ATF Universe


No one had any idea that Auntie Grace would hold on for four more long days. Ezra spent the majority of his waking hours at her side, reliving memories with her until she was too weak to talk. Even then, he persevered, sharing his own memories of their times together as she laid there, love flowing from her tired eyes. She seemed to rest easier at the sound of his voice so Ezra talked until his throat was raw.


During one of their many talks they had at the old kitchen table when he was still in high school, Ezra had shared with Aunt Grace his ambition to get a scholarship for college. They spent hours discussing his future and what he wanted to pursue in life. Grace spent much of that time convincing Ezra that it was perfectly acceptable to choose a path other than his mother's. Together, they laid out a plan of what it would take for him to win a scholarship to a good university.

They spent some of their Saturday afternoons at the local library researching scholarship requirements. They discovered that one of the major things any university looked for after a strong grade point average was a well-rounded list of extra-curricular activities. Some of the examples listed in the books included volunteering with local charities and hospitals, involvement in a local church, tutoring underprivileged children, participating in community events such as plays and sporting events. While church involvement was not the first thing Ezra would have chosen, it was a ready resource. Attending church had always been a part of living in Aunt Grace's home. He couldn’t remember a Sunday when they had missed services. Realizing that this was good place to start, he set his mind to it and began constructing the cornerstone of his dream. He didn’t just continue to go to Sunday services, he took it a step further. In no time, he was participating in the choir, singing at all three services. He was also volunteering in a couple of community service activities after school. What amazed him when he stopped to think about it was that while this was something he was not accustomed to doing, he truly enjoyed his new activities.

As the second semester of his Junior year began, Ezra also got involved in the high school's mentoring program. He was paired with a successful financial investor and soon found himself soaking up all the practical knowledge he could from his guide. Since he wasn't old enough to legally be an intern at his mentor’s company, he was satisfied with shadowing his mentor as he moved through his day. His serious green gaze followed the man’s every move, studying the mannerisms and taking notes on how he dealt with each and every situation that cropped up. Thomas Miller was delighted to have such an eager student, and thoroughly enjoyed showing Ezra the ropes. He found himself spending many afternoons with the young man, patiently explaining flow charts and business clauses. The minute Ezra turned sixteen, Mr. Miller offered him a part-time job at his company. That summer was the best one young Ezra had ever experienced in his life. He had a job he adored and man whom he respected offered Ezra the chance to take one step closer to making his dream a reality. He ended up working at the company for the rest of the summer and continued on four afternoons a week after school during his senior year.

Ezra used his high school years to his advantage by studying hard and, after the appropriate testing, found his way into the advanced placement program at school, gaining college credits as he finished high school. Aunt Grace couldn't have been prouder of her Sweetie when she sat in the front row cheering as he graduated from high school with honors just a few days before his seventeenth birthday.

After the processional was complete, Mr. Miller treated the two of them to a celebratory dinner at the local steak restaurant. They sat for hours at the restaurant laughing and sharing plans for the future. It was after nine o’clock that night when Mr. Miller dropped Aunt Grace and Ezra off at the small house. They had tiredly made their way into their home and changed out of their finery. As they were getting ready to sit down with their warm cocoa, the phone rang. Ezra grabbed the phone, knowing that it had to be Maude calling. They spoke for less than ten minutes before she told him that she just had to be running off somewhere. Ezra hung up the phone with mixed emotions. He was happy that his mother had cared enough to call, but he was disheartened by her news. She wanted him to join her in Atlanta immediately and they would spend the summer traveling with her newest beau. This invitation, if you could call it that, just didn't fit at all with his plan to work for Thomas Miller and Associates for the summer.

"Ezra? What's wrong, Sweetie?" asked Aunt Grace.

"Mother," whispered Ezra. That was all he had to say. Grace understood the incredibly confusing emotions Ezra felt about his mother. It had always been a constant war between resentment and love, between feelings of abandonment and hope, insecurity and confidence.

"What does she have planned?" Ezra looked up at Grace with a small smile. Auntie Grace always seemed to know.

"She wants me to spend the summer traveling with her."

"And how do you feel about that idea?" prodded Grace gently.

"It isn't my plan," said Ezra simply.

"No, Sweetie, but will it hurt?"

Ezra laughed. "Probably."

Grace chuckled. "That's not what I meant. You have your scholarship in hand, Ezra. Your plan for this summer was to be earning money for expenses."

Ezra nodded. "Between what I've saved and what Mr. Miller has invested for me, I have enough for this first year."

"Then go. You have to choose your battles, Ezra. Maybe this one isn't worth the effort to fight. Go if you want."

Ezra looked directly in her eyes, allowing his smile to grow. She knew that he wanted to go. His smile dropped suddenly as the impact of his decision struck him. He didn't have much choice about the trip. He was still a minor. He knew that he could fight it, but that could get nasty. A second, more devastating thought came to light and Ezra closed his eyes trying to shut out the reality. If he went on this trip, he was now spending one of his very last days with Auntie Grace.

"I know, Sweetie," said Grace, standing on tiptoes to kiss her boy on the cheek. "I'll be just fine, and so will you."

Unable to say anything, Ezra grinned sadly and kissed Aunt Grace on top of her silver curly hair.

Within a week, Ezra was on his way to a summer tour of Europe with his mother and Paul Keyes, a wealthy businessman from Atlanta. Surprisingly, Paul and Ezra hit it off well. The summer flew by quickly without too many arguments between Maude and Ezra, but Ezra knew that the good times were sure to end. The inevitable confrontation came when they stopped in Spain for the final three weeks of their holiday.

Over a late supper, Maude announced that Ezra would be attending the University of Georgia, Paul's alma mater. She sat back in her chair, sure that her declaration would be agreed to without debate. Sadly, she had miscalculated her son’s reaction and the war started.

"Ezra, whatever do you mean, you will not attend the University of Georgia?" drawled Maude angrily. Since the summer had gone so well, she had been sure that he would do as she said without question. How could Ezra mess it up now?

Ezra cringed inwardly at the harsh tone. He never liked to fight with his mother but to have to do it in front of a man he liked and respected did not sit well with him. He calmly laid his napkin beside his plate and looked across the table at Paul. "No offense, Paul," said Ezra. Paul held up his hands indicating no offense was taken. Seeing that all was fine between them, he turned his attention to his fuming mother. "I have other plans, Mother."

"What plans could be more important than attending such a fine university?"

"I am already going to be attending a fine university, Mother. I was going to surprise you with the news." Ezra reached inside his jacket pocket, pulling out a copy of his acceptance letter and the scholarship award and held them out to his mother as the little boy in him longed for his mother’s approval.

As Maude read the letter, her heart stirred with a little bit of pride as she discovered that her boy had won himself a Dean's Scholarship to Yale. She quickly pushed that pleasure deep into her heart, allowing the situation at hand and the stronger emotion to win. Her boy was going against her wishes. Taking a handout to boot. Pursing her lips, she let the papers fall on the floor without one word of congratulations to her anxious son. Leveling him with her steadiest look, she said, "You will stay with Paul and me, Ezra, and you will go to the University of Georgia. We will pay your tuition. A Standish never, ever accepts charity, no matter what form it is offered in."

Throughout the entire discussion, Paul had sat quietly in his seat, watching the two of them parry and thrust. While he had not seen what was in the letter, he was sure that it was something exceptional. In the two months during their travels, he had gained a pretty good feel for the type of man Ezra was turning out to be. As the silence at the table increased, he decided to take matters into his own hand. Catching the young man’s eye, he nodded toward the door. "Ezra, let's you and I have a talk. Man to man."

Maude glowed. Paul was going to put Ezra in his place. All was not lost… as long as Ezra complied and didn't do or say anything to anger Paul.

Unsure of what to expect, Ezra slowly left his seat, stopping to scoop up the discarded papers before following Paul outside. They went down the brick walk and sat on the patio by the pool.

After sitting quietly for a few minutes enjoying the crisp night air, Paul lit a cigarette and leaned back on the chaise lounge. "You two certainly keep things lively," said Paul.

"I apologize. Mother and I should have had that discussion in private," said Ezra. He really didn't want to mess things up for his mother. He had done that enough times as a young teen and it hadn’t done him any good.

"I take it that your papers were an acceptance letter?" Paul discarded his cigarette, moving to face Ezra more fully.

Ezra nodded.

Paul reached out a hand in silent entreaty. After a slight hesitation, Ezra handed the papers to Paul and watched him carefully as the man read them. As he finished the final page, Paul let out a whistle. "A full ride scholarship? You must have worked hard."

Ezra nodded with a grim smile.

"And you did it all without her knowledge or help?"

Another nod from the southern teen.

Paul smiled. "Well, that is something to be proud of, son. Choosing a road away from a parent is a tough decision. One that is hard to travel but well worth the effort. I’ll tell you what I'll do," said Paul. "I'll talk to your mother and get her to give in on this point." Paul laughed at the skepticism on Ezra's face.

"Why would you do that?" asked Ezra.

"I like you, Ezra. I like how you stand on your choices. Don’t worry about your mother. We are having a wonderful time together and I don't want to spoil that with a war between the two of you."

Ezra felt a twinge of guilt. Paul was a nice guy who was about to be taken by his mother and yet this guy was being nice to him. Where did that sudden twinge of his conscience come from? He pushed it aside. If the guy wasn't smart enough to know he was being taken, well then, he was fair game.

"But you have to do one thing for me."

'Ah, here it comes,' thought Ezra. 'There is always an ulterior motive.' "And that is?"

"You don't tell her that I know about her scheme," said Paul with a grin.

"Excuse me? I don’t know what you are talking about," replied Ezra innocently.

Paul laughed. "I’ve got to say, you are good. You're a lot like her in many ways. Nevertheless, I'm on to the con. I just don't want to ruin it."

"You're telling me that you believe my mother is trying to con you, and you are willing to go along with it?"

Paul nodded. "Maude is a great companion. I'm enjoying being with her." Seeing the protectiveness raise up in Maude's son's eyes, Paul continued, "Don't worry, son. I won't leave her high and dry. I'll make sure she has money when the time comes and she takes her leave of me."

Ezra stared at the man, unable to comprehend what he was hearing. It was hard to understand the situation. Hard for him to believe that the couple was using each other for the sheer fun of companionship. He shook his head before quietly agreeing to Paul’s terms.

"Well, that's settled then. I will see you later. I have some convincing to do."

When school started, Ezra was happily settling in his private dorm room on the legendary campus of Yale. His golden tan he had acquired those warm months was not the only healthy thing about him. His bank account had also been given a sizable donation from one Paul Keyes, making up for his lost time at Thomas Miller and Associates.


The evening of the fourth day found Aunt Grace at peace and Ezra in turmoil. Too weak to talk anymore, she watched her Sweetie wearing himself to a frazzle on her behalf. She had lost all sense of time, but could see that Ezra looked so tired. When he was awake, she could see the black circles that were standing out prominently under his eyes. He slept now, seated in the chair next to her bed, with his head resting on the mattress beside her. She reached over to lay her hand gently on his head, continuously smoothing back his hair from his worry wrinkled brow. He couldn't relax even in sleep. She wished that she could tell him that she was all right. That death did not frighten her. That she was ready for her next journey to begin. He was fighting a battle he could not win. Fighting the battle to keep her here with him.

Ezra woke with a start, sensing something was wrong. He looked anxiously at Grace who was looking back at him with her love in her eyes. Her breathing was labored, as if each breath slowly sapped whatever energy she had left. He shook his head in mute denial but, seeing the acceptance on her face and knowing he wouldn’t do anything to make this more difficult for her than necessary, he took her hand in his and kissed it lovingly.

"Love…you," wheezed Grace.

"I love you too, Auntie Grace," Ezra choked, forcing the words past the lump in his throat, uttering the words he had never voiced before to her face.

Ezra stood, leaned over and kissed Grace on the forehead, then smoothed her hair. Her lips turned up slightly and she closed her eyes.

When the final shuddering breath ceased, a self-reliant, fiercely independent southerner raised to trust no one, a man often looked upon as callused and uncaring, spoke through freely flowing tears.

"I love you, Auntie Grace," he repeated. "You are taking a piece of my heart with you."


He flipped over in bed for what seemed like the thousandth time. Chris had slept very little. He had two teammates on his mind. Sometimes he hated being in charge. Vin seemed to be making strides in the right direction. It was good that he was talking with Josiah. Vin may doubt himself right now, but Chris Larabee knew the Texan would be all right. Vin was a much stronger man than he gave himself credit for. He was a survivor.

Survivor. That word fit his other wayward agent as well. Both of the men had survived things that would have made lesser men crumble. Although he hadn’t said anything to the others, Chris was worried about what could have pulled Standish away from Denver so urgently. The southerner had been gone for six days with only one brief call earlier in the week. In spite of his teammates teasing about his self-centeredness, Larabee knew that Standish would never drop everything and take off if it were something petty. Chris recalled the two other times in recent months when Standish had asked for emergency leave. Each time he had returned within one or two days. He never explained his reasons and, because of Chris’ own need for privacy, Chris had never asked. This time, however, he had been gone for nearly a week with no indication as to when he would return.

"Hell, Ezra. Why can't you just talk to us?" Chris sighed. The weary man rolled over again on the wrinkled sheets, trying to put everything out of his mind so he could get some much-needed sleep. Slowly, his mind drifted off allowing his weary body to follow. Just as he was finally getting to that time in his sleep that he enjoyed most, an irritating buzzing broke through his burgeoning dream. Chris threw out his arm and grabbed at the unwelcome intrusion. As his mind finally came back to life, he realized that what he was hearing was the telephone. After years dreading late night phone calls, he quickly turned on the bedside lamp and reached for the insistently ringing phone. Glancing at the caller I.D. he was slightly relieved to note that it wasn't a number he recognized. The number displayed didn’t even have a prefix he knew. Good. It was less likely it was one of Team 7 calling because of trouble and more than likely a wrong number.

"Larabee," he barked gruffly.

He was met with silence, and then a soft click as the call was disconnected.

"Damn." Chris hung up the phone, angry at the interruption to his sleep. He made a note of the phone number, turned off the light and snuggled back under his covers. His eyes blinked back open as it occurred to him that it could have been Ezra calling from wherever he was. Then again, it could have been anyone. No, it wasn’t Ezra calling. He was too independent. Out of all of them, he wouldn't have called him. Still, there was a tiny part of his mind that held out hope the southerner would remember they were a family and that he could reach out to any of them if he needed support. He briefly considered calling the number back but talked himself out of it with a large yawn. It was probably a wrong number anyway. Chris closed his eyes and let sleep take him as the last thought filtered through his tired head. He would check out the number tomorrow at the office.

About seventy miles further south, in a darkened room with only the small nightlight in the hallway to illuminate his actions, Ezra slowly dropped the phone back into its cradle and bowed his head. He was sitting in Aunt Grace's rocker in her one-room apartment, trying to find something to hold onto in his life. He knew that he should be sleeping after being up all day and all night, but sleep would not come to the exhausted man. He reached over to carefully replace the phone on the small side table and caught sight of the digital clock sitting there. He winced, realizing he must have woken Chris out of a deep sleep. Ezra had come back to the tiny room not even aware of his actions. He didn't even know what day it was, let alone the time. He wasn't sure why he had dialed Larabee's number. Maybe he needed to hear a familiar voice. He wanted to tell Chris what had happened, that his beloved Aunt Grace had died. The team leader certainly understood about losing someone you held dear to yourself. When Chris had answered and he had heard that growled, "Larabee", Ezra's sense of self-protection had kicked into high gear. His mother’s infamous lessons echoed through his overwrought brain. ‘You could never let them see you hurting. They would come back and use your weakness against you.’ Those lessons of his earliest days were the most deeply ingrained and the easiest to fall back on in times like these.

Ezra sighed at the unfamiliar emotional battle waging inside. His childhood training told him to bury the hurt and not depend on anyone. The trouble with this solution was that he was no longer used to being on his own. He had been drawn in kicking and screaming, becoming a part of the oddball family known as Team 7. Somewhere deep inside, beyond the gaping hole of losing Auntie Grace, he just needed to know that Team 7, his friends, his family was still there. Ezra allowed his weary body to slump further into the wooden rocking chair as his mind began to accept the events of the last few days.

"She's gone," he said softly to no one, still not able to grasp that Auntie Grace had died. Without realizing, he began to rock back and forth in her rocker as silent tears rolled down his cheeks. He picked up her shawl off the arm of the rocker and held it to his face, breathing in its scent and feeling its softness against his rough cheek. The material brought many conflicting memories to Ezra at a time that he was not sure he could handle any more. His Auntie Grace had made this shawl. He could remember sitting in the warm family room after finishing up his spelling homework, watching her needles fly back and forth. It was the same one she had covered him with on her porch swing when he had returned to her as an angry teen. She had invested time and care into each stitch of the shawl just as she had invested time and care in Ezra's life. And now she would never… Ezra couldn't finish the thought as he began to weep as the light wrap drifted from his relaxed hold to the floor. His lack of sleep caught hold of the southerner and lured him into a brief nap. The rocking of the chair and the familiar smells surrounding him enveloped him in a sense of healing peacefulness that he so desperately needed just as the sun made its appearance in the sky.


As usual, Chris was at the office before the rest of his team in spite of his short night. He was pleased to see Tanner exit the elevator a few minutes later. Vin was becoming more like himself every day. Chris walked down the hallway and joined Vin in the break room, gathering a cup of coffee.

"G'morning Cowboy," greeted Vin. "You look like somethin' the cat dragged in."

"Ditto," declared Chris sarcastically before he gave in to a yawn.

"Well, I got a good excuse. Me and Josiah worked at the Youth Shelter last night. What's your excuse?"

Chris smiled. Vin was definitely making progress. "How'd it go?"

"Full house. Got one kid into rehab. Got a girl reconnected with her family."

Chris noticed a bit of wistfulness in Vin's last statement. He reached over and squeezed Vin's shoulder gently. "You got family Vin."

"Yup." Vin grinned at him. "And speaking of family, you hear from Ez at all? When he's going to be back?"

Chris shook his head. "You know Ezra. He isn't much for saying anything when it comes to personal matters. Just wish I knew what was going on with him."

Vin sat on the edge of the table. "He was scared, Pard."

Larabee glanced up sharply at the Texan at his observation. "You said he wasn't in danger," Chris replied.

Vin shook his head. "No. It wasn't like that. It wasn't like he was running away from something. More like he was running to something." Vin thought for a moment. "He was scared, Chris. I heard it in his voice. Saw a flicker of it in his eyes for just for a second before he threw up his defenses. You know how he's always got that damn poker face on." Vin sipped his coffee, staring out the window for a moment, remembering the events from a week ago. He sighed and ran a hand through his tousled mane of hair. "I was too caught up in my own damn troubles. I should've pushed him harder to let me help."

Chris shook his head. It was always the same with Team 7. Each man took responsibility for the others - often blaming themselves for things they couldn’t control. "Vin, even if you had pushed him further than you had, he still wouldn't have told you anything. You know that."

"Yeah," scoffed Vin. "But I should'a tried harder." He stood, tossing his empty coffee cup in the trash can like a professional ballplayer shooting a free throw and began to move to the door.

"We'll be here when he comes back," said Chris firmly. They would be there for the feisty southerner whether he wanted them to be or not.

A commotion from the direction of the elevators interrupted the quiet moment between the two friends, heralding the arrival of another team member. "Hey guys!" greeted JD. "Ezra back yet?"

"No," said Chris.

"Doughnut?" asked JD, holding out the bag to his boss and his teammate. Chris declined but watched with a satisfied grin as Vin snatched a maple bar with sprinkles on it.

"Where's Bucklin?" asked Vin around a mouthful of pastry.

"He got delayed at the front desk," answered JD after taking a hasty slurp of his Big Gulp. "New receptionist."

Chris shook his head. Wilmington would find a woman on a deserted island. Sticking his hand in his pocket, he absently began to fiddle with the piece of paper he had slipped there before he left his house that morning. He pulled it out and looked at the phone number from his mysterious caller. "JD, check this out when you get a chance. Need to know who this number belongs to."

"Sure, Chris." JD took the paper and headed for his desk as Chris and Vin headed for their desks as well.

It took a couple of minutes before JD popped his head in Chris's door. "Got it."

"Whose is it?" asked Chris.

"It belongs to a G. Harper in Colorado Springs. You want me to get more specific?"

"Thanks, JD. I’ll take it from here." Chris made a note of the name as JD headed back into the bullpen when Buck entered, crowing about his conquest of the pretty receptionist.


A few hours away, Ezra was still grappling with the blow life had dealt him. He was angry with himself. He had fallen apart. He hadn't lost control like that since he was a small child. It was totally unacceptable. Determined to maintain rigid restraint of his emotions from here on out, he poured himself into what needed to be done.

He made the dreaded call to the funeral home, grateful that Grace had had the foresight to make the necessary arrangements. It had been an uncomfortable time for him when she had insisted on the planning, but now he was glad to not have to deal with the details on his own. The funeral director would take care of transporting the body to Denver and her graveside service would be at one o'clock the next day. He thought sadly about how different her service would be from Thomas Miller's or even Maureen Benson's. Family and friends had surrounded them as they embarked on their final journeys. Grace wouldn’t have such a grand farewell. He had selfishly ripped her away from her home and friends because he wanted her near him. So now, as this great lady would take the next step in her fate, the cemetery would not be crowded with all her friends and family. There would be just one person there to send her on her way. One Ezra P. Standish.

"Good Lord, Ezra. Get a grip!" Ezra snapped at himself.

A quiet knock on the door brought him back to his present circumstances. He opened the door to find a staffer waiting with an armload of boxes.

"I was told you requested these, sir?" said the orderly.

"Yes, thank you," replied the southerner. "Just set them by the sofa."

The orderly placed the empty containers on the floor and smiled politely as he left quickly. It was never comfortable to be around grieving family members so soon after the death of a resident.

Ezra stood with his hands in his pockets and looked around the small apartment. This was the one thing he hadn't planned for. It never occurred to him that he would be responsible for taking care of Grace's belongings. He wasn't sure why he hadn't thought about it. They certainly had discussed it and agreed that, when Grace passed, Ezra was to keep whatever he wanted and the rest was to be sold. The money from the sale was to be used to pay any outstanding bills and, if there was any left over, it was to be used to establish a few scholarships for some deserving students of Ezra's choosing.

Ezra smiled at that thought. The Grace Harper Scholarship. While he had made certain that Grace's finances were profitable after that pension fund fiasco, she wasn’t what you would term rich. She wouldn’t have a great deal of money left over after expenses, but what there would be left would be more than enough to offer a chance to some deserving young adults. The excess funds from the sale along with her life insurance benefit would be enough to fund a few four-year educational scholarships. Students who would had never known Grace Harper would benefit from her life-long love of education.

His red-rimmed eyes fell on the bookcase, slowing to caress the well-worn titles of her treasured books. As if he finally found a purpose for himself, he pulled his hands from his pockets and stretched. He definitely would keep the books. He couldn’t imagine losing that vital piece of his life with Aunt Grace. He picked up on of the boxes and shuffled slowly to the bookcase. He began to pull down the volumes one by one and pack them into the box. There wasn't anything valuable about the books except that they had belonged to Grace, but still he wasn't willing to trust them to the movers.

He packed a couple more boxes before he came to the photo albums and scrapbook on the bottom shelf. In all the times staying with Grace, he never remembered seeing them. He carefully opened the first scrapbook and was stunned by what he saw. The first page was a letter from the school telling which second grade class he had been assigned to attend that first year he spent in South Carolina. On the adjoining page was his class picture. Turning the page, he found himself smiling. There was the expulsion notice for the homework scam. A piece of cloth was glued tightly to the next page along with a photograph of Ezra in Grace's classroom, in his sling. There were photographs of their week at the beach. It had been a six-hour drive in Aunt Grace's old Chevy, but well worth it. The next page was a piece of sheet music. Ezra chuckled to himself when he read the title. "Three Blind Mice." It was the first song he had learned to play.

Flipping the page he found his report cards and shook his head in amazement. Auntie Grace had kept everything. Across the page were several envelopes glued to the paper that he recognized. His letters and Grace's letters no longer resided in shoeboxes, they had been lovingly placed in this story of their life together. He skimmed forward through the pages to the last page of letters and found his high school class schedule. There were pictures from the debate team and a couple of tennis matches. He ran a finger over the cover of a flyer from the church they had attended that listed Ezra's name in the choir program. Flipping the page he found pictures of his high school graduation and a photocopy of his acceptance letter to Yale. Letters he had written in college followed on the next page. Ezra chuckled at the sight of the folded menu from the restaurant he had worked for during his college days.


He had poured himself into his college schoolwork. Getting a good education and good grades was his key to going his own way. Knowing that he would need to keep working to pay his expenses for the next school year, Ezra found a job where he would be making good money even though he knew his mother would despise the fact he worked there. He was doing what she would term menial labor that was certain, but he was also networking for his future. Through an acquaintance in one of his business classes and due to the fact he could speak French fluently, he had secured a position as a waiter at a posh French Restaurant, making good wages and outlandish tips. He was also making many contacts on whom he would call upon later in life. Ezra was surprised that so many people were impressed by his drive to finish his schooling at Yale. The respect he received from these important people he served never ceased to amaze him. They never failed to tell him how impressed they were that he would do whatever was necessary to reach his goal, even if it meant being a waiter.

That restaurant deepened Ezra's love for a gourmet meal and a fine wine. The wait staff was allowed to help themselves to leftovers after their shifts had ended, so Ezra rarely spent a penny on meals. He was often found in the small office off the kitchen studying on his breaks.

Sundays were still "letter day" although the southerner no longer found himself at his desk on Sunday afternoons completing his correspondence. He would crawl into his shower after working the lunch and dinner crowd, grab a coffee, turn on some music and sit down to write in the early morning hours. Sometimes he wondered why he even bothered writing to his mother since she so rarely answered. With always a bit of hope in his heart, he always finished his short note to Maude before beginning his longer letter to Aunt Grace. There was always a letter from Aunt Grace waiting in his post box every week. Ezra faithfully answered each and every one of her letters, sharing his new experiences and observations with her in great detail. He even sent a few to Thomas Miller informing his mentor of his progress in school.

With Thomas's letters, Ezra always sent what little money he could spare for his mentor to invest on his behalf. Legally he wouldn't be able to sign the necessary contracts for his own investing until he was twenty-one but he knew that Thomas would see to it that his needs were met. He only had one year before he could begin to make his own decisions about his investments. Ezra had learned quite a bit during his time with Thomas Miller and, while he knew Thomas was pleased he was planning on putting that education to good use, he wasn't certain that Thomas would be too pleased with one of the ways he was earning his extra money. The opportunity was just too good to pass up and, remembering his mother’s teaching about grabbing the chance when it presents itself, he made the best out of what was available to him. He found himself on a campus full of bored rich kids who had money to burn and Ezra didn't feel the least bit guilty for taking some of it off their hands. He made a killing at off-campus poker games and through various side bets on sporting events but he was always careful to keep his hands clean. It wouldn't do to break the rules and get himself expelled.

Things went along pretty smoothly until the day his mother showed up unannounced. She arrived in all her glory for a quiet supper with a new man. She was no longer with Paul Keyes, the two of them amicably parting ways a few months earlier. She swept into the restaurant with some French guy, commandeering the best seat in the house and, of course, they ended up at Ezra's station.

Ezra nearly spilled the water he was pouring into the crystal when he caught sight of his mother. Quickly covering his surprise, he fluently told them in French that he would be their waiter and would be pleased to help them when they were ready. Shocked, Maude met his eyes with fury in her own, and then looked away, never acknowledging him for the rest of the evening. Whatever contact he had with the couple during their visit was minimal. He flawlessly served them their meals and made sure that their wine glasses were never empty while avoiding his mother’s eye. Ezra noted with a tired sigh that her beau had left him a good tip, despite his paramour’s apparent displeasure with the restaurant.

When Ezra finally arrived back at his room just after midnight, a furious Maude Standish met him at the door.

"Ezra, what are you thinking? How dare you embarrass me like that!" she snapped loudly.

"Mother," Ezra replied, trying to steer her back into his room so the whole house wouldn't hear.

"A Standish does not do menial labor, Ezra," she drawled. "I was mortified. What if Luc had discovered you were my son?"

Ezra pinched the bridge of his nose. Maude was not budging from the hallway despite all his efforts. People were starting to look out their doors to see what the clamor was about.

"He didn't," Ezra said sharply. "Can we take this inside?" he asked snidely, gesturing to their growing audience.

"Why? You have no problem embarrassing your poor mother, but you don't want to be embarrassed in front of your neighbors?"

"Why are you here?" asked Ezra angrily.

"To see my darling baby boy, of course. Not that he cares," she bit sarcastically.

"Mother, I am glad to see you," Ezra said, leaning against the door jam. "It was not my intention to embarrass you. Had I KNOWN you were coming here, I would have warned you about the restaurant, or at least had someone else wait on you." Ezra's appeasement fell on deaf ears.

"Ezra, I want you to leave this place now. Luc and I have a place for you in Paris. You can finish your education there." She paused looking around the hall. "How many thousands of dollars have you thrown away here? You never had to spend a dime of your own money if you had only listened to me. You could have bluffed your way through and never actually attended one of these places." Maude picked at an imaginary piece of lint on her sleeve, before looking in her son’s direction. "Now get yourself packed, and we'll be on our way."

"No," said Ezra simply. "I am not going. I've got a year to go to finish my undergrad work and then a year for my masters."

"This is foolishness."

Ezra pushed himself away from the door jam and pulled himself up to his full height. "Mother, I am twenty years old. I am not going with you. You can cry, you can scream, you can threaten to abandon me but none of that will matter because I am staying. There is nothing you can say or do to make me change my mind."

Maude took a step back in surprise. Ezra had never before stood up to her with this much determination. A flicker of pride ran through her before being chased away by another brief, flitting thought. Suddenly, it crossed her mind that she had lost the little boy who cried for his mother not to leave him. The small child who had begged her to come and get him, and that it was probably her fault she had lost him. She quickly pushed aside those thoughts and tried to maintain the control she was famous for. She looked at her watch and nodded sharply. "Well then, I believe there is nothing more that we have to discuss then. I have to go. I have a plane to catch." She kissed Ezra on the cheek and walked away, leaving her speechless son standing in the drafty hallway staring after her.


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