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Button AU - Little Ezra

This is the second story in the series. The first is called .

 

Thanks to Romanse and Susan for their beta work. Especially Susan who reminded me of some fun childhood activities.

 

Notes: The Zoo information came from: .  They've got some lovely wallpapers for your computer. The mane information came from Wikipedia and discoverymagazine.com.

 

 
Lion

It was the third night since Ezra had been found abandoned near Chris' ranch. The little boy was asleep in Adam's bedroom with Quack clutched tightly to his chest. He was experiencing a very restless sleep which was interspersed with whimpers and moans. Ezra tossed and turned as his nightmare intensified until he woke with a squeal and began crying.

 

Vin, always a light sleeper, heard the distressed child and clambered out of bed and hurried along to his room in nothing but his shorts.

 

"Ezra? It's Vin coming in, okay?" the long-haired man called as he pushed into the room and switched on the light.

 

He looked over to the bed and saw Ezra sitting up with the comforter in a heap around him. The green-eyed child was shaking and looked frightened as he continued sobbing.

 

"Hey, Button. Did ya have another bad dream?" the man asked as he walked forward carefully, not wanting to spook the boy.

 

Ezra nodded and wiped his nose on his forearm while sniffing. "Saw nasty man," he mumbled, his bloodshot eyes glistening with unshed tears.

 

Vin sat on the bed and Ezra immediately scooted over to be near him. The P.I. rearranged the bedding and took the boy in his arms. He reached out and wiped the tears from Ezra's cheeks and kissed his head fondly.

 

"Wanna tell me about it? It may make you feel better," Vin suggested gently.

 

"No - won't."

 

"Okay, pard. I'll just sit here with you then, shall I?" The man felt Ezra nod his head against his chest and snuggle closer. Vin rubbed his back and adjusted his grip a bit to make them both more comfortable.

 

"Safe with you," Ezra muttered as he put his thumb in his mouth, curling the index finger round the end of his nose to hold on with.

 

"Sure you are. I'll never let anyone hurt you," Vin agreed.

 

He sat leaning his back against the headboard with Ezra across his lap. Despite his nightmare, the youngster was unable to stay awake for too long. Vin looked down a few minutes later and saw the boy's eyes close accompanied by a contented sigh. He smiled and reached out to wipe the hair from Ezra's eyes.

 

"Don't know how anyone could ever have hit you, Button," he whispered. "You're such a good kid."

 

Vin finally fell asleep as well and was only woken when he felt his shoulder being shaken gently. He squinted up and saw Chris looking down in concern.

 

"Everything alright?" the blond asked quietly as he indicated Ezra.

 

Vin nodded. "Yeah, he had another nightmare so I stayed with him and he's been okay ever since. Not a peep outta him."

 

"'Spect bad dreams are gonna be par for the course, Vin. I'll have another word with Josiah to see what else we can expect by way of behavior."

 

Ezra stirred in Vin's arms after hearing the two nearby voices and he yawned loudly as his eyes opened owlishly. He reached up and fisted the sleepy optics before blinking several times and sighing.

 

"Hey, Ezra. Had a good sleep?" Chris asked with a kind smile.

 

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Bee," Ezra replied as he stifled another yawn.

 

The black-clad man grinned at the name. For some reason Ezra had great trouble pronouncing Chris' surname, so he'd shortened it to the bit he could say. The blond had tried to get Ezra to call him Chris instead, but after doing it once the boy positively refused to do so again. His mother had always told him to call adults by their proper names because they demanded respect. She'd drummed into him that, at his age, he should never be on first name terms under any circumstances. Ezra, though, felt so close to Vin that he wanted to call him something more familiar - so he thought long and hard for his own nickname. He settled on 'Pop' and Vin was thrilled to bits when he heard Ezra say it for the first time.

 

Chris reached out and ruffled the boy's hair. "You ready for breakfast then?"

 

"Hungry-pungry," Ezra declared as he sat up straight and rubbed his tummy.

 

Chris laughed. "Well, I'll go and get your cereal ready then if you're that bad off."

 

The blond left the room as Vin untangled Ezra from the comforter. "You choose what you want to wear while I go and get dressed, Button. I'll be back to see to you in a minute." He headed to the door and then turned back as a thought occurred to him. "Do you need the bathroom first?"

 

"No, I can wait," Ezra said, his attention already on the clothes on offer.

 

Vin smiled and hurried back to his own room where he flung on the first things he could find. He went back to join Ezra and found he'd dressed himself except for his sneakers. Vin bent down and tied the laces and took the child along to the bathroom to get washed and toileted.

 

The three of them then met up in the kitchen. Ezra had the ever-present Quack tucked under his arm, and as had become custom, the toy duck had his own seat at the table.

 

Chris placed Ezra's breakfast in front of him. "What do you want to do today, Ezra? Both Vin and I are free to entertain you. You choose, okay?"

 

"Walk with doggy," Ezra decided after considering the offer. "Swing-swong too, please."

 

Vin laughed. "Wondered how long it would be before you wanted to do that again."

 

Ezra grinned as he recalled the last time he'd been swung between the two men as they'd walked along. He'd loved it.

 

"Well, eat up and we'll go. Better let your breakfast work its way into your tummy before we swing you though. Wouldn't want to make you sick," Chris said.

 

Once they were ready Chris headed over to the barn to collect Arnie, his black Labrador. He frowned when he noticed an old trike almost hidden behind some bales of hay. That's an activity for another day, he thought to himself. The trike had belonged to Casey, Ms. Well's niece, and it had been passed on to Chris for his late son to use. Now it would have another owner.

 

When the black-clad man joined the others, he looked down at Ezra and smiled. "Have you ever ridden a trike before?"

 

Ezra frowned and shook his head. "What is it?" The little boy, not having had a proper childhood, was very ignorant about a lot of things. He hadn't had the joys of having any toys once his mother had taken charge of him when he'd been three. He was going to enjoy experiencing all the things he had been deprived of now he was with Chris and Vin though. They would make sure of that.

 

"It's a three-wheeled bike. I just saw Casey's old one in the barn. With a bit of work I reckon we can get it sparkling again. Would you like to ride it when it's ready?"

 

The little boy nodded nervously as he looked up at Vin.

 

"You'll like it, Button," the long-haired man assured him. "I had a trike when I was little and I loved it so much that I bought my motorbike when I was old enough so I could still have fun."

 

Ezra nodded again, believing what Vin told him.

 

The three of them, plus Arnie, then set off toward the creek. Ezra alternated between running around with the dog and throwing him sticks to catch, and being swung between the two men. He developed a healthy glow on his cheeks and seemed to be full of energy despite not yet being up to a healthy weight. Pure adrenaline seemed to be keeping him going on its own. He was hyped up and drunk with happiness.

 

They eventually arrived at the shallow creek and Arnie dived straight in with an excited bark. He lapped at the sparkling water to slake his thirst before chasing a leaf which was floating past him. Ezra thought it looked tremendous fun and Vin wasn't quick enough to grab him before he stepped into the water as well.

 

"Button?" he called hastily. "You ain't exactly dressed for water-sports. Come on out here and throw the stick in the water for Arnie to catch instead."

 

Ezra looked down at his sneaker-clad feet and wet pants before kicking the water to create a splash. "Don't want to, Pop. It's fun."

 

Vin was taken aback, but also pleased, at the defiance Ezra had shown. The child obviously felt secure enough to say 'no' to them. The P.I. acknowledged that it was a real step forward in their relationship.  He could guess what would have happened if Ezra'd shown any sort of disobedience to his mother, so this was a real boost to his self-esteem.

 

Vin looked over at Chris and raised his eyebrows to ask how to handle the situation. The blond nodded at him and smiled, agreeing to take over.

 

"Well, you might stop the lights working in the heels of your sneakers if they get too wet. Do you want that to happen?" Chris asked calmly, still seeing the determined look on the boy's face. He knew that pointing out a negative outcome in a reasonable manner was a good way of resolving problems.

 

Ezra pursed his lips, shaking his head as Vin reached down to pull him out of the water. The youngster felt his feet squishing in the footwear and he screwed up his face in disgust. It felt horrible, like Jell-O oozing between his toes. He sat down on the grass and waved his legs in the air. 

 

"What ya doin'?" Vin asked in puzzlement as he watched the boy acting like an upturned tortoise.

 

"Drying my tootsies."

 

"Well, I reckon the only thing we can do to achieve that is to take off your sneakers and socks. I'll have to carry you home 'cause you might step on something sharp if you walk in bare feet," Vin said as he knelt down and removed the footwear. "I'll roll your pant legs up and you'll have to change them when we get back."

 

"Next time we'll have to bring you some gumboots to wear," Chris said as he reached out to take the wet items from Vin so he could pick up Ezra. He ought to have known that Ezra would have been attracted to the water. What child wasn't? "Come on, Arnie. Better get home and dry off Ezra."

 

Vin settled the boy in his arms and turned toward home as Arnie leapt out of the water and proceeded to shake himself, showering everyone in water. Ezra giggled in delight when he saw the exasperated look on Chris' face.

 

"Godammit all to Hell, now we're all gonna have to get dry. Thanks so much, Arnie," the blond complained.

 

Ezra whispered in Vin's ear, "Mr. Bee said rude words."

 

"Yeah, I reckon he did, Button. He'll have to be punished, won't he?"

 

"Who will?" Chris asked as he wiped his pants down distractedly.

 

"You. You offended Ezra with your cursing," the P.I. informed his friend with a grin.

 

Chris sighed, realizing he would have to temper his language now there was a child in the house. "I apologize, okay? I'll make you a nice meal when we get back to show how sorry I am."

 

Ezra shook his head. "No. Give me piggy-back ride instead. Please," he added hastily.

 

The black-clad man smiled. "Hey, I can sure do that. Come on, mount up, kid."

 

Vin helped to transfer Ezra to Chris' back after taking possession of the wet clothes. He then watched as the tall man set off at the gallop with his little jockey clinging to his shoulders tightly.

 

"Gee-up, horsey," Ezra shouted as he pretended to whip Chris on faster. "Look at me, Pop!"

 

Vin laughed as he hurried to catch up and heard Chris puffing with the effort of running. "Come on, Chris. Lift those knees!"

 

"That's enough from you, Tanner," the man growled as he came to a halt at the porch and put Ezra down gently. "Okay, Ezra?"

 

Ezra nodded but looked sad.

 

"Everything alright?" the blond said as he squatted down beside the boy.

 

"Sorry I whippeded you to make you fast."

 

"It was only pretend, son," Chris said quietly, knowing Ezra must be thinking back to when he'd been whipped by his mother.

 

Ezra grimaced. "But..."

 

"Don't think anymore about it. It was a game and nothing more - and I had great fun," Chris said with a grin as he ruffled the boy's hair gently. "How about a milkshake? I'm sure thirsty after galloping along like that."

 

"Choccy one, please," Ezra said, still not placated. He looked up and took hold of Vin's hand for comfort.

 

"Sounds good to me. Let's find some dry pants for you first," Vin said as he smiled at Ezra encouragingly.

 

When they had changed clothes and had their lunch and milkshake, Ezra sat looking out the window at the horses. He loved seeing the domestic animals that Chris had as well as the wild animals that lived on the ranch. He wished he could have a pet of his own to cuddle and love. He had Quack for comfort but it wasn't quite the same as having something alive.

 

"What ya thinking, Button?" Vin asked as he passed by.

 

Ezra shrugged. "Nothing, Pop."

 

Vin followed Ezra's gaze and realized what he had been watching. "Well, that doesn't sound very exciting." The P.I. smiled as he thought of the perfect venue for the youngster. "Shall we go into town and visit the zoo? There're lots of wild animals to see there."

 

"Wild?" Ezra said nervously.

 

"You know: monkeys, camels, giraffes as well as fish and lizards - all sorts of things."

 

"Will they bite?"

 

"They're in enclosures or tanks. You just go to watch them, not to touch - but I think some of the birds can fly around amongst the visitors," Vin explained. "Although there may be a petting zoo where you can touch some tame animals.  I haven't been for a long time so it's probably changed a lot."

 

"I'd like to," Ezra said shyly, hoping there was an animal he could touch.

 

"Great. I'll see if Chris wants to come too," Vin said as he patted Ezra's back gently.

 

The blond was certainly interested and called from the kitchen, "Come on, Ezra. Let's go on safari. Do you think Quack would like to come? He can sit in the backpack."

 

Ezra nodded and picked up the nearby toy before trotting to meet up with the blond.

 

"Terrific. Put him in then."

 

Vin pursed his lips and considered Ezra's attire. "Think you'd better have a hat of some sort. Guess they'll have some at the zoo. It'll be something to remind you of your day out if we buy one there."

 

The three of them set off and arrived with several hours to enjoy themselves at the zoo. After buying their tickets, Vin took Ezra to the shop and let the boy choose a baseball cap that he liked. Ezra chewed his lower lip as he looked along the shelf at what was on offer. He finally settled on one with a funny, foxy-looking creature with a striped face on it.

 

"What is it?" he asked as he held it up for Vin to see.

 

"That's a red panda. They're real shy, but they're cute if you catch a glimpse of one. They're my favorite animal," Vin said.

 

"Mine too," Ezra said.

 

Vin laughed as he took the cap to the cashier. On the way he saw a small child's camera and he picked it up. "Hey, Button. Would you like to snap some pictures of the animals we see? Do you like this camera?"

 

Ezra jumped up and down in excitement, his eyes wide and aglow. "Oh, yes, please. Can we? I want to learn to snap."

 

"Sure. I'll teach you to snap all the pictures you want," Vin said as he paid the cashier for the purchases which included some spare film and batteries. He then took hold of Ezra's hand and went out to meet up with Chris.

 

"Hey, what did you buy?" Chris said when he saw them. He smiled at how cute Ezra looked in his calf-length shorts, t-shirt and sneakers. They'd had to choose longer shorts for him to wear so that the scars on the back of his legs were hidden from view. The first pair Vin had found were too revealing and Ezra had cried when he'd checked his reflection.

 

"Look at my hat, Mr. Bee," Ezra said as he held out the apparel.

 

The blond took it and studied it interestedly. "Cool. A red panda," he said as he reached down and placed it on the boy's head. "That looks terrific."

 

"And a cama," Ezra said as he held out the instrument. "I'm gonna snap."

 

"Hey, great. They'll be a lot you can snap here, Ezra," Chris agreed. "Let's start off this way, shall we? I happen to know that the big cats are over here on the right."

 

Ezra could hardly contain himself. He felt as if he was going to explode with excitement. He reached up and took hold of Chris and Vin's hands and they set off to the cat enclosure.

 

Vin smiled when he caught sight of the look on Ezra's face. The P.I. managed to get Chris' attention and indicated the child between them. The black-clad man looked down and grinned at the delight the young boy was exhibiting. Ezra's eyes seemed to be everywhere, not wanting to miss a thing.

 

"Here we are," Chris said when they arrived at their destination. "Hey, look, Ezra. There's a lion," he said as he pointed the lithe animal out as it stalked across the ground. The blond bent down and picked the child up so he had a better view. "Have you seen a picture of one before at the library?"

 

"No. Papa only showed me pet aminals. Never been to zoo," Ezra replied. "Why's he got a wig on?" Ezra continued as he looked at Vin in puzzlement.

 

"Oh, Button, it's not a wig," Vin said, trying desperately not to laugh when he saw a few bystanders smiling at the comment. "It's called a mane. It's real hair and it tells you that he's a boy lion. The girl lions don't have one. It can frighten away any other lions because it makes him look big and strong, but if he does get in a fight it can soften any blows that catch him. It protects his head, neck and shoulders so it's real useful to him."

 

"Oh," Ezra still looked unsure. He was thinking hard about something and his brow wrinkled seriously. "Ponies have manes. Are they all little boys too?"

 

Vin gulped and looked at Chris. He knew kids were inquisitive, but how did you answer complicated questions? He could tell Ezra all about the purpose of the lion mane because the information was written on a board right in front of him.

 

The blond winked at his friend and grinned. He decided he'd better help Vin out. "Manes on horses are kinda different to the manes on lions. All horses and ponies have manes - girls and boys. They keep the horse warm and help the rain to run off its neck if it can't find shelter. It also helps to keep the flies out of its eyes."

 

"Okay," Ezra said as he digested that information.

 

"I bet you'll find some other animals that have manes in the zoo too. You let me know when you find one," Chris challenged.

 

Ezra nodded as he continued looking at the large lion. It had come very close and Ezra could see his big teeth and lolling tongue. "Snap, please," he said.

 

"Do you want to do it?" Vin asked as he pulled the camera out of his pocket.

 

"You first," the little boy said, his gaze on two lionesses making their way toward him. One growled quite loudly, but he felt Chris tighten his hold on him in comfort. "Would they gobble me?"

 

"Yes, they probably would, but you're safe here, okay?"

 

"Okay," Ezra agreed as he relaxed and pointed to a little cub that came gamboling after its mother, taking a swipe at her tail as he sped by. "He's cute, Mr. Bee."

 

"Yes, isn't he just? He'll soon be as big as his daddy though and he won't be so cute," Chris replied.

 

"Am I cute?" Ezra asked as he looked round at the blond.

 

Chris grinned. "Guess you are, Button."

 

Vin had taken a couple of photos of the pride of lions including the cub. "Do you want to try?" he asked as he turned to look at Ezra.

 

Ezra nodded and took possession of the camera. Vin told Ezra how the camera worked and the youngster pointed the lens and pressed the button. "I did'st it!" he said in pleasure.

 

"Great. Let's find some other animals to take photos of. I think there're some other cats over here."

 

Ezra trotted along between the two men and gasped when he caught sight of a tiger. He'd never seen anything like it. "It's painted!" he cried happily.

 

Chris smiled. "Yes, he's got stripes. Do you like him?"

 

"Uhuh. What is he?"

 

Vin couldn't help the broad grin on his face. It was great to see the world through a child's eyes and take delight in every new discovery with them. "He's a tiger."

 

"Snap, please," Ezra said as he put the camera to his eye and took a picture.

 

The further they went round the zoo the more crowded it became and it started to worry Ezra. He'd been living in virtual isolation with his mother and her boyfriends. To be truthful he'd been imprisoned indoors or chained up where no-one could see him in the back yard. It had only been on journeys between each new boyfriends' house that he'd been in a car and seen the outside world. To be suddenly surrounded by a sea of people was hard to bear.

 

Chris and Vin were talking as Ezra looked at the wolves distractedly. The two men had let go their hold on him so he reached out and grabbed the pocket on the leg of Vin's cargo pants.  He then wrapped his arm round the man's leg anxiously.

 

The P.I. looked down with a frown when he felt his leg encircled. "Alright, Button?"

 

"Too many legs," he muttered.

 

Vin didn't understand straightaway but a quick glance around him made him aware of Ezra's problem.

 

"Let's see if we can find somewhere quieter, shall we?" he said as he stooped down and picked the unhappy child up. "How about a ride on my shoulders? You'll be able to see a lot more then. You'll be taller than everyone."

 

Chris helped Ezra to settle in position and Vin kept a tight hold on his legs. Ezra reached out and got hold of Vin's long hair to steady himself. The little boy felt slightly happier above the crowds, but he was still uncomfortable.

 

"Hey, look, Button. You're nearly as tall as the giraffes," Chris said as he pointed the majestic beasts out, trying to distract the child.

 

"Manes," Ezra said.

 

"So they have," Chris said. "So how many is that so far?"

 

"Lion, wolf, giff," Ezra said, unable to say the last word properly.

 

"Great, well keep counting."

 

The two men took Ezra along to the lake with the ducks, hoping it wouldn't be so busy there. People tended not to be so interested in birds that could be seen elsewhere in the country. They were right, it was almost deserted, so they found a bench near the water and sat down with Ezra between them.

 

"Look at all the different Quacks there are," Chris said. "Aren't they pretty colors?"

 

"Can Quack see?" Ezra whispered.

 

"Sure. He'll feel right at home here, won't he?" Chris said as he undid the zipper more on the backpack and passed the stuffed toy to Ezra.

 

Ezra hugged the toy tight and began to relax in its presence. "Pop, that one's got a hat on like me," he said as he pointed to a white duck with a pom-pom on its head.

 

"Yes, don't he look smart?" Vin said.

 

Chris smiled and pointed to another bird nearby. "I think that one over there's an Indian Runner duck, Button. When you see it out of the water it stands up straight - not like a normal duck," he explained.

 

Vin had seen something out the corner of his eye and he said, "Quick, Button. Get your camera. There're some little ducklings coming on the water real close."

 

Ezra found the camera, put it up to his eye and waited patiently until the little ducks swam into his view finder. He clicked the button and grinned as the family of birds exited the water by the bench.

 

"Look, Mr. Bee. They've got tiddy feet." The boy looked closer. "No toes," he stated.

 

"That's right. They've got webbed feet to help them swim along."

 

The mother duck quacked loudly and Ezra covered his ears as he giggled. He then quacked back at her and laughed in delight when she answered him. The little ducklings just squeaked and Ezra thought they were adorable.

 

"I'd like a ducky. Baby ducky," he said almost to himself.  "He could be Quack's brother."

 

Chris smiled. If they did get custody of Ezra, that would be something he could get for the boy. Ducks would be great on the ranch and would teach Ezra how to care for a pet.

 

"They sure are cute," Vin agreed as he watched the ducklings belly-flop back into the water and set off after their mother.

 

The three companions stayed where they were until Vin felt that Ezra was feeling happier. He smiled as the little boy swung his feet and pointed out all the different ducks to Quack. It was a nice spot to sit anyway. The sun was out and it was warm and relaxing.

 

The P.I. frowned as he remembered something from his own childhood. He looked around the bench they were on until he spotted some thick, long blades of grass. He reached down and picked one, making sure it was clean.

 

"Hey, Ezra. I bet I can make a noise like a duck with this piece of grass. What do you reckon?" Vin asked with a grin.

 

Ezra pouted and shook his head. "No way, Pop."

 

Vin exchanged amused glances with Chris. He then placed the blade of grass between his thumbs and put his hands together as if he was praying. He lifted his hands to his mouth and blew through the small hole he'd created between his thumbs' knuckle and lower joint. A strange reedy noise emerged, sounding something like an out of tune harmonica to start with. Vin stopped, licked his lips and started again and did indeed make a quacking noise, which the ducks on the lake answered.

 

Ezra stared at him open-mouthed. "Show me, Pop. Please! I want to quack with grass."

 

Vin bent down and picked another blade and passed it to Ezra. He showed him what to do and the little boy sat on the bench swinging his legs as he blew unsuccessfully into his hands.

 

"Make sure the grass is held nice and tight, Button."

 

Ezra adjusted his hold and tried again. He managed to make a small squeaky noise and he giggled when the vibration made his lips tingle. He persevered and was soon making very loud quacking sounds.

 

"Listen, Pop. I'm talking quacky-duck," Ezra said with pleasure.

 

"You sure are. You did real well. Maybe you'll be able to talk to some other animals too, like Dr. Dolittle."

 

"Who's he? Is he like Dr. Nat?" Ezra asked, thinking of Nathan Jackson who had treated his injuries after he'd been found at Chris' ranch.

 

"Kinda. He's a man in a story book I read once. I'll get a copy from the library and we'll read it if you like. It's great fun," Vin said.

 

"I may have a copy at home, Vin," Chris said. "Nettie gave me loads to read to Adam and I seem to think that was one of them."

 

"Great." Vin held out the map of the zoo to Ezra and asked, "What would you like to see next then?"

 

Ezra looked at the picture but he couldn't read the words. He turned red as he shrugged.

 

The P.I. frowned. "Shall I tell you what there is still to see and then you can choose?" he offered.

 

Ezra nodded, so Vin pointed to each word and told Ezra what it said. He was realizing that although Ezra had been taken to the library by his father and loved books, he'd never actually started to learn to read. He'd probably been too young at the time and his mother certainly hadn't given him any attention - except the unwanted sort. She'd taught him manners, but only by beating it into him.

 

"Hefflumps," Ezra said slowly after Vin had told him all the other animals still to see.

 

"Good choice. I love elephants. They're surprisingly light-footed for such a big animal. Have you ever seen one before?"

 

"No, but picture looks funny. Want to see them for real."

 

Chris stood up and held out his hand for Ezra to take. "Do you want to carry Quack, or put him in the backpack again?" the blond asked.

 

Ezra reached out and took Chris' hand as he hopped down off the bench with the toy under his arm. "Keep him."

 

"Okay, let's go and find those elephants. See if you can pick them out," Vin said as he took hold of Ezra's other hand.

 

Ezra clutched them both tightly, but still managed to hold Quack securely as they walked along. He looked at each enclosure they passed and Vin told him what was in them. The boy occasionally stopped to take a picture when something took his eye but then he was off again on his mission to find the elephants.

 

He caught sight of a huge animal in the distance and he recalled the little picture he'd seen earlier on the map. He spurted forward, pulling the two men along. "There, is that one? A Hefflump?" he said as he released his hold from Chris and pointed excitedly.

 

"Hey, ain't you clever? That's right," Vin said with a grin as Ezra continued to hurry along.

 

The little boy came to a halt near the enclosure and looked at the animals with wonder. "Hose nose," he said as he studied the elephant's trunk with interest.

 

Vin burst out laughing. "Yes, he has, hasn't he? He uses it to suck up water to throw over him, so you're right. He can also pick things up with it, like logs or small things to eat from the ground. A trunk is really cool."

 

Ezra frowned. "Cars have trunks - not Hefflumps," he disagreed.

 

"No, an elephant's nose is called a trunk too."

 

"Does he step on it when he walks 'coz it's so long?" Ezra asked as he looked up at Chris enquiringly.

 

The blond shook his head - amazed at the inquisitiveness of the boy. "No. When elephants walk, they usually curl the very end of their trunk up so it doesn't drag on the ground or get stepped on accidentally. If you'd ever been to a circus in the days they had animals on show, the elephants all used to walk along in a line holding the tail of the one in front with their trunk. They can bend their trunk both ways. They can curl it up to reach their mouth, or curl it the other way to reach their brow. There you are, watch that one. He's swinging his all over the place. Just like an out of control hose, isn't it?"

 

The blond saw Vin trying not to laugh at what he'd just said. He only realized why when Vin indicated a nearby elephant who was airing his manhood and swinging it about. Chris hastily averted his eyes and stifled a bellow of laughter. Luckily Ezra hadn't noticed and Chris hoped he wouldn't.

 

Ezra's gaze, though, was still firmly fixed on the other elephant - his new favorite animal. "Is he old?"

 

"I don't know, bud," Chris managed to choke out.

 

"He's wrinkly," Ezra stated.

 

"Yes, but all elephants are wrinkly. That's just how their skin is," Vin said when he saw that Chris was about to lose control after the youngster's comment. The man was obviously associating the observation with the sexy elephant's anatomy. "Look at that little one there. He's got wrinkles, hasn't he?" the long-haired man continued, trying to ignore his doubled-up friend.

 

"Uhuh. Why they got big flappy ears?" Ezra queried, not seeing Chris' hysterics.

 

Vin smiled. "Well, where elephants live in the wild it's real hot. They can wave their ears to keep themselves cool. Also, if an elephant is angry, upset or under attack it sticks its ears out to the sides to let you know he isn't happy. It makes him look even bigger than he is and real mean."

 

"I like him. He's funny. Can I snap him?"

 

"Sure," Vin said as he handed over the camera and took charge of Quack so Ezra had his hands free.

 

"Snap, snap," Ezra chortled happily as he pushed the button on the camera and took several pictures.

 

While Ezra was occupied, Vin reached out and whacked Chris' arm quite hard. "Get control, will ya, pard? I sure as hell don't wanna have to explain what yer laughing about. Anyone would think you were a kid the way yer behaving."

 

"You started it! My words were perfectly innocent and I hadn't seen anything rude until you started laughing and showed the 'what-not' to me," the blond complained, keeping his language non-sexual in case Ezra heard him. "It's your dirty mind that got us into this."

 

"Just get a grip," Vin hissed as he saw Ezra turn to them.

 

"Well, it's getting late. How about we find your red panda and then head home?" Chris said in a relatively normal tone.

 

Ezra nodded and took off his hat to remind himself what a red panda looked like. He waved good-bye to the elephants and set off with Vin and Chris again. They came upon the required enclosure and tried to spot their elusive prey.

 

"Look up in the trees, Button. Pandas love to climb and they hide up there," Vin said. "You may have to be patient."

 

Ezra tilted his head back and scanned the trees thoroughly. He pursed his lips when he couldn't see one. He looked down at the ground instead and studied the undergrowth. He reached out and tugged Vin's sleeve as he pointed.

 

"Is that one? He's fluffy and foxy."

 

Vin looked down and grinned as the little creature shuffled by underneath them. "Yes, isn't he cute? He's such a great color."

 

Chris pointed to the other side of the enclosure where another panda was heading for a tree. "Aren't you the lucky one? This is the first time I've ever seen one. They've always hidden from me before. Now I've seen two at once. You must be my good luck charm, Ez."

 

"I want one," Ezra said.

 

"Well, they're not pets, bud. We'll have to come to the zoo again to see them."

 

"I'd like that," the little boy said as he watched the pandas disappear into the trees.

 

"Let's go back to the car and head home then. Bet you're hungry," Vin said.

 

"Hungry-pungry," Ezra agreed.

 

Ezra waved to all the animals as he passed by and said good-bye to the lady in the ticket booth at the gate. "I like Hefflumps and pandys," he told her.

 

"That's terrific. You'll have to come again," she said as she gave him a free badge to wear.

 

Vin bent down and attached it to Ezra's t-shirt. "It's an elephant, Ez. What do you say to the lady?"

 

"Thank you, thank you, thank you. I loves it," Ezra said as he glowed with pleasure. It was only a cheap plastic badge but Ezra was fascinated by it.

 

"You're welcome," the lady said as she laughed at the enthusiastic response.

 

They made their way to the car and Chris secured Ezra into his seat. The little boy was still looking down at his badge with pride. He'd never had anything like it before and he couldn't help stroking it. He looked up at the blond and smiled. "Nice lady."

 

"She was, wasn't she? It was kind of her to give you that."

 

"Hefflump," Ezra muttered to himself. "Hose nose."

 

Chris grinned and climbed in the Ram. Ezra was such fun to have around. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

 

"Yes, thank you. I likes zoos," Ezra said. "Likes amimals - not people."

 

"Oh, does that include us?" Vin asked from the back.

 

"No, I loves you both but lots people in zoo - didn't like," Ezra said, as he yawned and rubbed his eyes, exhausted after all his exercise.

 

Vin recalled how Ezra had reacted near the wolf enclosure. "Did they frighten you, Button?"

 

"Felt squished and my tummy went funny. Like it just being you two and me," Ezra said quietly.

 

"I understand. You've been used to being alone a lot, haven't you? It must be hard to be in a crowd like that," the P.I. agreed, making a mental note to take more care when suggesting outings in the future. They needed to introduce Ezra to large groups of people tentatively. Luckily their mistake on this occasion hadn't resulted in anything more than Ezra feeling unsettled for a while. He could have been really freaked out. Vin couldn't help but wonder how the youngster would manage at school when the time came.

 

"So, what do you want for supper?" Chris asked, shaking Vin out of his musings.

 

Ezra frowned as he considered what he would like. "Oh, oh," he said, as he remembered something he'd had the day before. "Can I have those thingys? Um...um...those throwy-up-in-the-air thingys," he added breathlessly, unable to remember their name in his excitement.

 

"Pancakes?" Vin said with a grin.

 

"Yes, yes, pancakes, please. Scrummy-yummy."

 

"Okay. We can have some cheese and ham in them if you like. They're real tasty," Chris said, smiling as he realized that Ezra used quite a few rhyming phrases in his speech. It was rather endearing.

 

"Can I throw one?" Ezra asked.

 

"Toss - not throw, Button," Vin corrected, imagining the chaos if they did throw one.

 

Chris nodded. "Sure you can, bud. We'll all have a go and see who does best. Vin always manages to get his stuck together and it ends up as a lump on his plate," the blond teased.

 

"Least I didn't get one on the ceiling like you did last year," Vin retorted.

 

"I'm going to win then," Ezra said as he clapped his hands together with glee.

 

Vin and Chris laughed out loud. Ezra was adorable and they really hoped he could become a permanent resident at the ranch. Right now though, all they could do was take pleasure in his company and that certainly wasn't difficult to do.

 

The End

Elephant

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