by Grey

Warnings: Mild language, child loss of parents discussed; no other warnings

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. All sorts of trademarked names come up in conversation in this story, but I didn't really want to go back and find them all, so...anything in here that seems to belong to someone else, does.

Universe/Author's Note: This story is set in the alternate universe begun in my story, A New Promise. That story is set initially in The Forrest Home for Children, a residential setting for boys. In this AU, the seven range in age from 7 to 20. This story follows directly after the ending of that one, and will likely not make much sense unless you've read that one first, since I didn't re-introduce the characters or setting.

Comments/ appreciated.

It had been less than a week since the meeting on Misty Hill, and Vin had fallen asleep every night since then picturing their new home. Some nights it had two stories, some nights only one, and one night it had looked suspiciously like a teepee. The first night he pictured himself in his own room, but that felt funny, so after that he put himself in a room with Ez, or J.D., or both, depending on his mood and which one had annoyed him the least that day. Two days ago, J.D. had asked him when they were going to see Lady and Gracie again. J.D. wanted to feed Mr. Branson's cantankerous old horses some carrots. Vin had explained, for what had to be the fifteenth time, that they could only get away on Saturdays. But the thought of the horses had stayed in his head, and for the last two nights Vin had pictured their house with a huge back yard, filled with seven horses. Well, J.D.'s was only a pony, really, but Vin didn't think he'd be ready to ride a real horse yet. Last night he had added a couple of dogs, a mama cat and four kittens, and a very cool treehouse big enough for him to sleep in, if he wanted.

Vin was usually pretty good at being patient. Seven years in the custody of the state had taught him to choose his moments, to wait for the right moment to run off, the right moment to hide, the right moment to pretend everything was fine. But ever since Chris said they could all be a family, forever, Vin had pictured their home. Waiting even another week felt like torture.

And then, this morning, Mark had told J.D. that he needed to see Mr. Hendricks. Mark, the milieu counselor, had pulled J.D. aside after the morning check-in meeting and taken him down to the director's office. J.D. had begged Mark to let Vin go with him; even after a week at the Forrest Home, J.D. was scared to let Vin out of his sight, although he was getting better about letting Vin go if Ez was around. But Mark had patted J.D.'s head and taken his hand, and told him Mr. Hendricks wanted to see him alone. That Ms. Evans was coming to speak with him.

Vin knew how to choose his moments. He knew that he couldn't take Mark, so against his better judgment he let him lead J.D. away, the younger boy pulling back at the counselor's hand and watching Vin as he left. He followed his group out toward the field, and then slipped away, sneaking back toward the main house. He might not be able to take Mark, but if that lady from the Department tried to take J.D. away he was breaking in and getting both of them out of there. Their home was so close he could touch it, and he wasn't about to let this lady mess it up.

Vin crouched on the ground, making himself small against the outer brick wall of the building. The caseworker's voice carried clearly through the open window.

"Well, John, I'm glad to see that you're settling in. Mr. Hendricks says that there have been no problems since your room was changed. Are you feeling okay about sharing the room with--" there was the sound of papers rustling--"Vincent, is it?"

J.D. must have nodded, because the caseworker's voice sounded satisfied. "Good."

There was a pause, more papers rustling, and Vin fidgeted on the ground, wishing she would get to the point already. She began again a moment later. "Now, John, I know we've already talked about this, but I need to ask you some questions about your family."

Vin felt himself tensing, in empathy with J.D., who continued to be silent.

"Now, you and your mother moved from Boston last year, is that right?"

J.D. must have looked confused, because Ms. Evans clarified. "You moved at the end of kindergarten, right?"

There was a pause, and then Ms. Evans continued. "Okay. Now, John, we've already been able to determine that you have no family in this area. Was there anyone in Boston, any aunts or uncles?" A silence. "What about a grandma or a grandpa?"

Another pause, and then the caseworker spoke again. "John, do you have any other people in your family, that you can think of?"

A long pause. The silence felt painful to Vin, and he forced himself to stay on the ground and not peek in the window. Finally, he heard a sigh, and then Ms. Evans spoke.

"All right, John. For now, we're going to need you to stay here." Vin let out a relieved breath, but quietly. "It shouldn't be for too much longer, okay?" Another pause. "Do you have any questions for me?" Silence, then, "Okay, hon. Let's go find Mr. Hendricks, and figure out where you need to be. I'll be back in a few days to check up on you."

Vin heard movement in the room, and silently crept away from the window. He took a shortcut through the trees toward the back field, where he slipped into the group of children standing on the sidelines.

"Get lost, Tanner?" A tall boy in oversized-shorts and a sports jersey sneered at him.

"Shut up, Colin." Vin's words were flat, and he didn't bother to look up. Colin Ramsey had been the resident bully since Vin's arrival almost three years earlier, and Vin didn't pay him any more attention than he had to.

"Be a shame if Hendricks learned you've been sneaking off, wouldn't it?" the boy continued.

Vin slowly looked up and fixed the other boy with a stare, but said nothing. He held his gaze long enough that the other boy began to feel uncomfortable and took a step away, shaking his head.

"You're nuts, Tanner, you know that? Completely certifiable."

Vin remained silent, but held eye contact until the other boy turned away, and then let his mouth twitch into a small smile.

"You seem to be getting yourself a reputation, Vincent."

Vin turned and smiled. "Trying to. Anyone miss me?"

Ezra shook his head. "As if they could keep track of all of us."


Ezra waited for a moment, then asked, impatiently, "Well?"

Vin shrugged. "So far, so good. They ain't found any family yet, and don't have anywhere else to put him."

Ezra gave a slightly bitter smile. "Just another Forrest reject, huh?"

Vin shrugged, and gave a half grin. "Well—if he's gonna be one of us…"

Ezra nodded, then pointed. "Here he comes."

Vin looked up, and saw J.D. crossing the field with Carl, one of the other milieu counselors assigned to the younger boys. Carl had J.D. by the hand, and seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to engage the child in conversation. Even from across the field, Vin could see the shut-down look on J.D.'s face.

"J.D.," he called, waving at him.

J.D. looked up and caught sight of Vin and Ezra. Pulling his hand out of Carl's, he ran across the field towards them. Just as he was approaching them, two boys stepped forward and blocked his path.

"So—you think you're gonna play ball with the big boys?" Colin asked, sneering at him.

The other boy laughed. "Nah—he's gonna be the ball, aren't you, runt?"

J.D. froze, and then began backing away. Vin ran towards him, but before he reached him he heard a sharp voice call, "Colin. Jamie. Do we have a problem here?"

Vin positioned himself between the boys and J.D., as Carl hurriedly approached. Vin kept his eyes pinned on the other boys, but felt a small hand slip into his and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

"Nah," Colin said, giving J.D. a last sneer before backing off a step.

Carl reached them, out of breath from his final burst of speed across the field. "Good. Because the last thing you two need is any more problems." He gave Colin and Jamie a hard look. "Right?"

"Yeah, whatever," Colin mumbled, but turned away, Jamie following quickly behind.

Carl turned to Vin, who still stood positioned in front of J.D., his body tense. "You okay, Tanner?"

Vin nodded.

"What about you, J.D.?"

The younger boy looked up at the counselor, and then looked at Vin. "He's fine, aren't you, J.D.," Vin answered for him. J.D. nodded.

Carl looked at him questioningly, but finally gave a small nod. "Okay, then. J.D., Mr. Perez is giving everyone a physical fitness test. I'll let him know to add your name to the list, okay?"

J.D. looked confused, but nodded again.

"Good. Tanner, you okay with him?"

Vin nodded, and Carl turned and headed toward the athletics instructor.

Ezra stepped forward from where he had been standing. He looked down at J.D., who was sucking on a piece of hair. "Are you all right, J.D.?"

J.D. didn't answer. Vin jiggled his hand. "J.D.?"

J.D. slowly released the piece of hair from his mouth. "Vin?"


"That lady came back."

"I know, J.D., I was there."

J.D. looked at him, puzzled, and then smiled suddenly. "You did the crabby thing by the window!"

Vin smiled back. "Yup."

"Vin does the crabby thing rather well," Ezra said, grinning. Vin gave him a small shove, but J.D. frowned.

"But you didn't make the dove for me, so I didn't know you were there."

"I know, kid, I didn't want her to hear me."

"But she don't know you're the dove," J.D. pointed out logically.

Vin rolled his eyes slightly. "I said I didn't want her to hear me, okay, J.D.?"

J.D. gave him a reproachful look. "But I coulda heard you."

Vin sighed. "Look, I'll do the wolf for you later, okay?"

"Okay." J.D. smiled, and then frowned. "She asked if I had a granma, and I don't."

Vin nodded. "Me, either."

J.D. sucked on a piece of hair and then released it. "She asked if I had anyone in my family."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, J.D., I heard."

J.D. looked at the older boys. "I didn't tell our secret."


The boys turned toward the shout, and saw the athletic director distractedly searching the crowd of boys, finally catching sight of Vin. "Tanner—you're up."

Vin pulled his hand out of J.D.'s. "You did good, J.D. You stay here with Ezra, okay?"

J.D. nodded. Vin turned and started toward Mr. Perez, but stopped when J.D. called his name.


Vin turned around. "Yeah?"

"Vin, next time she comes, will you make the dove for me?"

Vin gave him a slow grin. "You got it, kid."

+ + + + + + +

The dining room had been crowded all week, with the residents who normally attended the mainstream schools on the grounds for the summer. J.D. stayed close to Vin and Ezra as they entered the hall. He followed behind them, trying to balance his tray and take food at the same time. He was reaching for a brownie when something hard shoved against his shoulder, and he stumbled forward, dropping his tray. He froze, looking down at the food spilled on the floor.

"J.D.?" Vin asked, turning around at the sound of the crash. He caught sight of the two boys standing behind J.D., laughing, and stepped forward, his fist clenched.

"I shoulda known," he said, voice low and tight.

Colin sneered. "Oh, come on, Tanner, it was an accident."

"Yeah, an accident," Jamie chimed in.

"Kid that small's gonna get stepped on, he isn't careful," Colin taunted.

J.D.'s face had turned stormy as they spoke, and he pointed angrily at the older boy. "You did that on purpose!"

Colin shoved him. "You calling me a liar, runt?"

Vin and Ezra stepped forward simultaneously, Vin grabbing at J.D. and stopping him from falling.

"Back off, Ramsey," Ezra said, his voice icy.

"You gonna make me, Standish?" Colin asked, a cocky grin on his face. He stepped forward menacingly. "What about you, Tanner?"

Vin shoved him. "I could take you."

Colin shoved him back. "You think you could take me? Who, you and the runt here?"

"No." Vin's voice was tight. "Just me."

"How about I do?"

All five of the boys turned at the new voice, J.D. smiling as he caught sight of the teenager stepping up behind his tormentor. Colin took a step away from Buck, but Buck reached out and gripped him by the shoulder, squeezing hard enough to make the younger boy wince.

"What do you say, Ramsey? You want to take me? About as fair a fight as you taking the little guy, here."

"Let me go," Colin snarled at him, trying to pull away.

"Now, now," Buck chastised, his fingers digging into Colin's collarbone, "I thought you were just itching for a fight. You got me all fired up." He paused, seeming to consider. "Although, I do hate to get my hands dirty just before I eat."

Colin was squirming under the teenager's grip. "Leggo of me," he repeated, trying to pull away, his voice a little more pleading.

Buck smiled politely and continued to squeeze. "Yup, my Mama always told me that it's important to have clean hands when you eat. Said cleanliness was right on up there next to godliness." He tilted his head and examined the boy in front of him. "Now, if you promised to be more careful about who you run into, and apologized for spilling J.D.'s food, why, I might see clear to forgetting this whole thing. In Mama's memory, and all." He fixed the other boy with a look. "Well?"

Colin glowered at him, fingers unsuccessfully trying to loosen Buck's grip from his shoulder. "Okay, fine!"

Buck smiled. "And the apology?" he asked, motioning toward J.D.

Colin rolled his eyes, and Buck squeezed a little tighter. "Fine!" He looked at J.D. "I'm sorry, okay?"

J.D. frowned, but finally nodded.

"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Buck asked, releasing Colin and walking over to J.D., Vin, and Ezra. He rested a hand on the youngest boy's head and turned to look back at the two bullies. "Go on, scram."

Colin gave him a last hateful look, and then grabbed at his partner. "C'mon, Jamie." The two of them turned and disappeared back into the lunchroom crowd.

Buck watched them go disgustedly. "Idiots."

J.D. slipped his hand into Buck's. "He did that on purpose."

The older boy looked down. "Yup, he did."

J.D. smiled up at him. "But we told him, didn't we?"

Buck grinned back. "Yeah, kid, we sure did." He removed his hand from J.D.'s and gave the boy's head a little push, before slinging his arms around Vin and Ezra. "The guys are over there," he said, motioning with his head. "I'll help the kid get more food."

Ezra nodded and started to move away, but Vin tilted his head and looked at Buck.

"I could've taken them, you know."

Buck studied him for a moment, and then nodded. "Yeah, kid, I know you could've. I didn't want you to have to."

Vin looked at him a moment longer. "Just so's you know."

Buck smiled. "Go on, Vin, we'll be over in a sec."

Vin headed for the others, and Buck picked up J.D.'s tray, leading him back to the end of the line to get more food. They had a minor tussle at the dessert section, where Buck flatly refused J.D's request for a brownie, a cookie, and a bowl of pudding.

"But I need them," J.D. protested.

Buck stood with his arms folded, the tray resting on the metal side-railing. "J.D., Nathan'll have my head if we go over there with all three of these."

"But I need them," J.D. repeated, arms folded to match Buck's.

Buck let out a sigh of exasperation. "Why do you need them?"

"Because those boys hurted my feelings," J.D. explained patiently. "So I get extra dessert to make me feel better." His eyes were big as he looked up at the older boy. "Okay?"

Buck pursed his lips, and then took and released a deep breath. "Fine. But I'm telling Nate it was your idea."

"Okay," J.D. said happily, reaching up and taking the brownie off the tray. He began to munch as he followed Buck over to where the others were sitting.

"Hey, guys, look what I found," Buck said, dropping J.D.'s tray on the table.

Chris frowned as he caught sight of J.D. "He's a mess."

Buck looked down at the little boy standing behind him. Applesauce stained the front of his shirt. "Yeah, he had a run-in with Ramsey and Binks. It's just applesauce, bro."

"I'm not talking about the applesauce, Buck. Look at him."

By now, the rest of the table was examining J.D., and he followed their gaze and looked down at himself. Not seeing anything amiss, he climbed onto the empty chair in front of his tray and picked up his spoon, dipping it into the pudding.

Buck frowned as he watched him. J.D.'s hair was sticking up in little tufts on top, and the hand holding the spoon was grimy. His blue shorts looked dusty, and had dark discolorations in several areas.

"Ain't those the same pants you were wearing yesterday?" Buck asked, pulling out the chair next to J.D.'s.

J.D. pulled the spoon out of his mouth and licked his lips. "They're my best shorts."

Vin swallowed the bite of sandwich he was eating. "I told him they was dirty, but he won't wear anything else. He's been wearing them all week."

Chris stared at Vin. "All week?"

Vin shrugged. "Yup."

The others looked at J.D., who turned to give Vin a dirty look. He licked at his spoon again, and then explained, "They got six pockets, and two've got zippers, and two've got snaps, and two haven't got anything, and that equals six. None've my other shorts got six pockets. And they're blue."

"Not anymore they ain't," Buck muttered, turning to his sandwich.

"Aren't," Chris corrected. Buck gave him a look, but Chris continued, his voice disbelieving. "Vin, how could you let him wear the same shorts every day for a week?"

"It's not my fault," Vin protested. "I told you, he don't want to wear anything else."

"For Pete's sakes, Vin, he's half your size. Just make him put something else on."

Vin glared at Chris. "You try making'im do something, see how easy it is."

Chris pursed his lips, and looked at J.D. "Buck," he asked, his eyebrows rising, "Why is he eating pudding for lunch?"

Buck's face colored slightly as he turned to look at the small boy sitting next to him. J.D. had just finished the last of his pudding, and was now breaking his cookie in half. His sandwich was pushed toward the back of his tray.

"Well," he said, looking away from Chris and then back toward him. "You see, his feelings were hurt, so he needed extra dessert to make him feel better." His voice trailed off toward the end of his explanation. He caught sight of the expression on Nathan's face, and he flushed, looking back down at the table.

Chris was staring at him incredulously. "Where'd you get a load of bull like that?"

"Well…", Buck said, motioning slightly at J.D. "He said he needed them. I told him he shouldn't take three desserts," he added defensively.


"Well, yeah, he had a brownie…"

Chris leaned over Vin and took the cookie out of J.D.'s hand. "Eat your sandwich," he ordered.

J.D. glared at him and reached for the other piece of cookie on his tray, but Chris was quicker, grabbing it and placing both pieces on his own tray.

"That's mine!" J.D. said, slapping at the table and making his glass jump.

Chris leaned forward. Vin watched, torn between his desire to jump in and protect his new charge and his belief that Chris was right about pretty much everything.

"J.D., you already had two desserts. You're not getting this cookie. Now eat your sandwich."

J.D. took in a deep breath and started to open his mouth. Chris held his gaze, eyes narrowed. J.D. looked at Chris, then at the cookie, then at his sandwich, and finally back at Chris. Wrinkling his nose, he turned back to his sandwich and picked it up. He took a small bite, and looked sideways at Chris, who gave him a small nod. J.D. smiled back, and took another bite.

Chris settled back in his chair, and looked around the table. "We have to do better than this, guys."

"C'mon, Chris, it's just dessert," Buck protested.

"It's not just dessert, Buck," Chris snapped. "If we're gonna make this work, we have to do better than this. We can't do this if we can't take care of each other right." He motioned toward J.D. "One of us should've noticed he's been wearing the same clothes all week. Vin's right, it's not just his fault. And you guys," he turned to Vin and then let his gaze fall on Ezra, "can not be getting into fights. We can't risk it right now."

"But Colin and Jamie…"

Chris cut Ezra off. "I don't care. You walk away. Right now, we can not risk trouble, do you understand me?"

Ezra stared at him for a moment, and then let his eyes fall, nodding.

Chris looked around the table. "We are one week away from this. We can not make any waves right now. Is everyone clear about that?" He looked around the table, meeting each of the others' gazes, waiting for their nods. He came to Vin last. Vin was pushing at his food with a fork.


Vin ignored him. Chris recognized the masked expression on Vin's face, and leaned forward.

"Vin, I'm not mad at you."

Vin looked at him, and then looked back down. Chris tried again. "I mean it, Vin, I'm not mad, okay? I just--" Chris sighed, pushing back at his hair, "I don't want anything to go wrong, you know?"

Vin looked up. "Nothing's gonna go wrong," he said softly.

Chris looked down at him, and let the side of his mouth twitch. "You sure about that, huh, kid?"

Vin gave Chris a shy smile. "Yeah. I'm sure."

Chris let his hand rest on the top of Vin's head, just for a moment, before picking up his sandwich and taking a bite.

"So what happened with Miz Evans?" Nathan asked from across the table. "I saw her come in while I was in the office." With two weeks between the end of school and Nathan's scheduled departure for his summer school program, he had asked for and been given permision to help out in the Home's front office during his break.

"How's that going, Nate?" Chris asked casually, looking up from his food.

Nathan met Chris's gaze and gave him a small nod. "Just fine. It's not going to be any trouble."


"What's not going to be any trouble?" Ezra asked.

"Nothing," Chris replied for Nathan. "How did it go with Evans?"

"Vin didn't make the dove," J.D. complained.

"I told you, I didn't want her to hear me."

"But she wouldn't'a known it was you."

"But she might've thought..."

"All right!" Chris interrupted. "That's enough, both of you. Other than not having a dove, what happened?"

"I don't have a granma," J.D. informed him. "Neither does Vin."

Chris shook his head, exasperated.

"What did Miz Evans say, J.D.?" Nathan asked.

"I already told you," J.D. said impatiently, "She asked about my granma."

"They can't find any family, and they don't have anywhere else to put him yet," Vin translated.

"So they're not talking about moving him?"

Vin shook his head. "Not yet."

"Good." Nathan sounded satisfied.

Buck gave Vin a sudden look. "And how was it you heard all of this, Vincent?"

Vin looked down at the table, and lifted his hand to cover the small grin breaking across his face. "Just happened to be near the window when she came by."

"And where were you supposed to be?" Chris asked, sharing a look with Buck.

Vin shrugged. "Over by the field. But they didn't miss me, Chris," he defended, seeing Chris's eyebrows start to rise. "They didn't even know I was gone."

"Now see, that's exactly what I mean," Chris snapped. He saw Vin's eyes start to lower, and softened his tone. "Vin, I don't want you sneaking off anymore. You stay where you're supposed to be. I mean it," he continued, seeing Vin start to protest. "I don't care how good you are at it, until we get away from here you give them no reason, I mean NO reason to notice you. That goes for you, too," he added, turning to Ezra. "You two stay out of trouble this week, and you keep him out of trouble, too," he said, motioning to J.D. "That means you stay with your group and you do what they tell you."

Ezra and Vin were both looking at the table, their expressions mutinous. "I want both of your words on this," Chris said seriously. He waited, but there was no response. He nudged the boy next to him. "Vin?"

Vin looked up. "Yeah, okay, fine."


Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "Fine."

"They're gonna notice more if those two stay out of trouble for a week," Nathan offered, a small smile on his face. Ezra gave him a dirty look.

"Shut up, Nathan."

Chris broke in before Nathan could respond. "Listen, guys, speaking of all that," he looked at Buck. Buck held up his hand, passing the next piece right back to Chris, who sighed and continued. "This means that tomorrow, we stay here."

"What?!?" Vin and Ezra protested simultaneously, both of their voices outraged.

"But it's Saturday," Ezra protested.

"We always go somewhere on Saturday," Vin added.

J.D. looked up. "Vin said we spend Saturdays together," he stated confidently. "That's the rule."

"Well, it's not this week, short stuff," Buck said, pushing his tray away and resting his hands on the table. "We can't take a chance on getting caught."

"But I was gonna give Lady some carrots," J.D. said.

Vin leaned forward, arms crossed. "And we always go somewhere on Saturday."

"And I wanted to see Josiah," Ezra added softly.

"After next week, you can see him whenever you want," Chris replied. "Until then, we stay here." His tone was final, and the youngest boys looked at each other. Even J.D. had learned that arguing didn't make a difference once Chris took on that tone.

"Fine," Vin grumbled, pushing his food away. "You done, J.D.?" He looked over at J.D., who had finished the first half of his sandwich and was now poking a hole through the second half with his tongue.

"Look," J.D. said, holding the sandwich to his face and wiggling his tongue around.

Vin laughed. "Cool." He pulled back his chair. "You coming, Ez?"

Ezra nodded and stood, picking up his tray.

"C'mon, J.D.," Vin said, turning away from the table, followed by Ezra.

J.D. stood and looked at Vin, and then over at Chris's tray, torn. "But I didn't have my cookie."

"Scram, J.D.," Chris advised. J.D. frowned at him, then picked up his sandwich and poked his tongue out at Chris through the hole. He giggled as Chris swiped at him, and grabbed his tray, turning to follow the two older boys.

The three boys sitting at the table watched the younger ones leave.

"So--what are the chances, you think?" Buck asked.

Nathan looked at him. "Of what, Buck?"

"That they last a week without getting in trouble."

Chris snorted.

"Yeah," Buck said ruefully. "That's what I thought."

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck stared down.

"Looks kind of small, don't it?" Buck said, looking doubtfully at the map spread out across Chris's bed.

"Doesn't it," Chris corrected absently.

"Chris, for Pete's sakes…!"

Chris continued to study the map. "It's got to be big enough that no one's going to notice us."

Buck nodded. "Yeah. But not some big city."

"Nope," Chris agreed. He pushed the map to the side and sat on the bed. "As long as we get far enough away, we can find someplace."

"Don't look like anywhere is far enough away, on that little thing." Buck sat on his own bed, propping the pillow up against the wall and leaning back against it.

"Country's bigger than it looks, Buck."

"Yeah, I guess," Buck agreed doubtfully. "Josiah's taking care of the van?"

"Yeah. He's gonna speak to the church tomorrow."

"Good." Buck reached above his head and retrieved one of his Batman collectibles from the shelf. He turned it idly in his hands, lost in thought. Chris began to fold up the map. Buck sighed, and Chris looked over at him.


Buck looked up. "Well, what?"

"I know you've got some deep thoughts brewing in that brain of yours, Buck, so you might as well share'em."

"I don't…" Buck started to protest, then paused. He twirled the Batman figure in his hand, and then sat up, carefully replacing it on the shelf. "I've just been thinking, bro."

"What's the occasion?"

Buck threw him a look. "I'm serious, Chris."

"I'm kidding, bro. So what've you been thinking?"

"Well," Buck leaned back against the pillow again. "I guess I was just thinking about earlier, about the kid and all. He wore the same damn pants for a week and not one of us noticed."

"And?" Chris said, knowing Buck wasn't finished yet.

"Well—I was thinking—Chris, how the hell are we going to do this? I mean, what if we really mess one of them up, you know?"

"We won't," Chris said quietly.

"How can you say that? What do you or I know about taking care of a seven-year-old? Or of Vin, or Ezra, or even Nate?" Buck sat up and then stood, walking the short distance over to the window and staring out of it. "What makes you think we can do this?"

"Well," Chris said, his voice still quiet. "We've been doing it for the last six years, haven't we? Oh, come on, Buck," he added more sharply, when Buck made a noise and kept his back turned. "You think Hendricks noticed when Vin was getting beat up, or Ezra was skipping class every day, or Nathan was getting hassled? Or gave a damn when Nate made honor society his first year in high school, or cared that Vin passed his spelling test, or noticed when Ezra finally turned into a human being?"

Buck snorted at the last one, turning to face Chris. "Place should've thrown a party for that one, doncha think," he said, running his fingers through his hair. He pulled out the desk chair and turned it around, straddling it. "I just—I'm scared, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. Me, too."

"You?" Buck threw him a sarcastic look. "Not the great Chris Larabee."

Chris tossed a pillow at Buck. "Yeah, but if you tell any of the others, I'll kill you."

"Deal," Buck said, catching the pillow. He turned it in his hands before tossing it back to Chris. "Chris?"


"We're gonna be okay, aren't we?"

"Yeah, bro, no problem. Listen, think about it this way. We've gotta do a better job than this place did, right?"

Buck nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's for sure."

Whatever he was going to say next was interrupted by the sound of a low rap on the door. Both boys turned toward the sound.

"Buck, what time is it?" Chris asked, eyes boring a hole in the door.

Buck checked his watch. "Just after ten."

"Still Friday, right?"

"Yup, still Friday."

"He made it ten hours." Chris turned to face Buck. "I'm going to kill him," he said flatly, slowly pulling himself to a standing position and heading toward the door.

"You don't know it's him," Buck offered, in a not very convincing voice. Chris rolled his eyes, pulled open the door, and gave Vin a not-so-gentle shove into the room. "Yeah, I guess it's him," Buck muttered, folding his arms across the back of the chair.

Chris closed the door slowly and deliberately, and then turned to face Vin. Vin backed away from Chris, towards Buck, and moved slightly behind him. "Hi, Buck, what's up?" he asked, his voice trying to be casual.

"Well," Buck said, turning to look at the younger boy. "Looks like I'm about to watch someone get his butt kicked."

Vin stepped hurriedly away from the chair and sat on Buck's bed, scooting backwards until his back was against the wall. He looked from Buck to Chris, who still hadn't spoken, and folded his arms, cringing a little at their expressions. "No one saw me comin' out here," he said defensively.

"Vin." Chris's tone was steely.

"I was really careful."


"And J.D.'s sleeping, so he didn't even see me go."

"VIN!" Chris had reached the limit of his patience. He stepped forward, standing at the foot of the bed. "You have about ten seconds to tell me why you're out here."

"But Chris, no one even saw me coming."

"Vin!" Chris's hands were on his hips.

"I…" Vin looked down. "I just—I was just thinking, is all."

Buck snorted, and Chris looked over at him, his features relaxing a little. "Yeah, there's a lot of that going around." Chris sat on the edge of the bed. "What were you thinking about, Vin?"

"Well," Vin looked down at Buck's blanket, and picked at it a little bit. His words spilled uncharacteristically out in a rush. "I was thinking about our home and all, and what we're going to do, and you said me'n Ez'n Nathan'n J.D.'d still go to school, and you'n Buck'n Josiah were going to work, and I hadn't thought about it, but—well…" Vin looked up at Chris, and then down again. "You were supposed to go to college," he said softly.

Chris's felt the same little stab he had felt when he first made the choice, but his voice was even when he spoke. "Yeah. I'm going to put that off for a while."

"But your scholarship." Vin looked up at him, and Chris was surprised to see the concern in Vin's eyes.

"It's okay, kid," Chris said. "I'm just going to put it off for a little while, that's all."

Vin shifted a little closer to Chris. "But you really wanted to go. I know you did."

Chris gave him a half-smile. "Yeah, I did. But how do you think I'd be able to study, knowing I left you brats behind?" Vin rewarded him with a little grin, and Chris let his hand fall on Vin's leg. "Listen, kid, right now, there are other things that are more important." As he said it, he knew that it was true, and knew that, given a hundred times to make the choice, he'd still make the same one.

Vin stared down at his legs. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" When Vin didn't respond, Chris gave his leg a little shake. "For what, Vin?"

"For—you know," Vin struggled with his words.

"Vin." Chris reached out a hand when Vin didn't respond, and turned Vin's face toward him. "Vin, do you wish we'd never met each other?"

"A'course not!" Vin responded quickly.

"Me, either," Chris said firmly. "And neither does Buck, or Josiah, or any of the rest of us. We're a family. Being together is more important than anything else. Okay?"

Vin searched Chris's face, and the tenseness eased out of his shoulders a little bit. "Yeah, okay."

"Good," Chris said, satisfied. He allowed himself a quick ruffle of Vin's hair, and then leaned back, arms folded once more. "Now, about you coming out to the piles…"

"No one saw me, Chris!"

"This time. But Vin, I was serious today when I said you had to stay out of trouble. And you know that means you can't come out here."

Vin lowered his eyes.

"Vin, I want your word that you're going to follow all the rules this week, okay?"

Vin gave Chris a sideways glance. "Even the stupid ones?"

Buck laughed before he could stop himself, and Chris shook his head, carefully masking his smile. "Yeah, even the stupid ones."

Vin nodded. "Okay."

"Good." Chris stood, and reached out a hand. Vin took it, and Chris pulled him to his feet. "You'd better go on back, before someone misses you."

Vin nodded, and headed toward the door. Chris followed him, holding the door open. "I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"

"Yeah." Vin looked back at Buck. "G'night, Buck."

"Night, kid."

Chris closed the door and leaned against it for a moment, before turning back into the room. He looked at Buck, who was grinning at him. "Well?" he snapped.

"No problem, huh, bro?"

Chris groaned, sitting on his bed and lowering his head into his hands. "Yeah," he repeated, his voice muffled. "No problem."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah pulled the van into a spot on the street. After two years driving the hulking thing, he'd become an expert at parallel parking. He felt a surge of satisfaction as he guided the van snugly between two cars, and patted the dashboard as he turned the engine off.

"My van," he said quietly, letting his gaze wash over the instrument panel.

Giving notice on his apartment had been surprisingly hard. As small as his studio was, it had been the first place Josiah could really call his own, and he knew he was going to be sorry to see it go, stained kitchen linoleum and all. Arranging to leave the community college had been easier; the courses were interesting, but Josiah believed that lessons appeared wherever a person happened to be, and if it wasn't in college it would be somewhere else. Going to the church today, though—well, Josiah had been dreading it.

Josiah had worked part-time at the church since he was sixteen, and had continued when he aged out of the Forrest Home and moved to town. When his landlord and the guidance counselor at the community college had asked him why he was moving, Josiah had told them that he was transferring to a four-year-college out of state. He had given the lie without batting an eye. It had been the same when Josiah went to sign the paperwork that would discontinue his small educational stipend and officially close his connection to the state Department of Child and Family Services. But Josiah had felt sure he wouldn't be able to lie to the man who had been his boss and his mentor for the past five years.

Father Jacob had never asked, though. When Josiah sat down with the older man to tell him he was leaving, the priest had examined Josiah's face, laid a hand on his shoulder, and wished him luck. When Josiah had hesitantly asked about purchasing the van he had driven for the last few years, citing the need for transportation for his move across the country, Father Jacob had leaned back against the wooden pew.

"Well, son, truth is, that van's seen better days. Been meaning to get a new one for a while now. Seeing as how you've been working here for nearly five years for next to nothing, how about if I sign that van over to you and we call it your final bonus."

Josiah had protested, and then, when Father Jacob had proved unshakeable, had stammered out his thanks. The priest had studied his face. "Is there anything you'd like to talk about, Josiah?"

Josiah couldn't hold the priest's gaze. "No, Father."

"Are you sure, son?"

Josiah looked up. "Yes, sir."

The priest slowly nodded. "Well, then, Josiah, I wish you well." He had held out his hand, and Josiah took it, wishing that in his squeeze he could say everything he couldn't seem to find the words for. The priest had squeezed back, and then drawn Josiah into an embrace. Josiah felt the tears stinging his eyes, and didn't bother blinking them away as he drew back.

"Father Jacob?"

"Yes, son?"

Josiah's tears blurred the older man's form. "Thank you, Father."

The priest had pressed a hand on Josiah's shoulder, and then turned and walked away, saving Josiah from having to be the one to do it. Josiah had driven home in the van, the papers establishing it as his locked securely in the glove compartment.

Now he sat for a moment, before he got out, and let the tears come for the small part of his life he was going to be sorry to leave behind. When he was done, he wiped the moisture from his face, unashamed.

As he approached his apartment building, he was too lost in thought at first to notice the small figure seated on the stairs on the third level, just outside his door. He looked up when he noticed movement.

Ezra rose slowly to his feet as Josiah approached. Josiah eyed him the rest of the way up, but didn't say anything. When he got to the third-floor landing, he reached down and moved Ezra out of the way, and then unlocked the door to his apartment. He walked in and then turned, jerking his head toward the interior. Ezra lowered his head and followed him in, coming to a stop a few feet into the living room.

Josiah closed the door behind him, silently applauding himself for keeping his temper and not allowing the door to slam. Still silent, he walked into the apartment and tossed his wallet and keys onto the kitchen counter. Ezra was watching him carefully. Josiah opened the refrigerator and pulled out a soda, popping the can open and walking into the living room. He sat on his battered recliner and took a swig, and then rested the can on the coffee table. He looked over at Ezra, who still stood near the door, looking ready to bolt.

"Now, I know that Chris told you guys to stay where you were supposed to be this week," Josiah began in a conversational tone, "so I know you must have had an absolutely fantastic reason for not listening." He eyed Ezra, whose fingers were now fidgeting nervously. "So before I read you the riot act, how about you sit your little butt down and tell me what you're doing here."

Ezra remained standing, undecided. Josiah's voice hardened. "Sit down, Ezra."

Ezra moved forward and sat on the edge of the sofa. He picked up a pencil from the coffee table, and twirled it in his fingers. Josiah watched him, waiting, but Ezra remained silent. Josiah finally let out a breath, taking pity on the miserable-looking kid sitting in front of him.

"So how was your week, Ez?"

Ezra looked up. "All right, I suppose." He twirled the pencil over one finger and under the next. "School's finished, at least."

Josiah settled back in his chair. "Summer program?"

"Yeah." Ezra gave Josiah a small smile. "Hard as it may be to believe, the summer program is even more mind-numbing than their usual fare."

"You causing any trouble?" Josiah gave Ezra a hard look. Ezra shook his head a little too quickly. Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Nothing?"

"Well—Colin and Jamie—"

"Those two still giving you guys a hard time?"

"Nothing I can't handle," Ezra said, eyes flashing. Josiah leaned forward.

"Listen, trouble, you stay out of their way this week, all right? They start anything, you just walk away."

"Chris already did this little number," Ezra muttered, folding his arms and leaning back against the sofa.

Josiah's gaze bored into Ezra. "Then we'll do it again. You can't have been listening real well, or you wouldn't be here." Ezra looked at him defiantly for a moment, and then let his eyes drop. Josiah sighed, and stood and moved to the sofa, folding his long frame down next to Ezra's. He could feel the boy next to him tensing up.

Josiah rested his elbows on his knees and sat forward, keeping his eyes ahead of him. "So--what was it you wanted to talk to me about, kid?"

Ezra snuck a sideways glance at him, fingers still twirling the pencil. Josiah waited patiently for Ezra to speak, but the silence stretched out. Finally, he reached over and removed the pencil from Ezra's fingers. "Well?"

"I've been thinking…"

Josiah waited. Ezra shifted sideways, as far away from Josiah as he could get on the small sofa. "I've been thinking about my—" he paused, "about Maude."

Josiah nodded slowly. "What have you been thinking, Ezra?"

"I just—I mean—if we go—if I go, she won't know how—she won't know where to find me." Ezra's face was turned away, and his voice was small.

Josiah shifted himself so that he was looking at the boy seated next to him. He chose his words carefully. "You're right, Ezra. When we go, she won't know where you are."

Ezra turned to look at him. "Josiah—what if she comes back for me, and I'm not here anymore?"

Josiah studied him for a little while before answering. "How long, Ezra?"

The younger boy looked at him, confused. "What?"

"How long are you willing to wait?" Ezra flushed and looked down, and Josiah continued. "You've been here three years, Ezra. How much longer will you give her? A month? A year? Five years?" Josiah could see the pain in Ezra's eyes, but he forced himself to continue, his voice hard. "What are you willing to give up, Ezra--waiting for her to come back?"

Ezra looked at him, and then down again. "I don't know what to do, Josiah," he admitted softly.

Josiah studied him. Ezra was pulled back against the corner of the sofa, his knees drawn up against his chest. Josiah leaned towards him. "You need to make a choice, kid. It's a hard one, but you're the only one who can make it. You can choose you, or you can choose her." He waited a moment, but Ezra didn't say anything. Josiah leaned back, watching him. "If it helps any, the rest of us would be pretty sad to leave you behind."

Ezra's chest rose and fell, as he took a few shaky breaths. Finally, he gave Josiah a sideways glance. "Even Chris?" he asked, a hint of his usual sarcasm in his voice.

Josiah gave a little snort. "Yeah, kid, even Chris. C'mon--you oughtta know by now his bark's worse than his bite."

Ezra nodded. He looked up at Josiah, and then away. "Josiah—I don't want to stay behind." His voice broke a little as he spoke.

"Then don't." Josiah's voice was final, and he rested his hand on the back of Ezra's neck, leaving it there even when he felt Ezra tense up a little. "It's okay to choose you, kid," he said quietly. He felt Ezra lean back into his hand, and gave a little squeeze, letting his hand move up into a brief caress on the side of the younger boy's face.

"It's going to be okay, kid. Don't let anybody tell you different."

Ezra nodded and pulled away from Josiah, standing and walking toward the kitchen area. He paused with his hand on the refrigerator. "Can I have a soda?"

Josiah tilted his head and looked at him. "Where are you supposed to be right now?"

Ezra shrugged. "Somewhere lame."

Josiah stood. "You can grab a soda for the road," he said, picking up his wallet and car keys. "I'll drop you back near the Home."

"Aw, Josiah--"

"No arguments," Josiah cut him off. "Let's go." He smiled over at Ezra. "C'mon, you can be the first to ride in my van."

"Your van?"

"Yeah." Josiah grinned. "I'll tell you about it on the way."