JD finished hooking up the computers using the Judges kitchen table as their base of operations. Buck proceeded to hook up the printer. Ezra sat on the couch dozing while Vin tried to find something on TV worth watching. Nathan helped Cordelia with the cooking. Chris watched in amazement as that itty-bitty woman took control of the kitchen. Alexander the Great had nothing on her when it came to ruling his Empire. She ruled the kitchen, with four burners going, as well as the oven.
Josiah got up from his seat when he heard a noise at the front door. He took a step back when Mary Travis entered followed by an entourage of women. Billy rushed into the room seeking out his hero, Chris. Chris smiled and reached out with fatherly instincts. He picked Billy up and set him on his lap knowing he was going to hear about the boys past week in school. He didnt mind. Mary kissed Josiah on the cheek and headed for the kitchen. Raine headed for Nathan, shed only seen him a couple times in the past few days and each time had been brief. Nettie Wells placed her hands on her hips taking in the scene as she entered the house, her niece, Casey brushed past her intending on seeing JD.
"Well, dont you boys look like accidents waitin to happen," Nettie spoke up. She looked around at everyone shaking her head.
Introductions were made and Nathan relinquished his place in the kitchen to Mary who took it without hesitation. The tall medic wanted to visit with his longtime girlfriend, and she in turn wanted to visit with him. Nettie made her rounds, checking everyone, like the mother hen she was. She squeezed Vins cheek and gently slapped it relieved that he was looking well rested. There was no doubt that these men had in many ways taken the place of her long since departed family. And she hoped JD would become an official part of her family in the future.
Nettie slipped onto the couch beside Ezra and gently slapped his leg. "How are you doin fancy pants?" She smiled warmly.
"Why, Mrs. Wells, you are lookin youngah and youngah each time I see you," his southern accent was thick as he woke from his short nap.
"Now I know youre lyin," she quietly joked.
"I dont lie, I only exaggerate the truth." Ezra smiled, he kept himself from pulling away from her when she placed her hand on his forehead checking for a fever.
"Call it what you want sonny " she smiled gripping his knee, "but I thank you for the compliment." Nettie stood up with a grunt and headed for the kitchen, feeling that she was needed there.
The house rang wildly with activity. Casey and JD played games on the computers. Mary, Cordelia, and Nettie, finished the cooking. Chris and Billy had disappeared into the room with all the pinball machines. The rest of the group sat in the living room watching a basketball game.
It was a nice break from all the work theyd all been doing. Getting their minds off the events of late was what they needed. The aroma of chicken baking filled the air and in response stomachs started to grumble. Mary, Nettie, and Cordelia worked in the kitchen like professional chefs that had worked together for years. They talked, stirred, and seasoned without a second thought. The high-pitched sounds of laughter could be heard throughout the house and it warmed everyones heart. Vin and Nathan would let out a yell on occasion, voicing their disapproval of a referees call or a missed shot. Rain and Josiah watched in amusement. Buck sat on the couch across from Ezra playing a game of gin. Everyone had learned early on that if you want to play poker with the undercover agent youd better be prepared to lose your money. Buck was currently broke, due to the money he lost to JD after he bet that Cordelia would find him irresistible. She resisted.
Nettie called everyone to dinner like a trail boss calling in the work crew. The only thing she was missing was the dinner bell. Mary set out silverware and dishes while everyone dug in. Cordelia made two plates; one for herself and one for Ezra, who was still on the couch picking up the cards left from the game hed been playing with Buck.
It was quite the assortment of individuals. For one evening, work was left in the files, and problems were left ignored. Buck told stories about his and Chriss time with the SEAL teams. Buck had on more than one occasion played some practical jokes on his superiors, and their wives. Even Chris found his normally stoic façade breaking, laughing with the rest of them and enjoying the evening. JD revealed some of his past telling stories of his days playing drums in his high school rock band called The Squad. Buck quickly deemed it The Squids, to which he received a pillow in the face for his comment. Nathan talked about his three sisters, Anna who was four years older and currently working as a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, Gracie who was two years younger and content being a stay at home mom, and then there was Billy, the youngest, named after the famous jazz singer, Billy Holiday, she was a ballet dancer currently working in London. Nathan spoke of his sisters with the love only a brother could give, and it was obvious his sisters meant a lot to him. Josiah looked around at the faces of these men, women, and the young Billy Travis. Such a collection of friends wrapped in different boxes. Even Ezra seemed more relaxed than he had in days. Perhaps it was Cordelias presence or simply the fact that Ezra was feeling more at home within this group. Either way, Josiah thought, it was well worth seeing.
Buck leaned back in his chair with a roar of laughter. It had been a long time since he shared some of his past antics with his friends. The others laughed along with him. "Never in a million years did I think ol Chris Larabee would kiss the Admirals daughter right in front of him. You should have seen the look on his face when his baby girl got week in the knees." He laughed again bringing tears to his eyes. "When Chris wants to he can really turn on the charm. Why there was this one time " Buck looked toward Chris who threw him a look of warning. "Well, lets save that story for another time."
"So Mary." Cordelia looked toward the lean blonde who brushed back the golden locks of her sons hair while he slept. "Can Chris turn on the charm?" she asked with a smile.
Mary chuckled, "Oh yeah." She watched as Chris shook his head in disbelief, he was never going to live this down. "What about Ezra?" Mary asked, knowing that Cordelia and the undercover agent had at one point in time, shared a relationship.
Cordelia looked at Ezra and saw the trepidation in his eyes; shed take it easy on him. "He just wanted me for my legs so I had to break it off." She laughed seeing her friend roll his eyes. "Besides I needed someone who could cope with my exotic good looks, brilliant personality, and musical genius. However, he could compete with my sense of humor," she smiled, "he was very popular for pulling pranks."
"I want to hear about this." Vin smiled while leaning forward in his seat.
"Graduation day," Cordelia started, "It was my graduation mind you, and Ezra and a few of his frat friends were in the stands, you know, offering their support." Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Anyway, the Dean of the Music Department stands up and gets ready to start the commencement. I look up in the stands and theres Ezra, collecting cash. I, of course, have no idea what is going on until I see a naked guy running across the stage wearing only a Zorro mask. He stopped, kissed Dean Phife, on the lips mind you, then he jumped off the stage and disappeared into the grandstands." She glanced over at Ezra who was smiling at the memory.
"Who was the streaker?" Nathan asked, trying to contain his laughter.
"Donald Seigel," Ezra answered, then he looked at Cordelia who was looking at him in shock. "I told him Id write his next term paper if he would streak across the stage." Ezra smiled. "He agreed."
"Why were you collecting cash?" JD asked curiously.
"There were actually two jokes played that day," Ezra looked at Nettie Wells and hoped what he had to say wouldnt offend the woman. He then looked around the room to the curious faces and saw Cordelia snicker in recognition of what he was going to say.
"You bastard," Cordelia joked.
"What?" Buck gasped wanting to know what was going on.
"Donald Seigel was on the rowing team. Lets just say, the women at Boston College had it rumored that Mr. Seigel was heavily endowed." Ezra waited until the room settled with laughter. Even Nettie was trying to maintain a dignified composure. "I made bets with everyone I could that the captain on the rowing team had an extra bag of socks that he only used on special occasions, and well, Mr. Seigel had some definite short comings."
"Damn Ezra," Buck laughed, holding his belly.
"Wait," Cordelia laughed, "theres more."
Ezra woke with a jump. A smell of disinfectant filled his senses and he rubbed his face trying to get the images out of his mind. An image of being strapped down, doctors and nurses with masks on, scalpels, and of course the pain that followed. He sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed to rest his feet on the cold floor. The clock read 4:30am. He pulled the braces off his wrists and ran his left hand over his face. Ezra stood up and slipped into the jeans hed been wearing around the house and slipped on the white shirt that lay nearby. He needed to get some fresh air and clear his head.
+ + + + + + +
Cordelia lay awake on the couch watching through the window as the few remaining stars in the sky reflecting off the snow. Shed heard movement coming from the bedroom Ezra was sleeping in and waited for him to make his appearance. The previous nights activities flashed through her mind and she smiled at the memories. Not since college had she had so much fun with people she hardly knew. Nettie Wells had gone home alone after Casey insisted she stay with JD. Shed promised her aunt that she wouldnt miss her first class at the University and Nettie had hesitantly agreed. Chris and Mary had disappeared after putting Billy to bed; seeking comfort in each others embrace. Raine and Nathan had as well. Nobody cared or gave the couples a second thought. Everyone needed and deserved some time with the ones they cared for most, and thats just what they were doing. Josiah, Vin, and Buck had all drawn straws to see who got stuck on the floor. The last unused bedroom had two twin beds, and thankfully, the Judge had been an avid camper. Floor mats were ample in the Travis household. Buck drew the short straw and he made sure to complain that he, the ladies man, was without someone to hold. Vin had thrown him a body pillow.
Cordelia saw Ezra step out of his room and head for the kitchen. She sat up and stretched her back and shoulders. "Are you alright?" she asked quietly. In all the years shed known Ezra, he was never up before dawn, even in college his classes had all been at night or early in the afternoon.
"Fine," Ezra replied, filling his glass with water and taking a long drink. He grasped his right side unsure if it was the memories causing the pain or the injury itself. Ezra rested his head on his arm while leaning against the sink.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was up. There was something to be said about the solitude in the early morning hours. As far as he was concerned this was the best time of day. He slipped into his discarded clothing intending to make some coffee. He wanted to watch the sun come up over the horizon. A snore escaped Bucks lips and Vin smiled tiptoeing out of the room. He stopped at the steps when he saw the kitchen light go on. He didnt want to bother whoever else was up this early. The lean sharpshooter sat on the top step and took comfort in looking out the window toward the predawn sky.
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra, are you alright?" Cordelia asked, getting to her feet.
Ezra straightened up and proceeded to knock the glass of water off the counter sending it crashing to the floor. "Damn," he muttered, squatting down to retrieve the broken pieces.
Cordelia headed to the kitchen and was surprised to see Ezra trying franticly to pick up the broken glass. She squatted across from him. "Ezra?" She reached out and touched his arm but he jerked away slicing the palm of his hand on a piece of glass in the process. He didnt seem to notice. "Ezra, stop youre bleeding," she gasped. Cordelia reached up and grabbed the dishtowel from the counter top and reached again for his arm.
Ezra ignored her and threw the pieces of glass in his hand away then continued picking up the remaining shards. Blood trickled from his fingers as he ignored the cut on his hand. Anger, frustration, pain, and desperation bombarded his senses and he couldnt do anything to make it stop. He hardly noticed that Cordelia wiped the linoleum floor removing any remaining glass shards, water, and blood.
"Ezra stop," Cordelia demanded after throwing the dishtowel away. She grabbed his left hand forcefully and waited until he looked at her. "Its alright," she tried to reason with him, "its just glass." She didnt understand his frustration.
Ezra stopped and looked at her. He was surprised to see a look of concern on her face. He cast his eyes to the floor; unsure of what it was that just happened. He felt for the first time the pain on his hand and he stood up and then turned the water facet on and washed off the blood.
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the sound of glass shattering and he carefully got out of bed, making sure he didnt wake Mary in the process. He threw on his jeans and headed out the door. He spotted Vin sitting on the top step looking out the window. "Whats goin on?" Chris sat beside him, knowing Vin would be able to let him know what was happening down stairs. He could see the lights from the kitchen and he could hear voices.
"I was headin downstairs to make some coffee and heard somebody. Its Ez and Cordelia. I didnt want to bother em none," Vin answered. He rested his elbows on is knees and continued to look out the large window.
"So you decided to add eavesdropping to your list of abilities?" Chris asked with a smile.
"Its either this or listen to Buck snore." Vin kept his voice low but a chuckle escaped his lips. He watched as Chris nodded his head in understanding. Buck could snore and when he got in the swing of it there wasnt any stopping him.
"Is everything alright?" Chris asked. He watched as Vin shrugged his shoulders in response to the question.
+ + + + + + +
Cordelia got to her feet and grabbed a small pile of napkins. She turned the water off and grabbed Ezras wrist before he could object and placed the napkins over the cut. "Where are you?" she asked softly.
"Its fine." Ezra pulled his hand out of her grasp.
"Its not fine," she snapped. "Youre not fine!" Cordelia looked hard at him, she could tell he was hiding, hiding behind that impenetrable mask.
"Youre going to wake everyone," he let her know to keep her voice down.
"I dont care," Cordelia snapped. "Look at yourself," she continued to argue, "whats happened to you?"
"Nothing," Ezra snapped in response.
Cordelia grasped his arm and vigorously pulled him out of the kitchen and forced to sit in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. She grabbed bandages, medical tape, and the scissors from the pile of medical supplies Nathan kept in a pile on the kitchen counter. "Give me your hand," she demanded.
Ezra knew after all the years knowing Cordelia that he wouldnt win this argument. He reluctantly stuck his hand out and watched as she gently cleaned and bandaged the cut. As angry as she was she was gentle while attending the wound.
"You should have Nathan take a look at this when he gets up." Cordelia finished taping the bandage and she leaned back in her chair to get a better look at her friend. "What happened?" she asked softly. She wanted him to talk to her.
"Where do you want me to start?" Ezra replied skeptically, feeling for himself the bandage on his hand.
"Wherever you want."
Ezra ran his good hand through his unruly hair and paused. "Im tired," he admitted reluctantly. "I remember my father telling me as long as youve got your name youve got everything you need." He chuckled at the memory. "I never understood what he meant by that, until, I lost mine."
"Ive never heard you talk about your father before," Cordelia said, in a soft surprised tone.
"Ive been thinking about him a lot lately," Ezra admitted.
Cordelia smiled. "Is that a bad thing?"
"No." The Southerner leaned back in his chair and looked hard at one of the few people he felt close to. "God I love this job," he confessed. "But somewhere along the path I lost control of it."
"Your life or the job?"
Ezra raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Does it matter?" he watched as she shook her head, "When I signed on with Mr. Larabee and this team I fully expected to be released from duty within six weeks. I didnt exactly have the reputation as being a team player or being trustworthy but despite his better judgment Chris kept me on. Even, after meeting my mother." Ezra smiled disbelievingly.
+ + + + + + +
Chris glanced at Vin feeling uncomfortable while listening in on the conversation coming from downstairs. They both knew they were taking a chance because if Ezra found out they were listening hed probably add it to his list of reasons to quit the team. It was hard enough watching him deal with the Harrison files and they knew he was having a difficult time with everyone looking through his personal history. They were all private men and nobody liked to be out of control of their life or their job.
Chris sent an understanding nod to the sharpshooter. They needed to learn as much as they could about their team member. They had to, for his sake as well as theirs.
+ + + + + + +
"You remind me of a kid in an ice cream shop whos to afraid to pick a flavor because it might be the wrong one." Cordelia watched as Ezra shook his head in disagreement. Thats not how he saw himself. "Everyone youve ever known has always told you that your decisions were wrong. Whats extraordinary about that is despite everything thats come into your path youve managed to accomplish what you have. Thats something to be proud of Ezra." She realized he wasnt going to say anymore unless she changed direction. "David told me what happened between you and your mother."
"He did, did he?" Ezra raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"What happened?" she pushed.
"Simple really she needed some cash," he shrugged his shoulders, "and she used me to get it."
"You make it sound like she needed some orange juice from the grocery store." Cordelia continued to watch his body language. "Most of us take unconditional love for granted." She watched as Ezra nodded his head in agreement. She didnt understand how a mother could treat her child in such a manner. She knew it had to hurt, knowing, that no matter how hard he tried, he would never get that acceptance from her. But Ezra would continue searching for that unconditional love from her, purely because he was her son.
"My mother made it very clear to me at an early age that I hadnt been planned. I cant blame her for raising a child she didnt want. She did the best she could under the circumstances." To listen to him talk about it, one would never guess it was his own life he was discussing.
"What about this doctor Wade?" she changed the subject.
"Since when did you become a shrink?" Ezra smiled while glancing at Cordelia, he needed to change the direction of the conversation. He didnt want to talk about the events of late.
Cordelia laughed. "Shrink," she laughed harder, "I watch Oprah," she admitted with an even louder laugh. She quickly covered her mouth when she realized people were still sleeping.
Ezra shook his head in disbelief. "Youre insane."
"No," Cordelia disagreed, "Im a musician, therefore the insanity plea isnt merited." She smiled clearing her throat she decided to get serious again. "Chris and Vin told me what happened the other day." She watched as Ezra nodded his head. "Will you tell me your side?" She watched him shift uncomfortably.
"I really dont want to talk about it."
"Are you going to bury this with everything else?"
Ezra rubbed his forehead and sighed. "I dont bury everything."
"Bullshit," Cordelia responded. "You dont talk about your parents, you dont talk about your friends, you dont talk unless, of course, its business as usual."
"What do you want to know?" Ezra asked defensively.
"You are a beautiful fucked up man Ezra Standish," Cordelia leaned back in her chair and took a long hard look at her friend. "Dont let your Southern pride or your inner demons destroy what you have here with these men. This is an extraordinary group here Ezra, and youre fortunate enough to belong to it. Chris doesnt strike me as a man who lets things slide, he knows what he wants and I can tell you respect him for it. If he and this team have earned your respect why not give them your trust as well?"
"You make it sound so easy," he responded tiredly.
Cordelia understood. "Vin reminds me of you," she decided to try another tactic. "I dont think he trusts people easily either but he doesnt let it stop him. Plus hes got a really great ass and a sweet face."
"I really dont want to hear about my colleagues ass or how cute you find him." Ezra shook his head.
Cordelia continued, "Chris, now theres a man who knows what to look for in a friend. I suspect he doesnt have many but the ones he does have would give the shirts off their back for him you included. I think Josiah has a fondness for you, Vin, and JD. I think he sees the children he either had and lost or never had to begin with, but theres a definite fatherly instinct where hes concerned. Buck, now theres a kid at heart. Does he ever get tired of being so charming?" she smiled when she asked.
"So youve fallen victim to Mr. Wilmingtons animal magnetism?"
"Im a woman Ezra, of course Ive fallen for his silver tongue and sex appeal. Just because I dont act on it doesnt mean Im blind to his charms." She watched Ezra smile in understanding then she continued, "I think its wonderful how JDs a part of this special group, for being as young as he is and hes cuter than a bugs ear. Nathan worries about everything, like its second nature for him. I bet it has to do with all his sisters."
"You came to these conclusions all in one evening?" Ezra asked skeptically.
"Im an extraordinary judge of character," Cordelia said in confidence. She raised her eyebrows and challenged the Southerner to object. "How do you see them?"
"Im not one to challenge the authority on character judging," Ezra replied with a smile.
"See, you are capable of learning."
+ + + + + + +
Chris slapped Vin on the knee. "I dont see the great ass bit," he said with a smile.
"Dont forget the sweet face." Vin smiled. "I need some coffee." He stood up and stretched his back, "You comin?"
"Right behind you," Chris replied following Vin down the stairs. "I still dont see it."
Vin stopped and turned around. "Youre just jealous," he stated, before heading back down the steps with Larabee laughing behind him.
Ezra leaned against the window in the airport and watched his friend start up the steps into the airplane. She paused before going inside turned and waved then she quickly disappeared. The Southerner smiled and dropped his chin to his chest. It had been good to see her again after so many years and in many ways shed helped him realize he could still fight. She was living proof that life could turn out for the better. Thats how she lived. And Ezra cherished her for it.
Josiah stepped up to the undercover agent and waited for him to make the first move. He didnt want to crowd him. In the four days that Cordelia stayed the team not only felt that they knew their undercover agent better but they all felt the effects of her cooking on their waists. She was a handful and Josiah saw her appeal. Her free spiritedness reminded him of his sister Hanna, and in a way he thought his sister might still be alive in others not just in his heart. This team would do what they could for her if she ever needed help, Josiah was sure of it. Cordelia had given him a huge hug before she left and had quietly whispered in his ear for him to take care of Ezra. If she trusted him to do such a feat then he would rise to the occasion. He had no reason not to. Shed given Vin more than just a peck on the cheek before she left. Shed grabbed his face in both hands and planted a deep kiss on his lips leaving him not only shocked but red in the face as well. Shed saluted Chris before embracing him in a hug. Chris in turn had hugged her back. Shed gently squeezed JDs cheeks leaving them red but the kid didnt seem to mind. Buck had prepared himself for a kiss similar to the one Tanner received but he didnt get it. Instead he got a big hug and a kiss on his cheek, leaving him wanting more but with a lipstick impression. Cordelia had stopped before Nathan and sighed, she had him to thank for keeping Ezra alive. Shed given him a big hug and whispered in his ear Thank you. Nathan, ever the caretaker, had given her a list of phone numbers for her to call if she were to ever need help, any kind of help. She took the list and gently squeezed his hand. Shed pulled Ezra to the side and said goodbye in private. When she turned to walk away the undercover agent had done something completely out of character, proving to the others that they still had a lot to learn about him. When she was halfway to the ticket counter Ezra had called out to her, asking her if she wanted some fries with that shake. Cordelia had stopped suddenly and turned around and smiled, she hadnt been surprised by the comment. Instead, she turned back around and swung her hips even more. The others shook their heads in astonishment.
As soon as shed entered their lives she was gone. But in her wake she left hope and determination. Something everyone had been in need of. Chris was more determined than ever to keep this team together. He wanted answers and was going to find them. This team was his family now and he intended to protect it.
Josiah watched the bond grow, brothers bound by blood and friendship. He saw his role more clearly now, to be their voice of reason and to fight along side them. JD could almost see, and he definitely felt his mother looking down on him from the heavens. Hed found his place in the world and he felt surer of it now than he ever did. Buck could feel his pride grow when he looked at the kid and his long time friend. Proud because Chris had done something special when hed formed this team. Proud because he knew this newly found determination would pull them through whatever lay ahead. Proud because he was a part of it. Vin smiled, after living year to year not knowing what lay ahead he was now with people that used that unknown ground to their benefit. He wasnt alone anymore. No longer looking over his shoulder wondering who would be there. No longer wandering when his time to meet his maker would come because now he had friends who would help guide the way. Nathan saw more than he ever did before. No longer was he the black man within the group he was just another brother, another friend, another team member. No longer was there a color to his skin, now it was just the color of his blood.
Ezra turned and looked at Josiah with a look of relief. He smiled starting to realize what Cordelia had said to him. If he could trust these men with his life then he could trust them with his soul. It may take some time to work through those barriers that had been built over years of living hard but the possibility was there. Besides, that is what made him such a good undercover agent. Always question ones motivation, always look for the angle, and always prepare to be stabbed in the back. If this team could accept that then why couldnt he.
"Are you ready Brother?" Josiah asked, looking out the window as the plane took off.
Ezra nodded his head. "I need to stop off at my apartment and collect a few things."
Josiah smiled; perhaps this was the new start they were looking for. "Well then lets go."
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Continues in: Under the Red Sky