The advance team made their way to the edge of the cover provided by the trees. From there they could see the two guards stationed on the rooftop. Their patience was rewarded as sniper fire suddenly dropped the guards to the roof. Immediately the three men moved forward. Their job was to get into the headmaster’s office and defuse the explosives. They moved in single file, hugging the building wall and staying low to the ground, their senses keenly alert to any possible trouble. But none realized that one of the guards on the rooftop had not yet succumbed to his injuries. That guard was dedicated enough to Cali’s cause that he managed to drop a grenade down on the three soldiers before finally collapsing in death. Two of the soldiers died instantly, the third had shrapnel cut through his leg.

Clint paused at the tree line as doubt began to creep into his mind. But the grenade’s explosion sent him running across the field, his thoughts filled with concern for his son. His heart sunk when he found the two soldiers dead. The third stirred under his touch, so the cop quickly began doing what he could to dress the wounds. The soldier grabbed his arm and managed to say, "You’ve got to get me to the headmaster’s. I’ve got to defuse the explosives." Nodding, Clint pulled the man to his feet and together they began to make their way to the main building.

Overhead two Apache helicopters flew in. The terrorist that the boys named Counter made his way onto the rooftop to check on the two guards who would not answer him over the radio. Seeing the helicopters coming in, he struggled to pull out the shoulder mounted missile launcher that was still in its box by the dead guards. Machine gun fire tore into him just as he was managing to swing the weapon into position. The helicopter swept the building once before hovering and allowing a team of soldiers to deploy and drop to the roof. The other helicopter flew over the quad and took out the two guards that had been stationed in the school bell tower. With no more guards stationed on high ground, the helicopter’s machine gun kept up suppressing fire on the terrorists who were falling back. A squad of soldiers repelled down into the open quad and immediately began mopping them up. In no time, the men who had once been guards were now held prisoner by the soldiers. All too aware that they had yet to receive word from their explosive expert, the soldiers rushed into the main building, eager to get the students as far from this place as possible.

+ + + + + + +

Flinging Chris into the office ahead of him, the son of the Colombian druglord knew exactly what he had to do. The senior released an involuntary moan as he fell to the floor, his back to the picture window that opened up into the quad. Through the gauzy curtains Cali watched as a line of soldiers advanced. His eyes shut and his lips moved silently in a moment of prayer or repentance, Chris was never sure which as it was all too brief.

Sneering at Chris in triumph, Cali brought his arm up and pressed the button on his wrist. The sneer was transferred to Chris’ triumphant face as nothing happened. In disbelief Cali pressed the button again. The teenager could not help the laugh that escaped from his lips at the outraged, yet confused, look on the terrorist’s face. Climbing to his feet, Chris laughed again, "You lose."

Bringing his own weapon to bear, Cali shook his head. "No, you lose," he smiled.

Too much happened in the next instant for Chris ever to be sure that he knew exactly what occurred. There was the sound of breaking glass behind him, mingling with the close range discharge of Cali’s sidearm. Something slammed into him from behind, sending him back down onto the carpeted floor. Then more gunfire from behind as well as a heavy weight on his legs kept Chris hugging the floor.

When a moment passed with no movement, Chris lifted his head to see Luis Cali slumped on the floor, dead from a bullet to the head. Turning away from the sight, the senior turned as best as he could with his legs pinned to the floor.

"Dad!" he yelled as he recognized the form that was weighing on him.

Desperation aiding him as he pulled free, he mumbled, "Talk to me, Dad." His heart sank as he turned his father over and did not feel the reassuring presence of a bulletproof vest. Frantically his hands and eyes raked over his father, searching for the bullet wound he feared he would find. The rude handling of Clint forced a low moan to escape his lips. Chris was exultant. "That’s it, Dad! You hang in there. I can’t lose you, too."

Matching green eyes met and held as Clint came around. "I couldn’t lose you, Chris. You’re all that I have. All that matters," the voice was weak but the emotion was strong and firm.

Chris squeezed his eyes shut, ducking his head as his own pent up emotions washed over him. His hand groped and found Clint’s hand, squeezing it tightly. "Don’t leave me now. I need you, Dad."

Clint squeezed his son’s hand and then went limp, drifting back into unconsciousness. "DAD!" Chris yelled repeatedly, the word sobbing out of his aching throat, from his broken heart.

A hand on his shoulder sent Chris jerking around, ready to fight. But the face of a soldier with the red cross of a medic on his green helmet met his gaze calmly. "We got him now. Let us take care of him." Nodding, Chris moved out of the way enough to let the medics work, but hovered close watching as their sure hands found and treated his wounds.

"Is he going to be okay?" he finally managed.

The medic who first greeted him nodded. "He lost a lot of blood, but we’ve got him stabilized." Rising to his feet, he moved toward the teenager. "Let me get a look at you."

So complete was the relief that washed over Chris that he did not feel as he was plopped into a chair so the medic could look him over. He only heard the other medic request transport for his father. Then in the background he heard the unmistakable noise of forty-six boys making their way down the hallway and out into freedom. Chris smiled then, even the medic’s stuffing cotton up his nose unable to spoil his moment of absolute joy. They had won and his father was going to be all right. And maybe with a little work, the two of them would find a way to make things all right between them.


Deep in the basement, the boys continued to hear the terrorists’ futile resistance. They waited anxiously once everything went silent above them. Finally they were rewarded with an all-clear call from the stairwell. Ezra did not wait for an okay from Josiah as he poked his head out of the entrance. The sophomore clambered out of the hole and from outside yelled back in to announce jubilantly, "It’s over!"

The boys found themselves led back out into the courtyard in time to watch the soldiers march their prisoners out. The newly liberated students were all saddened to see the forms of several soldiers lying still on the ground as medics moved among them. The six boys broke apart from the main group, each one wondering what happened to Chris and fearing the worse.

Buck’s eyes searched for anyone of rank that he could question. But before he could ask, a stretcher was carried out of the main building behind them and the form lying on it was all too familiar as was the bedraggled senior following it.

"Chris!" Buck shouted and was not surprised to hear five other voices join in the call.

The senior looked over to his friends and grinned in relief. Raising a hand to wave at them, he then pointed down to his father. "I’m going with him! We’re gonna be okay!"

Buck’s eyes clamped shut against the moisture building up within them. Chris’ words echoed in his head. "We’re gonna be okay!" Buck hoped they held a double meaning. That not only were the Larabees going to be physically okay but mend their broken relationship as well.

Buck felt a hand clamp on his shoulder and give it a squeeze. Opening his eyes he looked into the blue eyes of an equally relieved Vin. Looking around at the others, the junior saw the stupid grins on all their faces and had to laugh. Suddenly the courtyard was filled with the loud laughter of six boys, ecstatic in their victory.

It took several tries for the boys to finally contain their laughter. And even then the occasional giggle from one of them would get the others going again. Finally after a round started by J.D., Buck snatched the battered cap from off the freshman’s head. Tossing it to the ground, he stomped on it, grinding it to the dirt. "I had to do it, kid," he said to J.D.’s open mouthed amazement, "It’s the law of the West."

"What?" J.D. demanded.

"It was sickly. It had to be put down. That’s the law of the West," Buck answered with a grin.

"We’re not in the West, Buck!" J.D. yelled.

Buck’s grin widened. "Well I was born out west and I carry that with me. So I’m just acting as an agent of that law."

J.D. looked around at the others, looking for support and only finding half hidden grins. "I can’t believe you did that," he stated in shock. Then with a sudden cry he threw himself at Buck and actually managed to use the element of surprise to knock the much bigger boy to the ground. Quickly scrambling to his feet, J.D. grabbed up the wretched remains of his hat and dusted it off over Buck so that the dirt fell over him. Then with as much dignity as he could muster, he returned the hat to his head and strode away, following the main body of students as they were led out of the quad.

Josiah leaned over Buck and offered him a hand up. "Told you, you shouldn’t underestimate someone because of their size."

Catching his wind with a painful breath, Buck nodded. "I’ll remember that next time."

Shaking his head, Josiah answered, "No you won’t." Then he, too, followed J.D. out of the quad. Vin awkwardly threw an arm around the taller boy’s shoulder as he steered Buck after their friends. "He’s right, Bucklin, you just never learn."

Throwing off Vin’s arm, Buck threw back a lame, "Aw shut up, Vin!" and followed Josiah. Unfortunately the other three followed behind him, so he had to hear their laughter all the way up the school drive to the main entrance.

Once they exited the school grounds and made their way up the winding drive to the main thoroughfare, they saw the crowd of parents waiting for them. Each of the boys broke into a jog, anxious to see their families again.

Vin was the first one there. He did not really expect to see Betty and Henry Van Owen, yet he ardently scanned the large group of parents, while fortifying himself for the likelihood that they would not be there. It was a long way for them to come and the old fears of not being worthy enough to warrant such kindness or love resurfaced immediately. The aching realization of how very much he needed to find them among the other worried parents overwhelmed him as he swallowed apprehensively. His fears gave way to euphoria when he saw them, a sobbing Betty being supported by a stoic Henry. But once Henry laid eyes on Vin, tears of his own streamed down his face. Speaking softly to his wife, he lifted her gaze so that she saw the young man who had become the son of their hearts. Betty’s smile was brilliant as she pulled free from Henry and grabbed Vin in a fierce hug. Henry was not far behind as he hugged both his wife and foster son. No words were spoken as none were needed at the moment. The retelling would take place later. What mattered now was that they were all back together and a family once more.


Buck and Ezra both crossed the street together, their eyes sweeping over the crowd for their mothers. The women were not difficult to find as they just naturally stood out in the crowd. Buck let out a loud whoop as he sprinted the last small distance to his mother, grabbing her off her feet and spinning her around in a wild hug. She buried her head in the crook of his neck and shoulder, laughing and crying at the same time. "I knew you’d be okay, I just knew it!" she stated. "My big, strong Buck just had to be."

Finally letting her get her feet back under herself, Buck released his hug, but kept one arm flung over her shoulder, though he had to crouch a little to do it. "How could I ever leave you?" he asked giving her a squeeze. Reaching up even as she stood on tiptoe, she ruffled Buck’s hair and laughed again, "That’s my boy! Always knows what to say to please a woman’s heart!"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra paused a moment as he watched Buck rush over to his mother. The southerner was actually surprised to see his own mother present. But that surprise did nothing to lessen his happiness. A wide grin split his face as she looked up over at him and her own face lit up with a joyous smile. Ezra did not even remember crossing the few yards over to her. He only became aware of melting into her clutching embrace, relishing the rare moment of her unmasked, free expression of love for him. He hugged her back tightly and his need to prolong this moment of motherly affection was equal to her need to reassure herself that her one and only child was indeed safe and sound. Ezra breathed in deeply, holding the moment inside and letting it warm his heart, hoping to keep the feeling trapped within as reassurance for the times when he feared that he was nothing more than a burden to his mother.

"Oh, Ezra, I am so sorry, darlin'! So sorry, you had to go through this. I know you never even wanted to come here in the first place. I will make it up to you somehow, I promise!" she said firmly, her normally firm voice cracking with emotion and her words broken by a sob or two.

Feeling her tremble as she fought to contain the tears, Ezra knew that this was no act from his mother. He nodded as he squeezed Maude even tighter before pulling away enough that he could look directly into her eyes. "It’s okay, Mama," he said, his own drawl thick with feeling.

Her beautiful face froze at his use of Mama, something he had not done since he was just a little boy. She had become Mother, formal and distant, at all times. Even when he was sick or hurt he had not called out for his mama but just asked for his mother. Maude caught her breath as tears streamed down her cheeks. Pulling him back into her embrace she shook her head as she rocked him in her arms. "No, Ezra, it isn’t okay."

Ezra did not argue with his mother, as he did not want to spoil the moment. But his own thoughts were traitors as they told him that for all her promises eventually things would turn back exactly as they were before. There was just no changing who they were. And it was no more Maude’s fault than his own; it was just the way that they had been made. The bond between mother and son was strong, it was merely overshadowed by years of misunderstandings and unspoken words. But by accepting that, they were able to retain an understanding that, for better or worse, they were family and would love each other in the manner that each could deal with.

Finally, Ezra gathered up the courage to speak. "Well if you want to make it up to me, you can let me stay here, at least through this entire school year."

Maude pushed him away until she held him at arms length. "You want to stay here?" her surprise was evident.

He nodded, though he looked away, afraid to let her see exactly how much he truly wanted to.

Maude paused and considered his words. Looking across to the entranceway to the school grounds, she wondered what he had found there that made him want to stay. "Oh, darlin’, I can’t think about that today. We’ll talk about it tomorrow."

Ezra could not help the giggle that bubbled from him at his mother’s words. They were too similar to the ones he heard her speak in his head earlier. Maude eyed him skeptically. "Good Lord, Ezra, just look at you. My poor darlin’ baby boy,"

she exclaimed as she looked up close at the bruise that covered half his face and the obvious hand marks that circled his upper arms. "They should have had someone look at you!"

She turned then, her eyes sweeping imperiously over the crowd of reunited families, determined to have some one take care of her son. "How could they just let you wander out of there without seeing to your injuries?" she asked.

Sighing, Ezra let her do her thing. It was almost reassuring to see his mother behaving what for her was normally. She needed to be in charge, needed to be bossing someone around, but most importantly needed to feel like she was accomplishing something. "There doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge here!" she stated with disgust. "Come on, Ezra, Robert is waiting for us in the car. We’ll take you to the hospital ourselves."

"I don’t need to go to the hospital, Mother," exasperation thickened his drawl. "And they might not want us to just leave."

"Why of course you do!" Maude turned back to him. "And if they wanted us to stay, the least they could do is provide proper medical attention to those who need it. They are the FBI, Ezra, I’m sure if they get it in their heads to find us, they can find us."

Ezra blinked. His mouth opened for a moment as he attempted to phrase his thoughts. Snapping it shut, he then tried again. "Mother, I’m quite sure that when you get it into your head, even the FBI couldn’t find you."

Maude laughed then, her eyes flashing smugly. "Well of course they couldn’t, sugar. But I’m not hiding from them, all I’m doing is seeing to it that my darlin’ boy gets the attention he deserves."

Ezra groaned, his head dropping in defeat. "See, you’re in pain," Maude stated, now come along."

As they slipped past the grouping of parents and sons, Maude paused alongside Buck and his mother. "Miss Fontaine," Maude called.

The slim woman turned and smiled when she recognized Ezra’s mother. "Mrs. Carlisle, this is my son Buck Wilmington."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, ma’am," Buck stated as he took Maude’s hand and kissed it. His smile deepened when he saw that his action caused Ezra to roll his eyes.

"Well, you have raised a wonderfully charming young man, Miss Fontaine,"

Maude remarked. "This is my son, Ezra Standish."

"Pleasure to meet you," Ezra said with a nod to Buck’s mother.

Maude’s face fell as she momentarily expressed her disdain at Ezra’s lack of manners. "As you can see, my son has been through a thoroughly traumatic experience, obviously no less than your own son. But somehow he managed to call undo attention to himself and suffered the consequences," Maude said quickly.

"Yes, he is sporting an interesting rainbow of bruises," Beatrice stated suddenly at a loss for dealing with the rapid fire Maude.

Maude nodded, "Which is exactly why we are on our way to the hospital to have him checked over. These people have not looked him over at all. Why he could fall out from his injuries and no one here would bat an eye."

"Now, Maude, I’m sure that they are doing everything they possibly can," Beatrice started.

"Well, it’s not enough," Maude responded huffily. "I’m sorry, my dear," she said after a pause, her tone now conciliatory, "but you know how we mothers just want the very best for our children."

"Well, yes, of course," Beatrice answered with a nod of her head.

"Then you’ll forgive me, that I have to run off," Maude implored. "I just merely wanted to give you my card so that if the opportunity arose we could have further discussions." As Maude dug into her purse, Ezra sidled over to Buck who was barely containing his laughter.

"I see that you find this all quite humorous," Ezra drawled. "Well, I can only tell you that my mother having ‘discussions’ with your mother can only mean one thing for both of us."

Buck’s laughter stopped abruptly as he turned a curious look to the southerner, prompting Ezra to state, "We’re doomed."

Buck gently clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "It can’t be all that bad."

"You don’t know my mother. She leads the life that your mother writes about," Ezra said with a sad shake of his head.

Buck’s response was cut off as Maude handed Beatrice her card and with a final farewell told Ezra, "Come on, darlin’, we shouldn’t keep Robert waiting too long."

Buck was uncertain if the last look he saw in Ezra’s green eyes was imploring before the boy was dragged away by his mother. With a smile the junior met his mother’s eyes. Running a hand through her short, curly hair that her son had obviously inherited, Beatrice heaved a huge sigh. "That woman is a force all onto herself."

Throwing his arm around his mother’s shoulders once again and hugging her again, Buck responded, "Her son is a force to reckon with himself. I’d hate to be around when they clash."

"You and me both," Beatrice answered as she leaned into her son’s embrace and relished the strong feel of him and the steady heartbeat she could hear resonating in his chest. He was her life, the best thing that ever happened to her and she cherished him like nothing else.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan easily caught sight of his parents in the crowd. Obadiah Jackson was not a tall man, but he possessed a presence that could not be adequately described. It merely radiated off of the man, emanating from his fierce, yet soulful, eyes that his son inherited. The man commanded attention and respect without demanding it. But now Obadiah’s eyes were filling with love and relief as they locked onto his approaching son. He moved to clasp him into an embrace, but was beaten by his wife, Nicole.

One glance at Nicole and one immediately knew where Nathan got his height. At five feet ten inches and solidly built, she was an imposing figure. But her constant, wide smile and continuous stream of endearments put a person at ease. It did not matter to Nicole how old a person was, once they came into her office or even her presence, they were her "baby" or "child". In her twenty years as a general practitioner, she never had a patient that she could not soothe away their fears.

Despite the inches that Nathan had gained on her, Nicole still managed to engulf her son in a tight, desperate hug. Nate staggered back a step from the force of her embrace, but he was not about to lose his hold on his mother. Nor could he stop the tears that sprang up in his eyes and flowed down his laughing cheeks. Unable to find his voice, Nate expressed his joy by gripping his mother tightly. Then feeling his father’s hand on his shoulder, Nate removed one arm from around his mother and pulled his father into the hug.

The young man could not remember a recent time when the three of them had all been together like this, and while Nate would never wish for the circumstances that created it, he was extremely grateful to have it. He knew that his parents’ work was extremely important to both of them. And intellectually he knew that he was even more important to both of them. But, like most children, he had the innate need to have his parents prove that to him by putting him first.

"Oh, Nathan, baby, I don’t think I can ever let you go again," Nicole cried into the crook of his neck.

Nathan gently squeezed her head between his face and his shoulder. "I don’t think I want you to, either."

Obadiah stepped out of the hug, wiping away his own tears of joy, and smiled at his wife, "Come on now, Nikki, you’re gonna have to let the boy go. Let’s take him home, where you can cook us a fine dinner and we can sit and listen to Nathan tell us everything."

His words had the desired affect as Nicole pulled her tear-streaked face away from Nathan’s shoulder to stare at Obadiah in amazement. "You want me to cook?" She looked up at Nathan. "Now you know your father has lost his mind with worry if he’s talking about wanting to eat my cooking."

Nathan laughed, "I see. But having just come out of one dangerous situation, I’m in no hurry to get into another. Maybe we should just pick something up?"

Nicole’s cooking, whenever she had time to experiment with it, was notorious for its complete lack of palatability.

His mother playfully hit his chest with a backhand slap. "Watch it now, baby, or I’ll whip you up something extra special," she teased, laughter coloring her voice even as she wiped away her tears.

A thought struck Nathan and he asked, "Before we go home to eat, can we stop at the hospital."

"Now son, you got it backwards. We usually go to the hospital after we eat your mother’s cooking," Obadiah laughed and ducked the playful swipe of his wife.

Nathan shook his head, "No, one of my friend’s dad was shot in there. I just want to check on both of them."

Both of his parents sobered at that news. "Of course, Nathan. Let’s go. I’ll call ahead and see what I can find out," Obadiah stated as he began to move through the crowd, easily creating a path for his wife and son to follow through. Nicole gripped Nathan’s hand in her own and gave it a squeeze, unwilling to lose contact with her son for even a moment now that she had him back.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah’s grim countenance erupted into a huge grin when he caught sight of his sister, Hannah, waving ecstatically at him. The grin disappeared briefly when their father, Bernardo Sanchez, stepped up beside Hannah and placed a protective arm around the girl, forcing her to lower her own arm. As he walked up to them, Josiah gave a nod to his father even as he kneeled down and took his crying sister into a big bear hug, pulling her away from Bernardo. Hannah erupted into heart-wrenching sobs as she leaned into her brother, loving the protective power of his presence even after all that he had been through.

Josiah cradled Hannah, shushing her as he smoothed the long, dark blonde hair she inherited from their mother. Looking up into the stern eyes of his father, Josiah felt a surge of anger fill him as he wondered if Bernardo ever even offered any comfort to the distraught girl or if he forced the poor girl to suffer through her worry in silence.

Josiah had no real understanding of their father. The man was a loving, giving, and gentle minister when it came to his congregation. But to his own flesh and blood he preached that hardships should be overcome with inner strength and faith, and never offered them the comfort he had in excess for his flock.

The teenager always considered himself fortunate that he had the opportunity to know the completely loving and tender ministrations of their mother. Her death during Hannah’s birth robbed his little sister of that balance to their stern father. Josiah made every attempt to fill that role for Hannah, but all the time that they were apart made it extremely difficult. He wanted to be there more for his sister, but he could sense his father’s disapproval.

Picking Hannah up in his arms, Josiah stood and faced Bernardo. His father reached out and gave the boy’s shoulder a quick squeeze. "Come on, son, let’s get your sister home," were the only words that his father spoke as he began to lead his two children out to their car.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. scanned the crowd for a second time and felt the dejection and dismay grow inside him. His father was not here. He watched everyone else be reunited with their families and had been happy for them, but it only increased the hurt he felt that his own father was not there.

He watched as Stephen Travis, escorted by two soldiers, was taken over to an anxious couple. The woman nearly smothered the boy with her hugs and kisses. The man managed a bit more restraint but it was obvious that he was equally joyous to have his son safe and sound. The soldiers watched the display with knowing smiles. They allowed the family some time to have their reunion before pulling Judge Travis aside to talk to him. J.D. watched Stephen and his mother as they continued to hug each other until he could no longer take the ache that grew within his own heart.

Turning away from the scene, he caught sight of a newcomer making his way through the crowd. He could not help the loud cry, "Dad!" that erupted from his throat as he recognized the figure.

Jonathan Dunne looked over at his son and increased his pace. He stopped awkwardly when he was several feet away from J.D. as he was at a loss at what to do or say. It had been so very long since he had last seen his son. J.D. had no such restraint as he rushed over and gave his father a hug. Jonathan’s arms came up self-consciously and returned the hug as he looked around and licked his lips nervously.

Patting his son’s back, he said, "It’s alright, John, you’re safe now."

The freshman gave his father one last tight squeeze before stepping back. His face beaming with excitement, J.D. nodded. "I know, Dad. But so much has happened. I can’t wait to tell you all about it! I’ve met some really great guys and together we did everything…"

Jonathan nodded his head absently as he merely heard his son rattling on. "What are you wearing?" he blurted out, interrupting the boy’s story.

Hearing the displeasure in his father’s voice, J.D. quieted briefly. But noticing that Jonathan was looking at his head, the boy again allowed his excitement to show. "It’s a Baltimore Raven cap. They’re my favorite team, too. One of the guys, his name’s Buck and he’s the school quarterback. You should see him play, Dad. He’s amazing. Anyway, he’s always telling me that I should get rid of the cap cause he doesn’t like the Ravens. I tell him that there’s no way, ‘cause the Ravens are the best team, my dad says so."

"You should," Jonathan interrupted again.

J.D. tilted his head to the side in his confusion. "I should what?"

"You should get rid of the cap. It’s disgusting, John. What is everyone going to think with you wearing such a tattered and dirty cap? That I can’t afford to get you new clothes, is what? Now take it off!" And with that Jonathan snatched the cap off J.D.’s head and balled it up in his fist.

The boy’s brown eyes widened at the action, but while the protest bubbled up inside him, he kept it contained, not wanting to anger his father because he so desperately wanted the man’s approval. Swallowing heavily, he forced a smile on his face and said, "Okay, Dad. But just wait until you hear about how that cap got that way. You just won’t believe what I did! I don’t even know what got in me. I was so scared, but at the same time, I knew that I was the only one who could do it."

"That’s great, John," his father said absently as he turned around, "you can tell me all about it in the car. Now let’s get going." Now that most of the children had been reunited with their parents, media cameras and journalists were beginning to look for people to interview. Jonathan Dunne wanted to avoid any such tawdry display on national TV.

Undaunted by the fact that his father was not truly paying attention to him, J.D. nodded his head in eager agreement. Struck by a thought, he asked, "How long are you going to be here?"

"Just for tonight. As it is, I had to take off a day of work already," Jonathan stopped as if realizing how harsh that sounded and turned an apologetic look on his son. A familiar feeling of guilt swept over him as he faced his only son from his first marriage. When J.D. lost his mother the previous year, he was prepared to allow J.D. to live with his second and current family, however, his wife objected strongly believing it would have adverse affects on their family. In the end, Jonathan acquiesced to her wishes and J.D. was sent to boarding school and spent holidays with his mother's relatives.

Even that had not borne any resentment in the young boy as he looked up at his dad and gave him a reassuring smile. "That’s okay, Dad, I’m just glad you’re here now. We’ll just have to make the most of it!"

Jonathan’s answering smile was grateful. Hesitantly he reached out and ruffled J.D.’s hair. Then meeting his son’s eyes, sparkling with exuberance and love, Jonathan Dunne straightened out the battered Raven’s cap and proudly placed it back on J.D.’s head. "We sure will, John, we sure will. And we’ll start off by you telling about what happened to this cap."


Chris shifted uncomfortably in the waiting room chair. With the cotton still stuffed in his nose, he could not smell the otherwise overpowering scents of the hospital. And for that, he was incredibly grateful. The sights and sounds of the emergency room were familiar enough without having to throw in the smells that he knew would haunt him forever.

He was tired of waiting though, and struggled to remain in the seat. He wanted to make demands, to threaten, to do whatever it took to know what was going on with his father. He was about to do just that when Ezra plopped down into the seat next to him. Chris eyed the southerner who met his gaze briefly before diverting his eyes as he asked, "How is your father?"

"I don’t know and they won’t tell me anything yet," Chris said barely containing his anger. Then with a sigh he added, "But the medics said that he was stable when they brought him in."

Ezra nodded then returned his gaze to Chris. "And how about you?"

The senior tried to snort but the cotton in his nose stopped that, so he changed it to a smirk. "It ain’t broke. Or so they tell me. But it hurts like hell."

"You’ve got a good start on a couple of shiners, too," Ezra stated with a grin.

"Then I’ll be one up on you," Chris laughed back oddly grateful for the distraction Ezra was providing him. "Speaking of that, how are you doing?"

"Tired mostly," Ezra admitted as he let his head fall back over the top of the chair.

"Mother insisted on bringing me to the hospital to get checked out. She’s over there now, creating quite a stir. She believes I should receive preferential treatment over those with ‘minor’ injuries."

Chris smiled at him as he heard the mix of irritation and admiration in Ezra’s drawl. His reply was cut off as Buck and his mother strode into the waiting area. The senior stood up hurriedly and swept Beatrice Wilmington into a tight hug that she returned whole-heartedly. Buck stood beside them, laughing and enjoying every moment.

Beatrice reluctantly pulled away from Chris and brushed at the new tears that streamed down her face. Chris and Buck had always been like brothers and their strong friendship pulled the Wilmington and Larabee families close together. Sarah and Beatrice had become good friends, even to the point where Beatrice looked to Sarah as she would an older sister. Clint had been a hard one to win over, but eventually even he came around as he became something of a father figure to Buck. And Beatrice and Eve just adored each other; Eve because of the woman’s carefree lifestyle and Beatrice by the girl’s spirited, yet tender nature.

She often felt herself weak for being unable to handle watching the disintegration of Clint and Chris after the deaths of Sarah and Eve. She tried to be there for both of them, but they pretty much shut her out. Her pride in Buck was that much greater because she knew how hard he fought to make sure that Chris did not face this alone. There was absolutely no doubting the steadfast loyalty of her son.

Learning that Chris was still waiting to learn about his father’s status, she said, "You boys wait here, and I’ll see what I can find out." Buck and Chris watched her head for the nurses’ station and then recognized another group enter the hospital. Vin and Nathan rushed over to their friends. Ezra stood up and joined them in standing in the middle of the waiting room and catching up on all that happened. Nathan’s parents quickly moved to see what they could learn for his son, while the Van Owens gave the boys their privacy and went to see what they could find in the way of drinks.

"What are you guys doing here?" Chris asked.

Vin smiled, "Well I saw Nate and his folks back at the school and asked if they knew anything about your dad. They said they were heading out here and offered us a ride."

Nathan nodded his agreement, "And my dad will be sure to find out everything for us."

"I appreciate it, Nate, I really do," Chris stated as they moved back to the chairs and managed to find five close enough together that they could still talk.

Ezra was the first to leave the group as Maude finally agreed to allow an intern to look him over. He left secure in the knowledge that these boys along with Josiah and J.D. were indeed his friends. His only fear was whether or not his mother would allow him to return to Regents. But he said his farewells and hid the fact that it might indeed be the last time he saw all of them.

Nate’s father came by and informed them that Clint was in recovery and was indeed doing very well. The surgeon then launched into an explanation of the placement of the bullet wound, the damage it had caused, and how it had been treated, but all Chris heard was that his father was doing fine and that he would be able to see him soon. After that, Nate and Vin left as the older boy, while concerned about his friends, was also eager to have some time with both his parents. And since the Jackson’s offered to take the Van Owens and Vin to their hotel, the Texan reluctantly had to leave as well.

Vin waited until everyone said their goodbyes before stepping up in front of Chris. Vin jutted his chin up at Chris while holding the older boy's eyes with his own as Chris matched the gesture. It was the silent communication of fledgling men who did not know how to use words to express themselves and so relied on their intentions to be simply understood. It was an inexact method of communication at best, but somehow Chris and Vin always got the other's meaning loud and clear. And as understanding passed between them, the two friends smiled a little awkwardly before broader grins lit up their faces. With that simple gesture, Vin was reaffirming the fact that he was there for Chris and that the senior could always rely on the Texan's unfailing friendship and loyalty. Chris, in turn, acknowledged it and let Vin know that the reverse was true as well. Vin reached out and clasped Chris' forearm. The senior continued grinning and returned the grip just as firmly. He had made his way into the world so far as a loner and so was surprised to have found a unique and close friendship that he hoped would continue always.

"I’ll call you, tonight. See how your dad is," Vin promised. Chris nodded appreciatively as he watched Vin move back towards his foster parents, before glancing at Buck who grinned immediately with open friendliness. Chris smiled back easily and suddenly felt extraordinarily fortunate to have not one but two special friends who accepted him the way he was.

Betty Van Owen looked up at her husband as she witnessed Vin and Chris’ farewell. She had never seen Vin display any affection to anyone except with herself and her husband and the knowledge that Vin now cared enough about a friend to openly display it, deeply moved her. Blinking away tears, she squeezed her husband’s hand and felt the immediate response as he squeezed back. As Vin reached them, Betty embraced him lovingly and was rewarded with an adoring and tender hug in return. With her arm still around Vin, the Van Owens followed the Jacksons and left the hospital.

Buck and Beatrice then sat with Chris between them, Buck’s mother asking easy questions as she caught up on what the boys had been up to. The time slid by until Chris was told that he would be allowed in to see Clint, but only briefly. The teenager was told that he should then go home and rest and come back and see his father in the morning when Clint would be awake and coherent.

Chris entered the room alone and sat stiffly beside the bed. His entire face still throbbed, but he had at least gotten cleaned up and removed the cotton from his no longer bleeding nose. It was surprisingly distressing to the boy to feel so overwhelmed at the sight of his father lying helpless on the bed with so many tubes and wires hooked up to him. Chris took Clint’s hand into his own and squeezed it lightly, taking comfort in the warmth of it though Clint did not stir at all. But his father was alive and would regain his strength. Chris remained that way, just holding onto his father, until the nurse came and told him that he should go now.


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