Making the Team

by Monica M.

Universe: Regents AU

Disclaimer: The M7 characters in this story belong to MGM. I’ve made no money here or anywhere else for that matter, but that’s really beside the point.

Notes: This is set in the Regents AU created in the story Seven Toy Soldiers by Debra M and I. In it, the Seven are all teenagers in an all-boys prep school.

Thanks: To Debbie for letting me fly solo with a baseball story or two. <g>

Major Characters: Ezra, but everyone is here!

Other stories in this AU:

Seven Toy Soldiers
Fish Tales and Fathers
A Mother's Worst Fear
What I'm Thankful For
Tidings of Comfort and Joy
Dates, Dares and Danger
Guys Gone Wild
Bets and Brawling

Ezra stopped in the doorway of the room he shared with Vin and stared at the box that sat on his bed. He could clearly read the label and knew that it was for him, but he did not recognize the handwriting and that made him immediately suspicious. Especially as his birthday was still a couple of months away. He looked around him, but none of his other friends were present. He knew that still did not save him from a practical joke. Vin was notorious for them and Buck and J.D. were developing into quite the pranksters themselves as they found the need to retaliate for ones played against them.

Finally deciding that it would be better to end the anticipation, he walked into the room and closed the door. He picked up the box and gave it a light shake. It was fairly heavy and solid which made him even more curious. Closing his eyes, he pushed off the lid and took a quick step away from the box, deciding that it was always better to be safe rather than sorry. When nothing immediately happened he peeked open one eye and peered into the box. What he saw had both his eyes opening wide with wonder and his jaw dropping with surprise.

All reservations gone, Ezra scooped out the baseball glove and did the first thing that came naturally; he brought the glove up to his face and took a big whiff of the leather and oils smell that took him back immediately to his Little League days on the baseball diamond. It was a new glove but someone had already taken the time to break it in so that it was supple and soft. He slipped the infielder’s glove on his left hand and pounded his right hand into the already formed pocket. Even that sound brought back so many memories. The sophomore thought about his father and how much he did miss him. He had thrown away his glove, over his mother’s protest, and had said that he would never play again. Baseball had been something special between Ezra and his father and at ten he could not imagine one without the other.

Still wearing the glove on his hand and marveling at its perfect fit, Ezra looked into the box again but didn’t find anything that would reveal who had given it to him. Reluctantly he took it off and put it back in the box, but not before taking one more whiff of its clean leather smell. After putting the lid back on it, he took the box and placed it in the trunk at the foot of his bed. He was not sure what any of this was about and wanted to see if any of the others brought up the subject before he asked them about it.

No longer interested in finishing his reading assignment early, Ezra started back out of his room to meet up with his friends in their secret place under the cafeteria. He was stopped dead in his tracks when he opened the door to find Clint Larabee standing there, waiting for him.

“Officer Larabee, what are you doing here?” Ezra stammered out.

Clint smirked at the obvious shock on the sophomore’s face. “I’m here to take you to batting practice, so let’s go.”

Ezra gave the slightest of headshakes while blinking his eyes in befuddlement. “Batting practice?”

Clint stepped into the room, forcing the teenager back into it with him. “Yep. Batting practice.” He scanned the room obviously looking for something. “Where’s the glove?”

“What glove?” Ezra asked even though he immediately regretted voicing such a stupid question.

“The glove I just gave you,” Clint answered actually managing to sound patient for once.

“I put it in my trunk.” Ezra felt as if everything he understood about the world had just been thrown out the window and he was struggling to catch up to the new rules. “Why did you give me a glove? And why do you want to take me to batting practice?”

A bona fide Larabee smirk was his answer at first. Then Clint took pity on the floundering boy and said, “Because you’ve got a tryout for Regents baseball team next weekend and you’re gonna make the team.”

The teenager had removed the box from the trunk, but now dropped it back in as he stared at Clint. “I’m not trying out for the baseball team!”

“Yes, you are,” Clint reasserted. “Now get that glove and let’s go. I got us a time reserved at the batting cages. After that we can toss the ball around for a little while, get your arm loosened up.”

“But I thought tryouts had already been held,” Ezra protested still trying to understand just what was happening.

Huffing impatiently, Clint bent and took the glove out of the box and slapped it against the teenager’s stomach. The sophomore reflexively grabbed it, but continued to stare at him with confusion until he answered, “Chris and I talked to Coach Hamilton and he’s willing to give you a look over. Looks like a couple of the boys who made the team might not have the grades to stay. Now, come on.”

Clint grabbed Ezra’s arm and pulled him toward the door. He was actually surprised at how pliant the young man was, but decided it was because he was still trying to catch up to what was happening to him. Officer Larabee knew it would not last long, but he was enjoying it.

“But why?”

“So you can play baseball.”

They had made it to the stairwell when Ezra repeated his uncharacteristically monosyllabic question. “But why?”

Clint stopped and made Ezra look up at him. “Because you never should have stopped playing,” he answered quietly.

The southerner pulled his arm free from Clint and took a step back. His eyes dropped to the glove he still clutched against his body and then flicked back up to the older man’s eyes. A host of emotions warred in those sage depths. Clint had never seen anyone as young as Ezra manage so well to get himself back under control so quickly. He seemed to shake off the grief and regret that had washed over him and instead settled on anger, an anger he now focused on the officer.

“You don’t know what I should or should not have done. I stopped playing baseball because…”

“Because your dad died,” Clint finished for him his steely voice tinged with sympathy and understanding. “Your mother told me.”

Ezra refused to look Clint in the eye as he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter why I quit playing. The fact of the matter is that I do not want to play anymore, so I don’t see why…”

Again Clint cut off the teenager, “The fact of the matter is that you don’t have a choice in this.”

Outrage brought Ezra up to his full height as he dropped the glove to the floor as if it were burning him. “You can’t make me play,” he asserted in a drawl that had found a steeliness all its own.

“No, I can’t. But I can guess that you’ll prefer playing to any of the other options you might have.”

“What are you talking about?” Open curiosity filled his face along with suspicion at this new veiled threat.

“Pick up the glove and I’ll explain things on the way to the batting cages,” Clint returned.

They stood on the stairwell landing, neither of them moving or backing down. After several moments, Clint started past Ezra quickly going down the stairs. He stopped midway down and looked back up at the southerner. “I’m offering this only once. You can come with me and hear all your options and then decide. Or you can stay here and find out what you’re left with. But if you stay, the offer of you playing baseball is gone. Your decision.” With that he turned and continued down the stairs.

Ezra listened as Clint’s steps echoed in the stairwell and even flinched slightly at the sound of the fire door opening and slamming shut. He knew he did not have much time to consider the cop’s offer because Clint was just as impatient as his son.

He hated the fact that Clint had the upper hand in this particular situation, but without all the facts, Ezra knew he could not make an informed decision. He knew it was quite possible that Chris’ father was bluffing and that there would not be any consequences if he did not go with him to the batting cages. But he could not risk it at this time. He would learn what all this was about first and then decide how best to act. It would be a small blow to his pride to appear to capitulate to Officer Larabee’s will, but Ezra could withstand that. After all he was well schooled in the art of payback and he had no reservations about using those skills against the sheriff if the need arose.

Bending quickly and snatching the glove from the floor, Ezra raced down the stairs, out the building and over to the parking lot where Clint sat in his regular car with the motor already running. The sophomore immediately dropped into a more dignified walk when he saw that he was still waiting but he knew that Clint had already seen him by the smirk on the man’s face. Strolling over to the passenger’s side he slowly got into the car. As he was buckling his seatbelt he asked, “You know how I hate getting into trouble so I do hope that you have all the proper authorizations to take me off campus.”

Clint snorted his response as he put the car into gear and drove off. Ezra barely managed to wait until they had passed the gates of the school before he asked, “So just what is all this about, Officer Larabee? And just why are you involved?”

“I’ve been asking myself that very question,” Clint thought to himself as he reviewed the events that had led to his involvement.

It had all started with a visit from Beatrice Wilmington. Clint wondered when he would learn that a visit from Buck’s mother usually only meant bad news for him. Beatrice told him about a visit she had with Maude Standish after the boys’, especially Ezra’s, near suspension from school. Maude had managed to talk Dean Parker out of the punishment but now worried about what would happen the next time her son got into trouble. And with Ezra it was not a question of if he would get into trouble again, but when.

Beatrice visited Clint in the hopes that his male perspective would offer some new ideas about what could be done with Ezra. She had not appreciated his first couple of suggestions and had told him as much. Trying to ward off her anger he had jokingly told her about the idea he had considered as a means of getting a little payback against Chris for the speeding ticket incident. A rookie cop had pulled Chris over for speeding but had not issued him a ticket. Instead he had tormented Clint with relentless teasing as a result. So after visiting his son at his school, he had considered what would be an equal annoyance for Chris. He had never really thought about following through with it, but he thought it would be suitable retribution to have Chris worrying about Ezra joining the baseball team with him. When he joked about it with Beatrice she had quickly enthused that it was the perfect idea making Clint wish he had learned how to keep his mouth shut.

Before he had known what was happening Beatrice had been on the phone calling Maude and running the idea by her. When he saw that it was taking a bit of convincing, he had tried to get her to just drop the entire thing, but Beatrice was determined. He told her that it was actually too late since tryouts had already been held and the team selected. She had rolled her eyes and told him that there were always ways around that. He reminded her about how Dean Parker would probably not allow Ezra off campus with the team, especially after the track meet fiasco. Beatrice had told him to leave Parker to her and Maude.

Once she had Maude on board with the idea, Beatrice had worked out exactly how they were going to make this happen. Clint protested against the idea for as long as he could. But in the end he had to admit that there was a small part of him that wanted to do this. He remembered the fishing trip he had taken the boys on when Ezra had admitted that baseball was his favorite sport and the look on the boy’s face when he had talked about how his father had loved the game as well and had gone to all his games. Clint would never go so far as to say that he liked Ezra but he did feel sorry for the young man having lost his father at such an early age.

The cop had actually tried to look into the murder case of Dylan Thomas Standish. When his calls had been returned he had only been told that there was very little information regarding the case. When he had pressed for more details he had been told that the cold case was closed unless new direction was discovered. Clint tried to tell himself that it was because the law enforcement community had failed to find the person responsible for killing Ezra’s father that he felt a need to help the southerner out. He was going to stick to that story no matter what, even though no one seemed inclined to believe it, least of all his own son.

While Beatrice and Maude worked on convincing Dean Parker and Headmaster Lowell to allow Ezra on the baseball team if he made the cut, it had fallen to Clint to convince his son to help him get Coach Hamilton to give Ezra a shot. Chris’ initial reaction had been less than positive. They had argued for quite some time before Chris suddenly gave in taking his father completely by surprise. When he had questioned his son, the younger Larabee had replied that he realized that at best Ezra would make the Junior Varsity team and since Chris played on the Varsity team the two would have no dealings together at all. After that Chris had been all too eager to help Clint set things up so that Ezra would have very little say in the matter.

“We don’t need to get into how I got involved into the whole thing,” Clint finally answered Ezra. “All you need to know is that your mother has gotten tired of dealing with all the trouble you get into and thinks that keeping you busy with a team sport will be a good idea.”

“Mother told you this herself? She talked to you about all this?” the teenager questioned with disbelief.

“No, she didn’t come to me. She went to Beatrice and she came and talked to me,” Clint clarified.

“And you decided that I should join the baseball team?” He seemed to consider this for a moment before adding, “Is this your means of punishing Chris for almost receiving a speeding ticket?”

Clint took a sideways glance at the teenager in the passenger seat and chuckled to himself. He should have known that Ezra would make that connection. The cop had made it a point to be as honest as possible with the southerner and he saw no reason to change that now. “As a matter of fact, I’ll admit that making Chris have to deal with you at his games and practice would be a good way to get him back for all the teasing I had to take at work. But as Chris pointed out, you’ll probably end up on the Junior Varsity team so that won’t really work out. And after talking things over with Beatrice I really do think that it would be good for you to get back into the game.”

Ezra had no doubt that Clint was telling him the truth. He still found it difficult to understand why the honesty and respect that the elder Larabee was showing him meant so very much to him. It made him feel secure in a way that he had not felt in a very long time. He could not deal with those emotions, though, their implications were far too frightening. Instead he picked up on Clint’s statement about Chris. “What makes Chris so sure that I couldn’t make the Varsity team?”

The elder Larabee grinned at the sudden change in Ezra’s demeanor. A minute ago the teenager had been denying that he even wanted to play baseball again. Now he was outraged that anyone would think that he was not good enough to make the top team. Clint wished there were always a way to channel the boy’s contrariness so that it had him doing exactly what was wanted of him. “Well, it has been five years since you’ve played, you know? And you’ve only got one week to practice.”

As if realizing that he was sounding a little too eager, Ezra quickly tried to take a step back. “That is if I decide that I want to try out. You said that there were other options. I would like to know what those are.”

“Well here’s the thing, Ezra, you’re only other option is for the things to stay the way they have been.”

Pale green eyes narrowed as they turned to look at the driver. “Are you saying that trying out for baseball is my only other option?” he asked in clipped tones.

“At least you’ve got an option. I know what I would choose if I was given the choice between playing baseball or being stuck on campus every weekend unless my mother came to pick me up. And I don’t even like to play baseball all that much.”

The cop did have a valid point but it just pained the young southerner to admit it. Searching for loopholes, his agile mind grasped onto one last possibility. “What if I tryout for the team but don’t make the cut?”

Clint shrugged. “Then things stay the way they are. Think of it as an incentive to make the team.”

He slipped into negotiation mode, his voice smooth and casual. “But as you just pointed out, it has been five years since I’ve touched a bat and ball. There should be some concession made for that.”

“I think you’ve used up all the concessions that might be made for you already, Ezra.” Clint’s tone was firm and final.

They drove the rest of the way to the batting cages in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Ezra was alternately angry and pleased that Clint was taking such an active interest in him. He did not like the way the cop was trying to impose his will on him, but at the same time he could not deny to himself that if felt good to know that someone, besides his mother, cared about what happened to him.

Clint parked the car, killed the engine and looked over at Ezra. “So what’s it gonna be?”

The teenager gazed out the passenger side window, ignoring Clint for a moment as he watched a few people already in the batting cages. A coach worked with a group of eleven and twelve-year olds. A pair of mothers alternately shared the neighborhood gossip and offered advice and encouragement on their sons’ batting abilities. But Ezra’s attention was held by a father and son sitting on the lowered tailgate of a truck. The little boy was no more than seven or eight and most likely facing a pitching machine for the first time. He sat a little dejectedly as he listened to his father. Ezra could not hear what was being said but the tableau reminded him of his own first time in a batting cage. It had not gone well at all. He had been very disappointed in himself and had cried about never being able to hit off the machine. His father had sat him down and told him that he should never decide that he could not do something based on just one try and had made his son promise to keep trying. After a few more attempts, a triumphant Ezra had improved and truly began to enjoy the occasional trips he and his father would take to the cages.

Fifteen-year old Ezra could not help but wonder how his father would feel about his being here with Clint Larabee. The young man was surprised by the sudden certainty that Dylan Thomas Standish would approve. Ezra turned, meeting Clint’s questioning look. “I am going to make the team,” he stated.

If he was a little taken aback by the boy’s sudden determination he did not show it. He simply responded with a nod of his head, “Get the gear out of the trunk and let’s see what you got.”

Now that he had come to his decision, Ezra was truly eager to get into the batting cages and get back into the whole feel of baseball once again. He had missed it. He had just not allowed himself to realize how much. When he went to the trunk after Clint popped it open, he was surprised to see the amount of gear inside. The cop grinned. “Your mom bought the batting gloves and helmet. I borrowed a couple of bats so we could see what weight suits you best. “

Without thinking about what he was revealing, Ezra asked with open concern in his voice, “Did my mother also buy the glove in my room as well?”

Clint realized then how important it was to the young man that the baseball glove came from him and he was glad that he could honestly say that it had. Maude offered to pay for it, but Clint told her that this would be his gift to Ezra. He had never really been one for baseball, but he remembered how Chris would spend hours oiling and shaping his glove and just knew that there was a special relationship between a boy and his glove. And he knew that it would somehow mean more to Ezra to have that glove come from him instead of his mother. Or at least he had hoped that it would.

“No, I got you that one. Your mom said when you played you were an infielder, so I knew what kind to get. Well, actually I had Chris go with me, to make sure I got something that would fit. And he showed me how to oil and shape it,” Clint admitted.

Ezra’s pale green eyes lit up with a joy that Clint had never seen before in the young man and he swore that for the barest of moments it seemed like the sophomore considered hugging him. He could not hide the light in his eyes or the surprise on his face at the fact that Chris had assisted. He was trying to think of a suitable response when Clint scooped the batting helmet out of the trunk and plunked it onto Ezra’s head, patting it into place. “Come on, let’s go. Like I said we’ve only got an hour and I think you’re going to need every minute of it.” Clint started toward the cages, knowing that Ezra was grabbing the bat bag and shutting the trunk. The cop had to admit that when he allowed himself to be a normal fifteen year old Ezra actually was not so bad at all.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra dug in and took a few practice swings. He was in the wrong shoes and the wrong clothes, but he still felt comfortable, almost as if it had not been five years since his last at bat. That feeling melted away once the pitching machine had been zeroed in and set for him. He swung at the first pitch and completely mistimed it.

He expected to hear laughter from Clint but the cop was encouraging instead. “Just watch a couple go by, Ezra. You’ve got to get the feel of it again. Don’t rush yourself.”

The southerner, seeing the wisdom of the man’s words, nodded as he stood ready in the batter’s box but took the next couple of pitches from the machine. Deciding that he had a good feel for the speed and location of the pitches he took another swing at the next pitch. His timing was still a little off as he fouled off the pitch, but he was grateful to at least get the bat on the ball.

Digging in again and preparing for the next pitch, Ezra was surprised to hear Clint offer some advice. “Open up your stance and choke up on the bat.”

The teenager spared a glance at the cop, letting another pitch go by without a swing. “Do you even know what you’re talking about?”

Clint grinned sloppily and then admitted, “No. But I heard those women over there telling their kids that and I thought it sounded good.”

“And you’re supposed to help me be ready for a tryout this weekend? I’m doomed.” Very slowly, though, Ezra inched his hands up ever so slightly on the handle of the bat, choking up to give himself a little more bat control.

The cop smiled again from the other side of the batting cage fence as Ezra refocused his attention on waiting for the pitch. The sophomore had been tense before, but now looked a bit more relaxed. Clint watched as the teenager swung true at the next pitch, connecting solidly with the ball with what would have been a hit in a game situation.

Ezra flashed Clint a dimpled smile. The happiness in his eyes made the cop find the cocky grin to be far less irritating than usual. “You hit many homeruns back in your day?” Clint teased.

The young man’s grin widened. “I’ve had my share.”

“Well let’s see if you can find that swing again.” He watched Ezra as the boy took swing after swing settling into a rhythm of solid hits. He did not realize that someone else had stopped to watch as well until the other man, probably someone’s coach, spoke.

“Your boy’s got a real natural swing. Great balance and timing,” he said without turning to look at Clint. He had on a baseball cap pulled low on his head and was hunched into his windbreaker though it was not that cold out.

He did not correct the man’s assumption. In fact he surprised himself with the measure of pride in his voice as he responded, “Can you believe he hasn’t played in five years?”

“Really? Wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Hope he has a good season.” With a nod the man walked off.

Their allotted time at the batting cages passed all too quickly. Clint walked into the cage to help Ezra collect all the balls that he had hit. “How are ya feeling?”

“Pretty good,” the teenager answered. “I’ll probably be a little sore in the morning, but I have to admit that it felt good.” His eyes met Clint’s in a silent thank you.

The cop nodded in return, showing his understanding. “Yeah, you probably will be. That’s the price you pay for being a lazy son of a gun.” Again he received the not quite as irritating as it used to be grin. “You still want to toss the ball around a bit? There’s a park we can go to, if you want.”

Ezra nodded. “I will need to work on my defense if I want to make the team.”

“Alright. We’ll have to work something out so you can practice during the week after school.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. I believe I will seek Vin’s assistance.”

“Vin?” Clint questioned.

“I realize he is a distance runner, but he should be able to assist me with sprints and running the bases.”

“That’s true. You should get Chris to help, too. You could use the live pitching.”

Pale green eyes twinkled mischievously. “Actually I would prefer not to enlist Christopher’s assistance at this time. You said that he believes that I will not be able to make the Varsity team. I would like him to continue to believe that.”

Clint chuckled as he nodded in agreement, it would be a nice surprise for Chris if Ezra did make the Varsity team. “You plan on proving him wrong?”

The cop found himself enjoying the sight of Ezra’s cocky grin. “I do indeed.”

+ + + + + + +

It was late evening by the time Clint drove back up to Regents to drop Ezra off. They had spent a few hours tossing the baseball back and forth just to loosen the teenager up. Clint had to remind him a couple of times not to throw too hard for this first outing. After they had finished up there, Clint had taken the young man to a sporting goods store where they bought him some cleats and some uniform pants and shirts that he could practice in. They had finished up the day with a meal at a small hamburger joint that was one of Clint’s favorites. The cop thought it was a measure of the teenager’s enjoyment of the day when Ezra did not complain once about the restaurant or food.

Instead the sophomore had been too busy making plans for his week of intense training to get into shape and ready for tryouts on the weekend. Ezra had a definite purpose now and was focusing all his attention on it. They worked out another two days that they could head over to the batting cages. The sophomore did not seem as concerned about his hitting as he was with his defense. He had felt good in the batting cage, very natural and at ease. His swing was there, it would just be a matter of working against a pitcher who would put movement on the ball, making it that much harder to hit. Ezra would just have to trust that he would do well during his tryouts if he had to face live pitching. He knew that he would have to work more on his defense since it would be a good way to impress the coach quickly. A good coach would look at the potential of his swing, see that he just needed a little time getting used to the pitchers again and give him some leeway. But if did not show any kind of ability on defense, the coach would not give him a shot at all.

As Clint watched Ezra walk into the dormitory building loaded down with all his baseball equipment, the cop knew that the teenager was really going to do his best. And that was all that he could ask for. It was at that moment that Clint had a fear of something that he had not even considered before. He was not sure how he would handle a disappointed Ezra if he worked as hard as he could only to not make the team. With that depressing thought in mind, Clint drove away.

+ + + + + + +

Vin looked up from his books when the door swung open widely and was greeted with the sight of Ezra hauling in a sports bag practically bursting at the seams. The Texan had to do a double take to recognize his roommate. Ezra was sweaty, his clothing and hair mussed and dirty and he looked tired but still somehow happy. When he had been missing for most of the day, Chris had filled everyone in on his father’s plan to get him back into baseball. They had all been a bit surprised at how Clint was going to so much trouble and how Ezra might have an interest in a sport.

Chris had taken a lot of teasing by the others about now having to spend more time with Ezra, especially in the confines of the school bus taking them to away games. Chris had reminded them that since it had been years since Ezra had played and since he was only a sophomore that he would only make the Junior Varsity team so he had no worries. He also reminded them that his dad was only doing this because Beatrice had asked him to after Maude had complained to her about not knowing how to keep Ezra out of trouble.

“Guess you decided to go out for the team.”

“Oh I’m going to make the team,” Ezra stated with confidence as he laid he equipment carefully on his bed for once unmindful of all the dirt he was getting on the bedspread.

“Well who knew it?” Vin laughed. “Ezra Patrick Standish, baseball star.”

Ezra stowed the gloves and balls in his trunk, locking it for safe keeping and then stowed the rest of his gear in the closet, hanging up his practice uniforms carefully. “That’s once and future baseball star,” he corrected with a serious demeanor marred only by his dimpled smile. “I was quite the Little Leaguer.”

“Were you now?” Vin shook his head teasingly. “Somehow I just can’t picture it.”

“Well it was some time ago. Actually, Vin, I wanted to ask for a favor from you.”

His roommate looked up at Ezra and bit back the jokes he would have made about the southerner finally needing a favor from him. He could see how hard it was for his friend to ask and the fear that his request would be dismissed. “Whatcha need?” he asked easily, trying to let Ezra know that he could always trust him to be there for him.

“I don’t think I’m out of shape, but I am honest enough with myself to know that it has been a long time since I’ve had any kind of physical exertion.”

Vin could not contain the snort of laughter that escaped him at that statement.

Ezra glared at him balefully but then gamely continued. “I was hoping that you would help me with the running aspect of my training. I realize that you are a distance runner and that baseball is more about sprinting, but I would really appreciate any assistance that you would be able to offer me.”

Vin could not help but grin at his friend. “Sure, Ez,” he said sincerely. “You wanna make the team then I’m gonna help ya do it.” His grin broadened, “Plus it means I get to boss you around and make you run until drop.”

“Don’t get carried away.” Ezra rolled his eyes.

The Texan laughed at his roommate. “Hey are you gonna get Chris to help out, too? Get him to pitch to ya a bit?”

“Well, here’s the thing,” Ezra started, smiling with an eagerness to recruit Vin into helping him with his plan, “Officer Larabee told me that Christopher is certain that I will not make the Varsity team. I want to prove him wrong. But I also want to surprise him, so I don’t want him to see what my abilities are as I’m practicing and training.”

Understanding immediately how much fun this could prove to be, Vin’s blue eyes flashed mischievously signaling his agreement. He sobered immediately though as he had to ask a hard question and try to do it diplomatically. “I’m not doubting you, Ez, but do you really think you can make the Varsity team? I mean you are a sophomore and you haven’t played in a while.”

Dimples flashed. “Never underestimate my determination, Vincent.”

Laughter echoed around the small room. “You know, Ez, I have the feeling that even if you didn’t have the skills that you’d still find a way to show up Chris.”

“Fortunately, I don’t believe that I will have to use any desperate measures to secure a position on the Varsity team,” the southerner stated as he gathered the items he would need to shower before going to bed.

“No, I don’t think you will either,” Vin quickly agreed. He knew that even though he liked to pretend that he did not care Ezra did have a somewhat fragile ego. “But you know to make this work, we’re gonna have to get the others to help us out. Keep Chris busy while we’re training. And I bet some of them can help whip you into shape.”

”Do you think they will help?” No one other than Vin would have seen the concern in Ezra’s eyes.

“Of course they will, Ez. Friends always help friends. Especially when it means that they get to make their other friend look like a fool.”

Reassured, Ezra nodded before leaving Vin alone to begin planning a training schedule that would include keeping Chris preoccupied.

+ + + + + + +

Clint sighed as he drove up to his home and saw Beatrice Wilmington’s car parked in his driveway and a light on in his home. He just could not understand why that women would not just leave him alone. When he walked into his home and found her waiting for him in the kitchen with a hot pot of coffee along with some of his favorite store bought cookies he did not mind so much.

“You checking on me? Making sure that I did what I promised?” he asked without a greeting as he poured a cup of coffee.

Beatrice shrugged easily. “Oh I know you did. Buck already called to tell me.”

Clint shook his head but made no comment about that. “So what do you want?”

Beatrice’s eyes widened in disbelief, “I want to know how it went, of course. How did Ezra like the idea? Do you think he’ll make the team? You know I need details!”

Clint bit into a cookie as he slid into a seat at the table. Beatrice was surprised to see worry in his green eyes. “He doesn’t want to do it, does he?”

“Oh he wants to do it. In fact he’s determined to make the Varsity team just to show up Chris.” Clint finished off his cookie and reached for another one.

She laughed merrily. “Figures that would be what motivates him.”

“That’s what worries me.”

Beatrice took a cookie of her own and began nibbling on it. If there was one thing she had learned about Clint Larabee, it was when he used that particular tone of concern she would have to wait for him to talk at his own pace.

“Call me a pessimist if you want, Bea, but I don’t know how that boy will react if he tries this hard to make the team and then doesn’t even make the Junior Varsity team. This means a lot to him. Not just ‘cause he wants to show Chris up, but because it’s something he wants to do for his dad. I don’t want that kid to think that he’s let his father down.”

Silence filled the small kitchen, marred only by the sound of Beatrice taking a long sip of her coffee. “Clint, you and I are never going to understand how Ezra’s mind works. The important thing right now is that you’ve given him something to focus his energies on, no matter what motivates him. If he doesn’t make the team then we can deal with the fallout. But right now it’s more important that we do whatever we can to help him.”

Clint snorted. “What’s this ‘we’ stuff? What exactly are you doing?”

“I’m being your moral support,” Beatrice smiled brightly at him.

“Lucky me,” he grumbled as he took another cookie.

“Seriously though, Clint, do you think he can make the Varsity team?”

“If it was just a question of determination, Bea, I would have absolutely no doubts. He’s lucky that he really isn’t in bad shape. Probably stayed that way for all those quick escapes he’s had to make.”

Beatrice chuckled and shook her head at that statement. Secretly she thought that Clint used gruff and disparaging words about Ezra to hide the fact that he did actually care about the young southerner.

“But he’s got a week to get back into playing shape. I don’t think he’ll have a problem with the batting, he seemed to have a good eye and swing. So I think it just comes down to his ability to play the field.” Hearing his own words, a teasing glint filled his green eyes. “If it was Buck, I guess we wouldn’t have to worry about his ability to play the field.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Beatrice rolled her eyes. Again they lapsed into a comfortable silence as they drank coffee and ate cookies.

After a little while, Beatrice stood up to leave. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, Clint. Ezra’s the kind of kid who can bounce back from any kind of disappointment. I think he’s had to learn that skill a little early in his life.”

The cop nodded automatically but when he looked up at her his eyes were still filled with deep concern. “You didn’t see his face, Bea. I’ve never seen him so happy as he was when I gave him that glove. I just don’t want to see him get crushed if he fails.”

Walking around behind Clint, Beatrice patted him on the shoulder. “I really don’t think that’s going to happen. But even if it does, I think what will matter most to Ezra is that you believe in him and support him.”

He turned on her, suddenly angry. “I can’t be a father figure to him. I’m having a hard enough time reconnecting to my own son.”

Her smile was kind, her eyes supportive and certain. “No one is asking you to be a father figure to Ezra. I never asked you to be a father figure to Buck, and yet you are. It’s just because that’s the kind of man that you are, Clint. These boys respect you. And it’s through them that you can reconnect to Chris.”

He shook his head but did not disagree with her. “Well let’s just hope Ezra makes the team. And if he does then we’ll just see how my relationship with my son goes. I mean Chris sure isn’t expecting that.”

Beatrice laughed. “Oh I think Chris needs a surprise or two in his life. And I have a feeling that his friends think the same thing. Ezra isn’t going to make this team on his own. He’s going to have his friends and you help him. They’re like a team of their own. And you’re their coach.”

He mimicked her from earlier by rolling his eyes. “Ha, ha, ha. And what does that make you?”

She shrugged as she smiled smugly. “The owner, of course. I am the one with all the money.”

He threw a cookie at her as she made a quick exit for the door. She paused to tease, “Well with that attitude you better hope your contract doesn’t come up for renegotiation soon!”

“You couldn’t afford me, Lady!” he yelled at the closing door.

+ + + + + + +

Saturday morning started as it always did for Vin as he woke up before his alarm clock could sound and turned it off. He stretched under the covers before quietly getting out of bed to prepare for his morning run. The Texan glanced over to his roommate thinking that he would cut short his regular routine so that he could help Ezra prepare for his tryouts a bit later that morning.

With a cry of alarm Vin fell back into his bed when his gaze was met by the last thing he was expecting to see at the crack of dawn; Ezra’s pale green eyes were open and lucid. The southerner laughed at the other sophomore’s reaction.

“It ain’t funny!” Vin protested as he righted himself on the bed.

Ezra continued to chuckle, making no attempt to suppress his laughter even if it was at the other teen’s expense. “You should’ve seen your face!”

“Well, hell, Ez, seeing your eyes open at dawn is just like seeing the walking dead!”

As he watched the still grumbling Texan gather his running clothes, Ezra stated, “That almost made it worth not being able to sleep.”

Vin dropped his disgruntlement as he turned a thoughtful gaze on his roommate. “You that worried about today that you couldn’t sleep?”

The southerner rolled on his side away from Vin’s perceptive blue eyes. “No, why should I be worried?” he mumbled into his pillow.

“Well I don’t think you should be worried, but I’ve never known you to miss out on sleep, so something’s got to be bothering you. And since today’s your tryout, I’d bet money that’s it.”

Ezra rolled over. “You’d bet money?”

Blue eyes rolled. “I would, but I ain’t.”

The southerner flipped back over. “Then go run and let me sleep.”

Vin changed into his running clothes and shoes, but paused in the doorway before leaving. “You’re gonna make the team, Ezra, so don’t worry about it no more.” The Texan chuckled quietly as he received a grunt and a dismissive wave as a response.

As always Vin found his long runs to be the most freeing time to think. He was still aware of his surroundings but able to immerse himself in thoughts of the past week and the possibility that the upcoming day held. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he should not have been surprised at Ezra’s inability to sleep. The southerner had thrown himself wholeheartedly into his goal of making the Varsity team and showed genuine ability. But the truth of the matter was that he had only a week to prepare and so had to be a bit nervous about his chances. Vin smiled as he ran along his familiar path, his surefooted stride stretching out as his thoughts drifted back to the events of the last week.

He had enlisted Nathan to help him with Ezra’s running game. The junior had been all too eager to introduce Ezra to the world of basketball “suicides” stating that they would quickly get him in shape for stealing bases and help build up his wind and stamina. Vin was not sure if that was true or not but he had enjoyed the sight of the southerner running back and forth on the basketball court until he would just drop from exhaustion. But there would be no rest for him then as that was usually the time that Buck and J.D. would show up to take Ezra out to the baseball diamond to practice some fielding or Josiah or Clint would take him out for some batting practice.

Vin managed a smile around his regulated breathing as he remembered one batting cage trip that he had gone on. Clint had been particularly critical about Ezra’s swing and stance. The southerner had shut the cop up by nonchalantly moving from the left side of home plate over to the right side and proceeding to drive several strong hits from that side of the plate. When Clint had accusingly yelled, “Hey you never said you were a switch hitter!” Ezra shrugged and responded, “You never asked.” The older man had looked at Vin and asked, “You think that boy will ever stop being full of surprises?” The Texan grinned and shook his head, “Only when he stops being Ezra.”

Other than Ezra’s grumbling and complaining, his training went relatively easily. The hardest part for his five friends had been keeping Chris away. At first they tried having whoever was not directly involved in Ezra’s training at the moment be the one who had to distract Chris. That worked the first day or two. After that the senior spent the time wanting to know how practice was going and not all of them were equally skilled in lying straight to Chris’ face. It was then that Buck pulled through for them. Through Inez, who still would not date the junior but could not refrain from flirting with him on the phone, he was able to contact Maria and enlist her help in keeping Chris occupied. They had hardly seen the pitcher for the rest of the week. But Vin knew that would not be the case today. Nothing, not even Maria, would keep him away from Ezra’s tryout.

That reminder that he needed to be extra careful about keeping Chris and Ezra as far away from each other on this particular day had Vin quickening his pace more than he intended. By the time he made it back to the school he was actually gasping for breath even though he had run a shorter distance than he normally did. He prayed that no one saw him as he walked back to the dorms, holding his side tightly against the unfamiliar pain of a stitch in his side. That would be too embarrassing and he was not in the mood for any teasing today.

Upon entering his room his eyes immediately fell on his roommate’s bed and was shocked to find it empty. He scanned the rest of the small room but there was no where else for Ezra to be. Vin sighed as he grabbed some clothes and his shower supplies. He would go and look for Ezra after that. He did not want his roommate to screw up this opportunity to be part of something again. He would not admit it to himself, but Ezra needed to be part of a team, no matter how much of a loner he thought himself to be. Vin had thought the same of himself and now could not imagine what it would be like to be without his six friends. He just hoped that one day Ezra would see things the same way.

Right now the only thing his wayward roommate was seeing was the view from his perch on the ledge outside the sophomore bathrooms. He used the foliage of the trees to hide him from any eyes that might be looking for him on ground level and trusted that no one would think to look for him out on the ledge. Not even Vin knew he still used this route to get up and down the various floors of the dormitory without being seen. Although lately it had become his refuge from the others, a place where he could go to be alone with his thoughts.

This morning his thoughts were filled, as they had been all night, with the question of whether or not he would make the baseball team. Ezra was confident enough to know he had the physical skills required. So the question was not really if he would make the team but rather if it was what he really wanted. That was what had kept him up all night and now found him sitting in his pajamas out on the second floor ledge of the dormitory. All week long he had been too busy to think about his situation. He would wake up in time for classes and as soon as those were over he would go straight into training with the others until he dropped off into an exhausted sleep just to start everything over the next day. Last night, though, sleep had not come.

He knew that there was more than just trying out for a high school baseball team at stake though he kept trying to deny it in his heart, tried telling himself that he was making it into something bigger than it actually was. But the truth was that somehow during the week when he had worked so closely with the other boys, had leaned on their encouragement when the short time to prepare seemed too overwhelming, and had actually listened to their coaching and saw how it helped him improve, this had all come to mean more about being accepted by them than about making the team. And that had thrown him in turmoil. That was what had originally made him start thinking of not making the team, of purposefully letting down his friends, so that the bonds of their camaraderie would not grow any stronger. That was when it had been convenient for him to start doubting his earlier conviction that his father would want him to do this. It was easier for him to lie to himself than admit that his desire to belong to their circle frightened him deeply.

It was easy because he had originally turned his back on baseball because it had held so many of his happiest memories with Dylan Thomas Standish. Ezra had been grateful when his work severely limited the amount of time that Officer Larabee was able to spend practicing with him and was keeping him from attending the tryouts this morning. The young southerner had found himself wanting to make Clint proud almost as much as he had wanted to make his father proud when he was younger. And he could not imagine what would be a deeper betrayal of his father’s love than that, especially considering that of all people it had to be Chris’ father that he wanted to please. With all his heart the young man fervently wished now more than ever that he could talk with his father if even for a moment. He needed to know what his dad would want him to do.

Eyes closed as he leaned up against the dormitory with his legs dangling off the ledge Ezra sat more quietly and stiller than any of his friends would have ever believed possible for the usually animated teenager. Long moments passed as his emotions roiled within his heart and his thoughts churned in his mind. Finally a whisper passed his slightly parted lips, “I need a sign, Dad.” His voice was soft but the heartfelt plea was thick with emotion.

He remained still as memories flooded him from the last time he had asked for a sign. It had been two years ago when he and his mother had struck out on their own after leaving his uncle Frederick’s. He had been absolutely desperate when he learned that Maude was going out on a date with a man she had met at her new job. Ezra had argued with his mother with an intensity they had never since matched only because they had turned from using direct confrontations when battling. It was as if they both sensed that they could not keep up those levels of attacks without hate taking hold. Instead their skirmishes had become subtler, slowly eroding the foundation of trust that was at the heart of a mother/son relationship but not yet touching the love that bound them together. It was a contradictory relationship, one that was rocky at best and downright hostile at worst.

Having already been forced to leave Uncle Frederick without knowing the true reasons, Ezra felt deeply betrayed by Maude. With her decision to date again, he felt she was betraying his father as well. And he had not held back in letting her know what he thought of that. After the tempest of his anger had abated and he had retreated to his room in their small two bedroom apartment, he had cried silently and had asked for his father to send him a sign about what he thought about this situation.

Maude had walked in to say goodnight before she left him with a babysitter, an indignity he did not acknowledge simply by never speaking to the seventeen-year old neighbor who enjoyed a quiet night instead of the usual rowdy ones she had to endure with the two years old twins on the next floor down. He had turned away from his mother but she had seen his tears. Sitting next to him she had stated, “I will always love your father, Ezra. Always.”

He had pulled away from her, hunching his shoulders in tighter trying to curl away from her betrayal. But she had stroked his hair and laid a kiss on top of his head before wishing him goodnight as she stood up. She had crossed over to the door when his soft southern drawl, interrupted only by the sniffles that remained from his crying, stopped her. “I asked him for a sign.”

Frozen she could only ask, “You asked who for a sign? Your father?”

Ezra had uncurled but kept his face averted from her. “Yes. I want to know what he thinks of you going out with someone else.”

“Your father can not answer you, Ezra.” His thirteen-year old ears did not hear the resignation and sorrow that filled her answering drawl.

“He’ll answer me.” His belief had been matched only by his loyalty.

“Just remember, darlin’ boy, that silence is an answer in itself.” He had taken the hitch in her voice to be a sign of her anger at his invocation to his dead father. He had never realized it was a sign of her despair that her own questions and pleas had gone unanswered.

She had left him then and he had stayed up all night there in the corner of his bed waiting. He did not even know what he was waiting for but he kept waiting and listening until he finally fell into an exhausted sleep. He woke up the next morning to a still unrelenting silence. Maude had greeted him over breakfast with a good morning but had said nothing about her date or asked him if he had received the sign he was looking for. And even though the days passed, Ezra still found himself blaming his mother for his father’s silence. He could just never let go of the childish hope that somehow, in some way or other, his father was still with him. It was just easier to turn his anger on Maude than on Dylan for leaving him.

In the years between then and now Ezra had never ‘spoken’ to his father again. The last time it had been because he thought his mother was betraying Dylan. Now it was because he feared that he was the one betraying him. As he sat on the ledge Ezra feared the silence that Maude had told him was its own answer. It was why he had never dared ask for anything again. But now he was just too lost in a maelstrom of emotions and desperation drove him to search for an answer outside himself.

He stayed in stillness for several more long moments before carefully getting back to his feet to begin the trip back to the bathroom window. He picked up the bundle of his clothing, towel, and toiletries that he had left outside the window and then made his way inside the Sophomore level bathroom. In less than an hour he had to take the field and he still had no idea what he truly wanted.

He showered and changed, feeling slightly more refreshed and started making his way back to his room. Part of him hoped that Vin would not be there so that he could go to the tryouts without having to talk to any of his friends. But as he turned the corner and saw Chris standing outside their room, Ezra knew that he would not be so fortunate. The southerner stopped and took in the scene for a moment reading the blond senior’s irritated body language. A plan quickly began to formulate and Ezra felt more like himself than he had the past week. A sly grin curved up one side of his mouth. He should have known from the beginning that he could rely on Chris Larabee on giving him an excuse out of the whole situation. This had to be the sign from his father that he had asked for and he was not about to waste it.