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Cinder pulled his Harley back into the garage and parked next to Braeden's station wagon and watched as Braeden climbed off. He gave the teen some room, taking a few minutes to check the oil on the generator. He then flipped a lever next to the door to the house, activating the alternate power circuit breaker. Finally he fired it up and made sure the exhaust was not leaking by using a carbon dioxide meter. Satisfied, he turned to study Braeden for a couple of minutes.
The young man glanced around rather blankly for a well over a minute before leaning against the back of his car and slowly slid down until he was sitting with his back resting against the badly rusted tail pipe.
The whole ride back, the teen said nothing, and although he tried to hide it, he hadn't stopped trembling since Cinder had managed to get him back on the massive bike. For some reason his brain was trying to fight itself, telling him he had not seen what he saw, but something deep within knew better and wouldn't let the scenes of the events to get blocked out.
Cinder realized the teen needed a few more minutes so took a moment to peek in on Drake, noting the tyke still had not so much as moved and his breathing remained steady. Nodding in satisfaction, he double checked all the electricity in the house, and reset a pair of clocks, one on the microwave the other in his bedroom. At last he silently moved back to the garage and gently closed the door. Finally, he pulled off his battle garb, plopped it all down on top of his tool box and moved over to Braeden.
Cinder studied the boy's expression for a more few seconds. It reminded him of his own shortly after he shifted the first time. The only difference was, at least Braeden was not in physical pain too. Not really wanting to dwell on his first shift or the aggravation of having his hair growth over his whole body being tied to a time when he was only twelve years and four days old, he focused in the teen. "It's a lot to take in... More than I ever intended to show you on your first night. I had no idea we would run across a hive, even a small one like we did..." He knelt and put his hand on Braeden's shoulder. "I'd have never taken you down there if I had known, but man... I can't begin to express how impressed I am with how well you handled it."
Braeden looked up with a nearly lost look in his light blue eyes. "I did well?"
"Hell yeah!" Cinder responded with no hesitation while gripping the boy's shoulder a bit tighter. "You heard what Razor Wolf... Todd... said, didn't you?"
Braeden seemed to pull some strength from the fact the man in front of him was squeezing his shoulder and praising him. He blinked his eyes, "Kind of... He said he owed you..."
"No, Bray, he said he owes us, which really means you. I may not be well liked by the clans, but I still hold sway over such a young war pack. I can easily demand their help and they would be hard pressed to find an excuse to say no. You, on the other hand... Do you know how few humans could see what you saw without going mad? Yet you didn't, no, not you. You stood there and even found the courage to pull a gun and fight alongside them!"
Some of the glazed over look started to fade and the boy's blue eyes seemed to regain some focus as they found strength in Cinder's steel grey eyes. Braeden shook his head. "I fired two lousy fucking shots... It didn't even drop it... you had to finish the... whatever the fuck that was!"
"It is called a Hell Hound. But you are missing the point here, Bray. You still fought with a war pack, a totally green human, facing a hive and not falling to your knees in terror! Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would see the type of courage, will power and ability to face the deepest terrors of the unseen world as I saw in you tonight. It wasn't just me either. You have gained a full favor from a war pack! Screw the fact they are brand new, some of youngest in the area. They are a totem war pack, and they owe you!"
Braeden banged the back of his head lightly against the back of the station wagon, "But I'd be shit had that kid... um hyena thing... kid hyena thing... not changed and... One second it was a kid the next a killing machine easily a foot and a half taller than me..."
Cinder couldn't help but snicker. "Bray, it would be in your best interest not to call them hyenas... Even though they owe you, most of them would take serious exception at being called a hyena, even a killing machine hyena."
Braeden took a few more deep breaths as he calmed a bit more, "OK, what the hell am I supposed to call them? Monsters? Freaks? What?!"
A bemused grin spread over Cinders face as he spoke a single word. "Wolves."
"Wolves? You expect me to call what those kids turned into wolves? There was nothing wolf-like about those amazing killing machines, those claws, those teeth, the speed, the snarls, the fury in their eyes..." His voice lowered a couple of notches as he continued to speak, clearly in semi-awe. "The agility, the power, the grace, the determination to kill, to protect..."
Cinder tried not to snicker; he tried hard, but quickly lost the battle with himself as Braeden's fear had changed in mid-rant to an almost admiration of the kids in Razor Wolf's pack.
"What's so damned funny?" Braeden shouted, "There are monsters and trees eating people under our streets!"
Some merriment could be seen in Cinder's eyes as he put out his other hand and gripped both of the teen's shoulders. "I'm actually laughing at the fact you are more pissed about what we were fighting than the fact you saw a werewolf change before your eyes!"
A bit of justified anger could be seen in his eyes as Braeden slammed his left fist into his right hand. "Yeah, well the tree was eating those people..." He stopped suddenly as his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped open a bit, "Werewolves?"
"Wow!" Cinder openly laughed, "That took you long enough."
"But... no..." Braeden pushed Cinder's hands off his shoulders and stood. He turned his back on the man and leaned forward smashing his hand into the side of his car giving it yet one more dent. "Werewolves? There are no such thing as..."
Suddenly, Braeden turned back and stared at Cinder. "Before we left to go down there... You told me something about fairy tales being real!" Confusion could be heard in his voice as he continued. "But if they are real, why would werewolves fight to protect those still alive in the tree, fight to protect me? Aren't they bad things?"
"Are all humans bad?" Cinder responded with a soft voice.
There was no hesitation as Braeden's eyes narrowed and his voice became a bit venomous, "Sometimes I think so."
"Me too." Cinder grunted with disgust, "But we both know better. There are good Humans out there, just like there are plenty of good werewolves and there might even be a good vampire or two as well, but let's stick with werewolves for now, because I know far more about Werewolf history than the history of any other creatures... Um well, I do know a fair amount about electric eels..." he shook his head to get rid of the rogue thought and rather out of place comment. "However, before we go too much further, we have another matter to discuss."
Braeden looked up at the ceiling and let out a long breath. "The kid, right?"
"Yes. I believe I held up my end of the deal."
This time the teen let out a slight humor filled snort, "Yeah... I am never, ever, going to look at anything odd again without taking a second look!"
Chuckling, Cinder nodded at the young man, "You are now well on your way to being part of my world."
"Right..." The world seemed to drone on for a few seconds before Braeden found the courage to look into Cinder's eyes again. "And if I help take care of the kid, become a brother to him, you will continue to show me more, and teach me how to and what to fight?"
This caught Cinder totally off guard, "You want to join with us and help fight the unseen war?"
"How else can I really help to protect the kid?" Braeden countered with a level of determination he didn't even know he had in himself. "Until an hour and a half ago I thought my shit didn't stink. I was better than the normal guy walking down the street. I grew up out on them, dealt with everything thrown at me, stayed free of drugs, stayed out of the bottle, and kept my ass clear of the cops. But tonight, well shit... A ten year old kid turned into a hyena..." Seeing a deep frown cross Cinder's face he corrected himself, "Um, OK, fine, a wolf... he stood there even before he changed, blocking its path to me, all but mocking whatever the hell the slimly lizard looking thing was. It almost seemed like it was an every day event for him."
"Not every day, but more often than we would care to want to admit." Cinder verified, "But he is small for his age. I think Black Death is either eleven or twelve."
"So he really is a kid... I mean, him being a kid isn't some sort of trick?"
"No deception at all. He is very new to his wolf forms too. Until a few weeks or maybe months ago, he had no idea he was not a regular Human child. But something activated the wolf inside, something set off his transformation, and from what I have gleaned it was awful, way worse than when I... well it was bad, let's just leave it there for now."
"Does everyone have this wolf thing inside or something?"
"No." Cinder responded with a shake of his head. "Werewolves are rare. If the inner wolf was in more, the world would not still talk about werewolves as if such a thing is an imaginary beast to have stupid movies made about someone's stupid idea of some handed down story. As a matter of fact, some of those actors and directors would probably shit their pants if they knew what real werewolves thought of the absolute crap they make. However, those who do have the inner wolf seldom know until something brings it out. The nice thing is, the initial transformation is so brutal and is so tied in with the spirit world any non-werewolf or vampire who sees it gets it erased from their minds.
"In truth, most people who see any werewolf shift forms simply can't handle it and are knocked unconscious. If you paid attention, some of those in Razor Wolf's pack complimented you on not falling flat on your face. Unless I miss my guess some of them have never experienced a Human seeing a shift before. I'd be surprised if they are not talking about you right now, even as we talk about them."
Cinder couldn't help but to reach out and pat Bray on the back. "Your willpower is phenomenally strong to have seen multiple shifts and still kept enough of your sanity intact to shoot a Hell Hound to defend one of the pack. What you see as weakness on your part, they see as beyond exceptional inner strength. I see even more.
"But once again we digress. So let me get this straight... If I continue to teach you about the unseen, show you the war, and teach you to fight in it on the side of Humanity, you agree to assist me with giving Drake a home and a chance at a real life?"
"And you will direct no outward lust toward him?"
"None." Braeden managed a half smile. "If you think I am going to chance you sending a werewolf after me just to get my kicks off, you are the one on drugs." His face turned serious again as he continued talking. "Besides, like I told you earlier, I grew up out here. I know what kids go through and it ain't right. I'll look, but unless it is freely offered and I am sure it is freely offered, that's it."
Cinder's eyes started to bore into Braeden again. "And if you have those thoughts toward Drake?"
"Trust me, if I have problems about it, I'll come see you." Braeden paused, "Um, and you really will fix my car, right?"
Cinder couldn't help but grin as he realized the one step from the junk yard car was Braeden's most beloved thing. "We will, not just me and we will tear this thing apart and replace every damned part if we have to. You need to know at least the basics. The last thing I want is for you to be taking Drake somewhere and you break down. Those fighting the unseen war against Humanity tend to target such easy targets of opportunity. Although, you have already proven you are not an easy target and with more training, I am certain making such a mistake would be their last."
Braeden swallowed hard, "OK so what now?"
"You stay here tonight, because like it or not, you have the smell of the kill on you. Such a smell may attract others you do not want the attention of. Get a shower, crash on the cot I set out for Drake before he all but passed out on the couch." Cinder pointed to an upper cabinet at the very back of the garage. "There are extra sleeping bags and stuff in there. Since you are extremely close to my height and build, only a bit taller, I'll let you use a set of my sweats for tonight and wash what you have on."
He pointed to his own clothing, still somewhat sticky with the blood of half a dozen Hell Hounds coating them. "It isn't like I don't have to do a load or two anyway."
"Yeah... Pretty gross actually..." Braeden almost stopped talking but there was one more thing he had to say. "Hey."
Cinder turned away from the door leading to the house, "Need something else?"
"No... It's just... Well, you know what Zack said about you being awesome with your blades?"
"Well, you are... I mean... I have never seen any shit like what you were able to do tonight. It was almost... um... You were awesome..."
"Thanks, Bray." Cinder stated with a mix of sorrow and sincerity, "But before you start seeing me as any kind of... um... well hero or something, let me tell you I'm not. Many years ago I failed someone, and until I can fix it... Until I can make it right... I'm no one." Cinder closed his eyes and clenched his fist as he forced back the mental pain and picture of his best and only childhood friend, his only friend.
Braeden shook his head and patted Cinder on the shoulder this time. "Man, if there is anything I can do to help, I'll do it."
Cinder glanced over with a great deal of surprise. "For now you take care of Drake when I can't and let me track anything I find. You learn what I can teach, and maybe, if... probably when... I still have not made this right, then, when Drake is old enough, you can join me if you still want to. We shall have to see what the next few years bring. For now go in to the bedroom, it's opposite of the washer and dryer. Bottom left drawer are some old sweats, find something that fits and get a shower. You saw where the bathroom is already. Feel free to toss your clothes on floor in front of the washer. I'll take care of them."
"What are you going to do?"
"I have blades to clean and sharpen... I also need to do some shifting around out here. Get a good night's sleep. We can talk more over the weekend and if you decide you want to live here, which I hope you do. If you do say yes, we will get to work converting my work shed into a small apartment for you. When do you work again?"
"Tomorrow afternoon... this afternoon now." Braeden kind of groaned as he realized it was almost time for the sun to come up. "I always work four to ten, but normally it's been like eleven to twelve because of the jack wad after me who just can't get to work. I only have Tuesdays off. I don't mind though, I can use the extra hours."
"If you have to sleep in, do it. We can always talk about this when you get back tomorrow night."
"Fair enough, thanks."
Thirty minutes later put Cinder dropped Braeden's and his clothing into the wash and listened to both boys as they slumbered. Knowing they were totally out, he moved back into the garage and shifted into his full werewolf war form. He had almost lost it once for not shifting often enough and he was never going to put up with making a deal with the spirits to get it back again. As much as he hated shifting, not being able to had been far, far worse. He used the time in his war-form to practice his unarmed combat skill on his own shadow then, once he was sure his wolf spirit was satisfied, he shifted back.
He came back in, double checked on the boys and moved the stuff over to the dryer before he grabbed a couple cups of gas and took a shower in the pitch black room, not really needing the light and not wanting the chance of any sparks. He set the two cups of gas down and put in a pair of drain strainers before stepping under the very hot wanter and shaving off ever bit of hair on his body, which, for a twenty nine year old, was not much... except his shoulder length shaggy hair.
It took ten highly practiced minutes to get his hair down to the point he could shave it off his head and another five to get it all the way off. Finally, he rinsed his body in the gasoline to make sure there were no lice and no weird things clinging onto him after coming into contact with the Hell Hounds and the totem. He paused long enough to get the hair out of the bottom of the tub then turned the water on as hot as he could stand it and let it beat on his shoulders.
Then, just as the first rays of the sun struck the side of his small house, he gritted his teeth and fought the urge to scratch at his bald head. Seconds later the itching got worse while his whole scalp ripped and pulsed. It took only a minute for every bit of hair he had just removed to push straight out almost like they were held up by an electrical current before they all fell, leaving him with the hair of a tweleve year old of the mid-eighties that badly needed cutting.
A few seconds later tiny hairs typical of a twelve year old popped out of his arms and a few hairs of early puberty appeared. "Damn-it." Cinder muttered as he finally toweled off. "I look like I should be in some eighties hair metal band. Of all the shit to get stuck with why the hell did I end up with the same height and hair. Shit..." He let it go quickly, having muttered the same thing a thousand or more times over the past seventeen years.
Before exiting the bathroom he wiped down the tub to remove any lingering hair and made sure the window which pointed toward the rather large back yard and extremely large work shed was open to get rid of any lingering gasoline smell.
He grabbed a quick breakfast, stacking a half package of turkey on a toasted blueberry bagel, and grabbed a massive glass of OJ. He stopped to yet once again look in on the boys, shaking his head as he did so. "I'm no father. What the hell have I done..."
Still, he watched as both kids stirred at the sound of a jet flying over. Neither showed any signs of waking, so he moved into a small addition he had built on to the house when he rebuilt a great deal of the house with his own hands after the tornado three years prior. The war room, as he liked to call it, was where he did all his research, compiled all his investigative notes, and kept track of thousands of bits of seemingly unconnected, disjointed events he was convinced were something far from unrelated or isolated.
For about the fifteenth time in the last week, he pulled up hacked local school district financial records on one screen while he plotted school field trips on another. At the same time, classes he had marked as having caused some serious sensor activation in the local museum was on a third. On yet another monitor, he sorted though images he had pulled from his own link he had secretly installed into the massive computer banks in the hidden subbasement under the know basement of the museum.
The computers took facial shots of kids at the exhibits during times of peak sensor readings and then did an auto name match from somewhere else. Where, exactly, Cinder was not sure, but it was a secret national database, and truly immense. The nice thing was, no one had ever thought of someone planting hardware into the computers to gain access so there was no computer defenses to track him or stop him from running faces on his own system though the centralized listing.
Finally, he had a whole separate set of monitors used for finding and tracking reports of missing kids, runaways, and crime activity expanding out from his location. Each was plotted and color coded for a type of crime or accident. It had been this research which had lead him to investigate the sewer system and guided him to belief a few Hell Hounds had somehow moved in to the area. He briefly looked over this bank of monitors, seeing if he had missed something, yet after several minutes, he set it aside. As best he could tell there was nothing on the map to suggest a hive of any sort in the area. It was somewhat troubling, but by sheer luck it had been dealt with and it was dead.
With these thoughts swirling around in his mind, he took a moment to send a secure message to the local council contact, informing him of the battle and the incredible bravery of the kids In Razor Wolf's pack. He mentioned his own involvement in passing only, saying he had gone down to check on suspected Hell Hound activity only to find Razor Wolf and his pack hot on the trial of trolls which in turn lead to the hive and the Hell Hounds he had been after. As a brief side note, he added he didn't even have to change form, allowing the fledging War Pack to deal with the trolls and the totem.
Satisfied he had not put any falsehoods in the report, he sent it. Knowing even as he did so, it would lead to Todd and the others in his pack getting a major boost of prestige within the clans. It was not every day or even once a year a clan so young could claim even partial credit for the destruction of a hive. He hoped they would deal with the new found fame well, but quickly shrugged it off. It was not really his problem anymore.
With the current clan matters handled and no further obvious signs of 'unseen' activity in his area he moved back to his personal quest. He pulled up the records of sensor activity in the exhibits and glanced though the latest readings. There were a few hits, there always were, but nothing so much as sent a class into the new wing, so he focused back on the day a couple of weeks prior when the displays and the sensors in them went nuts, going so far as shorting out some of the more sensitive equipment.
Cinder was there, right at the entryway, fixing the water fountain, when a bus load of third graders from West Central Elementary School came in. The kids were like any other group, except they came from one of the nicer, ritzier, neighborhoods. He didn't need to be told this. Their happy grins, bubbly giggles, nice, mostly new clothing, warm jackets, clean haircuts and the assortment of electronics all showed it. Several of the kids already had cell phones which had to be checked in at the front desk to prevent interference with the 'self guided tour' and some wore jewelry. Many had both.
Of course the teachers were better dressed and probably better educated than those who taught in poorer schools. Richer kids rated better teachers after all. One thing he was certain of, none of those coming though the front door that late cold rainy morning came through the door with lice and not a single one of them had missed breakfast because there was plenty of food in their houses. He also bet each had more than enough cash in their pockets to buy a good meal at the rather expensive food court and some would even be able to buy candy or cookies after paying for a meal.
Each of the three classes had a teacher and a para-pro to look after the sixty seven kids. He sighed as he glanced over to the stats of the last Eastmorland Elementary third grade trip where seventy ragged looking, hungry kids pulled up. Half of them didn't even have coats and it had been snowing the day those poor souls came through. When the Eastmorland kids entered though the same doors with only two teachers, not a single child had checked in a cell phone. They were poor in the school district's way of thinking and they paid far less in taxes, so why should they rate as many teachers or as good of teachers... The whole thing just pissed Cinder off, so he once again turned to look at the sensor reading while recalling the events leading up to the largest readings ever recorded at the Museum.
The classes from West Central came in and got their hand held units. Boys got the light blue ones, girls the light pink units. The darker blue and darker pink were for fifth graders, and were a bit too 'advanced' for the third graders, meaning the hidden messages were better tailored to a slightly older kid and held more cues for their more advanced brains to pick up on.
Cinder realized he was distracting himself, so he once again focused his energy on the third graders from West Central. At the same time the kids got their units and had a museum staff member check to make sure they worked properly, the teachers were handed green hand held units while any other adult escorts or helpers were handed the yellow ones. It all looked innocent enough. The teacher were told their units gave them pointers to focus on in their classrooms later while the kids would hear things more suited to their ages. Girls would get some information on things like what girls wore and what games they played while boys would get a similar version, only this one was more male oriented. The yellow one was nothing more than a teacher's unit without talking over teaching points and ideas. Of course there was no mention of the fact the ever present subliminal 'glitches' only happened to the kids nor was it mentioned that the voice of a man or woman talking about the same things in a different tone of voice was more likely to get a reaction for a girl or a boy depending on the situation.
At the time, Cinder had been holding onto the pipe leading to the actual push button of the fountain while one of the apprentice maintenance kids ran to the supply room for the right parts. Because of this, there was nothing for Cinder to do but hold on so water didn't go all over the place and watch. The kids, for the most part, were in good spirits. There were the obvious outcasts who hung back or were pushed out of the way by their peers, but the teachers were watchful enough to make sure none of the kids were totally forgotten.
At the same time the museum's 'tour coordinator' gave careful instructions about keeping the headphones on at all times so they didn't miss anything. The man also assigned a pair of male tour guides to make sure the units kept working and stayed on the heads of kids very prone to taking them off and horsing around with equipment worth far more than it outwardly looked.
The three classes were divided into two groups. The first went to the mineral and rock section while the second stayed and started in the history section. Within moments, however, this second group stood out. It started with the snake at the very front of the wagon display. Several kids gasped as the rattler seemingly came to life. The excited voices of the kids told him the sensors in the basement would kick into high gear, which they had, detecting movement of over 10 inches in total between the movement of the snake's head and the rattling of the tail.
Then as he continued to watch, even though the mass of kids huddled around the display blocked a good portion of his view, Cinder saw the man move; it wasn't just a twitch of the gun like he had witnessed a score of times before, either. This time the whole figure moved, raising the shotgun to its shoulder in a very life like manor. Moments later, smoke rolled out from the gun as a dozen ultra sensitive motion sensors fried all at once. It didn't stop there. The whole horse moved back and barred its teeth all the way while the figure of the boy inside the wagon actually reached out and grabbed the reins of the horse.
By this time well over fifty sensors overloaded and there was enough smoke to cause some degree of panic. As suddenly as it started, it all stopped. While one of the tour guides pushed a button on a small box on his belt, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the whole display down with carbon dioxide. The other guide quickly gained control, saying the museum had been playing around with making some of the displays move and something must have gone terribly wrong. He apologized and immediately directed the whole group into the new wing.
Cinder glanced at the recordings for about the fiftieth time. Some of the movements recorded were only out to inches since no one ever bothered to put in something capable of detecting greater movement. At about the same point the tour guide had pushed the button on the box hooked to his belt cutting the link and killing the voice cues coming though the kids' headsets. A safety override went out from the computer shutting down all surviving sensors in the wagon display to prevent further damage. It also activated every other sensor in the museum and readied each display for emergency shutdown. Even though Cinder had no idea the computer had been programmed to deal with such an event, they had been. This, at least in Cinder's way of thinking, meant this had happened somewhere before, because the government, no matter how sneaky, was simply not smart enough to have prepared for something like this unless it had already happened.
Cinder continued to look over the readings as the whole display was finally cut off. The final readings showed every single sensor in the whole display was beyond maximum measurement and even more astonishing, all remaining functioning sensors in the entire display were showing movement at the same time. This meant either one child had such a phenomenal mentalist power he or she was able to move everything at once or there was more than one highly gifted mentalist in the group of thirty-two students.
For about the hundredth time he wondered which was more unlikely, and for the hundredth time in the last two and a half weeks he came to the same conclusion. Even as terrifying a thought as it was, there were much better odds of one massively strong mentalist child in the group of thirty two than there was of multiple mentalists capable of movement the likes of which didn't need sensors to see. He briefly wondered what Drake would do to the display after what he had seen and felt the boy do. As this thought occurred to him, Cinder realized he would have to keep the boy out of the museum at all costs. The last thing he needed was the government poking around taking a closer look at Drake.
To prevent his mind from going in circles, he moved over to the facial scanning log file. Even though he had done this before, he took a few minutes to study each of the kids watching the wagon display go nuts. The nice thing was, those who designed the display had given enough pre-planning to set another couple of cameras on the display while tracking what the recordings were saying, so as he watched the display start to move on the cameras, he was able to time what was being said through the hand held units to the faces of each and every kid.
Once again, nothing caught his eye. Every kid either looked on with a degree of glee or backed away as if afraid of what they were seeing. Cinder put his hands up to his mouth and muttered under his breath as he rapidly scanned though the thirty-two faces. There was nothing there; no one appeared to be focusing in any suspicious way. "Damn, what am I not seeing?"
"Mister?" a small voice came from outside the study door.
Caught off guard, Cinder spun while clenching his fists, instantly readying himself for combat.
Drake's eyes got real wide as he took a step back. "Please don't hit me!"
Cinder lowered his head and took a deep breath, "Hey, little buddy, you just startled me. No one is going to hit you!"
Drake's bare feet shuffled slightly on the carpet as he continued to eye Cinder with a great deal of fear.
Cinder stood moved a bit closer and knelt, hoping that by being on a more even eye level the boy's discomfort would ease. He was somewhat relieved to see he was at least partially successful. Even though the boy's feet continued to move back and forth, some of the fear subsided from the greenish-blue eyes. "Hey, remember what I told you last night? No one hurts you here, no one."
"OK." Drake kind of squeaked out.
"Did you need something buddy?"
"Can I go to the bathroom?"
Cinder suddenly realized what the back and forth foot movement was all about and smiled, "Don't you remember where it is?"
"Sometimes bad things happen if go without asking."
At first the words confused Cinder, but it only took a few short seconds for him to understand. "Drake, go ahead and go then come here, OK?"
The boy nodded, but a tear appeared.
Cinder held up his hand slowly. "You aren't any in any trouble. I am not mad at you, I just want to talk. But I want you feeling better before we talk. So go ahead and go."
Drake nodded and almost sprinted to the bathroom.
Behind the rapidly exiting Drake, Braeden appeared. He held a rather silly grin, "Do I have to ask too?"
Cinder barked out a laugh, "I sure as hell thought you would sleep in after last night."
"I did. It's almost noon."
Cinder's eyes jerked down to look at the time on one of the many monitors, "Shit, it is! How long as Drake been holding on?"
"Probably hours." Braeden shook his head sadly while speaking with an angry undertone. "I have had a few kids over my apartment who have done the same thing. I guess there are some assholes out there that like to punish kids by not letting them go."
He paused as he looked over the banks of computers and focused in on the one showing the faces of children. "I didn't think you were into kids."
Cinder sent a sharp, clearly annoyed look at Braeden. "I'm not."
"OK, so why are you looking at a bunch of children?"
"This is the primary reason I need you to help me care for Drake, and it is something you probably don't want anything to do with quite yet. You should have enough on your mind after what you saw and did this morning."
"I do, but I mean, hell... If it's just looking at a bunch of stuff on a computer maybe I can help. I mean I'll be the first to say I obviously don't know shit about what is going on out there, but I'm a quick learner and I do notice more than most... um... Humans or... squishies... as I was called multiple times last night."
Cinder couldn't help but snicker. "OK fine, but let's get Drake fed and see if we can get him stuffed into some clothing before I show you. Then, I'm going to take care of something while you stick around here and watch him for an hour or so. Send him out back to play with the toy cars and take a look. It certainly can't hurt, but let's keep Drake totally out of all of it. He needs a chance to be a kid for a while."
"Sounds good. Then what?"
"Then I give you a rundown of the basics and I'll show you how to run though this and compare certain parts of it. Like you said it isn't like you are doing anything dangerous and a new set of eyes..." a playful glint flashed in Cinder's eyes, "even a set of squishy eyes... can't hurt."
"Damn, I think I have just been insulted again and this time I walked right into it!"
"Yup." Cinder stated while poking Braeden in the chest playfully.
Braeden tried to block it, but never stood a chance. His eyes went wide as he saw Cinder move forward. Suddenly a flurry of light pokes and jabs rained down on him. None did any harm and more than a few hit ticklish spots. He finally fell to the floor giggling, sounding for all the world like a much younger kid.
Off to the side Drake stared with a mixture of fear and puzzlement as he watched the older boy fall back laughing.
Cinder turned and smiled at Drake, "Just having some fun buddy. No one is getting hurt."
Braeden stood let out a light whistle as he was also turned to make sure the small boy did understand there was nothing bad going on. "It was all in fun. You're as safe here as any kid can ever be." He then whistled and turned back to Cinder realizing the man in front of him could tie him into a pretzel shape and he wouldn't be able to do a thing to stop it. "Damn, you,re fast!"
"I am, but this kind of horsing around will make you faster if you are OK with it."
"Actually it's kind of fun."
"Nothing wrong with learning being fun."
Cinder once again knelt and motioned for Drake to come over to him. Once the boy did, albeit a bit cautiously and with quite a bit of fear in his eyes. Cinder pointed to Braeden. "Drake, do you remember what we talked about last night?"
"Uh huh." A small voice answered.
"Can you tell Braeden, here, what it was?"
"me wanted to know how long me can stay here."
"Do you still want to stay here?"
The boy nodded, "Yes... um yes sir..."
"No need for sir, Drake. My name is Cinder. Mister is fine if you feel more comfortable, but for now I'd kind of like you to learn to call me Uncle Cinder, since you will be staying here and people are eventually going to want to know why I am taking care of you. OK?"
"Uncle Cinder... Got it."
Braeden quickly decided to follow Cinder's lead so he also knelt and smiled. "You're pretty smart Drake. My name is Braeden, but you can call me Bray. All my friends call me Bray. Uncle Cinder wants me to help take care of you and since we will both live here you are kind of like my brother now. If you have problems you can come see me if Uncle Cinder isn't here."
"And you won't hurt me too much?"
"I won't hurt you at all, Drake. Brothers don't hurt each other, they protect each other."
"My brothers didn't." Drake kind of pouted.
"Then he was not a good person and does not deserve to have you as a brother." Cinder stated softly, but with a great deal of force. "Bray will not let anything bad happen to you if he can at all prevent it."
Braeden nodded, "They'd have to come through me and beat me down first."
Drake looked over at Braeden, "You would get hurt for me?"
"If I have to, I would die to protect you. But I don't think we have to worry about it. We are both very safe here." In order to change the subject he pointed to the coffee table full of sacks. "You know Uncle Cinder gave me some money last night so I could get you some clothes, but I wasn't sure what would fit, so we are going to have to dig though all of that and figure it out. I even got you a couple of surprises in there."
Drake eyed the bags as if he was looking at a huge bunch of packages under a Christmas tree, but he looked back to Cinder. "Am I allowed to eat?"
Cinder laughed, "Absolutely! Bray even picked up a bunch of stuff for the two of you last night. Don't you want to get dressed first, though?"
Drake looked down and kind of shrugged. "This is more then I wear when most people give mom money for me."
"Those days are done." Cinder stated while forcing himself to keep his anger in check.
Drake cocked his head to the side and he slowly nodded as if it all suddenly made sense to him. "You paid her a lot, like she got for my brothers and sister, huh?"
Hearing the small boy say such a horrible thing was like getting punched in the gut. As Cinder looked over to Braeden, he could see the teen was having similar thoughts. The problem was, the question needed an answer and he couldn't lie about.
Fortunately, this time Braeden came to his aid, "Drake, do you remember the bad man who tried to hurt your mom last night?"
"Uh huh..." the boy's brow wrinkled in deep concern.
"Well, Uncle Cinder didn't like what he did to your mom and wanted to do to you so he fought him with you as the prize. Uncle Cinder won."
"You fought for me?"
"Yes." Cinder responded with a rather relieved look.
"And you don't want to hurt me?"
"Not even a little, little buddy."
With an almost adult look on his otherwise innocent face his nose scrunched, his head titled to the side, and he chewed on the inside of his mouth for a few seconds. Finally, in a rather bold voice, he asked a single simple question. "Then why?"
For the first time in a very long time Cinder couldn't find a good answer. Not even a good lie would fit, since even though he had fought for the boy and the woman, he had done so out of instinct, a desire to make something right, but there was real reason behind it. It was all based on emotion not reason.
Once again Braeden detected a slight hesitation in the man so he responded. "Because you deserve a home, a real home for the first time in your life. We both do. And, as best I can see, this is a good place to make one. Now let's get you fed and dressed."
Cinder took a deep breath and smiled with a truly warm smile for the first time in memory as he watched Drake accept the answer and go into the kitchen with Braeden. The answer was a good one and they did both deserve a good home. The real problem was he had no idea how to make one and he'd have to figure it out. "Damn, I think those kids just taught me something. I actually kind of like kids."