Black Fire

by Julnick

26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30


Chapter 26 [Top] [Next]

Jen pressed a folded pad of towels against the wound and quickly wrapped another around it, cinching it tightly.

Rick grabbed the shard from Evan's other hand with a snarled, "Give me that!"

"Careful!" Jen hissed as Rick pried the glass roughly from Evan's grasp. He looked down at it, the edges wrapped tightly with paper providing a handle, only the single cutting edge exposed. David released Evan's wrist as Rick took possession of the glass and Evan allowed his right arm to fall limply to his side, his, Jen still clutched his left arm, her palms pressed firmly against his bandaged forearm.

Rick turned the glass in his fingers, studying the handiwork on the wrapping. Evan's face remained expressionless and Rick's eyes had gone nearly as blank, an almost sleepy look replacing the fury of moments before. "You made this...?" his tone made the question sound almost disinterested, his eyes were still glazed. David drifted to Rick's side, his eyes darting back and forth between the two young men. Jen's gaze was fixed on Rick, her expression wary.

"You made this?" Rick's voice was stronger as he repeated the question. Evan finally dropped his eyes from Rick's face and looked at the floor. "You PLANNED this?" Abruptly the fury resurfaced, Rick's voice rising. David muttered something, putting his hand on Rick's shoulder, but Rick shrugged violently away from him. "You FUCKING PLANNED THIS? You fucking CUNT!" There was a blur of movement as Rick swung his hand toward Evan's face and David slammed his body into Rick's, knocking them both backwards from the bleeding boy.

Evan pulled back only slightly, a slight widening of his eyes was the only expression that crossed his face. David's interference turned the blow to a bare grazing of Rick's finger across Evan's face, but the contact left a smear of bright blood along the boy's jaw and lips. A muscle twitched beneath the crimson streak and the boy swallowed, but he said nothing and his gaze returned to the floor.

David wrapped his arms around Rick's chest as the other man tried to bodily throw himself past David's formidable interference. Rick was snarling and cursing as he struggled against David's restraint.

"Fuck you! Fuck you, you manipulative little bitch! Fuck you!"

David shoved him hard against the wall and hissed sharply, "Stop it! Control yourself! He's a child for fuck's sake!"

"He's not a fucking child!" Rick hurled over David's shoulder, snarling as David shoved him back again, hard against the wall. "He's a fucking lying, scheming, manipulative..." his vitriol was choked abruptly by a gasp of pain as David found a pressure point inside his elbow and dug a thumb into it. The pain and the thud of being shoved back against the wall for a third time seemed to finally deflate the Rick's rage and David pushed him roughly ahead of him into the short hallway, then sending him into the bedroom with another rough shove, following and closing the door behind them.

It took two steps for Rick to be sure of his balance as David shoved him into the bedroom. He spun on the taller man, his face twisting in rage, and a curse on his lips, but David put one large hand on his shoulder, turning him slightly then with brutal speed, landing the same hand across the seat of Rick's pants with such force that Rick stumbled, tangled his feet, and nearly fell again. He staggered backwards, trying to both find his balance and move out of striking range from the man who was towering in front of him with such dark fury on his face that Rick's own anger turned suddenly to ice water in his gut.

Not looking where he was going, the bed hit the back of his knees unexpectedly and Rick tumbled onto it, scrambling up and crabbing backwards until his back hit the wall. David advanced another step, and another, closing the distance between them in two of his long strides. His hands were balled in fists and held stiffly at his sides, his face was hard and, Rick suddenly thought, dark with an expression of anger more intense than he'd ever seen in his friend.

Rick's breathing was suddenly shallow and as David narrowed the distance between them to only feet, Rick flinched, turning his head, closing his eyes, unthinkingly steeling himself for the blow.

He hitched in a breath.

Another.

Slowly he opened his eyes, but didn't turn his head. From the corner of his eye there was no motion. Over the thundering of his heart and the whistling of his own ragged breath he heard nothing. Slowly, first only with his eyes, then finally with his head, he turned his gaze toward David.

David hadn't moved. He still stood a near reach from the edge of the bed. But his hands were open and the hard fury on his face had softened to something less easily identifiable. Somehow Rick found that even more unsettling than the rage.

David raised one hand to his face, rubbing his palm over his forehead and his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I shouldn't have hit you."

Rick felt his own expression shift before he could stop it. Incredulous. "What?"

David looked at him, then looked again, his eyes moving over Rick's hunched posture, his knees tucked into his chest. Rick was suddenly embarrassed and he pushed his feet out in front of him, trying, belatedly, to look casual. But David was already turning away, the glimpse Rick caught of his expression before it was hidden showed a confusing mixture of sadness and anger.

David retreated to the door before he turned back to face Rick. When he did, his expression was bland and he crossed his arms loosely over his chest.

"You know what this is?" David asked, his tone almost conversational.

Rick felt off-balance. He slid off the bed, onto his feet, needing to be standing even if he didn't match David's height. Sitting made him feel too vulnerable. "What what is?"

David waved one hand in a vaguely inclusive gesture. "All of this. Evan. You..."

Rick chewed on the words but could distill no understanding of David's meaning from them. "What are you talking about?"

"It's karma," David said, as if Rick hadn't spoken. As if he weren't even in the room. "It's karma. He's just like you."

Rick frowned, his eyebrows drawing together. "What are you talking about? I never pulled shit like this..."

David's focus on Rick's face was sudden and uncomfortably intense. "Yes. You did."

Rick shook his head slightly as if that would make sense come of the conversation. "What are you talking about?" He realized he'd repeated the phrase three times, but the exchange was surreal and bizarre. "I never slashed my wrists because I didn't get what I wanted!"

David's gaze burned uncomfortably and Rick struggled not to look away. "No," he said, simply, "You went back."

The words were like an icy slap. Rick blinked, opened his mouth, found no words waiting, closed it again. "I had nowhere else to go..." he said finally, the words coming out a hoarse whisper.

"That's not true!" Emotion rose in David's voice.

Rick felt his throat work but he was struggling to bring forth words. "You didn't want me..."

David let his arms fall and spread his hands palms out, "I offered everything I had to give, Rick! I couldn't give you that. Not then. You knew that! I offered everything that was mine to give! But it wasn't what you wanted so you punished me for it."

Rick stared for long seconds in silence, his brain tumbling the words over, tripping against memories that wouldn't stay buried. "How is what happened punishing you?" he asked finally, his throat was almost too tight to whisper.

Muscles twitched in David's jaw. "I love you. I've always loved you." Rick tried to swallow the pain in his chest that was creeping strangling tendrils ever tighter around his throat.

Rick shook his head mutely.

"You didn't have to go back. You could have stayed."

Rick's anger flared, "Are you fucking kidding? How did you expect me to stay?"

"You didn't have to go back!"

"You don't know that!"

"You could have stayed, but you went back. And you blamed me. You never let me forget it, Rick. Not for one day. It's in your eyes when you look at me. It's in your voice. You wear it on your face. You wear it on your fucking neck!"

Rick raised his hand awkwardly to finger the links of the steel chain resting against his collarbone.

"You don't know what you think you know. You never did." Rick whispered, his twisting gut stealing the breath from his lungs.

David's hands were trembling and he balled them into fists, then shoved them into his pockets. "Whose fault is that, Rick?"

Rick couldn't speak, his breath was coming too quickly, short and hitching, his jaw clenched.

David turned and walked toward the door, then stopped, one hand on the knob, skin bleached white where he gripped the metal.

"You were right," David said softly. "You're not like Evan." He opened the door and stepped into the hall not looking back. "His way is cleaner."

Before Rick could form a response, the door closed softly and Rick was alone.

Rick stood in the silence, one arm snaking around his belly, feeling as if he'd been literally beaten, kicked in the stomach. He gulped mouthfuls of air but he couldn't seem to fill his lungs. His eyelids felt thick as he blinked against the sheen of tears that blurred his vision.

The door opened again suddenly and Rick jerked upright, taking a step back. But it was his sister who stepped into the room, her gaze hooded and wary.

Rick sniffed, trying to compose his face as she studied him. For a painfully long moment the silence grew between them like a wall of impenetrable thorns that would shred any attempt at penetration. Then she said, "I have a suture kit here, but I haven't done them since med school. I don't want him to scar..."

Rick looked at her, the brusque professionalism in her tone was an impassible barrier and his heart squeezed harder in his chest. "He deserves a scar," he mumbled. Though he said it without heat, Jen's eyes flared and her face hardened. Quickly, raising his voice slightly, Rick tried to correct her assumption, not entirely sure her original thought was untrue. "I wouldn't let that happen intentionally!" Desperate to leverage himself out of the quicksand that seemed to be sucking him away from everyone he loved, he honed an edge to his tone, "Jesus, you're my sister, Jen, I thought you knew me better than that."

Jen tilted her head slightly, her expression didn't change. "I thought I did, too, Ricky," her tone was soft, at odds with the flint in her eyes, "but the way you've been acting lately, I don't know if I know you at all."

Rick felt his mouth fall open soundlessly. Jen turned, the second person in five minutes to turn her back to him, and walked out of the room without another word.

Rick stood for another minute, a creeping sense of numb detachment slowly spreading from his fingers inward. Finally he spread his arms, turning his palms up in supplication and casting his face to the ceiling.

He laughed hollowly. "Entertained?"

He let his hands drop to his sides, closed his eyes for a moment, then tightened his jaw and strode out of the bedroom, back into the living room.

*****

Jen had a roasting pan under Evan's arm, the wound had been irrigated, bloody water glistened in the bottom of the metal pan. Professional instincts immediately commandeering his detached mind, Rick noted the length of the cut, the clean edges of the opened skin, the glass cut with surgical efficiency. The bleeding had slowed to an oozing well of crimson in the crevice of open flesh. Not too deep. No arteries, no tendons, no major veins, could be closed with a single line of sutures.

Rick ignored the eyes that fixed on him in silence. David had been speaking on his cell phone, his voice a low murmur, now he moved silently to Evan's right side. Jen was kneeling at the boy's left, she'd been washing the cut with antiseptic, the smell a tingle in Rick's nose. Now she was still, staring at him as he slowly approached.

Only in Evan's eyes did Rick feel an absence of judgment, and somehow that caused a pain that penetrated his detachment and drilled a narrow beam of guilt into his belly. Jen lifted a box of nitrile gloves onto the coffee table she'd turned into a makeshift triage area, then looked pointedly at Rick's hands.

He glanced down and started, then flushed at the dry blood flaking off of his fingers. He started to say something, then turned silently and went to the kitchen to wash his hands.

Jen glanced at David, and David wasn't sure if the accusation in her eyes was directed toward him or her brother. He shifted on his feet uncomfortably then sank down on the couch beside Evan.

Jen had turned her attention to the nylon pack of first aid and medical supplies she had unzipped and spread open on the floor. She moved quickly, tearing open a packet and spreading the paper sheet inside over one end of the coffee table. Her hands were quick and steady as she laid out supplies wrapped in paper and plastic. Evan's eyes followed her movements, and David could feel the tension tightening the boy's body, though his face continued to show a blank emotional landscape.

"Thank you," David murmured, and Jen paused, favoring him with a long glance before returning to her preparations.

Busying herself with sorting supplies she didn't look at him as she spoke, "ER docs are assholes about this sort of thing." She pursed her lips, pausing for a moment, staring at a small packet in her hand. "Not that my brother isn't an asshole," she set the packet aside and ripped open another Velcro section of the medical kit. "But he'll numb you up before he stitches you, at least." She directed the last toward Evan and the boy took a deep breath that shuddered in his chest. David felt an icy chill at her words, her sentiments echoing those of the man he'd called moments ago for the favor of advice.

Rick came back into the room, the blood scrubbed from his hands, and knelt beside the table, pulling on a pair of the gloves and examining the labels on several of the rubber-topped vials his sister had laid out. Jen reached up to adjust the angle of the reading lamp she'd pulled close so that the brightest light fell across Evan's right arm while Rick tilted it slightly back and forth in the light.

"Any glass in it?" he murmured?

"I didn't see any," his sister replied in an equally professional, muted tone. She picked up the small squeeze bottle she'd used before to wash the blood from the wound. Her brother nodded and she gently directed another stream of water along the cut. Rick studied the wound carefully as the water sluiced away the latest upwell of blood.

"Okay, looks okay. You didn't numb him yet?"

She gave him a sharp look, and her "No," was clipped. David took a deep breath, uncomfortable both with his lack of medical knowledge which he imagined could help explain the emotional subtext that was passing between the two doctors, as well as the personal tension that hummed between all three of them, set aside, but not forgotten while they focused on the physical dealings of treating the boy's injury.

Rick worked quickly and efficiently, murmuring questions to Evan as he checked the skin around the boy's arm, and down to his fingers, then had a quiet conversation with his sister consisting mostly of medical shorthand that David didn't speak and more of those silent subtexts he couldn't decipher.

Finally, some consensus was reached and Jen began to prepare a small syringe while Rick grasped Evan's wrist tightly, drawing the boy's widened eyes to his face. "I'm going to stitch you up so you don't have to go to the emergency room. Got it?" Evan nodded, his grey eyes widening further, fixed with a slight air of desperation on Rick's face. "I'm going to numb you first, and then stich you. There are going to be needles. It's going to sting. You're going to take it and you're not going to argue, fight, or complain. Got it?"

Evan's eyes were wide enough now that the white of his sclera was visible entirely around his irises, but he nodded mutely. David slipped his hand into Evan's and the boy's fingers tightened instantly around his.

Evan turned his head away, but David watched as Rick slipped the needle of the hypodermic into Evan's arm. As he began to push the plunger, Evan hissed softly, his fingers twitching around David's hand. David squeezed gently and gave Rick an exasperated look, but the young doctor's face had softened as he glanced briefly up at Evan's face. His voice was gentle when he murmured, "I know, kid, I know... I'm making it as easy as I can."

David sighed and wrapped his free arm around the Evan's head, pulling the boy's face into his shoulder, wincing in sympathy as he felt Evan's body tense and twitch as the anesthetic was delivered.

Finally Rick sat back on his heels, his eyes focused on the table as he prepared to begin the sutures. "Why did you do this, Evan? You hate stitches. You hate needles. You had to know that's where this would all end up. What were you thinking?"

Evan twisted around in David's grasp until he was looking at Rick's face. "I didn't know how else to make you listen to me."

Rick had positioned the curved needle above Evan's skin but his hands froze at Evan's words. He blinked, and for a moment he looked as if he would say something, then he blinked again and looked down at his hands. Finally he slipped the needle home, shifting his grip with the scissor-looking instrument, pulling the thread through, looping, tying it and cutting it with quick, sure movements. Evan glanced down then flinched his face away.

"Does it hurt?" Rick asked.

Evan shook his head into David's shoulder his chest hitching. Rick eyed him for another moment then began the next stitch. He worked for several more minutes in silence and no one else seemed inclined to speak. The row of even sutures had nearly reached the end of the wound, the gaping slash now a neat seam up Evan's arm.

Finally, as he pulled tight the knot on the last stitch, Rick spoke again, "Why?" Evan turned his head back towards Rick. "Why me? I'm... I'm not..." Rick caught David's eyes for a moment then looked down at his hands. "I'm not a good person, Evan..."

Evan's eyes lowered to Rick's neck, to the links of the chain that had fallen free of his shirt while he worked on Evan's arm. Rick reflexively tucked it back under his T-shirt, but Evan's eyes were back on his with a fiery intensity.

"Those were for the special ones. The ones who earned it..." Rick pulled himself backwards and onto his feet, crouching, his eyes going to David, whose attention was shifting from Evan to Rick then back.

Rick rose to his feet, pulling the chain back out of his shirt. "You don't know what this means! You have no idea what this means?" His voice was sharp and hard.

Evan looked at him solemnly for a moment. "It means you know the expectations. You won't let me get away with... being bad." The strange veneration in Evan's voice grated against his nerves and Rick flinched as if the boy had physically clawed him. He stumbled a step backward, away from the couch, away from the quiet, terrifying fanaticism of the boy's reverence.

"I'm not him..." he grated through his teeth. "I'm nothing like him!" his voice rising to a furious hiss. "Don't you fucking DARE look at me like I'm him!" He was on his feet and moving only seconds before David who anticipated his actions. Rick hit the front door hard, hauling it open and hurtling himself down the concrete steps into the shadows of the parking lot, barely registering the sound of David's heavy footsteps behind him as he cut across a median, pushed through a hedge and stumbled down the steep concrete side of a dry wash.

In the blackness, something slammed into him, tumbling both of them to the silt underfoot. Rick struggled silently beneath the greater weight and strength that pinned him, as David's voice, breathless but reassuring slowly calmed his frantic need to run, to escape, to lose himself in the darkness of the night.

"I didn't..." he gasped, breathless from running and David's weight against his chest. "I didn't..."

"I know," David murmured, shifting his weight to the side, but restraining Rick firmly and immovably in his arms. "I know you didn't..."

"I'm not him..."

"You're not him."

"I can't..." Rick realized he couldn't breathe through his nose, his lips tasted of salt. "I can't do this anymore..."

"I know. We need help. It's okay. We'll be okay. We just need some help. We just need some help..."

*****

Rick stumbled over the curb, too weary to shrug off the arm David slung around his waist to steady him. "What are you going to do?" he mumbled, for the first time in years, letting himself surrender to the deep pull to surrender to another's leadership, to David's leadership.

David didn't answer as he guided them both across the parking lot and towards the stairs to Jen's apartment. As David moved to the first step, Rick halted abruptly, David's arm, still around his waist and his momentum pulled him forward another step and pivoted David to face him.

"What's wrong?"

Rick's jaw tightened and David could see the muscles twitch in the weak yellow light of the building's floods. His hand went to the chain at his throat and his fingers closed around it.

"I can't..."

For a moment David hesitated and Rick thought he was going to concede and go upstairs alone, then his expression hardened.

"Yes, you can, let's go."

Chapter 27 [Top] [Next]

Rick stumbled over the curb, too weary to shrug off the arm David slung around his waist to steady him. "What are you going to do?" he mumbled, for the first time in years, letting himself surrender to the deep pull to surrender to another's leadership, to David's leadership.

David didn't answer as he guided them both across the parking lot and towards the stairs to Jen's apartment. As David moved to the first step, Rick halted abruptly, David's arm, still around his waist and his momentum pulled him forward another step and pivoted David to face him.

"What's wrong?"

Rick's jaw tightened and David could see the muscles twitch in the weak yellow light of the building's floods. His hand went to the chain at his throat and his fingers closed around it.

"I can't..."

For a moment David hesitated and Rick thought he was going to concede and go upstairs alone, then his expression hardened.

"Yes, you can, let's go."

Rick resisted when David pulled him, and closed his eyes. "David... I can't go back in there..."

Again David hesitated, his expression shifting as if following and internal argument. Finally he caught Rick's eyes and held his gaze steadily. "I'm taking him to a hospital. He needs to be somewhere safe until we figure things out."

Rick felt his jaw slacken and his mouth fall open. "You're having him committed? Are you serious?"

David glanced sideways at Rick, edging them a few steps closer to the stairs. "You're the one who's been telling me to send him to a shelter for the last six months."

"Because I knew you wouldn't do it!" Rick couldn't sort his emotions, shock, surprise, and a strange feeling of betrayal.

"And I'm still not," David was moving up the stairs and Rick was too stunned to resist so trailed a step behind him. "I'm putting him in a hospital where he'll be safe and taken care of until I can figure out how to get him the help he needs."

"You never did that for me..." the words were nearly inaudible, but David stopped abruptly and turned on the step to look back down at Rick, his eyebrows drawn with hurt and confusion.

"You never tried to kill yourself..."

Rick suddenly couldn't hold David's gaze and blinked quickly as he let his eyes slide to the chipped-paint on the steel handrail beneath his fingers. David's large hand was suddenly cupping his jaw, turning his face, but Rick kept his gaze down. He tried to pull away from David's hand, but he didn't have the spirit left to really fight and surrendered when David pulled his face back around.

"When?" The single word, barely more than a whisper, cracked slightly, an agonizing punch to Rick's gut and he tried again to twist away, but David pulled him back again.

Finally he shrugged, still keeping his gaze cast down into the shadows beyond the stairwell. "After Jack got me out. When I was with him."

David's hand fell away from Rick's face and he sank down heavily on the step above him, his eyes unfocussed. Rick felt his gut twist harder and his throat had tightened so much it was hard to breathe.

"Why didn't you tell me?" David finally broke the silence.

Rick shrugged again, fighting for a casual smile. "We weren't exactly on speaking terms right then."

David looked up at him and the glittering pain in his eyes forced Rick's gaze away again, he turned halfway back down the steps, keeping his face turned away.

"You could have called me."

Rick shrugged again, keeping his gaze on the distant, flickering yellow light that dimly illuminated the parking lot. The night air smelled of exhaust and rotting trash from the dumpsters around the corner of the building. Rick breathed it in, trying to settle the familiar mantle of detachment over the raw nerves of his emotions. Behind him he heard David rise from the step.

"We can't leave your sister with Evan," his voice was flat, and it sent a new stab of pain through Rick's chest. As much as he'd never have admitted it before tonight, David was always the one he could count on to be strong, to be stable, to be the rock that stood immovable against the chaotic surf that was Rick's life. Suddenly a memory of his sixth grade science teacher came back to him, droning at the front of the room about land formations, a single sentence suddenly stood out in his memory, "Water is the most powerful force on earth. Given enough time, it can wear away even mountains of stone."

David entered the apartment ahead of Rick who still trailed several steps behind him, climbing the stairs as if each step sunk him into wet cement.

When Rick finally opened the door and let himself in, he stopped short on the threshold. The living room was empty. Before Rick had even closed the door behind him, David came out of the bedroom and strode down the hall, his cell phone which he'd left behind when he chased Rick from the house was now pressed to his ear, and his forehead was furrowed as he listened.

Rick jerked as his own phone, also forgotten on the coffee table, buzzed angrily. He snatched it up feeling an icy thread snake its way through his gut as his sister's name appeared on the screen. He thumbed the call on and raised the phone reticently to his ear.

"God dammit, Rick! How do you both leave your phones at the house for Christ's sake?" She was breathing hard and her voice had a rhythmic lilt, as if she were running. David was cursing and grabbed for his jacket.

"What's wrong? What's going on? Where are you?" Rick spat out as he stumbled out of David's way, the other man searching and apparently not finding his keys in his jacket pockets.

"Evan ran on me!" There was a muted curse and a soft susurration of traffic filled the pause in the conversation. "I just lost him behind the 7-Eleven."

"What? How did that happen? Why did you let him leave? We were only gone for ten minutes, for fuck's sake!" Rick stepped aside again as David pushed past him.

"Fuck you, Rick," Jen said flatly into the phone. "You two figure this out or I'm calling the police." The line clicked, and then was silent. Rick snarled and shoved it roughly into his pocket.

David had found the car keys, but now stood motionless in the center of the apartment. "He can't have gotten that far, yet," he murmured, so softly Rick didn't know if he even intended the words for anyone but himself. Then he looked up and caught Rick's eyes. "I can't keep doing this..." The faintest tremor broke the smooth surface of his words and he glanced away from Rick suddenly.

Rick swallowed with difficulty, then grabbed his own jacket from the couch. "I'll get him."

David turned haunted eyes on him. "How? You don't know where he went."

Rick shoved his arms into his jacket roughly. "I'll find him."

David's face began to clear then hardened. "No, you're not leaving here."

Rick opened his mouth to say something defiant, but realized the fire in his chest had gone cold. "Please," he said instead, "of all the things I've fucked up in my life, let me fix at least one... David... let me fix this one thing..."

David stared at him for a long time; twice he opened his mouth then closed it again without speaking. Finally he nodded brusquely, "Jen said he was heading south towards..."

"I know, she just called me, she lost him behind the 7-Eleven, I can find him." He took two steps toward the door then turned slightly, "I will find him. I promise."

Chapter 28 [Top] [Next]

Rick flinched instinctively as his sister's glare caught him still half a block from where she stood rimed in the red gleam of the convenience store sign. He swallowed and forced himself to hold her gaze for a moment before lowering his eyes, knowing that a gesture of humble acknowledgment was the only path with even a slim possibility of defusing her fury.

As he came within speaking distance she said with icy brevity, "He went down the alley, hasn't come back out from either side." She accompanied this with a nod of her head toward the opening between the buildings at the far end of the block. She stood at the midpoint, casting her gaze back and forth between potential exit points.

Rick nodded. The alleys here were a warren of dead ends, though enough wound their way into seedy residential areas that if the boy had stumbled onto the right combination of turns, he could have found a low fence to jump and disappeared into one of the deteriorating neighborhoods on the other side of the business strip. Rick gritted his teeth, remembering the first time he'd fled exactly this way, the first time his sister had chased him to this intersection of alleys. Her hard glare on his face made him wonder, uncomfortably, if she was also remembering that distant evening. He took a heavy breath.

"I'll get him," he muttered, anxious both to be after the kid and also away from his sister's hard-edged anger. She didn't respond and he didn't wait. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and settled his face into an expression of bored indifference. As he strode into the shadows of the alley, he moved with the fluid nonchalance of a predator, confident of his place at the top of the food chain - an affectation, and besides the knife in his pocket, his only protection.

It took a moment for Rick's eyes to adjust to the dim spill of ambient light in the alley after the neon gleam of the street-side storefronts. He stood for a moment, scanning the darkness as if he wasn't still light-blinded. As the darkness thinned and shapes slowly resolved themselves into values of gray, Rick allowed himself to release his held breath softly. This stretch of the alley was relatively free of detritus or dumpsters which would provide fertile hiding places for those with reasons to hide.

The boy wasn't here and even to Rick's now adjusted vision, the darkness pooled too thickly near the ground to reveal any signs of passage, even if such existed to be seen. He smoothed the tightening of concern from his forehead, plastering the expression of irritated boredom back over his face before striding deeper into the darkness and the first intersection of alleyways.

*****

Evan pressed his back against the cold, rough surface, the smell of mold and rot strengthened again as he shifted his feet. His knees and thighs protested the prolonged crouch, but he couldn't bring himself to sit down into the unseen filth that filled his nose with its stench. He huddled over his knees, cradling his head in the curl of his arms. He would wait until morning, until daylight would let him see where he was going. He wasn't lost, he told himself, just disoriented in the darkness. With the morning light he could find his way to...

He took a shuddering breath as his mind fumbled at the end of that thought. To where? To what? There was no one. There was nothing. He had nowhere to go, no one who cared. He rubbed his eyes against the arm of his jacket, and gritted his teeth. It was better not to think. Not to plan too far ahead. Simply wait until daylight. Wait until daylight.

The stealthy scrape of a footstep brought Evan's head up abruptly, his eyes widened frantically as he scanned the thick blackness so unrelenting that his mind imposed floating impressions of shapes over the void of light. Evan squeezed himself back further into the crevice between the two peeling dumpsters, telling himself that anyone else in the alley would be as blind to him as he was to them. Telling himself he was safe from discovery. Wishing his body would listen to the logic of his mind as his heart hammered and adrenaline made his skin tingle uncomfortably.

Another soft sound seemed to come from another direction as the whispers of movement echoed strangely off the vertical surfaces of the alley and dumpsters. Then there was a voice. "I know you're there," it was hard, edged with violence, but so familiar Evan could hear the tension beneath the threat.

His body moved more quickly than his brain, and he stumbled upward, the name escaping his lips in a soft expression of surprise and hope before the bitter voice of reality silenced him. "Rick?"

Abruptly, Evan clamped his mouth shut and pressed back against the rough wall, but in the silence of the alley his barely voiced cry had nowhere to hide. A muttered curse came from the darkness and a rustling, then, painfully bright, the screen of a cell phone cast a sudden sheen to the grimy and peeling surfaces of the dumpsters. Evan blinked. The other man was invisible in the darkness behind the lit screen. Evan squinted against the light, emotions tumbling over each other inside of him in a sickening chaos.

The face of the screen shifted and suddenly Rick's face floated above it. He swiped twice and a flashlight app suddenly speared the darkness with a cold, white beam. Rick cast the beam quickly around the alley before refocusing it on Evan's face, seemingly unsympathetic to the boy's wincing squint.

Evan shook his head, hopelessness rising to the surface of the vortex of emotions. It was too much...too much to see Rick here, to feel the hope and know it was false. The fall was crushing and Evan couldn't even scrape together the comfort of defiance or anger. His voice sounded young and cracked as he pleaded. "Please... just... leave me alone. You aren't responsible for me anymore."

Rick turned the phone so the beam of light shone against the face of the building above Evan's head. The light was bright enough even against the dingy surfaces, to dimly illuminate the man's features. His eyes glittered faintly as he extended his free hand to the boy.

"Come on."

There was no emotion in his voice. No anger, no annoyance, not even resignation. Somehow that emptiness hurt even more and Evan gulped at air as his chest suddenly contracted around his lungs. He made another snatch at anger, finding only a trembling ember. He snatched it, weakly at first, but as he spoke it gained traction and flickered brighter.

"Why? Why are you here? You don't care about me, I don't know why you're even here. This is your chance, both of you, you can be free of me. Just go back to him." His anger was still a small flame but it warmed him with its comfort. "Go back to David and tell him you couldn't find me, then you can have him for yourself." He spat the last words with defiance, not recognizing until it failed that he was trying to spark the answering animosity in Rick, to restore their balance somehow. That with his answering anger there could be a less painful goodbye. But Rick only looked at him in silence until Evan snarled at him, "WHAT?"

Slowly Rick sank down to an easy squat, balancing the phone on the toe of his boot and allowing his arms to curl loosely around his shins. After a moment he sighed heavily. In the indirect light, Evan could see his eyes focus on something beyond the walls of the alley. Then one hand went to the chain at his neck.

"You're wrong about the collar." There was still a curious absence of emotion in Rick's voice. His face was passive. His eyes remained unfocused and Evan felt his anger suffocating in the vacuum, suddenly replaced with an unpleasant wash of guilt.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, trying to make his voice surly, "I shouldn't have said that stuff about you."

Rick's gaze suddenly snapped to the boy's face and he pursed his lips slightly, almost a shrug. "It's not what you think." He fell silent for so long that Evan thought he wasn't going to go on. Then he said, "It's not what anyone thinks."

"I'm sorry," Evan said again, softly, unsure how to respond to this unrecognizable Rick and his cryptic words.

Rick's fingers were moving ceaselessly pulling the chain link by link around his neck. His gaze was unfocused again. "It isn't mine." Another long pause. Evan waited silently, watching Rick's fingers move.

The silence seemed to meld with the darkness into an impenetrable wall between them. Evan's whisper was almost swallowed in the blackness, "Do you hate yourself?"

Rick's eyes glittered as he looked up at the boy abruptly. Evan saw a faint glint as Rick opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Yes."

"Why?"

This time the silence stretched so long Evan thought Rick wouldn't answer. He felt his own heartbeat slowing, as if his blood was thickening in his veins. His body felt heavy, leaden.

"I killed my best friend," the whisper came out of the darkness, lifting Evan's chin just enough to look at the shadowy face, not even a gleam of his eyes now visible.

With an effort, Evan tilted his heavy head back until he could rest it against the wall behind him. A slice of sky showed between the buildings, blackness against blackness, pierced by a faint dusting of stars too distant to be distinct.

"I killed my family," Evan murmured to the stars.

Chapter 29 [Top] [Next]

Evan's responses were slow, lethargic, as he shrugged out of his coat and turned up the bandaged arm to Rick's inspection.

David was on his phone, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, speaking too softly for Rick to distinguish the words.

Jen knelt at Rick's left side, laying out scissors and sutures, professional focus a rigid armor that couldn't shield the waves of emotion radiating toward him. Emotion Rick couldn't interpret. Anger, or fear, or something else.

Rick tightened his jaw and gave Evan a cuff on the shoulder. "Hey." The boy's eyes came up and focused on him slowly. "What's wrong with you?" Rick knew that his own emotions were putting hard edges on his voice, but he couldn't stop it.

"Tired," the boy said. He dragged the word out, but it wasn't slurred. The bandage was spotted with blood near the wrist, and Evan's palm was scraped and dirty. Rick snatched a piece of gauze and swiped away the grit, finding superficial scrapes that barely broke the skin. Evan didn't flinch as Rick brushed away the dirt, but hissed softly when an alcohol pad was scrubbed over the scrapes. Rick could feel his sister's disapproval pressing against the back of his head and kept his eyes on his work.

As Rick began to cut away the bandage around his wrist, Evan let his head fall back against the couch and it lolled to the side. Rick shook his knee. "Evan," he said sharply. "Did you take something?"

Evan's head came up, his eyes focusing, his face tightening into a familiar expression of disdain that Rick found surprisingly reassuring. "No! I'm just fucking tired, okay?"

"Language." The curt rebuke came from behind Rick's right shoulder, and he twisted to see David off the phone and hovering, his eyes on the half-opened bandage.

Evan scowled up at him. "Fuck you," he muttered, bringing Rick's attention back to him in time to see the boy's eyes widen slightly, focused above Rick's right shoulder, and his scowl carefully rearrange itself into something that almost resembled cowed regret. He pressed himself back against the cushions of the sofa, so obviously attempting to squirm out from under David's gaze that Rick found himself fighting to suppress a smile. There was something comfortable, familiar, almost... familial. It had grown between David and Evan over the months, Rick realized, suddenly. The realization made his breath catch in his chest and his heart squeezed. He hardened his face and turned his attention to his work.

The sutures had held, but pulled in the fall and the wound had oozed. Rick studied it, prodding the edges and grunted to his sister, "If he scars, it isn't because of me." Her response was an icy silence.

"Is he okay?" David's voice was soft and flat behind Rick's shoulder. Rick nodded, wrapping a new bandage over the wound. "Good. We need to go."

Rick sank back onto his heels, turning finally to face David. "You can't..." he said softly, remembering their conversation in the parking lot.

David looked at him but said nothing, his mouth was set in a firm line.

Rick pushed himself to his feet, realizing, belatedly, that his muscles had stiffened and the bruises were aching and he stumbled slightly, sucking a breath at his body's protests. For a moment, he saw David's face soften with concern and his hand lift to steady him before Rick turned away, embarrassed. He gritted his teeth and stepped closer to David.

"May I speak with you please? In private?"

Evan lurched off the couch, "Why? What's wrong? Where are we going?"

"Nowhere," Rick said sharply. David said nothing but turned and walked back toward the bedroom.

Rick cast one glance at Evan whose face had paled and was watching him with a slight wildness in his eyes. "It's going to be fine." He hesitated. "I've got your back, okay?"

Evan clamped his mouth shut tight and nodded once. Then Rick followed David into the bedroom.

Rick closed the door behind them and began to speak before David could say anything.

"You can't commit him. Do you know how they treat kids like him? Do you know how they treat cutters? You don't know! I know. You can't send him inside. And how would you pay for it? Do you know how much a hospital would cost? And they would take him away from you! They'd put him back into the foster system and then he probably WOULD kill himself, we're the only ones who can take care of him!"

Rick ran out of arguments and dropped to silence, his chest heaving.

David only stared at him for a long moment, then sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. "They wouldn't take him away," he said slowly, looking away from Rick's face. "I have legal guardianship."

Rick frowned. "What?"

"I have legal guardianship of Evan." When Rick didn't say anything, David continued, his voice rising slightly, defensive. "I needed to put him in school, and I had to get him on my insurance in case..." He trailed off, then glanced up at Rick. "His parents are dead. Nobody wants to adopt a teenager, he's already been in six foster homes, he keeps running away. He had no options, Rick."

Rick stepped back against the door. He nodded. He could feel his pulse in his neck and forced himself to take a breath. "That's good," he murmured, eyes on the floor between them. "That's good for..." He nodded again. "I'm happy for him. I'm happy for you. I'm happy for both of you."

David rose from the bed. "For God's sake, Rick, we didn't get married. I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

Rick shrugged and shook his head. "Why would you have told me? It's none of my business. I'm happy for you."

"Please stop saying that." David had drawn closer and Rick tried to pull back, but only pressed himself more firmly against the door.

"So, you're going to take him to the hospital? They'll probably commit him... 72 hours... if they think he's a threat... to himself. They'll have to petition the court... For longer... you should... make sure your insurance covers mental... They can take the stitches out for him there." He suddenly looked up at David's eyes. "You have insurance for him now; you don't need me..."

Only inches separated their bodies now and Rick suddenly felt claustrophobic as David placed one hand against the door beside Rick's face, his head bowed, his voice soft when he spoke. "Please, Rick..."

He stopped, his face tilted down. Rick stared at the front of David's shirt, detachedly noting the way it moved with the rise and fall of his chest.

"I..." David started, then stopped again. This time Rick heard the crack of emotion in his voice and started. "I don't know what I'm doing." Rick glanced at David's eyes and his belly clenched at the glaze of tears trying to gather on his eyelashes.

"David..." he reached out the scant distance between them, resting his palm on David's chest. "David, you're... you're fine. You're doing great. You've got Evan and... and you've got... your job... and... you... you are perfect. You'll do the right thing. You always do."

David lifted his face. His expression was pained. He lifted his other hand and for a moment Rick thought David would touch his face, but then he let his hand drop.

"Do you love me?"

Rick blinked, sucked in a breath, opened his mouth to give the pat answer, "Of course, you're my best friend..." The answer he gave every time, when they bantered, when that question was asked with a playful tone, with twinkling eyes, when Rick could convince himself it didn't matter - not the question nor his answer. But he couldn't say the words this time. Couldn't make it playful banter, couldn't make it mean nothing to him. He lowered his head, loosely closed his fingers, pulling David's shirt into his fist.

"Yes."

David leaned back slightly and raised his hand. This time he did touch Rick's face, his fingers gently brushing the line of his jaw where Rick could feel the purpling bruises spreading.

"I didn't do the right thing with you," he whispered, his pained expression fading to one of bitter resolve. "I never did."

Before Rick could answer David stepped back, turning slightly from him and pulling out his phone. "A friend of a friend recommended someone. A doctor. He agreed to meet with Evan tonight, at his office, not the hospital. He'll tell us... tell me... what he thinks..." David cast a sideways look at Rick, his face unreadable again. "I'd like for you to be there."

*****

Rick stopped pacing and slouched against the wall beside the door. David sat stiffly in a padded seat across the small reception room. The inner door was too thick to hear more than a soft murmur of voices through it, yet Rick and David had endured in strained silence for fifteen minutes since meeting the young psychiatrist outside the building and seeing Evan ushered into the private office with him.

"What time is it?" The silence had helped Rick recover his prickly armor and he felt comfortably ensconced within its confines.

David glanced up at him, his own face set in a stony expression. "You have a phone," he said shortly, and allowed the silence to fill the room again.

"What kind of a fuck up doctor sees patients in the middle of the night? Why are you trusting this guy?"

David looked at him again, his eyes narrowing. "He's a friend of a friend. I trust the friend. And, I brought Evan to you in the middle of the night."

Rick raised an eyebrow and made a vague gesture towards himself, "Case in point. Poor kid can't catch a break."

David fixed his narrowed gaze on Rick again. "Did Jack let you talk that way?"

"What? You mean cursing? He didn't give a *shit* about me cursing." Rick took a juvenile satisfaction in drawing out the profanity, then flinched inwardly at his own immaturity.

"No. I mean calling yourself a fuck up."

The slipped beneath Rick's armor and stung uncomfortably. He hardened his face. "He's not here, is he? So who the fuck cares?" Rick decided he could live with immaturity, though it rankled that David showed no reaction.

"You don't care what Jack thinks?" The tone was mild, David's expression unchanged but for a slight raise to his eyebrows, but the question twisted in the sore place the previous one had exposed.

Rick shoved himself off the wall and took a step forward. "Why do YOU care, David? Why do you care so much how I talk, where I sleep, who I fuck?"

In the same infuriatingly mild tone, David said, "If you were mine, you wouldn't be allowed to speak about yourself that way."

Rick stepped back again, seeking the stability of the wall. His armor felt like tattered rags, stupidly ineffective, yet he tried to pull bits of it over himself. "Allowed?" He tried to pour haughty indignation into the word, but it came out as a simple question. David's eyes hadn't left his face, and Rick couldn't afford to look away first, so he cocked an eyebrow and doggedly held the stare.

"There would be... consequences."

Rick felt a jolt in his belly, but he didn't know how to interpret it. In two sentences, David had shattered the small ground Rick had found to put his feet on again, had tumbled his emotions back into the maelstrom of confusion, and worse, longing, that he had fought so hard to burn out of himself. He desperately threw the last of his control at an expression of indifference and a hard edged, "Well, guess it's a good thing I'm not yours, isn't it?"

*****

"You're not very old," Evan said to the doctor who pulled a chair from behind the desk and turned it backwards, straddling it to face Evan. He didn't answer, just smiled as he settled into the seat.

The man had introduced himself as Jay. Evan looked at the diplomas on the wall behind the desk and narrowed his eyes. "Aren't doctors supposed to go by their last names?"

The man smiled again, slightly, "There aren't really rules about that, more like customs. Some people think it's important to maintain professional distance. I think it's more important to do what works best for each person. I get the sense you'd be more comfortable talking to a person than a doctor."

Evan rolled his shoulders. "Aren't you the same person no matter what I call you?"

Another smile. "I am. If you want to call me Doctor, you may."

"You're a shrink?"

"That's one term for my profession."

"Does that mean you can tell if I'm lying?"

The smile faded and the man looked earnestly at Evan's face. "I was taught to notice to what people say and notice how they say it, how they look, how they act, little things they do with their hands or how they tap their feet when they talk about something. That all gives me information to guess how they're feeling about what they're saying. It might tell me that they are saying something that makes them uncomfortable for some reason."

"So you read people for a living."

"That's a large part of my job."

"And you're going to read me."

The man looked down for a moment. "Evan, I'm not your doctor, this is... just a consultation, to see if I think you need to be in the hospital to keep you safe. That's the only thing I'm trying to read about you tonight. Okay?"

Evan shrugged. "You want to know if I want to kill myself."

"Do you want to kill yourself, Evan?"

Evan looked up at the man sharply. "No. Are you even allowed to ask people that?"

Smile. "It's good to be honest about it. If we can't talk about it, people can feel like it's shameful and they need to keep it a secret. Then they can get hurt."

"They can kill themselves."

"Yes."

"I wasn't trying to kill myself."

The doctor nodded slightly but remained silent. Evan fidgeted. The silence lengthened.

"Does being quiet make people talk more?" Evan asked finally.

The doctor laughed slightly. "Usually, yes."

"It won't work on me. I can be quiet, too."

"I'm sure you can, Evan. I'd bet you're pretty good at reading people, too. Maybe better than me." Evan shrugged again and picked at a loose thread in the knee of his jeans. "Can you tell me about David?"

"What about him?"

"How do you feel about him?"

"He's... He's okay. He takes care of me." Evan picked more at his jeans. "He went to court to be my legal guardian. He had to do a lot of paperwork and pay fees. He didn't have to do all that. Plus, now he's responsible for me. If I screw up, he can get in trouble."

"What do you mean, Evan?"

"Like, if I run away and I... go to a bar... the police can arrest him."

"How do you feel about that?"

Another shrug. More picking. "He didn't have to do that for me. I guess it's pretty nice."

"You think he's nice?"

"Sometimes he's mean. He's strict a lot. He has a lot of rules and he... he's really serious, but... he doesn't..."

"Doesn't what?"

"He takes care of me and he is my guardian, so he's pretty nice."

The doctor looked thoughtful for a moment. Evan lifted his hand and studied the lines running across his palm.

"What about Rick? How do you feel about him?"

"He's good," Evan said quickly. "He takes care of me."

"How does Rick take care of you, Evan?"

"He..." Evan fingered the bandages on his arm. "He fixes me up when I get hurt."

"That's a nice thing to do."

"Yeah... And he..." Evan dropped his hands into his lap and sighed. "He doesn't let me do bad stuff."

"Like what?"

"Like break the rules."

"What does he do when you break the rules, Evan?"

Evan fidgeted again, muscles working in his jaw. "I get in trouble."

The doctor sat back slightly in his chair. "I have a brother. He and his partner have a kind of special relationship." Evan looked at him, eyebrows drawing together. "My brother and his partner have rules, and when his partner doesn't follow the rules, he gets in trouble."

Evan's eyes narrowed. "What kind of trouble?"

The doctor looked him in the eyes. "He gets spanked."

"By your brother?"

"Yep."

"Does he like it?"

"They've been doing things that way for a long time, I think it works for both of them. I don't think either of them really enjoys it when the partner is in trouble, but sometimes they do spanking for fun, too, then they enjoy it."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Evan grinned. "I never knew anyone else who did this... except... guys at the clubs."

The doctor nodded. "People can have healthy relationships and do... rules and punishment. But it's important to be sure it's healthy and it isn't... hurting either person in the relationship. Does that make sense, Evan?"

"Yeah."

"Does Rick spank you when you're in trouble?"

Evan chewed on his lip. "Yeah. And David did it once, too."

The man nodded. "How did you feel about that?"

"I was..." Evan sighed. "It wasn't how I thought it would be."

"What do you mean?"

"I thought I would... like it more. But I didn't."

"What didn't you like?"

"It hurt. And... I felt bad."

"How did you feel bad, Evan?"

"Like... I let them down. I used to be with... my Master, and he would punish me when I was bad, but part of me liked it, too, it didn't hurt the same."

"Why do you think that is?"

"My Master liked hurting me."

"You don't think David and Rick like hurting you?"

Evan shook his head. "I think it just makes them sad and I feel like I let them down. I didn't care about letting my Master down the same way. I just... I was afraid of him beating me and I was afraid of him getting rid of me, but part of me still liked being hurt. But with David and Rick it didn't... feel like... I just felt bad about what I did, and... it just hurt, it didn't feel good."

"Would you like it better if you didn't get spankings when you're in trouble?"

Evan's head jerked up. "No! Don't tell them to stop!"

The doctor raised his hands slightly, "I won't tell them anything you don't want me to unless I think you're in danger. Okay?" Evan nodded.

"Can you help me understand, Evan? If you don't enjoy being spanked by them, why don't you want them to stop?"

Evan wriggled in the chair for a long moment, studying his knees before he answered. "It's better than letting me get hurt, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"If they don't stop me, I'll do worse things."

"Like cutting your arm?"

The boy's expression drooped. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Why do you say that?"

"I scared Rick. I think I scared David, too. But I scared Rick worse, and I don't know why."

"You don't know why cutting yourself scared him?"

"I wanted him to be scared a little. I wanted him to come back and live with us. I wanted him to punish me. But I scared him too much and he... I made him hate me."

This time the doctor seemed to be searching for words and the silence drew out between them.

"Evan, you cut yourself to get Rick to punish you? To spank you?"

Evan shrugged, not meeting the other man's eyes. "Everyone is sad all the time and I just want them to be happy and I want us to be a family. They love each other, but all they do is fight."

"Did you think that hurting yourself would make them stop fighting?"

Evan shrugged again. "When I ran away," he said softly, "I... almost... I almost did something really bad. I almost got arrested. But Rick found me and he took me home and... he gave me a spanking. And he spent the night with David and... I screwed it up because I tried to leave again. If I could be good, they could get along and... Rick can make me be good, he won't back down."

"Does Rick ever do more than spank you?"

"Like what?"

"Does he hit you in other ways?"

Evan straightened and sat back in his chair. "No."

"He's never hit you in the face?"

Evan's eyes narrowed and his mouth set to a hard line. "I don't want to talk to you anymore."

*****

Rick jerked his head up at the sound of the doorknob turning, and David came to his feet quickly. Evan stepped out ahead of the young doctor, his face set in a familiar glower. The doctor smiled.

"If you don't mind waiting a few more minutes I'd like to speak with David."

It took Rick a moment to realize the words were directed towards him. He bobbed his head brusquely, and as the door clacked shut again, he sank down into one of the cushioned chairs next to Evan.

The boy picked at his bandages in silence for a few minutes until Rick placed a hand gently over his to stop him.

Evan sighed, scrubbing the sole of his boot across the short carpet. "I'm sorry for... what I did."

Rick started and stopped twice before he responded. "I shouldn't have hit you."

Evan slanted him a glance. "I shouldn't have cut myself."

"No... You shouldn't have done that."

"So? Can we be even?"

Rick shook his head. "I'm older than you. I should be more responsible. I... haven't been. I'm sorry."

"That's bullshit," Evan said back, heatedly. "You're supposed to act perfect no matter how bad I am?"

"David does."

Evan shot him a look. "David spanked me today."

Rick's head whipped around. "He what?"

"In public! With witnesses and everything!"

"What? Why?"

"Because I pissed him off. Because I pushed him and pushed him and pushed him until he broke." Evan bolted to his feet and spun to face Rick, his face a mask of bitter fury, triumph, and tears. "Because I can make *anybody* hit me!" He breathed heavily for a moment into the silence. Rick only blinked at him, stunned, until the boy's face twisted with grief. "But you always hate me after..."

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~ Julnick

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