Blood And Rust
by HYPERFocused

When Seth was seven years old, his father brought home a stray Golden Retriever mix he'd found in a box by the side of the road. It was half-grown, and filthy, but cleaned up just fine, with help from the hose by the gardener's shed. Kirsten hadn't allowed it into the house until it was clean, and looked at it like it was dirty forever after.

"Buddy" (hey, he was seven) was long limbed and lumbering. He slobbered all over Seth, driving him to fits of giggling. He loved those big paws pushing him to the ground after a particularly energetic leap. Buddy was game for anything. Paddling in the pool, chasing the sticks that Seth would throw at him, Buddy quickly became his best friend.

It was like something on TV, except for the part where his mother drove the puppy to the Humane Society while he was in school one day.

"I'm sorry, honey, " she'd said. "But we have white carpets, and Buddy's proven he can't be trusted on them."

He'd tried to convince her that Buddy was trainable, that he'd watch out for him. "He doesn't mean to be bad, Mommy. He's just a puppy. Maybe he's like me, and he just can't help it."

It hadn't worked. She'd just sighed, and made vague offerings of an aquarium, or "maybe, a well trained little purebred one day." He didn't want any fish, or some stupid little yapping dog. He wanted his friend back.

His father had obviously felt bad for him. He'd loved Buddy too. "I know you wanted him to stay, Sport. I'm sorry. But your mother and I both work, and we just don't have time to give Buddy the training he needs. He'll be happier in a different kind of home."

It was the worst day of his life - until now. True, Ryan wasn't a puppy, even if he was blonde and affectionate, and Seth loved the way it felt when he got energetic and pushed him to the ground-or the bed, or any other comfortable surface.

Like that stray puppy all those years ago Ryan had been abandoned. He needed them. Nobody should do that to such a loving creature. Seth wasn't sure he could forgive his mother again.

It didn't even take the five minutes after his dad and Ryan left for the house to seem empty again. He crawled back in bed, wrapping the covers around him and tried to go back to sleep. He could - just barely -- sense Ryan's borrowed cologne on his sheets. It smelled different on Ryan than it had on him, and Seth couldn't help leaning in for an occasional sniff.

He ignored his mother's voice, calling him down to eat something, to get on with his day, to stop pouting. "I know you're mad at me, Seth, but I did what had to be done. He'll be better off with his own people."

No, he wouldn't. Seth was sure about that.

He'd tried to sound encouraging, when Ryan had appeared in his doorway to say goodbye. They'd find a way to see each other again, no matter what. It wasn't that far between them. Neither of them wanted to acknowledge that the distance wasn't in miles, but in worlds.

He hadn't lied. He really did want Ryan's mother to welcome him back with open arms. Wanted her to look after him so we wouldn't end up in jail again, wouldn't do something so stupid and reckless. He wanted her to care so that Ryan would care about himself.

But from what Ryan had told him about her, he didn't think it was likely. Ryan would just be going back to more of the same. And now that he'd had a taste of what a safer life could be like, it would be even worse for him.

He tried to keep himself busy until his dad came back. He organized his t-shirts by band and character. Played a few rounds on the Playstation, but it felt somehow wrong alone. Finally, he sat at the computer, and started an email to Ryan, only to stop when he realized he wasn't sure Ryan even had a computer. He hadn't thought to ask for an email address. Maybe if he got his dad alone, he could get some contact info out of him.

He didn't know what the note would have said, anyway. "You've changed my life"? "It's only been a few days, but I think I love you?" "Come back"? Yes, that would do it. It was really the only message that mattered.

He was standing at the window looking out when he saw his father's car pulling into the driveway. He could feel his heart pounding; just like the clich?s said when it became obvious his dad hadn't come home alone.

Ryan was just sitting there, head down, in the car. He looked up like he couldn't see anything. Seth couldn't put a name to his expression. Lost, maybe. Wiped out. Game over.

It was only a few seconds before he was out the door, and running into Ryan's arms. Ryan was shaking, but held on tight.

"She's gone," he said.

"I know." He did know. He had no idea how, but he felt it as soon as the car returned. "It's going to be ok."

"How?" Ryan's voice was hoarse, like it hurt to even talk.

"I'll do anything it takes. Anything at all." Seth didn't know what else to say. He just wanted to fix things. If his mother still insisted Ryan leave, then damn it, he was going with him. He had money saved. He could cash in his Bar Mitzvah bonds. "I won't let you be alone, Ryan."

He could hear his father calling. "Come into the house, boys." He sounded relieved, not angry. "It's ok, son," he continued.

"Ryan, please," his mom added.

He kept his hand on Ryan's shoulder as they walked into the kitchen. Nothing wrong or weird about that. He was just being supportive. Seth flinched when his mother started talking about "second chances", and "how lucky he was to have such an opportunity." Some opportunity. How would she have liked it if her parents had moved away while she was gone for a weekend?

Ryan just seemed to shrink into himself. He parroted all the right responses.

"Yes, Ma'am, I understand." "No, no more fighting." He didn't tell her that he was just defending her son. Seth didn't tell her either.

Seth went to the cupboard while she was still laying out the ground rules, and made him a sandwich. "He's probably hungry, Mom. Could you lay off him a sec?"

"All right, honey. Why don't you get him settled again? We'll see how things go on a trial basis."

Seth led Ryan back to the pool house, committed to doing whatever it took to let him know his welcome wasn't temporary. He was home again, and Seth had no intention of letting him go.

He slept that night in the pool house, not caring if his parents noticed or not. The futon was hard and uncomfortable, but he hardly felt it. He just listened for the sounds that Ryan needed him close. Soft whimpers, and "I'm sorry Mom" called out to him, made him climb in beside Ryan. He shook him out of nightmares by kissing him; away from dark thoughts by touching him, stroking Ryan everywhere-making him forget.

Morning would come too soon, and with it whatever plans his parents made for Ryan. Seth prepared himself for a fight, but right now Ryan was awake, wanting him, and waiting for him to come back to bed.


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