The world stood -- towered -- all around him, huge and steady but buzzing with a confused mass of activity. Walking close to the pale red brick wall, he tried to take in everything happening around him.
Even though he had done this every day of his life for as long as he could remember, it was hard. The world was so big and he was so very small (he thought he was small, anyway -- he’d always been told he was small) and things were always happening around him. He watched some big people go past, laughing and talking, their voices a hum of overlapping noise, clothes weird and weirdly-colored and he didn’t even get a look at their faces before they were gone and a hurried tall person in a blur of dark-colored clothing walked past carrying something and looking impatient, and then he was gone around a corner, and then came someone with a dog who was tugging her along and --
There were so many people. It was always terrifying, overwhelming.
A hand grabbed the scruff of his shirt roughly, tugging him closer to a warm body. He twisted to look up at a familiar face -- a boy with shaggy, dirty blond hair and stormy grey-blue eyes. The bigger boy made a vague motion with his hand, and he followed the direction of the motion automatically, recognizing the subtle gesture for what it was. The hand released him and he moved without prompting towards the crowd gathering at the crosswalk, cars and vans and trucks of all kinds of colors passing the corner in a blur of motion and color.
He hung back until the cars started slowing down and the muddled mass began to move across like some invisible gate had been opened. He moved forward then, focused on the tall man in nice-looking clothes whom his associate had motioned to, reaching, stretching amidst the blur of motion, removing a leather wallet and quickly pocketing its contents with his hands close to his stomach, and as soon as they were all across, dropping the wallet and turning to go down the sidewalk to the left while the man continued forward.
He came to the next crosswalk and headed back across and up to where he’d first been, and only when he set eyes on the familiar gaunt-but-young face did he take an adequately deep breath -- and found himself panting, for how little he’d actually been breathing. He joined his companion without a word. They walked for a while, probably. He stared at the shoulders presented to him silently, thinking about what they might eat and when, until the entrance to a familiar alley snapped him from his listless reverie. They entered it side-by-side and he dug in his pocket for the fold of bills he’d collected earlier, turning it over unquestioningly.
It had been like this for as long as he’d remembered -- watching the boy do this kind of work, following him amidst the confusion and scuffle that he saw the world as. He sat down, curled up, beside a large, solid dumpster, metal cold at his back, and shivered, but drew comfort from the familiarity, the quiet -- a peace and calm he could never find out there in the terrifying, overwhelming world. He never quite knew where he was or what was happening outside of this alley -- couldn’t find anything solid or unchanging in his surroundings. Just the boy and him and his home.
The boy was pacing now, up and down on the cold, faintly grimy asphalt ground. When he came near enough, the littler of them reached out and grasped the fabric of his tattered shorts, not knowing why he felt such an impulse and not wanting to.
“Huh?” The boy looked down at him as if he’d been slapped rather than grabbed, then his expression changed and the little boy felt warmer, better, at the shift. The older of them knelt down, unfastening the hand from his clothing, and pulled the little child forward and then back into himself as he slipped behind. He was murmuring something as he did it but the child barely heard him, barely paid attention -- he simply savored the warmed wrapping around him now, the familiarity, the comfort.
Then things were quiet and dark for a little while. Sleep wasn’t something he would comprehend until he was older.
When he opened his eyes, feeling like his mind was being drawn from a thick, dark sludge, the world was dim, cold, silvery-grey, leached of its color, and quiet.
It was a good discovery to make -- to find the world so still and pleasantly easy to observe and calm. The dark sludge lingered on his sluggish mind, and he drew himself quietly upright, feeling limp arms fall away from him. He twisted to look at his companion, soundly unaware of the movement, and considered curling back up in the warmth beside the older boy. But, glancing around at their dark surroundings and being able to absorb and observe the area without the disruptive, awful, overwhelming activity, he found himself wanting to leave the safety of their alley and go see what the world was like in this strange, dark, quiet state.
He drew farther from the boy and stood, further examining the narrow alley. Dim light flittered from somewhere on the other side of the dumpster beside which he and his companion had sheltered, giving the brick walls it touched a strange, pale cast. He approached the mouth of the alley through which the light came on light feet, and peered out, squinting . The street was quiet, the sidewalk uninhabited, and the tall, thick metal poles lining both sides of the blacktop were casting down a strangely whitish light.
He looked up, curious to know the source, eyes narrowed against the harsh light. It took a few moments for the light to seemingly recede to the point where he could make out a thinner metal rod extending in a curve towards the street from the tall poles, holding there a round and eye-burningly bright ball of white, casting light from its center. He turned away and closed his eyes, spots wavering against the black. He reopened them a second later and blinked, unnerved by how they seemed to be blocking his vision. He couldn’t see --
No, it’d be okay. It was the same kind of thing that happened when he looked at the sun, right? It’d go away. He took a shaky breath and tried to blink away the Tamping down whatever panic he felt rising, he looked around the still-quiet world and took in the sharply contrasting shadows, the empty streets.
He considered going back for a moment before stepping out onto the sidewalk and turning towards the pale sickle moon, hanging low far ahead.
The streets were huge and empty and they seemed to go on /forever/. He felt small and slow and a little overwhelmed, but in a completely different way. It was so...unfamiliar, and it felt as if he was taking in every alien sign and color for the first time. By the time he’d taken a few reluctantly curious turns, he wasn’t sure where he was.
He was scared, clinging to the wall, wishing he could navigate these streets without shaking like he was. At the same time, he didn’t want to go back. He wanted to stay there and look more, see what else was different.
Cautiously, haltingly, he proceeded onward.
The world was big and quiet and beautiful.
He wasn’t scared anymore, he realized after a time, aimlessly making turns or going straight at his whim. The sky was lighter now, almost the color of his friend’s eyes, calm and he felt light and happy.
It was by chance that he came across his alley again, recognizing it only by the blue and white streaks on one of the walls. His friend called it...graffiti, or some word like that that his tongue never really wanted to form. (His mind snapped onto it and remembered, sharper than he could understand. It was this sharpness that kept him alive.)
He felt his limbs dragging, his eyes heavy and a little watery, and he turned into the gap, wishing only to curl up in the warmth of a loose grip and --
The quiet in the alley felt wrong. He walked forward with a sense of dread and nervousness -- his friend was curled up a few feet from where he’d left him, lying there, utterly limp. The child ran the few remaining feet and grabbed the boy’s shoulder, shaking it, desperation swelling as tears in his eyes. It was only after the tears trickled down his cheeks that he saw the red pooling, the way it had stained his friend’s hair, his clothes --
The child scrambled back, breathing harsh and panicky, and as soon as he managed to stumble to his feet, ran.
He was an intelligent child. He understood that his friend wasn’t okay.
He spent the daylight hours withering in another little alley, wedged uncomfortably behind a dumpster once again -- the red was sticky between his fingers even when it dried, and he felt snot and tears and saliva clogging his head, nevermind demanding hunger -- but he felt sick, like he could vomit up something he hadn’t eaten. When the hot orange sunset turned the brick walls yellow-tinged, he crawled from his hiding spot and curled up, a little less cramped but still feeling terror and illness winding through his body. Darkness rose up around him like a curtain of ice.
He cried into the crook of his elbow. What had happened? Who would hurt someone like that? If he hadn’t gotten up -- if he’d been there -- what would’ve happened?
He was terrified and alone. And hungry. He needed to find food in the morning, or he’d be no better off than his friend. It was with a sense of horrible aching that he fell asleep.
He didn’t understand, and he wouldn’t for a long time, but his instincts were strong and his mind was sharp -- he’d never know how many ways that would save him. He would set aside emotion and do what he knew he had to, as he always would.
When daylight again painted the horizon soft, he awoke, nose clogged and throat and eyes sore, fingers still sticky but the traces of red rubbed mostly away.
He stumbled to his feet and went out to do his work.
The wad of money in his pocket was thick and he, cleaned up as well as he could be, walked into a restaurant, the sign of which he couldn’t read, and approached the counter confidently. In this end of the city, it wasn’t all that weird for parents to leave their children to go to restaurants on their own -- eight and nine year olds -- but he didn’t know that. He only knew what his friend had always done, saying they were brothers and their parents let them out and no one asked or took a second, closer look -- maybe, he might think when he was older, because he was meant to lead such a life.
“Your brother not with you today, kid?” asked the young man working the counter, and the child shook his head, the words registering in his mind. “The usual, then?” A nod, and the young man called something that always flew over the boy’s head to the back, then accepted the small wad of cash offered to him. It looked like about what his “brother” had always given. The child sniffed and accepted the small amount returned to him.
One day, he would wonder at how no one looked, no one saw -- it was like destiny was shielding the truth from everyone to torture him a little longer, like it had to happen that way. He wouldn’t understand why for a long time. For the moment, he was a nameless little child, waiting for destiny to let someone see. For the moment, this was all he’d ever known.