Changes in Attitude

by Heather F.

Part 3: ...Good times and riches and son of a bitches
Josiah sat beside the temporary bed. Standish lay on his back. A thick white gauze square had been taped over the laceration on the corner of his forehead. The left arm, like Larabee's had been swathed diagonally across his chest. The fingers lay chilled and chapped curled against the bare shoulder. Shoes and socks rested on the floor at the foot of the bed. A white blanket covered the lower three quarters of the patient.

His neck and head had been free of the Styrofoam blocks. Like Chris, there had been no sign of spinal or vertebral damage. Those two were lucky.

"Mr. Standish?" An intern leaned over the undercover agent and spoke loudly trying to draw the semi conscious man back to the land of the living. "Mr. Standish?...Mr. Standish can you hear me?" The fledgling doctor's voice took on an edge. A command.

It should have worked for most people. Probably did work on most people.

Standish once again proved his reluctance to leave the twilight world.

"Brother Ezra try and cooperate," Josiah's voice rumbled in the small curtained off area.

"Go to hell," A southern mumbled retort.

The intern stared questionably at the older man who now sat beside the bed. The small ER did not really have enough room for visitors to sit with the injured. The floor supervisor had made this fact clear to Mr. Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez pointed out that the small ER did not have enough

beds should anyone try and force him to leave his friend's side.

His meaning had been well understood and a swivel chair with wheels materialized hoping to make his visit more enjoyable.

Josiah caught himself swiveling the chair. He wondered if the employees of this department understood how fortuitous that it was he who had this chair and not JD, Buck or Vin.

"Mr. Standish do you know where you are?" The intern's voice pulled Josiah from his ruminations.

"You don't know?" This forced green eyes to open slightly.

The doctor chuckled and shook his head, "Yes I do but I need you to tell me."

"Redundancy....wasteful and futile," The eyes closed again.

Josiah sighed, "Ezra shut up and answer the man,"

The young doctor stared at the grey haired giant beside the bed. Was he an arresting officer? The doctor saw no cuffs on his patient.

A 'Ospital," the southern voice whispered out again.

"Do you remember what happened?"

There was a pause. Sanchez watched and sat forward somewhat surprised when the green eyes slowly unpeeled and opened. They swiveled around the room registering and cataloging information.

The undercover agent seemingly slid over Josiah and fixated on the doctor.

"He didn't let go," there was a slight pause, "he should've let go but he didn't...."

"Chris is fine Ezra," Josiah rested a hand on the top of Standish's head turning the disoriented gaze toward himself.


The doctor answered silently to himself...because the air mattress had been deployed. It had saved two lives.

"It's Chris we're talking about. What other option was there? He'd rather fall first. I don't think any of us would have let go son," Sanchez felt his heart sink at the confusion in his young friends face. Josiah had to admit that the confusion was easier to deal with than denial.

The Intern felt as if he had missed something important in this conversation and re-asserted his control. "Do you know where you are?" Both patient and visitor regarded him strangely. "What"

Josiah turned his attention back toward Standish. He watched the undercover agent blink and once again look around the room as if hoping to discover some clue as to his where abouts.

Finally he sighed and faced the doctor, " Atlanta?"

The questioning tone and touch of disbelief offered some hope to Josiah. Ever since the fiasco last month Ezra had shuffled away from them protecting himself from the cold cruelty of his former job. Denver had no longer been the oasis they had created for him. Over these past few weeks Denver and Atlanta were almost seemingly interchangeable.

Maybe today that makeshift graft would begin to fail.

The Intern shook his head slightly disappointed. A mild concussion at the very least, "Denver Mr. Standish...Denver Colorado." He smiled reassuringly at his patient, "Get some rest Mr. Standish and we'll talk again."

Standish, finding the conscious world just too confusing and unpredictable, closed his eyes and drifted quickly into a world of nothing.

The Doctor motioned for Josiah to step outside the curtained area.

"He's got a mild concussion, nothing too serious. Let him get a little more rest and then we'll let you take him home. Don't leave him on his own for the next day or so...." The young intern then delved into the instructions and care one needed to take with such patients.

Fifteen minutes later, Standish allowed himself to be guided out of the Emergency department. Josiah had picked up the paper work of instructions and warning signs that needed watching. The profiler did not have the heart to tell the receptionist that he and the others had drawers full of such print outs.

"You doin' ok son?" With a coat draped over hunched shoulders, Standish merely shook his head. Josiah recognized the subtle denial at lineage.

"Cab will be fine Mr. Sanchez," Ezra stopped at a pay phone that rested against the wall just adjacent to the revolving doors.

"You don't need a cab, I'm driving you home,"

"It's not necessary," Standish whispered out again too tired to try and discern the reason for the sudden concern about his welfare. Perhaps the suddenness was only in his realization of it.

"Nope it's not but it's going to happen," Sanchez tightened his grip.

"I don't understand," Ezra leaned heavily against the wall. The cool tile felt good against his face. A breeze whistled out from under one of the doors. The weather proofing rubber stripping had been bent and snared.

Sanchez stared quietly at the younger agent and that, Brother, is the crux of the matter

+ + + + + + +

Buck leaned back against the passenger seat. He kept his eyes closed and held an arm tightly around his chest. The ache that seared his midsection vied for supremacy with his head. The eye that had been sealed closed by puffy swollen tissue throbbed with the continuity of his pulse.

With each breath, his lower lip dried out even more, flaking skin from his lip. He ran his tongue over the slightly raised tissue pulling at the adhered edges. Blood leaked from the abrasion and seeded his mouth. His stomach rolled at the coppery taste.

Buck Wilmington had been in fights before. He had been beat up before. And like an over indulgence of alcohol, he continually learned why he should avoid such vices. Next time he would just draw his gun and arrest bad guys.

Whatever possessed him to dive into a pack of hired body guards?

He groaned.

JD swung his gaze from the road and cast a quick glance at his roommate. Buck looked rough.

Dunne hit his third consecutive red-light. He contemplated running it but lately the team's luck had taken a decidabley unhealthy turn. As the light turned to green, the young agent gassed Buck's old Pickup across the abandoned intersection.

The truck coughed and sputtered. It stalled, caught, stalled and finally rolled to a stop. The steering wheel and breaks locked.

JD felt a flash of panic. He hadn't touch anything. This was not his fault.

Buck's low voice rumbled across the cab, "JD? You put gas in her this morning?"

Dunne did not bother vocalizing the obvious answer.

The young computer genius dug out his cell phone.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee cursed for the fifteenth millionth time. He lay on his back, on a dampened road shoulder, trying to undo the giant Wing Nuts that held the spare tire to the underside of the truck. What kind of idiotic Brain Trust put a spare tire under a truck? The same kind of moron that never had to get out in the middle of the night, lay down on a wet ground and wrestle to change a flat....with one arm.

Gawd damn advancing technology didn't have a mosquito's wit about common sense.....

His Cell phone shrilled. With an aggravated air, the leader of Team Seven answered his phone just as he discovered the spare was already flat.....

+ + + + + + +

JD rested his head against the steering wheel. Buck had closed his eyes ignoring the situation.

Dunne started dialing again. Chris's batteries were apparently as low as his tires.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah offered out silent prayers as he guided the ancient, overused, suburban down deserted city streets. The single digits of early morning showed no promise of a sunrise any time soon. His passenger sat quietly propped against the passenger door seemingly asleep.

Sanchez thanked the Lord for some small graces. The 'Thanks' dulled with the sudden browning of his headlights and dashboard. Ohh not tonight...of all nights not now

The truck quickly and steadily dimmed before all went black. The suburban rolled quietly to the edge of the road, stopping at the curb.

Damn alternator.

Standish unpeeled an eye and shook his head.

Sanchez's cell phone chimed. Josiah smiled reassuringly at the agent beside him and held up the ringing phone as if it held the answers to his problems. He hit the answer button and listened to the tinny voice on the other side, "Brother Dunne...."

+ + + + + + +

JD sighed as he dialed his third number. He hoped Nathan's new/used truck still ran.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson guided his Jeep Cherokee down the quiet residential city block toward his modest home. It was small, part of a duplex but it was his. With thoughts of turning in, the Chemist rocked his truck into a parallel spot that should have only fit a compact car. Bumper to bumper took on a new meaning when it came to parking in a convenient spot.

With a tired sigh, Nathan undid his seat belt and reached for the door. His cell phone toned.

Jackson held his breath for a moment before answering the phone. He recognized the voice immediately, " 'Ey JD...". The Chemist rebuckled his seatbelt.

+ + + + + + +

Chris helped ease Vin into the front seat of Nathan's truck. Larabee locked and secured the Ram. They would come back for it tomorrow.

Jackson then swung a U-turn and headed for Buck and JD.

+ + + + + + +

"A cab would have been more convenient....not to mention a tad bit more reliable," The sarcastic southern drawl held a hint of humor.

Sanchez smudged the grease on his finger tips. After checking under the hood and rummaging through his well stocked mechanic's kit of spare tools and parts...the large home made mechanic concluded there was not much he could do for his beloved vehicle tonight. He had dialed Nathan's cell number...since he was already out.

"Shut up Ezra...."

Part 4 ...I've seen more than I can recall....

"I hope Josiah got Ez home ok," Buck leaned an aching head against the glass of the passenger window.

"Heck Buck, worse comes to worse Ezra'll jis hop a cab, leave Josiah behind," JD rolled down the window, "ain't like he's......" Dunne faltered letting the idea drop. How could he have forgotten about getting gas?

The sharp bite in the words caused Buck to sit up a little straighter, "Ain't like he's been what JD?"

The young agent knew he should have kept his mouth shut, "Aww hell Buck, ever since he got his teeth out he's been acting like a jerk," JD turned his head slightly facing his older friend trying to gage his reaction. A 'Jerk'?.... no the term didn't fit right....but ever since that night something had changed...something had shifted or snapped. No one knew how to fix it and Ezra didn't seem willing to try. "I mean it was an accident....we didn't mean it..." Somehow the words seemed pale and flat. But the electrified tone kindled a spark of defiance.

Buck let out a chuckle, "An accident?...JD, an accident is when you spill coffee on your accident is when you slip on some ice....dropping Ezra off at friend's house so you can get laid ain't no accident."

JD's face turned a deep crimson. The young man was thankful for the dark night, "That ain't what I meant and you weren't no better," Dunne quickly pointed out.

"Nope I weren't....none of us were...and it weren't no accident either....and Ezra knows it," Buck rested the back of his head against the window watching his roommate. They had ditched Ezra....and Ezra knows it....had known it would happen all along. He expected it so much that when it happened he blew it out of proportion. Ezra saw sharks instead of porpoises...

It had not been premeditated...their actions that night had no correlation to any set plan laid out in advance. Not at all. There had been nothing malicious in their intent or actions. Circumstances had changed...opportunities had presented themselves and the team had acted and treated Ezra just the way they would have treated one another.

>Hell' Buck thought, if only Ezra could see that they had treated him as just another member of their team maybe he would understand just how much apart of them he was.

Instead, Ezra figured, he allowed himself to be placed on the cutting block and feared the falling ax. Though the guillotine never fell, Standish couldn't help but imagine the sharpening of an unseen blade. He should never have been put in that position but surely Ezra trusted his team mates enough to prevent serious harm.

Buck closed his eyes and wondered if Vin would have been any different if they had locked him in cuffs and shut him in a small room for hours with total strangers. Would Nathan really forgive them for disparaging him even in jest about his color? Would Josiah simply acknowledge their pranks if they should taunt him about his sister? Maybe it was not the same? Maybe the pain and wounds of said callous negligence was of a different nature.

How much of a difference did it matter, especially if it brought about a sense of pain and regret?

Standish, like the rest of them, had all stepped around their walls, defenses, fortifications and had mingled as common friends and family seeing each other for who they truly were...strengths, weaknesses, fears, and scars. In that frailty, bonds had been formed and strengthened. Despite seeing the ugliness behind the smiling facades, or stout confidences, the others had accepted one another completely. Standish amongst them.

Buck opened his eyes and listened to the sounds of the truck settling heavily in her spot. A cool breeze whispered through the open window. The dank smell of a city night hung heavy in the air.

"Geezuz Buck," JD's glared at the man beside him, "he acts like we gut shot'im and left'im to die on some street," Dunne finally let loose with the exasperation and frustration that had been slowly building for the past few weeks. "He's been over reacting and holding it over our heads for a month now...I wish he'd just get over it."

Buck didn't bother nodding. His head pounded in synchrony with his pulse and swollen eye. "Yup yer right JD," Wilmington cracked open his good eye and peered at his friend. But in Ezra's eyes, that wound is raw and was completely avoidable.

Dunne's eyes widened in pleasant surprise. He didn't think Buck would agree with him at all. In fact, the way everyone had been pussy footing around the Southerner one would have thought just the opposite. JD had steeled himself for receiving both barrels. Maybe he wasn't the only one fed up with the Southerner. Enough was enough.

"But I gutta ask ya JD...How come when it comes to a bust Chris handcuffs Ezra when he has too but never handcuffs Vin?"

Everyone knew Vin didn't tolerate any kind of restraints. He would go ballistic, completely irrationally, mad and act out accordingly. No one ever made light of the fact, no one even dared make fun of the Sharpshooter and no one ever even joked about confining the young Texan.

"Cuz it's Vin," JD answered as if it were enough of an answer. And it was....

"Yup," Buck agreed accepting the name sputtered in hesitant confusion as Gospel. Wilmington took another step, ".....and how come we can all pick on Ezra for bein' a Southern Red Neck and a Reb...but no one makes fun of Nathan's heritage or lineage?"

"Cuz Nathan'll...."

"Over react? Jist like Vin when you confine him?" Buck watched JD with a touch of curiosity. "Hell JD, we dished Ez off like unwanted luggage." Wilmington sighed and rested against the condensing coolness of the passenger felt good on his swollen eye. "The only thing we did JD, was forget it was Ezra we were shoveling off onto someone else." An act of negligence that burned and seared the one person hypersensitive to that type of treatment.

Anyone else in the team would have handled it just fine....any one of the other six would have retaliated and let the matter drop. For Standish, however, the very nature of their actions only tore scabs of poorly healed scars.

They had inadvertently dropped salt in one of Standish's old wounds. As a result, he shot back behind his walls. He licked his wound and replayed the incident too many times in his fogged memory. >From the safety of that sacred den, he peeked out at them baring his teeth when ever anyone ventured too close.

Buck didn't know how to skirt around or over the wall without getting bit.

How do you try to help wash the salt out of the wound when you couldn't get close enough to pour water over it?

"Geez Buck he can't hold a grudge forever....I mean we apologized and everything...what more does he want?"

"It ain't a grudge JD....He don't want nothin' from us...that's just it...He ain't mad at us, jist himself," Buck fingered the laceration over the bridge of his nose. "Way he figures it....he fell into trustin' us....probably thinks he let himself get conned but good...just like his ma probably warned him we would... and we did..." Buck pressed on the soft, spongy, swollen tissue around his eye, "No way he woulda let us do that when he first joined the team....and no way he's gonna do it again."

Maybe Ezra had feared their friendship and familiar type bonds, in those first eighteen months, because of the Achilles' heel the relations were sure to reveal. Had he kept the team at bay maybe he would never have been placed in such a position to be hurt? Had he never allowed himself to integrate amongst them like an estranged cousin he could have avoided being reminded that being pawned onto others for the sake of personal convenience was something he should have come to expect....maybe even deserved.

"That's bullshit Buck and you know it," JD seethed and stared out the drivers window. The frustration in his words did an injustice to the fear in his heart.

"You know Maude called Chris the other day?" Buck stared out the window at the closed store fronts. Night lights glowed behind dimmed windows. Crumpled papers rolled across a dingy parking lot fluttering in the early morning breeze. Meters dotted the edges of the sidewalks like skeletal protrusions in the many layers of night.

"Yeah so what," JD flicked at the rubber, weather, stripping at the base of the window. They didn't mean anything by it...heck he wouldn't have been mad if Buck left him with Josiah or Nathan...

"She wanted Ez to go with her to Italy...for somethin' or other," Buck watched as a grilled drain cover caught the edge of a greasy piece of paper. The small trash wavered and struggled, caught between the gentle morning breeze and iron.

"Yeah, well she's always tryin' to drag him off somewhere and play in her games...." JD turned his attention to the small triangle smoking window. He clicked it opened and then pulled it closed. So What...

"Well this time he told her he'd consider it," Buck let the sentence hang in the air. The crinkled paper tore, a small piece caught the wind and fluttered up and over the sidewalk. The drain swallowed the lingering half left behind.

JD snapped his head around and stared at this best friend. Ezra never even gave his mother's schemes a second thought. He had proven that at that first and only lunch the team at eaten with Maude Standish at Brown's Palace...he had flatly refused her...time and time again...

"He's leavin'?"

"Ain't sayin' that...but Maude called Chris to warn him I think....think she knows this is where he belongs even though she don't like it...Hell she don't even like us much...but...."

"What's Chris gonna do?" the whispered question hung on the air.

The arrival of Nathan's Cherokee stalled any more conversation.

+ + + + + + +

"Wake up Brother our chariot has arrived," Josiah gently nudged the sleeping man beside him.

With a groan and a curse the Southerner forced himself to sit up.

+ + + + + + +

Seven grown men crammed and folded themselves into a SUV that herald adequate room for a growing family.

Josiah's hardy laughter shook the cramped interior, "Clowns in a clown car," was his explanation.

"Yeah and you're the head clown," Tanner retorted. The Texan hung out the window facing into the wind. The crisp bite of early morning revived him and dulled his growing sense of confinement. Maybe they would all survive this short trip virtually unscathed.

+ + + + + + +

Fifteen minutes later Jackson pulled his truck into the small drive that promised parking for the resident of the accommodating condo. Three doors flung open and the back latch sprung upward before the truck came to a complete stop. Bodies, tension and irritability rolled from the interior of the truck like a flash flood.

"Damn Ezra...ya gotta get a place closer to the Emergency room," Vin complained attempting to roll his shoulders trying to extinguish the creepy feeling of captivity. His chest muscles immediately started protesting. Gawd he even stood up to fast. Waves of dizziness cascaded over him with sickening intensity. Tanner leaned against the front quarter panel trying to keep his feet.

"Yeah it ain't like ya don't spend any time there," JD mumbled out shaking his legs. He didn't see why he had to be punished for being the shortest. Next time let someone else sit with the stupid hump at their feet.

"Ez where's yer keys?" Josiah rifled through the ruined suit coat he held aloft by the collar.

"Forget it Josiah I got one," Larabee headed up the flower lined brick walk way. The others followed without question.

Standish stood for a moment next to the truck... 'What the hell?'

"Come on Ez," Jackson guided Standish up the path to the front door, ignoring the irritable glare.

+ + + + + + +

Vin browsed through the refrigerator trying to find some junk food he recognized. The Cocoa Krispies would have to wait until everyone else was asleep. There was no way in hell that small box would feed everyone and afford him a second helping. The best secrets are generally kept quiet. With graceful delicate movements, the sharpshooter scanned the shelves for something to settle a queasy stomach. His mind continued to wander back to that small dark box in the cupboard over the counter....Just one little bowl....

The glow of the refrigerator light cast soft shadows around the stand up kitchen. Buck had already commandeered the couch and Chris had disappeared somewhere down the hall. JD had the TV turned on and sat on the floor surfing the channels trying to find something worth watching. He apparently found The Wild Wild West. The theme song trickled into the modest kitchen.

It must be Three am. Guess calling out to a Domino's is out. Vin pushed aside some beer and found a block of cheese and a few eggs. An Omelet would do for now. Ezra really needed to do some shopping.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan watched ,somewhat flabbergasted, at the antics of the others. It was Three am if TNN was keeping to its schedule. The Wild Wild West was on...Chips normally followed. A show not at all based on real life...not like Jim West and Artemis Gordon. Still what were the others thinking getting comfortable?

Jackson tried to say something but JD hushed him by simply waving a dismissive hand at him, "Shush Nathan...this is one with Dr. Loveless."

The statement was uttered as if that was all that should be needed.

"JD turn it up a little," Buck whispered out through clenched teeth. He lay with his head propped on a couch pillow.

Josiah exited the master bedroom. His eyes fell to the soft glow of the TV, "Ohh Migalito Loveless....a soulless villain...but a genius," The giant man folded himself into an overstuffed arm chair.

Vin exited the kitchen, in one hand carrying a frying pan that supported a fork, and in the other hand a glass of milk. "Good call JD," The sharpshooter handed his food off to Josiah as Vin struggled to sit on the floor next to the light oak coffee table.

"Brother Vin wouldn't you want a plate?" Sanchez handed to gooey mixture back to Tanner

" sense doin' more dishes than necessary."

"You guys ready to go?" Nathan stood behind Josiah.


"Maybe later,"

"I ain't movin',"

"Brother Nathan you should relax,"

"If you guys want rides home I'm leaving now," Nathan stepped away from the chair hoping they wouldn't call his bluff.

"There's a chair over here but before ya sit, could ya bring me some ice," Buck asked without turning. His body just hurt to darn much.

Jackson sighed stepping into the tiny kitchen area, How did Chris do this day in and day out?

Nathan found a dish cloth and placed a baggy full of ice in it. He handed it to Buck and then headed down the hall.

He found Chris sleeping in the guest bedroom on top of the blankets. The ambient air held a certain chill that only seemed to accompany over tiredness. Nathan couldn't ignore it. The empathy that tirelessly fed his good nature had the medic searching the immediate area for a spare blanket. He stepped back into the narrow hall way and opened the closet. He paused.

Moving boxes. A dozen or more of them neatly stacked and crammed into every inch of the closet. The same ones that had sat in the corner of the living room un-opened, had been discreetly moved out of sight. It seemed as if they had multiplied.

For over a year, thick, small, boxes graced the far corner of Standish's moderate living room when he had first joined the team. Easy to reach and easy to move. After 18 months they had been quietly shuffled out of sight. Out of sight out of mind. One step closer to becoming permanent.

It had been nearly a year and a half since Jackson had last noticed the boxes missing. He just figured Ezra had unpacked them....never had he considered that Standish hid them from sight.....waiting.

Nathan ran his hands over the crisp clean cardboard. The lack of fine dust unnerved the medic. The yellow furling moving tape had been reinforced recently with duct tape.

Jackson grabbed a blanket from the top shelf of the closet. He draped it over Larabee. The arm would be painful. Good thing the ER Doctors gave him something for the pain. Now if they could only give Chris a quick cure for what ailed their undercover agent.

Nathan left the room softly closing the door and headed back toward the others.

Part 5 Oh, Yesterday's over my shoulder.....

The brusque knock at the door had Buck raising his eye brow. The early morning glare promised a bright sunny day. With an arm wrapped protectively around his midsection, Wilmington negotiated around the coffee table, over Tanner and his frying pan, passed Josiah stretched out on the over stuffed recliner and headed for door. JD had disappeared somewhere....the sound of a shower hissing in the background gave a good indicator as to where the young agent disappeared too. Nathan a few hours ago had given up on trying to ignore Josiah's zealous snoring and had marched down to the guest bedroom where Larabee slept.

The sharp wrap on the door sounded again. The immediate persistence had Buck slowing his steps down a bit. No sense hurrying if they were already impatient.

"Buck jist answer the damn door," Tanner's Texas drawl rolled across the floor on the heels of another staccato of hammering knocks.

Wilmington checked the fish eye peep hole. Here it comes. Buck smiled slightly to himself as he undid the chain, slid back the dead bolt and un-twisted the door lock.

He opened the door with a flourish, "Good Morning Ms. Maude," He stepped aside sweeping his arm in a grand welcoming manner.

The soft 'Oh shits' and the quick flickering of blankets to cover exposed boxer shorts, brought a chuckle to his lips.

"Mr. Wilmington...What a pleasant surprise," Maude Standish gave the mustached agent a smile as well as a cursory exam.

Buck began to garner insight as to the point of view of a dissected frog.

"Like wise ma'am...come on in....the boy's ain't decent so just ignore them," He guided her in by her elbow treating her with the dignity a mother deserved. Though he did not always understand Mrs. Standish or the casual regard or disregard she showed for her only son...he would never disrespect Ezra by acting cold or rude to his mom. Buck would never and had never tolerated anyone treating his mother less than a lady and he would do no wrong with someone else's mom.

Vin whipped his blankets up over his shoulders and slid the dirty frying pan under the coffee table. Sanchez tucked the edges of his blanket under himself just to ensure everything was discreetly under wraps so to speak. A touch of wistful disappointment shadowed his face....if only he had been p

operly attired perhaps they could have visited under more comfortable conditions.

"I'm here to speak with Ezra," Maude's casual appraisal of the room and its occupants did not do much to soothe Vin's sudden embarrassment. The sharpshooter dug deeper into his blanket and nodded a shy hello.

"Ma'am," Josiah's gruff voice scratched a well meaning greeting.

"Gentlemen," Maude nodded toward them and smiled politely.

Buck rubbed at his chest. He wore only his jeans and they hung on his hips. His flat belly tightened against the early morning chill. Bruises and swelling marred his midsection, chest and face.

"Am I to understand my son is in a similar condition as to you gentlemen?"

"Oh he's not to bad, still sleepin' I suspect," Buck tried to steer her toward the kitchen.

Maude ignored the gentle tug at her elbow, "Well it's time I woke him," She headed for the master bedroom.

+ + + + + + +

Maude Standish shut the door behind her. She stared at the figure laying in the bed. The sheets had twisted and snared around the lower half of her son. The quilt had been discarded, clinging desperately to the bed while the rest lay pooled on the floor. Her son slept on his back but somehow managed to twist himself so shoulders, hips, and heels were in no sense of alignment.

It seemed he found discord even in his slumber.

Maude sighed gearing herself for her roll and then strode purposefully across the plush carpeted floor.

Her high heels never made a sound but their impressions were slow to disappear.

+ + + + + + +

Buck, Josiah and Vin stared at one another....they all knew about Italy. Nathan's simple observations last night had only served to germinated their fears. Maude's presence today fertilized their trepidation.

Chris hobbled down the hallway. The cuff's of his pants cushioned his heels. He stepped into the living room to find three very grim agents. Their expressions made his pulse quicken.

+ + + + + + +

Maude ran a gentle hand through her son's hair. She could not remember the last time she had simply watched him sleep. Life needed to be met in a head on fashion. Sitting on ones laurels did not gain one anything.

Now watching the slow rise and fall of his bandaged chest she wondered if perhaps it would not have hurt to have just slowed down a little. Perhaps hold her child for one quiet moment and reassure a small boy that all would be right. There would be no reason to fear because his mother stood by his side.

The realist in her, however, never allowed for such sentiments. Life was hard....Reality did not play nice. The world and its people took and took and took. If you were caught unawares then others took from you.

No one stood behind you, or beside should never allow anyone to merely stand before you.

Maude had had the stability ripped from her life at too tender an age and had had her first husband taken from her to early. She needed to impress upon her growing son the necessity to stay alert. One had to defend one's self. Strike first and leave quickly....make a profit and move on.....happiness and stability lay in the feel of the almighty dollar...Lire, Franc, Deutsche mark or Yen... Hard currency. A good passport and skill would see them through.

She had taught him her trade...had given him everything she could imagine he would need to make it in this life. He could read a mark as easily as a child's book, pick a lock quicker than if he had the key, count cards, mark a deck. Her darling boy could move numbers in his head with more clarity and understanding than if one punched them out on a calculator pad. He was intelligent, athletic and handsome...but he had his father's heart.

No matter how she tried, Maude could not harden his heart sufficiently enough to protect him. She did not intentionally hurt him, she did not purposely neglect him. Never. She taught him to be independent. When children his age were still clinging to their mother's skirts, her boy walked bravely on his own through crowded streets. When other children cried and sniveled about make believe monsters, her son weaved his way around living dangers.

Maude had thought she had protected and prepared him from the cruelties of the world.

The FBI fiasco had been a devastating blow to both. The career choice alone, she figured, was a form of rebellion. She never disguised her disappointment.

Those dark days in Atlanta, she watched the slow bitter destruction of Ezra's heart. The one characteristic that held true to his father. With an angry glare, she watched her only boy struggle and fight to keep his head above water. She stood back and watched. Not once did she reach out a hand to help draw him from the mire that threatened to suck him down.

Innuendo and rumors. He needed to learn that people could not be trusted. He needed to realize that friendship would never withstand the sharp tongues of opposition.

With anguish and silent regret, she watched her only child get crushed by his so called friends.

It had hurt them both, but had nearly devastated her boy.

He never asked for her help....she never offered any support.

She waited, bided her time. When her son seemed at his most despondent moment she planned on swooping in and picking him up. Carry him off and mend his broken spirit. She would mold him into something stronger.

Let the pain and agony of Atlanta be an ugly harsh lesson of life.

Except another had raced in and gathered the broken fragile remains of her son. Another person had taken her parental role and protected the cracked and battered soul that was just on the verge of shattering.

Chris Larabee had swept her boy out of Atlanta. He had reeled her son into Denver. Here under the protective tutelage of six men, her son began to heal.

They had circled him like a pack while he lay in the middle snapping at any that ventured too close. He licked his wounds while baring his teeth and snarling warnings at those that circumvented his space just out of striking distance. They simply bided their time...they watched and gaged him. They ventured toward him slowly, cautiously offering him nothing but a spot amongst them.

In the beginning, his wounds had been too raw, too devastating to afford him the energy or mindset to gain his feet. The other six simply watched and waited, constantly circling her boy. They kept the rest of the world at bay...they prevented any danger from approaching her boy too soon. They offered him enough space to do his job and prove himself. They remained close enough, however, to prevent forces from within their agency the chance to tear into him where it would damage him the most.

In the end, he quietly slipped into his spot amongst them.

Maude had seethed. She had cursed Larabee, she had cursed the ATF. They had put her son back together again.

The cracks and fragile heart began to mend. Without her.....

As much as she hated to admit it, Maude knew her son fit. He ran with a pack that suited him.

She feared however, one day they would break him down. One day they would destroy that little piece of him she had tried to hide from the world.

History always repeated itself unless you made amends to prevent it.

She had warned her son, tempted him, flagrantly berated him and finally gave up on him.

With a mother's dread, she watched and waited for the second fall. She waited and anticipated it. Waited 18 months and then 2 years and three and so on....and still her son belonged.

Each time she visited her darling boy she saw more of his father. With every subsequent visit, she witnessed a softening of her son's defenses. It terrified her.

Through habit she continued to tempt him. In the beginning, she had hoped he would join her, hoped he would come to his senses and leave Denver. Somewhere along the way that hope transformed to dread. She offered him an escape if he needed one but feared he would now one day take her offer.

Her fears were realized just a few short weeks ago. Italy sounded promising...perhaps a leave of absence is in order.....

Her heart had seized when he spoke those words. For a moment she had no breath. What had happened to her boy? Who had hurt him so....

The mother in her rose with indignant defensive rage for her child.

The FBI had tried to ruin her boy. The ATF would not get a second shot at him.

When her anger simmered from a sharp boil she began to think. Maude ,taking a lesson from the infamous Mr. Larabee himself, grabbed the bull by the horns.

She addressed the problem in a head on fashion....for her at least.....she phoned Mr. Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

Maude gazed once more at her son trying to etch his sleeping features in her memory.

She then made her play.

+ + + + + + +

JD had stepped out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist after roughly rubbing it over his body.

He reached for the door knob and stopped. He heard voices. A woman's..... Mrs. Standish.

JD stared down at the simple white medium length towel and then at the door. The soft white material barely covered his buttocks and he had to hold the corners together to keep the towel from falling down. Ezra's laundry day must be Sunday.

With an embarrassed flush, JD sat on the downed toilet cover and waited.

He tried to ignore the voices and well articulated words that wafed from the other side of the thin composite door.

Thoughts of Italy kept him from tuning the conversation out completely.

+ + + + + + +

JD cringed at the words. He bit his lip and felt his heart constrict at the soft southern voice that whispered out a despondent 'Why?'......Why couldn't he go to Italy? What had changed that made him an unwelcome guest.

JD rubbed at his own bruised knuckles. He peeked at the slight bruising that lined the rim of his jaw.

Dunne caught his breath. He closed his eyes and wondered why she did this to her own son.

The words seeped under the door. They worked their way through the seams in the frame. "You are no use to me in this condition....we need to be discrete, in the background...a face in the crowd.....Darling, your marred countenance will not go unnoticed....the garish bandages entrapping your arm will make you singularly unforgettable."

Words molded into phrases and sentences, simple words that closed another avenue of escape.

JD leaned back against the cool porcelain tank and stared up at the ceiling lights. He blinked back the watery pain that ached for release behind eyelids. His heart pounded for the wounded soul on the other side of the door.

The quiet reassurances, the thickened southern accent and low grumble of an adult's voice wavered for understanding. It offered solutions and made promises of speedy recovery. An old tired plea that held the desperate hopes of fearful child long buried.

JD blinked rapidly and caught his breath. His Adam's apple bobbed once and twice, Please momma, help him like you help me...please momma

A genteel polite tone ended any more discussion. A soft apology was uttered and an honest pain wrapped itself around the words. A mother's agony was not easily disguised from those unaffected by visual distraction. JD wondered why she would hurt herself and her son.

High heels shoes were once again muffled by the thick carpet. The master bedroom door opened and closed. JD almost missed the gentle click.

The young agent sat in his too bright prison afraid to face the friend he just eavesdropped on.


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