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The ATF team known to most as The Magnificent Seven were seated around their usual large table at the bar they frequented called simply The Saloon.
It had been an uneventful day for the seven, which in itself was something to celebrate. The impressive men were excellent at what they did, but even they had to admit that they seemed to attract a lot of trouble.
They were all drinking their beverage of choice, laughing and shooting the breeze, when Buck noticed that JD had gone rather quiet. Dunne hadn't even shared any of his 'three-legged dog' jokes in a while.
Wilmington elbowed Tanner, who nodded in understanding. When the two glanced at Chris, the blond already had hazel eyes trained on the young agent.
Nathan noticed where the men's gazes were going and a concerned expression crossed his face. The other two quickly clued in as well.
Larabee almost imperceptibly nodded at Buck. The ladies' man leaned his chair back as he cradled his beer.
"Whatcha thinkin' so hard about Kid?"
"Huh?" murmured JD absently, then his eyes darted up to his surrogate big brother.
"Asked what ya been thinkin' about. You've been miles away for a quarter hour or so," repeated the explosives tech patiently.
"Oh, sorry guys. I was just thinking about the month."
Six other faces got confused frowns on their foreheads.
"The month? It's May, JD," said Vin as he carried a handful of nuts to his mouth.
Josiah looked intrigued. "What's special about May, John Daniel?"
The ex-preacher's warm voice invited confidences, while the others were obviously thinking, trying to figure out what Dunne was talking about.
Brown-tinted hazel eyes looked at them in mild surprise over the mug of milk that sat before him.
"Duh, Mother's Day."
Only the undercover operative nodded in immediate understanding. Maude might be as far from a traditional mother as it was possible to be, but she still expected her only son to do his duty by her every year on the holiday. Ezra's lips twitched at the thought and he took a quick swallow of his Scotch.
Recognition slowly dawned on the faces of the rest of the team. Standish was the only one of them whose mother was still living, and even he sometimes swore on "the grave of my sainted mother." None of the men had children either, so Mother's Day wasn't a holiday they usually thought about much.
"Thinkin' 'bout your ma?" asked Vin softly.
The mention of the occasion suddenly brought back faint memories in the sniper of picking wildflowers for his mom when he was just a little fella, and making her homemade cards. They didn't have a lot, but she always exclaimed and cried over the gifts as if they were silver or gold. And he supposed that to her they were that precious.
JD's dark head nodded, bangs flying into his eyes as he leaned his elbows on the table.
"Yeah. The last couple of years we've been so busy with cases around this time that I didn't have much chance to remember anything except to say 'Happy Mother's Day, Mom'. But now I can picture her in my mind, and how happy she was when I'd give her my gifts. We couldn't afford much, but I always made her a card and kept out enough money to buy her a little gift. It was a gold-plated locket one year, tickets to a movie she really wanted to see another, stuff like that. After she got so sick, it was a treat for her just to get to go to the park and feed the ducks." The soft voice trailed off, and one hand reached up to wipe an errant tear away.
A few more fingers flicked moisture off surreptitiously as well.
Dunne continued as he took a sip of his milk. "I always got her flowers too, even if I just stopped and picked her a handful somewhere." Hazel eyes and sky blue ones locked for a second as the electronics tech and sharpshooter exchanged glances of understanding.
At the encouraging looks from the others, JD continued. "I put flowers on her grave on Mother's Day while I was on the PD in Boston, but then I moved out here. Now it's too far away and we're usually too busy for me to fly out just to do that. But I was sitting here wondering if she misses them." He looked a little embarrassed.
"I mean, I know she's in heaven now and understands. But I still wish I could show how much I miss her and how much I care."
Now all six older men were wiping tears away, or pretending they suddenly had allergies, or that they got smoke in their eyes.
JD glanced over at Tanner.
"Vin, I know your mom died when you were young, but did you ever go back to put flowers on her grave?" asked the youngest a bit diffidently.
The sandy-haired figure nodded briefly, fingers toying with his beer mug.
"Didn't get to much, but yeah . . . I managed to go a couple of times when I was in foster care. Had to sneak out, and pick some daisies and stuff from the vacant lots, but I took her some. Then went by with some store-bought bouquets a few years when I was bounty huntin', until Eli Joe put that reward out on me and made it too dangerous to stay in Texas. Felt bad that I couldn't after that, but figured she was lookin' down on me and understood."
The others nodded in sympathy. Vin didn't usually talk much about himself to anyone but Chris, so the rest felt honored that the quiet sniper had shared.
The comments had sent Josiah's mind back to his childhood, too.
"Always got my mom some flowers and made her a card on Mother's Day no matter where in the world we were," commented the deep voice softly. "After I left home, sent her some a few times, too. She didn't live very many years after that, though. And I didn't want to run into my old man, so I never went to her grave. Prayed for God to forgive my selfishness, but I just held so much animosity that I was afraid if I saw him I'd do something even worse."
The men all knew how strict and unsympathetic Josiah's father had been, and that it was that behavior that had caused Hannah to become mentally disturbed. No one could fault the former priest for his decision, as they would probably have made the same one.
Nathan reached out to pat the older man on the shoulder, his dark eyes a bit misty.
"Ain't been back in years to put flowers on my momma's grave either, I'm sorry to say. She killed herself because of the rape when I was young. Daddy took us a few times when I was a kid, but I moved away when I got old enough to go. Didn't want the memories hauntin' me. Like y'all said . . .felt kinda bad about it, but couldn't bring myself to stay. Then Daddy moved, and I just never had a reason or the time to go back seemed like."
Buck gave the medic's upper arm a squeeze of consolation, even as he reached to wipe a bit of moisture from the corner of one cobalt eye. All the men had sad tales seemed like. It was part of what helped bind them together into a family instead of just co-workers.
"We didn't have the money for a funeral when my ma died, so she was cremated. I spread her ashes on this pretty patch of flowers at the edge of town that she always liked," shared the explosives expert. "Figured she'd be pleased. And like y'all, I always made her a lil' card and picked her a bouquet from that spot when I was a kid, so it seemed fittin'. Ain't been back by there in years. Not since mine and Chris' last visit to Vegas on liberty in the SEALs."
The blond nodded in recollection. "Yeah, I remember that trip. Was a pretty spot as I recall. Of course, a lot of that week is a little fuzzy," added the lean figure with a wry grin.
Wilmington's mustache twitched a bit. "Yeah, we did spend quite a bit of time in the bars."
"Or gettin' thrown out of 'em," murmured the leader's unique tones with a hint of a grin. He then turned thoughtful.
"I made my mom a card every year on Mother's Day, too. At least until I got old enough to afford to by her one. She kept every single one I ever gave her. When she passed away, there was a whole boot box full of cards and dried petals from the arrangements I'd send her. Haven't been back in years. Sarah used to call and order flowers though, and have someone put them on both my mom and dad's graves. We went when she was pregnant with Adam, so she could be sure the sprays were being delivered like they were supposed to be. That, and she wanted to tell my folks about the baby, even though they were both gone." The blond's voice was so low by the time he finished that the others had to lean forward to hear him.
Maude was still alive, so the rest didn't really expect Ezra to have much to say, but the undercover agent surprised them.
"I used to make mother little cards as well on the holiday, and save my allowance so I could by her favorite yellow roses or another token of my affection. For the first few years she pretended to be thrilled, but by the time I was four or five, I could tell she was only putting on a show for me. The only things my dear mother appreciates on holidays are precious gems, stocks and bonds, or cold hard cash. However, to this day I still can't seem to stop myself from tryin' to buy her approval. And I suppose in her own way, she does appreciate my efforts to a certain degree."
The rest just shook their heads. Having met Maude several times since Ezra had joined the team, they could only wonder at how the gambler had turned out as well as he had with such an influence in his formative years. The woman did have a good quality or two, but they were very well hidden most of the time!
Sharing their stories had opened a floodgate of memories for each man, so they spent almost an hour reminiscing about various Mother's Days and other holidays.
When it was close to time to go, Chris suddenly sat up straight and gave JD a considering look.
"Whatcha thinkin' Pard? I recognize that expression," asked Buck in curiosity, using almost the same phrase that had started the conversation.
Chris ignored the ladies' man, speaking to Dunne instead.
The smaller brunet glanced over at his hero. Just talking with the rest about their mothers and their memories of different holidays had made the youngest of the group feel better. Now he was curious what Larabee was going to say.
"I was planning to take flowers out to Sarah's grave for Mother's Day. How would you like to come with me and put some on there in honor of your mom?"
Dunne's hazel eyes got wide for a moment, then he gave an uncontrolled grin.
"You mean it, Chris? You don't mind?"
The blond shook his head. "Wouldn't have offered if I minded, Kid."
JD nearly bounced in his seat. "That would be so cool, Chris! Thanks so much! Maybe my mom and Sarah can talk about 'em together."
The lean form gave a nod of approval, then glanced around at the rest of the team.
"In fact, you're all welcome to come if you want. I'm sure Sarah would like to see all the bouquets, and like JD said . . . maybe she can share the beauty with all of our moms."
It was highly unusual for the stoic leader to be so fanciful, so the others quickly agreed to the outing. They rose to leave, all now laughing and discussing what kind of blooms to get for the occasion as they paid their tab and headed for their vehicles.
SUNDAY, TWO DAYS LATER . . .
The day had dawned warm and sunny and white clouds were playing chase across the azure sky as seven men entered the wrought iron gates of the cemetery. Colorful bouquets were clutched in each man's hand as they strode among the granite and marble markers toward the glistening black family one at the far end of the well-manicured space.
When they reached the stone bearing Sarah and Adam Larabee's names, with Chris' birth date chiseled on the free side, the group all knelt reverently. Tears fell unimpeded down each face as the blond reached out to pull a couple of weeds that had dared encroach on the sacred area, then run a finger lightly over the carved letters. He then carefully laid down a large bunch of apricot colored roses, accented with baby's breath and greenery and tied with a blue ribbon.
"Happy Mother's Day, Sarah. I love you and I still miss you more than I can say." Damp hazel eyes then glanced around him and a smile curved the chiseled lips. "But the boys are making sure I have more good days than bad lately. They're here with me this time. Since they can't make it to their moms' graves, they're going to leave their flowers here with you. I knew you wouldn't mind."
With that, the tall figure caressed the monument a last time, then rose and moved back a step. One hand motioned to JD.
The youngest reached to lay his bouquet of lilies on the clipped green grass in front of the marker.
"Thanks for letting me use your grave to honor my mom, Ms. Larabee. If you see her, tell her I love her and I'm doing great here. Chris and the rest are my family now. Hope you enjoy the flowers. Happy Mother's Day!"
One by one, the five other men deposited their offerings on the ground, until the space in front of the gleaming dark marble was a sea of scented blooms and greenery. Each one shared their gratitude at being able to use Sarah as a surrogate for their moms, Ezra offering his own soft wishes for a happy holiday for Chris' wife as he gently put his bouquet of orchids and other tropical flowers among the rest.
The men stayed half an hour or so, sharing a few memories of their mothers so that Sarah would know each one. While silly to some, each seemed to feel the presence of Chris' beloved wife hovering among them as they softly spoke to her.
When they rose to go, JD turned back to wave to the headstone. "Bye, Ms. Larabee! We'll see you next year!"
Chris gave an approving nod as Buck put his arms around the kid's shoulders.
As the seven men walked away, seven spirits watched them go with smiles on their respective faces. Their sons and husband had each other now, and everything would be ok.
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Author's Note: For those who think there is a mistake in the number of spirits, I'm including Chris' mom, not just Sarah.