Notes: This was begun before Christmas 2002. It's been languishing in limbo since I had a computer crash last September. I recently found it while hunting through old backup discs and decided to try and finish it.
Vin Tanner cursed loud and long. He'd been trying to get his jeep started for the last twenty minutes with no luck. It was Christmas Eve night and almost everyone else had already left for the holiday. The only other car still on this level of the ATF parking garage was Ezra Standish's dark green Jag.
Standish, who had joined the team just five months before, was real standoffish, seldom joining the other members of Team 7 outside of office hours. Vin was reluctant to ask him for help or a lift, partly for that reason and partly because he found the handsome, stylish agent attractive. He doubted that he'd be able to hide the nature of that attraction, if he spent time alone with the man outside the work environment.
His thoughts were interrupted by a slightly amused southern drawl, "Are you per chance experiencing mechanical difficulties with your transportation, Mister Tanner?"
Vin scowled while he distilled the undercover agent's meaning from the unnecessarily long words. Then he grinned. [Hell'av'a way to ask if mah jeep's broke down.] "Yeah. Damn thing won't crank. Hell, it won't even turn over."
"Are you in need of alternate transportation?"
Vin grinned again. He actually liked the man's fancy way of talking. He found it amusing and his use of the long way of saying things meant that Vin got to listen to that silken, honeyed drawl all the more. "Yeah. I need a ride. Reckon that it'd be kinda outta yer way though."
"Where do you live, Mistah Tannah?"
Vin was silent for a moment, enthralled by the way Ezra said 'Mister Tanner'.
Vin shook himself out of the spell he was under, "Uh... oh! Purgatorio."
"Purgatorio!" Ezra's eyes widened, "That is one of the worst neighborhoods in Denver, sir!"
"Yeah, well, I guess I can get a cab..."
"Perhaps." Ezra said as he unlocked the driver's side door of the Jag. "However, in case you haven't noticed, there does not seem to be any about." He paused and pursed his lips then sighed. "Get in Mistah Tannah."
Vin blinked then hurried over to the passenger's side of the Jaguar.
When Ezra unlocked the door he slid into the seat, looking around at the finely appointed interior. "Nice car."
"It serves its purpose."
"Must have cost a fortune."
"It was a gift."
Vin turned to look at Ezra with a frown on his face. "Agents ain't allowed to accept gifts."
Ezra snorted. "Tell that to my mother."
"Oh." Vin looked down at his hands. "She must love you a lot."
"I wouldn't know."
"But--- she gave you this!"
"Yes, well..." He blew out an annoyed breath. "There are other things I would have preferred to have her give me."
Vin considered that for a moment then asked, "Like what?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What'd ya rather she gave ya?"
Ezra was silent for so long that Vin thought he wasn't going to answer. When he did his voice held a note of bitterness, "A little of her time would be nice."
Vin sighed. Ezra had talked of little else this week but his mother's impending visit. The bitterness in his voice told Vin that she had canceled. "Ain't gonna make it tomorrow, huh?"
"Oh, no indeed, Mistah Tannah. My mothah has more important thangs to do than spend Christmas with hah only child." The bitterness had grown even deeper as had his accent.
They fell silent for a long moment as Ezra turned out onto the street flicking on the windshield wipers to clear the away the slow falling snow.
Finally Vin asked. "Ya wanna stop and get a drink?"
Ezra frowned then nodded. He peered out the windshield, until he located the flashing neon sign of a rundown bar. He pulled to the curb and they climbed out. Ezra locked the doors and set the alarm before trailing Vin into the bar.
They claimed a booth and signaled the waitress. The smoky interior of the bar was fairly empty, an unwelcome reminder that most of the city was somewhere getting ready for the next day's celebration.
After the waitress brought their drinks, Vin ventured, "So what do ya reckon your ma's doing tomorrow?"
Ezra snorted, "Ah suspect that she is most likely stalking stepfather number six."
"She divorced again?"
Ezra laughed, derisively. "Not yet, Mister Tanner, not yet. However, Mother believes in planning ahead. She never divorces until she has her next husband picked out and all but snared."
"Oh." Vin fell silent as they finished their drinks and signaled for another round. After a long moment he asked, "So what are you gonna do tomorrow?"
Ezra grinned, tossing back his drink and signaling for yet another one. "Normally I would be working, allowing some other, more fortunate individual who actually has someone to spend Christmas with, the opportunity to spend Christmas with that someone. Now, thanks to AD Travis' magnanimous insistence that our entire team have the holiday off, I suppose that I shall spend it sleeping off the hangover I am working on acquiring. You?"
"Same, I reckon. Sleep, puke, and sleep some more. I usually work it, too."
Silence reigned again.
Finally Ezra set his once again empty glass down and said, "Hell of a way to spend Christmas."
Vin sat his glass down as well staring at the amber liquid. "Yeah." He paused then said. "You ever have a really good Christmas... that is that you remember? I know my ma tried to make Christmas nice for me when I's little but I don't really remember much about it and after she died... there ain't no Christmases that I spent in the foster homes that I really liked."
After a long moment Ezra sighed and said, "There was this one family that I stayed with when I was ten. They kept telling me that I was welcome there and Christmas would be good."
"So what happened?"
"I was truly excited that Christmas morning. The tree was beautiful, presents stacked all around it, two bikes in the corner... a train set, running around the base of the tree." He paused then went on, "I actually believed that some of it was for me."
"Weren't though, was it?"
"No. The two middle boys got the bicycles. The oldest boy got the train. The daughter received a dollhouse." He paused to stare at his drink then with a sigh, he said. "I did receive several presents... a pair of socks, underwear, a shirt and pants...."
"Each wrapped separate, as if that made them any more appealing." Vin finished for him.
"Was that way at the foster homes, too," Vin stated quietly. "The real kids got the good stuff. Us fosterlings got clothes, usually like you said, underwear and socks. I remember this one year I actually got a new pair of boots. Didn't wear them for days, just toted them around. Was afraid it was a mistake and if I tried them on they wouldn't fit."
Silence stretched between them again.
Finally Ezra said, "If you could have any kind of Christmas you wanted, what would you have?"
Vin blinked at him, "Huh?"
"What would you wish for tomorrow to be like?"
"Well, I reckon that it'd be nice to have a tree and a nice dinner...."
"What do you want for dinner?"
"Turkey... and all the trimmings, sweet potato casserole. I remember one that one of the foster mothers made. Had a crust of brown sugar and pecans on top." He stopped then sighed, "Reckon the most important part would just be to have somebody to share it with...."
Ezra grinned suddenly, "Mister Tanner would you like to have Christmas with me?"
"You... me... a tree... turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole.... How about it?"
"It's Christmas Eve, Ez... kinda late to start planning Christmas ain't it?"
"Perhaps, but why not? If we are ever to have the kind of Christmas that we have always wanted, it is up to us to have it. We are the Captains of our destiny, the Masters of our fate...."
"The Princes of the Universe...." Vin added with a huge grin. Then said, "Hell, why not? The mall stays open ta midnight."
Ezra laughed out loud. Standing and tossing some bills on the table he slung an arm around Vin's shoulders. "Let us retire to the mall. We have a tree to buy... and decorations... and presents...."
"And food." Vin put in, "Can't forget the food."
"Indeed." Ezra chuckled.
By silent mutual agreement they headed for the Christmas tree lot first. It was already eight-thirty on Christmas Eve night so they knew that there wouldn't be many trees left and the later they waited, the fewer there would be.
Most of the trees were rather scraggly looking, but then Vin spotted one that looked nice. "Hey! Ez, over here!" He called to his partner who was on the other side of the lot looking at the miserable looking trees over there.
As Ezra moved to stand beside him, he shifted a tree out of the way and pulled the one he wanted out so that he could stand it up and they could look at it.
"Nicely shaped," Ezra agreed, "but somewhat small."
The tree was barely three feet tall, if that.
"Ain't like we need a really big one. It's just the two of us. We can sit it on a table, put the presents on the table around it."
Ezra considered the tree a moment longer then nodded. "Indeed we could and this tree has the added benefit of the fact that it will fit in the trunk of the Jag and will not therefore be damaged by being tied on top." He nodded, "An excellent choice, Mister Tanner. We shall take it."
Vin grinned like a little kid, delighted that Ezra had approved his choice.
They paid for the tree and stowed it carefully in the trunk of the Jag.
The next stop was the Christmas store at the mall for decorations.
Vin goggled at all the stuff that was available to decorate the tree. Lights, tinsel, garlands, ribbons, glass balls in dozens of shapes, angels and all manner of tree-toppers. "Jesus, Ez, where do we start."
"It's a small tree, Vin, so, we won't need a lot of decorations. We will need a tree topper of course. I'd like an angel or star. Which would you prefer?"
"Angel. I don't remember much about my Christmases with Mama but I do remember the angel. She had on a white dress with red trim."
Ezra led him to the aisle with the angels then frowned. There were plenty of angels in white dresses but most had gold or silver trim.
Vin shifted through the shelves then sighed in disappointment. "They ain't got none with red trim."
Ezra picked up one of the angels dressed in pure white, turning it about in his hands. "Perhaps, we could add red trim...."
"You think so?" Vin asked eagerly.
Ezra gestured towards the ribbon aisle. "Do you recall what the trim looked like? Was it a plain red band or did it have perhaps gold threads in it?"
Vin closed his eyes trying to think back then he nodded, "Gold threads, up and down and sideways like a plaid."
Ezra grinned, "It appears we are in luck. They have a red ribbon with gold threads in that pattern. Now narrow or wide?"
"Narrow. Real narrow. Was like a quarter inch wide."
"Hummm. The narrowest I see here is half inch. Would that do?" He held up his discovery, laying it against the angel's dress.
"Mite wide but close enough." Vin agreed. He hesitated, "Uh, Ez?"
"Yes Mister Tanner?"
"You gonna sew it on? Cause I'd make a real mess of it."
"It only needs to be tacked in several places. Not a difficult undertaking but I will be glad to do it for you." He smiled suddenly, "It will make our angel unique, one of a kind."
Vin nodded as they added the ribbon to the small shopping basket they had put the angel in, "That could be what Mama did. She was always making things special."
They continued to stroll the aisles looking for decorations.
Stopping in front of the lights, Vin said, "Lord, you ever see so many different kinds of lights?"
"I don't like chasing lights. They give me a headache," Ezra said.
"Know what you mean. Me, too."
"Blinking lights then or steady burning?"
"Steady, blinking bothers me some, too." Vin confessed.
"Clear or colored?"
"One of each?" Vin suggested. "How long a string, fifty, one hundred, three hundred?"
"We have to remember that it is a small tree. A hundred lights should be more than enough."
They added one package of fifty clear miniature lights and one package of fifty colored miniature lights to the basket.
They were turning to go look at the garlands when Ezra stopped, staring at the bubble lights set up on display, lit and bubbling.
After a moment Ezra turned to look at him. "I remember these. There weren't many Christmases that Mother and I spent together, just the two of us, but I remember one year, I was six or seven. I must have been six, it was before stepfather number one. It was just the two of us and she had these kind of lights on the tree."
"You want to get a string?"
"Are you sure that the tree could take them? They are rather heavy."
"There's only ten lights on the string. You want them on the tree, we'll get them on the tree." Vin promised.
Ezra hesitated again, so, Vin reached past him and grabbed a box of the lights, dropping them in the basket, deciding for him. "Come on, let's go find a garland."
They settled on a metallic red one, it being the one that they had both reached for almost automatically.
"Ornaments?" Vin asked.
"Glass balls get broken easily," Ezra told him, "and they are so blasé."
Vin's eyes landed on a display of birds, made with foam bodies and feathers. He picked up two white ones, "Doves."
Ezra took them from him. "They are very light. They won't weigh down the branches."
"They've got cardinals and bluebirds and look! An owl and a hawk!"
Ezra chuckled, "Definitely not blasé." He picked up one of the snowy owls and a red tail hawk. "An owl for me because everyone knows that I'm a night owl and a hawk for you because everyone knows that you have eyes like a hawk."
"Doves for peace," Vin said, adding a pair to the basket. "Cardinals for hope, cause when you see the first cardinal spring is here," he dropped two in the basket, "and bluebirds for...."
"Happiness," Ezra said just as Vin ducked his head, suddenly shy, and said, "Love."
"Both then, two sets of bluebirds. One for happiness, one for love."
Vin glanced up and saw that Ezra was smiling and smiled back at him.
They checked out, then strolled through the main hallway of the mall just looking around, moving much slower than most of the people who were still there doing their late shopping.
"Reckon we need to get the groceries." Vin suggested.
"Presents first," Ezra said. "I suggest we split up, that way you won't know what I'm getting you and I won't know what you're getting me, until we open them." He hesitated, "Do you want to set up some rules, how many presents we can buy or how much you wish to spend? I'd rather not have a dollar limit. I believe we can both find something appropriate without being either cheap or extravagant."
"Well, we don't want to go overboard... how about three each and one of them's got to be something just for fun."
Ezra nodded then added, "And no socks or underwear."
"Yeah, got enough of that when we was growing up. No handkerchiefs or ties either. Handkerchiefs and ties are what you buy when you don't know what to get somebody. 'Sides I've hated every tie anybody ever bought me. Prefer to buy my own."
"That I agree on... You would not believe some of the ties that previous colleagues have foisted off on me as Christmas gifts."
"Oh, I'd believe it. Buck got me one with a hula girl on it last year, she wiggles and everything."
"Good Lord! Thank God he didn't get my name this year." Ezra looked aghast then laughed.
"He got Chris'. Reckon he knows better'n to buy him something like that."
"Oh, yes. I can just see Mister Larabee shooting the poor tie when the hula girl started dancing."
"Might have shot Buck, too." Vin laughed. He sobered then asked, "So, we're agreed? We can spend what we want to spend, but only buy three presents each?"
"Agreed. We'll meet back at... humm where should we meet?"
"Got to get the groceries so how about in front of FoodMart?" Vin said.
Ezra looked down the long hallway to the end where the huge grocery store was. "Main entrance or mall entrance?"
"Mall entrance, that way we won't have to go outside until we get ready to leave. Oh, reckon we should have whatever we get gift wrapped at the store so we won't have to wrap them and risk the other seeing the present before we're ready."
"An excellent idea." Ezra glanced at his watch. "It's almost nine-thirty. An hour and a half should be sufficient don't you think? That would leave us an hour to get the groceries before the mall closes."
"Yep. I'll meet you at FoodMart around eleven. Whoever gets there first waits for the other."
"Done. Happy hunting, Mister Tanner." Ezra grinned and with a wave of his hand moved off making his way towards one of the large department stores.
Vin waved back at him and deliberately chose another direction to head in.
Ezra had been sitting on the bench outside FoodMart for half an hour waiting for Vin. He wasn't upset or concerned that the other man hadn't gotten there yet. He had had a pretty good idea what he was going to get Vin before they had parted company so it hadn't taken him long to get the first two items. The third had been an impulse buy and had taken more time, as it had to be engraved, but he was well pleased with his purchases.
The extra time also gave him the opportunity to make a list for the grocery store. He hadn't told Vin but he was quite a good cook and he knew the recipe for the sweet potato casserole that Vin had mentioned with the brown sugar and pecan topping. He had tucked his shopping bags under the bench, having tied the handles together and looped a strap through them all so that one couldn't be touched without affecting the others. He held the foremost one firmly between his ankles.
Call him paranoid, but this day had been going extraordinarily well given his and Vin's normal penchant for finding trouble. He wasn't taking any changes on his purchases being snatched.
He tapped his pen against the notepad that he was making his list on and tried to think if there was anything else he needed to get. He had broken the list down, making a list of the dishes he planned to prepare and what was needed for each one. He thought he had everything but he would ask Vin when he arrived if there was anything else he would like to have.
He glanced at his watch. Five after eleven. Well, they hadn't said on the dot. Vin was probably just running a bit late. He hoped the man wasn't agonizing over what to get him. Just having Vin agree to this impromptu Christmas celebration was present enough. He would have felt silly buying a tree and cooking the traditional dinner for himself alone, but having Vin to share it with had even made shopping at the mall endurable.
He smiled to himself, thinking of the fun he'd had just shopping with the long-haired Texan. He knew that he would most likely never be able to be with the man the way he longed to be, but he would take what he could get and enjoy it while he could. The smile saddened as he thought of how Vin would most likely react if he ever allowed his friend to know how much more than friends he would like to be.
He glanced at his watch again then began to scan the mall hallway for Vin. It was nearly a quarter after eleven now. He hoped nothing had gone awry. He couldn't help but remember that the rest of Team Seven referred to them as the Trouble Twins because it seemed that every time they went off somewhere, just the two of them, disaster struck.
A few moments later he saw Vin approaching and stood up, gathering his bags as Vin pushed his way through the crowd to his side.
"I was beginning to wonder if you had run afoul of some miscreant, Mister Tanner, that perhaps some maniacal mall Santa had taken you hostage," he greeted Vin with a grin.
"Naw, thank God, but I'm almost afraid to dare hope we'll make it out of here without something happening. Seems things has been going way too well."
"I know what you mean. I keep wondering what catastrophe awaits us, that we have managed to spend," he paused to look at his watch, "some four hours in each other's company, away from the rest of Team Seven and disaster has not yet struck."
"Yeah," Vin agreed, "feels like the calm before the storm or something."
"Yes, well, I suppose we shall just have to continue on and hope that fate has decided to give us a break. I have made a list of what we need for the dinner tomorrow. Let us see if we can find what we need and escape the mall before midnight."
Vin grinned and gestured towards the sliding doors into FoodMart with the hand that wasn't loaded down with shopping bags. "Lead on."
They were the last people out of FoodMart. The manager, who was standing at the door unlocking it to let the last of the late shoppers out, breathed a sigh of relief as they pushed their loaded down buggy through the doorway.
Vin blushed and stammered an apology to the man for being nearly ten minutes after midnight getting finished checking out.
Ezra simply shook his head. "We spent nearly two hundred dollars in there, Vin. You needn't apologize for our being a few minutes past midnight finishing. We were at the checkout before the witching hour. It is hardly our fault that they only had the least experienced cashiers on the registers tonight."
"Girl can't help it that she is a trainee."
"I know that, still one can not allow oneself to be overcharged. She double rang no less than six items for a total over ring of more than twenty dollars."
"It's Christmas, Ez, and you can afford to let it go."
"Vin, I assure you that if the money had been going to that poor child, I would not have hesitated to allow her to keep it. However that is not the case. The money goes into the store till. It would have benefited no one but the corporation that owns the store. And while, I can now easily afford to let twenty dollars go, I did not arrive at that my current financial state by allowing myself to be cheated or by wasting money."
"You drive an eighty thousand dollar car, Ez and that condo must have cost a fortune."
"The car was, as I told you, a gift from my mother. It has cost me nothing except upkeep and maintenance." Ezra's voice was becoming sharp and clipped.
"If you will note the model number you will see that it is a ninety-four, making it almost ten years old. While it looks and runs as if it just came off the showroom floor, it has more than a hundred thousand miles on it. Maintenance runs me two or three thousand dollars per year, only because I insist on having it detailed every week and rigorously maintained. Mister Larabee's Dodge Ram costs him four hundred and eighty dollars a month in payments financed for sixty months. That is over five thousand dollars per year and he will trade it in after no more than three years. Quality pays for itself over time, Mister Tanner. My condo is likewise paid for. I do not rent. I have never rented. I received a trust fund when I turned eighteen and used it to buy my first house. When I move, I sell my house and buy where I am going."
They had reached the Jag by now and Ezra had popped the trunk with a flick of the button on his keychain. He began unloading the buggy, his movements jerky with suppressed anger.
"Ez... Ez!" Vin stepped closer and caught Ezra's arm, stopping him from his single-minded task, turning Ezra so that he faced him. "Ez, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like I was criticizing you. I know it wasn't wrong for you to point out that she had over rung, I just... It's just that I..."
Ezra sighed. "You would have let it go, not wanting to argue, not wanting to cause a scene, not wanting to upset her, even though you most likely can not afford to let twenty dollars go."
Vin chuckled, "Actually I could afford to--"
He broke off and grinned at the look on Ezra's face. "Hell, I didn't hunt bounty for fun, Ez. I only went after the really bad boys and while I gave a lot of it away to folks that needed it more than I did, I made good money and hung on to a lot of it. After all a bounty hunter doesn't have any insurance, unemployment, etc. Had to make sure that if I couldn't hunt I'd still have the money to live on. Most of my stuff is paid for, same as yours. My apartment's dirt-cheap. That's one of the reasons for keeping it."
He looked into Ezra's eyes, "Please don't be mad at me. Don't let my big mouth ruin our Christmas... please."
Ezra squeezed his arm, sighing again. "I'm not angry with you, Vin. More like with myself... or the world at large. Angry about the way I am perceived and that is ridiculous because I am the one that made quite certain that I am perceived exactly the way that I am now objecting to being perceived."
He tilted his head and looked a Vin. "Did that make any sense at all?"
"Reckon I got the grist of it. You've showed the world a mask and now you're pissed cause the world can't see past it." Vin paused then said softly. "You know I'd really like to meet the man behind the mask."
Ezra looked down at the ground for a long moment then looked back up into Vin's eyes. "And I should really like to have a friend that I do not need to wear a mask for."
"You don't have to wear a mask with me, Ez. You can tell me anything. I won't never breath a word to no body."
"That just might be the best Christmas present that anyone has ever given me." Ezra replied giving Vin's arm another squeeze before releasing it.
He turned back to the trunk of the Jag. "Now, we'd best get this stuff loaded if we are to get home and have the tree up and decorated before dawn."
Vin couldn't help the slight thrill that went through him at hearing Ezra say 'we' and 'home' in the same sentence even as he told himself that Ezra didn't mean it the way it sounded, as if Ezra's condo was home for both of them.
It was nearly two o'clock by the time that they had returned to the condo, gotten everything inside, put away the groceries and decorated the tree.
Sitting on Ezra's couch, sprawled bonelessly on the buttery soft leather, his sock feet propped up on Ezra's glass-topped coffee table, Vin sipped at the wine Ezra had poured him as he watched Ezra put the finishing touch on *their* Christmas tree.
Ezra carefully slid the angel down over the top branch of the tree and turned with a grin. "How does she look?"
Vin grinned back. "Perfect." He paused then added, "I like the way you did the ribbon on the sleeves and around the waist instead of just around her skirt." He frowned but I didn't see you with any needle and thread."
Ezra chuckled. "The wonders of super-glue."
Vin laughed. "Well we don't got to worry about her losing none of it do we?"
Ezra laughed as well.
"Turn off the lights and let's see how it looks." Vin ordered.
Ezra did so then came to sit on the couch next to Vin. As Vin leaned towards him, draping an arm around his shoulders, he recognized that they were both more than a little drunk.
He didn't know what time Vin had arisen Christmas Eve morning but he had been up since nine. He was sure that Vin had gotten up earlier, on top of that they had both had a considerable amount to drink on an empty stomach. They hadn't eaten supper, instead snacking on crackers and cheese with the wine they had opened when they got back to the condo. He couldn't remember how much wine they had drank while decorating the tree, one bottle or two?
He decided not to think about it. He was enjoying sitting on his couch with Vin's arm around his shoulders. He slumped a bit, tiredly, and his head came to rest on Vin's shoulder.
Vin leaned his head over to rest his cheek against the top of Ezra's head. His voice was a raspy rumble that echoed through Ezra's skull as he said, "Looks good, Ez."
"Thank you." Ezra murmured in response. After a pause he said, "I'm glad you are here to share this with...." His voice trailed off.
"Glad I am here, too. Ain't nothing sadder than ta spend Christmas alone." Vin's voice held a note of melancholy. It was the voice of a man that had spent all too many Christmases alone.
Ezra nodded, his head rubbing against Vin's shoulder as he did so. "Indeed," he whispered lifting his head and turning to look up at Vin.
When Vin drew back just a bit, looked deep into his eyes and then slowly lowered his lips to Ezra's, the kiss seemed as natural as breathing.
It was slow and lingering, soft and gentle, a tender kiss of sweet comfort rather than burning passion.
When the kiss ended, Ezra let his head drop back to Vin's shoulder as Vin's arm slid down from his shoulder to gather him closer.
After a long moment he said, softly, "We should be getting to bed."
"Yeah." Vin agreed.
Another pause, then Ezra asked, his voice tentative, "Sleep with me?"
They both knew what he was asking and what he was not. Neither of them was ready to push beyond the kiss at the moment.
"I'd like that." Vin said.
They rose from the couch and walked hand in hand to the master bedroom.
Vin awoke before daylight, a bit surprised that he had, considering the time that they had gotten to bed the night before. He had a mild hangover, but not nearly as bad as he had feared it would be.
He sighed contentedly and smiled to himself. He was snuggled tight against Ezra's back, spooned in close, Ezra's head just under his chin, the rest of the compact body fitted perfectly into the slight curve of his own. His arm lay across Ezra, hugging him gently around the waist, his hand resting over Ezra's.
As he stirred, moving slightly away, Ezra moved in response, closing the small distance that Vin had put between them. Ezra's hand slipped out from under Vin's to come to rest on top of it, as he twined their fingers together and tugged Vin's hand closer.
Vin chuckled to himself and nuzzled Ezra's hair.
Ezra 'ummmed' softy in response then settled back into a deep sleep.
Vin drifted back to sleep a smile on his face.
The next time that he awoke it was clearly daylight and Ezra had turned over in his sleep. Now, he lay facing Vin, his face buried against Vin's bare chest, one arm around Vin's waist.
Vin's arm now rested atop Ezra's yet still encircling the other man.
Vin couldn't help thinking how right it felt to wake up with Ezra in his arms. Smiling, he tilted his head so that he could press a soft kiss to the top of Ezra's head.
Ezra shifted, tilting his head back and smiling up at Vin, green eyes blinking sleepily.
Vin bent his head to kiss Ezra's lips. They parted for him immediately and he spent several minutes exploring the warm depths of Ezra's mouth in a long, lingering, tender kiss.
When he finally broke the kiss he smiled at Ezra. "Mornin', babe."
Ezra chuckled, "Good morning, darling."
"Something amuses you?" Ezra asked, good humor plain in his voice.
"Yep. We're moving right along. Got little endearments for each other and everything, Slick."
Ezra laughed aloud. "And pet names as well, Hick?" There was a slight question to the nickname. He wasn't certain how Vin would take 'Hick' as a nickname although it rhymed with 'Slick' and contrasted perfectly, as well.
Vin laughed. "Yep. Pet names, too. We are sorta a study in contrasts, ain't we?" Vin asked, deliberately letting his Texan accent thicken and falling back to his street kid grammar.
Ezra chuckled, glad that Vin hadn't been offended by the nickname. "The cowboy and the dandy, as different as can be..." Ezra quoted, wondering if Vin would know the reference.
"And yet it seemed so right, that night in Tennessee. The dandy was imported wine and summers in Paree...." Vin picked up on the old Dolly Parton song, blithely ignoring the fact that it was supposed to be the "Cow*girl* and the Dandy".
"And I was Grand ole Opery, Nashville Tennessee," they finished together.
They laughed together, Ezra burying his face back in Vin's chest as they tightened their hold on each other into a tight hug.
After a long moment he pulled back. "I'd best get up and get started on the cooking, if we are to have a Christmas dinner."
Vin nodded, but bent for another kiss, before letting him roll away and slip from the bed.
He lay there, quietly contemplating all that had happened since yesterday afternoon and allowing Ezra his privacy as the other man showered and dressed for the day.
Less than a half an hour later Ezra emerged from the bathroom, dressed in casual dark green slacks and a jewel-green, long-sleeve, knitted Henley that set off his eyes perfectly. He came to sit on the edge of the bed and smiled at Vin.
"The shower's all yours, darling," he said. "Make yourself at home. I laid out some clothes that I believe will fit you fairly well." He leaned in for a quick kiss before rising to head out the bedroom door.
Vin took his time getting up and going into the bathroom to shower. He smiled at the outfit that Ezra had chosen for him, dark, navy blue slacks and a royal blue Henley identical to the one that Ezra wore, except for the color. Blue silk boxers topped the small pile of clothes.
Fresh towels and washcloths had been lain out, as well as a new toothbrush, still in the wrapper with toothpaste beside it.
After showering he dressed in the clothes that Ezra had left him. The slacks were just a bit large in the waist and short in the leg, as he was both taller and slimmer than Ezra was. The Henley however fit quite well.
There hadn't been any socks put out for him and he decided to forgo his boots for the time being.
Padding out of the bedroom and down the hall to the stairs he followed his nose to the kitchen where Ezra had begun his preparations for their dinner.
He grinned when he saw that Ezra was padding around the tilted kitchen floor as barefooted as he was. Pulling out a chair at the small table in the breakfast nook where he could watch Ezra work, he put his feet up in a second chair and wiggled his toes. "Nice footwear," he commented, nodding towards Ezra's bare feet.
Ezra chuckled. "Only the best."
Vin shook his head, "You never struck me as a barefoot kinda guy what with all the fancy shoes you have."
Ezra laughed out loud at that. "The reason all my shoes are custom made is that I hate wearing shoes and cannot abide ill-fitted ones." He flashed Vin a grin and added, "Great-grandmother LaFabra always said that it was because Mother kept kicking her shoes off while she was pregnant with me."
Vin laughed. "I can't see your ma barefoot and pregnant."
Ezra laughed again. " I have pictures... of course Mother would kill me if I showed them to you."
"I won't tell..." Vin grinned back at him.
Ezra shook his head, "Perhaps, someday."
Vin nodded accepting that Ezra wasn't ready to share all the embarrassing details of his family history. He cocked an eyebrow as he watched Ezra mixing the cornbread dressing up. "You're using your hands to mix that?"
"Of course, we always use our hands in my family, that's what puts the love in... according to grandmother LeBeau."
"You knew your grandmother and your great-grandmother?"
"Indeed. In fact I knew the grandmothers on both sides of the family. Unfortunately Mother's great-grandmother passed away before I was born."
"I always just assumed that your ma was all the family that you had."
Ezra burst out laughing again. After a minute he wiped his eyes with the back of one wrist, "Oh, Lord, Vin! Don't you know what they say about assuming?"
"Yeah," Vin sighed, "When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. So, I take it you have more family than we know about."
"Between my mother's family and my father's family I have enough family to populate a small country and that isn't even counting the ex-steps."
"Ex-stepfathers, ex-step sisters, ex-step brothers..."
"Ah, your ma's many husbands. How many is she up to now?"
"As I said at the bar, I believe she is stalking stepfather-to-be number six. She has filed for divorce from stepfather number five."
"You number your stepfathers?"
"It helps me to keep them straight. I can name them all, it just takes a bit of thought." He paused, "I usually put bell pepper in my dressing. It's a family tradition, however if you don't want it, I'll forgo it this time."
"Anyway you fix it's fine with me and I like bell peppers. Different families that I lived with fixed it different ways. Only one I really hated had just gobs of sage in it. I don't mind a little sage, but god! This one foster mother just poured it in."
"I'm not real fond of sage myself, so there is none in this. Just crumbled cornbread and biscuits, torn up light bread, eggs, broth, salt, pepper, onion and bell pepper."
Vin nodded to the cooktop, "What's that?"
"One pot is the sweet potatoes for your sweet potato casserole and the other is squash and onions for the squash casserole. The squash should be done by the time that I get the dressing mixed. I'll mix it while the sweet potatoes finish cooking then, mix the sweet potato casserole. Then I'll put together the green bean casserole. After everything is in the oven I'll be finished in here until it's time to put the rolls in. I've timed it so that everything will be ready at the same time."
"That's neat, how do you do that?" Vin asked.
"It's quite simple really. The turkey, since it is a small one, only needs to cook two hours. The dressing, the squash casserole and the sweet potato casserole each need to cook an hour. The green bean casserole cooks forty-five minutes. Therefore the dressing, the sweet potato and squash casseroles go in an hour after the turkey and the green bean casserole goes in fifteen minutes after them. I have plenty of time to get all the casseroles mixed and ready, before time to put them in. Since I've already have tea made, and I won't put the rolls in to brown until after I take everything else up, that gives us forty-five minutes to open our presents before dinner."
"Sounds like a plan. You said you have tea made. Can I have a glass?"
"Certainly. It's in the refrigerator, help yourself. There are glasses in the cabinet above the sink and ice in the freezer compartment." Ezra gestured with his elbow as he poured the dressing from the bowl he had been mixing it in, into a long, glass, baking dish.
He covered the dish with plastic wrap and set it aside. After Vin had gotten his glass and moved away from the sink Ezra washed his hands and quickly washed up the bowl he had mixed the dressing in.
He took the pot of squash off the stove and returning to the island counter where he had been working, he dumped the contents into the mixing bowl. He dumped the now empty pot in the sink and got a block of Velveeta cheese from the refrigerator. He opened it and cut it into slices then cut the slices into cubes. Once the entire block was cubed he dropped them into the steaming squash.
Grinning at Vin he said, "I can't mix this with my hands, it's too hot. If I had stewed the squash and onions last night and it was cool, I would."
He stirred the cheese into the squash with a large spoon then got out a box of Ritz crackers and pulled out a stack. Opening it he began crumbling the crackers into the mixture. He added two stacks of crackers before stirring it again and taking a good mouthful on the spoon to taste. Nodding he reached for the carton of eggs that he had left on the counter after mixing the dressing. He added two then some salt and pepper before tasting it again.
"Where'd you learn to cook?" Vin asked.
Ezra shrugged, "Here and there. Mother left me with various relatives while I was growing up. The dressing is from grandmother LeBeau. The squash casserole is from Mother's sister Aunt Miranda. The sweet potato casserole I learned from one of father's sisters, Aunt Yvonne. None of them are complicated. There is nothing in this except squash, onions, eggs, Velveeta cheese, Ritz crackers, salt and pepper. I will crumble a few more crackers on top and spray them with margarine spray to make a crispy topping. That's all there is to that. The sweet potato casserole is just as simple. Sweet potatoes, eggs, brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice to taste for the casserole. Then you simply take pecan pieces and mix them with brown sugar and melted butter for the topping. You spread the topping over the prepared casserole and bake. Simple."
"I never learned to cook. I can scramble eggs and fry bacon. Do pretty well with a grill, but stuff like this, I'm hopeless."
"Nonsense. You could learn. The first step is to simply watch someone else cook, something that I'm fairly sure you never got to do while in the foster system."
"Naw, foster parents mostly didn't want us around unless the social worker was coming around to check on us. Learnt real young to stay out of the way."
"That helps explain why you never learned to cook. Children learn first by observing, then by asking, then by doing. If you were never allowed in the kitchen when your foster parents were cooking that learning cycle was short-circuited. In both my parent's families, the kitchen was the center of the home. Children did their homework around the kitchen table, neighbors sat at the table to visit. When the men came home from work, they migrated to the kitchen, sitting at the table to talk to their wives and children, catching up on what had been happening at home and filling them in on what had happened at work. There was almost always something cooking and whoever was doing the cooking would just tell whoever was nearest to what they needed to 'hand me that', pointing at what they wanted. Even the smallest children were allowed to lick beaters and scrape bowls."
"I wouldn'ta thought that rich folks lived like that."
"Neither of my parents was born rich, Vin. It wasn't until after Father was killed when I was seven that Mother began her career of marrying well and divorcing better. They were just two middle class kids who grew up together, went to school together, were childhood sweethearts and then married."
"I'd'a never thought that your ma was anything but born rich. She's so...." He trailed off uncertain of the word to use.
"Sophisticated?" Ezra supplied.
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "So, if she was just a middle class kid how did she become so sophisticated?"
"She was very beautiful in her youth and quite a talented actress as well. She was the star of her high school drama club in Macon and often appeared in local fashion shows. After she graduated and married Father, he paid for her to go to modeling school. After he was killed, she worked as a model for a while. Oh, she was never world class, but she did well enough to attract stepfather number one, Harold Simpson. He was a high-powered attorney in Atlanta. They met when she was working a charity fashion show there. They soon married and she was on her way to where she is today."
"What was your daddy like?"
"He was a police officer with the Macon City PD. I suppose you could say that law enforcement is in the Standish blood. His father was a deputy in the Bibb County sheriff's office for more than twenty years. His grandfather had been Sheriff down in Wilcox County for near to thirty years. As for what he was like, I am told that I bear a striking resemblance to him. I don't remember much about him but I do remember that he was always smiling, always upbeat and he loved us. When he was alive, Mother was nothing like she is now. I recall them running through the house like a couple of rambunctious children shrieking and laughing. I remember backyard barbecues and a house filled with family and laughter. When he died everything changed. It was like I lost them both. "
He fell silent as he finished up the squash casserole and started on the sweet potato one, a pensive look on his face.
Vin felt bad about bringing up sad memories and the silence grew awkward before he suddenly blurted out. "I never knew my daddy. Tanner's my ma's name. I don't remember much about her, except like your daddy she was always upbeat, smiling and happy. She always let me know that she loved me and was proud of me. After she passed and I went to live with grandma and grandpa Tanner, grandma told me that she refused to tell them who my daddy was, said she told them he was just a big baby and she didn't need two babies to raise. Grandpa would just shake his head and say she was 'stubborn as a rock'. They both always said that it didn't matter who my daddy was, that I was a Tanner and that was good enough for them."
He smiled and added, "I reckon the Tanners have something in common with the Standishs, law enforcement's sorta in the blood. Grandpa was a Texas Ranger. So was his daddy. Grandma's daddy had been a sheriff. Grandma died when I was nine and grandpa died two years later. That's when I ended up in foster care."
Ezra had finished the sweet potato casserole and was working on the green bean one now. He sighed and smiled at Vin, "It's strange how similar our lives were. After Father was killed, Mother left me with her parents while she 'got herself together'. I remained there until they passed away, as my first stepfather was quite happy to have me out of the picture. It was after their deaths and Mother's divorce from him that she began to ship me off to boarding school. I was ten at that time. From then until I was old enough to take care of myself I was shuttled from one school to another and dumped on various relatives in between school terms."
Vin nodded, "Seems like ain't neither one of us really had a home since we's little."
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. He finished up the green bean casserole and then, after washing his hands, he put the dressing, squash and sweet potato casseroles in the oven. Going to a cabinet he got out two place setting of his best china.
Vin stood moving away from the table to give Ezra room to set it. He stared at the gleaming silverware and the sparkling crystal. "You ain't gotta use the good stuff, Ez," he said softly.
Ezra smiled, "Oh, yes, I do. We *deserve* the good stuff. This is a special day, a special celebration. Not only are we celebrating Christmas, we are celebrating the beginning of a deeper friendship even, hopefully, the beginning of a deep and abiding love."
Vin smiled at him, moving to take him into his arms. "I've loved you for a long time, Ez. Never dared to hope you'd feel the same."
Ezra leaned into the embrace, his arms slipping around Vin's waist as his head came to rest on Vin's shoulder. "Likewise. I always felt that if you were inclined towards men that your interest would lie with Mister Larabee. The bond between you is so visible."
"Me and Chris are like brothers. I'm comfortable with him, feel like I've known him all my life but I ain't ever felt the kinda desire for him that I feel for you. You, you excite me, Ez. Just holding you now is making my heart beat faster, making me hard and aching for you."
Ezra pulled back slightly, smiling and stretched up to kiss Vin softly on the lips, before stepping back to say, "Then, if we are to take this slow and be sure of what we want from each other before we do anything irreversible, we had best back off. Besides, I do believe it is time to open our presents."
He didn't however, let go of Vin completely, he had let his hands trail down Vin's arms and left one hand linked with Vin's as he turned and led the other man into the living room and over to the tree.
They had left the lights on the tree burning all night but Ezra hadn't turned on the room lights. The tree glowed prettily in the gray light of the snowy day. It stood on a table placed in front of the French doors that led out onto Ezra's patio. Ezra had drawn back not only the deep green velvet drapes that hung on the doors but the white sheers beneath them, so that the tree was framed by the curtains and displayed against a background of slow-falling snow outside the glass paneled doors. The string of bubble lights had turned out to be too heavy for the branches of the small tree and they had placed them around the sides and back of the table, outlining it.
They stood for a long moment enjoying the sight of the first Christmas tree that they would share. Then with a grin Ezra released Vin's hand and grabbed up a long rectangular box, wrapped in golden foil paper, handing it to Vin. "I think we should open the fun gift first."
Vin took the box, weighting it in his hands, then grinning picked up a box that was the exact same shape and size only wrapped in heavy paper with a Christmas tree pattern.
They sat down on the floor to open them. As the wrapping came off and they realized that the gifts were identical, Vin's face fell. "Aw, Ez, I'm sorry. You can exchange it..."
"Nonsense! It's perfect." Ezra declared looking at the two identical games of Jenga. "We both have exceptionally steady hands. One tower is hardly a challenge to either of us but with these we can build a double height tower and it will be quite challenging."
Vin grinned suddenly, a wicked gleam in his eye. "And just think of Buck and JD's faces the first time we challenge them to try a double tower."
Ezra laughed out loud. "Oh, Yes! I can just see JD's face. The poor boy has never once managed to draw more than five pieces before toppling the tower when we play at their place and their tower is missing pieces."
Vin chuckled. "I think JD hides them so the tower will be shorter and he will have a better chance."
"It doesn't do him any good. Poor boy. He's just so..."
"Rambunctious," Vin supplied with a grin.
"Exactly. There have been times when he has toppled the tower when it wasn't even his turn." Ezra shook his head sadly, then smirked at Vin. "But he'd better not start making my Jenga pieces disappear!"
Vin smiled happily. "How about we play a game of this after dinner?"
"Sounds good to me," Ezra replied before reaching up to the table and picking up the two largest packages. Again they were very near the same size but the one from him to Vin was heavier than the one from Vin to him. He handed Vin his and said, "Open yours first."
Vin eagerly tore into the paper and quickly revealed a large white box, lifting the lid he stared at the heavy, fringed, buckskin jacket with beautiful Native American beading on it. "God, Ez. It's... it's beautiful."
"As soon as I saw it in the leather shop I knew I had to get it for you. It reminded me of the one that was destroyed in the warehouse fire several months ago when the Heineken bust went bad. I know that, that jacket had a sentimental value that can never be replaced, but I wanted you to have this one."
"It's great, Ez. It'll have it's own sentimental value, ya know. After all it's the first piece of clothes *you* ever got me." He smiled at Ezra as he slipped into the jacket knowing that it would fit perfectly, and it did.
"Now, you open yours." There was an amused glint in his eyes.
Ezra frowned at him then quickly opened his own package to reveal a hip-length, lambskin jacket, lined with silk. It was light-weight, the leather soft and supple. It was also carefully tailored, single-breasted with a matching tie belt, it had two patch-style pockets below the waist and two breast pockets with button down flaps above. It also had an inside pocket on each side of the front packet.
Ezra stared at it, his hands unconsciously caressing the soft leather. "It's gorgeous, Vin. I love it!"
Vin grinned at him. "Seems great minds think alike. Looks to me like the last two presents are about the same size and shape too. Wanna bet we got each other the same thing there, too?"
Ezra smiled at him, as he slipped into his new jacket, pleased that it fit well. "I would not be upset if we did. If fact I believe I would be quite pleased to find that they are basically the same."
"Me too, so, let's find out," Vin grinned and knelt up to grab them off the table. "This time, you open yours first."
Ezra quickly tore the paper from the small rectangular box to reveal a jewelry case. Grinning he opened it, his eyes lighting up at the item inside.
A gold-colored ID bracelet gleamed in the lights from the Christmas tree. He ran his finger along the fancy script letters: Night Owl.
"It ain't gold. Figured you'd want to wear it and not have to worry about it getting damaged or anything so I got the Vermeil. Looks like gold, but a lot tougher."
Ezra smiled at him, a smile that seemed to make him literally glow. "It's perfect. Now open yours."
Vin did so, grinning at the jewelry box that was revealed. Opening it, he smiled at the sight of the bracelet inside. It was as perfect for him as the one he had given Ezra was for Ezra. This one was anodized steel, blackened so that it wouldn't give off any reflection. He could wear it when he was working, covering the others at a bust without worrying that it would catch the light and give away his position. The letters were plain block ones. He ran his finger over them just as Ezra had the writing on his. Hawk.
He lifted it from the box and held it out to Ezra in his right hand extending his left at the same time. "Would you put it on me, Ez?"
Ezra smiled happily and took the bracelet, neatly placing it on Vin's left wrist.
Then he removed his from its box, "And now you must return the favor." He handed the bracelet to Vin and held out his left wrist.
Vin placed the bracelet on his wrist then rose and drew him to his feet by his grip on Ezra's wrist. "We got some time yet till dinner's ready. You want to watch the parade on TV?" he asked.
Ezra shook his head moving them towards the couch. "No. I'd rather just sit here with you, enjoying the peace and tranquility of our first Christmas together."
Vin smiled at him and allowed himself to be drawn down to sit on the couch. Almost without thought they moved into the same positions they had sat in the evening before, Vin's right arm around Ezra's shoulders, Ezra's head resting on Vin's shoulder, Vin nuzzling Ezra's hair. His left hand moved to cover Ezra's entwining their fingers. The chain of his ID bracelet brushed quietly against Ezra's.
Ezra took a deep breath and let out a soft sigh. "I love the smell of leather." He said softly, reaching up with his right hand to caress the soft buckskin jacket. "It looks good on you and the smell of leather suits you."
Vin shifted enough so that he could run the fingers of his right hand through Ezra's soft curls, pleased with the quiet sigh of pleasure that the action elicited from his soon-to-be lover.
Vin pressed a kiss to Ezra's hair. "Your jacket looks real good on you too, Babe. The smell of leather's nice but I've always liked the way you smell... kinda warm and spicy... don't nobody else smell quite like you do... it's nice."
Ezra 'hummmed' contentedly, and snuggled closer.
They sat happily together until the timer on the oven dinged.
Ezra sighed and rose gracefully to his feet. "Time to take the dinner up."
Vin rose behind him. "I'll help you."
They decided to leave the food sitting on the counter, and just fill their plates and take them to the table, since they were eating at the small breakfast nook table.
Vin carved the turkey while Ezra put the dinner rolls in to brown.
Ezra retreated to the living room and put on some soft Christmas music while the rolls browned and Vin fixed their plates. When he returned, Vin had found a half dozen small candles in crystal holders and sat them on the table. He was lighting them as Ezra re-entered the room.
"Turn off the overhead light, babe," Vin instructed. He had closed the drapes on the window at the end of the table and the candles gave the small space an intimate look.
Ezra smiled as Vin took his hand and guided him to his seat on one side of the small table. "Dinner by candle light, very romantic, Darling."
"Your good cooking deserves a special settin'," Vin replied, drawing Ezra's hand up to kiss it softly before moving to his own seat. "Everything smells wonderful."
They ate slowly, chatting quietly, happy and content to be sharing the day together.
As they cleared the table and put the food away, Vin came up behind Ezra, slipping his arms around him, bending to brush a kiss against his neck. "Love ya, Babe. This is the best Christmas I have ever had."
Ezra turned into his arms, stretching up to brush his lips across Vin's. "I love you, also, Darling... and this is likewise the best Christmas I have ever had."