Warnings: Mentions of severe child abuse (sexual and physical) and underage prostitution (happening before the story), sickness.
The kid Parker’d herded back to their current lair was pretty much feral. Neal hadn’t had a great feeling about taking him in, but Parker said, “I found him in a cage.”
Parker didn’t always use the right words for things, so at first Neal had thought she was just confused. “You mean a car?”
But Parker had stood her ground. “Like sometimes you see dogs in, when people are taking them places. Or cats.”
Neal took another look at the filthy, shivering wreck of muscles and bone that didn’t seem to understand a damn word they were saying. He considered taking the kid to a police station and hoping they’d drug him, keep him somewhere safe, and where others would be kept safe from him.
But then Ryan, who hadn’t said a word to anyone in two days—not even Spencer—skulked up next to Parker and looked at the new boy. After several long moments of silence Ryan said, “We need him.”
The boy looked at Ryan with wild eyes. Maybe he did understand, at least a little. Ryan said, “We need you.”
Neal had already known he was going to lose the argument.
The kid had scars of a kind Neal had never seen before in his life—which was saying something. In the system, a kid could see a lot of things. Some were old, some just healed and some, well, Parker knocked off a pharmacy and came back with every kind of antisceptic and bandage it probably had on the shelves.
Neal wasn’t having Parker take care of the wounds. Regardless of the fact that she was the only one the new kid had let close to him, it wasn’t a good idea. For one thing, Parker’s bedside manner left a lot to be desired. For another, she didn’t really know what she was doing. Mostly, though, Neal wasn’t taking the chance that this kid lashed out when something stung or otherwise hurt and Parker got caught in the crossfire.
Mikey offered. Mikey was really good at patching people up, between Gee, Brendon, Parker, Ryan, Bob and Neal who were forever getting themselves into trouble of one kind or another. Really, truth be told, Spencer was generally the only one who could manage to keep himself out of mischief. Gee got all flustered at Mikey’s offer, though, so Neal looked at Bob.
Bob nodded and put himself right in front of the new kid. He said, “I’m Bob. You’re pretty fucked up.”
The kid stared at him for a long time, the hair in his eyes making it hard to read his expression. Finally, he nodded tightly. Bob said, “We gotta clean it up. Some of that stuff… It’s gonna hurt.”
The kid looked confused. Neal couldn’t imagine why. Clearly he had some notion of what being hurt meant. Bob said, “Don’t get crazy, okay? I’m just trying to help.”
Bob approached him slowly and with all due caution. He poured a little peroxide onto his own hand and let the kid smell it. He said, “You’ve got infections.”
The kid nodded again. Bob said, “You’ve got to show me where it hurts. Otherwise it’ll just get worse and we don’t have the stuff to fix it if it gets worse.”
The kid stripped down without qualm or hesitation, showing absolutely no modesty, just wariness. Everything about his body language made Neal’s stomach turn. Bob sucked in a breath and said, “Okay. Um, you can-- Nobody’ll make fun of you if you make noise.”
But the kid never did, not once. When everything had been flushed—some of the more infected ones had taken close to ten minutes to get completely cleaned—and bandaged up, they scrounged some slightly cleaner clothes up for him, and Parker took him to where they tended to nest at night. She laid down with him and said, “You have to sleep now. Otherwise you won’t get better.”
Neal was pretty sure nobody had ever once bothered to tell Parker that, not with any care. He also doubted anyone had ever stayed with Parker through the night when she was ill or just hurt. But Parker settled in, and showed absolutely no intention of going anywhere. Neal was hardly going to make her.
At some point, several of the kids started calling the new boy Eliot, which made Neal assume that Eliot had told someone his name. Neal had no evidence Eliot could actually speak, but then, for a year Neal had thought that when Spencer said, “Ryan says…” that was just Spencer’s way of not claiming his own ideas. As it turned out, though, Ryan wasn’t mute, simply reluctant to say anything to anybody other than Spencer and Brendon.
Bob told Neal, “Nah, Parker and Gee decided the new kid was like the dragon in ‘Pete’s Dragon.’”
“I didn’t even know Parker’d seen that movie,” Neal said.
“Gee and Mikey did a twenty minute reenactment for her one day.” Bob managed to keep a straight face.
“Mikey was Pete, right?”
Bob nodded, apparently still very serious. “Brendon was both lighthouse keepers.”
Impressed despite himself, Neal asked, “Where do we even find these kids?”
“Mostly where you found me.”
Neal looked over at Bob out of the corner of his eye. Bob didn’t mention that first meeting in the park very often. “Eliot bothering you?”
Bob didn’t say anything for a long moment, but finally he answered, “Not in the way you’re thinking.”
Softly, because sometimes Bob spooked easy, Neal said, “That wasn’t a no.”
“Who keeps a kid in a cage and doesn’t come after him?”
That kind of anxiety Neal could handle. He smiled at Bob the same way he sometimes smiled at marks, but with a different intent behind it. “We’ll just have to make sure he knows how to pick locks.”
At first, it had just been Neal and Mikey and Gee. Neal had meant for it to be just himself when he cooked up the plan to get out of the State Home, but it was pretty clear social services was going to split the Mikey and Gee up. It was also pretty clear that neither of them would survive intact. Neal was sure the safest way to survive and survive well was on his own, but he also suspected that survival wasn’t exactly what he was best at, because he couldn’t just leave them there.
The three of them made their escape at one in the morning on a Saturday: the weekend people were nowhere near as diligent as the weekday ones. It was possibly one of the worst-executed plans in history. Gee was a fucking menace around objects of any sort, mobile or otherwise. It was also successful.
As it turned out, Mikey was shockingly good at picking pockets once Neal taught him all the tricks. Nobody ever noticed Mikey, unless he made them, which he never did. Gerard, in turn, was good at street artistry and distracting people. Between the three of them, as long as they kept moving, they did all right.
They found Parker less than a year later. She was doing a dine-and-ditch at a greasy spoon, and easily outran the waiter. Mikey had Forrest Gump legs, though, and Neal thought it was a good idea to have someone who could get away from just about anything.
Parker was suspicious as hell and clearly not a team player. She was also freezing and way more scared than she was letting on. And she could get in and out of places like nobody’s business.
Bob watched Gee draw in Central Park for six hours before Neal came to round Gee and Mikey up. Gee looked at him with puppy eyes and Neal cursed his soft, soft heart, but also let Bob follow them home. Two weeks later, Bob very efficiently extracted Mikey from someone who had noticed him, and made sure they got back to the lair safely.
Mikey brought back Ryan, who evidently didn’t come without a Spencer and a Brendon. Neal started to say something—it was hard to keep this many kids hidden—but Mikey looked at him mulishly and named a few cross streets known for rough trade. Neal never mentioned the issue again.
After that, things were quiet for over a year. So of course that was when Parker came back with the dragon she’d rescued from a cage.
Spencer said, “We need a new spot.”
Neal almost asked if Spencer was sure, but Spencer always was. He had an uncanny ability to know when it was time to move on. Spencer must have sensed the frustration in Neal’s silence, though, because he said, “We’ve had people poking around.”
Neal nodded. “All right. What’re our options?”
Fortunately, Spencer was also unreasonably good at finding new hidey holes that would keep all of them for at least a few months. Spencer sighed. “Nothing that’ll work for the winter as of yet. Come spring it’ll be an embarrassment of riches, but—“
“You’ll find something,” Neal told him. “Do you need help? We can spare someone for the project.”
“Even with Bob and Parker posted 24/7 on the new kid?” Spencer sounded worried, which wasn’t something Neal was used to. It was easy to forget Spencer was the youngest of them, even including Parker. He normally came across much older. But there were moments, like now, when Neal remembered.
Spencer shook his head. “We just need somewhere safe for the winter, is all. All of us.”
“Want me to help you look?” Neal’s “job” with relation to the crew was much more on the organizational side, but he didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Back when it had just been him, Mikey and Gee, he’d been the one with all the street-smarts anyway. He’d been afraid to teach Gee too much, terrified it might change his art. Neal wanted Gee’s world to look the way it did in his pictures forever.
Spencer’s shoulders dropped a notch. “That -- that’d be good.”
Neal pulled his most confident smile out. “We’ll find the perfect place. View and all.”
Spencer rolled his eyes, but he smiled back.
Winter came early, or fall came harsh, one of the two. It didn’t really matter, either was bad news. They had barely found a place before it was clear they needed to set it up, find a way to make it secure for fires: open enough that they wouldn’t be killed by the smoke, boarded up enough that local cops wouldn’t easily notice the light in an abandoned building. Plus there was the issue of some basic bedding. They took what they could from place to place but it was never enough, particularly not in the winter, when heavier blankets were necessary.
All in all, making a winter residence work meant a few larger jobs and some very subtle use of money and goods acquired from said jobs. This was all a headache, sure, but one Neal had dealt with for four seasons now, and was unquestionably in a better position to handle at seventeen than he had been at thirteen.
Also, moving meant Gee would have wholly new walls to decorate. Sure, this meant scrounging up some new supplies, but watching Gee work was always worth it. Neal could sit shoulder to shoulder with Mikey for hours. Sometimes Gee would pull Neal up and make him draw too, keep him at the wall for as long as he could get Neal to forget that Neal’s art was lies and stealing, not creation, like Gee’s. (Gee got mad when Neal talked about it, so mostly Neal just said he was tired, or whatever. Neal lied well enough that even Gee never noticed.)
Things were a little more harried than usual, with an early snowstorm pushing up everyone’s timeline. Ryan and Mikey spread out, which was something that made Neal nervous, so he did his best to stay with at least one of them, and assigned Bob to the other. Neal didn’t have Bob’s talent for getting the kids out of danger by way of sheer physical force, but he had other tricks and they’d served him quite well up until now. Besides, he was going to be working anyway, it was nice to have someone to chat with in the lulls when they were both waiting for the right mark, the right moment.
Gee and Brendon both upped their busking hours to as much as they could without getting caught and shipped off to CYS. This seemed like a good idea at the time—and had worked for three years with Gee, one with Brendon—until Brendon caught something that went from “just a little cold” to, “that kind of looks like walking pneumonia” in the span of a week.
Predictably, Ryan caught it and gave it to Mikey, who spread it onto Gee. They were able to contain it there, with Spencer’s superhuman immune system managing to hold out, and a strict quarantine on Bob, Parker and Eliot.
Spencer was the one who said, “They need a doctor,” but it wasn’t like Neal hadn’t been thinking that. The problem was, the last time any of them had gotten this ill had been when Mikey had managed to infect everyone with chicken pox. “Everyone” back then hadn’t been quite as large a group, Gee had already developed an immunity and it had been spring, so the need for better shelter hadn’t been as big a deal.
Neal had a sneaking suspicion they were a little more screwed this time. All he said was, “Absolutely. I’ve got a plan.”
Free clinics were out. Nobody would report a kid faster than the do-gooders at those places. Hospitals were also a cesspit of well-meaning but clueless adults, and they had the added problem of requiring payment. Neal talked a good game, but the truth was, he wasn’t entirely sure what to do. All he knew was that he had to do something.
Gee was burning up, and he kept calling for his mom. Gee’s mom had been dead since Gee was nine. Mikey was barely waking up in between bouts of sleep and when he did, his breath was even sharper and more painful sounding than when he was struggling with it in his sleep. Ryan had cried twice. Neal hadn’t even known Ryan had tear ducts before now. Brendon had started coughing up small amounts of blood the day before.
Neal sat down with Spencer, Parker and Bob to figure out a three part plan: 1) do research at the library, figure out what kind of drugs and things the others needed, 2) do a lift on a clinic or a hospital, and 3) manage to stash the sick kids somewhere where there was heat for a few days. For that last, Neal was thinking about a school or community center, somewhere where some extra kids might not be noticed for a few days.
In the middle of sketching out this—admittedly preposterous and unlikely to work—plan, Eliot spoke for the first time in the month and a half he’d been staying with them. He said, “If you take me with you, I can help steal a doctor.”
They all blinked at him. Finally Neal said, “We steal things, not people.”
“Because that’s what you need,” Eliot said, showing a shocking comprehension of events around him that Neal, admittedly, would not have credited him with until now. “But you need a person this time.”
“Whoever we stole would report us,” Spencer said, having recovered from the shock of Eliot revealing himself to have both a voicebox and a brain.
Eliot shook his head. “I know—“ his jaw flexed and he hunched in on himself.
Bob frowned. “We don’t kill people.”
Eliot didn’t look up. Parker put her hand on Eliot’s forearm. “That wasn’t what Eliot was going to say.”
Eliot seemed to calm a little at the touch. Parker squeezed. “What do you know?”
“How to make people, um, blackout. So we could get a doctor here and away without him knowing where we are.”
Neal looked at Bob, who seemed like he was thinking about it. Spencer said, “The nearest hospital or clinic is at least two miles from here. How would we get the doctor back?”
Neal looked at Parker. “Feeling up to a little grand theft?”
Parker grinned. “Finally, something fun!”
Neal sighed internally. Petty theft was something the police very rarely caught on to, or bothered with if they did catch on; grand theft auto, well, that they’d look into. But Parker had never been caught, not even when her theft ring had left her out to dry. And Neal wasn’t kidding himself: if Brendon and the others (Gee) didn’t get a doctor, he didn’t know if they’d make it to winter, let alone through it.
He nodded sharply, once. “Okay, Eliot, you tell us the basics. Then Spence and I are going to plan the overall schematics. Maybe it’ll even go as planned.”
Bob snorted at that. Spencer flipped him off, but clearly more for posterity than anything else. Parker nudged Eliot, who flushed, but started talking.
The plan didn’t go horribly, per se. Parker lifted a perfectly suitable car that would fit in anywhere, Eliot incapacitated the first doctor to come out the hospital door—they’d had to wait through two techs, five nurses, and a metric ton of patients—and they got her back to their place without anyone seeing.
The problem started when she woke up. The first thing that happened was upon startling awake she punched Neal so hard he was pretty sure his cheekbone was broken. After that, Eliot had her on the ground in the blink of an eye, saying quietly, “We don’t mean you harm.”
She brought up a knee, clearly aiming for his groin, but whoever had trained Eliot—and Neal really didn’t want to know what the hell that process had looked like—had done well. Eliot dodged the threat easily while still keeping her down.
She seethed but said, “Then what the fuck do you mean?”
Eliot looked at Neal. One hand over the side of his face she had decked him on, Neal tried to smile. After all, she had been summarily kidnapped by them, she probably deserved to get in a couple of hits. He said, “We’re sorry, it’s just, our friends are sick. We needed a doctor.”
After a long moment of looking at Neal, the doctor looked up at her captor, then over at Parker, who was standing with her hands on her hips, trying desperately to look fierce. Bob was hovering silently behind her, just in case she needed back up. Spencer was already back over by Ryan and Brendon. Finally, the doctor said, “You’re kids.”
It wasn’t an accurate description, not really, not when all of them had lived through more than most adults. Neal shrugged. “Guilty as charged. Four of us are sick kids. Will you help?” He looked at her name tag. “Dr. Barrigan?”
She sighed. “I’ll… I’ll take a look.”
Neal heard the catch in her tone. “But?”
“Well, besides the fact that it’s near freezing and you’re living in an abandoned warehouse?”
“Factory,” Neal corrected. “Yes, besides that.”
“I’m an oncology studies research assistant. This isn’t precisely my area of expertise.”
Neal blinked. “You’re a cancer doctor.”
He shared a look with Bob and Spencer, who had glanced over. Then he looked down at Eliot and flicked his good eye in a way that said, “Up and off of her.”
He held out a hand to help her up. “It’s more than the nothing we had before.”
Neal watched as Dr. Barrigan spoke softly to Brendon, who was also speaking for Ryan. She was careful in her approach with Mikey and Gee. When she was finished, she wrapped them all up even more tightly than they had been before. She soothed the hair on Mikey’s forehead back and squeezed Ryan’s hand before coming over to talk to Neal.
She said, “Let me see that eye.”
Neal stepped back. “I’ve had worse, trust me. What can you tell me about them?”
“Considering that I don’t even have a stethoscope?” she asked with a sigh.
Neal just kept his eyes on her. She said, “It’s almost certainly a chest infection. I’m pretty sure Brendon at the very least has bronchitis. The others probably will.”
Neal nodded and didn’t let himself admit he’d still been kind of hoping it was just a really nasty cold. “Okay, so what do we do?”
Dr. Barrigan glared at him. “For one thing, get them out of the cold and somewhere where they have plenty of fluids and a soft place to rest. For another, get a doctor who actually can tell what the hell’s going on and prescribe the right drug therapy course.”
Neal had somewhat forgotten how adults never had any idea what trading their freedom for supposed “safety” meant. He smiled. “Thank you for your time, Dr. Barrigan. Don’t worry, we’ll put you back as we found you.”
She put her hand out. “No, wait.”
“I’m sorry,” Neal said, and he was, he didn’t like involving other people, particularly not against their will.
“I have a friend, okay? He’s a pediatric surgeon. Not perfect, but he’ll know more than I do.”
The temptation was intense, especially when Neal could hear Gee coughing every ten seconds. There were bigger things at stake, though. “Thank you, but no. We appreciate—“
“My boss’s wife runs a gallery. There’s a storage room that always has extra space. We could move you there, and I could call my friend. Nobody would report you, you have my word.”
“I don’t know you,” Neal pointed out. “Your word—“
“I take the ‘do no harm’ oath part of my job pretty seriously.”
“People don’t always understand our version of harm,” Neal countered.
“You’ve kept all of you safe for a while now, right? I’m reading that correctly?”
Neal inclined his head. She said, “Then believe that you’ll figure out a way to run, if you have to.”
Neal almost said no again, but in that moment, he caught a flash of Spencer, sitting over Ryan and Brendon. Neal closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them he said, “You turn us in and I will make you wish you hadn’t.”
She said, “I know,” and sounded like she sort of respected him for it.
Bob carried Mikey and Eliot got Brendon, as he was the worst off. Spencer draped Ryan over his side, but even that was hard. Neal did the same for Gee. They put the four of them in the “borrowed” car together and Neal drove, following Dr. Barrigan’s instructions to the letter.
They stayed in the car, since it had dropped below freezing, and Neal wouldn’t have a way in until the doctor showed with the key. She’d gone in another borrowed vehicle, with Bob, Spencer, Eliot and Parker.
Neal’s head hurt. He hadn’t been eating very much. Eliot wasn’t trained up in any kind of reliable thievery and Neal didn’t want him out on the street much anyway. With Ryan and Mikey out of the game, Neal and Parker were trying to pick up the entirety of the slack, and it just wasn’t working. Neal suspected Bob had been letting go of most of his share of the loot to make sure the others were fed and they could get as much over the counter medication as they could manage.
Instead of worrying, Neal spent the time whispering to Gee about how they were going to stay in a place with real art, that sold for all kinds of money, and as soon as Gee got better, “We’ll go and sit in front of it, even if it has to be in the dark. I bet you’ll see all the stuff those bourgeoisie who come into actually buy miss.”
Gee coughed so hard Neal could swear he heard tearing. Mikey, who was sharing the front seat with him, literally curled around him so that there was really only one of them. Neal rubbed at Mikey’s back and said, “They’ll be here soon.”
They were, too, but it felt like forever, the stifling heat of the car mixed with the smell of sickness making Neal dizzy, in need of fresh air. Finally, the car pulled up behind them, and Dr. Barrigan and a man in a doctor’s coat got out. The other four, clearly squashed into the backseat, all but fell out of the car.
They were all at his doors immediately, helping to get the others out of the car. Dr. Barrigan had already opened the backdoor to the facility. It was another trek, with the sick kids who had to be on their feet barely managing a shuffle, but soon enough, they were there.
Parker and the other doctor came from somewhere, maybe the other car, which was different than the one they’d left in, and probably belonged to one of the doctors. They were carrying blankets and pillows. Neal and Spencer immediately set to arranging things, as Eliot and Bob helped to get the sick kids settled onto the cushions.
The doctor knelt by Brendon and started an examination. He did have a stethoscope, and a whole range of things in a doctor’s bag that was modern but still made Neal feel a little bit liked they’d somehow been transported back to the forties. He sat on the floor, his back to the boxes and waited. If they could just get the right drugs, and stay in this place that was perfectly temperate and smelled slightly of expensive coffee and oil paints for a few days, they’d be fine. Neal and Parker could make enough to get them back on their feet, they’d find a better spot for winter, no problem. They’d done it a million times before.
Neal wasn’t going to think about the hundreds of things that could go wrong with that plan. Things were always going wrong, he just had to be quick enough to make them right. He took a deep breath, and kept his eyes on the kids who were being seen to by the doctor. Never could be too cautious.
The doctor was evidently Dr. Jones, which Neal would have laughed at in any other situation. Now he just said, “Nice to meet you,” and offered his hand.
Dr. Jones was worried about the fever Gee was running, and the sound of Brendon’s cough. He was worried about how underweight both Mikey and Ryan were. Neal asked, “What can I do?”
“Diana tells me she promised not to call you in.”
Dr. Jones didn’t sound so sure that was the best idea. Neal sighed. “You could, sure, but as soon as Mikey and Gee got better, they’d run again. This time, they’d hop a train, like they had planned to the first time, and they’d be at the mercy of every alcoholic hobo who’s on whatever car the two of them manage to leap onto, if they even make it. Parker will probably be raped again, but hey, at least she’s over twelve this time, right? I have to believe Ryan will stop—“
“Okay, kid. I get it. The system is death or worse for most of you.”
“All of us,” Neal said, keeping eye contact, making sure he didn’t sound melodramatic, just knowledgeable and certain.
Dr. Jones ran a hand over his face. Neal said, “Tell me what they need. I’ll get it for them.”
“Can you read?” Dr. Jones asked.
Neal smiled. “So long as it’s in English.”
“I’ll write a list.”
Dr. Barrigan acceded to getting the prescription medicines they needed. Neal consulted with Spencer, and the two of them gave her as much money as they had beyond what they needed to go get all the foodstuffs and minor other articles on the list. She took one look at it and shook her head. “I don’t wanna know where the hell you got that from, but I’m not taking money from you and I’m sure as hell not paying someone else with dirty money.”
Neal shrugged. They did what they had to do. He kissed her cheek. “Thanks for the medicines.”
She rolled her eyes at him, but he could see he was growing on her. Neal left Bob in charge and took Parker to acquire the over the counter meds and eatables that were needed. The gallery had a break room with a microwave and a water heater, so they could make all the canned soup and tea necessary. They only stole the things that were exorbitantly priced. Parker whined a little about that, but Neal reminded her it made them less suspicious. She only settled slightly at that.
The food buying made Neal nauseated with untended hunger, but he ignored it. They were there for a reason.
In the morning, Neal would go to the Army Surplus store with what they had left and get more bedding, maybe even a few duffel bags. It wouldn’t hurt to take the more useful stuff with them when they left.
By the time they got back, Dr. Jones had administered the first round of medications. He took the over the counter stuff from them and poured some of it down each of the sick kids’ throats as well. Neal closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment of relief when their coughing started to actually die down.
Dr. Jones said, “I have to get back, I’ve been on break way too long. I’ll come by after my shift, though, and check up.”
Neal said, “Thank you,” and, “We can pay. If you can wait until tomorrow evening.”
Dr. Jones said, “Yeah, because that’s not suspicious at all.”
Neal didn’t rescind the offer. Dr. Jones said, “Stay with them. I don’t like it when kids I treat die on me. We’ll consider ourselves even.”
“They’re not going to die,” Neal said, because sometimes, if you said something aloud enough, it sounded true, even if it wasn’t.
Dr. Jones said, “Night,” and locked the door after himself.
Neal hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he must have, because the next thing he knew, there was light coming into the storage room, and a particularly beautiful woman in a business suit was staring at all of them in bemusement. Neal stood up and smiled at her, whispering, “Ah, good morning.”
She looked tempted to smile back. Instead, she turned around and motioned for him to follow. Neal made sure the others were still sleeping. He thought they all were until Eliot loped up beside him. Neal hadn’t spoken much to Eliot yet, but he said, “It’s all right, go back to sleep.”
Eliot shook his head. Then he said, “Spencer’s awake. He can keep watch.”
Spencer didn’t look particularly awake, but Neal felt like he could take Eliot’s word on it. One thing was for sure: Neal might know how to get himself out of a jam less violently than Eliot, but in a fight between them, Neal was the one who was going to end up bleeding. Neal shrugged and started to follow the woman. He could feel Eliot’s warmth at his back.
When they caught up to her, she was in a lounge space, starting the coffee drip and heating water. She turned to them. “Tea?”
“Coffee?” Neal countered.
“That will stunt your growth,” she said quite firmly. “I have a veritable buffet of flavors, pick any you want.”
Neal rifled through them, mumbling along as he went. He wasn’t sure Eliot was literate. Neal picked out an earl gray for himself—he needed the caffeine. When Neal looked at him, Eliot blinked and then said, “Apple cinnamon?” as though he weren’t sure if he was actually allowed to have a preference.
Neal plucked the bag out and handed both to the woman, who placed them in cups. She said, “Sit, please.”
Eliot perched nervously on the very edge of the plush loveseat clearly there so buyers could spend time deliberating in comfort. Neal settled back, going for comfortable but not insouciant. She brought the cups of steeping tea along with a cream and sugar caddy over to the coffee table with carefully placed art books. She sat across from them in a reader’s chair and said, “Diana mentioned I had some guests.”
Neal’s lips quirked. “I daresay we appreciate the hospitality more than most guests.”
Eliot was looking at the teacup like it might bite him, so Neal slowly took his own tea bag out, poured a little cream and sugar in the cup and swirled it. He’d watched marks in the better parts of town do things like this, just observing and learning.
Eliot still seemed unsure of what to do. To Neal’s surprise, the woman asked, “Would you like some sugar with your tea? It will make it sweeter.”
Eliot swallowed. Softly, he said, “Please, ma’am, thank you.”
When she had done that, Eliot took the cup and held onto it with both hands, even though it had to be burning him. Eliot was about to take a sip when the woman said, “You might want to blow on it first—else you’ll burn yourself.”
He looked at her with what Neal suspected was shock, although Eliot’s facial expressions were all somewhat similar. Then he took her advice. With that settled, Neal took a sip of his own and tried not to show how welcome the warmth and just the taste of something on his tongue, were. He thought he might have failed as the woman was frowning at him.
He set his cup down and said. “I’m sorry, I haven’t properly introduced myself. I’m Neal, my friend is Eliot.”
Eliot looked equally gobsmacked at the moniker “friend,” but Neal could address that later.
She took Neal’s proffered hand and said, “Elizabeth.”
“You own a beautiful gallery, Elizabeth. Not a thing will be moved an inch out of its place. We just need intrude on your climate-controlled storage space for a bit.”
She took her hand back. “How old are you?”
Neal threw out his most charming smile. “Old enough.”
She laughed. “Old enough to know all of you need homes?”
Neal didn’t lose the smile, he just made it more cutting. “Old enough to know what happens to each and every one of us if we get turned over to the system.”
Eliot was shaking so hard he couldn’t get his cup back onto the saucer. Carefully, Neal took it from him. Eliot wouldn’t look him in the eye as he said, “Sorry.”
Neal came around in front of Eliot, locking Elizabeth out. “I won’t let anyone have you.” He made Eliot look at him, and whatever Eliot saw in his eyes, in the line of Neal’s jaw, he nodded.
When Neal sat back down, Elizabeth was looking at them differently. There was pity in her gaze, which Neal hated, but which he’d deal with if it meant Gee, Mikey, Ryan and Brendon got better. There was something else, too, consideration, Neal thought, maybe, but he couldn’t say of what.
Finally she said, “We should make more tea, for the sick ones. Chamomile, I think.”
Sensing victory, Neal gave her the closest thing to a real smile he ever let anyone outside their group see. “Thank you.”
The art in the gallery was splendid. Neal knew he should be staying with the others, helping, but for a few minutes, he just couldn’t help himself, sneaking out to view the different selections. Neal didn’t really know anything about art, except what he could find learn by sitting down with a book at the library for a few hours, or reading the plaques at the Met. Gee and he had once spent an entire rainy day in the Impressionist wing of the Met.
Neal had enough knowledge, though, and enough instinct to see that these pieces were good, they imparted something, both visually and metaphorically. He stopped in front of one, a simple line drawing, parts colored, parts left bare, of a girl with each hand in a sock puppet. It made him think of the time Gee had made puppets out of brown paper bags collected in the park and told them ghost stories for hours.
Elizabeth came up next to him and asked, “Do you like it?”
Neal opened his mouth, thinking he had best say something smart. She stopped him before he could before saying, “The truth.”
He gave her, “Probably for all the wrong reasons.”
She smiled at that. “There are no wrong reasons in art. The artist is a girl out of California, Lauren Nassef. I saw her stuff online and had to have at least one for the gallery because they reminded me of illustrations in the children’s books my mother used to read me.”
Neal said, “It reminds me of my friend’s stories. Gee, the -- well, he’s one of us.”
Softly, she asked, “Where are you going to go? After this?”
Lightly, he said, “Neverneverland, Wendy. Isn’t that where all the Lost Boys go?”
“One of you isn’t a boy.”
“Don’t tell Parker that.”
His voice was gentle, but firm, when he said, “I wouldn’t tell you if I could.”
She sighed. “My husband’s bringing more blankets and pillows when he gets off from work today. Also, dinner.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” Privately, Neal really didn’t think it was all that nice that one more person knew. He wondered if he could get out and do some capitol-building before the husband came around, just in case he needed a bribe.
“You look tired,” she said.
“Go nap with your friends.”
“Either that, or I’m going to nap and leave you in charge of the gallery.”
“Napping it is,” Neal agreed.
There had not been a Ryan cuddled up next to Neal when he had fallen asleep, of that Neal was one hundred and twenty percent sure. For one thing, Ryan didn’t cuddle with much of anyone who wasn’t Spencer or Brendon. For another, Ryan was an oddly comforting cuddler for someone with so many bones, and Neal would have had an easier time falling asleep with him there. Neal rubbed Ryan’s neck a bit to let Ryan know Neal had woken. Ryan’s skin was much cooler to the touch than it had been, which had Neal breathing a little easier. “Hey, kid.”
Ryan acknowledged the greeting by gently head-butting Neal’s chin. Neal didn’t expect Ryan to actually speak, so it was a bit of a shock when he said, “Brendon thinks this place sounds right.”
Neal sighed. Spencer had a knack for finding good camping spots, but Brendon could sense problems like nobody’s business. He always said it “sounded wrong.” Neal had no idea what it meant, but Ryan and Spencer seemed to understand and Brendon was never wrong about that sort of thing.
“Yeah, it’s a good place, Ry.”
“He says there’s harmony.”
Ryan tensed up. “He’s not a freak. He just knows.”
They were all freaks, but Neal didn’t think Brendon was any more so than any of the rest of them. Still, he knew what Ryan was saying and it wasn’t feasible. “We can’t stay here, Ry. You have to realize that.”
“We can’t leave, either,” Ryan said stubbornly.
“Not for a few days,” Neal agreed. “Then Brendon’ll be feeling better and I’ll send him with Spence to hear places out, okay?”
Ryan stiffened even further and started to move away. Normally, Neal would have let him, but this time he hauled Ryan back. “They won’t keep us, Ryan. They don’t even really want us here. We can’t stay until they get fed up and feed us back to the system, you know we can’t.”
Ryan swallowed. “Just -- we stay until Brendon starts hearing wrong sounds. Promise me until then.”
Neal was about to reject the idea out of hand. Who even knew if Brendon’s sounds shifted with the shifts in environment? But Ryan had never directly asked something of Neal. His eyes were huge and unusually bare, watching Neal. Neal said, “Fuck. All right. But if we get split up—“
“I’ll get everyone back,” Ryan said, his voice solemn.
Right. “You’d better.”
Elizabeth’s husband and Dr. Barrigan’s boss, Dr. Peter Burke, was not on board with his wife being in her gallery all day alone with, “…a bunch of teenage hooligans, El. Jesus, honey, what were you thinking? What was Diana thinking for that matter?”
Even if Neal had been the kind of kid who felt badly about eavesdropping on people, he wouldn’t have just now. Brendon’s aural instincts aside, Neal wasn’t keeping them here if he caught even the slightest whiff of the system.
Neal frowned a bit when Elizabeth laughed. “I think she was thinking that four of them are sick kids. They’re not -- I don’t know what you’re imagining, but the ones who have shown themselves have been nothing but polite.”
“Well, sure, wouldn’t want to get kicked out before they figure out where the safe is,” Dr. Burke muttered.
Neal couldn’t help but grin at that. In another instance, the man might not be too far off. But he wasn’t touching anything of Elizabeth’s, nor would any of the others. They had some notion of gratitude. More than he imagined most teenage hooligans had.
“El, honey, I know you like to think the best—“
“You haven’t even seen them yet, Peter, let alone met them. If, after you do, you’re still dead set on throwing them back out into the streets, well, we can see what we see then.”
“I wouldn’t thrown them onto the streets. That’s what CYS is for, you know.”
Things were silent for a minute, Neal so tensed up his stomach hurt. Finally, Elizabeth said softly, “I think these kids know a little bit too well.”
More silence followed, but when Dr. Burke said, “I’ll… I’ll come meet them,” he sounded like he might actually be willing to give them a shot. Neal would make sure it wasn’t wasted.
Neal didn’t particularly like using Parker in the way he needed to just then, but desperate times and all that, and Neal wasn’t above it if it meant keeping all of them safe. The thing with Parker was that, so long as nobody knew better, she seemed like the perfect little blonde-haired, blue-eyed package, and who the hell was going to place that in danger?
Dr. Burke, whose voice had suggested he was not precisely a small man, in fact towered over Neal. One of these days Neal was going to hit a growth spurt. It was a promise he’d made to himself he had no intention of breaking.
Neal did what he always did when terrified: acted as if everything was fine. He smiled and whispered, “You must be Dr. Burke.”
He held his hand out and could see the second of hesitation before Dr. Burke shook it, but he did. After a second, uncertainly, the doctor said, “There are — some of you are sick?”
Parker, who was doing her part by standing slightly behind Neal—as if anything scared her, ever—peeked out to say, “They’re sleeping,” somewhat more fiercely than Neal would have strictly preferred.
Dr. Burke’s eyes widened for a moment, whether at Parker herself or the assertion, Neal couldn’t tell. He was a harder read than most, which was unfortunate all the way around. He said, sounding unsure, “Well, I won’t wake them. I just—“
“Of course, Doctor. We’d appreciate it,” Neal said, reaching back to put a hand on Parker’s neck. Parker, predictably, ignored the hand and traipsed off after Dr. Burke to monitor his every move. Neal kept back. It would do no good to have both of them hovering.
From a space between boxes, hidden from the main light of the room, Neal could see Eliot tracking the two of them. Bob had his eyes on the sick kids. Neal took a breath. For now, everything was under control.
He waited, making sure his body language conveyed nothing but patience. Eventually, Dr. Burke stood up and walked back over to Neal. He asked, “Your plan when they recover is to, what? Just take them back on the streets, hope it works out better this time?”
Neal wasn’t sure what the motivation behind that question was, which made him feel off-balance. He tried a guileless look and promised, “We’ll be off your hands and away from your wife in a matter of days, if not less.”
Dr. Burke ran a hand over his face and said, tiredly. “C’mon, kid. If you’re old enough to take care of an entire flock, you’re old enough to have an adult conversation.”
The doctor turned to walk out of the room, and Neal hesitated. He didn’t want to leave the others. Bob, at his side from out of nowhere, said, “Go. I’ll take care of things here.”
Neal squeezed Bob’s tricep quickly, and went.
“You know they’re not all like that, right? Foster families?”
Neal tamped down on his sneer. Adults liked to believe things like that, and maybe they were even true, but Neal had played the odds once before--all of them had—and it wasn’t just stupid but actually crazy to believe things would turn out differently this time. He managed a relatively mild quirking of his brow. “Just ninety-nine percent of them?”
Dr. Burke’s jaw twitched. Neal made himself stand his ground, even though he knew all the signs of when an adult was about to hit. He put all his weight on the balls of his feet, just in case he had to run. Then again, he wasn’t sure where he would go. It’d be better just to let Dr. Burke get it out with him, if it meant he wouldn’t touch the others.
Instead of hitting, Dr. Burke barked, “Neal, right?”
Neal smiled politely. Burke continued, “I’m betting whatever you guys do out there to keep afloat isn’t exactly legal.”
Neal blinked guilelessly. “We’re a bunch of kids, sir.”
Burke actually rolled his eyes. “Yeah. What’re you gonna do when one of you gets taken in?”
It had almost happened with Ryan one day, early on. Thankfully, Spencer and Neal could run a really fantastic con on pretty much anyone, if they didn’t have to keep it up for long. Neal swallowed back the fear that memory brought. “Figure something out. We’re good at it.”
“Diana says that Brendon kid was about three cold days off of being dead.”
Neal put his hands behind his back so he could clench his fists. He rocked up on his toes like he was completely at ease. “Three days from dead isn’t dead. And we figured something out, didn’t we?”
“How old is Brendon? Ten, eleven?”
Fourteen, but he was small for age, which sometimes worked to their advantage. Parker was the youngest at eleven; Neal and Bob the oldest at seventeen, although he suspected Eliot might be older. If they could actually figure it out, safely get Eliot some papers, he might be the answer to their problems. Neal suspected that wasn’t going to be easy, though. All Neal said was, “Older.”
“Old enough to die in an abandoned office building, trying to cry because he can’t breathe?”
“Old enough to take that chance over having to hide from constant beatings! Or worse.” The minute he snapped, Neal regretted it. He took a breath to recover his equilibrium.
Before he had completely recovered, Burke said, “Kid—“
“Don’t,” Neal said, his nails digging into his palm. “Don’t, or I’ll take them tonight. They’ll follow me at a word.” They would, too, if Neal could get over the fact that he might be signing death warrants for them to actually give the order.
Burke held up his hands, but still said, “You need a better plan.”
Neal shot Burke a fierce look, giving up all pretense of calm. “Better plans are for kids someone gives a shit about.”
Neal nearly tripped over Gee in his haste to get back to the others and formulate an escape that involved neither leaving anyone behind, nor allowing any of them to get caught. Gee was sitting in front of a series of three paintings, side by side, that clearly all bled into one work. Neal sat down next to him and said, “You’re supposed to be sleeping and getting better.”
“Had a nightmare,” Gee told him, not taking his eyes from the painting.
Neal considered reminding Gee that it did no good to tell other people your weaknesses, but Gee coughed at just that moment, putting his face to his knees, and Neal just rubbed at his back instead. He asked, “Mikey?”
Gee nodded. He didn’t elaborate, though, just asked, “How do you think she knew exactly what colors to pick?”
Neal looked over at the information plaque, which told him the piece was painted by Mary Capan. He said, “Maybe the way you always know.”
Gee shook his head. “My stuff doesn’t look like that.”
“Just because nobody’s hung it on their wall yet.”
Gee knocked his shoulder against Neal’s. “You want us to go, huh?”
Gee was still staring at the art, clearly soaking it up. Neal said, “I don’t want anyone to take you away from Mikey.”
Gee looked over at Neal, then and blinked slowly. After a while he said, “It’s not just the two of us anymore.”
Not wanting to deal with what Gee was trying to say, Neal said, “Yeah, Ryan’d be a real mess on his own.”
“Are you eating?”
Taken aback by the non-sequitur, despite the fact that Gee came up with them all the time, Neal asked, “What?”
“Mikey says you don’t sometimes, until we all have. You look skinny.”
“We all look skinny, Gee. We’re street kids.”
Something shifted in Gee, the way it did when Mikey was in trouble. He settled his gaze levelly on Neal and said, “I’m only a few months younger than you, y’know?”
Neal knew exactly when their respective birthdays were, but Mikey and Gee had had a family for longer, so it didn’t really count. Neal didn’t say that. He said, “I’m eating fine, Gee.”
Gee didn’t look convinced, but he was also clearly unsure of what to follow up with. Finally, he said, “You were in the nightmare, too.”
“It’s the fever,” Neal told him. “C’mon, let’s get you back under the covers.”
“Neal,” Gee said, stopping Neal in the action of standing up. “Neal, I never used colors until after you found us.”
Neal straightened. “Lots of kids don’t in the system. Why would you?”
“No,” Gee said, taking the hand Neal offered and using it to pull himself up. “No, Neal. I never used them.”
One of the bright blue swirls of paint caught Neal’s attention from the corner of his eye. He swallowed and said, “Maybe you just knew how much I needed them.”
Gee shook his head, but let Neal help him back to the nest made for all the sick kids. When Gee was well-tucked in next to Mikey, he fisted his hand in Neal’s shirt and said, “Stay.”
Neal almost protested, really needing to talk to Bob, Spencer and Eliot. Gee’s hand wasn’t loosening, though, and Neal couldn’t get himself to pry the other boy’s fingers open.
When Neal woke up, his head felt fuzzy, and he was cold, despite being under a blanket, and next to Gee, who was clearly on fire. He sat up, startled, and had to swallow back the nausea the sudden movement caused. He needed to tell someone Gee’s fever was up again.
Only, when he looked, it wasn’t Gee at his side, it was Bob. (Hadn’t it been Gee?) And Bob was staring up at him calmly. He said, “Gee had to go to the bathroom. We didn’t want to leave you alone.”
Neal rubbed at his face and tried to make sense of that statement. When he felt how damp his hair was, things started to connect. “I caught the thing?”
Bob nodded. “You’ve woken up a couple of times since, but you weren’t real, uh. You didn’t make much sense.”
“Are better. You’ve been sick for a couple of days.”
Neal frowned. He hadn’t even felt sick when he’d lain down. “A couple of days?”
“Dr. Jones said you were probably too worried about everyone else to notice you weren’t feeling well.”
Neal noticed now. His throat was scratchy, all of his muscles felt limp and sore, and he was colder than he ever had been, even in the middle of January without any heat. He tried to keep his breathing even, since it kept getting stuck when he would speed up. He looked around the room, trying to count, to make sure they were all there. He knew Bob wouldn’t be so damn calm if they weren’t, but he couldn’t help himself.
Mikey came over, looking three-fourths of the way back to human, and held out a mug that was full of soup. He said, “You worried us,” sounding as reproachful as Mikey ever managed. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make Neal feel bad.
“I didn’t feel bad,” Neal told him, but sipped at the soup, appreciating how it felt against his throat.
Mikey was clearly unimpressed by this information. “Finish your soup. Dr. Jones says you have to sleep.”
Neal took the last few sips and handed the cup obediently back to Mikey. He considered arguing about the sleep thing, but despite having woken up mere minutes before, the idea sounded really good. He looked at Bob. “You’ve—“
“Yeah, go to sleep.”
Neal took as deep a breath as he could, laid down and closed his eyes.
The next time Neal woke up, he felt well enough to drag himself to the bathroom. He used the facilities, splashed some water on his face and went to make sure everyone was still where they should be.
He was recounting, hoping he’d somehow missed something, when Spencer came up to him and said, “Elizabeth took Bob, Brendon, Ryan and Parker to her place. She wants us to clean up.”
Neal blinked at Spencer while trying to get his heartbeat to slow. “Spence—“
“Bob’s with them, and Ryan was totally at ease with the idea. He seemed to be looking forward to it.”
Neal was pretty sure there was no threat from Elizabeth. Her husband, however, was a different story. “How long have we been here? Five days?”
“As of tonight.”
Neal did some quick thinking. “Think you can cover for me if anybody comes back and wants to know where I am?”
Spencer frowned. “Where will you be?”
Neal smiled, quick and sweet, if not entirely real. “Finding us a place. Promise I can do it.”
Spencer didn’t look enthused at that idea. “Neal, you just got over the flu. I’m not even sure you’re entirely over it.”
“C’mon, Spence. We both know I’ve survived worse. I don’t want you leaving while Brendon and Ryan are supposed to be coming back, and we sure as hell need to find somewhere before The Good Doctor decides social services is the way to go.”
Spencer’s gaze slid away. After a second he nodded. “Okay, but take Eliot.”
“I’m not leaving you here without either Bob or Eliot.”
“It’s house hunting, Spence. Easy. And I promise I’ll come back if I’m feeling weak.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Spencer was annoyingly smart sometimes. “No, but you know we need me to go.”
Neal had Spencer there. Spencer glared. “If you don’t come back, I’m gonna make Gee tell everyone what happened to you.”
Neal grinned at that. “No you won’t.” Spencer was as protective as Neal. “But impressive threat. You’re coming along.”
Spencer flipped Neal off, but didn’t try to stop him from leaving.
Neal managed to search a good four mile radius, even though the wind actually could push him from side to side at the moment. He didn’t find anything workable, nothing that would keep them for at least a month and mean some sort of shelter and a chance at escape if they were reported. It was late in the season for this sort of thing.
As he made his way back, he contemplated their other options, but most included splitting up, and Neal wasn’t that desperate yet. He couldn’t imagine what would make him that desperate, which was saying something, because he had a fantastic, terrifying imagination.
Neal slipped in through the secondary back entrance, the one he’d never seen Elizabeth or her husband so much as look at and found himself face to face with Dr. Burke. He didn’t even have to think before smiling. “’Evening, doctor. How was your day?”
Neal sensed amusement, but he couldn’t be sure he was right, because Burke’s face didn’t change at all. Instead he said, “Oh, same old, same old. Yours?”
“The hospitality here is superb.”
“And yet, not enough to keep you.”
“I’m a restless soul.”
“Your restless soul had a 104.5 fever.”
“Neal, if you’d been in a home—“
“Maybe they would have shut me in the basement like last time, so I couldn’t get any of the others sick. Tempting, but no, I’ll take my chances.” Neal kept his voice modulated, his smile charming. It was a lot of effort. He really just wanted to slide down the wall and sleep for at least three days.
“For the others too?”
“Do Eliot or Ryan or Bob or any of them seem like the type of kid who’s ever had someone feed him soup while he was sick? Wipe his brow? Fetch him a blanket? Hold his hand?”
Burke was quiet for a long moment before he said, “They seem like the kind of kids who deserved it.”
Neal thought of Eliot’s eyes, blank when they weren’t panicked or just plain feral. He thought of Ryan’s discomfiting silence, and Parker’s kleptomania. “Mm.”
Peter grimaced. “What if -- what if I said you could stay here?”
Neal hadn’t been honestly shocked by something in a long time. “Sorry, what?”
“Here, at the gallery. You’ll have to use our house for certain things, obviously, but for the moment—“
“For the winter, you mean?”
Peter shrugged. “Or until I can convince you there are better solutions.”
“And if we’re all eighteen by that time?”
“Then I’ll have the reassurance of knowing you lived to see eighteen.”
“This’ll never work. The authorities—“
“I know some people. I’ll pull some strings. We’ll get El and I set up as foster parents, figure things out from there.”
Neal’s stomach tightened at the words “foster parents,” but he had to admit it was a good plan, better than anything he’d been able to come up with. “We’ll still run. If you try anything. If we—“
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll find you, though.”
“What, with your doctor skills?”
“Ask El, I’m good at finding the things I want to keep track of.”
Something about the statement made Neal feel oddly reassured. He said, “I’ve got to talk with the others.”
Burke nodded. “They’re waiting for you.”
“This is never gonna work,” Brendon said.
When every last one of them looked at him, blinking, he said, “Oh, I was just,” and gestured at Ryan who nodded and said, “Yeah.”
Spencer rolled his eyes. “Brendon, just in case anyone was wondering, is for the plan.”
“And Spencer?” Neal asked.
“Wants to hear what the others have to say first.”
“No fair.” Brendon pouted.
Eliot spoke up, to everyone’s surprise, and said, “I should probably go.”
“No,” Parker said succinctly, and scrambled atop him as a way of forcefully proving her point. Neal had no doubt she’d stay there for years if that was what it took. Eliot looked uncomfortably aware of this fact.
Bob said, “We don’t even know your real name. And if Burke thinks he can get away with keeping nine kids in his wife’s gallery, I’m kind of thinking he knows people.”
Gee joined in. “Besides, if you go, we all do. That’s how this works.”
Mikey didn’t say anything, but that just meant he agreed with Gee. He’d speak up if he felt the need. Neal looked back at Spencer, who asked evenly, “What do you think?”
Neal thought that as much as he trusted his instincts, trusting them enough to bet his safety and that of all the others was a bit of a leap. He also thought, though, that he needed some time to come up with another plan, and Burke was right about one thing: they did need a better plan. By the end of the winter, Neal would be nearly eighteen, Gee and Bob also getting close. “I think it gives us some time, so long as we pay attention and figure out we have to get out of here before getting caught.”
Neal looked at Bob and Spencer, neither of whom had voiced an opinion. Spencer shrugged. “Makes sense.”
Bob nodded. Neal turned his attention to Eliot, who was tense under Parker, but clearly aware he wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, Neal locked gazes with Ryan, who clenched his jaw, but after a second blinked in accession.
Parker asked, “Does this mean I could have more cookies?”
Neal grinned. “All the cookies you want.”
Parker, still tightly entwined around Eliot stated: “This is a good plan, I like this plan.”
Neal, honestly, just hoped it wasn’t the worst plan to which he’d ever agreed.
End Part One. TBC. Eventually.