Ezra leaned against the tree and closed his eyes, but he could not rest. Swiping a hand through his hair, he checked the time on his watch. It was time for them to be called in to be counted. Surreptitiously he looked over to where Chris and Vin sat and knew that J.D. was not back yet. What was he doing here, he asked himself. But he could not find a ready answer.

He knew why he was here. Punishment, pure and simple. He still remembered with painful clarity being called into Headmaster Lowell’s office to receive the phone call from his mother. She had been appropriately sympathetic as she told him that she and Robert would be leaving shortly for a trip to Las Vegas that Ezra was certain Maude talked her husband into. She added that he would have to remain at the school for the long weekend. Then in that sweetly sickening voice she informed him that it was his own fault. If he had just gone to the school instead of running away then she was sure that Robert would not have minded delaying their trip a day so that he could come with them. Ezra had not argued because he knew it would do him no good and would only give her the satisfaction of knowing that she had hurt him. Instead he told her to have a good trip and that he hoped to see her soon and hung up the phone.

His keen ears had caught the disappointed sigh from Lowell as the headmaster realized that Ezra would be staying the weekend. The boy had been unable to help himself then. He turned to Lowell and said, "My stepfather said to tell you that you are doing a wonderful job and that he may very well increase his contributions to show his appreciation." The headmaster was too startled to respond immediately so Ezra swept out of the room.

Now as he sat waiting for J.D. to return, Ezra petulantly thought that if something happened to him he hoped his mother blamed herself and could not deal with the grief. Shaking his head, he banished the thought from his mind. He would not be able to "come back from the dead" like Tom Sawyer had when he viewed his own funeral. Backtracking his thoughts, the sophomore wondered where the random reference to Tom Sawyer came from since he had not read the book in years. Then he remembered Vin returning to their room Friday night talking about how Chris had compared them to Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The Texan even repeated his imitation of Val Kilmer in Tombstone. Ezra silently wished that he had been present for the original performance.

Vin almost always shared the details of their little gatherings out in the clearing and Ezra found himself longing to belong to their group as well. But he just did not see how he could fit in with the tight knit group of boys. After all, he could not think of a time that he ever fit in anywhere. Even as he thought that, he realized that it was changing. Very slowly perhaps, but changing still.

Forced to spend the better part of the day and night with the others, he could not think of a time when any of them even hinted that they wanted him to go away. If anything they were very accepting of him and even asked for his help. Scrubbing at his face, he decided it was something he would have to think on very carefully when he could take the opportunity. Right now he needed to concentrate on the fact that J.D. would not be back in time for the counting.

Pulling himself to his feet, he again looked to where Chris and Vin waited anxiously for the underclassman. He noticed them wait expectantly after Nathan nodded that the alarm had gone off and should have provided the distraction for J.D. But still the freshman did not appear out of the window. And now Cali himself exited into the quad to call the boys in for counting.

He dug his hand into the pocket of his jeans and fingered the key he palmed before being pulled from his room that first morning. Quickly he developed several scenarios and discarded the ones that would not work. He looked up at Cali again, knowing that everything depended on what he knew of the man and his reactions. The man had a flash fire temper, Ezra was all too aware. He received the brunt of that anger when he had been caught in the stairwell. And yet, Ezra read some hesitancy in the man’s eyes as if he could not bear to harm a boy, as if he found it dishonorable. And while the man might be insane he seemed to be driven by doing the honorable thing. After all, his motive was to free his father. There was a twisted kind of honor in that. Ezra knew it was a dangerous gamble he was about to play that relied solely on his instincts and his ability to read others. He silently hoped, for once, that he had truly inherited his mother’s God-given talents. With that thought he pulled the key from his pocket and kept it gripped tightly in his hand as he strode toward Cali.

The leader had already called for the guards to begin bringing the boys in. Ezra stood off to one side, patiently waiting for Cali to feel his staring at him. When he did, he turned to look at the boy who smirked defiantly at him as he strode forward. Knowing he had Cali’s full attention, he timed his movements carefully, managing to have one of the other boys bump into him as they crossed paths. He dropped the key onto the cement walkway so that its clinking drew Cali’s attention. Ezra widened his eyes in mock panic, though he was feeling real fear rise up within him as he realized there was no turning back now.

Cali looked from the key to Ezra and saw the fear. Moving quickly he pushed the sophomore aside as he attempted to retrieve the key quickly. "What do we have here?" he asked as he picked it up.

Ezra said nothing, stalling for time. He did not dare look back at the others, had no idea if J.D. returned yet or not. Cali advanced on him menacingly, until he stood inches away from the boy and glared down at him. It was no act when Ezra shrank away from him. The man grabbed his arm roughly and demanded again, "What is this?"

Smiling weakly, he answered, "It’s a key."

Cali’s hand flew up as if to strike him, but he caught himself in time. Through grit teeth he ground out, "I know it is a key. But what is it a key to?"

The southerner decided not to push his luck by answering that it was to a lock. Cali was maintaining control of himself but just barely. Ezra could actually feel the man trembling with his rage. "Just to the trunk in my room," he admitted.

"And what is in this trunk?" Cali prodded.

Going against his nature, Ezra forced the lie to show in his eyes, needing his captor to see that he was hiding something. "Nothing, just clothes and stuff from home," he rushed it out.

A parody of a smile graced the man’s not unhandsome features. "Really? Well perhaps you’d like to show me?" With that he grabbed Ezra’s arm tightly and began pulling the young man up the short flight of stairs and into the building.

Ezra pulled back, digging his heels into the ground, but was no match for the man’s greater strength. "No really. There’s nothing interesting in there," he let his real panic show. He could feel the grip on his arm tighten painfully as Cali bodily dragged him into the building.

"I’ll be the judge of that," Luis stated as he brushed past Headmaster Lowell who was daring enough to protest Ezra’s treatment. The headmaster was pulled aside by another guard who then followed them up the stairs. Ezra made every attempt to slow their progress upstairs without resorting to holding on to the banister. When they finally reached the sophomore floor he hesitated for as long as he thought he could get away with when Cali demanded to know which was his room. He had no idea how much time J.D. needed but figured the more he could give the freshman the better.

When they entered the room, Cali shoved Ezra hard so that the boy stumbled and fell against the bed. Ezra cringed back against it as Cali glared at him, "There is no lock on this trunk!"

Swallowing hard, the southerner answered, his drawl thick with fear, "It’s on the inside."

Tossing the lid open, Cali began pulling out the contents of the trunk and dumping them on the floor. He gave a grunt of satisfaction as he came to the false bottom in the trunk. Pulling it up, he revealed the lock. Eyeing Ezra, he opened the compartment. Ezra winced as he saw the fury rise up into the man’s face as he saw the items hidden away. In the compartment there were at least two cell phones, a laptop computer, a digital camcorder and camera, and tucked even further away were several "emergency" credit and ATM cards. Slamming the trunk shut, Cali stalked toward Ezra who tried to shrink even further away from the anger maddened man. But he had nowhere to go.

"This is what you were after the other night!" Cali shouted at the top of his lungs.

Ezra shook his head in denial, but found his mouth too dry from fear to form words. The enraged terrorist towered over him before striking the boy with a backhand blow that sent him spinning to the floor. Cali grabbed his arm and dragged him back to his feet, though the dazed boy could barely get his feet back under himself. Shoving Ezra into the guard that followed him, he spat orders in Spanish.

The southerner struggled to focus on the words so that he could know what was being said, but was still too stunned from the sudden blow. The guard took Ezra out into the hallway, where he pushed the boy up against the wall as they both listened to the sounds of Cali destroying the contents of the trunk. Ezra winced both from the pain of the blow and of losing his precious cache of equipment. He was finally catching his wind again when Cali stormed out of the room and latched onto his arm, dragging him back down the hallway with him. The sophomore struggled to keep up with the man as he pulled him down the stairs. His mind was clear enough now that he could understand the curses being thrown at him.

As they came down the last flight of stairs, Ezra was gratified to see that the

guards had rounded up all of the boys and that the other six, including J.D., were part of the group. At least it had not all been for nothing. He could easily replace the equipment. But he was not sure how he would have felt if something happened to the freshmen.

Ezra felt Cali’s grip on his arm tighten as the man prepared to toss him into the crowd of boys. But then that motion was arrested and Cali swung him away from the gathering. The southerner’s heart skipped a beat, as he feared that he seriously miscalculated the man’s reactions. The fear turned into panic as he realized that Cali was dragging him toward the small janitor’s closet under the stairwell. He pushed desperately at the man’s grip on his arm, but it was to no avail.

As his captor pulled the door open, Ezra finally wrenched out a heartrending cry, "No, please!"

The evil smile on Cali’s face spoke of no mercy as he shoved the boy inside and slammed the door shut and locked it. Ezra fell against the back wall of the closet that was itself covered by shelving. Fortunately it was a tidy closet, rarely used, so nothing fell or spilled on him. But the southerner bounced back and began pounding on the door, shouting to be let out. The gunshot startled him into shocked silence as he again fell back against the shelving. "The next shot goes through the door, if you make another sound!" Cali shouted from outside.

Ezra slid to the floor where a thin crack of light crept between the door and the floor. Gasping chunks of air, he attempted to control his breathing, knowing from experience that he did not want to add hyperventilation to his list of problems. He tried to focus solely on that, but it was so difficult with the feel of the walls pressing in on him in the confining darkness. He hugged his knees tightly to his chest, trying to quell his trembling, finding a little comfort in rocking himself.

You’re alive, you idiot! his mind screamed at him. Concentrate on that. This is just a closet, a very small one. He shook his head violently to shake that line of thought, awakening the ache in his jaw. The breath he had been holding burst from him in heaving sobs. He pressed his forehead into his knees as he struggled with the claustrophobia that overwhelmed him.

He needed an out. He could deal with being closed in or in a tight spot, if he at least knew there was a way out. But there was only one way out of the closet and it was locked from the outside. Clamping his mouth shut, he forced himself to breathe through his nose, hoping that would help regulate his erratic respirations.

No longer in immediate danger of hyperventilating, though an occasional shuddering breath still escaped, Ezra struggled to regain control of himself. He kept his eyes squeezed shut as the best way to deny the situation he was in. He tried to think about anything else but where he was. Needing something difficult to distract himself, he considered why he acted as he had.

It certainly went against everything he had been taught by his mother whose credo was to take care of number one. He rationalized his actions by thinking that as someone who already angered Cali, he probably would have been one of the five the man called to be shot when the count came up one short. So he could say that he was looking out for himself, that he had saved himself. But he knew that in truth that thought just came to him. When he acted, he only thought about giving J.D. more time and providing a distraction so that the freshman’s late entrance would not be noticed. And truth be told, he had not wanted to let the others down.

What was it about the other six boys that fascinated him so much? He just could not understand it. As he thought about it, his head lifted so that he rested his chin instead of his forehead on his knees and slowly his grip on his knees loosened ever so slightly.


The boys were all herded back into the cafeteria and counted, but this time they were not allowed back into the quad. So Chris and the five others took a table to themselves as they waited to hear word from J.D. about all that happened.

Before the youngest of them could draw a breath to speak, Vin stated vehemently, "We’ve got to get Ezra out of there."

The others looked at him in surprise. None of them completely understood what happened to the southerner or why. They had been too preoccupied with concern about J.D. to noticed Ezra’s confrontation with Cali. Once J.D. finally reappeared they hustled to get back to the cafeteria only to find the crowd of boys staring up the stairway. When they questioned those nearest to them they learned that Cali had taken Ezra upstairs and that he seemed incredibly angry.

When Cali dragged Ezra back down the stairs they had been grateful to see that he was relatively okay though he looked dazed and afraid. They had been surprised to see their captor throw the southerner into the closet. Chris and Vin shared a look of concern when the southerner began pounding on the door and screaming to be let out. Cali’s gunshot into the ceiling sent most of the students to the floor in fear and instantly brought silence from the closet.

"He got himself in there, Vin," Buck stated. "He’s probably safer in there than out here where he could cause more trouble."

Vin turned on Buck, his blue eyes awash with anger. "We don’t know what Ezra was doing. And if you ain’t noticed, whatever it was kept Cali away long enough that nobody saw that J.D. was missing." His voice dropped to a dangerous growl, "And Ez ain’t safer in there. I know it escapes you, cause you don’t pay attention to nobody but yourself, but he’s claustrophobic!"

Buck had the decency to duck his head in shame briefly. "Damn, Vin, I’m sorry."

"Ain’t me you need to be sorry to," Vin said slightly mollified, but the heat still burned in his eyes.

"I’ll remember that," Buck promised and Vin believed the older boy.

Chris shook his head. "We can’t do anything about Ezra right now, Vin. You know that. It’s too risky."

"But we can’t leave him in there, Chris. Do you know what it’s like to be that afraid?" The words were out before Vin could swallow them back.

The senior closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened them again, he met Vin’s gaze unflinchingly as he revealed, "Yes, I do. Ezra’s a tough kid, Vin. He’ll make it through. And we will get him out of there as soon as possible. That’s a promise."

Vin nodded his acceptance but could not help but worry about how Ezra was doing in the closet. Josiah met his eyes and added, "It’s true, Vin. He’s one of us now. We’ll take care of him." A slight lift to the edges of Vin’s lips showed his appreciation to the sentiment. The smile widened slightly when the other four boys all murmured their agreement.

Chris let the silence sit over them for a couple of minutes before he asked, "Okay, J.D., what happened?"

"I made it out no problems, just like you said," the freshman began, managing to keep his voice low despite his obvious excitement. "But as soon as I made it out of the storm pipe, a couple of military guys grabbed me."

"The military?" Josiah asked surprised.

J.D. nodded, not at all bothered by having his recount interrupted. "Yeah, they’re everywhere out there. I bet they’ll be the ones who make a move on these guys."

Josiah nodded thoughtfully, catching Chris’ eyes at that information. Both seniors knew that military involvement was usually only in terrorist situations. It was at least comforting to know that it was being taken that seriously and that if an assault was made it would most likely be handled by the military.

"Anyway they took me to the guy in charge, a FBI agent named Dempsey. Your dad was there, too, Chris," here J.D. paused as he gave out that information. Chris merely nodded, ignoring the looks from the other boys. Somehow he expected his dad to find a way into the thick of things. It seemed to be a Larabee curse.

"I gave them everything and they looked it over. That Dempsey guy seemed to think it was pretty risky." Regret colored his words as he added, "I don’t think he’ll go for it."

"At least you got it to them, kid," Buck said with a grin of encouragement.

J.D. grinned back, "Yeah. But then I told them I had to go back, and Dempsey was not about to let me. Said he was responsible for me now and couldn’t possibly send me back into a dangerous situation. I told them how Cali would kill five guys if I didn’t, but Dempsey wouldn’t listen. Your dad stepped in and helped me slip past them back into the storm drain. Before I left he told me to tell you something, Chris." The younger man paused unsure if he should reveal this in front of everyone.

Chris steeled himself then nodded for J.D. to go ahead. He could feel the other four boys watching him intently, but he pushed them from his thoughts. "He said that he trusts you and that you are all that matters to him," J.D. stated, hoping he captured the earnestness of Clint’s tones.

The only outward sign that Chris heard those words was a sharp exhale of air as he leaned back into his chair. His dad was reaching out, trying to reassure him by the only means he had. The senior found it to be completely unsuspected and was surprised to find how much it meant to him.

Buck, seeing how those words affected Chris, quickly moved to take attention away from the senior. "You know, J.D., it don’t matter if they do or don’t use Chris’ plan. You really accomplished something today. And I couldn’t be prouder."

The freshman, his eyes alight with joy, sat up straight in his chair. "You mean that, Buck?"

"I sure do," the junior replied with a wink to Vin. "You got rid of that stupid cap!"

The five boys laughed at their youngest, but they all felt a slight twinge of guilt at his crestfallen appearance. But J.D. rallied quickly, a sly grin crossing his face. With slow and deliberate movements he reached behind him and pulled out the cap that he had stuffed into his back pocket. In the excitement of his return no one noticed it back there. He displayed it with pride, despite its torn, muddy, and wet appearance.

The other boys’ laughter increased as Buck groaned loudly. "Why can’t it just die?" he asked melodramatically. J.D. just grinned at him. Buck laughed as well as he looked on at the freshman and wondered if the kid would just bust, he was beaming so wide and all proud of himself.

The rest of the day, the boys attempted not to attract too much attention to themselves. They tried not to hang together too much as a group, but none of them could quite be completely alone. So instead they simply sort of drifted into different combinations.

At one point, Chris found himself sitting on a bench with Josiah. They did not say anything for a little while then surprisingly it was Chris who broke the silence. "I just don’t get it."

The larger senior gave Chris a curious sideways look. "Don’t get what?"

"What happened earlier with Ezra."

Josiah mulled over Chris’ words and his own limited knowledge of what happened. Their questioning of the other boys about the events provided no real answers. They only knew that Cali catching Ezra with a key led to the man taking the southerner upstairs.

"I mean, what was he doing? And why?" Chris asked, his voice showing his utter confusion. "Do you think he was purposefully buying time for J.D.?"

Again Josiah said nothing right away. Instead he considered what Chris was not actually voicing. Ezra and Chris had not gotten off on the best ground possible and that was understating the bad start the two made. And yet, in this whole ugly situation there had been moments where it was hard to tell that the two were not good friends. Chris was struggling to understand that, but the problem was that the senior wanted easy, cut and dried, answers. And if there was anything that Josiah knew for sure about Ezra, it was that there was nothing cut and dried about the southerner.

Tilting his head back so that he gazed into the sky and did not have to face the intense green gaze, Josiah recited,
"When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs,
I am compelled to admit
That man is the superior animal.
When I consider the curious habits of man,
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled."

He closed his eyes when he finished and allowed the silence to lie between them. Finally after far too much time passed, he opened his eyes and turned to Chris. The other boy was studying him with his eyes narrowed, his mouth slightly agape.

"Meditatio," Josiah explained. "By Ezra Loomis Pound. I thought it was doubly appropriate."

Chris made as if to make a reply, then snapped his mouth shut in second thought. He never took his eyes off Josiah as he stood. Finally he shook his head and said, "You scare me, Josiah. You really do." And with that he moved off to find Buck or Vin.

Josiah watched the other senior stalk off and smiled. With a shrug he said to himself, "Well I thought it was appropriate."


Special Agent in Charge Otis Dempsey hung up the phone and cradled his head in his hand, rubbing vigorously at his forehead. The headache had not even begun yet, but he knew it would be a doozie of one before the day was over. Looking up, the agent met the eyes of Clint Larabee. The cop knew that the news was not good and merely waited for Dempsey to reveal it. Clint did not dare push at the moment. He knew that he risked getting thrown out when he helped the kid flee back into the school. He was actually amazed that Dempsey still suffered his presence. But he supposed it was because the fed understood that Clint had done the right thing, when hours passed and no word was heard from Cali. They were certain that he would not have hesitated in telling them that he had killed five of the boys.

"Enrique Cali’s dead," Dempsey stated impassively.

Clint stared at the man, open-mouthed. "Say again."

"Luis Cali’s father is dead. Killed in prison. Stabbed to death."

Unaware of it, Clint mimicked Dempsey’s earlier action as he dropped his head into his hand and rubbed back at his forehead. He surprised even himself with his next question, but supposed it was just the cop in him. "Any idea of who did it, or why?"

"My guess? Retaliation. Cali’s hurt a great many people in his time. One of them had to be connected enough to pull it off."

Clint sat down across from Dempsey and demanded in a low, but strong voice, "What do we do now?"

The federal agent eyed the local cop for a moment, as he seemed to come to a decision. Dempsey pushed a notebook across the table toward Clint. "We find out if your son can do the things he says he can."

Clint picked up the notebook, though he already knew what was inside it. He read through it earlier and was proud of the detail of Chris’ plan. "You’re going to go through with it?"

"We’ve got not choice. When Cali finds out about his father, and he will find out, we have no doubt that he will kill the boys for revenge. If Chris can get them to any type of relative safety while we go in, we’ve got to use it." Dempsey paused, nodding down to the book in Clint’s hand. "Now, do you think he can do it?"

Clint put the notebook back down on the table, never having opened it. "Chris risked sending out that kid earlier today. That tells me that he believed that much in what he had to tell us. He knows that he can do it." The cop gave an almost imperceptible sigh. "I’m sure you’ve already looked at Chris’ history. You know what he’s been through. He’s a strong and determined kid. He’s had to be, cause he hasn’t gotten any kind of support from me."

Dempsey nodded at the admission from the other man. He had read through both Larabee records. The federal agent could not find fault with either of them. Their lives had obviously been deeply and terribly affected by the tragedy that struck their family. And yet both of them were managing in their own way. He did not doubt that they both had issues, but they appeared to be able to set those aside and get done what needed to be done.

Clint continued, "Chris will do whatever he can to help us. But the most important thing to him is not letting those other boys, his friends, down. If you tell him that’s what you want him to do, he’ll get those boys to safety."

Dempsey gave a curt nod, knowing that Clint did not just speak from fatherly pride. He was stating the truth of what he knew of his son. Rising wearily to his feet, the federal agent stated, "Well, let’s go give him the sign to put his plan into place. Then you can join me and Major Erickson as we plan this assault."

Clint followed the man, grateful to be included in the planning stages. What he did not voice was his intention to take part in the assault. He did not care what it took; he would be there for his son this time.

+ + + + + + +

The six boys found themselves back in J.D.’s room as another night fell on their captivity. Despite the victory of J.D.’s successful outing, the boys were subdued as they resumed the same places they held the night before. Each one would occasionally find his eyes drawn to the box of ‘Uno’ cards that Ezra returned to the nightstand before leaving that morning. They thought of the southerner’s apprehension just at being in the room with the other six of them and wondered at how he fared in the closet.

Chris found himself conflicted. He was exultant that everything went relatively smoothly for J.D. But even more important to him were the words that the freshman brought back from his father. "He said to tell you that ‘he trusts you and that you’re all that matters.’" Though he managed to hide his reaction from everybody but maybe Buck, those words had been like a punch to his gut, taking the breath from him. He never realized how much he needed to hear those words from his father. And his father sending the message through J.D. only proved the truth in the words. Clint Larabee was not someone to express his feelings with his son, let alone a stranger. Maybe there was hope that when this was all over and done with he and his father could have a long overdue and meaningful conversation.

As Chris gazed out the window, a glint of light caught his eye. Standing, the senior leaned against the windowsill and peered out into the night. He was not imaging it. The light flashed again, directed this time ever so briefly into the room. The other boys noticed the senior’s sudden attention and rose to their feet as well. They all waited anxiously for the signal to be repeated ten minutes later; the signal that the plan was on for tomorrow. If asked, none of them would have been able to answer if they were more afraid that the plan was on or not. Right on time, the light flashed again and left no doubt that everything was set to take place.

As one, the other five boys turned expectant looks on Chris. Again the senior found himself struggling with the weight of responsibility they placed on him. He blamed himself for Ezra getting into trouble. Not that he had any delusions that he could have told the southerner what he could or could not do. He and Ezra were a lot alike in that when they saw something that needed to be done, they did it. Ezra just was not used to working within a group, did not know how the dynamics of that worked. No, Chris blamed himself because he should have seen the possibility of J.D. returning a bit late and should have had something planned for that eventuality.

Chris felt the self-doubt creep over him as he recognized his failing. How could he dare ask all the boys at the school to follow him when he had no guarantees for them. He needed to ensure that he was doing everything he could for them, covering every possible base. He did not want to let them down as he had Ezra. And he needed to consider how to get the sophomore out of that supply closet.

The thing that Chris was most concerned about was the remote switch Cali had strapped to his wrist. If he could come up with some way to cut that or take it away from Cali, he would feel so much better about the entire plan. His mind raced with possibilities. Looking around the room, away from the expectant eyes of his friends, Chris searched for inspiration. He found it in the scattered remnants of J.D.’s next electronic project.

"Hey, J.D.," he asked suddenly, "remote control devices are all pretty much the same, aren’t they?"

Shooting a surprised look to Buck before replying, J.D. nodded, "Yeah, pretty much. I usually end up recycling mine to save on having to buy new stuff."

"So what does it take to switch one out?"

J.D. stood up as he moved to his equipment to demonstrate. Buck shared worried looks with the other three boys in the room. They each believed they knew where Chris was going with this and did not like it at all. "Well, really it’s just the receiving chip." J.D. picked up the remote control box and expertly opened it up and pulled out the chip he was talking about. He held it out for Chris’ inspection.

The senior took the chip in his hand and scrutinized it. "So, if we switched the chip from your airplane remote with the remote for the bombs, what would happen when Luis pushed his wrist detonator?"

Brown eyes widened, but that was the only show J.D. made of his surprise at Chris’ question. "Well, it should activate the airplane not the explosives."

Buck clambered to his feet, "Now, Chris, you can’t be thinking of doing that?"

Chris ran a hand through his hair, finding a sudden calm pass over him. He knew that this was what they had to do. He only needed to convince the others. "Look, we all know that Luis has the upper hand with that detonator on his wrist. We’re locked in now. Those guys out there expect us to get everyone into the basement. We have no way of telling them, never mind, we’ve changed our minds. We have to do it. But it’s risky. ‘Cause if Cali notices one thing out of place all he has to do is hit that button before we’re all through and that’s it. But if we can switch those chips then we’ve bought some extra time."

"Just how do you think you’re going to get in to switch the chips?" Nathan asked. It was useless to argue outright with Chris. But if they could find a flaw with his plan then maybe they could convince him that way.

"I can get into the ventilation shafts in the restroom and follow them to the headmaster’s office. He took the remote and plane in there, so it’s just a matter of switching the chip with the one in the actual detonator."

"And what’s to stop the explosives from just going off when you remove the chip?" Nathan demanded.

Chris looked over at the freshman, "J.D. will go with me and talk me through it, won’t you, J.D.?"

The freshman nodded eagerly. Buck stared from one to the other. "You know, Chris, I’m getting tired of all your plans excluding those of us who ain’t scrawny."

Nervous laughter filled the room as Chris shot Buck a gratified look. His oldest friend understood. Chris hoped there would never come a time when he did not have the support of Buck Wilmington.

But Nathan was not so easily convinced. "So how are you going to get Cali out of the headmaster’s office? He’s always in there when we aren’t getting counted."

"We’ll need a distraction, of course. Something that will pull him out of the room for a little while."

Vin was sitting off to the side, listening to everything, taking it all in. He finally spoke up. "Ezra."

Chris seemed to pick up immediately on what Vin was saying. "It could be too risky for him to do it."

"We’re gonna have to get him out of there, one way or another," Vin stated.

"Yeah, but I was thinking that it would be after we took care of the guards in the cafeteria," Chris responded.

"You need a good distraction; Ezra’s our best hope for that. Any of the rest of us try something and Cali would probably just let the guards handle us. He’s got a grudge against Ezra. He’ll handle him personally."

"Which is what makes it so dangerous for Ezra," Josiah stated. "Cali said he’d shoot him if he heard anything from him."

"That was then, in the heat of the moment. I’ll be the first to say that Cali ain’t all there, but he ain’t hurt nobody yet, not really. I know he did in that other situation, but that was different. Those were the people who had a hand in getting his dad extradited."

"Do you think Ezra would risk it?" Buck asked.

Vin considered carefully. He honestly was not sure what kind of condition Ezra would be in after spending a night in that closet. But he had to believe that what Chris had said was true; Ezra was tough. "I think so. He’ll probably know the best way to do it, too. Give you and J.D. enough time to do what you gotta do, Chris."

The senior met Vin’s eyes, calculating the risk and the need for it. Nodding slightly, he stated, "Okay. We’ll see if we can get Ezra to distract Cali. You’ll have to find a way to talk to him in the morning. We’ll come up with something else if he can’t do it."

Vin agreed, satisfied with Chris’ backup plan. But in his heart the Texan knew that Ezra would not let them down. And he knew for sure that he would not let the southerner down.

They spent the rest of the night planning out the details of their next plot. They argued a bit, but the bottom line was that each one wanted to take out as much risk as possible. They worked over every scenario, every eventuality that they could come up with. When they all finally settled down into exhausted sleep, they were all pretty much satisfied that they had everything covered and that they could indeed pull it off.


The next morning, Vin did not join the others in going out to the quad after breakfast and counting. Instead he slipped down the hallway towards the closet where Ezra was held. One of the guards noticed him and started toward him. Vin held his hands up and said, "I just wanna try and talk to him, is all."

The guard eyed him carefully. Vin held his breath as he waited for the man to make the right decision. Finally the guard nodded, but stationed himself across from Vin so that he could keep an eye on the boy.

Vin sat on the floor outside of the closet door and called softly, "Ezra. You awake? Come on, Ez. Answer me."

He waited but heard no answer from inside, did not even hear any movement. "Come on, Ez. Time to wake up. Please, Ezra, say something."

He strained his ears but swore he heard the slightest sound of someone shifting around inside. Then he was rewarded with a weakly whispered, "Vin?"

"Yeah, it’s me, Ezra."

"Get me out of here, please, Vin," Ezra pleaded in a hoarse voice. The listless tone of the southerner’s voice broke Vin’s heart. The Texan wanted to throw the door open and pull Ezra out of the closet himself. But he knew that he could not and would have to convince Ezra of the same.

"I will, pard, I promise. I just cain’t do it right now. Look, I’m gonna keep calling out to you, like you’re not respondin’ to me, ‘kay. That way they won’t think I’ve talked to you. So keep your voice down."

"You’re not getting me out?" Ezra questioned plaintively, hopelessness filling his words.

Vin sighed heavily. "Not just yet, Ezra. Listen to me. We need your help."

"I’ve helped enough," came the response from inside. The voice was muffled even more as if the other boy had turned away from the door, from Vin.

"I know, Ezra. We all know what all you done. And, if I didn’t have to ask this of you, I wouldn’t. But you’re the only one who can do this," Vin implored.

A very soft laugh preceded Ezra’s comment, "Flattery will get you no where."

Vin hid his smile behind a hand at the retort. The southerner’s spirit had not been broken, at least. "But it’s the truth." He paused a moment, deciding to just come out and say it would be best. "We need you to attract Cali’s attention so that Chris can get into the headmaster’s office."

The silence dragged on for so long that Vin’s calling to Ezra was not an act. "I don’t think it would be wise for me to attract anymore of Cali’s attention." A pause. "Why does Chris want to get into Headmaster Lowell’s office?"

Vin took the curiosity as a good sign. "He wants to switch the remote chips from J.D.’s plane to the explosive’s detonator. Tryin’ to buy some time, in case Cali decides to set off the bombs."

The Texan heard a soft gasp of pain escape Ezra as the southerner moved slightly in the closet. "You hurt, Ez?"

The concerned question was ignored. "That makes sense."

Vin waited patiently, not wanting to push Ezra too hard. He could hear that the southerner’s breathing was still ragged. And his voice sounded so weak and hesitant, not at all his usual self-assured tone.

"When?" Ezra finally asked softly.

"They’ll call us in to get counted at ten. As soon as they do that, Chris and J.D. will get into the air ducts. They’ll be waitin’ right outside the office for Cali to leave. So about 10:15. You got your watch, right?" Vin willed strength over to Ezra. He just sounded so tired and hopeless.

"I’ll see what I can manage," came the response.

Vin closed his eyes in thanks then said aloud, "We won’t let him hurt you, Ez. I promise you that."

A soft disdainful exhale of air told Vin what Ezra thought about that, but aloud his roommate said, "I’ll hold you to that."

"I give you my word," with that Vin stood up. "I’ll see you in a bit." Shaking his head at the guard, Vin walked down the hallway out into the quad to tell the others that everything was set. He hoped that this would not be the first time that he was unable to keep his word.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stretched his legs out as best as he could in the small closet. Over the course of the long night he attempted to search the confines of the closet. He only succeeded in knocking over the multiple brooms and mops that were kept inside. Several fell on him with painful blows, but the biggest damage had been that they were tangled above him, further confining him. He struggled to push them out of the way, but in the utter darkness could not see how to extract them. The renewed terror resulted in a panic attack that Ezra had not been able to control. He hyperventilated and blacked out. When he came to, he had no idea of how long he had been unconscious. He struggled then to remain calm as he managed to push most of the handles off.

He curled up tightly then, hugging his knees and searching for anything that could distract his mind from the plight he was in. The night passed agonizingly slowly. Vin calling to him pulled him out of an uneasy state of a semblance of rest. The Texan’s drawl filled him with hope that he would be extracted from the closet. Despair followed when he learned he was just needed to be a distraction. He found himself wondering if they would have even remembered him in the closet if they had not needed him. Would they have left him there while they took to the relative safety of their basement hideaway? But even as he formed the question, he somehow knew without a doubt that they would not have. Vin’s concern for him had been too real.


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