Going Home

by Grey

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4

Chris rested his cup on the table, and then motioned toward the cardboard container across from him. "Doesn’t really seem worth it, does it? Kid didn’t eat more than two bites."

Josiah glanced at the abandoned Happy Meal. J.D. had put together the plastic toy and promptly broken it, completed all the puzzles on the box, slurped at his milkshake, and nibbled briefly on his hamburger before demanding to go to the play area. Josiah had convinced Ezra and Vin to go along and watch him, leaving the others in relative peace to finish their meals. "Kept him quiet all morning—seems worth it to me."

"Amen to that," Buck agreed, reaching over to swipe some of Chris’s fries.

Chris swatted half-heartedly at his hand. "Eat your own fries, bro." He retrieved some for himself, and then pushed the container closer to Buck. "It’s a lot of money to spend for him not to eat."

Josiah leaned back in his chair. "Relax, Chris. We’re doing okay for money." It wasn’t empty reassurance; they were doing okay. Josiah’s rent had been low, and he had managed to save a decent amount since he’d started working. Buck and Chris had also had part-time jobs for a couple of years now. Chris had saved most of his money, and he’d made sure that Buck had done the same. With their combined savings, and the return of Josiah’s security deposit from his efficiency, they had enough for first, last, and security on a place somewhere. And enough to live on while they tried to find it.

Buck picked up J.D.’s discarded Happy Meal toy and began to fiddle with it, trying to fix it. "Chris is right," he said, re-attaching a rubber band. "It’d be good to get somewhere, get some jobs, so we can start making money instead of just spending it."

Chris nodded. "Gonna be hard enough as it is, supporting all of us on what the three of us can bring in."

"Four of us." Nathan sat in the far corner of the booth. He had reduced the volume on his CD player, and was listening to the conversation. He corrected Chris automatically, before he realized he’d spoken aloud.

They turned to look at him. Nathan had a way of making himself fade into the surroundings when the three of them were talking, and they had almost forgotten he was there.

"What, Nate?" Buck asked.

Nathan lowered his headphones to his shoulders. "There’s four of us. I can get a job, too."

Chris shook his head. "You’ve got two more years of school, Nathan."

"More than that," Josiah said quietly. Chris nodded in agreement, but Nathan shook his head impatiently.

"I know that, Chris, I’m not stupid. I mean after school, part-time."

Chris’s eyes flickered at Nathan’s tone, but his voice was calm when he spoke. "Better for you just to focus on school for now."

Nathan’s mouth tightened. "I’m not a little kid like the rest, Chris. I can help."

Chris glanced at Josiah, who gazed calmly back at him. Chris scowled at him; Josiah always had something to say, except when you wanted him to. Chris turned back to Nathan.

"I know you’re not a little kid, Nathan. Look—," Chris ran his fingers through his hair—"we may need you to get a job at some point. But not yet, okay, Nate?"

Nathan’s lips remained pursed, but he gave a quick nod, looking away from Chris.

Josiah looked at his watch. "We’d better head out. Nate, you mind rounding up the others?"

Nathan didn’t respond, but stood and slid past Buck out of the booth. Chris shook his head, watching him walk away.

"He’s supposed to be the easy one."

Josiah laughed. "I don’t think any of this is supposed to be easy, Chris."

"A little easy might be nice," Chris grumbled. He began to gather up the trash and load it onto a tray. "Should we save this?" he asked, holding up J.D.’s uneaten lunch.

Josiah shook his head. "It’ll be soggy by the time he gets to it. He’ll eat something else later on." Chris nodded and added the box to the tray. The others hadn’t returned by the time they finished cleaning the table, and Josiah glanced out the window, toward the play area. "Where are they?" His voice was impatient.

Buck held up his hand. "Chill, bro. I’ll get them. I’ll meet you in the van."

Josiah looked out the window again. "Fine, but hurry them up."

Chris and Josiah turned to head toward the van, and Buck exited the glass door leading to the play area, where Nathan was half-submerged in a plastic tunnel, and Ezra and Vin were sitting on a bench, watching Nathan with barely concealed amusement.

"What’s the hold-up, guys?" Buck asked, approaching them. They shrugged and pointed toward Nathan.

Nathan’s shoulders and then his head emerged from the plastic tunnel. His face wore an annoyed expression. "You want to try explaining to him that it’s time to go?"

Buck laughed. "What’s the matter, Nate, little guy too much for you?"

Nathan scowled at him. "Go ahead and laugh, Buck, he’s all yours."

Buck rolled his eyes. "I’ll get the kid. Josiah and Chris are waiting in the van. You guys go on, too," he ordered, glancing back at Vin and Ezra. He turned back to the tunnel without waiting for them to move, and poked his head inside. J.D. was sitting at the far end, cross-legged.

"Hi, Buck," J.D. said excitedly, when he caught sight of the new face. "This is my warrior den. You can come inside, if you want."

Buck eyed the tight space and shook his head. "No room for me, kid. Come on, it’s time to go."

J.D. shook his head emphatically. "Not yet, okay?"


"Just five more minutes, okay? You can come play with me, if you want." J.D.’s voice was pleading, but Buck shook his head.

"J.D., Josiah’s gonna have a hissy fit if we’re not in the van in one minute. You ever seen Josiah have a hissy fit?" J.D. shook his head slowly. "Well, I have, and it’s not a pretty sight."

J.D. looked interested. "What’s a hissy fit look like?"

Buck grinned and reached a hand toward J.D. "Come here, and I’ll tell you."

J.D. looked at him, considering, and then slid toward him. Buck grabbed his arm as soon as he was close enough, and pulled him the rest of the way out. J.D. dropped to the ground, frowning.

"You played a trick."

Buck grinned. "Yup."

J.D. gave him a reproachful look, and then lifted his arms up. "I want a ride."

"You do, huh?" Buck looked down at him. "You gonna start listening a little better, if I give you a ride?"

"I listen really good," J.D. said defensively, still motioning in the air with his hands.

Buck laughed. "Kid, you listen about as good as a snake on a two-day bender."

J.D. wrinkled his nose. "What’s a bender?"

Buck laughed again, and then crouched down. "Nothing. Hop on." J.D. climbed onto his back, and Buck headed back inside the fast-food restaurant, and then out toward the parking lot.

"Snakes don’t have ears, y’know," J.D. informed Buck, bouncing on his back.

"I know that, kid, that’s the point." Buck gripped J.D.’s legs tighter. "Quit wriggling if you want a ride."

"What’s the point?" J.D. asked, still bouncing.

"That snakes don’t listen."

"But how can a snake listen if he doesn’t have any ears?"

"They can’t listen, that’s the whole—" Buck started to reply and then stopped, exasperated. "Forget it, kid." He slid open the door to the van, and turned so that J.D. could climb off of his back.

Josiah turned to look at them. "So what was the hold up?"

J.D. moved forward toward the driver’s seat, instead of toward the back. "Josiah?"


"Are you going to have a hissy fit?"

Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Well, I wasn’t planning on it."

"Oh." J.D.’s tone was disappointed. "Cause Buck said you would, and it’s not a pretty sight," he repeated, using the same solemn tones Buck had.

"He did, huh?" Josiah looked at Buck, who looked quickly away, clearing his throat and grabbing at J.D.’s arm.

"Come on, kid, better get in your seat." He pushed J.D. toward the back of the van, and then looked at Josiah. "I don’t know where he gets this stuff, Josiah."

"But you said so," J.D. protested, climbing over Ezra and Vin to get to his seat. "You said Josiah was gonna have a—"

"All right, J.D.," Buck interrupted, giving Josiah a sheepish look. "Kid picks a great time to start listening," he muttered, sliding into the middle seat.

Vin checked J.D.’s buckle. "Josiah does throw a pretty good hissy fit," he confirmed quietly to J.D., pulling on the strap. "But Chris throws a better one."

Chris nudged Josiah with his elbow. "You hear that, Josiah? I throw a better hissy fit than you."

"I don’t know," Ezra argued. "Josiah’s face gets all red. Chris just twitches. And Josiah gets loud."

Vin shrugged. "Chris throws a pretty good quiet."

Josiah gave Chris a superior look, before pulling the van back onto the road. "You hear that, Chris? I’m red and loud."

Chris shrugged. "It’s not all about loud, bro."

Vin examined the others appraisingly. "Nathan throws a pretty good hissy fit, too, but not as good as Chris or Josiah."

"No, Nathan’s not as polished as they are," Ezra agreed.

"Hey!" Nathan, who had been trying to ignore the conversation, turned back to look at them. He wasn’t sure if he was protesting the description of him doing something as ridiculous as having a hissy fit, or the unfavorable comparison to the fits of Josiah and Chris, but either way, he was pretty sure he was offended. Ezra and Vin smiled innocently back.

"I wanna see a hissy fit," J.D. said, folding his arms. Ezra shook his head at him.

"No, you don’t," he said sagely.

Vin nodded in agreement. "’Sides, one of em’ll do it soon enough."

J.D. frowned. "Does Buck do it?"

Vin and Ezra exchanged glances. "Well—he kind of pretends to, but not really so much," Ezra said, shrugging. Vin nodded in agreement.

J.D. leaned back in his seat, and then picked up one of his action figures. "When’re we gonna get there?" he asked, kicking at the seat in front of him.

"When we get there," Buck responded automatically, turning to look at him. "And quit kicking my seat."

J.D. stuck his tongue out and kicked the seat once more before settling back. Buck growled at him before turning around. J.D. grinned and leaned over toward Vin.

"Like that?" he whispered.

Vin smiled back. "Yeah, kind of like that."

+ + + + + + +

They arrived at the park in Illinois early in the afternoon. Other than the arcade, they’d been avoiding crowds since their departure from the Forrest the previous week. The number of cars and people at the campground on this sunny summer Saturday made all the boys nervous, and Josiah briefly considered leaving and finding a more remote place. Their anxiety was over-ridden, though, by the thought of spending any more time in the van, and they were able to secure a campsite far enough to the side to calm Josiah and Chris’s reservations.

The park ranger had handed them a map and an activity list on the way in, and Josiah read the options out to the others after they had finished setting up their tents. More expensive activities, like renting a boat, were out, but the park also had hiking trails and nature walks. One by one, the others rejected the options, citing the heat, the effort, "and the bugs," Ezra added pointedly.

Exasperated, Josiah finally put down the list. "Fine. What do you guys want to do?"

"I vote for swimming," Ezra said.

"Yeah, I’m for that," Buck agreed. "It’s hot as a witch’s—"

"Buck," Chris said warningly, cutting him off. Buck looked at the younger boys and sighed.

"Well, anyway, it’s hot."

"Lake looked real nice," Nathan commented. "Pretty big, too—we could probably find a spot without too many people."

"A swim does sound good," Josiah said, more cheerful now that the others appeared willing to do something. "You guys okay with that?" he asked, looking at J.D. and Vin, who hadn’t spoken yet.

J.D. bit his lip and looked at Vin, who spoke for him. "J.D. can’t swim."

"But he makes an excellent frog," Ezra added quietly, seeing the younger boy’s head lower in embarrassment.

J.D.’s eyes flicked back up, and he smiled a little bit at Ezra. "I make a really good frog," he agreed. "I can ribbit and jump and everything."

"Long as you don’t go jumping where you ain’t supposed to," Vin said under his breath. J.D. lowered his eyes again.

"I didn’t mean ta jump, Vin," he said pleadingly.

The others looked confused, not following the conversation.

"What are you guys talking about?" Chris asked, looking at Vin.

Vin flushed and shrugged, but J.D. answered. "About the time I was a frog, when we stayed at the big house and me’n Vin’n Ezra went to the pond, only it’s not really a pond, it’s a ca—cwa—" he looked at Ezra and Vin for help, but both were looking away—"it’s a place where rocks used to be. And we swam, and I was a frog, and Vin told me not to go past the stick but I did, but I didn’t mean to," he said defensively, giving Vin a look, "and then Vin yelled at me—" he gave Vin another look, this one more reproachful, "but he said he was sorry," he added, trying to be fair, "and then I didn’t want to swim no more but Ezra said a pond needed a frog, so I got back in, and I make a really good frog, right, Ezra?"

"Right," Ezra mumbled, still avoiding eye contact with the older boys.

"Let me get this straight," Chris broke in. "He can’t swim, and you guys took him to the quarry, without anyone else around?" His voice was deceptively calm, and Vin and Ezra exchanged glances. They’d had this conversation—or something like it—with both Chris and Josiah at various times in the past.

"We told him to stay on the ledge," Ezra said defensively.

Vin nodded. "It’s just that J.D. doesn’t listen real good," he added, giving the younger boy a pointed look.

"Ain’t that the truth," Buck agreed.

J.D. folded his arms. "I listen really good. Better than any dumb ol’ snake does." He looked at the others. "Snakes don’t have ears, you know."

"It’s not about him listening or not," Chris said to Vin and Ezra, ignoring J.D.’s lesson on snakes. "The quarry’s dangerous. Didn’t I tell you guys to stay away from there?"

They both looked down with practiced penitent looks, and then Ezra looked back up, a small smile on his face. "Well, I can promise, with absolute surety, that we will never go back to the quarry again."

Chris snorted, and Josiah laughed. "Easy enough promise to make when it’s over a thousand miles away."

"I’m hot," J.D. complained, picking up a stick and scratching in the dirt.

"Me, too," Buck agreed. "How about you yell at them later, bro, and we go swimming now?"

"I wasn’t yelling, Buck," Chris snapped, scowling when Buck laughed at him.

"Can I go swimming, too?" J.D. asked.

Josiah looked at him. "You gonna listen to what you’re told?"

"I listen really good," J.D. repeated hopefully.

"Well, how about if you listen a little better than usual, okay?"

"Okay," J.D. agreed quickly, crossing his fingers over his heart.

"Then okay," Josiah said, smiling back.

+ + + + + + +

"That’s it, J.D., kick’em," Buck urged, holding firmly onto J.D.’s waist. The younger boy kicked vigorously, his hands slapping at the surface. The others were giving the flying water a wide berth, and Buck finally looked away, blinking. "All right, kid, that’s enough." He pulled J.D. back up and looked around. Josiah and Chris were both swimming further out, and Ezra and Vin were wrestling in the shallower water toward the shore. Nathan floated nearby in the waist-deep water, submerged to his neck and propelling himself lazily with his toes.

The area of the lake that they had picked was far enough from the main beach that it was nearly empty, and they had all spread out, enjoying the open space after so many days in the van. Buck had ended up with J.D. clinging to his neck, and although he had made a few token protests, he really hadn’t minded horsing around with the kid and giving him his own version of a swimming lesson. J.D. still didn’t show any signs of doing anything besides sinking like a stone when Buck tried to let go of him, but he was enthusiastic, Buck would give him that.

"Not yet, Buck," J.D. protested, still kicking at the water he was now suspended mostly above.

"J.D., quit squirming!" Buck had been holding onto J.D. for a while now, and his slippery body kept loosening in Buck’s grip.

"I’m not squirming, I’m swimming," J.D. corrected, but he let his body go slack. Buck hitched him up a little more firmly, then turned to look around for reinforcements. Eyeing the nearest possibility, he moved purposefully through the water.

"Here, Nate, how about if you take him for a while."

Nathan sighed and rose from the water, accepting J.D. from Buck. "Guess I can watch him for a bit."

J.D. grabbed onto Nathan’s neck. "You wanna see me swim, Nathan?"

Nathan glanced at Buck, who smiled and then waved, swimming away. He looked back at J.D. "Yeah, sure, J.D., how about you show me what you’ve been learning?" He lowered J.D. to the surface and then winced as the boy began to obligingly pummel the water, shouting excitedly and then spluttering as he swallowed a mouthful of the lake.

"Hey, hold on," Nathan said, pulling J.D. back up. "How about if you slow down some?" He held one of J.D.’s hands in his own and began to show him how to scoop the water. They were soon engrossed in a new—and much calmer—swimming lesson than J.D. had with Buck.

While they practiced paddling, Buck swam deep into the lake, releasing his pent-up energy. He paused, treading water, fifty yards from the shore, and then began pulling himself back with long strokes. He was nearing the others when he saw Chris standing neck-deep, looking in the other direction. It wasn’t often that Chris got caught with his back turned, and Buck wasn’t willing to pass up the opportunity. He began to advance on him, moving slowly in the water.

Chris waited, the water hiding the tautness of his muscles. He could feel Buck, moving toward him, and he remained still, waiting for him to get close enough to surprise. He kept his head turned away, not wanting to cue his awareness of the other boy.

Buck moved steadily toward Chris. He froze, inches away from him. Chris waited also, holding his breath and bending slightly at the knees. Just as they were both about to spring, the water between them parted and Josiah leapt up. Without breaking his movement, he reached out and pushed on their heads, dunking them down into the water as he landed.

The four who had been watching whooped as Chris and Buck emerged, spluttering. Josiah licked a finger, drawing a line into the air.

"I believe that makes one for big brother." He grinned at them, acknowledging the applause of Nathan, Ezra, Vin, and J.D., before diving back into the water and swimming off. Chris and Buck took off in pursuit, but neither could catch him and they finally returned to shore. Josiah waited until they had sprawled on the sand near the water before swimming back.

After a while, Josiah once again tried to talk the others into going for a walk on one of the trails. Chris and Nathan were both interested, but Buck wanted to go hang out near the boathouse—they had all rolled their eyes when he added, "and see some of the local attractions." Vin and Ezra held a silent discussion with their eyes, and then said they were bored and wanted to go back and explore around the campsite. J.D. had immediately asked to go with them. Neither had looked thrilled, but when Josiah had suggested they might prefer to go on the trail instead with the rest of them, they had agreed to take J.D. with them.

J.D. followed the two older boys on the trail that led back toward the campsites. They walked ahead of him, their heads together as they talked. Every now and then one of them looked back at him, and then they resumed talking. He skipped forward to catch up.

"Whatcha talkin’ about?"

Vin glanced at him. "Nothin’, J.D."

"What’re we goin’ to do?"

"We," Ezra enunciated the first syllable, "have some things to do."

"What am I going to do?"

Vin grinned at Ezra, and then at J.D. "Whatever we say."

"Oh." J.D. thought about it. "Why?"

"‘Cause that’s the game, J.D." He turned and broke into a run on the trail. "C’mon, Ez, before they get back." Ezra followed him, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did J.D.

When they got to the camp, Ezra stood guard while Vin disappeared into the tent he shared with Chris, Buck, and J.D. The eleven-year-old emerged a minute later, his shirt now extended over a lumpy object. He tossed an action figure at J.D.

"Here, J.D., take that."

Ezra looked at Vin as J.D. grabbed for his toy. "You get it?"

"Course I got it," Vin said flippantly. He zipped the tent back up. "C’mon, we can go back by the trees."

"What do you got?" J.D. asked, following them to the woods which bordered their campsite.


+ + + + + + +

Buck walked through the woods, following a shortcut he had seen in the guidemap. The boat house and dock had been a disappointment, full of whiny kids and even whinier parents. The cooling off the lake had provided was wearing away under the oppressive late afternoon heat. The others were all off becoming one with nature, or whatever Josiah wanted to call it, and Buck was planning on enjoying some well-deserved solitude before they got back.

As he crossed through the last section of trees before he hit their campsite, he heard the unmistakable sound of giggling and then sniping that always marked the presence of Vin and Ezra when they were together. He was momentarily annoyed, but as long as they were out in the woods he could still get in some Buck-time. He paused for a moment, listening—as much as they eavesdropped on him, he figured turnabout was fair play. And he still owed them for the shaving cream.

"Quit it, Vin, you’re making me spill it," he heard Ezra say impatiently.

"You’re the one spilling it all." Vin’s voice was matter-of-fact.

"Watch out! I almost got some on my shirt. You want us to smell?"

"You always smell!"

"Said the pot to the kettle," Ezra retorted.

"You calling me Buck?"

They both giggled, and Buck frowned, then shifted, trying to get closer. They sounded too furtive to be up to anything other than—well, other than what they usually got into.

"So—you think they’re gonna smell it on us?" Vin sounded worried now.

"No, I brought some mints."

"Yeah? That was smart."

Buck found himself breaking through the trees before he could stop himself. There were only a few things you needed mints for—he oughta know, he kept a steady supply of them in his back pocket. And he was pretty damn sure Vin and Ez didn’t have any girls back there.

The two bodies to match the voices looked up, startled, and Buck watched their expressions flash from apprehension to what looked like relief, before a similar mask dropped over both of their faces. They sat cross-legged on the ground, and had sprawled quickly towards each other when Buck crashed through the trees.

"It’s just Buck," Ezra muttered under his breath, elbowing Vin and shifting towards him a little more.

"Hey, Buck," Vin stammered, trying to look casual. "Whatcha doing here?"

Buck’s voice was low. "Was wondering the same thing myself." He stood, arms folded. "What are you guys doing?" Vin looked at Ezra, who shrugged.

"Nothing, Buck." Ezra peered around the older boy. "Chris or Josiah with you?"

Buck’s eyes flashed. "Don’t make me ask again."

Vin’s face was flushing. "We ain’t doing anything, Buck. Just hanging out."

Buck was next to them in three steps. He gripped Vin around the upper arms and lifted him slightly, shifting him away from Ezra.

Buck’s jaw worked as he stared down at the can of beer and the two plastic cups, but he didn’t say a word. Vin and Ezra watched him for a moment, waiting, but he just kept staring at them.

The two younger boys exchanged glances. Buck explosions they knew how to deal with, but Buck gone quiet was a new one, and they weren’t quite sure what to make of it.

"Buck," Vin tried, his voice hesitant. "We just took one."

"You shouldn’t have taken any." His voice was tight, like he hadn’t used it in a while.

"We’ll pay you back," Ezra offered.

Buck whirled on him and grabbed him by the shirt front. "I don’t give a damn about—" he cut himself off, staring at the younger boy before releasing him. Ezra eased himself backwards, watching as Buck took a slow breath and then released it. Buck picked up first one cup, and then the other, emptying then onto the ground before stacking them. He picked up the beer can, shaking it a little, and then emptied the remainder into the dirt. He grabbed the trash in one hand and then stood, his voice curt.

"Let’s go."

Ezra and Vin rose slowly to their feet, and Buck started to move toward the campsite.

"We gotta get J.D.," Vin said softly.

Buck turned around. "Where’s J.D.?" His voice was sharp, and Vin looked down.

"He’s just—" Ezra gestured. "He’s back there."

"I’ll get him," Vin said, starting to go, but Buck pulled him back.

"I’ll get him. You guys stay here." Buck didn’t trust himself to say more. Or to look at them. He couldn’t remember a time when he had felt this mad, and he wasn’t even totally sure why.

J.D. was lying on his stomach on the other side of the trees Ezra had pointed to, busily adding twigs to the structure his action figure was propped in the middle of. He looked up when he heard the footsteps.

"Are we done—Buck! Did you come to play with us, too? Ezra’n Vin said I had to wait here, and it’s been forever, already." J.D. scrambled back onto his knees, bouncing a little in his excitement. "Look what I built! It’s a pretty good fort, isn’t it?"

Buck took and deep breath and reminded himself that he wasn’t mad at J.D. He gave him a faint smile. "Yeah, kid, it’s great. Come on, we’ve gotta get going."

"Where’re we going?" J.D. retrieved his action figure from the ground and then stood up. He caught sight of Buck’s expression and paused. "Can I have a ride?" he asked hesitantly.

"Not now." Buck’s voice was short, and he turned and headed back through the trees.

J.D. studied the retreating back, chewing on his lip. He pulled a lock of hair toward his mouth and began sucking on it, before following Buck through the trees.

Ezra stood waiting, arms folded, in the clearing. Vin was squatting, but rose as Buck came toward them, J.D. trailing behind. When the younger boy saw Vin, he ran to him, slipping his hand into his protector’s. Vin stole a look at Buck, and then lowered his head, giving J.D.’s hand a squeeze.

"Come on." Buck gave Ezra’s shoulder a small shove as he reached them. He didn’t look at them as he walked away, the three younger boys straggling behind.

+ + + + + + +

The others were arguing loudly as they approached the campsite, but the timbre of their voices held no real anger, so Buck didn’t really register them until Chris dropped beside him on the log.

"So how was the boat house?"

Buck looked up, momentarily startled, and then shrugged. "Wasn’t much. The walk?"

Josiah sprawled out on the other side of him. "Would’ve been better if Chris hadn’t been the one with the map."

Chris shot him a glare. "Damn map was wrong."

"Like it was the map that was wrong," Nathan muttered under his breath. Chris heard him and shot over a look. Nathan backed up a step. "I’m gonna get a fresh shirt," he said, making a move toward the tents.

"Hold on, Nate," Buck said shortly. Nathan turned, recognizing the edge in his voice.

Chris heard it too, and took a closer look at him. "What’s up, bro?"

Buck started to talk, and then paused. He glanced back at the tents. "Vin and Ezra are in there."

Josiah’s eyebrows drew together. "What’s going on, Buck?" He looked around. "Where’s J.D.?"

"Over there." Buck pointed near the trees, where J.D. sat, uncharacteristically quiet as he dug in the dirt with a stick.

"What’s going on?" Josiah repeated.

Buck let out a breath. "I caught them drinking." His voice was flat.

"What?" Josiah’s voice was a little shrill as he sat up, and he quickly caught himself, forcing his words to be a little calmer when he spoke again. "What do you mean, you caught them drinking?"

"They swiped my beer."

"You had beer?" Chris’s tone was acerbic, and Buck threw him a look. Josiah held up his hand before the fight could start.

"Not the point right now. They swiped your beer?"

"It’s some of the point," Chris snapped. "What were you doing, having beer around them?"

"I can have some damn beer in my bag if I want it, Chris, they shouldn’t’ve been drinking it!"

"They wouldn’t’ve been drinking it if there hadn’t’ve been anything to drink!" Chris was in Buck’s face now, and Josiah grabbed both of their shoulders and shoved them apart from each other.

"Both of you, calm down!" His voice was sharp, and they backed off, eying each other. Josiah put his hand back on Buck’s shoulder. "Buck, tell me what happened."

"I came back from the boat house, through the woods. Heard’em talking, and went to take a look. They had a can of beer and some cups, had J.D. stashed behind some trees." Buck’s words were clipped, his face grim.

"How much did they drink?"

Buck shook his head, stepping away from the others. "Not much, from what I could tell."

"What’d you say to them?" Chris asked, calmer now.

"Didn’t say much." Buck shrugged one shoulder. "I was too mad. I put each of ‘em in a tent till I could figure out what to say."

"And?" Josiah raised an eyebrow at him.

Buck shrugged again. "Still haven’t figured it out." He let out a breath. "Shoot, Josiah, I was so mad at them I couldn’t see straight."

Josiah nodded. "Yeah, been there. Chris!" The last was said sharply, as he caught sight of the blond moving.

Chris turned around, annoyed. "What!?"

"Where are you going?"

"Where do you think I’m going," Chris snapped, turning back toward the tents.

"Sit down, Chris," Josiah said tiredly, moving toward the legs. He held up his hand when the other boy opened his mouth. "Don’t go in there until you calm down some and we know what we’re gonna say."

"Oh, I know what I’m gonna say," Chris said grimly, not moving away from the tents but not moving toward them, either.

"Look, they know we’re back," Josiah said reasonably. "You know they’re in there, shaking in their undershorts. Let’em stew for a bit."

Chris pursed his lips. "Well—" he finally allowed reluctantly. "Wouldn’t hurt to let them sweat it out, a little." He sat on the log across from Josiah, and then looked up at Buck, who remained standing. "Well?" he said impatiently.

"Well, what!?" Buck snapped.

"You gonna sit down, or what?"

"Oh, now you’re ready to sit," Buck grumbled, but moved to sit next to Josiah. He looked over to where J.D. sat, eyes big as he watched them. Josiah followed his glance and then sighed.

"Damn," he whispered softly under his breath, and then louder, "Hey, kid. Come on over here."

J.D. looked down, lacing and unlacing his fingers on his stick.

"J.D." Josiah’s voice was gentle, but it was clearly an order. J.D. stood reluctantly, eyes still focused on the ground, and shuffled toward them. He stopped a few feet from Josiah.

"Come here, J.D.," Josiah said, reaching out. After a moment’s hesitation J.D. moved toward him. Josiah put his hand on the small of J.D.’s back and drew him in. J.D. stood stiffly for a moment, and then leaned his side briefly against Josiah’s shoulder. When he made to move away, Josiah clasped his hands together behind J.D.’s back, enfolding the younger boy in a loose circle.

"So we were yelling, huh," Josiah said gravely, looking at the solemn face next to his. J.D. hesitated for a moment, and then bobbed his head in assent. "I bet you didn’t like that, did you?"

J.D. shook his head. Josiah waited, but J.D. didn’t say anything. His fingers picked at the cloth on Josiah’s shirt.

"Look, kid, everyone’s just a little mad right now. That doesn’t mean everything isn’t okay, all right?" When J.D. didn’t answer, he moved his hands to J.D.’s shoulders, and gave the boy a little shake. "All right, J.D.?" His voice was still gentle.

J.D. pursed his lips, pulling away. "You could stop being mad."

Josiah dropped his arms and gave J.D. a half-smile. "Doesn’t work that way, kiddo. Can you just stop being mad?"

J.D. thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. "If I wanted, I could."

"Well—" Josiah sighed. "I can’t." He glanced behind him. "And I know he can’t." Chris scowled back at him, but Josiah ignored him. "Him," he said, motioning to Buck, "maybe." He smiled at the dark-haired teenager, who shook his head and looked away.

"And him," he jerked his finger over toward Nathan, who still stood quietly to the side, trying to observe the others unnoticed, "well, we’re still trying to figure that out." Josiah grinned a little when he saw Nathan jump. "Hey, Nate," he added, "you think you could take J.D. for a little walk, or something?"

Nathan looked at him sourly for a moment. "You mean you don’t want my opinion on all this? Forget it," he added as Josiah opened his mouth. "Come on, J.D."

J.D. sucked on a strand of hair, looking back toward the tents. "But Vin might need me," he said, turning back to Josiah.

Josiah shook his head. "Vin’s okay, J.D. Go on with Nate."


Buck looked up. "J.D., go on, now." J.D. chewed on his lip for a moment, examining Buck’s eyes, and then nodded reluctantly, backing up a step. Nathan took his hand, giving the others a reproachful glance, and then led the younger boy toward the winding path trailing through the campsites.

Buck looked at Chris and Josiah. "So, geniuses, now what?"

+ + + + + + +

Vin was turned away from the opening, knees pulled to his chest, when Chris entered the cramped confines of the tent. Chris read the tense set of his bony shoulders before speaking, and sighed.

"Vin," he said. His voice was stern but even.

Vin held for a moment longer, and then his shoulders twitched and he shifted so that he was facing Chris. His eyes were red, but his face was stoic, and as soon as Chris saw it he felt the anger leave him. The kid looked miserable, his fists clenching a little as he waited for whatever Chris was going to say.

"Vin—" Chris sighed again, and pulled himself the rest of the way into the tent, zipping the flap behind him. "Vin, what were you thinking?"

The younger boy shrugged one shoulder slightly, and took a ragged breath. "Wasn’t, I guess." He didn’t look Chris in the eyes.

Chris shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. "Kid, do you have any idea what a stupid idea that was?" He waited for Vin’s small nod before continuing, biting out his words. "I’m not even gonna waste my breath telling you why an eleven-year-old kid shouldn’t drink." He gave Vin a hard look, and Vin slumped lower. "You know all the reasons."

He studied the younger boy for a moment. "You got anything to say?" Vin shook his head. "All right. You can come out when it’s time for dinner, but other than that you’re spending the rest of the night in the tent. And you’ll spend some more time in here tomorrow, when we get wherever we’re going. You got a problem with that?" His voice implied strongly that it would be a good idea if Vin didn’t, and Vin shook his head quickly.

Chris tilted his head slightly. "And Vin—if I ever catch you drinking again—" he paused. "Just don’t let it happen, okay?" Vin nodded, and Chris turned to leave the tent.

"Chris?" The tone was pleading, and Chris paused, turning around. "We were just—I just wanted to try it."

Chris studied him. "And what did you think?"

Vin pursed his lips, thinking about it. "Don’t know. Didn’t really taste that good."

Chris’s lips twitched a little. "It’s an acquired taste."

Vin’s eyebrows furrowed. "What’s that mean?"

"It means you’ve got plenty of time to figure out if you like it, when you get older."

"Do you like it?" Vin’s tone held no challenge, only curiosity, and Chris answered honestly.

"Sometimes. I don’t drink that much."

"Buck likes to drink."

Chris sighed. "Buck likes the idea of drinking. He’s gonna get over it."

"Oh." Vin pulled at the fabric of the tent floor. "Buck was pretty mad today. Madder’n I’ve ever seen him."

"Yeah?" Chris folded his arms, looking at Vin. "Well, I guess I know where he’s coming from."

Vin flushed, looking down for a moment before looking back up.

"So, what’s the difference?"

Chris’s brow wrinkled. "The difference between what?"

"What you said about Buck."

"Well—" Chris shrugged a little. "Look, bottom line is, you’re not ready to make the decisions you need to make to drink. When you’re older, you and I are gonna talk about drinking again. Until then," Chris looked hard at him, "no drinking. And I mean, period. Okay?"

Vin held his gaze and gave a nod. "Okay."

Chris’s features relaxed a bit. "Okay." He turned again to the tent flap, unzipping it and exiting. He turned back when he was out. "I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready."