Weariness and depression were two things Tommy knew he had to keep at bay. He slid the key into the lock and sighed heavily as he stepped into his apartment. Some days it didn't pay to get out of bed. Setting his briefcase down on the table by the front door, he stepped over to slide out of his shoes and ease them under the table for tomorrow. He flexed his toes, listening to the big one on his left foot popping. It always did that. Weird.
Heading for the kitchen, he flicked on the light and frowned as he saw dishes in the sink. He didn't usually leave a mess, but he'd flown out of the apartment this morning after getting the call from Daniel. His heart stepped up a bit when he thought of Daniel Anderson. He didn't want it to, but he didn't seem to be able to stop it. He so couldn't go there tonight. He was just too tired to try to think clearly.
Having another run in with the bigoted Mrs. Carol at the agency had ruined his whole day. Tommy couldn't believe she was in the position she was, considering she had not an ounce of compassion for the cases that came her way, including this poor boy. This time the boy, nine-years-old, had been found living in an apartment, a hovel really, by himself. They didn't know how long he'd been alone, but he sure didn't want anything to do with people.
Tommy didn't think the boy was quite as reclusive and isolated as Mrs. Carol seemed to think. He just thought that the boy could tell how she felt about him and his situation, so he clammed up when she was around. He'd been hungry, dirty, and hostile. He had several fading bruises on his face, shoulders, and back.
Tommy had caught a couple of looks behind her back that led him to believe that Niko was not as mute as she'd like to think. Once, Tommy had caught Niko's gaze and rolled his eyes behind her back, and he thought he'd seen just a little bit of humor in the boy before he looked away.
Tomorrow Tommy would go back, working to get Niko away from Mrs. Carol's influence. She fought the idea of placing anyone with Soldier and Dillon because of their "disgusting lifestyle". This was always stated with a curled lip and flashing eyes. Tommy personally thought she was jealous of the success of Scarcity Sanctuary and the many young boys who'd been helped and graduated from the facility.
A very few went to homes, families. Most stayed there until they graduated and headed off for college. All left in better shape, physically, mentally, and spiritually than when they arrived. Tommy could speak from experience. He'd been the first to leave the house and go to college, coming home with a degree.
Tommy'd hated his time away from Soldier, Dillon, and the boys. He'd actually grieved for them. Not that he'd ever let them know how much it had hurt him to be away from the comfort and security of their home. They'd given and done so much for him that he was determined to make them proud. Besides, he loved what he was doing. Going to school and getting his degrees in psychology and sociology had prepared him to be an asset in the good work provided by the facility now. He knew how proud of him they were, and that warmed him from the inside out.
He thought for a minute and decided that a dose of the unconditional love and acceptance from next door was just what he needed right now. He walked back out of the kitchen, slipped back into his shoes, and headed through the connecting arch to the main building of the Scarcity Sanctuary Complex.
As soon as he opened the door, he was bombarded with memories and a feeling of peace. This place with Soldier and Dillon as the directors, his two dads, he thought with pride, had turned his life around when he was twelve-years-old. Up 'til then, his life had been a living hell. Verbally, physically, and sexually abused by his mother and her male friends for years, he'd been in need of the kind of love and acceptance offered by Soldier and Dillon. They'd known not to force him into feelings he wasn't ready for yet. They'd steadily earned his trust and his love by giving him those very things.
"Soldier? Dillon? Anybody here?" Dumb question. There was always someone here. Tommy could smell something good, so supper was almost ready, but usually there was a lot of noise and talking and laughing, movement and confusion. Things were almost eerily quiet. He walked through the hallways, through classrooms, the dining room, the great room, and finally heard voices coming from the conference room. At this time of the evening? What was going on?
The door wasn't closed, so he walked in and started to say, "Hey guys, what's...?" That was as far as he got. Soldier, Dillon, and Daniel were sitting at the far end of the conference table. Daniel's head was down on the table, resting on his hands. Tommy hurried forward.
"What's happened? Where's Gom? Is something wrong?" He asked because usually where you found Soldier and Dillon, you'd find Gom. Gosh, Gom was seventeen now, Tommy figured, as he was twenty-two.
Daniel looked up, and there was anguish on his face, and tears ran unchecked down his face. Tommy wasn't sure he'd ever seen Daniel Anderson cry before. He'd known Daniel longer than he'd known the guys here. Daniel had been the one in the social services system who had arranged for him to live with Dillon to begin with. Then Soldier came along and... well, that was another story. Tommy found himself hurrying to Daniel's side, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder.
"Tell me. I can see it's bad. It's not Gom is it? He's okay?" Tommy was closer to Gom than any of the other boys who'd grown up here. The boy worshipped him, and Tommy was just as proud of the young man that Gom was turning into these days. His brother was a great kid. He should have been here.
"Soldier, Dillon, come on." Tommy looked from one to the other, his hand still on Daniel's shoulder, absently rubbing, petting. Tommy wasn't even really aware of the comforting caresses he bestowed on the man he'd been secretly in love with for over two years now. It was just too complicated for words, but he couldn't stand seeing Daniel upset and no one was talking!
"Gom's been in an accident, Tommy. We've been waiting for you to get here. If we hadn't heard you come in we were getting ready to call you," Soldier began, his voice husky with... something. Tommy couldn't tell if it was fear or anger.
"So, why are you all here? Why aren't you at the hospital? Is he hurt badly? I have to go..."
"He's here, in his room. Wait. Tommy, wait. He needs a little bit more time before he sees you."
Tommy dropped into a chair. It never occurred to him to go against Soldier's word. Soldier always knew what each of them needed at any time.
"Will somebody tell me what's going on? Why is Daniel so upset and what happened to Gom?"
Dillon, the calm one, the peacemaker, spoke up quietly. "Gom was gay bashed on the way home from school this afternoon."
Tommy's eyes bugged out of his head. He sat, stunned, and looked at each of them, thinking that surely he hadn't heard right. No one moved or smiled or said anything.
"But Gom's not... he's not even gay?" The sentence ended as a question. He didn't think Gom was gay. He thought that he and Gom talked about everything. Of course, no one knew that he was gay, now, did they? Tommy knew they all just assumed he was too traumatized by his past to be interested in any kind of sex, so after trying to get him to open up to them and failing, after all the counseling, they'd left him alone. Had he missed something with Gom? Had they?
"I don't understand. I never even knew that Gom was... I mean... is he? Gay, I mean? Or was there a mistake? Daniel, what's up? Why are you so upset? I mean, more than Soldier and Dillon. Somebody explain to me what happened before I lose my mind. Is Gom okay?" Tommy didn't care that his voice gave away his distress. He wanted answers now, and he wanted to see Gom.
"Daniel found him. He was on his way over here and saw a bunch of boys running down the street and then saw Gom lying, nearly in the road. After the ambulance and the police were finished with him there, they took him to the emergency room and checked him out more. He's going to be fine, physically. He has a broken wrist, bruised ribs, and uh, his whole groin area is swollen and is going to be quite painful." Soldier winced as he said the last. His eyes blazed, his thoughts clearly on whoever had done this to his boy. Gom had been Soldier's boy since the age of eight when Soldier had shown up and an instant bond had developed between the two.
"But, they let him come home, with all that wrong?" Tommy was surprised they hadn't insisted Gom stay in the hospital.
"He was released to our care because he was so upset at the idea of staying in the hospital, though I told him I'd stay with him. So, he's asleep now. Some of the boys are keeping watch outside his door. Like anything could get to him in here, but it makes them feel better. Daniel held him until the EMTs and the police got there. He was nearly as shaken as Gom. Gom won't tell who the boys were. He gets in a panic whenever we try to find out, so we're letting that go for right now. I'll find out."
Tommy had no doubt that Soldier would indeed find out who had hurt Montgomery Marsh, his adopted son. Sitting by Daniel, Tommy wanted to take the man in his arms and hold him. He'd never seen Daniel so upset. Daniel had seen some truly horrific things in his work... case in point, Tommy himself.
Daniel looked up with sadness clearly showing in his eyes and said, "I'm sorry I'm so freaked out, Tommy. I... it just took a toll on me. I held him while he tried so hard not to cry, but he was in so much pain. He's scared to death that they'll come back for him. I think they threatened him with more violence. He's not a young man who's afraid of very much. I know what he'd been through before he got here. He can handle a lot. But something has him spooked really badly. He wouldn't tell me. His blood, and his tears, and his fear got to me today for some reason. We came in here to talk about it and I just lost it. Sorry I scared you, too."
"Hey, it's all right. God, it's a good thing I didn't find him. I'd be a whimpering mess. I'll go see him in a minute," Tommy said, looking at each of them.
"Don't be freaked out by how bad he looks," Dillon said. "He's on some pretty strong painkillers and we're taking good care of him. He's just going to hurt really badly for a few days. I'm going to go and finish supper. Soldier, you want to check on the boys and get them all ready?"
Soldier got up and followed Dillon out of the room, leaving Tommy and Daniel alone. For the first time, Tommy felt a little awkward with Daniel. He'd long since gotten over the strangeness of being around Daniel, loving him, and not ever acting on it. Daniel knew his story. Tommy doubted that Daniel would be interested in him, even if he was gay. Tommy wasn't sure about that. He had a feeling, though. In all the years he'd known Daniel, almost nine now, he'd never seen the guy with a woman or heard him talk about one. Maybe it was wishful thinking on Tommy's part, but if he wasn't going to do anything about it, why did he care one way or the other?
Through Tommy's last few years of working with Daniel, he had learned a lot about Daniel's past. Daniel had come up through the foster system and seen it when it worked well and when it didn't. That was what had led him to work at the shelter and funnel kids like Tommy and Gom to Dillon. Daniel recognized special needs when he saw them, and he worked within the system to get the kids what they needed. Thank God. He'd started at the shelter while still in college and took over a couple of years after graduating.
"Hey, I understand you freaking out. It's one thing to work with children who've been abused and hear their stories and look in their eyes and have to deal with it calmly, for their sake. But when it's someone you know and love, it's a whole different ballgame." Tommy tried to put Daniel at ease.
"Yeah, thanks. I know. I just hate this. Soldier and Dillon want someone to go after and Gom is not saying a word. Something's going on. Did you know he was gay?"
"No! I mean, he's never let on. We've had lots of conversations in this house, you know? Sometimes it was funny. As the boys got older they'd each go through that stage of wondering if they were supposed to be gay like Soldier and Dillon. Some even came out and asked if they were expected to be gay. Eventually Soldier and Dillon got used to answering the question without the swallowing the tongue thing. I think the first one was Jack. He came in all puffed up. He liked this girl in his class, and he burst in all full of bluster, arms crossed, and wanted to know if he had to like guys or could he go for girls. Would they be mad if he wanted to have a girlfriend? The look on Soldier's face was priceless. Dillon just laughed out loud. Finally Soldier joined in and they had the first of many talks." Tommy shook his head, remembering the scene.
"What'd they say?" Daniel was sitting back now, more relaxed. Good, Tommy had meant for him to calm down and ease up a little. The story had been brought forth for that very reason.
"Oh, anytime it came up, they were told in no uncertain terms that they were to be whatever they wanted. If they felt like they liked girls, good for them, go for it. They'd certainly have an easier life. If they felt like they might like guys more, then that was okay, too. They'd be loved, accepted, and respected no matter which gender they chose to love."
Daniel got this really weird look on his face and said, "Which did you decide you wanted?"
Tommy answered truthfully. "Back then? I told them I wasn't interested in either, thank you very much. I'd rather be alone. After what I'd been through I had no interest in either men or women."
"Back then. What about now? Is there someone, man or woman, who interests you?" Daniel seemed to be holding his breath, waiting for Tommy's answer.
"I don't know, maybe. But I don't think it would work out. I've got too many hang-ups. Plus, I'm pretty busy all the time with a hard career." No way was Tommy going to admit that he wanted Daniel with every breath he took. He would not take a chance on ruining the working relationship that they had by bringing his insecurities and needs into the mix.
"I hear that. You've done a wonderful job, Tommy. You're my new Dillon. I know that when there is someone special, like Niko, who needs something extra, I can count on you. You're so good with the hard cases. You're able to get through to them, help them so much. I'm proud of what you've become." Daniel's sincerity was evident in both his voice and his eyes.
"Lord, you sound like a proud parent. Thank you."
"Don't feel like your parent. Not at all. You've got parents. You're the oldest young man I know, Tommy. I feel like you're an equal. With your education and your understanding, and yes, a lot of it is due to your past, you're the very best at what you do, and I count on you being there when I need someone to help pave the way for special needs children. No, I don't feel like a parent. Never that, okay?" Daniel seemed to really want to make that point clear so Tommy nodded that he understood.
He thought Daniel sighed, but he wasn't sure.
"I need to go see Gom now." Tommy took a deep breath, knowing he was going to have to be strong because if there was anyone he loved as much as Soldier and Dillon, it was Gom. They were brothers, both Marshes now, closer than most biological siblings. He smiled as he headed up the stairs to the bedrooms. He knew Pee Wiggles would be there, right beside Gom in the bed. They'd lost Traveler two years ago and it had been very hard for all of them. The older dog had enjoyed a good life, loved by many, and adored by Gom. Poor Gom. Tommy hurried up the stairs, meeting Soldier leading, like the Pied Piper, five boys who all had the same stunned look on their face. They were easy to read. They were angry, scared, and they wanted revenge. Everyone loved Gom.
They all spoke to Tommy, all more subdued than in their usual greetings. He waited until they were down the stairs and stood for a moment in front of Gom's door. Tommy was gathering courage to go in and see his brother, hurt and scared, and he was going to have to be strong for Gom. He shook it off. What did he have to be strong about? Gom was the one who was beaten, threatened, and left on the side of the road like so much garbage.
Tommy had a hard time holding in the gasp as he eased the door open and stepped into Gom's room. Gom had always been a small child and he wasn't a very big teenager. As expected, Pee Wiggles was right there, being very still and vigilant. Gom was almost lost in the bed, covers pulled up nearly over his head. What Tommy could see was red, black and blue, swollen and angry looking. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, he walked over to the bed and stood looking down at Gom's poor face.
As he watched, a tear slid from the corner of Gom's right eye and rolled down toward his ear. Tommy gently nudged the bed just a little to see if Gom was awake. That right eye wouldn't open, but the left one did, a little. Both were swollen and colorful. Tommy reached to tug the cover down. He wanted to see what all had been done before he said or did anything wrong. Gom whimpered a bit, but made no protest as Tommy looked at the bruises that covered his ribs and stomach. Tommy didn't pull the cover down farther. He couldn't bear to see more and didn't want to embarrass Gom. He gently drew the cover back up and pulled extra up so he could sit on the bed without pulling it tight over Gom.
"Hey, Gom. What can I do for you?" Tommy couldn't resist putting his hand up and brushing Gom's hair off his forehead.
"You'll laugh," Gom whispered, that one eye looking at him, the right once still leaking.
"I don't think there is anything that would make me laugh right now, Gom."
"I know you want to know... what happened, but right now... would you just hold me and sing to me, like you used to?" Gom looked almost like the eight-year-old Tommy remembered as he made his request.
Tommy had always sung for the kids, but he didn't know if he could get a single note out. He shook all over, seeing and hearing the pain and fear in Gom. Again, he sucked it up and quit thinking about himself and thought of Gom's needs. His brother was all grown up now and didn't ask for songs anymore. It was a testament to how serious this was that Gom had done so now.
Leaning over, placing a hand on the other side, not knowing how to hold Gom without hurting him, Tommy took Gom's hand in his free one and held it, for both of them. He bent and sang close to Gom's face. It took everything he had inside to sing, hold a melody, and not break into tears himself as he thought about someone being so deliberately cruel to Gom. Tommy chose songs that Gom had asked for in the past, mostly lullabies or Disney songs that were soothing and comforting. He was on the third one when he realized that Gom had drifted to sleep. He stood, bent down, planted a soft kiss on Gom's head, and eased back out of the room. Soldier was standing there to meet him.
Tommy saw tears in Soldier's eyes as he walked right into the big man's arms. As expected, Soldier's arms closed around him and held him safe and tight. That was what Soldier had always done for all of them, but especially Tommy and Gom. He made sure they knew they were loved and safe and never failed to provide a haven in his arms, his lap, and his heart. Tommy had come to trust Soldier more than any other man in his life, and that was saying a lot, because Tommy didn't trust easily. Soldier had earned it and returned it. He started to say, "How could anyone...?"
"No idea. I have no idea how anyone could do that to him. He's such a good, kind boy. He doesn't have enemies; he's good to everyone. I don't get it. But you can trust that I will find out who did this to him. You've had the training in what he's going to need now. Will you help him through this?"
"Of course. Let him heal a little first."
"Whatever you think he needs. Tommy, this is killing me," Soldier admitted.
"I know it is. I've always felt the love you have for me, I have. But I also have recognized the special bond you have with Gom and, no, don't worry, it never made me jealous or anything. I admired the way the two of you felt about each other. I never felt slighted."