Ward runs away when he's eight and Danny is twelve. It's Joy, age six and a half, who tips Danny off before their parents find out about it. She throws herself on him, dribbling tears, and he manages to get the story out of her eventually: Ward swore her to secrecy, she's not supposed to tell, but she's really worried and he's been gone for hours and Dad is going to be mad ...
"I'll find him," Danny promises, giving her a hug and a kiss on top of her pigtails.
His first thought is just to tell a grownup. But it feels like a betrayal of confidence, a violation of the unspoken rules of childhood. The Meachum kids aren't really family, but it feels like it; they've been in each other's lives ever since Joy and Ward were tiny, and because their mom died when they were babies (Danny barely remembers her), the kids have been coming over to the Rand house ever since Danny was younger than Joy is now. This has been a pretty typical rainy Saturday afternoon, with their parents out and Mrs. Bennett, the housekeeper/cook, down in the kitchen and technically in charge of them, but the way it usually works out is that Danny keeps an eye on the little kids. He played Chutes and Ladders with Joy earlier, and then he went to play a video game she wasn't interested in while she watched cartoons, and ... hmmm. He hasn't seen Ward in awhile, come to think of it.
It's pouring down buckets outside. Danny deposits Joy with Mrs. Bennett, down in the warm kitchen, and then goes to get his coat on, the nice one that's waterproof and also warm.
"Where are you going, dear?"
At twelve, he's allowed to go on errands by himself as long as he doesn't ride the subway. "I'm just taking a walk," he calls back down the hallway, while Joy sits at the counter and swings her feet, and her wide blue eyes beg him not to tell. "Down to the end of the street. I wanted -- I wanted to look at the Halloween decorations. I won't be gone for long."
"Don't catch your death and don't cross the road," Mrs. Bennett calls back, as if he hasn't lived here his whole life and still needs to be told to look out for traffic.
But Danny says politely, "I won't!" because he's supposed to respect Mrs. Bennett like he would respect his parents, and so he tries to.
Ward picked the worst of all possible days to run away. Of course he did, because Ward is like that. He's been like that ever since he was tiny. He was a cranky baby and he's grown into a pain-in-the-ass grade-schooler who argues with everything Danny says and picks on Joy, pulling her braids and cutting off her dolls' hair.
And yet, as Danny trudges through the puddles in his soaked sneakers and wishes he'd remembered his rain boots, he can't help thinking of the first time he ever saw Ward. He was just a little kid himself then, but he remembers very clearly when his parents took him to meet the Meachums' new baby. He was actually jealous, which makes him smile now, because it's silly for a bigger kid to be jealous of a little one, and anyway it's not like his parents were going to pay more attention to somebody else's baby. But he was a little bit jealous of all the attention the new baby was getting, and also curious. He'd never seen a baby up close before. He had to stand on tiptoes, trying to see, because the baby was being passed around among the adults, over his head. And then his mother crouched down.
"Do you want to hold him?" Mom asked, and she waited seriously for his answer, like Mom always did. Danny nodded, and the next thing he knew, a blanket-wrapped bundle that seemed both too small and too large was being deposited into his arms. Mom and Mrs. Meachum showed Danny how to hold the baby, supporting its head carefully.
"What do you think, darling?" Mrs. Meachum asked.
"It's weird!" Danny said, which made the adults laugh, but it was weird-looking, not really like a baby doll or a baby on TV, almost not like a real thing at all. Baby Ward was kind of reddish and lumpy, with curls of dark hair and a squinty, blank-eyed way of staring at things.
But there was also something incredibly fascinating about holding something so delicate and yet alive. Danny had petted bunnies at the Easter petting zoo and this was kind of similar. He found himself feeling things he'd never felt before, big-brother kind of things. He wasn't even jealous anymore, just fascinated and weirdly, fiercely protective of this stupid little thing with its stupid little face. He curled his body around the new baby, holding him close, and that was when the baby's small-but-surprisingly-hard little fists, waving around, punched him in the nose.
Danny almost dropped him and started crying and one of the adults hastily took the baby away.
Which, Danny now thinks, had been a pretty typical way for him to meet Ward.
Ward is difficult, as the adults say, meaning bratty. He's stubborn as heck, he picks fights with Danny, he picks on Joy, he never does what he's told, and it just figures, Danny thinks, kicking at a puddle, that Danny has to be out here in the cold autumn rain trying to find the brat when he could be inside playing with his new video game.
He should've just ratted Ward out to the grownups. He really should've.
Ward couldn't possibly have gone too far. On the other hand, he's been gone for hours and he knows the neighborhood pretty well and he's trying to run away and Joy was awfully sure that he was gone for good ...
Danny tries to think where Ward would go if he really was serious about running away, and then he sighs very deeply and reaches into his pocket to feel around for his wallet and spending money.
He is going to be in so much trouble if the adults find out about this.
Riding the subway by himself is not that big a deal. He knows how it all works, and though he's sort of short for his age, none of the adults look twice at the dripping seventh-grader pushing through the turnstiles. Kids his age ride the subway alone all the time; he's seen them. It's just that his parents are super worried about kidnappers and pickpockets and stuff.
He takes the subway to Grand Central Station, because if he tries to think like a small child who's run away from home, that's what comes to mind as the most likely place. Not even because it would be a good place to get to other places, but because it sounds like it would be.
It's only when he's confronted with a seething swarm of adults, all busily rushing one place or another, that he realizes the futility of trying to find a little kid in all of this. Whenever he's been here before, he was always with adults, either parents or teachers, who were taking charge and making all the decisions.
And then he thinks ... if he was eight years old, even if he was a particularly stubborn and annoying eight-year-old, he would probably be thinking the exact same thing. It's too much. It's confusing and scary. He'd want a place to get away from it all, where he wouldn't be in danger of being run over or stepped on.
And Ward has always liked finding places to curl up in, private or high places. So Danny goes and finds some stairs, and climbs them, and then he finds some other stairs and climbs those, and after he's investigated several different stairs, he finds the one with Ward sitting at the top of it.
Ward is sitting there looking kind of rumpled and damp, the way you do when you've been wet and are now starting to dry in the same clothes. He's wearing his Transformers backpack and wiping at his eyes, and then he sees Danny and just stares at him with a deer-in-the-headlights, oh-no-now-what kind of look.
"Hi," Danny says, plunking down next to him, and puts an arm around him. Ward has always been resistant to being cuddled, but after a moment of tension he just kind of melts, and presses against Danny's side, turning his face into Danny's coat. Danny gets a weird echo of that same feeling he got when he held baby Ward for the first time, the way he'd just wanted to hold him and keep him safe, and also had been kind of jealous and angry with Ward for messing up all his plans. Maybe that's just what dealing with littler kids is like all the time.
"So where you goin'?" Danny asks after hugging him for a little while. Ward pushes him away with an abrupt shove, so okay, typical Ward, and then he rubs at his eyes for a minute and looks away.
"I tried to get a bus ticket," he says after a minute. His voice is thick and unhappy. "They, uh, they wanted to talk to my parents." He punches his knee. "Jerks," he says, and then hits himself again, and again, until Danny catches his hand. It's small and cold.
"Where are your gloves?" Danny wants to know, conveniently ignoring that he forgets his own gloves half the time anyway. But it's okay to forget your own; that just happens. You don't forget the little kids' gloves, is the important thing.
Ward shrugs. "I don't know."
"Maybe it's in your backpack?" Danny asks, unzipping it.
It turns out that what eight-year-olds consider essential running-away supplies include two different GameBoys, a pair of Batman pajamas, a math homework sheet ("It's supposed to be done Friday!"), one of Joy's stuffies, a box of crayons, and a Tupperware container full of gummy worms, but no gloves.
"Do you have anything dry in here?" Danny finds a T-shirt, but he can't really think how to get Ward to change into it in the middle of Grand Central Station. "You're all wet."
"I'm not cold," Ward says promptly, proving that he definitely is cold.
Danny takes off his warm raincoat and puts it around Ward's shoulders, and then hugs him again, because Ward looks like he needs one. "So you wanna tell me where you're going?"
"Canada," Ward says right away.
"Um." Danny is not entirely clear on the details of crossing international borders, but he's pretty sure that you need a) an adult, and b) a passport. "Why?"
"I don't know," Ward says, and sniffles. "I just don't want to be home anymore."
"What about Joy? She's going to miss you."
Ward shakes his head and then he really starts crying, and Danny, horrified, just hugs him and hopes that no grown-ups stop to ask what's going on and, worse, call his parents. But at the same time, he finds himself vaguely wishing that one of them actually would, because this is the kind of situation that really cries out for an adult.
But no adults come, and Ward eventually cries himself out, clinging to Danny, who nervously pats Ward's damp hair. It's cut short and swept back because Ward's dad greases his hair into place and makes it look like a grown-up's, with the side-part and everything, but now it's kind of a messed-up wad of wet, semi-greased spikes.
"It's not that bad," Danny says anxiously, because adults generally say things like that.
"I can't go home," Ward snivels into a fold of Danny's coat.
"Sure you can," Danny tries, and then, because he can't really think of anything else to make Ward stop crying, "Nobody knows. Nobody except Joy and me. She told me but nobody else."
He really hopes that's still true. To his amazement, it does actually make Ward stop crying. Ward swipes at his blotchy face and looks up with wet eyelashes and an expression that is made out of pure trust. "Really?"
"Really," Danny says, and he's already deciding in some back part of his brain that if anyone asks about this little adventure, he's going to tell them that it was his idea and take full responsibility, even though he's never lied to an adult in his life, at least not about anything serious.
But no one does ask. He takes Ward home on the subway, paying for both of them, and Ward droops on him for the ride like he's run out of energy, and walks home with surprising docility, clinging to Danny's hand. Inside the front door, Danny is helping Ward get out of Danny's coat and then his own damp one, when Joy comes running down the hallway and flings her arms around Ward.
"I'm sorry!" she wails. "I told Danny and I wasn't supposed to but --"
Danny shushes them both, hopefully before anyone can hear. "Are Mom and Dad home yet?"
Joy shakes her head. "We made cookies. Ward, do you want a cookie?"
"Ward needs dry clothes first, before anyone sees," Danny says, and Joy nods very seriously and goes off to the kitchen, hopefully to get more cookies and not say anything to Mrs. Bennett, while Danny sneaks Ward up the back stairs.
It's when Danny's helping Ward get changed in his own room that he sees the bruises. They're on Ward's shoulder, clear purple finger-shaped outlines on both sides of his shoulder, like someone with adult-sized hands grabbed and squeezed.
"What happened?" Danny asks, helping Ward into his dry T-shirt.
"I don't know," Ward says, and Danny doesn't ask any more questions. Not then. He's twelve years old and he got Ward back, that's the important thing; every kid wants to run away sometimes, Danny himself made detailed plans for it when he was just a little younger than Ward is now. And then they go downstairs and have cookies in the kitchen, and Ward sits very close to Danny and leans against him until their parents come home.
And then it's time for the Meachum kids to go, and Ward grabs his backpack and Joy gets hers, and at the door while Ward and Joy's dad is helping Joy put her coat on, Ward gives one last look over his shoulder at Danny. A weird look, almost scared, almost desperate.
Danny doesn't think about any of that very much, then.
(But he thinks about it later, in K'un Lun. He thinks about it a lot.)