"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

Disclaimer: Not mine, not making money, writing for fun

EXTREME RECOGNITION to DCPriestess for beta work, encouragement, mutual evil personality and the joy of lunchtime AOL Instant Messenger conversations about M7 This story takes place after Nancy’s wonderful story, Are We There Yet? It also refers to an early piece written by (boy, I hope I’m correct) Maxbobabe. If I’m wrong, please don’t shoot me – I have fan fiction to finish.

Ezra P. Standish, ATF Agent and Undercover Operative Extraordinare, being of possibly sound mind and body, had undertaken one of the most delicate, dangerous and exciting missions of his career.

He had offered to baby-sit.

Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, his ATF boss and co-worker, were being required to attend a weekend convention overnight, and Mrs. Potter, their babysitter, had two children of her own down with strep throat. In the face of the looming crisis, Ezra had bravely stepped into the fray and volunteered to have the boys over at his condominium for the weekend.

After a brief pause, Nathan Jackson had inquired as to Ezra's general health and well-being. Josiah Sanchez had informed him he was brave man and noted he would light a candle in Ezra's behalf.

Messrs. Larabee and Wilmington had said 'yes' so fast it made his head spin.

Vin and J.D. had never seen "Unca" Ezra's apartment condominium and were excited at the prospect of spending time with one of their adopted ATF uncles, so there was no lack of enthusiasm in that quarter.

Indeed, the usually poker-faced and lone undercover agent was looking forward to a weekend of complete and unadulterated mayhem in the company of Masters J. D. Dunne and Vin Tanner.

Chris and Buck's concern over the state of his opulent white condo was taken under advisement, but Ezra didn't care. He had made a commitment to be part of the two orphan's extended family. He was more than willing to kiss relative cleanliness and House Beautiful rooms goodbye for the privilege of playing computer games, eating smores, and watching cartoons with two little imps with big dark eyes who would hold his hand trustingly and who called him Uncle Ezra shyly but earnestly.

After all, Ezra had gone shopping with the boys and other errands and survived the experience.

Further, he had already handled taking them on a car trip out of state and lived to tell the tale. This little adventure entailed having his beloved jag steam cleaned and the entire interior recarpeted. In light of this experience, he was prepared now to deal with projectile vomiting, lost toys and clothing, loud singularly distasteful music and a killer turtle with an evil sense of humor.

Indeed, he reflected, as he turned up the little road leading to Chris Larabee’s ranch, he was beginning to show signs of competency in the area of childcare.

And he was fairly certain that he probably wouldn't end up shot, so he was willing to take whatever massive destruction occurred as part of the joys of UNCA'hood. He parked the jag, undid his safety belt and walked up the path to the front door. Said door opened abruptly with a 'SLAM' and two small forms launched themselves into his arms.

"Unca Ezra!!!!!!" yelled J.D. in a voice that could probably crack rock at 50 yards.

"Ooomph," said Ezra as Vin Tanner silently delivered a full body tackle with his entire 7-year-old muster.

Remembering past greetings, the undercover man quickly got to his knees before gravity demonstrated its authority. In a pre-emptive strike, he began hugging his little friends and tickling as J. D. made whooping noises that he must have studied under Buck Wilmington to achieve. Vin, the oldest, was a more silent child. He only grinned at Ezra, letting out a few shy giggles as J. D. scared the birds away for miles. After a suitable interval [a long enough tickle to be a proper greeting, but not so long as to cause vomiting] Ezra and the boys stilled, catching their breaths. "Good Evening Master Tanner and Master Dunne. I trust you are ready to spend the weekend at my humble abode?"

J. D.'s bright face screwed up with a curious expression. Vin nudged his cousin and whispered "He wants to know if we's want to come to his place." J. D. grinned in enlightenment and nodded enthusiastically.

Ezra looked around quickly for witnesses and then kissed both urchins secretly. He wasn't positive that Buck wouldn't tease him, but he'd rather try to shield himself from possible blackmail later.

Kissing children was a new experience for the dapper conman. His memory of receiving hugs and kisses from his mother was not a positive one. He had been expected to be a little gentleman at all times while growing up. Emotional displays were frowned on. Usually when his mother, Maude, had kissed him, it had been prepatory to leaving him in a Boarding School or with some unfortunate relation. Ezra had associated kisses and hugs with not being wanted, but his acquaintance with J.D. and Vin had changed that notion.

Ezra grinned and reflected on the changes that little boys had made in his point of view on life. His mother's kisses had been perfunctory and light. J.D.'s kisses tended to be wet and sloppy and were delivered with such joy that Ezra had struggled not to cry the first time he had been so gifted.

Vin tended to be less smoochy, but the look of adoration on his still too thin face made his kisses and hugs things of legend in Ezra's mind and heart. He was smitten bad, and he knew it, and accepted that his poor shriveled heart was expanding under that influence. That Influence included a new appreciation of chocolate, candy, cartoons, horrendous music, and particularly ugly ties but it was worth it for just one bright smile.

Now Ezra knew that there was nothing sweeter than receiving a kiss from a small boy with big dark eyes and Power Ranger PJ's. Even if said waif was covered in ice cream and his Armani suits had to be specially cleaned and stain-treated.

"Let us fetch your luggage for this weekend's entertainment,” he said and extricated himself from the tangle of small giggling whooping boys. He stood and took both little grubby hands and walked into the sprawling ranch house that Larabee had transformed into a haven for both battered ATF agents and orphaned boys.

Vin walked silently alongside him, favoring him with one of his sweet smiles while J.D., as usual, bounced in place and loudly advertised what he had packed with "Papa Buck", how he had done in school, how the turtle was doing, what he'd had for lunch and how he hadn't meant to get duct tape on Papa Buck's mustache, honest.

The threesome entered the Larabee kitchen and encountered one Buck Wilmington, notorious ladies man, crack shot, ATF agent with a history of police work spanning back more than a decade. Said Mr. Wilmington was wearing one of Mrs. Potter's flowery pink aprons and drying dishes.

Ezra valued his continued existence too much to laugh.

Instead of glaring at him, Buck gave him a grateful look.

"Ay Ezra," he boomed, "The boys are right excited about spending the weekend with ya."

Ezra smiled now. "As am I, Mr. Wilmington. I've looked forward to this all week."

Chris Larabee hurried in, and gifted his team member with a relieved smile. "Thank goodness you made it. Everytime we have to leave, I always expect a car to break down or something else to come up."

Ezra grinned at the man who had brought him into his ATF enforcement team while he was struggling under a cloud of suspicion at the FBI. He admired Chris Larabee greatly (although he'd die before admitting it publicly) and thought he knew the man well, but Chris without small boys and Chris with small boys was a different article in all respects.

Chris without small boys was a dazzling leader who could terrify a room full of senior agents with a glare. A team Leader who could cause hardened criminals to urinate on themselves from fifty feet away.

Chris with small boys was an amiable man who smiled frequently and who would light up at the sound of small voices shrieking pleasantly at play.

Ezra noticed a new tendency on his superior's part to pick up broken glass off the street (to protect potential bare-foot boys from harm), and an amazing capacity to pick out toy logos in busy stores.

He also seemed very knowledgeable about Saturday morning cartoons, and which channels had good animal programs.

He could also do the Heimlich on small boys attempting to swallow lollypops down whole in an astonishingly short amount of time. None of these abilities were necessary in the ATF, but appeared to be some of the requirements for fatherhood.

And Ezra tried, in his capacity as official UNCA, to emulate them.

He noted that Buck Wilmington, the confirmed bachelor, had turned into a domestic goddess without turning a hair. Donning the feminine trappings of an apron was nothing compared to the nurturing tendencies that had cropped up. Buck proved to be capable of staying up all night with a sick child, had actually learned to cook food that didn't cause immediate visits to the nearest emergency medical facility and had even learned to clean and organize a house. Ezra contemplated this side of Buck with considerable awe, and secretly purchased a few cookbooks with recipes aimed at the younger generation.

In his own way, he had prepared for this weekend. He hadn’t told the team, not even Nathan Jackson, their medic, but two weeks ago when he finalized plans for the weekend, he’d secretly taken a Red Cross CPR and first aid course for care of infants and children. Ezra had already taken several first aid and CPR courses in the past, but felt one special program specializing in children was appropriate as preparation.

Additionally, he’d also entered the environs of the local Wal-Mart and purchased several huge, tacky and thick Afghans to cover his designer couch and other living room furniture. If anything got past the Afghans, he would live with it. Along with the covering, he’d also wisely invested in a large area rug for the center of his living room as protection for his unfortunate choice in white carpeting. The rug had been put down after the men from Rosie's Carpet Cleaning had come in and scotch-guarded the carpet and upholstery to a fare-thee-well. Breakables had been wrapped and stored, plastic dishware had been obtained, and the cupboards and refrigerator had been stocked with all manner of tasty child-oriented treats. He didn’t know if it would do the job, but he’d made his best efforts and was loath to worry.

And solely due to the Standish motto to be prepared for any contingency, he made the ultimate sacrifice and purchased blue jeans and sweats to wear while with the boys. He fleetingly considered using them in undercover operations at some later date, and he had worn strange accoutrements in the past as part of an operation, but this was the first time he purchased such things for his private life.

But it was his last preparatory action that confused him the most. He had solid logical reasons for everything he purchased except that. And yet the situation had felt so right, that he forged on ahead and hadn’t even chided himself for impulsive and undignified wanton squandering of funds.

Now he stood smiling at his teammates and enjoyed the feel of tiny hands in his own. He gently disengaged one little palm and pulled out a list of phone numbers, contacts and possible places they might visit on the weekend and handed it to Mr. Larabee. He’d taken the same care with his plans as he would have on any major undercover operation and was strangely pleased when Chris solemnly handed him an even longer list of phone numbers, emergency information, allergies, bedtimes, check-in times and a complete itinerary of Buck and Chris’ weekend activities.

He perused it calmly and then grinned, “Excellent work, gentlemen. I hope my information meets with your approval as well.”

Chris grinned at him and nodded in pleasant affirmation.

“What’s in the note?” asked J.D.

“A list of all your best tickle points,” said Ezra. J.D. squealed and ran for his room with Ezra and Vin in hot pursuit.

He heard Buck and Chris chuckling behind him as he gave his best rebel yell. Vin copied his cry with boisterous glee and a strange sweet pain stabbed the undercover agent right in the heart. He couldn’t be certain, since he had so little experience in that arena, but he thought it might be happiness.

After they settled down again, Chris and Buck carried the luggage and toys belong to each of their charges out to Ezra’s car. Chris stopped and stared at the back seat.

“Ezra!” he turned and looked the undercover agent right in the eye, “You got a car seat.”

Ezra was ready for him.

“Why yes,” he drawled, “Ah thought it might be more convenient. Further, I stopped at the local police department and had its placement and attachments double-checked.”

Buck grinned and picked up J.D. “See that, little britches. Your Uncle Ez went and got a car seat just for you. I reckon he sets store by you, J.D.”

J.D. smiled as he was buckled in and didn’t put up his usual argument against having to be in a “baby” seat.

Buck kissed his young charge tenderly.

“Now you be good for old Ez, J.D.

“Don’t worry, Papa Buck. I’s a good boy.”

Buck smiled and hugged that tousled head.

“You sure enough are, little britches. Have fun.”

All during this exchange Vin had been in silent converse with Christopher Larabee. Ezra had often observed their silent communication and marveled at the bond between the youngster and the older man. Vin hugged Chris fiercely and was kissed on top of his head with a gentleness that made Ezra’s chest tighten. J.D. loved and worshipped Buck Wilmington and the feeling was mutual. Vin had a soul bond with Chris Larabee that Ezra had never seen before and yet both the men trusted him, Ezra Standish, with two precious little boys.

And those little boys, who had such wonderful male role models, such great fathers, still loved him, the lone wolf FBI agent that was scorned and distrusted by man, the unwanted and inconvenient Standish boy. It was a wonder to be sure. Ezra realized that his sense of responsibility had expanded. Before he would have gladly taken a bullet for both Buck and Chris, because they were his teammates. Now he understood that he’d do the same ruthlessly to protect this family, HIS family. Their well being and survival were paramount over his own.

Chris had buckled Vin into his place and now shook hands with Ezra. “Be safe,” Larabee said, both a blessing and a command. Buck nodded at him.

Ezra grinned broadly, “At your service, Sirs.” And knew he meant it with all his heart.

Soon they were on their way. Vin, J.D. waved goodbye to their adoptive fathers and Ezra waved too, until the ranch was out of sight.

Now might be the moment for little boys to realize that a weekend with Unca Ezra meant being away from Messrs. Larabee and Wilmington. As the boys fell silent in the back seat, Ezra wondered if they might cry at that realization.

Instead he heard giggles and laughter. Hazarding a look in the back seat, he saw his two charges making silly faces at each other. Ezra chuckled and began to sing:

How much is that J.D. in my backseat?
The one with the shiny black hair
How much is that J.D. in my backseat?
If I tickle him, do you think he will care?

Ezra cast a glance in the rear-view mirror. Two sets of stunned eyes stared at the back of his head as if they had been pole-axed. Ezra drew in a sharp breath, afraid that he had offended when J.D. squealed in delight and Vin’s full-throated laughter rang out.

Ezra smiled and tried another:

How much is that Vin boy in my backseat?
The one with the eyes of sky blue.
How much is that Vin boy in my backseat?
Will he be my buddy for true?

“Yes!” shouted Vin and the two little boys giggled and played all the way to Ezra’s home. No one cried in dismay to be in his custody.

The boys were still laughing at his songs and teasing when they pulled into the parking garage at the complex where he lived.

Soon two curious little boys were following him to his condominium, their faces alight with curiosity and a bit of shyness. Vin paused, the handle of his suitcase in both hands. He stared at the elegant complex, the flower beds and the immaculate lawns silently and then asked, “Unca Ezra, are you rich?”

Ezra tripped and nearly dropped J.D.’s little suitcase.

He turned and stared at Vin in consternation. He did have investments and owned the condominium, but he never considered himself really rich. The jag was a gift from one of Mother’s nicer husbands and he tended not to spend much on anything except upkeep of his wardrobe. Suddenly, in one of those moments that Josiah would call enlightenment, Ezra knew the truth. He smiled, and chortled, “Why Mr. Tanner! Of course I’m rich. I have you and Mr. Dunne as my adoptive nephews. Who could compete with such riches?”

Vin and J.D. stopped and looked astonished for a moment.

“What’s that mean?” asked J.D.

“He means he’s rich because he has us, J.D.” explained Vin in stunned tones.

J.D. beamed, “We’s rich too, cause we have Unca Ezra then.”

Ezra blushed with pleasure at this, put down J.D.’s luggage and hugged both boys. Then, brushing his eyes quickly, he picked up J.D.’s things and took the boys to his condominium.

Whistling, he opened the door and keyed the alarm. His charges peered into the darkened room with interest. Grinning, the undercover agent flicked on the light switch and watched. The boys’ little mouths dropped open and they stared at the room.

The one purchase he’d made this week that he had to put under the label of exorbitant expense was chugging its way on the tracks he’d laid all around his living room last night. It was an antique electric train set, in marvelous condition. He’d wired it to start up when the light went on.

Vin and J.D. looked incredibly impressed.

“Wow!” said J.D. “Can we touch it.”

“By all means, Mr. Dunne.”

Ezra shut the door and watched Vin and J.D. investigating the train set with their usual glee. Vin threw himself on his tummy and watched the train go chugging by. It had interior lights in the passenger cars, and sound effects that were most realistic. J.D. seemed most enthralled with the red caboose.

Smiling, Ezra put away the children’s suitcases and toys, and then called out for pizza without a qualm about purchasing fast foods.

He peeked in the living room. The boys had decided that they were Godzilla and Mothra and were menacing the poor frightened beings in the train trying frantically to escape two gigantic monsters. Ezra grinned and raced to change into a sweat suit. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to meet Godzilla J.D. if he could help it.

The boxes that the train set had come in were soon set up in a very realistic model of downtown Tokyo. They were in the process of crushing the financial district when the pizza deliveryman rang the doorbell. Ezra had informed the boys that he was a giant space robot (seeing as he wasn’t addicted to Japanese monster animation, he couldn’t think of any other monsters) and they had cheerfully battled with him, roaring and stalking each other as they pretended to crush high rises and train stations.

Godzilla J.D. roared dramatically, blowing killer atomic breath at his robot nemesis. Ezra shrieked in what he hoped was a good example of mechanized computer dismay, clutching his chest and making hapless, “aroooooog” noises. He got up and answered the door.

Ezra paid the man and gave him a generous tip while Godzilla and Mothra rejoiced in the steaming pizza boxes. The man grinned amiably at the two little imps, and said, smiling, “Looks like you’ve got yourself quite a pair there. I’ve got three little brothers just like that at home to keep me on my toes.”

A strange sense of camaraderie swept over the undercover agent. “They certainly are a joy,” he blurted, surprising himself.

The man nodded companionably. “Yeah, mine mean the world to me,” he said softly, eyes shining, as he turned to leave.

Ezra shut the door. Apparently there was a previously unknown fellowship of those under the influence of mischief making imps. It was most impressive.

Deciding they were having a good time in the living room, he grabbed a tablecloth from the kitchen and spread it on the floor near the tracks.

“Monster Island,” he explained to the boys who growled and shouted enthusiastically.

The Giant Space Robot, Godzilla and Mothra declared a temporary peace and messily devoured the helpless pizza together on the front rug, picnic-style. They roared before each slice met its grim fate. When they were finished, the pizza completely demolished and monstrous appetites sated, Godzilla smacked his lips.

“Dat was fun, Unca Ezra,” he proclaimed. Then he looked at the mess they’d made with concern.

“We got pizza on your tablecloth. Is we bad?”

Ezra grinned, “If you are, so am I, 'cause I ate pizza too!”

The boys grinned. Then Vin apparently decided that someone had to be the grownup, because he now began to gather the pizza boxes.

“Come on, J.D., we’ll help clean up.” In short time, the tablecloth had been shaken out into the trash and put in the laundry hamper, the trash was put out and then everyone trooped into the bathroom to wash hands and faces. Ezra was astounded to find cheese in his hair.

After all visible traces of tomato-based mayhem were removed, they repaired to the living room where Ezra was introduced to the wonders of Shrek.

The experience was greatly enhanced for Ezra when J.D. crawled into his lap and Vin leaned against him to watch. The top of J.D.’s head came up under Ezra’s chin and the warmth of Vin’s little body next to him would have induced him to watch Hee Haw reruns. Shrek was a decided improvement.

Half way through the adventure, Ezra realized he’d planned on making Smores, a whimsical creation that Buck had told him about previously as being highly regarded by small boys. Regretfully, he gently removed the transfixed J.D. from his lap and placed him next to Vin.

“I’m going to make us something to snack on,” he said softly so as not to interrupt the important scene with the lady dragon, and made his way to the kitchen, where he began to experiment with graham crackers and chocolate and marshmallows.

He felt, rather than heard movement behind him, and found both boys looking at him hopefully.

“SMORES!” yelled J.D.

Apparently, the making of smores was a group ritual. It took at least 2 people to watch the marshmallows expand in the microwave, and the presence of three people turned the entire procedure into a party.

Ezra soon had a large plate of the sticky concoctions and raced the boys back to the television to see how the show was progressing.

Ezra realized that J.D. now had marshmallow smeared on his face and chocolate all over his hands and a grin that was heartwarming. He bit into another smore and smacked his lips. Vin grinned and took a big bite of his smore and Ezra found himself chuckling.

“You know,” Ezra found himself saying conversationally, “Ah am really a secret monster.”

He was given grins composed of teeth and chocolate.

“My very favorite thing to eat is little boys stuffed on smores!”

JD squealed. Vin shouted and Ezra proceeded to chase his houseguests all over the condominium while Shrek played loudly in the background.

J.D.’s squeal of fresh delight was mixed with Ezra’s own monster noises and Vin’s excited whoops of glee. He grabbed J.D. and held him upside down and pretended to chew on his arm while J.D. wiggled like a monkey.

Vin jumped on him and J.D. made his escape while Ezra proceeded to chew on Vin’s knee and tickle him simultaneously. Then J.D. jumped on him and all three ended up wrestling and rolling around on the living room rug, laughing, tickling, shrieking and pretending to bite. Ezra finally dangled J.D. upside down and pretended to shake salt on his little round tummy preparatory to taking a bite.

Then Ezra realized that the front door had opened and immediately looked up, prepared to fight if the intruder meant harm to his charges.

Ezra’s world came to a screeching halt. There, a lock pick in her hand, and a disgruntled expression on her normally lovely features stood his mother, Maude Standish.

He gasped. Later he would be pathetically grateful he didn’t drop J.D. Gently, he put the boy down and stared at the woman who had given him life.

Vin and J.D. with the instincts of all wild animals, huddled near him and stared curiously at this beautiful blonde woman in the fancy clothing.

“Um, Um, hel, hello M, M, M, Mother,” he stuttered, knowing that she would be displeased at both his activity and appearance. Somewhere in the back of his head he noted the complete absence of the grace-under-fire that allowed him to lie like hell and with smoothness in an undercover situation with guns to his head. For some reason, he stuttered like a frightened 6-year-old when confronted with the woman who had supposedly given him birth.

Said birthgiver was tapping one foot impatiently and had that vague air of disappointment in him that often caused Ezra migraines.

“What evah are you up to now, Ezra?” she asked as she sat, a look of disdain on her perfect face.

Then the improbable happened.

“Dis is your Mama?” asked J.D. incredulously, as Maude settled herself in the chair with all the decorum of a fashion model or actress.

“Yes,” Ezra murmured, absently, as he tried to think of what Mother was up to now.

‘Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii” shrieked J.D. joyously and launched himself across the room onto Maude’s lap even as Ezra made a furtive grab for the child.

Vin ran up to Maude’s side as well and grinned up at the surprised beauty.

Ezra realized that while the two innocents had great instincts, he’d mentioned the one word that would get past their proper sense of caution … 'Mother'. J.D. and Vin were certain that mothers were the most gloriously wonderful, loving, understanding and delightful creatures in all the world, angels of beauty and mercy, their hands filled with chocolate chip cookies, and their hearts with love for small boys.

One such small boy was enthusiastically smooching his mother on the cheek, leaving wet chocolate marks. Those tiny hands were industriously if unconsciously smearing chocolate, marshmallow and graham cracker crumbs all over a Chanel original too. Ezra winced, but slapped on his best protective mask, appearing unconcerned and hopefully invulnerable.

J.D. was cooing to Maude in delight.

“Unca Ezra is our bestest friend. I didn’t know he still had a Mama. My Mama is with the angels and so is Vin’s. You smell really pretty. Are you going to stay overnight with us?” J.D. patted Maude approvingly and didn’t notice he was smearing more chocolate into her ensemble.

Meanwhile, Vin, the shyer of the two, had taken Maude’s hand and was gazing at her with those too-wise blue eyes.

The totally stunned Maude tried fruitlessly to get up, but J.D. in full energy was too much for the older woman to handle graciously.

She frowned, opening her mouth, and Ezra tensed. He realized many things in that one moment. He realized that he chose J.D. and Vin over Mother in his heart and that if she did anything to hurt those two precious children, he would lash out at her with all the power he possessed.

Maude apparently saw a glimmering of this in his face, because she snapped her mouth shut.

“Mother, these two young gentlemen are wards of Messrs. Larabee and Wilmington. They are my guests for this weekend.”

Maude choked and tried to laugh pleasantly. Ezra could see Vin’s face go still for a moment, although J.D.’s excitement and interest didn’t decrease. Someplace in Ezra’s chest there was a strange stabbing sensation. Vin’s little face had been so lit up with joy and now he had that quiet watchful look that Ezra saw in his own mirror every day.

“Do you think you could find these two little gentlemen other accommodations?” Maude asked him, “I had some people I wanted to introduce to you.” She smiled at him charmingly, and Vin subtly changed his posture to one that Ezra recognized, the “protect J.D.” posture.

Suddenly he tasted bile at the back of his throat and wondered why his heart was pounding so hard.

Maude, the mother he’d struggled unsuccessfully to please, was smiling at him and trying very hard to charm him into dumping two unwanted children on a sitter so she could maneuver someone, another con.

J.D. didn’t notice. Instead the little innocent was busy ruining his mother’s costly outfit and loving Maude with all his generous little heart, because Maude was his Unca Ezra’s mother.

There are moments in a life when maturity or insights just happen. They are meaningless to others, but golden to the recipient. Ezra stared at Maude and realized she was a fool. She could spend the evening with two delightful little imps and even her own son, but instead she wanted to go plan another con. She could have spent time with her son when he was Vin’s size, but she didn’t. She never did.

Vin was getting more and more quiet. Ezra knew that silence from the inside. He had lived that silence, grown up in it, and he’d be damned if he’d inflict it on Vin and thrice damned if J.D. began to develop it.

“Ah terribly sorry to disappoint you, Muthah," he said gently, “but we’ve had this engagement for quite some time.” A superior and prior commitment in every way.

His mother’s voice sounded so elegant and so unattached, “Why, Ezra. I don’t understand.”

I imagine so, Mother. Commitment is not one of the things you are good at.

Then, fingers twitching with the need to protect, he walked forward and plucked J.D. from his mother’s lap, cradling his charge protectively in his arms and relishing the smell of smores.

Vin had a slight frown on his face, obviously trying to understand what was going on.

“Unless your life and health are at risk, Muthah, I’m afraid I can’t oblige you.” Ezra spoke evenly.

Vin tilted his head to the side.

Maude looked almost astonished in a ladylike way, “Son, you are not yourself.”

Thank God and all the good Angels for that!

“No, Ma’am. I’m not,” he said shortly but declined to speak further. There was just a small shade of alarm in Vin’s eyes.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, Muthah,” he continued, and smiled down at Vin, “We have a date with Monsters, Inc.”

Vin’s grin lit up the room.

“If you would like to use the facilities before you leave, they are just to the left.”

Maude rose, the tigress predator of his childhood robbed of fresh prey. Regally, with an air of gentle disappointment, she made her way to the restroom while three silent figures watched her.

Vin walked over and touched Ezra’s elbow.

There was an audible shriek of dismay from the bathroom.

Vin looked up at Ezra in alarm, but Ezra’s grin was perfect reassurance.

When Maude appeared a few moments later, her outfit and face were much repaired, but her haughty stance reminded Ezra of a scalded cat. Had she a tail, it would have been fluffed and twitching.

Solemnly, they all walked Maude to her rental car. She didn’t even bother to kiss him, just nearly peeled out of the parking lot as J.D. waved enthusiastically at the nice smelling lady.

Ezra smiled when the red convertible was out of sight and walked back to his unit with a smile on his lips that grew into a grin. They silently made their way into the living room. Vin was still watching him carefully, but smiling now because Ezra was smiling and that meant everything was all right.

J.D. finally was wiggling in his arms to get down. Ezra kissed that grubby head affectionately and with a tender respect. No one had ever outflanked Mother so successfully. And the usual bitterness and self-hatred that haunted him after Mother’s little forays into his personal life was not in evidence.

He walked back to his condo and then grinned to himself, “Last one there is a lizard,” he yelled. They made it back to the condo in record time.

They spent the rest of the evening watching Monsters Inc, which Ezra actually enjoyed. Then he made up the couch for himself and supervised bath time. JD seemed ready to fall asleep until he was placed gently in the bubble-filled tub. Even Vin seemed a little listless, although he smiled sweetly and began to flick bubbles at J.D. happily.

Concerned, Ezra asked, “Are you boys feeling unwell?”

J.D. scratched his forehead, smearing bubbles in his hair. “We’s is having sugar comas. Dat’s what Papa Buck would say.”

Ezra grinned and gently scrubbed his two charges to a chocolate and marshmallow free state. He was careful not to get soap in tired little eyes and the boys seemed fairly willing to cooperate. He towel dried J. D.’s chubby body and dark locks clean and sat the droopy eyed child on the commode while he gave the same treatment to an equally sleepy Master Tanner. He then carried both charges into the bedroom, one after the other, and drew back the covers. Both little heads audibly bonked together and sleepily the two towel wrapped children snuggled one another.

Grinning, Ezra found their PJ’s and dressed both his charges quickly and popped them both under the covers, tucking them in and bestowing a kiss on each head.

He left a light on in the bathroom in case they were nervous of the dark and started to make his way out, when a little voice murmured sleepily, “Prayers.”

'Oh No', he thought. He’d pretended to be a preacher before, but he was terribly deficient in the area of childhood orisons. Then he thought, perhaps they already have a routine. He took Vin’s little hand and said, “Don’t get up, say them here and I’ll listen.”

Vin yawned and mumbled, “God bless Mama and Chris and Buck and JD and JD’s Mama and Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan and Miz Nettie, and Casey even if she’s a girl, and Mrs. Potter and our Torques and Peso, and God bless Uncle Ezra and his Mama. Amen.”

Something caught in Ezra’s throat. Did they actually pray for him nightly?

JD’s tiny mouth opened and Ezra waited. Then the boy proceeded to give a snore that put Mr. Wilmington’s capacity in that arena to shame. Ezra grinned and kissed both these unaware angels. Then he fled to his guest bathroom and quickly showered. His couch bed was probably not as comfortable as the guest bed, but it stood between him and where his charges slept, and he’d hear better from the couch if one of the boys felt sick or afraid.

He lay awake in the dark and listened. He’d secured all doors and windows after they raced back from waving goodbye to Mother. All sounds were normal night sounds for the condo. He realized that Chris and Buck must also perform this mental and audio checking of the perimeter on a nightly basis.

He could hear a new noise, it was J.D. snoring. He smiled and thought about the fact that both boys prayed for him every night. Suddenly his eyes burned and his chest had great difficulty taking in air.

He lay there, trying to be calm and still, because he didn’t want to frighten the boys, nor did he want to have to experience the utter embarrassment of a panic attack.

“They pray for me every night”, he thought quietly, and sure that something internal would be permanently strained unless he allowed some of the emotion threatening to explode to give way, let hot tears slide down his cheeks.

Not bothering to wipe his face, he lay and looked up at the darkened ceiling and decided that nothing he had ever done in his entire misspent life was as important as loving and protecting the two imps occupying his bedroom. Even if they grew up to despise the undercover agent for his failings, he would only deserve whatever judgement he received. No, he was going to protect those children with all of his being, just as he watched over their adoptive fathers with equal zeal.

Finally, he slept. Fitful dreams of his mother devouring Godzilla danced through his head as well as his usual dreary recurring dream of being locked in a room alone with one blaring light on the ceiling. This time, the closet door opened and two little boys beckoned him within and they escaped into something that much resembled a Disney movie. Ezra played and swam and laughed and finally slept peacefully.