Leaving the room quickly before he could be inundated with requests, he walked into the kitchen and opening the back door watched in consternation when he saw a small dejected figure climb out a window and head toward the far side of the house.
Moving quietly, JD followed Ezra around the side of the house and cringed when he saw the small boy scale the brickwork. Hell, where did Ez learn to free climb, and why was he retreating to the roof now. They all knew that Ezra went up when he needed to think, something that did nothing for Chriss peace of mind he had once found his undercover agent perched on the top of the federal building with his feet hanging over the edge.
Sighing deeply, JD maneuvered a small ladder over and followed his friend up to the heights that he found so comforting, wondering all the while why Ezra found refuge in high places. Reaching the rooftop, JD froze momentarily at the sight that met his eyes.
Ezra was perched on the very top of the roof with his knees drawn up. He had his arms wrapped tightly around his legs and his chin rested on his knees as stared unblinkingly out toward the horizon. This picture of desolation was completed by the fact that for almost the first time since he had known Ezra, JD saw him without his poker face and the pain that showed on his face made JD gasp. At the sound, Ezras eyes shifted momentarily toward him at least enough that JD knew his friend was aware of his presence. Settling himself gingerly on the roof, next to but not touching Ezra, JD was momentarily at a loss as far as what to say and do to help. The silence finally became too much for JD to handle,
"Ez, what are you doing up here?"
"Are you OK?"
OK, JD thought. Two one word answers in a row one of them being "fine". Ezra was obviously not fine.
"Hey, Ez. Could you look at me for a minute?" JD knew that Ezra never really lied to him, and he was sure he could find out what was bothering his friend if he could just manage to get more than two words out of him.
Ezra reluctantly rolled his head to the side to gaze at JD trying unsuccessfully to bring his poker face back into play.
"Whats the matter, Ez? What happened?" the plaintive note in JDs voice and the obvious concern that showed on his face had Ezra glancing away quickly unable to continue to meet his friends eyes, afraid of what he might see there when he admitted his fears.
"He said, I was the most promising subject he had seen in years. He wanted me to join him."
JD was momentarily at a loss, "Who said that? Who wanted you to join him?"
Crap, so that was what the problem was. Damn, JD knew Ezra had self-esteem problems, but this, his mind raced through the possibilities before he realized Ezra was still speaking softly.
"Am I one of them? The Autumn People? Is that what I am? Lord, its what mother tried to make me. Look out for number one. Take what ever you can get and damn the consequence to other people. Never let anyone get close. Never show your emotions Hell, dont have emotions. Mothers laws of survival."
JDs eyes widened at the self-loathing tone of voice and at the words. God how could anyone do that to their child. JD reached out a hand and gently forced Ezra to look at him seeing eyes full of pain in an otherwise completely expressionless face. JD couldnt stand it anymore and he stopped the words by gently rotating the hand holding Ezra chin to cover his mouth. Greatly daring, he decided in for a penny in for a pound, and he brought his free hand up to pull the small figure toward him. Maneuvering awkwardly given the height and slant of the roof, he eventually ended up with a very surprised Ezra sitting in his lap and held tightly in his arms.
Shock had taken Ezra over when JD had started moving and he was afraid to resist too forcefully because of their tenuous perch, but he quickly found his voice once more,
"Mister Dunne, what are you doing?"
"Ezra, will you please just shut up for a minute. I have something to say to you and I want you to listen to me."
JD looked down at the child on his lap who was staring up at him with wide surprised eyes. He still could hardly believe this little boy was his friend, and he suddenly felt very protective of the fragile soul that felt so deeply and that was kept so well hidden.
"You are one of the best men I have ever met and I consider you part of my family. Youre one of my big brothers." This comment sparked a slight smile from the child at the absurdity of the situation. "Youre the one I know I can go to that will always tell me the truth even if it will hurt. You treat me like an equal, not like a kid."
JD rambled on, not completely sure of what he wanted to say only knowing he had to say something and that he needed to tell his friend what he meant to him. He needed to do something to erase the pain and despair he had seen.
"Youre so damn brave sometimes it scares the hell out of me. I know you would die for any one of us without a second thought." JDs voice fell to a whisper, "Sometimes, Im afraid that it's not just because you think of us as family even if you wont admit it, but that it's because you consider yourself to be expendable."
Finally having voiced one of his fears, his voice got louder, "Dammit, Ez, dont you realize what you mean to us. What you mean to me. Youre the one that I admire the most. Youve been through so damn much but you dont let anything beat you. You never give up. Youre one of the most honorable people I know, and I am very proud to be able to call you my friend, to think of you as my brother."
"JD, you dont understand." Ezra started to protest. To say Ezra was shocked at what he was hearing from the young man holding him so tightly was putting it mildly, JD interrupted his attempt
"Ez, think about the kids. Kids trust you almost instinctively. Regardless of the situation, Ive never seen one run from you. They run to you. They know youll protect them. Do you think they would react to you like that if you were one of Josiahs Autumn People? Kids and animals and the rest of the team, we know what youre really like Ez. Why dont you?"
Ezra rested his chin on the forearms that cradled him close to the kids chest and whispered, "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, Ez. No doubts." JD rested his chin on the brown hair and tightening his arms began rocking the figure in his arms back and forth.
They sat in silence for a few minutes while Ezra tried to absorb what JD had said to him.
"JD," Ezra finally found his voice, "Thank you."
JD barely heard the whispered comment and replied just as quietly,
"Anytime, Ez, anytime." As he continued the rocking motion he had started in an effort to sooth his friends troubled spirit. Neither of them was sure how much time had passed when they became aware of Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan bellowing their names. Vins high-pitched call while loud, could hardly be termed a bellow.
A grin in his voice, JD looked at Ezra. "Think we should let them know where we are?"
"I do believe that would be the wisest course of action, Mister Dunne." Ezra twisted in JDs grip to look up into his eyes, "Mister Dunne, I would appreciate it if "
"I wont tell anyone, Ez." JD released Ezra and watched as he nimbly climbed to his feet sure-footed and comfortable on the slanted roof.
Ezra turned toward JD, his eyes shining, clearly showing the gratitude he wasnt sure how to express. Finally coming to a decision, he swallowed hard, reached forward and grabbed JD in a quick hug and whispered another "Thank you" before turning and fleeing toward the edge of the roof.
JD sat there stunned for a moment before an impossibly large grin blossomed on his face. Ezra had hugged him.
By the time JD collected himself and scrambled off the roof to join the others, Ezra had the situation well in control.
"I merely needed sometime to think, Mister Larabee. When Mister Dunne saw my destination, he chose to join me. Remembering the concerns you exhibited on the instance of my last foray onto the top of your domicile."
Chris knew there was a damn site more to it than that, but he also knew he wasnt going to find out anymore right now. He also knew he wasnt going to have any luck convincing his stubborn agent to forgo his "forays" onto the rooftop. Hell, maybe he should just mount a permanent ladder, then at least he wouldnt be worried about the damn fool breaking his neck when he decided he needed to do his thinking close to the stars.
The rest of the weekend passed quickly with plan after plan considered and discarded. Even though they now believed they knew what they were dealing with, until they located the carnival, all their ideas were no more than unproven theories that they had no way to even test much less verify.
Monday dawned far to quickly for Ezra and Vin. Getting Ezra up and moving early enough to get to school on time and convincing Vin he actually had to attend school were both still close to exercises in futility. Chriss level of patience which was never very high to begin with was stretched to the breaking point and one of the other four had taken to staying over at the ranch each night. Their presence proved invaluable as they usually ended up running interference when Chris threatened to yield to the impulse to strangle his two charges. Not surprisingly, things came to a head and the frustrations of everyone involved were revealed when JD received a phone call that Wednesday when it was his turn at the ranch. Chris, Vin and Ezra ignored the phone until they heard JDs voice rise in consternation,
"What? When? Is she going to be OK? Where is she? No, No, Ill be there as soon as I can. No, No, Ill take care of it." The other three watched as JD disconnected the phone and stood for a moment staring at the wall before turning to face them. Taking a deep breath, "That was the hospital. Nettie was in a car accident. With Casey out of town right now, and" JD paused to glance at Vin before continuing, "Vin unavailable, they called me. Shes in critical care, and they think shell be alright, but shes still unconscious and at her age " JDs voice trailed off as he swallowed loudly and fought the tears that threatened. "I told them Id tell Casey and that Id get there as soon as I could." He looked over at Chris,
"Go. Let us know if you need anything or if Casey needs any help working things out."
JD tore out the door at the same moment that Vins voice rose in anger.
"Hey, wait a minute, Cowboy. Im goin to."
"You cant, they wont let you in. Its family only." Chris shook his head he should have expected this.
"Its Nettie, Chris. She is family. I have to go." Vins voice broke and the pleading note was something Chris had never heard from his friend before. Softening his voice, the compassion and concern he felt was evident as he looked down at his friend,
"Im sorry, but Vin Tanner is on their list, not Victor Tyler. Look," Chris took a deep breath, "give it a day or two. Let her get moved into a regular room, and Ill talk to Doctor Murray about getting you into see her. Alright?" He reached toward Vin who pulled abruptly away and fixed him with an icy glare.
"No, its not alright, Cowboy. What if something happens? I have to be there." Vin was practically snarling when he felt a gentle hand close on his shoulder,
"Vin, Chris is right." Ezra gently forced Vin to look at him. "Right now, theres nothing you can do. We have to wait, until the time is right." Ezra was practically willing his friend to understand what he was saying. While, a direct confrontation with Chris was seldom the answer, if they were careful something could be arranged. There was no way he was going to let his friend down. Vin would get to visit Nettie, hospital rules be damned.
Vin, seeing the calculating look in Ezras eyes and listening closely to the words coming from his brother, took a deep breath and attempted to regain control of his emotions. "OK, Ez. Sorry Cowboy, I kind of lost it there for a minute."
Chris was surprised at the sudden capitulation and concerned at the silence that reigned as Ezra and Vin quietly got changed and went to bed without prompting. Shortly after that, Chris received a phone call from JD that informed them that he was being evicted because visiting hours were over, but that Nettie seemed to be doing better and was expected to wake up at anytime. He went in to inform Vin and Ezra of the good news and was not surprised to find them still awake. A deep sigh of relief and a quiet thank you told him all he needed to know and after working another hour or two he checked on the two sleeping children before heading to bed himself. He had hated telling Vin he couldnt go see Nettie, but he didnt really see that he had any choice in the matter. He just hoped his friend would forgive him, especially if anything still happened to the woman who had claimed such a large place in his friends heart.
Waiting for about an hour after Chris had checked on them and hearing no additional movement, Ezra and Vin quietly got out of bed and quickly changed into jeans and sweatshirts. Leading the way outside, Ezra made his way to the stables followed closely by Vin.
"Hey, Ez. Whatve you got in mind? Not like we can ride into town on Chaucer and Peso."
"Indeed not, Mister Tanner, however, I may yet have the answer to our current predicament." Ezra went to Chaucers stall and felt for the panel he wanted before sliding back a small piece of wood and reaching in retrieved several objects from their place of concealment.
"What have ya got, Ez and whyd ya have a hidey hole made in Chaucers stall?"
"Given the number of times that various miscreants have decided to bring the fight to us, so to speak, I decided that it might prove wise to have a means of communication and some funds available regardless of where we might be on the property. The cell phone has an hour prepaid on it, the gun has two extra clips of ammunition, and the wallet has 150 dollars cash." Ezra looked up at his friend with a smile, "I dont believe the gun is truly necessary for our current predicament, but given our current location and the fact that a brief hike is in order before we call a cab, it might be wise not to be completely unarmed. Shall we, Mister Tanner?" Ezra gestured toward the door allowing a smiling Vin to lead the way.
Ezras plan went without a hitch and they arrived at the hospital around 1:30 in the morning. Vin contemplating how to get in to see Nettie, turned to Ezra,
"Hey Ez, any of your escape routes work as entrances, too?"
Nettie Wells wasnt sure what had awakened her, she had been dozing on and off ever since waking earlier when a nurse had made the rounds. She hated hospitals, there was no privacy and because of her age, the doctors made everything out to be far more serious than it really was. Opening her eyes she looked around for the nurse assuming that another check of her condition was what had woken her up when movement caught her attention. She closed her eyes briefly in disbelief before opening them up again. Good Lord, what kind of drugs were they giving her. She watched in fascination as the ventilation grill above her was removed and a small blond head appeared. The boy, she was quite sure it was a boy despite the shoulder length hair turned quickly and lowered himself until he was hanging by his fingertips before he dropped to the floor. A second boy, this one with brown hair performed a similar maneuver although he held on longer waiting until a chair was pushed under his feet so that he could replace the grillwork before climbing nimbly down and joining his friend.
As the two boys cautiously approached her bed, Nettie closed her eyes until she was just barely able to see them and lay quietly waiting to see what they would do. The blond boy had piercing blue eyes and reached hesitantly toward her before stopping and grabbing the bedside railing as his friend rested a hand on his shoulder in support. Seeing the white knuckled grip, she listened in shock to the whispered conversation.
"Ez, ya think shes gonna be alright? Dont know what Id do if somethin happened to Nettie. Specially since I cant even tell her Im here. She wouldnt ever believe it, and I wouldnt know how to explain it anyhow."
"Mister Tanner, I am quite sure that Miss Wells is far too stubborn to ever succumb to anything as mundane as a car accident." Ezra paused briefly before continuing in a voice tight with emotion, "She wont leave you, Vin, not if theres anyway to avoid it."
Nettie seeing the unshed tears shining in both sets of eyes and having long ago learned not everything can be explained rationally or logically decided she couldnt stand to listen to the two forlorn voices any longer. She still wasnt completely sure she wasnt dreaming, but she figured if she was dreaming she would have dreamed of the adult versions of her adopted son and his friend. Slowly, she brought her hand up to cover the small one still clinging to the railing and said,
"Reckon you boys have one heck of a story to tell. It is you isnt it Vin, and you Fancy Man." Nettie smiled at the two boys and shook her head slightly when she realized that the green eyed boy had blushed a bright red at the nickname she had given the undercover agent.
Vin tried to pull his hand away, but Nettie tightened her hold.
"Sorry, Nettie, didnt mean ta wake ya up. Just wanted see you and make sure ya were alright. As for the story, well it aint rightly over yet, and we cant stay long."
"Indeed, madam, our illustrious leader will be most unhappy if he should discover that we have absconded from our beds."
"Damn straight." Nettie almost laughed at the looks on the boys faces as they spun to face the owner of the voice who was standing backlit in the doorway.
"Uh, Mister Larabee, I can explain."
"It was my fault, Cowboy."
Vin and Ezras voice overlapped and Nettie lost the struggle against the laughter that threatened when Chris Larabee turned on the light and stepped toward the two boys who were slowly backing away and aiming wistful glances at the ventilation duct.
"Look, I told you I would you get out here to visit tomorrow, well today. Why didnt you trust me?"
"We might look like children, Chris, but we aint. Ya were treatin us like little kids and "
Vins voice trailed off and he shot a sad glance at Ezra when he continued with the very thing Vin had been thinking.
"and adults seldom if ever keep their promises to children. We were unwilling to take that chance."
"Ah Hell," Chris shook his head as he realized what he had unconsciously done to his friends, and with each new piece of their past he received, he wondered how in the Hell they had survived their childhoods. Kneeling down to look them in the eyes, he said quietly, "Im sorry, guys. Look, well get this figured out. I promise." Chris swallowed hard before continuing, "and I will keep my promise to you both."
At the tentative nods he received, he continued, "Now, are you ready to go, or do you want to visit with Nettie a bit more, thats if youre feeling up to it maam."
"Id be glad of the company, Chris. If you boys want to stay for a while, Id like to hear at least part of that story now, and Ill expect to hear the end of it out at my ranch once it's finished. Ill have peach pie waiting for you, and that includes you Fancy Man."
They visited for about an hour as they told Nettie all, well almost all, of what had happened to them before heading back to the ranch where all three of them called in sick that day and spent the morning catching up on their sleep and renewing their friendship.
That evening, JD arrived at the hospital with Casey, who had flown home as soon as she found out about her aunt, and the two young people stopped dead in their tracks when they entered the room. JD shook his head and closed his eyes before opening them again to stare in amazement. Nettie was quite obviously feeling a great deal better and she had company.
"JD, who are they?" Casey asked in a whisper staring in fascination at the two children who were sitting on either side of Nettie on the bed with what looked like reams of paper spread out in front of them. One of the boys looked up at their arrival, and Casey was caught by a pair of green eyes that were sparkling with mischief in an otherwise impassive face.
"Good evening, Mister Dunne. Miss Wells, it is good to see you again, although I regret the misfortune that has led to the interruption of your well deserved vacation." He said as he nodded to each in turn before looking back down at the information he had been perusing.
The other boy looked up with a shy smile and nodded once to each of them, Nettie looked up and smiled at her niece.
"Casey, come on over here. It's good to see you child, but Im sorry you had to cut your trip short."
Casey and JD approached the bed as the two boys started to climb down only to be stopped by Netties sharp question, "And just where do you think youre going?"
"We were just going to allow you and Miss Wells to have some uninterrupted time to catch up with each other in privacy."
"Oh, really, and what were you planning to do while Casey and I were catching up with each other? Youre going to make yourselves sick if you keep eating like that." Chuckling when both boys blushed at the reminder of what had occurred earlier. Early that morning, before they left, Nettie had asked if they would mind letting her have a look at the information they had gathered on the carnival and they had gladly taken her up on her offer of assistance and had stopped in to see her that afternoon. Chris had reluctantly agreed to leave the three of them alone while he ran into the office for a little while, and Doctor Murray had run interference for them with the hospital regulations concerning unaccompanied children. However, shortly after Chris left, the previous night, along with the pain medication she was still on, caught up to Nettie, and she fell asleep only to awaken an hour or two later to the voice of Doctor Murray.
Ezra and Vin had gotten both hungry and restless and had gone in search of something to eat and something to do and had ended up being spoiled to within an inch of their lives by the nurses, doctors and apparently just about anyone else they came into contact with. The big eyes and shy smiles had captivated the hospital workers, and Doctor Murray had entered the break room for a soda only to discover the remains of apparently every dessert or candy bar available in the hospital cafeteria or snack machines and an impromptu game of hide and seek. Calling a halt to the game she had escorted the two decidedly green looking boys back to Netties room scolding them, the nurses and anyone else in earshot with equal vigor concerning the quantity of sweets the two had demolished.
Promising to refrain from indulging any further in the chocolate extravaganza theyd participated in earlier and with JD in tow, Ezra and Vin headed to the childrens ward where Ezra put on a magic show with his ever present deck of cards before returning to Netties room. Finding the rest of the team there and Nettie and Josiah conducting an earnest conversation.
Casey, having apparently been informed of their identity, stared in spell bound fascination at Ezra and Vin and when JD put his arm around her shoulder turned to him, "Theyre so cute." Her words rang out during a momentary lull in the conversation causing Vin and Ezra to blush brightly and glare at the others as they tried to stifle the laughter that threatened.
The team was eventually kicked out since visiting hours had long since passed, and they promised to return the next day. Josiah and Nettie had spent a great deal of time talking and felt they had some ideas of how to deal with Knight, but nothing they felt comfortable sharing with the others until they had a little more information and a little more time to discuss it. Something they were not granted the luxury of when JD announced the next morning that he had found the carnival outside a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Under one of his many user names, he had posted inquiries on a number of mailing lists about a carnival he had been to and had wondered if anyone else had had a chance to go to it. Assuming that the name of the carnival had been changed, he had settled for describing it and the proprietor including some information about the somewhat unique specialty acts the term freak show having long since been rendered politically incorrect. He had gotten a number of replies but it wasnt until that morning that he got one that talked about where the carnival was instead of where it had been. A few calls later and confirmation of the presence of the carnival was done and flight reservations were made and that evening Team 7 was on its way -- unwilling to loose this chance now that they had a location.
Arriving at the location of the carnival, their eyes wandered down the midway, looking at the rides and the lights and the laughing children. It was hard to believe that something that appeared on the surface to be so joyous and carefree could hide the horror they now knew existed at its heart. They were trying to decide how to get close to Knight in order to find out what had been done to Ezra and Vin and how to reverse it and decided that an initial recon of the site was required.
Buck and JD went in together as brothers whose interests were in prizes of a different sort than those offered on the midway. Anyone listening or watching the two of them would have been amused or appalled depending upon their personality as Buck gave JD one of his more lurid lessons on how to find a companion for the night.
Josiah and Nathan went in together and applied for jobs as roustabouts (Carnival equivalent of roadies). Dressed in heavy work clothes, they hadnt shaved in several days and with their size and general attitudes quickly received offers of employment to start in a couple of days when the carnival got ready to tear down and move on.
With the Judges permission and assistance, they had arranged to borrow the equipment they needed resulting in Chris staying in the van with Vin and Ezra monitoring the surveillance devices the other four wore. As much as he hated it, Chris had decided it was too much of a risk for him to enter the carnival just yet. He was a firm believer in not providing your enemy with a weapon he can turn against you and knew that if their supposition as to what fueled the carnival was correct that he was probably radiating enough anger to power the damn thing for the next ten years. Knight had threatened his family, and having lost one family already, Chris was not about to loose another.
The team met that evening shortly after the carnival closed, and someone watching would have undoubtedly wondered what was going on as the five disparate men and two boys gathered in a single hotel room argued loudly about what their next step should be.
"Mister Larabee, I believe that a direct confrontation by the entire team will only serve to reveal our hand before we are ready."
Chriss plans now that he had seen Knight and had someone to focus his anger on were, in Ezras opinion, showing all the subtlety of Buck at a Womans Convention not that he chose to share that particular observation.
"Just what do you have in mind, Pard?" Bucks voice broke into what promised to deteriorate into a heated argument.
"I think that I," Ezra broke off at the look Vin aimed at him, glaring when Vin punched him on the shoulder with somewhat more force than necessary, "alright, we, Mister Tanner and I, should confront Knight on our own. After all, what could he possibly have to fear from a couple of children? We would of course have to change our appearance somewhat. Well claim to have been surviving on the streets since we escaped from him."