With the rest of the team and their boss embroiled in a heated argument, Ezra and Vin looked at each other and slowly and silently made their way from the room - there was no way they were going to the hospital. While they appreciated JD, Buck and Josiah's attempts with the Judge, Chris and Nathan on the other side, they weren't willing to take the chance of an unfavorable decision. Retreating into the conference room, they barricaded the door and began to formulate an escape. They should be able to reach the ductwork using the available furniture. They were in the process of steadying their tower of chairs when a voice roared out "God Dammit, where the hell did they go?"
"Calm down Chris, they can't have gotten far. We're in a federal building for God's sake. You think the guards wouldn't notice them."
"Shit, Judge, this is Vin and Ezra we're talking about. Do you really think anyone is going to see them if they don't want to be seen." Looking around the room, Chris saw the closed door to the conference room and motioned for his team to follow. "They went in there. It's fairly defensible and only has one entrance." Hearing the door knob turn, they redouble their efforts and had just reattached the grill work when Josiah apparently decided he wasn't waiting for a key attempted to kick in the door.
"Sanchez, stop it. I do have a key - besides do you have any idea how difficult it is becoming to come up with reasons for why we are constantly having to have repairs made. I refuse to write one more report that includes someone got pissed off and broke down the door." The Judge unlocked the door and together they were able to shove it open enough to get in. Seeing the tower leading to the ductwork, the six men who had stormed into the conference room each began swearing.
"JD, you're the only one has a chance of going after them," said Buck.
"What, no way, they may be little kids, but they're still Vin and Ezra. I bet they have all sorts of nasty tricks planned. I want to stay in one piece thank you very much." Replied JD.
"Standish, Tanner get back here this instant." Grated out the Judge.
"Really Judge Travis, you should control your temper better." The aggravating southern drawl set the Judge's teeth on edge and prompted Josiah to rip the bent grill off and stick his head up into the ducting in a futile effort to spot the two boys.
"If'n we come out, we want your word you won't make us go to the hospital. Otherwise we're heading back out."
"Indeed Vin, I believe that would be the wisest course of action. Gentlemen, we'll call you when we get ourselves back to normal." A shuffling noise was heard followed by a stunned silence.
"Dammit, we can't just let them go back out there." The Judge paused briefly before continuing, "Boys come on back, you have my word."
"Judge," began Nathan.
"Mister Jackson, you know those two, do you think they're bluffing. They'll go out and get themselves killed just to spite us and besides it's not like they wouldn't be able to weasel their way out of the building even if we put security on high alert. They've done it before."
As the Judge finished talking, Christ began, "Vin, Ezra, we won't make you go to the hospital. We'll get Doctor Murray to come out to the ranch. You have my word, just come on back, please." Chris felt like an idiot talking into the ductwork, but he realized that had become a familiar feeling when dealing with the two menaces to mental health he was trying to talk down. Vin and Ezra exchanged glances -- they had Chris's word - before nodding in silent agreement and pressing up on the floor tile concealing their hiding place.
"SHIT!!" Buck exclaimed, as the floor he was standing on suddenly lurched upward. "What, how, ah crap." Buck sat up from where he had fallen in time to see the floor tile he had been standing on raised up by four small hands. The tile was slowly slid to the side and two small heads and shoulders appeared.
"Ventriloquism is really not that difficult to learn. Now, gentlemen, if we might have some assistance here." Josiah picked up Ezra while Buck took Vin both of them forcefully resisting the urge to shake some sense into their team mates while removing them from the hole that had been revealed.
"You could have trusted us you know." Began Buck. "We wouldn't of let anything happen to you."
"Trust in you was never the issue," said Ezra looking at his teammates and the Judge. "Trust in the system was the problem. When we woke up this way, we ended up in foster care and barely avoided being separated." Ezra's voice trailed off and he shook his head to dispel the disturbing memories of their escape.
"I ain't doin that again, guys." Came from Vin.
"Alright, boys, get these two out to the ranch and get them checked out by a reliable Doctor, and for God's sake keep an eye on them. Find out what happened, I'll expect a briefing in the morning so that we can get started on getting them back to normal - or at least what passes for normal for them," said the Judge. Shaking his head and deciding that he was not dealing with this anymore today, he headed back to his office.
"Chris, how are we gonna get them out of the building without anyone seeing them?" said JD.
"We could always exit the same way we came in," began Vin.
"NO" came in five voices before he had finished his suggestion.
"Really gentlemen, it's not like ..."
"Stop right there, Ezra, you two are not crawling through anymore ductwork or under floors or whatever the Hell else you did to get in here - and by the way, we'll be discussing that later. Right, all we need to do is get to the elevators without being seen. Most people are avoiding us right now so no one will get to close, and it was raining today. Ezra you go with Josiah under his coat. Vin you come with me. Once we get to the parking garage you can hide in the back seat of the Ram, and we'll head out to the ranch," said Chris with a glare that dared anyone to disagree with him.
"Chris, I'll call Doc Murray as soon as we get on the road and see if she'll meet us out there. I don't really want to bring anyone else in if we can avoid it. She'll be discrete and besides she knows how to deal with these two," said Nathan as he put his coat on.
In short order Vin and Ezra were both concealed beneath the bulky coats of their coworkers. Exhausted by their ordeal and comforted by the warmth and the feeling of safety that came with being back with their friends, both Vin and Ezra were asleep before their awkwardly moving teammates had reached the parking garage. Looking down at the children in their arms, Josiah and Chris both had to remind themselves that these boys who looked so helpless and innocent were in fact two of the most devious smart ass SOBs they had ever met. But the small hands fisted in their clothing and the lines of pain that showed on the small faces even in their sleep had the two men gently cradling the fragile forms in their arms, stroking their hair and backs until the expressions eased and they fell into a restful rather than restless slumber.
Looking at Buck who was waiting by the Ram, Chris tried to put Vin down in the back seat only to have the arms reflexively close around Chris's neck in desperate hug. Josiah trying to dislodge Ezra was not having any greater success as the small hands grabbed desperately at his shirt and the small face buried itself in his shoulder accompanied by a softly muttered "Please."
Chris and Josiah looked at each other stunned as they both unconsciously tightened their holds on the children in their arms. Chris carefully dug into his pocket and handed off the keys to the truck to Buck. "They're sleeping, and I don't want to wake them up, OK." He growled when Buck grinned at him his face softening as he looked at the two children.
"Sorry pard, but they're just too damn cute to resist aren't they."
Josiah said quietly, "They feel safe with us." Josiah and Chris took the back seat careful not to disturb Ezra and Vin while a subdued JD and Buck rode in the front. Nathan was taking a separate car because he planned to contact Dr. Murray and go by the pharmacy on the way out to the ranch.
Dr. Murray drove out to Chris Larabee's ranch pondering the extremely short and very strange conversation she had just had with Nathan Jackson. Team 7 was legendary for never going more than a couple of weeks without one or more of them ending up in the hospital for something. Consequently when she had realized that a full 3 weeks had passed since their last excursion into her emergency room, she had actually called their offices to check on them and had been told that Standish and Tanner had been undercover and were missing. Concern for the two missing members of the team, not to mention fear of what the other five might get into while looking for their missing brothers had prompted her to call regularly for an updated status on the search. She like the remaining members of Team 7, Team 8, the judge, and most of the hospital personnel refused to believe that Standish and Tanner were dead. Those two could get out of anything - especially hospital rooms. Granted they were two of the most difficult and aggravating patients anyone could ever have to deal with, but they were also along with their teammates some of the finest people she had ever met. She hoped that the rather cryptic request from Jackson to meet them out at Larabee's ranch -- all he had said was that they had a situation that required great discretion - meant that some progress in locating Tanner and Standish had been made. She had immediately informed the hospital administration that she had an emergency to attend to and headed out. She was surprised to see Buck and JD pacing outside on the porch apparently waiting for her.
"They're still sleeping so we gotta be quiet," said Buck in his attempt at a whisper.
"We don't really know what's going on, yet. They haven't been awake long enough to tell us what happened to them." Added JD.
She followed the two men into one of the back bedrooms to see Chris sitting next to one bed, Josiah sitting next to another, and Nathan hovering between the two.
"I don't think they are hurt too bad, but they wouldn't let me check them over once they knew you were coming. Said they should only have to deal with all the poking and prodding once, and then they went back to sleep."
Vin and Ezra had woken briefly upon arriving at the ranch and roused themselves sufficiently to change into a couple of the now night shirt size t-shirts from the stash each of them kept at the ranch before climbing into bed and passing back out. Approaching the beds, Doctor Murray stopped in her tracks. From the information she had gotten so far, she had assumed Vin and Ezra were back - the last thing in the world she expected to see were two little boys. One of them was clinging to Larabee's hand with a death grip while the other was holding just as tightly to Sanchez's. As she took in the grimy bandages on the small bodies, she decided questions could wait and her medical training took over.
"Let me give them both a quick check so that I know where to start and what I'm dealing with. What are their names?" she asked.
"Well, um, actually ..." Lauren Murray was stunned to see Chris Larabee stumbling over his answer.
"You don't know their names? Where did they come from then? Never mind, we'll deal with that after I've gotten them cleaned up," she said turning back to her patients to find both boys awake and staring at her intently with unmistakably hostile looks in their eyes. "Hello, boys. My name is" she began speaking quietly and gently so as not to alarm them.
"We know who ya are Doc. We just ain't very happy about having to see you. The guys wouldn't believe us when we said as how we were OK," said the blue-eyed boy in a thoroughly disgusted tone of voice.
Picking up where his companion had left off, the green-eyed boy began "Indeed, given their insistence that we submit to the unnecessary assistance of the formal medical establishment you would imagine that at the minimum we would each have to be suffering from severed arteries or some equivalent thereof. I assure you, Doctor Murray, that there is nothing wrong with either of us that a good nights rest and some decent food wouldn't solve."
Taking a closer look at the two children -- who had as soon as they woke relinquished the hands they had been holding -- and spotting a couple of familiar scars on uncovered legs and arms, Lauren fought with the rational part of her mind that argued that the situation currently facing her was impossible. The looks were familiar, as were the words and mannerisms, and the scars were unmistakable. Tearing her eyes away from the boys she looked toward Chris who had his face in his hands and was shaking his head, "Chris, do Vin and Ezra by any chance have children that they never told us about?"
Looking up briefly, Chris said "Nope." Before returning his face to his hands.
Nodding her head, Doctor Murray said "I was pretty sure they didn't, but I had to ask." Refocusing her gaze on the children who both had decidedly feral looks on their faces she said, "Mister Tanner and Mister Standish?" At their slight nods of confirmation she smiled faintly and stood up looking at Chris and Josiah and said, "I'll be right back, don't let them out of your sight." and motioned for Nathan to join her in the hallway. In the hallway she turned to Nathan, "Sherlock Holmes said when you have eliminated the possible whatever remains however improbable must be the truth. So, the truth is that those two children are really Tanner and Standish. Right?"
"I don't really see how they could be anybody else, do you?" replied Nathan.
"No, I don't. Do you know what happened yet?"
"I have to admit, we are all still kind of in shock at the moment and we haven't gotten the full story out of them yet. They showed up in Chris's office, surprised the hell out of all of us and then pretty much passed out while we were trying to get them out here."
"Why didn't you take them to the hospital?"
"We got distracted, they got away from us and threatened to leave and figure things out on their own if we didn't promise we wouldn't make them go to the hospital. Besides which," Nathan paused and shook his head disgustedly, "they already have Buck, Josiah, and JD wrapped around their little fingers, so I figured we'd try to get you out here to look at them as the next best thing."
"Well, it looks like some things haven't changed. I suppose it was too much to ask for that they would decide to be civilized for a change about what medical treatment they might need. I swear, you would think they were deathly allergic to hospitals from the way they act," she paused for a moment a look of horror on her face. "Oh God, what if we can't figure out how to reverse it? I am not up to dealing with teenage versions of those two. Heck, I don't know that I am up to dealing with seven year old versions of them," she gulped audibly, "Oh well, at least this time, I'm bigger than they are, lets go see what the damage is."
With that she turned and walked back into the room. Fixing the two boys with a glare that would rival Larabee's she said, "First, I'm going to check both of you from head to toe." Interrupting their protests, "You are not going to argue, you are not going to fight, and you are going to sit relatively still while I examine you. If you don't," she paused and took a deep breath before continuing, "I swear I'll turn you over my knee and spank the both of you."
Ignoring the horrified looks this gathered and the grins that the other five were trying desperately to hide she continued, "In addition to whatever happened to you, you both look like shit. You fight me on this, and I will guarantee you that when we get you back to normal - and we will get you back to what passes for normal for you - that your next visit to the hospital will be protracted and highly unpleasant."
She smiled pleasantly at them as she finished her speech. Vin and Ezra exchanged glances and opted for discretion as the better part of valor. They were quite sure their coworkers -- who had left the room at that announcement and were now howling with laughter in the hallway -- would help her if necessary.
Doctor Murray began with a standard exam listening to their breathing, their hearts, checking their pulse rates, blood pressures, looking into their eyes, etc. moving back and forth between the two and dictating to Nathan the results as she progressed through the checklist before examining their individual injuries. Finally finishing her examination, she turned to Chris, "Vin has a badly twisted ankle and cuts on his hands that are for the most part superficial. Ezra has a deep cut on his arm that could have used stitches when it first occurred, and a dislocated shoulder that has been reduced apparently by ramming it into a wall," she glared at the unrepentant boy and pointed out a large bruise covering the front part of his left shoulder. "They are both covered with bruises, malnourished, dehydrated, and dangerously exhausted. They need bed rest for at least a few days, and they could both use a course of antibiotics, vitamins, and mild painkillers. I'll write out some prescriptions before I leave," she continued talking raising her voice to be heard over the indignant voices of her two patients, "Don't even try arguing your way out of this one. By the way, what names are the two of you using?"
Exchanging glances, Vin and Ezra decided the Victor and Eric Simpson probably shouldn't reappear just yet given the circumstances surrounding their departure. "Victor and Aaron Tyler, Doctor."
"OK, I'll start the paper work and create files for the two of you, transferring what information is necessary from your actual files so that everything will be ready to go when you need it. You know, vaccination records, allergies, etc." Doctor Murray looked at the two boys in front of her. Obviously, they hadn't considered all of the ramifications of their current appearance and judging from the nonplussed looks on their friends' faces neither had they. Hiding a grin, she looked over at Chris, "You'll need the appropriate papers to enroll in them in school, Chris. Look at them, if they are here for very long looking like that, they'll have to go to school or you'll have social services down on you in a heartbeat." Unable to hide her grin any longer, especially at the twin looks of horror that Ezra and Vin now wore, she looked over toward the leader of the group and started laughing at the dumbfounded look on his face.
"Oh God, how long can we keep them out for medical reasons. I didn't even think of that and neither did the Judge. We're going to have to get custody papers drawn up, and" Chris stopped his almost frantic mumblings and his eyes widened when he realized with consternation just who would more than likely end up with "custody" of the two. Shaking his head, he swallowed audibly at the thought as his ears began to register the words of two indignant voices each trying to make themselves heard at the same time.
"Just a minute, Cowboy, I ain't goin back to school and I don't need nobody babysitting me . . ."
"Mister Larabee, if you think for one moment that I will submit to such indignities ..."
Both of them were struck silent when Chris grabbed a mirror off of the dresser and waved it in front of their faces almost shouting, "Look at yourselves. Do you want everyone to know what happened to you and do you think we'll be able to convince anyone who doesn't know you that you are who you claim to be. You look like little kids and you're going to have to pretend you are actually little kids if you want to get out of this without the whole world knowing about it. Hell, think of it as another undercover assignment if you have to, but until we can figure out exactly what happened we all need to keep the lid on this. Unless you both want to stay this way?"
He would have grinned at the stunned looks he received at his outburst if the situation wasn't so serious. "I'm going to call the Judge and see if he can't get a jump on the paperwork so that we can have everything taken care of as soon as possible. You two, stay put while we go get something for you to eat. Nathan, Josiah keep an eye on them. We'll be back in a minute." Chris left the room with Doctor Murray and headed to the kitchen as Buck and JD tried unsuccessfully to hide the grins that were creeping across their faces.
Shortly afterwards, Anne left promising a return visit in the morning and promising to research everything she could find on aging. A whispered "Good luck, you're going to need it." accompanied her good byes.
About half an hour later, Buck and JD responded to a nod from Chris and went outside to monitor the new arrivals when they heard the sound of at least two vehicles turning into the drive up to the ranch. Recognizing Mary's car and Inez's truck, JD went into to report the new arrivals to Chris while Buck went out to greet the two women as they exited the vehicles.
"Hey Mary, Hey Inez." Buck smiled
"We're sorry to drop in unannounced, Buck, but we have to know. What's going on. I talked to Orin this afternoon, and he was almost in shock. He just he kept shaking his head and mumbling about how nothing that happened to Team 7 should surprise him anymore and when I called the federal building all they would say is that you left early. By the way, Orin said the papers you requested would be ready in the morning? Anyway, I dropped Billy off with Evie and went to check at the Saloon, but Inez hadn't heard anything either. So here we are. Now, what happened? Have you heard from Vin and Ezra? You have haven't you?"
"Senor, are they OK? They can't be dead? I won't believe it? Will they be home soon? What happened to them?" Inez began her stream of questions as Mary paused for a breath.
"Yeah, well we have heard from them and no they ain't dead. Beyond that, you're gonna have to talk to Chris cause I sure as hell can't explain what happened. If you would like to come in, ladies?" Buck figuratively threw up his hands and began to lead the two women inside. Buck knew Mary and Inez were going to have to find out what happened sooner or later and in his book the sooner the better. If they were kept in the dark too long, damage control would be damn near impossible as both of the strong-willed women would be greatly offended at the thought that they weren't trusted enough to be let in on the secret. His plan to let Chris inform the two women of what had occurred, however, was well and truly destroyed by Vin and Ezra themselves.
Having woken up remarkably refreshed from a brief nap - not that either of them would use that word - Ezra and Vin were ready to get up. Determining a destination, they had decided that they were going to check on their horses and were in the process of demonstrating the fact that as children they didn't obey medical orders any better than when they were adults. Buck, Mary and Inez entered the house just in time to see two small forms heading directly toward them with Josiah and Nathan in hot pursuit.
"Dammit, you're gonna hurt yourselves worse than you already are if you don't come back here." Nathan was shouting while Josiah's comments were for the most part inaudible not to mention unrepeatable in polite company. JD and Chris were guarding the back door and kitchen door respectively while Buck stood in the middle of the room apparently struck motionless by the site in front of him. Ezra and Vin had split up and were peering over their shoulders oblivious to the two women in their attempts to evade the two men pursuing them as they headed for the front door. They were understandably surprised when their flight came to an abrupt end. Mary and Inez had exchanged bemused glances at the bizarre chase before reacting almost instinctively and scooping up the two children. Mary looked down at the child she now held and was caught by a pair of piercing blue eyes that looked up at her with a completely disgusted look on his face while Inez was faced with a similar expression and a pair of startling green eyes.
"Thanks, Mary, Inez." Chris nodded to each woman in turn before crossing his arms and glaring at the boys the women held in their arms. "Do you two have anything to say for yourselves?"
"Heck, Cowboy, we just wanted to check on our horses. We ain't seen em for over a month." At the injured tone of voice and the soft Texas drawl, Mary almost dropped the boy she was holding.
"Indeed, Mister Larabee, surely Chaucer and Peso deserve some consideration now that we have returned. I am sure that while you have been taking admirable care of them that they would benefit greatly from our presence."
The green-eyed boy being held by Inez paused in his commentary and attempted to get down. At his movement, she unconsciously tightened her grip settling the small body into a more comfortable and secure position on her hip before shaking her head in bemusement. It was quite impossible, but no one else talked like that. Looking at each boy in turn she said in a shaky voice, "Senor Ezra? Senor Vin?" receiving a confirming nod from Larabee, she turned to look at Mary in wide-eyed stunned amazement. Mary returned the look in kind before returning her gaze to the boy in her arms who was now squirming uncomfortably to be let down.
"Miz Travis, ya wanna put me down now." Vin said blushing fiercely as soon as he once again had Mary's attention.
"I'll take him, Mary. He's probably getting kind of heavy by now, and he needs his rest," said Chris as he stepped forward with a truly evil grin on his face and reached toward Vin who was looking at his friend in dismay.
"I can walk, Cowboy, ..." began Vin before he was interrupted by Chris.
"Yes, you can, but you're not supposed to be, or have you forgotten already what Doctor Murray said?"
"It's alright, Chris, he's not that heavy." Mary had looked down at the child in her arms and found herself captivated by the big blue eyes that peered up in alarm at her through the curly shoulder length blond hair. She tried reminding herself that this child was actually Vin Tanner, but he was just so cute. She hid her smile, and much to his embarrassment, Vin found himself being carried by Mary back into the living room and placed on the couch.
Ezra finding himself cradled gently and carefully in Inez' arms had unconsciously started to relax. Exhaustion coupled with the pain medication that Doctor Murray had forced him to take and the brief but intense chase was catching up to him. His second wind was well and truly gone, and he found himself resting his head upon her shoulder before he realized what had happened. Seeing the valiant but futile fight that Ezra was waging, Josiah decided to take Ezra and began walking toward Inez. Hearing someone's approach finely tuned reflexes took over and Ezra looked up startled. Seeing a large hand reaching toward him, he reacted instinctively and tightened his grip, wrapping his arms around Inez' neck and unconsciously pulling away. Josiah stopped stunned at the reaction and watched with sad eyes as the man he thought of as son flinched away from him.
"May be, Josiah, it would be best if I carried him." Inez was as surprised as Josiah at Ezra's reaction not to mention still in shock from the entire situation. Looking down at the boy in her arms; she ruefully shook her head. The fates truly had a strange sense of humor; this was not at all the way she had envisioned the first time she ever held Ezra in her arms.
Once the boys had been reluctantly settled on the couch, the rest of the group (Mary and Inez included) took various positions around the room and waited for explanations. As Vin and Ezra attempted to clarify the situation for their teammates and friends, they were interrupted so often that Chris finally growled at the others to shut up and wait till Vin and Ezra were done or they would be up all night. Ezra began the story and told about waking up, being questioned by Sheriff Matthews, the ensuing tests done by Dr. Davis, and staying with Miss Jo until they were sufficiently recovered and had a chance to formulate a plan. At that point, Ezra -- having no desire to remember much less tell anyone else about large portions what had occurred -- attempted to gloss over their escape and the ensuing trip that resulted in their arrival in Denver with "We felt we had recovered sufficiently to attempt the journey to Denver and here we are."
This explanation proved less than satisfactory to their listeners, and when Ezra refused to say anything else, Vin reluctantly picked up the story. Ordinarily Vin would have respected Ezra's desire to keep what had occurred a secret, but he was concerned for his friend and felt the others needed to know what their brother had gone through.
"Sorry, Ez," Vin looked apologetically at his friend. "But I think they need to know what all happened." Vin started with Grady's attempt to have them institutionalized, his escape thanks to Ezra's diversion, and Ezra's forced medication. Nathan, in particular, came unglued at the mention of the drugs and the restraints. The thought of their brothers medicated into insensibility and hospitalized triggered enough commentary on Grady's future that Vin almost felt sorry for what was going to happen to the idiot -- until he remembered finding Ezra in the hospital drugged and strapped to a bed.
"If you gentlemen will excuse me, ..." Ezra began in an attempt to leave the room during this portion of the story. He couldn't believe that he had let those men catch him so unprepared. He should have been expecting something. There was no excuse for his lapse, and it had almost cost them everything. He was full of self-recrimination, and the memories were still too fresh in his mind. A gentle hand landing on his shoulder prevented Ezra's attempt at retreat. Startled he looked up to see Buck kneeling on the floor in front of him. Unable to meet his friend's eyes, Ezra looked away in search of an alternate escape route. Recognizing the attempt, Buck gently but firmly reached out and turned the small face toward him forcing Ezra to look him in the eye.
"It's OK, pard." Buck said in a soft voice. "Ain't nobody could have done anymore than you did." Rationally, he knew that the child in front of him was his smart-ass friend, but at that moment, all Buck was able to see were the small sad eyes of a child. Unable to resist the impulse, he drew the figure in front of him into a hug and was shocked when after the initial resistance he felt his friend collapse onto his shoulder shaking with silent tears. Buck for his part, instinctively tightened his grip trying to ease the pain that was tearing his friend apart, as Ezra, much to his horror found himself unable to resist the comfort that was being offered. Feeling strong arms encircling him gently and hearing the steady heartbeat of the man who held him gave Ezra a sense of security and belonging he had never felt before -- either as a child or an adult. All of the fear and pain of the past month coupled with the nightmares of his actual childhood that were haunting his dreams had robbed him of his normal defenses, and he found himself collapsing against his friend's shoulder and surrendering to the tears he had fought for so long. The rest of the team watched quietly, unwilling to break the spell that surrounded the two.
After about 10 minutes, Ezra withdrew from the embrace, mortified at his loss of control. "My apolog..." Ezra's attempt was cut off by Buck placing a hand over his mouth.
Smiling at Ezra's indignant look, Buck shook his head. "Ain't no need to apologize for being human, Ez." Holding eye contact with Ezra for a long moment until he read acceptance mixed with embarrassment before continuing, "Think I'd like to hear the rest of that story now, if you're up to it?" At Ezra's nod, Buck released his friend and watched him walk slowly back to resume his place on the couch next to Vin before returning to his own spot in one of the recliners.
Taking turns, Vin and Ezra recounted their journey culminating in infiltration of the Federal Building that had taken place the previous evening. The men listening were in turns, admiring, angry and white-faced with shock at what their friends had been through and were promising several visits to various people beginning with Grady. By the time the story was completed, Ezra and Vin were punctuating their tale with yawns. After finishing, Ezra and Vin added the final piece of information they had to contribute, "We are relatively certain that Mister Knight, the proprietor of the carnival, is responsible for our current predicament. We had determined that finding the carnival should be our first order of business once we were home."
With that, they settled back to wait for the ensuing onslaught of questions and commentary that was inevitable. After thirty minutes the only decision that had been made was that Ezra and Vin would be staying at the ranch and when this didn't garner the expected outraged reaction the men looked around to find the two passed out on the couch. Ezra had slipped sideways and was using the arm of the couch for a pillow while Vin was using Ezra as his pillow. They were resting securely for the first time in weeks surrounded by their family. Unable to resist, JD took several pictures of the two before Chris and Josiah carried them to bed.
The next morning, Chris woke slowly and reluctantly. Both Vin and Ezra had nightmares, and Chris and Josiah had both agreed rocking Vin and Ezra back to sleep was one of the more surreal experiences of their lives. Hopefully as disoriented as the two were when the nightmares woke them, they wouldn't remember what had occurred. Neither of the older men wanted their friends to die of embarrassment.
Mary and Inez had gone shopping the previous night and had purchased coats, shoes, jeans, and shirts for Ezra and Vin. Mary had dropped them off that morning with the comment that at least now they could actually go shopping for the rest of the items they would need without wearing clothes that were rags or ten sizes to big.
Chris had called into work and arranged to take a personal day while Buck and JD went into the office to ostensibly continue their search for Vin and Ezra. In reality, they were trying to track down Knights Pandemonium Carnival.
Josiah and Nathan spent the morning scouting the areas around the railroad tracks to locate Pullman and Codey and assure them of Eric and Vics safety. They thanked the men and provided them with some basic camping equipment and backpacks when it became evident that they wouldnt take money for helping the boys and preferred to continue with their nomadic existence riding the rails and working their way across the country.
The Judge arrived at 12:30 with a social worker, a counselor from child services, and the rest of the team in tow. Nobody wanted to miss the show. The Judge had temporary custody papers, but neither of the SRS workers would sign them unless they met and talked to the children involved. Shaking his head, Chris went to get Vin and to drag Ezra out of bed if he was still in it.
Chris entered the room to find the window open and Vin and Ezra both gone. Mumbling under his breath, Chris left the room and headed for the back door with Buck following on his heels. "I bet the little shits have gone to check on their horses." grated Chris while Buck attempted to restrain a grin. He was sure if he even hinted at smiling, Chris was going to hit him. He had never seen anyone who could get to Chris the way Vin and Ezra did.
Striding over to the barn, Chris and Buck looked inside to see Chaucer and Peso greeting their owners. Ezra and Vin were both talking to their horses and holding their hands out to allow Chaucer and Peso to catch their scent. Both horses neighed excited greetings, and Chaucer opened his stall showing more life than he had the entire time Ezra was missing. Chris smiled and shook his head when Chaucer grabbed the back of Ezra's jacket and literally lifted him off his feet all the while prancing about joyfully. Looking around, he realized that Vin wasn't actually faring any better as Chaucer had apparently taught Peso the stall-opening trick. Vin was now trapped against the wall held in place by his horse's head, which was pressed up against his chest as Peso whickered happily at his return. Chris and Buck broke down laughing at the indignant voices hearing cries of "Chaucer, put me down this instant." intermingled with "Get off a me, Peso."
"Think we should rescue em, pard." Buck looked over at Chris who was using the wall to hold him up.
"Probably, otherwise we'll be here all day, and I don't think those two busy bodies are going to be willing to wait that long."
By mutual agreement, Buck went to get Ezra while Chris made his way toward Vin. Both of them were exceedingly cautious in approaching the cantankerous horses who now that they had their friends back apparently had no intention of letting them go ever again. Ten minutes later both Chris and Buck were nursing bites and swearing at Chaucer, Peso, and the horses owners with equal vigor, but their mission was successful. Vin and Ezra had been freed from the over enthusiastic welcomes of their friends.
Exiting the barn, Chris fixed the two troublemakers with a stern glare, "Do you think you two could at least attempt to act like normal kids for a little while. The Judge is here with two SRS counselors. They won't sign the paperwork to let you stay here until they talk to you."
Ezra and Vin exchanged glances before returning their gazes to Chris. "Allow me to clarify the issue, Mister Larabee, you wish for us to behave like normal "kids" for the duration of the visit of the two well meaning persons currently in your living room so that they will be convinced that we should be permitted to remain here during our current unfortunate circumstance?"
Chris had been growing increasingly uneasy during Ezra's question but quickly answered, "Yeah, Ez. Just act like regular kids, please?"
Ezra nodded and looking over at Vin the two shared a grin before turning back to Chris. "As you request, Mister Larabee." Came from Ezra not two seconds before he and Vin took off toward the house. Chris and Buck took up pursuit and entered the room just in time to stop dead in their tracks. Ezra's face was glowing with excitement and his green eyes sparkled as he tugged on Josiah's shirt talking animatedly and at the top of his lungs, "Uncle Josiah, did you know Uncle Chris has horses. We went out to look at them and they like us. They let us pet them and everything. Can we go for a ride later, please? I really like the red one. Please, we'll be good."
Vin just as loudly was expounding to Nathan about their adventures with Peso and Chaucer and about the chickens culminating with, "I want ta go camping. Think we could do that someday, Uncle Nathan?" turning to look at the dumbfounded Chris who was staring openmouthed at the chattering sharpshooter who had turned enormous blue eyes on him before saying "Please, Uncle Chris. I know it's startin to get kinda cold, but I ain't never been fishin and campin. We always wanted to go, but ain't never had the chance before? Please?"
Chris and Buck fought back the laughter that threatened as the saw Josiah, the Judge, Nathan and JD staring openmouthed looking from Vin to Ezra and back again. Vin and Ezra were still chattering away at the tops of their lungs until Ezra seemed to notice the visitors for the first time and froze his eyes widening in alarm. Tapping Vin on the shoulder, he whispered loudly in a frightened voice, "Vic, they've got grown up visitors."
Vin stopped talking and looked at Ezra in surprise before turning to face the Judge and the two people who accompanied him. The two children stared in fear at the new adults before Ezra gulped audibly and said, "We're sorry for interrupting. We didn't mean to be rude. Please don't be mad at us?"
Ezra's voice sounded small and forlorn as he and Vin peered unhappily at the unknown grown-ups. Ezra looked over at Chris and Buck who were standing in the doorway. "They're here to take us away aren't they? Uncle Chris, we'll be good from now on. We promise. Please don't send us away. We...We like it here." Ezra's voice choked up and he appeared unable to continue so Vin picked up the ball and ran with it.
"We ain't never had some place this nice to stay before. We ain't gotta eat as much as you been givin us and we can do lots a chores and stuff. Ya won't hardly know we're here. We didn't mean to be any trouble. Please don't make us leave? They won't let us stay together if they take us away." Vin pleaded as his hand reached out to grab Ezra's. The two boys stood in front of the strangers, shoulder's touching and hands clasped defying anyone to separate them.
Chris, Buck and the others found themselves looking down at the two small facing peering up at them with tears in their eyes and caved completely. Knowing what they did of Ezra's and Vin's childhoods, they knew the words that had just been uttered probably had some element of truth to them and that made it impossible to simply play a roll. The pain and fear of abandonment that filled the small voices was all too real, and their brothers responded almost instinctively. Chris picked Vin up in his arms and held him tightly whispering reassurances while Josiah did the same for Ezra. The others gathered around talking gently to the two boys who were clinging desperately to their protectors and shaking with what appeared to be tears. Buck glanced over at their visitors who were whispering to the judge before handing him some papers and quietly leaving. The judge stood up and followed them to the door watching as their car drove away before turning back to the small group in time to see Ezra and Vin look up with dancing eyes and grin attempting unsuccessfully to control their laughter.
"Would you gentlemen mind explaining what just happened here?"
"Mister Larabee requested that we act like 'regular kids', Judge. I trust our performance was satisfactory."
"You could say that," said the Judge shaking his head and handing the papers to Chris, "Here are the temporary custody papers. We are to ensure that they are enrolled and attend school regularly and are to expect periodic checks by their social worker, and some counseling is going to be required, but overall they were highly impressed with the level of trust demonstrated and with your handling of the situation."
"Since that has been settled, Josiah, would you please put me down."
"Yeah, Cowboy. Ya want ta turn loose of me now."
Once both Ezra and Vin were on the ground, they headed toward the front door.
"And just where do you think you're going?" Nathan halted them in their tracks.
"Out" said Vin.
"Riding" said Ezra, looking at Nathan hopefully.
"No" came Nathan's adamant reply. "Or don't you remember what Doctor Murray told you. Bed rest for at least two days. Besides, we've got to get you some new clothes and school supplies. I imagine you're probably going to have to start some time next week to keep SRS off our backs."
"Good Lord. You can't seriously expect us to attend elementary school."
"Think of it as a vacation, boys. I've checked with the principle of the school Billy goes to, and he would be happy to have you as students" the Judge paused before smiling wickedly, "that is, if you pass the entrance exams."