The man was walking silently, head down and eyes away from the crowd. His hands were in his pockets and he appeared to be a very no-nonsense kind of guy.

The perfect target.

Kalain licked his lower lip and ran out from between the buildings, appearing frightened and lost. He stumbled, tripped, and scrambled up to his feet again, running and looking behind him. He slammed into a lithe body, and fell onto his ass on the cement, appearing shocked.

"I-I'm sorry!" he stammered, looking behind him nervously once more before jumping to his feet and bolting, leaving the confused man standing there.

He rounded another corner and hid between two large garbage bins, reaching into his pocket and removing the wallet he'd stolen off the guy during the 'accidental' meeting. Rifling through it, he found a few dollars, an ID card, and a key in the change pocket. He made a face. The guy had looked richer than this-- what a waste of time!

He threw the wallet on the ground and stood, ready to stake out his next target.

Stupid kid, the man thought, aimlessly, watching the boy's clumsy movements - the tsk of annoyance when the prize wasn't what he expected. It had been a slip of his own, to let the child take his wallet – but he’d been in a rare moment of distraction.
Or perhaps, not so rare nowadays.

He flipped the edge of the match into the oily pool in the corner of the alley - he'd been chewing on it for too long. He’d slipped past the boy, blending in with the shadows, knowing he wouldn't be seen or heard until he chose. Waiting for fuck knows what.

Wasting time that he just had too fucking much of nowadays.

Swearing too much, he chided himself.

He did this all too frequently now.

Watching the crowds pass. Watching the men hurry and the women tap their heels along the damp pavement.

Watching this - and other - stupid kids pick pockets and snatch bags and dump the unwanted evidence in bins just like these ones. And sometimes hide there too. To smoke or shoot up - to fuck, sometimes, with other stupid kids, who had just as little to rush home for. No homes at all, probably. Just quick fixes of one kind or another, out in the cold, no commitment past the moment, no affection or care past the next dollar or the next meal.

All too fucking familiar.

Go back to your own home, nagged the sense in his head. Every minute you spend out here puts you at risk. Every minute you crawl about alleys and listen at doors is a minute wasted. How many months have you wasted already? Six? Seven? There are things to do - things to learn, and master, and conquer! There's a life to make. For you.

He listened to himself - he respected the sense to that degree.

Then he just leaned back against the wall and plucked another match from his pocket. Put it to his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

He stared at the kid's back as he stood poised between the bins. Wondering when he'd flee. And where.

Kalain grumbled to himself as he pocketed the key he'd found and looked out into the street. He wondered perhaps if he could follow the stupid dark-haired man home and steal something of worth from there.

But he didn't see the guy. In fact, he seemed to have disappeared altogether.

"Fuck," he swore to himself, flopping down and taking a seat in the alley, rubbing his hands together and trying to blow heat onto them. An alley cat sauntered by, and he held his hand out to it. "C'mere little guy," he muttered, holding one hand out.

The calico cat came over warily, sniffed his fingers, and allowed itself to be pulled onto his lap. Lain stroked the feline absently, warming his fingers in the creature's fur for a few minutes before standing and putting the cat down. "Back to work," he muttered to the yellow-eyed friend, smiling softly before peeking out of the alley once more.

He had to at least make a few bucks tonight-- he wasn't scheduled to work at the club for another two days, and he was hungry now. Couldn't go to the damn homeless shelters because the fuckin child services people would chase him down and try to put him in a home.

He'd seen far too many of those. Abusive fathers, neglecting mothers, siblings who would rather use you as a punching bag than a friend.

His stomach growled, and Kalain muttered something bitterly to himself before heading back into the street. He wished Sphynx had told him where he was going for the day. Stupid kid worried him sick. And where would he be if he lost his partner?! Their whole gig would be up.

If only one of them showed up for a gig, they'd be kicked out on their ass faster than they could say "But I can't find him..."

If that stupid little blonde was turning tricks again.... he didn't know what he'd do.


The brunette jumped with a squeal, and then smacked Sphynx upside the head.

"Don't do that!" he hissed.

The blonde smiled sheepishly. "Can't help it, when you're looking all worried like that. C'mere, I'm sorry."

The older boy leaned in and kissed Kalain softly, then smiled.

"One of these days, if you don't come back... I don't know what I'll do," Kalain muttered softly, leaning in to the touch.

Interesting! He knew he was like a wraith here in the shadows; it wasn't that the kid was stupid or unobservant; it was that he, Reven, could fade into the best hiding places like water through the cracks in the dry stone wall.

Made a habit of it, nowadays.

He'd spent most of the night in the club two blocks away, a place that was satisfactorily seedy, where if anyone knew a name for you in the first place, they forgot it after an hour with the dealers. Yet the entertainment could be surprisingly enchanting, through no skill of the management of course. It was just one of those places that people ended up, often on their way elsewhere. If they moved fast, they got away, maybe to better things. If they stayed too long, they got dragged down into the mire of vice and mediocrity.

Reven found it mildly amusing. Or thought he did. He'd performed himself, when he was young. When he was rebelling particularly boldly. When he was...

He shied away from the memories. He’d found that was most effective.

He watched the other boy join the pickpocket - a thin blond creature, similar age, maybe even older - but somehow a look of wildness about him; of unpredictability. They were engrossed in each other - no way they would have noticed him. Reven's eyes narrowed as the blond leaned against the brunette, and kissed him.

Reven had no time for kisses.

But he was surprised to feel the slightest of stirrings inside him.

The searching, warm mouth moved from Kalain's mouth down to his neck, suckling and nipping gently. He made a soft cry, clutching Sphynx's back tightly as a thigh slid between his legs and began to push at his stirring groin.

"S-stop..." he whispered hoarsely. You think you can always make it better like this, but... ah!" He arched his back and bit his lip at one particular stroke of the thigh between his legs. "If you disappear on me, they'll never let me dance! And I don't know what I'd do without that money!"

Sphynx smirked and drew away, leaving the brunette panting and fully roused. "You let me take care of that sort of thing. Come on... I've made arrangements for you and I, a joint job. A thousand bucks for the both of us to suck and fuck one old guy. Isn't it a great deal?!" He was smiling like the cat that had caught the bird.

Lain paled. "No!" he cried. "No! I told you I don't want to do that! I--"

Sphynx didn't give him a chance to finish, slapping him hard across the face. "You'll do it if you want me to keep being your partner!" he barked.

Lain whimpered and held his face where he'd been struck

They look good together, he thought, aimlessly. The dark head, and the blond one. They had an understanding obviously - the blonde’s touch was familiar and confident; the brunette arched under him, responding quickly. Their bodies had a grace to them - a lyricism in the partnership.

Reven laughed to himself, at such fanciful thoughts. But he could appreciate the strong, slender lines of a young man's body as much as anyone. In an objective way, of course.

He had no interest in investing anything more in it than a passing admiration.

They were clasped closely together - they were talking in low whispers, though he couldn't hear the words. His eyes lingered on the younger one - the brunette. Maybe it had been his fondling of the cat, but Reven had seen a vulnerability in him - a rare moment of innocence. He wondered what they were to each other, these boys. Wondered why he was wondering...

When the slap came, he was startled. " - if you want me to keep being your partner!" he heard from the blond. The brunette looked shocked - distressed.


He could have slipped past them in a few seconds - he would have been seen, but they'd never remember him, and he'd have been away before they realised he'd seen them.

Or he could have stayed where he was, and let them go on with whatever sordid business they had together.

But the slap had unnerved him.

He lifted himself smoothly away from the wall and stepped out of the shadows.

Lain saw something in his peripheral vision-- his eyes darted over to the movement, and widened. He glanced back over at Sphynx, who was going to kill him for screwing up, and then back at the dark man approaching.

The gait was different than when he'd tumbled into the guy-- this time it was purposeful and calculated. He began to search his pockets for the wallet, and suddenly couldn't remember where it was as his throat closed and prevented him from warning his partner.

But it didn't look like he had to-- the blonde watched Kalain panic for a bit, and figuring it was just another stray dog or something, he turned in the direction the brunette was gaping. A gasp escaped his lips as he saw a tall man approaching, and he looked like business. What the hell had the stupid little fuck gone and done now, to piss off whoever this was?!

Run, Sphynx!" Lain finally squeaked out, pushing his partner as he realized with dread he couldn't find the wallet.

The blonde paused to oppose the declaration, but glanced up at the man once more and nodded, making a run for it. It was better one of them was beaten and bruised and could tend to the other than both. He darted into the main street, leaving Lain standing in the alley, looking up at this man and taking a few steps back. "I... I... I'm sorry!" he cried out, before turning on his heels and running in the opposite direction Sphynx had.

Reven watched their panic and their awkward, flailing moves with some kind of amusement. Who did they think he was? What did they think he was going to do?

If he knew the answer to that himself, he'd be surprised.

His hand darted out almost instinctively, and he grasped the kid's collar. He'd been startled when the boy had pushed his partner away - had given him the chance to escape from whatever threat they perceived from him. It was a surprisingly unselfish gesture - and a very sensible one. Together, they might have had a chance against an attacker - though not Reven.

And this way, with them splitting up, he couldn't follow both of them.

"Hold on," he said, sharply. "Looks like you drew the short straw; you get to talk to me, just for a minute, OK? What the hell are you sorry for, boy?" Disturbing my solitude? he thought, wryly. Interfering with my introspection? Choosing to share the same seedy, dank alley as a place of refuge?

What was he sorry for?! This guy.... couldn't possibly have just landed in the same alley as Kalain by chance. He had to know that the brunette had stolen his wallet, and this must have been a game.

He knew it was best not to play games with those about to inflict pain; it only led to more. So, he told the truth. "For stealing your wallet! I'm sorry!" he squeaked out, staring up at the face. It was pretty for a male, but probably would have been prettier without the heavy darkness under his eyes and the weariness within them.

He writhed, trying to escape, shaking slightly as his collar was grasped firmly, and he was held on his toes as though he weighed next to nothing.

This guy was way beyond scary, especially because of his stare.

He bit his lower lip and closed one eye, waiting for the first blow to the head. A toss perhaps into the wall or trash cans... maybe the old fashioned fist to the face. This guy looked very no-nonsense.

Reven sighed. Slowly, he let go of the boy's shirt. The slim body sagged, and his feet landed shakily back on the ground.

"You'll have got nothing from it, kid," he shrugged. He saw the wide eyes watching him cautiously, as he slipped a hand inside his jacket pocket. He wondered what the kid would have done if he'd pulled out his knife. But he didn't.

Instead, he teased out the wallet that had been - very briefly - in the kid's possession. The wallet he'd tossed to the ground, where Reven had no trouble at all in recovering it.

Without the kid seeing.

The boy gasped. His brow furrowed for a moment - like he was angry at being made a fool of; like he was intrigued as to how Reven had outwitted him. Reven smiled to himself. The boy had been fast, and light fingered - but no match for his own training.

"Is that what you wanted, boy?" Reven said, softly. "Money? I don't carry it - I know the dangers round here, you see. Do you spend it on drugs? Food? Your partner? The one who deserted you rather too swiftly..."

"He loves me!" Kalain cried out, before he could keep his damn mouth in check. His cheeks burnt with rosy blush in contrast to the neon blue hues of his eyes as he frowned and looked at his feet. "I needed money for food," he muttered in embarrassment.

He wanted to attempt running again, but this guy-- he was so damn scary!

How the hell did he get his wallet back? It was some sort of creepy trick, but nothing like those bad magicians that came to the club for the slow days. This was the real thing!

Was this guy some sort of ghost or spook? A chill ran down his spine at the thought. Sphynx often told him stories of ghosts and night-creatures that wandered these streets, and though they scared him sometimes, he hated to admit it.

He bit his lower lip before looking up at the guy, seeing that he wasn't going to get beaten senseless just yet, and curious as to why.

Reven searched the face turned up to him. Kid hadn't run off yet - that was another surprise. And he could speak up for himself! He dismissed the protestation of love - he saw the naivety in the kid's eyes - he knew the tone of that slap his partner had given him.

He knew about that kind of love, right?

But the kid was something else. A weird mixture of fear and anger and forced bravery.
Reminded him of things.

Of things so far in the past that they were associated with someone else entirely.

But still strong feelings in his mind.

He put out a hand to the thin shoulder, and was mildly surprised that the boy flinched. Guess he might be rather scary to him...

"You wanna do me a favour then?" he asked, abruptly. "Run an errand? I'll give you ten for it. Maybe more, if you can be quick about it."

He couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Really, he was starting to have doubts that this guy was for real. But, he was touching Kalain, so that eliminated the chances of him being a ghost....

His mind ran wild. Maybe he was some sort of vampire or something! Maybe he was really hundreds of years old, and that tired look in his eyes was because he'd seen so many years go by! Maybe...

He put his imagination in check with a gulp and nodded. He was always trying to get Sphynx to join him in making a few dollars the honest way without selling their bodies, but the blonde didn't have much taste for a job that took more than twenty minutes and had rigid hours.

"As long as it isn't sex," he whispered, staring up at the man.

And, just to make sure he wasn't some sort of monster, he reached out and tentatively poked the man's arm. There were several long moments of awkwardness and silence before he drew his hand away, blushing further.

The man was definitely real, and now probably thought Lain was the crazy one.

Reven raised an eyebrow. Crazy kid! Did he think he was a hallucination, or something?

There weren't many people who touched him without permission - he saw to that. But the skinny little finger had been a surprise. He'd resisted the urge to knock the child away - hell, it was only a touch!

What was he becoming, for God's sake?

And the sex business? Ah yes. That was perhaps what they'd been arguing about. Plenty of selling and buying of merchandise around here - quite amazing that the kid had the nerve to refuse an offer, really. Not that Reven had any interest at all. The boy was attractive, in an adolescent, ethereal way.

The eyes looked too big for the face - the mouth was pink and moist with his nervousness, like a girl's. His hair was curled on his shoulders. His clothes were too tight on him, like he'd outgrown them recently - but the strained and missing buttons showed off a developing chest and slim hips. He'd be good-looking when he was older - and probably already to plenty of people's taste.

But that wasn't important today.

"Go to Club Zero. You know it? There's a guy called Breck who owes me money." He stared at the kid, suddenly annoyed that he was involving a complete stranger. But it had seemed a good idea at the time. "I don't wanna see him myself - not today. But I need to collect. And I know exactly how much it will be - to the last note. Touch any of it yourself and I'll find you - and kill you." He wasn't looking to scare the kid, really - he was stating facts. "If he gives you anything else, bring that back here, too. I need you back within the hour. Don't mention me at all - just use the word 'dark'. He'll know what you mean - let you in."

"You... Breck...?" he muttered, losing the proper words. He shook his head to try and clear it, and started again. "I work for Breck sometimes... I know where it is... it'll only take me a few minutes, if you wait here..."

He bowed quickly, and took a few steps back, not wanting to turn his back on the guy. When he was at the end of the alley, he finally turned and bolted down the sidewalk, fists balled and eyes watering.

Several times there he'd thought he was going to get the crap kicked out of him-- and he had gotten out of it unharmed, though his pride was smarting. He had always thought himself a good pickpocket, and Sphynx was sure to chew him out for this...

Now he had to decide whether or not to actually do what had been asked of him. A small part of him wanted to just run off and hope he never saw the guy again, but a larger part opposed it. Not only because it was against his morals to break his word, but also the guy had talked of killing and not even flinched about it...

A creepy feeling washed over Kalain once more as he entered the club, and headed right for Breck's office. He knocked on the door softly and walked in, then bowed just before the desk as the club owner gave him a surprised and suspicious look. "Sorry to bother you sir!" he squeaked. "I was told to come and collect something from you, and to mention 'Dark'?"

That last part had become less a statement and more a question, since he didn't understand what exactly he was referring to himself.

Breck's face grew suddenly, horribly rigid and tense, and he stood immediately. "How long!" he snarled. "How long have you been two-timing me, you little whore!"

Kalain blinked in shock and stared at the approaching man. "Wh-what? I haven't been two-timing anybody! This guy just asked me to do him this favour for ten bucks..."

Breck's hand lifted to crack Lain across the face, and the brunette winced, but nothing came, and the club owner seemed suddenly wary of hitting him. "Fuck. He'll probably break my legs if I hurt one of his little pets, now, wouldn't he? Stay put."

Breck disappeared into the back room of his office, and came back with a leather briefcase. He tossed it at Lain's feet. "There's everything. And if I ever catch you or your whore partner in this club again, I'll have you both raped and slaughtered, you hear me, boy?!" he snarled.

Lain nodded fearfully and turned heel, running back out of the club.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! he thought desperately as he ran.

Now he was really going to get it! Not only had he messed up about the pick pocketing, but he'd gotten them fired from their only legitimate job!

Lain felt tears welling in his eyes as he entered the alley he had met the man in, and walked a few steps in, sniffling and smearing away his tears with his free hand, the briefcase in the other. Now Sphynx would force him to sell his body for sure! Now they'd have to turn to prostitution to survive! His lower lip trembled as he looked around for the man through blurred vision.

Reven watched the kid slide back into the alley. He didn't show himself immediately.

The boy clutched a briefcase - it looked like what Reven needed.

Hell - had he really expected him to return? It had been a sudden whim of his, using the boy as a messenger - he'd not wanted to go meet Breck himself, because he knew there'd be another list of complaints and arguments and guys that had caused him real and imagined slights, all needing a lesson; from Reven. And he just didn't have the appetite for it today.

He was damned good at everything he did - the best! - but the life palled sometimes. A life of casual, sharp violence - a life of new masters, and frightened go-betweens, and a life of isolation and secrecy. Just like always.

Reven peered at the boy more closely. Was he crying? What had gone wrong? Had he dragged some other poor little victim into his world?

Shit! he thought, fiercely. When was he gonna learn to keep away from it all?

He stepped forward, ready to dismiss the kid with the note he'd promised - and probably some extra, in case Breck had been his usual boorish self towards him.

When a dark figure appeared before him, Lain tossed the briefcase to the cement, barely even caring about a measly ten dollars any more.

Ten dollars wouldn't feed him and Sphynx for more than a day! Ten dollars was nothing. Ten dollars was great to come across when he knew he had a dance gig lined up, but now that he didn't, he needed to find ways of getting money that didn't make his insides bunch up and hurt so much!

He smeared away more tears as tiny gasps that threatened to become sobs shook his shoulders, and he simply stood in the middle of the alley before the man.

Kalain felt like such a child-- standing before an adult, weeping away his sorrows for no good reason in the middle of some desolate place. But he wasn't a kid! He was fifteen, goddammit, and everyone treated him like he was 11!

...At the moment, they had reason to. He was sobbing now, holding both hands to his eyes as he wept. He'd have to spread his legs for some old man, and watch the same thing happen to Sphynx so they could eat... and it was his fault, all his fault!

Reven felt very uneasy - the child's distress was shocking. What the hell could be wrong?

"What is it?" he said, knowing his voice came out impatiently. "For God's sake tell me, or I can't help you. Did you find the place OK? Was Breck violent to you or something?" How old was this boy? Had he misjudged it all? He'd seen a flash of something in him - a strength and a nerve that he thought was there. But maybe not. He had no idea what this kid did to survive - what his experiences may be.

Hell, he did not need this!

He grasped at the boy's arm and shook it, rather too fiercely.

"Tell me!"

The words spilled out of him like an upturned pitcher as he was shaken. "Breck thought I worked for you or somebody and started yelling and he almost hit me and then he gave me the briefcase and called Sphynx a whore and now him and I are fired from working in the club any more and we didn't have any other jobs and I don't want to let them touch me I don't like it when they touch me and I don't like watching when they touch Sphynx but we don't have any money and I'm hungry and that's why I stole your wallet even though I didn't want to and now Sphynx is going to be so mad and I don't want to let the bad men touch me!" he wailed in one breath, throwing his arms around the man and sobbing against his chest, burying his face into it and wishing his problems would disappear.

He clung to the slender body desperately as he tried to stop the tears, but had a hard time fighting them.

The realization that he was clinging to the scary dark man caused him to gasp and pull away, but he couldn't stop the short hiccups that choked him every few moments, caused by all his sobbing. He shook his head and wiped his sore eyes with his fists. "I'm sorry!" he rasped out, not sure who he was apologizing to or for what exactly. Everybody for everything, perhaps.

Reven absorbed it all. The implications of the kid's errand that he'd never considered - that Breck would have considered him one of Reven's staff, and as a result he'd lost a job at the club. He was intrigued by the conflicting morality that the boy had, that he'd rob but he didn't want to whore.

Reven had once been in amongst people. He'd lived life on the streets - he'd known all the types there were - suffered all the weird behaviour, and the twisted motivations. But he felt that he'd been out of it for longer.

Was that entirely his choice?

"I didn't mean that to happen," he said, softly. "So what did you do in the club? Can't you get another job somewhere else?"

Kalain shook his head, brunette locks tumbling over his shoulders as he stared at the ground, sniffling every few moments. "Breck was the only guy that would hire us; it's illegal to let anybody under eighteen dance in the club, but he let us do it cause we were cheap and a lot of the people that go there are into younger kids. Sphynx is older than I am and in a year he can work at any of the clubs, but he doesn't care about them, he prefers selling his body because it’s more money quicker and I think he likes it a little, because people pay attention to him and want him..." His voice softened. "My love isn't enough for him."

He looked away, hoping the guy hadn't heard that last part, wishing he'd just shut up and run away. But his feet wouldn't move, and he was still trembling from crying.

"I don't know what to do any more," he whispered, shaking his head once more.

He wanted to see Sphynx. He wanted their lives to be uncomplicated. A place where they both could live, a little to eat, and no need for tricking or dancing or stealing or anything.

Was it so much to ask?

Yet it was so hard to get, and so far out of their grasp. And deep down, Kalain got the feeling that if Sphynx didn't like to use him for sex and cash flow, the blonde would just find a new form of entertainment.

No! he reminded himself. Sphynx loves me!

Reven looked at the kid, and he saw much more than the miserable, tear-streaked face.

He talked a lot about this Sphynx guy. Obviously depended on him a lot. Like that seemed to be helping...

He thought he might have seen the pair of them before - he spent enough time at Zero, though he rarely paid close attention to the performers personally, preferring to lose himself in the overall thump of the music, and sway of the bodies. He knew there were illegal kids there - he knew that Breck had a fair measure of success with his program, albeit risky. But then, that was what he did, wasn't it? Kept Breck and his organisation just this side of legal, just this side of safe from competition. For a price.

And this kid's livelihood had been the innocent victim of his business.

Reven sighed. The kid was a fool, really. A cute, naive little fool, but he wouldn't last long on his own. Part of Reven wanted to leave him to his own devices - to his just desserts. It wasn't his responsibility, after all. The other part of him was angry at this Sphynx guy - using the kid, and then abandoning him.

And this was partly his fault...

"Look..." he said, awkwardly. "I guess I have other jobs you can do, if you're interested. Perhaps I can talk to Breck - get him to have you back." He looked at the thin, shaking body in front of him. Remembered how easily the other boy's hand had clutched at the spare limbs - how easy it had been to slap the sunken cheek. "You wanna go for some food? We can talk about it then."

Kalain's eyes widened once more at the mention of food, but he took a step back when he remembered what had happened last time he'd accepted the offer of food from a stranger.

Sphynx had even warned him about it before.

But no, his stomach had done the talking, and agreed-- and before Lain knew it, he was being forced into a car and onto his knees, and something salty was being pushed into his mouth as a fist gripped his hair and told him if he didn't suck it like a good slut, he'd be killed and left in a dumpster.

He shook his head quickly. "I don't-- I don't want to... I mean, if I have to... I don't want food if you're going to make me..." He couldn't say the words. Even just saying them made his insides bunch up.

He was reduced to shaking his head back and forth quickly.

But then, he remembered. He didn't have the luxury of saying no, did he? He had no job any more. He had no way to earn money.

And at least, if he had to do it with this guy, he wasn't some old man with bony, prying fingers and a cold expression. This guy was actually making softer faces now, his cinnamon eyes fixed on Lain.

The brunette finally nodded, though warily. "Yes, I'll come with you," h
e breathed in defeat.