A/N Thank you so much for your reviews. Hope you enjoy this chapter. I actually had it finished but went back and rewrote sections of it since I felt there wasn't enough of the boys in it as it was before. Hope this is better. Oh and the disclaimer... consider this chapter disclaimed.
Ezra glanced at the clock on the mantle. Whatever was going to happen back at the ranch would already be underway by now. He fervently hoped that he and Vin would be welcome back. 'It isn't often' he thought, 'that I am made welcome by people who want nothing from me other than my company; very strange' He was starting to believe that the 'other shoe' would never drop; he was starting to hope. It frightened him.
Evie Travis saw the little southerner look to the clock and sighed. Even now he was worrying over issues he had no control over; taking responsibility for the actions of others. And from the pensive look on his little companion's face he was not the only one. Perhaps it was time to bring out the big guns. Breakfast had gone down well, Hester, as predicted, had taken one look at the boys who she had taken at face value - Evie deciding not to fill her in on the truth; she was an amazing cook and a wonderful friend but she was also the most inveterate gossip that had ever been born - and had immediately sat them down at the breakfast bar and regaled them with stories of her colorful and exotic home country of Jamaica and the folk tales her Irish father had enthralled her with when she had been their age as she tempted them with her fine cooking. Not that either boy had eaten as much as Hester considered natural but Evie was glad that she would be able to report to Chris that they had eaten well enough. But now that the time was approaching for the meeting several miles away between Nathan and Chris she needed a major distraction.
"Ezra, Vin" she called, and watched them come running across the large yet homely lounge, Ezra leaving his book, although he hadn't really been reading it, and Vin leaving his drawing which was actually a mass of random doodles made while he had been watching Miss Evie watch Ezra worry.
"Boys, how would you like to see my Priscilla's new kittens?" The answering 'yes pleases' were accompanied by emphatic head nods as Evie led them down the hall to another room.
"I keep them in here so that they're safe and their mommy doesn't have to worry about them getting lost."
Vin remembered how his mother used to keep him with her as much as possible so that he wouldn't wander off or get lost. The memory made him smile; he liked remembering things about her because it was getting harder and harder to keep the memory of how she looked and sounded alive. Somehow he thought it should take longer to forget than three years. Ezra remembered the time that his mother needed to leave him for a con and, not being able to get a sitter, dumped him in the middle of Grand Central Station for social services to find. It had been an adventure at first but as the hours went by he had felt lost and scared. He was glad that the kittens wouldn't have to suffer that.
The gasps of delight as the boys spied the five bundles of white fluff resulted in a small smirk of victory on Evie's face; 'cows? Hmph, what cows?'Nettie can keep her cows!' Vin had seen cats and kittens before on the Res' where they were kept as mousers and pets but he'd never seen anything quite so fancy and fluffy. They kept tripping over their own feet and each others tails and he was soon giggling and trailing bits of string for them to 'hunt'.
Ezra was captivated. He had seen pedigree cats before including Persians but never kittens and never close up. It was love at first sight. He wished that he could have one for his very own. Mother had never allowed him a pet and he knew that she was right, he was never in one place long enough to care for it. Even here he would be gone in a few months and he didn't know how grown up him would feel about pets. Unfortunately all the practicality in the world couldn't make up for that terrible longing to have someone or something that really truly loved him.
One kitten in particular caught his eye. He or she kept getting snuck up on and batted by the others and it would only play with the string and not the squeaky mouse which he hid behind his back and squeezed. Evie noticed Ezra's and soon after, Vin's attention switch to the oddly behaving furball.
"She's deaf" Evie stated sadly. Both boys gasped in shock.
"Did she have an accident?" asked Vin
"Did somebody beat her?" asked Ezra at the same time.
"No, nothing like that" she sought to reassure them. "It's what they call a genetic flaw; she was born that way."
"So will you drown her?" Vin's voice was strained, his look one of concern. He'd heard stories of what happened to unwanted kittens and puppies, but surely a nice lady like Miss Evie wouldn't…
"NO!" cried Ezra "Please Mrs Travis, she can still be good and she's still pretty even if she's not perfect. Maybe someone will want her. Somebody MUST want her. She's not clumsy and useless. She's not a burden!"
Evie's heart almost broke at the obvious identification that Ezra was making between the kitten's plight and his own abandonment while Vin's exposure to the harsh realities of human life was something that she would have wished could have been put off for a few more years yet. This needed to be nipped in the bud; she wished that she could just tell him that the kitten was his if he wanted it and if it were any of the others she would. In their phone conversation Chris had mentioned the boys excitement over seeing the kittens and had ok'd them having one if they asked, guaranteeing a home at the ranch if either boy couldn't keep it when they returned to their adult selves; but a deaf kitten was a different prospect. She was sure he would sanction it but she would still need to consult with him first.
"No, no, of course not. I would never do such a thing." They still looked a little uncertain; these boys were used to being lied to. "I promise. In fact I had already decided that if I couldn't find her a home I'd keep her myself."
Finally reassured they resumed their play, watched over by an attentive mother cat who approved wholeheartedly of the care they were taking to not scare her babies, unlike the 'Billy human' who was sweet but a little too loud. Probably used to puppies she sniffed distastefully. She began to purr as the dark fur topped little human re-filled her water dish. She sensed that this one would be a good carer for one of her litter; the 'special one' that she worried about. Decision made she rose majestically to her paws and sashayed ( it was not a waddle she told herself) over to her little oblivious one. She picked her up and as the humans watched, fascinated, she deposited the kitten at the little dark one's feet. The small human gasped in delight and sat down to cradle the deaf kitten. He politely thanked Priscilla and then boy and kitten were lost in each others company.
Evie shook her head in wonder; she'd never seen the like. Yes, she would definitely be speaking to Mr Larabee later.
M * 7
Lunch had been every bit as delicious as breakfast and two little boys settled themselves under a large oak tree in the garden with their coloring books and other toys that they had brought with them and had borrowed from Evie's collection of Billy's toys. Both Ezra and Vin were of the opinion that Billy was a lucky boy to have a grandma like Evie. Evie herself sat near enough to watch over the duo yet far enough away to give them some privacy. She could see that both boys were tired from their morning's playing with the kittens and would probably soon succumb to sleep but she didn't want to dictate to them so she left them to talk and to let nature take it's course. In the meantime she began to knit a sweater; she'd had the pattern and wool for a while; it was meant for Billy but Mary had considered home knits too common in the circles she had begun to move in... nothing but the best for her these days.
"Ez, do you think that Mr Nathan will take it out on us because he's in trouble with Chris?"
Ezra thought hard for a moment before answering. In his normal life he would instantly say yes because that was the kind of people Maude ran with, but everything about this new 'family' was different; part of him thought that this was what a family should be like, caring, supportive, maybe not perfect but at least they tried while another part of him didn't reckon that such a thing existed and that any moment now they would reveal their true colors... but Vin had trusted Chris and Buck from the start and for some reason the Texan had a much better understanding of the nicer side of people than he did... mother should really cultivate a wider circle of friends from outside the criminal element! Finally he spoke though he noted that unlike most adults Vin had waited patiently for his reply.
"Ah don't think he will. Ah really don't think he ever meant any real harm."
Vin scowled at the memory of that night. "But he hurt you Ez. An' if'n he's done it once he could easy do it again."
Instead of defending Nathan's actions, which he knew Vin wouldn't accept Ezra tried another approach.
"Do you trust Chris?"
"Yep." The reply was instantaneous, as expected.
"Then do you think that Mr Larabee would have chosen a man who hurt children for his team?"
Vin frowned again, but this time in consideration. Ezra was right. Chris wouldn't which could only mean that the Nathan they had met that night wasn't the true Nathan. Still, it had been Ezra that had suffered, not him and Ez was the one who needed to be able to trust them... and Vin figured, correctly, that Ezra didn't trust easily, if at all. He made these feelings known to his new friend only to receive a bright smile instead of the frown he expected.
"You're right Vin, Ah don't really trust Nathan and while Ah do trust Chris to a point he IS an adult and adults can be unpredictable... but I am sure that Nathan, once informed of his actions and their consequences will never repeat his mistake, no matter what his personal feelings about me may be. "
"How can you be sure if'n you're not sure about Chris?"
"Because Ah trust you and your judgement of course."
Vin was shocked. No-one had ever placed that much faith in him before! He blushed and beamed and blushed some more.
Ezra, recognizing his friend's embarrassment, sought to bring things back to normality, at least normal for little boys... he lunged toward Vin...
Evie looked up from her needles at the sudden shout and smiled to find the boys chasing each other round the oak tree like any other boys would do. Knowing that it was unlikely either youngster had much opportunity for such playing she was delighted that they felt so comfortable... she would keep a close eye on them though; that was, after all, a very tall tree and it WAS Vin and Ezra!
M * 7
Chris realised that he'd guessed correctly about Nathan's ignorance over the after effects of his disciplining of Ezra when the EMT strolled happily into the kitchen with a cheery 'good morning'. It didn't take long, however, for the medic to sense that something was up; and he knew that he was somehow involved when JD wandered in after him and instead of a smile he received a glare for a welcome. Even Josiah looked solemn, but at least he didn't look angry; not like Chris and Buck. Buck! Buck hardly ever looked that pissed off.
"Hey guys, what's wrong? Has something happened to the boys?" 'God' he thought, 'Chris would be devastated if anything had happened to Vin' Nathan noticed that their leader looked more annoyed than worried. If someone had done something to garner that reaction the most likely cause would be…
"What the hell has Ezra done this time?"
Chris knew that he'd promised no violence but he just couldn't take any more. The situation was bad enough without every word reminding him how he, himself, had been so ready to ream their seventh during operations, even going so far as hitting him on one occasion but at least he was learning from his mistakes, dammit! Before his conscious mind could do anything but influence him to avoid the face Nathan was doubled over from a blow to the gut. Josiah drew a sharp breath but didn't intervene; just like he'd never intervened for adult Ezra his conscience sniped at him. JD gave a satisfied smirk that was remarkably reminiscent of a certain undercover agent at his most devilish. Buck gently tapped Nathan on the shoulder as he straightened up and as he turned toward the ladies man, a bewildered expression on his face, Buck's fist landed in almost the exact same spot as his friends', this time driving the medic to his knees, but not for long, as Chris's hand grabbed his shirt front and pulled him up so that they were face to face.
"If you EVER hit Ezra again; hit ANY child again, I will give you an anatomy lesson that you will never forget. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
Nathan nodded frantically even as his brain finally began to put the pieces together.
"Don't even go there." Buck added, seeing the light dawn in the dark eyes and the blame being cast, if only mentally. "The allergy was real, we had to get a doctor; and it was Vin who told her what happened. If Ezra had had his way we would never have known."
As suddenly as it had begun the violence was over and Nathan found himself seated facing Chris across the table. Nathan thought that the look of disappointment on his leader's face was worse than the pain of the blows.
"Well Nathan, perhaps you can explain what caused you to lash out at an eight year old boy, break his finger and leave gashes in his wrist?" Chris's voice was completely calm and reasonable and therefore at it's most frightening but Nathan didn't even register it. He also didn't acknowledge the small voice in his head pointing out the source of the blood he'd found under his fingernail that night…not a nicked nail bed after all. But it couldn't be; he would never hurt a child... spank, yes, but he hadn't hit that hard had he? The medic in him pointed out how small Ezra was, how thin those wrists had been and how fragile they had felt gripped in his own large hands... hands that were trained to heal. NO! the only thought that he allowed forth, that could justify his actions and therefore the only one that his mind could condone was one that he made the mistake of uttering out loud.
Buck knew Chris like the back of his hand and he knew that his time for violence was gone, no matter what the provocation; but he also knew JD as well as he knew himself and so was ready for the lunge forward and the raised fist that swept past him. He curled his arm around the smaller man's middle and reeled him into a protective embrace which, although it benefited Nathan was actually intended to prevent the kid doing something he'd eventually regret. He didn't, however, attempt to stop him talking. JD had as much right as anybody else to be heard.
"Just where do you get off being so self-righteous Nathan. What gives you the right to judge Ezra? It's bad enough that as an adult you treat him little better than the animals we go after, but you can't even admit that you're wrong when he's a complete innocent."
Nathan said nothing, he couldn't. All he could do was look and see the truth in JD's eyes. Eyes that held a level of innocence and honesty that he hadn't had the courtesy to allow to an eight year old boy. What the hell had he been thinking! And if eight year old Ezra hadn't possessed that innocence didn't that say more about the adults who had raised him than the boy himself? Had he really been judging young Ezra on the basis of the problems he had with his team mate? Perhaps it was time to ask himself some harsh questions... perhaps it was time to learn a little more about Ezra, to be the friend he had thought he was instead of the judgmental prick that the others had so eloquently pointed out he was. He rubbed his sore stomach as he sank deeper into the chair. It was a welcome pain because it was so much less than his mental pain right now.
"Oh God, what have I done!"
Chris nodded at the shock and shame on the normally gentle face. Of all of them Nathan may be the quickest to judge but he was just as hard on himself as he was on others and would unflinchingly face his own demons once he realised that they were there. It wasn't Nathan's way to hide in a bottle like himself and Josiah; to hide in a woman's arms like Buck or in the wilderness like Vin. Even JD hid in his own way, in a virtual world. Chris almost laughed out loud as he realised that the only two of them who refused to hide from themselves were Nathan and Ezra... each would be appalled that they had something in common.
Buck pushed a cup of strong coffee laced with whisky in front of Nathan and he took it with an apologetic smile. He was glad to have something to occupy his mouth for a few moments because he really wasn't looking forward to the large slice of humble pie he was due to be eating any minute now.
M * 7
Vin practically inhaled another slice of pie. Breakfast had been wonderful and lunch was delicious, if a little too healthy; surely if people were meant to eat plants God wouldn't have covered them in dirt! but peach pie beat everything on earth and Hester's pies were just the best. He'd been a little surprised at how much fuss the larger than life cook had made of him and Ezra but it had been a really nice feeling... although he wasn't scrawny, he was...um...what was it that Ez had said?...oh yeah, streamlined. He'd have to remember that one. Looking across at his new brother, for that was how he had almost instantly thought of the southern boy and he was never one to ignore his instincts, he wondered if he. too, was feeling the same way about all of this... like it was a grand dream that he would wake up from any minute to the dull reality he had been snatched from. But if it was a dream then it was a really good one and he was gonna make the most of it... and that included another slice of 'dream pie'. He had a feeling that by the time the six months was up he wouldn't be quite so streamlined!