Black Fire

by Julnick

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 20 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25


Chapter 1 [Next]

Evan looked at the assortment of bandanas and snorted softly. He picked up a black one and tied it snugly around his right boot, then dumped the rest back into the drawer. He pulled a tight black T-shirt over his head and admired his profile in the full-length mirror. He was small, but he was compact and well-defined. He'd find what he was looking for tonight.

The night air was cool. Clouds were beginning to gather. Perhaps it would rain later. Evan didn't bring a coat.

He walked down the long blocks, through the seedy neighborhoods, meeting the eyes of the unfavorable shadows that lurked by the storefronts and in the alley mouths, sending his hatred and his anger into his stare. They never bothered him. No one asked him for spare change.

The landscape changed from business to factory district. Commerce City. Warehouses. Storage tanks. Giant gritty machines. Processing plants. Dusk was coming on. The spires of civilization's underbelly sent monstrous shadows scurrying from the dying sun. Evan drew his knife from his boot and fingered the hilt as he walked through the hazy darkness. This place made him feel small. He felt small too often in his life. He didn't like the feeling.

He walked on. Streetlights began to wink on, fighting against the heavy, black sea that swelled against them. Small orange and red glows marked the towers of the factories. Occasional floodlights only added confusion to the maze of light and darkness.

Finally, he could hear the rumble of engines and the grating of tires in the gravel. Then he could see headlights. And soon, he could hear voices, some cheerful, some gruff. Some already in role, master, slave. As he approached he saw a couple getting out of a car. A larger man, portly, in black leather and a cap, jerking viciously on a chain. Attached to the chain by the neck, emerging after the man, was a younger man. Naked save for his collar, which he scrabbled at when the chain was yanked again. The older man barked a command and the slave responded submissively, crawling onto his knees in the gravel.

Evan watched from the shadows. The man cuffed the slave hard on the ear, and the slave lost his balance dropping one hand to keep from falling. He was rebuked again, and again he bowed, groveling. Evan spat.

When the two were finally out of sight, Evan stepped forward into the light of the building's spots. The parking area was nearly full. He turned toward the large building, it was a warehouse, it's sides corrugated steel. A simple door on the side led him into the interior. A converted machine shop. He walked slowly around the edge, taking it in with his eyes.

The center had been transformed into a large play area. Benches, horses, stocks, even some suspension equipment was set up. Around the edges were crosses. A number of them. Several already in use. Evan turned down several offers and made his way to the bar, which was serving... juice and soda. He scowled and nursed a Pepsi while he watched the play for another fifteen minutes. A young-looking man came up beside him and ordered a juice. Evan glanced at him. He couldn't see a flag, or an armband.

"Hi," the man said, smiling.

Evan nodded. He took a swallow of Pepsi. "You're not flagged," he said bluntly.

The man's smile broadened. "No, I'm not."

"Why not?"

"I don't need to advertise."

Evan thought about this. "How do people know what you're into then?" he challenged.

"They ask," the man said, just as bluntly.

Evan snorted and set down his drink. "Yeah... Nice chatting..." He strode off toward a scene that seemed to be winding down.

As the top took the bottom off the cross, Evan caught his eye and nodded. The man's eyes raked over Evan's body. Evan waited. The top spoke briefly to the man he'd just finished with, who nodded and disappeared into the crowd. Then he took the flogger he'd been using and tossed it into his bag and waved his hand over the array still left out on the bench beside him. Evan looked them over. He picked up a nine-tailed cat, and let the leather laces slide over his hand. The man raised his eyebrows doubtfully.

"This," Evan said firmly. He was aware that several people had stopped to watch. He pulled off his shirt and stepped to the cross. The man pulled his wrists up into the cuffs and secured him. Then asked him for his safeword.

"I don't use safewords," Evan said, looking the man in the eyes. The man began to silently undo the cuffs. "Okay! Red! My safeword is red!" The man looked at him for a long moment the tightened the cuffs again and stepped away.

Evan seethed. He could feel the anger tightening his gut into a knot. His breath came short and shallow. He tensed, pulling at his bonds, letting his anger pour into his muscles as he fought his bondage. Then the first stroke fell and his mind focused. Everything focused. His anger, his hatred, his fear flowed into the pain. The stinging burn across his back. And it kept coming. And coming. Soon he had no time to think of anything else. The anger was gone, the hate was gone, there was only the pain. The pure, perfect pain. The sweet, desperate struggle of agony. He bit his lip and closed his eyes, felt himself ride the blows like a river. He gripped the chains on his cuffs, steadying his breath. And soon there was no pain. There was only rhythm. The blows, his breath, his heart, his mind. It was timeless. He could stay there forever.

Then it stopped. And the anger surged back in, more bitter for its absence. He ground his teeth, opening his eyes. The man was speaking softly to him, but he couldn't understand the words. Everything seemed to be coming from very far away. He stumbled. The floor was unsteady. Someone yelled "safeword." He fell.

He opened his eyes to look into bright, hazel ones. He blinked. His back ached. And his wrist. He closed his eyes again. He thought he would throw up and told them so. Strong arms pulled him upright and helped him stumble outside. The air smelled like rain. He wretched himself dry into a ditch while voices spoke, unheard, over him. Finally, panting, he sat back on his heels and wiped cold sweat from his face and chest. His wrist was throbbing. As he looked at it, he saw it was beginning to swell, and he held it tightly against his abdomen.

Someone spoke above him. "Belly ache?"

He shook his head. "Wrist."

A dark figure crouched beside him and motioned for him to hold it out. His manner was one of someone who expected to be obeyed. Strangely, Evan didn't feel a surge of resentment toward the treatment; he simply extended the damaged limb for inspection.

Gentle fingers probed the base of his hand and his wrist, stopping as he gasped softly.

"I need better light," the man said, rising. He reached down toward Evan. Evan took the offered hand with his good one and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He looked around and saw several other men forming a loose circle around him. He flushed.

"I can take care of it myself," he said.

"Not tonight," the first man said simply. There was nothing in his tone to stir Evan's rage and rebellion so he followed, confused by his own lack of reaction. As they entered the light and sound of the warehouse again, Evan saw that the man was the same one he'd spoken to at the bar. Wearing black, unflagged, tall. Evan felt the beginnings of irritation in his gut. "Watch the floor for me, Mike," the man said, leading Evan into a back room. One of the other men nodded and they left Evan and the man in privacy. The man closed the door. Evan eyed him.

"Who're you?" he demanded, looking up into the hazel eyes, feeling anger stir at the very fact of the difference in their heights. The man gazed down at him coolly.

"David," he said calmly. "Who are you?"

"None of your damn business."

The man sighed and held out his hand again. Frowning, Evan extended his damaged wrist once more. The man studied it carefully. His fingers brushed the sensitive parts with great care. Eventually he gave another sigh and released Evan's hand. "You should have it X-rayed."

Evan pulled the offending limb back against his body and glared at the man. "No way."

"Do you have a car?"

"No."

"Do you have a friend here who can take you?" The man's tone was even and gentle. Evan swallowed.

"I don't need X-rays. I just want to go home. Okay?"

The man stared into Evan's eyes. Evan glanced away. "Have you passed out during a scene before?"

"No... It was just... A head rush... Nothing..."

"Do you remember what you felt before you fell?"

"I was in headspace... I was angry... He stopped too soon."

"You weren't able to check in." The man's gaze was cool and assessing, it made Evan uncomfortable. The whole interrogation was making him uncomfortable. His immediate reaction to discomfort was anger. He glared at the man.

"What the fuck do you care? It was my scene, anyway!"

"I don't like young men fainting at my parties."

Evan considered the man more carefully. "This is your party?" You're David Pacer?"

"I'm David Pacer."

Evan took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I fainted at your party, Mr. Pacer, I'd like to go home now."

David sighed. "It's raining." Evan hadn't noticed the rhythmic drumming of drops on the metal roof. "I'll give you a ride." The rain was indeed pouring down in sheets, making the parking area a giant mud puddle. They made their way quickly to the far corner of the lot to a plain, black Honda accord. Evan raised an eyebrow but didn't complain as he slid into the passenger side, out of the pelting rain.

*****

Chapter 2 [Top] [Next]

He directed the man through the darkened streets, glowing with the gleam of street lamps on wet pavement. He could see the dubious look on the man's face as they passed the dirty storefronts, alive now with the crawling life of after-dark. They turned onto several side streets before Evan directed the man to park in front of a crumbling brownstone apartment building. The man eyed it.

"Thanks," Evan mumbled, stepping out into the rain once more.

"Wait." The man climbed out of the car as well. Evan stared at him. "I'll walk you in."

"You don't have to..."

"I'll walk you in, would you rather stand in the rain and argue about it?"

Evan made a face and led the way up the narrow walk to the front steps. He unlocked the first doors, then the second, letting the man in with him. The hall smelled of sweat and cat piss, as it always did. The old man in 1a opened his door a crack to peer out at them as he always did. Evan threw up his arms and lunged at the door, grimacing, as he always did. The door slammed shut again, as it always did. The man behind Evan made no comment.

Halfway down the hall, Evan took the narrow staircase to the second floor, then to the third. He could hear the whip cracking even before he hit the landing. He scowled. Master was home. He felt David's eyes on his neck and set his jaw.

"You don't have to take me any further..."

"I'll see you inside," David said firmly.

Evan's scowl darkened. He stomped along the hall. A baby was screaming behind 3f, the television babbled behind 3d. At 3b, he stopped, fumbling with his keys. The popping crack of the whip echoed off the wooden floors of the apartment and reverberated through the door. Evan ground his teeth. He found the key and unlocked the door, pushing it inward.

Master let the whip tail drop to the ground as he turned flashing dark eyes on Evan. "Where've you been?" he growled.

"Out," Evan said shortly, stepping into the room. Master's eyes shifted beyond and above Evan's shoulder.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm David Pacer." David replied placidly, leaning against the doorjamb.

"He's nobody. He drove me home. It's raining."

Master was silent for a moment, then he jerked his head toward a back room. Evan turned, rebellion in every line of his body, and disappeared into the room. David watched uneasily.

"Thank you for returning him."

Something in the dark man's tone made David's skin crawl. There was an air of possession, ownership, but no empathy or emotion. David hesitated for another moment, but could find no reason to interfere in these strangers' lives. Finally, he nodded, and edged away from the doorway. He heard it close heavily behind him.

Evan crossed to the black, fabric-draped table and picked up his collar. He buckled it, without thought, around his neck. He glanced down at the assortment of toys and tools. He heard Master's heavy bootsteps in the doorway behind him.

"Where have you been?"

Evan fought to raise the flame of anger in his belly, to melt the quickly forming knot of ice. He didn't answer. He heard the whisk of the leather come off the floor and the crack a half-breath before the sharp pain seared his back. He opened his mouth soundlessly, arching his back against the pain.

"Answer." Master's voice was cold and hard.

His mind warred for a moment between rebellion and fear. He took a breath but his decision came too late, another sharp pain lit between his shoulder blades.

"At a party," he said quickly, keeping the hatred out of his voice. Barely. He tensed, ready for another lick, but it didn't come. Footsteps approached. He didn't turn. His wrist was throbbing.

A hard hand grabbed the back of his neck and threw him off his feet to the side. Evan stumbled and turned, losing his balance and falling to hands and knees. He rose quickly off his hands and sat back on his heels, eyes straight ahead.

"Take off your shirt," Master said brusquely, moving about the dungeon behind Evan. Evan complied slowly, tossing it aside. Master approached and kicked it farther out of the way. Fingers traced slowly over the lines Evan could still feel of the earlier flogging. "You want to be marked, slave?"

Evan didn't answer. He rose to his knees and placed his hands on his head. Master snorted behind him.

"Stay."

Evan spent hours that way. In the dark. His knees were beyond pain; they'd gone numb. His butt and thighs ached and trembled. His arms were dead weight; his hands were slowly slipping down toward his neck. The ache in his wrist had spread to engulf his arm to the elbow. A few minutes after leaving the dungeon, Evan heard Master leave through the front door. Now, he could see the faintest lightening of the darkness. Unless his eyes were playing tricks on him. He'd been seeing shapes in the darkness for hours.

He sighed and turned his mind inward. Downward. Into the blackness of hatred and anger in his gut. The smoldering pitch that only waited for a breath to give it life and force. He coaxed that hatred, nurtured it, fed it all of his pain and his misery.

The blow knocked him forward, his arms numb, he couldn't catch himself and fell to the floor. There was a faint glow from behind him casting strange shadows around the room. His concentration broken and blood flowing back into unused limbs, pain surged into Evan's consciousness. He had hit the floor hard. He gulped for air, winded, and tasted blood in his mouth.

"Position." Master barked.

Blinking dazedly, Evan forced himself back to his knees, nearly crying out loud at the pain. He tried to lift his arms, but he couldn't.

"I..."

Master didn't wait for his explanation. Evan felt a rough hand on his left wrist and a metal cuff clicked tightly around it. He groaned as Master pulled his other wrist up to meet it behind his head and cuffed it as well. He bit his lip until his eyes watered.

The heavy flogger fell again, knocking the wind out of him more than hurting. But he had to struggle to keep from falling again, and the muscles in his butt and thighs were trembling and weakening. Several times he had to shift his weight quickly on his knees to keep from overbalancing and new pain seared through his legs. The cuff on his right wrist bit into the swollen flesh, he struggled to keep the weight of his arm from pulling it.

"I'm sorry, Master..." he whispered, hating himself even as he spoke the words, but too desperate not to. It made no difference. Master didn't answer.

When Evan was sure the next blow would land him on his face again, it didn't come. His back was hot and tingly. He chewed his lip, hoping and praying it was over and he'd be allowed to sleep.

It wasn't.

He cried out in spite of himself as the rubber cat took him by surprise. Its unforgiving tails bit into his skin again and again. He tried frantically to focus his mind, to get into subspace, but Master was timing the blows too quickly to allow him to go under. He struggled, trying to manage the onslaught, to ride it, but the rhythm was uneven, and too fast. His face began to tingle, and he realized he was hyperventilating. He tried to choke down deeper gasps.

"Please, Master!" he cried, finally. "I'm sorry! Please!" To his utter amazement, the whipping ceased. He sank to his heels, panting; his back was a mess of aching stinging trails.

"Up!" The butt of a flogger handle thumped him in the middle of the back.

Evan nearly cried, but he forced himself back up. The knotted flogger struck without warning and he yelped. It was more than he could take. Tears began to stream down his face as the stinging whips did their work on his back.

Finally, his legs gave out and he sank to his heels, then let his forehead drop to the floor, cowering.

Master made a sound of disgust and stepped over Evan to unlock the cuffs, then hauled him up by the hair. Evan was trembling, terrified. He'd never failed before. But Master said nothing, only gave a downward jerk of his head.

Evan scrambled forward, still afraid he'd be thrown out. He unbuttoned Master's jeans and freed his cock, swallowing it and nearly choking in his anxiousness to prove he was still worth keeping.

*****

With Master sated and watching television in the bedroom, the anger surged back, despite the screaming pain from every corner of Evan's body. He unbuckled his collar and hurled it across the dungeon, letting it lie where it fell in the corner. He walked into the bedroom barefoot, in his jeans, and glanced at his back in the full-length mirror. It was welted and bruised but not bleeding. He set his jaw and looked at Master, relaxing against the headboard, drinking a beer.

"May I have a beer?" he asked.

Master didn't look at him. "You're underage."

Evan ground his teeth. That had never mattered to Master before. Evan glanced at the bedside clock. It was two in the morning.

"May I go out?"

This time Master did look at him. "Didn't you learn your lesson, boy?"

Evan met Master's gaze unflinching. "Yes, sir. I'm asking permission this time."

Master laughed unpleasantly. "I don't care, do whatever you want. Just don't come home with crabs."

"Yes, Sir," Evan said stiffly and pulled on his shirt.

"And boy," Master called after him.

Evan turned. Master's eyes were hard and sharp as obsidian.

"We aren't through with this."

Evan felt his stomach tighten. "Yes, Master." He let himself out quietly.

*****

Chapter 3 [Top] [Next]

The neon lights glinted off the still-wet pavement, but the rain had stopped. The bouncer didn't question Evan's ID, and he slipped into the throbbing darkness of the club. Dancers performed on balconies and platforms and the dance floor was still packed. Evan felt some of his anger melting away into the pounding beat of the music. He smiled grimly. A thin blond eyed him as he edged past. Not his type.

He worked his way through the throngs to the bar and ordered a beer, then stiffened. A few feet away and having just caught his eye, the blond man from the party, David Pacer was walking toward him. Pacer smiled and leaned close to Evan to be heard over the music.

"You okay?"

"Of course," Evan said irritably, trying to turn away without being blatantly rude.

"Things seemed a little...tense when I left you off."

"Things were fine," Evan said, setting down his beer and staring the man in the eyes, his jaw set and rigid.

The man nodded. "Okay." He smiled again. Another man came up and said something to Pacer that Evan couldn't hear. Pacer motioned for the man to wait. He took out his wallet and withdrew a card, patted his pockets, then asked the bartender for a pen. Evan watched with a raised eyebrow.

He flipped the card over on the bar and wrote a phone number on it. Evan raised his other eyebrow and stared at the man as he held out the card.

"This is my home phone number. On the front are my work and my cell. If you are ever in trouble, or you need someone to talk to, you can call any of those, okay?"

Evan took it, frowning, but he couldn't quite get angry. "Okay..." he said finally. "Thanks."

The man looked like he wanted to say more, but after a moment's hesitation he just nodded and smiled, then disappeared into the crowd. Evan looked at the card. It was a business card, it had David's name on the front. He flipped it over. The handwriting was firm and bold. He felt oddly disconcerted and realized that his body hurt. He waded onto the dance floor.

Finally, he made eye contact with a nice specimen. Submissive, but strong and willful. Knew how the game was played. They ended up at his place. Master didn't approve of bringing toys home.

When the boy was naked, Evan pulled off his shirt and slid out of his jeans, fumbling for the condom in his front pocket.

"No..." the boy said, looking over his shoulder at Evan. "I don't like rubbers..."

Evan gave him a humorless smile, rolling the condom over his shaft, then grabbed the boy by the hair and yanked his head back. He leaned in and bit the boy's neck until he whimpered and twisted under Evan's body.

Then raising his mouth to the boy's ear, he said softly, "Sorry, but you just *aren't* to die for..."

Evan fucked until he felt the rage cool in his gut. Then he came, pulled out, threw the condom in the wastebasket and walked out, still pulling his shirt on as he left. The boy didn't say a word. Evan never knew his name.

*****

It was after five by the time Evan arrived home. He eased his stiff and aching body onto his spot on the floor beside Master's bed and tried to think about nothing. Eventually, it worked and he slipped into a dreamless sleep.

He woke when Master kicked him at seven in the morning.

"Have this place clean before I get home," he growled. "People comin' over."

Evan groaned and tried to clear the fog of sleep from his mind. His body had stiffened even more as he slept and it protested painfully as he moved.

Master left at eight and left Evan alone in the house. Evan worked quickly to clean the small apartment, even scrubbing the kitchen and the hardwood floors spotless. He hesitated, then tidied up the dungeon as well. As he'd hoped, he had several hours left in the afternoon to watch television before Master came home.

He was alerted by the rattle of a key in the lock and leapt off Master's bed, switched off the TV and ran into the front room to stand, presentable, for Master's inspection. Again, he felt the heat of anger gnawing at his gut as Master's eyes swept over him and then the room without emotion.

"Get changed for guests," was all he said, then he disappeared into the kitchen.

Evan glared after him and stamped softly into the bedroom. He changed into slacks and a collarless, black dress shirt. Master came into the room behind him, Evan turned.

"Hold still." Master had Evan's collar in his hands and reached to put it around Evan's neck. Evan blinked. Master had never put his collar on him before. He was very still as the skilled fingers worked the leather into the buckle, then the dark eyes looked him head to toe. "Good." He left Evan alone in the room once more. Evan shook himself.

At seven, the guests began to arrive. They were men Evan had never met before. He didn't like how they looked at him, but he was in his collar and he held his tongue. He couldn't help the dark fire in his eyes however, or the set to his jaw. It earned him a firm tug on his collar once that had him swallowing uncomfortably for several minutes.

Evan knelt at Master's side when not on errands to and from the kitchen. The food looked good, but the hunger in the men's' eyes when they looked at him killed his appetite. There were seven of them. Master making eight.

"You lay an elegant table, Keith, and such excellent decoration," said one of them as the meal was winding down, looking directly at Evan. Evan stared daggers at him. Master smiled not noticing Evan's glare.

"Shall we retire to the dungeon, gentlemen? The evening is young..." Master said. Evan, felt a jolt in his gut.

"Indeed," said another, eyeing Evan. Evan felt the stirrings of panic beginning deep in his belly, he swallowed.

"Master?" he said softly.

Master looked at him.

"May I have a word with you in private, Master?"

"You don't have the privilege of privacy, slave." Master's voice was not unkind. Evan ground his teeth and glanced at the other men who were watching with interest.

"Master, may I ask what you have planned for this evening?"

"You may not."

Evan felt his breath shortening. He slid his gaze to the side. "Master, I don't wish to be shared with other Masters."

"Your wishes are not my concern, slave." Master's tone was hardening, Evan knew he was causing a scene. His jaw tightened, he swallowed.

"No." His belly clenched on the word. He knew what he was saying. What it would mean in the days to come. There was fire in Master's eyes. Master's hand closed around Evan's collar, tightening it painfully.

"You have no rights in this house," Master hissed and nearly pulled Evan off his feet, dragging him, half-stumbling into the dungeon. Tears of anger, humiliation and fear began to sting Evan's eyes. Master shoved him hard into the center of the room and he fell. "Up!" Master barked. Evan scrambled to his feet, feeling the hatred burning in his own eyes as they matched the fire of Master's. He was barely aware of the other men coming into the room behind Master. His chest was heaving. He was aware that his escape from the small, black room was very effectively cut off. He didn't take his eyes from Master's.

Master took a step closer to him. The blow came too fast for Evan to duck, he flinched back enough that it took him across the jaw rather than the cheek. His teeth rattled and his vision blurred for a moment as tears filled his eyes. He blinked them back.

"Undress."

Evan clenched his fists at his sides, staring up into Master's face. Another blow landed full across his face. He didn't duck. He staggered, tasting blood. The men in the doorway were smiling, their faces creased with cruel enjoyment.

"It is always a pleasure to see one broken in, Keith. Don't worry. He's young. I've seen them worse," one of them said. Master smiled darkly.

"He'll obey," he said, the third blow knocking Evan from his feet completely. He stayed on his hands and knees, watching the men in the doorway from the corner of his eye. He worked his jaw painfully and made a decision.

Slowly, he eased himself back onto his heels and began to unbutton his shirt. Master's hand fell softly on his head, his fingers lacing through Evan's hair. "Good boy," he said. Then abruptly his fingers tightened and he pulled Evan's head back viciously. He leaned close and said softly, "We *will* be discussing this later."

Released, Evan took deep breaths through his nose, trying to burn a hole through the floor with his eyes. His shirt was off. He waited for further instructions.

"Up. Undress."

The knot in Evan's stomach tightened as he looked at Master then at the other men in the room. His heart was beating hard. Slowly, he pushed off his shoes, then unbuttoned his slacks and stepped out of them. He could feel the men's hungry eyes grazing his skin. He kept his gaze on the floor.

Master grabbed his hair and nearly dragged him to the cross. Evan stumbled but kept his feet, gritting his teeth and resisting the urge to grab Master's arm. The cross was too tall for him. Master had built a special box for him to stand on and had put eyebolts and ankle cuffs higher on the beams so that his wrists could reach the cuffs on top. He knew what was expected, but anger was surging through him, even against the fear, he resisted.

"Get in position, slave," Master said harshly. Evan did not step up, did not raise his arms. He stared at the black wall through the crossed beams. He wasn't expecting the rough shove and didn't throw his hands out in time to save himself as the box tripped him and he fell forward into the cross. He scrambled to his feet, stunned. He could taste blood and feel wetness dripping from his nose. His tongue found a cut in his lower lip. He spun on Master, fists clenched. But Master's hand came across his face before he saw it, spinning him. The cross and the wall kept him from losing his feet this time, but he saw stars and the floor tilted dizzily. He looked up at Master. The man's face was set in a dark scowl. He looked more angry than Evan had ever seen him. Evan swallowed, nearly gagging on the blood. Slowly, he turned to face the cross once more and stepped onto the box.

Master didn't wait for him, he grabbed Evan's left wrist and slammed it into the first cuff. Evan held still as the leather was tightened beyond the normal notch, which itself held his wrist snugly. As Master did the same to his other arm, his left hand began to feel cold. The cuff tightened painfully on his swollen, right wrist.

"Master?"

His answer was a stinging swat. He ground his teeth and tried to work the cuff. His right hand was growing cold now as well and tingling. He tried to take a deep breath, to cool the rage in his chest. He closed his eyes, detaching his mind from what he was about to do.

"Master, I beg your mercy, I'm not worthy of your concern, but I beg you, they're too tight, I can't feel my hands."

Master didn't answer. Evan heard another voice.

"It's alright, Keith... Loosen them up, he's not going anywhere."

"He'll live," Master growled.

The shadowy panic that had been lurking in the recesses of Evan's mind began to ease its way into his full awareness. His breath began to quicken. His hands were numbing rapidly. He glanced at them. The skin was pale, the flesh under the nails was nearly white.

"Please, Master..."

He was swatted again. His stomach was churning. He bit his lip and fell silent, praying for it to be over quickly. He could hear Master's boots thudding on the wood of the floor, and he followed his movements to the rear of the dungeon then back to the cross. The blindfold went over his eyes. Across the room again. And back...

A crack like a gunshot echoed off the walls of the small room, and Evan grunted as pain seared across his ass. The force of the blow would have sent him stumbling forward if the cross hadn't halted him. He couldn't tell which paddle it was. It was wood, one of the heavy ones. He kept his mind focused on intellectual pursuits as the pain built with every swat.

Evan could hear Master's heavy breathing and his nearly inaudible grunts of effort as he threw himself into every stroke. His hands were completely without feeling, now, Evan noted distantly, he was beginning to lose his sense of the rest of his body as well. He could no longer feel the platform beneath his bare feet. He couldn't feel the rough leather of the cuffs around his ankles. Couldn't feel the unyielding surface of the cross as his body was forced against it with each strike of the paddle. His own cries sounded hollow in his ears. He closed his eyes on the darkness of the blindfold. Maybe he would send his mother a Christmas card this year... What a strange time to think about Christmas cards... It was still August... His mother? What day was this? Monday? The third? Or the fourth... Maybe it was Sunday... But Master didn't work on Sundays...

Evan yelped and jerked in his restraints. A new sensation had invaded his body. Someone touching him.

"Hold still." Master's voice came from across the dungeon. The hand slid down Evan's belly and over his cock. Evan willed it to remain still and he felt no stirrings. The hand moved to his balls, squeezing lightly, then harder. Evan realized he wasn't breathing, but he couldn't draw air into his lungs. He stood, rigid, a terror he'd never felt now coursing like ice water through his veins.

The hand was back at his shaft, fondling, stroking softly. Evan's eyes stung with tears as he felt blood begin to heat and swell, the familiar tightening as his cock began to rise in mocking betrayal. His own body was no longer his.

Evan began to count. Quickly. Senselessly. When he could no longer focus, he began again at one, chanting the numbers hoarsely in his mind. Another hand was touching his hip, then his ass. He felt his body stiffen as he drew a thready breath. The fingers were working their way between his cheeks, he couldn't fight, he couldn't move, he couldn't breathe. There was no sound in the room, he could hear only his thudding heartbeat and the rush of blood in his ears. He let out a soft cry as a finger, cold and slick, pressed against his anus.

"Condom's on the bench..." Master's voice was loud and discordant against the silence. Evan pulled slowly against his restraints, feeling a creeping horror building in his gut.

"You said he was clean." The voice came from somewhere very close, on his left side.

"I want to keep him that way," was the cold reply.

"You know us," said another voice to Evan's right.

There was no answer, but Evan heard a heavy sigh then a tearing of thick paper several feet away.

He was shaking. Mindless panic was threatening to engulf him. He needed to scream. He needed out. Now. He could feel the heat of a body behind him. A thought penetrated the violent fear. A desperate, hopeful, hopeless thought.

"Master?"

"Shut up."

Evan swallowed and carefully pitched his voice to submissive passivity. "Master, I have to go to the bathroom..."

There was a moment of silence. Then, "Hold it, you worthless shit, you've given me enough trouble tonight."

"Please, sir, I can't hold it..." Evan let a slight hint of desperation into his tone.

"Jesus, Keith, get him a bucket or something."

Evan swore silently and bit his lip, he thought frantically. "Sir, I have to take a shit. Please, Master..." This time he let even more of his very real desperation seep into his plea.

Someone swore behind him. He heard Master mutter something, then heavy boots fell on the floor, approaching him. Evan swallowed again. The blindfold was yanked off and Evan squeezed his eyes shut at the painfully blinding brightness. Master was working the cuffs on his ankles loose. Then his wrists. He grabbed Evan by the hair and pulled him backwards. Evan stumbled and fell off the back of the platform, yelping as his weight jerked Master's grip hard. He was blinking and squinting, trying to see in the light.

"Make it fast..." Master's voice was cold and hard. He gave Evan a shove toward the door and Evan struggled through it, not daring to look around the room as he escaped into the welcome dimness of the living room. He could barely walk, his body was stiff and numb. He couldn't move his hands, they felt like they belonged to a corpse when he touched one to his arm.

He heard voices as soon as he was free of the dungeon, and bare feet made no sound, even as he limped across the floor. He made it into the bedroom, and flicked on the bathroom light, awkwardly. Then he closed the door with an audible thump, and backed away into the center of the bedroom. He looked around frantically. At once he felt relief, terror and an aching sadness that tore at his breath.

The bedroom window was open. He wouldn't have to struggle with it. He scooped up his boots, jeans and a T-shirt and threw them out onto the fire escape. He winced as the old structure gave a rusty clang. He turned back to the room. He ran to the side of the bed where he slept on the floor and dragged his knife in its sheath from beneath it. Struggling, he managed to pick it up and carried it to the window as well. He bit his lip, looking around the room a final time.

He ran back to the bathroom door, opened it and flushed the toilet, then clicked off the light and padded back across the room, his eyes stinging with tears. He squeezed out through the window and onto the fire escape, the iron webbing cutting uncomfortably into his bare feet. He kicked all of his belongings off the landing, watching as they fell into the alley below, then he scrambled down the unsteady stairs. He stopped at the bottom only long enough to gather his things into a rough bundle, then he ran.

He didn't stop running for a long time.

*****

When he finally fell and laid still from sheer exhaustion, he was many blocks from home. He'd run through the alleys that connected the neighborhoods like a funhouse maze. He'd run through broken glass at some point and fallen, cutting his knee and hand on the shards, but he didn't feel the pain. All he felt was the awful, hollow, aching sickness that was seeping like tar through every cell in his body.

The rain was falling again. He lay on his back in the deserted darkness, staring at the slice of black sky between the silhouettes of the two tall buildings to his sides. As the rain slicked his face and ran into his ears, he allowed the tears to come. First slowly, mingling with the gentle droplets from above, then harder, sobbing until his chest ached and his voice was hoarse. The rain seemed to answer in its own, pounding down harder, rumbling with thunder, flickers of lightening brightening the sky. Evan didn't know when he fell asleep. Finally, he had no more tears of his own. He turned onto his side and curled into a ball, letting the world weep its own tears onto his naked body, his baptism to the streets of Denver, Colorado.

*****

Chapter 4 [Top] [Next]

The next day was grey and wet. So were his clothes. He struggled into them anyway, trying to pick the pieces of glass out of his knee and hand. He hadn't brought socks. He pulled his boots on his bare feet. It was uncomfortable, but his feet had come through the broken glass unscathed once, he wasn't willing to risk it again.

He sat against one of the buildings for a long time, staring. He had no idea what to do, now. He contemplated, briefly, returning to Master. He'd be beaten and forgiven. He could take beatings. But he couldn't be touched again. He couldn't be... He couldn't finish the thought. He felt a wave of nausea, then dizziness and realized he hadn't eaten since lunch the previous day. He worked his hands into his wet pockets and pulled out the contents. Three one-dollar bills, twelve cents and a white, crumpled business card. He stared at it. Then turned it over. In firm, bold hand, a phone number... Evan finally pushed himself up, his body aching all over. He could feel the bruises of the paddling and the stinging soreness in his back. He walked stiffly to the end of the alley and out onto the street.

He changed one of his dollars at a liquor store and found a pay phone on the next corner and pulled out the card again, biting his lip. Thunder grumbled somewhere in the distance. He got as far as lifting the receiver before a wave of hopelessness deadened his heart and he hung it up again wearily. He wandered farther down the empty streets. The rain was trying to make a return and even the homeless were against the buildings, under eaves and in doorways. The sidewalk was deserted. Evan kept walking.

He came on a McDonalds late-morning and bought a hamburger with another of his dollars, putting the third back in his pocket, worried. He wondered if he could actually starve to death in the middle of civilization. As he sat down to eat, he saw a little girl point to him and her mother quickly scold her and pull her hand down.

He flushed suddenly and touched his throat, he'd never taken off his collar. He unbuckled it quickly and looked at it for a long time, then looped it through his belt and re-buckled it. He stared out of the window for the rest of his meal, which he ate as slowly as possible. The restaurant was warm, and the rain had made good on its threats and was coming down again like grey curtains.

He finally couldn't justify staying there any longer and slipped out into the cold and wet once more.

*****

The rain had stopped by the next evening. Evan wandered down to the club where Master had first found him, secretly hoping to see him, even from afar. He found an awning across the street and leaned against the wall, watching the people go in and out. He shivered, he hadn't been dry for almost forty-eight hours, and he was hungry and broke.

"Waitin' for someone?"

Evan nearly jumped out of his skin. "Jesus!" He looked up at the man who'd managed to get within a foot of him without his noticing. The man grinned.

"Well?"

"No," Evan said, suddenly uncomfortable.

"So what are you doing?"

"Nothing."

The man looked him over critically. "You a runaway or somethin'?"

"No," Evan lied quickly, wishing the man would go away.

He shrugged and leaned his shoulder against the wall, facing Evan. "Okay..." He made no move to leave. Evan glanced at him. "Why don't you go in?" The man nodded toward the club.

Evan swallowed. "I don't have my ID."

"You're legal?"

"Yes," Evan said again, quickly, beginning to feel irritated.

The man smiled and was quiet for a while. Evan didn't like the way he smiled.

"Want to make twenty bucks?"

Evan looked at him. "What?"

"Want to make twenty bucks," he repeated. "You look like you could use it."

"How?" Evan asked, suspicious but too hungry and scared not to consider the options.

The man smiled again. "On your knees."

Evan felt a surge of hot anger but something clenched his teeth on a nasty reply. He felt his hands ball at his sides, but he said nothing. The man continued.

"If you're good, I'll give you twenty bucks."

Evan was silent for a moment, grinding his teeth. "How do I know you won't just *say* I wasn't good and not pay me."

"You'll have to trust me," the man said loftily.

Evan scowled. "Pay me now." A voice in Evan's mind was screaming wordlessly. He smothered it.

"That's not the deal. I can get it anywhere, I'm offering you a break. Take it or leave it."

Evan glanced at the club once more, then at the man. "I'm good."

*****

When he finished, he sat back on his heels and stared straight ahead while the man readjusted his clothes. A car drove past the end of the alley, tires whispering on the wet street.

"You're right, you are good," the man said lightly. He withdrew a twenty and extended it toward Evan. Evan didn't reach for it. After a moment, the man shrugged and let the bill drop, fluttering onto the puddled ground. "Don't spend it all in one place, kid," he said and walked away, out of the alley.

Evan closed his eyes, opened them and took a deep breath through his nose. He looked at the money beside him, flung himself onto his hands and threw up, his body heaving long after his stomach had surrendered all it had. Hot tears dripped down to mingle in the mud and bile. He sat back again, finally, panting and sobbing softly.

He picked up the bill without looking at it again and shoved it into his pocket, then he eased himself to his feet, his knee protesting the abuse. He took one step toward the mouth of the alley and the voice broke free in his mind, screaming with rage and horror. Burning, uncontrollable fury roared through his body. He swirled on the nearest wall howling, kicking and punching it with all his strength until finally the anger lost it's energy, cooled and darkened once more.

He stumbled back and fell on his ass, yelping at the still-painful reminder of Master's disapproval. His right hand was bloody and aching. He staggered to his feet and out of the alley.

He began to walk again.

*****

He ended up back at the McDonalds and cleaned himself up in the bathroom, stemming the flow of blood as best he could. Then he went out to the counter. He pulled the twenty from his pocket and fingered it without looking at it. He stared blankly at the menu for a long time, then looked at the money. Finally, he put it back in his pocket and turned away.

He noticed several people staring at the collar at his belt.

"My dog died," he snarled. They all looked away quickly and he stomped out of the restaurant.

*****

By the next night, he couldn't close his right hand. He was faint and dizzy with hunger. The night was mild but he was shivering and couldn't get warm. He huddled against a building, watching cars on the distant freeway.

The moon was high and small when Evan finally made a decision. He dragged himself to his feet and stumbled half a block to a pay phone. He dropped two quarters into it and fished the business card out of his pocket. Slowly, trembling, his gut tense and nervous, he dialed the number on the back of the card.

His heart thudded against his ribs as it rang once... twice... three times... Evan bit his lip.

"Hello?" The voice was sleepy but warm. Evan suddenly had visions of a home and a bed... "Hello?"

"Hi," Evan said quickly, broken from his reverie. "I... This is..." He suddenly realized the man didn't even know his name. It had been days since he'd given Evan his number, he probably didn't even remember him. "I'm..." He stopped, waves of insecurity battering his handhold. "Sorry..." he whispered and dropped the receiver back on the cradle.

*****

Chapter 5 [Top] [Next]

David blinked in the darkness, staring at the glowing keys of the telephone, which now buzzed with a dial tone. He pushed down the trigger with his thumb and the light extinguished along with the sound. He lay, holding the receiver, for some minutes before he lifted his thumb again and dialed three tones.

*****

Evan was sitting on the concrete in a doorway cataloguing his pain. His knee hurt, it had become hot and swollen, as had his left hand. His right hand was aching, hot and swollen, and his knuckles were scraped, split and bruised. His wrist was swollen and stiff. His back was still sore from that night that now seemed from another lifetime but was probably only a few days ago. His ass was sore. His belly ached with hunger. His head ached. His muscles were sore from retching. The cut on his lower lip was still tender.

He closed his eyes and tucked himself into a ball.

"Hey..." The voice was gentle and warm and oddly familiar. Evan looked up. A tall figure was backlit by a streetlamp. Evan couldn't see his face. The figure sank to a crouch in front of him, shifting the angle of the light. Evan felt his eyes go wide.

"David Pacer?" The man from the party, the man from the club, the man on the card, the man on the phone, David Pacer.

"What are you doing out here?"

Evan swallowed wrong, coughed, and opened his mouth, but he had no answer. "Sitting..."

"Oh..." David glanced at Evan's right hand, then back at his face. "Are you hungry?"

Evan nodded helplessly, feeling tears rise in his eyes. He fought them back. David didn't seem to notice. He pushed himself to his feet then extended a hand to Evan. Evan started to reach for it with his left hand but stopped at the flare of pain. David was looking at that hand now. Evan thought he saw the man's lips press together very slightly, but he said nothing, just reached down further to take Evan by the forearm and ease him to his feet.

Evan followed silently to David's car. The black Honda. He got in the passenger side and felt a wave of deja vu. He was too tired and weak and hungry to answer questions, and David didn't ask any. Evan just sank back into the seat and closed his eyes again.

He opened them at a light touch on his leg. They were in a parking lot. Evan glanced around. A Denny's parking lot.

"Come on. I'll buy you dinner. Or breakfast... Whatever." David gave him a slight smile and climbed out of the car. Evan got out his own side and followed the tall man into the restaurant.

*****

As they sat in the booth, Evan scanned the menu.

"I'll just have toast," he said quietly, glancing up at the man who would be paying for it.

David looked at him intently for a moment then reached across the table and took the menu from Evan's hands. He folded it and set it on the bench beside him.

"Order what you want."

"That's what I want," Evan assured him.

David shook his head.

"Order what you *want* not the cheapest thing on the menu..."

"But I want toast," Evan said somewhat plaintively.

David nodded this time. "You may have toast, but only if you order something else."

Evan squirmed, uncertain. "Juice?"

David blinked and stared at him. Evan tried to look innocent. He wound up with pancakes, eggs and sausage before David was satisfied. Along with his toast, which he held out on as a matter of pride. He tried very hard not to gulp the food down desperately, as he wanted to. He thought he could never eat enough again, but in the end he couldn't finish the last of the pancakes. His belly was full and warm.

When the waitress picked up the plates, David leaned back and gazed at Evan for a moment.

"How old are you," he asked.

"Twenty-three," Evan said automatically.

David looked at him. "I bought you dinner, the least you could do is tell me the truth." He said it gently, but Evan felt a flash of anger.

"You didn't say there was a price. What else are you going to expect now?" He scowled.

David was unfazed. "The price is your age. Your real age. Nothing else."

Evan looked at him. "I get all that just for telling you how old I am? What do I get for fucking you?" David didn't blink. Evan sighed. "Sorry," he muttered.

"It's okay, I haven't given you any reason to trust me, yet."

"You haven't given me any reason not to," Evan mumbled, knowing his anger had been slightly misplaced.

David sighed. "Somehow, I get the feeling that in the world you're from, you get a lot farther on the 'guilty until proven innocent' theory than the other way around."

Evan stared at him for several seconds. "Sixteen."

David took a steady breath. "Thank you."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-three." Evan shot him a hard look. "I'm for real..." The man was silent for a moment. "May I see your hands?"

"I thought the price was my age."

"It was. This is just a request, you can say no."

Evan watched him for a long moment then slowly extended his hands. David took his left first, touching it lightly as he turned it palm up, exposing the ragged cut to the light. Evan didn't look at it. He knew. It was dirty and red and hot and swollen. He thought he could still feel splinters of glass in it but couldn't see them to pull them out.

"This is infected," David said.

Evan had no answer so he was silent. He felt David release his hand, and the gentle touch moved to his right. He hissed as light pressure sent a bolt of pain up his arm. David worked for another minute, then released that hand as well.

"And I think that's broken. Were you in a fight?"

"No." Evan didn't feel like expanding. David didn't push him. They were both quiet for a moment. The waitress came to refill David's coffee.

"Did you ever get that wrist X-rayed? It's still swollen."

Evan shook his head.

David sighed and was quiet for a moment. "When I dropped you off that night, the man in your apartment, is he your boyfriend?"

Evan hesitated, feeling a stab of aching sadness and regret. His fingers went to his collar at his belt. "He was my Master..." he said softly.

David's voice was infinitely gentle, but the words still pained Evan's heart. "Did you break up?"

"Kind of," Evan said quickly, fighting the tightness in his throat. David waited. "I can't go home..." Evan said finally, as means of explanation. David didn't ask any more questions.

"You need to see a doctor. I don't suppose you have insurance..."

*****

Chapter 6 [Top] [Next]

In the car, David pulled out a cell phone. "He's a friend," he said, "He's scene friendly, and he won't ask questions. And...he'll do it cheap."

"I don't have any money," Evan insisted stubbornly.

"I'll pay for it."

"No!"

"Evan..." Evan realized that this man was the first person to call him by his name in months. He blinked.

"I hate doctors, I don't need to, just let me go, I'll be fine." He was feeling trapped and panicky.

"He's a nice doctor. He'll take good care of you. I'll stay with you, you need care. I'm not letting you back on the streets like this."

Evan tugged at his seatbelt nervously, watching the streetlights pass. "I don't want to go to a doctor..." He tried to get angry, but David's gentleness was disarming and all he could feel was fear.

He listened as David dialed a number and spoke to someone on the other end.

"...He's a kid. I found him on the street... No, I know.... No... It's a long story. He needs help. He's got an infected cut, and I think he might have broken something in his hand. Maybe his wrist... I don't know... Just don't... I know... Okay. Thanks, Rick."

*****

They pulled into the parking lot of a wide, one-story building with multiple entrances marked with hanging placards naming the practitioners within. Another car was already parked near one of the entrances. David pulled up beside it and turned off the engine. Evan felt his stomach knot.

"It'll be okay," David said softly. He gave Evan's forearm a light squeeze then got out of the car. Doggedly maintaining steady breaths, Evan stepped out onto the pavement and looked around.

A man had emerged from the other car. He was slightly shorter than David and he didn't look at all like a doctor, Evan thought. He was young. His brown hair was cut short and frosted at the top. Though sleep-tousled, it still held some of it's gel-spiked form. He wore a small diamond stud in his left ear and was dressed in slightly loose jeans and a body-hugging, white T-shirt. He glanced at Evan. His eyes were hard to read. It made Evan more uneasy. David put a light hand on Evan's back.

"Evan, this is Rick."

The man smiled, showing even, white teeth. "Hi, Evan," he said. His voice was soft and melodic. "I'd shake your hand, but David thinks you broke it."

Evan swallowed and managed a mumbled "Hello."

"Let's go inside," he said, shaking a key loose on a ring.

He opened the outer door onto a wide hall paneled in dark, rough wood. David and Evan followed him to the end of the hall, past a glassed-in courtyard, to another door. The brass plaque beside it read Helios Clinic. He unlocked it and flicked on a light. Evan glanced around the waiting room.

It was carpeted and furnished with wood and upholstered chairs. In one corner was a small, low table covered with children's books and large legos. Between some of the chairs were small square tables with magazines scattered on them. In an alcove by the door was a small counter with a sink, a coffee percolator and a water cooler. Along one wall was the biggest aquarium Evan had ever seen. Strange, colorful fish swam amidst green, swaying plants, anchored in the gravel on the floor of the tank. It hummed and bubbled softly in the quiet room.

This was not the kind of doctor's office he was used to. He was used to cold tile floors, disinfectant, white coats... Evan felt a hand on his shoulder and pulled his gaze away from the aquarium. David guided Evan ahead of him as they followed Rick through another door and down a narrow hallway. Soft watercolors hung on the walls at pleasant intervals. There was a scale at the end of the hall where they stopped. Rick turned to Evan.

"Take off your shoes, please."

Evan's stomach was still twisting, but he kept the panic under control as he toed off his boots and stepped onto the scale as the man indicated. He stared at his feet as the doctor adjusted the weights on the balance. Then there was a light touch under his chin.

"Look straight ahead."

The bar was brought down gently to the top of his head. He straightened as much as he could. Rick lifted the bar and motioned for Evan to step down.

"How old are you, Evan?"

Evan opened his mouth, then glanced at David. "Sixteen..."

Rick nodded and gave him a slight smile. "Come in here."

He led the way into a room to the left. It was large and pleasant. The floor was carpeted. There was an oak desk against the far wall beside a large window. There were several chairs near the desk and there was a large, broad-leafed plant in one corner. Bookshelves lined one wall, and several framed photographs and framed diplomas decorated another.

Evan followed Rick to the desk and seated himself nervously in one of the chairs at the doctor's indication. David sat in another, and Rick sat in the one at the desk, facing the two of them.

"So," he said in his soft voice, fixing Evan with grey-green eyes. "How long have you been on the street?"

Evan shrugged, trying to count the days, but they had blurred together. "I don't know, not very long..."

"Did you prostitute?"

Evan flushed, remembering the alley. He could feel David's eyes on him. He didn't answer.

"Did you use protection?" Rick asked gently.

"I didn't let anyone fuck me," he responded, trying to be angry, but it came out sounding childish and fearful.

"Okay." Rick reached out and took Evan's left wrist, turning it palm up. He studied the wound. "How did this happen?"

"I fell on some glass in an alley."

"Were you cut anywhere else?"

Evan hesitated. "My knee."

Rick released Evan's wrist and pointed to his right hand. "And how did that happen?"

Evan started to answer then stopped, looking at David uncertainly. David was watching him, his eyes showing a hint of concern. Evan took a deep breath. "I hit a wall," he said quietly. He expected questions, but Rick took it in stride.

"Is that when you hurt your wrist, too?"

Evan glanced at it. "No, that was a couple days before... I fell..." He looked at David.

"At a party," David added quietly. Rick's eyes flickered to David, something was said between them in that glance that Evan couldn't read. He shifted nervously.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

Evan shook his head.

"Okay, Evan. I need to look at your knee and I'd like to examine the rest of you to make sure you're okay. You'll have to get undressed, is that alright?"

Evan's heart began to thud, but he nodded mutely.

Rick gave him a reassuring smile. "You'll be fine. We need to go into an exam room, now. Okay? Would you like David to come?"

Evan glanced at David. "Is that okay?"

"Sure, Evan. Whatever makes you comfortable."

*****

The examination room was more like what Evan had been expecting but still different. It had a hard, white floor, one wall was lined with cabinets, counters and drawers. Various containers were lined neatly along the back of the counter. There was a sink in one end. But on the opposite wall was another of the pastel watercolors. And a window in the far wall was draped with pale, rose-colored curtains. The floor was cold on Evan's bare feet. He glanced at Rick.

"I'd like you to take off your shirt and your jeans, you can leave your underwear on," he said.

Evan blushed. "I..." He licked his lips, nervously. "I don't wear underwear."

"Oh." Rick chewed his lip thoughtfully for a moment. "Okay, just take off your shirt for now. Do you need help?"

Evan shook his head. He began to pull his shirt off and faltered, unable to use his right hand. Both men looked away casually, murmuring softly to each other about their own business. Evan swallowed, and gratefully struggled out of the free from pity or sympathy. He balled the cloth nervously against his belly and held it out Rick took it from him and set it aside, nodding toward the examination table. Evan climbed up and sat on the end, the paper crinkling under him. David leaned against the wall near the door.

Rick touched Evan's neck gently, probing. Then brought a stethoscope out of one of the drawers and checked his lung sounds and heart from the front. But when he moved behind Evan he stopped. Evan looked at him. The man's eyes were focused intently on Evan's back. Evan felt a gentle touch trace one of the still painful lines.

"Who did this, Evan?" Rick asked, nodding David over. As David looked, Evan saw his jaw tighten.

"My Master..."

"What is your master's name?"

Evan was silent. Rick moved back around to face him.

"What is his name, Evan," he said firmly. Evan clenched his teeth and stared back into the green eyes.

Rick took a deep breath and changed tactics. "Is that why you ran away?"

Evan shook his head.

"Why did you run away?"

Evan didn't answer.

Rick sighed. "Okay." He finished with the stethoscope and set it on the counter. "Lie back for a minute."

He probed Evan's belly gently, then let him sit up again. David remained in the corner behind Evan, he hadn't spoken a word.

Rick pulled a cloth gown out of one of the drawers. "Take off your jeans and put this on so I can look at your knee. We'll leave while you change."

"No," Evan said quickly, suddenly not wanting to be alone. "It's okay, you can stay..." He unbuttoned his fly and shoved down his jeans, stepping out of them. Rick was handing him the gown, just as he heard David's voice from behind him.

"Evan, turn around please." Evan felt a wave of sick fear, but he turned slowly to face David. He expected the man's eyes to rake over his naked body, but David's gaze never left his face. He heard Rick hiss. And there was a light touch at his hip.

"Did your master do this as well?" Rick demanded, his tone had grown sharp. Evan flinched.

"Rick..." David's voice was calm and even but Evan heard the warning in the word.

"Yes," Evan said softly. The anxiety that had begun to fade now thrummed through him once more.

"Does it still hurt?" The question was softer now.

"A little," Evan admitted, blushing.

"You can turn around." Rick handed him the gown and he slipped it on.

"Wait," said David behind him, and he felt deft fingers tying the back.

"Hop back up," Rick said, "I'll be right back."

He returned a moment later with a rolling goosenecked stand, with a large, round magnifying glass in the center of a circular light. He pushed it up to the table and leveled the magnifying glass in front of the wounded knee, then pushed it to the side.

"I need to give you a shot so I can clean this out without hurting you."

Evan felt his belly drop. "No! Please... I don't want a shot. You can just clean it. I can handle it."

"Evan..."

"No! Please!" Evan heard his voice rising frantically.

David was at his side in a breath and had a hand on his back. "It's okay, Evan... We won't do anything you don't want."

Rick looked uncertain. "Evan, it's going to hurt much worse to clean it than it will to get a shot..."

"No... Please..."

Rick looked at David. Evan, sensing a power struggle, turned his pleas toward David. "Please, don't make me..."

"It's alright," David said softly, keeping his eyes on Rick. There was some kind of communication happening between them, and Evan knew his fate in the next five minutes depended on the outcome of that silent argument.

Rick sighed finally. He pulled a stool from the side of the table, then began taking instruments from drawers and setting them on a tray, along with gauze and a dark bottle. He looked pained.

He set the tray on the stool, pulled another stool from the corner of the room and swung his leg over it, rolling it close to the foot of the table. Then he pulled on latex gloves, soaked some of the gauze with the liquid in the bottle and wiped gently at the wound. Evan felt as if fiery needles shot up his leg. He gave an involuntary jerk and gasp. Rick looked up at him.

"Sorry," Evan murmured, abashed. He tensed against the pain reflex as Rick touched him once more. He cringed, gritting his teeth and clawing at the sides of the table.

Rick made a soft noise and leaned back abruptly. "David, this is barbaric." His eyes focused on Evan's. "I'm not doing it this way. You can take the shot, or you can leave it the way it is. If you don't get it cleaned out, you'll get sick. You'll end up in the hospital with a needle *taped* into your arm. And you'll consider yourself lucky if you don't gangrene and lose your leg."

"Rick!" David said sharply.

Tears welled up in Evan's eyes and spill down his face. He felt trapped and panicky.

Rick ignored the reprimand. "Are you going to take the shot?"

Evan began to shake, the tears falling fast, he hugged his belly, fighting the icy grip that was rapidly tightening around his gut. He felt David's arm around his shoulders, the warmth of his body. Heard his voice, gentle in his ear.

"It will only take a second, then it will be over. Evan... It's okay... Close your eyes, hon. Just take a deep breath and it will be over..."

Evan felt something wet his skin, then wipe it dry. Then a sharp pinch. He yelped.

"It's over, Evan," came the voice in his ear. "All finished. No more pain. Calm down, baby. It's okay."

Gradually, he was able to take hitching breaths, and the tears slowed. David was stroking his hair, still holding him against his chest. Evan looked at Rick.

The man looked tired and sad, and Evan felt a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry..." he whispered.

Rick reached out and laid a hand on Evan's thigh. "It's all right, kid, you're alright now."

Evan desperately hoped David wouldn't let him go, but he resolved himself not to ask.

Rick began to ask light questions. Evan's favorite restaurant. What he liked to eat. Had he ever been to the amusement park, what were his favorite rides? Evan answered them automatically, feeling the fear subsiding as his mind focussed on the mundane. David continued to hold him.

After a while, Rick picked up a metal instrument and touched it to the wounded knee.

"Feel that?"

Evan shook his head. Rick expanded the area of touches until he was satisfied everything he needed to work on was sufficiently numb, then he swung the magnifying glass in front of the wound and began to work.

"At least you had the wits to fall on *green* glass," he muttered, his brow knit in concentration.

Evan said nothing.

Once the knee was cleaned and bandaged, things progressed similarly with Evan's left hand. Perhaps with a little less drama over the shot. Evan watched Rick extract the bits of glass and gravel with fascination. He felt nothing, it was like watching it happen to somebody else. Rick scrubbed the wound out with dark liquid, then bandaged it as well. He looked like he was about to say something, then stopped. He licked his lips.

"You need anti-biotics, those are badly infected."

"Give him pills," David said quickly.

Rick grimaced. "I don't have any here, you'd have to fill a prescription..."

"I'll pay for it." Evan looked at him in surprise.

"And..." Rick continued as if David hadn't spoken. "He's a runaway."

"I'll watch out for him."

"Can I see you in the hall for a moment," Rick sounded irritated. Evan watched, wide-eyed, as the two men went out and closed the door.

*****

"I'll make sure he takes the pills."

"What if he runs again? You can't watch him night and day for the next two weeks..."

"He won't run..."

"Give me a break, David. He's scared to death and totally loyal to his fucking master. I'll lay good money on him being back with the bastard by the end of the week."

David looked unhappy. "We can't put him through all that a third time..."

"I'll make it fast. If he runs, David..."

David sighed heavily.

*****

When they came back in, Evan saw that David's expression was grave. He reached up and ruffled Evan's hair. Rick looked uneasy, too. It gave Evan a very bad feeling...

"Evan," Rick said gently. He took a deep breath. "I need to give you one more shot."

Evan felt his jaw tighten and his stomach clench. He swallowed.

"You need anti-biotics for the infection, and I can't give you pills. It will be really fast. It's going to hurt a bit, but I'll make it as easy as I can, okay?"

Evan couldn't stop the helpless tears that came to his eyes. Resigned, he nodded mutely.

"I need to give it in your hip." Evan winced, feeling the lingering soreness there. Rick noticed his expression. "I'll find a place that isn't bruised..." He looked at Evan for a moment, then said, "Why don't you stand up and face David, he can hold you if you want."

Evan nodded, tears still sliding down his face. He did as he was told. David wrapped him in a firm embrace. He noticed that his head didn't even reach the man's chin. There was a moment of silence in the room, broken only by the sound of Rick's preparations. Then Evan felt the gown lifted, and spot swabbed and dried, then a sharp pain. He gritted his teeth.

Then there was a new sensation, an ache as he felt the fluid forcing it's way into his flesh. He whimpered and David's arms tightened around him.

"It's alright," David murmured. "Almost finished."

The needle came out so quickly Evan didn't have time to flinch. He felt the spot wiped with some cotton, then Rick put a band-aid over it and dropped the hem of the gown.

He touched Evan's back briefly with his palm. "Why don't you get dressed now, Evan."

*****

Rick studied Evan's right hand.

"So you hit a wall... Can I ask why?" Evan hesitated and was saved from answering when Rick sighed. "Never mind." He manipulated Evan's fingers gently. "Can you make a fist?"

Evan made a sincere effort, shuddering with pain. Rick touched his arm.

"Alright..." He began to work over Evan's fingers and hand. Evan gritted his teeth, trying not to jump or pull back too obviously. Finally, Rick let him go and looked at David. "Well... Everything seems to be where it's supposed to be, but I'd like an x-ray."

"Can you do that here?" David asked.

Rick chewed his lip. "I could take it myself... It's been a long time... I don't usually deal with broken bones. I might miss a hairline fracture. What time is it? Maybe I can call in a favor."

"It's four-thirty. But, I'd rather not take him to the hospital." There was another of the silent exchanges past Evan's head. He waited, heart thumping. He hated hospitals.

Rick, sighed. "David, you *so* owe me. Jen is going to kill me."

"Thanks, Rick."

Evan felt a wave of relief.

Rick pulled his cell phone from his belt and dialed. He put it to his ear and fixed David with a hard look. David said nothing, just rubbed small, slow circles on Evan's back.

*****

Jen was an attractive woman, who looked to be about David's age. She arrived with her strawberry-blonde hair tied in a disheveled pony tail and wearing old jeans and a faded sweatshirt. And she, it turned out, was indeed unhappy. Rick flinched at her glare. But her smile to Evan was warm and friendly.

The lab was in another part of the building. She unlocked it and took Evan inside, taking the x-rays with brisk professionalism. She talked to him cordially for a few minutes while the film developed, then carried the black sheet with her as she guided Evan back to the clinic.

Rick and David met them in a different room than the one they'd been in before. This one had a lightbox in it, which she jammed the x-ray onto and flicked on. Evan looked, fascinated, at the skeletal image of his own hand. He felt David's hand on his shoulder.

Jen tapped the image with a pink fingernail. Rick was studying it carefully. "Yeah, I see it," he muttered. "What about this?" He pointed to another spot on the x-ray. Jen frowned and looked more closely.

"Well, guess you didn't need me after all, did you?"

Rick cast her a sideways glance. "Sorry..."

Jen shook her head and gave Evan a good-natured smile. "You broke your hand, Evan..."

*****

Evan slumped into the passenger seat of David's car and thumped the cast against his thigh. It itched already.

David was talking to Rick in the parking lot. Evan tried to listen to what they were saying, but he was too exhausted. He curled up in the seat and closed his eyes.

*****

Rick dragged his hand over his face wearily. "You should take him to a shelter, David... You can't just take home every stray you run across in your life."

"Would you take him to a shelter?"

"Yes," Rick said firmly, meeting David's eyes for a moment. Then he let his gaze slide away. "Okay! No, I wouldn't... But Jesus, David. What are you going to do with a *kid*?"

"Find out who his master is for one thing," David said darkly.

Rick snorted. "Yeah, when you find that out, let me know, too."

David nodded.

"I think he's been a runaway for a long time, David. Just a feeling. He hasn't been well cared for."

David looked over at the boy in the car. "He doesn't look starved..."

Rick's expression was serious. "He's not healthy. Physically or emotionally. Are you sure you know what you're taking on?"

"I'm not dumping him in a shelter, Rick. *Or* back on the street..."

Rick's mouth closed with a click of teeth. "I never suggested that," he said tightly.

"I know," David rubbed his eyes with one hand. "I'm sorry. It's been a long night.

"Yeah... Well... Good luck. Am I going to see you on Friday?"

"I'm not sure. I'll see how it goes with this kid."

"Yeah," Rick muttered and shook out his keys. "Goodnight, David."

"Goodnight, Rick. And thank you."

The doctor shrugged and disappeared into his car. David sighed and turned to his own door. He opened it and got in to find Evan asleep in a ball on the seat beside him.

*****

Chapter 7 [Top] [Next]

Evan woke with a start. He was in a bed. His heart began to pound and he flung himself out of it and onto the hard wood floor. For a sickening moment he thought he was back in Master's house, but as he got his bearings, he realized that the dimly lit room was not familiar. The only light bled through the drawn shades on a large window across from the bed. The door was closed. The bed he'd been asleep in had white sheets and a black comforter. There was a nightstand to one side with a lamp on it, a dresser in one corner and a bookshelf across one wall. A large, black and white photograph of a mountain range decorated another wall.

Evan swallowed, the events of the previous night coming back to him in surreal detail. He glanced down, he was still in his own clothes. His boots were set neatly beside the bed. He fingered his collar at his belt absently then felt a stab of sadness and loss. He put on his shoes and opened the door onto streaming sunlight.

He was in a single, large room, one wall was lined with bay windows. On his left, a black, leather living room set formed a loose semi-circle around a glass and chrome coffee table, centered around a large entertainment center. Television, stereo equipment, speakers. To his right was a small kitchen, separated from the rest of the room by a bar-style counter. A dining table sat under one of the windows near the kitchen. There were three doors other doors. Two along the same wall he'd just come out of and one on the same wall as the kitchen. He guessed by the peephole that that was the front door. A hallway led down to his left beyond the living room.

David, sitting at the dining room table, working on a laptop computer, glanced up at him as he stepped into the large room. The floor was a warm parquet of light-colored wood. Very different from the darkly varnished hardwood floors of Master's apartment.

"Good morning," David said. "Sit down..." He indicated the other chair at the table.

Evan walked slowly to the table and eased into the chair. David rose and went to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of cut up fruit, a bowl of cereal and a carton of milk.

Evan looked at the food. He didn't feel hungry. "No, thanks..."

"Eat," David said firmly.

"I'm not hungry."

"You owe me," David said, his tone was gentle but the words rankled. Evan glared at him.

"Then stop doing me favors," he said angrily.

"Eat."

Evan picked at the fruit and ate a few pieces, then glowered at David. David said nothing, just reached across the table and pushed the cereal closer to Evan. Evan ground his teeth, but the fruit had awakened his hunger and his stomach gnawed at him. He poured some milk onto the cereal and began to eat silently.

David turned back to his computer and the quiet tapping of keystrokes was the only sound in the room for several minutes.

When Evan finished, he pushed the bowl away and watched David for a moment. David typed for a few more seconds then stopped and glanced up at Evan.

"Do you want more?"

Evan shook his head.

David nodded slightly and closed the laptop. He folded his hands on the tabletop and looked at Evan intently. "Where are your parents, Evan?"

"Dead," he said bitterly.

"I'm sorry." David was quiet for a moment. "When did they die?"

"When I was fourteen."

"Who raised you?"

"Nobody. I ran away from the foster home, I raised myself." Evan felt the old anger burning in his belly. He knew it was in his eyes. He knew this man hadn't earned his hatred, but he couldn't stop it from coming through.

David took a deep breath. "How long were you with your master, Evan?"

Evan looked away, pained. "Almost two years..."

"Did he know how old you were?"

Evan tightened his jaw and didn't answer. He could feel David's eyes on him. He stared out the window at the cityscape. The silence lengthened.

"Yes," Evan said finally, angry with himself for giving first.

"What was his name, Evan?" The tone was infinitely gentle, but Evan bristled.

"Master," he said sharply.

"What did his friends call him?"

Evan opened his mouth then his mind flashed back to his final night there. Master's friends... David must have seen something in his expression because he reached out and put a hand on Evan's arm.

"It's okay, never mind," he said. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Evan, you can stay here for as long as you like. I'd like you to stay. But I'm not offering you a free ride, you'll have to pay your way."

Evan's stomach clenched. "I don't have any money..." But he was certain the man wasn't talking about money.

"No, I don't mean with money." Evan's jaw tightened. "I mean with work. You'll pick up after yourself, you'll help with the cooking and the cleaning up. And you're going to finish your education if you're going to stay here."

Evan gave him a hard look. "I'm not going back to school..."

"You can work on your GED. From here. You will *not* go out without permission, and you *will* follow my rules."

Evan glowered, but the offer was better than any of his other options.

"Yes, sir..." he said sullenly. He waited for the rest, but it didn't come. Later, he decided, it would come later...

*****

The first thing David did was give Evan some twine to tie his collar to his belt loop so that it would lie flat against his hip. The second thing that he did was set a sheet of paper and a pen on the table in front of Evan.

"I want to know what it means to be a sub. Write it down. Everything."

Evan glared at him. "Are you collaring me?"

"No," David said evenly. "I'm educating you. I told you your education was one of the conditions of staying here. Right?"

"I know how to be a sub," Evan said darkly.

David looked him straight in the eyes. "No, Evan. I really don't think you have any idea what it means to be a sub."

"I bet I've been one longer than you have," he snarled.

"I wouldn't lay money on that, Evan. I'm not a sub, but I don't think you've ever been one either... A victim yes, a bottom maybe, not a submissive. I don't even know if that's what you want."

"How the hell would you know? You don't know shit about me." Evan's voice rose slightly, his breath had become short and quick.

David shrugged placidly. "Just guessing. Write it down and we'll see if I'm wrong..." He turned away and went into the kitchen.

Evan ground his teeth and turned to the paper.

He sat for a while, sulking. Finally, he clenched his teeth and looked up at David. "Okay," he said, angry. "I'm not a sub."

David came back to the table and sat down. "Why do you say that?"

"Because I'm not submissive. I don't beg, I don't grovel, I'm not a fucking spineless..."

"Is that what you think it means to be a sub?" There was no condemnation in David's voice, just mild curiosity. "When is your birthday?"

"The twelfth of September."

"That's in a month."

Evan shrugged. "I don't celebrate my birthday."

"Why not?"

Evan shrugged again. "I just never did..."

David sighed and tapped the paper. "Write down what it means to *you* to be a sub. Not to anyone else."

Evan thought about it for a while, then began to write slowly.

*****

David looked over the neatly lettered essay. Then he looked at Evan. Evan squirmed.

"This is really what you think?"

"Yes..."

"This is all about the dominant's needs and desires. What about what the sub wants?"

"Subs don't have wants."

David stared at him for a long time. "The sub's wants are ultimately what controls the relationship."

Evan looked skeptical. "No they aren't. The sub's wants mean nothing. The sub's place is to please the dom."

David was quiet for a moment. "The sub's place is to find a dom whose desires match his own. As it is the dom's responsibility to find such a sub. Ultimately, the sub's desires control the scene."

Evan snorted.

David's eyes were intent on his face. "Why did you leave your master, Evan?"

Evan was quiet, he studied the tabletop vigorously, fingers working at the leather of his collar. "I failed, I was a bad sub," he said finally, softly.

David stared at him for several moments. "That's not possible," he said flatly. "If he forced you to run away from him, he failed, not you. A dominant who drives his submissive to the streets has failed in the worst way. And a dominant who must beat a child into submission to satisfy his own urges is not a dominant at all. He is a coward and a fool."

David's voice had grown sharp. Evan expected to feel angry at the words, but he didn't, he felt only deeply sad and depressed.

"He was my Master," Evan whispered, feeling tears rise in his eyes. David was suddenly by his side, pulling him to his feet and leading him to one of the armchairs where he sank down and pulled Evan onto his lap and into his arms.

"I know," he said gently as Evan curled up on David's lap. "You'll find a new master. I promise." He stroked Evan's hair. "And when you do, you'll know your own power and he'll know it, too. And you will know how amazing and worthy you are of all the respect and love and loyalty he will show you."

The words didn't make sense, Evan couldn't wrap his mind around them, but the tone was soothing, comforting. He allowed the aching tears to slide silently down his face and squirmed down deeper into the warm embrace.

The were both quiet for a very long time. Finally, Evan sighed. "What will I do until I find him?" he asked in a small voice. He felt very lonely and very lost.

David's hand smoothed Evan's hair. "You'll live. You'll learn who you really are. You'll make real friends. You'll heal."

"But what if I fail? Who will catch me? No one will save me..."

David was silent for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"If I fail... If I do something wrong... If I'm bad... No one will stop me, I'll fall and no one will catch me, I'll get hurt again, I'll... I can't be on my own..."

"You're not, hon. You're with me... You're sixteen, Evan. No one expects you to be on your own." There was a silence. David shifted slightly to look into Evan's face. "What did your master save you from, Evan. What are you afraid will happen?"

Evan didn't answer, his gut was tight and aching. He struggled to breathe. Old pain was creeping into the corners of his mind and filling his belly with ice.

"It's okay, Evan," David pressed gently. "No one will hurt you here. You're safe. I will protect you. Rick will protect you. You'll meet others who will protect you. You're not alone anymore. Even if you fail, we won't let you be hurt. We won't let you hurt yourself... Is that what you're afraid of?"

Evan nodded slightly. He couldn't explain it, now. Maybe not ever. He felt nauseous. He knew they couldn't protect him. They wouldn't want him if he failed and he'd be alone.

David changed tactics slightly. "Evan... How can I help you? What do you need me to do to keep you safe?"

Evan gave him a strange look. Then thought about it. "Punish me," he said softly.

David looked at him. Finally, he said, "What kind of punishment?"

"Real punishment," Evan said, confused. "When I'm bad. So I'm not bad anymore. So that I can't fall..."

David said nothing for a long time. Then, softly, "Evan... I don't think you're bad. Maybe you behave badly sometimes. Mabye you've done things that were bad. But I don't believe that in your heart you are bad."

Evan swallowed. "I am. I feel it inside. I'm mad and I hate people... Everyone... I want them to hurt..." He choked on the words, feeling a sudden rush of shame, he didn't want to be touched, he felt filthy. He squirmed against David's arms, but David tightened the embrace.

"Look at me, Evan." There was cool authority in the voice and the hardness of tempered steel. Evan let himself relax into the blissful simplicity of following an order and turned his face toward David's. The deep blue eyes seemed to look through him, into his soul. He swallowed, uncomfortable, but unable to look away. Finally, David spoke.

"I don't see evil, Evan. I see fire..."

*****

Chapter 8 [Top] [Next]

As he stepped out of the elevator, David cringed at the music pounding along the walls of the narrow hall. He wrestled his key into the lock and shoved the door open.

Evan was perched on a hardwood barstool he'd dragged across the large room and set in front of the bay windows. The only light came from the soft glow of a floor lamp near the fireplace. Evan's reflection in the dark glass glittered with the lights of the city beyond. David caught his expression just as the final line of the song echoed in his ears.

"See the young man sitting in the old man's bar. Waiting for his turn to die..." The final chords dissolved into silence along with the reprimand on David's tongue. He crossed the room and turned off the stereo. The quiet settled with a tangible weight on the room. He swallowed, wanting to find the right words but uncertain they existed. "Evan?"

The boy didn't move. His expression did not change. "I'm going out tonight," he said finally. His voice was cold and soft.

David felt the old, tired fist tightening on his gut. He took a deep breath for the battle. "We've had this discussion. You don't go out without me. You don't go out after ten."

Evan didn't move. "You can't stop me."

David sighed. "You've made that abundantly clear, but if you continue to break the rules of this household..." David hesitated. "There will be consequences."

Evan gave him a sidelong glance. "What are you going to do?" he asked a slight sneer curling his lips. "Spank me?"

David gritted his teeth. "When you came here I told you that you were welcome to stay under certain conditions."

Evan's face darkened. "I meet your fucking conditions," he said coldly. "I clean, I shop, I do your fucking homework assignments."

David's voice hardened as well. "Watch your mouth, young man. I also said that you would abide by my rules. Whatever I may decide they are. And one of those rules, I seem to recall, has to do with you not going out alone, at night."

Evan glared at him for a long time. Over the past six weeks, his gratitude to David for taking him off the street had ceased to outshine the increasing chafing of rules and responsibilities. And a driving force from deep within pushing him, pushing the rules, pushing David. After several long moments of silence, Evan said shortly "Try and stop me."

David's eyes flashed with a hot anger Evan had seen only once before. That first night, six weeks ago, when he'd seen those marks of Master's displeasure on Evan's body. Evan stiffened, slightly afraid, but quickly stoked the quiet rage that would harden the fear into strength and purpose. He slid off the stool and brushed past David, directing himself toward the front door.

A strong hand caught his upper arm and turned him roughly. Evan's eyes widened. He tried to pull away but David caught his other arm and pulled him toward the dining table. He was unceremoniously tumbled into one of the chairs. Struggling to burn his rapidly growing anxiety into hatred, he pushed himself up and glared at the man standing before him.

David looked down at the angry young man, arms crossed over his chest, face impassive. "Where are you going?" he asked with frightening calm.

"Out," Evan spat.

David raised his eyebrows. "No," he said firmly.

Fear and fury warred in Evan's stomach. That force that he didn't completely understand, that he could never fully pull into the light, only watch flicker around the corners of his consciousness pushed again, hard. "Fuck you," he snarled, shoving himself out of the chair and past David once more. But David's hand caught his arm again, only this time, the other hand came down hard across the seat of his jeans.

Evan felt a tidal wave of emotions crash over him, spinning him. He stared at David who had abruptly let him go and was looking startled and uneasy. His voice was shaky as he spoke, "Go to bed now, Evan. We will talk about it in the morning."

Evan just blinked, too stunned to close his mouth. He let his gaze fall to the floor and his hand drifted behind him. Confused, fearful but with a great, hopeful certainty, he felt himself sink to his knees, settling down on his heels, bowing his head. "I'm sorry, sir," he whispered.

Then David was holding him, pulling him to his feet. "No, no, Evan..." he murmured, pain in his voice. "I'm sorry, hon, I'm sorry... Don't do this."

Evan froze for a moment, confused, as David turned his face to meet his eyes.

"Honey, I'm sorry, Evan. You don't have to do that. I'm not going to hurt you."

Evan blinked. Suddenly, crushing pain made him gasp, then before he could catch his breath, rage born of hurt misted his vision. He fought violently in David's grasp. His mind barely registered David's soft voice as the strong arms held him. He gritted his teeth, furious strength surging through his body. "Let me go..." he hissed.

"Evan..."

"Let me go. Let me GO!"

With a final, wild shove, he was free. He stumbled backward, chest heaving. David watched him, his eyes sad, but he made no move toward the boy. Evan felt tears begin to rise and grasped the brass key on the scrap of leather lace around his neck. With the last vestiges of reckless power he ripped it loose, the leather biting into his skin before the knot gave and he flung it down.

"Don't follow me," he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. "Don't touch me, don't follow me..."

*****

Chapter 9 [Top] [Next]

Evan found himself running again. Through the alleys, in and out of the shadows, until his mouth tasted like copper and his lungs burned.

But deeper than that pain was a dull ache in his belly and an ache in his chest, an ache that had become so familiar. He was tired. He was tired of running and tired of hurting. He didn't want to cry anymore. He wiped at his tear-streaked face with his sleeve as he slowed to a walk.

He came out of the end of the alley onto a well-lit street. He glanced around to find his bearings, then turned purposefully, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets and headed for the place he knew he could get what he wanted. What he needed.

*****

Soon, the quiet hum of motors and whisper of tires of passing cars became whispers of distant voices and strains of music.

Evan followed the lights and the sound. He watched the people who began to pass him on the sidewalks. Laughing, drinking. He passed the mouths of alleys, heard sounds he didn't want to remember. But he was back. Back in the world that appreciated him, the world that he knew, that he could control, that made sense.

He flashed his ID at the bouncer who didn't give him a second look and slipped into the pulsing darkness. His mouth twisted and he glided between the bodies, raking his eyes over them, feeling their eyes move over his.

He found a corner where he could see the dance floor and was still for some time, letting the pounding music numb him, dipping into the old erotic, predatory language of desire and arousal that had gone unused all his time with David.

Eventually, he made contact with one he liked. Their eyes moved over each other, assessing, seeking and finding what they wanted. The man separated himself from the other he'd been dancing with and wove through the bodies separating himself and the boy.

Evan flattened his back against the wall and cocked his head, looking up at the man from under his lashes. The larger man set his hands on the wall to either side of Evan's face and bent close, his lips brushing Evan's ear.

"Looking for somebody?" his voice was a low rumble under the pulse of the music.

"Some *body*," Evan murmured in response.

The man raised an eyebrow, a twinkle of amusement in his dark eyes. "Any *body* in particular?"

"Oh yes," Evan purred. Letting his tongue trace the tips of his teeth as he pushed himself away from the wall, narrowing the distance between their bodies, his eyes on the bulge in the front of the tight levis. "I'm *very* particular." The man gave a hunter's smile and snaked his fingers into Evan's belt. Evan brought his eyes up and raised an eyebrow. "Buy a boy a drink?"

*****

Evan picked up his second drink and turned back to the dance floor. Suddenly a hand gripped his shoulder painfully and hauled him around. He looked up into the face and a curse died on his lips. The glass fell from his suddenly numb fingers and an icy cold radiated out from his heart, quickly spreading to the farthest reaches of his senses.

"Where ya been, boy?" The easy drawl was laced with terrifying, calm cruelty.

Evan choked on an answer. "Master..." he gasped out, finally. He winced as the man's hand wound into his hair and yanked hard.

"Think you can run away from me?" Evan looked into the man's chiseled face and wanted to throw up.

"Sir..." He tasted blood as the back of Master's hand crashed across his mouth. Master's other hand, still in Evan's hair, pulled hard, dragging Evan through the dark bar and toward the back of the club. Evan stumbled to keep up with the long strides. His breath was coming in short gasps. Fear gripped his chest, constricting his lungs.

Then they were outside, the air was cooler, fresher. Evan glanced up to see a slice of stars between the buildings that sided the alley before his face was shoved hard into the brick wall. Stunned and dizzy, feeling warm blood cool quickly on his skin, Evan didn't struggle as Master's free hand worked on his belt buckle, then unbuttoned his jeans.

Gathering his senses, Evan tried to squirm away, but Master put a hand in his back shoving him hard against the unyielding wall and knocking the wind from him. Evan gasped. He scrabbled to get his hands between his body and the bricks, fighting to draw air into his lungs. Evan felt rough hands tugging his jeans over his hips.

"I gave you far too much slack. I should have done this a *long* time ago," Master hissed in Evan's ear. Still reeling from the blows, panic began to rise in Evan's chest. He struggled to free himself from the vice-like arms that caged him between the wall and the body of a man twice his size. Master snaked one arm around Evan's throat and squeezed, the other hand went to his own fly.

Despite the pressure on his throat, Evan fought wildly, but the man's grip on him was too strong, and the chokehold effectively cut off any chance at screaming. His muscles were weakening and his lungs ached for air. He felt Master's hot skin, hard against his, pushing into him. Tears of terror and helplessness spilled down his cheeks.

Suddenly, Evan heard another voice behind him. Very close and strangely familiar.

"Hello, Master..."

The grip around Evan's throat loosened and Evan slid to the ground gulping air. His head was spinning and aching and he was sure he was going to vomit. He crawled backward in the dirt and gravel of the alley floor. When he finally was a good six feet from Master's feet, he looked up and saw a second man standing behind Master, holding something at his throat. A car passed on the street beyond and Evan saw a glint of steel in the stranger's hand. Master stood very still.

The stranger turned to look at Evan, the bleeding glow of a streetlight lit the grey-green eyes.

"Go home, Evan. Go to David." There was a frightening intensity in the command. Evan, shaking and gasping, staggered to his feet, pulling up his jeans. With a final look at the shadowy figure, he turned and ran.

*****

When his mouth tasted like blood and he thought he would faint for need of oxygen, he finally stopped running. He stumbled to his knees on the empty sidewalk and coughed violently until his throat spasmed. He retched into the gutter.

When finally he could breathe, he fell over onto his side and curled into a ball. The reality of what he had so very narrowly escaped hit him hard and abruptly. For a moment he couldn't draw breath then he sobbed. The tears ran onto the sidewalk filling his sinuses with the smell of damp cement until his nose began to run. He sobbed violently until his belly and sides ached and his throat was raw. But, finally, the tears slowed, then stopped. The wrenching sobs faded. The terror eased.

Painfully, Evan uncurled and pushed himself up. He sniffed miserably and glanced about. There was a storm drain six inches from his left boot. He looked at it. Then his hands went to the collar on his belt and unbuckled it.

He looked at the narrow strap, running the black leather through his fingers then he closed it in a loop and knelt in front of the drain. Carefully, he pushed the collar into the dark maw and between the bars of the grate. He hesitated for a moment, then opened his fingers, letting it fall into the blackness.

Steel bands tightened around his lungs, more sobs wrenched their way from his throat. He slid down onto his knees in the gutter, wrapping his arms around his belly and lowering his forehead to the cold metal bars of the grate.

"Master... Master... Master..." he sobbed until it became a mantra of desperate sorrow. Of pain that leached the heat from the final, lingering embers in the darkest corners of his soul. "Master..."

*****

Evan didn't look up as the footsteps approached and stopped a few feet behind him. He was curled up on his side in a doorway, studying the dirt in the cracks in the cement. He waited for the pain of a heavy boot in the ribs, but it didn't come. As the silence lengthened, dull curiosity began to gnaw at him. Painfully, he turned his head to look over his shoulder. He was pinned by intense grey-green eyes.

For several moments, Evan couldn't look away. Then finally, he pulled his gaze around and pushed himself up to sitting. He tried to find something biting to say to the young doctor, but he couldn't. And not only because the man was his rescuer. Evan felt broken inside. Dead. He couldn't find his anger.

Rick took a few steps closer and sank down into a crouch. He reached out gently and turned Evan's face toward him. Gentle fingers brushed his cheekbone and he jerked back, swallowing. The rough bricks had not been kind to his face. A, now dry, smear of blood across the back of his hand bore silent testimony to that wound.

Carefully, Rick tilted Evan's chin up and touched the darkening bruises on his neck.

"Can you swallow?"

Evan tried and nodded.

"Take a breath for me," the tone was gentle but commanding. Evan slowly drew air into his lungs, cringing as his ribs moved. Concern narrowed the doctor's eyes. Evan softly touched his chest and winced.

Rick gave Evan a questioning glance, then carefully lifted the hem of the boy's shirt. Evan closed his eyes and sighed, wincing again, then hissed softly as the doctor's palm pressed lightly against his ribcage.

"Deep breath," Rick murmured.

Evan gritted his teeth and inhaled, pain stabbed his chest under the doctor's hand, but he filled his lungs, holding his breath for a moment before Rick nodded and pulled his hand away. The doctor rose, looking weary, and reached down.

Evan looked at the offered hand, then into the face above it. He shook his head.

"Come on, kid. You're not sleeping on the street tonight."

The soft voice tore at Evan's breath, he swallowed the sudden ache that tightened his throat. "I haven't got anywhere to go," he muttered, scuffing the sole of his shoe against the cement.

"You're going back to David."

Evan risked a glance at the man, his expression was set and unreadable. His voice was emotionless.

"Can't..."

"Why *can't* you?" The emphasis was subtle, but patronizing. Evan felt a slight spark of annoyance and snatched at it, coaxing it.

"Fuck off." The words lacked the heat he would have liked, but they were comforting. A familiar landmark in a strangely empty emotional wasteland.

Rick raised an eyebrow. "You go to David or you come home with me and the cops pick you up as a runaway. Choose."

Evan stared at him, grinding his teeth. He couldn't even work up a good scowl. He was just tired. Very tired, he realized. His mind seemed to be working more slowly than usual. He took a moment to examine the phenomenon with detached interest. Then eased himself back onto the ground and curled onto his side. He shook his head again.

"Can't go home..." he sang softly. A wave of anguish broke over him and he closed his eyes, riding it until it receded again into the barren waste.

*****

Chapter 10 [Top] [Next]

David walked to the door, feeling slightly numb and not sure what he really expected to feel. Evan's abrupt entrance into his life had been a sudden and heavy weight on his mind and heart. He was torn between wanting to help and wanting to have back the freedom of being young himself.

He opened the door and the surge of relief and dread that overwhelmed him did nothing to clear his quandary. Evan stood half in the shadows, arms folded over his chest, his face a mask of disinterested defiance. He bared his teeth slightly, managing to turn the wince into a dark glare as Rick's hand tightened on the nape of his neck, and he was pulled into full view of the doorway.

The conflicting emotions within David fell mute before the dark shadow of horror as the right side of Evan's face and throat became visible. David reached for him, but he flinched back angrily, finally raising his eyes. David stared into the grey eyes, searching for a name to the sudden cold that came over him when he met that gaze.

"David..." Rick pushed Evan through the doorway and followed him, gently guiding his friend away from the door and closing it quietly. David still watched Evan, but the man's eyes were now narrowing thoughtfully, his face drawn tight with worry. "He's fine... He's going to take a shower..." Rick's voice was low and even. Far too calm, David realized, suddenly pulling himself from his own thoughts.

"Yeah," he said. "That's good." He watched Rick take the boy into the bathroom, then walked to the kitchen and set his palms on the countertop to stop the shaking. He closed his eyes and cursed softly.

The shower hissed to life, muffled behind the bathroom door, then Rick let himself out and closed the door again behind him. David opened his eyes and watched the other man approach him warily.

"Who did it?" His voice sounded oddly flat to his ears.

Rick's eyes narrowed. "His throat or his face?"

"His eyes..." Old grief suddenly tightened his chest. God, not again... "Was he...?"

Rick opened his mouth and said nothing, working his jaw for a moment. "I don't think so. I don't...think it went that far." He nodded toward the table. "Let's sit down. I need a drink." He rounded the counter and pulled glasses and a bottle from one of the high cupboards. David stared at him until Rick shoved him with his elbow. "So do you. Sit down."

*****

David stared down into his glass. The sharp, icy cold that had gripped him before had begun to thaw as the alcohol burned his throat and spread numbing warmth through his belly. He took another swallow of whiskey, it felt only mildly warm and smooth going down his throat, then Rick was beside him, lifting the glass from his fingers.

"When you stop coughing on it, it's time to stop." He gave a slight smile and settled back into the chair across the table. David gave the bottle a last glance then focused on Rick.

"What happened?"

They'd both sat in silence for a long time, David unready to hear what Rick knew, and Rick lost in his own thoughts. Now, with the alcohol providing a pleasant, cottony barrier against the sharper edges of emotions, David waited for the blow.

Rick stared at nothing for several more seconds. "He was playing cute with some guy then I lost him. I thought they might have gone into the alley, but I couldn't get to the door fast enough."

David's face had darkened. "Do you know the guy?"

"It wasn't the guy." Rick's voice had taken on a strange, detached quality.

"Who was it?"

"It was him."

David stared, his chest felt tight again, he didn't want to ask. He didn't want to know. "Who?"

Rick's eyes focused abruptly on David's face, they glittered as hard as polished stone and his lip curled away from his teeth in a feral smile that chilled David's gut.

"Him..."

*****

They both jumped as a muffled crash reverberated through the bathroom door. Rick gave David a questioning glance, even as he was shoving himself to his feet and moving toward the bathroom. He had a two step head start on David, who had regained it with his longer stride by the time they reached the door. The shower was still running but there was no other sound.

Rick thumped the side of his fist on the door. "Evan?" He waited a breath. "Open the door, Evan. Now!" The doorknob rattled ineffectually in his grip. He bared his teeth and cast a glance back at David whose face was set and determined. "Sorry..." he muttered, and threw his weight into the door.

Wood splintered and Rick stumbled into the misty room. The cool air poured in behind him, thinning the steam, but it was still thick enough to obscure all detail more than vague shapes and shadows. Something crunched under his boots as he made his way forward, breathing slowly. The air was so hot and moist that it was almost viscous, choking his lungs. He could hear the water streaming from the shower head. And he heard David's footsteps crunching behind him. Nothing else.

He stepped to the edge of the tub and a veil of steam whispered out of his way. Evan stood very still. Shards of glass created strange eddies in the water running off his body. The streams poured over his head and face, running into his eyes and his mouth. He made no effort to step out from under the spray. Through the rivulets, he watched Rick without emotion.

Rick held the boy's gaze and smoothly raised one foot over the edge of the tub, settling his weight cautiously on the slick fiberglass surface. Glass grated, setting his nerves on edge. He took a breath. "Don't move."

Evan did not respond as Rick lifted him out of the glass, staggering back slightly, trying to adjust his grip on the slippery body. Then David was beside him with a towel, taking the weight off his arms as he rebalanced himself. As David carried Evan into the bedroom, Rick reached into the spray to turn off the taps. He snatched a towel off the back of the door and scrubbed the water off his skin, shivering in his wet shirt despite the temperature of the bathroom. The glass glittered, a thousand shining beads scattered across every surface of the bathroom. Rick took a deep breath and crunched through them, banging the soles of his boots at the doorjamb to free any shards. Then, he walked slowly toward the bedroom already regretting what he had yet to do.

*****

Evan was huddled against the headboard of the bed. David was on the far side of the bed, facing the boy. He was obviously giving the kid enough space to feel safe, Rick noted as he entered the dimly lit room. Rick approached slowly and sank to a crouch beside the bed, close enough to touch Evan's leg. He let the boy look down at him for several seconds before he spoke.

"Evan, I need to talk to you about some things... They might be hard to talk about, or embarrassing. Do you want David to stay? Or would you rather he wait in the other room?"

Rick felt a stab of pain in his chest as he saw a flicker of deep, primal fear in the dark, grey eyes before they dulled again to lifeless slate. Evan's shoulders twitched in an almost imperceptible shrug. David glanced at Rick then began to rise.

"I'll be outside, okay Evan?"

The fear flashed again, this time Rick saw the quick draw of breath and adrenaline tense Evan's body. "No!" The word was soft, but desperate and it froze David as effectively as it cut Rick's heart.

"Okay," David said gently, easing himself back onto the bed. Evan studied him for a long moment then turned his eyes back to Rick.

"What do you want to know?"

Rick tried to hold the boy's gaze then let his drop to the floor, suddenly unnerved. He grasped at clinical detachment and took a deep breath before looking up again. This time, his eyes were steady. "Please tell me what happened, tonight."

A ghost of a smile played at Evan's lips and his eyes became distant. "You were there... You tell me..."

"I saw a man trying to rape you."

The smile vanished, muscles quivered along Evan's jaw and he began to shake his head. The movement was small, abrupt, desperate, but the eyes were still unfocussed and empty. "That's not what happened."

Rick waited. He was aware of David, barely in his peripheral vision as he studied the boy. He could almost heard the slow, concerted breaths. He took one of his own, and another. Whatever control had slipped in Evan, the boy was regaining it. He smiled again and focused abruptly on Rick.

"I'm his."

Rick's voice came out slightly husky. "Where's his collar, Evan?"

The grey eyes darkened with fiery hate so quickly that Rick blinked and caught and fought back a physical flinch. He sank into the darkness in his own belly and felt his own rage harden into obsidian resolution.

"Was there penetration, Evan?" The hate still filled the boy's eyes, but it was weakening against something else. "Did his penis touch your anus?" Evan flinched away, his gaze shifted rapidly about him, but avoiding falling upon either man. His breath was coming in short violent breaths. He pressed his back to the headboard, pulling his knees up close. He would hyperventilate in seconds.

"Stop it."

Rick jumped at the sharp command and gathered himself carefully before letting his gaze slide sideways.

Evan's eyes went wide and his breath became hitching gulps which were at least slowing his intake of air. He stared at David, for the first time since Rick had met him, looking very much the child that he was.

David took a slow, deep breath and let it out. "It's okay, Evan. Breathe, please. We just need to know so we can be sure you aren't hurt."

Evan closed his eyes and flinched away from something he found in that darkness. Rick watched miserably as Evan's face crumpled then was hidden, tucked into his arms, hunching over his knees in a protective ball. The boy's voice was muffled, but the words were clear.

"He didn't... He touched me... But he didn't..."

"No penetration?" Rick asked gently.

Evan shook his head, face still buried. "No... He tried, but... You were there. I couldn't stop him..." Then he raised his face and stared into Rick's eyes. "I couldn't stop him."

The tears began silently, but soon became a soft sobbing keen. Rick eased himself onto his knees and slowly reached out to stroke Evan's hair. David touched the boy's shoulder lightly then pushed himself off the bed. He pantomimed "tissue" over Evan's head and Rick nodded slightly.

He watched Evan fight the grief; fight the tears, his body taut, the anguish soft, leashed. But, he could say nothing. He could do nothing but sit beside him. Offer his physical presence. There was nothing else. He knew. Nothing else could touch that yawning chasm of blackness inside. Evan was on his own, to walk up to the edge of it, to let it pull him in, protected only by a faith that he would come through the other side. That there even was another side. Rick's gaze fell. Strength of faith that he, himself, had never found.

*****

"Rick?"

"We're not going there, David."

David smiled faintly, but it didn't touch his eyes. "You don't know where I'm going..."

"You should smack his ass,"

David blinked. "Well, it wasn't there. And, I am not going to 'smack his ass." He pulled Rick down onto the couch beside him to stop the restless pacing. Rick squirmed, but David wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "I'm not going anywhere near his ass for a while."

"I didn't mean tonight." Rick scowled.

"Besides, he's not a child; he's a young man with a strong sexual identity..."

"A fucked up sexual identity..." Rick interrupted.

David raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm going to smack *your* ass in a minute."

Rick fixated on the windows. "You can't," he said smoothly, "you're not my master."

"I'm your best friend, that outranks master any day..."

A ghost of a smile pulled at Rick's lips. "Does it..."

David pressed his lips to the other man's hair for a moment. "Alright," he said softly. In a flurry of movement, he grabbed Rick's arm and began pulling him over his lap. Rick squawked a protest and flung himself onto the floor and out of reach.

David laughed softly as Rick glared at him. "Be quiet, you'll wake him."

"And spanking me *won't*?" he growled. A shadow of old pain flickered across his face and David felt the answering twinge in his belly.

"I'm sorry."

"I told you we aren't going there." He bent his knees and rested his forearms on them, his expression darkening again. "I should have slit his throat."

David was quiet for a breath. "You're not a killer."

Rick pressed his lips into a thin line. "No," he said reasonably. "But, I think I could have lived with myself on this one..."

David said nothing. Rick crossed his legs and folded his arms over his chest, studying the floor.

"God damn you," he said abruptly, his eyes focusing on David. David raised his eyebrows.

"Do I get to know why I'm being damned?"

"You got me involved. Now I'm all... attached."

"You mean you *don't* think I should dump him in a shelter?" David said mildly.

Rick glared at him. "No," he replied in an equally mild tone. "I think you should smack his ass."

David rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and let his head fall back against the couch cushions. He studied the high, white tiles for a while.

"I *know*, David. So do you."

David was silent for a while longer before bringing his gaze back down to meet Rick's. "I thought we weren't going to go there."

Rick gave him a tight smile. "Yeah." He rose and grabbed his coat from the chair. "I gotta get home. Work tomorrow."

David stood, reaching out for his arm. "Where are you staying now?"

Rick stared at him.

"I ran into Vincent, he said you two broke up. Three weeks ago."

The smile grew brittle as Rick slipped the restraining hand and shrugged into his coat. "Yeah."

"I thought you were serious."

"Haven't we had a long enough night, David? Let's get really trashed this Friday and I'll tell you all the glorious, gory details of my failing sex life. Then we can go clubbing and see if we can't get ourselves fucked raw before coming home to our empty, useless lives and telling each other that it's all okay because we still have each other, and friendship is what really counts in life... Hell, you've got a houseboy, now, you can even have him come in and shovel it out when we're finished."

For a moment, David could only stare at him, too stunned to react. Rick spun and walked toward the door. David took a breath and suddenly the emotion of the evening broke loose in a hot fury.

"Freeze." The word was not loud, but it carried the strength and power of righteous anger and natural confidence of a dominant who knows he will be obeyed. Rick stopped three steps from the door. David could see his shoulders moving slightly as he breathed. Heavy, angry breaths. "Turn around. Now."

Rick ground his teeth, scowling at the floor. Regret over his words only heated his anger. He felt tears of fury and frustration and helplessness and sadness threatening to overwhelm him. He didn't want to cry. Not here. Slowly, he obeyed, forcing his gaze up to meet David's then, flinching, pulling it away.

"I'm sorry."

"You are so lucky..." David stopped, knowing he was about to let his temper take him into dangerous territory. He rethought his words. "Are you trying to hurt me or looking for a beating?" Rick felt the tears rise and began to turn away. David raised his voice very slightly. "Look at me!" Rick winced.

"I can't do this, David! Not tonight! Jesus Christ! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be bitchy. Please, let me go."

"Come here."

Rick sighed and gave in, letting the tears spill down his face. Slowly, he walked back to his friend and bowed his head. "I'm sorry."

"Where are you staying tonight?"

Rick hesitated. "I don't know, yet." He couldn't look up as the silence became painful.

"I don't even want to know," David said finally. "How you keep your job is beyond me. Do you want the couch or the bed?"

"I'm not kicking you out of your bed, David."

"I offered the couch, and we can share the bed, dummy. Come here." He pulled Rick against him, hugging him firmly.

"I don't have any of my things," Rick protested weakly into his friend's shirt. Then he jumped as David's palm landed sharply on the seat of his jeans. He pulled back, glaring at David's smiling countenance.

"You can use my things, and you still have some work clothes left in my closet." Rick just rubbed his bottom and scowled. "I told you I was going to smack your ass," David said cheerfully and turned toward the spare bedroom. Rick stared after him, amazed yet again at David's ability to accept a resolution and move on without another thought. Must be a dominant thing, he thought, still rubbing the stinging palm-print. They didn't have the lasting reminders of their displeasure to contend with.

*****

Chapter 11 [Top] [Next]

Rick was gone before pre-dawn light began to grey the darkness of the room, irritating David out of a fitful sleep. He resisted the soul-deep desire to pull the blankets up over his head and fumbled for the alarm clock, muting it before it could jar his already fragile temper. He closed his eyes until the tempting precipice of sleep drew close enough to scare him back to full wakefulness. He sighed, flung the blankets back, and rolled to his feet. Rick had left no evidence of himself in the room. Or the rest of the apartment, David found as he wandered through to the kitchen.

He started coffee brewing and studied the closed bedroom door. He didn't believe in karma, or destiny, or whatever his mother was calling it on any given week. But he couldn't let this kid walk back out onto the streets and into the arms of a predator whom, he knew, would devour the boy's heart and soul and spit him out hollow and broken. No matter how much he told himself he couldn't control the boy. He couldn't let him go. No matter how much he told himself it wasn't even his business... He couldn't make that decision again. No matter how right it had been. He couldn't look again into eyes so cold and dead that the anger, the accusation, even the pain had been burned from their depths, leaving nothing but cold, grey ash.

The coffee pot was hissing angrily now as it surged up and spilled over into the upper reservoir of the percolator. David shook himself, feeling faintly nauseated, and slid it off of the burner. He turned off the heat and watched the coil cool, like an ember, from fiery orange-red to coal black. The heat still rolled off of its deceptive darkness, searing his skin as he stood over it. He didn't pour the coffee.

*****

David carefully studied the diagram displayed on his laptop as the bedroom door opened with a faint squeak of hinges. He heard two footsteps then a sharp inhalation and he glanced up as Evan cursed.

"You scared me! What are you doing here?"

David raised his eyebrows. "I live here."

Evan was wearing a grey and red, three-quarter sleeve baseball shirt over too-long, baggy, red cotton sleep pants. His bare feet barely showed beneath the folds of cloth puddled around his ankles. His short, brown hair was rumpled and it stuck straight out from his head in several places. He blinked, scowling as if the light pained him then he scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "I thought this was Friday."

"It is. I didn't go in to the office today."

"Why not?

David ignored the querulous tone. "I have things I can do from home, and I didn't feel like going in. There's coffee, but you'll have to warm it up."

Evan sniffed and rubbed his face again then blinked slowly in the direction of the kitchen. He padded around the bar and tapped the metal percolator lightly with his fingers before trusting David's assessment of its temperature.

David listened to Evan bang around the kitchen and gritted his teeth, trying to concentrate on his work. He said nothing and didn't look up as Evan finally flopped into the chair across the table and clunked a bowl of cereal and mug of microwave-warmed coffee onto its surface.

"Where's your friend?"

"He left."

Evan drew one foot up onto the chair and hugged his knee to his chest. "He spend the night?"

David gritted his teeth. "Yes, Evan. He spent the night."

"Did you fuck him?"

David gave up and closed the laptop. He studied the young man, his irritation evaporating rapidly. In the warm sunlight, in soft, over-sized clothes, David suddenly saw something else behind the studied defiance that once again etched every line of Evan's face and body. Something else behind the detached contempt in the grey eyes. Something fragile and sad that cooled the heated reply on David's tongue. His voice was gentle when he finally spoke.

"Rick and I are just friends, Evan."

The something flickered, strengthening, for a moment, threatening to overwhelm the indifference. Then it was gone. "You don't act like 'just friends'." Derisive, baiting. David said nothing, he held Evan's gaze calmly until the boy looked away. "Sorry about the shower," he muttered, pushing at the cereal with his spoon.

"It can be replaced." David didn't think his tone had changed, but Evan flinched visibly.

"I'll pay for it."

David smiled. "Evan, you don't have to pay for it."

The lines of Evan's body had gone rigid. His breath was coming quick and short. "I pay my debts. I can get money. Or I can..." His eyes came up slowly to meet David's. "I can do...stuff."

David felt his face harden and fought to keep his voice neutral. "Like cleaning the gutters kind of stuff, or like giving head kind of stuff?"

A bright flush spread rapidly up Evan's face and reddened his ears. David held his gaze steadily. Evan stammered slightly. "Do you...want me to give head?"

"No."

At the abrupt flatness of the refusal, the flush changed quickly from embarrassment to hot anger. "Why not? I'm good!"

"I'm sure you are."

Evan's eyes narrowed. "Fuck you."

David considered his reply for several seconds. "I don't want you for that, Evan."

Evan was very still for a long moment; only his chest moved, short, angry breaths. Then he surged to his feet, the cereal bowl in his hand. He flung it hard into the kitchen sink, the shattering of crockery echoing off the metal walls. Then stamped into the bedroom and slammed the door.

David's initial impulse to laugh at the childish tantrum was quickly replaced with a cold ache in the pit of his stomach. Not funny, on second thought... No, not funny at all...

*****

Chapter 12 [Top] [Next]

For three hours the pounding music made the wine glasses rattle on the shelves. David gave up trying to work, or read, or focus on anything beyond not opening the bedroom door and laying upon the wayward youth exactly the action Rick had advised the night before.

Eventually, David settled for lying on the couch and studying the ceiling, challenging himself to find, in the music, the same satisfaction that Evan did. He ignored the knowledge that Evan was getting his satisfaction from his rebellion, not from his music. The hours passed painfully. David was thankful that it was a weekday and the neighbors were all away at work.

The sun was low, casting reddish rays and long shadows across the floor. The house went quiet, but silence had come and gone all day as CDs were exchanged. He'd only bought the kid three of the damned things. And now he had every song of each of them etched onto his memory. Maybe Rick was right. He certainly couldn't allow this behavior to continue. But he wouldn't play sex games with a child. He briefly considered grounding the boy, but had no idea how he would enforce it. The kid had the ability to run at any time and David couldn't stop him and wouldn't call the police. They both knew it and that gave Evan the upper hand. David didn't like being at a disadvantage. His eyes narrowed and he sat up. The music had not started again.

He rose to his feet just as the bedroom door opened. Evan stopped a few paces beyond the doorway and stared at him. The boy was dressed in his old, torn jeans and leather boots, a ragged T-shirt and a black leather jacket. His eyes were hard, his hair was calculatingly disheveled, his chin jutted slightly in defiant challenge.

David crossed his arms over his chest and carefully schooled his expression to bland curiosity. He knew what was coming, he had no idea what to do, but he'd be damned if he'd let Evan see that.

"I'm going out."

David studied him. "Okay," he said, finally. His heart was beating hard. His stomach ached with tension, but he was pleased at how steady his voice was.

Evan, however, faltered. His defiance slipped, showing slightly hurt surprise. "You're not going to stop me?"

"I can't."

The surprise quickly burned away before a rising fury that darkened the boy's features. "You're not even going to try?"

"Tell me, Evan. What can I do to stop you?"

Evan stared at him for several seconds, his face registering a mixture of anger and disbelief. "Good..." he said finally, although he didn't sound as if he believed it. He studied David for another moment then turned toward the front door.

"Evan..."

The boy glanced back over his shoulder.

"If you walk out that door, you will be punished."

Something flitted across Evan's face, something that made David's belly clench with sudden and fierce protectiveness. Then it was gone, replaced with a cocky sneer. "No, I won't. If I walk out that door, I won't be back."

*****

Evan slammed the door closed behind him and stood for a moment in front of the elevator, his throat uncomfortably tight. He hadn't punched the down button yet and started to reach for it, then stopped, letting his hand drop again. He glanced back at the door. The tightness was making it hard to breathe and his eyes were stinging. Suddenly, he realized he was stalling. Waiting. Waiting for that door to open behind him, waiting for David to step out and tell him to get his ass back inside. To tell him he couldn't leave. To stop him.

Seconds ticked by. Evan's breathing was choppy, and his chest hurt. There was no sound from behind the apartment door. No movement. Nothing.

He felt the tears start behind his eyes, the pressure building in his sinuses. Turning, he jabbed viciously at the elevator button, digging into his belly for something hot and angry to burn back the terrible ache in his chest. By the time the chime signaled the arrival of the elevator and the doors slid open, his breathing was roughened only by rage and his eyes were dry and restless. He stamped into the small, warmly lit cubicle and slapped his hand against the lobby button, then crossed his arms and thumped his back against the far wall and glared at the closed doors.

*****

Evan pushed through the building's front door and clumped down the steps onto the sidewalk. In typical Colorado fashion, clouds had come in, rapidly transforming the warm afternoon into a bitter, sleeting early evening. He pulled his coat tight around his body and bent his face from the stinging spray. He took three steps, eyes focused intently on the pavement, before a hand came into his line of vision and viciously grasped the front of his jacket.

Sudden, bitter fear made Evan's knees weaken and his belly turn to ice water. Desperately afraid of what he'd see, he forced his gaze up into the face of his assailant. He sagged, momentarily relieved. Then he registered the expression in the grey-green eyes and his ribcage tightened around his lungs.

"Where ya' goin'?" The drawl was too precisely calculated, the eyes too sharp. They belied the casual disinterest of the tone.

"None of your business." Evan tried to snarl it, but he could barely get it past his throat. He could feel the man's knuckles through the leather of his coat, pressing into his chest. He was suddenly aware of his heartbeat thudding in his ears. Emotions that he didn't want to recognize were pushing out from the corners of his mind like dark, terrifying shadows. He made a half-hearted attempt to pull away but the man shook him. A slight, effortless movement. It jarred Evan's teeth.

"I've had a bad day, Evan. Don't piss me off." The tone was still mild, the voice soft, but there was something frightening behind the eyes. Evan suddenly felt in serious danger of crying and realized he desperately did not want to do that in front of this man. He took a gulping breath, fighting back tears. Rick seemed not to notice. "I asked where you were going."

"Out." Evan tried to wrestle his voice under control, but it still trembled when he spoke. He winced.

Rick's lips twisted into a humorless smile. "No you aren't." His grip shifted slightly and Evan found himself nearly pulled off of his feet, and steered, inexorably closer to the entrance of the building he'd just escaped.

"What are you doing here?" Evan managed to hiss through clenched teeth. He was pleased at the edge it put on his voice.

"Taking you home."

Evan tried to twist loose from Rick's grip and was rewarded with a moment of freedom as the man released the front of his jacket. Evan took half a step back and jumped as the unoccupied hand landed sharply across the seat of his jeans. Evan's teeth snapped shut. The slap stung, making his eyes burn. He shifted his hips and stumbled a few feet forward before spinning on the other man. He was halted however as Rick seized the back of his collar now and hauled him up the steps of the building.

Evan's mind was reeling. "You can't hit me!" he gasped finally as Rick opened the buzzing door and shoved him inside and toward the elevator. Evan glanced at his face and winced.

"Why the hell not?" His eyes were cool and focused on the brushed metal of the elevator doors.

Evan considered, for a moment, his chances of bolting, shifting his weight slightly. But as if anticipating this move, Rick's hand was suddenly tight again on Evan's collar. Evan squirmed, realizing suddenly how much the swat still stung on his skin. His belly felt tight and cold. He glowered at Rick's profile. "Cause you're not my top."

The wall chimed and the doors slid open. Rick's gaze slid down and Evan felt the ice spread to his lungs as their eyes locked. He refused to look away, and Rick smiled grimly.

"This has nothing to do with tops and bottoms. You're a little boy, Evan. That's a grown up's game."

"I'm not..." Evan flinched as the grip shifted from his collar to his shoulder and tightened painfully. His breath quickened and he felt the familiar spark of rage glow to life deep in his belly. With an abrupt twist, he jerked his shoulder from under Rick's hand and threw himself into the farthest corner of the elevator.

He stood, breathing heavily, his body tense, anticipating retaliation. But Rick made no move toward him. "I'm not a boy," he spat. He hesitated. Still no reaction. "And you're not my father!" The spark roared to life, hatred and fury burning hot and bright and uncontrolled within him. He clenched his teeth, willing the other man to take so much as a single step toward him.

Through the blind haze of rage, Evan didn't notice the flicker of emotion that crossed the doctor's features. By the time the bell signaled their arrival at their destination, Rick's face was again unreadable and Evan's fury had settled into a simmering sulk.

As the doors chimed open, Evan fixed Rick with a dark scowl and crossed his arms over his chest, his chin thrust up in defiance.

"Out." Rick's voice was hard.

"No." Evan flinched as Rick's hand descended.

Evan struggled violently as he was dragged across the hallway to the door. Finally, Rick whirled on him, eyes bright and furious. Evan froze. His heart hammered against his ribs and his mouth felt as if he'd swallowed sawdust. "Sorry..." He nearly choked. His throat was suddenly tight and dry. "I'm sorry, sir..."

Rick said nothing. His eyes never left Evan's face as he banged his free fist against the heavy door. The sound thundered in Evan's ears, his legs were shaking, he was sure he was on the verge of crying or pissing himself. He desperately wanted to look away but he was mesmerized by the unfettered fury swirling in the depths of the grey-green eyes. Rick leaned slightly closer, giving Evan a rough shake like a dog with a rat. "Don't." Evan heard himself whimper softly. The fire in Rick's eyes seemed to cool slightly. His focus drifted and his expression softened. Evan had the distinct impression that another vision had just been superimposed upon his face. He kept very still, only his chest jumped as he took gulping breaths.

Rick's eyes cleared in a moment, and he looked at Evan in consternation. Vaguely distracted, his voice was gentle and soft. "Don't call me, sir." He looked away and shifted his grip once again to the nape of Evan's neck. The pressure of his fingers was reassuringly firm and warm. Evan barely had a breath to wonder what it was Rick hadn't said, before the door opened and he felt, with weary detachment, his belly drop again.

*****

Chapter 13 [Top] [Next]

It took a long moment for Evan's mind and senses to come into agreement. The look of carefully leashed temper on David's face was not directed at him.

"Your sister called."

The grip on Evan's neck slackened and he glanced up. Rick's face was pale. "Shit..." He shoved Evan before him into the apartment and shoved the door closed behind them.

Evan jumped as David spoke again. "Go to your room, Evan." He looked up into the hard lines of David's face. Rick was across the room poking at the keypad on the kitchen phone. It chirruped cheerfully as he dialed. The room was warmly lit against the quickly falling blackness beyond the bay windows, but Evan shivered. He forced his eyes to meet David's and felt the faintest, feeblest spark push up from deep in his belly.

"I don't live here anymore."

"Go to your room, Evan!" Rick barked from the kitchen, then cursed and slammed the phone down into its cradle. David's gaze never flickered from Evan's face. Evan realized later the futility of his next move, but at the time was acting on an impulse that he wouldn't begin to understand for a very long time. He bolted.

David caught him as his fingers brushed the doorknob. Evan thrashed in the restraining arms, hissing and snarling through gritted teeth. He bent his knees, forcing David to carry his weight, but the grip didn't weaken. So he began to kick.

He heard a curse as his foot connected with something solid and bared his teeth, increasing his struggles. What happened next occurred with such fluid and deadly accuracy that Evan was momentarily stunned into submission. Without knowing exactly how it had happened, Evan suddenly found himself free. Then hands gripped his wrists and his arms were pulled and folded across his chest. His hands were tucked against his ribs. He was suddenly his own, human, straightjacket. He felt his weight shifted until he was hip to hip with... Rick, he realized. David was in the kitchen. The phone was chirping. Evan panted, squirming, testing the limits of his new position. Rick's left foot was blocking Evan's right leg. Evan felt awkward and off-balance. He hesitated to lift his left foot for fear of toppling them both, and he could get no leverage to kick out with his right. He keened softly in desperate frustration, wriggling against the tight grip on his wrists. Then he realized David was speaking and his head jerked up.

"Non-emergency... Yes... I want to report a runaway."

Evan's chest went cold. For a moment, he couldn't breathe. Then he realized that Rick was speaking, too. Had been for some time. A gentle mantra. "You're okay, Evan. You're okay... Shh... You're okay, now."

Evan's vision began to blur and he tried to blink away the tears. They trickled over his eyelashes and traced rapidly cooling tracks down his face. "No... Please..." He looked up into David's face and suddenly realized how desperately alone he was. "Please don't send me away. I'm sorry... Please..." David's eyes were fixed on Evan's. Evan poured his desperation into his voice. "I'm sorry. Please don't send me away, sir, please, I'll do anything... I'll never talk back again..."

Slowly, David lowered the handset, and Evan felt the tightness in his chest loosen slightly. "Thirty seconds ago, you were ready to run away for the third time in forty-eight hours. We can't take care of you, Evan. We can't even keep you in one place."

"I'm sorry!" Evan felt the momentary spark of hope slipping away. "I won't again... I won't... You said you wouldn't let me fall again... Please..." Something hardened in David's eyes, and Evan felt the grip loosen on his wrists. Carefully, he pulled his hands free and knotted them in front of himself. "Please...?"

David remained where he was, but Rick moved to the table and took a chair from it. Evan felt a sudden sinking anticipation in the pit of his stomach, which shifted abruptly to confusion as he watched Rick carry the chair across the room and set it down facing a blank stretch of wall. He turned, his eyes caught Evan's, and he pointed resolutely to the seat. Evan felt his forehead furrow and he turned uncertainly toward David, who raised a questioning eyebrow. Evan glanced back at Rick and the obviously waiting chair. He squirmed, suddenly feeling uncomfortably childish as he crossed the room and scooted his bottom onto the wooden seat. He tucked his knees in against the wall and twisted slightly to look at Rick who was coming around to his left. The man tapped a point on the paint at Evan's eye level. Evan obediently turned back toward the glossy whiteness and slumped against the back of the chair.

*****

The boy's mouth was turned down at the corners, his shoulders sagged. The toe of one battered shoe was turned inward slightly; the other foot was tucked behind his ankle. His head drooped until his chin was nearly on his chest, but his eyes remained resolutely fixed on the white paint. Evan sighed heavily, but Rick sensed no theatrics in the meek posture. He resisted the impulse to ruffle the boy's hair. Instead, he focused his attention on David who was still standing near the door, still holding the phone, the earpiece pressed against his belly.

Rick's eyes narrowed slightly and he strode across the room. As he approached, David shifted his gaze from Evan to his friend and held out the phone. Rick took it. The faintest chime could be heard and a distant, recorded female voice. "If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try your call again..." Rick thumbed the power button and studied the other man's face. David said nothing and finally Rick shook his head and turned away. Before he could take a step, a hand tightened on his bicep. He started to look back then hissed as the grip became painful.

"Dammit, David," he said under his breath. David said nothing. He steered Rick toward the second bedroom and quietly shut the door behind them. Rick freed himself and spun, fire in his eyes. "What is your problem?"

"Call your sister." David's face had shifted once more to the mask of fury that had greeted him at the door, Rick glared at him.

"We can't leave the kid out there alone."

"I'm not. Call. Now."

"I did! I got the machine."

David's palm connected painfully with the back of Rick's left leg.

"Ow, dammit!" He twisted out of reach. "Don't...do that...again!"

David glowered at him. "Call her damn cell, jackass. Now!"

Rick muttered and began punching numbers. The handprint on his thigh stung and his sister was the last person he wanted to tangle with, but David was looking on, arms crossed over his chest, towering like some great Nordic avenger. Rick put the phone to his ear and listened to it ring. Once. Twice... Three times... He prayed for it to click over to voice mail, but the fourth ring was abruptly clipped off and a familiar voice answered.

"Hi..." he mumbled.

"Ricky! God DAMN it, where the hell have you been?"

He winced. David turned and quietly let himself out of the room.

*****

Evan listened to the muttered argument behind him, then the two men went into the spare bedroom and the door closed on any further sound. Evan allowed himself a brief moment of luxury as he shifted to wrap his arms around his belly in a tight hug. But he quickly dropped his hands to his lap as he heard the door open and close again. Prickles of ice flurried in his stomach and his breath quickened but the footsteps didn't pause behind him. He followed the sound into the kitchen. Cupboard doors began opening and closing and pots clanged.

Evan looked at the wall and sighed again in resignation. At least being beaten would have been exciting... He banished the thought almost as quickly as it crossed his mind. He didn't want that. He didn't want to be beaten... He didn't want to be beaten...

It became his mantra until he heard the door open and close again and heavier footsteps moved across the room. Boots. Rick. Evan strained his ears, but the conversation in the kitchen was too soft to make out clearly.

Bored, Evan began to worry at the baseboard with the toe of his shoe. Then soon, he was kicking at it, simply thudding a rhythm to himself to pass the time. The hand that fell somewhat less than gently on his shoulder nearly startled him out of his seat. He looked up. Rick's expression was not approving.

"Sit still or stand..."

Evan slouched lower in the chair and glowered at the wall, but he stopped kicking.

Why did he wish he was kneeling on the wood floor in the dark again? He picked at his coat. Why? His bangs were tickling his eyes. Because, he thought, at least the pain was *something*... Anything... He made up his mind and acted before he could change it.

*****

"You're as bad as he is," David muttered over the regular beat of his knife dicing potatoes for the stew pot.

"I'm not fifteen," Rick replied, his tone more tired than angry, now. He rested his elbows on the edge of the bar and watched across the counter as David worked.

David stopped for a moment to look at him. "And twenty-three year olds don't ditch their jobs without so much as a phone call."

Rick had the good sense to flush and shift uncomfortably on his stool at that. "I..." He studied the countertop for a few seconds. "I don't have an excuse for that." Then his demeanor shifted abruptly. "But it isn't your business, either. You're not my mother."

"I'm your best friend, I get a say when you start heading for a cliff."

Rick's eyes narrowed with something coldly malicious. "No. You don't get that chance again. Not with me. And whatever you think you're doing with this one," he nodded over his shoulder, "it won't change a damned thing."

David had just set down the knife, hard, when the first loud thud drew their attention away from their argument and to the boy still sitting in the chair. Now, apparently, honing his percussion skills on the baseboard of the wall.

Rick was off his stool and three steps toward the wayward youth before David even made it around the kitchen counter. Seeing it was handled, and too irritated to deal with either of the two of them at that moment, he picked up the knife again and began a more vigorous attack of the carrots than was probably necessary.

Rick had just slid back onto his stool when a movement behind his friend caught David's eye. Evan had turned sideways in his chair to face the two of them, his face was a mask. An odd mixture of resignation and resolute determination.

"I'd like to be returned to my Master now, please..."

David ground his teeth, as Rick turned on the stool. David, finally reaching his limit with tantrums snapped, "No!"

Rick, sounding equally irritated, growled, "Face the wall." When the boy stared at the two of them in indignation and surprise, Rick started to his feet. Evan's eyes widened and he scooted himself back into position, his chest rising and falling quickly with angry breaths.

"You can't keep me here against my will!" he nearly shouted.

"Fuck this," Rick muttered, snatching his coat and heading for the door. He turned for a moment toward Evan. "You even *think* about leaving this house and I'll send the cops after you."

"Where are you going?" David demanded.

"Since when do I answer to you?

David gave him a long, hard look. "It was a reasonable question, Rick."

"So was mine," he replied and let himself out into the hall.

*****

Chapter 14 [Top] [Next]

As Rick waited for the elevator, he flipped open his phone and turned it on to a chime and fourteen new messages. Leaning his head back against the wall, he squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that were threatening to fall. He counted his breaths until the grip on his throat loosened, then he dialed a number and pressed it to his ear.

The elevator chimed, the phone rang into his ear, the doors slid open and he stepped inside. Two more rings. His heart was beating hard in his chest. A voice followed a click and she sounded annoyed. "You hung up on me."

"I'm sorry..."

"What the hell is wrong with you lately?"

The tears returned, pricking at his eyes. "Can I come over?"

He heard a sigh on the other end of the line, when she spoke again, her voice was softer. "I ought to smack your butt for hanging up on me." A faint smile curved Rick's mouth. "Of course you can come over. Where are you? Do you need a ride?"

"No... "

"Okay."

The silence stretched for a moment. "Jen? Thanks..."

"That's what sisters are for."

"No, I mean... Thanks..."

"I know, baby boy... I love you, too."

The tightness returned to his chest with a vengeance, he wasn't sure he could speak without his voice breaking, so he whispered a quick "Bye," and hung up.

The elevator chimed and stopped, it's doors sliding open onto an empty lobby. Grateful, Rick scrubbed his hands over his face and walked out the front doors onto the street.

*****

Jen set a glass of ice water on a coaster on the coffee table and flopped down on the couch beside Rick. She propped the heel of one well-worn tennis shoe against the table's edge and tucked her tongue into her cheek for a moment while she thought.

Rick absently fingered the gold chain at his throat and studied his sister's shoe. The stitching was getting tattered, the sole was cracked and crushed beneath too many hours on the hard, unforgiving, radiology lab floors.

"It isn't like you to miss work like that, Ricky."

Rick tugged on the chain a final time then ran his hand through his hair, rumpling the bleached ends. "Do I still have a job?"

Jen sighed. "Probably. Although, if it were anyone else..."

He just nodded at the unspoken words. He was the golden child. Dr. Genesee loved him. But his behavior today would require some serious scraping to get himself back into the old man's good graces. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

Jen let the words hang in the air until Rick began to shift uncomfortably on the couch beside her. The ice in his glass popped in the aching silence. Finally, she said, "Tell me about it, baby boy."

Rick cast her a sideways glance. Her own glass was sweating in her right hand, ice cubes clinked and cracked in the water. She was carefully studying the rim as she traced it with the middle finger of her left hand. For a long time he said nothing, just watched her hand move.

"I found him."

The meditative circling faltered only a moment. "Oh?"

A sudden rush of grief tightened Rick's chest and threatened to choke him. He fought for a shuddering breath and pressed his hands to his face. Jen leaned forward and gently set down her glass before shifting on the couch to face him. She propped one elbow and tucked her right hand under her chin. When Rick dropped his hands again, tears glittered in his eyes. "Do you remember that kid David brought in?"

Jen's eyes grew distant for a moment. "The runaway... Evan?"

Rick nodded. "He ran again. I caught up with him at Charlie's..." Jen said nothing, so Rick pushed onward. "I lost the kid in the crowd but I saw...him. I caught up with them both in the alley. The kid was half-naked and bloodied up, about thirty seconds from raped."

"Shit..." Jen breathed.

Rick pressed on. "They didn't even see me until I had my knife at his throat and he let the kid go... I thought I could kill him, Jennie... I really thought I could do it if I ever saw him again. I would..." The tears finally broke free and streaked down his face. "But I couldn't do it. I couldn't kill him. I couldn't even hit him, Jennie. I just let him go." Jen reached over and pulled him toward her as Rick shuddered against full out sobs. "I let him go, Jennie... I let him go..."

He let himself fall into her soft warmth, clinging to her strength as he always had. Finally, the tears ran out leaving only the aching chasm inside that no number of tears could ever ease. Slowly, as his breathing returned to normal, Jen sighed into his hair and kissed the top of his head. He pushed away from her slightly and she rose from the couch, gathering her glass from the coffee table.

She disappeared into the back bedroom and reappeared with a bundle of sheets and pajamas. "Been a while since we had a good sleepover." She smiled. "So are you crashing with David lately?" Rick hesitated. Jen was too good not to pounce on it. "You two had a tiff, didn't you?"

Too late, Rick caught his eyes dropping. "Not really..." He dragged his gaze up to meet hers. She gave him a stern look and snatched cordless phone off the wall cradle.

Rick growled, "He's not my mother, I don't need to check in with him on every decision I make..."

His sister raised one eyebrow and balled a fist on her hip. Rick felt the old familiar tightening in his belly at that look, despite the fact she hadn't spanked him since he was twelve. His backside still remembered well enough. He ground his teeth and took the phone from her outstretched hand.

*****

Chapter 15 [Top] [Next]

The conversation had been brief and one-sided. "I'm at my sister's" and the soft ticking of a dead connection. David listened to the muted clicks for a moment then set the phone into the cradle. He carefully placed his open hands, palm-down on the surface of the counter. For several seconds, he counted his breaths. Slow and even. He finally raised his eyes and met a bright, curious gaze.

For a moment, the boy's expression was soft and open, free of the hard edges of anger and pain that David had become accustomed to.

Caught, Evan blinked and quickly turned his head, his gaze once more focused on the wall in front of him. A dark sulk pulled at the corners of his mouth and hardened his jaw.

David winced, the hostility in the boy's posture cut at already worn defenses. He lifted his hands from the counter, and brushed them absently against his jeans before going to the dining table and sliding out one of the remaining chairs.

"Come here."

For a moment, Evan didn't turn, he sidled deeper into the chair, shifting his shoulders in a good impression of James Dean. David waited, and finally, the defiance softened and Evan shifted on the seat of his chair until he could see David over his shoulder.

In a moment, David watched the boy take in both him and the chair. Something wavered in the green eyes, something strangely desperate and hopeful, but tempered by suspicion. David felt his gut tighten. That hope would change to hurt in a moment, then burning hatred. All of it hinged on him. On what he would do. He glanced away.

"Sit down," he muttered, turning back toward the kitchen. He paid pointed attention to pulling dishes from the cupboards. When he returned to the table, Evan was sliding into the seat, his head bowed slightly, watching David from under his bangs.

David ignored him. He set the dishes down on the table. Two more trips from the kitchen had the table set and a simple dinner served. David spooned soup into Evan's bowl, and then his own. He poured milk into the boy's glass. "It's all I've got," he snapped, anticipating defiance. Evan slouched slightly lower in his chair and said nothing. David watched obliquely as the boy picked up his spoon without comment or complaint and slowly brought a measure of soup to his mouth.

He swallowed it, set the spoon down gently and reached for the milk glass.

David shook his head slightly, tearing his attention from the boy's abrupt shift in behavior. He reached for his own spoon and ate mechanically, without tasting.

Finishing his dinner, Evan waited silently for David to finish, then rose and carried his dishes to the sink. He rinsed them and stacked them neatly on the counter, murmured a barely audible thanks, and disappeared into his room.

*****

Chapter 16 [Top] [Next]

David opened his eyes. It was still dark in his room, but the darkness was thinning. He twisted his head and winced at the bright glow of the digital alarm clock. Almost five. It was Saturday. His eyes felt gritty, his body ached, more exhausted than he'd gone to bed. He groaned and rolled out of bed.

The living room glowed more brightly in the weakening darkness. David rolled his shoulders, his eyes stinging even at the faint light.

His feet ached as he padded across the hard wood floor and around the bar into the kitchen. He reached out, absently brushing his fingers across the counter top as he walked past the stove and reached for a water glass.

His fingers brushed something out of place on the dark counter, and he snatched at it. A sheet of paper. He frowned and pulled the refrigerator door open, squinting, he studied the paper in the spilled light.

He let the refrigerator door close with a soft thump and fell against it, letting his back slide down the smooth surface until he was sitting, knees tight against his chest. The words were invisible once more in the darkness but he rubbed the paper between his fingers, letting his head fall back heavily against the molded plastic behind him.

"Fuck..."

*****

Rick reached out, lingering paralysis of dreams still numbing his fingers, he snatched at the glowing buzz of his phone and knocked it onto the floor.

He cursed thickly and groped along the floor, his fingers finally closing around the plastic case. He squinted at the display, sighed and flipped it open.

"What?"

"He ran again." David's voice was unnaturally calm, at odds with his words, the dichotomy agitated Rick's brain enough to open his eyes fully and blink in the darkness.

He rolled onto his back and threw one arm across his forehead. "So? Follow him. That's what he wants."

"I don't think so. Not this time..."

Rick was silent for a moment. "Why not?"

"No drama, just left a note on the counter. I doubt he expected me to find it before morning."

Rick was surprised at the cold knot that formed in his belly. He didn't care about this kid. "What does the note say?"

"Not much. Thanks for taking care of him. Sorry about everything."

"Not sorry enough to tell us where he went, though, huh?"

"If he went back..."

"I don't think he did. After that incident in the alley... He dumped his collar."

Rick could nearly hear the responses to that being considered and discarded before David spoke. Apparently choosing to let it go, he said, "He might be done, but Keith isn't."

Rick flinched at the sound of the name. He kicked the sheets off and swung his legs over the edge of the couch. "Alright." Police weren't an option. He knew they weren't an option. And antagonizing David with the suggestion didn't seem satisfying enough to bother with at the moment. He found his jeans on the armchair and stumbled into them, holding the phone awkwardly against his shoulder. "Alright." He cursed under his breath, nearly losing his balance as his foot tangled in his pant leg. "You check the bars, I'll check the alleys. What time is it?"

"Little after five."

"Mike's up, he goes running. You call him, I'll call Jack. Dragging him out of bed before dawn... Of the two of us, I've a better chance of survival..."

"Why's that?"

Rick grabbed the phone and shifted it to his other ear, baring his teeth in a vicious smile. "I'm hotter."

*****

Jack was still growling ominously as Rick crossed the empty downtown pay lot in the misty grey of "too damn early."

The rigid set to his jaw and the piercing blue stare did uncomfortable things to Rick's stomach. He'd known Jack for five years. It was still hard to look him in the eyes.

As Rick moved into comfortable speaking range, the older man pulled the worn, grey army cap from his head and scrubbed a calloused hand through the thick, shorn pelt of silver hair, still peppered with black. Rick ran his tongue over his lips, his mouth gone uncomfortably dry. He flinched as Jack, gripping the bill of the cap, thwacked it hard against a denim-clad thigh.

Rick swallowed and found his voice. "Thanks for coming."

The man huffed and pulled the cap back on and low over his face. He slapped dust from heavy palms. Rick took a halting breath and searched for a comfortable place to focus his eyes. "You know, you're going to owe me something serious after this one, boy."

Rick eased the reins on the whirl of emotions in his belly, the tantalizing mixture of fear and desire brightened his eyes and hinted at the edges of his coy smile. "You know I'm good for it, sir."

The older man's stony countenance finally broke open in a devastating grin. "And worth the wait, hm?"

Rick's smile widened. "In so many ways."

Jack smiled, then rolled his shoulders, his body language shifting. "Well. I'm a patient man."

Rick sensed the change and transitioned smoothly, dropping the innuendo, he shoved his hands into his coat pockets and walked closer. "And a good one. You know you'll be the first I call."

"The second, boy, and proud to be in that number." He raised an eyebrow in admonition. Rick felt a painful tug in his chest and managed a half-smile. Jack saved him from speaking. He cleared his throat and shifted once more, the mantle of professionalism settling seamlessly over his demeanor. "I made some phone calls. Didn't get much, usual suspects. Got a couple good hits around the bus station."

Rick shook his head. "He's not an experienced hustler, he wouldn't know to go there, yet."

"Doesn't take long..." Jack fixed him with a long stare then shrugged. "Few other maybes..."

*****

Chapter 16 [Top] [Next]

Evan was shivering. His heart pounded hard against his ribs as he edged along the rough wall of the alley. It stank of trash and an afternoon thunderstorm had left puddles of mire that splashed over his boots as he walked. He glanced at a doorway, two concrete steps raised the entryway from the muck. He hesitated. The sun would be up soon, his eyes burned for sleep. He turned from the doorway, shrugged his hands deeper into his jacket and inched out toward the street.

He fingered the twenty in his pocket. The only money he had. The only money he'd ever earned. His stomach tightened uncomfortably and he pushed unnecessary thoughts away. Food and shelter. He took a deep breath, feeling the simplicity of focus strengthen him.

He set his jaw, thrusting his chin up and strode out onto the sidewalk.

The darkened window of a dingy bookshop that catered to "alternative" tastes bordered him to the right. Across the street, a latex toy and apparel shop was gated down and dark for the night. The sky was showing the faintest hints of gray, but the yellow glow of street lamps still held sway over the street. Stop lights bled into tendrils of mist that caressed the barred, painted glass of store fronts and the dimly lit entrances to bars that didn't advertise.

Vague intentions drove his steps forward, down the street, past the front entrance of one of those bars. No alcohol was served after two in Colorado. With law enforcement looking for reasons to shut them down, these bars were very careful to follow the very letter of the law. The spirit, however, could be perverted with supreme creativity such as only money could inspire. Three hours past closing and men still trailed out paired or in small groups, or sometimes, alone.

Evan eased himself around the corner onto a dark side street. He crossed it and edged up beside the adjacent building. A couple of trees and unkempt shrubbery provided shadowy cover. He eased down to a crouch and set his shoulder against the corner of the building, he had a good sight line on the men leaving the bar, and enough cover to make himself unobtrusive, yet visible enough in the seeping of street lights that standing would be enough to announce his presence, and intentions, to anyone of a similar mind.

Evan turned his head, following a pair of men too drunk to walk. Or too high. Or both. They leaned heavily against each other, stumbling far into the street before weaving back onto the sidewalk, muttering and laughing softly to each other. He watched them for several minutes until they finally crossed the deserted street against the light and disappeared past hulking buildings.

As Evan turned his attention back to the bar, a man, already less than fifty feet from him, caught his eyes and held the gaze just long enough to belie casual interest. Evan felt his heart thump heavily in his chest. The man was old, but in a sexy way. He was dressed in faded jeans and heavily worn cowboy boots. His hands were deep in his pockets, an old denim jacket gapped open over a dark t-shirt that traced the curves of pecs and hinted at sharply defined abs. Evan let his eyes trail over the man for a moment and rose to his feet as the man crossed the street, angling slightly, his gaze now steady and definite, fixed on Evan's face.

Evan lifted his chin in an oblique greeting. The man didn't respond. His eyes shifted, taking in the surroundings quickly, his manner cautious but sure. When he stepped onto the sidewalk on Evan's side of the street, he tipped his head to the right and turned, striding down into the shadowy depths of the side street.

His heart was hammering painfully against his ribs, but Evan trailed after him, forcing his mind and his body into the old, familiar steps of a dance he'd danced many times before. Only this time, it was survival.

*****

The man slowed his pace enough for Evan to move into step with him, then took three more paces and stopped. He turned, he was tall enough that Evan had to tilt his chin to look at him directly. He quickly found it uncomfortable and ducked his head, looking up at the man through his tangled bangs.

"Hey."

As Evan spoke, the man looked down at him. The gaze was piercing and struck a chord of icy fear through Evan's gut. Strangely, though, it wasn't the primal terror of looking into the eyes of a predator. It was a more achingly nostalgic dread of squirming under a father's admonishing glare. "You working tonight?"

The man's voice was deep and held the faintest trace of huskiness. Evan felt his belly melt at the sound of it. He closed his mouth quickly to cut off a stammering reply. He swallowed and licked his lips quickly. "Maybe. What're you looking for?"

The man shrugged slightly, his eyes still boring intently into Evan's. "Depends. What're you offering?"

Evan felt his breath quicken and glanced at the lit street now a good block away. "Um... I'm good on my knees." He felt a flush creep up his face and he clenched his teeth, stirring the embers in his belly, burning back the humiliation with defiance.

But the man showed no disdain. He merely raised his eyebrows in a quick acknowledgement and said, "How much for being good on your knees?"

Evan felt the blood drain from his face. Reality slapped him hard and he stumbled. Tossing about, he felt the edge of the worn bill in his pocket and ran his lip beneath his teeth. "Twenty." The word came out breathless and barely audible. He kept his eyes focused on the metal button midway down the man's jacket.

"Twenty," he heard the man echo above his head. He couldn't bring his gaze to the man's face, there was something in the voice that he couldn't judge. Too little? Too much? Evan shifted his feet. He should have asked for more. One trick, he could earn enough for a bed and food for two days. He flicked his tongue over his lips. "For sixty, I'm good at anything you want."

"Anything I want?" There was a curious edge in the man's tone.

Evan glanced back toward the bar. He knew the question being asked. He looked up at the man's face, his belly was an ice storm. "Anything," he said with a conviction at odds with the tremors fighting their way into his fingers and past his knees.

"Sixty bucks for anything..."

Evan flinched on the words. He glanced up as the man reached into his jacket and pulled out a leather bi-fold. He felt his mouth go dry and swallowed, trying to work up enough saliva to earn his pay.

In a practiced move, the man opened the wallet and turned it outward. The shadows darkened it, but the gold ridges caught the light. Evan froze for a moment, the minute details of the heavy badge etching themselves painfully into his mind. He took a stumbling step backward and the man grabbed a handful of his jacket, folding the badge back into his pocket with the other hand.

He pulled Evan roughly forward and toward the building. "Hands on the wall. Spread your feet." He shoved him roughly into position even as Evan stumbled to cooperate. The cop patted roughly down Evan's arms and legs, over his chest, pockets, waistband. Evan felt his face tingling and realized his panting breath was barely reaching his lungs. His arms and legs were trembling. The cop grabbed him by the back of his jacket and pulled him back onto the sidewalk. "You got I.D.?"

Evan fished into his front pocket, his chest tightening rapidly. He offered the I.D. he'd traded favors to get. The man flicked a bright, compact flashlight onto the face of the card, then clicked it off. He fixed Evan with a hard look. "This your real name?"

Evan shook his head, "No, sir." He felt the tears rising and ducked his head into his knees as wracking sobs tore abruptly through his chest.

*****

The officer said nothing for some time. Anguish eventually faded to embarrassment and Evan slowly reined his terror and grief back deep into his gut. Finally, only trembling sniffles still betrayed him.

He scrubbed the tears from his face with damp sleeves and glanced up just as the cop turned his head abruptly, eyes focusing on something up the street toward the lights of the main avenue.

Evan looked as well and his belly knotted with a sickening mixture of relief, hope and dread. The familiar lines of the slight figure fitted themselves desperately to Evan's mind. The light was behind the man, casting the face and the striking, grey-green eyes into shadow. But Evan knew the stride. The casual, coy tilt of the head. The hands shoved deep into coat pockets, shoulders hunched slightly as he slowed to a halt several feet away.

Evan glanced at the cop, whose eyes glittered in the faint streetlight. His face betrayed no reaction to the stranger's approach. Evan felt his eyebrows draw down and he glanced back toward the man who'd already saved him from the streets twice. Creeping doubt fed the worry already gnawing at his gut. The old fury and hatred that warmed him through the darkest nights on Master's floor, seemed dead, cold coals in his belly. He felt helpless, torn open, raw, vulnerable to the barest cruelty.

"Evan." It wasn't a question. Rick's voice was cool and emotionless.

The cop had his badge in his hand again, he flickered it into a draft of light and Rick nodded faintly. "You know this kid?" the officer demanded.

Evan felt the ground sway beneath him. His breath caught in his chest, as an eternity of silence passed. Finally, Rick spoke. "Yeah. I know him." Evan felt more than saw Rick's gaze shift from the officer down to his own face. "Been lookin' all over for you, Evan. Dad's spitting fire, gonna take the strop to your sorry butt for this one..."

Evan opened his mouth before the words fully registered in his mind. Then he realized he had no words to offer and closed his mouth abruptly. His heart was pounding, his butt and belly were tight in anticipation of the confrontation and the punishment he knew would come. But, Rick was here. Standing before him. Lying to the police for him. Warmth surged through his limbs and tears of relief and gratitude filled his eyes and nearly spilled down his cheeks before he realized they were there.

Then Rick's posture shifted and he turned toward the officer, his tone shifted subtly, as if just struck with a realization. "Is he in some kind of trouble, officer?"

The cop looked down at Evan for a long moment then back up at Rick. The cop's voice was hard, unforgiving. "Solicitation."

The faint light caught the outline of Rick's profile and Evan saw the muscles tighten in his jaw. "Solicitation?" he repeated, his tone unreadable. He took a step closer. "Sir, may I speak with you privately for a moment?"

The cop eyed Evan with suspicion. Evan schooled his expression to sincere innocence and nodded rapidly at the cop's brusque order to, "Stay put."

The two men stepped a few feet away. Still close enough to catch him if he tried to run, but far enough that their low voices blurred to unintelligible murmurs.

Evan sat. His heart tripping over in his chest, his stomach aching, his butt going numb against the hard concrete. He huddled tighter into his jacket and earned a sharp glance from the cop so he shrank down into a ball and waited, motionlessness, for the announcement of his fate.

*****

Finally, the conversation ended and the cop stepped toward Evan. "Well, boy. I think you've got a lesson coming to you when you get home, so I'm going to let you go with a warning." Evan felt a surge of relief tremble through him. "This time," the officer growled. Evan nodded gratefully.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"You best consider yourself lucky you ran into me tonight. Boys like you, come morning, you thank that rising sun that you're still on this earth to regret what you've got coming to you. Could have been somebody a lot meaner than me decided to take an interest in a scared rabbit like you tonight."

Evan nodded again, the backlash of terror he'd been holding back now worked away at the warm edges of his gratitude. He risked a glance at Rick, who was standing in full profile to the faint streetlight. His face was a mask. Evan felt an uncomfortable lurch in his stomach as their eyes met. He quickly shifted his attention back to the glowering countenance of the cop.

The man's lips pressed together in a thin line as he shook his head. He pulled a worn, army cap from the back pocket of his jeans and whapped it hard against his thigh. The sound cracked the still air and Evan jumped. Then the cop pulled the cap over his head, the brim casting his face into shadow. He nodded slightly to Rick, then turned away walked slowly back up toward the main drag.

When he disappeared around the corner of the building, Rick finally spoke, the sound of his voice startling in the heavy silence. "Get up."

*****

Chapter 17 [Top] [Next]

Evan trailed after Rick in silence as they headed back onto the lit street and walked past the darkened storefronts.

Rick pulled a cell phone from his pocket and dialed. The single-sided conversation was strange and it banked the storm of fearful anticipation that was already tearing it's way through Evan's midsection.

"It's me," a brief pause, then. "Yeah. We're on our way back." This time the pause was longer as Rick listened, his eyes moving restlessly over the barred windows and empty street. Finally, he shook his head impatiently. "Don't ask any questions and don't come home for an hour. Your hands are clean." He sighed and lapsed into another long silence. "Then give me a better option, David. It won't kill him. But someone else very well might..." He listened once more, nodding slightly. "I'll look forward to it." A wry smile curved his lips and he snapped the phone shut.

Evan's stomach had knotted to the point of nausea. He glanced up at Rick's face, but Rick didn't acknowledge him. They continued to walk in silence while Evan's mind worked furiously.

He was fairly certain, at this point, that the threat of a stropping hadn't been idle talk. David didn't like it. David usually seemed to get his way between the two men, but, Evan realized, his own behavior may have tipped the balance of power in their relationship as far as he was concerned. What he could make of the phone conversation wasn't heartening.

He glanced up again at the other man's face. His chest felt tight. He contemplated his past weeks with David, feeling a flush of heat creep guiltily over his face. He'd tried so hard, done everything to fight, to resist to rebel against everything David tried to do for him, but, he'd have dropped to his knees in a heartbeat if David had ever ordered it of him. He'd have stripped to the skin, have taken any beating... Anxiously... Gratefully... Desperately...

But, now, it was Rick... Rick who bowed to David's dominance, who showed in every line of his strength, his eyes, his demeanor...a strong, willful, experienced submissive. It was Rick who was dragging him back home alone. Rick who called David off tonight. Whatever consequences Evan was to face, whatever the meaning of the veiled threats implied by Rick's lie to the cop and the cop's admonitions... They would be meted out by Rick, not by David. By the submissive, not by the dom.

Evan started as a car approached from behind them, slowed, and crossed into the oncoming lane to stop at the curb beside them. Rick turned toward it, and Evan stopped where he was, watching cautiously.

The driver's side window whispered down and a young man around Rick's age, leaned out of it. His hair was short and dark as his eyes. "Want some candy, little boy?"

Rick sauntered up to the driver's door, and leaned a hand on the frame. "Where's David?"

The man in the car grinned. "Jack's going to take care of him." The grin widened. "For an hour."

Evan's stomach lurched unpleasantly. Rick nodded. "Thanks." He cast a glance at Evan and motioned toward the back seat. "Get in." Without waiting for compliance, he strode around the hood of the car and climbed into front passenger side of the car.

Evan, feeling his breath coming short as his fate suddenly loomed as near as a car trip back to David's apartment. He walked slowly to the door behind the driver, who watched him silently. His fingers felt numb and awkward as he lifted the handle and pulled the door open. As he slid in and pulled the door closed, he was achingly conscious of the firm, leather seat beneath him, and noted the comfort with which he sat, wondering how long it would be until he felt it again.

The two men rode in silence in the front seat as the car purred through the deserted streets. Evan studied Rick's profile, his belly knotting and re-knotting over itself. The submissive, not the dom... Somehow, that changed everything.

*****

As they entered the darkened apartment and Rick flicked on lamps, Evan hovered near the door. His skin had once again paled to the color of bleached bones. Rick noticed the boy casting nervous glances toward the large, bay windows, dawn not yet brightening the eastern sky.

He walked to the table and motioned Evan forward. Pointing to the table, he commanded softly, "Empty your pockets."

Evan shot him a frightened glance, his movements becoming jerky as he dug into first his coat pockets, then his front and finally his back jeans pockets. Rick watched the accumulation grow on the table top.

When the boy finally dropped his hands and began shifting nervously from foot to foot, Rick reached out and spread the contents gently with his fingertips.

A strange feeling seized his heart for a moment as he catalogued them, the collections of a little boy. Bottle caps, scraps of string, a piece of green glass worn dull with age, colorful rock chips... And, more unsettling for their surroundings, items very much not a boy's... Condoms, a lighter, half a pack of cigarettes, a twenty dollar bill. Rick tapped the cigarettes out against his palm and frowned, each one was a different brand. He cast a glance at the boy who looked ready to faint.

"Do you smoke?" he asked, lifting the cigarettes. Evan shook his head, his entire body trembling.

Rick raised his eyebrows, tilting the pack so that the cigarettes inside rattled faintly.

Evan licked his lips, his eyes moving skittishly about the room, carefully avoiding Rick's gaze. "They aren't for me."

"Who?"

The boy's eyes were shining. "Other guys."

Rick felt his face harden as he thought, then let the subject drop, temporarily. He plucked one of the condoms from the table and held it up. His eyebrows raised in mute query. Tears were definitely glittering in the boy's eyes now, but he was holding them from falling. Rick waited patiently for the explanation.

This time, Evan's gaze fell upon and remained steadily on the condom Rick held. Then, finally, he raised his eyes to Rick's and held the man's stare until Rick felt the urge to glance away. There was no insolence in the gaze, only infinite sadness. Rick pressed his lips together and let the package drop back to the tabletop. He pushed a few more items aside. "No drugs?"

He saw from the corner of his eye the boy's headshake. "I don't do drugs." There was almost a note of pride in the tone, defiance. Almost. Rick looked at him sharply. The boy still fidgeted nervously, but nothing in him signaled deception.

Finally, Rick nodded and reached out to grasp the boy's chin, pulling his face toward the light. Evan winced slightly, his pupils tightened. "Have you been drinking?"

Evan offered the faintest shake of his head, still blinking against the light. "Not tonight," he murmured. Rick studied his face for another moment then let him go.

"Take off your jacket."

Evan shrugged it off and laid it carefully over the back of a nearby chair. He shivered suddenly and wrapped his arms around himself. It wasn't cold in the apartment.

Rick took a deep breath, studying the trembling figure. For a moment, he imagined what the boy was feeling, then his eyes narrowed. "Evan?" He waited for a long moment until the boy finally dragged his eyes upward and held Rick's.

Rick began to speak, then stopped, pressing his lips to a thin line. He let his breath out slowly as he stared into the tearful, grey eyes. Finally, he released the boy's chin and tilted his head toward the second bedroom that had become Evan's.

Evan cast a glance toward it, then a single mournful look back at Rick's face before he turned and trudged across the living room and let himself into his room.

Rick followed him in and flicked on the overhead light, bathing the room in warmth that didn't melt the chill of anxiety that was gnawing at his gut. With an air of confidence that was rapidly fleeing him, Rick strode across the room to an expanse of empty wall and tapped a point. "Nose."

A faintly mutinous look crossed the boy's features, but it fled as quickly as it appeared and he dragged his feet across the floor slowly, finally positioning himself obediently against the wall.

Rick nodded faintly to himself and walked quietly out of the room and next door to David's bedroom. He paused inside the doorway, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light seeping in from the main room. He crossed quickly to the nightstand to the right of the bed and opened the drawer. In the back, his fingers closed on smooth, cool wood, and he drew forth a large, solid hairbrush. The wood was unstained and satin-finished. The brush head was a large oval, bigger than his own hand, studded with neat rows of dark bristles that had never stroked hair. The back was smooth and solid, carved from a single piece of wood head to handle.

Rick fitted the round handle into his palm and swatted the brush head tentatively against his thigh. The sting was bright and startling. His heart stuttered momentarily then he turned to the door and strode purposefully toward the boy's bedroom.

Evan turned slightly at Rick's entrance, then started and abruptly turned his face back to the wall. Rick quelled a stirring of nervous anticipation and sat down heavily on the bed. "Come here."

The boy turned and approached slowly, apprehension flickering in his eyes.

Rick nodded slightly. "Put your hands on your head." Evan tilted his head slightly, apprehension mixing with uncertainty. Slowly, he obeyed the command, his eyes widening as Rick reached brusquely for his jeans.

Rick fumbled slightly working the boy's fly open and he flushed, but a quick glance at the boy's face assured him the kid was concerned at that moment with nothing more than his own ass.

With a swift movement, he tugged the boy's jeans clear of his hips and worked them down to his knees. He took in the fine trail of hair reaching down the boy's belly. He turned his gaze away, but in a moment his mind had pieced together the images. The boy's body was trembling slightly, the muscles in his belly tightened as he shifted uncomfortably. His cock was stiffening slightly, but, nothing in his posture spoke of anything but fear.

With a rough movement, Rick grasped Evan's left forearm, turning the boy and guiding him down, awkwardly, across his knees. He felt the muscles shift in the boy's belly as he wriggled forward, finding his balance and pressing his hands firmly against the floor. His toes barely touched the floor on the other side, and he continued to squirm nervously seeking purchase against the smooth planks.

*****

Evan heard the shrill cry of his own voice ring in his ears as the first, hard stroke stole his breath and his resolve. He had barely time to take in a breath before the second seared across his buttocks, he gritted his teeth, strangling the yelp down to a coughing hiss. Tears were already rising in his eyes and he'd only taken two swats. He shook his head, trying to remember how to take it, how to absorb the pain, turn it into heat and fury and passion... The next stroke and his own shriek startled him abruptly from his thoughts. He clamped a hand over his mouth and smothered a choked cry.

It hurt.

It didn't feel good. It wasn't fun. It wasn't heat or fury or passion. It just hurt.

Evan squirmed, already feeling desperation beat down pride and dignity. He scuffed his toes against the floor, shifting and repositioning his weight, feeling the tight grip around his waist hold him firmly, easily in place.

"Ow..." It was barely a whisper, barely formed sounds around a gasping breath, but it broke something in him. Hearing it from his own lips drove a deep crack into his already quickly crumbling resistance.

He wasn't sure how many swats he'd taken. He couldn't sort individual marks from the general burning sting. It felt like so many, but a hopeless corner of his mind recognized it was probably barely ten. He could have several times over as many left to take. The thought was immobilizing. Another stroke sent a jolt up his spine and he jerked, arching his back against the sting, tears building in his eyes.

He fought through two more before his voice broke free of his hold. "Ow! Please. Please!"

*****

Rick hesitated, setting the brush to his side for a moment, he studied the young man. At the respite, the boy slowed his desperate writhing and let the taut muscles of his shoulders slowly loosen. His head fell forward, his breath slowing to hitching gasps.

For several more seconds, Rick was still, watching, listening to the ragged breaths. His mind, though at first had been a mess of conflicting thoughts and feelings, was now very very still.

He'd been startled at first by the boy's violent reaction. The kid was an experienced submissive. And Rick knew exactly what the kid was experienced in. Though, this wouldn't be a walk in the park, it shouldn't be an exercise in torture for an experienced bottom. Yet the kid fell apart in minutes.

It had concerned him. His mind had worked at the dichotomy, the boy's plea had startled him to pause. But, then, something slipped into place. The piece he needed, the confirmation... He raised the brush and brought it down again, faster and harder than before.

Lulled by the reprieve, the renewed assault sent the boy completely over the edge. He shrieked and bucked and writhed, his pleas lost coherence, then words, his voice was growing ragged, hoarse at the edges of his howls.

Abruptly, Rick dropped the brush and released his hold on the boy's waist. Evan flung himself away from Rick's lap, tumbling onto the floor. He sat down hard on the smooth wood, keened and shot to his feet. His face was a mask of utter misery as he desperately rubbed his butt, hopping from foot to foot as well as his tangled jeans allowed. He fixed a wounded gaze on Rick's face, doubt and uncertainty clouding the bright pain in his eyes. He was sucking rapid, shallow breaths through his teeth, still whimpering faintly, tears, no longer falling, still glazed his cheeks and had now, with the sweat clinging to his chest, dampened the front of his T-shirt.

After a moment, the rapid, shallow breathing hadn't slowed, and the boy was going slightly wild-eyed. Rick rose from the bed, and took a step toward the boy. Evan began to shrink backward, but Rick snagged his arm, pulling him forward and landing a sharp slap against the outside of his thigh.

Evan's eyes widened and he sucked in a deep lungful of air. Before he could shriek, Rick clamped a hand over the boy's mouth and nose.

Staring steadily into the wide eyes, he leaned forward slightly, raised one eyebrow and said very softly. "Stop it."

He dropped his hand and watched the boy let out the breath in a three part hitch, then draw a quick breath, caught Rick's eye, added two more hitches to it, filling his lungs before letting it out again.

His breathing, slowly returning to normal, Evan seemed to abruptly remember his state of undress and snatched at the knotted mess of denim around his ankles.

Rick turned, allowing the boy to gather himself while he smoothed the rumpled bedcovers and retrieved the hairbrush. He didn't look back as he opened the door. "Get ready for bed, lights out in ten minutes." He stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him.

*****

Chapter 18 [Top] [Next]

Rick's voice sounded strained and weary, "I'll look forward to it." A soft click and abrupt silence ended the conversation.

David cursed and snapped the phone shut, then nearly dropped it as it immediately buzzed again in his hand.

He flicked it open, "What?"

"I'm not him," came a gruff voice. David nearly dropped the phone again in mortification. Feeling the blood drain from his face, he snatched the phone to his other ear. "Take it Rick called you already."

"Yeah, I... I'm sorry, Jack."

"You take too much crap from that boy, you know?"

David sighed and glanced down the deserted sidewalk. "Which one?"

A warm chuckle filtered through the speaker. "Where are you? I'll buy the coffee."

*****

David pressed his back into the vinyl booth and traced aimless circles over the table top with his fingers. Then he realized Jack was watching him intently and he dropped his hands to his lap.

"How old are you, David?"

David looked up, his brow furrowing slightly at the unexpected question. "Twenty-three." Jack frowned thoughtfully and lapsed into a brief silence. Finally he looked up. "Okay, do the math for me..."

David shifted uncomfortably. "I graduated early."

"From college?"

"Yeah. Well... I did high school in two years and college in three."

Jack nodded, "That's right. I think I knew that once. You're a smart one, aren't you?" The question didn't sound as if it were waiting for an answer. Jack seemed lost in thought again and David watched him uncertainly. Jack made him nervous, made him feel he needed to measure up, earn the man's respect and approval. "Twenty-three..." Jack stirred his coffee and scratched his chin. "That's a tough kid you've got yourself involved with."

David didn't know how to answer, but he felt a sharp stab of inadequacy and glanced down at the table.

Jack continued to speak, seemingly oblivious to David's discomfort. "I put the fear of God into him tonight. And he doesn't have a record, never been picked up by us, so the scare might slow him down for a while... But, I have a feeling something stronger than fear is driving him and it's going to rear it's ugly head again. Sooner than you're going to like."

David nodded slightly. He had no idea what to say. He was in over his head. What had been apparent to him early on was now becoming painfully public knowledge. He was in over his head. And it wasn't his own life in the balance this time... A kid was going to drown if he didn't get his own feet on solid ground.

"Twenty-three," Jack mused. "Smart doesn't count for experience. You're too young for this, boy. You know that?"

David dragged his eyes up to meet the older man's. "Yes, sir," he murmured.

Jack, having caught David's attention, held the gaze intently. "If you're too young at twenty-three... You were sure as hell too young at seventeen."

David flinched. He started to answer, then changed his mind and swiveled his gaze toward the glittering streetlights outside the window of the restaurant. Rain had begun to fall again. It was an unusually wet season. Distant lightning sheeted across the clouds.

"You made the right decision, then."

The gruff voice seemed to come from a distance, and David struggled to pull his mind back from the simple beauty of the storm. He lifted the mug of coffee in front of him, then hesitated and set it back down, turning it in his hands. "I was a scared kid."

His answer was met with silence and he finally glanced up. Jack was frowning. David watched him, turning the coffee cup slowly about in his hands. The older man finally spoke, his gaze once more fixed intently on David's face. "Then let it go."

David smiled bitterly. "He won't let me."

The older man sat back abruptly, his face darkening. "It's not his choice, boy. It's yours. You made your choice then, and he made his." The gruff voice had softened to barely more than a hiss, but David felt pinned behind the force of it. "Stop carrying the cross for his stupid mistakes, you've got plenty of your own to make in the here and now."

Jack opened his wallet and thumped some bills down on the table. David flinched, his face burning, stung by the rebuke. Jack slid out of the booth and smacked his worn cap against his thigh. David studied the table top. "He'll blame you as long as you let him, boy. It's a hell of a lot easier than admitting the truth, isn't it? For either of you." He pulled the cap on and tugged the bill low, casting his face into shadow. Without another word, he turned and strode through the empty restaurant and disappeared out into the dark rain.

*****

The darkness of night was bleaching to grey in the eastern sky. David eased the lock open as quietly as he could and let himself into the apartment. He didn't know what he expected to find, what energy he expected to feel in the emptiness. Nothing felt different. Nothing betrayed to him what had taken place in the preceding hours. He found himself almost shaken by the lack of the unusual as he hung his coat and moved cautiously deeper into the darkened living room.

His eyes adjusted slowly from the brightness of the hallway to take in the shadowy forms of the furniture, surfaces highlighted faintly in the glitter of the city lights refracted through the rain- streaked bay windows.

As his night vision improved, details flowed out of the darkness. And a voice.

"You're past curfew..." Rick spoke softly from the far corner of the living room. David's eyes sorted his faint silhouette from where he sat, one leg flung over the arm of an overstuffed chair.

David stepped forward and eased himself onto the couch. He studied Rick in the darkness, finally seeing enough details to find the faint gleam of his friend's eyes in the scant light.

"He's asleep," Rick said, his tone rising very slightly, defensive or challenging.

David was too tired to answer. They sat together in silence for several minutes. Finally David asked, "Stay the night?"

He watched Rick's face turn toward the windows, heard a soft chuff of bitter laughter. "Night's over."

David pushed himself to his feet and stepped forward extending his hand. Rick looked up at him. It was too dark to see the finer planes of expression on his friend's face, but he had an unsteady feeling that there was something deeply wounded behind the faintly glittering gaze that met his from darkness.

He heard Rick sigh heavily then felt the warmth of Rick's hand in his own and he pulled the younger man to his feet. They were standing less than a foot apart, David could feel the warmth of their bodies mingling, he tightened his hand, drawing Rick closer. "Stay the morning?"

Rick turned his face away, his eyes lowered, the light caught no reflection and his expression fell completely to the darkness. His curt nod was barely a shifting of shadows on blackness, but David felt the movement. He nodded in return.

"Okay," he murmured.

*****

Chapter 19 [Top] [Next]

Evan woke slowly. He was sore. Muscles protested across his back and chest as he shifted in his bed. His shoulders were stiff, tendrils of pain snaked down his thighs... The effort to hold himself still, and then the frantic struggle to escape left his sore to the bones. He didn't want to think about his ass. He eased himself onto his back, letting the mattress waken the tender bruises.

He stared at the ceiling, narrow bands of grey light leaked through the blinds and cast their stripes across the paint. The house was silent. A glance at the bedside clock revealed 5:37, the morning just clawing it's way free of the night. Returning his gaze to the ceiling, he sighed. He was embarrassed. Alone with no one to face but himself, he realized he could admit it. He was embarrassed at the depths to which he'd sunk. Selling himself. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, too uncomfortable with his own honesty to face himself in the dark. It was one thing when he was starving, living on the street, he thought, ignoring a queasy feeling in his gut when he thought of the twenty dollar bill folded into a tight rectangle, wedged into a back corner of the high shelf in his closet. Bad enough when he was desperate, but running away from a roof over his head, a soft bed, three meals a day... To sell himself on the street.

Then, and this was even harder to face as he rolled out of bed. Then... A few swats on the butt and he was crying and carrying on like a little girl. He tugged on his jeans and shoved his feet into his boots. He couldn't explain it. How many beatings had he taken from Master, and he came unglued from a kiddie spanking. He snagged a T-shirt and yanked it roughly over his head, feeling the hot burn of anger deep in his belly. That was good. That was familiar. That was armor.

He grabbed his jacket and shrugged into it. He was going soft here. They treated him like a kid long enough that he was actually regressing into one. Crying like a little girl...

He pressed one ear to the door. Silence. Still wary, David could be up, working, or worse than him...Rick.

Evan turned the doorknob slowly and eased the door open. He peered out uneasily, his heart was hammering against his ribs. He cursed at himself silently, willing his courage forward. What was he afraid of?

The living room was deserted. Edging through the doorway, he glanced over to the kitchen. No one. He crept out of his room.

The door to David's bedroom was closed, no light seeped through the gap between it and the floor. Evan eased forward, across the living room, placing each foot cautiously, gently, with each step, his heart beat faster, his gaze flickered about the room, with each step he expected a creak of the floorboards to give him away. Expected to hear the rattle of the doorknob to David's room. Even, he had to admit, a hint of superstitious fear tickled his spine as he half-expected Rick to materialize out of thin air before him.

Finally at the front door, he slid back the deadbolt. His pounding heart was nearly knocking the breath from him as he reached for the knob, grasped it, and halted. As the metal warmed beneath his skin, he felt with growing certainty that the door would open onto Rick's scowling countenance. He took a deep breath, then another, and a third... Mentally chastising himself for his cowardice, he turned the knob and pulled the door open in a single, smooth movement.

As a view of the empty hallway filled the frame of the door, Evan was so relieved he was almost dizzy. Realizing he was probably close to hyperventilating, he forced himself to hold his breath for a moment, then let it out slowly.

Holding the door carefully to keep it from closing too quickly behind him, he inched out into the hall, turning the knob as he eased the door closed to prevent a telltale click as the latch slipped past the strike plate.

Finally, the door closed, silence nearly smothering him in the short hallway, he went to the elevator and hesitated. The arrival of the carriage would be accompanied by a soft chime. Usually an unattended detail, but on this occasion, suddenly a significant consideration.

Considering for a moment, he finally turned away from the elevators and strode to the windowless door at the end of the hall. It opened onto the building's rarely used stairwell. Evan eased the door closed behind him and set down the stairs at a trot.

*****

No longer concerned for the racket he made, Evan banged the door open at the bottom of the stairs. Breathless from the countless flights he'd nearly run down, he strode across the lobby and flung himself against the front doors and out into the cool, morning air.

He hadn't yet set down his second footstep when he glanced up from the concrete steps and froze. Eyes gone wide in astonishment, Evan struggled to coordinate his feet and stumbled a step backward, thumping soundly against the closed door behind him.

Rick, in leather jacket, paper coffee cup in one hand, raised his eyebrows. Recovering more quickly than Evan, he was the first to speak. "You have got to be kidding me..."

Evan realized he was inviting flies and closed his mouth. For a wild moment he considered bolting, but somehow he knew that Rick would snag him without effort before his feet even hit the sidewalk. His own body blocked a swift retreat back through the front door, and even if he could make it inside, there would be nowhere to run. Before he had fully formed them, he opened his mouth and let the words tumble out in a rush. "I wasn't running away!"

One eyebrow crept higher. "Oh yeah?" Rick's tone was lazy, almost bemused. "It's a little early to be turning tricks."

Evan felt his face flush. He didn't have a witty and biting comeback. He chewed air for a moment before closing his mouth again. Against all his will, Evan felt cold fear sink gnawing teeth into his belly. He was suddenly and painfully aware of his backside pressed against the cold glass door. "I wasn't..." His face was burning, his brain felt sluggish. "I was just getting some air."

"Really," the lazy drawl drew the word out. "Does David know?"

"He was sleeping," the words were out of his mouth before Evan realized he might have walked into a trap. For all he knew, David could have just realized Evan was gone and called Rick on his cell. Could even have gone out for coffee with him and be around the corner, parking the car. The heat on his face began to prickle with icy needles. Realizing that honesty may be the safest avenue, he said, "I didn't tell him."

*****

Chapter 20 [Top] [Bottom]

David had been dozing lightly since Rick had gotten up after less than an hour's sleep. His body ached with exhaustion, but his mind was too tired to settle into sleep, it hummed restlessly until he finally gave up and flung off the covers. He padded into his bathroom, as a concession to Rick's company, David had worn pajama pants and a T-shirt to bed, now he shucked them off, leaving them on the floor with uncharacteristic abandon and stepped into the shower.

It took him less than five minutes to wash his body and hair and he was too tired to linger under the hot water. The temptation to sleep was too strong with the soothing heat working the pain out of his muscles. He shut off the taps and stepped out of the stall, toweling himself dry as he went back into the bedroom.

As he was pulling on jeans, David heard the apartment door thud shut and heard Rick's voice, irritation putting a sharp edge on it. David muttered a curse as he pulled a T-shirt over his head and opened the bedroom door.

*****

"Ground rules," Rick was saying to a scowling Evan whom he was guiding less than gently to one of the wooden chairs at the table. David caught a slight pinching of the boys features as he was set very firmly on the hard seat. Rick ignored it.

David leaned against the jamb of his bedroom door and watched the scene in silence. Rick glanced up, caught his eye for a moment, but said nothing. He set a Starbucks cup on the bar counter in the kitchen and turned back to the sulking boy. David realized, suddenly that the kid was fully dressed, including his jacket.

"You don't leave this house without permission, is that clear?" Rick strode back toward the table. Evan was glaring at a point in the living room. He muttered something too low for David to hear clearly, but he made out the words "not a house" and "apartment." Rick placed one palm on the table and leaned closer to the boy, "You don't leave this house without permission," he said again, slightly slower than before. Though his tone was even, there was a hard edge to it that made even David's belly twist uneasily. Evan only scowled more deeply.

His face still turned away, Evan said, more clearly this time, "You're not my father."

Rick straightened and turned back to the kitchen. "And thank God for that," he said, snatching the cup from the counter and dropping it into the trash under the sink. His back turned, he didn't see the wrenching look of pain cross the boy's features. David, struck by the hurt on Evan's face, nearly stepped into the fray, but Rick's next words halted him. "They'd have *me* on the hook for your little stunt last night. You know what happens to prostitutes, Evan? They get arrested, and that's if they're lucky. The unlucky ones get *dead*."

David closed his eyes. Jack hadn't shared the details of his encounter with the boy. Christ...

"I told you I was just getting some air," Evan's tone was still querulous but it lacked the conviction of real anger.

Rick leaned closer to the boy. "You can have all the air you want, right here. You don't..."

Evan rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders away, shifting his body toward the living room and crossing his arms over his chest. David felt his jaw drop at the boldness of his defiance. Rick raised one hand and brought it down on the table top with such force that David jumped. Evan's head shot around like a startled deer.

Rick, his tone now sharp enough to shear paper, said again, this time biting off each word, "You don't leave this house without permission. Is that clear?"

Evan glowered at him but didn't look away. David saw his lips move, but his answer was too soft to hear. Rick, however, seemed satisfied enough to straighten up.

"Go to your room," he said, his voice very slightly softer.

Evan looked up at him and for a moment David thought the boy was going to say something, but then apparently thought better of it and scooted off of the chair. David noticed that Evan sidestepped around Rick, managing to keep from turning his back on the man until he was well out of his reach. Hesitating a minute more, Evan gave David a searching look then fled to his bedroom. His door thumped shut with more force than necessary, but he was clearly restraining himself from a blatant act of defiance.

Rick, muttering curses, sank into one of the wooden chairs. David crossed the room and slid into another. Rick was still cursing quietly but creatively at the ceiling. David waited him out in silence and finally was rewarded with an attentive stare.

"Okay," David said, fixing Rick with a steady gaze. "Tell me."

*****

Rick unraveled the tale of the previous evening. David listened to his description of Jack's handling of the of the boy and Rick's intervention without interruption. As Rick began describing their return to the apartment and the subsequent punishment meted out to the boy, a sudden thump rattled through the walls. As one, the two men turned their eyes toward the closed bedroom door. As if on cue, another thud made the door clatter against it's latch. Rick looked at David. David glanced back at him and nodded, jaw set.

David strode to the door and opened it without knocking. He stepped into the room and closed it quietly behind him. Evan, on his back on the bed, didn't notice him enter and raised both feet, slamming them against the wall with a bone-jarring bang. David stepped between the boy and the window, casting his shadow over the bed. Evan halted, primed for another assault on the plaster, and stared up into David's face.

For a moment David thought the boy was considering placing another kick at the wall but apparently decided against it and lowered his feet to the bed. David held out his right hand. "Give me your shoes," he said placidly. Evan stared at him. David lifted his left hand, fingers spread. "Five," he folded in his thumb, "four..."

*****

David stepped into the living room and closed the door behind him. He carried Evan's boots in his left hand. Rick raised his eyebrows. "Creative," he said as David returned to the table.

"I told him if he puts a hole in the plaster he'll spend the weekend repairing it and repainting his room." He set the boots on the floor. He looked up at Rick, frowning slightly. "How did he take the spanking?"

A wicked smile curved Rick's lips. "Not well at all."

David nodded. "Good."

*****

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."

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.

*****

Vincent said nothing for a several seconds and finally Rick pulled his gaze up to the other man's face.

"If you're still interested," Rick mumbled, feeling heat spread across his face and down his chest.

"Are you sure?" Vincent reached out and brushed the back of one finger down the side of Rick's face. His expression was strange, as if the man in front of him were a rare species of insect.

Muscles twitched along Rick's jaw, he fixed his stare on the second button of Vincent's shirt.

"I'm ready," he said again, resolutely, though his heart was pounding so hard he almost thought that from the corner of his eye he could see his own shirt jumping against his chest in rhythm to it.

Vincent leaned back on the couch. Then in a blur of movement, he pulled his arm back and swung down, his palm cracking across Rick's left cheek, ear, and jaw. Rick threw out a hand to catch himself from being knocked completely off his knees then rocked onto all fours, working his jaw carefully and trying to make his eyes focus. He felt as if his head was inside of a church bell, being hammered by waves of vibration. His tongue found blood on his lower lip and he grinned at the floor then laughed softly.

"Something funny?" Vince asked, on his feet now. Rick could hear the creak of the tread of the other man's boots as he stepped around him to stand near his head. His tone was hard and angry and something violent and ill-controlled uncoiled with it into the room. Rick considered for a moment whether Vince might actually kick him in the face and eased slowly back onto his heels.

"I deserved that."

Vince shot him a hard look, suspicious that the words weren't what they seemed. "Yes, you did," he said with the caution of a man who senses a joke coming at his own expense.

The ringing beginning to fade from his skull, Rick worked his tongue over the split in his lip. He sighed and straightened and put his arms behind his back, one wrist captured in the other hand. "I'm sorry." A breath. "Sir."

Vince stepped closer to him and reached out twisted his fingers into Rick's hair, pulling his head back, bringing a grimace of pain to Rick's face, he bent close and whispered, "Tell me again."

"I'm ready," Rick breathed out jaggedly.

"Tell me you want it."

"I want it, sir."

Vince lowered his mouth to Rick's exposed neck and set his teeth against his skin. He dragged his mouth down to the junction of neck and shoulder and tightened his jaw, eliciting a sound that started half-moan but quickly became a sharp yelp of pain.

Rick clenched his teeth and throttled the cry to a strangled whimper. His thighs felt weak, he wanted to pull away but couldn't move. Then Vincent released him and with a final, almost delicate flick of his tongue against Rick's neck, he straightened.

Still immobilized by the brutal fist in his hair, Rick drew a shuddering breath and let it out in a staccato of short gasps. Vince leaned in again, this time pressing his mouth to Rick's lips. When he pulled back, a smear of blood painted the corner of his mouth and he wiped it with his thumb. He gazed at it for a moment, then brought it to his lips and licked it. He released Rick's head and stepped back.

"I'll put Gary on the floor for a few hours. We can have dinner, go back to my place..."

"Please," Rick interrupted, wincing inwardly at the sharp look it earned him, "I'd like to do it now."

Vince crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow. His expression was a mix of uncertainty and concern, a softness in his eyes that was usually so well hidden. Seeing it sent a dagger of pain through Rick's chest, regret, hurt.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Vince, please..."

Vincent looked at him for a long time then sighed. He pulled a ring of keys off of his belt and went to a door in the back of the office. Stiffly, Rick rose and followed him, his heart beating madly once more and his throat tight.

*****

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] [Next]

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. 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.

*****

[Top]


~ Julnick