Last Part of this installment with Rick and L.J. Might be more, if I ever get around to writing it.


Rachel and Brendan came over around three. Though Alex told them Sharky would be too busy to come home for supper, they stayed. L.J. left to walk around town, but when he left he got the idea that they were relieved Sharky wasn't home. Rachel had looked haggard, but happy in an odd way. Brendan looked nervous, but the smile playing at his lips told L.J. something was going on.

L.J. walked by Rick's house first and froze for a moment when he saw Sharky's car in the driveway. He decided he didn't care (ignoring the hateful burning in his stomach) and trudged on. His hands were shoved in his pockets and the rain fell on him and through his hoodie. He stood at the intersection of Fifth Street and Black Street, looking north on Fifth Street, and wondering if B.J. was home.

He walked north until he reached their house and knocked on the front door. Madeline answered and saw him standing on the porch looking worse than a drowned weasel. She pulled him inside gently and he stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers with relief. They were only damp. He handed his wet clothes to his aunt and she took them to another room. She came back and they sat side by side on the couch.

"B.J. around?" he asked.

"No," she said. "He went to Selena's. She called and asked him to get her something. He should be back soon."

L.J. looked outside. "He went outside in this weather?"

"He actually put on rain gear. I put your clothes and shoes in the dryer. I'll get your shoes in a few minutes."

"No sick kids today?"

"I'm on vacation since we're going to France tomorrow," Madeline said. "My father wants us to visit. Billy and I requested the time off months ago. I'm surprised B.J. didn't let you know."

L.J. thought about it and realized that he was fairly sure B.J. had mentioned it when they were walking together towards that last soccer game.

"Where's Uncle Billy then?"

"He had a few sessions to finish and he wanted to check on his patients at the hospital."

"Oh. How long ago did B.J. leave?"

"A half-hour ago. He'll be back soon. He told me he was just getting what she asked and taking it over there."

By the time L.J.'s clothes dried, B.J. returned wet and cold. Madeline made him take off his outer clothes to dry them and he collapsed on the couch before he yawned.

"What're you doing over?"

"Brendan and Rachel came over. What were you doing out, even for Selena?"

"A good friend of hers had a bad weekend and he was over there, really upset. I felt bad for him. He was crying and everything."

"What's his name?"

"You wouldn't know him, though his mom is a professor at Warren Roberts--I don't know his name-"

L.J. blinked stupidly and furrowed his brows at B.J. "So why was he upset, did she tell you?"

"Yeah. I wanted to know why I was out walking around in the rain for chocolate."

"So what was it?"

"Apparently his dad's some violinist and doesn't like that he's gay. Something like that, I guess. He took him to his concert in New York and asked him to stay with him over the weekend at his hotel. I guess he made him go to one of those stupid shrinks that Dad hates--tries to 'cure' gay people and stuff. He wouldn't talk to the shrink and walked out and then he and his dad got in some huge fight in the middle of Times Square. I guess there's even a small article about it in the New York Times since his dad's a big concert violinist."

L.J. felt his stomach curling up and watched the cartoon on without much interest. B.J. accepted his cousin's silence as sympathy for the other gay kid and didn't say anything.

"I think I know that guy," L.J. said after a while. "I think-"

"He's a pretty boy."

"Please don't say it like that, would you?"

"Sorry. Are you two like--involved?"

"I don't know. I think he likes me and I know I like him, but I don't know. He's a good friend either way."

B.J. noticed how upset his cousin was and got off the topic, trying to cheer him up. "No soccer game for you today, is there?"

"No."

"That's too bad. Scott keeps asking about you. I think he said something like he wanted you to join the school team."

The St. Peter's Boys' Varsity Soccer team had been undefeated for three years in a row (including the state championships) and had never failed to at least make the playoffs in twenty-one years. Father O'Reilly and Father DiSantos said it was God, but L.J. knew it was the obsessive nature with which the boys played soccer all year around.

"I'm not going to," L.J. said. "I'm not good like most of those guys. We always have a guy make it to the MLS or European League every five to ten years. I just like it."

"Scott says-"

"I don't care about Scott," L.J. whispered harshly. "I don't give a damn about him."

"Well, you sure did a month ago. Besides that, why haven't you call or anything lately?"

"I was grounded for a couple weeks."

"But it's been nearly a month. Are you mad at me?"

"I'm here right now, aren't I? I'm not mad at you."

"Then why haven't I heard from you?"

L.J. looked outside and wanted to avoid the question, but B.J. had never been a person to let things go. After a few minutes of silence, B.J. glanced over at L.J. holding his stomach. He looked around the room for his mother and leaned close to L.J.

"Did your father do something? Did he hurt you again?"

"He's never hurt me," L.J. said. "He wouldn't."

"Then what's wrong with your stomach?"

"Nothing."

"It's always nothing."

"That's because it is always nothing. Get off it!"

L.J. could see B.J.'s temper catching up with him and fervently hoped Madeline wouldn't hear anything of their impending argument.

"Then why does it always look like something?"

"It just does. It's none of-"

"No, you dumb-fuck, it is my business too. You're my cousin and you're my best friend and no one has the right to hurt you, even Uncle Sharky."

"He doesn't hurt me-"

"Don't lie to me like that. It insults my intelligence."

L.J. watched B.J. with some shock. B.J. had yet to really raise his voice. He was calm, though angry, and he watched L.J. carefully.

"If you had any intelligence, then you'd get off it and leave me alone."

"If I didn't have any conscience, not intelligence."

L.J. turned around and felt his muscles clenching up and he had never wanted to hit someone so much as B.J. kept scrutinizing him. He resisted only because it was the sort of response Sharky would have done.

"Get off it, B.J. Please." He wasn't surprised at how tired he sounded, because he felt that tired too.

"I can't get off it. I can't not think about you maybe getting hurt."

"I'm not hurt."

L.J. sat on the couch. B.J. did the same.

"We can go over to Selena's, if you want. Maybe he'd like to see a friend."

"Yeah, OK."

"I'm gonna go get into some clothes, then."

After B.J. changed and tracked down an umbrella somewhere in the disarray of Billy and Madeline's house, they left. The rain would taper off every few minutes, only to start pummeling them once the umbrella was shut.

B.J. didn't knock at Selena's house. He walked in and pulled L.J. behind him.

"Hey, Selena!" B.J. yelled. "I'm here with my cousin. Where're you at?"

"The rec room."

B.J. made sure to lock the door behind himself and led L.J. down to the rec room. L.J. knew Selena as B.J.'s older girlfriend (B.J. had skipped two grades in elementary), but since she went to Baile, he didn't know her well. She kissed B.J. on the cheek when he came in.

"Which cousin is this?"

"You've met him before, it's L.J."

"Oh, OK-"

"L.J.?"

L.J. looked up and saw Rick leaning against the wall, hands in his pocket, and looking uncharacteristically scruffy. Reddish stubble poked through his cheeks and jaw and his hair was sticking up. He didn't wear his usual assortment of mish-mashed clothes and had loud, striped pajamas on.

"Hey, Rick."

Rick smiled.

Selena took B.J. by the hand and took him out of the rec room. Rick gestured and they sprawled out on the floor by the coffee table. Rick drank something from a glass and handed it to L.J. He sniffed it tentatively.

"It's nothing strong. Mostly Dr. Pepper with a shot of scotch. Selena usually disdains drink, but she kindly thought I'd need something to soothe my nerves."

L.J. drank some of it and Rick took it back. L.J. got the impression Rick would rather not talk so they sat in silence while they passed the glass back and forth. When it emptied, Rick went to the bar in the corner and pulled another glass from the cabinet. He filled each glass a half-full of Chivas Regal and mixed it with Dr. Pepper.

He sat back on the floor and handed L.J. the other glass. L.J. didn't really want it and set it on the table, only to have Rick put it back in his hand.

"I'll be honest, love, you usually look dashing despite your clothes. Today you look like hell. Something gives me the idea you at least need a little more."

"You don't look so well either," L.J. said. He drank some of the mix and grimaced at the feel of the whiskey going down.

"I hate my father."

L.J. shrugged. "I hate mine too."

"But I still love him. Does that make sense, love?"

"Makes perfect sense," L.J. said quietly. He didn't like the taste or feel, but he certainly liked the effects of the whiskey and drank more of his glass.

"I don't understand why he can't just accept it. I have and I would think I'd be the biggest problem. I'm a stereotype and I know that. I rather like it because it means I can't hide it from myself. I liked action figures just as well, but I liked girl toys too. My thing for horses never bothered him because he had a riding stable and I'm a country British boy, so he expected that I at least enjoy them. Even that I didn't like sports didn't bother him because he hates them too."

L.J. was silent, realized most of his glass was gone, and wondered how to comfort Rick. Rick seemed to sense what he was thinking. He took a drink and wiped his mouth before smiling.

"There's no comfort for your father being a jerk, you know. It's nice enough just having someone to speak to who understands."

"Maybe I don't-"

"Your father is Lawrence McCarthy."

The simplicity and accuracy of this statement made L.J. smile crookedly. "I take back what I said. You're right."

They were silent and L.J. finished his drink. Rick took the empty glasses and refilled them

"So what're Selena's parents?"

"Her mom owns the bookstore by Warren Roberts. Her dad's a thoracic surgeon."

"Oh."

Rick didn't say anything while he sat back down. Instead, he sat right next to L.J. and looked at him. L.J. felt some strange courage coming from somewhere, even while a small part of his mind told him to ignore it. Rick looked slightly drunk, but L.J. knew he was at least mildly drunk, if not plastered.

"I'm not drunk," he said suddenly. "'M not."

"'M not drunk either, love."

"I swear, 'Ick. My father gets drunk an' I don'."

"We did drink, though. I think it's eighty-proof."

L.J. felt his stomach lurch and that strange courage was still there. He paused, tried to stand, and stopped himself.

"I think I might."

"Might what?"

"Be drunk."

"Oh. Maybe--if-if you are. Maybe me too."

L.J. felt Rick's arm against his side and thought about trying it--

Rick burst into tears. L.J. registered it dimly and tried to pat his shoulder. He missed and settled for his elbow.

"Wha's wrong?"

"I've got good friends. Good friends. My dad's des--des--spicable and my friends are good."

L.J. continued patting Rick's elbow. "Good friends are nice to have. Aren' they?"

"I've got good friends."

L.J. vaguely remembered the argument he and B.J. had earlier. "I got good friends too."

Rick stopped crying and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his eyes.

"You're a good friend, too, L.J. Do you want to be friends?"

"We are friends-" L.J. paused- "aren't we?"

"We are."

L.J. watched a minute of the talk show on the T.V.

"Are we--we just friends?" Rick asked.

"Thought we were."

"I--I wouldn't say no."

L.J. felt the heat from Rick's body, only a few inches away.

"I wouldn' either."

They looked at each other. Rick took the glasses from the table and dumped them in the sink. L.J.'s was half-empty and his was nearly full. He filled the sink with cold water and dunked his head for thirty seconds. He came up and dunked himself again for forty seconds.

"Come 'ere, L.J."

L.J. obediently stood up and walked over to where Rick stood, nearly falling and catching himself on the wall. Rick told him to breathe deeply and dunked his head under the water three times.

"I still feel a little drunk," L.J. said.

"A little bit. But we're not stupid drunk."

L.J. walked over to the couch and sat down. Rick followed him and they watched T.V. in silence. A commercial came on.

"Did you mean it?" L.J. asked.

"What?"

"What you said earlier. About…"

"Oh." Rick pulled a string out of his pajama shirt. "Well. I-I wouldn't say no, if that's what you mean. Did you mean what you said?"

"That's why I asked you."

"Ah."

"So?"

"Well, love-" Rick grinned- "let's do it."

"OK."

Well, it wasn't very romantic, but L.J. hadn't expected it to be.

They walked upstairs together and into the kitchen to see a disgusting display from B.J. and Selena. Rick walked to the other side of them and angled his head in interest.

"You know, love, I didn't think tongues could go that far down someone's throat."

"I didn't want to know."

B.J. pulled away with his face red. "Well, I'm going to be gone to France for two weeks. We're leaving tomorrow. I didn't want to-"

"If you were going to say, 'eat her face', you failed," Rick said. "Selena, I'm going to go get into my regular clothes, give L.J. a ride home, and go home myself. I appreciate your help and concern over my wretched weekend."

"It's no problem. Make sure to call me sometime this week."

"Of course."

Rick went upstairs and L.J. leaned against a cabinet. B.J. let go of Selena's hand and walked over to lean by his cousin.

"So--"

"What happened is between Rick and I," L.J. said.

"You smell like whiskey."

"Rick thought we needed something to calm ourselves. He was a bit-"

"Well, after his asshole father's brilliant display, I'm not surprised," Selena said.

"So, what...Rick wouldn't tell me-"

"B.J. told me what he told you. That's pretty much it. He didn't mention that good old Joseph offered Rick the chance to go back to Britain with him. He offered him private tutors and everything at their country place or city, whichever he wanted. All he had to do was submit to the first three sessions of therapy."

It sounded like a good deal to L.J., but he knew immediately that it was not Rick's style and would never be Rick's style.

"Rick wouldn't," L.J. said. "He never would."

Selena smiled. "No one makes Richard Joseph Charles do what he doesn't want to do."

L.J. smiled too and they stayed in a comfortable silence, until B.J. left to use the bathroom. Selena watched L.J. before asking her question.

"So what are you and Rick?"

L.J. blinked in surprise. "Well, he's a really good friend. We haven't known each other long, but-"

"Rick has that effect on people, but with you it's different because he's happier. He's happy with most people, but especially you. I've known him for a few years now and I've never seen anyone do that for him."

"He's usually pretty happy."

"That's a farce. He's usually very miserable, except when he talks about you or he's with you."

"He talks about me?"

"A lot. Whenever he said something his father did to him that upset him, he would talk about you for a few minutes and smile again."

"Oh."

"I'll be really unhappy if you do something to hurt him. I'd give you a generic warning, but you're both big boys and it's your business-" she paused- "unless he comes over here at midnight on a Saturday crying and looking decidedly unstylish. Then it becomes some of my business."

"I don't--I don't plan to."

"There's always a difference in that sort of thing," Selena said vaguely. "Well, I hear Rick coming down the stairs. I'll head off to find B.J."

Rick entered just after Selena went through another door.

"I'd say we ought to go to my house for a bit," he said, "but I'm fairly sure your father is over there. So, you'll just go home and we'll meet up in a few days. Is that alright with you?"

"That's fine."

Rick was now only slightly less well groomed than usual and L.J. followed him to his car. The ride was comfortable and Rick drove carefully in the rain. Rick squeezed his hand when he climbed out to go inside.

"Take care in that dreadful old place, love."

"Of course." They looked at each other just long enough that L.J. walked away with his face blushing.

The same feeling he'd had after Rick taught him to play the guitar was burning in his blood and he smiled like an idiot the whole walk back to his bedroom.


When he was called down for supper, L.J. had expected not to see Sharky per his own words to Alex that morning, but he was still surprised to see the empty chair at the head of the table. Brendan and Rachel were there, which wasn't surprising, and L.J. studied Rachel for a few minutes. He didn't know what Brendan saw in her, but he wondered what Brendan might think about Rick.

Alex wasn't enough of a liar to make them say the blessing for before meals. L.J. usually thought Rachel's attempts to keep conversation flowing were infuriating more than anything, but he smiled at her talkativeness and his mother actually smiled at him for a reason he wasn't sure of. Brendan was as silent, but smiled at L.J. too (probably for not being a jerk).

He helped Alex clear up the supper dishes. When he was ready to go to his room, she took his shoulder.

"Brendan and Rachel have some news he wants to tell you."

"Oh."

"He's in the living room."

L.J. wondered what Brendan would want to tell him. He went to the living room and saw Brendan on the sofa, near Sharky's chair, and twisting a copy of a newspaper in his hands. L.J. flopped down by his brother.

"Mama said you wanted to tell me something?"

Brendan's eyes were half-closed and he nodded.

"I don't want you to be angry at me or be angry at Rachel, first off. I don't know why you would be, but I'm telling you that straight off."

"OK." Well, L.J. was mystified.

Brendan ran his hands through his hair. "Rachel and I…well, she…she's pregnant. We told Mama first, but we thought we'd tell you before we told Father."

L.J. stifled a laugh thinking of his father's reaction. Sharky professed to be Catholic and practiced Catholicism faithfully, but L.J. was fairly sure he was more concerned with keeping up an appearance of normality than any true devotion or faith. This blatant flouting of sinning would be funnier if Brendan and Rachel weren't the ones who got to leave after telling him.

"I didn't think you'd laugh about it."

L.J. found that he didn't care much, which surprised him. Some excitement crept up on him when he thought about being an uncle, but he figured that he didn't really process it. After all, it was a few words. There was no ultrasound, no solid proof, no real evidence…

"I wasn't laughing at what you said…I was thinking about what Father would say."

Brendan didn't smile. "I've thought about that too."

"Oh, come on."

"I've thought about moving to New York and staying there with Rachel until she has him. I'd call him from the hospital."

L.J. realized Brendan was not joking.

"Oh, come on. What's he going to do to you? You get to leave when you're done telling him."

"I'm sorry, if that makes a difference."

"Yeah, right."

"Well, I am. I'm sorry. What more do you expect me to do?"

L.J. shook his head and stood up.

"It has nothing to do with what you're supposed to do as what you don't do--and stop acting like you know what it's like, because you don't! You remember it when it happened then, not now. At least when he hit you, he had half a reason, even if it was shit. You know what Mama told me today? 'He was drunk, honey. Does he need a reason if he's drunk?'"

"So what? It's harder because he doesn't hit as much, but when he does it's for not nearly as much? So what? I took plenty for stupid reasons and sometimes I wished he'd just beat me to do it. When he made an excuse, it was like he was trying to say he loved me and there was reason, when there really wasn't-"

"He hates you-"

"And he loves you!"

L.J. didn't think that sort of statement could hurt, but it did.

"He loves you! He's never even smiled at me and he never introduced me to his friends or coworkers. He smiles when he talks about you and your stupid violin. And the only reason he loves you is because you're getting to be just like him, which is what he wants."

L.J. walked to the doorway and turned to face Brendan, pulling up his shirt.

"You think stuff like this is love?"

"No, I don't, but I don't think he loves like most people."

L.J. lowered his shirt. "Then why does it matter that he loves me?"

Brendan's smile was bitter. "Because it makes all the difference."

L.J. jumped when he heard a car door slam and realized it came from the driveway. He turned his back on Brendan and went to his room. As he shut his bedroom door, he heard Sharky slam the door and it bounced off the wall before it slammed shut. He curled up on his bed after stripping to his boxers and wrapped his comforter tightly around himself, burying his face into his pillow.

He wasn't sure how long he lay in bed, waiting, knowing that his father would pounce any minute. He remembered looking at the clock when he first curled up and realizing it was just 7:49. When his father screeched (which would have been funny without the consequence of a later beating), it was 8:27.

L.J. climbed out of bed and turned on his radio very quietly. He listened to the classic rock station and started to straighten up his room. Sharky would tear the room apart, of course, but he would still be insulted if it was dirty. He straightened up his desk and thought his room looked clean enough.

When he sat back on his bed, he heard his father escalating and realized his room wasn't nearly as clean as it needed to be. He climbed under his bed and started pushing out what little debris was under there. He threw away some papers and felt a cool, smooth surface under his hand when he reached behind himself to get the rest of the trash.

Forgetting about the rest of it, he brought a bottle of Jameson 18-Year-Old to his eyes and felt cold seeping into his stomach. It was full, though the seal was broken. The green glass reflected the light and L.J. dropped onto his bed, holding the whiskey bottle and aware of the fear in his eyes, even if he couldn't see it.

He didn't know how the whiskey had gotten into his room (he suspected a drunk, forgetful Sharky), but knew that drink of any kind was explicitly prohibited. No loopholes, no exceptions.

Brendan had never been discovered with whiskey in his room, so L.J. had no frame of reference. He figured that either way he wasn't going to get out of the house anytime soon and he might even be beaten over it. Not because Sharky really cared about L.J.'s health, but because it was an eighty-dollar bottle of whiskey that was his and that was good enough.

L.J. listened to the argument downstairs and only heard his mother and father. Brendan and Rachel had left. He couldn't even ask Brendan what to do.

He had to sneak it back. He had to put it in Sharky's study.

Well, he'd never known he was such a masochist.

He stuck his head out of his bedroom door and didn't see Sharky near the stairs. With that, he took a quick drink of the Jameson, grimacing as it went down his throat, and made the cap as tight as he could before he started to walk down the hallway. At the top of the stairs, he strained for an angry word or vicious slap. He continued down the stairs, pausing only when he heard something crash in the kitchen. At the bottom of the stairs, he sighed with relief when he saw the study door ajar and Sharky was hunched over the kitchen table, his rant only evidenced by the rumble of his voice.

L.J. dashed across the hallway and slid into the study. Sharky kept his favorites locked in a cabinet, but L.J. would have to rely on his drunkenness to think he'd taken a drink and hope it spared him at least a few uncreative, but hurtful insults--if not a beating. With his father still going on in the kitchen, he sighed in relief after setting the bottle on Sharky's roll top desk.

He looked around briefly, wondering how much might have changed from his last time in here. The roll top desk was still in the northwest corner, bookcases lined the walls, Sharky's regular desk still took up only slightly less than a sixth of the room, and the cabinet half hidden between two bookcases had the same silver lock on it.

After he had a quick look around, he checked the hallway and saw his father still sitting at the kitchen table. Alex was at the stove.

L.J. furrowed his eyebrows while going upstairs and wondered if something had happened with Melissa Charles. He hated Sharky even more for sneaking around on Alex, but at least when he was with Melissa, he wasn't home.

He crawled back into bed and under his blankets. His clock said 9:14 and he thought that going to sleep sounded wonderful. Just as he felt himself slipping into sleep, he heard someone walking up the stairs. They creaked like they always did and L.J. was unsurprised that his bedroom door opened.

But it was just his mother.

"I brought your clothes," she said. "I finished them a few hours ago, but-"

"I understand. Why's Father-"

"I suspect whatever woman he was sneaking around with dumped him."

L.J. gaped at his mother and she raised an eyebrow.

"Of course I knew about whoever it was. When he's got someone else--he ignores me."

L.J. heard the relief in her voice and thought that their house was quite a bit sadder than he'd ever given it credit for.

"Can you turn off the light when you leave?"

Alex kissed the top of his head and turned off the light as she left. He rolled over to the wall, breathing evenly, and hoping he'd fall asleep soon. The sooner he fell asleep, the sooner it would be the next day, then the next week, next month, next year…and he'd be out of the horrible, evil Victorian a lot sooner when he thought like that.

He managed to drift off into his own thoughts of escape so thoroughly that when his door flew open, he barely realized it until his blankets were stripped off and a belt flew through the air to snap against his thigh.

L.J. cried out and his hands went to the cut on his thigh to cover the bleeding. He pressed a pillow to his leg and rolled off his bed to avoid the next target. The belt snapped harmlessly against the sheets.

"Get up, off the floor, you sneaky little bastard!"

L.J. grabbed the edge of his bed and lifted himself up. Sharky stood less than a foot from him. His hair was only slightly out of place, though his shirt was unbuttoned and he was barefoot. His pants were sliding down his hips and they were unbuttoned, unzipped, and his belt was wrapped around his hand into a loop that sagged menacingly. L.J. had never seen something sag menacingly, but he was pretty sure he saw it now.

"You sneaky, conniving son-of-a-bitch!"

The belt came towards him again and L.J. barely dodged it. He darted past Sharky and only managed to trap himself between Sharky and the closet door.

L.J. was terrified.

Sharky was not drunk. He was currently homicidal and always a nut job, but as sober as the pope at Easter.

That hadn't been part of the plan. Sharky sober noticed a dust particle drifting towards him in a dark room, but Sharky drunk wouldn't notice a tap-dancing, rabid squirrel offering him éclairs.

There must have been a give away look on his face because before L.J. even realized the belt was coming at him, he felt it leave a welt on his shoulder. He thought the welt would burst and start bleeding, but it didn't.

"I'm not an alcoholic, you stupid boy! I noticed my Jameson missing when it happened-"

He'd told himself that his father wouldn't believe him, but he tried anyway.

"You left it in my room, Father."

"I would think that I would remember such an act."

"You did-"

Sharky didn't speak, he leaned forward and was so close to L.J. that the cold tip of his nose jabbed L.J.'s cheek.

"You smell like Jameson."

"I don't know why."

"You know perfectly well why."

"Sir-"

"Don't treat me as if I'm an ignorant child, boy!"

L.J. shut his mouth and watched Sharky walking forward with the belt moving in sync with his legs. There was just enough of a gap between Sharky and L.J.'s dresser he could squeeze through-

He darted forward and slid between Sharky and the dresser. Sharky turned so sharply that he stumbled and fell against the bookcase. It rocked and L.J. grabbed the bedroom doorknob, watching it and hoping it would fall on Sharky.

It didn't, but L.J. managed to make it to the top of the stairs before Sharky even left the bedroom. He ran down the stairs and opened the cut on his leg just when it clotted. He grabbed the front door handle, pulled at it and pushed for it to open. The door was locked, so he had to waste precious time undoing the chain, deadbolt, and door's lock before he had the door open.

He heard Sharky walking down the stairs and had his hand on the doorknob, ready to open the door, and stopped himself.

Did he have anywhere to go? Was there someone who would accept him nearly naked and bleeding without questions? Of course they would ask questions and then where would he be? He wasn't even sixteen. They would take him from his mother. He could tolerate Sharky as long as he had his mother and he wasn't sure what he could tolerate without her. He didn't want to know.

Besides, he had no one to go to except maybe B.J. and they were in New York City now.

He turned around to see Sharky staggering down the stairs, his bad knee buckling under his weight, but he saw L.J. standing passively in place and smiled.

It was just as hideous as any of his smiles.

By the time L.J. thought of Rick, he stumbled backwards, clutching for the doorknob and Sharky dug his fingers into his shoulder to drag him into the living room.

"I used to be pleased that I let your mother have her way about the names. Then you go and do something both cowardly and stupid and I wonder if I shouldn't have insisted the boy be named after me. At least he wasn't a coward."

That hurt a lot more than L.J. had ever thought one of his father's insults could. They were usually uncreative and expected, but usually a word from his mother or brother could help him dismiss it.

L.J. was pushed and he stumbled into the coffee table. He hated that stupid coffee table. He laid on it and placed his cheek against the cool glass. He hated the rug that was under the coffee table too. It hurt his knees while he laid over the coffee table and had tremors running through him every few seconds.

He angled his head so he could stare at his stomach while watching Sharky pace in front of the T.V. After a few minutes, he stared at Sharky.

Sharky didn't want to brutalize him, but he had to be punished. After a few minutes of that absurd pacing (Sharky had to pull his pants up every few steps) he stopped to watch L.J.

"I've been thinking, Lawrence."

"Yes, Father?"

"I don't want to, but you need to be punished. I'd rather not, you see, but you brought it on yourself. You have not ceased to lie to my face, disrespect me, and even stole my most expensive whiskey. You lied about drinking the whiskey. You thought that I would be stupid and drunk and wouldn't even notice-"

L.J. tried another desperate defense. "But, you left it there, sir! You did a room inspection weeks ago-"

"I would remember if I gave you a room inspection, most especially if I left my whiskey in there."

"Father-"

"No. You'll stop your lying, disrespect-"

"I swear-"

L.J. heard the belt fly through the air and it snapped on his back so that he couldn't help crying out and he couldn't stop his eyes from watering with pain.

"Stop lying! Tell me what happens to liars, Lawrence."

"They--they get punished and burn in hell."

Sharky watched L.J. was approval in his eyes. He slapped the belt down on L.J.'s back again and L.J. resisted crying out in pain.

"That's for another of your lies. I should think that's one of the things you do the most. Lie."

L.J. felt the belt cutting into his skin when Sharky would stop whatever he was ranting about to hit him. Sometimes it was only once or twice, but right after an accusatory rant about L.J. having no respect for other people or their possessions, L.J. bit his lower lip through while the belt came down twelve times before Sharky cleaned the blood off of it with his shirttail.

"I wonder why I didn't beat you out of your mother when I found out she was pregnant."

L.J. waited for the belt, but it didn't come. He hated waiting for it worse than the real sting. The older blood on his back was starting to dry wherever it had trailed to.

"I wanted to do it when she told me she was pregnant with your brother. I would have. I wanted to, but she told me in the D'Amigos' restaurant. And then that fat bastard Tony came over and told us congratulations, so other people knew."

L.J. almost screamed for him to just hit him already, but knew that would only drag out the bizarre lecture-beating he was receiving.

"I could have done it with you. I should have. Your mother told me she was pregnant on our anniversary and I know no one else knew and no one could have overheard us in our bedroom."

He looked over at Sharky and saw him sitting in his chair, hands in his hair with the belt across his lap. L.J. carefully raised himself off the coffee table and watched Sharky while he walked backwards to the stairs.

Just as he made to turn, Sharky looked up and he froze.

"I don't know where you think you're going. I didn't tell you to leave."

Like it was a cue, a halfway sealed cut on his back reopened and started leaking blood.

"Where's Mama?" L.J. had wondered, because usually Alex would have done something to take over Sharky's attention.

"I locked her in our bedroom. I assumed you'd try to run away, but--well, there's nowhere for you to go. Your stupid brother's gone and gotten his fiancée knocked up, so now he has his own problems. Does he even care anymore? Does he bother to ask about what happens to you, Lawrence?"

All Brendan had said was a lame, "I'm sorry, if that makes a difference."

What difference could those sort of words make?

Because he did mean it, even if he didn't know how to say it more eloquently.

"He's not like you. He still cares, even after he leaves. I know him."

Sharky didn't smile, but his mouth grimaced. "That's all well and pretty, but-"

L.J. had felt it coming on and he didn't know why, but he knew it was coming and turned around.

"Turn around to talk to me."

L.J. refused to turn around. He trembled in fear, but he couldn't turn around.

He wasn't surprised to hear Sharky literally growl, leap up so quickly that his chair crashed to the ground, and he wasn't surprised that the belt came down diagonally across his back. He still shouted at the sudden pain and he nearly fell into the doorway, but he grabbed the edge of the wall and stopped himself.

Sharky grabbed his shoulder and quickly removed his hand to wipe the blood on his shirt. He grabbed again and turned L.J. around. He was close enough that L.J. felt him brush against the front of his boxers. Sharky looked down and jumped backwards.

"What in the name of Robert Emmett is that about, boy!"

"Father, I-"

Sharky took two strides forward and grabbed both of L.J.'s shoulders, standing out of range, and L.J. didn't think he'd ever felt so embarrassed.

Sharky pushed him and he managed to avoid falling again. Sharky didn't bother running, but L.J. started to run up the stairs until whatever cuts had sealed up started to open and bleed. He stood on the stairs with his feet an absurd distance from each other, his back dripping blood onto the stairs, and naked except for his boxers, while his erection made him look even more ridiculous.

He stood there long enough that Sharky's amble brought him to L.J. and he was pushed again. He couldn't stop himself from falling that time.

Though, he honestly wasn't sure if he wanted to bother stopping himself. He hit the stairs, grimaced, and rolled over.

"What is that about?"

"What, sir?" L.J. preferred to play stupid in this case.

"What in the name of Christ made you think having an erection-"

"I didn't think about it. It happened-" L.J. saw Sharky get ready to say something- "come on, Father. You get them in the morning for no reason! I see you walking around in your pajamas, trying to find your clothes-"

"But not when I'm in physical pain."

Sharky looked fanatical and wrapped the belt around his hand again.

"Oh, God, you make me think of fags, boy, and I don't know what you think, but I'm not having my son sympathizing with them!"

The belt came down on his chest and he wondered what Sharky was thinking, leaving marks on his chest. His back was acceptable enough for punishment, but the chest?

Sharky apparently did not agree. He kept hitting L.J. on his torso and only stopped when L.J. started to cry and he misaimed to slice open L.J.'s cheek. He'd been beaten with a cane, fists, kicks, and even a book once, but his beatings had never been like this. They had never hurt so badly. Never been so humiliating.

He'd never bled so much.

L.J.'s eyes were half open and he saw the sneer firmly in place. He threw the belt down and it hit L.J. without much force.

"You're a ludicrous, pathetic excuse for a son of mine. I wish that I had beaten you from your mother. I was a fool to even think that you would be worth it."

Sharky went to his study and left L.J. covered in his own blood, sprawled out over the stairs.

He laid on the stairs for a few minutes, hoping his wounds would seal up soon. He heard nothing except his own breathing. The belt was still on his chest and he reached down to throw it off. He let his arm fall back down onto the stairs and let himself just lay there. It felt nice to close his eyes, breath deeply, and let himself relax. His back burned and so did the more severe welts on his chest, but he let the cold air from the central air drift over him.

He snapped his head up when there was a crash from the study. He pulled himself up with the rail and went downstairs. He leaned against the wall outside of Sharky's study. Sharky did not see him, but L.J. saw him chug down a fourth of the Jameson before taking a bottle of Guinness and finishing half of it before setting them both down. He collapsed into his study chair and started to type on his computer with tears streaming down his face, shivers running through his body, as if he was resisting his weeping. That didn't surprise L.J.

But still, crying or not…

He was drinking. He was angry with L.J.

Well, L.J. wasn't staying. He went upstairs (though he had to stop at the top of the stairs and let the pain finishing washing over him) and put on a dirty T-shirt with his swim trunks. L.J. sincerely doubted he would be allowed to swim any longer this summer. When he finished that, he went to the master bedroom and forced the lock.

"I'm not going to be back for awhile," L.J. said. He looked straight at Alex, mentally begging her to understand. "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm not going to be here. OK?"

"I understand," she said.

Unable to look at her, because she would have to deal with Sharky on her own, L.J. avoided her eyes. "He's drinking."

"I'm not surprised."

"I'm sorry."

"Will you please walk with me to Brendan's?"

L.J. looked at her in surprise.

"Yeah. Are you ready?"

She almost smiled. "I packed as soon as he locked me in the bedroom."

"Will we come-"

"We will, but…"

L.J. understood. The fact he did understand didn't bother him, because it was a very matter-of-fact point of living with Sharky.

L.J. carried her bag for her after they slipped out the front door and started the walk to Brendan's. He lived close to Warren Roberts' campus with Rachel and a few other roommates who had rotated since Brendan and Rachel moved in together.

"When are you going back?"

"It depends. I may stay a week. The longer we stay away, the better he is when we get back."

L.J. slid the bag's strap over his shoulder and put his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. You're right."

"You did get things you'd need, right?"

L.J. pulled out his wallet, glasses repair kit, tapped his glasses with his spare hand, and held out his left wrist with his watch on it. "I've got everything in the world that matters to me right now."

He kissed her on the cheek when they reached the rented house, which was still ablaze with lights, and watched her knock on the door. Brendan answered and did not look surprised. He kissed her on the cheek and let her in.

He scanned the yard, but L.J. was across the street. He held up a hand in greeting and Brendan jerked his back, as if inviting L.J. in. L.J. shrugged his shoulders and pointed in a vague direction. Brendan shut the door then and L.J. headed back towards Black Street. When he got to the intersection of Black and Foster Streets, he turned east towards Rick's house

It was just a few minutes after ten. He wondered if Rick would even be there, but his own question was answered when the living room light went on and two people in the living room stood up. L.J. recognized the woman as Melissa Charles. She patted the other person on the cheek and left the living room. The other person was Rick. L.J. could see his reddish-blonde hair even in the darkness.

L.J. watched him cleaning up and relished the elegant way he moved and didn't waste a single movement. After a few minutes, as if aware he was being watched, Rick stared out of his picture window. L.J. walked forward and held up a hand in greeting. Rick looked surprised, smiled, but then he looked horrified.

L.J. stepped backwards with his heart starting to play a cadence against his ribs. Had Rick suddenly decided L.J. wasn't worth it?

He turned tail and started to walk away, but Rick burst out of the house.

"Where in the name of Bach do you think you're going, love? You're horrible--teasing me at my window and leaving-"

L.J. stopped himself and turned back around. "I-"

Rick stopped on his front porch. "You're hurt. That's what made me a bit--dismayed."

L.J. looked down. His shirt had been light blue, but it was mostly wet and dark. He hadn't noticed.

"Come here."

L.J. didn't know why, but he walked forward slowly. Rick gestured for him to continue and L.J. felt like a dog being put through its paces, but he watched Rick and saw no enjoyment, just some sadness and acceptance. Even a few weeks ago, he would have hated Rick instantly for that sympathy, but he'd seen Rick made into a wreck by his own father not 12 hours before.

He stood at the bottom of the porch stairs and Rick walked down, hand out in front of him. He pressed his palm against L.J.'s chest.

"That's blood, sweetheart."

It was the only time Rick had never sounded completely sure of himself. L.J. shrugged, looked away.

"You should go to the hospital."

"No, I shouldn't."

"You should, but you won't."

"I won't."

Rick pulled L.J. by his shirt into the house. It was dark, except for one lamp burning in the living room. Rick left L.J. in the foyer and dashed upstairs.

If he returned with Melissa, L.J. had to leave. He knew that much.

He only came halfway down the stairs and motioned for L.J. to follow when he returned. L.J. followed him to his bedroom. It wasn't much neater than it had been the only other time L.J. had been there.

Rick's bed was king sized and L.J. sat on it tentatively. Rick grinned and gathered up a box of--something to sit by him.

"I needed a big bed in case of emergency ravishing, love."

L.J. smiled slightly and wrapped his arms around himself. He hated the warm blood touching his arms, but he was still shivering.

"You need to take your shirt off."

L.J. shook his head.

"L.J., please. I can't help you unless you take it off."

He thought that it was the please that did it. No one said please to scrawny, gawky Lawrence McCarthy because he wasn't worth it. You told him what to do and he did it without a please. His mother told him what to do without a please and he did it. His father told him what to do without a please and he did it. His brother told him what to do and he did it.

L.J. struggled out of the shirt and threw it on Rick's floor. Rick kicked it off to the side and touched L.J.'s back with a lot more gentleness than Sharky had ever thought to give him. L.J. shivered at the coldness from Rick's fingertips.

Rick laughed and leaned close to whisper. "Don't worry. My mother sleeps across the hall. I promise to protect your honor this evening."

L.J. tried to smile and couldn't. Rick touched the band of his swim trunks and he jumped, fell backwards, and onto the floor. He cried out when his back slammed against the floor. Rick looked sorry and helped L.J. back to the bed.

"There--there's blood on your trunks too. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"

"It's OK."

"I'm sorry-"

"It's OK."

"There's blood all over you, love."

"I know."

"Why do you have blood all over you?"

"None of your damn business."

"You've shown up at my house nearly the middle of the night and expect me to just clean your wounds and let you on your way?"

L.J. didn't answer.

"It doesn't work like that. What happened?"

L.J. stood up, as if to leave, and Rick took his elbow gently.

"Please stay, L.J., and please tell me what's going on."

Damn Rick and damn his 'pleases'.

L.J. let Rick pull him back onto the bed. Rick took a towel from his assembled kit and started to wipe off what blood he could.

"I got what I could off your back. Would you like me to get your chest?"

L.J. let himself sprawl out on Rick's bed while Rick ran the towel over L.J.'s chest. He finished getting the fresh blood off and threw the towel on the floor.

"I'll have to use alcohol to get the blood that's dried or started to, alright?"

"Tha's fine." L.J. blinked and got ready to roll to his side and saw a few thin strips of blood on the sheets. Rick didn't notice and gently pushed him to get him to roll over.

"I want to get your back first. Let me see."

"I got blood on your sheets."

"That's no problem."

L.J. felt his lower lip jutted out and his eyes burned. "I got blood on your sheets. I'm sorry-"

"That's not a problem, love. Come on. You need to get cleaned up-"

"But-" L.J. shot up and pulled at the bottom of his trunks- "but your sheets are bloody-"

"They're fine." A tinge of impatience was in Rick's voice.

"They're not fine and it's a problem. Can't you see, Rick?"

"See what, love?"

"My father's right. I'm nothing but a problem and I should have remembered! I can't do anything-"

"I firmly disagree with him on that front." Rick managed to clean some of L.J.'s back before he jerked away.

"Don't try to help me. It doesn't matter-"

"It matters to me."

"I'm just going to ruin the lot of it."

"Please, L.J. Let me finish cleaning you up and then we'll go to our spot at the Murphys'."

It had to be a record, how many times someone had asked him to do something rather than told him. He hunched over with his elbows on his knees, face buried in his hands and let Rick rub the alcohol on his skin to clean it off.

"We can't go there. My father knows Tobias and he knew if something-"

"That's really the only place we can go without my mother across the hall."

L.J. let his hands fall from his face, arms hang down, and watched Rick's shadow. After a few minutes, he finished the back.

He started L.J.'s chest and hummed while he worked. L.J. vaguely recognized the song.

"What's that?"

"Bach's Chaconne. Dad gave me the first few pages of sheet music for it…before the fiasco."

"My father likes the Chaconne, but he admits he couldn't play it at all. Since yours is-"

"He played it perfectly when he was thirteen. I think he would have gotten it sooner, but he didn't grow much until then, so his hands weren't well coordinated and he insisted on a full size violin."

"No Devil's Trill for your father?"

"Oh. He's got that in his repertoire, too, but he doesn't like it much. He's more of a Bach and Vivaldi kind of guy."

L.J. closed his eyes and relaxed. "It's still a beautiful piece."

"It is."

"You almost done?"

"Nearly. Your chest was more fresh than dried. I take it he did your back first?"

"I didn't think he'd go for my chest-" L.J. stopped himself- "are we thinking the same 'he'?"

"Presumably. Your father."

L.J. didn't admit anything immediately, then said, "yeah."

"We're out of antibiotic cream and medical tape. Those need covered up. Maybe some ice."

"I don't have any money."

"I insist, Mr. McCarthy. It can't be more than ten dollars. We'll stop at that convenience store before we go."

L.J. stood up and looked down at his stomach. It was still there, still black, and Rick watched him.

"Was that your father, too?"

"Doesn't matter."

"It does. It matters to me."

L.J. ran his hand under his nose, scratched his arm, and Rick stood up too.

"Was it him?"

"Of course. Do you think my mother would do such a thing?"

Rick watched L.J. go towards the door. "I have an old shirt that should cover you, though I can't say it will fit. Can't have you wandering around like that."

"I don't think I'd fit one of your 'now' shirts, let alone an older one."

"You will." Rick went into his closet and reappeared a few minutes later with a plain white shirt. He threw it to L.J. It was too long for him, though tight around the shoulders.

Rick left his materials sitting on his bed and left the room with L.J. behind him. Neither of them spoke again until Rick parked in the parking lot of a 24-hour pharmacy across the street from the teaching hospital.

"Would you like something to drink or a snack?"

"No," L.J. said.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

L.J. thought it would rain, but the gray clouds overhead gave way to moonlight before he finished the thought. The humidity was still horrible and Rick hadn't left his air conditioner running. L.J. hoped he wouldn't sweat, at least too much. If he did, he thought the salt in it would sting his back and his back hurt plenty on its own.

Rick had left the stereo running and L.J. turned it on. The CD player started and he heard Mick Jagger singing. He listened for a few minutes and turned off the CD player, switching to the radio where a guitar riff played instead of Mick Jagger.

Even while he listened to the riff (which he became sure was a Guns N' Roses song), the few lines from The Stones' song drifted around his tired mind.

"Gonna tear your world apart, Heartbreaker."

He wondered if there was a reason he didn't like that song, conceded, and shoved the thought to the back of his mind. If there was one thing he hated more than pity from others, it was wallowing in self-pity. His father was who he was and it wasn't his fault.

Was there a reason Sharky was so brutal, though? What was it about his sons that brought out the worst in him?

L.J. didn't know, but he was sure that he could pinpoint it to one of them doing something stupid or specifically against the rules. It always was. The soccer game, the whiskey bottle, the cat, the backtalk…

And even when he thought that Sharky's rules were stupid, he had to admit that Sharky beat him when he broke the rules.

But the whiskey wasn't yours. It was his and he left it there.

Even then, L.J. had purposely gone into his study.

"He was drunk, honey. Does he need a reason if he's drunk?"

L.J. leaned forward and folded his arms to rest on the dashboard before he set his face on his arms. He hated wondering if it was his fault. It usually was and when it wasn't, it could be traced back to him.

Rick walked out of the store and L.J. watched him walking with such purpose that he thought Rick wouldn't get it at all, even if he did claim what he did about his father.

"I think there should be a law against nosy old pharmacy cashiers," he said after he put his purchases in the backseat and got into the driver's seat. He buckled his seatbelt.

"Why's that?"

"I think five of them asked me what I was doing with such a combination. I told them to buzz off."

L.J. almost smiled, until his back started to hurt. "What all did you get?"

Rick looked both ways before he pulled out of the parking lot. "Antibiotic cream, medical tape, gauze pads, ice, a couple towels, iced tea, Vaseline, condoms-"

"What?"

"Making sure you were paying attention. I do tend to blather on for inordinate amounts of time."

"Oh."

"Besides, Vaseline doesn't work well with condoms."

L.J. looked over to Rick and wasn't sure what to say that wouldn't be too prying.

"I-"

Rick flashed the smile that made L.J.'s chest burn and tapped the steering wheel. "Well, I can't say I'm proud or dis-proud of it, but…but I've had enough experience. Not a lot, mind, but enough."

"Oh."

"Ah, well, I suppose that's what I get for being a dupe for beautiful men."

"Men?"

"I thought they were. College students. One a freshman and the other was a sophomore. I knew Robert was a disaster, but he was a college boy. Andy was very sweet, though. We probably would have had a better run if my mother hadn't found out and threatened to slap him with a lawsuit."

L.J. thought about it for a moment. Rick would have been a mere 15 then. L.J. wondered if he wasn't romanticizing Andy a bit, even if he admitted that Robert was a fiasco.

"You've got that look like my mother has when we argue," Rick said. "And Andy and I were fine, until she put her nose in it."

L.J. hesitated and didn't try to argue with Rick because he didn't want to ruin this either. He would argue with Brendan, his mother, and Sharky and then there would be a big mess and if he argued with Rick, then it just didn't matter because he had no where to go after that.

Rick didn't look surprised when L.J. ignored his comment. He kept driving and turned the radio back to the classic rock station. The Stones were finished and L.J. welcomed that. Rick hummed along with the next song and tapped the beat on his steering wheel.

As if he were at the bedside of a dying person, Rick sang along quietly with the next song. L.J. pressed his face against window and closed his eyes. He was sleepy and he wished he could go to sleep for a long time. In the back of his mind, he felt that forbidden word creeping up and he pushed it further back.

If for nothing else than spiting Sharky, he would live and he would live happily.

Rick started singing just a bit louder and L.J. thought that he had a pleasant voice.

"You sing well."

Rick cut himself off. "Not always. Just sometimes. I get flat a lot."

"It's still nice."

"My father says I sing well too. I used to be in a boy's choir as a soprano, but I grew up."

"It sucks."

"Which one, love? The choir or growing up?"

"Growing up."

Rick wouldn't have laughed, though his eyes had that look to them as if he agreed enough to laugh. "It's life, but it does suck. They glorify it and say you get to be independent and make your own choices, but that's a load of it if I ever heard."

"Exactly."

"Your independence is inhibited by who you are, what you can do, how much stuff you have, who you know, and so many other things that I would be tempted to bury my head in the sand and leech off of my mother for the rest of my life if I thought either parent would stand for it."

L.J. almost wished he could leech off of Sharky for the rest of one of their lives, but thinking on it, he realized he would rather have been strung up by the hamstrings and eviscerated with a butter knife. At least then that agony would eventually end.

"I want to and I don't want to. Does that make sense, love?"

"Perfect."

"Sometimes I wish I could leech off dear old Mum, but that would be a bit cowardly."

The familiar word made something in L.J.'s stomach twinge and he opened his eyes to watch the soothing scenery pass. The Murphys' house had been a mile back and Rick would turn soon into the forest.

He didn't turn sharply, like he had before, and parked in nearly the same place. He didn't bother locking his car and went to the trunk, pulling out a blanket, and L.J. grabbed the pharmacy bag before he left the car.

The ground was muddy as they walked to the small clearing and L.J. had to wrench his foot from under a tree root. Rick patted the ground with his free hand when they got to the clearing and threw the blanket on the ground. He flopped down and L.J. watched him warily.

"No worries, it's dry. The tree branches are good about keeping the rain from making it muddy here."

L.J. sat down on the blanket and Rick sat beside him, grabbing his bag and rifling through it. He pulled out the antibiotic cream.

"Off with your shirt, love," he said cheerily, squirting some of the gel onto his fingers and tossing the tube by L.J.'s legs. L.J. remembered that Scott had said something like that to him when he'd been told to get into the soccer game.

Well, out of one damnation to another, he supposed, and unbuttoned the shirt. Rick slid it off, ran his fingers over the material, and set the shirt to the side.

He started applying the gel and L.J. leaned into his hands rubbing his back with tenderness. His eyes started to droop shut. He listened as Rick started to talk, loudly at first and then quietly, as if he were afraid a Murphy might stumble on them.

"Sorry if I was a bit odd with the shirt. It was my father's. He gave it to me after my mother and I moved here so I would have something of him."

L.J. couldn't imagine Sharky giving him something as personal as his clothes and was sure that he wouldn't want said clothing anyway. Knowing it was a childish thought, he still thought that there would be a disease or something like that in Sharky's clothes. He'd turn mean, vindictive, and sadistic within seconds.

"It's OK." L.J. rubbed his bare arms and ignored looking down at his stomach and those words. They taunted him more than ever while he sat with a boy he thought he might love as that boy took care of welts and cuts by a man who probably suspected what he was, even if he didn't actually know.

Rick put more gel on his back and put it in the cuts liberally. L.J. felt himself get sleepier and wished Rick would start talking again so he didn't fall asleep. Rick started ripping open paper and L.J. felt something soft sticking to his back. He figured they were the gauze pads and knew it when Rick taped them down.

"Your back's done, love. I got some ice to put in the towels so the swelling can get down. It looks brutal-" Rick rustled around and L.J. felt too tired to look at what he was doing- "here, lie back on this-" and L.J. laid back. It wasn't until a few minutes later that the coldness became apparent and L.J. thought it was one of the best painkillers he'd had in a long time. The ice was chunky and poked at him, but it soaked into his burning back and helped cool it down.

He put his arms behind his head and watched the slivers of night sky between the tree branches while Rick started to put the antibiotic gel on his chest. L.J. almost fell asleep again with Rick rubbing the gel on until he felt it coming on and his face burn in humiliation.

The only time he had ever been embarrassed close to this was the time he'd been pantsed in the middle of the school cafeteria…

Or when it had happened with his father earlier. That had been worse, however.

And ironic. It was almost too bad L.J. could never tell Sharky about whatever sort of relationship he had with Rick. Beaten for getting an erection from fright because it might mean he was gay and getting one later as his friend, possibly boyfriend, cleaned up the wounds caused by the whole mess.

L.J. appreciated irony a lot more when it meant he didn't have marks all over his body.

"Done with that," Rick said. He threw the tube in the direction of the pharmacy bag and L.J. opened his eyes (extremely grateful for the darkness) when Rick started tearing open packages of gauze and then taping them over the welts and cuts. He ran his hand over the gauze and seemed satisfied at his handiwork. He sprawled out with his hands splayed behind him for support and watched L.J. watching the stars and trees.

L.J. looked like Sharky and Rick loathed Sharky on general principles (except for having sex with his mother. She had needed to relax). People who knew Sharky and looked at L.J. would see Sharky and not L.J.

Rick watched L.J. close his eyes and rested his chin on his drawn up knees. His arms wrapped around his legs and he wished he weren't so emotional. He knew he would cry soon if he didn't avoid thinking about L.J. and that bastard and L.J. finally looked reasonably peaceful when he was falling into sleep. Rick was sure that he would wake him up if he began crying.

Besides, L.J. hadn't cried, not really. There had been a few times when Rick was sure he would and though he knew L.J. had to do something to get rid of what had to be horrible tension, he had no idea what exactly to do if L.J. had started crying.

If he were sure L.J. was sleeping, he would have leaned over to trace his face. The more he watched it, the less he saw Sharky. His face didn't come with anger etched into every angle and Rick noticed little things that gave L.J. his own face. The tilt of his nose, his lips, higher cheekbones, slimmer and tamer eyebrows, darker hair that seemed more brown than red…

L.J. sensed someone watching him and, though he knew it was Rick, snapped his eyes open and bolted to sit upright. Rick scrambled from his position and took L.J.'s shoulder, only to make him flinch. He jerked his hand away and let L.J. sit upright on his own, even while he shivered and hugged himself. After a few minutes, he looked over to Rick.

"Sorry."

Rick frowned. "It's not you who ought to be apologizing. I grabbed you and I should have known better, things considered."

"Sorry."

"It's not your fault," Rick said sharply. L.J. cringed from the sudden anger. Rick brought his hand up slowly, under L.J.'s eyes, to grab his shoulder again. He held it loosely and L.J. looked down at the blanket, tracing the checked pattern.

"You should let some of the ice get your chest so the swelling goes down."

"OK." L.J. reached around for the ice and set it on his chest while he lay back on his elbows.

He moved over and sat by L.J. He was shivering even though Rick was enjoying the warm breeze.

"I'll be back, love. I forgot something at my car."

Rick hadn't forgotten anything, but he was sure he had a lighter. He jogged to the car and opened the driver's side door. It took a few minutes, but he found a lighter under the passenger's seat and shook it to find it nearly full.

L.J. was still leaning on his elbows, watching the stars he could see, and watched Rick picking up branches. He would inspect them and throw some back and throw others towards the blankets. After a few rounds, he piled the branches with twigs at the bottom. He used on of the gauze wrappers to get the twigs on fire. Rick sat on the blanket with L.J. and they watched it get to a respectable size. Rick opened one of the bottles of iced tea he'd bought and drank some, then passed it over to L.J.

L.J. refused at first, until Rick pointed out he'd lost blood and should replace it. Rick was no medic, though, and wondered if anything he'd done was actually helpful. It seemed the right thing to do, but he still had no idea.

He looked over at L.J., who had his eyes closed again. He brushed dirt from his jeans.

"L.J.?"

"Huh?"

"I'm asking again. Tell me what happened."

L.J. turned his head to look at Rick. "Tell me what happened with your father."

Both of them looked away.

"Don't you trust me?" Rick asked.

"Apparently you don't trust me, either, so why does it matter?"

"I trust you-"

"You won't tell me what happened over the weekend. You were really happy Friday when you were talking about going with him to his concert and that dinner with his friends. Then you're drinking in your friend's basement over it."

"And I just spent a half-hour cleaning up your abuse! You come to me covered in blood and expect me to clean you up with no questions asked. I know your father beats you. I know you're scared and confused and I know how you feel-"

Rick had escalated to nearly shouting and came crashing down when L.J. whispered.

"You don't."

Rick raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms across his chest. "Pardon?"

"You don't know how I feel. I've heard a lot of unpleasant things about your dad, but I never heard about him taking his own belt off to beat you with when the reason he wants to beat you is because of something he did."

Rick looked at L.J. and saw Sharky still there, but something else. Something more saddening than he thought Sharky would ever have as an expression.

He knew L.J. was right. He knew that L.J. would have to know first of his own neglect before he would ever trust him with those secrets. Rick wanted to know. Someone threatened his L.J. and that wouldn't do. Not in the slightest.

He had to know.

"You're right."

L.J. stared at him. Rick thought with a touch of sadness that it was probably one of the only times he had ever been told he was right. Rick remembered the surprise on his face when he had asked him with a 'please'.

"You are completely correct, love. I know how I feel. I know how my father affected me, but I can only speculate for you-" Rick looked over to him- "after all, my father never did take off his belt to beat me with."

"Would he?"

"I doubt it. There's a chance he would damage his hands--and-"

"And he does care about really hurting you."

"I-"

"I think he does," L.J. said. "Maybe that's why he doesn't like that you're gay. Maybe he doesn't want people discriminating against you."

Rick shrugged. "I don't know, love, but it still hurts when he acts like he does."

"What happened over the weekend, then?"

They watched the fire and L.J. looked as though he would say something before Rick started to talk. He was casual and matter of fact.

"After I dropped you off to your house, I went home and cleaned myself up again. I changed into my suit and Dad came to get me himself. I was surprised, he usually sends John-"

"Who's John?"

"He's been a good friend of his for years. He's a paid servant too, last I knew."

"Ah."

"I should have known something was up then. Should have. He never comes to get me."

"You couldn't have. You were hopeful."

"Besides that, he asked me a variety of intrusive questions. I answered, of course, because I'm used to my father ignoring me and that he didn't…"

"I understand."

"It was such a nice time. His concert was excellent. Even he had hardly any criticisms about it. The food and service at the restaurant were brilliant and his friends were witty and kind. We stayed with them until the restaurant closed. Later, actually. I called my mother and told her I wouldn't be home, I was staying at his hotel with him, and he even wanted me to take the bed. I let him have it and I woke the next morning with a note saying he wanted to spend the weekend with me, but he had a rehearsal. I stayed in the room and watched T.V."

Rick stopped talking and watched the fire again. After a few minutes, he started to talk again.

"He only took a few hours and we went out to lunch. Just the two of us. John was off on his own, I suppose-" Rick smiled, but it was bitter- "He even bought me some clothes. Clothes I chose, not ones he suggested. We hung out at the bookstore and had some coffee. I should have known it wouldn't last. It never does."

Rick was silent and watched the fire, collecting his thoughts, and deciding what to tell L.J.

"After we had our coffee, he said that he wanted to go to dinner, but he had an appointment first. He asked me to go with him. I thought he was meeting with a conductor or something, so I did. It turned out to be one of those conversion quacks."

Rick frowned. It looked so odd on his face, L.J. thought that he must never had to scowl before.

"I can deal with him nagging me about it. He only did when it was just the two of us because he didn't want anyone, not even John, knowing his horrible secret. I can deal with that-" L.J. wondered about the validity of that statement, realized he would say similar things, and held his tongue- "but he brought someone else in on it. He had pictures of Jesus in his waiting room and I would have bolted if my father hadn't had my arm and refused to let me go."

"Jesus?"

"My father's fairly religious. I don't know how in the name of Vivaldi he found the guy, but he's surely a quack. He told me to pray to Jesus and my problems would be solved. I told him I didn't have any problems and he laughed."

"You do have some problems," L.J. said tentatively, afraid of making Rick snap as he had earlier.

"I have a few and they're typically my father."

"Well, you know what they say about gays and their fathers."

Rick laughed. "So true, love, but you know as well as I do the real truth of that one-" he paused and added softly- "not that you and your father need anymore tension."

"What happened after that?"

"I walked out. My father was in the waiting room and he grabbed me, but I don't think I'd ever been that angry, so I just kept going until he let go. I could have injured his hands, so he chased me instead and we ended up shouting at each other in Times Square. I called my mother, went home, cried, went to Selena's, and cried. Then you came."

"What did-"

"He called me an inconsiderate child, I called him an arrogant jackass. We traded some more insults, until he called me a flamboyant fag and told me I'd get AIDS and he wouldn't care. I told him he was a mediocre violinist with the technical skills of Joshua Bell-" L.J. didn't get this one, but stayed quiet- "and that no one at all would care when he died."

"Ah. That's a bit-"

"It's harsh on both sides. He saw me as a stereotype and he's my father. Isn't he supposed to know me? As for me, his violin playing is his life and even if he's ashamed of me, I'm sure he didn't like hearing he was mediocre from me and he hates Joshua Bell's lack of technical skills."

"I like Joshua Bell."

"So do I, but he has reprehensible tech skills."

"What else does he do?"

"It doesn't matter, love. Not currently, at least."

"It does matter right now-"

"What happened with your father?"

"I-"

Rick wondered why this felt riskier than the things he'd done with Robert and Andy (though to a lesser extent than Robert) and while he was lying on the blanket, he pulled L.J. closer to him. L.J. tensed and tried to jerk away, but Rick kept a hold on his shoulder. He twisted to look at Rick and Rick saw the fear still in his eyes.

"You don't have to be frightened of me."

L.J. nodded, but his tension didn't subside. Rick shifted to his side and pulled L.J. so that his back was against Rick's chest. He tightened his hold on L.J. and pressed his cheek to the side of L.J.'s head.

"I swear, love, you don't have to be frightened of me."

L.J. relaxed a bit and Rick wished he had enough courage to run a hand through his hair.

"How d'you talk about it, Rick? I can't. I figure I've got to be a coward like my father says if I can't talk about it. Then what good am I, if I am what he says? I mean…it's just talking about something that's happened. I can talk about my school day just fine."

The corners of Rick's mouth twitched upwards. "Love, at the point your teachers thrash you with their belts, I hardly think you'll want to discuss that either."

"Well-" L.J.'s voice was contemplative- "maybe it wasn't his belt. It might have been mine. I didn't see him take it off, to be honest."

Rick was a true extravert, but he only tightened his hold on L.J., relishing the warmth. He didn't think there was much to say that would be comforting when L.J. was going on about being beaten with a belt and trying to be casual about it.

"Don't know, though. One minute I was laying in bed and he suddenly came from nowhere for a room inspection-"

"Room inspection?"

"Oh. He likes to make sure there's nothing prohibited in my room. The wrong books, music…stuff like that. He does it once in a while, but not too much."

"I assume you've found ways around it."

"Oh yeah. Brendan had a loose floorboard under his bed. I've got a few things under there, even though I'm not allowed in there since it's a guest room now. I use a loose plank in my closet. There's another piece of wood set just right to make a good shelf."

"Ah."

"I mostly keep books he doesn't like. I actually have all the Harry Potter books, but I keep them at B.J.'s. He's good about understanding. I love Philip Pullman, but Father hates him more than he hates J.K. Rowling."

"Your father's quite like the Magisterium, isn't he?"

"If he was ordained, he'd be a stellar example of hypocrisy and dogmatic rhetoric."

L.J. was silent, now relaxed, against Rick's chest and Rick knew he'd thought he'd gotten out of explaining. Rick let him think so for a few minutes.

"What happened with his room inspection?"

He knew L.J. was scowling over that.

"Well, he found something, of course."

L.J. was not making this easy.

"What did he find?

"Whiskey. His whiskey. His Jameson 18-Year-Old. It had to be that, I guess. If I was going to get beat for having his whiskey, it had to be his most expensive and favorite."

"I'll assume it wasn't yours."

"It wasn't. I know it was his fault it was in there, but why would he believe me? I'm just a sneaky little coward trying to weasel out of a beating."

"You're not." Rick didn't think L.J. would take what he said to heart. Rick was positive L.J. thought Rick might be mocking him actually, but if Rick had any chance of trying to dismantle Sharky's merciless invectives he knew that he'd have to start somewhere.

L.J. ignored him. "I think he left it there when he came into my room drunk a few weeks ago."

"Your father and alcohol should be mutually exclusive entities. If he abuses his own flesh and blood like this-"

"He didn't get too bad until after Grandma Kay died. He pretends everything is OK, but he drinks nearly all the time and he…he doesn't stop for much-" L.J. paused- "he cries sometimes too, which is weird. I didn't think he could. Silly, I know."

Rick kept his tongue in check. Barely. L.J. saw his comments as a chance to weasel out of telling.

"He didn't like finding the whiskey in my room-" L.J. paused- "mostly because it was his. I don't think he's concerned I'll be an alcoholic. He hit me with his belt when he came in to let me know he was there-"

"I should think knocking and saying your name would do it just as well. Sorry…go on."

L.J. ignored him again and Rick wondered if he realized what he was saying. He was starting to do what Rick wanted him to--

But L.J. was used to doing what people told him to.

"I got myself cornered between my closet door and dresser. It was stupid, but he was between me and my bedroom door, so I went the other way and still ended up cornered. There was enough space, though, that I got in between him and my dresser and threw him off balance getting through. I had enough time getting to the front door, but…when I got there…I didn't know where to go."

L.J. was tense again and no longer leaned against Rick. Rick rubbed his shoulder.

"I tried to think of where to go, but I couldn't. B.J. wasn't home. And then…no one else cares-"

"I do," Rick whispered, relishing L.J. wrapped in his arms. "I care and you don't forget that."

"I didn't remember you until after he dragged me to the living room. Once I got there, it was more…it was more of trying to get him to let up. I guess a belt would hurt to anyone, but when it's my father with it…well anyway, he just kept going. He would tell me off for something and then hit me. He stopped after he had to wipe the belt off with his shirt. The blood was starting to drip down and I don't think he could keep a hold on it."

L.J. was relaxing again, slowly leaning against Rick, and Rick wished L.J. would turn around to face him. It would have been easier to try and comfort L.J. if he had an inkling of what L.J. was feeling, but his voice remained detached.

Rick slid his hand over L.J.'s chest and patted the gauze bandages there.

"How did he get your chest then?"

"He stopped and sat down. I think he was tired. He doesn't have energy like he used to, but when I stumbled up to go to my room, he stopped me and I--I--see…"

L.J.'s voice cracked while he tried lowering his voice to a whisper. "I was really scared, Rick. I've never been that scared of him, especially sober."

Rick had an idea of where L.J. was going. He'd loosened his hold to let L.J. feel less suffocated, but he tightened it and pressed his cheek to L.J.'s hair again.

"If I hadn't gotten a boner, I would have pissed myself. I don't know which would be worse. One makes me gay and the other makes me a worse coward than I already am."

"It doesn't matter, love, because your father doesn't know the real meaning of courage. It doesn't mean you do things willingly, it means things happen to you and you deal with them without caving in."

L.J. seemed to think about that and didn't comment on it, but continued where he'd left off.

"He liked that even less than he liked finding his whiskey in my room. I tried to get away, but I was really tired. I am really tired. He caught me on the stairs and I didn't even bother to get away. He was going to get me and it took a lot less energy to lie there and let him belt me than it would have to try and do something else. After a while, he stopped and went downstairs to drink. I had to leave, then, because when he's like that, I think it'd be smarter to just jump down the stairs a few times and get to the hospital than sit there with him until he wants to get me again. Or Mama. So…we left."

Rick wasn't sure what to say and lay there with L.J. for a few minutes, until L.J. spoke again.

"I can't go back."

Rick felt relief come from nowhere, until L.J. clarified.

"I can't go back until he calms down. I know he'll be calmed down when he comes to Brendan's for us and apologizes. Mama almost didn't give in last time, until he pointed out that she didn't have much to offer to a teenage boy not even halfway through high school when she couldn't drive and she'd never had a job."

"There are things specifically to help women…in your mother's position."

"I know. She knows, but she would never do it."

"But-"

"My parents have been married thirty years. I love her, but my mother is completely scared of a life where my father isn't around. She has to sit with her back to a wall, I'm positive that after he fucks her she spends an hour throwing up in the bathroom, she's always washing her hands because she doesn't think they'll ever be clean enough, and I don't think she can ever live alone."

"That's-"

L.J. shook his head. "It's not--let's drop it, Rick. You've never met my mother."

Rick dropped it and L.J. repeated himself.

"Can't go back until he calms down-"

"L.J.-"

"He'd kill me if I went back right now."

"You sound so confident."

"You sound so unconfident."

"Your father wouldn't kill you."

Rick was pretty sure he was wrong on that count, but it seemed better to disagree than agree in this case.

"Sometimes I wish he would."

Rick closed his eyes and hugged L.J. closer, loving who he was with and despising the circumstances. There was nothing one could say when someone else said such a thing and actions spoke just as forcefully as words. L.J. finally shifted around and Rick impulsively leaned forward, excitement jolting through him when he realized L.J. had leaned forward too…

They pulled away quickly, Rick refusing to let go of L.J. even after he tried to pull away, apologizing repeatedly. Rick put a hand over his mouth, shook his head, and smiled.

Tried to. Did a decent job, by all accounts, because L.J. stopped struggling and actually set his head on Rick's shoulder.

Rick's mind started to race with thoughts and he wondered if his father was still in America or if he'd went back to Europe, he realized that his mother thought he would be in bed, she might get worried, he'd left his cell phone on his nightstand, and…he licked his lips.

He'd felt a bit dizzy, despite lying down, and had never enjoyed a kiss so much, but there was something off about that one. L.J. had tasted salty and metallic.

"Rick?"

"L.J.?"

"Don't tease me, please. I get enough of that."

"I'm sorry, love."

L.J. was silent again and Rick wanted to shout at himself for ruining whatever tentative trust he'd been given--

"Do you think you can hate someone with every part of you, but still love them?"

Rick paused, thought of his father and his hateful rejection and thought about the time he and Joseph had practiced for nearly a solid week for solo and ensemble, when it hadn't mattered if Rick was gay because he was a violinist then.

"Yes."

"Do you think it's stupid to keep feeling that way, even if you're sure they hate you--even if you got told they didn't?"

Rick tasted the salt and metal faintly and remembered what his grandfather had always said sadly.

"It's odd, L.J, how those people most willing to love never receive it."

L.J. seemed to think about that because he didn't speak for a few minutes. He curled up closer to Rick and slid his arms around him.

"Didn't answer the question," he whispered. "But… it's so good here, I don't care." He closed his eyes with his cheek still against Rick's chest.

Rick watched L.J. look more relaxed than he had ever seen him. His L.J. for now, until L.J. found someone else. He would, Rick was sure, and they would be better prepared to deal with L.J. than Rick could ever hope to be. He didn't think he was in love with L.J., but he knew he loved him, if for nothing more than possessive, protective friendship.

He shivered thinking about it. He loved his mother. He loved his father. He loved his pets. There were lots of things he loved, but none were like L.J. He almost thought it was different because he'd chosen to love L.J., but if he'd chosen to love L.J., then why hadn't he realized it until then?

"Deep thoughts?"

Rick smiled. "Not particularly, love, just some reminiscing."

"I like being like this. Relaxed, happy…"

"You deserve it."

"Maybe."

Rick's heart sped up. L.J. would never had said that the day before or even a few hours before, probably.

"You do. I think you're brilliant."

L.J. smiled shyly and Rick remembered why he loved that smile.

The metallic and salty tastes came back to him and he recognized them. Blood and sweat, maybe tears. Rick just buried his face in L.J.'s hair and savored the simplicity of that untainted pleasure.

They both knew they needed to go back to town and did not go until shortly after dawn. They laid together, lost in thoughts, tangled up in each other's newfound dreams and desires by the cold ashes of their fire.