Author: Rachel Smith Cobleigh PM
Link knew that when he'd decided to pull Little Inez onto the dance floor with him on live television, he was going to be forced to pay the consequences...he just didn't realize that it would happen that night. Warning: describes child abuse. Link/TracyRated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Hurt/Comfort - Link L. & Tracy T. - Words: 8,639 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 48 - Follows: 5 - Published: 09-18-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6334564
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A Hairspray story
by Rachel Smith Cobleigh
Link was elated as he pushed open the front door, humming to himself. What a fantastic evening! He still couldn't believe everything, it had all happened so fast. He just knew that all felt right with the world for the first time in a long time. And Tracy— He did a little twist in the hallway, smiling, and dropped his school bag on the floor next to the coat rack, glancing in the hallway mirror as he passed it, as usual. Damn, he looked sharp in this tux—
A flash of movement in the shadows behind him caught his eye and he drew in a sharp breath and tried to move—
Too slow, he thought, as the backhand caught his ear and sent him stumbling against the low bookcase under the mirror. The corner of the bookcase caught him in the stomach and spun him around as he hit the wall. The mirror caught on his shoulder and came off its hook; he tried to slide out of its way as it crashed down on him. Its face shattered as it hit the floor.
Unfortunately, trying to avoid the mirror cost him precious moments in keeping track of the dark figure that lumbered out of the shadows toward him. Despite his familiarity with its movements, he was too slow a second time, trapped between the bookcase and the coat rack, and a balled-up fist slammed into his stomach, knocking all the air out of him and making his legs tremble.
He stumbled and tried to gasp out "No!" as he fought to stay on his feet. He knew that if he fell, he might not get up for a very long time.
"How could you do this to me?" The voice hissed, rough and vicious.
Link coughed and clutched his stomach, trying to see in the dark hallway, blinking away black spots in his vision. Some small part of his mind observed with a chill that his father's words hadn't been slurred. This time, he couldn't blame it on the drink. He couldn't remember a time when his father had beaten him while sober. Dread mixed with pain as he realized that his father had lain in wait on a weekend night, staying sober, waiting to beat his son. A stab of fear shot through Link: tonight, he wasn't sure when—if—his father would stop. The chill of adrenaline made him draw in a quick breath.
"How could you shame me like this?" His father hissed again. "My son, dancin' with a damn nigger!"
Link knew better than to answer. Rule number one: do not answer back to your father when he's in a mood to beat you. It will only incur more blows. So Link kept silent, focusing on breathing through the nauseating, throbbing pain in his stomach. He carefully watched his father's outline as it shifted in the darkness.
The figure moved towards him and he reacted instinctively to the way its weight shifted: he moved away from the direct line of the punch, intending to sidestep the blow and slip out past the bookcase.
He succeeded at avoiding the punch, but he miscalculated the location of the fallen mirror in the darkness and his foot caught on it as he tried to move. The misstep was enough to give his father a chance to change his approach and slam an iron forearm into him instead, causing Link to crash back up against the wall, knocking the breath out of him a second time and cutting off his air.
He gasped and struggled to shift the pressure off his windpipe, carefully avoiding pushing back with his own hands. His father was bigger, stronger, better at fighting, and didn't take kindly to any overt resistance from his son. Rule number two.
"Damn...dirty..." hot breath spat in his ear. Link gasped ineffectively, feeling blackness creep around the edges of his vision. His father swore and the pressure on Link's windpipe eased slightly. It might have been a moment of relief, but Link was still trapped against the wall, unable to move, and the swift jab that hit his side a second later caused him to cry out in pain. His eyes started to water and he curled over as the pressure on his neck suddenly released.
Have to...stay standing. He forced his legs to hold him up, using the wall for support. It was the wrong move—he needed to get out of this enclosed space—but he felt a kind of helplessness as the next blow hit him, this time on the other side. He coughed, unable to speak, and held out a hand, silently begging—
Wrong move again. A rough hand caught his wrist in a crushing grip and pulled him away from the wall. He stumbled over the mirror again and felt his arm yank out of its socket as he spun across the hallway and was slammed into the wall on the other side. He felt bones grind as he hit the wall and this time he couldn't get enough purchase with his feet to stay standing. The throw rug that ran the length of the hallway slipped out from under him.
He slumped to the floor, disoriented, saw a flash of movement, tried to roll away but there was nowhere to go—
A foot slammed into his stomach, nearly in the same spot where the first punch had landed and he cried out, felt bile rise in his throat. No...
The coughing only hurt more but he fought to stay conscious, to see in the darkness—
Suddenly, the movement stopped and all he could hear in the pounding silence was his father's heavy breathing. A moment later, shocking him more than everything else, his father spat on him. Link felt the cool drops of spittle hit his cheek and forehead. Improbably, ridiculously, Link started to cry. Very quietly.
His father opened the door and pale streetlight suddenly flooded the hallway, illuminating all the broken shards of the mirror—it was almost beautiful—and the bunched-up rug beside Link's head. After a brief pause, his father slammed the door shut behind him.
Link tried to hold his breath as he listened to the receding footsteps outside. When he was sure he couldn't hear them any longer, he laid back in the dark, just breathing, waiting until the world stopped spinning. He raised one hand carefully and wiped the spittle and tears off his face. Slowly, groaning as he moved, he found shard-free spots on the floor and pushed himself up to a sitting position. He took stock of himself, going through the usual motions. It didn't seem like any bones were broken, but everything ached, he felt sick to his stomach, and he was pretty sure he'd cut one of his knees on a shard. The tuxedo pants were torn in that spot. Mrs. Von Tussel was going to throw a fit about that—
He paused for a moment, realizing that she would probably never see it. It was strange to think of the Corny Collins show without Mrs. Von Tussel.
Everything had been going so well; the world had been a place that was becoming something different and better. Tracy, Seaweed, Penny, and Little Inez had all been dancing beside him, laughing and living. It had seemed so real just a few minutes ago. In his excitement, he'd forgotten that some things would stay the same.
He squeezed his eyes against hot tears that threatened to leak out again and took a few deep breaths. He didn't know how long his father would be gone, but he needed to be out of here before his father got back. Link didn't think he could take another beating tonight, and his father was certain to return home drunk. His father wouldn't think twice about dragging him out of bed for another round, if he wasn't too drunk to move. No, Link needed to leave quickly.
He didn't know where he would go, but he didn't think that far. He concentrated on moving as quickly as possible, throwing some things into his school bag after pulling out his books. He packed enough to be able to stay away from home for a couple days. A change of clothes, a couple apples, a candy bar, the rest of the loaf of bread. He pulled out the small box where he kept what he earned from carrying bags at the grocery store. It wasn't much, but he could probably get a room for a couple nights. Sometimes he stayed with Andy, but given Link's father's reaction, Link wasn't sure if Andy's parents would be happy to see him tonight.
Link knew his father watched the Corny Collins show whenever he could, although his father would never have admitted to it. It was partly why Link never fought back: somewhere under all of it, his father cared about him, was maybe even a little bit proud of him. Once, he'd heard one of his father's friends comment on Link's dancing: apparently, the man's daughter was a big fan. Link's father had almost smiled; Link remembered that. It was why he'd told his father about the casting agents who were coming to this evening's show. Of course, he'd told his father before Tracy had started dancing on the show and integration had suddenly become front-and-center.
He took off his torn tuxedo and left it in a pile on the floor next to his closet. He quickly dressed the cut on his knee and put a bandage on it, thinking to put a couple spare bandages in his bag. After dressing in more comfortable clothes—all the shirts he owned were high-necked and long-sleeved—he took one last look around his bedroom. Wincing as he picked up his bag, he gingerly slung it over his shoulder, using his other hand to help, and carefully made his way through the dark hallway. Link paused to peer through the window panes in the top of the door before opening it. No sign of his father.
Link stepped out into the cool night air and pulled the door closed behind him. Baltimore at night wasn't the safest place and his house wasn't far from the docks. He needed to move toward the better-lit parts of the city, find a place to sleep. He started walking. Each step hurt and he still felt a bit sick to his stomach, but there was nothing for it.
He passed two men arguing loudly on the other side of the street, and a Negro woman walking on his side of the street. She looked tired, but proud. He tried to smile at her as she passed, but she never met his eyes. He kept walking, thinking about what Tracy had said: that it was just right. He was chagrined that he'd gone for so long without really noticing all the people around him. But Tracy was right and something about knowing that gave a bit of lightness to his soul. He realized that he'd felt directionless before he met Tracy, doing all the things he thought he needed to do to catch someone's attention and get out of Baltimore, away from his father, away from Amber. She had just been a means to an end; he'd never really felt much for her. She used him, he used her. It was just what everybody expected, including him. Best-looking guy, prettiest girl. It was just how things were done...until he met Tracy.
He came to an intersection and another decision about which way to go. He picked the street with the most working streetlights and kept walking. Tracy was a big adventure. She was fearless. He'd never met anyone like her before, someone who didn't do anything because it was what everybody expected, who didn't seem to wilt under other people's expectations. Someone who was her shape—short, lovely, round, warm, beautiful, full of life and conviction—was supposed to be quiet, passive, ashamed. Tracy was none of those things and he realized that he loved her for it. She made him want to be a better man. He couldn't imagine what he'd been measuring himself by before he met her. Whatever it was, it hadn't been nearly enough.
He suddenly wished he could be near her again. He paused under a streetlight, thinking about how to get to her house from where he was. Somehow, he didn't think her parents would mind letting him stay the night, even with Tracy in the house. Maybe they'd let him sleep downstairs. They could trust him: he wasn't going to do anything inappropriate.
He shook his head wryly. Even if he'd wanted to do something, he didn't think he'd be able to move well enough to do it. Speaking of which, he was going to have to be careful about how he moved when he got there. He didn't know what he'd tell them about why he was on their doorstep, but he didn't want it to be the truth.
He picked a likely direction and started walking again.
Tracy was putting on her slippers when she heard the doorbell ring. That was odd; nobody usually came over this late in the evening. She glanced in the mirror and smoothed her hair, listening while her father answered the door. Maybe it was just Mrs. Pingleton, coming over to complain about Penny kissing Seaweed on TV and claiming that it was all Tracy's fault. Tracy picked up her checkerboard dancing dress that the wonderful Mr. Pinky had given her and smiled before carefully laying it out on the laundry hamper for her mother to find in the morning. That had been such a wonderful evening, with Little Inez winning! and her mother dancing! and...and Link. Tracy paused and sat down on the bed and took a moment to remember her first kiss. It had been better than she'd been hoping for. Not only had Link scuttled his chances of getting a recording contract by choosing to dance with Little Inez on live broadcast, but when he'd danced with Tracy, he'd looked so joyful. It was like the look on his face was the way she felt inside: so happy to be there, dancing. They were winning because finally it was going to be Negro Day every day! Everything was changing and Tracy was sure that it was for the better. It didn't matter if she didn't win the dance contest: just to be able to dance with all her friends, and to be with him...that was prize enough. Then he'd just taken her hand for a moment when they were in the background and nobody was looking at them and he kissed her. Right there. And it didn't matter who was around. He was the only who mattered in that moment. She got warm and wriggly just thinking about it. She smiled and bounced off the bed. Her mother and father were talking and she didn't hear any other voices.
Assuming that no one else was there any longer, she opened her bedroom door and found herself staring at Link's back. Was that Link? What was he doing here? Was everything okay? Was he okay?
He turned around—slowly, oddly—and looked at her. He was carrying his school bag over one shoulder. Surely he wasn't here to study with her. Their history final was in a week, but it was a Friday night. Who studied on a Friday night? Or maybe, studying was just an excuse to spend some time together. Clever! She smiled at him, about to say something teasing, when she realized that he had a funny look on his face. It wasn't bad, exactly. It was just...funny.
"What?" Tracy said.
Link started to gesture, but—was that a wince?—crossed his face and he settled for a shrug and a smile instead. "Well, you're..." he trailed off, not seeming to know what to say.
"Tracy Turnblad, we have a guest!" her mother said, coming around the corner with a dishtowel in her hands and a frown on her face.
"I—what? Yes, I can see that, mother," Tracy said.
"Well?" Her mother jutted out her chin in Tracy's direction and put her hands on her hips. Confused, Tracy looked down at herself and suddenly wanted to sink into the floorboards. She was wearing just her nightgown and slippers! Link was standing right there, looking at her in her nightgown! Tracy felt her face flush and she quickly spun and ran back into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
She stood for a moment pressed up against the door, trying not to hyperventilate. She was so embarrassed! She didn't know if she could face him again. Of course that was silly. She would have to face him again, and probably in less than a minute. What was she going to do? It would seem strange if she put on a whole new set of clothes this late at night. She spotted her bathrobe draped over the end of her bed. Yes, that would do well enough. He'd already seen her in her nightgown, it couldn't get worse than that.
She wondered why Link was here. Surely it wasn't the studying. She was curious; something about him didn't seem quite right. She tried not to worry about it as she pulled her bathrobe on, checked herself in the mirror, and opened the door.
Link was nowhere to be seen and Tracy panicked for a moment. Calm down girl, she told herself. A second later, she heard Link's voice in the kitchen.
"Thanks, Mrs. Turnblad. I love meatloaf."
"Why, you're welcome, dear."
Tracy came around the corner into the kitchen and tried to appear poised. Link and her father were sitting at the kitchen table while her mother served them meatloaf and bustled about the kitchen, getting drinks and turning off the stove.
"Tracy, there you are. Come sit down and have a bite to eat," her mother said. "You must be starving after all that dancing! I know I sure am!" Her mother laughed and put another slice of meatloaf on Link's plate.
"You're a great dancer, Mrs. Turnblad," Link said, smiling up at her.
"Aw," her mother said, bashful but smiling proudly.
"It's one reason why I fell in love with her," her father said in a stage whisper, leaning conspiratorially towards Link.
"Oh, you," her mother said, batting her father lightly on the shoulder before seating herself. Tracy slid into the remaining seat, her eyes wide as she watched her parents flirt. They didn't normally do that sort of thing in front of her, never mind in front of guests. What had gotten into them?
"Thanks for letting me have supper with you," Link said.
Her parents shared a glance and then her mother patted Link's hand. "You're most welcome, dear," she said, smiling warmly. She looked across at Tracy. "Do you have enough meatloaf?"
"Yes, thank you," Tracy said, looking at Link. He smiled at her. Her father cleared his throat and Tracy looked at him. He had his hands up on the table, extended towards her and her mother. Oh right, grace. Tracy complied by taking his hand and Link's. Link's hand was cool and smooth.
"Thank you, Heavenly Father, for this food," her mother said.
"And for our beautiful daughter," her father added.
Tracy cleared her throat. "Thank you for Little Inez winning the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant and for the Corny Collins show finally being integrated and for..." she trailed off and glanced at Link. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed. Smiling, she did the same. "...and for Link." Then she peeked out of one eye to see his reaction. His eyes were still closed, but a small smile played on his lips.
There was a long moment of silence while they waited for Link to say something. Tracy suddenly felt embarrassed, wondering if he knew he was expected to speak. She was just about to jump in with a hurried amen when he started.
"Thank you for these friends and for showing me that there's so much more to life than I'd ever thought before."
Tracy looked up, surprised, and found that he was looking at her. He squeezed her hand. She felt light and happy and she squeezed back.
"Amen," her father said. "Let's eat!"
Wilbur watched his daughter and Link closely, even as he regaled them with the tale of how he'd slipped past the police and how much fun the whole day had been for him. They all chimed in with their versions of events and there was a lot of laughing all around. They seemed reluctant to end the meal, even after all the food had been long gone for more than an hour, but it was getting late.
Wilbur had noticed something subtly off almost as soon as he'd found Link standing at the door. The boy wasn't moving very quickly. It seemed as if he was exaggerating all his movements to try to hide something, and given the late hour and his apparent reluctance to leave, Wilbur had a suspicion of what it might be.
When Edna got up to clear the plates, Wilbur looked at Tracy.
"Tracy, would you be willing to help your mother clean the dishes tonight? I need Link to help me with something down in the shop," he said. When Tracy shot him a curious look, he quickly said. "These old bones don't move like they used to and I just got in some new shipments yesterday." He exchanged a quick glance with Edna and she nodded subtly.
"Come on, Link," Wilbur said, getting up from the table, exaggerating his own movements to demonstrate just how old his bones were. Actually, it didn't require that much exaggeration. Sleeping on those hard mats and the whoopee cushions a couple nights ago really hadn't done his back much good. It was going to be at least a week before he'd fully recover from the effects of that night. "Let's go move some boxes."
Link smiled and stood up, although not nearly as smoothly as a dancer of his caliber ought to have. Wilbur led the way down to the joke shop, where he paused to glance back up the stairs before he closed the door behind them.
"Mr. Turnblad—" Link said, after the door clicked closed.
Wilbur waved him down. "Wilbur, please."
"Ah, okay. Wilbur," Link started again.
"That's better," Wilbur said, walking over to the register and turning on the lights. He pulled out a box of turd chocolates and the thermos of water he kept under the counter to keep himself refreshed during the day. "Sit down, sit down." He gestured at the stock stool standing near one of the shelves.
Link looked confused for a moment. "Where are the boxes you want me to move?"
Wilbur gestured at two small boxes sitting on the counter next to the register. "You can move them if you want to, but I think they're okay where they are."
Link glanced between him and the boxes a couple times, as if expecting a joke to be played on him. Wilbur sighed, pulling up a chair and settling down across from the stock stool. Taking the hint, Link sat down.
"Chocolate?" Wilbur asked, displaying the box of appetizing-looking turds.
"Ah...no thanks," Link said. "I ate too much of Mrs. Turnblad's meatloaf. It was good." He smiled.
"Actually, I made that meatloaf," Wilbur said, helping himself to a chocolate. These things really were tasty; he couldn't see why people didn't like them.
"You did?" Link seemed taken aback for a moment. "You cook?"
"Of course," Wilbur said, munching happily. "How do you think I fed myself before I married Edna?"
"Oh," Link said, as if Wilbur's answer were perfectly obvious.
"Is your mother a good cook?" Wilbur asked. Time to start getting down to business.
Link looked at the floor, then back up at Wilbur. "She died. When I was six."
"I'm sorry," Wilbur said.
They were quiet for a little while. Wilbur took a sip of the water.
"So I take it your father doesn't cook?" Wilbur asked, recapping his thermos and setting it down.
"No." Link laughed. It was a bitter sound, Wilbur thought. "I just mostly eat sandwiches. Apples. Candy bars. You know."
"So you cook, then."
"No...that's not cooking, making a sandwich. No heat involved."
"I think that's fine cooking," Wilbur said, leaning back and stretching out his legs, reevaluating Link in light of this new information. Edna had taken an immediate dislike to Link because he was a crooner, a teenage boy that made girls squeal. Edna didn't hold by those kinds of things. She'd quickly warmed up to the boy when he'd come over worried about Tracy, though. He clearly cared about her. Wilbur wondered what Edna would say when he told her that he'd told Link he could sleep on the couch. She would probably be wise as usual and she'd immediately go make sure Link had plenty of clean sheets and a warm blanket and a firm pillow. She'd probably start planning breakfast because Link looked underfed. Wilbur suppressed a smile and returned his thoughts to the earnest young man sitting across from him.
"Why'd you come here this evening, son? I somehow don't think it was just for the home-cooked meal."
"No." Link looked at the floor again. "Mr. Turnblad—"
"—Wilbur. I...I need a place to sleep tonight." He looked up, rushing through his words. "I can sleep on the floor down here. I promise I won't go near Tracy. It's nothing like that. It's just..." Words seemed to fail him. He looked down again.
"I saw your bruises," Wilbur said quietly. Link's head snapped up. He looked at Wilbur for a long moment.
"My...what?" Link asked in a cool tone, but he gave himself away by unconsciously plucking at his sleeve ends, trying to pull them farther down.
"When you reached for something across the table that Tracy asked for, I saw your wrist." Wilbur reached down and took Link's right hand. Gently, he pushed the sleeve back a few inches. Link twitched but didn't pull his hand away. There, in the stark light of the shop, a fresh bruise was forming on Link's pale skin. It was clearly in the shape of fingers before melting into a wider blotch. After a heartbeat, Link slipped his hand out of Wilbur's grasp and pulled the sleeve down again.
"You're not the only one," Wilbur said quietly. Link swallowed, searching Wilbur's face for something. Wilbur hoped that he found it there. He stood up. Link stood up beside him, looking uncertain. Wilbur strongly suspected that the bruises on Link's wrist weren't the only fresh ones that the boy had. Wilbur didn't know Link's father well, but the man had a reputation for roughness. It wasn't a big neighborhood; word got around. Given the courage that Link had shown today at the TV station, Wilbur didn't have to work hard to guess at what could have caused the abuse. "You're not going to sleep on the floor," he said. "You're coming upstairs."
"Oh, I couldn't—" Link started.
"Nonsense," Wilbur said. "Of course you can. What kind of host would I be if I let you sleep on the floor? We have a perfectly good couch." He glanced up and down at Link. "On the other hand, maybe it won't be long enough. We could have Tracy switch with you."
Link looked horrified. Wilbur grinned. "I was just pulling your leg, son." Link gave him an uncertain smile. "Come on," Wilbur said. "Let's go tell the girls."
He headed towards the back of the shop, but then he paused and turned around. "Don't hide this from Tracy," he said. "She needs to know. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Link nodded, but didn't say anything. The boy looked a little shell-shocked, but Wilbur couldn't blame him. It had been a long day. He smiled. "She really likes you, you know."
"How can you tell?" Link asked.
"Well, she used to scream like a puma every time you came on the television," Wilbur said, turning towards the door that led to the upstairs. "And she lights up whenever she's around you."
Link laughed. It was a welcome sound to Wilbur's ears.
"It can't be nearly as much as I feel like I light up whenever she's around," Link said.
Wilbur turned to smile at him as he put his hand on the doorknob. "Yep. Seen that too."
Link's smile was wide and genuine this time.
Tracy had a couple more dishes to dry when Link and her father returned. Her mother was rearranging things on the kitchen counter, wiping nonexistent breadcrumbs into the sink. Tracy was pretty certain that her mother was stalling, just waiting for the men to return. Something was going on. Tracy wasn't sure what it was, but she was getting knots in her stomach just wondering about it, because it was something to do with Link. Something about him hadn't seemed quite right this evening, but she couldn't put her finger on it. He'd seemed tired, sure, but everybody was tired. What a day it had been!
"My two favorite girls!" her father said, coming into the kitchen to hug her mother and kiss Tracy. Her mother smiled at him as she folded the dishtowel.
"Get all the boxes moved?" her mother asked, with a curious little smile on her face.
"All set," her father said, winking at Link. Tracy felt like she was going to explode with curiosity, but she somehow managed to keep it in. There wasn't some kind of secret present down there or something, was there? Something that Link wanted to give her?
Tracy was briefly distracted by this thought, but she reined herself back in. No, of course not. That didn't make any sense. So what was going on?
"Link's staying the night," her father announced matter-of-factly, as if he were mentioning the price of laundry detergent. Her mother didn't seem surprised in the slightest. Tracy looked at Link. He swallowed and smiled tentatively at her.
Okay, now Tracy's burning curiosity had been replaced with a completely different kind of curiosity and shock. Good shock: Link, spending the night! That means she'd see him first thing tomorrow morning! In the living room! She'd never sleep a wink tonight. She'd spend the whole night wondering what he was doing.
Okay, that wouldn't be new. But Link! Spending the night! But...why?
"Tracy Turnblad, don't stand there staring with your mouth open like a fish," her mother said sharply. "Go get the spare sheets!"
Tracy snapped into action, glad to have something useful to do other than stand there with a plate in one hand. She set the plate down on the table—well, sort of dropped it, actually—and scooted past Link, who moved aside for her as she slipped through the doorway. She rummaged through the linen closet in the hallway and got out the softest set of spare sheets she could find. She brought them into her bedroom and dropped them on her bed. The extra blanket was up on the shelf at the top of her closet. She started to drag over the chair from her desk so she could stand on it.
"Can I help?" Link asked. He was standing in her bedroom. Tracy shot a quick glance around the room, ashamed of all the places where she had things lying about. Link followed her gaze for a moment and then smiled. "I found the Mars Bar under your pillow," he said. "I hope you don't mind: I was hungry, so I took a bite."
"What?" Tracy said, her surprise making her voice a bit sharper than she would have liked. Link looked chastised. Tracy immediately backpedaled. "No—no, don't worry about it. I'd forgotten about that. I hadn't even noticed." She went over to her bed and dug under the pillow. Sure enough, there was the candy bar. She dropped it in the trash can beside her bed. "Wait a second: when were you in my room?"
"Oh—right," Link said quickly, gesturing with one hand. "After you hit that police officer and then you disappeared, I was so worried about you. Nobody knew where you were. I thought your parents might know if you were okay. I thought maybe you were hiding at your house, but I realize now that you're too smart for that—"
"Yeah, I'm a criminal mastermind," Tracy said, grinning.
"No, that's not what I meant," he said.
"I know," she answered, then tilted her head sideways. "That still doesn't explain the Mars Bar."
Link looked sheepish and put his hands in his pockets. "I...couldn't be near you, so I did the next best thing," he said. "Being in your room reminded me of you." He looked around, then returned to her. "I'm sorry. I should have asked before going into your bedroom like that. I'm really sorry."
"No, it's okay," Tracy said, stepping towards him. "I like the thought of you in my bedroom."
They were both quiet for a long moment. They started to lean towards each other—
"Tracy Turnblad!" her mother's voice sounded just down the hallway. Link and Tracy jumped apart. "Where're those sheets?" her mother called. "I don't have all night, you know. Some people're tired around here!"
"Coming, mother!" Tracy said, leaping to pick up the sheets. She suddenly realized that she'd forgotten the spare blanket and looked up at the top shelf of her open closet. She started to set the sheets back down, but Link put his hand on her arm.
"I'll get that," he said. He went over to the closet and pulled down the blanket, which was within easy reach for him. "Ready?"
Tracy grinned and headed into the living room to help him make up the couch.
Somewhere between Tracy and Link making up the couch and then Tracy cleaning her bedroom, her parents turned in for the night. In fact, they just sort of quietly disappeared without any of their usual good-night fanfare. Tracy glanced around the quiet kitchen with its humming refrigerator and the nightlight on over the sink and noticed the plate that she'd set down earlier. She very quietly put it in the cupboard, trying to avoid making a loud clacking sound. As she left the kitchen, she glanced into the living room, but Link wasn't there. The couch looked comfortable, if a little short for him. She hoped that he wouldn't be too cramped. She considered offering him her bed instead—she could fit easily on the couch—but she suspected that he wouldn't accept it, and she didn't want to put him in the awkward position of having to reject such an offer.
The light in the hallway was coming from the bathroom door. Oh, of course. He was in the bathroom. She had to pass the bathroom to get to her bedroom, so she started down the hallway. She wanted to say good-night to him, but she didn't want to intrude. Perhaps she could wait in the living room. But not on the couch. That might be awkward, sitting on his bed.
She got far enough down the hallway to realize that the bathroom door had come open a crack. It was a finicky door: you had to press the door just right to get the latch to catch properly. She started to turn back when she caught sight of his reflection in the mirror and she gasped. There was a large, dark—
She forgot herself and pushed the door open all the way, confirming her first impression and realizing with dawning horror what was going on, why he was sleeping here. She'd had no idea. Her eyes were captured in horrified fascination as she stared at his torso.
It wasn't his nakedness that captured her attention; he was wearing sleeping pants, but he was naked from the waist up. It was the awful dark marks marring his beautiful body. She was filled with horror, revulsion, pity, confusion, anger, she wanted to cry, she wanted to hold him, she didn't realize what she was doing until she was already more than halfway into it and then she froze, inches away from touching his skin. Now she was horrified at her own behavior, intruding on him like this! His eyes were wide and he had a bottle of something in his hand. He'd pressed himself back against the cold tile wall, awkwardly, one side of him pressed against the towel rack. She started to back away.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, unable to get her throat to make a sound. "I'm so sorry—" She turned to run away, sure that he'd never want to see her again.
"Tracy, wait," he said, reaching out to her. She turned back, slowly, not wanting to frighten him back against the wall again. She couldn't help it, her eyes were dragged back to his bruises again. There was a lighter, reddish mark across the top of his chest. His stomach looked awful, just a dark reddish-bluish-blackish mess. And his sides. She was surprised that he was moving at all. Who had done this to him? But she didn't have to ask the question, really. She knew. There was only one person who could have done this to him who would have forced him to flee here instead of to his own home.
Amazingly, he reached out and touched her face. Or rather, she realized, her cheek. He was wiping away a tear.
She ached for him. It seemed opposite to what should be happening, him wiping her tears away.
"Don't cry," he said. "I didn't mean to make you cry."
She looked up at him, almost feeling like he was too beautiful to look at. She didn't deserve his gentleness right now.
"You didn't," she whispered. "At least, nothing you did. I'm so sorry for intruding. I was thoughtless."
"I'm glad you know," he said quietly.
"Why?" she asked, unable to fathom why anyone would want to hurt him like this. Her own parents...were so different. She felt a sudden rush of love and gratefulness for them. As much as her mother drove her crazy sometimes, it was nothing. Nothing at all, compared to this. She loved her mother fiercely.
"Because...I don't want to hide this from you. It is," his face took on a sour expression, "part of who I am. For better or worse." He had misunderstood her question and answered a different one, but she didn't mind.
"I had no idea," she whispered, looking down at the marks again.
"No one did," he said. "I hid it. Usually it isn't this bad. Actually, it's been almost a year since the last time."
"Usually it isn't..." Tracy trailed off, a new horror dawning on her. "You mean he's done this before?"
Link was suddenly silent, watching her face closely. "Yes."
"As long as I can remember," he said. "It got worse after my mother died, though."
"How can you stand it?" she asked, trying to imagine what it would be like to lose her mother and be treated like this by her father. She couldn't imagine doing what Link did, being out in public, dancing, living with such passion. She thought that she would have just died inside.
Link shrugged, then winced. "He's my father," he said, as if that were explanation enough. Tracy wasn't sure she understood, but she knew pressing him to explain wouldn't achieve anything. He didn't have to defend himself to her.
"All those years...how did you hide it? How did you dance?" Tracy asked.
"Like I said, it usually wasn't this bad. He actually did it less frequently after I got on Corny's show. It was one reason I poured so much of myself into the show...to prove to him that it was worth it. He watched it sometimes, you know."
Tracy pondered this. It seemed to be a contradiction, but it meant a lot to Link, she could tell.
"But why...why did he do this now, then?" Tracy suspected with dread that she knew what Link's answer would be and she felt awful for pushing him to do what he did. She'd had no idea why he'd been so reluctant to go on the march with Motormouth Maybelle and Seaweed and everyone. Getting noticed by agents didn't seem to be anything compared with doing what was so important and right. She'd been so disappointed in him, and now it was her fault that Link looked like this. She pressed back a new rush of tears. She was not going to make him think that he'd made her cry again. She wasn't entirely successful.
Link had closed his eyes. He shook his head.
"Was it because you danced with Little Inez this evening?" she whispered.
He sighed. That was answer enough for her. She wanted to hug him, but she didn't dare touch him. He opened his eyes and looked down at her. They shared a moment of mutual indecision before he suddenly looked down at the bottle he was still holding. Tracy looked at it. It was shampoo.
"Are you going to take a shower?" she asked, then blushed and felt like an idiot for asking such a personal question out of the blue.
He didn't seemed perturbed by it, though. "No. The water hitting these would be...unpleasant." He gestured vaguely at his torso.
Of course, she thought.
"I just wanted to get this stuff out of my hair," he said. "I didn't want to stain your mother's sheets."
"Oh, right," she said. "She'll appreciate that."
He set the bottle down on the edge of the sink. She moved to the side and started to back her way out of the bathroom when she noticed his wince. He stopped and put a hand on the sink to steady himself. He looked exhausted. She was struck by an inspiration.
"I can help you do that," she said suddenly.
"What?" he said.
She swallowed, suddenly uncertain. She just kept stepping in it this evening. Best to retreat while she still could. "Ah. Never mind. Sorry. I'll just—" she gestured at the hallway behind her. "Go. Yes."
"I would...appreciate the help," he said quietly.
Wow. He was just...wow. She was being such an intrusive idiot and he kept treating her ideas like they were worth listening to.
"Really?" she asked, not sure he really meant it.
"Really." He smiled at her. "I won't bite."
"No, I know, I—" she stopped talking and picked up the shampoo bottle instead. How best to do this? It looked like he'd been planning to use the sink, but that would be terribly awkward and she didn't think he could fit his head under the faucet: the sink was too small. There was an extendable shower-head on a hose above the tub. That would work, if he'd be willing to kneel over the tub.
Not trusting herself to talk, because now she had a flurry of butterflies warring with all the other emotions inside her, she went out into the hallway and got the largest, softest towel she could find from the linen closet. She brought it back into the bathroom, edged around him, and set the towel on the floor beside the tub. Then she climbed into the tub and lifted down the shower-head. She climbed carefully back out again. She didn't usually use the hose, herself, but now she could see its usefulness. She gestured at the towel and swallowed. Link smiled at her and then slowly, painfully knelt down beside the tub.
Tracy suddenly didn't know what to do. She'd never washed someone else's hair before. What if she got soap in his eyes? She gave him the shower-head to hold and she rushed back out of the bathroom to grab another towel, this one to let him wipe his eyes and dry off his hair.
When she came back in, he'd started the water and was testing the temperature. She hung the towel on the rack beside her and waited for him to finish. Before he put the shower-head into her waiting hand, though, he took hold of her hand and kissed it. Fighting back tears—again—she took the shower-head from him and started trying to wash his hair without touching it. All that achieved was to dribble him with water. He pulled his head out of the stream and wiped off his face with his hand. She felt like sinking into the floor. He just smiled.
"You might want to try working in the shampoo first," he said. She must have looked stricken, because he quickly said, "Or I could do that."
"No, of course," Tracy said, feeling like an idiot for not realizing that. "I can do it. You just relax." She started to reach for the bottle, forgetting that she had the shower-head in one hand.
"Whoa! Whoa..." he said, grabbing her hand before she soaked the rest of him and sprayed the bathroom floor.
No, sinking into the floor would definitely not be enough! ...but he just smiled at her.
"You're doing great," he said.
"Yeah, right," she said under her breath as he took the shower-head back from her.
She squeezed out a dollop of shampoo. Was that enough?
"A little bit more, maybe," he said. She squirted some more. He nodded.
"Sorry if it's a bit gross," he said, turning back to bow over the tub, still holding the shower-head pointed safely downward.
She rubbed the shampoo on her hands and...reached down and touched his hair. It was hard and yes, a bit gross. But it was him. She tried to be gentle.
"You can work it in a bit more," he said. "Unless you want to be here for a while." Amazingly, he still seemed to be smiling.
She did her best, making him into a slightly yellowed-looking soapy mess. When it looked about right, she sprayed water on him and his hair immediately flattened down. She pulled the shower-head away when his hair looked mostly cleaned out, worried that she'd put soap in his eyes. His eyes were closed and he waved his hand for the shower-head. She gave it to him. He carefully used it on his face, then handed it back to her. She tried to hand him the towel, but he shook his head.
"One more round," he said, wiping the water out of his eyes and dripping some on the floor beside the tub. "It's not quite clean yet."
"Oh right," she said, and they repeated the process. This time was a little different, though. It wasn't just the lack of slightly-disturbing yellow. Tracy felt more comfortable doing it this second time because she knew what to expect. And Link seemed to relax, as much as it was possible for him to relax while he was hunched awkwardly over a tub. She even thought she heard him moan once and it didn't seem to be in a pained way, but she couldn't be sure because he never made another sound until she'd turned off the water and he'd started to try to rub his head dry with the towel. Then he said, "Ow."
"What is it?" she asked.
"It just hurts to do this," he said, partly muffled by the towel, but he kept rubbing, finally emerging from the towel half a minute later.
"Do you need any more help?" she asked, fascinated by how he looked with his hair sticking out in all different directions. Kind of cute, actually. Cuddlable.
She needed to get out of this bathroom, and fast.
"Nope, I'm all set," he said, flashing her a lovely, but tired, smile. Her cue to exit.
Tracy was sitting on a chair beside the couch when he emerged from the bathroom, feeling almost like a new man. She looked up when he approached and she smiled beatifically.
"Hey," she said softly, standing up. They needed to be quiet to avoid disturbing her parents.
"Hey," he answered, feeling pleasantly warmed at the sight of her. When he got within kissing distance, he did just that. He loved the way she filled his arms with softness. He felt as though if he could just wrap himself around her and go to sleep, he'd have the best night of sleep in his life, bruises or no.
He gently disengaged and she smiled up at him.
"Good night," she said.
"Good night. And thank you for everything."
"I'm glad you came here."
She walked a few steps away, looking just as reluctant as he felt to be parted. She smiled as she drifted away and he suddenly, impulsively, said, "I love you, Tracy Turnblad."
She stopped and turned, her eyes a little wide. Then something seemed to change in her and her beatific smile returned. She ran the few steps back to him and kissed him. It hurt for him to bend over to reach her, but the pain was dwarfed by his amazement at and enjoyment of her.
"I love you too, Link Larkin!"
They were quiet for a long moment and then Tracy backed up again, finally turning away and rounding the couch and making it to the doorway of the living room this time.
"Good night," she said.
"Good night," he answered, and watched her disappear into her bedroom. When her door clicked shut, he sighed and settled himself down on the couch. He ended up leaving his legs propped up on some pillows with his feet dangling over the edge, but he'd never felt more comfortable falling asleep in his entire life.
He finally felt like he was home.
September 18, 2010
Copyright 2010 Rachel Smith Cobleigh