The Learning Curve

by Cin

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. No infringement on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or other parties who may have legal rights is intended. This story is for entertainment purposes only: no monetary gain has been made.

Dedicated to: Those first writers in the ATF universe who inspired me to try it myself and whose writing was some of the inspiration behind this story. To Mog for creating it in A Birthday in the Present and for What Life is About; Winter, Then There Were Five; Greenwoman, You'll Never Work in Dis Bidness and Findin' the Right Place and for all the other writers who make this fandom so much fun.

A special dedication to my husband and youngest daughter who are blessed with the gift of dyslexia.

Thanks to: Deirdre for all of her help. To Deb and Monica for their continued encouragement and muse kicking.

Part 1

Vin pulled the blue, battered jeep up to the curb in front of Ezra Standish's stylish uptown condo and cut the engine. Expelling a long sigh, he ran his fingers thru his shoulder length, wavy brown hair. His brows furrowed as he laid his head against the headrest and gazed at the items on the seat next to him.

Damn, why am I so nervous? he mused, wiping his moist palms on the legs of his faded jeans.

Don't get this bad even before a raid.

Dwelling on the favor he was about to ask of his friend, his stomach churned imagining the reaction he would receive. He wished he could just forget the whole thing and leave, but he'd arranged this meeting with Standish and knew he was expected. He just wanted to know why he was doing this to himself.

He concentrated his thoughts on the elusive undercover agent. He believed in the signs he saw of the man opening up more, maybe Ezra was starting to accept the offered hands of friendship. The two were paired together on several cases over the last several months. In fact, it was because of their last three-week assignment, that he was in need of this favor. The stellar undercover agent had helped him before, which made this decision a little easier. He wished he didn't have to do this, that he could just go on without anyone the wiser. But he realized, in reality this moment was going to happen sooner or later, just didn't know if this was the right choice.

I know Ezra, don't I?

Vin frowned, reflecting on what he knew about the Southerner. When Ezra did talk, he usually said four words for every one he needed, just the opposite of the sharpshooter. Vin grinned at that thought. The smile faded sadly, But not about his personal life. Vin reflected on his own quiet nature, and realized they both kept much of themselves hidden, afraid of letting anyone get too close. Remembering briefly the pain he suffered in the past; he sensed Ezra was also a victim. He saw evidence of memories of past hurts buried deep within the Southerner's pale, jade green eyes. A wistful smile appeared on the younger man's face, as he imagined how unnerved the undercover agent would be if he realized how invisible he could be.

Vin stared toward the condo again and at the faint light illuminating from the window on the lower floor. He admitted to himself that getting to know Ezra was not easy. The man presented himself as a self-assured southern gentleman, but the young sharpshooter still felt undercurrents of unease within his demeanor. The agent's previous assignment with the F.B.I., left him disillusioned and mistrustful of anyone claiming to be a friend. His prior experience had caused the young agent to become insecure in his job, with his friends, and even in himself. He retreated behind walls of an aloof and glib manner for protection against further damage to his ego and further pain to his heart.

Vin knew about insecurity, despite the mask he wore. Alone most of his life, he still couldn't believe his luck in stumbling into this job. A position that he not only enjoyed for the challenging pace, but the brothers he found as well. Six men to watch his back; to be there to help if he needed it. It was a bond he never felt before or thought he needed. He wanted it, but the sense of union and teaming were new to him. He still fought the desire to be a part of the circle, rather than standing alone. Was he worthy of this new role?

Ez'll understand, Vin countered silently. Then why's this so damn hard? His hands made another pass through his hair and down the legs of his jeans. Come on Tanner just get it over with, what's he gonna do, laugh at ya? Vin snorted.

You're a coward, Tanner, the young man chastised himself aloud, then chuckled in thought. Reckon the team would get a good laugh if they heard that.

Involuntarily he started pondering on the other members of their A.T.F. team and what they would think of his current predicament. He knew he took risks in his job, but no more than the others did. He felt his actions were justified, the familiar inner drive to prove his worth. Did he have the mettle to survive this job and the mantle of friendship? He felt the strong desire within to protect these men . . . these brothers in arms. This was just one more hurdle.

Is Ez the right choice? he pondered, reflecting on the others.

J.D. Dunne, the youngest and newest member of their team was a rookie, still impressionable and in awe of his older comrades. He knew J.D. respected him. The youth's constant questions while they were partnered didn't bother him. He knew the chattering from the youngest of his team members drove some of them crazy. But he was just searching for ways to feed his voracious thirst for knowledge. Vin was patient and flattered that J.D. actually thought he could learn from him. He welcomed the budding bond between them; it felt good to be looked up to by somebody.

Nathan, the ex-paramedic and forensic expert, was more than patient and understanding. He was grateful too, for Vin saving his life when they had first met. The sharpshooter didn't want gratitude; he did what needed to be done, as he always did. Of course now the team's medic just thought he was a crazy person with a death wish gruffly teasing the risks he took.

Maybe . . .

Nate would have been a great teacher, but he was busy with is own education at night. Studying to become a senior EMT-P. When he did have a free night, it should be spent with his beautiful lady, Rain.

Josiah, the team's profiler, was extremely intelligent and wise in many ways. He contemplated at first on seeking out his help, but the man's answers sometimes made his head hurt worse than deciphering Ezra's ten-dollar words. The large man was very spiritual and took to offering parables and annotations to enlighten his friends instead of straight answers. He could turn to Josiah for spiritual guidance, which he'd done in the past and gained great comfort.

Wouldn't hurt to have God on my side.

Buck, no way. The outgoing ladies man was a good friend and had embraced him into their brotherhood, but he was still uneasy around Buck. Or maybe it was Buck who was uneasy with him. The gregarious man tried not to show it, but Vin could feel it, Buck still didn't trust him. He cherished the spur the man had presented to him. The matching partner he gifted to his oldest friend and their leader, Chris Larabee. They were symbols to show that he was okay with the instant bond that bloomed between his friend and the young sharpshooter. Vin realized though, that the easygoing man had not lowered his guard. He had been through too much with Chris after he'd lost his family; he wasn't going to let anyone hurt him again.

Don't feel right askin' Buck.

Finally, Vin thought about their leader, the man who had changed his life. Sometimes he felt the brooding blond was the other half of his soul the kindred connection they shared was rare. For the first time in his life, Vin felt like he belonged. They seemed to be able to sense each other's moods and feelings. Chris Larabee was someone Vin was totally relaxed with, even when the leader was growling. Vin grinned and got a warmth inside, hearing those harsh words. He guessed it was because that was how his best friend showed he cared, and Vin liked that feeling a lot. He didn't want to go to Chris with this, they were too close. The stern leader had given him so much he didn't ever want to disappoint him.

Vin glanced toward the condo again, and Ezra. Ezra . . . you could never tell what he was thinking, how he was going to react, and the man wanted it that way. Vin felt deep down the Southerner was another kindred soul looking for a place to belong, and he was determined to help him find it. Ezra's reactions were always a surprise, just another way to keep them off balance.

Yeah, Ezra is the right person to do this.

Nervous hands made yet another trek through shaggy brown hair and down blue jean clad legs. A frustrated head bounced off the headrest.

Damn Tanner just get it over with!

Part 2

Ezra Standish pulled the royal blue shirt over his head and smoothed it down his lean torso. Strolling out of his bedroom he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and thought of the rest of the team he'd left at The Saloon, their favorite drinkery. Usually attired in designer suits of only the top quality, this casual dress of black jeans, short sleeve Henley pullover and bare feet would no doubt raise a few eyebrows among his colleagues. Chuckling he imagined the expression on Buck's face and the playful jibes he would be forced to endure. Of course he would have to point out that the jeans were Polo and the Henley, Land's End and the feet. . . It was still all quality attire.

Jogging down the stairs he made his way across the expanse of his sparsely furnished living room to the stereo in his entertainment center. He took a moment to peruse his collection of CD's. Finally making his selection he slid it into the player. The melodic sounds of the Eagles began to filter through the room, bringing a ghost of a smile to his handsome face as he turned toward the kitchen. Another item his teammates would find reason to harangue him on. They would say they were getting to him; he was finally beginning to loosen up. Reaching into the refrigerator for the green bottle of imported beer, he sadly shook his head. Twisting off the cap, he tossed it in the trash under the sink. They didn't realize he enjoyed dressing casually when he was off and had eclectic taste in music.

He frowned, No, they don't know me and probably never will, no one ever will.

Stepping out of the kitchen, Ezra sauntered over to the front windows of his apartment. His eyes briefly drifted around his living room and the various boxes stacked neatly in corners and along the walls. Some were still packed, some half empty and others only rifled through to retrieve the bare essentials. Sighing sadly his train of thought continued, They don't know me. I don't understand them. And I don't trust them . . . yet. He shook his head in denial at the unexpected thought that intruded, But maybe things are changing."

Pushing the curtain on the window aside slightly, he took a sip of his beer. Wincing at the bitter taste he frowned at the bottle and determined another change was going to have to be made soon. The loss of their long time brew master was going to affect the company more than first anticipated. The ideas running through his head tried to correct his errant musings, Or maybe I am changing.

He turned back to glance out the window. The faint light defused over the area from a nearby streetlight, reflected off the windows and chrome of the rumpled jeep parked in front of his home. It did little to dispel the darkness keeping the vehicle's equally rumpled looking owner obscured from view. Ezra glanced at this watch. Fifteen minutes, how much longer should he give the Texan? Shrugging, he turned back into the room and headed toward the couch.

Curiosity was eating at the usually unflappable agent as to his partner's insistence on this meeting alone. Since joining the team, it had been rare for Standish to associate with any of his teammates outside of the office, especially one on one. Only recently had he begun to take part in their after-hour festivities and weekend gatherings, astonishing himself when he realized he enjoyed the camaraderie. That's why he was surprised when the one man who was constantly harassing him and persuading him to join in with their group, was now consistently absent himself. The vague excuses of helping the kids in his neighborhood with one project or another were wearing thin. He was beginning to have his own concerns, along with his teammates, as to the ex-bounty hunter's moonlighting activities. Vin remained unaware of his friend's concern, but perhaps he could get some answers tonight.

Ezra gave himself a shake. Friends. I am thinking of them as friends. He glanced again at the assortment of boxes around the room. Maybe it's time to unpack those." He decided, but a silent protest erupted, No, not yet!" Sighing, he settled deeper into the fine leather cushions and pulled a file out of the briefcase sitting open on the coffee table. His mind refused to work as it continued drifting to the men he was settling into an uneasy alliance with.

Leaning his head back against the cushion, he ruminated over his present occupation and his relationship with this particular group of men. His smile broadened as he remembered his mother's horrified expression when he informed her of his intention to go into law enforcement. Anytime he could break that cool exterior of the ever-proper Maude Standish, or whatever her name happened to be this week, was a source of amusement. His career choice, however, amazed himself as well. College served two purposes to Ezra. It delayed his entry into the real world and it guaranteed his continued absence from his mother's presence for extended periods of time. She was left to continue her schemes against whatever new conquest she had set her sights on at the time, without trying to use him. Never really sure of where life was leading him after his reprieve, a chance meeting with a F.B.I. agent working undercover set Ezra's mind to explore the possibilities. Here was a way he could use the unique skills he had acquired, through no intentions of his own. He could play the con. Yet, it would be legitimate, he would be doing something useful. He'd be helping to make a difference, at least to someone.

He took a long pull from his beer. Mother would certainly have the vapors if she realized her darling baby boy had intentions other than what was in it for him. She imagined that Ezra was playing an angle, one she had yet to ascertain, or what the payoff was. There had to be one though, there was always a payoff.

What was his payoff?

Ezra relaxed against the cushions reflecting back over the last several months.

Satisfaction, trust, friendship, family. He laughed to himself; "Surely you jest."

They didn't trust him and he'd learned the hard way, to trust no one. Especially with what he treasured most, his heart. He trusted them to watch his back; that was part of the job. Trusting his heart to them though was harder, believing in someone impossible. The associates he left behind in the F.B.I. had certainly showed him that. No trust or love loss there, in fact he was lucky to be alive. He found himself moving constantly never sure about his co-workers or anyone that would call themselves friends and he began to doubt even himself. Dangerous when you were in his line of work. He glanced around again at the boxes lining the various walls. That's why he always stayed prepared to move again and maintain the pretense that it didn't bother him in the least.

Then the enigmatic presence of one Chris Larabee stormed into his life. Ezra was beginning to think he might have a chance at that elusive dream he had of belonging somewhere. He'd almost blown it even before he got his foot in the door, by abandoning them. For the first time in his life he was afraid. Afraid of the feelings that rose to the surface in just the short time he was with these men. So before he failed or someone pointed a finger of suspicion at him again, he was going to run not walk as far away as he could. But he hadn't. Returning to his first icy green glare from Larabee and the threat to never walk out on him again, he received the reprieve that changed his life. A second chance, something he had never had before. He still could not fathom what was different about these men that had made him want to succeed this time, but he did. And he wouldn't admit it to them, but they were getting to him, slowly breaking down his well-established walls.

Ezra picked up the framed photograph sitting on the end table beside him. It was a picture taken during a weekend fishing trip out at Chris's ranch, the first he had joined them for. It had been an enlightening experience. He couldn't say it had changed his mind about outdoor sports, but it had changed his prospective on his colleagues. That what they were offering him was real.

He ran his finger across the smiling faces stopping in the middle with the one with the widest grin, J.D. He didn't think he had ever been that young, that trusting, that exuberant. The boy had too much energy. He was amazed with what the young man had accomplished in his short life. The boy was too trusting though, still looking through rose-colored glasses seeing the good in all things . . . even him.

The young man should be more leery of where he places his trust.

His finger moved over to the grinning mustached man with his arm thrown around J.D. shoulders. Buck didn't know a stranger, especially if it was a woman. The man was open and generous to a fault. Ezra tapped a plaintiff finger under Buck's picture; he knew there was more hidden under the man's easygoing manner. He sensed the outgoing man would become a demon to protect those he cared about. His open arms may have accepted him onto the team, but the threat from his watchful eyes was there, "Don't hurt my family."

I don't intend too.

He moved to the two men on the right end stopping at the tall dark man with the wide-open smile. Nathan didn't trust him from the start, was still trying to work beyond their differences. Ezra did not know why he pushed the man to think the worst of him, when the opposite was true. He admired Jackson's skill and his patience, his inner calm. He desperately wanted to earn the man's respect and friendship.

I will prove myself to you one day.

The older man next to Nathan with the salt and pepper hair was a thorn in Ezra's side. The con man felt the man could see right through him into his very soul, no matter how hard he tried to hide. The spiritualist parried his words back at him and made him look inside himself. He challenged him, caused a deep reflection and surprising him when he found a soul. He wondered how much different his life would have been had there been a man like Josiah there to guide him.

Are you so sure I am worth the effort, Josiah?

Moving back to the other end of the photograph he looked at the three remaining men. Their stern leader, actually smiling for once. Himself, grinning too, for the first time feeling the camaraderie. Then the young lean man between them with his arms thrown over each of their shoulders.

Chris Larabee he knew, admired and respected. Shaking his head he realized he pushed the man, old habits died hard. It was a test of the man, pushing his limits. At first he pushed so he would give Larabee an excuse to get rid of him quickly, before he got too comfortable. But the man was as tenacious as he was, never falling for Ezra's bait. Now he was almost sure what this man offered was real, and he was working harder than ever to prove himself.

I do not intend to disappoint you, Mr. Larabee.

He lingered on the grinning young man in the middle with the wavy brown hair. Vin Tanner was a complex puzzle to him displaying so many different sides, he wondered if he was looking at someone cut out of the same cloth, a con man. No, the man had too much heart and a strong moral fiber. On one hand he was quiet, contemplative, looking like he carried the whole world on his shoulders. Then on the other he was mischievous spirit with a devilish charm. But Ezra saw more in those blue eyes than he felt Vin wanted him too. He was a survivor.

What are you hiding, Mr. Tanner?

Part 3

The harsh ring of the doorbell intruded on the contemplative man's thoughts. He sat the picture frame and near empty bottle of beer back on the end table and rose to meet his expected guest. The downtrodden form that greeted the Southerner as he opened the door caused him a moment's concern. Ezra's brow creased in worry for he was unable to read his troubled partner's face as he leaned against the doorjamb.

"Mr. Tanner, I gathered that it was with some importance that you requested this meeting, but has there been some catastrophe of which I am not aware?"

The head snapped up, blue eyes blinking, he didn't mean to worry his friend. "No," Vin shook his head slowly. He brought one hand up and presented Ezra with a six-pack of beer. "Just got a favor to ask."

Pushing his shoulder off the wall, he moved past Ezra into the living room and headed directly to the couch. He dropped the other handful of items onto the coffee table and flopped down on the leather cushions. His uneasy posture did not improve and he felt his chest constricting. He immediately propped his elbows on his knees and crestfallen face slid mournfully into his hands. A stream of wavy hair fell forward, further obscuring his face from the Conman's view.

Ezra studied the troubled soul as he slowly closed the front door. Hefting the carton in his hand he eyed one of the bottles. The brand label proclaimed it to be the best selling beer in Germany. Plucking one of the bottles from the carton he turned it to read the bottling information on the back. He gave a wry smile as he spied the slogan on the back label; 'Life is too short to drink cheap beer. Apt, he thought. Warsteiner, Mr. Tanner, I do not believe I have had the experience of trying this particular brand."

Vin shot a brief glance at the smiling man, "Picked it up at the Beer Boutique. Wanted to get one of them microbrewery labels ya been wantin' to try, but the owner suggested that. Figured it was time you broadened your horizons."

"Touché, Mr. Tanner," The Connoisseur laughed as he recognized a line he frequently used on his taciturn teammate. He headed to the kitchen with his gift. "Imported? I was under the impression you did not care for imported beer?"

"Weren't for me," Vin shrugged.

Ezra raised an eyebrow as he slid the carton into his refrigerator and then pulled another bottle out. After disposing of the caps, he returned to his guest and tapped the downcast shoulder with a gold-foiled neck.

"They's yours Ez . . ." the blue eyed quirked in surprise at the amber offer.

"Broaden your horizons, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied smiling. Shaking his head slightly Vin hesitated before accepting the proffered bottle. "Literature warns us Mr. Tanner, that we should beware of Greeks bearing gifts," Ezra continued as he resettled on the couch.

Vin frowned, "Ain't Greek."

Chuckling Ezra tilted the top of his bottle towards Vin in a mock salute before taking a tentative sip. "Excellent choice," he approved and took a healthier swallow. "Please Mr. Tanner," he gestured to the still untouched bottle clutched in his friend's hand. "See what your deprived taste buds have been missing."

Cocking a weary eyebrow at his grinning companion, Vin tilted the bottle up for a sip. Frowning thoughtfully he took a larger swallow. Noticing Ezra's grin broadening he huffed, "Okay, so it's not bad for an import." Shaking his head he flopped back against the cushions.

"Well now, I ascertain that this excellent libation you have procured for me is a bribe for the as yet unmentioned favor you require. May I also hazard to guess that this elusive request involves those rather large tomes you have deposited on my furniture?" the chestnut head nodded toward the glass coffee table in front of them.

"Ya do that on purpose don't ya?" Vin ignored the question for the moment.

"What?" Ezra looked puzzled.

"Use them big words to keep us off balance and figurin' what y'all is about under them fancy words and expensive clothes."

Momentarily stunned by the insightfulness of the sharpshooter, Ezra quickly recovered, "I believe someone is trying to avoid the question."

"Takes one to know one, Ez." Blue eyes twinkled as their owner took a healthy swig of beer.

Ezra's gold tooth gleamed as he smiled back at his self-satisfied partner. Saluting with a tip of his bottle he cocked his eyebrow in a silent question and nodded towards the books on the table.

"Yeah," Vin sighed, realizing he couldn't put it off any longer. "I need some help with my school work."

"School . . ." Ezra repeated, his voice not cloaking the surprised tone. Ezra looked totally puzzled at the troubled young man, "Why?"

Blinking in disbelief, Vin shook his head and rested the beer on the table. "Hell, Ez, ya seen my reports. Never did get along with books much . . . figured it was time to make some changes . . . I never been to college."

"I assure you Mr. Tanner I did not have a clue," Ezra stared almost open mouthed. He knew a little of Vin's vague background and had to admit that he had never heard him mention his college experience. "If I may be so bold, is it not required by our current employer to have attended an institute of higher learning?"

Vin sighed heavily and leaned forward setting his beer down and twisting his hands together in front of him. "Ez ya know there's exceptions to every rule." Leaning back again he ran nervous fingers through his hair once again. "They take experience into account and I got plenty of that." He shrugged his shoulders and continued. "They counted my time in the army and well . . ." He hesitated a bit and stumbled before going on. "Chris said he wanted me on the team and with Orrin's help," He noted of the A.T.F. Director "They agreed as long as I get my degree. They keep track of my courses and pay for 'em . . ." he looked at Ezra for understanding.

Ezra nodded, "Yes well our esteemed leader does have a habit of getting what he wants, doesn't he?" The undercover agent had not joined the team yet, but he had heard the story.

Vin rolled his eyes at Ezra and snorted but remained silent.

Ezra sensed the young man's insecurity with the matter. "Nor does it matter that you are a very valuable part of the team and have saved all of our lives from time to time, including my own I might add."

"Ain't looking for compliments Ez, just help with some school work. 'sides all that proves is I can kill real good." Vin jumped off the couch and began pacing the small space between the coffee table and the entertainment center.

Ezra cleared his throat, "So Mr. Tanner, what brings you to my humble abode this evening that causes you so much anxiety?" As he voiced this last question Ezra had a sudden insight into the dejected disposition of his colleague.

"Ya know, Ez, ya really should unpack those boxes, it's been a year."

"You are changing the subject again."

". . . it's chompin' at me but good . . .," Vin said softly.

"That you must complete your education or be unemployed?"

Vin turned sharply to Ezra, "No, that I'm dumb."

"Vin you are not dumb!" Ezra shouted back at him.

Vin stared wide-eyed in shock at not only the harsh tone of voice, but for the fact he had just called him 'Vin'. Ezra rarely dropped his formality even around his teammates; Vin guessed it was another defense in the Standish wall of protection.

"Ya've read my reports Ez," Vin resumed pacing. "Ya know I can't write worth a shit and that's on the computer, ya don't want to try my hen scratch. And math, shit whatcha gotta know if x equals y or not, don't make no damn sense to me."

Ezra had been momentarily stunned with his own heated reaction to Vin's declaration. He now watched the frantic pacing of his partner as he carried on with a tirade of his shortcomings and finally reached a conclusion about the Texan, "You feel you are unworthy somehow because you are not Ernest Hemmingway or Albert Einstein?"

The agitated man stopped with his back still to his host and stared at the soft blue lights illuminating the stereo system, not wanting to face the astute man behind him. Recognizing the soft sounds of a favorite song, 'Desperado' he asked softly, "When'd ya start likin' the Eagles, Ez?"

Rising angrily, the barefoot agent stalked to stand in front of his shamed partner. He didn't hide his anger and studied him with his green eyes blazing. "Quit changing the subject Vin and to put it in your terms, that is bullshit!"

Vin blinked several times at his partner's uncharacteristic vocabulary, Damn he used my name again, not Mr. Tanner. He exhaled deeply.

"A piece of parchment from a higher institution of learning does not make the person, a heart does . . . and yours is beyond noble. You are insightful, kind hearted, loyal, trustworthy," Ezra began pacing as he continued chastising his partner for not believing in himself. "Sensitive, street smart, and a modern day Robin Hood." Ezra turned and pointed a stern finger at the stunned Texan, "You are worth more than any damn college graduate I know." Ezra stopped and took a deep calming breath, running his hands down his chest to smooth his shirt. "Myself included," he finished quietly.

Ezra swung away from the stunned man and resumed his seat back on the couch and took a long swallow of his beer trying to calm his raging emotions. He left behind a blinking, stunned Texan who was trying to sort through everything his friend had imparted.

"What happened to them ten dollar words Ez?"

Ezra glared at the man standing before him, "Did I mention exasperating?"

The young man flopped back onto the couch, "No, but a few others have."

Watching his partner pick at the foil label around the beer bottle, he realized how much it cost the young man to ask for help. He nearly had his head handed to him on a platter the first time he offered to help the struggling Texan with an incident report. Knowing little of Vin's unstable childhood, he figured he was just another jock who had skated through school on his physical abilities rather than mental. He knew about skating, he did his share, but he was lucky the academic arena was easy to him.

Those first few months with the team he evaluated his new teammate's strengths and weaknesses. He was surprised at first when he discovered Tanner's lack of basic skills knowing how strict the federal system was in hiring practices over the years and the amount of testing they put candidates through. After seeing the man's skill with weapons though, he could understand how they could overlook a small deficiency. He also surmised how proud the young sharpshooter was and how trying his lack of writing skills was to him. Especially when a few ill thought words from J.D. had sent his self-esteem spiraling. He knew what it was like to be looked down upon, no matter how unjust. That was one reason why he offered to help.

Vin's eagerness to learn and his rapid absorption with little prior knowledge amazed the older man. Ezra also knew from working with him how uncanny his ability was to remember details. Names, faces and places once heard or seen were never forgotten. The intelligence was there; perhaps he had never had the opportunity to go to college.

"Why me? Why now?"

"Ya helped me before."

Ezra thought to the lone decoration on his desk. A simple framed postcard of Erte's Alphabet and a small cactus plant. They were gifts from Vin after he helped that first time. Nodding in acknowledgment of the fact, "Do you believe I am in need of an addition to my cactus garden?"

Frowning, Vin jumped up and resumed pacing. "I'll pay ya . . ." he snapped.

Ezra watched his agitated partner for a moment. "No one else knows and you don't want them to?"

"Ya know I could help ya unpack some of these boxes, iffen ya'd like . . ." Vin stopped before the stack of boxes in the corner of the room.


"No," came the raspy reply. The blue eyes peered back at him so sheepishly and full of emotion, it pained Ezra. The head shook negatively once and dropped down, Adam's apple bobbing rapidly.

"Furthering your education is nothing to be ashamed of."

Vin moved slowly back to the couch knowing that the undercover agent could read him well. "If they don't know, I won't disappoint them when I fail."

Ezra guessed that the only person Vin was worried about disappointing was Chris Larabee. "You won't fail, Vin. College academics are not that difficult, with proper study and a schedule."

"I know, I've done okay so far. Just got behind when we got stuck on that last case."

"So far?" Ezra looked quizzically at his partner. "How long have you been pursuing this venture?"

Vin shrugged. He reached in his back pocket, pulling out a well-worn brown leather wallet. He pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it over. Ezra carefully opened the well-used parchment. Seeing that it was an unofficial transcript, he glanced down the list of courses.

"You've completed several courses already. You've been attending classes part time for . . . about a year?"

Vin nodded, "'bout right. Started right after ya helped me last."

Ezra waved a hand down the page, "You have nothing to be ashamed of my friend these are all quite decent marks."

Vin snorted, "Those were easy, Ez. Couple won't count. Had to take some rem . . ." He stopped stumbling over the word.

"Remedial?" Ezra supplied.

"Yeah, that's it. In English and Math 'cause I was so far behind."

Ezra nodded glancing again at the paper. He observed that the marks in those courses had been C's but the others listed were all B's and A's. He looked at the high marks and grinned back at his partner, "Martial Arts, Mr. Tanner?"

The young man shrugged, "They make ya take some kind of P.E. class."

Ezra shook his head, "Correct me if I'm wrong but, don't you already hold several black belts in a variety of disciplines."

"I held back," Vin smiled a little.

Ezra quirked an eyebrow at him again, "Fencing?"

Looking a little chagrined Vin replied, "Couldn't hold back no more, 'cided to try somethin' different."

The southerner chuckled, "Perhaps we can work out together sometime to ascertain what you learned."

"Ya fence Ez?"

"I enrolled in a course in my academic days. Thought it was an appropriate sport for a true southern gentleman."

Vin rolled his eyes.

Ezra scanned the classes Vin completed that included a computer class and some criminal justice courses.

"They didn't take much writin'" Vin answered the question before Ezra could ask.

"And now you are in some classes that do?"

Vin nodded. "Was doin' okay until this last case. Now I'm behind and need to catch up before mid terms next week. There's tutors, but they're booked up right now."

The chestnut covered head nodded, "Quite frankly, Mr. Tanner, I am amazed you've been able to manage so admirably thus far with the schedules we keep."

"Have mostly night classes, but I can catch a day class if I need to. Some Saturday's and I've been able to do some of the work at home and send it in on the computer." Vin picked up his beer bottle and started picking at the foil label again.

". . . teacher's pretty understandin' . . . most of us part timers work full time. . ."

Ezra was indeed astonished at his partner. He sensed that Vin Tanner was a survivor and he was right. He wondered if he would have the inner fortitude that his friend did to overcome so many obstacles to work toward a goal. His thoughts turned inward.

Isn't that what I'm doing. Striving to succeed with this job . . . with these men.

He carefully refolded the transcript and handed it back to his partner. "Which subjects do you require my assistance with, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin tucked the paper carefully back into his wallet and sighed heavily. "English and algebra." He said the last like it was something he ate that left a bad taste in his mouth.

Chuckling Ezra nodded. "I will admit that was not my best subject but I believe I will be able to offer some clarification on the need for x's and y's."

Vin smiled briefly at the reference to his impassioned tirade on the subject earlier.

"Mr. Tanner, shall we get started?"

Vin hesitated . . . withdrawing inward.

"Mr. Tanner?"

"One more thing Ez." Vin placed the bottle on the table and started twisting his hands together again.

Ezra waited patiently for whatever other shoe the young man was about to drop.

Uncertain blue eyes turned up in question, "Ya know anythin' about Dyslexia?"


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