Just For Fun
by Helen Adams
|Chapter 1 - 10|
|Chapter 11 - 20|
|Chapter 21 - 30|
|Chapter 31 - 40|
|Chapter 41 - 50|
Ezra's prediction proved to be an accurate one. Happy to be together again, the seven friends laughed and talked and encouraged one another to tell stories of their vacation exploits. JD was full of anecdotes about Casey's friends from her high-school day and stories of the reunion.
"It was pretty big for only being a five year reunion. My high school barely bothered but these people had a two day event! It was just a plain old mixer the first night," he said, describing the festivities. "A buffet line, open bar, a little arch where you could get your picture taken like a prom photo. Casey had fun but I thought the second day was better. They had a picnic out at this old amusement park and there were plenty of games and booths to keep everybody occupied."
"And did Casey allow you to take advantage of these distractions? It's difficult to picture her leaving you to your own devices all day," Ezra said, nodding his thanks to Buck as the man handed him a beer. Chris and Josiah had volunteered to man the barbecue, while Vin and Nathan prepared the rest of the food in the kitchen. Buck had appointed himself bartender, leaving Ezra with nothing to do but lounge and listen, which suited him just fine. JD was everywhere, flitting from group to group and talking a mile a minute.
At Ezra's comment, JD suddenly uttered a wordless exclamation and launched out of his chair, scurrying toward the kitchen and disappearing through the bunkhouse door, leaving Buck and Ezra to exchange a puzzled look.
"Was it something I said?" Ezra asked.
Buck shrugged. "Beats me. Maybe he was supposed to call Casey and tell her he'd arrived safe or something."
Just then, JD came back in holding a cardboard picture frame in his hand which he presented to Ezra. "Thanks for reminding me! Casey wanted me to give you that."
Ezra grinned in delight as he beheld the photograph, obviously taken at one of the popular Old Time Photo shops. The sepia image showed Casey Wells, resplendent in a frilly saloon girl dress with a fluffy boa around her shoulders, a feather in her hair, a gun in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other. She had raised one leg onto a chair to show off the garter around her thigh, into which someone had slipped an ace of spades. The grin on her face was a sharp contrast to JD, who stood beside her in the photo glaring intensely at the camera beneath the brim of a flat crowned riverboat hat. He held a derringer and a splayed deck of cards crisscrossed over his chest and was dressed in a shiny vest, a cravat, and a somewhat ratty and ill-fitting swallowtail jacket. A couple of cards - the king and queen of hearts - poked out of his sleeve.
"This is charming," Ezra said sincerely. "Was this your way of saying that you'd rather be in Vegas with the rest of us?"
JD laughed. "I hadn't even thought of that. No, we did a couple of other different costumes too but Casey wanted to do this one for you. It was her way of welcoming you back home. She missed ya."
"She did?" he said, surprised but warmly pleased. "I had no idea she would even notice my absence."
"Well, that's stupid," JD said bluntly. "You know she thinks of all you guys like big brothers. You give her lessons in piano and French, and you were the only one who knew enough about clothes to help her with her homework when she chose a fashion-design major after deciding to give college another try last fall. You're her friend. Why would you think she wouldn't miss you just as much as the rest of us did?"
Buck punched him lightly in the shoulder. "Kid's right, Ez. Casey, Rain, Nettie, Inez, Mary . . . all of 'em started asking when they didn't see you with us for a couple of weeks. They know we can't give any details about cases we're working on, but that didn't stop any of them from checking up on you and pestering us to let 'em know that you were okay."
Ezra could feel warmth infusing his cheeks as they scolded him, suddenly deeply ashamed of himself for having transferred his own insecurities onto his friends. Of course, they had missed him. Hadn't he missed them just as much? Wouldn't he have fretted over any one of them if they had been out of contact and in potential danger for a long period of time? Would he not have gone out of his way to show that he was glad to have them safely returned to their rightful places?
Unable to meet their eyes, he nodded. "You are correct, JD, please forgive me. Tell Miss Wells that I love her gift and appreciate her thoughtfulness very much."
Happy with the apology, JD said, "Don't worry about it. I know you always get a little bent when you've been under for too long."
"Bent?" he repeated, frowning at the term.
JD plopped down onto the sofa next to him, slumping down and lacing his fingers across his stomach as if settling in for a long stay. "Fussy, out of sorts, paranoid, you know," he explained. "You start thinking too much about all the times you've been left alone or stabbed in the back by people you cared about. The next thing you know, you start imaging that we're the same way and you start telling yourself that we can get along just fine without you or that we never really needed you in the first place and then, Wham! Depression City."
Gaping at this casual assessment, Ezra looked at Buck who was grinning widely. The expression was matched by Josiah, who had stepped inside to listen. "Boy makes sense, doesn't he?" Buck said.
"Where did you get all that from?" Ezra spluttered finally, looking into JD's calm face. "You sound as though you'd swallowed a psychology textbook."
JD laughed. "Nah, I just pay more attention than people think."
"Apparently you do." A bit freaked out by how neatly his young friend had managed to sum up his private concerns, Ezra shook his head. "And what would you suggest I do to remedy this condition, Dr. Freud?"
Gesturing around the room with both hands, JD said, "Maybe you're already doing it. I know that hanging out with you guys always makes me feel better when I'm down about something."
"Me, too," Buck agreed. "And you know if you need to get anything off your chest, we're here. Not like none of us have ever bent your ear when we had a problem, right?"
Ezra smiled at them, and at Josiah who stood with his arms crossed and an understanding expression upon his face, silent but supportive. He could feel the weight on his shoulders lifting a little more, just knowing that they were sincere in their offer. "Thank you, my friends. That means more to me than you could possibly know."
Buck seemed to sense that Ezra felt a bit overwhelmed by the show of support and needed some time to assimilate it. Giving him a friendly pat on the same shoulder he had punched a moment earlier, he said, "Glad we could help. Now, if my nose is telling me the truth then those steaks are just about ready! What do you say we belly up to that picnic table outside and get us a good spot before Vin eats all the food?"
Grateful for the reprieve, Ezra rose from his sofa and followed the other men outside.
The barbecue feast was delicious, set to rival the finest meal Ezra had ever eaten in any restaurant. His steak was mouth-wateringly tender, flavored with just a hint of teriyaki, onion and fresh-ground pepper. Nathan and Vin had prepared garlic mashed potatoes, fresh baked biscuits, corn on the cob and a huge tossed salad to go with the meat and for a long time the only sounds heard on the wide wooden deck were clinks, scrapes, slurps and requests to pass the salt, butter or salad dressing.
"An excellent repast, gentlemen," Ezra said finally, releasing his breath in a deep sigh of repletion as he wiped his lips for a final time and scooted back from the table. "You all outdid yourselves."
"Not hard when you've got good stuff to work with," Vin said, nodding a subtle compliment back to Ezra for his shopping choices. "Gotta agree, though, you two did a right good job with these steaks. Not a burnt or half-cooked one in the bunch."
Chris tossed back the last mouthful of his beer and released a satisfied belch. "Not bad if I say so myself."
The moment the dirty dishes were cleared away and everyone had resumed his seat around the table JD asked, "What's for dessert?" The question earned himself a couple of napkin torpedoes as his overstuffed colleagues groaned at the question. He grinned at them. "Just askin'."
Vin laughed. "We got us the makings for s'mores. That's why I asked Josiah to keep the barbecue hot. So we can roast the marshmallows a little later."
"S'mores? Cool! I haven't had those since I was little," JD said, licking his lips in anticipation.
"You can thank Ezra for 'em, they were his idea."
The other men stared at the southerner. "Really?" Nathan asked. "You?"
"What's wrong with that?" Ezra said defensively. "I like s'mores."
"Me, too," said Chris, earning himself a couple of surprised looks in turn. "I don't think I've eaten any since Adam's first cub-scout campout, but there's nothing like 'em."
Buck looked a bit dreamy as he said, "Chocolate and marshmallows all melted together in a little sandwich. Sweet and soft and hot with that satisfying little bit of a graham cracker on the outside to keep the whole thing together. Man, I love those little beauties."
Nathan chuckled. "Damn, Buck. I don't think I've ever heard you talk that way about anything other than sex."
"Well, as a matter of fact, there was this one time -" he began.
Holding up a hand, Ezra cut him off. "Oh, please, don't go there, Buck, I am beggin' you. I don't know if I'd be able to stomach eating s'mores ever again if I were forced to associate them with your sexual exploits."
"He's right," Chris agreed. "Some stories are better left untold."
A sly smile drifted over Buck's face. "Well, Ezra here would know all about that. Do you know he spent one afternoon while we were in Vegas holed up in his room with a pretty little thing he met down by the swimming pool? Wouldn't tell us a thing about it afterward except that he'd got her phone number."
Ezra offered a bland look in return, taking a long swig from his beer bottle as he otherwise ignored the statement.
"That true, Ezra?" JD asked him. "You got a new girlfriend? What's she like?"
Amused by the differences between the way Buck viewed the encounter and the way JD did, Ezra smiled and replied, "I'm afraid if I was to see her again it would have to be something of a long distance relationship as the lady lives in Michigan, but we did hit it off well and I liked her very much. Who can say what the future may hold."
Totally missing the flippancy of the comment, the younger man said, "That's nice, I hope it works out for you. Everybody should have someone to come home to."
Ezra was surprised by the sudden surge of loneliness that JD's statement gave him. How long had it been since he'd had anyone to come home to? He could not even remember. Relationships had always been complicated, knowing how often he would be away from home for the sake of his job. Any steady lover would be forced to wait alone for days, weeks or even months at a time. He had become so convinced of the unfairness of the arrangement that the closest he had come to a relationship in five years was the occasional dinner date that continued all the way to breakfast. Maybe that was the best he could ever hope for. . .
He started at the touch of a hand on his arm, looking up to see Nathan standing next to him with a concerned look on his face. Everyone else was also staring and Ezra felt a wash of embarrassment as he realized that he had zoned out on them. "I'm fine," he said. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Nathan told him, his voice gentle as though soothing a frightened animal. "But did you know you dropped out of the conversation for a couple of minutes there?"
A couple of minutes? Ezra winced. "Forgive me, I don't know what happened. I started thinking about something and . . ." he vaguely waved one hand, not having any real explanation to offer. "I find myself doing that now and again, just recently."
"You've done it on the job?" Chris asked, an alarmed frown creasing the skin between his brows. Lack of attention during a bust could get an agent killed.
Not wanting to admit it but knowing exactly why Chris had asked, Ezra gave a reluctant nod. "Once that I know of, possibly twice. I thought I was simply tired."
He sighed, resting his elbows upon the table and rubbing his forehead with one hand. Josiah's steady gaze caught his across the table and he was given a nod of encouragement. Glancing down the table, he received a similar signal from Vin. Apparently the others believed that it was time to share his private concerns. Well, perhaps they were correct.
"I've begun to have real fears that I might be experiencing the early symptoms of burn out."
"Tell me," Chris said, immediately serious as he switched from concerned friend to attentive supervisor.
Deciding that he might as well go for broke, Ezra began, "I went into this latest assignment with the belief that our suspects would be the usual low-life scum whose nefarious activities could be proven and dealt with quickly and efficiently. I felt that I would be among them for a matter of weeks at the most."
"I thought so too, at first," Chris acknowledged with a grimace. "But then every piece of evidence you uncovered led to another level of corruption, and another high-profile figure whose connection needed to be proven. And the deeper into things you got, the more difficult it became to maintain safe contact without giving away your identity."
"I knew that," he said, "and I certainly understood the rare and sporadic contacts. I suppose I just wasn't mentally prepared for the necessity of becoming so intimately involved with our alleged gun-runners."
JD shook his head. "Must be hard to be around people you can't stand day and night for months. I don't know how you do it."
"Actually, JD, it would have been easier if I couldn't stand them. The problem here was that I found myself actually liking many of them," he admitted, sadness filling his eyes. "Oh, there were some for whom I could happily have tied the nooses around their necks myself, but so many others were just dupes, poor laborers hired to do a job without really understanding what they were involved in. I did all that I could to convince them that they should move on to a more worthwhile livelihood than munitions smuggling and selling guns on the streets, but what's one voice against a thousand? One vague possibility of a brighter future cast up against the lure of immediate cold hard cash?"
Vin offered, "And there was only so much you could say without sayin' too much."
He nodded, lowered eyes studying the grain of the wooden picnic table as if it might hold all the secrets of the universe. "I don't know why this case should have affected me any more than others I've dealt with, but every day just felt endless to me. As the weeks stretched into months and sources of new evidence waned, and the opportunities I had to contact any of you became rarer and briefer, I started feeling such a horrible sense of futility. I think that may be when the zone-outs started. When I began to despair of ever closing the operation down once and for all."
"But you stuck it out, and you did succeed," Chris reminded him, a stern note in his voice that seemed to dare Ezra to contradict him. "You got us everything we needed to bust the whole operation. Got a lot of guns off the street and potentially saved a lot of lives."
"I know," he said softly. "I remind myself of that fact on a regular basis. I tell myself that we saved unknown numbers of lives every time my dreams force me to relive the day of the bust. Every time I again see a half dozen members of that cartel gunned down in a firefight with our own forces. Every time I see those men killed because of a deal that I set up!"
His voice almost pleading, Buck said, "You were only doing your job."
"Yes, I did my job and we rounded up the perpetrators, and six men died. Six men whom I'd come to know. Six men who had foolishly trusted me to look out for their interests. Six dead men who, except for a whim of fate, could have been you!"
He stood abruptly and walked away, feeling the stunned after-silence of his statement beating down on him. The rail enclosed deck offered only a limited amount of space to move in and Ezra quickly found himself out of room. Leaning his elbows on the rail, he slumped forward, staring blindly out over the shimmering twilight surface of Lake Tahoe.
Why had he said that? What must they think of him now, after hearing him compare his best friends and the best law-enforcement team in the ATF to a group of criminals? What the hell was wrong with him?
"I'm sorry, Ezra."
The words hit him like a dash of ice water, shocking and unexpected. Ezra stood up straight, staring into the serious eyes of Chris Larabee. "Sorry?"
"I sent you into that assignment poorly prepared. It came up suddenly and the opportunity to get a man inside and shut down the operation seemed too good for the bureau to pass it up. When Travis told me what he wanted, I should have said that we needed more time, that you needed more time to get to know the ins and outs of the deal." He grimaced, crossing his arms over his chest tightly, as if trying to prevent himself from lashing out. "You're so good at slipping in and out of other identities that I just assumed you could do it cold. I let my own pride over our team's history cloud my judgment. By the time I realized how involved the assignment was going to be, I couldn't pull you out without risking everything."
"I know. I should have handled it better. It wasn't your fault."
Heat flared in Chris's hazel eyes as he suddenly slammed one fist down upon the railing, making Ezra jump. "Yes, it was. It was the bureau's fault, it was Travis's fault, and as your supervisor, it was damned well my fault!" His temper seemed to cool with the admission. "If I'd had any idea that you were losing your way like this, I'd have pulled you out weeks ago and damn the assignment. You must have felt like you'd been tossed out in the middle of that lake over there without a life jacket. All you could do was tread water and hope you didn't drown."
Glancing out at the water, he bit his lip and then offered a weak smile. "Not a bad analogy. Of course, I knew that y'all were somewhere on the shore and would dive in and pull me to safety." The smile faltered. "Eventually."
"You did what you had to do, Ezra. You did all you could with a bad situation and . . . eventually . . . it did all work out for the best."
"But what about next time?" he whispered. "When that bust ended, I went back to the office and I wrote up my report and turned it in to Travis. Since I hadn't been shot or otherwise injured, he said to me, 'Good job, Standish. Excellent work. We're glad to have you back. Take a couple of weeks off, and oh by the way, there are three more cases we'd like you to take a look at before you go.' My signature wasn't even dry on the paper before plans were being made to send me undercover again!"
"I wouldn't have let you go," Chris said. "Not so soon."
Ezra stared at him for a long moment. "I believe you, but that doesn't really fix anything. Do you know how long I've been an undercover specialist?"
"About ten years, isn't it? You started right out of Quantico."
"That's right," he agreed. A glance over Chris's shoulder showed him that the other five men were all turned their way, listening intently. Brushing past Chris, he moved back to them, sitting on the bench with his back to the table, needing to feel the surrounding presence of his friends but not wanting to look at anyone. He waited until Chris rejoined them before continuing, "In the space of ten years, I've probably inhabited a hundred different identities. Some for only a day, some for several months, the longest was nearly a year. Taken cumulatively, that's an immense amount of time to spend living lives that are not one's own."
"I couldn't do it," said Nathan.
JD shook his head. "Me, either."
A small smile flickered over Ezra's lips. "You'd be surprised what you can do if you need to, and I'd be lying if I said that a part of me doesn't love the challenge and the thrill of maintaining another life. The problem lies in letting those lives go when you're through with them. It's often slightly disorienting to return to my customary habits, likes and dislikes . . . sliding back into my customary relationship with all of you. Occasionally, on a longer assignment it's even strange to look into a mirror and see myself without the outward trappings that I've employed in that other personality, but I'm used to it and eventually my world reorients itself."
"But not this time?" Chris pressed.
He sighed. "In all the years and over all of those personas, I've never felt as close to losing Ezra Standish as I did this time. It frankly scared me."
"Is that why you needed to get away from Denver for awhile?" Vin asked him. "Needed to be someplace that Ethan Andrews had never been?"
"Yes. I suppose you could say that I wanted to trace my roots. I was born in the south, spent my formative years travelling everywhere my mother's whims could take me, and eventually went back to the south again, only to have fate direct me westward to Colorado. Trips to Las Vegas were the only constant in all of that, and I haven't been there since I came to live in Denver three years ago, so it seemed a logical destination. The one place that could remind me of who I really am."
JD eyed him sympathetically. "What about all of us? We'd have helped if you'd only said something."
Josiah answered in his place. "He did say something. He asked us to come along." Remembering something Ezra had said to him earlier in the day, he added, "You were adrift and needed to reattach your anchors, but you needed to do it someplace you felt safe."
Ezra shifted, unable to prevent the pinking of his ears as he admitted to Josiah's theory with a silent nod.
"Why didn't you ever tell us any of this before?" Vin wondered. "It was plain as day to all of us that something was eatin' at you, but none of us could figure out what it was exactly. We would've been glad to help if you'd asked."
"But I didn't want to ask!" he blurted, turning around and looking at each of their faces with unconsciously pleading eyes. "Don't you understand? I've been living in a hell that was partially of my own making, doing everything I could to resist the instinct I felt to reach out toward those around me. To temporarily replace the six of you with some poor substitute just so I wouldn't feel alone! How could I admit that kind of weakness to any of you? I could barely admit it to myself!"
He stood again and began to pace back and forth along the deck, silently thanking the encroaching darkness for hiding his features as the words poured out of him. "When the case was finally over, I took a day at home to try to catch up on my sleep and reconnect with my daily life but it wasn't working. I felt restless and out of place, even in my own home, but was unable to decide what to do about it. Then Buck called and invited me to join you all at the Saloon on Friday night. I was excited. I spent the entire day looking forward to it, but when the time finally came, I couldn't find any common ground with you.
"It was as though the life of Ezra Standish had simply been put in suspended animation while the rest of you went on without me. Then at the Saloon, you all slipped into your usual routine and I tried to go along, but after a few minutes, I realized that I couldn't relate to anything you were saying. I wouldn't have thought four months could make such a difference, but it did. You all kept bringing up events I hadn't been a part of, joking and laughing over things that I had no connection to. The subject of my assignment was utterly ignored, because you assumed that since the case was over and done I would have no wish to be reminded of it."
He stopped moving, allowing the memory of that night to wash over him. "That was a logical assumption, and I can't fault any of you for making it, but unfortunately at that moment those events were all that I had to talk about. In the space of an hour I had become a stranger among friends, the same as when I first joined your circle. Only it wasn't the same because this time I knew exactly what I was missing!" He fell silent for a moment, and then admitted softly, "That was one of the loneliest evenings I've ever spent in my entire life."
"Ah, God, Ezra we're sorry," Buck told him, standing and moving to wrap one arm around him in a brotherly hug. "It never occurred to us that you didn't have anything to say, we thought you were just tired and being extra quiet. Is that why you needed us with you in Vegas; to help you make up some new memories with us?"
"Something like that. I felt that if I could have some fun with all of you and get caught up on your lives, then perhaps my own off-center life would slip back into place. I felt that if I could reestablish our friendship, then the rest would take care of itself." He shook his head, grimacing at his own words. "That sounds rather absurd when said out loud, doesn't it?"
Josiah spoke up. "The ATF shrink might think so, but I don't. The seven of us have always been something special together, either as a whole or in parts. You felt that you'd come apart from what is currently the most important and tight-knit relationship in your life. You felt we'd functioned well enough without you that we might not understand what you've just told us; that we might push you away."
He rose and placed both of his hands on Ezra's shoulders, looking him straight in the eye. "We're not pushing you away, and we didn't function as well without you. Be assured, son, that every one of us felt your absence keenly and celebrated the day you returned to the fold."
Feeling the sudden sting of tears, Ezra ducked his head. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have doubted you."
The older man smiled and pulled him forward into a hug. "All men have their doubts and fears, Ezra, and our greatest fears are often the ones that are hardest to confront, even in the silence of our own hearts. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Ezra nodded, drawing comfort from the surety of Josiah's words and the warmth of his embrace. When at last he pulled away, he was surprised to find that everyone else had risen from their seats and come forward, surrounding him on all sides. As he looked around him, all six of them reached out and touched him in some fashion, allowing him to feel their silent support.
"Welcome home, Ezra," Vin said quietly. "It's good to have you back."
"Morning, boys. Something sure smells good," Josiah commented as he emerged from his bedroom, yawning and stretching.
Vin gestured toward the coffee maker on the counter. "Coffee's hot. Me and Chris just finished off a mess of bacon and eggs and orange juice, but there's plenty of fixin's left if you want some."
"Believe I do," he grunted, rummaging in the refrigerator. "Mm, you bought pineapple juice too! Mind if I have some?"
"Nah, and I don't reckon Ezra will either. It's his."
Pouring himself a glass, Josiah got his breakfast cooking on the stove then carried his juice over to the breakfast bar where Chris and Vin were already seated. Chris grunted a greeting.
"Nice day outside," Josiah commented, gaze travelling from the picture windo
to the closed doors of Ezra, Buck, Nathan and JD's chosen rooms. "Any activity from the rest yet?"
Chris smirked. "Not a peep from Nathan but Buck and JD are both up. JD's still going on about renting a boat for a cruise of Lake Tahoe this afternoon, but for now Buck's distracting him with a video game. If you listen close, you can hear 'em through the door."
He cocked his head and smiled when a sudden exclamation sounded, followed by an even louder shushing. "Guess they're trying not to disturb us. How about Ezra?"
Vin chuckled. "I got up a couple of hours ago and ran into him coming out of the bathroom. I said good morning but he just brushed past me and went back into his room. Don't think he was even awake."
A fond smile lit Josiah's face. "Mornings will never be our brother's favorite time of day, that's for certain. After last night I wouldn't be surprised if he feels like sleeping in late."
"Just so he isn't planning to hide in there all day," Chris said, eyes narrowing in thought. "He's probably going to be a little embarrassed about last night. I know I would be, but we can't let him run away from us now that he's started to open up."
Josiah nodded. It was surprising to hear his notoriously close-mouthed boss advocating open communication, but pleasing just the same. "I think it did him good, getting all that off his chest. With any luck he'll realize how far he's come and trust us enough not to retreat."
"It's gotta be tough," Vin said, shaking his head. "I didn't have any idea how much he was hurtin'. Felt right guilty when he was talking about last Friday at the Saloon."
"We all did," Chris agreed. Addressing Josiah, he asked, "Do you think he's right about burning out?"
The older man pondered the question, walking back to the stove to flip his breakfast meat and scramble some eggs as a distraction while he thought. "I think he's right on the edge," he said finally. "Ezra has always been extremely self-sufficient and adaptable, using the quickness of his mind and that armor he's built around his emotions as a buffer between himself and the criminals he deals with. From what he was saying last night, I think those defenses have been weakened; perhaps dangerously so. Maybe he's just overworked. God knows that's a distinct possibility, but I'm worried by what he said about feeling so alone. I've known for awhile now that he uses our friendship as a sort of beacon to help him keep track of his own identity in the midst of his work, and it sounds like he's losing sight of that."
Chris nodded. "That's not something that can have a quick-fix. He needs time to feel comfortable in his own skin again. I've been thinking that when we get back home I'm going to talk with Travis and have Ezra taken off of field-duty for a few months."
Josiah sighed. "That might create problems in itself, Chris. Deep down, he's scared that if we don't need him at work, then pretty soon we won't need him at all. He associates our friendship with his duties as an undercover specialist, because that's why you hired him and that's how he met all of us."
"I'm not saying I want to fire him!" Chris countered with a hint of exasperation. "I'm not even talking about a total leave of absence. I just want to temporarily suspend the undercover stuff. Maybe give him a little extra time off. He can still do research, surveillance, perimeter patrol on busts . . . I just don't want him in the thick of things until he's on solid ground again. I sure as hell don't want him to have another zone-out in that situation!"
"I believe your caution may be warranted."
All three of them jumped, dismayed to see that Ezra's door had opened unnoticed while they all sat there discussing his life. Clad in only his green and black pajama pants, looking tired and rumpled, Ezra padded across the hardwood floor and levered himself into one of the barstool seats across from them.
"Mornin', Ezra," Vin said sheepishly. "Didn't expect to see you up so soon."
"I could tell." He yawned sleepily, rubbing the heel of his left hand over his bleary eyes. "I never expected to say such a thing, but I believe that bed is rather too soft and deep. As I lay trapped in its confines I found myself having a bizarre dream that I was swimming through a sea of marshmallows."
Vin laughed. "Sounds kinda kinky."
He smirked. "I might have to agree with that if the dream had been remotely sexual, but it wasn't. I only remember feeling irritated that I was unable to escape the morass and make my way to shore."
"What happened?" Chris asked with a grin.
"I found myself unable to swim fast enough through the marshmallow sea to avoid a chocolate roller-coaster sled that was bearing down on graham cracker tracks. Fortunately, I awoke before it could strike me, but afterward I had no further desire to continue sleeping."
Josiah chuckled. "Now there's a dream any psychiatrist worth his salt would have fun analyzing. You must've had a few too many s'mores last night."
A small smile dimpled Ezra's cheeks. "Indeed. I should have known better than to stuff myself full of sweets right before going to bed." He yawned again, laying his cheek down upon his forearms, crossed atop the tall breakfast bar. Closing his eyes as though he might just continue his interrupted sleep right there, he muttered, "I don't suppose there's any coffee left."
Josiah moved to the dish cupboard and pulled out a large red mug. "Here you go," he said, setting the freshly filled container next to Ezra's head where the rich scent could coax him back to life.
Nodding his thanks Ezra opened his eyes and sat up straight again, taking a long pull of the coffee. After a moment, he sighed, "Much better. So, tell me. Has my entire life been mapped out yet or only the next several weeks?"
Chris shifted uncomfortably. If Ezra had sounded angry or bitter, he would have had something to argue against, but instead he sounded resigned. "We weren't trying to control your life, although I suppose it probably sounded that way. Just want to give you enough time to get your head on straight again."
Scratching absently at the light dusting of five o'clock shadow on his chin, Ezra grimaced. "And if I can't? What if I really am on the verge of burnout? What then?"
"Then you explore other avenues," Josiah said, meeting Ezra's eyes when the other two men looked uncomfortably away. "You've told us a lot of stories about your colorful past, and we've seen for ourselves how adaptable you are to new situations. Hasn't there been anything you'd like to explore further, with you in control this time?"
Interest sparked in Ezra's eyes, bringing a new shine of life to their formerly dull depths. "I . . . I suppose there must be. I've never really considered it."
Josiah smiled encouragement. "Then maybe you should. You told me you originally chose a career in law enforcement to irritate Maude. Well you've done that and come out on top, even earning her respect for your choice. You chose Undercover as your specialty because it allowed you to make use of a variety of skills. After ten years, you've certainly proven what a perfect choice that was but maybe Ezra at 34 doesn't have the same wants and needs that the 24 year old version did. And you know that if you really can't get along without danger, excitement, and thrills, there are other ways to get those things."
Mouth sagging open a bit in dismay, Ezra asked, "You really do think I should quit?"
Sliding his intended breakfast onto a clean plate, Josiah added a fork and plunked the dish in front of Ezra. He then went to the fridge and poured him a fresh glass of juice, then started over with the cooking of his own meal. "Eat," he ordered.
Too surprised to refuse, Ezra dug in.
Once he was sure that his breakfast was being properly appreciated, Josiah answered the question. "I don't think you should quit unless you feel that's the best option for you, but I wanted you to be aware that there are options and that leaving the ATF wouldn't be the end of the world. You're smart, talented in a number of areas, well-connected if this cabin is any indication, and still young enough to take advantage of other opportunities if you decide you've had enough of the federal agent gig."
Realizing something, Chris pointed at the older man and said in a faintly accusatory tone, "You've been considering retirement again."
Josiah nodded. "I have. Much as I love my job I know full well that I'm not getting any younger. I've started to reach the point where I'm happier in a classroom teaching young rooks to profile than I am out in the field getting shot at."
"I'd hate to see the end of our team," Vin said sadly.
"So would we all," Josiah agreed, "but one day it will happen, whether it's me retiring, or Ezra moving on, JD deciding he wants to take a more front and center role, or Nathan opting for something safer now that he's got a baby on the way."
Ezra's head, which had lowered to capture a bite of egg, whipped up, his arm jerking and sending the bit of food flying. "Rain is pregnant?" he blurted. A hurt look flashed over his face. "And when was anyone going to share this bit of news with me?"
Vin shook his head, blue eyes wide and startled. "Don't look at me, pal. I didn't know either."
A deep flush colored Josiah's face. "Aw, crap," he muttered. "I didn't mean to say that. It's still supposed to be a secret."
Chris's face was a study in contrasts, clearly undecided for a moment whether he wanted to glower at having been kept in the dark or grin at his pleasure over the idea of a little surrogate niece or nephew joining the family. Finally, the grin won out. "Well, I'll be damned."
"Ah!" Ezra exclaimed suddenly, drawing curious looks from the others. His own grin started to show as he told them, "Nathan told me that Rain insisted he come on this trip when she heard I'd invited everyone. He said she was concerned about me, but I wonder if her motive might also have involved giving her husband a last hurrah before the responsibilities of fatherhood came to him."
Vin nodded thoughtfully. "That could be. You know, I wondered why Nathan kept disappearing into private rooms to call home so often over the last few days. Bet he was frettin' over his wife's condition and checkin' up on her."
Scratching distractedly at his disheveled blond locks, Chris heaved a deep sigh. "Well, hell. Looks like life is moving full speed ahead whether any of us are ready for it or not." Looking again at Ezra, he asked, "So, what do you think? Right now, you have the option of being put on light duty for awhile, or given more leave. God knows you've got enough vacation time built up to take advantage of some time off. You can decide if it's time to move on or if you want to keep plugging away for a while longer."
"Is that second choice even a viable option?"
"It is if you feel it's the right thing to do," Chris told him firmly, leaving the decision in Ezra's hands. "You're the only one who can know how you really feel, and I trust you not to bullshit me if you know you're not fit for duty."
For a couple of minutes, Ezra concentrated all of his attention on breakfast, eating the last few scraps of his meal in tiny bites to give himself a little more time to think. He smiled faintly. "Since you've all put such effort into proving to me that I'm still a part of the group, I think I owe those efforts the respect they deserve. I would like to stay awhile. However, I would appreciate a short respite from duty while I find out what other parts of my life still fit, and which don't. Perhaps a combination of your suggested courses of action might be best, Mr. Larabee. I believe I will take an extra week or two of leave and then return to light duty." His gaze finally rose to look at Chris, his expression cautious but hopeful. "Would that be satisfactory?"
Chris grinned, allowing relief to shine in his eyes. "Sure would."
Josiah rejoined them with his second breakfast. For a few seconds conversation lagged as everyone sat enjoying the silence and the rich brew in their coffee cups, then Josiah spoke again. "You, uh, aren't going to tell Nathan that I spilled the beans are you?"
The sound of voices drew Buck and JD from their hiding place, wide smiles lighting both of their faces as they beheld the laughing group at the breakfast bar. "Morning, Josiah, Ezra," Buck said, nodding to Vin and Chris as well as he hopped onto the stool next to Ezra. "Seems like you boys had a good night's sleep, all appearances aside."
"And just what's that supposed to mean?" Josiah asked archly.
"Oh, he didn't mean you. You look fine," JD assured, then his eyes went wide as Ezra glared at him and the other men just looked amused. He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Ezra. I just meant that you still look tired, that's all."
"It's indigestion," Vin explained, relaying the contents of Ezra's dream to the amused newcomers.
Buck chuckled. "Reckon I'd be a bit tired myself if I'd been trying to out-swim a roller-coaster all night. So what do you say, Ezra? You up for a boat-ride this afternoon or have you had enough midnight water sports to last you?"
He flashed the taller man a withering look. "As I highly doubt that the lovely blue waters of Lake Tahoe have been replaced overnight with marshmallow cream, I'm sure I'll be safe," he said dryly. "Nathan might be another matter, however. You know how he gets."
Chris grimaced. "Completely seasick if he steps into anything deeper than a bathtub."
JD groaned. "Aw, man, I forgot! I was really hoping we could take a lake cruise. You guys have been having fun all week and Chris and I need a chance to catch up."
"Well," Buck said slowly, thoughtfully, "Nathan didn't actually say no when you brought it up last night."
Vin mused, "Might be why none of us have seen him yet today, though. Nathan isn't usually such a late riser."
"You think he's hiding out?" Buck asked, laughing. "'Cause if he is, then I can tell you first hand that Ezra and Josiah have a real sure-fire way to get a man up and moving in the morning."
At JD's questioning look, Ezra and Josiah related their revenge ploy from the previous morning, causing everyone to laugh again. Chris, having been on the receiving end of more than one cheerful Wilmington wake-up call, thought the ploy was particularly well-deserved and congratulated his men on their devious methods. Then, just for good measure, he told them, "Just remember that if you ever do anything like that to me you won't have to worry about retirement because I'll fire both your asses."
"But Nathan's still fair game, right?" Buck said hopefully.
His plan was disturbed by the sound of a vehicle on the gravel driveway outside. After a few seconds the front door opened and in walked Nathan Jackson, awake, alert, washed, dressed and combed. "Mornin'," he greeted.
"Damn, Nathan, how long have you been up?" Buck demanded.
Looking a bit confused by the irate tone, he said, "About an hour. Why?"
"How the hell did you get past me?" Vin asked him, astounded. "I been up longer than that and I didn't see nor hear a thing."
Nathan shrugged. "Somebody was taking a shower when I left, must've been you." He held up a small paper sack. "Needed to find a drug-store and buy some Dramamine if we're going boating today."
Ezra saluted with his coffee cup. "Well played, Mr. Jackson. We all assumed you would only approach a boat if dragged kicking and screaming."
He shrugged. "Well, I didn't want to disappoint everyone and besides, I figured if you could swallow your fear enough to get your ass on that skyscraper ride back in Vegas, then I could face a little boat ride."
Ezra's mouth fell open. "What?"
"You didn't think I knew that you were afraid of heights?" he asked, receiving a dumbfounded look in response. "I've known it for awhile now. We all have, I think."
He huffed, "Name one overt display of discomfort that would cause you to make such an assumption."
"Maude's balcony," Buck said instantly.
Ezra frowned, remembering that Josiah had used that example as well. "Well, one incident is hardly-"
"Remember the time Mary Travis had us all over for a picnic and you climbed up on her little shed to fetch Billy's lost Frisbee back for him?" JD cut him. "I thought you were about to faint when you looked over the edge and realized you were more than six feet off the ground."
"It looked rather higher," he defended weakly. Holding up a hand as he looked around and realized that the others were also poised to provide examples, he sighed, "All right, I concede. However, in my defense, I must point out that I am learning to deal with the condition."
Vin agreed, "Sure are. We were all real proud of you for going on that roller-coaster. When Josiah and I wanted to go on, I kinda figured we'd be on our own. Was real surprised when all the rest of you wanted to give it a try; especially you, Ezra."
"'Want to' might be pushing it a bit," he said with a soft snort, "but I had no wish to be the lone naysayer, particularly as I had no idea that any of you were aware of my irrational fear."
"That's how it is with me and the boat." Nathan laughed a tad ruefully. "Though hiding my reaction to sailing hasn't exactly been an option since you all talked me into going rafting on the Colorado River that time."
Vin grimaced. "Not even ten minutes out. We hadn't even hit a rough patch yet and you were blowin' like Mt. Saint Helens. You must've puked up everything but your toenails."
A wince creased Nathan's face. "That's why I made sure I got seasickness pills this time."
Ezra had hidden his face in his hands but he could not hide the chortle that bubbled out of him at Vin's reminder.
"It wasn't funny," Chris objected with a glare.
He shook his head and continued to laugh for several seconds, then lowered his hands to reveal a red face and sparkling eyes. "Oh, but it was. Do you realize that one of the things I was most upset about last Friday night was that you gentlemen kept reminiscing about fun times I had not been a party to? Thank you for reminding me that not all such missed outings are to be lamented. I was along for that particular sailing incident and to this day I feel a bit queasy whenever I see a raft. Lord, Josiah's dry-cleaning bill alone must have nearly matched the cost of the trip!"
Josiah wiped his hand on his sweatpants, as though still able to feel the vomit that had struck him. "Maybe we should think about doing something else today," he said grimly.
"Aw, c'mon," JD wheedled. "He's got meds! It'll be okay."
"Not that I wouldn't be open to other options," Nathan said hastily. "The Dramamine didn't cost so much that I need to use it up just to justify buying it."
Ezra laughed again. "In that case, I have a proposition. Perhaps those who wish to go boating should consider one of the paddle-wheeler cruises that travel from South Shore, practically on our front doorstep, out to Emerald Bay. It's only an hour or so and those who wish to remain on land can drive the lakeshore route to the bay, where we can all meet up and go exploring in Emerald Bay state park."
Buck grinned. "That'd work. I read someplace that there's a recreation of a Norse castle open to visitors there."
"Yes, I believe they call it Vikingsholm," Josiah said with an eager nod. "That's a sight I would very much enjoy seeing."
"As would I," Ezra said, turning back to JD. "Later we can all finish the drive together and perhaps stop for lunch at one of the lakeside eateries."
Vin spoke up. "Should still have a lot of daylight ahead of us at that point. If you boys don't mind a little side-tour we could maybe hop back on the highway and go check out some of the historical towns hereabouts. We're only a few miles out from Genoa, and then if you want to keep going there's Carson City and Virginia City."
"Virginia City? Like on Bonanza?" JD asked, his disappointment that not everyone was keen on a cruise becoming replaced with enthusiasm.
"The very same," Josiah told him. "No Cartwrights, but we can have a drink at the Bucket of Blood saloon."
The young man's eyes had lit up. "Cool!"
Chris grinned at them all, sitting or standing around - except for Nathan and Vin who had already showered and dressed - in various combinations of sweats, t-shirts and pajamas. "Then we'd better get our asses in gear, boys. Sounds like we've got a full day ahead of us."
In the end, JD, Buck, Ezra and Chris opted to cruise to Emerald Bay while Nathan, Josiah and Vin decided to drive the lakeshore route.
Josiah dropped the sailing party off at Ski Run Marina where they boarded the Tahoe Queen paddle-wheeler. Ezra had argued in favor of their boat's sister ship the M.S. Dixie II, liking both the name and the advertised champagne brunch, but had given in gracefully to JD's cajoling that it would be much more fun to go on the Tahoe Queen and experience tour-guide stories of Mark Twain and the famous Tahoe lake-monster.
The voyage had been underway for about ten minutes and the four friends sat on a bench at the starboard side, admiring the surrounding scenery. Ezra breathed in a deep lungful of fresh air, enjoying the contrast of the warm sunshine beating down and the still chilly breeze that swept down off the mountains to ruffle his shirt and hair. The scenery - lush green trees, solid gray rock formations, white snowcaps still covering sections of the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the deep azure of the lake upon which they sailed - filled him with a sense of peace. "How beautiful it is," he murmured. "If I lived in this area, I could see myself becoming as much of a nature enthusiast as Mr. Tanner."
Buck shrugged. "It's real pretty, but no more so than home. Besides, you'd feel differently about this place if you happened to be here in the rainy season when mud-slides and flooding are everywhere, or when it's the middle of winter and snow is dropping down by the bucket-full and the air is cold enough to freeze your nuts off."
He snorted. "Well, thank you for that wet blanket, Mr. Wilmington. You should go to work for the bureau of tourism."
Buck just grinned at him.
"You suppose we'll catch a glimpse of her?" JD asked eagerly a few minutes later. "Tahoe Tessie, I mean."
"One never knows," Ezra replied, amusement shining in his eyes as he watched the young man repeatedly eyeing the glass-bottom viewing section of the boat. Finally, JD could no longer take sitting still and jumped up to involve himself in a vivid discussion of lake-monsters with a group of young children who had also come aboard anticipating a sighting. Laughing softly, Ezra asked, "How old is he again?"
Buck smirked. "Reminds me of that time JD and I had to fly down to Anaheim to give supporting evidence at a trial. He was cool and professional the whole time we were in court, but when we took a day off to go visit Disneyland before flying home, he turned into a little kid."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "And you didn't?"
"Well, somebody had to keep him company on all those rides, didn't they?" he shot back with a chuckle.
Ezra and Chris exchanged a look. "Naturally," Ezra said. "Although I seem to recall that it was you rather than JD who returned with a pair of gold Mickey Mouse ears with your name emblazoned across the front."
"It was the park's 50th anniversary," he defended. "Had to have a souvenir."
Lifting Josiah's borrowed camera, Ezra snapped a picture of Buck. "There. Posterity, to save you some money just in case you see any rubber sea-monsters on sale when we reach the shore."
"Oh, very funny," Buck huffed, walking off to join JD and enjoy himself spreading a few tall tales to the kiddies.
"I thought it was funny," Chris commented when Buck was out of earshot.
Ezra laughed. "We're very lucky, you know. Anyone who maintains a friendship with JD and Buck will never have to worry about boredom." He continued to watch them for a few seconds, his expression reflecting the deep fondness he felt for them.
"You don't ever have to worry about losing it, y'know."
Ezra looked at Chris, surprised. "Losing it?"
Chris nodded toward the two dark haired men. "Their friendship. Our friendship. Trust me when I say that there is nothing you can do short of murder that would make Buck turn his back on you, and even then he'd probably spend all his energy trying to prove you hadn't really done it."
Ducking his head, Ezra hid a grimace. He had hoped this subject would not come up again so soon but realized that he should have known better. Chris Larabee was not a man who readily talked about feelings but he was like a dog with a bone when he'd been made aware of a problem with any of his men.
Chris continued, "Once Buck decides you're a part of his family, you're there for life, like it or not. And I think it's safe to say that JD is the same way."
"You're right," Ezra agreed. "The rest of you are every bit as loyal, even if you don't manifest your caring in the same way."
"And you?" Chris pressed. "Do you honestly think any of us believe that you don't feel the exact same way?"
Nibbling at his lower lip, Ezra pondered the question for a moment. "No."
Bluntly he said, "Then quit worrying so much. The next case that comes up, remind yourself that you may be alone on the front line but we're all backing you however we can." Chris stood and pointed a rigid index finger right in Ezra's face, his hazel-green eyes flaring with indignation. "And when that twisted brain of yours starts reminding you of all the times you been stabbed in the back, and whispering that we don't need you or don't want you, you just tell it to shut the fuck up! You know better, Ezra. If you're missing us, then you can bet your life that we're missing you too and it's a damned fucking insult to all six of us for you to assume that we're not as loyal as you are. You got that?"
For a moment, Ezra simply gaped at him wide-eyed, then he nodded. Chris gave a sharp nod of satisfaction in return and then strode off to join the crowd gathering to hear the lecture on Tahoe Tessie. Ezra stared after him for a long time, a grin slowly breaking across his face. Much to his own surprise, he felt better! For the first time since his return, Ezra felt entirely reassured of his place within the group. Chris's flare of anger had been unexpected but it had pressed his point home in a way that all the understanding gestures and soft platitudes in the world could not have done.
JD looked up at the sound of Ezra's sudden laughter. Smiling brightly, the younger man walked over and tugged his arm, urging him to his feet. "C'mon, Ez. We're going to miss hearing about Tessie!"
Ezra stood, still smiling as he flung an arm around JD's shoulders. "Lead on, my friend, lead on."
"Well, I see that everyone made it safely across," Josiah boomed, grinning widely at the sight of the four men disembarking from the Tahoe Queen. "Nobody got eaten by a sea-monster?"
JD grinned back and bounced over to join the older man. "Nah, we didn't see her but they had some great stories about people who've come across and gotten a good look. Wait until I tell you!"
"I'm on pins and needles," he said with a chuckle.
Cocking his head curiously, Ezra asked, "How did you manage to make such good time, Mr. Sanchez? I thought for certain we'd be waiting on you gentlemen, not the other way around." Glancing about, he said, "Or should I make that singular? What did you do, leave Nathan and Vin along the side of the road somewhere?"
Josiah laughed again and jerked a thumb back toward a climbing trail behind them. "Traffic was good today. As for my passengers, Vin was getting restless so Nathan suggested they get a head-start walking the trail up to the park. We can take the van most of the way around or hike right from here. There's a rock trail that leads up to Vikingsholm that we'll have to climb anyway, but as for the rest it's up to you."
Ezra blinked, surprised when everyone including Chris turned to look at him, deferring to his preference. "I wouldn't object to taking a walk so long as it suits the rest of you."
"Sure!" JD enthused. Buck and Chris simply nodded.
Josiah smiled and went to the car, fishing his battered old Australian bushman's hat out of the back and plunking it down over his salt and pepper curls. "Sunny day for a long walk," he commented.
Realizing that he was correct, Ezra likewise retrieved the hat he had brought along, a slouch front chocolate brown cowboy style. He had a black hat at home, much like the one JD had worn for his Old Time photo, which he favored more, but the brown looked better with the casual jeans and t-shirts and hiking boots he had brought along for this portion of the journey. Even in the wilderness, it never hurt to look one's best.
Buck had a much beaten and worn cowboy hat as well, while JD and Chris wore baseball caps advertising the Boston Red Sox and Indiana Pacers, respectively.
They hiked up the long rocky trail at a casual pace, enjoying the scenery and the chance to stretch their legs a bit. JD walked ahead with Josiah, chattering animatedly about the wonders of Tahoe Tessie, while the other three came along behind.
"Kid should thank his lucky stars that the plane ride from Denver to Tahoe was a short hop," Chris murmured. "He was so excited to join you all that he never shut up the entire time. I was about ready to murder him."
Buck smiled indulgently. "No you weren't. You enjoyed it."
Chris scowled at him but did not deny the accusation. Ezra smirked. He had assumed the same but had not quite possessed the nerve to say it aloud. "While his chatter does rather jar the serenity of our surroundings, I find that I'm enjoying it as well." He shook his head ruefully. "I've missed that sound more than I ever would have thought possible."
"It does grow on a man," Buck agreed. Chris merely grunted.
By the time they reached the top of the steep trail and got their first look at the castle known as Vikingsholm, all five hikers were a bit out of breath but they grinned and waved amiably in response to a like greeting from Vin and Nathan.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Nathan said shaking his head in wonder at the grand stone castle placed so incongruously in the midst of surrounding cedars and evergreen trees. "Hard to believe somebody would go to all that trouble to put it here though."
Josiah admired the structure for a moment. "Been here since the 1920's but it looks like it might have grown here all by itself. I've read that the original owner had it designed to reflect assorted Scandinavian buildings dating from 1000 to 1500. Amazing dedication."
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. Noticing a sign posted at one end of the building he said, "Ah, they're having a guided tour through the castle in approximately ten minutes! Shall we?"
Everyone was willing and promptly paid out the $5 fee at the ticket booth. Their tour guide was a perky young woman of about 25, who chirped all the pertinent facts about the castle from memory as she led them from room to room.
"Mrs. Knight, the owner, would arrive for the summer in mid June and stay until the middle of September," she told them, pointing out a lavish dining room. "She usually had a staff of approximately 15 and a number of guests visiting during the summer months. At times, ten to twelve guests would be staying at Vikingsholm. Meals were sumptuous and occupied a good part of each day. Everyone gathered in the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tea was served every afternoon on the terrace or in the library, and occasionally in the tea house on the island. During the day, guests enjoyed swimming, hiking, horseback riding, or trips around the lake by car or by boat planned by Mrs. Knight. Gracious hospitality was continuously extended to guests. An example of such hospitality was the care of guests' automobiles. They were washed, serviced, and filled with gas shortly after arrival. If a guest drove his car on a trip around the lake anytime during his visit, even it is was only for a distance of 10 to 15 miles - the car was immediately washed and filled with gas upon its return."
"Decadent luxury and complete autonomy," Ezra whispered to Vin as they walked along listening. "A shame my mother isn't a few years older, she'd have wangled an invitation for certain."
Vin looked dubious. "Maybe. She wouldn't have appreciated having to climb up that steep trail to get here, I reckon."
He snorted back, "Little you know, sir. My mother would become a regular mountain goat if she sensed treasure and luxury at the end of said rock-trail."
"Maybe she could get Josiah to give her a piggy-back ride," he whispered back, causing Ezra to nearly choke in the effort to hold back a burst of laughter.
Coughing softly to cover his reaction, he elbowed Vin sharply in the ribs, earning a snort of mirth from his friend. The warning look Josiah shot over his shoulder, a scolding father to the core, only set them off again. They were forced to avoid eye contact with each other in order to complete the tour but the moment it was over and they were safely out in the open again, both men broke down into great whoops of laughter.
"What the hell is the matter with you two?" Chris demanded with bewildered irritation. "I could hear you snickering through half the tour."
Vin waved him away. "Something the lady said just struck us funny, that's all."
Matching his innocent expression, Ezra checked his watch and suggested. "We ought to be going if we're to make it to Genoa before the roads grow too busy. I'd like to reach Carson City before lunchtime."
"Yeah, and we still have to get to Virginia City," JD reminded them, eyes sparkling. "I can't wait to see what the real thing looks like."
For a moment, Larabee continued to eye the younger men with suspicion, then he threw a hand in the air and declared, "Ah, hell. Let's get back down to the car."
Ezra held out his hand. "Keys, Mr. Sanchez? I believe I should like to drive the rest of this morning's route."
Josiah fished the keyring out of his pocket and tossed it to him. "No argument here. This'll give me a chance to guard the snack-box for a few miles!"
"Reckon I'll sit back there with ya," Vin declared with a grin. "Feelin' a mite hungry m'self after all this exercise."
Before anyone else could call it, Ezra turned to Nathan and asked, "Care to ride shotgun, Mr. Jackson? I believe you have yet to take a turn."
Looking surprised but pleased, Nathan agreed. "Sure, that'd be nice."
Shooting a sly grin Josiah's way, Ezra replied, "Excellent. It will give us a chance to catch up. You can tell me all about your new home and . . . anything else of importance in your life."
Buck and JD exchanged a confused look when Josiah hung his head and groaned while Chris and Vin just laughed.
"So, what's in this place anyway?" JD asked as Ezra pulled off the highway and headed toward a sign pointing out Genoa, Nevada.
Vin answered him. "In the main section where folks still live, it's just one of those tourist towns that supports itself with hotels and little stores. It's the oldest permanent settlement in this state, part of Utah until Nevada territory was established in 1861. They got a winery and a hot springs too, but the good part is just outside."
Impressed by Vin's show of historical knowledge, Ezra asked, "And what might that be, Mr. Tanner?"
He grinned. "A ghost town!"
JD beamed. "Cool! How can they have a ghost town, though, if the place is still up and running?"
"The part where people live now was built later on, I guess," he replied. "The other part is the original town site and these days it's counted as a historical preserve so they don't want folks living there who might mess it up. Still open for the public to nose around in, though."
"I'm with JD on this one," Buck said. "Cool!"
Nathan turned around to look back at Vin. "How is it you know so much about this stuff?"
He shrugged. "I did a stint as a tour guide in this area for a couple of summers when I was a kid. Learned a lot of interestin' things, spent my summers outside in the open air and earned a few bucks on the side."
"Can't beat that," Chris said. "You guide for all the little towns around here, or just Genoa?"
"I got 'round to VC and Carson a little, but Genoa was the main stompin' ground. Some of the other stuff isn't so familiar. Never had a chance to see that Viking castle we just left, for instance." He shrugged again. "Plus I was workin' then. It's a different thing to see places with your friends and just play tourist for a few hours."
Ezra met his eyes in the rearview mirror. "Perhaps you'd be good enough to direct our attention to points of interest anyway."
He grinned. "Sure thing."
They parked the car on the outskirts of the ghost town and got out to walk around. As they walked, Vin dutifully pointed out the assorted sites, his voice automatically and unconsciously taking on the patter of a tour-guide at work.
"In 1849, Brigham Young and his people settled into this area and set up a trading post at the base of the Sierras. At the time, it was called Mormon Station but as the colony got bigger and a little more diverse, they needed another name. An Italian settler suggested Genoa and that became the permanent name," Vin said, pointing out a two story house painted with green trim. "This here was the original trading post and stockade, used sometimes as a sort of boarding house for travelers heading on to California."
Buck slapped him on the back. "You're pretty good at this stuff. Might be something to think on if you ever get tired of law enforcement." He was just joking, having not been party to the conversation around the breakfast bar that morning, but the suggestion brought a thoughtful expression to Vin's face and interest to the faces of Josiah, Chris and Ezra. Buck's brow creased. "What? What'd I say?"
"Nothin'," Vin told him. "Just, we were all talking this mornin' about what we might do with ourselves other than work for the ATF when and if it comes to that. Yours isn't a bad suggestion. I enjoyed this job while I did it."
JD looked distraught. "Why would you want to quit the ATF?"
Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder, his deep voice gentle as he replied, "Because some of us aren't as young as you are, son, and the demands of our current employment can sometimes be a bit much. Don't worry, though, nobody's quitting today. We were just speculating."
The young man's frown turned thoughtful. "I never thought about that; about some of you being old." As Buck slapped him upside the back of his head, JD grinned and re-straightened his cap. "Comparatively, I mean. Just make me a promise, okay? If the team ever breaks up, let me know in time to set up something new. After all, I can work computers from anywhere."
The other members of the group looked a bit startled at his easy acceptance and the implication that he would be willing to pull up stakes and start a new career as long as they could all remain together.
"We'll tell you, JD," Chris said seriously. "That's a promise."
He smiled. "Great! So, Vin, what's next?"
Shaking his head with a smile over his friend's refreshingly straightforward view of the world, Vin pointed to a small building in the distance. "That's the jailhouse over there. Go check out one of the cells."
JD eagerly complied, jogging over to look inside while the others followed at a more leisurely pace.
"Are you all really thinking about changing jobs?" Nathan asked softly, a note of worry in his voice.
Josiah told him, "It came up. With Ezra worried about burnout, me starting to feel those twenty odd years of service catching up to me and Chris getting more and more hints from the brass about promotion, we just feel like maybe we should look into our options."
Nathan rubbed a knuckle across his lips for a moment as he pondered. Chris, Ezra and Vin all had a strange, expectant look in their eyes as they studied him, as if they were waiting for something. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and turned back to Josiah, an exasperated look on his face. "You told 'em, didn't you?"
When Josiah merely offered a guilty smile in reply, Nathan turned to look at Ezra. "Is that why you kept quizzing me on the layout of my new house on the way over here, and suggesting ways to safeguard it against accidents?"
Ezra contrived to look innocent. "I was only looking out for your well-being. Was there something else I should have been concerned with?"
After staring at him in suspicion for a moment, Nathan grinned. "Son of a bitch, he did tell you. You all know I'm having a baby?"
Everyone grinned and Chris said, "Pretty sure it's your wife who'll be doing all the work, bud. I wouldn't let her hear you say it like that unless you want a whole lot of trouble. Trust me."
He laughed. "I think you're right."
Buck's face went from confusion, to disbelief, to astonishment, to complete delight in the space of about a second as he leapt forward and grabbed Nathan in a back-slapping hug. "You old dog!" he exclaimed with glee. "You been holding out on us?"
Punching Josiah in the arm in playful retaliation, Nathan smiled widely. "I'm afraid so. Rain wanted to invite all our friends over some time soon so we could tell everybody at once, but I was dying to let somebody know so I told ol' loose-lips here."
Josiah grinned and held up his hands in apology. "It was an accident."
"It was," Ezra confirmed. "He was attempting to convey to me this morning that I was not the only member of our little family who might need a change and the news simply spilled out."
He nodded. "Figured it was something like that." He smiled at Buck. "Least I got to be the one to tell you!"
Buck beamed. "And you can tell the kid too. Looks like he's the only one who hasn't heard the big announcement yet."
Nathan looked even happier. "You're right. Can't let poor JD be the only one left in the dark."
As if summoned, JD poked his head out of the jailhouse. "Hey! What's taking everybody so long? This place is great!"
"Just catchin' up on the news," Vin said, stepping into the doorway of the building.
Nathan proudly announced, "Rain and I are having a baby."
JD's eyes went huge. "Really? When?"
"About seven months from now. We've known for nearly a month, but we wanted to wait until the whole team was back together before spreading the word," he said, casting a significant look at Ezra.
It was Ezra's turn to go wide-eyed. "You waited for me? With such momentous news to impart?"
Nathan nodded. "Had to." His expression was solemn but his brown eyes were full of warmth as he added, "We felt that a child's godfather shouldn't be the last one to hear the news of its birth. That is . . . if you want the job."
Suddenly Ezra was blinking hard as a mist of moisture sprang up to cloud his vision. Reaching forward he pulled Nathan into an embrace, momentarily too choked up to speak. Then he swallowed and said with a slightly wobbly laugh, "I'm not entirely confident of my qualifications, but I would be most honored to fulfill that role." Releasing the father-to-be, he hesitated. "Are you certain that your lovely bride might not prefer another candidate?"
"She was happy that I chose you," Nathan told him sincerely. "You and I didn't get along very well when we first met, Ezra, but over the last few years Rain and I both have come to think of you as a brother. And I can't think of anyone I'd sooner entrust my children to."
Ezra glanced around at the others, clearly searching for signs of disapproval or jealousy, but all he saw in their eyes was satisfaction and congratulation. Catching Nathan's hand in a firm clasp, he told him, "I will do the best that is within my power to do for him, her or them. You have my word."
Nathan smiled again. "I know you will, Ezra. Thanks."
Handshakes, embraces and the promise of free drinks were still being directed at Nathan, when JD hesitantly asked, "Should we go someplace else, y'know, to celebrate?"
Recognizing in his reluctant tone that the young man still wanted to poke around the ghost town but was willing to give up his fun in deference to the big announcement, Nathan clapped him on the shoulder. "No reason we shouldn't see what else is here first. Why don't you tell us what's so special about this jail, Vin?"
JD positively beamed as Vin grinned and gestured him inside one of the cells. "These here cross barred doors are made of wood, so they wouldn't likely keep in a real determined man," he said, adopting the tour-guide mantle once again. He pointed down to a heavy iron ball and chain bolted into the wall. "Let me wrap one of those around your leg, though, and you'd be stayin' a good long while."
"Man, it's tiny in here!" JD said, shoulder bumping into the wall as he tried to explore the area next to the bed and quickly found himself out of room.
"Only enough room to eat, sleep and use a chamber pot," Vin agreed. "Prisoner didn't need much more. Didn't exactly have HBO in those days, kid."
JD laughed as he pushed open the cell door and led the way back outside. "What's that over there?"
Following his pointing finger toward an imposing brick building, Vin told him, "Court House, first one built in the state of Nevada. Real fancy place, too. The big red building across the way there was a grocery store and the little place right next to it is a saloon called the Old Genoa Bar. Only building in this section that's still in daily operation."
Buck grinned. "Maybe we should wander on over there and talk over how the team's going to function once Nathan starts in on diaper duty and two a.m. wake-up calls."
Nathan laughed. "How the team's going to function? I'm more worried about how I'm going to function!"
"What do you say, boys?" Chris invited. "Should we go ponder the matter over a beer?"
"Wonderful idea," Ezra agreed, still reeling a bit from the honor Nathan had done him and feeling that a steadying hit of alcohol would not go amiss.
Vin's blue eyes twinkled as he patted Nathan on the back. "Reckon I could do some ponderin'."
As one, the seven men headed down the quiet dusty street.
The small brick building with white pillar posts and cheerful red, white and blue bunting looked decidedly welcoming to the seven men as they stepped up onto its worn porch.
"Hey, look at this," JD said, pointing out a small gilt-lettered sign that read: Genoa Bar, Nevada's Oldest Thirst Parlor Since 1853. "We're about to be part of a real piece of the old west!"
An attractive middle-aged woman looked up with a smile at their entrance. The small town was sparsely populated today with only a handful of tourists idling about and the entrance of seven potential customers was obviously a welcome sight. "Afternoon, gentlemen. Can I get you something?" she asked amiably.
The men looked interestedly at their surroundings. The bar was a mixture of historic and modern fixtures. The long bar counter and drink supply cabinet behind it were clearly an original part of the place, both worn right down to the raw wood in spots. There was a gas lamp chandelier overhead of equal antiquity, somehow easy to imagine as the shining brass showpiece it must once have been. The wall supporting the dozens of assorted liquor bottles behind the bar was decorated in a combination of photographs, animal heads, a provocative 19th century painting of a smiling woman lying half-naked on a chaise lounge and a dozen colorful souvenir t-shirts bearing the saloon's logo.
Ezra smiled at the patient bartender. Clearly, she was accustomed to the effect her business had upon tourists and was willing to wait them out. "Good day, ma'am. May we please have an order of beers all around? We're toasting our friend's upcoming venture into the realm of fatherhood."
Grinning with embarrassed pride, Nathan waved a hand to identify himself as the father to be and the woman grinned back. "Well, congratulations! Is this to be your first?"
"Sure is," he said proudly.
"Good for you. Parenthood is a wonderful thing," she told him, waving her hand toward a photograph behind her depicting four teenagers. "A lot of work but it's also a blessing. You take my word for it."
He smiled. "I'm lookin' forward to finding out for myself."
The woman nodded then set about coaxing seven cold mugs of beer from the tap, handing them to each man in turn. Ezra had already calculated the tab from the prices posted behind her and was ready with the money when the seventh glass was filled and handed to him. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Name's Anna," she told him, briskly wiping her hands off on the worn apron adorning her slender waist. "I need to go unpack some supplies in the back but you be sure and holler if you need anything else."
Josiah tapped the brim of his bushman's hat and gave her a wide smile. "That we will." As she returned his smile and disappeared into the back room, he commented, "Mighty handsome woman."
Vin and Buck exchanged a grin. "Now, don't you be getting any ideas there, big guy," Vin teased him. "She's probably got herself a husband to go with all those kids."
"No ring on her finger."
Ezra's eyes twinkled over the top of his mug as he took a sip of beer. "Took note of that right away, did you?"
Josiah shrugged, a grin still playing at his lips. "Can't be a good profiler without being observant. Besides, there's no harm in admiring the scenery."
He laughed. "So you tell me every time my dear mother pays us all a visit. Have you finally grown tired of waiting for her to return your affections and decided to broaden your horizons, Mr. Sanchez?"
Gray-blue eyes sparkled back at him. "A vase with one cut flower is not nearly so beautiful to behold as a wild garden filled with many blossoms."
Buck raised his glass. "Amen, brother!"
Shaking his head, Chris snorted softly. "Well, you obviously got enough fertilizer for that garden of yours."
Nathan chuckled. "Better not let these two get started or we'll all be buried in it."
Josiah simply offered a serene smile, casting another glance toward the back room as he sighed, "Shame we don't have more time to spend here."
Picking up Josiah's beer mug, Vin pretended to eye the contents suspiciously. "That little ol' gal slip something in this when we weren't lookin'?"
"You know, Josiah, Buck has a whole gaggle of women on file back home. He can probably find you a date if you want him to," JD offered helpfully, his young face full of earnestness. "There's some pretty nice looking ones in there too. He collects phone numbers the way most people collect spare change."
Buck nodded, his expression smug. "Kid's right, Josiah. You need a prescription for something to put the shine back on the ol' brass, you just call up Dr. Wilmington."
As one, Vin, Ezra and JD interrupted, drawling out in the same snarky tone, "The luuuv doctor."
"You truly need a new line, Buck," Ezra told him.
"No shit," Chris agreed. "He's been using that one since I first met him."
Unbothered, Buck smiled at them. "And it still works like a charm. I've had more dates in the last year than the rest of you've had combined. What does that tell you?"
"That the rest of us are more discerning than yourself. And that apparently there are more desperate single women in the city of Denver than the national population average should allow for," Ezra shot back, grinning as Buck reached out and pulled the hat brim down over his eyes.
Josiah chuckled and drained the last of his beer. "Thanks anyway, Buck, but I'll pass." Rising, he took a long look at the scenery outside. "So, where do we all go from here?"
"Do you mean that literally, or are you being metaphysical again?" Ezra asked with a hint of sarcasm.
He laughed. "Literally. Do you all still want to head over to Carson, just move straight on to Virginia City, or drive back to the lake?"
"I vote for Virginia City," JD said promptly. "That sounded like fun. But first I want to get one of those T-shirts up on the wall to remember this place by."
"Fine by me," Vin agreed, the others also nodding agreement. "And since Josiah still has his camera maybe we can get his new lady friend to take a picture of us all in front of the bar."
Ezra nodded. "A fine suggestion. I fear we've been remiss in taking advantage of the photographic opportunities here."
"No reason we can't catch up a little," Chris said, standing and moving back to the bar. "Anna?" he called out.
She came forward immediately, an inquiring smile on her face. "Ready for a refill?"
Placing his camera on the bar, Josiah said, "No, thank you, but we would like a keepsake photo if you wouldn't mind."
"And I want to buy a t-shirt," JD added.
"Sure, no problem," she agreed. She took care of JD's order first, wrapping up the army-green shirt he had chosen and cashing him out. She then waited while the seven men gathered in front of the bar, Vin and JD hopping up to sit on the structure itself while the others either stood or perched on the available barstools, Anna raised the camera and snapped a photo. Hitting the playback button, she smiled. "Looks good. What do you think?"
Josiah retrieved the camera and turned it around for everyone to see. They all chuckled at the image of themselves looking every inch the tourist group as they sent toothy smiles into the lens. Even the habitually solemn Chris Larabee had been grinning. "I think it's definitely a keeper."
As the van pulled into Virginia City, it became clear to everyone why the population of Genoa had been so sparse. Everyone was here, the sagging board sidewalks groaning beneath the weight of the strolling tourist population. The local shops were clearly doing a booming business and several entertainers and tour-guides dressed in 19th century garb could be seen directing crowds to one point of interest or another.
The van moved down the main street at a crawl as Ezra did his best to avoid running down pedestrians who strode into the middle of the street with little regard for the vehicles already there. All the available parking spots appeared to be taken.
"Not quite what I was expecting," JD said with a hint of disapproval.
"It's a tourist town, kid," Vin said. "Just tell yourself that the place was every bit as crowded and a hell of a lot more dirty and smelly than this back in its heyday, when it was all filled up with miners hoping to hit the next big strike."
JD's expression cleared as he nodded. "Bet it was pretty wild and wooly back then. Lots more than what they showed on 'Bonanza' anyway."
"Well, that was Hollywood old west," Buck reminded him. "Perfect hair, perfect teeth, everybody clean and neat and the ladies all made up like movie-stars. The real thing likely wasn't that pretty."
Chris barked a laugh. "Hell, most of the women on the TV show weren't as pretty as Little Joe Cartwright."
"Naturally not," Ezra agreed breezily. "Perfect hair, light muscular build, green eyes, all mixed together with a winning personality. That is a rather impressive combination. Difficult to compete with, wouldn't you say?"
He laughed as the other men caught on and proceeded to pelt him with whatever small objects were closest to hand.
"Parking space!" Nathan suddenly blurted, saving him from any further retribution. "Blue van pulling out to the right."
"Well spotted, Mr. Jackson," Ezra praised as he smoothly inserted the Suburban into the freshly freed space, much to the consternation of another driver who had also seen it opening up. Shutting off the ignition, he invited, "Let's take a turn around the town, shall we?"
Vin looked around as he climbed out of the van, getting his bearings. He gestured across the street. "That's the Bucket of Blood saloon just down the way there. Don't reckon any of us is thirsty again just yet but maybe later we can stop in and have a look-see."
"Isn't this town supposed to have a lot of little specialty museums?" Chris asked.
"Yep. And a few things in particular should interest you boys," he replied with a grin. "There's a restaurant down the way that has what they call the Red Light Museum in its basement. Bunch of antique medical instruments and old-fashioned sex toys."
JD looked doubtful. "Sex toys? In the Old West?"
Buck cuffed him playfully. "You think sex is a new invention, kid? Reckon people have been inventing things to help that cause along for about as long as there've been people!"
"I guess," he muttered, clearly a little uncomfortable with the idea.
"I'd like to see those medical instruments," Nathan said, surprising no one.
Not sharing his friends' interest in such sights, Ezra asked hopefully, "Is there anything else nearby that we might observe while y'all are taking in the Prostitute museum?"
Vin thought for a moment, then made a wordless exclamation. "They got a gamblin' museum just down "C" street. Figure you'd like that. Antique slot machines, old fashioned cheating devices, gamblers' weapons, stuff like that. Last time I was here they had an antique derringer sleeve rig kind of like that one you bought off EBay last year."
Ezra's green eyes shone at the thought of such a display. "That would do nicely. Anyone care to join me?"
"I'll go," JD said promptly, before Buck could collar him. "Sounds better than rusty old bone-saws and stuff."
"And stuff," Buck repeated, a wicked smile on his face. "Suit yourself, kid. I'm gonna go see the 'and stuff' with Nathan."
"I'm going to go up the street there and see the old Presbyterian Church," Josiah told them. "I read that it's one of the only buildings in Virginia City that didn't burn down in the big fire of 1875. Nearly everything else here was built after that period but the church is one of the few left from the era of the original silver boom."
Surprising him, Chris said, "I'd like to take a look at that myself."
Vin shrugged. "Reckon I'll tag along with Buck and Nathan. See if everything's still the same. What do you say we all meet up at the Firehouse at the end of "C" street?"
Everyone agreed with this and set off on their individual site-seeing missions.
"There wasn't hardly anything left of the Prostitution artifacts," Buck told them in disappointment when they all came back together a while later. "Mostly just opium bottles and a few medical instruments."
"Well, the dummies set up like a back-alley abortion were pretty chilling," Nathan opined. He shook his head. "Can you imagine the kind of quacks they must've had passing themselves off as healers back then?"
Buck looked thoughtful. "That display of eyeball prosthetics was kind of interesting. Suppose they had a lot of one-eyed hookers in this town?"
"Wouldn't be surprised," he said. "All kinds of violence and illness-produced ravages struck down loose women a hundred and fifty years ago. It was a hard life. The child of a prostitute would have had to be tough as nails to even have a chance to grow up. A lot of them never got the chance to start."
"Tough," Buck mused. "Reckon the woman would have to be a real saint to even take the chance on bein' a mama in those conditions."
Turning to Ezra and JD, Nathan asked, "How was the gambling museum?"
"It was great!" JD enthused. "I had no idea there were that many ways to cheat but Ezra knew what every one of those contraptions were for and how to get around 'em."
As five sets of eyes fastened upon him with expressions of mingled amusement and exasperation, Ezra looked back with utter calm. "Only a very poor player or one who has no pride in his skills would ever make use of such devices. A real gambler wouldn't need to. It does pay, however, to know all the angles."
JD laughed. "You should've seen him when we got to the weapons display. I think he may have actually started drooling."
"I did no such thing," Ezra countered with affront. "I was merely admiring the craftsmanship."
Ignoring him, JD continued, "By the time we finished the tour, half the people in there with us were asking Ezra questions about the stuff on display. He knew way more about what we were seeing than the curator did."
Vin grinned at this news. "Sounds like I'm not the only one around here who could take on the job of tour-guide if things ever dry up back at work."
Ezra looked unimpressed by the suggestion. "Not for the pittance I'm sure such employment would offer in recompense for my knowledge." Then he smiled. "Perhaps I'll simply write the definitive work on the subject. It might gain me a chance to examine those beautiful weapons more closely if the curators believed I was doing so in the name of research."
"Might at that," Josiah agreed with a grin. "The church isn't much to speak of in terms of museum pieces but it does have a nice feel to it, a sense of living history."
Chris nodded. "Reminded me a little of the church Sarah and I got married in. That was a 19th century built structure, too." Gesturing ahead, he suggested, "Let's see what else this town has to offer."
Over the next two hours, the men examined mining tools, fire-fighting pumps, printing equipment at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper and the stage of the famous Piper's Opera House. Finally, they stopped into the Old Time photo shop for a group picture at JD's insistence.
"I want to add it to my collection," he begged. "C'mon, it'll be great!"
The other men resigned themselves to a wasted half-hour but soon found that they were having fun as they argued over the relative merits of the various costume choices available.
"I am not wearing that," Ezra said flatly when Buck playfully suggested he don the frilly dress a woman was wearing in one of the sample photos.
"Aw, c'mon, you're a good undercover specialist, I bet you could pull it off," Buck wheedled.
Ezra glared hard. "Not without a great deal of money, a great deal of liquor and a damned better reason than tickling your funny bone, Mr. Wilmington."
He chuckled. "Spoil-sport."
"How about cowboys?" Vin suggested with a sly look at Chris.
"How about you walk back to the cabin tonight?" Chris countered.
Vin laughed. "Maybe we'll keep lookin'."
"Civil War?" Nathan suggested tentatively.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "And which side would you suggest I represent?" he asked, allowing his accent to thicken into a slow molasses drawl.
Nathan grimaced. "All right, maybe not."
Suddenly, JD became excited. "Look, Ezra. They got a gambler's outfit like the one I wore with Casey! Why don't you put that on and the rest of us can be gunslingers and lawmen."
He examined the outfit thoughtfully then looked at the three photo backdrops lining the rear of the shop. "Can I be in the
"Sure," Vin said. "Matter of fact, I think I'll be back there with you. Don't reckon I'd look the part of a lawman in this." He pointed to another outfit, a long duster coat and slouch hat.
"Me either," Chris said, fingering a similar duster made out of black cloth that hung on the rack nearest him.
JD was exasperated. "Everybody can't be inside the jail!"
Nathan laughed. "Maybe you and me are just the orneriest lawmen in the Old West and we captured this gang all by ourselves."
"Yeah!" the young man agreed, liking the idea. "Let's try it."
The shop proprietor had finished with his last customer and helped them all find clothing and accessories to suit them. Soon Ezra, Vin, Chris, Josiah and Buck were packed into the small jail cell, adopting expressions that ranged from woeful resignation to outraged glaring at having been 'caught'. Whiskey bottles and random cards were provided as props for them to dangle through the bars while Nathan and JD stood outside the cell doing their best to look tough as they pointed rifles at the gang of outlaws.
The proprietor grinned at their chosen pose and directed them as he snapped several proofs. All seven men laughed and bantered as they got a look at the finished product, choosing the final photograph and ordering a print for each of them. Four sets of two pictures proved to be less expensive than ordering seven individuals, so they wound up with one extra.
"Perhaps Mrs. Wells would appreciate it," Ezra suggested, picturing the feisty old woman's reaction to this image.
Vin grinned. "I was just thinkin' the same thing." Suddenly his stomach gave a loud growl, startling and amusing his comrades. "Well, sounds like it must be time for lunch. Let's go get that drink and something to eat before we head back."
"Agreed," Ezra said, smiling as he looked again at his copy of the photo. JD's idea had been a good one after all.
Behind the closed door of his chosen bedroom Ezra blew out a long breath, rolling his head back and forth to work out a feeling of stiffness in his neck. It had been a fun day but a tiring one.
Plopping down onto his bed, he pulled off his hiking boots and socks, taking a moment to examine what appeared to be the start of a blister on one heel. Nothing too serious, he decided. No point in even bothering Nathan for a band-aid. A few hours off his feet would be sufficient to soothe the irritated skin.
He smiled. Even if he was wrong, a single blister was a small price to pay for the fun he'd had today. They had all walked the entire length of Virginia City after lunch, and then he, Vin and JD had ended up taking another hike over the land between the cabin and Lake Tahoe upon their return. His feet were sore and his body was weary, but it had been worth it just for the renewed sense of ease he felt among his friends.
Pulling off T-shirt and jeans, Ezra tossed the dirty clothing onto a pile of like items he had readied for his turn at the cabin's washing machine. Someone else was making use of it at present but he was content to wait, stretching out atop the butter-soft mattress and closing his eyes, basking in the pleasure of not having anything to do or anywhere to go. He had claimed a desire to nap before dinner but that wasn't precisely accurate. He wasn't sleepy; simply craving solitude and stillness for a few minutes.
What a week it had been! It seemed like ages since he had been in his own home, attempting so feverishly to work out the frustration, loneliness and anger he'd felt through physical exertion. He sighed deeply, for a moment reliving the embarrassment he'd experienced last night as he had so clumsily attempted to express the accumulated emotional turmoil of four long months in a few simple words.
Ezra opened his eyes and stared at the beams above his head, a bemused smile flickering over his lips. It had been difficult, but allowing those words out had been like lancing an infection; terribly painful at first, but ultimately filling him with a sense of relief and healing.
They had understood. As ridiculous and inadequate as he'd felt fumbling through that awkward explanation, admitting in so many words how terrified he had felt at the thought of losing them, they had understood. They had gone out of their way to reassure him that he was still a part of them, never realizing just how far their collective actions in and beyond Las Vegas had already gone toward proving that.
Ezra rolled over onto his stomach, pulling a pillow beneath his chin and resting upon it as he continued to consider the situation. He should never have doubted them. Deep down in his heart, he supposed that he never really had. He'd only allowed old insecurities to get the better of him for a while.
Chris was right. He definitely needed more time off than the bureau had initially granted him; a chance to decompress fully away from the office, followed by a few weeks working as a part of the team without the stress of maintaining a fictional persona. Travis and the other brass likely wouldn't care for that, but he had faith that Chris would make it happen.
He frowned, worriedly nibbling his lower lip. What would happen if he took that time and then discovered that he could not bear to return to the streets? What if he truly had burned out and the career he'd maintained and, yes, enjoyed over the past ten years was now beyond his abilities to continue? Would everyone truly rally around the decision to quit and find a new livelihood to pursue?
A shiver ran up Ezra's spine. He no longer doubted his teammates but the prospect of starting over was both exciting and daunting. He had done it before, with no friends to support him or make the transition run smoothly, and in a way that had made things easier. There had only been himself to consider then. This time, if he left, he knew that he would not be going alone. That made the responsibility of this decision much greater.
He shivered again. There must be a draft in the room. Not surprising, really. There had been clouds gathering and a breeze blowing off the lake when they had come inside. And unlike his own cozy, well-insulated apartment, the evening temperatures in this mountainous locality were simply not conducive to allowing a man to loaf about in his boxer shorts.
Not that he ever did such a thing at home.
A smile quirked Ezra's mouth as he pictured himself sitting at home in his favorite recliner, a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. The cliché would require that he peruse sporting events all evening, keeping some form of snack-food such as nuts or pretzels near to hand. Perhaps he would push his abdominal muscles forward in simulation of a beer-gut, just to complete the image.
A burst of laughter escaped and he hid his face in the pillow to cover the sound, not wanting to draw anyone's attention. "Oh, Ezra, you must be tired," he muttered to himself. "You're losing your mind."
Still smiling a bit at the silly picture he had conjured, Ezra pushed himself off the bed. Shedding his underwear, he shrugged into his bathrobe and grabbed fresh clothing from a drawer he had placed his belongings in. A shower would clear his head.
Happily, no one else was using the facilities at present, so Ezra had all the hot water he desired. Stepping into the shower, he allowed it to slough away the grime and soreness of the day. He washed himself slowly, once more lost in contemplation of the past week. How had everyone known just what he needed from them?
He warmly recalled Josiah's kindness in allowing a lost lamb to find shelter from the night in his home, and again later when the older man had gone out of his way to bolster a friend's courage when Ezra had decided to brave the roller coaster.
Ezra shook his head in silent amazement and gratitude as he thought of Vin's blunt compassion at the piano bar, how his friend had wanted to make certain that he knew it was all right to share his fears and ask for help.
He smiled as he recalled Nathan's surprising enthusiasm for slot machines, wax museums and the Star Trek bar, showing a fun child-like side to his personality that he rarely set free, encouraging Ezra by example to do the same thing and just have fun. "Mr. Jackson, you really will make an excellent father," he murmured.
As he recalled Buck's outrageous flirting and innuendoes throughout the trip to Vegas, it occurred to him that Buck had been doing the same as Nathan, keeping up a fun and carefree attitude because he knew that it would encourage a badly stressed-out friend to relax. Ezra doubted that he ever would have come out of his own shell enough to meet and spend an afternoon with a beautiful stranger had it not been for that well-timed bet.
Tilting his face up into the shower spray, Ezra smiled again. How could he not have realized? He knew perfectly well that Buck's roguish ladies-man persona was only a small part of the real man, but he had allowed himself to forget that fact and accept the act at face value. Undoubtedly, just what Buck had wanted him to do.
Ezra turned, bracing his hands against the back wall of the shower and allowed the water to sluice over his shoulders and back, enjoying the soothing heat. Chris and JD's addition to the group yesterday had been the perfect ending to this week. He had understood the reasons for their absences, of course, but a part of him had been childishly discontented, wanting the whole group together again. Without quite realizing it, he had been longing for Chris's solid no-nonsense presence and JD's cheery optimism and enthusiasm. Each of the other men played a special role in his life, just as he played an important role in theirs, and he knew now that he had needed the full support of their presence around him in order to let go of his pent up anguish.
Shutting off the water, Ezra stepped from the shower and dried himself, using the towel to wipe steam away from the mirror over the sink. As the glass cleared, he frowned a bit, examining his features. It was so easy to grow used to the altered coloring, glasses, whiskers, prosthetics, or whatever other form of disguise he adopted for his undercover assignments, that sometimes he forgot what it felt like to just look in a mirror and see Ezra Standish looking back at him.
Leaning closer, he studied the reflection. Even in his rightful identity, he rarely did more than glance over his image long enough to ensure that everything was neat and in place. Somehow it felt as though he hadn't really seen himself in a long time.
Still handsome, he decided critically, examining the gentle yet strong features. Not quite as smooth and youthful as the face that had belonged to a rookie FBI agent ten years ago, but perhaps better for the addition of a few lines here and there. He smiled at himself, watching creases form and deepen around his mouth and eyes, knowing he had earned every one of them. This was the face of a man who had experienced pain, sorrow and betrayal, and become stronger for them. It was the face of someone who had laughed, loved and occasionally cried for joyful reasons. If there was less optimism in the green eyes that stared back at him than there had been in those of the younger Ezra, then there was also a sense of wisdom in those eyes that had not been there a decade ago.
It was a good face, he decided; one that would weather the coming years well. The man in the mirror looked happy. Ezra smiled again, thinking about just how much of that feeling he owed to the six friends who had been willing to drop everything and go on a road-trip just because he had needed them to.
A sudden pounding broke Ezra out of his concentrated study.
"Hey, you fall in or something?" Buck's voice shouted from the opposite side of the bathroom door. "Chow's on!"
Realizing he had lost track of the time, Ezra called back, "I'll be right out." He hurried to get dressed, emerging just as the others were seating themselves around the dining room table. He sniffed delightedly at the aroma of chicken and mashed potatoes. "That smells delectable. Who cooked?"
"Me," Chris said, then seeing JD about to protest, he added, "Buck and JD did the potatoes."
"Startin' to rain outside," Vin told him, gesturing vaguely toward the picture window. "Guess we got back just in time."
Nathan looked apologetic, as if it were somehow his doing as he said, "The weather man on TV says it's supposed to continue through tomorrow. Looks like we'll have a wet drive home."
Filling his plate, Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "No matter. We've had perfect weather for our activities all week long, and I rather enjoy a rain-filled drive so long as it isn't coming down in sheets."
Buck laughed. "Why shouldn't you enjoy it? Everybody knows rainy weather is the best kind for sleeping. Unless you're planning to drive the whole way home, I reckon you'll miss most of the trip."
A sheepish smile drifted over Ezra's face. "Well, there is that."
"Don't worry about it," Josiah told him. "We'll keep the camera handy and take pictures of anything you miss."
He laughed. "Problem solved." Taking a bite, he made a surprised sound. "This is delicious, Chris. I'm impressed!"
"Don't have to sound so surprised," he grunted, looking self-satisfied nonetheless. "Sarah used to call it chicken a la Connelly. It was her mom's recipe. Never did figure out how to fix the dumplings she always made to go with it, though."
Forking up a small fluffy mound of potatoes, Ezra replied, "They aren't needed. These are a perfect addition to the repast."
Buck and JD acknowledged the comment happily, joining the others in complimenting the feast with a hearty appetite.
Conversation was sporadic and varied as the meal went on, small individual conversations occasionally spilling over into group discussion as the seven friends ate, laughed and enjoyed each other's company.
As he observed them, Ezra could not help but feel content. His place in this odd mismatched family was secure and suddenly the future, whatever it might hold for them, looked very bright indeed.