Courtship Rituals

by Leanne Grant

Disclaimer: Not mine but I am currently in negotiations with Santa Claus.

It was half past eight Monday morning when Ezra strolled into the office. Josiah, on his way to the break room saw him first and stopped to stare. Ezra was smartly dressed as always and besides his briefcase, was carrying a large bunch of purple flowers.

"Ezra, you are in early."

"Indeed Mr Sanchez," grinned Ezra.

"And are those flowers?"

"You are uncommonly perspicacious this morning Mr Sanchez. They are certainly flowers. Irises to be precise." Ezra nodded to him and continued on. Josiah gaped and abandoned his trip for coffee and hurried after the young man. Silence had fallen and everyone was staring at Ezra. He had stopped in front of Nathan's desk.

"Morning Ezra," said Nathan cautiously. Ezra's wide grin and dimples, though nice to see, were making him nervous.

"Good morning Mr Jackson." Ezra nodded and tipped an imaginary hat, then handed the flowers to the astonished man.

"For me? Uh. Thank you Ezra."

"My pleasure Mr Jackson." With another tip of his imaginary hat Ezra strode away to his desk. Six pairs of eyes stared after him.


"Yes Mr Wilmington."

"You just gave Nathan flowers."

"Good Lord, this perspicacity is catching."

"Why did you give Nathan flowers?"

"It's a courting ritual, Mr Wilmington, I would have thought you were familiar with it."

"You're courting Nathan?" Buck's voice got rather shrill. Ezra winced.

"Wasn't that what I just said?" Ezra appealed to Vin, who nodded as seriously as he could.

"Reckon ya did, Ez." Vin was struggling not to laugh. A very drunk Ezra had called him at four-thirty Sunday morning for advice. Vin had been too annoyed and too tired to make much sense but whatever he'd said seemed to have lit a fire under the Southerner. Vin winked at Ezra and grinned. The next week or so was likely to be real interesting.

Nathan watched the by-play and mentally threw his hands in the air. He had no idea what was going on. Probably some strange bet between Ezra and Vin. But that was no reason to discard the flowers, after all Ezra had given them to him. He gently carried the flowers into the little kitchen and found a vase skulking in the back of a cupboard.

Carrying the vase back to his desk, he fussed over the arrangement as everyone watched him.

He shot them all a glower, "What? They're my flowers. And irises are my favourite." Ezra's grin got even brighter and he nodded his head once. Nathan realised that Ezra had known that. He thought about asking how, but decided against it.

Nothing more was said but Nathan couldn't help noticing Ezra smiled far more often than usual.

The next morning Ezra strode in at the more normal time of half nine. In one hand he carried a large golden box tied up with silver string. Everybody's eyes fixated on it. Chris came to the door of his office. He missed Ezra's entrance the previous morning but both Vin (at his most innocent) and Buck (still in a state of shock) had filled him in. Chris wasn't about to miss anything else.

Nathan tried very hard not to look at Ezra. He wasn't gonna let the conniving cardsharp get him all confused. His breath did sort of catch in his throat as he waited to see who would receive the box but he told himself firmly it wasn't anticipation it was... was curiosity to see who Ezra would be trying to trick next. That was it, simple curiosity.

Still he couldn't stop his smile or avoid noticing the little curl of pleasure deep inside, when Ezra stopped in front of his desk.

"Mr Jackson," Ezra inclined his head.

"Ezra, morning."

"Good morning to you too." Ezra handed over the box and perched on the desk, his dark green eyes watchful. Nathan took a deep breath to steady himself and began to hunt for a pair of scissors. Carefully he cut the ribbon.

"What's in it?" demanded JD, "Is it chocolates?"

"Too large," said Buck, "Besides Ezra aint daft enough to give Nathan chocolates."

Nathan felt rather hurt by that comment. Just because he disapproved of continual snacking on high-sugar, high-fat convenience foods, didn't mean he didn't like chocolates. Turning his attention to his gift he began to open the fancy box. As he saw the contents his eyes lit up. Assorted fruit filled the box. Breathing deeply he luxuriated in the rich scent of ripe fruit.

"Thanks Ez." He smiled at the man sitting at his desk. Ezra smiled back.

"So what is it?" demanded Buck. The rest of Team Seven pressed close to stare into the box.

"Oh, it's just fruit," said JD, disappointed.

Nathan looked up at him in disgust. Just fruit! This wasn't just fruit, this was heaven in a box. Before he could say anything a hand stretched over his shoulder.

"Oooh," said Vin, fingers grabbing for a peach. Nathan bent protectively over his box even as he grinned. He supposed he should give Vin the peach; it was the one healthy thing the man actually craved. But, damnit, it was his box, given to him by Ezra.

"Mister Tanner," snapped Ezra, before Nathan had to make the sacrifice.

The hand withdrew. "Sorry Nate." Vin apologised guiltily

Ezra laughed and snapped open his briefcase. He removed a paper bag and tossed it at the sharpshooter. Vin caught it and peeked inside.

"Oooh, thanks Ez." Vin scuttled back to his desk clutching his prize. Nathan looked at Ezra.

"Bought him six of his own. No point giving you peaches if I don't help you guard them from the depredations of Mr Tanner. You are on your own with Mr Sanchez though."

Nathan looked at Josiah. The big man raised his hands pacifically.

"Far be it from me to interfere, brother. But if you struggle with those grapes, you need only let me know."

"Thanks Josiah." Nathan knew he would share them later. For now he just wanted to savour his gift, without the attentions of Team Seven. They were slowly following Vin's lead and retreating to their desks. Thinking of Vin, Nathan saw he had already finished his first peach, dripping juice all over what had been a report. Even as one hand cleaned up the other rustled the paper bag. Nathan gave him another hour before he'd eaten the lot. Nathan looked at his own peaches, there really was only one way to protect them. Getting a pack of tissues from his desk drawer, he started on his mission.

The next morning Nathan found himself switching his attention between his flowers and the clock as he waited for Ezra. Ezra hadn't said anything to him yet and it was quietly driving him crazy. He just wished Ezra would hurry up and get to the punch line before he was totally insane. Knowing he was under scrutiny made it even harder to concentrate so gave up on work altogether. He searched through his fruit box and found the elongated star fruit and wondered how he was supposed to eat it.

It looked like the skin was inedible but equally he wasn't quite sure how to peel it, or even if that was possible. He absent- mindedly picked at the bunch of grapes while he contemplated the strange fruit.

He was so engrossed, he didn't notice Ezra's arrival until the man was sitting on his desk. The sudden shadow made him look up.

"Ezra." He couldn't help noticing that Ezra wasn't carrying anything unusual today and he couldn't stop himself feeling rather disappointed. Dragging his mind back to a problem he could solve, he glowered at Ezra, "An' just how'd ya eat this silly looking thing anyways."

Ezra rested his briefcase on his lap and opened it to remove a pocket knife.

"You peel the top of each spine like so." His long, clever fingers quickly demonstrated what he meant. Nathan watch enthralled. "And then you slice the fruit thusly. Do you have a plate?"

"Uh." Nathan looked up at the unexpected question.

Green eyes twinkled, "A plate, Mr Jackson?"

"Oh yes." Nathan quickly grabbed a plate tipping the orange peel that covered it into the bin. With a gentle flick of his wrist Ezra tossed down delicate star shaped slices of fruit. After a moment he looked up.

"Ah, before I forget. Mr Jackson." He wiped his sticky fingers on a handkerchief and reached into his briefcase for a slim, gaily wrapped box.

"For me?" Nathan knew he was grinning like a lunatic but that just served Ezra right. He accepted the package and carefully began unwrap it. Folding the paper neatly he laid it one side. Inspecting the presentation box of Belgian chocolates made him grin all over again.

"They are my favourite chocolates," explained Ezra, "I thought you might appreciate the quality."

"Thank you. Don't tell Vin but chocolate is actually good for you in small quantities."

"Your secret is safe with me." Grinning, Ezra snapped his briefcase shut and moved to his own desk. Nathan watched him from under lowered eyelids; he wished he knew what Ezra was up to

The next morning when Nathan arrived at work he found Vin wasn't there.

"Junior rang to say he's coming in with Ezra," explained Buck.

"Oh," said Nathan. He went straight work, feeling rather low. He didn't really want to examine why Ezra and Vin getting into mischief together depressed him. It wasn't as if he wanted to be getting into mischief with Ezra. Ezra deserved every bit of trouble he was going to get for whatever rig he was running. And Nathan would enjoy watching, if only this particular con wasn't scraping at emotions he would prefer to ignore.

He knew Vin had been laughing at him the last three days. And Josiah was starting to smile at him like he knew something Nathan didn't, which annoyed him no end.

Buck had a puzzled look, like when he bit into a pie and found it was banana not apple. JD remained unenlightened, judging by the intent, curious statement with which he studied Nathan's every move. Chris, presumably filled in by Vin, was watching everything with amused exasperation. A common emotion where Ezra was concerned.

Nathan had resolved to put the whole mess out of his head and concentrate on what he should be doing, when a ruckus in the corridor made him look up.

"Left, left, step, left, LEFT, no stop, STOP."

That was Ezra.


That was Vin.

"Careful Mr Tanner."

"Ezra. Shut. Up. Or I am going ta have ta kill ya very slowly." Vin sounded quite serious. Nathan joined the exodus to see what was going on.

"I said stop," said Ezra sulkily. Nathan had to smile at the pouty little boy look. Ezra and Vin were trying to manoeuvre a large flat parcel through the crowed ATF corridors. They weren't doing very well. Thankfully Chris was there to take charge.

"What in the hell is going on, boys?"

"Nuthin to do with me, Cowboy..." began Vin.

"It is hardly my fault Mr Tanner cannot take directions..."

"Quiet," yelled Chris. "Second thoughts I don't want an explanation. It's just going ta make my headache worse. Vin, I take it we need this in the office?"


"Yes or no."

Vin and Ezra exchanged dirty looks. "Yes," said Vin.

"Fine." Chris moved to take Ezra's place. "Cowboy, pick up the other end and let's get goin'."

With a minimum of fuss they picked up it up and strode down the corridor to the office. Ezra hurried to open the door for them. Nathan's suspicion Chris knew what was going on was confirmed when both men stopped easily in front of his desk. Resting it against his desk they stepped back and looked at Nathan.

"Go on Nathan," said Vin, "I've lugged that thing round half of Denver. Least you can do is open it."

"Mr Tanner, I am trying to create an emotional connection. You obviously haven't a romantic bone in your body."

"If I had it dun got busted when you backed me into that fire hydrant."

"I didn't see it. You let me walk into a tree. A Tree! For heaven's sake. How could you miss that?"

The smile on Vin's face suggested he hadn't missed it. Nathan could see things were about to get totally out of control and he wanted to appreciate his picture.

"Ezra, be quiet, I'm tryin ta `create an emotional connection' here."

Ezra subsided and settled by his side, smiling up at him. Nathan was glad Ezra missed Vin nudge Chris in the ribs and grin at the pair of them. He rather wished he hadn't seen it either. It gave him one more thing to be confused about.

Ezra bounced at his side. Nathan blinked. He'd never seen Ezra look quite so excited before. He bent down and began to remove the brown paper wrapping.

"Come on Nathan, open it."

Nathan froze, had he heard right, had Ezra actually called him by his first name? He turned to look at the man. Ezra appeared totally unconscious he had said anything unusual. His green eyes gleamed with anticipation, his poker face, for once completely absent. He almost seemed to glow...

"Hrccrrum," Josiah cleared his throat noisily, "Brother do you need scissors?"

"No." Nathan replied automatically to his friend, while wondering quite what Josiah meant. He tore his gaze away from Ezra's shining face and tried to remember; scissors, paper, ahh, Parcel. Nathan returned his attention to extracting the picture from the brown paper.

He stood up and stepped back so he could see it more clearly.

The large oil painting showed a desert scene at daybreak. Some distance from the foreground were seven horsemen, silhouetted against the rising sun.

"Riding off into the sunset, huh Ez?" asked Buck.

"Sunrise, Mr Wilmington, can you imagine Mr Jackson doing anything so impractical as riding into the sunset. Why it would be dark almost instantly. Mr Jackson would be in bed like a good boy."

Darn, thought Nathan, back to Mr Jackson.

"But Ez," said Vin, "You up with sun?"

"What can I say? I am being corrupted. I confess I'm still unsure about rising early but early to bed grows increasingly attractive. What do you think Mr Jackson?"

With Ezra gazing up at him from beneath fluttering eyelashes; Nathan wasn't thinking very much of anything.

He swallowed, "Sounds good." The blazing smile he received in return more than made up for the chuckles behind him. Buck's noisy guffaw suggested he had finally caught up with the joke, whatever it was. Nathan was hoping he never found out. He didn't think he could take this punch line.

He jumped as Chris shouted, "Okay ladies, let's try and get some work done here." Nathan tore his eyes away from Ezra to see Team Seven disperse. Only Chris and Vin remained, and Ezra who stayed by his side. Chris sighed deeply and shook his head. "Nathan, I can't believe we actually pay you to detect things."

Nathan glared at his boss and then at Ezra. How was this thing his fault?

"Never mind Nathan. Ezra...?"

"I am trying my best, Mr Larabee."

"Fine. Vin give me a hand with the picture."

Nathan grabbed the picture frame with one hand. "Where ya taking it?"

"Just into my office, to keep it out the way. Come on Vin."

Reluctantly Nathan released his hold on the picture. Together the other two men moved off. Nathan turned to Ezra, who looked at him anxiously.

"Did you like it? It's for the wall of your lounge, I think it will fit. I mean, if you like it. If you don't I could..."

Nathan grabbed Ezra's hand and pressed against those soft lips to stem the flow of words.

"I like it just fine Ezra and I think it will look real good on the wall. There's always been a blank spot there."

"That's what I thought. It's a bit unwieldy, I, uh, could give you a hand getting home if you like? Help you hang it up?"

Was it his imagination or did Ezra look almost, shy? Nah, he was imaging things.

"It's okay Ezra. I'll get Josiah to help. We'll probably need to use a drill."

"Oh, okay." Ezra retreated a bit. "But you liked it, right?"

"Sure. You can admire it when you all come around for poker night."

"Uh huh. Sounds, sounds good." Ezra vanished back to his desk and disappeared behind piles of paperwork.

Nathan realised he was the subject of disapproving stares from his team members. Buck paused on his way to Chris' office and whapped him upside the head like he would JD.

"Way to go, Jackson."

Nathan straightened and looked at Josiah. `What did I do?' he mouthed. Josiah just shook his head and stared at the ceiling. He appeared to be praying. Nathan shrugged his shoulders. Everyone was behaving strangely. Ezra couldn't really have wanted to help him a hang a picture, could he? Look at the struggle he had getting it into work. Which lead to the question as to why Ezra had done it in the first place and Nathan's thoughts had been circling that track all week. With a sigh of frustration he pushed the whole problem aside and concentrated on work.

He noticed a quiet, concerned conference between Vin and Josiah just before leaving time. When they separated Josiah headed his way and Vin went to Ezra.

Ezra didn't look happy. His poker mask was in place but leaked dejection. Nathan watched with concern as Vin argued with him and then hauled him bodily out of his chair before marching him out the door.

"What's wrong with Ezra?" he asked Josiah.

The big man frowned at him. Nathan realised Josiah had been speaking.

"I'm sorry Josiah, did you say something?"

"Don't worry about it brother. Let's get this picture moved."

When the picture was in place and Josiah had left, Nathan sat in his lounge so he could admire the picture while he ate dinner. Somehow though his worry about Ezra ate away at his contentment. He couldn't help feeling he'd let the man down in some way. Damn, why did Ezra have to make everything so difficult?


The next morning revealed Vin was late to work again. There was no Ezra either but that was normal. Nathan decided to get some work done before the conman arrived to distract him.

After about an hour, growing concerned, he asked Josiah,

"Where's Vin, it's not like him to be this late?"

Before Josiah could say anything, Buck boomed, "He rang to say he'd be late. Sounded like he had one long night."

"Oh." Nathan lowered his eyes to his work so he could miss the exchange of significant glances.

Vin dragged himself in about half an hour later. He looked awful. His white skin had a light sheen of sweat and his eyes were bloodshot.

Chris appeared instantly at his office door.

"Jesus Cowboy, what the hell happened to you?"

Vin clutched his obviously aching head with one hand and shot a deadly look at Nathan. Nathan stared in surprise. Vin obviously had a major hangover, how in the world was that his fault? He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and retrieved his collection of Advil and Alka-Seltzer.

Vin's head rested on his desk. He waved Nathan away with one hand.

"I don't want any of that stuff Nate. With your eyesight you're probably trying to cure yellow fever."

Nathan ignored the red herring. "You should take it, it will make you feel better. Did you let Ezra get into the same state?" he asked disapprovingly.

Vin groaned, "Remind me to kill you when I'm feeling better."

"Is Ezra coming in later?" persisted Nathan. He was definitely worried. Ezra didn't have the sense God gave a lemming when it came to looking after himself. The thought of the southerner lying in pain somewhere was more than he could stand.

"If he's got any sense, he hasn't moved since I left him last night."

"You left him," accused Nathan, "You shouldn't have done that. Anything could happen. He could get sick and choke."

"Nope," said Vin wearily, "He aint got anything left to be sick with."

"That's worse, he'll be all dehydrated. He needs water."

Vin lifted his head a fraction off the desktop, his eyes glittered dangerously. "I don't believe you. If it matters so much, you go hold his hand. Better yet, why didn't you just take him home with you to start off with."

"I'd sure take better care of him." Nathan sniffed and turned away from the suffering sharpshooter. He looked at his boss. "I think we should go check on Ezra."

Chris appeared to turn the thought over a moment and the said, "Fine. This ends now. Tanner get your sorry butt up. You're coming too."

Something suspiciously like a whimper came from the downed man.

"Up ya get Cowboy. You'll be no good for anything today. When we're done at Ezra's I'll drop you back at your place."

"Ya couldn't just shoot me?"

Chris leaned over and shook him ungently. "Up. Now."

With a moan Vin pulled himself to his feet and Nathan hurried them down to the garage.

Ezra's condo was dark and quiet. Nathan impatiently pushed his way into Ezra's bedroom. The man lay stretched out on his front snoring faintly. Nathan gently sat on the bed beside him and stroked his face.

"Ez? Ezra you in there?"

Eyelids fluttered open to reveal green eyes full of pain. They tried to focus on his face.

"Nathan? That you." Ezra's voice was hoarse and cracked on the last word.

"Sure is. You just rest now. I'll take care of everything." He turned to the two men standing in the doorway. "Chris go and get me a large glass of water." Nathan took the boxes of tablets out of his pocket and laid them on the side table. He turned his attention back to Ezra.

"Come on, let's sit you up." Ezra fought his hands trying to return to the comfort of his pillow. "You can't drink your water lying down, up you come." Ezra lolled like a rag doll. Anxiety made Nathan snap, "Ezra, sit straight."

Instantly obedient Ezra tried to remain upright but swayed slightly. His eyes were still tightly shut as one hand groped anxiously. Nathan caught it and rested it against his cheek.

"It's okay Ezra, I'm right here. I'll make it all better." He moved closer to try and hold him steady. Ezra patted his cheek with one hand. Eyes squinted at him.

"Nathan," exclaimed Ezra in tones of great delight. He flopped forwards to rest against Nathan's chest. Nathan's arms came up automatically to hold him close. He couldn't help stiffening with reaction as Ezra snuffled against the crook of his neck.

"You smell good," mumbled the sleepy southerner.

Nathan chuckled softly. Ezra was gonna feel as embarrassed as hell when he recovered. Chris reappeared carrying the requested glass. Nathan patted the side of Ezra's head.

"C'mon baby, you'll feel better once you've got some water in you."

He pushed the edge of the glass against Ezra's lips and tipped it carefully so a little of the water ran into his mouth. Ezra's subconscious recognised what was happening and he swallowed greedily. As Nathan pulled the glass away he tried to follow, mouth open like a hungry baby bird.

"Sssh, you can have some more in minute. Just swallow these." Nathan popped the pills into the questing mouth. It closed around his fingers and an agile tongue circled his fingertips. Nathan shivered and quickly substituted the water. Ezra swallowed once and then batted the glass away.

"You taste good too. Better than normal, why?" With that plaintive question Ezra pulled away to study him. A sudden beaming smile lit up his face.

"You're real," he breathed and dropped back against his chest, arms wrapping around him to hold him tight. Totally stunned, Nathan felt his hand automatically rise to pet the disordered chestnut hair.

"He means it," he said almost to himself, "He really does mean it."

A sudden rhythmic thudding made him look up. Vin was banging his head against the door. Without looking Chris reached up with one hand and grabbed the long hair to stop him; his glare, though, remained fixed on Nathan.

"Jesus Nate, what does the poor guy have to do? Hire a skywriter?"

Thud, thud, went Vin's head. "Talked him out of that one. Please Cowboy, can I go home now?"

"Sure, and if they gave medals for this sort of thing, you'd definitely deserve one."


"How'd you figure that."

"Conspicuous gallantry and a purple heart."

"And a trip to psych ward..."

Nathan ignored the fading bickering and concentrated on the man in his arms. Ezra appeared to have passed out again. Nathan tucked Ezra's head against chest and let him sleep. Rest was what Ezra needed now.

Eventually however Nathan felt his legs going to sleep. He tried to shift so he could lay the man down but Ezra just whimpered and held on tighter.

Nathan grinned into the cautiously opening green eyes.

"Hey there."

"Nathan?" Ezra stared in surprise. He seemed more aware than before but Nathan could saw his eyes narrow as he struggled to process events. Ezra's mind was obviously still working at half- speed. Finally he managed to achieve an approximation of his poker face. He fixed his mouth into a smirk and raised an enquiring eyebrow.

Nathan smiled gently. "I'm here. I finally figured it out." He rested one hand on Ezra's forehead, checking for fever and seeking contact. "Why do you have to make everything so complicated?"

"I thought I was being rather obvious. The others all knew and were laughing at me."

With a sudden shift in perspective Nathan suddenly saw the last week from Ezra's point of view. His jaw dropped slightly. Ezra had completely dropped his guarded manner these last few days. He had indeed been obvious and the team had been laughing though, he rather suspected, not at Ezra.

"Reckon the boys were laughing at me."

Ezra snorted gloomily. "We've given them enough entertainment. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you Nathan. I'll be fine. You don't need to stay." With that Ezra closed his eyes and appeared to fall asleep.

Nathan blinked in surprise. It took him a moment to figure out what Ezra meant. Then he glowered. Reaching forwards he grabbed Ezra's shoulders and shook him roughly.

"Oh no you don't Ezra Standish. You wake up right this minute."

Ezra's head sagged forwards but he did open his eyes.

"I said I was sorry Mr Jackson, what more do you want?"

"I want you to say my name again."


"My name is Nathan. If we are going to create an emotional connection, you should at least use my first name."


"Where've all them fancy words of yours gone?"


Nathan laughed softly. Ezra looked beyond confused.

"It's okay Ezra," he said. He leant forwards, smiling. Ezra remained frozen in his grip, his head cringing to one side as if anticipating a blow.

"Oh, Ez," sighed Nathan. He kissed Ezra's forehead gently.


"That's right." Nathan grinned at the way that southern accent caressed his name. He decided some positive reinforcement was needed so he kissed Ezra again.

Ezra had obviously caught up with situation and kissed him back enthusiastically. Nathan sighed happily and pressed closer.

Then Ezra groaned and pushed him away.


"Don't feel so good," he confessed miserably.

"Of course you don't, you have a hangover Ezra. You need to rest some more. I'll go get you another glass of water."


"Don't be. You just concentrate on feeling better. I've got plans for you."

Mischief lit Ezra's eyes and his dimples appeared.

"I have plans of my own."

Nathan swallowed hard and hurried away to find a nice glass of cold water.

Re-entering the bedroom he had to smile. Ezra was curled back under the covers, snoring softly. The spirit may have been willing but the flesh just couldn't keep up. That was all right with Nathan though. He was still trying to catch up with the day's events.

He kicked off his shoes and removed his jacket. Sliding into bed beside his love, his heart sang when Ezra mumbled his name and snuggled close. It seemed the unbelievable was true; Ezra really did care for him. Nathan tucked Ezra's head against his shoulder and settled down to dream dreams that were going to come true.


If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Leanne would love to hear from you.

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