Going Home

by Grey

Main Character: All seven

Warnings: None, really. Very mild language.

Universe: Going Home is the third in a series begun in A New Promise and continued in Transitions; this story begins immediately after Transitions ends; if you haven't read the first two, you'll be missing a lot of the background. The story takes place in an alternate universe, in which the boys range in age from 7 to 20 and met initially at a residential placement, The Forrest Home. I don't have a name for the universe yet; any suggestions? :-)

Disclaimers: The characters of the Magnificent 7 are owned by CBS, MGM, Trilogy, Mirisch, and all sorts of people who aren't me. No profit is being made from this. Any other trademarked/copyrighted names in here that seem to belong to someone else, probably do.

Thanks, for... all the encouragement from folks who have read the stories so far, and given me feedback; it's much appreciated!

Size: Approx. 155K

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J.D. was getting used to things taking a little while to make sense, when he first woke up. Nothing ever quite looked like he expected it to, anymore. It had been different, in his blue room. In his blue room, everything was always where it was supposed to be, even when Mama said he hadn’t done a very good job cleaning up. She usually had a cross expression on her face when she said it, but her eyes were always smiling.

In his blue room, everything had made sense.

Then Mama had gotten bad at remembering to be up before him. The first time it happened, he found her asleep in her bed. She had said she’d been up late with a tummy ache, and that it wouldn’t happen again. But it did.

But he’d still had his blue room, with the scuff mark on the wall from when he got mad and threw his shoe, and the lines on the door Mama made on his birthdays, and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. "So you’ll always know where you are," Mama had said, when she put them up.

When they moved to the brown house, they drove for a long time, and that first night Mama said she was too tired to put the stars up, and that she’d do it in the morning. She looked tired the next day, too, and J.D. didn’t want to ask. Sometimes, if Mama slept a lot, she’d be happier when she woke up. And even when she wasn’t, at least she woke up.

The day that she didn’t, the lady had taken him to those mean boys’ room, and then Vin had taken him to his room. Then Vin became his brother for real, and not just pretend. And then Vin woke him up, and they went into the woods and met Ezra, and then they drove with Josiah and Nathan in the van, because that was the plan.

And they drove for a long time, but that was okay because they didn’t go to a brown house, they went to a tent. Tents were like rooms that lived on the outside but still had an inside. And tents sort of had stars on their ceiling, but on the outside, and they were real ones, not just the stickers that came in the package. And then today, they went and picked up Chris and Buck, and that was good becase Buck knew his car seat was for babies even if Josiah didn’t, and Chris didn’t have that pinched-eye look he usually did. And then they drove again, for a really long time, and now he was here.

J.D. watched as the shape in front of him became a seat. He liked it when things made sense, even if it meant he was sitting in his stupid seat in the van. He unbuckled himself and leaned against the open van door for a moment, watching the others.

+ + + + + + +

They had been riding high, that first day back together, soaring on the miles that dropped steadily behind the van. The seven boys grew drunk off of them. The sun was out and the music was good, and J.D.’s questions had finally come to an abrupt and much-appreciated halt when he fell asleep in the back.

They had talked over each other at first, needing to fill in the gaps of their days apart. They pressed each other for details of the train ride, the late night departure, the response back at the Forrest, and the days on the road without Chris and Buck. Soon after J.D. fell asleep, the van had lapsed into a companionable silence, the boys watching the road fly by, each lost in his own thoughts. They pulled into the campsite about an hour before sundown, unloaded the van, and went to work. They didn’t notice J.D. had woken up until he spoke.

"What’re we doing?" He sat in the open doorway of the van, kicking his feet.

"Bout time you woke up, kid," Buck said, cocking an eyebrow at him from over by the tents. "You trying to get out of all the work?"

J.D. frowned, trying to decide if Buck was teasing or not. "I’m a good worker. Right, Josiah?"

"Right," Josiah confirmed, pushing the last tent stake into the ground. He stood, wiping his hands on his jeans, and turned and flashed a quick smile at the little boy.

"I can clean tent stakes, and put them in piles, and find branches, and put things in bags," J.D. said, listing. "I do lots of things. Ezra’s the one doesn’t do any work."

"I resent that." Ezra’s protest was half-hearted, and he didn’t look up from the cards he was holding, sitting cross-legged on the ground facing Vin.

"He’s kind of got a point," Vin commented, not turning his eyes from his own hand.

Ezra gave Vin a look. "Just play the game, Vincent."

"See." J.D. made a face at Buck.

"Better watch out, your face’ll freeze like that," Buck warned.

J.D. gave him a scornful look. "Won’t, either," he said, sliding out of the van and walking over to Chris. He looked with interest at the fire Chris was standing next to. "Vin showed me how to put the branches down," he said hopefully, eying the pile.

Chris reached down and pushed back on J.D.’s chest, moving him a little further away from the flames. He continued to poke at the branches with the stick in his other hand. "Fire’s just fine. Dinner’ll be ready soon."

"Can I help?"

Chris shook his head. "Not with the fire, J.D." He layered another thick branch onto the growing glow of the campfire.

"Why not?" J.D. asked, leaning forward toward the flames again.

Chris grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him back. "J.D., watch out," he said sharply. J.D. looked up at him, his lower lip jutting out a little bit.

"I just wanted to see."

"Well, you can see it from back a ways. I don’t want you near this fire by yourself, understand?"

Nathan looked up from the food. "You can help me, J.D."

J.D. gave the fire a sad look before turning to Nathan. "Okay."

With J.D. helping, it only took Nathan a little longer than it would have otherwise, and the pot of stew was soon placed carefully on the rack over the campfire. The boys gathered on blankets around the fire, the dusk falling as they waited for the stew to heat. Darkness came quickly, and they ate their dinner by the light of the moon and the glowing embers of the fire.

Vin finished his second bowl, dropping it on the ground with a contented sigh. "So they didn’t suspect anything?" he asked for the third time, looking at Chris.

Chris answered patiently. "No, Vin. They seemed pretty sure you guys just ran."

"Did you have to wear handcuffs?" J.D. asked, looking up from the fort he was making out of twigs.

"No, J.D."

"Oh." J.D. lost interest, looking back down at his twigs. "Cops’re supposed to use handcuffs," he mumbled, moving another twig onto the roof.

"So where are we headed, anyway?" Nathan asked.

Chris looked at the others. "Well, Josiah, Buck and I talked about it, thought we should head west a ways. Put some distance between us and the Forrest."

Vin’s ears perked up. "West? Like with horses?"

"Are we gonna have horses?" J.D. asked, re-gaining interest in the conversation. "I’m gonna name mine Lady."

"You can’t name her Lady, J.D.," Vin objected. "Lady’s Mr. Branson’s horse."

"Can, too, if I wanna." He turned to the oldest. "Right, Josiah?"

"I don’t think we’re going to have horses, J.D.," Josiah said apologetically.

"Oh." J.D. deflated a little, but persisted. "But if we did have horses, I could name mine Lady, right?"

Josiah shrugged. "I don’t see why not."

"See?" J.D. said to Vin, chest back up.

"Why can’t we have horses?" Vin asked, looking at Josiah.

Chris broke in. "How about if we find a place first, okay, Vin?"

"Where out west?" Nathan asked, still focused on location.

"Why, Nate, you got a date somewhere?" Buck asked, grinning at him.

"Of course not," Ezra answered breezily for the other boy. "Nathan just abhors a lack of precision, that’s all."

Nathan scowled at him. "Shut up, Ez." He turned to Chris. "So?"

Chris sighed. "I don’t know, yet, Nathan. We’ve got all summer before you guys have to be in school. We’ll find a place, okay?"

Nathan nodded, then smiled, relaxing a little. "Yeah, okay." He looked at Chris and Buck a little shyly. "I’m glad we’re all together again."

The other two smiled at him, and then at the others. Buck reached over and punched Nathan lightly in the arm. "Us, too, bro."

They all grinned at each other, the night closing in warm and safe around them. They sat in silence for a little while, broken only by the crackling made by the flames and by J.D.’s feet when he grew bored and began to explore the area. J.D. found the plastic bag in the box of food supplies and ran back to the others, brandishing it in his fist. He barreled into Josiah, dangling his find in the young man’s face.

"Can we make’em?"

Josiah took the bag from J.D. and smiled. "I wouldn’t mind a marshmallow, myself." He looked at the others. "Anyone else up for one?"

They all were, and they found long sticks to toast their marshmallows with over the fire. After watching what Buck did, J.D. allowed every one of his marshmallows to burst into flames, jumping delightedly each time one of the older boys pulled the stick from his hands to blow the fire out before returning it to him.

"How can you eat’em like that?" Vin asked, patiently waiting for his own marshmallow to brown.

"They’re goo thi way," J.D. said thickly, around a sticky mouthful. He held out his stick to Buck, swallowing. "I want another one."

Buck held up the empty bag. "Sorry, kid, no more left."

Josiah spoke up. "It’s time for bed, anyway, J.D."

"Nah, it’s still early, Josiah," Buck said absently, looking at his watch. "It’s not even nine yet."

Josiah gave him a long-suffering look. "Not for us, Buck. For J.D."

"Oh—" the teenager colored. "Yeah, that makes more sense."

J.D. shook his head. "But I’m not tired," he protested. "I want to stay here."

Josiah stood, removing the stick from J.D. and taking his hand. "Come on. You can come back and say good night when you’re all ready for bed."

J.D. pursed his lips, but allowed Josiah to pull him up and lead him back toward the tents. They returned a little while later, with J.D. riding on Josiah’s back clad in Spider-Man pajamas and looking freshly scrubbed. Despite his earlier protestations, his eyelids were drooping. He slid off near Nathan and leaned against the older boy.

"G’night, Nathan."

Nathan gave him a little squeeze. "Night, J.D. Sleep well."

J.D. moved to Ezra, crouching down between him and Vin. "Night, Ezra. Night, Vin."

Ezra gave him a little smile. "Night, frog."

"Yeah, g’night, J.D.," Vin echoed.

J.D. stood again and moved to where Chris sat. "Night, Chris." He hugged the older boy around the shoulders.

"Good night, kid."

J.D. turned to Buck last, plopping himself down on the teen’s lap. He leaned against him, looking up. "You can sleep in my tent, if you want to."

Buck looked at him in mock seriousness. "Well, now, I don’t know. Do you snore?"

J.D. wrinkled his nose. "Vin?"


"Do I snore?"

"Yeah, something awful," Vin said, not shifting from where he lay on his back.

"Really?" J.D.’s eyes grew big.

"Yup," Vin replied complacently.

"I don’t, either."

"How do you know?"

J.D. frowned at him. "Cause I know!"

"Then why’d you ask?"

"Well, I can’t hear myself when I’m sleeping." J.D. said, his words ending in a yawn.

"Come on, J.D.," Josiah said, moving to stand next to him.

J.D. folded his arms, leaning back against Buck. "But I’m not tired."

"J.D., let’s go." Josiah’s voice was firm.

J.D. climbed reluctantly out of Buck’s lap, assisted by a little push, and took Josiah’s hand. He turned back to the circle again, his words sliding together. "G’night, Nathan, g’night, Ezra, g’night, Vin, g’night Chris, g’night, Buck, g’night, stars," the last spoken looking up.

"I think you’ve got it covered, J.D.," Josiah said, pulling gently at his hand.

Buck watched as they walked over to the tents. "He do that every night?"

Vin nodded. "Yup."

Josiah re-joined them a few minutes later. "I swear, that kid—"

"G’night, Josiah!"

Josiah turned back toward the shout. "Bed, J.D.!"

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Chris woke early. He coaxed a small fire into life and brewed some coffee, watching the sky melt from the dark purples of night into the lighter pinks and blues of day. He didn’t turn when he heard the light footfalls behind him. When Chris had woken in the cramped confines of the tent, Buck and J.D. both seemed dead to the world, but Vin was a light sleeper, so Chris wasn’t surprised when the younger boy slid down next to him on the log.

They smiled a greeting, but sat in silence as the sun rose, gently bathing the clearing in early-morning warmth. Chris swallowed the last of his coffee and set the tin cup on the ground. Vin eyed it.

"Can I have some?"

Chris started to shake his head, but then stopped, remembering. He picked up another cup, instead, adding a little bit of coffee and stirring in a generous spoonful of sugar. He filled it the rest of the way up with milk and then handed it to Vin.

"My dad used to make it like this for me."

The younger boy took the cup solemnly. Chris didn’t speak of his other family that often. Vin sipped at the drink and then smiled.

"Coffee’s pretty good."

Chris smiled back. "Always thought I did make a mean cup of coffee." Chris re-filled his own cup and they sat in companionable silence, sipping.

Josiah emerged from the second tent soon after, running his fingers through his hair and leaving it standing in wild tufts. He dropped onto the ground near the others.

"Morning, guys."

Chris nodded a greeting and held out a cup. "Coffee, Josiah?"

Josiah accepted it, cocking an eyebrow at him. "You gonna have the coffee waiting every morning? ‘Cause I could get used to this."

"Me, too," Vin agreed, sipping at his cup. Josiah looked at him, noticing the cup, and raised his eyebrows in question at Chris. Chris shook his head slightly, and Josiah’s features relaxed. He sprawled out and took a sip, and then spluttered a bit.

"Kinda thick, isn’t it, Chris?" he asked, when he had stopped coughing.

Chris gave him a sour look. "This isn’t exactly the Brewmaster 2000," he said, gesturing toward the kettle over the fire. "It’s good this way. It’ll grow on you."

Josiah shook his head, but took another tentative sip. He pursed his lips, and put the cup on the ground. "Now on, I’m making the coffee," he muttered, stretching back and rolling his head from side to side to work out the kinks.

Chris shrugged. "You’re crazy, Josiah. I make a mean cup of coffee, don’t I, Vin?"

"Yup," Vin agreed, drinking his. "You should put some milk in it, Josiah."

"I don’t like it with milk," Josiah said morosely, picking up his cup and taking another resigned sip. He looked up as Nathan’s head emerged through a tent flap. "I’ll bet Nathan knows a bad cup of coffee when he tastes one," he said, and then raised his voice a little. "Hey, Nate, come try some of this."

"Try some of what?" Nathan asked, stretching as he walked over. He dropped to the ground next to Josiah. "Morning."

"Hey, Nate," Vin said.

"Here, kid, try some of this coffee," Josiah said, handing him a cup. Nathan looked at it suspiciously.

"What’s wrong with it?"

"Nothing," Chris said pointedly. Vin nodded his head in agreement.

Josiah tapped the cup. "Just take a sip, Nathan, tell us what you think." Nathan gave him another suspicious look, but lifted the cup and took a small sip. He pursed his lips and put the cup down.

"Well?" Josiah asked impatiently.

Nathan shrugged. "Well, what?"

"Well, what do you think?"

Nathan shrugged again. "It’s okay, I guess. Except I don’t really like coffee."

Josiah scowled at him. "Little brother, didn’t anyone ever teach you the difference between good coffee and bad coffee?"

"Just let it go, Josiah," Chris advised, the corner of his mouth twitching.

Sudden noises erupted from the area of the tents. A loud grunt came first, followed by the high-pitched tones of excited chatter, some muffled exclamations, and finally the sound of the tent flap unzipping. J.D. was shoved out by two disembodied hands, which were followed quickly by Buck’s unhappy-looking face.

"Do something with this," he growled, pushing J.D. forward and zipping the flap back up firmly.

J.D. looked behind him, at the closed flap, and then over at the others. He looked back at the flap one more time, undecided, and then turned and walked toward the campfire.

"Buck doesn’t like to be woken up," J.D. informed them seriously.

"You don’t say," Chris said drily.

Josiah laughed. "Good morning, J.D."

J.D. leaned over Vin’s shoulder, looking at his cup. "Whatcha drinking?"

"Coffee," Vin said. He added, a little smugly, "And you can’t have any, ‘cause you’re too little."

"Am not," J.D. protested automatically.

Chris frowned at Vin. "You can have some, too, J.D.," he said, pulling out a cup and repeating the recipe he had made for Vin.

"J.D., if you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave Chris’s coffee alone," Josiah counselled solemnly. J.D. ignored him, taking the cup from Chris. He sipped at it, and then licked his lips. Josiah sighed pathetically. "No one listens to me."

J.D. walked over to him, holding his cup with both hands. "I listen to you, Josiah." J.D.’s drink spilled a little as he moved to sit down, and Josiah took it from him.

"Most of the time, anyhow," Josiah agreed, smiling at him. J.D. sat cross-legged next to him, and Josiah handed the drink back.

J.D. wiggled his toes in the grass. "So what’re we doing today?"

"Well, we’re going to need to make a food run some time today," Josiah answered, but looking at Chris. Chris nodded.

"What do you say we get a little further away, then stop this afternoon and get some things before we make camp."

"Thinking the same thing, myself," Josiah agreed. "Maybe just a couple hundred miles, though, take it easy this afternoon."

"Sounds good," Chris said, standing and stretching.

"Can I come?" J.D. asked Josiah.

Josiah rested his hand on J.D.’s hair. "Of course you’re coming, J.D." He looked at Chris. "We’d better get the others up, get breakfast going and get packed up. We should get on the road soon."

Chris eyed the tents, and then smiled a little. "You take Ezra, I’ll take Buck?"

Josiah grinned back. "Sounds about even." He stood, and they both headed for the tents, Chris stopping at the first and Josiah at the second.

Chris took a deep breath and slapped at the tent fabric. "Buck Wilmington, rise and shine!" A muffled groan sounded from the interior, and then the tent shifted slightly. Chris’s smile was a little evil as he eyed the others, shifted position a little and then slapped the tent fabric again, this time hitting something solid. A startled yelp followed the contact, and Chris’s smile grew a little bigger. "Up, Buck!" he yelled, walking away again.

Josiah chose a more subtle approach. He unzipped the tent flap and crouched on the ground, his head and shoulders pushed through to the interior. Ezra was curled in a sleeping bag, face slack. "Ezra," he tried, shaking the sleeping bag a little. When there was no response, he shook it again, a little harder. "Ezra!" He reached up and placed his hand on the younger boy’s arm. "Come on, trouble, time to get up."

Without opening his eyes, Ezra pulled his pillow over his head. "Unhand me, you oaf," he grumbled, voice muffled by the pillow. Josiah sighed, retreated back a little, and grasped the end of Ezra’s sleeping bag. Lifting it gently into the air, he suddenly yanked it high, upending it and causing Ezra to slide out onto the tent floor.

"Josiah!" Ezra shouted, sitting up and glaring at him.

Josiah looked at him innocently. "I didn’t have a hand on you, kid." He backed out of the tent. "Get up, Ez."

They ate the last of their cereal for breakfast, and in just over an hour had eaten and were packed up. They were a few hours from crossing over into Pennsylvania, and Josiah thought that was as good a goal as any for the day. He located a campground in the guide he had picked up from the church rummage store, and Chris took up the map to act as navigator.

The early morning traffic soon thinned out, and they made good time, with only fifty miles left to go at lunchtime. They found a small park off a side street, and stopped to eat, making sandwiches and getting back on the road.

"How much longer till we get there?" J.D. asked, not happy about leaving the park.

"Not too long, J.D.," Josiah promised from the front. "We’ll be there in another hour or so."

"We gonna get all boring food again, Josiah?" Vin asked.

"Depends how you define boring."

"Like the stuff we’ve been eating."

"Well, then, yeah, we’re getting all boring food again."

"Great," Vin muttered, leaning back in the seat.

"I second that," Ezra agreed.

"Another country heard from," Josiah murmured.

"Hey, Chris, let me see that map," Buck said, reaching forward. Chris passed the map back to him, and Buck unfolded it, spreading it across his lap. Nathan pulled off his headphones and leaned over to look.

"Where are we now?"

"Here." Buck pointed. "And we’re heading here." He moved his finger.

"Where?" J.D. unbuckled his seatbelt and slid out of his booster seat, moving forward and leaning over the seat in front of him.

"J.D.!" Josiah caught the movement, and his voice was sharp. "Get back in that seat!"

"But I want to see the map," J.D. said, not moving.

"Now, J.D.!"

"I’m just looking!"

"J.D., I’m gonna count to three, and you better be in that seat by the time I’m done," Josiah warned, looking in the rearview mirror. "One." J.D. watched him. Josiah’s voice deepened. "Two!" J.D. scrambled back, settling himself in his seat in a huff. Josiah turned to look at him before turning back to the road. "I don’t want to have to keep telling you, J.D., you hear me? You keep that belt buckled."

J.D. folded his arms, glaring. "I just wanted to see the map."

"Here." Buck shoved the map back at him. "Quit whining." He leaned forward toward Josiah, his voice low. "So, what were you gonna do on three?"

"Well," Josiah said, looking briefly back at him. "I’m not really sure. I haven’t ever gotten to three, yet."

"Better figure it out," Chris advised, looking over and smiling a little. Josiah looked at him sourly.

"Don’t smile, Chris. Best plan I’ve come up with so far is to make you deal with him on three." Chris’s smile faded. "Yeah, that’s what I thought."

They got to the town near the campground about an hour later, and quickly found a small supermarket. They divided up, Josiah taking Buck and Ezra and the rest going with Chris. Before they separated, Josiah pulled Chris aside.

"Let J.D. pick out a couple of toys, and get the others some travel games, or something. They’re going a little stir crazy, and we’ve got a ways to go."

Chris nodded. "How much?"

"No more than twenty-five dollars."

"Okay." He turned back to the others, holding his part of the list Josiah had made. "Let’s go, guys." Chris headed to the far side of the store, with Nathan following behind pushing the cart and Vin holding firmly to J.D.’s hand.

Josiah, Buck and Ezra headed in the other direction, toward the refrigerated section. Josiah grabbed some packages of deli meats and cheese and a container of orange juice.

"Buck, grab some ice from over there," Josiah said, piling the groceries into the cart.

"Help me out, Ez," Buck said, walking over to the freezer.

"What’s wrong, Buck, not strong enough to do it yourself?" Ezra asked, sidestepping as Buck swiped at his head.

"Strong enough you want to watch it, shooting your mouth off like that."

To Ezra’s obvious disdain, Buck piled two bags of ice onto his outstretched arms. "They’re dripping," Ezra protested, holding them out as far from his body as he could.

"Them get’em into the cart," Buck advised, grabbing a couple more bags out. He turned to follow Ezra, then stopped to examine the display next to the ice.

"What’s the delay, Buck?" Josiah asked, pushing the cart up behind him. Buck dropped the ice in the cart and then motioned to the case.

"Think maybe we could get some--?"

Josiah looked inside, and then cut Buck off. "No."

"C’mon, Josiah," Buck wheedled. "Just a little celebration, you, me and Chris, after the guys go to bed."

"What are you talking about?" Ezra asked, peering around Josiah into the case. "Cool, beer."

"No, not ‘cool, beer’," Josiah said, frowning at Buck. "Come on, we’ve got other things to get." He walked away, pushing the cart. Buck looked morosely after him.

"Shit, guy needs to loosen up a little."

"Yeah," Ezra agreed, looking at the beer. Buck turned and gave him a look.

"What do you know, little boy? You weren’t going to get any of it, anyway."

Ezra shrugged. "That’s what you think."

Buck rolled his eyes. "C’mon, Ezra." He plucked at the younger boy’s shirt and moved to follow Josiah, Ezra trailing behind.

They met up with the others at the front of the store. J.D. was waving two action figures in the air. "Look what I got," he crowed, running toward the newcomers.

"Nice, J.D," Josiah said, absently looking at the purple and green figures.

"This one’s got a sword, and this one’s got a sword and a shield. They go on his hand, see?" J.D. demonstrated.

"That’s great, kid," Josiah said, turning toward the checkout and pushing his cart behind Chris’s.

"This one’s really strong, but I don’t remember his name. I don’t have his card," J.D. continued, falling back next to Buck.

"His card?"

"Yeah. This one I do have his card, but I don’t remember his name, either." J.D. thrust the figures toward Buck. "You can play with me with them with your Batmans if you want to."

Buck stopped short once he had deciphered the sentence, giving J.D. a disbelieving look. "My Batmans!?"

"Yeah. We could have a battle."

Buck snorted, and spoke loftily. "My Batmans don’t battle, J.D. They’re not toys, they’re collector’s items."

J.D.’s look was a little pitying. "Why would you want’em if they can’t battle?" He pushed past Buck into the checkout line, and turned back to look at him. "You can play with one of mine, if you want." He tucked one under his arm, picking up a bag of M & M’s and holding it up. "Can we get these, Josiah?"

Josiah turned around to look. "Yeah, J.D. You can get one thing. You guys, too," he said, seeing Vin and Ezra move to open their mouths. "Just one thing, though."

Vin dropped a chocolate bar onto the counter and moved forward to stand next to Ezra. "We got some games."

Ezra looked back toward the checkout area. "What’d you get?"

"Travel Battleship, and Connect Four. And an electronic football game."

"Really?" Ezra’s eyes lit up.

Vin nodded. "Yeah. It’s kind of lame, but it’s got two-player."

"Cool." Ezra moved further away from the others, and Vin followed. "Buck wanted to buy beer."

"Yeah?" Vin looked interested. "Josiah wouldn’t let him, though." It was more statement than question.

"What do you think?"

"I think Josiah wouldn’t let him."

"Yeah." Ezra scuffed his shoe against the floor, kicking lightly at the bundled wood packaged on the side. "Would you drink it if Buck did get some?"

Vin gave him a scornful look. "Like he would give us any."

Ezra tilted his head. "I didn’t say we’d ask him. So—would you?"

Vin considered it. "I dunno. Maybe. Chris would be pretty pissed."

Ezra looked at him in exasperation, and started to speak, but stopped when J.D. walked up.

"What’re you guys talking about?"

"Nothing, J.D.," Vin answered.

J.D. held up his figures. "Look, Ezra."

Ezra took one from him and looked at it. "Do you have their cards?"

"This one." J.D. held up the one still in his hand. "Not that one."

Ezra handed it back. "This one’s stronger, right?"

"Yeah." J.D. took it and crashed it into the other figure. "I’m gonna beat you up," he croaked, voice deep, then changed it slightly. "No, I’m gonna beat you up," he replied, waving the second figure before crashing them together again.

"Nice toy selection, Chris," Josiah commented, walking up behind them with the cart full of bags and heading past them toward the van. Chris, who followed behind, scowled at him.

"It’s what he wanted. Not my fault the kid likes purple and green monsters."

"Where’s my M & M’s?" J.D. asked, running over to Josiah.

"You can have them once we get there, J.D. We’ll be at the campsite in twenty minutes."

"Why not now?"

"Because you can’t hold candy and monsters at the same time, and I don’t want chocolate all over my van."

"Oh." J.D. looked at the toys in his hand. "Okay." He walked next to Josiah for a moment. "They’re not monsters, they’re warriors."

A smile cracked Josiah’s face. "Warriors, huh?"

"Yeah. They’re way cooler than monsters."

"Well, I’d have to say I agree with you, kid." Josiah stopped at the van and unlocked the rear doors. He began to unload bags, assisted by the others. Vin started poking in the bags.

"What’re you doing, Vin?" Nathan asked, pushing him aside to load a bag into the back.

"I’m looking for the games," Vin said, moving back around him.

"Vin, wait till we get there, okay?" Chris said, closing one door and moving Vin aside so he could close the other. "We’ll be at the campsite in a few minutes."

"We’re not driving more today?" Vin asked, moving reluctantly toward the side of the van.

"Nah, we’re gonna stop nearby," Josiah answered him, climbing behind the wheel. "Let’s go, guys."

They re-arranged themselves back in the van, Vin continuing to talk. "Shouldn’t we go a little farther away before we stop?"

Josiah pulled out of the parking lot onto the road. "We’re over five hundred miles from the Forrest, Vin. We can take it a little easy."


Chris turned and nodded. "Yeah, Vin. It’s okay."

"Okay." Vin settled back in his seat.

+ + + + + + +

Buck leaned up against the railing of the fence, smiling at the pretty girl next to him. "So, you like to have fun, where you’re from?"

She smiled back. This dark-haired teenager was the most interesting thing to come along since her parents had forced her to come on this ridiculous trip. "Well, if we did, you’d think we’d know better than to go camping with our parents. You know what that’s like…" she let her voice trail off.

He shrugged a little. "Not really. Family vacation, huh?"

She nodded a little disgustedly. "Mm-hmm. You?"

Buck started to reply, and then laughed. "Well, basically, the same, I guess."

"You guess?" She wrinkled her nose at him. "You’re funny, Buck."

"Funny looking," a voice agreed from behind. They both turned toward it, Buck glaring as he took the source in.

"Who’s this?" she asked, smiling at them.

Buck sighed. "My little brothers. Lacey, that’s Vin, J.D., and the rude one over there is Ezra. Guys, this is Lacey, and she’s classy, so don’t be yourselves, okay?"

Vin and Ezra murmured greetings, grinning at Buck and poking each other with their elbows. J.D. made a face at Buck, and then walked up to the girl. "Lacey’s a pretty name."

She smiled, charmed. "Aren’t you a sweetie."

"Yup," J.D. agreed, turning to make another face at Buck. Lacey laughed. J.D. turned back to her. "You can play with my warriors, if you want," he offered, holding one up. Buck moved hurriedly over, pushing J.D. back toward Vin and Ezra.

"She doesn’t want to play with your warriors, J.D. Go on guys, get out of here. Don’t Chris or Josiah want you for something?"

"Nope," Vin said, shaking his head.

"We are absolutely unencumbered for the afternoon," Ezra confirmed, smiling.

"Well, go be unencumbered somewhere else," Buck suggested, backing his suggestion up with a little push. They walked away, looking back a couple of times and giggling.

"They’re cute," Lacey said, watching them.

"Cute, my—" Buck cut himself off, and smiled at her. "You got any brothers or sisters?"

She nodded. "Yeah, my brother Brian’s here. He’s bored stiff, too."

Buck offered his arm gallantly. "Well, lovely lady, let’s see what we can do about that."

She laughed, taking his arm. "Lead on, kind sir."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah tried to talk the others into going for a walk, but Vin and Ezra were firmly ensconced with their football game, and J.D. was building a battle station for his action figures out of branches and stones. Buck was off with some girl, and Chris didn’t trust the younger ones alone. So in the end, Nathan was the only one to go with him.

They all met back up for dinner. Chris cooked hamburgers, a treat since Josiah had declared hamburger meat too expensive to buy a lot of and too prone to spoil anyway. Vin and Ezra passed the game back and forth as they ate seconds.

J.D. returned to his battle station as soon as he ate a few bites of hamburger. As darkness fell, Josiah came over to him.

"Bedtime, kid."

J.D. looked up. "What time is it?"

Josiah held out his watch. "You tell me."

J.D. examined it carefully. "Eight thirty."

"Yup." Josiah pulled his arm back.

"I want Buck to put me to bed."

"Okay, let’s go ask him." Josiah turned back to the campfire, and J.D. followed. "Buck, J.D. wants you to put him to bed."

Buck looked up. "Me?"

J.D. wriggled next to Josiah, who answered for him. "Yup, you."

"Like, how?"

"Just get him in pajamas, take him over to the bathrooms and make sure he washes his face and brushes his teeth. He can come back and say good night when he’s ready. Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated, Buck," Josiah added, seeing the look on his face.

"Yeah, okay," Buck said, standing and looking at J.D. "How hard can it be?"

Josiah laughed. "I’ll let you answer that when you’re done."

Thirty minutes later, Buck sank onto the log across from Josiah and Chris and rested his head on his hands. "Damn, that kid can talk."

"What’s the matter, Buck, couldn’t get a word in?" Chris asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Buck tossed a twig at him. "Shut up, bro." He leaned back, breaking a stick in half and looking at the fire. "He talked about his mother, some."

Josiah nodded. "He usually does, at night. What’d he say?"

"Not much, really. Sounds like she was sick for a while, though."

"Yeah." Josiah tossed a twig onto the fire. "That’s the sense I get, too."

Buck studied the fire, breaking his sticks in half again. "I think it’s been a while since she could really take care of him."

Josiah nodded again. "Yeah, I think you’re right."

Buck leaned forward and dropped the sticks onto the fire. "Listen, I’m going to go meet up with Lacey and her brother. Either of you want to come?" They shook their heads. "What about you, Nate?" Buck raised his voice slightly, to be heard over the sound of Nathan’s headphones.

Nate lifted them off of his ears and looked at Buck. "What?"

"You want to come hang out with Lacey and her brother?"

Nathan replaced his headphones. "No thanks, Buck."

"I’ll come," Ezra offered.

"We’ll come," Vin corrected.

"Neither of you is coming," Buck said firmly. "No short people allowed."

"Too bad," Ezra said, looking back at the football game. "The two of you made for amusing entertainment."

"Shut up, Ezra," Vin hissed at him.

"What do you mean?" Buck asked, advancing on them.

"Nothing," they chimed, heads together and staring intently at the screen of the game.

"What’d you guys see?" His voice was threatening. Vin broke for a moment, a giggle escaping before he could solemnify his face again. Buck’s voice rose a little. "Were you spying on me?"

"All right, Buck," Chris broke in. "Just go meet your friends, okay?"

"They shouldn’t spy on me, Chris," Buck said, not ready to back down yet.

"You’re right, and they’re not gonna do it again, are you, guys?" Chris asked, giving them a look. Ezra and Vin quickly looked down, and then away from each other.

"Sure, we won’t do it again," Vin agreed.

"Not that we acknowledge any previous acts of espionage," Ezra amended, elbowing Vin.

"Well, you better not," Buck said menacingly, before turning to leave. He turned back one last time, patting himself nervously. "So how do I look?"

"Can I really answer that?" Ezra asked hopefully.

Buck glared at him. "Never mind."