JD placed his gift on the corner of his desk, giving it an uncomfortable, visual once-over before sighing and dropping into his desk chair. The office was empty, but he wasn’t the first one in; JD heard talking in the break room and guessed it to be Vin and Josiah. A moment later, his guess was confirmed when the two men walked into the bullpen holding steaming cups of coffee.
JD wrinkled his nose. “I can smell Vin’s coffee a mile away.”
Vin stopped at his desk but Josiah stopped in front of JD’s desk, his eyes locked on the foot-high object perched on the corner.
“Huh.” Josiah noted just before taking a careful sip. “Forget to pack it away?”
“Nah,” JD replied, squirming a bit as he gave the item a quick look. “Late Christmas gift. I already packed all my stuff away and I found it in my car.”
“So you brought it in because . . ?” Josiah picked the object in question up and studied it from all angles.
“I don’t know. It sorta creeps me out, really. I was hopin’ someone in the building collected them.”
“Huh,” Josiah repeated.
“What is it?” Vin asked from his desk. He had to lean aside to see around his computer monitor to see what Josiah held up for him. “Ain’t that a nutcracker?”
“A cowboy nutcracker,” Josiah corrected.
JD blew frustrated air between his lips. “Look closer. It’s a cowboy Sheriff nutcracker.”
Josiah frowned, bringing the item closer to his eyes before breaking into a smile. “So it is. He’s got a little Sheriff’s star painted on his chest.”
Curious, Vin came over. Josiah held the little man up for Vin to see. “And he’s packin’ a six shooter. And spurs. Huh.”
“Nice hat, too.” Josiah fingered the brim of the small, leather cowboy hat.
Just then, Nathan strolled in, tucking a magazine under his arm. “Hey, guys.” He stopped next to Vin. “What’s that?”
“It’s a cowboy Sheriff nutcracker. Can’t you tell?” Vin elbowed Nathan in the side.
“It’s JD’s,” Josiah added.
“Not for long, hopefully,” JD muttered, fingers pecking away at mach speed on his keyboard.
“Why don’t we make him an ATF agent?” Nathan said brightly. He walked to his desk, pulled open the top drawer, and pushed some things around a few second before stating, “Ah ha!” and holding up a small item. He walked over and held it up. “I got this little ATF badge tie pin a while ago and lost the backing to it. I keep sticking my finger on the poky part there. I almost threw it away.”
“’Poky part?’” Josiah asked with a raised brow.
“You know what I mean. I'm tired of drawing blood when I look for stuff in my drawer.” Nate grabbed the little cowboy and stabbed the pin through the yellow Sheriff badge. Vin winced at the action.
“Damn, Nate, glad you ain’t a surgeon.” Vin, rubbing his chest in sympathy, tipped his head and looked at the result. “Looks good on him, though.”
“What looks good?” Buck asked as he strode in wielding a Starbucks cup. “Whoever it is, he can’t be a good lookin’ as me.” He stopped mid-bullpen. “What’s that?”
JD rolled his eyes. Josiah smiled hugely. Vin rubbed his chest. Nathan held up their project. “Cowboy ATF nutcracker.”
Buck winced and wrinkled his nose as he unconsciously initiated a careful package check with his free hand. “Never was fond of the term ‘nutcracker’,” he said. “Sounds too personal.” He craned his neck and looked at what Nathan displayed. “Huh. Someone forget to store it away?”
“No!” JD said, irritated as he continued to bang on his keyboard. “Late gift.”
“Really?” Buck brightened. “From who?”
“That should be ‘from whom’, I believe.” Ezra strolled in carrying a travel mug and a small bag from the French bakery near his home. He shook his head as he walked to his desk. “When the English language runs screaming from this office and I will be inclined to follow.” He placed his morning repast upon his desk.
“JD’s got a secret Santa and won’t tell us who it is,” Buck said with a grin.
Nate faced the new ATF agent toward Ezra. “We just deputized this guy.”
Expressionless, Ezra’s gaze rested on the little wooden man for a long second. “What agent would wear a red suit? And aren’t beards verboten, according to agency rules?”
“You’re right,” Vin said. “Hand him over, Nate.”
Wordlessly, Jackson handed the nutcracker over to Vin. JD shook his head and waved Vin away with one hand, signaling his indifference to toy alterations.
Vin moved to his desk and grabbed a black Sharpie from his pencil cup and proceeded to color in the Santa-red suit worn by the newly indoctrinated Cowboy ATF effigy. The others observed in interested silence. A few minutes later, Vin, grinning proudly, held up the project with black-tipped fingers. The previously red suit that had been edged in cloud-like white trim was now dismally black.
“Could not stay within the lines, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra noted with a small grin.
“What about the beard?” Josiah asked.
“On it!” Buck snatched the figure from Vin and picked at the attached beard, eventually peeling it off the wooden face. Without a sideways look, he quickly planted the sticky white bit of fluff to Ezra’s shoulder.
“Mr. Wilmington!” Ezra barked, backing away. “This is silk blend! How uncouth!” He plucked the item off with his fingertips, holding it far away from his body as he shuffled to his trash can.
“There,” Buck said, holding up the figure. “He’s regulation now. Well, maybe except for the spurs.”
The five men looked at the altered nutcracker. Josiah frowned first. “Huh,” he said, raising a finger to point. “Doesn’t he look . . . familiar?”
The other four men tipped their head in near unison, frowning.
Then Vin snorted. He grabbed the toy from Buck, turned his back on the group and worked the Sharpie again, then quickly changed out the black pen for another. When he turned around, the brown cowboy hat was now black, and the nutcracker blue eyes were now green.
Two men snickered. “Wait!” Nate said. “One more thing!” Vin handed over the item and Nathan plucked a black pen from JD’s desk. JD gave up any show of looking busy and fought to keep a straight face.
When Nathan turned around and showed his teammates, the Cowboy-Sheriff-AFT-agent man now had scowling eyes thanks to several well placed, black lines.
The six men burst out laughing.
“Now there’s a nutcracker!” Buck howled.
“Chris ain’t a nutcracker,” Vin said between gasps. “He’s a butt-chewer!”
Everyone agreed. After they caught their breath, JD wiped the tears from his eyes and motioned to get the effigy Chris back. “And I know how to get rid of him now. Gimme that.”
One hour later . . .
Chris Larabee entered the office with a stack of files tucked under his arm and stopped just inside the bullpen. His forehead furrowed; the other six were sitting quietly at their desks and, apparently, working. Suspicion colored his wonderment, but then he mentally chastised himself for thinking bad thoughts about his men.
“Mornin’,” he said, surveying the group with a sharp eye.
“Chris.” “Mornin’.” “Mr. Larabee.” The men responded to the greeting with pleasant smiles and returned to their work.
Chris waited a moment longer for the proverbial other shoe to drop, and retreated to his office only when he could not discern any sign of foul play. Silence ruled the office for less than a minute.
“What the Hell is this?” Chris didn't exactly shout, or growl, or even snap; instead, the query was laced with dark confusion as he appeared in his office doorway. He held up the new decoration from his desk with one hand, and a small bowl with another. “A nutcracker? And a bunch of nuts with your names on them?”
The six men regarded their boss from their desks in wide-eyed innocence.
After a moment, Josiah said, “Well, Chris, it’s more than that, really.”
“Yeah,” JD broke in. “Look at the nut shells.”
Chris peered at the bowl. “The nuts have a black line on them, too.”
“Yeah. They look like little butts, don’t they?” Vin helpfully pointed out.
Chris frowned, confused. “Why?”
Buck leaned back. “Well, we figured you’d use them little nuts with your doppelganger there as stand-ins the next time you want to chew
our asses about something. It's a buttcracker.”
The other men nodded in agreement, murmuring approval of the plan.
“And this is supposed to be me?” Chris growled, holding up the wooden ATF agent.
“Well, yeah! Ain’t it obvious?” Vin smiled at his boss.
Chris glared. First there was a cough, then a snort, then the bullpen erupted in laughter. Chris narrowed his eyes, tucked the foot-high twin under his arm to free his hand and reached in the bowl of nuts. He held it up to read the name while the laughing twittered away.
Chris smiled a wolf-like grin. “TANNER!” he barked, holding up the nut emblazed with Vin’s name. “In my office, now!”
Chris spun on his heel and marched to his office as Vin gulped and stood. He edged around his desk and paused. “Is there a gift return place in this building?” He asked as the other began laughing once again - mostly with relief.