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Ezra watched his friends and their children interact with the newest members of their rapidly growing family and smiled in satisfaction. Although each adult wanted to meet and welcome the two children, it had been agreed between them ahead of time that they would try not to overwhelm the children with introductions from too many people at one time. Even though each of the people present was more than willing to accept the children as now belonging to the group, they knew better than to push them too fast or too hard into familial relationships they might not be ready to accept. Ezra had been impatiently patient all morning, biding his time, waiting for his opportunity to meet the two children and get to know them. So far he had settled for observing the interaction of Buck, Angel, and Rhiannon, and JD, Vin, and Lucas.
Lucas had latched onto JD and Vin and the three had somehow gotten into a discussion of the best cartoons on Saturday morning television, although Ezra thought the word discussion was a little mild for the slightly heated debate that JD and Vin were engaged in, with plenty of enthusiastic comments thrown in from the little boy sitting in JD´s lap and making stuffed animals dance for the giggling triplets.
The two little girls had seemed to hit it off right away and were content to play with Angel´s dolls. Angel had shoved one of her Ken dolls at Buck and talked him into playing with them by using the sweet, lovable grin that Buck found so hard to resist, aided ably by a shy, pleased smile from Rhiannon. The poor man never really stood a chance against the combined cuteness of the two small sirens. One look at the adorable faces staring up at him so hopefully and the ultra-masculine man had become putty in their hands.
Ezra wanted to feel superior to his friend but the one thing he never did was lie to himself. He knew without a doubt that he would have succumbed just as quickly as Buck if those faces had been turned on him. From the smile on Buck´s face he was enjoying himself just as much as the two little girls. Ezra had always known there was a big kid buried underneath that large, muscled exterior and he decided this just helped to prove his point.
Although seemingly content to remain by Angel and Buck, Ezra couldn´t help but notice the many looks Rhiannon threw at her grandfather every few minutes as if making sure he was still there. Ezra could sympathize with the young girl´s need to seek the reassurance of his presence in the room full of strangers. He could remember his own childhood spent with various distant relatives and the need to hold on to something familiar. Ezra had had a small stone he secretly carried in his pocket wherever he went as a child. There was nothing special about it except that he´d had it for a long time and, to a small boy cast into unfamiliar surroundings, it represented stability in a constantly changing world.
Angel had been happy enough to play Barbies with her new cousin and her daddy until she happened to look out the window and notice it had begun snowing again.
Look, Rhiannon, she excitedly told the other little girl, It´s snowing some more. Can we go out and play in the snow, Daddy? Angel grinned at her father and then turned to Rhiannon again to say, Let´s go make snow angels and build a fort. We can have a snowball war with Daddy! Come, Rhiannon!
Angel threw the doll in her hand on the floor and jumped up to hold her hand out to the other girl. Ezra had been watching the other child´s face as Angel made her suggestions and could instantly tell that Rhiannon didn´t really want to go outside into the snow, but didn´t want to disappoint her new friend either. As Rhiannon reluctantly started to put her hand out to grasp Angel´s, Ezra saw his chance and took it without hesitating.
If you don´t mind, Angela, I haven´t yet had an opportunity to meet my new niece and I would appreciate it if you might excuse us while we get better acquainted, Ezra rose from his seat and knelt beside the two children. That is if Rhiannon would give her Uncle Ezra the honor of her company, he finished with an engaging smile to the child watching him with undisguised relief and who nodded her agreement after looking at Josiah for permission.
Now, Uncle Ezra? Angela huffed in disappointment. but I wanted her to play with me!
Really, my dear Angel, you´ve had her undivided attention for some time now. You wouldn´t be so mean as to refuse me a little of it for myself, would you? That would make me very sad, Ezra put on his best sad face and felt the slightest bit guilty when Angel immediately threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.
I don´t want you to be sad, Uncle Ezra, Angel told him earnestly and put her hands gently on either side of his face as though prepared to wipe away any tears that might fall, Really, it´s okay if Rhiannon wants to play with you. We can play in the snow later. I don´t mind, honest. Just don´t be sad, please!
No, I won´t be sad, Ezra assured her, Thank you for being so generous, sweetheart. Why don´t you get your father to help you with your coat, and boots? Rhiannon and I will be right here when you get back.
Alright, Angel smiled in relief and looked at Rhiannon. I´ll be back later, okay? We can play some more then.
Okay, Rhiannon told her with her own smile.
Ezra and Rhiannon watched as Vin, JD, and Rain dressed the triplets in their snowsuits, and the rest of the group pulled on coats and boots. Then everyone trooped out to play in the softly falling snow, with Austin, Dallas, and Houston each carried securely in the arms of one of their uncles. Ezra looked down at the child when the door finally shut behind them and found her looking up at him.
I, personally, have never understood this obsession some people have for cavorting about in frozen precipitation, he told her seriously.
The little head nodded in agreement and Rhiannon told him with equal seriousness Me, too. It´s cold and it´s wet! she told him with a soft disgust, and when you roll around in it you just get cold and wet too and dirty.
Ezra watched her little nose wrinkle in distaste at the idea and was secretly amused at the attitude that so closely matched his own and was more than a little enchanted with the child.
Well, now that we have achieved a peaceful, if transient, interlude what would you like to do? he asked her. Do you like stories?
He had apparently said the magic word for the child´s face lit up and a big grin spread across her face.
I love stories! she assured him with enthusiasm. Mama and I read stories all the time. I like the ones with dragons best!
Dragons! Well I do believe Mr. Larabee has a few picture books that he keeps on the shelf over there for his young visitors. I can´t guarantee that there will be one with dragons, but perhaps we can find one that will meet with your approval.
Taking the girl´s hand in his own, he led her to the bookshelf where Chris kept a variety of books. Since all six of his teammates spent a lot of time at the ranch either just hanging out or recuperating from injuries, over time the bookshelves had become something of a team library, so the variety of books was wide ranging. Ezra knelt on the floor near one of the lower shelves where the children´s books were kept and was reaching for one when Rhiannon stepped on a shelf and climbed up to grab a book that was over her head. Before Ezra could jump up to stop her she had climbed back down with her prize in hand and a gleeful smile on her young face.
This one, please, she said, handing him a copy of Anne McCaffrey´s Dragonflight. Mama and I´ve read this one before. It´s really good! Can we read this one?
Ezra recovered from his surprise enough to assure the child that her choice was acceptable.
The two settled down next to each other on the sofa and Ezra opened the book to the first page. Before he could begin to read Rhiannon leaned closer and began reading the story to him. Ezra was stunned at first as the child continued, without stumbling, through the whole page and waited patiently for him to turn it before looking up at him in expectation.
You´re supposed to read the next one, she informed him. That´s the way Mama and I always do it. I read a page and then she reads a page. It´s your turn now.
Ah, I see, Ezra murmured, Very well then, and he began to read the second page. The two continued reading, each taking their respective turns, and Ezra marveled at the child´s ability to not only read the story but to do so with the casual aplomb of a natural-born actor.
The two were still happily ensconced on the sofa sometime later when the rest of the group returned in a flurry of stamping feet and laughter. Ezra was actually disappointed that the time he had shared alone with the little girl was over.
You read very well, Rhiannon. I´m very impressed. You are a very talented young lady, I must say, he told her with a sincere smile.
Rhiannon blushed and dropped her head down shyly, but looked back up with a smile, very pleased with the compliment.
Thank you, Uncle Ezra, Rhiannon told him, kneeling on the sofa beside him to wrap her arms around his neck in a hug, I had fun could could we do it again sometime? she asked hesitantly.
Ezra knew if he had been wearing a vest the buttons would be popping off with the pride he felt at the child´s the request, and he wrapped one arm around the her waist to return the hug with one of his own.
It would be my pleasure, he assured her. I enjoyed our time together immensely. I will look forward to our next sojourn into the land of Pern.
Did you and Uncle Ezra have fun? Josiah´s voice broke in.
Oh yes, Grandpa, Rhiannon looked over the back of the couch at her indulgently smiling grandfather and answered excitedly, We were reading about the dragons. Uncle Ezra reads really good! He´s even better than Mama!
Now there´s high praise if I ever heard it, Josiah smiled at his friend.
Our Rhiannon is a very gifted individual. I was completely enchanted by her, and very impressed with her abilities, Ezra said, causing his friend to beam with pride. She is a most extraordinary child.
Ezra smiled down at the little girl that looked back at him with a proud look and shining eyes. Ezra couldn´t resist leaning down slightly and placing a soft kiss on her forehead. Rhiannon wiggled in pleasure and gave him a shy kiss on his cheek in return and wound her arms around his neck again and held on.
Josiah watched in amusement as he could almost see the bonds forming between the team´s undercover agent and his granddaughter.
Lunch is ready, Josiah informed them. Let´s go wash up, Rhi.
Rhiannon pulled back only slightly and looked at Ezra who returned her silent request with a smiling nod.
I´ll take care of it, Josiah, if you´ll save us a place at the table, Ezra told the waiting man.
Josiah laughed and agreed. Ezra rose from the sofa with Rhiannon in his arms and made his way to the hall bathroom with his young charge.
Well that didn´t take long, Nathan said from behind Josiah as both men watched their teammate laugh at something the little girl in his arms said.
Nope, didn´t take long at all and you owe me twenty bucks, Josiah said with satisfied grin.
Alright, alright, Nathan groused as he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a bill and handed it to Josiah, I was sure it´d take her at least until the end of the afternoon to wrap him around her little finger.
The poor man never stood a chance. The deck was stacked against him from the start, Josiah said.
What man could possibly resist a child that reflects the best qualities that he sees in himself? Would not a man cherish the representation of his own younger self before age and experience stripped away the innocence? If you want to know what Ezra was like as a very young child, my friend, you only have to look at Rhiannon.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Josiah sat drinking his second cup of coffee for the morning while sitting in a chair on his glass-enclosed sun porch enjoying the quiet stillness of the early morning, a heavy blanket wrapped around his body to protect him from the winter cold that still managed to seep into the sealed room. It was just barely past sunup and few of his neighbors had yet to start their busy Saturday morning activities. He knew it wouldn´t be long before the peace of the morning was broken by the sounds of people shoveling driveways and sidewalks and children playing in the new snow that had dusted the ground overnight.
Josiah didn´t mind the noise, in fact, he rather liked it. It was the sound of normalcy. To him it was a reaffirmation that life went on. No matter what unhappiness, or sadness or regret a man found in life, no matter what evil or atrocities one man committed against another, children still played, mothers still fussed, and fathers still puttered around the house. He found that thought comforting.
Josiah was friendly with all his neighbors, and was quite popular with the children especially. He knew the name of every child within a two-block radius of his house all of which felt free to come and visit whenever he was home. He always found plenty of willing hands when it came to painting or sanding in or outside his home.
Josiah had bought his house about six years ago. It had been a rundown eyesore in the increasingly upscale neighborhood. The neighborhood had been slowly reclaimed by young, professional couples looking to stretch their real estate dollar by buying up the shabby but still structurally sound homes and refurbishing them. The do-it-yourselfers had turned the once declining area into a good, family-orientated neighborhood.
Josiah had bought the old enormous ruin of a house when he had moved to Denver to join the new ATF team that Judge Orrin Travis had formed. In a way, the house had come to be something of a metaphor for his life. It had started out fresh and new only to suffer for years from neglect and abuse and hard living until what had once been bright and shining and full of hope, had faded into dull and despairing disrepair, but the house had been given a second chance, just as he had when he had found the six men that had formed his new family. He had slowly, lovingly worked over the years to rebuild, remodel, and restore the house to its former glory, and had felt as if he reconstructed a little bit of his soul with every bit of progress he made.
Josiah drank down the last swallow in his mug and rose from the chair, letting the blanket fall from his shoulders and, stretching his long arms over his head to remove the kink in his back that he had gotten from sitting in the cold for so long. He had gotten up to watch the sunrise, and considered a few chilled muscles well worth the price of the show that he had witnessed as the rising sun painted the morning sky with a pallet of pinks, and blues and purples that had taken his breath away.
Giving one last look to the lightening sky, Josiah walked back into his kitchen and closed the door behind him. He wandered to the sink and rinsed out his cup, setting it in the dishdrainer to dry. He gave some thought to making himself breakfast, but decided to pick something up on the way to the hospice. Perhaps he could tempt Michelle into joining him for breakfast if he stopped at his favorite bakery, which was right on the way to the hospice. He worried that her appetite was off lately. He hoped the hot blueberry muffins he intended to get would appeal to her. His plans made, Josiah headed out the kitchen door to dress for the day.
As he made the short trip to his bedroom, Josiah thought on how his brothers had volunteered to help him ready his home for the two small children that would soon be joining his household. With a smile, Josiah pulled a pair of jeans from the hanger in his closet and pulled them on, then tugged a flannel shirt on over the tee shirt he was wearing and buttoned it while he went over the day´s plans again.
He was going to see Michelle first, and pick up the children. Then he was going to meet his team at her apartment where they would box up the children´s things and move their bedroom furniture into Josiah´s house.
The children had already been over to Josiah´s place several times and each had picked out which of the finished rooms they wanted as their bedroom. Josiah had to grin in amusement as he recalled the first time the children had come to visit him at his home.
Wow, Granpa, Lucas had breathed in awe as he pushed his face close to the car window and looked at the house while he waited for Josiah to release him from his carseat, Is this were you live? It´s biiiggg!
Lucas was always impressed with anything big, and he´d never been in a house as large as this one. He couldn´t wait to explore.
Yep, this is it, Josiah told the child as he undid the bucket and let the excited boy jump from the car then turned and reached across to release Rhiannon´s seat too. Rhiannon followed her brother at a slower pace but with just as much enthusiastic interest.
It´s really, pretty, Grandpa, Rhiannon said, looking up at him with enchanted eyes, It´s almost as big as a castle!
Josiah held out his hands and instantly had them grasped by two smaller ones. Josiah had led the children into his home through the front door and stood silently observing the little ones as they took in the high ceiling of the foyer, and the curving, polished wooden staircase that gently wound its way up the right side of the wall to the second floor.
Wow! was all the usually exuberate Lucas could say as he stood amazed.
It´s beautiful, Rhiannon enthused, You really live here all by yourself, Grandpa?
I´m afraid so, Josiah smiled at her.
Why are you afraid? Lucas asked curiously, his little head leaned to one side as he studied Josiah, Are there ghosts here? The little boy looked thrilled at the possibility.
If there are any ghosts here they´re very quiet ones, Josiah told the now disappointed child. Or they just never felt the need to materialize for me. Either way, I´ve never seen one here.
But there could be some here, right Grandpa? Lucas asked, not wanting to let the delicious possibility of a specter go without a fight. They could be hiding from you, scared you´ll make them go away. Maybe so, huh, Grandpa?
Josiah threw his head back and laughed then reached down and hauled the little boy off his feet and tossed him into the air and caught him again.
Josiah settled the now giggling child on his hip and said, Maybe so, son. Maybe so.
Grandpa, there´s really no such thing as ghosts Rhiannon stated firmly then looked around nervously, is there?
How do you know? he asked her with a smile. I certainly don´t know if there are or if there aren´t, but I can tell you that if there are ghosts in this house then they´re very nice ones because they´ve always been very quiet and considerate with me. I don´t think you need to be afraid, Rhi.
Rhiannon looked into his smiling face and relaxed, after all Grandpa never lied.
Come on, Josiah held out his hand to Rhiannon and she placed her in his.
Josiah led the children around his home, letting them poke into closets and explore to their hearts content. He wanted them to feel comfortable here, to know that this was their home too. The time for setting some boundaries would, most certainly, come but for now he enjoyed sharing his space and his possessions with his grandchildren.
What´s this, Grandpa? Lucas asked holding up a painted gourd that resembled something like a figure eight.
That´s a shaman´s rattle, Josiah told him. That was given to me by an old Indian I met a long time ago. I stayed with him on the reservation for a few months when I was much younger.
Cool, Lucas gasped and gave the rattle a vigorous shake.
And this Grandpa? Rhiannon asked as she picked up a pair of wooden plates fastened together at one end by a strip of leather.
Those are castanets, Rhi. There was this very lovely Spanish dancer that I meet on a trip to Spain once. She gave those to me as a kind of going away present so I´d always remember her. Josiah told her with a nostalgic smile.
And you did remember her, didn´t you Grandpa, Rhiannon said, so they must have worked!
Well she was kind of an unforgettable woman, sweetheart, he told her and his grin got wider.
Hey! I know what this is, Lucas told him as he held up the oddly shaped piece of polished wood. I saw a man with one of these on the Animal Planet. It´s a boomma boomma something. I don´t member, but he throwed it away and it came back to him. He just reached out and catched it! Can I try it, please, Grandpa, the little boy asked seconds before he pulled his arm back and prepared to let fly.
NO! Josiah made a grab and just managed to snatch the boomerang from the boy´s hand before he let go.
The boomerang is not for inside, Lucas!
The small boy hid his hands behind his back and hung his head, staring at the floor, and tears started to fill his eyes and run down his cheeks.
I´m sorry, Grandpa, the small voice trembled, I didn´t mean it!
Josiah set the boomerang on the floor knelt beside the little boy, drawing him closer and wrapping his arms around him.
Shhh, it´s alright, Lucas. I´m sorry for yelling at you like that, but you could have hurt someone by throwing that in the house. I know you wouldn´t have meant to but you could have. When the weather gets nicer we´ll take it out to Uncle Chris´ ranch and I´ll show you how to use it. That way we´ll have plenty of room for you to practice without anyone getting hurt. How does that sound? Josiah gently wiped the tears from the little face as Lucas nodded his agreement with a sniff. Good. Did you know the Aborigines in Australia use it as a weapon to hunt game?
Josiah sat down on the floor and drew Lucas into his lap, and pulled Rhiannon down to sit by his side, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, and began telling the enrapt children about his adventures in Australia as a young boy.
Josiah shook himself from his memories and glanced as his watch. He needed to hurry if he wanted to make a stop by the bakery before going to visit with Michelle. He grabbed his wallet and stuffed it into his back pocket with one hand while he snatched his keys with the other and slipped his sock-clad feet into his boots.
Josiah made for the front door, untied shoelaces trailing behind as he rushed out.
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