Author Notes: This story was written prior to most of Season Four of Ed. I own none of the characters or settings they take place in – although I wish I did.

CHAPTER ONE

The Smiling Goat

Saturday, March 27, 2004

12:00 PM

Everyone was there. Carol and Ed had arrived first – Mike and Nancy got there second with Molly and Shawn close on their heels.

Molly, Shawn, Carol, and Nancy were seated at a large table with a plate of nachos and a plate of Duncan's famous Skin-taculars on the table. They were picking at the appetizers while waiting for their lunches to arrive and for Mike and Ed to get back with a second round of drinks.

Mike and Ed grabbed the various drinks off the bar and began to wend their way back to the table through the lunch crowd at The Goat. Although the noise level was pretty high – with glasses clinking, people talking and laughing, and the jukebox pumping music – Mike and Ed clearly heard Duncan telling a young-faced customer who had just ordered a beer to "bugger off, you're underage."

They paused on their way back to the table to watch as a man with brown – but graying – hair, mustache and goatee attempted to impress his blond, green-eyed companion with his dart playing ability. As the man went to throw the dart, the blond blew in his ear and the dart not only missed the bulls eye, but the dart board... and the wall – it stuck in the floor quivering sadly. Mike and Ed looked at one another and chuckled.

As they distributed the drinks at the table, Mike yawned hugely – which earned him a raised eyebrow from Ed. Ed sat next to Carol and Mike shooed Nancy over to sit at the end of the table.

"So, Carol," Molly said with a sweet smile, "feeling better?"

Carol blushed, glanced down to intently study the wood grain on the table top, and wrapped both of her arms around Ed's left arm. Molly laughed.

Mike blinked his drooping eyelids open and said, "Were you sick, Carol?"

"No," Carol began, but Molly cut her off.

"Yes," Molly said, "horribly ill. At death's door. Had to call in sick at school yesterday. Took a whole day of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and personal... ministrations by Nurse Ed Stevens here (Molly points at Ed) before Carol could get out of bed yesterday."

Nancy eyebrows rose as Carol's blush deepened. Ed just looked insufferably pleased with himself.

"Ah, come on, Molly," Shawn said. "What's wrong with playing hookey to stay in bed with your boyfriend? It's a lot of fun!"

"Oh," Molly said as her eyes twinkled and she smiled, "you've played hookey to stay in bed with your boyfriend often?"

Shawn opened his mouth to say something, but "Uh" was about all that made it out as the others laughed. After a moment, Shawn laughed too. As the laughter tapered off, Mike's laughter turned into another yawn.

Ed said, "Looking a little tired there, buddy. Or are we just boring you?"

"Yep," Mike replied, "you guys (yawn) are just the dullest people I know."

Ed snorted, but all three women threatened to pinch Mike. Well, Nancy actually did pinch Mike on the arm. He just rubbed his arm and looked sullenly at her, until she kissed him on the cheek.

"Yeah, Mike," Molly said, "you really do look beat. You've been working way too hard lately."

"Price of fame, my friends," Mike said. "Since the old squid finally retired, its been non stop work, work, work."

"Actually," Nancy said, "I've been meaning to ask you, Mike. Have you given any thought to getting a new partner?"

Mike sat up straight in his seat and looked at Nancy in surprise. He said, "You're kidding, right, Nance?"

Nancy just gave him her patented no-I-am-not-kidding look. Ed looked back and forth between Mike and Nancy for a moment as he popped a nacho into his mouth, then said, "Nope, I don't think she's kidding, Mike. I mean look at her. Brow furrowed, lips pursed, eyes all beady and glaring at you. You know, I've always thought that Nancy had quite a practiced glare."

Nancy turned that "practiced" glare on Ed for a moment, then threw an empty straw wrapper at him.

"Of course I'm not kidding, Mike," Nancy said in an exasperated tone. "You are running yourself ragged doing everything yourself. Even Dr. Jerome didn't do it by himself – what makes you think you can?"

"Because I'm better than Walter Jerome, that's why," Mike replied smugly.

Nancy snorted in disgust and looked around the table for help. Her gaze finally fell onto Ed again. She raised her eyebrows at him and gave a little head shake in Mike's direction, clearly indicating that she wanted Ed to say something.

"Mike," Ed said, grabbing a Skin-tacular, "ten bucks if you hire a new partner."

Nancy threw her hands up in disgust while Molly, Shawn, and Carol looked on in amusement.

"Come on, Ed," Mike said. "That's not a real ten dollar bet!"

"Yeah, you're right," Ed said as he snatched up another nacho. With a sudden thought he said, "Okay, ten bucks if you ask to see the 'chef' who prepared our nachos (he waved the nacho in his hand) and when he – or she – comes out, tell them how wonderful these nachos are, thank them effusively, and hug them."

"Ed..." Nancy said, frustrated at the change in topic.

But Ed just looked at Mike and said forcefully, "TEN BUCKS, Mike!"

Mike sighed. He waved their waitress down. When the waitress came over he said, "I'd like to speak to the chef who prepared our nachos, please?"

"Excuse me," the waitress said as she blinked in surprise.

"The chef who prepared our nachos, I'd liked to speak to him," Mike repeated.

"The ... 'chef'?" the waitress asked. Blink. Blink.

"Yep," Mike said.

The others at the table were watching in amusement, even Nancy was starting to be amused.

The waitress said, "Hold on, please." She walked away and into the kitchen.

After a couple of minutes she walked back out of the kitchen with a large black man following her. Ed started chuckling when he caught sight of the 'chef'.

The two approached the table and the waitress said, "This is Tyrone, the, um, 'chef' who prepared your nachos."

Mike stood up and started pumping Tyrone's hand. He said, "Thank you, man. Thank you! These are the best nachos I've ever had! You have a gift, my good man. A gift!"

Tyrone looked at Mike like he was nuts.

Mike suddenly grabbed Tyrone and hugged him, not an easy task considering how big Tyrone was. He stood about six foot six and must have weighed 300 pounds. It had briefly crossed Mike's mind that he might get hurt by Tyrone. But, then again, it wouldn't be the first time he had gotten injured by one of the ten dollar bets – nor the last probably.

"Thank you, Tyrone," Mike said as he released Tyrone.

Tyrone just looked at Mike for a moment, then said, "I get off at two, if you're free."

Ed almost choked on a Skin-tacular while Molly snorted into her water hard enough to spray some across the table onto Carol.

Mike looked around desperately. He looked pleadingly at Nancy, who just smiled evilly and said, "Go for it, Mike!"

Mike glared at her and swallowed.

It was Carol who finally spoke. She pointed at Shawn and said, "Mike, don't forget you came with Shawn today."

Shawn's head whipped up and he made a strangled sound. His head had been lowered as he tried to keep from laughing out loud at Mike's predicament and he had been caught off guard by Carol dragging him into the middle of the situation.

Tyrone sighed, looked at the waitress, and said, "All the cute ones are always taken."

Tyrone turned and walked back into the kitchen while everyone just stared. Mike sat back down.

As the waitress stood by, shaking her head and looking at the six friends, a waiter walked over to her and said, "I should have warned you about this group."

All six just looked at one another for a moment before they finally all burst out laughing. Ed handed Mike a ten dollar bill, almost in tears from his laughter.

As the laughter finally died down some, Mike said, "Phew! Thanks, Carol! I didn't know how I was going to get out of that one."

Carol just waved it off, still chuckling.

Shawn finally said, "I'm confused."

The other five looked at him and Molly asked, "About what?"

"Well," Shawn said, "I'm just trying to figure out who should pay for my lunch today. Molly cause I thought I was HER date; Mike, because I became HIS date; or Carol, cause she dragged me into it!"

Everyone laughed.

"Sorry, Shawn," Carol said. "I thought about saying that Ed was Mike's date, but, well... To be honest, I was worried about what the two of them (she pointed at Mike and Ed) would do to prove they were a couple!"

Everyone laughed again.

"What's the matter, Shawn," Nancy asked, "don't you want to become part of Mike and Eddie's ten dollar bets?"

"I think," Shawn said diplomatically, "that its such an Ed and Mike thing, that I would only be intruding on the tradition."

Everyone laughed. Molly leaned in and whispered something in Shawn's ear. He grinned hugely and said, "Now THAT is a ten dollar bet I will gladly collect on!!"

Ed and Carol shared a look, as did Mike and Nancy. The four were very happy that Molly had found someone she really cared about. Shawn was such a nice down-to-earth guy too. He seemed to fit right in.

The waitress walked over to the table with a tray full of food balanced in her hands. Conversation momentarily ceased as their lunches were distributed.

***

The dessert plates had just been cleared when Mike yawned hugely. With a sigh, Nancy said, "I'd better get Rip Van Winkle here home before he falls asleep and drowns in his beer."

"Well," Ed said, "if you've got to go, I think drowning in beer is a pretty good way."

The girls just roll their eyes. Mike and Nancy stood up and said their good-byes and headed out the door, leaving Ed and Carol, Shawn and Molly at the table.

***

As Nancy drove home, Mike yawned several more times. They pulled into the driveway and got out and walked into the house. After Mike settled up with the babysitter, he and Nancy headed into the living room to watch a little television since Sarah was still taking a nap.

Before long, they were sitting on the couch, curled up next to one another. Nancy looked over at Mike and said, "You know, Mike, I was serious earlier. I think you should be looking for someone to help out at the office. You can't continue doing everything yourself. You're killing yourself. Not too mention that Sarah and I aren't getting to see you much – even on the weekends."

Mike sighed heavily, then yawned again. "I know, Nance," he said, "I just don't know if it would be a good idea to bring on a partner so soon. I mean, I just got rid of Dr. Jerome – well mostly. He still keeps on dropping in and harassing me. If he saw me interviewing potential partners, he'd have a field day!"

"Think about it, Mike," Nancy said. "I'm not saying you have to run out and find someone today, but just think about it. Okay?"

'Okay," Mike said in a very sleepy voice. His eyes were already closed and it didn't take more than another 30 seconds before Nancy heard him breathing deeply, obviously asleep.

"Besides," Nancy said softly, looking at Mike's sleeping form, "you're too tired anymore to fool around. At this point, I don't even need the filet mignon, I'd settle for the turkey club!"

***

After about 15 minutes, Shawn and Molly decided it was time for them to head out as well.

As Molly stood up she said mischievously, "So, Ms. Vessey, are you going to grace us with your presence at school on Monday?"

Carol blushed slightly, but before she could say anything, Ed said, "Well, we'll see. It depends on whether I let her out of bed or not!"

Carol's blush deepened and she elbowed Ed as Molly and Shawn laughed. After saying goodbye, the couple left Ed and Carol sitting at the table.

***

Molly and Shawn rode home in Shawn's truck. The trip wasn't long, and they pulled up to Shawn's house. Molly's car was parked in front.

Molly and Shawn walked up to the house and went inside. The television was on, but Ryan was obviously in his room. Shawn walked over and turned off the television and called upstairs, "Ryan! We're back!"

"Yeah, whatever!" Ryan called down from his room.

Molly raised her eyebrows and looked at Shawn.

"Um, I didn't get a chance to tell you earlier," Shawn began softly, "but Ryan and I had an argument this morning when I picked him up from his school trip to Washington, DC."

"About what?" Molly asked quietly.

"About us," Shawn said sadly. "Apparently he tried calling me at home last night. Several times. Including about three in the morning."

"Oh," Molly said.

"Yep," Shawn said. "He put two and two together – or actually one and one together – and figured out that I stayed at your place last night. He was NOT happy about it."

"Shawn," Molly said, "I'm sorry."

"Well," Shawn said with a trace of anger in his voice, "I'm not sorry about it! I don't regret last night – or Thursday night – at all. I'm starting to get pretty tired of Ryan's problem with you and I. He's a senior in high school – almost an adult. He needs to get over it!"

Molly laid a hand on Shawn's arm and said, "Take it easy, Shawn. Ryan is still upset about his mother. He still doesn't know how to deal with you dating. Give him some more time."

"How much more time do I need to give him? I mean, I like spending time with you and I hate feeling guilty about it. It shouldn't be like this! Its not like I'm cheating on his mother – she's..." Shawn stopped, his voice catching. He continued in a quieter voice, "She's gone. I'm no happier about that than Ryan is, but that doesn't mean that I can't move on. Its only natural – its what I would have wanted for her if I had died in a fire!"

Molly winced at his last statement. That was her biggest fear about dating Shawn. She knew he loved being a fireman and that he took every precaution, but it still scared her to know he ran into burning buildings.

Molly sighed and said, "I don't know, Shawn. I just don't know. But try not to push him too hard. He is still just a kid – a confused, hurting kid. We'll figure something out."

With that Molly kissed Shawn, then said, "Well, I should get going. For some reason..."

Molly lowered her eyes and batted her eyelids at Shawn, then continued, "I didn't sleep much the last two nights, so I think a little nap is in order."

Shawn grinned at her and kissed her. Shawn then walked her outside and watched from the front porch as Molly got into her car. He waved as she pulled away and watched until she got to the end of the street and turned left. He stood outside in the cool fall air for a few moments, then went back inside.

After he closed the door, he looked up the stairs towards Ryan's room. He sighed heavily and then started up the stairs.

***

Carol and Ed had finally decided it was time for them to leave the Smiling Goat as well. They chuckled when they saw Tyrone walk out of the kitchen and look over at the table the group had been at with a slightly hopeful expression.

When they got outside, they decided rather then drive home right away that a short walk in town would help with digestion. As they were walking Carol said, "You know, Molly seems really happy."

"Yeah," Ed said, "she does. I'm really happy for her."

"Me too," Carol said. "She deserves the best!"

"Yep," Ed said, then grinned, "but I'm already taken!"

"Hah!" Carol said. "Aren't you just full of yourself!"

"Well, didn't you once make a public statement about me being the best lover?" Ed asked innocently.

"Oh, right," Carol said. "Right after you hustled me on that little plumbing bet! And at the time I didn't know that you were so good."

"AH-HA!" Ed cried in triumph. "So now you ADMIT that I'm a good lover?"

Carol stopped in shock and blushed a deep crimson. "I...that is...Dammit! You always get me turned around and saying things I don't want to!"

"Sorry," Ed said in a voice that clearly indicated he wasn't, "it comes with being a lawyer."

Carol glared at Ed for a moment, then said, "Well, I know one way to get you tongue tied!"

"Oh, yeah," Ed said with a hint of curiosity in his voice.

"Yeah," Carol said, then stood on her toes and whispered in his ear.

Ed's eyes widened and it was his turn to blush. Carol smiled at Ed and said, "I'm done walking, take me home and we can..."

The two hurried back towards the parking lot at the Smiling Goat. As they got to McGreevy's Bookstore a small crowd was gathered, looking into the window and conversing back and forth. Ed and Carol slowed down to see what was going on. The window display at McGreevy's was full of a new book. The cover showed a couple walking over a small, stone bridge holding hands and laughing. The book was entitled "Small Town People". A large sign proclaimed that the book was on sale...and the author's name.

Carol gave a small gasp and Ed raised an eyebrow; the book was written by Nick Stanton!

Ed and Carol looked at one another and by silent, mutual assent went inside. They saw a large display set up with the book and wandered over. They both picked up a copy and started to read the inside flap of the cover. The book was about a world-weary author who, during his travels, stumbled into a sleepy, small town where he found peace... and love.

Carol didn't know what to make of it. She thought it sounded almost as if Nick was writing about his time in Stuckeyville – and about her. Ed glanced over at Carol and it was obvious he might be considering the same thing.

If Ed had thought Carol's gasp at seeing Nick's book was surprising, the gasp she gave suddenly when reading Nick's bio topped it...and then some. Almost everyone in the store turned to look at Carol when she gasped.

"What is it?" Ed asked Carol.

"Oh," Carol said. "Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. I just, um, remembered something I had forgotten to do, that's all."

Ed looked at her for moment, unsure if she was really telling him the truth. Carol smiled at him to show him that all was okay and he shrugged. Ed flipped to the back flap of the book and read Nick's bio himself.

"Hey, Carol," Ed said. "Did you see that Nick is married with two kids?"

"Hunh," startled out of deep thought, Carol said hesitantly, "uh, no, I hadn't noticed that."

She continued in a somewhat subdued voice. "Who would have thought it, huh?"

"Yeah," Ed said, somewhat amused.

Just then a couple of younger women – Carol recognized them as having graduated Stuckeyville High School a few years ago – passed by with copies of Nick's book in their hands, giggling.

One said to the other, "Wow, I can't believe that Mr. Stanton is married. I didn't think he was the type to get married. Oh well, I guess he just met the right woman."

"Well," the other girl said, "I wish he would've given me a chance, I would have shown him who the right woman was."

Ed watched Carol's face cloud as they overheard the two young women speak. Carol slammed the copy of Nick's book in her hands closed, startling the two girls. Carol almost threw the book back onto the display and headed for the door. Ed was startled and stood motionless for a moment as he watched Carol storm away. He quickly recovered and placed his copy of the book back on the display – more gently than Carol – and headed after her.

Carol was out the door and halfway down the block before Ed caught her, running up and gently slipping his hand into the crook of her elbow.

"Whoa there, Speedy Gonzalez!" Ed said lightly. "Hold up! What's wrong?"

Carol stopped walking, spun around, and spat out, "What's wrong?! Why...nothing, Ed! Whatever could be wrong?"

"Carol," Ed said. "Look I can tell something is wrong. What's up?"

"Oh," Carol said through clenched teeth, "you can tell that something is wrong? Well, whoop-dee-do! Good for you!"

"Hey!" Ed said defensively, "why are you mad at me? I didn't do anything wrong. At least... I don't think I did...(a pause) DID I do something wrong?"

Carol took a deep breath and blew it out. She said contritely, "No, Ed. You didn't do anything wrong. It was just..."

"Just what, Carol," Ed said.

"Just what those two girls said," Carol said angrily. "About Nick getting married once he found the *right* woman!"

"So what?" Ed said.

"So what ?!" Carol said heatedly. "What was wrong with me?! I guess I just wasn't the RIGHT woman, huh!?"

"No," Ed said flatly, "you weren't – and you know it."

Carol sucked in a deep breath, preparing to give Ed a verbal lashing such as he hadn't seen since they had been locked inside StuckeyBowl by their friends.

But then Ed looked into Carol's eyes and continued more quietly, "But you were the right woman for ME."

Carol's breath rushed out and her anger – most of it – went with it. She stepped forward and gave Ed a quick kiss, then turned and stood beside him with her arms wrapped around his left arm.

"Yeah," Carol said slowly as she leaned her head on his shoulder, "you're right. Nick and I weren't meant to be together, but you and I..."

Ed smiled down at her and said, "Come on, let's go home."

Ed felt better as they walked back towards the Explorer, but he failed to notice Carol nibbling at her lower lip, deep in thought.