The full impact of what they had just agreed to slowly sank into Vin and Ezra as they hung up the phones and heard Chris' laughter. Oh Dear God, they were spending the night at the Judge's house.
By the time the rest of the team arrived, Vin and Ezra were as close to panic as Chris had ever seen them, and he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The best undercover agent in the business and the deadliest sharpshooter in the ATF were petrified at the thought of attending a child's sleep over - of course the fact that the party was at their bosss house probably had a great deal to do with it. Chris had talked to Mary who said Evie couldn't wait to meet the boys she had heard so much about from Billy and that Judge Travis was still in the dark. It was going to be just the three of them, because once Aaron and Vic agreed to come, Billy decided he didn't need any other guests.
The arrangements were made, and Vin and Ezra left the next morning looking like men on their way to the gallows. Each carried a small bag containing pajamas and a change of clothes, and Mary had informed Chris that she would pick them up from school when she picked up Billy. Chris had dropped them off and then gone into the office where he had -- despite his own curiosity about the chaos he was sure would occur -- ended up stopping JD and Buck from bugging Judge Travis's house.
Despite being eaten up by curiosity about what might be transpiring at the Travis house, the other members of Team 7 managed, if barely, to keep their minds focused on their assigned tasks. Something they attacked with renewed zeal after yet another meeting with the FBI. This time, it was ostensibly, to explain what Ezra and Vin had been working on and to close the case as unsolved, something that would give their superiors in the ATF the chance to close the files on Ezra and Vin as well. Things deteriorated rapidly at that point, and when the FBI agents tried to place the blame on Ez and Vin, they almost became additional statistics in the already impressive list of those shot by Team 7.
At home that evening, Josiah continued his research and nearly held his breath when he stumbled on an old religious track that seemed to perfectly describe the man Ezra and Vin had described. He copied it quickly and highlighted the important sections in preparation for the meeting that was scheduled out at Chriss ranch the next afternoon. Pausing briefly as he waited for his latest search to finish running, he smiled when he considered why it was scheduled for the afternoon, they had to wait for Ezra and Vin to return from their sleep over. Feeling as if he finally had a direction for the first time since the case had started, Josiah settled in to try to learn more about the "Autumn People" and how to defeat them.
Ezra and Vin for their part were somewhat bemused by their whole experience at school. As neither of them had been popular as children and most of their experiences with adults during their actual childhoods had to put it mildly left something to be desired, they were completely unprepared for what happened.
Obviously, the class work was boring, but the behavior of their classmates and teachers left them bewildered. The other children, at least the younger ones seemed to be suffering from extreme cases of hero worship, and much to their consternation several of the girls seemed to have crushes on them. The teacher, Miss Bates, was by turns solicitous of their needs, aggravated by their tricks and apparently extremely concerned that she might do something to prevent them from achieving their full potential. The coach had seen their scars the first day when they were changing back into their regular clothes in the locker room after PE - they had managed to time it so that the other students were already finished by offering to help clean up. They hadn't realized the coach was there until he came into the room coldly furious about something. They had responded instinctively and taken defensive positions and were surprised beyond belief when he stopped in his tracks and sat down on the bench so that he would be closer to their level. Looking them in the eye, he apologized for scaring them and told them that if they ever needed help of any kind, they could come to him. After that they had noticed he seemed to watch them extremely closely and had questioned them about any new bruises they showed up with. It had taken all of Ezra's skills at persuasion to keep him from calling social services when Vin showed up with a large bruise on his back courtesy of being abruptly sandwiched between Peso and the wall when the horse had shied from who knows what. Vin for his part found it highly amusing that once Coach Gardner was informed about Ezra's shoulder, he refused to allow Ezra to do anything that might put as he described it, undue strain upon the joint. Something that drove Ezra crazy and prompted the acerbic comment that Coach Gardner was a bigger mother hen than even Nathan was. The concern shown by their teachers and their popularity with the other students left Vin and Ezra bewildered and not a little unsure of themselves as they tried unsuccessfully to figure out what ulterior motives everyone might have.
These issues were compounded when Billy had announced proudly that morning before classes started that Aaron and Vic were spending the night at his house. They had found themselves surrounded by their classmates who eyed Billy enviously and vied for the attention of the two newest pupils at the school. Vin and Ezra finally gave up trying to figure out motives and decided that the only thing they really needed to worry about at the moment was surviving the upcoming ordeal without either disappointing Billy or getting killed by the Judge.
Ezra and Vin were subdued that day, despite the fact that the entire school had somehow found out about the carjacking attempt further contributing to their popularity with the boys, besotted looks from the girls, and various attempts by the teachers to verify that they were indeed unharmed. They had been attempting unsuccessfully to avoid any further notice, and especially to avoid anything that would result in Chris being called to the school once more. His threats on the way home after the carjacking debacle had left them somewhat wary of how much more their reluctant "guardian" would put up with before following through on his threat to turn them over his knee. Both "men" excelled at pushing Chriss limits and had determined they were far to close to the invisible line of no return to take any additional chances with regard to inciting their volatile team leader at this point.
That afternoon found them standing next to Billy shifting nervously and waiting for their ride. Ezra and Vin both kept glancing around sure that their teammates were hiding somewhere enjoying every minute of their predicament. Billy was apparently too excited to pick up on their discomfort (neither of them would admit that they were afraid) and pointed excitedly toward a silver Lexus
"There's Grandma's car now. She said she might pick us up if Mom was too busy. This is going to be so great."
Vin and Ezra exchanged glances before taking deep breaths and bracing themselves.
Evie pulled up to where her grandson was waiting and looked curiously at the two boys standing next to him. She had heard a great deal about Aaron and Vic from Billy and was looking forward to meeting them. The teacher assigned to escort the younger children and ensure that they were being picked up by someone on the approved list escorted the three boys to the car after checking her ID - despite the fact that Billy was loudly proclaiming her identity to his two friends.
"Hi, Grandma. This is Aaron - he doesn't like to be called Ron - and Vic. They're brothers and they just started at school and they're already in the third grade and they're really cool." Billy rambled on as Evie eyed the two boys who were climbing hesitantly into the back seat.
"Hello, boys. I am really glad to meet you. We'll have time for proper introductions once we're home. I'm afraid my husband has to work late tonight, so dinner won't be for awhile, but I am sure I can find some chocolate cake or cookies to tide you over till dinner. If that's alright?"
She wasn't sure what she had been expecting from Billy's excited descriptions of his new friends, but the two boys currently sitting like statues in the backseat of the car were certainly not it.
Ezra and Vin realizing that some comment was required glanced at each other before Vin said,
"That'd be fine, ma'am." Evie had almost missed the quiet reply from Vic.
"Indeed, madam, we don't mean to be any inconvenience." Came just a softly from Aaron.
The voices and accents made her pause momentarily before smiling reassuringly.
"My name is Evie, and you are welcome to call me that. I've heard a lot about you from Billy and am just glad to get a chance to meet you."
They arrived at the Judge's house and Ezra and Vin glanced at each other uncertainly before picking up their bags and following Billy out of the car. Evie watched the two boys curiously, noticing their hesitancy and the glances they exchanged before approaching the house. She waited at the door smiling sadly at their barely concealed anxiety. For some reason, Aaron and Vic reminded her of the missing members of Team 7. She had a soft spot for the wily undercover agent and had Nettie Wells not taken Vin under her wing, Evie acknowledged to herself that the quiet sharpshooter would have joined the ranks of her adopted sons. Realizing that only Billy had followed her into hall, she turned and looked at the two wary boys who had carefully wiped their feet and then barely made it into the house before stopping as if waiting for either permission or instructions. Walking back to them, she gently laid a hand on each shoulder ignoring the almost imperceptible flinches and gently led them to her grandson's room
"Come along, boys. You can put your bags in here. Do either of you want to change before eating?"
"No thank you, Miss Evie. We're fine," said Vic just before Billy barreled into the room.
"Come on, guys, I'm hungry. Grandma makes the best chocolate cake of almost anyone." Declared Billy. Evie watched in amusement as Billy grabbed Vic and Aaron and began hauling them toward the kitchen. Three slices of chocolate cake, and two glasses of milk - Aaron had requested iced tea claiming an allergy to milk- later, the boys headed outside. They were joined by several of the other neighborhood children and all of them were quickly embroiled in some complicated game that seemed to involve a great deal of running, shouting, and hiding. Smiling at the scene, Evie turned to the refrigerator to begin dinner.
Ezra and Vin had gotten drawn in by Billy's enthusiasm before they even realized what occurred - something that occurred at times with JD - and found themselves in a game that involved water guns and was a mix of cops and robbers and hide and seek. Several hours passed before they realized it, and they were startled during their celebration of a decisive victory over the other side by the Judge's appearance in the back yard.
Judge Travis had arrived home and found his wife in the kitchen preparing dinner. Fried chicken was one of Billy's favorite meals, and Evie was in the midst of preparation when Orrin walked in.
"Hello, dear." Orrin said giving his wife a kiss on the cheek before glancing around, "Where's Billy?"
"Oh, he's in the back yard with a couple of his friends from school and some of the neighborhood children."
Travis nodded wearily. The past week had taken its toll and he wondered if he was up to dealing with even Billy much less Billy and two of his friends. "The sleep-over he's been begging for. I almost forgot that was tonight. So whom did he invite? Have we met them before?"
"I havent met them before, but they're brothers and they only started at St. Vincents a week or so ago. I'm not sure what their last name is, but I think you'll like them. They're very polite," Evie paused briefly before continuing, "but almost too quiet. I think may be you should look into their situation. The way they reacted when I touched them ..." her voice trailed off.
Travis was beginning to get a sick feeling in his stomach and the grins he had gotten from both Mary and Chris Larabee that day were beginning to make a terrible kind of sense. "Evie," he began again, "What are their names?"
"I'm sorry dear, I thought I told you. The smaller one is named Aaron and his brother is Vic. They're in the backyard playing. We have about an hour before dinner will be ready so I thought I would give them another half-hour or so before calling them in. They seem to be having a good time."
With her back to him, Evie was blithely unaware of the effect her words had on her husband. Travis had frozen in horrified amazement as he absorbed the fact that Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner in the guise of seven year olds were spending the night at his house in the company of his grandson.
Shaking his head, Travis wondered what he had done to deserve this. Although he had only seen the two briefly since their return, Chris had kept him relatively informed about the various mishaps that had ensued with his two wayward agents. Actually, he would have loved to have seen Chris at the mall with those two terrors. He had enough trouble taking Billy shopping by himself - Chris should have know better. Hoping he managed to hide his surprise, he walked to the back door "Well, I'll just keep an eye on them while we're waiting for dinner."
The Judge watched in fascination as his two agents - he was going to have to be very careful to remember to call them by the correct names -- completely captivated Billy and the other children in the neighborhood. Even though they were smaller than most of the other children, they still had a presence and charisma that drew the others in. Seeing Billy, Aaron, and Vic in a huddle with two children he didn't think he had ever seen before, Travis had to admit that he was curious to see what they were planning. They appeared to have the other side in a full retreat, and he would have dearly loved to have heard his undercover agent and sharpshooter applying their skills to a game of cops and robbers or whatever it was they were playing. The huddle broke apart and the players scattered in multiple directions. Aaron and Billy, he noted took the point and were providing an obvious target for the other team while Vic and the other two children scattered and began working their way around to the back of the other team. A single sharp whistle from Vic indicated they were in position. Aaron and Billy, who had taken refuge behind an overturned picnic table and were doing an admirable job of keeping the other side occupied, suddenly doubled their efforts with their water guns while Vic and the others closed in cutting off their retreat. Surrounded, the other side reluctantly surrendered, and Travis watched smiling as his grandson triumphantly received the flag they had been trying to capture from a boy who stood a good foot taller than he did before the group dissolved into chaos.
At Evie's announcement that dinner was almost ready, he reluctantly went out to call a halt to the game and walked toward the mob of children that was beginning to break up. He was still a good eight to ten feet away when Aaron and Vic reacting almost instinctively spun into defensive positions in front of their teammates and fired before they realized who had approached. Staring in horrified amazement at a dripping wet Judge Travis, Ezra and Vin dropped their "weapons" as if they were red hot and began to back up never taking their eyes off of Travis. Staring speechless, they heard Billy collapse on the ground in helpless laughter, and stopped their cautious retreat when they heard an answering laugh from the Judge before he opened his arms, bent down and caught his still giggling grandson up in an enormous hug. Travis shook his head as he put Billy down. He should have known he couldn't sneak up on those two. Choosing to ignore the caution with which they greeted his approach and the uncertainty in their eyes, he shook the water out of his hair and cleaned his glasses before looking at the children in front of him.
"Sorry to stop your game, boys, but Evie's just finishing up cooking and she sent me out here to get you so we can get washed up before dinner." Nodding to the other children who scattered, he turned back to Aaron and Vic who were standing almost at attention. Looking at them, he found it nearly impossible to reconcile the two boys in front of him who looked ready to take flight at moments notice with his two smart-ass agents. For one thing, the adult versions of Standish and Tanner were never intimidated by him and certainly never gave him the undivided attention they appeared to be granting him now.
"Aaron and Vic is it?" watching Standish and Tanner each nod in turn, he realized that neither of them had said a word since he appeared, and the thought that they might actually be afraid of him shook him to the core. He had never harmed a child in his life and didn't intend to start now, even if they weren't really children. Travis decided he needed to talk to them alone for a moment and sent Billy into the house with a gentle push, before he turned back to the two boys who still appeared frozen in place.
Ezra and Vin for their part were eyeing their boss with trepidation. Neither was quite sure of how he would react to the situation, and they hoped he would at least give them the opportunity to explain that the only reason they had intruded upon him in such a fashion was that they had not wanted to disappoint Billy. In silence, they watched him put Billy down and send him into the house before he turned back to look at them.
"Judge," Ezra started, deciding a preemptive strike was necessary, "We're terribly sorry for the intrusion, but when Billy requested our presence ..."
Travis interrupted him -- the anxiety that was evident in the words coming from Ezra and the almost fearful expressions on both Vin and Ezra's faces was more than he could stand.
"Boys, I'm glad you could come. I know Billy really appreciates it. He's been looking forward to having a sleep-over for months. Now, if we don't hurry up, Evie is going to be after us because supper will be getting cold."
With that, Travis turned toward the house leaving Vin and Ezra to exchange stunned looks before moving to catch up with him. Once they did, Travis glanced down at each in turn,
"Standish, just don't teach Billy how to deal off the bottom of the deck, and Tanner don't even think about showing Billy how to pull any of the jokes I know you've done to Chris. Now get on inside and wash up."
Travis couldn't resist ruffling their hair as he gave them both a gentle shove in the direction of the back door and laughed at the disgusted looks that were aimed his way. God help him, they were just too cute to resist. They would have Evie wrapped around their little fingers in no time. After all, they had already conquered the rest of Team 7 with no effort at all.
Vin and Ezra exchanged bemused glances wondering what had just occurred before continuing into the house and joining Billy who was washing his hands. This wasn't at all the reaction they had anticipated from the Judge. Finishing in the bathroom, the three boys headed toward the kitchen with Ezra slightly in front of the other two. Reaching the door, a quick glance by Ezra failed to reveal anything that remained to be brought to the table or any other tasks to be performed prior to eating. At Ezras nod, the three boys headed for the dining room, and Ezra smiled when Billy after a quick glance in his direction walked to his grandmothers chair holding it for her. Evie looked around puzzled until she noticed both Aaron and Vic standing to the side of their chairs, obviously waiting for her to take her seat. Smiling she allowed Billy to seat her,
"Why thank you, Billy. That is very considerate of you." Evie was trying valiantly to keep a straight face as Billy beamed at the approving nods he received from both Aaron and Vic.
"Whats the matter, boys?" Evie asked when she realized all three of them were still standing.
This time, it was Billy who answered, "Grandpas not here yet, and hes the host. A gentleman isnt supposed to take his seat without the host being present. Isnt that right, Aaron? Thats what you told us all at lunch the other day."
"Indeed, William, I am gratified that you remembered. I was unsure as to whether or not anyone was truly interested in that information."
"Its really neat the way you explain it all. I know lots of the guys that said theyve been following those rules and stuff at home and their moms love it. Dave said his mom baked him chocolate cake twice this week to thank him and Ma made me chocolate chip cookies. Mike said he told his big brother what to do and now Johnny has a date with Michelle and she wouldnt even look at him before he started behaving like a gentleman. "
Ezra listened in stunned silence as Billy proceeded to name practically every boy they had met and the success they had either at home or with girls that they had a crush on by implementing the courtesy that had been so thoroughly ingrained in him as to have become nearly instinctive.
Travis watching from the doorway shook his head and smiled almost afraid to find out what in addition to etiquette those two had taught his grandson. Entering the dining room, Travis hid his smile when the boys waited for him to take his seat before taking theirs.
Dinner passed quickly and Travis found himself spellbound as he took part in the quiet but animated conversation that ranged from school to science fiction to lessons in deportment and elocution. Please dont let Billy start sounding like Standish, Travis thought, trying to follow the conversation that seemed to have no logical progression to it at all but gaining a better insight into his agents.
Evie was fascinated by the boys and attempted to guide the conversation so that she could find out as much as possible about them. Much to her chagrin, all she managed to learn was that they were staying with Chris and were in protective custody, and she resigned herself to the fact that she had met two masters in the art of misdirection and that they were not going to let anything slip.
Ezra and Vin for their part were on their best behavior the last thing in the world they wanted was for the Judge to get mad at them. After all, he was still their boss and once things got back to normal, they had no desire to deal with any of the possible repercussions that ticking him off could have. (The last time they had pulled anything on the Judge they had ended up sent separately to weeklong seminars on proper procedure and evidence handling and had nearly decided that shooting the incredibly boring and out of touch instructors would have been considered justifiable homicide. After that, they had decided that unless the blame could be shifted unequivocally to someone who truly deserved it, the Judge would be spared in the future. Although, they had privately admitted to each other that remembering the look on the Judges face had almost made the weeklong torture bearable.)
Excusing themselves from the table with the promise of dessert later, the three "boys" headed for Billys room after being gently but firmly dissuaded from their attempt to help clear the table. Shaking her head, Evie Travis looked over at her husband,
"I swear, Orrin, if Ezra and Vin ever had children, I would expect them to look and act just like those two boys. How on Earth did they ever end up staying with Chris, and what in the world happened to those poor children?"
Orrin was spared having to answer by a resounding crash coming from Billys room. Closely followed by his wife, Travis ran toward the back of the house desperately hoping no one had been hurt. Reaching the doorway, he continued into the room at a run only to come to a complete stop when he realized he was looking at the remains of his grandsons bunk bed. The top mattress was on the floor and three small boys were busily trying to extricate themselves from the tangle of sheets and blankets that were still attached to the bed frame in some places. Closing his eyes briefly at the site of the writhing pile of cloth in front of him, he at last became aware of the high pitched voices that appeared to be arguing with each other. Shaking his head he once more looked at the incredible pile of material in front of him, he hadnt thought there were that many blankets in the entire house much less on Billys bed.
"Enough." He raised his voice in order to be heard over the muffled argument and smiled at the silence that fell. "Is anybody hurt?"
"Im fine," came from somewhere in the middle and Travis froze briefly before recognizing his grandsons voice. That reply was followed in quick succession with
"I appear to have weathered the destruction unscathed." and
And Travis breathed a sigh of relief that no additional muffled versions of "Im fine" had been uttered. Either of those two could have two broken legs and a bleeding gunshot wound and still claim that he was "fine". It was rather funny but he nearly flinched any time he heard that word anymore because when it came out of the mouth of either Standish or Tanner it usually heralded an extended stay in the hospital.
"Does someone want to explain what just occurred?" he continued and almost fell backwards when a brown head popped out from under the blankets looked at him briefly and with a blush staining the pale cheeks said quietly,
"We were building a fort. It was my fault." Before retreating like a turtle back under the pile.
Travis stared in amazement at his "agent", shook his head and muttered, "building a fort?" The unintended question was promptly answered by a soft Texas drawl that was barely audible, muffled as it was by the fact that none of the speakers body was visible
"We were getting ready to defend the Alamo against Santa Anna."
Vics explanation was interrupted by Billy who had manage to free himself from the pile of blankets,
"Yeah, Grandpa. Vic and Aaron were telling us all about it at school during recess the other day, but we never got to finish. I was Travis, Aaron was Bowie and Vic was Davy Crockett. Sorry Grandpa, I didnt realize the bed wouldnt hold all three of us. Aaron, Vic are you sure youre OK?" Billy finally registered the fact that his two friends showed no signs of coming out of their protective cocoons and was relieved when both of his friends replied that they were fine. Travis was tempted to roll his eyes when he heard the dreaded word echo from under the blankets that his two mysteriously de-aged agents refused to leave.
"Evie, Billy, why dont you go get dessert ready, while I help Aaron and Vic." Travis glanced at his wife and smiled reassuringly at her. "Go on, well be there in a minute."
Once they were alone, Travis turned back to the incredible pile of material that seemed to have engulfed the majority of his grandsons room.
"Theyre gone." He said quietly and receiving no answer he continued, "You cant stay under there forever, you know."
"We were merely biding our time until the appropriate opportunity to express our regret for the disruption we have caused your household, sir." Ezra cautiously peered out from under the blankets and Travis fought the laughter that threatened as he watched Ezras and Vins hopeless attempts to extricate themselves from the material that had wrapped itself securely around them and he moved to help them regain their freedom.
"Can I ask you boys something?" he said once the two were finally out and standing in front of him. Vin and Ezra nodded hesitantly staring at the floor and fighting the humiliation that threatened to engulf them. "What were you doing with all those blankets?" asked the Judge incredulously.
Ezra glanced up briefly trying to gauge Traviss reaction, "They were going to be the walls, sir. Suspended from the top bunk, the space underneath would have been the ground floor and the top bunk would have been the watchtower. At least that was the idea. In practice it appears to have fallen short. It was my idea, sir. Please accept my apologies. I will make whatever restitution you desire as soon as I have access once more to my funds."
"Shut up, Ron, it aint like its your fault that the bunk didnt hold when we were trying to get the blankets set up. Probably would have been fine, ifn we hadnt been" Travis watched in fascination as a blush crept up Vins face before he looked up to meet Travis eyes. "We were jumpin on the bed tryin ta see ifn we could attach a blanket to the roof ta make a tent like. Think we kind of shook the mattress loose, cause next thing we know were falling and youre comin in the room to see what happened. It werent just his fault, Billy and I went along with it, and it was my idea to try and get to the ceiling."
Travis for his part was struggling desperately to maintain a straight face as he imagined Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner jumping on a bed. Finding his voice, "Dont worry about it. No one got hurt, nothing was broken, and its time for dessert." With that he ushered the two boys out of the room before turning back for one last look at the "fort" and smiling.
Dessert was more chocolate cake followed by popcorn and coke as they watched Harry Potter and Shrek on DVD. Travis decided he was definitely going to have to start paying more attention to the canny undercover agent. Ezra had obviously forgotten where he was and answered all of the answers in the potions class on the first try before maneuvering flawlessly through the other obstacles to claim the stone when they were exploring disk two of the Harry Potter DVD while Billy and Vin cheered him on. Once the movies were finished, the boys were sent to get changed for bed since it was approaching midnight. Travis braced himself for a confrontation with Ezra about the "early" bedtime and was pleasantly surprised when all three boys quietly acceded to the bed time mandate.
Looking in on the boys before heading to bed themselves a little after midnight, Orin and Evie were gratified to see all three boys asleep in sleeping bags on the floor. Unable to resist, Evie bent down and gently kissed each boy good night before heading to bed. Orin, knowing full well what his two guests were capable of, was more than a little reluctant to believe that they were actually asleep and promising his wife, he would be in to sleep in a little while decided to read for a while. Finally acknowledging that it did indeed appear that the three boys were settled for the night, he headed to bed about 1 oclock only to be woken about an hour later by Billy.
"Grandma, Grandpa, somethings wrong with Aaron, and Vic cant get him to wake up." Billy sounded frantic. A hoarse whimpering cry came from Billys room, propelling Orin and Evie out of bed and heading toward the source of the cry faster than they would have thought possible. Entering Billys room, Travis froze at the site in front of him only to have Evie push past him to the two children huddled in the corner of the room.
Vin was trying desperately to wake Ezra from the nightmare that had taken over his dreams but wasnt having any luck. Ezra had ended up curled up in the corner of the room with his knees to his chest, his head on his knees, and his hands over his head as if shielding himself from a blow and was shaking uncontrollably. Evie seeing the boys distress gently moved Vic to one side,
"Careful, Miss Evie, Aaron can be dangerous when hes startled." Vin warned her softly. He was willing to try anything at this point to get through to Ezra and stop the broken pleading coming from his brother as he begged someone not to hurt him anymore.
Glancing over at the Judge before quickly returning his gaze to Ezra, Vin continued, "Sorry, sir, didnt think anything would happen tonight. He doesnt usually have nightmares when were someplace new. For some reason, he dont have em unless he knows hes safe, round people he can trust."
Travis turned to stare at Vin stunned at the words that had come from the quiet sharpshooter. He had always wondered what Ezra thought of him and had hoped the man realized that he wouldnt turn his back when things got rough, but he had never thought he would actually get an answer to the question. Returning his gaze to corner, he realized that his wife had apparently picked up the child huddled in the corner and settled him on her lap. He was still curled up into a ball, and she leaned back into the corner for support before gently pulling him close and resting her head on his back she began to sing a soft lullaby. Feeling the trembling begin to calm and the stiff posture relax, she slowly straightened the small boy until his head was resting on her shoulder. Continuing to sing to him, she gently rubbed his back and looking up at her husband said quietly,
"Perhaps Billy and Vic would do better in our room for now."
Before continuing the song, adding a gentle rocking movement as she rested her head on the soft brown hair of the child huddled in her lap. Realizing he had received his marching orders, Travis gathered the other two boys to him as he got to his feet and led them out of the room.
"Sorry about this, sir. Billy, we really didnt think anything would happen. We didnt mean to spoil things for ya."
"You didnt spoil nothing. Ron had a nightmare -- big deal. I had them all the time after," Billy paused glancing up at his grandfather before continuing in a soft voice, "after my dad died. Grandpa said it wasnt anything to be ashamed of. It was just your minds way of helping you work things out that are too bad for you to think about when youre awake.
Youll tell Ron, it's OK, wont you? Tell him I dont mind and that he didnt ruin anything and that I wont tell anyone what happened. Hell believe you if you tell him, and I dont want him to be all embarrassed and feel like hes got to apologize or anything."
Vin stood staring in amazement, not just at the words, but at the fact that he had not believed anyone but JD would have been able to say that much without having to come up for air. He didnt think Billy had taken a breath the entire time he was talking. Taking a deep breath, Vin prepared to reply when he felt a hand close gently on his should and looked up at Travis to see what the Judge had to say.
"Please inform Aaron, that I am in agreement with my grandson. Theres no need for him to ever mention this. I dont think less of him for it. In fact, I admire the strength it must have taken to survive whatever it is that haunts him in his dreams and to become the person he is. Lowering his voice, the Judge leaned over and whispered in Vins ear, "That goes for you as well, Mister Tanner." Before continuing in a louder voice. "Now come along. It's time we all got some sleep."
Heading into the master bedroom, Vin stopped in his tracks as Billy climbed up on the bed, grabbed a pillow and said "Will you tell us a story, Grandpa."
Vin was on the verge of a full blown panic attack, a sleep-over at the Judges house was one thing. Having the Judge tell him a bedtime story and sleeping Nope, that was not going to happen. Shaking his head, he said, "If ya got an extra blanket and pillow, Ill be fine on the floor."
Travis almost laughed at the look on Vins face before saying, "Nonsense. Billy, scoot over and let Vic get in on that side. Theres plenty of room." Fixing Tanner with a look that plainly indicated that it was not a request, Vin found himself responding to the look and found himself in the bed next to Billy before he knew it. Listening as the Judge spun a story of the old west containing some very familiar characters Vin drifted off to sleep to dream of gunslingers, gamblers and of a brotherhood that was eternal.
The first thing Ezra was aware of was the sound -- a rhythmic pounding that was strangely soothing, although he couldnt really say why. The second was that he was apparently sitting somewhat upright, resting against something warm and comforting, and third thing was a soft voice that whispered "Good morning, sweetheart." into his ear.
His eyes flashed open in panic, and he realized to his horror exactly where he was. Starting to push himself away, he began stammering apologies before he felt gentle arms close around him.
"Hush now, Aaron. Theres no need to apologize." He hesitantly looked up at her as she gently brushed the hair out of his eyes before giving him a kiss on the forehead and smiling at him. Evie Travis had felt the panic take hold and had acted quickly to prevent the small boys flight. As he slowly calmed down, she asked quietly, "How are you feeling?"
Swallowing hard, Ezra barely managed to get an answer out, "Fine." To further add to his embarrassment, his voiced cracked on the single word ending in a questioning note as if he himself werent sure of how he was feeling which if he was being completely honest with himself he would have to admit was true. Realizing how embarrassed the boy was, Evie decided to put her curiosity aside for the moment,
"Are you ready for some breakfast? Orrin is making chocolate chip pancakes."
"Mister Travis is cooking?"
"Well, since he didnt get the chance to make ice cream sodas for you yesterday, he decided to make his other specialty for you this morning." Evie slowly rose to her feet after letting Aaron climb out of her lap. "Come on; Billy and Vic woke up a little while ago, and I think they are watching cartoons."
"Miss Evie, I am truly sorry for any disruption " Ezra was so intent on apologizing that he didnt realized she had led him out of the room until he walked straight into Judge Travis.
"Good morning, son. Vic and Billy are in watching TV. I believe the X-Men is on. You better get in there before they claim all the good parts." Travis leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Make sure they let you be Gambit. I think youd like him." Continuing in a louder voice, "Ill call you when breakfast is ready."
A whispered conversation with Vin went someway toward calming Ezra down, as did Billys matter of fact acceptance. By mutual agreement, the decision was reached that Vin would never mention Ezra falling asleep on Evie Traviss lap if Ezra never mentioned Vin being told a bedtime story by the Judge. They had already agreed the previous evening before initially falling asleep that the rest of the team would simply have to live with their questions unanswered. There was no way they were going to tell them about shooting the Judge with water guns, building a fort or demolishing Billys room, and they could only hope the Judge didnt feel the need to share the information, either.
The morning passed pleasantly. Full of cartoons that neither Ezra nor Vin had ever seen before and more chocolate chip pancakes than the entire team could have eaten not that the three of them didnt make a valiant effort at it. A recreation of one of the more exciting scenes from the X-Men episode was interrupted by the sound of a door opening and a choked laugh, and they turned around stunned to see Mary Travis standing there trying desperately to contain the laughter that threatened. She never thought she would ever see either Vin or Ezra as relaxed as they were at that moment. Shaking her head she thought, Billy was good for them as she looked at the boys grinning sheepishly at her.
"Sorry to interrupt, but are you ready to go home?"
Billy went to say his good-byes to his grandparents and Vin and Ezra took the opportunity to speak to Mary.
"Miz Travis, you aint gonna tell the guys about this are ya."
"Theyll never allow us to live it down, please, Mrs. Travis."
"Boys, calm down. I appreciate the two of you accepting Billys invitation. I know it wasnt easy for you. I wont say a word." Smiling at the two of them she said, "Im just glad you had a good time."
Ezra and Vin approached the Traviss thanking them for their hospitality and Ezra once more attempted to apologize before being cut-off by Evie who said she would be glad to have them come stay again if they had the chance. A suggestion that caused Ezra and Vins jaws to drop, and Travis to grin widely before shaking his head.
The ride out to the ranch was quiet as the three "boys" all ended up falling asleep. Buck seeing Marys car drive up, called out a greeting with his usual enthusiasm only to be shocked into silence as Mary interrupted him.
"Buck, will you be quiet. Theyre sleeping. Go make yourself useful and get someone to help carry them inside, and before you ask anything, no Im not going to tell you anything about what happened. Not that I know that many details myself," she added under her breath. She had seen just enough though, that she knew she was going to have to have a long conversation with Billy as her imagination went into overdrive.
Ezra and Vin were, to put in mildly, surprised when they woke up about two oclock in the afternoon in what had become their room out at the ranch. The last clear memory either of them had was climbing into the back seat of Marys car, and they flushed with embarrassment when they realized they had undoubtedly been carried inside. God only knew how they were going to live all of this down. They had already provided the Judge with enough blackmail material -- should he decide to use it -- that they would never dare pull another stunt on him, and not content with that they were adding even more to the material their team mates had on them.
Ezra and Vin followed the voices into Chriss den. Chris looked up from his discussion with Buck when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and grinned. Ezra and Vin were standing in the doorway barefoot, in grass stained jeans, and rumpled t-shirts rubbing sleep out of their eyes and looking so damn cute and innocent there should have been a law against it. A quick flash dispelled the moment and Chris glanced over to see Nathan of all people quickly hiding the now ubiquitous camera. Thanks to JD, all five of the adult members of the group had taken to carrying disposable cameras around with them in order to capture some of the funnier -- for them at least -- moments of the predicament their two brothers had ended up in.
"I want a copy of that one." Chris said before turning to two who were glaring at the EMT. "Well, boys, I see you survived, and while I am sure we arent ever going to find out everything that happened, I do have one question for you. If you dont mind?"
"Ya can ask, cowboy. Dont mean well answer it. We aint that tired."
Ezra began getting a sick feeling in his stomach when Chris grinned at them before saying, "What kind of snow job did you do on Evie Travis? She called a little while ago and offered to baby-sit anytime it's necessary."
After exchanging glances with Vin, Ezra brought his poker face to bear, "I believe Mister Larabee, that my compatriot and I will exercise our right to remain silent on any and all things pertaining to our stay at the Judges house. Although, I will say that all three of the Traviss were extremely kind and gracious hosts."
At that point the "discussion" degenerated into Buck and JD trying to wheedle information out of Ezra and Vin while Chris and Nathan attempted to do the same thing but exhibited a little more restraint until Josiah tired of the whole thing. Hell, he thought, the guys should know better than to badger those two. You never get anything out of them that way.
"Enough!" all eyes turned to Josiah showing various degrees of shock as he said exasperatedly, "Can we please get to the reason we are all here? I think I may have figured out what we are up against. Not how to deal with it, necessarily, but at least what we are dealing with."
Stunned silence met his words until Ezra his eyes shining with a combination of hope and fear he wasnt able to complete mask said, "Mister Sanchez, even the possibility of an answer is more than we had before. Please, sir, if you would continue, I for one would greatly appreciate it."
"Well, Im not sure if what I found applies, but I was considering what you two said about the carnival and the underlying atmosphere of fear and hate and pain, and it made me remember an old religious track that I read as a boy. It was written by a Pastor Newgate Phillips, and it took me a while to find a copy of it, but let me read it to you and you tell me if it describes your Mister Knight accurately or not.""For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christs birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eyes? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, tremblesbreaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them." 1
As Josiah finished his explanation, Vin was almost bouncing with excitement, ignoring the questioning looks of the others.
"Thats him. Thats Knight. Thats the carnival. Where do you think they came from? Why do they do it? What do we need to do to fix it?"
"Whoa, slow down, kiddo." Buck interrupted the flood of questions coming from Vin and earning a glare in return. "Whats gotten into you."
"Buck, we finally got an idea of what were dealin with. We got somethin to go on."
"Ive been thinking about it a lot since I found that track, and I believe that ." Josiahs voice grew quiet as he attempted to explain something that he felt more than knew,"Maybe once it was just one man walking across Europe, jingling his ankle bells, a lute on his shoulder making a hunchbacked shadow, before Columbus. Maybe a man walked around in a monkey skin a million years ago, stuffing himself with other peoples unhappiness, chewed their pain all day like spearmint gum, for the sweet savor, and trotted faster, revivified by personal disaster.
The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles and thrive the centuries. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale .
You need fuel, gas, something to run a carnival on, dont you? All the meannesses we harbor, they borrow in redoubled spades. Theyre a billion times itchier for pain, sorrow, and sickness than the average man. We salt our lives with other peoples sins. Our flesh to us tastes sweet. But the carnival doesnt care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. Thats the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from real or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites, and chugs along its way.
How do I know this? I dont! I feel it. I taste it. I hear what you tell me, and half what you dont tell me. My skeleton knows. It tells me. I tell you." 1
Silence reigned briefly when Josiah finished speaking before the others began to discuss his ideas. As the discussion got increasingly more animated, JD began to feel like he was watching some bizarre sporting event as he swiveled his head trying to keep up with who was talking at any given time. He didnt have much to contribute to the discussion yet, opting to absorb as much information as possible before getting on the computer later on to see what he could find. He felt sure that now that he had some idea of what to look for, he would be able to help, but he didnt have enough information yet. Turning his head once more to look at Nathan, his gaze passed over Ezra and he stopped taking a second look at his friend. He was huddled as far back into the couch as he could get without drawing attention to himself, his eyes were downcast, and he hadnt said a word during the entire discussion. As he watched, Ezra abruptly stood bringing a momentary halt to the conversation.
"Ill be back in a moment. I have to utilize the facilities."
JD, now that he was watching for it and listening for it, caught the forced attempt at normalcy and followed the small figure with his eyes as Ezra left the room. Once out of site of the others, he saw the shoulder slump. Waving off the questions of the others, JD stood up and said
"Im gonna get a coke."
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(1)Quotes are taken from Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury