Jigsaw

13

Monday, a few minutes later...

While Josiah, George, Harry, Jonas, and Mickey attempted to put together the necessary paperwork for the events in court, Jed pushed Jared to the wheelchair ramp entrance to the courthouse, and out into the New England fall. He helped Jared put on his jacket, then both boys zipped theirs up against the brisk weather.

Quickly Jed pushed Jared across the street and down the short sidewalk that gave access to the small park overlooking the river. The trees bordering the park and across the river were ablaze with fall colors. Bringing Jared's chair to a stop alongside a thigh-high brick wall, Jed sat down next to him and took his hand.

"We've got to figure out what we need to do, bro," he said earnestly. "I can get help to make it work, whatever it is, but I need to know what you want to do first."

"What do you mean, Jed?" Jared asked.

"Us," he said simply in response. "I gotta know how you feel and what you want to do."

"I love you, Jed," was Jared's reply. "Isn't it enough for us to be boyfriends and do stuff together? Like after school and weekends, just like always?"

"Lots of things are different, Jare'," Jed answered. "We've both lost our parents, and we have brothers counting on us. And I've got a new home in Orlando, and Rina loves me and I love her. She's *literally* like a good fairy out of a little kid's dream -- I'll tell you the story sometime."

"And Mickey won't be able to take care of Raffy, or keep our house going, from a wheelchair without my help," Jared said glumly. "I'll need to be here for them, when I get my cast off."

"Don't be giving up on me, Jared McKendrick," Jed said with mixed firmness and love. "That was my mistake when my parents got killed. We *can* make this work out right. But first we gotta figure out how. Now that I got you and know you love me, I'm not gonna lose you again."

"You've changed, Jed," Jared said.

Jed got a panicked look. "How? You don't mean I'm not the one you love any more?"

"No, of course not, silly," Jared said with a warm smile. "But you never were this open about your feelings, or this self-assured about the future. Frankly, I don't see what two kids like us can do, but...."

"Stop right there," Jed said. "I get you now. And it's being part of the Clan that's the answer. But let me tell you what kids like us can do. You met Eli and 'Bastian last night, right?"

"Well, yeah."

"Okay. First, 'Bastian and his brother Sammy are not only telepaths, but they used to've been forced to be in child porn movies and boy prostitutes. The man who's now their Pop rescued them. And when the guy who was forcing them to do that stuff came after them, two boys our age executed him - shot him dead with phasers at lethal charge. Those boys are now my brothers in the Clan. And the guy who passed sentence is just two years older than us. Then the FBI were trying to capture Eli and turn him into their trained ESP freak - and Kelly, who's another one of our brothers, ordered them to stop and had Starfleet Security arrest three FBI agents. And he's the same age as us, too."

"But that's different than two boys who fell in love with each other," Jared said. "Nobody's going to want to do that kind of stuff for people like us."

"Wrong-o, dudelet," Jed answered. "The only thing that made the Clan possible in the first place is that one guy, Sean, who is *one year* older than we are, refused to give up on his adopted brother who was also his boyfriend. What happened after that is so crazy that it'd take a book of more 'n' a hundred chapters to explain it, but the upshot is that there are over thirty gay boys, almost all of 'em in committed boyfriend relationships, who know very well how we feel and who not only would be willing to move heaven and earth to help us, but pretty much have the legal authority to. Two of 'em are sitting up in that courthouse now: Jonas and Harry. I'm another one, if I need to do it. Because I was so messed up by finding my parents killed, we held off on making me an active part of the Clan - this is the first intervention I've been out on, but there was no way I was going to stay home when they rescued *you*.

"I think we may need to play it by ear," Jed continued. "I know Jonas has a bug up his butt about getting Mickey and Peter to see Federation doctors. And maybe you can bring Raffy and come visit me and Ceej while they're doing that. And maybe they'll want you to join the Clan. But I do know that I'm not going to leave us at opposite ends of the East Coast, whatever happens. I love you too much." And he leaned over and kissed Jared on the lips.

"Hey, fag boys, why doncha suck my di- yipes!" The taunt from a 16-year-old with pretensions of toughness, approaching the boys with an air of menace, was abruptly cut off as he found himself lifted in the air by his collar.

"Where's your di-yipes?" Skipper asked him. "I doubt anyone would want to suck any part of your body, but I'm curious."

"Put me down!" the punk said.

"Oh, I'll be glad to. As soon as you've apologized to these two boys, that is."

"Apologize to a couple of faggots?"

"You do have a serious learning problem, don't you?" Skipper said. "That somebody is gay is no reason to start shit. On the other hand, I believe you're guilty of criminal solicitation in asking them for a blowjob. Would you like to go discuss this with State's Attorney Wentworth and Judge Brewster? I just left them conferring over at the courthouse."

"They'll violate my probation for sure! Let me go!"

"Let 'im go, Skipper," said Jed, "as soon as he answers me one question: What did you learn from this?"

"I don't have to answer to you, fag boy," the bully said.

"On second thought, Skipper, do take him up," Jed said. "But tell them not to worry setting up for a juvenile prosecution under state law -- Clan Short of Vulcan's honor has been impinged. According to Grandfather Sarek, an assault made to one's sexuality is properly dealt with by the castration of the offender. Let Jonas and Harry know we'll be sitting as a Tribunal to convict and castrate this kid."

Jared was staring at his boyfriend wide-eyed.

"You don't scare me," the would-be bully said, a little short of breath from having been held in the air, effortlessly, by Skipper.

"You should be scared," Jonas said, walking up. "From what I heard, Jed is completely within his rights. Here, he and I constitute a quorum, and I concur in his decision." He pulled his phaser and aimed it at the bully's crotch.

The bully promptly wet his pants.

"Has he got I.D., Skipper?" Jonas asked.

"Yep. Here it is," he said, extracting it from the boy's back pocket and standing him down with a firm grasp on the nape of his neck. "Douglas Murdock; he's 16."

"Mr. Murdock, you have been convicted before a Vulcan Tribunal of harassment of a member of Ambassador Sarek's extended family and a ward of that family, and sentenced to castration." Jonas's voice was hard as nails. "Execution of that sentence is suspended in hopes that the embarrassment you have just suffered is sufficient punishment to act as deterrent. From now on, every time you take a piss, every time you get a hard-on, remember that you are able to do so because those who had the unquestioned legal right to burn off your dick and balls instead granted you mercy. If any law enforcement agency anywhere ever again hears of you harassing a gay person, or allowing others to do so in your presence when you could step in and try to stop them, Clan Short of Vulcan will find you and execute the sentence. Now get out of our sight!"

As young Mr. Murdock beat a hasty retreat, Jared said, "Boy, Jonas, you sure had him scared! He thought you were serious!"

"He was," said Jed. Jared's mouth dropped.

"C'mon, guys, we're about ready to head out," Jonas said.

"Um, Jed...?" Jared's tone was querulous.

"Yeah, Jare'?"

"I'm a little worried. I don't know how to say this, dude, but two weeks ago, the best friend I was secretly in love with was not a guy who went around threatening to castrate people. What's going on, inside you?" Jared's tone was on edge.

"It's hard to explain, Jare'. You don't think I *want* to turn into a bad ass, I hope?"

"No, but I can't picture you doing what you've done last night and today. It's not the you I knew."

"It's like this, Jare' -- Scordo and his thugs stole something from me, something I'll never be able to get back."

"Well, yeah, they killed your parents! I get that."

"It's more than that, bro." Jed's voice was dead serious. "Remember last summer, how we'd lie awake at night at camp, and watch the stars and just talk about anything and everything? Not a care in the world; your dad and mom were there; mine were back home, and I knew I could count on them. I used to spend hours talking with Mom about what I was going to do when I grew up and became famous. What I was going to be famous at changed over the years, but she encouraged my dreams.

"Now, I know there are people in this world who will hurt and kill, and destroy people inside when they don't actually physically beat on them. It's my job to protect Ceej from them, and you and Raffy too, and anybody else who needs it. It's my job because it was somebody else's to protect *me*, and to rescue me when the protecting part didn't work.

"What I'm saying," Jed's voice dropped low and serious, "is that I got the bad part of growing up dumped on me. I'm your boyfriend for life now, if you'll have me. And that's not just kissing and making each other cum - that's the good part. It's that I need to be ready to risk everything in the world to keep you from harm.

"Yeah, I've got people who will back me. You know a few of them: Jonas and Harry, Eli and 'Bastian, Skipper and Bobby now. You'll meet my other brothers - a couple dozen of them. And there's some in Australia, and out on starships, that I haven't met yet.

"And what we're doing is important, Jare'. These are kids who've been through hell, and they've learned how to fight back. I'm a part of that now. But every so often, I'd give it all up if I could just get one more hug from my Mom, and be able to jump on my bike and ride over to hang out with you, doing whatever we felt like and having a ball doing it." Jed's eyes were wet, but his jaw was firm and his voice didn't quaver.

"He said it all, Jared," Jonas said. "There's a lot of evil in this world -- how much, I never realized until this last weekend, when I went down for training. Harry and I fell into the middle of it when we were shooting baskets with Mickey, and found Jed in the bushes. Jed got there because money meant more to old man Scordo than human lives. You're in it because doing paperwork meant more to old lady Oakridge than helping the people she was hired to help, and because Banker Eccles believed that God wanted him to judge and hate, despite what the Bible says. All we can do is fight back, as best we can, and cover each other's back -- and enjoy every bit of love that comes our way in the process. A couple of weeks ago, all three of us and Harry too would rather have been covered with syrup and tied down on an anthill than let anyone know we loved each other, like we did last night. We'll do what we have to. Because that's the kind of people we are. And you know what else, guys?"

Jonas had everyone's full attention as they looked into his eyes. He went on seriously, "You don't suddenly just 'become' something that isn't already somewhere inside you in the first place. I believe firmly that Clan training has helped all us boys, but especially Harry, me and Jed, find and reach that place deep inside us that gives us the strength and courage to know who we are, to reach for our dreams, and to take a stand for what we believe in. So, Jared, the boy you fell in love with is still right here, but with a little more of what was on the inside out in the open now." He grinned. "Okay?"

Jared grinned back. "Okay, Jonas. I think I got it, but it's a lot to wrap my mind around. But I think it'll happen with time."

Jonas said, "Attaboy, Jared. It's the best anyone can do."

"I don't make speeches like those two," Skipper said seriously. "But I'm in. Have been ever since Bobby confessed he loved me, but I didn't know anyone else was in the same boat. Anybody who wants to hurt him will have to kill me first. And now, that goes for you guys too."

Somberly and with an air of determination, they walked back up the pathway to the courthouse.


A few minutes earlier, inside the courthouse...

"Here you boys are," said Josiah's law clerk as she delivered the last batch of paperwork to Harry, sitting with Mickey and Raffy in the emptied courtroom. "That should be everything that Mickey needs." Skipper, looking on over their shoulders, smiled.

"Okay, let's see," Harry said. "Letter from the judge stating that you and your brothers are your parents' heirs, authorizing use of their house until it's officially transferred to you in probate; certificate of emancipation for you; decree of your status as an invalid in case you need it with the pension people; grant of custody to you for Raffy; another one for Jared. I think that's it."

"What happens now?" Raffy asked.

"Well, we chase down Jared, wait until everybody else is done with paperwork, and then we'll take you home," Skipper said.

"As in, to *our* home," Mickey said to his brother, smiling.

"I'll go look for Jared," Skipper said, slipping out the door.

"You going to be OK, Mick'?" Harry asked. "I know there's been a lot of changes hit real fast the last week. If you need something or somebody, don't be afraid to say so -- you can't always gut it out and be tough. That's what friends are for, after all."

"I'm big enough to do stuff now," Raffy said. "If Mickey needs something done that he can't because his legs don't work no more, I can do it for him. It's like doin' my part for all the stuff he's done for me." Mickey beamed at his little brother.

"Seriously," Harry said, "what Raffy said goes -- and you don't just have two little brothers; you have hundreds of brothers now, all ready to help. That's what I spent last weekend learning. There are guys who've been through the same sort of shit you have, and they'll jump to help. And with what they have available, it's not a case of pulling a rabbit out of a hat - when *they* reach in the hat, what comes out is likely to be a T-rex, one with a hunger for disposing of haters and abusers. And you not only have Jonas and me with access to this stuff, but you have a brother-in-law who's part of it too."

"Huh?" Mickey's face was puzzled.

"Jed," Harry said with a grin.

"Oh."


In the Corner Café across the street...

Maureen sipped a cup of coffee, and gazed at the haunted-eyed little towhead sitting across from her. "Faith, an' it can't be all that bad, little one," she said, trying, with what she considered as her now badly rusted experience with small children, to project an air of concern and sympathy.

Pete toyed with the dish of ice cream in front of him and mumbled, "I'm dying, ma'am...."

"Ye c'n call me Maureen, sweetheart."

"Thanks, Maureen, but I'm still dying. At the hospital they gave me, at most, maybe another month to live."

"With all the advances of modern medicine, there's *nothing* they can do?"

"That's what they said."

'Or is it that they can't be bothered to exert themselves for an orphaned child,' she wondered to herself. Aloud she said, "Let me tell you a story. My ancestors have a legend, about a man who became a great king. He shouldn't have been a king, you see, because his body was not perfect. He lost a hand in a battle he fought to defend his country. And the laws of his country said anyone who would be king had to be perfect in body and mind. Except for that, he was supposed to inherit the throne from his father. And he was bitterly disappointed that he couldn't take the throne he'd trained for all his life."

"So how did he get to be king?"

"A magician friend of his, who was also a great silversmith, made a silver hand for him and attached it to his arm, and it worked just like a normal hand, and even looked normal, except for its silvery color. And so he became Nodens of the Silver Hand, according to legend, one of the greatest Kings ancient Ireland ever had. There are to this day some folk as believe that he never died."

"But that's just a fairy tale," said Peter mournfully. "There's no such thing as magic any more."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that, me young friend. In the past two weeks I've seen some things that seemed to defy even the laws of magic."

"Like what," Peter wondered.

"Oh, f'r'instance, people comin' an' goin' with no apparent means of transport, appearin' before ye" - she snapped her fingers - "just like that."

"Oh, ya mean like Starfleet transporters and stuff."

"Yeah, exactly like that. If they c'n do stuff like that, they oughta be able to make you just a little better anyway."

Peter started to cry. "But ya see, ma'am - uh - Maureen, it's not magic I want, now. It's - it's just to - to do something *good* before I go. But I've gotten so weak and hurt so much that there's not much left I can do. Besides that, I'd just like to be a kid and have a little fun for a change." And his small body crumpled as he gave way to silent sobs. Maureen got up from her seat, slid into the booth next to him and took him on her lap, holding him tenderly close to her, doing her best to comfort the dying boy. And all the while she wondered what kind of childhood this small scrap of humanity had endured, to be so without a clue what being a kid was really like. Gently she rocked him, and silently shook her head as a waitress approached to see if there was anything else they wanted.

Just then the door of the café opened and Jed came bounding in. "There you are! You guys about ready to...?" Then he saw Maureen holding Peter, who had apparently been crying, on her lap. "Oops -- sorry. I'll send Jonas over in a bit."

Maureen shook her head. "No, no, that's all right. We're as ready as we can be." Gently she shook Peter. "Peter, darlin', it's time to go. Looks to be they're ready for us."

Something muffled came from the vicinity of her shoulder. She stood up with Peter in her arms and reached to grab her coat and purse from the seat she had previously occupied, then she followed Jed out the door.


In Judge Josiah's chambers...

"All right," Josiah said. "Here's a deed of trust to the Eccles property, the boys as beneficiaries with the right to take title when the twins turn 18. I made you primary trustee, George, and put myself in as the auditing trustee - not that I don't trust you, but that way you're protected against accusations of stealing from the boys."

"Here are certificates of adoption for all three boys," Jonas said. "I had to line out a lot of language that wasn't accurate for a Clan placement."

"You're going to have to give me time to get used to this," George said, shaking his head with a smile. "I suddenly have three sons, and the judge who awarded them to me is 15 years old. When I went home Friday night, if somebody'd told me that would be happening today, I'd have considered them crazy."

"Equally important, though, is giving your boys opportunity to adjust and the care and support they need." Josiah was showing his most earnest judicial manner. "Watch." He reached out and drew Philip into an embrace; Philip winced, with panic in his eyes. "For a teenage boy to be a little uncomfortable at a hug from an adult man who's not a family member is perfectly normal. But Philip is reacting in real fear, thanks to the way the Eccleses treated him.

"I knew your parents, George," Josiah continued. "You were brought up in traditional State of Maine stoicism: be a man; tough it out; boys don't cry. And now you have three boys depending on you to show them how to be human, how to care, how to love. And the hardest job you have ahead of you is not going to be taking care of them, or healing their traumas from those sunzabitches, tough though those tasks are going to be - it's retraining yourself into being a nurturing father, a man who can show affection to his sons and let them know how much you love them. I know your integrity and willpower, or I'd have vetoed this placement. But I also know how much every one of us is a product of what we've been conditioned to be. And you're going to have to learn to show feelings, George, for *the boys'* sake. I know you can do it; Annie drew it out from *me*, and I was worse than you are when she married me. When she died so unexpectedly, I thought the world had frozen over -- until this redheaded reporter from Arkham came to talk to me in order to write her obituary."

"You're gonna move into our house, right?" Drew asked George.

"Well, uh, it's your property. I wouldn't feel right...."

"Whoa!" Josiah said. "Yes, for you to take advantage of your fiduciary responsibilities would be unethical. But we're not talking about *your* convenience, George. I had one case last year, where a boy was sleeping on a folded comforter on the floor because his parents couldn't afford to buy a replacement bed after a fire -- and he had a trust fund with several thousand in it. You can bet I approved release of money from that fund to get him a bed and dresser, and some toys and a bike as well, as soon as I got word of what was happening. You can see the parallel here. It's the boys' home, and their needs are paramount. Offhand, I'd say that their best interests are served by living in the home they've been in for several years, which they now own and consider *their* home - which means that their adoptive parent gets to stay there to take care of them. But that's something the four of you need to work out together. Just don't pick up on the idea that you have to hurt them to avoid looking like you're helping yourself."

Philip said, "I think we want to stay in our house." The twins were gesturing in enthusiastic agreement. "Won't you move your stuff in and let us stay there, Dad?"

"Okay," George said. "We'll swing by my apartment and pick up my toiletries and changes of clothes, then move the rest of my belongings later. I see the sense of it; it just goes against everything I learned about ethical trustee duties."

"That's because your textbooks and teachers were focused on conserving money; mine were too." Josiah's expression was stern but his eyes were dancing. "What you need to learn to do instead is conserve human happiness."

"Speaking of which," Jonas said, "I'm absolutely convinced the twins need to go to Orlando to learn to control and use their telepathy. That is one more thing you don't have a say in. I'm prepared to make it an order of the court, and have Josiah cosign it, but I don't believe that'll be necessary. Maybe we can set something up for next weekend, to get them started?"

"That sounds like it might work," George said. "I know special skills need training, though I know nothing about telepathy. Why Orlando?"

Randy interrupted at that point, "Jonas! You need to go to the Overlook Park, now!"

"You shouldn't be interrupting, Randy," George started to say, as Jonas overrode him.

"He's alerting me to a Clan emergency; I've seen these things happen before. Don't scold him; he's doing his job. I'll be back!" And Jonas was out the door.

"What's happening?" Philip asked.

"Some guy trying to bully Jared and Jed," Drew answered.

"From what I've seen," Josiah said, "there's a Clan discipline in place here. The boys will act in ways that seem out of line from our adult-centered way of viewing things, speaking up out of turn, giving orders, and so on. But they will not take advantage of the situation -- they'll do just what's needed for the optimum results, helping and protecting whoever needs it. In retrospect, you'll see how it's the right move. And that's a part of what they learn there."


"Can I ride with you, Mickey?" asked Raffy.

"I don't think...."

Skipper broke in. "If you don't mind being belted down, Raffy, we can do it. I'll have to rig you in like I was transporting a patient, though."

"Kewl! I wanna ride with Mickey and Jared; being belted down sounds like fun."

Skipper manhandled Jared and then Mickey up into the EMT unit's patient/equipment area, while Bobby handed up the wheelchairs. Then he stepped up into the area and belted Raffy onto a flat padded surface large enough to hold a small adult lying flat. Raffy giggled. Jed hopped in and braced himself as Bobby had shown him.

Jonas and Harry climbed into the rear seat of Maureen's car. With a smile, she motioned Peter into the front passenger seat, and climbed in behind the wheel. Skipper and Bobby then quickly jumped into the front seats of the EMT. Josiah came up to Maureen's window. "Let me know if anything comes up where you need me, all of you," he said.

"You're still planning on coming up Saturday, right?" Maureen said.

"If not sooner, definitely then," the judge answered, with a warm, affectionate smile.

George led Philip and the twins out to his BMW. "Let them know I'm taking my sons home!" he called out to Josiah, who waved acknowledgment. The impromptu motorcade pulled out and headed for Route 4, back to Arkham.

In the EMT mobile unit, Bobby was ebullient. "Wow, do you realize what this means!?" he said excitedly to Skipper.

"Yeah, I do, babe. But do *you* realize what it *doesn't* mean?"

"What do you mean, Skip?"

"I don't think you really understand just how far out on a limb Jonas and the judge went for us. There are a *lot* of people that would think absolutely the worst of us if they had a clue. And far from being placated by a court decision that hints that we're legal, they'd take it out on Jonas and Judge Brewster. So," Skipper concluded, "we're going to keep the same ultra low profile as always. Nobody is going to have a chance to get the sense that you're anything but my protégé, my little brother in spirit, who works the EMT runs with me. And that's final. One court said that, and made it so subtle that nobody who didn't already know had a clue that it was anything but blanket protection for you as an EMT. But what one court said, another court can reverse."

"You mean we're not...."

"No, I didn't say that. I told you we were going to wait until you're legal."

"But I'm legal now." Bobby was confused.

"Exactly!" Skipper said with a wink.

"My point is," he continued, "that we are *not* going to advertise that fact to anyone who doesn't already realize it -- except, of course, your mother. As far as anyone else is concerned, you got a broad protection to do the EMT work we know you can handle, by the court overriding the age requirements for your case."

"Oh," said Bobby. He grinned evilly. "I think I could get to like this idea!" He licked his lips. Skipper grinned.


The new Wentworth family turned off at what had been the Eccles house, as they approached Arkham. The others waved as they pulled into their driveway. At the town square downtown, Skipper took the left that would lead up to the Lambert Hill development where the McKendrick home was located. Maureen continued on north on Main Street towards High Street and their home.

"We'll take this rig out on a bunch of training runs over the next few days," Skipper said to Bobby. "I want you ready to drive it in almost any situation, in case we need to swap off on jobs with patients on any run. Plus, we're going to be spending a fair amount of time with Mickey and his brothers, since there's a lot Raffy won't be able to do, just from a size and muscle standpoint."

"Hey, I can do it!" Raffy was indignant. "I'm not a little kid!"

"I know you're smart, and loyal to your bros, Raff," Skipper said. "I'm talking about things like carrying Mickey or Jared there up to bed or the bathroom. You're awesome, but I don't see you being able to pull that off quite yet."

"Keeping house is going to be your responsibility until Jared can walk again," Mickey said. "I'll do everything I can from a chair -- but there's a lot that will fall on you, way too young."

"I experimented at Maureen's," Jared began.

"I know you did -- I saw Jed's face!" Mickey said with a teasing grin. Jared and Jed blushed.

"Mickey! Cut it out!" Jared was grinning despite his embarrassment. "What I meant to say was, I found out I can get around standing on my good leg if either somebody's supporting me or I've got something like a counter or stool to balance myself with. So I can handle cooking and dishes, with just a little help from Raff."

"This just might work," Mickey said. "Okay if I turn Mom's craft room into my room, and have them put a toilet in there, once we get money squared away?"

"Huh?" Jared was puzzled.

"I'm not going to be able to go upstairs again without help -- ever. I'm trying to make plans to work around it, bro. You and Raffy have as much say in the house as I do -- we own it together. I just have to be the boss figure for Raffy, and to a lesser extent for you, until you two are legally old enough to make decisions on your own. But as far as our property and stuff goes, we own it together -- you heard the judge. So if you don't like my ideas, you get to say so."

"Another thing," Skipper interjected. "I think we should cover this now, with everybody together. I'll haul you guys around, wherever you need to go -- inside the house as well as in the unit here. That's going to include using the toilet and taking baths and such. The only catch is that Bobby and I have to be ready to run on a moment's notice if we get an EMT call.

"Now, that means that we're going to be seeing a lot of you naked, Mickey, and you too, Jared, until your cast comes off -- just by getting you clean and helping you take care of nature's calls. We're all guys, and everybody but Raffy is in their teens -- there's going to be a certain amount of embarrassment going on. Especially as I am going to prefer that Bobby bathe Jared -- I can, legally, as a medical caregiver, but I'd prefer not risking any foulmouths calling it molestation that I'm moving him around and washing him while he's naked. And Jed, I need to know you're going to be comfortable with that."

"You don't need to worry," Bobby said. "I've already got - oops!"

"We know, and we won't say anything," Jared said. "We'd have never gotten this far without you; you're our brothers now."

"And mine too," said Jed. "If you're willing, of course -- if you buy into that, there are legal ramifications you need to know about. Like that makes all *legally* brothers under Vulcan law, and requires that we jump in whenever somebody needs help, like you three just did, and Ceej and I did earlier this month."

"Hey, what can *I* do?" Mickey said.

"I thought we were done with the pity party," Jed said, raising his voice slightly. "One of the guys that works with Eli and 'Bastian is named J.R. A month ago, he was ready to kill himself. And two guys who were brand new to the Clan then saved him. The one that talked him out of it wasn't just in your condition, he was paralyzed from the neck down except one arm. He's on his way to Vulcan, in the Enterprise, now. So don't ever give me that I'm useless speech. I think -- no, I *guarantee* you are going to make the difference in somebody's life, and darn soon if the last couple weeks are telling me anything. Don't forget two weeks ago Jare' and I were comparing notes about Nina's boobs, and planning what we were gonna do last weekend. And today I could have done what Jonas did, legally -- we just agreed it was logical for him to be the one to do it, because of how grownups react to him. You're a natural as a big brother or father type, Mick' -- you don't need legs to be the older guy that some kid needs in his life."

The EMT mobile unit pulled into the McKendrick driveway. "I'm going to pull right up to the back door, Mickey, if that's OK with you," Skipper said. "I don't see any point in putting you and Jared in your wheelchairs just to move a dozen feet or so. Jed, why don't you lift out the wheelchairs and move 'em in the house while Bobby unstraps the rugrat?"

"Hey!" said an offended Raffy. Everyone chuckled.

With Skipper carrying first Mickey and then Jared up the steps and into the back door, where Bobby and Jed helped settle them in their wheelchairs, the move into the house was accomplished with minimal fuss.

Jared motioned Raffy into the kitchen, and in moments they came back in, with Jared's lap and hands filled with Cokes and Raffy pushing his chair. Raffy came around in front of the wheelchair and began handing them out, a big smile on his face. Jed pulled a straight chair up alongside Jared's wheelchair and slipped his arm over Jared's shoulders. Bobby sidled over on the couch and snuggled up to Skipper. Raffy finished handing out the sodas and positioned himself on a chair arm alongside Mickey's wheelchair.

"We're home," Mickey said with a smile. Jared and Raffy's grins were answer enough. "Skipper, Bobby, thanks a million! This isn't going to be easy, but I think it is do-able with your help."

"Any time, dude," Bobby said. "You know we're here for you." Skipper gestured agreement and then said, "Jared, Mickey, either of you need to use the toilet, or think you may need to in the near future?"

"No, thanks. Not really."

"Okay, Bobby, lower right storage area in the unit. There's three plastic urinals and a bedpan in there; bring two urinals and the bedpan in." Bobby ran to get them. "I'll leave them for you guys in case you need them. Raffy can run them up to the bathroom and rinse them out, if it's necessary." Raffy wrinkled his nose, but gave a thumbs up to show he was game if he was called on to do it. "We're going to take off; I've got to fill Grace in on what happened in court. We'll swing back later to put you guys to bed."

"Huh?" Raffy said.

"Get us up to our bedrooms, he means," Mickey explained. "Okay, we'll see you -- it's not like we're going anywhere!"

"I cook a mean frozen pizza," Jed said, "if you guys want that for dinner. I remember your mom always kept a bunch in the freezer."

"Sounds great," Jared and Mickey said simultaneously, and laughed. Jared wheeled his chair into the kitchen to keep Jed company.

"I'm stalling on going back to Orlando," Jed confided to him as they hugged in the kitchen. "I don't know how often I'll be able to reconnect, and I'm stealing every minute with you I can before I have to go." Jared nodded somberly.

Mickey sat in his living room, looking around. His dad's 'Archie Bunker' chair sat there empty, everyone having avoided it out of habit -- although with John, it had been a matter of comfort, not family authority, to always take 'his' chair, it had become a running joke in the family that it was his 'Archie Bunker' chair. Over the old secretary desk, his mother's favorite photograph of the house, taken two winters ago, enlarged and framed, reminded him of her.

Mickey looked closer at that picture -- then at the front door, where steps led to the sidewalk -- then at the stairs to the bedrooms. "Guys! Come here!" he said. In a panic, they all came running.

"Look at Mom's picture," he said, gesturing at the wintry view of the house.

"Yeah?" Jared said. "What about it?"

"Jed, think back to last February," Mickey said. "You came over on a weekday morning. Why?"

"It was a snow day off from school -- too much snow to run the school buses," Jed said. "I brought over some groceries Mom had picked up before the snow hit, because your Mom couldn't drive down to Farmington, and they were sold out of a lot of stuff at the IGA.

"Oh," he said as Mickey's point hit him. "And then I waded through snow getting here, and slipped on some ice one place where they'd cleared away the snow already. And then I got here, and your Mom said Jared wasn't up yet, and I went up to his room...." Jed's expression got more strained and serious as he went on.

"I can't do this," Mickey said simply. "I'm not being melodramatic or giving up or anything -- it's just that we can't live in this house, with me being the only person old enough to drive, and hope to make it through a Maine winter. Help me figure out what we need to do."

"You could ... no, that's too selfish of me," Jed said.

"Say it," Jared urged.

"You got an idea, I want to hear it," Mickey echoed.

"Well, what I was thinking is that you could move down to Orlando -- all three of you. Get a house down there. It probably won't work, though."

"Well, we never know until we give it a try. Shouldn't you be calling home, anyway?"

"I guess," said Jed. "I'm afraid Rina will be upset and tell me to beam home."

"There's something not quite right about the picture of a guardian telling her ward to have Starfleet beam him home," Mickey giggled. After a second, Jed laughed.

"OK, here goes nothing," Jed said, and pulled out his communicator.

"Templeton to CIC."

"CIC, Dodds here."

"Hey, Justy, it's Jed. Can you patch me through to Rina?"

"Sure. Call me back when you're done, please."

The ringing of a phone, and then "Rina Baldwin."

"Hi, Rina, it's Jed."

"Well, it's about time you called home! How did things go?"

"Good -- we rescued Jared and his brothers. I'm at their house now."

"Ceej has been worried about you, kid. And so have I. Hey, you remember old Mr. Maxwell next door?"

"The old guy in the wheelchair, that designed his own house?"

"Yeah, him. He was a rather famous architect before his stroke, you know."

"I didn't know, but what about him?"

"He had a massive heart attack last night, was dead by the time they got him to the hospital. I've been over trying to comfort Sylvia. She's in pieces, of course. She's talking about selling her house and moving up to Pensacola with her daughter."

"No kidding! Hey, wait a minute... I think you just solved a problem for me. Can I call you right back?"

"Okay. But I want to know when you're coming home!"

"I'll answer that in about ten minutes, after I make a couple of other calls. See ya!"

Jed closed off that call on his communicator. "Your phone still on the kitchen wall?"

"Of course. You haven't been gone *that* long!"

Jed quickly looked up and dialed the courthouse. "Judge Brewster's chambers, please. Tell him it's Jed Templeton calling."

"Hello, Jed! This is a surprise; you've only been gone from here an hour or so."

"Couple of quick questions, Judge. First, is there any reason why Mickey and Jared and Raffy couldn't move out of state if they wanted to? Mickey's guardianship isn't only for Maine, is it?"

"No, Jonas did it using the Safe Haven Act. So it's valid anywhere in the Federation. If they want to move to Vulcan, it's still valid."

Jed giggled. "No, not quite that far. Second question: what do I need to do to draw down my inheritance?"

"Whoa, young man! I'd need a very good reason to authorize disbursing it from the trust. Let me guess: this is for the McKendrick boys, right?"

"Yessir," Jed said, embarrassed. "How'd you know?"

"The questions you asked and what we've been doing the last 24 hours, gave me a little bit of a clue." Josiah chuckled. "They want to move, right?"

"Well, we're seeing if we can figure things out so they can."

"Well, remember what Jonas put into the decree for Mickey -- he and I planned that out ahead of time. Mickey is entitled to disability money from the federal and state governments, a settlement from that trucker's insurance company, and help from Federation Youth Services -- plus the three boys own that house free and clear. Money's not an issue. In fact, I'd venture to guess that that insurance adjuster would be ready to take care of the house costs as a part of the settlement -- they sound really anxious not to have three boys, two of them in wheelchairs and the other one eight years old, suing them. Any jury would like as not give the boys the insurance company, lock, stock, and debentures, if they let it go to trial. Mickey and his brothers are in the catbird seat on that negotiation, and I'll play it for all it's worth for them. You tell them to go ahead and make whatever plans they want to; I'll make sure money is there."

"Thanks, Judge!" Jed's grin was nearly audible across the phone lines.

Returning to the living room, he said, "Okay, guys. Decision time: do you want a custom-built house designed for wheelchair users that happens to be next door to the duplex our apartment is in? You can afford it if you want it, and I know it's going up for sale."

"In Orlando?" Mickey asked.

"Next door to you?" Jared was stunned.

"Is Ceej there?" Raffy was excited.

"Yes, to all three of you," Jed answered.

"I think we can handle this," Mickey said. "Guys? What do you say?"

Jared wheeled himself over to the kitchen doorway and grabbed Jed's hand. "Does that answer your question?"

Raffy looked at Mickey. "You really want to do this, don't you, Mickey?"

"Yes, I do, bro, but only if you'll be happy with it."

"I'll be happy as long as I'm with you and Jared," he said simply. "And being next door to Ceej is gonna be fun too!"

"Go for it, Jed," Mickey said.

"You sure of this, Mickey?" Jed said. "Because I'm going to start things in motion, and I want to be certain how you feel before I do."

"I'm certain, Jed," he answered.

Jed reactivated his communicator. "Hey, Justy; me again."

"Hey, Jed. I need to know how the extraction went."

"Didn't Jonas or Harry get in touch?"

"Not yet. No problems, I take it?"

"Nothing we couldn't handle -- a nurse and a security guard that gave us enough flak that the Security guy from the Lafayette overrode my not wanting to press charges, and arrested them himself. But you've got a few more names to add than expected."

"Oh?"

"Well, I'm at the home jointly owned by my boyfriend and his two brothers, the older one of whom is now a legal adult and guardian of the other two."

"Boyfriend? You're moving fast there, boy!"

"We've been best friends forever; 'Bastian and Eli just gave us a kick in the pants to tell each other how we felt, and we couldn't be happier." Jed flashed Jared a smile.

"Okay, so we're talking the McKendricks. I've got names for them already. They'll be joining the Clan?"

"I imagine so, although I want Cory and the others to meet them first and invite them to. And I need to talk to Kayla about them in a minute. But you're probably going to want to know about the others we dealt with."

"It would help; Vulcan will protect its own, but it is, after all, only logical to let them know who 'their own' are." Justy's wit was dry.

"Okay, first, Peter Michael Lambert, an orphan, nine. He's dying of cancer, and asked the Clan to take custody so he wouldn't just spend the few days he has left in a hospital bed. Then Philip Wayne Wentworth, formerly Eccles, 14, and Randall Garrett Wentworth and Andrew Marvell Wentworth, formerly LaVigne, who are 7, twins, and telepathic. Philip was the adopted son and the twins were wards of Jordan and Mary Eccles. He was a bank manager, she was a schoolteacher, and both were formerly members of the local FCC congregation, and now they're tenants of the county jail with a five-to-life Federation sentence hanging over them. We took custody of Philip, Randy, and Drew, and granted them adoption by a Mr. George Wentworth, Jr., with the understanding that the Clan will train George in being a nurturing parent and train the twins in managing and developing their telepathy."

"Got it all -- I think. You guys have been busy!"

"Anyway, Jonas wants Doc Austin or 'Tonio to see Mickey and Peter, see if there's anything Federation medicine can do. I want to get Jared into a biobed too."

"What!" Jared was blushing.

"It's a medical tool they have, a high-tech bed that accelerates healing, so your broken leg will mend faster. What did you think, dudelet?" Jed asked the last question with a leer that made it obvious what he thought Jared had been thinking.

"Okay, dude. I'll pass that along. Any idea when you'll bring them down?"

"I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking I'll bring them along when I come home tomorrow, if that works for the medical guys. Now, would you patch me through to Kayla?"

"Sure."

"F.Y.S. Services Coordination, Kayla York here."

"Hi, Kayla! It's Jed."

"Oh, hi! How'd your first intervention go?"

"Terrific, thanks. That's what I'm calling about -- when I get through with you, I'm going to ask you to link me to Rina. Harry or the Judge got in touch with you about housing help for the McKendricks, right?"

"Yep. I've got temporary funding set up for them until -- Mickey, is it? -- gets his disability checks coming, and ready to supplement them."

"I need something else from that. They'll be moving down to Orlando, since there's no way two boys and a teen in a wheelchair can handle a Maine winter. Rina knows of the perfect house for them, though she doesn't know she does yet. I'm going to need F.Y.S. to front the down payment until the judge can get their house up here sold."

"No sooner said than done, Jed. We've got the money; Josh has a lawyer on retainer to help with Clan transactions like this. I'll get together with Rina and him, and get things rolling. Just let Mickey know he'll have to sign off on some stuff with me authorizing all this, okay?"

"He's right here in the room with me, and heard that. Tell her it's OK, Mickey."

"I'll be glad to sign them, ma'am. You'll have to fill me in on real estate stuff."

"We'll keep it to a minimum, Mickey -- just enough to keep the State of Florida off everyone's back. But I'm Kayla -- call me 'ma'am' and I go looking around for my mother."

"Kewl," Jed said. "Can you link me to Rina, or do I need to bounce back to Justy to do that?"

"I can do it. Good luck!"

A ringing phone again, and then the answer, "Rina Baldwin."

"Hi, Rina. It's your wandering offspring again. How certain is Mrs. Maxwell that she wants to sell?"

"She sounds pretty definite, Jed. Why?"

"Okay, ask her what a fair offer price would be, and then call Kayla. She'll get you a down payment to give her."

"Whoa! Back up and regroup - why should I do this? Who's buying it? And, oh, by the way, when are you coming home?"

"Answers to all that are the same thing. The guys I came up here to help -- Jared, Mickey, and Raffy McKendrick -- are living in their parents' house. A two story house with the only bathroom upstairs and the kitchen downstairs. Two of them are injured to where they can't walk at the moment; the one who can is eight. And snowy winter is coming on up here. The judge and Kayla both say there's no money problem; he can sell their house here to cover the cost, and there's money to handle anything in between. But they need a house that someone in a wheelchair can get around in."

"Okay, I get it. And Bob Maxwell's retirement home is exactly what they need. Hey -- remember how we found each other. Does this sound like more of the same?" Rina was giggling, and so was Jed at that point.

"You know it. And of course, it doesn't hurt that it's right next door to us, and it'll be my boyfriend living there."

"Okay. But remember I *do* have custody of you. Granted you're a Clan Short boy, with all the freedom you need to do your job, I do want to know where my older boy is."

"Yeah, yeah. I love you, too." Jed's voice was affectionate. "I'm figuring to stay here tonight, partly so I can run errands for Jared and Mickey since they're in wheelchairs, then come home tomorrow and bring them with me to see Doc Austin."

"Deal. But you *are* going to at least let me know what you're up to on your adventures, mister. Understood?"

"Understood." Jed was blushing. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, then."

"Okay. Bye."

The telephone rang just then. "I got it," Raffy yelled.

"Hi, Raffy. This is Bobby. Listen, we'll be there later, but we got dispatched to a fire up Rangeley Road. Catch you again when we're bzrrrkkkkkkk." The line went dead.

"Must be they dropped into a valley just then," Mickey said. "You guys ready for that pizza?" Three young appetites shouted enthusiastic agreement. Jed headed for the kitchen to put the pizza in the oven.


At the same time, on the southern edge of Arkham...

George Wentworth's BMW pulled into the driveway of what used to be the Eccles' home. They had made a brief stop at George's old apartment in Farmington to allow him to collect a few changes of clothes, grooming gear, and other necessities. He had also raided his fridge, figuring to contribute to whatever larder the boys might have on hand, because it would only spoil otherwise.

"Well, guys, we're home."

It was an awkward moment. What had been bubbling enthusiasm in the courtroom now turned to fumbling shyness, now that the real deal was at hand.

"Uh, guys...?"

"Yes, Dad," the twins responded woodenly, with Philip coming in with an almost exact echo.

"Hey, what's wrong? Back in the courtroom, you kids were all excited about this."

Philip was the first to speak. "Uh, Dad, I think it may be the house. Not your fault, and I'll bet we weren't thinking too clearly either at the time. Our memories of this place aren't exactly fun ones. Randy and Drew?"

"Phil, I'm scared," they both said at once.

George turned in his seat to stare at the boys. "Now wait just a..." he started to say sternly, then backed off, remembering what Josiah had said. This wasn't going to be as easy as it had first sounded. He shook his head slightly, as if to clear his brain, then went on more gently. "Right. Okay, look, maybe coming back here to stay wasn't such a good idea after all. But we got four of us that are going to have to live together somewhere, and right now this is what we've got. So we're going to have to make the best of it. Do you think you can do that?"

"What if we screw up?" Randy wondered timidly. "Are you gonna hit us or anything?"

"Hell -- uh, no. I've never believed in hitting kids as a means of discipline. I've never been a parent, but I spent a lot of years in Judge Josiah's courtroom seeing what kind of results that gets. If you screw up, you screw up, and we get over it and go on." He grinned. "Now, what do you say we go in and let the house get acquainted with its *new* owners. I'm going to get out of the car, and go around to the trunk and get out my duffel bag. Why don't you guys go on ahead up and unlock so we can go in?"

The boys complied, and George followed slowly behind them, wondering if he had indeed bitten off more that he could chew. He went in the front door, set his duffel bag and the bag of groceries on the living room floor, then said, "Philip, would you like to show me which room I should sleep in?"

A vague shadow crossed Philip's face, but he said, "You go up the stairs, and it's the first door on your right. That's the master bedroom, where the Eccleses slept. Since you're the head of the house now, I guess it should be yours. Bathroom's at the end of the hall."

George said gently, "Don't you want to show me, Son?"

"Nah, you'll find your way. You can't get lost."

"Well, okay, sure." He took the stairs two at a time, and deposited his duffel bag in the room Philip had designated. Then he sat down on the crisply made bed to pull his thoughts together. Obviously, Philip had had qualms about going anywhere near a bedroom with him. 'What on earth did that Eccles jerk *do* to those kids, that they're so afraid of a person's slightest touch, or to be near a bedroom?' He shuddered to imagine it. How was he going to deal with traumas like that? Maybe see a family counselor on his own? He was certainly going to have to do something, or this was not going to work. Meanwhile, they had the rest of the afternoon to get through.

In the living room, Randy said softly, "That was kinda rude, Phil."

Philip sighed. "Yeah, I know, but I just couldn't help it. You know how Mother and Father were -- always beating on us if we let someone touch us in any way. They'd say that that was the devil tempting us into evil thoughts or actions. I lived with them a lot longer than you two did, and it's a habit that's gonna be hard to break."

"We know," put in Drew, "but he's gonna be our Dad for good, and you gotta get used to it. But he's good people, Phil. He ain't gonna hurt us, I promise you. I can see it in his mind. He's as scared as we are."

"My head knows that, but there's something inside that's gonna automatically think that George is gonna hurt me when he touches me, you know what I mean?"

"Us too, but you just gotta think real hard, every time, 'not hurt, help.'"

Philip grinned sheepishly. "I'll try, guys, I really will. We're all in this together."

Coming down the stairs a few minutes later, George couldn't help but overhear the whispered conversation among the three boys. And he experienced his first lesson in "human" parenting. Tears came to his eyes as he listened to the boys share their feelings about the new situation, and the difficulties they would have adjusting to it. He cleared his throat, as much to save face as to warn them he was there, and stepped into the living room.

"Uh, guys, I was thinking. I do a lot of work at home, and I was wondering if there was a room I could use as a den or a study."

Philip brightened. "Sure, Dad, you can use Mr. Eccles's old study. He mostly kept it locked, but everybody knew that's where he did his 'homework.'"

"Do you suppose it's locked now?"

"I donno, probably."

"Any idea where the key is?"

"Nope."

"Sh - crap. Well, let's go see if it's locked. Phil, why don't you go check it out, while we wait here. Meanwhile, I'll just put this stuff in the fridge. It's stuff from my old place that I just couldn't see throwing away."

"Okay." Philip went to the back of the house, to the room that Jordan had used as his secret repository for all his shady dealings, and tried the door. Sure enough, it was locked. Then he went in search of whatever keys he could find. None of those he found worked on the door to Eccles's study. So he went back to tell the bad news to George.

"Darn, I was afraid of that."

"How bad do you want that room?"

"Well, it's not life or death, or anything like that. I just thought it'd give me some space, and at the same time, not crowd into you guys' too much. Some of the work I do is confidential, and I'd need a place to keep court documents secure."

Philip grinned conspiratorially -- probably the first time he had shown any real feeling since leaving the courthouse. "How good are you at fixing things?"

"We-ell, I'm not a master carpenter or plumber, but I can give a screwdriver a turn or two. Most of the time the screw even goes into the right place. Why, what've you got in mind?"

"I was thinking maybe we could break the door down, and you could fix it later."

"Phil, I'm not entirely comfortable with that idea. I didn't move into your house to take it over, and break things to suit my own convenience."

The twins piped up. "Aw-w-w, c'mon, Dad, what's the harm, if you're gonna fix it? Let's do it. 'Sides, it's not wrong if *we* said you could."

George looked into those puppy-dog eyes and knew without a shadow of a doubt that those twins would have him wrapped around their collective fingers in no time. "All right," he said. "We'll do it."

They headed for Jordan's study and approached the locked door. "Okay, guys, stand back." He backed up a few paces and lunged his full weight against the door. It gave with a resounding "cra-a-ack!", and flew inward. Phil and the twins sidled up to him, surveying the contents of the room that they had known existed, but never been permitted to enter.

"Whoa!" said the twins.

"Ooops," said Phil.

George turned and looked at his three sons. "Problems, guys?"

Philip answered, "I guess nobody has had time to take away the Eccles's personal stuff. I suppose that figures, since it's only been a couple hours since they got arrested. But I wasn't expecting - this."

Scattered about the desk and the room were piles and piles of papers, journals, books and other minutiae that had been Jordan Eccles's stock in trade.

George said, "Well, it looks like we've got our work cut out for us, right? That is, if you guys are willing to help."

"We could always hire a bulldozer," quipped Philip.

"I could agree with you, because Eccles was as worthless a piece of trash as I've ever heard of, but some of this - uh - junk may serve as evidence to convict him of further crimes, so we probably should go through it carefully."

"I guess you've got a point," Philip agreed glumly. "So what do we do?"

"Okay, you see that table over there?"

"Yeah."

"You sit at one end and I'll sit at the other, and we'll just start going through papers. We'll make piles. Anything that looks suspicious, we'll put in one pile; that will go in my safe, as potential evidence. Anything like bills, receipts, household accounts, we'll just chuck. Got it?"

"Got it," Phil agreed enthusiastically.

"What can we do?" Drew demanded mournfully. "We only just started second grade. We can read, but not big words yet."

"Um," George said doubtfully. Then he brightened. "I know. You guys can be in charge of trash detail. Each of you go to the kitchen and go get something to use as a trash bag, then come back here. As we go through this stuff, and decide that it's trash, we'll throw it on the floor. You make sure it gets picked up and put in the bag, so it can be put out to be taken away with the regular trash pick-up. Do you have trash pick-up here?"

"Uh, no," Phil said. "People who live in the town have to get a permit -- it's free if you can prove you're a resident -- and take their trash to the local recycling center."

"Guess I'd better start a list of things to do then."

Philip smiled and handed him a pad of paper and a pencil. "It's not a PADD, but the old-fashioned way still works."

George grinned. "Hey, you got that right. So ...," he started to write: "Fix door to study; establish residency in the Town of Arkham and get dump permit; go to dump; get stuff from my old place, ...Anything else?"

Drew said, "Dad, it's gonna be dinnertime soon. Did you think about what we're gonna have?"

"To tell you the truth, no, I didn't. You guys getting hungry?"

"Kind of," the twins said in unison.

"Okay, tell you what. Let's put this off till later, then, and figure out what to do about dinner. Then maybe we can work on this for a while tonight until time to go to bed. Is that all right with you?"

"Sounds good," said Phil, and there was an enthusiastic "Yeah!" from the twins.

"Okay, do you want to order in, eat out, or risk my cooking?" George grinned. "I *can* cook, you know."

"Dad, can I make a suggestion?"

"Sure, Son, go ahead."

"Well, I was thinking, since it's your first night here and all, and there's a lot of stuff to do to get things straightened around, maybe going out might be easier."

"You know, I think you're right. Let's do it."

"McDonald's!" cried the twins simultaneously.

"Now wait just a minute here," said George, trying to project just a little sternness into the discussion. "As your parent and guardian, I have to question that choice. McDonald's food is not the most nutritious food in the world."

"You mean we have to go somewhere where they have food that is - yuk -- *good* for us?"

George had to hide a grin. "Now I didn't say that. I just said that McDonald's is not the 'best.' Let's compromise - how about Italian?"

"Pisgetti?"

"Yes, 'pisgetti,' or lasagna, or whatever. But *no pizza*. And lots of salad."

"Aw-w-w ma-a-an!"

"That's it, guys; take it or leave it."

"We'll take it. When can we go?"

"As soon as everyone gets cleaned up and ready to go."

All three boys dashed off to their respective rooms to wash up and change from their "court clothes." George sat down at Jordan Eccles's former desk with a bemused expression on his face. 'It was a beginning,' he thought proudly to himself. There would be setbacks, and conflicts of interest, and teenage rebellion, but maybe, just maybe, this was going to work. And there was always that training in Orlando. 'Bring it on,' he thought to himself. 'I can handle it.' Meanwhile, he'd better get his butt in gear and follow his own orders, so he'd be ready to go when the kids were.


"Okay, take it up to 55," Skipper said to Bobby. The 14-year-old's serious expression was belied by the big grin across his face as he drove the EMT mobile unit on the highway for the first time. "I'm glad we got called on that run, even though nobody needed medical attention as it turned out -- it gives you a chance to get used to this beast."

"This is so-o-o-o kewl," Bobby said. "It's like some kind of dream."

"You'll get tired of driving soon enough," Skipper answered affectionately. "The third time in one week you get woke up at 2 AM to go help some guy who decided that *he* was the exception who could drink and drive, and found out the hard way his reactions were just like anybody else's, you'll be swearing at the road as much as I do."

"Maybe. But it sure is fun to be able to do it now!" Bobby said.

"I figure I'll handle most of the bad-weather driving at first, since I've got more experience, then phase you into that slowly over the winter, and have you do most of the good-weather runs. That way, we spread out the work load."

"Really?!" Bobby was pleasantly startled.

"Sure - we're a team, right? I happen to be more experienced, bigger, and stronger; you're more resilient, wirier, able to squeeze into smaller spaces. But you know the job almost as well as I do -- and the difference is only in the automatic responses you get through experience." Skipper's tone of voice was reassuring.

"Hey! What are you braking for?" Bobby was slowing the unwieldy truck as rapidly as possible without skidding.

"There was something in the bushes back there that looked like a kid. I want to check it out."

"Good move. Slide over, and I'll back it up to where you saw it. You watch from this seat."

"Okay." Bobby looked despondent.

"Hey, it's to maximize talent. You know where you saw it, or him I should say; I've got the experience to back this thing faster, and we're probably on a call as of now, thanks to your good eyesight."

"Stop right ... here" Bobby said. He jumped out and across the roadside drainage ditch, past a clump of box elder saplings. Skipper grabbed his First Response kit and followed. "It's a kid, maybe 11 or so, and he's naked and looks hurt!" Bobby reached out to begin patient needs assessment, and went flying into a sumac bush as the boy judo-flipped him.

"Holy shit, he's strong!" Bobby said.

Skipper went over to the boy a bit more cautiously, noted his pallor, and said, "I'll bet he's mildly hypothermic, and was just reacting defensively without conscious intent. Go get a thermal blanket and a chem-heat pack."

"On it," Bobby said.

Skipper picked up the boy, noting he seemed to have a large number of surgical scars. His head appeared bald, no, shaved, and a peach fuzz of dark brown hair, nearly black, was just growing back. His steel-grey eyes stared wildly at nothing. Skipper wrapped him in the thermal blanket, motioned Bobby to activate the heat pack, and then held him firmly but loosely as he struggled, saying over and over, "You're safe. We're here to help. You'll be OK. Don't worry" in a reassuring voice.

"They're after me!" the boy said in a terrified voice.

"Don't worry, we'll get you to a hospital," Bobby said.

"No, no hospital! They'll hurt me!" the boy said, struggling to get away from Skipper.

"Okay, no hospital. Calm down!" Skipper said. "How about if we take you home with us, and get you warmed up and fed, and then find out what you want to do next?"

"All right," said the boy, and promptly passed out.

Skipper looked at Bobby, and nodded towards the rear doors of the mobile unit. "Let's get him home," he said.