The crisp autumn breeze ruffled through Chris Larabee’s longish golden blond hair as he strode beneath the canopy of trees lining the school’s walkway. The young man was dressed completely in black, which made for a startling contrast with his bright hair and rugged good looks. But his grim faced countenance completed his mourner’s appearance and lent him a gravity that was far beyond his years. Chris was every bit a seventeen year old going on forty.

The other students he passed on the walkway tended to stay out of the senior’s way. Few of them actually knew the truth about Chris’ past, but they all heard and readily accepted the rumors, especially when the young man made no attempt to defend himself. And Chris for his part could not care less about what his schoolmates, aside from his four good and true friends, thought about him. He found it preferable to have fewer people to deal with, and if he could find a way around dealing with his father, he would definitely prefer that as well.

At least for the next nine months while he was at school he would not have to deal with Clint Larabee. And since this was his senior year, Chris could look forward to joining the military right after graduation and not having to see his dear old dad again for a long time.

Chris slipped off the walkway and made his way to the small clearing that he and his four friends had made their personal meeting ground. It was still on campus, but secluded enough that they could meet without fear of interruptions. On the last day of the previous school year, they all promised to meet on their first day back. As Chris stepped into the clearing, he was pleasantly surprised to see that Vin Tanner was already there.

Although there were a few chairs that the boys had scrounged strewn about the clearing, Vin sat on the ground, his back leaning against the thick tree trunk, his eyes locked on the sky above him. Despite Vin’s lack of response to his entering the clearing, Chris knew the younger boy was well aware of his presence.

Vin quickly verified this, "Hey, Chris, looks like you need a haircut." His blue eyes twinkling mischievously, Vin looked up to meet Chris’ gaze.

Chris eyed Vin’s own long, brown hair that curled to just above the lean boy’s shoulders. "Then you’re long overdue for one," he replied as he pulled a chair near Vin and straddled it, leaning his forearms on the back.

Vin shook his head, "Nah, not with this buzz. Have to let it grow out a bit before the barber could even get his clippers in it."

Chris laughed softly, a rare and wonderful sound that only those who truly knew him were ever gifted with. And more often than not, it was Vin who brought out that laughter and smile.

"How was your break?" Chris asked after a brief silence.

"Not bad," Vin admitted. "Betty's surgery went OK and Henry got me a job at the store. Managed to save a bit. Trained every day. That's about it." Chris nodded. Betty and Henry Van Owen were assigned as Vin's foster parents for the last two years. From the little Vin had told him, the Van Owens were by far the best family he had been with. They genuinely cared for the boy and were both supportive and proud of him when Vin won his track scholarship to attend private school.

"And you?"

Larabee shrugged and looked away briefly before looking directly back at Vin. "Dad's still drinking. So I made sure we were never in the house at the same time as much as possible."

Vin nodded. Chris said very little about his father and the younger boy did not bother asking too many questions. He knew how his best friend felt about his father and why.

"So did you save enough money?" Chris asked.

"Almost," Vin acknowledged.

"You know I can…" Chris started.

"I know, Chris, but I'd rather do it on my own," Vin replied quickly and firmly.

"Yeah I heard that about you," Chris teased then smiled as Vin threw a small pod from the tree at him.

Vin had been granted a sports scholarship to Regents in track and field. However, the younger boy also possessed a sharp mind and a thirst for knowledge earning him outstanding academic grades. Any spare time was spent in the Library on the PC's but Tanner wanted his own laptop.

"Did you see Buck over the break?" Vin asked.

Chris smiled and nodded. "I'm surprised he found the time. What with all those girls he just had to catch up with before school came back!"

Vin chuckled. Their friend's natural affinity with the opposite sex was the envy of many a boy at the school. Buck Wilmington was loud and boisterous but most of all fun. The star of the football team, Wilmington was equally talented on the football field as he was around girls. Vin had not met anyone yet who did not like Buck, himself included.

When Vin first met up with Buck and Chris he thought that theirs was an unlikely friendship. Buck was as outgoing as Chris was brooding. As Vin was pulled into their circle of friends he learned that before the accident, Chris had been a great deal more like Buck. But Chris’ life changed radically after that accident, with only Buck remaining the one true constant. Vin was surprised to learn that the quarterback had the grit to stand by his friend. He continued to learn that there was a lot more to Buck, especially when it came to anyone he called a friend.

Vin glanced up at Chris and with a smile warned, "Hey, here comes Nathan."

Chris looked up and around, but he did not hear or see anything that could possibly have warned Vin of the other boy’s arrival, but seconds later Nathan strode into the clearing. Chris shook his head at Vin’s uncanny instincts.

"Hey, Nathan," they both greeted him as the junior pulled a chair over to the other side of Vin.

"Hey, guys. Just us so far?" he asked. Despite his tall and lean frame, Nathan did not move with any of the awkwardness of a typical teenager. Instead he moved self confidently with the ease of the natural athlete that he was as a basketball player. But it was for his openness and warmth that his friends knew him best.

Chris and Vin nodded. "So how was your break, Nate?" Vin asked.

Nathan paused a moment as he stared down at his hands, absently rubbing them together as he spoke, "Pretty good, no complaints. I got an opportunity to take a couple of summer classes so I took them. Sounds boring, I know, but I enjoyed them."

Vin eyed Nathan knowing that there was so much more that he was not saying. Before the end of school last year, Nathan told them about the trip he and his parents were supposed to make to Hawaii. He had been thrilled and excited about the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with his parents. His father was a surgeon and his mother a very respected general practitioner who were both very dedicated to their patients. So dedicated that it often seemed that they put their patients’ needs ahead of their own son’s. Nathan was never one to complain about it but they could all see that it often bothered him, especially his best friend, Josiah.

If Nathan took a couple of summer courses, something he never mentioned doing before, then the trip must not have happened. Vin took a breath as he considered asking, but a subtle shake of Chris’ head warned him not to bring the subject up. Chris was the expert on topics that should be best left alone, so Vin nodded and searched for a way to change the subject. But Josiah did that for him as the other senior of their group walked up.

Josiah played football and no one would ever doubt why. He was about as tall as Nathan, but where Nathan was lean and athletic, Josiah was solid and muscular. He was as equally intimidating a figure as Chris was. But where Chris’ intimidation came from the hard, near soulless look in his eyes, Josiah’s was purely physical. In fact, it was the compassion and humor in those blue-gray eyes that often offset that intimidation factor. And at this moment, those eyes were alight as he greeted them with a wide smile

The others could not help but respond in kind, though Chris’ grin was very brief. "Hey, Josiah!" Vin called out. "You look like you had a good break."

Settling on a chair, Josiah sighed, "I must admit that I did, Vin. Hannah and I spent the entire summer with our Aunt Ruth on her farm. It was great!"

"She the one out in California?" Vin asked, pleased that Josiah spent a happy summer with his beloved younger sister.

"Yep. Summer was far too short, if you ask my opinion." Looking around at the others, he asked, "What about the rest of you?"

They were saved from having to answer with the rather loud entry of Buck Wilmington, who swaggered confidently into the clearing.

"Well, Howdy boys!" Buck greeted heartily.

Grins again broke out all around as Buck easily hunkered down next to Vin.

"What's happening?" he continued.

"Just catching up," Nathan was the first to reply.

"You stacked on a few pounds there, Buck?" Vin teased as he reached out and roughly patted Buck’s stomach.

Buck grinned as the others chuckled and reached out and rubbed Vin's head affectionately. Vin swatted at Buck’s hands even as he tried to duck out from under the larger boy’s reach.

"Oh funny, Junior. I'll have you know all the ladies commented on my peak physical condition," Buck boasted as he grinned down at Vin’s glare which was quickly replaced by a grin. The younger boy ran a hand through his hair to straighten it, but gave up knowing that there would be no helping his scruffy appearance.

"I didn't think you waited around long enough for comments, Buck?" Chris cut in smoothly, enjoying the fact that laughter was almost constant now that his oldest friend had arrived.

Buck feigned a wounded look. "Now that ain't fair Chris, there's a lot of gals out there that need my special attention. I can't disappoint them," Buck responded mischievously.

"So, did you do anything ‘sides chase girls all summer?" Nathan inquired.

Buck looked confused. "What else is there, Nate?" he laughed.

Over the next half-hour the teasing, talking and laughter continued as the five friends caught up with each other. Chris, as usual said the least, content to bask in the unusual friendship that developed into a strong bond of understanding and need. Chris smiled easily as he watched Vin Tanner laugh and enjoy himself, totally relaxed among this small group of friends. Nathan's earlier pensive mood all but disappeared as the young man traded his usual serious outlook into something more carefree. Josiah's enormous grins positively beamed and his big belly laughs echoed around the clearing. And Buck; big, easy going Buck, his boisterous mood and laughter were contagious. Chris hoped that would never change.

Chris exhaled and allowed himself to relax a little. Only in the company of these four friends did he find such brief moments of serenity and he took them while he could, knowing that later the nightmares would return.

His attention snapped back to the conversation as he heard Vin exclaim, "Hey, did I tell y’all that I don’t have to share a room this year?"

Buck turned an astonished look to the younger man. "How in the hell did you manage that?"

Vin grinned up at Buck enjoying the look of envy on the larger boy’s face. He leaned back against the tree, a smug smile curving his lips. Finally, Buck’s none too gentle prodding of an elbow to his ribs made him answer, "I don’t know how it happened. But I’m gonna enjoy it."

The other boys laughed at the look of disbelief that crossed Buck’s face. "Enjoy it? You’re gonna waste that opportunity. Let me guess, the first thing you thought was that now you won’t have to go to the library to study?" he finally managed to ask.

Vin nodded, "Yep! ‘Cept I’ll still have to go there to use the computers."

Chris started to remind Vin that he could get his own laptop if he would stop being so stubborn about doing it on his own. But Vin seemed to know what he was thinking as he gave a slight shake of his head at Chris.

Buck stood up and paced around the clearing, "Dammit Vin, if I had my own room, I’d … I’d …, well I sure as hell wouldn’t study in it!" He paused for a moment as a wide smile crossed his face, "Well, I might study a bit of anatomy. Female anatomy."

Nathan laughed at his roommate. "Like you don’t already sneak girls into our room and make me spend the night in the library or in Chris and Josiah’s room?"

The boys were all fortunate that last years room arrangements had been kept the same, except as a freshman last year, Vin shared a room.

"That’s what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t have to worry about putting you out. Could do it a lot more often!" he declared happily.

Nathan rolled his eyes as Josiah let loose with another belly laugh. Chris stood up and clapped Buck on the shoulder, "You’d only get caught, Buck."

"I haven’t been caught yet!" Buck answered proudly.

"No, but we’d turn you in, ‘cause we’d get sick of hearing your stories. Half of them would probably be made up anyway. Stolen from your mom," Chris answered, a sly smiling crossing his face. Buck’s mother was Montana Fontaine, a world famous romance novelist.

Buck’s face fell, "I have never had to make up any of the things I tell you guys."

Taking the cue from Chris, Vin said, "How do we know? We know that you steal ideas from her stories on how to get the girls."

Buck’s mouth dropped open, "Are you kidding me? She gets the ideas from me!!"

The clearing was filled with the resounding laughter of all five boys. Their last moments before having to head back to the dorms were filled with the good natured ribbing that was the young boys' main form of communication with each other.


J.D. Dunne looked around the foyer of the dormitory building of Regents School. The large room was a hive of activity as boys of all ages moved around, met up with friends or, like himself earlier, found out which room there were boarding in.

J.D. already found his allocated room and unpacked. He waited around for a little while eager to meet his designated roommate. After twenty minutes, the young boy got restless and decided to explore his new surroundings.

He spent an hour wandering around the school and had just made his way back to the dormitory foyer when he saw a group of boys enter the double front doors. J.D. pulled himself to his full height as he recognized Buck Wilmington from the school's football team. Knowing he was attending this school and keen to join the football team, J.D. snuck in to watch the varsity team practice over the summer. As the star quarterback, Buck Wilmington was an outstanding player and J.D. had been immediately in awe of him.

Buck walked with four other boys. The largest of these, he also recognized as Josiah Sanchez, a talented defense player on the same football team. The others he did not know. One was a boy not much older than himself with long hair, another was a tall African American with an easy going smile but it was the last boy, who was by far, the most intimidating. He was obviously a senior, tall and lean, but it was his eyes that drew the attention of the younger boy. They were hard and unforgiving, lending the older boy an aloof and menacing demeanor.

The ominous appearance of the older boy made J.D. hesitate in his approach of his idol. But his excitement overrode good sense and the younger boy headed toward the group of boys.

"You're Buck Wilmington!" J.D. blurted out as Buck stopped to look over the newcomer. His companions also halted and J.D. swallowed nervously as they all inspected him.

"What gave me away?" Buck joked as the others smiled.

"I've watched you in practice. You're real good!" J.D. continued excitedly.

"Well thanks, kid," Buck replied affably making an attempt to pass the boy but J.D. blocked his way and addressed Josiah.

"And you're Josiah Sanchez. I've seen you play as well. Man, nothing gets past you!" the young boy exclaimed.

Josiah shifted his head to the right slowly as he glanced over the eager boy before smiling. "Thanks," he replied before turning and raising an almost amused eyebrow at Nathan.

"My name's J.D. Dunne and I can play!" J.D. stated firmly.

"Play what?" Buck grinned.

"Football of course!" J.D. replied.

"Ain't you kinda small?" the longhaired boy asked playfully drawing chuckles from his friends.

"I can play football!" J.D. retorted.

"Why don't you try something else?" Buck suggested unable to stop himself from trying to ease the boy's embarrassment.

"What? Some sissy game like baseball?" J.D. said derisively. Immediately the younger boy found himself trapped in the harsh stare of the serious looking older boy. J.D. drew in a tight gasp trying to control his panic. He was relieved when suddenly the younger longhaired boy laughed, breaking the tense mood. With a final dismissive look, the older boy brushed past him and strode across the room, his three friends following, still smiling amongst themselves.

J.D. turned and faced Buck, who had remained. The taller boy shook his head and sighed.

"What…?" J.D. began.

"Kid, that's Chris Larabee," Buck explained and waited for the boy to understand. When no realization dawned in his eyes, Buck continued. "The pitcher for the school baseball team."

J.D.'s face fell. "Oh gosh! I better go talk to him. Tell him I'm sorry," J.D. gushed and turned to catch up to the others boys. Buck reached out and hauled him back.

"Just a minute, kid. You don't wanna do that!" Buck told him.

"You sure?" J.D. asked concerned "Coz I don't want to make any trouble!"

"Yeah you best let me handle it," Buck replied.

"Oh gee thanks, Buck," the boy replied enthusiastically.

"No problem." Buck smiled as he cast an eye over the smaller boy's appearance. The kid had short black hair, with a babyish face and big inquisitive brown eyes. Buck knew intuitively he would be a prime target for teasing, maybe even bullying and he was not surprised when his urge to protect this innocent kicked in strongly.

"So, Buck, when's practice?" J.D. asked, interrupting his thoughts.

"Why?" Buck asked as he moved off then grinned when J.D. was forced to take larger strides to keep up.

"Well I thought I'd come along, you know…, try out?"

Buck sighed continuing to walk. "Kid, maybe you should think about…" he began.

"No!" J.D. said emphatically. "I want to play football!"

Buck stopped briefly and considered the younger boy's determination. "Alright, kid," he replied, before continuing walking. "Tomorrow after class. Ok?"

"Oh I'll be there. Thanks, Buck!" J.D. grinned.

"OK. Just do me a favor kid?"

"Anything, Buck," J.D. agreed.

"Lose the cap!"

"My cap?" J.D. asked looking confused again.

Buck reached out and pulled on the peak of J.D.'s cap. "Baltimore Ravens? You actually like the Baltimore Ravens?" he teased.

"They're my dad's team. And, hello, they just won the Superbowl," J.D. protested.

"That was just luck, nothing more," Buck grinned as a thought struck him. "And they’ll win it nevermore!" Laughing at his own joke, he added, "Just don't bring that cap to practice. Who knows what’ll happen to it!"

As he walked off, J.D. stared after him for a moment. Then trotting quickly to catch up, the freshman teased, "Well, I bet your team, whoever that is, hasn’t made it in years!" Getting a warning look from Buck, J.D. had to ask innocently, "Just who is your favorite team, Buck?"

Mumbling darkly, Buck shot J.D. a look and then lengthened his already long stride. Grinning, J.D. did not mind having to jog to keep up with the taller boy. It was going to be a great school year. J.D. could feel it.


The sun was almost setting as Buck and J.D. made their way back to the dorms after football practice. Through Buck and Josiah's insistence, J.D. had been made a member of the junior football team. The coach made no promises though. Told them outright that J.D. could practice with them but whether or not he got actual time on the field was at his discretion. Buck hoped that the stipulation would not upset J.D. and was relieved when the younger boy was just ecstatic that he was part of the football team. There was some initial teasing by the other boys on the team but when they quickly realized J.D. had both Buck and Josiah's protection, by the second practice session, J.D. was all but left alone from that.

J.D. was happy as he walked beside Buck. In the ten days since he had met Buck, everything just kept getting better. After some initial awkwardness and even some teasing, J.D. was very pleased that Buck's friends accepted him. Vin especially had been affable and often helpful, which led to a softening in Chris' attitude toward him as well.

J.D. glanced up at Buck as they continued along the path. Sensing Buck's good mood, the younger boy decided to ask some questions that he had been itching to ask for days.



"You've known Chris a long time right?" J.D. asked.

"Why?" Buck replied, giving the younger boy a puzzled look.

"I was just wondering, you know. What happened? I mean I heard something.
but . . ." J.D. blurted, and inwardly cursed himself for making a mess of his question. Buck stopped and faced him.

"What did you hear?" the bigger boy asked brusquely, slightly frowning as J.D. shuffled his feet.

"That there was some kinda accident… his mom…" J.D. trailed off, suddenly not liking the pained look that appeared in Buck's eyes. Buck looked away and considered the kid's question. He figured if he did not tell J.D. the truth, he would probably try asking one of the other boys.

"Let's go over here," Buck finally replied, leading J.D. away from the path to an area protected from any passerby eavesdropping. Stopping at a nearby fence, Buck leaned on the sturdy barrier and took a deep breath. J.D. watched in silence as Buck struggled with his emotions. The older boy was obviously having difficulty in speaking immediately and J.D. started to fidget apprehensively as he began to regret asking Buck about Chris.

Buck allowed the memories to enter his mind. Sarah Larabee had been a devoted mother and wife. Chris inherited her attractive features and blond hair. But it was her generous, caring nature and great sense of humor Buck would always remember. The way she treated him, as part of her family was what Buck missed the most; that and her smile. Eve Larabee was Chris' little sister. Two years younger and beginning to bloom into a beautiful young woman, Eve adored her older brother and that affection was returned tenfold. The Larabee siblings were extremely close with Chris being very protective of Eve, especially when their father was not home. Having no siblings of his own, Buck loved the young spirited girl like his own sister and often teased her that once she grew up he would be forced to chase lovesick boys away which always causing her to blush coyly. Grew up? Precious and sweet Eve never got that chance to grow up. Buck closed her eyes and blinked away the wetness that threatened to pool into tears. With enormous effort, Buck looked into J.D.'s eyes and began to speak.

"It was a car accident. Chris had just gotten his permit. He, his mom and little sister were hit by a drunk driver," Buck said quietly.

"Oh God!" J.D. exclaimed.

"It was bad," Buck reflected sadly. "His mother and little sister were killed outright. Chris spent a week in the hospital recovering and when he left his physical injuries healed but he was never the same. See, he blamed himself."

"But why? It was the drunk’s fault!" J.D. replied angrily.

Buck winced slightly. "Yeah, I know. But Chris had been driving off road with his dad for years. So he believes he had the experience to avoid the accident and didn't."

"But that's crazy!" J.D. replied, softer this time, shaking his head.

"Maybe," Buck agreed. "But it's the way Chris feels, that's for sure."

"But you’ve tried to show him the truth?" J.D. asked, sure of the answer.

"Yeah! But damn, it ain’t easy." Buck admitted grimly. "He kept trying to push me away like he had with everyone else!"

"But that didn't stop you, did it, Buck?" J.D. asked admiringly.

"No, it didn't," Buck said firmly. A brief silence ensued and J.D. watched carefully as Buck looked pensive. It had been the worst of times. Barely coping with his own grief over Sarah and Eve Larabee's deaths, Buck steadfastly remained close to Chris, even though the latter lashed out in both physical and verbal abuse. Finally Chris realized that no matter what he did, Buck was not going away so he stopped fighting him. Their friendship endured and Buck knew without a doubt he would do anything for his anguished and haunted friend.

J.D. watched Buck drift off in apparent painful recollection. The younger boy had no idea of what to say or do to comfort his new friend, so he changed the subject.

"So what about the others?" J.D. asked curiously. "How did you get to know

"What's this? 50 questions?" Buck asked irritably but inwardly welcoming the new question.

"No! No!" J.D. replied quickly. "I just been wondering, Buck. I mean the five of you are, you know…"

"Different?" Buck replied as his expression softened.

"Yeah!" J.D. enthused. "Especially Chris and Vin. And even Josiah and Nathan?"

"Chris and I have both known Josiah for a while, what with him and I playing football. Last year when I was roomed with Nathan, we all became friends but Nate and Josiah always got along real well right from the beginning. They have a lot in common I s’pose," Buck answered

"And Vin?" J.D. asked. That was the one friendship that had him the most curious. What did the easygoing, yet mischievous boy have in common with the older and definitely moodier senior?

Buck smiled. J.D.'s question had not surprised him. He spent time thinking about that one himself once the former freshman started spending more and more time with Chris. Buck had liked Vin Tanner immediately. The sophomore was laid back, confident and had a wicked sense of humor that appeared more often than not at Buck's expense. But it was his interaction with Chris that intrigued him. Vin did not seem phased by Chris' dark demeanor from the start and a lot of time was spent together hardly talking at all. When Vin got Chris to laugh within a week of knowing each other, a genuine jovial laugh, the likes of which Buck was beginning to doubt he would ever hear again from Chris, any concerns he had all but disappeared.

"Josiah reckons they need each other, you know, like a balance," Buck offered by way of explanation. J.D.'s facial expression became one of confusion.

Buck sighed. He did not blame him. He had not understood much of what Josiah tried to explain to him that day either, except for the fact that it was a good thing, which only confirmed Buck's feelings.

"It probably had something to do with how they met as well," Buck added.

"How did they meet?" J.D. asked, interested to find as much information as possible.

"You know Baxter?" Buck enquired.

"Richard Baxter?" J.D. replied and tried to control his strong dislike for the senior who was nothing more than a bully. "Yeah I've seen him around."

"Not long after Nathan arrived last year, Baxter started hassling him."

"What did you do about it?" J.D. asked almost accusingly before biting back on his lip. Buck saw J.D.'s reaction and wondered if the kid had a run in with Baxter himself. He decided to ask around later.

"Nathan never told us it was happening," Buck admitted, shaking his head.
"One day Baxter and his friends had Nathan surrounded, pushing him around, threatening him. Vin saw it and got involved," Buck told him.

"But he was a freshman!" J.D. exclaimed. The younger boy looked suitably impressed. Everyone knew freshmen kept out of the way of the older boys, especially the troublemakers.

"Yep, still didn't stop him," Buck continued, nodding his head in respect. "But it was still two against six."

"So what happened next?" J.D. asked impatiently when Buck paused for too long.

"Chris happened!" Buck grinned and looked down at J.D. The kid responded with his own grin. Oh yeah he could see he was going to like this story.

"From what Nathan tells me, Chris appeared, didn't even say anything, just glared at Baxter!" Buck recounted. "Baxter looked a little scared but tried to look tough in front of crowd that had gathered. Then he made a big mistake."

"What mistake, Buck?" J.D. prompted when the older boy paused for too long again.

"Baxter told Chris it was personal, had nothing to do with him. Nathan reckons Chris just smiled before he gave Baxter this real deadly look and just said 'You want personal? Coz I can do personal'," Buck chuckled. The older boy had not been there but he sure was familiar with that look.

"And?" J.D. asked before Buck got lost in thought again.

"Baxter mumbled something about there being a misunderstanding. Chris stepped closer and told him there had better not be another," Buck finished.

"Man, I wish I had of seen that!" J.D. exclaimed.

"Me too, kid" Buck laughed.

"So Chris and Vin kinda hit it off after that?" J.D. asked. Buck rolled his eyes slightly. The kid just never gave up.

"Yeah Chris and Nathan were impressed when he stood up for Nathan like that. Guess it kinda puzzled Chris coz they started spending time together after that. Well with all of us," Buck explained.

"So that's how the five of you become friends, huh?"


"Do I make it six, Buck?" the younger boy asked softly. Buck looked at the kid again and saw the apprehensive look on the younger boy and the nervous
way he flicked the hair out of his eyes.

"I guess you do, kid."


Since none of them had any practice this particular Monday evening, Chris and the others made their way over to their favorite after class hangout. The blond senior was the first to notice the police cruiser as it made its way up the driveway followed closely by a limousine. The other five boys followed Chris’ gaze and watched the path of the two cars. Buck cursed silently as he noticed the number on the police cruiser; Clint Larabee’s police cruiser.

Without a word or glance at the others, Chris changed direction and began walking over to the main courtyard where he could watch the events unfold. Chris knew that the only reason his father would be visiting the campus would be on police business. Clint was not the type to just drop in to visit his son, at least not anymore.

As one, the others followed silently. Vin and Buck exchanged a knowing look as they walked. Nathan and Josiah hung back a bit, pulling J.D. with them. None of them knew exactly what to expect when Chris and Clint got together but they were all in silent agreement to shield J.D. from it if they could.

The boys stood apart from the larger crowd of students who gathered to see why a police cruiser had arrived at their school. Clint Larabee glared at the groups at large, not stopping to acknowledge his son, as he stepped out of his cruiser and removed his sunglasses. Chris may have inherited his mother’s features and hair, but his hard green eyes were exact replicas of Clint’s. The older Larabee moved to the rear passenger door and opened it, stepping aside to let the occupant exit, as the limousine pulled up behind him. Clint never shifted his attention from his passenger, who was refusing to exit the vehicle, even as the couple from the limo rushed up to him.

The woman was a beautiful strawberry blonde, impeccably dressed. The man was older and exuded wealth. The woman’s southern drawl was thick with her anger as she called to the still stubborn occupant of the cruiser. "Ezra, would you please exit the police car?" she asked tightly.

Clint heard the young man sigh expansively as he finally swung his legs out of the car. "I am encumbered by the manacles that this fine example of a law enforcement officer felt necessary to inflict on me," an equally thick drawl answered her as a light chestnut head followed the legs out of the car. Then, with a quick movement, the young man stood beside Clint, a smirk firmly affixed on his handsome face.

Maude Standish Carlisle turned an indignant gaze on Clint, and the policeman had to admit that she was a formidable force. But he faced down worse and was not about to be intimidated by her. "You put handcuffs on my son?" she asked incredulously.

Clint smiled wolfishly. "I felt it was necessary," he said in a hushed but dangerous tone.

Maude looked back at the man at her side and then over to Clint. "You felt it was necessary? He merely ran away from home. We’ve been worried sick about him, and then we are told that you’ve found him but are bringing him here instead of returning him to his home. Please tell me how all this was necessary?" She rattled off in her outrage. But before Clint could even begin to consider a response, she demanded, "First, I insist that you remove those handcuffs from my child this instant."

Clint caught the look from the man behind her and knew that it really was not worth receiving another reprimand. Grabbing Ezra’s shoulder, Clint spun him around none too gently, only to find that the youth held the handcuffs in his hands. Clint jerked him around so that he could glare at him directly, but Ezra’s smirk only broadened into a grin, revealing deep dimples. Clint roughly snatched the handcuffs from him.

Maude briefly allowed her shock and anger at her son to show before her features fell back into motherly concern. Stepping forward she took Ezra into her arms and hugged him close. "Oh, Ezra, I was so worried about you," she exclaimed. Then whispering in his ear she added, "If you embarrass me any further I will see to it that you pay and pay dearly." Then pulling away from him, she gushed, "How could you run away like that?"

Ezra rolled his eyes at her display. Turning his head away from her, he allowed his gaze to fall on the rapt audience she was playing to. He noticed several of the school officials and knew that his fate was sealed. He would be left at this school with strict instructions given to be watched over carefully. Ezra ignored the faculty as unimportant; mere hindrances to his plan. Instead he focused on his fellow students, knowing that they at least might prove interesting. His green eyes immediately noticed six boys standing in a group off to one side.

He singled out the lean, hard-eyed blond as the obvious leader. The senior met Ezra’s gaze unflinchingly, and the younger man saw the resemblance to the officer next to him. Ezra filed away that bit of information as being of possible use in the near future. Next his gaze fell on the longhaired boy standing next to the blond and shook his head at the obvious lack of standards this school had. On the other side of the blond stood two taller boys, one lean the other stocky, both had the look of football players, but Ezra did not make the mistake of dismissing them as mindless jocks. They had an intensity to them, like the first two, that the southerner found disconcerting. He eyed the last two members of the little group, a smaller, younger boy with wide eyes and a tall African American with deep, understanding eyes. Despite himself, Ezra found himself curious about this group of boys and why they hung around each other.

"Do you see how your treatment of him has traumatized him?" Maude accused Clint as Ezra’s silence stretched on for too long.

Turning his pale green eyes back on his mother, Ezra sighed, "Please, Mother, don’t make a scene."

That was too much for Maude. "Don’t make a scene? You are the one who had to make a scene, getting hauled over here in a police car," she hissed at him. Then gathering herself together again, she added soothingly. "I only want what’s best for you, darlin’."

"And you think this is it?" he asked incredulously, gesturing broadly at the students gathered around them.

Maude eyed him, her frustration and anger interfering with her ability to reassure her only child that she was doing what she had to do for both of them. Could he not see for once the perfect set up she had going here? Maude sighed. He was such an intelligent boy and if he would only go along with her schemes they could be independent and wealthy beyond their imaginings. Instead he insisted on attempting to thwart her at every turn, stubbornly defying her. She saw Ezra’s eyes fill with disdain as they caught the glare from Robert Carlisle III, her latest husband.

"Of course I’m sure that you’ll say that this was all his idea, anyway," Ezra drawled mockingly.

Before Maude could respond, Robert strode over until he stood mere inches away from Ezra. The boy took an involuntary step back so that he could keep his eyes locked with his tall stepfather. "It isn’t just my idea, Ezra, it’s your last chance. Your poor mother may put up with your selfish, spoiled actions, but I do not intend to."

Ezra laughed, "Oh, yes and your own children are such wonderful models of good citizenship."

Clint Larabee reestablished his presence at this point as he saw the dangerous look in Carlisle’s eyes at the kid’s taunt. Laying a hand on Ezra’s shoulder he began to steer the boy over to the school entrance. Ezra attempted to shrug off his grip, but Clint tightened it securely.

Maude hastily followed after them, protesting his treatment of her son, "Officer Larabee, unhand my son this instant."

Dean Parker stepped forward to join Robert Carlisle who said, "I do expect that you will be able to do something with that boy, Mr. Parker. Otherwise I may have to cut off my support for your school and see that I advise my friends to do likewise."

Dean Parker nodded, "You have brought him to the right place, Mr. Carlisle. As you know, we do have a reputation for "curbing" the unlawful tendencies of students. Ezra will no longer be a concern to you. I will see to it myself."

Carlisle nodded as he followed Parker into the main building. "See that you do. I don’t want him causing any more problems for me and my new wife."

Chris and his friends remained watching even as the other students began leaving now that the show was over. J.D. shook his head, "Wow! What do you think that was all about?"

Buck laughed, "Trouble, kid. Trouble plain and simple. Looks like this year is gonna be even more interesting than I thought."

J.D. looked up at Buck, laughter in his brown eyes, "But I thought I already made this year more interesting."

The larger boy laughed out loud, "No, J.D., you make this year more amusing."

The two began to argue playfully. Nathan shook his head at them but spoke about their new classmate, "You know I don’t understand why people want to waste good money forcing someone to have an education they obviously won’t appreciate."

Josiah softly tsked, tsked his friend, "Now, Nathan, we can not begin to judge our new alumni. We do not know any details to his story. I for one would like to give him a chance."

Chris had been listening to his friends, but watching the main entrance and his patience was rewarded as he saw his father step back outside. Since he first saw his father’s police cruiser pulling up the driveway, Chris had been debating internally about whether he wanted to talk to him or not. Even during the summer when they shared a home, the two of them rarely spoke to each other. Chris decided that he would let his father initiate any conversation. But watching Clint put on his sunglasses as he glanced back over in their direction without acknowledging him again filled Chris with an anger he was not about to ignore. His friends’ questions about the new kid just gave him the excuse he needed to confront his father. "Well, I know one way to find some details out." With that he stepped away from them and began to stride stiffly toward Clint.

Clint Larabee for his part watched his son walk toward him but waited until he was close enough to hear his soft greeting, "Hey Chris, I didn’t see you over there."

Chris shook his head as he stopped with several feet still remaining between him and his father. "Hey, Dad," the word was fairly growled out as a tumult of emotions filled Chris. He was always filled with guilt whenever he dealt with his father. Deep down he always wanted Clint to let him know that he did not hold him responsible for the loss of their family. But that reassurance never came from him, and Chris was too proud to recognize what he needed, much less admit to it. After an awkward silence, Chris asked, "What’s the story on the new kid?"

Clint looked back toward the building and shrugged as he faced his son again. "Same old story, new players. Rich kid, bored and wanting attention, always getting into trouble, hacking into computers, causing problems but so far nothing that his parents can’t buy him out of. Think the stepfather’s finally gotten tired of him, so he shipped him out here."

Chris stiffened at Clint’s last words, wondering but unable to ask if that was exactly the reason that he sent him to this school. Instead Chris asked, "So how’d you get involved?"

A half smile crossed the cop’s face. "Kid ran away this morning when they were planning on bringing him over. I caught sight of him out near an ATM. That kid led me on one of the longest chases I’ve ever had, he’s one slippery little cuss. I nearly lost him a couple of times. I must not be in the shape I used to be."

Chris nodded as he took the opportunity to get a jibe in on his father, "Well, drinking your meals will do that." He said it easily enough, but when Clint looked up at him in shock, he saw the hard set of his son’s eyes and knew that he meant the accusation.

Hard anger filled the older Larabee as he took a threatening step toward his son. He pulled himself up short as he reminded himself not to let Chris goad him into a public confrontation. Instead he met his son’s eyes with an intimidating glare and felt a momentarily flash of paternal pride when Chris did not flinch from it and even managed to match it.

Breaking eye contact with a shake of his head, Clint sighed as he removed his hat and ran a hand through his brown hair. "I ain’t a drunk, Chris." He breathed in, struggling to explain to his son how the hard kick of alcohol was the only thing he could find to ease the heartbreaking, endless pain he felt over the loss of his wife and daughter. At the same time, his pride screamed at him that he had no reason to try and explain to the teenager. His demons and the guilt they carried were his own to deal with.

Chris took the opportunity, "That’s not what I’ve heard." His voice dropped low, no longer attempting to hide the contempt and accusation within it.

Again their eyes met, each probing the other for a weakness, a sign that one or the other of them would back down. Neither did. Finally Clint pulled himself to his full height as he took another step toward his son. His words were clipped, the anger barely controlled as he said, "You know I take my work seriously." Getting no response from Chris with that, Clint added, "And that it’s the only…" But he stopped short, as paternal instinct stopped him from lashing out at his son who, though the feeling was well buried under years of misplaced guilt and blame, he still loved deeply and wanted respect from.

But Chris picked up on his train of thought and spoke it out loud for him "The only thing you have left? That it’s the most important thing in your life? Yeah, Dad, I know that." With that Chris whirled on his heel and without a backward glance walked away from his father.

Clint Larabee watched his son and shook his head, closing his eyes at the pain of not knowing what he could do or say to make Chris understand how completely untrue those words were. He was failing his son; he could feel it. And in failing him, he was failing the memory of Sarah and Eve. But anytime the two of them tried to talk, it just turned into an argument or a volley of traded barbs and accusations. Throwing open the cruiser door, Clint slid his tall, lean form behind the steering wheel, gripping it tightly with clenched fists. Slamming the door shut as all the old anger and frustration flooded him, Clint threw the cruiser into gear and sped off.

Chris heard the noise of squealing tires but never flinched. His eyes were now focused on his friends who waited patiently for him. Chris looked them over and noticed that one was missing. "Where’s Vin?" he called.

Buck eyed Chris carefully, trying to get a feel for what may have passed between father and son. He decided to wait for a moment where he could talk to Chris alone before asking. "He got called into the office." Buck caught the concern in Chris’ green eyes. "Now before you go flying off the handle, it didn’t look like he was in any kind of trouble. Hell, what kind of trouble would Vin even get into?"

Chris nodded, but was not completely convinced. "Well, let’s go wait for him." The others followed him, with Buck shaking his head at J.D.’s unvoiced questions about the new information that Chris' dad was a cop.


Comments to: mercurial_fire@yahoo.com