The Magnificent Seven - ATF AU

To Your Health
By MMW


Prologue

It wasnít silence.

It wasnít stillness.

It was the vacuum of waiting - that inexorable weight of time and air that encloses those frozen in the twilight world of featureless rooms, old magazines and the ominous movement of the sweeping second hand as it continues its ragged journey around the clock. It was the stagnant between time, a universe, a world utterly disconnected to all that exists outside of it, a sort of limbo for mind body and soul.

It was the very essence of nothing. And yet, in this space between reality and whatever lay beyond, some of lifeís most joyous and heart-wrenching moments were enacted in places just like this.

Green eyes focused on a non-existent point outside the window. The body belonging to those eyes projected a myriad of emotions: fear, worry, defeat, hopeÖ All of these blended together to present the very clear message that this man wanted to be left alone. Looking into the unfocussed eyes, it was easy to read the strain and resignation that dwelt within their depths. The small lines of anxiety that formed around his mouth seemed to countermand that resignation dwelling in his eyes. From his body language it was obvious he had been in the position of waiting on news of a loved one far too many times in his young life.

The tempest of emotional sparks and currents flowing from the man served to provide a sheltered area which none dared breach. Had he posted signs saying "stay away" the message could not have been more clear. Fortunately, the other occupants of the room were in a similar state and would not make the mistake of approaching the solitary figure.

The sniffling of a small boy cradled in his motherís arms provided the only dissonant note in the heavy stillness. An elderly couple sat on the opposite side of the room. The husbandís arm circled the woman in an arc of comfort and protection while her hand remained entwined in his returning the comfort she received.

All heads turned at the sound of a door brushing along the linoleum. Breath was held. Anticipation and dread flooded every system. Each soul sparked the light of hope and fought the strangling tentacle of fear; all hoping that they would be called next; each praying the news would be good.

"Mr. Standish," the efficient woman called, smiling only once she saw movement from the chestnut colored head. She briefly noted that his had been the only eyes that hadnít turned to greet her when she entered. The blank mask that acknowledged her call betrayed nothing of what this man might be feeling. "If youíll follow me, sir," she offered, indicating for him to enter the inner sanctum behind the faceless door.

Moving from his position by the window, Ezra made his way across the room, well aware of the mixture of responses from the others forced to endure the heavy burden of waiting. Tracking the womanís path, he followed down a nondescript hallway and through another indistinguishable door. Stepping into the smaller room, he froze in his steps as he took in the state of the patient. Ezra was startled by the transformation ĖĖ the once expressive eyes were closed in drugged sleep lending an almost unnatural peace to the normally active body. Stiffly moving forward, he paused by the still form, reaching out and allowing his hand to rest momentarily on the once shaggy, now shorn head. "Iím so sorry," he spoke, his voice little more than an emotion laden whisper.

"Mr. Standish?" the doctor inquired, his voice loud as he confidently entered the room. Looking up, he thought he caught a glimpse of sadness in the face before all traces were wiped away, leaving the man before him appearing emotionless. His initial surprise at the well-dressed gentleman faded as he caught a slight crack in the mask and read the worry in the green eyes. A reassuring smile softened the doctorís face as he prepared to deliver the good news. "Mr. Standish," he said again, offering his hand, "Iím Dr. Brown. Iím happy to say that your friend will be fine. He has no broken bones, though possibly a concussion. We had to put him out in order to stitch up some of the deeper wounds, but he seems to be coming around without too much difficulty. This is a prescription for a topical anti-biotic that you can apply to the stitches. You just need to change the bandages daily and bring him back in about a week to get the stitches removed. Other than that, youíre free to go."

Ezra was stunned as relief flooded his system. "Thank you Doctor," he managed to say as he fought to maintain his impassive mask. A small smile settled on his face as he accepted the prescription and watched the doctor leave.

Alone in the room, Ezra turned once more to the prone form, this time with relief as he allowed his emotions to express themselves. Resting his hand once more on the sleeping head, he whispered, "Youíll be fine, my friend. We both will."

The sound of a door opening startled him. Turning to face the intruder, he saw the nurse smiling at him. "I thought you might like to fill out the paperwork here while he finishes waking up," she explained.

Offering a genuine smile to the young woman, he responded with a heartfelt, "Thank you." Seeing the young woman nod and leave, Ezra settled in the chair and began filling in the release forms. The nurse came in twice more and by the third time, she announced that they were free to leave.

Scooping up the still-groggy form, Ezra headed out the door and toward his car.

Settling the still awakening form in the back seat, he stroked his hand down the head once more and was rewarded with a lick on his wrist. Smiling so he dimpled, Ezra rubbed behind the floppy ears and carefully backed out of the car. He would need to get back to his apartment quickly or Tristan would be fully awake and whimpering to get into the front seat.

Closing the back door and making his way to around the car to the driverís side, he shook his head, wondering how he had become so attached to an animal, especially one that wasnít his.

Sliding behind the wheel, Ezra slipped the keys into the ignition and started the car. Smoothly backing out of the parking space, he pulled onto the road and headed toward the nearest pharmacy to get his prescription filled.

As the shadowed buildings flitted past his windows, anger built within the driver; anger at himself and anger at the nameless villain who had hit Tristan with his car and not even stopped. The callousness of the act, the sheer cold-bloodedness of it burned within Ezraís heart as he struggled with the strong emotions his relief had released into his system.

Fighting back the anger, knowing he would never receive an answer, he pulled into the parking lot of a pharmacy. Checking on the dog in the back seat, he instructed, "Wait here," before leaving the car and entering the building.

Twenty minutes later, he returned to the car and a pair of expressive brown eyes welcoming him back. The anger that hadnít abated now seemed to seep away as the wagging tail showed how very welcome he was. With a sigh that released the last remnants of rage, Ezra rewarded his canine friend with a much coveted ear scratch as he settled into the driverís seat.

Glancing in the rear view mirror at the eyes begging to be allowed in the front seat, a smile lighted his face. "Not this time," he admonished. "But sometime soon, I promise."

Part 1

Grabbing his coffee mug, Team Leader Chris Larabee picked up the stack of papers sitting on the side of his desk and exited his office, his previously good mood fading after a phone call from Director Orin Travis confirming what he didnít want to hear. Now he was ten minutes late for the meeting with his team. A shudder tried to run down his spine at the thought of the trouble his six men could get into when left alone for ten minutes, but, for the sake of his sanity, he decided not to contemplate it after all. That way lay madness.

Approaching the conference room, he paused. There was no sound escaping through the opened door. This could not be good.

His senses on high alert and ready for whatever he might find, Chris cautiously edged the door open further and scanned the room. He spotted six figures huddled in one of the corners whispering to each other. Unable to determine what was being said, he moved silently into the room and made his way over to the group. Coming to rest a step or two behind his men, he cleared his throat, stifling a satisfied smile as the men jumped.

"Geeze, Chris," Buck said, clutching dramatically at his chest. "You trying to give me a heart attack?"

Chris looked at his oldest friend and raised an eyebrow. "Iím trying to understand why my men, who should be ready for a meeting are gathered in a cornerÖ" His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Tristan. The dog had been entrusted to Ezraís keeping after one of their marks had been arrested. Chris could still see the consternation on the Southernerís face when the criminal had thrust the leash into his hands and begged him to care for the dog. Even as the man was being taken to jail after sentencing, he turned one last time to ensure his dog would receive the best care. Somehow the mutt had won a place in all their hearts. "What happened?" Chris asked, his piercing gaze resting on the Southerner.

Ezra followed the others as they drifted toward the conference table, noting that Larabee stopped to greet the dog before taking his seat. "While we were walking last night," he began, trying to ignore the anger gnawing at his insides and failing, "a Ö"

"Vile miscreant," Vin supplied as Ezra searched for the right words.

"Thank you Mr. Tanner," he acknowledged. "Ö traveled at excessive speeds down the road and swerved into Tristan just as we were seeking the safety of a nearby lawn."

"Did you get a plate?" Chris asked, a low, deadly undertone communicated the anger beneath the question.

Ezra sighed. "Alas, there was no plate to get. I reported the incident and rushed Tristan to the Animal ER. The vet assures me he will make a full recovery."

"Why didnít you call us?" Vin asked, upset at the thought that Ezra had to wait all by himself in the waiting room. It wasnít like he would have held Ezraís hand or anything, but sometimes just having someone else there could be real comforting.

Ezra smiled at his friendís concern, seeing the question mirrored in the other five pairs of eyes. "I fear I wasnít thinking too clearly, my thoughts were only for Tristan."

"Thatís OK, Ezra," JD piped up. "At least heís here now and heís going to be alright."

The others nodded.

Feeling the need to try and maintain a professional air, Chris looked at Ezra and stated, ""You do know that WCB policy does not allow personal pets in the building?""

Ezra nodded. "I am aware of that, Mr. Larabee. However, I was unable to procure the services of a sitter on such short notice. I plan on acquiring said services after we dismiss the meeting."

"Hell, Ez," Vin said. "There are a few people in my building whoíd be more than happy to watch him for ya."

Ezra smiled, having already surmised he could rely on his friends to find a solution to his problem. "That would be most appreciated," Ezra replied.

"Done now?" Chris asked, not allowing his pleasure at Ezraís acceptance of help to show. "Iím just wondering because we have some business to discuss. You know, business? Cases? The things youíve been hired to do?" Seeing everyone settle in for the meeting, he leaned forward and decided to save the news he didnít like for last.

The meeting and updates lasted the better part of the hour. Theyíd done a good job on their last case and everything was in place to ensure the arms dealers would be going away for a long, long time. Now, however, he had to pass out the new assignments.

"Buck, Josiah," he began, passing folders down to them. "Youíre both being lent out to Team Two. Josiah, they need you to help with the profile on this guy and Buck, youíll probably be working with Forensics on analyzing the bombs." Seeing nods from both men, he continued. Passing a folder to Nathan, he said, "Youíll be working with Team Eight on their latest case. It appears someone is selling knives to minors." Turning toward the youngest member of their group, he looked into the hazel eyes patiently awaiting his instructions. Sliding a file down to the young man, Chris took a breath before continuing. "Team Three has been working at a local high school. It seems someone is selling books on making your own bombs and the chemicals to use to students. Two have died and eight more have ended up in the hospital." The hum of the clock and the air conditioning could be heard in the room. "Take them down, JD," he ordered quietly, pleased to see steel in the young manís eyes as he nodded his acknowledgment.

Silence fell once more in the conference room as Chris stared at the remaining two folders before him. The anxiety he had felt when Travis first presented the request reasserted itself. Try though he might to convince himself otherwise, he just had a bad feeling about this next assignment.

"Ez and I getting a paid vacation?" Vin asked softly, breaking into his friendís sudden silence.

Larabee looked up into the blue eyes, knowing Vin would read the concern and worry there. He watched as the man who had become more than a friend straightened in his chair and shot a look toward Ezra.

"Best spit it out, Cowboy," he said, his own concern and worry heightening his senses. Whatever the assignment was, he could see it bothered Chris.

Looking from Vin to Ezra, the blond picked up the remaining two folders and held them in his hands. "I donít like this assignment, but Travis ordered it and wonít change his mind." Passing one file to Ezra and one to Vin, Chris looked at the two men intently. "The Toledo branch has something going on out there. They arenít sharing all their information, just enough to convince Travis to answer their request." He saw Vin and Ezra shift uncomfortably. "They want the two of you, in fact, requested you by name. They mentioned some connection to their suspects but didnít provide the name of either the suspect or what the deal was. All I know is they were making noises about it being international."

"International?" JD asked.

"Toledo isnít that far from Canada, JD," Josiah injected, thinking of the geography of the area.

"And with that much unguarded boarder..." Nathan added, thinking of how easy it would be to slip things back and forth across the border. He was a little puzzled, though. What would they be smuggling between Canada and the US?

"I donít like it," Buck piped up. He was never comfortable when they split up and the idea of two of their number heading off to another state to help people they didnít knowÖ It just didnít sit right.

"Itís done," Larabee said, ending the discussion and shoving aside his own concerns. "They leave in two days."

"But what about Tristan?" Ezra asked, hoping to focus attention on the dog. The truth was, he didnít want to go. He had a doctorís appointment that afternoon. He would be subjected to the final set of tests, the set that would confirm the doctorís initial diagnosis. He had been praying the doctor was wrong about his suspicions. If it turned out the doctor was right he would much rather be at home than undercover in an unknown territory. This would never do.

"The dog will stay with me. Heíll have room to run at the ranch," he replied closing the topic. Seeing the Undercover Agent about to protest again, he held up his hand. "I tried Ezra," he assured. "I explained it all to Travis. I canít do anything about this." Seeing the look on Ezraís face, he felt like heíd just kicked the agent. Chris suppressed a sigh. Looking around the room he announced, "We all have our new assignments. Letís get to work."

Everyone stood and began chatting about their assignments, about Tristan and about nothing in particular. Ezra headed over to the corner where his dog rested on a pillow, lost in his own thoughts and worries. He would most likely either be on his way to or be in Toledo when the results came in and his doctor called. Could he maintain his focus? Would he be able to provide Vin with the backup he needed? Reaching down, he sought comfort in the unconditional love of Tristan. Ezra was so lost in thought, he didnít notice as Vin slid up behind him and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Itíll be alright, Pard," Vin assured, offering a smile as Ezra turned to look at him. "Chrisíll watch Tristan real good for you." He watched Ezra nod and wondered at the worry, fear and something else he read in the manís eyes. It didnít seem to have anything to do with the dog. That unidentified something else bothered him and set his internal alarms ringing. It was several moments before Vin identified the nebulous something that bothered him. Doubt. Ezra was worried, afraid and doubting. The very important question was, what was Ezra doubting and could it prove deadly?

Before he could ask another question, Josiah came over and the topic changed

Part 2

Ezra had come to the conclusion that every waiting area he had been in had been designed by the same people who feel beige walls are appropriate for government buildings and schools. In other words, they were all more or less the same, all designed to be soothing, all designed to dampen any and all sounds, all oppressive and all enough to strangle any spark of hope or light that might threaten to take hold.

Then there was this place. The appearance on the surface was that of chaos and confusion. But underlying that turmoil, should one care to look, existed a rigid form, unyielding and uncaring. In the eyes of the foundation all were the same, all were equal, all were nothing more than cattle to be shunted into the appropriate pens...

He really hated airports.

Watching as yet another airplane crawled toward a gate, he couldnít stop the shudder that ran through him. He desperately needed to get some sleep, knowing he was wound far too tightly, but not knowing how to relax. He was waiting on a call that could change his life.

He hadnít been able to sleep the past few nights because of his worry and now that was catching up. The lack of sleep had interfered with his ability to focus on the job at hand. He had read the file, but had to re-read it several times. Normally he and Vin would have spent at least the day before going over their personas and stories, but he hadnít remembered to show up for the meeting. Fortunately Vin had covered for him when Larabee asked.

A sigh escaped the Southerner. That was something he needed to worry about. Vin had not been happy at Ezraís absentmindedness, but had accepted Ezraís assurance that it was only a momentary problem and it wouldnít happen again. They had then spent several hours re-introducing themselves to their covers - Ephriam Huntly and Evin Daily. He knew they would need to review again, especially after they received more details from their counterparts in Toledo.

Taking a deep breath, Ezra tried to remain focused on the case, but other thoughts began invading his consciousness. The information the doctor had given him, every conversation they had. All the advice he had received swirled in his mind chasing after the knowledge he had gained from his readings on the internet and books from the library.

No matter how much he tried to push his concerns, his fears aside, he couldnít do it. The frustration from this inability to compartmentalize his thoughts only added to his discomposure. And he had seen too often the consequences of failing to set aside oneís life on the job.

His mind ranged back to his first case in the FBI. He had gone undercover with one of the most experienced men in the department. Given his motherís early training, Ezra had little trouble setting himself aside and becoming Eric Smith. He thought this ability was normal, thought everyone could slide flawlessly into various personas, setting aside everything that would distract them.

His partner happened to be going through some marital difficulties at the time. He had found his wife sleeping with a neighbor. Ezra hadnít known that. All he knew was that at the end of the case, he had been lucky to escape with his life.

Now he couldnít help questioning if he was putting Vin in a similarly dangerous position.

A shudder once more ran through his frame at the thought.

He should stand down, had tried to stand down from this case, but he hadnít been given a choice. When he approached Chris, his Team Leader had cut him off explaining that he had already argued with Travis over the case and tried. There was nothing left to be done. Vin and Ezraís presence could assure the Toledo team entrance into the organization they needed. What made Chris uncomfortable, though, was the lack of information on exactly how his men would be used.

So Ezra found himself sitting in Denverís airport with Vin waiting to fly into a situation they didnít have any information on and for which he, personally, wasnít prepared.

He had to be OK for this, though. He didnít have a choice. There was no way he would be able to come back and face his family, his team with the news he had failed to protect Vin.

Whatever else he did, whatever it cost him, he had to get over this and focus on the case.

But the tendrils of worry and concern once more seized him. He needed to know the answer. He needed to know the results. Perhaps he would be able to concentrate after he heard from the doctor. Yes, that was probably all he needed - to talk to the doctor. After all, they had discussed his options, he knew the courses available to him. He just had to wait and find out.

He just had to wait... here in a room designed for waiting.

It shouldnít be that hard. Not really.

Right?

A phone rang.

Ezra jumped, shocked and startled. His heart began racing as his mind emptied. He couldnít breathe suddenly. Reaching into his pocket with a shaking hand, he had just opened the small phone when a man standing next to him answered.

Releasing a breath he didnít know heíd taken, he returned his phone to his pocket and his attention to the lumbering giants outside, one of which would soon whisk him away to the Great Lakes region. One of which would lead him away from all of this concern, the oppressive worry and the paralyzing fear. Hopefully the plane would fly fast enough to leave it all behind. But a nagging voice of reason persisted in stating that his troubles would follow him, that there was no escape.

Running his hands through his hair, he shifted from foot to foot.

How did people deal with things like this? How did they get up every morning knowing...

Taking a deep breath he chastised himself. He was a trained federal agent. He had faced some of the most deadly men in Colorado. Scratch that, he worked with some of the most deadly men in Colorado. He had been shot at, threatened, beaten, cheated, lied to and put in impossible situations and handled them all with aplomb. Why couldnít he handle this the same way?

Six months ago Buck had been taken as collateral by one of their targets. For a full twenty-four hours they had no idea, no hint, no clue as to Buckís whereabouts or even if he was alive or dead. Ezra had managed to handle that malefactor without breaking a sweat.

So why couldnít he beat this?

He was startled out of his reverie as a hand clapped on his shoulder.

Turning quickly, he found himself face to face with concerned blue eyes.

"They just called our row, Ez," Vin said, vowing to get to the bottom of whatever was eating at Ezra. "Time to go."


On to Parts 3-5
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