Birthday fic for StrangeVisitor, one of the two persons, responsible for Mag7 boys under my roof:).
Special thanks to Ithidlyn for the beta-reading!
The Tokens of Friendship.
Vin fidgeted nervously, glancing along the street. He hated depending on anyone, especially such simple thing like getting to work. Thank God it was his last day being carless; his favorite girl should be okay by the evening.
The familiar black silhouette appeared at the corner, and Vin chuckled. The sight surely was worth some inconvenience – for the first time in history, the streets of his neighborhood were graced with the presence of something as gorgeous as Ezra's Jag. The undercover agent even managed to show up at the agreed time, though Vin wouldn't bet he was really awake and not just driving in a daze.
Nevertheless, the first time Ezra opened his mouth was after they crossed the unofficial border between neighborhoods. "I must confess, Mr. Tanner, that there are things that are doomed to remain beyond my comprehension. I'm afraid your insistence on living in that substitute for a hell is one of them."
Vin shrugged with an unintelligible sound, not knowing the answer to that. Well, there was nothing unusual in that; most of the time he didn't know how to react to Standish's words even if he did happen to understood them. Not that the man was showing contempt or anything (at least not more to Vin personally than to the Universe in general), but around Ezra, Vin often felt very aware of his own lack of formal education and his cultural background. But, when it came to not understanding the arrogant and fashionably dressed walking dictionary, Vin was in a good company. If he read the situation in his new team correctly, Standish officially played the role of black sheep. The funniest thing of it all though was that Vin trusted Standish without a doubt, he really did. Not just because he'd seen him in action more than once, or relied on Chris's judgment, it was something in his gut. Something that usually got Vin confused when he thought about it. Unlike his connection with Chris, plain, simple and solid as rock, this feeling was elusive, like deep down he knew something, but kept missing it.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," Ezra's voice awoke Vin from his thoughts. "It seems we have arrived safely."
Indeed, they were already in the parking lot of the Federal Building. Ezra extracted his car keys, and Vin's attention was caught by the key ring. It was an Native American style amulet, woven from leather cords, and there was something vaguely familiar about it.
"Sorry, Ez, can I look at your keys?"
Ezra gave him a strange look, but, however reluctantly, handed them to him. Vin carefully laid out the token on his palm. It was an amateur, handmade attempt that clearly had seen some years; the ends of the cords a little frayed. But the pattern itself was known to Vin, the Comanche symbol of friendship…and not just the pattern. Suddenly, Tanner drew a sharp breath as he was thrown back to another time and place.
St. Louis, Missouri, 13 years earlier.
He'd finally had enough. At the age of almost sixteen, Vin Tanner had had enough of the foster care system and the state of Missouri. He was more than capable of taking care of himself and going to Denver to find the only person in the world he trusted fully. As soon as he knew Kristin was okay, he'd be on his way.
Kristen was sort of his little sister from the last foster home. The family's father had a nasty habit of talking with his fists when drunk, and he was drunk four times a week at the very least. He knew better than picking on Vin, who fought back, but the girl was another matter, especially when Vin wasn't at home.
The last time Vin had come home from school to find Kristen curled up and crying in his room really was the last. He took his ever-ready backpack from under the bed, packed up Kristen's treasures (Mostly his presents and an old, frayed copy of Cooper's "The Deerslayer") and they ran away. They didn't get far before Vin realized that Kristin was hurt more than he could handle, she needed professional help. He had to take her to the hospital. Fortunately, the nurse on duty was one of the good ones; she was determined to bring "the creature that dared to hurt that little angel" to justice. And, she was kind enough to look the other way when Vin disappeared from the ER. She kept her word, the drunken bastard got what he deserved, but Kristen was returned to the system.
But being honest, Vin had to admit that it was probably for the best; he wasn't sure he could take care of Kristen properly. The streets weren't the place for a nine-year-old girl who still had a chance of finding a good family. Of course he wouldn't leave St. Louis until he knew for sure.
Vin had snuck into the Children Centre's back playground and was hiding in the bushes near the fence. He'd come here every day for the last week, early in the evenings, when the kids were outside. The only 'adult' with them at that time was a guy not much older than Vin himself, in fancy clothes and with a magic box; Kristen called him the 'Wizard of Oz'. He always had his back to Vin's hiding place, kept all the kids occupied and never seemed to notice when Kristen, the most active one, wasn't in the circle. On the first day Vin could take it as an accident, but on the second one he found a full lunch box in the bushes, with two still warm hot-dogs. The food had kept appearing ever since; Kristen knew nothing about it, only saying that the Wizard "talks funny but is a cool guy". Vin wasn't one to argue with her, since the guy hadn't turned him in and Vin really could use the food.
Today though, something was wrong; Kristen didn't wait for him in the usual place and he couldn't see her in the crowd of little ones surrounding the Wizard. But the box was in place, and there was a note on top of it, fixed with a rock. The handwriting was damn pretentious, but fortunately intelligible. Vin slowly read the note three times before he was sure he got everything right. "Regents Street, 45A. Emily and Paul Rodgers. They are a good family."
For some reason, Vin trusted the Wizard's judgment; of course, he'd make sure himself, but the note gave him hope. He carefully packed the food in his backpack and put the note in the file where he kept his mother's picture. Then he found a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote, 'Thanks' in his clumsy letters and put it in the box. Then he took out a handmade Indian amulet, a token, woven from leather cords. He often did such things, for Kristen and other kids, sometimes even for sale. This one was the symbol of friendship – the only thing he could heartily offer to that fancy-dressed guy. Vin put the amulet in the box, closed it, and took off in the direction of Regents Street.
"Mr. Tanner," the voice and the touch when Ezra took back the keys jerked Vin back to reality. "I'm well aware of the comfort of these seats, however we have reached our destination."
"Yeah, Ez, just a minute." Vin slowly took out his wallet from a pocket, then, even more slowly, extracted from it an old yellowed note in a protective holder. Then he turned to Standish, showing him the note. "Look familiar?"
Caught off guard, Ezra automatically read the note aloud. When he finished, he looked Vin in the eye and said in an expressionless voice, "It's not possible. You are the Deerslayer?"
Only Kristen had called him that. "Yup. The Rodgers were a good family, you know. Still are, actually. Kristen stayed with them till the end, and afterwards remained in St. Louis. She's a nurse at a local hospital now, and she'll kill me if she knows I've been working for four months with the Wizard of Oz and didn't have a clue. "
"She mentioned the Deerslayer was heading to Denver," Ezra was staring at the wheel now, "to become 'the best hunter ever'. She must be very proud of you… Why did you keep the note?"
Vin shrugged. "Ain't too many people out there, pard, who I have a reason to be grateful to. Even less good guys among them. Why did you keep the token?" Vin asked quickly, before Ezra could regain his balance.
"I knew what it meant. Didn't meet too many good guys back then either… Even less…"
"Those who offered friendship to ya?" Vin continued silently. But Ezra trailed off, and he obviously regretted what he had just said and revealed. But Vin was determined not to let it go. Suddenly, everything became so clear; though the two of them used very different armor to defend themselves from the outer world, under that armor they were pretty much alike.
"That offer hasn't expired, Ez." Vin outstretched his hand. "It's still holds."
Standish looked at the offered hand, then raised his eyes to meet Vin's gaze, and after several long moments took the hand and shook it firmly. "I really appreciate it, Vin."
Tanner smiled broadly, thinking he had had enough of 'serious talk' for the next month. "Reckon we really should be going upstairs, before Chris sends out a search party."
Ezra smiled back; it was the first genuine smile Vin had seen on his face. "I must agree. No need to aggravate Mr. Larabee on such sunny morning."
"Mr. Ta… Vin," Ezra began tentatively when they entered the building.
"Could the Missouri part of our pasts remain between ourselves, at least for now?"
"Sure thing, Ez. If you sign a Christmas card for Kristen with me, that is."
"With great pleasure."
"And Ez," Vin continued when they exited from the elevator on their floor. "Reckon I'm buying you lunch today."
"On one condition, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, a smile hiding in his eyes. "There won't be any hot-dogs."
A couple of weeks later, Vin and Chris were spending Saturday morning sitting together on the lakeshore not far from Larabee's ranch.
"Tell me, Tanner," Chris said, sending a flat stone into flight above the water, "what did you do with Standish?"
"I asked, what did you do with the guy? He's stopped looking like he is expecting a knife in the back any minute. And I'm fairly sure it's your doing somehow."
A mischievous smile appeared on Vin's face as he carefully chose the next stone. "Family secret, Cowboy, family secret." He threw the stone and it jumped ten times on the water before sinking in.