It was well past two o'clock when Ezra stormed through the office doors. Buck, JD and Vin were tossing the Nerf football to one another, causing Ezra to evade their antics as he headed directly for his desk without acknowledging the various greetings. He flung his car keys on the desk and grabbed the first file he saw. Vin watched his friend covertly, wondering if he should approach the visibly upset man or just give him some space to cool down. Concluding that the best course of action was the latter, Vin grabbed the football and ran for the break room with Buck and JD hot on his heels.
Ezra collapsed in his chair and buried his throbbing head in his shaking hands. 'Dear Gawd. This must be some huge mistake.' At the sound of Josiah's entrance, he jerked upright in his chair and glued his attention to the piles of papers that were in front of him. 'All I need to do is make it though the remainder of this horrendous day and when I wake tomorrow all of this will be for naught.' Staring at the papers was one thing but, actually comprehending what he was suppose to glean from them was an entirely different matter.
The afternoon crept along much to Ezra's dismay. He could feel the invading gazes of his fellow workers boring in the back of his head. After the fourth attempt of trying to make sense of a snitch's layout of the organization, he shoved away from his desk in disgust. The others watched as the agitated man made his way to the restroom without sparing a single glance their way.
"What do ya think is bugging him?" JD asked, breaking the heavy silence.
"Not sure," was Vin's succinct answer.
"Now JD, you know that if Brother Ezra wanted to share what is bothering him with us, he would," Josiah softly uttered. The large man had kept a quiet vigil over the younger agent during the past couple of hours, hoping that Ezra would approach him. Sadly, he shook his head as he waited for the errant agent to rejoin the others. 'When will he learn to accept that we are here for him?'
"Sometimes, he just needs a little push in the right direction," Buck added.
Standish determinedly made his way back to his desk. His only intent was to finish the file he had been working before his abrupt departure. He had taken a few minutes in the restroom to collect himself. After splashing some cold water on his face, he firmly placed the anger and confusion he was feeling squarely behind the protection of his poker face. In his struggle for self-preservation, the undercover agent fell back on his old habits of burying the problem, not facing it.
Josiah walked over to the smaller man and rested a hand on his tense shoulder. "Ezra, what happened at lunch that's got you so riled up?"
"I have no idea what you are speaking of, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said, shrugging the hand off his shoulder. "I spent a lovely luncheon in the delightful company of my mother."
"Now, Ez, we all know you can't stand being in the same room as your ma for longer than ten minutes, much less two hours," Buck said, sticking his two cents in.
"Guys... " Vin quietly warned.
"Mr. Wilmington. I am afraid you are sorely mistaken. The time I spent with my mother was extremely entertaining, like it always is."
"Yeah, sure. That's why you always try to make a run for the nearest bomb shelter every time she steps foot in this building." Buck's colorful description of the southerner's reaction to his mother's infrequent visits caused the others to chuckle.
"He's right, Ezra," Nathan agreed, backing up his friend's story. "Can't think of one time .."
"Nathan," Vin interrupted with a pointed stare. "Let it go."
"Mr. Tanner, I am quite capable of taking care of myself in all types of situations. I do not feel that I need your assistance in this conversation." Ezra grabbed the file folder off of his desk and stalked to the small conference door. "I am sure that you gentlemen will excuse me while I finish my work apart from your titillating company."
"Aw, come on Ezra," JD called out. "We're only tryin' to help you out."
Ezra spun around to face the others before responding. "Mr. Dunne, how many times do I have to state the same thing until you finally grasp the meaning of my words."
JD's mouth hung open at the swift attack. The enraged man continued on, "Once, just once I wish that you people would leave me the hell alone!"
"Ezra," Vin started, moving a few feet in the direction of his friend, "the boys are just concerned about... "
"Mr. Tanner. I have gotten along just splendidly all these years without the interference of others. I did not request nor do I remember actively seeking the assistance of any of you."
"That is enough, Ezra," Chris Larabee thundered. The steadily rising volume from outside his office had drawn the team leader's attention to the increasingly volatile situation. "None of us have done anything to you. You have no reason to treat any of us this way."
With a deadly glare that rivaled the legendary Larabee Glare, Ezra stepped up close to Chris and hissed, "You, Mr. Larabee, are in no position to say whether I have been slighted or not. It is because of your reprehensible behavior that I find myself in an extremely disquieting situation."
With those clipped words, the team's undercover agent walked away from his stunned colleagues, grabbed his jacket and key ring and slammed out of the office.
The darkness invaded the Denver sky earlier during this time of year, bringing with it an unsettling calm to Ezra Standish as he sat in his leather recliner nursing a bottle of Black Label Jack Daniels. The only concession the man had made to comfort was to wrestle the tie from around his neck and kicking off his suede loafers. He had been sitting in this same position for hours, trying to erase his memory with the aid of alcohol. The only problem was, the liquor was not living up to its end of the bargain.
"Gawd! What in the world were you thinkin' last night? Was it your time to enact the greatest scam of all times on me?" The irate man shouted as he tried to empty his heart of the uneasy feelings that had been festering ever since his ill-fated lunch with his mother.
He went to take a fresh swig of the whiskey only to find the bottle empty. He flung the offensive bottle into the middle of the room, watching as it rolled over a couple of times before coming to rest against the first empty bottle of the evening. On unsteady feet, Ezra slowly navigated his way to the bar and grabbed the last bottle of whiskey off the gleaming shelf. He caught a brief glimpse of his rumpled hair and blood-shot eyes in the gilded mirror that hung just above the wet bar and grimaced.
On his way back to his chair, he stumbled over an object that was laying in the middle of the floor. Perplexed, he peered curiously at the offending obstacle, only to remember that it was the telephone cord that he had yanked out of the wall outlet after the first ten calls. He fell back into the leather embrace, twisted the cap off the fresh bottle and helped himself to a healthy mouthful with a sigh.
Ezra tightly clamped his eyes shut, trying to picture a blank white piece of paper. This imaging trick had proven useful during a number of operations when he had difficulty assuming his cover. But the image he kept coming up with was a moving picture in full Technicolor, not the unadorned piece of parchment he so desperately needed to see. The events of the past few days ran through his mind's eye like the film in a movie projector, only there was no on/off button in his private theater. Blearily, he conceded the battle and re-watched as life as he knew it as it collapsed like the fall of Rome.
He saw distorted figures dance their way across his personal screen. The twisting images of people dancing, narrowing down on the sight of two individuals moving so close together that they seemed to be breathing as one. The gleam of diamonds adorning a masked woman's neck. Ezra strained to get a closer look at the piece of jewelry. Finally the picture came into focus and he found himself staring at the same necklace Maude had shown him at lunch. Several of his friends flitted in and out of the picture as he scanned the entire scene. He wasn't sure what his mind was searching for but he knew that the show would not be over until he found it.
The southerner pressed his thumb and forefinger on his aching temples, trying to find some relief from the tension that had taken up residence there. The feeling was a momentary distraction from the hell he was trying to climb out of. The glare of a spotlight recaptures his wandering attention, as the focus is sharpened. A strangled moan originated from deep in his soul when he finally recognized who the dancers were. Chris Larabee was holding his mother tightly as he led her out of the ballroom.
"Damn it!" Ezra's tortured green eyes sprung open as he flung the whiskey bottle he had been cradling in his arms against the living room wall. He paid no attention to the shattering glass as he stood up stiffly and surveyed his house.
He turned his back on the mess and moved towards the beckoning call of his bedroom. "The hell with this! Maybe when I wake up I will find that this was all just some crazy hallucination."
Thursday, November 2nd
Black and Orange. Damn it. Everywhere he turned all he saw was those two infernal colors. Mocking him. Reminding him of the nightmare his life had become. What the hell was he going to do?
Ezra Standish scrubbed the heels of his hands over his sweaty forehead, as if he was trying to erase the memory of what he had recently learned. 'My Gawd. What in the world were they thinkin'?' His blood-shot eyes sought out the illuminated clock that seemed to mock him even more than his thoughts. Its red numbers announced to the exhausted man that it was only 3:43 am. 'Wonderful, just wonderful. Now I can not even effect my escape from these horrendous events for a few peaceful hours of uninterrupted slumber.'
He threw back the light comforter and shuffled determinedly to the master bathroom in search of anything that would help him reclaim some sanity in his life. With a heavy sigh, Ezra finally settled on the blue and white bottle containing his fresh supply of Tylenol PMÔ . Lit by the dim light that seeped into the tastefully decorated room, he shook out two tablets and quickly swallowed them before returning to his rumpled bed. After punching his down pillows into submission, he burrowed back under the covers in an effort to reclaim the sleep that had been eluding him these past couple of nights. The morning would be arriving soon enough and he needed the energy to deal with what it brought.
Nine o'clock found all of the members of the elite ATF Team 7 gathered around the large conference table listening to Chris as he reviewed the newest information the FBI had passed to him regarding the Marcello organization. As usual, Ezra had been the last to arrive but he did manage to make it on time for once. Chris had glanced up when his errant agent quietly entered the room, frowning as he noticed the bloodshot eyes. The man was as sharply dressed as he always was but Larabee could see the exhaustion in his eyes.
When the meeting broke up over three hours later, the men began to gather up all their paperwork and head for the door. Just as Ezra's hand reached the doorknob, he heard Chris' voice call out. "Ezra, wait a minute. I want to speak with you."
"Pardon me, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled, "unfortunately, I have a prior engagement that I simply can not miss." The southerner slipped out the conference room door and hurried towards his desk.
"I am sure that it can keep," Larabee growled.
The other team members jerked around when they heard Chris' angry voice. Vin took a step towards the two men, trying to judge the situation unfolding before him. He knew that Chris was just as puzzled as the rest of the team by Ezra's hostility. The sharpshooter was worried that the undercover specialist would push Larabee over the edge, forcing him to do something the older man would eventually regret.
Ezra paused and nervously thrust a hand through his well coifed hair before facing his boss. "Mr. Larabee, now is not a good time for me."
"Well, tough," Larabee countered. The Team Leader advanced towards the southerner as smoothly as a cheetah would stalk its prey. He had no intention on letting the man get away without finding out just what the hell the problem was. "You owe us all an explanation and I damn well am going to make sure you provide one!"
The images that had plagued him throughout the long night before raced through his brain, causing Ezra to tremble as the anger coursed through him. "I owe you nothin'! You are the one who stepped over the boundaries of camaraderie, not I. I have no idea how you can possibly stand here and act like your actions would have no effect on me."
Vin and Josiah had both moved closer to the two men, ready to step in if their services were required. All of them could feel the tension in the room and did not want it to erupt in an all out war. Buck had been watching his old friend from his position near the copier and could see that Chris had absolutely no idea what Ezra was talking about. He could see that this was eating at the man, driving him to his breaking point.
"Ezra, what in the hell are you talking about?" Chris roared.
"How dare you ask me that!"
Just as Chris reached out to grab the younger agent's shirt, Maude Standish sailed into the room. "Mr. Larabee, you will unhand my son at once!"
Larabee released his hold and moved back one step away from the southerner before acknowledging Maude's arrival. 'Maybe now we will get some answers,' he thought derisively. "Mrs. Standish, we weren't expecting you today."
"Obviously not, Mr. Larabee. Considering the spectacle that I just interrupted," Maude retorted. She had walked over towards Ezra, surveying the faces of the men. As she reached out her hand in order to smooth her son's rumpled lapel, he jerked away from her impending touch as if he were scalded. She wrinkled her well-defined brow in confusion at the sight of her son's reaction.
"Ezra, darlin', I was hopin' that we might finish our discussion from yesterday afternoon." Maude busied herself as she laid her handbag and gloves on the table before turning to face her son.
"I don't believe that there is anything to finish, Mother." His green eyes were desperately searching for an escape route. Being caught between Chris Larabee and his mother was not a place that he wanted to reside at this particular moment. 'No, I believe that the back table at the Saloon, alone with a fine bottle of brandy would be more to my liking,' he thought as he slowly began to inch his way towards the front door.
Larabee watched intently as the man began to make his retreat as he swallowed a laugh. If the entire situation wasn't so mystifying, it would be hilarious to watch Ezra squirm out of the spot he had found himself in. "Agent Standish, just where in the hell do you think you are going? We aren't finished here. Not by a long shot."
Ezra froze in his tracks, looking very much like a deer caught in an oncoming truck's headlights. 'Damn it. Damn them!' the man cursed as he swung around, anger radiating out of every pore of his being.
"Ezra, you look simply peaked. What in the world did you do last evening?" Maude asked, cocking her head as she took a hard look at her son.
At the sight of the two perpetrators of his ongoing nightmare standing so close together, the demons from the night before were brought to the forefront of his mind. Nathan, who had been keeping a close eye on the undercover agent, quickly moved to his side when Ezra squeezed his eyes shut. The ex-medic wasn't sure what exactly was going on but, whatever it was, he could see that the man beside him was clearly in agony.
"Ezra," Nathan gently said, "are you okay?"
"I am just fine, Mr. Jackson," Ezra bit out through clenched teeth. "I have spent the better part of the morning using this same phrase, but you people refuse to accept my answer."
"We would if we thought it was the truth, Ez," Vin said.
"Good Lord," Maude imperviously stated, "you can see just by lookin' at him that he is fine. He might be a bit fatigued, but that is to be expected when you live the vigorous lifestyle that my son leads."
"I do not need you defending me, Mother," Ezra growled. "You have done quite enough already."
The petite woman stared at her son in shock. "You have no reason to turn your hostility on me, young man. Have you forgotten that I am your mother?"
"Good Gawd, Mother, no matter how much I try, I can not escape that reality."
Josiah and JD both stood up, ready to intervene should the two southerners moved any closer to one another. Both men felt that it wouldn't take either party too much more before they did or said something they would regret. Ezra glared at the duo, daring them to interfere with the matter at hand.
Chris pushed himself off the edge of the desk and stood in between Maude and Ezra. He was no longer amused with the situation and decided that it was going to be cleared up once and for all. With a warning glare in Maude's direction, he turned to focus his attention on Ezra. "You have been walking around here like a bear with a splinter in his paw and I am sick and tired of it. I have asked you more than once what the problem was and you have refused to answer me to my satisfaction. All I have been getting are riddles, and that is going to cease. I want answers and I want them now!"
"You want answers?" Ezra screamed. "Fine. I'll give you your answers!" He was distressed to find himself trapped between the menacing figure of his boss and the desk that now blocked his only escape. His anger at being forced to relive his nightmare was outweighed by his fury he felt for the two people in front of him. He thrust his fists into the pockets of his trousers and began to pace. "I can not believe the audacity of you two people. You stand here before me as if your actions have no consequence to me," he spat.
"What in the world are you babblin' about?" Maude asked as her gaze swung between the two men.
"You know very well what I am articulating, Mother. It was you who spent well over an hour yesterday afternoon recounting your risqué escapade with my boss, wasn't it?" Ezra sneered. "What in the hell were you thinking? Was this just another one of your ploys to try and make me lose my menial job just so I could join you in the South of France?"
"What!" both Larabee and Maude shouted.
"Ezra, you owe me an explanation," Chris roared. "And it had better be a good one!"
"What do you mean my 'risqué escapade with your boss'? Are you out of your mind?" Maude gasped. Josiah gripped her elbow and guided her into the nearest chair.
Smothered gasps were heard from the men who were observing the volatile altercation. JD glanced over in his partner's direction and could see that Buck was just as surprised by Ezra's accusation as the accused themselves. Vin moved in closer to Chris' right shoulder, ready to support his best friend in whatever decision he made.
"You told me yourself all about the man you picked up at the ball and took back to your hotel room. Remember, Mother?" Ezra asked, leaning over the stunned woman. "Remember how you gleefully told me all the little details. About how you both kept your masks on and never even told one another what your name was." Ezra whipped around and pinned his flaming gaze on his superior. "Does any of this sound vaguely familiar, Mr. Larabee?"
"Ezra... " Maude whispered softly.
"Mother, I believe that you have shared quite enough titillating tidbits of your life with me for one visit. Besides, I am more interested in Mr. Larabee's answer to my question."
"I have no damn idea what fantasy world you are living in Standish," Chris ground out. "But, if I were you, I would take a moment and rethink what you just said."
Ezra moved around Vin to stand directly in front of his boss. "Mr. Larabee, like you, I would appreciate an answer to my question."
"Ezra, please," Maude interjected. "You do not know what you are talkin' about."
The agitated man swung around to face his mother, "Oh, really. Then why don't you enlighten me?"
With a faint blush gracing her high cheekbones, Maude stood up and placed a hand on Ezra's forearm. "I did tell you about my adventures at the ball, but you left before I could tell you who I was with."
"Really," Ezra drawled, casting a glance in Chris' direction. "Well then, do proceed with the story, Mother."
"It's really very harmless," Maude said, glancing around the room at the others. "You see, in order to keep some amusement in our lives, Oliver and I sometimes attend certain events separately and pretend to be meeting there for the first time. I'm sure that ya'll have heard about this type of thing before."
"What did you say?" Ezra choked. "You ... and... Oliver?"
"Why, of course, darlin'," Maude laughed. "I am shocked that you would think that I would ... That Mr. Larabee would ... Oh, hell Ezra, I am just shocked at you."
Ezra sank onto the nearest desk and dropped his head in his hands. He couldn't bear to look any of his teammates in the face. The full extent of the disaster hit him as he replayed his mother's words in his mind, over and over again. 'Oh, my Gawd. What in the hell did I do? How am I ever gonna face Chris again?'
"Ezra," Chris called out. "Ezra, say something." The blonde man looked over at Nathan with a question in his eyes. "Nathan, is he okay?"
"Yeah, he'll survive," the ex-medic pronounced after a quick visual examination of the tormented man. "Ain't nothin' wrong with him except a good old fashioned case of foot-in-mouth disease."
"Well, during his recovery time, I'm sure that he will be able to complete all of the overdue reports!" Larabee decreed.
Friday, November 3rd
Six of the seven teammates were crowded around their usual table at Inez's Saloon, waiting on their final member to join them. Buck and JD were tossing peanuts in each other's mouths as Josiah and Nathan kept score. Vin and Chris were at the head of the table, quietly conversing in their special communication style.
Ezra hesitated as he entered the front door, scanning the interior of the Saloon. After catching sight of his friends in the back, he made his way to the bar and ordered a round for the table. Inez quickly filled up two pitchers with the beer that she kept on tap and placed a bottle of Couvasier amid the six frosted beer steins and the single brandy snifter. The Armani clad pseudo-waiter hefted the heavy tray high above his head and deftly made his way to the table.
"Your order, gentlemen," Ezra said, offering his gift to his friends.
"Ez! We were getting ready to send out the search party!"
"Your concern is most touching, Mr. Dunne."
"Hey, Ez," Buck said, leaning over Nathan to get the southerner's attention.
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington? What can I do for you?"
"I was just wondering if it might be alright with you if I took Maude out next Saturday night. I mean, it's only fair since Chris already got to spend some quality time with her?" Buck asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Dear Gawd!" Ezra moaned. "Just how much longer am I going to have to endure this hell?"
"Oh, I don't know," Larabee drawled amid the laughter of the other agents. "Fair guess would be probably until somewhere around the year 2035!"
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