RJ felt the ground shake under his feet, and he stumbled, catching his balance. The raccoon gave an involuntary shudder: He knew that neither Vincent nor Vexon would ever be bothering any of the Hedgies again.
"Raymond!" he shouted, stumbling forward and catching his brother in a long and fierce hug; Raymond returned it awkwardly, as if he'd forgotten how to do it over the years. RJ pulled back, his hands on his brother's shoulders, and as he opened his mouth to speak, a million questions ran through his mind. Finally he settled on one, and stammered, "Where the heck have you been?"
Raymond was still wearing that halfhearted smile. "I think that story can wait until we get your family back home, don't you?" He slung the fishing line over his shoulder and turned to face the crowd of critters, who had seen the bulldozer's abrupt descent and approached once more, concern and worry etched on their faces.
"Everything's okay, everyone," Verne said, stepping forward and waving his hands over his head, "RJ has ... he's taken care of things. No need to worry. Not anymore."
"Sweet! So does that mean we can go back to Steve now?" asked Bucky, bouncing idly in place.
Verne smiled, for what seemed like the first time in a very long while. "Yes. Yes, it does, Bucky."
"And we don't have to worry about evil people coming after us anymore?" added Quillo, matter-of-factly.
"No we don't," said Verne, and there was a collective sigh of relief from the crowd of Hedgies. "We're completely safe, and we will remain that way."
"Awesome! Last one back is a rotten egg!" shouted Spike, and he disappeared in a blur, dashing back toward the entrance to El Camelot, his siblings hot on his heels.
"Come back here, boys!" shouted Penny, and she and her husband hurried to follow suit. "Listen to your mother, there!" Lou added.
Through the haze of questions and confusion in his mind, RJ registered, distantly, how quickly things seemed to be going back to normal for the family. He was jolted out of this, however, by a certain little red squirrel, who had come to stand in front of him, paws on hips.
"...What's up, Hamsquad?" RJ asked eventually, tilting his head.
Hammy poked RJ in the chest. "Do not—" he poked him again, "—ever—" and again, "—do that again. Okay?"
RJ laughed and slung an arm around Hammy's shoulder, giving the little squirrel a noogie; Hammy kicked and giggled in the raccoon's grip. "No worries, Hamsquad," RJ said, "I won't." He let Hammy slip out of his grasp before turning him around so that he could look his friend in the eyes. "Really," RJ said, "I promise."
Hammy zipped forward at that, engulfing RJ in another one of his customary hugs. "I'm glad," he cooed happily, breathing in RJ's scent.
"I think we all are," said Verne, who had regulated direction of the crowd to John and Snowy, and was now coming back to make sure the last of the critters were headed home. "Seriously, RJ. You gave me such a scare back there. My tail may never fully recover."
The turtle then turned to face Raymond, who had hung back through all of this, unsure of his role now. "So you're RJ's brother, then?" asked Verne evenly, and offered a hand; Raymond took it, shaking it awkwardly. "Well, thank you for saving him. Really, I don't know what any of us would do without him."
"I'm touched, Verne, really," RJ smirked.
Verne didn't break his gaze from Raymond's. "But we still don't know what you're doing here." Raymond's eyes widened and he dropped Verne's hand, shuffling his feet uncomfortably. RJ's smile faded at that, and he approached his brother cautiously, putting an arm around his shoulder; Raymond stiffened at the sudden contact.
"Would you care to tell us?" Hammy asked him, softly.
Raymond looked around at the three of them — RJ, Verne, and Hammy — and RJ was about to tell Verne and Hammy that they could do this some other time when Raymond wasn't scared and exhausted, before his brother sighed and looked down at the ground. "I suppose I do owe you an explanation," he said at length, though he was speaking more to RJ than the others. "Let's talk."
The four of them set off, at the end of the crowd of chattering Hedgies, who were strolling purposely through the streets of suburbia on their way back home. RJ and Raymond's pace, however, was slow and steady, with Verne and Hammy following quietly beside them. All three of them had their eyes fixed on Raymond; he was silent for awhile, but slowly, surely, he began to speak.
"After the humans spotted Dad, they chased after him and caught him," he started, voice heavy. "Then they came back for me. I hid in the field for awhile, but they eventually found me and started chasing me. One of them —" his voice shook, "—one of them managed to grab me for a minute, and his hands were still dark with Dad's blood. His nails — he must have used them to hurt Dad somehow, because they were covered with red, and they cut me. I dropped the bucket and he threw it aside. I saw his hand leave a streak of blood on it. Both from me, and from Dad.
"Anyway, I bit him hard enough for him to lose one of his nails and he dropped me. I ran away, and scurried up a tree. They didn't see me; they kept searching the field. Finally they gave up and I started to go back through the forest. After a while I saw a brown blur — it was James. I shouted at him, and he told me that he'd just seen you and Mom..." Raymond's voice shook again. "He'd told you to run away, awhile ago. He knew that there was no way that I could catch up with you now, and when I tried to go back anyway he told me that if the humans didn't get me, Vincent would. So I went with him."
He paused, but RJ didn't say anything, just looked at him with concerned eyes, and so Raymond continued on.
"We eventually ended up in the Rocky Mountains," he said, gaze distant. "James settled in all right, met up with his family and everything. But I just .. I sort of kept to myself. I remember, staying up night after night, just staring up at the stars. I couldn't ... I had no way of knowing what had happened to you guys, and it was ... I can't even describe it. I felt like I was going insane with guilt for abandoning you, even though James had told me that I would've died if I didn't. I felt ashamed to be alive while you guys might be dead, or worse." He didn't clarify what worse meant, and RJ didn't need him to.
"So I went off on my own," Raymond said softly. "I made this makeshift pouch, out of some branches and leaves and stuff. It was goofy, but it let me keep some stuff I found. I could carry food, feed myself, hang on to anything I might find in the woods."
"Just like your bag, RJ!" Hammy chirped, but RJ shushed him, intent on Raymond's story.
Raymond gestured to his shoulder, where his bag — in a way very much like RJ's but without a zipper or blue fabric — now resided; poking out of the top was the fishing line, which gleamed in the light of the sunset. "I found that after some lazy fisherman packed up and left the lake." He smiled again, and this time there seemed to be a bit more life to it. "Glad to have found a use for that."
RJ glanced at his paw, and the wound where the line had pierced it. "I think we all are," he said, closing his fist.
Raymond nodded. "So I lived like that for a long time. I wasn't happy, not by any means, but hey ... at least I was still breathing." He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was very soft. "Then one night, I was out exploring through the trees when I heard an engine running." Another pause. "I'd never gone very far away from James's family; I didn't ever see them much, but it was nice to just ... you know ... stay around them. I guess they became sort of a makeshift family for me."
He shook his head, eyes brimming. "After that night, I wished I'd spoken to them more often. Some humans came out into the mountains and dumped this big bear, this big black bear, in the middle of nowhere. I moved in to get a closer look at him and almost screamed out loud. I kept telling myself, it's not him, there's no possible way it could be him — but it was. Vincent.
"He didn't see me, but his fur was half-blown off and he was mad as all get out. He started smashing through the forest, crashing into trees and breaking off branches and shattering them, and he kept shouting your name. He was insane. I'd never seen anything like it. And it was unbelievable to me that anything about that could actually make me happy. But..." and here he looked up to meet RJ's gaze, "...he kept saying your name. And I knew that meant you were alive. I just knew." He paused. "It gave me heart, I guess."
"Anyway..." his voice shook again, "his ruckus eventually carried him right to James's family. Insane as he was, he still recognized James, and he realized what the stag had done to him, how he'd betrayed him, and ..." he took a deep, shuddering breath. "And that was the last I ever saw of James, or his family."
Nobody spoke; the only sound was the soft pitter-patter of their feet as they walked through the suburbs. They had almost reached the Hedge, but none of them even noticed, fixated on Raymond and his tale.
"So ... after that," Raymond finally said at length, "he got obsessed with tracking you down and making you pay. He kept going back to the spot where he'd been dropped off, kept circling the path and sniffing at the ground, until he found some tire tracks a ways away, and he followed them. And I started following him, because on one paw, I was terrified. If he found you, wherever you were, I knew things weren't bound to end well. But on the other paw, if he led me to you, well ... that'd mean I'd get to see you again. And maybe we could find a way to stop him.
"So one night, the tire tracks stopped, and he ended up on a road, a highway that cut through the forest. He started following it, and walked for a really long time — at least four or five days — before he — we, I guess — came across a jailhouse for the humans. They'd put it out this far to keep the bad ones away from the good ones, I suppose. Anyway, he decided to rest around there for the night, and while he was trying to sleep, something he heard intrigued him — some crazy doctor muttering about that 'dirty raccoon and that family of followers he has'. Meaning you, obviously," Raymond added, glancing at RJ, who nodded again.
"Well, apparently anyone who was against you guys was a friend of Vincent's, because that morning he caused a commotion. He stomped to the yard in front of the jail and started roaring, tearing up trees, the whole thing. When the guards came to chase him out, he led them in a circle around the jailhouse for awhile, and bent the bars on one of the cell windows before running back out into the forest, where I was. And, of course, by the time the guards got back, that doctor had escaped through the bent window. He stole one of the police vehicles and set on down the road, and Vincent started following him without him knowing. And so I followed Vincent.
"It took them a long time to get things going," Raymond said, and his voice was hoarse now; clearly he hadn't had so much to say in years. "Vexon adopted a new name, started plotting to get you guys back, and Vincent was always there, in the shadows, waiting for something to happen so he could get to you while you were already in trouble. That way he could finish you off easily, and for good. And I was in Vincent's shadow, waiting so I might be able to find you — to help you. There were a dozen times where I almost left and tried to find you guys on my own, to warn you, to just see you. But I always came back, because I'd never know where to start, and I'd get lost. I hated myself for not being able to find you. But I finally did," he finished, looking at each of the three of them in turn. "Just in time."
Raymond was spared by saying any more by the approach of Rob, who was limping slightly. The cut above his eye, though not serious, was still dripping. The Hedgies had made it to Gladys's backyard, and were surveying the large hole in the Hedge and the damage that the bulldozer had caused in the glade.
"It's nothing we can't fix," Rob said wearily, and Verne sighed with relief. "It might take you guys a bit to get back on your feet, but you'll be fine."
"Rob, are you all right?" asked RJ, seeing that the wolf seemed to be swaying slightly; surprisingly enough, RJ noticed that he was doing the same.
"If I may point it out, RJ," said Rob, and now he was struggling to keep his balance, "you and I have just spent a lengthy period of time in a coma, and have only now awakened and promptly battled a maniacal doctor and psychotic bear with a very large bulldozer. Would you qualify that as 'all right'?"
RJ felt very, very dizzy. "Okay if I pass out?" he asked nobody in particular, falling to his knees.
"Right behind you," groaned Rob, and as the wolf keeled over, RJ's world faded to a blissful, dreamy blackness.
Some time later — almost an entire day's worth — RJ awoke. And immediately wished he hadn't.
Groaning, the raccoon sat himself up gingerly, feeling the various joints in his body pop and creak. He was more sore than he'd ever been in his life, including the week after the whole fiasco with the animal testing lab. He rubbed his shoulders tentatively and was rewarded with another series of creaks and pops.
I'm getting old, RJ thought to himself, although unconcernedly. Maybe a nice dip in the lake would make him feel better. Standing up (again accompanied by another series of cracks in his limbs), RJ noticed that he'd been placed in the little "home" area of the clearing behind the Hedge. Some of it had been trashed in the battle with Vincent and Vexon, but everything had been lovingly put back into place by his family. RJ smiled as he looked around it: The chair, the TV, the "Home Sweet Home" sign ... all of it was there, and all of it had been cared for.
Seeing all of the familiar sights with fresh eyes made RJ realize just how much he took his family for granted sometimes, and he resolved never to do so again. He loved them, and after everything that had happened he knew that they'd do pretty much anything for him, and he them. It was a good feeling, this sense of belonging. He still hadn't quite gotten used to it after so much of his life had been fending for himself, but he was getting there. And he hoped Raymond would find a similar life here.
He made his way over to a clothesline strung between two trees, grabbing a towel that had been hanging off of it and heading over to the lake. Idly he wondered where the family that occupied so much of his thoughts was, but passing the log he wondered no more: All of them were curled up inside, sleeping peacefully (and, in some cases like Verne's, snoring very loudly). RJ smiled as he noticed Raymond among them: His younger brother had taken a patch of the log somewhat farther away from the others, but Marissa had drifted over to him in her sleep and rested an arm across him. The two of them sighed contentedly as they slept, and RJ moved on.
Presently he reached the lake, pausing to admire how the sunset cast certain lights and dancing shadows across the water, before he tossed his towel aside and waded in. The water was a little cold, but on his aching limbs it felt almost heavenly. RJ gave a contented groan and sat down, the water enveloping him to his chest, and he splashed some of it on his face, willing himself to feel better. Surprisingly, it helped a little.
As the sun disappeared under the horizon and night fell, RJ splashed around the lake a bit, reveling in the freedom of not having to worry about anyone hurting his family, ever again. He scrubbed his whole body, ridding himself of the dirt and grime that only came from a prolonged period of unconsciousness followed by a nasty battle, and then turned over and drifted on his back across the water, blowing bubbles out through his mouth idly. He swam a few laps, stroking across the lake with renowned vigor as he gradually felt the aches in his body disappearing. It would take awhile, but after a few days they'd be gone completely, he figured.
RJ was distracted from this line of thought by a sudden whoop followed by an explosive splash nearby. He righted himself in the water, wiping some from his eyes and doggy-paddling over to where the culprit had made ripples in the water. "Hello?" RJ called.
In answer, a pair of wide green eyes popped up from beneath the surface and RJ gave a smile. "Hey, Hamsquad," he said, chuckling.
The squirrel didn't respond immediately, only raising his eyebrows mischievously and paddling forward, producing an almost eerie effect, as RJ could still only see the top of his head. Hammy went towards RJ, and RJ backed up, turning his arms backwards in the water, until he'd reached the shallow end of the lake and was at the shore, his back resting against the ground.
It was here that Hammy finally caught up with him, laying his palms on the ground next to RJ's shoulders, and hovering above him. There was a look in Hammy's eyes that RJ had only seen once — back just before he'd been struck by lightning; when he and Hammy had argued.
As he and Hammy laid there for several moments, each not saying a word, something in RJ's mind clicked and he exhaled slowly. Hammy noticed this, and gave a nervous smile.
"I ... think you know my secret, now," he said, very quietly.
RJ didn't reply; rather, he thought back for a second, to all of his nightmares and all of the scenarios that had played out in his head ... Hammy had always been the last of RJ's family to get hurt in his nightmares, and in the worst way. At the time, RJ had wondered why that was, but here, now, looking up at Hammy as the squirrel stared at him with large, innocent, nervous eyes...
RJ finally understood.
"So what's up, Rob?" Hammy asked in his normally cheerful manner.
It was the next day, some time later, and he and RJ had accompanied Rob to a separate clearing, away from the rest of the family, to talk. Hammy had RJ's paw firmly grasped in his and didn't look to be relinquishing it anytime soon; RJ found, to his slight surprise, that he didn't really mind.
"Well..." Rob began at length, scratching the back of his neck with a paw, "...as you might have noticed, I'm... still a wolf."
"Still haven't managed to change back, huh?" RJ asked in sympathy, sitting down in front of him; Hammy followed his lead.
"No," Rob sighed, "and I figure if a coma doesn't calm me down enough to do it, nothing will. For all intents and purposes, I'm ... well, it's pretty much certain that I'm stuck this way."
RJ felt a surge of guilt that he and the others hadn't thought to address this sooner. "Oh geez, Rob, I'm sorry—"
Rob smiled. "No worries, man. It hasn't exactly been a pressing concern lately ... I mean, heck, I'm glad I was a wolf during the whole fight thing. I would have had a much harder time with it as a human kid. But..." and here he looked down, gaze solemn again, and it was awhile before he resumed speaking. "I'm pretty sure my parents think I'm dead."
RJ felt a heavy weight settle in his stomach at the thought. "There's ... gotta be something we can do, isn't there?" he asked, after a minute.
Rob took a deep breath. "There is... well ... one thing, that I think we can try." He looked up again, and RJ wasn't surprised to find a familiar gleam in his eye. "Do you remember when the police shut down the lab? They took all their records, all the papers, everything. They still have that somewhere, on file. All of the stuff the scientists were working on; all of their formulas, test results — all of that is in some department office, probably not far from here."
"You want to steal the records?" RJ asked.
"Not steal ... borrow, more like," Rob said, shifting slightly where he sat. "I'll give them back."
"You think we can find a formula for some type of antidote?" RJ asked. It sounded crazy, yet there was still a surge of hope in his chest at the thought. "And then make it?"
"That, or we find someone who can," Rob said, rising to his feet now. "I know there's a university nearby that has a pretty expansive science department. We could use their stuff, or — if we can't understand it, which is pretty likely in all honesty — then we can find some curious college student who doesn't ask a lot of questions. Most of them don't," he added, as an afterthought. "To think that's where I might end up someday. That is, if this does work."
"We'll make it work!" chirped Hammy, hopeful as always. "Sounds like a plan to me!"
"What do you think, RJ?" asked Rob, with a familiar cocky grin. "You up for one more adventure?"
RJ smiled back. "I just might be."
"You. Cannot. Be. Serious," Verne said very slowly, arms crossed and looking at RJ like he'd lost his mind.
RJ fell to his knees and clasped his paws together, mockingly begging. "Oh, pleeease, Uncle Verne?" he asked sweetly, fluttering his eyelashes. "I promise we won't be gone long!"
"After everything that's happened — after our family has barely made it through in one piece — you want to go back out there, beyond the Hedge?" Verne pointed a finger at Steve; his eye was twitching. "What on Earth could you possibly be thinking?"
"Not beyond — just over," RJ offered. "And a little to the left."
"We'll be safe," Rob added.
Verne took a deep breath and massaged his temples. "I don't know ... my tail hasn't decided whether it's tingly on this one or not..."
"Verne, look," RJ said seriously, getting to his feet. "You always say family's the most important thing around here, and I agree with that. But Rob here won't ever have one again unless he can get back to normal."
"Back to human," Hammy added, unnecessarily.
"And he can't do this alone," RJ continued. "He needs our help."
"Yeah! I mean, have you seen this guy? He's huge!" Hammy added, gesturing to Rob and then zipping over for a size comparison; the squirrel was barely as tall as the wolf's leg. "And to be sneaky you require partners! Partners that can get into little places, like we can. 'Cause he can't do that part."
"Look," RJ said, "how about we give you a time limit? If we're not finished in, say... three weeks. Give us three weeks, and if we haven't made enough progress we'll come right back here."
"Three weeks? RJ, I don't know... are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"Hey, Verne," RJ asked, flashing his familiar cocky grin, "when have I ever not?"
There was silence for a minute as Verne crossed his arms again. Then: "One week."
"Two weeks," RJ countered.
"One and a half weeks."
"One week and five days."
Verne offered his hand; RJ clasped it and shook. "Thanks, Verne."
"You know, you don't have to get my permission," the turtle said, dropping his hand and scratching his head with the other. "What happened to shared leadership?"
"Hey, we're both still in charge," RJ grinned. "I just figured I'd trust the tail on this one. What do you say? Has it decided whether or not to tingle yet?"
Verne grimaced. "I'd have to say that ... no, it's not tingling in the slightest."
"Excellent. Well then," RJ said conversationally, turning to Rob and Hammy, "shall the three of us head out?"
"What — you're leaving now?" asked Verne, flabbergasted again.
"Why not? Night's fallen, so we'll be able to make good time."
"Super stealthy! Sneaking in the night!" said Hammy, zipping back and forth in various evasive poses. "Like ninjas!"
"Yes, Hammy, exactly like ninjas," RJ chuckled, rubbing the little squirrel's head. Hammy giggled.
"If you're sure... but RJ," and here Verne's voice was serious enough that RJ turned around to look him in the eye, "be careful."
RJ's gaze was level. "We will be, Verne."
"See you on the other side, hopefully," Rob added, offering a half-smile, before turning around and beginning to depart.
"Rob..." Verne's voice stopped the wolf, but he didn't turn around. "If things," Verne hesitated, "if things don't work out. You're ... you're always welcome back here." He paused. "You know that, don't you?"
Rob's voice was heavy. "I do, Verne." He smiled, again halfheartedly. "Thanks." Verne smiled back, and Rob resumed walking.
"We'll be back soon!" RJ called over his shoulder as he fell into step next to Rob.
"Of course we will! Steve would miss us if we didn't," Hammy added, zipping next to Rob and hopping on the wolf's shoulders. RJ shook his head. Somehow, he was still unsure if the squirrel genuinely believed what he was saying.
After saying goodbye to the rest of their family (Marissa made RJ super-pinky-promise to come back safely, and the porcupine kids asked for one last ride on Rob's back, which the wolf was happy to do), RJ made a stop in his little "home" area to grab his bag. As he picked it up, Hammy followed him. "Got everything ya need?" he asked, smiling brightly.
RJ smirked and tossed his bag onto his shoulder, not even bothering to check it. "I always do, Hamsquad. That I know for a fact."
The squirrel tilted his head. "Hmmm, I dunno. I think you're missing one thing..."
"Oh?" RJ asked, "what's that?"
"A hug!" Hammy exclaimed brightly, and promptly engulfed RJ in one. "'Cause you can never have enough hugs!"
RJ chuckled as he returned the squirrel's embrace. "I really should have seen that coming."
"RJ!" came a voice, and he and Hammy broke apart to see Raymond approaching them, his expression serious. He stopped in front of them and looked ready to speak, but seemed unsure of what to say; his gaze shifted away from them and back and he twisted his paws together. Finally he looked up, and his voice broke as he said: "Stay safe."
RJ stepped forward and hugged Raymond as well, and after a moment his brother returned the embrace, sighing deeply. "I will, Raymond," RJ said gently, and he meant it.
"I just got you back after who knows how long," Raymond said as the two of them drew back. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you again."
"You won't," said RJ, offering a reassuring smile. "I've got Hamsquad here. He's got street smarts."
He gestured to Hammy, who was currently staring at the fabric of RJ's carseat, and wondering if he could eat it. He gave a nibble, and decided that no, he could not.
"And Rob," RJ amended, "I've also got Rob. He's, uh, vicious and stuff."
"Ain't that the truth," Raymond muttered; he had seen the wolf fighting Vexon. "Just ... I know you, RJ, and I know you like to take chances. Please don't, this time."
"You have my word," RJ said, placing his paws on Raymond's shoulders. "Are you sure you don't want to come with us?" He smiled again. "Could be a great bonding experience for us brothers..."
Raymond gave a shaky laugh. "Thanks, but I've been on the move for... well, it seems like forever," he said, gaze distant. "I think it'd be better for me to stay here. That, and ... I'd really like to get to know this family of yours better. If, you know, they'll have me."
"Oh don't be silly!" laughed Hammy, zipping over to stand beside the two of them. "Verne already says that anyone related to RJ is in our family by extension! And even if you weren't you'd be welcome here. He said a lot of other stuff too, but I forgot."
"That's Verne," RJ laughed, "he tends to be a little long-winded sometimes." He arched an eyebrow at Raymond. "Anyone in particular you'd like to get to know better? I saw Heather making Bambi eyes at you awhile back..."
Even though it was dark, RJ knew Raymond was blushing underneath his fur. "Wow, really?" Raymond asked, lowering his head in embarrassment. "That's, uh, pretty cool..."
RJ smirked. "I think you're gonna do just fine around here, Raymond."
Raymond smiled, and it was a real, genuine smile. "You really think so?"
"I know so," RJ said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a wolf that needs de-wolfing."
He started to turn around, but again Raymond's voice stopped him.
"RJ..." he said, softly, "...thank you."
RJ blinked at him, then grinned and raised his paw, where the scar from the fishing line was apparent; RJ saw Raymond's eyes trace it.
"Thank you, Raymond," RJ said, and nothing more needed to be said, as the two of them smiled at each other.
With a rustle of leaves, Rob poked his head into the clearing, eyes sparkling with anticipation. "Everyone ready to go?" he asked.
"Let's do this!" Hammy shouted, climbing onto Rob's back. RJ followed, wrapping an arm around the squirrel's shoulders; Hammy giggled and leaned into his grasp.
"To the university!" RJ yelled dramatically, pointing a finger in the air, and Rob rolled his eyes before turning to the Hedge. "I'm not your stallion, you know," the wolf muttered, though there was humor in his voice.
"Bye, everyone!" Hammy called, waving behind him, and as Rob passed the log, the three of them saw the entire crowd of animals gathered around it, waving goodbye. "See you soon!"
"Don't forget to stay warm, dears; the cold weather is coming!" Penny called.
"And don't be gettin' into no funny business, there!" Lou added, a hand on his hip.
"Good luck!" Katrina shouted, waving.
"And good eatin'!" Marissa said in kind, ignoring her sister's confused glance.
As each of the animals said their goodbyes, Rob smiled. "Wow ..." he said, glancing back at RJ and Hammy. "You guys are really close."
"It's not just us they're saying goodbye to, Rob," RJ said, arching an eyebrow.
Words seemed to fail Rob at that point, and he lowered his head. "Yeah ... we'll see them again soon, though," the wolf said.
"And hopefully for you, it'll be through new eyes," RJ added.
"I can't argue with that," Rob agreed, and then RJ felt his shoulders tense as the wolf lowered himself down, crouched and ready. "All right. We all set?"
"Oooh, oooh, ooh, I love this part!" Hammy said, bouncing up and down on Rob's shoulders. "I get to do the countdown!"
"Ready to roll," RJ said, pulling a pair of sunglasses out of his bag and sliding them on.
"THREE!" Hammy shouted.
Rob's claws dug into the ground.
The wolf narrowed his eyes, tensed and ready.
The crowd behind them cheered, and Rob suddenly propelled himself forward, running right for the Hedge. He jumped ... and the three of them crashed right through in a familiar shower of leaves and branches, landing on the cool pavement and basking in the gentle breeze.
"Off we go!" Hammy shouted, and Rob turned down the street and bolted, disappearing into the night beyond.
"I got it," Andy called, drying the dish he had been washing and setting it down as he went to answer the doorbell. He didn't dare acknowledge the flare of hope in his chest as he approached. Maybe Rob had...
He opened the door and stared out into the night in confusion: No one was there. "Hello?" he called, glancing around again, before his gaze fell on the doorstep: there was a piece of paper lying at his feet.
Andy picked it up and unfolded it: it was a note. It looked to have been typed on a computer ... and, oddly, it was dated today.
"Rebecca," he said, after a moment. "Come look at this."
His wife emerged from the office, juggling a stack of papers. "What is it, honey?"
Andy passed it to her, his expression pale. "Read it."
Rebecca took the note and began to read. By the second line, tears had started to blur her vision.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I'm safe, don't worry. I'm really, really sorry about this, really I am, but please believe me when I say that I'm coming back home. I may not get there for a few days, but I'll be there. I really wish I could explain things to you, but I can't. Not now. Maybe someday, if you ever believe me.
I've been living with a family of friends. They're like me, at least for now. It's really hard to explain. Just know that I'm alive, and I'm safe and sound, and I miss you. I kind of have to fix something, but I'm going to fix it, right now. I'll be okay. My friends will make sure of that.
I love you, Mom and Dad. I'll be home soon. I promise.
A/N: Epilogue coming soon; stay tuned.