[Brace for extremely preachy Author's Note:

This is the first of three short stories which take place before the prologue of my webcomic, Metanoia. (You'll have to Google it, apparently.) Each story can stand alone, or the three can be read together as one three-chapter story. Reading the comic adds meaning, but you can enjoy the stories without it. If you like happy endings, leave the comic alone; it apparently makes people cry.

Be warned: these boys are way underage. It is not done for kink purposes. If underage boys are your kink, do not let me hear about it, I've been on the street myself and I know what these kids go through, and I will come down on you like thunder. If you do understand why I'm writing about teen prostitutes, consider donating or volunteering at a youth shelter like The Bridge for Runaway Youth (again, you must Google, as FP won't allow links). I've seen firsthand the good they do. Their funding is threatened, and thousands of kids are still in need of their help. If there's something similar in your city, help there. If there's not, make noise about starting one. Just a safe warm room with a coffee machine and a non-predatory grownup is enough to save lives and hearts.]


Fourteen

It was October. Late October, night closing in before you could get any use out of the day, all the drugstores full of orange foil candy wrappers and paper skeletons. I was waiting outside a bar. Wouldn't dignify the dive by calling it a gay bar -- it was like, a closet bar. The kind of place where men who don't like who they are and want to take it out on someone else might find a few minutes' relief. Mostly in the form of other men who don't like themselves, in denial or old and wasted, sunk in guilt or possessed of vicious kinks. But sometimes in the form of someone like me.

Here I am at fourteen: face like skim milk and body like a twig, rusty hair just growing out of a last-minute-desperation religious-right anti-turning-into-a-fag haircut, saucer-huge mold-green eyes just beginning to develop a thousand-yard stare. Voice barely holding tenor below the cracking point. Pretty as a girl and mean as a snake; a broken doll.

Naturally that's not how I saw myself. I thought being a whore made me hard. I liked to use the word whore, liked to see the way people reacted to it. A lot of them flinched. Some of them took it like an aphrodisiac.

I didn't really need a trick that night; I still had fifteen bucks, and no drug habit to vacuum my pocket. But I liked to get it out of the way when I was already miserable, so I could forget about it for a few days after that. I was pretty sure I had one lined up. There was a guy who kept coming out to look up and down the street like he was waiting for a cab, and talked to me a little every time, trying to be subtle about finding out if I was for sale. Big, huge fat guy. I had decided if he was one of the fondlers, or wanted oral either way, or -- let me please be so lucky -- the kind who just wanted me to watch him jack off and be impressed, I'd be cool with that. But nobody that big was bending me over the trunk of his car. I'd smother.

I was planning about that, mentally preparing myself for it. The risk, more than the actual nasty. Of course I was damn well aware that runaways vanish. Setting my courage for another round of Russian Roulette. That's the state I was in when I saw him.

Smaller than me, but not by much; about the same age; hunched freezing in a white t-shirt, no coat. Black hair cut just above his shoulders, straight and smooth as silk, so fine and clean that it even tangled gracefully when the cold wind blew it. Caramel skin, big dark eyes, incredible long eyelashes -- I really did notice his eyelashes when he was just walking down the sidewalk in the orange city night, I noticed everything about him, his pretty round ears, his thin neck, his long hands and narrow waist, the way his collarbone showed through the t-shirt when the wind pushed it against him.

I certainly noticed the cut-up bruise on his cheekbone that had dribbled blood down his cheek to drip off the point of his chin onto his clutching arms. Brand-new jeans with dirty knees. Soft mouth pressed tight, trying not to cry. He had a stunned look on his face, stared blankly at me as he came down the sidewalk, far enough gone from cold that he'd lost the city-dweller's nervousness about eye contact.

Maybe half a minute, I watched him walk toward me, and in that time I somehow came to believe that he was there for me. That he was walking down that particular sidewalk because I was there. That he was being given to me, like an unwanted kitten -- if you don't keep it we'll drown it, kind of thing.

I didn't examine the feeling. I didn't get along, nights, by examining my feelings.

Watching him, watching his eyes, I stepped out in front of him when he was close, already shrugging out of my jacket. I had on long sleeves under, but I don't think I would have hesitated even if that jacket had been my only clothing. He lost the rhythm of his trudging, and let me come up and put the jacket around his shoulders. Clutching the warmth of it, he opened his mouth a little as if to speak, but clamped it shut again right away and blinked a bunch of times.

"Do you have anywhere to go?" I asked him.

Mute, he shook his head.

"Come on," I said, picked up my duffle, and led him off down the sidewalk.

When I went into the taco place, he looked confused, as if he'd expected us to go somewhere else. I ordered one of those ten-taco deals. We sat down by the heat vent under the window. I gave him three and me three and wrapped up the other four tacos for later.

He drowned his tacos in hot sauce and made them vanish, then looked ashamed, as if bolting his food was something he didn't normally do. I made mine vanish in about three seconds; tacos, fried rice, and pizza out of the dumpster behind Rocky's were just kibble to me, I didn't taste that stuff anymore. Then the way he wiped his fingers on a napkin instead of licking them or using his knees made me suddenly self-conscious. I wiped mine on my pants like usual, but I blushed when I did it.

I went back and got a monster-size coffee, put a shitpile of sugar in it, and brought it to him. We passed the coffee back and forth until we were warmed up. I noticed he was falling asleep, but after a bit the sugar hit and he woke up again. All this time we didn't say a word. I'd decided he probably didn't speak English. He looked Indian, or maybe Egyptian. He was so beautiful. All the time we ate and drank our coffee and then sat there being warm, I kept thinking about how beautiful he was. About how I could be happy for the rest of my life just watching him drink coffee.

Not that I figured the rest of my life was represented by any large numbers. As far as my actual planning went, the rest of my life was a week maybe. But the sense of this boy being mine in some important way kept growing. We watched each other's eyes, not even trying to make it look normal.

Finally the coffee was gone, and I could see the girl behind the counter was nerving herself up to throw us out. I said quietly, "My name is Star."

His black-coffee eyes widened a little, as if this impressed him. He finally spoke: "Mine's Jaime. Jaime Ortiz. Thank you." Soft voice, made even softer by a slight Mexican accent. He pronounced the 'J' as a sort of 'ch' sound, as if he'd tried to Americanize his name but didn't quite have a handle on the phonemes.

I desperately wanted to hear him talk again. "What happened to you?"

"Asshole gangbangers beat me up and took my jacket." He frowned delicately, more disapproving than angry. Hearing him say 'asshole' made him seem a bit less otherworldly. Far from being disappointed, it made me hopeful, more aware that this wonder was simply a boy like me, not some wild winged spirit who would slip away if I broke his magic rules.

"How long have you been here?"

The disapproving look deepened. "You think I just fell off the back of a truck? I live here, man."

"You said you don't have anywhere to go. I figured you're from out of town. I been here two months."

"Oh." Dropping his eyes, he looked away. "Sorry. It's true. I got nowhere to go. They kicked me out."

"Your parents?"

"Uh-huh."

"That fucking sucks."

"Uh-huh."

"How long ago?"

A pause while he swallowed hard, black brows pulling together for a moment. "About three this afternoon."

"Jesus." I tried to think of what to say about that. But when I'd run away, it had been with a sense of determination, it had been exhilarating. He looked betrayed. He was betrayed. In the end I just tried to be practical. "So you planning on going to a shelter?"

He shrugged, still not looking up. "I guess. I don't know where one is. I dunno if they make you go home. Cuz my dad says he ever sees my face again he's gonna kill me. He'll do it too."

"Nah, they don't call the cops on you. I know, my foster parents would chain me in the basement with a bible and a stack of titty mags, I ain't going back there either."

Startled, he looked at my face again, laughing a little. "A bible and a stack of titty mags."

For about one second, I debated whether to tell him. People in the city weren't as uniformly bigoted, but that just made it more of a crapshoot. I needed to know if he was going to have a problem with it, though, so I could get him safe to a shelter and wash my hands of him before I fell any farther.

Because oh god was I falling, I could feel it happening, I was weightless.

"Yeah, they figured, they acted obnoxious enough about it, I'd turn straight just to shut 'em up. I left instead. You don't quit being queer just cuz a buncha damn Baptists want you to roast for it. You're born that way. I read it in like Science News or something."

Jaime Ortiz blinked at me for a little while, owlish with fatigue, taking his time to process what I'd told him. At last he said mildly, "I'm Catholic." Then, after a pause, "I'm not a very good Catholic though." When I didn't answer that, he said, "Where do you sleep?"

Suddenly my heart was beating way too fast. I did my best to sound calm. "There's a squat. No gas or power, but the water still runs. I have a closet there. If you light some candles it warms up pretty quick. Um. It'll totally sound like a pickup after what I said, but -- you can come with, if you want."

"Well, is it a pickup?"

"Kinda," I admitted with a nervous grin. "Or. Well. I guess not. You're all beat up. But I might ask, when you're feeling better. Won't kick you out if you say no though. I mean, that would be a shitty thing to do. I'll take you to a shelter instead if you want, but you have to deal with some really freaky people there, not that I'm not kind of a freak but I'm not, you know, crazy." I finally managed to get the emergency talking brake to hold, and clamped my mouth shut.

"Okay," he said.

So I took him home with me.

We were silent again on the way to the squat house. I knew I'd make a moron of myself if I talked. Jaime just didn't seem to mind quiet. He was reeling tired. If it had been more than four blocks I might have had to carry him.

I showed him where to pry off the plywood on the back door, careful of broken glass, how to climb through the hole and pull the wood closed after us. Pitch black inside. Silent.

He whispered, "I can't see."

"You don't have to whisper. There's no one here." But my voice was quiet too. I dug a lighter out of my pocket and found a votive candle on the soggy masonite shelf by the door. Lit it and looked at Jaime by its glow. Candlelight suited him. I was suddenly afraid I was going to kiss him, and I'd said I wouldn't mack on him until he was feeling better, so I filled the air with words on the way up the stairs. "Candles are easy to steal. I'll show you how. There used to be some punks who lived here, but they went to Phoenix. I wanted to go with but they said no, there wasn't room in the car. Which was totally bullshit, they didn't want to get caught with somebody underage. I guess I understand though. But it gets stupid cold here in the winter, right? Worse than Rapid City."

"That's where you're from?"

"Near there. Boxelder."

"South Dakota?"

"Yeah. Boxelder S.D. -- it's not a town, it's an infestation." I chuckled nervously at the joke, which wasn't even mine, and obviously made no sense to him. We were on the second floor in the master bedroom, rotten carpet underfoot, mildewed drapes hanging in front of the plywood-covered windows. The closet door was how I left it: padlocked.

"How come you lock it up?" he asked me as I produced the tiny padlock key on the linked rubber bands that attached it to my wallet chain.

"So nobody messes with my stuff." Click, and the lock opened. I locked it to the wallet chain next to the key. Normally I locked the door on the inside when I was in there, but I didn't think Jaime would like being locked in.

"You said there's nobody here."

"Not like I get notice before people move in." I lit more candles, those seven-day saint candles you can get at the supermarket, until the walk-in closet was bright enough that you could read small print. The candles were all along a shelf above the hanger rod thing, bouncing their light off the white ceiling and tan walls.

My other stuff was all there, the stuff that wasn't in my duffel. I kept the essentials in the bag, the things I cared most about or might need while I was out. What I kept in the closet was comfort. Sleeping bag and pile of thrift-store blankets, yellowed pillow, stacks of stolen paperbacks. I sat down on the bed part, taking off my shoes, seeing my breath; always strange to see your breath in an enclosed space. It feels like such an outdoor experience.

My new friend was still standing in the doorway. I told him, "If you don't shut the door, it won't get warm." He came in and shut the door.

He followed my lead and took his shoes off, sat down crosslegged on the sleeping bag. I was digging in the duffel, and got out what I called my field surgeon's kit. It was just a plastic first aid kit, the kind they keep behind the counter at convenience stores, which I kept stocked with any supplies I could steal or find free. Band-aids, antiseptic, needle and thread, ace bandage. A little pack of kleenex and some of those alcohol-soaked sterile wipes. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and a few tabs of percodan I'd lifted off a 'client' who'd claimed to be a pharmacist.

And about a million condoms, the kind they give away at the free clinic. I made my tricks wear them by saying, "You don't know where I've been." Which reminded them that they actually had a pretty good idea where I'd been, and it wasn't real hygienic. Seeing the condoms now, I suddenly wondered whether I was going to get to use one myself, and had to think about drifting snow on the interstate to keep from acting like a jackass.

I unwrapped a sterile wipe and reached for Jaime's face with it, expecting him to flinch. Instead, he leaned toward me, as if the sting of the alcohol on his cut cheek were the gentlest caress. I cleaned the cut and then did my best to get the blood off his face. When the side of my thumb touched his lower lip, I twitched and did a little brain-reboot, like I'd stuck a fork in an outlet. It made me miss whether he'd reacted to the touch. He took the wipe and scrubbed at his hands while I got out some ointment. When I dabbed it along the cut, he closed his eyes halfway. Drifting snow, drifting snow.

Sticking the band-aid on, I said, "I'd like to kill those motherfuckers. Some people are just blind to beauty. I don't think it'll scar much, but still. Anyone who can bring himself to hit your face doesn't deserve to keep his eyes." Once it was out of my mouth, it sounded idiotic, affected instead of poetic, laughable bantam posturing instead of what I wanted it to be: an offer of shelter.

I made putting the first aid kit away take a long time. Finally there was no more plausible fidgeting, and I turned back to him. The band-aid on his cheek was just unbearably cute, he was such a precious thing, I wanted to strangle the stupid bastards who would throw out this jewel with the trash. I couldn't think of a single thing to say. He was watching me again, consideringly, with a weird, tiny smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

He put his hands on my knees. Resting his slight weight on them, he leaned forward and kissed me, softly and inexpertly, with a closed mouth. Then he sat back, waiting for an answer to his action.

My brain fried in the moment that his lips were on mine. All circuits fused. The pure, innocent confidence of him burned me clean of cynicism, and I had a glimpse of what it must be like to be a normal teenager falling in love for the first time. So painfully sweet. It seemed to take an hour just to reach out and touch his hair.

But then a terrible idea came to me: what if he thought that was the price of my help? Had I said anything that might give that impression?

"You don't have to," I told him.

"Good." He came back in the same manner and gave me the same kiss again, and this time I wasn't too surprised to kiss back.

He had no idea how to kiss. Didn't know to open his mouth, had forgotten that he might want to put his arms around me. Holding him around the shoulders, I nervously tested his lips with the tip of my tongue, trying to get him to relax a bit. Drew back to look at him, afraid he was mad or scared or disgusted; found him instead flushed and sleepy-eyed and amazed. He climbed onto my legs so he was straddling my thighs, his hands on my arms and then his arms around my neck. I pushed my hand into his smooth, soap-scented hair, cradling the back of his head.

That last, apparently, was the key, because all at once he pressed himself to me and opened his mouth to my tongue, whimpering faintly, hips hitching as if he wanted to grind against me but wasn't sure it was allowed. My heart gave one off-rhythm beat so hard I thought I'd die of it, then settled to merely banging like heavy machinery. I was shaking, or he was, or we both were. Sitting up became uncomfortable, and somehow we managed to lie down without breaking the kiss for even a moment. I didn't dare do anything more than kiss him, didn't even dare put my hand up the back of his shirt to feel the warmth of his skin, lest it scare him into stopping me. It was at least half an hour before I released his lips again.

Then we looked at each other for a while, his bright brown eyes studying my face while I smoothed his glorious hair back strand by strand. Eventually he said, "That was my first three kisses."

I considered my answer for a long time, and he was silent and let me. "Those were my best three kisses," I said at last.

He wrinkled his nose. "Come on, two of 'em didn't even hardly count. They can't be the best."

"God, you're so adorable."

That baffled him. "What?" he demanded.

"You are. You're just so cute it's killing me. Look, are you just -- I mean -- playing? Or curious? Or -- because -- do you want to be my boyfriend? I'll take care of you. I will even if you say no; I'll protect you, I won't let you end up like me." It sounded so stupid out loud, I was sure he was going to laugh at me.

Instead, he gradually went crumple-faced. When my expression began to echo the distress in his, he hid his eyes against my arm, and shortly he started crying.

"I'm sorry," I said desperately. "Whatever I said wrong, I take it back. Don't cry."

He rolled his head back and forth a bit, saying no, but didn't answer with anything but sobs. I petted his hair awkwardly while he cried harder and harder. One of the candles drowned in its wax, and I thought of how if I didn't get up to rescue the wick, it would be nearly impossible to ever light it again, but didn't get up. I rubbed my hand around on his back in circles a bit, bent my head to rest my cheek against his hair.

"Don't cry," I kept saying, meaningless reassurance over and over. "It'll be okay. Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay. Oh Jaime, don't cry..."

But he cried for ages; cried himself sick. When he finally let me look at his face, his eyes were bloodshot and his nose was red. He could've asked for my life, just then, and I would've died for him, this boy I'd known an hour and a half.

He said, "Do you think, do you think when they kicked me out, you think if they knew they were sending me to find a boyfriend, you think they'd care? They hate what I am, so they throw me out where you -- it's just funny."

"Ironic," I supplied, touching his cheek below the band-aid with the backs of my fingers. "Is that a yes?"

"This is gonna sound crazy," he said hoarsely. "I made a deal with God. I prayed, 'If my dad is right and I'm a dirty person and going to hell, then please kill me quick, because I can't change. But if it's not wrong, if You made me how I am, please please help me, because I can't live on my own and I can't go home.' Those guys beat me up and took my jacket, I thought that was my answer." He was tearing up again, and his words were getting me choked up too. "But it was just so you'd notice me. So you'd put your jacket on me. It was so... so warm..."

That set him off crying again, and now I couldn't keep from joining in. We clung together and bawled. Maybe after what he said, it should've been the happy kind of crying, like people do at weddings, staggered by change. But it wasn't. Because if this really were the sort of world where his deal had effects, he shouldn't have had to make that deal in the first place. Because we had both needed kindness so badly that getting it hurt like warmth on frostbitten skin. Because I had the chance to do something right, and was sure I'd fuck it up somehow.

Because we were lost children, and finding each other didn't make us not lost anymore.

We lay there overwhelmed and tear-soaked until he fell asleep. He was still wearing my jacket. His breath stirred the fleece of its collar, and seeing that made my chest ache. I got up to blow out the remaining candles, then curled up beside him, pulling blankets around us, making a nest. In absolute darkness, I found his hand by feel and held it.

I reflected, as I drifted off, that though I hadn't been afraid when bad things happened to me, now that something good was happening, I was terrified.