Drifter
by Artisan447
Ezra Standish had never really thought about what it meant to be Andarchic, but meeting Vin Tanner forced him to consider what it must be like to be excluded from almost all aspects of society and technology.

Note: You know the saying "It takes a village to raise a story"? That's certainly the case with this AU, so enormous thanks to Zeke Black, Farad, Sallymn, Siluria, Evil Jacquie, Charlotte C. Hill and everyone at Write 'em Cowboys -- all of whom fielded assorted brain dumps and helped me make sense of them. For anyone who's interested, Vin's tattoo in the story is here.




The entire cellblock was dank and creepy and he couldn't be blamed for feeling apprehensive. No, really, if there were ever a dark hole that a man might disappear into, never to be heard from again, this would be it.

Nothing he'd been subjected to should have surprised him, of course -- the full body scan he'd undergone on presenting himself to the administration block, the comprehensive records interrogation that even authorized entry required -- everyone knew the Baultan rules. But knowing and experiencing were oh-so-very-much not the same thing, and to this point in his career Ezra had managed to avoid the need to expose himself to such scrutiny. After all, he had an image to maintain and what was the good of earning the position of Senior Advocate if he couldn't hand off the dirty work to the younger and more reckless wanna-be's who haunted every court in the system?

So it was disconcerting to find himself in this position. Rumors abounded about the Baultan penal system -- generally wild and for the most part not to be believed, but when all was said and done, sufficient to have had him on his guard. And still he had acquiesced with only the most pitiful resistance when Larabee had insisted that Ezra complete this task himself. Seriously, what was it about the Clarion's Captain that could persuade him to ignore even the most basic of preservation instincts?

Ezra smoothed his features into a bland mask and waited patiently for the guard to enter the complex validation code. It wouldn't do to give away his discomfort and he really didn't want to add this Neanderthal to the growing list of those who seemed able to see right through him; Larabee's knowing smirk as Ezra had finally named a price had been humiliating enough.

Ezra smirked a little, himself. He hadn't even needed to make a case for the exorbitant fee he'd quoted -- Larabee had handed over the up-front credits without argument and promised the rest on delivery. That fact alone made him wish he'd been in the bar earlier in the week and seen the fight in person to understand what it was, exactly, that Larabee felt he owed this stranger.

The guard made a series of guttural sounds, almost as though he were reciting a set of numbers, and Ezra swallowed hard. Perhaps his fee wasn't so outrageous after all.

The Baultans held the view that anyone breaking their social code forfeited all rights, and though this cellblock was merely a holding area for those still to face trial, it exceeded even his most vivid imaginings. The air was freezing and it took serious concentration not to shiver, although it was more likely the surroundings that made his skin crawl. Dark grey walls and a slightly darker floor and ceiling formed the corridor; they were made of a strange substance that seemed to swallow the light except where the smooth surface was broken at precise intervals by horizontal panels bathed in the eerie blue, ripple-shimmer of restraining fields.

The strange unreality of the scene was heightened by the way the light reflected off the guard as he stepped away from the panel, his orange-yellow skin turning a sickly green, the prominent purple spots at his temples seeming to jump and flicker in bizarre fashion. Ezra lingered in the doorway, the hair on the back of his neck rising; nothing less than a quadrupling of his fee would persuade him any further, not when the only requirement was that he be present to secure the prisoner's release, and he could satisfy that condition quite nicely where he was.

The guard stopped at one of the doors and punched in another code. The field shut off and the bars retracted smoothly. When he spoke, it was in the flat, rasping language of the Baultans, but the name "Tanner!" was unmistakable.

Ezra winced at his first glimpse of the man who emerged from the dark hole. Clad in the standard grey, Andron-threaded restraining suit unique to the Baultan penal system, Tanner's unshaven face was framed by long hair that hung limp to his shoulders. A ragged cut over his eyebrow gave him a faintly sinister air, and he sported a black eye and an angry purple bruise high on his left cheek. By their livid color, his bruises were remnants of the bar fight, although it would hardly be surprising to find they'd been added to in this place; Ezra had enough personal experience to know how precarious a prisoner's situation could be.

Tanner held himself carefully, as though moving were painful, and appeared to be trying to protect his right arm by bracing it against his side. Ribs or shoulder, Ezra surmised, watching the other man carefully, his eyes draw to the way the prisoner's hands were immobilised in front of his body. The large one-piece restraints that the Baultans favored were in no way designed for comfort -- fashioned from the organic form of Andron, they held the arms and hands in an unnatural position, and were virtually bonded to the wearer until released by a specific digital key.

Ezra signaled toward the restraints, clearing his throat to catch the guard's attention.

"If you wouldn't mind?"

The guard's verbal response was unintelligible, but the rapid headshake was accompanied by a complex swirling hand gesture, which appeared to require them to move toward the exit.

Ezra really wanted to roll his eyes. "Such eloquence," he muttered under his breath, momentarily giving in to the reckless impatience that had been building.

A quiet snort from Tanner's direction had him glancing around. He thought he'd spoken quietly. He'd meant to speak quietly -- it was a measure of his disquiet that he'd even voiced the thought at all -- but by the sardonic twist to Tanner's mouth, he'd overheard.

Not the guard, though, Ezra established with a quick glance. He was still occupied at the keypad. The bars slid smoothly shut and the restraining field re-engaged with a fatalistic click-thunk.

Ezra returned his attention to Tanner, wondering if he'd imagined the response, but the man's eyes were definitely twinkling. So, a sense of humor. That was surprising, and given the circumstances, impressive. His anxiety shifted to interest, and suddenly Larabee's attention wasn't so difficult to understand.

But now wasn't the time or place for curiosity, so he merely schooled his features into indifference and followed when the guard preceded them back to Administration. Tanner didn't make a sound the entire time, just walked where directed and maintained an unnatural stillness. By the time they stood in front of the detention clerk, accepting a box of Tanner's belongings, Ezra was starting to wonder if he could, in fact, speak.

"Edward Smith?" The clerk's voice came out in the standard flat monotone of a language translator and he shoved a data-pad toward Ezra. "Please leave your mark."

Ezra dutifully ran his right forearm over the data-pad then stepped back when the confirming beep sounded. "Is that all?"

The clerk watched as the data scrolled by, then extracted the key crystal and handed it to over. "Your release key," he said, not even looking up. "You're entitled to retain the restraints for transport, but they're required to be returned within seven days."

Ezra turned the flat crystal over in his hand. Keyed to the restraints and encoded with his own genetic signature it, in effect, gave him total control over Tanner's release.

Which could be to his advantage…

He looked up to meet steely blue eyes and the thought disappeared as fast as it had come. When one of Tanner's eyebrows also lifted an inch, he felt a flush creep up his face.

Chagrined, Ezra stepped forward and slotted the crystal into the appropriate opening, surprised when Tanner jerked away at the first opportunity and disengaged the device himself with a flick of his wrist. But even though he moved fast, pulling down his sleeves with a swift motion, he wasn't quick enough to hide the raw skin on his wrists. Ezra frowned but said nothing as Tanner placed the now inert restraint on the bench within the clerk's reach.

"How about we just leave it here right now," Tanner said in a low raspy voice, and the clerk shrugged.

"That would be acceptable," he replied and made another entry before turning to Ezra and using the formal words of discharge. "You are released from any further obligation to the Baultan System."

"I acknowledge your release and take charge of the prisoner." Ezra responded with equal formality, but his mind was still on Tanner. He'd only ever seen that kind of reaction to Andron restraints once before and the implication made him nervous. He looked around, relieved to find marker symbols that indicated the restraining shield ended at the Administration area, and gestured Tanner toward the exit. But they hadn't taken more than two steps when the clerk raised his voice. "Wait."

Tanner froze in place and Ezra turned, forcing himself to relax. "What is it?" he queried, maintaining a polite fašade.

"You must deactivate the suit before crossing the shield," he nodded toward an upright field generator. "Place the crystal in the control panel and walk through the field."

"Of course." Ezra nodded and turned away. Baultan penal system suits were threaded with metallic Andron which, when active, prevented the wearer from crossing any kind of restraining field or shielded area. "Mr. Tanner." Ezra gestured toward the machine. "If you wouldn't mind -- I do believe it is past time we effected your emancipation."

Tanner didn't speak, just waited while Ezra did as instructed, but he seemed apprehensive, rubbing one hand at his wrist and shifting his weight from foot to foot. It made Ezra anxious as well, and his heart skipped a beat when Tanner stumbled slightly as he passed through the field. Without thinking, Ezra reached out a hand to steady him by the elbow, but let go quickly when he hissed in pain.

"Something you want to tell me?" he asked, as Tanner took a second to steady himself.

"Close encounter with a blaster," Tanner said, but he sounded impatient and wouldn't look at Ezra as he pushed past. "You think we can leave now?"

"Oh, please." Ezra made a sweeping gesture toward the exit, somewhat stung by the lie -- skin reaction to Andron, systemic reaction to the deactivation field -- did the man think he was blind? "Don't let me stop you."

Tanner glared but offered nothing further, and when he moved forward Ezra reluctantly followed.

It would serve him right to be left to his own devices. Ezra thought, giving the idea serious consideration as Tanner strode ahead, except that would mean he'd forfeit the second half of his fee and he wasn't quite ready to concede the financial loss. He was still contemplating his options, when Tanner suddenly slowed and by the time Ezra caught up, he'd stopped completely. Before Ezra could do more than lift an enquiring eyebrow, Tanner leaned in closer and spoke quickly.

"All right, there is something you should know." He glanced around, his nervousness more apparent. "Right now I don't have a functioning chip, so tell me you've got a locator booster with you, because if you don't, there's no way I'm getting away from the trouble that's going to hit us when we pass that shield," he nodded toward the exit.

Ezra froze. If he added together the fact that Tanner didn't have an embedded chip with his reaction to the restraints, it could only mean trouble.

"How did you know..." he began, but stopped when Tanner turned toward him and grinned, his whole face lighting up. Ezra sucked in a breath and blinked rapidly, so taken by the transformation he almost missed the response.

"Figured if Larabee sent you, you probably would."

The pieces fell into place with sudden clarity and Larabee's insistence that Ezra undertake this assignment himself now made an infuriating sense. Only Senior Advocates were licensed to carry the mobile locator devices that allowed the wearer to pass through a shield or restraining field; the fact that they also allowed a transport beam to lock onto an individual without a chip was an added bonus. But they were strictly for the use of the licensed individual. If Ezra were caught allowing someone else to use it -- and here, in the Baultan holding center of all places --

Ezra cursed Chris Larabee six ways to Sunday, his mind speeding through the hundred-and-one ways this could all go wrong, and his desire to inflict physical harm on Larabee swelled and grew. He was suddenly exceedingly glad he'd gone to the elaborate trouble of using one of his assumed identities.

"I can see I seriously under-quoted on this job," he muttered as he pulled the device from an inside pocket and lifted Tanner's arm to secure it to his wrist. For a moment he just stared at the red, raw skin then lifted his eyes to lock with Tanner's. There was a clear challenge there, but Ezra just tilted his head slightly and headed toward the door.

"No point waiting for a miracle," he muttered, then added more loudly to Tanner: "Stay close, you'll need personal contact with me to achieve the lock."

Tanner nodded, and when they passed through the shield and the warning light flickered, he was no more than a half step behind. Ezra reached for his arm to trigger the device then, as what seemed like every guard in the area started toward them, activated his communicator.

"Two to transport, Miss Wells, if you wouldn't mind." He continued to hold Tanner's arm to facilitate the lock and he scowled when Tanner had the gall to smirk at his gentle handling.

When there was no immediate answer, he double-buzzed the communicator and spoke with what he hoped was more authority.

"Now would be useful, thank you, Casey!"

"Ok, ok. Give a girl some warning! I'm guessing number two is the person you're holding hands with?" The genial sarcasm transmitted easily over the communications channel, but Ezra wasn't impressed. Casey Wells might well be one of the best engineers he'd come across, but she could definitely do with a lesson in manners.

"Lock engaged -- stand by for transport," she finally said.

Ezra tightened his grip as the air around them shimmered and the floor seemed to tilt, then they were on the transport deck of the Clarion. Tanner's arm yanked out of his grasp, and when Ezra turned he was on his knees, sucking in air. Ezra waited while he knelt there -- one hand braced on his thigh, the other on the floor -- giving him time to gather himself.

"You're Andaran," he said when Tanner finally raised his head. His statement was met with a glare, but he continued, undeterred. "And unless I miss my guess, Andarchic as well."

"Gee, Edward, what gave it away?" Tanner made an effort to get to his feet, but it was too soon and he slewed sideways, still disoriented.

"It's Ezra. Ezra Standish, and while I have my faults, I don't count stupidity among them." Ezra cut off his intended rebuke and squatted by Tanner's side. "What do you need?"

"I'm all right." Tanner stopped trying to stand and instead sat cross-legged on the floor. "I'm Andarchic, not dying, it's no big deal."

Ezra snorted, incredulous. In the centuries since its discovery their universe had become totally reliant on Andron. In liquid, metallic or organic form, it was this millennium's miracle substance and formed the basis of almost everything. Structure, energy, transport, learning -- there was virtually no modern technology that functioned without requiring the user to interact with it via their embedded Andronic chip. But for the Andarchic - the small percentage of native Andarans genetically unable to tolerate the substance -- it was a lifetime sentence of exclusion.

Tanner was clearly one of them, but if he were moving freely in normal society, without carrying the mark of the Andarchic, he must be using a synthetic chip. And considering the manner of their exit from the holding centre, it wasn't an authorized one. That made him more than just Andarchic, it made him a Drifter, and a dangerous person to know.

"Yes, well, while I'm sure there are potentially worse things that could happen to a person," Ezra finally said, still processing the possibilities, "I'm fairly certain that being Andarchic is, in fact, a big deal. Now, I'm sure this isn't the first time you've dealt with this, so what do you need?"

Transporting without a chip could cause significant neural disruption; Tanner was obviously practiced at dealing with the effect since the only other person Ezra had ever seen attempt it had been rendered unconscious. But who knew what other effects there might be that he couldn't see.

Tanner studied him briefly and then nodded, seeming to come to a decision. "It's Vin, and for a start I need to get this damn thing off." He tugged at the fastening of the jump suit.

Ezra smiled at the almost mundane nature of the request.

"All right, that we can do." He put his hand under Vin's good elbow and helped him to his feet. He was steadier this time and soon able to stand on his own, so Ezra turned to the transport control panel to manually purge the buffer. It was all he could do from here to cover their tracks so he hoped Casey lived up to her reputation and thought to initiate appropriate scrambling measures.

By the time he turned back, Vin had managed to get his arms out of the suit and was pushing it down his legs. Ezra drew in a sharp breath as he took in the strong, tanned body now clad only in a pair of loose, white under-shorts. But it wasn't only the toned body that caught his attention. Tanner's right arm was, indeed, injured -- looked like a blaster wound, as he'd said -- and his skin carried reactive welts from contact with the Baultan suit. But Ezra was transfixed by the way his whole shoulder and upper arm sported an intricate tattoo of a bird; beak open, wings spread in flight, it was magnificent.

"Oh my," Ezra breathed and took a step closer. Without hesitation, he reached out.

The inked skin was soft and smooth and he ran a single finger along the feathered edge of a wing, exploring his way up Vin's arm and on to his shoulder, until he was tracing the bird's head. "What is it?"

"It's an eagle."

"Its beautiful." Ezra traced his fingers back down the inside of Vin's arm, delighted to find it pebble into goose bumps at his touch. "It suits you."

"On my world, there are hundreds of different types of birds and they all fly free. Eagles like to soar; they put their wings out wide, then pick up the air currents and fly for miles."

"It's amazing." Ezra was awed; he'd never seen such a creature. Oh, he'd seen birds before, but only the smaller variety common around the planetary systems he'd frequented. This one was --

"Ezra?" Vin spoke in a low voice, and Ezra realized he still had his fingers spread over Vin's arm.

"Oh!" He pulled his hand away, embarrassed. "I do apologize."

"It's ok." Vin held his eyes, the look on his face impossible to decipher, and the silence drew out.

"It's, ah, possible I have a thing for tattoos," Ezra finally confessed, feeling a flush travel up his neck from the arousal that had settled into him at the intimate contact.

Vin just tilted his head and raised one eyebrow. "A thing?" he repeated, his amusement obvious.

"Yes," Ezra snapped, the mood broken. "A thing. A ridiculous 'thing' for the art of covering one's body with ink."

Vin was smiling openly now and he took a step forward. "What kind of a 'thing' do you mean, Ezra," he drawled, then shocked Ezra by reaching out a hand to cradle his neck. "This kind of a thing?" He leaned forward and covered Ezra's mouth with his own in an exploratory kiss.

When they finally separated, Ezra could only stare. His own behavior was peculiar enough, but that Vin had kissed him --

The truth was, he'd never really had more than a casual acquaintance with anyone who was Andarchic, and although he'd heard talk about the difficulties they faced, had passed the odd stranger carrying an identifying mark, he'd never really thought beyond the fact that they existed. He had, in fact, been guilty, of going along with the mindset that said the Andarchic were of low intelligence and only suitable for menial jobs. Now, even this short acquaintance with Vin made him wonder...

Even more than that, he found himself quite captivated by the charming, artistically inked man before him. It was perplexing.

He wasn't sorry for the interruption when the door to the transport deck slid open and Nathan Jackson hustled in, scanner and medical pack in hand, Casey Wells hot on his heels. Ezra took a quick step back, feeling every inch of contact as Vin's hand slid away.

"Ezra?" Nathan queried, looking up from the scanner, then from him to Tanner, clearly confused. "The bio-systems alarm went off and I thought..."

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra cleared his throat and took another step back, then gestured at his companion. "This is Mr. Tanner, who most likely set off your alarm. He seems to have a knack for it."

A smile broke out over Nathan's face. "Vin?" he hurried forward. "Almost didn't recognize you!" He turned Ezra's way and gestured in Tanner's direction. "Ezra, this is the man who saved my ass in the bar the other night." He clapped Ezra on the back. "You did a good thing getting him here."

Casey stood in the doorway, eyes wide and mouth open and Tanner seemed to realize the state of his undress. "Ah, Nathan, you think we could get me some pants and you could take a look at my arm?"

Nathan laughed out loud. "Sure, Vin," he said, nodding, already headed to the door. "Come on down to the med lab and we'll have you fixed in no time. The others are due back any time now, so it's good timing."

Vin followed him toward the exit, but after a few steps turned back. "Thanks, Ezra," he said and tilted his head in acknowledgement. "I appreciate what you did."

"You're welcome, Vin," Ezra replied, still working to regain his composure. "No doubt I'll catch up with you later." And find out exactly who you are, and why you're here, and what it is to be a Drifter, he didn't say.

The mischievous smile returned to Vin's face and wiped the tiredness from his eyes. "Oh, you can count on that." He nodded, as if for emphasis, as he turned away.

--- the end ---


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