Josiah pulled Ezra's jag to a stop in front of the undercover agent's apartment. It was in a quiet part of town, very few neighbors crowded the place and the trees supplied ample shade. He watched as the Southerner slowly manipulated himself out of the car. Josiah smiled to himself, surely the man would have to be dying in order to ask for help and even then he wondered if he would. The big man got out and took a deep breath; he loved the smell in the air after a heavy rain. Then he headed up the steps behind the slow moving undercover agent. Ezra fumbled with his keys before dropping them to the ground. In a fit of defeat the he leaned forward and rested his head against the door. "Better let me get that," Josiah interjected, picking up the keys and unlocking the door.
Ezra entered the apartment and headed straight for the bathroom, his stomach insisting it empty itself of the small sip of water he'd had earlier. Josiah cringed in sympathy as he closed the door and headed into the small living room. He sighed at the sight. No pictures or paintings decorated the white walls. Boxes still waiting to be unpacked, lined the far wall. A simple overstuffed sofa and antique rocker were the only furnishings filling the less than welcoming space. Two phones rested on the kitchen counter beside a coffee pot, one black, and one white. Josiah went ahead and helped himself to a cup of the cold coffee and seated himself on the overstuffed couch. The view from the window overlooking the Denver Mountains was splendid, a captivating sight if he ever saw one. Josiah's first impression of the undercover agent had been one of allusiveness, someone who didn't feel connected. And now, seeing the state of the Southerner's apartment, it only confirmed his initial suspicion. He leaned farther back in the comfortable sofa waiting for the newest member of the team to come out of the bathroom. Josiah's new task was to find out the reasoning behind Ezra's fear of trust. He knew the undercover agent had been burned in the past and he wanted to reinforce that it wouldn't happen here, not with these men. But there was more to the man's allusiveness than a bad stretch with the FBI, the trick was to find out what.
+ + + + + + +
The Southerner slowly came out of the bathroom and leaned heavily against the wall. His head was killing him. The only thing he wanted to do was lay down and forget the world. "I apologize for the lack of interior decorating," Ezra smiled lightly.
"Looks like you move a lot?" Josiah turned the statement into a question hoping to get some kind of an answer.
"Considering my experience, if I quit the bureau I could always take up a job as a professional mover." He rubbed the side of his head in an attempt to forget about the pain.
Josiah chuckled, "Do you always revert to sarcasm when faced with a personal question?"
Ezra stood up and headed into the kitchen for a glass of water, he heard the question and was refusing to answer. "Might I presume Mr. Tanner or Mr. Wilmington will be bringing your vehicle by?"
"Brother Dunne volunteered." Josiah watched as Ezra tentatively drank from the water glass. "You didn't answer my question."
Ezra paused a moment before heading out of the kitchen. "No, I don't always revert to sarcasm, sometimes I avoid the question all together." He smiled then headed into the bedroom where he intended to lay down before he fell down.
Josiah watched him leave. The answers may not have been what he wanted to hear, but they were answers just the same.
JD knocked with enthusiasm on the apartment door. Buck waited patiently behind him holding the two large pizzas and a six-pack of beer. Josiah answered the door and motioned for the two to keep their voices down.
"Damn, Josiah," Buck said setting the beer and pizzas on the kitchen counter. "He ain't even unpacked yet." The ladies man continued, while looking around the apartment.
JD walked over to the window that overlooked the Denver Mountains. "He ain't plannin' on leaving is Josiah?"
The big man grabbed a beer and three plates out of the cupboard. "Don't rightly know Brother."
"Looks to me like he never unpacked," Buck stepped closer to the stack of boxes and fingered the tape. "He must of packed theses years ago. The tapes so old it's turned yellow."
"Always thought Ez' would have bookshelves full of famous literature," JD tried in his best British accent. "...but a big screen TV would be nice too."
"Well," Josiah smiled as he grabbed a large piece of pizza out of the cardboard box. "We know what to get him for Christmas."
Buck, JD, and Josiah paused when they heard the bathroom door open and then close. "Hope we didn't wake 'im," JD sighed looking for conformation from Josiah. The retching sound from the bathroom gave them the proof they needed. They didn't wake the Southerner. "He always get this sick when he gets a migraine?" The young electronics expert asked. He'd talked with Vin after Josiah and Ezra had left wanting to know what was going on with the undercover agent.
"When Sara used to get 'em she was sicker than a dog. Chris would have me watchin' Adam while he took care of her." Buck grabbed a piece of pizza not bothering to use a plate.
Josiah stood up and put his plate down on the counter then headed for the bathroom. He banged on the door, "You all right Brother?" Josiah asked. He didn't hear anything for a few moments then the toilet flushed.
Ezra got up off the floor after hearing Josiah unceremoniously bang on the white door. He flushed the toilet and rinsed his face in the cool water from the tap. He looked terrible, the dark circles under his eyes were proof of the lack of sleep over the past two days. His pale skin made them appear even darker. Ezra opened the door not bothering with the light because he'd never turned them on to begin with and paused in the doorway.
"Are you all right?" Josiah asked again concern laced his voice. Ezra appeared sicker now than when he first brought him home.
The Southerner wiped a weary hand over his face and paused before answering the question. There was no mistaking a migraine. He got them; there was no way around it. Sometimes the pain medication worked, other times it didn't. His gut told him Josiah was sincere in asking how he felt but the need to protect himself over rode any truths he wanted or needed to explain. "Fine," was the answer he got.
Josiah sighed, "You need me to get you anything?" He wanted to help, he truly did, but it was obvious any help he wanted to give wasn't going to be requested tonight.
Ezra shook his head no then immediately regretted it, "No thank you Mr. Sanchez." He muttered as he headed back for his room.
Josiah watched him go then looked to JD and Buck who only shrugged their shoulders.
Chris poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee and stirred in some cream and sugar. It was after nine and the leader of the team wasn't expecting his undercover agent in for a while, but the rest of the team didn't have that excuse. According to Josiah, Ezra had been sick most of the night. He understood how debilitating migraines could be and he wasn't about to push the subject with the Southerner. Josiah had relayed his concern about the state of Ezra's apartment to Chris when he first came in and the more he thought about it the more it bothered him. Something was holding the Southerner back and Josiah wanted to get it out in the open, particularly with Chris.
Josiah had stayed the night at Ezra's. A parental feeling kept him at the undercover agent's apartment. He didn't want to leave the Southerner in the state he'd been in. The team strategist had come in early to speak with Chris about his concerns. Josiah didn't want any secrets hidden from the team leader, he would find out sooner or later anyway, and Josiah liked the aspect of sooner than later.
Chris took a long sip of his coffee and sighed, Vin had made it. He added more cream and more sugar to his coffee then headed back to his office. JD bounded in from the stairs with his 32oz coke and Chris shook his head. How could anyone drink that stuff this early in the day? Buck soon followed complaining about the elevator being out and the team leader sighed. It seemed Standish's tardiness was rubbing off on the rest of the team.
"Hey Chris," Buck said passing him on his way to the kitchenette.
"Well I wouldn't be if the damn elevator was working. Six floors of stairs takes time." Buck headed to the coffee pot. "Who made the coffee?"
"Vin," Chris chuckled.
"Damn," Buck said looking at the dwindling cup of sugar.
"What?" Vin asked looking around the room. The stares he was receiving justified some concern.
"Your coffee tastes like shit, Brother Vin." Josiah chuckled moving toward the small refrigerator to grab himself a can of lemonade.
"Yeah, well," Vin paused setting the file he'd been reading down and picking up a cup and pouring himself some of his famous brew. "Just leaves more for me."
"You're welcome to it," Buck joked grabbing a glass of water. He would have to go down to the coffee stand down the street later. He paused looking up as Ezra entered the office area with his sunglasses still adorning his face. "How ya feeling Ez?"
"Mr. Wilmington, I'm sure your lack of a college education does not entitle you to dismiss the fact that my name ends with 'ra. Therefore, Ezra would be the title in which to address me."
"Good to know," Buck stood back with questioning eyebrows raised. "But how are you feeling? Cuz you look like shit." The ladies man didn't let the pale complexion or slumped shoulders give notice to the fact that the Southerner still wasn't up to speed.
"Better, thank you." Ezra headed for his office pausing only to remove his jacket. He wanted to finish the paperwork he didn't get finished the day before.
Vin slapped Buck on the shoulder before following Ezra into the office. "Hey Ez, there's coffee in the other room." Everyone laughed at the audible moan the undercover agent released. They would break down those steel barriers no matter what and they weren't above doing it in an underhanded way.
+ + + + + + +
Maude entered the Denver ATF offices with her usual finesse. Dressed in a dark suit that focused attention toward her abundant cleavage. Her hair and makeup was done to perfection and the high-heeled boots added to her thin shapely form.
"Can I help you ma'am?" JD asked, stepping out of the kitchenette. He was taken back by the woman's appearance.
"How delightful," Maude smiled. "Seeing one so young in a position such as this," her southern accent filling the air. "Your parents must be proud."
"My ma's dead and I never knew my father," JD admitted regretfully.
"How tragic," the elegant blonde gently touched his cheek.
"Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear," Josiah sighed walking up to the woman who took his breath away.
"Shakespeare," Maude smiled offering her hand for him to kiss. "Maude Standish."
"Josiah Sanchez, at your service," the large man gently kissed her hand and escorted her farther into the office.
"That is kind of you Mr. Sanchez. If you would be so kind as to show me where my son may be hiding himself."
+ + + + + + +
Vin stood up from his desk and stretched his back. He moved over to the window and whistled. "Looks like Josiah's got himself a lady friend."
Ezra paused looking up from his computer screen and out the window. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair and sighed. It was eleven thirty, he groaned, she was early. Vin looked back toward the undercover agent and it suddenly registered with him, the woman was Ezra's mother. Vin continued to lean against the window and watched as the Southerner hesitantly left the office and went to greet the woman who had raised him. The sharpshooter continued to watch the reunion between mother and son. In a way he did envy the undercover agent, his mother was still very much alive, but he noticed how the reunion was more mechanical than warm. The woman seemed more affectionate with Josiah than with her son and she'd only met him. Not one to be rude, Vin moved out of the office. Chris, Nathan and Buck also joined everyone in the break room. They'd all been looking forward to meeting the Southerner's mother, considering he was the only one of them who had a living parent. The group hoped this would be an opportunity to get more of an insight into the undercover agent. Unfortunately what Vin was seeing was Ezra's prediction coming true and the eventual loss of twenty of his hard-earned dollars.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra kissed his mother on the cheek and then politely introduced her to the band of men gathering around. The Southerner was right in predicting how the team would react. Josiah was beside himself, he just couldn't get enough of the woman standing before him. Buck wasn't any better; although Maude aged him by more than fifteen years he was still smitten with her good looks and charm. JD was happy just to meet her, he looked longingly at her and Ezra understood why. The kid was an easy read, it was to be expected, and he'd lost his mother less than a year before. Nathan kept to himself but the look of 'I told you so' was written all over his face, something that wasn't totally unexpected. Chris held back, as usual, he needed more of a read on the woman before he made up his mind. Vin stood back like Chris and just watched the theatrics, the sharpshooter could tell the attention with Maude was making the undercover agent uncomfortable.
"My darling boy," Maude patted Ezra on the cheek before moving closer to Josiah. She liked to be adored, it aided in her direct misgivings. "It's a pleasure to meet all of you. I wasn't aware you would all be here today," she brushed a stray hair away from her face deliberately trying to focus everyone's attention to the large diamond ring now adorning her left hand.
"Mother," Ezra saw the ring but didn't acknowledge it. "I wasn't expecting you for another hour."
"I caught an earlier flight. I am, however, sorry to say that I can't spend more time with you today." She smiled. It was a lie, one that Ezra was used to. In reality she couldn't wait to get in a taxi and head back to the airport. She was never one to stay in one place to long, after all, she had her own life to live. "Is there someplace to grab a quick lunch in this simple metropolis?"
"There's a little Italian place right down the street," JD said finding his voice. "Cassy and I go there sometimes, it's not bad."
"That sounds marvelous," Maude looked around the room at the interested faces. "Would all of you be able to join us?" She smiled wanting them to join her and Ezra. "It would be nice to finally get to know all of my son's associates."
"I've worked here three weeks, Mother, it isn't as if I have been hiding them from you."
Maude ignored the jab and took Josiah by the arm, "I'll let you lead the way," she smiled up at him.
"I'd be delighted," Josiah smiled as though he'd just won the lottery.
Buck, JD, Nathan, Chris, and Vin grabbed their jackets and started to follow the couple. "You coming Ez?" Vin asked noticing the Southerner hadn't moved from where he had first stood after greeting his mother.
"I'll follow you in a short while. I have a phone call to make." Ezra ran his hand over his face and walked back to his office.
Vin paused before nodding his head in understanding then followed the rest of the group out of the offices. "Who do you think's buyin'?" He asked looking at the rest of the group.
"My money's on Ezra," Buck joked. "Seein' how it's his ma, doubt very much if he'd want to make the wrong impression." The ladies man stood up straighter trying to give the aspect of Ezra's motto, 'appearances are everything'.
"I disagree," Nathan shook his head. "I think it'll be his Ma. Looks to me like she's got a bunch of money, and I can't see her makin' her son pay for anything."
Vin shook his head watching his hard earned twenty bucks go down the toilet. The undercover agent had been right, everyone reacted very much the way he'd predicted, hell, it was almost scary how right he'd been.
"I think Josiah should buy," JD spoke up insinuating the sudden relationship between the two.
"I agree with JD," Chris shocked everyone by giving his opinion. "Hell, as fast as those two were moving Ezra may have a step daddy before the day's out." Everybody chuckled.
"Didn't ya see the rock she had on her finger?" JD gasp, "Thought for sure she'd robbed the crown jewels."
"Ya have to wonder how many times she's been married," Vin spoke up. "Didn't look like the ring even phased Ez."
"Either way," Nathan snapped, "He should be here with her now. There's nothin' that can't wait until after she leaves. She made a point to come see him, he should appreciate it more."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair while dialing up Brandy, the team's secretary. He wanted her to call him in thirty minutes with a phony emergency. The Southerner wasn't about to stick around and listen to Maude's wild forged stories of when he was young. She wasn't around when he was young. He wasn't about to sit around and listen to her lies, or her delusions of being a wonderful parent. Let the others believe what they wanted. They would anyway. Even under the best circumstances the relationship he shared with her was tense, and for the most part they stayed out of each other's way, except when she needed something. Right now he was hoping it was only a kidney or lung that she needed. He would be more than willing to give her one of those. But his gut was telling him otherwise. She needed him for that upcoming wedding she was planning; the ring was proof it was going to happen. He had to come up with an excuse why he couldn't attend. He'd given her away at several weddings before and all of her previous marriages had ended with the same result. Divorce. Ezra hung up the phone then headed out of the office to face the inevitable.
+ + + + + + +
The team wasn't hard to find. They were all sitting in a far corner booth, obviously enjoying Maude's stories. She sat contently between Buck and Josiah sipping on her glass of red wine. At least she was consistent. Ezra scooted into the booth next to JD and immediately took a sip of water.
"I took the liberty and ordered for you Ezra, considering I don't have much time. I wouldn't want you here finishing your meal by yourself." She cooed.
"You said you had an announcement to make when we spoke on the phone." The Southerner cut to the chase. The best way to deal with Maude was to be direct and not allow her to manipulate the situation.
"Louis McDuffy, asked me to marry him," she smiled. "And I accepted."
"Congratulations, when is the wedding?" Ezra leaned farther back in the booth as the food was delivered to each of them.
"A week from Sunday. I'll expect you to be there." Maude expertly unfolded her napkin and placed it on her lap not anticipating a rejection. "It's being held in Ireland. Louis has rented a castle for the week, he would very much like to meet you."
Ezra rubbed the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. This was why she invited everyone from the team. She didn't want him to say no and she thought he wouldn't if he was with people that he felt obligated to impress. Unfortunately for her, he no longer cared. He wasn't in Atlanta walking on eggshells anymore. "Please give Mr. McDuffy my sincere apologies, I cannot attend." He looked at the plate of food that was placed in front of him. Mushrooms, he hated mushrooms. Ezra pushed the plate away from the edge of the table waiting for the argument that was sure to take place.
"What on earth do you mean, you can't go." Maude took a long drink of her wine and motioned for the waitress to refill her glass.
"I have obligations here." Ezra sighed, refusing to look at the disapproving faces being directed towards him. "Besides, I'll make a point to be at the next one."
"Ezra Standish!" The woman snapped throwing her napkin in her plate of food. "As my son it is your duty to be there for your mother."
Ezra didn't respond but instead motioned for the waitress. He pulled out his wallet and handed her one of his credit cards. "I said no, and that's final. I have a responsibility here and I won't leave it to go running off to Ireland to watch you get married, yet again."
Maude folded her arms across her chest and sighed. She knew she lost the argument and was thankful he didn't bring up anything more to use as ammunition against her. So she changed the subject, "What is wrong with your food? Did I not order something you liked?" She sounded defeated, disappointed, and hurt, one of her many overly used tactics of manipulation to get everyone else at the table to try and change Ezra's mind for her.
"I'm sure the food is wonderful, however, I don't eat mushrooms."
"Since when?" Another blow Maude wasn't expecting.
"For the love of Pete," Ezra looked at her. "I haven't partaken in the consumption of the fungus in over twenty years." He signed the receipt and replaced his credit card back in his wallet. He didn't show any emotion, matter of fact he was void of emotions at all. He wanted to tell her she would know what he liked and disliked if she'd taken the time to learn about him, but she didn't. She never took the time to get to know him. In reality they were a lot like two acquaintances who kept running into each other at the supermarket. Ezra's cell phone rang and he gladly excused himself from the table.
Vin watched him leave. The sharpshooter had been quiet all through lunch trying to get a better understanding of not only Ezra but the rest of the team as well. Chris had been quiet, Vin noticed, but the lean blonde had a tendency to lean toward Nathan's line of thinking. Not that Chris voiced what he thought, but the quiet tracker saw in the nod of the head or curl of the lips that confirmed with him that Chris agreed with the healer. Vin didn't blame any of them. Maude was good, she'd used them to try and play her game. The team had been used, much like the players on a soccer field, only with Ezra as the ball.
"You'll have to excuse my son's behavior," Maude stated gathering up her belongings. "He has become most disagreeable the past few times we've seen each other."
"It's not just you ma'am," Nathan spoke up. "He seems to get rather 'disagreeable' quite often."
"Yes, well." She smiled, "He takes after his father that way." Maude motioned for Josiah to move so she could remove herself from the booth. "I should really be going gentlemen. It was a pleasure meeting all of you." She shook each of their hands and gently kissed Josiah on the cheek.
"Pleasure was all ours," Josiah kissed her hand. He unashamedly watched her leave the restaurant and sighed. "What a woman."
"Who'd a thought a woman like that could be Ez's Ma," Buck teased, shoving the kid to the side.
"What'd you think of her Chris?" Vin asked.
"Lets just say, I have a better understanding of our undercover agent," Chris replied with a smile. He watched Vin pull twenty dollars out of his wallet. "What are you up to?"
"Made a bet with Ez yesterday," Vin smiled sheepishly. "Lets just say, I won't be betting against him in the future."
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Continues in: High and Dry