Magnificent Seven Seven Brothers AU

Substitute Dreams

by Ami-chan

Warnings: Slash relationships, mentions of child abuse.

Summary: Sequel to Delinquent. Ezra has joined the Larabee/Wilmington/Tanner household. Yeehaw!

Chapter One

"Hey Blondie." Chris jumped as Buck slid into the shower behind him, partially startled when Buck's arms wrapped around him. He began to turn toward the bathroom door just in case. "I locked the door. Besides, Vin doesn't even use this bathroom."

Since Vin had entered their lives things had changed drastically, though mostly for the good except for their reduced privacy. Chris always jumped a mile when he thought that Vin might see them kissing or hugging, which tended to disrupt their moments together. Lucky for them that Buck considered it an endearing trait.

"Buck, I don't know…" The kiss that was pressed to Chris's neck made him shiver, his resistance to Buck's mostly nonverbal suggestion beginning to fade.

"Junior's a smart boy. Not like he's going to be storming in here while either of us is in the shower. Hell, he's never even tried to enter our bedroom." When Chris thought about it he realized that Vin had never made too many attempts to explore his home. Even though they now had temporary custody of Vin he still seemed hesitant to enter certain rooms despite the fact that neither Chris nor Buck had ever told him anything was off limits. Vin never entered Chris's study, their bedroom, or either of the other two bedrooms – one of which was more of a junk room than anything else.

"Do you think he's really comfortable here?"

Buck sighed into his neck, his arms tightening around Chris's waist. "He's getting there, but he's still got a ways to go. Give him time."

"Yeah, I know." Logically he knew and understood that, but it already felt as if Vin was so much apart of their lives and the fact that Vin might not feel the same way hurt. "I just want him to be happy."

"I think he is, he just needs some time to adjust." It had been Chris's decision to try to become foster parents in order to allow Vin to stay with them and to possibly adopt him if Vin was agreeable to it. Buck hadn't minded because it was something that Chris had really wanted and he liked Vin well enough. They'd talked about having other foster children, but Chris had been focused on just having Vin at the time.

Buck liked kids; he liked having Vin around and he'd wondered about having some other kids, too. While the thought of a little baby girl would be nice it wasn't all that probable with them both employed full-time. Chris had already suggested that if one of them wanted to quit that it would be more than possible – not that Buck wasn't already fully aware of that, but Chris liked to remind him every once in a while. Hell, they made enough on Magic's stud fees to live comfortably, but Buck wasn't about to quit the ATF until Chris gave up fieldwork and Chris damn well knew it. If Chris would accept the long-offered and long overdue promotion then there wouldn't be a question at all. Secretly Buck was beginning to think that Chris was reconsidering Travis's offer the more time he spent with Vin.

Later that evening they all sat in the living room, Vin sprawled out on the floor with Sam while Chris and Buck watched the news. Part of the time it was like Vin wasn't even there at all because he hardly made a sound and he blended in so seamlessly. It was almost as if Vin was afraid to be noisy or needy, just in case it might not last or they might decide that they didn't want Vin. They'd had a discussion earlier on Vin going to counseling and not worrying about the cost – Chris and Buck had both known something was bothering Vin and had been for a while, but getting the boy to talk about it had been nearly impossible.

"Junior, time for bed." Buck turned the TV off and helped drag Chris to his feet. When Buck reached out to tickle Vin's sides, the boy jerked away with a yelp, glaring at annoyance at him. Buck only grinned back because he knew that a month ago Vin would barely let Buck in his space.

They said good night to Vin and Chris once again resisted the urge to tuck Vin in like a much younger child. Chris knew it wouldn't be appreciated but the sentiment was still there even though Vin had only been apart of their lives for a short time – Vin was his son, his little boy. There were times when Chris just wanted to hold Vin and never let him go, just to ensure that nothing and no one could ever harm him again.

"Ya big softie," Buck whispered in his ear when Chris joined him in their bedroom. Sometimes Chris thought that Buck could read his mind and for the most part that wasn't a bad thing.

"When Vin's adoption gets finalized do you want to see about looking for another child to adopt? Maybe a younger child?" Someone that they could more easily cuddle and hold and tuck in at night. Having Vin with them brought back memories for Chris – bedtime stories, graham crackers, sticky fingers, and spilled milk. They'd missed all those moments for Vin and the thought of watching another child grow up, to actually grow up, made Chris ache.

Buck's eyebrows rose curiously. "And just who is going to be taking care of this other child, Chris?"

There was a sudden cautiousness that entered Chris's eyes as he slid closer to his lover. "I thought that maybe – "

"You taking that promotion?"

Chris made a sound, the little adorable sound that he always made when he was annoyed, frustrated, or simply couldn't think of a thing to say. "I don't know about that yet."

"Well, darlin', I think you answered your own question." To soften his reply, Buck placed a light kiss on Chris's lips. "When you're ready, let me know." It had been the same reply he'd given Chris before when Chris had suggested that "one of them" could quit. Chris wanted Buck out of the ATF so that he knew he was out of danger and relatively safe and while Buck had made it clear that he wanted the same thing for Chris he'd bulked at the suggestion. Being confined to a desk? Chris liked to pretend he was still young enough to pull off fieldwork and hated the idea of having to quit all the excitement and danger. It was in those moments that Chris forgot the long hours spent making detailed plans that usually went to hell at the last minute or those long debriefs and meetings that dragged on forever.

They fell asleep soon after that, Buck once more grateful that he was capable of falling asleep rapidly and staying deeply asleep – Chris snored so loudly it sounded like a chainsaw. When Sarah had been with them she'd tried using earplugs to taking sleeping pills to block out the sound. That was after they'd done everything from those nose strips to the nasal spray and even pills to stop Chris from snoring, none of them helping a bit.

Losing Sarah had been hard on them and though legally Chris had been the one married to her, they were all three together. Adam had been Chris's little boy, but the baby that Sarah had been carrying, that little girl had been Buck's daughter. The drunk driver that had hit her vehicle had been barely injured in the crash that had killed both Adam and Sarah. The ambulance had tried to keep Sarah alive, Adam having been killed instantly, to at least see if it was possible to save her baby – the little girl had been cut out of Sarah shortly after Sarah's death, but it was too soon, too premature. Little Emily Rose had died just weeks after, her lungs and heart not developed enough to keep her alive despite all of their machines and technology. There would never be another Sarah, Adam, or Emily and they weren't looking for any replacements or substitutions, but having Vin with them meant a lot to them.

It was after midnight that the phone started to ring jolting first Chris then Buck into alertness. Chris got to the phone first, answering it before Buck could even think to move.

"I'm sorry to call you so late," the voice on the line offered first, apologetically after stating that she was with children services and her name was Natalie. "But we have been trying to find a place for this child to stay and it's become rather difficult as he has already frightened off several prospective families already. He has refused to leave the vehicle several times, threatened the foster parents – "

"How old is he?"

"Fourteen. His name is Ezra Standish. It's been a long day for him. We were at the hospital earlier to have him examined – there was evidence of repeated sexual abuse and he was naturally less than cooperative. He's still denying that he was molested, but the evidence is undeniable. At the moment Ezra just needs a place to stay for tonight; if he becomes a problem or you want him to be moved somewhere else you can let us know later."

Chris turned to Buck and repeated some of what the social worker had told him. "Sure, doesn't sound like anything we can't handle."

"Here, let me ask Vin." Chris crawled out of bed and handed the phone to Buck as he went to flip on the hall light and see if Vin was awake.

"I'm thinking that there won't be a problem with that," Buck told the social worker. "He's just going to ask Vin to see what he thinks." The lady on the other end sounded pleased and Buck imagined that she probably hadn't gotten a bit of sleep yet, nor had the boy. When Chris returned he nodded at Buck indicating that it was okay. "All right then. How do you want to do this? Should we meet you somewhere?"

"I can just bring him on out. I'm actually not too far from your home."

"Okay, we'll see you in a little bit then." Buck hung up the phone and told Chris that she would be bringing the boy along shortly. "Sounds like it's been a rough night for them."

Chris nodded in agreement. "Who could do that to a kid? I just don't get it." He leaned against Buck's shoulder just holding him for a moment as he tried to wake himself up just that little bit more. "What are we going to do? How are we going to… Buck, I don't know the first thing about…"

"Whoa there, stud, it'll be okay. Just like with Vin we'll give him his space." There was a faint smile on Buck's face at the clear panic in his lover's eyes.

"But that never happened to Vin. At least I don't think so." Chris's eyes went wide for moment then he pulled away from Buck and started down the hallway with Buck trailing after him. Vin joined them soon after, just leaning onto the kitchen door's frame never quite entering the kitchen, his eyes watchful with just that touch of wary suspicion that he always seemed to have.

As it turned out Vin knew the boy that was coming to their home, the look of surprise on Vin's face suggesting he wasn't all that certain about how it was going to work out. Vin said he was fine with it, but Chris and Buck were both aware that Vin often didn't say how he felt or what was really going on. When Ezra arrived he looked ready to collapse even though Ezra was also more than ready to face off with Chris, the boy seeming to know just how to set him off. Buck found himself sighing with relief when Vin offered to show Ezra around.

"Chris, you're going to have to back off."

Chris's jaw set stubbornly before his good sense kicked back in, reminding him of the circumstances in which Ezra had joined them. "I know, I know. Just tired, I guess."

"That's not it, Blondie, and you know it." Buck kissed him lightly. "Hasn't known you longer than thirty seconds and that boy's got your number and can push all your buttons. He's going to be a handful. It's too close for him, too soon."

"How can you be so damn patient?"

Buck snorted humorlessly, remembering everything they'd gone through, how he'd kept them both stable and together. The times that Buck had literally held Chris down to stop him from hurting himself or anyone else were most prominent in his mind. "Can't have dealt with you as long as I have without it."

A cloud passed over Chris's eyes as he thought back over the years. "Yeah. What would I do without you?"

"Now that's a scary thought, but one you shouldn't have to worry too hard about. Come on, we can get a few more hours of sleep before morning."

"What about Ezra? He probably hasn't gotten any sleep. Should we have him go to school tomorrow? One of us could stay home with him."

Buck nodded even as he inwardly rolled his eyes at the undercurrent in Chris's choice of words that suggested that Buck could stay home even longer than just tomorrow. "Won't be a problem. You have plenty of time off."


"Got a problem with that? You could take a few months off if you wanted." The look on Chris's face was priceless. "Nah, you'd drive me crazy if you had that much time off. I can stay home with Ezra, but no more of your comments about me quitting."

It took a lot of effort on Chris's part to bite off a mild suggestion along those lines, knowing he was already pushing it. They could hear the shower running as they passed the bathroom to go into their bedroom. Chris didn't fall asleep until long after the shower had shut off.

Chapter Two

Ezra fell out of bed the next morning, the double bed he was in significantly smaller than the king-sized that he was accustomed to. The smell of coffee brewing attracted his notice, as did the sounds of people moving around the home that he had found himself in. After he'd fallen into the bed he was provided the previous night Ezra had slept like the dead, which was highly unusual and vaguely disconcerting. He should have woken as soon as he heard any noises of anyone else waking and the fact that he hadn't made Ezra nervous.

A glance at his watch showed that it was 5:55am, way too early for Ezra to usually consider waking, but as everyone else seemed to be awake Ezra got dressed and wandered back toward the way he'd gone the night before. Eventually he located the kitchen where Vin and… what had Natalie said their names were? Chris and Buster? Ezra wasn't sure he'd ever been told which was which and if he had he'd surely forgotten.

They were all eating breakfast. The smell made Ezra feel ill. After some minor conversation Ezra determined that the ill-tempered blond man was Chris, while the dark-haired man was Buck. Everything was strange like Ezra had entered some horror film because none of it should really be happening and all he could think was that he could not miss baseball practice and that meant he couldn't miss school. If there was one thing Ezra was good at it was pretending that everything was fine and he was going to continue doing that no matter how long it took.

Once they were on the bus Ezra found his mind drifting. He barely registered another kid getting on the bus and studying him for a moment before he dropped into the seat behind them. Vin called him JD. It was when Ezra was heading for class that it occurred to him that he'd not completed all of his homework from yesterday – the assignments for his first two classes were done, but history and Language Arts he hadn't managed to complete. "Laura!" He dropped into his seat and turned to one of his girlfriend's friends. "Did you get the history assignment done?" History was before Language Arts so that had to be done first.

"Yeah, sure. You want?"

"That would be great." The Language Arts questions he could copy off of someone at lunch, easy as that. Okay, one thing at a time, he had this covered. Even if he was staying at some strange people's home – it wasn't as if Ezra hadn't moved quite enough in the past and he could deal with this until something else came up.

Between classes Ezra ducked into the bathroom to call their lawyer – cell phones were technically not allowed on school grounds, but Ezra always made sure to check and double check to ensure that it was on silent or turned off while at school. The receptionist stated that Erica Wilson was in court at the moment, but that she would have her get back to him. No help from that corner.

At lunch Jennifer dropped into the seat beside Ezra all smiles and giggles and that overly sweet perfume she wore. Her friends Amber and Rachel were close behind. "Is your next game on Friday?"

"Yeah it is. Radcliff said we have a good chance of winning the game, but as always – "

"'That's no guarantee of a victory unless we play our best'!" Tyler, Asher, and Patrick who were both at the table chimed in.

Ezra was busy copying Asher's Language Arts homework, making sure to make mistakes here and there because Asher always had the right answers and it would look suspicious if he didn't screw up every now and again. The teacher only graded it on whether it was done and turned in on time, anyway, but she always looked over all the answers and corrected them so they would know what they had done wrong. He sat out of the usual basketball game at recess and Asher hung back until they were alone to ask, "Everything okay?"

"I'm good, don't worry about it." Ezra said it with a straight face. He'd lied often enough to him and everyone else before. Of all of his friends Asher was the most perceptive and the hardest to lie to and there had been times Ezra had almost wanted to break down and tell him the truth. He couldn't, of course, especially not now, but he almost had.

"All right, if you're sure." Asher joined the basketball game and left Ezra with Jennifer and her friends. Though he felt like he was going to fall asleep Ezra managed to stay awake for the rest of the school day and dredged up the energy to make it through practice. The coach, Radcliff, said that he'd lacked his usual speed and focus and Ezra couldn't have agreed more. When Ezra spotted Buck's truck afterwards he went toward it quickly, hoping that he would be able to leave before it was noticed. Of course he couldn't, Radcliff being the overly protective coach that he was had to go and see just who the stranger picking up one of his players was.

The first thing the coach did was to introduce himself to Buck, one hand on Ezra's shoulder to prevent him from getting into the truck before he knew who Buck was. "Andy Radcliff, coach of the baseball team. I also coach basketball and soccer."

"Buck Wilmington. Ezra's going to be staying with us for a while." There was a smile on Buck's face at the protective gesture and at the annoyed and uncomfortable expression that Ezra wore. "I'm a foster parent."

"Oh." Surprise then concern warred on Radcliff's face as he turned to Ezra. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, it's fine." Ezra plastered a pleasant expression on his face as he shoved his backpack into the truck and climbed in, having finally been released by the coach. As they drove away Ezra felt the need to inform Buck that he had a game on Friday that he absolutely could not miss. If there was one thing Ezra was used to it was getting his way. He turned his cell phone back on and checked his messages, some of his friends forgetting that he had practice.

Buck waited until Ezra snapped his phone shut before saying, "I thought you weren't supposed to have those at school."

"You aren't. Most people carry them anyway. If they can't see them they can't take them." He then proceed to call back Jennifer, Ashley, and Chad. It was too late to call their lawyer back, but she'd left a message telling him that she was aware of and handling the situation.

"One of those girls your girlfriend?" Buck had to pry, his curiosity aroused as Ezra finally hung up the phone.

Ezra shrugged. "Yeah, but I'm probably going to dump her soon and I really do have the perfect excuse at the moment. I really like Rachel, but she's Jennifer's best friend so I can't ask her out unless I can make it look like Jennifer's fault that we broke up and then Rachel will no longer be Jennifer's best friend and she won't mind dating me."

"Sounds complicated. Won't you feel bad about them not being friends anymore?"

"No," Ezra snorted. "Girls change friends all the time – this week Rachel's her best friend and next week it'll be Heather or Megan. Besides, I think Jennifer's interested in Matt anyway." He tried to stifle a yawn as they pulled into the long drive to the house but wasn't successful.

Buck almost suggested that Ezra lie down for a bit, catch up on some sleep, but it occurred to him that if he did then the boy wouldn't do it. Ezra was just stubborn enough to refuse to do something because someone had told him that it would be a good idea. Sure enough Ezra went straight for his room and presumably to sleep while Buck went to start dinner. Chris and Vin were just back from their run when Ezra wandered back from his catnap, his cell phone in hand and obviously talking to another of his friends.

"Hang up the phone, Ezra. Dinner's ready."

Inwardly Buck winced as Ezra's vivid green eyes narrowed in Chris's direction and he flatly refused the request. "Honestly? No, I didn't," Ezra replied to whomever he was speaking to. "Did she?"

"Ezra, now."

"You have two seconds before I take that phone." Buck didn't even get to one, Ezra smoothly telling the person on the phone that he had to go and he'd see them tomorrow. The phone rang again before anyone else could say anything.

Of course Chris had to say, "Don't answer that."

Naturally Ezra did. "Ash, hey, I'll call you back later." He hung up the phone and shut it off.

"Hand it over. Give me the phone, Ezra." Chris held out his hand, waiting and Ezra backed away his grip on the cell phone tightening.

"I turned it off."

"That's not the point. Give it to me now."

"No. It's mine."

"Ezra! Now!"

Vin had begun to shake when the argument had started and he'd finally shrugged off Buck's comforting arm as he yelled, "Stop it!" startling both Chris and Ezra. He stood there for a moment in the ensuing silence before Vin muttered, "I'm going out."

A look in Buck's direction stopped Chris from protesting or calling Vin back. "Ezra, give the phone to Chris."

Ezra's hand trembled as he dropped the phone into Chris's hand. He watched with veiled eyes as his phone was placed on the kitchen counter. "It stays there until after dinner and after you've finished your homework."

"My homework's done. I finished it in class."

"Don't lie to me, Ezra, I don't appreciate it. You've got homework and it will be done first."

Buck sighed, hoping Chris knew what he was getting into, but knowing he probably didn't. "Come on, Ez, help me set the table." There was no fight left in Ezra as he was given plates and silverware to put on the table while Buck got out the cups and napkins. Chris watched them absently before following Vin outside and studying the boy curled up by the fence, Sam draped across his lap.

Vin didn't look at Chris as he approached. "Why'd you have to yell at him?"

He reached out to pet Sam, frowning when Vin winced away. "I'm sorry, Vin, but it's not going to be easy until Ezra is able to follow some simple guidelines."

"How can he when he don't know what they are?" Vin's eyes were bright blue with the beginnings of unshed tears, his fingers buried in the dog's coat. "You didn't yell at me."

"You never gave me a reason to yell."

Tears spilled down Vin's cheeks and he hated them, hated the fear and confusion that came with them. "What if I did? Would you not want me anymore? He's just… hurting and he's not going to want to listen."

The topic change didn't distract Chris from the real matter at hand. "Vin, I'm sure there will be cause for me to be upset with you sometimes because nobody is perfect. I'm always going to want you here and being upset with you isn't going to change that, okay? I know Ezra is hurting and I know you are, too, but we'll get through this."

Vin glared up at Chris then pulled away abruptly, tumbling Sam from his lap. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."

It almost seemed like a strange leap in conversation to Chris, but that was how Vin's mind tended to work, jumping from thing to thing never quite seeming to focus fully on a single subject or task. There were times that Vin could be single-minded and complete one thing though those times were few and far between. For the most part he appeared to be laidback. Chris knew for a fact that Vin was strung tighter than a bow with a 150-pound draw weight.

"I'll talk to Ezra later. Come on in. It's time for dinner."

Vin's eyes flickered with uncertainly then he turned and leaned against the fence, watching their three rescue horses pace the field. "I'm not hungry."

"You mad at me?" Chris asked as he carefully touched Vin's back, relieved when the boy didn't pull away.

"Yes." Then Vin was headed toward the house with Chris trailing after him. Sometimes the boy didn't make any sense and other times he was the only one who made sense. Buck and Ezra were waiting for them inside and they started dinner mostly in silence, Ezra taking his cues from everyone else. Sit-down meals were not something Ezra was accustomed to and he didn't think eating in the school cafeteria counted.

After dinner Chris firmly reminded Ezra that homework was first and with a glare Ezra promptly ignored him. "Ezra, I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier, but there is no need for you to be on that phone all of the time. At dinner and until your homework is done that phone will not be on. Now get your homework."

"I only have math and I can do that in first period." Ezra also had a science test tomorrow, but science along with math were his favorite subjects and he had no fear of doing poorly.

Chris gave Ezra a long look. "Get your homework out and sit down. You can finish it just as easily now."

Vin had already sat down at the table and was fidgeting with his pencil, watching Ezra – that was probably the only thing that stopped Ezra from protesting more. "Fine." He dropped into one of the kitchen chairs after he grabbed his backpack and pulled out his math book.

"You're in algebra?"

Vin, who had been working on his own homework, lifted his head at Chris's quiet comment. A glance at the book Ezra was holding clearly stated "ALEGBRA".

"You're in the 8th grade? I didn't know kids started algebra that early."

Ezra shrugged his shoulders as he flipped the book open. "I guess some do. I've always been good at math." Ezra paused, glanced down at his book, then back up at Chris. "It's easier than history and I hate English. We had to memorize poems that had to be at least 10 lines and that was boring."

"What poem did you memorize?"

"'Into My Own' by Robert Frost." As he spoke Ezra was writing out his math homework and solving them with an ease that was almost effortless. Ezra didn't use a calculator. "It was the least annoying one that I could find."

Chris smiled faintly. "Do you remember it?"

"Of course." Ezra took a breath, his chin straightening up even as his eyes still focused on the book and equations before him. "'One of my wishes is that those dark trees,/ So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,/ Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,/ But stretched away unto the edge of doom./ I should not be withheld but that some day/ Into their vastness I should steal away,/ Fearless of ever finding open land,/ Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand./ I do not see why I should e'er turn back,/ Or those should not set forth upon my track/ To overtake me, who should miss me here/ And long to know if still I held them dear./ They would not find me changed from him they knew - / Only more sure of all I thought was true.'"

"That's a nice poem." Buck was standing in the doorway, having put all the leftovers away and the dishes in the sink to be washed.

"It's okay. It's not my favorite one, though, but that one's only 8 lines and I couldn't find the original because I saw it in a literature book a couple of years ago – it was translated from another language and the author was unknown." Ezra set his pencil down and proclaimed, "I'm done."

Chris's eyebrows rose sharply. "Can I see that?"

"If you want. Questions 3, 14, and 25 aren't right, if that's what you're looking for."

"If they aren't right then why aren't you working to figure them out?"

Ezra snorted. "If I don't get some of the answers wrong then it won't look like I've drastically improved for the tests and Mrs. Richard will not think she is a complete genius for being able to show me the correct way to solve the problems. Besides, it only matters if you turn it in on time. It's not being graded for the correct answers." He reached into the folder tucked under his math book and pulled out the math tests that had been amassed throughout the year. Two of were 100%'s and the lowest was a 93%, which Ezra pointed out and stated, "That was a bad day."

"What poem was it?" Vin suddenly broke in, making them all stop in surprise. "The one that was translated that was your favorite?"

"Oh, it was called 'The Horse'. We didn't specifically study it but I was bored and flipping through the book and ended up memorizing it I liked it so much." Ezra often got bored in class and to help keep himself occupied and out of trouble he often flipped head in the textbooks or read chapters that they had skipped. Language Arts was a subject Ezra found to be particularly annoying and he often read ahead or memorized passages to pass the time.

Vin smiled faintly. "You still know it?"

"Uh, yeah. One moment." Ezra closed his eyes then opened them again. "'Under pared moons it walks around/ A horse, once killed, on a battleground/ With ghostly hooves it shudders and slips/ And darkly neighs to distant whips/ At the leaden bend of the barricade/ With hollow eyes it stops, afraid/ And later it's slow steps retreat/ Through ruined squares, desolate streets'."


Ezra nodded in reply to Vin's spoken and unspoken response, the light in Vin's eyes making Ezra brighten further. "Yeah, I love the imagery." Then Ezra turned toward Chris who was still eyeing his homework. "May I have my phone back now?"

Chapter Three

Ezra had darted outside as soon as he was allowed access to his phone and Vin glanced out the window to see Ezra leaning against the fence by the barn, obviously engaged in conversation with someone. It was difficult for Vin to focus on the rest of his homework, the gentle hum of Ezra's words still echoing in his mind. The sound of Ezra's voice was pleasant, the faint hint of his southern accent sending an unfamiliar sensation though him. It made him want to tell Ezra to keep talking so that he could listen.

When they were finally finished with Vin's homework Chris let Sam in and called for Ezra to come inside. Ezra edged around the dog and glanced toward the hall that would lead to his bedroom then he glanced into the living room until Vin stopped expectantly and waited for Ezra to join them. What finally forced Ezra into the living room was Buck's easy, "Don't just darken the doorway come on in."

There were board games and card games on built-in shelves off to the side of the room, another built-in set of shelves displaying DVDs, VHS tapes, and CDs. The furniture was tasteful and rather comfortable looking – a large microfiber sofa that could easily seat four large people and two matching armchairs that could fit two people if they squeezed in. They were watching the news and Ezra said that was okay as he avoided the dog by curling up in one of the armchairs. Vin, who almost never sat on the furniture, dropped onto the armchair beside Ezra with Sam close beside him.

"You always talk on the phone so much?" Vin was absently petting Sam, noting that Ezra had made no attempts to go near the dog and that Sam seemed aware of that.

Ezra shrugged. "Yeah, there isn't anything else to do. I haven't checked, but I'm doubting there's a wireless connection for my laptop here."


"I wasn't going to leave it. It has all of my stuff on it." Ezra's posture was perfect even in the soft armchair and Vin, who tended to slouch, appeared to mimic Ezra. "All my pictures, games, favorites, music videos, mp3s, everything. Even if I can't use the internet it's still better to have it."

Vin was just about to ask Ezra another question when the other boy suddenly was across the room, his knees hitting the floor as he claimed the remote that had been sitting on the coffee table. The volume on the TV was raised abruptly, the sound nearly deafening as Ezra's eyes locked onto the breaking newscast. " – of Mr. Barrett," the female reporting was saying. "This behind me was where the murder happened at the Barrett residence yesterday. Mrs. Barrett has already confessed to the murder after the call to 911 yesterday afternoon, though the reason behind the shocking murder is still unknown. No plead agreement has been made yet for Mrs. Barrett and we are still waiting to hear if there will be a trial. We'll keep you updated when we receive more information. Back to you, Rob."

"Ezra?" Buck carefully removed the remote from Ezra's hand, turning the volume back down and then turning the TV off. That seemed to snap Ezra out of the fixed stare that had been directed at the TV and green eyes devoid of feeling blinked at Buck. "You know those people?"

"That was where we were living." He didn't say it was home and that was something they all picked up on immediately. "That is my mother."

"Her husband was your…?"

Ezra blinked again. "Stepfather."

Vin pressed his lips tightly together, guessing he had finally gotten the "who" that had hurt Ezra. "You were there."

"Yes," came the response though Vin had not asked a question. "Two bullets through his chest. There was blood everywhere. She wouldn't let me touch the gun."

Chris, who was sitting on the opposite side of the couch, leaned forward toward Ezra. "Why would you want to touch the gun?"

His eyes went down to study his hand. "To put my prints on the gun because she shouldn't have shot him. I should have shot him and I thought it would be better if it was me and not her, but it doesn't matter because she wouldn't let me."

"Ezra, it's okay to be upset about what happened. It wasn't your fault." Buck made no attempts to touch Ezra, but he shifted closer to the boy still seated on the floor.

Green eyes, glassy and cold, stared back at Buck. "I'm not upset. It just would have been easier for everyone if I had shot him – it could have been passed off as self-defense. Since mother shot him it's murder, though likely it will be reduced to manslaughter, which carries an 8 to 10 year jail sentence, I believe. Erica a good attorney so she can easily get mother a reduced sentence, but mother will not be at her best and will probably make it worse."

The phone in Ezra's pocket rang and Ezra grabbed it immediately and flipped it open after glancing at it. "Hello? Asher?"

Asher's voice came across the line, the concern clearly evident in the news. "Ezra, my parents saw the news and asked – was that your mom and step-dad they were talking about? The murder?"

"Uh… yeah, it was."

"What happened? I mean, where are you staying? I didn't think you had any other family?"

"Look, Ash, don't worry about it. It's fine, okay?" Ezra's phone beeped and he glanced down at it and the name flashing on it. "Ash, I'll talk to you at school tomorrow, Radcliff's on the other line." He hung up before Asher could respond and answered the other line. "Hello?"

"I just saw the news! Barrett's your stepfather's name, right? It took me a while to connect the names, but he is, isn't he?" The coach's voice was worried and Ezra's eyes rolled toward the ceiling.

"Yes, he was."

"That's why you're in foster care?"

Ezra nodded to himself. "I'd say that was a big contributing factor, yes."

"Ezra, you know if there's anything you need or anything you want to talk about that I'm always here, right?"

"Yeah, coach, I know. Hey, I have to go. I'll see you at the game on Friday." Ezra snapped the phone shut. For a moment he continued to sit there until Sam crawled over to him and nudged Ezra with her nose – Ezra jerked and stared down at the dog then calmly rose to his feet and left the room.

The pain that radiated off of Ezra almost physically hurt and even after he left it took Vin a while to be able to breathe normally and remember to blink. Chris and Buck exchanged worried glances, neither of them knowing what to do except perhaps leave Ezra be. It was a good enough solution, but Vin had a better one. After giving Sam one last pat Vin crossed the living room and retrieved a deck of cards along with several other small games and headed toward Ezra's room, where he was sure the other boy had retreated.

Sure enough Ezra was sprawled out on his bed and he raised his head when Vin stood outside his door. "Want to play a game?"

Ezra sat up, confusion darkening his eyes before he smiled and nodded in agreement. "What do you have there?" They played rummy, a game Vin knew and then Ezra taught Vin how to play poker, though Vin suspected that Ezra let him win a few times because he wasn't very good at it. At one point during a game of poker Ezra looked at Vin and said, "You aren't going to ask?"

Vin knew what Ezra meant and shook his head. "No. Figure if you wanted me to know you'd tell me." They left it at that.

The game seemed to improve both of their spirits. When Buck paused in the doorway sometime later Ezra's body tensed up though his eyes didn't even stray toward where Buck was standing.

"Boys, time for bed. Ezra, I almost forgot to tell you that your caseworker Amber will be picking you up from school tomorrow for your counseling appointment. I'll be taking Vin to his appointment, too, but they are in different directions and I can't be two places at once." Buck tried to put a touch of humor in his voice, but Ezra's eyes were glittering green with fury.

"Counseling?" The very thought turned Ezra's stomach. That was for other people, not for people like him who were perfectly capable of dealing with their problems. "I don't need to go to counseling."

Buck smiled at Ezra though it didn't seem to help. "It's not my decision to make so you might as well make the best of it and maybe it won't be as bad as you seem to think it will be."

"They can make me go," Ezra agreed, "But they can't make me talk." The cards were put away and Vin left them and the rest of the games on the stand by the door, just in case they wanted to play any of them later. Vin went to his own room after telling Ezra good night.

Buck had already backed out of the room and headed toward his own bedroom where Chris was waiting. "So?" It was easy to see Chris's anxiety, his concern – things he would never show in front of the boys.

"He seems to be doing all right. Vin managed to distract him for a bit and that boy's got a layer of skin so thick I'm not sure a bullet could pierce it." Buck sighed as he recalled the expressionless way that Ezra had looked earlier and the pain that was pent up behind it. "For now it's okay, but that boy's going to explode. Vin's been on the edge for a while now, too."

Vin wanted everything to remain quiet and calm and he showed that in every move he made, the quiet way he passed through the house so as not to disturb anything. There were times when Vin would start to act like a teenager should but those moments were few and stilted. "He's mad at me."

"Of course he is." Buck grabbed Chris around the waist and sat back on their bed, dragging Chris to sit on his lap. It was something Chris would never tolerate if he even suspected that someone might see them, but here with the door closed and the curtains drawn it was okay. "Think we could add yelling to Vin's triggers."

Chris's arms tightened around Buck as he leaned his head against Buck's shoulder. "Yeah. He asked if we wouldn't have wanted him if we'd had to yell at him. He's still afraid that it isn't real and I don't know how to reassure him it is."

With a sigh Buck shook his head. "Words don't mean anything, Chris, especially not to Vin. I've said it before – we're going to have to show him. When it comes we'll have to let him see that even if he gets angry, no matter what he breaks that it's okay. We're here for him and we aren't going to send him off somewhere else because of it."

"I know. I just – " Chris needed reassurance, too.

"It'll be fine. Don't worry about something that hasn't happened yet." It wasn't going to help because Chris would worry no matter what Buck told him, but it might ease him up for a while.

"I love you."

"I love you too." Buck took the opportunity while Chris was relaxed to grab Chris up and flip him back onto their bed. His fingers sought out Chris's ticklish sides and he watched as Chris's face turned red in an effort not to squeal like a little girl – and Buck had heard him do it before because Chris was that ticklish.

When Chris got his breath back he glared up at Buck. "I'm going to get you for that."

"Are you, Blondie?" Buck leaned down over Chris and kissed him deeply. "Looking forward to it."

Chris sighed. "Maybe later," he replied as he wrapped his arms around Buck and pulled him down against him.

Chapter Four

The ground was cold where JD was sitting, waiting for the bus to show up, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. That feeling had nothing to do with the high schooler, Gunnar, who was currently staying with them or with the little babies the Martin's were trying to adopt. It had everything to do with Ezra Standish, the most popular kid in school, staying with his best friend.

Of course Vin would like Ezra better. Of course Vin would let Ezra sit in his seat on the bus that had always been his seat. They'd only been best friends for ages and even though Ezra didn't pay any more attention to Vin at school that he did before he was the only thing on Vin's mind.

At least JD figured that it was Ezra that was on Vin's mind. Nothing else had changed except for Ezra staying with them and Vin was more distant that usual and he didn't pay as much attention to what he or Casey had to say. It was likely Ezra would be in his seat again today and JD would be left out again.

"Kid, bus is coming."

JD lifted his head at Gunnar's warning then dragged himself to his feet with a sigh. He was pretty sure that Gunnar knew his real name, but he always called him 'kid'. That wasn't a problem – most of the other kids didn't stay long, anyway. JD suddenly brightened at that thought because Ezra probably wouldn't stay long with Vin, either. Then everything could go back to normal.

When JD dropped into the seat behind Vin and Ezra he listened for a moment to their friendly argument, gritting his teeth.

"No, no way is Spongebob better than Pluto – he's a classic." That was Ezra and who would have imagined that Ezra knew anything about cartoons?

"Seriously? Come on, Pluto doesn't even talk."

Ezra snorted. "Pluto doesn't need to talk, he's a dog. Besides, is it such a good thing that Spongebob does – that annoying voice, that horrifying cackle?"

"What are you guys talking about?" JD asked even though he could guess.

Vin looked back at him briefly. "Who's the better cartoon character, Spongebob or Pluto."

"I've always like Eeyore," JD put in, just to see if Vin would reply.

Vin didn't reply, but Ezra did. "Another classic. I liked Tigger even though I always felt sorry for Rabbit for having to put up with him." Ezra was calmer than he had been in ages and it was familiar and comfortable to have a debate on something that didn't matter in the long run. It was easy to talk to Vin even about such a silly topic. JD barely registered at all in Ezra's mind.

The moment of contentment was short-lived as Vin and Ezra parted company and Ezra returned to his familiar group of friends. "Ezra, what happened?"

"I heard about your step-dad!"

"What's going on?"

"Were you there? Did you see it?"

Ezra's mark slipped smoothly into place, a faint smile lighting his face as he replied, "What can I say? Sometimes a person needs to die and someone has to kill them." The laughter that produced was both genuine – from surprise – and forced. It all sounded hollow in Ezra's ears.

"Your mom killed your step-dad and you didn't tell me?" Jennifer sounded offended and Ezra's eyebrows shot up as it suddenly occurred to him that his breakup with her might be sooner than he had planned. It was all for the greater good, he supposed, but if that was all it took to get her to break up with him Ezra might have suggested that his mother kill his latest step-father sooner.

"I'm sorry, but I wasn't aware that was something I should inform you of. After all, it's not everyday that one's mother kills one's step-father." Not that it wouldn't be the biggest event for a long time and everyone at school was going to be talking about it. Ezra would do what he could to capitalize on it and increase his already high status amongst the students. Mother always said he had that annoyingly unpleasant way of turning every disaster to his advantage so he might as well use it.

Jennifer was furious. "That's a huge thing! Why couldn't you have told me?"

"I don't know, maybe I was too upset to take the opportunity to let you know. It's not every day that everything goes to hell that quickly and you don't really have a chance to stop and say 'hey, I should call so-and-so'." It escaladed quickly from there, with Jennifer ultimately rushing off in tears having broken up with Ezra. Meanwhile Megan and Rachel were comforting Ezra and he was more than fine with the attention.

What Ezra wasn't fine with was when he was called away from class late in the morning before lunch to speak with Mr. Hill, the dreaded guidance counselor. "So it begins," he muttered to himself as he entered the school office where the guidance counselor's room was located. Ultimately there was always a trip to the guidance counselor no matter what grade Ezra was in or where the school was located – sometimes that was just because of all the moves they had made and all the schools Ezra had attended. That he'd managed to stay in one school for a year and a half now was a miracle.

Mr. Hill re-introduced himself to Ezra and asked the typical "opener" questions that Ezra answered easily. That lead into the, "Tell me what's been happening at home" to the "What happened with your step-dad?" Rumors did travel quickly. Ezra dodged the questions for the most part and stated that everything was fine and that he didn't have a step-dad, which was true because he didn't have one anymore. When he was finally allowed to go it was lunchtime and there was nothing for Ezra to do but return to his previous class and inquire after whatever homework they might have.

It was not quite the end of the day when Ezra was called away to the office and to get his things because he was leaving. Ezra had never met the social worker – apparently his social worker – Amber before and though she seemed pleasant enough Ezra did not once talk to her. The process itself was easy to do from long practice, his whole body shutting down, his breathing and heart rate decreasing and his mind running on a purely basic level. Ezra responded only to the simplest commands – get out of the car, go into the building, sit here, get up, sit here. He nodded in response to his name and then said nothing more.

When the social worker, Amber, left the room Ezra registered that but no more. Ezra responded when dismissed and knew that the social worker and therapist were talking about him and also when they left to go back to Chris and Buck's home. By the time they pulled into the driveway Ezra was "waking" himself up and was hurrying inside and ignoring whatever pleasantries were exchanged behind him.

"Whoa there, hold up! Have a seat, Ez." Buck pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and Ezra sat obediently, his backpack falling to the floor. "Ezra? What's wrong?" A glance was exchanged between the social worker and Buck, but Ezra still could not reply.

"He's been like this since I picked him up and he hasn't said a word."

"Now that's not the Ezra I know." Buck was trying to cajole him into being responsive and there was no hope of that yet. A few more minutes and Ezra began to feel his skin tingle with sensation and his heart began to beat more quickly and he took in a deep breath. The social worker was just leaving and Ezra watched with blank eyes. "Ezra?"

"Yeah?" His mouth was dry so he went to the sink and got a glass of water as he watched Buck out of the corner of his eye.

Buck sat back down at the table and waited for Ezra to join him. "Why didn't you talk to Amber or the counselor?"

The easiest and most complex answer was, "I couldn't."

Buck couldn't begin to understand what Ezra was getting at and the quiet, sullen boy that had entered the house had not been the same child that Buck had seen before. The color seemed to be flooding back into Ezra's face and his eyes taking on life in an even more extreme change than they had seen the previous night when Ezra had absolutely no emotion in his eyes. There was a lot to Ezra that they hadn't even begun to imagine. "You know they are just trying to help you, don't you?"

"Their time is better spent elsewhere. I am fine." Ezra considered getting out his phone to check the messages he knew were probably there, but he had no desire to lose his phone again even for a moment. He was finished with his homework by the time that Chris and Vin were back from their run.

Ezra didn't eat despite both Chris and Buck urging him to have something or asking if he wanted something else. Not even Vin's concerned looks could budge him. "Did you talk to Ezra earlier today?" Chris asked Vin as soon as Ezra had taken off outside, his cell phone not appearing until Ezra had cleared the front porch.

"On the bus ride to school we talked and he was fine then." Vin shrugged his shoulders. "We don't have the same friends at school."

It took a lot for Vin to be able to focus, his eyes continuing to drift toward the window where Ezra was leaned against the fence while talking on the phone. Chris never once got frustrated with Vin's anxious twitching and lack of concentration and it only seemed to prove that Ezra was treated differently than Vin was. Finally Vin couldn't stand it anymore and the words tumbled out of his mouth. "Don't yell at him."

"What?" Chris had been in mid-sentence, going over the math problem they had been working on.

"Ezra. Don't yell at him." Vin met Chris's eyes briefly than looked away. "Don't touch him and don't yell at him."

The frown on Chris's face deepened. "What did Ezra tell you?"

Vin shook his head in denial. "Nothing. Just don't." His pencil tapped distractingly on the tabletop. "And don't take his phone."

"Why are you telling me this?" It was important to Vin for Chris to be able to understand what he was saying, but why didn't make sense.

"So you don't do it." Vin's voice rose sharply, his feet thumping heavily on the floor after his whole body had jerked and kicked at the table. He was angry and unable to express what he meant and getting this message across was something that Vin needed to do for Ezra's sake. "He got hurt. Badly. He would have taken the phone. So he couldn't call for help."

Something clicked in Chris's hazel eyes and Vin struggled with himself until he was able to see and think again. "Vin? Are you talking about Ezra or are you talking about yourself?"

"It doesn't matter. They always take the phone." There were other ways to say it, ways that it would make more sense to Chris, but Vin couldn't form the words. It was all about control and fear and keeping the victim quiet. Even if someone hurt Vin he wouldn't tell, especially if it was Chris or Buck and if his mom was still alive he never would have wanted to get her into trouble. It might be the same way with Ezra.

Chapter Five

That night Buck found himself rudely awaken when Chris suddenly bolted out of bed. Buck took a few moments to stretch and waken up and patted the space beside him to confirm that, yes, Chris had just jumped out of bed. When Chris didn't return after a few minutes Buck dragged himself up and stumbled toward the door where Chris was pressed, their door cracked open just slightly.



Buck leaned against Chris and fell silent, his eyes closing partly because it was still damn late – or early – and he was tired. That's when he began to hear it: "Ezra, Ezra wake up. It's okay, Ezra, you're just dreaming. He can't hurt you anymore."

They stood there for a moment listening until they heard Vin return to his own room and Buck nudged Chris back to their bed. "I can't sleep now."

"You're going to have to try," Buck muttered back. "I know it's not easy, but at least he's talking about it to someone."

Chris's eyes seemed to glow in the darkness. "But you heard what he said."

"I did and there's nothing we can do about the past. Now, the future, at least part of it, we can help with. Now go to sleep."


Vin was having trouble sleeping and for a while he wondered if it was just him because there was a lot on his mind. Then he heard it – it sounded almost like a puppy whining and he turned toward Sam whose head was turned toward the dark hallway. Sam's tags jingled as she looked back at Vin and opened her mouth and whined softly then fixed her eyes back on the hall and subsequently Ezra's room.

He pushed back the covers and crossed the room and hall to stand in Ezra's doorway listening to the soft sounds of distress as the other boy twisted and turned. Some of the sounds Ezra made were muffled words and cut-off pleads against an invisible enemy. "Ezra. Ezra, wake up." Vin continued to call out quietly until the sounds stopped and Ezra was still for a moment. When he sat up Vin said, "It was just a dream, Ezra. You can go back to sleep."



Vin started to turn back to his own room when he heard Ezra whisper, "I wasn't dreaming about him. I know he's dead."

"Was there someone else?" The question was out before Vin could stop himself. He hadn't meant to ask and he didn't want to pry, but did Ezra want to tell him? After all, Ezra had offered that information on his own in the first place.

"Yeah. More than one." Ezra's arms wrapped around himself and he drew himself further up the bed until he was leaning against the headboard. The movement drew Vin into the room until he was sitting at the foot of Ezra's bed.

It was hard not to touch Ezra when Vin could see that he was in pain and needed comfort, but he wasn't sure it would be appreciated. "How old were you the first time?"

Ezra's shoulder twitched in a half shrug. "Five or six."

"Did you tell anyone?" Vin didn't think that he would have, but maybe Ezra had.

"No, but mother knew."

"She saw?" That was a frightening thought and Vin suddenly wondered if Ezra had been in the system before, if he knew his way around social workers, too.

"No, but when they got divorced she didn't ask for more money and she always asks for more. That and they settled out of court, which almost never happens with mother and her soon-to-be ex-husbands." Ezra's hands tightened around his own arms. "She knew. She just never said anything so I didn't either."

Vin edged closer to Ezra. "Maybe she didn't know."

"She did know." There was no arguing with Ezra's tone so Vin didn't even try.

"It happened with someone else after that?"

Vin was close enough to see Ezra's lips tilt up into a humorless smile. "I was about nine then. I told mother I didn't like him, but she married him anyway because he was rich like all the others. She knew about that after it happened and she left him pretty quickly and extorted him out of even more money because of it."

"Do you blame her?" Vin touched Ezra's arm and Ezra shuddered and uncurled from his defensive position to latch onto Vin's forearm.

"No." But Ezra's eyes said "yes". Vin couldn't take the pain anymore, couldn't stand the distance and when he leaned in closer he suddenly found Ezra choking him in a tight and frantic hug. Ezra's body was trembling and Vin couldn't hold him steady, but Ezra did not cry. Maybe it was still too soon for that.

Vin didn't want to let Ezra go, but he immediately released Ezra when he started to pull away. "I'm sorry."

"You don't have anything to be sorry for. I'll be here if you need me." Ezra wouldn't meet his eyes and he was closing off so Vin backed out of the room and returned to his own, hoping that Ezra would be able to go back to sleep and not dream. What appeared in dreams could be worse than what had really happened.

Ezra fell into a heavy sleep after Vin had left his room and didn't allow himself to acknowledge his own embarrassment over his momentary lapse of control. He managed to force down breakfast since they insisted Ezra attempt to eat something despite the fact that eating in the morning was ridiculous. On the way to the end of the drive to wait for the school bus Ezra asked shortly, "Do you know what I meant? About what happened to me?"

Though Vin could see that Ezra was trying to be casual the question he asked was extremely important. "Yeah, I know."

"Oh." Ezra's head never went down, his expression never changed and that was odd except that Vin had been there before. Never let them see that something hurt because that was a weakness they could tear wide open.

"It's hard, always wondering what's going to happen next."

Ezra jerked and stopped in mid-step. "Did you – ?"

"No. My dad and granddad used to knock me around, hit me with belts, slam my head into walls and floors and such. It's not the same, but it was still scary." Those were things that Vin could talk about freely because he'd said them so often and they didn't bother him as much as they once had. Other things were harder for Vin to say so he simply didn't.

A crooked not-smile appeared on Ezra's face, more of a grimace than anything else. "I can't imagine that. I don't think I could have dealt with that kind of violence." The mere thought of being hit did not sit well with Ezra and fearing being hit – that was definitely not something he was accustomed to.

"I don't think I could have managed being…" Vin trailed off at the look Ezra gave him and came to the conclusion that Ezra wasn't ready to hear it just like he wasn't ready to come out and say it. "I don't think I could have dealt with what you went through."

"It wasn't bad sometimes." It was a struggle to keep his emotions in control and Ezra knew he'd failed when Vin lowered his eyes.

What Vin saw was not an emotional display on Ezra's part, but rather a lack of emotions so devoid of anything that it burned in the pit of his stomach. He'd blamed himself in the past for why his dad and granddad beat him and he understood that thinking. One of his therapists had told Vin that was just a way of an abuser turning it back on the victim. "Wasn't your fault, Ezra. None of it was your fault, no matter what they told you. Nothing you did brought it on and nothing made you deserve that." Even saying it Vin knew Ezra wouldn't believe him – Vin hadn't the first hundred or so times he'd heard it.

The bus came into sight and Ezra's eyes widened suddenly and he clutched at the strap of his backpack tighter. "You aren't going to tell anyone what I told you?"

"I won't tell anyone."

Ezra nodded almost to himself. "I won't either. Tell what you told me, I mean."

Vin couldn't help but believe Ezra's word. He figured there were a lot of secrets that Ezra hadn't told over the years and he wasn't about to break his confidence. Ezra already didn't trust that many people if he really trusted anyone at all. Then again, maybe Ezra trusted him just a little. That thought made Vin happy.

It was lunchtime and Ezra was sitting at his usual table surrounded by his usual friends and Vin was where he always sat with Casey and JD and some other people that had nowhere else to sit. Vin decided that Ezra's friends couldn't be very good friends if he didn't tell them anything about what was going on. Ezra's expression was pleasant, distant, yet somehow –

"Hey, Vin!"

Casey's hand waving in front of his face combined with her raised voice pulled Vin out of his thoughts. "What?"

"What's going on with you? You keep staring at Ezra and you aren't listening to us at all." It was a rhetorical question because now that Casey had his attention she pressed on with, "So, is it true?"

"Is what true?" Vin asked, suspicious and more than ready to keep his promised secret.

"What happened with Ezra's step-dad," JD offered. "His mom killed him at their home and there was blood everywhere and she got arrested – there are different versions of it going around. Some are pretty disgusting and I'm pretty sure they aren't true."

Vin cringed inwardly. "Disgusting how?"

"Oh, you know, there's one that says she killed him with an axe and chopped him up into little bits," Casey offered, taking a large bite from her sandwich as if she wasn't talking about a person being hacked up into pieces.

"Or the one where she slit his throat with the butcher knife."

"Or the other one where she shot him point blank with a rifle and his guts flew out all over the wall behind him."

Vin managed not to gag. "Seriously? All I know is that his mom killed his step-dad and that was on the news. I don't know how he got killed and I'm not really interested in knowing." That wasn't entirely true, but it got them to stop asking so Vin decided that that was okay.

Neither he nor Ezra rode the bus home after school because of Ezra's game and both Chris and Buck showed up before anything officially started. "I see they're still warming up." Vin barely looked over when they sat down beside him, his eyes glued to Ezra in his uniform. "You look excited. You like baseball?"

Vin was excited and trying to keep himself reasonably calm and it wasn't working because there was Ezra being all sporty in his baseball uniform and who would have thought? "It's okay." Though he was beginning to think that he was going to have to start liking it if Ezra was involved in it. Basketball, too.

When Ezra wasn't pitching or batting the game was boring and when he was on the baseball diamond it was like watching a puppet or one of those puppet-things with strings. Buck, when Vin asked, said they were marionettes. By the look on Chris's face he hadn't known the answer and was wondering how in the hell Buck did. Finally the game was over with Ezra's team squeaking by with a win.

"Why don't you go get something to drink before we leave?" Vin, who had been glancing at the concession stand turned to Chris who was holding out money for him. He'd had water that Ezra had brought to him earlier before the game started, but he'd drank that up and meticulously shredded the cup into tiny little pieces. Asking for money was one thing, but Chris was offering so what was he supposed to do? "Go ahead. We have to wait for Ezra anyway."

"Okay." Vin got an allowance – Chris said it was for helping out with the horses and doing whatever chores needed to be done – but he didn't spend it. He kept it in a small change purse that had belonged to his mother in his desk drawer buried underneath papers and pencils and other school supplies. Never did know when he might need it.

Vin got his drink and was just glancing around to see where everyone was when he spotted someone he did not want to see. It Eli Joe with only three of his friends, but still more than Vin really wanted to deal with.

"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" It was apparently not going to be possible to escape the situation, not with them blocking his path. "We haven't had a chance to talk about you getting me into trouble yet."

"I didn't do anything, Eli." Vin's eyes were narrowed. "You brought it on yourself."

Eli smirked and stepped closer. "Oh, you want to take that attitude with me? Getting brave without your little boyfriend around to protect you?"

It had been said so often that Vin barely registered the comment. "Just leave me alone already." That never worked. Eli Joe was grabbing hold of his arm as he tried to turn away – then suddenly Ezra was there, still in his uniform and sweaty from the game.

"Excuse me." Ezra pushed him back, stepping between Eli Joe and Vin. "Is there a problem here?"

Eli Joe's eyes widened in surprise and he cast a smirk over Ezra's shoulder. "What's this? Got yourself a new boyfriend Vin? Came to watch him play, huh?"

"You appear to be very concerned about who Vin's dating. It makes me think that you're jealous because you like him and want to go out with him. Am I right?" There was nothing overtly malicious about Ezra's tone of voice, but Eli Joe still backed away, holding up his hands as if to defend himself. "Why else would you be so concerned about Vin having a boyfriend or a girlfriend for that matter?"

"It's not like that!" But the table's had turned and several of Eli Joe's friends were looking at him suspiciously.

Ezra stepped closer to Eli Joe, thus forcing him back farther. "Isn't it? Then why do you target Vin almost exclusively? What need, if not jealousy and desire, could possibly be motivating you?"

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about!" It still made Eli Joe and his friends leave and that was good enough for Vin.

Chapter Six

It almost went unspoken as Ezra turned back toward Vin after they watched the fairly quick retreat of Eli Joe and his friends. Almost because turning put Ezra in Vin's space and Vin could feel the warmth of his body and smell the scent of his sweat along with whatever shampoo he'd used previously. Ezra didn't seem to notice their closeness and Vin forced himself to mentally step back and away then force out a quick, "Thanks."

"You're welcome. People like that just need something better to do with their time." Ezra wasn't even paying attention to Vin, his hand raised in a silent salute to some of his team members who were leaving. "In a way I feel sorry for them – all that hate and fear can't be good."

Before Vin could think of anything to say Chris and Buck appeared and Ezra moved out of his space. Two things happened very quickly after that, Chris's hand dropping onto Ezra's shoulder as he said, "That was a great game, Ezra," and Ezra's face draining of all color.

Chris's hand pulled back immediately. "You all right? Ezra?"

"I'm fine." Ezra had barely moved, his expression hadn't changed, but his head had tilted up ever so slightly in order to look at Chris and the color had not yet returned to his face. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Vin glared at Chris as he recalled the three very simple rules he'd told him before – don't touch, don't yell, and don't take the damn phone. They weren't hard rules except that Vin could see how Chris's hand twitched when he looked at Ezra. The desire to comfort was there, but he couldn't comfort Ezra like that. "Let's go find the truck."

As the boys headed off toward the parking lot Buck leaned in to Chris, nudging him in the same direction. "Come on, stud."

"Shit." Chris's brows furrowed into a scowl. "I just keep fucking up."

"Didn't know how he'd react until it happened, Chris. You can't blame yourself for that, though you can try to make sure it doesn't happen again." There wasn't a whole lot Buck could say to make Chris feel any better. They'd both seen Ezra's face and knew that the damage had already been done. "We can talk to him when we get back home and see where we can go from there."

They went out for pizza and though Ezra did nothing to avoid Chris he also made no attempts to be near him or otherwise attract attention. That Ezra wasn't trying to antagonize anyone or chattering away to them or on the phone was a concern on it's own. Vin, who only talked when asked direct questions and usually never offered more than was necessary, suddenly wouldn't shut up.

"Casey said her fishing trip with her aunt went well and that they got a whole lot of fish while they were out there. The Martin's – that's who JD stays with – have a new foster kid and JD says he's sixteen or seventeen and that his name's Gunnar." Vin continued to talk with mostly Buck asking questions or making comments when Vin took the time to breathe, take a drink, or eat more pizza. Neither Vin nor Ezra ate all that much and Chris didn't even manage to eat a single slice of pizza so they ended up taking most of it to go.

When they got home Buck told them, just to be sure they knew, "Pizza's in the fridge, boys. Feel free to get some if you get hungry later. There's also leftover lasagna, chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans, too, if you'd rather have some of that."

Both Vin and Ezra did their homework without complaint and after Ezra had finished his homework he hurried outside while Vin and Chris worked on the rest of Vin's homework. Chris called Ezra inside when it started to get dark and when Chris asked for Ezra to join him in the living room there was no complaint whatsoever. "Where would you like me to sit?"

That Ezra asked made Chris confused because he'd never asked before. "You can sit wherever you like." Ezra chose to sit in one of the armchairs on the far side of the room while Chris sat down on the couch. "I didn't mean to scare you earlier and if I did then I'm sorry."

"You didn't scare me." It was impossible to read Ezra's expression, his green eyes wandering from Chris to where Buck had entered the room and was just sitting in the armchair beside Ezra's.

"It's okay if you were scared, Ezra. I didn't mean anything by it when I touched your shoulder."

"I know."

Talking to Ezra was like talking to a brick wall. There was no telling if anything was getting through or not. "Ezra, we just want to – "

"Chris, move." Vin was standing just inside the living room and apparently displeased about something. That he made such an obvious demand so firmly startled Chris into absolute stillness. "Move."

"Excuse me?"

Vin took a breath as if to calm himself then finally said, "Chris move right there, please." He pointed further down the couch, closer to where Ezra was seated.

There wasn't a reason not to so Chris moved down to the end of the couch and Vin nodded to himself. "Ezra, sit here." Vin pointed to the other end of the couch, closest to the living room's exit.

Ezra didn't move.

"Ezra, move over here." When Ezra didn't respond except to stare at him, Vin sighed and turned to Chris. "Tell him it's okay to move."

The frown on Chris's face deepened but he still told Ezra, "It's okay for you to move anywhere you want to." When Vin pointed again Ezra slowly rose to his feet and took the most direct path to the other side of the couch. He again made no effort to avoid going near Chris, but neither did Ezra seek to be overly close to him, either.

"Okay." Satisfied with the new arrangement Vin dropped onto the couch between Chris and Ezra then waited expectantly.

Chris cleared his throat. "We don't want to make you uncomfortable. That's not our intention and I want to make sure that everything is okay between us."

"Everything's fine."

"Ezra!" The tone of Vin's voice made Ezra jump ever so slightly. "Don't lie. If you don't like something or it makes you uncomfortable you have to let them know. How can you expect them to know if you don't tell them?"

Ezra's chin dipped down, but his eyes remained alert and focused upwards. "I'm not uncomfortable so there is nothing to tell."

It was obvious to Vin that Ezra was lying even if he hadn't seen Ezra before and the way he'd gone white as a ghost, how he'd tensed up and looked like a deer in headlights. Not that Ezra was about to break down and fess up to any of that. It was the kind of stubbornness Vin knew because he'd been there too and it made him angry that Ezra was being as hard-headed as he had been. Vin turned toward Chris and Buck and addressed them instead. "Don't touch Ezra. Not a pat or a handshake or a nudge. Don't get in his space and don't trap him in any goddamn room!"

For several shocked minutes Chris didn't say anything and when he could respond what came out was, "Vin, watch your language and tone down your voice now."

Vin nodded at him sharply. "Sorry, but you don't do those things."

"Did you feel trapped earlier?" Buck asked softly Ezra, speaking for the first time during their conversation.

"No." Nothing gave Ezra away as to whether he was telling the truth or not. Vin, however, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and sighed dramatically in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. There were no more comments from Vin and he left the room with an air of annoyance and though Ezra watched him leave he made no move until Chris dismissed him.

Chris's eyes darted toward Buck in a manner that clearly asked what they were going to do with that. "You remember what was said as much as I do. We aren't just dealing with a one-time victim, Chris. He's had to learn to cope with it somehow."

"I like the other Ezra better." With a sigh Chris's head dropped into his hands. "The other one isn't afraid of me and doesn't… need permission to even leave a room."

When Ezra passed into his own room Vin was waiting, ready to pounce. "Why can't you tell them the truth?"

There was no question in Ezra's eyes when he replied, "I did tell them the truth." It occurred to Vin that maybe even Ezra believed his own lie and those were the worst kinds. Those kinds of lies were even harder to change a person's thoughts and feelings about: the lie someone has learned to live.

"Well, just in case you were thinking anything different they don't want to have sex with you. Not Buck and certainly not Chris. They aren't messed up like that."

The flash of fear in Ezra's eyes gave Vin hope that maybe Ezra didn't really believe what he said. When Ezra said, "Maybe they wouldn't do that to you," proved it.

"They wouldn't do that to anyone no matter who it was." Vin's conviction was lost on Ezra and the next moment it didn't seem to matter because Ezra was jumping and reaching for his cell phone that he had apparently put on vibrate.

Ezra frowned when he glanced at the unknown number that flashed on his phone before answering it. The voice on the other end of the line came as something of a shock.

"Ezra, darling! How are you doing?" Her voice sounded shaky though it had nothing to do with sadness or tears and very little to do with emotions at all.

"Mother! Are you still – I mean, what are they saying? Is Erica – ?"

"You are not supposed to be worrying about such things my dear boy. They are being handled. I have been worried about how you are getting along, though – I would have called earlier but…"

Ezra nodded to himself. "I know you would have."

"With whom are you staying? Are you getting along with them? Are they treating you all right?"

"Everything is fine, mother. I'm staying with Chris and Buck and Vin." He glanced briefly in Vin's direction and saw Vin watched him intently as if looking for something that he couldn't currently see.

"Now who are these people?"

"Chris and Buck are foster parents and they're – they are adopting Vin. You do not have to worry about anything here. Everything is going well."

There was a soft breath on the phone that could have been a sigh of relief or boredom. "Wonderful, darling. That is a relief." The call was interrupted by a tinny voice telling them there was two minutes left for the call. "There is not much time left, but I wanted to make sure that you were well and that everything was going smoothly. There was a game today, was there not?"

"Yes, mother. We won."

"Naturally, darling. Now I want you to know that no matter what happens that it will all work out. Erica is working out a plea bargain – " The tinny voice interrupted again and told them they had only one minute left. "Well, she will come up with something. I have to go shortly. Just remember that I love you."

"I love you too."

"I will call again as soon as I can. Goodbye, darling boy and take care of yourself."

"Bye." Ezra closed the phone and dropped it to the floor suddenly weary.

Vin edged over to Ezra and sat down on the floor near where Ezra had slid down to the floor while talking on the phone. "How's she doing?"

"She said okay but she's not doing well. She's got the shakes and probably the hallucinations and paranoia that goes along with it." He picked at the phone while he talked, staring blankly at the time displayed on the flip phone.

It didn't make sense unless Ezra's mom wasn't all there – like schizophrenic or something – and he'd known kids whose parents were the same way. "What do you mean?"

Ezra stretched, arching his back as he visually pictured what his mother – as beautiful and elegant as she usually was – must look like now in prison clothing and trembling. "Withdrawal, she's going through withdrawal. Believe me, it's not pretty when she's detoxing."

Now that made sense. There were countless kids that Vin knew whose parents were on some type of drugs and they knew all the warning signs and personality changes that went along with it. "Detoxing from what?"

Ezra snorted, his eyes clearing. "It'd probably be easier to say what she isn't withdrawing from – Xanax, Codeine, cocaine, alcohol, whatever she can get. She swore she didn't shoot up anymore except she always has fresh track lines, but she's more stable when she's on them then when she isn't so I kept giving her money."

"You give your mother money?"

"Everything's in my name – all of our money, property, stocks, bonds, everything is mine in care of our lawyer, Erica. It's so if someone tries to sue mother or in case of another divorce gone wrong it means that they can't get anything because mother doesn't have anything." Ezra paused, his head tilting to one side. "It's also so she won't spend everything on drugs. Or gambling."

The safest thing to say was, "You must miss her."

"I do." It didn't matter how many times she might have screwed up and made bad decisions that had gotten Ezra hurt again and again. Vin knew that. It didn't matter if she had screamed at him or threatened to kill him or beat him until he was unconscious because that was still his mother and she always would be. Nothing would ever change that.

Chapter Seven

"I just want her to be okay." Ezra wasn't going to cry – he simply wouldn't, but that didn't stop his voice from wobbling. He didn't know what mother would do or who would keep her out of trouble if he weren't around.

Vin stayed until he knew his presence was no longer wanted and he found himself going back down the hall and into the living room where Buck and Chris were still seated only this time the TV was on. They both looked up when Vin entered the room and dropped onto the couch. "We going to work with Ally and Ghost tomorrow?" Tomorrow was Saturday, after all and unless they had something else in mind that seemed like a good idea to him.

"Yeah, I thought we might. Why?" Chris's arm draped across his shoulders and Vin leaned into the touch. He figured they both needed it after what happened with Ezra.

He shrugged before answering, "Think Ezra might need the distraction. Just talked to his mom on the phone. Gets real formal when he talks to her – distant. Polite." Vin didn't tell them what Ezra had said about her using drugs even though Ezra had never asked him to keep quiet about it. There were some things a person just didn't tell when someone told them.

"She called his cell phone?"

Vin nodded into Chris's shoulder. "I didn't mean to get mad earlier."

"Hey, no, don't worry about that." Chris's arm tightened around Vin protectively. "It's okay to get angry sometimes and I'm not always going to know or understand what you or Ezra are going through. Now there are probably better ways to let me know, but that's something we can work on. I don't want you to stop letting me know what's going on or giving me clues on how to improve how I interact with either you or Ezra."

A door opened wide in Vin's mind and for the first time there didn't appear to be an end to the possibilities. He almost didn't ask, was almost afraid to ask, but Chris had said he wanted to improve things with Ezra… "Can we keep him?" It probably wasn't the correct wording or even the right way to think about it and yet it was the first thing that popped into Vin's head.

"Keep who?"

"Ezra. Can we keep him?" Vin was bursting at the thought of Ezra being able to stay with him. "His mom's going to be in jail a long time, right? So he could stay here like JD stays with the Martin's."

Chris glanced in Buck's direction for help, but Buck merely raised his eyebrows at him questioningly. No help there. "Well, I wouldn't mind it if Ezra stayed, but we don't know what's going to happen or even if Ezra will want to stay here. There are a lot of things that could happen and he might have a relative or someone else that he'd rather live with."

That was a sensible answer and it was one Vin didn't want to hear. "He'll want to stay here." Because who wouldn't?

"We'll come to that when it happens, but for right now Ezra's going to be here at least for a while. Okay?" There was no way Chris was going to promise something that he wasn't sure they would be able to do. He'd learned that the hard way when Chris had promised Adam that they would take him to the zoo – they never made it there and Chris had been unable to go because he'd had to work late. Adam and Sarah had died the next day. It was something that he'd always regretted.

"Okay." Vin looked dissatisfied with that answer. "I'm going to see if Ezra wants to play a game or something." He slid off the couch and left the room.

Buck looked at Chris approvingly. "You handled that well." It was Buck's way of acknowledging the fact that Chris had said that he kept messing up and to point out that he didn't always handle situations badly.

"Yeah." Since Buck seemed in such a good mood it might be a good time to bring up an important topic again. "School is going to be ending for the summer soon."

For a moment Buck ignored the blatant statement as he leaned back in his armchair. "Miss Nettie already said she'd watch the boys while we were at work." After a pointed look Buck turned his attention back to the TV.

During the night Vin once again was woken by the sound of faint whimpers that led him to Ezra's room. This time he ventured past the room's threshold, but not close enough to alarm Ezra when Vin woke him up partially. After glancing at Vin with bleary eyes, Ezra rolled over and went back to sleep and Vin sat on the floor by Ezra's bed just watching him for several minutes before he went back to his room and grabbed a blanket and his pillow. Sam followed Vin back into Ezra's room and curled up with Vin on the floor several feet from the bed.

It was the feeling of being watched that jolted Vin awake the next morning, Sam having obviously left his side sometime during the night. Chris had probably gotten up earlier and let Sam outside so she could use the bathroom.

"Did I wake you?" Green eyes peered over the dark blue comforter at Vin. Something that Vin had noticed was that Ezra always seemed to sleep with several layers of blankets even though it wasn't really cold. Whether Ezra simply felt safer suffocating under all those blankets or if he was just sensitive to even the slightest chill was anyone's guess.

"It's not a big deal. I just wanted to make sure you didn't have anymore dreams."

"Oh." Ezra's head peeked out from underneath the covers until he was sitting up further. "Everyone else is already awake." A glance at the clock showed that it was already 7:00am, way past their usual time to get up.

Vin grinned. "Then we should get dressed and see about breakfast. After that we can go see how the horses are doing. Chris said Star and Bitty will be having their foals in the next month or so – they usually come early during this time of year, so it may be longer, it just depends."

Though he wasn't the least bit hungry Ezra did get dressed and went into the kitchen where Ezra managed to choke down some toast and water. Anything fancier, especially any dairy products, would make him feel sick, but Vin could apparently devour a whole pig at breakfast and not care. Ezra cringed at the thought – he didn't eat pig in any form.

Outside it was possible to breathe as Ezra took his normal post by the fence and watched as Vin got involved with helping out. Mucking out stalls was not something Ezra was inclined to volunteer for so he stayed where he was and watched the three horses that stayed outside all of the time. Vin had said something about them being afraid of the barn and that they were trying to work with them. The other horses were turned out in a separate pasture where it was easy to see the two pregnant mares.

"You want to help me with Ghost?" Vin held a halter and a lead as he stepped inside the fenced in area.

Ezra shook his head no and watched as Vin called for the grey horse and held out a chunk of a carrot for him. The horse – Ghost, apparently – came eagerly and snatched up the treat before allowing Vin to slip the halter on him. "We couldn't get near him before. Now we can put the saddle pad on him and everything, but we're going to wait a while to try an actual saddle, though we are getting him used to feeling something on his stomach. Ally's coming along a little bit quicker. The Thoroughbred, well, he's gradually coming closer but then he spooks and runs away."

While Chris and Vin worked with the horses Ezra wandered into the barn and past the empty stalls. It was quiet and smelled like horse and fresh hay. Several of the barn cats came up to Ezra and followed him as he paced the length of the barn and back again. When his phone vibrated Ezra glanced at the number and chose not to answer it when he found that it wasn't his mother calling.

In the silence Ezra couldn't quiet his own mind, which lead him right back outside into the sun and the pasture where Chris had Ally on a lunge line. Several of the cats wandered after Ezra to the section of the fence that Ezra always leaned on. His eyes followed the motion of the horse while at the same time noting Vin's location where he was brushing down Ghost, most likely to familiarize him with the motion.

"Be good. Be good." The words and sounds in Ezra's head slipped out of his mouth though he tried to shut them in. He cringed and was glad no one was near enough to hear him.

Ghost apparently didn't like the lunge line much, particularly the whip, but Chris was able to guide the horse easily enough while Vin wiped Ally down. The mustang had an even and steady gait though his lack of actual training showed easily. "I love…"

They wrapped up the workout and released the two horses. The Thoroughbred formally known as Chester stood in the far corner of the pasture and watched everything, making no attempts to approach either Vin or Chris. As Ezra watched Chris put his arm across Vin's shoulders and pulled him close causing the hairs on the back of Ezra's neck to stand up. Vin didn't seem to notice. They were smiling at each other as Chris rubbed at and patted Vin's shoulder.

For a moment Ezra couldn't breathe. "Vin!"

Then Vin turned out of Chris's hold and came straight for him. "Yeah?"

Ezra had nothing to say. "The cat…" There were three standing near him and Vin's attention turned to the felines that were in various sprawled states. Chris passed by them into the barn, carrying the halters, lunge line, and whip.

"Hey." Vin was kneeling beside one of the cats. "This one doesn't have a collar."

"Must have lost it in a tree or something."

Vin shook his head and picked up the cat. "This isn't one of ours. Plus it's fat. Or pregnant. Chris!" Ezra didn't have a chance to move or speak as Vin was already heading for the barn and Chris. The cat was handed off.

"Who do we have here?" Chris studied the cat's eyes, peered into the cat's ears, and took a glance at her teeth.

"Is it a girl?"

Chris lifted the cat's tail. "Yup."

"Is she pregnant?"

"I'd say so. Come on, princess, let's go inside."

Ezra's eyes widened. "Inside?"

"Yeah. She's got ear mites and I don't want the others getting them. Plus I'd assume she has worms, but we can't do anything about that since she's pregnant."

Vin was on Chris's heels, looking not at all concerned and almost eager. "Is her name Princess?"

"Nah." The deep chuckle came from Buck who had come from the house. "He calls all the girls 'princess'. Found a stray?"

Chris nodded. "Figured she's another drop-off because they don't want the kittens."

"Lunch is ready, by the way, but it looks like you were headed inside anyway." Buck opened the door for them and Ezra, who suddenly rushed to catch up, jumped ahead of them and grabbed up the grey and white tabby from Chris's arms. In moments Ezra was down the hall, a slamming door indicating that Ezra had holed up somewhere with the cat.

Chapter Eight

They were all stunned by Ezra's sudden disappearance, but they went ahead with lunch assuming that Ezra would surface eventually. When he didn't Buck and then Vin tried to get him to come out to eat – Ezra refused. Chris tried to reason with him, reminding Ezra that the cat would need food and water, too, and that if she was going to stay in Ezra's room that she would need a litter box. Ezra had yelled, nearly hysterical, that he was not coming out, they could not have the cat, and that he wasn't going to let anyone hurt her.

"Ezra, they aren't going to hurt her." Vin had stretched out beside Ezra's door, occasionally scratching at the wood to try to get his attention again. "Chris really likes cats and so does Buck. Nothing is going to happen to her."

It was an hour or so later that Ezra cracked open the door for Vin so that he could bring food, water, and a litter box in for the cat. The cat was held tightly in his arms as Vin left the room briefly to get some sandwiches and a drink for Ezra. When the door was locked again Ezra released the cat.

"She's a nice cat."

Ezra nodded as he watched her lap up some water.

"Ezra. They don't want to hurt her."

"I don't know that." There was more emotion in Ezra's eyes than Vin had ever seen before – fear, confusion, anger, and more fear.

"Have you ever had any pets?"


Vin bit his lip as he guessed, "A dog?"

"Yeah." Ezra's eyes seemed to vibrate even as they looked at nothing.

"Did someone hurt your dog?"


Ezra's breathing had quickened so the next question came easily. "Did someone say they were going to hurt the dog?"


Vin sighed at the one-word responses. "Talk to me, please. I want to know what's wrong even if I can't do anything to help. What happened to the dog?"

"Nothing." Ezra avoided looking at Vin as the cat scrolled back over to him and rubbed up against him. "I gave the dog away to a friend so he wouldn't get hurt." His voice grew rough and Ezra made an effort to clear his throat and shake it off, his eyes glittering though no visible tears formed. "There was a stray, though."

Ezra liked to touch things like Buck did. Vin has seen that with his friends Ezra always seemed to be in contact with something or someone – his hand on someone's arm or shoulder or even inanimate objects like a wall, table, or a basketball. There were certain people Ezra avoided touching like teachers and most adults, but he never shied away from being touched, at least not as far as Vin had seen. So when Vin offered his hand he wasn't surprised when Ezra latched onto it immediately.

"She was pregnant and really friendly. There was no reason to hurt her except that she was there and he was angry and drunk and he wouldn't hurt me." With his free arm Ezra dragged the cat into his lap and held her against him, his hand curled over her rounded belly. "I forget what he hit her with but it knocked her out and he dragged her inside and said we didn't need any more damn dogs. He made me watch when he cut her open and all the blood and the puppies came out and they flopped around and most of them died pretty quickly. There were a few that might have survived, but he bashed their heads in with a pot or a pan or something. The dog bleed to death on the floor."

A shiver went through Vin as he edged closer to Ezra for his own comfort. "One of your stepfathers did this?"

Ezra nodded, but didn't offer a name.

The question Vin dreaded was forced past his lips. "How old were you?"

"About five."

"Was that the same one that…?"

"Yeah." Suddenly Ezra was turning into Vin, the cat leaping from his lap as Vin gasped into the lips that were suddenly pressed against his. When Ezra's tongue slipped into Vin's mouth he jerked away in surprise. "Don't you want me?"

There was a hurt expression on Ezra's face and of course Ezra had seen Vin's interest even if he hadn't appeared to be responding to it. "I just don't think we should…"

"Why not?"

What would Ezra understand and accept? What was the right answer? "I just… I'm not ready…"

"To kiss?"

Vin nodded. "Or anything else."

"Oh." Ezra's head dropped onto Vin's shoulder. "I wasn't either." They didn't move from their spot on the floor for at least an hour – it took Vin that long to control the tears that threatened to spill. Ezra looked perfectly at peace with no hint of any unseen struggle. Then again, to Ezra it had merely been a statement of facts.

Ezra did come out for dinner, but then immediately went back to guarding the pregnant cat and refused to allow Chris or Buck into the room. Though Ezra would have allowed him in Vin needed to be away from him for a while and he found himself mindlessly watching a TV show he wasn't sure he even liked. When Chris joined him on the couch Vin scooted closer until Chris's arm came around his shoulders. It was like opening the floodgates, Vin's tears soaking Chris's shirt.

"Vin, hey, what's wrong? Did something happen?" Chris fell silent after that as if realizing that Vin was crying too hard to speak. When the tears died down Vin's arm came around Chris's stomach in a half-hug, the first time Vin had ever done that before.

"Let him keep the cat." A stray tear slid down Vin's red and puffy cheeks.

"Vin, did something happen?"

He shook his head in refusal because he wouldn't tell Ezra's secrets. "Just let him keep the cat in his room. He'll feel better."

"Okay, but we are going to have to have a vet look at her. Dr. Sayr will be out to check the mares so Yosemite can have him look over the cat, too."

That was something Vin thought Ezra could handle, so he told Chris that he would let Ezra know because he didn't want him to be surprised. It was getting late so Vin went back to his own room, grabbed a blanket and pillow and scratched on Ezra's door again. "It's me."

The door unlocked and Vin edged inside then closed and locked the door behind him. "How's the cat doing?"

"Fine." There were two books on Ezra's stand "The Great Gatsby" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" that Ezra appeared to be taking turns reading. He never took them to school, but Vin had seen him reading every once in a while when he was in his room. "She's just been wandering around."

It was probably better just to go ahead and say it instead of waiting. "Chris said that their vet will be out to check on the horses on Monday and he wanted the cat to be looked at, too."

Ezra yawned as he dropped onto his bed. "Okay. They can't really do much until later when she's not pregnant, right?"

"I guess." He was taking it a lot better than Vin would have suspected.

"You don't have to sleep on the floor." Ezra was scooting over on the bed. "There's room up here if you want. It can't be that comfortable on the floor anyway." A smile appeared on Ezra's face as he laid down, his eyes following Vin. "Just to sleep, promise."

Vin hesitated for a few moments before moving toward the bed and perching on the edge. "Are you sure?" He'd never slept in the same bed as anyone else before and he had no idea what sort of memories it might spark for Ezra. That and Vin wasn't sure that it was a good idea at all. In the end it was Ezra's seeming ease with the offer that made Vin settle into the bed because if Ezra was okay with it then he should be too.

It seemed that they'd only been asleep a short time when an awful howling started and jolted both Vin and Ezra from sleep. "What's that?" Ezra asked even as he flipped on the light to find that their quiet tabby cat was the one making that sound. "What's wrong with her?" The cat howled again and paced across the room while panting heavily.

"Maybe she's having the babies?" Vin was unlocking the door to get Chris, but found that the man was already at the door, having heard the noise. "Chris…"

"Yeah, go get some blankets from the hall closet. There's a cardboard box in the laundry room, too that we'll need." Chris made soothing noises for the cat that continued to whine and howl pitifully. "Ezra, come over here." Further words froze in Chris's mouth when he realized that as soon as Vin had left the room to retrieve the items that Ezra had dropped to the floor, nearly cowering by his bed. Still, Ezra crept across the room at his request, his eyes darting toward the cat and then toward Chris as if not sure where he was supposed to look.

Ezra cautiously stroked the cat's fur as he watched the man out of the corner of his eye though he tried to appear unafraid. "What should I do?"

"She's probably scared, this could be her first litter of kittens. For the most part we'll just watch and make sure that she's doing okay." The cat didn't cause too many concerns for Chris, but the boy beside him whose hand trembled almost imperceptibly was another matter entirely. "We'll just have to stay calm and keep out of her way. Guess we could also think of a name for her."

It was a relief when Vin returned to the room, carrying the cardboard box and several blankets. Chris set one of the blankets into the cardboard box and put the cat gently in after it, draping the other blanket over top, partly covering it. There was already a cutout hole in the front of the box so they could look in and so the mama kitty could get out without her kittens being able to follow.

Ezra and Chris spent the rest of the night watching the cat give birth to four kittens and though Vin lasted most of the night he ended up falling asleep on Chris's shoulder. The name that they had come up with for mama cat was Maddy, one Vin had picked out because Ezra appeared to want no part in coming up with any name. From what Vin had said there had been a baby girl named Madison in one of his foster homes that they'd all called Maddy. She had been severely underweight when she had arrived and her arms frozen in place from disuse, but they had worked with her to get her to move and helped Maddy to gain weight. Vin said he liked the name so the cat became Maddy.

When Chris attempted to wake Vin so that he could get up, tapping the boy lightly, Ezra suddenly reached over, grabbed Vin's arm, and jerked jolting Vin immediately upright. "Hm? How's Maddy?" Vin glanced at both of them before turning his attention to the partly covered cardboard box and the cat with her kittens. "Four kittens."

After breakfast Chris pulled Vin aside and made it clear that Vin was not to sleep in Ezra's room if the door was closed and especially if the door was locked. Vin protested weakly that nothing had happened, but Chris was adamant so he gave in – the door had only been closed and locked because of the cat, anyway. All three of them went outside to muck out stalls, though Buck sent Chris back in when he started to fall asleep on them. Ezra sat by the fence in his usual spot and fell asleep.

Buck and Vin made and ate lunch together, neither one of them wanting to wake Chris or Ezra, though Buck said they would keep an eye on Ezra – it was impossible to miss Chris's loud snoring on the couch. They talked about the new kittens and possible names for them when they got older, then about the horses, and finally about Ezra. "He would be able to visit his mom sometime, wouldn't he? She'd be at the women's prison, right?" It was what Vin would want if he were in Ezra's shoes, though it might be a good idea to wait awhile if what Ezra said about her just getting off of drugs was true.

"Not sure Vin. We'd have to ask Amber if we could do that, but I wouldn't have a problem with it and I'm sure Chris wouldn't either. Boy needs to see his mama while she's still around."

The curious tone to Buck's voice made Vin ask, "Is your mom still alive?"

"She died years ago." There was a smile on Buck's face when he looked up at Vin. "Still miss her, though. Now, Chris's parents are still around and he's quite the mama's boy, believe me."

Vin laughed even as he noted the omission of Buck's own father. But he didn't ask. They weren't there yet.

Chapter Nine

Chris left the boys with the cat and her kittens to wander into the kitchen where Buck had already started breakfast. When Chris apologized and attempted to take over, Buck waved him off. "You were up all night and I'm not having you burn the house down or injure yourself making breakfast. So, what's the final count?"

"Four." He dropped into one of the chairs in the kitchen as he thought back over the night and Vin falling asleep on him. "Vin was asleep in Ezra's room. I think they slept in Ezra's bed, too."

"That so? What makes you think that?" Though Buck's tone was calm there was a sudden darkening about his posture that roused Chris from his drowsy state.

"There was a pillow and blanket in the room, but it didn't look like anyone had used them. You know how Vin likes to fold his pillow and kind of smash it into shape? The extra pillow on Ezra's bed was like that, not the one on the floor and Ezra doesn't do that." Chris dredged up more memories from the previous night when Buck didn't say anything else. "The door was locked too, I heard Vin unlock it when I went to see what the noise was."

A plate of pancakes was dropped in front of Chris and he looked up into Buck's face. "Can't let them do that, stud. Don't know what could happen."

It seemed a bit ridiculous to Chris to be concerned about the boys getting up to anything, what with everything that had happened to Ezra. It honestly didn't make sense to him. "They're just kids, Buck."

"Remember when we were fourteen?" Buck gave Chris a knowing look and waited for the blush that Chris hated – he'd never tell him, but Buck loved that Chris could still blush like that.

Chris felt his face turn red and ducked his head for a moment hoping the color would fade. "Yeah, but we never did anything too bad, not then." As kids Buck had kissed him behind corners at school, out in the woods camping or on long walks, and in Chris's bedroom. Later Chris had found out that Buck had been making out with a few other people – girls – and after he'd blackened Buck's eye and refused to speak to him for several months they'd eventually become friends again. Chris had made it a point of only dating girls for years and years after that, but in the end his love for Buck had led him right back to him.

"No, we didn't, but we also didn't go through what Ezra has or know what he knows, either."

"We don't even know if – "

"Chris." The sharp tone made Chris glare up at Buck, but it also made him take notice, which had been Buck's intention. "You can't tell me you haven't seen that Vin's sweet on that boy."

He hadn't seen it. Once Chris was confronted with that fact a lot of Vin's actions suddenly made a lot of sense, though. "Oh. What about…?"

Buck shook his head. "No idea." Ezra was harder to read then a brick wall most of the time and while Vin often times pretended not to care about things it seemed as if Ezra really didn't care. Or Ezra was that much better at making people believe he didn't care. Buck still hadn't figured out which one yet.

"So I should – "


"You can stop finishing my thoughts now. I'll talk to Vin. Should we – what about Ezra?" There was a certain level of comfort that Chris had with Vin that was not there with Ezra at all. Talking to Vin, parenting Vin, dealing with Vin was as easy as breathing to him, but with Ezra it was like walking on smoldering coals to even look at him.

"We'll stop it with Vin. If anything needs addressed with Ezra I'll take care of it." That was Buck, taking the leap when Chris couldn't and as selfish as it seemed Chris was going to let him.

After breakfast Chris pulled Vin aside while Buck went out to the barn to start work and Ezra wandered off to wherever he was going. When confronted Vin at first protested and then backed down as if realizing it was not a battle he could win. If only it was as easy to talk to Ezra.

Chris went out to help with the horses despite his lack of sleep and Buck sent him inside so he wouldn't stab himself or someone else with a pitchfork – Buck's words, of course. On the way in Chris glanced toward where Ezra was propped up by the fence, apparently asleep. While it was not likely the most comfortable position to sleep in Chris was not about to wake him up. There was probably a reason that Ezra tended to stay outside as long as he possibly could. It was a reason Chris tried not to think too hard on.


Ezra was still asleep outside and Vin kept glancing out the window to see if Ezra had woken up yet. He was sitting in the shade of the barn so they weren't too concerned about him getting sunburned or anything. After the hundredth look outside Vin froze, his eyes widening. "Chris!"

The first one there was Buck since he was awake, but Chris – who had been asleep on the couch – was immediately on his feet at the sound of his name. "Well I'll be. Chris, take a look at that."

"What?" Chris edged in beside them, blinking his tired eyes. Then he frowned. "Huh." Ezra was still asleep by the fence, one arm draped back across the railing, his head tilted back. That wasn't what made them all stare. What made them stare was that Chester had edged right up to Ezra and was nudging at him ever so gently. When Ezra twitched the horse pulled back but didn't run away.

"Think our boy has made a friend."

Whether "our boy" referred to Ezra or the horse Vin wasn't sure, but it sounded okay to him. "Can you believe it?" They all held their breath when Ezra twitched again and gradually woke up and dragged himself to his feet. Chester held his ground as Ezra leaned against the fence facing away from the horse. Ezra's arm stretched out along the fence, palm up, and the horse's mouth went immediately for Ezra's hand, snatching what appeared to be a lump of sugar from his palm.

"Must have gotten it from the barn," Buck reasoned, referring to the bit of sugar, his voice sounding impressed. "Think maybe all that time he spent out there was on purpose?"

Chris was nodding his head. "Could be." They watched for a while longer as Chester nudged at Ezra's hand and then his shoulder before Ezra's arm came up to touch the horse's face. "Might have to get Ezra to continue working with that horse and see what we can do about making him less shy."

"Making who less shy? Ezra or the horse?" Vin asked, his eyes still focused out the window.

"Ezra isn't shy." That was apparently the wrong response because Vin's eyes widened and his jaw dropped when he turned to Chris. Though Buck didn't react as obviously he did glance sideways in Chris's direction and that spoke more than words could have.


Hot breath blew across Ezra's neck, soft velvety hairs and coarser hairs rubbing against him as the horse nudged him. "'Will you go see the order of the course?' 'Not I.' 'I pray you, do.' 'I am not gamesome: I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Antony. Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires; I'll leave you.' 'Brutus, I do observe you now of late: I have not from your eyes that gentleness and show of love as I was wont to have: you bear too stubborn and strange a hand over your friend that loves you.' 'Cassius, be not deceived: if I have veil'd my look, I turn the trouble of my countenance merely upon myself.'"

A shiver ran through Ezra when the horse nudged him again and he turned to press his face into the solid neck that was being offered to him. "Will you be Cassius? Caius Cassius."

There was a strange tiredness that had settled around Ezra that had nothing to do with lack of sleep. He felt both sick and light-headed and the only thing that was real was the large animal beside him and the steady breaths from the horse. Ezra released the horse and pulled back and for a moment their eyes locked. "Could you fly someday with me?" The horse seemed to nod as Ezra pulled away from the fence and headed inside because he had nowhere else to go.

Ezra passed inside the front room, his arms wrapped around his stomach against the feeling of illness. Words were spoken and passed over Ezra until he heard his name, somewhat sharply uttered, and stopped.

"Are you all right?" Buck asked again when it seemed he'd finally gotten Ezra's attention. The boy looked pale and was clutching his stomach like he didn't feel good. As much as the instinct to touch Ezra's forehead to see if he had a temperature was in him Buck was still able to stifle that desire.

The question rang in Ezra's head and he stopped to consider it. Buck looked genuinely concerned, but the emotion couldn't even touch him. "No." Then he turned away and went back toward his room with the least amount of noise possible.

Ezra was not sure how long he was left alone when Buck came by with a hamburger for lunch and asked if he was hungry. The smell of food hit Ezra almost violently and he was across his bedroom and pushing past Buck and dropping to the floor in front of the toilet and puking up what little was in his stomach. The wall was cold against his face as he waited for another bout of dry heaving.

"Hey. Can I?"

Buck was holding a washcloth that he had apparently gotten wet and was kneeling beside him. When Ezra nodded Buck began to gently wash off his face and mouth. "Do you want to rinse out your mouth?"

It seemed like a good idea except for the fact that Ezra was puking again, but after that he was more than agreeable to that suggestion. When Ezra tried to clean up the floor where he had missed puking into the toilet Buck stopped him and told him that he would get that later. Buck laid out some pajamas for him and put a big plastic trashcan by his bed just in case and suggested he get changed and then left the room.

Changing was awkward and clumsy, but he managed it and slid back into bed. Buck brought him a glass of water and some juice and said he could make some chicken soup later if he was hungry. That was when Ezra's stomach chose to rebel again and he found himself dry heaving until bile came up.

"Hey, hey, it's okay, you're fine." Buck was wiping off his mouth and face with the cold washcloth and it took Ezra a moment to realize he was crying. If there was one thing Ezra hated above all others it was being sick and throwing up and especially throwing up in front of someone was horrifyingly humiliating.

"I want my mama." Ezra immediately regretted saying it, realizing how childish he sounded.

Buck smiled at him kindly. "I'll bet you do, but I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with me instead. What do you need? Medicine wise? You allergic to anything?"

"I'm not allergic to anything except dust and mold, but Tylenol turns my stomach. If you have aspirin, that would be acceptable though I prefer Ibuprofen." They did have Ibuprofen and Buck gave some to Ezra and then left him be at Ezra's request. Buck then warned the others not to bother Ezra because he wasn't feeling too well and was not up for company.

Ezra slept for almost the rest of the day, getting up just long enough to eat some chicken noodle soup and drink some water. Vin crept into Ezra's room to check on him and ended up on the floor with Maddy and the kittens when it became apparent that Ezra wasn't up to talking. Buck gave Ezra another Ibuprofen after he ate and left him to sleep for the rest of the night.

The next morning Ezra was up and dressed and ready for school, much to Buck's annoyance. "If you're not feeling well you're not going to school."

"I'm okay now. It was just a migraine."

That made Buck frown. "You get migraines that make you throw up?"

Ezra nodded unconcernedly.

"You take anything for them?"

That made Ezra pause as he shoved his last notebook into his backpack. "Yeah – there are pills, but I don't use them unless I'm out at school or practice. If I'm somewhere I can sleep I'd rather do that. The pills make me tired and sort of dizzy and make me feel nauseous anyway so it really doesn't help all that much."

"You sure you're all right?"

"Yeah." Buck still asked Ezra if he could take his temperature using their ear thermometer and Ezra held still just long enough for Buck to do just that. "It always runs a bit high, but that's normal for me. Oh, I have practice today, too – Mondays and Wednesdays until 5:30!" He was out the door on Vin's heels as Buck was glancing at the temperature reading – 101.8.

Chapter Ten

"Maybe you should have stayed home." Vin's eyes trailed over Ezra once more on their long bus ride to school. The boy didn't look good and for Ezra not to look good meant it was pretty damn bad.

"I'm fine."

Vin sighed. "They wouldn't have minded staying home if you didn't feel well, you know. It would have been okay."

"I'm fine," Ezra repeated again as he tried to keep his eyes open. He felt like death warmed over, but Ezra wasn't likely to admit that. It wasn't an option that Ezra miss school because it was never an option to purposely be alone anywhere with someone if that someone happened to be an adult and especially if that adult was male. It wasn't that Ezra believed nothing would happen if someone else was there, but that it was more apt to happen when they were alone.

There was very little else Vin could say to that and he could see that Ezra wasn't up for any real conversation. He did reach out for Ezra's hand, though, and that small connection seemed to relax them both.

JD trudged heavily up the steps onto the bus and was unsurprised to see his supposed best friend sitting with Ezra in their seat. Another glance showed JD that Ezra's eyes were closed and that he was perhaps asleep – his eyes and mind completely skipped over the fact that Vin had possession of Ezra's hand in the space between them.

Class was tedious at best for JD as he twitched and fidgeted, thinking about everything and nothing as he drew picture after picture in his notebook. Those drawings seemed to be his last connection to his best friend and practically his only friend because he wasn't sure Casey counted. The medication for depression never seemed to help and over the years they had switched him a few times to different things that never worked. He was on ADHD medication and had been for ages and in addition to that there were the insulin shots because he was a type I diabetic.

Going to the office everyday to take his insulin shot was probably something most people didn't notice, but JD hated it. Needles didn't really bother him and hadn't for a long time. That wasn't a real concern to JD: it was being different. He couldn't do anything right, not even cutting. On the internet it said that most cutters were girls and even knowing that JD couldn't stop and didn't want to.

In math class he had spent time pressing the sharp end of the compass into his inner arm but that only worked when they were working on specific chapters. When JD didn't have that as an excuse he would sharpen his pencil to a fine point and use the pain to distract himself. He'd already used up most of his erasers giving himself eraser burns on the inside of his arms and legs.

It was the safety pins that they hated him using the most, though; something about him sticking them in his skin disturbed them, but he could do that with paper clips, too. After a while JD had stopped using the safety pins and paper clips because apparently that was really bad and they always freaked out over that. That and he was tired of them going through all of his stuff, dumping out his backpack, going through his closet and dresser drawers to collect them all so he couldn't use them. So he stopped sort of. They kept the knives locked up and they'd taken pocketknives from him again and again, but JD could always get one when he wanted one. Even the butter knives could provide some sensation if not an actual, serious cut if he was desperate.

JD smiled to himself as he thought about that. He had four hidden pocketknives, one in a vent in his room, one hidden in the lining of his jacket, another in the lining of his backpack, and his emergency pocketknife was in the stuffing of a stuffed dog that no one would ever make him get rid of because it was one of the few things he had left from his mother. It was a good thing that JD knew how to do hidden seams.

On his way to his next class, amidst all the mindless chatter of his peers, JD picked up bits and pieces of conversation. The more JD heard the more odd it all seemed. "He's gay?" One girl said. "It's what I've heard!" While another girl was saying, "No way! Do you know how many girlfriends he's had?" Another was saying, "He is not gay. I know for a fact he's not!" "What? You slept with him?" "Maybe." It probably wouldn't have mattered a bit what they were saying except for the fact that two names came up, as well – Ezra and "Oh, what's-his-name, that kid that doesn't say much and gets into trouble a lot?" "You mean Vin?" "Yeah, that's it."

That was just – no way. Vin and Ezra? From what JD was hearing they were saying that they'd been seen holding hands and kissing, but you couldn't always believe the rumors. After all, the rumors said he was a nice, cheerful boy that was really smart. When he'd gotten to his next class he asked to go to the bathroom because it was too overwhelming and he needed a release.

JD didn't cut too deep with the pocketknife in his jacket. Not enough to bleed and be a problem for the rest of the day because being obvious about it would mean they would notice and try to stop him. He cut to his inner thigh, high up where there would be no reason for anyone to look or see.

It was amazing how much better he felt for the rest of the day, even knowing it wouldn't last. JD could even face the questions that Vin got bombarded with at lunch because people wanted to know or to tease or just be asses. The look of confusion on Vin's face told JD that it wasn't true. JD thought he knew his best friend better than those people did, though Casey seemed to believe it and told Vin that it was okay if it was true. Where Casey got that idea mystified him because it wasn't like they even talked to each other at school!


He was not in the mood to deal with anything and when the whispers started Ezra ignored them as best as he could. What he couldn't ignore was Asher sliding into the chair next to him and leaning in until Ezra focused on him. "Is what they're saying true?"

"Depends on what they are saying." Ezra stifled a yawn and tried not to pass out in his lunch. Passing out or puking were not options.

"That you're dating that kid Vin. That you're gay – you know I don't care if you are or not, right?" Some of the other guys were crowding around, too, and were perhaps less accepting than Asher was appearing to be.

Ezra's rolled his eyes. "How, may I ask, did those rumors start?"

Asher shrugged before sending scathing looks in the direction of their other friends. "Someone said they saw you holding hands. Another rumor was that you were making out with him in the hall or something."

"Ah. Well, maybe I'm a flaming homosexual now." He stretched and ignored the chuckles echoing around him. "On the other hand, based on past rumors and history I'd say I was a pretty flaming heterosexual."

Asher rolled his eyes as Tyler chimed in, "Yeah, all the girls you've slept with have been saying that the rumors can't be true – they're calling you a manwhore."

"Maybe I've chosen to branch out, then. Not enough girls or some such nonsense."

"Ez, seriously. Is it true?"

Of course Asher would push this just when Ezra didn't want to deal with anything let alone this. "Look, I'm an equal opportunist and I happen to be bisexual. I do typically date girls and since we haven't technically defined exactly what we are I don't know if we're 'dating' or not so – "

"Wait a sec!" That was Jack, his eyes going wide. "Are you saying you've made out with Vin? Come on, you could do better than that kid. He's like – not one of us."

"What?" Ezra snorted. "You saying I should date a guy like you?"

The look on Jack's face said just that. That they were all "normal" because they were into sports and were popular and all hung our together so they should only stay within their own group of friends. "Well, it'd make more sense. I mean, he's kind of creepy and never talks or – come on, seriously. I thought you felt sorry for him before."

Ezra took a moment to massage his temples to try to make his thoughts a bit clearer and keep him from snapping at someone. "I think my IQ just dropped because of that. And no," he added quickly when Ezra noticed the look Asher was giving him, "It's not a 'phase' or a fad and I'm not trying to make myself popular. More popular, whatever. No, I don't want to date you, Jack, and if you try anything I will smash your fucking nose into the back of your skull."

Just as that was getting straightened out Jennifer was at their table, a disbelieving look on her face, three of her friends standing behind her like vindictive harpies. "So are you gay now or what? Did you give up on girls because you could never have someone else like me?"

Bitch, what? That didn't even make sense "No, actually you turned me gay. It's all your fault that I don't want another girl."

"Oh, it's not your mother's fault for being a psycho and killing her husband?"

That was a place no one should ever go. "Don't take your frustrations out on me for your bad home life or the fact that you stick your finger down your throat five times a day in order to keep your figure. By the way, you'll ruin your teeth and screw up your esophagus that way and, no, it won't make your daddy love you."

"Whatever. Go have fun with your boyfriend." Jennifer turned on her heel, followed by her entourage.

Jack got an elbow to his sternum for the "mrrou" sound indicative of a catfight and the implications thereof.

The rest of the day went much smoother and Ezra managed to get by until it was time for practice. After their warm-ups and after he'd pitched a bit the coach pulled him out and told him to sit this one out. "Coach, I'm fine." Something about Tyler replacing him rubbed him entirely wrong.

Radcliff shook his head. "It's my call to make and I need you in good shape for the game. You're not going to run yourself into the ground during practice. Sit."

Ezra growled to himself, but still sat down on the bench occupied by the "other" players some of which were injured and others that weren't all that good or were just waiting to be exchanged for other players. One of the better players was Alex Talbot who was only so-so as a pitcher but a great catcher and a better batter. "You need a break anyway, huh. Don't always have to be in the spotlight."

"Well, no. It's just…" Ezra trailed off before he ducked his head down. "I don't like not being able to do something I know I can do."

"Sounds like it's been a long day anyway so you might as well enjoy the action from the sidelines for a while." There was a smile on his face when Ezra turned to glance in his direction. "What you said earlier – that's cool, you know? So good luck with it."

He managed not to laugh at the sudden support he was getting that had nothing to do with what they could gain by being Ezra's friend or what he could do for them. What had happened to all of his superficial relationships? "I'm beginning to regret it already and nothing's even happened yet."

"Regret it? Hell, you're going to make it easier for everyone else." Alex's voice lowered, not because of the subject, but because he'd said "hell" – coach would make him run laps if he heard anyone say anything remotely bad.

Ezra nudged Alex with his elbow. "You know Jack, right?"


"Never mind." The rest of practice was pretty uneventful and Ezra suddenly felt bad for all of the kids that had to warm the bench. When Buck arrived Ezra was more than ready to leave and would have done so quickly had coach Radcliff not asked him to hold up. Ezra got walked to Buck's truck and sighed loudly as the adults exchanged greetings.

"Buck, isn't it?"

"Yep. What can I do for you?"

Coach Radcliff nodded in Ezra's direction. "There's a thing or two about Ezra I don't know if you've realized or not – he's a good boy, but he'll push himself until he collapses if you let him. He probably shouldn't have been at school today and I made him sit out for most of practice today. I'd say that it might be a good idea for Ezra to not come to school tomorrow."

"I already said I was fine, coach. I don't need to miss school." Ezra shoved his backpack into the truck in hopes of getting Buck to leave sooner.

"Ezra I know you don't miss school, but every once in a while you need to take a break and let yourself get better. All right?"

His teeth clenched as his eyes darted from his coach to Buck. "I'm not sick."

The coach gave Ezra a knowing look. "Next time I won't just be pulling you from practice if you aren't feeling well and aren't up to playing. If you're not better by Friday I'm pulling you from the game, too."

That was not what Ezra wanted to hear and he mulled on that while they drove back to the ranch. "So, besides missing some of practice, how did the rest of your day go?"

"Ah." Ezra closed his eyes as he leaned back in his seat. "There's apparently a rumor around that I'm gay, that Vin's my boyfriend, and that we were making out in front of hundreds of witnesses at the school."

There was none of the surprise from Buck that Ezra had expected. Instead there was a very reasonable and calm, "Is that so? Is any of that true?"

"I'm not exactly gay, more bisexual I guess. Vin's not exactly my boyfriend and I didn't make out with him at school."

"Have you made out with him anywhere else?"

Ezra stifled any reaction that might have wanted to surface and easily lied, "No."

Buck nodded in acknowledgement. "You said Vin wasn't 'exactly' your boyfriend. Does that mean he kind of is your boyfriend?"

"We haven't really defined what we are, but he did hold my hand on the bus, which could have provoked the rumors."

"Any problems at school with those rumors going around?"

"Of course not. It's actually pretty acceptable to be gay – there are always exceptions, of course, and all my girlfriends were defending my 'honor' and all. My latest ex-girlfriend wanted to know if I turned to guys because I'd never find another girl like her." They kept up a steady stream of back and forth chatter for the rest of the drive back to the house.

Once they arrived Buck took Ezra's temperature again and found that it had gone down to 100.1; Ezra took an ibuprofen and immediately went to bed without another word. Despite the conversation they'd had earlier with the coach Buck knew better than to think that Ezra was going to miss school tomorrow unless he was unconscious or in the ER and Buck hoped neither of those things happened.