The six men sat around the briefing table, getting the lowdown on Samuel Scott, a local but notorious drug runner the ATF had been trying to bring down. Now that he had 'graduated' to bringing weapons in, the stakes had doubled.
The seventh man, Ezra Standish, was conspicuously absent. The agent was undercover as Elijah Simms, a professional informant. It was as Elijah that he would be coming to the meeting later.
JD, the last to arrive, sat down and frowned. "Chris, tell me again why Ezra's coming to the meeting in character?"
"I've been kinda wonderin' myself," Buck nodded and all eyes turned to the leader of Team Seven.
Chris smiled and leaned back in his chair slightly. "He's coming to the meeting in character because he's bringing someone with him 'who might be beneficial to the investigation'."
Three sharp raps sounded on the briefing room door. Frowning, Chris went over and opened it. He gave a double-take as he saw who was on the other side, but recovered swiftly and opened the door fully. "Elijah, you don't have to knock so hard."
"My apologies, Mister Larabee," Ezra said as he walked into the room, his hand crooked in the elbow of a lovely young woman. "Are the others here as I requested?"
To their credit, only Nathan and Buck couldn't disguise their gasps when they got their first good look at Ezra in full character. Cold chills went down their spines as they saw the way he didn't try to focus on any one of them, the way he was carrying himself, and the way his free hand was curved around a distinctive white cane with a red tip.
"Elijah Simms" was blind.
Damn, he's a good actor! Buck and JD thought at the same time as Chris held out a chair for the young woman and Vin raced to "Elijah's" side to guide him to a chair. Watching him closely, watching his movements with a trained eye, Nathan's spine went colder as he thought, Damn, he's NOT acting! He really CANT see! Ezra, what the hell have you gone and done??
"This is Belinda Marin," Ezra introduced with a smile in the young woman's direction. "She is a cousin to Samuel Scott."
Belinda took over. "And I'm tired of seeing him make his dirty money. All the fine cars and wonderful houses in the world aren't worth human dignity and lives."
Josiah nodded and smiled. "A most admirable attitude to have, Ms. Marin."
"Belinda, please. As I told Elijah here, I'm willing to aid in any investigation, any operation, anything to bring him down. I love him too much to let him continue this way."
It was Chris who stated the obvious. "Ms. Mar-- Belinda -- I hope you are aware that quite often our cases end with the death of the perpetrator."
She nodded. "I'm aware of that. If death is the price to stop Sammy, then it's a small one. What's important is that he's stopped."
Buck stood up. "Then, ma'am, perhaps you would like a tour of the facilities?"
She looked at Ezra. "But Elijah..."
Ezra smiled. "I am quite fine here, Belinda. Go with Mister Wilmington, he will take good care of you." The unspoken 'He'd better' came through loud and clear.
After she was led out of the room, Ezra pushed his chair back and rubbed his nose with a sigh, closing his eyes. Nathan crouched in front of him, not touching him or saying a word, but studying him closely.
Ezra raised his head. His blank emerald gaze looked over Nathan's head, clearly not seeing him. His nostrils flared as he inhaled, and he smiled. "J'taime for Men. Hello, Nathan."
"Ezra," Nathan's deep voice replied. He hovered his hand close over Ezra's knee for a second before he touched him, giving the undercover agent a signal by the warmth of his hand that he was about to be touched. "Just one question -- how the hell did you blind yourself? And can it be reversed?"
The smile grew to the point his gold tooth flashed. "That's two questions, Nathan. In reverse order, yes, it is temporary and yes, I really am blind. The method is special contact lenses --- actors do it for utter, stark realism when they portray blind characters."
Ezra chuckled to hear the whew! s that erupted all over the room. "Rest assured, Nathan....I'd never intentionally do anything to jeopardize my sight. I value it too much."
"You seem awfully chummy today," Vin drawled.
"Merely a lowering of the barriers that blindness makes necessary. I'll be back to normal once this assignment is over."
"Damn," Vin and JD growled in unison, making Ezra laugh.
"Which raises the issue," Chris put in. "Why the hell did you create a blind informant?"
Ezra's head tilted toward his voice. "Samuel Scott is an extremely suspicious man. He only trusts people outside his immediate family who cannot identify him. He feels that sighted informants are liabilities, so...." The smile appeared again. "And I've received several tips on other cases. It would appear that having a visible disability -- albeit a temporary one -- makes people assume one is deaf or stupid. Thus, more free with their speech." He stood up, shifting his grip on the cane. "I need to get back to work." He moved toward the door, using the cane to show him the way.
Nathan stood up. "Ezra!" When he stopped, Nathan went on, "When did you get the time to practice?"
The smile appeared again. "Walk with me, Nathan. I'll tell you all about it."
The four remaining looked at each other. "He's really blind," JD breathed.
"But it's only temporary," Josiah pointed out. "He can regain his vision at any time by just removing the contact lenses."
"But till then," Chris sighed. "He's going to be a bit of a liability if there's a shootout. Why the hell didn't he tell us 'Elijah Simms' was blind? How in the hell are we gonna work around this?"
Ezra got out of the cab and entered his home. He closed and locked his door and leaned against it for a moment before he began to walk unerringly toward the bathroom.
POUND POUND POUND!!!
"Aw, hell." Ezra dropped his head and sighed. He pulled his hidden gun and moved back to the door. "Yes?" he called.
"Open up, Ezra."
Another sigh and Ezra put the gun away. Suddenly very weary, he opened the door. "Mister Larabee," he said tiredly, bowing to the inevitable and stepping aside. He frowned, hearing three distinct treads. "Who else....?"
"Nathan, to check you out, and Vin," Chris replied evenly.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "I don't need 'checking out', Mister Jackson. I need to remove my lenses and get some rest!"
"All I wanna do is see if those lenses have hurt your eyes any," Nathan said. "Mind if I watch you take 'em out?"
"If it will cause you to cease your pernicious poking and prodding quicker, then by all means!"
Nathan followed him to the bathroom and gave a low whistle. "Ezra, the sight of you blind -- even if it is artificial -- is so eerie...."
Ezra smiled as he removed the lenses. "Eerie, Mister Jackson?" he teased lightly as he turned suddenly-sighted green eyes to Nathan.
Chuckling, Nathan examined him and stepped back, shaking his head. "You're fine. What's on the agenda for tomorrow?"
Walking back into the living room, Ezra addressed the answer to Chris. "Tomorrow, Belinda and I spring our trap. Will you all be there?"
"Give us the details this time," Chris nodded. "No more going in blind ---"
"---present company excluded, of course," Ezra teased and winked at Chris.
When the laughter eased, the ATF agents got down to business.
As "Elijah Simms", Ezra met with Belinda in a small cafe near the warehouses. His eyes felt dry, so he got out his lubricating drops.
Before he could put them in, he heard a familiar tread and Belinda's, "I'm sorry, Elijah, did I keep you waiting?"
Ezra smiled and stood up gallantly. "Not at all, Belinda. Have a seat."
She sat down and saw the lubricating drops. She'd seen him use them before, and thus had planned for this. Silently, she removed an identical bottle from her purse and replaced the bottle with it, dropping Ezra's bottle into her purse.
"Please forgive my rudeness, Belinda," Ezra said as he sat down. "My eyes are so dry..."
"Go right ahead," she said with a smile. As he put the cool drops into his eyes, her smile grew.
They began to discuss the upcoming bust of Belinda's cousin. Belinda suggested ordering some food, and Ezra declined. He heard Vin's unexpected voice calling for "Elijah", and smiled even as he silently wondered what the sharpshooter was doing here. "Over here, Mister Tanner!"
He heard Vin move to their table. Then, to his shock, came Belinda's gasp and a loud rustling noise, then a loud, unmistakable 'snick!' of handcuffs closing. Climbing to his feet, his artificially blind eyes wide, Ezra gasped, "Mister Tanner....what...."
Vin's voice was trembling slightly. "Belinda Marin ... you are under arrest for drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, and conspiracy to attempt murder."
Ezra reached for him, his brain whirling -- unable to process what his ears were telling him. "I... don't...."
A wad of spittle hit Ezra on the cheek, and Belinda snarled, "Enjoy your life in the dark, pig." Her laughter faded as she was led away.
Sighing, Vin took Ezra's hand and led him out of the cafe. "We've been played like a secondhand fiddle. We got to the warehouse and found a bust already underway --- on us. Scott and Marin aren't cousins -- they're lovers."
Ezra's eyes narrowed. "She checked out," he spat. "Her story completely checked out!"
"I know," Vin sighed. "JD found they'd altered the computer records." He squeezed Ezra's shoulder. "They played us all, Ez."
Vin shook his head before remembering Ezra couldn't see him. "Naw, thanks t'Chris an' Buck. Scott's men sung like canaries -- said we were targeted cause we got a rep as the best. With us outta the way, Scott's empire could grow." His smile was audible. "Or so he thought."
Ezra shook his head, his anger visible on his face. "She played me for a damned fool."
"She played us all," Vin said, squeezing his shoulder again. "No one blames you. C'mon, get those lenses out and let's go meet the others. Damned reports won't wait."
That made Ezra laugh. He paused in their walk and brought his hands up to his eyes.
Vin moved slightly away to give him room to work.
After a few moments, Ezra lowered his hands. ".....Vin?"
Vin moved to his side and took one of the wildly grasping hands. "What is it?"
Ezra blinked a few times and squeezed Vin's hand with both of his. "Vin...I...I can't see..."
"Of course not, ya got those lenses in your ---"
"I can't get them out!" There was near-panic in Ezra's voice. "Vin, I'm really blind!"
Ezra sat on the examining room bed, tense, his hand never leaving Vin's. The grip was the convulsive grasp of panic. "Where is the doctor?" he asked in a trembling voice.
"He'll be back soon," Vin said. "He said he was gonna go get the tests. The guys should be in the waiting room by now..."
"Why did you call them?" Ezra asked, his voice a near-wail. "Why can't it just be you that aids me?"
"Cause they need t'know, first of all. Second of all, I can't be with you 24/7. Together, we can. You're gonna get through this, man."
"I just want to see, Vin. I... I'm scared."
Vin wrapped his free arm around Ezra's shoulders. "I know ya are, Ez. I know ya are."
Normally, Ezra would have pulled away from the touch, would have even scoffed. But in this frightening black-on-grey-on-black world he found himself in, Ezra was vulnerable to a degree he had never experienced before. He leaned into the embrace, tears of pure frustration and fear forming and falling.
The doctor walked in at that moment. "Mister Standish?"
Ezra sat up, wiping his eyes. "Yes.... yes! Are the results in?"
"They are --- and therein is good news and not-so-good news."
The blank eyes closed, and then opened again. "Tell me. Everything."
The doctor cleared his throat. "We've examined your eyes thoroughly and have examined the foreign substance therein --- and basically, someone switched your lubricating drops for superglue."
Silence for a moment, then Ezra began to laugh in relief. "Superglue?" he burst out. "That's... well, then..... easily fixed with solvent, right?"
"In most cases, yes. In your case.... no."
"No?" Ezra gasped. "Why in the hell not?"
The doctor sat down with a weary sigh. "We can administer solvent to super-glued digits, to skin -- but not to eyes. The solvent would in all likelihood damage your eyes further. What we're looking at is an operation. Using laser beams, we can dissolve the superglue and lift the contact lenses out of your eyes without damaging them."
Another long moment of silence, then Ezra nodded. "Well, then, let's get started!"
"That is the bad news, Mister Standish --- we can't."
"You what?" Vin cried.
"Of course you can!" Ezra said. "Just get doctor whatever-his-name-happens-to-be who does the laser surgery in here and ---"
"Doctor Collins is on a plane at the moment bound for a vacation in Mexico." The doctor sighed. "We've phone the airport, told them to notify him of this and contact us immediately upon his arrival." He stood up and moved to the door. "Go home, Mister Standish. We'll call you when we know anything." And he walked out.
"Go home? How the hell do you expect me t--"
"He's gone, Ez," Vin said softly.
Ezra let out a sound of animalistic pain and slid backwards till he was lying on the bed. ".......I'm stuck in the dark while a doctor's taking a holiday. Lovely."
"Least it's not for good."
"There is that." He sat up and reached for Vin. Finding his hand, he squeezed it. "Vin, is there any chance at all that we could sneak out of here and head back to the townhouse without telling the others?"
"Aw, hell..... okay, let's get it over with."
In the waiting lounge, Ezra and Vin filled the others in. Chris immediately stood up. "All right, here's what we do. Buck, JD, you two work on finding that doctor and speeding up his getting here. Josiah, Vin, you take Ezra to my ranch ---"
Ezra shook his head. "No. I'm going back to my townhouse."
"Ezra," Chris said in an exasperated tone, "my ranch has enough room for all seve---"
"Dammit, Chris!" Ezra stood up suddenly, a small table with magazines upending as he did so. "For once in your life, will you listen?!?! I need to go back to my townhouse. I know it there!"
"He's right," Nathan spoke up. "He's practiced in that house enough he knows it like the back of his hand. Right now is not the time to subject him to unusual surroundings or circumstances."
Chris frowned. "But --"
"No, Chris," Nathan said, stepping toward the leader. "Right now, Ezra is blind. He's right -- you need to listen, not have your way."
Seeing Chris's face darken, Josiah spoke up. "The wisest of men knows when to let the tree bend, Chris. Right now, the wind is blowing. You gonna shore up the tree till it's so rigid it snaps -- or are you going to prop it up and let it bend where the wind takes it?"
Chris let out a weary sigh. "All right. The townhouse. Josiah and Vin, take Ezra to the townhouse. Nathan, go with them, see what else Ezra needs and get it."
"What about you, Chris?" Buck asked.
"I'm goin' with you."
Chris got ahold of the airport by phone and used his authority as an ATF agent to get the doctor to call him as well as the hospital once he landed. "Tell him we are coming down to escort him back to the states," Chris said as he ended the call and looked over at JD. "Well?"
JD nodded, though he didn't look up from his keyboarding. "Almost there. Got us three round trip tickets to Guadalajara and one ticket from Guadalajara to Denver for Collins."
Buck suddenly shook his head. "Hold on there a sec, kid, how're you gonna pay for all those?"
Hazel eyes sparkled as JD smiled, looking up at him. "Don't worry, Buck, the Team's credits aren't overdrawn."
"They're not?" Buck blinked. At JD's headshake, he asked, "Then how --"
"Easy. Put 'em on your MasterCard." JD snapped off the computer and left the room, heading in the direction of the cafeteria.
"Oh, he put 'em on my --- hey!" Buck ran after him, a chuckling Chris in his wake.
They reached the cafeteria just when Chris's cell phone rang. He snapped it open. "Larabee." After listening for a moment, he drew himself to his full height. "Yes, Doctor Collins, I did request -- strongly -- that you call me. I ----" Suddenly he blinked, and then his eyes became green slits. "Collins, we are talking about one of my men. And I don't recall giv----" The eyes closed completely and Chris grabbed the bridge of his nose with his other hand. "Yes, Doctor, I realise that your life is stre----For God's sake, man, this man is blind! He needs your ta-----hello? Hello?"
Buck and JD looked at each other, their eyes widening as they realised someone had actually had the audacity to hang up on Chris Larabee.
"Hellfire," Chris swore as he slammed the cell shut. "JD, we got time to go check on Ez?"
He nodded. "Flight leaves tomorrow at nine AM."
Chris nodded. "We're goin' after him." His eyes narrowed again. "And God help anyone who gets between me and that arrogant son of a ----" His cell rang again. "Yeah!" He listened, and then a tight smile curved his lips. "You're not gonna believe this one, cowboy. Collins won't come. Doesn't want to interrupt his vacation over something that's not life-threatening."
Chris's smile then turned into a full, amused one. He held out the cell phone and Buck and JD heard Vin call the reply to Ezra.
Then all three smiled as both of them burst into an impressive round of swearing.
Ezra walked slowly through the townhouse, hands outstretched, his face drawn into a mask of concentration. Despite his best counting, his shin connected with a chair and stopped him in his tracks. He sighed, and then struck the chair with the palm of his hand, letting out a curse at top volume.
"Ez?" Vin asked from the doorway.
Ezra sighed and clutched the chair, turning his head in the direction of Vin's voice. "I swear to God, Vin, if I ever get my sight back, this is the last time I create a disabled informant!"
"What's this 'if' talk, huh?" Vin asked, hovering his hand over Ezra's arm for a moment before touching him, letting him feel the heat of a body close by. As he pried Ezra away from the chair and gently guided him to the couch, he went on, "No 'if' about it, you are gonna get your sight back. Soon."
"He's in Mexico, Vin," Ezra said softly --- defeatedly. "And he hung up on Chris."
"Man's got a deathwish, that's for sure." Vin smiled to see a shadow of the dimpled grin appear on Ezra's face. "Seriously, Chris and the others have gone to get him. Things are going to be all right."
Ezra sighed and lowered his head into his hands. "Part of me knows this, Vin. Knows it as surely as I know my own name." He raised his head and turned, the blank emerald gaze looking at a point over Vin's shoulder. "But the rest of me is as terrified of living in the dark as a small child is at night.... and convinced it won't get any better."
Without a word, Vin pulled Ezra closer, so that his head rested on Vin's shoulder. Comforting him as one would a small child. Vin stroked the auburn hair as he rocked back and forth gently, humming a lullaby under his breath.
After a moment of initial stiffening, Ezra's defenses shattered. He needed comfort desperately --- and with sight gone, his world was reduced to primarily sound and touch. Here was a soothing, gentle touch. Here was a comforting, loving sound. He reached out and touched Vin's throat, feeling the vibrations that corresponded to the tune.
In a whisper, needing to know but frightened to disturb the moment, he asked, "Vin? Is this..... what a brother does?"
All movement and sound stopped for a moment, then the gentle rocking began again and Vin replied in the same soft tone, "Reckon it is, partner. Never had one of m'own, but I've got Chris... an' I've got you."
At that simple, sincere declaration, the final wall broke. Ezra's hands twisted in the soft flannel of Vin's shirt as he buried his face in Vin's shoulder and released all the fear and grief and emotional pain in a flood of tears.
From the doorway, Nathan and Josiah watched silently. Nathan turned to signal Josiah they should move away --- and smiled to see the tears tracking from the large man's aquamarine eyes. "You love him," Nathan whispered. "In your heart, he really is a son to you."
Josiah didn't look away from the living room as he nodded.
Nathan squeezed his shoulder and went to gather what he needed to make supper: the phone book and cordless phone.
Ezra was going through enough right now --- no need to subject him to Nathan's poor attempts at cooking.
Doctor Michael Collins lay back and smiled. This was, indeed, the life --- sun, sand, marnagritas.....no wait, that didn't sound right.......margaritas! That was it.... he never could say that, even before he had one....
The smile grew. He closed his eyes and let the sunshine wash over him. He had needed this vacation badly, and he was grateful to finally be away from the hospital. Away from the idiot who kept calling him and demanding he return to operate....
A shadow fell over him. Without opening his eyes, Collins smiled and held up his glass. "Ah, yes, waitress.....another drink, please?"
He felt the drink being lifted from his hand, but the shadow remained. After a moment, an unfamiliar voice asked, "Doctor Michael Collins?"
Frowning, he opened his eyes and squinted into the face of a young man -- probably early twenties, though the long hair made him look younger.... "Who wants to know?"
The man smiled. "JD Dunne, sir. May I speak with you for a moment? It's rather important."
Collins sat up. "What is it, someone hurt?"
JD nodded; relieved he didn't have to lie to the man. "Yes, sir, someone is hurt. We need a doctor, and you were referred as the best."
With a sigh, Collins stood and lifted his towel. "Show me."
"This way, sir!"
Collins followed the young man into the building --- and into the waiting arms of an avenging angel in black. "Collins?"
"Yes...." he struggled weakly. "Excuse me, sir, but this gentleman said someone was hurt ----"
"Someone is," the blonde in black growled. "And we're taking you back to Denver to treat him."
"What?" he blinked. "Wait....you're the guy who called me!"
"That's right." A smile touched the man's lips, and even with dimples showing, it served to look like the smile of death itself. "And hanging up on me was a very, very stupid thing to do."
Anger rose in the doctor. "Now hold on just a --- you can't do this! This is kidnapping!"
The man in the mustache spoke for the first time. "We're federal agents, Doctor. One of our own is hurt. Now you done crossed him once --- I don't recommend you do it again."
Collins looked at the black-clad man, took a good look in his eyes --- and sighed. "Will I be able to come back and finish my vacation after?"
This time the smile was genuine and reached his eyes. "We'll even pay for the tickets."
Collins nodded. "Let's go."
Ezra's heels beat a staccato on the examination table as he waited impatiently for the doctor to arrive.
As he'd been all along, since the moment Ezra had realised he was blind, Vin was there by his side. "Easy, he's coming."
"It better be soon, I'm tired of this!"
"I expect you are," came the doctor's cheerful voice. "Now, what say you we get the bandages off your eyes and see how well Collins did?"
"Do it," Ezra ordered, gripping the table nervously.
After a few moments, Ezra's eyes were covered only by gauze pads. Another moment, and his sealed lids were revealed. "I'm going to run a wet cloth over your eyes," the doctor said. "To clean the tears and muck that have dried there. I want you to keep them closed."
Once the cleanup was done, the doctor closed the shades and lowered the lights. "All right, Mister Standish. Open your eyes......slowly."
Slowly, the damp lashes parted. They fluttered open and closed a few times, then slowly Ezra turned to his right. Still blinking furiously, he reached out and lay his hand unerringly on Vin's shoulder as the emerald gaze --- full of life and emotion -- met Vin's sapphire one. Slowly, the dimpled grin spread and the gold tooth emerged. "I..... can see you."
Vin let out a whoop and grabbed Ezra in a brotherly hug that lifted him right off the examination table. As the celebration burst out, the doctor smiled and headed out of the room.
Vin let Ezra go, but Ezra's hand clamped onto his arm. It was almost as if he had to keep physical contact to assure himself it was real, and he was sighted once more. Ezra opened his mouth to say something ---
"YEEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAH!" erupted from the waiting area, followed by four other whoops and cheers. Both Ezra and Vin turned toward the door, grinning. "Reckon the others got the news," Vin said with a grin.
"Shall we join the celebration, brother?" Ezra chuckled and gestured toward the door.
"Sure, why not?" Vin moved toward the door, Ezra's hand automatically latching onto his arm. Vin smiled down at it. "Don't need t'do that anymore."
"Habit," Ezra said, but he made no motion to remove the hand. "Let's go."
If anything, the celebration grew louder and more boisterous as they joined it.
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