A Home For Christmas

by Angela B.

Disclaimer: characters are not mine
Note: Bear with me, I still haven't quite got the writing style down. Mog created the ATF playground.
This is just a little idea of how Ezra's first shared Christmas with guys would be like.
Thanks to Joy for letting me borrow her character Aunt Grace.
Thanks to Jera for beta reading my story and correcting my mistakes

The office was a busy place. J.D. and Buck were having a contest to see who could shoot the most paper footballs into the trashcan. Josiah and Nathan were finishing up the last of the paperwork due before they could officially leave for the Christmas holiday. The last of the agents, Vin, had spent most of the morning filling out forms for the weapons they had used in the take down of the latest arms dealer the day before.

It had been a tip from a very reliable source that alerted Team Seven to a two-time convict dealing weapons out of his house. Team Seven, along with the D.P.D. and the U.S. Marshals stormed the house and confiscated a large number of assorted handguns and semi-automatic rifles. It had been a good day.

Chris was in his office. He was supposed to be working but instead he was concentrating on the next day, Christmas. This would be the third Christmas with his new family of brothers. The tall black clad man remembered the first one vividly. Neither he, nor Vin and certainly not Ezra had been in the holiday mood. They definitely weren't looking forward to the specific day. Each one was expecting to spend the undesired day alone. J.D. had changed that. His enthusiasm for the holiday had sparked cheer in most of them. Each one, except for the southerner, had caught some of the holiday cheer. Somehow, it was decided that they would all show up at Chris' and celebrate the holiday. Everyone had shown up except for Ezra, he had some excuse about previous plans.

That Christmas had been hard on the widower. It was the first Christmas he had celebrated since the death of his wife, Sarah, and his son, Adam. With the help of Vin, Buck and the others he had waded through the mixture of feelings and survived the day. There were a few times when he caught himself actually enjoying the festivities.

Last Christmas had been easier. Again, the undercover agent had declined to show. By then the others had gotten to know the man a little better and understood, to varying degrees, that the agent just wasn't that comfortable with the group yet.

J.D. had been determined that Ezra would join them this year. He had employed every trick he knew including the 'puppy dog look'. J.D. didn't know why the others had labeled this specific look with that name but it seemed to get results, even with the obstinate agent. Ezra had finally relinquished and agreed to come. J.D. was in seventh heaven.

Then three weeks ago Team Three had requested Ezra's special skills for one of their assignments. It began to look as if Ezra would miss Christmas after all. More than just a few in Team Seven wondered if Ezra wasn't dragging out the case for that very reason. But, by some miracle the bust had gone down yesterday with no injuries, much to the immense relief of Nathan and Chris. Chris hated when Ezra was pulled to another team and the leader couldn't watch his man's back. Nathan worried because if any one were going to get hurt it would be their undercover man. Chris had given Ezra the day off to rest knowing full well the agent would use the time at home to work on his report instead.

After work the seven men met at The Saloon for a drink before heading to Chris'. Ezra was nervous and it showed, at least to the six men who knew him. It was a testament to just what the previous job had taken out of the normally unreadable agent. The six men watched Ezra from guarded eyes as the seventh peeled the label off his drink. Something he'd never done before. After clearing his voice a couple of times a thick southern drawl penetrated the air. "Uhmm…J.D." The southerner stopped and took a deep breath intending to continue but before he could the youngest of the seven jumped in, "I'm really glad your coming to Chris' tonight. It'll be the first time we all celebrated Christmas together. It's going to be great!" All the trapped southern gentleman could do was give the enthusiastic agent a smile and nod his head in agreement. Wishing for a small natural disaster to strike, only the spot where he was sitting of course.

Under his breath the depressed man uttered, 'Great." Vin heard the muttering and shook his head mentally. He'd realized it wasn't that Ezra didn't want to be with them but that the man really hated the holiday, more than either Chris or himself.

Taking another deep breath he started again, "J.D. I won't be able to come tonight." Raising his hands to stave off the onslaught of protests and unkind comments he was sure to come his way he continued, "Due to the restraints of my latest endeavor of capturing the common criminal I begrudgingly have to admit I'm not finished with my Christmas preparations. But, I assure you Mr. Dunne I will present myself in time tomorrow to relish the day's festivities." J.D. nodded, taking Ezra's word.

'Whew! At least I've bought myself a little more time before having to get into a spirit I don't really feel.' Ezra thought to himself with some relief.

When the men had finished their drinks they rose and headed for their vehicles, all but the one going to Chris' for the night. Chris and Buck cornered Ezra after Josiah, Nathan and J.D. had exited the bar, Vin stood in the doorway observing the confrontation that was about to take place. The longhaired agent wished his friends could see how hard this was on his obstinate friend without being targeted, too.

"Look Ez, I know you're used to fancy Christmases and being with us simple people probably doesn't mean that much to you but, it means a lot to the kid. He's really looking forward to all of us being there. You better not do anything to disappoint him, like using one of your confaluting schemes to not show." Buck threatened, invading Ezra's guarded personal space.

"Mr. Wilmington" Ezra tiredly began, "Have I ever lied to Mr. Dunne?"

"Well…no" consented the menacing man.

"Then pray tell why would you think I would lie to him now? Especially in front of you…gentlemen." Ezra finished flatly, raising his eyebrows in question.

"OK then" Buck ended with sudden passiveness and left.

Chris started pass his notorious edgy agent and stopped. "See ya tomorrow", the black clad man said, leaving what he expected of Ezra. Ezra gave him his two-finger salute, then catching Vin's eyes he gave a more positive imitation of his salute.

Jiminie, he hated this holiday. There were only two Christmases that he could think about without needing a good stiff drink, or two.

On the way to the ranch Vin thought best how to reprimand his best friend about his treatment of a particular friend. "Something on your friend, Cowboy?" Chris' question broke into the sharpshooter's thoughts and at the same time provided the opportunity he was looking for.

"Ya shouldn't have pushed Ez like that. This is hard enough without you getting in his face and threatening him like that." Vin's soft rebuke filled the interior of the truck.

The leader nodded his head and let out a breath, "Yeah I know. I just want him to show, he belongs with us not sitting alone in his house." Vin turned and stared at his older brother, he didn't think anyone knew about that but him.

Vin had stopped by Ezra's house last Christmas on his way home. The house was virtually dark but he had seen the reflection of a light in the back of the house. He stood out on the porch ringing the doorbell for five minutes before a very sloshed Ezra had appeared. Vin had spent the night, partly making sure the man didn't get alcohol poisoning but mostly he didn't want to leave his obnoxious brother alone. Ezra had slept off his drunk and the two friends talked. Vin corrected himself; he had done most of the talking while the other listened. Which for once was a switch. Anytime Vin asked the silent agent about his past Christmases the man changed the subject or turned the tables. By the time Vin left he understood the Holiday brought back too much hurt for the man to deal with.

"How'd ya know?" Vin inquired.

Chris turned towards the other man. He couldn't actually see inside the truck but knew Vin was surprised. It had showed in his voice. "Judge Travis called me last year. The police had been called to Ezra's place, a neighbor thought someone had breaking into the place and was destroying it. Turned out Ezra had thrown a few objects against a wall." Chris paused. "Getting drunk makes a person lose control, no matter how hard they try and hold onto it." The blond man finished quietly, reflecting on the numerous times he had done the same exact thing.

The men met up at the ranch and headed off to their respective rooms. Everyone but Ezra doubled up. Ezra had taken a bedroom off the kitchen that Chris had built on when it became apparent the men he worked with was spending more time at his place on weekends and any other time they had off than at their own houses. The bedroom seemed to be suited just for the undercover agent. It was in the dwelling but on the fringes. Just like Ezra.

Chris, Vin and Buck had stayed up. The older and younger agents were acutely aware of how this holiday affected their mutual friend. Even though Chris was handling this Christmas much better than the first one, they both knew it was still hard on him. It was after midnight when they went to bed.

The blond man wasn't sure what woke him. He sat up in bed and listened, a noise from the living room alerted him someone was up. Deciding to check it out Chris entered the living room as a retreating figure went into the kitchen. Chris walked through the living room into the kitchen and spotted his undercover agent disappearing into his room, shutting the door; like a blockade. Chris shook his and went back to bed.

The members of the household awoke at various times. As usual Vin and Chris were the first up, enjoying watching the snow fall. An hour later Josiah and Nathan joined the two men on the porch. The next to come out was J.D., carrying a cup of hot cocoa. His wet hair was a telltale sign he had just got out the shower. Timing was everything when there were seven men using only three bathrooms. Spotting the Jag he was hard pressed to keep the excitement out of his voice. " Hey Ez is here! I knew he would make it." The four men smiled, the kid had enough faith for all of them. "Boy he must have come in late last night."

"More like very early this morning", Chris corrected, shifting in his seat for a more comfortable position. Getting a questioning look from the others he added, "2:30." Vin whistled. "That was risky. Coming in like that in the dark and it snowing." Nathan chastised the man mentally. He hated the fact that the undercover agent was always taking unnecessary chances, putting his life in danger.

Buck came out his bedroom and walked thru the living room. He noticed the six new packages sitting under the Christmas tree the guys had decorated last night. They appeared to be wrapped in expensive paper, they also looked professionally done. Grabbing a cup of coffee he joined the others on the porch. Viewing the white wonderland his gaze fell on the black sporty car. "I see Ez made it." The grizzled man said hesitantly, he had yet to shave. This was vacation after all. He sincerely hoped Ezra had come because he belonged here not because he had threatened the man, but he had his doubts. Buck had realized last night he had done the wrong thing in threatening the introverted man. The mustached man was afraid Ezra would believe that the only reason he was wanted was for J.D.'s sake and that simply wasn't the case. Buck figured he had driven a wedge between him and Ezra.

Josiah stood and clapped his hands together, "So who's' ready for breakfast?" He was happy to have his family together for this special day.

"Yeah! Maybe the smell of food will wake Ez up" J.D. hopped off the railing and headed for the kitchen door".

"J.D.!" came five warning voices.

The young agent rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. Ever since Ezra had agreed to come this year the five remaining members of the team had repeatedly taken turns cautioning J.D. not to expect much and certainly not pressure the man into anything more. Ezra had after all agreed to come, that in itself the five men realized was a big step for the reserved friend. J.D. knew it also; he wasn't as dumb or naive as the others believed. He wanted Ezra to feel included in everything. Since, this was only the third Christmas they didn't have to many traditions but the sensitive brother wanted Ezra involved in the few they did have and breakfast was one of them.

Ezra did wake to the aroma of breakfast and the noise his friends were creating in making it. Instead of making his stomach rumble with hunger the smells were making him nauseous. He climbed from his warm bed and got ready, feeling much like a person readying for his execution. In fact, Ezra thought, an execution would be more preferably. At least it would end his misery quickly.

The green-eyed agent walked thru the kitchen into the dining room. Seated around the long dining table were his friends that had worked so hard to incorporate him into their little family. Ezra had to smile to himself despite the apprehension that had settled into his nerve endings. It seemed no matter where they went they always sat in the same positions. Buck and Vin flanked Chris. By Buck was the man's little brother and roommate, J.D., seated next to him was their medic, Nathan. By Vin was an empty chair for him, on the other side of the empty chair sat their profiler, Josiah.

"Hey Ez, you're wake." Vin exclaimed, a little to loud for Ezra's liking.

"That Mr. Tanner is up for debate" as Ezra took his seat between his two friends.

"Well, I'm glad you made it, Ez. It wouldn't have been the same without you." The youngest agent voiced, shoving a mouthful of pancakes into his mouth. He liked it when Buck didn't cook.

Ezra, plastering his poker face on while he regarded the plate of food in front of him, really wished Josiah didn't feel the need to fill his plate for him like he was a little kid. "It's my profound pleasure Mr. Dunne to be able to delight in such wondrous company on such a special day." Wondering if it was too early to request a good stiff drink.

J.D. missed the hint of sarcasm in the southerner's voice but the others didn't. The young Bostonian was enjoying the camaraderie of his friends. The young man missed his mom but these six men had become his new family and made the holidays bearable once again.

"Ez, what do you say you call us by our first names just for today?" Chris knew Ezra only called them by their first names when he wanted their undivided attention.

"I'll shall endeavor to remember that", Ezra said with warmth that he didn't really feel.

The men enjoyed a bountiful breakfast provided by Josiah, Nathan and Chris. Vin usually set the table; he wasn't much into cooking. Buck and J.D. were banned from cooking for the group altogether. Those two could make boiling water turn toxic. A volley of concealed glances was tossed around the table. They noticed Ezra wasn't as talkative as usual and he wasn't eating; just pushing the food from one side of his plate to the other, never taking a bite. True, Ezra was not a morning person but the friend really seemed to be having an extra difficult time this morning.

Ezra wanted to do nothing more than bolt. How did he get maneuvered into such a horrible predicament? Easy, J.D. The young agent had really been talking up the Christmas gathering for days. That particular night they had gone to Inez' for drinks and once again J.D. began talking about the get together when he finally came right out and with that irresistible look he had cornered Ezra and asked the dreaded question. Ezra could still remember hearing the anticipation and excitement in the young man's voice when he asked the reluctant agent if he was coming to Chris' for Christmas. In a moment of weakness and at the time a desire to be with the others, Ezra had assented. J.D. had actually let out a whoop and the dawning of what he'd just agreed to hit Ezra like a freight train.

There was no backing out, he'd agreed in front of all of them. So, for the first time in a long time the reticent man had gone out and Christmas shopped. They all had told him since he'd be going undercover presents were not needed or expected. Ezra figured they were just trying to make it easier on him. Ezra had no intentions of walking into the house empty handed.

On his off hours, which were not plentiful Ezra had bought the presents. Knowing none of them were materialistic or flashy, he went for the practical and meaningful gifts.

For Josiah he had made a considerable donation to the youth center, asking the lady who took his money not to disclose to Josiah the amount. A simple note noting that a donation had been made was sufficed. He also, bought him a substantial store credit card at the local auto store. That suburban forever needed replacements.

Nathan had been easy. The medic was always contemplating going back to school and furthering his medical knowledge. A few months back a grant application had mysteriously appeared on Nathan's desk. They had all encouraged him to apply and a few weeks later he was notified that he had been awarded the grant. No one knew a certain brown haired, green-eyed undercover agent had established the grant. So, for Christmas Ezra had purchased the three textbooks required for the classes.

J.D. was receiving two round trip tickets to Boston plus a four-day five-night stay at a local hotel. Once on a stakeout J.D. had lamented how he'd like to take Casey to Boston and show her the place where he grew up. The agent also admitted he'd like his mom to meet the girl he liked so much. J.D. had quickly tried to take the comment back, stating he knew how dumb it sounded for Casey to meet a deceased person. Ezra had reassured the young man it wasn't dumb and that instead it was a wonderful testament to how well his mother had lovingly raised him. Ezra would never admit it but he was jealous of the young man, he had at least had a mother who cared about him.

Buck had given him a little trouble. The man only seemed interested in one thing. Ezra had finally gone to a little antique shop and found the perfect gift. He had found an old tintype picture of two cowboys on horseback in the snow. Remarkably the two men resembled Buck and Chris. On the note attached Ezra wrote: A man can weather anything when he has a friend who'll stand. You have proven to be such a person. At the time he was thinking of how Buck had stood with Chris when his family was murdered. Ezra also purchased the latest hot video game. Buck had been trying for a month to get one; Ezra had made a few calls and found one in Minnesota.

Vin had also been easy, perhaps the easiest. Vin, Ezra knew, owned the least of the seven, he hardly bought anything for himself. The longhaired Texan claimed he didn't like clutter in his life. Ezra had gone to a western wear outlet and purchased a black and blue flannel work jacket with thick lining and a pair of sturdy leather work gloves. Vin could wear them when he was out at Chris' ranch working. Ezra figured the flannel jacket would be better than that old leather fringe coat he insisted on wearing. Ezra had thought about getting the man an electric seat warmer for that old jeep he insisted on driving but decided Vin would just return it and somehow give Ezra his money back.

Not once did getting any of them a gift certificate cross his mind. To him they were too much like money. Ezra knew from past experiences money wasn't a present; instead it said to him, "I was too busy to really think about you."

Chris proved to be the biggest challenge. After much contemplation Ezra settled on a black western cut suit coat. It had tiny silver threads running through it, enough to show some shimmer but not enough to look shiny. Since he didn't know Chris' exact measurements he also, purchased an alteration certificate from his own tailor. Though he didn't like the idea of a certificate as a present he reasoned that this was a necessary purchase and it did go with the coat. As he was paying for the coat the sales woman mentioned a shirt that would go well with the coat. It, too, was black with silver thread running through it. It was perfect.

So, here he was sitting around the table with his friends, listening to the easy bantering going around. He told himself this was just another job, much like the ones when he went undercover. Push aside the real him and become the person they wanted. Let them believe he was having a good day and felt included, like he belonged here with them. The green-eyed agent figured it would be easier to pull this off if his stomach didn't feel so queasy. 'Put it aside Standish' he rebuked himself. He nonchalantly glanced at his watch; the time showed him he had a ways to go before he could extricate himself without running into problems, namely Mr. Wilmington.

Breakfast ended and the men started cleaning up. A "tradition" Chris had insisted on, he hated having his house look like a pigpen and with seven of them that was a possibility. Ezra surreptitiously placed himself at the sink. He ordinarily abhorred menial labor but desperate times called for desperate measures. As far as Ezra was concerned anything that prolonged the inevitable was paramount to him surviving this day. The fact Ezra had placed himself at the sink didn't go unnoticed neither did the fact that it was obvious he intended to hand wash the dishes instead of rinsing them off and putting them in the dishwasher. J.D. came in with the last items from the table and saw the sink filling with suds. Walking up behind Ezra he clamped his hands on his friend's shoulders, filling the tremor that ran thru Ezra's body caused by the touch. Excitement of a young kid filled his voice. "C'mon Ez, just put them in the dishwasher and lets go", releasing his grip.

"Of course J.D. I don't know what I was thinking", letting the water out and leaning against the counter, pretending to dry his hands.

J.D. left to round up the others, leaving Buck in the kitchen alone with the reluctant brown-haired man. The mustached man took the opportunity to make amends for his behavior the night before. Walking up to Ezra, he took in the masked appearance and said a silent curse. The undercover agent was leaning against the counter with his ankles crossed and his arms crossed against his chest. His face was unreadable but the older man knew what the man was silently saying, "I'm closed". Buck figured that Ezra was planning the "Great Escape". "Ey Ez." Buck stammered, "I'm glad you came." Ezra lifted his eyes to gaze straight into the blue eyes studying him. Malice coloring his southern drawl " I don't believe I had a choice", raising his eyebrows for emphasis. "You made that quite clear last night." Ezra finished with a touch of concession in his voice.

"Yeah Ez you did", Buck sadly replied. Realizing he had put a rift between the two of them.

"I did? Mr. Wilmington you made it quite plain I was to make an appearance today for no other reason than not to disappoint Mr. Dunne."

The southern voice assaulted Buck's soft heart with the truth. He also noticed Ezra was using last names again. "You're right I did and it was wrong." Buck took a deep breath "Look Ez I wanted you to come because you belong here and I was afraid you'd find a way to back out. So, instead of telling you I used J.D. as an excuse to get you to show up. It was wrong and I'm sorry. It was wrong to threaten you. I apologize."

Ezra studied the blue eyes staring at him and saw the truth, the man was truly sorry. "Apology accepted." Ezra moved off to his bedroom and closed the door.

Buck hung his head as he felt his heart drop. He and his inner need to protect the kid had wiped all of J.D.'s hard work out. Looking up he caught his long time friend watching him. The blond leader had seen most of the interaction and knew his friend was feeling pretty bad. Buck gave him a self-incriminating smile and nodded his head towards the door. Chris knew what his friend was saying. Someone needed to go in there and get the southerner and it couldn't be Buck.

Chris hesitantly walked to the door and quietly pushed it open. The dark clad man stood stock still taking in the sight in front of him, his spirits temporarily dipping. Ezra was tipping his silver flask to his lips and taking along pull. Chris understood he was going to have to put a stop to the man's intentions but how could he condemn Ezra for doing something the he, himself, had done year after year after his family's death?

Moving into the room he cleared his throat "Kinda early for that ain't it?" Ezra put the flask up and turned to his boss, "We all got our traditions." A smart-alec smile gracing the southerner's face.

Chris nodded his head towards the door. "C'mon they're waiting for us", understanding filled his voice. Placing his arm around the slender man's shoulders he noticed the shudder but didn't remove his arm. Guiding Ezra towards the living he took note of his friend's attempt to walk slow. "Ez, its not an execution."

The brown haired southern gentleman stopped and turned to look at the man beside him. "I do believe Mr. Larabee that would be preferable."

Chris studied the green eyes for a moment, looking for any signs of jest. Not finding any traces of humor the man let out a slow breath and quietly divulged, "You know something Ez, I felt the same way the first Christmas".

Ezra wasn't surprised the man felt that way after losing his family he was, however, surprised the black clad man would tell him. Chris continued, "If it becomes absolutely to much the horses could be tended to", giving Ezra a wink and a half a smile.

The two friends walked into the living room to find the others already seated. On the other side of Chris' recliner Vin sat on a small love seat, the location closest to the door. On this side of the recliner was a couch where Josiah and Nathan were seated. Completing the square like a horseshoe seating arrangement was Buck in another recliner and beside him on the floor was J.D. Nathan scooted closer to Josiah and beckoned Ezra over.

The anxious man waved him off with a smile and a shake of his head. Instead he grabbed a dining table chair and put it between the couch and Buck's recliner; placing it back outside of the circle. He, too, wanted to be near an exit and the kitchen door was the closest.

Once everyone was seated J.D. jumped to his feet and clapped his hands. "Time for presents!" The black haired agent was like a little kid at times, this being one of them. For J.D. it was simple, his whole family was there for the first time since they had come together as a team.

Ezra's stomach began its roller coaster effect once more. As he watched the young agent begin passing out the gifts he closed his eyes and repeated to himself again that it was just a game, a scam, a charade. He did this for a living, fooling people. He sometimes pretended to be someone else for weeks or months all he had to do was pretend for one day. Ezra was so deep in concentration that he jumped when he heard J.D.'s voice coming from in front of him. He looked up to find the man holding out a gift. The undercover agent slowly took hold of the wrapped box and laid in his lap. The package actually burned his hands. As he stared down at the object in his lap he ran his tongue over his lips unconsciously. He could feel his heart picking up speed and the air was getting stifling. He glanced around the room and was grateful to notice the others had all received at least one gift and had begun opening them.

The other six men might have appeared to be preoccupied with their presents but that was far from it. Each man watched, with guarded looks, their seventh brother with sadness and worry.

Even J.D. noticed how Ezra kept running his fingers between his neck and the ribbed loose collar of his pullover sweater as if it was too tight. The youngest brother was beginning to feel guilty for pushing his friend into coming. Maybe, the others were right Ez wasn't ready to join them in something that required a personal investment.

Chris and Vin watched as Ezra received his second present, the first one still lay unopened. Chris thought to himself that if the man didn't quit pulling on his sweater cuffs they were going to be dragging the floor by this afternoon.

Vin knew now that no matter how hard that first Christmas two years ago had been for him it was nothing compared to how it was affecting his friend. He was glad Nathan was there because from the looks of his friend the healer was going to be needed. Vin wasn't too sure they weren't going to be making a trip to hospital from the way Ezra was looking.

Ezra felt like he was going to lose it. His hands had taken on a tremor and his heart was racing. His stomach was uneasy, he was getting hot and it was getting harder to breath. Not to mention the roomed seemed to be shrinking and tilting at the same time.

Nathan and Josiah noticed as beads of sweat popped out on their normally cold blooded brother's face and rolled down his cheeks like a stream. Josiah got up and headed for the kitchen thinking maybe a glass of water would help the man he loved like a son.

Josiah was past being anxious now he was downright concerned for his friend. A case of too much too soon came rushing to his mind. He had figured Ezra's past had been more painful then the secretive man let on, including Christmas.

Nathan watched with worried anticipation as he observed Ezra's breathing become faster and shallower and his face become pale. 'Dang, he's going to hyperventilate'. The healer laid aside his gifts with the intention of getting Ezra outside as quickly as possible.

At that moment J.D. handed Ezra his third gift. Buck saw it the split second it happened, panic had hit Ezra full force. As J.D. turned to return for more packages Ezra stood up and headed for the kitchen door, the need for air overwhelming. The four older friends didn't make any sign of awareness as Ezra tried to escape.

Turning from the tree with his arms full of packages J.D. reached Nathan before noticing Ezra leaving. "Ey Ez where you going?" This simple question garnered the youngest brother a none too gentle kick from the normally passive healer, a slightly toned down glare from his leader and a none too subtle cough from his roommate. They had warned him this might happen and if it did they were going to simply ignore it.

Ezra froze. Maude's training and years of being an undercover agent had taught the man to think on his feet at lightening speed. Turning to face his young friend with his customary smile. "It has come to the forefront of my attention that I have yet to check on Chaucer. Since the Good Lord above sought out the animals of the world and took care of their needs I would be remiss if I did no less for the creature who depends on me."

"Oh ok." J.D. accepted the explanation graciously.

Turning around to continue his escape he ran into Josiah coming back from the kitchen. The anthropologist could see the overwhelming panic in the bright green eyes that stood out against the pale white face. After doing a little dance trying to get around each other Josiah finally stepped back and allowed the brother to hastily continue his retreat.

Buck rose from his chair and went to the window. He watched as Ezra came out the kitchen door and headed for the porch steps, swaying slightly. The younger man reached the steps and grabbed onto the support post next to them. Clinging to it he leaned his head against the cool wood and breathed deeply, willing his heart to slow down and the dizziness to cease. Buck made a move to go out and check on his friend when he noticed Ezra traipsed down the steps. The mustached man watched intently as Ezra traversed across the yard and into the barn.

"He made it" Buck quietly informed the others.

Ezra opened the barn door and blinked rapidly, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness of the barn. Spotting a bale of hay almost directly across from Chaucer's stall. He stumbled over to it and sat down heavily. Resting his arms on his knees he put his head down and let the coolness of the air and the solitude calm his nerves. He really hated Christmas.

Christmas to the undercover agent had always meant being put in places he didn't want to be with people who didn't want him. It didn't matter if it was with Maude or some "relative" it was always the same. Ezra shuddered as unwanted memories flooded his mind. Tears quietly flowed down his cheeks as he relived some of the more nightmarish ones. In the twelve Christmases they had been together Maude had never actually spent Christmas with him, not in the traditional sense. On Christmas Eve she would leave Ezra alone and go to some gala. Most of Christmas day she spent sleeping or she'd spend the night with the host. Then Maude and her son would have dinner together, exchange gifts and then she would go out again.

Ezra thought about the way Maude always received his gifts. She would have a 'why did you buy me this?' look, then say how precious it was. Ezra never saw those presents again.

The depressed man pushed back the memories of Christmases spent with the relatives. He couldn't handle those right now, to do so would be too crushing to what little reserve of control he had left.

As the men returned to opening their presents after Ezra's departure a slight heaviness filled the room. Unconsciously each one laid aside the package wrapped in shimmering bright blue paper. After all the gifts had been opened and the proper sentiments had been expressed their eyes fell to the unopened presents.

"So do we open them now or wait till he comes back" J.D. questioned, fingering the ribbon tied into a perfect bow. He really hoped Ezra would in fact come back and not leave.

"Now" Chris stated, reaching for his gift.

Each man slowly unwrapped his neatly wrapped present, swearing to like it no matter what it turned out to be.

Josiah's eyes moistened as he read the donation card. Knowing Ezra the way he thought he did, the younger brother had donated enough money to feed every child for the next three months. Josiah had come to realize the man had a very big heart; he just didn't want anyone to find out. He softly laughed as he pulled out the auto store card. 'Subtle Ez. Very subtle'

The books he had received astounded Nathan. The healer knew the agent had forked out some big money because he had already priced them. Even buying them used it was going to run well over a hundred dollars. The medic suddenly had a sneaking suspicion of who had placed that grant form on his desk. It wouldn't surprise him if the wily agent hadn't had a hand in him getting the grant.

Buck laughed as he took out the video game. The smug agent must have pulled some strings to get the desired object. He, himself, had called everywhere he could think of and the response was always the same, they were on a two-month backorder. His laughed died out as he pulled the tintype from its cotton filled box. The picture grabbed his attention immediately. He wondered where the heck this picture was taken of Chris and him and how Ezra had managed to make it appear so old. Upon further study he realized it wasn't them but resembled the two friends a lot. The jovial man picked up the note and read it, tears sprang to his eyes. 'Jeez Ez', silently admonishing himself once more for his behavior towards the man. 'You are too, my friend. You are too.' He knew the note would go into his safe along with all the others things he held valuable.

J.D. let out a low yell as he held up the two tickets and passes for the motel. He immediately felt his gift for Ezra was unsubstantial and trivial. He would go out and get his friend something really nice

Vin removed his flannel jacket and work gloves and smiled. 'At least the man has taste' Knowing if it had been from Buck or J.D. the colors would be blinding. The longhaired agent ran his hand over the soft, warm material appreciatively. Ezra was indeed a good friend with a good heart, if they could just get past all those barriers he kept putting up.

Chris opened the lid and stared at the simple but dressy coat. The leader thought it was really beautiful, for guy clothes. He noticed the western cut and the intricate silver thread woven through out, giving the jacket a classy look. Next, he pulled the matching shirt out. Gazing at the two items he, like Vin, appreciated Ezra's sense of style.

Josiah gaze swept across his friends, each admiring their gift. "Seems Ezra knows us better than we thought he did."

"That's what we get for having the best undercover agent this side of the Mississippi. He's good at observing without letting you know he doing it" Buck happily agreeing with the anthropologist.

The men started cleaning up the mess. The mustached man decided it was time to retrieve their wayward brother from the cold, both figuratively and literally.

Chris watched his friend leave the house and decided to give him five minutes to get Ezra back in the house. If he weren't back he'd go out and help whichever one needed rescuing. Buck was a good listener and pretty good talker; Chris knew that from personal experience. On more than one occasion Buck had listened to him rant and rave, then talked to him. Giving him reasons for getting on with his life. But for some reason, more often than not, when it came to Ezra, Buck wound up using his fists to communicate. It could be that the undercover agent would antagonize the ladies man until Buck couldn't think straight.

Buck entered the barn without Ezra noticing him. The older agent saw his friend sitting on the hay; he swore when he saw tears running down his cheeks. Stepping back against the door he opened it again then slammed it shut and coughed. Ezra jumped and began furiously wiping his face.

"Ey Ez, you in here?" moving into the barn slowly. He stopped to rub his horse, giving Ezra time to get in control.

"Right in front of you Mr. Wilmington" straightening up his appearance.

"Oh there you are. Didn't see you there. It's dark in here. Didn't give my eyes a chance to adjust", easily lying.

Sitting down on the bale next to Ezra Buck glanced over at his friend, the evidence of tears still lingered.

"Ez, I really liked my gift." Honesty flowed from the mustached man.

"I'm glad you liked the game." Ezra commented as he shifted slightly away.

Sighing, Buck corrected his younger brother. "I was talking about the picture…and the note." The ladies man finished softly.

Ezra thought he heard a bit of delight in the other man's voice. "Oh. Well if you decide you don't like it I'm sure you can return it and find something more to your liking."

"Why would I do something as stupid as that? I just told you I like it. I don't lie you know?" Buck closed his eyes. The more time he spent with the undercover brother the more he realized as confident and cocky as he acted Ezra was really very insecure. He scooted closer to Ezra, not leaving him anymore room to move, and quite softly put his arm around his friend's shoulders, feeling them stiffen but he didn't remove it. It was time this brother got his message through that obstinate head of his.

"Ez" the older friend quietly began, "You, too, are a man who stands. I'm grateful to not only have you as a member of this team but to have you as a friend. I know I wasn't a very good one and I am truly sorry for that. I'm glad you came today and not for J.D….but for me." Buck didn't expect a response. Ezra, for all his use of twenty dollars there were some words that he just didn't use. Like friend, trust and love.

Ezra was stunned and suddenly extremely uncomfortable. It wasn't the fact that Buck had his arm on him but that the man was so open with his emotions, something Ezra could never do. The younger man leapt up and walked over to the stall gate. Chaucer knowing it was his owner standing at his stall leaned his head over the top railing and nudged Ezra wanting to be petted. Ezra unconsciously stroked his nuzzle.

Buck watched the interaction between horse and master. Somehow the two belonged together. Their personalities meshed like one, both were hard to control but faithful to the end. The ladies' man looked up as Chris walked through the doors. Nodding to each other the leader made his way down the isle to his horse's own stall. Passing by Ezra he rested his hand for a moment on his friend's shoulder before moving on. "How's Chaucer?"

"He's well" Ezra was devoted to his horse. If he ever were forced to use the word love it would be used for the steadfast steed.

Buck got up and moved over to Ezra. "Well, now that the ornery beast has been taken care of, you ready to come in and get ready for some football?" hiding his grin, knowing full well Ezra didn't care about football but watched it regardless when they were together, usually because of the wagers he'd make.

"Its over?" Ezra asked. Ducking his head in embarrassment. 'How childish can you be, Standish'

Chris and Buck glanced at each other. Neither could help but notice the anticipation and relief in Ezra's voice. For the thousandth time that day they wondered what could have happened to make the man dislike the Holidays so much.

"Yes Ezra it's over. The guys have gotten everything cleaned up and now they're getting the snacks out for the games."

"Good Grief" the green eyed man knew just what kind of snacks Buck was referring to. Buck and J.D. didn't know what healthy food was. Those two thought cheetos were one of the major food groups.

Chris came up beside Ezra as Buck slapped Ezra on the arm "C'mon Ez".

The two old friends started off and noticed the third man was not following, turning they noted Ezra still held onto the stall gate. Walking back to Ezra's side Buck put his hand on the agent's arm. "Ez, you'll get farther if you let go." Smiling his mischievous grin and wiggled his eyebrows.

"Yes, of course", Ezra released his grip and joined up with Chris.

The three men walked back to the porch, the two older agents flanking the younger one. Nearing the steps Ezra gave a sideways glance at his car. Chris put his hand on Ezra's shoulder and gave him a jovial shove "Ez, its just a football game. Think of the money you can win", letting out a rare chuckle. Ezra gave sigh. 'Yes, Well there is that. Besides the worst part is over.'

Entering the kitchen the three agents walked into the midst of happy chaos. J.D. and Vin were having their customary argument over which teams were best and why. Nathan and Josiah were bantering over the hot sauce for the chips that Nathan had made. Nathan insisting it was hot enough, Josiah shot back that it could be hotter. All four briefly stopped as Buck, Chris and Ezra walked then began assaulting them with "Tell him I'm right". A light smile floated across his face 'Everything was back to normal'

After Chris and Buck settled the disputes by adding their own opinions each man grabbed a drink of his choice and a snack. Ezra observed someone, most likely Josiah or Nathan, had been kind enough to bring him some fresh fruit and a container of cottage cheese.

Ezra was unsure how they finagled it but he wound up on the small couch. He noticed stacked on the floor at the end of the couch was seven presents of various shapes and sizes. Ezra tried to ignore them for the time being. He settled into his spot and began to relax. His green eyes roamed around the room. Chris and Buck were both stretched out in their recliners, Josiah was writing notes on a yellow pad of paper. A wish list no doubt for either the auto store or the Youth Center. Nathan was reading one of his books, getting a head start on his class readings. J.D. was playing Buck's new game. He had set up the video game player in the corner across the room, so he could play and still watch the football game. He had bought his old TV out to the ranch a couple of months ago, after purchasing a new one, for such occasions. Vin was sitting next to the young man coaching him on how to play, which was irritating J.D. because Vin had never played the game before himself. Getting those together was like turning two five-year olds loose.

Ezra kept glancing at the packages at the end of the couch. Curiosity began sneaking into the reserved agent. After half-time Vin came over to the small couch sensing J.D. had enough of his "help". Ezra sat up and shifted to the end giving his longhaired friend as much room as possible. Vin disliked being crowded as much as he did.

Soon, Ezra found himself fingering the top package; he yanked his hand back as if it had been scalded. He closed his eyes desperately trying to figure out what to do with the presents. He wanted to open them but doubt and "what ifs" overran his mind. "What if the presents were nicer than the ones he had given? What if they wanted them back after his ungracious and appalling behavior earlier? What if…"

Vin watched his friend closely knowing the struggle he was going through. He had gone through a similar war within himself that first Christmas. He wanted to give encouragement but decided it would be best to leave the man alone and let him come to his own decisions. A funny thought occurred to him at that moment was that what was in all those unopened boxes in his closet; Christmas presents. Vin didn't think so but it was something to ponder.

Ezra opened his eyes and once again gazed around the room. No one seemed to be paying him any attention, their minds on the various interests they were involved in. Ezra eyed the packages once more before making a decision. Picking up the very top present he noticed it was from J.D. Seeing how this day meant so much to him he decided to open it last. "Save the best for last" popped into his mind. He put the small square box on the floor and picked up the next gift and set it on his knees. The note on top stated it was from Chris. He ran his fingers along the taped seams on each end and gently pushed the rectangle cardboard box out on end. Taking the red wrapping paper, still taped together underneath, he folded it in half and laid it on the couch beside him.

J.D. noticed, along with the others, Ezra's actions out of the corner of his eyes. Stopping the game he quietly walked over to Buck's recliner and sat down on the arm. As the black haired agent watched his friend slowly and methodically remove the box from the wrapping paper, the antsy young brother wanted to tell Ezra to just rip it off but figured one kick to the shins today was enough.

The brown haired agent stared at the box a moment before taking a deep breath and lifting the lid off, letting out a low gasp. The loquacious agent was speechless. In the box lay a Forest green colored shirt with a matching tie and a coat handkerchief. Lifting out the items like he was handling fine crystal, he placed the box on the coffee table and placed the articles on his lap. Running his fingers gingerly over the shirt he could tell the shirt was of good quality. He spied his initials on the shirt's left cuff and upon further inspection marked the fact that the tie and hankie also held his initials. Looking at the attire he tried to mask his feelings and failed miserably. After a length of time he placed the ensemble back into the box, slipping the wrapping paper into the box before replacing the lid.

J.D. was puzzled as why the seemingly well off brother was saving the paper. He certainly didn't need it. 'Maybe he's saving it till he can throw it away later.'

Chris had hoped the young undercover agent liked his gift but he wasn't prepared for that kind of reaction. The man had acted like he'd received the crown jewels or something just as valuable. The others had marveled just as much as Chris had at their reserved brother's feelings that showed plainly on his face and in his actions. They only hoped Ezra would like their individual presents as much.

Ezra reached for the next present as slowly as he had the first. 'Maybe this won't be as much of a catastrophe as I thought'

Carefully untaping the wrapping paper, he again laid it aside. He opened the fair size box and peered inside. A slow smile crept up on his face, deepening his dimples. Nathan's present for him was medical supplies. Working undercover had its drawbacks, one of them being that there were times when he was out there working alone. At these times he had to take care of any injuries he incurred himself. More than once he had come across a malefactor that required a "show of faith". This usually meant having to go a few rounds with a few hundred pound bodyguard. Afterwards, if he wasn't almost dead, he had to fix whatever harm had been done to his person. He couldn't very well go running to Nathan, or a hospital for that matter, to get patched up. The supplies were Nathan's way of taking care of him from afar. The two men had come to a silent understanding, they cared about each other they just would never vocalize the feeling.

The six friends watched as he treated the wrapping paper with as much reverence as he did the presents themselves as like before he placed the wrapping paper inside the box. Each one wondering, once again, about the strange idiosyncrasies that made up their brother.

Placing the box on the coffee table alongside the other box he glanced at the medic. Suddenly he blushed with embarrassment, and whispered a thank-you. Nathan merely nodded a "you're welcome". By now the TV had been placed on mute, the game totally forgotten about.

As he reached for the third present Era noticed a large package leaning against the wall. He briefly wondered about it and quickly surmised it was a present for Chris' neighbor, Mrs. Potter or Vin's tutor, Mrs. Wells. Taking the third one into his hands he knew was a book and since it was from Josiah he guessed it to be one on philosophy. Josiah and him often had philosophical discussions, especially when they were working undercover together. Even though he would never admit it Ezra enjoyed those conversations. Josiah, Ezra had found out, was highly intelligent; you just had to decipher his parables and figure out what he was saying.

Now fully aware he had garnished the other's attention Ezra continued to remove the leather bound book from its container. It was Homer's Odyssey. Ezra had let it slip one time that the story was one of his favorites, Ezra was surprised that Josiah had remembered that incident. Ezra ran his hand over the leather with feather-like motion, taking note of the fine cracks and the imprinted words. From his observations he gathered it was an old copy but had been well cared for.

The reserved agent ran a hand through his hair. He realized these fellow workers had actually bought him presents that he would use and enjoy. Always before, when he spent the precious few Christmases with Maude, the maid had been sent out to pick something up. When he was placed with "relatives" "Aunt" or "Uncle" So and so would grab off the shelve the first thing they saw, never considering his likes or dislikes or even his age. He pushed these thoughts from his mind and reached for the next gift.

It was from Vin. 'Oh boy, no telling what this prankster got me' Ezra grinned at the thought, when they first met he was sure that he and Vin had nothing in common. It turned out that they actually had a lot in common, including having a wicked mind when it came to pranks. Ezra stopped cold and stared at the present he had unwrapped. There in the cardboard box was a shadow box. It was about a 14"x14" wooden box frame. Glass was encased in the front of the frame, looking in you could see the blue velvet that was glued to the back panel. Mounted on the velvet were a lighter with a flip top, like those used to light a pipe; a half of a deck of cards were fanned out in the upper corner, so old they didn't have numbers only the suit; and last of all a silver pocket watch, a train ingrained on the outside lid. Staring intently at the antique items he momentarily lost track of time. Like all the other presents, the thoughtfulness these men showed took his breath away.

Ezra turned and gave Vin the same shy smile and quiet "thank you" he had given the others. The soft-spoken Texan returned the thank you with an equally quiet "you're welcome". Like his brothers Vin had no desire to break the spell that settled itself around the seven. Vin was enjoying the rare appreciation Ezra was giving each present.

Next was Buck's gift. The ladies man sat up a little straighter in anticipation. Ezra had been a challenge for him. The mischievous man had thought of a gag gift but decided against it since this was the first Christmas Ezra was spending with them. He had stumbled across the article by accident; he had gone with Vin to that antique shop and spotted it in the glass case. The minute Buck saw the prized possession it reminded him of Ezra.

The normally constrained agent was beginning to feel like he was going to explode from the emotions he was trying to keep under control. He was allowing some of what he felt to show through but not all. If this didn't end soon he was going to totally breakdown and once again have to leave. He glanced down at the remaining packages and heaved a mental sigh of relieve, only two more to go.

Ezra removed the bright red, green and blue paper with Santa Clauses splattered about. It was truly tacky. 'We've got to work on improving his tastes or at least have him checked for color blindness' Inside was another shadow box identical to Vin's except smaller, perhaps a 9"x9" the southerner guessed. Mounted inside was a small two-shot Derringer. If Ezra had to guess he would put it in the middle to late 1800's, the same time period as those items in the other shadow box.

If Buck was worried that his friend wouldn't like his gift he shouldn't have. The ladies man watched attentively as the loquacious man seemed to be as immersed in studying the small pea shooter as he had all the other gifts.

Laying the small shadow box with all the other presents he reached down for the last one. "Best for last" the southern drawl came in a whisper as Ezra gave J.D. a wink; he was here after all, because of the youngster's relentlessness. 'Boy is like dog with a bone when he wants something bad enough. Chris Larabee watch out'. Placing the small cubed box on his lap he undid the paper as carefully as he had all the others and was slightly baffled by the box. Opening the box Ezra removed the object, his bafflement intensifying. Quickly masking his confusion he studied the object held in his hands. It appeared to be a puzzle of some kind. It was a cube with various moveable parts; on each part were smaller squares that were colored. The stumped agent could only stare at the object trying to figure out what it might be. 'Maybe its suppose to be abstract art. Perhaps Mr. Wilmington informed the young agent of my likeness for art and Mr. Dunne thought he was doing something special' Not wanting to upset his young friend Ezra put on his best player face and with false pleasure thanked J.D.

Vin saw the confusion and decided he'd best rescue the drowning man before he unintentionally took the younger agent down with him.

"Hey! A Rubik Cube", grabbing the puzzle from Ezra's hands. "I haven't seen one of these in years", began to rearrange the already mixed up colors.

"I hated those things", Chris grumbled, trying to give Ezra time to watch Vin and catch on what he was suppose to do the gift. "Never could get all the colors to line up right."

Josiah appreciated the way the longhaired brother had unobtrusively rescued his drowning brother. "I loved them", the deep voice of the anthropologist filled the quiet room as he walked over and took the cube from Vin. Sitting down on the coffee table he ignored Chris' stare and began trying to match the colors back together. "It's a great mind game", glancing in Ezra's direction. "It expands the learning process, helps you think outside the box", handing the puzzle back to Ezra with a smile Josiah saw understanding dawn in those bright green eyes. J.D. was thinking this would be a challenge for him.

Nathan couldn't believe it. Ezra hadn't known what the game was. Even as poor as the Jackson family had been his siblings and him had each received one those blasted infuriating puzzles. 'Maybe rich kids don't play with such common and trivial games' the medic quickly dismissed that idea, nope it was just that Ezra had never seen one before.

Ezra held the cube in his hands, turning it over and over. After a couple of minutes he began twisting and manipulating the moveable parts until five minutes later all the colors were correctly aligned. Smiling a full smile at J.D. he placed the finished puzzle on the loaded coffee table. "Thank you Mr…J.D."

J.D. couldn't only mumble a "welcome". He was stunned, Buck and him had played with the object for two days, making sure all the colors were sufficiently mixed up. This only proved what he had always believed; Ezra was smarter than he let on. 'Oh yeah, he uses big words but he never really shows off how intelligent he is'

None of the men expected Ezra to voice his feeling about the presents, or them. He just didn't do that. Yes, the man grumbled and complained about petty things but the important or serious emotions he kept hidden behind his walls. On the rare occasion when he wanted them to know how he felt he used those bright green eyes to convey it. With those eyes he could express everything or absolutely nothing. Even Chris, who was notorious for keeping his feelings under wraps, could express his emotions easier than the reticent brother.

Ezra started to gather his precious belongings up but was stopped short by Buck's words. "You got one more there", pointing to the large, thin square package leaning against the wall. The stunned agent's head popped up in surprise. Ezra slowly got up off the couch and took the two steps over to the object. Leaning over he hefted the gift up, noting how heavy it was. Turning around he saw Vin had cleared off the table so he could lay it down.

Buck swatted J.D. off the arm of the chair long enough so that he could set the recliner upright. This present had been his idea and the ladies' man had convinced the rest of the guys to chip in and buy it.

Ezra didn't think he could take any more. Emotions that had long been buried had come racing to the top and flowed through him till he felt drained. He could have run a marathon and not felt so wrung-out. He had tried to mask his emotions in the beginning but it was too draining and besides he figured these friends deserved to know how he felt about their gifts. He would never be able to vocalize what this day had meant to him in the past and how they had changed all that this day.

The reserved agent knelt down by the coffee table and started meticulously uncovering the package. When he spread back the paper and saw what it was he thought his heart was going to stop. He struggled momentarily for his next breath. The agent finished removing all the paper with shaky hands. Feeling slightly light headed he rested back on his heels. There before him was 'his' painting.

It portrayed an old west saloon with seven men gathered around a green felt covered table playing poker. By their appearances and dress it was easy to distinguish whom the gentlemen were. There were a couple of dusty cowboys, a young blond one and an older dark haired one; a young kid, wearing a bowler hat; a doc; a gunfighter, dressed in black; a man marked as a preacher by the cross he wore around his neck and the peaceful look that graced his face; and lastly a riverboat gambler dressed in a fancy red coat, holding the winning hand. The seven players seem to be enjoying themselves and if one was to use their imagination it was easy to perceive that these men were well acquainted with each other, perhaps even friends or brothers.

Delicately, Ezra ran his fingertips over the oil painting. Taking in all the fine details; the chip in one of the whiskey glasses. The fine layer of dust that seemed to coat everything. There were so many little details that popped out. The thought that this beautiful painting was his to enjoy forever overwhelmed the undemonstrative brother. He felt a crack in the wall that he had carefully constructed around himself to keep out the pain and hurt people had the ability to inflict. There had been so much of it in the past; he didn't think he could stand anymore. Then these six different men came into his life. The reflective brother began to contemplate what these men had been telling him from the time they merged as a team. He had a family. A real family. One that accepted him as he was; one that would be there no matter what happened. A family that argued with him but stood up for him when outsiders tried to take him on. They really cared about him. The loner knew it was more but he couldn't say the word, love, yet.

Chris had sat up in his chair when Ezra had first removed the paper and glanced at Nathan. They had all witnessed Ezra's face become a very unhealthy shade of white. Nathan shot a 'lets wait' look, so the leader of the seven leaned back in his chair and waited, and prayed they wouldn't be going to the hospital. 'That would be a tough one to explain to the doctors. "See doc he had a heart attack because he opened a gift he liked." , Ezra you better behave!'

When Buck had first told them of the painting they had laughed. The theme just didn't figure into the image of what Ezra would like. But, Buck had persisted and now watching the closed-in friend run his fingertips over the painting it seemed Buck was correct, this did mean a lot to their brother. Chris looked over to his long-time friend and smiled 'way to go my friend'.

Buck had found out about the picture four months before. Ezra and him had been put undercover; Ezra as a gun dealer and Buck had been, of course, his bodyguard. The job had become not only physically draining but psychologically draining as well. The miscreant they were dealing with was not only a gunrunner but a drug dealer, too. One who liked to sample his own goods, a lot. For this reason he was always in a party mood, which meant when he partied the two undercover agents partied. Another problem was that due to his constant inhalation of the drugs the guy was whacked. He was forever coming up with some crazy and at times dangerous game for him and Ezra to play. Which the undercover agent went along with until the drug addict suggested Russian roulette. Ezra had drawn the line and the next day Team Seven busted the lunatic.

Buck noticed during the afternoons, while Mr. Telford slept, his partner would disappear. For several days the ladies man had followed him, out of curiosity. Buck would watch as Ezra disappeared into a small gallery just three blocks from the Federal Building. One day, feeling like an intruder but wanting to know what Ezra did in there for hours on end he went in. He found his partner in a small room filled with western art. He was sitting on a bench staring at a particular painting. Without turning around a southern voice bounced off the walls. "Was wondering when you'd decided to come in Mr. Wilmington" Every day after that the two men drove to the gallery and Ezra would stare at the painting.

One day Buck couldn't hold it back any more. "Ez, what is it about this painting?"

Ezra shrugged, "Through this picture I can become somewhere else and get re-energized." During those times the undercover agent taught the ladies man a thing or two about art.

Ezra was gathering up the assortment of presents. He was wondering what he was going to do with the painting, though. Hanging it at his house didn't seem like something he could do and he couldn't very well store it in his closest.

Seeming to read his friend's mind the owner of the ranch house leaned forward, "You know Ez, if you wanted to hang your painting in that room in there I wouldn't mind. Seeing as how you guys are out here half the time anyway." Chris had already had this discussion with Buck. They all knew Ezra had a personal problem with making things, especially places, his own. He had lived in the same house for three years and it looked exactly like it did after the first week of moving in. Chris and the guys had discussed this dilemma and wondered whether buying the painting would be such a good idea. Buck had suggested to Chris that he let Ezra hang the picture in the room he occupied at the ranch. The mischievous friend had winked at Chris, "Room by room we'll get him to belong."

Vin helped his overloaded friend to the back bedroom. Putting the stuff down on the bed the Texan started to leave. When Ezra stopped him with a simple word. "Mr…Vin"

The sharpshooter turned at the mention of his first name. Walking back to bed he replied, "yeah Ez?"

The unflappable agent shuffled his feet and looked at the floor "Might I be so bold as to ask you a rather personal question?"

"Shoot" Vin figured whatever it was it had to be worrying the usually cool agent something fierce for him to be so nervous.

Looking up into his friend's eyes he thought about changing his mind but went forward, "Did you ever have a good Christmas….you know before", waving his hand in the air to indicate where they were.

"Yeah." Vin said softly, sitting down on the bed. "When my mom was alive she always made Christmas good."

"And afterwards" Ezra questioned.

"I'd say I had one or two. Not every foster home was terrible", the young agent finished with a smile. He knew something was wrong and his friend was trying to feel him out before divulging the problem. "How about you?"

"Huh?" Ezra's head jerked up. He, too, had sat down on the edge of the bed and was fingering one of the precious boxes.

"How about you?" Vin repeated. Unlike some of the others he knew Ezra's life wasn't what he led the others to believe. It had been as difficult as his.

"I had two", the brother answered without emotion.

The longhaired sharpshooter was appalled. 'Two! Jeez, I've had more good Christmases than him'. The concept blew Vin's mind. "Wanna tell me about 'em?" figuring maybe this was what was bothering him.

Ezra shook his head negatively. They were his only good memories and for now he wanted to keep them to himself. Vin nodded. He understood about keeping the good memories safe. Another thought occurred to him "What about the others?"

Ezra stopped fingering the presents and looked up at Vin. "Let's just say that by the time I was thirteen I learned the only way to get through the stupid day was with a bottle of Bourbon", ending in an angry and hurt tone.

"You were drinking Bourbon at age thirteen?" Vin shook his head. He hadn't started drinking the day away until he was eighteen.

"It's the only way" the cockiness returning to the southerner's voice. "Some nightmares can't be survived any other way, am I right?"

Chris, who had been standing at the door listening, figured it was a good time to interrupt. It had been too good a day to let his two friends get burdened down with the past. "So, Ez you know where you want that picture? I was thinking on this wall right here" going to wall at the end of the bed.

"Yes, Mr. Lar….Chris. That would be just fine, wherever you'd like." The man had jumped a mile on the inside when Chris had interrupted.

As Chris finished hanging the painting J.D. came bounding in, "Hey that looks great. By the way Josiah says if you want lunch you guys gotta come now, he ain't doing repeats on the prayer".

The three older agents laughed as the youngest agent bounced back out of the room. Taking another look at the artwork Chris stated, "You know Ez, you got good tastes, in art and in clothes."

The late lunch went very smoothly, much better than breakfast. Ezra had relaxed and joined in the bantering over what football game should be watched next and how much each man was going to wager on the outcome. The green-eyed agent was having a good time when he cell phone rang. Getting up to answer it he walked into the kitchen. The other men couldn't help hear his end of the conversation.

"Hello Harold...No, I don't know where she is….I haven't heard from her today. In fact its been several weeks since I talked to her….Yes, that sounds like her…You know how she is, calls when it's in her best interests… yes Harold and you have a Merry Christmas, too…. Goodbye"

The seven brothers cringed. None of them had living parents and Ezra talked so little of Maude it was easy for them to forget she existed. The seven looked at each other with that 'what do we do ' look. Chris knew whatever path he took his friends would follow.

Ezra returned to the table with his smile firmly plastered on. "Sorry about that rude interruption."

"No problem", Chris stated and went back to eating. "Josiah this is really good stuffing." Playing ignorance was the name of game. The others played along.

After cleaning up the seven retired to the living room. J.D. grabbed the remote and the recliner Buck had been sitting in. Buck moved over to the couch and Nathan found himself without a seat. Ezra smiled. It wasn't often one of them got the best of the medic. Ezra recounted the day. Though Maude hadn't called it didn't bother him, it wasn't the first time she'd forgotten about him during the holidays. Though the day had started out rough it was going to end well. Each one had come around and quietly told him how much their gift meant to them, except for J.D., that agent never did anything quietly when he was hyped. The trip had him definitely hyped. Ezra felt bad for J.D., he knew the kid wanted him to share in the present swapping. 'Maybe, just maybe next year'

After two football games and watching "The Terminator" Ezra stood and stretched his tired muscles, "Well, gentlemen I believe I shall call it a night", and received six variations of "good night". As he was about to leave the room he caught J.D.'s eyes. There was no recrimination in them but Ezra knew he had just about ruined the kid's day. The distant agent sighed silently and walked up to the young man and gently swatting him on the head commanding softly "Come with me, Mr. Dunne", continuing forward.

J.D. threw a confused look to Buck. His mustached roommate only shrugged. Before anyone could make a comment the southerner turned and prodded the youngest brother, "Come on J.D." The use of his first name got the black haired agent's attention and set him in motion.

The remaining five men watched the two disappear into the back of the house in the opposite direction of Ezra's room. J.D. followed Ezra into the room next to the study. There was no name for it; it held a few overstuffed chairs and a piano. Sarah's piano. Ezra motioned J.D. towards the piano bench. J.D. felt funny being in here. No one had ever come in this room, it was kinda sacred.

The youngster knew instinctively what Ezra was planning. The Boston accent was heavy as he spoke, "Ezra you don't have to do this." Many times since finding out Ezra played the piano "a little", according to Ezra, J.D. had requested Ezra to play. Each time the brown haired friend had declined or made up some excuse not to play. Buck had finally pulled his roommate aside and suggested maybe Ezra didn't like playing for people the way he didn't like talking about himself. After that J.D. had quit asking.

"Yes J.D. It's the least I can do for ruining your day"

"You didn't ruin it! You came. It would only have been ruined if you hadn't come" J.D. replied earnestly.

Ezra sat down on the bench and began to play the "Forrest Gump Suite". It was one of his favorites. It allowed him to feel the many emotions he kept locked up. It also brought back a happy memory from his early childhood.

The five men were watching the news when Chris muted the TV. The four brothers turned to watch as Chris lowered his foot rest, got out of his chair and headed to the back of the house. Buck followed closely as did Vin, Nathan and Josiah. By now they all heard the piano. Buck wasn't sure how his oldest friend was going to react. No one had played the piano since Sarah's death.

J.D. watched as Ezra's fingers flew across the keys so effortlessly. 'A little my foot'

Ezra was on his favorite part towards the end, where it starts out slow and climaxes into a fast and open pace, a simple feeling of joy, making his mind run free. Ezra asked so quietly J.D. almost didn't hear, "Do you feel it?" his voice light and filled with an emotion J.D. rarely heard from the southerner, happiness.

The young friend was about to ask what he was supposed to feel when he glanced over at the brother beside him. The sight made him catch his breath. Ezra was smiling. Not one of his trademark fake smiles or the halfway smile he gave out. A true smile, one that made his green eyes even greener. J.D. noticed in awe that they were actually shining. At that moment he knew exactly what he was suppose to feel. Joy. Pure unadulterated joy. "Yeah Ez. I feel it" J.D. answered and meant it.

The soft clapping, after he finished, caught the ordinarily observant agent unaware. There, standing in and around the doorway was his five other teammates. It suddenly hit Ezra where he was and who's piano he was playing. For the second time that day he felt cornered. Then he was overcome with embarrassment. When he first came in all he was thinking about was repaying the kid for his thoughtfulness.

Chris watched the southerner's face turn white then bright red. He mentally chastised himself for enjoying the brief emotions that ran across the normal poker face. Ezra looked at Chris then down at the piano, "It was…Uhm…I mean I" the loquacious agent was at a loss at how to explain why he was in here playing his leader's beloved, deceased, wife's piano.

It wasn't often that the mouthy agent was at a loss for words but the black clad man decided it was time to throw the drowning man a lifeline. "So, do you take requests?" he asked as strode across the room.

"What?" gasp Ezra snapping his head up. His green eyes landing on the black shirt of his leader as he stood next to the piano. J.D. moved and Chris took his place. "I said…do you take requests?"

"Uhm…sure." The piano player replied, immensely relieved he wasn't about to take up residence in the cemetery.

"OK. As owner of the house and host of this little party I get first request", Chris smiled mischievously at his friend. Few people knew that the fierce leader of Team Seven could be as mischievous as the other members.

Ezra assented not sure "Alright, Mr… Chris" correcting himself after receiving a little warning glare from his boss.

"Jingle Bells" shot out Chris with a small laugh.

"Excuse me?" Ezra responded, shock written all over his face. "Uhh… well… you'll have to hum the tune. For the life of me I can't recall how it goes."

Chris stared at Ezra a moment than began softly singing what had been his son's favorite Christmas song.

As Ezra began to play Chris acknowledged, mentally, that in the last two minutes he'd seen his agent shaken up more times than in the last three years. Which, Chris thought, could account as to why his agent needed prompting with the song. Then again, Chris analyzed, it could be Ezra really didn't know Christmas songs that well. After today Chris had to go with the second option.

The remaining brothers had gathered around the piano and joined in the singing. Each one requesting a song. After an hour and half Ezra felt like his fingers were going to fall off. He hadn't played like this in a very long time. Ezra moved to stand up when Buck asked for one more. "Alright Buck", looking into the blue eyes and smiled, the man was truly a good friend. "What shall it be?"

"The song you were playing when we first came in," replied Buck, returning his friends smile.

Ezra merely nodded and started playing. Buck had a reason for asking for that song. He was looking for something, the look on Ezra's face when he was playing that piece the first time. Ezra had looked content enough throughout the other songs, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't the look of joy.

As Ezra played he began to unconsciously smile. He loved this piece. It made some feel like flying; some like racing with the wind but for him it was more. It felt like love. He played the song lighter, faster and with more feeling than he had the first time. It reminded him of the time he was eight and had been shipped off to Aunt Grace. She had been an actual blood relative; she was a middle-aged teacher who lived alone.

For their first Christmas together they had gone and gotten a tree, a first for the little boy. They took it home and Aunt Grace had taken her decorations down from the closet shelves. The day before she had insisted he help her make Christmas cookies, so as they decorated the tree they ate the treats. Then on Christmas day they exchanged gifts. Ezra had bought her a silk-like scarf. Ezra fondly remembered seeing her wear it quite often. She had bought him a drawing kit and a fire truck. Ezra didn't have the heart to tell her he was too old for the truck. The little boy had wound up playing with the fire truck but only when he knew no one was around to see. He had loved his presents because Aunt Grace had bought them from the heart.

After breakfast she had taken him to the park, southern winters not being exceptionally cold. She then proceeded to present him with a kite. That little boy had been both indignant and scared. Kite flying was for children, something he didn't believe he was. Besides he'd never tried to fly a kite before, didn't know anyone who had either. He knew nothing of how it was to be done and for a child who needed to be in control at all times this new twist was a shock. Aunt Grace had showed him without ever making anything out of it. He had run and she had held the kite until a precise time then let it go. Ezra had watched as the kite sailed higher and higher, like it was escaping. Something he had wanted to do on numerous occasions.

Ezra remembered the little boy in overalls, courtesy of Aunt Grace, running and laughing. Blond hair flying in the sun, green eyes sparkling with happiness that only a child can express. He had felt complete happiness as he watched that kite float towards the clouds. Aunt Grace had patted his back and placed a kiss on top of head. That night as she tucked him into bed he thanked her for the day and as she started to leave he stopped her. He asked her why she gave him the kite now since it was winter. She had responded, "I gave you more than a kite Ezra. I gave you a taste of childhood."

There were several such Saturdays to follow until Maude had summoned him away. Ezra never told his Aunt Grace how much that year and some odd months meant to him. How that lone memory had gotten him through the dark days of his life when it seemed he couldn't go on. That Christmas he had learned that at least one person in the world had cared about him. She had made him feel loved. Ezra closed his eyes briefly at the memory and savored it.

Chris, who had watching Ezra with intensity, looked up and eyed each of his brothers. He wondered if they had seen what he had, each pair of eyes confirmed they to had seen it and was equally stunned. For in those few minutes, while Ezra played, the walls had come down and the shades that normally stood between the masked eyes and his soul fluttered opened. The six friends had brief glimpse into the seventh's soul. They were overcome at the depth and magnitude of feelings that were always guarded so tight.

After Ezra finished the piece he looked up at the members of his new family and smiled a warm and well felt smile. J.D. leaned over to Buck and whispered, "Did you feel it?" "Yeah, I felt it." Buck choked out.

Buck felt like he could have drowned in Ezra's soul, the emotions ran so deep. The mustached man broke out into a smile as glanced around the room. Happiness, contentment and the feeling of home flowed from each of his brothers' faces. He caught his long time friend's eye. There was no pain in them, no all consuming sadness flooding Chris' being. Just blessedness, they had a family once again.

These hard, private individuals, who had once all been loners had come together and bonded and melded into the family they all needed. He knew they had all been given a very special gift tonight. Their seventh brother had come a little closer to accepting their friendship and brotherhood, and for payment had let them into his world for a little while.

Six brothers decided that night that by next year the seventh would be able to stay in the house with them. After all they had twelve months to work on it, and everyone knew that when Team Seven went after something there was no stopping them.


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