One Big Happy Family?

By Purple Lacey

Alternate Universe: One Big Happy Family

Chapter 12

Ezra watched his nephew approach him as he leaned against the door post of the horse barn, recalling the phone conversation he'd had with Mary the previous night. As Buck had overheard, she had indeed asked Ezra to bar Vin from the horses for a week in punishment for his skipping out of his lesson, but Ezra had not agree with her solution and had informed her so.

"I agree that he needs to keep up with his lessons, Mary, but I don't agree with your methods. If I refused to let him help with the horses I'd be striking a serious blow to his trust in me. That boy trusts me not to hurt him, and keeping him away from the horse barns would hurt him rather badly. That child has already had way too much pain in his life, and I refuse to inflict any more if I can possibly avoid it. With the loss of Eileen and Cody still so raw he needs whatever comfort and joy he can find, and I will not take that away from him," Ezra said firmly leaving no doubt that he meant every word he spoke.

Mary sighed on the other end of the phone. "I don't want to hurt him either, Ezra, but he needs to learn. To learn, he needs to be in the classroom."

"Perhaps that's part of the problem, my dear," Ezra mused. "Vin is a creature of the outdoors. He hates being cooped up inside. Perhaps you'd find him more responsive if you could move your classroom outdoors when the weather permits."

"I don't have a problem with than, Ezra, but to have a class outside you still need your pupil to show up. I don't know how to keep him from taking off whenever he feels like it, short of locking him inside his room!"

"Given the fact that his birth parents thought it necessary to teach him to pick locks, I doubt very seriously if that would solve the problem," Ezra said dryly.

"Do you have a better idea then? Because I'm fresh out."

"Actually, I might at that," Ezra mused. "Why don't you let me talk to him tomorrow? I may have a way to get through to him."

"Alright, Ezra. You give it a try, but if it doesn't work we're going to have to take drastic measures," Mary warned.

"Trust me, my dear."

Ezra roused from his musing as Vin stopped by his side and glanced at his uncle with a mixture of despair and rebellion on his face.

"Aunt Mary said you wanted to talk to me, Uncle Ez," Vin said.

Ezra's heart clinched to see that sorrowful look on the boy's face and hurried to remove it.

"Why the long face this morning?"

"You're going to tell me I can't come work with the horses for a week," Vin muttered.

"Why would you think I'd do that, Vin?"

"Because Buck heard Aunt Mary tell Nettie she was going to ask you to because I left before my lessons yesterday."

"Do you trust me, Vin?" he asked.

Vin nodded reluctantly keeping his eyes on his shoes. Ezra lifted the young chin until blue eyes met green.

"I would never deliberately do anything to hurt you, Vin. You know that don't you?"

Another silent nod was his only answer.

"So why would you believe I'd hurt you by forbidding you to help with the stock?"

Vin's eyes widened in surprise as he took in his uncle's words.

"I, more than anyone, know exactly how you feel about the horses, Vin. I know what it would do to you to be away from them for a week. There may come a time when it becomes necessary to bar you from the barn, but you will have had to do something a lot worse than play hooky for me to do it."

Ezra watched as the tension Vin had been feeling left his body in a rush of relief.

"I still believe you need to attend your lessons, but I don't believe this would be the proper punishment, do you understand?"

"Sure, Uncle Ez," Vin was all smiles now.

"Good. I'm glad we understand each other. Well, now that that's out of the way, I have a surprise for you, Vin," Ezra said. "Come with me."

Ezra led the boy to the back of a large pickup truck. "It's there in the bed of the truck."

Vin started to climb up on the bumper of the truck to peer over the tailgate when Ezra stopped him.

"No, you can't touch the truck. Just tell me what you see, Vin," Ezra said with a serious look.

"I can't," Vin replied in confusion.

"Why not?"

"I can't see over the sides."

"Why not, Vin?"

"I'm too little."

"But I can see into the truck just fine, Vin. Why is that?"

"Because you're bigger than me."

"Exactly, Vin. I'm an adult, and I have a larger range of vision because I'm bigger than you. You are a child, and see things with a more limited vision because you're smaller." Ezra paused and looked at Vin with one eyebrow raised slightly then continued, "Do you agree that as an adult I am able to see things you can't yet?"

Vin was still confused as to exactly where this conversation was leading, but nodded his head in agreement.

"You can't just keep skipping out of your lessons because you don't see the need for them, Vin. You're still looking at your schooling with a child's eyes. You can't see what you'll need in the future, just like you couldn't see over the sides of this truck, because you're still too little.

Your Aunt Mary is an adult, too, Vin, and she can also see things that you can't. She sees the skills and knowledge you are going to need when you get older. That's why you have to trust Mary to teach you what you will need to know to prepare you for the rest of your life.

Your birth parents tried to teach you what you would need to know to survive in the wilderness. Your Aunt Mary is trying to teach you what you're going to need know to survive in the world beyond the borders of this ranch. Do you see what I'm trying to tell you, Vin?" Ezra finished, watching Vin carefully.

Vin's face was scrunched up in concentration as he sifted through all Ezra had said. Ezra stood waiting silently as the child processed this new information. Finally the little face cleared and Vin turned his blue eyes to his uncle and nodded.

"I understand, Uncle Ez. Just because I don't think I need to know what she's telling me now, doesn't mean I won't need it later, right? That's why I need to go to my lessons."

"Very good, Vin. That's exactly what I'm saying. So, please, give your Aunt Mary a chance, alright?" Ezra smiled down at the boy and dropped his hand to the boy's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze then let go. "Can you do that for me?"

"I'll try, Uncle Ez."

"Good. That's all I ask," Ezra ruffled the blond hair and smiled. He reached over to the pickup truck and released the catch on the tailgate, letting it down and allowing Vin a glimpse of what was laying on the truck bed.

"A saddle!" Vin grinned.

"Not just any saddle, Vin," Ezra grinned, "your saddle."

"Mine! You really mean it, Uncle Ez? It's really mine?" Vin squealed in delight.

"Absolutely. See? It even has your name on it."

Vin threw his arms around Ezra and squeezed as hard as he could.

"Thanks, Uncle Ez!"

"My pleasure, Vin. Would you like to go try it out?"

Ezra laughed at Vin's enthusiastic whoop, and hoisted the saddle from the truck. "Lead on, McDuff," he said playfully, and the two started back into the horse barn while Vin tried to decide which horse he wanted to try his new saddle out on first.

Chapter 13

"Broke²!" JD wailed. It's broke, Ms. Nettie."

Nettie rolled her eyes at JD's theatrics. "JD it's just an egg yolk. It's gonna break when you eat it anyway," she said in exasperation.

"But I don't like 'em broke, Ms. Nettie. They run all over the plate and make my toast all soggy. It's yucky!" JD screwed up his face in disgust.

"Here, JD," Josiah said with a smile, "You can have mine and I'll eat those."

"But yours are scrambled," JD moaned. "They're all slimy. That's yucky too!"

"That's nothing, JD. When I was little we lived in this village in the Philippines where the villagers used to take these great big bugs, like HUGE cockroaches, and…."

Josiah proceeded to regale them with a detailed description of food preparation in the backwater village, stopping every other sentence to take a bite of his breakfast. Fascinated, JD began eating his own breakfast, completely forgetting his earlier protests.

Nettie turned slightly green at the tale Josiah was spinning, but JD was completely ensnared, taking in the story with a relish of the disgusting that only a five year old boy can muster. He was so lost in the tale that he finished everything on his plate without further complaint and continued to sit enthralled as Josiah finished his own breakfast and gave Nettie a surreptitious wink when she removed JD's empty plate. Nettie stifled a laugh and turned back to the dishes waiting to be washed in the sink.

"That boy has more insight into his little brothers than a boy his age should have," Nettie thought to herself, "but sometimes he can be a real lifesaver. Score another round to Josiah!"

² You didn't honestly think I could let this one slide by after the first one, did you? <BG>

Chapter 14

Chris Larabee rode his black gelding, Diablo, into the barnyard of The Four Aces Ranch and sat on his horse waiting for the greeting he knew was coming. To his right, an even bigger black horse trotted happily beside his horse.

"Well I see we have visitors… again," Ezra's voice drawled from the doorway of the barn."

"Standish, I'm really getting tired of having to drag your horse's sorry butt back here every other day. If you can't control him, why don't you just shoot him and put him out of my misery."

"Uncle Chris!" Vin's shocked voice reached the man on horseback causing him to glare at the now smirking horse rancher.

"Don't worry, Vin. I've been threatening to shoot your Uncle Ezra for years and he's still walking around," Chris assured the boy, "I think the horse is safe for while." Chris gave a wink and threw the boy a smile which he returned. "Why don't you go put him away, Vin. I think he's had enough adventure for one day."

Vin approached the horse who happily lowered his head to allow the boy to scratch between his ears. Vin patted the long neck a few times then turned to re-enter the barn with the black horse now contentedly following behind.

Both men waited until boy and horse were out of sight before continuing their conversation. When Cody and Eileen had first adopted Buck and JD they had made it abundantly clear to the two feuding men that they would not allow their children to be exposed to the kind of hostility the men threw at each other at every opportunity. Cody had threatened them with bodily injury and Eileen had threatened to cut off their contact with their new nephews if they didn't call a truce when the children were present. For the last three years the men had both gotten into the habit of maintaining that truce whenever any of the boys was around.

"I don't know what kind of unnatural feelings that beast has for my horse, but I can tell you right now I don't like it," Chris growled.

"Come now, Errant Ranger, simply goes to his friend Diablo to commiserate with him on having to deal with you on a daily basis." Ezra drawled.

Everyone on both ranches had been amused by the fact that Ezra's horse, Errant Ranger, lived up to his name by constantly escaping his keepers and heading for the Lazy L ranch at every opportunity. The horse seemed to feel the grass really was greener on the Lazy L side of the fence, and he appeared to enjoy the company of Chris' horse, Diablo, as well. It was a proven fact that no matter where Diablo was on the Larabee ranch, Errant Ranger could find him. Chris was well used to hearing the thundering sound of hooves approaching him out on the range, and seeing the lustrous black coat of the animal approaching on the horizon.

Although Chris hid it well, he actually had a soft spot for the incorrigible equine ever since the day the horse had helped saved his life. Chris had been out alone rounding up some strays before a severe winter storm was supposed to hit the area when Diablo had stepped into a hidden gopher hole and gone down hard, throwing Chris over his horse's head. He landed badly and hit his head on a rock, knocking him out cold.

When Chris had failed to return before dark, the Lazy L ranch hands had begun searching and Mary had phoned Ezra for assistance. Ezra had immediately mustered his own ranch hands to join the search.

Remembering that Mary had informed him that neither Chris nor Diablo had returned home, Ezra had come up with the idea of letting Ranger loose to see if he could find Diablo, hoping the horse might still be with his master. Ezra had followed on his own mount, Gambler's Luck, and Ranger had led him straight to the lost man and horse. Ezra had then been able to use his cell phone to alert Nathan and the other rescuers to the location of the injured man.

Chris had been out of commission for a week with a concussion, but thanks to Ezra and Ranger, had escaped the hypothermia that would have been his fate if he had been left out in the winter storm. Ezra had received a grumbled, but sincere, thank you from Chris who had also presented Ranger with bag of peppermint candy and another of carrots for his part in the rescue.

That act had been the first stitch taken to mend their once deep friendship; a friendship that had been broken by misunderstandings, angry words and hurtful fists when they were only teenagers. The next stitch occurred over a year later when Chris was able to return the favor.

Inez had phoned Mary in hysterical tears when Ezra had disappeared from their home three weeks after the death of little Eleanor. Ezra's disappearance was nothing new as he had been seeking solitude for most of the days since the terrible morning he had found the baby in her crib. What frightened Inez so badly was she had discovered his forty-five caliber pistol was missing from the bedside table where he usually kept it. Mary had immediately gone to Inez while Chris had set out to look for Ezra.

Chris had driven straight for the cemetery where little Eleanor had been buried, instinctively knowing that was where the grieving father would be. When Chris arrived at the cemetery he found Ezra kneeling beside Eleanor's grave with his head hanging down, weeping. The pistol was loosely clutched in his hands. Chris had approached quietly and wrenched the gun away from the distraught man before Ezra even knew he was no longer alone.

Ezra had jumped to his feet in anger yelling, "Give that back. You have no business here! Just go away and leave me alone!"

"Leave you alone to do what? Kill yourself? That ain't gonna happen."

"You have no right to tell me what I can or can not do. This doesn't concern you. You have no idea how I feel," Ezra had screamed.

"I don't know?" Chris had ground out, a sudden rage filling him, making his voice go chillingly quiet. "I don't know!"

Chris had grabbed the grief stricken man by his shirt front and hauled him closer, "You can look at me and say I don't know what you're feeling?"

Chris, with fury-inspired strength, had started dragging the resisting man through the cemetery to another tiny grave side, and forced him to look at the words carved on the grey marble tombstone.

Adam Christopher Larabee
Beloved Son
1993 - 1996

Chris had jerked Ezra around and stood almost nose to nose with him, fingers still fisted tight into his shirt.

"I know exactly how you feel, Standish. I know the pain, the grief. I know the guilt because you couldn't stop it from happening. I know what it feels like to beg God to take you instead and let your child live. I know!" Chris had punctuated his words by shaking the other man hard.

"I also know the need to make it all just go away. I tried to do that by burying myself in a bottle for months after Adam was killed, but you know what? It doesn't work. Nothing makes it better except time.

Inez just lost her baby, too, Ezra, did you ever think about that? Are you so selfish, that you'd cause her the additional anguish of having to bury you too? At least you have a wife that loves you…that's faithful to you. You don't have to live through this hell alone, like I did. You should be with Inez, helping each other get through this not sitting here all alone wallowing in the pain.

Inez loves you, and she needs you right now… and you need her. I'd advise you to get your sorry butt home and start looking after that woman right now, because if you don't you stand to lose more than just your daughter. You'll probably end up losing your wife, too. You think about THAT awhile, Standish."

Chris had shoved Ezra away from him violently, causing the man to fall on his knees, one arm flung out to the ground to catch himself. Chris had then walked away leaving the fallen man to watch his departure in silence. Ezra had remained on the ground for several minutes processing the home truths Chris had just flung at him, then slowly picked himself up and started to his car. He had gone home, found Inez, and started the long healing process.

Neither man had ever mentioned that day, but a door had been opened slightly in the invisible wall that had stood between the two men for so many years. The sharing had helped heal some of the old hurts by reminding the men of the things they had in common, and the friendship they had once enjoyed.

The years of resentment and dissension couldn't be washed away in one day, but each man found himself a little more comfortable in the other's presence and a little more willing to make peace. They still delighted in pushing each other's buttons, both knowing from long experience exactly which ones would rile the other the most, but the verbal rancor each had continued to direct at the other after that incident had been scaled back considerably and been done more from pride and habit than from any real need to wound.

"Whatever reasons that damn crazy horse has, you just keep him on your side of the fence from now on, or I'll fill his butt with buckshot the next time I see him," Chris snapped then turned Diablo around and started him out of the ranch yard with a nudge of his heels on the horse's flanks.

Feeling like the winner in the short verbal skirmish, Ezra grinned and gave his patented two finger salute to the back of the retreating figure then reentered the horse barn, the smile still gracing his face.

Chapter 15

JD was dreaming. He knew he was dreaming because he was seeing his birth mother. He had no real memories of her but recognized her face from the photos in the family albums that were kept in the family room. Eileen had shown the pictures to him many times while telling him about the wonderful, loving woman she had been.

In his dream Rebecca Dunne was holding him tight and kissing him on the top of his head. She held him away slightly and smiled.

"You be a good boy for your new family, JD," she said, "and always remember that I'm proud of you and I'll love you forever. Now it's time to go."

She gave him one last hug then turned him around and gave him a gentle nudge forward. When JD looked over his shoulder she was smiling and waving goodbye. JD turned his head back around and there stood Eileen standing with outstretched arms. JD ran into her arms and held on tight.

"Mama! You're here! You went away and I missed you so much. Please don't leave me, Mama! I don't want you to be gone anymore." JD pleaded.

"I love you too, baby. I'll always love you, my little JD, never forget that. I wish I could stay with you but I can't. You're going to have to be my brave little man. You watch out for your brothers for me.

Remember, I love you and I'm so proud of you. Now it's time to go," Eileen gave JD one final hug and released him. She took his protesting shoulders in her hands and turned him around and gave him a gentle nudge forward. When he looked over his shoulder again she was blowing him kisses and waving goodbye.

JD wanted to turn around and run back to her but found his feet would not obey him and continued to carry him forward. JD faced front once more only to jerk to a terrified stop. There was nothing in front of him but open darkness. Looking at his feet he realized he was standing on nothing but the same darkness. JD tried to scream in terror but no sound carried in the endless void that suddenly surrounded him.

"NOOOOO!" JD tried to yell has he woke up but the word seemed to stick in his throat. He fought the covers that had entangled his legs and managed to sit up in his bed, chest heaving, heart pounding, and tears running down his face. Quickly crawling from the bed, JD hurried out of his bedroom door and down the hall to Buck's room. JD quietly opened the door and peeked inside. Spying Buck's sleeping form in the bed he gently shut the door again, and went to Vin's room next. When he had reassured himself that Vin was in his room, JD continued on to check on Josiah. Satisfied that his brothers were where they were supposed to be, JD sighed in relief. Swiping at the tears still falling down his cheeks with the back of his pajama sleeve JD made his way down the stairs to the family room.

JD made his way through the familiar room and climbed on the sofa, reaching up to turn on the lamp that sat on the end table. He jumped down from the sofa and went to the bookcases built into the wall to the right of the fireplace and removed a large photo album and returned to his seat on the sofa. JD placed the large album on the cushions and then climbed up and dragged it into his lap.

JD quickly turned the pages to find the photo he wanted. It was the only picture he had that showed both of his mothers together. Rebecca and Eileen were sitting on the steps of the front porch with their arms around Buck and JD, all four smiling radiantly for the camera. JD just stared at the picture while his silent tears continued to fall.

That's how Mary found him a half hour later when she was on her way to the kitchen to start the coffee. Puzzled by the light in the family room she detoured to investigate. Mary started forward in concern as soon as she saw the little boy sitting there. Her heart broke to see the evidence of his distress still sliding down his cheeks.

"Oh, JD, honey! What's wrong?" Mary sat beside him on the sofa and drew him into her arms. "Are you all right?"

JD wrapped his arms around her neck and clung with all his might. Mary could feel the little body trembling and drew him closer.

"Sweetheart, please tell me what's wrong. Why are you up at this time of night? You should be sleeping."

"Don't want to sleep," was the mumbled response. "They'll just go away again and then there won't be anything left."

Mary caught a glimpse of the photo showing in the open album and the pieces fell into place. "You mean your mothers, don't you, JD. Honey did you have a dream about them tonight?" Mary asked.

"Every night," JD mumbled again. "They always come to see me but then go away again. Then everything goes away and it's just dark. I can't find anybody. I'm always alone. I want my mama and daddy to come back!" JD started to cry harder. Mary felt the trembling increase to large shudders that wracked his small frame.

"I know you miss them, sweetheart. We all miss them." Mary tightened her arms around the child, rocking him in soothing rhythm. "If I could bring them back for you, JD, I would, but I can't… no one can. They went to be with God and they can't come back."

"Why can't they come back? Why can't God let them come home?"

"They're angels now, JD, and angels belong in heaven with God. Heaven is an angel's home."

"But I want them to come back to our home," JD whimpered.

"So do I, JD," Mary whispered, "but they have to stay in heaven."

"It's not fair!" JD cried.

"No, love, it's not," Mary agreed.

JD continued to cry softly and Mary continued to rock him. Eventually his tears ceased and the exhausted child slumped against Mary, but refused to give into sleep.

"Why don't I take you back to bed and you can sleep a little longer this morning," Mary started only to be interrupted by JD.

"NO! I don't want to sleep. It will all go away again, and I'll be alone. I don't to be alone anymore!"

"I tell you what," Mary began, "why don't I go back to bed for a while too, and you can sleep with me and Uncle Chris then you won't have to worry about being alone, alright? We'll both be right there with you."

Mary lifted the little head resting on her shoulder back far enough to look into the boy's sad brown eyes. "How does that sound? Do you think you could sleep a little that way?"

JD gave a big yawn and nodded his head before lowering it back to Mary's shoulder and tightening his arms around her neck.

Mary rose from the sofa and carried JD upstairs to the bedroom she and Chris shared. She pulled the covers back and placed JD in the middle of the wide bed. The movement caused Chris to wake and open sleepy eyes that took in the sight of the little boy in momentary puzzlement.

Chris raised his eyes to Mary's and her worried look finished the waking process. Gazing between Mary and the small child laying beside him, Chris guessed what had happened and reached out with one strong arm and pulled JD to his chest, wrapping his arms securely around the child and holding him close. Chris felt the warm breath of JD's sigh against his shoulder and the boy finally relaxed enough to slip into sleep. Mary joined the two in the bed and spooned up behind JD, letting her hand rest on his waist.

Chris met Mary's eyes over the boy's head and they shared sad smiles. Chris loosened one arm from around JD and laid his hand over Mary's where it rested on the child, their fingers intertwining. The two adults lay wrapped around their grief-stricken nephew in silence, giving him the only comfort they could, wishing it was more.

Chapter 16

The peaceful afternoon calm was broken by the yells and laughter coming from the rough and tumble free-for-all that suddenly erupted between the four brothers. Each was armed with a super soaker and all were delighting in stalking and blasting the others.

Chris exited the house unobserved and leaned against the porch railing watching in amusement as his nephews tried their best to drown each other with the water guns, each stopping occasionally to refill the large reservoirs from the garden faucet. It was good to see the boys relaxed enough to be rowdy again. The past few weeks had been much too quiet for the man's peace of mind. He took this as a good sign that the boys might be starting to adjust to the loss of their parents.

The three smallest brothers had started to gang up on Josiah, who retaliated by grabbing JD by the waist and holding him in front of him as a shield while he continued to shoot water at his two remaining attackers. Vin and Buck didn't let a little thing like their youngest brother getting in the way stop them from doing their best to soak Josiah. JD squirmed and yelled and retaliated in kind, shaking water from his drenched hair like a dog.

Chris felt the familiar fist of sorrow squeeze his heart as he watched the boys at play. He couldn't help but imagine how his own son would have been in the middle of things right now, if he had lived. Adam would have been just a little older than Buck, and would probably have given his cousin a run for his money in the mischief department, Chris thought with a sad smile.

Even though it had been almost seven years since the car accident that took his son's life, Chris still felt the loss deeply. Time had made it easier to live with, but the scar on his heart left from his son's death had never completely faded. The same could be said for his rage at his faithless first wife whom he blamed solely for the loss of his son.

Anna Larabee had been the beautiful but spoiled daughter of older parents who had lavished her with attention and given her everything she wanted. Anna had taken one look at Chris while they were both seniors in college and made up her mind he was going to be hers. She had ruthlessly set out to claim him using every feminine weapon in her arsenal and finally resorted to the oldest in the book: she got pregnant. Chris had done the honorable thing and married her, and tried his best to make their marriage work.

Although she attracted him physically, she was never able to inspire any emotions deeper than fondness in Chris. To a woman used to having her every wish granted by doting parents, his lack of adoration was not something Anna could tolerant, especially when it was so obvious how much he loved their infant son. Anna didn't tolerate it for long. Within a few months she had begun shopping around for another man to give her the worship she felt was her due. Before their second anniversary she had taken a lover, starting a long term affair, the man himself married with a child of his own.

The adulterous pair had eventually decided to run away together. They had stolen away one afternoon taking both of their children with them. Anna didn't really want Adam along but took him knowing how his loss would devastate Chris. She considered this fitting revenge for his failure to give her the attention she considered was owed her. She made her feelings more than clear in the letter she had left behind for Chris.

The lovers had planned to disappear with their children and start a new life together, but they had only managed to get about 40 miles away when their car was broadsided by an eighteen wheeler who missed a stop sign. The impact had instantly killed Chris' wife and her lover's son, and left the car's other occupants critically wounded.

Chris had managed to make it to the hospital in time to have Adam die in his arms. His wife's lover had died in route to the hospital, leaving Chris with a burning rage that had no outlet except the man's grieving widow. Chris had turned his anger on the woman, placing the blame for her husband's infidelity squarely on her shoulders. To his surprise the woman had returned as good as she got, then further amazed him by collapsing in his arms in a dead faint, the day's traumatic events finally overcoming her strong spirit. Chris had felt like a complete bastard when he had learned that the woman's son had not survived the accident either.

In a twist of fate that no one could have imagined, the two wound up being each other's source of strength and comfort through the following weeks and months. They came to be friends and eventually lovers. Now Chris couldn't imagine his life with out his Mary, for it had been Mary's husband Steven that Anna had eloped with and her son, Billy, who had died in the accident.

Chris and Mary had been married for four years, and had a very happy marriage. The one blight on their relationship came from Mary's desire for a baby, and Chris' refusal to consider the idea. The pain of losing his son was too great for Chris to be willing to risk giving another hostage to fortune. As much as he wanted to make Mary happy, he just couldn't give her what she asked of him for. Instead he poured all the paternal love he had left to give into his nephews.

Chris was brought out of his musing by a stream of cold water hitting him squarely in the chest. Jumping back and holding the soaked shirt away from his body, Chris looked up to see his four nephews watching him with impish challenge, water guns unanimously pointed in his direction. For a moment no one moved, as Chris made eye contact with each of the boys. A slow devilish smile stretched across his face and then giving a fierce yell, he made a sudden dive off the porch taking the boys by surprise. He managed to grab the super soaker away from Buck, and following Josiah's example, used the child as a shield to avoid the streams of water now being directed at him by the other three boys. Turning his own weapon upon his attackers with a wide grin that matched those on their faces, Chris shed the last of his melancholy thoughts.

"Four against one. Now I ask you, is that fair?" Chris laughed as he quickly blocked a stream of water headed toward his face by lifting a squirming Buck up a little higher and ducking his head behind the wriggling body. Chris returned fire and caught the giggling Vin in the chest.

"They do say all's fair in love and war, Uncle Chris," Josiah managed to shout as he evaded the jet of water Chris aimed his way, never stopping his own firing.

"So," Chris yelled back, "which is this?" taking a wet round to his back as JD managed a sneak attack from the rear.

"I'd say it's a little of both," Josiah laughed.

Chris tried to dodge the stream of water Josiah loosed at him, but slipped in the mud that had formed during the afternoon of watery fun and wound up flat on his back, giving Buck a chance to escape from his suddenly loosened hold.

Buck quickly took advantage of his new freedom by reacquiring his stolen water gun. Backing away quickly, Buck pumped up the pressure in his gun and took his revenge against his late captor by landing a shot right in Chris' face. Unfortunately for JD, Buck continued to move away and managed to knock into the child causing him to wind up face first in the mud beside Chris. When JD sat up, Buck saw his muddy face and started laughing. He was laughing so hard that he didn't notice a smirking Josiah coming up behind him. Buck suddenly found himself joining JD, helped along by a shove from his oldest brother. Not to be outdone, Vin tried his own sneak maneuver on Josiah, who was prepared for the attack and managed to send Vin sliding into the mud to join the others.

The four mud covered people looked at each other and came to a silent agreement as Josiah stood over them laughing. As one, they reached out and grabbed the laughing boy, pulling him down in the mud too. As Chris, Vin and Buck held the struggling teen down, JD grabbed two handfuls of mud and smeared them across his cheeks. Josiah managed to get his arm free enough to grab his own handful of mud and throw it at Vin, landing it in the boy's hair where it slid down and left a dark brown streak on his cheek. With that the free for all started again, with mud flying in all directions, as the battle continued with different ammo.

The laughing and shouting was suddenly suspended as everyone froze at the sound of the back door slamming. Five pairs of guilty eyes rose and met those of the blond haired woman standing on the back porch with her hands on her hips. The males watched as the woman slowly climbed down the porch steps, shaking her head in disgust, mumbling something under her breath about men, boys and toys. They remained motionless as she disappeared around the corner of the house.

The muddied warriors were just starting to heave grateful sighs, and smile at each other in relief for escaping the expected scolding, when they were suddenly deluged by an icy cold jet of water coming from the water hose aimed at them by a laughing Mary. Whooping with glee, the boys grabbed their weapons and eagerly plunged into battle with this new opponent.

Chris just sat in the mud, a silly grin on his face. It was times like these that made him realize that although he had seen his share of sorrow, there was still plenty of joy to be found if he only took the time to stop and look for it. For this one moment in time, Chris was content to remain where he was, enjoying the sight of his family at play.

Chapter 17

Ezra applied the brake and brought the car to a gentle stop in front of the house that was going to be his home for the next twelve months. He put the car in park and turned off the ignition then let his hands drop into his lap and sat gazing out the windshield in silent contemplation.

Never had seven days passed more quickly. Ezra had stayed busy with the myriad tasks associated with changing residences, but still had plenty of time to reflect on the changes the next year would bring to all their lives. While the thought of having his nephews close kindled a flame of affectionate feelings and anticipation, the realization that he would be sharing living space, and parenting responsibilities, with the bane of his existence for the last twenty years acted like a wet blanket thrown over a fire.

Inez had done her best to help him remain positive, but the dread he had tried to push into the back of his mind kept resurfacing continually over the last week. He had spent many midnight hours contemplating the strange twist in his fate…worrying if he was up to the challenge of raising the boys…trying to come up with a strategy for dealing with Chris on a day to day basis. The loss of sleep had made left him more irritable than usual and tended to make his outlook a little bleaker than it normally would have been. As much as he loved his nephews, Ezra couldn't help feeling like an inmate walking into a prison and hearing the gates slamming closed behind him.

Ezra's reverie was broken by the opening of the home's front door and the excited greetings of his nephews. The three younger children rushed down the sidewalk toward his car, and Josiah followed behind at a more sedate pace, grinning at his brothers' enthusiasm. Ezra opened the car door and stepped out.

"You're here!" JD shouted, jumping up and down in his excitement. "Aunt Inez said you'd be coming soon, and she was right! Now we're all together!"

"I take it that meets with your approval, JD?" Ezra asked, smiling down at the excited boy.

The grin on the young face stretched almost ear to ear when JD nodded, and replied, "I like it best when we're all together." He reached up and grabbed Ezra's hand and held on tight.

Ezra smiled down in understanding and squeezed the small hand in reassurance and said, "Me too."

His eyes were drawn to the other brothers gathered around him in a half circle. Their faces and body language revealed a mixture of emotions to the man skilled at reading people. He saw relief and humor in Buck, excitement and happiness in Vin, and acceptance and welcome with a touch of grief in Josiah.

"I don't think you could officially consider me here until all the suitcases are unloaded from my car," Ezra teased. "Since you seen so eager to have me here, perhaps you would consider helping by carrying some of them inside for me?"

"Sure thing, Uncle Ezra," Buck said with a grin. "Come on guys, you heard the man."

With much laughter and exaggerated groans, the boys divided up the bags according to size, leaving the two largest, heaviest suitcases for Ezra. As Ezra closed the now empty trunk of the car, the boys made their way into the house and disappeared, leaving the man watching their departure alone once more.

Ezra wrapped his hands around the handles of the suitcases, lifted them, and slowly made his way up the walk to the front door which the boys had left standing open for him. Ezra stood at the open door, a suitcase in each hand, listening to the sound of the boys teasing each other as they made their way upstairs.

Ezra turned his head to the side and gazed on the long wooden swing hanging from the rafters of the porch, remembering the times he had spent there with his sister laughing …telling stories …sharing dreams and disappointments. If he closed his eyes he could see her sitting there with one foot tucked underneath her and the other on the porch lazily rocking the swing, giving him that laughing smile. He could almost hear her whispering to him that it would be alright. That she loved him. That she had faith in him.

She'd always had more faith in him than he'd had in himself. She thought he could do this. He wasn't so sure but for her he'd try his hardest, no matter what it cost him personally. He could do nothing less…for her.

With a silent goodbye, and a sad smile, Ezra faced the open door once again and tightened his grip on the suit cases. He drew a deep breath, and squared his shoulders.

"Hey Uncle Ez, are you coming or not?" Vin's raised voice reached him from upstairs, causing the smile to change to one of amusement.

"Morituri Te Salutant³," he whispered, then he stepped across the threshold, set the suitcases down, and quietly closed the door behind him.

This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. This is the end of the beginning.

- John Varley

(Now how presumptuous is that? ;-) )

³ Morituri Te Salutant : We who are about to Die Salute you.

March 6, 2003