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Strength

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Pride was going badly even before Ben spotted his father, making his way through the crowd with ill-disguised disgust.

He had thought of it as his Cinderella moment.  Go to the forbidden celebration, and then things would fall into place and make sense and he would find his people and everything would be all right.  Instead he felt lost and isolated. Everywhere, people were dressed in ways that made part of him embarrassed for them, and he knew he shouldn’t be embarrassed for them, but his brain was fizzing with words like freak and nancy-boy and he couldn’t make it stop.  And it felt like everyone would know, and any moment someone would realize that he didn’t belong here, and he felt like a heavy hand was about to fall on his shoulder any moment, and then he saw the person he least wanted to see.

Ben turned and fled through the crowd, cutting his way around dozens of rainbow flags.

He didn’t dare look over his shoulder to see if his father was after him.  He knew in his heart that he was.

He cut around a transvestite—transsexual— whatever the right word was, Ben didn’t want to be insulting but he didn’t know —and past a trio who seemed to have been day drinking, and ricocheted straight off a poncy librarian, and was going to keep going when the librarian pulled him to a stop.  “My goodness, where are you going in such a hurry?”

Ben couldn’t hear an accent like that without being self-conscious about his thick, working-class Northern speech.  Natural enemies, him and people who sounded like that. He had learned that much in school—learned, also, that when he took a poke at them after some particularly vile bit of mockery, that the judgment would not go his way.  “M’dad,” he muttered. “Gotta go.” And then, because people like that cared more about manners than they cared about people, “‘Scuse me.”

“I think,” the librarian said, “you had better stay behind me.”

Ben looked at him incredulously.  

“Better do it,” an amused voice advised him.  Ben looked and saw a skinny man in even skinnier jeans, and dark glasses that might conceal drug-blown pupils.  “Anyone trying to make trouble at this Pride . . .”  He grinned.

There was a German word for that grin.  Shade something. All about watching people get what was coming to them, and popping popcorn.  And in context, it made no bloody sense.

“Listen,” Ben said, “m’dad—m’dad won’t hurt you if you don’t get in his way, he’s after me, but—”  But Ben’s dad was a hard man, muscles like iron after years of construction work, and the worst the librarian could do was brew passive-aggressive tea at him.  “I’ve gotta go—”

“Benjamin Shander, stop right there.”

Ben froze.

It wasn’t just the coldness in his gut at the voice.  It was the realization that wherever he went, his father would still know that he had been here.  Could he even go back home? What would his dad do to him? Would he still count Ben as his son, now that he Knew?

He turned around.

His father, face like a thundercloud, was bearing down on him, and the librarian—the librarian, who had plainly never done anything stronger than tut at someone—put himself squarely in the middle.  “Excuse me,” he said. “I can’t help but notice that you seem, er, seem a bit upset—”

Ben’s father bared his teeth.  “Have you been grooming my son?”

Ben could feel his heart slamming into his ribs.  His father was in a fury. “I don’t even know him,” he protested.  He made himself move forward.  Didn’t get far, his fear pulling him to a halt.  “Just—” There was going to be violence, and the only thing Ben could hope for was to confine the violence to himself.  Part of him wanted to let the librarian take a hit for him, he owed the man nothing, didn’t even like him, prissy and proper and oh-so-much better than people like Ben—but it wasn’t right.  “I’ll go with you, just don’t—”

“None of that.”  The redhead in the dark glasses pulled Ben to a halt.  “You stay right here and watch.”

Ben had thought dark glasses might be a friend of the librarian.  Evidently it was just the opposite.

Ben’s father tried to dodge around the librarian, who interposed himself neatly, hands fluttering with nervousness.  “Mr—Shander, did I hear you say? Mr. Shander, I understand why you might be upset. Things like this do come as rather a shock to the system when nothing in your upbringing or your life has prepared you for it.  You must realize—”

“Get out of my way, you fat prissy faggot!”

“I’ll go with you!” Ben yelled.

“No,” the librarian said, “I’m afraid you won’t.  Not until we get some things settled, at any rate.”

Ben’s father clenched his fist.  “He’s,” he said, and drew back his arm.  “My.” And then the punch, the perfect motion that Ben’s father had taught him.  “Son!”   The punch unfurled, aimed—Ben knew—not for the librarian’s face, but for some point beyond it, so that it would land with full power, full force.

The librarian didn’t bring up his arms.  Didn’t flinch back. He might have tilted his head slightly, but that was all.  Which made it more surprising when the punch landed, with a crack like an axe striking wood, and Ben’s father screamed.

“My goodness,” the librarian said mildly.

His father went from screams to hoarse panting, almost falling to his knees.

The librarian took custody of his father’s injured arm, carefully not touching the hand.  “Five bones broken,” he pronounced. “You’re quite strong.”

Ben’s father tried to pull away from him.

Nothing happened.

“This is, perhaps, not the perfect venue for a lecture on strength,” the librarian admitted, holding the arm in a grip that didn’t even look especially tight.  “But that’s what this is about, isn’t it? You want your child, your son, to be strong.  And despite his fear of you, I think some of that really does come from love.  Your vision of what’s best for him.”

Ben’s father threw his entire weight backwards against the librarian’s grip.  The librarian might have tightened his grasp just a little, but otherwise he didn’t move at all.  And neither did Ben’s father. He might as well have been handcuffed to an iron bar.

“You look at people like myself, and you see weakness.  A lack of manliness. So you try to reject that on behalf of your son, because you think it will make him less.  Never noticing, of course, that in defying you he has shown more strength than you have in your entire body and soul.  For all your desperate struggles to be a hard man, you have absolutely no idea what strength is.”

Ben had never seen a look like that on his father’s face.  Not just frightened, but bewildered. Lost.

“Let me take you to A&E,” the librarian said.  “Those knuckles need tending to before you do something to make them worse.  We can discuss—Benjamin, was it?—on the way there.”

“C-c-can’t—”  His father’s voice was reedy and frightened.  “Can’t leave him here. Someone could—could—he’s just a boy, if someone really wanted to, they could talk him into—”

“People do not go around taking advantage of young boys,” the librarian said firmly, “at Pride.  It’s a celebration, not a house of ill repute. But, if it makes you feel better, my husband will look after him.”

The redhead rolled his head in a way that made it obvious he’d also rolled his eyes behind dark glasses.  “No, I won’t.”

The librarian turned half around, not releasing Ben’s father, and gave his husband an entreating look.

The husband sighed.  “You’ll owe me.”

He was rewarded with a glowing smile that Ben could feel in his bones, like standing in a beam of some sort of kid’s show friendship-magic, and he hadn’t even been the one it was aimed at.  Then the librarian turned his attention back to Ben’s father. “Come along, Mr. Shander.”

His father went.  He did not, Ben thought, seem to have much choice.

Ben stood still, thinking very hard, very fast.

What he was thinking about was Clark Kent.  He had never believed in Clark Kent, in a way that went beyond not believing in fiction because it wasn’t real.  Strength didn’t work that way. Power didn’t work that way. Superman, Krypton, all that he had no problem with, but the idea of power that looked weak?  Looked pathetic?

Evidently he needed to readjust his thinking, because Ben was seventy percent certain he had just met a Kryptonian.

It was doing something funny to his pulse.

“Listen,” the redhead told him, in confidential tones.  “A crush is normal enough. I’ve never seen a gay kid who didn’t get a little bit of a flutter when he does something like that.  But making him uncomfortable is not all right, so when he comes back, keep it to yourself.  Understood?”

Ben flushed.  “I didn’t—I wasn’t!”

He got a very sardonic look.

“It’s not like I—I’m not the sort of—I—”  Ben wasn’t sure what his stammering was leading to.  “My da was the strongest man I know.”

“That’s how he broke his knuckles,” the redhead said.  “Smashing your fist into hard bone that’s not even going to move a millimeter?  He’ll have the use of the hand, if that’s worrying you.”

It was worth worrying about, Ben realized.  A ruined hand meant no job. But instead, he was thinking about what it would take for a person to no-sell a punch like that.  Not moving a millimeter at the impact. You’d have to have neck muscles of steel, and that was just for a start.

His pulse had not stopped doing the thing.  “What’s his name?” he managed finally.

He got a faint twitch of the lips.  “You don’t listen to urban legends, do you?  You can call him Mr. Fell. And I’m Crowley.”

“I’m Ben,” Ben offered.  Probably ought to be on his best behavior.  Crowley didn’t talk quite as posh, but his accent was still moreso than Ben’s.  “Um, pleased to meet you.”

Crowley studied him.  “You want a flag?”

If he wanted to fit in, if he wanted to belong, then doing what everyone else was doing—  “Don’t have money for a flag, do I?”

“I’ve got a little to spare,” Crowley said, with heavy irony.  “Come on.”