Just For Fun

by Helen Adams

Chapter 1 - 10
Chapter 11 - 20
Chapter 21 - 30
Chapter 31 - 40
Chapter 41 - 50

Chapter 11

The rooftop elevator finally descended all the way to ground level, and Ezra breathed a silent sigh of relief at the knowledge that he was safely back on terra firma. He felt quite proud of himself for having braved the roller-coaster without letting anyone - other than the irritatingly perceptive Josiah - know of his discomfort with high altitudes, but just the same he was certain that it was a challenge he could do without ever facing again.

The lobby led out into a large glittering casino, as all doorways and entrances in

as Vegas tend to do, and the sounds of whirling wheels and ringing bells filled the air along with grumbles of unhappy losers and the gasps and cheers of the winners. Two cars, a Corvette and a Mustang, revolved above the casino floor on lighted platforms. Signs enticed players with color, light and the ubiquitous promise of untold riches if only they cared to try their luck. To the side, banks of poker machines and tables for roulette, blackjack and other games lined the walls. Ezra's eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he took it all in.

"You look like a little kid who just got his first glimpse of Disneyland," Vin laughed, nudging Ezra to get his attention after two failed attempts using his name.

Ezra gave him a sheepish smile. "Hardly my first glimpse, but I suppose the sentiment is somewhat apt. I grew up in places like this, large scale and small, but it's been a very long time since I've been able to drink in the sights and sounds of Las Vegas."

Vin shook his head. "Ain't sure what you see in it," he admitted. "I mean the city as a whole, sure. If there's one town that's got something for everybody, it's Vegas, but to me casinos are just crowded noisy places full of stale air and bad lighting. I mean, hell, you can't even tell if it's day or night unless you stick your head outside. You could spend the whole night sittin' in here feeding the one-arm bandits and never know it until you finally ended up broke."

"I think that's more or less the idea," Josiah said wryly. Noting Ezra's stiffened posture, he reminded Vin, "You really should give it more than one try before condemning it, though. It can be a lot of fun as long as you keep track of how much time and money you're spending."

"And don't forget, people do win from time to time," Nathan added, pointing to a happily chiming quarter slot and the ecstatic woman in front of it.

Ezra's ruffled feathers calmed as Josiah and Nathan made their points, and Vin held up his hands in surrender, then dug inside his pocket for a quarter to feed into the first unoccupied slot-machine he came to.

Much to Vin's surprise and everyone else's amusement, three rows of cherries rolled up, yielding a five dollar return on his investment. "Well, I'll be damned," he said with a grin. "Maybe there's something to this after all."

"What do you say, Nathan?" Ezra prompted, giving the tall man a little push in the small of his back. "Now that Mr. Tanner has ably demonstrated how simple it can be, are you prepared to prove your mastery over nickel slots as per your earlier assertion?"

"Thought you were set on getting something to eat before we got down to business," Nathan returned, nonetheless casting his gaze over the myriad choices of machine that competed for his attention.

Buck laughed. "Not if there's a chance that he can get you to pay for the grub. Remember your bet?"

"I'm not particularly hungry at the moment, so now might be an ideal opportunity to take your chances," Ezra countered, smiling at the reminder of potentially free food but aware that his recent encounter with the sky far above the city would not permit him to take advantage of it just yet. "However, we can always try our luck at another establishment if this one fails to meet your requirements."

"Hey, don't forget, this is our anything-for-fun night," Vin reminded them as he cashed out his small winnings. "We don't want to waste the whole thing sittin' on our asses watching the machines have all the fun, do we? We should go see the wax museum, or the live lion exhibit, or one of them circus shows."

Reluctantly, Ezra nodded. "I suppose you're right, and it's not as if we'll have a shortage of opportunities to gamble over the next few days. I will leave it to y'all to decide."

Buck suddenly grinned and slapped Nathan and Ezra on the back. "I don't know about you, but I aim to stay for a little while. Think I need to try my luck at the poker machines before anything else. "

Without another word, he melded into the crowd, the brilliant orange of his flowered shirt allowing his companions to follow his progress easily. They grinned at one another when they spotted the real attraction of the video poker area; three beautiful young women wearing dresses that revealed a tantalizing amount of bronzed flesh.

"You reckon those three are even legal?" Vin mused, watching Buck smoothly insert himself into the girls' conversation and help himself to an empty seat in their midst.

"I'm not sure they are," Josiah replied, shaking his head, "but they haven't been thrown out of the casino yet and that's good enough for Buck."

Nathan chuckled as he watched their friend smile and chat up the girls. "Maybe we should just go on without him and come back later."

Just then, a middle-aged woman joined the small group. Hands on hips, she began speaking to Buck in what looked to be a less than friendly manner. The three young women smiled apologetically at him and hurried out of the casino, while Buck stood and made placating gestures at the older one. She appeared to calm a bit but her laser-like stare continued to bore into Buck's back as he tipped an imaginary hat in her direction and scurried - there was really no other word for it - back to rejoin his four companions, all of whom were laughing so hard they were in danger of hyperventilating.

Other casino patrons were staring at the guffawing band of men with a mixture of amusement and disdain, likely assuming the group to have imbibed a few too many of the casino's complimentary beverages.

"Oh, shut your pie-holes," Buck griped, causing Vin and Ezra to burst into a fresh wave of giggles, too out of breath for any more dignified sound. "I was doing just fine until the den-mother showed up."

"Buck," Vin gasped, wiping tears out of his eyes. "Did it ever occur to you that those girls wouldn't have needed a chaperone if they were old enough for you to be hitting on 'em."

For a moment, he looked alarmed. Then he smiled and shrugged it off. "The Wilmington magnetism is just too strong for my own good sometimes."

"Somehow, I don't think that would stand up too well in court," Nathan snorted. "Let's get out of here before she comes back with reinforcements."

As they reached the exit door, Josiah suddenly stopped, causing Vin to almost run into him. "Damn!"

"What?" they chorused.

Lifting his camera-case from its carrying strap, he said, "I forgot to take pictures when Buck was getting run off by that woman! Chris will never forgive me..."

Chapter 12

The banter continued down the street as the five men headed toward the Venetian hotel at the opposite end of the Strip, having decided to see what famous figures occupied Madame Tusseaud's. Vin had started by poking Ezra in the ribs with a bony elbow and saying in his best corn-fed yokel impersonation, "Hey Ez. I hear tell Bucklin invited a gal upstairs to play some poker."

Ezra did not miss a beat. Opened his eyes wide he replied in an exaggerated drawl, "Yeah? Did she know what he figgered to poke her with?"

As they, Josiah and Nathan all laughed, Buck gave them the finger. Then Nathan started in. Reaching across to Buck's face, he gave the end of his mustache a playful tweak and said in a ridiculously high-pitched voice, "Oh, Bucky! You're sooo cute. Don't let my mean old guardian stop you. Make me a woman!"

Buck swatted the hand away in annoyance, only to have Josiah turn to him and chirp, "Forget her. She's much too young for you." He batted his stubby lashes furiously, then flashed a grin and added, "but I'm not!"

Finally noticing the bemused stares their performance was getting from fellow pedestrians, Buck groaned. "Aw, come on fellas, lay off. You keep that up and we're all going to have a reputation that makes sure none of us gets to spend time with any lovely ladies this trip!"

Realizing what he meant, they reached an unspoken agreement to let the matter drop - for now.

"Man, it's hot out here for as late as it is," Vin commented. "Anybody up for a drink before we hit the wax museum?"

"I could use a soda," Buck agreed, grabbing onto the change of subject gratefully. "There's a McDonald's just up ahead, unless you'd rather find someplace to stop for a beer."

Vin shook his head. "Nah, a chocolate shake ought to do the trick. Maybe a couple of Big Macs to give it some company in m'gut."

"You want to have dinner there?" Nathan asked, not hiding his disapproval. "A hundred good quality restaurants in Vegas, some you can't find anywhere else, and you want to eat at McDonald's?"

Vin looked puzzled. "Who said anything about dinner? I just figured I'd get a little snack to whet my appetite while y'all are deciding where to go tonight."

The medic rolled his eyes. "I should've known. Well in that case, I guess a milkshake wouldn't be such a bad idea."

Josiah and Ezra agreed that this sounded good. When they reached the restaurant they found that it wasn't overly busy so Buck and Nathan grabbed a table while Josiah, Vin and Ezra went for the drinks and 'snacks'. Josiah went first, not needing to ask the others' preferences as he ordered strawberry shakes for Nathan and Buck and a vanilla for himself. Vin then requested his two burgers, french-fries, a large-sized chocolate shake and two apple pies.

"Snack," Ezra muttered, shaking his head. He knew from experience that in an hour or two when the rest of them had selected a proper restaurant and dinner was served, all of this would be only a distant memory to Vin, who would happily consume an appetizer, a hearty meal, drinks and dessert without so much as the loosening of a belt-notch. His friends had given up trying to figure out where he put it all. Ezra gave the menu-board an automatic perusal as he stepped up to the counter, his gaze drifting to the work area where a fresh basket of fries was just being dumped into the serving station and salted. He hadn't intended to eat just yet, but that sight was too tempting to resist. "I'll have a small chocolate shake and a large fry," he said, gaining a surprised look from Josiah and an approving one from Vin.

"I don't think I've ever seen you eat that many fries," Josiah said, eyeing the large red cardboard container fairly overflowing with crisp golden shoestring potatoes that was placed on Ezra's tray.

"And I probably won't now," he said, picking up his tray and heading back toward the table. "You know perfectly well that the sight of Mr. Tanner and myself eating french-fries will make the rest of you regret the fact that you didn't order any, and thus the thievery will begin."

No sooner had they arrived at the table and passed out the milkshakes than Ezra's words were proven true. As he reached for his shake, Buck stealthily whisked a couple of fallen fries from the tray and stuffed them into his mouth.

"See?" Ezra said, popping the plastic cover off his beverage and promptly dipping one hot salty fry into the frozen chocolate and munching it with a look of intense satisfaction on his face. He dipped another fry and then squinted harshly as Josiah responded by snapping off a flash-photo.

Showing off the resulting image in his viewfinder, Josiah grinned. "Chris and JD are not going to believe their eyes." He turned the camera so that the others could see the captured photo of Ezra with his head tilted back, mouth opened wide as he aimed a slush-coated french-fry towards it.

"The kid's gonna love this one," Buck said with a chuckle. "Why do you guys both do that?"

Ezra shrugged one shoulder, a bit surprised that he didn't feel all disturbed by the notion of one of his less-than-genteel habits being captured in photographic glory for all to see. He was feeling more relaxed, more comfortable in his own skin right at this moment than he had felt in months. That was more than worth a bit of teasing. "I suppose it's the contrast; hot and cold, salty and sweet, solid and liquid." He smiled a tad shyly. "I haven't done it since I was a boy."

The other men smiled in satisfaction, each feeling a bolt of pleasure at Ezra's subtle admission of being at ease in their presence. He would never have allowed himself to give in to a childish impulse if he did not, much less given any expression to it.

Nathan helped himself to a few fries as Ezra offered him the box. "Speaking of that, you said you'd been around places like this since you were a kid. How old were you the first time you came to Vegas, Ezra?"

He pondered for a moment. "About six, I think. I remember being shut up for long hours in a hotel room with no one for company except a nanny who was even more unhappy with the situation than I was. Children weren't allowed in gambling areas, so she was forced to miss out on them as well and of course, this was before the city was filled with all the family-friendly diversions that they have today."

"It wasn't a bad place for those of us who grew up here," Buck said, nodding in agreement, "but for all the kids who were just visiting it had to be a pretty boring way to spend a vacation."

"Indeed," he said with feeling. "I seem to recall that due to that situation, I nearly got into serious trouble with my mother. I had found that the nanny would become entirely absorbed in television programs if I left her alone long enough and thus I took to sneaking out of the room and down into the casinos to watch the gamblers. Surveillance equipment was another thing that wasn't nearly up to the grade it is today and I discovered that I could easily make my way from place to place undetected, just by ducking under tables and remaining quiet."

Vin smiled. "And did you learn anything interesting?"

"A great many things," he replied, a wicked grin lighting his features. "I learned that players are far less cautious of their tells when they don't realize they're being observed, and that there are all manner of hiding places a less-than-honorable person might secret an extra card that goes unnoticed by his fellow gamblers. I also learned the many ins and outs of rigging a table by spending time beneath said furnishings."

A frown wrinkled Josiah's brow. "Wait a minute, you said that you 'nearly' got into trouble with your mother. Didn't she ever catch you?" Maude Standish was not the most devoted parent on the face of the earth but it was difficult to imagine the coolly observant woman having no awareness of her only son's whereabouts.

"Of course," Ezra said lightly. He paused to take a last pull on his milkshake and eat another fry, making a face as he realized that the food had gone cold, then continued, "She discovered my covert activities almost immediately, but once I revealed all of the interesting lessons I was learning she decided that it was a worthwhile diversion. So long as I promised to never leave whichever premises she herself was occupying, and to pretend that I had simply lost my way and was searching for my mother should I ever get caught, I had permission to observe whatever and whomever I liked."

Nathan's expression was pained. "That's just not right. It's being responsible and completely irresponsible, both at the same time."

Ezra smiled wistfully. "A better description of Mother I have never heard." Wiping his hands off on a napkin, he stood. "Everyone finished?"

Recognizing the unspoken request that they change the subject, Vin rubbed his hands together. "Let's get this show on the road. Like they say, the night is young and so are we." Then, throwing a saucy grin at Josiah, he added, "Well, most of us."

Josiah just smiled serenely. "When all you children are face down in your poker chips tonight, I'll still be going strong."

Buck slapped him heartily on the back while Ezra grinned and made an exaggerated bow, flashing an 'after you' gesture toward the door.

Chapter 13

"So, what do you think?" Buck asked, gesturing broadly around the surprisingly large museum before he struck his best performance pose next to the wax figure of Elvis Presley, who was dressed as if he were about to shoot a scene from 'Blue Hawaii'.

"You could be twins," was Josiah's dutiful reply as he snapped a photo and then turned his camera on Vin, standing in another area next to 'John Wayne'.

Seeing the attention, Vin quickly mimicked a gunfighter stance and his best tough-guy look. As soon as the camera flashed, he gave Buck a wide grin. "I figured this place'd be kinda cheesy but it's actually cool."

"I knew you'd love it. How about you, Ez? Having fun?"

Ezra laughed, sounding a bit surprised as he admitted, "You know, I am. This setting is neither as ornate nor as heavily populated with wax figures as the version in London, but I must agree with you that they've done a fine job with it."

Josiah pointed the camera toward him and ordered, "Do something funny." Obediently, Ezra trotted over to a figure of Marilyn Monroe in her famous white updrafted dress and dropped to the floor, gawping like an adolescent boy as he pretended to peek up Marilyn's skirt. Not to be outdone, Nathan knelt at the feet of 'Tina Turner' and put his clasped hands out in supplication, leaning back just far enough that the figure's outstretched hand appeared to be slapping him. Josiah laughed and took both shots. "Excellent! Here, take one of me with the Rat Pack."

He tossed the camera to Buck and hopped up on a small stage, his large figure completely obscuring Joey Bishop as he took a place between Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and struck a pose.

"Man, Chris is going to be pissed off that he didn't want to come when he sees these," Buck crowed. "This'll teach him not to knock my home town."

Surprised, having assumed that Chris simply had other plans that precluded his joining them, Ezra's brow furrowed in dismay. Looking at Josiah he said, "You implied that Mr. Larabee was already committed elsewhere. Are you telling us that he didn't even want to come on this trip?"

Realizing that he had slipped, Buck gave an apologetic shrug. "Don't blame Josiah, pal, that's what Chris told him."

Eyes narrowing, Ezra said, "And why did he not wish to join us?"

A smile lit Buck's features, unknowingly easing the clench of unease that had knotted Ezra's stomach. "Chris hates Vegas. Bad history."

Sensing a good story, Vin hitched one eyebrow. "Bad, how?"

Always ready to spin a yarn, Buck moved to occupy the piano bench next to 'Liberace' and pretended to play the piano as he told them, "Apparently the first time he came here Chris got rolled less than a day into his stay. Lost his wallet, keys, cash, everything. He couldn't get home because when the thief stole his bag he also got the airline ticket, so Chris wound up having to wire his dad for enough money to get back again. That wasn't much fun, I'm sure, because he wasn't even supposed to be in Vegas! He was only 17, bluffing his way into making people think he was older, and as far as his parents knew, he was in Iowa visiting some aunt over summer vacation."

A note of laughter in his voice, Ezra protested, "But surely he cannot hold the entire city to blame for one youthful misjudgment."

"Don't be too sure," Buck said, warming to his subject. "He actually gave the place another try a few years later. Managed to win a little money and decided to celebrate by getting blitzed at the hotel bar. The way I hear it, he was throwing cash around like there was no tomorrow and playing up to all the gals. Everything was all fun and games until Chris ended up proposing to some girl who was just as drunk as he was and running off to one of those little 24 hour wedding chapels."

Caught somewhere between amusement and outright disbelief, Nathan said, "You're kidding. Chris?"

Buck's eyes sparkled as he warmed to the story. "I kid you not. Ol' Chris was about a breath away from getting hitched to a girl he'd only known for about two hours when he wound up being saved by her boyfriend. The kid had somehow found out what was happening and crashed the wedding before anybody could say 'I do'. Chris came out of things with an empty wallet, a black eye and a hangover."

"And that was the end of Vegas, eh?" Josiah guessed, his deep chuckle filling the room.

Eyes widening, Buck said, "Oh no, no it wasn't! Never being the kind of fella to let a couple of bad experiences get him down, Chris Larabee returned for the third and last time."

"Cue dramatic music," Ezra murmured to Nathan who stifled a laugh by turning it into a cough.

Ignoring them, Buck continued, "Chris and me had gotten to be good friends when we were in the Navy, and one day I was telling him a few stories about my old stomping grounds and he figured maybe he should give the place another try the next time we had shore-leave."

"And?" Vin said, grinning in anticipation.

"Well, things were going great for awhile. We both won some money, enjoyed some friendly company and were having ourselves a good time in one of the local hotspots when Chris up and decides that the beers he's been downing all night just ain't good enough and switches up to something with a little more hair on it."

"Oh, God," Josiah groaned, sides shaking with silent mirth as he imagined what would come next. "Somebody started a brawl, didn't they?"

Buck nodded. "Chris's temper never did mix too well with the hard stuff, but he would have been all right if a couple of jarheads hadn't walked in and started flinging shit about the Navy being filled with nothing but yellow-bellied pansies who couldn't make the Corps. I wasn't inclined to let that slide myself, so when Chris gave that loud mouthed Marine a four-knuckle salute I wasn't far behind."

"And did you win the altercation?" Ezra cut in with a smirk, knowing full well that in Buck's stories the Navy always triumphed, whether they had factually done so or not.

"Wiped up the bar with 'em," he replied smugly. "Problem is, it turns out that the one Marine's mommy owned the club and she didn't like seeing her boy made a fool of. Called the cops and told 'em we started the fight and that she wanted us arrested. We ended up spending a night in the tank before having our shore leave cut in half. After that, Chris figured that he'd had his three strikes and Vegas was out for good."

Shaking his head, not entirely sure whether he believed the story or not, Ezra said, "It would take someone who is either more of a fool or more of a gambler than Mr. Larabee has ever been to do otherwise. I wouldn't have suggested this destination as a group holiday had I known."

Nathan gave Ezra a sharp look as he heard the note of apology in his voice and clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Good thing you didn't know then, 'cause I wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. Chris might not trust his luck in this town but I still trust mine. Let's go find a good slot machine and see which one of us gets a free dinner tonight!"

Unable to resist his friend's conspiratorial grin, Ezra allowed the momentary darkening of his mood to fall away and soon his own dimpled grin was back in evidence. "Lead on, Mr. Jackson."

Chapter 14

"Were you serious about playing with nickel machines or would you care to try something a little more daring?" Ezra teased as the group reached the main casino of the Venetian hotel. "If you're going to lose your money, you may as well do it quickly. I'm beginning to feel rather hungry."

Nathan merely smirked, cracking his knuckles and flexing his fingers as if about to partake in some complicated exercise. "Don't count your chickens just yet, Ezra. You better be thinking about what kind of a gift you're going to buy for Rain after I show you how this is done. "

"Big talk," Ezra scoffed, enjoying every second of the banter. It was rare to catch Nathan Jackson in such a lighthearted mood and he was more than willing to play along with it.

"So, what looks good to you, Nate?" Vin asked, eyes browsing over the large variety of available machines. "Gold Rush, Lucky Leprechaun, Buffalo Stampede, Boot Scootin'... hey, look at this one! I loved 'The Munsters' when I was a kid."

They stopped in front of a slot machine dedicated to that old television program and Nathan nodded, taking a seat while the other men gathered around. Josiah and Buck each took a chair at the machines next to Nathan's and put in a couple of dollars, figuring they might as well try their own luck while their friend was fulfilling his bet. Ezra and Vin remained standing, wanting to keep an eye on everything.

Digging out his wallet, Nathan came up with a crisp five-dollar bill to feed into the machine. It sprang to life with bright lights and voice effects and Nathan studied the imagery closely for a few seconds before placing a twenty-five cent wager and spinning the wheels. The first roll produced nothing. He tried again and won back the fifty cents he had spent. The next several had a similar result. He'd lose a little, win a little but never do more than break even.

"You have only forty-five more minutes to show a profit," Ezra reminded after a while, grinning as Nathan placed another bet and lost, now down a dollar and a half. "I can practically taste the steak dinner you're going to buy me already."

"Hush up, Ezra," Nathan shot back, shooing him away from leaning over his shoulder. "I'm fine. Just warming up."

Vin suggested, "Maybe you should try a different machine."

"Ah, ah," Ezra interrupted when it looked like Nathan was about to agree. "That was not part of the wager. You claimed that you had sufficient mastery over the slots to show us all how it was done. It shouldn't matter what machine you play at. Unless of course you believe that it's truly about luck more than it is skill."

Nathan scowled, but the expression didn't look nearly as fierce as he'd probably meant it to when the corners of his mouth kept edging up. "Don't rush me. Things will start to go better any minute now."

Suddenly Josiah chortled and said, "They will for one of us!" as his slot machine began clanging and strobing multi-colored lights. He was playing the Boot Scoot game and they all watched in amusement as a cowboy and his lady line danced their way across the screen while Josiah's dollar total rose from just over three to almost twenty dollars. As it finished, a set of cards came up along with an image of a buxom blonde in a cowboy hat who winked and asked if he'd like to try double-or-nothing. "What do you think? Should I go for it? All I have to do is match one of these cards to the suit already showing."

"Do it!" Buck said, excited by the win. "Come on, Josiah. One of us has to beat the one-armed bandits tonight. I've already busted out."

Not waiting for any other opinions since he clearly wanted to go for it anyway, Josiah immediately picked a card, only to have everyone groan in sympathy as his new-found fortune exploded into glittery dust and the total dropped back to its original three. The cowgirl winked again and said, "Better luck next time, Pard!"

"Aw, damn," Josiah muttered. "I really thought Lady Luck was on my side."

Ezra snickered. "Mr. Sanchez, don't you know better by now than to trust a pretty blonde?"

He snorted. "Considering my history, you're probably right. Ah, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained."

A little more time went by and Josiah finally was forced to resign, but Nathan was still playing, having brought his total back up to five-fifty.

"How much longer does he have?" Vin asked, laughing as Nathan lost fifty cents and swore.

Ezra checked his watch. "He's got another twenty minutes or so." Rubbing a knuckle over his chin, he pretended to study the ceiling. "What do you think goes better with a large juicy steak, Mr. Tanner, mashed potatoes or rice pilaf?"

"Don't much matter to me," he replied, grinning at Nathan's scowl, "as long as somebody else is payin' for it."

"My thoughts exactly! And perhaps a large decadent dessert to finish off the repast."

Poking an elbow into Ezra's stomach, Nathan told him, "If you don't quit yapping in my ear and breaking my concentration, you're going to be sucking that dessert through a straw."

He laughed. "I'm absolutely shaking with terror."

And then everyone's attention was riveted to the screen as a sign flashing "Bonus Round!" came up and the scene switched to a representation of the Munster family staircase. The stairs flipped up and a plume of smoke came out prompting Nathan to press the Spin button as directed. The image changed to a gout of flame as Spot the Dragon doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled Nathan's stake. In seconds he had made back every cent he had previously lost and increased his profit margin by just over ten dollars. Two more spins and he was up to $20. Over his friends' protest, Nathan immediately cashed out, just as he had said he would.

"Looks like you'll be buying your own steak tonight, Ezra," he crowed, shaking his cash voucher under Ezra's nose. "Thirty more dollars and I'm home free."

"If your luck holds out, that was my promise," he agreed with a small sigh.

Josiah put up his hands to get their attention. "Hold on a minute. According to your original bet, Nathan has the rest of the evening to make it to fifty bucks, but that could take hours and I don't want to spend all night in here. I say we change things up and give Ezra a chance to try his part. If he can make twenty dollars or more within fifteen minutes, I'll declare that you both win and dinner's on me tonight."

The others all beamed, liking the sound of that, but Nathan pointed to Ezra and said, "He still owes me a gift for Rain, though."

Ezra sketched a shallow bow, dimples deepening as he smirked at Nathan. "As you probably wouldn't even be here if not for the lovely Rain, I feel that I owe her a gift anyway. Consider that part of the bargain sealed."

Recognizing the subtle thank-you in his words, Nathan grinned. "I saw some cute little slot-machine earrings in one of the gift shops we passed."

Ezra nodded. "Perfect. Now, let us find a likely spot so that I may begin earning our evening meal."

"Poker?" Buck assumed, scanning the casino for a good table.

One dark eyebrow quirked upward as Ezra considered his choices. Then he saw what he was looking for and a slow smile stretched across his features. "In the interest of time, I think I'd prefer to try a little blackjack."

Chapter 15

"Ain't so sure about this, Ezra," Vin said as the five men moved toward the Blackjack tables. "Last time I played this game I lost almost a thousand bucks."

Shocked at the news that Vin, who had never pretended toward any particular interest in gambling, should have staked such a sum on any game, Ezra halted his forward stride. He pulled his party to one side with a nod of apology for the irritated casino patron whose progress had been cut off by his sudden stop, then turned back to Vin and demanded, "When did this happen?"

"Couple of weeks ago when I was playing with JD over at his place," he said, shrugging his shoulders in casual dismissal of the event which only caused his friend's alarmed expression to transform into one of confusion.

"You allowed JD to outplay you to the tune of a thousand dollars?" he said incredulously. Turning to Buck, he gave him a disapproving look. "And one must presume that if JD was also playing, then you must have been the dealer."

Buck's face was completely innocent. "What's wrong with that? I deal fair."

Holding up a hand in what could have been either a gesture of placation or an order to shut up, Ezra resumed his interrogation of Vin, his tone scolding as he asked, "What on earth possessed you to do such a foolish thing? You know perfectly well that JD can keep track of everything that's been shown from the first card to the last. He's nearly as proficient as I am."

"Then why doesn't he ever beat you at poker?" Nathan inserted with a suspicious raise of his left eyebrow. "Seems like he should sometimes if you aren't cheating."

Long accustomed to Nathan's suspicions regarding the honesty of his poker-playing skills, Ezra gave him a bland smile and shot back, "When one has facial expressions and physical habits as transparent as Mr. Dunne's, it removes any and all need for cheating. I would have to be struck simultaneously blind and deaf to be able to miss that boy's tells." Turning back to Vin once more he continued, "Blackjack is another story. One's emotional state is irrelevant so long as his eyes and wits can keep up with the cards as they're being dealt. So I ask you again, how could you have bet a thousand dollars on what I must assume was only supposed to be a 'friendly' game?"

Josiah smirked and nudged Buck. Sotto voce he said, "I can't decide if he's pissed off because he thinks Vin got taken advantage of, or because he wasn't there to see it happen."

"Probably wishes he'd been there to play the winner and collect the loot," Buck agreed with a laugh.

Vin was grinning by now, enjoying his scolding thoroughly. "Nice of you to look out for my interests like that, Ez. It didn't matter none, though."

Ezra gaped, managing to look appalled and admiring at the same time. "A thousand dollars. You lost a thousand dollars, and it didn't matter?"

"Not so much. I got it back the next night playin' roulette."

The others could hold back their amusement no longer as Ezra's face became the image of complete bafflement. He looked at Vin as if the other man had just sprouted a second head. It wasn't until Josiah's flash went off in his eyes that he suddenly realized that his leg was being pulled. The camera went off again as he shot Josiah an evil look.

"Before and after," Josiah said, showing off his new photos gleefully. "Perfect. I think even Chris may be impressed by that glare."

"God, if you could just see the look on your face," Buck snickered, slapping Ezra's shoulder. "Did you really forget about giving JD that damned video game last Christmas?"

For a moment, Ezra was completely blank. Then it dawned on him and he closed his eyes in exasperated embarrassment. "Oh lord, you're talking about that Caesar's Palace game I bought for his Playstation, aren't you? I'd forgotten it entirely."

Vin laughed and gripped his shoulder, not sounding particularly apologetic as he said, "Sorry, Ezra, I couldn't resist. JD's been playing that friggin' game so much we're thinkin' about having the controller surgically attached to his hand. He's always buggin' one of us to play against him."

A little hurt, he replied, "He's never asked me."

"You been kind of busy," Nathan pointed out, stopping him as he opened his mouth to argue. "I know it's been six months since he got it and you've only been gone for four but JD only started getting really obsessed with the game in the last couple of months. He wanted to surprise you."

Buck explained, "That's part of the reason he was so pissed off when he remembered that he had to go with Casey this week." Striking his best 'gangsta' pose, which looked even more ridiculous than it normally would have due to the way he was dressed, he added, "He was going to impress you with his mad skillz. Figured between the two of you, you could clean out Vegas."

Ezra winced, imagining JD Dunne eagerly scampering from table to table throwing money around as he tried to pit video-gamer skill against that of professional card dealers. "He would have gone home with nothing to show for his efforts but a few pennies and a sad look, I fear." Then he smiled, his eyes unusually soft. JD was the only one of his friends who ever seemed to find his talent with cards, dice and dominos to be admirable rather than suspicious. "I must remember to tell him that I appreciate his intentions, however misplaced they might have proved to be had he come along with us."

"I'm sure he'll be more than happy to hear it," Josiah said warmly. Then, clapping his hands together and rubbing his palms briskly, he said, "Now, let's find you a table and see what you can do."

Vin gave him a little push. "I'll second that. And hurry it up. My stomach's about to throttle my backbone, it's so empty."

"What happened to the meal you ate just over an hour ago?" Nathan demanded.

He scoffed, "That was just burgers and fries. Ready for some real food now."

"The man's stomach works on dog-years, Nathan," Buck said with a laugh. "One hour after he ate feels like seven. Ain't that right, Vin?"

"Rrrowf!" Vin yipped, striking a begging mutt pose with both hands raised to his chest as he gave Josiah a pleading look.

Obligingly, Josiah reached over and ruffled his friend's shaggy brown hair. Ezra rolled his eyes at them both. "Fine, I'll work quickly then. Let's try that table over in the corner."


The dealer was a young woman, who gave them a friendly nod and then proceeded to deal out the cards. Ezra placed an initial bet of five dollars per his earlier wager with Nathan, then received a ten and a three while the dealer showed a queen and an eight.

"Hit," he said. The new card flipped over revealing a five, putting Ezra at eighteen points and busting the dealer's hand. She passed over a five dollar chip and Ezra doubled his bet, nodding as the second hand gave the dealer just ten points to start - a deuce and another eight - while he himself showed sixteen, courtesy of the nine and seven of hearts. The odds of the dealer busting before he did were extremely low, so he ordered, "I'll stand."

The young woman rolled over another card, the five of diamonds. "Twenty-one, winner," she said, again doubling Ezra's stake.

Contemplating for less than a second, Ezra placed just five dollars on the line and indicated his readiness. The dealer gave him a six and a jack, sixteen again, but then ended the hand by dealing herself two kings. Ezra shook his head, knowing that a hit would likely put him over the top. While it would do the same to the dealer, the better hand was hers. Unsurprisingly, the dealer also chose to stand pat. "Dealer stands firm. Odds out. Dealer wins."

Ezra gave a small nod, not at all shaken by his loss. Placing the fifteen dollars still in his possession on the line, he smiled as his cards were revealed. The ace of spades and the queen of hearts, his favorite combination, in any game. "Blackjack, player wins."

Nathan snorted softly. "Thirty bucks in less than ten minutes. All of a sudden I'm glad I'm not paying for dinner tonight."

"One more round, I think," Ezra decided, placing his thirty dollars back on the table. Both hands started out low. A three and a five for Ezra, a two and a seven for the dealer. There was no point in either of them standing pat, so another card was instantly revealed, a four this time. "Twelve for the gentleman, dealer shows thirteen."

Flashing his most charming grin, Ezra said, "Hit me, my dear."

"No way," Buck said in awe as the next card was flipped over and revealed to be the nine of diamonds.

"Twenty-one, player wins again," the dealer said calmly. "Looks like you're on a roll, sir."

Ezra glanced over his shoulder at his four-man audience and gave her a smile. "It appears to be my lucky day today."

At the encouragement of the other men, Ezra played three more rounds, managing to double his money each time. He might have gone on testing his winning streak all night had he been alone, but Ezra had not forgotten that he was here for socialization and an evening of touristy fun with his friends, so over the excited protests of Buck, Vin, Josiah and Nathan, he bowed out. Leaving the dealer a tip and giving her a smile and a tug on an invisible hat-brim, Ezra collected his winnings and left the table.

"That was unbelievable," Buck gushed, giddy with the realization that Ezra had made nearly five hundred dollars in the space of a half hour. "Can you do that every time?"

He shrugged, trying and failing to look modest. "Often enough. The trick is not to do it too often in the same place, or to play long enough for anyone to become suspicious of card-counting. Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course. I am an honest, law abiding citizen and counting cards is a severely frowned upon if not actually illegal technique."

"So what were you doing?" Nathan asked, unable to keep from showing his suspicion at Ezra's all too innocent declaration.

Ezra's eyes twinkled. "It was pure luck, I assure you. Now, where did you see those earrings for your lovely bride again?"

Recognizing a brush-off when he heard it, Nathan sighed and then laughed. "Follow me."

Chapter 16

"One armed bandits is right," Ezra grumbled, studying the minute slot machines on their delicate French hooks that were currently dangling from the tip of his finger. He and Nathan were sitting in the lobby of the Venetian hotel waiting for the others who had gone to search for a restroom. "When you proposed this gift for Rain, I had rather assumed that these little baubles would fall somewhere in the twenty to forty dollar range, not two hundred!"

Nathan gave him an apologetic look. "Well, I didn't know they were platinum! I told you that I'd be okay with it if you chose something else."

"The deal had already been struck," he replied with an aggrieved air. "It was my own fault for agreeing to your selection before I'd set eyes on it."

"Well, what if I'd suggested that diamond pendant that was in the case next to those," Nathan argued. "It looked simple enough, just a single teardrop pendant in a plain gold setting, but it was selling for over a thousand bucks! You wouldn't have bought that just for the sake of a bet, would you?"

He considered the point. "I suppose not. You did agree that the gift would be within reason, after all."

"Right," Nathan agreed, "so if you want to take those back and search out something a little more reasonable, I'll understand."

Ezra glanced at Nathan and saw that he was examining the tiny gleaming earrings with wistful regret in his eyes but a stubborn set to his jaw. So typical of Nathan, he thought, willing to give up a perfectly valid victory and a handsome prize just for the sake of doing the right thing. He sighed softly, letting his cheeks crease with a smile as he carefully laid the little slots back into their case and handed it to Nathan. "Keep them. What's the point of making a profit at the gaming tables if not to use one's winnings for a good cause?" The smile grew and took on a hint of persuasive power as Nathan gave him a shocked look. "Come, now. Just think how good these will look shining against Rain's lovely dark skin and long graceful neck. Would you truly deprive her of a nice gift or deny the rest of us the pleasure of that sight, just for your pride?"

Nathan stared at him for a moment. As he listened to the wheedlesome and honestly admiring tone in Ezra's voice, his eyes narrowed. "You been hittin' on my woman?" Ezra looked so startled that Nathan began to laugh. Taking the case back, he put it in his pocket and held out a hand. "I'm just kidding. Thanks a lot, Ezra. Rain's going to love these, but I will be telling her that they're a gift from both of us."

"Very well." His eyes twinkled mischievously, "but if they're from both of us, shouldn't you be paying for half?"

Nathan considered the question seriously. "Tell you what, if I can manage to pad my stake a little more this trip, I'll give you back a hundred bucks. Otherwise, I'll tell Rain that the earrings are from you alone."

Shaking his head at the other man's relentless honesty, Ezra smiled and accepted the proffered hand. "Deal."

Chapter 17

Catching sight of Ezra and Nathan's handshake as he reentered the lobby, Josiah stopped and threw his arms out to the sides, blocking Buck and Vin's progress. "They're making another bet!" he warned in an exaggerated tone of horror. "Run while you can, boys!"

Ezra laughed. "You may set yourselves at ease, gentlemen. Mr. Jackson and I were merely resolving the terms of our last wager, not beginning a new one. "

Josiah playfully wiped his brow in relief. "Glad to hear it. So, did you manage to come to any decision regarding dinner while we were gone?"

"I had considered suggesting Del Monico's steakhouse, right here in the Venetian," Ezra replied. "That's the restaurant owned by chef Emeril Legassi."

He paused, shaking his head in fond exasperation as Vin and Buck instantly shouted out, "Bam!"

"Or we could follow Mr. Tanner's suggestion and retire back to our point of origin to catch this evening's medieval dinner theater performance. If we head back now, we should be just in time."

Vin immediately looked torn. He loved watching Emeril on the Food Network and had even managed to cajole those of his friends who could cook into trying out a few of the recipes in his Emeril cookbook for him after his own attempts had come out resembling alien science projects. On the other hand, a live jousting tournament sounded like too much fun to miss. "Either's good by me," he decided. "What do you guys think?"

Buck struck an 'en garde' pose and thrust an imaginary sword in Vin's direction. "Fire breathing dragons, fair maidens to rescue, brave knights on horseback. We can have steak anytime, I vote for a joint of beef and a flagon of ale."

He turned and thrust his invisible blade in Nathan's direction. To his delight, Nathan immediately parried and the two exchanged a few sword-strokes complete with clashing sound effects.

Ezra snorted and gave a shrug toward the amused onlookers passing them in the lobby. Glancing toward Josiah, he said, "Since it appears that Nathan has cast his vote for Camelot that leaves you and me to be the deciding factor. What say you, Mr. Sanchez?"

He grinned. "Haven't seen a good dinner-theater performance in years, but it's supposed to be a pretty up-close and personal kind of show. Lots of smoke and dust and noise throughout. Sure you're up for that?"

Drawing himself up with an imperious air, Ezra retorted, "I have already slain my personal dragon this evening, by surviving the perils of elevated roller-coasters and foolish wagers. I believe it is only fair that I claim my victory feast in a proper setting. Lead on, good sirs!"

Laughing, the five men headed out into the warm evening air.


The crowd was thick for the Excalibur's 'Tournament of King's' dinner show but luck was on their side and they managed to get a spot fairly close to the action. Knowing full well that the others were watching him and hoping for some show of snobbish disgust, Ezra suppressed his natural reaction to discovering that dinner was, in keeping with the medieval theme, served on large communal platters and eaten without benefit of utensils. There was plenty of food to be had and the quality proved to be excellent, so Ezra manfully ignored his bruised sensibilities in favor of satisfying the demands of his empty stomach.

Disappointed to realize that no reaction was forthcoming, the others also turned to their meal, only to squawk in muffled protest as Ezra snatched up Josiah's camera and took a few action shots of them all greedily stuffing their faces. A fellow patron gladly took a shot of the five of them raising a toast with garishly decorated mugs of beer in exchange for Ezra doing the same for him and his family.

The tournament itself proved to be well worth the price. Opposing armies advanced and fought a pitched battle for territory right in the middle of the dining hall, pretty maidens danced through the room, tossing favors and bestowing finger kisses upon the patrons, knights on actual horses jousted in the ring at center stage while trumpets blew clarion calls. Dragons roared in the distance and fireworks exploded overhead, drawing gasps of awe and cheers of excitement from the crowd. By the time it was all over, everyone was stuffed to the brim and charged with adrenaline.

"Thanks for springing for the tickets, Josiah. That was awesome!" Vin declared. The others echoed their hearty appreciation, which Josiah waved off, having enjoyed the show every bit as much as the rest of them. Blue eyes shining with enthusiasm, Vin went on, "We ought to build us some shields and lances and talk Chris into letting us joust out at his place!"

Nathan's booming laughter rang out, drawing smiles from passerby. "Only if you want him to have commitment papers drawn up! Just imagine if somebody slipped. Do you want to be the one to explain to AD Travis how one of us came to be admitted to the hospital with a lance up his ass?"

Vin's grin was infectious. "No, but I'd pay good money to hear you do it!"

"Me, too," Buck said, laughing. "Only with our luck, it'd be Chris's ass that got perforated and the rest of us would be paying off the damage from now to the end of time."

"Best not to tempt fate too harshly," Ezra agreed, grinning nonetheless at the image. "So, what now? Should we let Nathan continue his madcap rule over the five-cent bandits, or would you prefer to take in another attraction?"

Nathan suggested, "How about the Star Trek ride down at the Hilton? JD was practically begging us to go there and give him a first-hand description."

Josiah began to chuckle. "Who do you think you're fooling, Nate? You're the one who wanted to have his photo taken at Quark's bar!"

Intrigued by this new-found tidbit of information, Ezra raised a sardonic eyebrow. "You never mentioned that you were a Trekkie, Mr. Jackson."

"Trekker," he corrected instantly, and then grinned sheepishly. "Started watching the reruns when I was a teenager because I thought Lieutenant Uhura was hot. Didn't really fall into the whole thing until the Next Generation, though."

"Nothing wrong with that," Buck told him, brows waggling. "Troi was pretty damned hot too, and she was an empath. Woman like that would always know when her man needed a little something-something."

"Every woman you meet must qualify as an empath if those are the qualifications," Ezra said dryly, grinning as Buck nodded smugly in agreement.

Vin snorted. "Forget Troi. That pretty red-headed doctor could take my vital signs anytime!"

"The Trill chick from DS9 wasn't bad either," Buck mused, "but I'm not sure I'd have been able to handle getting down to business knowing that she had a thousand-year-old worm thing living inside her."

"It was a symbiote," Nathan protested. "She wouldn't have been able to kick ass nearly as well without the Dax half. All that experience from the former hosts was part of what made her who she was. I thought Worf was damned lucky to get her!"

Buck shook his head. "He had to give up Troi for the worm-chick, though. That ain't right. And what about Seven of Nine?" He made an hourglass form with his hands and giving a wolf whistle. "I'd let myself be assimilated by that any day!"

"Barbie-Borg?" Nathan scoffed. "No way. She was smart but she looked like a damned blow-up doll."

Again he said, "Nothing wrong with that!"

Ezra looked to Josiah, who was following the conversation with laughing eyes. "Do you have any idea what they're talking about?"

He shook his head. "Not much. I watched the first series but never really followed the others. Suddenly I'm thinking that we may need to start borrowing somebody's DVD collection, though. Sounds like we've been missing out."

"Indeed," Ezra said, laughing as they began heading for the Hilton, the others now heatedly arguing the military merits of Romulan warships versus Klingon.

Chapter 18

The hour was just past one a.m. when the little party made its unsteady way back to the Excalibur. The Star Trek ride had impressed some of them more than others. Undisguised enthusiasm from Buck and Nathan, disappointment from Vin who thought the staged simulation of a Borg battle had been kind of lame, indifference from Ezra who was simply not familiar enough with the ins and outs of the Trek universe to really appreciate what he had seen, and a vote of general enjoyment from Josiah who was now even more determined to catch up with the assorted television series.

The mixed reaction to the entertainment had not extended to Quark's Bar, the themed lounge next to the gift shop. The strong colorful drinks and exotically costumed waitresses had met with universal approval and the five friends had happily gambled away a few hours while swallowing down an assortment of alcoholic beverages. They were cheerful and loud, feeling no pain as they wove up the brightly illuminated sidewalks of the Vegas Strip, bellowing the theme music of the original Star Trek series in a more off-key than not chorus.

"What now?" Buck asked as the song drew to a close.

Vin tripped over some invisible obstacle and lurched into Nathan, giggling stupidly as the other man caught and steadied him. "Y'know," he slurred, "I think I may be a li'l bit drunk."

Nathan nodded seriously. "I think you're right." Blinking his own distinctly glassy eyes, he added. "Me, too."

Grinning at them both, Josiah snorted, "Lightweights."

Vin shot him a hard glare, which would have proven far more effective had his vision been in focus. As it was, the venomous look ended up being pointed somewhere in the middle of Josiah's chest.

Ezra , who had been walking in a silent slouch, hands dug into his pockets as he wove along in a more or less straight line with his head tipped back to study all the pretty neon lights overhead, stood a little taller and rolled his head sideways to look at Josiah. "I s'pose you're not affected in any measure by the amount of alcohol we have just costumed."

"Consumed," he corrected blandly, smiling at Ezra's confused look. "Let's just say I've built up a tolerance. "

"We can hold our liquor just as well as you can," Ezra argued, the pout in his voice easily belying his statement.

Just then, Vin spotted a garbage can and headed straight for it, hurling his evening's food and alcohol consumption into the handy receptacle.

Ezra made a face. "Okay, maybe not him."

Buck grabbed Josiah's camera and clicked a photo of Vin's pitiful display. At Nathan's disgusted look, he explained, "In case Chris don't believe me when I tell him that Vin was shot down by the Klingons."

"Whatever was in that Klingon fire-wine, it oughtta be outlawed," Vin groaned, rubbing his stomach as he straightened up and resumed his walk toward the hotel. "I'm headin' for bed. If I wake up dead in the mornin', y'all can just divvy up my stuff however you want."

"You're not gonna die," Nathan scoffed. "Just take some ibuprofen and drink a couple glasses of water. Maybe splash a little cold water on your face before you go to bed too. You'll feel better for it, 'specially in the morning."

Suddenly Ezra exclaimed, "That's a good idea!" Before anyone could stop him he lurched to his left and made a beeline toward the cascading fountain in front of one of the hotels.

"Ezra, don't!" Josiah shouted, but it was too late. Kicking his shoes off, Ezra dragged his blue polo shirt off overhead and tossed it aside as he scrambled up the side of the security fence and jumped in. The bowl of the fountain was too shallow to allow the water to come up higher than his knees, but Ezra laughed and held his arms out to the sides, leaning forward to push his face into the stream.

Buck applauded the action. "That looks like fun!"

"Oh, no you don't," Josiah declared, catching him by the collar as he started to head in the same direction. "Nathan, you want to go grab Ponce DeLeon before he drowns himself or draws the cops out here?"

But Nathan was paying no attention. He had grabbed the camera out of Buck's hands and was busily snapping photos while Vin just watched with an open mouth and Ezra continued to splash in the water like a happy duckling.

Grumbling to himself, Josiah firmly directed Buck to stay put, then approached Ezra. "I hadn't realized you were quite this far gone, son," he said, amusement creeping into his voice as he watched Ezra play in the water. "You'd better come out of there now. You want to get into trouble?"

Ezra thought about it for a second, then just smiled and went back to what he was doing.

Deciding to try a different tack, Josiah told him, "These fountains probably aren't very clean, you know. Lots of pollutants and chemicals floating around in there. Do you want to wake up tomorrow with green hair?"

"Might match his eyes!" Buck shouted out helpfully, grinning at the look Josiah shot him over his shoulder.

Ezra, luckily, decided that matching hair and eyes did not sound like an attractive proposition and was clumsily attempting to find purchase on the slippery side of the fountain to get back over the fence. Stepping closer, Josiah reached over and grabbed a soggy handful of material, hauling Ezra to dry land literally by the seat of his pants.

Quickly picking up his dripping friend's shirt and shoes, Josiah hurried him over to their companions, forcing the entire unsteady party away from the scene just as a police car was arriving from the opposite direction. The car paused while the officer inside spoke to a couple of witnesses but either luck was on their side or the officer did not feel it worth his time to pursue them now that the event was over, because a few seconds later the car moved on.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Josiah continued to herd his friends toward their hotel. Buck was still cheerful and energetic and would probably be fine on his own. Nathan could be trusted to give Vin hangover preventatives and put him safely to bed, while he would do the same for Ezra.

Chapter 19

It took some careful maneuvering to get everyone past the entrance, through the front casino, into the elevator and to their individual rooms. Halfway up to the 9th floor where they were staying, Buck started belting "Viva Las Vegas" at the top of his voice, grinning happily when Nathan chimed in. The two of them began practicing some sort of bizarre disco dance, Nathan slightly hampered by the fact that he had hefted Vin up over one shoulder when the other man's legs had finally become too uncoordinated to move in a straight line, but definitely feeling the groove. Josiah had to grin as he watched them, particularly as Vin was laughing and bopping his head along in rhythm with the song, not seeming to care at all that his view was upside down and pretty much limited to the pattern on Nathan's shirt back.

Ezra did not seem at all interested in the spectacle, too busy dabbing at his wet skin and hair with the balled up shirt in his hand and grumbling under his breath.

As they exited the elevator, Josiah gave Vin and Nathan a helpful shove in the direction of their room. Buck looked uncertain which way to go for a moment, but then shrugged and trailed along after Josiah and Ezra. Still humming the song, he deftly slid two fingers into Ezra's pocket and retrieved his wallet, removing the plastic room key, opening the door and tossing the damp wallet onto the bureau. Josiah shot him a curious look and Buck explained, "If you'd steered Chris home from a drunk as many times as I have, you'd be pretty good at picking pockets too."

A thoughtful look drifted over Josiah's long features. "Wonder if Nathan can do that."

Buck smiled. "Given him some practice, have you?"

"More than he deserved," he replied ruefully. Turning his attention back to Ezra, who was attempting to make for the bed, he grabbed him and steered him instead toward the bathroom. "Whoa, there. I think you want to take a shower and put on something dry before you get into bed."

Ezra nodded and switched on the bathroom light, staring wide-eyed into the mirror as he continued to dab at his locks with the shirt. A worried frown on his face, he looked at Buck in the reflection and asked, "You don't really think it'll turn green, do you?"

"Might," he said, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Or maybe blue or orange. Hell, it might just fall out altogether and make you start from scratch."

A look of absolute horror crossed Ezra's features and to Buck and Josiah's immense surprise, his chin started to wobble. "I just wanted to play in the water," he explained miserably, eyes welling up. "I never do anything fun and that looked like fun, so I did it, but now my hair is going to turn some ghastly color and fall out, and I'll look like a freak and nobody will want to spend time with me, and it'll be just like before when there wasn't anybody to do anything with, only this time it will have been my own fault and everything is going to be ruined!"

Buck was shocked by the outburst, guilt suffusing his features as he listened to the babbled explanation. Ezra Standish was smooth and witty. He should be firing a snark-filled comeback to Buck's jibe, something that would leave the object of his verbal riposte both admiring and confused. He should be in complete control of the situation. He wasn't supposed to start crying! Ezra never cried. Yet here he was, looking and sounding about eight years old as he used one somewhat uncoordinated hand to scrub at his eyes as he gave a pitiful sniffle.

"Aw, c'mon now," Buck pleaded, patting him awkwardly on one bare shoulder. "I was just teasing. Nothing's going to happen to your hair, and even if it did me and the rest of the boys would still want to hang out with you."

"You would?" he said hopefully, clearly having no idea how pathetic he sounded at this moment.

Josiah gripped the other shoulder. "Of course we would. You should know better than to doubt that by now. "

For a long moment, Ezra pondered this as he stared at the mirror, examining the picture the three of them made. He looked disheveled and absurd with his wet hair sticking up in strange directions and his nose red where he'd been rubbing at it. Josiah and Buck looked rather silly too with their rumpled clothing and deathly earnest facial expressions, each one touching his bedraggled self in a sincere offer of tactile comfort. He smiled at the image, nodding agreement with Josiah's statement.

Then, abruptly, Ezra turned his back to the mirror and leaned against the counter behind him; the smile on his face crinkling into a disgusted grimace.

"What's the matter now?" Buck asked.

A pout colored Ezra's words as he plucked at the material of his khaki shorts and whined, "My pants are all wet!"

Relieved, the other men chuckled. Josiah patted him on the back. "You go ahead and take those off and get into the shower. I'll go find you something else to wear."

"Okay," he agreed, cheerful again as he began working with the intense concentration of the very drunk on the complicated button and zipper closure of his shorts.

Buck and Josiah left the bathroom, shutting the door behind them. When the sound of water started up, Ezra's voice also rose, doing his own damage to Elvis Presley's local hit. Laughing, Buck shook his head and scrubbed a ha

d through his thick black hair, plunking down in the hotel room's sturdy desk chair. "Christ, no wonder he never lets himself get really drunk. His moods swing around faster than a tetherball in a tornado!"

Josiah sighed. "It's like I was telling you this morning. He's been through so much stress over the last few months, always keeping up the act and squelching whatever honest emotions he may have been feeling, that I think he's just about bottomed out."

"He's letting himself relax for the first time in too long and now his feelings are running all over the map, huh?" Buck clarified, nodding to himself. "That makes sense. You think he'll be okay?"

"I do. A little emotional upheaval is probably just what he needs right now and at the moment he's too smashed to be embarrassed about showing any of it." He grinned a little. "Of course, tomorrow may be a different story, depending on how well he remembers all this."

Buck chuckled. "I don't think the rest of us are going to be in any shape to hold it against him." Heaving himself out of the chair, he stretched and yawned. "I think I'll head downstairs and have one last round before I turn in. Unless you need me to stick around?"

Josiah waved him off. "I've got it covered. "

"Okay, I'll see you in the morning. Night, Ez!" he yelled as he passed the bathroom. A muffled reply sounded and he waved to Josiah as he left the room.

Josiah dug around in Ezra's travel bag until he came up with a pair of green and black plaid flannel pajama pants - Who would have guessed that the genteel Ezra even owned such an item? - which he placed on the bathroom countertop without opening the door any more than necessary, allowing Ezra his privacy. That done, he settled into Buck's abandoned chair and picked up the room-service menu. A few aspirin, a little midnight snack for himself, and a nice bottle of Gator-aide to replenish Ezra's fluids and electrolytes. Yep, that sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

Chapter 20

Room Service had come and gone by the time Ezra emerged from the bathroom wearing his pajama bottoms and drying his hair with a bath towel. Chucking the towel in Josiah's general direction, he flopped down on the bed with a groan, resting his left forearm across his eyes.

Josiah held out a couple of ibuprofen tablets and a glass of Gator-aide. "Take these."

Ezra lifted his arm to see what was being offered. Deciding that it might be a good idea, he downed them quickly and returned to his former position.

"Little early for the hangover stage, isn't it?" Josiah quipped.

"Not hung over," he protested. "My head just feels muzzy and my stomach hurts."

Josiah shook his head sympathetically. "Not much for that except time. Luckily we don't have to check out of here until noon because you'll probably be sick in the morning."

With a gusty sigh, Ezra rolled over onto his stomach, snagging a pillow from the top of the bed and bunching it up so that he could elevate his head high enough to look at Josiah without expending any effort. "Has anyone ever told you that you make a lousy comforter?"

The older man chuckled and moved to take a seat at the head of the bed. "Sorry." Stroking the tips of his fingers through Ezra's wet hair, he gave the strands a gentle tug. "Still reddish-brown and firmly attached; looks like your little adventure this evening didn't do any harm after all."

Ezra smiled and closed his eyes, then sucked in a sharp breath as a shiver ran up his spine. "S' cold in here."

Josiah glanced at the open air-conditioning duct. To him the room felt totally comfortable, but he supposed having just come out of the hot steam in the bathroom probably would make a difference to Ezra. "You want me to find you a shirt?"

"Nah," he slurred. "I'm all right."

In spite of his assurance, his body had tensed up. Josiah patted his shoulder. "I think it's time we got you into bed."

A snort of laughter came from the prone figure. "Such a fine offer. Any chance that when I open my eyes, you'll have turned into a beautiful woman?"

Josiah's smile widened into a grin. "I'm afraid not."

"Damn." Opening his eyes, Ezra heaved himself up onto hands and knees and after a little tugging and shifting, literally crawled in between the sheets where he plopped down again with a contented sigh, allowing Josiah to pull the covers into place around him.

"Never thought I'd see the day when you'd let somebody tuck you in," Josiah teased, urging another glass of Gator-aide on him.

Ezra drank the beverage without protest, clearly already half-asleep. "It's rather nice," he admitted with a yawn. "Perhaps I should reconsider the practice."

Josiah studied him for a few moments. He had wanted to discuss Ezra's earlier implication that if he was anything less than perfect then he would be left to fend for himself, but he could see that now was not the right time. Ezra was happy right at this moment, secure and sleepy. He had allowed his drunken state to make him vulnerable, and while he would certainly be more tractable and open to questioning than usual, it felt completely wrong to Josiah to try and use that vulnerability for his own purposes. Ezra was drunk because he had trusted his friends enough to let his guard completely down for an evening.

Josiah shook his head. No, as much as he felt that Ezra would benefit from a chance to talk and express his feelings, the cons would outweigh the pros. Even if Ezra woke up tomorrow with no specific memory of the conversation, the odds were very strong that he would retain the knowledge that his trust had been violated. "How about a bedtime story?" he asked instead.

This drew another sleepy chuckle from the man in the bed. "Depends. Got any that involves lucky gamblers and bevies of unclothed females?"

Raising one eyebrow, he said, "You have a one-track mind this evening. Maybe I should have left Buck here with you while I went down to the casino."

He smirked. "No, if Buck told the story it would be the handsome cowboy who got all the girls while the poor gambler would have nothing but poker chips to keep him warm."

Josiah laughed. "You have a point. Okay, then. Once there was a handsome young gambler..."

Author's Note -- (I leave you to fill in the blank of Josiah's story with your own name, description and personal plan for what to do with the handsome gambler. J )