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Thirteen

The first thing Johnny says when he gets home for Christmas break is, “Is it all right if I stay with you for the hols?”

Archy’s used to the boy making demands on his time and his wallet, but the reason behind ‘em is usually more obvious. “Might be. What’s wrong with your dad’s place?”

Johnny gives him a smile that looks perfectly genuine and leans against the bar where Archy’s been enjoying his day off. “Nothing’s wrong with it, I just prefer your place, that’s all.”

Archy frowns. “Mm. Well, I’ll have a word with your dad about it, yeah?” He turns away before he can see what Johnny’s expression does. He knows Lenny’s been a bit rough on the boy in the past, but it’s not like most people’s dads didn’t belt them plenty when they’re young. If Lenny sometimes uses a little more force than Archy would, well, it’s only because Johnny’s been even more wild and unpredictable than usual. He’s thirteen now, too old for it to be cute.

Switching tracks between dealing with Johnny and dealing with Lenny isn’t something Archy’s had to put a lot of thought into in the past, but now that Johnny’s getting older, Archy has to muster up a bit more diplomacy. He makes sure the boy’s out of earshot when he phones Lenny.

“Yeah?”

“It’s Archy. Did you know your boy’s down here?”

“Yeah, Bandy said he dropped him off there.” Lenny sounds annoyed.

“Yeah,” Archy says carefully, glancing at the boy, who’s started in pestering the bartender for a drink. “He was wondering if he could spend some time with me. Before he has to go back to school.”

There’s a brief silence on the line. Then Lenny says, “I want the little shit out of me hair, but you’ve got enough on your plate. Bring him round when you’re done at the pub.”

“Sure, Len,” Archy says. He thumbs his phone off, frowning. Lenny giving a fuck about Archy’s busy schedule is a new experience, which only means he doesn’t want Archy hanging around the boy. That’s a problem that’s been getting worse for a while now, and Archy doesn’t quite know what to do about it. It’s better for Johnny and Lenny to be separated, but Archy can’t play peacekeeper without Johnny getting in even more trouble.

“John,” Archy calls down the bar. “We’re leaving.”

Johnny immediately detaches himself from the bartender and heads for the door, looking pleased as punch. Archy doesn’t want to spoil it, but he’s going to have to sooner or later. He’ll wait till they get outside.

The sky is the stark white of an impending snowstorm and Archy hears Johnny’s breath hitch a little as they step into the cold.

“Feeling all right, John?” Archy asks. “You ought to wrap up. It’s cold out.”

Johnny turns his sharp little smile on Archy. “I’m okay. Are we going to your flat?”

Archy hesitates. “No. Not just now. Your dad wants you home.”

“Stepdad,” Johnny says without missing a beat. He’s stopped smiling.

*

Archy isn’t sure where the trouble started this time. He often misses the beginnings of these things and has to take either Lenny or Johnny’s word for what happened after the fact, but so far he’s not had much trouble sorting things out. Now, though, Johnny is slightly older and more prone to doing real damage, to himself and to Lenny’s things.

So when Lenny rings Archy up near midnight and without waiting for Archy to say more than hello, says, “You fucking find that little monster and you sort him out,” Archy isn’t shocked.

“What happened, Len?” He rolls out of bed and gropes for the light, still not fully awake.

There’s a pause, which isn’t normal. Usually Lenny talks nonstop, not paying much attention to what Archy has to say at all. Then he says, “He was messing about in some of my papers. Business stuff.” Another pause. “I’m quite drunk. Find him.” He hangs up.

Archy shrugs and quickly pulls on some clothes. Lenny sometimes gets drunk, Johnny’s sometimes trouble, Archy sometimes has to sort things out. That’s the way it is around here. And it might drive Archy mad sometimes and it may upset him sometimes, but he knows enough not to say so where anyone can hear.

And that’s when Archy realizes his handgun’s gone missing.

It’s not in his dresser drawer where he keeps it, and now he can’t remember if he took it off when he got undressed. He’s always very fucking careful, but he had other things on his mind. The number of times Johnny’s tried to get his hands on that gun . . .

Archy can count on one hand the things that scare him, but now he’s slamming up against a brand new one.

He’s out the door without his jacket before he can think twice, shivering as he phones Tank. Tank’s usually the first to know anything that goes on in this town, and if he doesn’t know, he can find out fast and quietly.

Tank picks up on the first ring. “Yeah?”

“Tank, it’s Archy,” he says, breathing fast. No good sounding as fucking terrified as he is. He wrenches open the door of his car and says as calmly as he can, “Listen, Johnny’s gone missing. Think he got into it with Len a bit, and now he’s run off.” He hesitates for a moment, not sure whether to tell Tank the rest, but he’s worried enough that does. “And I think he might have my gun,” Archy says.

There’s a brief silence, but Tank likes to think things over, so Archy waits, or at least he focuses on jamming his key in the ignition.

“Yeah, Arch,” Tank says finally. “I found him, actually.”

Archy grips the steering wheel too tightly. “What? Is he all right?”

There’s another silence that lasts a fucking decade. Then Tank says, “You know it’s not my habit to intrude on people’s personal business, Arch. And I wouldn’t like to cause Lenny any trouble. But Johnny’s in rough shape. He’s all right, and he’s sleeping now, but there are some things that just aren’t done, yeah?”

“You just keep an eye on your own business, Tank,” Archy says automatically. “I’ll be ‘round to get Johnny as soon as I can.”

“I’ll bring him by. We’re in my car, anyhow.”

Tank hangs up without saying goodbye, which tells Archy he’s probably angry. He’s only heard Tank angry once or twice before, which tells him it’s serious. But it’s not Archy’s place to tell Lenny how to raise his kid, especially a kid who acts like Johnny does, but he can’t say he’s comfortable with how hard Lenny is on the boy.

He’s outside smoking when Tank pulls his oversized car up to the curb. It isn’t until he sees Tank’s fur hat with earflaps that he remembers he’s still in his shirtsleeves.

“You look fucking ridiculous, Tank,” he snaps. “Where is he, then?”

Tank raises his eyebrows. “Asleep. In the back seat.” He opens the door and steps back.

The boy’s sound asleep, head pillowed on his hand. His face is streaked with old blood, and Archy can see where his lip’s been split and his forehead cut. Lenny must have been very drunk indeed, Archy tells himself.

“He wouldn’t let me clean his face up,” Tank says in that horrible neutral tone of his.

Archy ignores him, because he’s just spotted his gun. It’s tucked inside Johnny’s jacket, half exposed. The boy’s got one hand around it like it’s a teddy bear. Archy reaches down and gently takes it away. “I’ll just bring him inside,” he says. “Here, for your trouble.” He hands Tank a few bills from his pocket without counting them.

Tank frowns, another unfamiliar sight. “You should talk to Lenny. Someone should. When parents treat their kids like this, it never ends well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if--”

Archy hates to do this, but it’s how things are handled. “How much did I give you just now? Double it. Lenny deals with his business, you deal with yours.” He hands over the money.

“I think you’d best work out what your business is,” Tank says, ignoring the proffered money and getting into the car without so much as a backwards glance.

Archy fucking hates being lectured. He lifts Johnny out of the back seat and slams the door, feeling the boy shift in his arms. “Shh,” he mutters. “Just get some rest, sweetheart.”

Johnny, still mostly asleep, just buries his face in Archy’s shoulder.

Even after he’s gotten Johnny inside and into bed, Archy can’t sleep. See, now he’s caught between a rock and a very hard place indeed. If he keeps his mouth shut, it’s not fair to Johnny. He ought to say something to Lenny about all this. But that’ll just make things worse, and Lenny probably knows he made a mistake. He lies back on the couch and sighs. Perhaps he’d best just wait and hope it doesn’t happen again.

Sixteen

By the time Johnny’s sixteen, Archy’s started to dread school breaks. Lenny’s less and less tolerant of the boy being around at all, and Johnny goes out of his way to make matters worse.

It’s hard, too, watching Johnny stumble through his teenage years. He’s about as good at it as anyone, which isn’t very. Archy remembers being that age himself, and it was very unpleasant. But for Johnny, everything seems even worse than that, dialed up to top volume.

Johnny’s home for Christmas now, no longer with top marks to show for his efforts at school. Archy knows he’s bright as anything, he just doesn’t care about school.

Right after Johnny gets home, it snows for two days straight, the snow actually building up outside for once. Archy is briefly tempted to appreciate it, but it just means Johnny and Lenny are cooped up in the house together, at each other’s throats every moment of the day. And Archy along with them, of course, because where else would he be?

In the middle of the second day, Johnny gets fed up and leaves, trekking through the snow to God knows where and not coming back until late afternoon. When he gets in, he looks even more wound up than when he left, and he’s chewing a candy cane. The edge of his mouth is stained red with it.

He blazes past Archy and throws himself down on the sofa, shaking melted snow out of his hair. He looks like he’s about to speak, but for once, he doesn’t. That’s worrying enough to make Archy sit down next to him.

He lets his hand fall on Johnny’s shoulder a little too heavily. It’s what he does when he needs to scare some idiot, but it’s always seemed to comfort Johnny. “You look glum, John. What’s wrong?”

Johnny flinches, and Archy doesn’t think he’s putting it on. When he speaks, though, his voice is sharp and steady as ever. “Oh, an entire laundry list of things, none of them very interesting.”

Archy doubts that. Johnny always manages to be interesting, unfortunately. “Come on. Talk to me.”

Johnny shifts until he’s upside down, legs over the back of the couch, head hanging. He doesn’t look at Archy. “I’ll give it my very best attempt. But you have to promise not fly off the handle and knock me out or anything.” His voice is light, but he sounds worried. “Fuck,” he mutters under his breath.

“I promise,” Archy replies, frowning. He tries not to make promises like that, but he also tries to go easy on Johnny whenever possible. “Go on, talk.”

“Christ, Arch, you make a boy feel like he’s under interrogation,” Johnny says, chewing the last of his candy cane. He takes a deep breath and blinks upside down at the far wall, still avoiding Archy’s eyes. “I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I might be queer. No, ‘might be’ is a bloody cowardly thing to say, because I’m sure.” Now he does look at Archy, face taut with worry and slightly pink from either blushing or hanging upside down.

Archy raises his eyebrows. He didn’t see this coming, unsurprisingly. He never knows what Johnny’s going to say or do, much as he wishes he did. For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say. He’s never been comfortable talking about this nonsense. More comfortable than Lenny, sure, it but still doesn’t come easy. ‘Course, everyone in this town who’s been paying attention knows Archy’s a fag. Well. Not a fag. But that he likes men.

“Look, John,” he says, “This sort of thing is best not talked about.” He sees Johnny’s face not so much fall as close off. “No, hang on, look,” Archy says, annoyed with himself. “I’m not angry with you.”

Johnny hauls himself upright. “I never should have said anything. Look, I haven’t told anyone else, and I don’t intend to, now.”

He starts to get up, but Archy isn’t letting this go to hell that easily. “Just sit down. We can talk about this. Why d’you think you are, anyhow?”

Johnny sinks back onto the couch, looking wary. “I don’t know. I mean, everyone tries that a bit, at school. Only I’m not being silly about it. And there’ve been a couple of blokes—well, look, I’m pretty sure. And I know I don’t like girls, because they keep fucking kissing me.”

“Imagine they do. You’re a good looking boy.” Archy waits a second, thinking about how he wants this to go. “They never tried kissing me. S’pose I was more obvious than you about it.”

Johnny gets that half-bemused, half-starved look he sometimes gets when someone’s been kind, only this time without intent to bite anyone for it. “Are you gay? Uncle Archy, you’ve been holding out on me!”

Archy rolls his shoulders uncomfortably. “Well. There weren’t cause for you to know. Look, let’s not talk about me, yeah?”

Johnny nods enthusiastically, but he’s grinning.

“What brought this confession on, anyhow, John?” Archy asks.

Johnny’s grin fades. “Oh. Nothing. Nothing much.” He looks as though he’s about to put his wet boots up on Lenny’s expensive coffee table, but he doesn’t. Then he says, “One Two and Mumbles have a new baby.”

“Finally managed to conceive, did they?”

“Well,” Johnny says, “When I say baby, I mean he’s a few years older than me. But he’s fucking green as grass.”

“Language,” Archy warns, but he’s interested.

Johnny flings an arm over his face. “And they say he hit someone with a crowbar on a job last night. And he’s at university. Studying law, of all things, so nice job there.”

Archy shakes his head, amused. “They’ll get themselves in trouble that way.”

Johnny nods vigorously. “If you ask me, he’s a lot like those mad, violent, posh women One Two’s always after. A crowbar.”

“Dunno, we could use talent like that ‘round here.” At Johnny’s expression, he quickly adds, “Joking. And that’s what’s made you come over all honest about your sexuality?”

Johnny chews his thumbnail. “He’s gay. The new kid. I mean, it’s obvious, for one. And Mumbles is always sort of raising his eyebrows about it. And Fred’s mad about the stupid moron already, thinks he’s just adorable. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about any of them.”

“Well,” Archy says, “You don’t have to. Why not just worry about yourself, eh?” He knows he’s sort of giving Johnny the brushoff, but he’d rather not examine just why Johnny’s so worked up over this new kid.

Johnny gives him a half-hearted smile rather than a fake one, so he must really be hurting. “Sure. I’m just going to go see what else is going on.”

Which means he’s going to talk to Lenny. Archy just hopes he’s not thinking of telling Lenny his news, but he can’t say anything, or it’ll just encourage Johnny all the more. Instead, he lets Johnny go.

He’s almost tempted to brave the snow and go home rather then sitting through dinner with those two, but he makes himself stay. He owes it to at least one of them.

Johnny is uncharacteristically silent throughout dinner, but Lenny seems in a fine enough mood, complaining about what’s been fucked up by his more incompetent men now. It would almost be soothing if not for Johnny. Archy frowns at his potatoes. These two don’t make his life easy.

After dinner, Lenny goes to make angry phone calls and Johnny tries to escape to his room.

“Just hold on,” Archy says. “I want a word with you. You were awfully quiet at dinner.”

Johnny turns, and Archy can see for the first time that he’s near tears. “What do you care?”

Archy sighs. “Don’t be an idiot.”

Johnny’s face twists. “An idiot. Yeah. I know what you think of me. An idiot, and trouble.”

Archy isn’t an idiot, and even if he were, the pieces are easy to put together. “What did you and your stepdad talk about earlier, John?”

Johnny wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I told him what I told you, and I told him how you’d helped me out with it, and he said—He said a lot of things.” He sounds furious and wound up.

Archy steers Johnny back to the couch. “Maybe we’d best sit down so you can tell me what those things are, yeah?” He hates to do this. Digging until he finds out exactly what Lenny’s done has never once led anywhere good. This time, though, he chooses that over watching Johnny sulk.

Johnny twists the edge of his shirt viciously between his hands. “He said . . . Well, that you’ve never actually liked me all that much. That, you know, you’ve said things to him about me. Not particularly nice things. And he said with this, it’ll be even worse. And I know you said—But he said you’ve always said I’m—He told me you probably think I’m a monster.” He gives a shocked little laugh as if he can't quite believe what he's saying. As well he shouldn't.

Archy doesn’t pretend to know why Lenny does the things he does. “Well, now, you know that’s rubbish. You’re one of my favorite people in the world.”

Johnny’s mouth turns up at the corner. “Yeah—I suppose I know that. But really, Arch, I do cause you a lot of trouble.”

“I know you do.” He slings his arm around Johnny. “That’s one of the first things I liked about you.”

One thing Archy discovered early on is that Johnny’s impossible to scare. When he was a kid, Archy tried to put the fear in him properly when he misbehaved, and Johnny just got worse, or laughed. So Archy started being reasonable when Johnny acted out, and that worked, ‘cause it threw him off. Lenny never learned that tactic, but no matter what he did to the boy, Johnny was never afraid of him. Now it seems as though Lenny’s found a different way to get at him.

Johnny settles against him, still for once. Archy sighs and runs a hand through the boy’s hair. Things are always going to be hard for Johnny, even if he does bring some of it on himself. Mouthy, sharp-tongued, put-upon Johnny. Archy pulls him closer and just fucking hopes he can keep up with the boy.

“Listen,” he says after a few comfortable moments of silence. “This’ll cheer you up. Want to learn how to shoot a gun?”

And Johnny’s looking at him like it’s Christmas already. “Yeah? Really? What, right now?”

Archy sighs. “Sure. Right now.”

He takes Johnny outside, where the snow has nearly stopped. By the time they trek out to the shooting range, Johnny is actually whistling, and if Archy didn’t know better, he’d say Johnny hadn’t ever been upset.

Archy shows him how to load the gun a few times, then makes him do it, keeping a close eye on him the whole time. “Good,” he says when Johnny tries it. “You’re a natural.”

Johnny smiles at him a little desperately, and it makes Archy suddenly furious at Lenny. That won’t do at all, though, won’t keep the gears turning smoothly, so he puts the gun in Johnny’s hand and says, “Now, let’s teach you how to shoot.”

Archy takes the safety off.

He adjusts Johnny’s stance until it’s just right, making sure to take his time. He never learned like this, but Johnny’s going to do a lot of things Archy never did. “Watch that your fingers aren’t on the slide,” Archy mutters, readjusting Johnny’s hand.

This close, Archy can hear the tiny intake of breath. He ignores it.

“Now we line things up right,” he says, still too close for his own comfort. He moves Johnny’s hand. “And you’ve got to feel the gun, like.”

Johnny laughs, unexpectedly genuine and nasty. “A bit phallic, isn’t it?”

Archy smacks his shoulder lightly. “I wish that bloody school’d never offered a psychology class. Now, look, when you pull the trigger, you ain’t really pulling so much as squeezing. Just nice and easy. And for God’s sake, breathe.” They should probably be using earplugs, but there aren’t any out on the streets, so Archy’s never seen the need.

Johnny lets out an unsteady breath and fires. Shockingly, the bullet hits the target. It’s not anywhere near the center, but it’s not bad for a first try. The way Johnny stands, the way he holds the gun, Archy knows he’ll be good at this eventually.

He watches Johnny’s face carefully. There’s something that happens to a certain type of person when he shoots a gun, a place being filled up. It happens on Johnny’s face, but it happens wrong. He smells the gun smoke and looks not so much satisfied as hungry. Archy can imagine that Lenny looked like that, back before even Archy knew him. They really could be related.

“Now,” Archy says, shaking himself and taking the gun from Johnny’s hands, “It ain’t a toy. It’s just a useful tool.” He’s gotten to the point where killing people isn’t exciting, at least not on a regular basis. It’s just work. Johnny has to get there, too, if he wants to turn out right.

“Yeah,” Johnny says. His voice is rough and strange. “Sure.”

Archy’s about to say something about phallic indeed when Johnny leans forward and kisses him clumsily.

Archy shoves him away a little too hard. “What the fuck are you doing? You’re sixteen.” He’s shocked enough that he can’t think what else to say.

Johnny looks at him for a second before dashing back toward the house.

Archy lets out a breath. Well, he handled that badly. And it’s not that—But Johnny is sixteen. Sixteen and might as well be his—well, his to look after, at any rate. He puts the safety back on, tucks the gun into his waistband, and rubs his temples. It’s never easy.

Eighteen

Johnny is eighteen. Eighteen and leaving. He’s got his bags all packed and a bright future ahead, or so he says. Archy already said a proper goodbye to him at Lenny’s house the night before, so he’s surprised when Johnny turns up at his door in the morning. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground outside and the sky is streaked blue and purple.

Johnny doesn’t bother knocking, just pushes inside while Archy’s eating breakfast. Archy’s hand is on his gun before he realizes who it is and relaxes. “Gave me a scare, John. I could have blown your head off.”

Archy realizes that Johnny’s face is streaked with fresh blood. There’s a bit of it near the edge of his mouth that makes him look amused.

“Let’s pretend that’s a double entendre,” Johnny replies. He sounds a bit tired.

“Get into some trouble?” he asks, indicating Johnny’s wounds.

Johnny laughs. “You could say that. Nothing I can’t handle, though.”

“John.” Archy frowns. “I don’t like that.”

Johnny flings himself down in a chair, gangly limbs sprawled out. “What does it matter, anyhow? After all, I had fun.” He leans forward on his elbows and regards Archy seriously. “I’ve come to rather enjoy fighting. I suppose this is another one we can thank Lenny for, eh?”

“Now, don’t be difficult,” Archy says.

“That’s me,” Johnny says, leaning back and putting his boots up on the Archy’s table. “Difficult. I’m trouble, remember? That’s why you hate me and all. God, Lenny’s a fucking monster.”

Archy knocks Johnny’s feet off the table a little harder than he might have. “I don’t want to hear that sort of talk. Doesn’t matter now, does it? You’re off to make your fortune and all.”

Johnny gives Archy a smile you could cut yourself on. “That’s right. Johnny Quid, famous rock 'n' roller. What d’you think of that?”

Archy thinks it’s frighteningly likely, but he’d rather not say so. “Yeah, just hearing you say it makes me want your autograph. Why’re you still hanging about? Thought your band was picking you up early this morning.”

“They can wait.” Johnny stands up. “Oh, you’ll be pleased to hear I bought my very own gun this morning.”

Archy’s tempted to inquire if that’s what happened to his face, but he smiles instead. “Yeah? I’d like to see you outshoot me.”

Johnny grins. “Oh, I think I could manage. I learned from the best.” He pulls a gun from his waistband and turns it easily from side to side. “Nice, yeah?” Without waiting for an answer, he points it at Archy. “Your money or your life.”

Archy frowns. “Don’t point guns at people, John. Put that away.”

Instead, there’s a click, and before Archy can register that Johnny’s pulled the trigger, a tiny flame springs to life in the barrel.

“What the fuck is that, then?” Archy demands.

Johnny laughs. “It’s a lighter. Nice, isn’t it?”

So Johnny’s still got a way to go before he’s a proper gangster. Archy thinks he’s relieved.

“Still,” Johnny continues, “It’s not as though I don’t know how to use a real one. In fact,” he circles the table to Archy’s chair, “I think I can handle a weapon as well as most blokes I know.” He trails his hand up Archy’s leg.

As always, Johnny has to complicate things. Archy slaps his hand away. “Now, stop that. I’ve told you, it’s a terrible idea and I ain’t interested, so you best be on your way.”

Johnny looks at him, blood on his face and dark shadows under his eyes, and licks his lips. Concern flares briefly in Archy’s chest, but before he can say anything else, Johnny leans down, grabs him by the back of the head, and kisses him.

All Archy can taste is blood for a moment, and he makes a surprised noise against Johnny’s mouth. Johnny’s hands just tighten in his hair.

Then Archy gets ahold of himself and stumbles to his feet, pushing Johnny away. “John. You’re eighteen. And I—”

“Fucking hell,” Johnny spits. “‘John, you’re sixteen, John, you’re eighteen,’ where does it fucking end?

“Look,” Arch says, holding his hands up, “you ought to know about these things. You’re interested in psychology and that, yeah? Don’t you think you probably only want me ‘cause you think I’ll hurt you, and you think that’s what you need?” Not that it takes a genius or some university wanker to see that.

Johnny looks at him for a long moment. Then he says, “You’re a fucking idiot. No, look, quite seriously, you are. Sometimes I honestly wonder why I’m attracted to you.”

Archy opens his mouth, but Johnny keeps on.

“Because really,” he says, planting his palms flat on the table, “I’ve been trying for a very long time to tell you that you’re my favorite person in the world. And you’re not going to bloody explain it away, because I won’t let you. Understood?”

Archy may have thought Johnny was a bit absurd after the gun lighter trick, but he's certainly not laughing now. “John,” he says quietly. “You understand why I can’t do this.”

Johnny rolls his eyes and shoves himself back from the table. “Because you’re a good person, apparently.”

Archy is no such thing, but Johnny can’t be disagreed with. “Thanks, I suppose. I’m still not going to let you—”

“Kiss you?” Johnny asks. “Yeah. I thought not. Still, worth a try, wasn’t it? Don’t think I’m giving up.”

“Wish you would,” Archy says mildly, feeling suddenly better about the whole thing. Johnny is being—not mature, but something closer than usual. “You’re making a lot of trouble. Look, sit down and have some eggs or something. And let me take a look at that ridiculous lighter of yours.”

Johnny grins and kicks his chair out again. “That’ll do for now. Till I get a real one.”