The Magnificent Seven
Smarm / Friendship
Disclaimer: They don't belong to me. Please don't sue.
Having never seen an episode of The Magnificent Seven (a situation that I hope to soon remedy), I am basing my characterizations off of all the wonderfully inspiring fan fiction that I have read in the past few months. I apologize for any mistakes that I may inadvertently make. My acknowledgments and gratitude to Mod for creating the ATF Universe and allowing so many to play in her sandbox and to all of those out there who love the boys as much as I am beginning to.
"Pardon me, Mr. Tanner. Is this seat occupied?"
Vin Tanner looked up at the con man, a slight grin crooking one side of his mouth. He waved his glass in the chair's direction. "Be my guest, Ezra."
Ezra Standish sat down, automatically smoothing the wrinkles from his dark gray Armani suit as he studied the younger man. Instead of his usual attire of blue jeans and tee shirt, Vin was wearing a pair of pressed black slacks and a white, button down, long sleeved shirt, with a tasteful dark-blue tie. A matching black suit jacket lay neatly across the back of another chair. He was leaning back in his seat, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, but Ezra noticed he wore black dress shoes rather than the normally scuffed cowboy boots the sharpshooter was known to prefer. The clothing caught the undercover agent off-guard. "I must say, Mr. Tanner, I never thought I'd see you dressed as you are on your day off. May I inquire as to the reason behind the, admittedly beneficial, change in appearance?"
Before Vin could respond, the two were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of Team Seven. First JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington entered. The youngest laughing at something his mentor said before smacking him on the arm. "You are so full of crap, Buck." Buck retaliated by trying to knock the kid's hat off his head. They were followed closely by Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez, the two alternating between a conversation they were having and smiling indulgently at the two younger men. Chris Larabee entered last, his gaze sweeping across the room. He nodded at the two seated men, seeming to relax a notch at the sight of them. The five men strode across the room and headed towards their regular table, quickly taking their seats. Vin narrowly rescued his jacket before JD sat down.
Inez Martinez, owner of the Saloon, placed several bottles of beer and one glass of wine on the table, anticipating the requests, getting several friendly nods and smiles in greeting.
Buck swept his gaze over Vin's attire as he seated himself and wolf whistled. "Damn, Junior, you're looking sharp. Who died?"
Passing Vin, Inez gave him a small smile and squeezed one shoulder in sympathy. Vin rose to his feet, draping his jacket across one forearm. An unreadable expression shone in the sharpshooter's eyes before being quickly hidden by the man's usual stoic expression. "Sorry boys, I'm not very good company tonight." He caught Chris' eye and nodded slightly before saluting the others and walking out of the saloon.
For a moment there was stunned silence. "What did I say?" Buck looked bewildered. The others wore similar expressions of confusion, save Ezra who leaned back in his chair, a pensive frown marring his brow as he stared at the doors the young Texan had just left through.
Chris sighed, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, shoulders tight with worry. "There was a fire in his apartment complex a few days ago, killed three kids. Vin went to the funerals today." He reached over and took a swig of his beer.
After a pause, Nathan suddenly asked, "Was Vin drinking? He shouldn't drive if he's been drinking."
Inez spoke softly. "Senor Tanner drank only soda today." She shrugged at the surprised looks. "He said he didn't trust himself with alcohol."
JD turned a concerned gaze at their leader. "Should he be alone? I mean, dontcha think one of us should be with him? Going to a funeral can be real tough, especially one for a kid. And he went to one for three."
"Don't worry, brothers," Josiah rumbled. "I believe that is already taken care of."
Ezra was gone.
Ezra pulled the keys from the ignition of his Jag, frowning uneasily. He was not one for meddling in other's affairs: especially Vin, who was normally closed-mouthed about his personal matters. The con man would usually have left this type of task to one such as Mr. Larabee. Their leader seemed to have a remarkable bond that allowed for a type of silent communication with the team's sharpshooter. Or even to Mr. Sanchez, their resident spiritual counselor, whose stories and parables brought a semblance of sense to whatever problem you happened to have. However, he felt that Vin had been about to open up to him before the others had arrived – a truly remarkable occurrence in and of itself. Also, unlike the others, Ezra had caught the look in Vin's eyes before he'd excused himself so hastily. It was the look of a man who desperately needed to unburden himself, but unable to find the place to start. The gambler hoped that alone, and on his own turf, so to speak, his friend would feel comfortable enough to confide in him.
Ezra noticed the silent sentries located at the corners of the apartment building and at the entrance. He nodded solemnly at the youngsters, receiving acknowledging nods in return. He was known here as one of Vin's co-workers and friends and as such he and his vehicle would remain unmolested for the duration of his stay within the neighborhood. Tanner had taken the young ones in the area under his wing and they had reciprocated by keeping an eye out for him, letting him know of problems or potential problems in the area. That his friendship with Vin provided him the same courtesy was remarkable to one who had grown up under the philosophy "Look out for number one."
He climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, once more lamenting over the fact that the younger man refused to move to a complex with a working elevator, or at least move to a lower floor. He grumbled softly to himself, more for appearances than anything. After all, appearances were everything, as his dear mother would say.
Ezra heard no sounds from Vin's apartment, but he knocked anyway knowing there was no where else the younger man would be or else one of the sentries would have mentioned it.
"Not tonight, kids, alright?" the soft Texan drawl held an edge to it, a weariness the con man was unaccustomed to hearing from the sharpshooter.
Taking a deep breath, he replied. "I apologize, Mr. Tanner, but there are no children accompanying me this evening.
The door opened to Vin Tanner's frowning visage. Concern laced his voice. "Somethin' wrong, Ezra?"
"I could ask the same of you, my friend. You left rather suddenly and I feared our mutual co-worker had managed to offend you with his boorish question earlier."
Vin blinked, obviously processing the statement, then ran a hand over his face. "No. I jest realized that all that company really wasn't what I wanted." He frowned again. "Why exactly are you here, Ezra? Thought you'd be drinkin' with the others."
"You invited me, Mr. Tanner." At Vin's look of confusion, Ezra allowed a brief smile to cross his face. "I believe 'Be my guest, Ezra,' was the wording."
A corner of Vin's mouth twitched upwards as he shrugged and headed towards the couch, letting his "guest" do as he pleased. "Suit yourself."
Another smile blossomed across the gambler's face before disappearing at the deep sigh Vin uttered as he settled himself in the couch. He tugged off his tie and tossed it on top of his jacket, which lay on the coffee table. Then he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and leaned his head back against the cushions.
Ezra was aware of the other man's weary gaze as he removed his own jacket and laid it neatly beside Vin's. He lowered himself into the room's only other chair and once again examined his friend, this time focusing on the person and not the clothing. Dark circles that rimmed dulled blue eyes emphasized the pale, haggard face. Long fingers plucked restlessly at the creases in the trousers, the nails ragged and bitten down to the quick. Shoulders were slumped in exhaustion. "Have you been sleeping poorly, Mr. Tanner?"
A short nod. "Nightmares."
Ezra blinked, surprised at the straight answer. "I'm fine," seemed to be the only statement the laconic young man usually gave when asked about his physical and mental health, much to Nathan's annoyance. The only one who could get any other type of answer from the quiet man was their intrepid leader.
"Care to discuss them, Mr. Tanner?" Vin stared at him and Ezra was caught by the magnitude of sorrow he saw expressed in those blue orbs. With only a slight hesitation he continued. "I've learned over the years that telling another of your problems can sometimes reduce the hold they have over you."
Vin raised his head off the back of the couch, assessing the man across from him. "I've heard something like that." He paused. "Ma used to say that sorrows shared are halved while joys shared are doubled."
"A truly apt statement. Your mother was a remarkably wise woman."
A nod was the reply, then a sigh. "It might take some telling. I think we might need somethin' ta drink during the tale." Vin started to rise but was waved off by Ezra.
"Was thinkin' more along the lines of coffee, Ezra. Really not up ta getting' drunk tonight." Ezra headed for the kitchen and nearly missed the next two words, so softly were they spoken. "Maybe later."
"Coffee it is. Though you'll have to excuse me if I don't make it quite up to your caliber, Mr. Tanner."
"Ah, come on, Ezra. It ain't that bad."
"I beg to differ, Mr. Tanner. Coffee strong enough to keep a spoon upright is more appropriate for greasing engine parts, not drinking."
A faint smile was his reward. Moments later, Ezra returned to the living room with two piping hot mugs. Handing one to Vin, he reseated himself. "I took the liberty of adding six spoonfuls of sugar to yours. I hope that is sufficient for your sweet tooth of yours."
"'Preciate it, Ezra." He blew on the coffee and took a cautious sip. The two sat quietly, drinking the coffee. The sugar and caffeine in the hot brew soon brought some color to Vin's face and lessened the dullness in his eyes, much to Ezra's satisfaction.
"What are theses nightmare about, Vin?" Ezra prompted gently after waiting till half the drink had been consumed.
Vin glanced up from his contemplation of the dark liquid, surprise in his eyes at the use of his first name. "Guess I should start at the beginning, huh?" At Ezra's nod, Vin blew out a breath. "Three days ago, there was an apartment fire in the adjoining complex. The three kids who lived there died." Vin leaned forward, elbows on knees, mug clasped between his hands. Ezra remained silent, afraid any comment by him would send his friend back into his shell. "At first, police thought it might be arson. There's been a couple of fires in the past few weeks, and the initial evidence pointed in that direction. But after the investigation the fire marshal ruled it accidental."
"What did they ascertain happened?"
"Faulty wirin' coupled with too many 'lectrical 'pliances plugged inta the same outlet. Jest an accident waitin' ta happen.
"Pa died a year ago. Drive by. Ma works as a waitress at a restaurant downtown. Usually home by nine."
"Didn't their mother provide for sufficient supervision for them while she was working?" Ezra couldn't hold back the bite of anger that laced his voice. He'd always had a soft spot for children, and for a mother not to provide for her young ones was abominable in his eyes.
Vin nodded, taking another sip of coffee, either not hearing the anger or ignoring it. "Yeah, but sometimes scheduling was a problem. Like that day." He sighed.
"Kids went to Palacio Elementary. Michael was eight and in third grade. Valerie was seven and in second and Tina was six and had just started first grade. Now their babysitter, Michele Cruz, is a senior at Leal High School. She lives in the same complex, a couple of floors below. She'd help the kids with their school work, do her own, fix 'em dinner and keep 'em occupied till their ma came home. Sometimes she'd have ta stay after school, but she'd call her own ma who'd watch 'em till she got there."
"What was different about the situation three days ago?"
"Palacio had an unexpected early release. They sent all the kids home around lunch time because of some bomb threats. Mrs. Sosa was already at work and wasn't informed that her kids had been sent home. Michelle was at school, wasn't expectin' the kids to get out of school till 3:30, so she never told her ma to keep an eye out for them, of course. And Mrs. Cruz went out shoppin'." He swirled the coffee around in his mug watching the dark liquid slosh along the inside of the mug. "'Sfunny. The school was trying to protect the kids and…" He was silent a moment before continuing. "Fire Marshal figures one of the kids tried to use the hot plate to heat up some soup. The fire began inside the walls, actually burning from the outside first, which is why they thought it might be arson. Fire wasn't apparent until too late. It engulfed the apartment. The two younger ones were found in front of the TV on blankets, apparently taking naps. Forensics say they probably died from smoke inhalation and never even knew what happened."
"And the boy?" Ezra's voice was soft. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he did know that his friend needed to tell the whole story before he'd be able to find some peace.
"He was found in the kitchen with the telephone in his hand. The kitchen sink was on. Looks like he noticed the fire and tried to put it out himself. He succumbed to the smoke before he could call for help."
Ezra bowed his head, sending up a prayer for the three children's souls. "Your nightmares are about the fire?" Vin nodded. "Surely you know there was nothing you could do to prevent this tragedy from occurring? You weren't even in the area when it happened."
Vin waved a hand. "It's not guilt, Ezra, if that's what you're thinking. It's timing."
Ezra let his confusion show. "I'm not following you."
Placing his mug on the coffee table, Vin rubbed at his face as if to erase the memories of the past three days. "You asked about my nightmares?" Ezra nodded. "It's an apartment engulfed in flames, but instead of three little kids, I keep seeing my ma lying in a bed and flames getting' closer an' closer. I keep tryin' ta get ta her, but it's like an invisible wall separates me from her. Keep wakin' up jest as the fire claims the bed." He looked up, shrugging slightly. "Day of the fire was twentieth anniversary of my ma's death. An' the kids' funerals was the same day we buried my ma."
"Hence the mixed dreams." Ezra rested a hand on Vin's shoulder glad the younger man didn't shrug him off. "I'm truly sorry, Vin."
"'S not yer fault, Ezra. But I 'preciate the sentiment."
Ezra smiled briefly, then nodded at the now cold liquid. "More coffee?"
"Actually, I haven't eaten yet. Want ta come?"
"I know of a wonderful Italian Restaurant we can take our repast."
"Was thinkin' of Joe's around the corner. Ain't got much cash on me."
Ezra glanced sharply at his friend. They had been paid recently and Vin didn't have many expenses. In sudden insight, the gambler guessed that their young resident Robin Hood had most likely helped Mrs. Sosa with the sudden unexpected expenses of three funerals. He rose and drew on his jacket, holding Vin's out to the other man. "Nonsense, Mr. Tanner. I believe, dressed as we are, that a more auspicious place of dining would be more appropriate. And, as you have graciously shared your hospitality and coffee with me, I insist on being able to reciprocate."
"You would, huh?" Vin smiled, the first real one to grace his features in three days. He took the offered jacket, grabbed his tie and motioned the other out the door. Closing the door behind him Vin caught Ezra's eye. "Thanks, Ezra."
Ezra nodded, gladdened to see the spark of life in his friend's eye. "My pleasure, Mr. Tanner. Entirely my pleasure."