A/N: This is my first Magnificent Seven fic. It's a oneshot dedicated to Independence Day. So happy belated fourth of July to all of those who celebrated it here in America! This is running pretty much unbeta'd, so please let me know if I've got the boys in character. I do want to do them justice. This may be considered slightly AU... you'll just have to decide that for yourselves when the moment arises.

Disclaimer: Unfortunately, they aren't mine. There would've been more seasons if they were.

Ezra was up to something.

Actually, he had been up to something for awhile. Chris had noticed him acting a little oddly back in March for about a week after returning from a short trip. Then the Harrison brothers had rustled some cattle and shot a man, forcing the Seven to take care of that problem. Ezra had been his typical self after that, so Chris thought nothing of it.

Until now, anyway.

Larabee was starting to quietly seethe in frustration at his inability to figure out the gambler's latest scheme. Ezra had been becoming more and more reclusive. He spent a lot of time locked away up in his room with the doors latched and the windows shut, even though it was mid-June and hot as Hell. He gambled less and rode out by himself more. At first, Chris hadn't noticed it too much, until Vin commented that he had actually been able to win some money playing poker instead of losing it all because Standish wasn't at the tables much any more.

However, the gambler was smart. He still went out on patrol whenever he was assigned, he took his turns watching the jail, and when Chris handed out jobs, he accepted his role without argument – well, no more argument than usual. That meant that Chris had absolutely no reason to rebuke the Southerner.

The others had noticed the change, too, and while they all quietly worried about Ezra's sudden reclusiveness, they were a bit relieved, too. It was almost impossible to resist the cardsharp's request to play poker and other games of chance, so Ezra's noticeable absence from the table left everyone's pockets considerably heavier. Besides, whenever the gambler did come down, he acted like he always did – cocky and conniving. As if absolutely nothing was going on.

Still, Chris was quietly itching to figure out just what was going on with the gambler. He had received several large packages a week ago, and ever since, he spent as much time as possible up in his room during the day. Buck and Josiah had also reported seeing Ezra circling around the outskirts of Four Corners on his horse at odd hours of the night, when it wasn't even his turn to patrol.

What was even more disquieting was the noticeable increase in the tangy scent of gunpowder that hung around the gambler. All of Four Corners' lawmen carried the smell of gunpowder on their clothing since most felt like they were missing a limb when they weren't carrying a weapon, and Standish was no exception. But the smell was much more prominent now on the gambler than it ever had been before. No amount of questioning could dislodge a truthful answer from the conman, however.

Finally Chris felt he had to step in. But he knew he couldn't be the one to actually question Ezra. Even though they had been on the same team for close to a year now, they still weren't completely on the same page. Larabee knew both he and Standish had a hard time trusting people, which made it twice as difficult to trust each other. There was no doubt in Chris's mind as to which side Ezra would take when they were faced with trouble, but the gunslinger had seen his fair share of the cons Ezra was capable of pulling off. True, some cons helped them out of tough situations, and Chris had never seen Ezra intentionally take advantage of someone who didn't deserve a good dressing-down without making up for it later (except for his fellow lawmen, who knew what was coming), but there was still a part of him that doubted Ezra when he knew the man wasn't being completely forward with him.

No, Chris knew he couldn't talk to Ezra directly. So he went to the next-best person for forcing information from a man – Vin Tanner.

The tracker was on-duty at the jail that night, guarding James Hale – again. Hale had spent a few nights in the jail before, generally because he drank too much at the saloon and ended up punching some fellow. Needless to say, it was a quiet night at the jail, as Hale generally passed out when he hit the cell cot.

Chris found Vin leaning back in the chair, his feet propped up on JD's desk as he softly played his harmonica. The tracker's piercing gaze looked up at the leader from under his leather hat. "What's eatin' ya, pard?" he asked quietly, lowering his harmonica to his lap.

Larabee snorted a soft chuckle. Unlike Ezra, he had connected with Tanner from the first glance, each knowing what the other planned on doing without saying a word as they set off down the street to save Nathan from a lynching. At moments like this, it was like Vin could read his mind. "Something's off with Ezra."

Tanner tilted his head slightly. "I know. We've all discussed it."

"I need you to talk to him – see if you can get some answers."

Vin's fingers played with his harmonica absentmindedly. "Why me? S'not like we talk much t' each other."

"I know," Chris said with a nod. "But I know you can do it. The others would push too hard or too much, and you know I'd probably just end up takin' a swing at 'im."

Vin chuckled at the admission, but his expression sobered as he started at Chris thoughtfully. "Ya think he's up t' somethin'?"

Chris paused at the tone of the question. "Yes," he said finally. "But I'm not sure it's another con – if it is, then it's something way different than anythin' he's pulled before."

"Ya think somethin' happened? Made him retreat from us?"

Chris pursed his lips lightly. "It wouldn't be the first time."

Vin's eyes dropped back down to his harmonica. "Give me a little time. I'll see if I can get it outta him."

Chris smiled and tugged at his hat, leaving the tracker to ponder his next move.

-7-7-7-

Vin was in on it now. Whatever "it" was.

Chris had kept a closer eye on the pair over the week after his little late-night discussion with Tanner, and he knew exactly when the tracker had managed to get the gambler to talk. There was a noticeable difference in how the pair interacted the next morning at breakfast – they often shot each other knowing, conspiratorial glances.

It didn't bring him any closer to figuring out just what the hell was going on, though. Instead of telling him what Ezra was up to, Tanner became just as tight-lipped and secretive. In fact, he almost seemed amused, and a little smile tugged at his mouth every time Ezra slipped away to his room. Chris could feel his teeth grinding a little more every day. He had to resist the extreme urge to punch Vin when the tracker had quietly told him, "Just leave 'im be, pard. It'll work itself out."

But he wasn't given a lot of opportunity to badger the two lawmen. The heat was bringing out a lot of the "bad element," and there were generally at least two of the Seven gone each night, escorting prisoners or rounding up villains. Plus, Independence Day was rapidly approaching, and Mary Travis had asked if he would be willing to help out with planning the festivities. The entire town was planning on gathering for a community potluck, which meant the chances of a brawl starting up in the streets were going to increase significantly as the day went on and the alcohol flowed. Needless to say, the days flew by, and Chris would often be drifting off into slumber before he remembered the need to question Ezra and Vin.

Then, on the first of July, Chris thought he may have a way to figure out just what was happening when he spotted Ezra and Mary in earnest conversation. Ezra was smirking and Mary was actually grinning at whatever he was saying, which was a rather unusual interaction for the pair. Chris leaned casually against a porch railing, pulling out a cheroot as he watched Mary nod at Ezra's words and eagerly say something back. Finally with a tip of his hat, Ezra grinned and walked away, heading right back for his room. Chris glanced back and forth between the pair, noticing that Mary was staring at the gambler with a mixture of surprise and admiration. He straightened and strode towards the woman. "Mind tellin' me what that was all about?"

The grin never left Mary's eyes as she looked at the gunslinger. "Nothing you need to be concerned about, Mister Larabee," she replied before abruptly turning on her heel and striding into the Clarion office. Chris blinked in surprise as the door shut behind her, nearly severing the end of the cheroot in his mouth as he grit his teeth.

"Aw, hell, Chris, y'know we're just as curious as you," Buck declared later that night as he and Chris shared a couple of beers. The ladies' man shot a glance over his shoulder at the table where Ezra, Josiah, Vin, and JD were playing a game of poker. "But I figure if Vin knows and isn't talkin', then whatever Ez is up to can't be all bad. An' you know Ez – he'll clue us in whenever he's ready. I wouldn't trouble yerself – we got plenty o' other trouble to worry about."

Chris sighed quietly, taking another draw from his beer as he watched the gambler triumphantly rake in another pot while JD tossed his cards on the table in frustration. "I know. But that doesn't mean I gotta like it."

-7-7-7-

Independence Day dawned cool and clear. Mary, JD, Josiah, and several of the townsfolk had spent the previous evening putting up large American flags on every building and stringing up a banner proclaiming, "Happy Birthday, America!" over one end of Main Street. When the festivities started at noon, many people were wearing various shades of red, white, and blue to show their patriotism.

Ezra and Josiah volunteered to patrol the area while the rest of the seven tried to keep the level of gunfire and altogether rowdiness down as the people celebrated. Mary had come up with several picnic games for the afternoon to entertain both adults and children, ranging from a pie eating contest (surprisingly, the title went to JD, who managed to consume three and a half apple pies, all of which were made by Casey) to pin the tail on the donkey (many of the kids were pleasantly surprised to compete against Buck, who managed to put the tail on the donkey's eye) to a town-wide game of tug-of-war.

Overall, the afternoon had passed rather smoothly, with only one drunken punch thrown because Mister Polson mistakenly thought Mister Tate had taken his chicken leg when it had in fact been consumed by his dog. Darkness had begun to settle over the town, but the party was still going strong as most people brought out kerosene lamps and torches that they had brought. Chris glanced down from his position on the boardwalk in front of the mercantile as JD jogged up. "Not a bad day, eh, Chris?" the youth cheerfully stated.

Chris grinned and clapped the Easterner on the shoulder. "I see you're feeling better. Those pies agreeing with you now?" he asked with a laugh.

JD flushed a little, glancing over his shoulder at the rambunctious crowd. "I couldn't hold them down," he admitted quietly. "She tries hard, but Casey just can't make pies like Nettie."

Chris chuckled as the young lady in question started waving JD over eagerly, holding up a large slice of watermelon. "Was it worth it?"

JD grinned as he waved back at Casey before shooting Chris a rueful look. "Not entirely – I hate watermelon," he replied before forcing a smile on his face and jogging back over to Casey.

Chris laughed out loud, causing both Buck and Nathan to shoot him a questioning glance. "Josiah's comin' back," Nathan called suddenly, gesturing towards the edge of town.

The gunslinger glanced in the direction Nathan was pointing and saw the preacher plodding into town on his horse. "Where's Ezra?" Chris asked casually as Sanchez dismounted his horse in front of him.

"He said he was going to take one more look around, just to make sure," Josiah replied, pushing back his hat and scanning the town. "Any problems?"

"Nope," Buck replied, leaning against a support beam. "There's still plenty of food if you're hungry."

Josiah grinned and nodded at Wilmington. "Much obliged, Brother Buck," he declared, taking a step forward. He paused suddenly, looking around. "Where's Brother Vin?"

The others started at that, straightening and looking for the tracker. "Somethin' tells me we're going to soon be findin' out what he and Ez have been up to," Nathan declared when they saw no sign of Tanner.

A gunshot rang out, causing several women to scream as the lawmen whipped out their weapons. "Don't be alarmed!" Mary Travis called, and as a group the entire town turned to see her standing at the edge of town, a rifle pointed into the air. She smiled as she lowered the weapon.

Suddenly a low boom echoed through the town. "What the hell?" Buck breathed as sparks flew into the air a few hundred yards outside of town.

Then there was another bang and a colorful shower of blue sparks rained down. "I don't believe it," Chris declared as another they heard another bang.

"Fireworks!" JD called excitedly as red sparks rained down this time.

"I do believe we've discovered what Brother Ezra has been up to," Josiah declared as two more fireworks shot into the air.

The town clapped and gave shouts of approval as a series of fireworks volleyed over the town, sending down a variety of colored sparks – red, green, blue, white, and yellow.

Then, with an extra loud boom, several shot into the air at once. Red sparks rained down before exploding into blue sparks before raining down white sparks. Applause thundered as the last of the embers fluttered to the ground, and several people began whistling their approval.

"I told ya it would work out."

Chris whirled around to see Vin grinning widely at him. "So this is what he was doing?" he demanded as Buck, Nathan, and Josiah gathered around him.

"Yep."

"Where's Ezra now?" Nathan asked.

"Makin' sure all the sparks went out an' that there weren't no fires started. He's got it under control," Vin replied. He paused before adding, "Truth be told, I think he's a little embarrassed."

"Why?" Buck wondered.

"I do believe Brother Ezra feels this may tarnish his reputation as an aloof, selfish gambler," Josiah wisely replied as he pulled his hat back onto his head. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to see if Miss Inez has any of her chili left." He tipped his hat and wandered into the crowd, leaving the others pondering his words.

-7-7-7-

Silence had enclosed the town once more as the townspeople had retreated off to bed. Only six figures remained in the shadows of the town, each with their eyes focused on the distant outline of a horse and his rider.

"Ezra!" Chris called quietly as the Southerner rode wearily into town. Green eyes flicked up to meet his own. The gunslinger jerked his head towards the saloon. "Come have a drink."

Ezra smiled faintly as he took in the sight of the six figures waiting up for him. "In a moment, Mister Larabee," he drawled, raising a hand to tug at his hat. "Let me quarter my horse and I'll be in momentarily."

"You better be, or you're buyin'," Chris replied with a hint of a smile. The gambler snorted and shook his head, urging his horse on towards the livery with a soft command. Chris whirled on his heel and strode in to their usual table, the others close on his heels. Inez had left two bottles of whiskey on the table at his request along with seven shot glasses. The aged chairs groaned and creaked as the lawmen settled into them.

"That was quite a show, wasn't it? I haven't ever seen anything like it outside Boston," JD declared, picking up his empty shot glass and twirling it in his fingers.

"Hell, I ain't never heard explosions like that outside a gunfight," Vin declared wryly, fingering his own glass.

"Fortunately, there are alternate methods for the utilization of gunpowder besides killin', Mister Tanner," a familiar voice drawled. They looked up as Ezra strode into the saloon, a smirk on his face.

"That was quite the display, Ez!" Buck exclaimed, thumping the Southerner on the back as he settled into the chair beside him.

Ezra smirked again, his gold tooth glinting in the light of the kerosene lamp. "I'm glad you enjoyed it, Mister Wilmington."

Chris uncorked one of the bottles of whiskey and started filling everyone's glass. They were all silent for a moment as they each tossed back the shot.

"Where'd you get all of the fireworks, Ezra?" Nathan finally asked, shooting an inquisitive glance at the conman.

"I acquired most of the materials through a poker game during my trip to Eagle Bend," Standish replied after a moment, keeping his gaze focused on his shot glass. "Some of the fireworks were premade."

"That's what he was workin' on all th' time up in his room," Vin finished when the gambler trailed off. "He made most of 'em." They all glanced at each other in astonishment as Ezra ducked his head a little more.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" JD asked, tilting his head in awe. "And how did you do it?"

"I've learned to do numerous things over the years, Mister Dunne," Ezra replied, shooting a wry glance at the younger man. "It's difficult to remember just where I acquired the information. As for the how… it's simply a matter of chemistry and knowin' what elements are necessary to create the proper hue."

Chris stared intently as the Southerner grabbed the bottle and poured himself another shot, his mind flashing back to their second fight together. Despite his insistence on his bad aim, Ezra had made a spectacular showing of demolishing Anderson's flag with the cannon in one shot. Anderson's men were trained fighters, and it had still taken them several tries to get the correct elevation of the Indian village during their attack. Ezra had also shown a knack for working with dynamite and any other kind of explosive. Not for the first time Chris wondered just what kind of experience Standish had had during the war – there was no other place where he could have the chance to interact with such high explosives, conman or no.

"Well, the townspeople sure appreciated the show," Josiah broke in quietly, distracting Chris from his thoughts. "You did well, Brother Ezra."

Ezra's mouth twitched for a moment as he stared intently at the tabletop. Larabee recognized it as an effort to hide his pride at the words, and again he wondered at the man in front of him. For all of his cockiness and pride, Standish seemed to have a hard time accepting any kind of praise and acclamation for the good things he did. No wonder Ezra had lingered outside the town until everyone had stumbled off to bed – the town was already buzzing with rumors that the conman was the one to provide the spectacular light show. Chris was sure that it was going to be the chief gossip for the next few weeks. The night's events had revealed a new layer of the gambler – one that the rest of the lawmen were going to be pondering and examining.

Then the gambler looked up, his trademark smirk on his face as he raised his empty glass. "Well, Josiah, I do like to add flair to any occasion. I figure the celebration of the birth of a nation as great as ours is certainly deserving of a little extra flair."

"Amen to that," Nathan declared with a grin.

Chris grabbed the bottle and filled everyone's glasses again. He raised his own in a toast, keeping his gaze focused on Ezra. "To America."

"America," the other six softly declared, raising their own glasses and tossing back their drinks. The leader knew by the looks the others were shooting at Standish that they, too, were silently adding to the toast in their heads, just as he was.

"To Ezra – and his surprises."

A/N: Thanks for reading! Any comments/suggestions are appreciated. Have a great one!

moogsthewriter