ATF Universe


Grace awakened briefly around two o'clock, but was quickly asleep again. Her body was losing the battle. The doctor pried Ezra away from the bedside, assuring him that it would be several hours before Grace would awaken again. Ezra wasn't hungry, but he made his way to the restaurant down the street anyway. He smiled briefly thinking that if Nathan were here, he would be chiding him in the EMT's gentle way to take better care of himself. Ezra toyed with his cell-phone briefly as he settled at a table in the diner. He scoffed at himself. It was too early to check in again. He had called this morning. Shaking his head, he realized how dependent he had become on Team 7. Closing his eyes he knew he had to change that. Being close to someone hurt too much. His mother's training resounded in his mind loud and clear: never trust anyone. They always want something from you. Watch out for number one. Never let them see your pain. Never apologize. Appearances are everything. His mother would throw a fit if she could see her baby boy right now, sitting in a public restaurant with tears streaming down his face.

Unable to go against the words so deeply ingrained in his mind and allow someone to see him cry in public, Ezra bolted from the table before even ordering. He hurried down the street, not even thinking of where he was going. It just had to be away from here. If he went far enough, maybe he could get away from the pain.

The southerner found himself sitting on a bench in the park alone. It was a feeling he was all too accustomed to having. How many times had he been alone as a kid, even when he was with some relative or another? Grace's home had been just about the only sanctuary. The bitter smile came back to his face. His seventh grade year had probably been the loneliest time of his life.


Ezra spent his seventh grade year alone in that German boarding school where his mother and Jean Pierre had left him. He acquired another language as well as a little more bitterness toward his mother. He had been totally alone for the entire school year. Not a word from his mother. Not a single letter from Aunt Grace. He still wrote her every Sunday afternoon, always hoping that one day she would write back.

The day after school was out for the final term of the year, he found himself sitting with his suitcase on the sidewalk outside the school gates waiting to be picked up. He waited several hours before his mother arrived with her smile pasted on her face. Ezra was angry and ready to tell his mother exactly how he felt, but, when he saw the empty smile, he instinctively knew there was something wrong. Forcing back his temper, he asked, "Mother, what's wrong?"

"It's so good to see you, darling." Maude kissed Ezra lightly on the cheek.

"Mother?" Ezra prodded.

"Darling, I'm afraid your stepfather and I are no longer together," reported Maude.

'Surprise, surprise,' thought Ezra. The money must have run out, or Jean Pierre figured he was being taken.

"And Darling, I'm afraid we have to head for the States immediately."

Ezra nodded. This was old hat to him now. It had happened too many times to count.

"Dear Alexander has agreed to let us stay with him in New York," Maude drawled sweetly. "You remember him, don’t you? That nice man we met during our holiday in Spain."

"Us?" asked Ezra. "Do you mean you will be staying, Mother?" The words dripped with sarcasm.

"Ezra Standish!" Maude scolded. "There is no need to be snippy. I do what I have to do to keep a roof over our heads."

Ezra just nodded and got in the car. He had been left behind enough times that it was second nature for the thirteen-year-old. Well, almost thirteen years old. He would be thirteen next month. He wondered if his mother would even remember.

Maude sighed at the angry countenance. Ezra was good at hiding his feelings when he wanted to, but clearly he wanted them known now. "Ezra, you will need to stow that attitude when we get to Alexander's. He won't tolerate it."

"Yes, Mother," Ezra mumbled as he stared out the window.

Maude was soon to regret that she had told Ezra that Alexander wouldn't tolerate his attitude. Maude was involving Ezra in her scheme and he was tired of being used. The beginning of his teen years was accompanied by typical teenage rebellion. Ezra seemed to have forgotten everything about being a gentleman. He had a bad attitude and was back-talking Maude at every turn. She knew he was using Alexander against her to get what he wanted as she tried to hide their fighting from Alexander. When that didn't work, Ezra resorted to speaking in German just to infuriate Maude.

Eventually, Maude was unable to keep the rebellious teen under wraps. She was furious with Ezra. It was as if he was intentionally trying to ruin this set up for her. In the nineteen months with Alexander, Ezra managed to get himself tossed out of two private schools and a military academy.

As her scheme began to crumble around her, Maude sought a way to bolster her bank account to continue to support herself and Ezra after Alexander lost interest. Alexander was in his upper seventies, a lonely man, flattered and blinded by Maude's attention. His prize possession was a coin collection that had been started by his grandfather. Maude began to slip one or two of the coins out of the collection at a time to add to her nest egg. It would have been too obvious if the whole collection disappeared at once, but easy to explain away the missing few. Blaming it on them being misplaced or a servant taking it. A few choice coins could be worth a fortune, enabling her to survive until she was able to plan her next course of action.

Just shy of their two-year anniversary together, everything began to fall apart. That pesky granddaughter of Alexander’s began to question Maude's intentions and began poking around in her past. It wasn’t long before it was discovered she hadn’t been completely honest with Alexander about her standing in society and she found herself in an unfamiliar position. Usually, she left the man before it arrived at this point but she had seriously miscalculated the threat the granddaughter posed to her. Just about the same time, Alexander discovered that some of his coins were missing from the collection. When he confronted Maude, the angry, rebellious teenager Ezra was somehow implicated in the theft. Alexander threatened to call the police, but Maude talked him out of it, assuring him that the missing coins would be returned. She kept her promise and most of the coins were returned. All except for a select few that were to be her bankroll.

Ezra was furious with his mother when he found out the lengths she had gone to in her latest scheme. Once again she had used him, and he had had enough. After a severe shouting match, he went silent, refusing to speak to her.

Maude, beside herself over Ezra's behavior, knew that she would not be able to work any sort of scheme with an angry teenager hanging around. He had forgotten how to be a gentleman. Maude, as a last resort, made a call to the only person she could think of who could handle her son's anger. Grace Harper.


Chris Larabee stared at the conference room door that was still closed. Vin and Josiah had been locked in the room for nearly five hours. Lunch hour had come and gone with no sign of either man. Chris was beginning to wonder if Josiah had fallen asleep waiting for Tanner to talk. The Texan was a man of few words, and when he did use them, it seemed to take a long time for him to verbalize his thoughts. Chris smiled. That was something he liked about Vin. The man didn't waste words. When he talked he had something to say worth hearing.

Josiah sat quietly listening to the Texan tell of his experiences on the street. Vin didn't bother to try to paint a pretty picture. He was blunt and to the point. But what it all boiled down to was that Vin was ashamed of being homeless, his lack of schooling. He was fearful that his friends would think less of him for doing what he had to do to survive. The Texan had worked so hard for so many years to forget that horrible period of his life that when he had to face it head on, it was like waking up from a coma after many years. He had to confront all the helplessness, anger, fear that he had pushed down and away for so many years and try to find a way to live with himself and reconcile himself with the man he was today.

Vin knew that his teammates respected his skill with a gun, but he was uncertain of their respect for him personally on some levels. He was afraid that when they found out just how down and out he had once been then he would lose that chance for their respect.

Vin Tanner had never had any true friends and he was scared of losing his family of Team 7 more than anything else.

"Vin?" Josiah's rumbling voice brought the Texan's attention back to him. "You are a survivor."

Vin looked at the older man questioningly. "So?"

"That is something to be proud of, Vin Tanner. Look at all the garbage fate threw your way. Look at the bad cards you were dealt and the man you have become. You have nothing to be ashamed of Vin. It doesn't matter that you were homeless or that it took you a little longer than others to finish school. The man you are today is the man we all respect Vin. It doesn't matter to us what you had to do to survive because we are simply thankful that you are a survivor and you complete our family."

Vin shook his head. "Y'all respect the man I was pretending to be before Randall. Not some stupid bum who can't get his head together."

Josiah's silence drew Vin's attention and he was surprised to see anger in the senior agent's eyes. He swallowed hard, fearing for a moment that Josiah was about to get 'Old Testament' on him.

Josiah's voice was deceptively calm as he spoke. "You are not stupid and you are not a bum, and I will personally knock your head against the wall if I ever hear you say that again. No one talks that way about my friends. Understood?"

Vin nodded, chastised, yet pleased at the show of support.

"I respect a man who's not afraid to seek help when he needs it Vin. It reminds me of a story."

'Oh boy, here we go,' thought Vin, hoping he could figure out Josiah's meaning. The older agent had a talent for confusing him with parables.

"When I was in India after the war, seeking to find myself, I met a Hindu Fakir."

"A what?"

"A holy man," explained Josiah. "One of his acts of penance was lying on a bed of nails for hours at a time."


"One would think so. But I met a man on that same journey that told me the secret of the bed of nails." Josiah scratched his chin and stopped talking.

"What's the secret?" asked Vin.

"Well now, if I told you that, it would remove all the mystery."

Vin rolled his eyes and Josiah laughed. "So I'm supposed to do penance for my past life?"

Josiah shook his head. "No. Actually my point has nothing to do with penance."

Vin rubbed his eyes. He was certain Josiah did this to him intentionally.

"What happens when you step on a nail?" asked Josiah.

"It hurts like hell and you have to get a tetanus shot."

"Because all the pressure is in one spot. The skin is not strong enough to withstand the point of the nail when all the pressure is on one spot." Josiah waited to see if Vin was catching on to his line of thought yet.


"Why do you suppose that Hindu man could lay on a bed of nails without being pierced?"

Vin shook his head. "I don't know."

"He spreads the pressure over many nails. The more nails there are, the less each one exerts pressure on the surface of the skin."

"Lots'a nails. That's the secret?"

"Spread your pressure over many nails. That's what we're here for. You try to do it on your own…"

"And I'll need a tetanus shot," Vin laughed. "I see where you're going."


"It ain't that easy."

"The only way it will happen is if you just do it, Vin. You need to foster an 'attitude of gratitude'. I know you can do that, because you usually have that positive outlook," added Josiah. "If you look for problems, that is all you will find. Looking for the positive does not make problems go away, but it provides an opportunity for hope. Accept the truth that life is difficult and go on. When you can't get rid of the stress, manage it."

Vin watched his teammate wondering how Josiah had accumulated all his knowledge on the subject. Some of it probably came from his schooling, but it sounded more like personal experience.

"When we are focused on our problems, they consume us. We need to ask, 'What is okay? What is going well? What gives me hope?'"

Vin nodded. It made sense.

"And then you need to breathe," Josiah chuckled.

"I think I got that one down, Josiah," said Vin with a smile.

"I mean really breathe Vin. Take in a deep breath through your nose, hold it, and then release it through your mouth like your blowing through a straw. Some people will tell you to breathe in for a count of eight, hold it for a count of seven and breathe out for a count of four, but you just find something that fits for you. Do it for a couple minutes at a time. It brings your blood pressure down and just helps you to relax." Seeing the skeptical look from Vin, he added, "It works. Ask Nathan."

Vin nodded. It sounded weird, but he trusted Josiah. He'd give it a shot. Anything had to be better than drowning like he had been.

"Control," said Josiah.

"What?" asked Vin.

"You feel like you are out of control, right?"

Vin nodded.

"You are," said Josiah with a smile.

"Well, now, that's a big help Josiah," said Vin sarcastically.

"I'm serious, Vin. None of us is in control. We all just like to think we are. We all cruise along out of control until there's a problem and then we say, "Oh no, I'm out of control."

"I don't follow."

"Can you control the sunrise? Sunset? Weather? No. You can't control what a suspect does. You can't even control what I think about you. You may be able to influence it, but you can't control it."

Vin looked at his teammate with sad blue eyes.

"The most you can hope to control, Vin, is yourself. What you do, what you think, how you respond to any given situation. That's where you focus your efforts. Identify what you can legitimately control and accept what you can't." Josiah stopped. Vin's eyes were brimming with tears.

"Maintain your sense of humor, Vin. Life is pretty damn funny sometimes."

Vin smiled.

"We have to accept our weaknesses, Vin. None of us can manage 'just fine on my own'. We need to rely on a lot of people. Use your crutches."

"Lots'a nails?"

Josiah nodded. "Are you seeing Ezra's psychologist friend? He can help you with a lot of this stuff."

Vin grinned. "Yep. I'm building a deck for him."

Josiah smiled. Doctor Rodgers was a good man. He had worked with the FBI and ATF for many years before tiring of their red tape. Some of their rules had ruined perfectly good careers for agents who had temporary difficulty. Tim Rodgers got to know these agents on a personal level, refusing to be their "doctor" but, rather, concentrated on being their friend. What was said between friends didn't end up in their permanent file. He knew that Tim would be out there working on the deck with Vin, giving him support and direction.

"Damn, it's already two o'clock," said Vin.

Josiah smiled. Vin probably hadn't talked this much in a month of talking.

"I'm beat, Josiah."

The older man nodded. "I'll tell Chris you're going home early."

Vin raised an eyebrow in question.

"Don't worry brother. He'll be fine with it."

"Thanks, Josiah," said Vin as he opened the conference room door. "For everything."

Chris glanced up when he heard the door to the meeting room swing open, watching expectantly as Josiah emerged and headed for Chris's office. Vin headed down the hall in the opposite direction toward the restrooms. Josiah knocked on the doorframe of the open door, waiting for an invitation to enter the private office. Chris nodded to him, and Josiah crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. Josiah sat heavily in the chair and scoured his hand across weary eyes. Everything within Chris was screaming, 'What happened?' but he simply waited for Josiah to speak his mind.

"Vin's going to take the rest of the day off," he said quietly. Chris nodded, encouraging Josiah to continue. "He's got a lot to think about."

"Is he all right?" asked Chris.

Josiah nodded. "He will be Chris. He's just got a major hurdle to clear."

"Which is?"

"He's scared."

"Of what?" prodded Chris.

"He's scared he's going to lose his family…again."

Chris closed his eyes. He knew that fear too well. "Why does he think he's going to lose us?"

Josiah shook his head. It wasn't that he didn't know, he just wouldn't say. The story was Vin's to tell, and Vin's to work through.

Chris grimaced. He didn't like this uncertainty. He wished someone would just tell him what the hell was going on and get it over with. Give him something concrete to deal with, not speculation. Chris ran both hands through his hair and then folded them behind his head, leaning back in the chair.

"You think he's going to get through this?"

"Yes," said Josiah with certainty.

"Doesn't seem like it."

Josiah chuckled at Chris's candor. "He will, Chris. When he's ready."

"Yeah? And when will that be?"

"If my guess is right, it will be soon. He's figured out that things aren't going to get better by ignoring them." He paused, and then shrugged. "Vin's always been one to deal with things straight on. When he decides it's time to take action, he will. He already made some big strides today." Josiah rose and made his way to the door.


He turned back to Chris as he opened the door.



Ezra sat on the park bench fighting with himself. He needed to get back to the care center. Wanted to go back. Yet, at the same time, that little boy inside of him who was terrified of hospitals was pulling at him not to go. Grace would understand. No. Grace would not understand. She needed him now. Ezra remembered that first time that he and Auntie Grace had truly misunderstood each other. She had been in a situation similar to what he faced now, and he was a teenager angry at the world.


Ezra had found himself once again sitting in a cab outside the house of Grace Harper. He remembered the desolation he had felt the last time that he arrived here. He had been a lonely seven-year-old desperate for his mother's affection. Now he was fifteen and determined to be away from her hypocrisy. The last time his mother dumped him here it had not been his fault. But this time, he was to blame for his abandonment. He had driven his mother to dump him. Ezra sighed and whispered longingly, "Be careful what you wish for."

He paid the cab driver and picked up his suitcase, heading for the familiar porch. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. 'Figures. Mother must not have told Grace when I would arrive,' thought Ezra as he walked over to the porch swing and sat down to wait.

An hour passed without any sign of Grace. Ezra was hungry and he needed to use the bathroom. He reached into his pocket and found his lock pick, something he had acquired from a buddy in the German boarding school. He jimmied the lock and carried his suitcase to his room. He made use of the restroom and then he went into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. He carried the sandwich and a glass of iced tea back to the porch and settled himself on the porch swing to enjoy his snack and continue his wait.

As he swayed back and forth on the swing, memories of his adventures with Grace began to chip away at the wall of anger surrounding the teen. He wondered briefly why his mother had sent him here, to Grace? Would no one else take him? Ezra snorted. That was a possibility. His mother had certainly used up a lot of relationships by dropping him in their laps. No. It had to be more than that. His mother did nothing without thinking of herself first. What would she get out of this? Ah, yes. She wanted Grace to turn him into a genteel southerner again. Well, he'd show her. He had become exactly what his mother had taught him, someone who looked out for number one. He wouldn't give his mother the satisfaction of becoming a gentleman again.

The porch swing was swinging pretty violently now as Ezra let his anger spill over. Gradually the rapid movement slowed as Grace came into his mind again. Where was she? Did she know he was coming and didn't care that he was sitting here waiting?

Ezra must have been more tired than he thought. Either that, or the rocking of the swing had a great calming affect on him because soon the young man was slumped across the seat sleeping.

He woke several hours later with a yawn. As he stretched and re-oriented himself, he remembered that he was at Grace's home. He glanced at the front door and saw it was now standing open. Ezra sat up, catching the shawl that had been laid over him before it hit the floor. A slight grin appeared on the handsome face as he fingered the fine stitching on the shawl. Grace. Ezra got up and knocked on the screen door before opening it and going inside.

"Grace?" he said as he entered the kitchen. When he caught sight of her he saw that she wasn't smiling. In fact, she looked a little angry.

"Ezra Standish," she scolded, "What a fine sight I come home to! The lock on the front door has been jimmied and the kitchen is left in a mess. How did you get in here?"

"I had to use the bathroom," he stammered.

"You don't go around breaking into people's homes!"

So that was it. She didn't want him here. When he had stayed here before, she had told him it was his home, now it was 'other people's homes'.

"Sorry, Grace," Ezra mumbled in a monotone voice. He intentionally called her Grace, not Aunt Grace. She obviously didn't want him here, and he wasn't about to let anyone close enough to hurt him again.

The fire in her eyes receded as she took stock of the young man standing in front of her. "Just don't do it again," said Grace, noting the lack of emotion in her nephew's response.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Come here and give me a kiss," said Grace, holding out her hand to him. Ezra mechanically did as requested. When she pulled him close to her and hugged him, she could feel him tense. She was saddened to know that he had not lost his aversion to being touched.

"You must tell me about all your travels. You must have seen some marvelous sights," said Grace as she released him from her embrace and sat down at the kitchen table wearily.

"Oh, yes. I know the inside of a myriad of hotel rooms and boarding schools," Ezra replied sarcastically.

Grace felt the anger radiating from the young man standing before her and realized he was no longer the sweet little boy she once knew. "That's not what your letters told me."

Ezra’s eyes flew up to search the lined face in front of him at her words. "You received my letters?"

"Of course, Sweetie," replied Grace. "And I saved every one of them."

"Then why didn't you ever answer them?" Ezra snapped.

"Sweetie, I answered every letter you wrote." Sadness settled on her face. "But they came back to me, unopened."

"Mother!" said Ezra angrily, then letting loose with a string of cursing. At first he had thought the letters never came because they moved so much that the letters never found him. Then he had thought that maybe Grace didn't write. He finally settled into the thought that his mother was refusing the letters, but he couldn't make himself truly believe she would be so cruel.

The utter silence from Grace drew his attention back to her. He cringed inwardly as he took note of the disappointment that weighed on her face. Hell, he had done it already. He had mouthed off and upset her and he hadn’t even been with her for an hour yet.


"I won't have those words in my house," she said softly, standing and turning away from him. As Grace began to walk down the dimly lit hallway towards her room she hesitated but didn’t stop when she heard him call out to her.

"Grace? I'm sorry." Ezra said the words that were used to patch things up, but they had no real meaning to him.

Grace opened the door and entered her room, closing the door behind her, leaving her shocked great-nephew in the hallway. With the loud click of the lock engaging, Ezra stood in mute shock as the thought of Grace shutting him out raced through his mind.

Not knowing what else to do, Ezra went to his old room and sat quietly on the small bed. Grace had never shut him out. He looked over at his suitcase and idly noted that maybe it was a good thing that he hadn't unpacked yet. He didn't know if he would be staying. It was clear that Grace didn't want him here. Maybe she never did. Maybe it was all a lie.

After going over his limited options, Ezra got up with a renewed sense of determination and put his suitcase on the bed. He opened it and began to put his clothes in the dresser drawers and hanged his slacks in the tiny closet. He would do what he had to do to make this work. He needed to do well in school. He knew that education would be his ticket away from his mother and all her infernal schemes. He wasn’t about to let this chance slip by him. He would do whatever he needed to do to make this work.

Down the hall, Grace sat in the old wooden rocker in her room, trying to compose herself. She should not have left the boy hanging like that but she just wasn't prepared to deal with his anger and disrespect right now. Maude had led her to believe that Ezra was doing well and that he was anticipating his stay with her. Less than ten minutes into their visit, it was clear that that Ezra was an angry young man, and that she had been conned again by Maude Standish. If it hadn't been for Ezra, she would have had nothing more to do with her niece.

As she slowly rocked, her thoughts drifted to Maureen Benson. She had spent the afternoon at the hospital with her dear friend. Maureen was caught in the clutches of cancer and had very little time left on this Earth. Grace brushed away a tear that escaped her tired eye, not knowing how she was going to deal with her angry man-child, losing her precious friend, and doing a quality job of teaching her students. She just didn't have the energy like she used to. It was going to take more than she thought she had inside her to succeed.

As the long evening passed, the two of them went through their nightly rituals and sought the comfort of their respective down pillows. Ezra laid staring at the water-marked ceiling, trying to figure out exactly what he would need to do to co-exist with a woman who clearly didn’t want him there. He knew that he had to complete his high school education with top grades if he would have any chance at a good college. Moving around year after year would not help him to accomplish that goal. He finally surrendered to sleep as he decided to do what he had always done before. Do what was expected of him and stay out of the way.

Meanwhile, Grace slipped under the warm duvet and wept silently over the impending loss of her dear friend and her loss as to how to deal with the teenager who was physically only two doors away but emotionally a continent apart from her.

When daybreak came, two strangers began what would become their mourning routine. They both moved around, getting ready for the day, not saying much more than was necessary to one another. Ezra was determined to be civil whether he was wanted or not. He had decided that he would do what he had to do to get himself through the rest of high school and into a good college.

Grace was hurt by Ezra's coldness toward her, but had to focus her energies on teaching. She spent her days at school and most of her evenings with Maureen, leaving Ezra to fend for himself. In her concern for her friend and due to her weariness of overextending herself physically for so long, it never occurred to Grace that she had not told Ezra why she was gone all the time. She had no idea he was interpreting her distance as rejection.

The two strangers went through the motions, mostly staying out of each other's way for the next two weeks. Ezra was very good at staying out of the way. He had been an inconvenience too often and had learned to blend into the woodwork as a small child. Because of the size of Aunt Grace's tiny house, he soon realized that it was going to be difficult to maintain that distance.

When the phone rang early in the third week at three in the morning, he assumed by the late hour that it was his mother. She never seemed to remember the time zones. He dragged himself out of bed and padded barefoot down the hall in his pajama bottoms and tee shirt. As he reached the kitchen, Grace was just hanging up the phone.

"Was that my mother?" he asked. Grace turned toward him, tears streaming down her face.

"Grace?" asked Ezra, stunned to see his strong aunt reduced to tears. Grace folded her arms across her chest, unsuccessfully trying to compose herself. She began to weep, sobbing uncontrollably. Ezra had no idea what to do. He was frightened of what news in the middle of the night had caused such a response. Had something happened to his mother? Ezra tentatively reached an arm around her resting it a bit awkwardly on her shoulder. He didn't know how to do this. Should he hug her? Should he pat her shoulder? Should he leave her alone? Grace solved the quandary for him. She turned in to his half-hug and leaned her head on his shoulder. Ezra's arms instinctively wrapped around his weeping Aunt and he held her tightly.

When Grace seemed to quiet, Ezra guided her to a chair at the kitchen table. "Auntie Grace?" Ezra didn't notice that somehow an extra syllable had slipped into the word 'Aunt,' or for that matter, that he had actually dropped his guard and said "Aunt." "Is there anything I can do? Can I get you some tea?"

Grace smiled at her great-nephew's fumbling attempt at comfort. Gone was the angry, brittle exterior. Showing in plain view was the good heart she had seen when he was a child. "A glass of water would be nice, Sweetie." She didn't really want the water, but Ezra needed something to do.

Ezra brought two glasses of water to the table and sat down across from Grace. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked again.

"No Sweetie," she replied sadly.

"Auntie Grace?" Ezra stopped himself. This time he had heard the extra syllable. Where had that come from? He didn't use terms of endearment with anyone, not even his mother. Ezra shook away the thought. Aunt Grace needed his help now. "Aunt Grace, I remember you telling me one time that it always helped to talk."

Grace smiled sadly. Yes, she had told him that many times. She took a good look at Ezra. He had grown so much. He was turning into a handsome young man. He had his father's coloring and dimples but his green eyes were definitely from his mother's side of the family. They matched the color of her own eyes. As she looked at him, she realized he was frightened about her reaction and of what news she had heard.

"Sweetie, do you remember Mrs. Benson? She was the music teacher at the high school."

Ezra nodded. Of course he remembered her. She had taught him quite a bit about music in one short summer. He smiled briefly at the memory of the huge crush a small eight-year-old had on the pretty music teacher. He had hoped she was still teaching at the school and that he would be able to take her classes. But she was no longer teaching.

"Maureen... Mrs. Benson and I have been friends for years. She's been very ill, Ezra."

"You've been visiting her." It was more of a statement than a question. Grace looked up, suddenly realizing that she had never told Ezra.

"Oh, Sweetie. I'm sorry. I was so concerned for her that I forgot to tell you." She reached her hand across the table and laid it on Ezra's. She could see the regret in his eyes and she knew that some of his coldness had been due to her lack of communication.

Ezra took a deep breath. He couldn't dare to let himself hope that Aunt Grace wanted him around. "Mrs. Benson?"

"She fought a long time, Ezra, but tonight the cancer won."

Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat. He had liked Mrs. Benson. She had helped his love for music blossom. "I'm so sorry, Auntie Grace."

Grace stood and leaned across the table, kissing Ezra on the forehead. "Thank you, Sweetie. Why don't you head back to bed?"

Ezra stood. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

Grace laid her hand on his cheek. "Yes, Sweetie. It will just take some time. But just know this, I love you, Ezra Standish." She patted his cheek and headed down the hall to her room.

Grace didn't go to work the next day. Ezra felt awkward sitting in her English Literature class listening to a substitute, knowing that Aunt Grace was at home, hurting but she had insisted that he go to school. She told him that she would be fine. He needed to keep pushing away at school if he was to reach his educational goals. Ezra made it through the school day, but he was constantly distracted with thoughts of Aunt Grace. Somehow he had never pictured her vulnerable. Yes, he had seen her tears when he left that first time, but this was different. Aunt Grace didn't just want him. It amazed him to realize that she needed him. And, even more amazing, she said she loved him.

Ezra hurried home after school, hoping he could make dinner for Aunt Grace or help her somehow. When he arrived, he found a note waiting for him on the kitchen counter, telling him that she was at the Benson's house, trying to help Mrs. Benson's daughter with the arrangements. It went further to say that he was to make himself a snack and take a look at the box she had left on his bed. Ezra grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the sideboard, munching on it as he walked to his bedroom. He set his books on his desk, walked over and sat on his bed, bouncing as he settled. There, he found another note waiting for him on top of a brown file box.

Ezra swallowed the last bite of apple, pushing it past that nasty lump that had formed in his throat. Tossing the apple core into the wastebasket, he lifted the lid off of the file box and smiled at the sight of the first item in the box. It was his Secret Agent Spy Kit. He chuckled and lifted it out of the bigger box. Just beneath it was the magic set. He couldn't believe that Aunt Grace had saved them all this time. Removing the magic set, he laughed aloud when he caught sight of the next item. Beneath the kit was his magician's cape, the faded floral apron he had snitched from Aunt Grace's kitchen. He reverently picked up the folded apron and laid it on the magic set. When he looked back inside the file box, he saw two shoeboxes that were tied with a pale blue ribbon. He lifted out both shoeboxes and set the empty file box on the floor. He picked up the first shoebox and set it on his lap, lightly fingering the ribbon.

Ezra untied the bow and opened the lid, sucking his breath in when he realized what it contained. The box was full of letters. Trembling fingers pulled out the first envelope. It was his first letter to Aunt Grace. He smiled at the crude printing, running a finger over the broken wax seal. Settling back against the headboard, he read the letter from the lonely boy in Paris. After he finished, he returned the letter to its envelope and picked up the next letter in the pile. Ezra sat up when he saw the postmark that was dated only a few days after his. The letter had "refused" written in a familiar hand across the outside. Gently, he tore open the envelope, laid back on the bed and began to read the letter, treasuring each word from his Auntie Grace.

By the time Grace arrived home with a bucket of chicken from the local take-out restaurant, Ezra had read and devoured nearly seven years of love from his Auntie Grace. Upon hearing her arrival, he slipped the last letter back in its place and covered the box before walking down the hall to the kitchen. The young teen hesitated for just a moment in the doorway, watching her as she bustled around the kitchen, preparing for their dinner. When she realized he was there with her, she stopped and smiled. He walked over to her and kissed her softly on the cheek. "Thank you, Auntie Grace."

"I like it when you call me that, Sweetie." Ezra blushed and took the plates from her and set the table.

As they ate the simple meal, Ezra asked the question that had been on his mind all afternoon. "Auntie Grace?"

"Yes, Sweetie?"

"Why did you keep writing when all the letters were returned?"

Grace smiled. "Because, I hoped that someday, somehow, one of the letters would get through and my Sweetie would know that I loved him."

"How... Why..." Ezra sighed in frustration. "Why would my mother refuse them?"

"I don't know Sweetie. Many of them were returned because you had moved on. So it wasn't always your mother."

He shook his head as he tried to make some sense out of his discovery. "But, I should have at least received them during the boarding school in Berlin."

Grace shook her head. "That was school policy. They thought that letters from home would cause students to become homesick so they held them until the end of the school year. I thought for awhile that you were actually receiving those but, they were all returned to me in a large envelope with a note explaining you had already left the campus before they could pass the package on to you."

Ezra looked down at his hands, picking at a fingernail.

"Ezra? Sweetie. What's done is done. We can't change that. But we can choose where we go now."

Ezra looked up and nodded. "How are the Bensons?"

Grace sighed. "They've been expecting this for a long time, but it is still a shock." She brushed away the tears that had started again. "The funeral will be the day after tomorrow."

"May I accompany you, Auntie Grace?" asked Ezra.

Grace was surprised at the offer. "Are you certain?"

Ezra nodded. "She was very nice to me. But more than that, she was your friend."

Grace smiled. The child was becoming a man before her very eyes. "I would be pleased to have you at my side, Ezra."

Two days later, in one of his European cut black suits and silk tie, Ezra stood next to his Aunt Grace at the graveside. It was the first time that he understood what family was. He was here because Aunt Grace needed his support. No other reason. The whole idea was still foreign to him, but it seemed right. He listened to the words, watching the family, while he held Aunt Grace's hand.

He felt out of place when he was invited to join the family at their home after the service, but Aunt Grace wanted to go, so he went along. Grace was talking with some family members as Ezra stood on the far side of the room, looking at the framed family photos sitting on top of the old spinet piano. Without realizing he was doing so, Ezra ran his hands over the smooth woodwork admiringly. He smiled, recalling how Mrs. Benson taught him to play his first song on that old piano at the high school. She would have been surprised to have him play for her now. He had continued with piano wherever he could, and was quite proficient.

"Excuse me. Are you Grace’s nephew, Ezra?"

Ezra turned quickly to the woman who had spoken.

"Yes," he answered with a questioning look in his eyes. "My name is Ezra Standish."

The woman smiled. "I am Joanie Benson, Maureen’s daughter," she said as she offered him his hand.

"It is a pleasure to meet you Ms. Benson."

"Grace has told me all about you. And Mother told me what a delightful student you were, when you were a boy."

"She was a wonderful teacher."

Joanie smiled again as she leaned against the piano. "I'm glad you came today."

Ezra glanced over at Grace and saw that she was still involved in her conversation.

"Your Aunt Grace was a wonderful friend to my mother," Joanie continued. "Grace spent so much time with her these past few weeks. I know that Mother truly cherished those visits. It made the last days such a comfort to her."

Ezra just nodded, not knowing what to say. That time Grace had spent with Mrs. Benson was time away from him, time that caused the struggle between them.

"Mother wanted you to have this," she said, pressing a small pink envelope into Ezra's hand.

"Me?" he questioned, glancing down to see his name written on the envelope.

"Go ahead. Read it."

Ezra carefully broke the seal of the envelope and removed the light pink stationery to read what was written. He saw that it was from Mrs. Benson, thanking him for sharing Grace with her these past few weeks. It went on to say that she was pleased to hear that he had continued his lessons they had begun all those years before. Ending, the last paragraph is what drew and astonished gasp from the young man. It said that Mrs. Benson was leaving her cherished piano to him for his use and enjoyment.

"Me?" he asked incredulously.

Maureen's daughter laughed lightly at Ezra's expression. "Apparently, my mother and Grace spent some of their time talking about you. Grace had mentioned that you had continued your lessons." Ezra nodded in confirmation as she continued, "This pleased Mother tremendously. You see, she saw that her reason to be on this Earth, besides raising her family, was to share her love of music with others. Since I already have a piano, Mother wanted you to have this one." She caressed the top of the piano. "She wanted it to go to someone who would cherish it as she had and know that it would be put to good use."

Ezra was dumbfounded. Maureen Benson was practically a stranger to him but she had seen fit to give him a wonderful gift. "Thank you," he stammered.

"You're welcome," said Joanie, squeezing Ezra's forearm before moving back across the room. Ezra's eyes followed the departing woman across the room until they met Aunt Grace's gaze. She smiled knowingly.

A week after the funeral, Joanie and Grace finalized the arrangements to move the piano from Mrs. Benson’s to the tiny house. Ezra was still shocked by Maureen Benson’s generous gift. Aunt Grace's house barely had room for it, but she found a way to fit it in. She loved to hear Ezra play out his frustrations at life through his music. As the days passed, Grace began to teach him more songs, and they would spend one evening a week together singing some of Aunt Grace's favorites around the piano. It would become yet one more tradition for them to share. During the weeks that followed, Ezra and Grace had their moments when they clashed but, for the most part, it was a particularly happy period in both their lives.


Ezra stood up and began to walk the blocks back to where he belonged. He kept remembering how Auntie Grace had reacted to Mrs. Benson's death. His great-aunt was a very strong woman, but for a time the loss of Maureen had nearly crushed her. He pulled the collar up higher on his overcoat, and then stuffed his hands deep into his pockets to ward off the cold air around him, but it couldn't repel the chill inside. Ezra knew Grace's inner strength and he had seen it crumble in her despair. He didn't have anywhere near the fortitude of Grace Harper. What he feared most in life was starting to become a reality. He couldn’t begin to imagine what his life would be like once she was gone forever. He didn’t want to begin picturing that future. The thought of being alone again, of not having anyone who cared whether he was alive or had made it home safely in his life was nearly his undoing. Ezra snorted at his next thought. Hell, he even feared falling apart in front of total strangers.

'Ez, ya gotta trust us.' The voice was as clear as if Vin Tanner was walking next to him. A sad smile curled the southerner's lips at the irony. The Texan had preached those words to him over and over until Ezra had started to really become a part of the team. He had preached the words right back to Vin over the past couple of weeks after the disastrous arson case. No. He wouldn't be alone, but that didn't ease the stabbing wound to his heart at the thought of never seeing Auntie Grace's knowing smile again. Never hearing her loving words floating through the phone lines. Never feeling her touch that he had come to long for, the same touch he had so avidly avoided in his youth. He had been taught from day one that appearances were everything, but it didn't really matter if someone saw him fall apart over Grace. He could set aside his embarrassment. He could push aside his fear. Ezra hurried his steps as he neared the care center. Auntie Grace needed him.


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