Treasure Box

By Helen Adams

The March 2004 Challenge offered by Celesta SunStar: One of the Seven has a new keepsake, (such as a keychain or a good luck charm they keep in their pocket.) What is the keepsake, and the story behind it. At least one of the remaining Seven needs to know/hear the story. Random Bonus Words (any/all) : Green, Gold, Rabbit, George, Bagpipes, Scotland, Clover, Heritage

Moved to Blackraptor November 2009

Buck took a long look around the room as he set the last box-load of books on the floor beside a large built-in mahogany bookcase. This really was a beautiful place. Simple, elegant and somehow even without the last lot of furniture currently being loaded by Vin, Chris, Nathan and Josiah, homey. JD and Ezra were in the kitchen unloading boxes of dishes and cooking supplies. They were bantering and laughing as they did the chore and that sound too, was homey. Buck smiled. It had taken only a single afternoon to move everything from Ezra's old apartment to his new house but it felt as though a great deal had been accomplished.

Ezra's former residence had been functional but nothing more. It had been stark and sterile with little decoration or personality to give indication of who lived there, even to the point of having a couple of packing boxes in permanent residence in one corner. They had given the apartment the appearance of being a temporary stopover, never even showing indication of having been opened. Those boxes had sat in the same corner, covered by the same brittle yellowing strips of tape for two years, and somehow they had seemed to represent the heart of the man who owned them. Untouchable, brittle - as though Ezra's life was being stubbornly held in stasis by the hurtful bonds of his past; a past that had held far too much disappointment, betrayal, deception and mistrust. That apartment had been a place for Ezra to retreat to at the end of the day; a place to sleep and eat; a place for his mail to be delivered to. A place where no one from the outside world could touch him.

Ezra had leased that apartment for two years and the only notable changes had been the addition of a few photographs, a big-screen TV with DVD player and an extra sofa bought so that his teammates would all have places to sit when they came over. To Buck, those changes had been significant, for they signaled changes within Ezra himself. The man who had first joined Chris Larabee's ATF team as an undercover specialist had had no interest in getting to know any man well enough to call him "friend". He had come ready to do his job, wanting to prove himself worthy of their respect and their trust but expecting nothing more. Ezra had never acted unfriendly or cold to anyone; just distant; held apart from the camaraderie and almost familial closeness shared by the other men. Buck sometimes thought that Ezra had been prepared to drift on the fringe of that close-knit relationship forever, like a starving man looking through the window at a feast - seeing it, sensing it, knowing others were enjoying it, but never quite able to reach it. That was probably the story of his life, but this time someone -six someone's in fact - had seen that lonely figure and recognized him for what he was: a friend who needed help learning to reach out. Their patient and persistent efforts had paid off. Ezra had started to relax around them. He had begun to accept invitations to do things with them outside of work and finally, tentatively, he had extended a few invitations of his own. He had begun to change subtly but importantly in the months that followed and when the lease for his apartment had neared time for renewal, Ezra had proven just how far he had come by opting to leave his safe and sterile environment in favor of something better. He had decided to buy a house.

House hunting had been a fun group effort for the team. Everyone had come up with ideas on what Ezra's ideal home should be like. Some ideas were accepted, most declined, but all were carefully considered and finally he had found what he wanted. A small cozy house surrounded by enough property that he would not feel crowded but urban enough to allow close access to all the city comforts of Denver, for as much as Ezra enjoyed visiting Chris' sprawling ranch on weekends, he was by nature a city boy. This was someplace he belonged; someplace he could, finally, call his own. And Buck, like the rest of his friends, was delighted to see it.

Eyes skimming over the assortment of boxes littering the room, Buck wondered if he should begin unpacking some of them. The book boxes seemed an ideal choice - not too personal and not requiring debate about which area of the room the contents belonged - but he hesitated. Ezra tended to be a little on the fussy side when it came to things being in a specific order and Buck didn't want to helpfully put away all the books only to have his friend stay up half the night rearranging them to his own satisfaction. Finally figuring that it would be easier just to ask, he called out, "Hey, Ezra, c'mere a second."

Both Ezra and JD wandered from the kitchen, cans of soda in hand. JD offered one to his roommate. "Josiah promised to stop at the store for some beer on the way back, but if you're thirsty Ezra's got plenty of these on hand."

Buck accepted the cold can with a grin. It had surprised him initially to learn that Ezra was fond of such a beverage. Though he didn't drink it to the point of a six-pack a day addiction like JD, he still just hadn't seemed like the soda-pop type. "Thanks," he said, taking a deep drink of the fizzy soda then treating his audience to a window-rattling belch. "Ah, nothin' burps like a Coke!"

Ezra rolled his eyes at the crass behavior but was unsuccessful in completely hiding a smile over it. "Something tells me your future does not lie in product endorsement, Mr. Wilmington. Was there something you needed?"

"Oh, yeah, I was gonna start unpacking some of these boxes for you and wondered if you had any suggestions where to start. I was thinking maybe the books?"

"JD and I were just finishing up with the kitchen supplies," he replied thoughtfully. "I'd better help you unload the books, since you may be unfamiliar with my preferred shelving system."

"Goes faster with two anyway," Buck agreed easily, mentally congratulating himself on having guessed right. "How about you, kid. Feeling literary?"

JD grinned. "No thanks. If I start helping, you're gonna start supervising and I'll probably be stopping to read pieces of everything I pick up. They'll never get unpacked. How about I go pick us up some dinner instead? The guys should be back soon and we can all take a break."

Ezra pulled out his wallet and handed JD a fifty, surprising both of his guests when he said, "You'll find a KFC just down the road to your left. I believe that amount should prove sufficient to feed seven."

"KFC?" JD said, staring at the money in his hand in disbelief. "I thought you hated fast food!"

Looking slightly embarrassed, Ezra acknowledged, "It certainly isn't my idea of proper daily nutrition, but this is a rather special occasion, wouldn't you say?"

Buck grinned broadly. "It sure is, and that's a perfect choice. Ma and I moved several times when I was a kid and we always had KFC our first night in a new place. Became a tradition for us."

"Us, too."

JD was already at the door, struggling into his coat, and missed the softly spoken words but Buck heard them and knew that he had not imagined the wistfully nostalgic tone that went with them. Barely acknowledging JD's call of, "Be back soon!" Buck turned to watch Ezra pluck at a loose corner of packing tape on one of the boxes nearest him, wondering if now might not be a good time to broach the topic he had been considering earlier.

Deciding to take a chance, he walked over to the window and nudged a different box across the room. It was one of the two that had previously sat lonely and untouched in that corner of Ezra's old apartment. Half-afraid he might be summarily booted out for his presumption, Buck cleared his throat. "What do you say we forget the books for awhile and see what's in here?"

Ezra looked startled when he recognized the container. "Why that one?"

Taking encouragement from the mild reaction, Buck sat cross-legged on the floor, scooting both himself and the box a little closer to where Ezra had already seated himself. "Guess I figured you might be ready."

A long moment of silence passed during which Ezra softly brushed the tips of his fingers over the dried out masking tape holding the two flaps together. "Curious, are we?" he asked finally, smiling just a bit.

Buck smiled back but held his tongue, waiting.

"These boxes contain nothing more than bits of my past. Some are things that probably wouldn't even make sense to anyone else, much less be of any interest."

The words were flat but there was a hint of question in them as well, as though Ezra were searching for something. "Interesting to me," Buck said sincerely. "I'd like to know more about whoever you used to be and I promise I won't breathe a word to anybody else if you don't want me to."

Ezra licked his lower lip thoughtfully. "The person I used to be. That's an interesting way to put it. True, though, in a way. We are all products of the circumstances that befell our younger selves and the manner in which we dealt with those situations." He touched the box again, almost reverently. "For a man such as I, who spends a significant portion of his life pretending to be something he's not, I suppose that looking back at the developmental stages of life becomes even more important. Perhaps that's why I've kept these for so long untouched. I wasn't ready to reexamine them, but I couldn't bear to part with them. I suppose I was keeping them safe."

"And now?" Buck asked carefully.

Ezra's green eyes rose to take a long lingering look around the room. Here he sat in his very own home, in the company of a very good friend, both things that his 'used to be' self had always longed for but had given up of ever possessing. Without a word, he made his decision. He grabbed the edge of the tape, ripping it back from the edge of the box in a spray of dust. The box flaps fell back limply when Ezra pulled them apart, revealing the treasures inside.

Buck leaned forward eagerly, surprised but at the same time delighted by Ezra's actions. The first thing his eyes fell upon was an empty 16oz Coke bottle resting atop a folded-up sweatshirt. Brow creasing in puzzlement, he gingerly lifted the glass object up. "Was this put in here by mistake?"

A grin lit Ezra's face, bringing his dimples into full view as he took the bottle from the other man's hands. "No, it was not. You said just a short while ago that you moved quite a bit in your childhood."

"Yeah, my mother was struggling to make ends meet and she had to go where the work was, I guess."

Nodding, Ezra rolled the bottle between his hands. "My situation was not dissimilar. When my father was alive, he and Mother used to drift a great deal from city to city, always searching for the next sucker, the next easy mark." There was no apology in those words. Every man on Ezra's team knew that his mother had made (and in some cases, lost) her fortune as a confidence artist and gambler. It was, however, news to Buck that his friend's father had followed the same path. It was quite a heritage. "We traveled from one place to another, never settling longer than a few months. When we would first arrive, my father would drop Mother and I off at the local KFC while he went to case the town. The towns were all the same, you understand. Not too big, not too small, and they always had at least one of that particular eatery. I suppose that's why he chose it. It was a decent rendezvous point and it provided a way to keep me quiet and out of the way while Mother ingratiated herself with the locals."

Buck nodded, understanding now why his friend had suggested JD's dinner destination. "And she'd buy you Coke?" he guessed.

"Yes. Coca-Cola and those little containers of mashed potatoes," he agreed with a slight laugh. "I shouldn't admit this, but I still love the taste of that re-hydrated, impossibly lump-less, pseudo vegetable junk."

A hearty laugh burst forth from Buck. "Yeah, me too, but they just ain't right without that salty brown nuclear waste gravy poured over 'em."

Ezra snorted. "I suppose not. At any rate, Father passed away from an illness when I was seven years old and Mother and I kept moving. As it grew increasingly inconvenient for her to work her schemes with a small child in tow, she began dropping me off to stay with relatives. I grew quite used to being confronted with strange people and unfamiliar landscapes and I soon discovered that all such towns had the same sort of public meeting places, mostly Mom 'n' Pop groceries. All such stores had either ice-chests or soda machines where I could purchase bottles of Coca-Cola and simply loiter about for a few days until I came to know the locals and they became used to seeing me."

"And that way you weren't as much of a stranger," Buck said, understanding completely. "I used to do something like that at Arcades. Livin' in Vegas there wasn't so much for me to do while Ma was busy, but there was always video games and pinball machines and other kids to play with in there."

"Precisely." Ezra had seen Buck play such games at a skill level that suggested many hours of practice. He held up the bottle again. "A few years ago the manufacturers stopped selling this product in glass bottles in most parts of the country. We still had them where I was living at the time so I bought this one and kept the bottle. Just a silly souvenir."

He shrugged, a bit embarrassed by the implied sentimentality of that action but Buck smiled and took the bottle back, blowing a bit of dust away from the neck. "I don't think it's so silly. Sounds like a nice way to remember your dad and times gone by to me."

Ezra smiled, grateful for his friend's forthright acceptance. It made it easier to pull out the next few items for Buck's inspection. At the top lay an old college sweatshirt and a set of keys belonging to his first car - a gold painted Cadillac that had been older than its driver. Next there was a small quilt hand-sewn in a pretty clover design by Ezra's grandmother - one of the few relatives that he had been fond of. Wrapped inside the quilt was a globe of the world with a hole punched through Scotland, which Ezra explained he had done in a fit of pique after being informed by his mother that he was being sent to a boarding school in Edinburgh courtesy of her latest husband.

"Unfortunately, my symbolic destruction of that country had no effect on my being sent there to study," he told Buck with a laugh. "And as it turned out, I quite enjoyed the experience except for having a roommate who decided he was destined to be the world's greatest bagpiper. I thought I would either go mad or strangle him to death with his pipes before the year was out."

Buck grinned as he reached back into the box, pulling out the last object, which had been buried beneath a scattering of ragged old comic books. It was a photo album. "Ah, now we get down to the real dirt!" He cackled wickedly, easily dodging the grab Ezra made for the slender volume. As he opened the front cover, something escaped and fluttered to the carpet. Sliding the album securely beneath one knee to keep the other man from reclaiming it, Buck picked up the paper, which turned out to be a theatrical program. "You kept a program of 'Oklahoma'?" he said in surprise.

Making another desperate attempt to snatch the item out of Wilmington's hand, Ezra blew out a breath of disgust as the man's longer arm length defeated him again. "Oh, go ahead and open it," he grumped. "You might as well get the laughter out of your system now. Just remember, you promised not to tell anyone what you found in that box and I fully intend to hold you to your word."

Thoroughly intrigued by the warning, Buck carefully lifted open the front page of the program. His mouth dropped open slightly as he caught sight of one of the three black and white photos inside. It showed a much younger Ezra, rail thin, babyfaced, and looking very much the wide-eyed innocent. He was dressed as a cowboy; his hands stretched out beseechingly toward a pretty young woman in a 19th Century style flowered dress and hat. "Well, I'll be damned," Buck chuckled. "You look ready to ride right off into the sunset with that pretty little gal, pard."

Ezra grimaced and shot his friend the bird.

Looking over the cast list, a still snickering Buck read, "George Trent as Curly, Annette Green as Laurie, René Minton as Ado Annie and, ah here we are, Ezra Stratton as Will Parker. Stratton?"

"Ex-stepfather number four," Ezra sighed, rubbing his hands across a face grown uncomfortably hot. "I didn't usually take their names, but Mother didn't want me using my own name for something like regional theater, which she considered a ridiculous and disgraceful waste of my time and talents."

Feeling sure that he was hearing a direct quote and somewhat sobered by the hint of bleakness in Ezra's tone, he asked, "Did you want to go into acting? For real, I mean, professionally?"

"Hardly. I auditioned for that play for one reason and one reason only."

"Which was…"

"I had a desperate and completely hopeless crush on René Minton," he said with a small grin, his face growing even redder with the admission.

Buck grinned. "Sounds like a good reason to me." He checked the picture again. "She's a fine lookin' woman; shaped like an hourglass and cuter than a fuzzy little rabbit. I might've taken up acting for a chance at that myself!"

Ezra snorted, believing it. "I actually only intended to go to the audition so I could watch René try out. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that she had that part sewn-up. It occurred to me as the audition went on, however, that all of the boys were trying out for either the lead role or the comedic role of the peddler. Nobody was trying out for Will, who if you've never seen that production, was Annie's main love interest."

"Ahhhh," Buck said, understanding. "So you figured you'd get up there and make a play for the girl as her character. Very sneaky move, Ez. I like it!"

He laughed. "That's exactly what I did. I didn't expect to win the part but as I was absolutely certain that René would tell me to drop dead if I approached her as myself, I hoped that a fellow would-be thespian would stand a better chance. So, up I went, heart hammering hard enough to burst. I had seen the movie version of that play so I was just familiar enough with one of the character's songs to get through the embarrassment of singing it on stage."

Buck slapped his hands down upon his knees in glee. "Bet it shocked you when you won the part!"

"Shocked would be an understatement. It might be more accurate to say that I was petrified, for that was the moment when it occurred to me that I would not only have to sing those songs though six weeks of rehearsals and five stage performances, but I would also have to act."

His dramatic shudder caused Buck to chuckle. "Seems to me you do a pretty fair job of that now, and you don't even have anybody to write your lines for you."

A twinkle lit Ezra's eyes. "Well, I do admit that I rather enjoyed the experience once I got past the stage-fright, particularly as I had come to a second far more important revelation."

This time, Buck had anticipated him. "Let me guess - the Oklahoma Hello, right?"

A burst of bright laughter rang through the room. "Ah, so you have seen it! Yes, indeed. My eternal gratitude went out to the writers of that play for putting me in a situation where I was able to bestow passionate kisses upon the object of my heart's desire."

"Six weeks of rehearsal and five stage performances worth," Buck repeated, blue eyes sparkling. "And did she ever catch on that you weren't really acting?"

Placing a hand over his heart with a melodramatic sigh, Ezra hung his head. "Alas, the hopeful romance of my 17th summer was doomed to failure. While Will Parker got his Ado Annie, the fair René's heart was won by the peddler, or at least the man playing that role."

"Too bad," Buck sympathized, "but at least you got in a few good kisses over those six weeks. That was worth something, right?"

Ezra grinned. "Of course it was. Why do you think I kept the program all these years?"

The sound of their laughter greeted the other men as they arrived with the last load of Ezra's furniture. "What's so funny?" Vin asked with a smile.

Nipping the incriminating program from Buck's loosened grasp, Ezra leaned over and slid his photo album out from under the other man's leg, tucking the paper inside. "Nothing, really. I was simply showing Mr. Wilmington a few souvenirs of my nefarious past."

"Is that a picture album?" Nathan asked interestedly as he spied the object in Ezra's hand. "I love lookin' through old family photos."

"Me too," Josiah said, peering over Vin's shoulder to see. His eyes moved to the now-empty box between his two friends and the collection of objects littered around them on the floor, widening as he realized what he was looking at. "Is that one of those boxes from your old place?"

Grimacing slightly, Ezra pulled the album closer to his chest, wrapping a defensive arm around it. Then, realizing what he was doing, he stopped. He had trusted Buck with a few pieces of his past and the world had not come to an end. In fact, he had actually enjoyed reminiscing about them and Buck had seemed equally agreeable to the situation. Casting another look around the room, then back to friends who were looking dusty and disheveled after a day spent helping him start this new life, Ezra released his tight grip on the album. "Perhaps after Mr. Dunne returns with our evening repast, you might like to see the photos," he offered tentatively.

There was not one man in that room who failed to recognize the gift of trust and open friendship that was being held out to them. "I think we'd like that, Ezra," Chris said, speaking for all of them. "I know we would."

Not wanting to make the moment awkward for him, the four men trooped back outside to begin unloading the last of the furniture. Buck rose to help them, then stopped. Glancing over at the second of Ezra's still-taped treasure boxes, he asked, "We gonna go through that one later too?"

Ezra had begun to place his keepsakes back into their cardboard container but now he paused, gaze traveling over to where its mate sat. Lifting his eyes to meet Buck's, he smiled shyly. "What do you say we save that one for another day?"

Giving him a nod, Buck smiled and went outside. A promise had just been made and it would be honored when the time was right. He was more than happy with that.


The End


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