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Mon, May. 26th, 2008, 01:03 pm
Foundations

Title: Foundations

Author: Kitipurr

Pairing/Characters: hints of Chris/Buck, Ezra/Vin

Warnings: None, really

Summary: ATF AU, a new history thereof.

Notes: Written for Cowboy Dreams Oak Challenge 04: The "beginning" challenge. Tell a history of one of more of the seven, before they became 'the seven.'



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In the Beginning 1995…

He took the money and shoved it in his pocket, slumping down next to the wall as the man walked away. They didn't want him to walk back with them; they wanted to forget him the minute they were done with him, and he was fine with that. It was what he wanted, too.

He wanted to forget all of this. He wanted to run away, to go back to the way it had been before.

But he couldn't. He was responsible now.

He counted the money in his pocket. If he stopped for tonight he'd be good for a few days. But if he could just get one more, he could probably stay away from this… *this* for a week or more. Pretend it wasn't here.

Yeah, just one more.

Then maybe he could forget.

For a while, anyway.

***

Ezra slammed his hand against the steering wheel in frustration. 'This time I am really screwed,' he thought as he glanced out the windows of the car at the neighborhood around him. What a place for a prime piece of customized automotive machinery to break down. And at this time of night, the dealership's mechanic would not likely be on duty, which meant he needed to find a phone to call for a tow.

Subjecting the Lotus Esprit to a tow truck… Malcolm was going to kill him.

'Then again, considering the neighborhood I'm in, I might not have to worry about that,' he thought sourly. Trust his luck to have a top of the line, carefully maintained exotic sports car die in the middle of the Denver Red Light district. Assuming he survived to see his stepfather again, Malcolm Phillips would certainly read him a riot act worthy of the history books. As he looked around the seedy buildings and grimy streets, and more importantly the questionable-looking persons watching him from the shadows and doorways, he didn't give himself particularly good odds.

Of course, the ultimate irony was that in his haste to escape the latest argument in the continuation of the collapse of his mother's fourth marriage was that he had neglected to grab his cell phone. Had he taken the time to collect that one single item, he would have been able to stay in the car until help arrived… preferably a pack of squad cars and one of the Mortinson Foundation's fleet of luxury limousines. Instead, he was faced with trotting down a barely-lit street in his suit coat and pray that there was a working pay phone somewhere within the time it would take to freeze in the mid-April cold to call a tow for what would be left of the car once the locals finished dissecting it.

Ezra sighed, mustered his courage and got out of the car.

***

"Ooh, girls, check out the prep kid on the skids."

"Hey, sugar, you here for a good time?"

"Fancy pants, you slummin' for a chum or just out for your 'daily constitutional'?"

"Uptown boy lookin' for some downtown joy!"

Ezra ignored the whistles and jeers of the street women as he stalked along the trash-strewn sidewalk. Even if he was inclined to pick up a common corner whore, the selection here was enough to drive even the horniest man to make a vow of celibacy. Between the grubby clothes, hair that obviously hadn't been washed in weeks and seemed glued together with hairspray, and the layers of makeup attempting to hide age and wear, he couldn't imagine anyone being desperate enough to solicit them. Then again, he mentally shrugged, there were likely more than enough men in the world who had no care as to whom they were doing, as long as the hole was tight or the mouth was hot. He shook himself against the revulsion of the idea.

"Hey."

A soft voice startled him, and he glanced up at the doorway he'd just reached. The boy couldn't be more than fifteen, thin as a rail in loose jeans and a ragged flannel button-up. Long brown hair fell around hunched shoulders in somewhat greasy curls. The whole package made Ezra cringe, really, but there was something in those blue eyes that gave him pause.

"You lookin' to rent?"

Ezra kept his face neutral despite the inward wince. That anyone this kid's age would be on the street offering himself for a few bucks repulsed the southern-bred gentleman to the core.

"No, actually I'm looking for a pay phone."

The kid nodded as both relief and regret flashed over his features. "Ain't gonna find none that work 'round here. Phone company don't even bother fixing 'em no more."

"I don't suppose you know where the closest operational one is?"

" 'bout ten blocks over, on West Street." Ezra's mind was already considering a route when the boy continued, "You don't wanna walk that at night, pard. Not if you like breathin'."

Ezra frowned; admittedly, he wasn't terribly familiar with these streets. He had only lived in the city a few months after the current Mister Maude Standish had decided to return home from the European travels which had seen him meeting and marrying his new wife, and Ezra certainly hadn't made a point of learning the ghetto areas. In hindsight, he should have stayed on the expressway, waited for either some Good Samaritan to pull over and help or perhaps a passing patrol car… but no, *he* had to decide he could just pull off and find a pay phone.

Well, he could spend all the next week kicking himself. Right now, he needed to get the hell out of here.

"So I suppose I should just go back to my car and wait?" he asked, more to himself than the boy. "Assuming it hasn't been stripped to the frame by now."

"Nah, ain't nobody gonna touch your car." Ezra stared at the boy, who grinned. "No one 'round here's gonna have the connections to push them foreign car parts, even if they wanted to. Hell, they ain't gonna even spit on it. Too afraid the cops would hunt 'em down over a rich ride like that." The boy's face became more sober. "You, though, they'll have one hell of a party with. Roll you for your wallet, watch, them fancy shoes, hell they might even go for a few body parts they could market."
Ezra smirked. "Marvelous. Thank you so much for that lovely picture."

"No joke, pal, there's some serious cons would prowl on the likes 'a you," the boy said, his countenance serious. "Especially this time'a night."

"So do you have a suggestion for my potential survival?" Ezra asked, his voice tinged with irritation. "It's all well and good your warnings, but if that's all you have to offer…"

He trailed off. It wasn't really fair to take his anger at himself and the damn car out on this kid, who was in point of fact trying to help. Not that saying 'don't do' was all that helpful, but it was the best he had to give. Ezra shook his head as he looked down at his attire. The boy wasn't exactly wrong - hell, he was dressed exactly as the sort of mark he and Maude would go after under the right circumstances. The leather loafers, the stylish-yet-casual beige suit coat and khakis, the cream-colored summer sweater… damn, he might as well be carrying a sign saying 'Hi, my name is Biff - please beat me to death with my own tennis-enhanced limb?'

"S'pose you could crash at my place for the night," the boy said softly, dragging Ezra out of his thoughts. Ezra stared at the kid, who looked rather unnerved that he had even suggested such a thing, but when he met Ezra's stare his stood his ground. " 's off the street and none'a the bad crowd ever bother us, don't think they even know how ta git in. Better'n staying out here and waitin' to do the clean up after you get rolled."

Ezra considered the young man carefully. "And what exactly will you get out of this?" he asked suspiciously.

The boy's face hardened. "Ain't askin' fer nuthin, 'cept you don't rat us out to the cops for squattin'," he retorted. "May not be all high 'n mighty like you, but I ain't no beggar neither. 'sides, a piece'a work like you gets done in this neighborhood, jist gonna make life shittier for the people 'round here who ain't criminals."

Ezra had the grace to grimace. "Sorry, I just… never mind. I'm sorry, that was horribly rude of me. I certainly would appreciate your hospitality if it will keep me from being dissected." He held out his hand in formal greeting. "My name is Ezra."

The boy looked at him for a brief moment as though trying to translate, and Ezra made a point of reminding himself to curb his usual 'enthusiastic vocabulary' in the future. Finally, the boy simply nodded, ignoring the offered hand. "Vin." With that single word response, the scrawny youth turned and ducked through the broken door of the dilapidated building behind them.

It took about ten minutes of negotiating through the remains of what Ezra judged to have once been rather lovely old homes. Now they were little more than tall ruins, likely abandoned as the neighborhood was, whoever currently owned the property writing it off on their taxes rather than even try to renovate. By the time they reached their destination, Ezra was positive his clothing would need to be burned rather than washed. He was also not entirely convinced that this particular Samaritan was not in fact leading him to his doom by way of a labyrinth.

"In here," the boy said, ducking behind what appeared to be a collapsed wall. In fact, there was a good chunk of cement at the back of the rubble that acted as a shelter for the small hole in the basement wall. Vin squeezed through and Ezra followed with a sigh as his shoulders rubbed against the filthy walls. Oh yeah, Maude would have these clothes burned on sight. Possibly without waiting for him to remove them first.

"Stay to the wall side," Vin warned him as he led him to a flight of ancient stairs. "The pipes over the other side use to leak, 'n them boards is kinda rotten now. Sent a foot through over there once or twice, ain't good."

"No, I suppose not," Ezra replied stupidly, wondering exactly what one *should* say in such a circumstance. This was most likely the boy's home and it would be disrespectful to slander it, but lord have mercy! The walls looked like a good sneeze might send them tumbling, and he'd swear one of the rats that ran by was larger than his stepsister's beloved Pekingese. He focused on following Vin's exact footsteps up several flights of stairs until they arrived at what appeared to be the second floor from the top.

'Makes sense,' Ezra mused. 'Would not suffer from the inevitable roof leaks one would find on the top floor, while still allowing for the most warning should someone enter the property unexpectedly.'

Vin led the way down the hall to the door at the end, stopping to knock twice then three times more before opening the door with a good shove of the shoulder. The boy waited for Ezra to enter before pushing the door back into place behind them.

"Welcome to my humble abode," the blue-eyed youth said with a small smile and an awkward attempt at dramatic flourish. "Ain't what you're used to, I'm sure, but it's home enough."

Ezra looked around in surprise. Despite the condition of the building itself, the small apartment was almost pleasant in a simplistic way. The floors were carefully swept and clean of debris, the counters clear of any refuse and appeared to have been wiped down. In what would have likely been the living room a small black patio-style table had been set up off to one side, with two ancient-looking wood chairs that had been carefully repaired using glue and duct tape then covered over with a can of black spray paint. A small pyramid of brown milk crates between the two windows made a bookshelf for a small collection of worn paperbacks, and a small grey plastic storage tub off to one side appeared to be set up for use as a desk.

In the corner of the kitchen was a large plastic trash can filled with water that appeared to be collected through a drain spout that snaked through the nearby window; the window's board had been pried out and replaced with a pair of screwed-in shutters like an old mountain cabin might have. Where a stove might once have resided a twin-sided hibachi grill now sat over a three-by-three heavy wooden square that had been covered with small chunks of concrete and stone. The cupboards had no doors anymore, but they were carefully organized in clear plastic tubs that were obviously designed to protect the precious contents from small fuzzy uninvited dinner guests.

The windows of the apartment that still remained covered by boards were hung with long dark-brown sheets, hiding the boards and giving the room an illusion of civility. The walls had been hung with more sheets, draped in an almost Egyptian style that hide the peeling wall paint. A faded braided rug had been tossed across the middle of the floor, offering the only real color in the room.

Vin tossed his button-up shirt on a chair, revealing a shabby-looking grey t-shirt underneath it, and made his way to a pair of large mattresses piled in the far corner of the living room. He knelt next to the lump under the carefully piled sleeping bags and blankets, and Ezra felt his heart pinch as Vin pulled back the covers to reveal a small dark head resting on a pillow made from a sheet tied around its stuffing.

Suddenly Ezra hated even more the situation the hustler was in as he caught sight of a boy even younger than Vin, and in that moment he positively loathed himself for his entire life before now. How could he possibly have cared for a minute about the fate of his clothing or even stepfather's precious car when these children were living just a step above animals?

"Hey kid," Vin was saying softly as the younger boy moved slightly. Ezra watched as Vin placed a hand gently on his charge's forehead and frowned. "Still hot, huh? Did you eat anything?" If the child in the bed answered, Ezra didn't hear it, but Vin went on to say, "I'll make you some soup, okay? Oh, hey, this guy here's Ezra. His car died on the strip 'n I figured you'd be awful mad at me if'n I let him get jumped, huh? He's gonna hang here tonight an' tomorrow I'll get him to a phone, so you be on your best behavior, alright? He's a right gentleman, can't have 'im thinkin' we're nuthin' but white trash, ya know?"

This time Ezra heard a small sound which he took as a reply, and Vin chuckled lightly. "Alright, you stay right here 'n I'll be back in a minute." Vin got up and signaled his guest to follow him into the kitchen where he pulled a small pot out of one of the plastic tubs and set it on the grill. Ezra watched as the boy started a quick fire under the pot, then found an abused-looking can of Campbell's in another tub and opened it with a can opener drawn from yet another.

"You've certainly done an admirable job for yourselves," Ezra found himself saying as he watched Vin dump the soup mix into the pot and ladle a canful of water from the garbage can. "I must admit, I cannot imagine I would do nearly so well were I to find myself in a similar situation."

Vin shrugged absently. "Do what ya gotta do, ya know?"

He went about digging out a mug and spoon, leaving Ezra to wonder if his comments had been either foolish or insulting. He found himself staring at the boy and suddenly wondered if perhaps he wasn't as young as first Ezra had thought. There was a certain weariness to the youth that Ezra wished he couldn't see, a level of maturity he recognized from his own mirror if he took the time to look.

"Vin, how old are you?"

Vin turned in surprise, freezing in a moment of sorting crackers onto a paper plate before shaking it off and continuing his preparations. The boy said nothing for a minute, and Ezra was almost sure he had crossed some unseen line until he heard his answer, spoken very quietly.

"Eighteen."

"Eighteen?" Ezra asked, not sure he'd heard correctly.

Vin nodded once, not looking up from his work. "Just turned eighteen two weeks ago."

"And how long have you been…" Ezra paused, selecting his words carefully, "living on your own?"

Vin sighed, but answered patiently. " 'bout five years now." Ezra fought not to gasp at the concept as Vin continued. "Skipped out after my last foster dad decided I was good fer a punchin' bag when he was drunk."

"Why didn't you tell the authorities, get reassigned?"

Vin chuckled, but this time it wasn't the warm rumble he'd made over the boy in the bed. This time it was sour, dark. "Hell, been through so many foster homes by that time I knew the score. Long as he ain't leavin' too many marks and you ain't missin' school, long as yer gettin' food and a bed, they ain't gonna listen to one gripin' kid. Too many kids in the system and not enough homes to make a fuss jist cuz one guy's smackin' a few kids around. But I's sick of it and decided to go it on my own." Vin looked up with a fierce gaze that almost had Ezra take a step back as he added, "Done just fine, too."

"Indeed," Ezra sighed. He watched as Vin stirred the soup carefully, trying to find the words for his next question.

"If I might ask," he started slowly. "How long have you been…" He trailed off, unsure how exactly one asked such a question.

At Ezra's pause, Vin cocked his head and gave his guest a caustic consideration. "How long have I been fuckin' fer money?"

"Well, yes," Ezra said, flushing a little. "Of course, it's none of my business… I just…"

"Yer curious," Vin nodded. "S'pose it ain't something that you ever thought much on. I wouldn't if I was in yer shoes." He stirred his soup for a moment before saying quietly, "Few months. Ran outta options, 'n one night when I was lookin' through the trash fer somethin' ta eat one'a the girls got my attention, told me she had a john askin' if I was available." Vin's brows knit, his concentration on the soup more intense. "Wouldn't'a considered it, 'cept she told me he'd give me fifty bucks for me to suck'em off. Told me it would be the easiest money I ever made, take only a few minutes an' the guy was okay, used a condom and didn't expect much.

"I couldn't see past the fifty bucks really - all I could think was that I'd be able to buy some decent food fer the kid. Wasn't really till after it was all over that I realized what I'd done." Vin's eyes saddened, and Ezra almost wished he'd never asked. "But what's done is done, ya know? Weren't really all that big a deal in the end, an' it meant we could eat like kings for a few days. Even bought some meat and taters and made a stew. Think the kid thought I'd won the lottery.

"After that… well, hell, ain't many places willin' ta hire anyone under eighteen that ain't got a parent to give permission. And we needed the money. And a couple tricks a week keep us pretty good. Been able to buy some more blankets at the second-hand store, a new pot fer cookin' and even a couple extra shirts. No more eatin' food from the trash, can get it right from the store. So far it's worked out okay." Vin looked up with a fierce gaze and declared, "Ain't forever, ya know? Jist fer now, till I c'n get us into somethin' better." The look he gave Ezra dared his guest to contradict him.

Ezra didn't.

Silence reigned during the rest of Vin's cooking, and then Ezra was following Vin back into the living room. Vin waved him into one of the chairs as he helped the boy in the bed sit up against the wall. Ezra studied the younger face while Vin coaxed him into drinking his dinner; this boy looked far more innocent than his caretaker, maybe ten or twelve by appearance. Ezra got the comforting impression that Vin had managed to spare the child most of the street life his guardian had been subjected to at the same age.

"Come on, kid, a little more?" Ezra turned to see Vin trying to coax another spoonful of soup into his charge's mouth, but the younger boy refused, obviously spent from his efforts so far. "Maybe later?" The child didn't commit, but Vin set the mug aside and tucked the covers around his friend. "Get some sleep and we'll try again." A small murmur was the only response as the dark head sunk down into sleep again.

Vin sighed as he collected the mug and took it back to the kitchen, where he set it on the counter and covered it with the cracker plate. The remaining crackers were returned to their protective bin before Vin took a clean mug and took a long drink of water. He offered the mug to Ezra, who refused politely.

"He's fifteen." Ezra met Vin's eyes, which flickered toward the living room. "Gonna be sixteen in July. Runaway from Boston. His ma died last summer, and the courts made him go live with his grandpa." Vin's eyes narrowed, giving Ezra a fast lesson in what the youth thought of the man in question. "Found in him November, just off the bus having used up all the money he had to get this far. Not sure where he was tryin' ta get, but this is where he got stuck."

Vin's eyes strayed to the wall, but Ezra was sure he was seeing his friend, wall or not. "Kid like that, gets used up right quick on these streets. Think he thought he could get a job as a grocery boxer or somethin'. An' he was sick already, prolly from all the travelin' and not eatin' an' all." Vin sighed and stared down into his water. "Hasn't really been well a day since. Some days are better'n others, an' not like there's all that he can do with himself anyway. Was hopin' ta get him better and scrape enough money to get him wherever he was plannin' on going, maybe there's someone good at the end of that trip…"

Vin shrugged, and Ezra nodded knowingly. The odds did not favor that possibility, and they both knew it.

"Perhaps I could be of some assistance."

Vin looked up sharply.

Ezra held his hands up in surrender. "I am not making an idle suggestion, my friend, nor am I making a proposition. Contrary to what you have experienced in much of your life, there are some people who honestly wish to just help."

'Except normally I'm not one of that particular crowd,' he thought to himself. 'Ezra my boy, you truly are a disgrace to your mother's training.'

The thought filled him with a wicked sort of glee that he fought to keep from showing, lest Vin get the wrong idea.

"Vin, I am, as surely you are aware, not without means. My mother is a true expert in the art of marrying well and over the years I have achieved a sizable bank account in my own right, mostly in the form of gifts from her suitors as they attempted to gain my affections in their pursuit of my mother. I believe we might be able to find a way to divest you of this less-than-satisfying lifestyle as well as provide a better environs for your young charge."

"And just what are you gonna get outta this?" Vin asked warily. "Don't get me wrong - you want me to bend over whenever you say, be your kept boy or whatever… well shit, long as it gets the kid a better life'n this, I ain't likely to turn it down." Vin's eyes hardened slightly. "Stickin' point is that the kid don't get touched. Not by you or anyone."

Ezra stared for a moment, realizing the completely bizarre turn his life had taken, then sighed heavily.

"Vin, I cannot truly imagine the sort of life you have lived. Quite frankly, my life has been, while certainly not the bowl of cherries my mother would insist I allow you to think it is, at least well provided for and well maintained." The southerner turned his head toward the lump in the bed and felt his heart clench. "I have not one day known what it is like to be hungry or homeless. I have never lacked for any of the basic necessities, and more often than not have had plenty of the luxuries as well. Mother's creed in life is that appearances are everything, and the best appearances are made by the finest of accessories.

"However, despite Mother's best efforts to the contrary I somehow managed to develop a conscience as well." At Vin's cocked eyebrow, Ezra released a short bark of laughter. "And I have learned that sometimes it is better to do something for the good of others than for the good of yourself." He looked seriously at his new acquaintance. "What I'm saying is that I wouldn't dream of touching your young friend, nor will I allow anyone else to do so."

Vin nodded, seeming to accept that they had a deal, but Ezra continued. "I also would like to say, for the record, that while I am not completely unfamiliar with… well, the type of… services… you would apparently be willing to provide me in order to attain the safety and good health of your companion, I am not the sort of person would could accept such a trade and still face myself in the mirror."

Vin said nothing in words, but the look of skepticism that crossed his face was more than enough. "Vin, I am not saying I do not find you attractive, or that I would never be interested in such… activities. I'm simply saying that… well, quite frankly I'm not sure what I'm saying. Except that you needn't concern yourself that I shall require anything from you in return for my assistance."

Vin remained silent. Ezra fought against the urge to squirm as he realized he had never once in his life been in the presence of anyone who did not speak as much as possible. In the circles his mother and her various paramours ran in, talking was a way to make your presence known. To ensure you were never forgotten or that someone neglected to recognize you were someone of import, you spoke as much as possible, about as much as possible. Being able to discuss anything and everything, from the weather to politics to current music and books to the culture of outer Mongolia… all that mattered was that your facts be accurate, your words eloquent, and your demeanor casual but assured.

Being silent was decidedly unnerving.

The younger man was studying him with an unwavering and rather disturbing gaze, and for possibly the first time since he was out of diapers Ezra found himself incapable of figuring out what the person in front of him was thinking. Blue eyes seemed to be looking straight through him down to his very core… and he wasn't sure he liked that idea. He may not currently be acting like the cutthroat negotiator and schemer his mother had drilled him to be since birth, but still Ezra knew he was hardly the sort of man any self-respecting human would wish to associate with. Even a backstreet hooker surely had more integrity than he did.

"Yer a good man."

Ezra blinked.

"Excuse me?"

"You," Vin said simply. "Got a decent heart."

Ezra couldn't help it - he laughed. Loudly. Nearly hysterically.

"You, sir, have no idea what I am," he replied, the amusement in his voice bright. "I am neither good nor decent. I simply have enough money to make my indiscretions look eccentric rather than criminal." He paused to breathe deeply. "Do not be mistaken, my friend. I have cheated and conned many a soul, and learned to do so from the best there is at the game. I have whored myself many a time and in much the same manner as you, only with a better class of people and for things other than money."

Ezra paused, baffled at his appalling desire to suddenly share the truth of himself with a complete stranger. "Admittedly, I have never sold my body in the fashion you have, but I assure you my soul has been traded away many times. Most recently for a college degree I didn't want in return for a sizable endowment to my bank account and a month on the French Riviera."

"Damn, you went to college in order to get a vacation?" Vin asked, wrinkling his nose. "Shit, if someone else paid for it, I'd go ta college for free if'n I thought I wouldn't flunk out in the first week." Blue eyes glanced at the lump on the bed and saddened. "Kid there would too - an' I doubt he'd have to worry about the grades. Damn smart, he is."

"Is he?" Ezra asked. He wasn't sure he was really interested, but at least it would redirect the conversation away from him.

"Said he was gonna graduate early from high school a'fore his mama died. Knows all sorts about math and computers and stuff - science too. Ain't so good in English he says, but hell, like I'd be able to tell. Me, I c'n barely read and write. Best I can do is I's strong and c'n fight good. Wouldn't know to look at me, but I ain't too bad in a fight. Thought about tryin' to box once, but I ain't got the build - too damn skinny."

"Have you considered studying martial arts?"

"Ya mean karate an' that? Yeah, but the schools take money and I ain't got it."

"Perhaps we can remedy that."

Vin frowned. "Ain't that I wouldn't jump at any chance you could give us, but I gotta ask what you'd get outta it if ya ain't interested in…" He waved a hand toward himself. "Ain't like I got anything else to offer ya. Ain't good at nuthin' that c'n make ya money."

Ezra pursed his lips. "Consider it an investment. While at this point in time you have nothing that would be of assistance to me, perhaps someday I will find myself in need of a return favor that you will be able to provide."

'Though I can't imagine what it might be,' he added to himself. To Vin he simply said, "One of Mother's golden rules is that you can never have too many people owe you favors."

'Of course, I am certain she would never have considered a hooker someone with whom that arrangement would be worth making.'

"S'pose there's some logic to that," Vin shrugged. He leveled his gaze at his guest, again with a dark intensity. "But it'd be me who owes you the favors." He glanced at the bed. "Not him."

"That would be acceptable."

Ezra watched as Vin considered their discussion. In his own mind, the voice of Maude Standish was throwing the all-time greatest fit of his life, calling him every name the real-live woman had ever used and a few she'd never dreamt of. What on god's earth had gotten into him? Surely he was losing his edge!

"I guess there ain't too much you could ask me ta do that I ain't already done," Vin finally said, his expression wary and thoughtful, but firmly decided. He held out his hand solemnly. "Ya got yerself a deal - you get us outta here, get the kid into a better life, and I'll owe ya."

Ezra studied the hand carefully, then reached to take it. The minute his skin met the boy's, he felt a strange calm settle about him.

Somehow he knew… this was the best deal he'd ever made in his entire life.

***

Ezra rolled over, his brain struggling to wake. Their pact made, Vin had insisted that Ez take his side of the large mattress, insisting that someone so used to 'soft living' would never be able to sleep on the hard floor and its rough rug. In truth, Ezra probably could have slept standing up if he had to; years of sleeping in the coach section of planes while his mother reigned over first class, or on the sofa at a relative's house who hadn't been expecting him to be dropped off while Maude flitted off short notice on some trip with whatever man she was enthralling had made him able to sleep just about anywhere. But he felt it better not to argue with his new associate and had fallen asleep with surprising speed.

Apparently touring the dark side of the world was more exhausting than he would have believed.

When he was able to focus, his vision fell upon the long form stretched out across the middle of the floor. Vin looked so much younger in sleep, with the hard street edge softened into a peaceful expression. For a moment he actually regretted that he had sworn not to accept the young man's affections… without the wariness of the eyes and tense stance of fight or flight mode, Vin was positively beautiful.

Ezra had never been one to reject advances in any form. As soon as it was clear he was a more-attractive-than-usual child, Maude had been using it to her advantage and Ezra had learned what accepting affections could get him. More than a few daughters of potential marks had been offered him as their escort, and Ezra had learned that if he was the one being actively pursued it rarely had a downside. His first sexual experience had been at the age of fourteen, when his soon-to-be third stepfather's daughter - at least four years older than he - had gleefully offered to make him a man. It hadn't exactly been fireworks and admittedly he hadn't exactly found the girl attractive, but what healthy young boy was going to turn down a senior in high school? It also meant that Daddy's Girl was very happy… which made Daddy happy (even if he didn't know why). And that made Maude happy.

And that made Ezra's wallet happy.

Nothing like a cycle of encouragement.

If Ezra was anything, he was a fast learner. He learned that often sexual pleasure was the easiest way to ensure someone's devotion, as long as he was the 'shy flower being wooed'. Being the wooer led to the appearance of a playboy, and that didn't gain much beyond the sex itself; being reluctant but eventually willing was successful every damn time. And much as it worked with girls (and women - more than one woman of twice his age had proven more than willing to provide him with desired items or actions in return for his favors), it was even more successful with men.

Naturally it had been Maude who had opened his eyes to that side of the coin as well. When the youngest son of a potential business partner was discovered to have homosexual leanings, Maude had immediately encouraged Ezra to provide the appropriate distractions. Whether she had intended for Ezra to go as far as he had she never made clear to her son, but Ezra had found the young man a charming companion and not unpleasant to pursue amorous relations with. He had actually learned quite a lot during that time, the main thing being that he preferred men to women. Oh, he still pursued whoever could offer the most gain, but if he were looking solely for physical pleasure, he would look for a man.

And now he was looking at Vin.

Vin was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen… and he'd seen a lot in his life thus far. Maude's pursuit of the rich and powerful suitor had taken them on the full continental tour of Europe, a good chunk of the most historical areas of the middle and far east, much of the United Kingdom and more than a few of the finer places in South America. And yet for all the museums and historical landmarks, mountains and valleys and grand landscapes that couldn't be done justice on a postcard, somehow the sight of this poor young man sleeping on a faded rug was the most amazing thing he could recall.

Ezra studied the way the soft dark-blond curls fell across the slender shoulders, the way the streaks of light sneaking through the boarded windows caught the tiny bits of brown. Vin's face was so calm in his sleep that it was hard to imagine this was the same boy who had talked to him about the dangers of the street with such a matter-of-fact air. Ezra could see the part of Vin that attracted those who would pay for his services, and it angered him. This boy shouldn't have to suffer through such degradations.

He rolled onto his back and stretched, feeling his spine pop and crack from the position he'd curled into due to the unfamiliar room. He'd long ago learned that anytime he was uneasy in his surroundings, inevitably he'd end up curled into a tight fetal ball during the night. The protective instinct, he assumed, was something he'd learned in childhood though thankfully he didn't remember any specific event that might have led to it.

"So you're rich, huh?"

Only years of Maude's training kept him from jumping out of his skin as the raspy voice whispering next to him. Turning his head he found himself studied by a pair of light brown eyes and a very red nose peeking out from under long strands of black hair.

"Well, rich isn't exactly correct in terms of modern society, but I suppose from your position it is not an inaccurate consideration."

"Hm." The teen blinked a few times, and Ezra could see the exhaustion of someone who had been ill for a long time. "Vin doesn't normally bring people here. Doesn't usually let anyone know where we live."

"He is a wise young man," Ezra nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vin stir slightly and Ezra suspected the other boy was awake and listening. "May I ask how you are feeling?"

The eyes blinked slowly. "Okay, I guess. Can't really remember what good feels like anymore really."

"You've been ill a while, then."

"Yeah. Feels like forever." The teen closed his eyes and Ezra heard a small sigh. "I'm tired of being tired all the time."

"I can well imagine," Ezra nodded. "Well, if it helps, I plan to see if I can assist on that matter."

The eyes opened and focused warily. "Why?"

'The God I don't believe in only knows,' Ezra thought. But he said, "Because I can."

The youth studied him carefully for a minute, then seemed to simply accept the answer and drifted off again. Ezra listened as the slight wheeze in his breathing evened out before rolling back to his side and turning his head toward the boy on the rug.

Vin was watching him, blue eyes clouded.

***

Vin listened to the soft conversation between his young charge and their visitor, and felt a sadness settle on him that he hadn't allowed himself to feel for a long time. JD had always been far too innocent for the streets, and in a way Vin was glad he'd managed to stay innocent. But at the same time, he hated letting Ezra raise JD's hopes. He knew only too well that the good man he saw in the lost and disoriented rich boy might easily disappear once he was safely back in his own world. Ezra meant well, and Vin was sure he was sincere… for now. But he'd seen more than once a wealthy patron make promises to one of the girls, only to forget all about them once he was back with his friends at the country club.

He just hoped Ezra really was different.

He thought he was. Something within Vin was swearing to him that this guy was different. And quite frankly, they really needed a miracle right now. JD's illness had been worse more often than better recently, to the point where the kid frequently had a hard time keeping food down. He slept more and his fever seemed to spike higher. It just seemed that no matter how many vitamins or cough medicines or aspirins Vin could get him to take, JD wasn't getting any better.

Adding to the problem was the fact that Vin's income had been waning. He'd been tricking for nearly three months now… since right after he'd taken responsibility for the kid. During these months he'd been the fresh meat on the block, something new for the johns to try, and the johns had been happy just for him to give them a hand job or a blow, so long as he was coy and shy and played up the 'innocent virgin' act. But it was getting old, and there was a newer face in the 'hood now. If Vin wanted to keep making money on this street, he was going to have give in and let someone…

God, he didn't want to think about it. Jess had laid it all out for him last week, after one of his few regulars had told him if he wanted the continued patronage, he should start loosening up in back. At first Vin hadn't realized what the guy was saying, but Jess had set him straight: either he started to bend over and take it, or he was going to lose customers.

And despite all the bravado and brazenness he'd presented to Ezra, the idea was terrifying.

Vin had accepted a while ago that whether he was straight or gay was not an issue on these streets. He wasn't even sure it was an issue in his life anymore. But the thing he did know for sure that if he was going to get fucked up the ass, he didn't want his first time to be with some nameless john, on his hands and knees in some back alley.

And yet… when he'd made his offer to Ezra, he hadn't even thought twice about it. The thought of offering up his cherry to this stranger in a nice sweater, a man he didn't know any better really than any other man who picked him up on the street… it wasn't repulsive to him at all.

In fact, it was almost exciting.

Ezra's conversation with JD ended as JD slipped back into sleep, and Vin found himself watching with confusion at the older boy rolled back and turned his head toward him. A long moment passed as the two simply watched each other before the southerner spoke.

"Something wrong?"

***

Ezra was decidedly unnerved by the soft blue eyes staring at him. It was like they were cataloging his every thought, every single part of him. And again there was that silence. Vin's ability to simply sit in silence and watch him… in a desperate need to break the silence, he grasped at the first thought that could be considered a coherent sentence.

"Something wrong?"

Vin shook his head. "Sometime's JD's a little naïve, ya know?"

"Hm, indeed." Ezra agreed; he couldn't remember the last time he had taken someone's word for fact, especially a stranger's. It was a little overwhelming to have someone trust you simply because you hadn't yet proven they couldn't. Ezra wasn't sure he wanted the weight of that responsibility.

"Kinda hope he never has to lose it."

Ezra smiled. Vin's wish was so simple to make, so near to impossible to expect. And somehow, Ezra wanted fervently to do all in his power to arrange it.

"Well then, if you will be so kind as to get me to a pay phone, I shall see what I can do."

***

It was about eight the following evening when Ezra's cell phone rang. After Vin had escorted him to a phone, it had been less than an hour for Theo, one of Malcolm's bodyguards, to arrive to whisk him away. Impressively, Vin had been correct about the street people and the Lotus - the car had not even been spit on, and Theo hadn't been too worried about leaving it for the tow. Ezra was delivered to his personal apartment in the art district where he had instructed his butler Edgar to begin making phone calls while he showered and changed. By the time he was out of the shower, the efficient Edgar had already contacted a Boston private investigator to begin collecting data on his newest acquaintances.

It had taken some convincing on their walk to the pay phone for Vin to give up both his and JD's full names, but Maude hadn't nicknamed him Slick Silver for nothing. By noon, the investigator had a full dossier on JD's legal position, and a halfway decent background on one Vincent Michael Tanner. Using the information at hand, Ezra made a few more phone calls and by six he was gleefully able to say he had a preliminary plan on how to assist both boys.

The raspy voice on the other end of the phone, however, sent shivers down his spine.

"JD, what's wrong?" Ezra's heart froze, as he was certain the younger boy would dream of venturing out of their hideaway unless something serious had happened.

"Vin's been arrested!"

Ezra fought the urge to pull the phone away and stare. "What happened, JD? Tell me everything."

"Vin went out this afternoon to get food. Tuesday afternoons the delis over on West Boulevard get the week's deliveries and then mark off all the damaged goods. If you get there early enough you can get first pick. He came back and asked me to come with, said Mister Anders who runs the supermarket had agreed to give me some medicine for my cold, but only if I came there. He's a good guy, but he figures if he gives it to Vin to give to me Vin'll get rolled for it before he gets back here."

Ezra had to admit it was a reasonable assumption. The addicts he'd seen in that neighborhood looked like they'd cheerfully stab you for a bottle of cough syrup, just for the alcohol content.

"We were on the way back a little while ago when the Vice squad rolled up and started sweeping the place. Vin shoved me through a broken window but he couldn't get through before they got him. They arrested the whole lot!"

"JD, where are you?"

"I came back to the supermarket," JD said. "West and Landers."

"Alright, stay there. I'm sending a friend to come get you." Ezra waved to Edgar and mouthed 'Theo'; without another word the elderly British gent stepped to the house phone and began dialing. "He's a big guy named Theo, about six three, nearly three hundred pounds, all muscle. Black man, will be wearing a black pinstripe suit and a New Jersey Nets baseball cap."

"The Nets are basketball."

"The style of the hat, JD, not the sport," Ezra sighed. "And don't make fun of the hat - the man takes his sports teams very seriously. Now, do not go anywhere until Theo gets there, understand?"

"Okay."

"Take him to your place to collect as much of your and Vin's things as you can. He will bring you back to my house, where you will be staying from now on."

"You sure?"

"Just do as I say, JD."

"Uh, okay. What about Vin?"

"I will take care of Vin, my friend, never you fear."

"Okay, Ez."

Ezra had sat for a minute after hanging up, marveling at the feeling of being so trusted by someone. A boy who barely knew him, who had absolutely no reason to trust him… but did.

It was kind of a good feeling, actually.

"Master Ezra, Theo is on his way."

Trust Edgar to have eves-dropped on the conversation enough to make another phone call unnecessary. "Thank you Edgar. As always, you are an asset. Now, perhaps you can tell me what precinct would have jurisdiction over the West Boulevard district?"



Go to Part Two