A Gathering of Lions

by G. M. Atwater

ATF Universe

Author's Notes: This is my first Mag Seven ATF/AU effort, and it doesn't even have a point! But, just thought I would share this little sketch, anyhow, since this is the first real SOMEthing that my ever-so-cranky muses have voluntarily blessed me with, in a while. Enjoy! THANKS to Mog, for creating the ATF sandbox for us to play in!

I could hate those guys. I mean, the team is the team, guys stick together, I know all that stuff. Hell, my own guys are the best. Wouldn't trade 'em for the world. They personify everything that's best about us, Mom, apple pie, and all that American Dream crap. Kinda hard to keep sight of, sometimes, with the black eyes the ATF has gotten in recent years, but I hang onto what I believe. Takes an act of will, once in a while, but I know who we are, at the heart of things. Remove us from the equation and the streets will get ugly, my friend. We're the Good Guys. But sometimes it's hard to believe that so are those hooligans at the other end of the floor. They aren't team players by any definition I know. Magnificent Seven, my left nut. Hell, they're a bigger bunch of cowboys than Yul Brenner and his crew ever thought of being. I mean, just look at them. What a crew of . . . well, not losers, but definitely misfits. They can't even maintain a simple dress code. Hell, I've seen those boys practically tearing the office apart, shouting and throwing paper airplanes, hurdling desks, leaping over computer consoles, Standish yelping indignation about God knows what, Tanner shooting paper clips at the back of whatever book Sanchez is reading, until Sanchez leaps up with a bull's roar and swings a chair over his head . . . And then Larabee opens his office door and just says, "Boys . . . ?" Moses was a piker and the Red Sea was a puddle, compared to Chris Larabee in his office. But just you watch any other authority figure try to make headway with that lot - even the kid, Dunne, is liable to cut off six inches of the guy's necktie.

Older man over there with a jaw like the back of a splitting maul, that's Josiah Sanchez, their profiler. He's a J.C. Penney's suit man, which I can relate to. However, the guy was made for deciphering the weirder side of humanity, because I don't think he's capable of looking at anything like a normal person would. The other day I made some comment about a TV show I saw, where people lived on an island that had weather so warm, they didn't have to wear a single stitch. I wondered out loud what they thought of the camera crews, all covered up in Banana Republic clothes, and commented on how I'd be afraid of getting slivers or bug bites on the family jewels. Sanchez then launches into a doleful monologue, starting with the wrist watch that one of the tribesmen was wearing, and the Adidas shirt on one of the kids, to how science was loving the last primitive cultures to death. Sheesh. All I thought was how great it would be, to live in a grass hut and eat abalone for the rest of my life. I guess that conversation beat the one from the week before, when he treated me to a discourse on the theologies of ancient Greece. What worries me, though, is almost anything you bring up reminds him of some place he's been. Sometimes I wonder if he was in the French Foreign Legion or CIA or something. He's not the biggest of the Seven, but you get this feeling of latent power, that makes him seem bigger than he is. Times when he'll just stop and look, with those eyes like the stare of an angry bull elephant, and God help you, if he starts coming for you, because I know how strong he is. One day I caught him down in the gym, after a particularly tough bust, when things had got ugly. He was on the bench and pressing almost 300 pounds, cooking off a lot of I don't know want to know what, and I left before he slowed or got tired. Felt like I was interrupting something. Sanchez is a deep-thinking, slow-moving man, but I'd sure hate to ever see him get angry.

Over there, that's Standish. Ezra P. Standish, the P likely standing for Pain-in-the-ass. Anybody but Larabee would have shot him, ages ago. Of course, maybe that's already been tried. Word is he came from Atlanta with a cloud over his head, but that's not anything people talk about, and Larabee made that clear, long ago. Standish is sarcastic, supercilious, sardonic, and oozes overblown charm like a snail oozes slime. Did I mention vain? He dresses as if he walked straight off the cover of GQ, and word is that he's tried more than once to charge off work-related damages to his zillion-dollar suits. Also, he comes to work in that absolutely killer driving machine, that Jag, and I gotta remind myself that having no wife, no kids, and no house payments leaves a guy with nothing to spend money on but himself. Still, I think he probably comes from money. He won't say three words if twenty will do, and can insult a man with such a slow, leisurely string of high-flown syllables, that the poor fool won't know whether to cuss him or thank him. That Georgia accent just purrs, when he wants it to, like one those old-time Southern colonels, and every time I see that gold tooth - and what in hell kind of cop has a gold tooth? - I just know he's got something evil percolating in that devious brain of his. I keep thinking the man missed his calling, by not setting up shop in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Thing is, he's damned good. Standish is one of the best undercover agents we've got, and while he may be tamped full of bullshit on anything else, he knows what he's got, when he steps out onto those streets. Maybe that's where some of that arrogance comes from, because there's no way a guy could walk into the things he does, without knowing precisely what he is capable of doing or not doing. Funny thing, I kind of like the guy. Sarcastic can be just funny as hell, the way he dishes it out. I just wish I could remember some of the comments he's made, but then it wouldn't sound the same, coming from my mouth. Standish is all right.

Then there's Wilmington. Buck Wilmington, our resident playboy. Long, tall, grinning goof-ball of a guy, with a Tom Selleck moustache and a total Don Juan attitude. Why he gets away with the crap he does, I'll never know. His idea of professional dress is to wear a coat and tie, then ditch the tie and unbutton his collar, the second he's in the building. All the girls in the typing pool just love him, and I cannot imagine how any woman is too blind to see past his line of bull. He's just so damned obvious. There's one of the secretaries who's a nice gal, really pretty face, but she's kind of . . . well, she's built for comfort, not for speed, if you know what I mean. One day she shows up in this blue suit-dress, and it really looks nice. Kind of the color of my wife's forget-me-nots, and with her brunette hair and big brown eyes, it was very pretty. But you know how it is, a man says the least little thing, and bang, he's hit with a harassment charge, quicker than you can spill a cup of coffee. Not Wilmington, though, oh, no. He comes walking in that morning, sees her, and instantly turns on the charm. He strolls over, leans on her desk, and gives her this smile that nearly makes me groan. You can just hear the alley cat in him purring, as he says, "Good mornin', Miss Angie. May I say, that dress looks especially lovely on you. That blue brings out the stars in your eyes." God, I'm ready to throw up. And wouldn't you know it, Angie beams this hundred-watt smile at him, and says, "Why, thank you, Buck," and I know her feet won't touch the floor for the rest of the day. Asshole. If I tried that, I'd get a broken jaw. But at least he's a likeable asshole.

And then there's Dunne, Wilmington's young sidekick, the smart-aleck, grinning kid, who thinks a sports coat over a T-shirt is dressing for success. JD is what my mom would call Black Irish, got that dark hair and eyes, but so fair-complected he'd get a sun burn if he stared too long at a light bulb. Probably that's part of what makes him look like such a damned kid, besides the fact that he acts like one. The trash can by his desk has a miniature basketball hoop attached to it. He keeps those little plastic toys you get in Happy Meals - which obviously means he eats those disgusting things - and uses them as targets to shoot rubber bands at. And cocky? Once I watched Larabee ask for the keys to the van, and the kid just tossed them over his shoulder while walking away ~ like he can see through the back of his head, and knows his boss won't miss the catch. Yeah, too cool. Funny part is, half the time I don't think he knows he's doing it. One of the secretaries was out on maternity leave, and this cute little temp came in for a while. Brother, this gal was hot. I mean, half the guys in the place would stop breathing, every time she reached to do just anything. One morning she saw Dunne walk in, and I swear all the circuit breakers in her head tripped, right there. Kid couldn't even go to the copy machine, without her bouncing up to help. All the guys were just dying, even Wilmington unable to get past a wise, I-know-you smile. Dunne . . . was clueless. He'd just grin, make small talk, then collect his copies and go on back to work. Then one day she comes in on crutches, and turns out she'd sprained her ankle on some ice, on her apartment stairs. Dunne comes back from lunch with this big bouquet of flowers, all bright yellow, red, and orange, like a basket full of lit fireworks. He plunks it on her desk, and then says with a shrug and this dopey kid grin, "Hope you like 'em. I figured they'd be something nice to look at, when you can't get out much." Then he walks off and leaves her there, with her lil' heart pasted all over her sleeve. Little bastard never did ask her out, either. It's a good thing I like him.

The tall African American guy over there, that's Nathan Jackson. I like his style, the cool but conservative type, shirts with no collar, polished shoes, sharp creases. He's a former Army medic, and trained as an EMT, and probably a whole string of other initials, if we only knew. They're likely the only team in the country who is lucky enough to include their own medic, but with their record, they probably need him. Still, I've seen him in action, and he'll fool ya. He comes across as quiet and smiling and mellow as old hound - but I watched him pick a bad guy up, once, just picked him up like a kid, and slung him around and bang into the wall, and held him there, about four feet off the floor. Bad guy actually peed himself, hanging up there in that man's hands. I guess he must have thought the vengeance of the whole Zulu tribe was about to rip his lungs out, and I sure wasn't going to stick any parts I valued in the way. One minute later, Jackson's with one of his boys who's down, fussin' like my mama, and just sweet as can be. Times like that, he's scary as hell. But he's a perfect gentleman, otherwise, with this smooth, velvet-voiced grace about him that the gals in the office can only sigh over, since they all know he has a steady lady. In his spare time, I hear he works in a sports program downtown, boxing and such for underprivileged kids. I've tried to picture that, and get this image of a long, sleek-coated black leopard, gently playing with a litter of puppies. And the leopard has his eyes closed and is smiling. Probably the safest puppies in the world. I'm glad he's a nice guy.

Tanner, he's an odd one. Vin Tanner is the only Texan I've ever met who doesn't pack an oversized ego. Don't get me wrong, he's just as different as all of 'em. Hair always past regulation length, won't wear a suit unless AD Travis orders him too, and even then he's got cowboy boots poking out from under his pant legs. And guns, geez, I've heard the man has more pieces of hardware stashed on his skinny self than some police department armories. He's kind of a cross between Wild Bill Hickok and that Terminator guy played by whatsisname, the icy-faced one who was made out of mercury. Tanner has that kind of cool, that kind of stand-back-and-smirk-just-before-he-drills-you way about him. He's their sniper, and I've been out on the range when he's doing his stuff. There's other guys who are good sharpshooters, but Tanner makes it into this Zen thing. His whole face changes, the way he breathes, even. Like he's plugged into some cosmic zone, and whatever it is, it works, because his scores are consistently in the 90's. Thing is, you'd never know that of him, to meet him. He calls all the ladies "ma'am," sort of hangs back all the time with a little 'don't-mind-me' smile, and he won't stand up straight to save his life, always kind of slouching and leaning on things. Makes me think of a lazy cat, who just wants to lie on windowsills all day, and blink at the world going by. Yeah, but I know what I know, and you don't want to be there, when that cat goes hunting. His only loyalty is to his boys, the Seven, and to Chris Larabee. The rest of us are just these Other People, who fall under his area only because his guys are also there. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy. He's real easy to be around, doesn't bother a man with a lot of stupid talk. But I like big cats, too, and that doesn't mean I want to take one home with me. Oh, yeah, and the ladies in the office all love him, too. I think he's just afraid if he ever got too close, one 'em might try to domesticate him.

And last, there's Chris Larabee. Mister High-and-Mighty, too-cool-for-his-clothes, Man in Black Larabee. I hated guys like him, when I was back in high school. Guys that only had to walk past, to turn heads. Who can stall a tornado in its tracks with a single glance. He dresses almost entirely in black - the secretaries talked for days about the time he wore a blue-and-white striped shirt - and makes it look right. Me, I'd look like an Amish pig farmer. He glides along the hallways with such cool that I expect to see melting ice dribbling in his footsteps. He faces the most histrionic supervisor with the slit-eyed patience of a sleepy lion, and stands there saying "yes, sir" with a crooked little smirk that looks for all the world like "fuck you." He is so damned cool that he can ask for something and hold out his hand without looking, knowing that one of his boys will just lay it in there. There really is something about him, though. You ever been to one of those school science fairs, where they have the globe that shoots little bolts of static electricity, when you bring your hand close? Sort of like that. Everyone knows he lost his family in a terrible way, and some say that changed him. I can't imagine him being any other way, but then if I lost Ann and my kids, I'd probably just put a gun in my mouth. He never did, and that says something about the man. I've no idea how he gets up each morning, but he does, and he comes in here, and his boys, his pet wolves, are waiting there in the office for him. Maybe that's it. That's what keeps him getting up, with each sunrise. Knowing they will be here.

I've seen what all that means, how their eyes change, and how all that fun and rubber-band shooting and pencil-harpooning simply falls away, when it's showtime. When that happens, any one of them could toss a set of keys without looking, and know the other is there to catch 'em. My team is tight . . . These boys are water-tight. See, I got a first-hand lesson in that.

A week ago yesterday, I was flat on my back with what felt like my leg blown off, outside some cheap-ass trailer in some white-trash neighborhood, scared as hell I was gonna bleed to death, before I could get my whack at the son of a bitch who shot me. For God's sake, it was just a bootleg liquor bust, not the friggin' Colombian cartel. But those neo-Nazi fucks thought they'd go down in a blaze of glory, and I just ran out of luck. One of 'em caught me on a dash for cover and blew the pins right out from under me, and the next bullet punched all the air out of me, and I just knew there was no way the vest had stopped it. I thought I was going to die right there, in a gravelly puddle of blood, motor oil and old cigarette butts.

Until Sanchez bounded out of nowhere and glommed onto the back of my vest, and all 180 of me just came off the ground in his hands, and we all tumbled to cover behind a falling-down wood fence. Until Standish came leaping after us, while firing on the fly at whatever was punching 9mm holes in the fence above us. Until Wilmington busted over the top of me like long-legged hell on a rampage, and with one hand grabbed a hold of my pant leg, shooting back over his shoulder as Sanchez took hold of my collar, and they slung me along like a sack of onions. Until Dunne was suddenly there, thumping away with TWO guns, for crissake sake, no idea where he got that little backup nine, but all of a sudden the cavalry had arrived. I was nearly sick to puking, when they heaved me over a low cinderblock wall to fall smash onto somebody's driveway, but that seemed the least worry, with people shooting at us, and Jackson had to crunch his knee on my arm to get me to lay off trying to shoot back. The world spun all grey and sick-making, and I had no clue when Jackson had got there, or how long he'd been trying to get my attention. The last thing I was sure about was Larabee's voice, like the word of God crackling lighting in my headset; "Vin, you got a target, third window, left. Take it." I heard one pop, and then silence that spun around me, buzzing me off into grey la-la land.

Oh, I didn't go completely out. I was awake enough to moan about my leg being gone, and to wonder when my heart and lungs would go ahead and fail at the pumps. Chest felt like I'd been hammered flat. Awake to hear my team leader, Mike, tell me my leg was leaking but still there, and then ream me out royally for almost getting killed. Awake when the thin, teeth-grinding, God's own beautiful shriek of sirens told me I had a chance, and then to see Larabee leaning over my stretcher, talking words I couldn't hold onto any more. What I hadn't had time to do was thank the boys that got to me, first, and that's why I'm here, tonight.

Inez sees me hobbling in, and she's reached across the bar to whack Standish on the shoulder. He's turning, that gold tooth showing as he sees me, and now I hear whistles and cat-calls from their favorite table. Great, Mike is there with 'em, and he's grinning like he's got a mouth full of feathers. He's already told me fifty times that he's going to put that bullet, which they dug out of my vest, onto a key chain for me to carry around like a rabbit's foot. Hell, they all look like a grinning gang of Cheshire cats, even Larabee. Or maybe Cheshire ain't the cat I'm thinking of. Maybe a whole lot bigger cats, with whole lots bigger teeth. Either way, I know I'm gonna catch hell for a long time.

Ah, screw 'em. They're all beautiful. And I'm gonna buy the drinks until none of us can see, and then call my wife to come fetch me. They deserve at least that much.


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