"It's okay Nick," Ellie hugged Nick. Her relief was evident to everyone who saw the two.
"Where did Javy go?" Vin whispered to Josiah as Josiah walked inside.
"His wife called. He says that he's got a bunch of extra keys so just leave one on the bar and he'll get it in the morning. Somebody should drop off the one we lock up with back here sometime, but there's no rush," the older man answered.
"Do they about…" Nick started to say when he finally let go of Ellie. He eyed the men wearily.
"I told them everything they need to know," Ellie said sharply. Nick looked surprised and hurt. The men looked at Ellie with surprise. None of them had ever heard her use such a sharp tone before.
"'I'm sorry Nick," she sighed, putting a hand on his shoulder. I'm just a little worried, that's all. We're going to be okay. I've always taken care of you right? Nothing bad has happened to us?" Ezra could see that she was forcing the smile and calm tone in her voice. Apparently it worked on Nick, because the teen seemed to relax. "Whatever happens, our uncle is never going to hurt you."
"Are we going to have to move again?" Nick asked. His eyes grew side when the thought finally hit him "Please say no Ellie! I have never complained about moving before, but I really like it here. I have lots of friends! I know the people here will help us…"
The look on Nick's face almost broke Ezra's heart. What little bit of that was left was definitely torn when he saw Ellie's pained expression.
"I'm so sorry Nick. I like it here too. We have met nice people, but we can't stay. You aren't old enough to realize how dangerous Misha can be. He would hurt all the people that we care about just to find us. We can't ask the our friends to do that for us."
"Why not?" Ezra asked, surprising himself.
"What?" Ellie asked looking up. She seemed to have forgotten that there were other people in the room.
"I don't know what your definition of a friend is, but last time I checked, friends are supposed to look out for one another. It sure seems like the people here want to help you."
"I can't expect them to take on Misha," Ellie answered. "None of them are prepared to deal with a man like my uncle. I could never forgive myself if one of them got hurt.
"Then you should be glad that you have friends like us who are trained ot deal with men like you uncle," Josiah answered. Ellie looked at Josiah as if he had just offered her a suitcase full of a million dollars. The pleasure quickly disappeared.
"I couldn't expect you to do that for me," She answered.
"Ellie, you are forgetting that we are ATF agents," Chris answered. "Catching men like your uncle is part of our job." He paused and looked at Ezra and Vin. "In fact we are already building up a case against and have information on your uncle."
"Really?" Ellie asked, intrigued.
"The DEA has been following your uncle's movements through the US and have traced him here. He's on our radar and as soon as we have enough evidence against him, we'll arrest him and make sure he's locked away in a cell forever. He won't bother you and Nick and again."
Vin looked over Ezra's shoulder and raised his eyebrows. It had only been a few hours ago, when Chris had been complaining about having to work the DEA case and was looking for whatever reason to get out of it. Now he was acting like it was their case. Ezra smiled. Chris may like to pretend that he could not be swayed by a pretty face, but he could be just as chivalrous as any of them when he perceived there was a damsel in distress.
Ellie didn't answer right away. She seemed to be thinking. Nick grabbed Ellie's hand.
"Pleas Ellie," he pleaded. "I'm tired of running. I want to have a normal life. If we leave now, we're just going to have keep running!"
Ellie looked at Nick and then she met Ezra's eyes. He tried to give the most reassuring smile he could. It seemed to do the trick.
"Alright," she answered. "But I don't want Nick or I involved in anyway. We won't be witnesses or…."
"We'll keep you out of it," Ezra said quickly. Apparently too quickly for Chris's liking, because he glared at Ezra.
"You've told us everything that you know?" he asked. They all saw Ellie hesitate. "Everything that we can use against your uncle?" This last question made Ellie relax.
"I told you everything," She answered calmly.
"There are some things that make me nervous," Josiah stated. "I know you have friends here Ellie and most of them wouldn't betray you. But if Misha pokes around long enough, he's going to find out something about you."
"Nick and I can take care of ourselves," Ellie responded. "We've been doing it for a long time."
"And you've done a great job," Ezra answered. "But you don't need to do it anymore. Remember you're not alone in this. I would feel better if someone with a gun is able to watch you until we find Misha."
"Ellie knows how to…" Nick started to say, but Ellie silenced him with a glare.
"What do you have in mind?" she asked, eying them all suspiciously.
"How would you feel about having one us keep an eye for a while?" Chris asked. "Until we can figure things out?"
"You mean like a surveillance team?" Ellie asked. "I would tell you that I'm not too keen on the idea. Las time I checked, it wasn't the two of us who were under suspicion." Her voice had lost his congenial tone.
"Of course you aren't," Ezra answered. "But this is for your own safety." He could see that his words weren't having any effect. "Tell me Ellie, were you planning on sleeping at all until Misha is caught?"
Her nonresponsive was her answer. "Wouldn't you feel better knowing that someone is watching your house while you are sleeping, keeping an eye on Nick at school? Watching your back so you can keep your eyes forward?"
Ellie was still not completely convinced, although her face was softening.
"You won't even know we are there," Vin said. "We're very good at what we do and have had lots of practice. If you want to talk to talk to us you can. Otherwise ignore us and we won't bother yo u."
Ellie turned to look at Chris.
"I don't really have much say in this matter anyway do I?" she asked. Chris half smiled.
"No, not really,' he answered calmly.
"Fine," Ellie sighed. "But I don't want you intruding in Nick and my lives."
"Agreed," Chris said. "This is for your own protection Ellie. We'll start tonight." He looked around the room. "Ezra, you want to take first watch?"
"If you are okay with it," Ezra said looking at Ellie. She shrugged her shoulders.
"Like I said earlier, I don't think I have much say," She stated. "I don't recommend using that fancy car of yours for surveillance though. You are going to stand out like a sore thumb."
Ezra hadn't thought about that.
"Take my truck Ezra," Vin said, "you'll fit right in."
"No doubt about that," Ezra scoffed. "But the idea of my car parked in front of your apartment all night is…"
"Take my truck then," Chris said, rolling his eyes. "I'll meet you at Ellie's house around 6 and we can switch places. "Sound good?"
Ezra was not happy with leaving his car in anyone's position, even though Chris was one of the few people he trusted with it. Still he saw that there were not a whole lot of options.
"You still got an extra? Chris asked. Ezra held up his key ring in confirmation. He turned to look at Ellie.
"Would you like to stay or are you ready to go home?" he asked.
"I think it's time to go home," Ellie answered with very little emotion.
"About your own car…" Ezra started to say.
"We don't live far from the Center," Ellie stated. "Nick and I walked over."
"Then I'll drive you home," Ezra offered.
"Ez, that duffle bag of clothes is in your car if you want to change," Vin offered.
"Do you mind if we make a bit stop?" Ezra looked at Ellie. Again, she shrugged her shoulders and didn't look at him.
"Alright, let's go then," Ezra said awkwardly.
"Good night," Josiah said. "We will be seeing each other soon."
"Good night Josiah, Good night everyone," Nick said, eying Ellie nervously. He was picking up on her bad mood.
"Good night," everyone else chorused.
Ezra walked over to the big black truck and unlocked it manually. Once he opened the other door, Ellie slid into the front and Nick in the backseat. Neither one of them said anything. Ezra quickly turned on the truck to avoid the uncomfortable silence.
As soon as he turned on the truck, the sound of a twangy guitar and a deep baritone drawl erupted through the truck's interior. Three simultaneous groans attempted to drawn out the offending noise. Ezra quickly reached down and turned the music down.
"Not a fan of country music I take it?" he laughed. Elle laughed as well.
"If you can call that racket music," she answered. Ezra was glad to see that she was smiling. Her mood seemed to have lightened.
"That stuff sure isn't music," Nick said from the backseat. Ezra slowly eased the truck out of the small parking lot.
"And what kind of music do you like to listen to Nick?" Ezra asked as he pulled out onto the street.
"I don't know, I'm not picky," Nick answered. "Little bit of hip-hop, sometimes rap…"
"More racket," Ellie answered, rolling her eyes. "Our parents poured lots of money into your piano lessons so you would develop into a cultured person."
"Mozart and all that classic stuff is fine," Nick said, "when you want to do homework or something, but have you ever tried to dance with a girl to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Sympathy? It doesn't really work."
Ezra and Ellie both laughed.
"Point taken," Ellie laughed.
"You used to play the violin?" Ezra asked Nick. The teen center was now in view.
"Back in Russia," Nick answered.
"He's pretty good," Ellie answered.
"Well I was," Nick answered. "I haven't been able to practice in a whole."
Ezra didn't need to ask why. Piano lessons were expensive in the US and he doubted that they had been anywhere long enough for Nick to start. Even if they were, Ezra knew Piano lessons were expensive and he doubted that Ellie had the money to pay for them.
"Well, how about you find something that we all like," Ezra stated. He pulled next to his car. "I'll be right back." He quickly got out of car and retrieved his bag. When he returned, he heard the voice of a sports commentator.
"What's the score?" he asked.
"Avalanche 1, Blackhawks zero. There's only a few minutes left," Nick answered. As they listened to the rest of the game, Ellie gave directions to Ezra.
"That's our house right there," Ellie said, just as the buzzer on the game went off. The score had not changed. Ezra looked over at the house. It was dark, but a streetlight just outside of the tiny front yard illuminated the front. It looked like a tiny white box. He could see the paint was chipping away and the roof could use some major work. There was only a tiny dirt path where the driveway should have been so Ezra pulled up along the street.
"Well, here you are," he said awkwardly. "Have a good night. I'll be in this truck right around the corner watching to make sure everything is alright. Nick jumped out of the car. Ellie did too, but turned around before she slammed the door shut. She sighed heavily.
"It's going to be cold out tonight," she stated.
"Don't worry about me," Ezra said. "I have a very tough disposition. This isn't my first stake-out." He tried to sound brave, but he was not looking forward to spending the night in the car. "I make a quick run to get some coffee, but…."
"I'm sorry I was so rude inside," Ellie said quickly. "I really appreciate what you and your friends are doing for Nick and I, It's been so long since I've been offered help by anyone that….."
"It's our pleasure and our job," Ezra answered.
"No," Ellie said shaking her head. "I know you are going above and beyond what is expected of you," she paused and looked behind her. Nick was standing on the small slab of a porch. "I can't offer you much, but I can at least offer you a couch to sleep on," all of a sudden she looked embarrassed. "if you want it, of course."
Ezra was taken back.
"I don't want you to feel obligated that you have to…."
"I don't feel obligated, it's just that….
"because part of our job is…."
"I want you to know…."
"Ellie, I'm cold!" Nick's complaint stopped them both. They stared at each for a second without saying anything.
"Well are you coming?" Ellie asked with a smile.
"It would be a pleasure," Ezra answered, opening the front door of the truck. He grabbed the duffle bag and followed Ellie into the house.
The inside of the house was exactly what he had been expecting when he had seen the exterior. He had walked into the living room which took up most of the space. There was an old carpet that was fraying where it met the walls, and the stucco on the walls was beginning to crack. A hole in the wall next to a doorway led into the kitchen. There were three doors along the other side of the living room which Ezra assumed led to the bedrooms and the bathroom. There wasn't much inside other than the essential pieces of furniture. What was there looked old and worn.
"Welcome to our home," Ellie said, sweeping her arms around. Ezra could hear the hint of embarrassment in her voice.
"It's lovely," he answered quickly. Ezra gave him a skeptical look, but her smile told him that she appreciated the gesture.
"Nick, maybe you should…"
"Ellie, it's only ten o 'clock! I'm not going to bed yet," the teen stated. "Can we watch a movie?"
"Ezra, would you like to…" Ellie said turning to him.
"Whatever you would like to do is fine with me," Ezra answered. "I don't want to intrude in anything." Ezra realized how ridiculous this last statement was based on the small size of the house. There really wasn't anywhere for him to go. Ezra looked at the old TV behind him, but didn't see a DVD player anywhere.
"I'll get the laptop," Nick said excitedly. He ran into the kitchen and came back with a key. He walked over to the cabinet below the TV, unlocked it, and carried a black laptop over to the coffee table like it was some sort of holy relic.
"I won it in a math competition a few months ago," Nick said as he plugged it in.
"A gifted piano player and a math genius?" Ezra asked. "You must really be talented. Nick attempted to shrug off the comment like it meant nothing, but Ezra could tell his comment pleased him.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Ellie asked. "Coffee or maybe…."
"Coffee sounds lovely right now," Ezra answered.
"One coffee coming right up," Ellie answered, turning towards the kitchen. A sudden thought flashed through Ezra's mind.
"Wait!" he said quickly. Ellie turned to look at him. "With only a small portion of sugar please." Ellie gave him a confused look and then she started to laugh.
"You know my people to well," she said.
"I have met many Russian and Eastern Europeans over my lifetime," Ezra explained. "They've all had different temperaments and personalities, but they have had one thing in common. The y all like their coffee sickenly sweet."
"I will go light on the sugar," Ellie promised. "Do you want something to drink Nick?" she asked.
"I'll have some coffee too?" Nick asked, eying Ellie. The woman shook her head.
"What was Papa's rule?"
"No coffee until I'm sixteen," he answered resignedly. "Fine, I'll have some Coke."
"What's my rule?" Ellie asked again.
"No soda after nine," Nick responded, rolling his eyes. "Fine, I'll have a glass of orange juice."
"Good choice," Elle said. "Ezra, would you like to take a shower?"
Ezra was taken back for a second. Then he realized what a mess he must look like. Despite the bareness of the house, it was clean. He realized that Ellie probably didn't want him inside her house looking like that.
"I apologize for…."
"What are you apologizing for?" Ellie asked. "You haven't looked comfortable all night. I just thought that you would maybe like to clean off to feel more comfortable."
"I would very much like to take a shower. Thank you."
"Everything you need should be in the bathroom. The towels are on the bottom shelf." Fifteen minutes later he emerged from the bathroom in his jeans and polo feeling much better. Ellie and Nick were both sitting on the couch and changed into sweatpants. It was the first time he had seen Ellie with her hair down. There was a slight wave as it fell just below her shoulders.
"Do you feel better?" Ellie asked, not looking at him. She knew he was staring at her. Ezra quickly averted his gaze.
"Yes, thank you." He saw a mug of coffee sitting on the coffee table. " IS this for me?" he asked. He picked it up and took a sip. "It's perfect." The laptop was open on the coffee table and Nick was looking at him expectantly with a bowl of popcorn in his lap.
"What are we going to watch?" Ezra asked.
"It's an old western that Brad gave to me. He said it's really good. It's got John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in it I think," Nick answered.
"It wouldn't be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would it?" Ezra asked, sitting down in the chair.
"Yeah, that's what it's called!" Nick exclaimed. "Is it okay, if you've already seen it…"
"The movie is one of the gems of the American film industry. It is a pleasure to watch it again.
A problem was soon discovered by all three. The computer screen was too small for Ezra to see from his location on the chair. Ellie looked at him a bit nervously. Then she smiled. She punched Nick lightly in the shoulder.
"Scoot over," she told him. They both sifted over so Ezra could have the edge of the couch. Nick jumped up and turned off the lights and started the movie. At first, he felt slightly uncomfortable being so close. Although he couldn't see her face, he could sense that she felt the same as well. She stayed pretty close to her younger brother. Over the course of the movie, he started to relax. Ellie began shifting a little bit more to his side of the couch. He let himself escape into the small frontier town of Shinbone and gratefully accepted the bowl of popcorn that was passed his way.
About half way through the movie, he watched Ellie's head droop onto the side of the couch.
"She doesn't like westerns very much," Nick said before returning his attention to the movie. A few seconds later he felt pressure on his shoulder. Ellie's head had plopped down. It was a pleasant feeling.
The movie ended and Ezra turned on the lamp while Nick turned the computer off.
"That was a great movie," Nick said. "I don't know who I like better, Ransom or Tom. I think that…." He stopped when he saw Ellie asleep on Ezra's shoulder. A strange look crossed his face. Ezra waited patiently as the boy sorted out his emotions. Eventually, a smile lit up his face.
"I think she really likes you," he whispered. "That's good she doesn't have many friends her own age. She's always too busy worrying about me." A look of guilt crossed over his face.
"You know that she loves you very much," Ezra said. "And older sisters are supposed to worry about their younger brothers. It goes with job description."
"I'm going to go to bed," Nick yawned. "Good night Ezra."
"Good night," Ezra answered. He was content just to sit for a while, glad that he had received the youth's approval. He looked down at the sleeping woman. There was a peacefulness and restfulness in her face that he hadn't seen before. His arm started to tingle, but he put up with the pain for as long as he could. Eventually though, it became unbearable. Regretfully, he gently lifted up his shoulder. Ellie was startled awake. "I'm sorry to wake you up."
For a brief second, Ellie look confused. Then she realized what had happened.
"My God Ezra, I'm sorry! I didn't realize…."
"It was a pleasure being your pillow," Ezra responded smiling. Ellie rubbed her eyes.
"Where's Nick?' she asked.
"He went to bed a little while ago. I suggest you do the same. You look exhausted.
"I am," Ellie admitted. "I'll be right back." She got off the couch and emerged with a pillow and two blankets. She looked at the couch sadly.
"I know it isn't much, but…"
"It will nicely," Ezra answered. "And it sure beats having to stay out in the truck."
"If you get cold…."
"Don't worry about me Ellie. Go and get some sleep."
Ellie didn't answer right away. She looked nervously at the door. Ezra walked over to the duffle bag and took out his gun. He made a show of setting it down the coffee table.
"And don't worry about it," he said, knowing he didn't need to clarify. Ellie smiled at him.
"Thank you," she said. "Despite everything, I had a good night."
"Me too," Ezra answered. He hesitated before leaning over and kissing her on the cheek. "One of the best in a while in fact."
He was glad to see Ellie blush before she turned and walked towards the bedroom. Ezra leaned back onto the couch, feeling quite content with the world at that moment.