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Vin held his finger to his lips, and J.D. nodded, turning an imaginary key over his mouth and tossing it behind him. Vin grinned at him, then silently stood from where they were crouched and peered around the corner of the building. He watched for a moment, then crouched down again next to J.D. and whispered, "You wait here. I'll be right back."
J.D. shook his head hard from side to side and grabbed at Vin's hand.
"C'mon, kid, I'll be right back," Vin urged. "I'm just going to get Ezra."
J.D. scrunched up his face. "That's a funny name."
Vin smiled. "Better not let him hear you say that." He tried to pull his hand out of J.D.'s, but the little boy clutched at it.
"He's one of us," Vin explained simply. "Don't worry, he's cool--well, sort of." He gave a half grin. "Don't tell him I said that, though."
J.D. nodded solemnly. "Okay."
Vin started to stand, but stopped when J.D. moved to rise with him. "No, you wait here for me."
J.D. shook his head. "But I want to come."
Vin frowned at him. "You can't come. You'll be too loud. You stay here."
"No!" The smaller boy's lip was jutting out, and he held onto Vin's hand with both of his.
Vin sighed in exasperation. "C'mon, don't be a brat. Just wait here for me." He pulled his hand out of J.D.'s and stood up. "I'll be right back, I promise."
J.D. wrapped his arms around his knees and pulled them into his chest, not answering. Vin started to go, then stopped and looked at J.D. for a moment, before crouching down again. "Look, you can watch me, okay? C'mere." He pulled J.D. to his feet and over to the corner of the building, where he pointed toward a square three-story building thirty yards across the lawn. "See that one over there? That's the school. I'm just gonna go let Ez know we're out here, then come right back. You can watch me the whole way, all right?"
J.D. looked across the grass, and then back at Vin. He nodded. Vin smiled. "Good. You stay quiet, and don't let nobody see you, okay?"
J.D. sucked on a piece of hair. "Okay."
As Vin stepped away from him, J.D. knelt down and leaned against the stucco wall. He chewed on his lip as he watched Vin move low and swiftly across the grass, flattening himself finally against the wall of the school. J.D. held his breath as Vin crouched, crab-walked over under a window, and held his hands around his mouth. J.D. was startled enough at the sound he heard to let out his breath in a small gasp, watching in wonderment as Vin lifted his hands again and repeated the sound. Vin finally crab-walked away from the window, then returned along the same route he had come, dropping beside J.D. who immediately clutched onto the cloth of his t-shirt.
Vin smiled and poked J.D. lightly in the stomach. "See, brat, I told you I'd be right back." His smile faltered as J.D. stared at him, wide-eyed. "What's the matter, J.D.? You okay?"
"Vin--you made the dove."
Vin's mouth turned up a little. "Yeah, I learned that from a guy I knew."
The smaller boy stared at him wonderingly. "You sounded just like morning."
Vin thought about it for a moment. "Yeah, guess I know what you mean."
"I never knew someone who could sound like morning."
Vin flushed, embarrassed by the admiration on J.D.'s face.
"Aw, it ain't a big deal."
"Can you do any others?"
Vin shrugged. "Bunch of 'em, I guess."
"Can you do a wolf?"
Vin smiled and lifted his hand, cupping it around his mouth. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his other hand and tapped it against the first, emitting a low, mournful call. J.D. clapped his hands softly, bouncing a little on his knees. "Do it again, Vin!"
"Better watch it, Vincent, the natives will get restless." The dry warning came from a voice behind them, and both boys turned toward it. Vin smiled, but J.D. made himself smaller behind Vin as a slim boy dressed neatly in jeans and a black polo shirt stepped around the corner.
"You're getting better, Ez, I didn't hear you coming till just before you spoke," Vin said approvingly to the newcomer.
"You, on the other hand, are announcing your presence quite clearly," the boy responded somewhat reprovingly. "Was the wolf howl really necessary? I did hear you the first time, you know."
Vin shrugged. "Wasn't for you."
Ezra looked past him to the dark eyes now peering at him from around Vin's side. "Who's he?"
"That's J.D., he's with me." Vin reached a hand back. "J.D., this is Ezra." The younger boy stayed behind him. Vin pushed him forward a little. "C'mon, say hi."
J.D. looked carefully at Ezra; his name was funny and so was the way he talked, but Vin seemed to think he was okay, so he probably was. "Can you do a wolf?"
The boy curled his lip. "I have never had the occasion to try."
J.D. looked at him, mystified, and leaned back into Vin. Vin spoke up, looking at Ezra. "We're going over to the mill pond, you want to come?"
Ezra sighed. "The mill pond is a dirty, germ-infested puddle."
Vin rolled his eyes. "So--you coming or not?"
Ezra picked a piece of lint off of his t-shirt. "Well, since the alternative is attending their pathetic attempt at a place to mold our young minds, I will take my chances."
J.D. leaned over toward Vin. "So is he coming?" he whispered.
Vin snorted. "Yeah, kid, that was 'yes' in Ezra."
"C'mon." Vin put a hand on J.D.'s shoulder and steered him toward the trees ringing the building. Once they were a few steps within the trees, Vin began to run. J.D. followed him without hesitation, Ezra picking his way more carefully behind.
+ + + + + + +
The mill pond was in actuality a flooded rock quarry that had been abandoned years earlier. Its location--within fifteen minutes walk of the grounds of the Forrest Home--made it a popular, but forbidden, destination among the young residents. J.D. had remained silent as he followed the two older boys through the woods between the Home and the quarry, remaining close to Vin as they picked their way through the brush. As they came to the edge of the tree line, Vin paused and looked across the expanse of dirt and rocks leading to the pond. Seeing no one, he stepped out, motioning to the others, and headed for the water.
J.D. frowned, looking at the murky pond. His mother had been real clear on the rules when it came to water, the biggest one being absolutely no swimming without an adult present. He looked at the two boys walking in front of him. The boy who spoke funny was bigger than Vin, but after some internal debate J.D. decided with some disappointment that he didn't qualify as an adult. Maybe if those two big boys from this morning were here--but they weren't.
Vin had gone several paces before he realized that J.D. wasn't following him. Turning back, he saw the younger boy frowning at the water, hands kneading his t-shirt.
"C'mon, J.D.," Vin urged. "No one's around, it's okay."
The little boy shook his head. "Can't."
Vin looked at Ezra, who had also stopped. "Why not, J.D.?"
"No swimming without a grownup. That's the rule."
Ezra smoothed his shirt. "Well, J.D., you see, that is the joy of our present situation. When one has absconded from school for the day, one is able to create his own rules."
J.D. scrunched up his face, looking confused, but remained still.
Vin tried again. "Whose rule, J.D.?"
J.D. looked down. "Mama's," he whispered.
Vin and Ezra exchanged looks, and then Vin walked back and took the younger boy by the hand. "It's okay, J.D. Me'n Ez'll watch you."
The boy looked doubtful, but allowed himself to be led over to a flat rock by the edge of the water-filled quarry. He watched as Vin and Ezra removed their shoes, shirts and jeans, leaving their undergarments on. Vin tossed his clothes onto the rock, while Ezra folded his neatly and stacked them. J.D. hesitated, then sat on the ground and removed his shoes. He stood and tried to pull his shorts off, wobbling a bit until Vin came and gripped him around the upper arm, steadying him. Without asking, J.D. held his arms up and Vin complied, pulling J.D.'s t-shirt up over his head. A choked-off laugh sounded from where Ezra was now sitting on the flat rock, next to his clothing.
Vin looked up at Ezra. "What?"
Ezra smiled and jerked his thumb at J.D. "I admire your taste in underwear, kid."
J.D. looked down, then up, smiling, missing the sarcasm in Ezra's voice. "I like the red Power Ranger best," he confided. Ezra burst out laughing, and Vin glared at him.
"Cut it out, Ez."
Ezra held up his hands mockingly, but stopped laughing.
Vin led J.D. over to the edge of the water. "Can you swim?"
J.D. bit his lip. "I have blue water wings."
"Can you swim without them?" Vin asked patiently.
J.D. shook his head.
"Okay. Then you need to stay in this part. It's real shallow, you can stand here, but you can't go past where that stick is, see--" Vin pointed to a branch which was propped between two stones, jutting out over the water. "It drops off pretty steep after that." He looked at J.D., waiting until the younger boy nodded, before leading him into the water.
J.D. frowned slightly as his toes entered the water, and he lifted his feet up into the air one at a time. "It feels funny."
"It's a little thick cause of the mold on the rocks, but it's okay," Vin explained.
"Has it ever occurred to you that water is not, in fact, supposed to be 'thick'?" Ezra asked pointedly, from where he now stood on the far edge of the pond.
Vin glared at him. "No one's makin' you come in, Ez."
Ezra just smiled back. "It's all right, Vincent, I enjoy a little risk." He climbed up onto a rock, then dived off of it into the pond, breaking the surface smoothly. J.D. watched nervously when he didn't immediately emerge again, then smiled as the older boy's head resurfaced a few feet in front of him. Ezra treaded water for a moment, and then pulled himself up onto the more shallow ledge where Vin and J.D. were standing. "Well?" he challenged, looking at Vin. "Your turn."
Vin looked over at the rock Ezra had dived off of, and then down at J.D., who still held his hand. "You stay right here, J.D.," he warned. "You can sit here in the water and watch us." He waited until J.D. had lowered himself to sit on the rock, the water just deep enough to cover his belly, before moving forward and jumping off the ledge into the deeper part of the pond. Ezra sat on the edge of the shallow ledge, legs dangling into the deeper water, watching as Vin dove under the water and swam to the other side of the pond, pulling himself out by the diving rock. He climbed on top, and, flashing a quick grin at J.D., jumped in the air and quickly tucked his body until a ball, somersaulting down into the water.
J.D. clapped excitedly, his hands catching the surface of the pond and sending water splashing onto Ezra, who sat a few feet from him.
"Hey, watch it," the older boy said, bringing his hand up to wipe the water from his eyes.
J.D. froze, his shoulders slumping. Ezra looked back at him when there was no response, and saw the younger boy's eyes downcast. His face softened slightly, and he scooted backwards, sitting next to J.D. He put an arm around his shoulders, and whispered in his ear. The boy's eyes grew wide, and he looked a question at Ezra, who nodded, a small smile on his face. J.D. smiled back, and he rubbed at his eyes as Vin broke the surface of the water in front of them.
"Now?" J.D. whispered loudly.
"Now," Ezra confirmed.
Without hesitation, the two boys pulled their arms back and sent water flying forward onto Vin, who spluttered and then dove back under. Within seconds, Vin had re-surfaced, sending a stream of water out of his mouth onto Ezra, following up with a wave of water propelled by his hand. Ezra immediately pulled himself forward off of the ledge and into the deeper water, splashing Vin back. J.D. stood, laughing, and began to jump in the shallow water, delighted with the waves he was creating for the older boys.
Caught up in the battle, J.D.'s jumps carried him forward on the ledge. The two older boys were intent on their skirmish, not watching, and were startled to suddenly hear a loud splash. They turned just in time to see J.D.'s head following his body beneath the surface of the water just past the ledge.
Vin and Ezra simultaneously dove forward after him. Vin got to him first, grabbing him around the waist, and pulling him back up to the surface. Ezra climbed onto the ledge and reached down, gripping J.D. under the arms and hauling him up. Vin climbed up behind him.
J.D.'s eyes were filling and he was coughing, as Vin grabbed him by the arm and shook him. "Didn't I tell you to stay on the ledge!"
The tears spilled out of J.D.'s eyes and he tried to pull away. "I don't want to swim no more," he sobbed.
Vin kept a tight grip on him, getting his own breathing under control, as J.D. continued to cry. Ezra placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Easy, Vin," he said quietly.
Vin looked at him, then at the crying boy, and relaxed his grip, pushing his own hair out of his eyes. "All right, it's okay, J.D., you ain't hurt. Quit crying now."
J.D. continued to cry, wrapping his arms around himself and standing shivering in the ankle-deep water. Ezra gave Vin a reproachful look, then picked up the smaller boy and carried him out of the water, putting him down on top of the flat rock their clothing was piled on.
"Now, J.D., a frog makes a distinctly different sound from the one you are making."
J.D. paused in his crying, rubbing at his eyes with his fist and looking at the other boy. "A frog?"
"Why, yes," Ezra responded, climbing up onto the rock next to J.D. "You have been doing an admirable imitation of a frog up to this point."
"I have?" J.D. asked wonderingly. He liked frogs; their bellies felt kind of slimy like the rocks, and if you touched their foot just right, they leaped up in the air.
"Certainly," Ezra replied confidently. "All frogs enjoy bathing on a shallow rock, and the leap you took was nothing short of top frog-jumper material."
J.D. smiled a little, leaning against Ezra, and Ezra continued. "Unfortunately. . ." He let his voice trail off.
"What?" J.D. asked, wide-eyed.
"Well, I have never heard a frog make quite that sound. I can't seem to remember, however, what exactly a frog says." He paused, looking suggestively at the younger boy, who immediately smiled.
"Ribbit, ribbit," J.D. croaked loudly.
Ezra smiled back. "Why, yes, I believe that's right. Admirable!" He gave the little boy a squeeze, then climbed off of the rock to stand next to Vin. "Now, I have always thought a pond to be much improved by the presence of a frog. It's a shame we no longer have one here." He paused, his eyes downcast, then looked at J.D. "I don't suppose you know of any frogs who would care to return to their pond, do you?"
"Me!" J.D. shouted, clambering down off of the rock.
Ezra looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, and then nodded. "Well, I suppose you'll do."
Vin watched as Ezra led J.D. back over to the shallow end of the pond, walking with him into the water and then sitting down with him. Feeling slightly ashamed, Vin followed, standing behind them.
"Now, frog, will you stay on this ledge? No more jumping?"
J.D. nodded vigorously, and Ezra rose. "All right, then." He moved forward into the deeper water, then looked back at Vin, who was still standing. "Well--you coming?"
Vin swallowed and then nodded, pausing by J.D. and crouching. "J.D.--look, I'm sorry I yelled. You just scared me."
J.D. chewed on his lip. "I'm sorry I went past the stick."
Vin smiled and ruffled his hair. "That's okay, kid. You just stay here this time, okay?"
J.D nodded, and Vin jumped off into the water.
The rest of the afternoon went without incident, Ezra and Vin alternatively diving and swimming. J.D. eventually got bored and climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, where he curled up in the sun and fell asleep.
The two older boys finally climbed out of the water and sat on the ground near him, stretching out to dry and talking softly.
"So--what's his story?" Ezra asked quietly, motioning at J.D.
Vin shrugged. "I dunno, really. He came in last night. They put'im in with Colin and Jamie."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyway, I took him in by me. Don't know much about him, 'cept his name, and he's seven, and his Mama died, I guess."
Ezra looked at the sleeping child on the rock. "You know he won't be here for long, Vin."
Ezra lifted one shoulder. "He's small. He'll get placed."
"None of us did." Vin's voice was defiant, and he glared at the slightly older boy.
"None of us were that small, Vin," Ezra responded patiently.
"I was smaller'n him when my Mama died," Vin retorted.
"Yes, but you seem to have some difficulty remaining in any one place for very long," Ezra pointed out. "As I recall, before you graced us with your presence here at the Forrest, you had been placed with no less than nine families, had you not?"
Vin flashed on some of the people he had lived with since his mother's death, and looked up at the sleeping child, his features taut. "Yeah. And I ain't letting him go to no one like I had to go to."
Ezra's voice was weary. "I do not believe that you will have much say in the matter, Vin."
"We'll see about that," Vin muttered, then leaned back against the rock. Ezra leaned back next to him, and the two sat quietly for a while before Vin broke the silence.
"You ever think--you ever think we could have something different, Ez?"
Ezra was silent for a moment. "One day, Vin. One day we'll get out of here."
"All of us?"
"Yes, all of us." His reply was quick and sure.
Vin was quiet again. "Chris and Buck'll be gone soon." His voice was soft.
Ezra nodded. "Just like Josiah."
"I wish. . ." His voice trailed off.
Ezra looked at him, then away, his face neutral. "Me too." He twirled two rocks in his hand. "Chris won't leave you, anyway. He'll think of something."
Vin looked up. "He won't leave you either, Ez."
Ezra raised his shoulder slightly, but didn't say anything. They sat in silence for a few minutes, before Ezra spoke softly. "Besides, my mother will be coming back for me." He paused. "Perhaps. . ."
Vin looked up. "What?"
"Perhaps when Mother comes back for me, she'll take you, too." Even as he said it, Ezra tried to picture his mother caring for one son, let alone two. He couldn't form the image in his head.
"Where's your Mama?" The sleep-thickened voice came from above them, and they looked up to see J.D. sitting up, the side of his face creased from laying on his arm, his hair sticking up in tufts. Vin held up his hand in invitation, and J.D. slid off the rock, sitting between the two older boys.
"She is. . .traveling."
"Is she visiting heaven, like my Mama and Vin's mama?"
Ezra shook his head. "No." His voice was sardonic. "Not enough money there."
"Oh." J.D. leaned against Vin, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "When is she coming back?"
Ezra's face was dispassionate. "Soon."
J.D. nodded, looking down. His voice was hesitant when he spoke. "Do you think--do you think my Mama will be done visiting heaven soon, too?"
The two older boys looked at each other over J.D.'s head. Vin opened his mouth, then closed it again, looking a question at Ezra, who shrugged. When Vin finally spoke, his voice was low. "Mamas don't come back from heaven, J.D."
J.D. was still looking down, his fingers digging in the dirt by the rocks. "She said she'd see me in the morning, but she didn't open her eyes." His voice was small.
Vin tentatively placed an arm around his shoulders. "You know what, J.D.?"
The younger boy looked up at him, his eyes glassy. "What?"
"I bet your Mama's standing with my Mama right now, watching us from heaven."
J.D.'s lip was trembling, and he pulled away from Vin. "But I want her to come back here."
Vin leaned back against the rock again, his voice tired. "I know, kid, but she can't."
"I want her to come back, now!"
Vin tensed at the thread of anger in the boy's voice. "She can't, J.D!"
J.D. suddenly flung the handful of dirt and rocks he was holding at the water, then turned and hit Vin as hard as he could. "You're a liar! You don't know!" He was shouting, arms flying as he continued to hit at the older boy, who after a startled moment of shock tried to grab the flailing fists of the suddenly raging child.
Ezra grabbed J.D. from behind and pulled him off of Vin. "All right, J.D., that's enough!" Ezra's voice was sharp, but his hands were gentle as he tried to hold down the wriggling boy. Frustrated, he finally pulled J.D. onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him. J.D. squirmed, trying to escape, but was no match for the older boy. Unable to get away, he finally crumpled, sobbing.
Vin sat up from where J.D. had knocked him into the dirt, his eyes angry. He moved in closer to the two others, pausing as Ezra held up his hand.
"It was not you he was angry at, Vin."
Vin nodded, his jaw tense. "I know that. It ain't him I'm mad at, either." He rested a hand tentatively on the younger boy's shoulder. J.D. looked up, then struggled against Ezra's hands, who let him slide off of his lap. J.D. immediately rolled forward toward Vin, who wrapped his arms around him and held him as he cried, patting his back tentatively.
They sat there in silence until J.D. quieted, spent, his head still buried against Vin's chest.
Vin looked at Ezra. "Guess we'd better get back."
Ezra nodded and stood. Vin gently disengaged J.D., then stood up, pulling J.D. up with him. Silently, the three boys put on their clothes, and headed for the trees that would bring them back to the Forrest.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stood in front of his locker, pulling the last of his notebooks out and loading his backpack. He was getting ready to slam the door shut when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump.
"Whoa, Nate, easy, it's just me." The jovial voice immediately calmed Nathan's rapid breathing, and he turned to glare at the dark-haired teenager standing behind him.
"Why d'you hafta sneak up on me all the time, Buck?" He made his voice curt, but couldn't disguise the hint of fear still left in it.
Buck grimaced. "Sorry, buddy, didn't mean to startle you." Even after four years, Nathan still flinched when someone came suddenly from behind. In his exuberance, Buck usually managed to forget this at least once a week.
Nathan slammed the locker door shut. "Where's Chris?"
"Making nice with the teachers." Buck grinned, then slung an arm around the younger boy's shoulders. "C'mon, let's go hurry him along."
Nathan reluctantly stepped after him. "Chris doesn't like to be hurried."
"Don't worry, we'll just give him a little nudge."
"It's your funeral," Nathan muttered, but allowed himself to be pulled down the hallway.
As they reached the end, they saw Chris step out from behind a door, shaking the hand of his history teacher. Buck rolled his eyes as they overheard Chris say, "Thank you sir. It's been a pleasure."
The older man rested a hand on Chris's shoulder. "The pleasure was mine, son. We'll miss you here. You'll be heading to college in the fall?"
Chris nodded. "Yes, sir."
"The scholarship you received will be enough to support you?"
Chris nodded his head. "As long as I hold down a decent job, I should be fine."
"Well, you be sure to keep in touch." The man left his hand resting on Chris's shoulder, then caught sight of Buck and Nathan leaning against the wall. He lifted his hand and stepped back, smiling. "Looks like your friends are waiting for you, son. Better get going."
Chris nodded. He glanced at Buck and Nathan, then gave a slight movement of his head and turned, the other two moving to follow him. The older man leaned against the door frame, watching the three walk down the hall. Hal Johnson had been teaching at the high school for over thirty years, and had taught Chris for the last three. Although the young man's quiet had been initially deceiving, it had not taken long for the teacher to pick up on his aptitude. He had been impressed with Larabee's mind; he had been more impressed with his quiet strength and obvious leadership, particularly as he learned more about the young man's living situation. Johnson had watched Chris's growth over the past three years, and wished he could watch his continued evolution into adulthood.
"What are you looking at, Hal?" Lil Jenkins, the science teacher stepped from the teacher's lounge, giving him a curious look.
He gave a faint smile, watching the three boys move away. "Strength, Lil."
She turned to follow his gaze and saw the one boy, a step ahead of the two behind him, and nodded. The two watched in silence until the boys exited the doors of the school.
Buck turned as the doors closed behind them, the finality of the clanging sounding like a trumpet. "Last time ever, bro," he said simply, turning back to Chris. Chris nodded, then turned away. He didn't believe in looking back.
The three boys headed down the steps and through the front gates of the school. Without turning, Chris, asked, "So how do you think you did, Nate?" He looked over his shoulder when there was no answer. Nathan was frowning at the ground, lagging behind the other two.
Nathan looked up. "Sorry, Chris. What'd you say?"
"I asked how you thought you did. Science today, right?"
"Oh, c'mon Chris," Buck broke in impatiently. "Finals are over, summer's here, and Nate doesn't want to think about school anymore, right?"
Chris threw Buck a look. "Unlike you, Buck, some of us actually care about our future." He turned back to Nathan. "So?"
Nathan looked up, then down again, shrugging. "Doesn't really matter, does it?" His voice was slightly bitter.
Chris looked at him sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean, what's it matter how I did?"
Buck looked at him, confused. He didn't care much about school, but he knew Nathan did. "C'mon, Nate, you're gonna need all that science stuff for when you're a doc, right?"
"Who says I'll ever be a doctor?" He sped up, his long legs carrying him past Chris and Buck. Although three years younger than the other two, Nate had had a sudden growth spurt two years earlier, leaving him several inches taller than either of them.
Chris looked a question at Buck. Buck shrugged. They had both seen Nathan's confidence vacillate in the past, but neither knew what had brought on this new surge of doubts.
"Nathan, hold on." Chris's voice was quiet, but authoritative. He frowned when Nathan kept walking. "I said hold on, dammit!" Nathan stopped, but kept his back turned. Chris and Buck quickly caught up to him, flanking him.
"All right, what's this all about?" Chris began walking again, and the other two unconsciously mimicked his pace.
Nathan was quiet for a moment. His voice was bitter when he spoke. "Doesn't matter how well I do. Doesn't matter how hard I work. You know what they see?" His voice rose slightly as he spoke, and his fists clenched.
Buck shook his head. "What, Nate?"
"They see a big black kid from the Forrest who ain't never gonna amount to anything." His jaw was clenched, his eyes angry.
Chris and Buck walked silently with him for a moment. Chris finally spoke. "Someone say something, Nate?"
Nathan nodded. "Went to see Mister Babson this morning," he said, referring to the school's guidance counselor. "I'll be a junior next year, need to start thinking about colleges. I told him I was thinking about medicine." He paused for a moment, his voice low and cold when he spoke again. "He told me I shouldn't worry so much. Told me I ought to think about basketball. After all, just look at me." He repeated the counselor's words without inflection.
Buck swore softly under his breath, and Chris's eyes blazed. "Babson's an idiot, Nate."
"He's the one that's gonna tell folks whether I'm good enough for their school or not," Nathan retorted.
Chris snorted. "Then you'll show them different. You know better than to listen to a fool like him."
Nathan looked over at the surety in Chris' eyes, and slowly nodded. He let out his air in a breath. "I know you're right, Chris. I just hate it when folks can't see nothing but 'Forrest Home'." He was quiet for a moment. "Feels like things would be different if we could just get away, you know?"
Buck nodded. "Just be us, and not the Forrest rejects?"
Nathan nodded, and sighed. "Wish it was me getting out of here, and not just the two of you."
Chris eyed him, then walked in silence for a moment. "Speaking of that, Nate, Buck and I need to go over, talk about some things with Josiah. Better if you head on back to the Home."
Nathan looked at him. "What kind of things?"
Chris's voice was quiet. "We need to make some plans, figure some things out."
Nathan folded his arms. "You mean about the rest of us."
Chris slowly nodded. "We'll meet you back there."
Chris and Buck stared in surprise. It was rare for Nathan to oppose Chris. Buck saw Chris's eyebrows start to rise, and jumped in. "C'mon, Nate, do like Chris says."
"No!" Nathan's voice was defiant. "Once you two leave, I'll be the oldest. You want to make some plans, fine, but I'm going to be a part of it."
Chris started to respond, and then stopped. He looked at Buck, who shrugged one shoulder. Chris sighed. "All right, Nate, I guess you're right. You better come on with us."
Chris turned up the side street that led to Josiah's small studio apartment. The building Josiah lived in was old and rundown, paint flaking off the walls. The railing on the narrow outside stairway was rickety, the wood rotting, and Chris had yelled at Vin and Ezra more than once for leaning against it. Buck and Nathan followed Chris up the three flights of stairs to Josiah's apartment, being careful to stay to the side away from the railing. Chris knocked on the door, and within moments it was pulled open, Josiah smiling at them.
"Come in, come in!" His smile faltered as Nathan walked by. He raised his eyebrows in question at Chris, who shrugged.
"Seemed to think that he ought to be a part of this."
Josiah clapped a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Well, seems to me he's probably right."
Nathan smiled gratefully at Josiah, who winked at him. Josiah walked over to the kitchenette area, while the other three settled themselves in Josiah's small living space. Chris pulled the chair away from the desk and turned it, straddling it. Nathan sat on a large ottoman, and Buck flopped down on the sofa, resting his feet on the battered coffee table.
"Anyone want something to drink?" Josiah asked, his hand resting on the refrigerator door handle.
"Why, sure," Buck said, grinning over at him. "Seeing as how we're celebrating today, I'll take a beer, Josiah."
"Why, sure," Josiah replied, repeating Buck's words in an exaggerated drawl and reaching into the refrigerator with a flourish. He extracted a can and tossed it over to Buck. "Anyone else?" he asked, eyes twinkling.
"Josiah!" Buck grumbled, examining the can of soda Josiah had thrown him. He looked up, starting to protest, but stopped when Josiah gave him a steady look.
"I'll have a soda, Josiah," Chris said.
Josiah looked at Nathan, who nodded. Josiah extracted three more cans of soda from the fridge, and walked into the living room area to pass them out, keeping one for himself. Buck was still staring morosely at his soda can.
"What's the good of having someone who can buy beer if they won't ever give you one?" he mumbled under his breath. "Oww!"
Chris and Nathan looked over as Buck's sentence ended in a surprised yelp. Josiah stood behind the sofa, his large hand wrapping the back of Buck's neck.
"Now, little brother, I'd say I'm good for a bit more than that, wouldn't you?" Josiah asked cheerfully.
"Ow! Dammit, Josiah, ow! Okay, fine, now let go!"
Buck yelped one more time as Josiah gave a final squeeze and then released Buck's neck, smiling. He settled himself in the ratty but much-loved recliner he had purchased for five dollars at a garage sale. Buck scowled at him, rubbing the back of his neck. Josiah grinned back, then folded his arms, looking at Chris.
Chris took a deep breath, then looked at each of them, one by one, holding their eyes. Each looked back at them, their expressions alert.
"All right, guys. It's time for us to finalize this plan."