by Violette

Part 9

The voice slowly filtered through his muddled consciousness, though he couldn't quite discern what it was saying. Slowly, his consciousness began to return and Ezra was able to determine that the voice murmuring nearby belonged to Buck. With great effort, he cracked an eye open and confirmed what his ears were telling him.

Buck was seated in a chair next to his bed, reading aloud from a magazine. Ezra closed his eye, wondering what the mustached man was doing there. Their recent encounters had been anything but friendly, and Buck was the last person Ezra expected to be sitting with him. He frowned slightly, wondering what he had done to put himself back into the hospital. No answer was forthcoming from his sluggish brain, so instead he focused on the words Buck was reciting.

"... thirty-eight, twenty-five, thirty-six. Blonde, blue-eyed nymphet likes to swim naked in the surf and do it in elevators." Buck paused and chuckled. "What'cha think, Ez? Sounds pretty good to me."

Unable to resist, Ezra smiled faintly and opened his eye again, turning his head toward the other man. Only Buck would read to him from Playboy.

Seeing movement from the corner of his eye, Buck turned toward the bed, breaking out into a grin when he saw that Ezra was awake. "'Bout time you woke up," he said cheerfully. "We've been waitin' on you for two days."

Two days? Ezra frowned. He didn't remember getting hurt again. The last thing he remembered was standing in the Assistant Director's office receiving a reprimand. "Wha...?" he started to ask, when the nurse came in and hustled a protesting Buck out of the room. She checked his monitors then moved aside as Dr. Landry stepped into the room.

"Well, it's good to see those eyes open, Mr. Standish," she said with a smile. "You gave everyone quite a scare, you know."

No, he didn't know. Ezra gave her a confused stare and attempted to speak. "What hap..." he trailed off into a cough that sent pain ricocheting through his back.

"Relax, Mr. Standish," she urged him as she poured some water into a cup and gave him a drink. "You managed to ignore all of my instructions and reopen that wound of yours. You're very lucky that you received help as quickly as you did, otherwise there would be some very upset men attending your funeral."

She folded her arms and frowned at him, a very familiar occurrence for him lately. She was right, of course. He had done everything she had warned him against. Ezra looked at her guiltily, hoping he wasn't going to be subjected to a long tirade about how poorly he followed instructions. He had experienced far too many of those already in his life and he didn't think there was anything she could say to him that he hadn't heard before.

"Sorry," he whispered quietly, looking away.

"Well, from what your friends tell me, there were some extenuating circumstances," she said kindly. "But, I expect total cooperation from you this time... and I think there are six men who will be more than happy to help me out."

Ezra nodded, but groaned inwardly. It appeared that he was going to be subjected to the mother-hen treatment himself, though he did rather doubt that all of his teammates would be participating. Even though Buck was there when he awakened, Ezra didn't think he or Nathan would choose to spend any more time with him than necessary. They had made their opinions clear at the bust. Since Chris and Vin would be subjected to their own share of fussing, Ezra didn't believe they would stifle him too badly; they would be more likely to yell at him for keeping the truth about his condition from them. He sighed and cast a furtive glance at the door, wondering if he could escape unnoticed.

Dr. Landry smiled at the expression on his face. "It's not so bad. Most people would enjoy the chance to lounge around in bed."

Ezra gave her a wan smile. "Yes, but those people don't have to be subjected to the unbearable fussing that my associates are able to dispense."

"It's a small price to pay for your health," she reminded him.

Ezra yawned and nodded at her, sleep tugging at his eyelids.

"You rest now." Dr. Landry squeezed his hand.

Ezra started to form a reply, but was sound asleep before any words could leave his mouth.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next time he awoke, Ezra found himself in a different room, one that was humming with activity. A glance to his left confirmed that he was now in a regular room with Chris and Vin. Chris lay in the bed next to him, while Vin occupied the bed by the window. Every available surface seemed to be covered with vases of flowers or fruit baskets. It seemed that word or Chris and Vin's return from the dead was out.

The rest of his team, minus Nathan, milled around the room, talking or watching the rerun of Star Trek someone had found on television. Seated next to his bed, Josiah was reading a book, occasionally glancing up at the television.

Ezra shifted slightly, eliciting a sharp protest from his back. A soft groan escaped him before he could prevent it. Josiah turned to him and smiled.

"Welcome back, brother."

At Josiah's words, the rest of the men turned to look over at him. JD jumped up from his chair and came over to Ezra's side. "Hey Ez. How're ya feelin'?"

"Fine," he said hoarsely.

JD rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and Buck just took a vow of chastity."

The other men laughed, and even Ezra had to chuckle, though he regretted the pain the motion caused him.

"So how are you really feeling," Josiah asked.

"Dreadful," Ezra muttered, wishing they would all go away and leave him to suffer in peace.

"That's what happens when you don't follow doctor's orders," Chris proclaimed with an amused grin.

Ezra shot him the best glare he could muster then turned away, muttering obscenities under his breath. He knew this was only the beginning of the torture he would have to endure at their hands.

"You really freaked out AD Travis," JD commented.

"Good," Ezra said with a hint of a smile.

"Better not let him hear you say that," Vin warned.

"I don't intend to," Ezra replied.

Nathan's arrival interrupted the conversation, and JD and Buck immediately rushed over to relieve him of the bags he was carrying.

"I'm starved," JD said as he dug through the bag looking for his food.

Buck had found his burger and fries and was digging in with a blissful expression on his face. Nathan removed deli sandwiches for himself and Josiah as well as drinks for everyone.

"Couldn't you guys eat that somewhere else?" Vin whined. "We still gotta eat mystery meat and green jello, ya know."

"Here." Buck tossed him a package of cookies. "We figured you might want something edible."

Vin grinned and eagerly opened the package. "You want some Chris?" he asked, stuffing a cookie into his mouth.

"No thanks," Chris said, shaking his head with amusement.

"How 'bout you, Ez?"

"No, thank you," Ezra said. Just the smell of all the food in the room was making him nauseous, probably due to the painkillers he was being given.

The men ate their dinner while watching one of the Lethal Weapon movies being shown on a local channel, punctuating the movie with their own comments about the procedural deficiencies and inaccurate special effects. An orderly arrived, delivering meals for the three bedridden men, drawing comments of sympathy from the others.

"Man, that looks awful," JD said, making a face.

"Yeah," Buck agreed. "What's that brown stuff supposed to be?"

"How can something that looks so bad be healthy?" Chris wondered aloud, poking at the shapeless mass on his plate.

Ezra wrinkled his nose in distaste and pushed his meal away, opting to eat only the orange jello that had been provided. He actually liked jello, though he would never admit it to his associates.

"You should eat your dinner, Ez," Nathan urged.

"I don't believe my stomach will tolerate this sad excuse for sustenance," he replied dismissively.

Chris eyed him with concern, knowing that the man hadn't eaten for more than two days. He looked to Nathan, who shrugged helplessly. They couldn't make him eat if he didn't want to.

Ezra finished his jello and apple juice, then found himself yawning sleepily, despite the fact that he had only been awake for a few hours. He had just about fallen asleep when the doctor arrived, shooing the visitors out of the room and drawing the curtain around his bed.

"Mr. Standish." She shook his arm gently. "I need to examine you."

Ezra mumbled incomprehensibly, but opened his eyes and glared at her. "Is that necessary?"

Dr. Landry smiled at him. "Someone's cranky today."

Ezra rolled his eyes and sighed.

"Behave yourself, Ezra," Chris called from the other side of the curtain.

Ezra made a rude gesture, knowing that Chris wouldn't see it.

"Now that was uncalled for," Dr. Landry said sternly, though a suggestion of a smile played on her lips. "Let's see how you're doing." She checked his chart and the various tubes still connected to his body, then began poking and probing at his back.

Ezra gritted his teeth, flinching when she touched a particularly sensitive spot.

"That's still a bit tender?"

"Yes," Ezra said in a pained voice.

"Well, we did have to go back in and stitch you up again," she reminded him. After a bit more poking and prodding, she stated, "If you keep doing as you're told, I think you can be out of here in four or five days."

Ezra grimaced, but didn't protest. It wouldn't do him any good, especially with Chris and Vin within earshot. He would acquiesce and be a well-behaved patient... for now. "Thank you, doctor," he said quietly.

Dr. Landry drew the curtains back and smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"How you doin'?" Vin asked.

"Just fine, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, closing his eyes.

"You sure about that?" asked Chris. "Ezra?" Chris called again when the undercover agent didn't respond.

"He's asleep," Vin said, noting the deep, even rhythm of his breathing.

The other four men returned to the room, and Chris immediately shushed them, pointing toward Ezra. They immediately dropped their voices and quietly took their seats.

"How's he doing?" Josiah asked, looking at the slumbering man with concern.

"Fine," Chris replied. "But he's going to be here for a few days."

"Not surprising," Nathan said. "He messed himself up pretty good."

"Yeah, all three of us are going to be on desk duty for a little while," Chris said with a sigh.

Vin groaned. "I hate desk duty."

"Sorry pard, but there isn't much call for one-armed sharpshooters these days," Buck said with a snicker.

"Fuck you, Bucklin," Vin muttered.

"Hey guys, we better get going before Attila the Nurse kicks us out again," JD said, referring the stocky, gray-haired nurse who had strictly enforced the visiting hour rules the previous evening. Neither Buck's charm nor JD pleading puppy-dog eyes had worked on her.

"She reminds me of a drill sergeant I had once," Buck said with a shudder.

"We'll see ya tomorrow," Vin said as the rest of the guys collected their things and shuffled out the door.

Vin sighed. "Think they'll let us out of here soon?"

Chris shrugged. "Probably. We weren't too bad off when we got here, so there wasn't much else the docs could do for us anyway."

"Thanks to Ez," Vin pointed out.

"Yeah." Chris frowned. "Nathan said those antibiotics he was giving us were the ones he was supposed to be taking for himself. He found the bottle in his bag and it was only dated last week."

"I can't figure him out," Vin said with a sigh. "He acts like a selfish bastard half the time, then he goes an' does somethin' like this."

"I don't understand him either," Chris said quietly. "But I aim to try."

Ezra slept on, completely oblivious to their conversation.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra flipped through the television channels apathetically. It was Sunday afternoon, and there was nothing even remotely interesting to watch in the limited selection of channels available in the hospital television service. Finally, he shut it off in disgust and gazed out the window of his room at the gloomy, overcast day.

Chris and Vin had both been released the day before, and he had been moved to a private room in order to spare any potential roommates from the antics of his associates. The others had not been able to visit him yet, since AD Travis had needed them for backup on an important bust. Chris and Vin were staying at Chris's ranch and had been ordered not to drive for a few days. Other than a phone call earlier that day, Ezra hadn't heard from them.

He smiled briefly when he remembered Chris's awkward apology for his behavior prior to the explosion. Ezra understood how his approaching anniversary could make the man more irritable than usual, though the apology had taken him by surprise. He had assumed that Chris's anger was a result of something he had done, since he seemed to have an uncanny knack for pissing people off without realizing it. It was confusing to discover that he had been wrong. Yet again, he had been caught off-guard by one of these men, and he decided to simply give up trying to figure them out. It was giving him too much of a headache.

Ezra picked up a copy of 'Guns & Ammo' that Vin had left for him and flipped through it, trying to find something worth reading. He actually found an interesting article on gun imports and was totally engrossed in it when AD Travis quietly entered the room.

"Standish," Travis called.

Ezra looked up from the magazine, his eyes widening in surprise at the identity of his visitor. "Good afternoon, sir," he addressed his superior.

"How are you feeling?" Travis asked, moving toward the side of the bed.

"Much better, thank you," Ezra replied.

"I'm glad to hear that," Travis said. "You gave us all quite a scare. I've never had anyone pass out in my office before."

"Sorry about that," Ezra said, an embarrassed flush stealing across his face.

"Not your fault," Travis replied. "I do, however, have issues with you keeping your injuries from the rest of us."

Ezra swallowed nervously. "I didn't wish to distract anyone from the pursuit of the murderous Mr. Jarvis. That was much more important than my physical infirmities."

Travis sighed. "Ezra, you're just as important as anyone else, regardless of what others might say. You have to remember that you're part of a team now, and you have responsibilities to that team. You can't just run off on your own anytime you want to."

Ezra fiddled with his blankets for a moment before answering. "I cannot be a team player if the team doesn't want me there." He looked up at Travis. "I assumed I was doing everyone a favor by removing my presence and averting any further conflict. I did not wish to hinder the investigation in any way."

"I can understand your feelings on this; Larabee and Tanner explained the situation to me. But I don't want another incident like this to occur," Travis said. "I've already spoken to the rest of the boys, and I hope you'll make an effort to work through this."

"I will try," Ezra said hesitantly. "But I'm not wagering on the outcome."

"That's a first," Travis said with a wry grin.

Ezra shrugged and gave him a small smile. "I only bet on sure things."

"Well, I think you might be surprised." Travis gave him a stern look. "I hope you'll listen to your doctor this time."

Ezra merely grinned in response.

Travis chuckled and shook his head. "You take care of yourself, son."

Ezra sighed as he watched Travis leave. He hoped the Assistant Director was correct... but he wasn't going to get his hopes up.

* * * * * * * * * *

He was bored. And restless. He didn't want to be here anymore, despite the doctor's insistence. Finally, Ezra couldn't stand it anymore and calmly pressed the call button. The nurse arrived and he requested to speak to the doctor. Since Dr. Landry had that day off, Dr. Carter, who was covering her patients, entered the room instead.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Standish?" he asked pleasantly.

"I'm leaving," Ezra said in an equally pleasant tone of voice.

Dr. Carter frowned. "I'm sorry, but that's not possible. Dr. Landry specifically told me that you weren't to be released until Tuesday at the earliest."

"Yes, I expect that's true," Ezra replied placidly. "However, I do not wish to stay any longer and you are not legally allowed to keep me here against my wishes."

"Mr. Standish, it would be extremely unwise for you to leave at this juncture."

"Dr. Carter, I am not scheduled for any procedures, tests or physical therapy, and I can rest more easily at home than I can here," Ezra explained patiently. "And I assure you, I intend to do nothing more than climb into my comfortable bed and sleep, so I suggest you have the nurse remove these attachments," he lifted his arm to display his IV, " that I can be on my way."

The doctor frowned, but could see that Ezra was determined. "Very well. I'll get the necessary paperwork."

Ezra called to him as he was leaving. "Oh, and if you attempt to delay me while you call Dr. Landry or anyone else, I will simply remove these tubes myself and leave without the paperwork."

The doctor frowned, muttering under his breath about patients who thought they knew better than their doctors. Ezra grinned with relief, knowing that he was going to be free shortly.

* * * * * * * * * *

He drove carefully, trying to avoid as many potholes as possible. Though it was against the doctor's orders, Ezra had thought it best to drive his own vehicle home, since the Jaguar was still in the parking garage where he had left it after his previous hospital stay. It was a short drive, and Ezra wasn't planning to go anywhere else, so he didn't think it would be too great a risk.

He was thankful to whoever invented automatic garage door openers as he arrived home, driving his car effortlessly into its enclosed space. A smile lit Ezra's face when he finally entered his apartment and locked the door behind him. It was a relief to be in his own home again, free from nurses and visitors, however well-meaning they might be.

Ezra knew it wouldn't take long for the others to discover his escape from the hospital, so he quickly penned a note to them, which he taped securely to his door. Then, he proceeded to disconnect his doorbell and shut off the ringers on his telephones so that he could rest relatively undisturbed. As a last measure, he recorded a message on his answering machine that assured his teammates that he was quite well and simply wanted some peace and quiet. Satisfied with his efforts, he locked his door and went into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea before retreating to his bedroom and his soft bed.

* * * * * * * * * *

"What do you mean, he's gone?!" Chris barked into the phone.

"We dropped by to see him after the bust, and he was gone. Checked himself out AMA," Josiah explained on the other end of the phone. "The doctor tried to stop him, but he was determined to leave. Said he'd rest better at home."

"Shit," Chris cursed. "I should have expected something like this. You try his place yet?"

"We called, but he left a message on his machine saying he's fine and just wants some peace and quiet."

"He does have a point about that," Chris admitted. "Still, I'd feel better if one of you went over there to check on him."

"We're on our way now," Josiah replied. "I'll let you know what happens."

"Thanks Josiah." Chris hung up the phone with a sigh.

"Ezra flew the coop?" Vin asked with a grin.

"Yep," Chris replied with a frustrated shake of his head. "Stubborn cuss took off as soon as he had a chance."

"Can't say I blame him," Vin said. "The food sucks and you can't sleep for shit with them wakin' you up all the time."

"Yeah. I just hope he stays put and doesn't hurt himself again. The rest of the guys are going over to check on him now."

Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again. "Yeah?" Chris answered.

"Chris, he's at home, but he won't let us in," Josiah said, sounding somewhat amused. "He left a note on the door. It says: 'Gentlemen, I am quite well and simply wish to sleep undisturbed, so please go away and leave me alone. Sincerely, Ezra P. Standish'."

"He's got all the bases covered doesn't he," Chris said with a chuckle.

"Buck tried knocking, but all we got was a grouchy yell telling us to go away."

"Well, at least we know he's all right," Chris sighed.

"I'd suggest we just leave him be for now," Josiah said. "He'll talk to us when he's ready."

"All right," Chris agreed. "Thanks, Josiah."

"No luck, huh," Vin said knowingly after Chris had hung up the phone.

"Nope. He wouldn't let 'em in."

"He can't stay in there forever," Vin said. "Reckon he'll let us in when he's ready."

"That's what Josiah said," Chris replied. "It might do him good to have some time to himself. I know it was kind of nice to get away from the rest of the guys for awhile."

"They can be a little bit much to take sometimes," Vin agreed.

"I hope he doesn't hide out too long, though," Chris said thoughtfully. "We still have some talking to do with that fool. I think he has a lot to learn about being part of a family."

"Ain't no surprise with a mother like Maude."

Chris scowled darkly, remembering how Maude had been 'too busy attending to social obligations' to visit her son in the hospital when he had called to inform her of his condition. "I suppose it ain't."

"I was jealous of 'im when I found out his ma was still livin'," Vin admitted quietly. "But now, I ain't so sure. 'Least my ma gave a damn."

"She's not much of a mother," Chris agreed. "Hell, she dumped him at boarding schools his whole life; it's no wonder he doesn't know how to deal with anybody givin' a shit about him."

"Too bad it takes somethin' like this to make us understand 'im better."

Chris nodded in agreement, silently vowing to bring the reluctant southerner into their family.

* * * * * * * * * *

The final credits for 'Casablanca' rolled across the screen as Ezra sat, lounging casually on his couch, dressed in comfortable pair of sweatpants and a matching sweatshirt. With a steaming mug of tea in hand, he smiled and stretched, feeling only a small twinge in his back. Three days of uninterrupted rest had done wonders and he was feeling better than he had in days. He was surprised that his teammates had actually respected his wishes and left him alone, but he was grateful for the time to himself. He had slept until noon today and spent the afternoon watching old movies on the classic movie channel. It was a pleasant and relaxing way to spend the day.

Ezra set his mug down and stood, heading to the kitchen to make himself some dinner. It was early, but he was hungry, having eaten so little during his stay in the hospital. There was a knock on his front door just as he passed it, and he stopped, debating whether he should answer. He stepped toward the door and looked through the peephole, surprised to see Chris and Vin standing outside. Slowly, he unlocked the door and opened it.

"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner." Ezra greeted them, surprised by their presence. "I didn't realize that you were allowed to drive as of yet."

"Technically, we're not," Chris said. "But, that didn't seem to stop you, did it?"

Ezra smiled. "No, it didn't." He gestured inside. "Would you like to come in?"

"Yep," Vin said, stepping into the apartment.

"Would you like something to drink?" Ezra asked, moving into the kitchen. "I'm afraid all I have is juice in the refrigerator, but there's coffee and tea in the cupboard."

"Coffee sounds good," Chris replied as he gazed around the apartment curiously. As far as he knew, none of them had been inside Ezra's apartment yet. It was a spacious place, with a large set of French doors leading to a balcony, where there was a nice view of the mountains. There wasn't much in the way of decoration inside, other than a couple of art prints on the walls and a vase of silk flowers on the hall table. The sofa and chair were dark blue, blending nicely with the pale blue carpeting. The only thing that was out of place was the stack of moving boxes piled in the corner. Other than that, it was a neat and tasteful, if somewhat sterile, apartment. Chris wondered if the bedroom had any personal touches or if it was as barren as the rest of the place.

Vin nodded and took a seat on the couch. "Hey look! 'High Noon' is coming on."

"I haven't seen that one in years," Chris commented as he sat in the overstuffed chair that sat next to the couch, watching Ezra move around the kitchen.

Ezra started the coffeemaker, then returned to the living room and his cup of tea.

"How're you feeling?" Chris asked him, eyeing him critically.

"I'm feeling quite well," Ezra replied truthfully.

"You look better," Chris replied.

"It is much easier to rest in one's own surroundings," Ezra said with a shrug. "You and Mr. Tanner are looking better yourselves."

"We're all right," Vin said. "The doc is lettin' us go back to work on Monday. Says you did good work helpin' us."

Ezra gave a self-deprecating shrug. "I only did what was necessary."

"Yes, and we're very grateful," Chris said sincerely.

"Yeah, thanks, Ez."

Ezra looked away, uncomfortable with the praise. His stomach suddenly rumbled and his face flushed with embarrassment.

"Hungry?" Vin asked with a grin, glad that it was someone else's stomach making the noise for a change.

"Obviously," Ezra said with a self-conscious smile. "I was going to see if there was anything edible in the kitchen, but I believe I'll order from the deli instead. Would either of you like anything?" He opened the drawer of the small table that stood near the front door and removed a folded menu, handing it to the two men.

Vin took the menu eagerly.

"I could eat," Chris said slowly, mentally chastising himself for not bringing food with him, given the hour. He hadn't even been sure that Ezra would talk to them, let alone invite them to dinner.

"I'll have a roast beef on a bulkie roll, a pastrami on rye, an order of potato wedges, and a piece of apple pie," Vin declared, passing the menu to Chris, who shared an amused look with Ezra.

Chris perused the menu quickly. "Make mine a roast beef on wheat and a bowl of beef barley soup... and some apple pie."

Ezra phoned in the order, adding his own order of a smoked turkey sandwich and chicken soup. As an afterthought, he decided that apple pie sounded good and added that to his order as well. He settled himself on the couch to wait and was soon absorbed in the movie along with Chris and Vin.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Man, that deli has great sandwiches," Vin said, patting his stomach contentedly.

"Yes, they do," Ezra agreed.

"Wonder if they'd deliver to the office," Chris mused.

"I believe the federal building falls within their service area," Ezra supplied helpfully.

"Good," Vin said. "I have a feelin' we'll be ordering lunch from there a lot from now on."

'High Noon' had ended and was followed by 'North by Northwest'. All of them admitted to enjoying the Hitchcock film and settled in to watch it. The opening credits were still rolling when a knock sounded on the door. The three men looked at each other and grinned.

"Two guesses who that is," Vin said with a chuckle.

"No dice," Chris answered. "They probably just got off of work."

Ezra answered the door, much to the surprise of the four men standing in the hall. "Come in," he said pleasantly as he returned to his seat on the sofa next to Vin.

Buck entered first, followed by JD, Nathan, and Josiah.

"Looks like all the invalids are here," Buck commented with a grin upon seeing Chris and Vin in the apartment, lounging comfortably in front of the television.

"Hi guys," JD said affably. "We went for pizza at Mario's and we figured we'd drop by and see how Ez was doin'."

"You're not supposed to be driving yet," Nathan said sternly, glaring at Chris and Vin.

Josiah chuckled. "It appears that all three of our brothers share the same disregard for doctor's orders."

Ezra lifted an eyebrow and gazed at Chris and Vin, who smiled in response.

"Cool! A big screen TV!" JD stood, gawking at Ezra's large television.

"Guess I know where the Super Bowl party's gonna be," Buck said.

Ezra grimaced at the thought, eliciting chuckles from Chris and Vin.

"How're you feelin'?" Nathan asked, concern etched on his face.

"I'm doing well, thank you," Ezra replied, still unused to the level of concern his teammates were showing him these days. He was starting to believe that they truly cared -- an alien concept to someone who had never had anyone show him that kind of emotion in the past.

"Looks like you're eating better, anyway," Nathan commented, gesturing toward the sandwich wrappers and empty pie containers that lay on the coffee table.

"Yeah, Ez found this great deli," Vin said appreciatively.

"See, I told ya we didn't need to bring any pizza with us," JD said, punching Buck in the arm.

Ezra looked at the empty wrappers on the table, suddenly embarrassed to have left such a mess sitting there. He got to his feet and started gathering them up.

"Let me help, Ez," JD said, enthusiastically crumpling the papers into manageable bundles and following Ezra to the kitchen to throw them away.

"Would you gentlemen like some coffee or juice? I'm afraid I'm out of everything else," Ezra offered.

Josiah moved to join him in the kitchen. "Why don't you sit and enjoy your movie. I'm sure we can manage."

"Yeah, don't let us interrupt," Buck agreed.

Ezra hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and returned to his seat on the sofa while Buck and Josiah poured themselves some coffee.

"Do you have any tea?" asked Nathan.

"In the cabinet above the coffeepot," Ezra replied.

JD had brought a large bottle of soda, quickly settling himself on the floor next to the sofa to watch the movie. Vin scooted over on the couch, moving closer to Ezra, to allow Josiah to take a seat on the other end, while Buck sat on the floor next to JD and Nathan borrowed a chair from the dining room table.

"I've never seen 'North by Northwest' before," JD commented.

"It's a classic," Nathan replied.

The men settled in, watching the movie together while adding their own commentary and conversation. Chris sent frequent surreptitious glances in Ezra's direction. While watching movies as a group was nothing new to the rest of the men, it was the first time Ezra had participated in such an activity with them, and Chris wondered how he would react. They had invited him to a few such gatherings in the past, but he always refused, and eventually, they had stopped asking. Chris wondered now if Ezra simply didn't know how to interact with them on that level and found it easier to simply avoid the situation. It didn't seem like a big deal to him, but he was used to 'hanging out with the guys'; Ezra wasn't.

To anyone who didn't know him, Ezra appeared relaxed and content. But the fact that he never met anyone's eyes directly when he spoke to them and the way his fingers worried ever so slightly at the hem of his sweatshirt spoke volumes to Chris. The man was nervous. He met Vin's eyes, catching the slight nod the sharpshooter sent him. Vin had noticed it too. It was ironic that a man who was so comfortable when associating with gunrunners and thieves -- who would just as soon kill you as look at you -- could be such a nervous wreck when dealing with his friends. Unless, of course, he didn't recognize them for what they were. Chris sighed inwardly. This was a step in the right direction, at least. But they still had a lot more bridges to build with the stubborn southerner.


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