Magnificent Seven Little Britches

For the Best

by Heather F

Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made etc

Warnings: Potentially bad language….though, nothing compared to my grammar and spelling.

Challenge: August 03 Challenge presented by Meg T. Use a legend or myth (Urban or otherwise) and incorporate it into an M7 story of any genre. Samson/David/Hercules all kill a lion at one time or another, along with a few other ancient guys as well. There is even mention of a Jaw Bone of an Ass to destroy ones enemies etc (Judges 14 if I remember correctly…Catholic school and all). Anyhow my story buds from a loose translation of such acts. (very loose…almost to the point of completely untied…)

Thanks: Mitzi, as always, dedicated an unselfish amount of time and patience….Pat Merrit who wrote "Out Flanked" LB-ATF and who originated the Adoption certificate for Ezra.

Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2013.

Thursday Afternoon

Standish pushed off from the counter opening his eyes trying desperately not to add to the tension that already sparked the Larabee household. The kitchen was strangely silent. The clatter of a plate or plastic cup against the table was the only true sound to come from the two small boys.

Unusual in of itself as were the side glances that fell his way. The easy smiles and little giggles that so frequently echoed around the house were sorely missing this overcast afternoon.

Ezra tried desperately to bring some cheer to the two boys to no avail. Vin and JD politely kept their distance and spoke to him only when he directly asked them a question.

With lunch finished, JD scraped his chair back and slid from his chair ,to start cleaning up, a sure sign that things were amiss.

"Well boys what would you like to do this afternoon?" Ezra asked with forced cheer as he leaned over Vin and lifted the milk from the table hoping to prevent any mishaps. JD stood at the refrigerator, holding the door open. He dutifully reached out for the plastic jug. Buck always said you had to help clean up, no matter who was there. It was just the polite thing to do even if you didn't want to help.

Against his better judgment, the undercover agent handed over the milk and calculated the odds of the almost full jug making it onto the shelf without a mishap.

10 to 1. Ezra quickly scanned the sink area for a suitable rag for the impending flood of milk. He should do it himself, send the boys away to go something else and leave him the kitchen to deal with and then perhaps avoid any true mishaps and return to the good graces of his young charges.

"Nuthin'?" Vin said as he screwed the top back on the peanut butter ignoring or unconcerned of the peanut butter that smeared his fingers and the lid. Maybe Uncle Ezra would let he and JD ride alone and stay on the porch and just watch.

The panicked, "Vin...?!" had Standish and Vin twirling around and watching as the three quarter filled milk carton slipped from JD's fingers and careened on a collision course with the wood pegged floor.

JD and Ezra reacted at the same time, and two sets of hands ghosted over the side of the carton, tilting it slightly, catching the edge of the shelf and causing it to pause.

Leaned precariously to the side and reaching over the five year old, Ezra tried to adjust his grip but his fingers slipped on the sweating plastic.

JD, seeing eminent disaster, tried to distance himself from any blame and stepped back bouncing into the Southerner and forcing the grown man back just a few millimeters. It was enough, however, to remove the precarious but failing grip the undercover agent had on the carton.

The milk hit the ground with a plastic crunch, the cap flew off and seams split.

Milk whitewashed the refrigerator insides, the floor and the cabinets and glugged itself from the rendered plastic.

"Shit," Ezra mumbled under his breath.

"Uh ho Unca Ezra, ya did it now....Chris is gunna be even more mad at ya," JD pointed out as he continued to back away from the spreading mess.

"What else is new," Standish again mumbled out trying to bite back his growing frustration.

Vin quietly left the kitchen and headed to the laundry and returned with some towels to help clean up the mess. "JD, come'n ya gutta help too...ain't just Uncle Ezra's fault."

"He was the last one to touch it," JD pointed out needlessly as he backed into a kitchen chair.

Ezra ignored the boys and concentrated on the every spreading puddle of milk.

Vin handed the towels to the undercover agent while shooting a warning look at his little brother indicating with his hard stare that JD needed to help. Things were bad enough without him and JD adding to the problems.

"Thank-you Vin," Standish forced a small smile and proceeded to sop up the mess.

JD quietly knelt down beside the undercover agent and picked up the milk carton. The plastic was slippery and once again the milk container slid from his little fingers and crashed to the floor landing in the puddle Ezra was trying his best to contain.

Milk splashed in three hundred and sixty degrees, spraying everything within a foot of it.

Standish cursed a second time, "JD, stop...just stop...just go stand over there...alright?," Ezra bit out trying to cap his aggravation.

JD dropped his chin to his chest and backed up a step. Uncle Ezra was being mean.

Ezra let out a frustrated sigh, realizing he had hurt the young boy's feelings. Damn.  "JD, it's alright, I'm not mad at you." Standish looked up at the two boys and forced a smile trying desperately to control his building frustration.

Vin read the look and easily understood it. He had seen that same kind of forced smile and had heard that same kind of voice in the foster homes he had been to. It never meant anything good. And it never was alright.

"It's ok JD," Vin said, trying to deflect the older man's attention away from JD, "You go put the peanut butter away...I'll help uncle Ezra."

JD nodded his head and backed away, his cheeks burning with embarrassment and shame. Sometimes he hated being just a dumb little kid.

Vin knelt down to help the undercover agent and try to make amends for JD's apparent shortcomings.

"No, Vin," Ezra ground out trying hard not to lose his patience, realizing it was not the boys with whom he was truly angry or frustrated with but himself and Larabee. "Just finish with the table I'll do this," Ezra looked up again as he wiped milk from the floor and tried hard to keep the smile in place, "it's no one's in trouble."

Vin backed away, recognizing the signs of an explosion but unsure how to behave. Had he been at one of his foster homes, he would have taken JD by the hand and hidden somewhere or maybe even run away. Nothing good ever came of those kinds of forced smiles or placating tones. Nothing.

However,neither Uncle Ezra nor any of the others, had ever been truly frustrated or angry with them before. Then again, none of them had made Chris so angry as Uncle Ezra had these last few days. Uncle Ezra had got Buck hurt and Vin had to spent the better part of the morning trying to convince JD to be nice to Uncle Ezra, if not for anything else than to make Buck happy. Buck was hurt and didn't feel good. He didn't need to worry about JD being angry.

"Sorry Uncle Ezra," JD uttered quietly backing into the table, unconsciously keeping Vin between himself and the adult.

Ezra simply nodded his head and continued to clean up the milk ignoring the activity of the two nervous children.

The two boys worked quickly keeping a weary eye on the adult squatting in front of the refrigerator.

When the table was clean, Vin grabbed JD's wrist and tugged him toward the living room.

Ezra heard the kitchen door that connected to the living room open and then swing close. The undercover agent held the sopping towels out at arms length and quickly walked into the laundry room and threw them into the washing machine.

Standish leaned against the washing machine and gathered a calming breath before facing the disaster that was once Larabee's and Wilmington's kitchen.

The southerner stepped from the wash room and was surprised to find the kitchen clean. The boys had done a good job. He owed them apology. Hell, he owed just about everyone an apology it seemed.

Ezra leaned against the sink and washed his hands and looked out the window at the grey skies and stiff wind that bent branches and turned leaves. He had half expected Chris to call him this morning and tell him not to come today...that Chris had gotten someone else to babysit the boys.

Ezra had dreaded the call while at the same time had hoped that it would come.

He didn't think Chris would be trusting him with much of anything anytime soon let alone JD and Vin. Ezra was more than surprised to not have been cancelled and replaced for this day's babysitting. Then again, Josiah and Nathan were out of town, Mz. Nettie had more than just these two boys for cases, and Mrs. Potter had her own family.

Ezra pushed back from the sink and headed for the living room. He pushed open the door and watched as Vin once again played the roll of older brother and protector. The stalwart seven year old was consoling his younger brother.

"It's ok JD, Uncle Ezra isn't really mad at you." Vin explained as he watched his younger brother.

"Yeah he is," JD grumbled back dejectedly, "I wish Chris coulda got Unca Nathan or Unca Josiah to come out, I don't like Unca Ezra any more, he got Buck hurt and he's bein' mean today."

Ezra closed his eyes and felt his heart race. Damn.

"I know, JD. But it's just for the afternoon, and Chris tried to git someone else...but there weren't no one who could do it," Vin let out a tired, disappointed sigh and continued, "Chris and Buck had to have uncle Ezra come out...The Judge wouldn't change the meeting." Vin explained trying to clarify things that were already clear to the five year old.

Vin knew JD understood, but just didn't like it. Vin didn't like it either.

"I wish the Judge would make Unca Ezra leave," Dunne asked with a tinge of saddened hope in his voice.

Vin merely shrugged his shoulders unsure of what he really wanted.

Ezra felt his heart drop to his shoes.

"I wish Buck was here."

"Me too," Vin commiserated hugging his little brother closer to him, "but he ain't, and Uncle Ezra we jist gotta deal with it." Vin bent his head down and peered up at JD trying to see the down cast dark hazel eyes, "think ya can do that?"

JD scuffed his feet and slowly nodded his head, "Yeah...I guess."

"Good," Vin straightened up and said, "so what do ya want to play?"

Ezra was about to interrupt and make a suggestion when JD spoke again, "Ya think the Judge would let us unadopt unca Ezra?"

The little boy stammered at his older brother's hesitancy, "I mean he almost got Buck hurt real bad, and Chris is always sayin' he does bad things and stuff and unca Nathan yelled at 'im yesterday and even Unca Josiah is mad at 'im and yelled at him ...maybe it weren't a good idea to adopt'im like we did....maybe he's so bad, that's why his momma don't like'im very much....and if he was the only lil' boy she knew then she wouldn't like any little boys..." JD rambled quickly, his speech building tempo with each new thought.

Ezra leaned heavily against the doorway and clenched his teeth against the rising nausea churning in his stomach.

Vin paused and thought for a little bit, running through JD's suggestion and remembering how he felt every time a foster family returned him to the foster home. It hurt really bad, even when the bad families dumped him. He weren't good enough to stay with the really lowlife families. He remembered hurting so bad he couldn't eat, and he remembered being so mad that he pushed other little kids at the 'Home'... just so they would be hurt and mad too.

It was mean to send someone back, to un-foster care them. Vin knew this and promised himself he would never do it to anyone else if he had the chance. He would never give up JD or Chris or Buck or any of the others.

Vin paused, but Chris had been so mad last night and this morning, right up until he and Buck had to leave. They were both mad and Vin was pretty sure neither one wanted Uncle Ezra to come out today.

Uncle Ezra got Buck hurt, he could have died. That wasn't good either. Maybe Chris and Buck were going to see the Judge to send Uncle Ezra back to Atlanta. If that was true and Ezra came from a 'Home' back there, then that would be kind of mean to just drop him off and drive off and leave him sitting in the lobby on hard plastic chairs with his bag at his feet. That was what they did at the 'Home' Vin came from along time ago.

It wasn't a nice thing to do, but then again, Ezra almost got Buck killed. Buck had big bruises on his chest, and he couldn't pick up JD and hug him, and he couldn't play or even laugh.

But what if it was an accident? What if Uncle Ezra really didn't do anything really bad, and it was all just big mistake. Thoughs happen...alot. Vin had been sent back to the 'Home' after stuff happened that wasn't really his fault, but no one believed him. He was just a dumb kid with no one to love him.

Uncle Ezra wasn't no dumb kid, fact was, he wasn't a kid at all, but not very many people loved him either. In fact, Vin had to think that right now no one loved Uncle Ezra, all because he did a really bad thing and got Buck hurt. But maybe it was just a dumb accident....

It would be really mean to send him back to the 'Home' in Atlanta. They had been mean to him there. Vin knew, because no one really talked about it, and when they did, it was done with real careful voices and tight faces. Vin knew bad things happened in the 'Homes'. They happened to him too.

If Uncle Ezra hurt Buck then he was too dangerous to keep around the house and the others. If he was 'dangerous' then Uncle Ezra needed to be a more 'secure environment' and kept away from others....Least that was what they used to say at the 'Home' Vin lived.

What if it was just a big accident though?

Vin needed more time to hash through his thoughts.

"I don't know JD...maybe." Vin answered

Vin turned around to grab a toy and saw the undercover agent standing at the door that lead into the kitchen.

Both man and boy shared a shamed look of surprise and regret at being caught and found out.

Vin started to stammer but Ezra smiled and simply shook his head; dismissing any kind of explanation.

The young seven year old recognized the smile, as easily as he read the look. It was the same smile he used to give the foster families he really liked, when they dropped him off at the 'Home' and rejected him. He'd give them that same smile and that same look, 'No hard feelin's... No hard feelin's because in the end he didn't matter and nothing would ever change; not who he was or what people thought of him. He would always be just Vin Tanner. Poor boy, no home and no momma. His momma had told him Tanner was a name to make him proud. Vin always felt like a failure when he was sent back, dumped like recycled trash.

Vin sometimes wished, even now, that he was a Larabee instead of a Tanner. If he was a Larabee, then maybe Chris would really and forever keep him.

Ezra's momma had a different last name and she didn't keep her son. And it was her real son too. Not pretend.

Not like Vin and Chris who were just pretend father and son, like JD and Buck. Buck would never get rid of JD. Never Ever. But Chris had a son once, and he was gone and now he had Vin. If Chris had room for Vin and his first boy, maybe he would have room for another little boy and send Vin away.

Vin knew he would always be a reject, always be cast aside, because he was dumb, slow and clumsy. Vin always knew he would never be loved like other little boys with real families because he was second rate and a trouble maker.

His foster homes said as much when they returned him to the 'Home' and the counselors there would shake their heads in disappointment. Mr. Polk used to say mean things to him too. Mr. Polk was just plain mean though, and Vin didn't listen to him, not really but sometimes at night, when Vin was awake he could here Mr. Polk's voice in his head saying mean things over and over and over again.

Vin knew what it was like to be rejected and brushed aside for not being good enough. He knew what it felt like and what it looked like. He saw it everyday in the mirror when he had to brush his teeth when he stayed at the 'Home'.

The young boy saw the same thing in Ezra's eyes and expression and Vin realized that perhaps he and Ezra had more in common than just knowing Chris and Buck. No one would ever really like Uncle Ezra because he was dumb and did things that made people mad...and he could make that pretend smile and give people that same look. The same look Vin gave to the families that dropped him off and drove away. Ezra could do that too because, there were no hard was just the way he was made.

It was Uncle Ezra's own fault, just like it was Vin's own fault for being given back to the 'Home'.

Some people were good, while others were bad. Some made good friends, others never could make friends. Some kids were smart, like JD and others weren't.

It was just the way the world worked.

Vin was lucky Chris and Buck found him and JD.

Ezra was found by Chris and Buck too, but he was still not good enough, never would be, weren't his fault, or so Vin figured, it was just the way Uncle Ezra was put together. Vin knew what that was like, and it hurt his heart to know Uncle Ezra was no good.

A bad apple.

Vin had been a bad apple a lot. When Chris and Buck found him, he wasn't a bad apple anymore. Uncle Ezra was all grown up, he'd been a bad apple all his life, probably always would be too. But maybe not all the way to the core. Maybe deep down inside, Uncle Ezra had some not so rotten pieces left. He was nice to JD and even Diablo, Uncle Ezra couldn't be all bad. Maybe if Chris and Buck just gave him the same kind of attention that they gave JD and himself, then maybe Uncle Ezra would learn to be good and not so rotten.

It would take some time. Vin knew he wasn't nearly as rotten as Mr. Polk claimed him to be, well not anymore at least. Mr. Polk had said if Vin didn't straighten up and behave, he'd be rotten to the core and most likely die in jail. Mr. Polk was a really mean man and smelled bad.

Chris and Buck found him and JD, and now Vin wasn't so rotten, he knew, because Chris put bad people in jail all the time. Chris hadn't put Vin in jail. Vin was becoming real good. Maybe if Chris played with Ezra and gave him big hugs, then maybe Uncle Ezra wouldn't be as rotten.

Vin skewered his face a little. He couldn't see Chris giving Uncle Ezra hugs, but maybe if Chris did, it would make Uncle Ezra feel he weren't so bad.

Ezra stared at Vin and saw the rapidly blushing cheeks, the shame and hurt in the big blue eyes.

Standish swallowed the stinging hurt that lanced through him and twitched a smile onto his face.

A role. Ezra had to play a role, if just for this afternoon. For the sake of the boys. His mother had taught him how to ignore and control panic and fear and use it to his advantage in situations that turned unexpectedly against him.

He was never so thankful for his mother's teachings as he was now. Never.

With a calm steadying breath that barely moved his chest, he twitched a smile onto his face, "it's alright Vin, I completely's truly alright."

JD twirled around at the sound of the undercover agent's voice.

Ezra spoke again to prevent JD or Vin from trying to recover or cover what had been said and to prevent more from being said, "and if you want to un-adopt...that's ok too ...and completely understandable." Ezra kept the smile in place not sure who he was trying to placate, himself or the two children.

Neither boy spoke.

Vin felt his eyes water and a part of him wanted nothing more than to rush to Uncle Ezra and hug him and wipe away that look, to erase the words that had been spoken earlier.

Loyalty to Chris and Buck held him fast.

Ezra saw the battle and recognized the unfairness in it. Having fought the same battle himself as a child, while defending his mother to a stepfather he truly enjoyed and would nearly consider a friend, Ezra understood the strength and bonds of loyalty of a child to their parent.

He would never challenge it or make light of it.

Time for a diversion.

"What would you boys like to do this afternoon?" Ezra plastered the smile on his face and redirected the conversation and hoped to change the dire mood in the room.

"Nuthin'," Vin breathed out dropping his head and berating himself for treating someone they way he had been treated. He had vowed never to do that to anyone else; Take them in and then reject them. Never. He had promised himself he would never do that to anyone else no matter how dumb they were or how many stupid things they did.

Vin suddenly understood a little more of what his foster families had to put up with when they took him into their homes. He had garnered a little more clarity into their actions. Maybe he was as bad and as dumb as uncle Ezra was at work sometimes? Maybe he really was as dishonest as the foster families had claimed when they dropped him off with only a fraction of the belongings he had originally come to them with.

Maybe he really was bad and really just not very smart.

Why'd Chris want him? Maybe he had grown out of it? How come Ezra never did? Chris liked everyone, like Buck did...except bad guys.

But Chris didn't like Uncle Ezra sometimes.

Chris never, not liked Josiah or Nathan or even Buck...but yesterday and this morning, Chris didn't like Ezra at all, or so it seemed.

Maybe Ezra wasn't as lucky as Vin and he didn't grow out of his badness...but he sure did grow out of being book stupid. Maybe not being dumb...Chris called him a dumb ass maybe Ezra never grew out of being bad and dumb...But Uncle Ezra couldn't be all bad...Chris and Buck did take him in like they had JD and himself. Maybe Uncle Ezra just needed a little more time...

Vin knew himself to still be dumb, but he weren't bad all the time, and he got in trouble less and less. Maybe he stood a good chance of keeping his home here.

JD weren't dumb nor bad. He could live with Chris and Buck forever and never try.

But people like himself and Ezra had to try every day...sometimes it got tiring and really hard... Maybe Ezra got tired of fighting the bad guys and just wanted to be one too.

"I want to go ridin," JD piped up, reiterating what Vin had said in the kitchen before he dropped the milk and made Unca Ezra even more angry.

Ezra wanted to give into them. He wanted nothing more than to go riding, to prove to them that he wasn't mean, wasn't bad. He wanted to show them that he was deserving of their trust and friendship. A part of him that desired to be apart of a group, any group, unburied itself and starved to give into the boys, hoping to once again become apart of their family.

He gazed out the window at the grey skies and wind. It was the kind of weather that unsettled horses. 'Buck off weather' they called it. Horses acted a little more skitterish, a simple branch became something to shy at, the smallest sound would send a horse running blindly through the woods.

The responsible adult in him spoke up, "Sorry boys, not today."

He read the disappointment and dismissal in their features as easily as reading a headline.

He scrambled to come up with a salvage plan. His mind race, pulling ideas and tossing them out replacing them with others. He silently panicked, noticing the boys were losing interest in him.

"How about if we walk to the upper watering hole?" He quirked an eyebrow testing the waters, praying against hope that they would accept the idea.

The two boys glanced at one another. Vin gave JD an almost imperceptible nod.

Ezra felt a great weight lift off his shoulders. Though the boys would still un-adopt him, perhaps they would not come to completely loathe his company. He feared, though, his time at the Larabee house hold would become increasingly scarce. It made his chest ache and his stomach turn.

"Can we bring our fishin' poles?" Vin asked in a tentative voice, afraid to put Ezra in a position where he would have to say 'No' again and face the realization that he was no longer desired as a member of their family.

Ezra smiled sadly nodding his head, afraid to say 'No' to a seven and five year old. "Of course, why don't you boys get your gear and I'll get some snacks," Ezra turned his back on the two boys and headed through the door trying to find a quiet moment to remember how to protect himself from careless words and other's disdain.

JD waited by the side door with their poles.

Vin cautiously pushed the kitchen door open and peered inside. He was afraid. Not afraid that Uncle Ezra would hurt them, no matter what happened, it seemed none of Chris's friends would hurt them. Though, Uncle Ezra wasn't Chris's friend anymore, Vin didn't think his uncle would hurt him.

Instead, Vin feared, he had hurt the undercover agent. Vin was afraid Ezra would put that fake smile and that 'I'm not hurt' look on his face...the look that meant that deep down inside he was crying.

Vin never cried when his foster families walked out of the building and back into their cars. He never cried when they didn't turn around and wave 'bye' to him. He never cried because he always had his 'I'm not hurt' look on his face. He would pretend that his world was not falling apart, that he couldn't stop it. He had pretended that he didn't care that no one around him was concerned enough to help.

Vin pushed the kitchen door open and peeked inside. He immediately saw the undercover agent leaning stiff armed against the sink looking out the window, like he was trying to gather his brave face. Vin couldn't see Uncle Ezra's face, but he knew that was what he was doing.

Vin knew because he used to have to do it all the time. Not any more though. He didn't have to use his brave face around Chris or Buck or any of the others.

Uncle Ezra did because he worked with bad guys...and with people who would hurt him if they knew he lied for a living.

Vin watched as Uncle Ezra dropped his head between his shoulders and leaned against the sink.

"Are you ready to go Master Vincent?"

Vin jumped slightly at the voice. How did Uncle Ezra know he was standing at the door?

"Yeah," Vin answered quietly unsure of where he stood with his ex-uncle.

Ezra turned around with the pretend smile on his face, "Then let us be off."

Vin did his best to return the smile. It twitched but drooped.

Ezra cursed himself for hurting the boy even more.

+ + + + + + +

The threesome walked in silence as they crossed the pasture and entered the forest. The path they followed was well traveled by live stock and four wheelers. Chris's property extended up to and included the 'upper lake' which was really just a glorified pond that was fed by a mountain stream. In the late summer it was shallow but the water was clear and crisp and deep enough for the boys to swim and even fish. They caught nothing more than finger graylings but the excitement of the catch was the same as if they hauled in a ten foot pike.

The wooded path that lead to the upper lake meandered and drew the walk out to be a little under a mile up an incline that left most huffing for breath and more than a few having to pause to catch their wind. The sun peeked through the canopy haphazardly spotting the trail with tiny spots of sun light.

JD's exuberance could not be held in check even with the dour mood that had permeated the house last night, when Chris and Buck had come home from work upset and angry, and today when uncle Ezra had to come to baby-sit even though they didn't want him to.

"Vin, ya think we gonna be able to catch a fish?" JD bounced up and down and ran to and fro, his pole moving erratically with his arm movements.

"Sure JD," Vin answered in a placating tone as his thoughts ran astray. Sometimes it was the best for everyone involved if families split up. Sometimes it was better for the grown ups and the kids involved if they rejected the foster kids and did not force the child to live where they were not wanted or were disruptive.

It would be for the best if they un-adopted Uncle Ezra and then he wouldn't have to baby-sit when the others didn't want him to or when he didn't want to. Maybe then no one would fight? That's how the people at the 'Home' explained it. It was for the best that Vin got sent back to the 'Home'. It was the best for everyone, even him, even though the bigger kids at the 'Home' used to beat him up and pick on him because he was such a reject.

It was for the best.

That was what the grown ups said.

Vin didn't think it was, that was why he had run away. That was how he had met JD. That was when it was for the best.

Maybe Uncle Ezra should run away. Maybe he would meet up with someone like JD who would like him. Maybe Uncle Ezra would meet up with someone like Chris, who might actually like him like Chris liked Vin.

The young boy gazed up at the adult that paced a few short strides behind them. Chris had saved Uncle Ezra from Atlanta, just like he had saved Vin and JD from the warehouse.

Maybe Chris would think it was best for everyone if Uncle Ezra went back to Atlanta and tried to find someone else to take him.

The older the person though, the less likely someone would take them into their family. The older kids at the 'Home' hardly ever found anyone to love them.

Vin watched as Ezra walked behind them, shuffling cards. Vin had noticed he shuffled cards a lot at a lot of different times, but sometimes Uncle Ezra did it when the world hurt him.

Vin knew, because the world used to hurt him a lot too. He would play his harmonica when it seemed everything was wrong. One of the bigger kids at the home stole his harmonica. Vin had snuck in and took his harmonica back and then had punched Derek hard in the stomach when Derek had been sleeping. Vin had run away that night.

He didn't play his harmonica very much nowadays.

Ezra gazed up from his cards when he felt eyes upon him. The undercover agent smiled reassuringly at the young boy.

Deep down Ezra knew he would survive this, he just wasn't sure if he wanted too. He tried to ignore the piercing blue eyes of Vin and instead focused on the hyperactive jumble of muscle, bones and mouth that consisted of JD.

JD was getting too far ahead. "Master Dunne, perhaps it would be best if you stop for a moment and wait for us to catch up." Ezra breathed out hating himself for having to ask the young boy to stop his haphazard running and sword playing.

JD turned around, let out a put upon sigh and stood hipshot, "Come'n Vin hurry up!"

Ezra's heart sank at the continued exclusion of his name.

The wind shifted and lifted Ezra's hair blowing it back from his face drying the rim of sweat that coated his scalp.

JD waited impatiently only few yards ahead. Vin steadily walked alone not seemingly bothered by the mountain they hiked up.

The endurance and stamina of youth.

Movement up just behind and to the right of JD in a thick bramble of ground cover had Ezra snapping his head up and squinting his eyes.

The hair on the nape of his neck stood on end.

His heart began to race.

"Boys," He called out pocketing his cards, "come here." Ezra started picking up his pace. His breath sounded harsh in his ears.

He focused on the underbrush trying to make out the shape that his eyes could just barely discern. The outline was broken and distorted but something lay hidden within the shrubs.

"Boys!" Ezra brusquely spoke again, his voice sounding harsh even to him.

Vin and JD both froze at the sound of Ezra's voice. Tears started streaming down JD's face. He hated Uncle Ezra. He almost got Buck killed, now Ezra was yelling at him again. JD hated Uncle Ezra.

Ezra saw it in JD's eyes....and ignored it.

"Boys," Ezra tried again, tried making his voice sound reasonable, "Please come he...."

Then it lunged; the shadow at the base, within the brambles. A streak of yellowish brown flashed from the bushes and flew at the boys.

Vin instinctively ducked. JD turned and only had time to drop his fishing pole.

The young boy was knocked to the ground. His scream cut off as his small body slammed into the ground. Vin was pushing himself to his feet when Uncle Ezra sprinted past him, hurtling Vin to the side and dove onto the thing that had JD.

Vin never felt the tears that streamed down his face. He never remembered screaming JD's name as the young boy lay huddled in the dirt, his knees flush to his chest while he covered his head with his arms, all the time Uncle Ezra had latched himself to the side of the giant mountain lion.

Vin never registered the shifting sliding of clawed paws and sneakered feet. He watched as the big animal shook Uncle Ezra off and latched on JD's hood and tried to drag his little brother into the bushes.

JD acted simply as instinct dictated. He lay completely still and quiet as the world around him faded into a thunderous roar of undistinguishable noise and confusion.

JD never made a sound when something suddenly bit into the back of his sweat shirt hood and started dragging him away into the brush. He never heard uncle Ezra pick himself up off the ground and holler, as he dove back onto the back of the mountain lion.

JD never saw any of it. He never cried, never screamed. Only whispered for Buck, over and over and over again.

Vin kept trying to reach for JD. The seven year old watched in terror as Uncle Ezra tackled the mountain lion from the side and punched it repeatedly in the head. He watched mesmerized as the big cat clawed his uncle off and reached for his brother again. The young boy watched, unblinking as tears streamed down his face, as his uncle dove back onto the cat repeatedly punching the animal in the eye, the nose the mouth. Anywhere that he could reach.

The cat tried to shake the man off, tried to use its legs and claws to get the man to release it. The cat screamed, an almost human sound, a sound that Vin would never forget.

The young boy stood terrorized as his uncle punched the cat repeatedly, moving his arm so fast Vin could barely see it. He watched as the uncle they were going to un-adopt, bite the cat on the tip of the ear while he struck the animal madly with his fist as he held onto its neck with his other arm.

Vin watched with his heart fluttering wildly in his chest, as his uncle, who was bad more times than good, and no longer a friend of Chris and Buck's, kept himself between the cat and his little brother and himself.

In only a few moments time, the cat finally shook off its attacker, gave up what it thought to be easy prey and hobbled off three legged lame into the woods.

Ezra turned without hesitation, grabbed up JD under one arm and latched onto the back of Vin's jacket.

Ezra started running down the hill. Acting purely on instinct, never thinking, working on a flood of adrenaline, the undercover agent carried the five year old under one arm like a pile of books and dragged the seven year old behind him.

Vin started crying in earnest. His little legs couldn't keep up. His fear suddenly leaped to the forefront and he found himself choking on his sobs and fighting for breath.

He tripped, unable to keep up with Uncle Ezra's longer legs and fast pace.

He tripped and he feared that the mountain lion would eat him alive. It would pounce on his back and rip him to shreds.

He couldn't catch his breath. His breath got backed up. He couldn't cry, or call out. His mouth moved, tears streamed down his face but no sound came.

He couldn't breath. It terrified him.

A strong arm reached down and lifted him up in one solid motion and held Vin fast against a chest. Vin threw his arms around the neck of his uncle, closed his eyes and held on for dear life.

Ezra sprinted down the mountain path. His balance held true, his instincts for survival and innate instinct to protect those around him, surged to the forefront like a tsunami.

The undercover agent broke from the forest and raced across the field heading for the house, heading for a phone and for the rifles.

Terror gripped his heart. Blood dripped over the hand that held the ominously silent JD.

Ezra never saw the black Ram pull up the driveway.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat forward in the passenger seat and rubbed his face. What a complete and utter screw up. How were they going to fix this? Why the heck couldn't anything be easy? At least Ezra would be here, at the house, with the boys and they could make amends quickly enough. Perhaps not quickly enough, but they could start.

Why the damn man never said anything, was beyond Buck. The big man rubbed his aching chest, where the vest had stopped the slugs from two days ago. Yeah the proverbial shit had hit the fan and as usual the finger pointing had started. Every one had an alibi, someone to confirm where they were, bullets and shells were accounted for as were people and their respected spots in the bust. The only one not accounted for, without an alibi or at least someone to confirm it was Standish.

Larabee and the others of Team Seven hadn't been truly concerned about it, IA had been, and jumped on the apparent negligence with the determination of Pitbulls on a meaty bone.

Larabee and the others had waited, patiently for Standish to clarify his whereabouts.

He had remained mute. Or almost so, if one disregarded the taunting snide remarks of his sharp wit and poor judgment. He sliced into the IA investigators as much as they tore strips off him.

The damn man had practically asked to get blamed for this last bust, had never said a word in his defense and had taken the blame that rolled with screwing up and getting a fellow officer injured.

Never once, did Standish say a word. Never once refuted anything, well except, "You have the wrong man, gentlemen." Chris had heard that statement once, as they walked toward the conference room with the waiting IA agents.

What the Hell kind of defense is that? Gawd damn son of a bitch just kept quiet and doodled on a pad when the fingers pointed all at him.

Larabee had watched with growing ire from the head of the table, while his oldest friend lay in a hospital with bruised and battered ribs and lung tissue. He listened half heartedly as his undercover agent irritated and corkscrewed most things the IA investigators stated as fact. Chris took a small amount of enjoyment in listening to the scapeled edge remarks from his agent, and was relieved it was pointed at someone other than himself.

Chris had wanted to string someone up by their short hairs and he had his sites fixed on IA but couldn't keep Standish out of his sites. Instead, Larabee sat mutely waiting for his agent to give some clue as to his whereabouts during the bust.

'They had the wrong man...' wasn't much help.

The meeting had been adjourned when the investigators were reduced to leaning stiff armed over the conference table shouting threats to Standish who merely offered a gold toothed, dimpled smirk.

Chris had wondered if the dimples extended into Ezra's pea brain.

The meeting ended, Ezra had been forced to hand over his gun and badge and take administrative leave with pay.

Larabee could see no true punishment in that except for the slight hint of betrayal or perhaps a flash of disappointment in the emerald eyes that refused to meet his angry gaze.

Standish left the conference room and slipped from the building never returning to their offices on the twelfth floor.

Larabee had stormed up to Team Seven's bullpen and found Josiah on the phone to Nathan. Josiah had quickly hung up, had grabbed his coat and headed for the hospital.

In the end, Buck was only kept over night, for observation. Nathan had gone home that night to find Rain waiting for him, Josiah headed to the saloon to slay demons while Chris was forced to head back to the ranch alone to face two frightened little boys.

+ + + + + + +

The following morning, in the dull light of predawn, Josiah had found himself home on his couch with no memory of how he got there. Kirk Gustin sitting at Josiah's kitchen table offered some insight into Sanchez's somewhat tumultuous evening, which included a boisterous verbal lashing directed at his teammate and undercover agent.

Agent Gustin had assured Sanchez that Standish had indeed made it out of Inez's saloon in one piece if not a little embarrassed or humiliated but not to worry Standish hid it well and seemingly ignored him. Gustin continued on with Inez's banishment of all of Team Seven until they could act like decent human beings.

Kirk and the rest of the ATF and other Federal agents deemed that to be forever.

Sanchez merely groaned and levied himself from his couch and staggered into this bathroom. Gustin finished his coffee and left the small apartment wondering if any of Josiah's potted plants were of the illegal variety.

Later that morning, Nathan and Rain had met Josiah in the parking lot of the hospital and all three spied the Black Jaguar that slipped from the back loading area behind the emergency entrance. Apparently Standish had come and gone.

It wasn't even 730am.

Larabee's truck was no where to be seen. He did after all have two small boys that needed looking after and Mrs. Potter wouldn't be there until after 8am.

The work day started early but slowly. The bullpen felt empty with only Josiah and Nathan working.

+ + + + + + +`

Last night, it was the Judge, who had found the inaccuracies in the blaming, and the finger pointing, it was the Judge who provided the undercover agent with the alibi and was able to back it up with surveillance tapes, that when cleaned and enhanced proved that Ezra was right where he should have been, right where he belonged.

Travis quietly pointed out that the Southerner was right where he had said he had been, in the very beginning.

They did, indeed, have the wrong man.

+ + + + + + +

Chris shut the engine off and let the Ram settle in the driveway. His thoughts traveled back to the meeting he and Buck had just come from this morning. Travis had simply shaken his head and muttered something about protecting the whole team and not just some. It was foolishness and they all knew it, but sometimes it didn't seem so obvious.

Gawd damn Ezra should have said something. Why the Hell did he keep mum? You couldn't get the SOB to shut up half the time and when you needed him to talk he didn't say a word. Stupid, Stupid SOB.

Chris would have to call Josiah and Nathan tomorrow and straighten this mess out. This afternoon they would do it with Ezra. Then maybe they would strangle the infuriating smug bastard.

Buck carefully sighed again, rubbing his battered chest. Ezra had been taking a lot of heat from everyone lately.

It had to be getting pretty lonely. Even the two boys had felt it and had asked Buck and Chris not to make Uncle Ezra baby-sit for them. Hopefully Vin and JD were on their best behavior, and just maybe Vin could keep JD from saying something disastrous to Ezra.

Buck gazed out the windshield as Chris slowly took the key from the ignition. Wilmington peered out across the field always taking joy in the view. He paused when he spotted someone running across the field with something in their arms....

"Chris?" Buck merely pointed.

Larabee followed Buck's line of sight. The ignition key was suddenly slammed home.

The Ram lurched forward spitting gravel and bouncing up onto the grass and across the yard. Larabee never slowed down as he drove through the barb wire fence ripping and snapping wire, tearing paint from the truck and twisting fence posts while pulling them from the ground.

The truck jolted and lurched across the field.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra kept running. He could practically feel the cat following them. He was waiting for any moment when the cat would pounce and slam him from behind between the shoulder blades and pull the children from him.

He hit a burst of speed. Tall grass whipped and pulled at his pant legs as his feet landed on uneven ground without missing a step.

He saw the truck barreling toward him and headed torward it, never questioning why the big Dodge Ram would be careening across the horse pasture toward him. He only felt immense relief.

The truck slid to a halt before him and the two doors were thrown open. Ezra was met at the hood.

"Mountain lion," was all he managed to get out. Blood adorned his shirt and part of his face. Vin hadn't turned around to acknowledge anyone else. He gripped the undercover agent's neck tightly with both arms and had one leg wrapped snuggly around Standish's waist. Ezra kept Vin pinned to his chest with one hand.

Chris quickly stepped forward and was forced to unpeel the clinging boy from his ex-uncle.

Ezra ducked his eyes from Larabee's worried and livid gaze but felt the disappointment and unspoken anger clearly.

Buck was forced to circle around the undercover agent and tried to take JD from Ezra's arm. "Ezra! Let'im go Ezra!...Ezra! Gawddamnit let'im go!" Buck tried to get JD free from Standish but the undercover agent's hold was too tight.

Wilmington's chest burned with enough intensity to bring to tears to his eyes. His fear for his little boy kept the conscience mind from registering the intense pain and thus allowed the body to accomplish the physical work it needed to get done.

Buck could feel the tremors through the tense muscles and recognized that Standish would not be able to let go. Standish kept a death grip on the five year old, unwilling and unable to let go of the child even if he could. Buck's appreciation was tempered by his unquenchable urgency to retrieve his son.

"Ezra let him go!" Buck in a blind need to gather his son in his arms to protect the boy and reassure himself, recognized an unbreakable grip. In an act of pure controlled panic, Buck buckled Standish's left leg and drop the point of his elbow onto Standish's trapezius muscle.

It did the trick. Ezra's knee gave way and the blow to the shoulder had him releasing the death grip he had on the boy.

"Ezra...on your feet!" Chris started he reached for his downed agent with Vin clasped tightly to his chest. The amount of blood on the collared white shirt was alarming. The undercover agent remained on one knee trying to catch his breath. He heard the warning, the anger, and something else in Chris's voice.

Ezra just shook his head and waved his right hand, "Go... Go...It's not mine...the boys..." The Southerner fought for breath, shaking his head.

Larabee cinched Vin tighter to his chest and kept his gaze on his undercover agent. Too much blood....too much blood.

"Ezra, get up," Chris latched onto Standish's left arm and tried to lift him to his feet.

"It's not mine...JD, it had JD," Ezra whispered out not believing his own words. The mountain lion had had JD in it's mouth. My God they might have lost JD and it would be all his fault. Almost like Buck the other day. Oh God, Oh God.

"Go!....Go!" Ezra's panic rang clearly in his voice.

Buck and Chris shared a torn look.

"Go!" Ezra hissed.

Vin let out a startled cry at the harsh sound of the southerner's voice.

Chris and Buck needed no further urging. Buck scrambled into the back seat with JD and Chris practically threw Vin over the seat to his oldest friend.

The truck lurched into reverse, swung around and bounced back across the meadow, through the yard and down the driveway.

Ezra sat back on his heels and watched the truck disappear from sight. Eventually, he slowly climbed to his feet and headed toward the house. Toward the gun cabinet. He was going back.

The emergency room was waiting for them. Chris squealed the truck to a stop just outside the lit entrance. The truck's body rocked forward and backward on its shocks while the two doors were thrown open.

Hospital personnel converged on the men exiting the truck with two small boys wrapped in their arms.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez exploded through the emergency room doors with all the finesse of a biblical flood. Heads snapped up and turned as the giant man burst into the room.

People shied from him while some tried to melt back into their chairs.

Josiah strode to the reception desk, "Where..." He got no further. The receptionist merely pointed through the doors of the E.D. "Thank-you sister." The big man attempted a smile and headed for the door.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck looked up when the white curtain was eased back. Instead of a Doctor or a nurse, Josiah stepped through. "How are they?"

"They're gonna be fine," Buck answered. Then he furrowed his brow and looked to Chris. Larabee merely raised an eyebrow. "How'd you know?"

"Rain," Josiah answered as he stepped into their little cordoned off space. Vin still clung tightly to Chris. Tear tracks and red swollen eyes were a testament to the boy's state of mind.

JD lay sleeping against Buck, white gauze was visible from just under the blanket that Buck had him wrapped in.

"What happened?"

"Don't know," the tired anger in Chris's voice had Vin lifting his head from his father's shoulder.

"Some damn thing about a mountain lion...what the Hell were they doin' up in the woods anyhow...Gawd damn son of a bitch..." Buck paused, "Standish, sometimes I wonder, thank God he was there." If it had been Mrs. Potter and the boys had wandered off.....Buck tightened his grip on his son reliving the raw terror of thinking he nearly lost his son. All that blood.

"Weren't Ezra's fault" Vin whispered out, mistaking the anger and conversation around him.

"Shh. Vin it's ok. We know." Chris laid a comforting hand on his son's head and tried to guide it back down to his shoulder. He was met with resistance.

"Weren't Ezra's fault." Vin persisted. He was so scared. Scared of everything; the mountain lion, losing JD, of Chris and Buck being angry, of un-adopting Uncle Ezra even though it might be the best for everyone. Vin closed his eyes and wanted so much to just lay his head on his father's chest and feel the soft thump of his dad's heart. He wanted to feel safe but the grown ups had it all wrong. It frightened him that Chris and Buck could be wrong sometimes.

He was just plain scared right now of everything.

"Vin, we'll worry about it later." Chris reassured.

"Where is Brother Ezra?" Josiah hadn't noticed the undercover agent when he came in, but lately Ezra had been wisely keeping a low profile. The man could be a menace to himself and those around him. Josiah had to admit that the scene Gustin described at Inez's involved a little more than a verbal outburst. Josiah had learned he had even gone so far as to pin Standish to the wall and choke off his wind with a forearm. The whole time, even as Ezra's lips started turning blue, Standish had smiled that cocky 'I don't give a shit' smile. It had infuriated Josiah and in the end he had let up and pushed away letting the undercover agent slide to the floor, in front of witnesses, and left him. Josiah had been so incensed, that it had unnerved him enough to stagger from the bar and into the parking lot. Apparently some of Team 8 had followed.

"Either back at our place or his place," Chris answered tiredly.

"He alright?" Sanchez ask.

Buck and Chris exchanged glances.

"Think so," Buck stated for both of them.

Josiah looked to Larabee, searching for confirmation, "He seemed ok, was concerned for the boys.." Chris said unconsciously clenching Vin to his chest.

"You going to need clothes for them?" Josiah asked as he eyed JD's bare leg sticking out from under the white blanket.

"Nah, his clothes got ruined, covered in b-l-o-o-d, never thought a little guy could lose so much." Buck shook his head in fear and in denial, "We'll jist take him home as is."

"Stitches?" Josiah asked. An IV had been in place but already removed.

"None," Buck answered in relief.

After a moments hesitation all three adults exchanged puzzled glances.

"Anyone try and call Brother Ezra?" Josiah's question was met with silence.

"He tackled the mountain lion and punched it," Vin added in a small voice.

"What was that Vin?" Chris gently asked.

Vin sat up slightly in his father's arms. He had had a lot of foster fathers before but none treated him like Chris did. None of them ever loved him like Chris did and none of them ever adopted him like Chris did. All the others had given him back, had returned him, like a present they didn't want or like a defective power tool that didn't work. None of his other foster fathers adopted him like Chris and told him that they loved him. All the other foster fathers had rejected him and gave him back just like JD and Vin were going to give back Uncle Ezra when they got a chance to talk to the Judge.

Sometimes though, it was for the best to get rejected. It was the right thing to do when you don't belong somewhere or don't get along. Sometimes it was better for everyone if you got rejected. That was what they said at the 'Home'.

It made tears almost come to Vin's eyes.

It didn't seem the right thing to do now, though, not when Uncle Ezra punched a mountain lion and bit it in the ear. It didn't seem right that he would fight to save JD and Vin when they were going to just throw him back, like a pair of old shoes that didn't fit anymore.

"JD wanted to go to the upper lake, he wanted to take the horses, but Uncle Ezra said it was 'buck off weather'."

Buck, Chris and Josiah nodded and smiled. It had been one of Buck's terms for the weather that made horses act more skittish than normal.

Vin slowly told the tale of their walk and of the mountain lion.

"We were gonna walk to the upper waterin' hole and go fishin'....'n JD walked too far ahead...and Unca Ezra asked him to come back...then he got scared..." Vin unconsciously clung tighter to Chris.

With a low voice, Vin whispered out, "Then the cat jumped out and tried to eat JD but Uncle Ezra wouldn't let it." Vin knuckled his fist into Chris's shirt collar.

"Ezra kept punchin' the mountain lion, he wouldn't let it git JD...he even bit it in the ear..."

In the end, Chris was holding Vin tightly and telling him JD would be fine, just sleeping. Josiah had slipped from the room and started searching for the undercover agent in earnest.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stared at the dead cat. There was no sense of relief, no sense of accomplishment. In fact, he felt sick to his stomach. He stared at the emaciated animal, that had a gangrenous front left leg that was swollen up to the elbow and was blown with vermin. The sweet smell of rotten flesh wafted from the mangled paw.

At some point the cat had found itself in a trap and had gotten free. It was half starved and near death from infection. No wonder it came down from the hills and singled out some easy prey.

Ezra stared at the dead cat and left it tied to the back of the ATV. He cleaned the .308 in the barn and then returned it to Larabee's locked gun cabinet. Chris would have to get a better lock if he truly wanted to keep someone from his collection of rifles and shot guns.

The undercover agent swayed slightly on his feet. He kept his left arm close to his chest. With an unsteady gait, he crunched across the gravel and headed for his car. His mind wandered to the two boys. Ezra's heart clenched.

They must have been terrified. Ezra still felt the unnerving fear and the flash of adrenaline every time he thought back on the attack.

With exhaustive movements, he put the key in the ignition, turned the car over and slid out of Larabee's driveway and into the shadows of a moonless night.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had given up on the cell phone and drove to Standish's condo. No one was home, and the car was missing. With a heavy heart and continuingly pressing redial, he headed toward Larabee and Wilmington's house, afraid of what he might find and what he might not find.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra felt light headed and nauseated. He fought to keep his eyes open. He still had twenty miles to go before reaching his home. The white lines of the highway dashed by with blurry repetition. He could do it.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Chris placed the sleeping children in their car seats making sure they were buckled in securely and then pulled out of the hospital parking lot

Josiah called Chris's cell phone from Larabee's own kitchen. He had found Nathan and neither could find their undercover agent. There were splotches of blood at the house, though it looked as if someone had tried to cleanup. A dead mountain lion with a section of ear missing and a rotted foot was in the barn strapped to the ATV. Fish and Wild life would need to be contacted.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra pulled into his garage fumbled with the ignition and nearly fell from the car when he managed to manipulate leaded fingers to unlatch the door.

He weaved across the garage, up the small wooden steps and into his condo. He closed and latched the door, set the alarm, shut off the phone and collapsed onto his bed fully clothed and uncaring of anything but the wild spinning in his head.

Four hours later found him staggering into the bathroom and into a hot shower trying to dispel the chill that had settled in his bones and caused him to shiver. Soap seeping into the wounds on his back and sides forced the undercover agent from the shower before the bitter cold could be leached from his system. He ignored the bubbly pinkish shower water that swirled its way down the drain.

The sun was just inching its way above tree tops when Standish limped and wobbled back into the Jag.

Friday, early am

Buck eased the side door closed and quietly stepped into the kitchen. He held yesterday's mail in his hand, yesterday's chain of events kept them from getting the mail. With a heavy step crossed the wood floor, his work boots clumping quietly marking each step. He gently placed the macaroni framed adoption certificate, signed by Judge Travis, stating The Judge's approval for the adoption of Ezra P. Standish into the care of Vincent Tanner and JD Dunne, on the table.

Chris pulled his gaze from the steaming swirl of mist that rose from his coffee to the certificate on the table and then up to Buck.

Wilmington merely shrugged, "I have no idea....Found it in the box with the rest of the mail."

Buck sighed gently and eased himself into a kitchen chair and wondered what the heck Ezra was thinking.

Chris merely closed his eyes and shook his head.

Friday am

Vin woke and was surprised at how light it was in the room. As he came more awake, it became more obvious to him how late in the day he had slept. The young boy quickly sat up. He glanced across the room and saw JD was still sleeping soundly in his own bed.

Vin relaxed slightly and then slowly made his way out of bed and dressed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hung up the phone from Josiah and Nathan. They had gone back to Ezra's condo this morning and still no sign of Standish.

Buck merely nodded and rubbed at his chest. The bruises from the bust the other day still ached, but nothing in comparison to the pain of thinking JD had been hurt.

Fish and Wild Life had come collected the cat, and saw no reason to press charges on Standish for killing the poor beast and putting it out of its misery. They would, however, look to see who was trying to illegally trap the cats.

Buck sipped at some ice water and gently pushed the 'adoption' around the table.

Presumably Ezra, sometime between last night and this morning, had stopped by the office, took it off his wall and drove out here to place it in the mail box.

What had the man been thinking? Didn't he realize how much it would hurt the boys if they knew he rejected them like this?

Buck rubbed at his chest, feeling every muscle pull with each breath he took. Lifting and carrying JD had done nothing to ease the bruising or help the torn and contused muscles and bones of his thorax. But damn it felt better to hold JD close and suffer the sting of over taxed muscles than it was not to hold his young son at all these last 18 or so hours.

Buck stared at the wording of the certificate, the care and dedication the two boys had put forward to bring Ezra into their young lives.

Why had Ezra so carelessly thrown it away?

It certainly could not be the mess at work? That was all straightened out, thanks to the Judge. Why the Hell Ezra, the dang fool, didn't stand up for himself was anyone's guess.

Buck let his gaze wonder to Chris and found Larabee with a pensive if not distasteful expression on his face.

Buck and Chris looked up when Vin entered the kitchen.

The small boy's eyes immediately landed on the adoption certificate.

Tears welled to his eyes.

It might be for the best if they un-adopted Ezra but it wouldn't be right, Vin knew it in his heart. No one deserved to get hurt like that, no matter how right it was for everyone else.

Vin just knew it. Deep down where he held onto all the smells and sounds that reminded him of his mother, he knew that giving Ezra back was wrong. It was wrong to even think it. Uncle Ezra deserved better. Vin might not have deserved better when he had been rejected but he sure wished someone had stood up for him, had come to stand by his side.

No ever did, and it hurt every time. It always hurt no matter how many times he got sent back. He never got used to the hurt, he just came to expect it. Just like Uncle Ezra did.

Vin stared at the adoption certificate and felt the tears build. Someone should have stood up for Uncle Ezra. Heck, Vin figured Uncle Ezra should have stood up for himself. But Vin could find no fault with his Uncle because in all the times Vin had been rejected, he had never stood up for himself either.

There was no point. No one would listen and no one would really care.

Vin knew he just wasn't worth the effort. If he wouldn't stand up for himself, why should he expect someone else to stand up for him.

Vin had done his best to shield JD from those kind of things.

Vin ran his finger along the border of the certificate wishing he could take back yesterday and the day before.

Buck felt his anger at the undercover agent rise. His ire was matched in Larabee.

"Vin, I'm sure there is a perfectly good explanation...." Buck started, seeing the tears spill over eye lids and run silently down dirty cheeks.

Vin merely shook his head.

"Vin, Ezra's probably just thinking after what happened yesterday on the mountain....heck he's just scared is'll be ok."

Vin again shook his head. No one would ever understand. No one who had ever been sent back because they were rejects could understand.

Tears cascaded down in earnest, "No it won' 'n JD told'im we's gonna un-adopt'im cuz he don't fit here...cuz he makes Chris mad and he got you hurt real bad." Vin stated clearly, looking at the certificate and remembering how happy Uncle Ezra had been when JD and Vin had given it to him that afternoon at the BBQ. Uncle Ezra had been almost as happy as Vin had been when families would decide to take him home to live with them.

It had never worked out...just like this. He should have known better, he and Ezra both.

Vin took a breath and explained the best he could, using the same argument the counselors at the home had given him.

"Sometimes, it's best, for everyone if you git rid of the trouble makers...better fer everyone involved." Vin ran his fingers along the macaroni frame as he hiccupped for breath, "trouble makers don't belong with good families," Vin whispered quietly and then looked up at Buck and then Chris, "that's what they used to say at the 'Home'..."

Chris and Buck shared a look. Chris sighed and looked toward the ceiling. When would the insecurities, wrong assumptions and just plain foolishness ever end?

"Vin, you aren't a trouble maker," Buck soothed as he stared at Larabee and watched his old time friend fight to control his growing anger. Wilmington stared across the table and met Vin's eyes, "Son, why don't you start at the beginning." Buck coached.

Vin merely nodded and while running his hand over the adoption certificate he told his two fathers everything he could remember that had been said and unspoken over the last few days. He spoke about the anger in the house when Chris and Buck got home and how angry Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan had been that day when Buck got hurt. Vin pointed out how they all wanted another baby-sitter other than Ezra, how JD thought maybe Ezra's ma was right not to like him; Vin tried to recall everything... all the way up to Ezra running across the meadow carrying the boys.

In the end, Vin was openly crying sitting on his father lap trying to hiccup out past hitching breaths about how wrong he thought the "Home" was; it weren't good to be rejected no matter what. It hurt, the kind of hurt that never goes away.

Chris rubbed his son's bony back and held him tight. His hazel eyes darkened in anger as he rested his chin on his son's head.

Buck called Josiah and Nathan and told them what had happened. Wilmington listened to the soft curses over the phone and nodded in silent agreement to the sounds of frustration mixed with fear and anger that filtered across the phone line.

Standish had gone to ground. He was licking his wounds and wouldn't resurface until he could hold himself together and defend himself without getting re-injured unless of course he collapsed first.

Josiah and Nathan kept searching.

Friday Afternoon

Chris flipped open his cell phone before the first ring could end. He immediately tuned out the two boys and Buck eating PB and J sandwiches, as he brought the phone to his ear, "Larabee."

Dr. Murray shook her head and bit her lip as an amused smile spread across her face. "Agent Larabee, it's Dr. Lauren Murr...."

"We're on our way," Larabee cut the speaker off mid introduction and snapped his phone closed as he pushed himself to his feet.

Buck started to stand as the two boys stared wide eyed at Chris.

Larabee headed out of the kitchen. "That was Murray, she's got Ezra." The swinging of the kitchen door punctuated his statement.

Buck quickly followed after Chris, herding the two boys in front of him.

+ + + + + + +`

Lauren Murray leaned against the counter at the nurses' station on the fourth floor and played with the 'Buzz Lightyear' Bubble Head that sat atop one of the station's computers.

A few minutes passed and the phone rang. Dr. Murray held out her hand and smiled, "That will be Mr. Wilmington, I'll take the call."

The young nurse answered the phone and waited a second listening to the voice over the phone. She handed the receiver to the waiting Doctor.

"Mr. Wilmington, Agent Standish is going to be fine." Murray pre-empted, the moment she put the phone to her ear.

"I will go through all the gory details when you arrive." She paused and nodded her head, "Yes, room 425....Vin and JD?" She hesitated, "I don't think that should be a problem..." Again she paused. As she listened to the voice on the other end of the phone she nudged the bubble head stand and smiled when Buzz Lightyear bobbled back and forth. "I'll be waiting." She handed the phone back to her nurse and sighed.

"Can you page me when Mr. Larabee and his troop arrive."

The nurse took a deep breath and sighed.

They knew their afternoon was going to get decidedly interesting when the E.D had called up to inform them that they had one of Larabee's agents down in their wards.

+ + + + + + +

Buck hung up from Murray and smiled reassuringly to the two small boys in the back seat as he pressed in the code for Josiah's phone number.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushed room 425's door open and quietly stepped in, his eyes immediately finding Josiah standing by the head of the bed.

"Nathan's trying to dig up his chart," Sanchez answered the un asked question.

Larabee moved to the opposite side of the bed. Standish lay slightly curled on his side. His features were pale. His left hand, forearm and elbow were encased in an off white fiberglass cast. An IV fed his right hand and a rosy flush brushed his cheeks, highlighting the paleness of the rest of his features.

"Buck and the boys?" Josiah asked as he placed the back of his calloused hand on the undercover agent's reddened cheek.

A moderate feverish warmth met his touch.

"Outside, I wanted to see how he was doing first," Larabee answered. "How'd he get here?"

"Drove himself, car 's in the lot downstairs," Josiah answered, relieved that the younger agent had sense enough to seek help when he needed it, but saddened that Ezra had not bothered or trusted the others enough to call them for help.

Both men turned when the door to the room opened again.

Dr. Murray and Nathan entered with Buck and the two boys on their heels.

"Gentlemen," She greeted. She moved her way beside Larabee and gently eased the blankets back to Standish's waist.

Chris cursed quietly seeing the bruises and the gauze. He slid from that side of the bed and headed for the other side, hoping to spare Vin from seeing the damage. The young boy was already beating himself up over the misunderstandings of the last few days.

Murray parted the loosely tied gown and checked the multiple gauze 4x4's that were taped to various spots on Standish's back. The yellowish,orange of Betodine soap still stained his skin. Nathan stared at Standish's back and shoulders. The swelling was easily discernible as were the reddened welts that criss-crossed his exposed shoulders and back extending down to his waist and lower.

"He gonna be ok?" The question came from Vin as he slid behind Chris and peered around his father's waist to peek at his uncle laying in the bed.

Uncle Ezra's face was red and his had sweat around his hair like he did after playing with JD in the back yard.

Murray smiled at the small boy, marveling at the child who had survived so much already and at such a young age.

She gazed directly at the boy and answered his question with same sense of gravity that it had been asked, "He's going to be fine."

"He beated up a mountain lion," JD offered. He had clambered his way into Buck's arms and spoke around the small thumb in his mouth.

"I can see that." Murray smiled again, " he must have had a very good reason." She eyed Buck with a critical look, "almost as good a reason as Mr. Buck for not following Doctor's orders."

Buck had the decency to look slightly chastised at the reprimand. Lord, his chest burned, fiery lancing pain seared him with each breath. Holding JD, however, was worth the agony.

JD, oblivious to the undercurrent, nodded his head vigorously all the while saying, "Uhuh."

"He breaked his arm?" Vin leaned around Chris and gently touched the cast that kept Standish's elbow bent and left just his fingers exposed. Ezra's fingers lay slightly curled, chapped and swollen. He wouldn't be holding a deck of cards with his left hand anytime soon.

Murray smiled again and this time looked to Chris before addressing the child that hid behind the leader of Team Seven, "Yes he did." She then went on to clarify, "He broke the little bones in the back of his hand and some of the ones in his wrist."

Vin nodded, "He hit the mountain lion a lot 'n really hard too."

"I bet he did."

"The mountain lion didn't like it none," JD added, "it wanted to eat me."

"It did?"

"Yup," JD nodded, "Cuz I's so sweet."

Murray bit the inside of her cheek as Josiah and Nathan ducked their heads to hide their smiles. The suppressed chuckles were born of relief and pent up tension that needed to find a release.

JD's simplistic view of the incident helped relieve some of the worry and fright.

"I bet you do." Murray answered smiling at the tiny five year old that clung tightly to his father. She noted the secure grip that Wilmington used to hug the young child snug to his chest.

She silently wondered if Buck had put the boy down at all since the incident.

"He feels hot," Josiah's deep voice rumbled through the small room as he once again rested a calloused hand on the undercover agent's heated cheek.

Murray sighed and nodded, "He's running a moderate fever." She paused and started with the easiest injuries, "He broke his hand and wrist, sustained multiple lacerations to his back and side as well as his hip and upper legs." As she spoke she ran gentle fingers along the reddened welts tinged with the stain of the yellow disinfectant soaps, "Some of them are infected, the ones he couldn't reach and he's lost a little more blood than was good for him."

She looked up at the other agents as she draped the back of the hospital gown back into place and gently pulled the white blanket back up to Standish's shoulders. "We're running antibiotics into him and are giving him something for the pain."

"When's he gonna wake up?" Vin asked leaning his head against Chris's belt. Larabee unconsciously dropped his hand to Vin's head and held the boy close.

"Well, he's going to be sleeping for a while yet," Murray answered again with a smile to relieve the young boys fears.

"You gave'im somethin' to make 'im go ta sleep?" JD asked, his thumb wedged tightly in his mouth as he tucked his head under Buck's chin.

"Yup, he needs to rest so he can build his strength back up so he can play with his two favorite nephews." Murray's smile faltered when she noticed the two boys faces fall and Vin tuck back in behind Chris out of sight.

Murray gazed up to Larabee. Chris merely shook his head. Later....maybe.

Early Saturday

Josiah leaned forward yawning loudly as he watched Standish move about restlessly. Sanchez reached out again and felt the undercover agent's forehead and cheek. They felt cooler than they had earlier last night. Sanchez held his watch up and under the fluorescent night light that lay over the head of the hospital bed.

3:46am. Josiah yawned again bringing tears to his eyes. He was getting too old to sit in hard plastic chairs. He leaned forward and stretched, his muscles taking on a life of their own as they twitched and contracted of their own volition. His eyes closed as he rode out the involuntary stretching as his legs shot straight out and flexed and twitched. He slowly climbed to his feet to give his backside a rest. His butt was numb.

When he looked back down at his young friend he found Standish blinking and staring at something across the shadow marred room.

"Brother?" Josiah placed his hand on his friend's forehead and felt the damp sheen of sweat that covered Standish's features. He watched as Ezra blinked a few times and then slowly rolled his eyes toward the voice.

"You're okay Ezra," Sanchez reached behind himself and pulled the plastic chair closer without looking at it. He kept his other hand on Standish. "You're in the hospital...everyone's fine." Josiah sat on the edge of the seat and stared into the glazed green eyes that slowly followed his movements. "You're going to be fine....You with me?"

Ezra moved his left hand. The cast clanked into the raised bed rail. Ezra stared at the cast dumbly.

"You broke your hand, Ezra, but it's alright now." Josiah reached for the plastic mauve cup that had once held ice chips and now luke warm water. "You want something to drink?"

Josiah held the cup and straw so the undercover agent could see and perhaps make sense of the offer.

Josiah put the cup back on the small stand when Standish's eyes drifted closed.

Saturday, later am

Ezra wasn't sure what registered first, the noise or the pressure in his ear. He raised his hand to swipe at whatever bothered his ear but his hand was impossibly heavy and fell clubbing himself on the side of his head.

He groaned.

"Let that be a lesson to you," A stern voice spoke as the pressure in his ear increased for a little bit.

Standish rolled his head, ducking it closer to his chest and again tried to swipe at the offending pressure only this time something captured his incredibly heavy hand.

There was a beeping sound and then a female voice, "Fever's down."

"Knock it off Ezra, let the lady do her job."

Ezra recognized Chris's voice. He immediately leaned into the grip without realizing it. Ezra struggled to get his eyes to open.

Voices started springing up all over. "He wakin' up?....can I see?"

Ezra felt the bed dip...why was he in bed? What was Chris doing in his condo? ...with JD?

"Lil' bit git down from there." The bed undipped as Buck's voice tolled through out the room.

"But I can't see," JD answered back.

"Ain't nuthin' to see JD," Vin answered as he tried to peer around Chris.

Ezra tried to roll onto his back but something stopped him, "Just a moment, Mr. Standish." A woman's voice. Ezra tried moving his hand again but it was still trapped.

"Ezra, keep still," Chris's voice again. Apparently the whole Larabee, Wilmington tribe was at his condo.

Something touched his back. It burned.

Ezra heard a sharp hiss and realized it came from himself. He tried to arch away from whatever meaded his flesh. Muscles burned and complained.

"Just a moment longer," The same woman's voice. Was Mr. Wilmington bringing his paramours to Ezra's home now? Surely the man had more sense than that? Of course they were talking about Mr. Wilmington.

The strange hands moved dangerously close to well protected territory. Ezra immediately rolled onto his back despite the fact his hands were trapped somewhere across from him. His eyes snapped open.

"Mr. Standish," an exasperated voice rang out.

He tried to focus on the blurry features around him. Everything was fuzzy.

"Buck, why don't you take the two boys down to get some juice or something." Chris asked in a tone that was more of a command than a request.

Wilmington's chuckling had Ezra wondering what was so funny.

"Can't blame'im pard'," Buck pointed out as he gathered up the boys.

"Can't blame'im fer what, Buck?" JD asked as his father gingerly bent down to scoop him up into his arms.

The Doctor pointedly cleared her voice staring at Wilmington with raised eyebrows. Buck sighed and delicately straightened up and took JD's hand instead.

"Unca Ezra don't want no strangers lookin' at his butt," Vin answered helpfully.

"Vin," Chris warned as he watched his seven year old follow Buck out of the room.

Once the door swung close both Chris and Dr. Murray turned back to their patient.

"Welcome back," Larabee smirked feeling some empathy for his disoriented agent. Chris untangled the IV line from the blankets and bed rail.

"What?" Ezra blinked again trying to bring his eyes and mind back into focus.

"Mr. Standish," Murray leaned into his view, "you're going to be fine, just let me finish and I'll be on my way."

With Chris's help, they rolled Ezra back onto his left side. "Just relax Ezra, she'll be done in moment," Larabee spoke quietly trying to offer reassurance. He stared into the fogged green eyes that seemed to look to him for protection.

Standish felt a draft that he believed he had no right to be feeling, drift over him. He tried to roll back.

Two set of firm hands held him fast.

"I'm almost done," a terse but amused voice sounded behind him.

And true to her word, Ezra felt the thin material of a hospital gown get draped back over his hip and the blanket pulled back up above his waist.

He was gently rolled onto his back.

"His fever broke, he's maintaining 99F, the sutures look good, the swelling is going down."

"I am in the room," the annoyance in Ezra's voice was partially lost under the scratchy hoarseness of one who had just woken from a sound if not drugged sleep.

"So you are," Murray stared down at her patient. Amazing how one person could find so much trouble. "You are single-handedly financing our new Imaging wing."

"Glad to be of assistance," Standish rebutted, his irritation muted by the sluggishness that encompassed him.

"Well, seeing that you are awake and being your charming self," Murray smiled, "I'll shall be going and write discharge orders."

Ezra didn't like the smile. It reminded him of a snake about to devour its prey. The medical community was evil.

Chris sat back in his chair and enjoyed watching someone spar with his undercover agent.

He watched as Standish and Murray gave each other dirty looks.

The doctor ignored the brazen, scrutinizing, wary contempt that glazed green eyes dully bore her way. "I'll be releasing you later this afternoon."

Standish let a half smile grace his face, bringing out a hint of his dimples. He was too tired for the full toothy victorious grin that he flashed whenever he felt he had won.

Murray returned her patient's uppity smile with one of her own, "You'll be released only under the stipulation that you remain under the care and supervision of someone else."

Her smile brightened as her patient's smile faded.

"Good Lord," Ezra let his eyes close. He wasn't feeling up to being a house guest. He desired only to go home.

"He's done his duty concerning you for the last 48 hours," Murray answered. "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris sighed and nodded, "We'll take him back to the ranch with us."

The doctor nodded and then turned her attention back to her patient. "Get some rest Mr. Standish, you tore and pulled quiet a few muscles in your back carrying those children like you did, and won't be moving around too well for a while and those lacerations on your back, legs and posterior will keep you uncomfortable for a few days yet, I'll give Mr. Larabee, instructions on how to keep the sutures clean. And give you something for the discomfort."

She reveled in the blush that crept up Standish's face. From the corner of her eye she watched as the fearsome Supervising Agent Larabee slid further down into his chair with his hand shielding his face as if trying to hide from his accepted responsibilities.

"No getting the cast or sutures wet, and I'll be seeing you in 10 days." She headed for the door and motioned silently for Chris to follow.

Ezra shut his eyes and gently slunk further down under the blankets, "Over my dead body." He mumbled out.

"It just might be if you don't do as I say." Murray added as she lead the way out into the hallway.

+ + + + + + +`

Chris leaned against the door to room 425 and shut his eyes as he rested his head back against the cool wood.

"He say anything about the boys yet?" Buck asked. Josiah and Nathan had taken JD and Vin to the park. They would bring them home later in the afternoon after Buck and Chris got Ezra to the ranch and settled.

Chris shook his head.

"Think he remembers?" Wilmington asked hoping that maybe Ezra didn't recall the past few days, though there was no reason why he shouldn't be able too.

Larabee nodded, "Yup."

Sunday Morning

Josiah kept his hands on Ezra's bare shoulder as Chris peeled back the 4x4 dressings that lined up and down the undercover agent's back and gently as he could, cleaned the crust and seeping serum from the sutures. Each time Standish flinched, Sanchez was forced to apply moderate pressure to keep the agent from squirming away.

Standish hissed and tried to wiggle away incurring more discomfort from the torn strap muscles that ran the length of his back. He paused and flashed a haphazard elbow in Chris's general direction.

Josiah sighed.

"Ezra, quit your movin' around," Larabee growled out. It had been only one night and now the first morning. Standish had been up moving about the house under his own power last night, albeit slowly and delicately but he had been moving none the same.

There was an underlying tension in the house. The boys had been and still were unusually quiet and Standish had confined himself to the rooms that had the fewest if any people.

It hadn't helped that yesterday afternoon and early evening he kept heading for Buck's truck and the Ram.

The gravel driveway and no shoes had kept the undercover agent from making a speedy escape, as did Diablo. Each time, Diablo had laid on the porch and let out a mournful howl that alerted anyone within a two mile radius that Standish was limping towards one of the trucks.

Not that Ezra hadn't tried to bribe the dog. Steak bones, chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwich scraps, macaroni left-overs, anything Standish could palm from the refrigerator and sneak away with, he had given to the dog, in hopes to occupy the old lab's mouth while he, the stealthy undercover agent with pulled back muscles, could make good his escape.

Each time, Diablo had let loose with a sorrowful howl that repeated itself in its own lazy fashion.

Larabee had to laugh. Standish had yet to realize that Diablo was bemoaning the retreat of one of his pack.

Larabee shook his head and cringed...damn dog and tigers. Adopting strays. The beasts should know better.

"Brother?" Josiah asked when he saw Chris shake his head in disgust. Perhaps the sutures were becoming infected again. He rested a heavy hand on Standish's cheek and then forehead. Sanchez didn't feel a fever.

Ezra shook off the touch with vehement irritation. His humility had hit an all time high, or low, as it may be, laying here trapped as a house guest with all his 'assets' laid bared while his boss cleaned his wounds.

Chris shook his head dismissing Sanchez's worries.

Larabee peeled back the eleventh such 4x4, this one closer to Standish's pale lower back. Chris paused, not enjoying this any more than Ezra.

Josiah felt the tension and embarrassment from both men and understood their predicament even though it brought forth a bubbling chuckle.

"Oh, shut up Josiah," Ezra sputtered out tiredly with his face half buried in the pillow. At least Chris had the foresight to force two pain pills down him twenty minutes ago. Hopefully Ezra would be passed out before Chris had to go any deeper south.

"Brother, you defeated a lion with your bare hands," Josiah offered as a platitude trying to keep his humor under control. "That in itself is a biblical event, seen only done using the jaw bone of an Ass."

"Yes well, Mr. Larabee wasn't there, so I was forced to improvise."

Chris picked at the crusted serum that adhered to a group of the sutures over Standish's left buttock with a little more force than perhaps necessary.

Ezra sucked in a breath, tucking his backside away from the scraping and let out a yelp as sore muscles fired fierce complaints at the unwise movement.

A devilish smile crossed Chris's face, Josiah let loose with a deep chest rumbling laugh and Diablo pointed his nose to the bedroom's ceiling and let go with a doleful howl of empathy.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat outside on the porch steps with JD on his lap. The young boy nodded his head cautiously as he listened to everything his father had to say.

JD didn't understand why Buck wanted to talk to him about the adoption. JD leaned heavily against his father and quietly muttered, "There ain't no such thing as forever Buck..." JD explained slowly and carefully.

Sometimes adults were not too smart. He and Vin had learned that along time ago. Adults weren't always smart, they could look at you and still not see you, and sometimes they had foolish ideas.

Like Forever. There was no such thing as 'Forever'. JD's momma had talked about 'Forever' just before she fell asleep...but forever never came.

She had been wrong.

Just like Buck was now.

Buck hugged his little boy closer to his chest and ignored the heated pain that seared his ribs and sternum.

"JD you just can't be getting rid of people you adopt because they make you mad."

"We's gonna adopt Unca Ezra back," JD explained as if it should take care of everything.

"What if he doesn't want to be adopted back?" Buck asked, "He might not want to be hurt like that again."

JD shook his head real slow as if Buck was having difficulty with a simple concept, "Of course, he'll want to be adopted again," JD paused and sighed again. Adults were sometimes really, really slow, " Vin said, he always wanted to be taken back to someone's home, right up until he had to run away and found me."

"JD," Buck explained as earnestly as he could, "what happened to Vin wasn't right. Those people who gave up Vin made the biggest mistakes of their lives."

"But what if Uncle Ezra gits ya hurt again?" JD whispered out, "Even his momma don't like'im very much."

"First off little Bit, Ezra didn't get me hurt at all. He did his job and he did it really well. Just like when he protected to you from the mountain lion. And no one is to blame for me getting hurt except for the bad men who did it." Buck peered down at his little boy, "and for another thing, Ezra's momma loves him a real lot." Buck wasn't sure if he spoke the truth, but deep down he believed Maude Standish loved her son immensely.

"No she don't."

"Yes she does Lil' Bit," Buck paused, "she just don't show it like other moms show it."

"She used to send him away a lot." JD challenged.

Buck furrowed his brow, "He tell you that?"

"No, Mrs. Travis said it."

Buck bit back his frustration, "Lil' Bit, Ezra's momma loves him."

"No she don't," JD answered confidently, "No one loves Uncle Ezra, he does bad things and gets people hurt," JD continued to speak cutting Buck off, "that's why me 'n Vin adopted 'im. We wanted him not to be not loved by no one. He needs someone to look out fer 'im and teach 'im how to be good, but," JD rested his head back against Buck's chest seemingly unaware of the bruises that protested. JD shook his head, bumping his head against Buck's battered chest. Wilmington bit his cheek trying to catch his breath. JD kept on talking, "he's got ya hurt, Buck 'n that ain't right."

"JD don't go unadopting Ezra," Buck whispered, "Ya'll hurt'im more than that Mountain lion did."

"I don't wanna hurt'im Buck." JD's voice trembled, "But I's scared when ya got hurt, and ya couldn't even hug me or nuthin'....and it was scary."

"I know Lil' Bit," Buck answered back quietly resting his cheek on his son's head.

"But it weren't Ezra's fault. It was the bad men's fault."

JD nodded his head, "Ya think Unca Ezra will be happy that me 'n Vin decided not to unadopt 'im?"

Buck closed his eyes and tried to find an honest answer other than, 'I don't know.' Instead, he settled for cinching his arms around his small boy and holding him close, despite the pain in his ribs and sternum.

Monday am (holiday)

Vin sat on the edge of the mattress and played with the corner of the heating pad which rested on the pale blue sheets of Uncle Ezra's bed. Vin waited patiently as he listened to the shower shut off. A little time passed and soon Uncle Ezra was limping from the bathroom. He had a towel tucked around his waist and his left arm wrapped in a trash bag.

Diablo followed him out of the bathroom. Diablo didn't think people needed privacy.

It made Vin kind of smile. Diablo followed Uncle Ezra around like JD, except Uncle Ezra didn't drop food on the ground like JD did. JD liked it when Diablo paid him special attention but it kind of bothered Uncle Ezra...especially when he tried to sneak away.

Diablo was a good watch dog.

This was only Uncle Ezra's second day here. He weren't suppose to take a shower yet. Chris had told him 'No'. But only once. Maybe Uncle Ezra didn't think it was very important,...cuz it was only said once...Chris normally said things a bunch of times if it was important.

Uncle Ezra didn't pay any attention. He was gonna git in big trouble, even Diablo wouldn't be able to help him.

Ezra paused when he exited the bathroom. He eyed Vin sitting on 'his' bed.

The dog bumped into the back of his leg and began licking at his calf.

Standish shook his leg trying to encourage the dog to simply disappear. Ezra caught his breath when his back complained. Amazing how legs were so intimately associated to one's back. He couldn't take a step without the muscles aching.

Vin watched and a small, shy smile crossed his face.

It was the first smile Ezra had noticed from the boy since his coming to 'recuperate' under the 'tending, giving' care of Larabee. Larabee The Sadist.

The two boys had been strangely absent. Ezra had to concede, that between the medication and Larabee's twice a day ministrations, he had not been up to dealing with the two boys.

Seeing the timid smile on the seven year old brought an ache to Ezra's chest he did not want to deal with at the moment. The whole issue of being potentially unadopted had left an continuous ache in his chest and had humiliation crawling up his spine.

Diablo continued to lick at his calf.

Damn dog.

Ezra strode across the room to his pitiful selection of clothing. Sweat pants, socks, boxers and an over sized t-shirt.

Hopefully Josiah or Nathan would come today and bring him some of his own wardrobe. Wearing Buck's sweatpants and having to have someone roll the legs was just too much. No drug in the world would make that better.

"Master Tanner," Ezra twitched a smile on his face and hobbled toward the bed, toward his borrowed clothes. "Is there something I can help you with?" Ezra let his eyes rove over to the boy sitting at the head of the bed with his chin nearly touching his chest.

Standish closed his eyes and felt the ache in his chest grow. To think he had hurt these children...

Vin merely nodded his head, not looking up, and not knowing if his Uncle could see him.

"How can I help you?" Ezra found the boxers and sent up a silent prayer. They were his. Thank God for small favors.

He turned his back on the figure at the head of the bed and gingerly sat down on the foot of the bed, on the towel and gently lifted one foot and then the other controlling his breathing as he stretched sutures, tightening skin and muscles that obviously wanted to mutiny for just trying to get into a pair of cotton boxers.

Diablo licked the bottoms of his feet when they came off the floor.

Ezra cringed. Perhaps the senile old dog had a nutritional deficiency.

Ezra cautiously pushed himself to his feet with his good hand. He struggled to inch the cotton boxers over his hips with only one hand while doing his best to protect the numerous, yet unseen, sutures that graced his body in areas that Mr. Larabee had no right in cleaning.

Ezra blushed.

Vin giggled. He never knew people could blush there.

Ezra bit back a smile as he turned around to face the child.

Vin sat a little more relaxed at the head of the bed.

The ice seemed to be cracking.

"So tell me Mr. Tanner, what brings you in here so early in the morning?" Ezra removed the plastic trash bag from his left arm.

The crinkling of plastic filled the room.

Vin smiled again, this time letting the tips of white teeth glimmer behind the grin, "It ain't early Uncle Ezra, it's almost ten o'clock."

"So it is," Ezra sat back down but this time on the side of the bed only a few feet from Vin.

He again went through the same struggles of getting his feet through the legs of the sweat pants while holding onto the waist with his right hand.

Vin watched quietly. He didn't offer to help. He wouldn't want someone helping him put on his pants. That would be embarrassing.

Diablo licked at Uncle Ezra's toes.

Vin giggled again, bringing his hands up to his mouth to hide his amusement.

Ezra cursed and thanked the dog silently.

"What do you and JD have planned for today?" Ezra gingerly turned and tried to reach for the cotton white tee-shirt behind him. He hissed as stitches and muscles burned, abruptly signaling the poor choice in movement.

Vin hopped off the bed and ran around Ezra and got the t-shirt.

"Here ya go," Vin offered. The shy look was back and the eyes remained downcast on the floor.

"Thank you Vin," Ezra took the shirt and gingerly tried to get it over his head. He felt little hands helping him as the clothing got caught over his head and on his cast that extended just past his elbow.

Diablo licked at his toes again.

Nuisance of a dog.

"You want help with ya socks?" Vin asked, his timidness slowly started disappearing again as he gained courage through his ability to help his uncle. "It'll keep Diablo from lickin' ya toes."

Ezra closed his eyes and nodded. Yes, he needed help with his socks, and yes, he wished the dog would quit licking his toes.

Vin, in a very grown up manner, got Ezra's socks on his feet. There wasn't too much dog slobber on them.

"There you go Uncle Ezra," Vin stood up and smiled but again diverted his eyes.

Ezra sighed. It was time to take the plunge. "Vin," Ezra waited for the boy to look up at him.

Vin stared at the dog. Diablo stood and leaned against the child.

Ezra watched as the seven year old leaned back and scratched at Diablo's head.

The mangy dog was a blessing, in its own rotten manner, Ezra had to concede.

Standish continued, "Vin, I am not mad at you or JD. I understand why you want to un-adopt me." Ezra paused and kept his voice even, "That is a decision for you boys to make, it won't make Chris or Buck love you any less, or Josiah or Nathan," Ezra paused and this time he reached out and lifted Vin's chin with the crook of his finger, "or even me. Do you understand what I am saying?"

Ezra felt his breath catch as he watched tears build in Vin's blue eyes. Standish felt his own chest tighten at the pain in the liquid clear blue eyes. How could he have hurt these boys so...?

"It weren't right," when Vin spoke, the tears spilled over his lower lids and slid down his cheek. They dripped onto Standish's hand.

"Yes it is Vin," Ezra continued again, "you are only trying to protect your loved ones and that makes it right."

"What about you?" Vin asked quietly, his voice quavering as he hesitantly wiped at his eyes. "Someone's gotta love you....the Home in Atlanta don't want you, and your momma don't want you...."

Ezra's confusion about the 'Home' in Atlanta faded away when Vin mentioned Maude. Dear mother had made a lasting impression on the two boys with her short visit.

"Why Vin," Ezra smiled as Diablo rested his chin on Ezra's knee, while still leaning on Vin, "don't you know that Diablo loves me."

Vin shook his head as tears streamed down his face like a summer rain, "No he don't Uncle Ezra, he jist thinks yer like JD and me, 'n needs lookin' after 'n I jist think he likes the taste of the soap ya use."

Through his own silent pain, Ezra chuckled.

"Perhaps that is so, but it still does not change things." Ezra leaned forward and gently pulled Vin into a delicate one armed hug, "You must do what you believe is right, Vin. And no matter what, Chris and Buck and Josiah and Nathan and I will always love you. You have got to understand that....Ok?" Ezra held the boy to his chest and closed his eyes as he felt the child bob his head in understanding.

Diablo tried to wiggle in between them.

A small sad smile graced Ezra's face as he carefully straightened up and loosened his grip, letting go of Vin. "It's going to be alright." The smile slowly transformed to be more genuine.

Vin wiped at his eyes and gazed up at his Uncle.

The deceptive smile was gone from Uncle Ezra. Vin wondered if Uncle Ezra was really that good or if he truly believed what he had just said.

Ezra smiled reassuringly, "Come on, let's go wash your face and then see what's for breakfast."

Vin let his uncle lead him toward the bathroom, even though Uncle Ezra walked real slow and with a little limp. Diablo padded after them, his nails clicking on the wood floor.

"There ain't no more breakfast left." Vin pointed out as he leaned up and over the sink and reached to turn on the faucet, "we ate it all hours ago."

Ezra chuckled quietly to himself and nodded.

+ + + + + + +

Buck leaned against his pitch fork and watched as Chris threw old hay bales out to the horses for them to pick through. "You think we should say something to Ezra or the boys?"

Chris knew exactly what his oldest friend was referring to when he spoke. Larabee shook his head, "Nope."

Buck leaned heavily against the pitch fork unwilling to put it away but realizing he couldn't use it. The plastic wheel barrow sat in the aisle waiting for Larabee to fill it.

"How come."

Chris kicked the remaining hay out the door, "They'll figure it out on their own."

"Might need help." Buck countered.

"Might." Chris agreed.

Wilmington nodded and stared at the thick wood floor. He toed an old 'nugget' with boot and continued to leaned against the fork handled and watch Chris latch the barn doors.

"Think maybe we should..."

"Buck," Chris sighed, "let them figure it out."

Buck nodded and handed the pitch fork to Chris.

+ + + + + + +

JD bounced into the kitchen and slid to a stop. He stared at Uncle Ezra eating Fruit Loops, "UhHo." He said with all the seriousness of a five year old sensing the impending doom of one of their own.

"UhHo what, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra looked up from his cereal, wondering how in the world the Kellog company remained in business but suspecting that they had some kind of contract with the Dental Health Community.

The undercover agent did not hear Buck and Chris enter the kitchen behind him.

"You weren't suppose ta take a shower...'n ya hairs all wet." JD whispered in a voice as loud as his normal speaking voice.

"No, he wasn't," Larabee agreed as he strode into the kitchen and rested a firm hand on the undercover agent's shoulder.

"Mr. Larabee, let me explain," Ezra stumbled out.

"Chris," Vin spoke up from the chair next to Ezra's, "ya only told him not to once," Tanner spoke with all the seriousness of a diplomat at peace negotiations, "ya can't expect someone ta listen ta somethin' if ya only say it just once...iffen it's important ya gotta say it a couple of times." Vin pointed out.

"Ya Chris," JD piped up.

Buck wished his son would learn to be a little more quiet.

"Jist like when ya tell me and Vin not to do somethin' ya say it like 15 million gazzillion times 'n then sometimes ya make us repeat it."

Vin nodded his head in vigorous agreement.

Ezra gently peered over his shoulder and smiled innocently up at his boss. The twin dimples and gold tooth glimmered in the mid morning light.

"Ya Ezra," Buck responded stepping away from the refrigerator and walking around the table and staring pointedly at the undercover agent.

The cocksure but somewhat innocent if not mischievous smile faded from the dimpled face.

Ezra cocked his head to the side as if trying to decipher what Buck meant.

When Buck saw the dawning of understanding flash across the Southerner's face, Wilmington cocked an eyebrow and raised the orange juice container up in mock salute.

"Iffen it's important, Chris, ya gotta be willin' to repeat ya self," Vin added solemnly still nodding his head to make his point.

Larabee tightened his grip on Standish's shoulder as if trying to squeeze the lesson home.

Ezra cinched down slightly in his seat.

"You get your stitches wet?" Larabee asked through gritted teeth.

"Would you believe me if I said 'No.'?" Ezra asked trying hard not to spill his cereal.

Chris let out a put upon sigh. Buck reached up over the counter to the top of the cabinets and tossed him a brown bottle of prescription medicine they kept up high behind a mixing bowl. Larabee caught it with one hand, opened the bottle and slapped two pills on the table beside Standish. "Take'em or not, your decision."

The wounds were deep and were still slightly puffy and wept a purulent exudates due to the lingering vestiges of infection. Chris recalled his own stitches throbbing mercilessly even without them being infected. He would never have let anyone close to his sutures, especially to scrub them. Larabee truly felt bad for his undercover agent. Ezra had gotten himself clawed up pretty fiercely protecting the boys.

Chris would do what he could to get Ezra back on his feet, and he would follow Murray's instructions to the letter even if he didn't like it. The least Chris could do was make it somewhat easier on Standish. Not that the man made it any easier on the rest of them.

He watched somewhat encouraged as Ezra picked up the two little white pills and swallowed them.

Chris and Buck eyed one another. Wilmington understood the unspoken message, "Come'n boys let's go get the laundry done."

The two boys groaned and flopped their heads and arms about as if they had been ordered to shovel the ashes from Hades itself. Buck marched the two youngsters into the laundry room.

Ezra chuckled as he chased the two pills down with the sweetened milk from his cereal. Larabee disappeared into the mudroom and could be heard moving about cleaning things up.

Fifteen minutes later, Chris popped his head into the kitchen and watched his undercover agent.

Ezra sat slumped against the table. He rested his head on his cast as he moved a stray red fruit loop over the table top with a heavy index finger.

Chris stepped into the kitchen and looked toward the laundry room. Buck and the boys stood at the entrance way and watched.

"Come on Ezra, time to check your stitches." Larabee stood behind Standish and tapped his shoulder as if expecting the undercover to voluntarily climb to his feet.

"Completely unnecessary," Ezra whispered out. Resting his head on his cast. It hurt his arm. He thought about moving his head but sighed instead. Ezra tried to spoon another serving of sweetened milk to wash away the chalky taste of the pills. It never seemed to go away. He hated the fogged heavy feeling that draped over him and threaten to smother him. The little white pills shouldn't be that strong. It just seemed wrong.

He let the spoon clatter back into the bowl, when he realized he would have to lift his head to eat.

"Let's go," Larabee practically lifted the undercover agent from his chair by the grip he had on the tee shirt. He steered Standish toward the living room.

The undercover agent stepped wrong pulling on stitches located in a delicate spot and stretching muscles that had no wish to be stretched. A sharp hiss escaped.

Diablo let out a forlorn howl as he trotted behind them.

The two boys giggled.

JD leaned against Buck and said, "I don't think we should un-adopt Uncle Ezra," JD leaned back into his dad and looked up with his big dark hazel eyes, "I think Uncle Ezra needs Vin 'n me to watch out for him."

Buck reached down and ruffled his son's unruly dark hair, wishing he could hug JD instead.

"I think ya right Lil' Bit and I think maybe you and Vin and me should go to the office today and hang up his adoption certificate." Buck looked to Vin for agreement.

The young boy nodded his head vigorously.

"Maybe we should call Josiah and Nathan and see if they want to come out for a BBQ?"

"Yeah!" the two boys shouted. Buck grinned.

It seemed the tension leached from the house like water from an unclogged drain.

Across the house, Diablo let loose with another mournful howl.

JD and Vin giggled. "Stitches must hurt, huh Buck?"

"Yeah, lil' bit they do," Buck laughed. He steered Vin toward the front door as he kept a hand on JD's thin shoulder, the constant throb of aching muscles, though registered, were muted under the sheer pleasure of knowing the boys were safe and happy. "Chris, I'm takin' the boys. We'll be back in about an hour or so...We're havin' a BBQ for lunch you want something?"

Larabee's answering yell was drowned out by another long woeful howl from Diablo.

Vin smiled and latched onto Buck's hand. Sometimes it was good not to do things that felt wrong, even if they were for the best.

Vin pulled his hand free of Buck's and ran into the guest bedroom, ignoring his father who squirted orangey brown soap on his Uncle's back. Instead Vin ran straight to his Uncle who lay on his stomach and enveloped him in a hug and bestowed him with a quick kiss on his cheek. "Luv ya Uncle Ezra." With that the small boy turned on his heel and ran from the room, with an embarrassed red flush to his cheeks that were pushed back with an ear splitting grin.

Ezra lay on the bed and smiled, closing his eyes.

Chris stared at the empty doorway feeling his chest swell with pride for his son. Larabee turned back to his agent and ignored the wet lashes on Standish's face and continued to clean the sutures as gently as possible.

The End