Black Fire

by Julnick

21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25


Chapter 21 [Top] [Next]

Evan woke up angry. His head and jaw ached. He rubbed at the thick muscles at the hinge of his jaw and winced. His eyes were gritty and he felt as if he hadn't slept. David had forced him to bed early the night before, he'd stared at his ceiling in the dark for what had seemed like hours, but he knew even despite that he'd been asleep long before his customary midnight retiring. But he'd gone to bed angry and grinding his teeth and clearly hadn't given it up even as he slept. Now he was angry and achy and still furious at being treated like a child. Sent to bed early. He snarled and threw off his covers.

Evan pulled on the jeans he'd left on the floor the night before and tripped over a toppled pile of books on the way to his closet. He cursed and kicked them out of the way. David had bought GED study guides for him, David considered it a concession allowing him not to enroll again in school, but he considered finishing his high school education a "condition of remaining in this household." Which Evan considered ironic since he wasn't the one who wanted to stay in the household in the first place.

He reached up onto the top shelf of his closet and pulled down a small notebook. The one thing he had requested of David was a journal in which to write his private thoughts. It meant he had one hiding place he never had to fear David poking around in, David was too high and moral to ever violate the sanctity of a little boy's private journal. Evan smiled viciously and opened the book.

It had become his morning ritual. Between two empty pages, the twenty dollar bill he'd earned in the alley while he was still free and living as his own man was now pressed neatly inside the book. He took it out, as he did each morning and folded it carefully into his pocket. He never spent it, never even looked at it except to put it in and out of the journal and his pocket. He told himself it was his safety, his freedom, there for him if he ever wanted it, he could get out, get a cab, get away from here whenever he wanted. And the next time he'd be smart, he wouldn't get caught, he wouldn't be stupid. He learned from his mistakes.

The bill meant something else to him, too, something that made his guts crawl and he didn't like to think too closely about. As easy as it would be to slip away, somehow he couldn't spend the twenty. Couldn't bring himself to even touch it while it was in his pocket.

He snapped the journal closed and slipped it back onto its shelf, shaking off the unpleasant thoughts by stoking his resentment at David's treatment of him the night before. He gave the books another vicious kick as he crossed the room and opened his door.

*****

Rick glanced up as Evan's door opened. The kid had been thumping around in his room for twenty minutes, he stepped into the living room fully dressed and wearing his jacket. Rick stiffened and waited for the boy to notice him.

As he was closing his door Evan turned his attention to the kitchen, heading straight for the carafe of coffee that was on the warming plate. It wasn't until he had poured a mug and turned back toward the living room that he notice Rick in one of the armchairs, one leg flung over the arm. Evan started so violently he slopped coffee on his hand, cursed and nearly dropped the mug. Slamming it down on the counter and shaking coffee from his hand he glared at the man in the chair.

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

Rick tilted his head and said nothing, letting the silence deepen until Evan finally began to look nervous. Then he unslung his leg and brought both feet to the floor with a thud.

"Babysitting."

The transformation would have been startling if Rick hadn't seen it so many times it was growing old. Evan's features shifted abruptly and violently, his eyes darkening with seething hatred.

"Fuck you," he snarled grabbing the mug and slopping the rest of the contents into the sink. He set it down hard and jumped when he turned and realized Rick had crossed the living room and had settled his forearms on the bar counter, his face barely three feet from Evan's.

"You break something, you're going to be hurtin'," he said, giving the boy a lazy smile.

Evan met his eyes, unflinching. "Fuck you," he said again, this time with a light touch of arrogance, pleased when he saw the barb stick and Rick's eyes narrow.

"Listen up, little boy," Rick leaned closer over the counter. Evan seethed at the designation, but was contented at the knowledge he had so handily ruffled Rick's cool. "David and I, we're grown ups. We have jobs and lives and because you're a screw up little punk who can't keep himself out of trouble for more than twenty minutes, instead of living our lives we've gotta sit on you twenty-four seven like you're a fucking infant."

Evan stubbornly refused to give ground as Rick leaned closer to him, a simmering anger seemed to be resting very close to the surface, mirroring Evan's own mood. Evan set his jaw and held the other man's eyes fiercely as Rick continued.

"If I'm going to be sitting here watching your ass all day, you're going to lose the fucking attitude and treat this house and the things and people in it with whatever little scrap of respect your mother taught you. And if you break something..." Rick leaned even closer, "You're going to be hurting. Clear?"

At the mention of his mother Evan felt the simmering rage within him become a firestorm. Barely able to guide his hand steadily enough to grasp the mug behind him, he snatched it from the counter, his eyes never leaving Rick's, and hurled it with all of his strength against the tile floor at his feet. It exploded with such satisfying violence that Evan grabbed a second one from the sink and hurled it as well. He reached up to the cupboard for another mug, glancing at Rick, a feral smile curling his lips, and he saw that Rick was smiling as well. A chillingly scary smile. Evan snatched another mug.

*****

Rick watched Evan fumble with his fly. He glanced up at the boy's face and Evan caught his gaze. For a moment there was trepidation in the boy's grey eyes, his lower lip caught under his teeth, and then everything familiar in the boy's face melted away so suddenly that Rick felt his breath catch and he nearly flinched away as Evan now looked at him from under heavy eyelids, his lips parted slightly and the pink tip of his tongue flickered for a moment over his bottom lip. Slowly, deliberately, he shifted his gaze downward, drawing Rick's own attention, unwilling toward the boy's hand which had slipped behind the denim of his now open fly.

Rick jerked his eyes away and focused again on Evan's face. The boy tilted his head to the side and with an almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow offered Rick an invitation he hadn't seen so well delivered on men ten years more experienced.

The crack of his hand against the boy's face startled him. He was on his feet but didn't remember rising. Evan staggered, his eyes gone wide, every trace of seduction gone from his body, he stumbled back another step, his right hand pressed across his mouth, his fingers not fully obscuring the scarlet flush that reached up past his cheekbone.

Rick tried to slow his breathing and realized his fingers had closed into a fist. He forced his hand open again, but his breath was still coming in ragged gasps.

"Don't you dare," he hissed and Evan shrunk back against the door of his closet. "Don't you dare...don't you... EVER do that to me!"

Evan didn't answer, his breath was coming in so shallow and fast that the hitching jumping of his chest reminded Rick of a frightened rabbit. Rick forced himself to take a deeper breath and opened the fist that had unconsciously formed again as he spoke. He pressed his shoulders down, trying to breathe out the fury that was coiling tighter and tighter within him. He glared at Evan who had now pressed himself fully into the corner of the room and still pressed himself harder against the unyielding walls.

Rick swung around and took two steps toward the bedroom door then realized he still had the hairbrush in a stranglehold in his left hand. He hesitated, took another step toward the door then turned back toward Evan. The boy hadn't moved, his eyes were still wide and terrified.

Rick turned away again and stared at the closed door. Suddenly he hurled the brush. It cracked against the door and bounced back hitting the floor with a heavy thud. Rick turned on Evan again.

"I am NOT that man," he said, an edge on his voice that could shear metal. "Don't you ever try and make me that man."

Evan might have nodded, Rick couldn't tell, the boy was now trembling virtually from head to toe. The terrified look the boy was giving him grated on his already barely held temper. He clenched his teeth, trying to gather his senses. Then he reached for his belt.

"Strip off."

He wouldn't have believed Evan's eyes could have gone wider. The boy had gone so pale that the gray of his eyes was the only color left in his face. But to his credit, Rick noted, the boy did slowly straighten and step forward. With unsteady hands, he pulled his t-shirt over his head and let it fall to the floor behind him.

His temper soothed slightly by the boy's obedience, Rick took another steadying breath letting the tension out of his shoulders. He uncinched his belt and pulled it loose, the leather making a gut-chilling sound as it slid through his belt loops.

Evan's throat was working convulsively and Rick wondered for a moment if the boy was going to be sick. But he worked his jeans off his hips and down to his feet, stepping out of them and forward, his arms wrapped tightly now around his belly.

Rick pulled a pillow from the head of the bed and tossed it down at the midpoint.

"Over."

Evan took a shuddering breath. His eyes were locked on the strip of leather dangling from Rick's hand, but he obeyed without a word, crawling stiffly onto the bed and settling his belly over the pillow. He settled his weight onto his forearms, the muscles in his back and shoulders were hard knots beneath his skin. He curled handfuls of the comforter into his fists and closed his eyes.

Rick folded the belt, gathering the buckle and tail into his hand. As he stepped up to the bed, he saw Evan squeeze his eyes more tightly shut and his face tightened into a grimace of anticipation. Rick could feel the burn of fury surging down his arm, could practically taste the violent satisfaction of throwing his strength behind the strap, of letting the coiled spring of his temper loose with a vicious blow... He blew a heavy breath out through his teeth. Evan twitched, a quick breath hitching in his chest as his face tightened.

Rick screwed up his mouth into a barely voiced curse.

"Do...not...move," he growled. And turned back to the bedroom door. He swung it open so hard it rebounded and banged against his boot as he strode out of the room. He loosed a moment of the violence surging through him onto the door, flinging it back again so hard that this time the rebound brought it back slamming shut.

Rick hurled himself around the doorjamb into David's bedroom. The belt still in his hand, he threw the full force of his strength and his fury into the strap and it whistled down, making a satisfying thwack as it struck the bed. He brought it down again and again, each stroke leaching a little of the rage from his muscles. The bed covers took the sharp lines of the whip strokes, leaving a mess of tracks and ridges that Rick crossed and crossed over until finally he couldn't raise his arm again. He took an unsteady step backwards. Sweat dampened his shirt and hair and he was suddenly chilled. His body felt weak, drained, empty, he took another step back and sagged against the wall, letting himself slide down to the floor.

With his left hand he pushed his hair back off of his forehead and stared up at the ceiling, already growing shadowy in the fading daylight. He sighed heavily and pushed himself up to his feet. He picked up his belt and threaded it back into his jeans and stepped back out into the living room.

He opened the door to Evan's bedroom and saw that the boy hadn't shifted from his position. Evan jerked his head up as Rick stepped into the room and Rick saw a sheen of tears in the boy's eyes. Evan's gaze shifted quickly from Rick's right hand to his left, then to his waist and Rick felt a tug of shame that quickly became a hot flush across his face.

"Get up," he said softly and stooped to retrieve the hairbrush from the floor.

Evan inched up to his knees and gingerly backed off of the mattress. He stood at the foot of the bed, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, hugging himself, his eyes following every movement as Rick put the pillow back in its place and smoothed the covers before he sat down.

Rick sat heavily, feeling a bone-deep weariness settle over him like a leaden blanket. He patted his thigh once and avoided looking at Evan's face as the boy silently approached him and positioned himself awkwardly across Rick's lap.

Rick slipped his left arm around the boy's waist and began to raise the brush halfheartedly. He felt Evan tense beneath his arm and sighed. He lowered the brush for a moment and rolled his shoulders, allowing himself a moment of honesty. He didn't want to do this anymore now that his temper had cooled and for a moment he wondered if this solution had only been a salve for his own anger. The thought chilled him and he nearly set the brush down completely, but another voice spoke softly but insistently in his mind. He had to do it now, and do it right, whatever happened next, he had to see this through now for Evan's sake. And though the thought came back bitterly that maybe even that was just another excuse to beat on the kid, he gritted his teeth and flicked the brush down hard against the boy's skin.

Evan bucked as the report of the first swat rang against the corners of the room. He forced out a breath through his nose and gritted his teeth, straining against the instinctive jerk of his muscles as the second stroke landed. Oh shit, he mouthed silently, hearing the words echo in his mind, becoming a mantra, oh shit, oh shit.

For five swats Evan kept frantic count, but then lost his train of thought as each swat became it's own torturous assault on his endurance. It only vaguely registered in his mind the first time he cried out, his voice sounded hoarse and desperate, the pitch rising quickly until he hardly recognized it. But those thoughts were like gnats bumping insignificantly against the chaos of pain and desperation that had overtaken his mind and made a puppet of his body as he writhed, twitching violently as each stroke fell.

He wanted so desperately to take it like a man. To prove that he could, and because, he knew with utter certainty that he deserved every scrap of pain Rick wanted to lay onto him. But somehow lying across Rick's thighs, the hand firmly snugged against his waist, the man's forearm firmly pressed into the small of his back, Evan couldn't gather his strength, couldn't muster the least fortitude, and felt even what little control he had over himself slipping rapidly through his fingers like a handful of sand.

"I'm sorry!" Evan cried out finally, nearly breaking the rhythm Rick had settled upon the boy's ass. As another swat fell, the boy shrieked and thrashed and mewled another apology, "I'm so sorry!"

Rick could hear the edge of tears in the boy's voice, a tremulous boundary that broke with the next swat. Evan gave a squealing yelp that dissolved into another apology that now bordered on inarticulate.

It was more difficult with each stroke to keep the writhing body in his grasp and Rick pressed more of his weight onto the boy's back and delivered four more swats, harder than any before. Evan shrieked, thrashing, his skin so slicked with sweat that Rick could feel his hold slipping. He paused for a moment, resetting his grasp and letting the boy settle slightly, then put the full strength of his shoulder into a blow that brought Evan's body taut and frozen, his voice gone silent but for a pained gasp, then a second blow, and Evan made a strangled sound as Rick tossed the hairbrush away from him and laid his right hand on the back of Evan's thigh, tugging the boy firmly against his belly as Evan finally collapsed, burying his face in the covers, sobbing and trembling, his body twitching periodically. The sound of his misery was strangely quiet, so muted by the bed that after a moment Rick worried that the boy couldn't breathe.

"Hey," he murmured, letting go of Evan's waist and reaching up to stroke the narrow back, slicked with sweat and muscles taut as steel cable. "Hey, come on." He moved his hand up to the boy's shoulders and massaged the knots there. "Come on, Evan. It's okay."

Finally Evan rose his face enough to take a ragged breath, but quickly burrowed back into the bed sheets. Rick glanced down at Evan's buttocks, an angry, dull brick red. He lifted his left hand to touch the battered skin and hesitated. Gingerly he reached to the outside of Evan's right hip and stroked his skin gently. Shame and worry were snaking coils in his gut. "Come on, kid. You're okay," he said, desperately willing it to be true.

Finally Evan drew his elbows under him and raised his chest up off of the comforter. His breathing bordered on frantic, and a soft keening whimper accompanied each breath, but he held himself up and his breathing slowly steadied.

When he moved to raise himself from the bed, Rick let him go, watching miserably as Evan stiffly and awkwardly disentangled himself and found his feet. He stepped back a step and then another as Rick slowly rose to his own feet. Evan's hands had slipped behind him, his face was cast downward, his eyes on the floor.

Rick felt shame become an impenetrable knot deep in his belly. A bruise was already darkening the skin along Evan's jaw and cheekbone. Rick opened his mouth then closed it again. Evan was sniffling, and finally wiped his lip with the back of his hand, still not raising his gaze.

"Evan?" Rick hesitated, uncertain what he'd intended to say. He took an uncertain step closer to the boy and reached out tentatively toward him. Evan raised his face and pulled back slightly but he didn't step away.

Rick gently brushed the hair from Evan's forehead then let his arm drop awkwardly. "I'm so sorry," he whispered and Evan's eyes rose to his face. The boy's expression shifted slightly.

"Why?" Though it was barely whispered, Rick could hear the grating in the boy's throat, the tissue worn raw. But there was no fear or anger in the boy's eyes, his eyebrows seemed drawn more in puzzlement than resentment.

"I shouldn't have..." Rick stumbled, thrown by Evan's reaction. "I..."

Evan was shaking his head. "It was my fault!" he said with sudden force. "I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have..." he faltered. "I shouldn't have done... any of it." Emotion crinkled his face and slurred his voice. "I'm so sorry!"

Abruptly Evan drew his arms around himself, his shoulders shaking, tears streaming down his face. Rick opened his mouth. Startled and feeling suddenly helpless he reached out and patted Evan's shoulder uneasily. "Hey, Evan, it's okay..." He cursed himself silently and stepped in closer to the boy now on the edge of sobbing. He circled one arm around the boy's shoulders and hugged him stiffly. Then Evan was pressed against him, clinging to him, sobbing into his chest. Rick blinked and slowly wrapped his other arm around the boy. "It's okay," he said again, feeling useless as he slowly petted Evan's shuddering back.

"I'm so sorry," Evan moaned into Rick's shirt. "I don't want to be like this." Then Rick felt Evan's weight drop and he staggered to keep them both upright. Evan sobbed. "I miss my mom and dad."

Shit. Rick cursed silently as he stumbled to the bed, half dragging Evan with him and let them both sink down on the mattress. His throat was tight and his eyes were stinging and he desperately tried to imagine what David would do or say at this moment.

As much to soothe himself as Evan he began to rock slightly, stroking the boy's hair His mind was a mess of thoughts but he couldn't find anything to say. He just rocked and stroked and listened to Evan's sobs slowly fade once more to hitching breaths. Finally Evan shifted and Rick allowed him to pull away and sit up fully on the bed. His face tightened with pain but when he spoke his voice was steady.

"Do you have to tell David?"

Rick blinked at the boy, "I..." He glanced at the bruise continuing to bloom across Evan's face and felt ill. "I have to tell him something."

Evan looked down and picked at the comforter. Without meeting Rick's eyes, he said quietly, "I don't want him to know I cried."

Rick studied him, the splotchy flush that spread from his hair to the middle of his chest, the puffy, pink rimmed eyes, and tousled and sweat-matted hair. He sighed.

"I won't tell him that."

Evan took a deep breath and finally looked up at Rick's face again, his eyes pleading. "Do you have to tell him you spanked me?"

Rick tipped his head back, surprised. Spanked seemed such a strange choice of word to describe what the boy had just gone through. He fumbled about for an answer. "I, uh, I think he's going to figure it out."

Evan sighed heavily and worried a loose thread on the blanket. Rick looked at him for a minute longer then stood and went to the closet. He pulled a t-shirt and flannel pants from one of the shelves and tossed them onto the bed.

"And put your shoes on," he said as he bent to pick the hairbrush from the floor. "You need to clean up your mess."

*****

It was full dark when Rick finally declared the job done and let Evan put away the broom and dustpan.

Rick glanced at the empty cupboards and turned to Evan who had regained his sulk during the hour of cleaning up shards of crockery.

"Give me your shoes."

Evan gave him a dark look. "Why?"

"I'm going to get dinner. You are staying here," he put a firm emphasis on the last four words and held out his hand.

Evan gave him a poisonous glare, toed off his boots and kicked them toward Rick's feet. Then he turned and stalked out of the kitchen and into his room, closing the door just hard enough to fall short of a slam.

Rick felt his jaw tighten and forced himself to take a deep breath before he stooped to gather the boy's boots and let himself out of the apartment.

*****

Chapter 22 [Top] [Next]

David slipped his key from the lock and closed the door gently behind him. The lights were dim in the apartment and heavy music thudded behind Evan's bedroom door.

David sighed then yawned, then halted as he reached to set his key on the bar-style countertop. A cardboard box, heaped with shattered dishes, sat beside the sink. David, eyebrows drawing together, turned toward the glass-fronted cabinets and took in the empty shelves.

Frowning slightly he crossed the kitchen and went to his bedroom. He flicked on the lights, the room was empty and the door to the bathroom stood open. Rick wasn't there but the heavy wooden hairbrush that usually resided in the bed stand drawer was on the bed. As David went to pick it up, he stopped again, noticing that the bedspread was crisscrossed with narrow indentations. He frowned and smoothed the sheets with one hand.

He shrugged out of his coat and hung it up, then went out into the living room and went to Evan's closed door. He had just raised his hand to knock when the lock rattled on the front door and Rick pushed his way in. For a moment, their eyes met and a strangely wild expression crossed Rick's face and then was gone, though a trace of wariness remained in his posture. He hefted a plastic carry-out sack.

"I got dinner."

*****

Rick unpacked boxes of Chinese take-out onto the table and handed David a set of chopsticks. Evan popped open the boxes, finally taking one of them and snagging a pair of chopsticks before heading back toward his bedroom.

"Uh uh," Rick said, a hard edge on his voice. "Table."

David kept his expression bland and his gaze disinterested, watching from the corner of his eye as Evan scowled his way back to the table. David sank into the chair beside Rick and noticed that Evan slid very gingerly into his own. Suddenly David's head jerked up and he turned fully on Evan.

"What happened to your face?"

Muscles bunched in Evan's jaw. "I got in a fight," he snarled, snapping his chopsticks apart.

"When?"

Evan turned to him, "Today," he sneered, insolence in every line of his body. David felt himself tensing and tried to breathe out his anger. He opened his mouth to demand more information then closed it and looked at Rick.

The wild look was back in Rick's eyes, this time mixed with other emotions that David couldn't decipher. At first Rick's gaze was focused on Evan and for a moment David thought he was going to speak, but then he shifted his attention to David and gave him a subtle "let it go" look.

David hardened his own expression to "we'll discuss this later" and turned to his food.

*****

After dinner Evan escaped back into his bedroom and David snagged Rick's arm, steering him forcefully away from the counter where he was determinedly packing away the leftovers.

Rick began to protest but David tightened his grip on Rick's elbow until he felt Rick tense in pain and practically shoved him into the bedroom ahead of him.

Rick went to the bed and flopped down against the headboard, scowling at a small tear in the right knee of his jeans. David closed the door and leaned back against it, fixing Rick with a look that both demanded answers and threatened dire consequences if they were not forthcoming.

Rick avoided his gaze and picked at his jeans. Finally he huffed out a heavy breath and looked up at David's face. "He threw the dishes."

David raised an eyebrow impatiently and Rick widened his eyes.

"He did!"

David said nothing. Finally Rick dropped his gaze again.

"Why did he start throwing dishes?"

Rick pursed his lips, working intently at the torn denim. "He had an attitude."

David clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. "Rick..."

"It was just a stupid pissing contest. He was trying to prove that I couldn't control him."

"So you let him break every piece of crockery in the house?"

Rick scowled. "Just the kitchen," he muttered, then louder "What was I supposed to do? I waited him out."

David took another deep breath. "And then?"

"Then I told him that there are consequences to the things he does. I got the hairbrush, but when I told him to drop his pants, he..." Rick stopped, working the muscles in his jaw, a flush creeping over his face.

David felt his body tensing but forced himself to speak gently. "He what?"

Rick turned his face away from David and stared at the far wall. His face was a mask, but David saw something intensely pained in his eyes. He went to the bed and settled himself on the edge of it.

"What did he do?" he asked again, even more gently.

"He," Rick ground his teeth, muscles jumping along his jaw and temple. "He... tried to... He came on to me."

David closed his eyes for a moment. "And what did you do?"

Rick looked at him, his expression crumbling in misery and fear, he nearly flinched as he said, "I hit him."

"With what?"

Rick's eyes widened. "My hand!" he exclaimed and added "I swear!" when David's eyes narrowed.

"And that's all that happened?"

Rick opened and closed his mouth once silently. When he spoke again his tone was flat. "I lost it. I took off my belt and I made him strip."

David held his expression unreadable when Rick glanced at him, seeking reassurance. Finding none, his voice grew softer.

"I... I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to beat the hell out of him."

"Did you?"

Rick flinched slightly and kept his eyes from David's face. "No. I came in here and wore out the bed."

David thought of the hashing on the bedsheets and felt a bit of tension ease inside of him. "That's all?"

Rick was silent for a long moment. "No."

His gut tightened again. David waited.

"I went back in and punished him with the brush."

David hesitated this time to let himself relax. "That's all?" he asked again.

Rick dragged his gaze up to meet David's. "I beat him really hard. I hurt him."

"More than before?" David felt a chill spreading through his belly.

Rick nodded.

"Is he okay?"

Rick felt the boy's body twitching against his, heard the cries tearing his throat, remembered the desperation in his arms as he'd clung to Rick, sobbing into his chest. He closed his eyes but two tears escaped, cooling as they tracked down his face.

He felt the bed shift as David stood and heard the door open and close quietly. He tried to take a breath but it caught in his throat and he pitched forward curling up against his knees, burying his face in his hands.

*****

David knocked lightly on Evan's door then cracked it open. Evan was cross-legged on his bed, writing in the journal David had given him. He looked up, a familiar scowl on his face.

"What?"

"May I come in?"

David waited patiently until the boy slapped the journal closed and gave a curt nod.

David closed the door gently and went to the bed, settling himself on the foot, as far as he could from the boy. Evan's slate eyes followed him and now fixed steadily on his face. David took a slow breath before he spoke.

"May I talk to you about what happened this afternoon?"

Evan cocked his head, his expression still closed, but the hostility faded somewhat. "What about it?"

"What happened?"

Evan glanced away, looking momentarily uncomfortable before the hardness returned to his face. "Didn't Rick tell you?"

"He told me his side."

"So what else do you need to hear?"

David paused long enough to be sure he had Evan's attention. "Yours."

Evan sighed and looked irritated. "Why? Who cares what I think?"

"I care," David said, fighting a rising sense of frustration.

"Why?" Evan demanded and David clenched his teeth.

"I just do. Tell me what happened."

"Are you going to get mad?"

"No, of course not."

Evan scowled. "I mean at Rick."

David sat back, suddenly off balance. "You don't need to worry about that."

Evan huffed and abruptly scooted himself off of the bed. He turned his back to David and shoved down his flannel pants.

David hesitated then reached out and gingerly lifted the hem of Evan's t-shirt to survey the damage. The boy's buttocks were still flushed an angry crimson, crescent bruises marked his skin in places, a stippling of purple speckled the red. Evan turned his head over his left shoulder.

"Just a spanking," he said.

David let the t-shirt drop and Evan pulled up his pants again and turned around. "It looks like it hurt," David said cautiously.

Evan eyed him for a moment. "Have you looked in the kitchen cupboards?"

Evan clambered back onto the bed and resumed his place amongst his pillows and David watched him for a moment.

"What about your face?"

Suddenly Evan's demeanor changed. He pulled one knee up to his chest and hugged it, avoiding David's gaze.

"It doesn't hurt."

David studied the boy, choosing his next words carefully. "I'd like to hear how it happened."

Evan seemed to be chewing on his tongue, his expression was distant.

Finally he said, "It's none of your business."

David raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"It's between me and Rick," Evan added, still not looking David in the eyes.

David started to contradict the boy, then stopped himself. The lowered eyes, the drawn up knee, Evan was being evasive, but David realized that he didn't see fear in the evasion. He took a mental step back and changed his tactics.

"Evan, I want you to feel safe in this house."

Evan snorted, glaring at the floor. "I'm not afraid of Rick," he mumbled into his knee.

David studied him. "I know you're not afraid," he began but Evan cut him off.

"Shut up! Don't patronize me! I don't mean cause I'm a badass and I'm not afraid of anybody. I mean cause I'm NOT AFRAID of him!" With the final words Evan brought his eyes to meet David's and the grey slate was burning with fury.

David closed his mouth and felt his teeth click. "Okay," he said when he finally trusted himself to speak without snarling back. He got to his feet and Evan rose too, putting himself between David and the door.

"Don't yell at Rick."

David looked down at the boy's stubbornly set jaw and crossed arms. "I never yell, Evan."

Evan's eyes narrowed. "Don't do it."

David gently stepped around the boy and opened the door. Acknowledging even as he said it how juvenile the satisfaction was that he derived from it, he replied, "That's between me and Rick, Evan. It's none of your business."

*****

Rick looked up as David came back into the bedroom. His gut was so tight he could hardly pull air into his lungs. David sank down on the bed and sighed before raising his eyes to meet Rick's.

"I don't think you did any permanent damage."

Rick swallowed, uncertain how to take that phrasing.

"Is he okay?"

David looked at him steadily. "I think so." He glanced down for a moment then looked at Rick again. "I don't know what's going on with you lately..." He hesitated, trying to find the right words. "You're sleeping on couches, you're skipping work, it seems like you're losing control."

Rick swallowed, wanting to look away, but he couldn't break his gaze from David's.

"Your sister is worried about you," David continued. He hesitated again, looking down at the torn denim that Rick was quickly unraveling with nervous fingers, then returned his gaze to Rick's face. "I'm worried about you. And if you can't get things together," he looked away, his expression pained. "I can't trust you alone with Evan."

Rick glanced down at his belly, his muscles knotted as if he'd been punched. Tears began to fill his eyes and he blinked quickly. He knew David's eyes were on him again, but he couldn't look up. He nodded quickly in acquiescence then turned away and let himself off of the far side of the bed.

He grabbed his jacket and shrugged into it, keeping his back to David while he cooled his emotions and smoothed his expression.

He turned back to David and said, "Thanks for checking on the kid." He glanced away just to avoid the hurt in David's eyes. "I have to get going."

"You don't have to leave."

Rick shrugged and pushed his hands into his jacket pockets, striving hard to look casual.

David rose from the bed and stepped around it. He stopped a few feet short of Rick. "Rick?" He stopped and chewed his lower lip, so uncharacteristic of the man who always seemed possessed of an endless well of self-confidence. "I want you to stay."

Rick could feel his cool and control slipping fast. He swallowed twice before he trusted his voice not to crack and said quickly, "I've gotta go." He slipped past David and let himself out of the bedroom. He grabbed his keys from the bar and paused, then pried the split ring open with his thumbnail and worked the copper key free. He had heard David step into the bedroom doorway and knew he watched as Rick set the spare key onto the bar and let himself out of the apartment.

*****

Chapter 23 [Top] [Next]

Rick strode down the street, letting the chill in the air seep into him, inviting it deep, letting it push out the pain, the uncertainty, the shame.

He was losing control. Losing control and becoming the last thing he could ever be. The last thing he could ever let himself become. An abrupt throb of guilt sunk a fist so deep into his gut that he nearly doubled over, gasping to breathe, the gritty sidewalk suddenly blurring behind a sheen of tears.

Rick stumbled into a doorway, pressing his back against cold stone. Slowly the pain ebbed again, deadening to a cold emptiness within him. He stood still for several more minutes, breathing slowly, staring at the passing traffic without seeing it. Finally he shifted himself forward and stepped back onto the street and began to walk.

*****

Thick clouds brought on a false dusk and brutal chill. By the time Rick slipped into a quickly darkening alley and shouldered through a heavy, unmarked door, his lips and nose were numb and his fingers were aching. He sniffled, his nose beginning to run from the cold and strode down a short, dirty hallway to another door.

The club wouldn't open for hours, yet, and Rick brushed past men hauling racks of glasses and tubs of ice from the back storerooms and kitchens to the long bars that lined either side of the cavernous space.

The second story was a series of open catwalks. Above, men were calling back and forth, shimmying up and down ladders as they adjusted and tested lights and speakers. Rick glanced up at them briefly as he passed, but didn't hear the voice of the one he was looking for.

One of the bartenders, built like a linebacker and wearing a black T-shirt that strained to contain him, glanced up suspiciously as Rick slowed his pace.

"Lookin' for Vince?" The man's voice was a rumble that seemed to come from somewhere much deeper in his chest than his vocal chords.

"Is he here?" Rick asked, slowing to a halt.

The man roughly jerked his head in the direction Rick had been moving. "Office," he growled.

"Thanks," Rick muttered as the man turned his surly expression to something beneath the bar. Rick followed the worn floorboards around the end of the bar and into another short hallway, up to another unmarked door painted matte black.

He hesitated a moment at the door then raised his hand to knock, but stopped, considered for another breath, and opened the door.

*****

Two men looked up as he entered the small office. Rick's slid his eyes over the man seated on a battered leather couch and focused a cold stare on the younger, smaller man who was perched on the sofa arm.

The younger man scowled at him for a moment, then shifted his feet to the floor and stood. He pushed his chin up and his chest out, and Rick almost smiled at the pitiable display then looked back at the man on the couch. The difference in their ages was only a few years, and the younger man was probably only two years Rick's junior. But hard experience was a gulf that put the young challenger on a distant shore. The seated man laughed softly.

"Get lost," he murmured, laughter in his voice and the younger man deflated. He cast a glance back at the seated man then fixed a poisonous glare at Rick as he crossed the room. At the doorway, he bumped hard against Rick's shoulder with his own.

Rick snagged the boy's shirt, shoving him into the tight hallway and pinning him against the wall before a sharp utterance from the room behind him stilled his hands. The boy tried to give him a haughty smile, but fear showed in his eyes and in a sheen of sweat spreading along his hairline. Rick shoved him aside and turned back into the room, closing the door behind him.

"Possessive little shit," he said mildly, still eyeing the door. Floorboards creaked on the other side of the door.

The man on the couch smiled at him, then turned his gaze to the door and barked, "Disappear, Benny!"

A muffled curse was followed by the sound of retreating footsteps.

Rick turned his gaze back to the man on the couch. "Are you fucking him, Vin?"

The man leaned back and placed one hand over his heart. "You wound me, Ricky. How could I ever replace you?"

Rick said nothing and the silence stretched. Finally Vincent sighed and shifted his weight forward until he was leaning his forearms on his knees. He tilted his head and gazed up at Rick.

"So," he said, his tone was still light, but a shadow of emotion rippled beneath the words. "Come to grovel at my feet?"

Rick reached up and turned the thumb-lock on the door, then approached the couch slowly. Vince leaned back, and his eyebrows shot up as Rick suddenly sank to his knees.

"I'm sorry," he said, his eyes cast down.

Vincent made a soft sound of disbelief. "I didn't actually expect that to work."

Rick's lips twitched into a small smile and he pulled his gaze up to meet the other man's.

"Does he give you what you need?" he asked softly.

Vince sighed and brushed the back of his finger down Rick's face, across his lips.

"He's nobody," he purred. His finger traced the curve of Rick's jaw, down his neck, slipped beneath the gold chain. Rick turned his face away and Vince withdrew his hand. "Why *did* you come back?" he asked with a trace of bitterness.

Rick studied his own lap for a moment, worrying the small tear in his jeans. He swallowed and drew in a heavy breath.

"I'm ready."

*****

Evan watched Rick lay his key on the counter top and silently let himself out of the apartment. He didn't hear David's bedroom door close, and almost thought he could feel the man's presence, just beyond the line of sight afforded by the crack he had opened his own door. Emotions churned in his belly as he slowly turned the doorknob and eased his door closed once more. He wanted to kick its smooth surface, pound his fist against it, scream, rage, and he couldn't explain to himself why.

He turned to his bed, flung himself to his knees on the mattress and sunk his fist into his pillow. It gave too easily and he flung it aside, hammering his rage down into the mattress. The room with dissatisfying muffled thuds, but he was fairly sure that the walls were thick enough that David wouldn't hear him silently pouring out his rage.

Finally the anger burned away and Evan sank back on his heels. He winced as the movement and pressure awakened the stinging ache of the earlier punishment. For a moment he began to rise up, then changed his mind and sank down heavily onto his heels again. He let the pain bloom and flow through him while he studied the blank expanse of wall above his headboard, thinking furiously.

*****

David stared at his computer screen, too restless to work and couldn't make himself interested in playing a game. He replayed the conversation with Rick again and again in his head, every time trying to push it away from his thoughts but finding himself back in the middle of it again. In the silence, the soft scuff of a footstep outside his door brought his attention back. Evan tapped softly.

"Come in." David set his computer aside and watched the boy open the door and slip into the room.

Evan closed the door gently, and without meeting David's eyes, crossed the room and sank to kneel on the floor beside the bed.

David sighed and shifted on the bed to face the boy. He reached out and patted the comforter beside him.

"Come sit on the bed."

Evan slanted a look at him but didn't move, muscles twitching in his jaw.

Suddenly David felt a crushing weariness press down so heavily on him that it was hard to draw a breath.

"Please," he asked, the word coming out more pleading than he'd intended, his voice to his own ears sounded on the verge of breaking, and Evan's expression shifted to concern and uncertainty. David took a breath, his hand still rested on the bed and he focused on the feel of the cloth beneath his palm. "Please sit on the bed, Evan."

Evan shifted and rose smoothly to his feet then crawled onto the bed, turned to face David, and knelt again. David sighed.

"Do you have homework?" he asked.

Evan shook his head.

"Can you work ahead in your book?"

The boy shrugged and fixed his eyes on the floor.

"Do you want to watch a movie?"

"Where did Rick go?"

David winced and sighed. "I don't know."

Evan raised his eyes to David's face. "Is he coming back?"

"I don't know," David said, again, wishing he could break away from the boy's steady gaze.

"Did you have a fight?"

David hesitated. "No," he said, finally, slowly.

"Was it about me?"

David blew out his breath. "No," he said gently. "No, we didn't fight about you, Evan. We fought about him."

Evan considered the answer for a moment, then asked, "Did you tell him to leave?"

"No."

"Did you tell him to stay?"

David sighed again and leaned back against his headboard. He reached out his right hand to Evan, inviting.

Evan didn't move for a long moment, then slowly rose and crawled up to curl against David's side. David wrapped his arm around the boy's back as Evan settled his head into David's shoulder.

"He would stay if you told him to," Evan said softly.

"I can't make Rick do anything he doesn't want to do."

"You can tell him if he runs away you'll use the hairbrush on him."

David narrowed his eyes and shifted to look at Evan's face, unable to tell by his tone whether the boy was joking or serious. Evan looked up at him, solemnly then gave him a slight smile. David frowned, still uncertain, as the boy tucked his face again into David's chest.

"Besides," Evan murmured, "if Rick isn't here, how will you keep me from hurting myself?"

David stiffened and sat up, pushing Evan away from him slightly to look into his face. "What does that mean?" he demanded.

Evan's jaw hardened and his expression darkened. "I'm not a very good boy."

David felt his own face settle into hard lines. "Does it turn you on when Rick spanks you?"

Evan's eyes widened for a moment and he flushed. "No," he mumbled.

"Would it if I did?"

The flush deepened and Evan turned his face away, scowling silently at the far wall. David wrapped his thumb and fingers around Evan's jaw and pulled his head back around to face him.

"You will not manipulate me into hitting you." Evan tried to pull away and David gave him a slight jerk. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes," Evan snarled, wrenching out of David's grasp and scooting to the far side of the bed.

David studied him for a moment, trying to smooth down the jagged edges of anger and frustration that only half belonged on the boy's head. Evan hovered at the edge of the bed, looking angry, but seemingly unwilling to walk away. He picked at the comforter for a minute.

"Even if I was turned on, it would still be punishment," he mumbled, not meeting David's eyes. "If you did it hard enough..."

David closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. "Taking your music away would be punishment, too... with no messy emotional involvement."

Evan gave him a venomous look. "Get Rick back."

David clenched his teeth and stared the boy down for a moment, then shook his head in resignation. "I don't understand, Evan. If it doesn't turn you on when he punishes you, why do you want him here so badly?"

Evan turned his attention back to the far wall and was silent for so long that David thought he wouldn't answer.

Finally, he said, "Cause it's two different things. I want to be owned. I *deserve* to be punished."

Without waiting for David to respond, Evan dropped off the far side of the bed and let himself out of the bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind him.

*****

David studied the closed door for several seconds then let his head fall back against his headboard and stared at the ceiling. He suddenly, desperately, needed a drink.

He shoved himself off of the bed and went to the bedroom door, wondering idly if there were any unbroken glasses left in the house. As he stepped into the living room, a movement caught his eye. Evan was standing at the end of the bar, beside the box of broken dishes, looking very much as if he'd just been caught doing something wrong.

David narrowed his eyes and walked toward him. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," Evan said quickly, deepening David's suspicion. Then he tilted his head toward the box. "I was just going to take this down to the dumpster."

The boy had wrapped both hands into the hem of his T-shirt and was fidgeting ceaselessly with it, but David couldn't see anything the boy could have been getting into. He glanced down at Evan's feet and raised his eyebrows.

"Barefoot?"

Evan glanced down and then looked up at him, his expression familiarly sullen. David shook his head.

"You can do it in the morning."

Evan shrugged and wound another roll of his T-shirt around his hands. "Okay. Goodnight."

The boy skirted around David and disappeared back into his bedroom. His door thumped shut, and David frowned. He went to the bar and glanced around. Nothing seemed to have been moved since dinner. He went to the cupboards and found nothing out of place. The alcohol was out of reach for Evan unless he climbed onto the counter, and David didn't think he'd had time to get up and down again in the short time since he'd left David's room. They boy had never shown any interest in stealing alcohol anyway, but David considered that perhaps Evan had been considering some defiance along that theme and his behavior had come out of being caught before rather than after completing the act.

David took one more hard look around the kitchen. It was the only explanation he could think of. He went back to the cupboard and took down the liquor bottles and carried them into his bedroom. He paused only long enough to push away the weary thought that... he was going to be taking away privileges until this boy was down to nothing but a change of clothes and a mattress.

*****

Back in his room, Evan stopped a moment to take a deep breath. Then, keeping his back pressed against his door, he tugged his hands free from his T-shirt and held his prize up before his face. The light fractured along the broken edges, turning the piece of glass from transparent to faint blue-green to clean white along the fine cutting edge.

*****

Chapter 24 [Top] [Next]

David's whispered "Behave yourself," was ominous and Evan squirmed to shrug the man's grip from his elbow and they strode across the worn floorboards of the empty nightclub's dance floor. David guided Evan to a wooden stool by the bar where a burly man was wiping glasses with a terry rag. Evan eyed him but the man's return gaze was cool.

"Can you keep an eye on him for me?" David spoke with comfortable familiarity and the large man nodded. "He's fifteen."

Evan ground his teeth as David's back retreated down a narrow hallway at the end of the bar. "Sixteen!" he snarled back then scowled at the bartender who snorted softly.

*****

David could smell the fear on the other man as he leaned on the knuckles of his left hand, currently fisted into the front of the man's shirt.

"Tell me what I want to know." David's tone was low and gentle, but an undercurrent of violence thrummed in the air between them.

"Get the fuck out of my bar," the other man hissed, a faint tremor in his voice gave lie to the bravado of his words.

David pulled the man away from the wall long enough to shake him slightly. He dropped the faint, false smile he'd been wearing and let all pretense of gentility fall from his tone. "Don't fuck with me, Vincent."

Vince paled but still clinging to the veneer of pride, snarled, "I don't know anything, David, I told you. He was here. He left. That's it. Now get your fucking hands off of me."

"I don't believe you."

"I don't give a shit what you believe, it's what happened. I don't know where he's been, I don't know where he went. And frankly, I don't give a flying fuck anymore. He's a frigid, brittle little bitch and I'm finished with him. You find him, you can have him. Now, let me go." He separated the last three words, enunciating each with sharp precision, but he didn't raise his hands to push David away and his eyes still glittered with fear.

David's own eyes narrowed and he slowly unwound his fingers from the smaller man's shirt. Vincent shrugged and rolled his shoulders and tugged at his shirt and jacket in an ineffectual attempt to smooth out the wrinkles.

David turned away and headed down the short hallway toward the main part of the club. Vincent called out to his back.

"You don't have anything on me, you know. I have no reason to be afraid of you."

David turned back for a moment and considered the smaller man, who had turned crosswise to the hall but hadn't followed. "No," he said after a moment, "you don't." His eyes traveled casually and dismissively down and back up the smaller man's form. "So why are you?"

David turned without an answer and strode out into the cavernous room where Evan immediately caught his eye. The boy had started a conversation with one of the men who'd been handling the lighting equipment. A heavy cable was still in his hand, now forgotten, his attention focused tightly on the boy. Though David was too far away to hear the conversation, the body language was disturbing. Evan moved like a cat, or a snake, his lean body shifting sinuously. His expression was simultaneously vulnerable and predatory. He smiled at the other man from under his eyelashes and moved close enough that he could brush his fingers over the man's belt and down the denim fold of his fly.

David felt his jaw tighten as he crossed the room, approaching Evan from behind. The boy jerked hard as David's hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

"He's fifteen," he said to the man who was looked both glazed and startled at his arrival.

Evan shoved David's hand away and corrected him with juvenile indignity, "I'm SIXTEEN!"

David watched in satisfaction as the lingering traces of arousal fled the other man's face and was replaced with a healthy dose of caution and anxiety. His eyes darted side to side and he quickly backed away three steps before turning and hurrying back toward the catwalk.

Evan whirled on David. "What the fuck?"

"We're leaving."

"Fuck you!" The boy's expression had shifted once more, and he now wore the scowl which had grown so familiar to David.

He didn't respond to the boy's demonstration, simply turned and began walking toward the front doors.

Evan didn't move. He stared at David's back for a moment, then raised his voice. "I'm not going with you!"

David paused, for a moment not even turning around, and Evan felt a momentary pang of anxiety. Then David turned and settled an icy stare on the boy and Evan scrambled to gather his rage against the ice storm that stare set off in his belly. He was only vaguely aware that the sounds of the men working had dropped off considerably as a number of them stopped to watch the scene unfolding.

David's jaw was tight, Evan could see the muscles twitch slightly before he spoke, but his tone sounded weary. "I'm not in the mood, right now, Evan. Let's go."

His courage bolstered by the seeming resignation in David's voice, Evan sneered at him. "Are you deaf? I said, I'm not going with you."

David nodded slightly and for a moment Evan thought he might actually turn and leave without him. The boy was unsettled by the mix of emotions that thought brought on, not nearly the triumph he expected to feel. Then David began to walk back towards him and Evan felt the chill spread from his belly to his chest and his heart began to thump.

"We're leaving, Evan." David's voice was soft, but it carried. Evan resisted the urge to step backwards as the larger man approached.

"What are you going to do? Carry me out? Ground me? Send me to bed without any supper? You can't touch me and you know it!" The challenge was reckless, thrown out in helpless desperation as he realized how powerless he truly was. And then David was on top of him.

The other man nodded once and pulled a chair from a nearby table. Evan had only a moment to wonder at this strange action before David was at his side, one arm wrapping around his waist from behind and he found himself lifted from his feet as if he were a no more than a doll.

Evan had one wild thought of, *he's actually going to carry me out* before he realized David had set one foot on the seat of the chair and Evan felt himself pitch forward as he was dumped over David's now upraised thigh.

As empty space opened before his face, Evan yelped and scrabbled for a handhold, grasping desperately at David's pant leg. Evan bicycled his feet, seeking purchase but the found nothing but air, then the first swat landed across the seat of his jeans and he barely bit back another yelp. Even through denim, the swat stung and Evan jerked forward, only to feel a terrifying moment of vertigo as he almost unbalanced himself before David's arm tightened around his waist and another swat fell on his upturned ass.

Though the pain was sharp, it wasn't overwhelming, but the combination of fear of falling, a sense of complete helplessness, a flash of realization that between the swats, the vast room had gone completely silent, and a disconcertingly sickening feeling that he'd somehow broken something between himself and David brought Evan to the edge of tears.

He clung doggedly to David's leg and focused on taking the swats in stoic silence.

Evan hadn't thought to count but it seemed like less than a dozen swats had fallen when David's hand came down lightly and rested across Evan's ass. Evan could feel the heat of the spanking trapped against his skin and he fought the urge to squirm.

Then David spoke softly enough that none of the men watching could hear him, but the words nevertheless brought a flush to Evan's face.

"Now you have a choice. You come with me now or I will take your pants down and spank your bare backside right here in front of all of these people. What's it going to be?"

"I'll come with you," Evan said quickly, emotion and the pressure of David's thigh against his diaphragm made his answer come out breathy, but David apparently heard him and let Evan slide to his feet, holding the boy's shoulders to keep him steady while the blood drained back down from his head.

Evan was now even more painfully aware of the silence around them, and the eyes, though he didn't dare look around, he knew were focused intently upon him. As if his mouth had gone rogue and declared itself independent of his brain's control, Evan heard himself grind out three words.

"I hate you."

His belly was an ice storm and his fingers twitched against his mind's command that he not cover his bottom like a child, but David's only response was to raise his left arm and point towards the door.

Evan slowly walked past him, refusing to flinch or sidle past keeping his butt out of reach. With what little dignity he could scrape together, Evan lifted his head, kept his hands firmly at his sides, and strode past David, expecting with every step to be propelled with another fiery swat. It didn't happen and Evan quickened his pace as much as dignity allowed, darting out the door and out to the passenger side of the car before David stepped out onto the street.

David unlocked the car and Evan slid into his own seat in matching silence. When David didn't start the car, Evan glanced over at him. The man's face was set in hard lines. Evan gritted his teeth, the sting from the swats he'd taken had faded to a background heat and he felt another rush of reckless courage.

"So what was that? Huh? What happened to your moral high ground? Won't play with a kid? Not so high and mighty as you said you were, huh?" David turned and the look in his eyes chilled Evan to silence. He instinctively shrunk back against his door and pulled his legs as far from David's reach as the car's interior allowed. Then Evan realized, in horror, that his mouth was running again, at least now his voice had lost the undertone of haughty rebellion.

"Did you find Rick, at least?"

*****

Jen was brushing her hair in front of the bathroom mirror. The knock on the front door was so quiet she almost dismissed it as her imagination, but she strode across the living room, brush still in her hand and pressed one eye to the peephole just to be sure.

The view showed nothing but the empty foyer and the door of the apartment opposite her own. She began to turn away but some niggling intuition brought her attention back. She thumbed the deadbolt and pulled the door open just enough to see her doormat. No packages. But then a shadow moved and she jerked the door farther open and saw the figure leaning against the stair railing.

For a moment her mind registered "homeless person" before she recognized first the posture then the face which was smudged and tucked down, half hidden in shadow.

"Ricky!"

He lifted his face and she saw that the smudges weren't all dirt. A bruise darkened his cheekbone and his lip was swollen. There were shadows under his eyes and his gaze when he raised it to her face looked haunted.

He licked his lips once and seemed about to speak then licked them again before finally saying, "Hey." His voice sounded rusty.

Jen realized she was staring and shook herself. "Oh my god, Ricky, where have you been? You're filthy! What, did you sleep in an alley or something?"

Without thinking she had already stepped out onto the cold concrete. At his words, she saw him drop his gaze and she winced.

"Could I, uh, use your shower?" he asked without looking at her. His eyes seemed focused now on the old, wooden hairbrush which she still held, forgotten, in her right hand.

"Of course, sweetie," she said, reaching out to him with her free hand. "Come on in, I'll throw your clothes in the washer, I'll heat up some soup. Do you want some tea? Maybe coffee? I have decaf, unless you want some caffeine, I have that too..." She half-realized she was babbling as she coaxed him into the apartment, but some part of her fixated on an irrational fear that if she didn't get him inside he would disappear again and maybe this time not come back. She couldn't let that happen. Not ever again.

*****

Evan picked at the French fries. David had silently acquiesced to Evan's request for drive through on the way home. The request wasn't unusual, but the fulfillment of it was a first in months. Somehow that didn't make Evan happy. He pushed the fries into a pattern on his plate and watched David from under his bangs. David hadn't bought himself food. He hadn't prepared anything for himself from the fridge once they got home. The only sign he showed of himself was his insistence that Evan eat off of a paper plate (the crockery had yet to be replaced) rather than straight from the bag.

Rick's key was still on the counter, neither of them had touched it in the three days since he'd walked out. David made a series of phone calls the next morning, and one of them had come back with the information that took them to the club. Evan squirmed at the memory. It wasn't the pain or the humiliation that now made his belly tighten. It was the sense that in finally pushing David into physically punishing him, the thing he thought he so desperately wanted, he now feared their relationship had irrevocably changed.

Evan pushed a few of the fries off of the edge of the plate and onto the table. David raised his eyes from the screen of his laptop for a moment, glanced at the uneaten food on Evan's plate, and returned his attention to the screen. Evan tried to work up his resentment and rage, briefly considered doing something outrageous like throwing his plate at the wall, onto the floor, at David... He sighed.

"I'm not hungry."

David didn't look up. "Put it in the fridge."

Evan pushed his face into a scowl. "Who eats cold French fries?"

David shrugged, "Then throw it out."

Evan felt a stab in his gut. Before, he thought, David would have told him to eat anyway. Would have given him that *look* when he'd talked back. He sighed and pushed away from the table. He considered just leaving the plate where it was, but he was afraid that his rebellion would be met with silent indifference and somehow that would hurt too much. He picked up his plate and dumped it into the trash.

He was halfway to his bedroom door when David's phone buzzed. Evan turned and watched as David answered and he knew...

*****

Chapter 25 [Top]

Rick cinched the old yellow bath towel around his waist and let himself out of the bathroom. He could hear his sister in the kitchen clattering pans and he let himself into her bedroom. She had taken his dirty clothes and on the old bedspread, the same one he remembered from her college apartment when he'd lived with her, was one of his old t-shirts and a pair of running pants he'd never retrieved the last time he left.

He reached for them and paused, running his hand over the tufted square patchwork of the bedspread, remembering the feel of it against his face, the smell of it as his tears had wet it. She'd tried so hard to love him. To save him.

Rick turned away from the bed abruptly, snatching the clothing up and dressing himself before Jen knocked softly on the door. "You decent?"

She didn't wait for him to answer before she pushed the door open and stepped in. He flushed at the intrusion despite being fully dressed before she intruded.

"Would you care if I wasn't?" He tried to temper the snarl in his tone and was only partially successful. Jen ignored it and grabbed the damp bath towel.

"I have soup on. Your clothes are in the washer." Her tone was brisk, professional, forcibly casual. "Will you spend the night?" She finally met his eyes and he saw the deep chasm of desperation and worry behind them. It stole his breath and for a moment he couldn't answer.

"If you don't mind..." Emotion he couldn't completely suppress made his voice breathy and he clenched his jaw tight.

She stopped and looked at him for a long moment, then in a single movement she stepped close to him, raising her hand to rest gently against his cheek, her eyes focused with uncomfortable intensity on his, all pretense of nonchalance abandoned. "You are always welcome here, Ricky. This is your home. *Always.*"

As suddenly as she'd approached she stepped back again, her eyes skittering across the bedspread, over the walls, anywhere but his face. "I'll get the sheets for the fold-out. You still have pjs here. Does David know where you are?"

She asked the last question in the same casual, almost breathless rambling as the rest but her eyes suddenly found his face and fixed there intently. Rick felt a lurch in his belly. She used to do the same thing when he came home after curfew and she asked if he'd been drinking, smoking, using a fake I.D. Suddenly, for a brief instant, the smell of the tear-wet bedspread filled his nostrils. He jerked and it was gone, but her eyes hadn't left his face and he gritted his teeth against the urge to squirm and look away.

"No," he said finally, softly. "He doesn't need to know."

He watched the small muscles in her jaw tighten, and her lips thin to a pale line. "He's called here four times in the last three days. He's worried about you." For a moment Rick thought she was about to say something else then changed her mind. "He deserves to know that you're safe."

Rick was tired. Bruised. Aching deep into his heart. He ran a hand over his mouth and drew a shaky breath. "I can't talk to him right now."

Jen studied him for another moment then nodded brusquely. "Come into the kitchen. There's soup."

Rick thought having food in his body of any kind would be a short-lived adventure at this moment, but he was too weary to argue and followed slowly into the small, efficiency kitchen.

The smell of tomato soup brought a rush of saliva to his mouth and his throat convulsed as he tried to swallow the nausea. He sank into one of the hard chairs and slumped over the scarred table top. He rubbed his hand over his face as Jen set a bowl of soup and silverware by his elbow.

"Do you want a coke? Coffee?"

He shook his head, turning his face from the smell of food, vaguely aware of his sister sliding into the chair opposite him.

The silence stretched taut between them bur Rick couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes. Finally she broke it, "So, are you going to call him or am I?"

Rick risked a glance at her, his expression pleading, "Jen," he whispered, "Please..."

"Fine," she ignored his beseeching look and set her cell phone on the table with more force then necessary. Rick stared at it as if it were the instrument of his execution. She unlocked it with a swipe of her finger and scrolled through her contacts. Rick closed his eyes, wishing he could shut out his other senses as easily.

"Hey... He's here." A pause. "No... Mm hm." Rick opened his eyes to find himself pinned under his sister's gaze as she said, "He *promised* to stay the night." She raised an eyebrow at him, and he slid lower in his chair. An ancient part of him whispered frantically at him to run, but he was too weary, his emotions too worn to summon the energy or the courage to walk out again into the night. He scratched at the table top with the ragged edge of a fingernail and felt trapped.

*****

David set down the phone and looked at Evan. Evan stared back at him, for a moment frozen between hope and dread. "Is he okay?" his voice was breathless, his heart squeezed with fear.

"Get your coat."

"Is he OKAY?" Evan said loudly, his feet planted, his shoulders set, eyes wild. David looked at him for a long moment, considering his words.

"I don't know, Evan. He's at his sister's house. We're going there. Now. Get your coat."

Evan bolted for his room. He slammed the door shut and pulled his coat from the hook behind it, then hesitated for a moment. He glanced at the door, then at his closet. Made a decision and quickly knelt, digging his hand into the back corner of the darkened cubby and slipping a small, tightly wrapped bundle into his pocket.

*****

"You should eat something."

Rick glanced at the cooling bowl of soup, beginning to congeal at the edges and looked away quickly, his throat working convulsively.

"You should eat, Ricky. David will be here soon."

Rick shot up from his seat, his body going rigid. "What?"

Jen was on her feet, too. She stepped into the doorway, balling her fists on her hips.

Rick glared at her. "How could you?"

"How could I what? Tell your best friend you were alive? You've missed four days of work, Rick. I've been lying to keep you employed. David and Jack have been searching the city. Everyone is worried out of their minds." Her face was twisted with fury and anguish and Rick struggled not to look away, his own face beginning to burn. "You were doing so well. I thought... I thought maybe you were finally getting your life together. Then... then everything with Vincent and now... this kid Evan shows up... and you... you..." she made an inarticulate gesture at him. "And you show up on my door looking like a street person, covered in bruises and you ask how could I? How could I??" her voice edged into a harsh, shrill of rage and hurt.

Rick shifted on his feet feeling panicky and trapped in the small kitchen, his sister's smaller frame seemed to fill the doorway with the power of her fury. "You don't understand..." he meant the words as a defense, a counterattack, but they came out as a hoarse plea.

"I don't understand? *I* don't understand?"

Rick didn't like the way she was echoing him. Didn't like the sheen of tears that was glittering in her eyes. "I'm sorry..." he whispered.

Jen opened her mouth but whatever words she'd been about to speak were silenced by a soft rapping at the front door. Rick felt his stomach claw its way towards his throat and Jen swiped a hand angrily at her eyes, flinging away they gleam of tears but not able to hide the glitter of moisture that still clung to her eyelashes. She leveled one trembling finger at him and fixed him with her eyes and said in a harsh stage whisper, "Darrick Aiden Fenn, you made a promise to stay here tonight. If you break your promise, if you run out on me and leave me wondering and worrying about you one more time..." Rick tried to swallow the knot of tears that were pressing at his own throat. "God help me, Darrick, I will... I will..." The rapping sounded again, louder, Rick flinched and Jen glanced, agitated, over her shoulder, then focused on him again. "God help me, I will put you over my knee and I don't care how old you are," she hissed. "Do you understand me, Ricky?"

She hadn't used his full name in years; he hadn't seen the tears in her eyes and known he was the cause for years. Feeling shattered beyond reconstruction, Rick nodded mutely and his sister turned and stalked toward the front door. Rick stared after her, his tongue felt like ash.

*****

Evan shifted from foot to foot as they stood on the dimly lit landing. A car alarm went off in the parking lot and a door somewhere in the complex opened to a man and woman's voices, raised in argument, before slamming closed again.

David knocked again. Harder. Evan twitched.

"Are you sure this is the right place?"

David cast him a sideways look and Evan wasn't sure he'd answer. Then he gave a curt, "Yes," and turned his burning gaze back to the silent and unmoving expanse of cheap green paint.

Finally, metal clacked on the other side of the door and it opened to the face of the woman Evan remembered from his night at the clinic on the night he met Rick. The kind face and cheerful eyes he remembered were now pinched and flat. The dim light glittered faintly on her eyelashes and Evan wondered if she'd been crying. Then wondered *why* she might have been crying and he fought the impulse to shove his way past her into the house. Her eyes barely skimmed past Evan and fixed on David.

"He's in the kitchen," she said softly and David nodded and began to step forward but her hand shot out and she planted her palm firmly against his chest. The harshness in David's face had gone, Evan realized, and he suddenly looked much younger. Like a 23-year-old, Evan thought, in over his head. For the first time in his life Evan grasped how young that age that he had aspired to emulate, that was printed on his I.D., that he'd thought meant the pinnacle of mastery over all of life's challenges, was, in reality. 23 seemed like such a gulf of experience away from his own 17, yet as he looked at the woman in the doorway, her face hardened by more years than David, as he thought of the cop in the alley, of his own father and mother, he realized how young 23 really was. The revelation stunned him and he reeled as his mind shuffled and rearranged his entire worldview and he nearly missed the soft, intently whispered words of Rick's sister.

"I'm not going to lose him again, David. Either you do something or... I will. I'm not letting this happen again."

David only nodded and placed his hand over hers on his chest, his face soft with understanding and suddenly she was pressed against him, his arms around her, her body shuddering against his chest and his head bowed, murmuring into her hair. "It'll be okay, we'll take care of him, it'll be okay."

Abruptly, Rick's sister pulled back and stepped backward out of the doorway, motioning them to come in. She pressed her lips into a brittle smile as her eyes found Evan's face. "Hi sweetie. Do you want something to drink? Do you want a coke?"

Evan glanced anxiously around the small living room for a sign of Rick. "Is he okay?"

She exchanged a quick glance with David that made Evan both frightened and furious but the anger faded at her honest reply, "He got beat up and he's making some bad choices right now. I'm worried about him."

Evan blinked, unused to being spoken to frankly, unused to being treated as if he were an adult who could handle difficult truths. He was suddenly and irrationally grateful to this woman he barely knew. He wanted to hug her but resisted and found himself awkwardly trying to find something to do with his hands as he glanced at David who looked tired and worried. Painfully uncomfortable in the silence, Evan cleared his throat softly and turned back to Rick's sister. "I, uh, could I have a coke, please?" His eyes darted to David, half expecting to be denied, but David said nothing and the woman shook herself, seeming to return from some faraway mental place.

"Of course, sweetheart. Why don't you have a seat? You can turn on the TV if you want." She glanced at David and murmured, "He's in the kitchen," before turning and disappearing through that doorway herself.

*****

Rick, still on his feet, backed up as Jen came into the kitchen followed closely by David. He continued backing until the counter thumped him in the ass and he snapped his jaw closed so hard his teeth clacked. Jen cast him a fleeting glance as she prepared a glass of ice and retrieved a can of coke from the refrigerator. She said nothing as David edged past her in the small kitchen and moved closer to Rick who sidled along the edge of the counter until he hit a corner and winced. Jen stepped out of the kitchen, pulling the louvered door closed behind her.

David ignored Rick's obvious discomfort and crossed the small distance between them until he stood so close that Rick could smell his familiar scent, his aftershave, his deodorant, the detergent he used to wash his clothes, the faint not unpleasant smell of his body itself, his sweat, his skin, and now, and almost imperceptible but guilt-inspiring tang of fear and stress. Rick turned his face away, avoiding David's eyes as David raised his hand to Rick's face and let his fingers trace lightly over the bruises on his cheeckbone and jaw. His touch was a feather brush over the split in Rick's lower lip and he jerked involuntarily away. David trailed his fingers down Rick's neck, gently pulling down the collar of his T-shirt to follow the spreading mar of purple and green and yellow skin.

He dropped his hand to the hem of the shirt and lifted it slowly. Rick stiffened and the muscles bunched in his jaw, but he submitted to the inspection in silence and David lifted the shirt only a few inches, slid down the waistband of his pants only as far in the other direction, enough to see that the bruises didn't end where the clothing did.

As silently as he'd completed the rest of his examination, he returned the waistband to its place and let the hem of the shirt drop. Rick kept his eyes focused on the yellowed sworls of the ancient linoleum.

"How far did it go?" David's voice was soft, almost a whisper and Rick dragged his eyes up to the other man's chest.

"Just bruises," he muttered. "I'm okay," hoping David would understand the meaning he didn't say. He raised his gaze to David's face, found his eyes, "I'm okay," he repeated, holding the eye contact until David broke it, his gaze going to Rick's poorly healing lip, then lower.

"He didn't...?"

Rick shook his head quickly, before the question could be completed, he didn't want to talk about it, didn't want it said out loud, didn't want this agony deepened. "I'm okay," he said a third time, trying to bring David's eyes back to his own. "It... It was consensual. And I... I stopped it before..."

David met his eyes suddenly and Rick felt a stab of pain radiate through his chest. David's face was twisted in barely controlled anguish, muscles twitching in his jaw, a slight tremor in his lips. "Was it Vince or..."

"Yes," Rick said quickly. "It was Vince. I told him I was ready..."

For an instant David's control slipped and his face twisted with emotion. Rick felt his own control sliding through his fingers and turned his head away again, his breath hitching shallowly.

"But he didn't..."

Rick shook his head quickly. "I stopped it..."

"So he hit you?"

Rick felt his lips curl in a small bitter smile and his chest twitched with a single, silent laugh. "No. He hit me before."

"You wanted it?" David's voice was flat, emotionless and Rick winced.

"I consented," he corrected, softly, keeping his gaze turned away.

Suddenly he felt David's large hand slide around the back of his neck and cup the back of his head, tilting his face gently back until he was looking in David's eyes. Then David leaned in, his lips settling gently against Rick's.

He held the kiss for a long time and they were both slightly breathless when he finally pulled away and lightly touched his forehead to Rick's.

"I love you..." he breathed.

Rick took one breath. It caught in his chest. Came back out as a sob. He snaked his arms between their bodies, hugging his own belly tightly as he shuddered and tears dripped onto his shirt and David gently stroked his hair and his back, and brushed light kisses over his forehead and cheeks.

Finally David pulled back enough that they could look each other in the eyes, though Rick kept his face down, still struggling for control of his emotions and his rebel body.

He was sniffing and humiliated when David finally asked softly, "Are you going to stay here for a while?"

Rick shrugged one shoulder, wiping his nose on the other then pulling a handful of the T-shirt up to wipe his face and eyes.

"I... I'd still like you to stay with me," David said, his voice tentative. "No strings. You can have your own bedroom..."

Rick was shaking his head. "I can't," he muttered, unable to look at the other man's face as he refused. From the corner of his eye, he saw David step back to the other side of the kitchen and lean against the counter.

The silence stretched until finally Rick looked up. David's arms were crossed over his chest, his gaze fixed and distant on some point near the door. He looked uncomfortable. And unhappy. Rick clamped down another cresting wave of emotion and took a deep breath through his mouth.

"I'm sorry."

David pulled the corner of his lower lip between his teeth for a moment then released it. "Will you call tomorrow? So I know you're okay?"

Rick nodded, aching. The last thing he wanted to do was call, talk, but he would agree to anything that would hasten the end of this agonizing conversation.

David looked up at him a final time, but this time his eyes slid away quickly and he nodded tightly. "Take care of yourself."

Rick swallowed. "You, too."

David turned and let himself out of the kitchen.

*****

Evan had been restlessly cycling through the channels, the volume turned down so he could strain his ears impotently for any scrap of the conversation from the kitchen. Rick's sister had sat on the couch with him for about a minute then stood and paced, chewing at the skin around her thumbnail, her eyes moving restlessly around the room.

When the kitchen door opened, Evan bounced to his feet, his eyes searching David's face for any hint at the outcome of the conversation. What he saw turned the flicker of hope in his belly to cold ash.

Refusing to accept the answer he knew he'd get, he tilted his chin up in defiance. "Where's Rick? Is he coming home?"

David raised his eyes slowly, as if even that small gesture exhausted him. "He's going to stay here for a while."

Rick's sister was staring at him, motionless. Evan was shaking his head.

"No. You're supposed to bring him home."

"Evan," David began as if he were going to explain something, then sighed and said simply. "Get your coat."

"No!" Evan's face set in a mask of fury. "No! You are supposed to bring him home!"

"Get your coat, kid," Rick's voice came from the kitchen doorway and Evan spun, his expression twisting with a jumble of emotions.

"You have to come home with us!" his tone changing to pleading.

Rick shook his head. "That's not my home, kid. It's yours. And David's. Go home."

Wounded betrayal began to win the battle for priority in Evan's expression as David began to move towards him. Evan's hand went to his pocket and he fumbled with something small and wrapped in cloth. "No! I don't want him! I want you!"

Rick's expression softened into something sad. "Evan," he said gently, "David is a really really good man. Much better than I am..."

"NO!"

David picked up Evan's coat, "Come on, Evan," he murmured, laying a hand gently on the boy's shoulder.

Rick continued as if there'd been no interruption, "And he chose you, Evan. He chose you. Be grateful. Celebrate what you have. Go home with him."

Unnoticed by the men, Jen's head snapped around at Rick's last words, focusing first on David, then on her brother. David moved his hand to the nape of Evan's neck, firming his grip. Rick turned away and began walking down the hallway toward the bedroom. Into a sudden, perfect moment of silence, Evan's voice resonated, his tone suddenly low and strange. "Bad things happen when you leave..."

Rick turned, his eyebrows drawn, "What is that supposed to..."

Before anyone else could react, light flashed off of a gleaming edge in Evan's right hand as he drew it down violently against his left forearm.

For a moment, no one moved. A paper-fine line of blood followed the path of the glittering object. Then the room exploded in noise and motion.

Rick was the first to move, cursing even as he crossed the room in two steps, "What the fuck?!" He slapped his hands tightly around the wound even as the fine line suddenly blossomed into a flood of crimson. David grabbed Evan's other hand in a vice grip, hauling the weapon out away from his body. Jen was already rushing out of the kitchen with a handful of clean, white sackcloth towels.

"What the FUCK!" Rick shouted again.

Evan stood completely still in the center of the maelstrom. His face strangely empty of emotion. His eyes fixed on Rick.

*****

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Chapters 26 - 30


~ Julnick

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