Ezra Standish blew out a frustrated breath. It seemed all he did was sleep, and yet he was still tired. The new hospital room was an improvement over the one he had shared with the old man, and he appreciated his mother's influence on making that change.
He turned his head toward his mother and smiled. She was here. She had flown all the way from Tokyo.
"I haven't been very good company," he said.
"Nonsense. There's nothing wrong with a mother sitting with her beautiful baby boy while he sleeps." Maude patted Ezra's hand and then rested her hand on his, massaging it gently.
"You go back to sleep, Son. You need your rest," said Maude. "We'll talk about New Orleans later."
Ezra's eyes closed. His leg hurt. His stomach was upset. His head felt muddled. He hated not being able to stay awake, but everyone had told him how important it was to sleep right now.
His breathing grew deeper and steadier and within moments he was asleep.
Maude squeezed his hand and kissed his forehead before leaving the room.
As she paused outside his doorway, even all her years of keeping up appearances couldn't stop the tears.
She dabbed her eyes, immediately recognizing the rich baritone voice of Josiah Sanchez.
"Josiah," she returned.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly.
Her lip trembled and her composure slipped even more. "My boy almost died."
Josiah quietly took her hand and led her to a nearby bench and sat down with her. It was a little unnerving to have the normally unflappable Maude in tears, but it wasn't every day that she was faced with her son's mortality.
"I feel so helpless, Josiah," she said. "I don't know what to do for him."
"You're here. That means a lot to him."
"Oh," she scoffed, "He doesn't need me here."
"Yes, he does," said Josiah. "Whether he realizes it or not, this scared him. It scared all of us. And when you're confronted with the possibility of losing everything, it is a comfort to have those you love near."
"I wish I could have been here when "
Her voice trailed off, not wanting to speak the words.
"You're here, now, Maude," said Josiah. "Two days ago Ezra wouldn't even have known you were here."
"It took so long to get here from Tokyo."
Josiah patted her hand reassuringly.
"Do you have a place to stay?" he asked.
Maude nodded. "I'm staying at Ezra's condo. I have to leave in two days."
Josiah was surprised by the look on her face. It was as if she were asking him to say it was okay that she couldn't stay.
"Ezra will cherish the time he has with you, however long it is."
"Oh, Josiah," she said swatting at his arm. "You know that boy of mine is as independent as a mule. He's never wanted his mother hanging around and doting on him."
Sanchez wanted to argue with her, that Ezra had in fact wanted her and needed her, but now was not the time.
"Can I take you to get something to eat?" asked Josiah.
"Oh, no," said Maude. "I'm headed back to the condo. I'll order in. I'm expecting a call from my husband, Peter."
She stood and Josiah stood with her. He watched her lost expression as she looked at the door of the room holding her son.
"Do you think " again her voice faded, but Josiah knew what she was asking.
"The doctors still aren't willing to say, but with each hour that passes that he doesn't have a complication, his chances are that much better."
Maude nodded. She understood the situation. There were any number of complications that could still occur because of the large blood loss and subsequent transfusions. And the longer he went without developing a complication, the better his chances. She took a deep breath and was almost able to pull herself together, but she couldn't pass the doorway without going back inside and giving her son another kiss on the forehead before heading home.
Ezra jerked awake in a cold sweat. His heart was pounding and his breathing was too rapid.
Gaining his bearings and recognizing he was in a hospital room, he willed himself to calm down.
It was just a nightmare.
The nightmare from hell that played every time he slept.
Reaching a shaking right hand for the cup of water on his bedside table he almost wished he could remember the details of his nightmare. If he did, perhaps he could quell the dreams.
He steadied the straw with his left hand and took a slow sip of the tepid water. Usually the nurses kept the pitcher and cup filled with ice. Apparently in the middle of the night one was actually supposed to sleep and thus not need a drink.
Ezra sighed and shifted his aching leg with a grunt.
Five days. It had been five long days since he was shot. Five days of confusion, pain and hospital food. While he was grateful for the excellent care, he wanted nothing more than to get out of here and go home where he could forget everything.
He hoped he could forget.
There was just one hold-up. His body wasn't cooperating. Oh, his leg seemed to be healing well. It was painful to walk, or move at all for that matter, but that wasn't the biggest problem. Something was still screwed up with his blood chemistry and it seemed that every time he sat up, he passed out, or very nearly so. It was very disconcerting to have the world suddenly go black and find one's self on the floor.
Fortunately he had actually only hit the floor once. The other times he had still been on the bed and the person assisting him had kept him from falling. Once had been enough, however, as he now sported a butterfly bandage under his chin from his adventure.
While unconscious he had missed the resulting controlled panic by the nursing staff trying to determine how seriously he had injured himself and if in fact he had done any damage to his leg. Too many things could still go wrong there and causing another tear in the artery could have cost his life.
He closed his eyes feeling the utter humiliation of waking up to find that he was in a fresh gown and that he no longer needed to "go." One of the nurses had tried to assure him that 'it was all right, these kinds of things happen all the time' but that had done nothing but magnify his shame. These kinds of things didn't happen all the time to Ezra P. Standish.
Ezra sighed. At least the split on his chin hadn't required stitches, and more importantly, no damage had been done to his leg. Still, it had restricted him to bed unless escorted by a hospital staff member. And after the doctor had scared him with the details of what could happen if the artery was reopened, well, Ezra was inclined to stay put. He didn't like being confined to a hospital bed, but it was a much better option than losing his leg or dying.
He'd only wanted to use the facilities on his own. Ezra sighed. He needed to go again. He just hoped the nursing staff wasn't too busy at this time of night. And he really hoped Eleanor was on duty. It was far less embarrassing to have the matronly woman assist him than one of the attractive young ladies from whom Buck was collecting phone numbers.
He placed the cup on the table and reached for the call button, bracing himself for the embarrassment that came from having his needs tended.
For the first time in what seemed like weeks, the Larabee - Wilmington - Tanner - Dunne household slept the night through without nightmares.
The chirping of his alarm drew Chris from his much-needed sleep. He reached over automatically and shut off the alarm and turned on the bedside lamp. He groggily looked at his bed slightly surprised to find he was alone.
He half smiled. Maybe visiting Ezra had done the trick for the boys. Maybe it had been enough to quell their fears and realize that Ezra was going to be all right.
Chris wasn't so sure about the rest of them. He hated to think about the fallout from Ezra's resignation. Perhaps he wouldn't have to deal with it. Maybe Ezra would rethink his position and change his mind.
Chris quickly extinguished the guilt he felt over the resignation. He'd had a good idea what the paper was when Ezra gave it to him at the hospital while the boys were visiting. He hadn't missed the fact that Standish couldn't look him in the eye. That had told him all he needed to know.
Still, he had to be sure. He'd waited until Buck was getting the boys ready for bed before slipping the envelope from his jacket pocket and examining the contents.
After reading the letter, he replaced it in the envelope and put it back in his jacket pocket. Then he had taken the jacket and put it in the back of the closet.
He knew proper procedure was to turn in the request, but in this case procedure be damned. Ezra needed time to think this through. It was never good to make a major decision after or during a highly stressful time, and he was determined to give Standish all the time he needed.
Chris shook his head. Ezra would know he hadn't really 'forgotten' the letter. Hell, they'd all know, but it didn't matter. For now the letter was lost. Standish was going to have to work hard if he really wanted to leave Team Seven.
"Mr. Larabee, is there something you wish to talk about?" He was prepared for any argument Chris would give him about his resignation letter.
Chris shrugged and shook his head.
Ezra frowned. This was unexpected.
"Did you even bother to read it?" asked Ezra with a slight hint of anger.
Ezra huffed out a breath.
"The letter I gave you two days ago."
"What letter?" Chris asked feigning innocence.
"The letter you put in your jacket pocket while the boys were visiting," Ezra growled.
"Oh, that?" said Chris. "I'm sorry, I forgot. I left it in my jacket in the closet."
Ezra looked away from him. They both knew Chris was lying.
"You can't ignore it. You have to accept it," insisted Ezra.
Chris sat down in the chair next to Ezra's bed.
"You've been shot."
"Well, that's news to me," Ezra growled sarcastically.
"And you are under a load of stress. And you know as well as I do, that you never make a life-altering decision when you're under heavy stress, let alone when your under heavy medication."
"I have thought this through "
"Hear me out," Chris demanded.
"I know you think this is best for the boys, but it's not. You've got four or five weeks of disability, and you've got two weeks vacation and 8 personal days accumulated. Take some time to think about this. Think of it this way, if you quit now, it would be like wasting all that money and time off you've earned. And you want to make sure all your medical bills are taken care of." Chris paused and ran a hand through his hair. "I won't tell you what to do with your life. You need to do what's right for you. When you use up all your time, if you still want to resign " Chris closed his eyes and blew out a sigh. "I'll hate it, but I'll accept your decision."
Ezra was quiet. He knew this was going to be hard on everyone, but he also knew that it was the right thing to do. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, yet," said Chris as he got up to leave. "I have a feeling some folks are going to try to convince you to change your mind."
Chris pulled open the door. "Oh, and Ezra?"
"I won't be the one telling the boys or the Team. You will."
Ezra nodded and watched the door close.
Ezra's waking hours consisted of blood tests, light physical therapy, eating, interviews and questioning by the review board. His sleeping hours were filled with nightmares. It was no wonder he was exhausted.
"Is Unca Ezra sleepin'?"
He'd recognize the 'whisper' of his youngest nephew anywhere.
"Shh, JD," warned the older boy. "Uncle Nathan says he can't get better unless he sleeps lots."
"It must be three thirty," said Ezra.
"Unca Ezra! You're awake!" JD announced loudly.
"Yes, JD. I am awake."
"How'd you know it was three thirty?" asked Vin.
"Because, that's when my nephews come to visit."
Ezra reached for the lever to raise his bed, but the control had slipped over the edge.
"Here," said Vin, reaching it for him. "Do you want me to help?"
Ezra looked at Chris pleading for assistance. He didn't want to tell the boy no, but he also didn't want to be jostled around by fumbling with the controls.
Chris nodded to Ezra. "Vin, do you know what those buttons do?"
"Uh-huh," said Vin. "This one makes the head go up and down and this one makes the legs go up and down. I learned how when I was in the hospital."
Chris felt a chill go through him. He hated that Vin knew how to operate the bed. He hated that Vin knew about IVs and visiting hours and worst of all, getting shot.
"Do you want your head to go up?" Vin asked.
"Just a little," Ezra replied, bracing himself for the movement.
He smiled as Vin raised the head of the bed smoothly a few inches.
"Thank you, Vin."
Vin smiled shyly and put the control next to Ezra's hand.
"We didn't bring you nothin' today," JD said with a frown at Buck. "Da says we ain't supposed to bring something every day."
"Aren't," Ezra corrected automatically.
"Is that true?" asked JD. "We always brung something for Vin."
"Brought something," said Ezra. "And it was different for Vin."
"Why?" asked Vin. "I got shot like you."
Ezra closed his eyes and took a breath. He hated to think of the fear and pain Vin had suffered, but right now he also didn't want to be reminded of what had happened at the bust.
"Because, Mr. Tanner," said Ezra, "When you were wounded, you were a small boy and you didn't have anything to speak of. But I'm an adult."
"And you got too much stuff?" asked JD.
"No no," Ezra stammered.
"You mean you don't want the Jag?" asked Vin referring to the stuffed cat the boys had given their uncle.
"Nooooo. THAT means the world to me," Ezra insisted. "I just meant that one gift for my entire hospital stay is plenty." He reached out and patted the stuffed jaguar, which rested on his bedside table. "What did you boys do today at school?" he asked trying to change the subject.
"I got all my spelling words right," said JD.
Ezra glanced at Vin. His older nephew suddenly found the picture on the wall very interesting. Spelling was difficult for him.
"And Vin got almost all his math numbers right," JD added.
"You did?" asked Ezra.
Vin nodded. "I only missed one."
"Congratulations to both of you," Ezra said with a smile.
The smile faded as the ache in his leg became more pronounced. He unintentionally let out a slight grunt as he shifted.
Both boys watched with great concern.
"Does it hurt bad?" asked JD.
How was he supposed to answer that? He couldn't lie because it was obvious that it did hurt, but he couldn't scare them by telling them how much it hurt either.
"Sometimes," Ezra said. "But usually it's because the medicine is wearing off. When I take more it goes away. What else happened today?"
"Freddy and Eli Joe teased Vin," JD reported.
"JD, don't!" Vin said.
"They said he was a big baby because he cried on the playground."
Vin's chin dropped to his chest and his shoulders slumped. He avoided everyone's eyes.
"They were wrong," said Ezra confidently.
Vin looked at his Uncle.
"Vin Tanner and JD Dunne are the bravest boys I know. Crying doesn't mean you're a baby. It means you're hurt, or you're scared, or maybe lonely. Sometimes it even means you're happy. Kids like Freddy and Eli Joe don't understand that. I think maybe it even scares them, so they have to be mean so you don't see they're afraid."
Ezra was worn out from his speech, but he could still see the doubt in two blue eyes.
"Has your Dad ever cried?"
Vin looked at Chris for permission to say something. Chris nodded to him.
"Yeah, he cried when he was really sad. And he cried when I gave him a present because he liked it."
"And I bet Buck has cried, too."
Buck and JD both nodded.
"I cry, too, sometimes and I'm sure Josiah and Nathan have as well. Are we big babies?"
Vin shook his head.
"And neither are you. Right?"
Vin smiled slightly. He loved Uncle Ezra. He was so smart.
Ezra closed his eyes. He was too tired. Feeling his hand lifted, he opened his eyes as JD tucked the jaguar into the bed and Vin lowered his arm to rest on the cat. He smiled at them and closed his eyes as the need for sleep became too heavy to fight.
Ezra jerked and threw himself to the side instinctively. The bed rail kept him from going over the side and onto the floor. He clawed at the railing trying to release it so he could get to safety.
"Mr. Standish!" called the nurse. "It's all right."
She moved quickly to the side of the bed he was scrambling to escape and gently pried his hand off of the bed rail.
"I'm sorry. I dropped a chart. I didn't mean to startle you."
Ezra took a couple of deep shuddering breaths as he tried to regain composure.
"It's all right," she soothed, helping him to roll back onto his back and quickly checking his IV and then his leg wound.
She finished and tucked his blankets around him. "I'm sorry," she repeated. "Can I get you anything?"
Ezra shook his head quickly. He didn't want anything other than to be left alone right now. He'd reacted like a frightened child and it was embarrassing.
"I'll be back later," said the nurse. "I'm really sorry," she added as she left the room.
A falling metal-cased chart did not sound like a gunshot.
Well, maybe it did just a little. Didn't it?
Ezra shifted his arm and felt the stuffed jaguar beside him. Safely hidden from view under the blanket, he stroked the soft fur.
It was a perfectly normal reaction to hear a gunshot and dive for cover. Wasn't it?
Taking a deep breath, he held it for a moment and then let it out slowly.
No. It wasn't a logical reaction when you were safe in a hospital bed and no one was shooting at you.
The image of Jeff Pearson with a gun pointed at him filled his mind and he shuddered. He pushed it away angrily and tried to focus on his breathing. His fingers gripped tightly around the jaguar as if he were going to squeeze it in two.
It seemed to take hours for his heart rate to return to normal, but just as it finally seemed to be slowing he heard a knock at the door.
"Can I come in?"
Ezra was surprised to see Ken Torres at the door. He hesitated wondering if the leader of Team Four should even be here while the investigation was ongoing.
He nodded and Ken accepted the invitation.
"What can I do for you?"
Torres seemed startled by the question. "Uh, nothing," he stammered nervously. "I just came to see how you are doing."
"You didn't come to plead Pearson's case?"
Ken closed his eyes at the hostile question.
"No," he replied, keeping his temper in check at the less than subtle accusation. "I came to see how you are doing. And I know it won't change what happened, but I want to tell you how sorry I am that you were injured and to tell you that I am doing everything in my power to make sure nothing like this ever happens again."
"Does that include firing Pearson?" Ezra asked unable to contain his anger.
Torres closed his eyes and nodded. "If that's what the Review Board recommends."
Ezra frowned. He wasn't sure what he expected, but this wasn't it.
"You're not going to plead his case - ask me to give him another chance - maybe change my statement?"
Anger flared in Ken's eyes, but his spoken words were calm. "No. I don't work that way."
"So you're just going to wash your hands of him?"
Torres took a deep breath and held his tongue. He knew little of Standish's background, but he knew enough to know that the undercover agent had been wrongly accused in his previous job and left dangling in the wind by those who were supposed to protect and support him. He knew that to Ezra, washing your hands of someone was maybe even a bigger sin than trying to get someone to lie to protect the person.
"No," said Ken. "I'm standing by him every step of the way. He's a good man and I believe him when he says he didn't recognize you and believed you were a threat. It doesn't mean he was right. He will question for the rest of his life whether he was too quick on the trigger, and I suspect you'll wonder if there was something you could have done differently."
"I'm tired." It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the truth either. He wanted Torres to leave. He didn't want to think about this anymore. He just wanted it to all go away.
Torres nodded. He knew he was being dismissed. "I know it seems trite, but if there is anything I can do for you, please call me. I mean it, Standish."
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes.
He heard the door close as Ken left, but he kept his eyes closed. Maybe he could fall asleep and wake up and this would all have been a dream.
The pain in his leg as he shifted position nixed that idea. This was very real. Too real.
Ezra cursed. Why did Torres have to come in? It was a lot easier to picture Pearson as a green, gung-ho kid that was trigger happy, not as some guy who might have made an honest mistake and was torn up over it.
Pearson's face filled his mind again. At the split second they confronted each other, Ezra had instinctively known that the young agent didn't recognize him. That instinct had made him dive and resulted in a bullet to his leg rather than his torso.
Was it possible that it was just a mistake?
Buck played the whole scene through his mind again. He could hear Josiah calling, "Snake on the move" through the headset. Every agent would have heard the signal and known that Ezra was on the move. He wasn't staying to be taken down in the bust.
Pearson should have known to watch for Ezra. He would have heard the call like everyone else.
Buck slammed his hand on his desk before standing up and angrily shoving his chair, banging it into the wall.
Wilmington gave his boss a glare. How Chris knew he was going to go pound some sense into Pearson, he wasn't sure.
"I'm angry, too," said Chris, moving from his doorway to Buck's desk and lowering his volume even softer. "A couple of years ago I might have taken it into my own hands, but now we can't afford to do that."
Buck remained silent. He knew where Chris was going.
"We have two little boys depending on us. They watch every move to see how they are supposed to handle things - to do things right."
"Sometimes busting heads is the right thing," Buck said angrily.
Chris nodded. "We play this straight. We let the Review Board do its job and then we stand with its decision."
"It should never have happened," Buck whispered.
"No, it shouldn't. But it did. Now we support Ezra every way we can and leave the rest to the authorities."
"Not very satisfying."
Chris snorted. "No, it's not. If it helps any, I wrote Pearson's name on the heavy bag in the gym."
Buck smiled. "Think I'll go have a work out. Somehow I feel like boxing."
Larabee nodded as he left the desk. "Be back in an hour." Stopping, he added, "Two at the most."
Buck grabbed his keys, locked his desk and headed for the Federal Building gymnasium. He needed to pound something and the heavy bag was a better option than Pearson's face.
Pearson was lucky he didn't have to go past Team Four's office to get to the gym.
"Doctor Lowry?" Ezra asked in surprise.
He had been making a slow circuit of the hallway with the assistance of his physical therapist, when he saw the boys' psychologist.
Lowry did a double take before recognizing Ezra Standish, the 'uncle' of two of his most intriguing clients.
"Mr. Standish," he greeted, offering a hand to shake, but pulling it back awkwardly when he realized that Ezra needed both hands to support himself on his crutches. "How are you doing?"
"All right," said Ezra. "Visiting someone?"
"Someone I know is in surgical ICU," he nodded. "I was just going to say hi."
"If you have a few moments sometime, I'd like to talk to you about the boys," said Ezra.
"Sure," said Will as he checked his watch. "I'll stop by on my way back, if that's convenient for you?"
Ezra hesitated. He wanted to talk to Dr. Lowry, but wasn't expecting it to be so soon. "That would be fine. I'm in room 311."
Lowry nodded to Ezra and continued down the hall and through the double doors into the surgical ICU area.
Ezra finished his lap of the hallway and had just settled back into bed when Doctor Lowry entered the room. The first thing the psychologist noticed was the large spotted jaguar on the bed beside Ezra.
Following his line of sight, Ezra flipped the blanket over the creature. "A gift from Masters Dunne and Tanner," he explained. "It seems to distress them if I don't keep it close by."
Will nodded, his understanding going much farther than the other man expected. He sat down in the chair next to the bed. "Now, what can I do for you?" he asked. Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee had signed release forms long ago allowing him to discuss the boys with any of their 'uncles,' as the men were so closely involved in their lives.
"I'm very concerned about the effect my injury is having on the boys," said Ezra. "They're frightened and worried and they don't deserve to face this kind of situation."
"They've dealt with stressful circumstances a number of times. I know some of your situation from discussions with Chris and the boys earlier this week. Perhaps you could fill me in on what exactly happened so I have the details?"
"This IS about the boys," Ezra replied.
"Yes," agreed Will, "But it will be helpful to know what they're dealing with."
Ezra nodded. He suspected that Dr. Lowry was seeking the background information, not for the boys, but for their uncle. He would keep the man on course.
"I was gone for several weeks on assignment. I had very limited contact, and in fact only saw each of the boys once during that time period, and I wasn't even able to speak to Vin when I saw him. The absences seem to be hard on them, Vin especially. He understands that my job is dangerous and he worries for my safety. He's been having nightmares. JD's difficulty seems to be more because he misses my presence. I think he's too young to understand the danger."
Will nodded for him to continue.
"A few days ago something went wrong on a raid and I was wounded "
Ezra paused to gather his thoughts, or perhaps his courage. It wasn't going to be easy to keep this focused on the boys.
"Something went wrong?" asked Dr. Lowry.
Ezra took a deep breath and blew it out. "I was mistaken for a criminal."
Will's training came into play and his face remained impassive as he asked, "Do the boys know this?"
"No," Ezra said quickly. "No. That is something they don't need to know."
"How are you dealing with all of this?"
"This isn't about me," Ezra insisted. He toyed with the jaguar under the blanket unconsciously.
Will nodded, allowing Standish to direct the conversation.
"I've heard the fear in their voices, seen it in their eyes when they came to visit. I don't want them ever to feel that way again because of me. I, uh " Ezra stammered, uncharacteristically finding words difficult.
"I've decided to do what I can to prevent that from ever happening again and I'm resigning from the ATF. I wanted you to know my plan in case the boys have trouble with it."
There. It was said.
"I doubt that will work," said Lowry with uncharacteristic bluntness. This wasn't actually a therapy session after all.
"The boys will be concerned for you in whatever you do. They've adopted you into their family."
Ezra looked away. Under the blanket he pulled his hand away from the stuffed cat.
"They won't have to worry if I'm dead or alive."
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?" Will asked.
"It's what's best for the boys," Ezra snapped.
"Is it best for you?"
"Yes." Ezra yawned. The walk as well as the discussion was taking its toll.
"Mr. Standish, you need to do what you believe is right, but do it for yourself, not for the boys. Vin and JD are amazingly resilient. They have a strong support system and they will learn to adjust to change. We all do. But your decision should be based on your needs."
Dr. Lowry was quiet for a moment, letting Ezra think about his words.
"And I would seriously consider waiting to make such an important decision. Right now you are functioning under the influence of medication. Your body has gone through tremendous stress. It would be wise to wait until you've had time to heal before making a major change."
Ezra yawned again. His eyes started to drift closed, but he shook himself awake.
"My apologies," he offered.
"No need," said Will.
"Thank you for your time. I'll consider your advice," said Ezra politely.
"You're welcome," said Will as he excused himself.
He shook his head as he walked down the hall hoping that Ezra would officially seek counseling, although the agent had in essence come to him for therapy. He had easily recognized the call for help, despite what was said. The young man was frightened, and had good reason to be scared. But he was denying his fear and running from the situation with the boys' welfare as an excuse.
Chris looked out the kitchen window with a smile. Vin and JD and the pups were racing around the yard. It was hard to tell just who was chasing whom. The squeals and giggles were a welcome change from the tears and nightmare screams of the past few days.
The boys' visits with Uncle Ezra in the hospital had seemed to calm their fears. The doctors still held concerns for potential complications for Ezra, but in the boys' minds, he was going to be just fine.
Vin stopped running and JD bumped into him, both boys falling into a giggling heap. Seeing Chris in the window, the older boy waved at his foster dad.
Chris returned the wave, watching as the boys ran to the tree house. They pulled up the ramp leaving the pups below barking their protest at the exclusion. He could hear Vin and JD's excited yells as they played some game for which only the two of them knew the rules.
"It's a nice sound, isn't it?" asked Buck as he stood in the doorway. He had been observing Chris watch the boys for a couple minutes.
"Too loud, too high-pitched," said Chris. "Yep, it's perfect."
Buck chuckled. "So what's for dinner?"
"Chicken and dumplings," said Chris.
"Yum," said Buck. "Gloria makes the best."
"I made it."
Buck laughed. "Should I call poison control now?"
"Get out of my kitchen!" Chris threatened, waving a spoon at Buck in a fair imitation of the late Sarah Larabee.
Chris lowered the spoon as he realized what he was doing and a momentary sadness swept over him.
"She was a great cook, and she taught you well."
Chris smiled and nodded. "Yes, she was. Now, get out of my kitchen."
Buck laughed and went out the door to see if he could join the boys' game.
"Can we go see Uncle Ezra?" asked JD as they sat around the dinner table.
Buck looked at the clock. "If we get everything cleaned up quickly, we have enough time for a short visit."
" 'Kay," said JD as he began to eat very fast. "Huwwee, Vin," he mumbled through a mouthful of food.
"JD," Buck cautioned. "Chew."
"Sowwee," JD said as he chewed as fast as he could.
When Buck grinned, Chris followed his line of sight to see what had caught his attention. He grinned as he saw what was watching.
Vin sat next to JD totally unfazed by the need to hurry. His plate was empty but he ran his fork across it catching the remnants of gravy from the dumplings. Holding the fork in front of his mouth, his small tongue darted out and licked the fork. The seven year old closed his eyes and relished the flavor for a few moments. When it was gone, the tongue flicked out again and he repeated the process.
Suddenly his eyes popped open as he realized the table was silent. His cheeks flushed as he discovered everyone watching him.
"Can I be 'scused?" asked JD, still in a hurry to go see Uncle Ezra.
Buck nodded and JD scrambled down to go and wash his hands and face.
"You really like that, huh?" Chris asked Vin.
The boy nodded. "It tastes like Mama."
Seeing the puzzled look on Chris's face, he continued, "Mama made me chicken and dunk-lings. She telled me -"
Vin stopped with a startled gasp.
"She told you what?" Chris prodded gently.
"I 'member!" said Vin with a smile. He turned to Buck and repeated, "I remember."
"Remember what?" asked Buck.
"Mama telled me I liked chicken and dunk-lings just like my daddy."
His eyes darted to Chris as he said "daddy" seeking reassurance that the mention of his birth father was all right.
"Your Dad had great taste," said Chris.
Vin grinned. "Could I have one more spoon, please?"
"Sure," said Chris, dishing up the dumplings for his son.
JD sounded appalled.
"Don't you want to go see Uncle Ezra?"
Vin nodded as he took a bite.
"But we gots to hurry," insisted JD.
"Now, Little Bit," said Buck, "We can't dally, but we don't need to rush so fast that Vin can't finish his dinner."
"But we can't be late," said JD. "We have to be there so Unca Ezra can go to sleep."
Buck and Chris exchanged glances. This ought to be an interesting interpretation of things.
"Unca Ezra needs lots of sleep so he can feel better," explained JD. "And every time we talk to him, he falls asleep."
Buck nodded. So far, JD was accurate.
"We have to hurry so Unca Ezra can go to sleep and get better."
Chris and Buck smiled. Leave it to JD to determine that Ezra couldn't fall asleep unless they visited.
Vin finished his last bite and hurriedly took his plate to the sink. "I'll be ready in just a minute." He trotted down the hall to wash his hands and face.
"Well, Little Bit," said Buck, "How 'bout you and me starting the truck?"
Chris winced as the little whirlwind turned and yelled, "HURRY VIN!"
Vin came running down the hall, hands still dripping as he rushed to join them.
"Ready!" he called following after JD and Buck.
Chris stood in the kitchen for a moment shaking his head. Life had certainly changed in the past few months.
Nathan couldn't help but smile at Ezra's triumphant grin. He shook his head and chuckled. Who would have thought Standish would be so proud of something as simple as sitting up, getting out of bed and walking across the room on a pair of crutches. But in the southerner's situation, it wasn't simple.
Ezra sat quickly on the bed, the effort of his walk perhaps a little more than he was ready to handle.
"I've met your requirements," he stated to the doctor.
"I'm still concerned about your labs," the doctor replied.
"You said I only had to be able to get up and walk across the room without repeating yesterday's unfortunate slip," Ezra replied like a petulant child who wanted his way.
"Do you have somewhere to stay?"
"I don't believe that was a pre-requisite to my emancipation," Ezra complained.
"Mr. Standish, you will need someone to keep an eye on you for a few days. To get you to your appointments. You won't be able to drive with that leg."
Ezra looked at his leg as if it had betrayed him.
"And you won't have the energy to prepare your meals, and right now it is essential that you have healthy, balanced meals to help stabilize your blood chemistry."
"Now, I can recommend a list of convalescent care centers," the doctor suggested.
"I am NOT going to a nursing home."
Nathan waved both hands forestalling the rest of the debate. "That won't be necessary, Doc. Ezra's got friends who will take care of him."
The doctor nodded. "All right. I'll get your release paper work started. I'll write out your prescriptions, set up a schedule of appointments for follow-up and therapy. It will probably be after lunch before everything is set. I'll come back about one thirty."
Ezra grinned as the doctor left. He was going home.
"Raine and I have the guest room. You can stay with us," Nathan offered.
Ezra shook his head. "I thank you for the offer, but you and your lady both work so hard. You deserve to spend your free time enjoying each other."
"Well, I'm sure Chris "
"NO!" Ezra cut him off quickly.
Nathan looked at Standish questioningly. Ezra's answer was too quick. Something was bothering him about staying at the ranch.
"No," Ezra said more softly. "Their lives have already been disrupted far too much by this entire incident. The boys need to get back into a normal routine. I would just be a distraction."
"You know I'm right," the southerner declared. "My presence would continue to remind the boys of what could have happened."
Nathan didn't like it one bit, but unfortunately it was a reasonable argument.
"Besides, Josiah has already offered the use of the day bed in his study." Ezra looked out the window. "Actually, he offered me the use of his room, but I refuse to put him out any more than I already will."