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Vin froze in mid-step for just a fraction of a second before resuming pace. Ezra didn't slow down, but Vin knew he had seen, too.
"Too late to turn back; they already seen us."
Ezra didn't turn his head at Vin's whisper. "I know."
"Who's seen us?" J.D.'s voice began loudly, but dropped to a whisper as the other two boys simultaneously hissed, "Shhhh!" at him.
Ezra and Vin kept their eyes on the reddening face of Mr. Hendricks, the Site Director. Hendricks stood in the gravel driveway leading to the main house, next to the flustered-looking figure of Janet Evans, the caseworker from the Department. Evans was turning to face them, her voice acerbic as she addressed the director. "How you can just lose a child is beyond me!" she tossed over her shoulder, striding toward the three boys emerging from the trees.
"Oh, shit," Vin whispered.
J.D. looked up at him and then at the woman stalking toward them, and stepped a little behind Vin, clutching his hand tightly.
"Just follow my lead," Ezra whispered to Vin out of the corner of his mouth, moments before Evans was on top of them.
"John Daniel Dunne, where have you been? Are you all right?" The woman reached for J.D., who moved further behind Vin.
"Mrs. Evans, thank goodness," Ezra broke in. "We are overjoyed to find you." His face wore a relieved smile, and he lifted his hands slightly, toward her.
The seasoned caseworker looked at him suspiciously, hands on her hips. "Is that right? And why is that?" She looked at J.D., still hiding behind Vin. "And where has he been?"
"Well, ma'am, it seems young John took it upon himself to explore our fair grounds this fine morning." His voice was solemn and his eyes warm as he began the story, and Evans nodded, allowing him to continue. "We were terribly frightened when we realized he was missing. You see, Vincent resides in the room adjacent to the one in which young John slept this past evening. Early this morning, as Vincent was gathering his belongings for a day of learning, he overheard some of our. . .less charitable co-habitants amusing themselves about having sent young John here off exploring in the woods." He shook his head sorrowfully, overcome with the callousness of his fellow residents.
"Is this true, Vin?" Hendricks stood next to Evans, hands clasped behind his back.
"Yes, sir," Vin said earnestly, widening his eyes and following the story. "I was real worried."
"Vincent dismissed the talk as bravado, sir, but became alarmed when he was unable to locate J.D., and took it upon himself to search for the boy." Ezra continued the story, shifting the focus back away from Vin. Vin could lie convincingly, but he didn't like being the center of scrutiny.
"And how is it you came along?" Hendricks turned back toward the older boy. Glancing at Ezra, Vin could see the hint of a smile in his eyes, but knew that Hendricks would never be able to read the former con-artist's expression.
"Well, sir, I had obtained permission from Ms. Bolardi to continue with my independent study on bird species found within the grounds of the Forrest Home." Ezra lowered his eyes modestly. "Ms. Bolardi has told me she is quite impressed with my initiative, sir."
"And?" Hendricks' voice was impatient. Vin suppressed the laugh that wanted to emerge, as Ezra continued.
"I was in the woods, taking notes on the nesting habits of the ground-dwelling mockingbird, when I came across young Vincent, here, who was looking rather frantic. He recounted his story to me, and his concern for John's safety. Naturally, I inquired as to whether he had alerted the authorities--meaning yourself, of course, sir," Ezra nodded his head deferentially toward Hendricks, who cleared his throat and nodded. "Unfortunately, he had been so overcome with worry he had proceeded quite impulsively into the woods to search for the missing child."
Ezra widened his stance, arms clasped in front of him, eyes cast downward and voice sounding penitent. "I know we should have returned to alert you, sir, but we were so far into the woods, I thought it more prudent to continue in our quest. I did not realize how long it would take to locate young John, who managed to get himself quite lost."
Mrs. Evans knelt down near J.D. "Is that true, John?"
Ezra and Vin held their breath, as J.D. slowly drew away from Vin's back and faced the caseworker. J.D. held her eyes for a moment, and then stepped forward. With wide eyes and a slightly trembling lip, he ventured, "I was so scared, and I couldn't find nobody. Those bad boys told me the wrong way to go." He looked down, then back up. "Then Vin and Ezra rescued me." J.D. sniffed for good measure.
Although they both remained expressionless, Vin and Ezra could have cheerfully hugged the kid in that moment.
Evans's face had softened as the boy spoke. She impulsively reached out and squeezed the child's hand. "Well, don't you worry, J.D., those boys will be punished. I'm just glad you're safe." She stood, retaining her hold on J.D.'s hand. "And you're not to go running off anymore, do you understand?"
J.D. nodded, looking back at Vin. Vin winked at him as Evans turned back toward the director, giving him a pointed look. He grimaced in annoyance and then turned toward Vin. "All right, son, who was it you overheard?"
Vin looked flustered. "Oh, I can't say."
Hendricks glowered at him. "Vincent Tanner, I won't have you boys covering for each other. Now, who was it?"
Vin suddenly saw a chance for some revenge. "Sir, I ain't no tattle-tale." He held Hendricks gaze for just a moment, then looked down, shrugging. "Besides, I'm sure Colin'n Jamie didn't mean for nothing to happen to--" His words stopped with a small gasp as his hands flew to his mouth, aping dismay at the little secret he had just 'spilled'.
Hendricks nodded at him, satisfied. "I'll see to those two. Don't worry, Tanner, I won't let them know it was you." He turned back to the caseworker. "I told you we weren't equipped for a child this young."
"What do you expect me to do?" Her voice was sharp. "There are no, I repeat, NO, open beds in this county, and your facility is operating well under capacity."
"I'm telling you, he is too young for--" Hendricks' voice broke off, as he took in the three boys watching the unfolding drama. He cleared his throat. "Standish, Tanner, how about if you show John here the way to my office and wait with him there for me."
The two older boys exchanged looks, and then nodded, Vin taking J.D. by the hand. The three walked up the stairs to the main house. Just inside the door, Vin dropped to his knees, Ezra and J.D. following. Vin held his fingers to his lips as J.D. started to open his mouth, and he leaned into the opened crack of the door, the other two leaning beside him. They didn't have to lean too far; the loud voices carried clearly through the opening.
"I am telling you," Hendricks enunciated each word. "He. . .is. . .too. . .young for this facility! We do not have the staff to monitor a child of this age!"
"And I am telling you, you do not have a choice." Evans' voice was equally crisp. "The state reserves the right to fill a certain percentage of slots at this facility. I am filling one of those slots." The boys heard footsteps pacing, and then stopping. "He's got no family, Phil. Do you think I would leave him here, if I had a choice?"
There was silence for a moment, and then Hendricks' voice, slightly less sharp. "All right, Janet, how long?"
"At least two weeks." Her voice was resigned. "Maybe three. Space at the group homes is tight, and pre-adoptive homes are hard to come by right now, especially for non-infants."
Silence for a few moments. J.D. was sucking on his hair, leaning against the wall. Vin gave him a worried look, then leaned in to the other two, whispering. "Be ready to run when they head for the steps."
Ezra and J.D. both nodded. All three swiveled their heads as the voices started again.
"You'd think he'd be easy to place."
"He's at the upper end of the adoptable range, Phil."
"Christ, Janet, he's only seven."
"People want toddlers." Her voice was indifferent. "Foster homes will take a seven-year-old, but the ones looking to adopt want the little ones."
A pause. "His size will work in his favor. He is small for his age."
"All right." Hendricks's voice moved closer. "Let's go. You can talk to him in my office." Footsteps sounded outside, and the three boys scrambled to their feet and ran down the hallway, turning the corner toward Hendricks' office just before the director and caseworker entered the building.
+ + + + + + +
"'His size will work in his favor.'" Vin's voice was quiet but outraged, his eyes blazing as he sat on Chris's bed. "Just like he was a horse. Just like they was trading a horse."
Chris was silent. There wasn't really much he could say. He had known by the set of Vin's shoulders, the tension in his jaw, that the eleven-year-old was raging when he had knocked on the door. Only a surge of emotion could send Vin sneaking back to the piles on the same day Chris had warned him off, and Chris had let him in without a word.
Vin stood, pacing in the small space.
"Is it really so bad?" Chris's voice was mild when he finally spoke. Vin stopped in his tracks, turning and glaring at Chris. Chris held his gaze for a moment, and then sighed. "Listen, Vin, they're going to find him a home. That's what matters, right?"
"He's not going to a home!" Vin's voice was quiet, but steely when he spoke.
"Vin. . ."
"He's not!" Vin turned from Chris and walked to the window, his shoulders rigid as he stared out at nothing.
Chris watched him quietly for a minute, then rose and moved to stand behind him. He lifted a hand and rested it on Vin's shoulder. Vin didn't acknowledge him, but he didn't move away, either. They stood in silence for a little while, before Chris spoke quietly. "You can't get too attached, Vin."
Vin's jaw was set. "I told him I'd look out for him."
"Fine. Look out for him until he gets placed."
"He's not getting placed! I'm keeping him with me!"
"Vin." Chris's voice was tired. "You can't keep him."
Vin whirled around to face him, pulling away from Chris's hand. "Why not?" His eyes were blazing, but his voice was pleading. "You kept me, didn't you?"
Chris pressed his lips together, looking into the trusting blue eyes of the eleven-year-old. In his mind, they shifted, back to the wary expression of the nine-year-old he had first met. He thought of someone trying to forcibly separate them, and felt a sudden wave of rage pass through him, followed by a more shocking stab of fear. He looked into the blue eyes, and nodded slowly.
"Yeah. I guess I did."
"Well, then." Vin nodded, satisfied.
Chris started to speak, then shook his head, exasperated. "It's not that simple, Vin."
"Yes, it is." Vin's voice was defiant. "You kept me, and I'm keeping him. Please, Chris?"
Chris looked at him. Vin looked rebellious, but his voice broke on the last word. He stood with feet spread, hands planted on his hips, long hair dangling in his face. Chris resisted the urge to push it out of his eyes. Chris forgot, sometimes, how young Vin was. It was in moments like these that he remembered with sudden clarity, when Vin's eyes opened like windows, revealing the still-needy, still-child within.
Chris let his breath out in a frustrated hiss. "It's not up to me, Vin."
"But you can help." Vin's eyes rested on Chris, trusting him. Chris felt the weight of that trust, and part of him wished he could fling it back. Part of him, of course, knew that he never would.
Vin's eyes were what drew out Chris's response. "We'll see, okay, Vin?"
The minute he said the meaningless words, Chris could have kicked himself. He knew that the words were empty, knew that J.D. would be placed within a few weeks, knew that--with any luck--the six of them would be gone forever soon after that--but he also knew he was completely, utterly, at the mercy of Vin's trusting eyes. And as he watched Vin visibly relax with his words, he found himself believing, just for a moment, that he had the power to actually do something.
+ + + + + + +
Vin recognized the sound even before he was fully awake. The muffled, keening plea threaded easily into his dream. It took him disorienting moments to realize that the sound came from without, and not from within.
The amorphous shapes slowly merged into the small, huddled boy trembling under the covers in the bed across from his. J.D. had been moved into Vin's room as part of Henderson's reparations for his perceived error in placing the boy with Colin and Jamie. Vin held his breath, listening to the younger child softly calling the name he, too, now called out only in his dreams.
The word sounded like melted chocolate, like laundry soap and laughing and crinkled eyes and blue sundress, all in one. Vin swallowed the lump that jumped to his throat, ignored the prickling that materialized in his eyes, and moved silently toward the other bed, his steps like a sleepwalker's, appearing unbidden. He found himself curled around the other child, arm draped across his chest.
"Mama," J.D. repeated in his sleep, his breathing slowing as he melted into the older boy.
Vin nodded, in silent echo, and buried his face in the dark locks. He fell asleep to the lingering memory of cookies and shampooed hair.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. woke slowly, his hands rubbing at his eyes as his toes stretched under the sheets. His mouth opened in a slow yawn as he removed his fists, eyes blearily taking in the room around him.
Vin sat cross-legged on the other bed, watching as J.D's face registered confusion, then fear, then relief as he recognized Vin, and then an aching disappointment, all in rapid-fire.
The younger boy gazed at him, pulling a lock of hair toward his mouth and sucking on it for a moment before releasing it.
"I'm still here."
Vin lowered his chin. "Yeah."
J.D. nodded and sat up, his features flat. "'Cause I thought maybe I wasn't."
Vin pursed his lips and then smiled a little, moving to the other bed. He sat beside J.D. and put an arm around his shoulders. "Get dressed, and I'll tell you a secret."
J.D. looked at him. "What kind of secret?"
Vin stood and moved to the red canvas suitcase Mrs. Evans had packed J.D.'s things in. He crouched down and lifted the lid. "What do you want to wear?"
J.D. stood behind him, looking, and then pointed. "Yu-Gi-Oh. What secret?"
Vin pulled the t-shirt out of the suitcase and handed it to J.D. "After breakfast, we're gonna have an adventure."
"An adventure?" J.D. pulled the t-shirt over his head. "What kind of adventure?" His voice was muffled, lost in the cotton, as he searched for the neck hole. "Are we going swimming again?" he asked, head emerging.
Vin shook his head. "Nope." He handed J.D. a pair of shorts. "Better. Today's Saturday."
"So, Saturdays we all spend together." He looked at J.D., still standing with the shorts clutched in his hand. "C'mon, get dressed."
J.D. looked at the shorts he was holding. "I want my blue ones."
"You wore those yesterday."
"But I want them today." J.D. bit his lip and looked at Vin from under his eyelids. That usually hadn't worked with his Mama, but it was worth a try.
"Fine." J.D. smiled as Vin stood and grabbed J.D.'s blue shorts from off the laundry pile in the corner and tossed them at him. "Just get dressed."
J.D. sat on the floor next to where his shorts had fallen and pulled his knees to his chest. He placed the shorts at his feet, and then paused, toes wiggling against the waistband. "Who do we spend Saturdays with?"
"Everyone--Josiah, and Chris'n Buck--you met them--and Nathan, and Ez, of course, all of us." He looked at J.D., still sitting with his shorts at his feet. "J.D., you're not even trying to get dressed," he scolded.
J.D. looked down at his shorts, and then stuck one foot carefully in a leg hole. "Who're all of those boys?"
"They're my brothers," Vin said proudly.
J.D. looked up at him. "You sure've got a lot of brothers."
Vin nodded. "No one else knows we're brothers, but we are."
J.D. looked at him suspiciously. "Real brothers?"
"Real brothers," Vin said firmly.
"Yup, even him. Chris says so, and Josiah says brothers isn't about blood."
J.D. looked back at his shorts, and stuck his second foot in, wriggling it a little. "Who's J'siah?"
"Josiah's the biggest, he's 20."
"That's too big to live here," J.D. protested, pulling his shorts up over his knees and then kneeling to get them the rest of the way up.
"He don't live here, dummy, he moved out a couple'a years ago."
"And on Saturdays, we don't hafta be in school, so as long as we check in at breakfast and dinner, we can get away for a whole day and no one knows."
"Where do we go?"
Vin shrugged. "Anywhere. Nowhere. Doesn't matter, just as long as we're together." He held a hand down to J.D., who still kneeled on the floor. "C'mon, let's get your shoes on."
+ + + + + + +
J.D. followed Vin into the cafeteria-style dining room, his eyes widening as he took in the display of small cereal boxes. "Vin--they got Chocolate Puffs and Frosted Stars and Cinn'min Bears and everything."
Vin looked at the cereal disinterestedly, grabbing a carton of milk and two of the small boxes. "Yeah."
J.D. carefully put one of the small boxes on his tray, and then another one. Looking at Vin to see if he would protest, he added a third. When Vin turned and headed toward where the juices were stacked, J.D. quickly grabbed two more boxes and hurried after him.
Vin waited until J.D. caught up with him. "You want juice?"
J.D. nodded, and Vin placed a container of orange juice on his tray. "C'mon--I see Chris and Buck."
Vin led J.D. to a round table along a side wall. Buck sat slumped over his breakfast tray, chin resting on his hand, while Chris flipped through the pages of a newspaper. He looked up as the two boys approached.
"Morning, Vin. Kid," he added, seeing J.D. following.
"Morning," Vin replied. He placed his tray by the chair next to Chris's, and then slid in. He looked up at him and gave a half-smile. "Saturday."
Chris gave a half-smile back. "Yeah, kid, Saturday."
"And too damn early to be up," Buck grumbled from the other side, not lifting his head from his hand.
J.D. looked at Buck, and then over at Vin. He leaned toward Vin and whispered confidentially, "Bad word."
Vin nodded, grinning, as Buck's head lifted off his hand, looking up.
"Is that boy still sick?" J.D. continued, still facing Vin.
"I ain't sick!" Buck looked at Vin. "Ain't you got rid of him yet?"
Vin started to respond, but was interrupted by J.D., who glared at the older boy. "You're being mean!" He slapped the table once, then calmly opened the top of one of his cereal boxes and peered inside.
Vin lifted his chin and jerked his head toward J.D., grinning a little. "Yeah. What he said."
"Cripes," Buck muttered. "Fine, sorry, kid."
"That's okay," J.D. replied, opening a second cereal box.
"The timing of our morning rendezvous is, as always, dreadful," a familiar voice said, dropping a tray next to J.D.'s. J.D. looked up and smiled at Ezra, who was yawning, before looking back at his tray and opening a third cereal box.
"Morning, frog," Ezra whispered, leaning into J.D. and poking him in his side, under the table.
J.D. giggled. "G'morning, Ezra."
Nathan sat between Buck and Ezra, nodding at the others. He looked at J.D., studying him for a minute, before turning back to his own breakfast.
"Well, well, the gang's all here," Buck muttered.
"Except Josiah," Vin reminded him.
Buck looked up. "Yeah, except Josiah," he agreed. "The gang's all here, except Josiah."
"Plus one," Chris added, jerking his head toward J.D.
"Fine," Buck said, exasperated. "The gang's all here, except Josiah, plus one." He looked over toward J.D. and then took a second look, letting out a low whistle. "What the hell are you doing, kid?"
Everyone looked over. J.D. had all five boxes of cereal open, and had created a multi-colored pyramid in the midst of his tray, from which he was contentedly selecting sugared bits of cereal and popping them into his mouth. A piece of chocolate stuck to his upper lip. J.D. looked up and saw the others looking at him.
Buck snorted and looked away. "Nothing."
Nathan leaned over Ezra toward J.D. "You shouldn't eat so much sugar all at once. You'll get sick."
J.D. eyed him. "Who're you?"
Nathan eyed him back, arching an eyebrow. "Who're you?"
"I asked you first."
Nathan laughed. "Yup, you did. I'm Nathan. And you're J.D., Ezra told me about you."
"Are you Vin's brother, too?"
Nathan looked over at Vin and flashed a quick smile. "Yup. Now don't eat all of that."
J.D. nodded, looking back down at his tray. "Okay."
"And drink some of that milk."
"Any other basic food groups unaccounted for, Nathan?" Ezra muttered under his breath.
Nathan nudged the smaller boy with his elbow. "You got something to say, Ez?"
Ezra slid sideways, away from Nathan's elbow. Nathan had gotten big over the last year. "Nope."
"That's what I thought."
Chris looked at Vin. "Were you planning on bringing him with us today?"
Vin looked up, ready to argue, but Chris held up his hand. "All right, Vin, I'm just asking, I can see it's yes. Just make sure no one's gonna be looking for him, okay?"
Vin's eyes were bright, and he nodded. Chris smiled at him, before turning to the table. "All right, everyone meet at the usual spot, thirty minutes, okay?" He stood, folding his newspaper and placing it on his tray. "Don't be late," he added, his eyes on Ezra.
"Why are you looking at me?" Ezra asked defensively, looking up at him and holding his gaze for a moment before looking down again. Chris didn't reply, just raised an eyebrow before turning and walking away. He deposited his tray on the conveyor belt and then left the dining hall.
Ezra watched him leave. "Why's he assume I'll be late?" he asked.
"Cause you're always late," Vin replied, not looking up from his bowl of cereal.
"I am not always. . ."
"Ezra, eat your breakfast or you will be late," Nathan said, interrupting. Ezra glowered at him, but picked up his toast, buttering it.
Buck stood, stretching. "See y'all there." He gently slapped the tops of Vin, J.D., and Ezra's heads, in turn, as he walked by them. J.D. looked up, ready to protest, but seeing Vin and Ezra continue to eat complacently, he closed his mouth.
Vin swallowed a spoonful of cereal and gulped down his juice, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked at J.D. "You done, yet?"
J.D. nodded. Vin started to stand up, but Nathan frowned. "J.D., drink your milk first."
J.D. looked at Vin, who nodded. J.D. pouted a little, but picked up his glass and drank it. Nathan smiled at him, while Ezra rolled his eyes.
"C'mon," Vin grabbed J.D.'s hand, tugging him away from the table. "Let's go get seen."
"C'mon," Vin pulled J.D. after him. "Let's go."
J.D. followed Vin out of the dining hall and back up the steps toward the floor where the youngest residents slept, and where he and Vin had their bedroom. The older youth were placed in the smaller buildings, by age, around the grounds. Ezra had been moved out of the main house just six months ago, and placed in the building next to Nathan's. The piles, where Chris and Buck lived, were on the far side of the grounds.
"Where are we going?" J.D. asked, pulling back against Vin's hand.
"We've gotta be at the check-in," Vin explained. "Then we can go."
"Oh." J.D. followed Vin into the unit common room, where a dozen other boys sat stretched on the various chairs and small sofas spread around the space. A tall young man in jeans sat in an easy chair, clipboard resting on his knees. He looked up as Vin and J.D. entered.
"Well, and here he is," he said, smiling. "You must be J.D." His voice was deep, but kind, and J.D. smiled back at him. "I see you've been taking good care of him, Vin."
Vin smiled a little. "Hi, Mark. J.D.'s sleeping in my room, now."
"So I heard, so I heard," the unit counselor replied. He turned to the smaller boy. "J.D., my name is Mark, and I'm one of the milieu counselors here. That's a big word that just means I'm here to help keep an eye on things and make sure everyone on this floor is doing okay. All right?"
J.D. nodded, and Mark smiled at him. "Okay. Now, every Saturday morning we all check in about how things are going. Why don't you take a seat with Vin?"
Vin stepped forward. "Mark--I was going to show J.D. around after breakfast. Is that okay?"
The counselor looked at the two boys. "Well--we have some group activities planned."
Vin leaned forward. "He's still feeling kind of nervous being around lots of kids," he whispered. "Think maybe he could just play with me today?"
Mark looked at him thoughtfully, and then nodded. "Okay, Vin. We'll be over on the back field if you change your mind."
Vin nodded, taking J.D. by the hand and leading him over to a small couch toward the back of the room. "Ez should'a seen that," he whispered to J.D. as they sat down.
Vin smiled. "Nothing."
"Who're all these boys?"
"They live here."
Mark called the meeting to order as two final boys entered the room, and the talking settled down. After twenty minutes of announcements, mediated disputes about shower times and whose turn it was to clean the bathrooms, the meeting was adjourned.