As they waited for the boys to check out, Patricia asked Randal "Just how can these boys afford to do this?"
"You're not going to believe it," Randal warned. "First, the Federation takes their mission so seriously that every member planet is required to make a donation; it is pretty much the same thing as the required donation for Starfleet, but instead it is applied to helping families Federation-wide. That wasn't enough for the Clan, they didn't like being a charity. A few members have their own businesses, others have formed bands, and some others work the markets. All of the above put more money back into the Clan than they'll ever receive. Then you have the multi-millionaire kids who joined the Clan to help, and brought their parents with them; to give you an example, when these guys walk out of the Apple store, the pile of equipment they'll have won't cost the Clan a singe credit. The son of Steve Jobs pays for it using the interest from his savings account, no matter how much Steve argues with him."
"Aren't they going overboard, though?" Patricia wondered.
"There's a method to their madness," Randal explained. "While the Clan has assisted us with changing it, in the past the best that CPS could do for kids we helped were donations and things we could buy in bulk at low prices. Kids know a lot more than they're given credit for, and I'm certain that most of the youth that enter the Clan are expecting bargain-basement clothing and industrial furniture. There are limits, but they are high enough that most new kids won't hit them. Those that do rarely complain, because they still end up with a premium choice. Doing the first trip as a group helps too, because no youth wants to be seen as greedy; most of the time they have to be taked into something more expensive that meets minimum Clan standards."
"I'll have to trust you on that," Patricia acknowledged. "Shouldn't they have an adult with them to keep them safe from predators?"
Randal had to work really hard not to laugh. "It's the predators that need to worry. At least four of those boys are carrying phasers, and if I know them, there are probably at least a dozen plainclothes Security officers here 'shopping' as well. Since they don't make all of their tricks public, I'm sure they're just as secure here as if they were at home."
"Watch it Randal!" Dylan giggled as he walked up behind them, "If you keep it up, we're gonna have to adopt you and your family!"
"You promised to wait until I'm ready to retire, Squirt!" Randal chuckled as he spun and picked up Dylan. "Now what're you going to do?"
"Shoulder rides!" Dylan giggled as he wiggled, shuffled, and climbed until he was on Randal's shoulders. "Giddy-up!"
Patricia smiled as she felt her own two sons take her hands. While she couldn't fathom any of these boys using a deadly weapon, their actions showed that they were secure in their safety.
"KEWL!" Dylan exclaimed as he spotted something down the hall from his perch on Randal's shoulders. "There's a Sunglasses Hut over there! C'mon, we all gotta get our Spy Sunglasses!" In Randal's head, he added 'Uncle Matt's already at the food court. After you let me down at the Sunglasses hut, make an excuse so you can warn him about Patricia and her boys. I'll keep everyone occupied while you get him ready to help you convince her this is real.'
Randal nodded his head, sure that Dylan would feel it. Since he knew where the mall-aisle stand was that Dylan referred to, he began walking in that direction, with the rest of the group following him.
As they reached the stand, he put Dylan down and said "I need to hit the bathroom. I'll head on over to the food court; after I finish in the bathroom, I'll see if I can grab some tables for you and your mob."
"Okay, thanks!" Dylan replied. "Aunt Patricia? Could you help us all pick out our dark spy sunglasses?"
"Yes, cutie," Patricia replied, Randal's earlier explanations about the Clan telling her that there was some reason for Dylan to want this.
"... and that's how I ended up heading one of the core families in Clan Short," Matt finished as he glanced around the area. "Get ready, I think the boys will be heading this way for their mid-afternoon snack," he added after checking his watch.
"How're you so sure?" Mary asked. "Them boys done ate like hogs at lunch already."
Matt smiled. "The Food Court is a rite-of-passage for Clan kids on mall visits; there are a lot of family bonds that start in here, and it gives them a chance to compare notes. Besides, shopping Clan-style burns a lot of calories!"
The conversation was interrupted by Randal walking up from the side and asking "Is this seat taken?"
Matt turned his head and smiled. "Have a seat! Randal, this is Mary Perkins, she's DJ's new head chef. Mary, meet Randal Franklin, the Director of Orange County CPS, and a frequent visitor to Clan Headquarters."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mary," Randal stated as he held out his hand before taking a seat.
Matt's introduction did it's job, as Mary realized that the newcomer had been welcomed into the Clan's trusted circle. "It's a pleasure as well, Randal," she replied as she shook his hand.
After he was seated, Randal commented, "In case me being here doesn't give it away, the boys struck again!"
"What do you mean?" Mary asked.
"Well," Randal explained, "it is a running joke that these guys can't visit a mall without bringing home strays. Dylan came and got me when one of his group, I think his name was Damon, picked up on something as he was passing by a mother and son. From what I understand, his catch just sealed a case against a man that was picked up in a child porn sting. The mother had been the maid for the guy, and his son was in my custody and being processed when Dylan popped in. The boy had formed a bond with the mother already, so just over twenty seconds after Dylan brought me and the boy here, she was suddenly the mother of two sons, as well as having a new job as a live-in housekeeper at DJ's new place.
"I told you the boys would make sure you had time for all of them, Mary," Matt chuckled. "They just moved a little faster than I expected."
Mary nodded, then asked "Why didn't you give their names, Randal, and was the boy hurt by his former father?"
"Sorry, it's a professional habit," Randal replied. "The mother is Patricia, her original son is Terry, and her new son is Todd. Going by the fact that Dylan was told to be there for Todd's physical, I'm going to assume he was forcefully violated."
"That poor boy," Mary muttered. In her normal voice, she added, "Do you know if the boys are planning on coming this way?"
"Yes, they invited me to watch," Randal admitted. "They got sidetracked by a sunglasses vendor, but Dylan said to come on over and grab a seat while there were still some left."
Spotting Tanner leading his group into the entry of the Food Court, Matt commented, "It looks like you just made it, the first wave is attacking."
Tanner scanned the area as he led his group into the Food Court. As soon as he spotted the table with the three adults, he relaxed. "Hey guys, it looks like Matt and Mary are here, which means that Matt's probably got security spread all over the place for us. Let's say hi, then we'll grab a snack."
"How did Uncle Matt know we were coming here?" Warren asked. "Why would he bring security?"
As he steered the group towards the table, Tanner replied, "He knows how mall trips usually run, since he's hosted a few. As far as security, he wants all of us to be able to relax, so he makes sure we're protected. I bet there were a few shoppers in the stores that were security, too."
"Who's the strange guy?" Wes asked, his voice betraying his nervousness.
Looking closer, Tanner finally recognized him. "He's okay, Wes. That's Randal; he works for CPS, but he's one of the good guys that helps the Clan."
"You sure?" Wes asked warily.
"I'm sure," Tanner replied. "Do you think your Aunt Mary would let him sit there if he wasn't okay?"
"If he was bad," Shane added, having heard the whole thing, "Momma woulda done knocked him inta' the next life with her handbag already!"
Shane's comment earned him soft giggles from the group as they pictured their own personal nightmares being knocked senseless with a purse. "Who needs security, we got Momma!" Freddie added, increasing the giggles to fully audible.
Once they reached the table, the group followed Shane's lead and gave Mary a hug, then assembled near the gap between Mary and Matt. Matt handled introductions, then added "Security Protocol Three-Delta is set; I have three teams on site, Tanner. Kopa, Kovu? Take some brother time with the rest of the family, I've got you covered and will activate you if anything smells wrong."
"Dad C's here?" Tanner asked with a tilt of his head.
"No," Matt clarified, "now that DJ's a Patriarch, he gets the same security protocols as Cory and Sean, which means you get them too. Alexi gets them as well, no matter if he likes it or not. Jace made the rule, so he better not argue about his protection."
"Remind me to come up with as many ways as I can to get Jace out in public," Tanner grumbled, fully aware of how Cory felt about it when security was elevated for him. "He coulda warned us!"
"Don't worry, I'll keep them out of your hair," Matt assured Tanner. "I've already talked to all the vendors, just have your crew show their commbadges to get food. If they've made non-Clan or newly Clan friends, the meal's covered as well. Go terrorize them before DJ beats you to it!"
"All Y'all heard him!" Shane exclaimed before yelling "CHAAARRRRGGGEEEE!"
Matt's chuckle as the boys ran towards the Chinese section was all that kept Mary from going after her son. Her pointed stare was all it took to tell Matt that he needed to explain.
"Between a good portion of the Clan missing part or all of their childhoods, and the stress of being watched all the time as Clan representatives, we encourage the boys to be kids when they can. It looks like Shane is starting to loosen up and just be part of the crew."
"That boy would've slapped his brothers back into the womb just this mornin' if they'd've tried that," Mary commented as she sat back. "Who was that, and where's Shane?"
"I think he's decided to be a big brother instead of a father," Matt explained. "I see that a lot; I think having a Patriarch takes a lot of assumed stress off of the eldest brothers."
"I see the other side, too," Randal added. "In general, the eldest unconsciously tries to be the head of the family, and takes any slight of his or her younger siblings as a personal attack on him or herself. How long has he been Clan?"
"Just over a day," Mary replied.
"That means Tanner's probably given him a little talk," Randal mused. "DJ likes to guide towards the right things to do, but Tanner will outright tell someone to get their head out of their ass, in those words. If Shane was trying to be a father, chances are it would take Tanner's approach to get through to him that he has family above him now. The side effect of that is that Tanner probably is now filling the role of father in Shane's worldview. Since that is what is expected of him and DJ due to their places in the Clan, Shane is probably going to surprise you quite a bit as he releases his brothers into the care of his Patriarch's circle."
Mary glanced towards the direction the boys had headed, and realized that they had settled considerably once they reached the counter. A few of the boys were waiting patiently for their order with Casper, while both Shane and Tanner had split off with their own little groups to explore other options. When she saw Harold was with Casper, while Freddie was with Tanner, she nodded her head. "I think you're right, Shane don't let his little brothers run free like he's doing now."
Matt started to respond, then he spotted DJ's group heading his way. A few seconds later, most of the group stopped within hearing range to watch the fun; the exceptions were Antonio, Byron, Yist, Gary, and Gerry. Matt began to worry as he made out the Intel crests on the robes of the two new boys; it was far from normal to be in uniform while shopping for any of the Clan regulars.
As soon as they reached the table, Antonio pointed to Matt and announced, "Gary, Gerry? That's your new Grandpa Matt. Cuddle attack!"
"Yeah!" the twins exclaimed in unison as they pounced Matt. Once they had assumed their perches on Matt's lap, Gary quipped "Aunt Mandy's LOTS older than you!"
With a grin, Byron explained, "Mandy is seeing Doc Austin on DJ's orders, she'll be moving in once he takes care of whatever made DJ send her there. Don't worry, your new daughter's only in her 50's! Gary and Gerry are the reincarnated spirits of Yist's twin brothers that died just before he joined us, and Mikey says they're going to recover their past."
As Matt processed the implications of Byron's fast-paced report, Mary asked, "Does that mean y'all took them in as yours?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Byron replied. "Thomas helped with getting them processed, and the three of them determined that the babysitter Mandy was using was wrongly prosecuted as a sex offender, a prosecution which he managed to hide until Thomas did his normal scans for the safety of the boys. They held a trial and overruled the Terran court; right now Frank is at the Camp Little Eagle Medical Center getting his pediatric dental license restored and upgraded."
"They're fitting in already," Mary smiled. "Does this Frank have family?"
"That's up in the air," DJ interrupted as he led the rest of the group in to join the fun. "Finn and Thomas are working on that answer with Uncle Tracy and Uncle Karl's help."
Finn held up his hand, and tilted his head as he listened to his subvocal. After just over thirty seconds, he straightened up and stated "Patriarch, Director Butler has informed me that the Rat Pack is currently enroute to assess the familial situation. It is expected that a determination will be provided by the time you have completed your mid-afternoon sustenance."
"Very well," DJ replied, his face clearly showing that he did not like what the message implied. "Inform me of updates as you receive them."
"That's NOT good," Matt and Randal both muttered.
"Am I missing something?" Mary asked.
"The Rat Pack," Matt explained, "is a special hand-picked team that our Intel director, Tracy, put together. Each one of them are his little brothers by declaration, with one being by blood. They ONLY go out as the Rat Pack if on an assignment requested by Tracy personally, and he only calls for them if it is something big."
"That's why Thomas was pissed, I bet," DJ added. "Going by that, I think somebody's about to have a really bad day."
Randal nodded. "Let Tracy know I'm standing by here just in case he needs CPS assistance."
"Who are you?" Finn asked.
"Just tell him Randal from Orlando CPS, he knows me."
Finn nodded, and a few seconds later replied "Tracy says thanks, and you might want to log in for case file updates."
"Doing it now," Randal replied as he pulled out his phone.
"Why don't all y'all get some food while y'all's waiting?" Mary instructed. "You ain't gonna save the world on empty stomachs."
DJ took the hint. "C'mon guys, Tanner updated me on the setup, so let's grab a snack!"
After DJ gave them an update on the payment arrangements, the group moved to fill in where Tanner's group was just leaving with full food trays.
As DJ's squad moved out, Dylan and the final group moved in, all now outfitted in various styles of dark sunglasses. The fact that the group now contained an adult with two additional youth was immediately picked up on by both Mary and Matt, and it was Mary who got the first word in this time. "Dylan, sweetie, would you be a darling and introduce your guests?"
As Matt and Randal decided that the contents of Randals's phone needed their undivided attention, Dylan replied "Aunt Mary, this is Patricia Gentry. The oldest boy is her new son Todd, and the youngest is her original son Terry. She's moving in to take care of housekeeping, we've already cleared it with DJ."
Mary nodded. "Patricia, please join us. I have no doubt that Dylan will be pleased to assist you by getting you some food as he assists his friends."
After making mental notes for paybacks as he heard Matt and Randal trying to hide their snickers, Dylan replied, "Okay Aunt Mary. We'll be right back, Aunt Patricia!"
Patricia took the offered seat, watching to make sure that the boys were out of hearing range before asking "Did you really need to be that hard on Dylan?"
Mary smiled at the veiled challenge. "While I have no doubt that I'll gladly accept the reasoning that caused you to join our family, I am well aware of the boys in our household which have an emotional need for an adult to show that they are holding them to a certain standard. It would be unreasonable to insist on DJ holding that role alone at his age, so the rest of us need to assist him with the sudden family he has assembled."
"Patricia, I'm Matt Barnes, Clan Security, and this is Randal Franklin, Orange County CPS," Matt added. "I was the first adult 'drafted' by Clan Short, so I've been involved with their growth since shortly after they formed. Once we can all sit down in private, I'll be filling you in on some of the history. I think you'll understand where Mary is coming from after you hear that, plus you'll have a better understanding of the opportunities that have opened up for your sons, just because they are associated with the Clan now. For now, I'll tell you that if Mary had crossed the line, at least four of those boys would have instantly told her so and would have challenged her to explain herself. That's their right as Clan members, and we respect that. When they are not on Clan business, they need us to remind them to be kids, and all of us adults in the Clan take that job very seriously. That does mean that there are times that we allow things which most parents stop, but that is because the youth have already proven they can be mature when warranted by the situation."
Dylan returned with a tray for Patricia. "Here ya' go, Aunt Patricia! By the way, Uncle Matt knows what he's talking about, he listens pretty good for an old guy!"
"Thank you, Dylan," Patricia replied.
"Get back to your brothers, child!" Mary sniggered, earning her one of Dylan's patented mischievous grins before he ran off.
"How did he know what I would have bought?" Patricia asked as she prepared to eat.
Matt shrugged. "Knowing Dylan, he probably asked your youngest son. If he didn't get an answer that way, he would have asked you telepathically. Either way, he's the type of kid who won't do something until he's sure it's right, so this isn't a surprise."
DJ smiled as he watched the large group interacting with each other, exchanging various food items to try and comparing notes on their visit up to this point. Occasionally a family which had minor assistance from the Clan spotted the group, which led to them stopping to say thanks. A few had younger family members that decided to meet some of the Clan kids, which led to a few exchanges of contact information so they could build a possible friendship.
Off to the side of the group, Tanner and Chek were talking with a Starfleet Lieutenant and his two sets of twin sons at a free table.
"How can we help you, Lt. Hubel?" Tanner asked once everyone was seated.
"Please, just call me Florian," the Lieutenant replied. "My sons have been bugging me to contact the Clan for them, so when I saw all of you here I figured it might be better to let them talk to you directly."
Chek smiled at the four boys, all with curly brown hair that was almost black and dark brown eyes. The older pair looked to be thirteen, while the younger pair appeared to be ten. "You can stop trying to look in our heads, guys," Chek stated pleasantly, "We have mental walls to protect us from telepaths."
Four blushing faces proved that Chek had caught them. Tanner grinned as he said, "Nice try though! Why'd you want your Dad to talk to us?"
One of the older boys answered for the group. "I'm Gage, my twin is Grady, and the armpit-sniffers are our little brothers Zane and Zeke. We kinda picked up on Dad and his friends talking about how the Clan uses telepaths to help kids, and we thought maybe we can help."
'They feel honest so far," Damon announced in Tanner's subvocal, confirming that he was in-place to respond if needed.
"Thanks, bro," Tanner replied to Damon before giving the double twins his answer. "That sounds kewl, would you guys be okay with Chek hopping in your heads? There's some stuff we can't ask out loud here, and it lets you talk in private too. It'll break your twinlinks while we're doing it, that's pretty normal, and they'll work again when we're all done."
"Their Dad's a little worried, but they are okay," Damon updated.
'I'm on the father,' Thomas added in a mental message to Tanner. 'Nothing unusual yet. Damon's on the mental link now.'
'Thanks,' Tanner replied.
Gage and his brothers were holding a quick mental conference too. Having reached a decision, Gage replied "We're in, go ahead."
"Okay, I'm coming in," Chek replied. After taking a minute to verify that the four boys were not plants, Chek mentally explained the reason behind the upgraded security procedure and then performed a deep scan on all four at once. Thomas took care of Florian, after explaining that he needed to do a standard check to ensure the safety of the twins. Once the two had finished their reviews, they held a quick mental conference where Damon could report on the emotional reactions he had witnessed along with the scan results from Chek and Thomas.
Once he had all the information he needed, Tanner stated, "Thanks, guys; I hated having to do it that way, but all the rest of these guys count on me, DJ, and Chek to keep them safe. Did Chek answer all your questions?"
Gage smiled as he replied, "Yeah, and a few we didn't know we had! We're in if you want us; we didn't know about all the little stuff the Clan does to help!"
Tanner nodded as he replied, "I think you guys will fit in great. One of the other guys has been talking with your dad, so now we just need to see what he thinks."
Florian took the hint, and replied "I'd be a lousy parent if I didn't let you grab this opportunity. I worry about you guys every second that I'm at work, but from the sounds of it you'll be just as safe as if I just stayed home with you. If you remember, I was offered a promotion a couple of days ago that would mean me being away a lot more. If you guys approve, I could take that job knowing that you're safe with the Clan, and then we can still be together as a family when I'm around."
"We know you ain't tryin' to get rid of us," Zeke scolded. "You gotta be happy too, Dad, and you wanted to explore!"
"Oh great, a mini-Tanner!" Chek giggled. "watch it hon, you might have some competition!"
"Bite me!" Tanner grinned. "Guys, you're welcome to move in with us, and we'll make sure your Dad has a place in our house for when he's on planet."
"That works," Gage replied. "Dad needs to follow his dreams too, and this way we ain't gotta worry about CPS taking us from him."
"Don't worry about CPS, the Director is on our side!" Tanner snickered. "He's over there with our head of Security, Matt, helping to break in a new Clan mom!"
"What do we need to do to get this rolling?" Florian asked.
"You get to join Matt so that he can get your clearances set up," Tanner replied, "while the rest of us introduce your sons to their new Clan brothers."
"Yep, you're an older version of Zeke," Florian commented. "Let's get started then."
"I'll take him over to the adult table," Chek offered. "I'll catch up with you guys once I'm sure Matt's not requesting swimming lessons again."
"Dunk him anyway, he's overdue!" Tanner giggled. "C'mon guys, you got a lot of new brothers to meet!"
With that said, the two groups split. A minute later, just as Tanner finished introducing Finn and his boys, a loud yell from Matt echoed across the food court. "TANNER! YOU'RE DEAD MEAT!"
DJ, Tanner, and Chek received a surprise as they arrived back home. They were barely in the door when they heard Cory's voice instructing the group "Guys, go ahead and figure out where you want to put the new stuff you got while Sean and I talk with DJ, Chek, and Tanner, okay?"
"Okay, Grandpa!" and "Okay, Cory!" blasted from the large group. All of the boys just visiting quickly joined their friends as the mob made their way to their rooms.
The three Clan Wagner leaders exchanged glances and shrugged their shoulders, having no idea why Cory might be calling a meeting. Cory caught their attention, motioning for them to follow him as he headed towards the large conference room that was centered on the first floor.
DJ was the last one through the doorway. His stomach flipped as he spotted Sean, Tracy, Karl, and the Rat Pack sitting there with serious faces. He then noticed the two boys sitting by themselves towards the far side of the table, dressed in tight button-up white shirts and obviously on the edge of panic. Before anyone had a chance to say a single word, DJ barked "Hell NO, this ain't happening! Rand, Priority One message; set Condition Yellow, all defensive measure to full deployment. This is NOT a drill."
"Yes Sir," Rand replied. Almost immediately, every speaker in the house blared "This is not a drill! Clan Wagner set Condition Yellow, Security to DEFCON 2! This is not a drill! Clan Wagner set Condition Yellow, Security to DEFCON 2!"
Within seconds, Dylan appeared with Kopa and Kovu, both of which were now fully armed. "Rand, seal this room," Kopa ordered as he pulled DJ out of the doorway.
As soon as every possible entry was blocked, Rand announced "Patriarch, Security reports DEFCON 2 active. All incoming and outgoing transportation methods other than Mikyvis are blocked. You worry about the situation, I'm handling everyone outside the room. Thomas is briefing Intel as information is released."
"Thanks, Rand," DJ replied. "Inform Mr. Barnes to prepare for possibility of a FCC involvement in the threat matrix."
"Yes Sir," Rand replied.
As the rest of the room was still trying to process DJ's reaction, DJ quickly moved to the two unknown boys, his security detail falling in behind him. As he got close, he ordered "Kovu, you are assigned to protect these two. If ANYONE tries to touch them without their consent, you are to stun first and ask questions later."
"As you wish, Patriarch," Kovu replied, not wanting to chance DJ's apparent current foul mood.
Satisfied that the boys had protection they could visibly confirm, DJ pulled out a chair two seats away from them and sat down. With an amazing calm in his voice, DJ said,"Okay guys, I think you can tell that I'm the big boss here. All that stuff I just did is so I can make sure that you're safe from anyone that you've known previously. Right now, nobody can get in or out of this room, and the only other person that can hear what you say is Rand. Rand is the AI that makes sure the house and everyone in it is safe, so you don't need to worry about him. Kovu is assigned to protect you until him and his brother can approve semi-permanent security for you. Once they do that, the security will be assigned until both of you and I agree that you don't need it anymore. Would you guys like to have Kovu standing behind you to protect you?"
"Yes, sir," both boys replied meekly.
Kovu didn't need to hear more; he immediately moved into position behind the boys, and softly purred "If you get scared, cuddle into my side."
"Okay," the boys whispered just loud enough for Kovu to hear.
"What I'm going to do," DJ explained, "is find out what the rest of these guys know about what happened to you guys, then I'm going to make sure it can never happen to you again. If you hear anything that brings bad memories up, just cuddle with your bodyguard until you feel better. Once I'm sure that I understand what all has happened, I'll come back over here and discuss with you guys how we can handle things from now on. Does that sound okay to you?"
Both boys nodded, a trace of a smile flickering across their faces.
"Okay, I'm going to stand up and go over with everyone else," DJ explained. Being careful to not accidentally make sudden moves in their direction, he stood and turned to head around the table to where he started.
"Thanks," one of the boys offered hesitantly.
"You're welcome," DJ replied turning his head so they could see his smile.
The smile lasted just long enough for DJ to turn away from the boys and start walking. With his suspicions validated by the responses of the boys, his face drained of all emotion save the fire in his eyes.
Less than twelve hours after the formation of Clan Wagner, the one thing that will make even UNIT members tremble came to pass...
The Patriarch of Clan Wagner was pissed, and would settle for nothing less than absolute Justice.