Just For Fun
by Helen Adams
Author's Notes: Apologies for the bad title. I could never think of anything that fit all the moods of this story. It's Ezra-angst, buddy adventure, humor, a bit of h/c and even a little sexiness. Literary goulash, really! I had fun writing it, though, so I hope you will have fun reading it! J
#1: Written for Kim (MAC) with affection. Thanks for letting me string your 2007 birthday story along for a few months! Home there was enough angst, fun and wet/naked Ezra to suit you! *lol*
#2: Thanks to Kim M, Kim K, Susan F, Judy (my brave beta-reader!), Sarvin and all others who commented along the way. You all kept me going with your wonderful comments. I appreciate it!
#3: I have given Ezra a fear of heights in this story. This doesn't gibe with series canon so consider it just an AU anomaly, in the same fanon vein as Vin having claustrophobia. Also, a few of the attractions may not match if you've been to Las Vegas recently. It's been a few years for me and certain things - like the wax museum - tend to update regularly.
#4: Disclaimer: I do not own any part of Magnificent Seven, Star Trek, Cirque du Soleil, or any of the songs, attractions and assorted bits of tourism the boys enjoy throughout this story. It's a totally not-for-profit effort. J
Size: Approx. 445K
|Chapter 1 - 10|
|Chapter 11 - 20|
|Chapter 21 - 30|
|Chapter 31 - 40|
|Chapter 41 - 50|
The bass notes thumped hard against the black mesh covering of the speakers, overpowering their narrow confinement to spread in a deep charging wave across the floorboards. The uncarpeted surface embraced the insistent beat, absorbed its hammering thrusts and spread them further into the room, over the walls, ceiling and every stick of furniture until they also became part of the pounding rhythm.
Standing in the exact center of the room, Ezra waited, head tilted back, eyes closed, limbs loose and ready. Bouncing slightly in place, he allowed his body to absorb the energy thrumming beneath the bare soles of his feet, feeling it travel up his legs and into his torso, where it seemed to blend into the rhythm of his heart.
He gasped and arched his back as the scream of an electric guitar joined the pulsing beat, his fingertips twitching in unconscious parody of the intricate chord combinations being played. For several seconds he waited, allowing himself to become a part of the music. Then the timing of the song changed, becoming harder and faster, almost violent in its need to be heard and Ezra changed with it.
Tense frame bursting from its prior stillness into a frenzy of motion, he spun, kicked, crouched low and threw his body into a sideways roll, only to launch back up a moment later, punishing the empty air with a volley of punches. He then began a second sequence of measured strikes, then a third. Each assembly of motion blended into the next, as seamless and perfect as the music that motivated them.
Before long sweat was pouring down his face and pasting his short dark locks against the surface of his scalp. A few drops dripped unnoticed onto the floor beneath him. Body uncovered except for a pair of black running shorts, Ezra's skin gleamed with a combination of perspiration and the rosy glow of exertion.
The music changed again and the exercises transformed along with it, becoming less battle frenzy and more of a dance, a blending of martial precision and pure artistic expression. When the song ended in a crash of drums and a thin wailing chord that seemed to echo into infinity, Ezra's performance also came to a close. He knelt, head bowed and hands splayed, fingertips balancing him over the warm floorboards as he concentrated on keeping his breathing steady, drawing oxygen deeply and evenly inside his lungs, cataloguing the sensation of warm blood washing through every part of his body. After a moment, he opened his eyes, glancing around the empty room and nodding in satisfaction at the visual evidence that he had conducted himself with perfect order, not disturbing a single furnishing or knick-knack.
The others would not have understood why he chose to do this here, in his own living room where there was a chance something might be broken, rather than taking his pent up energy outside or down to a local gymnasium. They would not understand that he needed to be surrounded by familiar possessions, with the knowledge that he just might destroy some of them if he could not retain self-control even in the midst of an emotional outburst.
Of course, he thought ruefully, they also might not have recognized his actions as being an emotional outburst. Certainly, this was nothing like Josiah's habit of throwing furniture or Vin's startlingly vitriolic bursts of cursing when upset.
Exhausted by his actions, Ezra allowed his carefully balanced posture to melt, dropping back with a thump to sit on the floor, one arm coming up to rest on his raised knee as he slouched back and supported his weight with the other. No, he mused, his emotional displays were best dealt with here, where there were no witnesses. When he lost control in public, he tended to become tongue-tied and clumsy, not knowing what to do with his hands and feet, which only amused other people and made him feel humiliated as well as angry.
What right did he have to be upset anyway? His assignment had been concluded satisfactorily, and the evidence he had collected over the last several months was airtight and obtained by strictly legal means. A number of the enemy had lost their lives when they refused to surrender to the authorities but there would be no loopholes big enough for anyone else to crawl through once the case was presented in court. The bust, though bloody, had ended without injury to himself or his colleagues. He should be feeling on top of the world, as ready to celebrate as the rest of the team had been at the Saloon tonight. Even he did not understand why he felt so down instead. And if he couldn't explain it to himself then how could he expect it to make sense to anyone else that instead of feeling triumphant, he found himself sad, angry and strangely bitter.
Lifting a hand to dash away the sweat beading his forehead, Ezra sighed. There was simply no way he could have told his friends that he'd felt hurt that they had done things without him, especially not after all the times he had shied away from any admittance that he cared what they did one way or another!
With a tired groan, Ezra lay back on the hard smooth surface of his floor, ignoring the hinting of his muscles that a hot shower would be far more sensible and welcome. What was the matter with him? He did not usually feel this way after a case wrapped.
Perhaps he was burning out, he mused, no longer able to find satisfaction in his work, or meaning in his own life once an assignment was over. He had seen that happen to other long-term agents, but surely it was too soon for such a thing to be happening to him!
He frowned up at the ceiling as a new thought struck him. What if the problem was something more subtle. Could it be that he simply needed his friends; missed his friends, so much that nothing else felt right without them?
Oh, lord, he hated even the thought of that. It seemed so weak and needy, but however much he might dissemble with other people, Ezra had never been one to hide from himself. He knew that there had been a number of times during the last few months when he had felt pangs of loneliness and longing for the company of his comrades. The reason he had been looking so forward to this evening was because he had been certain that the familiar ritual of Friday night drinks with the team would ease the aching sense of loss he had been feeling.
Only it hadn't, not at all. It was as though nobody had even missed him. Ezra could feel himself deflating at the reminder. Maybe he should have expected it. After all, he had been away a long time on this assignment, four months. Suppose the reason he had found himself unable to reconnect tonight was that the others had simply moved on?
A loud groan escaped as he covered his face with both hands. "Oh, stop it, Ezra! You're being an imbecile," he scolded himself. "Friends like yours don't simply outgrow a person and throw him in a Goodwill bin!"
Praying that his words were true, Ezra sat up again, frowning as he looked around his luxuriously appointed living room. He did not even feel comfortable among his own possessions any more. He felt set apart from his home, his friends and his entire life.
Ezra bit his lower lip as he considered. For the next two weeks, he was scheduled to be off duty. Perhaps a change of scenery was in order. His team had some days off coming as well and he still felt the same burning need to reconnect that had driven him to accept the offer to join them at the Saloon in the first place. Suppose he were to form a plan and then invite them along on a vacation? Would all of them accept? Would any of them?
What if they said yes but then hated his choice of destination? Would he lose even more ground than he already had?
Ezra's jaw firmed in annoyance as he realized that he was thinking like a coward, more afraid of facing potential rejection than of taking a chance on acceptance.
Enough! Getting his legs under him, Ezra lurched ungracefully to his feet, no longer caring about maintaining appearances. He had some arrangements to make.
It was after ten o'clock and Josiah was just pulling in to his driveway, feeling pleasantly relaxed after a long but successful day at work followed by an evening of laughter and bullshit with his friends at the Saloon.
He had been a designated driver tonight, so he had limited his alcohol intake to two beers nursed over the course of the evening, but for a moment Josiah wondered if he had had more than he realized when he spotted Ezra Standish sitting on his front steps, hands laced over his stomach and a peaceful expression on his face as he slumbered against a post.
"Ezra?" he said softly, nudging one of the sleeping man's legs with his shoe. Coming to with a loud snort, Ezra flinched sideways and nearly tumbled down the steps, stopped from falling by the quick actions of Josiah. "Easy there, son, it's just me. Come on, wake up now. What are you doing here? I assumed when you said you were going to go get some sleep you meant in your own bed. Didn't expect to find you blocking my front door."
As he continued his friendly monologue, Josiah hefted the still bleary Ezra onto his feet and steered him in through the front door.
"I, uh, I came over to ask you a favor," Ezra mumbled. "You weren't home yet, so I decided to wait."
Surprised but knowing better than to show it, Josiah simply nodded. "You know you can ask me anything. I'm not going to agree to it until I know what it is you want, though."
Ezra nodded, absently ruffling one hand through his hair. Josiah smiled at the gesture, knowing that his image-conscious friend would never have done such a thing if he'd been awake enough to realize how childlike it made him appear. He had apparently taken a shower at some point between leaving the Saloon and coming over here and left his hair to dry naturally, for the locks had settled into a riot of soft disheveled curls.
Ezra had been tired when he'd left the bar and the nap he'd taken just now had clearly been enough to convince his body that continued sleep was the only viable option, for he yawned and blinked heavily as he tried to arrange his thoughts into order. "I wanted to know if you'd be willing to go on a road trip." His head tipped against the back of the sofa where Josiah had planted him, then abruptly jerked back up as he remembered that he hadn't mentioned the important part yet. "With me. To Nevada."
A slight frown furrowed Josiah's brow as he took in the request and watched Ezra again slump into the comfortable cushions of his couch and close his eyes. Reaching out, he tapped him sharply on the chest to regain his attention. "When?"
It seemed to take an unnaturally long time for the simple question to filter into Ezra's brain. "I thought Monday might be a good time. You have vacation time coming, I believe?"
Ezra had been given Thursday and Friday off as well as an additional two weeks downtime to recover from his ceaseless efforts in closing the team's last case. The rest of them were due to begin their time off on the coming Monday, though they had only requested a single week.
"We do, and I expect Travis would let us swing a few extra days if need be," Josiah mused, brow furrowing as he considered this unexpected offer. "Was it just me you wanted to go on this trip, or all of us?"
Appearing to be more alert now, Ezra sat up straight. In a tone that was a little too casual for Josiah's liking, he said, "If you believe the others would enjoy such a journey, they are more than welcome to come. I would certainly be willing to have the company but you know how irascible some of our teammates can get on long car trips."
Josiah chuckled. "That's one way to put it. I expect the prospect of a trip to Vegas might be enough to take the sting out of it, though. Or did you have some other part of Nevada in mind?"
It did not escape Josiah's keen eyes that Ezra had begun to fidget with his cuffs, a nervous habit he had never quite been able to break. When it came to card games or criminal negotiations, the tell was nowhere in evidence, but put him in a potentially uncomfortable personal situation and his fingertips immediately began to play with whatever was closest to hand.
"I thought perhaps we might start with Las Vegas, take in the sights and experiences for a few days then drive in a northwesterly direction to the more scenic area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I'm told that Lake Tahoe is quite beautiful. If Vin wishes to come along then I'm sure he would appreciate an opportunity to commune with nature before we were to head back home, as well."
Curious, Josiah asked, "You've never been to Tahoe?"
"No, I haven't," he confirmed. "It is supposed to be a sight worth seeing, however I suspect it's better if one has another person on hand with whom to share the experience."
The slightly wistful tone of his voice caught Josiah's attention at once. After Ezra had left the bar tonight, it had seemed to Josiah that something more was bothering him than just a need to catch up on some rest. "I haven't been there for years," he replied, "but I'd have to agree with that. I'd like to see it again now that you mention it. Bet the others will too."
"I wasn't certain whether or not I should make the offer," Ezra said, the words barely audible as he studied the floor rather than meet Josiah's curious eyes. "Earlier tonight it sounded as though everyone except you had already made plans. I may have simply missed hearing yours due to my need for an early departure."
"Nobody had any plans that couldn't be changed pretty easily, I don't think. I'm sure they'll let us know if they do."
"But you're certain that you want to go?" Ezra pressed, finally looking up. "What if it just ends up being the two of us?"
Josiah looked him straight in the eye and replied calmly, "Then it will be good to have a chance to catch up with each other, one on one. I've really missed you these last few months."
The expression on Ezra's face, surprise, happiness and a bit of something that looked almost like guilt, made Josiah wonder exactly what he was thinking. Especially when he said in an unexpectedly grateful tone, "Your absence has been felt as well."
Josiah patted him on the shoulder. "Why don't you settle in there and get some sleep? I'll call the boys and see how they feel about a road trip."
Before he had even cleared the room, Ezra had obeyed his suggestion and flopped onto the sofa. He was asleep again almost instantly, that odd little smile still twitching at the corners of his mouth. As he studied the recumbent figure, Josiah found himself wondering what kind of test he had just been given and why he was so certain that he had passed it.
Warm bright sunlight shining on his face caused Ezra's closed eyelids to scrunch tighter. Grimacing, he tried to roll over in bed and block it out, only to stop in confusion when he encountered resistance where there should have been empty space. Squinting against the light, he opened one eye and found himself looking at the ugly yellowish green upholstery of a sofa back.
"Josiah's house," he murmured.
Ezra sighed and squirmed around to lie flat as he blinked and coaxed both lids to open up and stay that way. He remembered now and was a bit embarrassed by how easily he had given in to the impulse to drive over here and beg his friend to go on a trip with him. A smile tilted his lips as the result of that request came back to him, however. Josiah had said yes, and he hadn't even thought about it overly hard. The potential of spending a week or more together had not even caused a flinch and Ezra allowed himself to bask in the surprising feeling of pleasure that gave him.
Suddenly wondering how the promised phone consultation with the others had gone, Ezra sat up, straightening his wrinkled clothes and doing his best to finger-comb his hair into some semblance of order as he called out, "Josiah?"
No response. A small frown creasing his brow, Ezra wandered into the kitchen where he could smell the welcoming odor of coffee. "Josiah?"
The kitchen was empty as well, but Ezra helped himself to one of the mugs that dangled from hooks set into the bottom of the cabinet above the coffee-maker. Adding a little sugar, he took a sip and nodded in satisfaction as the warm caffeinated brew washed through his system. Josiah had used the good stuff today, the imported French roast he had given him as a gift last Christmas.
Feeling a bit more alert, Ezra looked around the small neat space and spied a note on the magnetic eraser-board which decorated the refrigerator. In Josiah's squiggly handwriting, he saw, 'Gone to the office. B, V, N send thumbs-up. C and JD have plans can't change last minute. Both send regrets and promise for next time. Help yourself to whatever's in the fridge. --- J'
As he read the note, Ezra could not keep himself from grinning. He was genuinely sorry that Chris and JD would be unable to accompany the rest of them, but this did mean there would be no grousing about turning the car around if they couldn't behave themselves - an amusing journey into "Dad" mode that seemed to effect Chris whenever a long drive ensued - and no arguing about "old people music" from JD when the rest of them wanted to listen to something produced prior to the 21st century. More importantly, the note meant that his offer had been accepted without question. Buck, Vin and even Nathan had thought a trip to Vegas and Tahoe - thought something that he wanted to do - sounded like fun. He felt ashamed of himself for doubting them.
The grin grew larger as Ezra opened the refrigerator and began poking around for the makings of an edible breakfast. He suddenly felt better than he had in a very long time, anticipating the fun they were all going to have. He had a trip to plan!
"Damn Ezra, you got enough stuff back there?"
Pulling his head and shoulders free from the back of a rented Suburban, Ezra smiled as he watched Vin Tanner park his motorcycle along the side of Josiah Sanchez's driveway. The group had agreed to meet at Josiah's due to the proximity of his home, which was more or less centrally located from all of theirs. He waited until Vin had killed the roaring engine and then said, "Just trying to be prepared for any eventuality we may encounter, Mr. Tanner. I assure you that I have left plenty of space for your possessions."
Vin grinned and untied his bags from the back of the bike. Hefting his worn army-green duffel into the cargo area, he followed it up with a sleeping bag. Giving the latter a pat, he said, "Me too. Remember last summer when we went up to the Rockies to do some hiking and Chris forgot to fill the gas tank? He had us pushing his damned truck for miles before he finally gave up and decided we could just spend one night camping on the side of the road."
Ezra's smile faltered. "I do remember you telling me about the incident."
For a moment, Vin frowned as he thought back on the incident in question. "Right, I forgot. You were still working on the Scanlon case." He waved it off. "Don't matter. You were lucky to miss that one. That was the same trip where Nathan came down with the mother of all head-colds right in the middle of it. Four solid days and nights of sneezing and coughing and bitching and moaning like you wouldn't believe."
"Yes, I certainly was fortunate to have been spared that agony." The dry tone of his voice instantly caught Vin's attention, moving him toward sympathy. "Guess you weren't havin' such a fine time yourself that week, huh?"
"Not particularly, but I'm sure I wouldn't have cared to be in your situation either." Realizing that he did not want to start this journey by brooding over the past, Ezra lifted the corner of a tarp from the back of the cargo hold, presenting Vin with the sight of two five-gallon gasoline cans tucked into a corner. "I filled these up yesterday afternoon, in the event that they might be needed."
"Smart thinkin'. What else you got back here?"
"A number of spare blankets, three ice-chests filled with beverages and two grocery bags filled with snack foods, a first-aid kit that even Mr. Jackson failed to find any fault with," he listed, touching each item as he named it. Pulling a small inconspicuous pouch from behind the gasoline cans he continued, "And an emergency currency stash should anyone fall victim to the lures of Las Vegas and end up destitute or in jail."
Vin laughed at that. "Shit, you really did think of everything. You got any porn vids to keep Buck happy in case the hotels don't have cable?"
Ezra snorted. "Must have slipped my mind."
"What you got this big-ass box in here for then?" he teased, hefting a padded case from Ezra's assortment of personal belongings and opening it to display a large collection of discs. Thumbing through the collection, he whistled. "Wow, there must be a hundred different CDs in here. Good stuff, too."
Reaching back to adjust the placement of his luggage, Ezra shrugged. "It's rather a long trip. I felt that some variety might be needed."
"Works for me," he replied simply. "Last time we took a trip, Josiah was in charge and we ended up listening to folk music for three hundred miles. I was about ready to hijack the van and leave him on the side of the road to walk home."
Ezra chuckled. "One can only abide so much Joni Mitchell."
"Good thing I brought along some Skynyrd then!" a cheerful voice called out. "Howdy, boys."
"Buck," they greeted in unison, smiling at the sight of Buck Wilmington in his typical vacation 'uniform' of worn jeans, hiking boots and an eye-wateringly loud Hawaiian print shirt.
Eyeing the well-stocked baggage area, he nodded and tossed his own pack into an empty spot. "Good job, Ez. JD said to tell you to bring your laptop and charger along, he wants updates on everything we're doing."
"Already taken care of," he said smugly. "Josiah anticipated the need for vicarious vacationing by our missing members and packed his digital camera as well."
Buck grinned. "That'll help. The kid was having a fit that he couldn't get out of going with Casey to her high school reunion when the alternative was a trip to Vegas with the rest of us."
"He'll get over it," Vin said unsympathetically. "Specially if one of us loses some money and we let him know about it. JD can't resist the temptation of roulette wheels and poker tables but he don't ever seem to win. I ain't figured out yet why he don't just go for Blackjack instead. Good as he is with numbers, I'll bet he'd make a killing."
"He probably knows that he'd get tossed out of the casino for card-counting," Ezra suggested. "Mr. Dunne does not have the greatest ability to hide his feelings and when he thinks about numerical calculations he gets a glassy look about his eyes that gives him away."
Buck nodded. "I expect you're right. Speaking of JD, anybody else think to pack some Coke? I'm feeling kind of thirsty."
"Second cooler," Ezra said. "The first is water and the third is assorted sports drinks and juices. I attempted to choose low-sugar varieties as a reasonably healthy alternative to soda."
"Nathan'll be happy," Vin snorted, grimacing as he eyed the third beverage container with distaste.
"He is! Very happy," another voice chimed in as Nathan and Josiah came out of Josiah's house, locking the door behind them. Slapping Ezra on the shoulder, Nathan continued, "And not just about the drinks. Before you came up with this road-trip, I thought I was going to be facing a whole week in Florida making small-talk with Rain's family. Talk about a narrow escape!"
Surprised, Ezra said, "I wasn't aware that I was interfering with a family event. Are you certain that Rain was accepting of you coming along with us?"
"She was fine with it," he assured, "especially when I told her the trip was your idea."
"Meaning?" he asked cautiously, suspecting that he had a visit from his friend's irate spouse to look forward to in the future.
"Meaning that she's been worried and she wants me to keep an eye on you for a while." Nathan grinned widely at the expression of blank astonishment on Ezra's face. "She loves you like a brother, man. You know that. When she heard you were back with us, she all but packed my suitcase and shoved me out the door. I'm supposed to give her a full report when we get back."
Ezra gaped, swallowed, tried again to come up with a retort but finally gave up on finding any reply. Shaking his head, he moved up to take the driver's seat in the SUV and completely missed the looks of amused satisfaction exchanged among his four friends.
The vehicle had moved onto I-70 westbound before Ezra spoke again. The others had been talking sporadically amongst themselves, mostly just small talk about where they were headed and the general joys of being on vacation, but he had not added anything to the conversation. It was not because he felt disinclined to join in or could not think of anything to say. He simply had preferred not to converse while navigating the roads leading up the freeway. It was completely absurd, he knew that, but he'd been unable to shake the paranoid feeling that until he hit the beginning of that nearly 500 mile freeway stretch there was still a possibility that someone would change their mind and decide they had better things to do.
"We're truly on our way," he said at last, more to himself than anyone else. He smiled at his own ridiculousness. Of course no one had planned to duck out early. Certainly not with a trip to 'Sin City' in the offing. Glancing to his right he asked, "What do you think we should do first once we arrive?"
From the passenger seat, Buck affected a shocked look. "It speaks!" Grinning at Ezra's silent expression of 'very funny' he added, "It's about time you woke up and joined the rest of us there, pal. I was afraid you might be having second thoughts about this trip."
"Not at all," he lied, not about to admit what he had really been thinking. Glancing into the rearview mirror at Josiah, Nathan and Vin, who were engrossed in looking through his CD collection, Ezra shot an evil smile at Buck. "I was just speculating as to whether you and I could get away with leaving the rest of our company somewhere on the Strip while we test the capacity of this vehicle. What do you think, Mr. Wilmington? Will a seven-passenger SUV hold more if said passengers are scantily clad female performance artists?"
"Well, now, I don't know about that," he chuckled, blue eyes lighting with interest. "I'd be willing to help you find out, though. If the costumes are small enough we might be able to fit as many as eight. Of course, if you pick girls with those big feather headdresses on we might only be able to fit about three. What do you think? One for you and two for me sound fair? "
"Not when it was my idea!" Ezra shot back. "Two and two is probably the only fair way to go. We can always stash the more unwieldy portions of their costumes in the back of the vehicle. Why do you think I opted for the model with extra cargo space?"
Buck's hearty guffaw instantly captured the attention of the others.
"What? What'd we miss?" Vin demanded.
Ezra and Buck's eyes met and both dissolved into laughter again, neither willing nor able to explain a thing as they visualized the reaction if they were to do so.
"You think they been talkin' about us?" Vin mused, turning to Nathan.
Josiah beat his friend to an answer. "Probably just about you. They're laughing after all."
Never one to waste words when actions would do instead, Vin leaned over the back of his third row seat - chosen so he could stretch out and still be the one closest to the snacks - and fished a piece of ice out of the soda cooler. Lunging forward he jammed the cube down the collar of Josiah's shirt, eliciting a yelp and a string of cursing. Nathan was no help whatsoever; too busy laughing at Josiah's plight until Vin helped him to an ice-chunk as well.
"Hey!" he howled. "You bastard, I didn't even say anything!"
"Well, maybe you should have!" Vin fired back, snickering as he watched his two friends squirm and swear and contort as they tried to get the quickly melting bits out of their clothing.
The squabbling continued for a few more seconds, eventually ending when Josiah threatened to make Vin ride on top of the Suburban for a few miles if he couldn't behave himself.
As he listened to them, Ezra was smiling so widely his face hurt. It was childish and it was silly, but this was precisely the kind of thing he had missed most over those long months away from these men.
"We pullin' over any time soon?" Vin called up just as the clock hit 1pm. "It's way past lunchtime and I gotta take a leak too."
"You must have a bladder the size of a grape," Nathan grumbled. "We've stopped three times since this morning!"
"It's all that water you made me drink," he shot back, waving an empty liter bottle under the medic's nose.
Nathan snorted. "If one bottle of water is having that much of an effect on you, I'd say it's proof that you don't drink enough of it. Your organs don't know what to do with anything that isn't congealing 'em with sugar or puckering them with salt and they're going into communal shock."
Ezra heaved a dramatic sigh. "While I would prefer to keep going for a bit, I suspect that you may be right on that count, Mr. Jackson. I don't wish to return this vehicle to the rental agency with a back seat soaked in bodily fluids, or more to the point, I don't wish to explain how such a situation came to be in the first place!"
Josiah laughed. "That makes two of us, brother, though I have to admit that I wouldn't mind watching you try." Sitting up straighter in an attempt to stretch his back, he added, "I vote for a stop anyway. I could use something to eat that doesn't come with an expiration date stamped on the back."
"Me too," Buck agreed, "and if you want, I'll take over driving for a few hours. I know all the roads in and out of Vegas, so I can probably find us a good spot without getting caught in the traffic."
"And the sooner we find a hotel, the sooner we can get to gamblin'," Vin added helpfully, aiming a peanut at Ezra's head in retaliation for the incontinence barb.
Absently brushing at the spot where a shell that had just bounced off the back of his head, Ezra smiled. "Now that is an argument I can support. Besides," he paused, grinning as his stomach chose that moment to release a loud demanding growl, "it appears that I am being out-voted, even by myself."
Confining himself to a silent look of pain when Buck and Vin simultaneously pointed out a Denny's restaurant as a good place to stop for lunch, Ezra pulled into the parking lot. The place appeared to be fairly busy for a Monday afternoon, with the tail end of the lunch rush not yet having departed. Still, the five men were seated fairly quickly at a horseshoe booth and menus passed out without delay.
"Hey, darlin' could you do us a favor?" Buck asked, flashing a charming smile at the hostess who had seated them. Even as she agreed, he was pulling Josiah's digital camera free of the case he wore bandoleer style around his chest and holding it out to her. "We're keeping a little photo log for a friend who had to spend his vacation in Wichita."
Ezra had been seated in the middle of the group and he gave a small 'oof' of annoyance when the other four scrunched in against him as tightly as they possibly could, wrapping their arms around him and each other and flashing big cheesy grins for the camera. Josiah added the touch of holding up the restaurant menu in front of Ezra's chest so that there could be no doubt as to the fact that he was having lunch at an inexpensive family-friendly restaurant.
The hostess laughed and snapped a photo, nodding to herself as she checked the viewer and made sure that it had been a good take before returning the camera and heading back to her station with an assurance that their waitress would be right with them. Other patrons were glancing curiously at the scene and Buck waved a cheerful hand at them, causing most diners to turn back around and pretend they hadn't been watching, though one or two returned the favor.
Vin laughed as he looked at the camera display and passed it to Nathan. "Good one."
The others also chuckled as they looked it over. The hostess had caught the scene perfectly, big toothy grins on every face but Ezra's. He had been doing his best to scowl in protest, but had already been losing the battle by the time the camera flashed, causing one side of his mouth to be raised in a dimpled smirk while his eyes gave away his amusement. "Definitely a keeper," he allowed.
"We think so," Josiah said, saving the image and giving Ezra a nudge and a look that seemed to imply that he was not simply talking about the photo.
Ezra cleared his throat and raised his menu to hide the sudden flush of pleased embarrassment that had swept over him. "So, any non-toxic recommendations?"
"Hey!" Vin protested. "That ain't nice. I love Denny's. Eat at 'em all the time."
Brow raised, he replied, "Thank you for supporting my point, Mr. Tanner."
More banter broke out as the relative merits of various menu items were argued, but an hour later all five men left the restaurant filled with good food and the glow of friendly camaraderie. The warm feeling expanded into eager anticipation as Buck slid behind the wheel of the SUV and announced, "Fasten your seatbelts, boys. Next stop, Vegas!"
They had been driving for less than an hour when Buck noticed Ezra's head dropping back to settle against his headrest, his lids already closed. He grinned a moment later when the sound of soft deep breathing with just a hint of a snore reached his ears. Glancing at the dashboard clock, he called back quietly, "Twenty-nine minutes, boys. Cough it up."
Good natured groans of protest floated back in response, followed by five-dollar bills being passed forward.
"Damn, I thought sure it'd take him at least an hour to fall asleep," Vin grumbled.
Josiah sighed, "Forty-five minutes seemed good, too. Last time it took him three quarters of an hour, right on the dot."
Ezra had no trouble staying alert when he was behind the wheel, the activity of monitoring speed, traffic and road conditions keeping his attention focused, but put him in any other seat of a moving car for more than twenty minutes and a sort of vehicular narcolepsy took over. The others liked to tease him about this tendency, partly because they had come to realize early on that the condition only persisted around people Ezra felt comfortable with. It was flattering, in a strange sort of way.
"I think it's more than the usual this time," Nathan speculated, his dark eyes serious as he learned forward to look over Ezra's slumped form, cataloguing how much weight he had lost and how dark the circles under his eyes had become.
Buck nodded. "He's a lot more worn out than he was letting on," he said, voice pitched lower as he studied his sleeping friend's face.
"That's what I figure too," Nathan agreed. "It always takes a couple of weeks after a long case before he gets rested up, and normally he'll snap your head right off if you suggest anything that's gonna separate him from his nice comfortable bed before he's ready. It really surprised me when Josiah said he wanted to take this trip. Especially about his wanting all of us along for the ride."
A slight frown creased Buck's brow. "I was just thinking about that. He really seemed happy about doing this with us, when you'd think he'd prefer kicking back and doing whatever the hell he felt like."
Vin's raspy laugh floated forward. "Well, he's kind of doing that anyway, if you think about it."
"Yeah, I guess, but if he wanted to hit Vegas, why not hop a first-class flight, go gamble his heart out, and come back in a week bragging about how much money he'd won?"
Josiah said, "I think for once, he needed our presence more than he needed solitude. Something tells me our friend has been spending a little too much time alone lately."
"What do you mean?" Vin wondered. "He likes being on his own."
"Not like he has been," Josiah countered. "Haven't you ever noticed that Ezra never volunteers for long-term assignments if there's any reasonable alternative? In the short-term he's fine. He enjoys the challenges and thrives on the stress; it's almost like a game he plays with himself. However, when the assignment lasts for months, as this one did, I believe it bothers him more than he'll ever admit just how easily he's able to shed all of the trappings of his normal life and sink into another persona."
Vin's face had taken on a pained look. "Reckon that can't be easy, even if he makes it look like it is."
"Imagine what it must be like," Josiah continued, pressing his point, "to live for months at a time surrounded by strangers and enemies, pretending to be something you're not and knowing that everything is in your hands. If you ever make a mistake or let your guard down then the entire case, along with all of your weeks and months of hard work, could be for nothing. The scum gets away and innocent lives, possibly even your own, may be lost. I don't think a man can get much lonelier than that."
Buck sighed, a soft vent of frustration and sympathy. "I get it. He needs to be with friends again for awhile, to be able to relax and have fun and maybe just know that somebody else is standing by to witness it. Let him know that he's not alone."
"Reckon we've all been there at one time or another," Vin said softly. The car fell silent for a few seconds, then Vin suddenly snorted, deliberately shaking off the melancholy mood that had befallen them all. "Christ, Josiah, sometimes that psychoanalyzing shit of yours gets deep! You got any idea what Ezra would do to you if he found out you'd invited us all inside his head to play while he was sleeping?"
Josiah's baritone chuckle filled the car. "Sorry. Guess it's a hazard of the trade."
Ezra jerked awake at the sound of the laughter, large green eyes blinking in confusion. "Did I miss something?" he asked, sitting up straight and trying not to be embarrassed at the realization that he had apparently dozed off in the middle of a conversation.
Not wanting to reveal the content of their discussion, Buck pulled fifteen dollars up from the breast pocket of his shirt and shot Ezra a grin. "Just missed me collecting my winnings there, Sleeping Beauty."
"You know, it isn't polite to make profit off another's personal habits, particularly when those habits are involuntary." Buck continued to smile, holding his right hand out expectantly. Ezra ignored him for several seconds, then snarled, "Oh, fine," and pulled his own five dollar bill out to plunk it into the other man's waiting palm. He had slept well last night and had been smugly certain that this time he could remain alert throughout the entire drive.
"Now I know this trip is going to be a lucky one," Buck gloated, tucking Ezra's money into his pocket with the rest. "We're not even there yet and I've already won twenty bucks!"
Josiah smirked, "Careful there, Buck. You don't want to go tempting the hand of fate. One successful bet does not make a winning-streak."
"Entirely correct," Ezra said, a superior tone rising to cover his irritation at having lost money on such a foolish wager. "And having now tested the whims of Lady Luck so early in the day, I have a feeling that your good fortune just may pass to the person nearest you."
Nathan let loose a hearty chuckle and reached forward to scrub his knuckles on the crown of Buck's head. "Here's hoping some of it rubs off on me then!"
"Hey!" Buck squawked, swatting him away. "I'm drivin' here!"
In spite of his protest, the vehicle never swerved an inch from its path as the others also helped themselves to a rub of the lucky man's scalp, Vin practically climbing into the seat between Josiah and Nathan to take his turn.
Smoothing his ruffled locks down with great dignity, Buck smirked. "Have your fun, boys. Maybe some of me really will rub off on you. After all, not everything in Vegas is about money. It's about time one of you fellas got lucky, Wilmington-style."
"Tell me that's an allusion to your track record with the fairer sex, and not a personal invitation," Josiah begged, brandishing the cross he had hanging around his neck and making a warding off gesture, his pale eyes sparkling with amusement.
"Now who's tempting fate, monk-boy?" Buck shot back, giving Josiah the finger when he saw what the other man was doing. "Last time you got any action, all four Beatles were still alive!"
The sun was just setting over the city of Las Vegas when the SUV reached the outskirts of town, the natural light quickly being absorbed into the million sparkling electric and neon versions already blazing along the Strip. Buck and Ezra heaved simultaneous sighs of bliss at the sight, causing their friends to exchange amused grins.
"Good to see the ol' homestead again," Buck said in his best over-exaggerated cowboy drawl. "Been quite a spell."
Ezra snorted. "I'm sure you must grow nostalgic for the good old days of your youth, waking up at the crack of noon to feed the slot-machines and curry the showgirls."
Buck's grin grew wider. "Well, you know it was a dirty job, but..."
"Somebody had to do it," they chorused wryly.
"Exactly!" he laughed. "So, what does everyone want to do first?"
Ezra made a sweeping gesture at the windshield with both hands. "All suggestions are welcome, gentlemen. I intend that the next few days will be fun for us all so feel free to throw out ideas."
Nathan laughed. "With an opening like that, I hate to throw out something practical, but I say we should find a place to stay, get ourselves cleaned up, then take a walk along the Strip to see what the town's got to offer."
"Excellent suggestion, Mr. Jackson," he replied, murmurs of agreement from the others cementing the decision. "Did we ever reach a consensus as to which hotel will be graced with our presence?"
That particular subject had been the cause of much debate once the others had learned that Ezra hadn't bothered making reservations on the grounds that one could always find a good place to stay in Las Vegas, particularly if they were willing to spend a little extra.
Josiah said, "I believe we'd narrowed it down to the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and the Excalibur."
"They got live jousting tournaments at the Excalibur," Vin reminded quickly, a note of cajoling in his voice as he reiterated his own choice. "And the price is real reasonable compared to the other places. Not like we want to spend all our time in hotel rooms anyway, right?"
"I still think the MGM is better," Nathan countered. "Animal exhibits, boxing tournaments, Cirque du Soleil, Wolfgang Puck's restaurant; lot of activities to occupy your mind anytime you need a break from gambling."
Ezra laughed outright at the final sentence and Nathan winced, realizing that he might have just talked himself right out of his choice.
"The Bellagio has some of the finest restaurants and game rooms in the United States," Josiah reminded them. Keeping his attention focused on Ezra, he practically crooned the words, "They also have one of the best luxury spas you'll find anywhere."
"Yeah, and a price-tag custom designed to give folks a heart-attack soon as they get the bill," Vin grumbled, assuming his idea had already been shot down. Whenever the group went hiking, fishing, or camping in the great outdoors, Ezra tended to allow him or one of the others to lead and make the decisions. Since this trip had been Ezra's idea and Vegas was his favorite playground, everyone had decided to defer to him as their de facto leader, and it was highly unlikely that Ezra Standish would turn up his nose at pampering and fine dining.
Running the tip of his right thumb slowly over his bottom lip, Ezra considered the choices. "Buck," he finally said in a curious tone, "have you no opinion to offer?"
Buck shrugged. "Hell, I don't care where we stay. Long the place has a clean soft bed in it, anyplace'll do."
Josiah gave a great snort. "Good to know you have your priorities. Should we take it by that comment that any suggestion of sharing a room would be pointless?"
He winked. "Oh, I didn't say I wouldn't be sharing."
Nathan held up a hand. "Stop right there! We know the rest of this story by heart already."
Ezra snickered. "Do whatever you like, Mr. Wilmington, just keep in mind that you are the one who promised Chris and JD a photo journal of our vacation. They'll expect a thorough summation of events and unless you want young Mr. Dunne to go gray before his time, I suggest you vary your activities and edit your narration."
"Spoil-sport," he grumbled good-naturedly. "So, make up your mind, Ez. Where we staying?"
"The Excalibur," he said decisively, earning himself startled looks from everyone, particularly Vin. He grinned mischievously at the reaction and continued, "Then tomorrow, we shall transfer our trade to the MGM Grand, and then spend our third and final night in this fine city in the luxurious confines of the Bellagio."
Josiah reached up and clapped him on the shoulder. "Now that's a plan I think we can all live with."
"The Bellagio is a five-star hotel," Nathan said, just a bit doubtfully. "You sure we can afford it?"
He smirked. "Have no fear. I intend to be doing well enough at the hotel poker tables by that third day that I will be able to comp luxury accommodations for us all as a lure for the continuation of my business."
"What if you don't?" Josiah asked curiously. "Poker can be a pretty uncertain game if the players are evenly matched."
Ezra did not deny this but the pleased look on his face did not fade one bit. "Then I'll pay for the rooms myself. Don't forget, I have four months' worth of unused government pay at my disposal and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. In addition, I would consider the cost of a luxury suite to be well worth the cost of gambling against those with the skills to outplay me. Who knows what new tricks of the trade I might acquire!"
Nathan laughed. "Figures you'd think of that."
Ezra hummed lightly as he adjusted the shower controls to put forth a gush of steaming hot water, allowing the vague melody in his throat to fade into a simple moan as the stream washed over his body. The ambient temperature of the city was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty degrees at present, but the hotel rooms were air-conditioned and his own had been quite chilly when he walked in, allowing the heat to feel good as it cascaded over his skin and soothed the stiffness of muscles held too long in one position.
Nathan and Vin had decided to share a room at each hotel and split the cost, neither of them having much faith in Ezra's boast of gambling prowess. Ezra, Buck and Josiah had each opted to pay for independent rooms. This way Buck could have all the 'guests' he wanted, Josiah could sleep nights without his snoring driving anyone to a random act of violence, and Ezra could bask in the simple luxury of being alone with no need to put on a facade for anyone. Not that his friends wanted or required him to put on any sort of act, but it was a reflex, and one he always had extra difficulty countering after a grueling assignment.
Popping open a small bottle of hotel-provided shampoo, Ezra took an experimental sniff but wrinkled his nose immediately and put it back. Cheap generic stuff, no better than one might expect to find at any standard roadside motel. How disappointing. Fortunately, he had come well prepared with his own favorite brands of soap, shampoo, and assorted other personal hygiene aids.
Working a generous dollop of tropical-scented soap into his short locks, Ezra began to hum once again. This vacation had gotten off to a very satisfying beginning and he was feeling confident that it would continue in the same vein. How amazing was it that not one person had felt the need to argue his choice of destination, or insist that they save money by staying in some dirt-cheap hovel with walls so thin you could practically carry on a conversation with your next-door neighbor without even raising your voice? It was almost as if Josiah, Nathan, Buck and Vin had all recognized how important it was to him to reconnect and have everything be as he wanted it, just this once.
A slight frown wrinkled his brow as he added conditioner to his hair, and set about washing his skin while he allowed it time to work. Had he given them some clue as to how he'd been feeling? He didn't think so. Perhaps a trip to Vegas was simply too tempting to resist, no matter who had come up with it. That seemed reasonable.
Or maybe ... and here he paused in mid-thought, turning the notion over and examining it for flaws as he moved back under the spray to wash out the light conditioner. Maybe he was not the only one who had felt a little empty during those numerous tales of good times spent without him. A smile crept slowly across Ezra's face. His mother would have called him a sentimental fool for even considering such a notion, but the idea thrilled him to a most embarrassing degree.
Suddenly filled with new energy, Ezra switched off the shower and jumped from the stall, wrapping a fluffy towel around his hips and briskly drying his torso and hair with another as he moved to the bureau to pick up his cell phone. It was time to get everyone moving and go find out what Vegas had in store for them.
The five men walked down the streets of Vegas in an X pattern, Ezra and Buck taking the front, Vin behind and between them, Nathan and Josiah bringing up the rear. They walked casually, unhurriedly, but with a slight unconscious swagger of self-confidence that drew approving looks from fellow pedestrians, most of them female. All five had dressed in simple comfortable clothing, including Ezra, who had opted in deference to the still-hot temperatures to wear khaki shorts and a navy blue polo shirt. Josiah was similarly attired in green, while Nathan had chosen black cotton pants and a loose African-print shirt. Vin and Buck had each kept their faded blue jeans, Vin topping his with a simple gray T-shirt, and Buck assaulting their eyes with another of his beloved Hawaiian shirts, this one with vivid orange flowers on a dark green background.
Neon light gleamed and buzzed from every building, making the very sidewalks seem alive as they wavered and danced with reflected color. Each hotel on the Strip advertised some different form of entertainment, making the air crackle with excitement and anticipation.
"We should pace ourselves according to our surroundings," Ezra had suggested when they'd met in the hotel lobby after they had all gotten cleaned up and unpacked. "This establishment was chosen for its relative lack of expense and panache, tomorrow the accommodations will be a slightly better class, and our final destination will be all about style and high living. May I suggest that we choose our diversions accordingly?"
"Start with the cheap touristy stuff and move our way up, you mean," Vin had guessed. "Save the sports and showgirls, fancy eats and gamblin' places for later. I like it."
"Girls aren't only at the expensive places, y'know," Buck pointed out instantly. "You can get some real quality shows without breaking the bank, if you know where to look."
Josiah laughed. "And I bet you know every one of those places. What do you say we save that for tomorrow? Tonight, I'm more in the mood for some of Vin's touristy stuff. I want to try out the hotel next to ours that has its own rooftop roller coaster."
Vin's blue eyes lit up with interest. "I heard about that too. Supposed to be a lot of fun."
"Oh, all right," Buck grumbled, not really minding but protesting a little just for show. "Guess we have to keep the kids and the old folks happy."
Josiah punched him in the arm. "Watch it, sonny. "
Eyes sparkling with fun, Buck clutched at Ezra and whined, "Daaad, he hit me!"
Ezra merely snorted and looked around, as he considered the proposed activity. Then he nodded. "All right, gentlemen. I was going to suggest we stop for something to eat before beginning our adventure, but if we're to start with a roller-coaster ride, I suggest we do so now before any edibles are consumed that may be in danger of making a reappearance."
"Sounds good to me," Nathan agreed with grin. "And afterward, we can hit the hotel casino. Who knows, maybe I can win enough money at their slots to pay for a nice souvenir to take back home to Rain."
"I wouldn't count on it, brother," Josiah teased him. "Those nickel machines can be murder."
"That's because you're too cheap to play more than three lines at a time," Nathan countered. "You have to play at least five dollars to start, bet five lines - a quarter a spin - and then just watch the fun and remember to change up how much you bet now and then. Whenever you hit twenty bucks, cash out and start over with five dollars again. It's all about the strategy. "
Ezra smirked. "Mr. Jackson, I had no idea you were such an aficionado! Personally, I've never found slots to be a particularly lucrative investment. The odds are entirely too much in the favor of the house. However, in the spirit of experimentation, I'll make you a wager. If you can take five dollars and parlay it into, say, fifty dollars before the evening is out, I will personally buy the lovely Rain any souvenir you deem fit to mark the occasion."
Seeing the thoughtful gleam in Nathan's eye, he quickly added, "Within a reasonable limit. On the other hand, if you lose your money or show no appreciable profit margin within one hour, then you must stake me that same five dollar opening wager at the first gaming table of my choice. If I can quadruple that original sum within fifteen minutes, you pay for my dinner tonight."
Nathan laughed at the condition. For some reason known only to himself, Ezra, who otherwise tended to be quite generous with his money, loved to find excuses to mooch free food off of the rest of them. Knowing he was getting the better end of the deal, either way, he said, "You got a bet. Just make sure whatever restaurants you pick are also within a 'reasonable limit', okay?"
"Of course," he agreed smoothly, the sparkle in his eyes making Nathan instantly reconsider his assumption. "Let's go."
"You're sure about this?" Josiah asked sotto voce as he and Ezra moved to take their places at the back of the crowd waiting a turn for the Manhattan Express roller-coaster on top of the New York, New York hotel. Nathan, Vin and Buck had all paid their $12.50 admission price and jumped eagerly into line, accepting Ezra's claim that he needed to find correct change before joining them, and Josiah had opted to wait with him. "We don't have to go if you don't want to. We can just wait for the others on the platform."
Ezra stared at him in surprise. "Why wouldn't I wish to . . ." he trailed off, surprise turning into irritation. "What exactly are you implying?"
"Remember the time we all went to that amusement park for JD's birthday?" Josiah said. Ezra nodded cautiously, a frown creasing the skin between his brows. "Well, I couldn't help noticing that you were making excuses not to ride anything that would take you more than a few feet off the ground. I kept my eyes open and I've seen more evidence since. The way you -who hates baking - offered to make sugar cookies last Christmas so that you wouldn't have to help Buck and Chris string lights on the rooftop, your claim that the restaurant inside the Space-Needle had a rat problem when I suggested we eat there during that trial in Seattle last summer, the fact that you were the only person your mother didn't push into checking out the view from her penthouse balcony the last time she was in town. It all adds up to someone who's afraid of heights."
Ezra's haughty look became tinged with embarrassment as Josiah's steady gray-blue gaze refused to waver, and finally he nodded. "If there were any mitigating factors I've long since forgotten them, but I've loathed being up high since I was small child."
They took a few steps closer to as a carload of passengers disembarked and a new group boarded the ride. Ezra's spine stiffened as he drew closer to the entry gate then he relaxed again with an unconscious sigh of relief when the gate closed again just in front of Buck. He had approximately three more minutes before he would have to face this ordeal.
Resuming the conversation, Josiah asked him, "Why do this then?"
"Because I refuse to be at the mercy of my irrational fears," he replied, chin lifting in a defiant manner. "I proposed this trip because I felt it would be something we could all enjoy."
Together, Josiah thought, filling in the blank Ezra had left with his slight pause at the end of the sentence. He nodded at this confirmation of his earlier supposition that Ezra had been craving their company.
Unaware of his companion's thoughts, Ezra continued, "I told you all that I wanted to do whatever seemed fun tonight, and while this is far from my idea of fun I refuse to ruin the moment due to some ridiculous phobia."
"I'm not so sure it is ridiculous," Josiah told him ruefully, waving a small glossy brochure he had picked up at the ticket booth. He knew that Ezra would not believe or appreciate a patronizing assurance that nobody would think less of him for backing away, so he tried to give him a genuine 'out' instead. Holding open the brochure, he asked, "Did you read this thing? 'By the second drop, riders will find themselves anxiously gripping their restraints as they fall more than 100 feet at a 50-degree angle. The Roller Coaster at New York-New York is the world's first roller coaster to feature a 180-degree heartline twist. Another heart-stopping feature of the C-shaped track is the 540-degree spiral, allowing passengers to experience what negative Gs are truly all about.' I'm starting to feel a little queasy about going on this thing myself."
Ezra's face had gone pale as snow as he listened to the description, but he swallowed thickly and shook his head. "I'm getting on," he said, the brave statement weakened somewhat by the quaver in his voice.
The last group of passengers was just coming to a stop at the gate, most of them wide eyed and chattering in adrenaline-fueled excitement. Josiah reached over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder, feeling the muscles bunching in tension. "Let's do it!"
They wound up seated in the middle of the long passenger sled. Ahead they could see Buck and Vin in the front row, with Nathan and an unknown teenage girl right behind them. Buck and Vin were high fiving each other as the car began to move. Nathan looked eager but relaxed, settling himself more firmly into his seat and looking around at the bright scenery below. Josiah also settled in further, giving a reflex tug on his safety harness as they began to pick up speed. Next to him, Ezra was rock-jawed and tense, both hands locked in a white-knuckled grip on the harness, his green gaze darting as he braved small glimpses of the winking lights of Vegas.
Then the sled truly began to pick up speed, soon moving at a breakneck pace and causing the passengers to scream in glee as they experienced hills, twists and rolls. Josiah yelped in delight when the vehicle rocketed through the first loop, but as they hit the advertised hundred-foot drop a quick glance to his right showed that Ezra had his eyes squeezed shut so tightly that it looked physically painful. A small whine of terror escaped from his throat, but he gave no other voice to his fear. The car continued to bullet along the track until it hit a corkscrew twist that made Josiah feel as if he were a lump of bread-dough being pummeled into a brand new shape. He groaned a soft, "Ugh" as they came out of the twist and was surprised to see Ezra's eyes open and a quick grin flit over his stiff features.
Finally, the ride was over. The sled coasted to a smooth stop at the gate and all passengers were instructed to step carefully from the ride and look around to insure that no possessions were left behind. Ezra swayed a little as he rose from his seat but hopped gracefully onto the platform and even offered Josiah a hand as he staggered off. Exchanging a rueful look, they went to join their three friends, all of whom were chattering like magpies.
"That was awesome!" Buck declared, eyes shining with excitement. "Want to go again?"
"Not me," Nathan said with a laugh. "I think I left my stomach somewhere on the last turn. It was fun, though. What'd you think?"
This last was addressed to Josiah, who laughed and said, "I think I'll stick with tamer attractions from here on out. I'm getting too old for things like this."
"How about you, Ezra?" Vin asked, nudging him in the arm as the five of them moved toward the elevators. "You're awful quiet. Did you like it?"
"Not really. I'm afraid I don't do well with thrill-rides. I was completely petrified the entire time." Catching Josiah's shocked look at this admission, he winked. "Luckily I was able to trust in Josiah's zen-like presence to keep me calm. Otherwise I might have ended up screaming like a little girl."
The others laughed, believing that he was simply making a joke and Josiah smiled, realizing that Ezra had intended exactly that. He was clearly feeling an upsurge in confidence now that the ordeal was over and Josiah nodded subtly, trying to tell Ezra that he was proud of him for facing his fear and holding together as well as he had.
Ezra smiled and returned the gesture. Wanting to divert the attention from himself, he turned back to Buck and said, "I must admit that a couple of times during the ride, I found myself wishing that I had been seated next to you, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck's eyes narrowed. "Why's that?"
He reached out a finger and flicked the lapel of Buck's shirt. "Because then if I had given in and lost control of my stomach, nobody would have would have been the wiser!"
"Why you..." Buck made a grab for him, but Ezra laughed and ducked behind Nathan, using the taller man as a shield as they all stepped into the elevator.