11.

Denver Memorial Hospital, the next Thursday

Chris stood in the hospital corridor and watched through the window his sons talking with each other in Ezra's room. Vin had just come from school, and Chris was giving the boys some privacy while Ezra was awake. The injured boy still tired quickly; it wouldn't take long before he fell asleep again.

Chris smiled, seeing Vin gesturing animatedly as he was speaking. Lord, during the last few days he had learned more about Ezra than in all the previous months combined – and most of it just by watching the boys together. And there were some revelations about Vin along the way too.

"Your coffee, stud."

Chris looked to his left and saw Buck, who'd driven Vin to the hospital from school that day, handing him a cup, he must have won against the coffee machine this time.

The team had established a routine. Chris stayed in the hospital, on a 'parent' cot in Ezra's room, and left the room only if it was necessary – or to give the boys some time together, like now. Vin wasn't allowed to stay for the nights, so he'd been staying with Josiah, who had dropped him off at the hospital in the mornings and picked him up in the evenings. Until Tuesday, when Ezra had been coherent enough to insist Vin shouldn't miss his classes; taking this insistence as a sign that the worst was over, Vin had agreed. So the last few days Josiah had driven him to school, then Buck and JD had alternated picking him up there and bringing him to Denver Memorial. (Though McKenzie was again safely locked away, nobody wanted to take chances and have Vin travel alone just yet.) Nathan usually dropped by early in the day, to back Chris up in questioning Ezra's doctors during morning rounds. Josiah appeared on his way home after work, taking Vin with him after visiting hours were over and they were kicked out. The ranch was being looked after by Nettie and a couple of the guys who worked for her; Buck had been there on Sunday and brought back everything Chris, Vin and Ezra might need in town.

"Those two are sure a sight for sore eyes, aren't they?" Buck motioned with his cup towards the window.

"Yes, they are," Chris answered, returning to his earlier musings. "Did you know Ezra has been helping Vin with his schoolwork since September?"

"For free?" Buck asked, half-teasingly.

"For free." Something in Chris's tone made Buck grow serious. "They've managed to become brothers, Buck, truly brothers while I was busy catching the bad guys and making an ass of myself."

Buck sighed. "Believe me, Chris, when it comes to being a blind jackass, you're in good company. But you know what, stud? We're damn lucky jackasses; we still have the chance to fix our mistakes. "

"Yeah…" Yeah, he still had a chance to fix his mistakes, especially if he avoided making new ones in the process.

So far things had looked hopeful – Ezra had been accepting his presence and his care, and had almost been forgetting to call him 'sir'. The boy was too weak to have any of his masks and defenses up, so Chris finally began to realize just what exactly he'd been missing – and what he might still lose, if he didn't do everything right. And he didn't want to lose it, but what if Ezra closed up again when he regained his strength? Chris knew he had to talk with his son, and he intended to do it when Ezra would be up to it, probably when they released him…hospitals weren't too good a place for such talks. The problem was, Chris wasn't sure what he should say to the son he'd let down so - and what he shouldn't.

Ezra knew that he'd been kidnapped by Larabee's enemies, who had been caught by now, and it pained Chris to see that the boy, in some twisted way, felt honored at being picked by them. But Ezra didn't know the details yet, didn't know that there had been nearly 24 hours between the actual threat and JD's appearance at St. James's. And Chris couldn't decide if he should tell him. He had his reasons for both 'yes' and 'no', but they were his reasons, and it was Ezra who mattered here.

Chris again focused his eyes on what was happening in the room, and saw Vin carefully removing a glass from Ezra's hand and lowering the upper side of the bed. Sleep had won again. Well, Chris remembered suddenly, there was a person who understood Ezra much better than anyone else. Finishing his coffee, Chris reached a decision; the first opportunity they had for a chat without the chance of Ezra overhearing them - he would ask for Vin's advice.

****

The opportunity presented itself later that day, when they were waiting for Ezra's return from X-ray. Having given up on finding a suitable lead in, Chris just asked straight away what Vin thought he should tell Ezra.

Vin looked around for a bit, thinking, and then said firmly:

"Ez doesn't need to know this." And after a moment he added, looking his father in the eyes and emphasizing each word: "It's enough that I know."

Chris, feeling like a criminal who'd been released with a warning, nodded solemnly. And Vin did warn him, that he wouldn't forget and wouldn't allow Chris to play favorites again – in any way. And Chris couldn't help but feel a touch of pride at hearing that warning. At the end of this whole mess, he found that he was actually proud of Vin, nearly as much as he was disgusted with himself. Vin hadn't acted like a shy teenager, avoiding rocking the boat; he'd acted like a man, protecting his own. And Chris was sure, if the situation was somehow reversed, he would have received the very same warning from Ezra.

Larabee nodded one more time, silently promising himself that, in the future, his boys would never need to protect each other from him.

12.

Larabee's ranch, the next Tuesday

Nearly two weeks after the crash, and Ezra was finally being released from the hospital, with a long list of medications and a therapy schedule. Just in time, because, as Chris had realized only a day before with astonishment, it was Thanksgiving week already. Buck and JD had plunged happily into planning for a Thanksgiving dinner at the ranch and managed to drag Nathan and Josiah in with their enthusiasm. Chris didn't interfere; it was safer than the 'get-well party' they had planned at first, anyway. But Chris himself carefully avoided thinking about the holiday celebrations – he had to talk with Ezra first. And he hoped to do that today.

Around 11 a.m. Chris completed the necessary paperwork at the hospital, and he and Buck settled the sleepy teenager in the back seat of Buck's truck and drove to the ranch. Vin was at school, and Chris suspected that he'd actually gone there today not because of the test in History, but to give Chris and Ezra some space.

The roads weren't in their best shape, so the ride was long and slow, but uneventful; the threesome had lunch at the ranch together, and then Buck left for work. Ezra didn't resist the idea of going to lay in bed right after lunch, but stating that he'd slept soundly all the way home, he instead used his pillows to prop himself up. Seeing that the boy really was wide awake, Chris decided that there was no time like the present for a little father-son talk.

"Ezra, we need to talk. Could you listen to me now?"

The boy nodded, looking slightly surprised, so Chris took a low stool and sat on it beside the bed, this way their faces were on an even level. Then, taking a deep breath, he began, looking at the wall behind Ezra's head.

"Ezra… I let you down, son. And not for the first time. I've been letting you down for all these years…I know there is no apology strong enough, but," he now looked straight into those bright green eyes, "I'm sorry, son."

Before Ezra could react, Chris continued:

"I want you to know – that Friday, I have never been so scared in my life. And I'm still scared that I might lose you without ever knowing the real you. I want to know you, I want to be there for you, I want to be your father like I should have been from the beginning. And I'm asking you – could you give me another chance?" Chris trailed off, patiently waiting for a reply.

******

Ezra was shocked. With the apology, with the request, and with the sincerity he could detect in both. He recalled the resolutions he'd made three weeks ago – was it possible he had been wrong then? Chris Larabee (well, at least sober Chris Larabee, added some irritating voice inside his head) usually meant what he was saying; and, after days in the hospital, Ezra knew that Chris cared. Oh, of course, obligation and guilt, imaginary or real, were there too, but care and concern were stronger. Ezra couldn't deny it. And there were some other things the boy had to admit also, however reluctantly.

Enduring a treatment, or waiting for pain-killers to kick in, had been easier with Chris holding him, telling him it was okay to cry if it hurt like hell. His steady presence, reassuring, but not overwhelming, had kept the nightmares on a tight leash; and all fears and doubts about any permanent damage had been chased away by his father's silent faith. Ezra had had his share of hospital stays before, but this had been the first time he'd never been left alone, the first time he felt safe. He'd never had so many visitors before, either, and he'd tried to tell at least Chris that it wasn't necessary, but he could never bring himself to actually say it. Maybe because, deep down, he'd known that Chris needed to be with him even more than Ezra had needed his presence there. For the first time since his last 'summer at the ranch' of so long ago, Ezra had felt himself a part of the family. He'd been a son, a brother and even a nephew. And though he should know better, he wanted to preserve that feeling.

And now he was being asked to give this family another chance. That same irritating mental voice, sounding suspiciously like Maude's, kept telling him that giving others second chances was foolish, and only led to hurt and disappointment; but another voice, with Vin's intonations, argued that the possible outcome was well worth the risk, that the hand should be played out. And Ezra decided to side with the second, Texan voice.

He smiled, openly and genially, and outstretched his hand:

"I think we could give it a try."

Relief lit up Chris's eyes, as he grasped Ezra's forearm the way Vin had done earlier. Ezra returned the grip, putting all the strength he had at the moment in it. It wasn't much, but Chris smiled – the same smile Ezra had last seen on his face nearly six years ago.

*******

A sudden cough attack saved both father and son from any awkward silence that might have followed; Chris held Ezra, rubbing his back, till the attack passed and then eased him back on the pillows. Chris's cell beeped shortly after, signaling it was 2 p.m. – time for Ezra to take some of his medications. Chris picked out two tablets from the medical box and gave them to the boy with a glass of water. Ezra, finally having calmed his breathing, scowled but took them without a complaint; he really hated being so weak and exhausted.

"Well," he commented after he had swallowed . "if I recognized the foul taste of that particular medication correctly, it will send me into the arms of Morpheus within five minutes."

Chris chuckled. "My Grandmother used to say that sleep is the best medicine," he stood up to help put the pillows down. "I guess she was right." Chris restrained his urge to actually tuck in the blanket – after all Ezra was fifteen, not seven - and continued: "Rest now, you'll make it all up later, I promise."

Chris went to the window, to close the curtains, but Ezra's voice stopped him,

"No need, Dad, leave them open."

"Okay," Chris turned back to the bed and saw that Ezra was already yawning. "If I'm not here, I'll be in the office. I'll leave the doors open so just holler when you're awake, okay?"

"Okay," Ezra carefully turned to his side and closed his eyes.

Chris waited till the boy was sound asleep, then, laughing inwardly at himself, did rearrange the blanket a little. He made sure that the glass with water was within easy reach, but not in danger of falling from the night stand, and quietly left the room.

A pile of papers Buck had dropped off waited for Chris on his desk. He glared at them, but alas, they didn't vanish. With a sigh, Chris admitted it was a time to start catching up on his paperwork, he even grabbed the upper folder, but his mind was elsewhere, and he found himself making notes on a clean sheet of paper about what should be done in the near future. Some things should be arranged to make Ezra's recovery as smooth as possible; and some major changes should be discussed with both boys in a week or two.

Chris chuckled, remembering 'the most enlightening', as Ezra himself would have said, phone conversation with the Dean of St. James. The woman, very polite and obviously concerned, had told him to focus on Ezra's recovery and not to worry about the academic program. And that even if Ezra missed the rest of the Fall semester, he would still be ahead of the program on most subjects.

Well, anyway, as far as Chris was concerned boarding schools were out of the question now. He had less than three years before college with the boy – and he wasn't intending to lose a single minute of them. Too much time had been lost already. Of course, there was the unpredictable factor called Maude Standish, but so far she seemed content to leave Ezra alone; and if she tried to make Ezra do something he didn't want to, Chris still had enough information in his old files to make her think twice.

About an hour later Chris went quietly to check on Ezra – and stopped in surprise, seeing that the door to the boy's room was closed and hearing voices from behind it. Chris leaned on the wall, shaking his head. Vin, that little Indian brave! Nettie must have already driven him home, and he'd managed to sneak in his brother's room, with Chris sitting on the same floor with his door opened and straining his hearing every five minutes in case Ezra had awakened or moaned in his sleep. Yeah, the blue-eyed teen sure had a talent. Chris had to suppress a chuckle, realizing suddenly that the idea of signing the boys up for the same school might be considered inhumane – in regards to the teaching staff. Chris pondered if he should go back to the office or knock at the door, when he clearly heard Vin asking a question and decided to stay in place, listening. Okay, maybe not listening, but eavesdropping; just this once.

"Chris talked with ya?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"We decided to give it another try."

"Good."

Chris let out the breath he'd been holding.

"And Vin? Stop calling him Chris for my sake. He is your father, too."

Oh. Chris hadn't paid attention before, but come to think of it, yes, during the last months Vin really hadn't call him 'Dad' in Ezra's presence.

"No need to blush, Vin. Of course I noticed and I appreciated it. But if we want this 'family thing' to work – we must all participate equally."

"Including the bunch of crazy Uncles?"

"I'm afraid yes, including them."

Chris smiled, blinking away the moisture from his eyes. Buck was right, he was one damn lucky bastard. He had four crazy brothers whom he owed more than he could ever repay and two extraordinary teenagers as sons. Not a traditional family, but a family nevertheless. And for the first time in years, Chris was actually looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner. Family dinner. He had reasons to be thankful – and the most precious two were laughing behind this door right now.

Chris unstuck from the wall and went the three remaining steps. This 'family thing' would work, if he didn't screw up. And he wouldn't. Chris knocked at the door.

"Come in, Dad," two voices answered in chorus.

And Chris Larabee walked in, entering the next chapter of his life.

The End!