelligence took up most of the young man's cerebral space. As such, there was not much room left for the workings of subtle things and worldliness. JD had been genuinely unaware that Buck's reason for calling had nothing to do with food.

The day had taken a heavy toll on all of Team Seven. Buck simply needed to connect on some level with his partner. Ezra felt a brief pang of regret. A part of him envied the brother-like friendship Buck and JD shared. Having someone stick close when things were rough seemed to be a rare commodity in today's world.

"Hey, the Stooges are on."

The voice from the other room hit Ezra with a welcome realization—someone had chosen to stick close to him tonight. He and JD had walked out of the impossible that afternoon. And as their minds processed the events, their psyches sought out the tool best suited to the task – each other.

The phone rang again and Ezra answered without bothering to check the caller ID. "Yes, Buck?...Oh, good evenin', Mr. Larabee….yes, JD did tell me to call you after I-…Well, now, they did give me Vicodin, Chris. I confess, it has made me rather discombobulated; however, I was-…Shutting up, sir…They put a cast on it, should be off in three to six weeks and then p.t. after that…Black… I thought you'd approve…Ah yes, JD did mention that little downside. Perhaps if I keep my overcoat on for the next month, the terrible twosome won't notice…."

JD looked at his friend and smiled wickedly. Ezra didn't stand a chance.

"…Oh, well, thank you, sir. But I do consider it a joint effort." He looked at JD. "…I will. Thank you, Chris, you too. 'Night."

In the emptiness of the ATF office, Chris hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, releasing a heavy sigh while closing his eyes and dropping his head back into the confines of the leather padding. A moment later, a voice brought him back to the real world.

"Hey, cowboy." Vin leaned in the doorway.

Chris rubbed his eyes while responding, "Ya know, Tanner, I think I can say without exaggeration, it has been a long, goddamned day."

"I hear ya, pard." He moved into the room and sat in one of the chairs in front of Chris's desk.

"What are you still doing here?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged and his mouth twisted a little in a resigned manner. "Report."

Chris nodded. If he had given it any thought he would have realized that. Vin nearly always started his first but nearly always submitted his last.

"How ya doin'?" Vin asked. A look of faint surprise brushed across Chris's face but the Texan just shrugged. "I reckoned nobody else had asked you that yet."

Chris pointed at the name plate on his desk that bore his title, Special Agent in Charge. "The S.A.C. part means I'm the one who asks everybody else that."

Vin nodded and made a small sound as if contemplating that rule, and then totally ignored it. "So, how ya doin'?" The tiniest bit of mischievous smile played around the corners of his mouth.

"We're all still here and we got the bad guys. To me, that's a win." He watched Vin nod again and then open his mouth but Chris knew what he was about to ask and cut him off. "I'm tired. I'm hungry. And I'm pretty sure I don't smell so good."

"Yeah, I wasn't gonna mention that. Ya shoulda hit the showers after the debrief."

With a small wave at the thick files stacked on his desk, Chris answered. "I've got about three more hours of this stuff before I can even think about going home."

Vin pursed his lips a bit and nodded while looking over the files. "Ya know, all this stuff ain't goin' anywhere. But the booze over at the Saloon is probably disappearing pretty fast."

Chris ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. "Everybody else over there?"

"Yep. Tyler's crew and some of the locals he used today; the chopper crew too. Rafe and Marco. I think a couple of the DEA boys that were in the other Qwest truck—Selo and that tall guy, Massey? Nathan was plannin' on stoppin' at the smoke shop on his way over there."

"Nice," Chris said. Their teammate's habit of splurging on several fine cigars after a successful bust was always something Chris looked forward to. "Successful bust," he thought. He picked up one of the FBI's thick manila folders on Vargas and flipped through it a bit before tossing it back onto the desk.

"It is a win, ya know." Vin seemed to know what his friend was thinking.

Disgust colored the team leader's features. "My head should have been on a fuckin' platter for this one," he snapped. "But the only thing the directors see is Vargas in cuffs. So it's 'Excellent work, Larabee' and 'We've already got our media liaison on this one.' But the truth is, I've got an agent who will be on desk duty for six weeks and another one who-"

"Who did what he was trained to do—handle the situation."

"It was a bullshit situation from the beginning," Chris retorted. He stabbed one finger into his chest. "And I should have told the directors that, from the beginning. The FBI locals should have been handling this, not my men. There were too many times during this operation when I was reacting to situations. It's my job to be one step ahead. How the fuck can I do that when they come to me with a day's notice, volunteering my team?"

Vin let his friend vent. He knew that worry, fear, and the feeling of being out of control reflected as anger. "You do it by havin' the best men on your team; by makin' sure they're trained and that they don't get complacent. I heard the word 'luck' tossed around a lot over the last week but you and I have both been at this game long enough to know that luck ain't nothin' but a hell of a lot of usin' your skills when you have to."

From his pocket, a small 'ping' signaled a text. He stood and stretched. "Probably Buck." He fished out the phone and sent a reply before looking at his friend. "When you're done, c'mon over. We plan on gettin' as many rounds out of the Fibbies as possible."

Chris sighed and gave his desktop a cursory glance. "It would probably be in the best interest of cross-bureau relations, wouldn't it?"

"I'm sure if you check that S.A.C. job description, it's in there." He started to leave but stopped at the door. "Hey, how's Ezra?"

Chris seemed thrown by the non-sequitur but quickly recovered. He had been off the phone before Vin had come in but it wasn't a surprise that the Texan knew to whom who he had been talking. The man's talent for observing situations and reading people was nearly as good as Ezra's. The undercover agent only had an edge because of an upbringing of grifting and a career where his life depended on correct assumptions and interpreting body language. For Vin, it was simply an innate ability.

"Sounded tired." The team had long since learned to use the heaviness of Ezra's accent as a gauge to his physical condition. Chris grinned. "He's got a cast."

Vin returned the expression. "What color?"


A thoughtful look passed over Vin's face. "I'll bet gold glitter would show up real well on that."

Chris stood and shut down his computer. "I'm hitting the showers. I didn't hear that comment and this conversation never took place."

JD flicked off the bathroom light, but rather than heading back to the living room he drifted down the hall, past Ezra's office to where a door stood halfway open. His eyes had already adjusted to the dark so when he peered into the master bedroom it was easy for him to make out the comforter-covered form in the bed.

Ezra rested on his right side, facing the door, with a pillow propped under his left arm. Behind him on the nightstand a clock glowed blue, showing the time as 2:18. His breathing was deep and even, and JD was happy to see his friend relaxed.

He made his way to the kitchen; his mind was too restless to let him go back to sleep. Earlier in the evening, JD could think of nothing else than getting home to his own bed. Yet, as he drove Ezra home from the hospital, and the quiet enveloped them, he realized he was not quite up to being around anyone just yet.

He loved Buck like a brother, but the thought of the older man's unreserved concern seemed overwhelming. At the same time, he had not wanted to be alone. His mind had briefly flitted to Casey. But she was on night duty at the veterinary clinic, plus JD knew he would not be able to lie to her when she asked how his day went. He still was not sure how to handle that conversation.

While eating dinner, he had realized he needed to be around someone who understood what he had been through. Someone who did not feel the need to get him to talk about it. JD had appreciated Ezra's far more subtle methods. The southerner knew that JD knew where the bed sheets were kept. It was common knowledge amongst the team thanks to too much beer for one of the Seven during too many poker nights.

So he had casually prepped the sleeper sofa in Ezra's living room and drifted off to sleep while the television had played in the background. A dark dream had jarred him awake and he had felt the need to check on Ezra—had just needed to see him.

Now, in the kitchen, he leaned against the doorframe of the sliding glass door that led to the condo's small backyard and stared out into the night. The dream that had woken him would be waiting if he tried to fall back asleep.

In the dark, Ezra turned over in time to see his clock update to the next minute. 2:32. His left shoulder blade was tight from sleeping with his arm on the pillow and his pinkie was again radiating pain up his hand. Tossing the comforter aside, he slid out of the tall antique-style sleigh bed and adjusted the light gray t-shirt that had twisted around his torso.

The shirt had been a peace offering from Nathan many years earlier. A misunderstanding had led to bitter words between the two; their strong personalities didn't always see eye-to-eye, but a mutual respect had overcome their initial rough start.

The graphic on the shirt was a drawing of a winged gargoyle holding a mug of beer. The words 'Arrogant Bastard Ale' and 'Stone Brewing Co.' appeared underneath. Multiple incidents had led to Ezra's teammates teasing him about his taste for the finer things in life with such questions as asking him if he slept in silk pajamas. In actuality, it was usually his Arrogant Bastard t-shirt and a pair of navy blue sweats stamped with the ATF logo in yellow.

In search of the bottle of Vicodin, he headed for the kitchen without turning on any lights as he went. A silhouette at the sliding glass door gave him pause. A full moon poured its glow across everything and lit the features of the young man there in a sad shade of pale blue.

"Hey," Ezra greeted softly.

With a gasp, JD turned in reaction to the voice behind him. Ezra held out open hands in a non-threatening gesture. "It's all right, it's just me." Each man exhaled a soft breath. "Sorry," added the southerner.

JD shook his head. " 's okay."

Ezra moved to the stove to flip on the range light. Even with the additional glow, it took him a second to locate what he sought. He picked up his prescription bottle from the counter and tried several times to open it until JD wordlessly took it from him, retrieved a tablet and resealed the container.

"Thank you," Ezra said. He tossed the pill into his mouth, chasing it with a bit of water cupped in his hand from the faucet.

He turned to see JD watching him. The young man pushed his bangs away from his eyes, opened his mouth as if to say something but closed it again and, with a troubled expression, turned back to stare at the cold world on the other side of the glass door. Finally, he spoke.

"We were… I mean… it…it was close, wasn't it?" It came out as more of a statement than a question.

Ezra swallowed hard. He wanted so desperately to lie to the boy, to protect him, to assure him that it had not been as bad as it had seemed and to let him know that a few weeks from now he will have forgotten the whole thing. But there was no way he could.


In the bluish-gray shadows Ezra could see JD fold his arms tightly across his body and shake his head. "I was so stupid."

"What?" Ezra was shocked by the harsh statement.

"I mean, you said it, right? 'JD, never underestimate the enemy'. And I didn't have…" Closing his eyes, JD cut himself off and let his head fall back, as if he was looking Heavenward. "Christ, man…. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

The desperate tone confused Ezra. "What? JD…" He was at a loss for words. He leaned one hip against the kitchen island and ran his uninjured hand through his hair, exhaling heavily. "My God, son…. That is the furthest thing from the truth. No, JD. If you had been stupid…." Emotion grabbed at his throat and Ezra found it hard to acknowledge what could have happened. "If you had been stupid we would not be here."

He could tell his friend was still running in self-defeating circles in his head. It irritated Ezra to think JD could beat himself up over how things had transpired. His voice took on a harsher tone. "Neither you nor I had any control over Dorison and Hilliard doin' what they did. I've worked various forms of u.c. for over ten years and believe me, that is not a regular occurrence, by any stretch of the imagination."

JD turned to face his teammate. "Don't you get it?! I was lost! I was shit-scared in there!" The young man's eyes reflected a mixture of anger and fear that could be read even in the low light. His voice was tight with emotion as he continued to vent. "Tonight at the office, when I got on the elevator to leave, I smelled cigarette smoke on some guy and broke out in a cold sweat. I thought I was gonna puke in the fuckin' elevator. What kinda field agent does that?!"

"For God's sake, JD, one who's human." Ezra shifted his gaze to an unseen spot by the sink and exhaled a rueful laugh while shaking his head. "If you only knew the amount of times I-" He stopped himself, running the tip of his tongue along his lower lip before looking at his friend. "We'll be on desk duty for probably a week."

He lifted his left hand. "Give or take. Misters Donovan and Simpson may be required for an arraignment to keep up appearances. But that's certainly nothin' ya'll haven't seen me do before." He paused for a second, and then continued.

"There're six to eight appointments with a Bureau psychiatrist. They up'd the number after Waco but most guys still only do four before they start tellin' themselves they're fine and makin' up excuses as to why they're unable to attend their next appointment. Do me a favor, JD…use all of 'em. Nobody has to know besides Chris."

Ezra held the younger man's gaze until he saw a nearly imperceptible nod. Silence settled around them until it seemed to generate a heat of its own. Ezra knew it would encourage talk.

JD finally spoke but now his voice was far more restrained and his eyes were focused downward. "You were depending on me and I was sofar out of my league…."

"Bullshit," Ezra said. JD looked up, surprised by the bluntness. The southerner crossed to his friend and with two fingers of his right hand lightly tapped the younger man's forehead. "You, JD, are in a league of your own."

He received a confused look but kept speaking. "You remember what else I said? That sometimes bein' the best is no more than bein' able to b.s. long enough to save your skin? What do you think you did? Ian Vargas is intelligent, intuitive, and very experienced… and look where he is tonight. And it sure as hell is not for anything that I did.

"So you were scared. You think I wasn't? But you kept it together. Not only that, but you"—Ezra emphasized his point with an index finger to JD's chest—"are the only member of this team that could have come up with and put into effect the plan that saved our butts."

JD's attempt at a smile was enough for Ezra to believe that a little of the self-imposed guilt had lifted. "I think I could use something to drink. Shall I make it two?"

"Sounds good."

Ezra retrieved a bottle and two short glasses from a high cupboard and placed them on the kitchen island as JD grabbed his own idea of a late-night drink. Ezra stared at the milk and mugs while JD eyed the twenty-year old Oban. Ezra spoke while pouring himself a shot. "That's not quite what I had in mind, but ya'll go right ahead with that warm milk of yours."

"Uh… you're gonna drink that?"

The southerner took a few seconds to answer. "No, I'd planned on pourin' it in the glass and leavin' it in a tree outside for the squirrels. It's very difficult for them to get single malt Scotch now that the cold weather has arrived. Your point, Mr. Dunne?"

"Duh… Vicodin."

"It's one shot." The look on JD's face did not falter and Ezra caved. "Oh, for Heaven's sake." He carefully poured the whiskey back into the bottle while JD returned to preparing milk. He was about to put the mugs in the microwave when Ezra stopped him. "Well, if you're goin' to do it, at least do it right." From the cupboard he retrieved a yellow and red octagon-shaped box with the word Ibarra printed across it, and pulled a small hand-held grater from a drawer.

Ezra's awkward attempt at shaving the chocolate into the mugs lasted all of five seconds before JD took it away from him and finished the job. As they watched the mugs move slowly around on the carousel plate in the microwave, JD spoke.

"I don't know how you do it."

The seriousness in his tone indicated to Ezra exactly what his friend was talking about. "I have good backup."

The answer seemed so matter-of-fact and sincere, as if that was all one needed to deal with unbalanced felons on a regular basis while your nearest support system was most likely sitting in a van a half of a block away. "You're fuckin' nuts."

"I also have an over-developed sense of denial."

The light from the television spilled into the living room. JD lay atop the covers on the sofa bed, mug in hand, and Ezra relaxed back in an overstuffed leather chair to the right of the couch. The Three Stooges marathon continued and Larry, Moe and Curly were attempting to convince a wealthy woman that the three of them alone were more than capable of handling the renovation to her mansion dining room.

"Who needs the rest?" demanded Moe. And Curly and Larry answered. "When you've got the best!"

"Ain't that the truth," JD said softly. He raised a loose fist toward Ezra without looking away from the screen and felt a light bump from hardened plaster covering knuckles.

" 'Los Siete Magnificos,'" Ezra murmured.