by Violette

Part 10

Ezra cast a furtive glance at the men who were so comfortably ensconced in his living room. He wondered at his sanity at letting them into his abode so easily. The fact that they actually seemed to *want* to be there mystified him. Just a scant few weeks ago, most of these men had wanted nothing to do with him, yet here they were, laughing and socializing as if it were the most natural thing in the world. For him, there was nothing natural about it. He kept wondering what this was going to cost him, for it surely came with a price; such friendly gestures always did.

* * * * * * * * * *

The movie was nearly over and Ezra found himself stifling a yawn. He had slept for nearly thirteen hours the previous night, but he still tired easily. The doctor had told him it was to be expected due to the amount of blood he had lost and the accumulated trauma of the past few weeks. Still, he didn't want his associates to think he was bored by their company, so he forced himself to remain alert.

Vin watched Ezra from the corner of his eye, hiding a smile at the man's valiant attempts to cover his weariness. He shared a look with Chris, nodding almost imperceptibly toward Ezra. Chris hid a smile and shook his head in agreement.

The movie finished and Vin took the opportunity to give an exaggerated yawn. "Man, I'm wiped. How 'bout we head back to the ranch, Chris?"

"Sounds like a plan," Chris said, stretching languidly as he got to his feet.

"We should be on our way, too," said Josiah. He had also noticed the increasing droop to Ezra's eyelids.

"Yeah," Buck agreed. "Some of us actually have to work tomorrow." He scowled at the three injured men in feigned annoyance.

"Sucks to get old, eh Bucklin?" Vin said, a devilish grin on his face.

Buck gave him a one-fingered salute while the others chuckled in amusement.

"Hey thanks for lettin' us hang out, Ez," JD said cheerfully.

"My pleasure, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied, somewhat surprised. He wouldn't have thought that sitting around watching a classic movie was something the energetic young man would enjoy.

"That movie was great! I'll have to rent it next time me and Casey watch videos," JD continued as he shrugged into his coat.

"There's a reason it's a classic, JD," Nathan remarked. "You ought to check out some of Hitchcock's other movies. If you liked 'North by Northwest', I bet you'd like some of the others as well."

The men gathered their belongings and said their goodbyes, slowly ambling out of the apartment. Chris stopped before leaving and turned to Ezra. "You take it easy, ya hear," he warned.

Ezra smiled. "I fully intend to, Mr. Larabee. It's not often that I am actually encouraged to sleep late."

Vin laughed. "Yeah, but it gets old kinda quick."

"Yes, I imagine that I will soon reach the end of my tolerance for daytime television programming," Ezra said with a smile.

"Don't remind me," Chris said with a groan.

"Take care, gentlemen," Ezra said, shutting the door behind them. After locking the deadbolt, Ezra leaned against the door thoughtfully. The evening had been as enlightening as it was confusing. His teammates had seemed truly concerned about him, and yet.... Ezra shook his head. He was too tired to wonder at their motives tonight. With a heavy sigh, he levered himself off of the door and shuffled toward his bedroom and a welcome date with his pillow.

* * * * * * * * * *

The light knock on his door woke Ezra from his light doze. Rubbing his eyes, he set aside the book that still lay open on his lap and rose from his seat on the sofa to answer the door. His eyes widened slightly in surprise when he saw Josiah waiting outside his door. He hadn't expected to see any of the others again so soon after their visit the previous evening. With a shrug, he opened the door.

"Ezra," Josiah greeted him. "Did I wake you?" He noted the slightly glazed look to the younger man's eyes and his sleep-mussed hair.

Ezra smiled. "It's all right. I merely dozed off while reading my book. Please, come in."

"I brought some lunch," Josiah said, lifting the bag he was carrying.

Ezra looked at his watch, noting that it was one in the afternoon. He had arisen before ten that morning and had spent his time reading a book that had been in his 'to be read' pile for several months. Since he hadn't had any breakfast, Ezra realized that he was hungry.

"That sounds nice, Josiah," Ezra said agreeably.

"I remembered that you liked the chicken salad at that little cafe across from our building, so I picked it up on my way over."

Ezra smiled at the man's thoughtfulness as he accepted the sandwich. "Thank you."

The two men settled in chairs at Ezra's small kitchen table.

"Would you like some coffee or tea?" Ezra offered.

"No, thank you," Josiah said. "I brought us some mineral water."

Ezra took his bottle, smiling when he saw the label; it was his favorite brand.

"I hope you don't mind my coming over," Josiah began hesitantly, "but I wanted to talk to you alone for a bit."

Ezra lifted an eyebrow and eyed him suspiciously. "About what?"

Josiah sighed. "I wanted to apologize for being such an ass lately. None of this was your fault and we -- *I* -- should have known better."

Ezra stared at his sandwich for a moment, then raised his head uncertainly, afraid of what he might see in the big man's eyes. All he found, though, was remorse and sincerity, and he was good enough at reading people to recognize it as the truth. He gave him a tentative smile. "I suppose I can accept that."

Josiah's eyes brightened with relief, and he grinned at Ezra. "Good. I was afraid I might have to grovel."

"Groveling is acceptable, too," Ezra said with a hint of a grin.

Josiah rolled his eyes and took a bite of his sandwich.

"Can I ask you something?" Ezra asked hesitantly after a few minutes.

"Sure," Josiah replied.

"Why?" Ezra asked simply, a puzzled look on his face. "I understand that I'm not the easiest person to get along with," he paused, giving a self-deprecating shrug, "but why was it so easy to believe that I cared so little about Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner?"

Josiah frowned and thought about it for a moment. "I can't speak for the rest of the guys, but I think that Chris and Vin's supposed deaths were such a shock that we needed someone to blame." He looked Ezra in the eye. "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Ezra sighed resignedly. "The story of my life."

Josiah looked at him curiously for a moment then nodded slowly. "I guess it is." He sighed again. "None of us were in any condition to be thinking rationally then, either. Not that it excuses our behavior, but it takes more than a couple of hours to sleep off the quantity of alcohol we all consumed that night."

"Yes, you were all a bit..." Ezra paused, looking for the right word.

"Soused?" Josiah offered.

"That would be it," Ezra said with a grin.

They finished their lunch quickly, with no further discussion of the matter. Instead, Josiah related all of the latest office gossip and the details of the case they were working with Team Two. Ezra was relieved, since he found it a little uncomfortable speaking about the recent events. Though, he was glad Josiah had apologized. He hadn't expected that from any of them. No one had ever apologized to him for something like that before. "See, they do care." The nagging voice in the corner of his brain started in again. He pushed it aside, still not entirely convinced. Josiah had apologized, but the others had yet to say a word.

"Well, I'd better get back to the office before they send out a search party," Josiah said, pushing back from the table.

"You didn't inform them of where you were going?" Ezra asked.

"No, I just told them I had an errand to do," Josiah explained, giving him an embarrassed grin.

"I see," Ezra said with a smile. So he was an 'errand', now. He wondered why that bothered him.

"I didn't want the others to come along," he explained further. "This isn't the kind of discussion I like to have in front of an audience."

Ezra nodded, feeling somewhat better about the situation.

"I expect you'll be hearing from the rest of them before too long, though," Josiah said with a chuckle.

Ezra groaned. "Wonderful," he said sarcastically.

"Chris and Vin really read us the riot act after the raid," Josiah continued. "They even told off Travis. They were really pissed that he made you drive back all that way while the rest of us rode in the helicopter."

Ezra looked at him in surprise, a smile playing on his lips. "I would like to have seen that."

Josiah laughed. "It was truly a spectacle. Travis and Chris were having quite a glaring duel."

Ezra had to laugh at the picture that presented.

"Anyhow, I'd better be on my way," Josiah said as he put his coat back on. "I hope you can come back to the office soon. It's far too quiet without you and Chris and Vin giving each other grief."

"I should be able to return soon," Ezra replied, walking with Josiah to the door. "All this resting is becoming rather dull."

"Take care, brother." Josiah wrapped an arm around his shoulder in a one-armed hug before stepping into the hall.

Ezra smiled and shook his head in wonder. The previous night's impromptu get-together had been a surprise, but Josiah's visit was even more unexpected. He had honestly believed the previous evening to be the extent of the apology he would receive from these men, unspoken as it was. He hadn't even been looking for an admittance that they might be wrong. He expected more of a '"we still think you're a jerk but we'll work with you anyway" type of response, and even that was more than he had gotten from many of his former associates. Yet Josiah had actually admitted his own fault, showing that he believed Ezra was worth an apology. "I told you so," the little voice said sarcastically. He tried to ignore it, but Ezra's step was a bit lighter as he returned to the couch.

* * * * * * * * * *

Nathan stood before the closed door, shifting nervously from one foot to the other while he worked up the nerve to knock. Finally, he sighed. "This is ridiculous," he muttered to himself as he raised his hand and rapped sharply against the door.

Ezra looked up from his book, the corners of his mouth lifting in an amused grin. "I wonder which one of them it is," he asked himself softly as he moved toward the door. After Josiah's visit earlier that day, he hadn't expected anyone else so soon. Peering through the peephole, he was surprised to see Nathan standing there. He had expected the team medic to be one of the last to visit him, if he did at all.

"Mr. Jackson." He nodded in greeting to the man in the hall. "What can I do for you?"

"Hi Ezra," Nathan said. "I just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Would you like to come in?" Ezra inquired. "I was just about to make some tea."

"Uh, sure," Nathan said hesitantly. He stepped inside and followed Ezra to the kitchen.

"I have some Earl Grey," he offered. "It's quite good. My mother sent it to me from London last month."

"Sounds good," Nathan said.

Ezra set some water to boil, then moved into the living room. Nathan followed him stopping in front of the rack of CDs that stood next to his stereo system. He looked over the titles, surprised at the variety of music that Ezra owned. There was everything from Metallica to Mozart, including some jazz albums that were among Nathan's particular favorites.

"You like all this stuff?" he asked curiously.

"Yes," Ezra answered. "I find I like different types of music depending upon my mood."

"Never figured you'd go for Billie Holliday," he commented. "... or Metallica, for that matter."

Ezra shrugged. "I've been told my tastes are... unusual."

Nathan thought about it for a minute, then said, "Nah, it makes sense." He grinned at Ezra. "You're kind of a complicated person."

"I suppose that's one way of putting it," Ezra replied with an uncertain smile, wondering if he had just been insulted.

The whistling of the teapot interrupted their conversation and Ezra hurried to the kitchen to prepare the tea. "Cream and sugar?" he called over his shoulder.

"Please," Nathan said.

Ezra returned with the teacups, handing one to Nathan, who sipped the hot liquid carefully. "Damn, this is good." He looked at Ezra in surprise. "I've had Earl Grey before, but it was never as good as this."

"I've been told that the English don't ship their best quality teas to the United States," Ezra explained. "They don't expect us to appreciate the difference."

"That's too bad," Nathan said disappointedly. "I can certainly appreciate it."

"I'll ask Mother to send more next time I speak with her," Ezra offered.

"Thanks," Nathan said, surprised at the offer.

The two men sat quietly, enjoying the tea, until Nathan set his cup down with a sigh. "Listen, Ez, I wanted to tell you that... what I said to you after the jeep blew up..." he paused, looking Ezra in the eye uneasily. "... I was wrong. I shouldn't have said that stuff, but..." he trailed off, unsure of how to continue.

Ezra stared at him, his face not revealing the emotions that whirled through his mind. Finally, after a moment, he said carefully, "I suppose it's understandable. After all, it was quite a distressing scene. I was certainly unprepared for it."

"Yeah, but, we still shouldn't have jumped to conclusions like we did," Nathan said with a sigh.

"It's quite all right," Ezra said with a shrug. "I'm rather used to it."

Nathan looked up sharply. "You shouldn't have to be."

Ezra's poker face fell for a moment, and Nathan got a glimpse of the uncertainty that was usually hidden. "I suppose not," he said, "but I usually don't have a choice in the matter."

"Well, I can say for sure that you shouldn't expect that from me," Nathan said assuredly. "I'll try not to do that in the future."

Ezra looked at him suspiciously, but heard the sincerity in his words, and relaxed into a smile. "I'll remember that."

"Good," Nathan said, a smile of relief spreading across his face. He had been afraid that Ezra wouldn't accept his apology, and that thought had bothered him much more than expected. When he had heard how Ezra had ignored his own injuries and given up his medication to help Chris and Vin, he had realized how badly he had misjudged the southerner. It had simply never occurred to him that Ezra could behave so selflessly, and now he was ashamed of himself for being so narrow-minded. Fortunately for him, Ezra seemed inclined to be forgiving and he swore to himself that he wouldn't let the man down again.

* * * * * * * * * *

As Ezra waited for his taxi, he reflected on the previous evening. Things had become much more relaxed after he and Nathan had talked and they had spent several hours discussing music and movies. He smiled as he remembered the look on the dark man's face when he discovered that they enjoyed many of the same things. Ezra knew they would never agree on a lot of things, but he felt strangely pleased to have something in common with the man.

The taxi arrived and Ezra climbed in for his ride to the hospital. Dr. Landry had called him as soon as she had heard of his escape from the hospital and had insisted upon seeing him right away. With much effort, he had finally convinced her to wait until Friday, since he was certain she would find some excuse to readmit him if she saw him too soon. Today was the appointed day, and he was sure that she would be pleased with his progress. Though he was confident in his ability to drive, he decided it would be wise to take a cab so that he wouldn't be forced to lie to the good doctor about his mode of transportation.

"Mr. Standish," she said coolly as he stepped into her exam room.

"Doctor," he said with a smile.

"You know the drill, Mr. Standish." She handed him a gown and left the room.

Ezra looked disdainfully at the thin material and sighed in resignation as he started removing his clothes. A few minutes later he was dressed in the *very* short garment and perched uncomfortably on the paper-covered table while he awaited her return. She kept him waiting for another fifteen minutes, and he was about to give up and leave when she appeared at the door.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Fine," he answered, somewhat irritably.

She listened to his heart and lungs with her stethoscope -- which Ezra swore had just been removed from the refrigerator -- then removed the bandages from his back and poked at the wound. Finally, she turned to face him. "It looks good," she said with a hint of a smile. "I think we can remove the stitches, along with the other ones I put in."

"Um, actually, I already removed those," he admitted sheepishly.

She frowned at him and lifted an accusatory eyebrow. "You couldn't wait for me to take them out?"

"Well," he shrugged innocently. "They itched, and a couple of them fell out in the shower anyway, so I..."

She held up her hand to interrupt. "Never mind. I don't want to know."

Ezra sighed. "I don't mean to be difficult. I simply dislike spending time in hospitals."

She eyed him critically, then smiled, her expression softening slightly. "I think I can understand that. I have seen your chart, after all."

Ezra looked at her sharply, suddenly alarmed by the knowing tone of her voice. "What do you mean?"

"I'm very thorough, Mr. Standish," she said firmly. "And I don't like surprises. I saw the evidence of numerous old fractures, so I backtracked your record. I had to call in a couple of favors from some colleagues to do it, but suffice it to say, I know where those injuries came from."

Ezra looked away, suddenly embarrassed. He had tried to keep that information hidden, but had not been as successful as he had hoped.

Dr. Landry gently squeezed his shoulder. "You have nothing to worry about. That information is strictly confidential," she assured him. "I wouldn't have gone digging if it hadn't been important. I needed to know if you had any bone problems I should know about."

Ezra smiled nervously. "No, no bone problems. Just baseball bat problems."

"You're lucky that you were still young and that you had such good doctors," she continued. "Otherwise you might have had some difficulties."

"I would have been luckier to associate with less-violent people," he said plainly.

Dr. Landry studied him for a minute, seeing the painful memories that flashed in his eyes. "Yes, but you seem to have done well for yourself despite that fact," she said finally. "You're a survivor, Mr. Standish. You should be proud of that."

Ezra gave her a tentative smile. "I suppose I should."

"Have you ever talked with anyone about it?"

"Yes," he admitted. "After college I saw a therapist."

"Well, if you need to talk some more, let me know," she offered. "I know some good people."

"Thank you, but I'm fine," he said, desperate to close the subject. He had enough things happening in his life right now without thinking about his violent step-father's propensity for beating on him with a baseball bat. Even though he was young when his mother left him with the man, the memories of his abuse still played vividly through his mind. Maude had left for what was supposed to be a month-long shopping trip in Europe. Associates of her husband saw fit to inform him of the affair she was having with a French businessman, and he took his drunken rage out on the nearest convenient target, which turned out to be his cheating wife's ten-year-old son. Ezra shuddered again at the image of the angry man waving a baseball bat in his face.

As if sensing his distress, Dr. Landry abruptly changed the subject. "How about we get rid of the rest of those stitches?"

Ezra smiled with relief. "By all means."

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra stood at the door to his apartment feeling oddly unsettled. The unexpected discussion with Dr. Landry had roused some old demons and they didn't seem content to leave just yet. He stood for several more moments, wrestling with his indecision, before finally turning away and heading for the garage instead.

After a quick lunch stop at the deli, Ezra headed the car toward a picturesque spot he had remembered from his first attempt at finding Chris Larabee's house. He had taken a wrong turn and had ended up on a desolate stretch of road that ended abruptly at a small stand of trees. He had spotted an overgrown path through the trees and had been hoping to find some sort of clue as to his location, but had instead discovered a breathtaking view of the valley below him, hidden by the small grove of trees. Ezra had returned to the spot several times since, enjoying the quiet and the view, finding it an excellent place to clear his mind. Today, it beckoned to him again.

* * * * * * * * * *

The dazzling orange and purple hues of sunset played across his face as Ezra sat, wrapped in his car blanket, and watched the daylight fade away with a smile on his face. He shivered slightly and drew the blanket closer. It had been a pleasant afternoon, leaning comfortably against a tree and relaxing in the sun, doing nothing more strenuous than watching the clouds scud across the azure sky.

His memories had finally left him in peace and Ezra had turned his thoughts to his... associates. No, he decided, not associates. Friends. "Friends," he repeated it aloud. The word felt as odd on his tongue as it did in his thoughts, yet it fit. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but these men were indeed his friends. Sure, he still had some issues to work out with them -- especially Buck -- and it would take some time before he could give them his complete trust, but for the first time in a long time, he actually felt some hope that it might happen. "Friends," he repeated, liking the sound of it. With a smile, he climbed to his feet and made his way back to his car and headed for home.

As he approached the intersection in the road, Ezra hesitated. Chris's ranch was only fifteen minutes away, and he debated with himself as to whether he should drop in unannounced. A grin crossed his features as he remembered that no one had called first before visiting him recently, so he surmised that it wouldn't be too rude for him to return the favor. His mood was brighter than it had been earlier and he didn't feel like hearing the melancholy classical CD he had listened to on his way out to the overlook, so he replaced it with the Motown mix CD he had found in his glove box. Turning up the volume on his car stereo, he sang along to the upbeat tunes as he drove to Larabee's house.

* * * * * * * * * *

As he drew closer to Larabee's home, Ezra felt a sudden sense of apprehension at the sight of Buck's truck sitting in the driveway. There didn't appear to be any other vehicles parked there, and he wondered if any of the others were there, since he wasn't sure he wanted to be alone with Buck just yet. He was about to turn around when he saw the door open and a person step out onto the porch. Stifling a sigh, Ezra parked the Jaguar behind the old Chevy pickup and slowly walked to the porch.

"Ezra?" the shadowy figure called.

Ezra hesitated then answered. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington."

"Where the hell have you been?" Buck bellowed, stepping into the light and closer to the smaller man. "We've been out looking for you all day."

Ezra flinched and took a step back, eyes widening in surprise.

Buck stopped, seeing the flash of fear in the green eyes. "Ah shit, Ez," he sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "I didn't mean to yell. We were all really worried, is all."

"For what reason?" he asked tentatively.

"Me and the kid went to see you this morning and you weren't there," Buck replied. "We waited around for hours but when you didn't show up, we got worried. Nathan said you had a doctor's appointment, but we checked and she said you left at 11:30." He frowned at him. "She said you really shouldn't be driving yet."

Ezra stared at him a moment. "Um, weren't you supposed to be working today?"

"Yeah," Buck said, somewhat sheepishly. "But we were gonna take you to lunch. We had our laptops so we were able to work from your place. We headed out here after Nathan came by your place. I think he wanted to be there to read you the riot act when you showed up."

"Oh," Ezra said thoughtfully, stunned at the concern the others were showing him. "Where is Mr. Larabee?"

"Vin insisted that he knew where some of your favorite hiding places were, so he and Chris went to check them out," Buck explained. "JD was here for awhile, but got bored and took off on his motorcycle to look for you some more. Josiah's got the office staked out, in case you decided to go by there."

"I see," Ezra said quietly, suddenly uncomfortable with the thought of these men expending such effort on his behalf.

"So, where were you?" Buck prodded.

"I, uh, needed some time to myself, so I went someplace to think for awhile." Ezra looked at Buck and shrugged. "I didn't think that anyone would be looking for me."

Buck sighed. "Yeah, well, we were worried about ya. That's what friends do."

Ezra looked away, suddenly embarrassed. "Yes, I'm beginning to realize that."

The comment brought Buck up short, until he remembered something Josiah had told him about Ezra not having much experience with friendship. He had dismissed the idea at the time, not believing that it was the case at all. He had believed that Ezra was simply arrogant and self-centered and didn't want to associate with them, since he had continuously rebuffed all of their efforts to draw him into the group. But now, seeing the hesitancy and embarrassment on the younger man's face, he realized that Josiah was probably right.

"You comin' in?" Buck said finally, hoping he hadn't scared him away.

"I suppose I'd better," Ezra said with a faint smile.

Buck grinned. "I'll call the others and let them know you're okay."

Ezra followed him inside, still reeling from the idea that these men were his friends. He smiled to himself and decided he rather liked that feeling. Buck was already on the phone, so Ezra took a seat on the sofa in front of the fire, leaning his head back against the soft cushions with a sigh.

Buck clicked off his cell phone and dropped onto the sofa next to Ezra. "They're all coming over," he said, chuckling at the grimace that crossed Ezra's face.

"Good lord," he muttered. "Perhaps I should make my escape before they arrive."

"Won't help," Buck said. "They'll just follow you home."

"I suppose I'd best get it over with then," he said with a dramatic sigh.

"JD was at your place. He and Nathan are bringing pizza," Buck said. "Have you eaten today?"

"Yes, mother," Ezra answered, opening one eye and sending Buck a dirty look.

"Hell, you think I'm bad, wait 'til the others get here," Buck said, snickering at Ezra's expression.

Ezra groaned then slowly stood, turning toward the kitchen. He stopped, then looked at Buck inquiringly. "Would Mr. Larabee happen to have some tea?"

"Don't know," Buck said with a shrug. "We can look." He stood and Ezra followed him to the kitchen, where they found a container of herbal tea that looked suspiciously like one of Nathan's preferred blends.

Ezra began to prepare a cup of tea while Buck leaned against the counter and watched. He set the water to boil, then noticed the other man's scrutiny. "Is something wrong, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck lowered his gaze for a moment, then lifted his head to look Ezra in the eye. "I'm just trying to figure out how to apologize for the way I treated you."

"Mr. Wilmington, I..." Ezra began, but was halted by Buck's raised palm.

"Let me do this, Ez," he asked earnestly.

Ezra nodded slowly.

"I ain't gonna lie and say I didn't mean it, 'cause at the time, I did." He cast a guilty glance at Ezra and winced inwardly at the pain he saw in the man's face. "It ain't right," he added hastily, "but all I saw when I looked at what was left of the jeep was that Chris and Vin shouldn't have been there in the first place. I didn't think you gave a damn about any of us. Hell, you never wanted to hang out with me and the boys, so I figured you didn't even like us." He shrugged helplessly.

Ezra nodded slightly and looked at his feet.

"It didn't help that I was still drunk. I know I was wrong, especially after Vin and Chris told us how good ya took care of 'em." Buck ran a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have hit ya and... I know I don't deserve it... but I hope you'll give me another chance." He looked hopefully at Ezra, who hadn't met his eyes. "Ez?"

Ezra swallowed and slowly raised his eyes to Buck's face, taking note of the guilt etched there. "Mr. Wilmington... Buck, I..." he trailed off, looking away as he tried to put his thoughts into words. "I haven't had many friends in my life, but I would like to count you as one of them." He gazed tentatively at Buck.

Buck grinned widely in relief. "Sure thing, pard."

The teakettle whistled and Ezra turned to remove it from the burner, a smile creasing his face. As he poured water into his teacup, he heard the front door open and JD's voice calling, "Buck!"

"Pizza's here," Buck said, rubbing his hands together eagerly.

Ezra shook his head and followed Buck out to the living room.

"Hey Ez!" JD said excitedly, rushing to greet the southerner.

"Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, acknowledging his greeting with a nod as he reclaimed his seat on the sofa.

Nathan came in, his arms full of pizza boxes which he brought directly into the kitchen. He came out with some paper plates loaded down with pizza slices, handing one each to Ezra and Buck. "We got mushroom for ya, Ez," he said as he sat in the chair across from him.

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said as his stomach responded to the aroma.

"You shoulda told us where you were going," Nathan admonished him, after he had sampled his pizza.

"Hell, Nate," Buck interrupted. "The man wanted to get some fresh air. Let him eat in peace."

Nathan looked at Buck in surprise. He hadn't expected the ladies' man to jump to Ezra's defense. He glanced at Ezra, who cocked an eyebrow and smirked in response. With a snort of disgust, he stood and headed to the kitchen to get himself some pizza, muttering about "ungrateful idiots who never listened to him".

JD grinned and bounded toward the kitchen to grab his own dinner. He and Nathan had just joined Ezra and Buck in the living room, when the door opened to admit Josiah.

"Good evening, brothers," he said. "Anyone in the mood for some beverages?" He hefted a case of beer under one arm.

"You have to ask?" Buck replied with a grin.

Josiah laughed and carried the case into the kitchen to stock the refrigerator.

"Who wants one?" Buck asked.

"I do," Nathan said.

"Me too," JD added around a mouthful of pizza.

"Ezra?" Buck queried.

"Yes," Ezra said after a moment's consideration.

"No," Nathan countered. "Not with your medication."

"I finished my medication yesterday," Ezra answered smugly.

Buck laughed as he went into the kitchen, while Nathan shook his head.

Josiah joined them, balancing his loaded plate and bottle of beer carefully as he sat in the big recliner next to the sofa. "How is our wayward brother?" he asked Ezra.

"Just fine, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said, taking another bite of pizza.

"And where were you hiding yourself today?"

"Around," Ezra replied with a shrug. "I merely needed some time away from the confines of my abode."

"Did the doctor say when you could come back to work?" JD asked.

Ezra nodded. "Monday... for desk duty only."

"For how long?" inquired Nathan.

"Two weeks." Ezra made a face as he replied.

"Could be worse," added Buck. "Vin's off field work for at least a month."

"That sucks," JD commented. "He's gonna drive us crazy in the office."

"Mr. Tanner does display limited patience with being confined to sedentary activities," Ezra said with a smile. "I'm sure Mr. Larabee will be using his glare quite frequently over the next few weeks."

The five men were still laughing when Chris and Vin came through the door.

"Pizza!" Vin made a beeline for the kitchen as soon as he spotted his friends eating in the living room.

Chris rolled his eyes and shed his coat, limping slightly as he joined the group. "Ezra." He pinned his wayward undercover agent with a mild glare. "Where were you?"

Ezra shrugged. "Out."

"Out where," Chris prodded. He was not amused.

Ezra opened his mouth to reply, but Buck beat him to it.

"Aw, leave 'im alone, Chris," Buck chided. "Vin ain't the only one who gets stir crazy."

Chris merely lifted an eyebrow at Buck's interference, the expression on his face matching several others in the room. He turned his gaze to Ezra, who was sipping his beer, seemingly oblivious to their reactions. He nodded slowly, realizing that Ezra and Buck must have made their peace. "Okay, just let us know next time so we don't worry about you."

Ezra inclined his head slightly in response. "I'll do that."

"No beer, Vin," Nathan warned the sharpshooter, who came out of the kitchen with a plate loaded with pizza and a beer tucked under his arm. "It don't mix with painkillers."

"Hell, Nate. I ain't even takin' 'em anymore," Vin protested.

"I give up," Nathan grumbled in frustration. "Y'all never listen. Well, don't come whinin' to me when ya get sick."

The entire group chuckled at that, knowing how much they aggravated the medic with their aversion to hospitals and medication.

"Well, I'm just glad to have our family together again," Josiah said.

"I'll drink to that," Buck agreed, taking a large swig from his bottle of beer.

"You'll drink to anything, Bucklin," Vin said with a smirk.

"I'll drink to that," JD answered, provoking laughter all around.

The evening continued in the same jovial manner, until Ezra found himself drifting off.

"Hey Ez? You awake?" Vin said, nudging Ezra's leg.

"I am now, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, stifling a yawn.

"Why don't you stay here tonight?" Chris offered.

"Yeah, you shouldn't try such a long drive when you're tired," Nathan added.

"That sounds like a good idea," Ezra reluctantly agreed. "I am feeling a bit weary."

"Go on and take the guest room," Chris suggested.

Ezra nodded as he got to his feet. "Good night, gentlemen," he said as he shuffled off to the bedroom.

As he lay on the bed listening to the muted conversations and laughter in the next room, Ezra reflected on the last time he had occupied this bed and the changes that had occurred since then. He hadn't thought it possible, but he was now a part of their family. It was an unfamiliar sensation, but one he was beginning to enjoy.

The overprotective nature of his friends was unwelcome at first, but he found himself growing more comfortable with it. It certainly beat his previous lonely existence, though there was still much to which he would have to become accustomed. He wasn't sure he really wanted fly fishing lessons from Vin, for instance, but he supposed he would have to take the good with the bad. As he was starting to learn, that's what families did. With a smile on his face, Ezra drifted off to sleep.


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