JD sat on the couch next to Ezra reading a book to the recovering patient.
Josiah smiled at the seven-year-old with chocolate smudges on his lips. "Now where did that cookie go?"
Vin shrugged mischievously.
"Look over there!" Josiah said suddenly.
Vin looked, then turned back with a giggle as he caught Josiah sneaking a cookie of his own.
Josiah took a big bite and grinned.
"If we keep this up, there won't be any left for JD and Ezra."
He guffawed at Vin's expression which clearly said, "So what?"
"We SHOULD share," said Josiah.
Vin sighed. "I s'pose so."
"You might want to wash off the evidence," Josiah suggested drawing an imaginary line around Vin's lips.
Vin grinned and ran down the hall to the bathroom as Josiah refilled the plate.
Carrying the plate in one hand, he tucked a stack of plastic cups under one arm and grabbed a pitcher of milk with the other and walked into the living room. The breeze flowing through the screen door was refreshing.
He had to grin at the suave undercover agent, in his pajamas and robe, head lolling to the side and then popping up as he tried to stay awake while JD read "Hop on Pop" for the fourth or fifth time.
Vin appeared in the hallway just as a healthy breeze blew through.
They all jumped when the breeze caught the bathroom door and blew it shut with a sharp bang.
Seeing the surprise on Vin's face, Josiah followed his line of sight to Ezra and JD, quickly setting the cookies and milk on the table so he could help.
At the sound of the door slam, Ezra had grabbed JD and dove to the floor covering his nephew protectively. They hit the floor hard, and it only took seconds before JD began to cry.
Without a word, Josiah moved to help Ezra up. The undercover agent flinched, and swayed and tried to pull away.
"Ezra, it's all right. It was just the wind blowing the door shut."
The southerner looked at Josiah and then the crying child beneath him. He shook his head as the older agent helped him up onto the couch and turned back to help JD.
"You're okay, JD," Josiah said gently as he examined his swelling lip where he had bumped the floor. "Let's get a cold cloth to put on that lip, all right?"
JD nodded, wiping his tears on his sleeve.
Vin watched as Josiah carried the five-year-old to the kitchen. He looked at his uncle on the couch. Uncle Ezra looked upset. The little blond wasn't sure what to do, so he did what worked when he and JD were scared. He climbed up on the couch and sat beside Uncle Ezra.
Carefully he put his arms around his uncle, trying to hug him, but Ezra didn't hug back. Vin could feel him shaking.
Ezra pulled away from the attempted comfort, embarrassed by his actions.
Vin pulled away and sat next to his uncle quietly.
"It's okay," he whispered. "It scared me, too."
Slowly Ezra reached his hand out and took hold of Vin's. The seven-year-old leaned his head on Ezra's arm.
"I'm sorry," the undercover agent said softly.
"Did you hurt your leg?" Vin asked.
"I don't think so."
Josiah came back into the room carrying JD, who had a folded dishtowel with ice wrapped in it against his lip.
"Look, Vin," said JD moving the towel. "I got a fat lip."
"JD, I'm so sorry," said Ezra.
"It's okay, Unca Ezra. Siah told me the door scared you. It scare-did me, too." JD tested his lip by running his tongue over it. "I think I can still have a cookie, Uncle 'Siah."
"Well, if you're sure," Josiah teased.
"I can!" JD assured.
Josiah let JD down and smiled as JD took a cookie and crawled up on the couch on the opposite site of Uncle Ezra as Vin. He took a bite of his cookie and then held it up to share with Ezra.
"Thank you for the offer, JD, but I'm not very hungry."
"It's okay, Unca Ezra. 'Siah closed the window so the door won't bang again."
Josiah could clearly see Ezra's discomfort over the embarrassing situation, but felt it would be more traumatic to the boys if he called them away from their still healing uncle. He brought the plate of cookies over and offered it to each of them.
"If you'll excuse me for a few moments, boys," said Ezra, "I need to use the facilities." He waited while Josiah got his crutches for him, and then took his leave seeking the safety of privacy.
Ezra cursed the copier. It was just his luck that the uncooperative machine was out of toner. Rearranging the manila folder so that he could again clutch it as he maneuvered with his crutches, he made his way to the opposite side of the secretarial pool to use the other copier.
The office had pretty much cleared out for lunch, and as soon as he made the copies he needed, Ezra was going to catch a cab home before he caught it from his teammates for being in the office at all. They had determined that Josiah could leave him alone for a few hours, and he had taken advantage of the situation.
Ezra placed the pages in the document feeder but a voice saying "Pearson" froze his finger before he pushed the print button. He didn't intend to overhear the conversation but he wasn't exactly nimble enough to avoid hearing it.
"He's coming unglued. They should have him on suicide watch."
"No, I don't think he'd do anything that drastic. I mean, he feels guilty and it's tearing him apart, but I don't think he'd kill himself."
"I feel bad for the kid. I mean, from what he said he really thought Standish was a threat."
"Yeah, and it wasn't like he was all clean cut like the photo in the briefing before the bust."
"I'm just glad it wasn't me. I'd sure hate to be in Pearson's shoes."
"Yeah, and it's too bad. Pearson was turning into a good agent."
"Damn. It's almost one o'clock. I've got to get this paperwork done."
"Yeah, I have to get back to mine, too. Catch you later, Bob."
Ezra's finger hit the print button and he watched his papers feed through the copier. The turmoil in his stomach almost made him leave the copier and head for the restroom.
He gathered up his copies and put them in the folder so he could carry them back to his desk.
By the time he'd actually reached his desk, he knew he'd passed his limit. Shaking arms and legs betrayed him and he dropped harder into his chair than he'd planned. He winced and bit his lip waiting for the flare of pain to pass.
He leaned forward and folded his arms on his desk, resting his head. He'd take just a minute to regroup.
The overheard comments stirred up the confusion he was working so hard to quell.
He wanted to be angry with Pearson. Hell, he WAS angry with Pearson. But he was also angry at the niggling doubts and self-accusations that seemed to plague him more and more often. The conversation had dredged them up again.
Was he absolutely positive this was Pearson's fault?
Ezra closed his eyes. He didn't remember everything but he could remember Carson slipping away during the raid and making the conscious decision to go after him. He remembered a maze of crates and boxes and going around a corner, gun drawn and raised.
His body began to shiver and Ezra gripped his forearms just below the elbows in a futile attempt to stop the shaking. The cursed trembling started every time he thought of that moment. Face to face with Pearson, both of them with guns raised. Sensing the lack of recognition and knowing that he couldn't kill a fellow agent. Diving to save his life.
Pearson had fired, but had he given him cause? Had he raised his gun instinctively even a fraction? Could Pearson have perceived a small movement as a threat?
Why the hell did he chase Carson in the first place? He should have just let the team take him down. Carson would still have eluded capture and Ezra P. Standish wouldn't have a hole in his leg and a bigger one in his soul.
Standish jerked away from the hand touching his shoulder as if he'd been shot, sliding his chair away from the desk and reaching for his gun.
"Easy, Ezra," soothed Nathan. "It's just me."
Ezra gasped in a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm his frazzled nerves.
Nathan gave him a moment and then asked, "Are you all right?"
The southerner took another deep breath and let it out slowly. He wished the cursed shaking would stop.
"You need to go home," Nathan said softly.
"I needed "
He broke off his excuse, unable to voice what he needed.
"You needed to be in bed. Remember what the doctor told you about overdoing it with that leg?"
"I was careful," Ezra snapped angrily. "I didn't do anything stupid!"
Nathan bit his tongue. He worked hard to remind himself that Ezra wasn't himself right now. He was jumpy, nervous, and overly tired, and anger was his defense.
"Why are you here?" he asked softly.
"I had to know," said Ezra.
"Had to know what?" Nathan urged.
Ezra rubbed his aching forehead. Now that the adrenaline was leaving him, he was suddenly exhausted.
"I don't know." The words sounded small and lost.
Nathan sat on the edge of the desk.
"What do you know about Pearson?" Ezra asked.
Jackson sighed wishing that Chris or even Josiah were here right now.
"Not much. I know that he's got a wife and two little kids. Girls." Nathan shrugged. "He's a church going man and he's been with the ATF almost a year. Why?"
"What's going to happen to him?"
Nathan frowned wondering what was bugging Ezra. "You know procedures. He's on administrative leave. The shooting review board is studying the incident."
"Will he be let go?" Ezra looked at his friend with concern.
"If the review goes against him, yes," said Nathan. "If it's ruled a good shoot, well, I think it's likely that he'll quit anyway."
Ezra groaned softly.
"What is it?" Nathan asked in a whisper.
"What picture did they show at the briefing?"
Nathan sat back. "Excuse me?"
"What picture of me did they show at the briefing for identification?"
"That snapshot that Chris has."
Ezra grimaced. Because of the nature of his job, there were no photographs of Ezra P Standish in his file. It was a security risk. Chris had a fairly decent Polaroid snapshot of Ezra from about a week after he joined Team Seven. It was frequently used in raid planning to identify him as the undercover agent.
"What are you thinking, Ezra?"
"That we have a tragedy here, that didn't have to happen and I'm stuck in the middle of it and so is Pearson."
"Wait a minute," said Nathan. "This isn't your fault."
Ezra raised a hand holding off his teammate. "Hear me out. Ultimately Pearson made the decision to pull the trigger, yes. But the circumstances that made it happen were not within his control."
"Ezra," said Nathan, not wanting his teammate to absorb any blame, nor absolve Pearson of any.
"No. Think about it." Ezra ran both hands through his hair. "I broke protocol by chasing Carson."
"You have the option of making that choice," argued Nathan.
"Yes, but if I hadn't made that choice, Pearson wouldn't have made his choice."
Nathan leaned back. He really didn't want Ezra's argument to make sense. He wanted to be angry with Pearson.
"But, if Pearson had seen a photo that actually resembled me, he might have recognized me before he pulled the trigger instead of after."
Nathan cursed. Ezra was right. Even now, cleaned up after his hospital stay, he still didn't resemble that clean-cut picture, and during the case, his hair had been longer and darker, he had stubble and an earring. Even knowing him, it made you hesitate to be sure.
"I need to talk to Travis, and I'd appreciate it, if you'd ask the guys to lay off of Pearson."
Nathan nodded. "Agreed. But "
"I'm too tired to fight with you, Nathan."
"I know," said Nathan compassionately. "I was just going to say, I'm going to take you home. I'll call Travis and see if he can stop by Josiah's. All right?"
"Come on. Let's get you home."
"Hi, Unca 'Siah. It's me. JD!"
"Well hello, John Dunne. What can I do for you this time?"
"Can I talks to Unca Ezra?"
Josiah paused, looking to Ezra who was resting on his couch. The southerner was shaking his head vigorously, and Sanchez couldn't blame him in the least. It was JD's fourth phone call today alone.
Compassion or cruelty?
Josiah grinned evilly and handed the phone to Ezra. He deserved a little payback for sneaking out on him.
"Hello, Master Dunne."
If looks could kill, Josiah would not be long for this world.
"Hi, Unca Ezra. What are you doing?"
"Just resting, JD," the southerner replied.
"Are you all better yet?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. Apparently the youngster had lost all concept of time. JD had been told it might be several weeks before Ezra was completely healed, but that fact hadn't seemed to penetrate.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Did you do your sizes?"
"Excuse me?" Ezra asked.
"Your SIZES," JD repeated, emphasizing the word. "You know, bending your leg and poking your toes and stuff."
"Ah, my exercises," Ezra clarified. "And no, I haven't yet. In fact, I'd better go and do them."
The boy's disappointment was obvious. Ezra was grateful he couldn't see the 'big eyes' that he was certain were being displayed at the other end of the phone line.
"You wouldn't want me to fall behind in my healing?"
"Ezra!" Josiah growled his disapproval.
Standish simply turned his head so that Josiah was out of his line of vision.
"No," said JD. Heaving a big sigh, he said, "I guess you'd better go do them. Bye, Unca Ezra."
"Goodbye, JD. Thank you for calling."
Ezra clicked off the phone and turned to set it on the table beside the couch, only to find Josiah standing over him, his frown clearly showing his opinion of Ezra's brushing off of their nephew.
"You'd better get started," Josiah warned.
"You weren't lying to that boy, were you?"
Ezra opened his mouth, but decided silence was the better option. He loved JD, but he was tired and the boy was calling him every hour or so. With a shake of his head he flipped the blanket off of his legs and watched as Josiah checked the blood flow to his toes before he started his mild exercises.
"What did you do?" Vin asked accusingly.
JD jumped and almost dropped the phone he was trying to sneak back into place.
"Did you call Uncle Ezra again?"
JD stuck his lower lip out in a pout. "I miss him."
"Me, too, but we ain't supposed to call him unless Dad or Buck says it's okay."
JD sighed. "Unca Ezra couldn't talk anyways. He had to do his sizes."
Vin frowned. Uncle Ezra always made special time to talk to them when they called. He knew that JD could be annoying sometimes, but something wasn't right. They didn't get to see him yesterday and now he didn't want to talk on the phone.
"D' ya wanna go play in the tree house?" asked JD.
Vin shrugged but followed the younger boy outside. Maybe he could ask Chris about it later.
Josiah followed Ezra up the two steps into the house. His check up had gone well. The doctor was pleased with how the wound was healing. The southerner was still very weak and tired, but he was making progress. The lack of appetite, mild blackouts with quick movements and the excessive thirst, normal symptoms of blood loss were lessening.
He closed the door and watched Ezra hobble his way to the couch. The southerner stopped and made no effort to sit down.
Standish grimaced. He hated being weak.
"I'm a bit tired," he said. "Did the boys perhaps saw the legs off of your sofa?"
Josiah chuckled. "No. Let me give you a hand," he added, understanding the frustration when your body was too weak to sit down in a controlled motion. Ezra didn't need to jar his leg.
He had just settled when his cell phone rang.
"Hello? Oh hello, Mother."
Josiah left Ezra to his conversation in privacy. Maude had called numerous times over the past few days. In normal circumstances - in a normal family - it wouldn't bother him, but Ezra seemed to be making plans for something, and that did concern him.
Knowing Ezra was more shaken by the shooting than he would admit even to himself, Josiah was afraid of what might be running through the younger man's head. He just hoped he wasn't going to make a rash decision.
Josiah's living room was filled with a stunned silence.
Ezra had just finished telling his teammates that he was going to resign.
Team Seven would no longer be the same.
"Are you sure about this?" Buck asked in disbelief.
"I am, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied. "I have given it a great deal of thought. I've heard and seen the effects of this incident on those two boys and on my friends. They don't deserve to deal with this kind of trauma, and I have it within my power to keep it from happening again by removing myself from the situation. That is what I am choosing to do."
"You love this job," said Buck.
"I hate this job," countered Ezra. "I risk my life WE risk our lives daily to put away criminals that are right back on the streets the next day. We get shot at by our enemies and our friends " Ezra took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I won't take that risk anymore. Not if it's going to hurt those boys the way it has. I'm through."
His words silenced them again.
"What are you going to do?" It was Nathan's question this time.
Ezra glanced at Chris. The Team Leader had been listening, but not saying a word.
"I have a job offer," he said.
Chris looked up, surprised.
"It's more than twice my salary," Ezra said with a shake of his head. "And I won't be shot at or wake up wondering who I am today."
"Where?" Josiah voiced the question he dreaded the answer to. He was certain the job offer had come from Maude.
Buck cursed angrily and stormed out of the room. Nathan shook his head in utter disbelief. Josiah stood and walked to the door.
"You're making a mistake," he said sadly before he left the room.
Ezra met his steely gaze.
"You could have told me you were leaving," Chris said with a harsh whisper.
"I didn't know I was when I spoke to you."
Chris stood and choked back his emotions. "You do what you have to do, but you make damn sure you know what you're doing before you break my son's heart. Or JD's."
Chris stormed out of the room.
"I have to do this," Ezra said softly.
"I know," said Nathan, as he rose to leave. "But you don't have to do it today, or tomorrow, or the next day. You need to give yourself more time, Ezra. You need to be one thousand percent sure that you are doing the right thing. And right now, I don't think you're even realizing the real reason you want to go. Think about it."
As his last teammate left, Ezra was the solitary figure in the room, and for the first time in a long time, he felt truly alone.
"Damn it all to hell!" Buck yelled as he slammed his fist into the wall. "What does he think he's doing? He's going to rip those two little boys to shreds!"
Buck turned and leaned against the wall, sliding down to the floor in tears.
"Don't, Josiah," said Buck angrily. "I don't want you to make me feel better. All I want to do right now is kick some southern butt from here to kingdom come."
Slamming the back of his head against the wall he continued to rant. "Can't he see that leaving will be just the same to those boys as dying? They don't get the difference. They just see one more person leaving them behind."
Buck cursed angrily and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
"Vin? He's gonna think that if Ezra leaves, Chris will leave and I'll leave and you'll leave and Nathan " He sniffed. "And JD? He'll keep asking when Ezra's coming back and no matter how good Ezra's intentions, he won't be back often enough and that little boy will suffer."
Tears rolled down his face. "Damn it, Josiah. Haven't they suffered enough?"
Josiah sat down next to Buck and offered his silent support while the younger man wept out his anger.
When Buck calmed, both men remained seated and shared the silence for a few moments.
"You know, the craziest thing is that his argument makes sense," said Buck.
"It has to," said Josiah. "He needs to justify his actions."
"He's running," said Chris as he approached the two men.
"Yes, he is," said Josiah. "But I don't think he really realizes it. He truly believes he is doing this for the boys, not because he's scared."
"I can't imagine," said Buck, "being shot by someone who was supposed to protect you. I just might think about quitting, too."
Chris nodded. "I'm going to call Dr. Lowry. We're going to need every support system we've got to get through this.
He offered Buck a hand up, and then Josiah. Seeing Nathan emerge from the room Chris nodded for Nathan to join them as the walked out the front door together.
Josiah waved goodbye and turned to go back inside, hoping that he could talk some sense into a stubborn southerner.
It was the position no uncle ever wanted to be in. He was being hit by the "big eyes" from both boys.
"But, Unca Ezra," said JD, "It's okay if you don't want to be under covers no more."
Ezra smiled tightly. Vin hadn't said a word, but his small chest was heaving with each breath, revealing his tension. He had been fine, almost happy with the news that Ezra was leaving the ATF. Obviously, he wasn't as thrilled with the news that his Uncle was moving to New Orleans.
"Unca Ezra," said JD, crawling up on the couch beside him, "You don't have to go to Norlens and get a job. You can stay here. Then you wouldn't have to work and you wouldn't go live in a warehouse because you don't has money. You can sleep in my bed. It's big. And I can sleep with Vin. So you can stay."
Ezra blinked away the tears. He would not let the "Big eyes" distract him from his mission. Maybe the boys wouldn't understand he was doing this for their benefit, but he had to make them understand he was going and that he still loved them and would be back to visit.
"I'm sorry, JD. I can't stay," Ezra explained. "My mother and step-father have asked me to come to work for them. It's a very good job and it would allow me to be close to my mother."
JD bowed his head. He couldn't be upset with Unca Ezra for wanting to be close to his Mama, but he didn't want him to go away.
"I will call you every Sunday. And I'll give you my e-mail address. You can write me anytime you want."
He looked at Vin, trying to gauge the reaction of the older boy. His gut clenched as he recognized the empty face, the same face he had employed so many times as a child to hide his disappointment. The face he used every time he went undercover. Unreadable. No emotion.
Oh, Vin. Please understand.
"I'll come and visit," he said.
"I don't want you to go away," said JD as his tears began to flow. "I love you."
"I love you, too, JD," Ezra said. He pulled the boy into a hug and rocked him, offering the only solace he could.
Vin stood by the couch, his face expressionless, but his weight shifting back and forth from foot to foot.
Ezra looked at Buck, his eyes pleading for the dark haired agent to take his little boy so that he could focus on Vin for a moment.
"Hey, Little Bit," said Buck. "Let's you and me go have a cookie before we go home."
JD reached up for his Da, and Buck lifted him from the couch and carried him to Josiah's kitchen.
"Vin," said Ezra softly.
The boy didn't respond. He didn't even look at his uncle.
Ezra reached out and touched his arm to get his attention.
Vin pulled away and took a step back. His empty face slipped and he glared at his uncle.
"I want a cookie, too." Vin turned and walked towards the doorway, breaking into a run when he reached the hall.
Ezra shook his head.
"What did you expect?" Chris said in a low voice. "You're not doing this for them, and Vin knows it."
"I'm tired," Ezra said, refusing to look at him while he picked up his crutches. "Let Josiah know I went to bed."
Ezra stood on the tarmac of the private airport, supporting himself with the antique cane that Josiah had given to him. He looked at the family surrounding him as he prepared to board the private jet his mother had arranged. He hadn't intended for them to come to see him off, knowing it would be much more difficult for everyone, but circumstances had a way of changing.
Chris had offered to store the Jaguar in his shed until Ezra could make arrangements to bring the vehicle to his new home, and Josiah had insisted on taking the car to the ranch on the way to the airstrip. Since Ezra couldn't drive, he was stuck for the ride.
He could have called a cab, but that would have been ungrateful.
Since Josiah and Ezra were dropping off the car, it had made it necessary for them to have a ride back to the city. So here he was with four teammates and two little boys as escorts.
He had no doubt that the entourage was intentional, that his teammates hoped their presence would change his mind and that he wouldn't go. He'd struggled through his doubts and had settled in his heart that this was the right thing for him to do.
One look at JD's tears was almost his undoing. The younger of his two nephews was very vocal about his 'Unca' leaving. He had cried, begged, pleaded, and even plotted ways that Ezra could stay.
The seven-year-old was a different matter. Vin stood a few feet away from his soon-to-be adoptive father, his physical distance reflecting the emotional status he tried so hard to hide. To the casual observer, Tanner appeared unconcerned, almost aloof, but to the men who knew him, it was obvious Vin's heart was breaking and he was doing his best to pretend it didn't matter.
Ezra was surprised that Vin's reaction to his decision had hurt so much. While JD had openly expressed the impending loss, Vin had said nothing, not even, "I don't want you to go." There had been no tears, no hugs, just a growing distance that Standish understood all too well. The seven-year-old was pulling away to in an attempt to prevent pain.
Ezra had said his goodbyes, shaking hands with each of his teammates, and being swallowed by hugs from Josiah and Buck. He had held JD and whispered his reassurances that he loved him and that he would be back to visit.
Vin wouldn't even look at him, and Chris would not force the boy to be polite. Vin was trying to deal with this in his own way, and while it wasn't the best way, Chris would work with him until he sorted it out.
"Goodbye, Vin," Ezra said, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Vin turned his head away.
With a sigh, Ezra walked toward the small jet.
Watching Ezra struggle up the few steps, Chris felt a tug on his hand as Vin silently sought assurance. He gripped the small hand in his and gave it a squeeze.
JD laid his head on Buck's shoulder and sobbed. Buck patted and rubbed the small back reassuringly.
Josiah, Nathan and Raine stood to the left of the boys. Raine wiped her tears as Nathan put his arm around her.
Ezra made it to the top of the stairs and turned to wave goodbye.
The sight of his nephews, his entire family almost stopped him. Breathing deeply and steeling his resolve he turned and stepped towards the door.
Ezra had to choke back his threatening tears at the sound of Vin's voice. The boy had been almost totally silent for the two days since he had heard his uncle was leaving.
He turned back to see the boy running towards the airplane, Chris taking a few quick steps after him, but stopping and letting Vin go.
The seven-year-old ran up the steps and threw himself against Ezra, mindless of his healing leg.
Ezra grabbed the handrail to balance himself, and then rested that hand on Vin's head.
There were no tears, just the saddest blue-eyed gaze turned to him.
"Who's gonna finish my puzzle?"
Ezra closed his eyes. He had promised Vin that when the boy finished his jigsaw puzzle that he would help him glue it and frame it.
"I'll be back, Vin. I prom "
"NO! Don't promise," interrupted Vin. "Don't promise."
Ezra reached down and enveloped Vin in an awkward, off-balanced hug.
"I love you, Vin Tanner."
Vin pulled away.
"If you love us, why are you leaving us?" Giving Ezra one last teary look, Vin turned and dashed down the stairs back to Chris.
Ezra watched Chris pick up Vin cradling him close.
"Because, it's for the best," Ezra whispered before turning to limp into the plane. Safely inside and seated he bowed his head, feeling his heart break as the plane taxied down the runway.
Outside on the tarmac, four men and one woman listened to two little boys cry their hearts out as they watched the plane disappear.
Next up - Finding Where You Fit by Joy K
Comments: Joy K
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