Comfort and Joy

by Violette

Disclaimer: I don't own them. I'm just taking them out to play for a while.

Summary: The boys celebrate their first Christmas together, except for Ezra, who supposedly has other plans...

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my betas Axianna and Sevenstars. You guys did a great job! Thanks also to MOG for creating this wonderful universe for us to play in. Also, many thanks to Joy K for the loan of Aunt Grace, a wonderful, well-rounded character. I've altered the timeline somewhat from Joy's story Tuesday's Child, to where Aunt Grace has already passed away prior to Ezra joining Team Seven (just to afflict poor Ez with more angst and loneliness during the holidays :-)

Notes: As always, please let me know what you think!

Size: Approx. 127K

Part 1

The cheery sound of Christmas music grew gradually louder as he approached the office. It was the Friday before Christmas, which was occurring on a Tuesday this year, and since the government had been kind enough to give them Christmas Eve off, it meant that this was the last workday until after the holiday. Ezra gave a wan smile. He should have expected some form of festivity from his teammates. With a sigh, he schooled his features, pasting a smile on his face, though he felt anything but cheerful. Ezra stepped into the bullpen and let his gaze wander about the room.

Buck and JD's workspace caught the eye immediately, likely due to the strands of flashing lights entwined with iridescent red and green garland that were strung along the edges of their desks. That hadn't been enough holiday spirit for the 'dynamic duo', however. Buck also had a miniature lighted Christmas tree on his desk, along with a small Santa and sleigh, complete with nine reindeer and a scantily-clad Barbie doll "to keep the old guy company". A red plastic bowl filled with sprigs of mistletoe – in case a woman happened to venture within range of Buck's 'animal magnetism' – completed the display. JD had lined a small brigade of toy soldiers along the front of his desk, the formation flanked on either end by a large stuffed snowman with a bright red top hat. A stuffed Santa clutching a collection of candy canes sat on top of his computer monitor. Both of the exuberant men were wearing fur-trimmed Santa hats.

Shaking his head at the gaudy display, Ezra switched his gaze to Nathan and Josiah's work area. Josiah had, characteristically, adorned his desk with a small nativity scene, to which JD and Buck had promptly made a few additions. Standing next to the Three Wise Men were two G.I. Joe dolls, three plastic dinosaurs, and a pair of Santa's elves. Josiah had merely smiled and said, "They are all God's creatures." Nathan's desk was decorated tastefully with a pair of small poinsettias and a miniature display of Kwanzaa items laid out on a small straw mat. The only hint of gaudiness in the vicinity of the area was the large, lighted star that hung on the wall behind Josiah.

Turning away from the star, Ezra headed for his own work area. His desk faced Vin's and he was glad the sharpshooter hadn't been quite as extravagant in his decorating as the others. Vin had taken it upon himself to put up a Christmas stocking for each of them, hanging them from the sides of his desk, but other than a couple of bowls filled with Christmas candy and a plastic Santa astride a horse, his desk looked the same as always. Similarly, their leader had limited his own decorating to a wreath on his door. The large artificial tree that stood in the corner of the bullpen had been largely Buck and JD's doing, with much encouragement from Vin.

Ezra stopped short upon reaching his own desk. He had not joined in the enthusiasm, leaving his desk as barren as usual, but today, much to his consternation, a decoration had found its way into his space. Sitting in the center of his desk was a large stuffed Grinch doll. Slowly, Ezra set his briefcase down and picked it up between his thumb and forefinger, holding it up with a frown, unsure if he should be offended by the creature's appearance on his desk.

"Looks like you found a friend, Ez," Buck said, grinning widely.

"Hardly, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied haughtily, setting the doll on the edge of Buck's desk. "I have no need for artificial companions... unlike some of you."

"Women love a man who owns a teddy bear," Buck said with a sniff. "It means we're sensitive and caring."

"No, just insecure and neurotic," JD snickered. He had been ribbing Buck for weeks after finding a teddy bear in the older man's closet.

Ezra rolled his eyes and returned to his desk. He was eager to immerse himself in work, so he wouldn't have to think about the upcoming holiday and what it meant to him... or, rather, what it didn't mean. Since Thanksgiving, he had been listening as the others excitedly discussed their holiday plans. They had spent Thanksgiving together and were planning to do the same at Christmas, which had surprised Ezra until he realized that his teammates had no other family with whom to celebrate such holidays.

Ezra had spent Thanksgiving the way he always had, eating dinner alone in his apartment as he did every night. His mother didn't have much use for the holidays, and as a result, he had never looked forward to their arrival. His teammates, though, were another matter. Even Chris had managed to dredge up some enthusiasm for the season. But Ezra felt no such zeal. Holidays, for him, meant nothing but forced cheer and deeper loneliness. Most of the time, he could easily handle being alone – after all, he was quite used to it – but the holidays made it much more difficult, what with all of the parties and celebrating that did nothing but reinforce his sense of isolation.

In his entire life, he had rarely experienced an enjoyable holiday. Maude had had much better things to do than tell her son stories of Santa Claus and reindeer, let alone explain to him the true meaning of Christmas. There were, after all, parties to attend and people to meet, and that was a much more lucrative way to spend her time. No, Ezra Standish had never known the excitement and wonder of waiting eagerly for Santa Claus to arrive. He had learned early on just what a fairy tale that was.

For Ezra, Christmas had been nothing more than a day spent with distant relatives who grudgingly accepted his presence, though he had always felt out of place amongst all of the joy and affection that the holidays seemed to engender. Later, he had spent Christmases alone at boarding schools, sometimes sharing a meal with the few others whose families couldn't be bothered to come get them. He had enjoyed a couple of nice holidays when he was younger, but there were still too many where he was merely an unwanted guest for him to look upon the season with any fondness.

He had rarely felt welcome anywhere during this time of year and had grown accustomed to spending it by himself. It wasn't as though he would be missed. In his days with the FBI, he usually ended up with holiday duty, which had effectively prevented him from participating in most of the usual festivities. He had never been well-liked by his superiors, and thus ended up on the bottom of the list when it came time to make holiday and vacation schedules. Not that he minded much. Work at least gave him a way to pass the time.

He had grown used to being ignored and overlooked at this time of year. Certainly his new teammates wouldn't notice his absence from their gathering, especially since they assumed he was spending the holiday with his mother. Ezra hadn't bothered to correct that assumption at Thanksgiving, and was certainly not going to do it now. He didn't want to be included out of pity – there had been enough of that as a child. He had only been working with these men for four months; he could hardly expect them to want him around while they celebrated. They didn't even like him.

Ezra snorted faintly. You're doing it to yourself again, Ezra, he silently scolded himself. No matter how hard he tried to convince himself it didn't matter, he always seemed to feel that sense of longing, that tiny, niggling hope that maybe this year would be different. That maybe, for once, he would get to experience the kind of happiness that others seemed to enjoy during this time of year. He always tried to dismiss the holiday as a pointless example of commercialism, to pretend that it didn't affect him, but all it took was one glimpse of Christmas cheer to prevent the con from working. Sighing inwardly, Ezra squelched those feelings as best he could. It was only going to make him more depressed and, as much as he disliked the season, he didn't want to do anything to affect the happiness of those around him. It wouldn't be fair to drag them down with him. His teammates might not like him, but they did worry about his well-being – after all, he might endanger the team if he wasn't up to par – and he didn't want to be blamed for interrupting their merrymaking.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Hey Chris!" Buck called as the black-clad man headed for the break room.

"Yeah?" Chris said, sipping at his cup of coffee.

"When are we doing the gift exchange?" Buck asked, sounding like an excited five-year-old.

Chris suppressed a grin. "Not until lunchtime. And not until all your reports are done."

Buck sighed dramatically. "Okay, Dad."

Chris glared at his old friend, then shook his head in resignation. Buck would never change. He remembered fondly the Christmases that Buck had spent with his family, when Sarah and Adam were alive. It was always a toss-up as to whether Buck or Adam was more eager to open the gifts. Chris smiled sadly. He missed his family, but it felt good to remember the happier times. He had planned to spend this Christmas alone and brooding, the way he'd done for the past few years, but somehow, Buck had talked him into having them all over to his place for Christmas. He was almost looking forward to it.

His eyes drifted to the newest member of his team. Ezra's desk was bare, containing only his computer and a pad of paper. Chris sighed inwardly. He hadn't been blatant about it, but Ezra had quietly resisted all of their efforts to inspire him with some Christmas spirit. The elegant agent seemed almost bored by the holidays and annoyed with the festivities, and it had taken strong convincing just to get him to participate in the office gift exchange. He supposed that Ezra's plans with his mother were much more extravagant than the humble gathering he had planned at his ranch. They were probably going to attend some grand parties and eat food that would cost a month's wages. Chris shrugged. He'd take Christmas with his friends over parties full of stuffed shirts any day.

* * * * * * * * * *

Buck spun around in his chair and looked at his watch impatiently. "Come on, guys! It's almost lunchtime."

"Keep your pants on, Buck," Vin growled. "I'm workin' as fast as I can."

"Yes, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra agreed. "Some of us wish our reports to be completed properly."

"My reports are just fine," Buck protested.

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Perhaps, if you consider 'We done caught the bad guys' to be a complete report."

"Works for me," Buck said with a grin, refusing to be baited.

Josiah chuckled at the scene as he sent his own report to the printer. "Not everyone has your gift with words, Brother Ezra."

"Thank God for that," Nathan retorted.

Ezra shot him a glare before turning back to his computer. He was proud of his reports and wasn't about to rush them for something as trivial as a gift exchange in which he hadn't wanted to participate anyway. He was almost finished with his final revision, but he made sure to take his time completing it, just to irritate Buck. Vin finished at the same time, snatching his report from the printer before Buck could get his hands on it. Chris exited his office just as Vin was putting the papers into a folder.

"Finished?" he asked.

"Yep," Vin said, handing him the folder.

"What about the rest of you?"

Ezra handed his report to the blond leader, while Nathan merely pointed to the 'in box' on the wall outside of Chris's office, where the rest of the reports were waiting.

"Glad to see you're all so motivated," Chris said with a grin.

Ezra lifted an eyebrow sarcastically, but said nothing.

"Come on, guys," Buck said happily. "I saw some chocolate cake in the break room." He raced toward the room in question with JD and Vin in tow.

Chris rolled his eyes but chuckled at their antics. "All right, everyone into the conference room. Grab your gifts on the way." He pointed to the pile of presents under the tree.

Ezra watched as his teammates picked up the gifts addressed to themselves and filed into the conference. Reluctantly, he stood and followed, picking up his own gift with trepidation. Buck had drawn his name and he dreaded what might await him inside the package. His associates had explained that the gifts exchanged in the office were usually humorous 'gag' gifts, but, knowing Buck's sense of humor, Ezra was almost afraid to find out what was under the bright paper. He sighed, hoping that his own gift would be well-received. He had had the misfortune to draw Larabee's name and only hoped that he wouldn't end up with a bullet between his eyes when Chris saw what was inside his box.

Ezra wasn't used to exchanging gifts, especially those of the humorous variety. It had been a long time since he had allowed that part of his personality out in the open, likely due to what had happened the last time he had participated in an office gift exchange.

It was his second year with the FBI, and Ezra had looked forward to the office festivities, not having had any prior experience with them. He had actually enjoyed the exchange of gifts with his co-workers... until afterward, when he overheard Martin Royce, the recipient of his gift of imported port wine, discussing it in the break room with some of his other associates.

"Can you believe this? I can't even pronounce the name of this shit. Only a stuck-up bastard like Standish would give something like this as a gift."

"Yeah," Bill Edwards agreed. "The guy is such a phony."

"He probably thinks crap like this impresses everybody," Royce added.

"Just like those fancy designer suits he wears. He must think they make him look successful or something," Edwards stated. "Pretentious asshole."

"But a *well-dressed* pretentious asshole," Ron Sheridan retorted sarcastically.

The three men laughed.

Ezra had left after that, not wanting to hear any more. It had been a shock to discover that his associates felt that way about him, and he had reacted by withdrawing back into himself, refusing to expose himself as a target any longer. Being alone was easier.

Shaking his head, Ezra joined his teammates, who had finally gathered around the conference room table. A platter of sandwiches dominated the middle of the table, surrounded by bowls of potato chips and other snacks. Chocolate cake sat on one end, a plate of cookies on the other. Both were being eyed hungrily by Vin, their resident sweet-tooth.

"Lunch first," Chris admonished Buck, who was shaking his gift and trying to peek underneath the wrapping. Buck stuck out his tongue once Chris turned away, but complied, setting his package aside and reaching for a sandwich.

The men relaxed while they ate, talking about past Christmases they had enjoyed. Ezra listened silently, wishing he had had as many wonderful experiences as his associates seemed to have enjoyed, and praying that they wouldn't ask him about his holidays.

As if he were reading his thoughts, JD piped in, "How about you, Ez? What was your favorite Christmas?"

Ezra debated about what he should say. His two best Christmases were spent with his Aunt Grace but he didn't want to share those experiences, afraid that it might somehow diminish the memories. Instead, he related a story about his tenth Christmas, leaving out the part where his mother and stepfather left him alone in their big house with only the maid and cook for company while they made the rounds of the party circuit. His stepfather had bought him an expensive bicycle, but was not even there when it was delivered.

Ezra embellished the tale, making it sound like a warm, happy Christmas – which was what they really wanted to hear. He knew that they thought he had grown up a spoiled, wealthy child who got everything he wanted, including the love of his mother. Far be it from him to spoil those illusions with the truth. He never noticed the slight frown that crossed Vin's face while he spun his tale.

Part 2

Once they had finished eating, it was time to open the gifts. A good-natured argument ensued as to whom would be the first to open a gift, until Chris finally intervened, indicating that JD would start.

"Why me?" JD asked.

"'Cause you're the youngest," Buck said, nudging the younger man in the ribs.

JD made a face at Buck, but picked up his gift nonetheless. He tore the wrapping off quickly and stared at the contents for a moment, before hiding it quickly in his lap, his face flushing pink with embarrassment.

"What is it?" Buck demanded, his curiosity piqued by JD's reaction.

"Um, it's, uh..." JD trailed off, not knowing how to explain without embarrassing himself further.

Josiah began to laugh, and Buck impatiently snatched the gift from his young friend's lap.

"Buck!" JD reached for the gift, but Buck held it in the air, out of his reach, until the young agent slumped back into his seat, accepting the inevitable teasing that would result.

Buck lowered his arm and studied JD's gift, a wide grin breaking out on his face. "Well, well. This ought to come in handy."

"What is it, Buck?" asked Vin.

"The Kama Sutra," Buck answered, opening the book and flipping through the pages. He whistled aloud. "Damn! I've never seen that one!" He showed the illustration to JD, whose eyes widened in awe.

Vin reached across the table and grabbed the book. He looked at the picture, turning the book sideways. "I didn't know that was possible," he commented with a grin.

"I might want to borrow that sometime, JD," Nathan said as he flipped through the pages with interest.

"Uh-oh, maybe we'd better warn Rain," Buck chuckled.

Nathan blushed and passed the book to Ezra, who studied it with interest. "The authors certainly were... imaginative." He passed it to Chris.

"No thanks," Chris said, taking pity on JD and handing him the book.

"Thanks, Josiah... I think," JD said.

Josiah chuckled.

"Whatever inspired you to make such a purchase?" Ezra asked the large agent.

"Well, I thought it might be useful to broaden our young brother's horizons," Josiah replied.

"That'll broaden 'em, all right," Vin agreed, snickering.

"You're next, Buck," JD blurted, attempting to shift the attention from himself.

"All right!" Buck lifted his package and shook it, trying to discern the contents before opening it. It remained a mystery, though, so with a shrug, he tore open the wrapping.

"What'cha got, Bucklin?" asked Vin, curious at the look on Buck's face.

"It's..." Buck trailed off.

JD grabbed the package, eager to return the teasing he had received, and burst out laughing. "It's an Inflatable Playmate!" He displayed the package to the rest of the men.

"Guess that's for those nights when you ain't got a real date," Vin said, laughing at the embarrassed flush on Buck's face.

"You might even practice some of those moves from JD's book," Nathan observed, grinning broadly.

The rest of the table erupted with laughter. Buck suddenly grinned and snatched his blow-up doll from his roommate's grasp. "Hell, I can use her to drive in the carpool lane! Thanks, Nathan!"

"You'd better not," Chris warned with a smile.

Buck stuck out his tongue once Chris had turned away.

"I saw that, Buck," Chris said.

Buck rolled his eyes then turned to Vin. "Come on, Junior. You're next."

Vin eyed his package with trepidation, but then realized that JD had probably not gotten him anything too embarrassing. He carefully stripped off the paper, a wide grin breaking out on his face when the giant Super Soaker water gun was revealed. "Cool! Thanks JD!"

"We'll have to try it out later," JD said eagerly.

Chris groaned. "Just don't use it at the office. Travis is still pissed about the time he walked into the middle of that shootout you guys were having in the hallway."

"Yes, Mom," Vin said, making a face.

Chris shot a glare in his direction, but gave in and smiled ruefully when he realized it was being ignored. "Nathan. Your turn."

Nathan picked up the rectangular box and opened it slowly, delicately prying away each piece of tape.

"Sometime this year, Nate," Buck complained, impatient to see the gift.

Nathan frowned at him and continued at his sedate pace. Finally, the gift was opened, and Nathan's rich laughter filled the room.

"What is it?" JD asked, craning his neck to see around Buck, who was leaning halfway across the table in an effort to see what had inspired Nathan's reaction.

"Operation!" Nathan said, displaying the game to everyone. "Thanks, Vin! I loved this game when I was a kid!"

"Me, too," Buck said. The others at the table, with the exception of Vin and Ezra, added their comments about the game.

Ezra shrugged, never having seen the game before.

Vin was the only one who noticed that Ezra's voice had been silent, since he himself was not participating in the reminiscing that was occurring at the table. They hadn't had too many games or toys in the foster homes in which he had stayed, so he was as unfamiliar with the game as Ezra appeared to be. He had bought it for Nathan, figuring that the medical aspect would be good for a chuckle or two, but hadn't realized that the game qualified as a 'classic'. Shaking his head slightly, Vin tuned back in to the conversation around him.

"I bet Nate would kick our butts, what with all that medical training he has," Buck postulated.

"Nah, Vin could probably beat him," JD said. "You gotta have real precise aim."

"We'll just have to find out, won't we," Buck said, grinning in anticipation.

"Did I hear the word 'bet'?" Ezra said, a sly smile lighting his face.

"Never mind," Nathan said with a sigh.

"Hey, Josiah," JD called to the big agent. "Open yours next!"

Smiling, Josiah unwrapped his gift, wadding up the paper, which he then sent flying toward JD's head. A short paper-wad battle broke out and was quickly ended by Chris's high-pitched whistle.

Josiah chuckled at his friend's antics and lifted the lid off of the plain cardboard box, peering inside curiously. He burst into laughter as he lifted out a book, a roll of duct tape, a wrench, and a container of oil. "'Car Repair for Dummies'," he said as he passed the book around the table.

"How appropriate," Ezra remarked.

"Yeah," Nathan concurred. "Now maybe you can fix that rolling junkyard you call a car."

"It's a classic," Josiah retorted.

"A classic what?" Vin said with a grin.

"This will come in quite handy," Josiah said happily, ignoring the disparaging remarks about his vehicle. "Thank you, Chris."

Chris nodded. "You're welcome."

"Come on, Ez," Buck urged. "Open yours."

Ezra felt suddenly self-conscious as he started to open his gift. He hoped it wouldn't be too embarrassing, but considering that it was from Buck, he didn't expect that to be the case. He carefully peeled the paper away from the slim box and lifted the lid.

"What is it?" JD asked eagerly.

Ezra lifted the item from the box, displaying it to the rest of the men, who promptly burst into laughter at the sight of the loud necktie with a Christmas tree design, complete with flashing lights.

"Push on the star, Ez!" Buck prompted.

Shooting the ladies' man an evil look, he did as requested and was rewarded with an electronic rendition of 'Jingle Bells'.

"Cool!" JD said with a grin.

Ezra rolled his eyes, looking appropriately horrified.

"You can wear it when you see your Ma," Buck suggested.

The thought of his mother's reaction to such a tasteless accessory brought a smile to Ezra's lips. It might have been worth the embarrassment of wearing it, if he were actually going to see her this holiday season. "I think my mother would find it... interesting," he said with a chuckle. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."

"So is she coming here?" Vin inquired curiously.

"No," Ezra answered quickly. "She wished to remain in London."

"London at Christmas with Maude," Josiah said with a wistful sigh. "Sounds wonderful."

"I bet it'll be fun, huh Ez?" JD said as he reached for the chocolate cake.

Ezra forced a smile. "Quite."

"Hey, someone hasn't opened his gift yet," Buck said, wagging his finger at Chris.

Chris shot him a look, but reached for his gift anyway, tearing the paper off quickly.

Ezra watched apprehensively, wondering what kind of reaction his gift would garner.

Chris opened the plain cardboard box and stared inside with a blank look on his face. Slowly, he reached inside and withdrew the gift.

Buck broke the silence with his loud guffaws as he took in the brown teddy bear, dressed like a cowboy, all in black. The rest of the men followed, with the exception of Ezra, who favored his boss with a weak smile.

Chris turned the bear around slowly, his expression revealing nothing. He found the button on the back of the stuffed toy and eyed it curiously. The team leader raised his eyebrow and looked at Ezra, who shrugged innocently. Chris pushed the button.

"Freeze! ATF!" Chris's voice emanated from the toy.

He pushed the button again. "Don't you have work to do?!"

"You're under arrest!"

"Let's ride, boys!"

The men collapsed in fits of laughter. Buck, who had been drinking some coffee, nearly choked, snorting coffee through his nose.

Chris finally succumbed to the mirth and began to laugh, much to Ezra's relief.

"Where the hell did you get that?" Buck asked finally, once the merriment had died down somewhat.

"I, er, found a shop that creates such customized items," Ezra explained, slightly embarrassed. "I merely provided a tape that I culled from some of our operational recordings."

"Edited for content," Josiah added with a chuckle.

"Thanks, Ezra," Chris said quietly.

"You're welcome," Ezra replied, pleased that he hadn't just received a fist in his face.

"That was cool, Ez," Vin complimented.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra answered, surprised by the accolade.

"Ain't too many people can surprise Chris like that," he said with a grin.

"Well, it is my job to deceive people," Ezra agreed.

"Yeah, I guess it is," Vin said thoughtfully.

"Who wants cake?" JD called as he sliced into the confection.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Merry Christmas, everybody!" JD said cheerfully.

"Have fun in London, Ez. We'll see the rest of ya at Christmas!" Buck said as he and JD left the office.

Ezra waved at the departing pair and returned to his desk, putting his papers in order before he left for the holiday. He gathered his papers and placed them neatly into his briefcase before shutting it with a snap.

"You ain't taking work with you this weekend, are you?" Vin said, aghast at such a thought.

"Of course not," Ezra lied smoothly. He always found that work distracted him from the loneliness, keeping him busy so he wouldn't have the time to think about it and end up wallowing in misery over his pathetic lack of a social life.

"Uh-huh," Vin said doubtfully. He suspected the man was lying to him, but he couldn't figure out why he would do so over such a trivial matter.

"I have things much more interesting than work in mind for this holiday," Ezra insisted.

"I would hope so," Josiah said, clapping Ezra on the shoulder as he passed.

Ezra stood, donning his coat as he prepared to leave. "Gentlemen, I hope you enjoy your holidays."

"You too, Ez," Nathan said. "Have a good time in London."

"I always do," Ezra intoned with a smile. It wasn't a lie. He did enjoy visiting London.

"Merry Christmas, Ez," Vin said.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "You too, gentlemen."

"Happy holidays, son," Josiah said warmly. "Give my regards to Maude."

Ezra nodded. "I'll do that, Mr. Sanchez."

"Have a good one, Ezra," Chris said with a smile.

"I shall endeavor to do so, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied, feeling suddenly uncomfortable with all of the warm wishes and cheer being sent in his direction. It made him feel almost guilty about hiding the truth from them. "I hope your holiday is enjoyable as well." His smile faltered briefly, but he recovered quickly and tossed his standard two-fingered salute before exiting the office.

Vin watched him leave, frowning slightly.

"Something wrong, brother?" Josiah asked, noting the odd expression on the younger man's face.

"Not sure, Josiah," Vin said quietly.

Josiah nodded sagely, accustomed to the Texan's strange moods. He would be sure to make himself available if Vin wanted to talk.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ezra shut the door behind him, placing his briefcase on the table as he entered his apartment. After hanging his coat in the closet, he returned to the table and opened his briefcase, withdrawing the package containing his gift. With a wry smile, he pushed the button on the tie, setting off another tinny rendition of 'Jingle Bells'. As it played, he carried the box across the room to the small decorative table that sat against the wall of his living room. He flipped a switch, and the lone decoration in his apartment came alight.

The small ceramic Christmas tree was the one holiday tradition he had never ignored. His Aunt Grace had made it one year when she had attended a ceramics class with two of her fellow teachers, and had given it to him when he went away to college, claiming it was small enough to fit into any dorm room. Ezra knew that it was her gentle way of ensuring that he didn't completely ignore the holidays. He treasured it and had always brought it out at the holidays, even when he had no desire to celebrate. It often gave him the only measure of happiness he would enjoy during the Christmas season. It had pleased his aunt so much to make it for him, and now that she was gone, he looked to it as a reminder of the good times they had shared.

Ezra deposited the tie beside the tree, next to the four Christmas cards he had received. It wasn't much, but it was enough to make him smile. Extravagant decorations and true holiday cheer were for others. He would have his own simple celebration, with a gourmet meal prepared ahead by his favorite restaurant, a bottle of well-aged brandy, a few videos that he had been wanting to watch, and a good book to read by the fire. What more could a man ask for?


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