A New Life
Disclaimer: Not mine. Not making any money.
Rating: gen rated for teens
Author's Notes: I do not own or profit from the use of Magnificent Seven characters. The characters of the Magnificent Seven show are owned by Trilogy, Mirsch, MGM and John Watson. Thanks to MOG for creating a wonderful universe.
As you will be able to tell by reading this story, I know nothing about international business, the ATF or pregnancy from personal experience. Those of you who decide to read this, I hope you enjoy it. I've always found it interesting that fan fic writers show the guys as so willing to take on care of a child they didn't know they had that I thought it might be interesting to see what would happen if they learned about the child before its birth.
Feedback: Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Spoilers/Warnings: This deals in a very anti-arbortion way with the subject of abortion. I know it's a touchy subject so I suggest if you are adamantly for a "woman's right to choose," you skip this story.
Chris Larabee looked out at his unusual assortment of ATF agents and smiled as they began shutting down their respective computers. They'd worked the weekend on a successful bust and had spent Monday, Tuesday and today completing the paperwork. They'd be in tomorrow, but they were expecting Friday off to compensate for last weekend. He'd eventually tell them that they had permission to be gone on Friday, and he'd get to add Monday to the reward as well. But, he decided, they wouldn't get to know that until well into the afternoon tomorrow or they'd be finding reasons to leave by noon.
He let his eyes stop on the undercover man of their tight-knit group. Ezra Standish had taken a while to get used to, but he'd been worth the effort. All the agents were anything but typical, and Ezra was different in even more ways. A tarnished reputation had virtually forced him out of Atlanta four years ago. After a rocky start, even within the team, Standish had flourished as "one of the boys." Ezra loved the challenge of enticing bad guys into a trap using their own greed and violence, and with the support and friendship of his six teammates, he had managed to silence most of the bad-mouthing from other agents--at least within earshot of the rest of the team.
Most of the guys caught Chris' eye as they filed past his open doorway, and he gave a casual wave good-night to them before turning back to the reports on his desk. He'd spend a late night reviewing the reports and let his men put the finishing touches on their masterpieces tomorrow before taking the long weekend. More than two hours later, he looked up to see one desk lamp glowing in the otherwise dark outer office that housed his team's desks. Recognizing Ezra in the circle of light from the lamp and the computer screen, Chris was surprised. He had the man's report before him on the desk. By all rights, the Southerner should have been out the door before anyone else. In fact, Standish should have been watching the clock and sneaking out a little early as he usually did the first few days after returning to the office from a tough undercover assignment.
The case had been trying for all of them, especially Ezra. It had been handed to them from another department, and Ezra had spent three weeks insinuating himself into the organization. Just as the team was settling in for a long investigation and surveillance, however, a power struggle within the organization had jump-started their plans and after just another seven days, they'd managed to shut down a multi-million dollar gun smuggling operation.
Shortened though the case had ended up, Ezra had still been under for a month, suppressing himself and becoming another person. The uncertainty of the unexpected power shake-up had added to the stress as Ezra had tried to make sure he was on the side that came out on top and not on the side that was "dealt with." Unlike the rest of the team, he had been given Monday off to regroup a little before coming back into the office.
The set of Ezra's shoulders as he stared at his computer screen caught Larabee's attention. There was a tension in the agent's posture that Chris hadn't seen since shortly after the Southerner had come to work with the team. Things had changed since that first year. Ezra was part of the pack and he knew it, for one. For another, he had a serious romantic relationship in the works, but the set of those shoulders brought back the image of the first few months, when Ezra and the already established team members were still wary of one another. It was a posture Chris had thought long gone from the office. He didn't like to think something had brought it back. He hoped he was just misreading tension from the case.
Chris knew Ezra had been seeing someone for the past six months, although with the nature of his work it probably equaled less than four months in most relationships. It had to be hard on the man to skip out on his girlfriend for a month. Chris smiled to himself. Maybe someone deserved the good news about Monday earlier than the others. With the extra warning, maybe Ezra and Adrienne could get away for the weekend.
Chris wasn't particularly fond of the woman, but he'd only met her a few times. She didn't really try to fit into their group, but she didn't spend the times she'd joined them pouting either. Not a lot more you could really ask for. She was in great shape but it came from working out in a gym not from sports or outdoor activities. She hadn't come with them on their last camping adventure for which they'd all been thankful, even Ezra. Yet, she seemed to match him. A translator for a multi-national firm in Denver, she and Ezra shared multiple languages, an intense love of the symphony and opera and looked good together. Chris had no doubt she found some of their activities boorish, but then, so had Ezra at first. Maybe they'd turn her around, too.
Frowning at the sudden thought that maybe all was not well with Ezra and his lady, Chris stepped out of his office and walked quietly to Ezra's desk.
"Ezra?" Chris asked. "What are you still doing here? I know for a fact I have your report on my desk." He sat on the side of Standish's desk.
Ezra looked up and Chris was stunned by the sadness in a face whose expressions were normally well-controlled. His own heart started to race as he struggled not to imagine worst case scenarios.
"You look like shit," Chris whispered. "Why don't you head home? We have Friday and Monday off, but why don't you get hold of Adrienne and take tomorrow off, too?"
Ezra looked back at his terminal. He stared at the letter on the screen and tried to decide how to explain it to the others, to Chris. How did he explain why he had to resign? How could he convince others that it was a desirable move when it was so far from what he really wanted? How could he leave this group of men who had given him support, trust and friendship these last four years?
How could he not?
"Ezra?" Chris repeated, a touch of alarm coming to his tone. "What the hell is going on?"
Ezra looked up to see his boss eying him with obvious concern.
"I've got your report," Chris said, waving his hand toward his office. "What the hell are you working on that's so important?" Chris expected a flippant response and was stunned first by the hesitation and then by the answer.
"Actually," Ezra admitted haltingly in an unusually pronounced Southern accent, "I'm working on my resignation letter."
Chris Larabee's feet hit the floor as he surged to tower over the seated agent.
"What!" he shouted.
Ezra held back the flinch and clasped his hands in his lap to still them.
"I'm resigning," the undercover specialist repeated.
"Why?" Chris demanded.
"Because it's an opportune time for me," Ezra said. "An unexpected opportunity has arisen with the private sector that offers a much better retirement plan, lucrative pay and, quite frankly, better hours."
Chris studied his agent carefully.
"Why am I thinking Adrienne figures in this somewhere?"
Ezra looked away even as he chided himself for the telling action. Somewhere in the past three years he had lost the ability to lie convincingly to these six men.
"She does," he acknowledged.
"If she's on your case because of the work, we can find you other duties with the team," Chris said. "You don't have to resign. Hell, you could transfer to another area…"
Ezra gave an uncharacteristic snort at the notion of a transfer. "Chris," he scolded gently. "Four years has done little to lose the baggage with which I came. Tell me, truthfully, that you no longer have to triple check the information I bring you. How many requests do Buck and JD and Josiah and Nathan and Vin get to join other agencies or teams? Tell me how many other departments have asked to take me off your hands--as part of their teams, even temporarily. You and I both know I have no future in the ATF beyond my considerable skills as an undercover agent. The time will come when I will no longer be able to carry out those duties. The time will come when my cover will be so completely blown that I will either die or be forced to give up the work.
"I have something else to pursue, now, thanks to Adrienne. I have to make this move. It's the only alternative."
"I think you're misreading some things," Chris said. "Your work is recognized as above question. And not just by the men in this office. You know that."
Ezra smiled at the evidence of Chris' trust, the knowledge that he did not see the slights that still came Ezra's way.
"Perhaps," Ezra conceded to avoid an argument. "However, Adrienne has been offered a chance to set up an office in Bonn, Germany, and I will accompany her there. We leave in a matter of weeks. I still have vacation time to use, so I don't anticipate many more days of being here. In fact," he hesitated, "I would like to request that you allow me to work at night, to avoid any undue strain on the rest of our associates."
Chris shook his head in frustration.
"Not a chance. How long have you been thinking on this?"
"Since I spoke with Adrienne on Sunday night."
"That's not very long. Give it some more thought," Chris urged. "Let's see if we can't work something else out."
"There are no other options," Ezra said. "I know."
"Let us talk to her," Chris said.
"NO!" Ezra nearly shouted. "No. Under no circumstances are you to talk to her, Mr. Larabee."
"Why the hell not?" Chris asked. "She's the reason you're leaving a job you love, friends, hell, family if you get right down to it. Why the hell can't we talk to her?" Chris watched Ezra's jaw clench.
"It will not alter the situation," Ezra insisted, meeting Larabees's fearsome glare evenly.
"You can't expect us to let you go without a fight," Chris said.
Ezra looked intently at his boss. "I'm asking that you do." He paused and looked away from his friend and supervisor. "I do not make this decision lightly, Chris," Ezra assured the blonde man. "I do not relish leaving this merry band of men, but I truly see no other way to accomplish what I must."
Silence descended upon the office and Chris felt his anger seething just below the surface. He paced away from the man to vent the surging energy. Vaguely, he registered the printer spitting out papers and Ezra rising to retrieve them. The agent sat back down at his desk, signed the paper and carefully put the pen in its holder and waited.
"If there's nothing else," Ezra finally said into the stifling silence, "I would like to leave now."
"No," Chris whispered, crossing quickly back to Ezra's desk. He reached out to still the hand that reached up to shut down the computer terminal. "Not until you tell me what's really going on."
"Adrienne is moving to Europe, and I will accompany her."
"Not good enough. We could put you on sabbatical until you come back."
"I may very well not be coming back."
"Give it a few months, anyway," Chris argued.
"Nothing will change in the next few months to make returning to work here a viable alternative," Ezra said.
Chris studied the stoic man in silence for several long seconds.
"What is she holding over you?" Chris finally asked, reading behind the mask to see the very real pain.
"Perhaps she holds my heart," Ezra replied.
"Perhaps she holds something else?"
Ezra was silent. He finished shutting down his computer and turned in his chair toward the windows that overlooked Denver. Fresh snow was falling, dusting the Denver area with a surprise snow shower this evening.
"What does she have that you have to follow her?" Chris waited in silence, unsure if his friend would answer.
"She holds my child's life in her hands," Ezra finally whispered.
"She's pregnant?" Chris asked. Ezra nodded once and Chris paused. "I would have thought you'd be excited."
"I am elated at the prospect," Ezra admitted with a wistful smile. He stood and walked to the windows.
"I don't understand why you have to follow her to Europe. Times have changed. You can still be part of the child's life without marrying the woman and going somewhere you don't want to be."
Ezra closed his eyes and leaned against the cold glass.
"You misunderstand," he finally said. "She is not threatening me to keep me out of the child's life. She threatening the life of the child."
"You're right, I don't follow you."
Ezra took a deep breath and turned to face his boss, his friend. "Sunday night, Adrienne announced her news with the expectation that I would pay for an abortion, or at least what wasn't covered by her deductible. The only way I have managed to convince her to carry the child is by letting her think she is using the child to coerce me into working for the company."
He leaned his head back against the window and went on. "Her employer has been after me for almost five months, almost since she introduced us, to join his firm. When Adrienne announced her plans for the baby, I told her I would join the company if she would have the baby and then give me full custody after its birth. This will be Adrienne's chance to set up the office in Germany. She's been angling for it for a year or more. Adrienne thinks she is using the baby to coerce me into working for the company. She doesn't want to have the child. She has never wanted to be a mother. All she has ever wanted is to be successful in her chosen field. She has a chance to greatly enhance her career. This child could jeopardize that. But, as long as I promise not to tell any of her friends, as long as I accept Halbrooks' job offer, I will be allowed full custody of the child after it's born."
Chris listened in stunned silence.
"Shit," he finally whispered.
"Yes," Ezra agreed. "I have no choice," he repeated.
"How far along is she?" Chris asked.
"Does it matter? Is the child any less mine if she is two months pregnant than if she is four?"
Chris hesitated before voicing his next question. "Are you sure it's yours?"
Green eyes flared briefly in anger before Ezra trusted himself to answer. "I'm reasonably sure it is mine."
"But it might not be?"
"Chris," Ezra asked, pinning his boss with a challenging stare, "if you saw a child about to be run over by a car, would you stand by and do nothing just because it wasn't your child?"
"There's a difference here, Ezra," Chris began.
Ezra held up a hand to stop him. "I'm aware of the arguments," he said to stop the other man. "But," he continued, "ask Nathan if his child was any less alive to him when he and Raine first announced their happy news than it is now, within weeks of its birth." Clenching his jaw, Ezra jumped into dangerous territory. "Was Adam any less alive to your wife when she was three months pregnant than the moment he was born?"
Chris' own green eyes blazed in hurt and anger before they softened with memories. He laughed softly.
"Bad comparison," he said with a smile. "We didn't even know she was pregnant until she was five months along."
"Isn't that rather late?"
Chris shrugged. "We'd tried three years to have a baby without any luck. Doctors couldn't find anything wrong with either of us. Course we didn't do any of the real intensive stuff. We thought about adoption, but no way we could afford it and the waiting list was years long. We looked at artificial ways but …" he paused.
Ezra simply nodded and looked down. Chris' self-conscious laugh brought his attention back .
"Also too expensive?" Ezra guessed, realizing what Chris's annual salary must have been at that time.
"No. I just remembered Sarah's biggest concern about in vitro and all those other methods they have."
"And that was?"
"How many embryos they make to be sure one takes. She wasn't comfortable with all those 'babies' waiting for a home." He looked Ezra in the eye. "I guess she'd agree with you on this one."
"I'm not trying to argue a point with you, Chris," Ezra said. "I'm saying this child is my child. If life begins at conception, it's alive. If being wanted makes it a person deserving of life, then it lives now. I will do what I must to save this child. I can do no less."
"You still don't have to quit," Chris said. "Hell, you've spend half of the last four years undercover. I'm sure I can get Travis to swing a leave of absence at least."
"With pay?" Ezra asked half-heartedly, leaning wearily against Buck's cluttered desk.
"No," Ezra said. "How can I raise a child as a single parent with a job that requires me to be gone for days or weeks or months at a time?"
"You have other talents," Chris reminded him. "You don't have to work undercover."
"As I said, we both know there is no future for me in this agency, or any other government agency. Besides, if either Halbrooks or Adrienne believed I would leave after the child is born, she's likely to go ahead with the abortion." Ezra stood. "I can see no other way. I really need to start packing. If you'll excuse me."
"I expect you here first thing in the morning," Chris warned. "I'm not telling them this news."
"Until then," Ezra said with a nod and left.
Chris went back to his office and tried to figure out how he was going to hold on to his infuriating agent.
Chris and the others were gathered in the conference room the next morning, awaiting Ezra's appearance. Chris had met each member as they stepped into the office area and informed them of a team meeting first thing. While waiting, he answered only questions dealing with their latest case. He doled out the previous day's reports feeling like a teacher handing back tests. When all questions had been answered on the reports, the six men sat quietly around the table. Chris refused to answer any questions about the reason for the meeting or when Ezra was expected in.
Six sets of eyes turned toward the door as it opened. Six men were surprised to see Adrienne accompany Ezra into the room.
"Ms. Wallace," Chris greeted neutrally, standing at her presence. Similar greetings rang out from around the table as Ezra and Adrienne came to a stop behind the chair nearest the door.
"Gentlemen," Adrienne murmured as she entangled herself around Ezra's right arm.
"Good morning, Gentlemen," Ezra greeted solemnly.
Chris offered his chair to Adrienne and stepped to the back of the room. Adrienne nodded her thanks but remained standing at Ezra's side.
"I wasn't expecting to see you," Chris admitted to the attractive brunette.
"Yes. I'm sorry to barge in," she said, "but Ezra mentioned he had told you last night and that you insisted he come in today to share the news. I just didn't want to take the chance you gentlemen could talk him out of it."
"Out of what?" JD asked.
Chris locked gazes with Ezra for a long moment before leaning against the back wall and looking at the rest of the team.
"Ezra has an announcement to make," Chris said.
"Yes, well," Ezra began quietly. His eyes swept around the table and he steeled himself to his task. He concentrated on Adrienne's presence at his side and faced his friends and co-workers.
"Gentlemen," he began again. "An opportunity has arisen for me that I find impossible to resist. Effective within the week, I shall be accepting a position with Halbrooks & Carlton, and Adrienne and I will be moving to Germany by the end of the month."
Stunned silence greeted his announcement.
"It is an opportunity much too enticing to pass up. I'm sure you understand," Ezra continued before falling silent again and moving his eyes around the room, just above the heads of his teammates so he could avoid direct eye contact.
"You're leaving?" JD Dunne whispered into the silence.
"Yes," Ezra said quietly.
"As I said, I'll be taking a position at the company where Adrienne is employed. We'll be in Germany for several months while she sets up a new office and I re-acquaint myself with the various languages of the continent. It's quite an amazing and profitable opportunity."
"Yeah," Vin Tanner said, eying not only Ezra and Adrienne but favoring Chris with a sidelong look as well, "you mentioned what an 'opportunity' it is."
"Conrad Halbrooks has been dying to include Ezra in the business since they met. It's the best thing that could happen to Ezra. He'll be in a top position in no time with his intelligence, business sense and charm," Adrienne said, clinging to Ezra's arm. "I've come to plead his case." She looked at Chris. "I hope I can convince you to let him take this week to finish packing. We really don't have much time to prepare. I'm supposed to be in Bonn by the end of the month, and I do hope Ezra can accompany me." She smiled up at the man.
Ezra shared a smile with her as she insinuated herself slightly in front of him, placing a barrier between him and his friends. Ezra let one hand circle her waist and rest lightly on her abdomen. He took a moment to exchange a glance with Chris.
"He really is to be congratulated for making such an impression on Conrad," Adrienne insisted.
Immediately, half-hearted congratulations were offered from around the table.
Chris' attention was diverted from his silent communication with Ezra to Adrienne, however, as she again respectfully requested free time for Ezra that day. Trying carefully to keep his voice and expression appropriately saddened by his agent's impending resignation but not overtly angry at the woman before him, Chris regretfully agreed to her request.
Before they were out the door, however, he spoke up. "Ezra!" Ezra turned back to face him. "Tonight. The Saloon."
Ezra gave him a small smile and a nod of acknowledgement. "Thank you," he said. He paused, as if he wanted to say more, but instead simply smiled and left the room to his silent friends.
"Well that stinks," Buck Wilmington finally shouted, breaking the oppressive silence. "How the hell did that happen? Who the hell saw it coming?" He turned on Chris. "You knew about this last night and didn't tell us?"
"He told me long after everyone else had gone home," Chris said, walking back around to his chair and taking the time to look out the conference room door to watch Ezra and Adrienne leave before taking his spot. "I had hoped we'd be able to talk to him this morning. I didn't know Ms. Wallace was coming along."
"Ezra needed some back up to face us?" Nathan Jackson asked.
"I don't think that's why she was here," Chris said.
"What do you know?" Vin asked.
"He's following his girlfriend to Germany and getting a hell of a job in the process," Chris replied. "What more do we need to know?"
"We need to know what you know," Vin said.
"Yeah," JD suddenly muttered. "What can she possibly offer him that's better than working here with us?"
Buck cast a bewildered look at his roommate. "Son," he said, "if you have to ask that, I think we need to have a talk."
JD, face reddening at the quip, thumped his friend on the arm. "You know what I mean," he defended himself. "How can he keep turning his mother down but quit for her?"
"I rest my case," Buck said. "If you think that woman can't offer him more than Maude, we need to have a talk about mothers and sons."
"Shut up, Buck," Josiah whispered. He turned his attention to Chris and Vin who were locked in a staring contest.
"Fess up, Cowboy," Vin said. "What gives? I wouldn't blame Ezra for making a choice for love of a woman over us, but love isn't what I saw between them. She came to make sure he didn't back out, didn't she? She got something on him?"
"You could say that," Chris said.
"Come on, Chris," Josiah prompted. "Tell us what's going on. How can we help if we don't know what we're fighting."
Chris sighed. "There's nothing to fight. Not for a few months, anyway."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Buck asked.
Chris got to his feet and checked again to be sure Ezra and Adrienne were gone. Leaning his arms on the back of his chair, he filled in the remainder of his team.
"She's pregnant," Chris said.
"Wow!" JD said. He looked puzzled. "I would have thought Ezra would be happy about that."
"He doesn't want to continue to work undercover," Nathan said.
"That doesn't mean he has to resign," Buck countered. "He's more than just an undercover agent."
"But what future does he have?" Josiah said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" JD asked.
One by one the men covered all the issues Chris and Ezra had touched on the previous night.
"Why didn't they just say so?" Vin asked.
"That she's going to have a baby," Vin explained.
"She doesn't want anyone to know." Chris paused. "She doesn't even want the baby. If Halbrooks didn't want Ezra to work for him, she'd have an abortion."
"Why?" JD asked.
"Because she doesn't want the baby."
"Is there something wrong with it?" JD persisted.
"Not that I know of."
"Is something wrong with her?"
"Don't think so."
"She doesn't want the baby," Chris repeated.
"But Ezra does?"
"Yes," Chris said.
"So why doesn't she just have the baby and give it to Ezra."
"Because, evidently, she doesn't want to be pregnant," Chris said.
JD puzzled over that for a moment. "Isn't there something Ezra can do?"
"He's doing what he has to do to get the baby."
"JD," Nathan said, "if Adrienne doesn't want the baby, she can decide at anytime up until the day it's born to terminate the pregnancy."
"Not if it's able to live after its birth, though, right?"
"If she can prove it's a detriment to her health, she can have an abortion at anytime."
"And there's nothing Ezra can do about it?"
"But…" JD sat back. "I guess I just always assumed only women who couldn't afford babies or if they couldn't get any help from the dads had abortions."
"Women like your mom and mine?" Vin asked, dark tension coloring his tone.
"That's enough," Chris said, stopping the fruitless discussion. "We'll see Ezra tonight. Maybe we'll come up with something by then."
"Can't he file a lawsuit or something?" JD asked, not ready to let it go.
"The publicity that would generate would be detrimental to him, Adrienne and the baby," Josiah said. "Such a case would attract all kinds of attention. His name and picture and Adrienne's would be plastered all over the media. Everyone Ezra has ever dealt with undercover would be able to find him and her. Even if he wanted to open that can of worms, it wouldn't be wise. And there's a good chance he'd lose."
"But he just wants to save his baby's life," JD argued.
"It's not about life. It's about privacy," Josiah said. "What a woman does with her body."
"But what about the baby?" JD asked. No one answered. "So, what, if I killed a deaf-mute with no friends or family in the privacy of my home, I haven't done anything wrong?"
"JD," Nathan said. "There's nothing we can do."
"We can't just let him leave," JD protested.
"We may not have a choice," Chris said. He motioned to the reports before them. "Clean those up and get them back in. Then you're free to go before we meet at the Saloon tonight at 7. We've got tomorrow and Monday off to make up for last weekend." Chris stood and left the room. The others watched as he walked across the empty office, into his private office and closed the door.
The office of Team 7 was a somber place for the remainder of the day. Josiah and Nathan shared quiet conversations and lots of sighs. Vin spent long minutes staring at the empty desk across from his while Buck took the slightest reason to rise and walk the length of the room. Only JD worked furiously at his computer, but as time came to shut down for the night, even he grew more and more solemn.
"Let's go, kid," Buck finally said as 4:45 showed on the computer screens. "Chris wants to be at the Saloon by 5 in case Ezra gets there early."
JD, still absorbed by whatever was on his computer screen, ignored the summons until Buck slapped his shoulder.
"What's got you so enthralled?" Buck asked. "No one else has been able to get a lick of work done today."
"Just looking some stuff up," JD said. His eyes were wide with disbelief when he looked up at Buck. "Did you know less than five percent of abortions are done because the baby or the mother have health problems?"
"So what's the reason for abortions?"
"Inconvenience or economics seem to be the most common. Guess it's inconvenience for her."
It was a subdued group that gathered at Inez' "Saloon" for dinner later. Inez raised her eyebrows as the six men wandered through her doors on Thursday evening instead of Friday. She had heard from other agents that Team 7 had completed a rough case over last weekend, which explained why they'd been absent from her establishment last Friday night. Occasionally, when they had put in a lot of overtime and completed a case, they would take the following Friday off and show up at their favorite watering hole on Thursday night instead. She would have assumed that was the case this night if not for the somber air surrounding the group.
Ezra did not arrive early. In fact it was almost 8 pm before he made his way into the bar and walked slowly over to join his friends. Subdued greetings welcomed him to the table and silence descended after Inez brought his drink and left them on their own.
"Gentlemen," Ezra finally said raising his drink and forcing a smile. He hesitated for a long second before continuing with a feeble toast. "To opportunities."
Five of the other six joined him in the half-hearted effort at a toast. Chris simply twirled his half-filled glass of beer in front of him.
"They know," Chris finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence and looking at his soon-to-be former teammate. "I told them what's going on."
"Nice to know I can trust you to keep a secret," Ezra snapped coldly.
"We knew something was up," JD said. "We knew you wouldn't quit without a good reason."
"And your child's life is a damn good reason," Josiah said. "Congratulations on that anyway."
Ezra smiled faintly, clearly happy with the thought of fatherhood despite the surrounding circumstances. "Thank you."
The table fell silent again.
"I just can't believe she wants to have an abortion," JD said. "How could any mother want that?"
"How could any father?" Ezra asked quietly. He smiled sadly at JD. "She wants a career, JD. At this point, in this company, a child could very well hurt her advancement."
"Some things are more important than a job," JD said.
"I couldn't agree more."
"I just can't believe she can have an abortion when you want the baby," he continued.
"Most men would not begrudge her that option," Ezra whispered. "Indeed, I dare say, most men would encourage the action."
"But you want the baby," JD repeated.
"But it's her body," Buck said.
"The baby's not her body. It's just hitching a ride for a while," JD snapped.
"The baby doesn't count," Ezra said. "It doesn't speak, therefore it's not heard."
Silence reigned for a full minute.
"You know, there are those who say a woman's insistence that she is the only person who can decide to have an abortion actually perpetrates a patriarchal society," Josiah said.
"What?" JD asked.
"How's that?" Nathan asked.
"Well, as long as a woman is the only one who can decide, men have no reason to worry. If it's her decision whether to abort or have the child, then how can the child be the man's responsibility? Why should he be forced to feed or clothe or care for it if he has no say in its right to be born. Take it farther and as long as a woman has a legal right to abortion, why should companies go out of their way to make their policies family friendly? Why give maternal rights to employees when it's perfectly legal to terminate the condition before it interferes with business?"
"Where do you get this stuff?" Buck asked after the others had taken a long moment to decipher Josiah's speech.
He shrugged. "Just something I read."
"That's the purest BS I've ever heard," Buck replied as he finished his own drink and headed to the bar for another.
"So what are your plans?" Chris asked Ezra after another moment.
"We'll go to Germany in three weeks and be there for some time. The child may even be born there."
"And after that?"
"I'll either stay with Adrienne or perhaps be given a position back in the States."
"You might get to come back to Denver?" JD asked as Buck returned.
"Unlikely. I believe Mr. Halbrooks would like to station me in Atlanta. He doesn't seem to think there would be a problem with my previous stint there." Ezra laughed under his breath. "I daresay I would be moving in slightly different circles should I return there."
"Well I hope you come back to Denver. That way we'd get to see you some, anyway," JD said.
"Thank you, JD."
"Well who else is going to educate us on the finer points of civilized behavior?" Vin asked with a laugh, making a point of leaning back until his chair was balanced on its back legs and he was slouched in its seat.
"I fear what little I've managed to convey over the past four years will be quickly lost," Ezra returned with a smile. "I'll just have to send you gifts from Europe that will continue your education."
"Presents?" JD said.
"I'll take some of those nude paintings," Buck said. "I hear Europe's not as hung up on stuff like that as we are here in the Colonies. Better not send any to Vin, though. Just remember how embarrassed he got when that runner's daughter took a liking to him last year."
The men roared with laughter as Vin's face reddened with the memory and he brought his chair back to all four legs with a thump. He retaliated with his own memories of Buck's embarrassments and the evening continued on a much lighter note.
It was midnight before the group began to think about going home.
"When's his party, Chris?" Buck asked. "When's your last day, Ez?"
"I suppose two weeks from today or tomorrow. There is no need for a party," Ezra said.
"You're getting a party," Chris said. "We'll plan it for your last official day then finish off with our own send-off here afterward." He looked at his undercover agent. "It's kind of short notice, but I was hoping we could get together out the ranch this weekend. If the weather clears, maybe we can get some riding in."
"Ah, yes," Ezra said. "I suppose I'll have to do something about my horse."
"You leave him right where he is until you get to wherever you're going to call home," Chris told him. "Call him collateral. I know you'll come back to see the stupid beast."
Ezra smiled. "It would be a great relief to leave him where he is for a while. Perhaps one of you gentlemen would be so kind as to exercise him on occasion?"
"You know we will," Vin said. "We'll take care of him."
Ezra nodded and then sighed and stood. "I really should be going. I have a lot to accomplish in a very short time." He rose and bid his good-nights and turned to go.
The following two weeks were a blur of activity for Ezra as he tried to pack his items, make sure his shots and records were up to date and tie up loose ends at work. Despite the accrued vacation time, he tended to go in late in the afternoon and stay late into the night on the days he did go in to avoid too much contact with his teammates. This also gave him an opportunity to run errands and meet with his new employers during the day.
He spent much of that first weekend at Chris' ranch, surrounded by the men he had come to know as friends and brothers, relishing their camaraderie and support. By mutual agreement they pretended nothing would change and the weekend was filled with BS, booze, sports and card games.
When Ezra's last official day arrived, he and the others greeted it with stoicism. Ezra marveled at the audacity of the men and occasional woman who came to wish him well in his new career then blatantly hit Chris up for his position on the team. Many people filtered through the team's conference room which was set up with food and drinks to say good-bye, although Ezra heard at least two groups speculating on why he was "really leaving."
For their part, his six friends never told the real reason he was leaving, staying with the official line that he had been offered a better position in the private sector. It was, after all, true. The job that awaited him paid better, offered better perks, and engendered far less danger to his person.
Adrienne was on hand for some of the afternoon, but she left to her own departure preparations rather than joining the men at the Saloon later in the night. No one said anything to her but their cool, stiffly polite interactions made her acutely aware they blamed her for Ezra's move. She accepted the blame and didn't ask if they knew the real reason behind his decision.
Team 7 as well as other ATF agents gathered that night for a rowdier send off. The liquor flowed freely among most of the men and women gathered at the Saloon, but Team 7 stayed surprisingly sober. The seven men were torn between a need to get so drunk they'd forget why they had gathered and fear of losing even a moment of the dwindling time with their friend. By 1:30 am, Inez had poured most of her regular customers into taxis and the cars of designated drivers and cleared the room for the seven friends.
They sat uncomfortably at their regular table and yet were reluctant to leave. Ezra finally stood to take the first step and took a moment to raise his nearly empty glass.
"Gentlemen," he said, raising his glass to them. "I would be remiss if I left your presence without telling you how very much your friendship and support during the past four years has meant to me. I owe you my life physically, it's true, but beyond a doubt, I also owe you my emotional welfare. Without your example of friendship and brotherhood, I do not believe I would have the courage to save my child. I will greatly miss being a part of this merry, misbegotten band of men." He raised his glass and drained it. "And if anyone mentions this maudlin display of emotion, I will unhesitatingly blame it on the liquor." He paused, looking closely at each of the six faces around him. "I will miss you, my friends." With a weak smile and watery eyes, Ezra turned away and headed briskly for the door.
Chris' voice stopped the distraught man in his tracks. He didn't turn around, however, even when he heard footsteps approach him.
"Ezra," Chris repeated. "You may be moving across an ocean and a continent, but you don't get out of this family that easy. You need anything, anything at all, you call us. If I find out you've been within three hundred miles of here and you didn't let us know, I'll hunt you down myself. You hear me?"
Ezra simply nodded, refusing to turn around and face his now former boss. Ezra breathed deeply to control his emotions but almost lost his fragile hold when Chris turned him around and pulled him into a fierce hug. Before long he was surrounded by five others, pulling him into hugs of their own. Ezra was speechless but, thanks to long and painful practice, managed to keep the tears from leaving his eyes.
"I really must go," Ezra mumbled as he made a quick exit from the building. He hurried to his car and fumbled the keys into the ignition. He drove rapidly away from the building and turned quickly onto a street none of the others would use. Pulling off to the side, Ezra leaned back in his seat and gave in to the tears that blurred his vision. It was a full 15 minutes before he trusted himself to drive again.
He saw little of his friends over the next week as he and Adrienne prepared to leave the country on Monday. He made a final, unannounced visit to Chris' to visit his horse on Sunday afternoon. JD and Vin fought over who would take him to the airport on Monday morning and drive his Jag back to Chris' for storage until he returned to the States. All six men turned out to see him off at the airport despite it being the middle of the work day. They all managed, barely, to keep their composure as Adrienne waited to the side.
February 14 found the remaining members of the Magnificent 7 still struggling to adjust to Ezra's departure. A new agent had been selected on a temporary basis to fill Ezra's slot, mostly because Judge Travis insisted. Chris had given in just a week before the Lovers' Holiday when Travis handed down a case that needed an inside man. The new man was supposed to start on Monday.
On Friday, Feb. 14, Chris wandered into the office late in the evening, looking for a distraction from a disastrous evening with Mary Travis. He had planned to get a little work done, but in reality figured he'd probably spend most of the night staring at Ezra's empty desk.
He was surprised, to say the least, to see the team's resident ladies' man sitting quietly at his desk.
"Buck?" Chris asked, wondering why of all people Buck Wilmington would be sitting in the office alone on a Friday night, especially Valentine's Day. Chris took a seat beside his long-time friend.
"Hey, Chris," Buck greeted. "I thought you had plans with Mary."
"I did. Things didn't work out like I thought. What are you doing here? And on Valentine's Day."
Buck shrugged and tossed the tennis ball he'd been playing with against the far wall and waited for its return.
"Come on," Chris insisted, "when's the last time you sat home on Valentine's Day? Or you just stopping in between dates?"
Buck shook his head. "No. Not this year." He leaned forward and bounced the ball on the floor.
Chris began to grow worried at the normally out-going man's subdued behavior. He reached out and caught the ball.
"Oh, hell, Chris," Buck said, leaning back and giving his friend and boss a small but reassuring smile. "It's nothing bad, I guess. I just needed a place to hang out for a while."
"Casey and JD got the apartment?"
"Yeah, but I could have stayed there anyway. They've decided they need to try celibacy."
"Celibacy? Hell, to tell the truth, I wasn't sure they weren't anyway," Chris admitted. "So why didn't you stay there? Better yet, why aren't you out with someone?"
"Just been thinking a lot, lately."
"Yeah." Buck sighed. "JD's really been into this research mode on abortion. He asked me the other day if I'd ever asked a woman to have an abortion." Chris held his breath. "Lucky for me, I could honestly tell him no, but…"
"But, you know, before now, before watching Raine and Nathan and seeing their pictures and knowing what Ez is going through, I think maybe I would have. If someone had claimed I was the father of the baby, I think I would have offered to pay for an abortion."
"Why?" Chris asked. "You love kids. You were great with Adam."
"Adam was a great kid," Buck said. He stood to pace around the dimly lit office. "I liked being an uncle. I just don't really want to be a dad. I guess I can kind of understand Adrienne's side, you know. And I don't have to carry it around myself for nine months. And to be honest, I never really considered a baby a baby until it's born. Nate and his damn pictures.
"Then when Ezra made his little announcement and you told us what was really going on, I started to wonder if there were any girls out there who just hadn't told me I was a daddy."
"You're careful, right?" Chris asked suddenly.
"Yeah," Buck assured him, "but have you ever met anyone who calculated odds more than Ezra? You think he wasn't careful?"
"I think Ezra has always wanted to be a daddy. Maybe he just subconsciously let his guard down."
"Not with Adrienne. I think he was going to stop seeing her real soon."
"Really. I thought they looked great, got along great."
"I asked him if he was getting her a ring for Christmas and he said no. Said, 'She's not in the candidate pool for Mrs. Ezra P. Standish.' I think he might have asked her already and she turned him down. Plus he was getting tired of her harping on him about coming to work for her company."
"Never noticed, but I didn't see them together a whole lot." He looked closely at his friend. "So, all this has got you gun-shy?"
"Sort of, I guess." Buck sat back down. "Course, it doesn't help when your roommate starts rattling off CDC information about STDs. There's 25 out there, Chris, and nothing to prove condom use is 100 percent effective. Hell, if it fails, it's too late then, isn't it?"
"Damn," Chris said. "What are you going to do? Can't see you giving up the ladies."
"I don't know. I'm hoping to God JD gets tired of this new fascination soon and quits telling me all his horror stories." He sat back down. "I'll survive." He frowned at his friend. "What happened with Mary?"
"We had a difference of opinion."
"Ezra's situation." Buck waited silently and Chris went on. "I asked her if she'd consider looking into whether a man who wants his child can't do something to prevent an abortion." He stopped.
"And she said?"
"And she said she wasn't going to endanger a woman's right to an abortion just because Ezra was a decent man who wanted one child. One thing led to another and I left." Chris shook his head. "I even asked her if she'd ever had one. She said it was her business and her business only. Right to privacy and all. I swear I thought back to what JD said that morning. About whether if you killed a deaf-mute with no family or friends in the privacy of your own home, does that mean it isn't a crime. I asked her if she got pregnant with my child whether I had a right to know about it. She said only if she wanted me to. Hell, right now, I'm not sure she'd tell me if she got pregnant."
"Oh, come on, Chris," Buck said, "It was just a little blow-up. You know how she gets and how you get. I bet she'd be tickled to have your baby."
Chris squinted and considered his earlier conversation with the lady.
"I don't think so. I think maybe she wasn't just talking. She's had her baby. I don't think she wants another one. I think she'd rather have a career." He shrugged. "Guess I can't really blame her. I'm not exactly looking to be a father again, either."
"What would you do if she did get pregnant?" Buck asked.
"I don't know, but it did leave me wondering if she'd tell me about a baby now or if she'd be afraid I might want her to have it." Chris shrugged. "She just left me…cold and confused."
"Confusion is a permanent state between you two, isn't it?"
"Seems to be, but I was thinking more along how she doesn't like the death penalty because there's a chance someone innocent might be killed and it's a barbaric throwback to barbaric times. I think that's how she put it. Even after her husband was murdered, she feels that strongly about it. I just keep wondering what an unborn child could have done to keep it from being innocent and make it worthy of a death sentence."
"It's not a baby," Buck said.
"Tell that to Nathan and Raine and Ezra. If you had told me that when Sarah was pregnant, I would've taken you down a notch or two."
"Yeah, but you and Sarah, Raine and Nathan, even Ezra, want your child."
"So being wanted is the difference?"
"That and being able to survive on your own. An unborn baby depends on its mother."
"What about Vin?"
"What about Vin?" Buck repeated.
"He wasn't feeling too wanted after his mother died, and he couldn't very well fend for himself at five years old. Did that make him less than a child? Guess that could eliminate this problem with not having enough foster homes, couldn't it," Chris said. "Unwanted children of any age could just be eliminated. With the savings, we could probably get a national health care plan."
"You're talking crazy, now," Buck said.
"There's a lot of crazy in the world," Chris said. He stood up and walked away. He came to a stop by Ezra's desk.
Wanting to drop the pointless discussion and near argument they'd been having, Buck took the chance to change topics.
"What do think about Andrews?" Buck asked.
"I don't know," Chris said. "He's a good enough guy, I guess. What did you think about him?"
Buck shrugged. "He was okay. Didn't seem standoffish. Knew his sports. Didn't dress funny."
"Bet he can't play poker worth shit," Chris said.
"Probably not." Buck stood. "We'll give him a chance, right?"
"Yeah," Chris said. "We'll see how he does with this first case." He looked up. "Want to head to the Saloon?"
"I don't know…" Buck hedged, thinking of how crowded the bar was likely to be.
"Oh, come on," Chris said. "Who's going to take their date to the Saloon on Valentine's Day?"
Buck agreed with a laugh and the two old friends headed out the door. "How about we see if Vin's Valentine's Day is going any better than ours?"
"Sounds like a plan," Chris said as they shut off the one lamp and headed out the doors.
Ezra had to admit it was fun to be in Europe. The office details were Adrienne's responsibility so he was free to entertain potential clients and travel the continent refreshing his language skills. He had nearly daily contact with the others through e-mail and particularly relished Nathan's information on what Raine was experiencing with her pregnancy. He watched Adrienne carefully and, while he was grateful she had always had healthy eating and lifestyle habits, he worried that she made no efforts to see a doctor. He reassured himself that women had been having children for centuries without the type of prenatal care that modern society seemed to insist on and routinely ignored the infant mortality rates from those same centuries.
Ezra found time to visit France several times and, as he was enjoying a simple lunch one day, happened upon an old acquaintance from Colorado which prompted an e-mail to Chris.
To: Chris Larabee
From: Ezra Standish
As I was dining in Paris this afternoon, I happened upon a mutual acquaintance of ours. Mr. Daniel Roshan approached me and struck up a conversation. If you recall, Mr. Roshan left town before we could extend an invitation for him to enjoy Uncle Sam's hospitality.
He was wondering if I still had any connections in the States who would be interested in buying some equipment for personal or territorial safety from a client of his. He has not yet confided in me who his client is, but I thought perhaps you could give me the name of your new undercover operative and I could offer to introduce them. We might be able to induce him to return to the States and you could then extend that offer of free room and board from Uncle Sam.
If you would like to discuss this further, please let me know. If you don't believe it is feasible, I will simply tell him I could find no one interested in his proposition.
Ezra P. Standish.
Chris and the rest of Ezra's former teammates jumped at the chance to get Roshan. The man had slipped through their fingers last year in a combined ATF-FBI operation. Chris knew Ezra felt partially responsible for the man's escape even though the blunder was clearly on the FBI's shoulders. Ezra had told Chris the blunder may have stemmed from some lingering mistrust between Ezra and certain fibbies who had been in Atlanta when Ezra was there.
With the groundwork Ezra was able to lay in Europe, Team 7 quickly set up the operations necessary on their end to reel the man in. All they really had to do is get the gentleman back in their jurisdiction. They could have started extradition proceedings and gotten him through those channels, but even the French authorities were interested in what the man was trying to deal through their country and who he represented.
Chris put Ezra in contact with their new undercover man and watched the web spin.
Drawn from their own ranks in Denver, Tony Andrews was eager to fit in with Larabee's infamous crew. He was friendly, out-going, easily joined in discussions of basketball, football, fishing and hunting. Taller than Ezra and definitely less fastidious in his personal attire and in maintaining his desk, he was also always on time.
He didn't spout convoluted sentences filled with multi-syllable words. He didn't deal a deck of cards with the style and finesse of an Old West card sharp. He wasn't an accomplished rider by a long shot. He didn't comment disdainfully on their "uncouth" and "barbaric" behavior or their "childish" pranks.
In short, he was no fun at all and only served to reinforce how much the other six men missed Ezra.
The case gave the men legitimate reasons to contact Ezra on company time, however. Whenever Andrews spoke with Ezra, the other six seemed to hover near his desk and take the chance to ask questions of their own about the case.
On one such call in early March, Ezra heard Nathan paged by Raine. The medic's sudden panic drew Ezra's concern until he realized the man had just been called to meet her at the hospital. He listened as Josiah offered to drive the nervous new father to the hospital. Realizing it was Friday and their work for the week was about done until he could set up the next meeting, Ezra made his excuses, said his good-byes and suggested the others join Nathan at the hospital.
Six men waited anxiously with Raine's family to hear the news of the birth. JD looked at the people gathered to hear word and share Nathan's joy and thought of Ezra.
Buck noticed his young friend's sudden melancholic face. "What's up?" Buck asked. "Don't worry. Raine will be fine."
"I know," JD said. "I was just thinking about Ezra. Who's going to be there when his baby's born?"
Buck frowned at the thought. He thought about suggesting Maude, but he wasn't sure she even knew she was about to become a grandmother. Even if she knew, Ezra hadn't had much faith that she'd be supportive of his decision to be a father, much less a single father. He wondered if Ezra had even mentioned his new job to the woman.
Before they could discuss more, Nathan appeared at the door and waved Raine's family and his friends to him.
"It's a girl," Nathan said with a grin that threatened to split his face in two. His eyes alight with joy and wonder, Nathan nearly whispered his invitation to bring the others back in three groups. Chris and the others stepped back to let Raine's family visit first. Nathan remained in the waiting room with them for a moment, trying to explain the wonder of seeing his daughter's birth and failing miserably to put two coherent words together to explain it. Chris simply hung at the edge of the group and smiled remembering his own experience. He knew there was no better way to describe the experience than Nathan's ear-to-ear grin.
Half an hour later, Chris, Josiah, Vin, Buck and JD were escorted back to Raine's room to meet their new niece. Nathan hovered at Raine's side, one hand protectively on her arm or shoulder or back and the other constantly adjusting the blankets that swathed his new-born daughter. Nathan looked at his friends and couldn't wipe the smile from his face although it dimmed momentarily as he counted heads.
"Hey," he suddenly called, straightening from his family's side, "anybody got Ezra's phone number?"
Five hand slid wallets from their pockets to retrieve the requested telephone number while Nathan began to look for instructions on making an overseas call from the hospital phone.
"What time is it there, anyway?" Nathan asked as he dialed.
Everyone shrugged as they waited for Ezra to answer the phone.
"Hey, Ezra," Nathan said, grin spreading across his face again.
"Hello, Nathan," Ezra returned. "I can tell by the grin I hear in your voice that all is well with your family."
"You bet," Nathan agreed. "She was born about an hour and a half ago. Prettiest little thing you've ever seen."
"Without a doubt, my friend," Ezra agreed. "And what name have you selected for your progeny?"
"Ruth," Nathan said. "Her name is Ruth."
Nathan chatted with Ezra for a moment more before Ezra reminded him of the high cost of the phone call.
"Just had to let you know," Nathan said. "We miss you. I can't wait for you to meet her." The big black man turned away from his wife and the others slightly. "There's nothing like it," he whispered to his friend. "You'll know what I mean."
"I anxiously await my chance to meet your daughter, my friend," Ezra assured him. "Thank you for calling. But, if you wish to have any money for her college education, perhaps we should bid adieu and converse via less expensive means next time."
After passing on the best wishes and good-byes of the others gathered in the room, Nathan disconnected the call.
"Did anyone tell Tony where you've all gone?" Raine asked.
Six men looked silently at one another. Reluctantly, Chris agreed to go out and call their new team member and let him come down if he wanted to. Everyone breathed a quiet sigh of relief when Chris returned moments later to report Andrews had decided to stay at home where he was just about ready to call it a day.
By the middle of April, Ezra and Tony had laid the groundwork and set the trap for Roshan. Ezra convinced the man to return to the States to handle the deal personally while declining the invitation to join him. Ezra was already walking a fine line in keeping Adrienne from knowing he was acting out his previous job and not letting it interfere with his new position.
He did find the time to send Roshan off on the plane to the States before turning his attention once again more fully to his new responsibilities.
Ezra waited anxiously to hear from the team as the time and date for the meet passed. He wanted to know that not only had they caught Roshan but that he would be punished. At long last, Ezra received a barrage of e-mails detailing the takedown and assuring him no one had been injured although things had gotten a little hairy for a while when Andrews nearly gave their positions away with an ill-timed check-in.
With Roshan in American custody, the French authorities turned to a much more involved investigation of the man's time in their country. Their research and the interrogation of Roshan revealed a German connection and eventually connected the suppliers and buyers to the major investors backing Halbrooks & Carlton's new office.
When word reached the Denver headquarters, they recalled Adrienne immediately. By late April, Ezra and Adrienne had been summoned back to Denver with the news that there would be no office in Germany at this time and they would both be reassigned.
Adrienne was decidedly unhappy with the turn of events and Ezra was barely able to get an e-mail out to Chris and the others that he would be in Denver soon. On the last day of April, Ezra and Adrienne were on a plane to return to Denver. He had gotten a message out via e-mail on when they were expected to arrive. To Adrienne's intense ire, no company car awaited them at Denver's terminal but Vin and Buck had managed to bring Ezra's Jag there for him. With heartfelt thanks, Ezra accepted the keys even as he turned abruptly from their company. He told them he would get by the office as soon as he could.
Getting out of the car was not the easiest thing for Adrienne to do in her advanced state of pregnancy. Ezra counted it as luck they had been called back now and not a couple of weeks later as airline restrictions could have kept Adrienne from flying by that time. Ezra had no doubts that in a contest between her career and keeping the baby, the baby would lose out. A part of him had hoped Adrienne might develop a love for the child, but for the most part, she continued on with her life as though she weren't pregnant.
By the time Ezra had helped Adrienne settle into a hotel room for the evening and begin to recover from the jet lag, it was well past 7 pm. She snapped a refusal to go anywhere for dinner and instead had Ezra order room service which she took in her room of their suite. Ezra waited until she had fallen asleep--which happened almost as soon as she finished her meal--before leaving the hotel. He drove by the ATF building but easily spotted the darkened office windows of Team 7's floor. He continued on to Inez's bar and was relieved to see his compatriots' vehicles parked in the lot. He hurried in to join them.
"Ezra!" JD's voice greeted his entrance enthusiastically, and he soon found himself surrounded by his friends and escorted to their traditional table. He looked at the six men gathered there and took his customary chair with indescribable relief.
"Nathan," he found himself chiding, however, "why are you here instead of with your lovely wife and daughter?"
"Because they're waiting for me to call and tell them to come down. We wanted to make sure you were going to show."
"It looks like rain," Ezra said. "Surely it would be best for them to stay inside. I will make time to drop by and see them tomorrow."
"Raine likes to get out of the house and she loves to show Ruth off. Besides, neither one of them is going to melt."
"I thought you daughter was sweeter than sugar," Ezra teased. He had eagerly read each of Nathan's e-mails detailing the changes one small child had wrought on his and Raine's quiet life.
"She may look it, but she hasn't figured out this sleeping all night thing yet."
"Perhaps she just prefers the night."
"Lord, I hope not."
"And what, may I inquire, is so bad about preferring the night?"
"When you have a daughter, you'll have your own answer."
"Speaking of kids," JD said. "Any idea what yours is?"
"Yes," Ezra answered. "It is a child."
JD frowned. "You know what I mean. Girl or boy?"
Ezra shrugged and gave his attention to his just arrived drink. "I do not know," Ezra said. "Adrienne has resisted any efforts to find out."
"She's not the least bit curious?" Nathan asked.
"No," Ezra said.
"What brings you back to the Denver?" Chris asked to end that line of questioning. "I thought you'd be there another month at least."
"As did we," Ezra replied. "I'm afraid it may have to do with our mutual friend's recent apprehension by American authorities."
"I'm not quite sure just yet. I expect I'll know more by tomorrow. What about you gentlemen? What are your plans on the morrow?"
"We're backing up Smith's guys."
"Ah," Ezra said as he looked around. "Isn't there someone missing?" he asked.
"Not anymore," JD said, looking at the six men gathered around him. "Why?"
"Is your Mr. Andrews on assignment?"
"Nope. He just decided not to come tonight."
"Oh. I was hoping to meet him in person. How is he coping with working with you reprobates?"
"Okay?" Ezra repeated. "He has a stellar reputation, not only with the brass but with his fellow agents."
"He's good," Buck said. "Real regular guy. Drinks plain, old American beer; watches all the right sports; hunts, fishes."
"Can't play poker worth shit," Chris muttered.
"Can't play a practical joke to save his life," Vin offered.
"Vocabulary could use some work," Nathan ventured.
"I wasn't aware those were qualifications to be an ATF agent. Perhaps I was better suited than I thought," Ezra said, trying to keep the smile from his face.
"They may not be qualifications for being an ATF agent," Josiah agreed, "but they are what we miss about you, my friend."
Ezra looked down at his drink. "Thank you," he whispered. Before he could say more, Chris' phone rang.
With regret, Chris called the evening to an end. The timetable had been moved up and the six of them needed to go in for a meeting. Nathan took the chair beside Ezra before leaving.
"Go by and see Raine and Ruth. Raine loves showing the baby off. Maybe you can get some pointers." Nathan waited until Ezra nodded, then tapped the still seated man on the shoulder before following his teammates out the door.
Ezra remained where he was until his drink was gone then called Raine and made his way to her house. It was late before he left the small home Raine and Nathan owned.
He had immersed himself in learning about infants and their care. He had taken some classes in Europe at community centers and schools but, as he realized again this evening, holding the real thing was somewhat different that playing with a life-sized doll. With fear and excitement mingling in his soul, Ezra made his way back to the hotel.
By 10 am, Adrienne had left for a meeting with Mr. Halbrooks, a meeting to which Ezra had specifically not been invited. He stayed close to the suite awaiting Adrienne's return and mulling over whatever his friends had been called to. Before Adrienne's return or he heard from his former teammates, Ezra himself was summoned to Halbrooks' office.
The meeting was short and to the point: without the Germany office, the workforce would have to be pared down. The company would have to regroup. Halbrooks would still like to have Ezra on the team. If the former ATF agent wanted, he would find a way to keep Ezra and ditch Adrienne. As things now stood, Adrienne would likely be headed to Atlanta.
"Adrienne was promised New York if she didn't get to stay in Germany," Ezra reminded Halbrooks.
"But things have changed," Halbrooks reminded him. "Adrienne knows with the shakeup, we want someone in New York by next month. Peterson has decided to leave earlier than we thought. We need to fill his space."
"The baby's not due for another two months," Ezra said.
"Yes, I know. But we really can't hold the position for her, and I don't think it's fair to put her in place only to have her take time off within the month."
"It wouldn't be for long," Ezra argued. "You know as soon as the child is born, Adrienne will be back at work. She won't require any maternity leave, as such."
"It's not a risk I can take at this point," Halbrooks said. Ezra studied the businessman silently, trying to come up with a way in which he could salvage Adrienne's position in the company. Halbrooks smiled coldly. "Give it up, Secret Agent Man," he sneered. "I know what happened in France. It's just as well. I don't think you were as cut out for international business as I had hoped. A true waste of your talents, you know. Anyone ever told you that?"
Ezra studied his former employer for another moment then rose swiftly and moved to the door. He paused there. "As a matter of fact, others have told me that. However, as I had little respect for them or their opinion, it has never made a difference in my life."
Ezra hurried back to the hotel, afraid of what he might find. If Halbrooks had left Adrienne with the belief that she could still be assigned to New York if she were ready by next month, she might renege on their agreement in order to get the advancement. He was frightened and at a loss of what to do when he returned to the hotel and found the suite empty. Worst case scenarios ran swiftly through his mind and he reached out to his friends. Unfortunately, the raid had forced them to turn their cell phones off. After leaving a nearly incoherent message on Vin and Chris' phones, he realized they would be out of contact for a while and he tried to think of other avenues of action. Before he settled on a plan, Adrienne stormed into the rooms. With a cold look and clipped voice, she informed him she expected him to get her to Atlanta.
After the hassles on their flight from Paris, Adrienne realized it would be difficult to fly without a letter from her doctor. Not having a doctor or any records to prove when she was due, Adrienne reasoned Ezra could get her to Atlanta. She knew he had been making plans to stay there before and after the child was born.
"When did you say that condominium would be ready for you?" Adrienne asked as Ezra breathed a sigh of relief at her still-pregnant figure.
"It should be ready by next week," Ezra said. "Is that where you'd like to go now?"
"The sooner, the better," she snapped moving into the other room to pack the few things she had used so far.
"I'll call and see if we can get in early," he said.
She came back out into the shared room of the suite. "You do know I don't want to see your face again after this is over."
"I assure you, my dear, the feeling is mutual. I met with Halbrooks. My employment with your precious company has been effectively terminated. However, considering that he offered to keep me at the expense of your position, perhaps you should reconsider your loyalties to the company."
"Who said I had any loyalty to the company?" Adrienne asked, turning back to her room. "Let me know when we're ready to leave."
Ezra smiled sadly at himself and packed up his own things. Within five minutes he had settled the bill and called for the car to be brought around. Knocking softly on Adrienne's door, he told her they could leave any time. Within moments, she was leading the way downstairs and out to the car.
"Do you want to stop for something to eat?" he asked, noting the time was close to 1 pm.
"Just get me the hell out of this town," she snapped. "And leave me alone."
Vin Tanner checked his voice mail on his cell phone as soon as he had secured his rifle and headed back toward the team's office. He listened to the strange message from Ezra then tried to redial the number only to find Ezra had checked out of the hotel by then.
"Anyone else get a message from Ez?" Vin asked as he walked through the office doors. Five heads indicated no messages but all looked up as Chris appeared in his doorway with the phone to his ear.
"I got one," he said. They waited in silence as Chris listened to the message, his expression growing more puzzled by the moment. "What the hell is that about?"
"Yours didn't make sense, either, huh?" Vin asked.
"What's going on?" Buck asked.
"Ez left a message on my phone, but I'll be damned if I know what it means. He sure is upset about something. I tried a call-back but he's already left the hotel. Wanted to know what you might have heard before I called his cell."
"Well, call him, all ready," JD said.
Vin and Chris shared a quick look and Chris nodded for Vin to go ahead with the call. Hitting Ezra's number on the speed dial, Vin was surprised to hear service to the number had been cancelled. Six men shared worried looks when he relayed the news.
"He shut off his personal phone?" Josiah asked.
"I think that's the one the company got him," Vin said.
"He's been using that one most of the time lately," Nathan said. "Said it was one of his perks."
"Doesn't sound good if it's been shut off," Buck reasoned aloud. "Think that business he was talking about got him canned?"
Chris shrugged as he pulled up his own directory and dialed in Ezra's personal cell phone. He waited for it to ring out and left a message.
"Ezra," Chris said, "this is Chris. We're looking for you. Give us a call when you can." He shut off his phone looked out at his worried friends. "That's all we can do for now. Get finished with your reports. I'll let you know if I hear anything."
They worked in near silence for the next several hours. As 5 pm neared, five of the six men in the outer office froze when Chris' cell phone rang and he walked to the doorway of his office.
"Ezra?" Chris asked. "Slow down. Where are you?" Five men waited tensely as their leader fell silent, confusion and frustration evident on his face. "What happened? Are you all right? Adrienne? The baby?" Chris sighed after another long moment. "Okay. Just calm down. Someone will be there soon. Just hang on." He hung up and looked at Vin.
"You about done?" he asked. Vin nodded. His part in the operation had been minimal and his report was shorter even than usual. "Head over to St. Mary's Hospital. It's on the south side of town."
"What's going on?" Buck asked.
"Not sure. He's upset. They were headed out of town. I don't know if there was a wreck or what, but Adrienne's in the hospital and I think the baby's on its way."
"Early, isn't it?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah," Chris said. He motioned toward Vin. "I think he needs some company. We'll be there as soon as we can."
"On my way," Vin said, grabbing his jacket and heading out.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Tony asked from his desk. Five sets of eyes turned toward him as one and he had the unnerving feeling that his teammates for the past three months were trying to remember who he was. Finally, Chris answered his question.
"Thanks. We got it."
Vin made his way through the maze of corridors and finally found the waiting room for the maternity ward. Ezra was standing at the windows of the waiting room, disheveled hair and rumpled suit attesting to his nervousness even more so than the continuous shuffling of the cards in his hands. Vin approached quietly and stood beside him for several seconds, hoping the man would sense him and respond. When a full minute passed without an indication from Ezra that Vin had joined him, the long-haired man finally spoke softly.
"Hey, Ez," he called softly. He watched in the reflection as Ezra's green eyes shifted minutely and the tense man acknowledged his presence with a nod.
"Vin," Ezra whispered in greeting.
"What's going on?"
Ezra bit his lip and closed his eyes before answering.
"She took something," he finally whispered. "She took something to induce labor and then she insisted we leave town. Fortunately, traffic tie-ups kept us from getting far and I was able to bring her here."
"What do you mean she took something?"
"She left her meeting with Halbrooks and found some concoction, or maybe she had it all along, to take that induces labor."
"Isn't that dangerous? What if you hadn't been near a hospital?"
"I think that was her plan," Ezra said. "I think she wanted us to be in the middle of nowhere. I think she wanted me to deliver my child and watch it die because it was premature and there was no help."
"Ez, that can't be. It would be too dangerous for her."
"She was furious, Vin," he said. "Halbrooks was sending her to Atlanta instead of New York unless she could be ready to take over in New York within the month."
"I thought you were going to Atlanta."
Ezra gave a small, sad smile. "It seems the people behind the arms deal were also behind the new Bonn office," he said. "When plans were shut down for a new German office, apparently I became superfluous."
"He fired you?" Vin asked after a moment.
"Yes. He also told Adrienne she would have to be ready next month if she wanted the transfer to New York." Ezra turned away from the window and took a seat on the nearest couch.
"So she planned to be ready."
"At least she didn't go find an abortion clinic," he said. "You got her here. Babies are born two months early all the time, aren't they?"
"Unless whatever she took damaged the child," Ez said.
"How long have you been here?"
Ezra looked at his watch. "About three hours." He took a deep breath and leaned back into the couch. "Other than the report that she evidently took something to induce labor, I haven't been told anything." He looked toward the double doors into the delivery area. "She refused to allow me in the room. So all I can do is wait."
Vin wanted to say something to help his friend but couldn't think of a thing so he simply laid a gentle hand on the man's shoulder and squeezed once before settling beside him to wait. An hour and a half later the rest of Ezra's former teammates came in. Ezra, again pacing the nearly deserted room, glanced up and barely registered the arrival of his five friends before another figure caught his eye. Moving purposefully toward the door, he nodded curtly at his friends and skirted them to approach the nurse who stood at the double doors.
"Mr. Standish?" she asked as he approached. Afraid to speak, Ezra simply nodded. "Come with me please," she said, turning and leading him through the doors.
Chris turned to Vin.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Not sure," Vin said. "He's been here since about 2:30, he said." Vin paused before going on at Chris' silent request. "Only thing they've told him is she must've taken something that made the baby come." He shrugged helplessly. "They haven't told him anything beyond that."
"Nate?" JD asked quietly. "What happens if the baby's this early?"
Nate hesitated at being put on the spot. His training and experience had been more in treating field emergencies and traumas, not pregnancies. As a recent father, he knew more than most of the guys about the baby's development, but things had gone smoothly for him and Raine. Their daughter had been born a little past its due date, nothing like two months early.
"I don't know," he said. "They've come a long way in treating premature babies. I don't think two months is a huge issue, but if she took something, it could have hurt the baby anyway. Nothing's really sure even if it's full term and the mother's had good care during her pregnancy. Ezra's baby… I don't think Adrienne's been to a doctor or anything. There's no way of knowing, JD."
"Guess we wait then," Josiah said, taking a seat on one of the couches. The others settled around him, sharing small talk about a variety of subjects.
"What brought him all the way out here?" JD finally asked no one in particular. "I mean, he was staying in that ritzy place on the north side. How did he end up on this side of town?"
"They were headed to Atlanta," Vin said. "He got fired, and Adrienne is supposed to go to Atlanta in his place. Ez said she was mad about that, about missing out on Germany and on New York. He said Halbrooks told her she could have New York if she was ready to take over in a month. Ez thinks she maybe did what she did so she would be able go to New York."
"My God," Josiah said. "What if they'd been on the road, far from help?"
Vin was silent.
"That's what she planned on, isn't it?" Chris asked. "She figured she'd survive the birth, but the baby wouldn't. She'd get what she wanted and Ezra would be left with nothing."
"That could have gotten her killed as well," Nate said.
"Yeah, well, I don't reckon she was thinking too clearly," Vin said. "She just wanted to hurt Ez for messing up her career plans." He looked at the double doors. "I just hope she doesn't get everything she wants."
After another thirty minutes of no word, Buck walked up to the nearest nurses' station and began to ply his charm to gain information. He returned after another thirty minutes with a mixture of news. The grin on his face was enough to ease the minds of his friends, however.
"It's a boy," he announced to the group. "Seems Ez and Adrienne must've messed up their counting. He was pretty close to ready to be born. He's not premature by more than a week or so." His grin spread to the rest of the men. "They're introducing Daddy and son right now. We should be able to see them soon." His smile faded.
"What?" JD asked.
"Seems Adrienne left a bad taste in folks' mouths around here. Not sure exactly what she said, but she let everyone know she didn't want to see the baby or the father or have anything to do with either one."
"Ez sure knows how to pick 'em, don't he?" Vin muttered.
Nathan shook his head sadly for a moment at the comment and then headed off to a bank of public phones in a corner of the waiting room. "Raine will want to know," he explained.
Fifteen minutes later the men were still waiting and Chris finally had enough. He stood and motioned to Nathan to step aside with him. Quizzing the recent father about the set up of the hospital where Nathan's daughter was born, Chris nodded and stepped into the corridor. He checked out the signs, picked out a likely direction and headed off through a set of double doors.
Watching the temporary signs on the outside of the doors, Chris paused when he saw one labeled "Standish," and peeked his head into the room. He smiled as he saw Ezra holding his son, gentle hands tracing the baby's face, examining the delicate, tiny hands. He remembered well the awe of holding his son for the first time, remembered the wonder of seeing his son born and regretted that Adrienne had denied Ezra that opportunity, that feeling. He recognized the longing in the man's unguarded expression, as well. He had seen it a few times when Ezra had first joined their ranks, had seen it flash across his face when the other six had engaged in some hyjinx that seemed to exclude him, when they had traded inside jokes from those few months from before Ezra had joined them. The longing was plain to see as was the feeling that he was denied the thing he longed for so desperately.
"Hey," Chris called, announcing his presence as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
Ezra looked up and smiled, genuine awe and love for the child he held reflected openly on his face.
"I have a son," Ezra whispered.
"So I hear," Chris said. He crouched beside father and son to admire the child. "We were hoping to get a glimpse of him ourselves, you know," he hinted.
"Oh," Ezra said. "I'm sorry. I seem to have quite forgotten about you."
"I understand." Chris put his own rough finger out to touch the baby's hand. "He's beautiful. Congratulations."
"Thank you," Ezra acknowledged as he turned back to stare at his son. He worried his lip between his teeth.
"Everything all right with him?" Chris asked.
"Yes," Ezra said. "They believe he's perfectly healthy. It seems he was almost ready to join us anyway and whatever Adrienne took should not have affected him. Seven pounds, seven ounces, and 19 inches long."
"He's beautiful," Chris repeated.
"What am I doing?" Ezra whispered after a moment.
Chris looked up from the child to study his friend.
"Feeling a little overwhelmed?" Chris asked. He stood and moved to sit on a loveseat across from Ezra and the child.
"I have a condo leased in Atlanta," Ezra said. "We… I thought the baby was due in two months. I had planned to have a decorator prepare the place and a reputable company was seeking a qualified nanny for when I eventually moved into the apartment with my child."
Ezra raised the child to his shoulder and held him close, breathing deeply of his newly cleaned scent.
"I had everything planned," he continued. "And now it's for no purpose."
"Lesson number one in parenthood: don't get too attached to your plans," Chris advised with a smile. Ezra didn't return the light-hearted tone.
"I'm a fool, Chris," he said harshly. "What ever made me believe I could raise a child? I have no job. I have no home. I have no money. I have no idea of how a good parent acts. I have been deluding myself for months."
"So you're just giving up?" Chris asked.
"I told you, Chris. I have been fired. Every available dime I have has gone to Adrienne to keep her happy enough to not kill this child. I have no where to go. I have no where to take the child. I have no idea how to care for a baby."
"You don't seem to be doing so badly there," Chris said.
"I am in no position to raise this child by myself."
"What makes you believe you're by yourself?"
Ezra finally looked up from his son to see Chris leaning forward, staring intently at him.
"I told you when you left, you weren't getting out of this family that easily. I told you that if you ever needed anything, we'd be there for you."
"I don't think a penniless, homeless and jobless single parent is what you had in mind."
"I didn't have anything in mind," Chris said. "Or maybe I had everything in mind. Ezra," he said quietly, "I'm a single man with a three-bedroom house. I think I can find room for a friend and his child. It's been a while, but I do have experience with babies, this model in particular. If you're uncomfortable living with me or just being so far from the city, Josiah's house is nearly finished, and he's got more than enough room for you and the baby. Nathan knows what to expect from babies. Buck's even been known to change a diaper or two.
"If you gotta have some female input, I'd say Raine's got some experience by now, and Casey's been doting on that girl so much you'd think it was hers. If you need a little more experience, Nettie'd be glad to help out, I'm sure. Or even Evie Travis." Chris reached across the open space to grip Ezra's knee. "You are not alone."
"That still leaves penniless and jobless," Ezra finally ventured through a tight throat.
"You're a talented guy. If you want, we'll look at what we can find back with us. We'll do whatever needs to be done if there's a chance you'll be back on the team. That will take care of both." Chris grinned. "Sort of. You might be reduced to off-the-rack suits like the rest of us, but believe me, the dry cleaning bills could really get out of hand with a baby in the house."
Ezra looked away and brought the baby down into his arms so he could feast his eyes on his child again.
"I know nothing about being a good parent," he whispered.
"You'll do fine," Chris assured him. "We've all seen you with kids. You'll be fine."
"Playing with another's child is much different than literally holding a child's life in your hands," Ezra countered.
Chris studied his friend for a moment. "If you really don't want to do this, Ezra, I'll stand behind your decision. We all will, but remember, we'll be there for you anyway we need to be if you decide to hang on to him."
"I want to raise my son more than anything on this earth," Ezra said, "but nothing has ever frightened me quite as much."
"You'll get used to it," Chris promised.
Ezra looked to him for reassurance. "Really?"
"No," Chris said with a smile, "but it'll be worth it." He stood. "So, can we take him out of here or should I bring the others back?"
Ezra rose carefully, cradling his son in his arms. "I believe I'll come out there. Nathan and Josiah alone would fill this room." He looked at Chris and took a deep breath. "Lead on."
Chris led the way to the waiting room where five men anxiously waited to see their "nephew."
"Ezra?" Chris called out softly as he entered the newly decorated nursery in his house. None of the frilly stuff most women would put in it, Chris thought as he looked around the small room, but not bad for the efforts of six men, five of whom were bachelors. Good thing the kid was a boy because the room's tans and blues, cowboys, Indians, horses and car eclectic motif was definitely masculine. Not a spec of lace to be seen.
Ezra was where Chris almost always found him at this time of night, sitting in the rocking chair watching his son sleep. Chris leaned against the open door.
"You know," he advised, "it's generally a good idea to get as much sleep as you can when they sleep."
"I know," Ezra said in a whisper, "but I still can't seem to get enough of him." He stopped rocking and stood to look down on the sleeping child in the crib. "My son."
"Yeah," Chris said with a tolerant smile. He came into the room and stood beside the besotted new father. "You know, Nathan is insanely jealous that you, the night owl, have a week-old child that sleeps through the night and into the morning, while he, the early-to-bed type, has a two-month-old that wants to wake up every two hours."
"Sweet justice," Ezra opined.
They watched the child sleep for a moment more before Chris went on.
"You know, you really need to come up with a name."
"Ezra's a fine name," Chris said.
"And have Buck call him Junior the rest of his life? I think not." Ezra paused and Chris sensed he was ready to give voice to his choice of names. "Are you familiar with the story of our mythical parents as told in Genesis?"
Chris pondered the question for a moment. "Adam and Eve?" Ezra nodded. "Much as anyone, I guess."
"You are familiar with their son, Seth, given to them by God after Cain murdered his brother?" Again Chris nodded. "I think that I shall call him Seth. He is another chance for me."
Chris considered the reasoning and ventured into the little known of Ezra's past. "You've lost a child?"
"No," Ezra said. "I didn't lose a child. I threw mine away. Although given what I've learned these past few months, perhaps I was less to blame than I thought."
"Two college students. A unexpected, unwanted pregnancy." Ezra breathed deeply. "We had other plans. We had tentative thoughts of staying together, but we weren't ready for a child. It seemed the logical, intelligent thing to do. I knew what it was to be unwanted. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Now I find it...interesting...that I didn't feel wanted even as I was involved with the mother. I wonder what that says about our relationship. It stayed between us and eventually, we went our separate ways. We never considered alternatives. Perhaps you and your wife would have adopted him or her?"
"Doubt it. We would have been pretty far down on anyone's list," Chris admitted.
"But I would not have been haunted by cries in the past 15 years."
"It stuck with you that much?" Chris asked.
Ezra nodded. "He is my second chance." Ezra hesitated again. "There is another person who gave me a second chance. I would like to use his name for my son as well. I thought Seth Christopher sounded like a fine name." He refused to look at Chris, still keyed for rejection.
"I'd be honored," Chris told him quietly. He tugged at Ezra's arm. "Go to bed. The guys are coming out tomorrow. You have a name to announce, and bets to lose."
"Seth wasn't in the running, was it?"
"Nope," Chris said. He left Ezra at the doorway to the other guestroom in the house. "We have a meeting with Travis Monday," he said. "I think we've got a way to get you home."
"Thank you, Chris," Ezra said from his seat on the bed. "For everything."
"You're welcome." Chris tapped the side of the door frame. "Get some sleep."
Ezra nodded and lay back on the bed, listening to the sound of his child's breathing through the baby monitor on his nightstand. He crawled beneath the covers and fell asleep to the soft sounds, finding himself looking forward to the new day and a new life.
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