Type/AU: Little Britches-Little Ezra GEN Hurt/Comfort
Warnings: Injuries & Hurt
Dedication: For Mrs. Larabee, Happy Birthday!
Notes: Thanks to Cin for the beta job she did for this fic, which seemed longer than a short for some reason. And thanks to LaraMee for the great graphic!
Chris Larabee was tired. Not just tired, needing a few minutes to himself, but bone-deep, feel it in the muscles and every breath tired. He knew tired caused mistakes, and he realized he made more than his share this past week. Thank whoever today was Friday, and he didn't have to come back tomorrow.
It’s all hitting at once, he thought to himself. Dragging his attention away from the files stacked haphazardly on his desk, he stood, stretching out his back. A quick check of the clock showed it was nearly three forty, meaning he still had a couple hours to go before he could leave. He refused to look at the comfortable leather sofa, because the invitation to lie down and close his eyes might be too much for him to avoid. Yes, the short combat nap would do him good, but he was afraid he would not wake up. Walking to the entrance of his office, he stared out into the cubicle farm bullpen.
Josiah Sanchez, his profiler, looked up at him.
Chris shook his head, indicating he did not need the man’s attention. He noticed the older man leaned further back in his chair, a pile of index cards spread out around him.
Worthington, the blond remembered, the man trying to save his own future by stating he had information to trade on a ritual murderer. Worthington’s arresting Agents contacted him to see if Sanchez was available to work up a background on Worthington, to see if the man was telling the truth. He looked at Nathan Jackson, currently bent forward at what looked like an uncomfortable angle over a pile of papers. The ruler moved slowly down the lines on the paper, and Chris didn’t need to ask what Nathan was doing. The forensic specialist was working his calculations showing the potential numbers of civilian casualties for his court testimony next week. The prosecutor requested Nathan be prepared with estimates regarding the amount of destruction if the suspects had accidentally detonated one of the grenades, and the effect one detonation would have had on the stockpile.
His steps took him to the small break area, where he stared at the coffeemaker. Did he want another cup, and the inevitable indigestion that came with it after the three mugs he still tasted from before lunch? The back of his throat already felt a little charred from the scalding, strong brew, making his decision for him. Passing on the coffee, he grabbed a bottle of water out of the mini-fridge instead.
"Hey," a familiar voice said from behind him. "You’re still upright. I’m impressed."
He turned to look at his friend. "Don't let me near my couch, or I won't be," Chris replied.
"Last day," Buck replied, the same fatigue leaving traces on Wilmington's face, beneath his eyes in dark circles, and the deeper laugh lines around his mouth. "We go home, collapse, and don't answer the phone until Monday morning."
"If they let us sleep," Larabee mumbled. "Between JD's constant energy, Vin's dawn horse rides, and Ezra's insomnia, we're lucky we get fours hours a night."
"Add to it the surveillance shifts we've pulled the past couple weeks, and we're dragging our wagons. Nathan and Josiah aren't much better; they picked up the slack for us so we could have time with the boys." Buck leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. "I ought to warn you."
"Vin made honor roll this quarter."
Chris pumped a fist in the air. "That's my boy."
"Our boys, because Ezra did too."
"I knew they could do it." Pride filled his soul at the boys' accomplishments.
"So Nettie made Vin an apple pie."
"Wait. Why didn't Vin call me? Or Ezra? I'm sure they're bursting to tell us."
"We're not supposed to know, pard," Buck confided. "Nettie called me to warn me that the boys are really bouncing off the walls today. Couldn't concentrate on homework. She finally threw them outside with Casey to burn off some of the energy. They want to tell us when we get home."
"Why do I feel there's something dangerous coming?"
Buck opened his eyes to stare into his friend's. "Nettie made Vin and Ezra's favorites – fresh made apple pie with a cinnamon glazed crust, plus two dozen cinnamon doughnuts."
Chris groaned. "They'll never go to sleep tonight."
"Tell me about it. I'm thinking we both need combat naps before we go home, say twenty minutes apiece?"
"Sounds good. About time you two stop for a few minutes," Nathan concurred as he entered the room behind the two friends.
Now Chris knew he was well past tired into exhaustion; he never heard Nathan walk up. From the startled expression Buck tried to hide, Jackson snuck up on him too.
"Who's first?" Jackson asked. "Because it's thirty minutes each, and I'll time you." He crossed his arms in front of him, looking between the two men.
"Buck, because I need to get these reports up to Travis before we leave, and I've still got to read and sign them."
"Thank you very much." Wilmington pushed off the wall and into the office.
"You two better get some rest this weekend," Nathan warned. "Because you'll get sick, and then you're no good to those little boys."
"If you need a sitter, breaks, or just uninterrupted sleep, give me a call," Josiah offered. "I'll be happy to play uncle."
"I'll keep it in mind," Chris answered. "Thanks."
"Now get those reports done so you can go home. And we'll act surprised when you call us to tell us about their achievements." Nathan clasped Chris on the shoulder before returning to his desk.
Sanchez gave Chris a wink before taking his seat.
Yes, it was nice to have friends. Even when they snored, like Buck was right now in his office. Heaving a sigh, he went back into the office, grabbed his materials, and returned to sit at Buck's desk. No point letting the snoring makes him jealous; his turn would come soon enough.
Ezra could not believe how happy everyone was with him and Vin. He didn't understand why Nettie wiped away tears when Vin announced they made the honor roll at their private school. Or why she hugged them both real tight, and made them pie and doughnuts. Yes, he did the assignments, made sure they were right, and turned them in on time. He even helped Vin with his writing and reading homework when Buck and Chris weren't watching, teaching his foster brother in ways so Vin understood without getting confused.
It wasn't a big thing to Ezra; he was more proud of the favors he was owed by the other kids for helping them out with their problems. He liked knowing he would be here to collect his debts, as Mother would say. He swallowed, wondering how much longer that would be true. How long could he continue to stay here?
His fingers brushed against his front pants pocket, where he kept the letter that came to the school for him hidden inside a book he'd ordered from the book fair. Mother said she knew his circumstances, apologized for leaving him in such deplorable, her word, he had to look it up, conditions. She promised she would come for him soon and end his suffering.
Thoughts of his mother always gave him an ache around his heart, and a heavy feeling in his stomach. She'd broken promises before, but whenever she was around, he couldn't help but believe her. He wanted to be with her, around the constant laughter, the fun, the new places, the new things and words she constantly introduced him to during their brief times together. Before…he swallowed. Before she dropped him off again with someone she knew somewhere and left him, forcing him to adapt to new people he hadn't met before, who didn't understand what Mother's "little while" meant. They learned soon enough. Then they called the trying to be nice do-good social worker who put him in a supposed to be nice foster home, where Mother always found him and would come to steal him away in the night.
"Ezra, you don't want a big piece of pie, right, so I can have more?" JD's voice broke into his thoughts. "Because I'm a growin' boy, and I need pie to be bigger."
He pulled his hand away from his pocket. Today wasn't the day to think about Mother; they were celebrating this honor roll thing. Besides, JD just wanted more pie for himself, and he, Ezra P. Standish, intended to have a prince-sized piece. "No, JD, I want a large piece to help me grow more."
JD's young body heaved a theatrical sigh.
That won't work, Ezra thought to himself. Not with me, at least, because I've used that little act too many times myself.
"But Miss Nettie says I'm growin'."
"As am I," Ezra replied. "Why don't you take some of Buck's? He's already big."
"And tall, and he won't give me a bigger piece." JD's long dark hair bobbed in time with his nods.
Nettie appeared in the living room with her hands on her hips. "I don't hear you boys working on your homework. No one's getting pie and doughnuts until after dinner, and dinner won't come until you're finished."
"Yes, ma'am," Vin answered immediately, his head bowing over his math problems.
"JD, have you finished reading your book yet?"
"No, ma'am," JD meekly replied. He jumped back up on the sofa and spread the book in his lap.
"You better, if you want to be as smart as your brothers and make honor roll, too. Then I might make you a chocolate cake."
"Yes, ma'am." The youngest started reading aloud.
"To yourself, JD," Nettie reminded. "Vin and Ezra have to have some quiet to do theirs."
He did like the quiet, Ezra mused to himself. His homework was not that hard; he had math problems, too, but they were about money. Counting, collecting, and figuring out money was something Mother taught him when he was littler than JD. Reasoning, his math teacher's favorite word, odds and possibilities required more thought from him. He finished the extra credit problems, and turned to his vocabulary.
For some reason, his teacher felt he was ahead of the class with his vocabulary. So, she put him two grades ahead with the words he learned and tested on, because she said he needed to be challenged. She was just mad he made her look up words in the dictionary during class when he used words she didn't know, like ubiquitous.
Another of Mother's little lessons – if you are smarter than the next person, and used bigger words, most people will feel stupid, giving you the advantage. They will overestimate how smart you are, and you make a believable bluffer. He grinned to himself, remembering his early challenge to his teacher – ten more minutes of recess for the entire class on a sunny day if he could spell a word from one of the advanced vocabulary lists, and use it correctly in a sentence.
She chose nomenclature, one of Mother's favorite words for her system of using different names with different people. The recess was an enjoyable experience, but it was the last time she let him wager with her about vocabulary. He had to admit his teacher did learn quickly. However, his challenge did help gain acceptance by the other children, giving him another edge.
"Ezra, are you sure you don't want to give me a bigger piece of pie?" JD asked in a whisper.
"No," Ezra replied.
"I'm done," Vin announced. "Meet ya out back." He put his books together, and slipped out the sliding glass door onto the patio.
Ezra finished the last of his homework, and JD snapped his book shut. They raced out the door, with the older boy calling out, "Mrs. Wells, we will be in the back yard!"
He didn't wait for an answer before shutting the door.
It only took a few minutes before they were racing each other, giving JD a head start for each foot race.
"I won!" Vin yelled, tagging the tree at the end of their course.
"A longer one," JD puffed. "I want a really long race with a big head start."
"How long?" Ezra inquired.
JD looked around. "From the patio to the barn, and back again. I start at the barn."
"No," Vin said immediately. "We're not allowed to the barn without an adult."
"He's right," Ezra agreed.
"But just to run up and touch the barn and run back? We can't get in trouble for that." JD turned big eyes on both boys. "Besides, Ezra's faster than Vin. Not fair."
"I jest won!" Vin protested. "I'm faster."
"Not for distance," Ezra argued. "I'm better at distance."
"Gotta prove it," Vin challenged. "Ya run a bunch already, Ez. Ya ain't got it in ya ta run more."
"Do to," he retorted.
"Prove it! Prove it! Prove it!" JD chanted over and over again in a singsong voice.
"What do I get when I win?" Ezra smirked at Vin.
"Same thing I'll get when I win – one of yer doughnuts."
"Deal." They shook hands.
"I start at the barn," JD prompted.
"You start halfway to the barn, young sir," Ezra corrected.
"Halfway, or ya don't race, JD," Vin said.
"Fine." He dragged his feet to the three quarter mark while the other two walked back to the patio. A sound caught his attention; he heard the truck engines, meaning Da and Chris were home.
"Two giant steps back, JD!" Vin yelled. "And ya gotta reach the patio ta win."
"Okay." He dragged himself back, hearing the truck door slam.
JD touched the barn a good bit before his brothers, turning around and pumping his arms and legs to get ahead of the other two. He saw Chris and Buck watching at the slider, and skid to a stop. His eyes grew wide.
Chris stepped out onto the patio, planning to surprise the boys, only to be surprised. His boys raced each other to the barn and back, and the exhaustion partially left his body. He narrowed his eyes. All three of them knew better than to go to the barn without adult supervision, and racing to the barn wasn't allowed.
"JD! Get your butt over here!" Buck bellowed.
"Vin! Ezra! Get away from the barn!" Chris yelled almost in chorus, his volume equal to, yet more menacing, than Buck's shout. His green eyes watched in horror when the shouts caused the two boys to jump right before they reached the barn.
Vin's shoulders tensed and he skid to a stop, his back still to them.
Ezra lost his footing. He stumbled, his previously pumping arms imitating a windmill to no avail, falling forward. His body was too close to the barn, causing his head to impact hard with the side of the building.
"EZRA!" Buck and Chris yelled, this time in unison, while they sprinted to the barn.
"Ez?" Vin asked, squatting down beside his friend. "Dad, his head's bleedin'," the younger boy reported, a quiver in his voice. "He ain't awake, neither."
Chris vaguely heard Buck dialing his cell phone, and part of his mind registered the ambulance was being alerted, but the rest of him blanched. On his knees beside Ezra, he gently checked the back of his neck for breaks before carefully rolling Ezra over, taking pains to keep the cervical spine straight, to check his breathing. Thank God his boy was breathing; a measure of relief filled him for the small favor. Blood poured onto his hands from a nasty gash in Ezra's forehead.
Head wounds bleed a lot, he reminded himself. They bleed all over the place, he kept telling himself. "Ezra?" He half-yelled, half-moaned. "Come on, Ezra, answer me."
"Pard?" Buck leaned in beside him. "Ambulance on the way, I told them to start the helicopter, too."
"Thanks." Chris swallowed. "Ezra?"
Green eyes flickered.
"I know you're in there, Ezra, come on, wake up," Larabee cajoled.
The eyes rose to half-mast, pausing for a second, before opening completely. "Ow."
Relief flooded Chris, replaced quickly by the anger he felt for being so scared. "That's right, ow. If you hadn't been going to the barn, you wouldn't have gotten hurt. When you're better, we're going to talk about this!"
The eyes fluttered closed again.
"Oh no you don't. Ezra, wake up!" Chris squeezed his hand.
Buck pressed a handkerchief directly onto the wound, applying pressure.
Ezra whimpered, not opening his eyes, but his body jerked away from Buck's touch.
"You're hurting him," he hissed to his friend, trying to knock the hand away.
"I'm putting pressure on the wound, Chris. Unless you want him to keep bleeding?"
The words cut through the tangled, high-intensity emotions, restoring a measure of sanity to the foster father. "No, no. Sorry."
"Goodness gracious!" Nettie dropped to her knees beside Chris. "What happened?"
"He fell and hit his head on the side of the barn," the blond replied.
"Buck, you keep up that pressure. Someone call an ambulance?"
"I did, Miss Nettie," Buck replied.
"'bam-ba-lance is comin'," JD said. "I hear sirens."
"Yes, they are," Nettie said. "When they get here, Vin and JD, you two and I will take big steps back so we don't get in their way."
Both Vin and JD nodded.
When the ambulance crew arrived, they professionally moved Buck and Chris out of their way, preparing the injured Ezra for transport in the helicopter.
Nettie held onto both Vin and JD, keeping them back when the helicopter landed in the nearby pasture, and holding onto shoulders when the boys went to follow.
"Now boys, you can't go with Chris and Ezra," she said. "The helicopter isn't big enough. Besides, we'll need to calm down the horses before Buck takes you."
With big eyes, the two boys mutely agreed. Once the helicopter lifted away, Buck immediately enveloped the two unresisting boys into a giant bear hug. "I wanna tell you two it isn't as bad as it looks, okay?"
Neither looked reassured. "We're gonna go see him in a few minutes."
"Miss Nettie said we hafta calm the horses," JD announced. "Do we hafta? I wanna see Ezra."
"Well, the horses are scared because of hearing the helicopter. Why don't you boys get your coats and some snacks together, while I do that?" Buck pushed to his feet, walking to the barn.
Buck felt his hands shaking while he stroked Chaucer's coat. He needed to stop the weak and dizzy spells before he took the boys to the hospital. He needed to be the strong one. Chris wasn't going to be; he'd be focused, angry, and probably so worried he'd snap at everyone around him. It went this way whenever someone Chris loved got hurt, and Buck mentally began bracing himself for the abuse he'd take as the nearest target.
Hope flickered when he thought about Vin and JD; maybe the presence of the two little boys might keep Chris in check. The boys had already brought about so many changes in both of them since they came. Closing his eyes, he kept replaying what he saw - Ezra's fall, the horrible sound his head made when it hit the side of the barn, and the blood.
"Head wounds bleed," he repeated aloud. Moving to the next stall, he reassured each of the horses frightened by the loud helicopter. He only wished he was as reassured about Ezra as the horses became after he talked to them.
Once he felt he had enough control over his emotions, he went back to the house to get the boys.
Chris understood every fifth word of the medical jargon relayed back and forth. Truth was he didn't want to understand; he just wanted Ezra to wake up and be okay. Nothing else mattered but the little scamp coming around to give him grief for yelling. He could just hear the accented voice telling him it was his fault, because he startled the boys. Ezra usually had an excuse or rationalization for anything he did wrong, and rarely did the excuse or rationalization reflect badly on the little Southerner.
It was something they worked on, Chris and Ezra, to keep Ezra from becoming a person who never accepted responsibility for his mistakes. Yes, they were still learning their way around each other, but he'd made it pretty clear to Ezra excuses were not welcome.
With his excuses unwelcome, Ezra changed his strategy to ask for a debate. They would stage these elaborate word battles with Vin, JD, and Buck as the judges to see if Ezra's argument held merit. Currently the win-loss ratio stood around fifty percent; sometimes the boys sided with Chris, sometimes with Ezra.
He could almost hear the echo of Ezra's voice in his head telling him the odds favored him, Ezra, because two of the judges shared a room with him. Staring at the form hooked to an intravenous bag, with a large bandage pressed firmly onto his head, and the unnatural paleness, Chris swallowed past what felt like a rock in the back of his throat.
Please, Chris prayed, let him be okay.
He wanted to push his way into the trauma room, but the last time he tried, when Ezra moaned, the staff told him either he stayed outside the room and watched, or was banished to the waiting room until they were done. The blond leader wanted to fight, to argue, but held back. They could banish him to the waiting room, and he might not be let back in until they settled Ezra. He wanted to see his boy, watch for his reactions.
One hand pressed against the glass wall. He leaned into the wall, needing to be closer, letting the wall take some of the weight off his shoulders. The weight of guilt, because the longer he thought about it, the more he believed he shouldn't have yelled. Yes, the boys knew better than to run to the barn, but what would have happened if he and Buck stayed silent another few seconds? The boys would have turned the corner, saw them, and stopped in their tracks. He could almost picture the guilt in Vin's face, and the split-second of capture in Ezra's. Split-second because the boy would quickly think of a way out of trouble almost immediately, resulting in another debate.
There! Good, he thought. His mind latched onto the movement in Ezra's toes when they tested them for sensation. The tests continued, then they were rolling him down the hall.
"X-ray," the nurse explained to him. "We need pictures."
He almost insisted he stay with Ezra, until he saw the wariness in the nurse's expression. Swallowing back his sometimes forceful nature, he asked, "May I?"
"Don't get in the way," the male nurse warned. "We understand each other?"
"Yes." He bit back the sarcastic comment immediately formed and almost out of his mouth before he stopped it.
"Good. Now, if you want to hold his hand, he's somewhat responsive. I'll have you step away when the tech takes the pictures, but you can stand with him in between." The nurse pushed Ezra's gurney into the X-ray area.
Vin hated hospitals. He hated hospitals because someone always poked or prodded him with something sharp. They told him he needed to eat more and gain weight. He knew that, but most of his trips to the hospital usually came with one of them social worker ladies. When he left the hospital, he ended up in another bad foster home where they would have to start all over again for survival. Once again battling the other kids for their place. Scrabbling for food the other kids would steal from them, or finally running away when it looked like things were getting too bad for him or JD. Anyway, most of the time, any extra food he got he'd give to JD; his cousin needed the food more than he did.
He squeezed JD's hand a little tighter, and felt JD inch closer to him. Better. They were together, and Buck was there with them. Nobody was taking them away from Buck. The judge said so. Then the judge said Ezra was theirs too, and they needed to be here for him.
His stomach felt funny. They shouldn't have run to the barn. Now Ezra was hurt and it was his fault because he knew better. He knew they'd get in trouble. His feet half-dragged when they talked to the lady at the desk. She told them they had to wait, and he watched Buck nod. Buck did his best to make them comfortable in the crowded waiting room, with one boy on either said of the big man. Vin saw they sat well away from all the people coughing and sneezing.
"Don't touch anything," Buck commanded in a low tone. "You're not sick, and you don't need to be getting what any of these people have."
Vin nodded, and reached across Buck to nudge JD.
"I wanna play with the toys," JD whined. His eyes stared at the bright colored items in the toy box halfway across the waiting room.
"Well, I thought of that," Buck said. He reached in his jacket to produce Vin and JD's Gameboy. "You two want to take turns?"
"Ok," Vin agreed. "What games did you bring?"
"I grabbed a handful. I'm sorry if they're not your favorites, but we can make do," Buck said. He emptied his pocket.
JD grabbed a game out of the three or four cases and immediately began playing.
Vin looked across Buck's lap; he wanted to play, but it didn't seem right to be having fun while Ezra was hurt. Looking up at Buck, he couldn't help but notice the frequent glances to the closed doors of the ER. He also noticed how the lines on Buck's face looked deeper, and he seemed sadder. Vin didn't like it when his friends or his new family got hurt and figured he should be sad too.
"Yeah, buddy?" Buck focused his gaze on Vin.
It made him feel warm inside when he saw the adult's complete attention on him. "Um, is it okay we play?"
"Yeah, pard, it is. And it's not your fault Ezra got hurt, so don't even start thinking like that."
"But…" Vin protested.
"But nothing. Neither you nor JD caused him to get hurt. It was an accident."
When Buck said it that way, Vin almost believed it. Almost, because Buck looked like he was guilty. "Ain't yer fault, neither," he whispered.
Vin squirmed under the intensity of the look Buck gave him. "Me and Ez raced. We was wrong. But yellin' at us didn't make it worse. So it ain't yer fault. Or Chris."
Buck gave a slow nod. "Then we'll make sure Chris knows that, won't we?"
Vin bobbed his head. "How's Ezra?"
"Well, the lady wouldn't tell me he was here, and I'm not on the adoption papers, so she wouldn't tell me anything, even if he was here or not. I know he is; Chris'll come out soon enough."
"That doesn't make sense." His head started to hurt thinking on what Buck said. Why wouldn't the lady tell Buck his third son wasn't here? He started to slide off the chair to ask nicely. Maybe Buck didn't ask nice enough.
One arm pinned him in place. "Don't be thinking about going over there and bothering her. She can't tell me because she's not allowed. It's the law, and we respect the law, don't we?"
"But Ezra," Vin argued.
"Is with Chris and the doctors who will take care of him. The law is the law, Vin."
"But you're a –"
"Shush, now, no need to tell the world. Even I can't change this law." Buck cut off Vin's protest mid-word, holding up a hand for patience. "You know when you had that fever and didn't tell us?"
Vin looked away. "Didn't want y'all ta worry."
"Well, adults do the same thing. They don't want others to worry, or know they were here. There's a special set of laws that makes the hospital agree not to tell anyone. Chris probably hasn't filled out the paperwork yet saying whether the hospital can tell us anything or not because he's with Ezra. So we wait."
"How about some company while you wait?" a strong voice asked. "I think I need some friends with me. Do you boys mind if I join you?"
Vin looked up to see Uncle Josiah smiling down at them. He nodded slowly, watching his uncle lower himself into the chair across from them.
"Hi, Unca 'Siah," JD greeted the older man, but didn't look up to take attention off his game. "I'm losing and Ezra's hurt and it's all bad."
"It's not all bad," Josiah replied. "Ezra is getting help from very good doctors. You're losing at a game, but you can practice and get better, and you have your family around you. Uncle Nathan's asking if he can find out anything."
"How come Uncle Nathan can ask, but Buck can't?" Vin queried.
A slight smile graced the profiler's lips. "Because Uncle Nathan knows most of the people who work here. They might tell him because they know him."
"Oh." Vin still didn't understand why Buck asked and couldn't tell them anything, but Uncle Nathan could ask and get information.
It only took a few minutes before the tall black man joined them in their mostly deserted corner of the waiting room.
"He's in X-ray," Nathan reported when he arrived. "Hello, boys."
"Hi," JD said, still not looking up from his game. The Gameboy made a sad sound. "I lost."
"Well, how about I sit with you and see if we can get you better at the game? If you lose, it'll be my fault," Nathan offered.
"Okay," JD replied.
"How's Ezra?" asked Vin.
"He's with Chris in X-ray where they're taking pictures of his head."
"It's hard," JD observed with authority. "Chris says he's a hard-head all the time. That'll help, right?"
The three grownups looked at each other over the boys' heads and smiled, but the smile didn't quite vanquish the worry shining in each of their eyes.
Buck could hear Chris in his head using one of his favorite complaints about Ezra, memories from the ends of the debates. "Buck, the boy is a hard-headed Southern cuss with a stubborn streak bigger than the damn Rockies. I know I sound like you, but it's the truth. He gets an idea in his head, I tell him no, and he'll defend it just to yank my chain, even if he knows it's wrong."
He caught Josiah and Nathan's look, realizing they thought about the same memory. Chris often recounted the debates for the honorary uncles the next day, and said the same thing over and over again. It was like a mantra for Chris to describe Ezra that way. "Yes, JD, it'll help he has a hard head," he answered his son, keeping from dwelling on the negative.
"Once they're out of X-ray, they've got to get the doctor to look at the film, then we might know something," Nathan offered. "Until then, why don't you show me the buttons, JD?"
"Vin, how about we go outside for a minute?" Josiah offered. "I think I want some outside air."
"But they might come out about Ezra."
"I'll come get you," Buck assured him. "Go on, no need to stay in here when you can go out for a few minutes."
Still keeping his composure, he managed an encouraging smile for Vin while he walked outside with Josiah. Nathan caught his eye, indicating Buck take a minute alone.
"JD, I need the big boy's room for a minute. I'll be right back," he told his son.
"Now stay with Uncle Nathan, okay?"
"Okay, Da. You made me lose the point."
"Well, we just started, so why don't we begin again?" Nathan offered.
Buck took the escape to go to the men's room. He needed a minute, and it was probably obvious to his friends. The shakes were coming back, because the possibility of a skull fracture, or God forbid, brain damage, were real. Here he was, a former Navy SEAL, and he was shaking like a leaf about his third son's injury. Running his hands in the cold water, he bent down and splashed several handfuls into his face. It woke him up a little, but the worry remained. What if the precocious boy they grew to love was brain-damaged? How would they cope?
They'd cope, he told himself. They'd take care of Ezra, and the boys. He let resolve and strength fill him, fueled by hope, knowing they'd get through this. With hope, he could believe Ezra had a concussion and few stitches in his head. He would be fine. They would be fine.
A surge of gratitude flowed through him for Nathan and Josiah's intervention. He didn't remember calling them; things were too hectic at the house. Nettie. Bless her heart. He'd bet she was still at the house waiting for news in case she was needed. He had to call her. Slipping out of the men's room, he went to the exit, found Vin and Josiah talking a little distance away, and ambled in the other direction.
"Nettie? It's Buck. We're in the waiting room. Thank you for calling Josiah and Nathan; they're already helping out, and I know they're glad to be here. I don't know much, other than he's in X-ray right now with Chris. If you haven't left, go home. No sense in you being away from your family. I'll call you when I know something. Thanks, Nettie."
Deliberately, he didn't look over at Vin and Josiah, knowing the profiler was calming the other boy's fears, while assuaging his own by being useful. Buck put the phone away; reentering the hospital, he walked back over and sat down beside JD.
"It's scary, isn't it?" Josiah prompted, leading them to sit on one of the benches outside the hospital.
"Tell you what. I hate hospitals."
Blue eyes shot immediately to the paler blue of the profiler's to see the truth. "Why?"
"Too much time in them. My sister wasn't a healthy girl growing up, so we spent a lot of time in the hospital with her. Then my mother was sick, and I saw her at a hospital. Then Buck and Chris have gotten hurt a time or two. Each time I come, though, no matter how much I hate hospitals. I know someone I care about isn't feeling well and I want to help if I can."
"Yeah. Like Ezra."
"Like Ezra. But he's tough."
"Tougher than he looks."
"Doesn't quite give the impression of being wild and wooly, does he?"
Vin managed a weak smile. "No. That's me."
"To the bone, boy, to the bone."
The two chuckled once.
"You are thinking of blaming yourself, are you?" Josiah asked, his voice soft and free of accusation.
"I'm fine," Vin replied.
"Ever notice when JD's asked if he's hurt, he says he's fine, when you know he's not?"
Josiah said nothing, just patiently staring in Vin's face.
Blue eyes widened. "I'm doin' it too."
"Yup. You're not to blame."
"But we was racin', and we weren't supposed ta go near the barn, and then Ez fell and it's my fault because if we weren't racin', or I'd said no, he wouldn't be hurt."
"Hmmm. You hear the key word in there …if? If's a pretty strong word, especially after something's happened. Maybe there's a reason Ezra fell, and it has nothing to do with you, or what you two were doing. Maybe it was an accident, and he could have fallen in the kitchen and hit his head on the counter. Or at school."
"Yeah, but –"
"But and if will only give you a headache."
Vin stayed silent a few minutes, before throwing his arms around the profiler. "Thanks, Uncle Josiah."
Sanchez squeezed his honorary nephew back. "I'm here if you need me. Now, let's go be strong for the others."
The wait dragged out the seconds, until the doctor approached. "Mr. Larabee?"
"Yes?" He swallowed, a reaction born from the knot tight in his stomach, a churning mass of fear.
"We're going to admit him for observation tonight. He's suffered a hairline fracture to the skull, and has a concussion. There is minor swelling around the injury, but none on the brain. There doesn't appear to be any physical damage to the brain."
"I hear a but, Doctor." He tensed, waiting for the worst news.
"He's still unconscious. Other than the few periods before and during transport, he has not regained consciousness. This could be part of the concussion, where the brain's trying to heal itself, or because he's tired and his body's demanding sleep, or any number of other possibilities. We're going to monitor him throughout the night."
"No, nothing that drastic. He's breathing fine, he's responsive to stimuli, but he's not coming around. We're not going to force the issue yet. Maybe a good night's sleep will let him recover enough to talk to us in the morning. We're bringing in a cot for you to sleep on."
"If he does wake up, give him plenty of reassurance. He'll be scared, and probably confused. Don't say his name; I want to make sure he knows who he is, check the status of his memory, but you can talk to him."
"What are the chances of swelling?" Chris asked, a small part of him afraid to hear the answer, visuals of Ezra getting his head shaved and operated on tormenting him in his mind.
"It's wait and see, Mr. Larabee. We're moving him to a private room, so if you want to take a break, call someone, you'll have anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour before we let you up."
"Thanks for your time, Doctor." He held out his hand, shaking the doctor's.
He watched the doctor go into another room, and realized he needed to talk to someone. The blond stepped out of the ER area into the waiting room. His eyes took in his family – his two boys, the bigger boy who took on parenting with him, and his good friends who dropped everything to be here. He strode over, gathering his words in his head.
"Pard?" Buck looked up at Chris, his arms casually around both boys.
"He's sleeping right now. He dinged his head pretty good, the doctor tells me, and they want to watch him overnight." Softening the truth wasn't something he did well, but it was the truth, and he promised not to lie to the boys. Ever.
"Can we see him?"
"I don't see why not. They're moving him to a room, so we'll have to wait for a little bit. We'll have to obey visiting hours, though. When the nurses say we have to go, we'll leave."
Buck smirked at Chris. "Yeah, right," he mouthed to his long-time friend, giving a significant look at JD and Vin.
"Well, if we've got time, why don't I take the boys to McDonald's across the street?" Josiah offered. "We'll have something to eat, because I know I haven't had dinner, and I'm sure you two haven't either."
"I better go with you to make sure you get something decent," Nathan grumbled.
"Don't wanna leave Ez," Vin announced defiantly, crossing his arms to emphasize the point.
"Yeah," JD chimed in, then crossed his arms, mimicking his older cousin.
"We'll all go across the street," Chris decided. "None of us are allowed to see Ezra for a little while, and when I do, I don't want him to hear my stomach growling. They may not let him eat for a while because his stomach might be upset."
"I want apple pie," JD announced. "I's hungry. After, we comes back and sees Ezra."
"Sure enough," Nathan said, holding out a hand for JD's little one. "Come on, you'll need to hold my hand when we cross the street."
"How about it, Vin?" Josiah offered a hand to Vin. "We're a little bigger, but I think I need to hold onto someone's hand to cross the street."
"Yeah, I think ya do too," Vin teased.
"Bless them," Buck whispered under his breath, falling in beside Chris while they trailed the others. "Josiah and Nate knew I wanted to find out what the doctor said."
"He's still unconscious." Chris kept his voice lower than the others could hear.
Buck cursed under his breath.
"Hairline skull fracture, minor swelling around the injury, no visible damage to the brain, and a concussion. Not sure about brain damage until he wakes up, which he's not doing."
"They want to force him awake?"
"No." Chris shook his head. "Doc wants him to rest tonight. Said it might be his body taking care of itself."
"Could be. What are you holding back?"
Larabee sighed. "They're afraid his brain itself will swell during the night, so they're letting me stay here with him."
"Not ICU. The boys – "
"Won't have to go there. Regular room, but he'll be checked and monitored throughout the night."
"You'll call me?"
"Turn that off, I'm not in a mood for your laser beams." Buck blew out a breath. "Sorry, I know you'll call me. Just gonna be hard convincing the terrible twosome to leave tonight."
"I'm sending backup with you, if the uncles want to go." The blond held the door open.
"You know they will. They're as far gone over these three as we are."
Chris ran his hand through his hair again, frustrated with the entire situation. Ezra continued to lie there, making a groan here or there, but not waking up. Vin and JD tried every trick they knew to wake Ezra up without success. When that didn't work, the boys didn't want to leave the hospital, resulting in sullen looks and pouting faces when they were forced to go. Vin looked like Chris betrayed him by not allowing him to stay, even after he asked real nice.
He felt like he was balancing on the thinnest wire, about to plunge off either side. On one side, he had to be here for Ezra. The doctor wanted someone familiar around when he woke up so he wouldn't be scared. Chris insisted on being here because he needed to prove to Ezra he wouldn't abandon him when he was hurt, like that poor excuse of a mother did whenever Ezra got sick.
Yet, his two boys needed his reassurance everything was okay, yet here he was at the hospital. He'd checked with the nurses, but they said only one of the boys could stay, giving a significant look to Vin. There was no way he was going to separate Vin and JD at this point so that one could stay and the other went home. It wasn't an option. It was all three boys together, or the two went home. He didn't tell Vin he could stay, or give Vin the decision, because he knew JD would get scared tonight and need Vin to help him through his fears. Torn in two, he wondered how much good he was doing here.
Deciding to do something positive, he checked his watch, saw it was bedtime at his house, and used Ezra's phone to call.
"How bad?" Buck snapped into the phone.
"I wanted to call and say good night."
"They need it. They're still mad about not being able to stay."
"Ezra!" Vin's yell came through the receiver.
"Is fine, just like you left him," Buck answered the older boy. "Your father wanted to call and tell you boys good night." Wilmington lowered his voice. "Make it good, pard."
"EZZZRRAAAA!" JD wailed.
"Shush, JD, it's Chris. He wants to tell us good night," Vin yelled. "Go pick up the other phone."
"'Lo, Dad?" Vin said softly.
A rush of strong emotion flooded him with the Dad greeting. "Hi, son."
"Are you sure Ezra's all right?"
"Ezra still is sleeping. You know how he likes to sleep, and he doesn't want to wake up in the mornings. This is just like that." He heard the extension pick up and fumble around in little hands.
"CHRIS!" JD yelled into the phone.
"Inside voice," Buck bellowed. "He can hear you just fine."
Chris blinked at the sheer volume, a small smile playing at his lips at the irony. Buck's volume almost equaled JD's in the telephone, and Buck was the parent telling JD to quiet down. "I can hear you, JD. Now, Ezra's still sleeping, but I wanted to tell you boys good night."
"Can we say night ta Ez?" Vin asked.
"Sure. I'll tell you when." Chris navigated the room to lean the phone close to Ezra's ear. "Go ahead." He held the receiver away because he knew JD.
"NITE EZRA!" JD yelled.
"He ain't deaf, JD, just sleepin' hard. Night, Ezra. Wake up soon," Vin said.
"And good night to you two boys."
"I'll be with you soon," Mother said in his head.
How many times had he heard that from her? A sharp pain shot through his head. Keeping his eyes closed, he tried to remember what was what. Oh yes, the letter. She was coming to get him. All he had to do was stay quiet and play along with whatever the con was until she snuck him away in the middle of the night.
He sniffed the air experimentally. Hospital smell. Dreadful odor, but one all too familiar from his previous "accidents" at relatives' houses. Places where they realized Mother left him and she wasn't coming right back to fetch him. Still with his eyes closed, in case his tormentors sat beside the bed the way the fake foster parents did to show the social worker they cared, he concentrated on what hurt.
His head. It ached horribly. He wanted something for the pain. After a strong internal debate, the pain beat out the desire to hide behind closed lids. Letting out an experimental moan, he did not hear anyone react. Feeling a little safer, he forced his eyes open and immediately regretted the action.
The white light above the bed sent shards of pain into the maelstrom of agony.
"Ow," he moaned louder.
He heard someone stirring, and shifted his gaze to the rustle in the chair. It distracted him for a second from the pounding in his head. Until turning his neck changed his balance, making him dizzy. When his eyes focused again, and the desire to disgracefully vomit passed, he stared at the face.
Nope, nothing. Don't recognize this mark, and he doesn't have the look of a relative. Foster father or Mother's friend.
"Hi, buddy," the hoarse voice greeted in a soft tone.
Buddy? Foster father, definitely. He knew his name; if this man couldn't remember it, he wasn't a friend of Mother's, or a relative. They at least remembered Ezra; it wasn't too common of a moniker. He rather liked it, except when he was attempting to blend in with other people with common names like Michael, John, Scott, and other favorites.
Not a smart one, either, Ezra thought to himself. Not very bright at all to ask if he was awake or not. If my eyes are open, sir, then you can safely assume I am awake. He stared at the face blankly just for effect, but it gave him the chance to assess the features. Dark blond or light brown hair, hadn't shaved in a few days, and a serious set to the eyes. Those eyes, he thought, did not miss much, but the exhaustion in them left wiggle room.
"How about I get your doctor?"
He continued to stare without moving. It hurt less this way. The man got up and strode away, giving Ezra the chance to see the significant bulge in the back of the belt. Gun, his mind told him. He got the impression of law enforcement, which meant he was not going to say anything. It would not be the first time the law tried to use him to put Mother in jail.
"Never trust the law, Ezra dear, because they will lie to you," Mother reminded him often. Her words echoed in his head now after the man left. He vowed take those teachings to heart and say nothing. He told himself that he was not fully aware of the situation anyway, and he might truly be the one in trouble. Mother would love that, a reversal of fortune.
"Hello," the nurse greeted. "Nice to see you with us." She began taking his vitals. "The doctor's on the way to see you."
"The doctor's right here," an authoritative voice announced. "Hello, son. I'm Doctor Morris. How are you feeling?"
A penlight flashed in his eyes. He jerked away from the bright light and the pain it caused him.
"Don't move too much; you'll make yourself dizzy and sick," Dr. Morris warned.
"Yes," he replied. His eyes closed.
"Can you tell me your name?" asked the doctor.
Who was he today? This week? He didn't remember what name he was supposed to use. He didn't even recognize the doctor, which meant they were in a new area. He tended to learn the names of the pediatric doctors wherever Mother left. Was he Ezra, Eric, Ethan, Everett, Evan, or one of the others this time?
"Don't remember," he said. A partial truth didn't require an explanation he didn't remember what name he was supposed to be called.
"How about the year?" Morris continued his examination.
Ezra gave the year correctly, but the month and day gave him trouble. He continued answering questions, but anything in the recent past seemed gone. Then Morris looked at the cop.
"Do you know who he is?" Morris inclined his head.
"No," Ezra replied immediately. "A cop, probably."
"How do you know that?" the man questioned.
"The gun in the back of your belt," Ezra said. "May I see ID?"
Chris pulled out his identification wallet and let Ezra examine it. The boy handed it back with an audible sniff.
Morris bit back a smile. "Dealt with a few cops, have you, young sir?"
"Yes, sir. They never seem to have my best interests at heart." The sarcasm dripped from his tone. He felt defensive, and scared, because no one said anything about Mother, where he was, or what he was doing here. Or even his name. Using cutting remarks made him feel better.
"Well, your name is Ezra. Does that sound familiar?"
Time to act, he thought to himself. "Yes, sir, it does." His weak attempt at a smile brought one from Dr. Morris. "I do remember my name now, Doctor. Ezra."
"And your last name?"
"Standish. I remember now." He took a chance with Standish. If the police were involved, they already knew Mother's real name from her fingerprints.
"Good. Are you sure you don't know this man?"
He saw the hope flicker in the potent eyes, but no recognition dawned in his mind. "No sir, I do not. Should I?"
"Why don't you rest for a couple minutes, and think about things. Sometimes the mind's cloudy when you first wake up. I'll talk to the nice man outside." Morris indicated the other man proceed into the hall ahead of him.
Clothes first, Ezra decided. The hospital gown itched. He glanced around the room, not spotting his clothes right off. A stuffed white hospital bag looked promising, but a single stretch in that direction resulted in a vicious spin of the room. To wait seemed a good idea. Going on the run while dizzy slowed him down. Resigned, Ezra closed his eyes and waited.
Chris kept his poker face intact, even though he swore he could hear his heart breaking. Ezra didn't recognize him and felt contempt for him. They were back at the beginning of their relationship, when he first encountered the little boy.
"Don't get discouraged, Mr. Larabee," Dr. Morris assured once they were out of hearing range of the room. "It's common for short-term memory loss to occur in cases like this."
"He didn't remember his name, Doctor," Chris pointed out. "Until you told him his first, then he remembered his last."
"I'm not a child psychiatrist, yet I believe he knew but didn't want to tell me his name until I gave him confirmation."
"What?" Chris stared.
"His chart, quite extensive with all his little 'mishaps' and 'accidents' at foster homes, states a history of playacting different roles. In fact, when we admitted him for the flu last year, he tried convincing the nurse his name was Eric. He was feverish, but still…" the doctor trailed off.
"Oh, boy." Larabee scrubbed a hand down his face. "I knew he'd been here before, but I didn't know that often."
"Often enough. I've seen him a number of times, starting two years ago, and each time he tries something new."
"I should have thought of this. His mother used him as her accomplice in her cons."
"I know. We complied with a subpoena for his medical records before your adoption hearing. I helped explain it to the court."
"I'm sorry, Doctor, but I don't remember meeting you."
"Private session with the judge to clarify my reports. Not sealed, but not public record." The doctor changed the subject. "Currently, the tests help create a timeline. They show his memory and recall stop before you met him. You're going to have to be patient, and work with him to remind him of what's changed in his life. It will take time and forbearance."
"Whatever it takes, Doctor," Chris vowed.
"Don't rush him to remember. We're going to keep him tomorrow, just to see if his memory returns on its own, and watch for swelling. Don't overwhelm him with stimuli; he has a nasty headache, and he'll be difficult because of the pain. I don't want to give him too much medication because it won't help his memory return, which is what we want."
"What if it doesn't?" the blond asked, a sense of defeat in his tone.
"You and your family teach him who he became. Start from scratch, and work forward. Don't dwell past events; it will frustrate Ezra because he can't remember. The two young boys should help, but they need to be told what to expect first. They'll get their feelings hurt because their foster brother doesn't remember them."
"Okay. What else?"
"I'm going to refer you to a child psychiatrist. She'll require both individual and group sessions to help you through the rough patches. Make no mistake; there will be rough patches."
"Now, let's go back in before he decides to try for the window, even though he's weak and dizzy." Morris smiled. "I'll warn the staff to keep a sharp eye on him. If he doesn't trust you, he's going to try and escape."
"Looks like I'm not sleeping for the next week or two," Larabee muttered. He reentered the room.
"Ezra, let me tell you a few things about your injury, okay?" Dr. Morris started. "When you hit your head, you suffered some short-term memory loss. I don't want you to be frightened by this; I'm sure this is temporary, but there are some things you should know and that might help you remember. This man here is your adopted father, and his name is Chris Larabee. It appears the injury caused you to forget everything since Chris came into your life. Now, I don't want you to try hard to remember; if it comes back, it will come in small bits, like the previews for a movie. Just relax and let it flow; don't try to fight it. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, but I wish proof," Ezra replied. "How do I know he's adopted me?"
"I have the papers at home, Ezra," Chris said. "I'll have Buck, your other father, bring them."
"I have two fathers? Does that mean you have a male partner?" Ezra kept a straight face.
"Buck's my partner at work, and we're both cops. I have a ranch with plenty of room, and he lives there with his adopted son JD, your brother."
"JD? How many siblings are there?"
Chris saw Ezra looked overwhelmed already, and they hadn't even explained the part about Maude losing her parental rights forever. Take it slow, he counseled himself, slow and easy. "JD and Vin are your siblings."
"You two men adopted three boys?" Ezra cocked his head to one side, wincing at the motion. His lips thinned in determination.
The blond recognized that look – it was the pre-debate look. "Yes, and before you start to argue with me, it's the way it is. You're the oldest, but the newest. I adopted you, and I've never regretted a moment."
"My mother? If you were able to adopt me, my mother is…" His voice quavered on my mother, breaking on the word is.
"Your mother is alive, but I don't know where she is, or will be, but it will not be here." He put finality into his voice.
"Ezra, Mr. Larabee, I think we've covered enough ground for right now. Mr. Larabee will be spending the rest of the night in the room, but Ezra, I want you to try and go back to sleep. I'm going to give you something light for the headache to stop the pain and maybe the dizziness."
"I'd like that," Ezra agreed.
After the boy swallowed the medication, the doctor left the two alone with strict orders not to probe too deeply into their combined pasts.
"Good night, Ezra. I'm glad you're okay," Chris said.
"Good night, Mr. Larabee," was the only reply.
He'd take it, Chris thought, even if it were a pleasantry.
Ezra woke again in the hospital, this time a little more certain of who he was, but not so sure about this man claiming to be his adopted father. He didn't recall meeting the man, much less seeing himself telling a social worker he wanted to be with him. And brothers; please. His experience with "brothers" were taking the blame for their misdeeds, and suffering the punishment for them, usually ending in the hospital.
"Good morning, Ezra," a voice called out to him.
"Good morning, sir," he immediately replied.
"I'm going to step out and make a phone call. I didn't want to leave until you woke so you didn't think I left you."
"Why ever would I think that?" He pasted his innocent expression on.
"Because I've learned some of what goes on in that head of yours." The man tapped his own temple. "And I know that's the first thing you would have thought – I tell you I care, yet you wake alone in your hospital room."
"You plan to leave to make a call, sir. Is there something wrong with the telephone here?" Ezra didn't know why, but he felt a spark of enjoyment in baiting the man. For the entire rough exterior, he got the impression this man did not hit. He used words, guilt, and mean looks for his weapons. "Or rather me not hear?"
"Fine. Drop the sir, Ezra. It's Chris." The man stepped to the phone and dialed. "Mornin', Buck. He's awake." Chris even tilted the telephone toward Ezra so he could hear.
"Hallelujah. Can I say hi?"
Ezra wondered what type of man matched the booming voice coming from the receiver. Probably someone with Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, black socks, and sandals. Or someone with a large beer gut dropping three inches over his belt. With a name like Buck, either was a good possibility.
"Sure. Say hi to Buck, Ezra."
"Hello, Buck," Ezra parroted. He restrained himself from rolling his eyes.
"Ezra! I'm so glad you're okay. How are you feeling?"
"Like I hit my head," he retorted. Ask a stupid question…he thought, giving Chris a smirk.
Chris smirked back, amusement sparkling in his eyes.
"Well, duh, that's exactly what you did, and I walked into that one." Buck chuckled. "You'll be pleased to know the barn's still standing. Apparently your head isn't as hard as the planks yet."
Barn? Dear Lord, did he live on a farm? How exactly did he get hurt? The details did not want to come. He could not picture himself on a farm, wearing coveralls and jackboots. Or doing any of the hard work that came with a farm. No wonder the man adopted him; he needed free manual labor to work the farm while he worked as a cop. If he actually adopted him. Play along, Ezra, just play along. Opportunity will come.
"Buck, don't bring the boys to the phone yet," Chris interjected in the silence.
"They're coming, talk fast," Buck replied. "No running in the hallways!" Wilmington bellowed.
"Ezra doesn't remember us," Chris said. "I'll need you to bring the scrapbook."
"Hell-o there, boys. Yes, Ezra's awake. We're going to see him once chores are done."
It amused him to listen to the adult cover his swearing by drawing out a safe word. He also heard the sounds of two boys talking excitedly in the background.
"Your brothers," Chris whispered. "Vin and JD."
"HI EZRA!" a young voice echoed in the receiver.
Ezra blinked at the sheer volume, giving Chris a quizzical look.
JD, the blond mouthed. He held up five fingers.
"Hello, JD," he said, putting a little bit of warmth into his tone. Five year olds noticed too much, and a cold voice would tip him off. He needed time to get out of the hospital and see what was happening without anyone figuring his plan out.
"You scart us, Ezra."
"I didn't mean to," Ezra replied. That was the truth. He just needed to find out the rest of it. Like the scrapbook Chris mentioned.
"Hello, Vin." He remembered the other one was named Vin. This boy sounded closer to his age, and had a soft accent. Texas, maybe?
"We're comin' ta see ya after chores."
"I look forward to it," he said, genuinely meaning it. The more he knew…
"Hi, Dad," Vin greeted Chris when he took the phone back.
"Hey, cowboy. We'll see you when you get here. Can I talk to Buck again?"
"Chris?" Buck queried.
"Scrapbook, and prepare the boys. Maybe a couple changes of clothes. I'm pretty ripe, and Ezra's not going home, if he comes home, in the clothes he wore yesterday."
"I agree," Ezra said. "You are rather rank."
"You're no bed of roses. You haven't bathed since yesterday, and I wasn't the one running races."
"I can ask for a sponge bath," Ezra pointed out. "You have to ask the hospital to allow it."
"There's our boy." Buck chuckled. "Always seeing the way things are."
"We'll see you when you get here," Chris said. He disconnected. "Now, you said something about a sponge bath? Let me find the nurse."
"I…" Ezra started.
"Yes?" The blond raised a quizzical eyebrow, a half-smile on his lips. "You want me to cancel it?"
"I prefer my water warm," he finished. Caught in a trap of his making, but not defeated.
"Of course." Larabee left.
Chris waited until Buck arrived before taking his shower. He wanted to talk to them first, and give Ezra's nurse the chance to finish.
"Hey," Buck said. "Boys, wait." He held onto JD to prevent him from rushing down the hallway.
"Hey, boys. Give Ezra a little privacy; he's getting a sponge bath to clean up." Chris took the bag from Buck's other hand.
"Ewwww." JD made a face. "Don't like those."
"Ya know how Ez likes ta smell good. He'd like it more than us," Vin added.
"Okay, boys, did Buck talk to you?" Chris lowered to a squat in front of Vin and JD.
"Yeah, that Ez don't 'member us, and we're not supposed ta rush him," Vin said. "Just pretend we're jest meetin' him again."
"I can pretend real good!" JD bounced up and down on his toes.
"Good. His doctor said to let him remember on his own. Don't get sad because he doesn't remember you." Chris waited until he got a nod of understanding from them. He noticed the nurse smile as she left the room.
"Okay, let's go," Buck said. "Chris leads, we follow."
The blond entered the hospital room first. "Ezra? You have company." Curiosity, almost buried, lit the green eyes. Don't try to hide, Ezra; we'll suck you right back in, Chris thought to the little boy.
"Hi, Ezra!" JD started. "I'm JD, and I'm five."
"Hello, JD," Ezra replied.
"Vin." He put a thumb to his chest.
"Nice to meet you," the young boy said formally. "You must be Buck."
Ezra stared at the three new arrivals. The youngest boy looked like he had more energy than all of the people in the room, maybe even the rest of the hospital. He also seemed friendly enough. With the long hair falling in his face, the other boy reminded Ezra of some of the children that he saw at the dude ranch Mother dropped him off in during her Wild West days. These were his brothers?
What about the man Buck? He did look like he could get away with a Hawaiian shirt, but Ezra saw something in his eyes which showed the man enjoyed playing the fool. The calculating part of Ezra could see this man wearing an expensive suit and looking as comfortable. Buck, Vin, JD, and Chris. What a bunch. They were his family?
"I'm for the shower before I offend Ezra's delicate nose again," Chris announced, hefting his bag and leaving.
Why did he feel a pang of longing when the man left? Was it that he didn't want Chris to leave? Covering the emotion quickly, he looked at the book Buck handed Vin.
"Our scrapbook," Vin held it up. "Can I show you?"
The other boy climbed up on the bed, sitting on the end of it and turning the book towards Ezra. "We made up a scrapbook fer all the important stuff in our lives." He opened the first page.
He couldn't believe it. There, in full color, with signatures, was a family photo. They were posed on a bench like they were sitting in a park, with the two men standing behind. Three boys smiled for the camera, JD showing a missing front tooth from his seat in between Ezra and Vin. His own smile, one he studied, gave the impression of happiness. It was one of his real smiles, not the fake ones Mother made him practice.
turned the page, and there was the group again. This time, however, the
photographer wanted them candid. Buck had JD in a headlock giving him a noogie,
with Chris putting bunny ears behind both Vin and Ezra, his arms stretched
wide. In the picture, the other Ezra had rolled his eyes and given the
impression this was beneath his dignity.
He couldn't deny it, though; those were pictures of him. Vin flipped the page, and there were miniaturized documents behind plastic covering.
"That's your adoption record." Tanner pointed to the one in the middle.
Part of him realized the others stayed silent, letting Vin do the talking for them. He glanced over at JD to see him staring with huge eyes at Ezra, his bottom lip quivering. Buck held him on his lap, his expression intentionally blank. His curiosity about the document overrode anyone watching.
He had no difficulty reading the legalese in the document; Mother taught him the fine art of reading contracts to find loopholes to exploit. It told him he was legally the son of Christopher Larabee, with all parental rights transferred. What about Mother? What happened to her?
"My Mother?" he asked, not quite being able to keep the shock and fear of the answer from his face or his voice.
"Your mother's wanted by the police," Buck stated simply. He indicated JD with his eyes, a silent request to Ezra for later discussion.
"She didn't like you," JD pointed out.
"JD!" Buck snapped.
"Well, she left him and he gots hurt."
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra's eyebrows climbed to his forehead, eliciting a wince.
"You gots hurt, Ezra, and that's why the judge gave you to Chris," JD explained.
Well, Mother, it's nice to see you haven't changed, he thought to himself. Mustering his pride, he continued his study of the pages. Both Vin and JD were adopted by Chris and Buck respectively, with the facing page in the scrapbook showing parental rights for all three of them granted to Buck and Chris equally.
"You are also my adoptive father, sir?" Ezra asked.
"You don't listen to me as well as you do Chris," Buck replied with a grin. "Only when Chris tells you no and you want me to say yes."
"What am I saying no about now?" Chris entered the room.
"Whatever ya want," Vin teased. "It's yer favorite word."
"Not really. Glaring works better," Larabee replied.
Ezra returned his attention to the scrapbook, feeling oddly left out of the banter. Did he belong with these people? Was it true? The next page of the scrapbook showed all three boys astride horses. Buck and JD sat on one, Vin and Ezra each had their own, and Chris on a black horse sat between Vin and Ezra. All five were smiling for the camera.
"Yer horse, Chaucer," Vin pointed. "Mine's Peso, and that's Buck's horse Pal. Well, we call him Pal, because he's like the stable buddy."
"Stable buddy?" The term did not sound familiar.
"Yeah, Pal's everyone's friend. He keeps the other horses calm when he's around," Vin explained.
"Oh." Ezra continued his perusal, flipping through holiday celebrations, and candid shots. "Who are they?" he pointed to the older man with the pale blue eyes, and the tall black man.
"Josiah's on the left, and Nathan's on the right," Chris said. "They're your honorary uncles. We work with them."
"Do I know anyone but police?" Ezra allowed a touch of sarcasm to enter his tone.
"Yeah, there's Miss Nettie!" Vin flipped to the last page, showing a collage page of different people in their lives. "She takes care of us."
"She watches you for us when we're called to a case," Buck explained. "And meets you when you get home from school."
"Oh," Ezra exclaimed. He was finding it hard to believe that he had so many people in his life, and they all seemed to care for him. "Tell me more."
Chris felt a bit of joy and excitement; they were going home. It took two days before Dr. Morris felt Ezra was well enough to come home, days spent telling Ezra more about where he lived, and making sure the skittish boy did not decide to bolt. Bringing him home felt good, even though Ezra was seeing it again for the first time.
He enjoyed the wonder in Ezra's face, and the suspicion. Yes, my boy, you were suspicious the first time too, he thought. You thought I would make you do all the chores. Little did you know.
"This is your room, Ezra." JD dragged his brother into the small bedroom. "It's right across from ours, and you even have a bed in ours if you wanna stay with us."
"JD, give him a minute, okay, little bit?" Buck tugged JD out of the room.
Chris couldn't help but smirk at the expression on Ezra's face. He leaned against the doorframe and watched. The room, decorated entirely by Ezra P. Standish, resembled a late nineteenth century gambling hall. Within reason, minus the cards and chips, but the rich wallpaper and antique furniture put a distinctive stamp on the room. He wondered if Ezra liked the room as much now as when he decorated.
The doubts slowly dissipated, but failed to disappear. His room, well, it was precisely what he would do if given the chance. Right down to the mirror with the gilt frame, and his name written in antique script on a mirror above the dresser. Opening the closet, he almost felt like an intruder.
All belongings hung properly in the closet, his school uniforms in one section. The drawers revealed neat, clean, well cared for undergarments and play clothes folded in neat squares.
"Why don't you take a bath?" Chris suggested from the doorway. "You can't scrub your head, but you can at least scrub away the hospital smell."
"I don't smell like a hospital," Ezra retorted.
"Sure you don't," Chris replied. "You only spent a couple days there. Before you get into the tub, pile your dirty clothes outside the door. I'll get them to the laundry."
Even though he didn't want to admit it, a hot scrubbing without the assistance of a nurse sounded heavenly. He also did not want to admit he could smell the hospital smell on him, and it made him slightly nauseous. Before he could say anything else, Chris pointed down the hall and left.
A quick trip to the bathroom started the bath water, and he treated himself to some of the kid's bubble bath sitting on a shelf near the tub. He liked this smell better than the one he currently wore. Returning to his room, waving to JD and Vin down the hall, he gathered his clothing together. Some of it came out of the white hospital bag, and he looked at what he was wearing when he was hurt. When he crumpled them up into a ball, he heard paper.
Unfolding the clothes, he searched the pockets until he found a note.
He read the note, believing the contents within more than the illusion here in this house. How could he be happy here? They could fake the pictures, all of it. No one fully explained to him about Mother yet, either. Each time he brought it up, Chris or Buck changed the subject. Part of it was because Vin and JD were present, and Ezra felt both adults did not want the two boys to know the truth. What were they hiding? Or maybe this was all a ruse to trap her.
"Chris," he called out loudly. He tucked the note under the pillow on the bed for future study.
The man appeared within a few seconds, giving him a questioning look.
"Your mother has no rights where you are concerned. After abandoning you, the judge took away her ability to contact you, or even see you."
"Mother always comes back for me."
"Not this time, Ezra. She didn't, and she won't." A hard edge entered the blond's tone. "I'll tell you the full story after your bath. Maybe I won't be as mad then." Chris left.
Mad? Why on earth would Chris be mad at Mother? She frustrated, yes, but she was not a horrible monster. She planned to come get him. Save him from here. A gilded cage. A kernel of frustration took root. He couldn't remember this place, these people, yet they told him over and over again he belonged here.
After his bath, Ezra still felt troubled. He stepped outside onto the patio, looking over at the barn.
"That's where it happened," Vin's soft explanation floated softly to him from behind.
He jumped, not hearing the other boy approach. "Don't scare me like that," he snapped.
"Sorry. We were racin' ta the barn and back, Chris yelled, and ya fell."
"Why was Chris yelling at me? We aren't allowed to run?" He didn't care he was snapping at others; everything just seemed so wrong here, a feeling growing stronger by the minute.
"We ain't supposed ta go to the barn without an adult. We knew better, but we was racin' ta the barn and back."
Vin looked down at his feet. "We were celebratin'."
"Celebrating what?" It seemed he touched a nerve; Vin was self-conscious.
"We made honor roll in school. Miss Nettie baked us a pie and everythin', and we were waitin' on Chris and Buck ta get home ta eat it."
What was the big deal? He made honor roll every time he tried. What about it warranted all this special treatment? Maybe, an idea struck, the celebration was more for Vin than it was for him. "Was it your first time making honor roll?"
"Yeah." Vin let his hair fall in his face. "Ya helped me a lot."
"Good for us," Ezra said, and meant it. No matter his circumstances, Vin didn't deserve his ridicule about making honor roll. He just wished things weren't so…unsettled.
With the darkness of night, Ezra felt more awake. His head throbbed painfully, as it did when the night came, but the painkillers he took with his bedtime snack started to remove the ache and clear the fog from his mind. The rest of the house settled into sleep, with Vin and JD in the room across the hall. He wasn't ready to share a room with them. He wasn't even sure he belonged here.
What happened to bring him here? Why was the barn off-limits? Was there something in the barn he wasn't meant to see? He knew his way around a stable; one foster family had him mucking theirs to earn his keep. If he had a horse, why couldn't he go see the horse? He stretched out his back, reaching under the pillow toward the wall. His fingers encountered paper.
Mother's note. What had she done that was so bad? She left him several times before, and each time she came back for him. Buck said the police, wanted her; there were papers out in several states under several names. But she allowed herself to be identified by her real name for a warrant? Something must have happened, but Chris hadn't told him. His stomach threatened a revolt, and the room felt like it was closing in on him.
His mind going over the same thoughts again and again made him feel a little dizzy. He needed air. Dressing quickly in warm sweatpants and a heavy sweatshirt, throwing on the boots Vin told him were his outside shoes, Ezra tucked the note in his waistband and checked the house alarm. It was disarmed, meaning no one would hear if he left the house. Resolved to get some air to help with this awful dizziness, he left the warmth of the house for the crisp Colorado air.
It helped put the dizziness at bay. He took a stroll around the house, breathing in and out, hoping the nausea would stop. Standing on the patio out of the lights of the house, he studied the barn. The urge to know drove him forward to the door, pushing it open and stepping inside.
Several horses whickered a greeting, and he studied each of them. The gray had to be Buck's it seemed the most placid of all of them. On the far end, all by himself, was a horse that looked to have a mean attitude. Across from him was a black that looked like he took the other horse's attitude in stride. The rest of the horses looked at him with curiosity.
"Ezra! What are you doing out here?"
The voice snapped him from his perusal. Chris. He sighed once before turning to face his supposed adopted father.
"Exploring my surroundings," he replied. "If I know this place, and I live here, then I need to know what's where."
"You're not allowed in or around the barn without an adult," Chris explained. "This is why you got hurt. You didn't follow the rule."
"From what I'm told, Vin and I were racing to the barn and back. You yelled, I stumbled, and I got hurt. That would make it your fault."
"I know." The pain in the voice was evident, along with the acceptance of blame.
Interesting. He feels guilty, Ezra thought to himself. "What are the other rules I must follow?" he ventured.
"There's too many to mention," Chris said. "We can start with stay away from the barn."
"What about seeing Mother? I didn't find any letters from her."
"If you didn't keep them, that's not my problem." The hard edge entered the tone again. "Leave your mother out of this. It's between us, Ezra."
"What's between us? It doesn't feel like a life I'd chose. Or why I'd not keep anything from my mother."
"Trust me when I tell you you're happy here," Chris replied.
"Why won't you tell me about Mother?" Ezra demanded. "You ask me to follow the rules, to behave, but you won't tell me about her. Are you using me to set a trap for her?" He studied the older man's eyes, looking for any sign of a lie. The burst of temper was unexpected.
"No," Chris yelled. "I would never, ever use you to get your mother. She knows if she comes around, I will lock her up, but I'm not looking for her. She knows where you are, and she knows she's lost her parental rights to you."
"What did she do that was so bad?" he pushed. "Why?" The barn seemed to close in on him again. "What did I do?" He hated himself for the last question, but this sick feeling in his stomach wasn't helping him concentrate.
"Oh, Ezra." Chris knelt beside him and gripped in a bear hug.
He wanted to pull away. Every fiber in his being wanted him to pull away from the hug. He didn't ask for it. But…but he wanted it. He needed it. He needed the support, he told himself, because his legs feel weak, his head hurt.
"Let me tell you what happened, so you don't think it's your fault. Your mother dropped you off with a man she knew from previous dealings. I think we both know what kind of previous dealings I'm talking about, right? Just nod."
Ezra nodded; there were many men and women Mother had previous dealings with, most of them using Ezra's looks and age to swindle others.
"Well, he was selling bootleg tobacco. You understand I'm in the ATF, right?"
Ezra nodded again.
"We found out about him – me, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck – and set up a sting. You were at his warehouse waiting for him to come back. He didn't, and because he didn't come back, his people set fire to the warehouse to destroy evidence.
"You figured out what was going on, but couldn't get out of the office fast enough. We got there as the fire department pulled you out, and you were transported to the hospital. Josiah went with you, and he couldn't reach anyone responsible for you, other than the guy we locked up. When I got there, I took one look at you and had the judge grant me temporary guardian rights."
"Why?" Ezra leaned back to look into Chris's eyes. He needed to see the answer in them.
"Because for some reason, a scrappy, obnoxious, sarcastic southern kid with more mouth than sense took one look at me, insulted the crap out of me with his big vocabulary, and I melted. Learned how to toughen up over time, but I couldn't leave you alone."
Ezra swallowed past the lump in his throat. "So you became my guardian?"
"We tried to find your mother, but when she finally showed up, she tried to kidnap you from your school. We thought we had her trapped on the other side of the athletic field, and we talked to her to stall her. More like yelled. She told us that you'd come to her eventually, and nothing could keep her from you."
"Sounds like Mother."
"She then got into a vehicle and took off, leaving you behind, especially when she saw the police cars arriving. They lost her in the pursuit."
"Mother left me behind?"
"Yes. Told me I had to take care of you, but not corrupt you to the side of the law."
"Why didn't she come back?"
"We don't know, Ezra, and the judge didn't agree with her parenting. Why didn't she try to pick you up like a normal mother would? Why didn't she call between the time you got hurt and came home with me? We found warrants on her, and several states want to talk to her about fraud. Digging deeper, we discovered she left you with just about anyone she knew, for long periods of time, while she did who knows what. The judge didn't like that, either. He said she didn't deserve to have you, and that because I'm already in good standing with social services, I could be your permanent guardian. With one condition."
"What's that?" He wanted to know about the condition. He'd heard about how his mother would lose him eventually, and how many of the courts ordered her to stay away from him, but no one made it stick all those other times.
"You agreed. The judge said you were to freely choose a life in a foster home where your mother would find you, steal you away, and start the cycle over again, or live with me, Buck, and your brothers."
"I chose here?" His legs felt rubbery, his knees threatening to collapse.
"Yes, you did. Then we made it permanent. You're my son. And I don't regret, or want to give back a single second of it. I love you, Ezra, and I only want what's best for you."
"Shouldn't be contacting you. Her lawyer knows she's not allowed to see you until she straightens out her life."
"She loves me."
Chris ran his hands up and down Ezra's shoulders. "Yes, she does. It's not a contest, Ezra. We both love you. I don't want her contacting you because every time she does, it upsets you more."
Confession time; he felt he owed this man some honesty. "She sent me a note."
"A note? When?" Chris tightened his grip.
"I don't know when. It was in my pants pocket. The clothes I wore the day I got hurt." He handed the note to Chris.
Chris read it, bit his lip, closed his eyes, and sighed. "Well, thank you for telling me she got you the note. Why did you tell me?"
"Because if this is where I chose to be, then we need to be equal."
The smile caught Ezra off-guard. "I'm the father, meaning I'm in charge. But we can debate about it."
"I'd like that." He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and remembered nothing.
Chris caught the limp body before Ezra hit the hard ground. He sensed something was happening; Ezra was too compliant, less argumentative than normal. Those green eyes were too bright, and his color was flushed. "Oh, my boy."
He ran to the house, his precious bundle in his arms, and called for Buck.
"What happened?" Buck tumbled out of his bedroom.
"He passed out. Ambulance or drive?"
"Drive," Buck said. "Go. We'll follow."
The worry in his chest created a hellacious pressure in his ribcage. This time, though, he was able to stay with Ezra, even though he was hooked up to an IV and they were checking on him constantly.
Green eyes opened slowly. "What?"
"Hi, buddy," Chris greeted him softly.
The lump in his throat swelled, and his eyes filled with unshed tears. He didn't expect to be called Dad again by this little boy for a long time, if ever. "I'm right here."
"You took a trip into the past, Ezra. But it's okay now."
"Oh. My head hurts."
"You hit it pretty good, and you overexerted yourself."
"I shouldn't do that," Ezra stated.
"Can we come in?" Buck asked. "The boys need to see Ezra."
"Ez?" Vin asked.
"Hello, brother," Ezra said.
"Ezra! You remember!"
"Yes, I remember you too, little brother," Ezra replied.
Chris smiled. For now, all was right in the world. That didn't mean now would last, but he would savor every second of it.