A New Promise

by Grey

Disclaimers: The characters of the Magnificent 7 are owned by CBS, MGM, Trilogy, Mirisch, and all sorts of people who aren't me. The following trademarked (copyrighted?) names/characters appear in conversations during this story: Power Rangers (Saban Entertainment/20th Century Fox), Yu-Gi-Oh (Konami), Batman (DC Comics), Blackbolt, Wolverine, and Cyclops (Marvel Comics), The Preacher (Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon/DC Comics), Scooby Doo (Hanna-Barbera Productions), Aerosmith (I guess they own themselves, and I’m sure someone very nice manages and markets them). The opinions expressed about them are strictly those of the characters and not those of the author, and certainly not the opinion of the folks who actually own them. No profit is being made from this.

Acknowledgement: If I’ve got this right…thanks to J.K. Poffenberger for the little britches concept, to Barberetta Hayden for translating it to the present, to Mog for the ATF universe, and to all the really talented writers who’ve played with the boys in so many different settings and times. I would name all the folks whose stories have inspired me, but honestly, there are too many of you (and what a neat thing that is!). Technically, this story doesn't fall in any current AU, but the creativity of all of you who have created/written them inspired me to do some playing of my own.

Concept: This story takes place in an AU. It is set initially in a residential home ("The Forrest Home"), with the guys ranging in age from 7 to 20. The first portion of the story provides the context. The AU is open, if anyone else wants to play, but I have an idea of how to get them from where they are at the end of this story to where I'd like them to be, so I'd appreciate the chance to do that.

Size: Approx. 125K

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It had been a gray day, and the sky outside the window was dull and unoriginal. Buck idly watched the car thread up the driveway toward the main house; it was easily the most exciting thing to happen this evening. Buck hadn't thought boredom could get this complete.

"Let's go out tonight," he suggested, his eyes not leaving the dripping window.

His roommate continued to read silently, head shifting between two books spread out between his legs, which were stretched in front of him on the narrow bed.

Outside the window, the car moved slowly in the thin mist that had blanketed the grounds. Buck had been staring at nothing for at least ten minutes, so he was engaged enough to not notice for a while that he hadn't been answered.

"Chris?" he asked, finally turning around.

The blond hair stilled for a moment. "Can't."

"Oh, c'mon, Chris, you been studying for three nights straight, now," Buck started, before finding his attention once again engaged by the car, which was now pulling to a stop. He watched for a few moments, and then whistled softly. "Well, will you get a load of that?"

Chris heard enough in his voice to lay down his books briefly, peering over toward the window to see what had paused Buck's nightly whine. A figure was standing next to the rear door of the truck, lifting something wrapped in blankets and carrying it toward the house. The two boys watched in silence as the door opened and Mr. Hendricks stood silhouetted in the frame, standing for a moment before he stepped back and motioned the man in.

As the door closed, Buck let out a breath and shook his head slightly. "Getting smaller here all the time, ain't they?"

"Aren't they," Chris corrected automatically, settling back onto his bed.

"Christ almighty, Chris, would ya forget my damn grammar!" Buck snapped, turning and sitting heavily on his own bed. The two had been roommates, friends, all-but-blood brothers since the day Chris had arrived, two months after Buck, six years before. Buck could still remember the way Chris had walked in, a stillness surrounding him that reverberated against the nervous energy that had exploded out of Buck since the loss of his mother. It didn't make sense, but the two of them had fit.

That didn't make Chris any less annoying, in moments like these.

Chris just made that twitch that for him represented a smile, and turned back to his books. "C'mon, Buck, I thought you wanted to do more with your life than this sorry place."

"You know I do," Buck responded automatically.

"Then you've got to speak right," Chris said quietly, looking at him.

The two locked gazes for a moment, and then Buck stood, pacing across the small space, stopping at the desk and picking up a baseball. He tossed it in the air, catching it again before continuing to walk, throwing it from hand to hand. He stopped one of his small circles at the foot of Chris's bed, leaning against it for a moment before sitting.

Chris felt the dark eyes resting on his, and looked up. He knew what it was before he asked the question, but he asked anyway. "What?"

Buck turned the baseball in his fingers, and then began shifting it hand to hand. Chris reached over and grabbed the ball, laying it on the chipped table by his pillow. "What, Buck?"

Buck lifted one shoulder, and then settled it again. "Chris. . .Chris, it's almost time."

Chris looked at him steadily, his normally overly serious features softening. "I know."

The look on Buck's face was pleading. "Chris--we can't leave them."

Chris's eyes creased just a bit. "I know, bro. We're gonna think of something."

He held Buck's gaze until Buck finally gave a half-smile and jerked his shoulders. "Yeah, bro, we are gonna think of something, right?"

Chris grinned back, a real one this time and not that twitch he had, and kicked Buck. "Right. But not until after I finish studying for this final. So scram."

Buck shoved Chris's leg back as he stood, grumbling softly. "All right, all right, fine, you don't hafta tell me twice." He ignored Chris's pointed look and walked back across the room, kneeling in the chair by the window and staring out at the now empty road.

Outside, the shadows shifted and stretched from the buildings scattered along the winding road. The smaller houses cast strange shapes upon the larger one. Buck leaned his forehead against the windowpane, concentrating on the three-storied edifice that had stood center stage for the past six years. His view of it from his various windows had changed over the years, but never its central role, as his increasing age and decreasing adoptability shifted him among the buildings dotting the grounds. It seemed to Buck sometimes as if every window on the grounds faced inward toward the house. He knew that wasn't possible, that a building couldn't be built with four sides all facing north, but somehow every room in the damn place had a view of the main house.

Buck was eleven, the day he was brought here. He had known from the start that day would be different, even though he did all the same things he usually did. He had woken up, dressed himself quietly, and fixed himself breakfast before carrying a tray with coffee over to his mother. It wasn't typical for her to arise that early, but she'd had an audition. A new club had opened up, and her eyes had shined the evening before when she showed Buck the small notice in the newspaper.

"This is a quality place, kiddo, and just look what they're paying!"

Buck had carefully examined the audition notice, and then bounced on the bed, matching his mother's excitement. "They've gotta hire you, Momma, you're the best dancer in town! Ain't no one who's better."

"Isn't anyone," she corrected, smoothing his dark hair across his face, before smiling at him. "And I do believe you're right, my darling." She had rested her hand on the side of his face, before bending down and whispering, "Every day brings new promise, son." She held her cheek against his for just a moment, before straightening and pulling her hand up to her hair, patting it.

"I've got to get to work, now." She stood, reaching for her keys. "You sleep well, and wake me in the morning so I can knock their socks off."

Buck had awoken that morning, brimming with excitement. He knew that something was going to happen, something big. He had thought it would be his mother's new job, her better pay, a move from the small studio apartment they shared--but as he rested the coffee tray down on her night table and laid his hand down on her too cool and too still arm, he had known that what was going to happen was something else entirely.

The sun had been shining, as the paramedics and policemen swarmed the entry to the building. It had been shining when his mother was loaded into the ambulance, the sheet already draped over her face and the sirens not sounding as it pulled away. It had been shining when Buck was dragged kicking and screaming into the car that drove him away from everything he had ever known, and into the world of the Forrest Home for Children.

He remembered the sun shining, because the tall building had seemed to glow as they drove toward it, Buck now silent and numb in the car that carried him to his new life.

"You'll stay here till we sort out where your family is," a tall man had said, from some distance far away from him. "It won't be for more than a few days."

That had been six years ago. Buck could have told him, if he'd asked, that he didn't have any other family worth speaking of. That the cold feeling slowly growing in the pit of his stomach and the implication of the man's words meant that he was now utterly, completely, alone.

That feeling had stayed with him for two months, until the day Chris had arrived, a small scrape on his face and the quiet in his eyes the only visible reminders of the car accident that had killed his parents and brother. That day, and in the days that followed, a small piece of Buck was re-filled. Over time, there were others who filled other pieces. None of them were considered placeable outside of the Home--too old, too surly, too black. So they stayed, and they made themselves a family.

The first threat to their tenuous family came two years ago, when Josiah had aged out. At eighteen, the state would provide a small fund to help previous wards continue with school, and Josiah had moved into a small apartment in town where he attended the community college and worked for the local priest, maintaining the church.

Josiah's departure had been hard on all of them. Even Chris, who acted tough just about all the time, had teared up the day Josiah had left. Their oldest wasn't their leader--that spot had fallen without words but without question to Chris--but Josiah was their gentle giant, their big brother, and they had all missed the daily presence of the unpredictable young man.

Josiah had lived at Forrest Home since he was thirteen. He had earned a reputation of "eccentric" and difficult to place after a series of foster homes had rejected him. The other residents of the home found this to be still more evidence of the idiocy of the foster system, as Josiah was a widely-agreed upon favorite of all. His uncanny ability to listen and his quiet but usually accurate advice meant that he was frequently sought out, and his absence had been felt. Although he visited frequently, and Buck and Chris spent a great deal of time at his apartment, it hadn't been the same.

Now Buck and Chris were rapidly approaching their eighteenth birthdays, spaced one month apart. Buck knew that the carefully re-constructed pieces filling that empty space in his stomach were slowly crumbling. It had been different when Josiah left; he and Chris had still been here. But now. . .

Buck stared out the window at the main house. He hated it, with a passion. Hated the three steps leading to the door, hated the fancy carvings on the two front windows, hated the mold permanently soaked into the bricks just under the roof. He wanted nothing more than to leave here, to never again look out a window that had those bricks as the centerpiece, but not if leaving here meant leaving behind his family.

His family. Not that anyone but them knew that's what it was. Then again, most of the people that wove in and out of their lives thought family was the signature on the paper that colleted two hundred and twenty-five dollars a month for food and board. He figured that they--he and his brothers--knew what family meant more than most. After all, combined among them, they'd had more families than just about all the staff at the Forrest Home put together.

He thought of the boys he considered brothers. Nathan needed them at his back. He was smart, but too serious, more than a fifteen-year-old ought to be. He wanted to study medicine, but voiced doubts about it, doubts infused by the violence in his history and reinforced at the hands of some of the smaller-minded among the other residents. Nathan needed the confidence of his brothers, needed Buck's honest admiration of his mind, needed Chris's reassurance that "any damn fool can see he's smart enough to be a doc."

Ezra wouldn't know what he needed. Ezra would pretend he didn't care that Chris and Buck were going, but as much of a snotty pain in the ass as the thirteen-year-old could be, Buck knew it was all front. And he knew that if they were gone, there was nobody else who would know that. Buck had to admit; it had been hard to love Ezra. But the skinny Southerner with the thirty-dollar words and the attitude to match had proven to be a fiercely loyal friend. Ezra had worked street cons with his mother, and guarded his feelings like the prize take. But the defiant vulnerability that he let slip at times, despite his best efforts, drew the others to pull him into their circle. Ezra clung doggedly to his statements that his mother would come back for him, and the others mostly let him be about it. She was the only mother left among them, and they all secretly liked to play with the fantasy possibilities of her return.

Vin would have it the hardest. The eleven-year-old could be tough as nails when he needed to be, wiry and with a sharp humor they had only just begun to appreciate. He had been almost completely mute when he had been placed at the home at the age of nine, mingled in with boys much older and larger than he. Their assumption of his vulnerability had been a faulty one, and he had quickly shown that his fists could talk where his voice didn't. The fights had continued, however, until Chris had noticed and intervened one day. The unspoken communication of Chris's protection had immediately led the others to back off, and Vin had become Chris's shadow, and the youngest in their makeshift family. They had learned over time that Vin's fighting skills came from years of fighting off those larger than him, both on the street and in the various homes he had been placed. Buck couldn't imagine Vin separated from Chris. For that matter, he couldn't imagine Chris separated from Vin.

He tapped on the foggy glass of the pane rhythmically, in time with his thoughts, until Chris rattled his papers in frustration. Buck gave one last glance out the window. Two months. They had two months until Chris's birthday. They could think of a plan by then. Until then--well, there was no use getting all worked up.

Buck looked at Chris. Still reading his damn books. "You sure you don't want to go out tonight, just for a little while?"

The pillow tossed at his face served as his reply, and he batted it away grumpily, kicking it to make sure there were no misunderstandings about his reaction. "Fine. Guess I'll just study, then."

He heard a snort as he transferred himself from the chair to his bed but ignored it, grabbing at the book on his night table and rolling onto his back.

+ + + + + + +

Buck woke up to the sound of tapping. He pulled his pillow in tighter over his face, and pulled the covers up over that for good measure. He started to sink back down into the heaviness of sleep, but felt tugged back to the surface. He realized with some annoyance that the tapping sound, though muffled, had continued.

Soon the tapping was followed by a door slam from the direction of the bathroom. Buck groaned, and then yelped as the covers were yanked off of him and he heard, "Why didn't you get the damn door?" in Chris's unmistakable surly voice

Buck reluctantly pulled the pillow off of his face, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. He absently pulled the blankets back up over his legs as he propped his pillow against the wall, leaning back against it. It took a moment for Chris's blurry figure to come into focus. Chris had a towel wrapped around his waist and an annoyed look on his face as he yanked open the door.

The words he seemed about to say died out as a small figure, leading a smaller one, darted into the room under Chris's arm and pulled the door shut behind them. The taller of the two moved quickly over to the window, pulling the other behind him, and peered out for a moment before turning back to the room. Chris stood leaning up against the wall, arms folded, and Buck was looked at the newcomers quizzically, sitting up in bed and scratching at his stomach.

"Hi, guys," Vin said, smiling at them. "Look what I found." He turned to look at the small boy standing slightly behind him, clutching at his hand, and Chris and Buck followed his gaze.

The little boy was wide-eyed, swiveling his head to look around the room, finally landing on Buck still lying in bed. Hair fell in his eyes as he tilted his head, holding a little tighter onto Vin. Small hands tugged larger ones forward a step.

"Are you sick?" The little boy's voice was solemn as he eyed the older boy in the bed.

Buck looked at the kid, who had pulled Vin to the foot of Buck's bed and now stood rubbing his fingers on the blanket. His eyes were dark, and they reminded Buck of a place inside of himself he didn't want to visit again. Without taking his eyes off of the kid, because they didn't seem to want to move, he asked, "Vin Tanner, what the heck is this?"

Vin grinned broadly. "Guys, this is--" He paused, then leaned down, whispering loudly in the kid's ear, "Go on, tell'em your name!"

The little boy looked up at Vin, then whispered back loudly, "J.D.!"

Vin rewarded him with a pat on the head, and then turned to the others and smiled proudly, as if a new puppy had just performed a particularly clever trick. "He's mine."

Chris had been pulling on clothing under his towel, and now stood with his shirt left open, peering in a small mirror hung on the wall and lathering his face. He paused and frowned at Vin. "What do you mean, he's yours? And what are you doing out at the piles, anyway?" he asked, using the term coined by the residents to refer to the Pre-Independent Living apartments--triads of double bedrooms with shared living space--inhabited by the oldest boys. Because these small apartments were used to help transition the oldest teenagers into independent adult life, there was minimal supervision and the younger boys would get in trouble if caught there.

"Didn't want to be seen by Hendricks up by the house," Vin said, answering the second question. J.D. had now let go of his hand, in favor of climbing carefully up onto the foot of Buck's bed, where he sat on his knees peering at the still sleep-befuddled older boy. Vin perched on the edge of Chris's desk, watching him shave.

Chris didn't turn from the mirror, but their eyes caught in their reflections. "Why don't you want to be seen by Hendricks?"

Vin shrugged. "Cause he knows me."

Chris gritted his teeth. There were times he appreciated Vin's gift for silence, but he was two hours from his last final exam, ever, and patience was not his strong point at the moment. He forced his voice to remain even. "Why does it matter that he knows you, Vin?"

Vin shrugged, looking up between slightly raised shoulders, a small smile creeping onto his face. "Well, the substitute doesn't."

"Vin," Chris groaned, putting down his razor and turning to face the now slightly stubborn-looking face of the boy perched next to him. "You can't keep missing school. You're going to get in trouble."

Vin shook his head. "Won't, either. Stayed long enough to be marked present, and the sub don't know the difference."

Chris placed a hand on one of Vin's skinny shoulders, still feeling the small spark that came every time Vin didn't flinch at the contact. It had taken a long time for that to happen, and Chris still felt the pride of it. "Vin, that's not the point, and you know it. You go to school to make something of yourself."

Vin pulled away from him. "That class is a joke, and you know it." Like many of the children at the Home, Vin had been considered too impaired with learning disabilities and emotional issues to be successful in a mainstream classroom, and he attended the therapeutic alternative school run on the grounds. The transient nature of many of the other students as they moved through the system, and the behaviors that erupted despite the small staff-to-student ratio, made learning difficult at best for Vin. His shame about his own deficits made school an arduous chore for him.

Chris tapped Vin's arm. "Come on, kid, the last week's all fun and games, anyway. No one works too hard right before summer. Bet you can sneak back in easy as you snuck out."

Vin shook his head vehemently, sandy hair flying back and forth. "Unh, uh. I ain't leaving him his first day." He turned away from Chris and stalked across the room toward Buck's bed, where J.D. and Buck now sat only about a foot apart. J.D's eyes were charcoal as he tilted his head, absently twisting a lock of his hair and examining Buck as if he had found an interesting new toy that had the worrisome potential of being dangerous, if you didn't follow all the directions. Buck had his head tilted in the other direction, watching the little boy watch him. Tentatively, the little boy reached out a hand and patted Buck's leg under the cover, gently.

Chris took in the scene. Vin was now leaning against the bed with his arms folded, glaring, and Chris realized he still had no clue who this new kid was. He wiped his face off with a towel, tossing it over the back of the desk chair, and stepped forward, sitting on the edge of his own bed and leaning forward.

"All right, Vin, who is this kid?"

Vin scowled at him, placing a hand protectively on the bed in front of J.D. "He said his name, loud and clear, didn't he?"

Chris's chin jutted upward, and he made a small growling noise in his throat.

Vin could feel J.D. creeping behind him, his hands kneading the shirt hanging at the small of Vin's back. He glared at Chris. "You don't have to scare him."

Chris took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly, eying the tufts of hair covering the eyes peeking at him from over Vin's shoulder. He forced his voice to stay low. "Okay, Vin, I know, this is J.D. But who is he? And what were you thinking, bringing him out here? You know better than that."

Vin had one arm wrapped behind him, fortifying the shield the small boy had made of him. "I told you, he's mine. I found him. They brought him in last night, and just left him right in the middle of Colin'n Jamie. Just left him there--this little mess of blankets and hair in with the two biggest jerks in here! Don't they know nothing?" Vin shook his head, his voice still incredulous with the memory. "I couldn't just leave'im there--they would'a had him for supper. So I brought him over by me, and when I woke up he was still there. I tried to make him go back to his room, but he wouldn't, and no one came for him, so now he's mine."

Chris and Buck were both mesmerized, neither used to hearing this many words in a row from the skinny kid in front of them. Chris finally shook himself out of it, and said gruffly, "You shouldn'tve brought him out to the piles, Vin. Hendricks'll flip if he catches you."

Vin stared back defiantly. "I couldn't just leave him alone. He's hurt."

"I have a band-aid," the smaller boy offered solemnly, his head popping up from behind Vin. He held out a finger, which was indeed wrapped in a small, dinosaur-covered band-aid. Looking disappointed when Chris shook his head and turned away, making no move to examine it, J.D. swiveled and bounced across the mattress toward Buck, who by now had pulled himself out from under his sheets and sat on the side of the bed. J.D. draped himself over the back of the larger boy, poking his finger in front of his face.


Buck caught the finger now waving dangerously close to his eyes, and inspected it carefully before returning it to its owner. "Yup," he agreed cheerfully. "You sure do have a band-aid." This was shaping up to be a much more interesting morning than he would have thought, and he smiled down at the kid.

The little boy smiled back as his band-aid got the respect it deserved, and settled happily back on the bed. He rested an arm on the older boy's lap and tilted his head to look up at him. "It got bit," he explained confidingly.

"Getting bit hurts, doesn't it," Buck sympathized, wincing a little, as he remembered a few times that very same thing had happened to his own finger.

J.D. warmed a little to his tale, encouraged by Buck's response. "Welll--it got bit when Mama took me to the playground, and I wanted to ride on the slide, and that bad boy said it was his turn, and I said it was mine, and it really was," he accentuated his point with two slaps at the bed, "but he said it was his, and he bit me, and Mama said he shouldn't've done that, and she said I could have any band-aid I wanted, so I picked this one cause it has dinosaurs, but not a 'patosaurus, those are too big for a little band-aid like this, but it's got a triceratops, see--", and he paused and held out his finger again, waiting for Buck to examine it, before continuing, "And she said I should still wash my hands even if it gets all wet and icky, 'cause she'd give me a new one, but now she's visiting heaven, so I guess she can't give me any more band-aids till she comes back."

He looked down at the blanket as he finished his story, then looked up, his eyes a little too bright. He caught sight of the baseball on Chris's night table. "Is that a real one, like the Red Sox use?" he asked, a touch of awe in his voice. When Buck slowly nodded, he jumped up and picked it up, examining it. He gave a practice toss into the air, then threw it forward a few feet and ran to try to catch it. He crashed into Chris's bed, missing the baseball by at least a foot, then dove for it and sat up, giggling, the ball clutched in his hand. "Cool."

Buck was silent for a moment, rattled neither by the story or the sudden topic shifts. The kid was more wired than an amp at an Aerosmith concert; it was the high that came just before the crash. Buck had been there, done that. It wasn't that J.D.'s story had a surprise ending; they all knew all the ways a kid ended up at the Forrest. It was just--the kid was so small.

"How'd he end up here?" He addressed his question to Vin. "He can't be more'n four or five."

"Am not!" J.D.'s voice was indignant, and he rose up on his knees on the bed, across from the older boy. "I'm seven!" His fingers flashed the number, and Buck quickly counted them before realizing what he was doing.

Buck looked at Chris. "Seven's still pretty damn young to be here, ain't it?"

Vin spoke up. "Heard Hendricks talking to that lady Evans, from the Department. None of the other places had an open slot, so they brought him here." A shadow passed over Vin's eyes, suddenly. "Must be an awful lot of us, to fill up all those beds," he said quietly.

J.D. had stood up by now and had walked over to Buck, standing in front of him with a solemn look on his face. He pointed his finger at the older boy. "You said a bad word."

"I--what?" Buck stared down in surprise at the fierce little mite who barely came up to his waist. "I did not!" he finally managed to retort.

"Well, actually, Buck," Chris started, before Buck rounded on him.

"Shut it, Chris!"

Chris made that damn twitch of his. "Least the kid knows the value of speaking right." He winked at Vin, who grinned back. "Speaking of which--you and me've got finals in just under two hours, bro, and you're not dressed yet."

"Aw, shit," Buck muttered, absent-mindedly picking up a shirt draped over his desk and smelling it.

"Bad word, again," J.D. declared confidently, and then took a step back as he took in the expression on the older boy's face. He looked over at his protector, who was sitting cross-legged on Buck's bed. His voice was less confident, as he checked. "Right?"

"You got it, kid," Vin reassured him, grinning. "Buck's got a mouth like a five-dollar. . ."

"All right, Vin," Chris broke in before he could finish. "Cut it out already." His voice was impatient. "Buck, you get ready to go. Vin, take this kid--somewhere, and go back to school."

"Yes, sir!" Buck saluted sharply, then gave him a withering glance and headed for the bathroom, grabbing at clothes as he went.

Chris turned toward Vin, who sat on Buck's bed, unmoving. They stared at each other, neither blinking.

Chris finally broke. "Vin."

"Look, Chris, we'll just hang out here till Hendricks finishes his morning rounds, then we'll take off," Vin pleaded. "I wanna take him exploring later, anyhow. What's it matter if we just stay here for a little while?"

Chris raised his eyebrows, then looked from Vin toward the small figure who was wide-eyed in his discovery of Buck's pristine collection of Batman figures, which had been carefully arranged on the shelf above the bed.

Vin made a worried noise, and lunged toward the boy, who had Buck's prized Batman figurine clutched in his hand. "J.D., no! Leave that alone!"

He grabbed at the collectible, as Chris grinned. "He messes up those figures, Hendricks isn't gonna be the one you're going to have to worry about."

J.D.'s lower lip was jutting out, but he didn't protest as Vin took the small figures from him and carefully replaced them on their stands. "He's not gonna mess up anything, are you, kid?" J.D. shook his head vehemently, rubbing one fist at his eye. Vin ruffled his hair, then turned to Chris. "See?"

Chris tilted his head, examining the two of them. His thinking was interrupted by Buck's exit from the bathroom door, clad in faded jeans and pulling a t-shirt over his head. He flashed a smile at Chris as his head poked through the collar. "All right, bro, let's go kick some finals butt!"

Chris looked at Buck, then at his watch, and then at Vin, who stared impassively back. Chris finally sighed. "Fine, you can stay here. Just don't get caught--and make sure you get that kid back wherever he's supposed to be before he's missed!" He turned to leave, followed by Buck.

"His name is J.D.," Vin called out firmly after him.

"Whatever," Chris responded, opening the door.

Vin poked his tongue out at the retreating back, but pulled it quickly back in when Chris turned to look at him before stepping out the door and shutting it. J.D. stood between the two beds, staring at the closed door, one hand twisting at his hair. When the door didn't re-open, he turned and looked at Vin, who sat on Buck's bed watching him. He sidled over, then leaned against the bed, watching Vin carefully. Vin looked back at him quietly for a little while before speaking.

"We're just gonna stay here for a little while, okay, J.D.?"

"You too?" the boy asked, picking at the bedcover.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, kid, me too."

"Okay, then." J.D. climbed up on the bed, and the two sat cross-legged, watching out the window-pane as the figures of Chris and Buck grew smaller and smaller along the main road leading away from the Forrest.