Something Wicked

by Mary K

"How are you going to explain finding him, Ez?" JD spoke up over the spluttering of Josiah and the vehemently cursing Chris. Nathan for his part had simply closed his eyes and appeared to be praying for patience while Buck took one look at Chris’s face and started laughing.

Choosing to ignore the actions of the rest of the team, Ezra focused on answering JD. "That Mister Dunne, is the easy part. Do not most libraries have public internet access now. An e-mail account and the right mailing list, and one can find out almost anything they want to know. Is that not how you determined our present location?"

"Utilizing the element of surprise, as I am sure Mister Knight most likely believes that we are either dead or in an institute somewhere, I should be able to discover what he did to us and hopefully how to reverse it. And then, there is always the fact that at one time he wished to recruit me to his "cause" so to speak. That is of course another card to play in our current game with him. Once we know what we’re dealing with, he’ll get to find out if he can defeat seven of a kind." Ezra’s voice had gotten softer as he spoke and was almost a whisper when he finished, but it held a hint of rage that the other’s had never heard before from their always controlled friend.

The unusual tone of voice caught the attention of the members of the team who were in various stages of recovering from the near apoplexy Ezra excelled at instigating in them.

"Hey, Ez, talk to me. " Vin asked in a barely audible tone, wondering what had brought out a side of his friend that he had never seen before. As soon as Vin’s voice registered, the other’s could see Ezra’s poker face fall back into place. "Nah, Ez. Don’t want ta see your mask, I want ta see you. What is it?"

"He threatened you. He tried to steal my family away from me. How many others has he done this to? How many families have been destroyed because someone was offered a deal that seemed too good to be true only to discover they had forfeited their soul, and how long has it been going on? If he can change our ages, who is to say he can’t change his own. How many children have been left behind wondering what happened to their mother or father? How many lives has that bastard destroyed to feed his hunger for pain and misery? It can’t be allowed to continue. I won’t let it." Looking up at his friends, Ezra’s control slipped and his eyes clearly showed the fury that was barely evident in his voice.

"We won’t let it." Chris’s hard voice interrupted Ezra’s. Chris locked eyes with his undercover agent. "We do this together." Ezra’s quick, jerky nod was the only acknowledgement he received but he saw the fury gradually fade and knew that Ezra was once more in control.

"As much as I hate to admit it, I think you’re probably right about the best way to approach Knight, but you are both going to be wired and we are going to be close by."

"Mister Larabee, …"

"Those are your choices, Ezra." Chris interrupted what he was sure was going to be an objection to one if not all of the requirements he had stated. "Take it or leave it. You are not going in alone, we are going to be able to monitor you, and we will be close enough to step in if something happens."

Deciding to try another tactic and hoping to at least manage to convince Vin to let him deal with Knight on his own, Ezra turned toward Vin, "Mister Tanner…"

"Don’t even try it, Ez. You ain’t going by yourself."

"It's my fault you are in this situation to being with. Don’t you realize that? He only wanted me."

"All the more reason, son, that it would be a very bad idea for you to approach him on your own." The deep voice indicating that Josiah had decided to join the conversation.

Ezra grudgingly gave in, and the team began planning.

The next evening found Team 7 anxiously awaiting the closing of the carnival. Ezra and Vin sat together, talking quietly and seemingly ignoring the concerned looks that were aimed in their direction. Even knowing that their current appearance was contrived, the other five were finding it extremely difficult not to give in to the desire to shove the two "boys" into the bath tub, scrub them within an inch of their lives and then stuff them with as much food as they could hold.

Ezra and Vin had "borrowed" sweat pants and t-shirts from Buck and Chris and had disappeared into the bathroom. Their reappearance half and hour later prompted cries of horror from JD and Nathan, cursing from Josiah and Chris and an open mouthed stare from Buck. The two boys standing in the middle of the room were dirty and disheveled, with hollow eyes, sunken cheeks and over large and tattered clothes that made them seem appear even smaller than they were. Anyone looking at them would think they hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks and that it had been even longer since they had a decent night’s sleep. Faint bruises could be seen on their arms and legs, and the wary and haunted look in their eyes cut into the hearts of the five men staring at them aghast.

"Well, gentlemen, may I assume from your reactions that we have achieved the desired effect?" Ezra’s question was met by silence.

"Hey, guys, come on say something. Cowboy, ya alright." Vin walked over toward Chris and looked up at him in concern. "Ya know it ain’t real."

"Yeah, but, damn. You go out looking like that and anyone with any feelings at all is going to be trying to help you. Hell, even knowing it's fake, I …" Nathan’s voice trailed off.

"You would be surprised, Mister Jackson, at just what people are able to ignore if they do not feel it would be to their advantage to take notice of it." Ezra’s voice carried a note of bitter experience and Vin nodded his agreement. Looking over at Vin, Ezra walked over to a small couch in the corner of the room before saying, "While we wait for sufficient darkness, shall we review our plan, Mister Tanner?"

"Alright, Ez." Vin joined his friend on the couch before looking up at the other five who were following their movements with their eyes and still appeared dumbstruck. Vin raised his voice, "Hey, you guys might wanna snap out of it afore we actually have ta do anything."

Prompting the other’s to forcibly tear their eyes away from the two boys and return to their interrupted planning. Buck, JD, Josiah, and Nathan returned to the carnival playing the same roles they had the previous evening.

Ezra and Vin entered the carnival by the simply joining a large group of children and slipping in unnoticed by any of the adults who were trying in vain to maintain some semblance of order within the group.

Chris entered the carnival on his own and quickly drew the attention of Knight -- his barely controlled rage floated just beneath the surface and apparently acted as a lure to the carnival’s proprietor who followed the black clad man obviously trying to figure out how to approach him. After over an hour, Chris’s refusal to even acknowledge his presence forced a reluctant Knight into a retreat as he considered what temptation would be necessary to bring him such a prize. With Knight’s attention focused on Chris, the rest of the team were all able to get into position and reach the hiding places where they would wait out the closing of the carnival and prepare for the coming confrontation.

Knight, preoccupied with the closing of the carnival for the night, lost track of Chris who took advantage of the shadows, his Seal training, and his habitual dark clothing to melt into the shadows and make his way to his position. Activating the surveillance equipment that was made to look like an ordinary cell phone equipped with an ear piece, he quietly waited for the check in that would tell him all of his men were safe and in position. Ezra and Vin had both agreed that the carousel was some how related to what had happened to them and appeared to be the center of the carnival. They were waiting for Knight hidden on the ride itself while the other five were strategically placed around it ready to close in when they were needed.

Knight approached the carousel cursing under his breath. The man in black had fairly radiated anger, his fury an almost tangible thing. Damn, he had lost Eric, who radiated self-doubt and fear of failure in equal measure, and now he had lost the man in black who had appeared to be just as promising. He was drawn to both of the figures not just because of the anger and pain that seemed to almost encompass them, but because there was underneath all of that a loyalty and sense of honor that was staggering. It was always more fun and more rewarding to corrupt the "incorruptible" than it was to simply reach forth and take one of the multitude that were ready to hand themselves over to him without even a token resistance. He thrived on challenges, and they had been few and far between lately. Pondering his next move, he was startled by a soft voice coming from the carousel,

"Mister Knight. I believe we have some unfinished business to conduct, sir."

He spun toward the voice and was shocked at the site in front of him. There were two boys who looked like they had been dragged through the pits of hell and back again standing side by side next to one of the carousel horses. Stepping closer, he locked eyes with the children and was shocked when he recognized the deep green eyes and piercing blue eyes that gazed back at him.

His eyes widened slightly, but he showed no other sign of surprise as he realized just how much he had underestimated the two in front of him.

"Indeed, boys, and just what is it that you believe we have to discuss that would lead you to be here, when the carnival is closed and you should be home in bed?" Knight stepped closer and smiled slightly at the barely perceptible flinch that his comment about home had triggered.

"Well, sir," began Ezra, "we would indeed prefer to be home in our own beds. But, that is rather difficult to do when you are unable to convince anyone of your actual identity because of the loss of something that was stolen from you."

"And what is it that you have lost? Perhaps we might make a deal, if the price is right." Knight reveled in the power he once again held over his prize and seeing the anger that flashed in the blue eyes considered the possibility of adding two instead of one to his collection.

Vin left the talking to Ezra, knowing that the team was listening in, and focused all of his attention on the man in front of him. He trusted Ezra to be able to hold is own in the battle of words and wits that was taking place, but in the dim light, he didn’t trust Knight not to try something and the other’s while close where not quite close enough if the man decided to stop talking and act. Given what he had done to them before and the fact that he apparently wanted Ezra, Vin didn’t even want to consider why, he was not going to allow anything to happen to his friend.

"Approximately twenty years a piece, sir, is what we have lost. As you are the author of our current misfortune, we are here to demand restitution." Ezra’s tone reeked with contempt that was made all the more obvious by the excruciatingly polite phrasing he continued to use.

Vin and Ezra were both wearing earpieces that were hidden by the shadows and it required all of Vin’s control not to start laughing at Chris’s hissed comment, "Shit, Ezra, what the hell happened to tact and diplomacy?"

"And just what makes you believe that you are in any position to demand anything?" Knight said, stepping forward to look at the two small figures. His smile grew wider as he looked at the two boys who glared at him, anger and hatred showing clearly upon their faces. "But, perhaps, a small demonstration would be in order. After all, you are not a great deal of use to me in your current states."

As Knight walked toward them, Ezra and Vin held their ground and refused to yield or show any weakness despite the overwhelming aura of evil that seemed to envelope him completely. Fighting the impulse to step away from the stench of despair, misery and death that he carried with him, they wondered how they had missed it before. Perhaps, Vin thought, it was only evident when the man chose to demonstrate his power.

Abruptly changing his direction, he stepped away from them and approached the controls of the carousel and started the calliope. "I don’t suppose either of recognize the tune playing, now do you?" Looking up at them with a sinister smile on his face, his voice dropped until they were barely able to hear it. "You see, it’s a song that is only played on special occasions."

Ezra listening carefully finally realized what he was hearing. "It’s the Funeral March." His mind raced at the possibilities, and his eyes widened as the carousel began to move. Widening his stance, he braced himself and reached out toward Vin who echoed his movements. Holding onto each other’s shoulders, they were able to maintain their footing as an eerie glow rose up around them, and the platform began moving faster. Holding fast to each other, they knew almost instinctively that they did not want to be touching any part of the glowing structure with their bare flesh, if they could avoid it.

Vin ruefully acknowledged that they were going to have to thank Nathan for insisting they wear the oversized shoes that they had on. The original plan had involved them going barefoot, and Nathan had nearly had a seizure. He began fuming about tetanus and nails and the complete and utter disregard the two idiots had for their health. Desperate to halt the EMT’s ranting and knowing that if they didn’t agree, the next time they were hurt they would pay for it, Ezra and Vin had reluctantly conceded defeat something they were now grateful for.

Vin knew that whatever was happening would provide the answers they needed and was whispering almost frantically.

"Wait for the signal. Keep to the plan."

As the carousel slowed and stopped Ezra and Vin looking at each other realized that they now appeared to be in their early teens.

"Of course," Ezra whispered. His eyes narrowing as he considered what had happened before continuing, "The Funeral March, forward takes you toward the grave. Backwards takes you away from it. A year, perhaps, for each revolution."

Bringing his head up, he looked toward the movement he detected as Knight approached them. "You gave us a ride on your carousel running it backwards, how many revolutions, sir, twenty, twenty-five? You just returned a few of the stolen years. What price is to be paid for the rest of them?"

"Very clever, boys." Knight walked in a full circle around them gradually getting closer before stopping behind them. Vin and Ezra forced themselves not to turn and were busy hoping that he wouldn’t notice the small earpieces they wore.

He came to a halt standing behind them and dropped a hand on each of their shoulders before leaning forward speaking softly and menacingly, "What price, why what else but your very souls. Your complete and total loyalty to me – no longer to each other. I think you would both make admirable lieutenants, clever and quick. So full of anger and hate, how long I wonder before that is joined with despair and desperation." Knight nodded and continued speaking as much to himself as to Ezra and Vin, "Yes, I think I will keep you both. You will be mine for as long as I choose to keep you. Then, if I am pleased with your service, perhaps I will return those "lost" years to you."

Ezra and Vin unable to stand anymore of the man’s touch stepped forward as one and spun to face their tormentor.

"What makes you think we’ll agree ta serve ya. There ain’t no way we’re gonna become your slaves. Our souls are our own and worth one hell of a lot more than you’re offering."

"Indeed, Mister Knight, I wonder how you have remained successful if that is the best you can do. You cannot command loyalty. The longer you keep us, the longer you will have to watch your back.

"I will settle for obedience for now." Knight’s voice hardened as he looked at the two who continued to defy him. "Loyalty will come in time. After all, it’s not as if you have any real choice but to accept my "bargain". As you said earlier, given your current appearance, no one will believe your mad tales."

Ezra took a step forward and sent a heart-felt prayer winging upward. He wanted Vin safe and back to normal, and for once he included himself in his prayers, he wanted his life back; he wanted his brothers back. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Knight and said

"You, above all people, should realize how deceptive appearances can be. We never said we were alone."

At Ezra finished speaking, the carousel suddenly lurched forward and the calliope once more sang in the night. Josiah had realized as Ezra had the power that was contained in the carousel and acting on his own initiative had decided to do what he could to return the lost years to his brothers. Ezra and Vin hearing the whispered change of plans knew that the rest of the team would be adjusting their positions to accommodate this new development. Originally, Josiah was supposed to cover Knight’s retreat, but as the closest one to the carousel’s controls when he realized the power of the seemingly innocent ride, he had whispered his plan to the others and put it into action.

Ezra and Vin knew that the team would be ready to act as soon as the ride stopped. Counting on Josiah to keep close count of the number of times they rode the carousel around, they focused all of their attention on staying out of reach of carnival’s maddened proprietor who was trying to reach the only current outlet he had for his fury.

Knight seemed to place the blame for his current predicament solely on Ezra, and focused most of his attention on the Southerner who upon realizing this concentrated on keeping himself between Vin and Knight. Vin, who had realized the same thing, was trying just as hard to get past Ezra so that he would be between Knight and his friend. The end result had the rest of the seven chuckling despite the seriousness of the situation. It looked like Vin and Ezra were performing some sort of bizarre dance with each other. They each fought to maintain their footing on the moving surface while at the same time trying to shield the other from any harm from the crazed man who was chasing them.

Cursing as he lost his footing, Ezra went down and Vin lost his hold on his friend when he was thrown forward as Ezra inadvertently tackled him. Rolling forward, Vin regained his footing and hearing the shouts of his teammates on the far side of the ride turned quickly to see Ezra on his back fighting one handedly against Knight. Running toward the confrontation that was taking place, Vin realized that Ezra’s other hand appeared bonded to the carousel horse he had grabbed in an attempt to stop his fall. Seeing Knight’s hands close around Ezra’s throat, Vin launched himself at the pair and his momentum tore Ezra loose and carried all three of them over the side and off of the ride.

Despite being the one farthest from them, Chris was the first to reach the downed men. Following the straight-line principle and ignoring the fact that the still faintly glowing carousel was in his way, he leapt onto the still slowly moving platform and crossed it in a dead run. Seeing Ezra and Vin on the ground and a shaky Knight climbing to his feet, Chris didn’t hesitate in laying the man out with one solid punch to the jaw before falling to his knees beside his friends.

The other four men reached the trio on the ground almost simultaneously and helped Chris to cautiously rolled Ezra and Vin onto their backs. The strong pulses and adult features drew deep sighs of relief and the movement seemed to revive the two men who looked up dazedly into the worried eyes of their brothers.

"Did it work, cowboy?" Vin’s soft question prompted a quick evaluation of the apparent ages of the two on the ground.

"I think Brother Ezra could have used a couple more revolutions. He looks a bit younger than Vin now,"

Ezra came wide awake at that comment, "What, Josiah, are you serious."

"It’s not enough to worry about, pard." Buck interrupted. "At least you’re both adults again, and you don’t actually look any younger than JD, here."

The twin horrified looks that met this comment from Buck prompted relieved laughter from Josiah and Chris, while JD looked insulted, and Nathan attempted to stop his patients from going into shock.

"Calm down, you two. You should know better than to listen to him when he gets started. He’s just being Buck." Nathan paused and examined both men carefully, "Ez, you look a little younger than you used too, and right now you do actually look a year or so younger than Vin. But once the two of you aren’t pale as ghosts and thin as rails, it’ll be hardly noticeable."

Smiling down at the two men that seemed pathologically incapable of staying out of trouble, Nathan had to admit to himself that he was actually looking forward to the upcoming battle of wills that would occur during their recuperation. Damned if he hadn’t missed the sheer pigheadedness with which the adult versions of Vin and Ezra attempted to find ways around any and all medical restrictions placed upon them.

Once Ezra and Vin were on their feet, they turned toward each other. Vin grinned as he took in Ezra’s appearance. "That outfit ain’t quite up to your usual standards, Ez." Ezra looked down at the tattered clothing realizing that the oversized clothes he had been wearing now barely fit and appeared to contain more holes than cloth.

"I might say the same about you, Mister Tanner, but we both know it wouldn’t be true." Ezra smiled at the insulted look that crossed Vin’s face before swallowing hard and yielding to the impulse to pull his friend into a hug. Holding Vin close, Ezra whispered, "Thank you, Vin. For everything."

Receiving a whispered, "Same to you, Pard. Same to you." in return before the others crowded around their two brothers and the bonds that held the unique family together were reforged even stronger than before.

Chris breaking away from the group turned to face Knight who was struggling to his feet. Meeting Josiah’s eyes, the two men nodded as they came to the same decision, and Chris dragged the struggling man over to the carousel throwing him onto the platform. Watching closely, understanding dawned as Buck, JD, Nathan, Ezra and Vin saw Chris handcuff Knight to one of the supports while Josiah returned to the carousel’s controls.

"You dare not do this." Knight looked out at the denizens of the carnival who had gathered just outside the circle of light surrounding the carousel.

"Help me, I command you." Fury and fear taking hold as he fought against the bindings holding him in place when no one but Chris stepped forward to face him.

"No one threatens my family and gets away with it. Here’s two lessons to take to hell with you." Chris’ voice was a low hiss, "Lesson 1: Never threaten one of mine. Lesson 2: Fear only buys you obedience, not loyalty."

Chris leaped lightly down from the platform and nodded to Josiah whose voice rang out once again from the carousel controls,

"You reap what you sow, and I believe it is time for you to see the true fruits of your harvest."

As he finished speaking, he threw his full weight against the controls.

Ignoring Knight’s threats and promises as the carousel picked up speed, Josiah and Chris turned and walked toward their brothers.

Knight’s voice gained volume in one final plea, "I can give you everything, anything you want, all that you desire."

Helping a shaky Ezra and Vin to remain standing, the reunited family turned toward their tempter before JD answered for all of them, "We already have it."

Stepping back from the glowing carousel, the team watched, with a combination of satisfaction and horrified fascination as time finally caught up with the carnival’s proprietor waiting until the carousel slowed to a stop, the glow fading with its movement. Stepping closer to the pile of clothing and the empty handcuffs, Team 7 stared in stunned amazement as the dust that was all that remained of Knight was caught by a gust of wind, swirled once in the faint light and vanished. Shaking their heads, they returned their gazes to the now quiet and dark carousel.

As the members of the carnival melted into the shadows to pick up the remnants of their lives or to start them anew, Team 7 stared at the carousel, and each of them pondered the choice that lay before them.

Josiah stared at it and wondered what harm could there be in riding it just a few years back. JD echoed Josiah’s thoughts and considered riding it a few years forward.

Nathan stood spell bound and staring at the looming figure in front of him, keen to unwrap its mysteries. What else might it be capable of, what cures could be wrought and what lives could be saved.

Ezra and Vin glanced at each other and as one turned away. They no longer had any desire to gaze upon the source of so much pain and as the only ones who had fallen to its lure – albeit unwillingly – they were the only ones who truly realized the seductive nature of its call. A year here and a year there, granting favors for select friends, staying young forever, and then before you knew it, before you even realized it had happened, you would have your own carnival to run.

Chris, for his part, robbed of his true target glared his hate at the object that had been used to try to steal his new family from him.

Buck glanced from one to the other of his friends and with an insight that was seldom acknowledged nodded to himself as he realized where the other’s thoughts were taking them. Buck lived in the moment, and while it certainly could not be said that he did not have regrets or secret desires, (He still hoped to find the kind of love Chris had known with Sarah and was unwilling to settle for less than they had had.) he knew that what he desired couldn’t be acquired by magic or trickery but rather by hard work and by clinging tight to the possibility of dreams. His mother had taught him that, just as she had taught him how to love life.

Holding fast to her teachings, he realized the carousel held no lure for him, and his movement broke the spell that had taken hold of the others. Walking toward the carousel and across its expanse, he reached the center and picked up a large can of the oil that was used to keep the machinery running smoothly. Returning to his place at Chris’s side, he glanced up at his friends, at his family, and noticing that Vin and Ezra had turned back to see what he had planned looked directly at them, smiled slightly and said,

"We aren’t gonna end up running a carnival."

Allowing his words to sink in, he dumped the oil and watched as it began to spread. Turning to Chris he held out his hand and taking a cigar from his friend, he lit it and threw it into the middle of the pool of oil watching in satisfaction as the flames spread.

Chris smiled slightly at Buck before looking at the others.

"I remember reading somewhere that fire is supposed to purify things. I think we should leave it to do its work. It's time to go home."

Turning his back on the flames, he began walking away. His smile grew as he heard six other sets of footsteps join him, and he knew without even looking that they had fallen into the flying wedge formation that was now second nature to them. His family was once again whole.

Ezra and Vin’s miraculous return was ascribed to having been held prisoner by Knight as he tried to force them to tell him what they knew about the investigation. The FBI agent in charge of the case was suspended pending an investigation on charges of endangering a fellow agent and incompetence.

The loose ends tied up, after a thorough check up by Doctor Murray, Ezra and Vin were allowed to return to work. Their unexpected appearance at the Federal Building led to an impromptu welcome back party that Buck swore ended up including everyone in the building at one time or another. Everyone from the janitors to the Assistant Directors showed up on Team 7’s floor. Most didn’t even bother with an excuse for their visit and most brought food or presents for the two men. Team 8 and Judge Travis had shown up within five minutes of Team 7’s arrival and stayed the entire day watching in amusement with the rest of Team 7 as Ezra and Vin sat in stunned amazement stammering their thanks at the parade of visitors. The two men could barely be seen as their desks were surrounded by flowers, balloons, food, stuffed animals, and people. The return of two of their own who had been thought lost was more than enough reason to celebrate, but the fact that the "Magnificent 7" had once again beaten the odds and were again complete had triggered an outpouring of relief and rejoicing that was unprecedented. At the end of the day, most of the gifts, with a few rare exceptions, were donated to the Denver Children’s Hospital; and Team 7, Team 8 and the Judge had moved the party to the saloon to see Inez and where they were joined by Mary, Evie, Nettie, and Casey.

On desk duty until they fully recovered, after the first couple of days in which it was debatable as to whether anyone in the building managed to get anything done, Chris finally began banning visitors. While he appreciated the sentiments, his two agents were beginning to look a bit shell-shocked and Vin in particular had taken to hiding whenever anyone came into the office. Both men were highly private individuals and were unused to being the center of so much attention. With this reprieve, Ezra and Vin were able to begin tackling the enormous piles of paperwork that had accumulated during their "absence", and things slowly began returning to normal.

Aaron and Victor Simpson were listed as having been placed in the Witness Protection Program and the appropriate paperwork was completed to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who might look for the boys. An anonymous donation was made to Saint Vincents the same week that Jo, Sheriff Matthew, and Doctor Davis received letters from Judge Orrin Travis thanking them for the assistance and care they had given the boys and reassuring them that Eric and Vic were safe and happy.

That weekend Team 7 had a celebratory dinner at the ranch with Mary, Billy, Inez, Judge Travis, Evie, Casey and Miss Nettie in attendance. It was late afternoon, when Billy cautiously approached Vin and Ezra who were still almost inseparable.

"Hi, Mister Ezra, Mister Vin. I’m glad you’re back OK."

"Hey Billy, it's good ta see ya again."

"Indeed, Master Travis, and thank you for your welcome."

Both men fell silent as they watched Billy fidget and stare at the ground while drawing in the dirt with one foot. They realized Billy was obviously trying to figure out how to ask them something, and Ezra reached out with a gentle hand and raised the boy’s chin till he was looking him in the eye.

"Billy, what is it?"

Looking around cautiously, Billy made sure no one else was close enough to hear before looking straight at Ezra and Vin and saying,

"We never did get to finish the fight at the Alamo."

Struck speechless, for once Ezra’s poker face failed him and he stared at the boy in front of him before looking over at Vin who had a similar look of surprise and shock on his face. Billy nodded to himself taking their reactions as confirmation of what he had guessed shortly after meeting Aaron and Vic and finding out they were staying with Chris.

"Aaron and Vic? It's not nearly as much fun at school without you guys there."

"Billy, how’d ya know?"

"I figured it out real early. No one else talks and acts like you two and you were staying with Chris. Who else could you be?"

Billy paused before continuing in a whisper looking down at the ground,

"I missed you, but I miss Ron and Vic, too." He looked back up at the two men in front of him and said wistfully "It would have been fun to have you as friends." Before he turned and started walking away.

Ezra and Vin exchanged glances,

"Billy," Ezra called softly waiting for the boy to turn around. "Thank you."

Vin and Ezra stood as one and walked toward Billy.

"We’d be mighty proud to have you as a friend, Billy."

Billy’s smile was blinding as he reached out and took the hands that were extended toward him.

"Now Colonel Travis, I believe we have a battle to fight."

About half and hour later, Chris realized that Vin and Ezra were missing at the same time that Judge Travis realized Billy was no where in site. Joining forces the two men went in search of the missing members of the party and were led into the woods by the sound of voices coming from a clearing containing a large tree that had the remnants of an old tree house in its branches. While the tree house predated even Chris’s time at the ranch, the floor was still sound, and Chris had toyed with the idea of restoring it once Adam was old enough, but he had never had the opportunity. Glancing at the Judge, the two men crept forward and looked into the clearing only to stop in their tracks at the site of Billy leading Vin and Ezra in a valiant fight against an imaginary enemy. Smiling and fighting the laughter that threatened upon hearing Standish shout something to "Colonel Travis", the Judge glanced over at Chris and they cautiously retreated leaving the three friends to finish their game.


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