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The City In Which I Never Slept

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I don't want love to destroy me like it has done my family.

Can we work it out? Can we be a family?
I promise I'll be better.

 

-

 

”So, you mean to tell me that there’s no one to pick you up?” He looked at her, jaw hanging slack. The madness of letting a little girl walk home alone this late, Lance thought it completely absurd. He couldn’t believe his ears.

“Yeah.”

“But, there’s gotta be someone who takes care of you?” he tried asking, but she just shrugged and continued tying her shoes. Just as he thought he’d been ignored, Raven spoke.

“I live with my older brother, but he’s working so I have to go alone.” She finally glanced up at Lance, briefly, genuinely unfazed by the situation. What seven-year-old behaves like this?

“But it’s fine,” she continued, unbothered, “Big bro taught me how to walk home on my own.” she smiled hesitantly and got up from the floor, content with the tried bows. Lance just stared, dumbfounded. She has a brother? A brother who— might he add— was currently nowhere to be seen.

Lance sighed. He decided right then and there what must be done, and as much as he disliked his own idea, the situation called for it.

“I’ll drive you home.” he blurted out.

“You don’t have to, I’ll be OK.”

He sighed and grabbed his jacket from the hook on which it hung by the front entrance; the same green, worn jacket that he’s had for years now. His mother keeps ushering him to buy a new one, but each time he refuses. There’s just something about that ugly, vomit-colored jacket that he loves so much.

Of course I have to, I can’t let a little girl walk through the streets of Manhattan this late by herself. And besides, it’ll be much quicker with my car.” he patted her head and proceeded with putting on his plain, white sneakers. Most certainly not the nicest outfit he owns, but he figured it held no importance. His stupid, cringe-inducing, marvel T-shirt, vomit-jacket and worn jeans would do for now. After all, he was just about to drop her off at her place and then leave. If he’s lucky, he might not even need to exit the car.

“Ma! I’m gonna drop off Raven, Veronica is coming with me!” he yelled over his shoulder, half listening for a faint reply from his mother.

Raven frowned and crossed her skinny arms over her chest, but she didn’t resist his offer. His sister tagged along and the two girls sat down in the backseat of his old Audi.

 

-

 

Of the four of them, Lance held the title of older brother. Oldest, to be exact. After him came Marco, then Luis and last his little sister, Veronica –only seven. She met Raven her first day of elementary.

Veronica Lance liked to describe as a bright kid, always hungry for attention and love. For this reason, any concerns Lance might hold— of her not making friends, for instance— were non-existent. Although, he never really envisioned the type of friends Veronica would make. Three days after the start of her first term, she came home with a little girl her age by her side. Her pitch-black hair came down past her lithe and pale shoulders. Black bangs masked her eyes, although Lance discovered from the short moment those eyes met his that they were a deep, mesmerizing, violet. Her name was Raven, his sister informed him, and she and Veronica had now become friends. Her beauty was unmistakable— Lance thought— with her big, violet eyes and soft, flushed cheeks. Still, something about her rubbed him the wrong way. Her paleness and that dark, mess of hair on her head. Overall, she reminded Lance of a porcelain doll – too perfect. It didn’t help that she spoke like a twelve-year-old either, as if she had been forced to grow up way too early.

But she grew on him, and after a few weeks he caught himself smiling at Raven’s and Veronica’s distant chuckling. She made Veronica happy, always brought a smile to his sister’s face. Lance intended to show his gratitude for that someday, somehow.

The fact that they were getting along well warmed his heart, and as time went on the two girls got closer. Raven would stay at their place for longer and longer as sleepovers became all the more frequent— and although Lance had nothing against it— he always found it strange how no one ever came to pick her up. A little child, barely seven, and yet she walked home on her own every day. Either she’s been taught how to, or there is no other choice for her. He did, however, notice her regularly make calls on her cheap little flip phone. The calls were always short.

 

Whatever the circumstances were, unfortunate or otherwise, Lance considered it something he shouldn’t meddle with. At least that’s what he thought— until today. With seven-o-clock fast approaching, her walking home alone in no way screamed safety to Lance. The thought alone— of all the possible horror scenarios that might potentially occur if she’s left unguarded— made his skin crawl. His vivid imagining only got him so far, though.

Then there was that very specific, disgusting breed of people slithering around Manhattan at this hour. Those would certainly never miss digging a gold-mine like Raven. As much as he hates to admit it, she’s a beautiful little girl and there’s all kinds of sickos out there. What’s worse: they’d glory in attacking an innocent little kid.

He had been granted the horrific opportunity of experiencing the scums of Manhattan up close and personal his first day in New York city. He had been waiting for his buss home to arrive after a long first day of college when he was suddenly cornered by a group of creeps, the likes of which are overdramatized in old, cheesy, American high-school movies. You know the trope.

 

With that in mind, he refused to allow anything of the sort to happen to Raven. She managed to become more than just Veronica’s friend. Raven put a smile on Vic’s lips every time she came over and Lance remained forever thankful for that.

 

-

 

All Raven told him ended being the street on which they lived on, not much more. She told him that she walked home every day, so she’s clueless as to how to get there by other means.

He drove along the same street for what felt like hours, cluelessly albeit stubbornly trying his hardest to find Raven’s apartment. Raven tried helping as much as possible, but it didn’t help much. Lance couldn’t even blame her. It took them what felt like centuries to finally find her place.

 

With the car parked right outside Raven’s apartment complex, he decided to at least check who her caretaker is— this so-called brother whom she speaks so fondly of (no, he’s not jealous). Raven mentioned something about how she never really knew her parents, which he suspected meant they’re deceased, or at least that’s what he got from their earlier conversation. She, of course, mentioned an older brother, too. Multiple times, actually. From that information alone— plus what he knows about her— it’s safe to say that the image of her brother in Lance’s mind was one not worthy of a parade. Lance’s initial tough led to the unfortunate, sad summary of a lazy, presumably drug-addicted dude who is either neglecting her entirely or is abusive to some extent.

 

The entire complex stank of neglect and years of mold, uncleaned vomit and God-knows-what. It was utterly run down and ruined from years— no, decades— of crazy residents and appalling accidents. That conclusion he made judging by the distant shrieking and wailing coming from one of the apartments, and the foul smell which attacked his senses the moment he stepped foot inside the complex. They took the shabby, old elevator— which suggested it might break down any second— to the 12th floor. Raven appeared casual about the whole situation, not even slightly fazed by the odor, or the abnormality of it all in general. Still too young to notice or care about those things? Possibly. Or maybe Raven was simply used to it…

 

 

Once they were out of the claustrophobia-inducing elevator, he and Veronica followed Raven to the door at the end of the hallway. The dark wood of the once-varnished door told stories of feisty animals and clumsy grocery-carriers— its bumps and scratches revealing its age. To Lance’s surprise, someone had at least attempted to decorate the ugly thing, the entrance in general. Unlike the other doors, this one had a welcome matt in front of it as well as an old Christmas decoration hanging from a hook on the door. Not the best decorating, but he gave it an A for effort.

Raven rang the doorbell as Lance –with Veronica by his side— stood behind her stiffly, suddenly hyper-aware of his unwelcome presence, his hands awkwardly shoved down his pockets. Lance noticed a new-formed hole in his pocket, which explained the money-goblin situation he had been experiencing.

He gulped, having no idea what to expect anymore.

There wasn’t much time to consider a pose that looked less awkward, for the next moment the heavy door swung open, and Lance might as well had been whiplashed right then and there because it sure felt like a direct blow to his chest when he took in the sight in front of him. Rather than “a sight”, Lance would describe it as an experience— an epiphany.

“Raven? What took you so long?” the man at the door asked, surprised by the two strangers standing behind Raven.

Lance shivered at the hoarse, dark voice which left the guy’s lips, and drooled over what he was seeing. His skin: just as pale and spotless, and his eyes: a deep, violet color like Raven’s. Lance noticed the contrasting spots which covered his body: beauty marks. The hair on his head was so pitch black that if it weren’t for its shine, Lance might have confused it for a void, and –is that a mullet?

He shook off the thought.

The stranger at the door sported skin-tight, black jeans and a black T-shirt which clung to his chest and shoulders and left little to the imagination. He wasn’t buff or anything, but Lance could tell that the guy works out. The stretched fabric and the strong, toned arms spoke for themselves.  

“I’m sorry but Lance said he couldn’t let me walk home by myself.” Raven answered in monotone and pointed back at Lance as she did, who cursed her for not giving him time to compose himself. The guy looked up from Raven and his mesmerizing, sunset-painted gaze met Lance’s.

“I take it you’re Lance?”

He stretched out his right hand towards Lance and it took Lance a moment to figure out that the dude was trying to be polite. He nervously reached for the outstretched hand that had been offered to him and shook it just a tad bit too eagerly. The guy barely flinched.

“Uh, y-yeah. That’s me!” he stammered and resorted to winking nervously at the confused stranger in front of him.

He could feel the heat rising in his cheeks and neck and prayed that his dark complexion hid whatever catastrophe was currently occurring on his face. He tried for a smirk, but it probably came out more like a grimace.

Screw you and your godly genetics, Lance cursed the guy in his head. Seriously, who made these two?

“Cool, thanks for droppin’ her off. ’m Keith, Raven’s brother.” Keith smiled, and Lance’s stomach flipped. He cursed himself for not wearing something nicer the one time he would meet the most gorgeous being in the universe. He usually never went anywhere without looking his goddamned best, but today of all days he had decided to leave that part of him in bed.

“Nice to meet you, Keith.” This time he at least managed to smile back. Score!

Keith chuckled weakly at his awkwardness and Lance couldn’t help but notice how genuinely tired he looked. The dark circles under his eyes told Lance the ugly truth of just how unwelcome the visit was. It didn’t seem like the guy has been getting much sleep lately. Not to mention, if you ask Lance, skinny jeans are definitely not something people typically wear casually around the house. He must have gotten off work recently. Lance wondered what kind of job this guy had. His first guess would be modelling, considering…

“Wanna come in?” he suddenly asked, and only then did Lance realize that neither Veronica nor Raven were anywhere to be seen.

“They went inside to play.” Keith said, as if having read his mind.

Lance gulped as discreetly as possible and accepted Keith’s half-hearted offer. It wouldn’t hurt to see what Raven’s situation was like at home, he lied to himself. However, he refused to carry the title of ‘a major bother’ again either.

“Are you sure? You must be tired, we don’t wanna be a bother or anything—“

“It’s alright.” Keith cut off, “I don’t mind, I’ve still got time before I need to head off to work, and besides,” He turned towards the apartment where faint giggling could be heard, “They seem to be having fun.”

Keith smiled at him again. Out of politeness, Lance assumed. He didn’t give off particularly friendly or outgoing vibes. A frown was plastered on that pretty face of his as if part of his being. Lance appreciated the gesture either way and stepped inside.

 

Their apartment seemed almost just as run-down as the rest of the complex. He—yet again— noticed how some effort had been put forth to make the place seem more… livable. Although, by the looks of it, Lance though it relatively neglected. Not cared for enough.

“Hey, man. Do you mind me asking where you work?”

Keith stilled at the sudden question. He turned towards Lance and looked somewhere between offended and amused. He laughed and crossed his arms, which, by the way, should be illegal.

“I work as both a bartender and a waiter in two separate places.” he said, “Why are you asking? Is it really that bad?” he asked, looking around absentmindedly, “I don’t have much time for decorating the place or even cleaning, so it is what it is.” He said, not bothering to listen for his reply. Keith’s frown deepened. One could almost see the cogs turning in his brain.

Lance couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Two jobs at once? Meaning… he works all day and night? He regretted ever asking anything. It just seemed so rude now.

“I’m sorry, didn’t mean to—” he tried apologizing, but Keith cut him off, “It’s OK, I don’t blame you.” he laughed once more and then walked into the kitchen, leaving no room for discussion.

Lance followed suit, careful not to ask something offensive again. He was aware of his big mouth and his tendencies to say whatever occupied his mind in the moment, not the best for hitting on hot, older brothers, he thought.

 

Lance noticed how the apartment was full of things. Posters and paintings decorated the walls, and shelves were packed with dusty books, dead plants and other nick-nacks. He picked up a small lion figurine from one of the shelves in the kitchen and studied it closer. It was golden and decorated with colorful crystals. Despite its appearance, he knew its cost hadn’t been big, considering how light-weight it felt. He put it back on the shelf and studied the rest of the apartment.

 

It was small, and there wasn’t much space to move. The kitchen area and the living room were separated by a half-wall and some counters. The kitchen itself was crammed, consisting only of a few counters, a stove, fridge and a small table by the window on the right side. Their living room was to the left of the kitchen and only slightly bigger. Big enough to fit a regular-sized TV, a sofa and a bunch of sacks and pillows. The hallway Lance was currently standing in lead to what looked like two separate bedrooms, a storage and a bathroom. Overall, the place was, in short: tiny. It looked generally unlived in, so he assumed Keith and Raven lived alone in this shack of an apartment and spent little time in it. If it weren’t for the excessive hoarding and the dust covering everything with a thick layer, this place might be relatively nice to live in. Lance’s love for smaller apartments was undeniable, probably because his were always too big.

 

“I’ve heard a lot about you from Raven. You’re not from here, right?”

The question snapped Lance out of his own thoughts. Keith had his back turned to him and was pouring them something to drink. What a lovely sight, that shirt definitely left little to be imagined,  Lance embarrassingly thought, baffled by his own, lustful thinking.

 “Aw, she mentioned me? Well, I hope she told you good things. I’m usually not this awkward, just a long day.” he answered and leaned against one of the counters as casually as possible, opposite of where Keith was standing.

He continued, “And yes, I’m not from here. My family is originally from Cuba, so we speak Spanish at home.” he added confidently, smirking ad expecting the same starstruck reaction he always gets, but Keith snorted. Snorted!

“Cuba? Cool, but I meant that you’re not from New York.”

Oh.

“W-well… no. I’m originally from Utah.” he explained, deflated and embarrassed. Dammit! That always works!

“Cool.” was all Keith had to say, to Lance’s utter disappointment. He turned around and handed Lance a glass of juice.

Juice? How… hardcore…

“Sorry, I haven’t had time to go shopping yet.” Keith quickly explained.

Lance swore at this point that that the guy reads thoughts.

He took the glass Keith offered and studied him closer. He noticed how Keith’s hands were marked with scratches and bruises, big and ugly. These were the hands of someone who gets into a lot of fights. Keith’s arms were generally very bruised and scratched up. The guy sported a big, blue bruise on the right side of his jaw that Lance hadn’t noticed before. He decided not to bring it up.

“It’s alright, I love juice!”

Keith scoffed and raised a brow.

“Are you joking?”

“What? I’m serious! Don’t mock me!”

“I appreciate your kindness, but you don’t have to lie to me. I wish I had something more fitting to offer.” he said and looked over to where Veronica and Raven were playing on the floor. Lance caught a glimpse of something dark, unreadable in those violet sunsets, but just as quickly as it appeared it vanished. Keith covered it by smiling faintly before returning to the comfort of his ever-present frown.

Lance felt himself getting more irritated by the second. This guy was really something else.  

“So, are you a college student?” Keith asked, changing the topic, “You don’t seem like someone who’d be working.”

Lance flinched at the snarky remark.

“Yes, I am, and for your information I am working.”

Lance spoke the truth, however, he decided to skip the detail of how he only worked once a week at a local McDonald’s. Compared to Keith’s inhumane hours, it seemed pathetic, like usual.

Keith chuckled at Lance’s irritation lightly, and the whole thing just made Lance’s blood boil. No matter how gorgeous the guy just so happened to be, and oh my God his laugh could melt ice, Lance deserved a better attitude. Hadn’t he willingly protected Raven her brother didn’t? Just as Lance was about to announce his and Vic’s leaving, Keith spoke up.

“Sorry, don’t get offended.” he took a sip of his juice before continuing, “You’re just very high maintenance and all so I figured that you’re probably not working fourteen hours a day like me.”

Lance narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

“Did you just compliment me on my appearance?”

“Maybe.”

He gulped down the rest of his drink and Lance watched as his Adam’s apple bop. He was suddenly hyper aware of the warmth in his cheeks for what felt like the millionth time that day.

Lance sighed and decided he might as well ask some questions himself, partially to rid himself of the awkward, all-around-the-clock-blush.

“Well, why are you working fourteen hours a day, then?” he asked, genuinely curious. Lance hoped to God that this sounded less offensive than it probably was.

“How else am I supposed to raise Raven?” Keith simply answered, no need for further explanation.

Lance could tell from the start that Raven’s parents weren’t in the picture, but Keith’s sudden change in posture made it all seem so much worse, so much realer. He feared the direction in which this conversation had gone.

“You’re raising Raven all on your own…? How old are you?” he asked, hesitantly.

“I’m 21.”

Twenty-one years old and he works fourteen hours daily and he’s raising a child on his own? He felt bad for the guy, but also felt himself getting more and more intrigued. He had to ask.

Don’t ask that, you idiot.

“Can’t your girlfriend or someone help you out?”

Good job, dumbass. You’re despicable.

“What are you talking about? I’m single, there’s no one to help me.”

Lance bit his lower lip, trying to keep his excitement from showing but failing miserably— judging by Keith’s confused expression. Lance reminded himself to be supportive and for a second not fanboy over Keith’s singleness.

That’s when he decided to just go for it. It stuck to the back of his head the moment Raven told him about Keith and had refused to leave his thoughts since.

“But, what about your parents then?”

Keith lowered his gaze.

“They died four years ago.”