From his partially hidden position in the quad, Vin watched Chris and J.D. move unseen towards the bathroom. The armed guards had lost some interest in Chris, especially since he took special care not to draw attention to himself and their exit was not observed. Taking one last look around, Vin nodded slightly to Josiah and Nathan, who tried not to look as tense as their eyes indicated. What they achieved thus far seemed unbelievable but what they had to do next was very risky and every one of the seven knew it.
Vin looked at his watch without seeming to and looked directly up at Buck, who moved to his side, a few minutes earlier. Buck returned the look knowingly. It was nearly time. Vin glanced over towards the hallway that led to the closet where Ezra was still held. Unable to stop, he ran his hands through his hair nervously. He fervently hoped Ezra was up to this. His roommate's weak condition was of great concern to the Texan. He promised Ezra he would get him out of there and he prayed this was a promise he could keep. He looked up again at Buck, surprised briefly to see confidence and strength emanating in the junior's eyes. It made him appear dangerous and focused and Vin realized few people saw past the jovial and rambunctious exterior to see this powerful devotion to his friends and their well-being. As Chris no doubt knew, once Buck cared about you, he would always be there for you. But right now, Vin truly appreciated the tall and imposing figure beside him.
+ + + + + + +
Stiff and sore, Ezra moved gingerly as the appointed time came near. It took him a couple of tries to pull himself to his feet and to get his wobbly legs to hold him, but he managed. Taking a gulp of air, he began his distraction. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he demanded to be let out as he pounded on the door and desperately pulled at the doorknob.
The guard outside in the hallway was startled to attention, bringing his gun to bear as he turned to the sound. He smiled grimly as he realized that the boy had finally come to his senses. The guard started toward the headmasters office to inform Cali, but the door swung open as the man exited, apparently able to hear the racket from inside. He listened for a moment then smiled evilly as he moved toward the closet.
Luis stood just outside the door and continued to listen. Finally Ezra paused for breath. Cali took the opportunity to pound on the door from his side. He was rewarded with the sounds of Ezra jumping backward in surprise and crashing into the back wall. "Shut up!" the terrorist yelled. "I warned you once!"
Silence, except for the occasional clatter of still falling objects, was indeed the response from inside. Finally, a very forlorn and small voice said in a thick drawl, "Im sorry." A pause as a ragged breath was taken. "Please let me out."
Cali grinned his triumph; the boy was broken. He paused, torn between his desire to continue the boys torment or turn it into further humiliation. Finally he unlocked the door and pulled it open. The boy threw his arms up to block out the sudden flood of light that assaulted his eyes. Cali reached in and jerked him out into the hallway, then dragged him out towards the quad. Cali paused as he brought Ezra to the top of the stairs and waited until he held the other boys attention then let them take in the sight of the beaten and dispirited boy.
He caught the eye of Headmaster Lowell who started toward him determinedly. "This is what happens to those who defy me. Next time I will not be so kind."
Lowell eyed him angrily from the bottom of the steps. "It was not necessary to punish him like that."
Cali shook Ezra, rattling the disoriented boy further. "He had equipment in his possession that he would have used against me. He thought that he was smarter than me. He is fortunate that I do not choose to make a more explicit example of him."
Lowell sighed, not altogether surprised to learn that Ezra had a hidden stash of equipment. "Hes just a boy. One far too foolish for his own good. Let him go. I will see to it that he does not bother you any further," Lowell stated.
Cali brought up a gun and held it to Ezras head. "I could see to that myself."
Across the quad Buck grabbed hold of Vin as the Texan started to take a purposeful step forward. Imploring blue eyes turned to him, but the voice was low and dangerous, "Let me go, Buck."
The taller boy shook his head as he tightened his grip. Vin struggled against Bucks hold as Nathan and Josiah stepped in front of them to hide the altercation from the guards. Fortunately their attention was focused on the scene at the steps.
"You dont want to do that," Lowell said soothingly as he took a step up the stairs, his eyes locked with those of Luis Cali. The headmaster could see the wide, pale green eyes of Ezra but he stayed focused on Cali.
"I will do as I please," Cali stated and with that he spun Ezra away from him so that the boy practically fell down the stairs into Lowell. The headmaster caught him and steadied the boy even as he struggled to retain his own balance.
Quickly, Lowell pulled Ezra away from Cali, aware that it would be best to get the boy out of the mans sight before he changed his mind.
"Headmaster Lowell," their captor called, freezing Lowell in his tracks. "If anymore of your students causes even the slightest problem I will not hesitate in shooting them where they stand."
Lowell nodded weakly as he swallowed the fear that rose up within him. Reaching a bench, he pushed Ezra down onto it, still very much aware that Cali was watching him. Turning to his captor, he stated, "These boys will all do exactly as you and your men say. You have my word on it."
Cali nodded his acceptance of the mans words but remained watching over the quad for a moment. His eyes fell on four boys who stood in a small group. He recognized the longhaired boy who had first been missing. That one was glaring at him with a look to kill. Cali found it amusing and smiled back at him in return. Turning away then, he slowly walked back into the building and into the office that he had usurped.
Chris said nothing as he led J.D. into the bathroom and quickly stood on one of the toilets beneath the grill for the ventilation duct. Reaching up he deftly moved the clip holding the grill in place and it easily swung down held in place by the hinges on the other side. He gripped the opening and with a soft grunt he pushed with his legs and pulled himself up into the duct. Turning awkwardly, he stuck his head back out the opening.
"Ok, J.D., Give me you hands," the senior told him as he reached for him.
J.D. did not hesitate. He jumped up on the vacated toilet and stretched out his arms. Chris grabbed his forearms and pulled, managing to get the freshman's upper torso into the duct in one jerk. J.D. kicked and wiggled and was soon inside.
"Can you reach around and close the vent?" Chris asked quietly.
J.D. nodded and with greater ease than Chris twisted around and pulled the vent into place, clipping it shut. He looked back at Chris who smiled his assurance before backing up ten feet to the first junction, whereby he used the extra space to turn around and move forward.
J.D. followed Chris as quietly as he could. Again, he wondered how Chris knew about the ducts and how to find the Headmaster's office by crawling through them. Chris paused and gave J.D. the signal for approaching the office that Luis Cali had taken for himself. The minutes ticked by and if Chris was apprehensive, he was not showing it, however, J.D. felt moisture gather on his forehead and upper lip. Suddenly, they could clearly hear muffled yelling and screaming accompanied by banging as someone pounded a door. Ezra! The response was almost immediate. Movement from the office below as Cali pushed his chair angrily into the wall behind and his annoyed voice bellowing in Spanish. Footsteps, a slamming door, then silence. Chris gestured to J.D. to move carefully forward and the two boys reached the vent grill above the headmaster's desk.
Chris quickly scanned the room, breathed with relief finding it was empty and quickly moved the clip, opened the vent and dropped silently into the room. J.D. moved up and lay down on his stomach, his head hanging out the vent so he could watch and give Chris instructions as he attempted to switch the remotes.
Sighting J.D.'s confiscated model airplane immediately, Chris moved to it and taking out a screwdriver from his pocket, quickly removed the back of the plane. The blue circular chip was easily obtainable and he took it out and flashed it to J.D. for confirmation. The boy nodded eagerly. Chris replaced the back of the airplane, pocketing the screws, before moving gingerly towards the detonator.
The exposed detonator sat on one end of the headmaster's desk, looking ominously lethal. Chris looked at the inner workings before raising his head to J.D. in alarm.
"There's two chips! Yellow and red!" Chris hissed urgently.
J.D.'s face went blank and he struggled with the implications.
"J.D.!" Chris prompted when the boy said nothing.
J.D. snapped his eyes to Chris. "Replace the red one with the blue one," he said clearly.
"You sure?" Chris asked tensely.
"Yes," J.D. replied immediately.
Chris expelled air and returned to the detonator. With great care he removed the red circular chip and held his breath and tensed in anticipation. He breathed again a second later when nothing happened, only to snap his head up when he heard quick and deliberate footsteps outside in the hall.
"Hurry, Chris," J.D. whispered urgently.
Chris quickly slotted the blue circular chip in the detonator and pocketed the red chip with the screws. He scrambled up onto the desk as J.D. moved back inside the duct. Quickly pulling himself up, he just managed to turn and pull up the vent, clipping it shut as Cali entered the office.
J.D. and Chris froze where they were, careful to ensure Cali could hear nothing. There was silence except for the sounds of Cali moving about the office. The two friends just stared at each other as they waited face to face on their hands and knees for an opportunity to move without being heard. For a long minute J.D. held Chris' look, taking strength from the older boy but eventually J.D. began to falter and tried gently backing down the duct. Chris shook his head adamantly. They had some time and Chris did not want them discovered too early.
Their patience was rewarded when they heard more footsteps and a harsh rapping on the office door. What followed were raised voices in Spanish and Chris indicated for J.D. to move and the younger boy slowly backed down the duct. When he was sure they couldn't be heard, he spoke.
"Keep going, J.D.!" Chris whispered. "Can't you go any faster?"
"I'm trying!" J.D. complained. "It's alright for you. I'm the one who has to go backwards!"
Chris allowed himself a small grin at the outburst before hushing the freshman. J.D. did manage to quicken the pace and did not even stop at the small junction before the bathroom to turn around. Chris halted them before the vent but hearing the water running, urged J.D. to open the vent.
Cali's henchman gazed unfeelingly at his reflection in the mirror as he washed his hands. He moved to turn the water off when he was distracted by noise from above. Turning quickly, he readied his gun and listened. More noise, then the vent opened above and two legs appeared. Moving forward slightly, he waited until the boy landed on the toilet, then smiled cruelly when the boy's face paled as he saw the gun leveled at him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck hung back as Vin, Nathan and Josiah went over to Ezra, who was still with Lowell. Even from where he stood, Buck could see that Ezra did not look too good. But he knew Vin and the others could handle it. He was needed for the next part of the plan, which was to give Chris and J.D. the all clear signal so that they could come through the vent in the bathroom and exit safely. All the focus in the quad was on Ezra and the small crowd that was surrounding him. Buck moved casually towards the bathroom, looking around carefully. He just needed to slip in, ensure the bathroom was empty, leave the tap running as the all clear signal, and take up position outside the bathroom to ensure no one else entered. Taking one final look, Buck pushed opened the door.
Entering the bathroom silently, Buck panicked when he saw J.D. threatened. Adrenalin and anger kicked in and he advanced quickly for a boy of his size and heavily tackled the armed guard from behind. Taken by surprise, Cali's henchman hit the ground, his weapon was torn from his grip and he cried out just before his head impacted with the stall pillar. The weapon continued across the floor until it arrived at J.D.'s feet. The boy stooped down and picked it up Then he watched in horrified fascination as Buck turned the stunned and barely conscious man over and continued to hit him until he did not move.
There was no sound except for Buck's labored breathing, until Chris spoke. "J.D., move aside."
The boy looked up at Chris and nodded blankly before moving into the bathroom, allowing Chris to jump down. The senior moved towards his oldest friend.
"You alright, Buck?" Chris asked anxiously as Buck stood up slowly.
"Buck?" Chris repeated and reached out his hand and grabbed Bucks shoulder in concern.
"Im OK, Chris," Buck replied, nodding slowly. He looked back down at the now unconscious gunman. He felt no remorse, only a strange sense of bewilderment and awe at what he had done. He had taken the man down and protected his friends without hesitation. He decided he felt pretty darn good and he looked back up at Chris and managed a smile.
"What do we do now?" J.D.s tense question snapped Buck and Chris back to the immediate problem of what to do with their unconscious terrorist.
It was then that Chris noticed how tightly J.D.s fingers were clenched around the gun he held. Carefully retrieving the weapon from J.D., Chris recognized it as an M16A2 assault rifle. Far too big to hide, he thought with regret, they would have to discard it somewhere safe. He looked around the bathroom, while J.D. and Buck waited, the former looking anxious. Removing the strap from the rifle, he threw it to Buck.
"Tie him up. Well put him in the handicapped stall," Chris told them. Buck nodded quickly and set to work, removing the gunmans belt and shirt. Chris strode over to the trashcan and emptied it while J.D. moved to Bucks side and silently helped. Placing the weapon in the bottom of the trash can, Chris collected the trash and put it back into the can, making sure the rifle was completely hidden before replacing the lid.
A few minutes later, the three boys moved the gunman into the handicapped stall. Gagged with his own shirt and trussed up with his belt and the gun strap, Chris was satisfied that the man would be not able to alert his fellow henchmen should he awaken before the next stage of the plan.
"J.D., Lock the door from the inside and crawl out underneath," Chris told the freshman. J.D. handed his treasured cap to Buck as he complied quickly with the request. Buck fingered the now torn and muddied cap with disgust as the boy wiggled easily out underneath the door.
"You should do this cap a favor and toss it in the trash," Buck commented enjoying the contempt that erupted on J.D.s face as he stood up quickly and snatched his cap back.
"Just leave my hat alone, Buck!" the freshman retorted putting his cap on proudly.
"Lets go," Chris said quietly as he hung an "out of order" sign on the handicapped door that he had found near the basins. Checking the bathroom one last time, to ensure there was no evidence of what has transpired, Chris herded the other two boys back out into the quad.
Ezra threw his head back, breathing in the wondrous fresh air of the courtyard and keeping his eyes fixed on the beautiful open sky above him. He could hear Lowell speaking to him softly, but could not force himself to listen to the words. All he wanted to concentrate on was the openness that surrounded him. He tried to push away at the headmasters hand as the man attempted to get a look at the various bruises that colored the sophomores face and arms. He just wanted to be left alone, but was too weak and tired to fight.
Finally submitting, he hissed in pain as Lowell gently turned his face to the side to see the livid bruise that spread across his jaw and cheek. He heard Lowell murmur something to another student who had gathered around them, but could not make out the words. Instead he focused on the drawl that ordered, "Well, give him some room for Petes sake!" At that, the boys who had been pressing in close out of curiosity immediately stepped back, giving Ezra the space he desperately needed.
A quirk of the lips on the undamaged side of his face was the only reaction Ezra gave as he looked up to see Vin, flanked by Josiah and Nathan, standing next to Lowell. Nathan quickly knelt beside Lowell. The headmaster eyed him briefly, but gave way, realizing that the son of two doctors was better qualified to look the sophomore over.
"Hey, Ezra," Nathan said, his warm voice soothing in its rich tones. "Look at me for a sec." The junior was worried, but did not want to alarm the younger boy. Ezra was so very pale, his skin clammy, and his breathing still irregular. He was also obviously exhausted, proven by the dark smudges smeared beneath his eyes. And the pale green eyes themselves were still glassy from the shock of all that the boy had been through.
Nathans tender hands felt around the back and top of Ezras head, finding a couple of bumps that made the younger boy wince and pull slightly away from him. But the juniors search of the southerners eyes showed him equal pupils, ruling out a concussion. The arrival of another student attracted Nathans attention away from Ezra. Seeing the cup of water in the other boys hands, Nathan took it from him. He placed the cup in Ezras hands, wrapping his own large hands over the southerners slender ones and helped Ezra bring the cup to his lips, letting the younger boy take a drink. But Nathan pulled Ezras hands down as he made as if to upend the cup in his desire to empty the contents.
"Wait now, Ezra," he soothed again, "you gotta take it easy. Little sips. Thats it."
Ezra blinked at Nathan as he did as the older boy instructed. The cold water not only soothed his sore throat but was also a means to distract himself away from the feelings he was struggling with. He focused his attention on the cup, gently shrugging off Nathans clasping hands. Still Nathan remained, watching Ezra carefully. It was disconcerting to say the least. Not that the southerner ever minded being the center of attention; he merely preferred for it to be on his own terms. He did the only thing that came naturally in a situation like this; he withdrew inside himself.
Vin could almost actually see the barriers go up as Ezra retreated behind them. It pained the Texan to think that they, that he, failed the southerner, but he knew better than to try and push him. However, he refused to abandon Ezra. So as the crowd of students began to disperse, Vin sat on the far side of the bench. Close enough to keep Ezra aware of his presence but far enough away to not be a threat.
Nathan stood up and reassured Headmaster Lowell, "Hell be alright. Just needs some time to deal with what hes been through."
"Im fine," Ezra asserted, a touch of annoyance in his still shaky voice at their daring to talk about him as if he were not present.
Nathan smiled at him, "Thats what I said."
Rolling his eyes, Ezra threw his head back against the bench, gazing up once again into the sky. That gesture alone reassured them far more than Nathans words that the spirited spark was still burning in their friend. Even Lowell smiled at the exchange. "Alright, Mr. Standish, but we will speak more on this when we have an opportunity," the headmaster warned.
"Beautiful," the southerner drawled as the man walked away. "It just gets better and better."
Josiah smiled down at him. "Oh, Im sure that by the end of the day, Headmaster Lowell will have other matters on his mind."
Ezra looked over at the senior and felt the desire to question him and the others about what had transpired after J.D.s return, but currently could not work up the energy. Instead he let his eyes drift shut as weariness washed over him. The back of his mind noted the odd sense of security and peace he found knowing that the other boys were watching over him. For once in his life he did not question it, just let it be with the promise that he would think on it later. He snickered to himself as he could hear his mother loosely quote Gone With the Wind, Ill think on it tomorrow. After all tomorrow is another day. Oh good Lord he was exhausted if he was imagining his mother as a modern day Scarlett OHara. But then he knew her well enough to know that the image was not too far off the mark.
Ezra was not sure if he drifted off for any length of time before Vin spoke quietly. "You know, Ez, not that long ago you said you were far from heroic. Well, right now, I think Im sitting about as close to a hero as Ill ever come."
The southerner kept his eyes closed, not wanting to meet his roommates eyes. Uncertain that he could deal with the admiration in the Texans voice, Ezra refuted, "You have deluded yourself. I can assure you that I had my own reasons for doing what I did."
He heard a soft chuckle from Vin. "Really? Care to tell me what those mightve been?"
Ezra shook his head. "Not at this moment." He dropped his voice, thickening his drawl, "Im very tired."
This time the chuckle was a bit louder. "Alright, Ez, Ill let you think on it then. And if your reasons sound pretty good, I might even let you think I believe them."
Shocked eyes flew open as Ezra turned to look at Vin. The Texan smiled smugly at him, his blue eyes twinkling with humor. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra noted that Nathan and Josiah had moved away and had not overheard. Understanding passed between him and Vin. Ezra grinned only briefly as the reawakened ache in his jaw quickly killed the joy in that gesture. Finally he replied with a nod of his head, "Thank you. I would greatly appreciate that."
"No problem, pard," Vin laughed. "Now you just rest up before we have to go back inside. Ill make sure no one disturbs your beauty sleep, cause you sure need it right now."
Shooting Vin a glare, Ezra then settled back and closed his eyes again. He would deal with that remark later. After all, as the Texan himself said, what were friends for if not fodder for a good payback prank or two.
Vin grinned to himself as he read the intention behind Ezras glare. He knew the southerner had to keep his distance, but he was not going to let him think that he had them all fooled. He could understand that Ezra might not be ready to admit his friendship with all of them, but that did not mean that he would let him outright deny it. No, he would play the game as well, he would just have to remind the other boy on occasion that he was not the only one who could make up the rules as they went along.
Satisfied that his roommate was indeed resting, Vin slipped off the bench and made his way over to where Chris, J.D., and Buck rejoined Josiah and Nathan. As he walked over he could see that Buck was animatedly giving his recount of the events with J.D. shadowing his movements with equal enthusiasm. Chris was shaking his head as if to deny Bucks words, but the grin on his face and in his eyes told that the senior was just about as energized as his friends. Vin took that to mean that everything had gone well.
Chris saw Vins approach and with a raised hand silenced Buck so that he could ask, "Ezra alright?"
"Yeah," the Texan answered. "Just needs some rest, like Nate said. "Everything go alright?"
Buck gladly began his story all over again, with the occasional "clarification" from J.D.
Twenty minutes later they were called into the cafeteria. Ezra had actually fallen asleep on the bench. Nobody really wanted to wake him up, but Vin finally gave him a gentle nudge only to have the southerner throw a wild swing at him as he startled awake. Fortunately Vin was prepared for the possibility and easily ducked it. "Hey there, Ez," he said with an easy laugh, trying to reassure him that he was with friends now.
Pale green eyes blinked away the confusion, replacing it with as much impassivity as he could manage. "My apologies," he drawled, slowly straightening on the bench.
"No problem," Vin stated as he offered his hand to Ezra. The southerner eyed it for a moment before clasping it and letting the Texan pull him to his feet. Ezra winced as sore muscles screamed their protest over the movement. He pulled his hand free and stiffly began to walk over to the main building. The others followed him closely just in case he should falter. He paused only once when he entered the hallway and his eyes fell on the open closet. Shaking his head, he quickly moved to the cafeteria.
The boys ate quickly and quietly, letting Chris inform Ezra about all that happened with J.D.s excursion and his own trip inside the headmasters office. With a considerable amount of prodding, the southerner then related the events that led up to his imprisonment in the closet. Ezra surprised himself when he actually told them about the contents, well most of them, of the chest. He expected Chris and the others to be angry when they found out about his stash. But Chris only question was if any of the equipment had been usable. The senior was satisfied with Ezras reply that none of the batteries could possibly have been charged.
Then the senior outlined the remaining portion of their plan where they took out the guards in the cafeteria and got all the students into the basement. Nathan happened to look over at Ezra when Chris mentioned that and saw the southerner freeze momentarily. The junior sighed to himself as he realized that after the ordeal Ezra had just been put through he would not be eager to go into the basement, especially with all the other students. Nathan looked for an opportunity to talk to either Vin or Buck, as they would be the ones in charge of getting everyone into hiding.
All seven of the boys felt a natural nervousness as the time drew closer to act. Each one played several scenarios through their minds about all the things that could go wrong, but no one spoke those fears out loud. Instead they turned that nervous energy into teasing each other as a means of distraction. And it was in those few minutes before their final test that the boys became a team, a solid group of friends who trusted that they were indeed doing the right thing. Though it went unspoken, they were each ready to support the other.
Chris nodded to the boys at his table, signaling that the kid who delivered lunch to the rooftop guards had returned. He stood and with a reassuring look to each of them made his way over to the bathroom. There he would check on the guard they had already taken care of and he would make sure that none of the other boys slipped into the bathroom or quad before they could get taken into the basement.
Nathan stood up and motioned for Buck to join him a little ways away from the table. "Whats up, Nate?"
"Ezra might give yall a little bit of trouble when yall try to get him into the basement," the junior said wearily.
"We dont have time for that kind of thing," Buck answered back, his impatience evident.
"Look, Buck, after what hes just been through, hes gonna be even more sensitive to feeling closed in. That aint exactly his fault. He might even give it a good try to make it down in there. But if he does balk, dont push him. Just try and reassure him, okay?"
Buck shook his head as he released a long, tired sigh. "I know it aint his fault, Nate. But were gonna have to get him in there. Otherwise it could blow it for everyone else."
"I know," Nathan agreed. "Just let him wait to be the last one in and help him keep his mind off of where he is."
"Ill do my best," Buck promised and Nathan had little doubt that his roommate would do exactly that.
"Alright. Then wish me luck," he flashed Buck a grin.
Bucks answering grin was brief as his concern filled his eyes, "You just keep your head and youll be fine. That guard wont know what hit him."
"That is the plan," Nate answered. Then clasping his friends shoulder as he passed him, the junior made his way to the cafeteria entrance where one of the two guards was stationed.
Buck watched him leave and then turned back to his friends at the table. Josiah was already standing. "Well, my brothers, it appears that the final hour is at hand. And it is with great pleasure that I get to begin the festivities."
"Knock em dead," Buck said with a teasing grin.
"Well I dont want to go that far," Josiah answered, "but I think I know what you mean." With that, the senior turned away from them and strode to the kitchen area.
Josiah marched past the guard stationed near the kitchen and with a push to the swinging doors continued on inside. The senior was calmly tying on a white apron when the guard burst in behind him. "Hey!" the gunman called.
Ignoring him, Josiah moved to the sink and began fiddling with the dirty dishes inside it. The guard stepped into the kitchen cautiously holding his weapon across his chest. As the man moved up beside him, Josiah eyed him as if just realizing he had entered the kitchen. "¿Que tas haciendo?" he was asked gruffly.
"Im on pots and pans," the senior answered with a shrug.
"¿Que?" the guard questioned again as he leaned in closer to Josiah to see what the boy was doing.
"Ive got to wash the pots and pans," Josiah said slower as he pulled out a pot and pan to show the man.
The guard nodded and repeated, "Pots and pans, sí." The man laughed as he turned to walk back out.
Once Josiah saw that the mans back was turned to him, he tightly gripped the saucepan in his hand and swung it against the back of the mans head. The gunman dropped to the floor with a hard clatter. With the toe of his shoe Josiah rolled the man over onto his back. Then, dropping down beside him, the senior checked for a pulse. Finding a fairly strong one, he pulled the gun from around the mans neck and drying his sweating palms on his jeans, held it firmly as he stood and peeked back out into the cafeteria.
Nathan moved past his guard and exited the cafeteria. His eyes immediately connected with Chris as the senior stood outside the bathroom door. The blond gave him a curt nod signaling that so far everything was clear and Cali was still inside the headmasters office.
Turning right around, Nathan reentered the cafeteria and taking advantage of surprise, charged up behind the guard. Ramming into the man, Nathan pushed him forward into a table slamming his forehead into the uncompromising tabletop. Feeling the man still struggle to free his weapon from where it was trapped between him and the table, Nathan repeated the forehead slam into the tabletop until the gunman remained still. Dumping the man backward onto the floor, Nathan quickly checked him for a pulse with one hand, removing the gun from around his neck with the other.
"What is going on?" Headmaster Lowell demanded from where he stood, once he recovered from the sight of seeing one of his most prized students batter a gunman.
The headmaster was further startled when Vin answered from his side. Lowell never noticed the Texan sidle up next to him. "Its alright, Dr. Lowell, just trust us." Grabbing the mans elbow, Vin began leading him to the kitchen. The headmaster could only stammer in weak protest when he saw Josiah standing at the kitchen entrance with another of the gunmens weapons.
While Nathan stood guard at the front entrance, Buck, Ezra, and J.D. began getting the other students to follow them into the kitchen and down the pathway to their basement hideaway. Buck jogged ahead and with Vins help began moving everything out of the way of the entrance. Once that was cleared, Vin slipped in and lit up the room. Then the Texan helped guide Headmaster Lowell into the room, followed by Miss Jameson and the first of the students.
Buck and J.D. stood on opposite sides of the basement entrance and watched as the steady stream of confused students slipped inside. They both offered reassurances that everything would be explained once everyone was inside. Finally Ezra came down the stairs followed by both Josiah and Nathan, signaling that all of the students from the cafeteria were accounted for. Josiah motioned for J.D. to enter the basement ahead of him and then followed the freshman.
Nathan eyed Ezra as the sophomore approached the entrance, his hands clenched into tight fists. With a hard shake of his head, Ezra backed away from the hole, turning his back to it. Nathan started toward him, but Buck beat him.
"Hey, Ez," Buck said in his low and soothing voice, "Come on now, we all got to get inside."
The southerner looked up at him, his breath coming too fast from his open mouth. "I cant go in there, Buck." There was also no mistaking the panic stricken look in his sage eyes.
Motioning with a tilt of his head for Nathan to go on ahead, Buck slipped closer to Ezra while attempting not to seem like he was crowding the younger boy. "Sure you can, Ez. Theres plenty of room in there and youll be right there by the exit. I mean look it holds us three hulking behemoths with no problems," he said the last with a laugh. "Hell, theres so much room in there, that we could hold a dance and have a big band play."
Ezra eyed him in disbelief. "But well be trapped in there," he protested.
"Nah, well just be waiting in there, thats all," Buck answered. "And you can wait with your friends, cant you? Give us some time to talk."
Ezras hands were now clenching and unclenching, but his breathing was back in control. "Talk about what?"
"Whatever you want to talk about. I personally would like to hear all about the chase you led Chris dad on," Buck again laughed.
The southerner actually chuckled. "That is an interesting story."
"Well then come on, boy, dont keep a pal waiting." Buck motioned to the entrance.
"You go on ahead. Ill follow," Ezra stated. Seeing Bucks suspicion, he added, "I promise."
Taking Ezras word, Buck began the process of getting himself into the entranceway. Once the junior was inside, Ezra took a gulp of air and followed him. As he straightened, a steady stream of air blowing across his face greeted him. Turning in surprise he saw that Nathan had set up a rotating fan so that it blew across the entranceway. The feel of circulating air greatly reduced Ezras fear, though he stayed glued to the opening.
Buck smiled reassuringly to the southerner. The junior waited for everyone to get settled and for Josiahs explanation of what was going on before again prodding Ezra to tell him about Clint catching him. The tall boy was almost as eager for the distraction as the southerner. He had to wonder where Chris was and what was keeping him for so long.
Clint Larabee watched the flurry of activity that surrounded the command center. The cop sat alone having been told quite forcefully by Dempsey that he would not be involved with the operation in any shape or form. He took a small amount of satisfaction out of the fact that once the decision to move ahead with the raid was made the military had taken over from Dempsey. And if that had not been bad enough for the federal agent, he then received a call from Judge Travis demanding to know what was going on.
And so Clint found himself with nothing to do. Normally that would irritate the hell out of the officer. However, since he was also completely unsupervised, Clint figured it was time for him to use this to his advantage. With no one watching him, he hoped it would be a fairly simple task to follow the Army onto the school grounds.
He checked his watch for what had to be about the thirtieth time. He knew that the assault was scheduled to start half past noon so that it gave the boys enough time to get all of the students into the basement. It was 12:25. Rising to his feet, the lean cop strode purposefully across the camp. The Army was conducting the assault from land and air with the support of helicopters. The land group was making their way in through the drainpipe that the kid had come through. Clint would simply wait and then follow them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris remained standing in the hallway after Nathan disappeared back into the cafeteria. It took a great deal of restraint on his part to not charge back in and see what was happening. But he trusted his friends and knew that they were more than capable of taking care of things. So he watched the headmasters office door for any sign of Cali exiting.
After what he believed to be enough time for them to get everyone down the stairs and into the basement, Chris crossed the hallway and reentered the cafeteria. It was eerily silent, but the emptiness brought a grin of triumph across his face. Jogging to the kitchen entrance he pushed the doors open and slipped inside. He froze in his tracks when he heard the crash of the cafeteria doors and Calis angry scream of "Where are they?"
Hearing the mans booted feet as he strode toward the kitchen, Chris slipped back against the wall, wishing that he had the foresight to reclaim the gun from the bathroom trash. Holding his breath as he heard Cali stop just outside the kitchen doors, Chris waited for the man to decide whether to enter or not.
The senior would never know what gave him away, but Cali slammed open the kitchen door hard enough that the hard wood crunched into Chris forehead and nose. The senior doubled up in pain, falling to the floor as both hands automatically rose to his face. The next thing he felt was Cali roughly grabbing him and shaking him. "Where are the others?"
Fighting the pain, Chris shook his head. His nose did not feel broken, so if he could stop the bleeding and focus his blurry vision he might be able to deal with Cali. The terrorist pulled Chris up and shoved the senior back against the counter, the edge biting hard into Chris side. "What have you done?" he demanded.
Forcing himself to straighten slowly, Chris let a slow smirk creep up one side of his mouth. But he said nothing. Enraged, Cali grabbed the boy by the hair and dragged him back through the cafeteria, calling to his men through his two-way radio. But no matter which set of guards he called, he received no answer.
+ + + + + + +
Headmaster Lowell moved to try and get a little more comfortable on the hard, concrete floor. The freshman who had been leaning against him, more out of reassurance than by the cramped confines, looked up at him worriedly, but Headmaster Lowell smiled in encouragement and the boy smiled weakly back.
Looking around the basement, which was crowded with frightened boys, his glances kept returning to the one who was having more difficulty than most in the confined and crowded room. Ezra Standish was seated as close to the makeshift entrance of the basement as possible. Knees bent up and held tightly in place by his arms, he listened and spoke alternatively to Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington, who continually took turns talking quietly to him, while they waited. He was a little surprised at Nathan's concern for Ezra's well being. From his previous observations, he would have said Nathan disapproved of the sophomore. However, Nathan had an electric fan ready for Ezra's arrival and despite the lack of space, he moved some of the other boys so that some room existed between Ezra and everyone else. Obviously, Lowell thought, he missed seeing the growing bond between the seven boys.
Turning around, Lowell met the gaze of Josiah Sanchez and nodded his approval as the senior had a somewhat calming effect on a group of younger boys huddled around him. Lowell still grappled with the events of this weekend and was only just realizing the full extent of what a group of his students managed to miraculously carry out.
As they had been ushered into the basement, Stephen Travis managed to pull J.D. Dunne aside and the two boys ended up seated in front of him. Despite, being the main hostage in the whole ordeal, Stephen recovered enough to ask J.D. questions about what led them to the safety of the basement. Lowell listened to J.D.'s detailed account to Stephen with growing admiration and incredulous shock. From the boy's escape and return, to crawling through ventilation ducts to switching remotes on Cali's detonator and finally overcoming some of the gunmen and herding himself and the students to the safety of the basement. It was unbelievable and Lowell had absolutely no idea how he would explain it to the authorities or, eventually, the parents. But they were still not completely safe and not everything had worked out smoothly. Lowell kept catching the worried looks exchanged between the boys who instigated and carried out this daring plan, especially between Tanner and Wilmington. It had not taken long for Lowell to realize that Chris Larabee was not in the basement with them and judging by the grim countenance of Wilmington in particular, it had not been part of the plan.
Suddenly, Tanner shushed everyone. In silence everyone listened and soon they all heard the echo of machine gun fire that barked from above.
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