ATF Universe


The next morning Ezra returned to the offices of Team 7. He knew there would be questions, but after burying Grace yesterday, Ezra had locked away his heart. His mother was right. Allowing himself to get close to someone only caused pain. And he determined no one would ever get inside the walls and hurt him again.

Six men were stunned when Ezra Standish stepped off the elevator and walked into the office. His sudden appearance was great to see but they were simply surprised to see the man since he had not contacted any of them about his return. In fact, he hadn't called them at all except for the single call to Josiah.

"Ezra! Hey!" called JD. "When'd you get back into town?" JD hovered near his teammate and slapped him on the shoulder. "I thought I saw you yesterday on the highway."

"What I do is my own business, Mr. Dunne," said Ezra snidely as he flicked dust that only he could see from the shoulder that JD had slapped. "When I am on my own time, I shouldn't have to account for every hour to anyone but myself." Ezra stalked to his desk and sat down, leaving six bewildered men in his wake. He unlocked his desk and pulled out the files he had not completed since before leaving.

"The kid was just asking a question," said Buck.

"And I gave him an answer, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra turned on his computer and opened a file folder as he waited for it to boot up. "Now if you don't mind, I have a lot of work to catch up on." Ezra began to scan through the papers making it clear he didn't want to be bothered.

Slowly, the men moved away from the southerner's desk. Josiah looked back briefly at their wayward sheep, then laid his hand on JD's shoulder as he steered him toward the break room. "He's not mad at you, John Dunne," Josiah assured softly upon entering the small room.

"Could'a fooled me," said JD. "I was just being friendly."

"Something's bugging him, Kid," said Buck.

Nathan, still standing in the hall, looked back at Ezra and nodded his agreement. "He looks pretty tired. Doesn't look like he's been getting much sleep."

JD's eyes got big. "You don't think maybe he's sick! I mean, we thought that maybe this was about his mom, but what if it's something wrong with Ezra?"

The men considered JD's question, but it was easier to believe Ezra was just having a bad day.

Vin sat quietly at his desk, which adjoined the southerner's, watching Ezra pretend to work. Ezra seemed to have forgotten that these men had come to know him fairly well in the past months. Calling everyone "Mister" was a self-protection mechanism the southerner reverted to, using the formality to create a safety-zone of sorts around him. Vin wasn't even sure if Ezra knew he did it. For someone who was so good at reading other people's tells, the slick undercover agent was missing his own glaring mannerism.

Feeling the sharpshooter's stare, Ezra looked up. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Tanner?" he growled.

"Well, good morning to you too. And yes, I'm fine thank you," said Vin sarcastically.

Chris stood in his doorway watching the exchange. Vin's words brought a smirk to the team leader's face. He could see that Tanner had made his point when Ezra's poker face flickered. Chris was certain he saw a moment of regret on the southerner's face.

"Mr. Tanner, I really don't have time for this. I have far too much work to do," said Ezra waving his hand over the pile of files indicating he had a lot to accomplish.

"Ain't got time to be a gentleman. Now that's not the Ezra Standish I know." Vin's sarcasm again made its point and Ezra realized this was going to be much harder than he thought. He would have to do his best to appear normal or his teammates would be all over him, pressing for answers he didn't want to give. Answers he wasn’t sure he would ever be ready to give. It was going to be a very long week.

He closed his eyes momentarily and gathered his wits about him before facing his concerned friend. "I apologize, Vin. I've been rather preoccupied." Ezra leaned forward. It was time for a little re-direction. "Have you talked with Josiah?" he asked softly.

While he recognized what the southerner was trying to accomplish, he couldn’t help but appreciate the true concern that was evident in his eyes. A smile quirked on Vin's lips and he nodded. "He told me some story about a time he was India and met a priest or somethin' lying on a bed of nails."

"What, pray tell, did that have to do with anything?" asked Ezra, a little intrigued with the story in spite of himself.

"He told me the secret of lying on nails without punchin' holes in your body." Vin grinned.

"And that is?"

"Lots'a nails." Vin bobbed his eyebrows. "Seems the more nails you have the more spread out the weight is so it don't poke ya. Has something to do with physics or something." Vin tilted his head and peered at the southerner who was avoiding eye contact. "He says I got lots'a nails with my friends. I reckon that means you do too."

Ezra knew exactly where Vin was headed and was glad that Vin had sorted things out enough to know that he needed to rely on his friends to help him carry his load. The southerner would not allow himself that same luxury. The overwhelming pain in his heart was because he had allowed himself to get close to someone once. He could not allow that again. The risk was far greater than the benefit. It was too big a gamble, and he abhorred gambling. He only took chances on sure things.

"Perhaps, Mr. Tanner. But right now having many nails seems to be hindering the completion of my work." Ezra turned his attention back to the file in front of him virtually closing out his teammate.

Vin shook his head and went back to work. Ezra was having a bad day. He could certainly understand that. It seemed like that was all he had had for too long. But he was aiming to change that.


Each of his teammates tried unsuccessfully at some point during that first week to find out what had happened to cause Ezra's unexpected time off. He had rebuffed their efforts with the famous Standish Wall of Indifference, but somewhere deep inside it touched him to see that they cared enough about him to keep on coming back for more. Uncharacteristically, he was in the office well before nine each morning and pouring 110% into his work. At the stroke of six he was the first out of the office to spend all of his off duty hours at home alone, unable to go against the training of his childhood. Maude’s Commandment No. 4: Never let them see you hurting. Exposing your vulnerability simply offered your opponent the easiest target to bring you down. When he caught parts of conversations where some of the others were making plans to go to the saloon or out to the range, he would feel a twinge of sadness but he pushed that aside. He knew that they were all concerned about him but trying to give him the space he so clearly demanded that first day. Why was it that he didn’t get a sense of comfort from that knowledge? Why did he feel sadness and guilt instead? His personal life was his own. It had nothing to do with Team 7. He found himself trying to reassure himself several times a day that the sooner he began to live up to this new motto, the better his life would be.

Every evening after work, Ezra would make his way back to the darkened condo and indulge himself with the finest scotch available. It was late Thursday evening when he finished the last of the liquor. He peered into the empty bottle, searching for just one more sip that would help him dull the pain in his heart. With a defeated sigh, he carefully placed the bottle in his recycling bin and sat down and really took a look around his place. The untouched moving boxes still littered Ezra's hallway. He had been unable to force himself to go through them so he simply left them there. His answering machine was not taking any more calls. It was full of messages that he had not listened to, or that he had chosen to ignore. The ringer on his phone had been shut off since the night of the funeral. If he could have, he would have left the cell phone off too but the nature of his position required that he be reachable even in the off-duty hours. After a couple of tense calls on the cell phone, he had definitely communicated to his teammates that he didn't want any personal calls on the business phone. No invitations. No, "How you doing, Ezra." If the call did not pertain to a current case, he did not welcome the disturbance.

As the days passed, Ezra was growing more frustrated with his inability to contain his emotions. The foreign feeling of guilt that he felt over his growing anger fed this frustration to a boiling point. He was angry with Aunt Grace for leaving him. He should be glad that she wasn't suffering anymore. He should be grateful for the good times they had together and the memories he had, but he was angry that she died and left him alone again. She had always said that she was "forever Auntie Grace". She even signed every letter with that endearment, but she had broken that promise when she died. She wasn't forever. Intellectually, Ezra knew it was stupid to think she would last forever and he pounced on himself, berating himself for being so foolish. Admonishing himself for being angry with her over something that no one in the world would ever be able to control.

Ezra flung himself onto the couch and cried out in a fury, "Damn it! Why did you make me love you and then die on me?"

The long-awaited tears finally came and he gave up trying to stop them. He was just too tired to fight them off any longer. He wept for what seemed to be hours before his body slowly gave in to the much-needed sleep.

Several hours later a knock at the door woke the southerner. He was slow to shake off the stupor of sleep and that alarmed him. As an undercover agent it was imperative that he be sharp at all times. The unwelcome visitor knocked again, denying the grieving man the luxury of simply ignoring its presence on the other side of his front door.

"Come on, Ez. Open up. I know you're in there."

Ezra closed his eyes and sighed. Vin. 'Not now,' he thought as he walked toward the door. The doorbell had rung three times by the time he reached the foyer.

"Hold on," said Ezra, becoming more agitated by the moment. Leaving the chain lock on, he opened the door a few inches and peered out. "What do you want, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked, forcing himself to be polite.

"Hell, Ezra, you look awful. I was hoping we could talk."

Ezra ran a hand through his disheveled hair in a useless attempt to tame the odd clumps caused by sleeping restlessly on the sofa. "Isn't Josiah home?"

"I don't know," said Vin. "I didn't want to talk to him. I want to talk to you."

Ezra covered his mouth, unable to prevent the escaping yawn.

"Did I wake you?"

Ezra shook his head, yawning again.

"You gonna let me in?" asked Vin quietly.

"Mr. Tanner, I'm very tired."

"Okay, I can see that. I'll go," Vin relented. "Do you mind if I use your bathroom first?"

Ezra sighed and unlocked the chain lock to allow the Texan to enter. He was willing to do anything to get Vin out of his hair.

Vin entered the room and was surprised by the disarray. Ezra was compulsive about keeping everything in its place and yet he could see the dirty dishes that sat on the coffee table. Newspapers were strewn here and there and Ezra himself was barefoot, dressed in a t-shirt and faded jeans. "You all right, Ezra?"

"You know the way to the bathroom," Ezra responded curtly. He had allowed Vin into the condo to get rid of him, not to be interrogated.

Vin grimaced at the barely concealed anger. He knew something was eating away at Ezra and he wanted to be there for his friend. Besides, after all the times the southerner had allowed him to dump on him since the arson case, he wasn't about to let Ezra deal with his troubles on his own. Vin could see the stubbornness settle on the tired man’s face and knew that the best thing to do right now was take a step back. Sometimes the man was down right infuriating but it was well worth it once you got past all his defenses. He had worked too hard to gain Ezra’s friendship, he wasn’t about to let it all go without a fight. As Vin moved to the hallway he was greeted by the stacks of moving boxes. "What the hell?"

Ezra closed his eyes when he heard the angry exclamation. The boxes. He had forgotten about the damn boxes. He opened his eyes to find himself toe-to-toe with one very angry Texan.

"What the hell is going on Ezra? Why are you packed? Not planning on saying goodbye?"

At Vin’s sudden attack, Ezra let all his pent up anger over Aunt Grace overflow and spew all over his well-meaning friend. "It's none of your damn business what I do. Get out of my house," Ezra growled.

"The hell it's not," retorted Vin.

"I made it more than clear that I don't want your interference. I don't need your help. None of you. Get out and let me be." Ezra's voice got louder with each word and his face reddened in anger.

"No. Not until you tell me what's going on." Vin crossed his arms across his chest and planted his feet firmly. He wasn't about to budge. This was too important to him. To the Team. To his family.

"Fine," Ezra snapped. "Then I'll go." The southerner snatched the keys off the table and stalked out his front door without looking back.

"Ezra! Wait!" Vin hurried to the door but, by the time he reached it, Ezra was already out of sight. It wouldn't help to follow him anyway. It would probably just push him away more. Vin picked up Ezra's phone and dialed the one person that came to mind.


"Chris, we got a problem," Vin reported.

"What is it? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. It's Ezra."

"Is he okay?" asked Chris, worried about his undercover agent. "Did something…"

"Chris, just listen a minute, would ya?" interrupted Vin.

Chris fell silent. Vin sounded angry, something he didn't hear often from the Texan.

"I'm at Ezra's place. He's got stuff packed in moving boxes."

The team leader felt a slight chill run through his chest. He knew how long and hard Vin had worked to get Ezra to unpack. How hard they had all worked to make him feel a part of the team. "Where is he?"

"I made him mad and he left." Vin looked around the room and cursed himself for pushing too hard. "What do we do now, Chris?"

Chris sighed. "I'll talk to him tomorrow at work, see if I can find out what's going on." Chris rubbed his forehead feeling a headache forming. "For now, I think you should leave, so he can go back home."

"What if he's really leaving?"

Chris heard the underlying insecurity in the question. Vin was trying to hold on to his family. "I'll talk to him, Vin. Go home."

Vin nodded to the phone.

"I'll see you in the morning, Vin."

"Okay," said Vin, hanging up the phone.

He took another look around the apartment before leaving, spying things he had not noticed, like the piano that was wedged in the dining room. Where had that come from? He knew Ezra didn't have a piano before. Suddenly, he realized that if Ezra were packing, his books wouldn't be lining the shelves. His CD collection would be packed but he could see that it was still in the same alphabetical order it always was in on the shelf below the sound system. Vin walked to Ezra's bedroom and pushed open the door. Nope, his closets were full of the boxes he had never unpacked. They sat exactly where Vin had helped Ezra put them. He noted that there was a rocking chair in the corner that hadn't been here before. It suddenly occurred to Vin that maybe someone was moving in rather than moving out. He walked to the guest room and glanced in. Nope. It was just the same as it had been, Ezra’s home office. Now he was really confused. Maybe Ezra had put some stuff in storage somewhere and just now had it brought home? "Aw hell!" He had jumped to a major conclusion and chased Ezra off. Vin stopped by the phone and wrote out a short note before leaving the condo and heading for home.

Ezra sat on the concrete retaining wall beside the condo, watching for Vin to leave. He hoped the Texan wouldn't wait too long. Ezra curled his toes against the cold air and shook his head. How did he ever get so distracted that he would run out into the cold barefoot? He would have left in the Jag but he had grabbed the wrong keys. Besides, he didn't have his wallet or license with him anyway. Getting mad at Vin had been a stupid response to Vin’s knee jerk reaction to the moving boxes. He would have jumped to exactly the same conclusion the sharpshooter had made had he been in his position. His lack of control had scared him. Being on top of everything was the one thing that kept him alive when he was undercover. If he wasn't sharp, someone could get hurt and that someone would most likely be him.

Ezra wondered momentarily if the chaos he found himself in was a natural part of grieving. He'd have to check that out. He had never actually experienced this kind of loss before. Certainly he had lost his father at an early age, but he was not old enough to understand. He didn't even know if his father was dead or had just left them. The only way that his mother described it when he had asked her about it one day was to say that "he's gone, and I don't want to talk about it". In deference to his mother's obvious distress over the matter, he had never pursued it. It was the only time Maude had shown her weakness, but Ezra had never been calculating enough to exploit it. If his mother ever realized that he recognized this, she would probably chew him out for failing to take advantage of that weakness as she had tried to teach him time and time again.

He had experienced a different type of loss during his time in Atlanta. While he silently acknowledged this, he also realized that it wasn't anything like losing a loved one. That had been the loss of his reputation. Of his dream, as it were. Yes, he had been very angry for quite some time before he slipped into hopeless acceptance and lived with the situation guarding his back at every moment. He quickly reviewed his reactions to that situation and compared them to his actions of late. If loss was loss, regardless to what may have precipitated it, maybe anger was normal response.

Ezra jerked back to the present situation when he caught sight of the Texan walking down the sidewalk to his Jeep. He wiggled his toes trying to get a little warmth in them, grateful that Vin hadn't waited all night. He watched as the sharpshooter dug through his pockets looking for his keys. When he looked in the Jeep and was puzzled when he saw them in the ignition, Vin looked around the area for the culprit who had put them there. He knew that he had not left his keys in the vehicle. He spotted Ezra on the wall and gave the troubled man a quick nod of appreciation. Ezra hopped down and started walking back to his condo, the cold cement biting into his feet. He hesitated when it looked like Vin was going to come back to talk, but Vin climbed into the Jeep and took off. Ezra turned and walked up to his condo door, relieved to be getting out of the cold weather. He turned the knob and found it locked. "Aw hell," he muttered before starting to laugh at the absurdity of it all. After he collected himself, he wandered toward the manager's unit to get his spare key and made his way to bed just before midnight.


The alarm sounded its call far too early for his liking but the worn out southerner dragged himself out of his warm cocoon and made his way into a warm shower. After he slipped into his suit and finished up his second cup of coffee, he began the morning ritual of making sure he had everything. His keys and sunglasses sat on the table in the foyer, waiting for him. His wallet had been slipped into his jacket. When he reached into the pocket of his slacks, he came up empty. Ezra frantically looked everywhere he could think of, searching for the lost item. It just wasn't here. He rummaged madly through the pockets of the suit he had worn yesterday to no avail. After that, he searched his jeans and the pocket of his leather coat that was hanging by the front door. He dug under the couch cushions and the seat of the recliner. Forty-five minutes had passed before he was forced to admit that it just wasn't there. He had to find it. That ring was his one last connection to Auntie Grace. She had given it to him. He had to find it.

Ezra checked his watch and saw that he was late for work. The thought occurred to him that maybe he'd left it in his desk. If he hurried, he would have just enough time to check before he had to report to Team 6's office to help with some background information on a case they were pursuing.

What he couldn’t have known was that Buck Wilmington had found the ring on the floor the previous afternoon. It had been lying on the floor by Standish's desk. When he picked it up to see what it was, he discovered that it was some plastic ring. Not thinking much about it, he figured it must belong to Vin. The Texan had accumulated a rather huge collection of Happy Meal Toys during his time with the Team. A part of his life that was probably leftover from not having much as a kid. Buck set the ring on Vin's desk next to the walking Hamburglar and went back to the report on his desk without a second thought.

As Ezra hurriedly made his way into the office just before ten that morning, he never noticed the Larabee glare he was getting for his tardiness. He was too distracted to pay attention to Chris’ thoughts on his punctuality. He had to find his ring. Without greeting anyone, he walked quickly to his desk, unlocked it and began rifling though the drawers.

Vin watched curiously, as Ezra's movements became more frantic the longer he searched.

Ezra slammed the last drawer and put his elbows on the desk, resting his face in his hands. 'Where the hell could it be?' His heart went cold thinking that he may have lost his precious memento forever.

"Ezra? You okay?" asked Vin with great concern.

Ezra looked up and sighed out a deep breath. "Fine."

"Did you lose something?" Vin asked innocently.

It was at that exact moment that Ezra spied his ring sitting on Vin's desk amongst the Texan's collection of toys. "My ring!" He snatched it angrily from Vin's desk and held it up to examine it. "Damn it Vin! Why the hell did you steal my ring?"

"I…I…didn't!" protested Vin, puzzled by the venomous anger over a simple plastic ring.

"It's mine, damn it." Ezra clutched the ring tightly in his fist, grabbed his jacket with his other hand and stormed off to his meeting with Team 6 leaving behind one shell shocked Texan in his angry path.

Vin sat quietly in his wake wondering what the hell had just happened. He looked at his teammates and shrugged in bewilderment.

Buck walked over to Vin's desk and leaned down to put a hand on the tense shoulder. "I think that may have been my fault, Junior. I found that ring on the floor last night. Figured it was yours. Sorry." He looked down the hallway Ezra had just exited. "Why would anyone get so upset over a piece of plastic?"

Seeing that Vin was still upset by the tirade, Buck plied him with a little of his legendary Wilmington charm. "You need to calm down, Junior," said Buck with a big smile. "Remember to breathe deeply and relax."

Buck nodded as Vin followed his suggestion. "That's better, Junior. Now close your eyes and picture yourself near a stream. Birds are softly chirping in the crisp cool mountain air."

The rest of the team listened as Buck's smooth voice formed a peaceful picture in their minds as well.

"Nothing can bother you here. No one knows this secret place."

The strain began to fade from Vin's face, a small upturn of the lips replacing the frustration.

"You are in total seclusion from that place called "the world." The soothing sound of a gentle waterfall fills the air with a cascade of serenity."

Buck glanced around and saw that his five teammates, Chris included, had their eyes closed and were going to this imaginary place in their minds.

He grinned as he added, "The water is clear and you can easily make out the face of the person whose head you’re holding under the water."

Buck paused as grins spread from face to face.

"Look. It’s the person who caused you all this stress."

Chuckles began to fill the room.

"There now, Junior. Feeling better?" said Buck with a grin.

Vin slugged him in the shoulder with a laugh. "Thanks Buck. I needed that."


Larabee's intention of talking with Ezra had been delayed when he had stormed out of the office to meet with Team 6. The Team Leader had asked him the night before if they could borrow him for a consultation on a case involving a dealer he had dealt with in the past. Chris was further delayed by the whirlwind known as Maude Standish.

It was late morning when Maude exited the elevators with her familiar flair. Chris shook his head when he caught sight of the designer-clad woman who swept into their office space as if she owned the place. Only the Standish clan could make walking off an elevator look like you were entering a grand ball. Ezra's mother swished by Josiah's desk throwing a warm look in the large agent’s direction. The man who was taken by Maude Standish's charms followed her as she made her way over to where Chris stood silently waiting.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Although he had tracked her progress into his domain, Chris still found himself cringing involuntarily at the sound of her voice. He did not like Maude Standish, or whatever her name was this week, and he knew he never would. He only tolerated her presence for Ezra's sake. They all knew that despite all of the complaining the southerner did about his mother, he would never allow anyone else to speak ill of her. Chris would never understand their relationship so he just accepted it for what it was. They bickered and criticized each other constantly. It seemed that Maude delighted in humiliating her son in front of them but Ezra still loved his mother unconditionally just the same. Chris figured that, in her own caustic way, Maude loved her son just as much. It was for that one conclusion alone that he didn’t throw her out on the sidewalk without a second look.

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Standish?"

"It's Von Hauken, Mr. Larabee," Maude reminded the man imperiously. "And what you can do for me is tell me where you have hidden my son."

Chris grimaced slightly at his minor slip up. He couldn't keep up with Maude's frequent name changes. "He's in a meeting right now."

"Well, I suggest that you tell him his mother is here. He hasn't returned my calls for nearly a week."

Chris was mildly surprised to see a flicker of worry on Maude's face. Regardless, he needed to remove her distracting presence from the center of his office as quickly as possible. "I'm not sure how long he'll be. Perhaps you'd like to wait in the conference room?"

Josiah stepped up to her side and gently took her by the elbow. "I'll show you, Maude."

She smiled up at the senior agent, indulging in some harmless flirting. If not for the fact that Josiah Sanchez didn’t have any money to speak of, he would have been a worthy pursuit. Besides, she loved seeing the shock in her son's eyes whenever he thought that there might be the slightest hint of a possibility that Josiah might actually become his next stepfather.

Josiah gallantly escorted Maude to the conference room and brought her a cup of coffee. He could feel her tension and saw that she was truly concerned for Ezra. "Mr. Sanchez, is my son all right? I have tried calling him for over eight days now and all I get is that infernal answering machine. Something is wrong. He has never ignored my messages this long before."

Josiah smiled at the picture she was painting in her honeyed voice. He could easily see Ezra ignoring his mother's messages just for the fun of ruffling her feathers. He was still a responsible child who was still seeking his mother’s unconditional attention, whether he realized it or not. Normally, Ezra would have returned her calls just to make certain she was all right. Since he had been there to see the man in question recently, he knew that there was nothing normal about Ezra lately. The southerner hadn't returned anybody’s calls ever since his return to the office. On hearing that Ezra’s self-imposed exile had extended beyond the Team, he was even more curious as to what was going on with the southerner. If Maude didn't know what was bothering Ezra, it made his disappearance that much more mysterious.

He didn’t have anything that he could share with the worried woman that would shed some light on why Ezra didn’t answer his messages from her so Josiah did the only thing he could. He sat down beside her and asked her about her most recent trip to the Orient. Maude knew that the kind-hearted man was trying to take her mind off of her worries and graciously allowed him to divert her attention. He visited with her for close to an hour before Nathan came by looking for him to go to a meeting down the hall. The two unlikely friends said their good-byes and Maude settled back in the chair to wait for her wayward son to show up.

It was almost two hours later when Ezra strolled back into the office only to find the rest of his teammates waiting for him with matching Cheshire grins. He looked at them as if they were some sort of science experiment but decided that it was most likely more beneficial for him to ignore them for the time being. He was still smarting from his uncharacteristic outburst earlier and he wasn’t ready for the inevitable questions. He passed by the conference room door, so intent on the open files he had left on his desk before his meeting, he never noticed the person inside. He froze in mid-stride when he heard his name directly behind him.

"Ezra Standish. Where have you been? Why haven't you returned my calls? Is that anyway to treat your mother?"

'Oh no. Not now. Not here,' thought Ezra as he slowly turned around to face his unexpected guest with his poker face firmly in place. "Mother."

Maude looked at her son and noted that he was definitely looking the worse for wear. "I demand to know why you haven't returned my calls."

Ezra sent a desperate look towards Chris and Vin, making them feel momentarily guilty. They knew that he wanted their help with this situation he found himself in. Chris just grinned slightly and shook his head. Now that Ezra was here, he didn't have to deal with Maude any longer. The southerner could face his mother on his own. When he saw that there was going to be no assistance coming from either of his so-called friends, he straightened his shoulders and moved over to where Maude stood waiting. "Mother, could we speak in private?"

"Why darling? You seem to tell these men everything. Things you won't even tell your own mother so I don’t see the difference…." Maude’s words trailed off and she winced as Ezra took her elbow and steered her back into the conference room. When he caught sight of Josiah moving towards the room, he glared at the big man and soundly closed the door in his face.

"Uh-oh," said JD.

"Yep," added Buck mussing JD's hair.

"Buck, cut it out." JD looked at the closed door. "Do you think Ezra will be all right?"

"Hell, yes," Buck assured his roommate with a big grin. "The way he's been acting, I think Maude better hold on to her hat." He glanced around the room and saw the others nodding in agreement. "I got ten bucks that says she leaves in a huff."

"I'll take that bet," said Nathan, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.

"No," interrupted Vin. "Let it be."

"Junior?" asked Buck in concern. Vin would usually jump right in on the betting for fun.

"Ain't right to bet on a man and his ma fighting," said Vin seriously.

Buck looked closely at the Texan and caught sight of just how serious he was on the subject. The ladies man then winked at him, breaking the tension that was threatening to ruin their afternoon. "You're right, Vin." He put his money away and plopped down in his chair before putting his feet up on the corner of JD’s desk. The young agent slapped at the offensive shoes while trying to rescue his latest report that was under them.

Chris walked back to his office and stood in his doorway. "Work, ladies? I believe that is what you're supposed to be doing?" He watched as the rest of Team 7 moved to their desks and went back to the never-ending paperwork that was the bain of their existence. With the horseplay tucked away for a few moments, a comforting silence descended. Chris savored the unaccustomed quiet until it was interrupted by the rising volume coming from the direction of the conference room. While none of them could hear the words, the tone of the family conversation that was taking place in that small room was obvious to all.

For two people who valued genteel appearances so dearly, they would have been appalled if they had known their private discussion was reaching the others. After Ezra had effectively shut out any interruptions, he had walked over to the bank of windows that lined the far wall and stared out, trying to ignore the impending argument. Maude watched her son as he struggled to find his control. She could see just how tired he was and wondered briefly if he was sick. She quickly dismissed that idea, knowing that if he had been ill Mr. Larabee or one of the other men most certainly would have been in touch with her. While she rarely made an appearance at the hospital any time Ezra had been hurt in the line of duty, she always worried about him and his safety. She had come to dread the late night telephone calls from Denver. Recognizing that whatever it was that was bothering her son so deeply needed to be dealt with swiftly, Maude knew now was not the time to coddle her baby boy. He needed some starch added to his life so that he could conquer whatever problem he was wrestling with.

"Now, why haven't you returned my calls?" asked Maude.

"I've been busy," answered Ezra.

"That won't work with me. You have been avoiding me and I demand to know why."

"Don't take it personally, Mother," Ezra said as he sat stiffly in the furthest chair away from her, trying to control his emotions. "I've been avoiding everyone."

"Why ever would you do that?" Maude asked softly, seeing the hurt in her precious baby boy's eyes.

"Aunt Grace died last week," was his monotone reply. There. He said it. He just never knew how hard it would be just to say those five words.

"Oh, Ezra," said Maude softly. "I’m …"

"And before you even ask," Ezra bit out harshly. "No. There is no money in the will for you."

Maude opened her mouth to say something in her defense but then closed it abruptly. She could see that Ezra was trying very hard to hide his feelings. Something that she had tried to teach him. Unfortunately for him, his mother would always have the advantage in that particular game. While She had taught him most everything, she always kept back a trump card just for cases such as this one. Several long uncomfortable minutes passed without a word said between the two of them. She sat there carefully watching her son as he stared intently at his sleeve.

When it was apparent that Ezra was not going to say anything, she cleared her throat, gaining her son’s attention. "Well, I hope she provided well for you."

"Mother!" said Ezra angrily. "This isn't about money. Auntie Grace is dead!" He stood quickly, his chair sliding back and hitting the wall with his sudden movement. Ezra stormed back to the window, turning his back on her. The anger that he had been keeping penned up inside ever since Grace had passed came rushing to the surface. He knew that she could see his reflection in the glass so he smiled snidely as he added, "And yes, she provided well for me. She always took care of me when you couldn't be bothered. Until you came back to rip me away from her to meet the newest stepfather of the month." He heard Maude's gasp but continued his tirade anyway. "You know, there were times that I wished Aunt Grace was my mother. She acted more like a mother than you did."

Ezra turned back to her when he heard her sniff. He was surprised to see the tears that were brimming her eyes. Maude was quiet for the longest time before the words spilled soothingly from her lips. "Ezra, I did what I had to do to keep a roof over our heads. And yes, sometimes that meant leaving you. But it was necessary. And it made you strong. There is nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do for you, son. Absolutely nothing."

Ezra heard the words. No one else would have recognized them as an apology, but he did. A Standish did not apologize. So he realized and accepted her words for what they were. This was the closest thing to an apology he would ever get from his mother.

Maude delicately dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and flipped open her compact to check her appearance. This display of emotion was unacceptable. After applying a touch of lipstick and smoothing her hair, she looked over at her son and closed the clasp on her purse. "No matter what you think, Ezra," Maude said in a firm albeit soft voice. "Grace was my aunt too." Maude stood up and walked to the door. "I have a plane to catch. I'll call you later." She reached for the doorknob and, just as her hand brushed its cool surface, she added, "You have my deepest heartfelt condolences, son."

Six men watched Maude Standish as she slipped out of the conference room and headed towards the elevator, her eyes reddened from tears. She said nary a word as she departed. When Ezra remained in the conference room, the others began to look at one another, trying to decide if one of them should go in to check on him. Chris shook his head to delay Josiah and Vin from going to check on their teammate. Everyone made himself look busy as a red eyed Ezra silently headed over to his desk. While they knew that Maude's visits were always hard on Ezra, this one worried them more than usual. This one, while briefer than most, seemed to be even harder for the man to handle.

Ezra stopped briefly at his desk to put away some files that he used in the meeting with Team 6. As he looked up from locking his desk, he steadily met the worried eyes of his neighboring Texan.

"Mr. Tanner," he began, uncharacteristically fumbling for his words. "My actions earlier were deplorable." Ezra knew the words were lame, but he was his mother's son. Neither one of them knew how to apologize.

"That ring must've been real important," Vin said quietly, acknowledging the unspoken apology. The sharpshooter watched Ezra's hand go absently to his jacket pocket, obviously toying with the trinket.

"More than you can imagine," said Ezra as he moved away from his desk. "Excuse me, Mr. Tanner." He nodded briefly at his friend’s concern and walked over to Chris's office.  Chris looked up to find Ezra standing nervously in the doorway.

"Mr. Larabee…Chris, would it be all right if I took the rest of the afternoon off?"

Chris nodded. "Ezra, whatever it is, if you need to talk, or if you just need some space, you're welcome at the ranch. Anytime."

"Thank you," Ezra said softly. He gathered his coat and his car keys and departed without a word to his teammates.


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