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I want you to want me

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Part One

Danny is drowning.

He is drowning, but there’s no one to see it, no one to help. His mother is gone, his father as good as, locked inside his own head, lost to his grief. His brother is almost fourteen years old, and his sisters are ten and six, and Danny is fifteen and sinking fast.

But there’s no one else who can do this job, raise them, make sure they are safe and clothed and fed, no one else to notice that Kate has stopped speaking, and that Amy came home yesterday with a bruise covering her entire upper arm, all the way up to her collarbone.

His brother... that’s another story. Danny has seen his fair share of fights, God knows, but taunting someone until he breaks his hand in your face, well.

Danny doesn’t know how to fix this. He goes to school, writes his homework on the bus on his way back, then gets home and hangs up the washing he put in before he left that morning, fixes lunch, helps Kate wash her face, helps Amy with her geography homework, tries not to snap at Matty, doesn’t bother to wait for his father to come home before putting them all to bed.

His father barely says ‘hello’ when he walks through the door; his eyes slide away from Danny as soon as they land on him, hollow and broken. Danny knows it’s his fault -- he looks so much like their mother that his father can barely stand to look at him, hasn’t touched him in months, ever since the call came.

Danny leaves the house through the back door. It’s just gone 10pm, but the street they live on is already dark and empty, cars parked safely in the driveways, not a soul to be seen but the old lady from down the block walking her ancient Pekingese. Danny doesn’t linger, walks quickly and purposefully down the road to the other side of the neighbourhood, where it mutates into abandoned warehouses and barbwire-covered fences. He slips in between the rusted gate and the brick wall, where there’s a space left for a body a little bigger than his. He knows he’s short for his age, but lately his shoulders have started feeling strange, too wide for his frame, and he’s noticed that ever since he started doing this he’s been putting on muscle all over.

He jogs the last few yards around the corner. The mutters of the small crowd are barely audible until you’re practically on top of it. There’s seven of them, all older boys, all of them taller and broader than him. They greet him with a mistrustful glare, but he’s been earning his way into the group for the past month, his fists making space for him better than his brains ever could.

He can feel his mind clearing as soon as he loses his shirt and puts up his arms, drops into a defensive crouch; school, his father, his siblings, his mother, everything goes away until it’s just him and his opponent, the chill of the night, the smell of city smoke and drifting fog. The boy he’s fighting is thin but wiry, corded muscles weaving over his arms and thighs. Danny takes the first hit square in the ribs, grunts with the pain but manages to roll, not to present an easy target. By unspoken agreement the fights are kept below the neck; he’s not the only middle-class kid with issues, even if his father is unlikely to even notice, let alone put up a fuss. Danny waits for the opening, slides under the boy’s guard like it isn’t even there, lands a wicked punch in his stomach. The boy drops and heaves for a moment before catching his breath and pushing back to his feet.

Danny looks into the boy’s dead eyes while he waits for the faint; it’s something the whole group has in common. The look in them is vaguely familiar. It will take Danny a long time to realise that this is because he sees it every morning in the bathroom mirror.

---

It’s two months after Danny’s sixteenth birthday that the little arrangement that’s worked so well for him for the past year falls apart. Ironically, it’s the one other thing that makes his life bearable that is responsible for it.

Coach Keats is not a particularly tall man himself, but what he lacks in height he makes up in presence. Danny looks up to the man in a way that is frankly frightening, because people you care about have a habit of leaving you behind. Danny’s late for practice for the second time that week, because Amy had broken her leg two weeks ago and needs a lot more help than usual getting home from school. Danny still hasn’t factored in the extra hour and a half it takes up.

Coach Keats is not an angry man by nature. His entire team knows that his bark is way worse than his bite, that the more he yells the better he’s feeling about something. It’s the moments he goes quiet you have to watch out for, because to his players, Coach Keats’ disappointment is heavier than any punishment the man can mete out.

Danny wipes out in practice. He’s tired, exhausted, really; he’s been running on empty for far longer than he could have imagined he would last. His knee is giving him trouble again -- one of his fight partners had landed a nasty hit on it the other night, and it shakes sometimes, when he puts too much pressure on it. It gives out completely today, just as Danny’s speeding up to the home plate, and he crashes in the dust half-way there.

Coach Keats is by his side in moments, face grim, mouth pressed in that tight line that bodes nothing good for whoever caused it. Danny looks him straight in the eye, fights not to let his eyes slide away like he’s guilty, because he’s not, it’s not his fault his life has turned to something better resembling a circle of hell. Coach crouches down, presses gentle hands to Danny’s knee, and when did it swell so much, it wasn’t like that this morning when--oh, but Amy had whacked it with her crutches accidentally, when he was helping her off the school bus -- that’d do it. He hisses in pain when Coach presses down on something. The tight pinch of Coach's mouth gets worse.

“I’m taking you to the nurse’s office, boyo,” he says, in that tone of his that brooks no refusal.

Danny tries anyway.

“I’m fine, Coach, honest. I just got bumped today, I guess my sister hit me harder than I thought. It was an accident,” he hurries to add when Coach frowns at him. “She broke her leg. She needed my help.”

Something changes in Coach’s eyes, and Danny suddenly has to fight back tears that come out of nowhere. It’s just that no one has looked at him this way for longer than he can remember. He blinks them away furiously.

“You’re still going to get seen by the nurse. I’m not having my star player injure himself on my watch,” Coach says, and helps him stand. “You lot, off you go for today. See you on Friday, don’t be late!” he yells to the rest of the team who scamper to the showers as quick as they can.

He braces Danny’s side against his hip and tugs Danny’s hand over his shoulder for balance. Danny holds on tightly as Coach helps him limp to the nurse’s office on the other side of the school; it takes them well over twenty minutes, and that’s when Danny realises this could be bad. He has bruises on his ribs that still haven’t healed from three nights ago, and even if no one’s cared for a long time, Danny knows that it’ll get him in trouble faster than he can get out of it.

He looks at Coach surreptitiously from under his eyelashes, but Coach has his face set in a way that gives fair warning that he won’t budge. Danny tries frantically to think of an excuse for not taking his shirt off -- it’s too cold, he doesn’t want to get sick, he has a cold already. He knows even as he discards one after the other that no excuses will fly with Nurse Frieda. She is a Nazi when it comes to students’ health.

He braces himself for the inevitable lie while they wait for her to finish with Elizabeth from the year below him. It’s late September in Jersey, but the weather is bitterly cold, not far off freezing, so flu abounds within the school, and it's keeping Nurse Frieda busier than most of full-on winter, when all students with an ounce of brains in their heads know to dress up warm. Coach Keats is silent next to him, and Danny bites his tongue not to babble, like he does when he’s nervous. He pushes his hands under his thighs to keep from fidgeting, something else he’s prone to -- his mother used to joke that he had Jersey in his genes.

The door opens and Elizabeth walks out, sniffling into a tissue. Her eyes are watery and her nose is bright red, but she finds a smile for Danny. He barely manages to return it; his blood is thumping in his ears with barely restrained panic.

Nurse Frieda pokes her bushy red hair through the door.

“Larry! What have you got for me today, then?” she asks, resigned.

Coach Keats’ smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I need you to take a look at Williams’ knee, Frieda. It folded under him a half hour ago.” He helps Danny stand and limp into the office.

“Right. Williams, yes? Sit yourself down, take off your shirt and pants, let’s take a look at you.” She waves at an exam table, snaps on a fresh pair of gloves.

‘Here it is,’ Danny thinks to himself.

“I’d rather not take off my shirt, if that’s okay. It’s freezing in here,” he says, pours as much nonchalance into it as he can dig up.

Frieda’s not buying it, he can see. “Shirt. Off,” she says, hands on hips.

“Seriously? You’re going to make me strip in the middle of flu season? I got a brother and two sisters, if I get sick they get sick, okay? Can you just take a look at my knee? It’s perfectly fine, anyway, but Coach insisted.”

The more he fights it, the more determined Frieda gets. In the end, Danny just grits his teeth and whips his shirt off, throws it in a corner in frustration.

The two shocked inhales signal the end of life as he knows it, even if it’ll take a few days for the full repercussions to sink in.

“What the hell happened to you, Williams?” Coach growls, squinting at the mass of bruises and scars, some faded and some half-healed, that criss-cross his torso.

“It’s fine,” Danny insists, knowing it’s a lost cause but unable to give in without a fight. “Got into a bit of a tussle. It’ll heal.”

“Looks to me like you’ve been getting in tussles for quite a while there, young man,” Frieda says, lips pursed as she pokes and prods at him. Danny grits his teeth against the hiss of pain trying to escape. The less he looks like it hurts, the better.

The look in Coach Keats promises nothing good; Danny’s not going to delude himself that this will end any definition of well.

---

He sits outside the Principal’s office, knee freeze-sprayed and wrapped in an elastic bandage, with strict orders to keep his weight off it for at least a few days. Danny doesn’t have that luxury; there’s far too much to do at home to afford him any kind of break. He can hear voices from behind the door; Coach Keats and Nurse Frieda have been inside for the better part of half an hour, and his father is due at any minute. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but Coach sounds distressed -- he’s far too quiet. Danny bites his lip and closes his eyes, hoping it’ll all go away if he just ignores it for a while.

Footsteps click down the corridor, rushing closer and closer. His father rounds the corner, eyes a little wild around the edges, hair an absolute mess like he's been raking it. His hands are curled into white-knuckled fists, and he’s biting viciously at his lip just like Danny has been doing for the past few minutes -- only there’s a drop of blood coating his chin, and Danny realises in a dizzying rush that his father is so worried he’s near frantic with it. It’s such a shock that all Danny can do is stare at him, like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Oh god, Danny, you okay?” his father says, running forward and dropping to his knees in front of him. His hands twitch like he wants to touch him, but doesn’t know whether he should, or where to put his hands. In the end, he curls them back into fists and drops them in his lap, clutching at his own fingers. His panicked eyes flit over Danny’s body, trying to divine what’s happened.

Danny has to try twice to find his voice. “I’m okay, Dad. It’s just a bruise, I walked into Amy’s crutch earlier and apparently there’s a bit of swelling, but it’ll go down in a few days.”

His father sags backwards until he’s sitting on his heels, relief written all over his face, so plainly that Danny can’t possibly miss it. “Oh thank god,” he mutters, squeezing his eyes shut.

Danny swallows, bracing himself. “The Principal wants to see you, though.” He leans a hand on the bench he’s sitting on and levers himself upright; his father jumps to his feet and grabs his shoulder, steadying him. He tentatively slides a hand under Danny’s arm, supporting him so they can walk slowly to the closed door. His father raps a knuckle on it a couple of times.

“Come in,” someone calls from inside.

His father pushes the door open and helps Danny inside, lowering him into the chair in front of the desk that Coach Keats has just vacated. Principal Hodgson waves a hand for his father to take the other chair.

“Mr Williams, do you know why I’ve asked you to come here today?” Mr Hodgson asks; there’s a stern note in his otherwise gentle voice that makes Danny frown.

His father looks confused. “I thought it was so I could take Danny home?”

The three teachers share a look.

“Mr Williams, my name is Frieda Zamijeva, I am the school nurse. When Coach Keats brought your son in to be examined, I noticed Danny had extensive bruising all over his body, mostly located over his torso. There is also some scarring, both old and new. Danny insists there is nothing wrong, that he ‘got in a tussle’, but the bruising is consistent with a heavy beating, and the scarring suggests lacerations from a blunt, jagged object.” She falls silent, and Mr Hodgson takes over seamlessly.

“We are... concerned about your son’s safety and well-being. Can you think of any reason why Danny would be getting beaten, or is consistently getting into fights? He has never been in trouble at school; he is a popular kid, a good student, well liked by the vast majority of his schoolmates, and he has never given any indication that he’s been bullied, or picked on.” Mr Hodgson pauses, looks sympathetic. “We’re... familiar with Mrs Williams passing last year, and once again I am very sorry for your loss. But we would be remiss in our duty to our students and their parents if we do not flag potential behavioural problems as soon as we become aware of them.”

Danny can barely look at any of them, but to actually look at his father right now would take a stronger man than he. His father remains silent for a short while, and when he speaks, his voice almost breaks. “I... was not aware that Danny was behaving differently. It’s been... a tough year for all of us, and... the kids, they’ve all taken it hard, as you can imagine.” He stops to clear his throat; Danny can hear his laboured breathing at his side, and he knows that his father is fighting to hold his composure. “I... I have not been home as much as I would have liked, I... my work...”

He turns to Danny, and Danny wants to die when he chances a peek at his face and sees the devastation this has wrought on his father. He looks haggard, barely keeping himself together. “Danny? What... is there someone...” he pauses to swallow heavily. “Son, is there someone hurting you that you haven’t told me about?”

Danny looks at his knees, traces the bandage with his eyes as he fidgets with his hands. The knuckles on his left are still bruised, and there’s a small nick over the one in the middle. He can take pretty much anything anyone throws at him, but his father’s concern makes him so angry, and so small at the same time.

He grits his teeth against screaming, against hurling insults and saying things he will regret as soon as they’re out -- ‘Since when do you care’, and ‘I could be dying and you still wouldn’t look at me’, and ‘You haven’t bothered with me in a long time, why start now’, hurtful, vicious things that are bursting from his chest all the same.

“No, Dad,” he forces out in the end. “No one’s been hurting me.”

“Danny--” his father starts, and Danny snaps.

“So I got into a few fights, so what? It’s not like you care, you haven’t been home in three days, you didn’t even know about Amy’s leg until last night. I know you’re been out there saving lives, Dad, but it would be kinda nice if your kids saw your face once in a while, too.” He bites his lip again; he can taste the tang of iron in his mouth, feels the small sting as his teeth tear through the skin.

He can’t look at his father.

And then he does, and he wishes he never picked up the courage in the first place, because his father looks destroyed, ashen-faced and close to tears.

The room is so silent that when Danny shifts in his chair, the rustling sound carries to the farthest corners. The silence stretches until Danny can’t stand it, has to fill it with something.

“Look, it’s fine,” he says defiantly; he wants to say he’s sorry, but he’s not, and he’s sick of lying. “I know this has been an awful year for you, too, but the girls and Matty, they miss you, and I just think you should spend more time with them. This hasn’t been easy for them, either. They’re okay, I take care of them, I always will, but they need you too, Dad.”

Danny’s been trying to reassure him, so he doesn’t understand why, just for a second, his father’s face crumples completely before he manages to catch hold of himself. He opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out but a choked ‘Danny’. His hand makes an aborted movement towards Danny, but stops half-way there, as if he doesn’t know if he’s allowed. It clenches into a fist when he pulls it back, and there’s a fine tremor running along his whole body.

Mr Hodgson clears his throat uncomfortably. “I think, perhaps, this ought to be discussed between the two of you. Danny’s not in trouble with the school; in fact, I’d say he’s been coping with things much better than most, under the circumstances. This is a family matter. Thank you for coming in, Mr Williams.” He stands up and holds out a hand. His father stares at it for a moment before getting to his feet and taking it.

“Williams, you rest that knee of yours. I don’t want to see you at practice for the rest of the week,” Coach Keats says. Danny nods faintly and follows his father out of the door, putting as little weight on his knee as he can.

He limps to the car, parked haphazardly across two parking spaces, like his father was in such a rush he didn’t care where he left it. They drive off in a silence that lasts for the rest of the drive home.

---

Three days later, Danny’s life changes forever.

There’s a knock on the door while he’s cutting up Kate’s dinner into small bites for her. The three look at him questioningly, as always trusting him implicitly to take care of it. He drops the knife and fork and pushes his chair back. His father isn’t home yet, although he’s been making a real effort to be there for dinner ever since the day he brought Danny home from school.

Danny walks to the door; he hears a car drive off just as he reaches for the door knob, wonders whether he should bother at all, turns it anyway.

The lady on the other side of it looks so astonishingly like his mother that he takes an unconscious step back, almost stumbles over the rug in shock. There’s an awful ache somewhere in his chest that makes it impossible to breathe. He tries anyway, always pushing back no matter the cost. The lady smiles tentatively at him.

“Hello, you must be Daniel. I’m Clara Jameson.” She pauses, and there’s this look in her eyes, such sadness that it feels like a punch in the gut. “Your mother was my sister. I’m your aunt.”

Danny stares at her some more. “How come I’ve never seen you before?” he blurts out, completely blindsided.

Clara’s mouth tightens, but she’s not angry at him. Danny doesn’t know how he knows that, only that his mother had looked the same when she thought she had done something wrong.

“I live in Hawai’i. It’s a really long trip to take in either direction, and your mother and I, we were always so busy.”

“She never mentioned you,” Danny says, but it’s hard to hold on to his suspicions in the face of the obvious family resemblance.

Clara’s mouth tightens some more. She looks upset. Danny wishes he never said anything.

“May I perhaps come in?” she asks, really asks, like she doesn’t know which way this is going to go. Danny hesitates, but he steps aside. She is family, after all.

She bends to pick up a large travel bag, which is the first time Danny notices it. Something about it makes his stomach tighten in apprehension. He doesn’t offer to help her with it, and she doesn’t look like she expects him to.

When Danny shows her into the kitchen, silence descends like a thick blanket over the room. Then, to Danny’s distress, Kate starts crying. She’s utterly silent, like she doesn’t expect the fact that she’s crying to change anything. Tears run down her pale cheeks and drip down her chin, and Danny’s heart breaks with every little tap they make as they fall onto the table. He circles the table as fast as his legs will carry him and drops to his knees, ignores the nasty twinge from the sore one. He tugs Kate into his arms, murmuring something soothing into her hair. She hides her face in his neck and clutches at his T-shirt as he looks helplessly at Clara over Kate’s head. He sees she’s crying, too.

Matty presses his lips together and pushes away from the table, brushes past Clara when he storms out of the room. Amy’s gazing at Clara like she’s the answer to everything and nothing all at once.

In a little while Kate calms, but she’s still clutching at Danny’s T-shirt, so he scoots a chair over to her side and lowers himself carefully onto it, stretching his knee out with a smothered groan. Clara’s still standing by the door, looking unsure, so Danny picks up his manners from the gutter and offers her a chair. She takes it hesitantly, looking between the three of them.

It falls to Danny to make the introductions. Matty wanders in just as he opens his mouth; his eyes are red, but he sits down at the table without a word.

Danny takes a deep breath. “This is Clara Jameson. She is our aunt. Mom was her sister. Clara, these are Kathleen, Amelia, and Matthew.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you all,” Clara says soothingly, but Danny notices how tightly her fingers are wound together on top of the table. He doesn’t know what else to say -- he has no idea what she’s doing here, or why she’s come now.

“Is George not home yet?” she asks, and Danny realises she’s just as nervous as them. It makes him feel that little bit calmer.

“We’re expecting him any moment,” Danny replies just as their father’s keys jangle and the front door clicks open. There’s a slight pause when it’s closed again; Danny supposes his father just saw the bag that Clara left by the stairs. Then his footsteps draw closer, and a moment later he stands at the doorway, looking at the silent tableau before focusing on the newcomer.

“Clara. It’s good to see you again,” he says gruffly, but he sounds genuine, even when his eyes fly over her shape for a second with something like wistfulness.

“George. Thank you for inviting me,” Clara says. She starts to get up, then changes her mind and settles back in her seat.

Their father nods at her, then crosses to the other empty seat and takes it carefully. There’s more of the awkward silence while the six of them stare at each other.

Then their father takes a deep breath and turns to look at the four of them resolutely. “I have asked Clara to come here because I’ve come to the realisation that I have not been the best father I could have been. And it has hurt you in ways I can’t even imagine. I can’t take care of you like I should, like you need me to. I thought if I just. But it hasn’t worked, and all of this, I can’t bear to think how much I have failed you all.

“Your aunt Clara has offered to look after you until I can get back on my feet, if you. If you still want to come back, by then." He huffs a small sound that's probably meant to be a laugh; it sounds more like a sob. He presses his lips together for a moment before continuing. "She is the Principal of Kukui High School, in Hawai’i. You’ll be able to finish the school year there, and we’ll see how things go. I hope you’ll be able to come back in July or August, and things will get back to normal. Or, as normal as it is around here, anyway. It’ll only be for nine months,” he says pleadingly when he sees their flat faces. “I just. You need more than I can give you right now. I love you all, so much it hurts. I want to be a good father to you, and I can’t be that right now. But I will be. I swear to you. Meanwhile you can work on your suntan, eh? Take the chance to see the ocean, have some fun for a change. You’ll be back before you know it!”

He’s trying to put a happy face on it, but Danny can see it’s killing him, having to send them away, feeling like a failure but trying to do right by them no matter what it costs him. As much as he loathes the idea, he can appreciate what their father is trying to do for them. Plus, it’ll be good for Kate and Amy to have a change of pace. They have been much too serious lately, much too quiet. It’s not good for little girls to be so quiet. They should be going to football practice, playing with bunny rabbits, gossiping with friends, conspiring to turn the entire house pink. Danny’s not all that old, but even he knows that much. And Matty, he needs some real friends, people to have sleepovers and go to baseball practice with. Not those kids he’s fallen in with recently. Danny’s been meaning to talk to him about them; he’s sure drugs are involved, and for all that he’s no one’s role model, he draws the line at that.

So he smiles back tentatively at their father, doing his bit for the rest of them regardless of how he feels about it.

“Yeah, Dad. That sounds like a good idea. Right, guys? We’re going to have so much fun!”

Kate and Amy perk up a little, but Matty stares at him like he’s grown a second head. “Are you nuts?” his brother demands. “I’m not going to no Hawai’i!”

“Why not?” Danny returns. Don’t show fear. “We get to see the ocean, go to the beach every day if we feel like it. Amy and Kate will love it,” he adds, allowing a hint of warning to colour his voice. Don’t spoil it for the two of them, please.

“I don’t care!” Matty yells, startling Clara. She stares at him, obviously thinking of how to handle this. “I don’t want to go!”

“Okay. Will you tell me why you don’t want to go?” Clara asks gently. It’s a mistake, Danny knows straight away.

Matty stares her down as only a fifteen-year-old can, when they think they know everything and all you know is wrong. “I don’t have to explain myself to you,” he says, cold and cutting.

“Matty, come on. It’s a good idea. Why are you being so difficult? It’s hard enough as it is. We’ll all go, it’ll only be for nine months, you heard Dad.”

Matty sneers; a fifteen-year-old should not be able to infuse so much bitterness in his expression. Danny feels like a failure. “Yeah, like Dad’s someone we can trust,” Matty snarls. Their father’s face turns ashen.

“Matthew Williams! You apologise, right now!”

“Shut up, Daniel, you’re not my father!”

Matty sounds close to tears, and there’s a horribly lost look on his face, like he’s furious and he doesn’t know how to fix it. Danny doesn’t know either, but he has to try something, anything. He can’t stand that look on Matty’s face. Before he can say anything, though, Matty pushes out of his chair and runs out of the room, face crumpling in distress. Their dad makes to get up, too, but Danny lifts a hand to stop him.

“No, Dad. Just give him a little time. It’s kind of a shock.”

“I’m sorry,” his father says miserably, looking defeated.

“Hey, it’ll be okay, Dad. You’ll see.”

They don’t stay in the kitchen for much longer. Amy and Kate go upstairs to their room, and their dad shows Clara to the spare bedroom in the attic. Danny goes up to Matty’s room, but the door remains stubbornly locked, no matter how hard he pounds on it. He resolves to try again tomorrow. They all need some time to absorb the news.

‘Hawai’i,’ Danny thinks to himself numbly as he stretches over the top of the coverlet on his bed. That’s on the other side of the country; no wonder his mother and his aunt hadn’t visited each other. Although... no matter how far away you are, you should always make an effort for someone you love. Maybe he could make up for lost time, now that he’ll be moving in with his aunt for the foreseeable future.

Hawai’i. Just the name sounds exotic to Danny, who’s never left New Jersey in his life. He wonders what it’ll be like for the weather to be warm all the time, whether everyone walks around in bikinis and wears those flowery wreaths, leis, he thinks they’re called. He wonders whether he’ll enjoy living there. No question that it’ll be good for them to get away for a little while. Hell, might even do him some good.

Two hours later, the itch starts right between his shoulderblades, like he knew it would. It’s been the same the past three days. Ever since his father found out about the fighting, Danny’s been making an effort, too -- not to go back to that stretch of concrete that has been more of a home for him than his house for the past year. It’s so much harder than he imagined it would ever be. His skin feels suffocated underneath his T-shirt; there’s no adrenaline to pull him up and out of the everyday grind; there’s no sense of satisfaction when he lands a good hit, or when his opponent bruises his ribs and gets the endorphins flowing. Danny has no earthly idea what he’s going to do when he gets to the promised land of Hawai’i -- there will be no sneaking out after dark, that’s for sure. He might not know Clara very well -- or at all, really -- but he can already tell that she won’t let that pass, not like his father has been doing when he didn’t know about it. And she’s the Principal at his fancy new school -- she’s bound to find out, no matter how sneaky he is about it.

Danny longs for the smell of wet asphalt, for the sting of sweat in his eyes, for the quiet cheers of the other boys in the small circle. Almost all of the faces have changed -- some have moved on, some have found other people to fight, some are already dead, victims to the latest gang screw-up. Danny and Kyle are the only two left from the original group of eight, veterans of a thousand fights, both trapped in one way or another. Danny wonders what Kyle thought when Danny stopped showing, whether he thought Danny had gotten in trouble, or moved, or found better ways to escape at the end of a needle. Danny hopes he’ll be all right -- there’s an intimate feel of camaraderie in beating the crap out of each other and loving it.

Although there is one good thing about this whole scenario, Danny supposes -- at least it’ll drive those thoughts out of his head, the ones he’s started having lately every time he sees Kyle. Of what his lips would taste like if he were to lick the blood off them; of what Kyle would feel like, struggling underneath Danny when he pins him to the ground; of how easy it would be to reach out and flick that ginger fringe out of his eyes when Kyle forgets to tie his shoulder-length hair back. Last time they’d fought, Danny had charged him, and Kyle hadn’t been able to get out of the way fast enough. Their bare, sweaty chests had slid together strangely, and Danny had felt a curious tightening in his belly. It wasn’t until he got home and stripped his filthy clothes off that he’d realised that he was hard as a rock.

It was all so different, so confusing, that Danny had trouble sorting out his reactions to it. Was he scared, exhilarated, uncomfortable, turned on? Was it a combination of all four?

Anyway, Danny hadn’t been back there this week, and even when he’d told himself it was only until his knee healed, he knows that chances are he’ll never go back, never find out where this thing with Kyle might have taken him, because right now there's something more important than that. Danny’s not big on labels; he’s heard a couple of his classmates being taunted, words like ‘gay’, ‘faggot’, ‘queer’ getting thrown around like they’re rocks. He’s seen the damage they can do, and he’s not keen to paint himself in a corner. It’ll happen when it happens, and if it isn’t Kyle it’ll be someone else. Danny’s got enough issues in his life to invent new ones.

It’s the look on his father’s face when he found out that haunts him, there every time Danny closes his eyes. The despair, the self-hatred, the helplessness. For all his failures, Danny loves his dad. He’s kind, understanding, headstrong; his drive to help people has saved countless lives. He’s already a legend at the Fire Department, and Danny admires him fiercely.

The only mistake Danny’s father had made was fall in love with Danny’s mother, so deeply and overwhelmingly that her death had destroyed him. It’s not like Danny hadn’t seen it, hadn’t tried to help in any way he’d known, by taking over his mom’s job, taking care of his brother and sisters. It hadn’t been completely selfless -- he’d stumbled into it by accident at first, but it had been like a lifeline to him. When he kept busy, he stopped thinking, reliving that phone call over and over and over and over again in his head -- picking up the phone, not realising that when he’d been asked if he was a Mr Williams, they’d meant his dad; that no, it really wouldn't be funny to pass himself off as him just because his voice had broken two weeks ago; and then the rest of it. Pile-up on the motorway. Wife at the University Hospital. Fading fast, only hours left. Get here as soon as you can, sir, bring your kids. They’ll want to say goodbye.

He doesn’t know what happened next; there’s a blank spot in his memory of the rest of the day, a vague memory of tubes and the smell of antiseptic, kissing a bandaged cheek, holding on to a cold hand. Then nothing, until he woke up in his bed, alone in the house -- or so he’d thought, until he’d gone up to his parents’ bedroom and found Amy, Kate, and Matthew curled up in his mother’s closet, a big pile of limbs and tear-streaked faces.

So, he'd kept as busy as he could handle, home, brother, sisters, school, homework, exercise, exercise, exercise -- and then he’d found the warehouse lot when he’d been out running one night, and heard the voices, and joined in. That night the nightmares had finally stopped.

Until three days ago, when his knee had betrayed him utterly and completely, and put an end to his escape route. That first night had been almost unbearable; he'd woken up four times, an hour apart, and given up on sleep altogether after the fifth time he'd come to covered in cold sweat and shaking uncontrollably. Last night had been somewhat better, since Danny hadn’t sat down all day -- the house could not get any cleaner unless he used industrial-strength bleach -- and he’d only woken up once. He hopes that tonight would be better still.

---

Apparently meeting his estranged aunt that looks just like his dead mother is not all that conducive to a good night’s sleep. Go figure. And he’s going to have to live with the woman for the next nine months.

Oh god. He’s doomed.

But -- here’s the thing. There are three reasons he can never say that out loud, never give any indication that he has doubts regarding the retention of his sanity, and their names are Amy, Kate, and Matty. He can do it, for them -- he can get through this thing. He just hopes the blue skies, warm weather, and endless beaches make it up to him, at least a little.

~~