The first night Bones—because he was the first person ever to fix their bones, not bend or break or bruise them—took them home to his one-bedroom apartment near the hospital, he gave them his bedroom, changing the sheets on his full-sized bed and closing the door behind him, so that Jamie, Nyota and ‘Karu could have some privacy. They lasted less than five minutes, with the lights on, before Jamie was scrambling to get the door open, make sure he could. He’d stood there with his hand on the doorknob, gripping it for all it was worth, breath heaving and glaring defiance at Bones, who was sitting on the couch.
Bones waited a second and asked, “Want some juice? I think I’ve got some.”
Jamie nodded, not moving, still shielding the others. Bones looked back down at the paperwork on his lap. “Okay, well, when you’re ready.”
After that, though, he’d taken to leaving doors open whenever he could.
The case worker was scheduled to come a few weeks after Jamie, Nyota and ‘Kari had begun living with Bones. Bones said, “She’s not the enemy. She just kind of seems like it.”
Jamie nodded. It didn’t matter. If the case worker tried to take them away, Jamie was taking the others and running. They could make it to Stark Tower on their own, Bones had made sure they knew the way, and Finn had said, “Nobody’s looking to take anybody away from there,” with an uncertain shrug. One thing was for sure: Jamie wasn’t going to let the three of them be split up, not after everything. Together, they could figure out a world that didn’t involve being locked in, didn’t force them to fight, didn’t end only one way, but he didn’t think he could do it without the others. Maybe they could, but Jamie…he needed them.
The social worker arrived on time. She introduced herself as Elizabeth Weir, Liz, please, and said she appreciated Bones taking time off work to do this. Jamie watched as Bones forcibly put aside his usual grouchiness to bring out what he called, “The southern gentleman buried in my innermost closet.”
He offered Elizabeth a drink and sat uncomfortably on the couch while she made a study of the house. It didn’t take her long to sit down in the living area, facing Bones. Jamie, who’d made it a point to stay with Bones throughout, heard a rustling and sure enough, Nyota appeared from whatever place she’d found when Tasha had come over the other day and done some exploration.
She went straight to Bones and crawled into his lap, her expression all defiance. She was a little too long, and probably a little too sharp for it to be comfortable, but Bones just put a hand on her back and asked, “Everything all right, darling?”
She nodded, her dark eyes never leaving Liz. Liz smiled, not the insincere smile of someone overworked and tasked with giving a fuck, but a thoughtful smile. It worried Jamie. In his experience, when people started to think about one of them, it was a bad sign. He wished he knew where ‘Karu was hiding, but Nyota probably did. He made himself relax as much as he could.
After a moment, Liz said to Bones, “According to the application you filled out, you have a daughter who lives with her mother.”
“Have you talked with her about your choice to foster?”
Jamie watched Bones stiffen. Jamie canted himself forward, in case he needed to grab Nyota, but all Bones did was shift her a little, rubbing her back. “First thing I did. Jo-- She said she thought it’d be good for me. She’s gonna come up here this summer, meet her siblings.”
Jamie didn’t even try and wrap his head around that. He would deal with the problem of Bones realizing blood means something, or Joanna not liking them and throwing a fit later. One thing at a time, and right now, a stable fostering situation was that one thing. Jamie had four years left before he was eighteen according to the birth certificate they’d dug up on him. Six months with Bones would be enough time for the three of them to recover from the worst of the malnutrition and lingering injuries, and then he’d figure something out. Maybe the Tower, or maybe something else. Six months was all he needed.
Liz was moving on, asking questions about living quarters, and Bones was saying, “…other parents are looking for something near to them, maybe in the area with the Wilmingtons and the Larabees.”
Jamie sucked in a breath at that. Nyota looked over at him. ‘Karu crept out from wherever he’d been eavesdropping and said, “We like it here. It’s big. And the bed is soft. And Bones lets us get anything from the fridge we want whenever. Don’t make us go somewhere else.”
Liz was opening her mouth to say something when Bones said, “I want somewhere bigger, kid. Somewhere with less walls and doors, okay? I promise you’ll like it as much, if not more.”
‘Karu shifted between his feet, hiding behind hair that really needed to be cut. Jamie bit his lip, hoping Liz didn’t think Bones didn’t see to their cleanliness. It was just that none of them really liked sharp things near their heads.
Softly, Liz said, “’Karu, right?”
‘Karu didn’t answer, standing there like he’d been caught, like he was waiting for punishment. Jamie tried to stay still, but in the end he found himself standing in front of ‘Karu. Liz looked between the two of them, and at Nyota, who was now digging her hands into Bones’ arm in a way that had to be painful. After a moment she said, “Keep me updated on the apartment searching. I’ll see you guys in a month.”
The aptitude tests and school tours Bones scheduled for all of them felt like punishment for being locked away. Jamie didn’t say this, but he also couldn’t sleep much through the whole process. Nyota kind of liked it, which helped a little. It was always calming when one of them was doing well.
Despite the significant gaps in their education, Nyota tested well in languages and was able to be placed a couple of grades lower than her age level at a magnet for romance languages. Une and Heero were evidently both non-native English speakers, and good at picking up languages, so they were joining her there, since all the foster parents involved had agreed that none of the ex-fighters should be left alone in an environment.
Jamie and ‘Karu both ended up in the special education track at the math magnet where Eliot’s co-fosters Spencer and Bob were currently enrolled. Duo and John had also been placed there. It meant support. Jamie hushed the voice inside his head that told him there’d been plenty of support inside the cages.
Bones bought them new clothes and every kind of school supply known to man. He made them memorize his phone number and the hospital’s phone number and a code, just in case he needed to know it was an emergency. He drove them to their respective schools so they wouldn’t have to bus while he put together a carpool. Basically, he did everything right.
It was Jamie who fucked up. If asked, he would have told anyone that had been predictable.
He hadn’t wanted to fight. Jamie knew he had a record from before—“prone to violence” and “unpredictably aggressive” it had called him—knew he wasn’t the kind of kid anyone believed, but he’d gotten fighting out of his system for well and good in the cages. Really, all he wanted was for the other kid, who was bigger than both ‘Karu and he, who was picking on them for being in special classes, to back the fuck off.
And sure, when the kid pushed ‘Karu, Jamie went for his throat, but not to kill him. Even in the cages, when he’d been supposed to kill, Jamie had never wanted that. He just wanted the other kid down, wanted him neutralized.
Of course, there was no explaining that to adults. He didn’t bother saying anything when caught, really, because he knew it would just be a waste of time. The other kid was blubbering and telling a story that made no sense to Jamie, but then, Jamie had always felt like his version of the world must be wrong.
He tried saying something when the teacher put him in a detention office and locked the door. He stared at the door for several moments, reminding himself that nothing around him was metal, he wasn’t stuck, not really. He could probably figure out the vents, like Clint and Tasha, or maybe even pick it, the way Neal had been teaching them.
He managed to stay calm for all of a minute or so before the need to get out, to not be trapped, took over, and he found himself yanking on the door, trying desperately, mindlessly to free himself. He moved to pounding on it, screaming for someone. People were out there, somewhere, down the hall, maybe. He wasn’t stuck, he wasn’t stuck.
White walls seemed to morph into gray, though, and plain drywall became bars and Jamie was back in the cage they’d kept him in until he could barely lift his head, couldn’t straighten his legs. Until he was theirs, because acting out meant going back into the cage, and he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
He curled up and closed his eyes and tried to make himself think of Nyota and ‘Karu—not Pavel, never Pavel, no good thinking of him—tried to believe Bones would come get him before he made a mess of himself, before he stopped being able to swallow his mouth was so dry. Jamie bit his bottom lip and tugged at his hair and thought, “Please, please.”
There was yelling. Jamie had long since ceased to do anything other than curl up with his eyes closed and rock himself. But now he could hear someone, hear someone yelling. He tried to get himself to scream, but his voice had gone hoarse at some point, and, in any case, it probably wasn’t a good idea. When they came to get you out of the cage, it wasn’t always for something better. Once they’d put him in the ring after two days of the cage, straight out. It hadn’t been a fight to the death, which was the only reason Jamie was still alive. His left arm still hurt at times from the multiple compound fracture that had resulted.
The lock turned and the door opened, and without thinking about what he was doing, Jamie scrambled under the table, the one defensible position in the room. It left him open on all sides, which was bad, but it gave him something to work with. For a minute there was silence and Jamie peered out at the tennis shoes almost covered by scrubs, the pumps standing next to them.
He tried to make his brain work. Scrubs meant Bones. Scrubs meant safe. He kept repeating it silently until Bones growled, “What the fuck is going on here?”
“Sir, don’t swear in front of your kid.”
“Lady, if you’re not answering my question in three, two—“
“We told you, he tried to kill another student.”
Jamie closed his eyes. Now Bones would know, he’d know, and there’d be no more safety. Maybe he could leave the others with Bones. Nyota was way smarter than Jamie about how to attack, how not to be noticed, and ‘Karu could generally hide better. He was pretty sure the Tower would take him, at least until the ones Stark wasn’t adopting were gone. He wasn’t so much worse than Ronon or Duo or Jo.
“Like hell he did.”
There was rustling and Jamie made himself open his eyes. When he did, Bones was sitting on the floor, in front of him, but not under the table, leaving him space. Bones said, “I bet if you’d wanted to kill him, he’d be dead.”
It was true, but not something Jamie was particularly proud about. He just shrugged, not unfurling. Bones looked away, back at the set of pumps. “So you took it upon yourself to lock a kid who’s been in a cell for at least three years up in a room?”
“He-- I didn’t—“
“Get out,” Bones said.
“Doctor, it wasn’t even half an—“
She left, not closing the door behind her. Bones turned his attention back to Jamie. He said, “Hey there, kid.”
Jamie rocked a little, back forth, back forth. Bones said, “I get that you’re kinda freaked out right now, but I’d really like it if you came out from under there, so I can check that everything’s okay, make myself feel better.”
Jamie took a few breaths. He couldn’t manage anything deep, so he went for smooth. He was going to do this. Bones was asking, and he was going to do this. Finally, he managed to make himself crawl out. He said softly, “I didn’t make a mess.”
Bones made a sound in his throat and said, “That’s good, Jamie. You were real brave there, buddy.”
When Jamie got close enough, Bones held up his hands and slowly, when Jamie didn’t flinch away, drew him in. His arms wrapped loosely around Jamie and for a second Jamie wasn’t certain what was happening, then he decided he didn’t care and snuggled in. If he was going to have to go somewhere, he wanted this to take with him. Bones was warm and solid, not trapping him, gentle in ways Jamie had either forgotten or never knew existed.
When Jamie had nearly fallen asleep, exhausted from fear and his attempts to keep it together, Bones poked around carefully, satisfying his doctor’s need to make sure everything was intact. He finished and said, “We’re gonna go home for the day. New game plan tomorrow, all right?”
“Home?” Jamie asked.
“Well, the apartment. We’ll find something better soon.”
Jamie shook his head and, half asleep, told Bones, “Nothing better.”
Jamie would later put together that ‘Karu had run for Bob, who had point blank told both of them that if there was ever a problem, to find him, and then had made them memorize his schedule. Jamie hadn’t been sure about that; certainly, Eliot seemed to trust Bob, but it still went against the grain. Evidently ‘Karu’s people instincts were better, because he hadn’t hesitated. Bob had slipped out of his own class despite the teacher telling him it would mean detention—although she would later renege on that, given the circumstances—and used the cell phone the Burkes made one kid at each school keep on them at all times. Bones had borrowed a colleague’s bike because it was the fastest way to reach the school.
It meant he had to load Jamie and ‘Karu—he stated quite plainly that like hell were any of his kids staying there—onto a bus to get them home, which given that Jamie was just barely capable of breathing was hard, but Bones put him on his lap, glaring at people who looked at them funny, and he had ‘Karu sit at his side, between Bones and the window, and somehow, they all made it back to the apartment in one piece.
“Okay,” Bones said when Stark’s driver had dropped Nyota off and they were all sitting on the couch, the only door closed in the apartment the front one, and every window capable of being opened bringing in the breeze. “Well. I got an incompetent teacher fired today. How was everyone else’s day?”
Jamie stiffened. “You got her fired?”
“No way in hell was I sending you back anywhere near that woman. Besides, all I really did was ask Principal Sciuto why one of my kids had been locked in a room, and that situation was pretty much over.”
Jamie tightened his muscles in an effort not to shake, but it must not have worked because Bones said, “You don’t have to go back, you know? We can figure out home schooling, or, I don’t know, but something. I’m not gonna send you back somewhere that’ll just make everything worse.”
“Being noticed is usually bad,” ‘Karu said, after it was clear nobody else was going to say anything.
“Adults like other adults more than kids,” Nyota added.
Bones waited a second and then asked, “Jamie?”
There was a rustle and before Jamie knew what had happened Bones was on his knees on the floor, making it so that it was hard for Jamie to look away. Bones said, “Don’t do that. That day Chris, Buck, Sara and Phil dragged you guys in the door you were all the most pathetic looking specimens I’d ever seen in over a decade of practice and you still had the guts to stand up to me and make me tell you every move I was about to make on the others. Don’t slip away from me now.”
Jamie was tired. Now that the worst of the panic and adrenaline worn away, his muscles hurt and he was thirsty and generally miserable. He’d had worse, of course, so he made himself pull it together and tell Bones, “It’s all right. It was just a room. They didn’t-- It’s all right.”
“No, kid, it isn’t. And in case I forgot to mention it, that other kid? You won’t be seeing him again either. Evidently there’s a no-tolerance policy for bullying and ‘Karu wasn’t the only kid who saw what happened. Also, you two aren’t the first he’s picked on.”
Jamie blinked. “I did go for his throat.”
“Were you trying to hurt him?”
“I—“ Jamie tried to recreate his feelings, be honest. “I just wanted him to stop.”
Bones nodded. “We’re gonna need to work on ways for you to get that to happen without physical violence, but in the meantime, the school and I aren’t going to punish you for what was essentially a survival instinct.”
“No-- No more rooms? I don’t have to—“
Bones growled. “I’m having Stark make you universal access cards and skeleton keys. Nobody is locking you up again. Ever.”
Jamie didn’t know how to believe that, but he could see that Bones believed it. It was more than anyone had ever tried to promise him, had ever cared to try to promise him. He looked down and whispered, “Sorry.”
“About what?” Bones asked.
“Things were easier. Before us.”
“Look at me.”
Jamie swallowed and did as told. Bones said, “Things were lonely and terrible before you. I was the job and nothing else, because there was nothing else for me to be. I was disappearing into my own misery until the three of you showed up, you got it?”
Jamie didn’t really, couldn’t imagine how three terrified and sometimes violent kids made that any better, but Bones sounded sincere, like he needed them. Jamie could feel ‘Karu and Nyota at his sides, knew how to be someone who was needed. He nodded sharply. Bones didn’t look convinced but he smiled crookedly. “It’ll do for now.”
Jamie was glad Bones appreciated that he was only able to give so much.
The rest of the week was strangely uneventful. Sure, kids steered wide of Jamie in the halls, but ‘Karu, Spencer, Bob, Duo and John were always up for keeping him company, and Jamie actually liked the classes. They had clear expectations and Jamie found the work uncomplicated, if not always simple.
Bones couldn’t always be home in the evenings, but he never forgot to check in with them, make sure they were safe, that they had eaten something, that there was nothing they needed. And even if Jamie felt certain they were all existing in a sort of borrowed utopia, Jamie’d never had something he could keep. He was good at taking what he got and moving on.
On Sunday, Bones managed to actually have an entire day off. The four of them worked together to make Pillsbury muffins, fry up some turkey sausage and cut cantaloupe and apples into bite-sized pieces for breakfast. Afterward, they took a train upstate to an apple orchard and spent half the day picking apples, eating cider-soaked brisket for lunch, accompanied by hot apple cider. None of the kids had ever had any, and when all three drank it so quickly Bones had to warn against burnt tongues, he bought a gallon jug of it, and took it back with them on the train.
‘Karu asked all kinds of questions about apple trees on the way back. Bones didn’t know most the answers, but he spent the ride internet surfing on his Droid to find them. Nyota asked, “Have you ever climbed a tree?”
“That’s a competitive sport, back in Georgia, darlin’.”
“So you could teach me,” she pressed.
He laughed. “We’ll see how good my muscle memory is.”
Tuesday of the next week, Bones picked Jamie and ‘Karu up from school. Jamie panicked for a second before he saw Nyota’s head in the window of the passenger seat. She was hunched over one of her textbooks.
The two of them climbed in the car and Jamie asked, “Everything okay?”
“Peachy,” Bones said, with that dry tone of his that wasn’t exactly sarcastic, but wasn’t precisely sincere, either. “How was your day?”
“We didn’t get expelled,” ‘Karu piped up.
“Keep up the good work. We’re taking a field trip.”
Jamie looked over at the car door nearest him, settling his eyes on the lock. It was unlocked. The car was in motion, but technically, he could probably get all of them out, if need be. Worse case, he was strong enough to break the window. It would hurt, but he could do it. There weren’t any bars keeping them in.
Jamie tuned back in when ‘Karu poked him, his expression making it evident Bones had just said something. Jamie must have looked as blank as he felt because ‘Karu frowned. Jamie said, “Um, yeah,” because that was a good standby.
Bones laughed, like he saw right through Jamie, but all he said was, “Good.”
Whatever Jamie had agreed to seemed insignificant. They pulled up in front of a Victorian that had seen better days in a neighborhood with streets lined with minivans and other family-oriented vehicles. There were small yards in front of a few of the houses, if nothing else, porches with chairs or a garden box or two. Jamie watched as a couple of birds roof-hopped between different homes.
The Victorian had been stately at some point, Jamie could tell. She had the remnants of rich burgundies, navy blues and carnelian yellows adorning her structure. There were no less than four bay windows—two per story—on her front, and another four in between those, gracing the front. The door was crystal glass framed in wood.
Bones got out of the car and stood looking at the house for a moment. He said, “I know she doesn’t look like much, but give it a shot, okay?”
Jamie wondered what it would take for Bones to think a house did look like much. A moment later a guy drove up in a car and hurried out to meet them. He called, “Sorry I’m late, traffic.”
“Just got here,” Bones said. He gestured to the guy, “”Karu, Nyota, Jamie, meet *Gunn.* Gunn, my kids. Well, three of the four.”
Gunn didn’t blink at the designation and Jamie knew he had to be involved through one of the other families, maybe Clint and Tasha’s foster, or even the Burkes. They had been dead set on helping see all the kids Neal’d rescued safe and comfortable. Jamie’d never met people more strangely quixotic. He sensed Neal felt precisely the same way, but the two of them had never discussed it.
In any case, Gunn asked, “Ready to show them the inside?”
Bones nodded, and the five of them made their way onto the porch, where abandoned boxes of what might have been flowers at some time graced the two flat windows. There was easily space for a few chairs, even a little reading table or something.
Gunn had the code to the box hanging from the door, which granted them entrance. Jamie listened quietly as Gunn explained that he represented the bank that had owned the property for the better part of a year. Bones told them to wander, and the three of them drifted into a front room full of sun and wooden floors that needed sanding and polishing. All of the floors were in need of treatment.
Sun was a prominent feature in each of the rooms. There was a master bedroom with a bathroom attached on the first floor, and Bones, catching up to them, said, “The walls around it are the only ones we’d keep on this floor. We’d open up the kitchen so that the dining room would be visible from it, and even the living room, except for the stairs.”
The stairs were a prominent feature, with a curving, sprawling wooden handrail that seemed to draw a person up the stairs. Once there, Bones started talking about getting rid of more walls, making four smaller rooms into two large ones with windows at almost every opportunity. The bathroom that was currently connected to nothing would be opened up and bring the two rooms together.
“It’ll take at least a couple of months, probably more like three, but the basic structure of the house is solid, no termites, so with some fairly superficial construction, painting and cleaning, she could be ours and inhabitable by Christmas.”
Jamie rolled the word “ours” over in his head. From the back window, ‘Karu called, “Hey, there’s a crabapple tree in our backyard. And I think some ivy on the fence and some other stuff. Can I go look?”
Nyota asked, “Are crabapple trees good for climbing?”
“Superb,” Bones confirmed.
She followed ‘Karu down the stairs. Jamie stayed where he was. Bones waited a moment and then asked, “Well, kid? What’s going on in that head of yours?”
Words like “backyard” and “Christmas” were swimming around in Jamie’s head and he was too off-balance to answer with anything but an honest, “It’s a big house if you decide we’re not gonna work out.”
“It is,” Bones agreed. “Which means if that happened I’d just have to go find myself three other delinquents with a dislike of closed spaces and a burgeoning interest in botany. Think I’ll save myself the trouble and keep you three, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Bones,” Jamie said, feeling tired and scared, like nothing was the way he needed it to be.
“Give me a chance, kid. I know it’s hard. Believe me, I treated three-quarters of you, consulted on the rest, I don’t know that I’d be able to trust anyone in your shoes. But you’ve let me take you this far. Hold out a little longer, see if I come through.”
“It’s not just me,” Jamie told him, quietly. He’d never wanted to give something a chance so badly his whole life. But if it didn’t work-- Jamie wasn’t sure how many parts of himself he had left to get broken. He didn’t think he had the right to risk the other’s parts.
“But the others will trust your judgment.”
“Exactly,” Jamie bit out.
“It’s just a house, Jamie. It can be sold. It’s nothing compared to what taking you home meant. And you came with me, then.”
“We’re just kids,” Jamie echoed. “We can be sold, too.”
“Not enough money in the world, Jaim. I lost a kid to my job and my attitude and a court system that prefers mothers once. There’s no lawyer or judge or shithead with cash who’s going to touch any of you, ever. You understand?”
“I understand that we’re not Joanna. And someday you’re going to realize that.”
Bones looked surprised by that assertion, and then, after a moment, laughed. “Joanna’s a sixteen year old Southern Belle with all the sly knowledge and hidden tricks that implies. Her only hardships have been boys, school, parents who fought non-stop from the time she was seven until her dad up and left when she was ten. And I would die to keep it that way.
“ I love Joanna like I will never love another human being, but I’m not confused between the three of you and her. Love, even love for people categorized in the same role, such as ‘child’ is never the same. You know that. You don’t love the others in the same exact way. Things are never that simple.”
Jamie opened his mouth, then shut it. Finally, without knowing why, he said, “I don’t remember how to celebrate Christmas.”
Bones took a deep breath. “I’m pretty rusty, too, but I think, between the four of us, we can figure it out.”
Jamie rocked on his feet for a second, then nodded. Bones said, “Okay. You gonna come see this tree, or what?”
Jamie took one more look at the closed off structure of the upstairs, aware that next time he saw it, the landscape would have changed completely. Then he followed Bones out back.