A Home For Christmas

by Angela B.

Disclaimer: characters are not mine

Note: Bear with me I’m still haven’t quite got the writing style down. Mog created the ATF playground.

This is just a little idea of how Ezra’s first shared Christmas with guys would be like.

Thanks to Joy for letting me borrow her character Aunt Grace.

Thanks to Jera for beta reading my story and correcting my mistakes

The office was a busy place. J.D. and Buck were having a contest to see who could shoot the most paper footballs into the trashcan. Josiah and Nathan were finishing up the last of the paperwork due before they could officially leave for the Christmas holiday. The last of the agents, Vin, had spent most of the morning filling out forms for the weapons they had used in the take down of the latest arms dealer the day before.

It had been a tip from a very reliable source that alerted Team Seven to a two-time convict dealing weapons out of his house. Team Seven, along with the D.P.D. and the U.S. Marshals stormed the house and confiscated a large number of assorted handguns and semi-automatic rifles. It had been a good day.

Chris was in his office. He was supposed to be working but instead he was concentrating on the next day, Christmas. This would be the third Christmas with his new family of brothers. The tall black clad man remembered the first one vividly. Neither he, nor Vin and certainly not Ezra had been in the holiday mood. They definitely weren’t looking forward to the specific day. Each one was expecting to spend the undesired day alone. J.D. had changed that. His enthusiasm for the holiday had sparked cheer in most of them. Each one, except for the southerner, had caught some of the holiday cheer. Somehow, it was decided that they would all show up at Chris’ and celebrate the holiday. Everyone had shown up except for Ezra, he had some excuse about previous plans.

That Christmas had been hard on the widower. It was the first Christmas he had celebrated since the death of his wife, Sarah, and his son, Adam. With the help of Vin, Buck and the others he had waded through the mixture of feelings and survived the day. There were a few times when he caught himself actually enjoying the festivities.

Last Christmas had been easier. Again, the undercover agent had declined to show. By then the others had gotten to know the man a little better and understood, to varying degrees, that the agent just wasn’t that comfortable with the group yet.

J.D. had been determined that Ezra would join them this year. He had employed every trick he knew including the ‘puppy dog look’. J.D. didn’t know why the others had labeled this specific look with that name but it seemed to get results, even with the obstinate agent. Ezra had finally relinquished and agreed to come. J.D. was in seventh heaven.

Then three weeks ago Team Three had requested Ezra’s special skills for one of their assignments. It began to look as if Ezra would miss Christmas after all. More than just a few in Team Seven wondered if Ezra wasn’t dragging out the case for that very reason. But, by some miracle the bust had gone down yesterday with no injuries, much to the immense relief of Nathan and Chris. Chris hated when Ezra was pulled to another team and the leader couldn’t watch his man’s back. Nathan worried because if any one were going to get hurt it would be their undercover man. Chris had given Ezra the day off to rest knowing full well the agent would use the time at home to work on his report instead.

After work the seven men met at The Saloon for a drink before heading to Chris’. Ezra was nervous and it showed, at least to the six men who knew him. It was a testament to just what the previous job had taken out of the normally unreadable agent. The six men watched Ezra from guarded eyes as the seventh peeled the label off his drink. Something he’d never done before. After clearing his voice a couple of times a thick southern drawl penetrated the air. "Uhmm…J.D." The southerner stopped and took a deep breath intending to continue but before he could the youngest of the seven jumped in, "I’m really glad you're coming to Chris’ tonight. It’ll be the first time we all celebrated Christmas together. It’s going to be great!" All the trapped southern gentleman could do was give the enthusiastic agent a smile and nod his head in agreement. Wishing for a small natural disaster to strike, only the spot where he was sitting of course.

Under his breath the depressed man uttered, ‘Great." Vin heard the muttering and shook his head mentally. He’d realized it wasn’t that Ezra didn’t want to be with them but that the man really hated the holiday, more than either Chris or himself.

Taking another deep breath he started again, "J.D. I won’t be able to come tonight." Raising his hands to stave off the onslaught of protests and unkind comments he was sure to come his way he continued, "Due to the restraints of my latest endeavor of capturing the common criminal I begrudgingly have to admit I’m not finished with my Christmas preparations. But, I assure you Mr. Dunne I will present myself in time tomorrow to relish the day’s festivities." J.D. nodded, taking Ezra’s word.

Whew! At least I’ve bought myself a little more time before having to get into a spirit I don’t really feel. Ezra thought to himself with some relief.

When the men had finished their drinks they rose and headed for their vehicles, all but the one going to Chris’ for the night. Chris and Buck cornered Ezra after Josiah, Nathan and J.D. had exited the bar, Vin stood in the doorway observing the confrontation that was about to take place. The longhaired agent wished his friends could see how hard this was on his obstinate friend without being targeted, too.

"Look Ez, I know you’re used to fancy Christmases and being with us simple people probably doesn’t mean that much to you but, it means a lot to the kid. He’s really looking forward to all of us being there. You better not do anything to disappoint him, like using one of your confaluting schemes to not show." Buck threatened, invading Ezra’s guarded personal space.

"Mr. Wilmington" Ezra tiredly began, "Have I ever lied to Mr. Dunne?" "Well…no" consented the menacing man.

"Then pray tell why would you think I would lie to him now? Especially in front of you…gentlemen." Ezra finished flatly, raising his eyebrows in question.

"OK then" Buck ended with sudden passiveness and left.

Chris started pass his notorious edgy agent and stopped. "See ya tomorrow," the black clad man said, leaving what he expected of Ezra. Ezra gave him his two-finger salute, then catching Vin’s eyes he gave a more positive imitation of his salute.

Lawd he hated this holiday. There were only two Christmases that he could think about without needing a good still drink, or two.

On the way to the ranch Vin thought best how to reprimand his best friend about his treatment of a particular friend. "Something on your friend, Cowboy?" Chris’ question broke into the sharpshooter’s thoughts and at the same time provided the opportunity he was looking for.

"Ya shouldn’t have pushed Ez like that. This is hard enough without you getting in his face and threatening him like that." Vin’s soft rebuke filled the interior of the truck.

The leader nodded his head and let out a breath, "Yeah I know. I just want him to show, he belongs with us not sitting alone in his house." Vin turned and stared at his older brother, he didn’t think anyone knew about that but him.

Vin had stopped by Ezra’s house last Christmas on his way home. The house was virtually dark but he had seen the reflection of a light in the back of the house. He stood out on the porch ringing the doorbell for five minutes before a very sloshed Ezra had appeared. Vin had spent the night, partly making sure the man didn’t get alcohol poisoning but mostly he didn’t want to leave his obnoxious brother alone. Ezra had slept off his drink and the two friends talked. Vin corrected himself; he had done most of the talking while the other listened. Which for once was a switch. Anytime Vin asked the silent agent about his past Christmases the man changed the subject or turned the tables. By the time Vin left he understood the Holiday brought back too much hurt for the man to deal with.

"How’d ya know?" Vin inquired.

Chris turned towards the other man. He couldn’t actually see inside the truck but knew Vin was surprised. It had showed in his voice. "Judge Travis called me last year. The police had been called to Ezra’s place, a neighbor thought someone had breaking into the place and was destroying it. Turned out Ezra had thrown a few objects against a wall." Chris paused. "Getting drunk makes a person lose control, no matter how hard they try and hold onto it." The blond man finished quietly, reflecting on the numerous times he had done the same exact thing.

The men met up at the ranch and headed off to their respective rooms. Everyone but Ezra doubled up. Ezra had taken a bedroom off the kitchen that Chris had built on when it became apparent the men he worked with was spending more time at his place on weekends and any other time they had off than at their own houses. The bedroom seemed to be suited just for the undercover agent. It was in the dwelling but on the fringes. Just like Ezra.

Chris, Vin and Buck had stayed up. The older and younger agents were acutely aware of how this holiday affected their mutual friend. Even though Chris was handling this Christmas much better than the first one, they both knew it was still hard on him. It was after midnight when they went to bed.

The blond man wasn’t sure what woke him. He sat up in bed and listened, a noise from the living room alerted him someone was up. Deciding to check it out Chris entered the living room as a retreating figure went into the kitchen. Chris walked through the living room into the kitchen and spotted his undercover agent disappearing into his room, shutting the door; like a blockade. Chris shook his and went back to bed.

The members of the household awoke at various times. As usual Vin and Chris were the first up, enjoying watching the snow fall. An hour later Josiah and Nathan joined the two men on the porch. The next to come out was J.D., carrying a cup of hot cocoa. His wet hair was a telltale sign he had just got out the shower. Timing was everything when there were seven men using only three bathrooms. Spotting the Jag he was hard pressed to keep the excitement out of his voice. " Hey Ez is here! I knew he would make it." The four men smiled, the kid had enough faith for all of them. "Boy he must have come in late last night."

"More like very early this morning," Chris corrected, shifting in his seat for a more comfortable position. Getting a questioning look from the others he added, "2:30." Vin whistled. "That was risky. Coming in like that in the dark and it snowing." Nathan chastised the man mentally. He hated the fact that the undercover agent was always taking unnecessary chances, putting his life in danger.

Buck came out his bedroom and walked thru the living room. He noticed the six new packages sitting under the Christmas tree the guys had decorated last night. They appeared to be wrapped in expensive paper, they also looked professionally done. Grabbing a cup of coffee he joined the others on the porch. Viewing the white wonderland his gaze fell on the black sporty car. "I see Ez made it." The grizzled man said hesitantly, he had yet to shave. This was vacation after all. He sincerely hoped Ezra had come because he belonged here not because he had threatened the man, but he had his doubts. Buck had realized last night he had done the wrong thing in threatening the introverted man. The mustached man was afraid Ezra would believe that the only reason he was wanted was for J.D.’s sake and that simply wasn’t the case. Buck figured he had driven a wedge between him and Ezra.

Josiah stood and clapped his hands together, "So who’s’ ready for breakfast?" He was happy to have his family together for this special day.

"Yeah! Maybe the smell of food will wake Ez up" J.D. hopped off the railing and headed for the kitchen door."

"J.D.!" came five warning voices.

The young agent rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. Ever since Ezra had agreed to come this year the five remaining members of the team had repeatedly taken turns cautioning J.D. not to expect much and certainly not pressure the man into anything more. Ezra had after all agreed to come, that in itself the five men realized was a big step for the reserved friend. J.D. knew it also; he wasn’t as dumb or naive as the others believed. He wanted Ezra to feel included in everything. Since, this was only the third Christmas they didn’t have to many traditions but the sensitive brother wanted Ezra involved in the few they did have and breakfast was one of them.

Ezra did wake to the aroma of breakfast and the noise his friends were creating in making it. Instead of making his stomach rumble with hunger the smells were making him nauseous. He climbed from his warm bed and got ready, feeling much like a person readying for his execution. In fact, Ezra thought, an execution would be more preferably. At least it would end his misery quickly.

The green-eyed agent walked thru the kitchen into the dining room. Seated around the long dining table were his friends that had worked so hard to incorporate him into their little family. Ezra had to smile to himself despite the apprehension that had settled into his nerve endings. It seemed no matter where they went they always sat in the same positions. Buck and Vin flanked Chris. By Buck was the man’s little brother and roommate, J.D., seated next to him was their medic, Nathan. By Vin was an empty chair for him, on the other side of the empty chair sat their profiler, Josiah.

"Hey Ez, you’re wake." Vin exclaimed, a little to loud for Ezra’s liking.

"That Mr. Tanner is up for debate" as Ezra took his seat between his two friends.

"Well, I’m glad you made it, Ez. It wouldn’t have been the same without you." The youngest agent voiced, shoving a mouthful of pancakes into his mouth. He liked it when Buck didn’t cook.

Ezra, plastering his poker face on while he regarded the plate of food in front of him, really wished Josiah didn’t feel the need to fill his plate for him like he was a little kid. "It’s my profound pleasure Mr. Dunne to be able to delight in such wondrous company on such a special day." Wondering if it was too early to request a good stiff drink.

J.D. missed the hint of sarcasm in the southerner’s voice but the others didn’t. The young Bostonian was enjoying the camaraderie of his friends. The young man missed his mom but these six men had become his new family and made the holidays bearable once again.

"Ez, what do you say you call us by our first names just for today?" Chris knew Ezra only called them by their first names when he wanted their undivided attention.

"I’ll shall endeavor to remember that," Ezra said with warmth that he didn’t really feel.

The men enjoyed a bountiful breakfast provided by Josiah, Nathan and Chris. Vin usually set the table; he wasn’t much into cooking. Buck and J.D. were banned from cooking for the group altogether. Those two could make boiling water turn toxic. A volley of concealed glances was tossed around the table. They noticed Ezra wasn’t as talkative as usual and he wasn’t eating; just pushing the food from one side of his plate to the other, never taking a bite. True, Ezra was not a morning person but the friend really seemed to be having an extra difficult time this morning.

Ezra wanted to do nothing more than bolt. Lord how did he get maneuvered into such a horrible predicament? Easy, J.D. it was J.D. The young agent had really been talking up the Christmas gathering for days. That particular night they had gone to Inez’ for drinks and once again J.D. began talking about the get together when he finally came right out and with that irresistible look he had cornered Ezra and asked the dreaded question. Ezra could still remember hearing the anticipation and excitement in the young man’s voice when he asked the reluctant agent if he was coming to Chris’ for Christmas. In a moment of weakness and at the time a desire to be with the others, Ezra had assented. J.D. had actually let out a whoop and the dawning of what he’d just agreed to hit Ezra like a freight train.

There was no backing out, he’d agreed in front of all of them. So, for the first time in a long time the reticent man had gone out and Christmas shopped. They all had told him since he’d be going undercover presents were not needed or expected. Ezra figured they were just trying to make it easier on him. Ezra had no intentions of walking into the house empty handed.

On his off hours, which were not plentiful Ezra had bought the presents. Knowing none of them were materialistic or flashy, he went for the practical and meaningful gifts.

For Josiah he had made a considerable donation to the youth center, asking the lady who took his money not to disclose to Josiah the amount. A simple note noting that a donation had been made was sufficed. He also, bought him a substantial store credit card at the local auto store. That suburban forever needed replacements.

Nathan had been easy. The medic was always contemplating going back to school and furthering his medical knowledge. A few months back a grant application had mysteriously appeared on Nathan’s desk. They had all encouraged him to apply and a few weeks later he was notified that he had been awarded the grant. No one knew a certain brown haired, green-eyed undercover agent had established the grant. So, for Christmas Ezra had purchased the three textbooks required for the classes.

J.D. was receiving two round trip tickets to Boston plus a four-day five-night stay at a local hotel. Once on a stakeout J.D. had lamented how he’d like to take Casey to Boston and show her the place where he grew up. The agent also admitted he’d like his mom to meet the girl he liked so much. J.D. had quickly tried to take the comment back, stating he knew how dumb it sounded for Casey to meet a deceased person. Ezra had reassured the young man it wasn’t dumb and that instead it was a wonderful testament to how well his mother had lovingly raised him. Ezra would never admit it but he was jealous of the young man, he had at least had a mother who cared about him.

Buck had given him a little trouble. The man only seemed interested in one thing. Ezra had finally gone to a little antique shop and found the perfect gift. He had found an old tintype picture of two cowboys on horseback in the snow. Remarkably the two men resembled Buck and Chris. On the note attached Ezra wrote: A man can weather anything when he has a friend who’ll stand. You have proven to be such a person. At the time he was thinking of how Buck had stood with Chris when his family was murdered. Ezra also purchased the latest hot video game. Buck had been trying for a month to get one; Ezra had made a few calls and found one in Minnesota.

Vin had also been easy, perhaps the easiest. Vin, Ezra knew, owned the least of the seven, he hardly bought anything for himself. The longhaired Texan claimed he didn’t like clutter in his life. Ezra had gone to a western wear outlet and purchased a black and blue flannel work jacket with thick lining and a pair of sturdy leather work gloves. Vin could wear them when he was out at Chris’ ranch working. Ezra figured the flannel jacket would be better than that old leather fringe coat he insisted on wearing. Ezra had thought about getting the man an electric seat warmer for that old jeep he insisted on driving but decided Vin would just return it and somehow give Ezra his money back.

Not once did getting any of them a gift certificate cross his mind. To him they were too much like money. Ezra knew from past experiences money wasn’t a present; instead it said to him, "I was too busy to really think about you."

Chris proved to be the biggest challenge. After much contemplation Ezra settled on a black western cut suit coat. It had tiny silver threads running through it, enough to show some shimmer but not enough to look shiny. Since he didn’t know Chris’ exact measurements he also, purchased an alteration certificate from his own tailor. Though he didn’t like the idea of a certificate as a present he reasoned that this was a necessary purchase and it did go with the coat. As he was paying for the coat the sales woman mentioned a shirt that would go well with the coat. It, too, was black with silver thread running through it. It was perfect.

So, here he was sitting around the table with his friends, listening to the easy bantering going around. He told himself this was just another job, much like the ones when he went undercover. Push aside the real him and become the person they wanted. Let them believe he was having a good day and felt included, like he belonged here with them. The green-eyed agent figured it would be easier to pull this off if his stomach didn’t feel so queasy. Put it aside Standish he rebuked himself. He nonchalantly glanced at his watch; the time showed him he had a ways to go before he could extricate himself without running into problems, namely Mr. Wilmington.

Breakfast ended and the men started cleaning up. A "tradition" Chris had insisted on, he hated having his house look like a pigpen and with seven of them that was a possibility. Ezra surreptitiously placed himself at the sink. He ordinarily abhorred menial labor but desperate times called for desperate measures. As far as Ezra was concerned anything that prolonged the inevitable was paramount to him surviving this day. The fact Ezra had placed himself at the sink didn’t go unnoticed neither did the fact that it was obvious he intended to hand wash the dishes instead of rinsing them off and putting them in the dishwasher. J.D. came in with the last items from the table and saw the sink filling with suds. Walking up behind Ezra he clamped his hands on his friend’s shoulders, filling the tremor that ran thru Ezra’s body caused by the touch. Excitement of a young kid filled his voice. "C’mon Ez, just put them in the dishwasher and lets go," releasing his grip.

"Of course J.D. I don’t know what I was thinking," letting the water out and leaning against the counter, pretending to dry his hands.

J.D. left to round up the others, leaving Buck in the kitchen alone with the reluctant brown-haired man. The mustached man took the opportunity to make amends for his behavior the night before. Walking up to Ezra, he took in the masked appearance and said a silent curse. The undercover agent was leaning against the counter with his ankles crossed and his arms crossed against his chest. His face was unreadable but the older man knew what the man was silently saying, "I’m closed." Buck figured that Ezra was planning the "Great Escape." "Ey Ez." Buck stammered, "I’m glad you came." Ezra lifted his eyes to gaze straight into the blue eyes studying him. Malice coloring his southern drawl " I don’t believe I had a choice," raising his eyebrows for emphasis. "You made that quite clear last night." Ezra finished with a touch of concession in is voice.

"Yeah Ez you did," Buck sadly replied. Realizing he had put a rift between the two of them.

"I did? Mr. Wilmington you made it quite plain I was to make an appearance today for no other reason than not to disappoint Mr. Dunne."

The southern voice assaulted Buck’s soft heart with the truth. He also noticed Ezra was using last names again. "You’re right I did and it was wrong." Buck took a deep breath "Look Ez I wanted you to come because you belong here and I was afraid you’d find a way to back out. So, instead of telling you I used J.D. as an excuse to get you to show up. It was wrong and I’m sorry. It was wrong to threaten you. I apologize."

Ezra studied the blue eyes staring at him and saw the truth, the man was truly sorry. "Apology accepted." Ezra moved off to his bedroom and closed the door.

Buck hung his head as he felt his heart drop. He and his inner need to protect the kid had wiped all of J.D.’s hard work out. Looking up he caught his long time friend watching him. The blond leader had seen most of the interaction and knew his friend was feeling pretty bad. Buck gave him a self-incriminating smile and nodded his head towards the door. Chris knew what his friend was saying. Someone needed to go in there and get the southerner and couldn’t be Buck.

Chris hesitantly walked to the door and quietly pushed it open. The dark clad man stood stock still taking in the sight in front of him, his spirits temporarily dipping. Ezra was tipping his silver flask to his lips and taking along pull. Chris understood he was going to have to put a stop to the man’s intentions but how could he condemn Ezra for doing something the he, himself, had done year after yeah after his family’s death?

Moving into the room he cleared his throat "Kinda early for that ain’t it?" Ezra put the flask up and turned to his boss, "We all got our traditions." A smart-alec smile gracing the southerner’s face.

Chris nodded his head towards the door. "C’mon they’re waiting for us," understanding filled his voice. Placing his arm around the slender man’s shoulders he noticed the shudder but didn’t remove his arm. Guiding Ezra towards the living he took note of his friend’s attempt to walk slow. "Ez, it's not an execution."

The brown haired southern gentleman stopped and turned to look at the man beside him. "I do believe Mr. Larabee that would be preferable."

Chris studied the green eyes for a moment, looking for any signs of jest. Not finding any traces of humor the man let out a slow breath and quietly divulged, "You know something Ez, I felt the same way the first Christmas."

Ezra wasn’t surprised the man felt that way after losing his family he was, however, surprised the black clad man would tell him. Chris continued, "If it becomes absolutely to much the horses could be tended to," giving Ezra a wink and a half a smile.

The two friends walked into the living room to find the others already seated. On the other side of Chris’ recliner Vin sat on a small love seat, the location closest to the door. On this side of the recliner was a couch where Josiah and Nathan were seated. Completing the square like a horseshoe seating arrangement was Buck in another recliner and beside him on the floor was J.D. Nathan scooted closer to Josiah and beckoned Ezra over.

The anxious man waved him off with a smile and a shake of his head. Instead he grabbed a dining table chair and put it between the couch and Buck’s recliner; placing it back outside of the circle. He, too, wanted to be near an exit and the kitchen door was the closest.

Once everyone was seated J.D. jumped to his feet and clapped his hands. "Time for presents!" The black haired agent was like a little kid at times, this being one of them. For J.D. it was simple, his whole family was there for the first time since they had come together as a team.

Ezra’s stomach began its roller coaster effect once more. As he watched the young agent begin passing out the gifts he closed his eyes and repeated to himself again that it was just a game, a scam, and a charade. He did this for a living, fooling people. He sometimes pretended to be someone else for weeks or months all he had to do was pretend for one day. Ezra was so deep in concentration that he jumped when he heard J.D.’s voice coming from in front of him. He looked up to find the man holding out a gift. The undercover agent slowly took hold of the wrapped box and laid in his lap. The package actually burned his hands. As he stared down at the object in his lap he ran his tongue over his lips unconsciously. He could feel his heart picking up speed and the air was getting stifling. His eyes glanced around the room and was grateful to notice the others had all received at least one gift and had began opening them.

The other six men might have appeared to be preoccupied with their presents but that was far from it. Each man watched, with guarded looks, their seventh brother with sadness and worry.

Even J.D. noticed how Ezra kept running his fingers between his neck and the ribbed loose collar of his pullover sweater as if it was too tight. The youngest brother was beginning to feel guilty for pushing his friend into coming. Maybe, the others were right Ez wasn’t ready to join them in something that required a personal investment.

Chris and Vin watched as Ezra received his second present, the first one still lay unopened. Chris thought to himself that if the man didn’t quit pulling on his sweater cuffs they were going to be dragging the floor by this afternoon.

Vin knew now that no matter how hard that first Christmas two years ago had been for him it was nothing compared to how it was affecting his friend. He was glad Nathan was there because from the looks of his friend the healer was going to be needed. Vin wasn’t too sure they weren’t going to be making a trip to hospital from the way Ezra was looking.

Ezra felt like he was going to lose it. His hands had taken on a tremor and his heart was racing. His stomach was uneasy, he was getting hot and it was getting harder to breath. Not to mention the roomed seemed to be shrinking and tilting at the same time. Oh Lawd help me.

Nathan and Josiah noticed as beads of sweat popped out on their normally cold blooded brother’s face and rolled down his cheeks like a stream. Josiah got up and headed for the kitchen thinking maybe a glass of water would help the man he loved like a son.

Josiah was past being anxious now he was downright concerned for his friend. A case of too much too soon came rushing to his mind. He had figured Ezra’s past had been more painful then the secretive man let on, including Christmas.

Nathan watched with worried anticipation as he observed Ezra’s breathing become faster and shallower and his face become pale. ‘Dang, he’s going to hyperventilate’. The healer laid aside his gifts with the intention of getting Ezra outside as quickly as possible.

At that moment J.D. handed Ezra his third gift. Buck saw it the split second it happened, panic had hit Ezra full force. As J.D. turned to return for more packages Ezra stood up and headed for the kitchen door, the need for air overwhelming. The four older friends didn’t make any sign of awareness as Ezra tried to escape.

Turning from the tree with his arms full of packages J.D. reached Nathan before noticing Ezra leaving. "Ey Ez where you going?" This simple question garnered the youngest brother a none too gentle kick from the normally passive healer, a slightly toned down glare from his leader and a none too subtle cough from his roommate. They had warned him this might happen and if it did they were going to simply ignore it.

Ezra froze. Maude’s training and years of being an undercover agent had taught the man to think on his feet at lightening speed. Turning to face his young friend with his customary smile. "It has come to the forefront of my attention that I have yet to check on Chaucer. Since the Good Lord above sought out the animals of the world and took care of their needs I would be remiss if I did no less for the creature who depends on me."

"Oh ok." J.D. accepted the explanation graciously.

Turning around to continue his escape he ran into Josiah coming back from the kitchen. The anthropologist could see the overwhelming panic in the bright green eyes that stood out against the pale white face. After doing a little dance trying to get around each other Josiah finally stepped back and allowed the brother to hastily continue his retreat.

Buck rose from his chair and went to the window. He watched as Ezra came out the kitchen door and headed for the porch steps, swaying slightly. The younger man reached the steps and grabbed onto the support post next to them. Clinging to it he leaned his head against the cool wood and breathed deeply, willing his heart to slow down and the dizziness to cease. Buck made a move to go out and check on his friend when he noticed Ezra traipsed down the steps. The mustached man watched intently as Ezra traversed across the yard and into the barn.

"He made it," Buck quietly informed the others.

Ezra opened the barn door and blinked rapidly, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness of the barn. Spotting a bale of hay almost directly across from Chaucer’s stall. He stumbled over to it and sat down heavily. Resting his arms on his knees he put his head down and let the coolness of the air and the solitude calm his nerves. He really hated Christmas.

Christmas to the undercover agent had always meant being put in places he didn’t want to be with people who didn’t want him. It didn’t matter if it was with Maude or some "relative" it was always the same. Ezra shuddered as unwanted memories flooded his mind. Tears quietly flowed down his cheeks as he relived some of the more nightmarish ones. In the twelve Christmases they had been together Maude had never actually spent Christmas with him, not in the traditional sense. On Christmas Eve she would leave Ezra alone and go to some gala. Most of Christmas day she spent sleeping or she’d spend the night with the host. Then Maude and her son would have dinner together, exchange gifts and then she would go out again.

Ezra thought about the way Maude always received his gifts. She would have a ‘why did you buy me this?’ look, then say how precious it was. Ezra never saw those presents again.

The depressed man pushed back the memories of Christmases spent with the relatives. He couldn’t handle those right now, to do so would be too crushing to what little reserve of control he had left.

As the men returned to opening their presents after Ezra’s departure a slight heaviness filled the room. Unconsciously each one laid aside the package wrapped in shimmering bright blue paper. After all the gifts had been opened and the proper sentiments had been expressed their eyes fell to the unopened presents.

"So do we open them now or wait till he comes back" J.D. questioned, fingering the ribbon tied into a perfect bow. He really hoped Ezra would in fact come back and not leave.

"Now" Chris stated, reaching for his gift.

Each man slowly unwrapped his neatly wrapped present, swearing to like it no matter what it turned out to be.

Josiah’s eyes moistened as he read the donation card. Knowing Ezra the way he thought he did, the younger brother had donated enough money to feed every child for the next three months. Josiah had come to realize the man had a very big heart; he just didn’t want anyone to find out. He softly laughed as he pulled out the auto store card. ‘Subtle Ez. Very subtle’

The books he had received astounded Nathan. The healer knew the agent had forked out some big money because he had already priced them. Even buying them used it was going to run well over a hundred dollars. The medic suddenly had a sneaking suspicion of who had placed that grant form on his desk. It wouldn’t surprise him if the wily agent hadn’t had a hand in him getting the grant.

Buck laughed as he took out the video game. The smug agent must have pulled some strings to get the desired object. He, himself, had called everywhere he could think of and the response was always the same, they were on a two-month backorder. His laughed died out as he pulled the tintype from its cotton filled box. The picture grabbed his attention immediately. He wondered where the heck this picture was taken of Chris and him and how Ezra had managed to make it appear so old. Upon further study he realized it wasn’t them but resembled the two friends a lot. The jovial man picked up the note and read it, tears sprang to his eyes. Jeez Ez, silently admonishing himself once more for his behavior towards the man. You are too, my friend. You are to. He knew the note would go into his safe along with all the others things he held valuable.

J.D. let out a low yell as he held up the two tickets and passes for the motel. He immediately felt his gift for Ezra was unsubstantial and trivial. He would go out and get his friend something really nice

Vin removed his flannel jacket and work gloves and smiled. Lord at least the man has taste. Knowing if it had been from Buck or J.D. the colors would be blinding. The longhaired agent ran his hand over the soft, warm material appreciatively. Ezra was indeed a good friend with a good heart, if they could just get past all those barriers he kept putting up.

Chris opened the lid and stared at the simple but dressy coat. The leader thought it was really beautiful, for guy clothes. He noticed the western cut and the intricate silver thread woven through out, giving the jacket a classy look. Next, he pulled the matching shirt out. Gazing at the two items he, like Vin, appreciated Ezra’s sense of style.

Josiah gaze swept across his friends, each admiring their gift. "Seems Ezra knows us better than we thought he did."

"That’s what we get for having the best undercover agent this side of the Mississippi. He’s good at observing without letting you know he doing it" Buck happily agreeing with the anthropologist.

The men started cleaning up the mess. The mustached man decided it was time to retrieve their wayward brother from the cold, both figuratively and literally.

Chris watched his friend leave the house and decided to give him five minutes to get Ezra back in the house. If he weren’t back he’d go out and help whichever one needed rescuing. Buck was a good listener and pretty good talker; Chris knew that from personal experience. On more than one occasion Buck had listened to him rant and rave, then talked to him. Giving him reasons for getting on with his life. But for some reason, more often than not, when it came to Ezra, Buck wound up using his fists to communicate. It could be that the undercover agent would antagonize the ladies man until Buck couldn’t think straight.

Buck entered the barn without Ezra noticing him. The older agent saw his friend sitting on the hay; he swore when he saw tears running down his cheeks. Stepping back against the door he opened it again then slammed it shut and coughed. Ezra jumped and began furiously wiping his face.

"Ey Ez, you in here?" moving into the barn slowly. He stopped to rub his horse, giving Ezra time to get in control.

"Right in front of you Mr. Wilmington," straightening up his appearance.

"Oh there you are. Didn’t see you there. It’s darker in here, didn’t give my eyes a chance to adjust," easily lying.

Sitting down on the bale next to Ezra Buck glanced over at his friend, the evidence of tears still lingered.

"Ez, I really liked my gift." Honesty flowed from the mustached man.

"I’m glad you liked the game." Ezra commented as he shifted slightly away.

Sighing, Buck corrected his younger brother. "I was talking about the picture…and the note." The ladies man finished softly.

Ezra thought he heard a bit of delight in the other man’s voice. "Oh. Well if you decide you don’t like it I’m sure you can return it and find something more to your liking."

"Why would I do something as stupid as that? I just told you I like it. I don’t lie you know?" Buck closed his eyes. The more time he spent with the undercover brother the more he realized as confident and cocky as he acted Ezra was really very insecure. He scooted closer to Ezra, not leaving him anymore room to move, and quite softly put his arm around his friend’s shoulders, feeling them stiffen but he didn’t remove it. It was time this brother got his message through that obstinate head of his.

"Ez" the older friend quietly began, "You, too, are a man who stands. I’m grateful to not only have you as a member of this team but to have you as a friend. I know I wasn’t a very good one and I am truly sorry for that. I’m glad you came today and not for J.D….but for me." Buck didn’t expect a response. Ezra, for all his use of twenty dollars there some words that he just didn’t use. Like friend, trust and love.


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