Mean Streets

Part 1

AU - based on ATF Universe

Disclaimer: I don't own them. I'm just taking them out to play for a while.

Warnings: violence, language, attempted sexual assault

Rating: R

Genre: gen, h/c, angst

Summary: Ezra and Vin are teenage runaways, who run afoul of the men of Team Seven.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my betas Axianna, and Katherine. Thanks also to Angela and Twylajane for their critique, and to MOG for creating this wonderful universe for us to play in.

Notes: I'd like to keep this AU closed, for now, since I have some back story I'd like to finish before anyone else decides to dabble.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a cool morning.  Fourteen-year-old Ezra Standish shivered and wrapped his arms around himself as he walked quickly along the sidewalk.  The days were growing colder and he would soon need to acquire some warmer clothing.  Ever alert, he spotted a police cruiser turning the corner and ducked into the nearest alley, hiding behind a dumpster until it had passed.  After a quick check of the street, Ezra resumed his journey.

It was his turn to help out at Rosie's Diner, and though Ezra hated getting up early to be there at five AM, he hated starving even more.  The worst part was that Vin would be wide awake long before he returned with their breakfast, not taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep in, as Ezra would have done.  With a shake of his head over his friend's strange penchant for rising early, Ezra pushed open the door, greeting the proprietor with a smile.

Good morning, Mrs. Milburn, Ezra said cheerfully.

Ezra, dear, Rosie Milburn said with a smile.  You're early. 

Well, don't get used to it, Ezra said, flashing a mischievous grin. 

Oh, you wise guy, you. She swatted him with her dish towel and shooed him toward the kitchen.

Ezra chuckled as he grabbed a mop and bucket to wash the floors.  He and Vin had met Rosie shortly after their arrival in Denver nearly two years earlier.  The stocky woman had found them sleeping behind the diner one cold morning, wedged between the building and a big dumpster.  She had immediately grabbed each of them by the scruff of the neck and hauled them inside before they fully awoke.  The two twelve-year-olds had been afraid that she was going to turn them over to the police, but she had instead made them an offer.  In exchange for helping her ready the diner for opening each morning, she would give them each a hearty breakfast and a few dollars a week.  It was a deal they readily accepted.

Rosie had never questioned them about why they were living on the streets, and they never asked why she was helping them, but they had seen something in her eyes that told them she had seen a few hard times herself.  Whatever the reason, they both appreciated having good food to eat and a few dollars to put aside for necessities, making sure to do as much as they could to help the kindly woman. 

As he washed the floor, Ezra thought about the other things Rosie had done for them.  As if it wasn't enough that she fed them and gave them money, she had also persuaded the owners of the hardware store, the beauty parlor, the flower shop, and the Italian restaurant down the street to help them out as well.  He and Vin took turns sweeping and dusting the hardware store before its nine AM opening time, and cleaning the beauty and flower shops before they closed for the day.  Later in the evening, they helped to close the restaurant by cleaning tables and doing dishes.  In exchange, they were both paid a small amount of wages by each of the business owners and were allowed to eat their fill of the restaurant's leftovers each night.  They also got free haircuts during slow times at the beauty parlor.

The work wasn't easy, but he and Vin both preferred working to earn their way as opposed to stealing or resorting to other, less pleasant ways of making money.  Ezra shuddered, remembering the time they had nearly been shot by a gun-wielding shop owner, who was upset that they had stolen some bread and peanut butter from his store.  They had also been approached more than once by unsavory men interested in their services.'  He and Vin had both decided that anything, even returning to foster care, was better than that particular option.

Ezra gave a sad smile as he thought about what his mother would say if she saw how he was living.  Appearances are everything, she would say; or his personal favorite: Gentlemen don't perform menial labor.  He snorted.  Menial labor it might be, but it was far better than the alternatives.  And he wasn't exactly a gentleman.  Shaking thoughts of his mother away, Ezra continued his work, looking forward to the breakfast that would be forthcoming. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin awoke slowly, stretching out the kinks in his back as he sat up on the mattress.  Looking at the clock, which sat on a small cardboard box near the bed, he noted with surprise that it was a little after six AM.  He usually woke up by five-thirty most mornings, much to Ezra's chagrin.  With a smile, he realized that Ezra would be returning from the diner soon with their breakfast.  Rosie was a great cook and Vin liked everything that she made for them.  Though, even if he hadn't liked her cooking, it was still better than dumpster-diving for a meal.  He shuddered, remembering the times he and Ezra had been forced to do just that.  Thanks to Rosie, they had not had to resort to living off of other people's trash for a long time.

A faint scratching sound at the door told him that Ezra had returned.  Quickly, he raced to unlock the deadbolt, but Ezra was faster, picking the lock before he could reach the door.  Grinning at his best friend, Vin ushered him inside and shut the door behind him.

What we got today, Ez?  He looked eagerly at the big bag his friend was carrying.

Ezra began, lifting the plastic containers out of the bag and setting them on the small, beat-up table that graced their basement living quarters.  Extra syrup for you, and some bacon and eggs for both of us.

Vin said, opening his container eagerly.

Ezra pulled out a chair and started in on his own breakfast.  Their apartment was actually a small, unused basement under an antique store that had closed almost two years earlier, after its proprietor, the elderly Mr. Weatherly, had suffered a stroke and been forced to move into a nursing home.  The area wasn't exactly a hotbed of commercial activity and the store had remained vacant.  Since they had never seen an owner visit the property, and had been able to remain in the basement, safe and undiscovered, they assumed the property had an absentee landlord.  It wasn't until they had been living there for several months that they learned that Mr. Watson, who ran the hardware store, actually owned both the building that housed his business and the one in which they were currently residing. 

The two boys had found the empty room when they ducked behind the building in an attempt to hide from a gang of older kids that had been giving them a hard time, stealing their food and chasing them out of their sleeping spots.  After investigating the place and making sure it was free from vermin and other unwelcome inhabitants, Ezra had taught Vin to pick the lock on the door and they had moved in.  Later, they had replaced the existing deadbolt with one purchased at the hardware store, so they would have keys to use.  They still occasionally picked the lock, just to keep in practice.

It was a dark space, graced with only one small window that they usually kept covered to hide their presence.  Light was provided courtesy of a single electrical outlet that remained active.  The shop above them might have been vacant, but its two neighboring shops – having separate basement areas, but sharing the same building – housed working businesses.  Both boys were too wary of fire to use open flames unless it was absolutely necessary, so any cooking they might do was done on a hot plate.  A small electric space heater stood in the corner, ready to be used once the nights turned cold.

They had also accumulated some furniture during their time living there.  An old table and chairs that they had found in the trash and repaired had been the first of their furnishings, Ezra stating that it made him feel a bit more human to be able to sit somewhere other than the floor.  The queen-sized mattress that they shared had been their next acquisition.  It had been given to them by Mr. Watson, who claimed the mattress was lumpy and bad for his back, but they both found it to be very comfortable.  The man had never admitted to knowing where they were living, but both Ezra and Vin figured that he was aware of it and was simply looking out for them unobtrusively.  Not wanting to abuse the generosity, they made sure to take good care of their living quarters.

There was a tiny utility sink in one corner of the room that still worked, so they had a ready supply of water.  Their blankets, pillows, clothing, and other necessities had either been given to them or purchased inexpensively from the local Salvation Army store.  They didn't have much clothing, but they took care of what they did own, keeping them clean by washing them in the sink and, occasionally, taking a trip to the laundromat.

Each of the boys had a small backpack and a box that contained personal items – what little they had been able to keep with them after running away from the abusive foster home where they had been staying.

Vin looked around his home and figured they had it pretty good compared to most of the other folks living on the streets.

Ezra sipped the hot coffee gratefully, still chilled from being outside. 

Vin noticed the involuntary shiver and frowned.  Cold, Ez?

It's a bit chilly outside this morning, Ezra admitted.

Guess we need to get some new stuff, Vin said with a sigh.  Each of them had grown substantially since the previous winter and the heavy coats they had worn had been too small even then.  There was no way they would get another winter out of the garments.

Ezra agreed.  We are both in need of some new clothing.  He stuck a leg out, displaying pants that were several inches too short.

Vin chuckled, though his own clothes did not fit any better.  Yeah, guess it's time.

This afternoon? Ezra inquired.

Vin said.  After story hour.

Ezra smiled.  Each day, after their morning work was done, they would meet at the library and spend the day reading, studying, and working on the computers.  The head librarian, Ms. Peterson, didn't mind their daily presence, since Vin usually helped with shelving books and Ezra would spend some time doing magic tricks and reading stories to the younger kids during the daily children's story hour.  They kept to themselves, otherwise, so Ms. Peterson didn't see any reason to make them leave.

Vin finished his breakfast quickly, then washed out the plastic container in the sink.  Ezra finished shortly after and did the same, so they could return the containers to Rosie before the end of the day. 

I was thinking about taking the bedding to the laundromat this morning, Ezra said.  

Okay.  I'll drop these, Vin held up the breakfast containers, at Rosie's on my way to the hardware store.

After you, Ezra said, gesturing toward the door after he gathered up the sheets and blankets from their bed and stuffed them in a trash bag.  He and Vin checked out the window to assure that no one was loitering in front of their home, then stepped outside, locking the door behind them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin finished at the hardware store and returned to their basement home to wait for Ezra, who had not yet returned from the laundromat.  While he waited, he retrieved some money from the locked strongbox they had hidden in one of the ventilation ducts that ran through the basement.  They were very careful to protect their funds, saving as much as possible for their future plans to attend college.

Vin was quite proud of the fact that they had managed to save nearly twenty-three thousand dollars so far.  They made sure to keep the money hidden and to avoid speaking of it in public, since their lives would be worth little if word got out about their stash.  It might have seemed incongruous for them to have that much money, considering their lifestyle, but both boys were determined to acquire the funds they would need to assure a future off of the streets.  They had both seen too much despair and too many wasted lives to allow themselves to become just another statistic.  Ezra had regaled Vin with tales of some of the places he had traveled, and Vin was determined that he would see them someday. 

Ezra would have liked to invest their money, put it in a bank account, or at least leave it in a safety deposit box, but they were both minors and were unable to do that without some form of adult guardian's consent.  Their trust had been betrayed by adults too many times before to trust anyone, even well-meaning people like Rosie, with knowledge of their cache of funds.  So they hid it carefully instead, only spending it on necessities, like the clothing they would need for the upcoming winter.  The money was too important for their future to do otherwise.

Only part of the money was earned with their odd jobs.  The rest, Ezra had earned in illicit poker games in which he participated at some of the local bars.  He was an excellent player and won more often than not.  On one occasion, he had brought home over three thousand dollars in winnings.  Vin didn't like him playing poker, afraid his best friend would be hurt at the hands of a sore loser, but he understood it was necessary to earn as much money as possible if they ever hoped to improve their lives. 

Ezra was always careful not to play too often, wanting to avoid a reputation that might endanger his health.  He had run afoul of some sore losers once before, prior to meeting up with Vin.  That incident had left him with several broken ribs and a stab wound to his side, landing him in the hospital and under the scrutiny of Social Services once again.  It had been that incident that sent him to the same foster home as Vin.  After witnessing those injuries, Vin was determined that it wouldn't happen again and had extracted a promise from Ezra to be careful with his gambling.

Vin's reverie was interrupted by Ezra's return with their laundry. He helped his friend put the freshly laundered bedding back on the mattress.  It wasn't a big thing, but there was something especially comforting about being able to sleep on clean sheets.

The Y today, Ez? Vin inquired after they had finished with the bedding.

We went to the youth center last time, Ezra said with a shrug.  He and Vin alternated between the YMCA and a youth center run by some Catholic priests, stopping in to shower every couple of days.  Ezra, in particular, hated to be dirty.  He had not talked of it much, but the southerner had once mentioned an uncle' who had punished him by locking him in a filthy, rat-infested cellar.  It was also the probable reason for his tendency toward neatness and his insistence that they keep their apartment clean.  Vin didn't mind a little dirt, but found he couldn't disagree with his friend's reasoning. 

It did feel much better to be clean, and by alternating between the two facilities, they didn't draw as much attention to themselves.  There were usually other teenagers around, since both places allowed local schools that were short on gym space to use their facilities.  Both also had many after-school programs, and they found it easy to simply blend in with the crowds of other kids in the locker room, everyone assuming that they belonged there.  Even if someone had known the truth, the staff at both places were aware of the difficulties of life on the street, and thus inclined to look the other way.

Ezra and Vin stuffed their towels and other shower necessities in their backpacks in preparation for their trip to the YMCA later in the afternoon, then made their way to the library.  The library building was a twenty-five minute walk from their home, but neither of them minded, enjoying the opportunity to get some exercise.  The day was slowly getting warmer, but there was still a definite chill in the air, reinforcing their decision to buy some warm clothes later that day.

Good morning, boys. Ms. Peterson, waved to them as they entered.

Morning, ma'am, Vin said politely.

Good morning, Ms. Peterson, Ezra said.

Getting cold out there, isn't it? she said, looking at their ill-fitting, threadbare clothing with concern.

Yes ma'am, Vin agreed.  We're gonna buy some warmer stuff later today.

Will you be here for story hour?  Ms. Peterson looked to Ezra in inquiry.

Yes, ma'am, Ezra replied with a smile.  We shall entertain the little ones before we attend to our shopping.  He would never admit it, but he truly enjoyed reading to the young children.  The look in their eyes as they became immersed in the story he was telling made him feel like he was doing something truly worthwhile.  He only wished that someone had taken the time to do the same for him when he was a child.

* * * * * * * * * *

Paula Peterson watched as the children gathered around the green-eyed teenager, eager for the tale he would bring to life this day.  She smiled, thinking about how some of the parents had reacted the first time Ezra had shown up to read to the children.  They had been suspicious, wondering why two teenaged boys like Ezra and Vin would spend so much time in the library instead of participating in the kinds of after-school activities in which boys their age usually indulged.  They were concerned why Ezra in particular would want to spend so much time with the younger children.  Most teenagers wouldn't be caught dead in the library, hanging around with little kids, unless forced to by their parents or teachers. 

Paula had fabricated a story that the boys were volunteering at the library after school in order to avoid the gangs in their neighborhood, and invited the parents to stay and watch the story sessions with their children.  After observing Ezra's animated storytelling and experiencing both boys' courteous behavior, the questions and suspicions had dwindled.  In fact, the boys had instead found themselves the target of motherly fussing and concern, much to their chagrin.

As she often did, Paula wondered what had happened to bring two such intelligent, well-mannered boys into such a sad situation.  She had always had a soft spot for children, especially those to whom life had dealt an unfair hand.  This wasn't the first time she had made a special effort to help the homeless children she encountered.  In the past, she had often allowed some of them to spend the day in the library when the weather was particularly unpleasant, but until these two, she had never allowed any of them to stay in her library for extended periods of time. 

Ezra and Vin were special.  She had seen it the first time they had entered the library, when they had immediately raced to help her pick up the stack of books that had spilled from her cart as she attempted to return them to the shelves.  They were always polite and helpful, spending their time hard at work with the books, instead of fooling around and making noise like most kids their age would have done.  It had baffled her, since most teenagers barely looked beyond the next weekend. 

Ezra had explained their diligence once, after she had given in to her curiosity and asked why they were studying so hard.  Far too many of those living on the streets, die an early and unlamented death, he had said.  And Vin and I do not intend to be among them.  Given our current situation, an education is our only chance to avoid such an ignominious end. 

Paula could find no fault in his logic, despite being surprised that he had such a clear grasp of his circumstances.  He and Vin were wise beyond their years, and were the most intense and driven teenagers she had ever encountered.  She figured that living on the streets made them grow up faster than most, and she admired them for their efforts, helping them along as much as possible. 

Having once worked as a high school teacher, it had become apparent to her after observing them that they were both highly intelligent.  Further investigation – spurred by her observation of Vin using a piece of paper or a ruler to mark the sentences he was reading – had revealed that Vin was moderately dyslexic, and she had made a special effort to point out books on the subject that would help the boy in his studies.  Much to her surprise, though, both boys had already made use of those books.  Paula had simply shaken her head in exasperation.  She should have known those two would be one step ahead of her.

Ezra seemed to have had an excellent education at some point, while Vin had encountered some difficulties in learning due to his dyslexia.  She suspected that Ezra could have passed the high school equivalency exam, had he chosen to take it, but he was apparently waiting until Vin was ready before doing so.  Given their intelligence and dedication to their studies, she believed it would not take them long to reach that goal.

When things were busy in the library, the boys would often help her out, shelving and checking in returned books, while she was occupied with the other patrons.  In return, she allowed them to stay as long as they liked and often assisted in their studies during quieter periods, giving them whatever textbooks she could find.  The rest of the women on the library staff liked the boys as well, often bringing them home-baked cookies and other treats, insisting that they were too skinny.   Paula laughed to herself, remembering the indignant and embarrassed expressions they would affect at such a pronouncement.

It saddened her that these two good-natured boys were forced to live on the streets, but she was heartened by their efforts to better themselves and to keep from falling into the drugs and crime that trapped so many in their situation.  They often discussed their plans to go to college as soon as they became legal adults, and Paula Peterson had no doubt that they would succeed.  As such, she intended to do everything in her power to help them get there.

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin watched as Ezra read Cinderella to the group of attentive children, changing his voice for each of the characters.  The children were still and silent, totally enthralled with the story.  Even the parents seemed to be taken in by the tale being woven by the teenager.

...and they lived happily ever after, Ezra said, closing the book with a flourish. 

Vin would never admit it, but he enjoyed listening to the stories as much as the children seated around him.  Ezra had a way of bringing the characters to life, and anyone could see how much he was enjoying himself.  The kids adored his talented friend and always looked forward to story hour with him.

Ezra made his way toward him, stopping to talk with some of the children and parents along the way.  Finally, the crowd dissipated, leaving the two of them standing beside Ms. Peterson.

That was wonderful, Ezra, Ms. Peterson said.  You have quite a gift with children.

Ezra shrugged, a faint blush stealing across his face at the praise.

Vin grinned and nudged his friend.  You ready to go shoppin'?

Ezra nodded.  Most definitely.

You boys make sure you get some warm coats, you hear? Ms. Peterson instructed. 

Will do, ma'am, Vin said.

Vin and Ezra gathered their jackets and backpacks and headed back outside, waving at Ms. Peterson as they left.  Their first stop was the YMCA building, where they both indulged in long, hot showers.  Once they were finished, they headed for the Salvation Army store, which was located eleven blocks from their home, situated in the ground-level storefront of a dilapidated apartment building.  When they arrived, there were only a couple of customers browsing through the racks and piles of clothing. 

Where shall we start? Ezra asked.

Vin shrugged, then looked down at his too-short pants.  Grimacing, he remembered being teased at school when he was younger for wearing high-waters.'  He nodded firmly to himself. 

Ezra nodded and the two of them made their way to the stacks of pants on one side of the store.  They both wore the same size, and after digging through the piles, they were able to find four pairs of jeans in decent condition.  From there, they moved on to the shirt racks, choosing warm sweatshirts and flannel button-down shirts for the cooler weather to come.

Could use some new socks, too, Vin remarked.  Mine all have holes.

Ezra chuckled.  Mine, too.

They picked out some decent-looking athletic socks, then moved to the racks of coats.  The selection was extensive, since the weather hadn't turned cold enough for most customers of the store to consider warmer clothing as of yet.  Vin found a dark blue coat that appealed to him, despite it being a little too big.  I'll grow into it before long, he told Ezra.  For his part, Ezra chose a black anorak with a zip-out lining.  Both avoided bright colors that might draw unwanted attention.

All together, the clothing only cost them seventy-six dollars, less than the one hundred dollars they had budgeted, so they decided to buy some warm hiking boots that would come in handy during the snowy winter months.  Their current footwear was too small, anyway, and it wouldn't be long before they would be unable to wear them at all.

Gathering their selections together, they brought them to the counter, where Ezra paid the gray-haired woman who worked there.  Before stepping outside the store, they stuffed most of the clothes into their small backpacks, leaving only the coats and boots in the shopping bag.  In their neighborhood, it wasn't wise to advertise any new acquisitions.  People had been killed simply because someone else wanted their shoes.

* * * * * * * * * *

The floor was swept and the windows were spotless.  Ezra finished wiping the counter of the flower shop with a smile.

All finish? Mrs. Chan, the petite Chinese woman who ran the shop asked in her softly accented voice.

Yes, ma'am, Ezra replied. 

You a good boy, Ezra, she said, reaching up to pat his cheek as she bustled into the back of the shop.

Ezra blushed, collecting his cleaning supplies.  He followed behind the small woman, stowing the things in the tiny closet in the back room.

she said, thrusting a few bills into his hand.  You buy food for you and Vin.

Yes, ma'am, Ezra said, smiling as he tucked the money into his pocket.  Mrs. Chan was always insisting that he and Vin didn't eat enough. 

Ezra waited until Mrs. Chan was through closing up the shop, then escorted her to her car before leaving to meet up with Vin.  Twice a week, the library was open late, and the two of them would usually spend some more time there after their evening chores' were finished.  On the other evenings, they would go to the youth center, which was located several blocks away from the library.  There, they would work out using the gym facilities and would practice the martial arts and boxing they had picked up during the past few years.  Living on the streets could be dangerous, and both boys knew the value of being able to defend themselves.

Walking past one of the many abandoned buildings in the area, Ezra spotted a group of young men coming toward him on the opposite side of the street.  he muttered to himself, looking around quickly for a place to hide. 

They were a group of homeless kids not much older than him and Vin, who spent their time selling drugs for a lowlife drug dealer named Jerry MacDermott.  The man had approached both Ezra and Vin repeatedly, wanting them to join his little group.  Both had refused, not only because they wanted nothing to do with drugs, but also because they didn't like the way he looked at them.  Ezra hated the way the greasy man would leer at them, making suggestive comments whenever he had the chance.  He knew what the man wanted and had no intention of letting him get it.

That in mind, Ezra ducked into the alley next to the empty brick building, concealing himself in a doorway until the group passed him by.  After ten minutes, Ezra figured it was safe enough to leave.  He slipped out of the doorway and headed back toward the street, only to be stopped by a pair of hands grabbing his shoulders.

Ezra, my boy, came the deep voice behind him. 

Oh shit.  A shiver of dread raced down his spine.  Ezra swallowed hard and turned around, coming face to face with Jerry MacDermott.  Mr. MacDermott, Ezra said calmly, attempting to sound cordial and unperturbed, despite the fact that his heart was racing a mile a minute.

Where's your pretty little friend? MacDermott said, running his eyes lasciviously over Ezra's body.

He's around, Ezra said blandly, not wanting to reveal too much.

Why don't you come with us? MacDermott said smoothly, taking Ezra's arm in a firm grip.  I'd like to talk to you.

I have a previous engagement, Ezra said, trying to extract his arm from the tight grip.

MacDermott laughed, turning to some of his associates.  I just love the way this southern boy talks.  Sounds like them highfalutin' types on public television.

The group laughed along with him as they hustled Ezra down the street.

Let go of me, Ezra said, starting to struggle.

I don't think so, MacDermott said, smiling in a way that made Ezra nauseous.  They dragged him along with them into the building.  Ezra fought against the hands gripping his arms, using every dirty trick he knew, but it was a futile effort.  He quickly realized that he was in big trouble.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chris Larabee called to his old friend.

Yes, master? Buck said with a smirk as he strode through the door of Chris's office.

Chris rolled his eyes at his agent's antics.  I got a call from Digger Bowen.  Says he has something interesting to tell me.

Buck snorted.  He probably needs money to buy that cheap booze he likes.

Chris shrugged.  I don't know, but he sounded kind of excited.

You want backup?

Chris said.  He wants to meet at that old shoe factory on Shaw St.

Buck groaned.  Another abandoned building.

No unwanted company in most of those places, Chris pointed out. That's why the bad guys like em so much.

'Cept for the odd homeless person, Buck remarked.  Remember that bag lady that got caught in the crossfire during the Martell bust?

Chris nodded grimly.  He remembered the incident all too well, having been one of the agents who found the elderly woman while rounding up the bad guys.  You comin'?

Lead on, big dog. Buck grinned, gesturing toward the door with a flourish.

* * * * * * * * * *

Vin eyed the clock with a frown.  Ezra should have been back half an hour ago.  It wasn't like him to be late, and Vin was starting to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.  Something was wrong. 

After dropping off their purchases at the apartment, he and Ezra had gone to the beauty parlor and flower shop, respectively, to do their daily cleaning jobs.  Neither of them liked to carry money around, since it was too tempting a target for thieves, so they had planned to meet back at their place to drop off their pay before heading to the youth center to work out.  But Ezra was late.  With a worried frown, Vin picked up the baseball bat that stood in the corner of the basement room.  After a quick check out the window to make sure the coast was clear,  he headed out the door to find his friend.

* * * * * * * * * *

Retracing one of  Ezra's possible routes from the flower shop brought Vin past an old brick factory building.  They were both wary of the place, since it was a haven for drug pushers and other criminals, and neither of them wanted to be involved with any of that.  They usually hurried past the building anyway, but if they saw people hanging around the crumbling structure, they would avoid it entirely, taking a different, longer route home. 

As he walked along, Vin heard the faint sound of laughter coming from inside the old factory.  Debating with himself for a moment, Vin finally decided to check it out.  Quietly, he slipped into the alley beside the building, making his way to a locked door.  Using the lockpicks Ezra had fashioned for him, he rapidly picked the lock, mentally thanking his friend for teaching him that skill.

Inside, the voices grew louder.  Vin crept along the piles of junk that were stacked all over the interior of the building, making his way toward the light he could see in front of him.  As he peeked around a stack of old machinery, he froze at the sound of Ezra's voice.

Let me go, Ezra pleaded, his voice breaking.  I assure you, I won't tell anyone.

In front of him Vin saw Jerry MacDermott manhandling Ezra.  His friend was bent over an old crate, his arms pinned behind him, while MacDermott fumbled to undo his pants.  Vin felt his blood boil and without thinking, jumped out into the open with a yell, swinging the bat toward the drug dealer.  The bat crashed solidly into the arm MacDermott had raised to block the blow.  MacDermott screamed and grabbed his broken forearm, staggering away from Ezra.

You okay, Ez? Vin asked, his voice betraying his fears.

I... I'm... fine, Ezra replied shakily.

MacDermott growled and started toward Vin, but the angry teenager was not in the mood to be generous.  Whirling around, he slammed the bat down hard on MacDermott's knee, then turned and landed another blow on his unprotected side.  The resulting crunch made Ezra wince as the drug dealer collapsed in a pitiful, crying heap.

Ezra pleaded.  Let's go.

Get goin', Ez, Vin said without moving his eyes from the whimpering drug dealer.  I'm right behind ya.  He turned back to MacDermott. You fuckin' slimy bastard!  You come near me or Ez ever again and you'll find out what else I can do with this bat.

Ezra hesitated, then nodded, backing away from the scene, while Vin continued to yell and threaten MacDermott, warning him to keep away from them.  He turned to open the side door just as a pair of men burst through the front door with guns.

ATF! Freeze!

Drop the bat, son, the dark-haired man ordered. 

Turning to face the intruders, Vin waved the bat at the new threat, stopping only at the sight of the guns being pointed in his direction. 

Come on, now.  Just put the bat down, the dark-haired man said in a steely voice.

Vin forced himself not to look at Ezra, nodding faintly as he slowly put the bat on the ground.  Ezra, hidden from the agents' view by the piles of junk, quickly ducked into a small gap in the tangled stacks of machinery, tucking himself out of sight as the men approached his friend.