STRANDED by Gunney

"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

KABOOM!! Followed closely by BAM and POW!! And he was down for the count. Wiped out . . . no mercy.

Of course. Who could have survived an attack by those two? Why the young cretins followed the example of Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington to the letter. Even the Larabee-glare-of-death-and-long-suffering had been near perfected by seven year Vin Tanner and JD was furthering his 'puppy-dog eyes' with the same look that gained most of Buck's paramours. So in essence of the situation it was like being stranded and run over by Buck and Chris themselves, although he was certain that it hurt less.

Carefully he picked himself up of the leaf-covered, dewy ground and turned to greet his adversaries, but what he saw instead chilled him to the very core.

In the parking lot just in front of him, where the black top met the grass, both boys stood silently, Vin holding onto JD's hand protectively. Their eyes focused intently on the two men who held mean looking weapons, and the other a crowbar.

One was halfway into the Jag, the other pointing the weapons at the boys and more importantly at the ATF agent behind them.

Ezra remained on his hands and knees despite the damage it was doing to his suit. Fear for the boys boiled beneath his skin but he refused to show it. Faintly he could see JD shivering and Vin didn't look too sure of himself either. Ezra swore softly. Why hadn't he heard their approach?

He stood slowly as the first miscreant's deliberate motions with the gun conveyed that that was what he was supposed to do.

"Boys, come over here."

The quiet but urgent request wasn't enough incentive. Both Vin and JD made no move, the younger boy's hand turning white from gripping his cousin's.

Ezra's heart clenched in his chest. The boy's were scared. Hell he knew that. But that these idiots were just standing there, pointing their guns at two children no less. The feeling of rage, over the-ill treatment of those he cared for. Those he loved.

It was a new feeling but a strong one. One he had begun to get used to since becoming an 'Uncle.' And one that was adding to a rage of other emotions blinding his clear judgment.

His hardening gaze turned from the two shivering backs to the gunmen, his anger forcing a tremor into his voice. "Take the damn vehicle and go, for Christ's sake."

Both men, dressed entirely in black and up until then silent, looked at each other, as though for assurance. "Give me yer keys," the voice of the first mumbled. Gruff, unfamiliar and showing no sign of intimidation or fear.

The gun was pointed in Ezra's direction and he quickly fumbled in his pocket pulling out the keys and tossing them. A year ago, a lifetime ago, he would have gladly fought these men and protected the car with his life. Shockingly, all he cared about was the boys. And keeping them safe. He could say he was doing it so that he didn't die at Larabee's hand. But he actually liked the thought of having a heart.

Miscreant's One and Two seemed happy enough that they had won the car over without a fight. One requested he also toss over his cellphone. He shook his head.

"I haven't got one."

"Gimme the goddamned phone!"

He lifted his hands up away from his body and shook his head, pressing his lips into a firm line. "Just go, dammit."

Miscreant One turned to miscreant Two. He nodded and jerked his head towards Ezra and a single shot was fired, echoing through the trees, across the lake and around a Nature that suddenly, no longer cared.

The engine revved and the car peeled out of the parking lot, tires screaming but not overpowering the frightened cries and pleas of two little boys who ran to their Uncle's side.

Vin shook with fear as he watched the red stuff seeping out of Ezra's clothes.

"He shot 'im!"

JD's body shuttered as the wind swept past him, his hands shaking, hovering over the bleeding wound but not daring to touch the wet patch. He didn't like . It was icky and smelled bad and all too often meant something bad was happening. And that someone would be taken away from him.

"I'm scared," he said softly.

Trying to be brave. Trying to be strong.

But he knew Vin felt the same way. They had both lived through this. Too many times to count.

Ezra groaned and shifted the leg nearest JD and two hopeful faces popped into his wavering vision, whispering softly. The pounding of his own heart drowning them out. Pain was radiating through his side, up his chest every time he took a breath and threatening to either overturn him with nausea or send him careening into unconsciousness. It hurt to breathe. But he had to breathe.

He saw the boys again. Not realizing that he had missed seeing them seconds before. He must have blinked, he mused. The hard ground beneath him wasn't helping. He had to move. It was just too damned uncomfortable.

Almost as though by silent command his hand started to move up and away from his body, but he realized it was not under his own power. It was Vin. He was reaching . . . for something. Inside his jacket maybe?

Pain shot through him, spiking and fading, quick enough that he could only grimace. Vin was doing good. Whatever he was doing. The look on the boy's face said that he was trying to be responsible. To do right, and it was reassuring enough for Ezra. He felt tiny hands on him again, rifling through his pockets. Looking for a cell phone? But it wasn't there it was . . . in his pant's pocket. He blinked sagging eyelids and tried to move the hand. His thoughts even seemed to tire him. He kept trying until another awkward maneuver from Vin sent pain bolting through him and he stiffened, concentrating on not making a sound. Concentrating on breathing. He wouldn't scare the boys. And he most certainly wasn't about to leave them out here all alone. But the pain wasn't going away this time. He found himself forcing his eyes open again. Had he closed them? He could see Vin again, looking up at his face then back down to what had to be the wound causing the inordinate amount of pain. It struck him then. The pain wasn't leaving because Vin had found something to hold against the wound. He wanted to smile, to pat him on the back. To reassure him that this was good despite the undercover agent's paler color and harsher breathing. But even that seemed daunting. Why was he so goddamned tired? It couldn't have been that bad, could it? His last thoughts were that Nathan would be proud. If he ever got to tell him. Vin pressed the cloth down as hard as his trembling muscles would allow. The fancy, silk handkerchief didn't seem to want to work. It was supposed to stop the blood from escaping Ezra's body. Almost like the cloth had the same mentality and avoidance to staining as its owner.

He pushed harder, knowing he was causing Ezra pain, and hoping that if he didn't look at his Uncle's face . . . he wouldn't have to worry about anything. He wouldn't see the pain. And there'd be nothing to fear.

Not that Ezra had feared anything in his life. Except perhaps Daddy Chris.

JD was still standing stock still beside Vin, trying not to look at the dark red that continued to seep from Ezra's trembling body. The moment was frozen in time until an equally shaky voice reached them both.

"JD . . . JD."

Blinking away tiny tears the shivering boy looked up and into pain-filled, emerald green eyes. He looked down at the hand that belonged to the voice as it was raised and understood enough latch onto the hand and creep closer to Ezra.

" . . . pocket . . . pants p-pocket."

JD sniffled, eyes wide. "Uncle Ezra you've been shotm" he said carefully. Perhaps Ezra didn't understand that he was bleeding. Why would he want to give JD some of the candy he had in his pocket. JD thought they were saving that.

Ezra managed a weak smile, the gold tooth just barely catching the sunlight. He wanted to laugh. Or shake his head. But his face was taut in response to the pain, he could barely breathe and it was getting harder and harder to stay awake. He squeezed the tiny hand in his, trying to put a more insistent tone into his voice. Though he doubted very much his accomplishment.

"JD . . . phone . . . m'pocket."

JD's mind worked fast, but Vin's hands were faster. He grabbed a hold of the concept and the phone as soon as he heard the whispered words from his Uncle's mouth. He stared at the number pad numbly, trying not to sob in desperation as his mind went blank. Who should he call. Chris? Buck? Uncle Nathan?

JD saw the desperation but not the reason. "CALL THE AMBLI-ANTS!" he screamed. The shrill sound of his voice and the life-or-death shock of the situation hung heavily over them all.

Ezra barely heard JD's desperate cries as he continued to coach his cousin, trying to remember where they were and how they had gotten there. Vin was firing the information at the 911 operator the minute it came but the woman just didn't understand. "It's the lake Chris takes us to when we go fishing. It's big and deep. And there are bass and pike. And we always take a row boat because you're not allowed to have a bigger boat. And there are picnic tables and places to make hamburgers . . . "

"Now slow down son, please. Just tell me where you are-"

Vin pulled the contraption from his ear and looked at it as though it had betrayed him. As it had, the deepest betrayal ever. The battery had died. Cut out without a second thought or care. Anger, fueled by fear, boiled deep in his seven-year-old soul. Stemming from what appeared to be yet another failure, this time he had failed to keep Ezra safe. He had waited too long to make the call. Or if he had remembered the name of the lake. Or gotten a map out of . . . Ezra's Jag. Which was no longer there. Probably his fault as well.

He turned burning eyes toward Ezra.

He was lying still on the grass. But his eyes were open. The ATF agent had his own hand pressed against the wound but he was sweating and shaking. LIke JD did whenever he got scared. But Ezra didn't look scared.

He looked brave. And strong. Like Vin had to be.

For Ezra. For JD. For himself.

He tromped over to Ezra and threw the disgusting contraption down beside the man's head. "It broke . . . before I could tell them."

Ezra blinked up at Vin. Nodded slowly. As his heart beat had slowed he had been able to hear the conversation and his hopes were sinking fast. The pain was dying slowly, but that was only good if you were in an ambulance or hospital. And it was colder, whether it was his own loss or the temperature he couldn't tell.

"We . . . need to um . . . " He closed his eyes tightly and fought the wave of pain broiling through him. He couldn't think of himself. Not until the boys were safe. Yes he was a coward. Yes he was a terrible babysitter. But he cared about these boys. He was going to get them to their caretakers safe and sound, as he had promised that morning.

So long ago. So far away . . .

JD's voice broke into his thoughts. "Someone's coming!"

Ezra snapped his eyes open, trying to bring his head up. The world around him spun dangerously. But he forced himself up, leaning heavily against one elbow. Vin slid himself behind Ezra's back and started shoving him upward further, offering as much as his body could muster in the way of strength.

The burning in his side flared every time Vin pushed at him but the boy was helping. It was most certainly helping.

Ezra soon found himself on quaking knees, one hand supporting him while the other was still clamped onto the wound. "Please . . . let this be someone . . . with a heart of gold."

Same time. At the ranch.

Chris closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. The hammer in his hand half-raised. He was seriously debating beaning Buck over the head with it. It was just too damned hot up there to be fooling around like that.

"I swear it you better not be giving me a line, Buck." He waited for a smart-ass answer and was more than surprised when he received none.

His half-smile became a frown as he waited and glanced around from his perch. He sat atop the crest on the barn and except for the two ends of the peak he had a clear few of most of the surrounding countryside.


Nothing. Nada. Not a sound.

Hooking the teeth of the hammer on the crest of the roof he gingerly swung his left leg over to the right side, shimmied along the incline to the ladder . . . or at least to where the ladder was. He smirked and shook his head.

"Buck Wilmington, you got five minutes to replace that goddamned ladder or I'll make good on my subpoena threat."

The ladder was resolutely smacked into place.

"You know you ain't got no sense o' humor, ol' pard."

"I also got a nail gun up here."

There was a pause, most likely for the preparation of final requests or prayers, then . . . "What'd you like for dinner?"

He laughed triumphantly, peering over the lip of the roof at a properly chastised Buck Wilmington.

Only to receive a plump water balloon in the face.


Buck took off past the barn and towards the ranch house with something akin to a howl and impish laughter.

The laughter Chris supposed, was a take off of JD, but the tricks and the childish behavior were completely Buck's doing. The man never grew up.

Chris started planning retribution as he pulled back from the edge of the roof. The water had actually been a welcome relief, it was the sinking, sticking feeling of sugar that had him upset.

He'd be attacked by bees, humming birds, and all other manner of creatures within seconds if he wasn't off the roof and cleaned up soon. And Buck knew it just as well.

He gathered the tools, moving nimbly along the roof and hurried down the ladder already fighting off insects. Stowing the tools and running for the ranch house he almost expected the door to be locked, but apparently Buck wanted to live today.

Good thing, too, as they were celebrating the man's birthday that evening.

Buck had requested nothing special but the boy's and Chris himself had been insistent. Buck finally allowed them 'their little celebration' but only if he were allotted some quiet time of his own.

He had spent most of the day riding, and since Chris had to fix up the barn and some other odd jobs Ezra had offered to occupy the boys until that evening's festivities had begun.

The offer had been a surprise to Chris. Since when did Ezra start offering to do menial labor, not to mention one of the hardest tasks known to man: babysitting dynamite.

But the man had offered.

Chris wasn't fool enough to pass it up and he indeed trusted him, whether Ezra or anyone else was willing to believe it. He had seen Ezra with children. There was a magic and understanding that children always seemed to possess for him and vice versa and JD and Vin were no exceptions to the rule.

He wondered if the rest of the team would ever know the man in such a seemingly personal and private way.

Inside the house he headed straight for his bedroom and was intent on taking a shower when the phone rang. It was quickly picked up so he assumed Buck had caught it and stepped into the shower.

Five minutes later, Buck's voice stopped him cold. All he heard was his name shouted but the tone, and the repeated call galvanized him into motion and he knew . . . KNEW . . . something was wrong.

He stepped out of the shower, just barely remembering to turn off the water, stepped into sweat pants and ran to the kitchen.


The ladies man stood, looking a little pale and as though he was supporting himself completely by the hands clenched tightly around the edge of the counter. He was staring at the answering machine on which he had recorded the call.


Chris frowned and pushed the play button.

<ring ring ring>

Buck: Hello.

911: Sir, is this the Agent Chris Larabee residence?

Buck: Um <pause> I think so Ma'am. This is Buck Wilmington, special agent under Chris Larabee. How did you get this number?

911: This is 911 dispatcher Gloria Thatton. I received a call from a cell phone. We traced the number to an "Ezra Standish" of Denver, Colorado. Our records say he is an ATF agent. The call was cut off before I could get any valuable information. However the child did mention a Chris and I assumed that would be the agent under which he serves, Chris Larabee. If this is true may I speak with him?

Buck: Ah, no ma'am. He's unavailable right now. What <pause> what's going on?

911: <pause> Sir . . . I really need to speak with him. This is an emergency. <pause> I really don't know. Let me play the tape for you sir.

<scratching sounds>

911: 911 What's your emergency?

<long pause>

Vin: You gotta help. Ezra's been shot and they took the car so we can't go nowhere.

911: Calm down now son. Just stay with me. Can you tell me where you are? What's your name?

<the signal is growing weaker, the sound of static>

Vin: We're at the lake Chris takes <static> fishing <static> bass and pike and we always take a row boat <static> allowed to have a bigger boat <static> picnic tables and <static> make hamburgers <static>

911: Now slow down son, just take a deep breath and tell me where you are.... Son?...We lost it. Did we get a trace on that sig-

Buck pushed the stop button.

"She said they'd try to trace the call."

Chris' heart pounded in his chest, his stomach roiledm his mind going wild. They . . . whoever had stolen the Jag . . . had shot Ezra. The boy's were out there alone. At Kimball lake. A good three hours out.

"Get Nathan and Josiah headed out that way. Let's go. Tell the paramedics where they are."

He grabbed his coat and ran outside, his face in a grim determined line. First things first and then there would be hell to pay. "It's a boat!" JD shouted, running to the top of the boat ramp then running back. "It's a person in a boat, Vin. We gotta catch 'im."

Vin looked up at JD, then at Ezra. Desperately looking for assurance. He leaned forward touching the sweating forehead gently like he had seen Nathan do sometimes, and the action got Ezra's eyes to open. "Go . . . "

"We'll come back," Vin whispered then started shouting and jumping as he ran with JD after the sound of the boat. Its electric, outboard motor had taken it slowly past the edge of the lake closest to them and they started along it, waving and shouting.

Behind them Ezra, clamped his hand down onto the wound harder, fighting the pain and nausea to succeed in standing. For a minute. He landed heavily on his backside and cried out before he could stop it. The unforgiving ground and the laws of gravity teaching him a solid lesson he wasn't soon to forget.

The cry had the boy's attention immediately and they scrambled back, taking their places on either side of their babysitter and staring wide-eyed at the even paler face. "Ez-wa, what are we gonna do. That mister didn't stop and we can't walk all the way back home!"

Ezra groaned, agreeing totally. He wasn't walking anywhere. "I agree . . . Master Dunne but . . . we have to . . . reach some form of . . . civilization." He let his head fall back and closed his eyes for a moment, fighting the desire to sleep. It seemed that was all he did. Fight. Fight the urge to lose the meager contents of his stomach, fight to stay awake, fight the pain, fight for breath. Why couldn't he just accept defeat and move on? Of course he knew what that could mean, but for once he wanted to be able to sit back, close his eyes and not fight. Just give up and let the fates do whatever the hell they wanted.

Think, Standish. Think. You have a lake. He turned his head to the side in the short grass and looked out over the glassy waters. Nothing there. Trees, nothing. No car, nothing. If there had been a single vehicle in the parking lot he at least could drag himself over to it and start it. Or teach Vin how to.

He frowned as he let his head fall back to the ground. How had the vandals gotten into this hell hole then? "Do you . . " He swallowed, catching a particularly painful breath, then continued. " . . . see any horses?"

Vin frowned, and turned his head so he could see up at the sky as Ezra was seeing it and shook his head. He pointed to the cloud just above his head. "That looks like a whale."

Ezra groaned and rolled his eyes, immediately drawing their concern, though he hadn't meant to. "I mean . . . the . . . badmen that took . . . took the car. They got here . . .somehow . . . and I need . . ." He closed his eyes tiredly. It was getting too damn hard to talk. He could barely breathe without pain everywhere. " know how."

It took a moment or two but Vin and JD caught on to the idea and started searching around, each getting to their feet after a moment and running off one at a time to investigate. A yelp and the sound of running feet and hooves brought a smile to Ezra's face. Up until he remembered two major obstacles in his way.

Vin came running leading the horses. Two geldings of a chestnut color, shoed and apparently well cared for. Both wore plain, nondescript saddles with empty saddle bags and bridles. Strong horses but most likely rented.

Vin too, quickly saw the problem. They now had a way out of the park and to civilization but . . . how could they get Ezra on the horse. They were both too small to be of much help, and then they had to worry about keeping him on.

Vin had a look of utter dismay in his eyes as blue met green. Ezra saw the worry and the fear and moved with determination, though he didn't get to very far.

He rolled himself onto his stomach with a little too much energy and fell unconscious with a grunt of pain. Vin jumped forward and shoved with all his might until he got Ezra on his back again. He got to his knees and stared at Ezra's chest. He couldn't be . He had to be living. Living people breathed and he had to see Ezra breathe. He waited for what seemed an eternity until Ezra's chest rose and fell with a breath.

JD, who again had frightened tears rolling down his cheeks, went to Ezra's other side and knelt down. When Vin looked relieved and reassured him that Ezra was not dead, he sobbed and laid his head gently against the man's chest. This was bad. This was all very, very bad.

Vin didn't know what to do. He kept pushing down on the handkerchief and thought the evil bleeding had stopped but that was no good when there was no one to help them further. He looked up at the horses that had begun to chomp on the grass at their feet, then looked over to JD and Ezra.

His young cousin was staring at the undercover agent's slack face, petting the slick forehead and hair gently with one five-year-old hand, the other remaining steadfastly on his chest. JD was scared. Vin saw it. Vin was scared too.

Scared for Ezra. Scared that they would have to be out here all night. Scared that Ezra wouldn't last that long. If they could just get to help. Or if Vin could.

He looked at the horses again, then stood and grabbed the reins of one. He looked up at the saddle and led the horse towards a tree. He wasn't tall enough to reach the stirrups yet, but climbing onto a low branch he was able to reach the seat and from there he knew what to do. Daddy Chris was a good teacher.

He rode the horse back towards Ezra and JD to tell them what he was planning. But Ezra was still unconscious. JD looked asleep. Vin couldn't wake them. If he did JD would put up a fuss about being left alone and Vin was sure they'd be fine. He had no time to argue with JD. He had to find Chris and tell him. Once he found Chris everything would be alright.

Vin turned the horse towards the parking lot then clicked his tongue and the animal started to walk. Impatiently, he kicked the horse into a gallop and leaned over in the saddle as Chris had taught him.

He just had to find Chris. Find Chris.

* * *

"Ezra!!!! Ezra!!!" The voice continued, each utterance of his name was a long, high-pitched, panic filled wail that seemed to cling to his eardrums longer than normal and stabbed into his side over and over again.

Not to mention the uncomfortable bed he was lying on, or the chomping near his head, or the rude shaking. This was altogether intolerable. Was this his wake up call?

"Ezra, get up please!!" Now they . . . whoever they were . . . . were reduced to begging. Was it that important that he get up? There was pain though. He could feel it, waiting there on the edge of consciousness, as a warning that he shouldn't break through the darkness.

The voice was familiar, and the begging was making his mind uncomfortable. It wasn't right. That voice shouldn't sound so panicked, so frightened. Something was wrong and he had to find out what.

First things first. Open the eyes.

JD's panicked mind quieted slightly when he saw Ezra's eyes open, but then they blinked closed and he scooted further forward, putting his hands on Ezra's cheeks. "No. You have to wake up. Please wake up."

They fluttered again and opened and Ezra looked confused for a moment before he clamped the eyes shut again and groaned softly. "Please Ezra?" JD whispered, his mouth close to the agent's ear. Whenever he was that close he knew he was supposed to be quiet. But if it didn't work JD was going to shout.

Thankfully, for Ezra's sake, it worked. The eyes opened and Ezra looked at JD and frowned. The pain hit him a split second later and his knees automatically jerked up and towards his chest, his hand flying down to the source of pain. God it hurt.

He could feel the sticky wetness and remembered with sudden clarity how it had gotten there and why he was so intent on torturing himself by remaining conscious. He fought a scream of pain and rode out the pain, the feeling of small hands on his cheeks reminding him that he was not alone.

Even a grown man needed to know that from time to time.

"JD . . " he managed and grabbed one of the hands gently, his other hand clamping down on the bleeding again. He hissed at the pain and waited until it died a little before he tried anything else. He couldn't frighten the kid. He just had to remember that. "Where's Vin?"

JD's already-teary eyes looked on the brink of another fall out but he choked them back. He had to be big now. "He went, he went with a horse. To get help. To find Daddy Chris." He left. He left. He left.

There was no other way to explain it. JD had woken up and had it not been for the solid heart beat under his ear he would have been alone. And scared. And probably would have died. Of fear. He didn't like being alone. And Buck had promised him he would never be left alone again. So far Buck's promise had held true.

Ezra blinked a couple of times. Dragged in a labored breath, then another. Fighting each flare of pain until he had a handle on things. Or at least a glimpse of the handle. "It's ok. JD." He raised a shaky hand and turned the boy's face towards his own. JD had to know. It was ok. "It'll be . . . .ok."

JD nodded. Trusting. Ezra smiled. That was good.

Now all he had to do was come up with a plan. Vin was going for help. That was good. It was a good idea to go for help. He wished that Vin had taken JD, so JD at least wouldn't have to stay here. Maybe Vin had tried to. He'd have to ask Vin about that.

The small hand in his jerked a little and Ezra turned his head as fast as he could to look at JD. Wondering what had caused the sudden change. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. The brown eyes were still closed, the boy still appeared asleep. He must have just reacted to a bad dream.

Another breath. It hurt. Not terribly. The pain had died since the initial moment in which the injury had been inflicted. If he could just close his eyes, go to sleep for a bit. The pain would be gone entirely. He'd be floating in that same sweet abyss he found himself in so often. He shouldn't have found himself in that often . . .

Stay awake. But he didn't want to. He wanted desperately to sleep. To be able to wake up the next day and have forgotten about this one. He wished for it not to have happened.

"Uncle Ezra . . .?" The soft hopeful voice reached him and he blinked desperately, turning pain-filled eyes towards JD. The boy had sat up and scooted forward a few inches, his face not far from Ezra's.

"Is you gonna be alright?"

The concern and fear in JD's eyes was enough to break down the wall that was holding back his own fears, the emotions he wanted to express, and the pain he couldn't control. "As . . . soon as Vin . . . get's back. We are going . . . to visit the hospital, and then . . .I will take you . . .both . . .for ice cream."

The pain pulsed against him, his body rejecting the idea but his mind held firm. He tried to smile and lifted the arm JD had been resting against, placing the palm against the boy's face. "I promise." He had to get up. He had to sit up. To do something so that he wasn't falling asleep. Leaning against at tree even. The movement sounded barbaric, and he truly wondered if he was a masochist for perhaps the fourteenth time.

"In fact . . ." He started, trying to push himself up off the ground. Even the slightest movement jarred the strange sensations in his body and mind, not liking being messed with. JD seemed to see this, somehow understanding the importance of getting up. Or perhaps emphasizing that Ezra should get up. He grabbed hold of one arm and pulled up, bringing Ezra to a sitting position faster, however . . . the efficiency of the move was questionable.

Ezra paled, taking a moment. Then another moment, then a full minute. What the hell, time had no meaning in this little corner of the world so he could take as much time as he wanted he figured.

He didn't know how, but he found himself, not too long after, sitting against the trunk of a gnarled oak, panting like a sick dog and fighting the forces of gravity . . . and soon winning. JD was gone for some reason then came back with a few drops of water left in his hands. He splashed them against Ezra's face trying to make him be awake.

Ezra struggled through the fog and eventually was the victor, again clamping a hand down on the freshly bleeding wound then focusing on JD.

It was then that he finished the thought. "Would you like to play some hockey?" JD was now convinced that Ezra had lost it. He turned big brown eyes up at his Uncle, the look of disbelief and worry plain on his face. "I don' have any skates."

There was a silence in that part of the park for a moment, Ezra trying to digest what the boy had just said. Or understand the meaning why. Finally he grinned. Half-way between a grimace and a smile and dug into his pants pocket pulling out three or four quarters and a nickel.

"Hockey," he said quietly flopping the coins down in the dirt and positioning a poised index finger in front of one, flicking it towards one of JD's hands. He straightened his torso enough to take a deep breath, then sagged against the tree and closed his eyes. "Hockey . . . "

JD watched the movement of the coin, then blinked up at Ezra. He seemed intent on playing the game so JD tried to copy the movement, only succeeding in slamming his finger into the ground. He tried again, and got the same result, but on the the third try the coin went flying, pinged off the tree trunk and disappeared in the grass.

JD grinned up at Ezra, who was awake amazingly and smiled back tiredly. And thus the game began. It was slow progress however. Ezra's movements becoming more and more sluggish, JD's more proficient but erratic. More often than not JD would have to jump up and hunt down the 'puck' before the game could commence, and many times his little excursion would prove fruitful in finding other small trinkets of interest.

The entire time Ezra watched with rapt fascination. He had become cold not to long ago, and unknowing his hand had fallen from its duty of applying pressure. The bleeding had slowed, but not stopped. And every pulse of his heart drained him further.

He was blissfully unaware however. Watching JD, he seemed to forget the severity of the situation. Or the fact that they were stranded. His plan, ultimately had worked. The only drawback was the longer they waited the more times he found himself forgetting, falling asleep, or trying to keel over.

He was grateful that the pain left him but he wasn't too sure about the alternative. There was a pressure in his chest that made it hard to breathe, to think, to move. Even to think about moving. And the tiredness that was dragging his eyelids down every second was driving him nuts.

He moved his eyes from their spot on the ground and searched the part of the park he could see. He realized JD hadn't returned from his latest sojourn. His brain automatically tried to get his body in motion. His legs jerked and he straightened slightly. Pain revisited him in a most unsatisfactory way and he groaned. Moving his head listlessly he tried to work moisture back into his mouth.

Moving wouldn't work. Not yet. He tried calling for him. Getting nothing out of his mouth but a whisper. And already he was gasping for breath.

He cursed his body. Wishing for once it would simply do what it was told to and nothing more. Moving his arms he found a way to get to his stomach, and stayed there until he could no longer feel the pain. Then he started crawling forward. Inch by inch.

He made it ten feet from the tree before he saw JD racing towards him. His eyes closed and he sank down to the ground. Not even registering the graying, balding man behind the young boy.

* * *

By the time Chris, Vin and the others got to the park they were prepared to see mass bloodshed, one lost boy and one dying agent.

What they did see was quite the opposite. JD sat beside an old man. The senior citizen had a fishing hat with tackles dangling off the brim, a khaki vest and pants and sat patiently listening to the dark-haired boy explain the game. Beside him Ezra lay blinking lazily, a bloody patch of tarp held against his side by a pale hand but very much alive. In one of JD's hands was a grubby dime, the other half of a melted chocolate bar. His face covered with most of the chocolate he had already eaten. The topic of conversation was hockey and the marvelous game Ezra had shown the young boy.

"Hey Lil' Bit what'cha doing?" JD's eyes lit up and he stood and turned and raced for Buck, screaming out his name the whole time. Chris, Nathan and the others quickly went to Ezra's side, questioning the gentleman with him as well.

Ezra for the better part of this 'rescue' was clueless, lost in the pain that had refused to die after his last move and trying to figure out just when the others got there. And just how they got there so damned fast.

"Thank you, Mr. Clark, you don't know how much we appreciate you coming to his rescue."

The aged blue eyes twinkled a little. "Oh, it was my pleasure son. That little boy is a real treasure."

Chris looked up and smiled slightly, his heart still pounding in his chest but he could at least breathe clearly now. He nodded back to Buck who was now handling both boys. "Yes they are."


The black medic looked up, after checking the bandage and the wound. "He's real out of it... but he should be fine. Lost a lot of blood. Damn fool probably wouldn't sit still and kept opening the wound."

Josiah nodded to himself mostly, standing across from Nathan and watching Ezra's passive face. Almost upon their arrival Ezra had heard the voices and relaxed into unconsciousness. Josiah had to smile . . . finally the man was trusting them. Finally they were acting like family. All seven, the young boys included, were becoming a family.

Kneeling beside Ezra he laid a palm against the sweating forehead and stroked the hair back. Nathan watched him for a moment, thinking much the same thing and agreeing. Slowly the family gathered around the wounded and waited for the ambulance.

A month later

"Settle down, Master Tanner. Settle down, Master Tanner. Settle down, Master Tanner. Settle-"

Thump, bang, slosh, splatter.

Ice cream all over the tiled floor. But Vin wasn't sad about it. He was quite triumphant as also on the tiled floor was Ezra Standish. Without invitation or need for it he jumped in his Uncle's lap and hugged him tightly. Much to Ezra's shock. "Thank you for the ice cream. Uncl' Ezra!!"