by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 1

The snow-capped mountains stood majestically against a dark blue sky, as twilight unfurled her cape over the city. The small college arena was packed and a throng of screaming zealots only added to the Southern gambler's discomfort. He was about to voice his displeasure to his compatriots, when the bloodthirsty crowd rose to their feet. They were angry at what they perceived to be an obvious penalty taken against one of the players on their team.

"Madame," he winced, turning to the irate woman behind him, "Would it be beyond your capabilities to refrain from using such vulgar language?"

The vocal blond, clad in a Colorado Avalanche jersey and red turtleneck, chose a silent, solo-fingered salute in response.

"Charming," the Conman replied, as he cast his weary green eyes back to the action on the ice below.

The two youngest members of ATF's Team Seven played for the Maverick's, a team in the Adult Ice Hockey League. Vin Tanner, the team's sharpshooter, loved sports - especially contact sports. Despite his slight size, he excelled at athletics and thrived on competition. He was the smallest man on the team and played left wing. He was extremely fast, smart with the puck and played gutsy, heads-up hockey. John Dunne, like his teammate, loved action and the excitement of participating in rousing, recreative activities. He was heavier than Tanner and played defense. After a shaky start, he emerged as a top-notch blueliner. His hard-hitting and solid playmaking quickly solidified his place on the team. Like Vin, his exuberance made him a fan favorite.

The crowd rose to their feet in anticipation, as J.D and Vin headed into the Scorpion's zone on a breakaway. J.D. drew the lone defender over to the boards and deftly passed the puck to Vin, who wasted no time in drilling a wrist shot past the sprawled goaltender.

"SCORE!" The spectators roared, flinging their fists skyward. The usually elusive conman wasn't lucky this time. He vocalized his displeasure, as he was pelted with the remains of nachos and cheese.

"Perfect," the Southern charmer spat, reaching inside his jacket for a handkerchief, "What a lovely way to spend the evening. Freezing my assets off, while entrenched among lascivious mongrels who derive some thrill by hurling food upon innocent bystanders."

"Oh, Ezra, don't get your bloomers in a bunch," Buck Wilmington's devilish grin appeared simultaneously with an elbow to the ribs, "Did you see the moves my boys made? Pure and sweet...a thing of beauty," the mustached-man bragged.

"Like poetry in motion," Standish drawled, taking napkins from Nathan Jackson and disposing of the sticky mess, "Are you aware, Mr. Wilmington, that this is an Armani sweater?"

"In case you didn't notice, Ezra," Buck retorted, "this is Ice Hockey, not the Opera."

"Do tell," Standish muttered, "Imagine my surprise."

"Man's got a point, Brother Standish," Josiah Sanchez imparted, with a slight grin.

"You ain't exactly dressed for the occasion," Nathan Jackson agreed, eyeing the gambler's expensive black wool pants, red cashmere sweater and suede jacket.

"I am always dressed for the occasion, my good healer," Standish replied, "A silk purse among sow's ears."

"I think he just insulted us," Chris Larabee, the group's leader, smirked.

The crowd settled down and returned to their seats as play resumed. The Scorpions were losing 4 to 3 with time running out. They zoomed into the Maverick's zone, passing the puck behind the net. J.D went after it and was blindsided by a viscous crosscheck.

"Damn it!" Buck roared, rising in anger, "Don't swallow that whistle again. You been missing calls all night." He complained loudly to the referee, who was well out of range.

"Vin, stay out of it," Larabee's husky voice advised, as the small winger pushed his into the corner, where the guilty Scorpion and two large teammates gloated over the fallen Dunne.

"You gotta admire him," Buck grinned, "Junior sometimes forgets he ain't Eric Lindros," Wilmington referred to the Philadelphia Flyers 6'4, 230 pound center, who feared no one.

"Boy's got himself riled up good," Jackson noted of the colorful language Tanner issued at the lingering trio, "He'd like to take on the whole team."

"Is that Adams again?" Chris asked Buck.

"Yeah, somebody needs to put that coward in his place," Wilmington said of the large Scorpion forward, known for his cheapshots.

The fans cheered as the uninjured Dunne made his way back to the bench. Play resumed and the announcement was made that only one minute remained in the game. The Scorpion's pulled their goalie to gain an extra attacker. As they attempted to pass the puck into the Maverick's end, it was intercepted and cleared up to the speedy Tanner. With time running out, he broke across the ice alone and the audience roared. Just as he was about to shoot for the net, a familiar burly Scorpion elbowed him high and hard into the boards.

"That fuckin' animal," Buck screamed, rising to his feet, "Adams you're a dead man!"

"Jesus, Vin ain't movin'," Jackson fretted, making his way iceside, with the other four behind him.

"Vin, you okay?" J.D. took off his glove and bent over his dazed friend.

"Little bastard got what he deserved," Adams smirked to his gooney linemates.

"You're real good at sneak attacks, Adams," Dunne leaned in, "How about fightin' like a man for a change?"

"Break it up, guys," the referee intercepted the pair, "Games over, hit the showers."

"Later, Runt!" Adams laughed, rubbing J.D.'s face with his glove.

Nathan Jackson made his way onto the ice, where Vin was finally moving. He dropped to his knees at fallen man's side. The team trainer had taken Tanner's helmet off and was gently probing his head and neck.

"Vin, you okay?" Nathan peered into the younger man's blank face.

"Let me up, Rick," Vin rasped, fighting the trainer, "I'm fine. Clinton's the President, today is Friday and ya still got one head."

"Take it easy, Vin, that was some shot you took," Jackson helped ease the sharpshooter to his feet, "Maybe you outta go the hospital..."

"Nathan, get out my way," Tanner growled, looking past the black man's shoulder, "Where'd that fuckin' loser go? I aim to teach him a lesson."

"Games over, Vin," the trainer said, pushing the irate winger towards the door leading to the locker room, "Put it behind you. You scored the winning goal, that's more important."

"Those who can't ...train, eh Rick?" Tanner muttered, throwing off the assist and stomping down the runway.

"He okay?" Jackson asked the grinning trainer.

"He's too onry to be hurt," was the reply, "I'm sending him over to County for a check, just to be on the safeside. He didn't lose consciousness, and claimed nothing hurt, but this is Vin we're talking about."

"I'll keep an eye on him," Jackson promised, "and I won't be alone," he noted of the other Team Seven members.

+ + + + + + +

It was just past midnight when the seven entered The Blue Line, a sportsbar near the arena. The oversized televisions had replays running of the Nuggets and Avalanche games. The tavern was packed and Josiah's height gave him the ability to see over the crowd. He spotted a group ready to leave and led the team in the direction of the vacated table.

Several of the gathered throng of young people recognized Vin and J.D., and a small cheer arose. The grinning duo slid into the booth flanked by Chris and Buck. Ezra and Nathan were on the end, with Josiah pulling up a stray chair. Their usual waitress appeared with two pitchers of beer, six mugs and Ezra's carafe of Chablis. She took their order for Wings, Pizza and for Vin, one order of Sloppy Fries, a messy but tasty creation of French Fries topped with a Sloppy Joe mixture, Cheddar Cheese and Sour Cream.

"Mr. Tanner, your gastronomical feats are as astounding as your athletic prowess," Ezra noted of the sharpshooter's ability to eat anytime, anyplace and just about anything.

"You okay, Cowboy?" Chris spoke low, noting the pinched look on the younger man's face.

"Y'all worry too much," he threw Larabee a half grin, which quickly disappeared, "That scum just fried my last nerve," he scowled, "...somethin' about him justs sets me off."

"How come that yellow-livered loser's got your number?" Buck asked the dynamic duo of Scott Adams, the cheapshot artist.

"Bullies have been around since the beginning of time," Sanchez noted, "He's no different. Vin and J.D. are smaller, and easy prey for him."

"He's stilled pissed 'cause we beat them in the finals last year for the McGillen Trophy," Tanner noted of the Maverick's championship title.

"...and you two show him up every time you play." Larabee noted, giving J.D. a wink.

As the evening progressed, the food was consumed and the seven friends had a rousing time. It came time for another round of drinks. The waitress was nowhere to be found. "Be just as quick to go to the bar," Buck noted to Chris who nodded and elbowed Vin and J.D.

The quartet made their way to the long bar and Buck and Vin elbowed their way to the front. Buck gave the order and made time with a lush redhead while they waited.

"Well if it ain't the blackhearted leader of the Seven," a voice jeered, "Hey fellows, that scuzzy guy in black is Chris Larabee, Dunne and Tanner's Papa."

"Shut up, Adams," Larabee gritted, not wanting to start a riot in the tight crowd.

"What a sad-assed, sorry bunch of losers," Adams continued, elbowing two of his teammates, "Stinkin' cops...beating up people and taking bribes."

"That's it, Adams," Dunne attempted to jump on him, only to be hit in the chest by Larabee's outspread hand.

"I'm warning you," Chris menaced, eye's glowering, to the gawking Adams, "Back!"

The bartender appeared with the two pitchers. Vin handed one back to J.D. and was in the process of handing the second one to Chris, when he was pushed from behind, sending the pitcher through the air. The motion sent him crashing into J.D. and both ended up on the floor. Vin's face became enraged when he heard the voice above.

"You and that runt ain't making them pretty moves now, you worthless, half-breed bastard," Adams crowed, "Next time, I'm sending you to the icehouse," Adams gloated, referring to the city morgue.

Vin growled and lunged at Scott Adams, but he wasn't quick enough. The large bully found himself slammed face first onto the bar and felt cartilage crunch, as blood shot forth. "I didn't care about you insulting me and I don't take kindly to you badmouthing my team," Larabee growled icily, "But you breathe another filthy slur or lay a finger on him again, I will personally see to it that you lose the equipment necessary to produce a child. Do we understand each other?"

Larabee applied severe pressure to the bully's throat, causing a scarlet flush to appear on his face. The crowd had grown deathly quiet and watched, as the gasping man nodded. Larabee relinquished his grip, but his eyes remained steely as he turned to check on Dunne and Tanner.

Adams picked up a pitcher and attempted to slug the struggling Dunne, but his arm was pulled behind his back and he once thrown back against the bar.

"You are one thick-headed pig," Wilmington gritted, increasing the pressure until Adams yelped in pain, "My friend was extremely considerate, I'm not," he ended with a hard right to the bully's gut, sending him to the floor.

"This ain't over, Tanner," Adams croaked, "You and Dunne won't be so brave when your Papa Bears aren't around."

His friends pulled the bleeding loser to his feet. Chris and Buck stood in front of the two younger men and waited until the enemy had retreated. Chris turned as Vin pushed his way forward, his angry eyes shooting blue sparks. Chris laid a firm hand on the shoulder of the worn, brown leather jacket, only to have it thrown off.

"I ain't yer child," Vin seethed, "Quit wipin' my nose for me!"

"That's not what...." Chris paused realizing his was talking to air, the sharpshooter had disappeared into the crowd, "Vin?...Vin, wait a minute," He started forward and Buck stopped him.

"Leave him be, Chris. He's been on his own most of his life...fighting alone. He ain't used to having somebody take up for him. Gonna take some time for him to understand."

Chris's face remained hard, but Buck saw the flicker in his eyes. The others had approached, and it appeared the celebration was over. J.D. finally appeared, buttoning his Bronco's jacket. Buck was puzzled by the dark look on the normally affable boy's face.

"What's eatin' ya, Kid?" He inquired, ruffling the boy's dark hair.

"Damn it, Buck," J.D. angered, "You gotta stop doing that."

"Doing what, Kid?"

"Showing up like my mom in the fourth grade schoolyard. You and Chris just don't know when to quit." J.D. sulked, as he exited the bar in a huff.

"Ain't nothin' worse than an uppity youngin'" Buck lamented, shaking his head.

"Unless it's two," Chris added.

The group made their way to the parking lot, leaving Ezra to pay the bill.

"Once again, I'm left to make amends for my colleagues hasty retreat," Standish peeled off several bills and handed it to the barkeeper, "Monetary and otherwise, Good Evening, Gentlemen."

After the game, Chris, Nathan and Vin had gone to the hospital in Chris's truck. Josiah drove Ezra, while Buck and J.D. came in J.D's van. They'd come straight from the hospital to the bar. Ezra stood alone in the parking lot, realizing he had a cold walk back to the arena to his Porsche. Pulling his collar up against the bitter night air, he cursed softly as he walked across the parking lot.

"Y'all goin' my way?"

He smiled at the familiar twang and looked over to see Vin's Jeep. The sharpshooter saw his confusion and offered the answer.

"One of the guys on the team dropped the car over here after the game."

"Mr. Tanner, your timing remains impeccable," Ezra grinned as he climbed in, frowning as his feet became buried in a small ocean of Coke can's, fast food bags, cupcake and candy wrappers. "You really must say something to your cleaning service, it would appear they have been neglectful in their duties once again."

"Been meanin' to get to that, sorry Ez," Vin winced.

It was only a short ride back to the arena, where the Southerner's car was parked. Ezra knew Vin was still upset about Chris's intervention. Those blue eyes of his were mirrors to the soul, and often said more than any words could. As they pulled up to his car, he turned to Vin.

"Mr. Tanner, might I have a word with you?"

"Depends." Vin hedged, all to aware of the tricky gambler's methods, "Let me see them sleeves of yers."

Ezra smiled at the reference and chuckled, "I assure you, my intentions are on the level," he paused as Vin arched an eyebrow, then smiled, "Good. I know you're upset with Mr. Larabee's actions this evening, however..."

"Don't go there, Ez..." Vin warned, gripping the wheel, "Y'all mean well, but..."

"Perhaps I understand the situation better than you think. Like yourself, I have been alone most of my life. I, too, struggle to let anyone close, and still have difficulty asking for or accepting help. What started as an assignment to work among a group of highly skilled, albeit slightly off center, law enforcers, has evolved into something quite different. There are feelings emerging, I can't fully understand nor can I explain them. My six co-workers have morphed into a family. Brothers...comrades who care...something I still struggle with. I imagine if we had grown up with brothers...siblings...a family unit, trust would come easier. Mr. Larabee's concern for your well being shouldn't be taken lightly. Don't deny that uncanny and exceptional bond that has formed between you two. Rather, you should embrace it; he's a good man, Mr. Tanner. I daresay those feelings of his are rarely given so deeply."

He waited, slipping a furtive glance at the driver, and saw Vin's eyebrows furrow as he absorbed the words carefully. He reached into his pocket and got out his keys, unlocked the door and was about to slip out, when he felt his arm hooked.

"Some nights them five-dollar words of yers make a whole lotta sense," Vin smiled warmly, grasping the older man's forearm, a gesture he usually reserved only for Chris Larabee, "Gracias, Amigo."

"My pleasure Mr... Vin," Ezra let out his best smile, "Next time, if you would be so kind to hold that unsavory sloth Adams, I would like to, as our shy Mr. Wilmington would say, 'Give him what for'. His conduct both during the game and afterwards towards your person, has not set well with me."

"Always room on the team for one more, Ez," Vin laughed, "Ye'd make a real fine Goalie."

"When pigs fly, Mr. Tanner," Ezra waved as he strode to his car.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee had a bit of a ride to his ranch, outside town. He rummaged around the cassettes on the seat next to him, until he found what he was looking for. Slipping in the often-played tape, he turned the volume up as the soft, haunting ballad, "Desperado", by the Eagles, wafted through the car. The song had always been a favorite of his, and the words took on a whole new meaning after he met Vin Tanner. Every word seemed to identify both of their lives. After the tragic deaths of his wife and young son, Chris Larabee felt like the lone gunman in the song.

"Your prison is walking through this world all alone..."

Chris's voice died out with the last heartfelt line and he cast a small smile.

"Not any more," he thought aloud, as Vin's face briefly came to mind.

Not since the day his eye's met the scrappy Texan's. For a split second, the drama around him seemed to disappear. An instant connection took place; an overwhelming feeling took root deep inside. This was someone he could trust with his life, without question. Someone who's integrity shown through those reflective blue eyes. He knew Vin felt the almost electric connection as well.

He parked the truck and turned off the ignition. He climbed out and cast his clear eyes heavenward, watching the blinking stars. He could be accused of being a little too protective of his six men...good friends...brothers. He'd do anything for them, anywhere and at anytime. But with Vin it was different. It was as if the sun finally came out after three years of gray, dismal rain. He felt the sharpshooter's pain and felt a rage almost beyond control when anyone hurt him. He didn't mean to coddle the younger man and understood how sometimes Vin felt smothered. He took a deep breath and shuddered from the cold and the thought of what his life would revert back to, should that mischievous grin-wearing, blue-eyed soul-sharer, be lost to him.

He unlocked the door, switched on the light and returned the amorous greeting of his Sam, his Black Lab. He held the door open and waited until the handsome dog reappeared, having finished his duty in the yard. He opened the door of the refrigerator and noticed a half-empty bottle of ice tea. As he consumed it, and headed for the stairs, the phone rang. The shrill ring jarred him, as did the late hour. His heart pounded a little quicker as he thought of one of the team, encased in a tangled car wreck.

"Larabee," he answered, voice tense.

" 'night Cowboy," the soft drawl replied.


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