"Come on, Apollo, it's your turn to count!"
Five young children raced each other through the large house they shared, headed for the bedroom they used as a base in their game.
"Alright," Apollo said, laughing, as they came to a stop next to one of the beds, "But this time you guys have to find really good hiding spots!"
He leaned up against the bed and closed his eyes. The others scampered away before he even had a chance to start counting.
It was a rule of theirs to always count to twenty, but it was a rule every one of them broke without telling the others. Apollo got to about fourteen before he got bored and started out on his quest.
He found Tom first, hiding in a cabinet in the kitchen. Then Lottie, who'd found a spot underneath a bed. Next came Ricky, whom they found behind the shower curtain in one of the bathrooms.
But, try as he might, Apollo could not find Elle.
He wandered down the hallways of the house, peeking into rooms he'd searched a dozen times already, and growing more discouraged every minute. Lottie walked along with him, trying to help.
"You told her to find a good spot," Lottie said.
Apollo sighed. "I didn't mean this good."
He was about to give up when he looked up and saw the door in front of him. He stopped suddenly, and Lottie bumped into him.
"You don't think she's in there, do you?" Apollo asked, pointing ahead of him.
They stood in front of the one room in the house they hadn't searched, because it was the only room in the house they knew they weren't allowed in.
Director Maloney's private office and bedroom.
Lottie shook her head. "No, Apollo. She knows better. Let's go look in your room again."
Apollo took a few steps forward and reached for the handle. "Just a few minutes, okay Lottie? Keep watch for me."
He slipped into the room before Lottie could protest further.
After closing the door behind him, he stopped to look around. There were filing cabinets everywhere, and the desk in the center was covered in stacks of papers.
"Elle?" Apollo called, walking further into the room. "You're not in here, are you?"
He checked behind the desk, then turned his attention to the filing cabinets.
Maybe she fit into one of those?
Apollo walked up to the one closest to him and pulled open a drawer.
No. Nothing but papers.
Apollo was about to close the drawer and try another when something caught his attention. His own name.
He pulled the file out and opened it, grinning when he saw his baby picture in the corner. His eyes scanned down the page.
Child's name: Apollo
Age upon arrival: 9 months
Apollo didn't read the notes. He suddenly had a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. His mind started reeling, thinking things he wanted to push away and never think about again. But now he was thinking them, and they were making his eyes mist up and a lump form in his throat. He put his file back and walked back out of the room.
Lottie waited for him outside. "Did you find her?" she asked.
Apollo shook his head and kept walking. All he wanted was to get to his room.
Lottie followed along behind him. "Apollo? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," he mumbled. "I just don't want to play anymore."
They walked for a little bit in silence before Lottie said, "You can tell me."
"Lottie, I'm fine," Apollo snapped. "Just leave me alone, okay?"
He quickened his pace then, and he stopped hearing her footsteps behind him.
When he reached his room, he closed the door behind him, climbed up on his bed, pulled his knees up to his chest, and finally let out the tears he'd been fighting back. It didn't do much to relieve the anger and hurt in his chest, but it was better than nothing.
His attention fell on his bracelet then. The bracelet he always wore; the one his mother had left for him.
The anger he felt boiled more than ever, and he pulled the bracelet off his wrist and threw it against the opposite wall. It connected with a clatter and fell to the floor. Apollo watched it settle there. Guilt filled him now too. That bracelet was the most important thing to him in the entire world. Now it was lying in the middle of the floor. It didn't feel right at all.
Nothing felt right.
Apollo buried his face in his knees and cried harder.
After what seemed like a long time, a knock came from the door.
"Apollo? Are you okay in there?"
The voice was Director Maloney's. Apollo raised his head and wiped his eyes. "I'm fine, Mrs. Maloney."
"You don't sound fine, dear. Lottie seemed awfully worried about you. May I come in?"
"Yes," Apollo said.
When Director Maloney opened the door, her eyes immediately fell on the bracelet, still lying on the floor.
"What's this doing here?" she asked, her voice gentle.
Apollo didn't answer.
Director Maloney bent down and picked up the bracelet, then walked over to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Apollo," she said, "Something's obviously bothering you. What happened?"
Apollo sniffled but didn't say anything. He couldn't say anything without admitting to being where he wasn't supposed to be.
"I can't help if you don't talk to me about it," Director Maloney said.
"It's nothing, Mrs. Maloney," Apollo said. "Honest."
There was a pause before she said, "It wouldn't have anything to do with someone playing hide and seek in my office, would it?"
Apollo looked up at Director Maloney, surprised. Finally, he mumbled, "I'm sorry."
She laughed, gently. "I'm not mad. But now can you tell me what happened?"
Apollo took a deep, shuddering breath before starting.
"I found a file about me. And it…it had the age I was brought here on it. And…and nine months is pretty old, right? I mean, all the kids that come here, they're always so little. So why…so why…"
He couldn't finish the thought, but Director Maloney nodded her head in understanding.
Apollo started crying again. "Did they…did they just decide one day they didn't want me anymore?"
"Oh, Apollo," Director Maloney said, holding her arms out, "Sweetie, come here."
Apollo crawled over and hugged her tightly, and she hugged him back.
"Why didn't they want me anymore?" Apollo said, his voice strained with tears. "What did I do wrong?"
"You didn't do anything wrong, dear. I promise."
"Then why did they give me up?"
Director Maloney sighed and ruffled Apollo's hair. "Sometimes…sometimes there's just nothing else the parents can do. Even if it breaks their hearts."
Apollo looked up at Director Maloney's face. She smiled at him. "Would you like me to tell you what I remember about your mother?"
Apollo hesitated for a few seconds, then nodded.
"She was young," Director Maloney said. "And very beautiful. She held you for a long time before giving you to me. She sang to you and kissed you and held you tight. And when she handed you over, she asked me to take good care of you, because you meant everything to her."
Apollo cried harder now. Director Maloney hugged him tightly and kissed the top of his head. "Your mother loved you, Apollo. She loved you very much. You can always remember that."
When the hug ended, Apollo pulled away from Director Maloney's embrace and sat next to her on the bed.
"I'll…I'll never see her again, will I?" he said.
Director Maloney paused before answering. "Perhaps not. But do you want to know a secret?"
She smiled. "Everyone has a home somewhere. Everyone has somewhere they fit in, where they can be surrounded by people that love them. It's hard to believe sometimes, I know. But if there's one thing I've come to believe with all my heart, it's that. Try to remember that, okay?"
Apollo felt himself smiling then. His tears were subsiding, and the pit was finally gone from his stomach.
"Now," Director Maloney said, "I think someone's waiting for you."
Apollo looked up and followed her gaze to the doorway, where Lottie was peeking into the room. He hopped off the bed to walk over to her.
"We found Elle," she said, when Apollo reached her. "She was in the backyard, underneath the porch."
She paused before adding, "Are you okay?"
Apollo nodded. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."
Lottie didn't answer at first. Then she grinned. "It's Ricky's turn to count, you know."
Apollo smiled, ready to get back to the game, when he remembered something. "I'll meet you at base, okay?" he said.
Lottie nodded and dashed off. Apollo turned and walked back to Director Maloney.
"Mrs. Maloney," he said, "Can I…can I have my bracelet back?"
She smiled and handed it to him. "Now go have fun," she said.
Apollo beamed. He reached forward and hugged her one more time.
"Thank you, Mrs. Maloney," he said. And then he raced off.
As he went, he slipped his bracelet back on his wrist.
He really did feel better with it on.
In fact, he felt better wearing it than ever before.
-13 years later-
"Hey, Apollo? Have you seen my other boot?"
Apollo looked up from his journal at Trucy, who'd just walked into the front room of the Agency with one boot in her hand.
"I think I saw it near the piano," Apollo said.
Trucy shook her head. "No, that was the first one. Where did I put it?"
Apollo watched her search the room. "You didn't make it disappear, did you?"
"Apollo, this is not the time for jokes!" Trucy said. "Daddy'll be home any minute, and I have to get ready for my show!"
"Oh, yeah," Apollo said. "Aren't you revealing some Gramarye magic tonight?"
She temporarily stopped her search to beam at him. "I've been practicing for ages," she said. "And I think I'm finally ready to try it out on stage."
It was then that Apollo glanced under his desk.
"Hey, I know a few magic tricks, too. For instance, I can make lost objects…" He pulled the missing boot up from underneath the desk. "…reappear."
Trucy laughed as she accepted the boot. "Well, it could use some work, but not bad. Thanks, Polly."
The door opened then and Phoenix walked into the office.
"Daddy! You back!" Trucy said.
Phoenix smiled. "Hey, you two. Anything exciting happen while I was gone?"
Apollo shrugged. "You know, just hanging around here, not getting any case offers."
Phoenix nodded. "Sounds like a pretty standard day."
At the look Apollo gave him, Phoenix laughed. "Oh, cheer up. I'm joking. So, if you don't have any cases, that means you're free tonight, right?"
Phoenix reached out and handed Apollo a piece of paper. "That's for you, in case you're interested."
Apollo looked down at the paper, and realized it was a ticket for Trucy's show.
He looked back up. "Mr. Wright, you didn't have to-"
Phoenix cut Apollo off with a shrug. "We're both going to be there. And I hear Gramarye magic is can't-miss."
"You'll go, won't you, Apollo?" Trucy asked. "You haven't been to one of my shows in a while."
Apollo looked over at Trucy, who was looking at him hopefully. He smiled. "Yeah, of course."
"We were going to go out to dinner beforehand," Phoenix added. "You're welcome to come. As long as I don't have to pay for you."
Apollo laughed. "Sounds like a plan."
"Daddy, if we don't go now, we'll be late," Trucy said.
"Right you are. Everyone ready?"
As the three left the agency, Apollo's mind suddenly flashed on what Director Maloney had told him, a long time ago.
Everyone has a home somewhere.
He looked down at the ticket in his hand, then back up to Phoenix and Trucy walking in front of him. He smiled.
Maybe, just maybe, Director Maloney had been right after all.