When he came home to a police officer with a stern face and a sad smile, he knew things were about to change. It came to no surprise to him that Lewis had been caught doing what he did, and would be locked away for the next ten years, if not more. He didn‘t care about the details, really.
„I‘ll take care of my sister“, was the only thing he said and grabbed her hand. He may only have been sixteen, but she was five and for all of her life he‘d as good as raised her anyway.
He had no idea how he did it, but something must have convinced the cop that he could do it, or maybe he just didn‘t want the hassle of having to put another kid into the system.
An hour later, it was just the two of them.
Two weeks later, they had been thrown out of the house by the landlord, and Len had dropped out of school. He‘d quickly come to realise that the only way to get a roof over their head and to keep Lisa in school was to start working.
And so it started.
He‘d work whatever job he could get his hands on. He started out delivering newspapers at night, he flipped burgers, scrubbed people‘s toilets, wiped endless office floors. He wasn‘t old enough to be allowed to tend a bar yet, but sometimes he was allowed to clean up after closing time for a few bucks. He had secured them a tiny mousehole that masqueraded as an apartment, one small room with a refrigerator in a corner, a lumpy mattress and the wobbliest table Len had ever laid his eyes on.
It didn‘t matter though - it was a roof over their heads.
He worked out his priorities pretty quickly. First was always rent, to keep them in their apartment, and then there was Lisa‘s school. More than once he‘d go a day or two without eating, if it meant that Lisa had the supplies she needed. He took on a fourth job just to make sure that he‘d be able to afford her school lunch, making sure that she got at least one full, warm meal a day. Lisa needed to be clothed properly. He couldn‘t afford anything new, but before he even glanced at a used shirt for himself he‘d rather buy her a full outfit to make sure she was presentable for school.
Once child services started dropping by to see if Lisa was taken care of properly, he dragged in a shelf from the streets, one with a broken board but otherwise usable, and made sure to keep Lisa‘s school supplies there. He also found a chair that was slightly cracked and a bit wobbly but mostly stable still, so Lisa could sit and do her homework.
He made sure to bring her to school every morning, and pick her up again in the afternoon after he‘d done two shifts of whatever he was currently able to do, and he always, always, always made sure that she did her homework. He knew they weren‘t in a good place, and that with dropping out of school, he‘d pretty much thrown his own future, but Lisa was everything he had, and he would make sure that this would not be her fate. She would get an education, and a good job, so she might be able to earn some proper money, get a proper place to live in, have a good life.
It always broke his heart to see her long for things that he couldn‘t give her: a trip to the zoo, a movie in the cinema, a pair of new shoes, or even something as simple as a bag of chips. He cursed himself sometimes, for being so useless, but he knew he was doing his best. He knew that giving in and stealing would be easier, but he needed to be a good example for Lisa, and he needed to stay clean so he wouldn‘t go to prison and leave her all alone with no one to look after her.
Even when he turned eighteen, and started to have some experience under his belt, it proved impossible for him to find better-paid jobs, or even jobs that he could do for longer than a few months. It hurt when he scored a job picking up trash, and they sent him to Lisa‘s school. He tried to tune out the children laughing at him for ‚not having a proper job‘ and being ‚dumb‘, and he reminded himself that he did this for Lisa. He didn‘t matter. He‘d always been someone who‘d fallen though the cracks, so it wasn‘t like this was different. And child services only checked up on Lisa, not on him. He was her caretaker now, so it was his job to make sure that she had everything that she needed.
Lisa yelled at him sometimes, for not buying her things that all her friends had, and for making her live in such a shitty place while her friends lived in big apartments or houses with lots of things of their own. Len didn‘t really know what to say to that, knowing that she was too young to truly understand that even though he was giving his all, this was the best they could get.
He managed to find a curtain somewhere that was only a little torn, and a bed that was so worn down that they sold it for almost nothing at the second hand store, and he set her up her own „room“ in a curtained off corner of the apartment. The last social worker who‘d been there to check on everything had expressed concerns about Lisa‘s privacy, considering she was a young, growing lady. Len didn‘t think Lisa was too uncomfortable sleeping in one room with him, but he wanted to make sure that they never, ever had anything to be worried about, so he grit his teeth and skipped a few dinners to buy her her own bit of privacy. And if that meant that he was on the floor now in his old, disgusting sleeping bag because she had the mattress and the blankets, then so be it.
Sometimes though it just wasn‘t enough. Sometimes he‘d work twenty hours in a day and then spent two more trying to maintain their little space, fix any leaks and get Lisa prepped for the next day before falling into bed dead, and it still wasn‘t enough. Sometimes he still couldn‘t afford to pay for Lisa‘s lunch, or she had to borrow paper from a classmate before he could manage to buy her a new notepad.
And really, that was a no-go. He knew that if child services came and checked on them on a day that Lisa hadn‘t had lunch and he also couldn‘t afford any dinner, it would be over. No child should have only breakfast and nothing else the whole day, and he knew it. It hurt him to not be able to provide for Lisa properly. And as, one month, their rent was on the line because they had cut his hours in three out of four jobs, he pushed away his pride and went out on the streets.
He knew it wasn‘t technically legal, but it also wasn‘t really illegal like theft would be, so he figured he‘d be okay. He‘d tucked Lisa into bed one night and told her that he still needed to go out for a bit because he‘d found another job, and then he‘d slipped into a warehouse and bought the tightest, cheapest jeans he could find with the last of his money.
It didn‘t take long for him to find a place where others were waiting for customers, and he went up to them and leaned against a lamppost, trying to swallow his nerves.
His first customer seemed to be into nervous newbies, and Len gritted his teeth and bore it, then took the money that would buy them dinner for a whole week and went home, trying to forget what had just happened. Lisa would be fed, and that was what mattered.
It didn‘t become a regular thing after that, but from time to time when money was so tight that he couldn‘t keep Lisa fed, or when Lisa needed a book for school that he just wasn‘t able to buy her on their budget, he would go out for a night or two and spread his legs for strangers, knowing that it would put food on their table and keep Lisa out of the system.
Sometimes he wondered if he was being selfish or if it was good to keep Lisa with him. Maybe she‘d come into a loving home of a rich family, people that could give her everything she wanted. But he also knew of the stories of abuse, of mistreatments and neglect, of kids that were found somewhere in a ditch days, if not weeks after their death.
No. They didn‘t have much, but he knew that he was doing everything he could for Lisa. He always encouraged her to make friends, too, and tried to hide his pathetic gratefulness when she was invited over to a friend‘s house and could stay for dinner. He knew that the parents of Lisa‘s friends all looked down on him, the scrawny kid with baggy, worn clothes and permanent dark shadows under his eyes, but he didn‘t care. Those people were not his problem.
He hated the days when he worked so much that he didn‘t see Lisa at all, when he had to leave the house before she got up for school and only came home when she had gone to bed already. He always peeked behind her curtain then to ensure herself that she was safe and sound, and went to check if she had done her homework. And they might have their differences, and they might get into fights often, but he‘d somehow gotten it into her that the one thing that mattered was that she succeeded in school, that she did well and stayed on top of her education so she would be able to get out of their situation one day. So every day, without fail, he would find her homework neatly done, and often a little star sticker for doing so well from her teacher on the homework from the day before.
Len was sure that he was the proudest big brother in the entire city.
Lisa‘s move out of elementary school meant more supplies, more expenses, pricier lunch. For a moment, he debated taking her out of the lunch system and trying to pack her lunch every day, but he knew that he didn‘t have time to pack her things every day, and that he also wouldn‘t consistently be able to put enough food on the table. And he liked the thought of her having a hot meal every day, and he certainly wouldn‘t be able to provide for that.
So, as he‘d done for several years now, Len smiled for his sister, tucked her into bed and kissed her forehead, and then went out to the streets. And once he‘d had a few customers, he would head home to wash up, then head out to clean the toilets of an office building and to sweep their floors. From there he‘d take the bus to a big bakery factory and drive the delivery truck to their stores for a few hours. It paid comparatively well, and they hadn‘t asked him for a driver‘s license. Len just hoped he wouldn‘t get stopped by the police. After that he‘d go and stock supermarket shelves for the day, and then he‘d sometimes find small tasks to do for money, like mow a lawn or walk a couple of dogs. There was an elderly lady in their neighbourhood who‘d somehow picked up on his situation, and she would pay him a lot of money for him to do her groceries for her, and sometimes she‘d even slip him something, like a loaf of bread or some apples, and if he was very lucky there‘d be the occasional box of cookies that he could give to Lisa.
Then he‘d go home and crash, and mostly he was asleep when Lisa came home, only waking to her sitting at the desk and trying to figure out her homework. He‘d get up to fix them dinner, or at least fix Lisa dinner, if it wasn‘t enough for the two of them, and then he‘d stay up with her until she needed to go to bed.
And still… and still, sometimes it wasn‘t enough. Sometimes he‘d work his ass off and still he wouldn‘t be able to eat for too many meals on end. He‘d fainted on the job, once, because he hadn‘t eaten in too long, and now he knew that with one more slip-up, he‘d lose that job. He couldn‘t afford that.
Sometimes there were weeks when he had to send Lisa to school without money for lunch, and it always hurt him. Secretly, he hoped that maybe her friends would share a little of their lunch, but he knew he couldn‘t ask them to.
He was close to tears when one day at the end of the week where he‘d had to buy new shoes for Lisa and a book that they were reading in class, as well as new working gloves for himself, he‘d had to send Lisa to school without money for lunch, and now they didn‘t have enough for dinner, either.
He‘d already planned to go out to the streets again, but customers wouldn‘t be turning up until nighttime, so it was no use going now and hoping that he‘d make enough to get them dinner.
„Lenny… I ate lunch today,“ Lisa told him then, and Len froze.
Lisa looked down and fidgeted with her pen that she hadn‘t cleared away after doing her homework yet, and Len clamped down on the urge to tell her to put it down so she wouldn‘t break it because new pens were expensive.
„Mick said that as long as I can pay most of the time he‘ll give me lunch even if I have no money because I‘m nice and I look like I need it.“
Len sat down across from her, on the more wobbly one of the two chairs picked out of dumpsters by now.
„And this Mick is who, exactly?“
Lisa rolled her eyes and scoffed. Len knew that he was being overprotective, but he didn‘t care. He needed to keep her safe, after all.
„Mick‘s the cook at school. He‘s nice, I like him.“
„And he gives you… lunch for free?“
Lisa nodded, frowning at Len‘s doubtful tone. „He does! He said to just come and ask for some...“
Len swallowed. He hoped that Mick guy wasn‘t a creeper who expected different forms of payment in the end. He‘d heard of people who did good and helped others out of the good of their hearts, but he doubted that someone like that would appear just when he needed it.
„Hm… say thank you to him, will you? And ask him if he wants some form of payment for that from me?“
He hoped that Lisa hadn‘t caught on to what he was doing at night, and he also wanted to never do it anywhere in her vincinity, but if fucking the school cook would get her a hot meal every day he‘d do so without hesitation.
Lisa frowned at him, but nodded. „I‘ll ask him.“
That was the last he heard of that for several weeks, until Lisa came home one day with a takeaway container of food in her hands.
„Mick said I should take some leftovers home because he‘ll need to throw them out otherwise,“ she explained and opened the container up to reveal a casserole with meat and cheese and actual vegetables in it… Len didn‘t know when he‘d last seen something that delicious. He clamped down on his hunger pains though and handed her a fork.
„You should eat it, then. How come he‘s suddenly giving you leftovers?“
Lisa, angel that she was, actually went and picked up a bowl, dividing the meal into half and handing the bowl to him. Len was too starved to protest that she should have all of it, and just tried not to cry as he stuffed his face with the cold casserole. They still didn‘t have a microwave or anything to heat food with, after all.
„I told him what you said and he asked why I only sometimes had money, and I said you were working a lot but that sometimes the money just wasn‘t enough...“ She squirmed a little and looked to the side. „He asked if I get dinner every day.“
Len put down the bowl, feeling sick. He knew Lisa was ashamed about the way they lived, just like he was, but he always, always tried his best, but he knew that if it came out that Lisa only had dinner four to five times a week, she‘d be in the system before he could blink an eye.
„What did you tell him?“ he asked, almost surprised that his voice was even audible with how closed up with fear his throat was.
Lisa looked down, fidgeting with her fork. „I‘m sorry, Lenny. I know I shouldn‘t, but… he said if I didn‘t have dinner all the time he could give me some so I told him that we don‘t… that we only have dinner most days...“
Len sighed, putting down his fork. It wouldn‘t do to get angry at her now. She didn‘t know better, he reminded himself. She didn‘t always have in mind what was at stake for them. For a moment, he wondered why he hadn‘t just screwed it all and become a master thief or something. At least he wouldn‘t have money problems. But he knew he wanted to set an example for Lisa, and to keep her out of trouble. And for Lisa, he‘d do anything. So he swallowed down his panic and gave her a smile.
„It‘s alright… it‘s alright, Lise. I‘ll go talk to him this week, alright? See what this is about.“ He would need to skip his delivery driving for that one, and that might cost him that job, but he would just have to find another one then. First he needed to make sure that this Mick wouldn‘t call the authorities on him for child neglect or some such.
And so, on a Thursday morning, Len found himself in the cafeteria of Lisa‘s school, knocking on the door to the kitchen.
The door was opened by a man who was probably just a few years older than Len, but was about three times his size.
„What do you want?“ he grunted, and Len felt himself fighting the urge to take a step back.
„I‘m looking for Mick?“ he ventured, trying not to look like a contrite child.
„And who‘re you?“ the man asked, clearly not about to just let him pass.
„I‘m Lisa Snart‘s legal guardian,“ he replied, hoping that maybe his sister‘s name would ring a bell somewhere.
What he got was eyes that wandered down his body and then back up.
„Shoulda figured that her brother would be a skinny kid too.“ With that, the man stepped back and waved at Len to come after him.
„I‘m Mick. What‘s up?“
Len nervously followed Mick into the kitchen, breathing in deeply as the smell of food cooking surrounded him. It just smelled so good… Maybe he could find a way to convince this Mick to let him have just a tiny bowl of it… Just a small, tiny portion.
It had been so long since he‘d had a warm meal. Or food at all, really.
Mick pointed at a table to the side of the room while he walked off to the kitchen counter and started working on something. Feeling self-concious, Len walked over to the table and sat at the chair, waiting for Mick to somehow signal him that he was ready to listen.
After a few minutes, Mick came back to the table, putting down two plates with sandwiches on them and pushing one of them towards Len.
„Here. You look like you haven‘t eaten in days.“
Since that was more true than Len would like to admit, he didn‘t question what he was being given for once but just grabbed the bread and started eating in a manner that he knew looked much too ravenous and much too revealing, but he didn‘t care. It was so good, and it was food, and it would stop his hands from shaking and his head from feeling so light.
After he‘d devoured one half of the sandwich he took a breath and looked up at Mick, flushing at the curious stare that was directed at him.
„…Sorry about that. Thank you for the food,“ he murmured, suddenly feeling too ashamed to start eating the second half of his meal.
„Lisa said you don‘t always got food on your table,“ Mick ventured and nudged the plate closer. Len took the sandwich, but looked away, trying not to reveal too much of his shamed flush.
„I try my best. I‘m not… I don‘t earn much money, so it gets tight sometimes. I wanted to say thank you for being so kind to my sister, and...“ He took a deep breath and put the sandwich back down. „Can I repay you in any way for what you‘re doing for her?“
„Well you just said you ain‘t got money to put food on the table consistently so how‘re you gonna do that?“ Mick asked him in return. Len just looked at him for a while, then back down at his sandwich.
„Maybe there‘s something else I could do...“ He stretched out a foot under the table, touching it to the inside of Mick‘s calf and slowly letting it wander upwards. Where money and work wasn‘t an option, sex would pay the bills - he‘d learned that quickly enough.
Mick, however, just moved his leg away and looked at Len sharply.
„You whoring yourself out so little sis gets lunch?“
Len looked down at his half-eaten sandwich and shrugged. Well, he was fucked now anyway, so he might as well make the most out of it and eat the food. He took another bite and looked away again, intently staring out of the window.
„Gotta make sure she‘s well taken care of.“
„By those means?“ Mick asked him, but he somehow didn‘t sound as judgemental as Len had feared. In response, he shrugged again.
„Stocking shelves in the supermarket doesn‘t bring home dinner every night either.“
„There‘s other jobs than that.“
„Yeah. Other jobs that pay the same or less.“
„Dropped out of school early, huh, if those are the options?“
Len‘s head snapped forward again, meeting Mick‘s gaze head-on. This was the one thing he refused to be ashamed of.
„Dropped out of school so she could continue to go.“
Mick took half of his sandwich that he still hadn‘t touched and put it on Len‘s plate.
„Here, eat some more.“
Well, and who was Len to look a gift horse in the mouth? It was such a good sandwich, too… Len wouldn‘t know what was in it, several different kinds of dried and spiced meats that he would never be able to afford, but he gratefully ate every last crumb of it.
„Look,“ Mick said when he was done, and Mick had also eaten his part of the meal, „we always overcalculate. At the end of the day, we gotta throw out the food. I‘d rather give away an extra portion, or fix a student some leftovers for dinner than toss it in the trash because hygiene regulations say so. I don‘t mind giving her extras, she‘s a bright girl who needs her energy. And I certainly don‘t require… payment for it.“
Len squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, but nodded.
„Sorry, I‘m not… No one gives us things for free, usually. But I‘m glad to know that Lisa gets to eat every day, even on days I can‘t afford it. I‘m grateful.“
Mick looked at him for a long while without saying anything, then shook his head. „How often do you get to eat, Len?“
„I get dinner on the table for Lisa four or five times a week, usually“, he told Mick, knowing that Lisa had told him so anyway.
„Not what I asked“, Mick simply said back, and suddenly Len was overwhelmed with the fact that for the first time in years, someone was seeing him, looking at him as someone who had needs, a person who was struggling, and not just a provider for Lisa that had to function for her, someone who was required to always, always, always put someone else first. Even Lisa had gotten used to the fact that often, there was just not enough for the two of them, and that she would get it. She‘d sometimes pout if there was not enough to go around but Len was so starved that he made them split and get half a portion each. She never voiced anything, and Len suspected that she knew how little he had to eat, but it still made him feel bad. Lisa always came first, and it suddenly hit him like a train wreck that no one had looked after him in such a long time.
He didn‘t really know how to answer Mick‘s question, but just buried his face in his hands and started to cry. All the stress of so many years, the hunger pains, the humiliation he was feeling, the feeling of not being adequate enough… it all became too much, somehow. In that moment, for the first time since that day Lewis had been taken into prison, someone put Lisa aside and thought about Len for just a moment. And for Len, that was too much.
He heard a bit of creaking and scuffing, and then Mick‘s lap appeared in his field of vision and strong arms pulled him against an even stronger chest, holding him close.
And for the first time ever, Len let himself cry, let himself grieve all that he‘d given up to care for his sister, let himself cry for the life he‘d never live so she could have hers.
Too many moments later, he pulled back, wiping his face. „Sorry, I… I don‘t know what happened there.“ He tried to stand, suddenly unable to deal with his emotions anymore. „Thank you for feeding Lisa. Thank you for the meal. I should… I should go.“
„You should sit down is what you should do,“ Mick told him and easily pulled him down again, then rested his strong hands on Len‘s skinny shoulders.
„How bout this? I go to work now, you go to work now, and tonight you come round to mine for dinner, bring the kid, she can sleep in the guest room and we can have a talk? You look like you could stand to get some things off your chest.“
That sounded… like something he needed indeed, and it also sounded a lot like wanting that payment that he‘d previously declined. So Len clenched his jaw, and nodded.
„Should I bring condoms?“
Mick closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again, they were sad. „Not really interested in that at all, to be honest. I was more thinking couch and maybe a mindless movie that we can talk through?“
So… he would be given food, and Lisa would be given a night in a proper bed in a proper apartment, and there would be no payment? Mick had to know that he couldn‘t pay in money, after all.
„So… what do you get out of it?“ he asked, still feeling a bit suspicious.
„I‘ll get so spend time with someone, not hang out alone, I‘ll know you two are well fed for once… maybe get some good conversation out of it? Really, no pressure, just come over, we‘ll have some food, and if you feel uncomfortable you can leave again.“
Len had so many reservations about that, with how he‘d be indebted to Mick, and how he didn‘t usually trust anyone besides himself and Lisa, but he also knew that Lisa had made friends with Mick already. And it sounded so tempting… so tempting, to just let go for an evening, to be able to stop being a struggling father and just be Len for a few hours… He hadn‘t had that in so long.
So after a few moments, he nodded. „Tell me when and where?“
A few minutes later, Len had a note tucked into his pocket with Mick‘s name, his address and a „see you tonight at 7 :)“ on it.
He felt equal amounts excitement and trepidation when thinking about it.
That evening, he made sure that Lisa had finished her homework and packed a change of clothes for both of them in a plastic bag, along with their old, ratty toothbrushes. He really needed to replace them, but he also still needed oatmeal and milk for breakfast the coming week, so the toothbrushes would still need to last.
At 7pm sharp, they turned up in front of the address that Mick had given him, an apartment complex that was much nicer than their own, but clearly not anything super fancy. Len swallowed as he rang the doorbell, his hand curled tightly around the plastic bag. When Lisa wasn‘t looking, he‘d sneaked in some condoms after all. Just in case.
Mick greeted them at the door of the apartment as they came up, grinning at them and pulling them both into a hug.
„Come in, dinner‘s almost done,“ he told them and abandoned them again for the kitchen. Lisa made to follow, but Len held her back by her shoulder.
„Lisa. Shoes.“ She rolled her eyes, but easily enough went to take off her shoes and put them on the mat beside the door. Len followed suit and left the plastic bag beside the door as well, with the exceptions of the condoms that he slipped into his jeans pocket. It never hurt to be prepared.
Dinner turned out to be some Oriental lamb dish that Len had never heard of but couldn‘t get enough of. He heard Lisa and Mick chatting away about happenings at the school, what different people were up to and the things that Mick observed in the cafeteria every day, but he couldn‘t say that he was listening too much. He was much too preoccupied with the meal in front of him, trying to eat it in a more dignified manner than he‘d eaten that morning, but he was sure he pretty much just ended up shovelling the food in anyway. He could only hope that he‘d managed to hold back his moans of satisfaction at the taste and the feeling of having a full stomach.
He leaned back against the chair with a groan once he‘d finished off two entire portions, and found Mick watching him with an amused smile. Immediately, he felt himself flush and looked down.
„Hey, none of that. I‘m happy you liked it. Do you want dessert?“ Mick didn‘t sound put off by his behaviour at all, so that calmed him down a bit again.
Lisa was already eagerly declaring her favour for dessert, and Len just nodded mutely. He was pretty sure that the last time he‘d eaten a dessert was when his grandfather had still been alive… He shook his head to clear it, trying not to sink into sad thoughts now.
Sad thoughts were easily forgotten when presented with the creme brulée that Mick had apparently made from scratch, and Len couldn‘t help but to moan out loud at the taste.
„Glad you like it,“ Mick grinned from across the table, watching Len as he ate his own dessert.
„It‘s the best,“ Lisa assured him, and Len could only nod in accordance with her. That had to be the damn best thing he‘d ever eaten.
After dinner, Lisa managed to wheedle a shower out of Mick, and went off into the bathroom clutching a giant, fluffy towel and tossing a „warm shower, big bro!“ at Len. Len stuck out his tongue at her, but felt that familiar twinge of guilt he always had when confronted with something he couldn‘t give her. Like regular warm showers. Or big, fluffy towels. Or a nice, filling dinner. He watched her go, and then leaned back against the couch that Mick had dragged him onto by then.
„Stop worrying about her so much. She‘s a fine one. She turned out great, and you raised her that way.“
Len shrugged, feeling incredibly self concious. „I just… I can‘t give her things I know she wants, or even things she needs sometimes, and I am around so little… sometimes I barely even see her in a day to make sure things are alright.“ He sighed and pulled his knees up, hugging them to his chest.
„Yeah, but… look, Len. Kids are smart. She might not see the whole picture, but I promise you that girl knows you‘re living for her, doing everything you can for her. And she loves you for it, I promise you. You should hear her talk aboout her big brother in school, see how proud and protective she is of you. She knows what you‘re doing for her, promise you that.“
Len let out a wet chuckle and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
„I hope she does… I really hope she does. I would just… love to treat her every once in a while, you know? Take her to the zoo, or even just the park, share an ice cream… Like, you know… normal kid things.“
„And who takes you out to do the normal twenty-year-old things?“ Mick asked him.
Len just stared down at his hands, quiet. He hadn‘t thought of himself as a normal young person since the day he‘d taken charge of Lisa.
„How old are you even?“, he asked instead, trying to evade the question.
„Twenty-five“, came the reply, easily.
„And… made it all the way up to being a school cook already?“ Len prodded with a slight smile.
„Yeah. Went to culinary school straight outta high school, and I‘ve always been good with food so I didn‘t take too long there… Apparently they liked my approach at the school, hired me as a green-eared newbie straight outta culinary school. But the kids like the food, and the parents like that there‘s healthy stuff in it, so things are fine.“
There was a moment of silence where Len simply nodded at the new info, then:
„What would you like to do, one day?“
At then, Len let out a humorless laugh. „Not gonna be much chance for anything now. Maybe once Lisa‘s out of school I can get a permanent job somewhere at a reception or something, if I got enough experience by then.“
„Not what I asked,“ Mick simply told him again, and just like that morning it made Len choke up. He twisted his hands together for a while, then shook his head.
„That‘s just impossible by now. It‘s better to forget it.“ Who cared what dreams a stupid little boy had once had? By now he knew what was within the realm of possibility for him.
„Well… if you say so. Don‘t share that opinion, but it‘s okay if you wanna keep that to yourself.“
They said in silence for a while again until Lisa emerged from the shower, looking happy and warm and dressed in a men‘s t-shirt five times her size that she wore as a nightgown. It had only been fifty cents at the second-hand store.
„Mick said we can sleep here?“ she asked, obviously already sleepy now after her shower, and Len nodded and got up, lifting her and carrying her over to the guest room that Mick had pointed out earlier. Lisa was way too big to carry by now, but sometimes he still liked to do it, just to rile her up a bit.
He tucked her in, as he did every night that he was there when she went to sleep, and kissed her forehead.
„Do you have to sleep with Mick now?“ Lisa asked, and Len felt his breath catch. He hoped that she just meant sleep in one bed with him though, not if he‘d have to have sex with him now. He never tried to talk about it with her, and he hoped that she didn‘t know what he did went he went out to work late at night instead of early in the morning.
„We‘ll see, Lise“, he told her and brushed some of her hair back from her face. „Maybe I‘ll sleep on the couch, it looks comfortable.“
Lisa frowned at him and shook his head. „I saw you pack condoms“, she told him, „I‘m a big girl, I know what they are for. I don‘t want Mick to hurt you.“
Len shoved the realisation that his little sister apparently knew more about what he did than he ever wanted her to know into the back of his mind to panic over later, and smiled at her.
„I‘ll make sure Mick isn‘t going to hurt me, I promise. I think he‘s nice though, so don‘t you worry, okay? You just go to sleep and enjoy the nice bed, alright?“
Lisa looked at him doubtfully, but eventually nodded and let her kiss his forehead again.
„Goodnight, Lenny“, she murmured, and Len smiled at her and watched her burrow into the sheets.
„Goodnight, Lise. Sweet dreams.“
He closed the door on his way out, but left it open a tiny bit, just so he could hear if something was up. He took a deep breath and firmly pushed down his pending panic attack and smiled at Mick as he went over to settle next to him on the couch again.
Mick looked at him, then down at the remote control he had in his hand.
„Door was open when you were chatting with the kiddo.“
Len let out a harsh breath, and turned away.
„Told you I didn‘t really like that sorta thing. Specially not if it‘s not mutual, but also not in general. You can sleep in my bed if you wanna, or on the couch, but no frisky stuff.“
Len frowned a little, catching a little detail he‘d missed that morning. „What do you mean, you don‘t really like that sorta thing?“
Mick looked at him for a moment, then tossed the remote control down on the couch and shrugged. „Just don‘t like sex. Doesn‘t do it for me. There‘s other fun things to do that are much better. Think they call that asexual?“
Len blinked, and didn‘t say anything for a while. That was… he hadn‘t know that was possible.
„So… it‘s okay? To not like that, I mean? To not… want that?“
Maybe there was a whole revelation hidden in there, for him. He didn‘t care to examine it too closely just yet.
Mick shrugged and put an arm around him. „Sure. Makes a lotta people walk out on you but if you don‘t wanna, you don‘t wanna.“
Maybe, just for once, it really could be that easy.
„Good“, he murmured, and relaxed against Mick‘s strong form. Maybe it could be nice here, with the two of them.
„So… you wanna talk?“ Mick asked him, and Len just shrugged.
„Not sure what good that is gonna do.“
„Can help share the load, or so I heard.“
Len scoffed, but got more comfortable as he snuggled into Mick. At least like this he didn‘t have to look at him. „I just do what I have to so she has everything she needs. That‘s all there is to it.“
Who cared if he ruined himself in the process, as long as Lisa could go on.
„Mh… and who‘s looking after you?“ Mick asked him. Len stared mindlessly at the TV, even though it wasn‘t even turned on.
„I don‘t need looking after, I‘m an adult.“
„Even adults need looking after, Lenny.“
„Don‘t call me that. And who do you think would look after someone like me? You offering to be my sugar daddy or what?“
„Nah. Not into that either. Was thinking more like friend. Cookin‘ for you, havin‘ you over for movie nights, simple shit like that. So you know you‘re not alone.“
Friend. Len didn‘t think he‘d had a friend since… he wasn‘t sure if he‘d ever had a friend, really. He‘d always been singled out by his father being a cop, or by him doing so well in school, or his father preventing him from attending any group activities… and since it was just the two of them, he hadn‘t had time to even think about socialising anyway. The closest he got to that was saying hello to some of the other parents at school, or sometimes working out a date for Lisa to meet up with a friend.
„You think it‘s that easy?“ he asked and craned his neck so he could look at Mick. He could feel more than see the shrug he got in return, but then, Mick nodded.
„Sure. Why not. I‘d like to see you two getting dinner every night. Would like to see you being looked after a bit...“
Len lay his head down on Mick‘s shoulder, closed his eyes, and told himself not to cry.
When he woke up at two in the morning from the sound of his alarm, he was confused for a moment, but then remembered that he was in Mick‘s place, in Mick‘s bed together with Mick, and that the arms around him and the big teddy he was snuggled up to were also very much Mick. He groaned and tried to blink the sleep from his eyes as he slowly disentangled himself. He reached out to turn off the alarm on his phone and hoped that it hadn‘t woken Mick.
He snuck into the hallway to get his new change of clothes and slipped into the bathroom to get changed. He debated a quick shower, but he hadn‘t asked Mick and wouldn‘t impose on him like that, so he just washed up and got changed before heading out again. He felt bad about leaving Lisa here like this, but she deserved better than to be dragged out of bed at two in the morning just because Len had to go to work. He was sure that she‘d find her way to school from here as well. Maybe Mick would even take her.
He flinched when the light in the hallway suddenly turned on, and there was Mick, rubbing his eyes and standing there in nothing but his boxers.
„Go back to bed, Mick. Thank you for letting us stay. I have to go to work.“ Mick frowned, then shook his head and walked over into the kitchen, waving Len after him.
„Let me make you breakfast to take along at least. You can‘t go all day without food. And you‘ll come back for dinner tonight, right?“
And after that, somehow, things just happened. They were at Mick‘s for dinner almost every night, and most nights out of those they got to stay for the night, as well. Lisa started to leave some of her school books at Mick‘s place and sometimes even went straight to his apartment to do her homework and get in some precious time watching TV (which of course, Len wouldn‘t be able to afford for their apartment) before Mick or Len came home. The first time that she turned up at his apartment and Mick wasn‘t there yet, Mick decided that both Lisa and Len would get a key and were allowed into his home at any point they wanted.
Soon after that, Lisa refused to go back to their place to sleep. „I have a real room here, and it‘s much nicer. I don‘t want to go back. Mick said we could stay!“
„You know… you‘d save a lot of money if you‘d just give up your place and move your five things into here,“ Mick told him one night over dinner when it was just the two of them. Lisa was at a friend‘s place for dinner and for her first sleepover. Mick had even bought her a real nightshirt for the occasion. Lisa had been beyond happy and Len had tried not to have a breakdown over the wave of guilt he felt for not being able to give his sister something that simple.
„Not sure you want to be stuck with us that permanently,“ Len gave back and twirled up another forkful of spaghetti. „And I wouldn‘t want to impose.“
„So how about this? You get out of that shitty place, move in here, and to make you feel better you can pay part of the rent, alright? Things‘ll be easier. Better to buy things in bulk, with more people to eat them – it‘s cheaper in the long run. No more electricity bills and that shitty only-sometimes-running-water situation you have.“
„And what do you get out of us crashing your place? You don‘t even have your bed for yourself anymore...“
„Who says I want my bed for myself?“ Mick reached across the table, placing his hand on top of Len‘s, who looked up surprised.
„I… fuck, I like you, Len, alright? I wanna see you doing well.“
Len frowned, and slowly moved his hand away. „I thought you didn‘t like sex.“
„I don‘t need to like sex to want to be with someone,“ Mick replied and released Len‘s hand with a sigh.
„But… what else do you get out of it then, and out of… being with me, if not sex?“
Mick looked at him as if he‘d grown a second head. „Cuddles. Couch snuggles. Knowing you‘re okay. Being around you. Sleeping in a bed with you and holding you. Maybe showering together, at some point. Just… just sharing our lives, really.“ He looked away then, suddenly looking shy.
„If you‘re interested, that is.“
Len looked down at his pasta, and let himself imagine for just a moment… a warm meal every night, someone to come home to, someone to share his life with, someone to lean on… and not just someone, but Mick, who made him feel so warm inside, who could make him smile and forget about everything for a while, who was so warm and cuddly and who had somehow, sneakily, become so important to Len that he wouldn‘t want to miss him.
„What about kissing?“ he asked, instead of giving Mick a proper answer.
„Would you like kissing?“ Mick said, and leaned back in his chair, looking at Len as he waited for a reply. Very carefully, Len lay down his fork and pushed back his chair, self conciously pulling down his shirt as he rounded the table to stand directly next to Mick, who was looking at him with a raised eyebrow.
„I never kissed anyone before,“ Len admitted before leaning down and firmly pressing his lips to Mick‘s. In his eyes, that was as good as an answer.
Two months later, Lisa and Len had moved out of their little hovel and into Mick‘s apartment, and to celebrate the occasion, Mick had thrown them a move-in party with cake and confetti, and a bottle of wine for Len and Mick to share. Len didn‘t tell him that he‘d never had wine before, and he gulped down a glass of the disgusting stuff before refusing anything more and just curling up with his partner on the sofa. He let himself bask in the feeling of a full stomach and the lingering taste of the cake in his mouth, and the warmth of Mick‘s body pressed so closely to his.
He insisted on continuing to pay for Lisa‘s education though, and in turn Mick insisted that when money would get tight he‘d come and ask Mick, and not go out to sell his body again. Len feld bad about imposing on Mick so much, but he‘d also never been so glad to give anything up.
When Lisa was sixteen and finished yet another school year in the summer, Len locked himself in the bathroom for an hour and cried, letting himself grieve the education he‘d never been able to get, and the dream of a life he‘d never get to live. He‘d dropped out at the point that she was at now, and he‘d given everything so that she would be able to continue. And then he swallowed down his tears and emerged with a smile and a hug for his grumpy teenaged sister, who was just happy to be on summer vacation and to go hang out with her friends. She‘d thrown a tantrum when Len and Mick had told her that they couldn‘t afford to send her off with some friends for a beach vacation, and then she‘d snuck into their bed at one in the morning, snuggled up to Len and quietly apologized. To make up for not being able to give her a real vacation, Len scrounged up whatever money he could find, bought her a swimsuit and then took her to an outdoor pool on the weekend for the first time in her life. And thanks to Mick, they were even able to get some ice cream to share while they were at it. And somehow, it was a gorgeous afternoon spent together.
Also thanks to Mick, Len now had a smartphone with internet access instead of the Nokia brick he‘d had before (it had been cheap and used and it had been able to do phone calls and wake him up in the morning, which was all he‘d wanted). And with that, he was able to do some reading again, and look into some things that caught his interest.
„I think I‘m asexual too,“ he announced one night over a Netflix movie, out of the blue. Mick just looked at him, and didn‘t say anything. „The sex-repulsed kind, I think. Though that might just be because… you know.“ He didn‘t like talking about that, even though he maintained that it had been necessary to be able to care for Lisa.
„You ever had sex with someone you wanted to have sex with, without money?“ Mick asked him, and Len shook his head.
„I don‘t want to, though. I‘m very fine with you keeping your dick to yourself.“
„Good. Cuz I will do just that,“ Mick told him and pulled him in for a kiss.
And that was that. Sometimes things were easy, it seemed.
Mick‘s cooking was such a hit with the school that they expanded their program, and Mick needed to hire another helper. Nothing fancy, mostly just pre-chopping the ingredients and taking out the trash, he said. Then he looked at Len and tilted his head.
„You good with a knife? It pays better than toilet scrubbing.“
And so the next month Len found himself in a sterile school kitchen, spending his days chopping carrots and broccoli and washing salads and poatatoes and things he didn‘t even recognise. Every once in a while he‘d get to stuff some chicken breasts, too, or stir some pudding so it wouldn‘t burn. It wasn‘t great, and Mick had to keep yelling at some of the staff not to disrespect Len constantly - but Mick had been right, it paid better that toilet scrubbing. Smelled better, too, and didn‘t kill the skin on his hands so much. And seeing Mick in his element was amazing, and on top of it all, the staff got a free portion of school lunch for their own lunch break as well. Len was sure he‘d never been this well fed his entire life, and that he might make it up to a normal weight in a while if it kept on like this.
Once she‘d finished high school, Lisa went off to the local college with a partial scholarship, but kept on living with them after Len and Mick asked her how they were meant to pay for a place for her dorm on top of the fees for college and her books. She did pick up a side job in a bar though as a waitress, so she could sometimes afford to go out with friends for a night of partying.
Len stayed behind at her school, and continued to chop veggies for the students so they would be able to learn better and have everything that they needed, and he continued to ignore the harsh sentences of „You know, if you don‘t study properly you‘ll end up just like that helper in the school kitchen, being ordered around and taking out the trash, and you don‘t want that, so go and do your homework!“ When the parents realised that he‘d overheard them because he was currently sweeping the floors, they‘d always smile at him in that too-sweet, condescending way of theirs, and he‘d just glare back. They knew nothing about him, after all.
Halfway through college, Lisa brought home a guy for the first time.
„Lenny… this is Cisco,“ she told him, pulling in a nerdy-looking young man behind her that seemed to want to disappear into the ground. „We‘re dating.“
Len glared at Cisco for good measure, and then smiled at Lisa. „I‘m so happy for you, Lise,“ he told her, and placed a kiss on her cheek before holding a hand out to Cisco. „Len. Lisa‘s brother, and the mountain behind me is Mick, my partner.“
Cisco seemed appropriately scared of Mick, but was swayed soon enough when he tasted some of Mick‘s cooking.
Lisa was a bit tight-lipped on things, but it seemed that her and Cisco were having a bit of an on-again-off-again thing, and there was an episode where she was talking about a Barry, which Len decided not to question. But eventually, after college, when it got time for her to move out, she decided to move in together with Cisco.
On the day she moved out, Len gifted her with the biggest package of condoms he‘d been able to find. „Can‘t afford grandkids yet,“ he told her, and laughed as she slapped his shoulder in retaliation. She did take the condoms though.
He was so proud of her, being a researcher now and working at STAR Labs under Harrison Wells, together with Cisco and, apparently, also that Barry person who turned out to be Cisco‘s best friend, and Len just never asked what his relationship with Lisa was. It was great to see her now though, wearing pearly earrings and brand new high heeled shoes, and the dresses he had never been able to buy her… It also hurt, to think that he‘d never been able to give her things as simple as that, but he was also beyond proud that he‘d pushed through and gotten her to a place where she could afford those for himself.
Sometimes she‘d invite him for her parties, together with her coworkers, and he always felt totally inadequate. Sitting there in his used shirts and worn shoes, answering there questions of „And what do you do, Leonard?“ with an explanation of how he prepped food for a school kitchen, wiped floors and took out the trash, while they were discussing what fundamental research they were doing this week. And always, the response was a forced smile and a fake-interested „Ahh, okay,“ before they turned away from him as fast as possible.
And then Mick got caught up with an accident with an oil-fire and a chef that had had no idea what he was doing, and Len suddenly had a bill to settle that made him want to vomit just thinking about it.
He‘d picked up a bit of cooking over the years from Mick, so he started to fill in for both Mick and the young cook, both of whom were in the hospital, stocking up his hours and his salary that way, and he went back to scrubbing toilets at night. And yet, he knew that there was no way in hell he could accumulate enough money to settle the hospital bill, be it all at once or in stages. He started skipping meals again, cutting down on buying groceries as much as he could get away with without fainting, and still, he knew it would never be enough.
He was standing in front of his closet one night, gripping that one pair of too-tight jeans, and debated putting them on and going out, but he‘d promised… he‘d promised Mick he wouldn‘t do that anymore.
So he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and went to ask for help.
„So this dude just put water on the oil fire?“ Lisa asked, incredulously. Len nodded numbly, looking at her beautiful sequined dress and the way it sparkled in the light. He‘d apparently crashed a party of hers, but Lisa had insisted he stay and tell him what was up. And so he was sitting on the sofa now, thinking about Mick in the hospital and his too-tight jeans back at home and about how Lisa was able to afford real gold jewelery now.
„Yeah. Mick was the only other person in there, and it just exploded then...“
„And now you come to your sister, who unlike you has made something of herself, to ask her to pay your bill for you?“ Len looked up to frown at someone he‘d never met before, and immediately felt guilty again. It had been wrong of him to impose on Lisa, to ask her for something he knew she couldn‘t give. She had a wedding to save up for, and she wanted kids with Cisco. Those were also expensive - he‘d need everything she could get for that. And he was her older brother - he was supposed to care for her, not the other way around.
In the glaring silence, he stood and blinked back some tears. „Sorry I just came unannounced. I‘ll… I‘ll find a way to get that bill settled.“ He still had those jeans, after all, and some money to buy a pack of condoms.
Just as he was turning to go, Lisa caught his hand, and he felt himself roughly pulled against her chest, her arms around him and her face pressed against his neck, suspiciously wet. She didn‘t say anything, but he could see Cisco grabbing the man who‘d spoken by the arm and pushing him towards the door. „I think it‘s you who should leave,“ he told him firmly. „You don‘t get to judge Len, not after all that he‘s done for Lisa.“
And somehow that recognition was more than Len could handle, and he buried his face in Lisa‘s shoulder, not wanting anyone to see him cry.
„Don‘t worry, Lenny… don‘t worry. We‘ll pay for that. We got some savings, we can do that.“
He pulled back and shook his head. „No, you… you gotta save up for the wedding and stuff, I… he‘s right, I‘ll find a way.“
„Fuck the wedding,“ Cisco harshly exclaimed from behind Lisa. „Your partner is hurt and needs treatment - of course we‘ll help where we can.“ Lisa tossed her fiancé a grateful look and nodded. „Fuck the wedding. Won‘t be much of a wedding anyway if Mick‘s not up and about to make us our wedding cake.“ She kissed his cheek and linked their fingers together. „Just call me when you know how and when and how much needs to be paid, yeah? We‘ll figure it out.“
And then she looked him deep in the eyes and leaned in to whisper in his ear. „And Lenny… don‘t even think about it.“ He winced, knowing exactly what she was talking about.
„I never wanted you to know about that,“ he whispered back, looking down at his scuffed, worn shoes.
„I know, Lenny… I know. That‘s why I never really told you I knew. But promise me… promise me. No more. We‘ll find other ways.“
He thought about how he‘d promised it to Mick, and had been ready to break that promise just minutes ago. But then, Lisa had always been a different league to anything else. „I promise,“ he murmured, and Lisa squeezed his hands and then pulled back, only to hand him a glass of champagne.
„Good. Now come on, forget your worries for a while.“
Lisa and Cisco did manage to pay for Mick‘s hospital bill, with Barry and Caitlin from STAR Labs also chipping in, as well as Hartley from the school kitchen and Len himself, of course. There might even have been a donation from Harrison Wells himself, Len wasn‘t sure anymore. All he knew was that he had his Mick back, scarred and aching and very sensitive, but laughing and whole and full of good humor, and he couldn‘t help but be grateful that for once, life had given him something amazing and let him keep it.
And he wanted to keep it forever.
„Wanna get married?“ he asked Mick that night, home on their couch and cuddled up together, both of them staring at the turned off TV. Mick shifted away a bit and looked at him for a moment, then cuddled back up to Len‘s side.
„Sure,“ was all he said, and that settled the matter.
A short waiting period and a fifteen minute ceremony at the city hall later, they were officially husband and husband, and Lisa and Cisco took them out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate. The food wasn‘t half as good as Mick‘s, but it felt great to have this very special treat.
„I can‘t believe you got married before me,“ Lisa teased him, and Len just chuckled and poked out his tongue.
„Well, I‘m your big brother, of course I get married first.“ And then he leaned over and kissed his husband, for once looking forward to the rest of his life.
Two weeks after her thirtieth birthday, twenty-five years after Lewis had gone to prison, Lisa took Len to the café where they‘d celebrated her tenth birthday, where he‘d scraped together everything he‘d had and taken them out, and they‘d shared a muffin and Lisa had had a small hot chocolate for her birthday. He‘d never been back there, after, and now they were back, with a piece of cake each, and one mug of coffe for each of them.
„ I wanted to give you something,“ Lisa started, and pulled out an envelope from her bag.
„I remember us sitting on your bed, when I was a kid, and you asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a princess, and you said you wanted to be an engineer. I had no idea what that was at the time, but it sounded cool.“ Len looked down at his coffee and didn‘t reply. Almost twenty years together and he still hadn‘t told Mick what his dream job had once been.
„And I know...“, Lisa went on, fiddling with the envelope. „I know that you tossed that all aside for me. I know you always were the best in class, that they were predicting great college scholarships for you… and you tossed it all aside for me, dropped out of school without any qualifications whatsoever, and you went to work… and Len, I know what you did. I know that you let them humiliate you and declare you worthless because you didn’t finish school, and I know you worked four jobs at a time… and I know you went out onto the streets, Lenny, and sold yourself so that I could go to fucking school.“ She sounded teary now, and Len kept staring at his coffee to make sure she didn‘t see his own tears.
„And you did it, Lenny. Look at me, I come from nothing and I‘m in the top research team in the country now, doing things I never dreamed of doing before… getting praised and winning awards and shit… and all just because of you, because you threw away everything you ever wanted without even hesitating. For me.“
„Of course. You‘re my sister.“ He reached out to grab a napkin to blow his nose in, giving up his pretense of not crying. „Why‘re you bringing this up?“
„I‘m in a good place now… making good money, I have a good life with Cisco, I have everything I want, because you supported me.“ He heard her take a deep breath, and the envelope was pushed over to him.
Carefully, he took it and started opening it up with a frown.
„I thought… I thought it might be time to start giving back.“
He looked up at her, confused, and then pulled out… pulled out a check with a number that made him feel light-headed.
Lisa‘s hand came to rest on his wrist, and she waited until he looked at her before she spoke again, tears in her eyes.
„You made me everything that I am, Lenny. You raised me, you were the best parent ever. But maybe it‘s time to give back now. Go to school, Lenny. Take online classes, evening school, whatever. Get your high school diploma, go to college. We all know that you‘re smart enough to be an engineer, now go out and become one.“
„No. You have to take it. It‘s from all of us. Me and Mick and Cisco, and the school kitchen crew and the STAR Labs team and the school director. It‘s time you get to live your life, Len. You‘ve paused it long enough for me.“
They held eye contact for a moment, and then Len got up, pulling Lisa with him and hugging her, and for the first time that he could remember, he cried tears of joy.
Maybe, even through all the struggles and the hardships, maybe he‘d done something right after all. He clutched the envelope harder in his hand and pulled his sister closer to himself.
He couldn‘t wait to go back to school.