Justin had been missing since sometime in the morning. Zelda received the panicked call from Thomas as soon as she rode into an area with mobile phone reception.
“Justin’s gone again!” the panicked man said. Zelda could see him, considering she was standing just outside the Moorland Stable gates. He looked frenzied, his hat gone and his hair all messed up.
“Okay, just calm down,” said Zelda. “I’ll be there in literally five seconds.”
“Oh, my poor boy, not again, not again,” Thomas whimpered, covering his eyes with his hands. Zelda rode up to him.
“Thomas, look at me,” said Zelda, putting a hand on his face so he was looking up at her. She was on Jewel, so he didn’t have to look as far up as usual. “Justin hated it at Dark Core. He wouldn’t go back there.”
“He might if it feels like the only place he belongs,” said Thomas. “The others don’t trust him anymore, not since he was with the dark side.”
“Still, he wouldn’t return,” said Zelda. “Justin is stubborn enough to try to prove that he’s a good guy. And besides, you guys here have shown him nothing but kindness.”
“But the druids-“ Thomas started.
“Screw them,” said Zelda. “Justin wouldn’t abandon his family again. He’s probably just overwhelmed and hiding from everyone.”
“Okay,” said Thomas, nodding. “You’re probably right.”
“Of course I’m right,” said Zelda. “I know my boyfriend. Just try to calm down and I’ll look for him. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I find him.”
“Thank you,” said Thomas, clutching his hat. He walked over to the main house, still wringing his hat in his hands.
Zelda went into her stable, dismounting and untacking Jewel once she was in there and then leading her to her stall. Her Lipizanner had had a nice visit with her brother, and Jack had enjoyed seeing the beautiful horse again.
“Well, Phantom, it’s time to go look for Justin,” said Zelda, opening his stall door. “He’s gone somewhere to hide and Thomas is worried.”
“Well, you won’t have to go far,” said Phantom, swishing his tail in amusement.
“Huh? What do you mean?” asked Zelda.
“He’s in here,” said Phantom, stretching his neck up and gesturing to the hay loft. Zelda looked and, sure enough, she could just make out a black shape in the hay.
“Oh,” said Zelda. “How long has he been in here?”
“A while,” said Phantom. “He was here when you changed your clothes.” Zelda felt heat creep up her neck.
“He WHAT?” said Zelda. “Oh god.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure that he averted his eyes,” said Phantom. “He’s a gentleman like that.”
“He’d better have,” said Zelda. “Now, where did I put that ladder?”
After locating the ladder, Zelda climbed up to the hayloft and crawled over to Justin (standing up here gave her dizzy spells, and she worried about slipping on some hay and plummeting to her death).
“Justin?” said Zelda. He was fast asleep, and she smiled upon seeing that. “Hey, Justin.” She shook him gently, though she hated to wake him. But he woke up peacefully enough, opening his eyes and then yawning as he sat up.
“Z?” asked Justin. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” said Zelda, sitting next to him. “Your dad’s been frantic with worry looking for you.”
“Oh no,” said Justin, feeling guilt gnaw at him. “I should’ve told him, but I just… had to get away.”
“It’s okay,” said Zelda, rubbing his knee. “He’ll understand when I tell him. How long have you been up here for?”
“All morning,” said Justin.
“Have you eaten or had anything to drink at all?” asked Zelda. It felt a little strange, having to treat Justin like Jack, but at least she knew what to do.
“No, I’ve been asleep the whole time,” said Justin. “There was just… too many people outside, you know?”
“I know,” said Zelda. After being isolated for so long out on the platform, it was still hard for Justin to adjust to being around other people.
“So I came in here because horses are good company,” said Justin. “And the smells of hay and horses calmed me.”
“I’m glad,” said Zelda. “Now, I’m gonna go get us something to eat and drink and tell your dad where you are. I’ll be back soon.”
“Hurry back,” said Justin, smiling as his stomach growled. “I’m starving.” Zelda laughed and then left.
“I found him,” said Zelda when she found Thomas in the courtyard. “He’s up in the hayloft.”
“Oh, praise Aideen, thank you,” said Thomas, hugging her. “Now I can relax.”
“I’m taking him up some food and he’ll be down when he’s ready,” said Zelda.
“Go and see Mrs Holdsworth,” said Thomas. “She always has baked goodies for me. And for Justin, now.”
“I will,” said Zelda. She walked over to the old woman’s cottage, having decided to stretch her legs. It wasn’t too far away.
Justin was sitting up when Zelda returned, and he grinned at the sight of her. Or at the sight of her basket full of goodies.
“Wow,” said Justin. “Where’d you get all that?”
“Mrs Holdsworth,” said Zelda, sitting down beside him and opening up the picnic basket. “There are sandwiches and various baked goods. And plenty of water, of course, because you have to stay hydrated.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Justin, cracking open a bottle of water and taking a few gulps. “She told me that so many times growing up. It’s funny, she isn’t related to me by blood, but she treats me like I’m her grandson.”
“She’s a sweet old lady like that,” said Zelda. “And I bet you visited her every day.”
“Of course I did,” said Justin. “She’d always give me honey and baked bread and all these preserves to take back to dad. And every single day, without fail, I’d visit her for morning and afternoon tea. We had cakes and scones and lemonade at first, but then tea when I was older. I always just assumed that my family was normal.”
“You don’t have to be related to someone by blood to be their family,” said Zelda. “I should know.”
“Yeah,” said Justin with a laugh. “Honestly, the only bad thing about growing up was how dad and Grandpa Jasper used to fight. And when they did… I’d come up here. Or go see Mrs Holdsworth if she was in.”
“Everyone here cares about you so much,” said Zelda.
“I know, and I love them, which is why I don’t wanna burden them with my problems,” said Justin.
“Well, just… tell them next time you’re going to go hide, okay?” said Zelda. “Or when you need alone time. They’ll understand. Tell your dad, at least.”
“I will,” said Justin. “Thanks, Z. You look after me.” He kissed her, and Zelda returned the kiss but then put a sandwich in his hand.
“Eat,” said Zelda. Justin laughed and then took a large bite out of his sandwich.
Some hours later, when all of the riders had either gone home or just gone elsewhere, Justin finally came out of the stable with Zelda and an empty picnic basket. They were holding hands, and Justin looked a lot happier than he had been earlier.
“Hi, dad,” said Justin, sheepishly approaching his father.
“My boy,” said Thomas, hugging him.
“Sorry for worrying you,” said Justin.
“It’s okay, Zelda explained everything,” said Thomas. “Just tell me next time you need to go off somewhere, alright?”
“Alright,” said Justin, nodding. “I’ll text you if I can’t tell you. And, um… don’t tell anyone where my hiding place is, okay?”
“My lips are sealed,” said Thomas. Justin smiled at his father, and then at his girlfriend.