He needs to catch his breath.
His head hurts.
Ortiz is unconscious.
He told Connor to run.
He needs to find Connor.
He checks their bedroom. Connor’s not in his bed. Connor’s not in any of the corners. Connor’s not in the closet. Where’s Connor?
The hall closet is empty.
He hears crying. Connor. He calls his brother’s name. Connor calls back.
He races into the bathroom. Connor isn’t visible. His crying is louder. He pulls back the shower curtain.
He scoops up his brother, holding him close, stroking his hair.
They have to leave.
“We have to go, Connor. It’s not safe here anymore.”
Connor nods. Rubs his eyes, tries to be brave.
He brings Connor back to their bedroom. He helps Connor out of his pajamas and into a shirt and jeans. He leaves Connor to put on his shoes and jacket while he packs. Connor’s backpack. No need for homework anymore. He packs spare clothes, two shirts and a pair of pants, socks, underwear, the pajamas he just took off Connor. Connor’s favorite book, a well loved thing about a child detective. The stuffed golden retriever sitting on the bed.
He goes back to the bathroom, grabbing their toothbrushes and the half-empty tube of toothpaste. Packs his own backpack with the same set of spare clothes for himself, the photo album their mom made, the wad of cash he keeps under his mattress, his cigarettes and lighter, some granola bars.
His head hurts.
There’s blood on his shirt.
He pulls on his hoodie and converse. Connor’s already in his.
He takes Connor’s hand, and they disappear into the night.
The familiar nickname drags him out of his head. Nines veers off the sidewalk against the nearest building, crouching so he can be at eye level with Connor.
"What's up, buddy?"
Connor uses the hand Nines isn't holding to rub his eyes. "M'tired. Are we almost there?"
Nines sighs. "Yeah, Con. We'll be there soon."
Truth be told, Nines doesn't know where "there" is. He didn't think that far ahead, his main focus being get Connor out of there, get Connor away, don't let him touch Connor.
"Are we going to Amanda's?"
Nines tenses up at the mention of their social worker. "No, bud. We're going somewhere else." Somewhere safe. Somewhere away from Carlos Ortiz, the foster parent who had a child once die in his custody yet was still allowed to foster. Somewhere away from Amanda, who claimed she was doing her best, that it was hard to keep siblings together, hard to find people willing to take teenage boys. Somewhere away from shitty fucking Detroit and all of its shitty fucking memories.
Nines doesn't know where somewhere is.
"We have to keep going, okay?" Connor nods, and Nines stands up again. They head back onto the sidewalk, this time sticking closer to the buildings lining it. The pace Nines keeps is brisk, Connor stumbling along on his tired ten-year-old legs.
Connor holds Nines' hand tightly, grip strong for such a small kid. Nines holds on equally as tight. Connor is his whole life, the only thing that matters.
They only make it a few more blocks before headlights shine behind them. Nines speeds up, trying to get to the next space between buildings, but freezes when the lights start flashing red and blue.
Nines turns to face the car, shoving Connor behind him in a sorry attempt to hide him. It's a plain car, not a cruiser, old and kinda rusty, a single light on the dash flashing colors. It pulls to a stop, and the passenger side window rolls down.
"You kids lost?" the driver asks. He has a gruff voice, probably an older guy, and Nines starts think of ways to take down a middle aged, very experienced cop. He doesn't get very far.
"N-no, thanks. We were just, uh," Nines thinks for a second. "We were just heading home.
The cop snorts. "Yeah, right. It’s two in the morning." He turns off the car, shutting off the flashing light, and gets out. Nines squints as a flashlight it turned on him, and he pushes Connor further behind him.
From what Nines can see, the cop doesn't look like a cop. He's got shaggy grey hair and a beard. He's wearing regular clothes, a leather jacket over some shirt with a weird pattern, dark jeans.
"What's he gonna do to us?" Connor whispers, tugging on Nines' jacket.
"I dunno, bud. Just, stay behind me."
The cop approaches them. "Lemme see your hands, son. Make sure you don't have any weapons."
Nines lets go of Connor, showing his empty hands. "I'm not armed."
Free from his brother's grip, Connor peers around Nines' side to get a better look. The flashlight swings down to him, and the cop kneels a little to get on his level.
"You alright, kid? You know him?" the cop asks Connor.
Connor nods. "He's my brother."
"Connor," Nines hisses, turning on him.
The cop crouches down fully. "Hey, Connor. My name is Lieutenant Hank Anderson, I’m a police officer. I'm gonna help you, okay? How old are you?"
Nines gives Connor a look, warning him not to say anything, but Connor ignores him. "I'm ten. Nines is fifteen, I think. Right, Nines?" Connor looks up at him, and Nines nods. He looks back at Lieutenant Anderson. "Are you gonna take us back? I don't wanna go back. He hurt Nines."
Lieutenant Anderson raises an eyebrow. "Mind if I take a look?" Nines shrugs. The light is back in his face, and he closes his eyes. "Shit," Lieutenant Anderson mutters. Nines' nose is broken. There's a cut across his left cheek, dried blood down his face, and a deep, still wet, circular gash on his temple. "Who did this to you, son?
Nines shrugs again. "Foster dad. Pretty shitty guy. Druggie. Let a kid die once but never got his license revoked. Some legal bullshit about natural causes or whatever."
"Jesus," Lieutenant Anderson says, leaning in to get a better look. "Well, don't worry. I'm sure as hell not taking you back there. Let's get you two to the station."
Lieutenant Anderson opens the back door of his car. Connor grabs Nines' sleeve, and Nines gives him quiet reassurance. The brothers climb in, Nines dumping his backpack on the floor, helping Connor do the same. Lieutenant Anderson gets back in the front seat. As soon as the car starts, hot hair blasts them in the face. Connor sighs, finally warming up, and leans against Nines. Nines wraps an arm around Connor, holding him close.
They both sleep the whole ride to the police station.
Nines wakes up to someone shaking him. He thrusts his elbow out to the side, every instinct yelling at him to protect Connor no matter what. He hears a low grunt, followed by a “Shit, kid, s’just me.”
Nines processes that it’s Lieutenant Anderson. “Sorry. Where are we?”
Nines cracks open his eyes, groaning when the light hits them. His head hurts. He reaches up to rub at his temples, groaning again when his fingers press against the cut on his temple.
“Easy, kid. You’re real banged up.”
Nines huffs. “Had worse.”
Lieutenant Anderson stares at him. “You’ve- worse? You’ve had worse? ” He shakes his head. “C’mon.”
Nines grabs his and Connor’s bags off the floor of the car before making an attempt to get out and stand. He stumbles a bit, dizzy, head pounding, and the only thing stopping him from hitting the ground is the strong arm that wraps around him.
“Jesus christ, kid. We’re gonna have to get you to a hospital.” Lieutenant Anderson props Nines against the car.
“No!” Nines feels afraid again. Inhale. Inhale. Can’t exhale. Can’t exhale. Can’t exhale. Protect Connor, keep Connor safe, no doctors, doctors will separate them, can’t be separated, have to stay together, have to protect Connor no matter what, can’t exhale, can’t exhale, can’t exhale, can’t-
Warm hands on his face. Gentle voice in his ears. Metal against his back, concrete underneath him, tears stinging his cuts. He grabs the hands on his face. They’re rough, calloused, firm, safe. He opens his eyes, and Lieutenant Anderson’s face comes into focus.
“You back with me?” Nines nods, sniffles. “Good. We won’t go to the hospital. We’ll get someone inside to patch up your face. That sound okay?” Nines nods again. “Okay. Ready to go inside?” A third nod.
Lieutenant Anderson helps him stand again, leans him back against the car, and he watches as the lieutenant reaches back into the car to pull Connor out. Connor’s still asleep, but he wraps his arms around the lieutenant and nuzzles into his shoulder. Lieutenant Anderson picks up the boys’ backpacks, holding both in the same hand that’s supporting Connor, and wraps his other arm around Nines’ waist. Nines leans into him, still dizzy, and the three make their way inside.
They move past the security gate, Lieutenant Anderson slowly moving them so Nines doesn’t fall again.
“Hey, Anderson, I thought you- holy shit, what happened to him?” another cop yells.
Lieutenant Anderson grunts, shifting Connor’s weight a little bit. “Not now, Reed. Find someone who can fix him.”
Reed opens and closes his mouth a few times. “Right, yeah, yeah, okay.”
The trio moves again, and finally Lieutenant Anderson lowers Nines into a chair, next to a desk. The nameplate reads ‘Lt. Anderson’. Their backpacks are dropped on the empty desk across from it, and Connor is placed in the chair at the empty desk.
“Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
Lieutenant Anderson leaves them, crossing the room and entering the glass one in the middle of it.
Connor whimpers a bit from where he’s sleeping. He’s got one thumb in his mouth, but his fingers are grasping for something. Nines quicky rolls his chair back a bit so he can get into Connor’s backpack. As soon as he gets the zipper open, Connor’s stuffed dog falls out and onto the floor. Nines swears under his breath. He bends down to grab it, but before he can reach another wave of dizziness takes over and he falls. A burst of pain explodes in his shoulder.
Nines lays there, couldn’t get up if he tried. He groans, manages to get out the lieutenant’s name. His head hurts, his shoulder hurts, he’s dizzy, and his vision is blurry. He’s so tired. He pulls the stuffed animal close to his chest and closes his eyes.
Hand on his shoulder. Gruff voice. Lieutenant Anderson. Nines tries to mumble something.
“You can’t go to sleep on us, kid. If you go to sleep, I have to take you to the hospital, and I know you don’t want that.”
Eyes open a little bit. Light is too bright. Small face in front of him. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Small hand on his face. Wet dripping on his cheek. Connor’s crying.
Nines does his best smile at his brother. “M’okay bud.”
Connor shakes his head. “No you aren’t. Lieutenant Anderson says you’re hurt really bad and your shoulder looks funny.” Connor pets Nines’ hair. “You have to go to the doctor Nines.”
Nines tries to reach for Connor’s hand and misses. Connor grabs his hand instead. “Not yet, Con. Gotta… gotta make sure you’re safe.”
“Kid.” Lieutenant Anderson’s voice is firm. “Your nose is broken. You can barely hold yourself up, probably have a concussion. You dislocated your shoulder falling off a chair. You and your brother ran away from a foster home in the middle of the night after the guy beat the shit outta you. We gotta at least get you to a clinic.”
“No buts. There’s a twenty-four hour clinic a couple miles up the road. Connor and I will be with you the whole time. Promise.”
Nines is so tired. His entire body hurts. He’s no use to Connor like this.
Nines falls asleep.