Pairing: Michael and LJ (Gen)
Summary: (Pre-Series) Everyone has secrets that protect someone else…
Author's Notes: For the foxriver_fic February challenge, where I used the additional prompts of "cool, wet grass and bare feet," "a stuffed toy," and "a quietly shared secret." Written during a 60_minute_fics session with the prompt of "Bad News." Also for my prisonbreak100 table ("Children") and for my philosophy_20 claim ("Parallel").
When Michael rings the doorbell Lisa answers immediately, like she's already waited for him too long. She steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind her.
"Thanks for coming over, Michael— I really appreciate your doing this." She seems unsettled, though he would have thought she'd stopped caring a long time ago.
"I'm happy to do it. I know LJ was looking forward to seeing Lincoln today."
"I can't believe he got himself arrested again! It's like he doesn't care that he has a son, or that his behavior hurts other people too."
Michael has nothing to say to that. He's been down this road with Lincoln before, back when he was the child Lincoln was supposed to look after. "All we can do is go on with our lives. Without him, if we have to. So why don't I take LJ to the zoo instead?"
This was supposed to be Lincoln's Saturday with LJ, and Michael knows where they were going because Lincoln had been planning it for weeks— as soon as the weather got better, he said. Here it is, finally— a perfect, sunny Saturday after a week-and-a-half of gorgeous non-custodial days where the weather didn't matter.
"I'll go get him," Lisa says. "Why don't you come in and wait in the kitchen?"
Michael sits amid the dirty dishes and a half-eaten piece of toast and wonders if anything ever really changes.
"Uncle Mikey!" LJ comes tearing around the corner, fully dressed except for the missing tennis shoe on his left foot. "How come you're here?"
"I haven't seen you in a while," Michael says softly. "I thought we should go have some fun."
"Okay!" LJ hugs Michael from the side, beaming out from under his overgrown bangs.
"How about locating that other shoe, and then we'll go."
It takes twenty minutes to drive to the waterfront, during which Michael learns that LJ has a new best friend at school named Aaron and that they both hate girls and plan to play pro football when they grow up. "Really," Michael says, remembering his own ambitions of being a fireman or a chemist when he was LJ's age, and wondering why that combination never struck him as strange back then. "Do you like hot dogs?" he asks, already planning ahead to lunch.
"Do I!" LJ's grin is spontaneous and heartfelt, and Michael realizes that he doesn't know where that comes from— it's not Lincoln's smile, Lincoln's never been so carefree or innocent in his life.
When did he have the chance?
Once they get inside, LJ wants to go see the tigers right away— "In case they're awake"— and then the penguin house. Michael's glad they're getting the penguins out of the way early, because he can practically taste the smell in that place and much as he likes penguins, it's just too much.
After the primates, the bears and the elephants, LJ's dragging his feet a little and it seems like a good time for lunch. Michael gets both of them hotdogs from a cart vendor— the regular kind with ketchup and mustard for LJ, and a kielbasa dog for himself but no sauerkraut. They sit on a park bench in the sun, drinking 7up and eating their food in companionable silence.
"Can I take my shoes off and walk in the grass?" LJ asks when they're done.
"Sure, but let's check for broken glass first."
Michael's inspection reveals no threats, and after watching LJ scuff his toes through the soft grass and clover for a few minutes Michael takes off his own shoes and joins in. He's surprised at how good it feels, like something from his childhood he'd forgotten he liked. They didn't have a lot of grass where he grew up, and he always left the school grounds as fast as possible after school got out. This must be something he did when Mom was still alive, maybe on a visit to this very park.
"Uncle Mikey, how come Dad didn't come today? Mom told me on Wednesday he was going to."
Michael hates these kinds of questions. A kid LJ's age— only eight, young enough to believe that no-one he knows would ever do anything really bad… you can't tell him the real answer. But at the same time, Michael doesn't know how Lisa was planning to handle this, especially if Lincoln winds up going to prison again.
"Your Dad had something he had to do— something came up. But he told me he was really sorry he couldn't be here." Michael stops, because LJ's frowning and he doesn't look convinced. "He said we should get you something from the gift shop to make up for it," Michael improvises.
"Cool!" LJ says. He leans down and wipes his hands on the damp grass and then starts putting on his shoes. "I wonder what kind of toys they have?"
"I'll bet they have animals," Michael teases him.
As they head back inside the zoo, LJ takes Michael's hand. "If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone else?" LJ asks quietly.
LJ leans in closer and Michael bends down to hear him. "Sometimes I wish my Dad was more like you," LJ whispers.
"Oh," Michael says.
He tries to make it sound casual, like they're only talking about the weather or LJ's favorite color. But his emotions are so much stronger, an unexpected mixture of feeling flattered but also hurt on Lincoln's behalf, and yet understanding exactly what LJ means.
His nephew skips on ahead while Michael stands there with those thoughts knotting him up inside.
Yeah. Sometimes I do too.
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