WARNINGS: Violence and some bleepable words (about the standard of Mog's ATF stories for such matters). Angst, some h/c and quite a bit of sap. DISCLAIMER: CBS created the "Magnificent Seven" characters and Mog transposed them into the ATF alternate universe. I own none of them and I'm making no money. Litigation just wouldn't be worth it, so please don't bother.
Yes, the girl's incorrigible! (Not to mention unoriginal and repetitive.) Mog asked if I'd considered venturing into the ATF AU. Well, some people only have one story within them, and I might be one of them. So, what the hell, I'm gonna bloody well tell the same one again!
Another fuck up of almighty proportions. One man (or boy, really) with his life hanging by a thread. Six others stunned into inertia. Enough guilt to start their own religion (as some songstress once put it).
But Ezra knew exactly where his own culpability lay. JD should never have been put in that position. He just wasn't cut out for undercover work and despite the importance of the objective, despite whatever surprising opportunity the kid had found and despite his eagerness to (no, because of his eagerness to), he should never have been allowed to go in.
And he wouldn't have had to, if Ezra hadn't let his cover be blown so early in the piece. He was supposed to be the undercover specialist. He was the one who was supposed to take those risks, because he was trained to handle them. JD should never have been there.
Now, the kid was just out of surgery. An abdominal bullet wound which had been allowed to bleed for hours. The surgeons had assured them that all had gone well. They'd sent him to Intensive Care for monitoring but said that they had every hope that he'd be alright.
His colleagues seemed intent on dissecting every aspect of events leading up to the shooting. Ezra didn't need the 'what ifs'. He didn't need people telling him that he wasn't at fault, when he knew he was. He didn't need to listen to the others, also wallowing in their collective guilt. He didn't need to think and analyse.
He needed to breathe. And he needed to talk to Angie.
Gloria Potter was surprised to hear the doorbell ring. But in the split second between placing her hand on the doorknob and drawing it open, she realised who would be standing there.
There he was. As usual, he hadn't called ahead to say that he was coming. Probably afraid that she would tell him, "No, it's not convenient." And he just might have been right.
But he observed most other courtesies. His arms were full of various gifts. A large bunch of flowers for the lady of the house. A bottle of expensive wine for her and her husband. A box of gourmet jelly beans for her two children to share. And a flat rectangular wrapped parcel for the true objective of his visit, the girl they'd been fostering for almost a year.
"Hello, Mrs Potter. I hope I'm not disturbin' you."
She bit back the answer she'd long wanted to give him, "Yes, you are disturbing me. Several things about you disturb me greatly, Mr Standish." I instead she murmured the usual pleasantries.
"Is Angie at home?" he asked, although she suspected he knew the answer. She had long believed that he conducted some sort of surveillance on the house, so that he could make sure that she was indeed present, before he even approached the door.
"Yes, she's in her room."
"May I see her?"
Again she half-wanted to refuse but couldn't. "Of course," she said and stood aside to let him enter.
He handed to her all of the gifts except for the wrapped parcel (which she knew would be inseparable from Angie for the next week) and walked calmly to the child's room without a backward glance.
She found herself glowering at his retreating back. What right did he have to just waltz in and out of the child's world like this? Just because he'd saved her life at one stage, didn't give him the right to ruin it in this way.
But she was the only one who saw his influence as detrimental. Maybe there was an element of jealousy in it. Although Angie appeared to be reasonably happy living with the Potter family, she seemed to live for these erratic visits by Ezra Standish.
He was unfailingly polite to the rest of the family. Her own two children were rather fond of him. Her husband saw no problem whatsoever. Gloria realised that what made her most anxious was the fact that the man's job had come close to costing him his life on several occasions already. What if one day, he failed to beat the odds? How would the child cope then? But then again, she supposed that it would be no worse than if he suddenly ceased coming of his own volition. There seemed to be no easy solution.
Gloria Potter sighed and went to set another place for dinner.
Ezra entered Angie's room surreptitiously. The door was open and she sat on the floor, engrossed in a masterpiece in crayon she was creating. She glanced up when he cleared his throat.
"Ezra!" Her face lit up like a supernova (or some other such stellar phenomenon) and she leapt up to greet him.
He gathered her into his arms, lifting her off the ground and embracing her tightly. "Hello, Angel girl."
Instant unconditional acceptance and enthusiastic unqualified affection. He'd forgotten what a powerful panacea the combination was. In those few seconds, there was no dishonour, no disappointments, no demons and no disasters. All was right with the world.
But perhaps, he continued the embrace a fraction too long. She was a perceptive child and drew back a little, looking slightly concerned.
"Everythin's fine," he lied and she regarded him sceptically.
He put her down and held out the wrapped parcel with a smile. "For you." She grinned in response and began opening it to reveal the book inside.
Ezra glanced at the shelf where the small collection resided. Dr Suess was well represented, along with Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. And there was that beautifully illustrated and bound Hans Christian Anderson anthology. All lovingly cared for, which he was deeply touched to see.
Angie had unwrapped the newest addition, entitled "Frog and Toad are Friends", and instinctively opened it to look at the inside cover. It was inscribed, like all the rest, with the date and, "To Angie. From Ezra. For all the usual reasons." She threw him the confident look of someone who knows they're on a sure thing.
"Read it to me tonight?"
He smiled, "Of course." That new one and all the old favourites, until she fell asleep in his arms as she always did, innocent and trusting despite all that had befallen her in her short life thus far.
He'd met her during the last undercover operation which had gone disastrously wrong (well, last before JD's experiences today). He'd managed to infiltrate the organisation of a small to middling arms dealer named Malcolm Greel, in hope of later penetrating the infamous Muldoon network, when his cover had been blown and everything had rapidly gone to hell.
It was via Angie that he had managed to get so deep into the organisation. That had been entirely unintentional, but sometimes he felt as though he'd used her and her mother.
He'd spied the four-year-old girl sitting forlornly at the edge of a party Greel had been holding as a cover for negotiations with Muldoon. Letting his guard down rather, he'd wandered over to strike up a conversation without even realising that she was the daughter of Greel's current mistress.
"Greetings, fair lady! Are you enjoyin' the evenin'?"
She looked up at him with surprise, then shrugged in response to his question.
Using one of his old sleight of hand party tricks, he reached behind her ear and produced a small chocolate which he'd taken from one of the tables. She smiled and took it from him.
"Who are you?"
He produced his current alias with a small courtly bow, "Ezra Simpson, at your service."
She extended her hand to be shaken, "Angie Velasquez, at your service too."
He took her hand but, still playing the old-fashioned Southern gentleman, turned it over to plant a light kiss on the back of it instead of shaking it. It was as if she'd just stepped into some kind of fairytale and she gazed at him somewhat in awe.
He smiled but behind that mask, his mind was racing. He'd made the connection. Velasquez, obviously daughter of Teresa. He had thought that everyone was ignoring the child because they considered her unimportant. But maybe they were avoiding associating with her because it was dangerous. It was said that the child was the only thing Teresa really cared about, and she did have a fearsome temper.
However, when her mother had approached, Angie had enthusiastically introduced Ezra to her. It was the crucial step in him gaining a proper foothold in the organisation.
Teresa was a young woman (barely into her twenties) who'd seen too much too early. She'd clawed her way up from the streets and grown a hard shell in doing so but he realised that underneath it she hid a heart that was still remarkably soft and vulnerable. She had instantly warmed to this man who had befriended her daughter and from that point on she took steps to help him rapidly advance into Greel's confidence.
But Teresa's friendship was a double-edged sword. While there was no deep emotion between her and Greel, he did regard her as his possession. And he began to become jealous of how much time she chose to spend with Ezra, even if they were constantly chaperoned by Angie.
Although he knew this problem was developing and had tried to keep a lid on it, Ezra felt himself being treated with more and more suspicion. And Teresa's position had become precarious as well. He still didn't know what had eventually blown his cover entirely though.
One day, Carlton Walsh, Greel's right hand man had walked in on the three of them together. Initially ignoring Teresa and Angie, he'd pulled a gun on Ezra.
"So, Mr Undercover, I suppose y'thought y'had us all fooled?"
Ezra hadn't had time to deny it before Teresa stepped in, "What the fuck are you talking about, Carlton?"
Walsh, who'd played second fiddle to her for years, suddenly flared, "Shut the fuck up, bitch! Come to think of it, why don't I fuckin' cap you an' your brat first an' save time."
Acting more on instinct than thought, as Walsh had fired a shot at them, Ezra had tackled Teresa (and Angie, whom she was carrying) out of the way. He got a bullet in the left thigh for his trouble.
He had nearly passed out from the sudden pain. But the momentum had thrown them out of Walsh's line of sight and Ezra managed to draw his own weapon before he walked around to take another shot.
Ezra had emptied his weapon in the general direction. Not knowing or caring where he hit the bastard, only that he stopped moving.
Then he saw Teresa leaning over him, "We have to get outa here!"
He nodded, and managed to ask, "Phone?"
Bewildered but trusting, she handed him her cell phone and he dialed Chris Larabee's number.
"Chris? It's Ezra. It's been blown. Y'best come in with all guns blazin'."
The tone of his voice must have given it away, because Chris asked him if he was hurt.
"A bit," he admitted, "But I'll be alright if you get here in time."
As he switched off the phone and handed it back to Teresa, he saw that her face had become expressionless.
"So, you are a cop."
"More or less," there was no point in denying it at this stage. He waited for her reaction.
She fixed him with an intense stare, "Promise me that you'll make sure Angie's okay!"
It was a promise which he'd have no trouble in keeping, given half the chance. "I promise you, but we'd best find a place to conceal ourselves, while we wait for the cavalry to arrive."
She nodded, as she helped him to his feet, "There's some storage rooms downstairs. We can barricade ourselves in there." She drew his left arm over her shoulder to help support his weight and somehow latched onto Angie, before they began to make their way downstairs.
He was barely aware of the journey until she propped him against a wall, while she opened a door, and he almost slid down it.
"Come on!" she almost growled as she managed to get the recalcitrant door open. He wasn't sure if she was speaking to it or to him. Then they were in a small darkened room.
She'd roughly bound his leg wound with some sort of cloth she'd found and the sudden lancing pain rapidly made him much more alert. She'd clapped her hand over his mouth when he'd almost cried out. He nodded his understanding and she released him, still listening intently. Then she whispered very softly, "I think they might be onto us. We left quite a bit of blood along the way."
She grasped her daughter by the shoulders, "Angie, as you love me, do exactly what Mr Simpson says and don't make a sound until he says it's okay."
Ezra knew his mind must have been still sluggish from the blood loss, because he still didn't grasp her intentions until she took one of his still loaded weapons and whispered fiercely, "Remember your promise!"
Then it was too late too protest. She was out the door and had locked it from the outside behind her, before he had even drawn breath to speak.
He and Angie sat in complete darkness. They heard Greel's voice and Teresa's hurling obscenities at each other and then gunfire. Ezra managed to lay one finger to Angie's lips, to remind her of her own promise to her mother. Then the darkness became complete silence as well.
Ezra didn't know how long he was out for but he became aware of voices again. Familiar voices. Chris, Buck and Nathan. He reached for Angie in the darkness and caught hold of her arm.
"Angie," he whispered, not for secrecy now but because he didn't have the strength to speak any louder, "They're friends. You have to let them know we're in here."
He felt her move away and heard her beat her fists against the door and shout, "We're here! We're here!" before he went under again.
Memories after that point came in snippets but Angie featured in all of them. A vague impression of being in an ambulance with Angie by his side, being held by Nathan. Waking in a hospital bed for brief moments to see her peering worriedly at him or perched on the end of his bed or asleep in Josiah's arms in a chair beside it.
It had been more than twenty-four hours before he was lucid enough to hold any sort of conversation. Angie was still there. He opened his eyes again to find her expectant features inches from his own.
"Hello," his voice was a raspy whisper.
She smiled with relief and almost shouted, "Hello!" in return.
He heard footsteps and JD also came into view. "Ezra! Finally!"
Ezra managed a feeble smile, "Yes, finally!" He'd tried to copy JD's enthusiastic tone but it still came out as a dry croak.
"Geez, y'sound like you've been lost in a desert for days!" JD reached over to offer him some water via a straw. After that, Ezra found his voice had almost returned to normal as he asked how long he'd been out for.
"More than a day. We were that worried when we found you. I, for one, nearly freaked when Chris opened that door to find little Angie here covered in blood. Yours, as it turned out."
"Yes, that must've been distressin'."
"Look, the others are downstairs in the cafeteria, grabbing some breakfast."
"It's alright, JD. You can go get them. Angie and I will be fine." Although, as he looked at the girl now, she actually looked rather distressed. But, JD took him at his word and, with a quick promise to return soon, was gone.
Ezra lifted a hand (which seemed to have become impossibly heavy) to put it on Angie's shoulder, "What's the matter?"
"They'll make me leave now. I got them to promise to let me stay until you woke up. But now you're awake, they'll make me go."
"It's alright. I'll make them let you stay a while longer. You wouldn't leave me alone with those six lunatics, would you?"
"But they said that they were going to send me away?"
"Who did? Chris?"
"No, the lady that came later. She said that they'd found a family for me to live with. I said I wanted to stay with you, Mr Simpson, and they said that you weren't Mr Simpson anyway, you were someone else."
Ezra took a deep breath. This was going to be difficult. "It's true, Angie. My real name's Ezra Standish."
Angie looked thoroughly betrayed, "You lied?"
The gaze cut him to the quick, "I had to, Angie. I'm so sorry, but I couldn't tell you the truth before." He raised himself up onto his elbows, despite the pain it caused in his left leg, not to mention the light-headedness. He was able to look her properly look into her eyes, as he breathlessly vowed, "But I give you my absolute word of honour now, that I will never lie to you again."
"Never?" she asked in a very small voice.
"Never!" he affirmed without hesitation.
"And can I stay with you, Mr Simp... Standish?"
He sighed, "Maybe you should just call me 'Ezra'. That has really been my name all along."
"Okay, Ezra. Can I stay?"
He took another deep breath, "I said that I'd never lie to you, Angie, and I won't now. It might not be possible. The authorities are unlikely to give me custody of you but I'm sure that the family they've chosen will be good to you."
She flared with sudden angry defiance. "I won't go! What do authorities know anyway! I won't stay with them. I'll run away!"
Alarm gave him the strength to push himself fully upright and grasp both her shoulders, "You mustn't! If you run away, I might not be able to find you! If you stay with the family like they say, I'll be able to come and see you as often as I can."
Her churned up emotions erupted into tears, "Promise?"
His own eyes were damp as he drew her into an embrace, "I promise, Angel girl. Do you think that I could abide losin' you?" The burst of adrenaline spent, he felt his strength fading and he couldn't help leaning rather heavily against her. But despite the slightness of her frame, she managed to support his weight until the others arrived.
The six of them were rather surprised by the sight that greeted them as they entered. Nathan could see that Ezra was about to fall and rushed forward.
"Ezra! What d'ya think yer doin'?" He gently disengaged them and eased Ezra back onto the bed.
"I'm alright, Nathan," Ezra protested weakly.
"Like Hell! Ya almost bled t'death less than two days ago. Most of the red stuff in ya now isn't yours, y'know."
"Don't fuss, Nathan."
"Yeah," said Buck, "That's what all them pretty nurses are for, eh Ezra? And I reckon with yer new reputation, you could have your pick of 'em."
Ezra looked at him in bewilderment, "What are you blatherin' about?"
"Oh that's right! Of course, y'don't know."
Ezra tried for patience but he was too tired to make much of an effort, "Know what?"
"Walsh's bin quite talkative while he's bin on the happy drugs. Keeps goin' on about how he took a shot at Angie an' her ma and cussin' at ya for pushin' them outa the way and taking the bullet y'self."
"Walsh is alive? I thought I emptied a clip into him."
"I think yer aim was a bit off by that stage, pard. Ya hit him a coupla times but he's pulled through. What he's bin sayin' mightn't be admissible evidence in court. But y're now a local legend, The man who throws himself in front've bullets t'protect women an' children."
Ezra shook his head sadly, "Angie and her mother saved my life, not the other way round. I take it Teresa's gone."
The others all nodded somberly.
"Not much left've her," said JD, then clapped his hand over his mouth when he realised her daughter was still in the room.
Ezra had begun to drift off again soon after. Most of the others left then but they still couldn't manage to get Angie to go.
She only agreed to go with her foster family when they promised that she could visit Ezra every day of his hospital stay. And during his convalescence leave, he'd returned the favour, spending most days with her and reading her to sleep every night.
And he continued to visit as regularly as he could, when he wasn't undercover. He didn't tell his colleagues, just quietly slipped away. He assumed that they thought that his interest had gradually dwindled. But he knew that such a thing would never, ever happen.
She was the brightest part of his life. His bridge over troubled water, as it were.
Nothing would ever be allowed to come between them.
He gently extracted himself from Angie's slumbering embrace and placed the books back on the shelf. Then he checked that she was sleeping comfortably, before planting a light kiss on her forehead.
"Goodnight, Angel girl," he whispered, "See you soon, I hope."
He looked back at her once more as he turned out the light, then headed for the front door.
Gloria Potter was waiting for him there. He knew the woman had always mistrusted him and it seemed that she had something to say.
"Would it be so terrible to be here one morning when she wakes up?"
He was mildly surprised. "I wouldn't want to impose."
Her eyebrows went up at that. "There's a spare bedroom. I think we could cope."
If the offer of hospitality was genuine, he was tempted. But he suspected that she would really rather that he left. And anyway, he needed to get back to the hospital to check on JD.
"Perhaps another time. I have a friend in hospital and I really must return to reappraise his condition."
She looked unconvinced. Why was it that people only seemed to disbelieve him when he was telling the truth?
Still, he offered her a cordial smile as he bade her goodnight.
He climbed into his car, retrieved his cell phone from the glove compartment and switched it on. Not long after he dialled Nathan's number, his colleague's voice came though, a mixture of anger and relief.
"Ezra! Where the hell have you been?"
He was characteristically vague, "Oh, around. Needed to get some air."
Nathan snorted, "Well, at least you sound sober."
"I am sober. Haven't touched a drop all night, in fact." He hadn't even shared the wine at dinner.
"Yeah, sure!" Nathan made no effort to hide his disbelief. Once again, Ezra found himself unjustly accused of misinformation. Why bother, he wondered.
"He's gonna be okay. Woke up briefly a while ago, accordin' to Josiah. But he's sleepin' peacefully now and the docs say they're now sure that he'll make a full recovery."
"Thank God." Some of the guilt barely being held at bay, actually lifted.
"Yeah. Are you gonna drop by?"
"I'm on my way now."
"Good. See ya soon. And drive carefully!"
As he put the phone away, Ezra briefly reconsidered Gloria Potter's previous offer. It would be nice to be there when Angie woke up, maybe have breakfast with her and the family. But as he looked back towards the house, he saw that all the lights were already out. He really shouldn't wake them. And he'd told Nathan that he was on his way.
"Maybe next time, Angel girl," he murmured, as he started the engine, "maybe next time."
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