Little Britches ATF Universe
The quietly purring engine died with barely a sound as the ignition switch was turned off. With the loss of power, the car's heating system automatically shut off as well. The owner of the vehicle shivered, knowing that his instant impression of coldness was more psychosomatic than real. The interior of the car would remain warm for several more minutes; it was only inside himself that the frozen feeling dwelled.
The townhouse looked cold as well. Unlived in for three long months, it would surely carry the chill and staleness of disuse. The sense of isolation, unwelcoming to a strange presence within its walls, would pervade every corner, and until it went away Ezra would be left feeling even colder.
It was ridiculous, he knew. Attaching feelings to a simple structure of metal, wood and glass, but he could not shake the impression. It was so large, and so empty, and he felt so alone already that he could not bear the thought - however fanciful - of being rejected by his own home.
Home . . . Ezra frowned as he considered the word. Was home just a series of empty rooms, a place to lay one's head at night and store one's personal belongings? Or was it people, someone who would smile and listen, offering welcome and succor to a friend left too long in the cold world of strangers?
Without allowing himself to think any more, Ezra restarted the engine and pulled sharply from the parking area. There was only one place he wanted to go.
The ranch house was bright with the soft golden glow of many lights burning within it. Well worn toys scattered the front lawn and sidewalks. Some of the paint was beginning to peel from the side support posts on the front porch where someone had hung a rope hammock. A half eaten apple lay rotting on the top step, next to an empty dog bowl that lay tipped against it.
Ezra smiled as he took in the sights. The place looked grimy and messy and wonderfully lived in, as familiar to him as the beat of his own heart, and he could easily imagine the noisy babble of men and boys laughing and talking as they finished clearing up the remains of dinner and got ready for the evening rituals of movie, bath-time and bed.
He could feel himself calming as he looked, the long-held tension in his muscles relaxing at last as this vision of home replaced the cold imitation he had seen before.
"How long you think he's planning to sit there?" Buck asked curiously, peeking through the curtains at the Jaguar sitting in the driveway. "He's been out there almost ten minutes now."
Chris also took a glance. "Give him a little more time. He looked pretty rough at the debriefing this afternoon. He laid out all the facts of the case, but I could tell he was leaving a lot out. The so called 'irrelevancies', just like he always does."
The taller man shook his head sadly. "When's he ever gonna learn that his personal feelings ain't irrelevant? That he can tell us anything and we'll listen? That we want to be here for him?"
"He knows," a third voice said solemnly, causing the two men to look down in surprise to find that Vin had slipped up behind them unheard. "That's why he's here."
Chris laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "What do you know about this, Vin?"
The boy shrugged one thin shoulder. "Nothin', 'cept Uncle Ezra don't trust too easy. He's like me and JD used to be when we first met you. He wants to come in and get warm, but he don't quite know how to start."
Amazed by the insight, Buck crouched down. "Don't you think he oughta know better by now? After all, you and JD figured it out pretty quick, and we've known Ezra even longer than you."
Vin smiled. "Yeah, but Uncle Ezra's a grown up. That makes him more mule-headed than us kids. Miss Nettie says so."
Buck chuckled in delight and Chris could not repress a grin. "What do you think we should do about this?" Chris asked the boy.
Vin's reply was interrupted by JD, who had spotted everyone congregating next to the front window and squirmed past them to see what they were looking at.
"Uncle Ezra!" he bellowed, waving a small arm back and forth in frantic delight, catching the eye of the man in the car. He made energetic 'come in' motions with his hands, bouncing up and down on his little legs. The five-year-old grinned at his family. "Uncle Ezra's home!"
Ezra was still trying to make up his mind whether it would be rude to show up at the door uninvited and risk disrupting family time between Chris, Buck and the boys, when a motion caught his eye. JD was standing at the front window, waving, a beaming smile covering his little face. He smiled and waved back, knowing the decision had been made for him. For now that he had been spotted, there was no way he could leave without at least saying hello.
Happily, Ezra killed the ignition and stepped out of the car. After a few casual steps, he broke into a jog, practically launching himself up the steps and onto the porch. Before he could even raise his hand to knock, the door flew open and two small bodies hurled themselves into his arms.
The excited babble of, "Uncle Ezra! Uncle Ezra! You're home!" went straight into his heart, melting away the coldness inside.
He hugged the boys tight, burying his nose in shiny black straight locks, and golden brown curls as he kissed each of them on the head. "Oh, I've missed you," he sighed. "You have no idea how much."
JD held his arms out wide. "Was it this much?"
Vin, whose arms were a few inches longer than the other boy's, copied the gesture, stretching his finger tips as far to the sides as he could reach. "Or this much?"
He grinned as he allowed himself to be dragged inside the house. Chris and Buck both grinned back, welcoming him without a word of question and making Ezra feel warmer still.
Buck stretched his own arms their nearly 6 and a half foot span. "I think he missed us all this much!" he declared, then laughed and wrapped Ezra in a bear hug, slapping the other man heartily on the back. "Why didn't you tell us you wanted to come over tonight? We'd have saved you some meatloaf!"
Squirming free, Ezra accepted a handshake from Chris, then picked up the wildly bouncing JD, settling the small body comfortably in his arms. "I had some case details to finish up with the A.D.," he explained. "And I didn't want to intrude on your evening meal."
"Don't be silly," Vin ordered, dragging his uncle into the front room and onto the sofa seat that Ezra typically occupied during his visits to the ranch. "You love meatloaf."
"Sure," the boy said, plopping down close to him. JD was quickly settled against Ezra's other side. "Everybody loves Dad's meatloaf. It's the best in the whole wide world."
Ezra laughed. "Sorry I missed it then. Sounds like an utter culinary treasure."
Buck tapped him on the shoulder. "Settle for a beer and some popcorn? We were just about to watch "The Jungle Book". Weren't we boys?"
"Yeah!" they chorused.
"A classic," Ezra commented. "I would be delighted to peruse it with you." Not that there was any chance he was getting away, given the proximity of the boys.
As the film progressed, two small heads came to rest against Ezra's chest. He could feel the giggles shaking their bodies as they watched the movie and was soon watching them as much as he was the action on the screen. He found himself singing along with them to some of the songs, surprised he still remembered the words. Warmth and utter contentment filled him.
Chris and Buck paid little attention to the movie, gaining satisfaction from watching the boys work their own special brand of therapy on one overworked, overtired government agent. Before the movie ended, Ezra had fallen asleep where he sat, left cheek pillowed by Vin's unruly golden curls.
JD giggled softly. "He's snorin'."
"He's tired," Chris said, a smile in his voice as well as on his face. "You did a good job, boys. I think Uncle Ezra really needed a movie night with you."
"But he missed the end," JD protested.
Vin carefully moved out from his uncle's hold. "It's okay, JD. He can watch the rest tomorrow. Help me fix him."
The two men watched with barely stifled laughter as Ezra was tugged and pushed and generally manhandled into a reclining position on the sofa by two roughly determined small boys. Most amusing of all was that he slept right through it, only snorting and mumbling unintelligibly once when JD lost his grip on Ezra's head and clunked it against the arm of the couch. He settled again when Vin propped the abused cranium on a fat sofa pillow with an apologetic pat.
"Should we take his tie off?" JD asked, looking at Buck. "It don't look very comfortable."
"I think so," Buck said, rising to do that task himself. He knew how fussy Ezra could be about his precious hand-woven silk ties. Besides which, there was a good chance JD might accidentally strangle him in an effort to loosen the unfamiliar item. "Get his shoes."
Vin took one and JD took the other, untying the laces and slipping the black leather shoes carefully off Ezra's feet. Vin giggled softly. "He gots checkered socks on!"
"Argyle," Chris corrected.
Unconcerned with the correction, Vin laid the shoes carefully down next to the couch and helped his father drape the blanket that always adorned the back, over Ezra.
"Be right back!" JD said, scampering from the room. He returned a minute later with a familiar stuffed animal clutched in one hand. Tucking it under Ezra's right arm, he patted his uncle solicitously. "He gets bad dreams when he's really tired. Scooby'll keep them away."
Touched by the selfless gesture, the men refrained from laughing at the picture Ezra made with his disheveled hair poking up above a plaid throw blanket and Scooby Doo cuddled against his cheek. In minutes, the family had gathered up the remains of movie night and got ready to call it a night.
Both boys tiptoed back to Ezra's side and dropped a kiss upon his sleeping face. "Night, Uncle Ezra," they whispered. "See you in the morning!"
"Welcome back, Ez," Chris called softly, shutting off the light.
Buck smiled as he watched the sleeping man heave a contented-sounding sigh and snuggle down more comfortably, cuddling Scooby to his chest. "Good to have you home."
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