A New Promise

by Grey

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Vin led J.D. on a barely visible path through the woods sprinkling the grounds of the Forrest Home. He tried to curb his impatience as J.D. knelt for what had to be the hundredth time, to examine something on the ground.

"Look, Vin," J.D. crowed, holding something up in the air.

Vin looked at J.D.'s prize and sighed. "Yeah, J.D., it's an acorn. C'mon, you heard Chris, we're gonna be late."

"An a-corn," J.D. said thoughtfully, ignoring the second half of Vin's sentence. "Why do they call it corn, Vin? It don't look anything like corn. Can you eat it, do you think?" He started to put the acorn to his mouth to test it. Vin quickly reached down and stopped him.

"Not corn, acorn. Don't'cha know what an acorn is?"

J.D. shook his head.

"Well, it's a baby oak tree."

J.D. scoffed. "No, it's not. It don't look anything like a tree, either."

"It ain't a tree, it's what a tree comes out of."

J.D. looked suspiciously at the small object in his hand. "A tree comes out of this?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah, just like an egg turns into a chicken."

"Or a belly turns into a baby," J.D. said, understanding.

"Well--sort of."

"A great big tree comes out of this little baby thing?" J.D. said, wonderingly. "If I keep it, will a tree grow in my pocket?"

Vin grinned. "Maybe. Now come on."

J.D. allowed himself to be tugged along after Vin. "Will a tree really grow in my pocket?"

"Nah. You got to put it in some dirt."

J.D. nodded thoughtfully, and waited until Vin turned around before crouching down to pick up a handful of dirt. He patted it carefully into his pocket before following Vin.

The path emerged by the main road. Vin snorted quietly as he saw Ezra sitting alone on a stump, looking bored. He grinned at J.D. and held his finger up to his mouth. J.D. nodded, waiting quietly as Vin crept slowly up behind Ezra, who sat facing the road, and lowered himself into a crouching position.

"I would suggest you desist immediately."

The words were silky, and the head didn't turn.

Vin froze in mid-leap, and then straightened. "Damn, Ez, how'd you hear me?"

The Southerner slowly turned to face him, favoring him with a condescending look. "Well," he drawled, "it would appear that your skills have--shall we say, deteriorated?"

Vin scoffed. "More like you finally got some."

Ezra gave an unexpected smile. "Thanks."

Vin grinned back. "Whatever."

"Can I stop being quiet now?" J.D.'s voice was plaintive as he whispered loudly from his spot by the trees.

Vin drew a breath to reply, but Ezra interrupted. "Perhaps you should consider your response." Vin laughed, but turned to the younger boy.

"Yeah, come on, J.D." He looked at Ezra. "Where is everyone, anyway?"

Ezra shrugged. "It appears that I am the only one to arrive at the appointed hour. You," he said pointedly, looking down his nose at Vin, "were two minutes late."

They turned as they heard a crackling sound, and watched Nathan hurry out of the trees. He paused as he caught sight of them. "Thought I was late."

"You are," Ezra responded acerbically.

"Yeah, but I'm not the latest, so it doesn't really matter, does it."

Ezra rolled his eyes, but turned away so Nathan wouldn't see him do it. He paused in mid-roll as he picked up the sound of a steady rattle, a small smile growing on his face.

"Josiah's coming," Nathan said, confirming it.

Within moments the large white van owned by the church came chugging around the bend, and Josiah pulled the van over to the side of the road. He turned off the engine and stepped out of the van, smiling as he caught sight of the youngest members of his family, whom he hadn't seen since the previous Saturday.

"Hey, trouble," he said, cuffing Ezra lightly on the side of the head. "You're here early today."

Ezra reached a hand up to straighten his hair, and gave Josiah a dirty look. "Why must everyone insist that I'm the one who will be late?"

Josiah frowned at him, but his eyes twinkled. "How was school this week? You give your teacher a hard time?" Josiah caught the quick look that flashed between Ezra and Vin, but chose to ignore it as Ezra shook his head.

"Good man." He clamped Ezra on the shoulder, and then turned to Vin, smiling. "So--I heard you went and found someone even smaller than you, huh?"

Vin grinned at him. "'Bout time, huh, Josiah?"

"Guess so, kid. You gonna introduce me?"

Vin looked over at J.D., who was looking up at Josiah, wide-eyed. "Josiah, this is J.D., J.D., this is Josiah."

Josiah crouched down until he was close to eye level with the little boy. "Hi, J.D."

J.D. studied him thoughtfully. Josiah waited patiently. J.D. finally smiled, then held out a fist. "This has a whole tree inside of it." He unwrapped his grubby fingers to reveal the acorn.

Josiah smiled at him. "Just one of God's little miracles, isn't it?"

J.D. gave him a sober look. "My Mama went to heaven to visit God."

Josiah nodded gravely. "I heard about that, J.D."

J.D. pointed. "Is that your van?"

"Nope. It's the church's. But they let me use it."

"Are we gonna ride in it?"


"Can I sit in the front seat?"

"Nope." Josiah stood, stretching. "Where are Buck and Chris?"

Vin shrugged.

"I saw them heading to the piles after breakfast," Nathan offered. "But Chris said to be here by now."

"Well, I'm sure they're on their way. Let's get loaded up, before someone sees you guys." He turned and slid the rear door open. "Everyone in."

Vin turned toward the van. "Come on, J.D., we get the back." J.D. turned to follow, and had just climbed into the van when Buck and Chris hurried out of the trees, Chris looking annoyed.

"I believe we were clear on the time to meet, were we not?" Ezra drawled, peering at Chris. Chris narrowed his eyes at him and made a sudden move, and Ezra darted under Josiah's arm and into the safety of the van. Chris's lip twitched upward into a half smile.

"Running late today, brothers?" Josiah asked, looking at the latecomers.

Chris looked pointedly at Buck, before turning and climbed into the shotgun seat. Josiah lifted his eyebrows at Buck, who shrugged.

"Hey, you never know who you're gonna run into. Guy's gotta look his best."

Josiah snorted and jerked his head. "In." He waited until Buck climbed in, and then walked around to the driver's side door, entering the van and turning the ignition key.

"Where're we going?"

Josiah checked the rearview mirror, and spied J.D. perched on his knees in the second seat. "He wearing his seatbelt?"

He watched in the mirror as Ezra and Vin, who sat on either side of J.D., quickly pushed him down and wrapped the seatbelt around him.

"Yup," Vin replied.

"What about you two?"

He heard two clicks.

"You needn't ask, you know," Ezra said loftily.

"Hmphh," Josiah grunted, as he pulled the van out onto the road.

"So where're we going?" J.D. repeated, undeterred by the flurry of activity that had taken place around him.

"Thought we might head on out to the farm, check on the horses, and then take some food up to Misty Hill and have a picnic."

Josiah had done some volunteer work the previous summer, renovating the sagging barn and fences of an aging member of the church. The owner had been welcoming of Josiah's makeshift family, and the others had become regular visitors of Mr. Branson and his also-aging pair of sorrel mares.

"Horses? Can I ride them?" J.D. asked hopefully.

The others laughed, and J.D.'s face began to settle in a mutinous look. Before he could voice his indignation, Josiah explained, "Mr. Johnson's horses are in their twilight years, J.D., and a mite particular. They don't take too kindly to riders any more."

"What's 'twilight years'?"

"It means they're old," Buck said with a grin. "Ready for the glue factory."

"Buck!" Vin protested.

J.D. looked puzzled. "Why would they go to a glue factory?"

"Buck, shut up," Chris ordered from the front seat, before Buck could reply. "J.D., you can't ride'em because they're too old, that's all."

"But you can feed'em," Vin said softly. "They'll take carrots right outta your hand."

"Neat." J.D. leaned back, satisfied. "When're we gonna get there?"

"When we get there," Josiah, Chris, and Buck replied simultaneously, and then laughed.

"Another one asking," Buck muttered, shaking his head, and Josiah nodded, smiling. Chris just sighed. There were too many of them, as it was. How could they ever pull this off with seven?

+ + + + + + +

"No way!" Vin's voice was outraged. "No way Cyclops was cooler than Wolverine."

"As always, you reveal your lack of. . .couth." Ezra gave him a disdainful look.

Vin shook his head. "You're nuts, Ez. Wolverine is way better than stupid Cyclops."

Ezra sighed. "Let us consider. Laser vision, a fantastic car, and a very cool pair of shades, versus facial hair, an apelike visage, and metal claws." He paused. "Yes, I can see where this would present a conundrum."

Vin responded by leaning over J.D. and punching Ezra in the arm. Ezra immediately leaned over J.D. and punched Vin back. A scuffling match would have ensued if Buck hadn't spoken up.

"You're both nuts," Buck said, settling the argument. "None of the X-geeks hold a candle to Batman."

"Batman," Vin and Ezra shouted, pausing in mid-shove.

"Batman can't do anything," Vin protested.

"No laser vision, no super-strength, no powers," Ezra added. "He is completely without distinguishing features."

"Exactly," Buck said. "That's why he's so cool. He's just a regular guy who became a superhero. How do you top that?"

Ezra shrugged. "I'd bet Cyclops could beat him up."

Josiah laughed from the front seat. "Well, now, Buck, he does have a point."

"What about you, Chris?" Vin asked. "Who do you think's the best superhero?"

"Are we really having this conversation?"

"Oh, c'mon, Chris, you know you've got one," Buck prodded.

"Fine. Blackbolt."

Buck wrinkled his nose. "Isn't that the guy who can't say anything?"

Chris snorted. "He can talk, Buck. He just knows how to keep his mouth shut when he needs to." He turned and gave Buck a withering look. "Something you might want to consider every now and then."

Buck kicked the back of Chris's chair. Chris did that jaw-twitch thing of his, and turned back around.

"Nate?" Vin continued with his poll.

Nathan turned from the window he had been looking out of. "Clark Kent, I guess."

Vin's brow wrinkled. "You mean Superman, right?"

Nathan shook his head. "Nope. Clark Kent."

Vin thought about it for a moment, and then smiled. "Okay. Josiah?"

"Well," Josiah said, considering it. "I don't know that he's a superhero, but I've been real partial lately to a character named The Preacher."

Buck snorted. "Figures."

"Shut up, Buck," Josiah advised.

"Who's the Preacher?" Nathan asked.

"Well, the Preacher is an ordinary man who becomes entwined in that old battle between good and evil. He inherits the power born of the mating of an angel and a demon, and is none too pleased. Wrestles with God, the devil, and just about everyone in between."

"Yeah, that sounds cool," Buck said sarcastically.

"He hangs out with a vampire and a mighty fine woman, too," Josiah added.

Buck grinned. "Better."

"What about you, J.D.?"

J.D. thought about it. "Scooby Doo."

There was suppressed laughter in the van.

"You can't pick Scooby Doo," Vin objected.

J.D. jutted his lip out. "Can, too."

"But that's stupid."

"Vin." Chris spoke from the front seat.

"What?" Vin looked up at Chris and read his expression. He flushed and looked back down.

"Why Scooby Doo?" Buck asked, curious.

"Welllll," said J.D., as if the answer was obvious. "Cause he's big and furry and has friends and goes on adventures. And he beats the bad guys, but he isn't mean. And he gets to eat Scooby Snacks whenever he wants."

"Well," Josiah said from the front seat, after a thoughtful silence. "That about sums it up."

J.D. played with his fingers. "So when are we going to get there?"

"When we get there."

+ + + + + + +

They arrived at the Branson farm a little less than an hour after leaving the Forrest Home, and just in time to stop Buck from following through on his threat to gag J.D. if he asked one more question. On arrival, J.D. had been drawn like a magnet toward the small barn, and Vin and Ezra followed quickly after him. The others stopped to greet Mr. Branson, who sat on the front porch watching a small portable television.

"Little'un's new, ain't he?" Branson asked, eyes not leaving the set.

"Yes, sir," Josiah replied.

"Found another one, did you?"

Josiah smiled. "Guess so, sir."

"Y'all are gonna need a new van, if you plan on keeping this up," the older man remarked, turning from the set to face the boys.

Josiah shrugged a shoulder. "Well, sir, we don't exactly plan it. Just seems to happen."

Branson harrumphed and turned back to his show. "See that he doesn't try to ride them."

"Yes, sir."

On their way into the barn, Josiah stopped at the van to grab a bag of carrots he had brought with him. They entered to find J.D. talking delightedly to Lady, one of Branson's mares, who was leaning her nose down to sniff him over the stall door.

"And I can't ride you, 'cause 'siah says you're twilight, and that means old, but you don't have to use any glue if you don't want to, even if the mean boy said so. And we can be friends, and you can go on adventures with me, okay?"

The mare appeared to listen patiently, her nostrils blowing hot air down on J.D.'s forehead.

"Hey, squirt, who're you calling mean?" Buck asked, walking up behind J.D.

J.D. turned around and broke into a delighted smile. "Now we can go in, right, Vin?"

Vin nodded from where he sat perched on the gate of an empty stall. "Told him he couldn't go in the stall till you guys got here," Vin explained to the newcomers.

To Buck's surprise, J.D. grabbed at his hand and looked up at him expectantly. "This is Lady, and she's a girl, and that's her friend Gracie, and she's a girl, too."

"Yeah, kid, I know, we've met," Buck said, looking down at the small boy attached to his arm.

J.D. contined on, ignoring him. "And Vin said we could go in and pet'em when you got here, so can we?"

Buck threw Chris a helpless look. Chris shot him a grin and gave him a mock salute. "Have fun, bro."

"Thanks," Buck muttered. He looked down at J.D. and couldn't help the grin that broke out in response to the look of excitement on the little boy's face. "All right, short stuff, let's go pet the horses."

The boys spent an hour with the horses, grooming them and cleaning their stalls. Vin showed J.D. how to flatten his palm to feed the horses. On his first attempt, J.D. was wary. His fears were immediately laid to rest, however, when Lady delicately removed the carrot from J.D.'s outstretched hand, causing J.D. to go into paroxysms of ecstasy. He established himself in Lady's stall, brushing her hindquarters contentedly from a perch on Buck's shoulders. It was only with the combined persuasion of Vin and Buck that J.D. agreed to leave the barn when Chris decreed it was time to head to Misty Hill.

They arrived at the grassy hilltop by noon, and consumed the sandwiches, fruit, and cookies that Josiah had packed. The younger boys soon tired of sitting still, and began kicking at a soccer ball. The older boys relaxed in the sun, but were soon drawn into the pickup game. Few people knew of this spot, tucked on the far side of a hill overlooking a back road, and for the afternoon the boys felt as if they owned this small piece of the world.

The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky when Chris called the others in. They gathered in the shade of a tall oak set midway up the gentle slope. Chris leaned against the tree, and waited as the others settled in, his glance falling on each of them and finally resting on Vin before he spoke.

"It's time for us to talk about what we're going to do."

Vin eyes flew up, and he caught Chris's eyes. He held his gaze for a moment, and then bit his lip and looked away. His eyes fell on J.D. "Shouldn't we wake him up?" he asked, motioning toward him.

Chris looked over at the small dark-haired boy curled up on the grass, his head resting on his arm where he had fallen asleep an hour earlier. He shook his head. "No, Vin, let him sleep for now. We need to talk, and he's too little to understand all of this."

Vin thought about protesting, but knew that determined look on Chris's face. Instead, he nodded mutely, and waited for Chris to continue.

Chris looked around and made sure everyone was paying attention. When he was satisfied, he began. "In two months, I age out of the Home. Buck ages out in three. We both applied for early leave, to get set up for next year. We heard back this week. In three weeks, we both leave the Home for good."

The older four knew where this conversation was headed, but the youngest didn't. As Chris spoke without inflection, Vin felt himself grow cold. Ezra felt a rock begin spinning in the center of his stomach. Both were so caught up with keeping their insides from shattering that they almost missed his next words.

"We're all going to go together."

Chris paused, and the words seeped into the consciousness of the two boys huddled on the ground with knees pulled to their chests. Vin searched Chris's eyes, and finally nodded, letting out a little of the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. Ezra, too, sat looking at Chris, who turned and looked back at him after reassuring himself that Vin had heard. Ezra's mouth opened a little and then closed. He seemed to be trying to steel himself to speak. Chris waited as long as his patience would tolerate, before raising an eyebrow.


Ezra took a deep breath. When he spoke, his face was impassive, but his voice was small, and he looked at the dirt, not at Chris. "All of us?"

Chris let out a breath. "Yes, you idiot, all of us. You think I'd leave you guys behind?" The irritation in his voice was belied by the concern in his eyes as he looked at the skinny Southerner, whose face had flushed slightly at the question. Chris knew from the flash of expression that appeared before Ezra could replace it with his usual mask that, yes, he had assumed he would be left behind. Chris felt, not for the first time, a wave of anger toward the woman who had done just that to her son so many times.

He could see Ezra reading the anger and withdrawing inward. He tried to soften his voice, erasing the spark of annoyance that Ezra could draw out of him so easily. "We're all going, unless one of you doesn't want to."

Vin shook his head quickly, and Ezra repeated the motion a fraction of a second behind.

Chris gave them a half-smile. "Good."

"But--how?" Ezra voiced the question that Vin wouldn't have.

"We've talked this through." Chris paused and looked at Buck, and then Josiah, who nodded for him to continue. "We're going to do this right."

He leaned back against the tree trunk, gathering the words he wanted to use to explain it to them. They sat, his brothers, gathered around him and waiting for him to speak. He could see Josiah's patience in his relaxed posture and Buck's nervous excitement in the tension of his shoulders. He saw Nathan's need to prove himself in the eager way he sat forward. He could see Ezra's defense in the casual sprawling that was belied by the tautness of the fists he dug in the grass, and he saw Vin's trust in the depths of his eyes. Just beyond their circle, he could see the vulnerability in the small child, sleeping on their fringes. He felt the weight of the circle, and the power of it. He nodded, and repeated himself.

"We're going to do this right. We're not running away. We're leaving." He let his eyes rest on Vin. "We're going to be smart about this. You guys are going to need to finish school. We can't do this if we have to hide from people for the next seven years."

"If it would help, I would agree to forego my educational experience," Ezra offered, breaking in.

"Me, too," Vin agreed quickly.

Chris gave them both a look. "Not an option," he said shortly. "If we leave here, we do it to make something better for ourselves. And that means we need a home."

He almost stumbled over the word. It had been six years since he'd used it, meaning it. He caught himself, and continued. "The first thing we need to do is get away. And we can't leave all together."

"Why not?" Vin asked, a shadow passing over his eyes.

"They need to think what we want them to think, Vin," Chris explained. "Buck and I are out of here, no strings attached, in three weeks. Josiah's free to leave, any time he wants to. Our leaving won't make a stir. That's how we want it."

"But what about us?" Vin asked softly.

Chris leaned forward, reassuring him with his eyes. "Well, Nathan's got that course this summer. Leaves in a couple weeks." Vin nodded. Nathan had been given a full scholarship to spend a month at an intensive college prep course geared toward incoming high school juniors. The scholarship included room and board in the school dormitory.

"So?" Ezra asked.

Nathan smiled suddenly. "Well, I'll be getting on the train, just like I'm supposed to. Only who's to know when I get off?"

"And I'm sure those guys'll be crushed when they get the phone call letting them know Nathan'll be unable to attend this summer due to a sudden illness," Buck added with a grin.

"It'll be a month before anyone even realizes he's missing," Chris finished.

"And us?" The question was repeated, Vin and Era both looking at him expectantly. Chris considered them for a moment before responding.

"Well--you both have a reputation for running off. Let's say, a coupla weeks from now, the two of you were to take off in the middle of the night, well--" He grinned at them. "Shame how kids these days don't appreciate it when they've got it good."

"So we just leave?" Vin asked.

Chris cocked an eyebrow. "You've done it before, Vin. You know what happens when a kid runs?" Vin shook his head. "Hendricks'll report it to the Department and to the police. Cops'll stick your picture up on their board, next to the thirty other kids whose pictures are already there. For a few weeks, they'll remember your face, and then they'll forget it." He paused, looking at the younger boy. "You know why kids usually get busted?"

Vin shrugged slightly. "Cause they get caught doing something?"

Chris nodded. "They get caught doing something. They steal food because they're hungry, or they show up late at night where they shouldn't be, or they make trouble. We're not going to do any of that."

"But why can't we just leave all together?" Vin persisted.

"Because if you two run off, it's just two more kids leaving. If they don't notice Nathan's gone till a month later, there's nothing to connect you leaving to him. You're all just runaways. But if they think the three of you are with the three of us--" he paused.

"Then, what?"

Josiah answered. "Then it's kidnapping, Vin."

Vin nodded slowly. "And half the world's after us."

Chris smiled at him. "Exactly. Plus, the three of us need to be able to work, and it'll help if we're not being looked for."

Vin sat up, a sudden thought occurring to him. "Four of us."

Chris looked at him, puzzled. "What?"

"You said, the three of us with the three of you. What about J.D.?"

Chris steeled himself. "J.D. won't be coming with us, Vin."

"What?!" Vin's outraged voice was loud enough to cause the sleeping boy behind him to stir. Chris saw the movement and hastily shushed Vin, but it was too late; the younger boy was sitting up, fists rubbing at his eyes. His hand moved to his hair and tugged a lock of it toward his mouth, where he sucked on it and released it. His eyes slowly registered the circle of boys sitting in front of him, and he scooted forward toward Buck, who sat nearest him. Leaning into the older boy's arm, J.D. rubbed at his eyes one more time and then looked around the circle.

"Whatcha doing?"

Without thinking, Buck adjusted his arm so that it wrapped around the little boy, who promptly nestled into him. J.D. could feel Buck's chest rise and fall with his breath, and reached up a finger to trace a pattern on Buck's t-shirt.

"Whatcha doing?" he repeated.

"Nothing, short stuff, just talking."

"Chris was just about to answer me," Vin said, his voice trembling a little.

Chris shot him a look that told him this wasn't the time. Vin ignored him. "So? Why not?"


"How come, Chris?"

"Because he can't," Chris snapped, exasperated.

Vin stared at him, shutters falling over his eyes. "That answer sucks."

Chris's eyes widened, and he felt himself moving toward Vin before he could stop himself, stopping in a crouch inches away from the younger boy. "What did you say?"

"I said, that answer sucks!" Vin bit out at him. " 'Because' ain't an answer."

"Because he's too small, Vin." Chris's voice was tight, and rose as he responded. "Because he'll get placed soon. Because he'll slow us down. Because they'll look for him a hell of a lot more quickly than they will any of the rest of us, and we can't risk it. Is that enough of an answer for you?" His voice was almost in a shout by the time he finished.

The others held their breath. They all knew Chris was dangerous when pushed; he just never showed that side with them. Especially with Vin. Vin stared at him unwaveringly, though, and slowly shook his head. "I think your answer still sucks."

Chris drew in a sharp breath, but was stopped from responding by the small boy who wriggled away from Buck and hurled himself by Vin's side, clutching at his arm and looking at Chris with big eyes, his forehead wrinkled.

"You both said bad words," he said, his voice quavering slightly. "And you're being mean to each other, and you should stop it."

"From the mouths of babes," Josiah said quietly, and Chris found himself feeling slightly ashamed.

"You know, Chris, him going ain't really going to make all that much of a difference," Buck said thoughtfully.

Chris shot Buck a frustrated look. "You, too?"

"Well, I don't see as how it matters whether two of them run off or three, we're gonna get far enough away from here no one'll recognize us."

"And seven is a lucky number," Josiah added.

"Don't seem right to just leave him here, all alone," Nathan said softly.

J.D. had been listening, wide-eyed. He didn't fully understand the conversation, but he understood being left. He leaned into Vin and began sucking on a piece of hair. "R'you leaving me?" he asked quietly, plucking at the cloth of Vin's t-shirt.

Vin shook his head fiercely, his eyes on Chris as he answered. "Nope. I'm not."

Chris looked at the determination in Vin's eyes, and then looked to the others. They all stared impassively back, quite a few arms folded. Vin knew the moment Chris crumbled, and began to smile even before Chris spoke, his voice tired.

"All right, Vin. You win." He took a deep breath. "We all go together."

Vin grinned down at J.D. "You want to come with us, kid?"

"Yup," J.D. responded immediately, and then wrinkled his nose. "Where're we going?"

Vin gave him a quick squeeze, tickling him a little. "Home."

The word sent the same shiver up Chris's spine that it had the first time, when he had spoken it. He looked around the circle at the others, and felt the uncertainty of what they were going to be doing sinking into him. If it had been just him. . .but it wasn't. For a brief, nearly indiscernable moment, he felt himself changing his mind. It was so quick he barely felt it, but the others must have sensed it, because they pulled in more tightly together.

Josiah stood first, and held his hand out, palm down. "Brothers."

Chris's jaw clenched, and he stood and continued the coda they had repeated many times. He laid his hand on top of Josiah's. "Better than blood."

The others stood one by one, completing their private ritual.

"To the ends of the earth, bro." Buck rested his hand on Chris's, draping his other arm around Chris's shoulder.

Vin stood and reached in. "Backs in a circle." He slipped his hand on top.

"Stronger together." Nathan stepped in.

Ezra smiled, and waved his hand in a dramatic flourish. "And all sorts of rubbish like that," he finished, his hands crowning the pile.

They looked at each other seriously for a moment, all thinking about what they were agreeing to do, before a final voice broke in.

"Me, too?"

J.D. pushed his way between Buck and Vin. The others laughed, the tension broken.

"A new line," Chris said drily.

Buck reached down and hooked the younger boy around the waist, throwing him over his shoulder and tickling him before setting him back down. "Yeah, kid, you too."

"Good." J.D. squirmed away and stood back, looking up at the others. "When're we going home?"

Chris rested his elbow on Vin's shoulder. "Real soon, J.D."

J.D. considered him, his hands on his hips. "You promise?"

Chris looked around, at the faces of his brothers, and nodded slowly. "Yeah, kid. I promise."

~The End~

Continues in Transitions