A Child's Truth

by Purple Lacey

Thirteenth story in the Angel Girl series.

Okay everybody, sing along: k I don´t own them, k I make no money from them.k

Thanks to MOG for letting me play in her ATF universe. Thanks to the ladies at Blackraptor for giving these stories a home, and thanks to all the kind readers who took the time to send such nice compliments in their feedback.

This is for all of you who asked for an Ezra fic. Hope you enjoy.

Children´s mouths speak the truth.

Chinese Proverb

He hadn´t meant to snap the picture when he did. It was a complete accident that his finger had slipped on the plunger and the camera had captured what had to be the definitive photo of his long career. As the middle-aged photographer scanned the computerized proofs as they came up on his monitor, he couldn´t help the gasp that escaped him at what he saw. Seated on the high wooden stool was a tall man with dark hair and laughing blue eyes wearing a dark blue suit that emphasized his broad, powerful shoulders. The camera had caught the man in an unguarded moment as he looked down at the tiny child dressed in a lavender lace dress, frilly socks and Mary Jane shoes. The little girl was held securely by his strong arms as she sat on his lap. The face of the beautiful brown-haired child was turned up to look at her father with eyes that matched his in color and sparkle. The man gazed at his daughter with unconditional love and devotion, and she returned the look with one full of adoration and unbounded trust in a perfect moment forever frozen in time by the eye of the camera.

The photographer knew he would never take another photograph that could ever compare with this one. It was so ironic that the pinnacle photo of his career had been the result of a slip of the finger. He smiled to himself and gave a small snort of low laughter thinking that fate had a very twisted sense of humor.

When the batch of photos finished processing, he sent them to the viewing monitor in the lobby of his studio, then hurried to the lobby. He wanted to be there when this extraordinary photo was viewed by the subjects for the first time.

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne walked beside his friend and roommate down the busy sidewalk on a beautiful fall day in Denver, Colorado, laughing and joking about their morning experience taking their “family” photos. Buck had decided it was time to take a new set of pictures of Angela and had persuaded JD to don his best suit and come with him and the two year old Angela to the photo studio. They had taken many pictures with Angela in different poses, then taken several of her with each man, and then all three together. They had teased each other unmercifully at the inevitable closed eye shots taken of each, and generally enjoyed themselves until the last shot came up on the screen. Both men fell silent, almost stunned by the emotional impact of the photo.

“Wow,” JD whispered reverently.

Buck couldn´t seem to force any words past the lump in his throat as he tried to sort out the feelings flooding him. Pride, love, and awe were mixed with a feeling of being stripped naked before the world.

“I gotta have a copy of that one!” JD said turning to his friend with a grin.

Buck nodded, a smile spreading slowly across his face.

“Yeah,” Buck said, “that´s a keeper, alright.”

The two men had finished picking the photos they wanted and had placed their orders with the photographer then left the studio.

That´s how they came to be slowly strolling along the sidewalk enjoying the lovely fall weather with Angela between them, her little hands holding one hand of each man.

“You know, that restaurant Ez was raving about is right around the corner from here,” JD glanced up at his friend as they walked. “ The three of us are really looking good right now. It would be a shame to waste it. Why don´t we go give this place a try. My treat.”

“Hey, speak for yourself, kid. I always look good, and I never waste it,” Buck smirked.

JD rolled his eyes and punched his friend in the shoulder. “Yeah, right!”

Buck chuckled and smiled down at Angela, “Are you hungry, honey?”

Angela grinned up at her father and nodded happily.

“Okay, you´re on, JD. Lead the way.”

The three headed leisurely to the corner. As they stood waiting for the light to change so they could cross the busy intersection, Angela, who was looking in the window of the art gallery they were standing in front of, suddenly let out an excited cry, “Unca Ezwa! Unca Ezwa!” She started pulling on her father´s hand to get his attention. “Wook Daddy, wook! It´s Unca Ezwa,” Angela pointed her little finger at the window into the gallery.

Buck looked down at his daughter in amusement then followed her gaze into the gallery. Sure enough, there was the team undercover agent wandering the aisles of the gallery.

Angela began trying to pull her daddy and JD toward the gallery door. “Can we go see, Unca Ezwa, Daddy? Pwease.”

Chuckling at the small child´s eagerness, the men let her lead them to the front door of the gallery and entered the well populated art gallery. Angela let go of her father´s hand and ran to the familiar man standing with his back to her as he gazed on a large abstract painting that hung on the wall.

“Unca Ezwa!” she cried, as she hugged the startled man´s knees. “I finded you!”

Ezra smiled down at the happy child wrapped around his knees, before reaching down and lifting her into his arms for a hug and kiss on the tiny cheek.

“Why Angela, how very nice to see you here! How ever did you come to be at this place?” he asked. He turned his head to watch his two friends approach with large smiles stretched across their faces. “Mr. Wilmington. Mr. Dunne. May I say you are both looking very dapper today. What an unexpected pleasure. I never knew you had an appreciation for fine art. I am happy to see you bringing some culture into my niece´s life. I underestimated you both.”

“No ya didn´t,” Buck shook his head. “We didn´t come for the fancy pictures hanging on the wall. We came because Angel saw you through the window and wanted to say hello to her “Unca Ezwa”. I can think of a lot of better things to do on such a fine day than being cooped up indoors looking at a bunch of squiggles somebody is trying to pass off on the world as art.”

Ezra threw Buck a disgusted look and said, “I don´t know why I bother with you. You´re nothing but a Philistine. I fear it´s up to me to see that our little Angel is properly educated in the fine arts as befits a young lady of breeding and sophistication. I wash my hands of you, sir.”

Buck just laughed at his friend.

“Hey, Ez,” JD nodded. “We´re going to that restaurant you told us about last week. You want to come with us? It´s my treat.”

“Ah yes, Chez Martine is truly a treat to the palette, and I know you will enjoy the cuisine. Unfortunately I am unable to join you. I am afraid I have a previous engagement for this afternoon. I am meeting someone here in a few minutes, so I must regretfully decline your kind invitation.”

Buck immediately jumped to his usual conclusion, “You meeting a woman, Ez? Who is she? Is she pretty?” he began.

Ezra rolled his eyes at his friend and stopped the interrogation before it proceeded further. “Enough, Mr. Wilmington. Not that´s its any of your business, but yes, I am meeting a female companion, and yes, she is very attractive. She is also intelligent, sophisticated, and articulate. Overall, I´d say she is definitely not your kind of woman.”

“I think I´ve just been insulted,” Buck grinned at the shorter man.

“Do you really think so?” Ezra drawled, “How astute of you. Perhaps appearances really are deceiving after all.”

Buck threw up his hands in surrender.

Ezra nodded in satisfaction, then turned his head around to face the child in his arms when she placed her hands on either side of his face to get his attention.

“I got my pi´ture take´ed, Unca Ezwa. Daddy and Unca JD, too. That´s why we gotted all dwessed up. Do you wike my dwess, Unca Ezwa? Isn´t it pwetty? Daddy said I gots to be weal caweful not to get dirty b´fore the man tooked the pi´tures, but it´s okay now ‘cause we alweady did dat. We get´s to go eat now! You come wif us? We can get cake!” Angela happily rattled on as the three men listened indulgently.

“I would very much like to join you, my dear, but I promised a friend to meet her here so I´m afraid you will have to have your lunch without me today.”

Angela looked up at the amused conman with pleading, puppy eyes, but he just laughed and hugged the child, “Never try to con a con, Angel. That may work with your Uncle Chris, or Uncle Vin, but I doesn´t work with me.”

Angela gave a shrug as if to say it was worth a try, then grinned up at him . Ezra gave her ribs a little tickle and her merry laughter rolled across the busy gallery, causing several heads to turn to locate the happy sound and smiles to cross the faces of those close enough to see the beautiful child enjoying the company of some of her favorite adults.

Ezra , Buck and JD joined the child in laughter as she tried to squirm away from the insistent fingers on her ribcage. At that moment, they were joined by a tall blond wearing a classic Chanel suit in a deep rose color that accented her perfect figure. The woman stopped by Ezra´s side and he turned to the very attractive woman with a smile.

“My dear, Ashley, you look stunning , as usual. You quite take my breath away,” he said.

“You´re such a flatterer, Ezra. You would turn my head if I listened to you,” the woman said in a voice like warm smoke.

Ezra turned to face his friends, “Let me introduce some friends and colleagues of mine, Ashley. This is Mr. JD Dunne, and Mr. Buck Wilmington. Gentlemen, Ashley Tate-Arlington. And this little angel is Miss Angela Wilmington, Buck´s daughter,” Ezra turned his body so Angela was facing Ashley.

“What an adorable child,” Ashley said. She smiled and cooed, “You are just precious!” as she reached out to run a finger along the child´s rosy cheek. Her hand never reached Angela´s face however. The child quickly lifted her own hand and batted the woman´s hand away.

“No! Bad Lady! Bad!” Angela yelled, never taking her eyes off Ashley.

The three men were stunned at this behavior. Angel was always a happy, friendly child. She had always been surrounded with love and affection from her daddy and his six friends so she just naturally expected to receive the same treatment from strangers, and always responded to new people in a friendly and open manner. She sometimes worried her father because she always seemed to feel every person she met was her friend. To see her act this way to a stranger was completely out of character for the small child.

Ashley raised an amused eyebrow, and reached out her hand to the child again. This time Angela didn´t merely push the hand away, but slapped at it has hard as her two year old body could. “NO!,” she yelled again.

“Angela!” Buck said sternly, “We don´t hit!” He reached over and took the child from Ezra´s arms. “I´m so sorry, Ashley. She´s not usually like this. Most times she takes pretty well to strangers. I don´t know what´s gotten in to her today.”

“That´s quite alright, Mr. Wilmington,” Ashley said with a gracious smile, “I´m sure she´s just tired. Perhaps she´s had too much excitement.”

Ezra stood silently watching the scene with the fine hairs on the back of his neck standing up. For a split second after Angela had slapped her hand, he had seen a look flash through Ashley´s eyes that he would have never expected to see. For that one tiny fraction of a second he had seen an artic coldness, a look of complete viciousness, one could almost say of evil. Ezra tried to tell himself he had imaged it, but couldn´t shake the uneasy feeling that was settling into his bones. The instincts that had kept him alive while working undercover suddenly kicked in. Something was not right here. Oh yes, something was definitely wrong.

As Ashley stood talking to Buck and JD, Ezra mentally reviewed his short relationship with the woman standing by his side. They had met at this very gallery 3 weeks ago. Ezra had just come back from a very rough assignment and was feeling the need to get out and do something normal on a very rainy afternoon. He had seen this gallery several times on his drive to work but had never found the time to visit. It seemed to be the perfect day to tour the place. Ezra spent an hour wandering through the busy art gallery, enjoying himself observing both the art and the people in the gallery. He had turned a corner to enter another hall when he literally ran into Ashley as she was exiting the hall. After the usual apologies, they had struck up a conversation and discovered they enjoyed many of the same things. Ezra found himself inviting her to dinner and things just seemed to progress naturally from there. They had shared dinners, theater dates, toured other galleries and museums. They had spent several evenings at his favorite jazz club when he discovered Ashley shared his love of jazz. Ashley was always entertaining, witty, and charming with a natural warmth that beckoned to him. Although they had not reached the intimate stage of their relationship yet, Ezra had hopes that they were heading in that direction soon. Lately his dreams had all centered around the beautiful woman.

For the first time in his life, Ezra was starting to envision a future for himself that included a family of his own. In the darkest hours of the night he had been playing with the fantasy of having a wife and children to return home to after work. To a man who had learned that the only way to survive was to trust and rely on no one but himself, this was a radical concept. He owed his ability to entertain the idea at all to his teammates and especially the little girl he had so recently held in his arms. His friends had shown him there were people out there he could trust. There were people who could accept and like him for himself . People that might disagree with his opinions or methods, but would still hold him within their circle of friendship in spite of these differences and protect his life even at the risk of their own.

When Angela had entered their lives he had watched Buck and learned what it meant to be a father, something he had never known himself. He found himself drawn to this little bundle of sunshine. He felt more peaceful and centered whenever she was around, and just plain happy. She was the first person in his life to ever love him unconditionally. When he looked into her eyes the person reflected back at him was someone better than he thought himself to be, but he found himself striving to be the kind man Angel saw.

Ezra had discovered he wanted what Buck had. He knew Angel loved him, but her father would always hold first place in her heart. He wanted to be first in a child´s heart. No, not just in any child´s heart, but his child´s heart. He wanted to have that child look up at him with the trust and love he saw Angel show her father. He wanted to hold his child close and give him or her all the love, attention, and affection he had been denied as a child. Before Angel had come into his life he would have sworn he was not capable of giving so much of himself to another person. His experiences with Angel had made him confident that he could provide these things for his child, and the woman who would give him that child. Ezra wanted his own home and family. He thought he had found the woman that would help him fulfill his dreams, but in a flash of this woman´s eye his hopes started to fade.

All his training just barely allowed him to let no trace of his thoughts and feelings show on his face. He continued to smile pleasantly at the blonde by his side, but found himself erecting his emotional barriers against her. He was unsure how to proceed but instinctively felt the need to conceal his new uneasiness from her until he had time to sort his way through the tangle of emotions and half-thoughts that swirled inside his head. Falling back on his early childhood training, he pasted his most sincere smile on his face and watched from behind his mask as his friends conversed with Ashley.

Angela´s face was screwed into a hostile glare. Her eyes never left the woman, but followed Ashley´s every movement, shooting daggers at the blond woman all the while. Her hand was cocked slightly in front of her body as if she was prepared to strike out at the woman if necessary. Ezra found it particularly disturbing that this normally outgoing and friendly child should have taken such an immediate and violent dislike of Ashley. It just served to make his internal alarms sound even louder.

“Well, it´s certainly been a pleasure meeting you, Ashley,” Buck said, “but I think it´s time to go feed this little one. You two have a fun, now.”

“Yeah, goodbye Ez. Ashley, I enjoyed meeting you.” JD smiled and followed Buck´s lead.

“I assure you, the pleasure was all mine. I hope I see you each again soon, and you too Angela,” Ashley said with a smile. “Maybe next time we can start over.”

Buck felt Angel tense as if getting ready to lash out again, and quickly backed away from the couple and started to the door. “See you Monday, Ez. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

JD waved and followed after Buck and Angela. “Come on, I´m starving.” JD stated.

Buck glanced down at Angela and found her staring over his shoulder at the couple that remained inside the gallery. “I don´t know, JD,” Buck said worriedly, “You think Angel´s coming down with something? I´ve never seen her act that way around anyone before. Maybe she´s getting sick.”

JD put his hand on the girl´s forehead and said, “She doesn´t feel like she has a fever. Are you feeling okay, Angel? Do you want to go home?”

Angela gave one last look behind her , then turned and looked at JD. She shook her head and said, “Can we eat now, Unca JD? I´m hungwee.”

“Sure, munchkin. We can take care of that, right, Buck?”

“Absolutely! My girl´s gotta eat so she can grow big and strong, like her daddy,” Buck smiled at the child as he spoke.

Angela grinned up at her father, and both men breathed a sigh of relief as Angela seemed to be back to her normal self. They continued to the restaurant, happy to put the episode behind them. Buck still worried about his daughter´s strange reaction, but decided to wait and ask Josiah his opinion on Monday. If anyone could help him understand what had happened, it would be Josiah.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stared at the darkened ceiling over his bed. It was 3:00 am but sleep had evaded him. He could not stop thinking of the afternoon he had spent with Ashley after his friends had left them at the gallery. Before this afternoon, he would have enjoyed the opportunity to spend a relaxing day with Ashley touring the museum and having dinner at his favorite restaurant, but today had found the experience too much like being on an undercover assignment. He had watched her closely for any aberrations, and guarded his expression and conversion closely. Although she did not seem to notice, he no longer felt at ease with her. He mourned the loss.

As much as he wanted to refuse to believe it, there was something about her that didn´t ring true when he studied her objectively. There was the way she paused for a split second before answering whenever he mentioned jazz, as though she was a computer searching a data base for the answer instead of a true fan. At dinner it had dawned on him that Ashley agreed with him on everything. She claimed to like the same things and activities he liked, and held the same opinions he did in politics and economics, but when he had questioned her about other things she had always managed to turn the conversation around so he was required to give his opinion before she voiced hers, and then it was inevitably in agreement with his. This was the final clue that tipped the scales as far as Ezra was concerned. No man and woman could ever agree on everything all the time. Realistically, they should have some areas on which they disagreed. Ezra realized Ashley had to have been studying him for sometime to be able to play her part so well. If he had not been so enthralled with the fantasy of a family of his own, he probably would have seen it before now.

Once he had decided she was not really what she seemed he naturally started wondering exactly who and what she really was. He hadn´t looked too closely at the background she claimed. He hadn´t really given it any thought as she seemed to fit in so perfectly. Ezra was disgusted with himself. He, who had been taught to read people since infancy, had allowed himself to be conned. Looking at her performance now, he could see several instances where she slipped up. If he had been paying his usual attention to such things he would have caught on before now, but he had been letting the fantasy take control of his head and heart. The bitter disappointment he felt in himself and the situation only served to keep him from sleep.

Ezra threw the covers off and swung himself out of bed. This was getting him no where. He couldn´t sleep until he knew who she was and what she wanted from him. He needed to know just how big a fool he was. Ezra crossed to his closet and got dressed quickly. He grabbed the keys to the Jag and left his home. If he couldn´t sleep then he would work. His first job would be to research Ashley´s background. Somehow he knew he was not going to like what he found.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD rode to work together on Monday morning and drove into the parking garage to find Josiah and Nathan removing themselves from their vehicles, and Chris and Vin holding the elevator for everyone.

“Morning brothers,” Josiah greeted them as they all stepped in the elevator.

“Morning, ” JD replied, “How was your weekend?”

“Peaceful, JD,” Josiah sighed contentedly, “Very peaceful. Got a few chores done around the shelter and the house, but that´s about all. How about you?”

“Casey and I went out Saturday to the movies, and yesterday we took Angel for some new pictures.”

This last statement caused grins and a chorus of teasing groans from four of his teammates .

“Ya mean we gotta look at some MORE pictures of Angel,” Vin complained trying to keep a straight face. “Buck was just shovin´ a whole bunch of pictures in our face a couple of weeks ago. How we supposed to get any work done if all we do all day is look at Angel´s pictures.”

“Yeah, Buck,” Nathan grinned, “This is the ATF. We´re supposed to be professionals.”

“Professional pains in the butt,” Chris muttered, causing the others to lose it and break into laughter.

Buck took their teasing with good grace. He knew they didn´t mean a word of it, because they were constantly after him to make copies of the photos he had of Angela for them. They each had almost as many pictures of his daughter as he did. Deciding to get a little of his own back, he pretended to be offended and said, “No problem guys. Don´t worry, when the pictures come in I´ll just leave them at home. You´ll never have to lay eyes on them. I wouldn´t dream of inflicting that kind of punishment on you.”

“Now, Buck,” Nathan sighed, “Let´s not get carried away here.”

“No, no,” Buck grinned, “It´s too late, now. I know where Angela and I stand now. We´ll just keep our pictures to ourselves.”

“That´d be a real shame guys,” JD threw in. “You wouldn´t believe this one that they took together yesterday. It´s awesome!”

“Well, maybe I spoke to soon,” Vin grinned.

The rest of the elevator trip passed with the team members laughingly trying to talk Buck into reconsidering.

They all filed out of the elevator and headed to the team office. Buck was the first through the door, but he came to an abrupt halt at the sight that greeted him, causing the others to bump into his back. Ezra was sitting at his desk at 7:00 in the morning, something that was unusual, if not completely unheard of. What caused Buck´s surprise was the sight of the undercover agent sitting at his desk in disheveled clothes, with his head buried in his hands, his normally well groomed hair a mess from having run his hands through it several times. The air of utter dejection that surrounded the man, caused the tender-hearted Buck to hurry to Ezra´s side and lay an gentle hand on his shoulder.

“What´s wrong, Ez,” Buck said softly, trying not to startle the man to much.

The rest of the team followed him and surrounded the distraught man in a circle of silent support. Ezra raised his head, and his friends saw the despair on their friend´s face before his shields came up and he tried to put on his poker face. Tried, because although no emotion showed on his face, his eyes continued to project his pain.

“Quite simply put, I am a fool,” Ezra stated quietly.

Buck´s mind had been racing and came upon what he was sure was the problem. “This is about Ashley, isn´t Ez?”

“No, Mr. Wilmington. This is not about Ashley,” Ezra said sarcastically. Buck drew back in surprise. He had been positive he had hit on the source of Ezra´s pain.

“Who´s Ashley?” Chris asked. Buck waved him back.

“If it´s not Ashley, then who or what is it?” Buck asked again.

“It is Teresa March,” Ezra replied with a bitter smile.

“Oookaay,” Buck said trying to be patient. “So who is Teresa March?”

“Teresa March is a convicted felon. Teresa March is a known associate of Victor Moorhouse.”

“ The Victor Moorhouse, who runs guns into half of South America,” Josiah asked.

“Just so, Mr. Sanchez. Teresa March is an old paramour of Mr. Moorhouse, and is currently in his employ.”

“So what does Teresa March have to do with you, Ez,” Vin asked quietly.

“Ms. March is an accomplished con. Her specialty is luring rich and socially prominent men into reckless investments. She is exceptionally skillful and has had remarkable success at her chosen profession. She has only been caught once, with a resulting felony conviction, although she has been practicing her craft for at least ten years according to my research.”

“I´ll ask ya again, Ez. What´s she have to do with you?” Vin repeated.

“Ah, yes. There in lies a tale,” Ezra gave an bitter chuckle. “It would seem that Mr. Moorhouse is interested in setting up a new base of operations. His old base in Florida seems to have gotten a little too much attention from the authorities lately. Being the efficient sort, Mr. Moorhouse made it a point of researching exactly who in authority he might be having to face in the future if he did, indeed, move his operation to the Denver area. Naturally enough, my name came up in his research. Mr. Moorhouse, being not only exceeding efficient, but also rather … proactive is the correct term I believe…. decided to attempt to neutralize his potential adversary before going to all the trouble of moving his business.”

Ezra stopped speaking and looked down at his hands. This teammates waited patiently for him to finish, knowing he was struggling to retain the self control that was so important to him. After a minute, he took a deep breath and continued.

“Mr. Moorhouse sent Ms. March to Denver about three months ago for this purpose.”

“Was she supposed to kill you, Ezra?” Buck asked quietly.

“That is unknown at this point. She may have been sent to distract me or only feed information back to her employer, but yes, we must consider that possibility, as well.”

“Teresa March is really the woman we met yesterday, isn´t she Ez?” JD said softly.

“Ashley is Teresa.”

“Indeed, Mr. Dunne, you are correct. The woman that I thought I knew as Ashley is in fact, Teresa March. Now you can see, I imagine, why I say I am a fool,” Ezra finished sadly.

“That´s not true, Ez,” Buck stated emphatically, “She´s the fool. She´s turning her back on a truly caring and decent man for money. That makes her a first class fool in my book.”

“It all depends on your perspective, I suppose,” came the soft reply. “I can only thank young Angela for helping me to see past her facade.”

Chris looked at his men and saw his own confusion reflected in the faces of Vin, Nathan and Josiah. “What does Angel have to do with this?” he asked.

Buck told the others of the child´s uncharacteristically hostile behavior in regards to the woman they had met yesterday. Josiah looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded his head slowly.

“There is some research that suggests young children are more empathic, and are also able to read body language and non-verbal clues better than adults. This is supposed to be a survival skill that they eventually outgrow as they develop, and come to rely more, on language skills,” Josiah mused. “It does seem as if Angela may have been picking up some of these unspoken “vibes” when she met Ms. March yesterday and reacted accordingly. While unusual, it does still fall within the realm of possibility.”

“It was Angela´s reaction that caused me to start questioning Ashley… umm. . . Teresa March´s . . . veracity.” Ezra corrected himself sadly. “Once I started looking for it, it was easy to see she was not who she pretended to be. When I couldn´t sleep last night, I came into the office and did some research. You now know everything I do about the woman.”

“I´m so sorry, Ezra,” Buck said gently and squeezed the shoulder he still held under his palm. “I know she meant a lot to you.”

“On the contrary, Mr. Wilmington. Teresa March means nothing to me. I was enamored of a chimera; a mere illusion with no substance. I find the irony of the situation most amusing, don´t you agree. I spend my life conning criminals into believing I am the person they most want to see, and then using their belief against them. Now here is a criminal that turns the table and I find myself on the receiving end in the game. Quite an enlightening experience, I assure you, gentlemen.”

“Ez …,” Nathan began, but the Agent cut him off.

“I thank you all for your concern, but I´m alright,” Ezra said firmly.

“No, son.” Josiah looked straight into the hurting green eyes of his friend as he said, “You´re not alright, but you will be, and we´ll all be right here to help you get there. So don´t you forget that.”

A small, but genuine smile crossed Ezra´s face as he nodded his acceptance of his friends´ support. “I know,” he whispered, “I know.”

+ + + + + + +

In the month that followed Ezra´s discovery, he began to slowly heal. His greatest comfort came from just being with Angela. He found himself making more frequent visits to his friend´s home and was always welcomed by Buck and JD as well as the young child. Angel never tired of playing with her Unca Ezra and listening to him read to her and tell her stories. Ezra knew Buck was generously sacrificing some of his own quality time with Angela for him, and Ezra knew he would never be able to express the gratitude he felt for this friend´s understanding and willingness to provide for his needs. Each and everyone of his teammates went out of their way to support him and show him he was not alone. Everyday that passed in that month, he gave thanks to whatever higher being had sent him to such loyal friends. With their help he had felt the burden on his soul lighten a little bit more with every day that passed.

He knew Chris could have decided to use him to set up a sting for Victor Moorhouse. Any other ATF leader would have jumped on the chance, but Chris wasn´t just his team leader. Chris was his friend, his family. Chris stated in no uncertain terms that there was no way he would ever consider putting Ezra through that, so the decision had been made to let Teresa March take a message back to her employer.

Ezra had set up a meeting at his townhouse with the woman who walked in expecting Ezra and a dinner, and found seven armed and extremely pissed off agents instead. She was still trembling in fear when she was finally shuffled off to the airport with Chris´ harsh words, “Tell Moorhouse we´ll be watching,” still ringing in her ears, knowing that her failure was going to cost her dearly when Victor Moorhouse learned his plans had not come to fruition. Somehow, Ezra could find no sympathy for what he knew she would be facing.

Today was Saturday and Ezra was taking Angela to her story hour at the local library. Buck usually took her, but had suggested Ezra might enjoy spending the afternoon with the child, and Ezra had readily agreed. He picked her up at the appointed hour and drove her to the library, enjoying her uncomplicated company.

“You gonna wike storwy time, Unca Ezwa,” Angela enthused. “Ms Kat´wine weads weal good. Not as good as you, but weal good.”

“I am relieved to know that I still maintain my ranking as top seed in your estimation, my dear Angel,” Ezra teased the young child whose hand he held as they walked into the library. “It´s always a pleasure to have one´s talents appreciated.”

Angela looked up at him and giggled, not understanding all that he said but knowing he was teasing her. “You´ll wike Ms. Kat´wine, Uncle Ezra. She´s nice and she´s pwetty.”

“Well, if she passes the Angela test I´m sure I will like her,” he laughingly spoke as he grinned down at her.

“The Angela test?" a soft voice spoke from in front of the two.

Ezra looked up and found himself captured by laughing brown eyes set in a delicate face surrounded by auburn hair.

“Ms. Kat´win,” Angel cried and leapt forward to embrace the slender woman who sank to her knees to hug the excited child.

“Hello, Angela,” Kathryn said, kissing the child´s cheek. “How are you today?”

“I´m fine, Ms. Kat´win. My Unca Ezwa broughts me today. Dis is Ms. Kat´win, Unca Ezwa.”

The woman gracefully rose to her feet and extended her right hand. “Kathryn Young,” she said staring into Ezra´s eyes.

“Ezra Standish. A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Young,” he said as he lifted her hand to his lips.

“Miss Young,” she corrected blushing.

“Truly a pleasure then, Miss Young.”

“Please, call me Kathryn.”

“And I am Ezra.”

“Ezra. So tell me, what is the “Angela test” ?”

“Ah, that´s quite a long story. Perhaps you would allow me to tell it to you over dinner tomorrow evening?” he said with as smile, as Angela grinned up at the two adults temporarily lost in each other.

The End

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