MAIN CHARACTERS Ezra, Chris, Vin, JD, Buck, Nathan, Josiah
Heartfelt thanks to the creators of the ATF and Little Britches universes for their generosity of spirit in allowing total strangers to play in such delightful worlds of their making.
This story was inspired by and follows on directly from the events in 'For the Best' by Heather F. The vignette I had intended to write grew a little...
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it family;
whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.
- Jane R. Howard: "Families" (1978)
Chris was rarely at the ranch when the boys weren't around and he was disconcerted by the different feel of the place, as though the heart had gone out of it. Of course, there was peace and quiet and surfaces stayed clean but he knew which he preferred.
He bent to take sheets from the dryer and shook them out, wondering if he and Buck could afford to give Gloria Potter a pay rise when she got back. It was only when she wasn't around that he fully appreciated how much easier she made their lives.
Chris had just decided they could live with unironed sheets while she was away, looking after her elderly mother in Florida, when his mobile phone rang. It took him a while to locate it. His expression tense, he immediately called Buck back; since the deaths of Sarah and Adam he been unable to take security or happiness for granted, a part of him always waiting for tragedy to strike.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"Relax, pard. Everything's fine," said Buck in immediate reassurance. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm taking the boys for a meal at McDonalds. That shriekin' you can hear is them having a whale of a time in the play area."
"Fine, but I thought we were going to invite Josiah and Nathan over for lunch," said Chris, smiling into the middle distance in his relief that no disaster had overtaken them.
"First off, we forgot that Josiah's out of town till late tonight. Second, Nathan will be with Rain, celebratin' the fact she's just finished her stint of night duty. The lucky dog."
"Down, boy. Yeah, I had forgotten that," Chris admitted.
"I can't imagine what we've had to think about since I got shot. I figure we should forget the idea of a party to celebrate the boys re-adopting Ezra - unless you reckon he'll enjoy the humiliation of having Josiah and Nathan know the boys un-adopted him?" Buck sounded unusually serious.
Chris tucked the last sheet into the top loader and started another load of washing. "Damn, that never occurred to me."
"Me neither, till about an hour ago. There's another thing. After we put the adoption certificate back on Ezra's office wall, I picked JD up kind of awkwardly and didn't hide it as well as I should have. He went all big-eyed and quiet. I can't git him to understand that me getting hurt wasn't Ezra's fault. Every time I figure JD's got the hang of it, the next thing I know he's talkin' about un-adopting Ezra again. Which is why I figured an hour playin' would do them a power of good."
"Do you want me to drop Ezra a hint in case JD does...?"
"Hell, no. We'll face that when we have to and not before. JD should forget all about it, just so long as I'm careful how I pick him up."
"Right," said Chris dryly.
"It could work," said Buck, his characteristic optimism resurfacing. "With my brains, charm and sheer animal magnetism and your... Well, I guess you must have something apart from brawn..."
Chris gave a snort of amusement. "That's pretty brave, considering you're on the other end of the phone."
"Hell, I'm not stupid," chuckled Buck. "Me and the boys will see you later. If I don't just take off into the wide blue yonder in Ezra's car."
"He gave you permission to drive the love of his life?" Chris was torn between incredulity and envy.
"I'll see you later, pard," said Buck hastily.
Chris listened to the dial tone, wishing he was with Buck and the boys. Not to mention Ezra's dream of a car.
Woken from his afternoon nap by another all-too-vivid nightmare it was a while before Ezra was able to banish the stark images of the boys being mauled to death, while he stood by, helpless to save them. He was just grateful he was in the privacy of one of the guest-rooms so no one had seen him make a fool of himself.
Roused by Ezra's distressed muttering, Diablo sighed, snuggled closer on the bed and nudged the arm that wasn't in a cast until Ezra took the hint and began to pull gently on his ears. Ezra felt obscurely grateful for the company, not least the fact that Diablo wasn't constantly judging him and finding him wanting.
Ezra was just clear-headed enough to be able to recognize that he was suffering from a delayed reaction to the events of the last several days - since Buck had been injured, when he had been shown what the team really thought of him.
Years of working undercover with the FBI had left Ezra with no real friends, romantic encounters failing to survive his sometimes prolonged absences, the opportunities to improve on either severely limited by the demands of his job. Unless it was just something about him, of course. His upbringing had hardly been conducive to forming lasting relationships.
His good name stolen away by the most insidious means, he had been transferred to the ATFE. There he had met a leader worthy of respect and a team that he both liked and trusted; four men he had slowly come to think of as friends. He had actually believed they felt the same way about him.
But then mother had always said he had unrealistic expectations of people. She'd trained him to rely on no one but himself. She'd been wiser than he knew.
Mindful of his injuries, Ezra eased from the bed. Despite the physical discomfort he began to pace around the confines of the room, his limp becoming more pronounced with each circuit. He longed to escape back to his apartment. While he never thought of it as home - couldn't remember the last time he'd thought of anywhere as that - it was his. Right now it was about all he had left.
Thanks to his damnable pride he'd thrown away the best job he'd ever had. IA had already taken his badge and gun - at best he had another transfer to look forward to, under a cloud so black his career would never recover.
And then there were those valiant boys, who had stolen the heart he had forgotten he possessed. He had been so proud to be their uncle, so moved by their trust. Now...
JD looked at him as though he was a monster and Vin was walking around with the weight of the world on his narrow shoulders.
And he didn't know how to make it right for them.
Physically and mentally exhausted, in pain and depressed, Ezra looked up when he heard at the tap on his door, bracing himself. A genuine smile lit his face when he saw that his visitor was Vin.
"'Lo, Uncle Ezra." One hand on either side of the door-frame, Vin was bent forward straight-armed as he swung himself back and forth.
"Master Tanner. Did you have an enjoyable afternoon?"
"Better'n I was expectin'," Vin allowed.
"Well, that's something."
"We was wonderin' if you'd like to come and watch JD and me fix coleslaw. From scratch," Vin added impressively.
"I should be most interested to see the process. I'll just clean up first."
"You ain't forgot you can't have a shower in case you get your stitches wet?" Vin didn't like it when Chris and Uncle Ezra fought, even when they weren't shouting. Not that Uncle Ezra ever shouted...
"No," sighed Ezra, abandoning any hope of one when he saw the anxiety in the blue eyes.
"Oh, Buck drove your car up here 'cause it was still at the hospital, rackin' up charges. He says not to worry, he didn't leave so much as a ding on the outside. And he's pretty sure there's not a smudge on the inside, though he won't...vouch for me and JD. Which ain't fair 'cause we washed our hands an' everythin' before we left McDonalds," said Vin, looking hard-done-by.
Ezra felt too apathetic to worry about the state of his upholstery. "That was most considerate of him."
Vin fished in his jeans pocket and held up the car keys. "Before you kin have these you've gotta give me your word not to drive till your back's mended."
"Whose idea was that?" Ezra admired their acumen. It was a trick worthy of himself; he was obviously having an adverse effect on the team's morals.
"Buck's. He looked kinda pleased with himself. You haven't said it."
"I give you my word I won't drive my Jaguar until I'm mended," said Ezra glibly.
Vin concentrated so hard he almost went cross-eyed. "That sounds OK but..."
Ezra grimaced. "You're quite right. I was obfuscating. Fudging," he added, when Vin looked blank. "I promise I won't try to sneak off either. Word of a Standish." It was a phrase learned at his mother's knee - a guarantee that her promise could be relied upon, which was why she had made it so rarely.
Vin gave him a beam of approval and the car keys.
By the time Ezra arrived in the kitchen, Chris and Vin were setting the table, while Buck was checking on the progress of the baked potatoes.
"I reckon they'll be at least another twenty minutes," he announced, surreptitiously rubbing his sore chest muscles while JD's attention was elsewhere.
Perched on a high stool by the breakfast bar, JD was busy squishing the home-made coleslaw, designed to sneak some fresh vegetables into the boys, while singing 'I'm the King of the Swingers' at the top of his voice and wriggling like a creature demented.
"Careful, JD," cautioned Buck, just as one wriggle too many sent the high stool rocking before it toppled over.
Buck swooped in and saved JD from a potentially nasty fall; a grunt of pain escaped him as the bruised muscles of his chest protested when he took JD's weight.
JD froze, staring at him huge-eyed. "Da...?"
"Let me take him," Ezra urged, his face full of concern as he reached their side.
His face scarlet, JD punched him away with a flurry of blows. "Don't you touch me! It's your fault Buck's hurted and I hate you!" He wriggled from Buck's arms and ran from the room before anyone thought to stop him.
"Ezra..." began Buck.
"You're in pain. It's only natural that JD should be upset." Emotion flattened from his voice, Ezra had little idea what he was saying. "Are you sure you don't need to see a doctor?"
"Positive. I'd best go see to JD. He knows better than to hit anyone. You know he didn't mean what he just said?" Buck added with concern, one hand on Ezra's shoulder.
"Of course," lied Ezra. "Don't make too much of what happened. Seeing you hurt has shaken his world." He could feel Chris and Vin watching him and felt rawly exposed, with no place to hide from JD's rejection. In need of some distraction, he limped over and began to clean up after JD's 'help', hoping that no one could see that his hands were shaking.
Buck looked as though he wanted to say something more but when, unseen by Ezra, Chris shook his head, Buck just gave Ezra a final pat on the shoulder and headed off in the direction JD had taken.
"I'll see to the clean up," Chris told Ezra. "You sit. It's time you took your next lot of medication." He retrieved the tubs of pills from a high shelf, handed Ezra a glass of water and watched him swallow the antibiotics, followed by two painkillers.
The fact Ezra took the latter without a murmur of protest was confirmation of how shaken he was. He had the look of someone who had taken a fierce blow across the face and who hadn't been able to disguise the shock of it.
"It's been a worrying few days for us all," continued Chris, in the same calm voice. "It's not surprising JD's over-wrought."
"No, indeed," agreed Ezra, marveling that while he could face down a gunman, the anger of a small boy could make his hands shake.
He had hurt these boys so much and he had no idea how he could put things right. If, indeed, that was even possible. What did he know of family life?
Hardly aware of what he was doing, Ezra eased onto a chair at the kitchen table. The sutures down his back, buttocks and thighs seemed to be throbbing in time with his heart beat and he couldn't find a position of comfort. One elbow on the table top, he supported his aching head on his good hand, closed his eyes and tried to think what he should do next.
Fidgeting where he stood, Vin was torn between wanting to go after JD and staying with his uncle, who wore a blank, frozen look it hurt to see because it made Vin remember all the times he'd been told he wasn't good enough - that another foster family was going to send him back.
He couldn't imagine anything worse than Chris not wanting him for his son any more.
When a strong forearm tucked around his middle Vin snuggled back against the security Chris offered.
"OK?" murmured Chris, knowing that Vin wasn't. He felt Vin slowly begin to relax in that seemingly casual embrace and wished it could be as easy to dispel Vin's anxieties, some of which he could only guess at - despite the professional help they were receiving.
"Anything you want to talk to me about?" Chris added after a moment, not wishing Vin to feel pressured into making a confidence.
"I don't understand why JD's so mad," Vin said at last. "You told us Uncle Ezra had nothin' to do with Buck gettin' hurt. So has Buck. Why doesn't JD git that?"
"Some things are tricky to understand when you're only five. The trouble is that JD remembers when I was angry enough to blame Ezra but not when I explained to him that nothing about Buck getting hurt is Ezra's fault. I got mad when Buck was hurt and that anger affected my judgment. I said things about Ezra that I didn't mean and that I knew in my heart of hearts weren't true. The trouble with anger is that a lot of the time it stops you from thinking straight."
Vin wriggled around to look up at him. "I git like that sometimes."
"But not so often," Chris comforted, rubbing Vin's narrow shoulders.
"I'm usually sorry afterwards," said Vin, relaxing back against Chris again.
"Me, too. But on this occasion it didn't change the fact I'd said those things about Ezra and that's what JD remembers the most. Like me, he needs someone to blame for Buck being hurt."
Vin thought it over. "So what you did was like JD sayin' he hated Uncle Ezra?" he said at last.
It wasn't a pleasant thought but Chris made no attempt to correct Vin, who sometimes displayed a knack of seeing straight to the heart of a problem. "It was very similar," he confirmed. "And I'm sorry for all the hurt and misunderstanding it's caused."
Vin gave Chris's arm a pat and went to Ezra's side. Disconcerted not to be noticed, he ended up having to nudge Ezra to get his attention. "Are you feelin' alright?"
Ezra blinked and refocused. "I'm sorry, Master Tanner. Did you say something?"
"I asked if you was - were - alright." But Vin already knew the answer because Uncle Ezra had just given him the kind of smile he'd come to hate - the one that meant he was hurting inside but didn't want anyone to know.
"Well corrected. I'm tired, that's all. There's absolutely nothing for you to worry about." Ezra used the warm, reassuring voice that sounded like a hug to a small boy who hadn't enjoy nearly enough of those in his short life.
"Is upset because Buck is hurt. JD will feel better when Buck is well again." Ezra swallowed hard when a grubby hand slid into his, holding him tight, as though afraid that he might otherwise slip away.
"There's nothin' worse than bein' blamed for what trolls did," said Vin gruffly.
"No, there isn't," agreed Chris, wondering with a pang how many times Vin had been blamed unjustly.
"Have you lost something?" he added, when he saw Vin peer under the kitchen table.
"I just wondered what that slurping noise was. Diablo's licking Uncle Ezra's bare toes," said Vin with a pleased grin. Diablo always made JD feel better when he was sad, so it should work for Uncle Ezra too.
"Oh, good Lord." Disconcerted, because he hadn't even noticed the attention, Ezra accepted that he might be slightly under par. Because moving required too much effort, he remained where he was, ostensibly listening to Vin's story of how JD had frothed his milkshake all over the table at McDonalds, while he gently toed Diablo's warm belly and tried not to dwell on what JD had yelled at him.
When Vin went off to watch TV, Ezra's hope of retreating back to his room was dashed as he was waylaid by Buck.
"We put the adoption certificate back in your office this morning."
His mouth tightening at the reminder, Ezra nodded.
"I've been meaning to ask - what were you thinking, collecting that and bringing it all the way out here when you should have been in hospital?"
Ezra's cosy fantasy of being part of the team - even a small part of this family - had already fallen apart like a house of cards but he had allowed himself to forget that for a few hours. Scalded by a renewed sense of humiliation, he tried to regroup his battered defenses.
"I needed to retrieve it while I still had access to the Federal building. The boys wanted to un-adopt me. I didn't want them to have to ask for my adoption certificate. It wasn't - isn't - a decision about which they should be made to feel guilty."
Buck winced at the confirmation of how deeply JD's decision to un-adopt Ezra had hurt him; the fact he'd been re-adopted obviously hadn't sunk in. But then Ezra wasn't as familiar with the mental processes of five year old boys, he reminded himself. Hell, there wasn't a day went by when he wasn't learning something himself.
"About your suspension," said Chris, guiltily aware that he had let a difficult moment slide for too long. "I should have told you before now, but it kind of got lost, what with getting the boys to hospital for a check-up and then realizing you'd been injured. You've been taken off administrative status and returned to full duty. Travis saw to it that IA were told the truth the moment he saw the surveillance tape, which proved - "
" - that what Ah told you from the first was true," interrupted Ezra, his level voice giving no hint of the emotions roiling in him.
"Uh, yeah," acknowledged Chris. "But you're back on full strength."
"Ah heard you the first time. Ah have only one question. When did you decide Ah was a liar?" Ezra rose to his feet, his back achingly straight, his expression one of chilly control. But his thickened accent was an indication of stress that the team had learned to look for in a man with so few 'tells'.
"What?" Chris managed not to bellow only with some effort.
"You heard me. Ah gave you mah location, Ah told you the time Ah arrived there. Ah said you had the wrong man. No one believed me. Least of all mah team-mates. In mah naivety Ah assumed you would check the surveillance tapes to establish the veracity of what Ah had said. Instead you threw me to IA. They knew you didn't believe me before Ah did."
"Smirking every time someone asked you a question was hardly helpful," growled Chris, who until now had tried to avoid thinking about the part he had played in the investigation into Buck being shot. Travis hadn't held back in offering his opinion of how he'd handled things - not least that Chris had betrayed his team by playing favorites, allowing his worry for Buck to blinker his judgment where Ezra was concerned. The worst part was realizing that Travis had been right.
"Foolishly Ah had supposed the truth would suffice. When it became apparent that it wouldn't... " Ezra shrugged. "What was Ah supposed to do?" There was a roughened edge to his supple voice now, a warning of emotions precariously banked.
It occurred to Buck that in all the time they had known him they had never seen Ezra lose full control of his emotions. He'd come close to it in laughter but never in anger.
"You could have made us listen." Buck only appreciated that might have sounded like an accusation when he found himself pinned by a cold, vaguely contemptuous gaze.
"Why would Ah bother? Would you have believed me any more the second, third or fourth time Ah told you?" The raw pain of someone who had suffered this betrayal too many times bled through Ezra's controls.
Chris winced. Like Ezra, Vin would have only told him once - and for the same reason: it was pointless trying to defend yourself when no one ever believed you. But where seven year old Vin sometimes lashed out with his fists, Ezra used his tongue to excoriate. When he wasn't using that damn smirk of his, which made a man want to pound him to a pulp.
Except... Chris worried the inside of his lip. Why hadn't he spotted it before now? That stupid, intensely irritating smirk was a smoke-screen - a defense mechanism for a man resigned to never being believed and whose pride had decided enough was enough. He had only just begun to realize how good Ezra was at emotional sleight of hand.
"I made a mistake," Chris said stiffly. "I've apologized - "
"Uh, not that I've heard," said Buck.
"Then let me apologize now." Chris found it unexpectedly difficult to meet Ezra's unblinking green gaze. "I completely lost it when I thought Buck might be seriously injured. But that's no excuse for blowing up in your face, or for leaving you hanging in the wind with IA. You and I haven't always seen eye to eye - because you can rub me the wrong way quicker than anyone I've ever met."
"So it's mah fault," said Ezra, enlightened. "Blaming the victim. The choice of champions."
"Now wait just a damn minute! I - "
"Chris, you're letting him do it again," said Buck, struggling not to laugh. The worst of it was, this time he knew Ezra wasn't doing it deliberately. He had also realized how angry Ezra was - and how well he had hidden it until now.
"I reckon I might owe Ezra a word or two of apology myself," Buck added easily.
Ezra maintained an unhelpful, intensely irritating silence.
His eyes narrowing, Buck counted silently to three. "See, this is why people get so mad at you. But I am sorry for giving the impression I didn't believe you. You can be a regular pain-in-the-ass but you've never lied to us. I'd take the word of a friend over technology any time. I should have remembered that.
"You are coming back to the ATFE, aren't you?" he added, when Ezra made no reply.
"Ah haven't decided."
Christ straightened. "You're seriously thinking of resigning because - ?"
" - after two years working together Ah finally realized that no one on my team trusts me?" Ezra's roughened voice broke, then steadied, strengthening as his temper finally slipped the leash. "Of course Ah'm fuckin' well goin' to resign! What would Ah stay for? Ah'm done with you gentlemen."
Appalled by his momentary loss of control, because he had been trained better than this, Ezra turned his back on them and limped away before he made matters worse. If there was one thing he had learned from his mother it was that losing your temper was a weakness too easily exploited. But then so was trust.
He'd become soft, forgetting everything he'd been taught as a child. But it...hurt to admit how long he must have been deluding himself into believing the men he'd been proud to call 'friends' trusted him. He had thought that Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah were different. How fuckin' naive was he? How needy? This was the FBI all over again, only this time it really mattered what his team-mates thought of him.
And not one of them - not one - had believed him.
Ezra closed his bedroom door, then stood with his back to it, shaking with the force of the emotions roiling in him. Breath by breath, he regained a measure of control as he stared sightlessly into the middle distance. He didn't know what he was going to do, only that he couldn't live like this any longer.
"That went real well," said Buck ironically, breaking the silence which had fallen after Ezra left the room. "We're supposed to be mending fences, not crashin' through them."
"You don't need to tell me I blew it," muttered Chris, running a hand back through his hair as he tried to work out what he could do to fix this. "I don't want to lose Ezra - from the team, or as a friend - but I just keep screwing up with him."
"It's not me you should be sayin' that to," Buck pointed out.
A faint noise from the mud room made them turn to see JD in the doorway, his eyes looking huge, his thumb in his mouth. Before they could say anything he ran off to his room.
"Do you think JD heard?" Chris asked Buck.
"It seems likely. Let him be for now. Till we know for sure what Ezra's gonna do, let him be."
Chris' expression hardened. "If Ezra walks out on those boys - "
"I know, I know," Chris acknowledged, irritable with himself. "Dammit, when did I develop this knee-jerk reaction where Ezra's concerned? I might not always understand where he's coming from but I trust him. Hell, he's entertainin' company and he's been a good friend to all of us. I just..." He trailed off into silence, shaking his head.
Buck scratched an itch and crossed his long legs at the ankle. "Maybe a part of the problem is that, unlike the rest of us, Ezra doesn't hesitate to confront you if he thinks it's warranted. I'm not sayin' he's always right - or that you are, come to that - just that things can get kind of lively when the pair of you square up to one another. But because Ez is slicker than a greased hog, more often than not he'll find a way to go round you rather than through."
Chris tensed. "I'm that dictatorial?"
Buck gave him an affectionate grin. "Ease up, pard. If you were that bad we'd have transferred out long ago. You've only got to see the team's success rate to know you must be doing something right. It's just that you seem to reserve your most explosive moments for Ezra. Though it can't be denied that he's real skillful at yankin' your chain."
"So I'm realizing," said Chris ruefully. "Any ideas?"
"A change of personality should do the trick."
"But I like Ezra the way he is. Mostly."
"Who said I was talkin' about Ez?" said Buck with a grin. "Lighten up. Ezra's pride has taken a battering but I've never noticed him holdin' a grudge. He'll come around."
"Will he? He's been shown that we - I - don't trust him," Chris reminded Buck, his eyes bleak. "Even though that isn't the truth, I made him think it was. Now how would you react to that?"
"Well, I've a small boy to feed and educate, so I reckon I'd either swallow my pride, or apply for a transfer. Ezra doesn't have that constraint. Oh, shit," muttered Buck in consternation, when he realized what he had said. "He's free as a bird. He can resign any time he likes. I've sometimes wondered if Ezra even needs to work for a living."
"The thought's occurred to me more than once," conceded Chris. "Do you know anything for sure?"
"Nope. But he once let slip that he helped put himself through four years of college by gambling. We know he plays poker - with professionals, I mean. And while he doesn't shove it down our throats, it's obvious from his clothes and shoes that he's accustomed to the best of everything. One of his designer silk tee shirts probably costs as much as your only suit. You have still got that suit, I suppose?"
"You're a fine one to talk," pointed out Chris.
Buck ignored him to continue with his train of thought. "In some guys that way of dressin' would be real annoying but Ez wears the stuff because he likes the way it looks and feels, not to impress other people. Law enforcement's not the obvious choice of career for a rich man. I reckon the only reason he came into it - and he'd hate me for sayin' this - is a sense of public duty. There's nothin' glamorous about working for the ATFE. It's a whole mess of desk work, tedious hours of surveillance, with the occasional adrenaline rush before it's back to the tedium of dealing with the DA's office, or appearin' in court. In Ezra's case it also means spells of working undercover with the sort of people you'd usually cross the road to avoid."
Chris worried the inside of his lip. "I never stopped to think why he does the job. I'm just glad he does because he's damn good at it - when he's not driving me crazy. I've gotta stop takin' people at face-value."
"No, just Ezra. If you'd judged me as harshly as you have him, you and me wouldn't have ended up in this mad-house, now would we?" Buck pointed out.
Chris gave a faint grin. "There is that. What the hell's that smell?"
"Burned-to-a-crisp baked potatoes," discovered Buck with a grimace.
Returned to the mundane necessity of feeding their young, Chris took the line of least resistance and got out some frozen fries.
The discovery that JD had added Cheerios and marshmallows to the coleslaw didn't improve the mood around the table; the boys were abnormally silent, even when faced with the unheard of treat of two lots of fries in one day. Vin kept his head down but every so often he glanced around; it wasn't difficult to guess for whom he was looking.
"What is it, Vin?" Chris asked at last, abandoning the pretense that he was doing more than pushing food around his plate.
"Is Uncle Ezra really gonna - ?" Vin glanced at JD and thought the better of finishing the question. "It kin wait. Kin I get down now?"
"May I," corrected Chris absently. "Sure. Why don't you choose the film tonight?"
"It's my turn!" yelled JD indignantly.
"No need to shout, son. How about we go next door and talk this through?" Buck abandoned his meal to disappear into the family room with the boys.
Chris wanted time to think and so didn't hurry through clearing away the dishes. In full protective mode, he looked in on the family room. Shrek! was playing but the boys were still far too quiet for his liking. One glance at Buck made it obvious he was in pain. And Ezra...
A noise from outside took Chris back into the kitchen at a run. Through the window which looked out onto the yard he saw Ezra at the rear of his Jaguar. He took a sports bag from the trunk and limped back into the house.
Chris relaxed to a degree; with that cast incapacitating his left arm from his fingertips to past his elbow Ezra was one-armed at present and the Jaguar was a shift stick: even in a temper he was unlikely to put other road users at risk.
There was nothing to stop him from ordering a cab.
Figuring he had a few minutes in which to come up with a way of keeping Ezra here that wouldn't involve knocking him out, Chris began to grind some coffee beans. Good coffee had always been a successful form of bribery with Ezra.
Only when the coffee was on did Chris face up to how much he hated admitting when he was wrong. Without giving himself time to find another excuse to put this off, he stalked down the hall to the guest-room.
With no great surprise he saw that Ezra was preparing to leave. Thanks to the clothing he had obviously found in his sports bag, he now wore a pair of thin training pants. Slung low on his hips, the drawstring haphazardly knotted, the loose-fitting white cotton could offer little in the way of warmth but they would have the advantage that they wouldn't aggravate his injuries. A baggy workout shirt - about all that would go over the cast - lay beside the bag, waiting for him to put it on. As did a pair of Italian leather slip-on loafers.
Because it hadn't occurred to either Chris or Buck to lend Ezra a razor he was sporting a ragged growth of auburn stubble. Rather than Clint Eastwood cool, it gave him the look of a molting gopher. He was as far removed from his usual elegant self as Chris had ever seen him.
"Planning on going somewhere?" asked Chris, in what he fondly imagined to be a casual tone.
Ezra had yet to look up, or to acknowledge his presence, but he tensed, as if braced for attack. "Mah apartment. Ah was about to call a cab."
"So you're running out on us?" As Chris had intended, that got Ezra's attention.
A muscle jumped in his jaw but his voice was tightly controlled, even if his thickened accent seemed to elongate some words to impossible lengths. "Ah've no intention of runnin' anywhere but it's best that Ah leave. Ah've done nothing but upset the boys since Ah arrived. They shouldn't be made to feel ill-at-ease in their own home. Better by far if Ah give them a breathin' space. And Ah would feel more comfortable in mah apartment."
Chris exhaled softly and hoped he would get this right. "I'm truly sorry for not giving you my unquestioning support when you needed it," he said sincerely. "You've earned it time and again. Of course I trust you - both on the team and, more importantly, with the boys. The fact I was worried about Buck, and that I let you piss me off, is no excuse for how I behaved. The last thing anyone on this team wants is for you to leave. And on a personal level, I'd hate to think I'd driven away a friend. Will you give me another chance?"
The purple-brown marks of sleeplessness under his seemingly luminous eyes only accentuated Ezra's pallor.
"Ah beg your p-pardon," he stammered, as he stared at Chris.
"You must know your value to the team. It occurs to me that I might not have made it plain that I value your friendship even more." Acutely embarrassed at having to spill his guts like this, Chris forced himself to continue. "I'm asking you to stay with the team. To give me a second chance, both as your boss and as your friend. I know that I've used up some chances already and that I'm likely to need more. But I'll try."
The fact it took Ezra several moments to process what he was being told made Chris appreciate just how under par the other man was.
"Uh - er - yes. Of c-course Ah'll stay. Ah'm hardly b-blameless in this. Ah can be stubborn when Ah feel mah honor is bein' impugned. Ah have no wish to resign - if you feel Ah still have something to offer the team. Mah pride got the better of me. Ah was trained not to display anger, it sometimes manifests itself in - uh - "
" - being as aggravating as possible?" suggested Chris, with the faintest of grins, not least at seeing his most self-assured and articulate agent at a loss for words.
"You noticed that?" Ezra looked faintly embarrassed.
"Oh, yeah. I probably have the gray hairs to prove it." Chris held out his hand. "To second chances?"
Ezra took it without hesitation. "To second chances. But Ah still think it would be better for the boys if Ah gave them some space and returned to my apartment."
"I think you're wrong about that and I hope you'll stay. Though I can understand why you might have had enough of us." Mindful of the open door and the boys' propensity for turning up when he least expected them, Chris was careful to keep his voice low for what he said next.
"What JD said. It hurts, doesn't it?" It was more a statement of fact than a question because the answer was plain to see. For a while Chris wondered if Ezra was going to pretend to misunderstand him. He was staring at his feet as though they were the most interesting thing he had ever seen.
"Like hell-fire," Ezra murmured eventually. His voice flat, he sounded deathly tired - the kind of fatigue that had nothing to do with physical exertion: the kind that ground you into the dust.
"You know JD didn't mean what he said?"
"Of course," replied Ezra. The lie came easier the second time.
The sight of that defeated, down-bent head spurred Chris into sharing a memory that only his dead wife would have recognized.
"I've so many wonderful memories of Adam. Dumb things mostly, but they mean the world. And, inevitably, a few not so good. I can still remember the afternoon when Adam yelled that he hated me. It came out of nowhere and was over minutes later. He didn't even remember what he'd said. But for weeks afterwards I'd wake up in the middle of the night, sweating over what I'd done, or not done, to make him feel that way. Till Sarah set me straight."
Tension draining from him, Ezra remained motionless, his gaze fixed on the other man's face. Chris had never spoken of his dead family to him before. Not like this. Not offering such an intensely personal moment. Only a true friend would think to share this kind of bitter-sweet memory.
"JD's only five," continued Chris. "He loves ice-cream and hates broccoli. In that split second he hated you. Buck was hurting and JD's still confused about why. That's partly my fault, I know. He and Vin have suffered terrible things in their lives and they're only just starting to put down roots. Winning their trust - their complete, unquestioning trust - is going to take a while. Those months in foster care left Vin with emotional scars I can only guess at. Those bastards took his already shaky confidence and kicked it to death every time they rejected him, or called him a liar."
His gut twisting, Chris stared at Ezra as the parallel between his most difficult agent and Vin sank home. Only this time he had been the troll.
"None of this mess is your fault," he said, fiercely protective of one of his own. "Here, let me help you on with that shirt," he added gruffly, making a mental note to switch up the heating because heavier, warmer clothing was uncomfortable for Ezra to wear.
While he looked as though he wanted to protest, Ezra took the line of least resistance and accepted the offered assistance.
"Shall I unpack that?" Chris gestured to the sports bag.
"Very subtle," said Ezra, with a faint smile, "but that won't be necessary. I'm wearing the contents. The bag must have been in the trunk since before I went undercover, hence the slightly musty smell of the clothes," he added, wrinkling his nose, before rubbing his stubble, which had begun to itch.
"If you'll let me have the keys to your apartment, I'll call in tomorrow and collect clothes and toiletries for you," offered Chris.
"I would appreciate that."
Both men turned at the sound of running feet. Vin burst into the room and raced over to Ezra, his face stark with misery, his vivid eyes looking huge with unshed tears.
"Uncle Ezra, I gotta talk to you! I shoulda done this before now but it's hard and I kept puttin' it off! You have to give us another chance! JD can't help makin' mistakes. He's only five. Though I shoulda known better," Vin said hoarsely, the words tumbling over one another. "It ain't right to let people go, an' I knew it was wrong but..."
"Whoa, son," said Chris, hunkering down beside him. "Take a few deep breaths, that's the way. Now, what is it you need to tell Ezra?"
"He's gotta listen!" cried Vin desperately.
Ezra immediately crouched down on Vin's other side, too intent on Vin to think of his own discomfort. "Sweet boy, I promise I will always listen to you. Whatever the problem is, I feel certain we can sort it out between us," he gestured to Chris and himself. "Just tell us what's upsetting you so," he coaxed.
"JD and me do trust you and we was wrong to unadopt you!"
Comprehension melted away the last of Ezra's reserve. He drew Vin into a brief, one-armed hug. "I had no idea you were still distressin' yourself about that. There's no need, truly. You and JD have the perfect right to do whatever you want about that, whenever you want. It won't make anyone love you any the less. You've done nothing you need be sorry for."
Vin drew back a little the better to see Ezra's face. One hand grasping Chris for reassurance, with the other he clutched at Ezra's shirt. "Yes, I have! 'Cause unadoptin' you said we didn't trust you and we do but my thinkin' got muddled, though I explained it to Chris. But I never told you and I should have. I'm sorry. Real sorry. We don't want you to leave!"
Ezra sighed. "I suppose JD heard me lose my temper?"
Vin nodded. "He didn't mean to listen."
"I'm sure he didn't. I'm sorry he had to hear that. But Chris and I have argued before and we will inevitably argue in the future ..."
He glanced at Chris, who nodded.
"It doesn't mean we're not still friends," Chris explained to Vin. "You and JD argue all the time and then make up and are best of friends. Ezra and I are just the same."
"In fact Chris and I made up just before you came in," said Ezra, resorting to language he could be certain Vin would understand.
"Ezra will be staying here until his back's healed, then he'll return to his apartment," said Chris. "But he's still going to be working with us all, the same as before - if not even better, because I hope I'll improve on the way I handle things. You know he already has an open invitation to stay here any time he wants. And before you came in I'd just offered to pick up some clothes for him tomorrow."
Tension visibly leaving him, Vin looked from one man to the other. "Really?"
"Really," confirmed Ezra, giving one of his rare, unguarded smiles.
Chris hugged Vin close for a moment. "I'm so very proud of you. It's a difficult thing to admit when you've made a mistake. I should know, I'm real bad at doing it. Hey, if Ezra says it's OK would you like to come with me to his apartment tomorrow? Make sure I don't forget anything?"
Vin nodded enthusiastically, then glanced at Ezra again.
"Is there anything else you want to ask me?" Ezra asked gently.
"You can ask either of us anything," said Chris encouragingly. "Anything at all."
Ezra nodded his confirmation.
"Uncle Ezra, you help keep Chris and Buck and the other uncles safe. If you quarrel..."
"In point of fact it's all of them who keep me safe when I'm undercover," said Ezra quickly. "That said, it wouldn't matter how badly any of us argued, we would always work together to keep everyone on the team safe. My word of honor on that."
"And mine," said Chris, gently tweaking the bottom of Vin's tee shirt.
He shared his beam between them. "That's all right then," he said with gruff satisfaction. "I gotta tell JD," he added, before he raced off.
Ezra closed his eyes. "Lord, I'm sorry. They shouldn't have to worry about - "
"You're part of the family," said Chris, rising to his feet. "Of course they're going to worry about you. Are you planning to stay down there all day?"
Ezra looked up at him with a wry grimace. "I might have to if you don't come to my rescue. I think I'm stuck."
"If you've popped those stitches on your ass..." But Chris was gentleness itself as he eased the other man to his feet.
"You'll have the satisfaction of saying 'I told you so'." A grunt of discomfort escaped Ezra. Under Chris's amused gaze he resisted the temptation to palm the area that was throbbing most.
"Have you had anything to eat since you played with your cereal this morning?" asked Chris.
"'M not hungry."
"I didn't ask if you were hungry. Low blood sugar can make you feel like crap. Besides, you shouldn't have taken those pills on an empty stomach. Come into the kitchen, I'll fix you some eggs. Even I can cook eggs," he promised when Ezra gave no immediate reaction.
"I don't doubt it but I've caused enough trouble as it - "
"You came to babysit as a favor to us, you ended up saving the boys' lives. At no point have you done anything requiring an apology. Come and eat," Chris urged, a hand in the small of Ezra's back easing him into motion.
In danger of dozing off at the kitchen table, Ezra listlessly ate a mouthful of the food put in front of him.
The scrambled eggs were fluffy and buttery, with just the right amount of seasoning with some good brown bread toasted to perfection.
Chris watched as Ezra began to eat with real enthusiasm, gave a nod of satisfaction and got up to put on some bacon, before making more eggs and toast.
"I was hungry," discovered Ezra, with some surprise and an empty plate.
"I half expected you to inhale the second plateful," joked Chris, whose hopes of stealing some bacon had been thwarted by the speed with which it had disappeared. "Apple pie and ice-cream?"
"Uh, yes. Thank you," added Ezra, who was mildly bemused at being so cosseted.
By a miraculous process known only to small boys, JD and Vin arrived just as the ice-cream tubs emerged, closely followed by Buck.
"Which flavor?" Chris asked Ezra.
"Have the chocolate," coaxed JD, sitting on one side of Ezra and leaning against him. "It's yummy."
"Or the strawberry," said Vin, sitting on the other side, careful not to brush the cast Ezra wore. "I favor the strawberry."
"I like Cherry Garcia," said Chris.
"I'm a Rocky Road man myself," offered Buck.
Which was how Ezra ended up with a helping of each. He gave every appearance of being fascinated by the plot of Shrek! as enacted by JD and Vin - as if he hadn't already been subjected to the film four times and counting. Inevitably he invited their help in finishing his barely touched ice-cream.
"You know it's way past the boys' bedtime," said Buck to Chris, where they stood trying to look as if they weren't shamelessly eavesdropping on the trio.
"Uh huh." Chris licked the last of the Cherry Garcia from his spoon.
"And that with this much sugar inside them the boys are gonna be up for a while yet and it's a school day tomorrow."
"Your point is?"
"You done good, pard. But I thought we were going to let Ezra and the boys figure things out for themselves?" Buck was careful to ensure his voice traveled no farther than Chris.
"I changed my mind. Want to make anything of it?"
Buck's grin was full of affection.
"Smart ass," growled Chris, as though Buck had spoken.
A few moments later Chris added: "Ezra looked so damn pathetic I just couldn't stand it any more."
"Definitely losing it there, pard."
"You could be right. Vin set things straight with Ezra of his own accord, and JD seems to have got over what was bothering him. I even had a chat with Ezra myself. He's agreed to give me a second chance."
Buck clapped Chris on the shoulder. "That's excellent news. We dented his pride but good. It'll take time to heal."
"I know it. Ezra said all the right things when he agreed to stay on but I'm worried that we've already lost him in the ways that matter most. How's he going to forget that none of us trusted him?"
"I've been puzzlin' over that one myself. I'll have to see if I can't come up with a way to sort out this mess," said Buck confidently.
Chris snorted, experience having taught him that Buck's ideas rarely ended well. "Oh, that'll help."
He was so preoccupied that he took the dishcloth Buck threw at him full in the face.
Exhausted by the time he had read the boys a bedtime story, not least because he was still wary of doing anything to upset them again, Ezra looked unenthusiastic when he returned to his room and saw Chris emerge from the bathroom with the medical supplies.
"Your favorite time of day," said Chris.
With no fight left in him, Ezra surrendered to the inevitable with no more than a sigh.
Chris began to lecture him before he had removed the first dressing.
"There are times when I make you the team scapegoat. You shouldn't let me get away with that."
"How do Ah stop a runaway truck?"
"I mean it, Ezra. I may not be the most patient of men - I hope that's the sound of you choking to death and not you sniggering - but I'm learning. Hell, you've put up with more shit from me than anyone else on the team. I know damn well it's not because you're afraid me. Why do you let me get away with it?"
"It can be quite amusin' at times," Ezra confessed, in the soft, slurred voice of total exhaustion. He had the glassy-eyed look of a man who had found the day over-long by a good twenty-four hours.
"And at the other times?" Chris asked, patient with him because he intended to learn from his mistakes.
The hand in the cast gestured vaguely, just missing scraping the side of Ezra's head. "Not so much."
"I can believe that. Then why?"
"Lord, are you still... Look on it as mah way of sayin' 'thank you' for givin' me a second chance on very little evidence - and later for allowin' me to experience the first settled home tha' Ah've enjoyed."
At a loss for words, Chris stared at the back of Ezra's head, seriously worried by that burst of honesty until the truth occurred to him. "Damn, you're stoned out of your skull, aren't you?"
"Cert'nly not. Wha'?"
"Never mind," said Chris tolerantly. "Go to sleep."
"Ah might be able to if you'd stop talkin'."
Chris grinned and went back to work.
He heard the first soft snore before he had reached the second dressing.
The third time he was woken by nightmares full of bloody images Ezra abandoned his attempts to sleep. It was a relief when, some hours later, there was a tap on the door, swiftly followed by Buck appearing the doorway.
"Of all the fatuous questions..."
"You had a bad night then," said Buck, wondering if Ezra had enjoyed any sleep.
"Morning, Ezra. You look even worse than you did yesterday," said Chris, coming in behind Buck.
"Why thank you, Mr. Larabee. That's a wonderfully encouraging bedside manner you have there."
"You'd best take your next dose of these." Chris tossed the tubs of antibiotics and painkillers onto the bed.
Ezra eased himself over into a sitting position, muttering irritably when his abused body objected.
"I ain't heard that second word before. You owe the swear jar two dollars," said Vin, appearing from behind Chris. He beamed at his uncle while hitching up his pyjama bottoms, which were slightly too big for him. "Mornin', Uncle Ezra."
"Good morning, Master Tanner. I had no idea you were in the vicinity." Ezra gave Chris an apologetic look. "I believe you'll find my wallet on the dresser. Be kind enough to make the payment for me."
"He heard worse the day I dropped the iron on my big toe," said Chris, by way of reassurance as Vin rushed off to put the money in the swear jar. "I'll be back in ten to clean your back. And yes, I reckon I'm looking forward to that about as much as you are."
Ezra nodded, but made no complaint. The less he thought about the embarrassment of being nurse-maided by his boss the easier it was to get through. Not that there was anything easy about this situation.
Ezra paused in the act of easing his way off the bed, clumsy because it was still so painful. "Don't let me keep you," he said acidly.
"I came to ask a favor." Buck shifted his weight from one foot to the other, in a manner strongly reminiscent of JD when he had to 'go'.
"Hey, now. I thought you'd been trained better than that. You're supposed to make me work for it, not agree right off!"
Ezra gave a reluctant grin. "I could be lulling you into a false sense of security."
"The thing is, I was wondering if you'd mind babysitting JD this evening? Only Chris is taking Vin to the fair that's in town for some one-to-one time, Josiah's got a meeting and Nathan... Rain's just got off several weeks of night-duty and - "
"I'm your last resort again."
"Ezra, I swear - "
"That was a joke, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck's dark blue eyes were unexpectedly shrewd. "It better be. Which reminds me. There's somethin' else I want to tell you..."
Ezra just sat watching him, with only a twitch of his mouth to betray him.
"You're not gonna help me out, are you," recognized Buck with resignation.
"Why ask the question when you already know the answer?"
Buck grinned. "I should know better than to give you an opening like that. I just wanted to say that I'm more glad than I know how to express that you're stayin'. On the team - and as a friend. I value both. Life's never dull when you're around."
"Uh..." Taken aback, Ezra managed a nod of acknowledgment. "Me, too," he muttered, feeling himself flush.
"Reason I need a sitter," continued Buck, untypically taking pity on his embarrassment, "is that the date of Pammie's exhibition has been put forward. She rang to see if I would be able to help ferry her work to the gallery and then to provide support while she sets up everything."
"No, Chris was right. You look terrible. You could use some rest, and while JD is many things, restful ain't one of them."
"I can sleep while the boys are at school."
Ezra just looked at him. Then, before he could dwell on how much it was going to hurt, he pushed himself to his feet.
"Thanks, Ez. I owe you big time. Only Pammie's - "
"Spare me the salacious details. I confess I'm apprehensive that JD might feel uncomfortable with me. I don't want to do anything else to hurt those boys." Ezra set off across the room at a slow limp.
All trace of humor dropped from Buck's face. "You haven't done anything but help since the day we first met them. JD has this fixation about my injury bein' your fault, even though I've been through it with him over and over. But it terrified him and he needs someone safe to blame. And to him you're about as safe as it gets. I know he's hurt you and I'm as sorry as I can say for that. Just give him time."
Ezra gave him a look of astonishment. "I'm not blaming JD. This entire situation is my fault. If I had just - "
"Ezra Standish, I swear if you weren't being held together by sutures I'd kick your bony butt clear down the drive. Dammit, you haven't done anything to apologize for!"
His emotions perilously close to the surface, Ezra slowly exhaled until he could be certain his control would hold. He cocked his head and said with mock-seriousness: "Were you aware that the ends of your moustache quiver when you get mad?"
Taken aback, Buck gave a bellow of laughter. "Now that was sneaky."
"You're not coming in here with me. I don't need a hand for what I have in mind," Ezra added pointedly.
"Well, that's a relief!" Chortling at his own pun, Buck remembered just in time not to nudge Ezra in the ribs.
Before he could say anything else, Ezra closed the bathroom door in his face.
When Ezra emerged a few minutes later, smelling of toothpaste, Chris was waiting for him.
"The sooner we start this the sooner it's done," Chris said briskly.
Ezra swallowed the retort which sprang to mind.
His eyes slitted with concentration, Chris made no attempt to break the silence, until he lost patience with the twitching muscles which were making his task so much harder. This spell of nurse-maiding Ezra was giving him an even healthier respect for the work Nathan did as their unofficial medic. It wasn't as though he'd ever thought that he liked hurting people but he was surprised by how much he hated doing this. He felt like a damn torturer.
"Keep still," growled Chris, but he winced before Ezra did.
"I'm tryin'," said Ezra through gritted teeth, as he fought not to lash out. The welts over his hip and right shoulder blade, where the flesh was closest to the bone, throbbed like hell at the best of times. This didn't come close to being one of those.
"Those painkillers should be taking the edge off this," said Chris, pausing to study his handiwork.
"I can't think straight when I take them, so I didn't."
"Then you'll just have to suffer in silence. This might smart a bit." Chris freely admitted that he would be glad when Nathan had checked his work.
His eyes beginning to water, Ezra swore softly and comprehensively, as articulate in invective as in all else.
"That must be a good twenty dollars you owe the swear jar," said Chris with amused relief. If Ezra had the breath to swear so inventively he couldn't be feeling too bad. "Sorry," he added a moment later, as Ezra hissed in discomfort.
"It's fine." Ezra instantly tried to relax.
"You'd say that if I was sawing off your leg."
The torn muscles down the length of Ezra's back knotted, jumped and twitched as he was beset by a series of savage cramps. A grunt escaping him, he turned his face away as he rode them out.
Chris rubbed the back of Ezra's neck. "Easy," he murmured, in the voice he used for gentling nervous horses. He stopped work, waiting until he saw Ezra's grip on the side of the pillow ease.
"I'm not going to force them on you but I think you should reconsider taking those pills. They're muscle relaxants," Chris added, when he judged Ezra to be in a state capable of taking in what he was saying.
His face slick with sweat, Ezra slowly shook his head as he met Chris' gaze again. "I can't. I'm babysitting JD later. Yesterday I could barely remember my own name, let alone be responsible for the safety of a child."
"No need to worry about that," Chris told him cheerfully. "Vin and I will go to the fair at the weekend instead. It was his idea," he added, before Ezra could say anything. "I think he wants to keep an eye on you."
Ezra stared fixedly at his pillow. He was not going to weep. "He is the most extraordinarily unselfish child," he said at last.
"Yeah, he is. Of course, the fact he loves you probably has something to do with it. I'd best go make sure he's dressed. By the time I get back these pills should've kicked in. Here." Chris handed over the medication and a glass of water and left the room.
On his return Chris got back to work. With the dressings removed the extent of Ezra's injuries was plain; the bruising was out fully, in lurid streaks and splotches of green and purple-black. Allied with the livid welts, claw marks and black sutures, Ezra's body offered a stark reminder of just how close they had come to disaster. If the mountain lion had clawed Ezra's belly it would have disemboweled him. If he hadn't been there to protect the boys...
His imagination going into overdrive, Chris had to pause until his hands steadied, haunted by images of Vin and JD mauled and...
An over-active imagination was an expensive luxury in his line of work.
"I suppose it's too much to hope that you've finished?" said Ezra into the silence, sensing something amiss.
"Yeah. The reality - the enormity - of what you did just struck home. I've never thanked you for saving the boys' lives. If you hadn't been there..." His voice roughened with emotion, Chris didn't trust himself to say more as he stared at the damage etched on Ezra's body.
The body Ezra had unhesitatingly kept between the boys and an ugly death.
"Thank you," he whispered. "I mean it, Ezra. Thank you for keeping them safe."
"Don't!" protested Ezra sharply, turning his face away. "You can thank me for the car trips with projectile vomit, for my having to eat at McDonalds, or being woken at godforsaken hours of the morning but never, ever thank me for that. Badly injured as it was, that mountain lion was so fast. Ah should have spotted it earlier. Should never have taken the boys up there without a weapon. Should..."
Chris crouched beside him the better to make his point. "Whoa there. In all the years I've lived here I've never heard of a cat coming down off the mountains, let alone approaching humans. I've taken the boys up there countless times, with no more protection than a tube of sun-block. We were lucky. What if it had happened when Grace was with them?"
"Can we change the subject?" said Ezra abruptly. "It's bad enough that every time Ah close my eyes Ah see..."
"I thought you hadn't been sleeping. I must admit, I've been having a few bad dreams myself and I bet Buck's been the same. It's funny how reaction can hit so long after the event."
"I have no idea how you parents do this," admitted Ezra, finally looking at Chris, who shrugged.
"One day at a time sums up my method. Of course, I'm lucky enough to have a lot of help from my friends."
"I knew there was something I needed to tell you," said Ezra abruptly. "You need better security. I took your rifle to go after the mountain lion. While I wasn't at my best, I got your gun cabinet open in seconds."
"Not at your best... Dammit, Ez. It never occurred to me until now. How did you get up that hill again, never mind back down with the carcase of the cat, with only one workable hand and bleeding like a stuck pig?"
"That isn't important."
"The hell it isn't!" Chris sank onto the chair beside the bed. "I didn't mean to yell. It's just... I reckon you weren't the only one in shock. All Buck and I could think of was getting the boys to hospital as fast as possible to get them checked out."
"Which is as it should be," said Ezra firmly. "I confess, I don't remember much except, for some reason, cleaning the rifle in the barn."
"You cleaned..." Chris swallowed what he had been about to say. The last thing Ezra needed right now was a lecture. "What?" he added, when he saw Ezra's frown.
"I can't remember if I reloaded the rifle before I returned it to the gun cabinet. I shouldn't have of course but my thought processes left something to be desired at the time." Ezra made to push himself up, an impetuous move which made him grunt with discomfort.
"Rest easy," soothed Chris. "As soon as I've finished here I'll go check."
"Do it now." It had the sound of a plea rather than a command. "When I was a rookie in Atlanta there was this family..."
"I'm going," said Chris hastily. "You just try and relax."
When Chris finally came back into the room he was smiling. "The rifle was unloaded, the cabinet locked and the key in the box on the high shelf. But I've taken the precaution of locking my study. I'll leave the key with you until I can get arrange for some better security for the guns."
"I could do that. If you're willing to entrust the task to me."
"That was as subtle as a knee in the - "
"Did it work?" interrupted Ezra.
"You have a free hand," said Chris without hesitation.
He feigned deafness when Ezra murmured: "Something tasteful in lilac then."
JD could hear Chris' voice coming from the guest-room and raced in to share the elephant joke Buck had just told him. He ground to a halt when he saw Ezra flat on the bed what could be seen of his back all kinds of funny colors.
"It's all right, JD. You can come in. I'm just cleaning Ezra's sutures for him," said Chris.
"Is he asleep?" asked JD, in a whisper which probably carried to the kitchen.
"I'm not sure," prevaricated Chris, leaving the decision to Ezra.
"I'm awake. Good morning, Master Dunne," said Ezra, turning his head and offered a warm smile of reassurance.
"Mornin'." JD made a beeline for Ezra, only to pause, one crayon-smudged hand hovering over a particularly ugly patch of claw marks across Ezra's shoulder blade. He had been begging to see what was holding Uncle Ezra together, having overheard Buck talking to his Uncle Nathan, but the reality made his hazel eyes grow wide and his chin begin to wobble.
"Gently, JD," Chris cautioned.
"I won't touch. It shoulda been me," JD added in a breathy whisper. "Unca Ezra got hurted instead of me even after I un-adopted him 'cause he got Buck hurt only he didn't really get Buck hurt it was a I forget what and it's all my fault..." The first fat tear rolled down his cheek.
"JD, breathe," commanded Ezra, his supple voice slow, warm and infinitely reassuring as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. His lower body cocooned in the sheet, he gathered JD in with his good arm and was caught in a strangle-hold grip. If it caused him any discomfort, he gave no sign of it that JD noticed.
"That's the way. Just breathe," Ezra repeated. "Everything's fine. Sssh, everything's fine."
JD's scarlet and rather damp face finally emerged from concealment. "You got hurted 'cause of me. Vin said so."
"He did? Are you sure that's what he said?" Ezra used the corner of the sheet to mop the worst of the mucus from JD's face with a lack of squeamishness which would have been beyond him a few months ago.
Chris wished he had a camera handy.
"I needs to think." Frowning with the effort involved, JD looked up. "He said you proctected us."
"That's protected, JD. It means to keep safe. Buck, Chris, Nathan or Josiah would have done exactly the same thing. I need you to listen to me for a moment. No, don't wipe your nose on your sleeve like that. Revolting boy. Blow on this. No, I don't need to inspect it. You're an obnoxious child but I love you anyway."
That elicited a small giggle, but JD was still clutching Ezra in a way Chris knew had to hurt.
A sense of being under surveillance made Chris look around to see Buck standing in the doorway, one shoulder propped against the jamb. Buck held a finger to his lips, not wanting anything to disturb the mending of this particular fence.
"What's noxious?" asked JD, his breath hitching as he lifted his head from concealment.
"Obnoxious. It means odious, or disgusting - or in this instance, please don't wipe your nose on your sleeve again. Now, do I have your full attention?"
"I'm listenin'," JD whispered.
Ezra held those trusting hazel eyes with his own. "Good, because I want to be certain you understand this. It's my honor and privilege to be your uncle. That gives me the right to do anything necessary to keep you and Vin safe. Including protecting you. As for un-adopting me. You're free to adopt me, or un-adopt me as you see fit. You've nothing to blame yourself for, JD. None of this is your fault. A cruel, thoughtless person set a trap, which injured the mountain lion so badly that it couldn't hunt its usual prey and had to leave where it normally lived. The person who set the trap is to blame, not you. Do you understand?"
More tears and snot transferred themselves from JD to Ezra as the little boy nodded vigorously against Ezra's neck. "But I'm sorry you got hurted," he whispered.
"I know you are. It's just scratches and bruises. They look scary but they're already healing. It's all right, JD."
"No it's not 'cause I don't remember," he wailed suddenly. "Just bein' mean to you an' fallin' down and this scary noise an' then we was runnin' like the wind and I held you so tight and wanted Buck and then he was there an'..." JD's voice ran down for want of breath.
"Of course he was there for you," said Ezra. "In fact he's here now."
Wondering when Ezra had mastered the art of seeing through the back of his head, Buck moved around the bed to crouch beside them.
"C'mon, Little Bit. Let's leave Chris to carry on pickin' holes in Uncle Ezra while you and me go see about some food. You can help me fix something special for them both for breakfast. What do you say to pancakes?"
"With Mickey Mouse ears?"
"Yay!" yelled JD at full volume, before he bobbed forward to give Ezra a smacking kiss on the ear. "Love you, Unca Ezra."
"And I love you too, Master Dunne."
Ezra watched Buck escort his son from the room, JD singing off-key at the top of his voice. "I am never going to get used to the noise that child makes," he murmured, as he swiped at a minor irritation, remembering just in time to use his good hand. "Oh, good grief, I think I've got a Cheerio stuck to my ear. And my neck's covered in - " The look of revulsion on his face was priceless.
Chris gave him a comforting pat and tried to grin where it wouldn't show. "Stay put. I'll get you a washcloth. Once we're finished here I'll change the sheets too."
"You are a prince among men," said Ezra, with genuine gratitude.
"Hold on to that thought. I haven't finished cleaning your shoulder."
Ezra muttered something uncomplimentary.
"You might want to reconsider insulting me till I've finished picking crud out of you," said Chris with a grin, as he returned with a damp washcloth and a towel.
Ezra visibly thought about it as he made use of them. "Why? You won't take advantage."
"How much?" said Chris, straight-faced.
"What?" said Ezra blankly.
"How much do you bet me?"
Ezra was so busy laughing that it was a moment before he noticed that Vin had come in and was perched on the chair at the side of the bed.
"What's the joke?" asked Vin, happy that Chris and his uncle had stopped fighting.
"It's just that Chris seems to be turning into me," explained Ezra.
Vin's eyes widened. "He ain't gonna start talkin' in big words, is he?"
"Of course not," said Ezra, just before the two-edged possibilities of that reply occurred to him.
They occurred to Chris as well and this time it was he who began to laugh.
Vin shrugged his incomprehension, but smiled because Chris was happy.
Chris remembered to wash his hands again before returning to work on Ezra's right shoulder blade.
Vin leant in close, the better to watch proceedings. "Your back's kind of yucky lookin', but it's interestin' at the same time," he said, breathing heavily in Ezra's ear.
"Why thank you, Master Tanner. I've always wanted to be described as 'yucky looking'."
Vin gave a shy smile at the salutation. He couldn't figure out why Chris and Buck and his other uncles were so slow to understand that most of the time it was Uncle Ezra's way of saying that he liked you, the same way Buck mussed his hair.
It was kind of scary the way adults didn't understand everything, or got things wrong, like Chris had. But Chris had admitted he'd been wrong and said he was sorry and Uncle Ezra hadn't been a bit mad but was smiling real smiles instead of those pretend ones. And when he'd finally said he'd been wrong about un-adopting Uncle Ezra Chris had said he was proud of him and Uncle Ezra was looking at him like he was too. So maybe getting things wrong didn't matter so much here as at those other places. One day he might risk asking Chris.
"Kin I help?" asked Vin.
"Your assistance would be much appreciated," said Ezra promptly. "Your father is being inordinately slow this morning. If you would be kind enough to read to us it would give us both a welcome distraction from this distasteful business and put you ahead with your homework."
"But I thought Chris liked torturin' you," said Vin innocently. "I heard him telling Uncle Nathan on the phone."
There was a startled silence.
Ezra half-turned and began to chuckle when he saw Chris' mortified expression. "Oh, why is there never a camera around when I need one? I never thought I'd see the day when Chris Larabee was at a loss for words."
Only half-understanding the joke, Vin giggled anyway.
"Don't you go encouraging him," teased Chris, kissing the top of his son's head and wondering how Vin had managed to get his hair sticky so early in the day.
"Those scratches look real sore," said Vin, peering at Ezra's shoulder. "I kin feel the heat comin' off them from here." His finger hovered an inch or so over the spot.
"They are sore," confirmed Chris. "I know this hurts Ezra but it has to be done if he's to heal. So instead of thinking about how much I hate doing it, I try to make a joke about it. Do you understand?"
Vin took his time to think it through. "I guess. It's kinda like eatin' broccoli. You don't like the taste but it's gotta be ate if you want ice-cream."
"Eaten, Vin, not ate. And it's exactly like that," said Ezra, giving Chris a quizzical look. It hadn't occurred to him to wonder what this task must be like for the other man - beyond the obvious embarrassment for them both.
"Mr. Larabee, joking aside, you don't need to do this. I can - "
"You keep your ass where it is," growled Chris. "We want you where we can see you. Right, Vin?"
"You owe the swear jar a dollar," said his ever-loving son mischievously. "You shoulda said 'butt'."
Chris gave a hard-done-by sigh. "Go take one from my wallet. Ezra, stop laughing."
"How kin you tell that when you can't see his face?" asked Vin, perplexed.
Ezra bit his pillow, his shoulders beginning to shake.
Chris gave the area covered by the sheet the gentlest of swats.
"I just know your Uncle Ezra. And right now he thinks we don't know he's laughing his head off. What is it?" he added to Vin, who was eyeing him thoughtfully.
"I'm beginnin' to think that, 'cept for the fact Uncle Ezra uses bigger words, you and him sometimes sound a lot like me and JD."
"'A hit, a very palpable hit'," murmured Ezra, looking first amused, then mortified as the implication sank home.
Chris gave a reluctant crack of laughter and slung an arm around Vin. "You could be right," he conceded. "So which of you am I? Bearing in mind that Ezra talks like he's being paid by the word."
"But you're not so loud as JD," Vin told his uncle consolingly.
"Damned with faint praise," sighed Ezra, crushed.
"You owe..." began Vin.
"Not in this instance, my mercenary young friend, because 'damned' isn't being used as an intensifier - which would be a swear word, in this case, Vin. Although, on reflection, I suppose that in order to operate within the strict letter of the law payment should be made. While otiose, failure to make payment might otherwise be construed..."
"Uh?" Vin looked at his father for a translation.
Chris gave Ezra a tolerant look and made a mental note to get a more comprehensive dictionary. "I think his pain meds have finally kicked in. Go get your book, son. Odds are he'll still be talking when you get back."
Vin was still laboriously working his way through the chapter when JD dashed in. "Vin! Come quick! 'S a secret," he added, full of self-importance, when Chris glanced up.
After much muttering between the two boys just outside the bedroom door, Vin reappeared. "Chris is 'bout done with you now Uncle Ezra, so you don't need distractin' no more. I've gotta do stuff. I'll read more to you tonight."
"I look forward to it."
There was the thunder of feet racing towards the kitchen.
"How's your digestion?" asked Chris, as he tidied everything away.
"Why?" asked Ezra with suspicion.
"Those pancakes Buck was talking about. I think the boys might be fixing them from scratch. For you."
Ezra gave a soft groan. "I'm going to have to eat them, aren't I?"
"Unless you're man enough to tell them you're gonna reject their efforts." Chris's expression was bland but the amusement in his eyes betrayed him.
"There isn't a speck of mercy in you, is there?" recognised Ezra with resignation.
"Doesn't seem like," Chris agreed cheerfully. "Don't give up hope. If they're too disgusting Buck will try to burn them."
After much excited whispering JD and Vin came to fetch Ezra. Chivvied along, he limped into the kitchen, dressed in the drawstring pants and baggy top he'd worn the day before, with his third day of stubble, bed-hair, muzzy-headed from the pain medication and suffering from sleep deprivation. He gave the coffee pot a look of hope but Vin handed him the orange juice he had squeezed himself, rather than using the juicer.
While the pulp was fine, the pips and the pith added a piquant touch. Ezra would have chewed his way through worse than that to keep the smile which blossomed on Vin's face when he was congratulated on a job well done.
"Now mine!" cried JD, tugging at the bottom of Buck's sweatshirt. "Da-aaa, you'll burn it."
"Not quite, Little Bit. There you go, Ez." Unseen by JD. Buck mouthed an apology to Ezra as he slid a plate containing a dark brown pancake with Mickey Mouse ears in front of him; the slightly charred blueberry eyes had a sinister look.
The antibiotics made Ezra feel vaguely nauseous at the best of times; the sensation intensified when his first small mouthful of pancake proved to be crunchy. His eyes widening, he realized the batter mixture JD had prepared so carefully for him included a generous helping of egg shell.
"I did it all myself, not outta packet. Only the first egg got squished on the floor an' the second one went all over the table. I was gonna scrape it in but Da said best not. But it worked on the third go. Is it good?" JD added, leaning into Ezra, certainty shining from him.
"I can honestly say I've never had a meal like this," said Ezra, sharing his attention between JD and Vin. "Your efforts are much appreciated. It was a very thoughtful idea."
"It's 'cause we're sorry you got hurted proctecting...protecting us," corrected JD.
Chris watched as Ezra struggled not to let emotion get the better of him and came to the rescue when Ezra looked as though he was about to lose the battle. He ruffled JD's hair and tucked an arm around Vin.
"That's a lovely idea, boys." Then, because he couldn't resist the temptation, he added: "Eat up, Ez. It'll be getting cold."
Ezra crunched manfully through another mouthful. But his eyes promised retribution at a future date.
"Buck cooked it. We ain't big enough yet," said Vin. "I added the blueberry eyes."
Ezra promptly ate both and pronounced them to be delicious.
"Boys! Move it, or you'll miss the school bus!" yelled Buck from the hallway.
JD scampered off to collect his backpack.
More organized and less enthusiastic about school, Vin hovered. "Seems like Uncle Ezra could use some company while he's sick."
"Your uncle is looking healthier by the minute. Just not healthy enough to go home," Chris added, forestalling Ezra. "Besides, you've got art today. Here's JD. Jackets on, then I'll race you to the top of the drive."
Ezra survived the racket caused by both boys feeling the need to yell goodbye to him several times more until finally there was silence. He gave a small sigh of relief and limped over to the waste disposal to scrape away the evidence. He looked round to find Buck grinning at him.
"That was a real noble thing you did. Eatin' so much of that pancake showed true grit. I did my best to burn it so you wouldn't have to but JD was watching me like a hawk."
"Coffee would help me get over the experience."
"I figured. Here." Buck handed over a large mug, the coffee made just the way Ezra preferred it.
"How did you and Chris manage to avoid eating any?" asked Ezra, his expression blissful as he took his second sip.
"The boys wanted it to be just for you. I must go. Help yourself to anything you want. Do not shower, go into the stables with those wounds, or leave. I know I've forgotten something," Buck muttered, patting his pockets. "Car keys, lap top, wallet... Where did I leave my wallet?"
"Here." Chris swiped him on the back of the head with it. "I found it by the swear jar."
Buck gave a broad grin. "Oh yeah. Vin caught me muttering what Ez said when you were cleanin' his sutures. 'Feculent' somethin' or another."
"'Whoreson'. He called me a 'feculent whoreson'," said Chris absently. "I still haven't looked up 'feculent' yet. Though I've got a shrewd idea what it means. You go on. I need wheels for that meeting on the other side of town."
"You'll have to give me a ride to the office. I had to leave my car when I collected Ezra's. I'll go turn your truck around."
With a wave to Ezra, Buck headed out while Chris located his laptop where it had been hidden under a pile of clean laundry.
"I've given up wondering how these things travel," he said to Ezra.
Little of his attention on Chris, Ezra took another blissful mouthful. "One should never underestimate the restorative properties of coffee," he murmured.
"So when's it gonna work the miracle on you? No, tempting though it is, I haven't got the time to bait you. Make yourself at home but do not - "
" - play with matches?"
Chris gave a reluctant grin. "That too."
"I called you a 'feculent whoreson'?"
"I'm sure you deserved it," said Ezra blandly.
Chris gave a snort of amusement. "Giving you that coffee was a mistake. You carry right on the way you're going. I'm keeping tally."
The sound of a car pulling into the yard drew his attention. "Hell, who's calling at this hour? Oh, it's only Nate. Buck owes me five dollars. I was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to keep away. Ezra, play nice. Let him check your sutures."
Ezra's mutinous look vanished when Chris added: "I'll be glad to know whether I'm cleaning them properly." To his astonishment the emotional blackmail worked. He made a mental note.
"You will still be here this evening?" checked Chris.
"I've already promised Vin I'll stay until my back's healed. Now go so I can clean the eggshell from between my teeth."
Chris was still pulling a face reminiscent of Vin as he met Nathan at the door, pausing to clap him on the side.
"Morning, Chris. I just wanted to see how Ezra's doing. I may be a few minutes late for work."
"Then I shouldn't let the boss catch you sneaking in," grinned Chris. While he'd growl and snap at them, the team knew they had some leeway regarding work hours, not least because of all the unofficial overtime they clocked up. "He's in the kitchen."
"Good morning, Mr. Jackson," said Ezra with a smile.
"Ez." Nathan gestured to the bag he held. "I figured you'd have a job finding shirts of yours to fit over that cast, so I brought you some of mine. They're all old, so no need to fret if you have to slit the cuffs. The flannel's warm and soft and shouldn't irritate your sutures."
"I'm obliged to you," said Ezra, with real gratitude. "While Chris is going to collect some things from my apartment, it had occurred to me that there could be a difficulty finding tops to fit. And Buck's shirts..." He shuddered theatrically and fell silent.
"That's what I figured," said Nathan with a grin. "You look... Have you had any sleep?"
"Not much," conceded Ezra, because there was little point in lying while he looked like hell.
"I thought I could take a look at your sutures while I'm here. You had us worried."
"Sure," said Ezra without enthusiasm. "I'm still recovering from the breakfast JD and Vin prepared for me."
"You mean you ate something they fixed?" Nathan gave him a look of respect. "You're a braver man than me." His smile fading, he fidgeted where he sat, on the opposite side of the table from Ezra.
"I came round this morning because I wanted to apologize for doubting you. I'm not denying we've had our ups and downs but I trusted you in the field almost from the first week and you've never given me cause to change that opinion."
"It's fine," said Ezra, who had no desire to open old wounds.
"No, it isn't," said Nathan firmly. "You deserve better. I don't know what came over me. We were watching while Chris debriefed you and..." He frowned, trying to place an elusive memory.
"Let it go," said Ezra tiredly, in no emotional state for an in-depth discussion on why his friends had found him so untrustworthy. "Coffee?"
"Not right now. There's another reason I stopped by. I was hoping to get your advice about something," said Nathan awkwardly.
Ezra stared at him. Nathan Jackson was one of the most self-assured men he knew - and with good reason. Intelligent, with a meticulous eye for detail, competent in all he undertook, calm under fire, hard-working...
"I would be honored to do anything I can to assist you."
"It's... This is just between you and me, right?"
"If that's what you wish, of course."
"Only Rain... That is, I'm... I'm thinking of asking... Hoping that she might agree..."
All charm and dimples, Ezra's face was lit by a delighted smile. "Why, Mr Jackson. Are you contemplating matrimony?"
"Uh huh. I intend to ask her next weekend. I want the day to be really special for her but I can't decide what would be best. I thought about taking her away to a hotel somewhere, but they're kind of impersonal. Then I wondered about a fancy restaurant and a show. Or if I cooked her a special meal at my apartment. I don't think you've seen my place since probate was granted. I needed somewhere to store Daddy's furniture till I can figure out what to keep and what to get rid of so it's all crammed into my place and we can barely move around. I'd go to Rain's but her room-mate never goes out, so I'm stuck. Any suggestions?"
"First, calm down. You have plenty of time to organize this. From my observations, what Rain enjoys most is being with you. What does she enjoy doing most with you? Apart from that," added Ezra, as Nathan gave a broad, very happy grin. "Though thinking about it..."
"No, I didn't mean it in the salacious sense." Belatedly realizing he had been suckered, Ezra gave Nathan a look of reproach. "It's a shabby trick to take advantage of a man spaced out on pain meds."
"We have to take all the advantage we can get with you," Nathan told him unrepentantly.
But Ezra was lost in thought. "My apartment is large and, as you gentlemen are constantly complaining, virtually empty. I could organize movers to shift your father's furniture to my place. When you feel the time is right you can see your father's furniture set out properly, rather than jammed together, and decide what pieces you want to keep. I can also organize the food and flowers -you'll need to let me know Rain's favorites. The aim is to make your apartment as luxurious and inviting for her as possible. Perhaps some new soft furnishings - sumptuous throws and big floor cushions. A luxurious rug. Silk sheets, if she would enjoy them. New toiletries for the bathroom. And candles, of course. Wear clothes you know she likes. Don't pull that face. That sort of thing matters to women and she's bound to have bought you things, operating under the delusion that she'll change you. And champagne - good champagne. I can offer recommendations, if you would like them. Make sure you have some suitable music. Sinatra and Nat King Cole perhaps. Or Ella Fitzgerald. If ever there was a time for the classics..."
Nathan sank back in his chair, shaking his head in wonder.
"Ez, you're a genius! That sounds perfect. Between the demands of her job and mine, it's been an age since Rain and I have had time just to revel in being together. And we both love my apartment - when we can move around in it. Are you sure you wouldn't mind storing Daddy's furniture?"
"Positive. I wish you'd mentioned your difficulty before now. This evening, put labels or stickers on everything you want moved out, leave a set of keys with me and I'll organize the movers. Together with anything else I can help with. The one thing I have plenty of at the moment is time, so don't hesitate to make use of me."
Forty minutes later a very happy Nathan headed off to work, the lengthy shopping list Ezra had helped him to prepare safely tucked away in his wallet, together with another list of everything Ezra was going to organize for him.
It was only when Nathan sat at his desk that he realized he had forgotten to check Ezra's sutures.
Cunning little bastard, he thought fondly, just before he remembered to add 'engagement ring' to the top of his list.
While it had taken some doing, Ezra managed to arrange for the delivery and installation of a new high-tech gun cabinet for late that afternoon - and as he intended to insist on making it a gift no one need know just how much he had spent on it. He knew he was over-reacting but couldn't shake off the memories of the Henderson family, whose nine year old son had shot dead his two younger siblings. Pushing away the unwelcome memories, he concentrated on organizing all the arrangements he had agreed with Nathan.
Ezra had intended to see to some chores in an attempt to earn his keep, but discovered that with only one arm he couldn't even make fresh coffee; the lid of the grinder had a tendency to stick, requiring one hand to hold the body while he twisted the top with the other. Muttering maledictions under his breath, he had just admitted defeat when he saw Josiah's car pull up outside.
Ezra exhaled slowly and braced himself for whatever might be coming. He had vague memories of Josiah at the hospital, and here at the ranch on his first day but he hadn't heard from him since. He hadn't particularly wanted to, able to recall with uncomfortable clarity the unprovoked attack he had suffered at Josiah's hands.
His wariness didn't prevent him from finding a smile when Josiah came into the kitchen; fooling people was what he did for a living.
Josiah took one look at Ezra's bright, empty smile and too tense body and wished he had put this off. He should have made his apologies to Ezra days ago but hadn't found the courage to admit what he had done, self-righteously telling himself Ezra had deserved it.
Except he hadn't. And even if Ezra's actions had led to Buck being injured, physically abusing a friend was no answer. Especially when that friend had made no effort to defend himself.
"Should you be up?" Josiah asked bluntly.
"I'm fine. What can I do for you?"
"Forgive me, I hope," said Josiah simply. "I was too much of a coward to say this before but I was trying to convince myself that my attacking you had been a nightmare, or somehow justified. As if it ever could be. I was - still am - ashamed to meet your eyes and admit what I did. I was drunk that evening. Ugly, sodden drunk. But that's no excuse for attacking you and I'm truly sorry for it. It's the reason I don't drink normally. Even a small amount of alcohol brings out my demons but that evening I didn't care. I wanted to get drunk. I wanted to forget."
Ezra took the line of least resistance and made it easy for him. "Do you want to tell me why?"
"Nothing excuses what I did to you."
"Ah hardly need you to point that out to me," said Ezra, keeping his voice even only with some effort. "And if you ever strike me again, Ah will press charges. Unless you think such behavior is a suitable example to present to your nephews?"
"I would never..." Exhaling, Josiah bowed his head. "Your point is well taken. I was just so... Lorna... The relationship's over," he said bleakly.
Ezra nodded. About the only person who would have been shocked by that news was Josiah himself. For such an intelligent and worldly man he had appalling judgment where women were concerned, seeing them for what he wanted them to be and not what they were. It was an oddly immature attitude for a man who could be so wise.
Perhaps that was why Josiah's attack had been so devastating, Josiah the last person he had expected...
Let it go. It was done with, Ezra reminded himself tiredly.
"I should leave. I have to see Chris. Officially," said Josiah into the silence.
"If you make this official it will go on your record."
"I think it deserves to, don't you? Besides, I intend to resign from the ATFE."
"That's a splendid gesture of contrition but what will it achieve? You're of far more use on the team than off it."
"But everyone knows, or will know, what I did."
"What you did to me," Ezra pointed out, his voice still even. "Ah can only presume you want me to face the gossip alone."
Josiah looked away, fidgeting. "I hadn't thought of that."
"You must expect mah welfare to be mah first concern," Ezra said sardonically.
He was doing what he did best, recognized Josiah with a pang, diverting attention from the fact he had been so hurt by the betrayal of a friend. Not that Ezra would ever admit it, of course.
The odds were he'd never be trusted enough to get close to Ezra again. Ironic that you only appreciated how much a friendship meant to you when you'd thrown it away. The men he worked with were the closest thing he had to family now his sister was gone.
That night he'd left the bar without a scratch on him, which meant Ezra had made no attempt to defend himself from the choke-hold which had left him sliding down the wall, semi-conscious. But Josiah knew Ezra must have been wearing that same damn smirk he was wearing now; only today he lacked the control to conceal the hurt he was feeling.
"I went to my first AA meeting yesterday evening," Josiah said abruptly. "I intend to do my best to take control of my drinking. I want to apologize to you again. Not just for the physical pain I caused you. Or for making us a public spectacle in the bar."
Ezra's pride winced at the reminder.
"...but for betraying your trust. It's a terrible thing to have a friend turn on you. I can't promise I'll never do again, but I can promise to do my utmost to see I don't. I would hate to lose your friendship."
His wariness defeated by the anxiety in Josiah's eyes, Ezra didn't hesitate. "You won't," he said with certainty.
Josiah gave his first smile since arriving at the ranch. "Thank you. While my first instinct is to hug you, you look as if everything hurts."
"There's also the danger that I'll hit you with my cast. I nearly knocked myself out twice," said Ezra, with a ghost of a more familiar grin. "Would you like some coffee?"
"I should see Chris before my nerve gives out. I still find it difficult to accept what I did and..."
"Then you'll definitely need coffee."
Light dawned. Diverted from self-pity, Josiah gave a toothy grin. "Ah, and the coffee grinder requires two working hands to open." He got up to see to it.
It occurred to Ezra that he had become an open book to these men. It was, he supposed, the price of friendship.
But it still made him uneasy.
It was only when Josiah had left that Ezra realized who Chris was going to blame for the incident in the bar. Goodbye fragile peace, hello open warfare, he thought dispiritedly.
He tried to think what he should do. Not that he had any options. He'd given Vin his word that he wouldn't leave the ranch. Of course, that would be nullified when Chris threw him out but...
Tension playing havoc with the torn muscles of his back, he eased onto a chair by the kitchen table. After a while, his head settled on the arm outstretched on the table top as fatigue caught up with him.
When Chris stormed into the ranch, Ezra jolted awake, his eyes looking vast in his too pale face as he pushed himself to his feet. He was forced to grip the edge of the table for support.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me?" demanded Chris, without explanation or preamble. "No wonder the other team leaders have been more full of bullshit than usual. The news of the brawl must be all around the eleventh floor! Why didn't you report this?"
For a moment Ezra couldn't think what to say and by then it was too late.
"Damn it to hell! You thought I knew, didn't you? You thought I knew and that I didn't care!" Chris slapped his palm on the table top, making Ezra flinch. "Josiah attacked you!"
"Ah know. Ah was there."
Abruptly Chris' expression changed, anger draining away as he slumped into a chair opposite Ezra. "You're white as a sheet and I'm shouting like a madman. None of this was your fault, I know that." He ran a hand over his face and made a visible effort to control of his temper. "I'm sorry. I wish you'd felt able to trust me enough to come to me. But that's my fault, not yours. This is why Josiah doesn't drink. Alcohol turns him into something ugly. Something dangerous."
"It wasn't just about Buck. He'd discovered that Lorna was..." Ezra trailed off into silence. She was a calculating woman who could have taught his mother a thing or two about manipulation. But while his mother could be a tad difficult, Lorna was cruel.
"Josiah has the worst taste in women. You know you could press criminal charges for what he did to you?" That earned Chris a look of impatience.
"Of course Ah do. And should it ever happen again, from any member of the team, Ah won't hesitate to do just that."
With a jolt of dismay Chris realized the warning was directed at him. He couldn't deny he'd come close to slugging Ezra on occasion but...
"Because Josiah notified me officially about what happened I have to follow procedure," Chris said, taking refuge in protocol. "I'll need a statement from you. I thought it might be easier for you to make it here. Now, if you feel up to it."
Ezra tried to conceal his distaste at the idea. "Of course. There's just one thing. You'd arranged to take Vin to my apartment tonight. Had you forgotten Buck won't be here for JD? While I'm happy to babysit, whether he'll take kindly to being left without either Vin or Buck is another matter."
"Damn, I had forgotten. We'd best leave it until tomorrow then. If you could keep an eye on the boys until I get home. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Ezra scratched his stubble and stifled a sigh at the thought of another day without a razor.
Home later than he had intended, Chris took one look at the hyper-active boys and another at an exhausted looking Ezra. Silently taking down the tub of pills, he shook out two.
"Take these. Then go sit. Relax. The boys can channel some of their energy into helping me to fix dinner. Sorry I was late."
"It doesn't matter," said Ezra predictably.
"We've been having fun! Haven't we Unca Ezra?" cried JD.
"Yes indeed," said Ezra, as he swallowed the pills dry.
Vin straightened from an unsuccessful headstand to give his uncle a critical look. "Are you OK?"
"Just sore and a bit tired. Nothing to worry about," Ezra assured him.
"Boys, into the kitchen with me," commanded Chris.
Still full of energy, they raced off.
"Chris, before you go here's the key to your study. You have a new, state-of-the-art gun cabinet with a key pad and password protection. I can take you through it whenever you want."
"Thanks," said Chris with real gratitude. "How much do I - ?"
"I should like to make a gift of it."
Chris' eyes narrowed. "It was that expensive, huh?"
Because there was no point in lying - Chris would know the truth the moment he set eyes on the cabinet - Ezra nodded. "I know I over-reacted but even the best small boys get curious, or lose their tempers and have terrible accidents... I should be grateful if you would let the subject drop."
It was a moment before Chris recognized how nervous Ezra was, as though he expected to be chewed out at best... Chris took a steadying breath and managed to swallow his pride without too much difficulty. There were more important things.
"Thanks, Ez. I'm obliged. Now, go sit before you fall down. I'll call you when the food's ready." The surprised relief he spotted before Ezra thought to mask his expression made Chris wonder how many times he must have over-reacted to something Ezra had said or done. Yet he'd ordered the cabinet anyway, putting the boys' safety ahead of everything else.
Chris headed into the kitchen, giving an involuntary smile when he saw the two eager faces beaming up at him. It never ceased to amaze him how little it took to keep the boys happy. "OK, what do you say to spaghetti with the special home-made Larabee tomato sauce?"
It was far quicker working without the boys' 'help' but both he and Buck had agreed to involve them as much as possible in every aspect of home life, which included all the chores.
"Can we have another spaghetti sucking competition?" pleaded JD.
"I thought we agreed we wouldn't be doing that often," said Chris. Though he couldn't blame the boys - it had been his bad example which had started the entire thing.
"Just this once," coaxed Vin. "It won't form a... There's this word Uncle Ezra told me... Pressident?"
"Precedent," recognized Chris. "Well remembered. Just so long as you understand that you must eat spaghetti properly unless we've agreed otherwise. Right, let's get started. I'm planning on making a double batch of sauce. Buck forgot to buy chopped tomatoes so to save work I'll use the blender. If you guys could fetch what else we'll need. If you can remember..."
After some muffled consultations, Vin and JD got busy.
"I bet Uncle Ezra's never had a spaghetti sucking competition," said JD gleefully, as he set mushrooms and a bulb of garlic on the counter, while Vin fetched the scallions.
Busy opening cans of tinned tomatoes and pouring them into the blender along with some salt, a teaspoon of brown sugar, a generous helping of freshly milled black pepper and lots of dried oregano and thyme, Chris thought that was a pretty safe bet. He was kind of looking forward to seeing Ezra's expression himself.
Sprawled face down on the couch, lost to another nightmare in which he was helpless to rescue the boys, Ezra started awake to the sound of shrill screams coming from the kitchen.
He didn't remember racing through to the other room, only the blood which was dripping from JD's hair. Hurdling a fallen high stool, Ezra was in the act of vaulting over the breakfast bar when his hand skidded on something. Already committed, he saw Vin on the floor, twisted to avoid landing on him and found himself performing an ungraceful half somersault. His arm flew out, his fibreglass cast thumping against the granite edge of the counter top, followed by his back hitting the sharp edge of the end of a unit, an ornate metal handle catching the sutures over his shoulder blade.
A sharp sound of pain escaping him, the next thing Ezra knew he was slumped on the floor, hurting in places he'd forgotten he possessed, while he tried to catch his breath.
He blinked when he found JD, Vin and Chris kneeling around him. Something warm and wet dripped from the wall unit onto his cheek. He swiped at it, staring at his red-smeared fingers, before wiping them on his shirt.
"It's tomato sauce. Just tomato sauce," Chris told him.
"I was asleep," Ezra murmured to himself, as though trying to make sense of events. "Had a nightmare. Heard screaming. Thought it was the mountain lion. Saw the blood..." He turned his head in Chris' direction with a caution which suggested his body was demanding payment for his burst of athleticism. "Tomato sauce?"
"I left the top off the blender," Chris explained. "When I switched it on..."
"Kapow!" JD flung up his arms to demonstrate, inadvertently distributing flicks of sauce over Ezra and Chris. "It was scary, Unca Ezra. Was you scared?"
"Yes, I was scared. I didn't realize my dream had got mixed up with dinner." Ezra gently wiped a red smear from JD's cheek, then licked his index finger. "Not enough salt," he told Chris.
He made no attempt to move as he surveyed the kitchen, which looked like the set of a horror movie with a particularly lavish budget.
One arm around Vin, the other around JD, Chris absorbed the reality of what Ezra had intended. "Thank you," he said quietly.
"For my saving you from tomato sauce? Buck's never going to let me live this down," said Ezra ruefully.
"Oh, I think he will when he realizes that, with one arm in a cast, you were prepared to take on a mountain lion."
Ezra mumbled something incomprehensible, then realized that Vin, still silent, was staring at him.
"I didn't kick you, did I, Master Tanner?"
"Course not," he dismissed, obviously deep in thought, before he turned to Chris.
"When Uncle Ezra ran in he looked... Is he that fierce when he's huntin' trolls with you?"
Chris gave Vin a sharp look and thought the better of the reassurance he had been about to offer. "Yes, he does," he confirmed.
Vin gave a blinding smile. "Good. 'Cause that way I know he'll keep you safe."
"Yeah," echoed JD, who didn't really understand what was going on. "You was scary, Unca Ezra." But there was approval rather than fright in his voice.
"Thank you," said Ezra, although he wasn't sure he understood what the conversation was about. He still looked faintly puzzled to find himself slumped on the floor, supported by a cupboard door.
Chris remembered the force with which Ezra's back had impacted with the unit. "Can you move?"
"Undoubtedly. But for the moment I believe I'll stay where I am."
"Because it's going to hurt like fuc...fury when I try to move. Vin, JD, would you be kind enough to take twenty dollars from my wallet for the swear jar?" Various parts of his body were beginning to hurt rather a lot and Ezra doubted if the warmth he could feel trickling down his back had anything to do with tomato sauce.
"You don't need your wallet," Vin told him. "You was comin' to rescue us. I'll pay. I've got three dollars left outta this week's pocket money and Chris knows I'm good for the rest."
Meeting Chris's gaze over the top of Vin's head, Ezra was relieved to see he wasn't the only one close to being unmanned by the warm-heartedness of that offer, not least because it came from a boy who, until recently, had owned nothing.
"That's the most generous proposal I've heard in a very long time. And I greatly appreciate it, Master Tanner. However, I believe one dollar will suffice. I'll need to choose my word carefully, to get maximum value. What's the rule regarding hyphenated words?"
"Dollar a word, irrespective," said Chris gravely, before he gave Vin a loving smile.
"Hmmn. I shall have to make it count then. I'll have plenty of time to make my choice while you strip the boys off and get them into a bath..."
From the indignant protests Vin and JD made Ezra might have been suggesting the vilest of torture.
"It ain't fair, making us do that before we eat," complained Vin, giving his uncle a look of betrayal.
"But then we won't have to do it after," pointed out JD, who excelled at finding silver linings in clouds.
"We could have pizza with extra cheese," said Chris, who wasn't beyond bribery when the need arose.
Vin yanked off his tomato splattered tee shirt without another word of argument.
"Whoa there. Into the shower off the mud room with the pair of you. Ezra..."
"I'm not allowed to shower, remember?" said Ezra, flippant in an effort to distract himself from his discomfort.
"The only place you'll be going is hospital. Can you hold out until the boys have been fed? I didn't think when I offered them pizza," said Chris, worried by Ezra's pallor.
"I can wait until Buck gets back later tonight. Otherwise you'll have to bring the boys to the hospital, which will undoubtedly delay their bedtime. They have school tomorrow. Speaking of the boys, you'd best go see to them before you end up with a tomato trail through the house."
"You gave that cast one hell of a clout."
As this wasn't news to Ezra, he didn't dignify that with a reply.
"You've reopened those gashes on your back too, haven't you," recognized Chris.
"No one loves a smart...wise guy," amended Ezra ungratefully. "I'm fine. Sore, humiliated and covered in tomato sauce but otherwise fine - except for the fact I can't even swear without costing Vin money. Go away and let me be miserable in peace."
"My work here is done," grinned Chris as he headed after the boys.
His over-confidence cost him as an accurately hurled dollop of sauce splatted against the back of his head. Because that was followed by a sharp, cut-off sound of pain, Chris decided to let it pass.
"You just couldn't keep away from us, could you?" said the young doctor with the manic cheer of one for whom four a.m. was the middle of his 'day', as he checked Ezra's chart.
"Another humorist is all I need," said Ezra with groggy acidity, from where he lay, face down on the bed, an IV in his good hand and fresh dressings on what little was visible of his back.
"You've acquired a new cast - take better care of this one. Fortunately you hadn't broken any more bones in your wrist or hand. But I had to do extensive repair work to most of your existing sutures. Not to mention suturing those new gashes you acquired. You dislocated the thumb of your right hand, tore the rotor muscle of your right shoulder and strained a muscle in your groin. Oh, and you broke the little toe on your right foot. I don't think I've forgotten anything. Tomato sauce, wasn't it?" he added brightly. He was learning to take his pleasures where he could find them.
Ezra swallowed the first reply which came to mind and roused himself to produce some basic civilities. It was only after the doctor left that he appreciated that Chris had been present the whole time.
"Does the concept of medical confidentiality mean nothing to you?" he enquired.
"You're my responsibility," said Chris simply.
Away from the swear jar, Ezra felt free to express himself with some vigor.
"Yeah, yeah," said Chris, when the other man had wound down. "Damn it, Ezra. The only reason you're here is because - "
"I skidded on tomato sauce," Ezra reminded him.
Chris studied him. "I still don't know how you managed to run that fast, the way your back is, but you raced in, unarmed - one-armed, come to that - believing those boys were under attack. And yeah, it ended in farce, but it was still pretty damn heroic."
Prone on the bed, what could be seen of Ezra's face flushed. "Get me out of here," he mumbled irritably. "I''ll be glad to get back to my apartment."
"You're coming to the ranch with me," said Chris mildly.
"No, I'm really not," said Ezra, firm because he didn't relish the prospect of another week of Chris picking crud out of his new sutures.
There was a lengthy silence.
"I see. So what do I tell the boys? They've been abandoned so many times that - "
"Oh, that was low," said Ezra bitterly.
"Yes, it was," admitted Chris, without any sign of remorse. " Did it work?"
"Of course I'm serious," snapped Chris, shocked to see how exhausted Ezra looked under this stark lighting.
"I don't want you playing nurse-maid again."
"Well, it's me or Buck. Unless you'd rather we got Nathan to come out to the ranch?"
Ezra's look of horror spoke volumes. While Nathan's care would hurt less, he would lecture incessantly. And fuss. And worry. And...
"I hate being so dependent," he whined into the pillow.
"I would too. It's only for a few days," comforted Chris, knowing that if their positions were reversed he wouldn't be behaving nearly as well as the currently cranky Ezra. "Just come back to the ranch. Please."
Ezra was so taken aback by that plea that he forgot the brilliant argument for independence he had come up with.
It occurred to Chris that he must try saying 'please' more often, especially where Ezra was concerned.
Ezra was moving like an old man as he limped from the truck to the house. Glad the boys had gone off to school, because the sight of Ezra would only worry them at the moment, Chris saw him to his room, more concerned than he cared to admit by the lack of argument - the lack of any reaction at all.
Ezra fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
"I never expected to be grateful to be suspended but at least some good's come out of it. I can keep an eye on Ezra. I'll take good care of him," Josiah added, when Chris showed no sign of leaving.
"I know you will. It's just..." Chris cast another worried look at the sleeping man.
"I haven't forgotten what I did to him. That will never happen again," said Josiah, the weight of his guilt still heavy on him.
Chris put an arm around Josiah's shoulders in a rare, demonstrative gesture. "It never occurred to me that you would. And if I know that, you can bet your last cent that Ezra does. The hospital confirmed that he's suffering from exhaustion."
"It's hardly surprising," pointed out Josiah. "Ezra never sleeps well when he's under deep cover. He came straight from the op. into that shooting and the mess with IA. Then he got injured by the mountain lion. Now this. Although it could be a blessing in disguise because he'll have to take things slowly for at least two weeks. How did you persuade him to come back here?"
"Emotional blackmail," admitted Chris. "I used his feelings for the boys."
"Which Ezra is smart enough to recognize. He's here because he wants to be. Though you'd never get him to admit it."
"What time is your AA meeting this evening?" Chris asked.
"Not until eight. Buck will be home to relieve me long before then. Go to work," said Josiah, smiling. "You know what Ezra would say if he found us hovering over him like this."
"I reckon the swear jar would benefit," allowed Chris. "I'm going to grab a couple of hours and then go in to work. Wake me?"
"Take four. Buck called in. Everything's under control, with everyone up to their eyes in paperwork. I'll wake you just before midday."
Exhausted after his thirty-seven hour day, Chris nodded and headed for his room.
Secure in the knowledge that Buck and JD were back at the ranch with Ezra, who was asleep again, Chris thoroughly enjoyed the chance for a little one-to-one time with Vin.
Chris had never taken to Ezra's apartment on the few occasions he had visited it, finding it as impersonal as a hotel suite, albeit an expensive hotel suite.
"It feels funny without Uncle Ezra, don't it," said Vin, getting straight to the heart of the matter.
"It sure does," agreed Chris. His mouth tightened when he saw the brownish stains of dried blood on the wall, where Ezra had obviously leant against it. Worried how bad it might be in the bedroom and bathroom, he added: "How about you check the ice-box for perishable food while I clean up and pack. When you're done, you can watch cartoons."
"OK," said Vin equably.
Chris wasted no time getting to work. The bed in Ezra's room was unmade, the bed linen blood-stained, as was the shower cubicle and towels. It obviously hadn't occurred to Ezra to seek help from the friends he assumed had turned their back on him. Chris quickly cleaned everything in sight, gathered up the soiled items for the laundry and remade the bed. There was no point leaving things for Ezra to deal with when he came home; the way that cast restricted the use of his arm, he wasn't going to be doing any chores that required two hands - including driving a shift stick now he thought about it. They'd need to organize a car pool.
Toiletries and clean clothes packed, Chris located Ezra's laptop, MP3 player, a few books, and a pack of playing cards. He was just checking the room for anything he might have forgotten when he heard Vin talking to someone. His heart in his mouth, he raced into the living room.
"Vin, I thought I told you never to open the door to - " Chris stopped in his tracks when he found himself facing a familiar figure. His heart sank.
She inclined her head. "Mr. Larabee."
"Please call me Chris. This is my son, Vin. It's a pleasure to see you again," he lied, of the view that this complication was the last thing Ezra needed.
Maude was busy studying her surroundings. "I had no idea Ezra felt the need to pack a houseful of such interesting furniture into one room."
Nor had Chris but he maintained a prudent silence, while wondering when - and why - Ezra had acquired it.
"I've been tryin' to contact my darlin' boy but to no avail. He isn't answering his emails either."
"What brings you here?" Chris ignored her pointed hint.
"I might ask you the same thing."
"Ezra's my friend, a valued member of my team, and Vin's uncle. That makes it my business. We're here to collect some things for him."
"Uncle?" Maude studied Vin as though he was something dubious she'd found stuck to the sole of one her Jimmy Choo shoes. "Oh, yes, I remember," she added without enthusiasm. "Why can't Ezra collect his own things?"
"Uncle Ezra's just got out of hospital," said Vin helpfully.
Chris watched the muscles around Maude's mouth tighten but no other expression of concern marred her expertly made-up face.
"Where is he now?" she asked.
"I took him back to our place earlier today. He's going to need some looking after for a while." Chris was aware that she still hadn't asked how badly Ezra was hurt. He waited her out with ease.
"How was he hurt?" she asked finally.
"He saved JD and me when a mountain lion attacked us," said Vin, anticipating his father.
"I beg your pardon." Maude subsided onto a chair with more speed than grace.
"It's true," confirmed Chris, hoping she wasn't about to faint. He had intended to break the news more gently. But it was a relief to know she wasn't as unnatural a mother as she sometimes appeared.
Even with some interruptions from Vin, it didn't take long to tell Maude what had happened.
"Whoever set that trap has a lot to answer for," Chris finished, his expression grim.
"Are you alright?" asked Vin, when he noticed that Maude was blinking rapidly.
"I have something in my eye."
Vin nodded wisely. "That's what I always say if anyone asks me. You don't need to be upset. Uncle Ezra mends real fast and we're all lookin' after him."
"Good," said Maude absently. Her attention on a jacket abandoned on the arm of the couch, she hooked it towards her, the muscles of her face tightening as she held it up the better to examine it. The back of the expensive brown leather jacket hung in bloody strips from the collar and the shredded cream silk lining was stiff with dried blood. Her hands unsteady, she set it down gently.
"Was Ezra wearing that when...?"
"I imagine so," said Chris, shaken by the stark illustration that, but for that jacket, Ezra's injuries would have been a great deal more serious.
"You're really sad Uncle Ezra got hurt, ain't you?" said Vin into the silence.
"What?" Maude straightened her back, tugged at the cuffs of her jacket in a manner reminiscent of her son, and gave Vin her full attention. "Of course I am. What a peculiar question."
"I don't see why. JD and me didn't reckon you'd care what happened to him. We thought you didn't want Uncle Ezra. It's why we adopted him. Everyone needs someone to love them." Vin saw another reminder of his uncle appear on Maude's face - that blank, frozen smile which made his gut twist.
"Does - Did Ezra tell you I didn't want him?" Maude seemed to have forgotten she was talking to a seven-year old.
Feeling surplus to requirements, Chris watched his son handle Maude better than he ever could.
Vin gave her a look of scorn. "Course not. You're his ma. He'd never say nothin' against you. You kin come back to our place and see him."
"Of course I can't, you ridiculous child. I have a plane to catch," she lied, panicking at the thought of having to deal with what had always been a nightmare scenario for her.
"It ain't ridiklus for a boy to want his ma when he's hurt and feelin' lower than worms," Vin told her earnestly. "Uncle Ezra ain't even talkin' much. Chris says that ain't natchrel."
"I really should be going." Maude rose to her feet.
"You kin always take a different flight. He's your boy and he needs you." Feeling completely at ease with Maude, because today she reminded him of Uncle Ezra, Vin took her hand, gave it a gentle tug and headed for the door with Maude Standish in tow.
Shaking his head in wonderment, Chris hastily collected up the various bags and hurried after the unlikely pair. When he saw Maude's elegant designer luggage by the front door he paused to add those to his load.
Her expression schooled, Maude followed Chris to the room her son was occupying. Quite how Ezra had allowed this odd family to take over his life was a mystery to her. She supposed this small, shabby 'ranch' had a certain rustic charm but Ezra had been brought up to appreciate the best of everything.
As Chris opened the bedroom door the heat hit her like a blast from an open oven door.
"I know it's kind of hot in here but I'm keeping the heating up because Ezra's feeling the cold more than usual. If you're worried, or you need anything..." It was a moment before Chris appreciated that all Maude's attention was on the man lying face down on the bed, so deeply asleep that he didn't even stir.
His face turned towards them, Ezra's good hand was tucked under his cheek. Naked except for a sheet to his waist and dressings, what could be seen of his back looked particularly ugly, with new bruises over-laying the old.
"He..." Maude paused, cleared her throat, and tried again. "Should he have left hospital?"
"It isn't nearly as bad as it looks," Chris reassured her in a low voice.
Maude gave him a look which would have soured milk at ten paces. "Allow me to be the judge of that. Kindly elucidate. What, exactly, are Ezra's injuries?"
Chris told her, protecting Ezra's dignity by not mentioning the part tomato sauce had played in the most recent of them.
Some of the tension had left Maude's shoulders by the time he finished. She seated herself in the chair placed at the bedside with a nod of thanks. It was a clear dismissal.
Chris hovered, reluctant to leave Ezra to her dubious care, before he realized how ridiculous he was being - she was Ezra's mother. He gently closed the door and headed towards the muffled sounds of giggling coming from the kitchen, where the boys were 'helping' Buck fix dinner.
Her body clock still operating on European time, Maude sat watching her sleeping son. Heaven only knew what had made him dye his hair such an unflattering shade of orange. The color was far too bright and the appalling perm made him look like a seedy salesman - not to mention a good ten years older than his true age. Even in sleep he looked tense - and unhappy. As for that sad excuse for a beard...
The door opened to reveal Chris, who was holding a tray.
"You're welcome to have this in the other room, but I figured you'd rather be with Ezra," Chris murmured, before he left as quietly as he had arrived.
Maude studied the food: a plain omelette, with a mixed salad on the side, thinly sliced bread and butter and two ripe pears. There was even a napkin - paper, not damask, but she supposed one couldn't expect miracles in this back of beyond.
The omelette smelt wonderful. Much to her surprise she ate everything.
Then she just sat, listening to the soft sound of her son breathing.
Chris looked in for the last time just after one in the morning. 'Doing the rounds' he had called it. He brought Maude a surprisingly good cup of coffee, told her yet again when Ezra needed to take his medication, and left.
Maude sipped her coffee and tried not to think how close she had come to losing her son. She had almost accustomed herself to the dangers of the job Ezra insisted on doing, only to discover that he couldn't even take two boys fishing without stumbling upon an injured mountain lion.
He'd fought it off with his bare hands to keep those boys safe. Put himself between them and the cat.
Despite all her training he was just like his damn father. Bad enough that Robert had ended up shot dead in the street, trying to stop a mugging. Putting the safety of a stranger before that of his pregnant girlfriend. He'd only been a police cadet for three weeks...
She would never forgive him for dying like that. Never.
If anything happened to Ezra...
The clock on the bedside continued to notch the silence, marking the passage of minutes into hours.
Maude woke from a doze to find Ezra still asleep but obviously in some distress, although she could make no sense of his jumbled muttering. Uncertain what to do for the best, she perched on the side of the bed and stroked his hair, yet to accustom herself to the orange perm. It was a moment or two before she realized she was humming that ridiculous mockingbird song she had sung to him when he was a little boy.
Ezra's eyes were still closed and she thought he probably wasn't fully awake. He hadn't called her that since he was six-years old.
It was a moment before Maude trusted her voice. "Go back to sleep, sweet boy."
"If Ah do you'll be gone when Ah wake up."
The desolation in the soft, slurred voice tore at her as she remembered promises that had been made and broken too often as she struggled to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But she had always kept one vow. "This time will be different. Word of a Standish. Sleep now."
She continued to stroke his hair until she saw his face relax again and his breathing deepen. She returned to her chair, beset by unwelcome memories.
At eighteen she'd been a single parent, forced to live with her disapproving grandmother, her only close relative. At her death, three years later, she and Ezra had been left homeless, with no money, or qualifications to earn more than a pittance. She'd married a con man five months later - not that she'd known his 'affluence' was built on a house of cards until it was too late. He'd taught her the tricks of a grifter and she'd learned to take her chances where she could find them. He'd left her, of course, taking what little she'd accrued with him, but by then she'd learned enough to get by. If only she'd realized how terrified Ezra had been of him...
Marrying a mark for his money had seemed the next logical step. She'd had only two requirements; that potential husbands never by word or deed hurt or scared Ezra and that they were rich. With each marriage their financial security improved. It had taken a while - too long - before she had understood what she had lost, sending Ezra away to those expensive boarding schools; putting the needs of the husband of the day before her son during the vacations.
But it had been easier than meeting Robert's eyes in Ezra's face. He'd been such a sweet little boy, so loving - so perfect for cons. But he'd changed when he was sent off to his first boarding school. The sweet boy became sullen and intractable. Just when she'd thought it couldn't get any worse, he'd turned into a judgmental teenager, always needing more than she was capable of giving. Just before his eighteenth birthday, as she had mapped out her plans for him, they'd had the most terrible argument. Ezra had left home that night and vanished, cutting all ties with her.
It hadn't taken the private detectives she'd hired long to find him. Waiting for Ezra to contact her had been the hardest thing she'd ever done. But he hadn't. Instead he had taken on two jobs, as well as various gambling enterprises, playing poker at a level to make a mother proud. The poker had been something of a relief; as soon as the private detectives had told her about that she had been able to help Ezra without his knowledge.
He'd put himself through college, a feat made possible only because he had forged her signature on myriad forms (proof that he'd listened to some of her training) - that and the scholarship he'd won to Duke and never told her about.
He'd continued to hold down a variety of jobs, alongside his gambling, making quite a name for himself on the professional poker circuit. All thrown away with his absurd obsession with law and order.
With an MBA, a respectable bank balance for a twenty two year old and the world at his fingertips, he had chosen to become a policeman. Just like his damn father.
His dead father.
Terrified for him, she'd gone to Atlanta and fed him a sob story about her failed marriage and her need for money. Ezra had given her his last cent.
He'd always been too trusting.
But at least communication had been re-established. She had ensured it was never lost again, although she'd had to make all the running. He never instigated contact, as though he didn't believe he would be welcome. Yet another lesson she had inadvertently taught him.
Her need for money was the story that always worked best with him. She had abandoned him too many times when he was young for him to believe she wanted to see him for his own sake.
Ezra's hand felt cold, despite the heat of the room, and she eased the covers over his shoulders. The gesture had the opposite effect to what she had intended, starting him awake.
"Mother?" His sleepy query sharpened in a heartbeat. "What's wrong?"
It hurt that even half-awake he guarded his expression from her. Although wasn't that just what she'd trained him to do?
"Why should anything be wrong?" she said lightly. "Couldn't I just want to see you?"
"What do you want, Mother?"
"I don't know what you mean," said Maude, playing the part expected of her.
Ezra sighed. For a woman who had only ever married for money - or so she claimed, and nothing else seemed to explain her partiality for a couple of her husbands - it was a mystery to him how often she found herself in financial difficulties sufficient to require his help. While he willingly gave his financial aid, he drew the line at participating in any of her crazy schemes that would have involved him giving up his job to trail around Europe with her.
"Ah'm many things, but Ah don't believe anyone has ever called me a fool. How much do you need?" he asked tiredly.
"My flight was diverted. I decided to make the most of it and take you out to dinner." Maude had no intention of admitting how terrified she'd been by her inability to reach him for over two and a half months. "I hadn't realized you'd taken to battling with the wild life." She watched the down-sweep of his lashes as he avoided her gaze, braced for her displeasure. "I'm glad you won," she added, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. "Though you simply must do something about your hair. What were you thinking?"
Ezra visibly relaxed at that, his smile one of genuine amusement. "I'm an undercover agent. The trick is to be convincing in a role, yet be able to return to my real life afterwards. The best disguises are relatively simple to achieve - hair color, a change of style, colored contact lenses, spectacles, body language, and accent..."
"Well, you'd certainly be no use to me at the moment. You look thoroughly disreputable."
"Just the effect I was aiming for. How long can you stay?" Ezra added, studying the pillow. If pleading looks hadn't worked when he was young, they certainly wouldn't work now. It was childish to expect more of someone than they were capable of giving.
"It feels like an age since I saw you last. I can spare a few days," Maude said casually. "Go back to sleep. It's not even dawn."
Ezra frowned. "What about you?"
"I'm fine right where I am."
"You're not ill?" checked Ezra, his frown deepening.
"Of course I'm not."
"Then why are you here?"
Abruptly she'd had enough. "Piet and I have homes in London, Amsterdam and New York. What could possibly drag me to this back of beyond?" She experienced another pang when her sharp-witted son took far longer to process the information than he should have done.
"You really did come to see me," he realized, looking surprised, pleased and wary all at the same time.
"Would you feel better if I asked you for money?" retorted Maude tartly.
Because he wasn't at his best, it was a moment before Ezra realized he had hurt her.
"I'm just glad to see you," he said, for once offering the simple truth. "I always have been."
There was so much love in his smile that it melted all her hard-won defenses. She hadn't lost him. Despite everything, she hadn't lost him. She hadn't known that. Hadn't dared to hope...
Her answering smile wrapped itself around Ezra like the hugs he had craved as a child and had taught himself not to yearn for.
"I'm glad to see you, too. Very, very glad. Now rest," she commanded in a brisker tone, before she leant forward and kissed his cheek again. Then she just sat smiling mistily at him until he slid back to sleep, some of the lines of strain on his face smoothed away.
Unable to get back to sleep after a nightmare about being unable to get to JD in time to save him, Buck ambled into the kitchen, wearing only a pair of ancient sweat-pants. Bleary-eyed, yet to shave and yawning, he stopped in his tracks when he saw Ezra moving in a kind of limping shuffle as he painstakingly set the kitchen table for breakfast.
"You should be asleep," said Buck, his voice muffled as he pulled on a warm sweatshirt.
"I could say the same of you," said Ezra. "Besides, I slept through most of yesterday."
"You needed it. Though it has to be said, you do look more like your old self today. But I have to wonder if all that sleep has addled your brain. You're doin' menial chores."
"I can't open the coffee grinder one handed and I hoped bribery might work." It was easier than admitting he was trying to avoid thinking about what he did next. It wasn't that he was unwilling to give the team a second chance, just that he couldn't understand how they could want to work with a man they didn't trust, let alone call him 'friend'.
"There's always instant," said Buck, his eyes twinkling. Ezra's views on instant coffee were well-known - and a sure-fired way to fill up the swear jar.
"Wash your mouth out with soap," scolded Ezra. He continued his limping progress between pantry and table as he set out a variety of the boys' favorite cereals. There was already a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice in place. "Don't let me keep you from grinding those beans," he added pointedly.
Buck gave broad grin. "What's it worth?" he teased.
"I've been awake for seventy coffee-less minutes. Name your price."
"The boys' homework," said Buck promptly.
"They're supposed to do it themselves."
"I meant supervising." Buck's eyes narrowed. "You are feelin' better, aren't you?"
"Considerably. It must be the restorative properties of sleep. I had assumed the analgesics were slowing my thought processes but I believe it might have been fatigue."
"Leavin' aside the fact you're still moving like a man of ninety. Tomato sauce...who'd've figured," mused Buck, innocence personified.
Ezra stopped work to give him an accusing look. "I knew you wouldn't be able to resist. Get all the jokes out your system, then get back to making coffee. I'll be glad to look at the boys' homework," he added in a different tone. "But won't they resent my participation?"
"Are you kidding? Your praise means a lot to those boys, and you've got the knack of pointing out mistakes without upsettin' them."
"It's my novelty value," dismissed Ezra, but he looked pleased.
"Right," said Buck skeptically, until it occurred to him that recent events had probably shaken Ezra's confidence where the boys were concerned. "I'm pretty sure cereal isn't gonna do it for me this morning," he continued. "How do you want your eggs? Scrambled, poached, fried, omelette or French toast?"
"Tomato omelette," decided Ezra. "With some bacon on the side. As crisp as you can contrive. And perhaps some mushrooms."
Buck gave a satisfied nod and got to work, knowing Ezra could manage the toaster with one hand.
"What do you reckon we can do to help Josiah through this rough patch?" he asked as he began to crack eggs into a bowl.
"We need to keep him busy. How long did Chris suspend him for?"
"A week without pay and a note on his record. He got off lightly," added Buck, as he poured Ezra a large mug of coffee. He grinned when it was almost snatched from him. "I'm guessing you must have had something to do with that?"
Ezra ignored the question. "I was thinking about moving back to my apartment - I would obviously need a degree of help," he said without enthusiasm. "Guilt alone would make Josiah volunteer."
"Good luck with selling the idea of you movin' out to Chris."
"Buck, it's ridiculous! I'm fine."
"No, you're really not. And you got this way saving the boys."
"From tomato sauce," Ezra reminded him.
"That argument doesn't even convince me, so you can imagine how well it'll play with Chris. You must have noticed that he's extra protective at the moment."
"He's looked in on me every night since I've been here," Ezra admitted. "I pretend not to notice."
"He's been doing it to me, too. He'll settle down once we heal. Though it won't stop him from checkin' on the boys. He's started to wonder why we haven't seen as much of Nate as usual." While unspoken, the question was clear.
"Ah." Ezra put down his mug to rub his nose. "Nathan and I are good but..."
"OK, spill the beans."
"Everything between us is absolutely fine, I promise you."
Buck nodded his satisfaction. "I figured as much. Nate's got a secret, hasn't he? I reckon that's his furniture you're storin' at your apartment, making more room at his place. He's been spending a lot of time staring into the middle distance with a real sappy look on his face. In my book that adds up to a man with a mission."
"I promised I wouldn't say anything," said Ezra simply.
Buck immediately stopped speculating. "Fair enough. I'll head Chris off at the pass, if need be. I've been meanin' to say, you'd be doin' us a real favor if you'd stay on at the ranch while Gloria's on vacation. It's not like you'll be fit enough to go into the office for at least a week and it would mean we don't have to arrange cover for when the boys get home from school. We never worry when they're with you. And you could supervise their homework. I know Chris is real concerned about Vin's confidence and you seem to have the knack of givin' it a boost."
"That was a nauseating display of sucking up," Ezra told him, unimpressed.
"I figured I went too far about halfway through," Buck admitted, unrepentantly. "The important thing is, will you stay? And not just for the boys. Both Chris and I would feel a whole lot happier to have you here. Friends look out for each other and we've been remiss in that department. Besides, we enjoy your company," he added, resorting to the truth. He wanted there to be no more misunderstandings because he couldn't shake off the feeling that if they let Ezra leave before they had sorted out the trust issue once for all, they might lose him in all the ways that mattered most.
"I need sustenance. Hand over that omelette," sighed Ezra, capitulating because he didn't feel capable of deciding about his future yet. He could catch up on his paperwork via his laptop just as well here as at his apartment - and earn his keep looking after the boys. He could even bask in his mother's approval. While it lasted.
Buck beamed at him and remembered just in time not to slap Ezra on his back.
They lingered over the remains of their meal, chatting easily, until the thunder of feet announced the boys, followed by an unusually harried looking Chris.
"...didn't make any noise," defended JD.
"That doesn't excuse the fact I found the pair of you hovering over Mrs Standish, after you'd entered her bedroom uninvited," said Chris sternly.
Ezra groaned as he remembered the boys' fascination with watching visitors while they slept.
Chris nodded his confirmation, before he returned his attention to the boys, who were looking suspiciously angelic. "Once and for all, you do not sneak into a woman's bedroom."
"Oh, I dunno. I've had a degree of success doin'..."
"Buck!" said Chris, looking sorely tried. "Not helping."
Ezra got up to pour him some coffee. "Drink this. Relax. My mother gave up eating children some years ago."
"She did take being sniffed awake better than I expected," Chris allowed. He relaxed onto a chair and took his first mouthful of coffee. "Hey, what are you doing up this early?"
"I've caught up on my sleep."
"You've shaved, too," Chris noted. "And got rid of that damn perm."
"That was a matter of necessity. The orange was in danger of dazzling mother, who had no hesitation in making her feelings known to me. Thanks to the fact you collected my razor I was finally able to shave."
"Not to mention give yourself a buzz cut. Allowing for the fact you've got one useable hand, you didn't make a bad job of it. You should have said you needed a razor, it never occurred to me. Should you be moving round that much yet?"
"I'm fine, provided I don't try to move too fast." Honor satisfied, Ezra eased onto a chair opposite the boys. JD beamed at him with a mouth haloed with orange juice; Vin, who was battling his way through an over-ambitious mouthful of cereal, just nodded in a preoccupied way.
"Exactly why are you so interested in watching my mother?" Ezra asked JD curiously.
"Well, she's real pretty, even though she is old, but then we got to wonderin' if she took her teeth out at night like Billy Joe's ma."
Caught mid-swallow of coffee, Ezra narrowly missed spraying it over Chris.
"I can say with some certainty that she doesn't," Ezra told him, once he had stopped choking.
"Pity," said Vin wistfully. "I'd'a like to have seen that. Billy Joe brags something terrible."
"I bet his ma don't smell as good as Unca Ezra's. She even smells nice in her sleep," said JD, his eyes wide at the wonder of that.
"She smelled nice enough but I prefer the way Chris smells - even if it ain't so sweet," said Vin loyally.
Chris' expression at that backhanded compliment made Ezra compress his mouth in an attempt to hide his amusement. He was doing quite well until he met Buck's eyes and was lost.
It was a moment before Buck was sober enough to enjoy the sight of the most self-contained member of their team flushed and incoherent with laughter; his satisfaction faded when he recognized the desperation behind it. They might have patched up those fences but the basic structure had taken a serious hit. But then the poor bastard must be wondering why his friends hadn't trusted him. Buck had been thinking about that a lot himself and he hoped he'd come up with a theory which might explain it.
"I wasn't tryin' to be funny," said Vin, pink with indignation.
"They were laughing at me," Chris reassured him. "And when Ezra's well enough I'm gonna kick his butt clear to the stables and back." He belatedly noticed Maude standing in the doorway; in stark contrast to everyone else she was impeccably dressed, her light make-up appropriate both for the time of day and venue.
"Uh, Maude, I'm real sorry about the boys going into your room," said Chris awkwardly.
"So you said. Twice, as I recall." Maude sat beside JD. "Young man, a word of advice. Never sniff in a woman's ear - my ear in particular."
"But you smelled lovely," JD told her earnestly, sniffing loudly to demonstrate.
It occurred to Maude that she had made a tactical error in sitting so close to JD while he was eating; she resisted the temptation to edge her chair further away from him.
"If you ate a little slower more food might reach your mouth," she suggested, after watching his shoveling action in a horrified silence.
"I'm stokin' my engine. I'm the Hogwarts Express," JD explained.
"Finish your breakfast quietly, JD," said Buck. "You can go back to bein' a steam train when you're getting dressed."
"OK," he said equably, through another mouthful of cereal, a portion of which shot into Maude's glass of orange juice.
She pushed it away with only the faintest moue of distaste and turned her attention back to JD, who gave her a smile so cheerful that it was impossible not to smile back.
"A gentleman always keeps his mouth closed while he chews," Maude told him as she began to peel an apple with such care that the skin formed one long coil.
"Da doesn't," said JD with irrefutable truth.
Maude glanced at Buck, who was desperately trying to keep his face straight, and shook her head at him. "That doesn't surprise me in the slightest, young man." When she realized she was under surveillance from the other child, she smiled at Vin. "Would you care for a piece of this apple?"
"No thanks. I was jus' wonderin' if I could learn to do that."
"I'm sure you could, although it does take quite a bit of practice. It was a few years before I mastered the art," Maud told him.
"I never have." Ezra couldn't remember his mother ever demonstrating this skill before.
"Me either," said Buck, not adding that it had never occurred to him to try. Food was for eating, not playing with.
Vin looked at his father.
"I used to be able to do it," Chris admitted, experiencing a pang, as he remembered how much Adam had enjoyed watching him. "Here, come share my chair and I'll see if I can remember the knack."
"JD, let Diablo in, would you?" asked Buck.
When Diablo appeared without JD, Buck turned on his chair to see JD staring aghast up at the calendar on the wall.
"It's Unca Ezra's birthday tomorrow," he announced in tragic tones. "I didn't see before and I haven't got him nothing."
"Me, neither," said Vin.
They both gave Ezra accusing looks.
"I'd forgotten," he protested, put on the defensive.
"How could you forget?" demanded JD, who was a great believer in giving reminders about his birthday months in advance.
Ezra's attention was on Maude. "So that's why you're here!"
The relief in his voice, as if her presence required some explanation, was the final straw after weeks of worry, followed by far too little sleep in the last seventy two hours.
"No, I'd forgotten it too," said Maude, her voice hard and tight with tension. "But then you'd expect that of me, wouldn't you? I came to this godforsaken backwater because for two and a half months you didn't answer your phone, or your email, and your office kept fobbing me off with excuses. The private detectives I hired couldn't find any trace of you. I didn't even know if you were alive or dead!" To her horror Maude heard her voice crack, her eyes prickling and burning with unshed tears.
By that time Ezra was at her side. "Mother?"
She buried her face against him, her arms locked around his waist, hugging him tight as she wept.
"Of all the times to develop a maternal instinct," Ezra chided, kissing the top of her head as he rubbed her shoulders.
His lack of self-consciousness and obvious affection for his mother told the two men watching how little they understood the complex relationship between mother and son.
Her composure recovered to a degree, Maude looked up at him. "You always were the most infuriating child. Is this a flannel shirt you're wearing? It's at least three sizes too big."
"A friend lent me some of his because tailored clothes are too uncomfortable right now," explained Ezra.
She released him instantly. "Did I hurt you just now?"
"No," he lied. "I'm sore, that's all. Nothing to worry about. Truly."
Maude gave his stomach a gentle pat. "Sweet boy, you forget... I taught you. The truth, if you please."
Ezra gave a wicked grin. "That's not what you taught me."
"Maybe not but if you're trying to irritate me into dropping the subject..."
Ezra's grin became a fully fledged smile. "It's a method that works on Chris."
Reminded of their audience and uncomfortably aware that she had revealed far too much, Maude smiled around the table, hoping that her mascara really was tear-proof. "Gentlemen, I apologize for that unseemly display. Lack of sleep always makes me maudlin."
"There's nothing to apologize for," said Buck easily, his approval of what he had seen obvious. "You're his ma, it's only natural you'd worry about Ezra."
"I'm sorry," Ezra murmured to Maude. "I didn't think."
"That became all too clear to me," Maude told him tartly. "You and I are going to come to an accommodation about regular communication or there will be trouble, young man. Do I make myself clear?"
"She's real fierce, ain't she," Vin muttered to Chris, against whom he was leaning. But he sounded approving rather than worried.
"Seems like," Chris agreed, noting that Ezra seemed to be bearing up well under it as Maude continued to scold him - although only an idiot would have taken that scolding at face value. He had the sense that Maude was a woman making up for lost time.
Vin wriggled around to face him. "We won't have to unadopt Uncle Ezra again, will we?" he asked, in a voice too low to carry beyond Chris.
"Why would you want to?" asked Chris, with a sinking feeling. He wasn't sure Ezra could handle being unadopted again right now.
"I don't want to but JD and me adopted Uncle Ezra 'cause we thought no one else wanted him but she does. Any fool can see that."
"Don't say 'she', say Mrs Standish's name. And you don't need to worry about unadopting Ezra. There are all kinds of families - those of the blood and those of the heart, those that are planned and those that happen by accident. Ezra getting hurt made me take stock. He was a part of this family long before you boys adopted him, along with Nathan and Josiah. There's no reason for that to change. OK?"
Vin nodded happily, before another thought struck him. "Does that mean I'm a part of Uncle Ezra's family?" He gave Maude, who was still lecturing Ezra, a wary look.
Chris made some vague reply, wishing he was better at spotting pitfalls before he fell into them.
"...I promise to do better in future," Ezra told his mother patiently.
Unashamedly eavesdropping, Chris snorted. "You'd best get that in writing, Maude. If I had a dollar for every time Ezra promised to keep me better informed I'd be a rich man."
"Not to mention better tempered," murmured Ezra.
Buck grinned broadly. "No point in wishin' for miracles."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," said Chris but the amusement in his eyes gave him away. "Maude, I apologize for the fact you couldn't get through to anyone on the team. I'll give you my number. I won't necessarily be able to tell you much, but at least you'll know why you can't get hold of him for a while."
"Vin and me are real good at email," said JD eagerly.
Buck cleared his throat.
"With a bit of help," added JD conscientiously.
"We kin tell you when Uncle Ezra's home 'cause when he first gets back all he usually does is sleep," explained Vin.
"Hibernating is his normal state," teased Buck. "So, how old are you gonna be tomorrow, Ez?"
Ezra returned to the table with the tea he had made for Maude and raised his eyebrows. "You expect me to answer that with my mother in the room?"
"Fair point," grinned Buck.
"Da, we've gotta have a birthday party for Unca Ezra tomorrow!" cried JD.
"I'm up for it," said Buck, his eyes sparkling.
"Me, too," said Chris. "Just family," he added, when he saw Ezra's less-than-enthusiastic reaction.
"An' balloons, and jelly and ice-cream. An' presents," added JD impressively. "Da we gotta go out early tomorrow to buy presents."
"We can get ours at the fair," Chris told Vin, who brightened instantly.
"Presents at five o'clock tomorrow evening OK with you, Ezra?" Chris added. Even to himself it had the sound of a command.
"Uh..." With the sense that he had lost any pretense of control, Ezra took the line of least resistance and nodded. "But Nathan won't be able to make it. He has plans for the weekend."
"What kind of plans?" demanded Chris.
"Plans that don't include us," said Buck, waggling his eyebrows. "I'll call Josiah."
"Chris, the bus!" cried Vin suddenly. "We've missed the school bus and we ain't even dressed yet! We're gonna be in so much trouble."
"Oh, shii... There's still time," Chris soothed. "You and JD run and change, fast as lightning. I'll drive you in. We should just make it if I take the short cut."
"What about your meeting with the DA's office?" Buck reminded him, before he hurried away to shower, shave and dress.
Chris grimaced. "Damn. I'd forgotten that."
"Mother is accustomed to a shift stick. She can drive the boys to school. I'll go with her to give directions," said Ezra. "And should we be even a minute late, my mother will make the necessary excuses for you," he added to Vin. "She's in a class of her own when it comes to making excuses."
Vin's eyes widened. "You mean she lies?" he asked directly.
"Obfuscates," corrected Ezra. "Remember when I explained the word to you?"
"Right now all you need to know is that you won't get in any trouble at school. Go and get ready," said Maude briskly.
Vin gave her a shy grin. "It means fudgin'."
"Well, you go fudge yourself off to the bathroom, young man," said Maude. Despite herself she was smiling as Vin raced off with a whoop.
Chris, who was hastily making up two lunch boxes for the boys, spared Ezra a look of suspicion. "And you'll be back here when?"
"You wound me." Ezra set out cartons of juice for the boys before he began to wash two apples. "Don't forget, I gave Vin my word not to sneak off. Relax," he added, sotto voce, "my mother is an excellent driver. I wouldn't have made the proposal otherwise."
"I should have remembered you'd never put the boys at risk," Chris allowed in a low voice. The lunch boxes duly packed, he turned to Maude.
"Are you sure you don't mind doing this?"
"I'd be delighted," said Maude, with enough conviction in her voice to convince Chris. Her son, who knew her rather better, gave an appreciative grin. "Then I must find myself a hotel."
"No need," said Chris easily. "We'll be glad to have you for as long as you can stay." He was surprised to realize he meant it, not least because of what he was learning about Ezra through watching him with his mother.
While she would have far preferred a penthouse suite, with the added benefit of no small boys, Maude nodded her thanks. "About the party. I wonder if I might be allowed to buy a few things - and to provide the refreshments?"
"The food won't be what you're accustomed to," Chris warned, making a note to ensure he bought everything the boys would be expecting, just in case she didn't understand.
"I believe I can manage jelly and ice-cream. Do the boys enjoy a barbecue?"
"They love it. Just don't let them prepare any of the food you plan on eating," Chris added with a grin.
"I can second that," said Ezra with feeling.
A few minutes later the boys came dashing in, bags in hands, loving this change in their routine now that adults had taken responsibility for their being so late.
Chris took one look at their disheveled state and sighed as he tucked the lunch boxes into their backpacks.
Maude handed Ezra her purse and had the boys looking neat and tidy in three minutes flat.
"You must teach me how to do that," sighed Chris.
"Chriis..." cried Vin, in an agony of impatience to be gone. It wasn't every day they got to ride in Uncle Ezra's Jaguar.
Chris ruffled his hair and stood at the back door waving them off before it occurred to him that he needed to set off himself.
"Nate, you remember when I got shot?" said Buck, as he entered their office with coffee and donuts, his breakfast of three hours before a distant memory.
"Vaguely," said Nathan sarcastically.
"You and Josiah watched Chris debrief Ezra, right?"
"When was it you decided Ezra was lying?"
"That's not fair!" said Nathan, hotly embarrassed, especially since that was exactly what he had done.
"Hold up there, pard. That wasn't an accusation, even if it ended up soundin' like one. Can you remember when, or why?" Buck paused to demolish his donut, sugar cascading onto the file he had been reading.
"Not really," admitted Nathan, puzzled but cooperative. "It seemed the longer I watched Ezra the less I believed anything he said. It doesn't make sense, I know."
"Josiah said more or less the same thing. I rang him yesterday and asked him to review the tapes of Ezra's debriefing. He'll be here any minute to show you what he found. I know Chris has got meetings most of the day so I've asked him to call a team meeting for this evening out at the ranch. Are you free?"
"No," said Nathan firmly.
"Pity. Only if I'm right, it should help cheer Ez up. He's putting on a good show but the fact none of us trusted him is eatin' into him like acid. Not sure I wouldn't feel the same way," Buck admitted.
"I've got some stuff bein' delivered after five thirty," said Nathan, looking harassed.
"Can't Rain see to it?"
"It's part of the surprise for her."
"Surprise, huh? Anything you want to tell me about?"
"Fair enough," said Buck amiably, with a shrewd idea what Nathan's plans entailed. "I've had a brain wave. Ezra's mother's stayin' with us. You can leave work early to give Maude your spare key and directions."
Nathan gave him a look of horror. "Maude Standish at my apartment?"
"She's a sophisticated women. She won't spit tobacco on the carpet."
"That's not funny, Buck. You know what she's like and my place isn't grand."
"It's a damn sight grander than the ranch. I know Maude can seem kind of tricky but seein' Ez hurt has mellowed her some. Trust me," coaxed Buck.
"Like that's gonna work," scoffed Nathan, shortly before he caved in, his resolution undone, as so many times in the past, by nothing more than the Wilmington charm.
Much to his amazement, Nathan found himself confiding his plans for Rain to Maude Standish after he had handed her his spare key and gave her directions to his apartment.
"While I haven't had the pleasure of meeting her, it's hard to imagine that Rain won't love what you've organized," said Maude. "It's rare to met a man prepared to go to so much trouble."
"I'd do more than this for Rain. Besides, Ezra did a lot of the organizing. Gave me some good ideas, come to that."
"He's always had a real eye for detail."
"It's what keeps him alive," said Nathan. "Speakin' of Ezra, where's he got to?" He glanced around.
"He's supervising the boys while they do their chores in the stables. Don't worry. The boys have strict instructions not to let him enter the stables, or do anything but watch," Maude anticipated.
Nathan grinned. "Smart move, getting the boys to keep an eye on Ez. He'll take far more notice of them than he ever would of us. Are you're sure you don't mind doing this for me? It's one heck of an imposition."
"It's no trouble at all. What's really wrong with my son?" added Maude abruptly. "And please don't fob me off with a polite lie. Is something wrong with his job again?"
"I thought you disapproved of his choice of career?"
"I do. I want Ezra safe. But this isn't about me, it's about him. And while he's very good at hiding his feelings, he's about as unhappy as I've ever known him."
Nathan winced. "I was afraid of that. Just hoped I was wrong. There has been some trouble within the team. But we think we know what was behind it now - and it should make Ez feel a whole lot better about us." He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. For the life of him, he couldn't see how anything could make up for knowing your friends didn't trust you.
"Good, because even the most flexible person can stretch only so far and Ezra's at breaking point."
"Thanks again for doing this."
"It's a small price to pay for you keeping Ezra safe."
Nathan paused at the door. "You know we'd all do that anyway?"
"I didn't for certain until I met you," said Maude frankly, before she smiled at him.
Nathan blinked under its impact, for a moment seeing Ezra in that rare, unguarded smile so full of charm that it should have been accompanied by a health warning.
To Nathan's dismay Ezra caught him as he was waving Maude off.
"Dare I ask what you were doing with my mother?" enquired Ezra.
"She's very kindly agreed to take delivery of the last few items at my apartment," Nathan explained.
"You won't be there, getting ready for Rain?" Ezra's eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"Uh, no," muttered Nathan awkwardly.
"Josiah's in Chris' study with Buck." There was a distinct touch of acid to Ezra's voice.
"Chris called a team meeting for later. He wondered if you would keep an eye on the boys." Nathan found it difficult to meet Ezra's eyes.
"Ah see. And when did Ah stop bein' a member of this team?"
Nathan exhaled softly. "Of course you're still a part of it."
"Then Ah'm bein' excluded because..."
Various lies occurred to Nathan but he resisted the temptation to use any of them because Ezra deserved better. "I can't say right now. Just trust us one more time."
"To do what? Ah'll see to the boys," Ezra added, before Nathan could speak. "You'd best go." He turned away before paranoia should get the better of him, then found a genuine smile when the boys rounded the stable block and came racing over, calling out at the tops of their voices when they saw Nathan.
Once the boys had eaten and cleared the table, Ezra helped them to ferry paper, crayons and other craft supplies into the family room. It quickly became clear his company was superfluous to requirements.
"We've got stuff to do," Vin explained, apologetic because Uncle Ezra looked like he wanted company.
"Not a problem," Ezra assured him. "JD, do you need any help?"
"You can't come any closer! It's a secret! For tomorrow,"
Ezra had rarely felt less like celebrating anything.
"Sssh," Vin told JD. "You'll spoil the surprise."
"But Unca Ezra already knows it's his birthday."
"There's no need to squabble, boys. Ah'll be in the kitchen if you need me for anything," said Ezra. He was careful not to linger outside the study door as he went down the hall.
As it approached the boys' bedtime Ezra glanced at the closed door of Chris's study, then supervised JD's and Vin's baths, before reading them a bedtime story. Most of his concentration on what might be going on behind that closed door, Ezra kept forgetting to change voices.
"You're readin' it all wrong!" complained JD shrilly, fractious because he had wanted Buck's help in making Ezra's card.
Ezra glanced at his worried face and exhaled slowly. The last thing he wanted to do was snap at the undeserving. "Ah know Ah am. Ah'm sorry, Master Dunne."
"It's OK. You ain't well. You've gotta make allowances, JD," said Vin.
"I suppose. It's OK, Unca Ezra."
"Thank you both, Ah appreciate that. Ah'll do better tomorrow." If he hadn't been kicked out by then, thought Ezra grimly, aching from his head to his broken little toe.
He tucked in the boys, checked on the nightlight and switched off the main lights. "Sweet dreams. Don't let the bed bugs bite."
"If we're awake later can we wish you happy birthday at midnight?" asked Vin.
"If you're awake," said Ezra absently, before he gently closed the door and headed off to find the nearest sofa.
Home at last, Chris stuck his head around the study door. "Sorry to keep you guys waiting. I got caught by Travis after the meeting finished. I swear some people don't have homes to go to."
"You're here now," said Buck easily.
"It gave us a chance to do more work on this," said Josiah.
Chris nodded. "I'm starving. Can we take it into the kitchen?"
"Where's Ezra?" asked Josiah, as they left the study.
"When I headed out to the john I saw him go into his room," said Nathan.
"Chris, you sit and watch the recording with Josiah and Nate while I make you something to eat. What do you want?" asked Buck.
"So long as it's hot and there's plenty of it, I don't care," said Chris frankly. "Now, what's this about Ezra's debriefing tape?"
Josiah opened his laptop. "We've seen this several times. You don't need the sound. Watch Ezra as if he was a stranger."
Tired and hungry, Chris gave him an irritable look.
"Just do it," said Josiah flatly.
Because Josiah used that tone so rarely, let alone with him, Chris did as he was told.
He was so engrossed in watching the screen that he didn't notice when the bowl of soup was set down in front of him. He found it difficult to credit that he hadn't recognized the difference in Ezra at the time. If he had... He pushed the unwelcome thought away.
"Why the hell didn't we spot that Ezra was still caught up in his undercover role while I was questioning him?" he demanded.
"I would never have believed he could seem so...he's got smalltime loser written all over him," said Josiah. "And see where he rubs his thumb and index finger together, and that way he has of looking to the right - both tells for a liar. We were aiming for a small-time crook and habitual liar with delusions of grandeur because recognizing that would - and did -give him an in with Picardo. But I certainly shouldn't have been taken in by that performance. Damn, the boy's good."
"It's such a relief to know why I reacted to Ez the way I did," said Nathan somberly.
"None of us believed him," said Buck. "Now we know why."
His head in his hands, Chris was muttering to himself in a way that would have filled the swear jar if the boys had been around.
"I checked the deep undercover ops Ezra's been on in the last year," said Josiah. "While this was the only time he played a liar we still treated him like a suspect. On each occasion his reception from at least one of us..."
"Me," interjected Chris.
"Don't take all the credit, we've all done our share. We should have thought of this before," said Buck, chewing on the end of a toothpick. "Real actors only have to stay in a role for short chunks of time on TV or film. Even in theater it's only for two or three hours. There have been times when Ezra's been in so deep he's had to sustain a role twenty-four seven for weeks on end. He comes straight from the end of the op. to debriefing. No time even to catch his breath, let alone shake off physical mannerisms. Plus he's usually changed his physical appearance..."
"It'll be good to tell Ezra what we've discovered," said Nathan. "He's gotta be feeling raw about the way we've treated him. It's all very well apologizing but we should have trusted him. Hell, I do trust him. I just didn't trust that guy sitting opposite Chris. Once Ezra understands it was because he's a victim of his own success at undercover work..."
"But will he be able to see it?" worried Josiah. "It's not easy to be dispassionate about yourself and..."
"Chris will convince him," said Buck.
"Thanks, buddy," said Chris ironically. "I feel like an idiot."
"Humility...always a good start when needing to grovel," drawled a familiar voice, the accent thick as molasses.
The four men turned where they were seated around the kitchen table; it was a moment before they spotted Ezra laboriously righting himself from where he had been asleep on one of the couches in the play area.
"How long have you been awake?" asked Buck, his eyes twinkling.
Ezra rubbed his face and yawned. "Long enough to let Chris off the hook. Much to mah regret." He limped over to them only to stop in his tracks when he saw the recording of his last debriefing playing on Josiah's laptop.
"Have my seat," offered Nathan. "Josiah, start it from the beginning. Ezra needs to see this." He remained at Ezra's side, offering his silent support, as they replayed the disk.
Ezra found it difficult to concentrate; that debriefing wasn't a memory he wanted to revisit. He was on the point of walking off when Josiah placed a hand on his uninjured shoulder.
"I know how hard this must be for you. But this time you know why Chris - and the rest of us - reacted the way we did."
"Don't watch Chris, that's enough to put off anyone. Watch the other guy," urged Buck. "The way you would a stranger who'd just sat down on the opposite side of the poker table."
Ezra concentrated so hard that he didn't realize the others were watching his unguarded face as he slowly accepted what he was seeing.
"Mah God," he whispered finally. "Ah never realized."
"How could you?" said Josiah simply. "None of us did."
"We'll know to make allowances next time you come back from a long spell undercover. Ezra..." Chris grimaced and gave a helpless looking shrug. "I don't know how I can begin to apologize."
"You were reactin' to what you saw and felt. But I confess, it's a relief to understand why none of you trusted me."
"To us, too," said Nathan. "It means..."
"Everything," completed Ezra before he paused, struggling to steady his roughened voice and regain control of his emotions as the realization that he was trusted by his friends slowly sank home. "If you gentlemen will excuse me. Ah could use some air."
"Sure," said Buck. He ran interference when the others gave every sign of wanting to follow Ezra, who was heading into the mud room and the backdoor. "Put on one of the padded jackets hanging up in there," he called after Ezra. "They're forecasting snow."
"Let the man be," he added, when Chris glared at him. "Ezra's just discovered that the reason he's been to hell and back, thinking his friends didn't trust him, is because he's too damn good at his job. You saw his expression just now. Give the guy some privacy. I could use a drink," he added in a heartfelt tone.
"Tea, coffee, juice or soda?" asked Nathan pointedly, careful not to look in Josiah's direction.
Buck sadly abandoned thoughts of alcohol.
"Green tea, please," said Josiah, switching off the recording of Ezra's debriefing. His shoulders slumped, he rubbed his troubled face. "Some profiler I am," he muttered, remembering his drunken attack on Ezra.
"Have any of the other profilers spotted this?" said Nathan. "Course they haven't. You have to wonder if other undercover agents have this kind of problem."
"Maybe they aren't as thorough as Ezra," said Buck. "You wouldn't get many willing to dye their hair orange and get a perm that makes them look... awful."
Chris was too preoccupied to think of making any of the predictable jokes. "Josiah, I want you to go through the debriefing tapes of all Ezra's longest undercover ops. If they support what we saw here I'll need to see Travis." He was angrily aware that he had failed his team. "But this is probably how all those rumors at the FBI started, They certainly missed what was going on with Ezra."
"I'll get straight on to it," said Josiah, grateful to have something positive to do.
Something in the older man's tone roused Chris from his own feelings of guilt; he had a team to look after.
"Monday. Start Monday," he said, patting Josiah on the shoulder. "You'll spend the weekend with us, of course. It's Ezra's birthday tomorrow and the boys want to throw a party for him."
"Chris, I'll get through this, I promise. You don't need to - "
"You're family. Live with it," said Chris.
"Always such a way with words," grinned Buck. "Though he's right. Families stick together through thick and thin. Though I'm not just thinking of you. I reckon Ezra could use the reassurance of you - us all - being around right now. It's time for some team bonding. Or our version of it, anyway."
"I feel so damn guilty. Not to mention helpless," muttered Nathan, his worried gaze on the portion of porch outside the kitchen windows, even though he couldn't see Ezra from this angle.
"How do you think I feel?" said Chris. "I'm supposed to be protecting you guys, not... What a fucking mess. The only consolation, and it's damn small, is that next time Ezra gets back he'll receive the welcome he deserves."
"If there is a next time," pointed out Josiah. "Ezra might not want to put himself through that again. There's also the risk that worrying whether he'll be able to shake off the physical characteristics of a role will compromise his ability to stay under deep cover. I checked some of Ezra's short-term ops. but couldn't detect any problems in those debriefings. It's the times when he's immersed himself in a new ID for weeks on end that he's been met with hostility and mistrust from us."
Buck grimaced. "No wonder he's been looking like an over-stretched piece of elastic. I should have spotted that he was doing too much."
"We all should," said Nathan.
"We just never gave the cumulative effect any consideration," said Josiah.
"I'm taking a beer out to Ezra," Chris announced, in a tone that dared anyone to try and stop him.
"Alcohol nullifies the effect of the antibiotics," said Nathan mildly.
"One beer," said Chris.
Nathan sighed. "Sometimes I wonder why I waste my breath. Go on then. I expect he could use something at that. If we're this shaken I can only imagine what he's feeling like."
Chris bundled on a warm jacket and went out onto the porch, wincing at the savage change in temperature.
Ezra stood with his uninjured shoulder propped against a support post, staring across the moonlit yard to the trees beyond. He didn't turn at the sound of Chris's boots on the boards.
Chris propped himself against the other side of the post.
"Feels like snow," he offered, after a few minutes had passed without Ezra moving.
"What? Yes, yes it does," agreed Ezra, roused from his preoccupation.
Chris took heart from the fact that Ezra hadn't walked off, or slugged him, although the shadows concealed any subtleties of expression.
"Beer?" offered Chris.
"Did Nathan say I could?"
"In a manner of speaking."
Ezra took the bottle from him and saluted Chris with it. "Your good health." He made no attempt to drink from it but returned to staring out into the middle distance.
The tip of Ezra's nose became redder and redder. Chris hoped his own wasn't running. He couldn't tell, it was too damn cold, the yard falling into shadow as clouds quickly obscured the moon and stars. But even in the poor light he was willing to swear that Ezra looked better than he had earlier. Younger. As if some intolerable weight had slipped from his shoulders.
Hardly surprising, given that he must have believed his friends had turned on him. He'd been too quick to believe the worst of Ezra. Not that Ezra had done much to help in those first weeks... Difficult to remember now, Chris mused, shooting the other man another glance.
"Here." Ezra handed him back the bottle of beer. "You have it."
Chris took a long swallow. "You comin' back inside?"
"I'll stay a while longer." Even Ezra's voice sounded more relaxed.
"Right." Chris took two steps towards the house, then returned to Ezra's side. "I just wanted to say... I've let you down and..."
"How could you have known what was happening when even Josiah didn't spot it, let alone me? It would be absurd to blame anyone. And I don't," Ezra added, giving Chris a steady look.
He nodded, realizing that Buck had been right. Ezra didn't hold a grudge. "How do you feel? Truthfully."
For once there was no cutting reply or obfuscation, just a moment's silence as Ezra paid him the compliment of thinking about it.
"Still a bit numb. But lighter," Ezra added. "I feel...lighter."
"I reckon we all do," said Chris awkwardly.
"Lord, we've left the boys to my mother," said Ezra suddenly, straightening where he stood.
"What can she do?" said Chris, untroubled.
"You look at me and ask that," said Ezra lightly.
Chris didn't return Ezra's smile. "If I do half as well by Vin I'll be happy." Some impulse made him add: "I didn't understand Maude. Wouldn't claim to now. But I know she loves you."
Ezra gave him a look of surprise. "Well, I could have told you that."
Chris grimaced. "I guess you could at that."
"Stop hovering," said Ezra with a sudden spurt of asperity. "The only thing to blame for recent events is my inability to snap out of a role."
"You can't juggle while standing on your head either. You're damn good at your job but no one can be expected to be able to shrug off all the physical mannerisms in a matter of minutes. Not even you," Chris added pointedly.
"Modesty has never been one of my failings," conceded Ezra ruefully.
"No, really?" marveled Chris.
Ezra grinned, gave him the finger and relieved Chris of the bottle he held. He shuddered as he swallowed a mouthful of beer. "Damn, that's cold."
"It'll be at least six weeks before that cast is off. Once you've had the physio. for your hand and got re-certified to carry a weapon you're going on a long vacation." Chris was braced for whatever argument Ezra threw at him.
"OK," said Ezra equably.
"It's worrying when I agree with you, isn't it," sympathized Ezra. "That's why I don't do it often. You're right. I could use a break. I just couldn't see it before."
"Nor did I. Which makes me..."
"....over-compensate. Please stop, you'll give me a complex."
Chris gave a soft huff of amusement. "It's revenge for all those gray hairs I can feel sproutin'."
Ezra gave him a thoughtful look, then grinned when he saw Chris waiting to be insulted. "I despise the predictable," he said, pulling up the collar of the jacket. His newly shorn head was feeling the cold.
"I just realized, your mother isn't looking after the boys," said Chris. "They've been fast asleep for hours. Maude too, I presume, because your car was here when I arrived but there was no sign of her in the family room or kitchen. Everything go OK between you two today?" he added, blunt because that usually got the best results.
"Fine. I did everything she wanted," Ezra explained blandly.
Chris gave a slow grin. "She has a way with her," he conceded.
"She certainly does. She wants me to meet husband number six."
"And will you?"
"He's flying over from Amsterdam on Monday. I've promised to have dinner with them next week. They've been married for almost three years. I think she's actually happy with this one."
"But you want to check him out."
Ezra looked pained. "I did that as soon as I knew she was planning to marry him."
Chris gave a crack of laughter. "You have a different way of goin' about things, but I reckon you're as bad as me, in your own way."
"I won't waste time searching for the compliment," said Ezra, smiling. His eyes widened with pleasure. "Will you look at that! The snow's arrived."
"I thought you hated snow."
"I do when I have to travel or work in it. But watching the first few flakes fall is magical. Don't forget, I didn't grow up with cold weather. Go inside. I'm fine."
Chris glanced towards the house, grinning when he saw three faces trying to look as if they weren't watching them through the glass door of the mud room. "I can't guarantee you won't be interrupted. They aren't going to go away, you know."
Ezra followed the direction of Chris' gaze. "I suppose they won't. I'd best go in before they come out. Nathan hates the cold even more than I do. What either of us are doing in Denver is anyone's guess."
"Well, come on then," urged Chris.
"The worst of it is, Josiah's bound to want to hug me," said Ezra mournfully.
"Don't whine. Besides, the amount of guilt we're all feeling, it's not just Josiah you have to worry about."
Ezra turned to Chris. "OK."
"Eh?" said Chris, who had lost the thread of this particular conversation.
"You can hug me." Straight-faced, Ezra opened his arms.
Chris's appalled expression all he had hoped for, Ezra was still laughing as he limped indoors, where the others pounced on him. He emerged rumpled and pink-cheeked from what had turned in to a team hug.
"You have a warped sense of humor," he told Chris.
"That's rich, coming from you," retorted Chris. "Damn, but I'm hungry."
"Me, too," admitted Ezra. He nodded his thanks to Josiah, who had helped him to extricate the arm that was in the cast from the jacket sleeve.
"What have we got?" asked Chris, as the group headed for the kitchen, laughing and talking at the top of their voices.
"It's more like what haven't we got," said Buck. "When Maude shops, she shops. She does know there's only us family going to be at your party?" he added to Ezra.
"She likes to buy things," shrugged Ezra. Aware of the quantity of bags and boxes hidden in her room he knew that everyone would be enjoying presents on his birthday. "Is there any steak?"
"Some of the finest I've ever seen," confirmed Buck. "Good thinking, pard. Steak, tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions and fries all round?"
Everyone nodded enthusiastically and Nathan and Josiah helped Buck set out what they needed.
Ezra sat at the table. "Unfortunately my injuries..." he began.
"That reminds me," said Chris. "When was the last time anyone cleaned your sutures?"
"Before he left hospital," said Josiah.
Ezra gave him a look of betrayal.
"I'll see to them," said Nathan.
"Oh, revenge is sweet," said Chris, to an appalled looking Ezra.
"But I haven't done anything yet," Ezra protested.
"You can't claim you weren't thinking about it," said Nathan, grinning.
"Well, no," Ezra conceded. "But for now I just wanted to sit and inhale your beer and the scent of the steak cooking..."
Nathan had been braced to withstand the Standish charm but all Ezra did was sit there, looking tired, battered and ten years younger than he had that morning.
"OK," said Nathan gruffly. "It can't hurt to wait a spell."
It was only when Ezra grinned at him that he realized he'd been suckered. Again.
"Ezra, I swear that one of these days..."
"Let him be," murmured Buck, drawing Nathan over to chop scallions. "Ezra's been awake since before five, not to mention doing way too much, even before he started to stress out about why he was bein' excluded from the team meeting."
"Which isn't what the hospital had in mind," conceded Nathan, casting a worried look at Ezra. He could see now that he was running on guts and adrenalin. "He should be in bed."
"Food and light relief will do him more good right now," said Chris, coming up behind them in time to hear that.
"We could all use some of that," said Josiah. "Here, I'll see to the scallions. You know they always make Nathan cry."
"I thought that was because he was a girl," said Buck provocatively.
Nathan just grinned at him. "See, if you were a man of conviction you'd repeat that in Rain's hearing."
"Oh, not me," said Buck, holding up his hands and laughing.
Josiah made clucking sounds, Buck flicked some water at him and Chris tossed a cushion at Ezra, who batted it at Nathan. Laughing and calling out to one another as they escaped the tension of recent days, it was some time before they became aware of the two small figures scowling at them from the doorway.
"You said the party was tomorrow," accused JD. His hair sticking up on end, his reproachful expression would have melted far stonier hearts than those belonging to the now chastened men.
"Little Bit. What are you doin' up? You, too, Vin," said Buck, crouching in front of them, an arm around each boy.
"We heard the shoutin'. You woke us up," said Vin, his worried gaze traveling around the group.
"Did we? I'm sorry," said Chris, scooping him up for a quick hug. "We were just letting off steam. We forgot it's so late. You feel OK?"
"I bet you do."
"Happy birthday, Uncle Ezra," said Vin.
While it was only eleven o'clock on Friday night, Ezra knew better than to correct him. "Why, thank you, Master Tanner."
"We must've slept through the alarm," said JD.
"What alarm's that, Little Bit?" asked Buck.
"Unca Ezra said that if we was awake at midnight we could wish him 'happy birthday'," said JD.
"Did I?" Ezra looked mildly perplexed.
"It was when you was readin' to us and forgettin' to do the proper voices," said JD helpfully.
"Oh. But I didn't...think you'd be awake," completed Ezra feebly under the influence of hard stares from Buck and Chris. "I'm sorry," he added to them. "It didn't occur to me that they might set the alarm. My mind was on..."
"It's OK. You've got a get-out-of-jail free card for that," said Chris.
"When does it run out?" asked Ezra, brightening.
"Hey, this is Chris we're talkin' about. You just used it up," grinned Buck. "But I reckon I still owe you one, if that's any help."
"I am not mean," insisted Chris indignantly.
"Just careful," chorused the others.
"A frugal nature is an admirable thing, if not carried to excess," Ezra told Chris, straight-faced.
"But Chris ain't mean," protested Vin.
"No, of course he isn't," said Ezra instantly "but we can't have him thinking he's perfect, now can we?"
A smile blossomed on Vin's face. "You're feelin' better," he said with confidence.
"You wanna see the cards we made for you?" added JD, who was now propped against Buck's shoulder as Buck held him with more ease than he'd enjoyed for the last eight days.
Ezra's eyes widened extravagantly. "You made me cards! That's wonderful. But now I have all the fun of anticipating them until I see them in the morning. So it's like two presents."
"Damn, he's smooth," Nathan murmured to Josiah.
"No question about it," agreed Josiah.
"Are you going to eat now?" asked JD, noticing the preparations which had begun.
"We didn't eat when you guys did," Chris explained, "and we're hungry."
"And it's time you were back in bed," said Buck.
"But it's Unca Ezra's birthday!" protested JD who, while tired, didn't want to miss out on any fun.
"And it'll still be his birthday when you wake up, when you can have the pleasure of waking him," Buck promised wickedly.
Ezra's glare at Buck spoke volumes. "But not until after ten o'clock," he said firmly.
"The day's half gone by then," said Vin scornfully.
"That's all right, you can wake Chris good and early to make up for my tardiness," said Ezra blandly.
Chris whispered something to Vin which made him look at Ezra and giggle.
"Oh, I think someone's gonna pay for that suggestion," said Buck, as he headed down the hall with JD.
"I think that's a certainly," said Josiah. "Night, boys. Come on, Nate. Let's get cooking. Ezra can sit and criticize."
"No change there then," said Nathan, grinning at Ezra.
The boys safely back asleep within ten minutes, the men remembered to keep their voices down as they enjoyed their meal, lingering over it as they talked easily of everything and nothing, reveling in this new ease between them.
Nathan's phone rang just as Buck was starting another of his corny jokes.
"Rain, hi hon. No, the snow's not too bad up here yet. Ice? Where are you? Hey, that can't be more than half a mile from the turnoff to Chris's place. Make for that and stay in the car. I'm at Chris's now. I'll come down and find you. Worst case scenario we're stranded together. Best, that we're warm and cosy here. Of course he won't mind. Here, talk to Ez while I get ready. I want you on the phone..."
Nathan thrust his phone at Ezra and quickly began to dress for the cold as the others swiftly made preparations for the bad weather which was obviously heading their way.
"There was an accident further back on the ice. She's been stuck in traffic for over three hours," Nathan told the others.
"Take my truck," said Chris.
Maude had appeared in the doorway. "I couldn't help overhearing," she said. "This was supposed to be a surprise for Ezra. According to Forbes this model is the best on the market when it comes to driving in thick snow and ice. It's hidden in the barn. I'll fetch the keys."
"I'll get it out for you," said Josiah, snagging a jacket from a hook as he went after her.
"What if I ding it?" asked Nathan, looking worried.
"Better it than you," said Ezra. "I mean it, Nate. All we want is you and Rain safe."
"Here," said Chris, who had been working at top speed. "A thermos of coffee, energy bars and water in case you get stranded." He handed the backpack to Nathan.
"There's a shovel, blanket, flashlight and a spare jacket for Rain by the back door," said Buck.
"Soon as you meet up with her, call us," commanded Chris.
The wind began to get up soon after Nathan left, the snow coming down in a dizzying whiteout. Fortunately for everyone's peace of mind, Nathan called to say that he had met up with Rain thirty minutes later. Twenty minutes after that they were back at the ranch, having abandoned Rain's car at the bottom of the drive.
After one look at their faces Ezra gave a whoop of delight and limped forward to kiss Rain, who laughed and kissed him back.
"It's lucky I don't play poker," she smiled, happiness blazing from her.
"You've a better poker face than Nathan," Ezra assured her.
Nathan gently batted Ezra on the back of the head. "I heard that. All my romantic plans," he sighed, just before he vanished in one of Josiah's bearhugs.
"The snow was so deep I abandoned my car at the bottom of the drive and intended to get in with Nathan. But when I got out of the car I stepped thigh deep in snow from the ditch," said Rain as she emerged from Buck's embrace..
"So I proposed," completed Nathan.
"On your knees?" asked Buck, clapping him on the back.
"In a manner of speaking," said Rain, smiling. "He fell in the ditch beside me."
"You're both soaking wet," noted Chris, as he released her. "Nate, use my shower, while Rain uses the one off Ezra's room. You'll both be sleeping in his room. I've cleared out his things and changed the sheets."
"Where he going to sleep?" asked Nathan, frowning.
"I can sleep on a wash line, just so long as I don't have to lie on my back. Chris's couches are many and comfortable. Go," said Ezra, smiling.
"Josiah, you can bunk down with me," said Buck.
"But my snoring - "
"I don't reckon I'll be awake long enough to hear it," he said easily.
Ezra opened one eye, flinched and woke fully when he saw JD only inches away, with Vin not far behind him. While they pulled back a little when they saw he was awake, neither boy spoke, although both wore wide beams.
With a faint moan, Ezra resigned himself to the inevitable. "Good morning, gentlemen."
There was an instant babble of speech, in which he caught the words 'Happy Birthday' and 'Skin us alive if we wake you."
Ezra inched into a sitting position, grimacing as pulled sutures and torn muscles protested at the same time. "That's a terrible threat," he said at last. "I had no idea my mother could be so cruel."
"Oh, it weren't her, it was Aunt Rain," said Vin.
"It really means we'd have ta clean up the mud room," added JD.
"Remind me to buy her an exceedingly expensive engagement present," murmured Ezra.
"Engagement's suck," muttered JD, pulling at the bottom of his sweatshirt.
Something in JD's tone made Ezra wake up fully. "Why don't you like engagements?"
"If Unca Nathan's gonna get engaged to Aunt Rain then he won't want to be our unca no more."
"That's the most ridiculous assumption I've ever heard." There was so much conviction in Ezra's voice that JD's tense shoulders relaxed. "Nathan will always be your uncle, whatever happens. The best part is that now he's engaged you'll get to see more of Aunt Rain. So instead of losing an uncle you're gaining an aunt."
"We never thought of that," said Vin, looking relieved. "Thanks, Uncle Ezra. Kin I tell you something?" he added in a low voice, a moment later.
"Anything," said Ezra promptly.
"I ain't got you nothin' for your birthday. It's snowing fit to bust and there's drifts and ice and on the radio warnings that everyone's gotta stay indoors. Except for Chris and Uncle Josiah, who are in the stables. It took them ages to get across the yard."
"I'm sorry you've missed going to the fair," said Ezra sympathetically.
"It ain't that. It's 'cause we can't get out I ain't got you nothin'. JD neither."
Vin sounded so tragic that Ezra had to remind himself not to smile.
"First, you've both taken the time and trouble to make cards for me, which is something money can't buy. Second, I get to spend more of my birthday with you. What could be nicer?"
"Presents," said JD, who had a literal mind.
Ezra hastily turned a splutter of laughter into a cough. "Trust me, I wouldn't swop."
"Oh, I know exactly what my team-mates have got me," Ezra told his mother as they made coffee. "Four identical jars of tomato sauce taken from the store cupboard."
Maude just stared at him. "But why?" she asked, bemused.
"Apart from the fact they're childish and predictable?" Ezra grimaced. "That was a trifle harsh. I would explain but you really had to be there to appreciate the humor in the situation. Although I can see it's going to wear thin very quickly."
Despite all her marriages there were times when Maude wondered if she had ever understood men. "You mean they'll do this every year?"
"Oh, yes. This one will run and run. I'll be old enough to need a walker and they'll still be giving me the same thing."
"What's that?" enquired Buck, as he came into the room, with Chris just behind him.
"I was just telling my mother that I know what you four gentlemen will be giving me for my birthday," explained Ezra.
"Yeah?" Buck's eyes narrowed speculatively. "How much d'you bet me?"
"You couldn't afford it," said Ezra frankly. "Besides, you have a growing boy to feed. If I win you can compile my expenses for the next three months." He loathed and abominated form-filling and his expenses claim were about five months behind.
"And when I win?"
"OK, Mister Smartypants, you've got yourself a bet," said Buck. "On condition that when I win you have to do my expenses for the next four months."
"Oh, that's fighting talk," grinned Chris, "especially given how few you ever get. You should know better than to make a bet with Ezra. You might want to find a more sophisticated line in insults, too."
"Till I can get to a bank I need to watch what I say. I reckon the swear jar's made a killing since Ezra's been here - not least because he's been leading me astray," claimed Buck.
"If it wasn't for your moustache you'd be a bare-faced liar," said Chris. "You've never needed any encouragement. Me neither, come to that. What's this?" he asked, as Ezra handed him a slip of paper.
"You're designated referee. Unless Mr Wilmington isn't inclined to trust you?"
"Oh, you are feelin' better," noted Buck, grinning. "Well, I was gonna wrap your present but now I'm not so sure I'm gonna bother."
"Save yourself the trouble, Buck. Ezra guessed," said Chris, reading Ezra's cramped handwriting without difficulty after two years.
"Damn, I didn't realize we were so predictable," sighed Buck.
Ezra patted him on the shoulder. "I understand that's a common failing in one so inflicted," he said sympathetically.
Sorely tried, Buck remembered just in time that horsing around was out while Ezra was injured. "You just wait," he warned, his eyes twinkling. "I'm keepin' a list. Soon as you're fit..."
"Would you care to wager?" asked Ezra provocatively.
Forgotten on the sidelines, Maud sipped her coffee and admitted that she hadn't been as bored as she had expected. And the primitive conditions were worth it for this chance to see Ezra inter-acting with his friends. It occurred to her that she couldn't remember the last time she had seen him this happy...
Maude was smugly aware that - for once - she had found the perfect present as she watched the expression on Ezra's face. It was a few moments before she realised his friends had joined him on the floor, where they were busily undoing boxes while all talking at the same time as they reverted to boyhood.
"Now," she said to JD and Vin, "don't forget that this is for all of you. Fathers, sons and uncles. Play nicely."
"Oh, we will," Buck assured her fervently, some track held in one large hand. "I always wanted a proper train set when I was a boy."
"Me, too," sighed Nathan. "Will you look at the detail on this train carriage..."
"I always wanted to be the train driver," said Chris.
"I could have put money on that," said Josiah with a grin. "I've always been fascinated by the history of the old west. The eighteen seventies..."
"Me, too," chimed in Nathan. "The period of reconstruction after the civil war... And medicine in those days..."
"I always saw myself as someone trying to bring some peace," mused Joseph.
"What, like a lawman?" asked Chris, as he got up to push couches back against the wall in order to provide more floor space.
"Or a preacher," said Nathan. "What about you, Ezra?"
"I can't say I ever saw myself as a preacher," he said, loftily ignoring the splutters of laughter from the others, including his own mother. "I rather fancy myself as a gambler. Perhaps even a con man, skating along the edges of the law but obviously being very heroic when necessary."
"Obviously," said Nathan, with a broad grin.
"And what career takes your fancy?" asked Ezra.
"Given the period, my choice would be kind of limited," said Nathan, sobering. The smiles of his friends faded.
"Why's that, Unca Nathan?" asked JD innocently.
With no desire to explain slavery and its aftermath to the boys in the middle of Ezra's birthday, Nathan took care to lighten the mood again. "With all you guys leaping before you look I'll settle for bein' a healer. Though I reckon I could help keep the peace when necessary."
"You can help me. I'll be the sheriff," said JD. "So no one better mess with me!"
"As if," scoffed Buck.
"What'll you be, Da?"
"I'll be the one guarding your back," Buck told him seriously.
JD beamed at him.
"And what about you, Vin?" asked Josiah.
"I'd help JD. Though it'd be cool to go off by myself at times. Like we do in the woods."
"You could be a tracker," said Chris.
Vin's face lit up. "Yeah. I'll be a tracker. But if you're a train driver you won't be livin' in town with the rest of us," he added, giving Chris a worried look.
"Oh, Chris won't be driving no train. He'll be in town, keeping us all in line. Well, can you seriously imagine him doing anything else?" Buck appealed, before he gave Ezra the lightest bat on the back of the head. "Don't say it, Ez.".
Maude and Rain sat side by side on the most comfortable couch, sharing champagne and fresh out of season peaches while the males of the party sat around the floor, fully occupied with the train set Maude had bought. Although Rain was of the view that the word 'set' hardly did the set justice. There was enough of the complex track system to take up most of the floor space of the large family room. As befitted an old west scenario there was a fort, soldiers, generic Indians, together with a small town complete with a railway station, hotels, gambling saloon and even a ruined church. There was a stage coach, and horses and cattle and all the scenery anyone could wish for; bridges, tunnels, mountains and valleys, desert, a river, trees and various odd looking cacti and even a cattle ranch.
Maude watched Nathan lecture Buck on the best position for the town, while Josiah, Chris and Ezra debated a suitable name.
"You do realize you've taken on all these gentlemen along with Nathan?" said Maude.
Rain's smile was indulgent as Nathan chimed in with his ideas for the town. "I hadn't been going out with him for long before I realized that most of his family wasn't actually related to him."
"You don't mind?" said Maude curiously.
"That Nathan has such good friends? Men he trusts, who make him laugh, who challenge and perplex him?"
"You must be talking about Ezra," said Maude.
Rain laughed. "And Chris. Not to mention Josiah and Buck. I've good friends but not in the way these guys... And Vin and JD are just...I always thought Nathan would make a great father but when I saw him with the boys I knew beyond doubt that I wanted him to have children with me. No, I don't mind taking on this extended family... Oh, will you look over there. JD and Vin are obviously not enjoying this half as much as their fathers and uncles."
"I had a suspicion that the larger 'boys' might take over," Maude conceded. "Fortunately, I planned accordingly. If you'll give me a hand... I bought the boys a sort of Jurassic Park, complete with dinosaurs that need painting."
Fifteen minutes later a very happy JD and Vin were busy setting up their own wilderness in a corner of their bedroom.
It was almost three hours before their fathers or uncles noticed their absence, by which time the town of Four Corners was fully established.
A hit, a very palpable hit
Completed February 2010