"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: I don't own the Magnificent Seven in any of their incarnations. If you don't know who does, you must be new to the fandom... welcome! I have no claims to the ATF Universe or the Little Britches Universe, either. I make no financial profit from this or any work of fiction.
Warnings: This is set in the LB-AU so, if that isn't your thing, hit the 'back' button now. No owwies, just a few itchies.
Notes: I've borrowed Joy and Kerry's "Trolls" and Jeanne's term "Da" for Buck. I promise I took real good care of 'm ;)
Written in celebration of the 2002 Holiday Season. Hope yours is Magnificent!
Dedicated to the members of the Black and Buckskin and 7H/7C lists. Some of the most wonderful and magnificent folks you'd ever want to meet! Special hugs go to Joy and Jeanne, who coaxed me into this little playground.
Ezra Standish opened his door reluctantly and cast a wary eye on his visitor. Looking down at the large parcel the man held, he said, "is this them, then?"
The visitor; tall, blond and ruggedly handsome smiled. Shoving the box he held at the Southerner, Chris Larabee said, "yep."
Barely managing to balance the box, Ezra backed up a step as his boss pushed passed him, strode through the entrance and into the unhappy man's townhouse. He looked around at the austere, tasteful Christmas decorations and shook his head. "Jesus, Ezra, it looks like the window of Bloomingdale's or something in here."
Smiling, and completely missing the comment's meaning, the agent said, "why, thank you. I do believe the decorator I hired did an excellent job."
Barely restraining himself before he snickered, Chris said, "yeah, well anyway, I want to thank you again for volunteering to do this for us."
They both knew he hadn't volunteered. The only reason Ezra Standish was spearheading this particular mission was because he had been out of the office when the team leader had asked for volunteers. By the time he had returned, Josiah and Nathan had both invented convincing reasons for their being unable to help Chris out. He had drawn the short straw, as it were.
"Yes, well, I'm only too happy to help," Standish lied through his teeth.
"Great. Oh! I've got to go get the rest," Chris turned and headed out the door.
"The rest?" Ezra managed to squeak, although the only response he got was the sound of a closing door. He stood in the middle of his living room, staring forlornly at that closed door, until it opened again, and Larabee re-entered, carrying a large bag.
"Isn't that getting a little heavy?" The blond nodded toward the box Standish still held.
Indeed it was, but his current state of shock had kept him from registering that fact. Now, though, he felt the strain on his muscles and the pull on his shoulders. Looking around, a hint of fear in his eyes, he finally settled on a bit of linoleum, the scar where he had dropped a hot pan still evident. Placing the box there, he groaned and pressed a hand on the small of his back as he straightened.
Larabee did snort now, shaking his head at the fastidious agent's overly concerned appearance. "I've got plastic in the bottom of the box, I don't think anything's going to... leak."
Standish blanched at that, but didn't comment. Instead, he looked meaningfully at the bag Chris had with him. "And that would be... ?"
"Just some things to keep your... company... occupied. Buck wrote down some instructions for you."
"Instructions? Surely you don't expect me to... to... entertain them?"
Larabee sat the bag down, crossed his arms over his broad chest, and leveled a gaze on the smaller man. "It's only until tomorrow, Ezra. Just bring everything to the ranch first thing in the morning, and your duties will be over. You can sit back and relax the rest of the day out there. Buck's making his special pancakes for breakfast, and we'll have a feast for dinner."
"But... but..." Standish stammered.
"Look, Ezra. I promised I'd make it worth your while, right?" As the auburn head nodded weakly, Larabee continued. "You make sure everyone's safe and happy in the morning, and I'll make sure that request for time off next week goes through without a hitch. If not..." he trailed off, but the smaller man had little trouble understanding exactly what would happen, 'if not'.
"Yes... yes, all right. I understand." His tone was that of a man being told the Governor hadn't called while he sat in the electric chair.
Nodding and ignoring the man's tone, Larabee said, "great. Now, like I said, Buck left instructions. It won't be anything so difficult that a man of your intelligence can't handle it."
The only reply he could manage was a heavy sigh. The Southerner stared down at the box as if looking for the meaning of life on its corrugated surface. By the time he looked up, the blond had gone. He moved to the bag, carried it to the kitchen, and gingerly opened it. He looked inside, his nose wrinkling as a strange odor assailed his senses. Carefully he reached in and lifted each item out, placing them side by side on the counter as he mentally cataloged them for their use.
Just as he emptied the bag, a small, strange sound came to him. The agent tried to ignore it, but it came again, then seemed to sound out in stereo. As the sounds became more insistent he realized he had to do something to stop them. Reaching down, he caught the edge of one of the box flaps with the tips of two fingers. Pulling slowly, he cautiously opened the top of the box. As the overhead light illuminated the interior, he groaned.
It was going to be a long... long... LONG night.
"Away in th' major... no crib for his bed... th' lit-tle Lord Gees-us let down his long hair - "
"JD! That ain't th' words!" Vin Tanner glared at the little boy, frustration glittering in his wide blue eyes.
"Are, too!" JD Dunne, hazel eyes just as fierce, glared back.
"Boys!" Buck Wilmington called from the front seat, his eyes on the rear-view mirror as he waited for the light to change before they proceeded toward the school. The afternoon Christmas concert was scheduled to begin at 3:30, and he had been enlisted to make sure the boys were picked up at noon, fed and changed into their dress clothes. In the past two and a half hours he had developed a headache that grew with each off-key note his adopted son warbled. As much as he adored the six-year-old, it didn't keep him from recognizing that the child couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.
"But, Buuuuuuck," eight-year old Vin whined, "he ain't singin' 't right!"
"I am too!"
"ENOUGH!" Buck bellowed, drowning out the impatient blare of a horn behind him as he sat through the green light. Seeing amber glowing from the device above the street, he hit the accelerator, barely making it through the intersection before the light turned to red again. He faintly registered the honking horns behind him as he concentrated on the whispers in the back seat.
"You boys had best knock it off right now, or I'm gonna turn this car around and head back home. Got me?"
He would straighten the argument out when they reached the school in a few minutes. For now, the big ATF agent just relished the quiet. He pulled up in front of Four Corners Elementary, slowing as he searched for a convenient parking space. They drove around for a few minutes, finally settling on a spot two blocks away. The big man grumbled under his breath, he thought they had allowed for plenty of time. Evidently there were several other parents with the same thought. Pointing the boys out the door opening onto the sidewalk, he got out, bringing a camcorder with him. Joining the children, he grasped a small hand with each of his and started off toward the school. He felt an impatient tug on his hand, and looked to find Vin attempting to pull loose of his hold. Seeing the expressive blue eyes looking toward a group of older boys on the sidewalk, he let go. Young Tanner flashed him a relieved smile and moved ahead a step or two.
They entered the building, the heated air feeling like a furnace blast after the winter wind outside. Wilmington quickly dropped off each boy at their respective rooms, grimacing at the loud, excited voices that greeted him each time. Moving back to the main entrance, he smiled and waved as he recognized his friend and boss just entering the building.
Chris returned the wave, changing course to meet up with the bigger man. Together they moved toward the auditorium, searching through the crowd until they found two unclaimed seats together.
3:10... twenty more minutes before the Christmas pageant even began. It was going to be a long afternoon. Buck excused himself a minute later, putting Chris in charge of guarding the seats, their coats, and the camcorder, while he went off in search of punch. Larabee knew the rogue well enough to realize that his long-time friend was off in search of phone numbers as usual.
Stifling a yawn as the warm room began to make him drowsy. He settled into the chair, staring at nothing in particular. The big room had been decorated with crepe paper and cut-out stars and snowflakes. A tall Christmas tree stood on one side of the stage, its lights twinkling cheerfully, and Holiday music played through the school's public address system. It had been a long time since he'd participated in anything like this, and his mind wandered back several years to Adam's first - and last - Christmas pageant.
"Hi, is this seat taken?" A soft voice brought the blond from his reverie.
He looked up to see a pretty, petite, blonde looking down at him with a shy smile. He smiled, blinked as he processed her words, and nodded toward the seat on the other side of him. "That one is, but there's one over here, if you're only needing one."
Her smile widened, and she slipped passed him to perch on the seat. They sat in silence for a minute or two before she brokeit, asking quietly, "what grade?"
"Huh?" Larabee thought for a minute she was asking him what grade he was in. Realizing what she meant, he said, "first and third. You?"
"Third, too. My daughter's in Ms. Lacy's class. My name's Jenny, Jenny Brown."
"Chris Larabee. My son's in Ms. Adderson's."
Larabee could tell that she quickly registered the fact that his son had been labeled either EH or LD. He considered telling her the condensed version of his foray into adoptive fatherhood, but was saved from the decision when he heard a familiar voice on his left.
"Brought y' a cup a punch, pard."
Reaching up, Chris took the offered plastic cup, gulping the frothy concoction of Seven-Up, fruit punch, and sherbet.
The bigger man retrieved the camcorder from the chair and settled in, long legs stretching out beneath the chair ahead of him. Turning a mischievous grin on his friend, he muttered under his breath, "get her number yet, stud?"
Glaring at the other man until his mustache twitched with humor, he didn't answer. Swallowing the rest of the punch, he sat the empty cup on the floor beside him and settled in, arms across his chest. He refused to look at the other man then, concentrating on the curtain shrouded stage.
"I don't remember seeing you here last year," the little blonde to Chris' right said, attempting to continue their conversation.
"I... we... we weren't here last year," Larabee stumbled over the words, casting a quick frown to his left at the sound of a snicker.
"Oh. Did you just move here?"
"Uh... no. My son... well, I just adopted him last year. He wasn't here until after the new year."
"Oh," the woman said. Then her face brightened, and she looked from one of the big men to the other. "Oh! You're... you're the two FBI agents who adopted those poor little boys!"
"ATF," the two men corrected in unison. Then they looked at one another in confusion before turning twin looks of disbelief toward the pretty blonde.
"How did you... how do you know about the boys?" Chris asked when he could find his voice.
"Everyone knows," she supplied.
"But... but..." Wilmington stammered. The adoption was not supposed to be public knowledge.
The young woman paled. "Oh... uh, I'm sorry. Was it supposed to be a secret?"
"Not necessarily a secret... but we hadn't exactly advertised it, either," Larabee said quietly.
"Oh... um, well, I'm sorry," she repeated. "Pretty much everyone knows... the parents and the kids."
"How?" Buck questioned.
"Well, my Katie told me. She said that she heard it on the playground. I'm not certain where the story started."
Hazel eyes met dark blue, as the ATF agents processed the evidence. With deep sighs, they said as one, "JD."
"One of the boys?" Ms. Brown asked, amusement ringing in her voice.
"Yeah," Buck sighed. "The little one with the big mouth."
Jenny laughed, a sound like wind chimes in the breeze. "I understand. My three-year old, Danny, is the same way. If I want something to spread through the neighborhood in less than an hour, I just tell him."
The two men smiled at her reply. Chris asked, "so he didn't want to come watch his sister?"
Rolling her dark eyes, the woman replied, "oh yeah, he did. But I know my son, and he'd be trying to get up on the stage, or at the very least hollering up there as soon as his sister appeared."
Larabee laughed. Further conversation was cut off as the music died, and a light shown on the closed curtains. The audience slowly quieted as a figure appeared through the thick material's division. Everyone recognized the rather imposing figure of Mrs. DeMateo, the principal. She waited until silence filled the auditorium before speaking.
"I'd like to welcome you all to our Holiday Pageant. The children and their teachers have all worked very hard on their performances, and I would like to ask you all to remain seated for the entire program. If you must leave, please do so between class presentations. However, just remember that we'll expect a note from your child as to why you have to leave early." She paused as a few parents tittered at her attempt at humor. "At any rate, we hope that you all enjoy the show and, without further ado, we'll begin with the Kindergarten class."
Applause rang through the air, then died as the curtains were drawn back. Stage lights shown on the knot of tiny children in the center of the stage, all dressed in their holiday finest, with cardboard cutout reindeer antlers perched on their heads. From the side came the first notes of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, followed by a rather ragged rendition of the song, complete with ad-libbed lyric additions. As the line "...like Columbus," faded, the audience began to applaud.
Jingle Bells followed, and then the little group was ushered off by their teacher as the heavy curtains were closed. The big room was quiet for a few minutes, the silence broken only by the occasional cough or whispered comment in the audience. Larabee and Wilmington were close enough to hear the brief commotion behind the curtain that signaled the fact that the first graders were assembling. Buck perched on the edge of his seat, training the camcorder on the stage with an expertise honed over the past year and a half since the boys had made them a family.
Chris was pretty certain his old friend had been using the video equipment far longer than that, but preferred not to know who he had videoed before, or what activities they had been engaged in.
Once more the stage was revealed, and the two men searched the group for their youngest. JD made the search far easier as he began waving frantically. Buck sighed and Chris stifled a laugh at the child's antics. A quick word from the teacher calmed the little boy down, and once more the piano announced the music."Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus, lay down his sweet head..."
Wilmington cringed as he heard the off-key tones of his son above the other children. At least he was singing the right lyrics, since Vin wasn't around to torture with the other rendition."The cattle are lowing, the poor babe awakes,
The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes..."
Chris lifted a camera up, signaling the other man to shield the camcorder lens from the coming flash. He had borrowed a surveillance camera from the department with AD Travis' blessings in order to get the best pictures possible in the dim light. Zooming in on the tiny cherub, he snapped off a few shots before settling back to listen to the performance."Up on the rooftop, reindeer pause,
Out jumps good ol' Santa Claus..."
The second song was accompanied by red felt hats hurriedly plopped on the little heads, and the jingling of little bells threaded through ribbons. Then Buck frowned as he noticed little boy Dunne fidgeting, one chubby hand digging at his neck and chest. Panning across the group, he noticed a couple others mirroring the actions. Keeping the camera trained on the stage, Wilmington glanced over at his old friend. "Chris?""First comes the stocking of little Nell,
Oh dear Santa, fill it well..."
Larabee, too, had noticed the unrehearsed activity. He watched intently for a moment, then raised the camera to his eye. Rather than taking more pictures, he used the zoom lens to study the trio of itchy children. With a sigh, he made his diagnosis.
"Ah, hell," the bigger man proclaimed.
Mentally going over their first aid medical supplies at the ranch, Larabee decided they would need to make a stop on the way home for medicated lotion. Resigned to a last minute change in plans for the holidays, he settled back and tried to concentrate on enjoying the show."Down through the chim'ney comes good St. Nick."
The curtain closed on the group, but not so soon that they didn't catch sight of the teacher corralling the three afflicted children to one side, as the others marched off. Again things grew quiet, and the two men debated what they should do. Deciding that the teacher would come for them if they were needed, they voted to stay until after Vin's participation was over, and documented in both video and still pictures. The second grade classes performed next, the two men paying only token attention as they knew none of the children. Both of them tensed with anticipation as the third grade classes were presented."Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la... la la la la..."
Buck trained the video camera on the reed thin, tousle-haired little boy in the first row. Chris began snapping pictures, then settled back to watch his son perform."Toll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la... la la la la..."
Both men winced, remembering the fear that both boys displayed the night they had first rehearsed their songs. It had taken several minutes for the men to get them to understand that it was 'toll' and not 'Troll', and a long discussion over hot cocoa and cookies to put to rest the memories of their time on the streets and their running afoul of 'Trolls' in the form of gun-runners."Sing we joyous all together,
Fa la la la la.. la la la la..."
They applauded as the first selection ended. Then both agents smiled broadly as they watched the children rearrange themselves for their second song. Vin was handed a toy drum and drumsticks, and took center stage. The doting men could see the blue eyes widen with a combination of fear and pride as he began to beat a slow cadence on the instrument he had been entrusted to play."Come they told me,
Pa rum pa pum pum..."
Chris focused the camera for more pictures, while Buck happily filmed the little boy. Vin seemed oblivious to everything around him as he concentrated on keeping the time with the drum."I have no gift to bring,
Pa rum pa pum pum..."
Chris vaguely registered the fact that the camera he held clicked and whirred as it automatically began to rewind the film. He dropped it to his lap and sat back, a broad, pride-filled grin still plastered on his handsome face."Then, He smiled at me
Pa rum pa pum pum...
Me and my drum."
Vin looked up, a look of amazement on his elfin face, as he heard the applause. He smiled as he distinctly heard a familiar voice call out uncharacteristically loud, "that's my son!" With tears glittering in his eyes, Vin Tanner stood straighter, and had to be reminded that it was time to leave the stage as the curtain closed.
The lights came up as a brief intermission was declared. Chris turned to the young blonde beside him. "I'm sorry, I didn't even ask which one was your daughter."
Jenny smiled at him, tears glittering in her eyes. "With that special performance your son gave just now, it's a wonder you even noticed there was anyone else on stage. He did a wonderful job."
Chest swelling with pride, Larabee said, "yeah, he did."
On the other side of his friend, Buck pretended not to pay attention to their shy flirting. Then he caught sight of JD's teacher, a young black woman he'd tried flirting with until he met her linebacker boyfriend. She scanned the crowd from the edge of the stage, then motioned to him frantically. Reluctantly he nudged the man beside him. As Chris broke off his conversation, he nodded toward the stage and said, "think we've got our pass to leave early."
"Okay," Larabee said resignedly. "Tell you what, you get JD and head home. Vin and I will go get the Calamine and whatever else we'll need to get through the next few days."
"Y' sure?" Wilmington looked from Chris to the young woman on the other side of him. "I could take care a both."
Shaking his head, the smaller man said, "no, you need to get him home, he doesn't need to go around infecting the whole city on Christmas Eve."
"All right," the mustached man stretched out of the chair and started toward the stage. Glancing back, he smiled to see the blond saying his good-byes before following.
Ezra hung up the phone, shaking his head. Larabee had called to ask him if he had ever had Chicken Pox. He had almost lied and said no, but decided that telling the truth would be better. The thought of keeping his 'guests' longer simply because his boss didn't want him to be exposed to the childhood malady was unbearable. He would probably say he had them even if he hadn't, simply to reclaim his home from almost certain destruction.
The box Chris had handed him so long ago was now lying on its side, being used as a home base of sorts. The box's former occupants were corralled in his kitchen / dining area, the only part of the townhouse floored in linoleum. He sat on a stool on the far side of the bar that separated his guests from the rest of the house, watching their every move with the intensity of a hawk. A heavy thud drew his attention to where his kitchen trash can now lay on its side, its contents strewn across the floor.
"Ah, hell!" He cried out as he raced into the room, only to slip on an ominously yellow puddle and land on his backside. Yelling in pain, he managed to get to his knees and retrieve an empty container that had held egg drop soup only yesterday. "NO! NO NO NO NO!"
His visitors blinked up at him curiously before continuing their destruction.
Chris pulled up in front of the rambling ranch house that he shared with the other three members of his patchwork family. He smiled across the seat at the little boy who smiled back at him. Larabee was glad they had already been through chicken pox with Vin, at least the boys wouldn't have to be separated for the holidays.
They left the truck, Chris grabbing up the three grocery bags from the back, Vin following close behind with his backpack and the drum he had been given by his teacher. Father and son entered the house to the sounds of Elvis singing "Blue Christmas". Larabee grimaced, which brought a giggle from his son. Looking down at the child, he managed a smile and a wink as he said, "sounds like Buck's home."
They found Wilmington in the boys' bathroom, supervising JD's bath. The little boy was soaking in a warm tub, playing with his bath toys as the heat of the water brought out more and more of the red blisters. Handing over the Calamine, the blond called out over the music, "how's he feeling?"
"Not bad so far, he's been in the tub since we got home."
"Hi Chris! Hi Vin!" JD yelled out, managing to splash a good amount of water over the side of the tub as he waved to the two newcomers. "I'm takin' another bath even though I just took one this mornin' cause Buck tol' me I need t' sit in here 'til I turn all pruney so my shicken pops all turn red an' then he's gonna paint 'm pink with some special me'cine and he said we're gonna have pizza for dinner an' he let me pick out what goes on one a th' pizzas so I'm gonna have pepper-onies an' pineapples an' then I'm gonna drink some pop with the pizza an' Buck said we're gonna watch the Grinch!"
Chris and Vin simply nodded from time to time during the long narrative, then turned to share a smile. Leaving the lotion with Wilmington, they went to put the other things away.
A short time later the doorbell announced the arrival of their dinner. Chris paid the driver, tipping her well for the trip to the house, then carried the short stack of boxes into the kitchen. By the time he and Vin had finished setting the table, Buck and JD joined them. They sat at the kitchen table, eating while the men praised the children for their performances earlier that day. As usual, Vin ducked his head shyly as praise was heaped on his tiny shoulders. JD, on the other hand, grinned broadly, showing off the lack of his two front teeth, accepting the comments with six-year-old grace while he tried unsuccessfully to scratch his itches.
After dinner was over, Chris cleaned up while Buck kept JD busy until Vin had a chance to change into his pajamas. Finally the four of them settled in the den, which glowed merrily with the lights of the Christmas tree. The boys made their usual survey of the stacks of presents beneath the thick branches, trying to decide whether or not anything had been added. Wilmington keyed up the video, then coaxed the boys over. The children curled up at opposite ends of the big couch, and each of them was wrapped up in a thick blanket. The two men settled into the recliners nearby as the live action adaptation of the popular cartoon of their youth began.
Larabee picked up the glass of tea from the table beside him and silently saluted his friend. Buck grinned and raised his own glass. It was Christmas Eve and they were wrapped in the comfort of their little family. Life couldn't be better.
Life could not be any worse.
Ezra groaned and plopped back on the mattress of his cold bed, praying that the peace that had finally descended on his once happy abode would continue.
"No amount of time off is worth this," the agent growled as he pushed himself back off the bed and stomped toward the escalating racket. He was bone weary, and his contused derriere was causing him to limp painfully. Opening the door cautiously, he entered the kitchen area, watching closely for signs of further booby-traps. Finding none in evidence, he still walked carefully across the still damp linoleum. He had swept and mopped the entire kitchen four times already, and still fancied that it reeked.
"What on earth could you two want now?" He croaked the words tiredly. "I have given you attention, not to mention the larger portion of my steak at dinner. I have done everything on the list and more, and you have the gall to continue your complaints? I daresay that I have never had two such unappreciative houseguests in my life!"
His guests simply looked up at him from where they sat, then returned to their impromptu concert.
"Good Lord! Cease and desist, both of you!" Holding his hands over his ears, Standish glared at the duo, to no avail. The concert continued. He slumped to the floor in defeat, shaking his head. "What on Earth could you still want?"
In answer, the Southerner's overnight guests stumbled and tumbled across the floor, advancing on him with gay abandon.
"Ah, hell!" Standish cried out, just as he was bowled over by his overly exuberant guests to lie in a dejected heap on the cold, damp floor.