A/N: For the overwhelming response to our first story, (Between a Rock, you should probably read that one first), this is for everyone out there who reviewed. We seriously couldn't have done it without you. And, of course, we don't own National Treasure. If we did, we wouldn't be writing fanfiction.
"Someone told me long ago, 'there's a calm before the storm.' I know. It's been coming for some time." Creedence Clearwater Revival
Riley was a normal sixteen year old boy the day the letter came.
In fact, he was above normal. Exceeding the averages in all his classes, he tied with Darrel for the top score. The boys often butted heads when it came to school, but only in fun. Outside, on their own, they used their free time to create two new video games.
"Come on, Ri, you're playing worse than Joy!" Darrel poked Riley in the chest. Joy, on the floor in a play pen, looked up when she heard her name, drool dripping from her mouth onto a ring of plastic keys. At almost two, she had intelligent, almond-shaped eyes and clear white skin, a true mutt. Darrel and Riley were taking on the role of babysitters for the day, opting out of a seven-hour car ride and lecture given by the Gates couple.
Riley swatted his black friend back, fist connecting solidly with thigh. He waved his hand as a sudden burst of pain burst through his fingers. Though he hadn't broken a bone in the two years he'd been with the Gates, old injuries still occasionally pained him, and his hand had been broken more times than anything else.
By shifting the joystick, Darrel was able to change his character from Arthur to Lancelot to Galahad or even, on Abigail's bid, Queen Morgan le Fey. This particular video game was a product of Darrel's intricate work, converting Riley's computer skills to a PlayStation adaptable consol, and the Gates' obsession with history. Riley himself was the one who suggest a Camelot setting, as he had been fascinated by the legend since getting his hand on The Once and Future King three months after living with the Gates.
They played in silence for a while. Even Joy was happily gnawing on her rings, feet wheeling lazily through the air. Riley looked down at her and smiled, pushing his glasses further up his nose so he could see her. She really was a beauty, slanted eyes and high cheekbones contrasting with blond hair and fair, freckled complexion. She was talking, and said his name as 'Wi-Wi'.
Abigail said it was cute, but the first time Darrel had heard it, he wouldn't quit with the nickname for a month.
"So, you're going with Ben next week?" Darrel moved his knight, blocking Riley's view of the castle he'd been aiming to invade.
Riley nodded, glowing inside. "Yeah. He's been promising to take me ever since Joy was born, but he's never really had the time. Now he's closing in on the treasure, and says I could help him more on the field. We're going to the Rocky Mountains."
"Ever been camping?"
"No. First time for everything, right?"
And he'd had a lot of first in the past two years. First time riding a bike, swimming in a pool, going ice skating. First public presentation, walk-a-thon, s'more. First, second, twentieth museum. First Communion, first Confirmation, first time feeling secure in the eyes of God.
First time going to a circus. This had been just a week before, when, in the heat of summer and unwilling to drive two hours to the beach on a Friday afternoon, Ben had suggested heading to the Big Top, which had just come to the area, two towns over.
Abigail was clutching Joy, who sat patiently through the whole thing, clapping her hands every time the lions roared, even though all the other babies cried. Riley slinked in behind Ben and sat very close to the older man, eyeing the men on the floor suspiciously. He didn't like crowds, didn't like being around men he didn't know. He suspected that would never change, thanks to Pop.
"Want to go somewhere quieter?" Ben had whispered in his ear, but Riley shook his head, cringing when an air horn blew over the audience. So many times, Ben had left with him when he was uncomfortable in a new situation, but this was supposed to be fun. Only little kids were afraid of clowns.
He looked over at Joy, saw her smiling face, and motioned to Abigail to hold her. Having the solid, damp weight of his younger sister on his lap made Riley feel more secure, and slightly braver. He'd once confessed to Darrel that he looked p to Joy, that she made him do things he wouldn't normally do. Darrel had taken him seriously, as always, and didn't laugh, telling him that it was probably normal, though how much did he know about Riley's situation?
With Joy on his lap, he felt a little safer when the clown came by next. Dressed in over-sized suspenders and a painted white face, he made a motion towards Riley, who flinched at his hands, jerking away so quickly he startled the baby, now dozing, in his lap. She opened her mouth in the beginning of a cry and Riley felt terrible, guilty, ashamed. Old feelings die hard.
An impossibly gentle hand cupped his face and Riley was forced to stare into the deep, dark eyes of a circus clown as paint was put on his cheek, marking the path of a single blue tear.
"No!" Darrel yelled, watching as Riley stole his castle and stormed it with a hundred knights. "How do you always win?"
"I bugged it in my favor." Riley joked, setting the controller down and stretching.
"You're lying, man," Darrel slapped him on the back, hard. Riley's eyes fluttered closed and he groaned, descending onto the chair he'd just vacated. Not in two years had his back ceased to hurt him, and though his friends and family mostly remembered not to aggravate it, there were times when they'd slip and forget, think he was normal and not screwed up. Riley liked that, liked that they weren't always thinking about how dirty he was, about his past mistakes.
"Oh, God, Riley, I'm sorry." The teen backed away, though his hands flew imploringly to Riley's back. He knew that the last thing his friend wanted was to be touched, but he couldn't help himself sometimes. Taking a cloth from the counter, Darrel ran it under cool water and carefully, slowly lifted Riley's shirt, not missing the stiff back, the soft groan.
As always, seeing Riley's back angered him. A mess of scars from knives and wood and even the blunt, terrible lines of a two-by-four, it was a lasting reminder of Pop's cruelty. He placed the cool cloth on Riley's back, moving it gently along the more grisly marks.
"I'm sorry." Darrel sighed at the words, remembering a time when they were among the only ones to come out of his friend's mouth. Riley was better now, but he was still afraid, always afraid, and Darrel didn't really know how to make it better.
"They just hurt some times."
"I shouldn't have hit you. I didn't mean to hurt you."
They were quiet until Joy began fussing on the floor, throwing her body around until she tottered unsteadily to her feet. Darrel scooped her up, motioning for Riley to stay where he was. "I'll change her, you rest." He glanced at the clock, "Ben and Abigail will be back soon, anyway."
As if his words had summoned them, the front door opened and the couple walked in, looking worn from the long ride but otherwise pleased with themselves. "Riley! We're home!" Ben poked his head in the door to the living room in time to see Riley ball the towel in on e hand. "You okay?"
"Fine." Riley's smile only seemed a little forced. "How was the lecture?"
Abigail breezed in, having captured Joy from Darrel. "Ben went off on a rant. He lasted an hour longer than everyone else."
"It wasn't a rant, I was merely pointing out to the man that, while President Polk is not one that people usually chronicle about, he did have some high points in his career." Ben placed his hand lightly on Riley's shoulder, squeezed, meaning, in a gesture, are you sure you're okay?
"Yeah," Riley glanced up at the man who was, for all intents and purposes, his father, "Remember the Alamo?"
"Not exactly the high point I was talking about, kiddo." Ben ruffled Riley's hair. "You ready for our trip?"
"Can't wait." Riley said, and meant it. He loved Abigail and his sister, but he was closer to Ben than to anyone else, Darrel included. It was improbable that, after Pop, he'd take on another male mentor, but he felt himself drawn in by Ben's confidence, stubbornness, charisma, all things Riley wanted but could never quite achieve. He tried too hard.
"You have mail, Riley." Darrel pointed to the table, where the day's mail had been dropped by Abigail when she walked in the door. "Looks official."
Riley glanced at it and motioned Ben over, recognizing the state seal of Pennsylvania. He'd been formally adopted more than a year before, and was no longer a ward of the state. Why, then, would he be getting mail from them?
Ben shrugged in response to Riley's unasked question. "Just open it. How bad can it be?"
With Darrel, Ben, Abigail, and even little Joy watching, Riley opened the envelope, and his life fell apart. Again.
Dear Mr. Poole, (it read)
This is to inform you that Mr. Thomas A. Poole his been released on parole from the state Penitentiary...
Complication in the first chapter! I mean…uh…poor Riley.
Yes, as always, please review.