winterjameson: (Keep Calm)
[personal profile] winterjameson

Oh, wow... I so meant to finish posting this. I swear. *facepalm* Here's the next chapter... Enjoy!


Buford and Baljeet warily checked the boundary of the debris field, listening for any sign of their friends and hoping the other groups would arrive soon. The front right-hand corner of the building had lost two and a half floors, and the bricks, twisted metal supports, and splintered wooden floorboards had spread out in an approximate ninety degree wedge. The material had spilled into the street and through the surrounding fence onto the lot next door to the right. Between the dangers in the middle of the mess and the possibility of the rest of the building falling, caution was more than called for.

"Do you think Candace and Isabella were caught in the part of the building that collapsed?" Baljeet asked quietly, looking into the gaping hole for any signs of life. His efforts were hampered by the fact that the setting sun was behind the building. It was pitch black, any details hard to make out.

"How should I know?" Buford snapped, the concern in his eyes belying the sharp tone.

Baljeet sighed. "I am worried, too."

The two boys were just starting to make their way closer when the sound of creaking metal and grinding bricks made them pause in their tracks. Glancing at the building proper, the small section of the right corner that hadn't fallen shifted downward a couple of inches, which caused the edge of the remaining building to quiver. When another groan of metal and wood shot out, Buford and Baljeet dashed back the way they'd come. They'd reached their limit of daredevil bravery for the moment.

They had just managed to dive into the alley across the street when the rest of the front of the building came crashing down, bricks and other building materials flowing into the street like water from a broken dam. The boys looked at each other wide-eyed; were their friends still in there for that? As soon as the debris appeared to stop raining down and with their ears still ringing, they were off like a shot, fear for their friends easily overcoming their fear of the collapse of the rest of the building.

"Wait a moment," Baljeet said as he and Buford came to the edge of the fallen bricks in the middle of the street, stopping his run. "Where is the rest of the debris?"

"What are you talking about?" Buford asked with some irritation, taking a few extra steps before coming to a stop himself. "You're unhappy with the size of the mess?"

"That is not what I am saying," Baljeet refuted. "What I am saying is that the mess should be bigger. The entire front half of the building has collapsed; where did all of the materials go?"

Buford frowned and was about to threaten the other boy with a wedgie if he didn't let this stupid idea go and get back to looking for the girls, but then he actually thought about what he'd been told. He blinked and took a closer look at the remains of the factory. A huge chunk of the structure was gone, at least the front third if not the entire front half had crumbled. The rubble had spread out enough to take out the fencing along the street as well as a good chunk from either side, but it was spread thin enough that it wouldn't take much effort to get through it. It was… lacking.

"Okay, fine. You've got a point," Buford conceded. "But where does that leave us?"

"We should move forward even more carefully than before. If the debris did not fall out, it most likely fell down." Baljeet began to do as he suggested, Buford following suit.

Even going as carefully as they were, it was still a close call when they came to the edge of a brick-filled pit where the front of the building used to be. "Whoa," Buford said in surprise as he made himself jerk to a halt. A couple of bricks skidded forward with the motion and bounced down out of sight. "That's a huge hole."

Baljeet nodded his agreement. "I believe this is a basement," he said, looking down into the crater.

Buford looked at him, his eyes narrowed. "But we didn't find any way down to a basement."

Baljeet's eyes widened. "That is what the girls must have found, an entrance to the basement!" His expression turned horrified. "What if they were examining the basement when the building collapsed?"

"Aw, man, you had to say it, didn't ya?" Buford griped, his expression just as horrified. He turned to face the gaping hole. "Candace! Isabella! Are you down there? Yell back if you can hear me!"

"We will help you if we know where you are!" Baljeet added, deciding at the last minute that his companion was well aware that if the girls had been in the basement they wouldn't be able to call back at all. He would think positively as long as he could.

The boys gave it a few beats before trying again. "Come on, you guys!" Buford called, cupping his mouth with his hands. "You gotta give us a sign here! How can we dig you out if you don't say anything?"

Baljeet swallowed a nervous lump in his throat. "Please! Call to us so we know where to find you!"

Another moment of silence went by, and then the Indian boy pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.

"What are you doing?" Buford asked.

"I am calling the police," Baljeet explained. "They will be much better equipped to handle a rescue of this magnitude if Candace and Isabella are indeed under the debris. We will still look, of course," he said hurriedly at the scowl the other boy gave him, "but this way we will have all our bases covered."

"Fine," Buford said after a moment. "As long as you're not giving up."

Baljeet gave a little smile. "Of course not," he murmured. He then made his call and explained the situation to the operator. "They will be here as soon as they can," he said after ending the call. "Apparently there are a number of quake-related incidences all over Danville."

Buford nodded. "All the more reason to keep looking on our own." He cleared his throat. "Candace! Isabella! We're still here! Give a shout so we know where you are!"

"Perhaps we should…" But Baljeet never got a chance to say what they should do, because another sound cut him off.

"Buford! Baljeet! Where are you?" Candace's shout sounded distant but clear.

The two boys grinned madly at each other then turned back to the factory building. "We are in front of the building!" Baljeet cried. "What part of the basement are you and Isabella in?"

A moment of silence almost had the boys worried. "We're on the stairs to the basement!" Candace yelled. "The hallway at the bottom is almost totally blocked off, so you're going to have come inside and help with the door! There's a pile of junk in front of it, too, but not any worse than it was before!"

Buford looked at Baljeet. "Do you have any idea what she's talking about?"

"Well, I suppose there was a door closing off the stairs to the basement, and it was buried during one of the earlier quakes. We will have to help them clear it."

"Good enough for me." The husky boy turned back toward the structure. "We're on our way!" he called. "We shouldn't be too long!"

"Hurrying is a wonderful idea!" Candace shouted as the boys carefully skirted the hole and tiptoed through the debris.

The street lights flickered to life as Buford and Baljeet got past the rubble and started running to the back door. The sun hadn't quite set, but had still gotten low enough that it was hidden behind the skyline. The boys didn't linger long in the now-shadowed rear of the building; after a brief pause to make sure there were no signs the rest of the structure was about to collapse, they went inside.

There was more light than either boy had expected once they'd gotten through the locker room and into the factory floor proper. Apparently the quake had caused a lot of the boards that had been covering the windows to fall off, and so a mix of dying sunlight and artificial light from the street lamps was able to filter through, on top of what light streamed in from the now-open yet drooping front of the building. It was also obvious what pile of junk Candace had been talking about when they saw the six-foot tall mound of bricks and broken pieces of wood in front of one of the last vestiges of the left-hand office walls.

"So where was the door hidden?" Buford asked as they reached the pile and began looking it over to figure out how they were going to clear it out of the way.

"I believe there was some kind of fabric covering it," Baljeet said, pointing at a bundle of dark, dirty, and torn material sticking out of the rubble. "It is the only reason I can think of for why we would have missed it."

"It was kind of dark in here," Buford mused. "Lots of shadows."

Baljeet ignored the statement and narrowed his eyes in consideration. "I would be better able to figure out what we need to do if I could determine where exactly the door was."

Buford shrugged. "That I can help with." He took a deep breath. "Okay, we're in!" he hollered, making Baljeet to flinch away and cover his ears. "Where's the door?"

A few loose bricks fell to the floor from the ceiling. "Buford! You have to be careful!" Baljeet admonished him, his eyes wide. "The whole structure is unstable!"

The sound of more bricks tumbling down the pile in front of them returned the boys' attention to the matter at hand. Then Baljeet gasped and pointed. "There! At the top of the pile! That was a hand!"

"You mean someone pushed those bricks?" Buford asked, looking for himself. He grinned when said hand waved. "Someone did! Is that you, Candace?"

"Yes," Candace replied, at a volume less than a shout but still audible through the debris.

"Baljeet's right," Isabella's voice chimed in. "We should be careful about yelling now that we're close enough. All the rubble shakes when we shout."

Both boys released a breath of relief at the evidence that Isabella was also all right. "We'll start digging where we saw your hand, then," Buford said.

Baljeet again pointed toward the top of the pile. "We should begin there and take it down from the top. The pile will be less likely to topple onto us that way."

"I'm all for not getting buried," Buford agreed.

The two of them started tossing bricks aside, hurrying as much as they thought they could get away with in deference to the threat literally hanging over their heads. There was help from the other side of the pile as well. But there was cause to pause when they'd cleared about a foot worth of debris and they caught sight of green hair and smaller hands taking bricks and passing them in the other direction. There were also flashes of darker red hair further back.

"Ferb?" Buford asked, shocked, sticking his face into the hole that had been created.

"And Phineas?" Baljeet asked in the same tone, his face appearing next to Buford's.

"You found them?" both boys asked simultaneously.

Candace closed her eyes and released a slow breath. "Yes, thank goodness."

Phineas poked his head between his brother and sister and gave his friends a wide smile. "Hi, guys. Thanks for coming." Ferb gave them a thumbs up.

Buford shook his head and returned the expression. "Only you, Dinner Bell. Only you would just stand there and say thanks in this situation."

"Are those bandages you are wearing?" Baljeet asked, pointing at what he could see of Phineas' sling.

"We'll tell you everything once we're out of here," Candace interrupted.

"Right," Buford and Baljeet again said in unison, then went back to work.

It wasn't too much longer before they had another foot cleared from in front of the door and a path from the door to the lower part of the pile. Buford and Baljeet then took Phineas' right hand and pulled while Candace carefully helped lift him to make up for his inability to use his left arm. Isabella was next, the girl gingerly accepting help from the two boys outside the stairwell due to a pounding headache. Ferb quickly followed, and Candace made sure to come out last. Once they were reunited, there was a huge sigh of relief from all of them.

Buford and Baljeet led the six of them out of the factory through the backdoor. They went around the right side of the building, now being lit almost exclusively by the street lamps. As they reached the front of the structure, Baljeet glanced down into the shadowy hole made by the basement and paused. "That is odd," he mused, his brow furrowing.

"What's odd?" Phineas asked, curious but not moving closer to the pit.

"This side of the basement is not as filled as the other, as though the only debris came from the first partial collapse." He glanced at the redheaded boy. "Or at least not much from the second collapse. It merely struck me as strange."

"That is strange," Isabella agreed nervously, eying the dark hole warily. "Especially considering that's where Mister Connors was the last time we saw him." Baljeet gave her a surprised look.

Candace stared for a long silent moment at that part of the basement, flinching at the sound of shifting bricks that happened every now and again. Finally she shook her head and looked away. "Let's get away from here, maybe take a rest on the curb across the street. Then I can actually think and remember where I parked the car so we can go to the hospital."

Baljeet glanced around. "Actually I am hoping the police have not been here and left while we were inside," he said. "I do not believe I heard anyone approach, but I cannot be certain."

Buford shrugged. "You said there was a lot of stuff that happened around the city, so I doubt they were here. We should probably just wait."

"You called the police?" Candace asked, surprised.

"Yes, after the remainder of the front half of the building collapsed and we were afraid you had been buried in the rubble," Baljeet explained. "They could not be sure when someone would arrive as there were many quake-related incidents all over the city."

"Oh, okay," Candace said, blinking. "Then I guess we can sit and wait for a while."

A thought occurred to Buford and he pulled out his cell phone as the group moved across the street. "That's what I figured," he muttered after pressing a few buttons. "You know, there's another reason to wait. The other groups are meeting us here, remember?" He elbowed Baljeet in the ribs.

Isabella looked at him as she and Ferb helped Phineas take a seat on the curb. "Really? I would have thought they'd gone home by now."

Buford shook his head. "Nah. I sent them a text after the first quake, when we got a little… concerned that you might have been inside. Kinda forgot about that until just now, though."

"That's pretty understandable," Phineas said with a tired smile. He then sighed and let his eyes close.

Ferb saw the action and immediately knelt down slightly behind and to his brother's right. It allowed Phineas to lean back a bit and start to relax, just as it was meant to do.

Candace watched her brothers and bit her lower lip when she saw the deep breath Ferb released when they were settled, a few tears welling up in her eyes. She didn't want to imagine what they'd been through. The questions that thought brought to mind set the girl to pacing, her entire body tense and anxious.

A few moments later, Isabella swayed slightly, closing her eyes, and barely caught her balance. Baljeet noticed and quickly moved to her side. "Are you all right?" he asked the black-haired girl.

"I'm fine," she said, reopening her eyes and giving her friend a small smile meant to be reassuring. "Just a little bit of a dizzy spell."

"Perhaps you should sit down," Ferb offered. "You most likely have a concussion after all."

"You're probably right," Isabella conceded, "but I'll be fine. The feeling's already gone."

Candace paused and gave her a narrow-eyed glare. "Oh, just sit down, Isabella," she ordered. "You don't have to prove anything to anybody."

Phineas looked at her with concern. "Yeah, Isabella. We're just waiting for the police. Come on and sit down with us."

Isabella looked at the sincere redhead and let her shoulders droop. "All right," she agreed. She gave him a half-smile. "I'm not sure how much longer I could have kept standing anyway." She then gave Baljeet's arm a squeeze as he helped lower her to the curb next to Phineas.

"That's driving me crazy," Candace said with a wave toward the half-tumbled factory as she began pacing once again. "Every time I hear those bricks shift I feel like jumping fifty feet in the air."

"Yeah, it makes me jumpy, too," Phineas said. Ferb nodded his agreement.

"And me as well, although it is for multiple reasons," Baljeet added. "Who knows when the rest of the building will come down?"

Buford stomped over to Baljeet and punched his arm. "You just had to bring that up, didn't ya?"

Baljeet flinched and rubbed the sore spot. "Sorry. But it is bound to happen, most likely soon."

Before another punch could be thrown, there was another shift in the bricks followed by the sound of multiple running feet along the sidewalk in their direction. All six kids turned their heads sharply to the left to see what was coming at them. The relief was palpable when Jeremy Johnson could be seen running ahead of the rest of his searching team.

"Jeremy!" Candace cried, even as a louder scrape of bricks moving could be heard. She stopped moving just to Ferb's right and clasped her hands together, bringing them up to her mouth. Finally someone was there to help her with all of this, to help her be strong! She wasn't sure how she'd done so well up to that point.

"No!" a different, hoarse voice shouted from across the street. "This can't happen!"

Everyone snapped their heads around to see a very dusty and bloody William Connors standing on the edge of the hole that used to be a basement. He had an insane glint in his eyes and, exponentially more frightening, a handgun pointed in the direction of the Flynn-Fletcher siblings. His arms seemed a bit shaky, but no one doubted his aim would be true at such a short distance.

The blond man was breathing shallowly, his chest heaving with the effort he'd expended climbing out of the pit. It kept his rambling raspy and scratchy. "You… you won't ruin this! This was mine! They were mine! And… and then they…" He struggled to take a deeper breath. "Traitor… So close…" The barrel of the gun started to dip slightly. "And then… then… You! I won't let this go away!"

The events that happened next went by in a blur. William fired. Jeremy - who had only paused briefly before continuing his hurried approach - dove at Candace with a cry of her name. Ferb and Isabella dove on top of Phineas, all of them cringing in anticipation of a potential bullet wound. Buford threw Baljeet to the ground and covered him with his body. Dustin and Adyson made sure Ginger and Irving hit the deck and were protected, even being as far back as they were.

They all waited for the madness to continue, totally afraid to move.


* * * * * * * *

Perry had done a swift but thorough search of the structures he knew the children were supposed to be looking through during his fight with Doofenshmirtz, happily finding no one had been harmed. Unfortunately he had also seen that the blasts that had escaped the D.E.I. building had been somewhat more destructive than the evil scientist had anticipated. The local authorities had responded quickly, however, and had everything in hand. Traffic was going to be a bear for some hours to come, though.

Luckily, Perry didn't have to worry about the streets of Danville since he was using his hovercraft. Once he'd made the rounds of the kids' search schedule, he decided to check out the last three buildings on his own personal list that he hadn't be able to examine the day before. It was later than he normally would have been out, but he didn't want to put this off another day. The aftereffects of his battle with his nemesis had him feeling a bit uneasy with the situation. He figured as long as he showed up before the family went to bed any concern would be short-lived and quickly forgotten.

The last building on his list was an old shoe factory, built in the early part of the twentieth century. Perry's feeling of anticipation grew as he got closer; Phineas and Ferb had the best chance of being there according to everything he and the kids had come up with. But as he started to make his approach, his heart fell into his stomach. He could see part of the building had collapsed, although he couldn't be a hundred percent sure of the extent of the damage. Had the boys been hurt? Doofenshmirtz would be sorry if they were, even if the platypus knew the man hadn't intended any such thing.

Perry landed the hovercraft on the building across the street to better assess the situation. As he moved to the edge of the roof, several things caught his attention. Phineas, Ferb, and Candace's group were on the sidewalk right in front of the building he was on, which explained why he hadn't seen them previously given the direction he'd come from. Jeremy and his group were running to join them. And William Connors was yelling and aiming a gun at Perry's family.

The secret agent stiffened. No. Not on his watch. Not if he had anything to say about it.

Activating his glider, Perry dove off the roof and headed directly for the gun-toting man just as the weapon was fired. He heard the screams and the echoes of the concussive blast… and saw red. Letting go of the crossbar, the platypus hit Connors with all the force his momentum provided, sending them both down into the brick-filled pit amidst the ruins of the factory. When they landed, Perry kicked the gun away from his target, then landed a number of blows to various parts of Connors' body.

Doofenshmirtz had once described Perry as a suave, semi-aquatic personification of unstoppable dynamic fury, but even he would have been stunned by the intensity of the platypus' attack on William Connors.

The sound of sirens brought Perry back to himself. Looking Connors over, he saw the man was unconscious and more battered than he was before, but he'd live. The OWCA agent brought the gun closer so that it could be found with the one who'd used it to threaten the lives of the children. Taking a deep breath, Perry calmed himself and quietly climbed out of the hole and into the shadows. Then he tucked his fedora away and reverted to mindless pet mode, wanting nothing more than to hear a certain almost-magical phrase…


* * * * * * * *

The kids were surprised when they heard the sound of sirens and nothing else had happened to anyone. There had been a clattering of bricks, but no further gun shots. And when they were brave enough to open their eyes, William Connors could no longer be seen.

"What happened to him?" Phineas asked as Ferb and Isabella helped him back into a sitting position, then checked him over to make sure they hadn't injured him further. "Where did he go?"

"I bet the blast knocked him back down into the basement," Buford suggested as he sat on Baljeet, his arms crossed over his chest.

"You can get off of me then," Baljeet said weakly, the breath still knocked out of him.

Buford waited a few moments to be cruel, then complied.

Candace fought to keep from hyperventilating underneath Jeremy. She'd heard a grunt of pain as he'd tackled her, but she wasn't totally sure where it had come from, and her mind was filled with images of one or both of her brothers bleeding to death as she lay there. "Jeremy?" she finally whispered. "I think it's okay to get up now." She involuntarily took a deep breath when the blond teenager started to move. "We should check to see if anybody's… hurt…" Her words trailed off and her eyes grew wide when she saw the blood streaming down Jeremy's arm as he rolled off her. "Jeremy!"

"I'm okay," Jeremy said through clenched teeth as his left hand quickly clapped over his right upper arm, the source of the blood. "I'm pretty sure it's just a flesh wound."

"Oh, Jeremy!" Candace sobbed, sitting up. "You got hurt protecting me!"

As the rest of the kids including the remainder of Jeremy's building-hunting group began to surround the couple, a police car with its siren running pulled up, an ambulance not far behind. An officer quickly came over to them once the sirens fell silent. "Are you kids all right?" the man asked. "Were you caught inside when the building collapsed?" He pointed at the fallen factory.

Candace didn't know how she did it, but she took one last look at her injured boyfriend and pulled herself together. "Some of us were, yes, but we were only in there because that's where my brothers were being held captive by my mom's first husband."

"Your brothers?" the officer asked, looking where the teenager had gestured. Phineas and Ferb waved back. "Oh! The Flynn-Fletcher boys!" he exclaimed, recognizing them after only a brief moment. He smiled. "It's good to see you boys safe! Now I've got to call this in, but I'll send the paramedics over to take a look at you. Then you can tell me just what happened here."

The two EMTs came over and checked them all out, Jeremy and Phineas first. The woman examining the younger boy complimented Isabella on her first aid, making the Fireside Girl blush. Her cheeks got even redder when Phineas added his own compliment.

Just as most of the examinations and preliminary care were being completed, a second patrol car and ambulance arrived. The second team of paramedics hurried over to where William was supposed to have fallen, and along with an officer made their way down to examine him. Meanwhile, the first team started to make the arrangements for transportation.

Phineas was sitting on the curb letting everyone else's words wash over him when he felt a familiar rub against his right leg. He looked down, startled, to see Perry next to him. He grinned. "Oh, there you are, Perry," he said, then managed to scoop the platypus up with his good arm and gave him a hug. "Take a look, Ferb," he said to his brother, who had just finished having the cut along his hairline bandaged. "Perry was so worried he came out looking for us." Ferb simply came over and embraced the beloved pet.

Perry just sighed and gave a contented chitter.

It wasn't long after that when all the arrangements had been made and all the injured children were being transported to the hospital. Candace grabbed Perry, Baljeet, and Buford and followed behind in her parents' car, while Dustin drove Irving, Ginger, and Adyson in the vehicle Jeremy had borrowed from his parents. A quick text message to Stacy and Coltrane ensured that their teams would be meeting them at the hospital as well.

It was when she had arrived at her destination that Candace realized she still had one extremely difficult call to make. Well, equal parts difficult and best-news-ever.

Her parents.


* * * * * * * *

Candace had Buford and Baljeet call their parents before she gathered up her own courage for a similar phone call. Dustin and the others hadn't arrived yet; the four kids who had been transported had been taken back for examination. Even William had been hurried through - complete with a police escort - for some emergency surgery. The redheaded girl took one last look around the almost empty ER waiting room, then found herself an out-of-the-way corner and hit one on her phone's speed dial.

"Candace, where are you?" Linda's worried voice asked after only half a ring.

"Mom, hold on. Please." Candace took a deep breath and steadied herself, suddenly wondering why she hadn't gotten a phone call of her own. She pulled back the phone and glanced at the display; she cringed when she saw the voice mail icon with the number three next to it.

"Candace?" Linda asked again, her voice now softer and filled with concern. She could hear the shakiness in her daughter's tone.

The teenager licked her lips before responding. "Mom, we found them," she whispered.

There was dead silence for a long moment. "You found who?" Linda asked quietly.

"The boys," Candace said through a choked sob. "We found Phineas and Ferb. Connors took them, just like we all thought!"

"What? Bill?"

"Oh, Mom, they were in the basement, and there were a couple quakes, and part of the building fell down on top of us, and then he shot at us…"

"Candace… Candace!" Linda cut her off before she could completely lose it. "Just tell me where you are."

Candace sniffed and wiped at her eyes. "The hospital. We're at the hospital."

Linda gasped. "What? Are you all right? What about the boys?"

"I'm fine, Mom, and so are Phineas and Ferb." She paused. "Well, they will be. Phineas' arm is broken, and they both got hit in the head by falling bricks. The doctors are looking at them now."

"All right." It was Linda's turn to have a quiver in her voice. "We'll be there as soon as we can. Just hold on until we get there."

"Mom, wait." Candace took a couple of deep breaths, finding it harder to keep control. "Can you call Isabella's mom? And Jeremy's parents? I don't think I can hold it together for those calls."

Linda paused before speaking again. "What happened to them?"

Candace couldn't help but smile slightly. Their friends' welfare was always important to her mom. "Isabella got hit in the head, too, and has a concussion. She's awake and talking and everything, so she should be okay. Jeremy…" She took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes. "Jeremy got grazed by a bullet. Just a flesh wound. They're stitching it up as we speak."

"A bullet?" Linda practically screeched.

"Mom, please!" Candace sobbed. "I'll explain everything once you get here. I just… I don't think I can do it over the phone."

Linda took a few deep breaths. "Okay, okay, sweetheart. We'll be there as soon as we can, and I'll make those calls for you. I don't know if I'm going to tell Mary Johnson her son's been shot, though."

Candace nodded, not thinking about how the gesture couldn't be seen. "Thanks, Mom," she said softly, doing her best to blink away the tears that refused to go. "I just…" She sighed. "Thanks."

"I love you, sweetheart. We'll be there soon."

"I love you, too."

Candace hung up just as the other three groups of kids came into the ER's waiting room, quickly followed by a police officer emerging from where William had been taken. The man flinched at the increase in decibel level and declared that everyone who wasn't at the shoe factory had to go home. Even Dustin, Adyson, Ginger, and Irving were told to go and come down to the station in the morning to give statements.

Stacy and Jenny gave Candace a quick hug on their way out. "You better call us tomorrow and tell us what happened!" the Asian girl demanded with a smile.

Jenny nodded her agreement. "Definitely. And we want to make sure everyone's okay."

"I'll give you both a call as soon as I remember," Candace replied to them both, giving them a tired smile.

"And you did great through this whole thing. I want you to know that," Stacy said seriously. "You really took charge and made everything happen. I'm totally proud to call you my best friend."

Tears welled up again in Candace's eyes, and she pulled Stacy in for a tight embrace. "Thanks for being there for me," she whispered, then looked at Jenny standing behind them. "You too."

Stacy gave her another squeeze and stepped back. "Any time, you know that. Now we better get going before that cop literally tosses us out. I'll get Django and Gretchen home, don't worry about that, and Jenny and Sarah are on my way home. My group's good."

Candace just nodded and gave them another hug before watching them leave.

"I'll take care of Johnny, Holly, Katie, and Milly," Coltrane said as he stepped up to Candace a moment later. "I'm just sorry we couldn't get to you in time to help."

"You were a big help, Coltrane," Candace told him with a smile. "Don't ever think you weren't." She hugged him. "Thanks for being there for me. It meant a lot."

"You're my friend," Coltrane said simply once they'd separated. "Now we're going to get going." The two teenagers shared another smile, then the bassist rounded up his group and got them going, the Fireside Girls waving as they went.

Dustin watched them go then came over. "Do Jeremy's parents know about what happened yet?"

Candace sighed. "My mom said she'd call them on her way over here."

The drummer nodded. "Then I'll use Jeremy's car to take Adyson, Ginger, and Irving home. Let his parents know I'm dropping it off at their place when I'm done, okay? My bike's there, so I've got a ride."

"I'll make sure of it, Dustin. Thanks for everything."

"Not a problem. I'm just glad everything turned out okay. Now we better go." Dustin grinned. "Talk to you soon, all right?" He winked when Candace gave him an affirmative nod, then rounded up the younger kids and led them out.

Once they were gone, Candace released a large breath and flopped down onto one of the armchairs, grateful this hospital didn't use those hard plastic ones you always read about in books. She looked over at where Baljeet and Buford sat nearby and smiled slightly. "It's just down to us, I guess."

Buford shrugged. "It was bound to happen eventually," he said shortly, his eyes constantly shooting over to the entrance.

"I do not know about either of you, but I am afraid of what my parents will say when they arrive," Baljeet said, not even bothering to hide his own gaze at the ER doors. "They did not say much when I told them where I was, only that they would be leaving immediately."

"It'll be okay, Baljeet," Candace tried to soothe. "If nothing else, I'll explain everything and tell them it was all my idea. I don't want you to get in trouble when you were so much help. I don't want either one of you to get in trouble. In fact," here the girl swallowed a bit nervously and glanced between the two boys, "if it weren't for you two and Isabella, I never would have been able to do this, and who knows what would have happened to Phineas and Ferb if we hadn't found them in time?" She gave a short laugh that ended in a strangled sob. "Just… thanks for everything."

Both boys turned their heads and looked at her with wide, surprised eyes for a long, silent moment, then returned the sad, tired smile she struggled to maintain. "They're my best friends," Buford said quietly, reflexively looking around for witnesses. "Them and Isabella and even the nerd here. I'm just glad you gave me the chance to do something to help them." He straightened and gave them both a stern look. "And if you tell anyone else I said that, I'll deny it, then make you pay for it."

Candace just chuckled and shook her head while Baljeet did his best to hide his amusement. "I am also grateful for the opportunity to help find them," the Indian boy said. "I do not know where I would be without Phineas and Ferb. I am glad I do not have to find out."

Buford's mother arrived first and pulled her son aside to speak with him. Her heavy concern was crystal clear in her expression, and although Candace couldn't hear her words precisely, the tone was sharp. It was slightly amusing to see the woman's immediate and thorough physical examination to make sure the husky boy's claim of being unharmed beyond a few scrapes and bruises was true, however.

A similar scene happened when Baljeet's parents arrived and politely excused themselves to another quiet corner of the large reception area. The couple was more discreet about making sure their son was all right, and Candace could make nothing out beyond a soft murmur as they spoke. She really did hope neither boy got in trouble for helping her; she'd take being grounded for a year on their behalf for the help they'd given her. And that help had been so much more than physical. Their moral and intellectual help had meant everything, and had been a huge reason for their success.

"Oh, my baby's a hero!" Biffany Van Stomm cried suddenly, then wrapped her son in a nearly suffocating embrace.

"Mom!" Buford protested, even as he returned the hug. "There are people here!"

The police officer approached them once they stepped apart, having been kind enough to allow them a reunion before taking care of the required details. They spoke for a short time, then the officer moved back to his original position close to the reception desk, this time waiting for Baljeet and his family to finish talking. He gave Candace a small smile and nod as he resumed his post.

Buford walked over to Candace and shoved his hands in his pockets. "The cop says I can come in tomorrow morning and give a statement because it's so late," he explained. "And since I'm not hurt I can get out of here." He glanced back at his mom, who stood a few steps behind. "She's been real worried, so I'm gonna go. You gonna be okay?"

Candace gave him a smile. "I'll be fine. My parents and grandparents are on their way. You have a good night."

"Night." With a nod the boy was off, his mother hovering protectively over him the whole way.

Candace looked back over at Baljeet just in time to see his mother kneel in front of him and take him into a warm embrace, his father smiling as he laid a gentle hand on top of the boy's head. It was good to see that had worked out well. At least, she hoped it had. She didn't always - okay, almost never - understand Baljeet's different heritage, so she was really just guessing. Smiles and hugs were good things, right?

Again there was a brief discussion with the officer that ended with the officer returning to his post and the Indian family preparing to leave. Baljeet came over while his parents waited by the doors. "I am going to give a statement in the morning," he said. "For now, my parents will be taking me home."

"You're not in trouble, are you?" Candace asked.

"Actually, my parents say they are quite proud that my actions led to finding my friends and keeping them safe," Baljeet answered, sounding a little shocked. "That, and they are happy that I am relatively unharmed."

Candace smiled. "That's great. You should let them take you home, then. My parents and grandparents are on their way, so I'll be fine."

Baljeet hesitated. "If you are sure…"

"I'm sure. Now go home and get some rest."

"All right. I hope the rest of your night goes well." He gave a little wave and left with his parents.

Once she was alone, Candace blew out a deep breath and slouched in her chair, her smile fading away completely. The tears she had been fighting most of the night swelled up again, and this time she couldn't keep them from silently streaming down her face. All of her fears for her brothers had come to a head that day, on top of all of her pent-up anger at her birth father for what he had done to her so long ago as well as over the past two weeks. She closed her eyes and let herself sob quietly, covering her face with her hands. It was all too much to bear, especially by herself.

Then the doors to the ER banged open. "Candace?" Linda Flynn-Fletcher cried. "Candace, where are you?"

"Candace, darling," Lawrence Fletcher chimed in. "Are you all right?"

"Mom! Dad!" Candace cried, jumping to her feet and running over to where her parents stood in the middle of the lobby. She threw herself into her mother's waiting arms. "Oh, Mom! I was so scared, but I had to hold it together, and… and…" Her words trailed off into uncontrollable sobs.

Linda looked at her husband and both sets of grandparents as she held her daughter tight. "It's okay, Candace, I'm here," she soothed, beginning to rub Candace's back in circles. "We're all here. Can you tell us where your brothers are?"

Candace nodded against her mother's shoulder and sniffed in an attempt to get herself under control again. "They… they were taken back to the examination rooms," she explained, her breathing hitching. "I'm pretty sure they mentioned scans and tests. And Phineas needs to have a cast put on his arm."

The adults of the Flynn-Fletcher family breathed an audible sigh of relief, even though Candace had already told Linda those facts over the phone. "All right, Candace," Linda said gently, nodding at Lawrence who gestured toward the reception desk. "Your father is going to go ask the nurse about Phineas and Ferb. Can you tell us what happened today?"

"Well," Candace drew out as she straightened and moved out of the embrace. She grabbed some tissues from a nearby table and wiped at her eyes and nose.

Before she could go on, Vivian Garcia-Shapiro and Jack and Mary Johnson came into the ER and hurried up to Linda. "Linda," Vivian said, her face pale. "Do you have any news?"

Linda shook her head. "We just got here ourselves. Lawrence is talking to the nurse."

The three newcomers nodded. "We'll go check, too," Jack said and led them away.

"Why don't you go ahead and tell your story?" Betty Jo said, eyebrows raised.

"I… have a suggestion," Candace said, her shoulder sagging and her voice tired once again. "If it's okay with all of you, I'd rather just have to say it once. Can we bring the officer over and make this my official statement? And we can have Mrs. Garcia-Shapiro and Mister and Mrs. Johnson there, too. I'm sure they'll want to hear it."

"That would be fine," Linda agreed.

Lawrence came back to them at that point. "I had to sign a bit of paperwork, but it sounds like the boys will be fine. They're being transferred to a regular room for the night for observation, and we'll be able to take them home in the morning."

The rest of the family brightened. "When can we see them?" Linda asked.

"In forty-five minutes to an hour, or so they tell me," Lawrence answered. "There's admission paperwork, letting them get settled into their room, that sort of thing."

"Sounds like just enough time to hear what Candace has to tell us," Reg declared.

They talked to the officer, and he was more than happy to take Candace's statement. He spoke with the nurse on duty who arranged to let them speak in a small meeting room for privacy. Vivian joined the group, in the same boat as the Flynn-Fletchers with Isabella also being kept for the night for observation. But before they could ask Jack and Mary, Jeremy came walking out from the examination rooms.

The blond teenager immediately hugged his worried parents and assured them he was fine. He'd only been kept in back so long because their signatures were needed to release him. Then he walked over to Candace and gave her a warm embrace. "Are you still doing all right?" he asked gently. "I know how tough today has been for you."

Candace smiled at her boyfriend. "I'm fine now that my family's here and I know everybody's going to be okay."

"Candace was just about to give her statement to the officer here and let us all know what happened," Linda said to Mary. "You're more than welcome to join us."

"I don't know," Mary said, staring at the bandage on her son's right arm.

"Please, Mom," Jeremy said, facing her. "Candace doesn't need to say this more than once right now, and there are things I'd like to know, too." He turned back to his girlfriend. "Is that all right? Do you want me to sit in on this?"

Candace's small smile turned soft and she nodded. "I'd like that," she said simply, taking his hand.

The group proceeded to settle themselves in the room the nurse had provided, and Candace began to tell her tale. She went through everything she had done, how she, Isabella, Baljeet, and Buford had worked out their theories and strategies, how they'd recruited the other kids and organized the search efforts. She described that day's hunt, how they'd reached the last building on their list with sinking hopes, and how she'd had a feeling they needed to be as quick as they could be without sacrificing thoroughness. She told them how she and Isabella had seen the curtain that had covered the door to the basement move in the evening breeze that had come up, and what they had seen when they explored the new discovery.

From there, Candace had a hard time telling her story smoothly. Jeremy gave the hand he still held a comforting squeeze, and the adults were kind enough to let her speak at her own pace. Finally she reached the point where the first police officer had arrived at the shoe factory. Her words trailed off, then she took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips.

"Oh, Candace," Linda whispered, smiling, moving over to wrap her arms around her daughter.

"I promise, Mom, we were going to get the police. That's what Isabella and I were trying to do when everything happened." Candace squeezed her mother tightly and buried her face in Linda's shoulder.

"I know," Linda said. "I know. While on one hand I wish you would have left things to the police because it would have been safer, I also know that what you did probably saved your brothers. And I can never thank you enough for that."

Once the mother and daughter pair pulled apart, Candace looked at the other parents in the room. "I hope you aren't angry at Jeremy or Isabella," she said quietly. "It was all my idea to start with, so if you're going to be mad, it should probably be at me."

Vivian smiled at her. "Oh, my Isa is too headstrong to do anything she doesn't want to do. And she thinks too much of your brothers to not want to help them. I'm not angry at you, Candace."

"Hey, I helped because I wanted to help," Jeremy said with a look at his parents. "No one made me do anything. I like your brothers, and I knew how much it meant for you to help find them. As for this," he gestured at his bandage, "there's no one to blame but Mister Connors. He's the one who fired the gun."

"When the boy's right, he's right," Jack said with a half-smile. "You kids are a little too impulsive for your own good sometimes, I think, but everything worked out for the best in the end."

"I think we'll save our anger for this Mister Connors," Mary said darkly. "He's the one who really hurt our boy, and took Phineas and Ferb in the first place."

Linda flinched at the statement, causing Lawrence to come over and put an arm around her shoulders. "You couldn't have known he'd do any such thing, darling," he said comfortingly. "There was no reason to suspect anything."

Mary suddenly looked abashed. "I'm sorry, Linda," she said contritely. "I didn't mean to say anything bad about you."

"I know," Linda said with a sigh.

"Bill better hope I don't get a hold of him, with everything he's done," Betty Jo growled, crossing her arms over her chest.

Ignoring the comment, Candace looked over at the officer, who was just finishing writing up his notes. "Is that enough, Officer?" she asked. "Do you need anything else from me?"

The man looked up and smiled. "That should be enough, Miss Flynn. Thank you for being so thorough. If there is anything else, I'll be sure to be in contact." He looked at Linda and Lawrence. "Detective Walters was wondering if he'd be able to come speak with your sons after they've been released." He looked at Vivian. "And your daughter as well, if that's possible."

"If the boys are up for it, I don't see a problem," Lawrence said. "We'll call the detective as soon they're settled in at home."

"Oh, si. I'll call him, too," Vivian agreed.

"Where is the detective?" Winnie asked.

"He's dealing with William Connors, and all the details in regards to that," the officer explained. "I'm going to go file my report, and leave you people in peace. Have a good night." He stood and left with a friendly nod.

Mary and Jack stepped over to Jeremy. "We're going to get home ourselves," Mary said. "It's been a long night."

Candace blinked as she remembered something. "Oh! I was supposed to tell you Dustin took Jeremy's car back to your house after dropping off Adyson, Ginger, and Irving."

Jeremy smiled at her. "I was wondering about that. I'll give him a call tomorrow and thank him." He hugged the redheaded teenager. "I'll call you, too. Will early afternoon be all right?"

"That should be perfect," Candace replied dreamily.

"I'll talk to you then."

"Just give me a call when everything settles down a bit, all right, Linda?" Mary said as her family headed for the door.

Linda nodded. "I'll do that. Have a good night."

Lawrence glanced at the clock in the room when the Johnsons were gone. "I think the kids should be set up in their rooms by now," he said.

Vivian practically jumped to her feet. "I need to find out what room my Isa is in," she said eagerly. "The doctor said there probably wasn't anything to worry about, that he was just admitting her because of her age and how long it took for her concussion to be treated, but I won't be sure of anything until I see her for myself."

"I think we all understand completely, Viv," Linda said with a smile. She stepped over and hugged her best friend. "We feel the same way."

"Oh, si, si, of course you would," Vivian said as she returned the embrace. "Now let's go find out where those rooms are." She hurried out of the room, the Flynn-Fletcher family close behind.

* * * * * * * *

Perry had stayed in the car when Candace had first parked in the hospital parking lot and led Baljeet and Buford inside, knowing his appearance with them would draw the wrong kind of attention. He was fully capable of getting inside undetected; he wanted to take advantage of some time alone to get his emotions back under control. He also used the time to use his OWCA-issued tablet to compose a message to Monogram informing him that the boys had been found and were currently safe at the hospital. He mentioned William Connors' presence in the same place as well as that he was in police custody, although he decided to leave out his own part in sending him there.

The platypus witnessed all of the arrivals of the rest of the kids and of the families, and also saw most of them leave once again. Once things looked like they were settling down, Perry decided he could make an unobtrusive appearance and find out what was going on. His priority was to find out how Phineas and Ferb were doing, of course, but he also wanted to make sure Candace was holding together all right. He'd watched her at the shoe factory earlier and knew how much pressure she was feeling.

He slipped inside just in time to see the Flynn-Fletcher family as well as a police officer and Isabella and Jeremy's parents go into a private room. Hurrying, he managed to join them before the door closed, lucky enough to avoid being noticed. It was interesting to hear the whole story from Candace, and he was filled with even more pride for the girl. She'd been a very effective leader. It was also nice to see the support she received from everyone in the room. She didn't just need it, she deserved it.

It was a little more difficult to find his way to the boys' room without being seen by anyone. Perry heard the room number and decided taking the elevator would not be in his best self-interest, and so took the stairs. Fortunately the door was open, but he knew he couldn't give in to the impulse to join either boy on their bed. There was no way they'd let him go, and there was equally no way the family would let him stay. So he quietly padded his way inside and under the nearest bed, Ferb's.

The reunion was heartwarming. There were tears and reassurances and hugs and kisses, all signs of the love the blended family shared on all sides. Phineas showed off his orange cast, saying he picked it because it matched his shirts. Ferb pointed out the bandage covering the cut above his temple, proudly displaying a popular cartoon character, although Perry didn't know who he was. Both boys were grateful their parents had thought to bring their regular pajamas, commenting how nice it was to finally wear clothes of their own that hadn't been worn for a week straight. It was quiet for a few moments after that statement, but an appreciative hug from both boys once they'd changed brought the mood back up nicely.

Candace and the adults couldn't stay long. The boys were exhausted, having only managed to stay awake as long as they had because they knew the family was there and coming up to see them. Their sister was also tired, although she fought showing it since she felt like the boys' needs should come before hers. There was one last round of hugs and kisses, and then the family left with the reassurance that they'd be back to take the boys home in the morning.

A nurse came in soon after that and did a last check-up before letting the boys sleep. Once she'd shut the door behind herself, and the sound of soft, slow, and steady breathing could be heard coming from both beds, Perry finally came out from his hiding place and glanced from boy to boy, reveling in the fact that they were healthy and whole - well, as much as could be expected - and, most importantly, free. He hopped onto Phineas' bed and snuggled next to him, a warmth spreading through the platypus when the redhead reflexively wrapped his cast-free arm around him in his sleep.

Perry really only dozed that night, fully intent on guarding his boys from anything and everything that would harm them, even if it was only a nightmare. He also knew any nurse checking up on them wouldn't appreciate the animal's presence, so he was ready to hide whenever he heard the door opening. But mostly, he merely enjoyed being able to indulge in his usual nighttime routine of sleeping with one boy for a time then switching to the bed of the other. They all seemed happier for it.

By the time morning came, he could proudly say his self-appointed mission had been a success. There had been no danger the whole night through. And best of all, no one in the room had been affected by nightmares.


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March 2013

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