Magnificent Seven Seven Brothers AU

Uncomfortable Decisions

by Ami-chan

Warnings: Slash relationships, mentions of child abuse.

Follows Delinquent and Substitute Dreams.

Chapter One

Mondays had never been good days for Vin and this one was no exception though it had nothing to do with the schoolwork or the long bus ride. In fact, the bus ride to school was perhaps the best part of the day because he could spend it with Ezra. It started around lunchtime when the rumors he had not previously known about came to his attention. "Always knew you were weird."

The random comment startled Vin just a bit – he was used to them already. They continued, though. "Figured you were gay." There were sharp whistles that registered but didn't really make sense other than they weren't meant to be nice. It was when Eli Joe stepped in front of him in the hall that things began to make sense. "So, Standish really is your boyfriend. Should have known. Do you take it up the ass, too, Vin?"

"What are you talking about?" The confusion must have been apparent on his face because Eli Joe actually took a step back.

"Everyone's talking about it. They're saying that you were seen swapping spit with Ezra, that you're 'together' now. So, what? Are you gay?"

Vin shrugged. "Maybe I am, but it isn't any of your damned business either way." He shouldered past Eli to get to the cafeteria where Casey and JD were waiting for him at their usual table. The whispers and shouts all aimed at him being "gay" or a "fag" were ignored for the most part and the questions were answered curtly. Vin didn't like all the attention regardless of what they were asking. Casey seemed okay with the idea of Vin being gay and said as much, her scathing comments chasing away some of the more direct and vicious taunters. Now, JD on the other hand, didn't seem to know what to think and was quick to defend the fact that Vin was not gay. So Vin didn't say anything one way or another.

A few covert glances showed that Ezra was getting similar attention, but perhaps not the ridicule because after all Ezra had a lot more friends and people liked him. As much as Vin wanted to go and see how Ezra was doing, part of him realized that that would probably make it worse. Anyway, he'd see Ezra after school so he could talk to him then.

The bus ride home was silent for the most part, JD perched on the seat beside him but not talkative for once. By the time Vin got off the bus he was tense and anxious and nearly bouncing off the walls waiting for Chris to get home. Chris didn't ask any questions when he saw Vin looking ready to hop out of his own skin, just got changed and waved him out the door for their run. They went for a longer run than usual which seemed to help Vin sort things out.

"What happened at school today?"

Vin was trying to catch his breath and he allowed himself to be distracted by Sam who had chosen to run with them part way. "Nothing."

"Yeah. Wanna tell me the truth now?" Chris gave him a knowing look and nudged Vin toward the kitchen table.

"Uh." There was no lying to Chris and Vin wasn't sure he wanted to, either. "TherewerealotofpeopleatschoolandtheyweresayingthatIwasgayandtheythoughtIwas – "

"Whoa, whoa, hold up there, pard. Back up and slow down so I can understand what you're saying." Chris dropped a glass of water in front of Vin then went to get a glass for himself.

Vin took a quick drink and put the glass down. "Everyone was saying that I was gay and that Ezra was my boyfriend." He began pushing the glass around on the table, twirling it around just to watch it spin and to give him something else to look at. It wasn't like Chris was going to be disappointed that he was gay, but the thing with Ezra was different.

It occurred to Chris that he should thank Buck for cluing him into Vin's feelings for Ezra otherwise he would have been thrown for a loop at what Vin was telling him. "Why would they say that?"

"Because it's true?"

"All of it or just part of it?"

When Chris didn't become angry or upset Vin began to relax. Maybe it wasn't so bad. "I don't know, but the part about me being gay is probably true… with Ezra, I don't know."

Times had changed from when Chris had been a kid, but they couldn't have changed nearly as much as they should have. Being different was still considered strange and children were cruel. "Did you have any problems with anyone in particular at school?"

"No, not really. Mostly just people who were curious that will get bored with it eventually. Just…" Vin bit his lip and glanced sideways at this man that he had somehow come to trust. "Casey's okay with it. I'm not sure about JD."

Uh-oh. That could be a big problem. "Did you tell them you were gay?"

"Not exactly. With the rumors, though – Casey said that it didn't bother her if I was gay or not, but JD told everyone that I wasn't gay and defended me like it was a bad thing." Vin twitched so violently he nearly knocked his glass over and only just managed to keep a hold on the glass.

"You know, people tend to get scared when they don't understand something or when things suddenly change on them. It could be that JD just needs time to get used to the idea. It's obvious you've thought about this for a while and haven't told JD about it. Give him a chance to consider what's going on before you get too worked up over him not immediately accepting you being gay." Chris reviewed his words in his head and hoped that he hadn't said anything too stupid or left anything important out. In essence it was part of a speech that Buck had given him when he and Sarah and Buck were new as a threesome.

It had still been important for Chris to marry Sarah, though, to make it more – more normal, he guessed. Buck and Sarah both said he was an idiot, but they'd all gone through with it. A beautiful church wedding, even, with a priest and everything. That wasn't the wedding that Chris remembered the most, however. What he remembered the most was when they were all barefoot after having ridden out on their horses to a clearing in the woods at sunset. Sarah had flowers knotted up in her hair and they were all glowing in the golden light as they made a commitment to each other in the midst of the trees and wildlife.

"Okay." Vin jumped at the sound of a car in the drive.

"Vin, just to make something else clear – you are not to have sex with Ezra and I don't want you fooling around or anything even close to sex. Let me rephrase that: no sex with anyone, period."

Something like a laugh escaped Vin's mouth, a nervous sound.

"You haven't done anything with Ezra, have you? Vin?"

Vin shook his head quickly. "Not – not that. I mean, he kissed me, but, no. I told him I wasn't ready for… so it was a kiss. I won't, I'm not ready for that and Ezra isn't either."

Once those earnest blue eyes were turned away from Chris he remembered to breathe before he passed out. It was a relief to know that Vin and Ezra hadn't crossed any lines they shouldn't have.

Then Buck and Ezra were easing into the house, Ezra looking pale and leaning quietly against the counter while Buck got him some sort of over the counter prescription and then Ezra started toward his room. "Hold on there, Slick."

Ezra paused and stared at Buck in disbelief. "You did not just call me 'slick'."

"I believe I did." Buck raised an eyebrow at Ezra and held up the thermometer, which caused Ezra to sigh dramatically. He once more held still long enough for Buck to take his temperature and then disappeared in the direction of his room.

Buck snorted. "Well, his temperature's down to about 100 so that's an improvement."

After dinner Ezra finished what little homework he had in record time before heading back to his room to sleep. He kept his cell phone on his pillow so that when it vibrated it pulled him awake in record time. "Mother?" He asked, having recognized the number this time.

"My darling boy. You don't know how glad I am to hear your voice." Ezra noted that she sounded better than she had the last time, but it wasn't like it should have been, either. There was a fragile line she was walking and he could almost hear the twang of it snapping out from under her.

"Are you doing better?"

"Yes, yes of course, but I want to hear all about you. Do you like it there with whatever their names are – "

"Chris, Buck, and Vin." He hadn't expected mother to remember their names.

"Yes, exactly. Are you still getting along all right?"

Ezra forced himself not to ask why she cared all of a sudden. Why she was asking all these questions now when she hadn't ever before. "Yes mother. Everything is fine."

"Is it really, Ezra? Is it someplace you could stay for a while? Maybe longer than just a while?"

"Mother?" Ezra clutched at the phone at it struck him then. "You're not going to get out are you? Are you asking me that because I have to stay here?"

There was a brief pause. "Darling, you know there is no one else that could take you. We have no other family and no one I could possibly trust with your care. Even if I can get a deal I still – it's going to be quite some time before I will be able to be released. I need to know that you are going to be okay where you are."

His stomach tightened into knots as he laid back down on his bed to stop the room from spinning out of control around him. There was really only one answer Ezra could give his mother. "Yes, mother. This is someplace I could stay."

"I am glad to hear that." The rest of their conversation passed in a blur and as soon as the final warning came and they hung up, Ezra was off his bed and in the bathroom, puking up what little he'd eaten that day. By the time he felt a presence at his side – Buck, his mind distantly informed him – he was already so deeply in hysterics that nothing mattered.


"Chris!" Vin's eyes were wide as he suddenly appeared in the kitchen where Chris and Buck were finishing up the dishes. "It's Ezra."

"What's wrong, Junior?" Buck replied instead when Chris's eyes immediately fixed on him in a silent plea.

"Ezra, it's Ezra." Whatever it was couldn't be good because Vin was shaking and completely incoherent. So Buck went, following Vin part way until the sound of uncontrollable sobbing lead him the rest of the way.

It was immediately apparent that Ezra had thrown up again. It was also apparent that Ezra was not focusing on anything. "Hey there, come on, Ez." Buck wanted to grab him and hug him and make everything better, but another deeper instinct told him that that would not help Ezra at all. "Slick, look at me. I'm going to help you get cleaned up here, okay? Is that okay?" There was no answer but the continued sobs. "I'm going to touch you, Ez. Just want to get you cleaned up." He grabbed a hand towel and wiped off Ezra's face carefully all the while hoping something would click in those emotionless green eyes.

Buck sat back and looked up at Vin who was hovering in the bathroom doorway uncertainly. "Go get Ezra something to change into – pajamas will do." Once Vin had disappeared Buck tried to catch Ezra's eyes. "You got some of it on ya, slick. I think you should take a shower or bath or something, but I want to know you're able to do that without drownin' yourself. Otherwise I'm giving you a spit bath and puttin' ya in bed myself. Now, you up to getting cleaned up on your own?"

Twin tears streaked down Ezra's face as his sobs died down to mild snuffling hiccups. His eyes still didn't focus on anything, but he did reply, "Yeah."

"Bath or shower?"

Ezra shivered suddenly, his eyes snapping into focus as his eyes suddenly turned a shockingly bright, vivid green and his pupils expanded. "Bath."

"I'll get the water started for you, then." Buck kept one eye on Ezra as the boy curled in on himself on the bathroom floor. He stepped out for a moment to retrieve the clothing from Vin and to grab a clean pair of underwear and socks. Boy always wore socks, even to bed.

Buck checked the water again to make sure it wouldn't be too hot or too cold while checking on Ezra at the same time. When the water was high enough he turned it off and told Ezra that his clean clothes were on the floor for him to change into and that he could take his bath. The door clicked closed behind Buck on the way out. "He's okay, Vin. He's just not feeling too well. Let me know when he gets out, okay?"

Vin nodded from his post outside the bathroom door while Buck made his way back towards the living room where Chris was probably hiding.

Chapter Two

Once all the tears were gone there was nothing but numbness left that made him feel even more helpless than before. He was out of breath from sobbing, his throat was dry and raw, there was snot dripping down his face, and his cheeks were puffy and painful from crying though none of it could touch him. Those were minor annoyances. The tracks of tears seemed to itch, but it was the snot that finally forced Ezra into motion, grabbing several tissues from the back of the toilet to wipe off his face and blow his nose.

Through a haze his mind registered the bathwater and the warmth it was giving off. Nothing seemed entirely real in that moment, everything so still and quiet and it suddenly struck him that it was all different. The hand soap was different, the towels, the floor mat, the walls – all different and not what he was used to. In slow motion he tugged out of his clothing, dropping them into a pile away from his clean clothes then sank into the warm tub filled with bubbles. Ezra was glad they didn't have bath oils that would cling to his skin and make him soft and slippery. He didn't like that.

He washed his hair quickly and slowly and methodically washed his body off then lingered in the water until his skin was wrinkly and the water was too cold to stand. After changing Ezra debated whether he wanted to go to his room or if it was easier just to fall asleep on the bathroom floor. Comfort won out, of course, and he stepped outside into the hall where Vin was perched with his back against the wall. For a moment Ezra thought that Vin had been waiting to use the bathroom, but when Vin pushed himself up it was to follow Ezra.


He didn't want to talk because it didn't help anything. Ezra's skin ached and burned and hurt and he wanted it all to go away so he reached out for Vin and Vin gave him his hand. The first kiss was innocent, a brushing of lips, but the second was not. Ezra's hand was up and under Vin's shirt and creeping lower as he deepened their kiss, Vin's warmth seeping into his body as if breathing life back into him. Then Vin jerked away before they could venture any further and he calmly sat Ezra down on the bed and told him to stay. There was no sting of rejection, only coldness, so he buried himself underneath his blankets and laid there staring at nothing.


Chris was sprawled across the couch the TV a blank screen before him and no lights on when Buck entered the living room. He flipped on the lights just to see Chris squint into the sudden brightness. "I know, I know," Chris responded to nothing more than a look. "It's just not the same when it's Vin."

"Ezra's not a puppy, Chris. Even if he were you know damned well we don't give puppies away when they become difficult, either." Buck settled on the couch beside Chris and laughed without any humor in it. "It's not the same, though, just so you don't think you're going crazy. Maybe because Vin's been out of those situations longer or been in counseling – I don't know."

Even the way Ezra cried was so far out of Chris's depth that he could barely understand it – Vin cried almost quietly and wanted to be held and comforted. What Ezra had just done he couldn't comprehend. Ezra didn't want to be touched or comforted and didn't seem to be aware of what was happening. He curled into himself and sobbed loudly in a way that made Chris want to scream and cry and grab him and never let go. Since that wasn't an option the next action was to go away where he couldn't hear the noise.

"It's like Chester, Chris. We just got to give the boy space and time."

"I know. Can't touch Chester, either." The problem was that the horse couldn't talk and the boy could. "It just seems like it would be easier since Ezra could let us know what's going on."

Buck leaned over to steal a quick kiss from his lips. "Always the optimist, but just because we can talk doesn't mean we ever really say anything." They both turned at the sound of someone clearing their throat.

"Ezra's in his room." Though Vin usually spoke quietly there was a different sort of quietness to his voice that made both Chris and Buck frown in confusion.

"He all right, Junior?"

Vin nodded his head, but didn't raise his eyes to look at them. "Did something happen with Ezra?" There was no verbal response though Vin's head dipped lower and his shoulders hunched forward just so. "Tell me."

Vin slid against the wall a bit then pushed himself off to sit on the edge of the couch. His mouth opened and closed several times before he raised his head to look at Chris. "He kissed me again. And he touched me."

"How did he touch you?"

There was a sharp gasp from Vin as he shook his head. "Not like that! Just… touched my stomach, but I think he would have. He sort of started to until I pulled away and it was like he wasn't really there at all, just doing it to do it."

Buck nodded his head and left them to their discussion while he made a beeline for Ezra's room. The boy raised his head when Buck entered the room and pushed himself up and against the backboard, just watching. "Feeling any better?"

"I guess."

"Good. Ezra, remember what you told me earlier about not having kissed Vin before?" When Ezra didn't respond Buck pressed on, "Well, Vin just said that you kissed him – again. Want to tell me the truth now?"

Ezra's arms curled around his legs and pressed his legs close to his body. "I kissed Vin."

"Have you tried to have sex with Vin?"


Buck caught Ezra's eyes with his own. "Ezra, you lying to me? Have you considered having and tried to have sex with Vin?"

A soft sound, almost a whine, burst from Ezra's mouth and made the cat, Maddy, jump in her box. "Yeah, I guess." Buck was sitting at the end of his bed and was making no move toward him and even though he was near Ezra didn't feel threatened. Yet.

"I want to make this easy for you so you listen up. You will not be having sex with anyone, you hear? You're too young to be having sex and I don't want you to try to pressure Vin into something he isn't ready for." There was something terribly vulnerable about Ezra's carefully blank expression and green eyes that reflected back only shadows of Buck's own image. Even as hard as Ezra tried to not show emotions his eyes still gave him away – when he was frightened his pupils dilated just so and the color of his eyes brightened. When he was angry his eyes became a darker green. When Ezra was sad or upset his eyes turned a pale green. "Ezra, you're not going to have sex with anyone and especially not anyone in this house. Do you understand?"

"Yeah." Ezra's eyes were bright green.

Buck sighed. "Do you believe me?"

His chin lifted and Ezra fixed his eyes on Buck. "No."

"Didn't think so, but we're going to prove it to you. I think you already know Vin likes you and if you wanted to push him you could talk him into it. I just hope you have enough respect for him not to force him." Buck used the word 'force' to get a reaction – a frown – from Ezra, just to drive his point home a bit clearer. "It doesn't matter how often you've had sex in the past and maybe you aren't really ready for that, either. Do you think you're ready for that? To have sex?"

Ezra didn't answer immediately and instead reached for his glass of water on his bedside stand to take a drink. Then he replied, "No."

"All right. Let me ask another question, then. Have you ever willing had sex with someone before?"

Ezra's eyes changed colors so rapidly that Buck couldn't follow until they finally settled onto a softer colored bright green than before. "Yeah."

"Yeah? With who?" When there was no reply Buck tapped Ezra's blanket-covered foot to re-gain the boy's attention back to their conversation. "You awake in there? Who was it with?"

"A few of my girlfriends."

"How many?"

It looked like Ezra was debating how much to tell him when he answered, "Five."

"Five, okay. You just told me that you weren't ready to have sex, but you've had sex with five girls already. Why is that?"

"I don't know."

No way he was letting Ezra get away with that sort of a non-answer. That was something ol' gram would never have stood for and Buck wasn't fool enough to take it, either. "That isn't an answer, Ezra. Now give me a real answer because I think you do know why."

The boy shrugged and relaxed his defensive posture just slightly. "Because it's what people do."

"Not everyone 'does it' and they don't 'do it' all the time, Ezra. There is more to life than sex, believe it or not." The topic was wearing thin and Buck could see that Ezra was tiring of it. Or at least tired of Buck talking and trying to explain something he didn't want to hear. "Ezra, want you to promise me that you aren't going to be out there having sex with anyone. You need time to cool off and think and you don't need to be muddling that up with anything like that. Can you promise me?"


"Good, then I'll believe you and I'll hold you to it." Buck leaned forward until Ezra looked up, acknowledging him. "I do have another question though – when you were with those girls, did you like having sex with them?"

It was a question that Ezra had never been asked before and it made him stop and think longer than he would care to admit. "Not really."

"That mean you liked it a little bit, or sometimes it was good and sometimes not, or you didn't like it even a little bit?"

Ezra's voice came out softly, "Didn't like it."

"All right," not judging. "You ever willingly been with a boy?"

A flash of fear slithered over Ezra's face and Ezra's legs stretched out suddenly, his palms pressing flat into the bed. "No."

"Do you think that if you were with a boy just because you wanted to be with him that you'd like it?"

"I don't know." There was only a brief pause, Ezra's eyes flickering like he was recalling what Buck had said before about the 'I don't know' responses as he added, "Maybe."

"Okay, now a harder question. Even though it sometimes didn't happen willingly and sometimes you didn't want it, was there anything at all about sex that you might have liked? Anything at all?"

A fierce light entered Ezra's eyes, his jaw setting stubbornly and the sudden passion and emotion made Buck believe the boy more than anything else, "No. Nothing." It was with a painful effort that Buck didn't react and it took several minutes to pull out the spear that had pierced through him. The thought that Ezra had a spear through his heart that he couldn't pull out didn't help Buck recover any.

Buck cleared his throat as he tried to gather his thoughts, the point he was about to make suddenly lost to him. "Fair enough. Ezra, you're a very intelligent boy. You're a good kid, too, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I want you to think about what you just said and why if you don't like sex that you've been with all those girls. Sex should be something you do when you really care about someone and not just something people do. Yeah, a lot of people don't use it like that, but that doesn't mean you or anyone else should. You are worth a lot more than that – you're worth a lot more than to just jump into having sex with whoever is around and you need to know that."

"It's okay, I'm clean." It was a startling statement out of nowhere that threw Buck into a haze of confusion. Ezra seemed to realize that and added, "I don't have any STDs. I had a blood test before – before all this. I use protection."

"You always use protection?"

Ezra flinched and recovered quickly. "When it's my choice, yes."

"So you got tested for STDs before when the social worker got you from your house?"

"Oh, no. Well, they did take blood then so maybe, but before that."

"When you were still living with your mother, she took you to get tested?"

Ezra nodded.

"Why would she do that?"

"Because I told her I was having sex with my girlfriend. Girlfriends."

Buck took a deep breath to get a handle on himself. "You told your mother about having sex with your girlfriends, but not about what was happening with your step-father." At Ezra's nod, Buck asked, "Why?"

"It was easier and she asked."

That had gone into completely different territory than Buck had thought it would, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He had been about to end the conversation, but Ezra had brought up something else that Buck had wanted to ask about and now seemed the perfect time. "Ezra, if you had to think about it would you say you were more attracted to girls or to boys? Do you have any preferences?"

"Not really, no. It depends on the person." Buck let Ezra settle back down to sleep as he left his room, mentally trying to file away all the information that Ezra had just given him.

Chapter Three

"Junior, ya mind clearing out for a bit?" Buck waited as Vin got up and left the room, mindful of the fact that if he'd asked Vin the same thing a month earlier he would have darted out of the room. "How'd it go with Vin?" he asked, once he was sure that Vin had gone to his room.

"Fine. He's mostly just worried about Ezra. That and he's afraid that JD won't be his friend anymore when he finds out that Vin really is gay."

Buck didn't laugh, but he was somehow amused at the simplistic nature of Vin's worries as opposed to Ezra's. Every kid went through a "he/she won't be my friend anymore if…" phase. "So the old 'if they don't accept you for who you are then they aren't really a friend' talk?"

"Yeah, only with a little bit of 'if they are a friend they might get upset at first, but they'll still come back and accept you for who you are' thrown in for good measure." Chris was stalling for time and knew it. Finally Buck's arm came around his waist and tugged him closer and he had to ask, "What about you?"

"Hm, well, I think I've got all the friends I need and they accept me just fine."

Chris growled into Buck's neck. "With Ezra, I meant what happened with Ezra." Chris squeaked when Buck's arms tightened almost painfully around him. "Bad?"

"Told him he was not to be having sex with anyone and that he didn't have to worry about us trying to have sex with him. He told me that he has willingly had sex before with a few of his girlfriends, but that he… basically doesn't like anything about sex and that it's just something people do. It doesn't seem like he's really clear on whether he's attracted to girls or boys."

"Sounds like a difficult conversation."

"I'd say so. Oh, and he made a point of telling me he has no STDs because his mom took him to get tested."

Chris pulled away just enough to look Buck in the eyes just to see if he was kidding. "She did what?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought. It seems he was okay with telling her he was having sex with girls, but not that his step-dad was molesting him." They sat in silence, Chris trying his best to be comforting and Buck trying not to think too hard on anything, especially not Ezra. It suddenly made sense why Vin had looked so sad so many times after talking to the boy and why he'd ended up in tears and clinging to Chris.


Ezra didn't even stir when Vin settled onto the floor beside his bed and as selfish as it seemed, Vin was glad. Sometimes it scared him when he thought of what Ezra had gone through and most of the time it was better not to think on it. It was cold on the floor and as much as Vin liked the thought of curling up next to Ezra he knew it wasn't a good idea. That and Chris told him not to.

When Ezra woke up the next morning he pushed out of bed before he actually opened his eyes. As his feet started to hit the floor his eyes cracked open and he stumbled suddenly in an attempt not to step on Vin. The resulting thud as Ezra hit the floor and the bed frame was enough to stun Ezra and make Vin jump up. "Ow."

"What's going on?" Chris was standing in the doorway looking only partly awake.

"I fell." There was pause as Ezra tried to uncurl himself from the tangle he had fallen into without landing on Vin. After several tries Ezra finally managed to haul himself to his feet and everything was quickly sorted out.

After breakfast Buck took Ezra's temperature again and it was at a more normal 99.5, which Ezra claimed was a typical temperature for him. They then sent the boys off to face the day at school, Ezra being much more eager to go than Vin.


Before school let up Chris and Buck pulled into the driveway early in order to wait for Ezra's social worker Amber and the police officer Detective Agar. The boys wouldn't be getting off the bus for another twenty minutes or so, but they wanted to have plenty of time to talk with them beforehand. Sure enough Amber arrived soon after them and was followed by the detective who was in casual clothing rather than in uniform. That was probably a smart move considering none of them knew exactly how Ezra would react to a police officer.

After they were introduced officially to Detective Agar the first question Amber asked was, "How is everything going with Ezra?"

Buck smiled at the social worker, clearly amused as he thought about their newest addition. "A bit touchy, the boy's got a lot of issues, but let's go on inside and have a talk before the boys get here."

"We overheard Ezra talking to Vin a while ago about… being previously abused by other people, step-fathers before this last one." Chris settled at the kitchen table after the detective and the social worker had taken their seats. "I doubt a whole lot could be done about that now, especially since Ezra hasn't been willing to talk to his counselor or anyone else except Vin, though he's hinted at some things to Buck. It might be important later on."

Buck filled the pause after Chris was finished talking with, "Ezra hasn't really talked about what happened with his step-dad, either, though he did mention that he was shot twice in the chest. That's when he saw the newscast on TV about the shooting."

"There are other things too – some of them minor, like lying here and there, but Ezra is edgy around pretty much everyone. He follows the rules to a point and when he shuts down there is no talking to him. Ezra really is a good boy, very smart too, but he's always fake somehow, like he's not 'here' most of the time." Chris shrugged. "I'd say it was his way of coping with everything that has happened to him."

Buck elaborated on the fact that Ezra had told him that he had been previously tested for STDs before he went into care and the social worker stated that the test the hospital had done had been fine, as well. By the time they were done they heard footsteps on the front porch and the front door creaked open as first Vin then Ezra entered the house. Vin smiled at them uncertainly while Ezra ignored everyone and pushed past Vin to head toward his room.

"Ezra, just leave your backpack there for now and come on in here." When Ezra did just that, his backpack hitting the floor loudly, Buck nodded for Ezra to sit down. He did so without complaint not looking at either the detective or the social worker. "We'll be just outside if you need us. Come on, Vin."

For some reason Buck felt guilty for leaving Ezra alone with them even if there were some things that they weren't supposed to hear. Vin must have thought the same way, though he went outside easily enough.


They weren't even halfway up the driveway before Ezra bulked, his eyes having zeroed in not only on the unfamiliar car, but the police cruiser parked next to it. In a way it was expected, but Ezra did not seem sure what to make of its presence by the house. A lot of foster kids, especially the older ones, didn't like police officers because they got their parents into trouble or the kids themselves had spent time at police stations because of something they had done. Vin had been in police stations before for running away and other than being picked up and left to wait until someone picked him up or for the officers or his probation officer to take him to a detention facility he didn't have a problem with them. He couldn't really have a problem with them anyway since Chris and Buck were more or less cops, or at least cop-like.

"Do you think they want to talk to you?" Vin asked as he waited for Ezra to start walking toward the house again.

"About what?" His hands had clenched up into fists at his side and the look in Ezra's eyes said that he knew despite his question.

"About what happened with your step-dad and mom." He took a step forward and Ezra followed instinctively and they walked the rest of the way in silence. "It'll be okay. Just tell them what went on."

Ezra didn't look at him as they went inside and soon enough Vin was told to go outside along with Chris and Buck. The hard-backed kitchen chair did nothing to keep Ezra's focus on the here and now and he tuned out the meaningless pleasantries that they tried to begin their conversation with. Ezra didn't want to talk to them at all and he was able to ignore them until the detective leaned toward him and caught his eye.

"There were only three people that were there when your step-father was killed, Ezra, and only two of them are currently still alive. That means that we have only two witnesses. We tested your mother that night and with all the drugs that were in her system it's going to be harder to convince anyone that her testimony is accurate." That left Ezra cold and frozen even before Detective Agar continued, "It's likely if they don't believe her testimony that she could receive a harsher sentence and remain in jail longer."

The police statement paper was still in front of the detective and Ezra reached out abruptly and pulled it toward him, grabbing up the pen in front of the man. He then wrote in clear, neat handwriting the current date, the date that his step-father was killed, and the following statement:

My step-father Marcus J. Barrett had picked me up from school as usual and taken me home afterwards. Mother, Maude C. Barrett (formally Standish, Williamson, Andrews, Maddock, Hughes, Ackland, Bradley, and Gallager), was not at home when we arrived. My step-father than proceed to push me into his study on the first floor where he took off my pants and pushed me against his desk and stuck his penis up my ass. Sometime during this my mother arrived home and must have seen us and presumably retrieved one of my step-father's guns from the display in the living room glass case. I heard mother scream and my step-father turned and pulled out of me and there were two shots fired into my step-father's chest. His body fell to the right of the desk if you were to stand in the doorway of the study. I re-dressed myself and mother refused to allow me to look at the body and ushered me into the living room while she called 911.

Ezra carefully signed the bottom of the paper and passed it back to the detective along with the pen. The detective read the statement and passed it over to the social worker. "Is there anything else you remember?"

"I don't know what you mean," Ezra replied smoothly. "I didn't see anything."

Amber leaned toward Ezra and stated calmly, "Ezra, you just wrote this statement for us. Had this happened with your step-father before that night?"

"I don't have a step-father."

"Your last step-father, Ezra, before he died. Did anything else happen with him?"

"Did what happen? I don't know what you're talking about." Ezra looked her straight in the eye as he spoke.

Amber sat back and tried again, "What you wrote in your statement, is that true?"

"What statement?"

"Ezra, if you were called to speak to a prosecutor or a judge, would you deny what you just wrote in this statement? Or would you tell them that what you wrote right now is true?"

A flash of fear rushed through Ezra and he dropped his gaze suddenly, his careful expression fading into a brief grimace that was quickly wiped away. "If that were the case and if it would help mother I would tell them it was true."

"Is it true what you wrote?"

"Yes," he growled between clenched teeth.

Amber smiled at him encouragingly. "Has that happened before, with Marcus or with any of your other step-fathers?"

The chair cracked against the kitchen floor when Ezra stood abruptly. "Get the fuck out. I'm done talking to you." There was a determined calm in Ezra's voice as he spoke that was there even as Ezra stalked toward and out of the front door, down the steps, and off in a random direction.

Vin started after Ezra when he saw him burst through the front door, but Chris held out his arm and caught him around his waist. "Not a good idea there. Leave him be." A look of pure stubborn defiance flickered across Vin's face until he locked eyes with Chris and the stubbornness faded and Vin nodded in understanding.

It was a long walk to the wooded area out beyond the pasture and even when he reached that point Ezra's head still wasn't clear. He tried everything to tamp down the emotions that were rushing toward the surface, all of it failing miserably. Ezra stopped in the midst of a small cluster of trees and screamed and screamed, not stopping until his throat was sore and he couldn't scream anymore. It wasn't enough. His fist connected with a nearby tree several times until the pain registered and Ezra hated pain if he could otherwise avoid it. He picked up a branch and swung it in the direction of one of the trees and felt some satisfaction when it broke into several pieces. So he grabbed another branch and another until Ezra felt drained and there were no feelings that needed to be dealt with.

Out across the field and by the house the police cruiser and the car had departed and Ezra started on his walk back. He was stuck and there was nowhere else to go. Ezra stopped just before the barn where the bay thoroughbred stood quietly watching him. The urge to do something else struck Ezra deeply and made him ache.

Chapter Four

"It's time for dinner." Vin looked pointedly at the door. "Should I go get Ezra?"

"Give him a few more minutes then you can go and get him."

Vin continued to stare balefully at the door until Chris sighed and told Vin that he could go find Ezra and bring him inside. Vin didn't get very far before a loud, "CHRIS! BUCK!" echoed through the house sending both of them running.

Outside Ezra was just tightening the cinch on a saddle that had been placed on the Thoroughbred's back. Where Ezra had learned to do that, let alone get the riding gear on such an easily startled horse as Chester was anyone's guess. "Ezra," Chris began speaking just loud enough for the boy to hear him without scaring the horse. "Step away from the horse and come on over here. You know we haven't worked with him before and I don't want you hurting yourself."

Ezra glanced in Chris's direction as more of a cursory look than anything else and then he was stepping into the stirrup and hauling himself into the saddle. They all held their breath as Chester shied then steadied himself out, prancing a bit in place before Ezra turned him and gave him a nudge that sent the horse bolting forward. "Shit!" Chris whistled for Pony as he ran for the gate that connected their two pastures and letting Buck worry about latching the gate behind him as he dragged himself onto Pony's bare back, tightening his fingers into Pony's mane.

"He's not going to catch him up," Buck muttered to himself. The Thoroughbred not only had a head start, but the horse was fast and running full out. Pony was a good horse though there was no way he could match that speed.

Vin nodded in agreement. "Pony's not that fast."

There was no way, none at all. Chris's mind was racing and all he could think was 'boy's going to break his goddamned neck'. It was impossible to catch up and Chris couldn't push Pony any farther than the horse was already going, though knowing Pony he'd give more than he could. Chris began swearing, then yelling at Ezra to pull him back, to turn, to do something because the boy was heading the horse right for the fence.

Pony skidded and changed directions for the far gate when Chris gave him the signal, hoping to cut the other horse off. They didn't make it and Chester was gathering himself to jump. The imagine of Ezra falling and breaking his neck was not at all what happened, the Thoroughbred easily clearing the fence. Chris headed Pony in their direction and the horse turned away from Pony and headed back toward the house.

About half way back to the house Chester suddenly slowed, whether it was by Ezra's design or the horse himself hesitating as he came closer to Buck and Vin was anyone's guess. To Chris's mind it was the horse slowing as the horse even started to turn around but found himself with nowhere clear to run. Chris wasn't sure which one he wanted to shoot – the boy or the horse.

"Good boy, easy there." Buck tried to approach the Thoroughbred, but stopped when the horse tossed his head restlessly. "Ezra, come on now, get down from there."

Ezra shook his head. "No!"

Chris slid off Pony's back and onto the ground, careful to give the horse plenty of space. "Boy, you get off that horse right now. You are not to be riding on that horse or riding without me or Buck present."

"No. I don't want to go!" Chester twitched and pranced as Ezra became more agitated.

"Why don't you want to go?" A quick motion from Buck kept Chris silent in the background. "Is there some reason you don't want to get off the horse?"

The boy was upset and shaking. "I don't want to go home."

"Does something happen at home?"

"No." Ezra's eyes were clearing and he suddenly dismounted and began tending to the horse methodically before turning him loose in the pasture. "His name is Cassius."

"You've ridden before." Buck eased up beside Ezra as the boy seemed to calm and come back to himself. "Someone taught you how to ride for you to be able to handle that horse like that."

Ezra bit down on his lip hard. "Sure, why not? He bought me a pony and shouldn't he have? Hell, I rode his cock often enough, why not buy me a goddamned pony?" He laughed humorlessly and pushed himself away from the fence and headed into the house.

Pony was turned out after being thoroughly pampered and the three of them settled down to eat their now slightly cold dinner. Ezra ate by himself at the kitchen table and dutifully finished his homework without being asked. "I have practice tomorrow," was all Ezra said for the rest of the evening before he went to bed on his own far earlier than usual.


It didn't take very long for Ezra to retrieve a saddle and bridle and not much longer for Cassius to be prepared. Ezra talked to him softly knowing what the horse expected to happen and what was really going to happen. "Everything's okay, it is. We're going to fly, Cassius, like I know you know how. It's there just waiting to be freed and we can do it together, can't we? We'll do this together."

Ezra heard the voices but ignored them. He didn't want them to interrupt this ride – they needed it. Then Cassius was eating up the ground, stretched full out with Ezra pressed low against him. It was as if they were flying, the pounding of Cassius's hooves against the ground, his mane whipping back into Ezra's eyes. And suddenly Ezra was ten years old again, wanting to run but held in place. He remembered the jumps, the movement of his pony and then they were headed toward the fence, the jump.

It was effortless, weightless, like not being there or contained, not having to worry in that moment what would happen next. He'd never wanted to leave the stable where they'd boarded Chestnut, he'd never wanted his riding lessons to stop. Ezra had never wanted to go home with that man.

"Ezra, it's time to go, get off the horse. Come on."

He never wanted to go home, never. If he were a horse he could stay in the stable and be safe. "No!" His step-dad would never come and pluck him from the saddle and walk him back to the car. Ezra would never sit frozen when his hand rested on Ezra's leg on the ride to the house while he was told he would have to pay him back for paying for the horse, the horse's upkeep and the riding lessons. It was worth it, though, having that moment to fly, to forget, to breathe.

Buck's words registered distantly and before he realized what he was saying Ezra was biting out, "Sure, why not? He bought me a pony and shouldn't he have? Hell, I rode his cock often enough, why not buy me a goddamned pony?" When he heard his own words Ezra was mortified and his only possible recourse was to hide in his room until he felt up to making an appearance. There were certain things that simply were not discussed and that was definitely one of them. Secrets that were meant to be kept for always.

Ezra fell asleep and was jolted awake abruptly in the wee hours shivering and carefully began to slip out of bed remembering what had happened the day before. He rubbed his hands together to try to warm them, but Ezra couldn't get warm so he dropped onto the floor and crawled toward where Vin was curled up asleep beside his bed. "Vin?" As he spoke he slid one of his hands against the other boy's back.

Vin yelped and sat up nearly flinging Ezra backwards. "Ez? What?"

"I'm cold." Ezra slid closer again and leaned forward to press his hands against Vin's skin, but his hands were caught before he could complete the motion. Vin rubbed his hands with his own and the beginnings of warmth seemed to flow through him. "Please." Even though Ezra didn't know what he was saying please for Vin appeared to know and released his hands. Ezra edged forward and leaned into Vin until his head was resting on his shoulder and his hands were warming themselves on Vin's back.

"Earlier – what was that about? With the horse Cass – Cass – ?"

"Cassius." His eyes ached and his head hurt and his blood was nearly frozen in his veins. "I had to do something and I wanted to fly."

Vin rubbed at Ezra's arms, trying to bring some feeling back into the cold flesh. "What do you mean by 'fly'? You didn't want to hurt yourself, did you? You know what you did was dangerous and if you ever, ever – "

"No, Cassius would never hurt me. Don't you see? He – we fear everything, we are the same and we understand each other. He fears shadows and the wind and noise and people and anything that's unfamiliar anything that could harm him, but we needed to be free, to let go. To fly." Vin was warm like a furnace and Ezra found himself shivering violently as his warmth began to flow through and into him. It was a nice warmth, comforting, unlike some he had experienced. "I don't want to be afraid anymore and Cassius doesn't either. I don't want to hurt. I don't want the black hole to shallow me up and make me forget anything good."

"You don't have to be afraid here." There was nothing Vin could think of to add that would help or even be welcomed advice. Still, Vin felt that he had to say something, anything to him. "It makes it easier when you talk about it. Then it doesn't seem so bad and you don't have to carry all that hurt and hate around with you all of the time. You don't have to pretend as much."

Ezra shook his head against Vin's shoulder. "I've talked to you. Isn't that enough?"

"I can listen, Ez, and I will, I really don't mind, but I can't help you like someone else might be able to. I've talked to a lot of counselors over the years and after a while I really started to pay attention and when I did that… it does make it easier even if it can never go away." If what Vin said registered at all there was no obvious sign of it. Ezra did cuddle closer and tried to press Vin back down onto the floor. "No, you need to go back to your bed."

"Why can't we just stay down here?"

Vin nibbled at his lip before replying, "I'll be right here if you need me, but you can't sleep on the floor with me. I promised I wouldn't." With great reluctance Ezra released Vin and crawled back into his bed without any further compliant.

Outside Ezra's bedroom Chris pushed himself off the wall and crawled back into bed where Buck growled in annoyance as Chris pressed his cold hands against his warm stomach. Vin was a good boy. Ezra needed some work.

In the morning Ezra got the lecture he would have thought to have gotten the night before about riding safety, not jumping fences especially without a riding helmet, not riding skittish horses and never riding without an adult present. It also meant that whatever trust they might have had for Ezra was effectively shattered, though that really didn't matter all that much to him.

On the bus ride to school JD leaned over their seat and asked, "Do we know who started those rumors about you two?"

Ezra shrugged and turned to face him. "No, not really, but it doesn't really matter. Everyone knows by now that Vin and I are screwing like rabbits and are so hot for each other so who cares who started it?" Ezra yelped when Vin elbowed him in the side.

"What? Vin, it's very in to be gay and to be linked to me could mean good things for your future."

"You're going to give JD the wrong idea!"

"Wouldn't want to do that." There was a huge smile on Ezra's face as he turned back to JD. "We really don't screw like rabbits, but we are hot for each other and make out all the time. You want in on it? We could make it a boy on boy on boy threesome."

A burst of laughter escaped from JD as the almost enthusiastic expression on Ezra's face that was far too mischievous to really believe. "Seriously. A threesome. Just how exactly would that work?"

"I don't know, but we could play around with it and see what works. What do you think? You know you love me. You want me." Ezra had gotten up on one knee in the bench seat in order to better face JD to continue their little exchange. Then suddenly Vin grabbed a hold of Ezra's arm and jerked him down and back into their seat. "Hey! What, are you jealous?"

JD smacked Vin on the shoulder. "Yeah right. We're just kidding around. If there are more rumors, who cares?"

"Maybe Vin just doesn't like to share." Ezra started to turn around again and was halted by Vin tugging on his arm and keeping him in place.

"Stop flirting with JD."

"We are kidding," he enunciated carefully. "You need to lighten up a bit. It's not like I'm going to make out with him on a school bus. Now, there is a nice, secluded place around the back of the school if you want to skip third period." Ezra batted his eyes at JD who was clearly amused by the whole exchange.

Vin never was all that good at taking jokes so JD wasn't surprised by his response or by Ezra's. He'd been watching Ezra more since Vin had started watching him and Ezra was almost always smiling and joking with his friends. Most things Ezra took in stride while Vin tended toward being a bit uptight and joking with Vin fell flat because he didn't think a lot of things were funny. Sometimes JD thought that Vin was far too serious for his own good, but once in a while Vin would become… playful was probably the word for it. There would be this spark in his eyes and it was never mean, but it usually got them in trouble anyway.


There was a moment when Ezra's eyes darkened in absolute fury then cleared almost as quickly. "I am kidding. Geez."

Though Ezra said he was kidding Vin wasn't so sure. He didn't want JD to know yet that there was some truth to the rumors and Ezra had been pressing their luck anyway. During lunch he watched Ezra more carefully than usual and saw how he leaned into talk to one of his friends in particular – Asher something-or-other, if memory served him. Vin didn't think he was the jealous type, but watching them together and knowing Ezra's history and what Ezra had almost done with him several times already made him wonder if it was possible to trust him.

It was when they were outside and Ezra reached out to touch the other boy that something in Vin's head snapped. He was across the unspoken boundaries on the blacktop crossing over into the "popular" kid's territory and grabbing hold of Ezra's arm. The expression on Ezra's face was annoyed as he turned to look at him. "What are you doing?"

"I could ask you the same question."

Ezra's eyes rolled toward the sky and he turned back to his friends. "Excuse me a moment." He backed Vin up several feet and lowered his voice. "Is there another problem? Did I accidentally glance in JD's direction or something?"

"No, it's just – your friend, Asher, you guys are pretty close. I mean, it seems like you are and there's the… it just seems…"

His brow creased deeply and Ezra pinched the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes. "Now you think I'm flirting with Asher? He's to me what JD is to you. So unless you are having impure thoughts about JD I suggest you back off."

He wanted to believe Ezra, he really, really did. "I know, I just – with everything that's happened with us and with you and I won't, since I won't – "

"Is this about us not having sex?" The truth was right there in Vin's eyes, in the way he winced and the hurt and confusion that was clearly there. Ezra didn't know what he felt for Vin, but he did know that he had no desire to hurt him as he had no real desire to hurt anyone. "Don't worry about that. I mean it," he added when it was clear Vin didn't believe him. "Look, I'm not really interested in… I don't really care about that, okay? What I told you was true, I don't want that right now no matter how many times I've – it just doesn't mean that much to me."

There was truth to what Ezra told him and at the same time Vin still wasn't quite sure he could believe him. He'd seen how Ezra was, how he became someone else and needed to touch and feel. "Okay."

It hurt seeing Vin's insecurities and Ezra wanted to reassure him. A quick glance at the teachers on duty showed that their attention was elsewhere and Ezra pressed forward suddenly to press a brief kiss to Vin's lips. "I mean it. We'll be okay."

Vin took in a sharp breath. "As long as there are no more runaway horses, yeah."

"I can handle runaway horses." Ezra flashed him a smile. "I'm not so sure you can handle me, though. Now go on." He turned back to his friends who were staring at him in amazement knowing several of them were watching Vin cross back over to the other side of the blacktop.

"You really are with that kid!"

Ezra laughed at the shock on their faces, delighting in shattering whatever images they had of him. "I didn't know we were still debating that."

Chapter Five

Unaccountably Ezra was called away from school early and when he arrived at the office he found the social worker, Amber, waiting for him. It was not who Ezra wanted to see, but he wasn't sure who he expected to be there, anyway. "An appointment came up suddenly and we wanted to make sure you got in again."

His mind shut down suddenly because that was the only way for him to deal with seeing her again so quickly. Amber tried her best to get him to respond as did the counselor upon their arrival, but there was nothing Ezra wanted to say to either of them. He didn't want to talk about his mother or his step-father or the shooting or anything else they wanted him to discuss. There was nothing he wanted from any of them. That and they were making him miss baseball practice for this.

"Will you say anything to me?"

Ezra kept his head down, eyes on the floor and refused to even shake his head one way or another. They could not and would not make him respond to them. There was no giving in, not even an inch.

"Would it help," Amber asked on the drive back to the ranch, "If we took you to another counselor? Would you talk to someone else?"

There were certain people that Ezra was never supposed to tell things to: police officers, counselors, school personnel (counselors, advisors, teachers, principals), social workers, nurses, doctors, and anyone else that might make his life more difficult. The only lawyer he could trust was Erica. As soon as the car stopped Ezra was out the door and in the house, nearly crashing into Buck on his way to his room.

Buck stared after hurricane Ezra as he passed by him through the house and then headed outside to greet Amber. "I take it things didn't go well judging by Ezra's expression."

"No, they didn't. He was completely unresponsive again and the counselor is recommending we try someone else that Ezra will talk to."

"Try John!" Vin had appeared beside them, just back from his run with Chris and having heard enough of their conversation to volunteer input. "John Perkins is good and maybe Ezra will talk to him. It's worth a try. We're going tomorrow again, right? Maybe John could fit him in, too, or Ezra could take my appointment."

After promising to see what she could do, Amber left the premises. School had been difficult enough for Vin before and now the rumors about him and Ezra weren't so much rumors as reality. More surprising than that was the fact that once there were no longer rumors everyone's interest seemed to die down. JD had apparently missed seeing the actual kiss at recess though he had heard the stories about it and was still clinging to it all being false.

"Ezra?" Vin peered around the corner into his friend's room a while later after he and Chris had gotten about halfway through his homework. "Dinner's ready." He was still really slow at getting his homework done, but Vin also found he was getting better at it and wasn't getting so frustrated all the time. Ezra just breezed through his homework without batting an eye, like he didn't have to think about it at all.

They sat down to eat and Ezra's eyes fastened on the meat, the pork, and he felt his stomach protest at the thought. He carefully avoided the meat on the table and instead nibbled at a roll while he retrieved some mashed potatoes and corn. His selections did not go unnoticed.

"Don't you want some pork?"

It took effort to be polite, but Ezra just barely managed it. "No, I don't eat pig, thank you."

"You're not Jewish, are you Ezra?" There was a smile on Buck's face as he asked. A smile that quickly faded when piercing green eyes turned on him. It suddenly struck Buck that Ezra had never once touched any of the bacon that they sometimes had for breakfast. At the time Buck had thought it was because Ezra barely ate anything in the mornings anyway.

"No. My daddy was Jewish – not my biological father – so I have never eaten pig except for once. It made me sick." Ezra didn't elaborate on the circumstances that had lead him to eating 'pig', but his expression indicated that it was not a pleasant experience.

That in Buck's mind meant the end of any meals around pig-products, though he was making exceptions in his mind for big meals where there were more than one kind of meat. In those cases Ezra could pick want he wanted and avoid the offending meat as he did during breakfast meals. "Ez, your daddy, is he still around?"

Ezra shrugged noncommittally. "I don't know. Last I heard he was living in France or Spain. He could be dead for all I know."

"And your father."

A smirk appeared on Ezra face as he curled his pinky and ring fingers back leaving two fingers and his thumb to form the shape of a gun. He turned his hand to point at his own forehead, miming a shot to the head. "Dead, execution style. He made the wrong people mad in the organization or so the reporters speculated – I don't really know; mother had a restraining order against him, anyway."

"What 'organization' was that?" Chris asked, genuinely curious and somewhat suspicious.

"Oh, you know shipping illegal substances in and out of the country, gun-running, prostitution – both sending Americans over as 'slaves' to other countries and bringing in foreign individuals with the promise of a better life. I'm sure there was more, but I can't remember all the details of it." There was a long suffered sigh from Ezra. "Of course, I had to glean all of that from other sources as mother never spoke of him – his name was not on my birth certificate, but I did discover the paternity test stating that there was a 99.9% probability that he was my father. That and the papers for the restraining order."

"What was his name?"

"Patrick Edward Worthington, though he went by Eddie West. He was fairly high up in the chain of command, but apparently not high enough. Out with a bang." Ezra was grinning as he spoke, clearly amused at his father's fate and not in the least bit upset. "They were all a bit crazy, the Worthingtons – rich, granted, but not quite right. They all had violent deaths or killed themselves. I have a fortune set aside by my father and grandfather though I can't touch it until I'm eighteen. I'm more or less the only one left, except for a great-great grandmother who refuses to die; she must be nearly one hundred now, what fortune she has is going to pay her nursing home expenses." Then he brightened even more, his eyes gleaming with life. "Of course all of her estates are in my name so they can't be touched. The opulence is almost offensive."

There was really nothing anyone could say to that or at least nothing that could do it justice. The gleeful way in which Ezra spoke was astounding. Vin was confused by it all because he knew that Ezra wasn't a mean person and had seen him at his most vulnerable. It was like something or someone else was speaking for Ezra and though he had never met Ezra's mother he could see her saying those things. Even with as much as Ezra mentioned money and wealth he didn't seem to care about it, not really – he'd made no demands to go anywhere other than baseball practice and games and he hadn't spent any money except for his lunch at school.

All color left Vin's face when he glanced back in Ezra's direction and at the form that was hovering just behind his chair. It was a man and from Ezra's previous description it was his father. There was a gaping hole through the shadow's head and one of its eyeballs was hanging from being shot at such a close range. When the shadow turned Vin could see the back of its head – or what was left of it, with its brain and flaps of skin hanging as they were.

"Junior?" Vin jumped at the sound of Buck's voice and his hand pressing against his forehead. "You doing all right? You aren't coming down with anything are ya?"

Vin shook his head but couldn't find his voice. He didn't mind the pretty lady that sometimes hovered near Buck or Chris or the little boy that ran through the house sometimes or the other older woman he assumed was Buck's mother, but he minded this one. There were more dark presences hovering around Ezra than he had ever seen anyone have before. They gravitated to him and he attracted them with his closed-off and darkened spirit and as much as Vin tried to fend them off they kept coming back.

Go, go, go. Go AWAY. Not wanted go away. Vin pushed until the shadow stepped back and away from Ezra then slipped off through a wall. He tracked it to make sure it was gone then turned his attention to his odd little makeshift family who was staring at him. "I'm okay."

Buck snorted. "Where have I heard that before?"

"It's true." Vin went back to eating to make them stop worrying or at least stop looking at him. What Ezra said about his father's family was a concern, though and might possibly be the reason why Ezra attracted dark spirits. It wasn't common and it was one of the theories that he'd been kicking around in his head, but this was almost confirmation. It could be a family curse, possibly, which would explain the tragic deaths of his father's family; Vin wondered if he was reading far too much into things.

That night Vin once more slept by Ezra's bed, guarding his dreams from the demons that he could chase away. There was nothing that he could do about the internal thoughts and nightmares that plagued him, but he could get rid of the real spirits that haunted Ezra's sleep. Maddy peeked out of her box every now and again just to keep an eye on the dog Sam, who had draped herself across Vin.

Ezra tended to twitch in his sleep with an unnatural tension, his face soft and innocent even as his hands and fingers moved restlessly. His legs twitched too though not nearly as much as his hands that seemed to always be trying to get away from something or fighting something or someone off. Vin could watch him for hours, while noting that Ezra's face, even in sleep, never revealed whatever he might be feeling as his body betrayed him. More than once Vin had thought about asking Ezra what he dreamed about and had decided not to. It was possible Ezra didn't know or remember what he saw in his dreams and it was also possible that Ezra wouldn't tell him if he did know.

The next morning Vin made the decision to tell JD the truth about himself and about whatever it was that he had with Ezra. It was just a matter of actually telling JD eventually. Sometime. Maybe. He wished he could be as okay with it as Ezra was or at least as okay as Ezra seemed to be about it.


"Yeah?" His eyes were bright and wide as they walked toward the end of the drive to wait for the bus.

Vin's breath caught and suddenly he forgot what he had intended to say. "You're beautiful."

Perhaps it was the abruptness of Vin's statement that made Ezra's cheeks suddenly flush red or it could have been that he was just not used to hearing compliments. "Is that what you wanted to say?"

"No, but it's true. I just wanted to say that you shouldn't worry about your dad or his family because they aren't you. No matter what they did or thought you don't have to be like that if you choose not to be – look at my dad's family. I'd like to think that I'm not at all like that."

"You aren't." Ezra sighed. "Changing meanness is one thing, but trying to escape from depression and schizophrenia when they tend to run in family's bloodlines? That's not nearly as easy."

That was true though not something Vin could really address. There was no way that he would be able to tell Ezra that it wasn't going to happen when he had no idea. Still, there was one thing he could ask, "Are you depressed?"

"I don't know. I've never been happy to know what being depressed means." A distant look entered Ezra's eyes and there was no telling where Ezra's mind had wandered. "But it doesn't matter. I don't do things for myself anyway."

"Who do you do things for?"

"Everyone. Mostly mother." He snorted and shook his head. "Not that she ever listens to me even when I'm right. I suppose I couldn't protect her forever."

It was an odd statement and yet it somehow made sense to Vin. After all, if it had been his mother he would have tried to protect her no matter what except that, "A mother's supposed to protect you, not the other way around."

Ezra's smile was bitter indeed, his voice tinged heavily with sarcasm. "As you know she did a wonderful job of that. Can't you see how very sheltered and coddled I was? How very like a perfect and treasured pet to be taken care of? She did such a wonderful job protecting me that I have no reason to fear anything at all because I have never known real fear." There was a cold and glassy look to Ezra's beautiful green eyes that chilled Vin and as much as he wanted to comfort the other boy he didn't know how. "She tried to send me away a few times to boarding schools and such, but I refused because someone had to be there if – if someone hurt her or she needed help. Someone had to be there to make sure she was still alive and breathing and to care enough to call the paramedics if she wasn't."

While Vin couldn't fault Ezra's logic he also couldn't find any reason other than the obvious why that would have been a concern to him. As much as he didn't like that idea there simply was no other explanation. It made sense that Ezra had not been the only victim of abuse.

Chapter Six

"Do you think they'll let you come to the game on Friday?"

JD automatically exchanged food with Vin out of habit more than anything else since they always shared anyway. It didn't really matter who got what. "I asked them a few days ago and I think that will be okay." The Martins had actually been thrilled that JD was showing an interest in anything outside of himself. He typically didn't like sports, watching or participating, but Vin was suddenly all for baseball because of Ezra. It would get him out of the house for a while at least.

"Great!" There was something different about Vin since he started to live with his soon-to-be adoptive parents. If JD had to put a word to it he would say "happy". It was to the point of being annoying and it was way off JD's radar of understanding.

When Vin was in trouble all of the time and going through all those rough patches it was hard, but it had made sense. JD could feel that sort of pain. This almost perpetually excited and joyful state rubbed at his nerves because it didn't add up. He couldn't feel that sort of emotion – everything was flatline. What it came down to was that Vin was leaving him behind and maybe it would all add up to Vin getting new and better friends. Friends like Ezra. Because suddenly after years of being friends he and Vin were no longer the same at all.


"Yeah?" Vin had stopped bouncing to talk; that was new, too. The Vin that JD knew tended to stare dully into space, but now he seemed to have boundless amounts of energy. It made JD tired just watching him.

"Never mind."

Vin frowned at him. "What is it?"

Casey was watching JD too her eyes soft and speculative. Everyone was looking at the strange kid. "Nothing." JD's skin itched to be cut but he resisted for the moment. There would be time enough for that after lunch.


Disaster struck during Language Arts after lunch. Ezra wasn't worried about the test that he'd had earlier and talked quietly with a few of his friends in the class while the teacher passed their tests back. He fell immediately silent upon getting his test and seeing the grade on it.

Ezra was stunned. The rest of class passed him by without Ezra listening or participating and there was no real assignment for homework to write down. He didn't move when all the other students left at the sound of the bell to dismiss them to their next class. He didn't move when a few of his friends urged him to do so. He didn't move when the teacher bent down to try to catch his eye and asked if everything was okay and that he was going to be late for his next class. The next thing she asked was, "Do you need to go see the school nurse?"

When Ezra didn't response she asked him to come with her to the office so Ezra went quietly and suffered his temperature being taken and his eyes and throat examined. The nurse could find nothing wrong with him, but asked him to lay down for a while because he was looking pale. The ticking of the clock on the wall was loud in the silence of the small room.

Then the familiar sound of Buck's voice broke through and he was let into the room as Ezra pulled himself into a seated position. "Hey Slick. You feeling all right?"

Ezra shook his head no.

"What's the problem?"

It was likely meant that he wanted to know what was physically wrong with him, though there was nothing physically wrong. So Ezra very carefully reached for his book and test that was neatly tucked inside and handed the test to Buck.

"Well now that's a pretty good grade…" Buck's voice trailed off and Ezra knew it was because his eyes were filling with tears that he could not stop. Ezra was forced to blink, releasing the tears to slide down his face. "What's eatin' ya, Ez? Can you tell me?"

Ezra waved helplessly at the test Buck held in his hand with the knowledge that if he spoke the tears would become worse. It seemed that lately all he did was cry and he didn't want to cry anymore. That didn't seem to work so Ezra finally forced out, "I don't get B minuses!" He ended up choking on the words as fat tears rolled down his face. In an attempt to bite back his sobs Ezra's arms tightened around himself and he tried to take in short gasps of air. It was only slightly effective.

"Ah, Ez." He continued to try to stifle his body-wrenching hiccupping sobs as Buck wiped off his face with a tissue. "When I was in school I would have been lucky to get a B minus, you know that?"

His tears eventually dried up and he rubbed at his face to try to make all the evidence go away even while knowing that was impossible. "Can we leave?" At least if they left now there wouldn't be very many people in the hallways to see Ezra in his current state.

"Yeah, we can. Vin should be out in the hall now. You've both got appointments with John today anyway, all right? Maybe you can talk to him about what just happened." Ezra choose not to acknowledge that statement as they went out to meet Vin who quickly rose when he saw Ezra with his head down and trying to hide his puffy and reddened face. Vin held his hand on the way to the truck and forced Ezra into the middle seat for closeness's sake.

Vin went in to see John first. Vin said that he was only going to have a thirty minute session so that John could have an hour and a half or a two hour block if needed. It seemed to be over all too soon and then Ezra was being called back with Buck, Vin's hand squeezing his as he passed back into the waiting room. Buck expressed his concerns to John while he listened and offered nothing in return. Then Buck left the room and Ezra picked a point on the wall to study.

"I heard that you were involved in some type of sports like soccer or basketball." Ezra's eyes involuntarily jerked toward the man – John Perkins – then jerked away. He had almost corrected him because he didn't play soccer. "Are you in anything like that?" It took more effort than Ezra wanted to think about not to nod.

John talked while Ezra listened. He talked about some of Buck's concerns and some of the things that Vin had told him about, like how Ezra was really smart and liked horses and kittens. It became harder and harder to maintain a state of indifference. Then John asked, "Would it be easier for you if Buck was in here?"

Ezra's eyes darted toward John's without actually looking at him.

"Would it be better if it was Vin in here instead of Buck?"

For the first time Ezra met the man's eyes but he refused to respond.

"Okay, how about you head on out to the little kitchen area beside the waiting room and get yourself a drink – there's Pepsi or Coke – and while you're out there if you want Buck or Vin to come back with you just grab them and bring them back. All right?"

Ezra stood up woodenly and left the room, walked down the hall and retrieved a Pepsi from the refrigerator. There he paused before crossing into the waiting room and taking Vin by the hand and leading him back to the cozy office. Instead of the chair that Ezra had sat in before he sat down on the loveseat and pulled Vin down with him.

"I heard that you had a game on Friday. What type of sport is that for?"

Both John and Vin waited expectantly and finally Vin answered, "Baseball."

"Baseball! Really. What position do you play?"

Ezra stared at him blankly until Vin answered, "He's a pitcher."

It was all going well until John asked if something had upset Ezra earlier and Ezra's head and shaken "no" involuntarily. "No? Did you get a test of some sort back and you didn't like the grade you got?"

Ezra mumbled something under his breath and winced at his own betrayal. Still, when asked to repeat what he'd said Ezra repeated louder, "I got a B minus." He shook his head. "I don't get B minuses."

"That's not a bad grade, Ezra. That's a really good grade." They talked about movies and shows and friends and sports with Ezra adding a word or two here and there almost against his will. It was obvious Vin liked John in the animated way that he spoke to him and Ezra found himself watching Vin.

In his pocket Ezra felt his cell phone vibrate and jumped. It was an immediate reaction to check the caller id and from there he had to answer the phone. "Mother?"

"There's my darling boy. How is everything?"

Ezra's eyes darted toward John as he replied, "Everything's fine, mother. Have you heard from Erica? What are they going to d – "

"Now that's nothing for you to worry about, darling. Mother will handle it."

Ezra felt his jaw drop and he was unable to prevent himself from snapping, "You'll handle it? What? Like you handle everything else? By ignoring it and doing nothing? You honestly expect me to trust that you'll handle this? You've never done a damned thing!"

"Ezra, why whatever is the matter with you?"

He took several calming breaths. "Nothing, mother. Now tell me. What is she doing?"

"I don't know yet, darling. We still have to wait for the sentencing – baby, I have to go. I'll call you tomorrow. Remember, mother loves you."

"Goodbye mother." Ezra snapped the phone shut and glowered at it before cramming it back into his pocket.

"Sounds like a difficult conversation there."

He didn't want to respond to the not-question, but Ezra also realized that he wanted to hurl something across the room or hit someone or scream and at the moment those were not options. Sometimes mother was impossible. "After ten years she's finally sobered up and now she wants to treat me like I'm a child and couldn't possibly understand the ramifications of her murdering someone and getting sentenced to prison. I liked it better when I was more of a pet that she'd occasionally pay attention to when I did some remarkable and impressive trick."

"She must have paid attention to you more often than that."

Ezra sank back into the loveseat that he'd been sitting on the edge of since he'd arrived in the room. His whole body went limp suddenly. "No, she didn't. Now that she's locked up she wants to be a perfect mother. Now that it's too late."

"Tell me how you would have liked things to be different for you instead of what really happened."

He was tired, so very tired. "I want to be three again."

"Why three?"

Ezra shook his head. "I want to be three and I want mother to have died then. I would have been sad then if she died and I would have missed her, but I could stay with daddy and what happened never would have happened."

"What happened that you didn't want to happen?"

His lips moved, but no words came out. He turned to look first at John and then at Vin and found he had nothing to say and that perhaps he had said too much. "Nothing." The session ended there and whether it was because the time was up or because John had somehow sensed that Ezra had shut down was anyone's guess. Ezra did note that they had gone fifteen minutes over their scheduled time.

Chapter Seven

Vin spent his half hour with John talking about Ezra without giving away any secrets that he'd promised to keep. For the most part Vin figured that John would have already gotten the basics of what had happened with Ezra so he didn't have to tell him that. Instead he focused on the fact that Ezra refused to speak with any of the counselors and he barely acknowledged the social worker and he'd wanted to avoid the police officer. "I've told him and I keep telling him that it does help to talk about it, but I don't know if he will."

"You must really like Ezra since you talk about him all the time."

"Yeah, I do."

John smiled at him and asked, "As more than a friend?"

Vin ducked his head. "Yeah."

"Does Ezra know or is that more of a secret crush?"

"Ezra knows."

"Ah. Has anything happened because he knows you like him?"

Vin shoved at the short carpeting with the edge of his shoe. "He's kissed me a few times."

"Anything else?"

"No. I told him I don't want to do anything else and Ezra's said he doesn't want to, either." They ended shortly after that and Vin waited in the waiting room while Buck went in with Ezra. Twenty or so minutes later Buck was back in the waiting room with him and about a half an hour after that Ezra wandered into the room with a Pepsi in his hand. He reached out wordlessly and took Vin by the hand and tugged faintly so Vin got up and followed Ezra back to John's office and sat down. By Ezra's silence Vin took that to mean the session had not been going well and he tried to change that around.

By the end of the session Ezra had begun to participate and actually talk to John, which was a step in the right direction. Vin didn't think that Ezra really wanted his mom to be dead, though, he just wanted the bad things to be erased. That made a whole lot of sense to Vin because sometimes he wanted that too, but at the same time he wouldn't change any of it. After all he was here now and he was doing good.

"So, what do you think of John?"

"He's okay."

"You'll like him more every time you see him. He always says that he can't help everyone he sees, probably not even half of them, but he helps me." Vin nudged Ezra until the other boy looked at and acknowledged him. "Do you think he can help you?"

Ezra shrugged. "I don't know."

"It'll help," he replied firmly because it had to. "Besides, now you can come to sessions with me. Perfect, huh?" Ezra smiled weakly in reply, but Vin took it as a good sign anyway – he hadn't liked counseling when he first had to go. Liking the counselor was the first hurdle to cross.

They picked up dinner on the way back because Buck said he didn't feel like cooking tonight. Vin asked if Ezra wanted to go running with him and Chris and it appeared as if Ezra was actually considering it before he declined. It was easier than it usually was to let go and to just feel and be. There was no tension or expectations. "Chris?"

Chris was stretching after their run to cool down. "Yeah?"

"It's going to be okay, right?" He was bouncing on his toes and watching as Chris straightened up to look at Vin more fully.

"What do you mean?"

"It's going to be okay? Me and Ezra and you and Buck. It's going to be okay. Ezra likes John or at least I think he does because he did talk to him sort of but that's better than before so that has to be a good sign. Right?"

"That's a tough question there. I hope it's going to be okay, but I don't exactly have a magic wand to wave and make everything better. That Ezra's talking to John is great and I'm glad to hear it – don't expect anything to happen too quickly, though or you'll be disappointed." Chris's hands settled on his shoulders and Vin stopped bouncing and looked at him expectantly. "Boy, you've got more energy than a Mexican jumping bean. You know that?"

He tried to think back on everything he'd done with Chris and Buck at their home and if there was ever any occasion where he'd been too excitable or emotional or anything like that. There was nothing that Vin could think of that he'd done wrong. Vin gnawed on his bottom lip. "Is that bad?"

"Bad?" Chris smiled widely and shook his head. "No, that's not a bad thing. However, if you don't join track or some other sport next year to run off some of that energy you may just run me into the ground. Then where would I be?"

"That wouldn't happen!"

"Oh, wouldn't it?" Chris leaned in, his eyes sparkling with humor. "I'll let you in on a bit of a secret – as Buck would say, 'I ain't gettin' any younger' and it's hard enough keeping up with you."

"Yeah right. You aren't that old." There was never a time when Chris was unable to keep up with Vin and if anything Chris was pressing Vin to go for longer runs not the other way around.

Chris clasped the back of Vin's neck and steered him inside. "Maybe right now, but who knows what will happen next year. I'll be really old then."

"No you won't!" Vin went inside and found Ezra standing nearby studying him with an odd expression on his face that made his skin crawl. When Ezra smiled at him his eyes were devoid of feeling. Whatever was coming wasn't good.


Ezra watched from the window as Chris and Vin headed back toward the house and paused just outside. They were talking seriously for a while and then Chris smiled and Vin smiled back. The hairs on the back of Ezra's neck stood up as he watched Chris move closer toward Vin and the way he patted him. His heart raced from fear, his hands clenching and unclenching themselves as his mind whirled with crazy thoughts and ideas that just might work.

It only took a mild effort to slip into a charming persona that he had dubbed the 'introduction phase' as it was used most often when mother was introducing him to a new potential step-father he was supposed to impress. It was also used during parties and in the event mother was pulling off a con that would either get her money or drugs – or at least attempt to do so because they didn't always work. There needed to be more than just surface effort on Ezra's part to be polite as he was most certainly past the introduction phase with these people, but that wasn't a problem. He kept them entertained and distracted throughout the evening and when Chris slipped away to his study like he always did, Ezra followed.

There weren't a great many boundaries that Ezra wouldn't cross if given the incentive to do so. A study was just a room even though it screamed "Chris" in everything he looked at like a window into a person's soul. It was curious that for a moment he did hesitate because Ezra didn't know what Chris wanted and that was a first. So Ezra approached cautiously, keeping his eyes lowered as his eyes skimmed over the titles of the books along the shelves. When he reached where Chris was seated he lowered himself slowly to the floor because Vin tended to sit on the floor, almost unconsciously offering Chris a position of power. So Ezra would offer the same.

"Ezra, you need something?"

He nodded and allowed his hands to drift up the chair until they were on the armrest, keeping his eyes down. When his name was repeated again Ezra slid closer and then offered his distraction. "Help me?" He timed it perfectly, lifting his eyes to gaze up at Chris with all of the pleading and sincerity that he could muster.

Ezra didn't need help on his Language Arts paper; it was already done and was certain to get him at least an A if not higher. It was the sort of vulnerability that he needed though and it seemed perfect even though he was still devastated about getting a B minus. Ezra was not above using his own insecurities to accomplish what he needed in an effective manner.

They went over the paper together and Chris offered a few suggestions here and there though he also told Ezra that it was a good, solid paper. It surprised Ezra that the compliment struck him so deeply and he was pleased as he blinked rapidly against the flush he knew highlighted his cheeks. He'd been told that his ability to blush so readily was 'adorable' or 'charming'.

When Chris touched his head, a petting sort of pat as he might stroke a cat or a dog, Ezra leaned into the touch and forced himself to relax. It gave a 'melting' sort of impression that made Chris's eyes soften and brought a sort of smile to his mouth. Then Chris told him that it was time to get ready for bed and Ezra wondered as he went to his room, but nothing happened. Maybe he'd done something wrong after all Ezra wasn't used to actually putting any effort into it. Normally he put effort into avoiding it and it didn't work.

So he took a shower and left the door unlocked, just in case. Nothing happened and Ezra found himself crying in frustration because it hadn't worked and he didn't know what else he could do. Not that he'd given up – no, not at all. He would just be more direct next time.

Ezra brushed himself off and went to his room, watching as Vin settled down beside his bed. The kittens were squirming in their box as Maddy stretched and lapped up some water from her bowl, keeping an eye on the dog as she padded into the room after Vin. He reached out his hand and Vin immediately offered his hand in return. Ezra almost asked for a kiss but he thought better of it.


"What exactly happened with the counselor today?"

"Now, Chris, don't you know that's confidential information?" It was a question designed to make Chris glower at him in that petulant way that Chris would swear up and down that he never did. Then Buck smiled to show that he was kidding and kissed him in apology. "Other than the introduction I don't know. I got kicked out and Vin was invited back in and from my understanding Ez actually talked to John so that has to be an improvement."

They had seen a different sort of Ezra today and it had them both a little confused. Buck had already told Chris about the upset at school that had Ezra in tears over what he presumed was a bad grade. That Ezra had gone to Chris for help with anything was shocking, but on the other hand it was Chris that had always helped Vin with his homework.

Ezra was a force all on his own and the change had them all a little more animated whereas Vin and Chris both brought a sort of calm. It was the same type of atmosphere that Buck liked to create when he wasn't worried about startling the boys or upsetting someone. There was something that didn't sit right with him about the way Ezra was suddenly behaving, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

All thoughts flew out of his head when Chris said out of nowhere, "I'm taking the promotion."

Buck turned to study Chris who was intently staring at his hands and possibly the carpet. "You are?"

"Yeah. I talked to Travis about it today and he said that it was still available." Chris fidgeted for a few moments and Buck watched him squirm just because he could for all the annoyance that Chris had put him through. When they'd first met Chris had been hardheaded and stubborn with that touch of shyness that often came across as being cocky and all knowing. Chris was still hardheaded and stubborn and he was still shy even as he managed to appear as if he wasn't, but the cocky and all knowing attitude had softened a lot with age. In many ways Vin was the same way as Chris, but life had shaped him to be afraid and Chris had never known fear and pain until the day they'd lost Sarah and Adam and then little Emily.

"I suspect they'll be 30 days until you switch over. Prepare the new team leader and all."

Chris nodded sharply. He wanted approval. He needed approval. Buck had to smile at the similarities of Vin and Chris. "Then I'll give my 30 day notice, too." Ezra didn't appear to need approval, but he needed it just as much as anyone else even if there were no outward signs of it.

"Okay." Just like that Chris relaxed, the tiniest of smiles appearing on his face.

"So am I going to be your kept man now?" Buck almost regretted the words as soon as he said them because of the way Chris jerked as if he'd been slapped.

"No! Buck – "

"Whoa, there." It was like calming down a wild horse. "I didn't mean it, there's plenty of work around here to do, all right?"

Chris nodded but the upset expression hadn't left his face. "Yeah."

"I mean it, Stud. That's never mattered to me before. Now, keeping your ass out of the line of fire – that's important, or at least making sure you aren't going around with a target on ya. So, you going to be happy behind a desk?"

"Yeah, but what matters is that I'm happy here with you and the boys."

Chapter Eight

Chris didn't make it to the game on Friday, something about working late, but JD was there sitting with Buck and Vin in the stands. Ezra ended up sitting out part of the game because he'd missed practice on Wednesday and he'd had to sit out of practice on Monday. It ended up being an okay game though they didn't win – not even playing in the final innings could save the game because they were that far behind. Still it was good to be active and involved.

They got junk food at the concession stand and Ezra even got them some extra things, just because. Not that Ezra ate any of it; he claimed to be on a diet. When Vin told Ezra that there was no way he should be on a diet because he wasn't fat Ezra had replied simply, "Yes I am."

"Oh, please. You could bounce a dime off your ass." JD was rolling his eyes as he tried to fit a whole giant pretzel in his mouth.

"You've been checking out my ass, huh?"

If it wasn't so upsetting Vin might have laughed when JD started choking on his mouthful of pretzel. Though he was naturally concerned that JD was choking the less immediate but more concerning prospect was Ezra thinking he was fat. There'd been a girl – well, three actually, but only one that Vin remembered with much clarity – who was stick-thin and had been obsessive with her weight to the point that she had to be hospitalized because she wouldn't eat. They'd thought she was going to die and she almost had if it hadn't been for the feeding tube they put in her.

The more Vin thought about it the more he wondered. Ezra barely at anything for breakfast and if he could get away with it he would eat nothing at all. At lunch Vin knew that while Ezra did buy his lunch he rarely ate anything he bought, preferring to hand his food off to his friends in a subtle but planned manner. Dinner was pretty much the only meal Ezra ate much of anything substantial and that was because he was faced with all of them watching him at one table. Even then Ezra tended to eat very little and pushed most of his food around, using words to distract from his eating habits even as he scraped his leftovers into the trash.

Since it was possible he was again reading too much into a situation, knowing his own vivid imagination, Vin kept quiet while vowing to pay more attention. After JD got picked up after the game Buck took them back home and since Chris still wasn't back from work Vin went on a walk with Ezra. They walked out toward the woods along the pasture fence in companionable silence until an eerily familiar click, click caught Vin's attention. The flame from the small Bic lighter made him start in surprise as Ezra inhaled the smoke from the cigarette that had found its way to his lips. "Want one?"

Vin jerked backwards and shook his head.

"It's just a cigarette." Ezra leaned against the fence as he shoved the pack of cigarettes into his jacket pocket.

"I'm on probation. Don't you know that?"

Ezra shrugged his shoulders. "So?"

"Part of my rules of probation includes not smoking. You know how much trouble I could get into if I smoked?" It wasn't just the probation, but it was a good excuse. Vin hated cigarettes. The smell made him nauseous because it made him remember what he didn't want to remember.

"Who's going to tell? I won't." He took another puff on his cigarette as Vin backed further and further away from him.

"No." It was a matter of turning and fleeing for the sake of survival. Helping Buck in the barn was better and was something he could throw himself into. By the time Ezra wandered back toward the barn and began discreetly feeding Cassius treats they had finished up and were headed inside. Ezra stayed outside for a while longer and only came back inside after Chris had arrived home and dinner was ready.

When Ezra passed by Chris to head toward the dining room, Chris's arm shot out blocking the boy's way. "Why do you smell like an ashtray?" It was a rhetorical question because the next thing Chris said was, "You've been smoking."

Ezra didn't deny it, but he also made no response other than to stare blankly at the man. What else could he do? It was certain that Vin hadn't had a chance to tell on Ezra – or at least not a chance to tell Chris – and something made Ezra suspect that Vin wouldn't have told even under pressure.

"Hand 'em over. Matches, lighter or whatever you've got, too." There might have been a fight with the way Ezra was staring at Chris almost glaring and then he reached into his jacket pocket and dropped the slightly crumpled box of half-full cigarettes into Chris's hand. It was followed shortly by the lighter. "Anything else that you have in your room that you shouldn't have you'd better go get and bring to me. If you choose not to I'm going to go through everything myself and if I find something you shouldn't have it's gone. Now go."

They all waited as Ezra shifted his weight from one foot to the other then edged past Chris to his room. He brought back two more unopened packs of cigarettes and another lighter. "Is this it?" When Ezra hesitated Chris told him, "Go get it." Ezra turned and walked back to his room and brought back not cigarettes but two bottles one full and one nearly empty.

"Vodka." Chris stared at the bottles in disbelief. "Ezra, how full was this bottle when you got here?"

Cool green eyes gazed steadily at Chris as he replied, "Completely full."

"And you drank this all by yourself?" His eyes flickered toward Vin as he spoke and it was only with great effort that Vin didn't drop to the floor and cower at the look alone.


"Is there anything else you shouldn't have – drugs, alcohol, anything?"

There was another small pause then Ezra met Chris's eyes calmly. "Not unless you want to confiscate my condoms, too."

Chris shook his head. "No, you can keep those, though I want you to understand that there should be no reason that you should be involved in any occasions that you would need them."

Dinner was a tense affair and Vin did notice that Ezra ate hardly anything, but that could have been due to the previous circumstances. They all gathered in the living room afterwards though no one seemed up to conversation and the TV was just on for background noise. "You don't need to smoke or drink, Ez," he finally said to break the silence. "You're better than that." When Ezra didn't answer, just burrowed deeper against the couch Vin whispered, "You know why I don't like cigarettes… or alcohol?"

Ezra focused on him and shook his head no so Vin pulled off the sock on his right foot and turned his foot so that Ezra could see the bottom of it. A soft "ah" left Ezra's mouth as he leaned in and though Buck and Chris were looking too he didn't mind.

"What's that?"

Ezra was tracing the design on Vin's foot lightly and answered Buck so Vin didn't have to, "Cigarette burns. Perfect little connecting circles. He held you down on your belly, probably sat on you," Ezra speculated. "Kept your other leg down with his and burned here, first." Vin shivered as Ezra touched the old burn closest to his heel and moved upwards. "It's the deepest burn. One, two, three, four, five then six and seven across. The irony, seven, the supposed perfect number, the holy number, God's number burned into a cross."

"I didn't know there was seven, but it fits." Vin had little memory of that night and that was probably for a good reason. All he could remember hazily was that it had hurt and that distantly he could recall the smell of his skin burning. "M'daddy said I was possessed by something demonic and he wanted to make it go away."

"The irony there is that he was the demonic one." Ezra laughed even though it wasn't funny and Vin couldn't help but smile.

Then the smile faded abruptly as a thought struck Vin. "How did you know they were cigarette burns?"

"Hm? Oh." Ezra shifted up on the couch and nudged down the top of his jeans, twisting so that Vin could clearly see the perfect circular mark on his hip. "I used my teeth," he said by way of explanation.

Chris was suddenly coughing liked he'd choked on something and Buck had closed his eyes sharply. Vin didn't get it. "What?"

"I used my teeth," Ezra repeated like it made sense and smiled to show his teeth to Vin as if there was some meaning behind it that Vin simply was not grasping.

"Ezra. No."

Vin looked in Chris's direction, offended that he'd cut off whatever explanation Ezra might have continued on with. He supposed it didn't matter because he would just ask Ezra about it later anyway and he was sure to get an answer then. But what did a cigarette burn have to do with using his teeth?


As soon as the boys were in bed – or, rather, Ezra was in bed and Vin was curled up on his floor – Buck went looking for Chris who had disappeared into their bedroom. Chris was flopped face down on their bed and if not for the tension along his back and shoulders Buck might have assumed he was asleep. It had been a long day because he'd had to work over to wrap things up and part of it was the fact that Chris had missed going to Ezra's game.

"How ya holdin' up there?" Chris shifted into Buck's hand as it stroked down his back.

"Tired." He twisted his head to get a better view of Buck as he settled beside him. "You know what they say about invisible scars hiding deeper pain you can't see and how they can sometimes be worse than the visible scars? I thought I understood that. I don't."

Buck made an attempt at working some of the tension out of Chris's back, but when the man didn't want to relax or be soothed there was nothing anyone could do. "I can't – " Chris started to move in his grasp and Buck applied just enough pressure to get him to stay still. "Why would someone do that? Hold a kid, any kid, their son down like that and do that, to burn them not once or twice but seven times with a cigarette? And Ezra… used his teeth. I can't even – I don't want to wrap my mind around that."

"Does it bother you because it happened or because they are so matter-of-fact about it?"

On the one hand it was a horrifying thought to imagine that it happened at all even though he'd been aware of aspects of what both boys and gone through. It was just one more thing to add to their list. The way Vin talked about it so casually like it was normal and that it wasn't a big deal to talk about it was upsetting, too. That and Ezra calmly talking about things Chris didn't think a kid his age should know about, or at least should never have had forced on him, was not something he wanted to talk about. "Both, I think. I'm afraid for them."

"I know, but that's not going to help them any." There was no changing the past and they wanted the boys to feel that they could tell them anything without retribution. Being afraid of what happened to them was easily misinterpreted as disgust of the act itself and possibly of the boys for allowing it to happen. Vin was more reluctant to offer up things from his past and his offerings were few and far between. On the other hand Ezra seemed to easily offer hints of his abuse, but not nearly the extent of it like he was bursting to tell someone and at the same time didn't want to. That was so like Ezra, though – a bundle of contradictions.

"Is it going to be okay?"

The question stunned Buck into asking, "What?"

"Is it going to be okay?" Chris repeated. "Vin asked me that and I didn't really answer him because I don't have a clue. Just when I think everything's settled it all changes again."

"You ain't saying what I think you're saying, are you?"

"No, no. I'm just saying that my innocent picturesque up-bringing did not prepare me for all of this and I'm out of my range of understanding." He yelped when Buck's fingers brushed across his ticklish sides. They both knew that they had seen a lot in their time, but that Chris had definitely had an easy childhood and had always assumed that that was how it should be. While Chris had seen that Buck and his mom had to scrimp and save his mom had always loved him and done her best to take care of him. Anything else was shocking.

"They're like little abandoned kittens, Chris. Like the ones people try to drown or shoot or whatever only they've already had a lot of stuff done to them that didn't kill 'em, just made them afraid. Now one little kitten might spit and hiss and growl and try to take on the world while another little kitten is gonna cower up in a little ball and try to hide. Another little kitten might let you hold it and pet it and then the next minute it'll turn on you so fast your head will spin." A smile had started to appear on Chris's face at the thought of the various kittens they had had over the years, a smile that quickly faded when he thought of the boys.

"Just like kittens, huh? You know they put some feral cats to sleep. Some of ours have up and run away and who knows how they ended up."

"What, no jokes about this being a 'cathouse'?"

"Buck!" It wasn't funny at all but Chris was laughing so hard that tears were running down his face. At least Buck liked to think it was the laughter causing the tears because he did hate to see anyone cry but he especially hated to see Chris cry. It was even worse when Buck couldn't do anything to make it all better.