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Forever, Now

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It was fucking cold outside.

Brian had his hands shoved in his pockets as deep as they would go, and they were still numb and red. He could see his breath every time he exhaled. He wanted a hot coffee to hold, to warm up his fingers, but he hadn’t worn gloves. Damn, he couldn’t wait to get home.

The problem was, he couldn’t hop on a bus, or take a taxi, or enjoy any of the other public transport everyone else in Philadelphia was using, because his wallet was gone. He’d lost it somewhere between leaving home this morning and leaving work, and rather than using the company car – he felt spoiled as it was, as the youngest business executive working on the music accounts – he figured he’d walk. It wasn’t that cold.

But now the sun was dipping behind the buildings and the sidewalks were mostly empty and Brian’s nose was going numb. His scarf was slipping down from around his mouth, and he couldn’t really frown anymore; his whole face felt frozen. Brian was being a baby, sure, but that didn’t stop him from wishing he had his wallet.

He was about four blocks from home when he saw the kid. He didn’t recognize him specifically, more the idea of dark hair dark jacket ripped jeans that he’d seen before at some point – that morning? The kid was standing in the opening of an alley, long hair hanging in her – his? – face, hands shoved in the pockets of ripped, grimy jeans and a jacket that didn’t look warm enough at all. The hair had thrown him off for a second, but the kid was a boy, Brian realized, maybe eleven or twelve years old. Where the hell were his parents? Who let a pre-teen wander the streets without a hat or mittens on the coldest March day Brian could remember? It was the kind of thing that made Brian grateful he didn’t have kids to worry about.

The kid looked up at him as he walked by. He had the biggest goddamn eyes Brian had ever seen; absolutely huge, dark lashes, tangled hair. Brian was pretty sure his mother wouldn’t have let him leave the house without at least washing his hair now and then. Parenting was getting pretty slack.

Two things occurred to him, suddenly.

First, this kid probably didn’t have parents.

Second, he remembered this kid from this morning, shortly after the last time he’d seen his wallet.

Brian stopped dead in front of the alley. The boy’s eyes went even wider and he took a step back, like Brian had said something. Brian was frozen, because he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to say. “Hey, did you steal my wallet?” seemed sort of confrontational. “Hey, aren’t you cold?” just seemed weird.

They stared at each other for a second. A car drove by, sending a tiny slush tsunami over Brian’s dress shoes. He shivered. The kid was skinny and dirty and his pale face was totally red where he was probably getting frostbite. Brian’s stomach clenched. He had to say something. The staring contest wasn’t helping anyone.

“Um,” said the kid, instead. “You dropped this.”

He held out Brian’s wallet with bright red, dirty fingers. He was chewing on his lip. Brian took the wallet and the kid snatched his hand back, like he was afraid Brian would try and grab him.

Brian didn’t need to flip through his wallet to know it would be empty; his drivers’ license was gone, but his work ID was still there, as was one of his credit cards. He was absolutely sure this kid had taken it this morning.

“Thanks,” Brian said, because anything else seemed kind of ridiculous. Let me buy you something hot to drink. Let me buy you a winter jacket. Let me take you back to wherever you’re supposed to be where people are worried about you. The boy just shook his head. “So I guess I owe you one,” Brian said, half-joking.

“It’s cool,” the kid said, shoving his hands back in his pockets. He took a step backward.

Shit. Fuck. Damn. I’m doing this all wrong. Brian knew he ought to call the cops. He was pretty sure this kid would be long gone before they ever arrived. Did the cops give a fuck about this kind of stuff anymore? It was so Dickensian. “Let me – Can I—“

“Are you hitting on me?” the kid demanded. His scowl was ferocious.

The question made Brian want to throw up. He was under-qualified for this kind of after-school special bullshit. “No, no, I… Listen, I owe you. Here.” He fumbled his business card out of the hidden pocket of the wallet and held it out. “If you need anything, call me. Shit, you don’t have a phone. Come by. My address is on there. Seriously.”

The boy stared at him for a long second, and shook his head, but he reached forward and took the card anyway. It vanished in to one of the pockets of his jacket. “I won’t,” he said.

Yeah, I know, Brian thought, frustrated. “If you ever need anything,” he said instead. “Seriously. Really.”

That made the kid laugh, but it wasn’t a very nice sound. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Another car drove by behind Brian, sending icy slush all over his ankles. He turned around to scowl, and by the time he turned back, the alley was empty.

| | | | | | | | |

Brian’s job expected a lot of him, and normally he was on the ball. Normally, he had his contracts better drawn up than anyone else, he was in contact with more people, he set up more gigs, he heard more new artists. He was the rock star of dealing with rock stars.

Unfortunately, right now wasn’t especially normal. It was hard to concentrate on his job when he found himself more and more walking home from work, just in case he happened to pass that alley and find that kid again. He hadn’t called the cops. He probably should have. As he waited to get a new license and new credit cards he thought that he’d probably been suckered by how young the kid looked, how earnest his face had been, how thin he’d looked. Brian was normally pretty tough. Something about that afternoon, though, had taken all the bite out of him. Nothing was normal anymore.

He missed a deadline because he was debating looking for a list of local runaways. He was late to a conference because he’d taken to walking to work every morning, no matter how cold, just in case. He spent twenty minutes at the GAP, staring at kids’ coats, wondering if he just bought one and left it on the sidewalk, would find its way to the right person? Probably not. He was getting stupid about the whole thing, he knew. Brian suspected he was having a small-scale nervous breakdown.

In the first week of April, his boss called him in and lectured him about getting his work done on time and well, and then maybe taking a week off to deal with what were obviously his mental-health issues. Brian promised that if things got worse, he’d go away and relax, knowing he couldn’t possibly leave town until he knew where that kid was. He figured staying at work until all hours might help him get his mind of the boy in the alley. If he thought about nothing but recording contracts and release dates, he couldn’t be watching weather reports for the night’s low temperature and making himself crazy. Crazier.

It was a full month later when Brian woke up in the middle of the night. His heart was pounding and he felt a little hung over from exhaustion. He frowned at the clock – 2 AM – and tried to figure out what had woken him up. His bedroom was pitch black, except for the glowing numbers on his clock radio.

The doorbell rang. Oh, Brian thought, and then Who the hell would ring my doorbell at 2 AM? He had a couple of crazy ex-girlfriends who liked to berate him in the middle of the night, but they mostly limited themselves to the phone. He blinked, trying to wake up and make himself think of other possibilities. The doorbell rang again.

Brian got as far as What if… and found himself on his feet, running downstairs to the front door. He wasn’t very coordinated without a full gallon of coffee, and almost took a nose-dive down the stairs, stepping on his own pajama pants. For the first time since he’d bought the house, he wished it were smaller. He didn’t even bother with the peephole, just pulled the door open. A wave of cold air hit him, and he blinked.

The kid was standing on the steps, biting his lip. The streetlamp light made him look impossibly pale. Brian could feel his heart ricocheting against his ribs. Was this when he called child protective services? Was this when he called the cops? Was this when he offered the kid a hundred bucks and then cried himself to sleep for another month?

The kid visibly steeled himself, shoving his hands down in to his pockets and taking a deep breath. “Mikey’s sick,” he blurted, looking up at Brian and then quickly back down again.

Who the hell is Mikey? Are you Mikey? Oh my god, are there more of you? Brian felt panic starting to rise and forced himself to take a deep breath. “Okay,” he said.

“And you said… I tried everything and he just keeps getting sicker and I can’t take him to the hospital and you said… Um.” He looked up at Brian with those giant eyes and Brian knew he wasn’t going to call the cops. Not tonight. “Can you… Never mind, this was stupid.” He retreated a step.

“Wait,” Brian said. He almost reached for the boy’s arm, and forced himself not to. “Who’s Mikey? C’mon in. I don’t know if I can help, but I can try.” He opened the door further and stood aside, hoping.

The boy looked at him dubiously. “I don’t know,” he said, biting his lip again.

“Mikey needs help, right?” Brian said desperately. “I have a friend who’s a doctor. I can call him.”

That made the kid look up, and he nodded, finally. Reluctantly. “Mikey’s my little brother,” he said, like he was giving away a huge secret. And then he edged past Brian into the house.

Brian shut the door with palpable relief. “I’m going to call my doctor friend,” he said. “Do you want something to eat? How about something to drink? It’s cold outside.”

“I’m fine,” the boy said quickly. He stood next to the door, clearly working out an escape route.

“My phone is upstairs. I have to—Just, don’t go anywhere, okay?” This was so stupid, the kid was going to be gone before Brian even got back downstairs, he ought to call the cops or someone, but all he could think about was another kid, even younger than this one, freezing to death out there somewhere. “What’s your name?”

The boy frowned, and shuffled his feet uncomfortably.

“I can’t just call you ‘hey kid,’” Brian pointed out, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone, heading for the stairs. Maybe if he ran up and back, he could keep this kid from bolting again. Maybe if he locked the door, the kid would have to stay inside where it was safe and warm. I really am losing my mind.

“Gerard,” the boy mumbled, staring at the floor. He still hadn’t moved away from the door, but he’d started shivering, like being inside had reminded him how cold it was outside.

“Okay, Gerard, I’ll be right back,” Brian said. He sprinted upstairs, hit the number for Bill on his speed-dial, and ran back downstairs. He almost tripped and died. Again.

But Gerard was still there, looking miserable, shaking a little bit. Brian stepped in to the kitchen and grabbed an empty pot. He didn’t have a teakettle. He wasn’t home enough to buy kitchen-y things. He could heat water up and make some hot chocolate, though. All kids liked that, didn’t they? He tried to balance the water and the phone and keep an eye on Gerard, all at once.

Bill sounded mostly asleep and seriously pissed off. “What?” he demanded.

“I need a huge favor and I need it right now,” Brian replied.

Something in his voice must have been truly urgent, because Bill sighed and said “Okay, Bri. What’s up?”

“I need you to come over. There’s a sick kid, and I need someone to look at him.”

“Dude, I’m not a pediatrician. And why do you have a sick kid? Call his mom—“

“I can’t,” Brian snapped. Gerard was looking out the front windows. He was going to run back to his brother in another minute or two. “Bill. Please.”

There was a pause and then a sigh. “I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Bill said, and Brian remembered why he loved the guy. Sometimes it really was worth keeping around the friends you’d known forever. “You owe me. You owe me so big. You owe me your kidney and your first-born child and your vacation condo in Aspen.”

“Done,” Brian said instantly, and hung up. The water was almost boiling. He poured the cheap hot chocolate powder and the water in a mug and walked back out.

“I have to go,” Gerard said. He looked longingly at the door.

Brian offered him the mug. Gerard shook his head. “It’ll take a few minutes for my friend the doctor to get here. He’s a good guy. Can Mikey wait ten more minutes?”

“I guess he’ll have to,” Gerard muttered. He still didn’t reach for the cup, so Brian pushed it at him. 

“Here, take this. It’s not poison, it’s just hot chocolate. Honestly. I promise.” Gerard frowned, but took it. It was warm and he wasn’t, and after a moment he clutched it to his chest with both hands, breathing in the steam.

“Sit down,” Brian offered. Gerard’s face went dark and suspicious again. “It’ll be a little while. Seriously, you don’t need to stand. I’m not going to grab you or anything. Okay?”

Gerard looked around, like he would find hidden traps behind the couch. “Okay,” he said uncertainly, and sat gingerly on the chair nearest the front door. It was a decent compromise; he could still bolt if he felt like he needed to, but Brian was able to relax and take the first deep breath he’d managed since Gerard had shown up.

I don’t know what I’m doing, he thought miserably, and hoped he wasn’t making anything worse.

Bill showed up twelve minutes later. Not that Brian had been watching the clock, or watching Gerard grow progressively more restless, or running through a hundred thousand scenarios in his head where this all went horribly wrong. Not at all. Gerard jumped a mile when the doorbell rang, half-on his feet, clearly ready to run. “It’s my friend,” Brian promised, knowing it ought to have been CPS.

“This had better be fucking good,” Bill snapped when he opened the door. He was wearing pajamas and a winter coat, and he had a bag with him that Brian hoped was full of doctor-y things. He crossed his arms. “Because it is ass-cold outside and it’s 2:30 in the morning and I was asleep. What the hell, Brian?” And then he looked over and saw Gerard, and his face sort of froze somewhere around astonishment.

“This is Gerard,” Brian said, working hard to keep his voice neutral. “His little brother Mikey is sick.”

Bill, who was normally about the loudest person Brian knew, just nodded. Gerard was looking at him with those huge eyes and that earnest face, and Brian was pretty sure Bill wasn’t going to call the cops, either.

“Let me just grab my coat, and then you can show us where Mikey is, okay?” Brian asked.

Gerard was clearly reluctant, but he nodded. Brian and Bill followed him outside. “It’s not far,” Gerard said. He looked down the sidewalk like he might run, then back at them and rolled his eyes. He walked fast enough that Brian and Bill both and to work not to slip, but obviously not as fast as Gerard wanted to be going. Brian hoped like hell Mikey was going to still be okay when they got there. Gerard led them down the sidewalk and then around corners for a few blocks, and finally in to an alley off an alley off an alley in a not-great part of town.

Oh my god, Brian thought. He’d never felt so guilty for his house and his job and his life before. Next to him, Bill looked positively miserable.

“It’s not so bad,” Gerard said defensively. “It looks worse than it is. See?” He pulled open a door Brian was sure would have been rusted shut. In fact it didn’t open very far, and Brian and Bill had to squeeze to get in.

Inside was some kind of warehouse, not abandoned but not used often, either. It was a little warmer than outside, although still not homey. It was big and dark and silent, Brian thought, and then realized it wasn’t. Someone was coughing.

“Mikey,” Gerard said, and vanished in to the darkness. Bill and Brian followed the coughing in to the corner.

There was just enough light coming in through the dirt-covered windows for them to see a kid buried in a mound of old blankets. In the claustrophobic darkness of the storage room Brian could feel Mikey’s labored breathing and Gerard’s total terror on his brother’s behalf. There wasn’t much of Mikey to see, but he was definitely younger than Gerard, and maybe even skinnier. Oh my god, Brian thought again. There wasn’t anything else to say.

“Mikey, this guy’s a doctor,” Gerard said, suddenly chatty. “He’s awesome and he’s going to make you feel better and you’re not going to be sick anymore, okay? We’re going to make you feel better. So you just have to start getting better right now. You can’t be sick anymore. Okay?”

Mikey nodded, or tried to, but it started him coughing again. Gerard sat down by his brother, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Brian had always considered ‘I felt my heart clench’ just an expression, and suddenly found it was an real thing you could actually feel.

“Hey there, Mikey,” Bill said, in his friendly doctor voice. “I’m gonna take your temperature and listen to your lungs and a couple of other things, okay? And we’re gonna fix you right up. Gerard’s been taking pretty good care of you, hasn’t he?” Mikey nodded again, and Gerard ducked his head. “He definitely has, I can tell. I’m going to put this thermometer in your ear, Mikey. Can you hold still for me?”

Mikey couldn’t, not really, not while he was coughing, but he tried. Brian stood uselessly off to the side while Bill did medical things with a stethoscope and Gerard talked to Mikey in a low voice. Brian couldn’t make out all the words, but it sounded like he was telling Mikey a story.

Eventually Bill walked over and said to Brian “It’s a bad flu,” he said. “It’ll be walking pneumonia in a day or two without treatment. He doesn’t need a hospital. Yet. But he can’t stay here. That fever needs to be monitored, that cough needs to be calmed down, and he needs a ton of fluids. He’s pretty dehydrated.”

Brian nodded. Bill expected him to make these things magically appear, and he didn’t know how. What was he supposed to say to Gerard? There had to be a reason two kids were living in a warehouse instead of somewhere safer. There was a story here, and it wasn’t very nice.

“Gerard,” said Brian. Gerard looked up. His eyes were about fifty years old, even if the rest of him was barely adolescent. “Bill’s got a diagnosis.”

Gerard stood up and came over to them, arms crossed. He was working hard to look adult, and in the dim light Brian could only barely make out how his hands were shaking. Bill repeated what he’d said about the flu to Gerard, who nodded. “He needs to be inside. Do you have anywhere to take him?”

No, Brian saw all over Gerard’s face. Gerard put his chin up and swallowed hard. “I’ll figure something out,” he said confidently.

“How about my house?” Brian blurted. Bill and Gerard both looked at him skeptically. “I have an extra bedroom. Bill’s close by. We can put Mikey in the extra room until he’s feeling better and Bill can come by and check up on him. Right?” He looked hopefully at Bill.

Bill sighed. “It’s better than here,” he allowed. But this is a good time to call the authorities, added every line of his body. Brian decided to ignore him, just like he was ignoring everything else he didn’t want to think about right now.

“You’ll call the cops,” Gerard muttered. He was staring at his sneakers, hunched in on himself. “I can’t… Mikey can’t go back there.”

Brian couldn’t promise never to call the cops, although the dread and resignation in Gerard’s voice was doing a lot to persuade him. “You trusted me tonight, right?” he said instead, “And so far so good. Trust me to help Mikey, okay?”

Gerard looked up at him out of the corner of his eye. “You promise?” he whispered.

“Brian—“ Bill started.

“Yeah,” Brian said. A cold lump settled in his stomach. “I promise.”

They looked at each for a long minute, until Gerard finally nodded, grudgingly. “Okay,” he said quietly. “Fine.”

“You’re an idiot,” Bill muttered under his breath, but he rolled his eyes in resignation. “Grab the little one. It’s cold as hell out here.”

Brian and Gerard maneuvered Mikey out from under the pile of blankets and Brian picked him up. The kid weighed nothing. He was nearly unconscious, except for a sniffle and a mostly-muffled “Gee” to his brother, before he closed his eyes and seemed to sleep. Gerard hovered worriedly behind Brian as they walked out of the warehouse, as if the cops were going to appear at any second and drag them both away. Or as if Brian might drop Mikey. Bill walked behind Gerard, muttering to himself about how stupid the whole thing was.

Brian knew. He knew he was making decisions that were questionable at best. If anyone came by, he didn’t know how he’d explain what two kids with no last names were doing in his house. He was going to call in sick and take that week off after all, apparently. And he was going to have to pay Bill back for the rest of his life.

But Brian also couldn’t imagine having said or done anything else. Not when he looked down at Mikey’s pale face and heard him wheezing with every breath, or the muted terror Gerard was working hard to hide. Brian was optionless.

He put Mikey upstairs in the guest bedroom and let Bill start working out which kinds of cold medicine to pour down his throat. Gerard hovered around the edge of the room and Brian, feeling even more useless, went downstairs to see if he had some soup, or tea, or whatever the hell you gave sick children. Brian hadn’t been sick more than a couple of times in his whole life, and his mother had taken care of everything. She was kind of a miracle worker that way. Her chicken soup could revive the dead. Brian didn’t keep any of the ingredients on hand, though, and he almost never cooked anyway.

Brian ended up with more hot chocolate and a bottle of Tylenol. He carried them back upstairs like a peace offering. Bill had the situation well under control already; Mikey was sleeping and Gerard was sitting next to him on the bed, while Bill wrote notes. “Here’s what I gave him,” he said quietly, handing Brian the pad with a list of medicines. He’d left a pile of bottles on the chair. “He gets more every four hours, both the fever-reducer and the expectorant. Lots of water, lots of soup, lots of Gatorade. If he stops being able to keep it all down, call me again, because that’s not good. He should probably get a bath at some point, too; it’s hard to tell if he’s pale or flushed under a layer of dirt. I’ll stop by tomorrow to check in.” He shook his head. “You have no idea what you’re getting in to, Brian. You know that, right?”

Brian nodded. He put the mugs down on the end table in case Gerard wanted one, although he doubted it; the kid's eyes were sliding shut, now that his panic over Mikey had started to fade. “Yeah,” he said. “Believe me, I know.”

“I called your mom,” Bill went on. “She’ll be here in the morning. Jesus, it is morning, I guess. I’m going to bed.”

Brian stared at him for a minute. Sometimes it was awesome having a friend who’d known you forever. Other times it was just disconcerting. “Thanks,” he managed. “You’re the best.”

“Yeah, and you fucking owe me,” Bill said. He turned to Gerard. “Take care of him, Gerard.”

“I will,” Gerard nodded, yawning.

Brian let Bill out, thanked him another few hundred times, and went back upstairs. Gerard was half-lying on the bed next to Mikey, one hand quietly petting his brother’s shoulder like he was reassuring himself that Mikey was still there. Mikey was sniffling and coughing in his sleep, but it wasn’t as scary in a bedroom in a house as it had been in a dark, cold warehouse.

He wanted to say something to Gerard, but couldn’t figure out what. So he stood in the doorway for a few minutes, watching as both boys’ breathing started to even out and Gerard’s hand stopped moving.

“We’ll go in the morning,” Gerard said suddenly, voice rough and low.

Brian flinched. “No,” he said quickly. “You have to stay until Mikey’s better. I mean, you should until Mikey’s better. Please stay.”

“It’s your house,” Gerard said stubbornly, yawning. “You don’t have to—“

“I want to,” Brian assured him. “It’s safe here, Gerard. You can stay.”

The look on Gerard’s face was utterly defeated. “Yeah,” he muttered. “That’s what they all say.” And then he yawned again and his eyes dropped shut.

Brian stayed up the rest of the night, jumping every time Mikey coughed, and watching them sleep.