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Winter, early evening, and all the lights in the Library building were blazing out against the downtown night sky. It looked like an ocean-going liner.

Nathan cast a look back as he led the way over the road and across the Civic Center Park. He was reluctantly leaving all that wonder behind, trying to concentrate on the best route home.

“An’ that was supposed to be fun?”

Vin’s voice at his side was half a note on the right side of whiney.

Nathan was glad to hear the suspicion of mischief, too, although there was no denying the kid had been dragging his feet for the last half hour of the library tour. Like, seriously, embarrassingly, dragging them.

Slightly perked up by being in the open air once more, Vin heaved his backpack on to one shoulder.

“So you didn’t enjoy it?” Nathan asked, twining a muffler round his chin. This corner of the park was splashed with light and busy with people. “Not even a little?”

“Weeell, the building’s way cool.”

“Yeah.” Nathan grinned sideways at him through the winter dark.

“And the computers.”

“Yep, those too.”

Vin twirled his trapper hat around on one finger as they walked. It was after five and the temperature had plummeted. “The elevators?”

Nathan made a noise through his teeth. “OK, I get the picture. You didn’t like the books. And you should put that hat on.”

“The books were all right.” Vin shrugged, executed a series of hops, fell back into a walking rhythm, quickly tired. He didn’t put the hat on, just stuffed it back in his pocket where it didn’t really fit. “Kinda boring. You know, like any library.” There was a beat, then the standard gratitude tripped out, not very convincing. “Thanks for taking me though.” Another, half-hearted hop. “Do we have to go home, or can we go get pizza or something?”

“You think I have money for pizza?”

Vin seemed scandalized. “Didn’t Josiah give you any?”

“Josiah just said to take you on an outing somewhere cool downtown. And make sure you wore your hat and gloves.” Nathan made a swipe for Vin’s pocket but the boy dodged away, hair flying. “C’mon, Vin. Josiah’ll blame me if you catch a chill.”

“I’m not sick anymore.” Vin began to sound aggrieved. “The hat’s scratchy and looks stupid.”

“Yeah and you have to do what I say. C’mon, keep walking. We’re gonna take the bus back to school, walk home from there.”

“Can’t Buck or Chris come pick us up?”

Nathan sighed. He didn’t mind taking the younger ones out, especially if Josiah needed a favor, but there always came a time...

“Nope, half the reason we’re here is because they don’t get home until later. J.D.’s stopping at Miss Nettie’s until we get back.”

Vin rounded his shoulders. “Bus takes forever.” He puffed out a breath. “Wish Josiah wasn’t away.”

“You know how it is.” Nathan nudged him so he kept going in the right direction for the bus stop.

“Yeah.” Vin shivered, which made Nathan feel tense, and then reeled off the story, parrot-fashion. “We’d’a lost Ezra back to some other foster family if ‘Siah hadn’t agreed to the mom visits.”

The ‘Mom Visits’. Nathan wasn’t quite sure he liked the quote marks in Vin’s voice. He must have been listening to Chris.

“Jus’ wish I could go with them,” the younger boy went on. “It’s not fair Ezra gets all these rides and time off school and motels and fun stuff.”

Nathan reached out a hand to snag a corner of Vin’s coat, steer him back on course to the bus-stop because he was wandering. “I’m not sure all of it is fun stuff.” He couldn’t imagine it would be, having your mom in jail. This was the second trip east Josiah had made with the newest member of the family in the last month. Already Nathan thought the to-ing and fro-ing was making Ezra unsettled and anxious, even if he did get to see his mother. Buck and Chris had noticed it, too, reckoned – stridently – Ezra might be better off not seeing her at all. Josiah wouldn’t have that, though. He just told them things were ‘complicated’. Which was what Josiah always said when Social Services had him over a barrel.

They carried on walking in silence, conserving energy for the cold. There was enough of a crowd at the bus-stop that Nathan knew, with relief, that transportation – and therefore some warmth – probably wasn’t far away.

Two minutes later the bus arrived. In the vehicle Vin sat by the window with his head leaning on the glass. He didn’t talk much.

By the time they left the bus Nathan could tell his young foster-brother was properly weary.

“Hat,” he said with a nudge. Vin snorted, but fished it from his pocket. They walked up the street past Nathan’s school, still open and busy. Nathan glanced across the main yard as they passed by. There were a few groups of students milling around outside the front steps although he didn’t recognize any of his friends among them. Vin himself had been in his school down the road on a short visit today, but mostly he still did lessons with Nettie Wells.

Nathan made sure the hat went on properly. It felt like a bigger than usual responsibility being in charge of a child with what the doctors had called a ‘weakened constitution’.

‘Just be sensible,’ they’d soothingly advised, even while advocating what seemed to Nathan a painfully gradual return to school. ‘Don’t treat him like china.’

‘Ha, yes! That’ll only backfire on you,’ Nettie Wells had added, never one to be sentimental.

So, at home, Vin wasn’t ever singled out as different. Not overtly anyhow. He was still encouraged to stretch himself as much as any of them. To use his own sense as well as relying on the eagle attentions of the older ones. In that regard, Nathan thought, Vin was better off with Ezra and J.D. who tended to ignore the ‘Vin’s been sick’ reminders and were as physical with him as they’d ever been. Josiah worried, though. Of course. There were concerns – scary ones – about Vin’s heart, about how tired he became at times, about his fluctuating appetite.

“Pizza?” Nathan said.

Vin was suspicious. “Thought you said you didn’t have no money.”

“Any money. And there’s frozen.”

“Gross,” Vin said, dismissive. Then he glanced at Nathan, more contrite. “But whatever. Can we go the short way?”

Nathan hesitated.

The ‘short way’ took them off the main highway, up a steep incline behind buildings, but brought them out halfway up their street. It wasn’t the off-the-track part that gave him pause, it was the hill.

“”C’mon,” Vin wheedled, suddenly moving ahead. “Takes forever otherwise.”

“Well OK, dude, but take it slow up the steep part. They don’t always grit.”

“Yeah,” Vin’s voice called, a sudden bubble of more characteristic enjoyment in it. “Fun, ain’t it?”

But luckily, his apparent hope that the slope would be good and slippery didn’t come to pass. There was some grit mixed in with the mud and the most recent snowfall, and Nathan hung behind ready to push Vin up if he didn’t seem to be making it. He could hear the kid breathing pretty hard but, not surprisingly, Vin stuck it out to the top. Impressive, really, and typical. He was an independent little survivor was Vin Tanner, more anxious than ever these days to prove his own fitness. Nathan was going to tell him to stop for a breather at the summit but Vin disappeared around the corner. Stubborn too. Nathan had to grin. Ezra, now. He was just as independent, just as much a survivor, but he would in no way have chosen to come this way, shorter or not. Ezra liked any number of mental challenges, but physical ones... yeah, not so much. Vin thrived on them, but sometimes, especially now, he needed to be reined in.

“Hey, wait for me!” Nathan yelled out, picking up pace as he rounded the corner.

And as he made the level ground once more, he could see the lights of their street about a hundred yards further away down the rough path.

His stomach dropped and his bag with it.

Vin had stopped dead a few paces in front of him. He was standing, frozen, in the middle of the dimly-lit pathway. And he was not alone.

There were a couple of teens standing in the middle of the path, blocking his way. Nathan knew one of them – it was a dim-witted bully-follower called Ryan from his school. The kid was a mealy-mouthed appeaser who’d be real nice to him some days and then on others would toe the tormentors’ party line. The other, taller kid, Nathan didn’t know. He could hear Vin puffing, sounding as if he couldn’t catch his breath. The kid’s backpack slid down off his shoulders as if he’d lost the use of his arms. It landed on the hard ground with a thump.

“Gee, Ryan,” Nathan said, coming up close behind Vin. “What are you going to do? Your buddies aren’t here so why don’t you back off?”

He recognized the splay-legged, threatening stance, guessed Ryan had been in the group outside school, had seen him and Vin pass by. Maybe he’d been egged on to follow them, cut them off, because he didn’t tend to have bright ideas himself.

“Whoah,” said Ryan’s companion, pantomiming pretend fright. Nathan didn’t like the look of him - not at all. He wasn’t worried about Ryan, knew he could take him, but this other one... The teen gave Nathan an exaggerated look up and down. “So you’re the cuckoo foster kid, living in a white family?” He snorted. “And you’re bein’ mouthy with us?”

Nathan curled a hand over Vin’s shoulder, squeezed it hard, to show he was there.

“Ryan been filling you in with all that garbage?” he said to the teen, braver than he felt.

There was a short laugh in return. “You’re the cuckoo kid all right. Wrong color, wrong fuckin’ nest.”

“Oh please,” Nathan said. It was crap, and most of the school thought so. But it still wormed into his gut, knocked him off-balance.

“And he’s with the retard,” Ryan piped up. “My brother says the kid’s so backward he ain’t even at school. He’s like nearly ten or something and he can’t hardly read! His mom was off her head when he was born and dropped him or something. Yeah and there’s another one from the same nest got dumped and oughta be in juve for robbin’ teachers and shit.”

Vin’s breath went on swooping in and out. “We don’t live in no nest and Ezra didn’t rob no teachers!” he croaked, even though the latter wasn’t strictly true. Misty, enraged clouds puffed in front of his face. Nathan slid an arm around his front, pulled him close into his chest.

“Retard,” Ryan returned, voice falling into that rhythmic taunting cadence that scraped on Nathan’s nerves. “Druggie’s kid.”

His companion cocked his head, challenging. “Yeah, so cuckoos and retards aren’t allowed through this way. It’s the rule.”

Nathan nearly laughed it was so brainless. Sure, he’d been blocked in corridors and doorways by Ryan and his leaders plenty of times. He’d never cared much, even though he’d gotten a black eye and a fat lip more than once. They were mouthy cowards, that was all. Stand up to them and they’d back off. Nathan knew they’d be lucky to get as far as graduating High School. They were all cake and no candles as Buck might say, but something about the stranger made his heart thunder. The teen kept one hand thrust in a pocket and Nathan knew what that could mean. He moved Vin gently sideways, trying to get him out of range behind him but the kid’s feet seemed worryingly uncoordinated.

“What’s the point?” Nathan said, because he really didn’t understand. “You don’t care about this path. It’s not your territory. You’re just being dicks for the sake of it.”

“Fuckin’ watch your mouth, boy.”

Nathan had been called the ‘n’ word plenty, and he found it hard not to explode. He didn’t care so much about ‘boy’, even though the way the chunky adolescent said it was meant to antagonize.

“Just let us through.” He was completely in front of Vin now. “It’s freakin’ cold.”

“Uh uh.” The way stayed blocked. “You want to take us on?”

Nathan might have wanted to. He just might, if he’d been alone. Anger was thumping in his throat and his mouth was dry but he really didn’t like the hand in the tall kid’s pocket and he really didn’t want a knife in the guts.

“Nah. Just want to go home.”

He stood his ground but didn’t nail the tall kid with any kind of stare. Or speak any of the sarcastic quips that were backing up in his brain. There were ways and ways to block bullies, and riling them up wasn’t a great one. What he couldn’t be sure was whether Vin would have it in him to run back the way they’d come if they needed to. Sure didn’t seem like it at the moment, so being peaceable seemed the best option. He could worry about how it stuck in his craw later.

“I’d like to fuckin’ kick your ass home,” the tall kid said then in disgust, and Nathan knew, just from the tremor of his arm and shoulder, what he might be fixing to do. “All the way back to the plantation.”

Nathan was about to hold up his hands. Not in surrender, more to show he wouldn’t argue with such a lame-brained statement. But before he had the chance Vin was trying to wriggle past him.

“You dumb jerk!” he shouted, his voice wheezy and mad and not sounding like Vin at all. He struggled against the arm that Nathan immediately flung out to keep him back. “You leave us alone, you just leave us alone, we ain’t scared of you, you big ugly dumb jerk!”

“Fuckin’ retard!” The knife was out. As if a kid Vin’s age was any threat at all. The blade flashed quick and bright. Made Nathan feel sick.

He shoved Vin behind him again, almost knocking him down. One arm thrust back, fierce, palm open, trying to signal the kid to stay where the hell he was. And shut the hell up.

“You need to keep that little shithead under control, cuckoo, or he’s gonna get cut.”

The tall kid made an angry, swishing motion with the knife. He was breathing hard. His eyes glittered, aggressive. More show than technique, but Nathan’s stomach still roiled. There was inches between his unprotected chest and the wicked arc of the blade. Vin’s breathing had started to become panicked and out of control.

Just for a second, the tall kid looked like he thought he might have them.

Behind him and Ryan, at the end of the path, headlights splashed towards them for a moment. A car had stopped on the street with a slight screech of tires. It changed the dynamics, although for a moment Nathan didn’t know if it was a good change. Ryan’s head swiveled, distracted.

“Jus’ forget it,” he said, anxious, peering up towards the car. “Hey, it’s...” he began, and then seemed to bite his tongue. He plucked at his companion’s sleeve. “C’mon, man, it’s not worth the hassle, let’s go.”

For a moment there was no sound but Vin’s labored breaths. And then Ryan’s sneakers were slapping back the way they’d come, pounding back up the path towards the streetlights and the now open door of the vehicle. Nathan took his eyes off the tall kid for a second, watched Ryan go. It looked as if a girl had climbed out of the car and was watching them. Even though mostly in silhouette she seemed older than the teenagers. More like Chris’s age. An older sister? Someone from school? Nathan had the momentary, niggling feeling that he recognized her.

The tall kid glanced over his shoulder, too, but he would have his moment. He jabbed the knife again, violent, making Nathan rear back. His lip curled, registering the fear. And maybe that was enough.

“Fuckin’ learn to do as you’re told,” he said, and held the knife still. He gestured at Vin with it and then at Nathan. “Catch you next time, cuckoos.”

There was a snap as the knife folded, and the teenager span. He took off after Ryan at a lick, was up at the car in no time. Doors slammed. The engine revved.

Nathan felt no relief, just a wave of fury, followed by a sickening jolt of fear and shock.

“Jesus, Vin, what the hell? Guy had a knife! A damned knife! What the hell did you think you were doing?”

He turned on him, and Vin shrank against the fence with what sounded like a hiccup. Or a sob. Instantly remorseful, Nathan tried to calm himself. No point taking it out on the kid. Vin already looked terrorized, was shivering, nearly out of control. Nathan walked a jittery circle, away from him to get his head together, then back, adrenaline still coursing. When Vin didn’t say anything he came to a stop next to him, hands to knees. He turned his head towards Vin in the shadows.

“Jesus, Vin,” he said again, and reached out a careful hand. “Let’s... let’s go, let’s get home, yeah? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled. You were trying to help. I know that. I... hey, you all right?”

“No,” Vin murmured, almost voiceless. “No, no, no.”

He had backed up against the side fence, was hunching in on himself, making himself small. Although it really was cold out – very cold – Nathan somehow knew his shivering wasn’t that. Not yet.

“Hey, it’s OK.” Alarm prickled at Nathan’s neck. “They’re gone. They always go. And look, we’re fine aren’t we?” Nathan held his arms wide as if to indicate that he was in one piece still. “C’mon, let’s go home.”

Although Vin rose slowly to standing, he stayed where he was. His face was moon pale, his eyes huge, almost glazed. Almost as if he wasn’t entirely here. Still his breathing hadn’t entirely leveled out and he was shaking as if an invisible hand had control of him.

Nathan shivered himself, the swishing arc of the knife still imprinted in his mind. “It’s cold, dude. We need to get you home. And we need to go get J.D. He’ll be waiting. Worried.”

He dropped to his haunches, reached out to pull at Vin’s coat. The boy stood stiff and resistant, hair blowing unchecked around his face in the breeze. Normally he’d be swiping at it. He stared at Nathan wordlessly through the moving strands. Shiny wet filmed across his eyes and was blinked away.

“Hey, hey, it’s OK! Don’t get upset. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry I yelled.” Nathan tugged harder on the coat, managed to dislodge him. He pulled Vin close. This particular kid, like J.D., didn’t usually have a problem with hugs, and Nathan wrapped his long arms right around him. There were violent shudders, almost like spasms, going right through him. Nathan tightened his hold, trying to convey security. He whispered urgently. “C’mon now, don’t bail on me here.”

Just for a moment or two he stayed where he was, holding the boy in a firm grip, absorbing as much of the trembling as he could. Then, worried about the cold and the need to get to safety, he shook him slightly. “’kay, c’mon, dude, we gotta go.” Vin whimpered as he loosened his hold.

Nathan blew out an anxious breath.

Vin was way too heavy to carry, even though Buck often did, but Nathan knew he had to get him home as soon as he could. He picked up Vin’s backpack, and then his own, shrugging both over one shoulder. And then he took hold of Vin’s nearest wrist, began to tug. At the top of the pathway he looked both ways, wary, before stepping out on to the sidewalk.

All the way back towards the townhouse, he talked, spouting comforting inanities. After a while he got a hold of Vin’s gloved hand and pulled him along by it. As fast as he could. In the back of his mind he was considering the possibility that they could be jumped again. There was still something niggling him about the strange girl in the car. He called Nettie as they pounded along the street, feeling guilty.

“Can you keep J.D. just a little longer? I really need to get Vin indoors.”

Why?” she asked at once, suspicious. “Everything all right?” Nathan kind of loved her for that.

“Yeah yeah, he’s just tired. I’m sorry, Miz Wells, know it’s not fair on you. I’m gonna call Buck, ask him to drop by and grab J.D.”

I’m fine with it, Nathan. You get that boy into the warm.”

There were lights on in the house, even though nobody was home. Nathan was grateful for that, guessed they’d been turned on by Buck before he went out. Before going up the driveway he cast a surreptitious look back, just to make sure they hadn’t been followed. He bundled Vin in front of him over the threshold. It was warm inside, and he shut the door quickly behind them.

“Hungry?” he asked, calm as he could manage, unwrapping his muffler as they stood in the hallway.

“My hat,” Vin croaked. It was the first thing he’d said since they’d left the path.

“Yeah, well we’re inside now.” Nathan grinned shakily at him. “Not much point me getting on your case about that anymore.”

“Stop,” Vin said. “I dropped it.” His voice cracked a little more. “Back there.”

“Ohhhhhkay. No big deal.” Nathan didn’t suggest returning to look for it in the morning because he didn’t want to refer to the place at all. He wanted to keep Vin on the track of food. “And I didn’t hear what you said to my question – you hungry?”

Vin gave a jerky shake of his head.

“Yeah well that’s the wrong answer.” Nathan motioned at him to take off his coat because he seemed offline, needed prompting. “I’m going to go call Buck, OK? Get some gross frozen pizza in the oven.” He set off towards the kitchen, becoming aware after a few seconds that Vin was trailing closely after him. His heart turned over a little. That was so not normal. Unless prohibited, the kids usually made a beeline for the TV or computer once they were in. Well, Vin and Ezra did. J.D., at this time of day, and especially since he lost his ma, might want to stay with the nearest grown-up. Nathan didn’t say anything. He flipped on all the kitchen lights, made for the utility room and the chest freezer. Vin followed him there, too, and hung around in the doorway, watching.

“You want to get the oven on?” Nathan suggested, digging about under tubs of ice cream and the many labeled bags of Nettie’s frozen fruit. He heard Vin push, reluctant, off the door jamb. When he came back into the main kitchen with a couple of boxes of pizzas, the boy was standing in front of the oven twiddling the knobs vaguely. Plainly he wasn’t going to be much help.

Nathan dumped the boxes. “How about you just sit down.” He rubbed up and down’s Vin’s arms, brisk. “Feeling any warmer?”

“’m OK.”

Vin slid into a chair. At least he was breathing more naturally now, Nathan noticed, although he was still god-awful pale.

“Good.” Nathan turned the oven knob to the right setting, peered at the back of one of the boxes and then proceeded to rip them both open. “I got one pepperoni and one Tuscan chicken here. Is that good? Seems good to me. The guys can share or go for something else. You want any salad on the side? Yeah, me neither. Juice? Milk?”

He tipped the pizzas on to the oven shelf, slammed shut the door.

“Don’t have to be extra nice to me,” Vin said. Nathan searched for the familiar twinkle in the blue eyes but there was none and the boy’s voice remained flat.

“Hey,” he said. “We both had a scare. I’m being extra nice to myself, too.” He felt in his pocket. “And now I need to call Buck. J.D. must be driving Miz Wells crazy by now, right?”

Vin gave him a scared look. “You gonna call Buck from here?” he said softly.

“Yeah,” Nathan said, sitting down opposite. He plastered on a reassuring smile. “From right here.”

By the time the pizza was ready, Chris was home. They heard the slam of the front door while they were sitting at either side of the table looking at the food without much appetite. Nathan tried not to show his complete and utter relief but he felt it all right. The eldest came rambling along the hallway and into the kitchen talking on his cell. Nathan sent a look over the table at Vin, trying to elicit a grin. Chris had his ‘talking to Sarah’ voice on. He was smiling goofily, unconsciously cheerful and soft-voiced. Not normal. Vin, however, was still disengaged.

“You want pizza?” Nathan asked as the call finished.

Chris took a moment to land from whichever planet he’d been on. He looked towards the open oven. He looked at the pizzas. Then between Nathan and Vin. “No, I’m good,” he said finally. “But I’ll sit with you. Where’s J.D.?”

“Buck’s picking him up. They’re on their way.”

Chris plopped into a chair, reached over the table and removed a piece of pepperoni from Vin’s pizza with a grin. Vin’s eyes slid up to look at him, then slid away again.

“How was the library?”

“Score one for the elevators?” Nathan said when Vin just shrugged.

“I see.” Chris helped himself to another piece of pepperoni, eyes narrowing at Vin’s lack of reaction.

“There’s Buck,” Nathan said in renewed relief when the front door opened and slammed again. Despite his evident concern for Vin Chris couldn’t resist a comedy ‘help!’ face as they heard the galloping feet of J.D. approaching.

“Yay!” J.D. crowed as he pelted into the kitchen, schoolbag whirling around his head. “Pizza!”

“Frozen,” Vin said automatically. For good or bad it was always hard to ignore J.D.

“So?” The littlest member of the family shucked his coat, let his bag clatter into a corner.

“You want some of this?” Nathan asked, pointing a fork at his plate. “It’s chicken.”

“Well duh,” J.D. said. “I want margarita.”

“Yeah, duh, Nathan.” Chris was humorous. “He wants margarita.”

“Well suppose you get off your butt and help, huh?” Nathan batted back at him.

Chris gave a low laugh.

“Hey, Buck, can you bring us another pizza?”

Buck, sauntering in, flipped Chris the bird.

Nathan felt a weight beginning to lift from his shoulders.

In the end, mainly because he was hungry himself, Buck did throw another pizza in the oven for he and J.D. to share. As the haphazard meal proceeded the older ones may have glanced once or twice at the silent Vin but they didn’t say anything. They certainly didn’t tease him unmercifully as was the usual way when one of the younger boys was throwing a moody. Chris made some coffee for himself, and Nathan played nutritionist and suggested Vin and J.D. eat fruit instead of ice cream for dessert. J.D. was easily bribable with the promise of TV before bed, and Vin capitulated without a fight, although he left most of the apple Nathan tossed at him on the side of his plate. Finally, when Buck had taken J.D. off to claim his reward, and Nathan had stacked the plates in the dishwasher, Chris leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.

“So,” he said, pointed. “What’s the story here?” His body language invited both, or either, of them to respond.

Nathan looked to the door, even though J.D. was well out of earshot.

“So we kinda ran into some trouble on the way home from the library.”

Vin sat up as if he’d been poked with a stick.

“What kind of trouble?” Chris was sharp.

“These guys from school.” Nathan couldn’t help but play it down. There was never any sense deliberately lighting the blue touch paper where Chris was concerned. “The ones who gave me a hard time before. You know? Well, one of ‘em, plus some older guy I didn’t know. We took the shortcut from the bus-stop and they were waiting at the top.”


Nathan was measured. “Gave us some crap about being fostered. Standard crap. Said we couldn’t pass. Really brainless stuff.”

“And?” Chris said again, uncompromising.

“I yelled at one of them.” Vin’s contribution was unexpected as he’d been so quiet up to now. “He made me mad and I was afraid of him and I wanted to go home so I yelled at him and he had a knife...”

“Jesus!” Chris said, coming out of his slouch.

“Just for show,” Nathan assured him hastily. “Asshole and his little friend ran off when some girl stopped to pick ’em up.” Some girl, he didn't add, he felt he should know.

“He had a knife,” Vin repeated, shocked, as if he’d suddenly remembered all over again.

“But it’s OK. We’re OK, right?” Nathan was deliberately soothing because he didn’t like either Vin’s wide eyes or Chris’s latent fury. “Nobody got hurt and that guy was just a dick.”

“I want Josiah.”

“He’ll be home tomorrow. And you’ve got me and Chris and Buck.”

“Yeah!” Buck said, walking in at that point. “You are one lucky kid.” He looked around. “There a problem?”

Nathan hesitated, but then started all over again and Buck toed the kitchen door shut.

“Holy shit,” he said when Nathan had finished.

“Main thing is, we’re both all right.”

“Made you mad, huh?” Buck said, the lightest of cuffs against the back of Vin’s head. It had turned into a stroke before he sat down next to him in J.D.’s vacated spot.

“I don’t,” Vin said and then stopped. He pulled at a hank of his hair, started again. “I didn’t like it.”

“Course not. Knives are nasty things.”

“My mom’s boyfriend had a knife,” Vin said, voice whispery thin.

There was a short, shocked silence. Nathan felt a familiar sensation that old lives and old situations were rumbling like an unstable fault-line under their feet.

“Scary, huh?” Chris said to Vin eventually, careful.

“He knew I didn’t like it, so he used to point it at me. Real close. Told me he'd cut me.” The shiny film appeared in Vin’s eyes again. Nathan felt sick.

And then his cellphone barked.

“Christ!” Chris snapped, even though he should be used to it by now. Nathan had been using the dog ring tone for Josiah most of the last month.

“Hey,” Nathan said, trying to sound normal as he held his cell to his ear. “Hi. How are things?”

“Speaker,” Buck mouthed over the table at him, jerking his head sideways at Vin and then Josiah’s voice crackled out.

... so yeah, not too great really.”

Even distorted by the distance and technology their foster father sounded desperately low. Which was totally not what they’d been hoping for.

Yeah, Ezra’s completely crashed, couldn’t even eat. Turned out to be a tough day for him. I’ll tell you about it when we get home. But hey, we’re more or less OK. All in one piece anyhow, and back tomorrow. How are you guys?”

Nathan opened his mouth. He looked over at Vin, steadfastly fingering a single tear from under his lashes.

“We’re all good,” he said, lifting his voice. Josiah needed to be reassured. He needed a good night’s sleep so he could drive himself and Ezra home safely. Chris and Buck had their eyes on him and Nathan could feel they were both silently backing him up, willing him on. “Kids have had pizza,” he expanded, steady. “The library was cool – well, parts of it were. The guys are all here and we’re fine. Nothing to report, nothing to worry about.”

There was a huff of very clear relief through the speaker.

Good. That’s good. Thanks, Nate. I needed to hear that. You just tell those little guys I miss them all right?

“Not so little.”

There was a low chuckle. “Indeed. Not so little. But I miss ‘em anyways. And you big guys.

“Miss you too. We’ll see you both tomorrow. You drive safe, yeah?”

Always. Aiming to be back by six.

“Look forward to it.”

Me too. ‘night, boys.

“Night!” Chris and Buck chorused, along with Nathan. Vin took a hiccupy breath but didn’t manage to get anything out. Nathan hoped hearing Josiah’s voice had made him feel better and not worse.

“OK,” Chris said when Nathan finished the call. He placed his palms flat on the table. Nathan recognized that he was now settling into his gruff head of the household mode. “Vin, want you to go get ready for bed. You can watch TV for a half hour with J.D. if you like, but I want you in your PJs. And then straight to bed after.” Vin swallowed as if he had cement in his throat. “It’s all right,” Chris went on quickly. He leaned across the table. “You won’t be alone. I’m going to come sleep in Ezra’s bed tonight, OK? I’ll be there.”

Vin nodded, face crumpling as he fought to stop himself from crying.

“Go on then, dude,” Chris said, voice softer. He was starting to learn from Josiah when to be tough and when to be tender. Like Nathan he recognized that these new tears were gratitude. “And tell Scooter to get into his PJs too, all right?” The use of the nicknames seemed to stop the ground shifting.

Vin pushed back his chair. He was listless and unlike himself, but maybe a night’s sleep would help, Nathan thought. Daytime would help. Having Chris with him would certainly help.

“Jeez, poor little kid,” Buck said when Vin had slowly pulled open the kitchen door and tramped out.

“Yeah.” Nathan was glum. “Didn’t need what happened. Was tuckered out to begin with.” He didn’t mention the wheezy breathlessness yet. Figured he’d wait to see how Vin was in the morning.

“And if there was something to do with knives from before, well who the hell knows what he’s seen?” Buck was uncharacteristically serious.

“Reckon that little shit Ryan was right.” Nathan sighed, surprised at how it hurt. “We’re not normal.”

“In what damned way are we not normal?” Buck demanded at once, outraged.

Nathan rolled his eyes.

“Yeah,” Chris said, smirking. “Unwanted kids of smackheads, junkies, whores, and felons. In what damned way are we not normal?”

“You sound like that shit,” Nathan said, irritated.

Buck immediately stopped being bullish and jumped in to defend Chris. “Lighten up, Nate, in his bone-headed way he’s just trying to say-”

“I know.” Nathan heaved his shoulders. He jerked his head at Chris. “And yeah sure, he’s funny.” One finger reached out to fiercely smear a blob of tomato sauce into the table-top. “But I’m just saying none of it goes away, you know? And we really need to remember that, with those three little guys especially.”

He could tell Chris had sobered right up, even though he was staring at the table. There was a prickle of tension in the air.

“Yeah,” Chris said quietly at last. “You’re right. We do really need to remember.”

Nathan felt Buck’s hand on his back. “Good job with Vin, Nate. Thanks for looking after him. You doing all right?”

Grateful, Nathan bobbed his head. “Scared the pants off me,” he admitted. “Should never have come that way.”

“Yeah well.” Buck patted him again. “Lesson learned and all. Hopefully he’ll be brighter tomorrow.”

Hopefully. Nathan was prepared to be optimistic, even about Vin’s clinging fatigue. Kids his age were supposed to be resilient, right? And they could wrap him up in cotton wool for a while maybe, to assuage their own fears, just until he found his feet again. There was nothing else to be done now anyhow. Vin was physically un-harmed. He was fed, warm, and he’d feel safe with Chris tonight. Ezra would be back tomorrow too, and that would be... well, a distraction if nothing else.

“Nathan,” Chris said. “Stop thinking about it for Chrissake and go do something for yourself. Haven’t you got some chemistry assignment or other to get your damned teeth into?”

“Or we could go shoot up some bad guys,” Buck offered, generous. “When they’ve finished with the TV.”

Nathan grinned. Chris and Buck had shifted some of the load from him and he could feel normality returning. “You know what they’re watching?” he said, suddenly amused. “It’s just about perfect, I can hear it from here.”

“Reruns?” Buck hazarded, not much interested.

“Yeah sure, genius, but reruns of what?”

“How the heck should we know?”

Nathan paused a moment for effect and then, “Fairly Odd Parents,” he said with glee.

Chris and Buck looked at one another for a moment and then laughed out loud.

“That’s just too perfect,” Buck said. “Let’s go hang out with the fairly odd brothers.”

There was some good-natured pushing and shoving as Chris and Buck left the room.

Just before following, Nathan had a half thought about one of his earlier worries. He found himself double-checking the back door locks. Then he made a conscious effort to block all of that from his mind. Anchored by the sound of whooping from up the hall, he flipped off the lights and plunged the kitchen into darkness.