To the others' astonishment, Vin and Ezra followed all of the rules for the next few days. Vin even managed to convince J.D. to wear a new outfit. When J.D. had argued with him, Vin had done his best imitation of Chris, folding his arms and ordering the younger boy to choose a different pair of pants.
"But these are my best shorts," J.D. had protested, sitting on his bed and clutching the stained clothing to his chest.
Vin had plucked the shorts away from J.D. and given him his best Larabee glare. "I don't wanna hear it, J.D. You got ten seconds to pick a pair of pants, or I'm picking'em for you."
Much to his surprise, J.D. had acquiesced, albeit ungracefully, grabbing a pair of denim overalls and glaring at Vin. Vin's feelings had been slightly hurt when he tried to help J.D. fasten them and J.D. pushed him away, seeking Buck's help with the final button when they went down to breakfast that morning. J.D. had gotten over it pretty quickly, though, and Chris's whispered, 'Good job' had soothed any lasting doubts Vin had about forcing the issue.
Thursday arrived quicker than any of them expected. Their last breakfast together in the Forrest Home started out quiet. Nathan picked at his food, and Chris and Buck sat on either side of him, all but ignoring the others at the table.
"You clear on the plan, Nate?" Chris finally asked quietly.
Nathan looked up briefly. "Yeah."
"And you know what to do once you're on the train?" Buck pressed.
Nathan sighed. "Yes, Buck."
"If Josiah's running late, you just stay put and wait for him, okay?"
"I know, Chris."
"Not that he'll be late, but there could be traffic."
"Maybe you should pack some food or something, just in case," Buck said worriedly.
"That's not a bad idea," Chris agreed. "Why don't you pack a sandwich or something?"
Nathan exhaled in exasperation. "Look. I'll be fine, okay?"
Chris and Buck looked at each other. "You've got some money?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, you should take some money," Buck agreed.
"Just in case," Chris said, reaching toward his back pocket.
"Guys!" Nathan slammed his fist on the table, and Chris paused in mid-reach for his wallet. "Everything's gonna be fine, okay? I get on the train, I get off the train, I wait for Josiah. I've got it covered, all right?"
"Okay, okay, you don't need to get all heated up," Buck muttered, holding up his hands in mock defense.
"If you're passing out money, I'll take some," Ezra offered from across the table. Chris threw him a look, and Ezra shrugged. "Well, if you're offering."
"Why's everyone mad?" J.D. asked.
Nathan smiled briefly at him. "No one's mad, J.D. Chris and Buck are just playing Mama Bear. They're about done now, right, guys?" He gave a pointed look to each of the two boys flanking him.
Chris gave him a steady look back, but finally nodded. "Yeah. We're done."
"I saw a bear at the zoo," J.D. offered. "He was big'n brown and had claws and went, GRRRRRR." J.D. lifted his fingers into claws and growled at Vin, who nudged him away.
"Cut it out, J.D."
J.D. growled back at him, lifting his 'claws' menacingly and waving them in Vin's face. Vin shoved him again, a little harder this time. "I said, cut it out!"
J.D. dropped his hands and pulled away. "Everyone's mad," he mumbled, looking down and playing with his fingers.
"Vin!" Chris's voice was sharp.
"You know what."
"Do not," Vin muttered.
"Tell J.D. you're sorry for pushing him."
"But he growled at me," Vin protested. Chris gave him a look. "But I told him to cut it out!" His voice was a little more outraged.
"You don't push, Vin, you use your words. Now tell him you're sorry."
Vin glared and folded his arms. Chris folded his arms, and held Vin's gaze. Finally, Vin lowered his eyes. "Fine," he muttered. "I'm sorry." His apology was half-hearted, but Chris let it rest, turning to J.D.
"And no growling at the table."
J.D. wrinkled his nose. "Can I growl outside?" he asked, wanting to get the rules straight.
Chris rolled his eyes a little. "Yeah, you can growl outside."
"What about in the van?"
"What about "
"J.D.! No more questions."
J.D. frowned at him. "Mama says if you don't ask questions, you won't learn nothing."
"If you don't ask questions, you won't learn anything."
J.D. nodded. "Yup, that's what Mama says."
Chris sighed, exasperated, and ignored the chuckles escaping the others at the table. "J.D., just eat your breakfast, okay?"
J.D. picked up his toast, but paused with it mid-way to his mouth. "Is Nathan going on a train?"
The expressions of the others turned serious again, and they turned to look at the fifteen-year-old. "Yeah, J.D., I'm going on a train," Nathan replied, pushing away his tray.
"Can I come?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet, J.D."
"But Vin said we was all gonna be together," J.D. said, frowning. "Why don't I getta go on a train?"
Nathan looked at Chris for help. Chris looked at Buck, who shrugged his shoulders. They had kept most of the details of their plan away from J.D., not sure how much of a secret the seven-year-old could handle. To the older boys' surprise, it was Vin who responded.
"We'll see Nate again soon, J.D." Vin's voice was firm. "Now eat your breakfast and quit asking questions."
J.D. bit his lip, but Vin held his gaze, and J.D. finally nodded. "Okay."
Nathan looked down at the table. "Guess I'd better get going." His voice was quiet, and he felt the bravado from earlier leaving him. Chris and Buck felt it too, and leaned in closer. Buck draped his arm around the shoulders of the younger boy.
"We'll see you in a few days," Buck said softly. Nathan nodded, and Chris gripped a hand on his shoulder. Nathan took a deep breath and stood, pulling away.
"I'll see you guys in a few days." He held out his hand formally, and Chris gave him a half-smile and then took it, squeezing. Nathan turned to Buck, who stood and ignored his hand, grabbing him into a quick one-armed hug.
"You take care of yourself, bro," he whispered fiercely.
Nathan nodded. "I will, Buck. Don't worry, okay?"
Buck pulled away. "Hey, don't tell me what to do, kid." He plastered a fierce scowl on his face before breaking into a grin. He gave the side of Nathan's head a little push, and then stepped back.
Nathan gave him a shaky smile in return, and then turned toward the younger boys.
"You guys stay out of trouble, okay?" He walked around the table and bent down a little, resting a hand on Vin and Ezra's shoulders. Ezra tolerated the contact for just a moment before pulling away, but Vin surprised Nathan by turning and giving him a quick fierce hug. Finally, Nathan turned to the youngest member of his makeshift family, whose lip was starting to tremble as he watched the goodbyes. Nathan crouched down next to his chair, knowing the little boy didn't really understand what was happening.
"I want you to be good the next few days, okay, J.D.?"
"You do what your brothers tell you, all right?"
J.D. nodded again. Nathan held out a hand in invitation, and J.D. wrapped his arms around Nathan's neck. "We'll all be together, real soon, J.D.," Nathan whispered, before pulling away.
J.D. tilted his head and looked at him. "Promise?"
Nathan held out a hand. "I promise."
J.D. shook hands with him solemnly, and then leaned against Vin, who reached an arm around the younger boy and pulled him in, as much to get comfort as to give it.
"Come on," Chris said, picking up Nathan's backpack and moving around the table. "I'll walk you to the office."
Nathan nodded, and picked up his duffel bag. He followed Chris toward the door, turning back one last time.
Chris watched him, knowing Nathan was memorizing the scene in his head. "See anything you're going to miss?"
Nathan shook his head slowly as he turned around. "Guess I'm taking all I would miss with me."
Chris smiled, resting a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Then let's get you out of here."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan pressed his forehead against the glass windowpane, watching other people's lives flash by. The houses blurred into a flickering slide-show, and when he closed his eyes he could still see them. Their outlines, really, because no form took full shape. Just a blurring, shimmering, shadow of place. It had been like that when he tried to imagine their home, these last few days. A few lines, the peak of a roof, but he couldn't make out form, couldn't tease his brain into giving him the picture of their future together. The closest he had come was a structure reminiscent of the one in which he had grown up, and he had pushed that one away, feeling as if he was betraying the memory of his parents.
He had pushed that thought away, too.
Nathan didn't let himself think of his parents much, anymore. He would have, maybe, if he could picture them from before. If he could hold on to the picture of his mother laughing, hold on to the picture of his father's pride as he watched her walk, watched her cook, watched her anything, so long as he could see her. If he could feel the glow he had felt when that pride was turned toward him.
But whenever he thought of them, their faces melted into the expressions they were wearing those last moments he had seen them, in the violent aftermath of the attack, the pain etched forever into his mother's face and the rage and fear frozen in the eyes of his father.
No, he didn't let himself think of them much, anymore.
Nathan wondered sometimes, though, what they would have thought of his new family. What they would have thought of him. What they would have said, now, about his decision to leave the Home. His dad had always been a stickler for following the rules, but Nathan thought he would have approved, somehow. The thought gave Nathan strength, and he stood resolutely as the train slowed, approaching the station.
Nathan had followed the plan precisely when the staff member had left him at the train station. He had boarded at the most crowded section of the platform, and had selected a seat in a far corner of the car. At each of the next three stops, he had switched cars, joining in the shuffling of other passengers, never staying in one area long enough for anyone to get to used to his face, but not moving enough to attract suspicion, either. Now he joined the harried group of people clutching at their belongings and moving toward the door. When he had risen from his seat, he had unobtrusively pulled his ticket from the back, the way Chris had told him to. That way, Chris had explained, the conductor wouldn't think it odd that the seat had emptied two hundred miles closer than its passenger had paid to ride.
Nathan moved through the terminal. It was a crowded one, chosen by Josiah and Chris for exactly that reason. Because the train was a local, the stop was far enough away from the Home to ensure that no one would recognize him, but close enough for Josiah to get to in the van. Nathan pushed through the hurrying passengers, all looking as if they had somewhere more important to be, and began to feel claustrophobic. He hated having people behind him, and found his eyes darting nervously back and forth before he silently ordered himself to calm down and forced himself to take a deep breath. He felt a momentary stab of panic when he stepped outside and couldn't see the white van anywhere, but relaxed as he heard the familiar voice come from behind.
"So, little brother," Josiah said, pushing himself off of the wall he had been leaning against. "Looks like the great getaway has started." He reached out and took the larger of the two bags out of Nathan's hand, slinging it over his own shoulder, and draped his other arm across Nathan's back.
Nathan smiled at him, feeling the tension ease from his body. "Guess we'd better make a phone call, huh?"
Josiah grinned. "Already taken care of." He led the way toward the parking lot abutting the station. "By the way--the folks at that program send their sympathies. They sure were sorry to hear you'd be spending the summer with your poor ailing aunt. A real loss to the course, they said, top student like you." Josiah turned and cocked an eyebrow at Nathan. "But don't you be getting a swelled head, hear?"
Nathan grinned back. "They believed you?"
Josiah nodded. "Yup, they did."
"Good." Nathan was silent as he followed Josiah the rest of the way to the van. He didn't speak again until they were in and driving away. Nathan watched the train station recede in the sideview mirror, before turning to Josiah. "So where do we go now?"
"Well" Josiah tried to keep the smile off of his face, knowing what the reaction would be. "Now we go get to know mother earth a little better."
Nathan turned slowly to face him. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Right out there with nature, trees and all."
"Camping," Nathan muttered disgustedly, turning back to face the dashboard, ignoring the amusement on Josiah's face.
"It's not so bad, Nate," Josiah said, grinning. "Just wait till the other three join us." He burst out laughing at the outraged expression on Nathan's face, as he realized he'd soon be trapped in a tent with the youngest members of his family. "Don't worry, kid," he finally counseled, when he got himself under control again. "I'm sure you're gonna survive."
"One of us will, at least," Nathan muttered, leaning back into his seat in resignation. "And I wouldn't take bets on it being Ezra."
+ + + + + + +
The rest of Thursday was excruciating to the boys remaining at the Forrest Home. Buck and Chris jumped every time a staff member came near them, holding their breaths until the adult had walked safely past. Vin was even more quiet than usual, with a moodiness he couldn't shake, and Ezra fought the churning in his stomach the way his mother had taught him, with all the feigned indifference he could muster. By the end of the day, Vin and Ezra had stopped speaking to each other. Neither Chris nor Buck could hold on to even a shred of the patience they usually managed to find, and lunch and dinner quickly fell into a heavy silence, with each of the boys eating quickly and escaping back to their units. J.D. picked up on the older boys' moods, and had burst into tears three times that day, without any apparent provocation. By 8:00 that night, he was draped in his bed, deposited there by a staff member after he had fallen asleep during an evening crafts session.
When darkness had finally fallen, Buck and Chris escaped to their room in the piles. By 10:00, they had finished all the meaningless tasks they could think of. By 11:00, they were sitting on the sides of their beds, staring alternately at each other, the door, and nothing at all. When Buck picked up a baseball, they began to mechanically throw it, back and forth, neither really registering the other.
"Guess he made it," Chris finally said, holding the ball for a moment before placing it on the small table next to his bed.
There was a long silence, before Buck turned and laid back on his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. "Guess so."
Chris stood and turned out the lamp on his desk, leaving his fingers on the switch for a while. When he moved, he walked to the window, instead of his bed.
"One down, three to go."
+ + + + + + +
J.D. had that prickly feeling when he woke up. The one where his tummy felt funny and everything looked strange. He reached automatically for a strand of hair and pulled it to his mouth.
He sucked for a moment, watching the shadows on the wall. The wall was the wrong color, kinda yellowish-brown, like Sarah Jane's hair at Cub Scouts. Sarah Jane had been a dumb girl, and dumb girls weren't supposed to be in Cub Scouts. And walls weren't supposed to look like any dumb girl's hair. They were supposed to be blue, with glow-in-the-dark stars in wavy circles. And with handprints, like Mama let him make with green and red and yellow paint.
J.D. was really sleepy, and he didn't want to move, even when he recognized the sound that had woken him. But Vin was his brother now. For real, not just pretend. Vin said so. Vin said Chris said blood didn't matter. J.D. didn't like blood, except if it was on someone else, and then it looked kind of cool. But brothers moved, even when they were sleepy. Even though Vin had been kinda mean all day, ever since Nathan left this morning.
J.D. crawled out from under his covers and padded the short distance over to the other bed, climbing carefully over Vin's curled body and wedging himself into the small space between the eleven-year-old and the wall. He began to gently pat the older boy, over the covers, inserting his thumb into his mouth as he patted. Sucking thumbs was for babies, but no one was around except Vin, and Vin wouldn'tve told anyone, even if he had been awake to see him. When Vin kept crying in his sleep, J.D. removed his thumb and used both hands to pat. Vin finally quieted, and J.D. laid down and nestled up against him. He re-inserted his thumb, sucking on it for a moment before removing it briefly.
"Don't worry," he whispered. "I won't tell no one you cried." J.D. put his thumb back in his mouth and fell back asleep to the even lullaby of Vin's breaths on his neck.
+ + + + + + +
Friday morning, Vin and Ezra called a truce. Neither one said anything, but they both knew they were talking to each other again. Chris and Buck looked tired, as if they hadn't slept much, and they kept stopping in the middle of their breakfast to study the younger boys. J.D. finally began making funny faces back whenever he caught one of them looking.
After breakfast, Chris pulled Vin and Ezra aside while Buck took J.D. over to the small playground next to the main house. J.D. had protested that he wanted to go with Vin, but Buck had been firm, eventually ending the argument by picking J.D. up and carrying him toward the swingset. When J.D. wriggled and tried to get down, Buck tickled him until he forgot to sulk. Buck pushed him high up in the air, high enough that J.D. felt he could almost tickle the clouds. Mama never let him swing that high, but then Mama was a girl, and girls were funny about things like swinging way up in the air.
After a while, Buck had taken J.D. back to where the younger boys were gathering on the back field for another one of those physical fitness things, and Vin and Ezra had shown up minutes later, looking nervous and distracted. The day passed relatively uneventfully, but Vin and Ezra both seemed jumpy, and they were shorter with J.D. than usual. When J.D. asked for the eighth time what they had talked to Chris about, Vin had snapped at him to quit asking questions already. Ezra had used fancier words, but it meant the same thing. After that, although he never let Vin completely out of his sight, J.D. had stayed away from them for a little while, until he forgot that he was mad at them.
At the end of dinner that night, Chris and Buck lingered next to the chairs of the younger boys.
"You're clear on what to do, right?" Chris asked, his hand resting on the back of Vin's chair.
Vin nodded, and Ezra responded, "Crystal."
"Do what?" J.D. asked.
"Good," Chris said, ignoring the question.
"Do what?" J.D. repeated, shifting onto his knees and rising over the back of his chair.
"Nothing," Buck said. J.D.'s face settled into a mutinous frown.
"Vin says 'nothing', n'Ezra says 'nothing', and you say 'nothing', and no one won't tell me what they're talking about. I think you're all bein' mean!" His voice rose a little, and he bounced on the chair.
Buck crouched down and waggled his finger at the younger boy. "No one's being mean, J.D. When you're ready to know what we're talking about, we'll let you know."
"I'm ready now!" J.D. folded his arms and glared. Buck drew a breath to respond, but stopped when he heard a snort from beside him.
"You know, Buck, kid looks an awful lot like you do when you're whining about something or other," Chris observed.
"I don't whine!" Buck protested, standing, just as J.D. drew himself up onto the full height of his knees, hands on his hips, and protested, "I'm not whining!"
Vin laughed before he could stop himself, and he elbowed Ezra, who was grinning. Buck scowled at them, but finally smiled a little. "All right, fine, enough with the 'mess with Buck' part of the evening."
"You guys better get back to your group," Chris said quietly.
Vin stopped laughing, and Ezra looked down at the table. Buck looked at Chris; neither one wanted to stretch this out, or make the younger boys even more anxious than they already were. Chris gave an almost imperceptible nod, and then dropped a hand on Ezra's shoulder.
"C'mon, kid," he said, jerking his head toward the dining hall door. "Get going now." He turned to the sandy-haired boy next to Ezra. "You, too, Vin." Chris pulled a little at both of their chairs, and the two boys slowly stood. Vin looked down at the floor, avoiding Chris's eyes. Chris reached out and put his hand on the back of Vin's neck. He pulled the younger boy closer to him, his hand forcing Vin to look upward at his face.
"Everything's going to be fine, kid," Chris said softly. "You hear me?"
Vin searched Chris's face, and then nodded a little. Chris started to let go of Vin's neck, when Vin suddenly reached forward and grabbed Chris around the waist. Chris draped his arm around the younger boy and returned the hug, holding it for only a moment before pushing Vin gently away.
"Go on, now, Vin. And listen" he leaned in closer, his voice low. "I expect you to watch out for J.D., the next few days, okay?"
"Good." Chris turned to Ezra, who had been watching their interaction with a funny look on his face, which he wiped off quickly as Chris looked at him. Buck caught Chris's eyes, and they shared a slightly rueful look, knowing the way Ezra's mind worked. Chris reached out and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder, squeezing a little. "You behave yourself the next few days, you hear me?"
Ezra nodded, still trying to look disinterested as Chris gave one more squeeze and then stepped away. He was unprepared when Buck said, "Good," and then stepped forward, pulling Ezra into a hug. Ezra wanted to pull back, but he couldn't force himself to, surprising himself instead by wrapping his arms around the older boy's waist and hugging back.
Buck stepped back and looked at Chris; by unspoken agreement, they decided this was enough of a goodbye. "You guys get moving," Chris ordered, stepping away from the younger boys.
Vin looked at J.D., who was still kneeling on his chair watching the others. "C'mon, J.D."
J.D. remained on his chair, frowning. "I don't whine," he protested once more. He looked pointedly at Chris. Buck reached over and grabbed the younger boy under the armpits, lifting him high in the air.
"You gonna give us a hard time?"
J.D. tried to scowl down at the older boy, but when Buck lowered him and then hoisted him once more, throwing him up a little before catching him again, J.D. couldn't stop the giggle that escaped. "Do it again, Buck!"
"Unh-uh." Buck gave one last toss and lowered J.D. to the ground. "Go on, kid." He gave J.D. a little push toward Vin, who held his hand out. Chris ruffled J.D.'s hair as he passed by. J.D. tilted his head backwards to look up at Chris, and Chris let his fingers drum down J.D.'s face and under his chin, which he gave a quick tickle. J.D. immediately scrunched up his shoulders, trapping Chris's fingers against his neck.
Chris gave him a small smile before pulling his hand away. He stepped back, next to Buck, and looked at the others. "Go on, get going."
Vin took J.D.'s hand, and they walked with Ezra away from the table. Vin turned back for one more look mid-way across the dining hall, and Ezra turned one last time just before the door, but neither slowed as they walked away.
Chris lowered himself into his chair again as he watched them disappear through the doors. Buck pulled out the chair next to his, and they sat there for a while in silence.
+ + + + + + +
Vin lay in the dark, lifting the digital watch every now and then and pressing the button that illuminated the time. Chris had given him his watch to use, since Vin's didn't have an alarm, but Vin hadn't been able to fall asleep anyway. Instead, he lay in his bed and listened to the sounds outside the door slowly fade. The watch's alarm had been set for 1:00 A.M., timed to coincide with the time the staff member on the third shift briefly met with the one from the second shift, to get an update on the evening. When the watch finally read 12:58, Vin pushed the buttons that turned the alarm off, carefully strapped the watch around his wrist, and climbed out from under his covers. He was already fully clothed; all he had to do was pull his shoes on. He reached under the bed and pulled his backpack and duffel from where he had hidden them, and then checked J.D.'s belongings one last time before moving to the side of the other bed.
J.D. lay sprawled across his bed, one arm up across his face and the covers twisted around him. J.D. still had nightmares just about every night, and his sleep had been restless a few times already, but at the moment he seemed to be sleeping pretty deeply. Vin rested a hand on the younger boy's arm and spoke softly.
When there was no response, Vin jiggled J.D.'s arm a little. "J.D., wake up." J.D. groaned and rolled over, trying to bury his face in the pillow. Vin shook him again. "C'mon, J.D., you have to wake up now."
"Wha-!" J.D. sat up with a start, his eyes confused.
"Shhhh!" Vin whispered urgently. "You gotta be quiet!"
J.D.'s eyes slowly focused, and he looked around the room. "It's not morning yet." He started to lie back down, but Vin's hand was still on his arm, and the gentle pressure stopped him.
"No, J.D., you gotta get up." Vin stood up and picked up the clothing he had placed on the foot of J.D.'s bed. "C'mon, you need to get dressed."
J.D. rubbed at his eyes. "Why, Vin?"
"Cause we're going somewhere."
"Where're we going?"
Vin tugged at J.D.'s pajama top, and the younger boy lifted his arms. "Just do what I say, okay, J.D.?" He pulled the top over J.D.'s head, and exchanged it for a dark t-shirt.
"But it's dark outside."
"That's cause it's nighttime." Vin pulled back J.D.'s covers and handed him a pair of jeans. "Put these on." J.D. complied, yawning, and watched as Vin folded his pajamas and placed them in the red canvas suitcase, zipping it up.
"Here." Vin tossed a pair of socks at J.D. "Put these on."
J.D. pulled the socks on one at a time. "Where're we going, Vin?"
Vin knelt by the side of the bed, and began to push J.D.'s feet into sneakers. "We're going to go meet Ez, and then we're going to meet Josiah."
"Oh." J.D. yawned. "How come?"
Vin finished and stood. "Cause that's the plan." He carefully arranged J.D.'s pillows under the covers to give the illusion of a sleeping body, on the off chance someone did a late-night bed-check, and then did the same with his own bed. Stepping back, he surveyed his work and then re-arranged the covers slightly. Finally satisfied, he picked up his own backpack and duffel, and handed J.D. his Yu-Gi-Oh backpack. "You carry this, okay?"
"Okay." J.D. stood and pulled the straps around his arms. Vin reached down and took J.D.'s suitcase in his free hand, then put it down again. He lowered his duffel and placed his hands on J.D.'s shoulders.
"Now listen, J.D.," Vin said in a serious voice. "We're going to go out in the hall, real quiet. You can't make any noise, okay?" He waited for J.D.'s nod before continuing. "We're gonna sneak down and out the back stairs. We've only got a few minutes, so you stay close to me, okay?" J.D. yawned again, not answering, and Vin frowned at him. "Did you hear me, J.D.?"
J.D. finished his yawn. "Mmmm."
Vin interpreted that as a yes, and picked up the bags again. "Let's go, then. And no noise," he warned, one final time.
Vin pulled the door open cautiously, and looked up and down the hall. It was empty, as expected, and Vin moved into the hallway and motioned with his head for J.D. to follow him. After the younger boy exited the room, Vin closed the door slowly, pulling it shut as gently as he could. After giving J.D. another silent look of warning, Vin turned and crept toward the door at the far end of the hall that led to the back stairway. J.D. followed close behind. Vin didn't know if it was J.D.'s sleepiness or if he was getting better at listening, but J.D. managed to make it down the hall and into the stairwell without making a sound.
Vin held his breath as they went down the staircase, knowing that if anyone were to suddenly enter from one of the other floors they would be trapped, but their descent was without incident. Within momentsalthough it felt much longer to Vinthey were outside, on the side of the main house.
The grounds were deserted and silent, the glow from the moon causing the trees to cast strange shadows on the ground. J.D. moved a little closer to Vin, who turned and motioned with his head for the younger boy to follow him toward the trees. Vin remained silent until they broke the tree line, and then dropped the bags on the ground, turning to crouch next to J.D.
"You did good, J.D. Now we just gotta wait for Ezra," he whispered.
J.D. nodded, reaching for Vin's hand and clutching it. His eyes were wide as he looked up at the trees. Vin gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.
Less than a minute later, they heard a quiet crackling sound. J.D. jumped a little, and held tighter to Vin's hand. Vin leaned down and whispered, "Probably just Ez," but pulled them both behind a tree, just in case. They both relaxed as the familiar figure appeared between the trees, carrying his own backpack and duffel bag. Vin stepped out, J.D. behind him, and picked up his and J.D.'s bags again.
Vin and Ezra looked at each other seriously for a moment, before turning and walking deeper into the trees, J.D. following quickly behind. After a moment, Ezra spoke quietly. "Any problems?"
Vin shook his head. "You?"
Ezra gave a small shake in the negative.
When they were about twenty yards into the woods, Ezra felt a small hand take his. He looked down at J.D., who was walking silently next to him, eyes straight ahead. Vin was walking ahead of them, both of his hands occupied with the two bags he was carrying. Ezra gave J.D.'s hand a squeeze and kept walking.
Josiah was waiting for them at the end of the path, leaning against a tree, his van dark and silent where it had been pulled onto the shoulder of the road. Without a word, he took the bags from Vin, slinging the duffel over his shoulder and picking up the red suitcase.
"Go on, Vin, get in the van," Josiah said in a low voice, resting his free hand for a moment on Vin's head. Vin nodded and slid the rear door of the van open, climbing in. He smiled when he saw Nathan in the front seat, and gave him a quick wave before slumping into the bench seat, leaning against the window.
Josiah turned to the two boys following behind. Ezra looked stoic, but one hand had his duffel in a death-grip. His other hand, Josiah noted with some amusement, was gently wrapped around the youngest boy's, who looked as if he still hadn't quite woken up.
"Hey, trouble, made it on time, huh?" Josiah passed his fingers quickly over Ezra's hair. Ezra pulled his hand out of J.D.'s and reached up automatically to straighten his hair, but his other hand loosened its grip on the bag a little.
"Why must everyone insist I'll be late," Ezra mumbled, moving toward the van. Eyes twinkling, Josiah turned to the youngest, who was glassy-eyed.
"Hey, there, J.D." The little boy slowly swiveled his eyes up to look at him, but didn't really seem to be focusing.
"Hi, J'siah," he mumbled, rubbing at one eye. Josiah smiled, and bent down and scooped J.D. up with his free arm.
"C'mon, kid, let's get you in the van."
J.D. became briefly alert again when he realized what Josiah was lowering him into. "Car seats are for babies!" he protested, trying to squirm away.
"This isn't a car seat, it's a booster seat," Josiah replied calmly, one hand firmly locked against J.D.'s chest while his other pulled the seatbelt across. He clicked it in and pulled back. "It makes you tall enough to wear a seatbelt."
"But I don't want to sit"
"J.D., I looked it up, and you can't ride in the van unless you sit in one of these." Josiah's voice was final. J.D. opened his mouth to protest, anyway, but Josiah cut him off, resting his hand on the dark hair. "Just close your eyes, kid. It's late, and we've got a little ways to drive." He unfolded himself from where he had been leaning and pulled the side door of the van closed behind him.
They drove about three hundred yards away from the grounds of the Home, slowly, before Josiah turned the headlights back on. "Either of you have any trouble?" he asked, keeping his eyes on the road.
"No," Ezra answered for both of them, since Vin was leaning against the window, eyes closed.
"Good." Josiah drove in silence for a few minutes. "J.D. sleeping yet?"
Ezra glanced over his shoulder. J.D. was sound asleep, head leaning against the raised sides of the booster seat. "Yeah."
Vin opened his eyes, pulling himself up. "So where're we going, Josiah?"
Josiah looked at the back of the van in his rear view mirror, watching for the dueling responses he knew he would get. "Camping."
"Camping!" The look of outrage on Ezra's face was instantaneous.
"Cool." Vin relaxed, leaning back against the window and closing his eyes.
Josiah smiled and looked back at the road.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Buck sat at a table in the dining hall, trays in front of them. Neither was hungry, but if they had been sitting in their room, staring at the walls when the questions inevitably started, it might look suspicious. So they pushed their food around on the trays, neither saying a word.
The flurry of activity started mid-way through breakfast. Hendricks entered the cafeteria and moved hurriedly toward the table where Mark was sitting with some boys. Hendricks and the milieu counselor spoke seriously for a few moments, and then Mark rose to follow the director. The counselor paused as he was moving away from the table, and then returned and spoke to the boys seated there. They all shook their heads, and a few of them looked as if they were saying something. Mark turned again and left the dining hall. Hendricks had moved to confer with one other staff member, who Chris and Buck recognized as assigned to Ezra's building. Again, both men spoke, and then the staff member rose and the two exited the room.
Not much usually happened at the Forrest Home, and when it did, word spread quickly. It didn't take more than a minute for the story that three boys had turned up missing at morning head count to spread from one end of the dining hall to the other.
+ + + + + + +
Hendricks paced in front of his desk, and then turned to glare at the men seated around the office. "How do three boys, three, manage to get away in the middle of the night with no one noticing?!"
One of the men shrugged. "It's not a maximum-security prison, sir. We can't watch all of'em at once."
The look Hendricks gave him would have frozen a more timid man. "You be sure to tell that to the state DCFS when they show up here asking WHERE THE HELL THESE THREE KIDS ARE!!!" His voice rose to a shout, and the other man blanched and fell silent. Hendricks took a deep breath and paced away, turning his back. He counted silently before turning back around.
"Okay. Spread out over the grounds. Search everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I don't want to have to call the police if it turns out they're somewhere playing some sort of game." He turned his back, dismissing them, and walked to his desk where he reached for the phone. He paused with a hand in mid-air, looking at the men, who remained seated. "Today would be nice, gentlemen."
The men rose and exited the room, one by one. Hendricks watched them go, and then picked up the receiver of the phone. He looked at it for a moment, steeling himself, before dialing the number. He held the receiver to his ear. A voice cheerily stated that he had reached the Department of Child and Family Services.
Hendricks took a breath. "I need to reach Janet Evans."
"She'll be in the office Monday. Would you like her voice-mail?"
"No, I don't want her" Hendricks caught himself in mid-snap and took a breath. "I need you to get hold of her, now."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah pushed a stick against the fire, trying to coax the larger branches to light. "Ezra, bring me that big pot," he called over his shoulder. Ezra gave him a look, but complied, picking up the large pot and giving it a disdainful look before carrying it over to Josiah.
"It's filthy," he said, bending over Josiah, who was now leaning in and blowing on the growing flames. Josiah looked up for a moment.
"It's not filthy, Ezra, it's just dark from the fire."
Ezra looked at the pot suspiciously, and then shook his hand. "I'm not eating anything that comes out of that."
"Well," Josiah said, tossing the stick into the fire and wiping his hands on his pants. "Suit yourself, but since that's the pot I'm using, you're gonna get mighty hungry within a day or two." He reached over and plucked the pot out of Ezra's hands. "Why don't you go help the others."
Ezra looked toward the trees, where Nathan, Vin, and J.D. had gone to gather sticks for the fire. "I don't think so," he said, brushing the dirt off of a rock and gingerly sitting down.
Josiah eyed him. "Oh, I'm sorry, kid, you thought that was a question. Let me re-phrase that for you." Ezra folded his arms and looked disinterestedly back. "Go help the others, Ezra. Now," he added, a little more forcefully, when the Southerner showed no signs of moving.
Ezra sighed. "Josiah, we moved out of the caves eons ago. Evolution happened for a reason, don't you think?" But he stood anyway, brushing his pants off, and moved slowly toward the trees.
"And don't bring back any green ones," Josiah called after him, before turning back to the fire.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Buck were ready when Hendricks approached, at the start of lunch. He appeared at the side of their table, his face tense and his words brusque.
"I need to talk to you boys in my office." He turned to go. "Sorry to cut your lunch short."
The two boys rose to follow him, abandoning their trays.
"Something wrong, Mr. Hendricks?" Buck asked, catching up to the site director.
Hendricks looked briefly at him. "In my office, son."
+ + + + + + +
Janet Evans drummed her fingers against the steering wheel. Of all the weekends to have chosen to drive out to the country, she had to have picked this one. The drive back after hanging up from her phone call with Hendricks had felt interminable. When the light finally shifted to green, she gunned her engine, jumping forward before coming to a sudden stall.
"Damn, damn, damn," she cursed, slapping at the dashboard and then shifting back into park. She turned off and on the ignition, stabbing an angry finger into the air in response to the honks coming from behind her. When the engine turned over, she pressed the accelerator, a little more gently this time, and the car moved forward.
Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, she reached into her purse and pulled out her cell phone, briefly taking her eyes off the road to punch in a number. She tapped her finger on the wheel as she waited for the ring to stop.
"You find them yet?" she snapped, as soon as the call was answered.
A sigh sounded in her ear. "Not yet, Janet."
"Christ, Phil, how do you lose three kids?"
"Look, we're searching the grounds, we're talking to the other kids. If they're nearby, we'll find them."
"And if they're not?"
Hendricks didn't answer for a moment. Evans sighed. "I'll be there soon, Phil."
+ + + + + + +
Buck watched through the window as the police car threaded its way up the drive toward the main house. "Another one coming," he said, his eyes not leaving the window.
"How many does that make?"
"Five, now." Buck turned and sat on his bed. "You think they'll send someone to question us?"
Hendricks' questions had been surprisingly brief. After telling them about the boys' disappearance, Hendricks had watched Buck and Chris's reactions carefully before asking whether they knew where the boys had gone. When both had denied any knowledge of the younger boys' whereabouts, Hendricks had nodded and said that he needed to search their room. The boys had complied immediately, knowing that even with a thorough search, nothing would be found that could implicate them with the apparent runaways.
Two other staff members had accompanied Hendricks, and they had searched both the room and the belongings. Buck and Chris both fumed silently as their things were examined, but kept their faces impassive. Hendricks finally thanked them for their cooperation, and returned with his staff to the main house.
Police cars had been arriving in a trickle for the past hour, now. Buck watched out the window for a moment. "Check this out."
Chris rose. "What?" He approached the window and followed Buck's eyes. A man in a suit was stepping out of the passenger side of the police car, which had pulled to a stop, lights still flashing silently, behind the others already parked in the circular driveway. Chris watched as he spoke briefly to the young-looking cop stationed at the front door before entering the building.
"He's the guy in charge," Chris said, pulling away from the window and returning to sit on his bed. "Now they're going to get organized."
"How do you know?" Buck asked, turning to face him.
Chris shrugged one shoulder. "They sent the first group to get the story from Hendricks. The next ones came to search the grounds. Now, they're pretty sure they're not still here, so they're calling in the brass."
"How do you know?"
Chris shrugged again. "I've got eyes, don't I?"
Buck gave him a look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, okay, Buck?" Chris stood and paced a little, before reaching for a box. He opened the top drawer of his desk and began to sort through the items there, putting most in the box and setting a few aside next to the duffel bag laying on his bed.
"What are you doing?"
Chris didn't turn around. "Packing."
Buck watched him for a moment. "Why? We don't leave for a few days."
"Because I'm gonna go crazy if I just sit here waiting for them to come talk to us." Chris's voice was low and tight, and he pulled open a second drawer. Buck nodded, without replying. After a moment he stood and folded a box for himself, and moved to his dresser.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. pulled the flap of the tent closed behind him and zipped it carefully. He settled himself, cross-legged, on the floor in front of the flap and wiggled on his bottom for a moment before reaching out and carefully unzipping the tent again. He crawled through the opening and stood outside, turning around and zipping the tent shut behind him. He galloped in a circle around the tent, coming to a stop again in front of the opening and reaching forward to unzip the flap.
"J.D., you're going to break that if you keep messing with it," Vin said, walking up behind him.
J.D. paused, his fingers on the zipper. "But I need to."
Vin gave him a look. "Why do you need to, J.D.?"
"Cause that's where the robbers are." J.D. turned back to the tent.
"Who are you, J.D., the robbers or the cops?" Josiah asked from where he sat watching, leaning up against a tree. He gave Vin a little wink.
J.D. turned to look at Josiah briefly before returning to tugging at the zipper. "Both."
Vin rolled his eyes and turned away, as J.D. finished getting the flap open. J.D. climbed inside and zipped the flap shut behind him. There was no movement for a moment, and then Josiah watched as J.D. once again unzipped the flap, exited the tent, and galloped in a circle around it.
Josiah pulled himself to a standing position as J.D. made a move to unzip the tent flap once again. "Guess we'd better start packing up these tents."
"Why?" Vin looked up from where he had crouched to gather some twigs. "Don't we need them for later?"
Josiah shook his head. "We need to get a little further away, Vin. And I don't want to stay anywhere more than one night."
"But what about Chris and Buck?"
"We're going to pick them up in a few days." Josiah walked over to the tents and knelt on the ground near where J.D. stood, pulling a stake up. "Nathan, you help me with the tents. Ezra, Vin, you guys start packing up our stuff and get it into the van."
The other boys moved to comply. J.D. draped his arms over Josiah's shoulders, watching him wiggle a tent stake for a moment.
"What should I do, Josiah?"
Josiah considered it for a moment. "Well, how about if you put these stakes into a pile for me?"
"Okay." J.D. loosened his arms and walked around Josiah, crouching on the ground next to him. He picked up the stake Josiah had already removed, stood and walked a few feet away, and then placed it carefully on the ground. When he stood, he brushed his hands off on his jeans and trotted back to Josiah, crouching and waiting patiently for him to finish with the next one.
Josiah smiled as he handed J.D. the stake. "Thanks, kid, that's a big help."
J.D. stood and wiped the dirty stake against his jeans. "I'm cleaning'em, too." He turned and moved to deposit the stake on top of the one already on the ground.
Josiah nodded slowly. "Good, J.D. I'd hate to have a dirty tent stake."