"Come on, people!" Chris Larabee called, heading for the exit of their office. They had just finished up a case and it was time that work gave way to the realities of the holiday season.

After a burst of commotion his six teammates scrambled after him. Outside, they split up, Chris and Vin heading for Larabee's truck, Buck and JD for Wilmington's car and the others to Josiah's SUV. Chris waved for Buck to follow him and then pulled out of the parking garage.

Half an hour later ATF Team Seven arrived at Flatiron's Mall. Climbing from the three vehicles, the team regrouped at the rear of Larabee's truck for a final check.

"Okay, everyone set?" the blond asked, trying to stamp down some of the snow under his feet so it didn't soak into his socks.

Hunched against the cold, the rest of the team quickly checked their gear. "I'm good to go," Vin said with a nervous glance at the rambling two story building that looked like a ski lodge on steroids.

"Same here," JD acknowledged.

"Into the breach," Buck said and nodded.

Ezra smiled. "I am always ready," he told them, then amended quickly, "to peruse the finer things in life."

"All right, here's the plan," Chris explained, ignoring the comment. "We'll split up, enter from different directions so we won't cross paths. Find your target, secure it, and meet back at the big fireplace in the food court in–" He checked his watch. "Two hours?"

Six heads nodded agreement with the plan.

"Let's do it," he said and they headed off on their current mission – Christmas shopping.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nearing the north entrance to the mall, Vin slowed, fishing into his pockets for whatever change he might have. The elderly man who stood, ringing his bell, noted the gesture and grinned his encouragement. Vin stopped at the red kettle, depositing the change he had found.

"Thank you," the old man said cheerfully. "And Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas t' you, too," Vin replied, noticing the man's bare hands. "Don't y' have some gloves?" he asked in his soft Texas drawl. "It's freezin' out here."

The old man grinned and shook his head. "Nope, wore m' last pair out a couple 'a weeks ago."

The sharpshooter took a step toward the smoky glass doors, then stopped and turned. Tugging his well-worn leather gloves off, he held them out to the old man. "Here y' go, sir," he said. "Maybe these'll help."

The old man's eyes rounded and he glanced from the gloves to Vin and back again. "You sure, son?" he asked the younger man. "It's awfully cold, you're goin' to need them."

"I'm sure," Vin insisted, taking a half-step closer to the man.

Reaching out, the old man accepted the proffered gift and quickly slipped them on. The soft sigh that escaped the man's lips was all the thanks Vin needed.

Tanner grinned. "Merry Christmas, friend."

The old man, his eyes bright, nodded. "It is indeed. God bless you, son," he said as Tanner disappeared into the mall.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Two hours later the team met at the food court, each one clutching an assortment of bags stuffed full of gifts. Vin in particular carried a larger load than the others.

"What'd you do, Slick?" Buck asked him. "Buy out a couple of those stores?"

"Had t' pick up some stuff fer the kids at the shelter at St. Philips," Vin replied. "Didn't you?"

Buck eyes rounded. "Oh, damn! I knew I was forgetting something!"

The others chuckled, Chris telling him, "Toy store's right over there. You've got twenty minutes." Buck hurried off, calling back, "Get me a cheeseburger and fries!"

Piling their bags carefully so they were protected from curious and prying eyes, each of the six secured his lunch and brought it back to the corner table they had taken over. Buck returned with three additional bags, but in time to gobble down his food before everyone had finished. Meals eaten, they collected their booty and headed for the exits.

As they neared the doors, Vin slowed, saying, "Got one more thing I have t' do. Chris, I'll meet y' at the truck in a few minutes, okay?"

"Just don't get lost," Larabee warned him. "We might never find you this time of year."

The sniper grinned. "Do m' best, Cowboy." And, turning, he headed for the far end of the mall where he had entered.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The old man was still standing next to his kettle, ringing his bell. Vin reached into one of the bags he was carrying and pulled out a small box, then he pushed the door open and stepped outside. "Uh, 'cuse me, sir," he said, getting the old man's attention.

The man's eyes lit up. "Ah, I see you've got quite a haul there," he said, then chuckled.

"Yep," was Vin's only reply. He nodded at the man's glove-clad hands. "Mind if I have m' gloves back?" he asked the bell-ringer.

The startled, disappointed expression on the old man's face was quickly hidden as his head dipped. "Uh, sure," he said huskily, pulling them off. Without looking up, he handed them back.

Vin snagged the gloves between two fingers and pressed the box into the man's palm at the same time. The old man's head jerked up as he fingers closed on the carton. "What's this?" he asked.

"These gloves are gettin' old," was all Vin said as he headed for the parking lot. "Y' take care now. An' have a Merry Christmas."

The old man watched Vin for a moment, then he looked down and opened the lid of the box he was holding. His eyes widened and he breathed softly, "Well, I'll be…" A pair of new fleece-lined leather gloves sat inside. He looked up, intending to call the young man back, tell him the gift was far too expensive to accept, but he was nowhere in sight.

With a soft chuckle and a shake of his head, the old man removed the gloves from the box and pulled them on. Tossing the box into the garbage can nearby, he shook his head. Maybe the spirit of Christmas was alive and well after all. He smiled and tipped his hat at the two young women who passed his kettle, ringing his bell with renewed vigor.

The End

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #5, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Mary Fallon Zane is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-18-2005. Art by Shiloh.