Product Placement

Chapter 30 - Of Snitches and Screw Ups, Part 1


There was a disturbance in sector G-4, subsector D. Eyes and ears ever alter, equipment keen and shining, the figure approached. Careful and quiet, skills refined. A school-mandated machine of efficiency. So what if no one really liked it, so what if he had seen his fair share of dumpsters and trashcans and stinkbombs? It was his fate, a solitary eagle watching over the flock of others even if they didn't appreciate it. With his head held high and the rest of him low and hugging the wall, he scrambled in the dark toward the hidden alleyway.

Though Finster was no longer with him (forever doomed to Third Street Elementary School – though she had for some reason insisted on staying there even after Prickly had offered her advancement to the High School), Randall refused to shirk his duties as a spy. He just reported a little higher now, was all (Menlo, usually. Sometimes the assistant principle or Prickly himself, though those instances were rare). Because he reported higher and because he was now older and had access to a greater range of equipment, he had a better means to fulfill the standards he set for himself. What he needed now was simple – tape recorder and scratchpad, but it would prove effective. He would refine his notes later – once he was sure of the perpetrators. And then he would fill out the appropriate forms and submit the information, as usual.

Quick fingers pressed buttons, scratching notes, entering preliminary data. Evaluation. Two persons. G-4 sub D. Two infractions – Rule 6-1. Rule 14. Possible level 3. He pushed closer, trying to meld into the wall. Should he be caught he would suffer some form of humiliation at least, if not bodily harm. But this was too good of a job not to report to the boss. Double infraction with possible level two detention. With his reports being naught much more than lackluster lately, this would surely put him back in good graces.

The two people came into view the closer he crept. He stopped just short of being obviously too close. He did so really only for the sake of the recorder – he could already identify the two people involved as being Third Street alumni, and both were particularly psychically identifiable. That (entirely too suspicious) coat and that (bizarre) hair were dead giveaways. He refined his notes, scribbling out his preliminary guess.

Randal frowned, but stayed put. His report might fall a little flat this time despite his earlier guess. Busting Butch for smoking was a surprisingly hard endeavor. Busting the hustler was a little easier, but it carried more risk. But these were repeated infractions. Maybe Prickly would up the punishment (and his reward) for not only snagging them both, but snagging them both at the same time.

"Thanks for my cigs, Fran." Butch muttered, a slight tilt to his voice. He reached out, grabbing for them, only to have them yanked away from him, held above his head. The hustler smirked.

"You're welcome."
"…Can I have them?"
"You need to pay for them first."
"Fraaan." Butch whined, grabbing for them, falling, landing on the larger male's chest. "C'mon. You know I'm good for it."
"Convince me."
"How the hell am I supposed to do that?"
"You know how."

Butch made an exasperated noise, his fist thumping weakly against the broad chest. The hustler seemed unmoved, only chuckling low – nearly low enough to be missed. When he opened his mouth again his voice was husky, near purring. His head had ducked down and they were suddenly a lot closer.

"You know how…"

Butch's voice too was low and dark, not nearly as offended or angry as he could have been. There seemed to be a shudder to it. Randal wondered briefly if the tape recorder was able to hear them. He soon was wondering if what he was seeing was actually true. Randal almost dropped his recorder and paper. This couldn't be real, it couldn't be true –

But how moist and tender it was…

A plan was already forming in his head. A smirk was pulling at his face unnaturally. He already felt the pride and joy of a brand new, nearly flawless plan in his head. This was too good for Menlo, too good for even Prickly. This was going to serve him so very, very well. Now all he needed was to find a way to execute…


"Well well well." The Hustler drawled, seeing his latest customer off. "Look what the cat coughed up."

Randal slid out from the shadow he was half hiding in. Not that Hustler paid him much attention. He didn't even have to look over his shoulder to tell the weasel was lurking. It was a damned instinctual thing by now – the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he felt inexplicably mean spirited. It wasn't his fault – he'd be conditioned to do so. It's hard to forgive someone who habitually attempted to shut down your business.

This time. however, Francis was a little more wary than usual. Randal hadn't said a word. Usually by now he was gloating or trying to negotiate a discount on pain of detention. But he was just… standing there, staring at his back. The hustler grimaced and turned, sufficiently creeped out and wanting nothing more than to just get whatever it was over with. Hopefully he'd want something cheap this time.

"Whatcha want, Snitch?" Hustler sneered, unable to keep the barb to himself "More marbles?"
"Oh Hustler, I am hurt." Randal wailed, his hand going over his heart (any sadness negated by the smirk on his face) "That was so long ago, we were so young then. So foolish. Isn't there any chance of reprieve? We have both grown up, changed. Why not handle things like reasonable, civil adults?"
"I don't forgive chumps who cheat me." He shot back coldly "Especially ones like you. You haven't changed, you simpering little fuck. I don't have time for this. Go pester someone else."

He glowered at the weasel, who looked a little rattled by the sudden temper flare. He couldn't help himself. Randal just made him so fucking angry sometimes, especially when he was being vague. It never meant anything good. He hoped he threw Randal off with his snappish attitude to make him slink away. Hustler just didn't want to deal with him right now. But it seemed he had no such luck. Randal recovered and smirked, folding his hands together.

"Ooh…. Temper temper, Hustler. You should really keep that in check."
"Didn't I just tell you to piss off?"
"Not in so many words." That grin was back "It's not healthy to get so mad or to hold such a grudge. You could do some serious damage to yourself. What would everybody think if they found something was out of the ordinary?"

The strange tilt to Randal's voice and the even more ambiguous comment set the hustler even more on edge. Hackles raised, he turned abruptly and started towards the weasel, only to have him skitter back. It didn't scare the smile off his face, though. Hustler snorted, holding his ground, daring him t approach. He didn't, of course, but he did grow bold enough to continue talking.

"But then again… there must be quite a bit people don't know about you. Oh, sure, your temper is infamous and your prices fair – but does anyone know who you really are, when the coat comes off?"
"Make your point."
"I wonder, what people will say about you in the next few years-"
"I said make your point!" Francis snapped, his hands balling into fists. "Know what? Fuck it. I've wasted more time on you than you're worth. Go take a long walk off a short bridge, ratfink."
"Hey wait!" Randal cried, snapping out of his (most likely pre-planned) speech "I'm not done with you yet!"
"Listen you-"
"No you listen!" Randal screeched, stamping his foot, knocking the wind out of Francis' response, "You're fucking going to listen this time, Hustler. I'm in charge now. I'm callin' the shots. You shut your mouth, stay put, and wait 'til I'm finished with you."

After that impassioned little speech, both parties stared each other down, struck dumb by the other. The hustler was shocked that someone - Randal of all people- just stood up to him and called him out. Randal just couldn't believe that it worked. He was just short of gloating, launching into another prepared paragraph when Hustler started to shake. He was enraged, and for a moment Randal thought he was going to charge like an angry rhino, and so he stood as still as possible, waiting for the next move. Hustler didn't make a move for him, however. He just glared daggers, grit his teeth, clenched his fists, and looked generally menacing. Then, abruptly deciding he'd rather not waste his life paying for a totally justified (to him and everyone else familiar with the snitch) murder, he held his head up and regarded the hunchbacked creep like he was the scum of the earth. Then he turned on his heel and walked away. This, in turn, both shocked and appalled the stoolpigeon. His fuse was a great deal shorter however, and just before Francis was out of earshot he exploded.

"Fine- go! See what I care! No skin off my nose. I guess everyone will just have to know about your little 'mutually beneficial relations' with that storyteller." Francis halted and Randal grinned, pressing onward "Oh, I'm sorry. What's that cute little pet name you have for him? 'Butchy Boy' or something like it? How very, very sweet."
"What did you just say-?"
"You heard me."

The mood irreparably altered, Francis went from furious to frightened in about the span of a second, a dark, cold feeling forming in the pit of his stomach and the base of his neck. Randal was just grinning, his fingers steepled. The hustler gaped at him, belatedly searching for some sort of comeback or excuse. Randal beat him to it.

"Ah-ah-ah." He chided "Don't try and talk yourself out of this one now!" He shook his finger at him like he was scolding a child, his voice light and filled with superiority "I know. I know quite a bit, actually. About your… friendship. Oh, well, its quite a bit more than that now, isn't it. It's really rather cute. You make a lovely couple."

Francis was silent, unable to answer.

"I know, I know. You must be thinking who will believe me, of all people, over you. Ah, well I have the solution to that. Let's say I'm… prepared. You sure do spend a lot of time together. Especially in school. You know, you really should be focusing on school work , otherwise I wouldn't have found out about you." He held out a tape recorder, wagging it a little "Or you should have been a little quieter. You can have this one if you like. Go on and rush me, if you really want to. Wrestle it from my hands and smash it on the ground and then pummel me. Not to worry. I have plenty of copies and I know exactly how to use them."

Still quiet, Hustler only stared. His face was blank but pale. Randal knew that look, and he celebrated his victory in his head, mainlining as cool of an exterior as he could. He had just one last point, the final blow that would knock the hustler off his damned pedestal and down into the dirt at his feet where he belonged.

"It's really terrible, if you think about it. I mean, sure, you could probably get back on your feet. They need you for things. All of them might recoil for a while but you're the hustler. They need you in some way, and they'll all come crawling back. But Butch… Well, what does he have? Just a couple of stories and a reputation. That's all. Could you imagine what this would do to him? It's not something he can just worm his way out of – not with so much truth staring him down." Randal tsked and shook his head sadly "A shame… could you fathom how many kids would be on his back if they knew he was bending over for you? Oh sure, there are a few that might not be so upset, but there are some downright nasty people out there, Hustler. I know. They can be so cruel… But I suppose a bit of humiliation doesn't compare to you, Francis. This must be so hard for you – knowing you're turning him into such a little slut, using him like some cheap tramp to get off on. "
"But it … it's not-" the hustler tried suddenly, shocked into talking, to defend himself – but his voice was weak and ignorable, easily overridden.
"Oh really? Well I've got six or seven hours that says it is, and says you are."

Francis went quiet again. He swallowed, dropping his eyes to the floor, flicking them up to Randal every few moments. He looked lost, hopeless. Randal was thrilled – but he waited. He wouldn't start the party just yet. He'd wait. It wouldn't be long.

And then Francis opened his mouth and proved he was just a weak, sentimental chump like all the rest.

"What are your demands?"
"I'm so very, very glad you asked…"


It was a humiliation he never had anticipated.

The hustler was no stranger to risks, and he knew going into this secretive arrangement with Butch was probably one of the riskiest investments he could have ever ventured into, but he had been doing rather well up to this point. No one suspected anything (and if they did, they kept their damn mouth shut about it) and he got a larger return than he had ever expected. But now, to continue the metaphor, his stock in this had plummeted. It was worthless if everyone knew, and he teetered on the edge of moral bankruptcy. The very fact he had been found out was enough to make him want to start thumping his head against the nearest wall for his stupidity.

The worst part was he was taking the fall for this alone.

He couldn't tell Butch, hell he couldn't even perform he was so distracted. Butch had suspected something, but Francis covered well, whipping up some sob story about a failed deal. Butch pitied him but convinced him making out would make him feel better. It did, marginally, if only because Butch had gotten a lot better at it, good enough to distract the hustler for a little while. Once he left for the night Francis lost the distraction and all will to do anything except lie down and stare into nothing. As time wore on he watched the clock and literally felt the control slip away from him.

Occasionally he'd glance at the storyteller, and a great majority of that first night was split between the clock and his innocent, sleeping face. He resolved to separate himself from Butch, just to be sure. Blank slate. Start over. Maybe if he looked like he gave the brunet up Randal would think his attachment to Butch was just a fluke and drop this whole scheme. He had been given a week to prepare himself, after all, and in that time he planned to at least think of a few exit strategies.

But a week came and went and, though he pushed the storyteller away with excuses and made up appointments, wracking his brain to think of a graceful way to bow out without ruining either one of them irreparably, the hustler was thoroughly lost and defeated while Randal stood as tall as his hunched back would allow.

"Oh good, you showed up." He hissed, wringing his sweaty little hands and grinning ear to ear. "Now come. Walk me to class."

The Hustler sighed, hiding his fists in his pocket, doing as he was told. He was just glad Randal was off to a slow start. He'd played bodyguard before, and with his size people would think twice before starting shit. With any luck, his scowl would keep them from asking any questions either.

About halfway down the hall, however, the hustler was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He knew there would be stares, but he didn't think there could be this much fury and hate directed at one person. There were scores of them, just glaring, their disgust interrupted when they spotted HK, switching from hate to bewildered or trying to look busy. Pulling at his shirt collar, Francis glanced at Randal, who seemed not to notice. He must have gotten used to it, and for a split second Francis pitied him – until he remembered the bastard was fucking blackmailing him, and then he threw in his own hateful stare, only stopping when Randal looked up at him and smiled in such a way it made his skin crawl.

With the walk being relatively painless aside from the angry eyes on him, Randal dismissed him at the doorway, giving him orders to meet him at the doors to the cafeteria. Hustler nodded, a terrible taste in his mouth, barely keeping from grimacing as he led down the hallway semi-quickly. He could fucking hear the smirk even after he turned the corner, and as such was slightly distracted and ran into a familiar face – one he was hoping he could avoid.

"Hey – look who it is." Butch drawled, smiling "What's up?"
"I – uh." Francis stammered, unable to think of anything clever "N-Nothing. You?"
"Need a smoke." He said, shrugging "Join me?"
"I think… no I gotta go-"
"C'mon." Butch muttered, his easy grin gone and sounding a touch desperate "I haven't even seen you in like a week. You're already late."
"No I-"
"Francis." Butch grabbed his coat sleeve as the hustler tried to maneuver past, no longer hiding his desperation "C'mon man. It's me. This is the most I've seen of you in a week. I know you're busy but this is getting a little ridiculous."
"I'm – I've gotta go."
"Ten minutes."
"No Butch I-"
"Please." He half whined, still clinging to him (though Francis wouldn't meet his eyes) "At least give me an excuse. C'mon. Somethin' I'll believe."

It was a simple thing to ask. This was the man who believed in ghosts and goblins and cursed paper fortunetellers. Francis could have told him anything at all and he could have let it go. But such was a loaded request. Unable to lie, and certainly unable to tell the truth, Francis couldn't really tell him anything. Sure, if he had been able to think he could have attempted an obvious lie. Butch would have accepted it. But as it was he just couldn't think – not past the accusation, anyway. The hustler just couldn't force himself to look at Butch at all though he felt the brown eyes on him, searching for something, anything to indicated it was alright and he'd be back soon.

But he couldn't lie. He couldn't promise him that. And as the seconds ticked by Butch tightened his grip, waiting and watching. And Francis felt worse and worse for it. Though he wanted nothing more than to tell him, to beg for forgiveness and ask for his help he couldn't drag the poor guy down with him. As much grave-digging as he liked to do, Butch didn't need to be pushed six feet under by a stupid mistake. So he made the decision to push him off, to save at least one of them. He'd save his own skin soon. He just needed time to think.

"I'm sorry." Francis said finally, detaching himself, "I cant."

Before Butch could say any more the hustler turned tail and fled, disappearing into the hallways. He watched him go, unsure what to do or feel or think for a few minutes. Butch only remembered his original plan when a door opened somewhere down the hall. He too turned and left the area, heading outside while he fished for a smoke. He had a lot to think about.


Francis hadn't gone to class. Instead, he'd fled to the rooftop and sat down and thought for a while. When that didn't work, he distracted himself with work – making calls and placing orders. He almost had a run in with Mundy and his crew, but they caught sight of him and slowly backed down the stairwell before anything could happen. It was a good move on their part – he rapidly switched between upset and spitting mad more times than he could count. He sat through two periods, just watching the sky, his mind working desperately to grasp any idea more than five minutes. All the ideas he held onto, however, involved Butch and how upset they both were, so he had no choice to let them go.

When the lunch bell rang he staggered to his feet and stumbled down the stairs like a drunk or someone heading to the electric chair. Randal fucking beamed at him when he turned the corner, making the bile rise in his throat. In some attempt to not look so defeated Francis stood straight and put his fists in his pockets, taking a breath and staring him down, looking bored.

"Having a rough day?"
"Shut up."

Randal, thankfully, found his slip up hilarious and snickered, wringing his hands. He actually fucking waited for the hustler to open the door for him, then strolled in like he was some god damned sultan, sauntering right up to the head of the line. Francis already knew where this was going, and dragged his feet to the demanding little snitch, who found a spot in line and glared hard at it and the kid who occupied it until the hustler showed up.

"I want to stand there." Randal said, crossing his arms over his chest, pointing to where a small, vulnerable, half frightened, half confused freshman stood.
"What?" the younger practically squeaked, looking between the two upper classmen who suddenly decided to interrogate him.
"You're in my spot, freshy." The snitch sneered. He smacked the hustler's arm and pointed "Move him."

Rolling his eyes at the inane request, Hustler squared himself up and looked big and menacing. The kid sort of shrunk into himself and smiled sheepishly. Francis continued to stare, trying to figure out how to do this gracefully and without ruining his reputation one way or another. When the kid started to look at him more confused than upset, Francis shrugged and decided to take the easy route and remember to pay him back later. He had noticed before another boy that looked about the same age staring at the silent exchange, and a quick glance over in that direction confirmed that the boy was invested in this kid's safety (he was waving his arms frantically and trying to get him to just move already). So Francis looked deliberately toward the panicking freshman, then back to the kid he was supposed to forcibly remove from the line for Randal. Then he repeated the action, nudging his head toward the boy a few paces back. Lucky for him, the victim of Randal's wrath wasn't stupid, so he got the hint removed himself, trotting over and back-cutting his friend (who looked a lot more relieved).

Unfortunately for the hustler, however, Randal looked displeased with his performance. The hustler shrugged, clearly unable to do anything about it now, and begrudgingly stood beside the weasel as he got his food. He seemed a little less aggravated when Francis cleared the table he wanted to sit at with a grunt and a wave of his hand, but he still looked less than thrilled.

Forced to sit down with Randal, the hustler plopped into his seat and tried not to look at him eating. His choice in food was gross (who the hell actually got the fish tacos anymore?) and the way he ate was equally repulsive – all made worse by the fact he was actually pretty fucking hungry (though he was quickly losing his appetite). Randal wouldn't have let him get up and get food anyhow – lest he be jumped or pranked while the hustler was gone. But he seemed to be thinking something over, casting glances at the bored (and slightly sick) looking hustler.

Francis leaned forward on his arms and crossed them in front of him, resting his head on his folded arms so he looked at the table. He could still hear the half-open mouthed chewing and it made him sort of nauseous. But he considered himself lucky. So far Randal had only asked stupid little things. He lifted his head and sighed, exasperated. He really was just watching a child. He could deal with it if he thought of it like that. So the hustler blinked slowly, calming himself, rearranging his thoughts.

"I saw that…" Randal hissed, his face twisting into a scowl.
"Saw what?"
"Allow me to remind you you're not in any position to piss me off." Randal seethed.
"What did I do?"
"You know what you did!" the snitch screeched quietly, his face an ugly red.
"What are you even talking about-"
"Don't get all belligerent with me!" He snapped. Then he drew back, fishing in his pocket, smiling coolly "Do I have to remind you who's in charge?"
"What did I even do? I just put my fucking head down-"

This time Randal cut Francis off it wasn't verbal. The hustler cut himself off, his eyes glued to the thin black box in sweaty palms. He looked between the smirking face and twitching fingers holding the box, his thumb dangling precariously close to the one button that he knew would end him. Francis shook his head, his mouth dry, his face burning and feeling drained of blood all at once. Randal just smiled.

"Maybe a demonstration is in order." He said, stroking the front of the tape recorder almost lovingly, his fingers playing over the speakers, his thumb resting on the hair trigger.
"You wouldn't."
"Oh wouldn't I?"
"It's just one little button."
"I just need to press down right here."

Randal paused for that moment, eyeing him, savoring it, tricking Francis into thinking that maybe, just maybe there was s sliver of human decency in him. But then he pressed the button, and out from that tape played a long, low note – not very loud, but loud enough to attract attention. Though, perhaps in hindsight what attracted attention was the way the normally composed upright and honorable salesman dove across the table, desperately reaching for the damned little black box. Randal barely cared, even let his monstrous hand close over it and his hand, muffling the speaker though the tape had already been turned off. It didn't matter what he did. Randal knew he had him exactly where he wanted him now. In an instant the picture changed. The hustler could no longer pretend he was just being bent to a childish whim. He was actually helpless here.

He retreated as slowly and carefully as he could, hoping to preserve his dignity. He couldn't. He heard a couple of people gasp and another couple laughing nervously. The whole cafeteria seemed to have gone silent, but it was mostly in his head. People barely noticed, and those who did didn't care. Sufficiently humiliated, the hustler bowed his head and tried not to move. Sufficiently satisfied, Randal made himself comfortable and put the tape recorder away.

"Are you going to behave?" He asked, solemn and haughty as if he were asking a child.

With a triumphant little smile, Randal benevolently offered a section of his lunch. Francis took it, collapsing in on himself, eating with his head down.


"So wait." Gus said, holding his hand up. "Hustler is working for Randal now?"

It had been the fifth time this had been explained to the soon-to-be solider, but he still seemed not to be processing it. It wasn't his fault – the whole situation was incredibly complex and shady as all hell. No one really knew what was going on. They just knew the results. And those were both hidden and incredibly obvious, like a battlefield not yet cleared. Everyone was on edge. This knew situation was something no one had ever planned for, and they were all scrambling, watching their step, taking care. Gus had been out a week and a half on leave, and so stumbled in to this world he thought was safe, and was blind sighted. Hustler had casually robbed him that morning, using a fixed deck to con him out of a good chunk of cash.

No one noticed the little instances like that until they all pooled together, compared. Each person Hustler had ripped off thought maybe he was having an off day and they let it go. He was the honest one, the trustworthy, loyal, good businessman. But a week straight of conning meant he was up to his old tricks again, and no one could figure out why he was so hell bent on being a jerk like he was in fourth grade.

With one flaw noticed everyone started seeing more. He stooped now. He looked hollow. Didn't say please or thank you. Sneered. His stock was thinning and his prices were jacked up. The big one was the new company he seemed to keep – namely Randal. It seemed they were joined at the hip, suddenly. Many from Third Street Elementary were frightened by this realization. They remembered all too well what had happened with Menlo.

"Well, sorta." Vince tried (this time) "No one really knows what happened. It's just bizarre. This just kind of happened overnight. No one knows anything."
"That is hardly a surprise." Gretchen interjected, tapping on Galileo, who simply shook his head and shrugged before attempting another search "The two largest sources of information are now teamed up and exclusively links for their benefit."
"Is it their benefit though?" Spinelli pondered, picking at the side of the school "Or just to screw us all over?"
"This sounds confusing. I'm going to be so lost now that I missed the beginning." Gus groaned, looking around at his friends. He let the silence last a beat before he asked what everyone else seemed to be dodging. "How's everything else?"

The gang quieted. Everyone in school had noticed a power shift, but no one knew who or what initiated it. Like a sleeper cell suddenly activated. But no one was talking. No one knew. But that was to be expected. The two largest sources of information (aside from the Ashley's – and they charged a pretty penny even before this whole incident) were now conjoined and clammed up. Sure people had their theories, but none were all that plausible. On top of that no one really looked into it. They were all wary, maybe even kinda freaked, but they thought better to shut up and let it blow over than aggravate the already out of character building.

"No one's talkin', huh?" Gus asked, answering his own question.
"It isn't that. Just no one seems to know." TJ said suddenly, lifting his head up from the spot he'd been staring at. "But maybe not all sources are censored."
"Whatcha getting' at Teej?"
"Think about it guys. Who do you go to to find out about things no one else seems to know?"
"The Encyclopedia?"
"No no no. That's all literal or mainstream. I'm talking underground."
"… Internet tabloids?"
"In our school."


Butch did not look well. In fact he looked downright terrible when TJ and his gang found him. He was smoking (heavily), hiding in shadows, his eyes looking directly down at the cracks in the asphalt. One leg kept him upright, the other bent at the knee, his boot flat against the wall. He was hugging himself, muttering, still wearing his heavier jacket despite the slightly warmer weather. TJ almost didn't signal the others he looked so bad – but Spinelli poked her head around the corner and spotted the plume of smoke and marched right on in, ever the concerned, tactless investigator.

TJ followed close behind, catching Spin's shoulder before she could start demanding answers. The others trickled in behind them, Mikey and Gus blocking the mouth of the alley discretely. TJ put himself in front and cleared his throat a couple of times to get Butch's attention. Nothing worked at first, but just before the punch master herself could roll up her sleeve Butch went to change his cigarette and looked up, taking note of the six in the alley, watching him.

"Uh… hi?"
"Hey there Butch." TJ started amicably "I was wonderin' if we could talk."
"We?" He asked (eyeing the backup cautiously), but managed to keep it halfheartedly joking. "I paid you back the lunch money you lent me last week. Don't gotta get a gang up on me."
"No no, I know. We're good. I just wanted to ask if uh… if you knew 'bout-"
"Oh for cripes sakes-" Spinelli snapped and broke from TJ's hold, stamping her foot. "You and HK are pretty good pals so tell us why he's all of a sudden such a goddamn scumbag!"

TJ mentally slapped himself in the forehead. There was a reason Spinelli was no longer allowed to do negotiations that involved kids around her age group – nothing personal against her, but her temper had gotten a lot worse and she spoke better with ten fingers than she did with words. The others behind him seemed to flinch or sigh with lost opportunity as well. Already Butch had changed his demeanor from withdrawn and introspective to setting up iron walls of defensiveness. He'd pushed off the wall and fixed a scowl on his face, spitting the butt of the cig on the floor and grinding it out with the toe of his boot. He cross his arms over his chest and faced them all head on, squaring his shoulders and trying to look intimidating. No one was falling for it (especially not Spinelli, who was going to punch him if he didn't start talkin'), but they knew this was now going to be harder.

Unfortunately, TJ underestimated the reaction the rest of his crew would take. Seeing Butch so defensive made them defensive – which was understandable, but five against one wasn't a fair fight, and before TJ could do anything they all ganged up on Butch verbally (accusing him of knowing what was up, outlining their problems, the instances where Hustler had ripped them off), and Butch spat back at them like a smoky cobra, unwilling to take even an ounce of bullshit. He stood his ground well, unrelenting, faltering but standing tall, insisting on one thing.

"I told you once I'm gonna tell you all again, so listen up – I don't know a goddamn thing now leave me alone!"

They way he phrased it became less and less pleasant, and his voice grew louder and louder, sounding the alarm. People were starting to notice the shadow kid becoming hysterical. TJ wasn't sure if they were coming out of concern of for the show, but he found his voice and shut up his half of the argument as quickly as he could manage, shooing them out. They left after some convincing (Spinelli had to be carried out by Mikey, who to his credit had no real malice directed at the storyteller except to lament his condition at the present time) but TJ lagged behind. He got the drama vultures to go away, then turned on Butch and looked him over. He still stood tall, still pissy, but still sort of broken, smoking now that he had a minute to fetch a cigarette without losing ground on argument. He seemed a little more chilled out with his territory reestablished, but TJ was still lurking, and he couldn't just leave. Not yet. He just had to be sure.

"M'sorry Butch." He began, ignoring the dirty look "It's been kinda crazy. We're a little desperate. You know what's going on. We're tryin to figure out the details, our usual thing, ya know?"
"Listen, I know I'm beatin' a dead horse here but are you totally sure you didn't hear anything? Even a word from Francis or something?"

Butch looked at him. It was that kind of look that clearly stated 'are you fucking kidding me', and dared him to push it. TJ knew better, waited it out, just standing still and hoping, maybe, he heard a word. Eventually Butch dropped it. He fished out a cigarette, lit it, and took a heavy first drag. He blew smoke in TJ's direction, but the red-capped natural-born leader just stood, waiting, watching. Butch's shoulder dropped and he exhaled a clean lungful, relenting only enough to leave TJ with a few parting words before turning and melting into the darkness:

"Fuck off, TJ."

Butch just sounded upset. Sad. Exhausted. TJ was on his own for this one.


The clock, replaced after being hurled against the wall in rage about a week ago, switched from one fifty nine to two am on the dot. Butch had just watched an entire hour pass by, taking note of every fluid change from number to number. He might have been upset about it – another hour of his life just gone like nothing that he could never get back (especially if he kept smoking). But it was too early (late) for this kind of introspection (or thinking at all). But then again, Butch hadn't slept. The ideas, then, canceled each other out. So he settled in to watch another hour pass.

Inevitably, however (he had been trying to avoid it for the past hour and two minutes), he did start to think. His mind broke free from the collar and chain he'd try to contain it in.

The first thing he thought of was how time had crawled and sprinted at the same time. It felt like it had been years since he's seen Francis, but it also seemed like he'd just watched him turn the corner and leave him alone in the hallway. Both ideas were soon overshadowed with thoughts of said hustler, who had been missing for quite some time. It came in trickles, then in torrents, then in giant waterfalls of thought, jumbled and unprotected. Mannerisms and physical traits and memories a plenty. None of it made any sense until Butch remembered that he had no recent ones or that he was beginning to forget the exact pitch when he said a certain word or the way a certain part of him felt pressed up to him, skin to skin. It really didn't start to hurt until he remembered that this was the man he was supposed to be in love with. It might have been true that absence made the heart grow fonder for some people, Butch though, but it just made him hurt a whole hell of a lot.

In short, Butch was lonely.

Though it was kind of a downer to think about (not to mention a less than flattering reflection of his lack of a social life), with him not seeing Francis he had had little contact with the outside world. Maybe he was just that antisocial, or maybe people sensed his bad mood, but whatever it was people didn't even bother to come to him for stories. That little run in with TJ and his crew was the most he'd talked to anyone who did have the capacity to flunk him in days. He kind of hoped everything would be better after a few days, but even when that proved not to be the case he sort of hung onto that notion that Fran would come back to him. Sort of like a knight in shining armor on a white horse holding the head of a great and terrible enemy, but pulling up to him in his fucking Beamer and mocking him for having to walk home would have been just as good.

It would never happen though. Stupid admissions of longing (or love, God forbid), were confined to iconic eighties movies and romantic comedies. They were all cheesy anyway. Butch hated that fluffy stupid crap. It was such a cop out. First there's this whole totally fake argument and the guy is so clearly wrong that it's painful to watch and then there's this stupid split screen or back and forth editing showing each half being all sad without the other and then there's this really cheesy moment of revelation where suddenly is like the seventh level of hell to be without that person and they drop everything they have to go tell that person they need them right the fuck now and then happy ending. That was all bullshit. It always was. No one did that – not ever. Maybe once or twice, but even then it probably didn't work.

But he kind of would have really appreciated a call or something.

Butch grunted and made himself get up fish through his coat pockets for a smoke. He knew his mother didn't like him doing it in the house, but he'd make it up to her later. He just couldn't force himself to go outside. He took a drag and debated on doing any number of things – going on a run, channel surfing, doing the assignments he'd been ignoring. But he just smoked and stared at the far wall, watching his window. He recalled something from any number of romance drivel about windows and pebbles and smiled a little at the stupidity of it. he turned his attention back to the wall and blanked out, letting his mind tread along the short leash he allowed. He wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there in the dark with a butt in his mouth half a moment from sleeping before tapping drew his attention to his window. He had thought maybe the gutter was leaking again or there was a raccoon or something – but though the figure outside was grey and had dark-rimmed eyes, it wasn't exactly a furry little critter looking for scraps.

Never mind about the call and dissing the late eighties romantic comedies. This worked. This was great actually.

He might have though himself desperate, the way he rocketed off his couchbed and stumbled toward the window, groping for the ledge and bit of coat fabric that hang over it. He really would have, had he been watching someone else. But in that moment of doing he just felt this strange swelling of guilty pleasure, especially when his fingers grasped the rough outer fabric and held it tight in his grip. Butch wasn't able to form words he was so ecstatic – hell, he was practically shaking. Francis, by contrast, smiled (if not tiredly) and gripped him hard, looking for a pulse, convincing himself that the clearly living boy in front of him was actually alive and well.

"Hey Butch."
"Jesus Christ Fran-" Butch blurted, his voice trembling with nerves or something like it "Holy shit man. I'm- God, it's been like-"
"I know." He inhaled, twisting his arm to grasp Butch's bare wrist. "I know. I'm sorry. Can… can I come in?"
"Yes! Hell yeah. Come right on in I'll just step back and you can just jump right down."
"I'm too big. Go around and open your door."
"Squeeze in."
"Fine, fine, I'm going. God, Fran I-"

Butch didn't let go right away, but to his credit neither did Francis. They sort of stared awkwardly for a moment, but then the Hustler took back his arm and rose with a grunt. Butch all but rocketed up the stairs, falling to all fours toward the tops steps and clamoring for the doorknob. He calmed himself and his breathing (he was still shaking) so as not to disturb anyone sleeping upstairs – but to do so was asking a lot. He had never been so excited to see someone before, and he had resolved by the time he padded though his kitchen to tackle the bastard to the floor and become a fucking leech until sunrise.

When he did open the door, however, he didn't quite do what he planned. It was just so surreal to see him after just getting by with glances and peripherals that he was only really able to stare at him for a few minutes. The hustler shifted his feet, seemingly stripped of his confidence and usual charm, and the unusual picture he presented threw Butch off.

Rather, it put him back on track.

The calm lasted until they were both flat-footed on Butch's basement floor. Francis still hadn't said another word. He looked so tired and broken and not right that Butch remembered that he wasn't some lovesick teen (though he kind of sort of was), and he was much, much more complex than a two-dimensional romantic comedy character. Oh and he could be a hell of a lot more spitfire than some spunky female lead.

Butch punched Francis in the chest. The taller male made no move aside from shutting his eyes for a moment and grunting. He didn't even bother to lift his hand and inspect the wound. So he did it again. And then once more in the shoulder to get his point across. Finally the haggard hustler reached and gingerly touched the injured spot. Much to Butch's fury, however, he didn't react aside from looking neutral (if not ever so slightly upset) and keeping his eyes on him. He stooped, slumped, like the very life had been fucking sucked out of him and it pissed Butch off to no end that he had changed into this bullshit version of his hustler that he was fit to bursting, clenching his teeth and balling his fists for another hit. He exploded into a quiet, harsh whisper when the bastard had the balls to talk first.

"Butch I-"
"No you shut up I'm talking right now. You think coming back after two goddamn weeks is just going to smooth everything over? Where the fuck have you been? What the fuck have you been doing you look like you got dragged through a goddamn graveyard. Fucking hell man, everyone's comin knocking down my door- even Detwiler's tryin' to figure out what the hell has happened to you and you just fucking know that's when shit's got bad. And why do I have to find out from Captain Goodie fucking Two-shoes and his merry band of good deed doers before I hear a fucking word out of your mouth? I know we're not exactly best friends but Christ Francis you've gotta give me something to work with here!"

Butch seemed to slump then, his face half hidden by his hand and hair. Francis reached out and pushed some of it out of the way, murmuring aloud that Butch really needed a haircut, cupping his face carefully. The one unoccupied brown eye looked up at him, tired and conflicted, looking for an answer that Francis couldn't force himself to give. The hustler sighed, dejected, and attempted to remove his hand. But Butch grabbed it in both hands before it fell back to his side, gripping his wrist almost desperately. His demeanor had changed again, all the rage having drained out of him with his wild gesticulations and angry spitting. Now he simply looked as empty as Francis had felt before he walked over.

"You uh… y-you gotta be somewhere?" He asked quietly, his thumbs over Francis' pulse point.
"You sure?"
"I'd rather be here than anywhere else."

The quiet admission startled them both, though it affected Butch more physically. He turned pinkish and looked directly at the floor, then back up at him. The hustler had never felt so much pity and adoration as he did for that pathetic look and the man who offered it up.

So Francis smiled a small, hopeful smile and slid his arms up and around Butch's shoulders, cradling his head. He leaned in, and Butch did the same. For the first time in weeks they kissed, and it was careful as their first voluntary one. That changed quickly, though, in favor of roaming hands and mouths, in favor of rising heat and discarded coats and nightshirts. Each step quickly yielded to the next, in favor of pursuing the heat, the escape from thought they both needed, until they could take no more and found themselves spent and panting on the floor of the basement.


Francis woke up first – which was usual. He was wired to be up earlier than most children his age. Even after days of not sleeping well and being thoroughly distracted most of last night he was awake and inhaling sharply, stretching his muscles. He half expected to be in his own bed, debating on getting up now or in ten minutes. He wondered if he'd left the coffee pot on and set it for the morning and then remembered he did, but upon shifting he realized he was very sore and stung and cold on top of it. It was then he realized he wasn't in bed, but on a carpet. A familiar carpet, beside a familiar sleeping body.


It was coming back to him now. He'd finally finally gotten a night to himself where he wasn't questioning faking his own death on the drive home. And he had gotten home. But then he left there, and walked, just to clear his head. He usually ended up at Kelso's or in Hustler HQ when he did that, but somehow he let himself go all the way to Butch's house. He was surprised no one pulled him over – he was tired and swaying, thinking hard. Once or twice he caught himself in the middle of the damn road just swerving. Once he got to Butch's house he knew instinctively where to go, tapping on the window. He wasn't sure why. If asked he would be willing to bet that Butch would want nothing to do with him. He was right at one point, But Butch had caved and accepted the only thing Francis had to offer.

They hadn't said another word that night, even in the throws of their rushed and frantic (for lack of a better word) fucking. Randal had not been mentioned once, but Francis knew Butch knew that much. He didn't feel like acknowledging it though, so he kept his mouth shut unless he was kissing or moaning or biting. Even with the darkness of the basement he could see the bruises and marks on the thinner boy. He hadn't thought about telling Butch what was going on. Why add more stress to this? He'd gone through hell being Randal's fucking pet and he just wanted an escape. He didn't need to think about anything when he was with Butch. It was just fucking. He seduced, banged, felt great while doing it and then got up to leave. No big de-


Oh hell.

Francis hoisted himself up onto his palms and blinked in he dark, waiting for his eyes to focus. He stared hard at Butch watching him sleep. He looked around the room, at the strewn clothing and tipped over items. It looked like a strange motel (and he grimaced- he'd actually taken Butch to a motel once or twice hadn't he?) – not permanent, replaceable. Or it would have, if there wasn't so much of Butch in this one space – especially the small pocket under the blanket, breathing softly, oblivious to what Francis had done. He had no idea that the hustler had just invaded his home and bent him over and took him without a damn word.

The only thing more jarring than the notion that he was totally using Butch like they were in some cheap love affair was the greater, almost overpowering revelation that he didn't want to be.

No, the more he thought about it the worse he felt and the more he wanted to change. He didn't want to use Butch. He wanted to be nice. He tried to be – he did things for him and always made sure he was satisfied. He never kicked Butch out of bed or made him leave before sunrise. He never ignored his existence outside of the bedroom. And he had been gentle kind of, when he needed to be. And he had wanted to be soft and sweet sometimes – he even cuddled!

He could hardly believe it himself, but there it was.

Francis lowered himself back on top of Butch, pressing their bodies together. Butch's body had cooled some, and he'd begun to curl into a ball to conserve heat. The hustler covered it with his and part of the blanket Butch had dragged over in a moment of coherency before passing out. As if he had any dignity to protect with Francis fucking destroying it every time he pulled a stunt like this. He wrapped his arms around the other and held him, trying to feel as sorry as he could without actually saying it. He didn't feel very much – it was a defense mechanism he built up to deal with Randal. So it was sort of hollow and tinny, but he was sorry, and he kissed along Butch's shoulder and jaw to communicate that. God forbid he say it aloud and wake Butch up. He wouldn't be able to take that.

He didn't feel bad, per se. Just kind of dickish. It was a dick move. One that kept repeating itself. And it was pretty damn bad as far as dick moves went. It was up there. So Francis felt worse, but not terrible. Almost, but not quite. He was like that a lot lately. He owed Butch more than that. But he couldn't give him what he needed. For a moment he wondered why he cared so much, but he chalked it up to basic fucking human decency – such a thing was rare with Randal around. If it was anything more or less he didn't want to think about it. He had enough mental crises for today. It was still just morning. Still too early.

Carefully, he detached himself from Butch and got dressed.

Any illusions of slipping out unnoticed were shattered when he looked back at the sleeping Butch he left and was greeted with the awake version currently looking disoriented as he pulled his nightshirt back on. Butch blinked a few times and settled his gaze on the standing, half dressed hustler and decided the right thing to feel was some measure of pissed off.

"Running out, huh?" He muttered bitterly (which actually got Francis to physically flinch at the accusation).
"I've gotta head out… pick up some stuff." Hustler mumbled, pulling on his coat. He really did – Randal was coming over later that afternoon to clean him out. "I've gotta get going before school."

Butch didn't say anything. He just sat and looked at his lap. Francis didn't bother to say anything else. He was still confused and upset by the sudden rationalization and subsequent filing it away for later. He kept almost thinking about it, but then he remembered not to do so. The silence stretched on and, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Hustler decided now was better than later to make the escape from his escape. He almost said something, but decided against it, sliding past Butch toward the stairs. He was stopped by a snag on his coat, and Francis didn't need (or want to) turn to see what it was caught on.

"I'm not stupid, Francis." Butch said quietly, his hand holding the back of his coat loosely "I have eyes and ears and common sense, but I'm not a fucking psychic. I know what's going on, but not everything. Please, Fran. Just something to keep me from givin' up on you."

This was the point he had hoping to avoid. He couldn't give Butch anything – least of all this. An explanation was out of the question. He was in deep enough shit alone. To drag Butch down would be unforgivable and a damn shame. He couldn't do that to him. Not when the very root of the problem involved him and victimized him at the same time. Against his better wishes Francis turned and knelt beside him, trying not to look at the face he was almost certain would hold immeasurable amounts of disappointment. Instead he looked sort of past it, at his own hands, then Butch's hands, then he stitching pattern along the blanket.

"Just trust me." He blurted suddenly, perhaps stupidly, tacking on a quiet, pleading "Please. Can you?"

The simple acceptance had thrown him. It wasn't like he provided Butch with anything to actually latch onto. At most, an empty promise. So he looked at the other for clarification and was met with a sleepy, quiet gaze for a short period of time. Then he was gifted a small, lopsided smile.

"I mean… I'm not thrilled with you right now. And I should be asking a lot more questions. And your ass would be handed to you so hard if I could think this early. But dude, I just bent over for you. Trusting you a little bit more isn't that far of a leap. No issue." He rubbed his eyes and lowered himself back onto the floor. "I probably wouldn't say it up front with sleep in my body but for now take it as you will and keep it in mind. S'not gonna change when I wake up. But I'll be angry, probably. A little."

And Francis, because he was swept up in the total normalcy (if not startlingly open emotion and thought process) of the situation, chose to ignore any guarded response and instead tease him.

"You're quite an elegant speaker when half awake"
"Shut up." One of his eyes opened and he beckoned him back down "Kiss me before you go. And make it good. Dunno when I'm gonna see you again."

So he did, dropping to one knee, holding Butch's wrist in his hand and using his other hand to support Butch's back, lifting him to his level and kissing him as he was requested, glad to forget for a moment that anything existed outside this bedroom or even the heavy arms that draped over his shoulders.



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