by Gina D
The overly loud whisper accompanied by the sound of two little boys trying to be quiet woke Ezra up.
"Be quiet, JD. Dad said not to wake him up."
"I won't," was the indignant reply in JD's regular voice. Ezra had to fight to keep from grinning as the rest was cut off by what he guessed was Vin's hand. There were a couple sounds of muffled indignation followed by another shhh.
"I am shushing."
"Come on, JD. Let's go before we wake Uncle Ezra up."
"Vin, JD, didn't I tell you not to wake up Ezra."
"Yes, Dad." "Yes, Chris."
"Then what are you doing in here?"
"I had to see him."
Vin's soft statement in a subdued tone killed Ezra's amusement. He'd hurt the boys with his actions and what made it worse was he knew exactly how Vin felt. He knew to well what it was like to have someone you love go away. Maude had done her best but separations had been unavoidable. As an adult he understood that, but as a boy he'd only felt the rejection. To realize that he'd done the same thing to Vin and JD, cut like a knife. He listened as Chris shooed the boys out then closed the door. With a sigh Ezra sat up scrubbing his hands over his face. "What have I done?" he muttered.
"You want the long or the short answer?"
Ezra jumped slightly, looking over toward the door. Chris was leaning against it, arms crossed. "I thought you'd left with the boys."
"Nobody can sleep through a JD check, unless they're medicated. Figured you were awake."
"How am I ever going to make what I did to them right? To you and the others also? I don't think I let myself realize how badly I'd hurt everyone."
"I'm not saying that a part of me doesn't want to knock you on your ass," Chris stepped away from the door. "Hopefully that feeling will pass before you're well enough for me to do it."
"I'm starting to think I deserve exactly that," Ezra hung his head.
Chris shook his head, "Not going to happen. Cause if you give me a shot, you'd have to let Buck, Josiah and Nathan have one too. There've been times this last week that we all wanted to."
"I had to come back." Ezra's gaze pleaded for understanding.
"You sure as he... heck did." Chris' automatic censoring of his language brought a slight smile to both men's face. "Ezra you are part of this family. I'm not saying it won't be rough for a while, but you'll get through it. We all will."
"How do I start?"
"Get up and have breakfast with the boys. Then just take it a day at a time."
"That sounds remarkably simple."
Chris gave him an evil grin, "Well it won't be."
After Chris left Ezra shook his head. He'd royally messed up by leaving. The scene from last night replayed in his head.
** Vin huddled against the passenger door of his Jag. JD's tear streaked face. The expressions of welcome from the rest of the team. Even as their eyes reflected hints of betrayal and anger. **
With a sigh, Ezra threw back the covers reaching for his sweatpants. Time to face the music. He had a lot to apologize for.
"Unca Ezra, you're up." JD jumped out of his chair running over to give Ezra a hug. Balancing carefully on his crutches Ezra reached down to ruffle JD's hair.
"I thought I might join you for breakfast." Ezra looked over at Vin, who was watching him, blank face firmly in place. "Good Morning, Vin."
"Morning," Vin said quietly, the look in his eyes hitting Ezra like a punch. It was clear that despite Ezra's assurances last night Vin was still cautious. Only time would heal that breach.
"Let Ezra sit down, JD," Buck ordered. "You need to finish eating or you'll be late for school."
JD returned to his chair with a thoughtful face. Picking up his spoon he started to play with his cereal. "Da, are you going to work today?"
"'Course I am, Little Bit."
"Chris, are you?"
"But if you and Chris go to work and Vin an me go to school, who will stay with Unca Ezra?" JD looked up, "I think I should stay home with him so he won't be alone."
Buck choked down his laughter at the blatant attempt at manipulation. "Well now, JD, that's a real nice offer, but Mrs. Potter will be here today. So you see Ezra won't be alone."
"I shall be here when you get home." Ezra made sure to make eye contact with both boys as he made the promise. "I plan to do nothing but sleep all day anyway. The plane ride was most tiring." To himself he thought it wasn't the plane ride so much as the realization of how much he'd hurt everyone by running. "When you get home we can do something."
JD was happy with the promise and even Vin seemed to relax a bit.
The day seemed to drag for JD and Vin. Both Mr. Beidler and Mrs. Roquette noticed the boy's high spirits and were happy to hear Ezra was back. Vin was even almost happy to get his spelling words for the week.
Usually Mrs. Potter had to wait in the afternoons for at least one of the boys. But today when she arrived she found both boys impatiently waiting. The reason was clear from JD's first question.
"Is Unca Ezra still sleeping?" JD was vibrating with excitement in his seat.
"No, he's up and waiting for you two." Mrs. Potter compared the two happy boys of today with the two from last week and breathed a relieved sigh. She knew there were probably still issues to be worked out, but as far as she was concerned it was just good to see Vin and JD smiling.
"Hey whys Unca Nathan here?" JD asked hurrying to unbuckle as soon as the car stopped. Not waiting for an answer he ran towards the kitchen door the moment Mrs. Potter let him out. Vin followed a bit slower, but not by much. Inside both boys were headed toward the living room when they heard, "Ow, ow, ow. Mr. Jackson you are a sadist."
Wide eyed both boys ran forward. In the living room they found Ezra lying on the floor while Nathan manipulated his leg.
"Shut up, Ezra. I didn't drive all the way out here to listen to you complain. You were lucky Raine could get you into physical therapy tomorrow. One more and we'll quit. You'll thank me tomorrow when it's not as bad. Three days without therapy at this stage could set you back a week."
"I... ow... know."
"Unca Nathan, whys you hurting Unca Ezra?" JD's innocent question surprised both men. Neither had noticed the boys yet.
"It's okay ,JD. Uncle Nathan is actually helping me. My outcries are merely a way to deal with the stress of therapy," Ezra hurried to explain.
JD and Vin edged closer. "Does it hurt lots?" JD asked, looking distressed. Vin too looked unhappy at the idea. Both boys turned the big eyes on Nathan who's own eyes widened in slight panic.
Thoroughly enjoying the effect, Ezra still didn't want the boys to worry. Sitting up he said, "The exercises don't hurt me as much as it hurts your Uncle Nathan to cause me pain. In fact," he lowered his voice, "I think he really needs a hug after all his hard work making me better."
Balanced on his knees, Nathan didn't have a chance when both boys charged, grabbing him around the neck. The momentum carried all three over onto the floor with Nathan at the bottom of the pile. Nathan finally emerged from the pile looking rather rumpled but happy. Turning Vin by his shoulders Nathan pointed him at Ezra. "I think somebody else needs a couple of hugs."
Smiling a bit shyly, Vin moved forward to wrap his arms around Ezra's neck. JD quickly joined him, clutching tightly enough that Ezra's face turned a bit red.
From the doorway Mrs. Potter laughingly called the boys, "Vin, JD, come put your stuff away and have a snack."
As the boys trooped away, Nathan helped Ezra off the floor.
"Despite my protests, I do appreciate you coming out today," Ezra said.
"Yeah, well I'm just glad you came to your senses." Nathan paused. "It was a bad week."
Ezra nodded soberly, "I have a great deal to make up for."
Pleading an early dinner with Raine, Nathan left. Ezra joined the boys for their snack of apples and string cheese. After that they all adjourned to the living room to do homework. JD finished before Vin who now had two spelling lists to work through. Luckily he was happy just to be close while Ezra and Vin struggled through the words. This was how Chris and Buck found them when they got home. JD sprawled on the floor coloring, while Vin and Ezra worked on spelling.
"Well now, Pard, isn't this a Hallmark moment?" Buck laughed, elbowing Chris.
"Yep," Chris agreed gravely.
Ezra glared up from the couch at both men, restrained from commenting by the boy's presence.
"Da!" JD launched himself from the floor. "Unca Ezra helped me and Vin with our homework. I gots mine all done."
As JD chattered to Buck, Chris leaned over Vin's shoulder. "So how're those words coming, Cowboy?"
"He's doing remarkably well," Ezra praised.
"I knew you could do it." Chris placed a fatherly hand on Vin's shoulder squeezing gently. Vin blushed a bit though he was smiling widely.
"So who's hungry?" Buck asked.
"ME!" JD crowed.
"Well then how about you come help me get things ready?" Laughing Buck carried JD toward the kitchen. "You coming, Vin?" he called back.
"Thanks for helping me with my homework," Vin said to Ezra before running after them.
"Need a hand up?" Chris asked as he held out the crutches.
Ezra started to automatically refuse, then stopped himself. Holding out a hand he let Chris help pull him up. "Thank you."
Dinner was better than breakfast. The boys talked about their day. Buck and Chris caught Ezra up on any of the office news that was suitable for little ears. Bath and bedtime came too soon as far as JD and Vin were concerned. It took two stories before the boys were settled down enough to sleep. Three tired men headed to the living room. As he settled his leg, Ezra couldn't help feeling a bit uncomfortable. This was the first time since his return the three of them had been alone. He'd hurt the boys badly leaving Chris and Buck to deal with the trauma. He was beginning to wonder if he'd permanently damaged his relationship with the team.
"How's the leg?" Chris asked.
"Sore. Nathan is a strict taskmaster."
"Well, he worried about you all week," Buck said.
"I have done a great deal of damage it seems," Ezra sighed, "I wonder how or even if I can repair it all."
"Just don't leave again," Buck warned. "'Sides, as far as anyone at the office is concerned, you went to visit your mother while recovering."
"I promise, whatever I do, I will not leave the area again."
"Does that mean you're still resigning?" Chris leaned forward, his team leader face on.
"I assume that means I still have a job." Ezra felt relieved. "I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd submitted my letter."
"About the letter." Chris was looking faintly embarrassed. Buck burst out laughing.
"What about it?"
Chris mumbled something too low for Ezra to catch.
"Ringo ate it," Chris growled. "I took it out of my jacket and laid on my nightstand one morning. When I got home he was still chewing on some of it."
Ezra began to grin, "So in essence, the dog ate my homework?"
"Well, not so much ate. From the amount of pieces I found, he just chewed it to death."
There was a moment then all three men started laughing. As they calmed down Buck said, "I guess I have to confess now. I think JD fed it to him. He said something the next day about Elvis not liking paper but Ringo did. I just didn't have the heart to scold him."
"Seriously, Ezra, you still have a job if you want it. If you don't want to do undercover anymore I'll find you a new position," Chris promised.
"Thank you for that," Ezra paused, "I admit I still haven't decided yet. I do know that I want to remain on the team, but I don't know if I would be able to trust my life or the team's to another person."
"Well you still have a few weeks of disability leave, even then you can figure on riding a desk for a while."
"I seem to be saying this a lot, but again, thank you." Deciding to lighten things up Ezra changed the subject. "So, all I have to do now is find a place to live and get my property back."
"You got any idea on where you want to look?" Buck asked.
"I'm hoping to find something between here and work. I'll call the realtor I used last time. She was most efficient."
"Sounds good." Buck stood up, "Well I'm gonna hit the hay."
In the morning Chris dropped Ezra off at therapy. After Josiah was waiting to take him back to the ranch. A nap and lunch provided by Mrs. Potter, over his objections she wasn't there to wait on him, re-energized him. Calling his realtor Ezra set up an appointment for the next afternoon. He then started calling around trying to find his furniture.
Eager to see their Uncle, JD and Vin hurried through putting their stuff away before searching him out. They found him in the den.
"Sir I find your attitude most unacceptable. How does one loose an entire truck?" "I await your call with bated breath." Ezra slammed the phone down, "You moronic Neanderthal."
"Vin, is 'nee an der tal' a bad word?" JD whispered which of course meant that both Vin and Ezra heard it.
With a groan Ezra turned his chair to face the boys. "Gentlemen, I did not hear you come home." Pulling out his wallet he handed JD a dollar. "While Neanderthal is not a bad word, JD, the statement you overheard was mean and definitely deserves a contribution to the swear jar."
"Huh?" JD looked at Vin.
"The words aren't bad, but the way Uncle Ezra used them was," Vin explained.
"Exactly, I apologize for letting my frustrations get the best of me."
"He's sorry he said it," Vin translated before JD could ask.
"Okay." JD trotted off to put the dollar away.
"Are you having a bad day? Vin sidled closer.
"It's much better now that you and JD are here."
Vin stepped closer to fiddle with a pen on the desk. When he spoke Ezra's hope that Vin was healing were struck a hard blow. "If you can't get your stuff back are you leaving again?"
When Ezra held out his arms, Vin took the invitation willingly. Hugging him tightly Ezra whispered fiercely, "I will never again leave by choice, Vin. I promise."
Vin tilted his head back studying Ezra. Whatever he saw in Ezra's face seemed to help. His body relaxed, a smile brightening his face. Ezra realized it was the first real smile he'd seen from the boy since his return. "Do you want to work on my puzzle?"
"Do you have any homework?"
"Just my spelling words."
"Then may I suggest we go over those first then work on the puzzle."
"Okay." Vin raced off to get his list.
"Now remember you two, Buck will pick you up after school. Mrs. Potter has a doctor's appointment this afternoon."
"That's right, I need you guys to be outside and waiting right at 3:00."
"But we get out at noon today," JD looked up from his cereal.
"And why are we only hearing about this now?" Buck looked over at Chris questioningly. Chris shook his head he hadn't known either.
"It's my fault," Vin whispered staring at his bowl. "Mrs. Roquette sent a note last week. I forgot to give it to you." His voice trembled with suppressed tears.
Chris and Buck exchanged glances again. For his part Ezra kept his head down as well. He knew why Vin had forgotten. Chris motioned Buck toward the mudroom. When the two men came back out they sat down at the table.
"Vin," Chris reached out placing his hand over Vin's. "Look at me please," he asked gently. It was a moment before Vin looked up, his face devastated.
"Ah, Pard." Chris held out his arms, the invitation eagerly accepted. Rocking Vin in his arms he looked around the table. JD had climbed into Buck's lap as soon as Vin had moved. Ezra was looking at both boys guilt stricken. "Buck and I made a decision," Chris looked down at Vin. "We've decided that last week was pretty horrible. And when things get horrible like that even grownups can forget stuff. So for last week, both of you," he looked over to JD, "are getting a 'Get Out of Jail' card for this. I don't want it to happen again, though. Maybe we should set a special place up for important school papers. That way when you come home with a note it can go there while you put your stuff away. How does that sound?"
"Could we put anything important we wants to show you in it?" JD asked.
"That's a great idea, Little Bit. Then we won't miss anything." Buck lifted JD off his lap, "Now go finish getting ready for school. We're leaving in ten minutes.
Buck waited until both boys had left before asking Chris, "So, now what do we do?
"I will be happy to reschedule my appointment and stay home with the boys," Ezra said.
"That great Ezra, but our main problem is how to get them home." Chris sighed, "We have a mandatory meeting today from eleven to four. I figured I was already going to get flack for Buck leaving early."
"I believe I have a solution that will please everyone," Ezra smiled. "I had planned to lunch with my realtor before we went to look at houses. She is picking me up here. I shall call and ask her to come a bit earlier. Then we can go by the school and retrieve the boys. I would like their input anyway before I decide on a place."
Buck looked at Chris, "I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."
Chris nodded before sending Ezra a rather feral grin. "Thanks, Ez. That would help. Just remember, you volunteered."
"Can I see?" JD poked his head between Ezra and Jennifer Hayes, his realtor. With a gasp, Jennifer sat back quickly cringing away from JD's greasy fingers. Ezra repressed a sigh as he wiped JD's hands free of French fry grease. His memory of Ms. Hayes as coolly efficient was still true. She'd brought information on several properties. But he had forgotten how cold she was. Or rather he realized, maybe it was that he'd warmed. Either way, it was clear she had no understanding of children. He should have realized that when she'd asked him if car seats were actually necessary. For a moment he thought about calling the meeting off, but the boys had been delighted at being asked to help him find a new home.
"What does 'adults only' mean?" JD looked up from the listing he had wanted to see.
"That means only people without children may rent those," Jennifer explained in a overly sweet voice. She couldn't understand how the sophisticated Mr. Standish had become involved with children. Not that it mattered. All she was concerned with was her commission, which would be hefty if she could get him into this place.
"Does that mean we can't visit?" JD was starting to look worried.
"It doesn't matter what it means." Ezra wrapped his arm around JD's shoulders. "I have no intention of looking there." Turning back to Jennifer he smiled, "Did you have any luck in regards to my other requirements."
Hiding her disappointment Jennifer nodded. "Yes, I have several places we can go look at. But are you sure this one won't do? It's really perfect for an adult professional."
"I'm positive. Shall we go?" Ezra waved for the check.
It was at the third place that Ezra finally lost it. Like the previous two places the carpets were light colored, the walls bland. In short it was exactly like his previous condo. When Jennifer for the umpteenth time cautioned the boys not to walk on the carpet or touch the walls, he decided enough was enough. JD's lips were trembling and Vin's glare was channeling his inner Larabee. What should have been a fun afternoon had turned into torture for them.
"Ms. Hayes, I don't believe this is working," Ezra started only to be interrupted.
"No, Mr. Standish, it isn't. I must ask that the next time we meet you come alone. Really it's much easier that way."
His eyes glinting dangerously Ezra said through gritted teeth, "I don't see what meeting again could possibly accomplish. It's clear you are unable to understand my requirements. I think it best we stop here."
"That is perfectly fine with me." Turning sharply, Jennifer stomped out of the house. Really what had happened the to efficient easily dealt with client she'd remembered?
"She doesn't like kids," Vin said wisely.
Ezra had no argument for that. "Well that doesn't matter now. We'll go home and tomorrow I'll find another realtor." They walked outside just in time to see Ms. Hayes leaving the parking lot. She'd left JD and Vin's car seats lying in the street.
"Why that," Ezra cut off the rest of the comment.
"Are we losted?" JD asked fearfully.
"Not at all," Ezra hastened to reassure. "We know exactly where we are."
"Are you going to call Dad?"
"No, Vin. Buck and he are in a meeting this afternoon. I don't want to disturb them unless we have to."
"So what aaarrrrre we going to do?" JD threw his arms up and down.
Ezra winked as he pulled out his cell phone. "We are going to call a taxi."
"A taxi, for real?" JD was now bouncing with excitement. "I've never been in a taxi. Have you Vin?"
When Vin didn't answer Ezra looked around to see him struggling to pull JD's car seat over the curb onto the sidewalk. Ezra cursed the vanity that had him using his cane today instead of the crutches as he hobbled toward the street.
"Hey mister, you need some help?" The question came from a teenager walking toward them.
"It would be most appreciated," Ezra said. "Vin, please come out of the street. You are more important than any car seat."
Vin reluctantly stepped back, letting the older boy pick the seat up. After setting it back from the curb he retrieved Vin's as well. "My names Noah Anderson. I saw your wife leave. Man, you must have really made her mad." Noah was grinning.
"I believe mad is an understatement, but thankfully she was not my wife." Ezra held out his hand, "Ezra Standish, this is Vin and JD. Ms. Hayes was my realtor."
"Oh, well that explains it." Noah grinned down at Vin. "Hey, you're pretty strong. If that seat hadn't gotten hooked on the curb you'd have beat me to it." Vin's face relaxed at the praise. Ezra studied Noah, he was almost Ezra's height with the build of a defensive lineman. His skin was a shade lighter than Nathan's but his smile was just as warm.
Stifling a sigh, Ezra tried to shift his weight. His leg was really starting to act up. The movement attracted Vin's attention. "Uncle Ezra ,is your leg hurting?"
"I'm all right, Vin."
"Unca Ezra gots shot in the leg," JD informed Noah solemnly.
"I work for the ATF," Ezra hurried to explain. "Along with JD and Vin's fathers."
"You'd better come over to my house," Noah hefted a seat in each arm. "We can cut through here and save you some steps.
"We don't want to be a bother," Ezra started to hedge even though he really needed to get off his leg.
"You won't be a bother, sides my Mom would kill me if I left you out here. You don't want to get me in trouble do you?" Noah started off with the car seats. Ezra briefly considered how smart it was to take the boys into a stranger's house. Hobbling after Noah he started to hedge, "We do appreciate the help but your mother may not wish to be surprised by a house full of strangers..."
"It's no problem. My Dad is the pastor over at Crossroads Church. She's used to it. Here we are." Noah had led them through the condo's back yard to the next street over. It was a small cul-de-sac of older but well cared for houses. Noah was already opening the door of a cheerful looking yellow house. Setting the car seats down he yelled, "Mom, we have company."
"Noah, must you shout?" Noah's mother came out of the kitchen, a warm smile on her café colored face. Holding out her hand to Ezra she said, "Hello, I'm Marge Anderson, welcome."
"Ezra Standish, at your service. These are my nephews, Vin and JD." The boys smiled shyly.
"They were looking at one of those condo's," Noah pointed toward the other street. Their realtor drove off and left them. She threw the car seats out and took off. Mr. Standish here is recovering from a leg wound. So I figured I better bring them in."
"You did the right thing." Marge didn't loose her smile, but her eye's glinted with anger as Noah described Ms. Hayes' actions. Sighing a bit she waved Ezra toward the couch. As she helped him get settled she whispered low enough the boys couldn't hear, "Some people. Sometimes it's very hard to remember I'm the wife of a Reverend."
Ezra grinned, "Ma'am, I have a friend who would sympathize completely."
"Please, call me Marge." Turning to JD and Vin she said, "So, do you boys like chocolate chip cookies and milk?"
"Yeah!" JD's wholehearted grin and enthusiasm won him another mother's heart. As did Vin's shy smile and "Yes, please."
"Noah take these boys and help them wash up. I'll get the refreshments. Mr. Standish..."
"Ezra, you keep that foot up. I'll bring you some iced tea."
In short order Noah was supervising milk and cookies in the kitchen while Marge and Ezra visited. Ezra had used the time in between to call a cab company. They promised someone would be there in about forty-five minutes.
"So, you were looking at those new condos." Marge sighed, "I wish you were looking for a house. The one next door is for sale. I know it's horrible of me, but I've been dreading when it finally sells. The only people that seem interested are college kids. The thought of living next to a frat house makes me shudder. Plus it will upset the entire rhythm of the neighborhood."
"Yes, this little cul-de-sac is sort of like a family. It's mostly older couples forties and fifties. Oh and Mrs. McNab, she's eighty-one and a real pistol. Her house was the original farm. She was born there." Marge smiled warmly, "We all sort of look out for each other."
"It's a very nice neighborhood." Ezra looked out the window, "but I was hoping to find something near a park. Hopefully with some children around JD and Vin's age so they have more to do when they come visit. Plus I am sometimes away for long periods of time, so having a yard to care for it impossible."
"Oh there is a park. It's a block over to the North." Marge leaned forward, "As for kids, almost everyone on the block has grandchildren. There are usually at least a couple running around. And if the yard is a problem, well Noah has a very nice lawn mowing business. He could even water it for you."
"Marge, are you trying to talk me into something?" Ezra smiled.
Laughing she sat back, "Is it working?"
"I'd need to look at the house."
"I just happen to have a key."
"Vin, JD," Ezra called. When the boys appeared he asked, "How would you like to go look at the house next door?"
All five of them trooped over. This time with no Ms. Hayes the boys took off exploring at high speed. Ezra examined the rooms carefully, liking what he saw. The kitchen was a bit outdated, but it wouldn't take much to fix that. Most of the rooms were covered in shag carpeting in colors that made a person wince. But from the style and age of the house Ezra bet himself underneath was wood flooring. The entire place would need painting. He stopped in mid thought when he realized he was already making plans. He hadn't intended to buy, but now he was wondering why not. Buying meant roots, an idea that for the first time didn't scare him. It also made a lot more sense from a financial viewpoint.
"Unca Ezra, come see," JD yelled popping in through the backdoor the running back. Stepping out Ezra found a nicely landscaped, though overgrown backyard. But what had JD and Vin so excited was a bronze turtle statue. The thing was big enough both boys could sit on it, which they were.
"Look Unca Ezra, it's Torkus."
"Oh, I forgot about that." Marge looked embarrassed, "I told the realtor I would get rid of it."
"Oh no, it's perfect." Ezra sat down on the back step and for the first time since being shot he truly out and out laughed. Giggling both boys climbed off the turtle running over to hug him.
"You have to get this place," Vin said.
"Oh please, Unca Ezra, please," JD begged.
Hugging both boys to him, Ezra looked up at Marge. "So do you know a realtor?"